Romance novels need a canon
"Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie
A contemporary romantic comedy set to Elvis Costello and lots of luxurious and sinful sugary treats. Read the whole essay.
In September 1978, Yale freshmen would not have voted Maggie Gallagher the member of the Class of 1982 most likely to get pregnant before graduation. Gallagher was the third of four children from a close family in Portland, Ore. When she was young, her parents, an investment banker and a housewife, had been active in their local Catholic parish, and Gallagher and her siblings spent some years in Catholic elementary school. As Gallagher got older, her parents began to drift away from the church, and Gallagher’s mother became something of a spiritual seeker (“She once took me to an Up With People concert,” Gallagher now recalls, ruefully.) But Gallagher herself moved to the right in high school. Like many precocious girls, she fell for Ayn Rand’s novels, including “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” and for Objectivism, Rand’s capitalist, acquisitive philosophy. (Gallagher’s other formative influence was the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein.) When she got to Yale, she only gingerly embraced the secular mores, the drinking and the drugs and the hookup culture, that defined life on liberal campuses in the late 1970s. She tried marijuana once and did not like it. She smoked cigarettes but, afraid of becoming addicted, never inhaled.
Gallagher’s earliest acquaintances at Yale remember a somewhat sheltered young woman, polite and likable, a bit startled by what she saw. One of the freshmen who shared Gallagher’s suite of rooms, Bird Jensen, now a musician in Australia, remembers Gallagher as “a born-again Christian” — which Gallagher was not, but the mistake is telling. She remembers Gallagher, who after all was from a progressive, metropolitan area, as if she were from a small town in the middle of the plains. “It was very different for her to have Jewish people celebrating Shabbat, or have a bunch of hippies strumming guitar, or punk people playing music in our room,” Jensen says. “That was all very new to her. But Maggie was friendly. She had strong views on things, but we all got along.” Another freshman suitemate, Faith Stevelman, now a professor at New York Law School, remembers Gallagher as intellectually provocative — “She was introducing me to ideas nobody else would introduce me to” — but a bit of a killjoy. “I think she was somewhat socially immature.” Although Gallagher recalls being totally happy to be at Yale — “It was the first time in my life I was surrounded by many intellectuals,” she says — Stevelman remembers a young woman who stiffened at everything risky about college in the 1970s: sex, drugs, radical politics. “She was not easygoing,” Stevelman says of her suitemate. “She wasn’t what you would call a fun roommate.”
As a freshman, Gallagher joined the Party of the Right, a debating society affiliated with the Yale Political Union. The YPU is a very large campus organization, with hundreds of members, whose main activity is to bring speakers to campus several times a month. But it is organized into “parties,” smaller clubs that meet for meals, pub nights and informal debates. Each party has its own flavor, political and cultural. The Tory Party is right-of-center and high Anglophile (the men wear tweed, the women plan to take their future husbands’ last names); the Liberal Party is left-of-center, earnest and wonkish. The Party of the Right has the deepest culture of the half-dozen or so parties. Its membership is diverse, comprising libertarians and monarchists, Catholic traditionalists and Objectivists, monetarists and distributivists. But they share a passionate, if often pretentious, reverence for the life of the mind. Members of the Party of the Right often major in philosophy, and they prefer debating questions about God or the Good to mundane matters of policy.
The party’s intentional eccentricity — when I was at Yale, in the 1990s, several Party of the Right men affected hats and trench coats — helps explain its reputation for cultishness. For many members, the party becomes their entire social world, and so it is not surprising that party romances are common. As a senior, Gallagher began seeing a fellow party member, a sophomore who wrote conservative editorials for a campus magazine and dreamed of being a doctor.
Today, they have different memories of the relationship — how long they had been dating, how close they were — but on one fact they agree: 30 years ago this spring, months before she was supposed to graduate, Gallagher discovered she was pregnant. Then, as now, Yale students did not get pregnant — or if they did, no baby came of it. But Gallagher knew she would have this baby. At first, she planned to give the baby up for adoption, but she soon changed her mind. The father, however, was not interested in being a father. Or so she says.
On a mild November day, Gallagher and I are upstairs at City Bakery, near Union Square in Manhattan, where after months of requests she has agreed to meet me. As Gallagher tells it, she and the baby’s father were close; they had been together “on the order of one year,” she says, so he might have been expected to stand by her. “My son’s father was my boyfriend at Yale,” is how she describes their relationship. But when she told him she was pregnant, right before spring break in 1982, he vanished on her. “I was in his room and he had to go do something, and I was going to fly out in a couple of hours, had to get to the airport. And the last thing he said to me was, ‘I’ll be back in 30 minutes.’ And then he wasn’t.”
He just left her sitting in his room. And that was the end of them. When summer came, Gallagher moved home to Oregon and took some classes to finish her degree. In the fall, she gave birth to a baby boy, Patrick.
The next year, Gallagher says, she and the father reconciled and moved in together. He was still in school, and they shared a house by the Connecticut shore with some other undergraduates. “It was one of those things that you have to be pretty young and stupid to think is going to work, because it was a very collegiate environment and, you know, basically my parents were supporting me. And so, you know, we, we broke up. I moved into a separate apartment, and he came by occasionally.” He graduated, and soon they were living near one another — she was commuting from Jersey City to Manhattan, to work at National Review, the conservative magazine, and he was in Harlem. He occasionally baby-sat for Patrick, until one day, after staying with his son while she attended a conference, he decided he wanted out. “He called me up the next day, or the next, and said that he couldn’t do it anymore, and that he didn’t really want to have anything to do with either of us,” Gallagher says. “And that was it.”
The father remembers it differently. When I ask if he and the woman he got pregnant in college were indeed a couple, he thinks for a moment, then says, “Sort of.”
He is not pleased to have been found after all these years. To get him to speak, I have promised to keep his identity secret. He became a doctor, as planned. He lives in a small town on the East Coast with his wife and family. He has not spoken to his son or to his son’s mother since that final break in the mid-1980s. He knows who she has become — she is in the newspaper and on television — but he does not pay much attention to her writings. “I don’t read them extensively, because I don’t agree with them, and I find it personally painful to do so, as you might imagine.”
His memories are vague, and rather self-serving. It seems that he did not work very hard to stay in his son’s life, but after thinking on it he apportions some of the blame to the boy’s mother. “To the best that I can recall,” he says, “initially she did want both of us to be involved in parental responsibilities, but from the beginning it was always on her terms. It’s hard to describe. It seemed to me at the time that she had an idea of how she wanted things to go, and it was not particularly important whether I had an idea of how things would go or not.” I ask if he might have done more, 30 years ago, to make the three of them into a family. “There’s a million things I wish I’d done differently back then,” but, he adds, “it would have required me to be a different person.”
That was not really his fault, Gallagher says. Neither of them thought they should get married. Nobody did. “There was literally no one — not his mother, not my parents, not the counselor I talked to, none of my friends, nobody in that world,” she says, who suggested they get married. “And in fact I would say the concern was that we not get married” — that they avoid the mistake of marrying too young.
“But I think, looking back, that if he had said, ‘You know, Maggie, I love you, I love you, let’s get married,’ I would’ve been thrilled. You know, he was my boyfriend.”
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Counterfactual history is a dangerous business, but it seems fair to say that Gallagher’s was the non-marriage that changed the world. If that sophomore cad had married Gallagher, she might never have become a writer. “I don’t know what I would have done,” she tells me. “I became a writer because I had a baby and had to make money.” And what she writes about is same-sex marriage: why it’s bad for children, bad for America, simply bad. In her books and newspaper columns, and above all in her fundraising and political organizing, Gallagher has done more than any American to stop same-sex marriage. The organization she founded in 2007, the National Organization for Marriage, helped organize the successful effort in 2008 to pass Proposition 8 in California, overturning that state’s same-sex-marriage statute. (A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that it violated the Constitution, setting up a likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.) In 2009, her organization contributed over 60 percent of the entire budget of Stand for Marriage Maine, the primary organization behind Proposition 1, the referendum that overturned Maine’s same-sex marriage law. In 2010, National Organization for Marriage money helped determine the election that ousted three Iowa Supreme Court justices who had upheld same-sex marriage.
Gallagher stepped down as president of the National Organization for Marriage in 2010 — before it made news by doctoring a photograph of a thronging Obama rally to make an anti-gay-marriage rally look well attended. She was its chairwoman until last August, but now writes a blog called Culture War Victory Fund, which offers commentary on “marriage, life [and] religious liberty.” The organizations Gallagher founded, and the fundraising and activist networks she continues to build, are active everywhere that same-sex marriage — currently legal in six states and Washington, D.C. — is being contested. Her armies are working to pass anti-gay-marriage amendments in North Carolina and Minnesota and to stop gay-marriage bills or referendums in Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington state. In 2011, when New York state passed its gay-marriage law, the number of people living in states that permitted same-sex marriage doubled; in 2012, the number could double again. The issue has not yet dominated the presidential race, largely because the Republican candidates are uniform in their opposition; but it’s hard to see how same-sex marriage will not roar back in the general election.
Which means this could be the year of Maggie Gallagher. Among the leading generals in the fight against same-sex marriage, she is not as cerebral as Robert P. George, the Princeton professor whose articles provide intellectual ammo for the movement; and she does not move as smoothly across enemy lines as her former boss David Blankenhorn, whose politic tone makes him gay-marriage supporters’ friendliest enemy. But Gallagher is shrewd, she is indefatigable and she is everywhere, from Fox News to a campus near you. If you turn on C-SPAN and see a stout, black-haired, middle-aged woman in modest clothing — the stern elementary school teacher who, you later realized, taught you all the grammar you know — patiently explaining to a campus auditorium of skeptical, liberal collegians why the definition of marriage is immutable, you are watching Maggie Gallagher.
Gallagher’s unplanned pregnancy — so great a rupture in a young conservative woman’s sense of life’s proper path, coming at so young an age — focused her politics, and gave her traditional-family conservatism a messianic tinge. But her path to marriage activism was not quite so straight and uncomplicated. When Gallagher returned to the New Haven area the year after graduation, to live with her son’s father, she continued to socialize with her conservative crowd. One of her fellow campus conservatives, Charles Bork, the son of the future Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, got Gallagher her first work in journalism. Along with another student, Bork had sneaked into Afghanistan one spring break to take pictures of the anti-Communist mujahedin. When Bork’s traveling companion failed to produce the accompanying article he had promised to write, Bork asked Gallagher to step in, and on Aug. 28, 1983, the New Republic published her article “Inside Afghanistan.” Gallagher was soon hired at National Review, where her early pieces included articles on pro-life politics, attacks on Legal Services, an essay about the nascent “men’s movement,” a review of a book about Afghanistan, a penetrating analysis of the “Baby M” surrogacy case, and a sympathetic obituary for the Bork nomination (in which she never mentions that Bork’s son was her close friend and patron).
As a Yale-educated journalist living in Brooklyn, Gallagher was an enviable type. Although being a young single mother made her unusual, nothing about her situation was an obvious prescription for bitterness. But in 1989, when Patrick was 7, Gallagher published a book that remains startling for its combination of sadness and anger; it’s hard to believe any author can sound so hopelessly disappointed before the age of 30. In a sense, “Enemies of Eros,” a jeremiad about the sorry state of sexual culture and gender relationships, must have been gestating since her son was born. Its author is sad that lifelong marriage is no longer an accepted norm; that many children do not grow up with fathers; that sex has been decoupled from marriage and parenthood. And she is angry at everyone she finds culpable for these changes, including “elite women, magazine editors, book publishers, screenwriters, advice columnists, and auteurs who are the moral guardians of the new generation, mentors to guide young women through the thickets of modernity into a sexual utopia that seems to be receding ever further into the horizon.”
Gallagher charges these women, sitting in “their perch atop the towers of Manhattan,” with conspiring — “conspiracy” is indeed her word — to delude women into thinking that the sexes are basically the same. But the sexes are obviously not the same, Gallagher argues. Men are different. “Sometimes they prefer a hotel room to a house in the suburbs, or beg us to exchange bodily fluids without ever exchanging phone numbers. Sometimes they do not appreciate that making a baby is making a long-term commitment you cannot just walk out on when you’re feeling unfulfilled.” Because men are so different, society developed norms to pressure men to take responsibility they might wish to avoid. The naive hope of the women’s movement, that gender roles could wither away, has only tangled ladies’ stockings in a hopeless knot: Without marriage norms, and the sex norms that go with them, men can get away with anything — all the sex they want, and no more of the housework than before.
Undoing feminism’s damage will involve better laws, retrenching to older views of gender, and gentle condescension to men. Gallagher was years ahead of her time in arguing, as writers like Kay Hymowitz do today, that contemporary society has left men without a role. “We will never find a solution to the New Man shortage, unless we jettison gender neutrality,” Gallagher writes. “Men need a role in the family. What men need, loath though we are to utter the word, is a sex role.” Gallagher approvingly offers the example, drawn from a Wall Street Journal article, of one Millie Stephens, “a 28-year-old manager for Bell of Pennsylvania who earns $46,000 a year.” Her husband, Carl, a state trooper, earns $31,000 a year, and “to disguise her salary, they put all of her earnings in the bank and live off his income.” “Mrs. Stephens” also washes the dishes and irons her husband’s shirts. “I don’t mind treating him like a man,” she says.
Starting with “Enemies of Eros,” marriage policy became the focus of Gallagher’s career. In September 1992, while she was working as an editor at City Journal, the conservative journal she helped found, Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the television character Murphy Brown for becoming a single mother by choice. It was a perfect occasion to see the contemptible liberal elites in action: They swarmed Quayle, attacking him for his backwardness. In the vice president’s defense, Gallagher wrote “An Unwed Mother for Quayle,” an Op-Ed column for the New York Times in which she offers her bits of advice, learned over 10 years of single-mothering, for women who might be tempted to follow Murphy Brown’s lead. “Have relatively affluent parents who got and stayed married themselves,” she writes. “Be able to choose a profession with flexible hours … Find a boss who doesn’t mind if you bring a sick 4-year-old and his dinosaurs to the office, which will happen regularly … Expect to give up all the advantages of single life — freedom, romance, travel … Prepare for the nights when your child cries himself to sleep in your arms, wondering why his father doesn’t love him.”
Although she was, for the time being, without a father for her son, Gallagher was not alone. Co-workers at National Review remember a cheery young woman with a gift for friendship. And Sherry Weaver, who met Gallagher on their sons’ first day in kindergarten at P.S. 321, in Park Slope, moved in with Gallagher and Patrick after her third marriage fell apart, in 1992. Weaver remembers a crowded and happy house, filled with guests, many of them from the conservative movement. Charles Bork was often there, and sometimes stayed over.
Weaver says that Gallagher is one of the kindest people she has ever met, and that Gallagher was happy to blend their families for months on end. “She housed my two children and me for seven months,” Weaver told me in an email. “But it was not in the spare bedroom or the family room downstairs in some out-of-the-way space that would not interfere with her life. No, she lived in a small two-bedroom house, so we slept in her bed and she slept on the couch. She slept on the couch for seven months! Who would do that? And she did it with grace and generosity. She paid all the bills, gave me some work that I did horribly, in order to give me money. She did all the cooking and nurtured us with unbelievable kindness. She was never grumpy or out of sorts. My children and I were completely traumatized, and this time with Maggie was a time of healing for us.”
One of the other frequent guests, Weaver says, was Raman Srivastav, a fellow conservative from Gallagher’s Yale days. “He was always around the house when I was living with her,” Weaver says. Near the end of Weaver’s seven months in residence, Gallagher and Srivastav got engaged. Weaver moved out, around Christmastime, Gallagher and Srivastav married on Jan. 2, 1993, and immediately afterward he moved in. Gallagher is coy about their courtship — “How do things go from friendship to more?” she muses, and that’s as much as she will say. David Wagner, now a law professor at Regent University, knew both Gallagher and Srivastav in the Party of the Right, and he puts a romantic spin on their eventual union: “She eventually married another Party member who had adored her from the beginning, and he adopted Patrick and gave them a better life. And that is a happy outcome.”
In 1996, Gallagher began writing a weekly newspaper column, published a second book, “The Abolition of Marriage: How We Destroy Lasting Love,” and joined the Institute for American Values, a New York think tank. David Blankenhorn, the institute’s founder, says he is a political liberal, and his image is that of a cosmopolitan: He is a Harvard graduate, a Presbyterian with a Jewish wife, and to all appearances an unconflicted New Yorker (although born in Mississippi). Blankenhorn founded his institute in 1987 to unite those of varying political persuasions around the urgency of keeping nuclear families together. (Blankenhorn’s first book was called “Fatherless America.”) Today, Blankenhorn is second only to Gallagher as the face of the anti-gay-marriage movement: In 2010 he was a witness for the defense in the appellate trial over Proposition 8, the ballot measure that ended same-sex marriage in California. But until recently he tried to keep his institute away from so divisive an issue.
When she joined Blankenhorn’s institute, Gallagher was not interested in same-sex marriage either. She was busy writing about easy divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and the high costs of feminism. Gay men and lesbians, for their part, were focused on increased funding for AIDS research, hate-crimes statutes, and the dim prospect of someday, maybe, ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.” They did not believe they would live to see the legalization of same-sex marriage, and neither, of course, did Maggie Gallagher.
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In early April 2003, the Institute for American Values invited two dozen activists, scholars and journalists to Osprey Point, a conference center near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, for a “marriage leaders summit.” Wade Horn, the Bush administration’s point man for pro-marriage policies, was there, as was Ann Hulbert, then of the New York Times Magazine; Will Marshall, of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute; and David Popenoe, who runs the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had agreed to hear the Goodridge case the following November, and Gallagher suspected, correctly, that same-sex marriage would become the central front, in fact the only front, in the marriage wars. This gathering was probably the last occasion that a large group with reasonably diverse political views could amicably discuss marriage.
“The official meeting had nothing to do with gay marriage,” Gallagher says. “But it was the first time I remember sitting down and at least expressing my concern. Before that time — I don’t think, I can’t say for sure — but I had rarely if ever thought about or read about or taken same-sex marriage seriously, and it was at that meeting I first raised the question, which is what do people who care about marriage think about this same-sex marriage issue, because it’s not theoretical. It’s coming.”
The meeting lasted three days, and one evening, after the main sessions had ended, Gallagher gathered a group of attendees to talk about same-sex marriage. “The questions began by talking about what people think about homosexuality,” Gallagher recalls. “And I said that’s a perfectly legitimate question, but that’s not my concern. My concern is that marriage really matters because children need a mom and a dad, and after gay marriage, I can’t say that anymore. I won’t be allowed to say it. Marriage will not be about that anymore. We will not have an institution dedicated to putting together mothers and fathers and children.”
As Gallagher saw it, her fellow marriage enthusiasts were not prepared to face the implications of same-sex marriage. “It was a new idea for them,” she says. Blankenhorn, her boss, was as unsure as the rest, she says, and after they returned from Osprey Point he expressed his concern that if the Institute for American Values became entangled with same-sex marriage, it would find itself on one side of a very bloody culture battle. “He felt quite rightly that my doing what I wanted to do would be distracting to the main mission of the institute,” Gallagher says.
In November 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and the following spring same-sex marriage came to Massachusetts. By that time, Gallagher had left the institute — Blankenhorn refused to be quoted for this article — and founded the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, a small think tank promoting conservative positions on all aspects of marriage, including no-fault divorce law, adoption and, of course, same-sex marriage. IMAPP had its largest budget in 2005, when it reported income of just over $413,000. By 2008, the last year it made public its tax forms, revenue was down to about $161,000, the bulk of which, $125,000, went to Gallagher’s salary.
By then Gallagher had started the National Organization for Marriage, the least think-tanky, and most activist, of all the organizations that have paid her a salary. She recruited Brian Brown, a fellow Catholic who had worked, unsuccessfully, to stop same-sex marriage in Connecticut, as her chief organizer. And together they went to California to work for Proposition 8. Gallagher still wrote, but she was no longer a writer: She was a networker, fundraiser and organizer. She made things happen, or stopped them from happening.
Frank Schubert, the conservative referendum specialist who helped quarterback the anti-gay-marriage referendums in California and Maine, first met Gallagher in 2008, at a meeting of potential donors in Orange County. He says that the National Organization for Marriage “was central in getting Prop. 8 qualified to the ballot.” The organization has a nationwide database of three-quarters of a million people. “They are the nation’s largest group in support of traditional marriage, so they know people who care passionately, and that includes donors.” Besides raising money, Schubert says, the organization uses “robo-calls, targeted direct mail, online advertising, petition gathering, Facebook — all these things are done.”
Schubert says that Brown is the main tactician, but Gallagher is something rarer: a visionary. She was the first person, on the right anyway, to see the train speeding around the bend. It is easy to forget how new this fight is; 10 years ago, few gay men or lesbians thought they would live to see same-sex marriage in America, at least beyond certain very liberal enclaves. They never would have imagined how quickly support for gay marriage, from heterosexuals, no less, would materialize. But Gallagher saw, before anyone else, “that there had to be a coalescing to defend marriage as we know it,” Schubert says. She had the conservative-movement contacts, in both intellectual and activist circles, to marshal an army. “I don’t know this would have happened were it not for Maggie’s vision and force of will. Her great skills are in crafting message, seeing a vision, articulating a pathway to travel.”
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Gallagher and her husband live in suburban Washington, D.C. It has been an enduring marriage, but not always an easy one — Sherry Weaver, Gallagher’s friend, told me in an email that the couple separated for a time. “She doesn’t believe in divorce,” Weaver wrote, “so when she was having problems in her marriage, her husband moved in with his parents on Long Island for (if I remember correctly) a couple of years while they were dealing with the issue. Every weekend, she drove from upstate New York to Stony Brook so that her husband and their child could spend time together.” Neither Gallagher nor Srivastav would comment on their marriage.
Together with her husband, Gallagher has a second son, who is a junior at the Heights, a Catholic boys’ school in Potomac, Md. The Heights is affiliated with Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic organization made famous by its exaggerated portrayal in “The Da Vinci Code.” Although there are no conspiracies hatched at the Heights, still less any albino monks, the school has attracted the sons of many prominent Catholic conservatives, including Rick Santorum; former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez; former FBI director Louis J. Freeh; and Kate O’Beirne, the Washington editor of National Review. Weaver told me that Gallagher left New York for the Washington area, in 2008, mainly so that her son could attend the Heights. “She decided her son needed to go to a particular high school in Washington, and they moved at great consequence for them,” Weaver says, “just because she felt that was the right thing to do.”
In 2010, Gallagher ceded the presidency of the National Organization for Marriage to Brian Brown. She is still consulted on all aspects of anti-gay-marriage strategy, but she seems to be reverting to her role as an author, speaker and debater (although when she and I met in New York, she had just come from fundraising meetings, with whom she would not say). In December, she finished the manuscript for “Debating Same-Sex Marriage,” a point-counterpoint volume, to be published this June by Oxford University Press, co-authored with the philosopher John Corvino, a gay man who supports same-sex marriage.
Reading Gallagher’s portion of “Debating Same-Sex Marriage” and watching numerous clips of her debates, what surprises me is how little Gallagher talks about gay people, or even gayness. Gallagher’s opposition to gay marriage seems to have very little to do with gay people, indeed with people at all. What really excites her is a depersonalized idea of Marriage: its essence, its purity, its supposedly immutable definition. If properly supported by the right laws and the right customs, Gallagher’s heroic Marriage is good for women, children and society. For Gallagher, gay people are the enemy only insofar as their desire to marry is yet another attack on Marriage: Like no-fault divorce, the welfare state and the normalization of single parenting, same-sex marriage challenges the idea that every child should be with its biological mother and father.
Gallagher is a Roman Catholic, but in truth she is not very theologically oriented. When I ask her whether gay people are sinners, her answer sounds almost dutiful, as if she knows what she is supposed to say: “Well, I am a Catholic,” she says. “If you told me you were gay, and asked if you should have sex with a man, I would say no.” Despite being surrounded by Catholic conservatives in college, and then spending much of her 20s thinking about family structure, she did not return to the church until her late 20s, after writing “Enemies of Eros.” Her return was a gentle process, more intellectual than passionate, and she describes it without much fervor.
“I’m a revert,” Gallagher says. “I was raised Catholic. When I was 8, my mother left the church, and she ended up doing a lot of spiritual seeking … I was an atheist from the youngest age. When I was 16, I became a Randian. Becoming a Catholic began as an intellectual thing. In college, I reasoned my way into the pro-life stance. I could not come up with any good reason why the person inside a woman was not a person. Also, I had completely separated sex from procreation, and after I got pregnant, I realized that was a mistake. All the smartest people in the world, draped in all their Ph.D.s, were saying that sex and procreation were separate things, and of course that was just completely not true. The Catholic Church was the only institution that was saying that was not true. On the big issues, I began to realize that on all the issues I thought most deeply about, the church was right.”
The great trauma of Gallagher’s youth, her unplanned pregnancy and subsequent alienation from the father of her child, was rooted in failing to understand that sex and procreation are connected. It is understandable that, having grasped the truth, she is intent on emphasizing its importance. So it follows that gay marriage and, above all, gay parenthood, more than gay people themselves, presents a real challenge to her belief system. Same-sex marriage advocates offend her hard-won wisdom in two ways. First, they imply that sex and love can in fact be separate from procreation, and no less valid for it. Second, and perhaps more troubling for Gallagher, the increasingly visible column of attentive, loving gay parents — gay male parents in particular — mocks her own romantic choices. It mocks her own son’s good-for-nothing father. There must be something wrong with these gay dads, something contrary to the natural order, such that even when they appear to be splendid dads themselves, their agenda is the cause of poor parenting in others.
When I ask about the salvific status of gay people, whether or not they are going to hell, she backs away from the question. “I’m very earth-centered,” she says. “I don’t think a lot about the afterlife. Maybe it’s because nobody else in my family is Catholic, so that is a potentially painful subject for me.” Her husband is a “lapsed Hindu,” she says, and she makes it sound as if her two sons do not think of themselves as Catholic. Patrick, now 31, a New York University graduate and aspiring musical-theater librettist, would not be interviewed. And I did not ask to speak to Gallagher’s 16-year-old son.
For Gallagher, the principal problem with gay couples is not the act of sodomy: It’s that they cannot be a mother and a father. Gallagher believes that what is best for any child is to be raised by its natural mother and father — what happens when Marriage succeeds — and any law that honors an alternative arrangement is thus harmful. Adoptive parents may succeed in raising a child well, single parents may succeed, but they are both inferior to biological mother and father, the paradigm that Marriage has always supported, throughout history. In a way, Gallagher is making a more sophisticated, slightly updated version of the argument of “Enemies of Eros”: there she argued that the sex act must go with a family, and now she is arguing that the family must go with the (heterosexual, monogamous) sex act.
In a passage from her forthcoming book, Gallagher connects the poignant regret of “Enemies of Eros” with the political agenda of her work today: “Since I was a girl, in the middle of a sexual revolution, I was repeatedly taught that we had separated sex from reproduction … Under the influence of this teaching, whole generations of formerly young women of my age grew up shocked, shocked to discover they are pregnant, and the men who impregnate them feel minimal responsibility. They had consented to sex, not to babies, and what did sex have to do with babies? … Same-sex marriage is the end point, the ultimate institutionalization of this view of sex, gender and marriage, and it is false. Sex between men and women is freighted with the reality that this is the act that creates new human life, even if in any particular instance, new life never takes place … That ‘sexual union of male and female’ points to a real union of the flesh in the child, is the reality we are suppressing, the only perspective from which it makes sense to regard a union of two men as anything like the unions that reaches across the challenging gender divide in the service of new life.”
Gallagher is aware of the growing literature arguing that children raised by gay or lesbian couples turn out fine, although she believes it is inconclusive. She also surely knows that the children of gay and lesbian couples have not been wrenched away from happy hetero homes — either they are the natural children of one parent in the couple; or they are the products of sperm donation or surrogacy; or they are adoptees, given up by mothers who could not raise them; or they have been abandoned or taken away from abusive or neglectful homes. So Gallagher is not claiming that same-sex-couples are preventing proper heterosexual rearing for any actual, existing children. Rather, she is asserting what to her is a timeless social fact: that institutions and norms are delicate, and that if you mess with them — say, by expanding the definition of marriage — bad things are likely to happen.
There is an obvious problem with this sort of argumentation: it is not really susceptible to evidence. Gallagher is unwilling to make any predictions of what doom will befall families after the legalization of same-sex marriage. She just has faith that marriage, the central institution of good child-rearing, will be weakened if same-sex couples are allowed its prestige and protections. When I ask her if any kind of evidence could change her mind, she says that in theory such evidence could exist, but it would be awfully hard to come by: “Yes, you could produce the evidence that children are just as well off in same-sex couples, and that the change isn’t bad for the institution of marriage as a whole. It would take a long time to get that kind of evidence, and it’s not going to come from Massachusetts here, Iowa there.”
Gallagher points out, correctly, that everything has multiple causes, and so if gay marriage were allowed in all 50 states tomorrow, and 20 years from now divorce rates were much higher — or much lower — we would not really be able to say what caused what. So she believes that, given how difficult it will be to get good social-science data on what same-sex marriage means for children, it’s best just to assume that it’s bad for them. In her forthcoming book, she writes that “including same-sex unions in the legal category of ‘marriage’ will necessarily change the public meaning of marriage for the entire society in ways that must make it harder for marriage to perform its core civil functions over time.” How do we know? We just do.
And even if somehow the evidence showed, conclusively, that same-sex marriage were good for children? Gallagher would still be dissatisfied: “Nothing could make me call a same-sex couple a marriage, because that’s not what I believe a marriage is.”
The political writer Jonathan Rauch, the author of “Gay Marriage” and a prominent supporter of same-sex marriage, was a classmate of Gallagher’s at Yale, although he did not know her there. I ask him what he thinks motivates Gallagher. “I don’t believe she’s a homophobic bigot who hates gay people,” Rauch tells me. “She often says she didn’t want to get involved in the gay marriage debate. She says it found her. She is not like the Family Research Council or the American Family Association or Focus on the Family — she wasn’t involved in antigay stuff. She says she had been working to improve, strengthen marriage, and just as she was getting somewhere, this comes along. I have no reason to disbelieve her. She has always been good to me and my husband, Michael. She doesn’t say we’re sick, or ‘Which one of you is the woman?’ or that other stuff on talk radio.
“On the other hand, her arguments aren’t that good, and she is a very smart person. She thinks we won’t survive this last fatal blow to the family and its values, and that makes no sense to me. I wonder if it’s some type of panic. But I do not know the answer to your question.”
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Sherry Weaver says that Gallagher “is not perfect but perfectly formed,” and that one key to understanding Gallagher is her almost otherworldly consistency. As an illustration, Weaver tells the story of once taking communion in a Catholic Church, even though she is not Catholic. A friend’s husband had told Weaver she was wrong to take communion, and when Weaver recounted the story, Gallagher said that the friend’s husband had been correct. “If you can understand this story, you can understand Maggie,” Weaver concludes. “For her, life is a set of rules, not arbitrary rules but rules that have been carefully pondered and considered. And her most amazing attribute is that there isn’t emotion and judgment attached to her. She doesn’t hate anyone. She has no anger or hostility. She is pure thought.”
That phrase “pure thought” reminded me of the most disconcerting moment in my interview with Gallagher. At one point, breaking from my script of questions, I interrupted her to ask if, despite all of her fears about same-sex marriage, she didn’t find it heartwarming to see those pictures of joyous gay couples in Massachusetts or Iowa or California, crying and hugging as they celebrated their marriages. Before answering, she takes a long pause, the only long pause of our conversation. “Am I happy for them?” she finally says. “That’s a tough question. I like to see people happy. It’s better than seeing people sad. So yes, I am happy for them. But I am sad. But I am not sad because they are happy.”
She sounded so Jesuitical, so overly reasoned. I was just asking if she was happy to see people so happy. I was asking about her emotions. Her reply was, to use Weaver’s words, pure thought.
Self-styled intellectuals take a certain pride in our aspirations to pure thought, in the hope that we can segregate our emotions from our work, that in our public roles we can make arguments uninflected by personal chauvinisms or bigotries, arguments that will appeal to anyone who coolly appraises the evidence and uses basic powers of deduction. Still, it is especially odd to approach family law and family structure with such a cool disinterestedness. Gallagher seems emotionally indifferent to one of the grand ways that same-sex marriage promotes happiness and welfare — of gay parents, and by extension, one imagines, of their children. It is far easier for me to understand evangelical Christians who oppose same-sex marriage because they are worried about America sinking further into a toxic pit of sin. Unlike Gallagher, they at least are profoundly moved, in their own way, by the plight of gay- and lesbian-led families. They are not cool about it.
And what’s odder still is that Gallagher is actually quite movable. She is not the unfeeling Darth Vader that many of her opponents imagine (the anti-Gallagher rhetoric one finds on the Web is despicably cruel, often focusing on her weight). Her family means everything to her. She adores her siblings; her older sister, Kathleen Gallagher, who like their father is an investment advisor, says that although none of Maggie’s siblings share her politics, it doesn’t matter. “We’re all very close,” Kathleen says. “We communicate all four of us frequently, we see each other several times a year, our kids know each other.”
And, as I learned, Gallagher feels the tug of nontraditional family, too. In November 2010, she used the Internet to track down an old woman, living in the South, who happens to be her son Patrick’s biological grandmother. Gallagher remembered that Patrick’s father, her old college beau (boyfriend? fling?), had been adopted as a child. As a teenager, he located his biological mother, and they became close; she even came to visit him at Yale, where he introduced her, briefly, to the woman he was seeing: Maggie Gallagher. He is still in touch with his biological mother, and she knows his current family, but he never told her that he fathered a child back in college. She learned it from Gallagher, her grandson’s mother, reaching out over broadband 30 years later.
When I spoke to the woman — let’s call her Grandma — she said the conversation with Gallagher was difficult for her. “I was never told about her child,” Grandma said, last November. “It was kind of kept a secret from me. I wasn’t real pleased about that. She knew of me ever since the child was born. I made a point to visit her this past spring … It was kind of difficult for me to speak to her. I told her I didn’t agree with her on her views of things. But that is immaterial. She has a child, a young man now, and my biological son is supposedly the father of this child …”
I asked Grandma if she had spoken with her grandson, Patrick. “No,” Grandma said. “And I asked her that: Why she would seek me out and deny me to see him? She said that he wasn’t interested. Now why she looked for me — it would be different if the young man said, ‘I want to know my biological family, who I come from, who I look like,’ that kind of thing. A lot of people look for answers to health questions. But she said no, he isn’t interested. And I said to myself, ‘Isn’t that weird she would look for me with her kid not being involved?’”
“I don’t really know,” Gallagher says, when I ask why she reached out to this woman. “It was one of those random late-night things. You know? Sometimes you just send off an e-mail. She was very warm and responsive.”
It has been many months since I spoke to Grandma, and I still cannot decide what to make of this story, or what to make of Maggie Gallagher. God knows I have Googled and Facebooked people from my past way more trivial than my son’s biological grandmother. I have bookmarked them, lurked on their blogs, taken notice of friends we have in common. But I have not emailed them, especially when I have good reason to believe that they would wish to be left alone. The kind of person who sends a late-night email to the elderly woman who, if the story had been written differently, would have been one of her two mothers-in-law is a strange mix of over-emotional and totally mind-blind: The impulse comes from pure pain, but the execution is indifferent to the pain of others.
With Gallagher, it is not that the personal is political but that the personal gave birth to the political. They were umbilically linked, and they are related, but they are separate. Two anima live within her; when you are talking with her, sometimes the personal answers back, sometimes the political. The personal is uncauterized emotion; the political is pure thought, almost autistically so. The personal facts do not always impinge on the political conclusion. Gallagher’s family life is a cobbled-together, junk-strewn, happy, loving mess: absent baby-daddy, later husband (of a different religion), separation then reunion, two sons by two fathers, and an annoyed biological grandmother on Facebook. But Gallagher’s political philosophy brooks no uncertainty.
“I have no doubts who will win in the end,” Gallagher says. “One hundred years from now the globe will not be full of societies that endorse same-sex unions as marriages. What happens between now and then is going to be less certain and full of struggle. In the long struggle, I’ll bet on human nature to overwhelm ideology. The thing about same-sex marriage is it’s based on a fundamental untruth: same-sex unions are not the same as opposite sex unions. They are not marriages.”
In May 2011, a Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans believe the law should recognize same-sex marriages. It was the first time any major national poll found majority support for same-sex marriage. And support was strongest among young people, those 18 to 34, and weakest among those over age 55. Gallagher’s people are dying off; her enemies are breeding. Meanwhile, the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy proceeded without incident last year: a non-event that surely bodes well for same-sex marriage, one more aspect of gay men’s and lesbians’ full inclusion in civil society. One prominent ally of Gallagher’s told me that the “fight is over.” There will be minor victories to come, but “we’re going to lose,” the ally said.
Those would seem to be the hard facts, the evidence on which pure thought would operate. But for Gallagher these facts are temporal, contingent and ultimately meaningless. They just appear to be facts. In an email two months after our first conversation, she explains why her opponents are mistaken: “One of the lessons I learned as a young woman from the collapse of Communism is this: Trying to build a society around a fundamental lie about human nature can be done, for a while, with intense energy (and often at great cost); but it cannot hold.” Same-sex marriage is just a big lie, she believes, like Communism. It is weak at its foundations, like the Iron Curtain. It may get built, she seems to concede — in 10 years, or 20, there may be more states that recognize same-sex marriage, more shiny, happy couples raising rosy-cheeked, well-adjusted children, children who play with dogs and go to school and fall from jungle gyms and break their arms, children often adopted after being abandoned by the heterosexuals who did not want them or could not care for them — but in time (big time, geological time, God time) the curtain will be pulled back, or it will fall. Because it has to. It cannot be otherwise. Because a son, as Maggie Gallagher will tell you, needs a dad.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times. He can be followed on Twitter @markopp1. His website is www.MarkOppenheimer.comMore Mark Oppenheimer.
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