Until I read The Art of Vanishing, a forthcoming memoir by Laura Smith, I didn’t know there was a word for the tightness in my chest that I sometimes feel when I walk down a crowded street in a new city, or stare out the window of a train at night, or dive into the cold waves of the ocean in the early morning. When I listen to Lorde whisper ‘you’re not what you thought you were’, or catch sight of my reflection on a shopfront. Restlessness, Smith calls it, and The Art of Vanishing recounts Smith’s quest to find another restless woman – the child genius and writer Barbara Follett, who vanished in 1939 – alongside Smith’s own struggles with marriage and independence.
This ‘certain temperamental similarity – a restlessness’, is not exclusive to women, yet it seems to be driven in some ways by the weight of society’s expectations and restrictions on women’s lives. For some women, marriage and motherhood are the last things we want to dedicate our lives to, but the inevitability of this path looms all around us. And so we live in fear of getting trapped and losing ourselves in other people, of being tied down. As Smith writes, ‘I worried that I could, without realising, build a domestic life and become mired in it. So I renounced it all. No beautiful teacups ever.’ The fear is not so much of ending up in a life we don’t want, but of actually wanting it. Smith counters her restlessness by turning her marriage into an open relationship, and describes how Barbara Follett disappeared, never to be seen of or heard from again.
Every restless woman has her own version of the ‘beautiful teacups’ – the seductive horrors of domesticity that we stubbornly reject. I once lived for six months without a microwave because I refused to have such a big, heavy appliance tied to my life, no matter how convenient it may be. I have whittled my wardrobe down to the bare essentials, decrying fast fashion and frivolity despite the fact that beautiful clothes bring me indisputable joy. Like Smith, who is gratified when a relative gives her and her fiancé matching hiking backpacks as a wedding present, I have an image of myself as an independent adventurer, with a love of the outdoors and literature that transports me to new places. We tell ourselves we are not running away from our small lives, we are running towards the whole world. However, you can only run so far before another, deeper fear creeps in: loneliness.
While Smith slips into marriage with the man she loves, almost by accident, she writes of how the flames of Barbara’s defiant independence as a young woman were fanned by the breakdown of her parents’ marriage. In a letter to a male friend, Barbara chastised him for even considering getting married: ‘Where’s your freedom now, where will it be later?…Where’s the adventures? We won’t look at you with a wife.’ However, Barbara too eventually succumbs, marrying Nickerson Rogers, a fellow adventurer, when she was 20 years old. We learn that falling in love changes restless young women into adults who will compromise, giving up their freedom in exchange for safety, security, company. The trade-off is often unconscious, and makes objective sense. Sharing a life with another person should not result in a complete loss of individual identity, after all. On the other hand, the fear is not unfounded – for the majority of history women’s identities have been erased by and absorbed into the roles of wife and mother.
When I was partway through reading The Art of Vanishing, I took the subway from Coney Island, where I was sub-letting a room, to the West Village to see Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical film about a teenage girl escaping her hometown of Sacramento for New York. The film focuses on the relationship between the titular character and her mother, as the two women struggle to find a balance between closeness and independence. Towards the end of the film, Lady Bird gets into college in New York in the face of her mother’s scepticism, and when her parents drive her to the airport her mother doesn’t get out of the car to say goodbye. Instead, she cries over the steering wheel as she circles back around the highway, but by the time she gets out and runs to the gate Lady Bird is already gone.
With a nudge from her father, Lady Bird rings home and leaves a message on the answering machine. She wants to tell her mother that she felt emotional the first time she drove in Sacramento, and to ask whether her mother did, too. She wants to know if her mother was ever restless. The atmosphere of the whole film could be captured in that one image: driving alone as a teenager through a city you had always known and seeing it as if it were brand new. The hazy, golden California light, the suburban houses and sparse landscape flashing by and knowing you could never feel exactly that way again. Lady Bird is restless because she wants to go east, ‘where culture is’, and to do that she has to leave her family and her best friend behind. She is also a performer, craving the attention and exposure and vulnerability she cannot find in her hometown. In Lady Bird, she makes it to New York, and, if we are to take Gerwig’s own life as an extrapolation of the plot, becomes a successful actor and director. I wonder if Lady Bird ever managed to make peace with her restlessness.
In the second half of The Art of Vanishing, as Smith’s search for Barbara continues to run into obstacles and her marriage hurtles towards a reckoning, it seems as if their shared restlessness will be both women’s undoing. As she attempts to rebuild her relationship after becoming dangerously enamoured with another man on a writer’s retreat, Smith pores over all the archives and interviews she can find about the Follett case. She learns that Barbara’s husband had told her he wanted a divorce shortly before her disappearance; however, Smith cannot find any evidence of Barbara alive after 1939. It is possible that she perfectly engineered her escape, and vanished into thin air. A more likely explanation for a woman alone and desperate is that she committed suicide or was murdered. Restless women are rarely allowed to remain restless.
Smith finds a workable solution by moving to Mexico City with her husband and rebuilding their relationship. The restlessness doesn’t disappear but subsides, despite the fact that she cannot solve the mystery of Barbara Follett. A year and a half after Barbara’s disappearance, her father wrote an anonymous letter to the Atlantic. ‘I think you launched your one-woman strike against a system of deferred payments and for the right to live richly, fully, fulfillingly in the continuous present,’ it reads. From that perspective, it seems as if Barbara succeeded in achieving every restless woman’s dream. Of course, her story can be read to suit one’s purposes: either she was a rebellious woman who got what was coming to her, or she refused to lose herself to the demands of conventional life and simply walked away on her own terms.
The restlessness strikes periodically. Generally after six months or a year of living in the same place, I begin to plan my escape, searching for cheap flights and job opportunities on the other side of the world. It is a compulsion to reject the confined life that has been offered to me and build my own. It is running, learning and being alone. It hasn’t hurt me yet, because I am young, but I am also in love. So I know that I cannot give in to the restlessness forever. Restless women in 2017 have many more options that Barbara Follett did. We have technology that connects us to other places at the touch of a button, greatly expanded career options, and improved social standing. But that’s the thing about restless women: we will always want more.
Image: the last-known photo of Barbara Follett