Before I started writing books, I spent my days as a family lawyer, watching marriages disintegrate, so it’s not surprising that, after quitting the law, my first three books were dedicated to love. My love for my father in The Tattooed flower; the fierce love we, as mothers, have for our children in All You need is Love, and with the last of my non-fiction books, Smitten, the transformative power of enduring, romantic love.
But I don’t think my desire to explore different forms of love was a reaction to the years I spent in court dissolving marriages, I think it was my father’s dying that made me stop and think about what was really important.
My father taught me a lot of things but the thing that most stuck with me was something he said in his final days. He couldn’t speak by this time, so he pulled out his keyboard and let the computer-generated voice speak for him. He said: “At the end of the day, it’s all about who you love, and who loves you back.”
So I decided to explore love. I wanted this book to be a glimpse into lasting romance, a collection of love stories exploring enduring love. I didn’t want to write a How-To guide. I wanted real stories about real couples, whose lives were studded - as life is- with pain, loss, laughter and love. My father and mother shared a beautiful and fierce love, and remained smitten until death forced them apart, so I knew that lasting love was possible. I just had to find 12 couples who were willing to share the most intimate details of their love life with me.
The first task was deciding who to interview. The book was about enduring love, so I knew I had to find a couple who’s love had endured, and hopefully been strengthened by the passage of time. I found Cesia and Abe Goldberg, both in their 80’s, and madly in love. When we sat down for the interview, they sat down on the lounge opposite me, and they didn’t take their hands off each other for the entire interview. They looked at each other with such tenderness and spoke of each other with such admiration. Both orphans from Auschwitz, they swore never to let hate into their lives again.
I also wanted to explore love that had endured challenges, so I contacted the Brain Injury foundation. I knew that brain injuries could alter one’s personality and I wondered what it was like to find yourself in a marriage where the person you fell in love with is a different person to the one who now sleeps beside you. Louise Mc Laughlin is still in love with her husband john, eight years after he suffered a brain aneurysm which left him with a brain injury and quadriplegia. His memory had been affected and he was in a wheelchair but he was still the man she fell in love with and when she looked into his eyes she still saw John.
With Louise and John, I explored love stripped back to its barest essence- loving a person, regardless of how they come wrapped, but I wanted to go further. I wanted to talk to a couple that had survived a sex change, so that nothing was left of the shell of the person they married, all that they had was the essence, the soul… that to me exemplified love beyond, beauty, status, money, even sex, so I posted a message on Transgender Victoria’s website seeking a couple that had maintained their love through gender reassignment. A week later I was having a cup of tea with Gill and Mandy. Mandy had been Andrew, when Gill first met her. Gill had been attracted to Andrew’s biker leathers and straggly beard, but Andrew was hiding confusion under that beard. He’d always felt wrong in his body. It was only after they married that Andrew realized he was gender dysphoric, a woman in a man’s body. When he told Gill, she didn’t leave him, she took him shopping. And when he was ready, she took him to counselling, and then to hospital for gender reassignment surgery. She let Andy become Mandy and forced herself to learn to love, touch and be touched by a female body, because her partner of 17 years was her best friend and her soul mate.
There were so many interesting stories. I found a couple who fell in love after an arranged marriage. I met a couple who survived infidelity, and another couple who chose to have multiple partners, but do so openly. They developed rules so their open marriage would work. And it does. For them. I visited a couple who live blissfully apart. They spend weekends together and every time they see each other it feels like a date.
I found them all through support groups, the internet and word of mouth. Finding a couple in an open marriage who were willing to talk about their relationship and their sex lives wasn’t easy, but mostly I had to turn down story offers. I interviewed an African refugee who had been waiting five years for her husband’s Visa to come through, so he could join her in Australia. She told me she’d wait forever. A flood in their refugee camp had destroyed their mud hut and every photo she had of her husband, but she told me she didn’t need a photo to remember his face, or how soft his hair felt. I met an Australian man and his American wife who fell in love over the internet and talked to two gay men, Rik and Dennis, who had never known love till they met in an Aids ward in their their fifties.
Telling your life story, and especially your love story, to a stranger holding a tape recorder can’t be easy. And I wanted to know everything. I wanted to ask them about their childhoods, their earliest memories of love, their parents’ relationships and their past relationships as well as their current one.
With each couple I interviewed, it became more apparent that love is not an entity capable of being measured. Love takes the shape of the couple who possess it. We fashion it to fit. It is a connection between two people and to understand that connection, you have to understand the people, their needs and insecurities, their childhood experience of a loving home, their history and their heartbreaks. I had to start at the beginning, with their childhoods and get to know each of them as individuals to understand them as a couple.
Katie Noonan, an American divorcee fell in love with an Australian man over the internet, through the medium of words, because her ex-husband hadn’t talked to her for the last 2 years of their marriage, and here was a guy who wasn’t scared of conversation. All they could do, being thousands of kilometres apart, was talk. Without knowing about her first marriage, her commitment to a man she’d never met seemed crazy.
When Gill told me that Andrew, now Mandy, could grow an extra head, and she still wouldn’t leave him, I wasn’t surprised, once I knew he was her first boyfriend, the first person who made the shy, overweight girl with the low self-image, feel sexy. Every one of the couples I talked to had been changed by the experience of loving, and being loved in return. Love made them courageous, generous and kind. It forced them to forgive, to take risks, be patient and brave.
It prompted Louise McLaughlin, to retrain as a nurse and marry her husband in a nursing home. It helped refugee, Asha Hussein, withstand a lonely 5 year wait for her husband, and forced Gill Gardner to find new ways to love her husband after he became a woman.
There was so much I learnt from these couples but mostly that there are lots of ways to find love and live in a relationship. Love, commitment, marriage, those words mean different things to different people. For some couples, like Cesia and Abe Goldberg, it means never spending a night apart. For others, it means living separately or sleeping with multiple partners. It doesn’t matter how you find love, as long as it makes you feel safe and fulfilled, it’s worthy.
I still find love hard to describe, even after having spent months listening to other people’s love stories. Maybe that’s what I learnt from this book: that love is not fragile; it is fierce. No quote can capture love’s complexity; no single story can reveal its secrets. There’s no formula to follow to assure us of everlasting love. And there’s no ideal love to aspire to. Love can be messy and uncomfortable but it also has the power to transform.