Who Gets Custody of the Breakup Narrative?

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When you’re paid by the word, heartbreak is a profitable endeavor. If you squint, it’s not pain, it’s material. Whatever its weight in emotional drudgery, the exchange rate is good: angst, pawned off for a byline.

I’ve lived much of my adult life according to that very doctrine: the inane, misguided belief that all hurt is rendered valuable so long as it qualifies as fodder for writing. If I put my baggage into prose, my pain has mileage, right?

It’s not a novel take, exactly. These days, breakup discourse has calcified into a genre of its own. Think of the TikTok holes and the DeuxMoi updates; the Olivia Rodrigo ballads and the Jonas-Turner PR battles. Of all the things Taylor Swift has taught us—and she’s taught us so many—the first is that public-facing art is a perfectly acceptable medium through which to taunt your exes. And for readers, viewers, listeners, consumers of any kind, there’s endless reprieve in the solidarity that comes with that flavor of voyeurism.

That said, voyeurism presents a tricky dilemma when the art in question centers a relationship, whereby two subjects are concerned, rather than one. T-Swift’s famed call-out-in-a-platinum-single method, for instance, leaves little room for nuance. It tells one side of a story that, by nature, has two—only one of them with command of the authorial “I.” All of which raises the sweeping, existential question: In the oeuvre of breakup art, what do we owe one another—if anything—once our partnerships dissolve? Who gets custody of a breakup narrative?

“In some ways, [writing about my ex] was a mode of lingering,” I once declared in an essay, published months after separating from my partner of four years. “If I could explain to myself, in prose, what the static between us had been made of, then he wouldn’t be gone just yet.”

We are, all of us, unreliable narrators from the start. So how true is any one person’s truth, held up against another’s?

This was not the first, nor the only story I’d published about Jake. As a writer—by trade, by profession, by personality—I’d grown used to mining through the muck of real life via a Word document. This was my job, my religion, my way of lending form to the absolute chaos of Being Alive. And as I understood it, writing about my relationship was entirely defensible so long as I framed my copy exclusively in “I statements.”

Jake had never been named in my work—not until now, at least. Besides, we’d long ago established that, by virtue of loving me, he’d consented to appearing somewhere, someday, in the architecture of my sentences. We joked about it often—the future memoir prospects. I like knowing that I take up real estate in your work, he told me once, nearly two years into our relationship. You have a very particular way of telling me about myself. But when it came to publishing work about us, I had never asked for his blessing, nor his permission.

“I always thought this day would come,” he wrote, in a text message, when I reached out to gauge his willingness to appear in a story (this one)—on purpose. We’d been in touch only marginally since separating—intermittent happy birthdays, and occasional this made me think of yous. Tiny, scattered nods to the fact that we had indeed been whatever we once were. “I imagine it’s harder for you to be asking these questions than it is for me to be answering them,” he typed.

Of course, storytelling in its purest form is, indeed, medicinal. The Didion platitude has been beaten to cliché: We tell ourselves stories in order to live. But we also tell those stories to other people, too. And in the age of social media, you don’t necessarily need to be a high-profile artist performing or writing for large audiences to tell your story publicly.

“I do sincerely credit my TikTok for helping me cope with my break-up,” says Amelia Samson, who began posting candid, daily video diaries on the social media platform in 2020, documenting the incremental chapters of her healing after the dissolution of an eight-year relationship. “At the beginning, when I was just sobbing on my kitchen floor, doom scrolling, I remember wishing I could see someone’s break-up grief in stages, just as proof that it wouldn’t always hurt this bad.”

In turn, nose running, hair up, she posted a video of her own. “This is me, on day one,” she told the camera, wiping tears from her chin with the sleeve of her sweater. Sure enough, the next morning, she woke to find hundreds of supportive comments from viewers—plenty of whom, like Samson, had been searching for precisely this class of content. “All those viewers held me accountable to keep up with the project, so I kept doing it every day: recording my progress on camera, however slow and monotonous it was,” she says. “And all the while, I felt like I was cultivating a sense of community. I was helping people; they were helping me.”

By default, break-ups breed loneliness—while break-up discourse tends to have the opposite effect. It fosters commiseration, celebrates vulnerability. Feeling witnessed can be a potent, restorative thing—but then again, it can be messy, too. Spectatorship takes story-telling from a private to a public endeavor, and the result is often some disequilibrium of power. Think of it this way: Launching a hit single about your ex isn’t exactly the same as performing a heartsick ballad at a local open mic night, nor is journaling equivalent to publishing a best-seller. The question is how much that breed of imbalance really matters—if it does at all.

“If you and your partner are both songwriters and one of you has a larger audience, that person’s version is going to cover more distance. Tough shit,” says Joshua Speers, an LA-based musician and songwriter with a new-age mullet and a handful of trending Spotify singles to his name. “Of course it’s unfair, but I guess I disagree with the assumption that it should be fair. Was it ever fair? Yes, I’ve dated songwriters, and yes, I’ve heard songs I know to be inspired by me playing over the speakers at CVS. Sure, I’ve stumbled upon essays in big publications that I think paint a silly picture of me. But still, I judge those works within themselves.”

According to Speers, composing a song about a relationship, alive or dead, is not about capital-T Truth. Per the Mark Twain doctrine, one ought not let the truth get in the way of a good story. And as a musician, if the stacking of verses and bridges scaffolds up to something melodic and truth-adjacent, then hell, you’re making art. “If the song is good, who cares if it’s true? When have you ever thought, this song is bad but it’s all true? Never. Your concern is whether you like it or not. Whether it holds up as a song,” he adds.

Of course, the pesky matter of truth is more complicated than that. It goes without saying that there’s no justifying defamation or mean-spirited slander. But beyond the more egregious untruths, we are, all of us, unreliable narrators from the start. So how true is any one person’s truth, held up against another’s?

The very process of making art requires cheating the margins on real life.

In practice, the very process of making art requires cheating the margins on real life. It’s a whittling down of information, in the hopes of carving logical schema out of what often feels fluid and formless. And somewhere between bald-faced lies and hard, fast statistics, plenty of watery territory remains. On this note, however, Speers has a certain workaround. “Personally, I don’t usually say my songs are about someone. Instead, I say a song occurred because of someone,” he explains. Think of it like a televised disclaimer asserting that, likeness to real people in the following program is purely coincidental—a turn of phrase that, no doubt, presupposes its own *wink wink* sub-clause.

“Writing about men, for me, is about standing up for myself,” adds Lily Sullivan, who pens a monthly newsletter titled Love & Other Rugs, centered around the tandem processes of furnishing a home and looking for love (think: “on antiquing and dating older men”). While admittedly never by name, each issue unpacks Sullivan’s lived experience opposite new romantic prospects, recent ghosts, men of all kinds teetering just outside the interiors of her life.

“If someone has slighted me, or they’ve disappeared, or things didn’t work out between us, the newsletter is how I get my final say. To use a cliché, the pen really is mightier than the sword. I get to control the narrative, I get the last laugh,” she explains. If tragedy plus time equals comedy, then heartbreak plus 1,200 words equals power—or agency, at least. Which is to say that regardless of who gets proper ownership of the narrative, the catharsis is for the writer, herself. It’s a coping tactic. It’s not about hard-launching information or amassing clout. It’s about reclamation.

Per Haley Nahman, however—who cut her teeth as an essayist and editor at the now-defunct (though once mythically beloved) fashion and lifestyle publication, ManRepeller—a breakup narrative can serve a different purpose, entirely.

“For me, the best time to write about a breakup is when I have enough emotional distance to think lucidly and approach the subject with clear artistic intent—two things that are much harder for me to achieve when I’m in the throes of heartbreak,” she says. “The first big breakup writing I ever shared publicly was a 2017 autopsy on a separation I’d had about one year prior. I was compelled to write it because I felt I’d finally answered the question I’d been privately asking in the painful months prior to the split, and I wanted to share it with people who might be asking the same question.”

For Nahman, that sense of remove is what crystallizes pure, blinding hurt into articulate reflection—and it’s what lends a writer the clarity to narrate the sorts of admissions that do, indeed, make good ol’ fashioned essays capable of softening the edges on sentiments as grim and heavy as heartbreak.

A story can continue to ripen, even after its theoretical end. A person can keep on happening to you, even after they’re gone.

“We don’t get to control how people see or interpret us, in life or in breakups,” she says. “As writers, I think we owe it to ourselves and our subjects to remember we can only own our own perspective—it never serves the work to try to speak for other people.” If we defend the compulsion to make public the private nuances of our relationships (and their undoings) under the guise of artistic intent, it makes sense that giving ourselves the required space to carve poetry out of our angst is not just beneficial, but mandatory.

“You’re a nonfiction writer, so obviously things you write will draw upon your own experiences,” Jake says, when I ask whether or not he thinks I was justified in publishing work about him. About us. “I think the people who get upset or angry about appearing in other people’s essays probably haven’t grasped that nonfiction is still a fragment of someone’s perspective. It’s not to be taken as some sort of objective truth, and it’s never going to encapsulate the entire story of something.” In other words, nobody gets custody of a breakup narrative. Or rather, everyone does.

It took me quite a while to learn that a story can continue to ripen, even after its theoretical end. A person can keep on happening to you, even after they’re gone. And it took me even longer to learn that penning a breakup essay, however remarkable the prose, would do little to seal up the person-shaped hole left behind in the absence of my partner. At some point, however, that ceased to be my intention in writing about my relationship. The story stopped feeling quite so raw, so high-acid. It had become something else, something larger and more interesting, less steeped in cliché. And I had words for it—ones I found far more compelling than “heartbreak.”

The more I wrote, the more like myself I felt—in the quantitative sense, at least. I was occupying more space, claiming greater surface area by some metric of sentences; re-upholstering myself. And however implicated my ex may be, that’s not a shared-custody plotline. It belongs to me.

“I remember you recommending that book, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. It’s a great thing to read if you date a writer,” Jake told me, at the end of our conversation. “There’s one quote that I went back to look at when you reached out: ‘We are not what we think we are, the stories we tell of ourselves are like thin trails across something that is more like the ocean.’ I think that sums it up better than I can.”

Lettermark

Eliza Dumais

Writer

Eliza Dumais is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor covering food, wine, and sex (hedonism, essentially). Follow her on Instagram and keep tabs on her published work

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