Cont’d, Book Four: Jenny Block’s Open. (Seal Press, 2002.)
By Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio and Jonathan Alexander
Will appear in Bisexuality and Queer Theory, a special-topics issue of The Journal of Bisexuality. Re-published with permission of Routledge, New York.
Similarly provocative, but in more subdued ways, is Jenny Block’s Open, a narrative about the author’s personal journey through the meanders of social prescriptions, expectations, and clichés, and her endeavor to define herself as a bisexual, polyamorous subject, a woman capable of loving both men and women and of sustaining more than one amorous relationship at once. Block’s narrative is presented as that of a modern “every(wo)man,” who, in the United States, tries her best to meet social and familial expectations while at the same time continuing her search for what is fulfilling on a deeper level, as well as honest and authentic. The literary quality of the book is quite impressive, which also speaks well of where bisexual and polyamorous communities are at in the ways of nurturing talent beyond what is merely effective. The prologue, written in the third person, gives a summary of this every(wo)man’s story in paragraphs that then repeat at the opening of each chapter. The story that particularizes the person to whom these things happened comes alive as the first-person narrative of each chapter unfolds. So we learn about Jenny’s liberal parents, about her desire and determination to own and explore her sexuality as a young adult and in college, about her socially acquired goal to find Mr. Right and marry him, about her wisdom in choosing the person, about her first sexual experiences with women and her first affair, while married, with another married woman, Grace, whose husband was possessive and homophobic.
What is most moving about this book is the way the narrator explains how these events impacted her personal life and the relationship with her husband Christopher, including the different styles of communication and affection that enabled the couple not only to survive, but to grow, and become more deeply related. For example, we find out that when Grace’s husband threatened to tell Jenny’s husband about the women’s affair, Jenny not only accepted to talk to this man, but also, eventually, when all danger was averted, decided to tell her own husband the whole story as well. Clearly, Jenny wants to be appreciated by her partner for her honesty, and takes the risk of honesty even when the facts could be easily and conveniently concealed. In another situation, we learn that via communication and negotiation Jenny and Christopher have agreed to open their marriage, and that the chosen person is a female friend of Jenny’s whom Christopher knows as well, Lisbeth. The description of the lovely threesome, the trepidations that anticipate it, the act itself, the feelings and afterthoughts are quite discreet and gracious, yet concrete and palpable enough for any reader to get a sense of how joyful and intense these experiences can be.
As Block remembers:
I couldn’t keep from smiling as I watched my husband run his hand over Lisbeth’s breasts and down her hips. He looked awed, as if this were the first time he had ever touched a woman like that—not just her, but any woman. It was amazing to watch them together. It was hot, but it was also sweet. She was lost in him, and he in her. I was able to see Christopher as a human being for the fist time in years . . . . as a man, as a sexual being, a person who needed to be wanted (140)
Even though Jenny was the one who suggested opening the marriage, and even though Lisbeth was primarily her friend, when Lisbeth decides to continue the sexual relationship with Christopher and not her, Jenny is obliging in a dignified, self-sustaining way. She respects them, as she explains:
After the three of us had been together for several months, my husband continued to sleep with Lisbeth, but I didn’t. It was her choice, not mine. But I respected her interest (or lack thereof). . . . I missed having sex with her, but it was important to me that she was honest about how she was feeling (144).
The author comes across as a woman with integrity, love, intelligence, and determination, a person one would want in one’s life, and one who is ready to fight her battles to define herself and her circumstances in her own terms. Toward the end of the memoir the author goes back to some of the dramatic moments in the story to offer her reflections on how she and Christopher made it though the most difficult times. She clearly knows how to establish the terms of a negotiation with her partner, as a person who chooses marriage rather than feeling obligated to accept it as a woman’s biological destiny.
Christopher and I recovered from our first debacle almost instantly, simply because we decided we would. So much of navigating a new lifestyle involves letting go of the ‘norms’ and ‘meanings’ to which people have grown accustomed. We were figuring things together, and we had to learn to talk to each other and to listen . . . we continue to work at that . . . (228)
A capable negotiator, she is also compassionate and empathetic. As she explains:
even though we know that talking is paramount, it’s not always easy, especially for Christopher. For example, when things ended with Christopher and Lisbeth as we all went back to being ‘just friends,’ it was though for all of us, as any change is. But Christopher suffered a different kind of loss than either Lisbeth or I did—and, I believe, a more difficult one. She and I fell back into our friendship easily, but he had no real relationship with her before our sexual one started and so we was left feeling like and outsider . . . he was back to being the husband of her best friend (228-229).
Eventually, the life narrative Block presents in this memoir ends with the formation of a three-way relationship that has Jenny involved with both Christopher and Jemma, the younger woman who accepts to be her exclusive girlfriend. This configuration can be described as a bisexual/polyamorous triad.
Through the empathy for her partner(s) and her affirmation of multipartnering as a practice of love that enhances amorous relationships, the author successfully presents open marriage as a viable alternative between conventional monogamy and more liberal ways to practice alternative lifestyles, as in solo players and group marriage (also known as polyfidelity). As presented in this memoir, open marriage involves various degrees of bisexuality and responsible non-monogamy, with secondary relationships including something as fleeting as Jenny’s brief flings while out of town, and something as stable as Jenny’s exclusive relationship with Jemma. Open marriage comes across as a viable option for open minded people in a society like the United States, where the nuclear concept of a family is prevalent enough in the culture at large to determine things as basic as retirement and health insurance. When understood in these terms, open marriage is a cultural construct that challenges two of the most important paradigms upon which the accepted concept of marriage in the West is predicated: monogamy and monosexuality. Open marriage, demurely concludes Jenny Block, is “just a variation on an institution that is desperate for a remodel” (221). Today, when “gay marriage,” as a frequent centerpiece in debates about queer politics, is often understood as a variant that only remodels the gender of the other person, her statement is especially poignant. And indeed, with her genuine story, Block has persuaded us that “most people involved in open marriages are honest, open-minded, and intellectual” (216).