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Truth or Dare

Truth or Dare
Ayelet Waldman

She didn’t expect to become last year’s ubiquitous literary punching-bag. She never dreamed she’d be invited to appear on Oprah to defend something she’d written about loving her husband. She never guessed that when she walked onto that big brightly lit stage, rows of women would hiss and stamp and that, as she passed, one would scream, “Let me at her!”

But, well — does one ever?

Berkeley criminal-defense lawyer-turned-novelist Ayelet Waldman, a Harvard grad whose husband happens to be Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, never Googles herself. “Only terrible things can come of Googling myself,” she says.

Two years ago, Waldman contributed an essay to an anthology, Because I Said So (Harper, $13.95), about mothering in the modern world. She and Chabon have four kids, and in the essay she wrote, “I love my husband more than my children,” then set about explaining why: “Perhaps he just inspires more complete adoration than other husbands,” she wrote, adding that other moms aren’t having enough sex and that he too feels “the children are satellites, beloved but tangential. … Loving me more than his children does not bother him.”

Kaboom. She never expected that a lifestyle editor, skimming a prepublication copy of the book last March, would decide to run that essay in The New York Times.

“I’d been writing about this sort of thing in total obscurity for years,” says Waldman, whose early mystery novels — she describes them as “fluffy” — often dealt with maternal ambivalence. Last updated a year ago, her blog was called Bad-Mother.blogspot.com. “I figured that obscurity would last. I assumed that even if the anthology did really well, eleven people would read it. I didn’t think to myself, while writing it, ‘Five thousand people are going to read this essay’ — much less five million. Not that I wouldn’t have written it anyway, because I would.”

Letters poured in from Times readers. The first wave “were overwhelmingly positive. I got a big response from the red states, from pastors and ministers — even from Mormons! — who said, ‘Yes, this is the way love should be. Cleave to your husband.'” Meanwhile, all hell broke loose.

A friend called Waldman from Starbucks to describe overhearing women at the adjacent table “tearing you limb from limb.” Numerous bloggers dubbed her “Ayelet ‘I love my husband more than my children’ Waldman.” Gawker.com posted a parody titled “Ayelet Waldman Describes Her Day,” in which the novelist neglects her sobbing kids while preparing a gourmet omelette for Chabon, who then “takes me from behind.”

“It became this crazy thing. I just wanted to crawl into a pit and hide. Then I started getting really pissed, and that’s when Oprah called.”

Would she appear on a panel and explain herself? Sure. “My poor husband is like, ‘Okay, do what you want to do.’ He’s a very private person. … I had no idea that Oprah was bringing in 24 women, four of whom were on my side. The other twenty wanted to kill me.” You could feel the hate. Minutes before airtime, Waldman remembered a tip she’d heard about appearing on TV: Remove the price-tags from the soles of your shoes, because they’ll show. She shared this tip with her fellow guests, who hurried to peel off their tags.

“One of them turns to me and says” — Waldman affects a sweet little voice — “‘Oh my God, you’re not evil.'” She snorts. “Yeah, amazing but true. I’m not evil.”

Long before the Times fracas, Waldman had completed a novel — the deeply felt tale of a Manhattanite whose baby has died and who struggles to love a stuffy, snarky stepson. That book, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (Doubleday, $23.95), is new this month. “Minnow,” Waldman’s short story about a haunted mother which appeared in a 2004 McSweeney’s anthology (edited by, um, Chabon), is being made into a horror film: “It’s the only breastfeeding horror film out there. I’ve started a new genre. But now I’m purged. I think I’m done writing dead-baby books.”

But not done inspiring ire. She aroused further controversy by writing on Salon that she hopes her son is gay. Reviewing Love and Other Impossible Pursuits this month, an Entertainment Weekly reporter couldn’t resist mentioning the Oprah gig and identifying Waldman as the woman who “loves her husband … more than her four kids.”

The fact that this husband is world- renowned speeds up the spin. Waldman’s career has been dogged by rumors that Chabon is the actual author of her books. Scoffing at “the idea that Michael would have written this as my beard” — as if he had nothing better to do — she laments instead that “I never get any credit for the changes in his fiction. Since Michael and I have been married, the women in his novels have become much deeper, and there’s more emphasis on plot. We bounce ideas back and forth daily. I never get any credit for that.”

She gets it from Chabon. “Nobody takes my writing more seriously than Michael does.” But the rest of the world? “Look, I don’t expect parity. I am a very strong, adamant feminist,” but let’s get real, she says. “I don’t ever expect to be treated as his equal.” That’s because Chabon’s books are timeless classics: “People will still be reading them five hundred years from now.” And she insists she’s not just saying that because she sleeps with him.