Soon after writer Rebecca Woolf’s husband, Hal, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, he told her “Bec, you have to write this book. … The true story.” Woolf had long been narrating their opposites-attract romance and messy-cool bohemian LA family life in her popular blog, Girl’s Gone Child; her 2008 memoir, “Rockabye”; a raft of essays; and the inevitable Instagram account. But the book Hal told her to write, “All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire,” dramatically shifts that story.
Announcing Hal’s diagnosis on Instagram in July 2018, Woolf promised to “continue to share the raw unrelenting truth about this life.” Part of that truth, documented first on Instagram, is here: Hal’s rapid decline and death barely four months after he took himself to the ER with a crippling stomachache; the friends who rallied round; their son’s poignantly intimate bar mitzvah; the private family burial, where Woolf and her children danced on his grave; the public memorial at Hollywood’s infamous Whisky a Go Go; and Woolf’s presence and care, from diagnosis to deathbed.
But on the book’s second page, Woolf spits out another truth: “The truth is, I am relieved to be alone. Elated to be on the other side of a relationship that broke me.”
The contours of this version emerge gradually. Woolf’s filthy mom car and Hal’s pristine leased vehicle gesture toward conflict (Woolf loves her symbols — and she’s good at them). Before they “loved each other madly,” they hated each other at first sight. Hal soon began describing Woolf as “his future ex-wife.”
As Hal’s illness unfolds, he proves a demanding patient, his wishes impossible to satisfy. He refuses to attend to the consequences of his imminent death: provide access to his bank account, make end-of-life plans, engage with his children, even meet the genetic counselor who reveals the BRCA2 gene they may inherit. But selfishness in the face of his fate seems justifiable: “Perhaps it was too painful, or maybe it was something else, but one day he woke up a patient and that was all he could be.”
This rueful sense of difference and limitation erodes as a more toxic narrative emerges. Hal’s rages hammered his children and wife, who spent much of their marriage defending, hiding, and compensating for them. His refusal to wear a condom (which resulted in the birth of their first child) or get a vasectomy (after four) is only the start of his sexually abusive behavior.
Like many American women, Woolf’s rage surfaced in the wake of Trump. When she confronted Hal with her experience of their sexual relationship, he apologized, to her surprise, but she nevertheless “built a wall of pillows between us” and “refused to have sex with him ever again.”
“All of This” is ultimately a story of colliding and evolving truths. Woolf interrogates both the conventional narratives of femininity and motherhood that kept her in a marriage she hated and the infidelity and lies that felt like her only way out. She traces her evolution from “cool girl” who “let the boys do whatever they wanted and thanked them for it” to feminist, “radicalized” at the moment of her daughter’s birth.
Alone with Hal’s body after he dies, she sums it up: “I loved this man once and then I hated him and then I loved him and then I hated him and then I loved him and then I hated him and then I loved him again, and then he died.”
And then she lives: “I was FREE. In my own house. In my own life. On my own terms” (104). Those terms — her new truth — are utter commitment to her children, to her own sexual renascence, and to living and writing about widowhood as she experiences it, not as it is “commonly depicted in memoirs written by grieving wives, which is why I feel compelled to write my own.”
If these commitments may seem contradictory, Woolf makes a reasonable argument that they are not. From the moment Hal tells their children that he is dying, Woolf is adamant that “the kids deserved the whole truth. All children do.”
She tells her children about her grief and her anger, her dating (which begins within weeks of Hal’s death), and her shifting sexuality. She also focuses like a laser on their needs and feelings, holding the force of her motherhood like a stop sign against those she fully expects to cry “but what about the children?” Woolf depicts the kids as alright; we’ll only know for sure when — and if — they share their truths.
As the above suggests, “All of This” is a lot. Woolf is at her best when deep in the details, conjuring her experience onto the page with her rich command of imagery, metaphor, and symbol: “the sun…cracking its egg over the muggy horizon,” the grape soda Hal craved and then rejected, her daughter screaming “DADDY IS IN MY HAIR” after spilling his ashes into the Oregon wind.
When Woolf tries to make her story into something bigger, she is less compelling. Her forceful declarations — on men, women, death, sex, widowhood, stories, memoirs — run a gamut from convincing to banal to meaningless. Her ruminative rambles are as repetitive as they are revealing.
We read memoirs of crisis and self-discovery to recognize ourselves and observe others. For some readers, Woolf’s lacerating commitment to her truth and to refusing the good widow narrative will resonate and reassure. Others may find it self-serving. Fortunately, there are more than enough truths to go around.
ALL OF THIS: A Memoir of Death and Desire
By Rebecca Woolf
HarperOne, 256 pages, $26.99
Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.”