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Emily Gould writes personal essays online that draw an overwhelming response. And she's not stopping

When “ The Lure of Divorce” was published earlier this year, the Internet almost melted. For days, the social platform X was filled with rants from readers — both men and women — who couldn’t fathom why the author would reveal such deeply personal and complicated feelings.

One wondered if the essay was “anti-feminist psyops.” Another described the author as a “clearly annoying woman, but not in a particularly special way that would make her endearing.” Endearing was misspelled.

"I always just wanna be as honest as possible," said Emily Gould, the author of the piece. "I do think that there is something scary to a lot of people about just the fact that women are allowed to sort of like have voices at all, and like write about whatever they want. That seems to be disruptive, potentially, to the social order. So there’s this sort of like larger force that’s like, 'Shhhh.'"

Gould, a features writer for New York Magazine, knows more about that larger force than most. She’s been writing about her life on the internet for around 20 years. Her often-autobiographical pieces — whether published on her own personal blog, Gawker or the New York Times Magazine — have a way of making people take to the internet to proclaim her as a harbinger of the end times of feminism or media — or both.

But the thing about this piece in the Cut, she told me, is that it didn’t start out as a personal essay at all.

"My initial pitch for this essay was, OK, there’s this plethora of divorce books coming out …" she said.

Gould was fascinated by the stack of similarly-themed books that had come across her desk at the Cut — from Sarah Manguso’s novel "Liars" to Leslie Jamison’s memoir "Splinters," to journalist Lyz Lenz’s "This American Ex-Wife" — which Slate recently described as a “memoir-cum-manifesto” about the “systematic oppression of women by the institution of marriage.” To Gould, something about these books felt new.

"I was sort of thinking about the canon of memoirs and novels about divorce, and how, rightly or wrongly, I had perceived them as sort of simplistic in their portrayal of sort of 'wronged women.' I’m painting very broad strokes here, but wronged women and villainous men," she said. "And that’s still, of course, a valid story to tell, but I was finding myself more attracted to these new books in part because they were so, for the most part, nuanced, and you know, the narrators were able to really accept some accountability, and live in that place of ambiguity where the demise of a relationship might not be anyone’s fault."

Gould pitched her editor on the idea of writing about this cluster of divorce books, using her own experience as connective tissue. She turned in a draft that did just that.

"And my editor was like, let’s just highlight the personal experience part, and turn that up to, maybe, you know — change the ratio from, you know, 50-50 to like, 80-20, and I was like, 'OK, let’s do it!'" she said with a laugh.

Cue end times. But Gould doesn’t hold anything against her editor — quite the opposite, in fact.

"People’s reactions online tend to be very negative as a rule — that’s just where negative reactions live. But the reaction to this essay that I’ve gotten in my email inbox has been not just overwhelmingly positive, but overwhelming, period. I had so many people writing to me — strangers — saying I had a similar experience, thank you so much for making this public, because I didn’t know that anyone else had gone through something similar to what I went through," said Gould.

Those tweets accusing her of being some sort of feminist double-agent? Gould didn’t see them. In fact, she says, she stayed off X entirely. And not just because she’s seen it all before. Gould knows writing the way she does about the subjects she chooses comes with risks.

"I think there’s an enormous cultural apparatus that works to silence women — especially younger women, which is not a demographic that I am in anymore," said Gould. "People will always find ways to impugn your credibility. Like — she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s not in control of her faculties. Like she doesn’t know what she’s saying. That’s been going for far longer than I’ve been writing — it’s been going on for centuries. In that sense I’m part of a literary tradition."

The writers may change, says Gould, but the complaints stay the same.

"It's funny, it's just the same sort of tropes that come up even in like current New York Times reviews of memoirs where it's just sort of like, 'Oh, this person is a narcissist. They're very self-absorbed,'" she said. "And it's like, no, this person is doing the work of taking themselves on as a subject, which is just a literary choice. And some people turn their focus more explicitly outward, but they're still bringing their own subjectivity to the table when they view things in the outside world. And that kind of writing can be just as self-focused as writing that is explicitly focused on examining the self."

Gould says part of the goal with her piece in the Cut was to deepen her own self-examination.

"Part of what I do in my writing and what I'm always striving to do is to avoid portraying myself as the hero of any given story. And I think sometimes my instinct is to do that almost to a fault. Some of the editorial feedback that I got on this piece that was helpful to me was, you know, don't be so hard on yourself," she said. "And I was, you know, I wrote this story in which I was really almost sort of the villain of the story, but I just want to emphasize the fact that that was a choice that I made and not something that was somehow beyond my control. Like I chose the way that I wanted to portray myself in this piece. And I, you know, that was and that was hard for me to do. It was hard to write this piece, but I'm really proud of it."

Writing about her own experience allowed Gould — like Manguso, Jamison and Lenz — to offer a marriage story that readers might not otherwise believe is possible.

"There might be stages of marriage within a marriage or, you know, ways to sort of end one chapter of a partnership and open another chapter of a partnership and you know, none of this stuff is like prescriptive. I wouldn't say that what worked for me would work for anyone else," she said. "I certainly wouldn't recommend like having manic episode and like going to the psych ward as a way to, I don't know, like cure what ails your relationship? But I think ultimately going through the process of healing from that experience together with my husband was a big part of what made us be able to stay married."

After 20 years of writing about things some people think she shouldn’t, Gould has no plans to stop.

"I write to connect — and I would certainly prefer that connection to be a positive one," she said.

But she also knows that’s not always up to her.

"My sort of like blessing/curse is that I am just really good at this. And I, and by good at this, I mean the stirring of controversy piece of it, too," she said." And especially when you're talking about things that are in the domestic sphere, which is supposed to be private, you know, there's like this really ingrained recoil that I think most people have. You know, this isn't like a ... you don't have to be like a MAGA hat-wearing like weirdo to have these kinds of conservative social views. ... It's more of a like, 'should she really be talking about this?' kind of reaction that I think is like interesting. And that I am always trying to sort of like consciously work against in myself and in my writing. Like I always just want to be as honest as possible. And I know that that has the potential to be very upsetting."

"But again, I'm like, birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim. I gotta write these essays that make people mad on the internet. And I don't really have a lot of choice in the matter."

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.