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February 2009 

At home in her New York apartment

Contributors: Isabel Gillies


The native New Yorker, writer, and actress wrote about the dissolution of her first marriage for this month’s Up Front, “An Affair to Remember”. The emotionally knotty subject is one she expanded into a memoir, Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story (Scribner), which will be released next month. “I hope what it is really about is getting through something difficult. For me, it was dealing with losing a life I loved and rebuilding it, but people go through hard stuff all the time, so I hope it will reach all sorts.” What is the happily remarried mother focusing on now? “At the moment, jury duty, but I’m rolling around book number two. There is also my work on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit- I play Detective Stabler’s wife- and then those three kiddos of mine, of course!”

Reading now:American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld”

Favorite artists: “John Cassavetes, Paul Simon, John Singer Sagrent, the New York Times op-ed writers, Bach (for all of that cello music), Nora Ephron, Vincent Van Gogh, and President Barack Obama (just kidding, but I think he’s fantastic)”

Fashion Wish List: “Tracy Feith tunics and Christian Louboutins”

Valentine’s Day plans: “A cozy dinner and holding hands a lot. Last year my husband took me to hear Keith Urban; it was amazing.”

Up Front: An Affair to Remember

 After her husband betrayed her, Isabel Gillies thought her life would fall apart. It only got better.

Fresh Start

The author, photographed in her New York apartment. Etro Print Dress. Christian Louboutin Shoes

            My husband, and the father of my children, fell in love with someone else and chose another life over ours.

            She was the new, young philosophy professor at a small Midwestern college, where he also taught. She looked like Audrey Hepburn. After years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then the Midwest, where one can wear an L.L. Bean fleece to dinner and nobody bats an eye, my New York City-girl appearance had given way to that of a slightly overweight jeans-and-a-sweater mom. She wore Marc Jacobs. She was funny. She became my friend. Then she became our sons’ stepmother.

            I think he fell in love with someone better suited to him and went for it. It was a bold move. Brazen. Who leaves their family? Who leaves the perfectly nice, perfectly smart mother of his children? Who dares to break the norm? He did something that would prove to be wildly unpopular. It broke apart our family. It ruined happiness.

            Soon after we married and had our first son, in December 2001, we decided to follow his dream of becoming a tenured professor over mine of making a living as an actress. At eighteen, I had a role in Metropolitan, a pioneering independent film that became kind of a cult hit. I did a bunch of commercials. I landed a recurring role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a part I still have. But let’s face it: I was no Meryl Streep, and Josiah* was getting his Ph.D. at Harvard and had a true love and great talent for teaching.

            Academic life seemed like a better bet for us. It was sturdy- not much money but lots of perks. Long summers, child-friendly hours in vibrant college towns where we could afford a rambling old house with rosebushes tangled in the front yard. We would always be surrounded by youth and intelligence. Leaving New York- and my friends and family- would be hard, but I was malleable and extroverted enough to make friends and carve out a life wherever academia took us.

            So we sold our two-bedroom apartment on West Seventy-ninth Street and spent a couple of itinerant years in various locales while Josiah completed his dissertation. After a year as a lecturer at an Ivy League college, he landed a coveted tenure-track poetry job at a small Midwestern liberal arts school, and in the last summer of 2004, we moved.

            We set up an idyllic life on the campus. We found a beautiful brick house, built in 1877, that we bought for a song. We lovingly redecorated and restored it, laboring over every detail. I jumped through the 47 hoops required to get Clarence House and William Morris wallpaper delivered to farm country, and scoured the Lulu DK Website for colorful fabrics. We gutted, rewired, painted, and added a deck. It became our dream house.

            I found that I loved the little town. In many ways, it vibed New York. It was progressive and filled with art and music. Its people were politically minded and came from all over the place. We didn’t have a nanny, but I quickly realized that outside certain New York zip codes, most people don’t. I got in a groove with my kids and found satisfying things to do for myself. I worked on an organic farm, became deeply involved in the presidential election, and snagged an adjunct job teaching acting, which I adored. We shopped at the farmers’ market, bought doughnuts from the bakery in town, went to Iraq War protests at the college and concerts at the conservatory. We had great jobs, good friends, two wonderful boys, ages three and one, and each other. I felt charmed.

            After a successful first year, we spent the summer in Maine and returned to campus. Just at the moment when life seemed too good to be true, Josiah stopped it dead in its tracks. It was a disaster. His leaving me came at the same time that Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I remember watching the devastation on television with my sleeping boys upstairs and feeling like a personal hurricane was happening to me too.


            The amazing thing is that we’re all OK now. More than OK, all of us better than we were. I am in love with and married to a wonderful man whom I proudly called the stepfather of my boys, and I am the stepmother of his daughter. My ex-husband and I are good friends, and our children adore his wife, who I think does a pretty great job at being a stepmother. At the time he was leaving me, he said this would be the outcome. This infuriated me.

            It’s painfully easy to see when your husband is in love with someone else. Their offices were next door to each other, and one day in late September I caught them having tea and discussing her work. Though they weren’t lying naked in bed, there was an undeniable intimacy between them that I detected upon opening the door.

            He left me in October. I fought so hard to save our marriage, but by December 13, I was boarding a plane with the boys to move back to New York. (The minuscule college town was charming, but it wasn’t that charming.)

            When it became clear that fall I would be facing divorce and single motherhood, I called my oldest friend for advice.

            “What am I going to do?” I cried into the phone.

            Though stunned and almost as upset as I was, he relied on an old WASP standby. “Pull up your socks?” he said.

            I had to pack my things. I got one of those bathtub-size plastic containers from Target and stacks of newspapers. I knew I wasn’t going to unpack this box for many years and that maybe I never would. Maybe my boys would one day when they were men. I wanted it to look organized. I wanted the box to be able to tell our story. It felt like a burial of a beloved friend who had died too young.

            I stood in my bedroom and looked around like it was the last time I would be in there. There was no evidence of Josiah. He had removed himself from our home. I guess all this things were in his office. The things left were objects that I loved and cared about, and most of them were doomed to spend the rest of their lives in a plastic Target box.

            I cried and tried to be as neat as I could. I wrapped the green grass gorilla Josiah had given me on our wedding day and nestled it into the box. I put my wedding ring in the silver box along with the rings Josiah had given me when our babies were born. They went in next to the gorilla. There were shells we had collected from the beach in South Carolina and Polaroids of us in New York bars. There was a pile of love letters tied in the brown ribbon.

            “What are you doing?” It was Josiah at the door.

            “Packing,” I said.

            He looked at all the newspaper and my big bin. His face fell.

            “I’m sorry,” he said. He looked at me, and it was that look. The look of someone who is hurting you, but who also loves you. It’s the look that keeps me from hating him even though that’s what you’re supposed to do when your husband leaves you. I just think life is complicated and subtle and people are so different and incomprehensible. He didn’t want to hurt me, he didn’t want to hurt the children, but he was doing it anyway, for reasons I still don’t fully understand. He wanted something different for himself, maybe even for us.

            “You can take anything,” he said. “You can have anything you want.”

            I nodded, and he came over and hugged me.

            I believe in love. I believe in hard times and love winning. I believe marriage is hard. I believe people make mistakes. I believe people can want two things at once. I believe people are selfish and generous at the same time. I believe very few people want to hurt others. I believe that life can surprise you. I believe in happy endings.

            I had a hard time believing that Josiah was actually going to leave me. It was going to be such a pain in the ass. Nothing was going to work well if our family wasn’t living together. There wasn’t enough money, there were too many miles between Ohio and New York, our friends and family would be divided and angry. It was going to be exhausting for everyone and devastating for the boys. Who needed it? In fact, I’m sure there are people who don’t leave their marriages because the prospect of a new life is such a hassle. I really didn’t think it was all going to happen.

            We had endured rough spots, but doesn’t everyone? After all, we had had two babies and moved five times in three years. Who could blame us for some difficulty? A few whopper fights? I had been cranky, but I was pregnant and nursing. He had been remote and hard to reach, but he was trying to get a job and publish a book. We were feeling the burn, but we were a team. We were married and we were making it work.


            Josiah and I had met as young children on an island off the coast of Maine where our families summered. After not seeing each other for years, we reconnected in our 20s at a wedding. We looked good together- in person and on paper. When we met, he was finishing his Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard. Josiah is brilliant, his mind once described as a cathedral. The only times I have ever completely understood or enjoyed poetry have been when he walked me through it was so romantic of him to bring to light my interior life instead of who I was on a Thursday afternoon. We invented characters together and languages but had a harder time with bills and schedules. In retrospect, I wonder if this happiness we found together was ethereal, too out of reach from day-to-day.


            So we were in love. We made a big life. We had children. But something went wrong. We used to say that he was like a seal seeking comfort in the shadows of the shoals and I was an orangutan yelling from the trees. It implied we were different, but like plenty of couples, we made our differences work. We sought out similarities to keep us afloat: We voted the same way, we adored food, we loved our dog. But even with our heavenly boys underfoot, there must have been something below that that was unhappy for him, undetectable by me. Or there was just her.

            When you have children and your husband leaves you, two things happen: You become a mess and the strongest woman alive all at once. Every instinct tells you to stay at the bottom of your bed in a dirty nightgown for the next three years, but that instinct doesn’t do much for the two kids waiting for their cereal bowls to be filled. I was angry and sad to have my beloved marriage taken away. I could live with the sadness. It felt organic, like it could change and decompose. But the anger felt oppressive and interfered with my life- I couldn’t even make the beds.

            My young, innocent boys were the very last people to whom I wanted to show my frustration. My four-year-old son stunned me one morning when I found him carefully wrapping a string around the spokes of an eggbeater. He gave me the end of the string while he started to wind the beater. Striking while the iron was cold, he said, “Mama, I’m going to wind the anger out of you.” They get everything. From that moment on I tried even harder to take the high road and mend what had been torn. I decided that sad was OK, but angry was something I was going to try to avoid.

            In the end, if I couldn’t be Josiah’s wife, all I wanted was to be his friend. I had a vision of us sitting at a school play next to each other with our new spouses, laughing while the boys pretended to be George Washington or a flower. I was determined to be a family, a misshapen, odd family, but a family.


            When I returned to New York in December to live with my parents in the apartment where I had grown up, I faced the near-impossible task of trying to get my son into preschool midyear (someone said this was harder than getting elected Mayor of New York). The desk, where I sat slumped and daunted, was covered with financial-aid requests and pictures of a beaming boy to be attached to the applications. My father came in and sat beside me.  

            “I’d rather light a candle than curse the darkness,” he said, borrowing Adlai Stevenson’s comment about Eleanor Roosevelt. It became- and still is- my motto.

            I was 35 years old. I was a single mother living with my parents and children in the city I barely knew anymore. For most of that winter, my boys and I were quite a trio, all of us confused and in a perpetual state of getting over a cold. The thought of dating made me put my head in my hands and blush, but despite it all I believed I still had a chance for happiness. It seemed depressing and unattractive to get pigeonholed by my circumstances into becoming a better, rageful divorcee. I remember forcing myself to appreciate how beautiful a radicchio leaf was to even out the emptiness I felt without my husband; it was a small gesture, but it helped.

            I had to fly back to the Midwest to get divorced. My mother gave me half a Valium to get through it (she said there are some things that are just too difficult). My almost-ex-husband picked me up at the airport and drove us through the lightly falling snow to the courthouse. When I took my coat off in the hallway, he saw my carefully planned dark-blue pleated skirt and cream silk blouse. He fumbled with his shirt collar and said he regretted not wearing his suit. After a brutal five minutes in front of a judge, my husband became my ex.

            For the next months we tried to be polite and respectfully distant. We vowed to work together on the children’s behalf and act in good faith (which happily we have maintained). We implemented boundaries and tried to behave like colleagues rather than ex-lovers. After finding out that he and Sylvia* were living together, I briefly turned into an insane person- I emailed the entire philosophy department, declaring her a steely, coldhearted wolf- but life actually became easier because I was forced to move on. We learned a new way of life.

Joy Ride

Gillies and her second husband on their wedding day in 2007

             On a perfect spring day in late April 2006, all my pals gathered on Central Park’s Great Lawn with our kids for a picnic. My oldest friend, Oscar, had invited his friend Peter, who had separated from his wife the year before. He had his beautiful daughter with him. She fell, in age, exactly fourteen months between my two sons. Peter and I played monkey in the middle with our three kids that day. We got each other right away. It didn’t take long (after blissful chatty dinners all over the Upper West Side) for use to fall deeply in love and to be besotted by all of our kids.

            Because I lived with my children and my parents, our courtship was old-fashioned. After a year we moved in together. We had spent only a handful of nights all the way through in the same bed, but we had logged masses of hours in playground and in the American Museum of Natural History. Peter and I are never happier than when all five of us are together in the car or around a table. We were married last October in Manhattan at P.J. Clarke’s, in front of the bar, surrounded by our children, family, and friends.

            My ex said he and his new wife raised a glass to us that night in the Midwest. I believed him because we are still a family, just in a different shape.

*Names has been changed

Isabel Gillies’ memoir Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story, is being published next month by Scribner.

Source: Vogue