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In Catherine Lacey’s novel The Answers, a narcissistic actor and team of biotech researchers attempt to solve the many mysteries of love once and for all:
What is happening within the brains of a truly happy couple and how can we know if a couple is actually happy? Are there habits and practices that could actually create this contentment from the inside? And when people say that when they met their partner “they just knew,” what is it that they knew? And what does it mean if a person is continually trying and failing to reach this sort of emotional steadiness with one person? Might it be impossible for some people to only rely on one person for all of one’s emotional, social, sexual, and daily support? Might there be a kind of technological, therapeutic, and/or medical solution for those who continually try and fail to find contentment in a romantic pair bond?
To answer these questions, they devise a study, “The Girlfriend Experiment,” in which they survey the emotions of a group of women as they all date the actor, Kurt Sky. Each woman is assigned a specific role—Maternal Girlfriend, Angry Girlfriend, Intellectual Girlfriend—the sum of which is usually expected of one individual in a monogamous, romantic relationship. Playing the part of the Emotional Girlfriend is our protagonist Mary Parsons, who is required to wear sensors and answer phone calls and texts at all hours of the day. She is given a very specific set of instructions as to how she is allowed to behave in the experiment: She must listen to Kurt and remain “fully engaged by asking questions, maintaining eye contact, affirming his opinions and offering limited amounts of advice or guidance.”
As I write this, I too am hooked up to sensors. Electrodes are adhered to my scalp and EKGs to my chest. I am participating in a clinical trial in which I spend eleven days in a hospital while researchers monitor my sleep, and I can’t help but notice the parallels between my experience and the Girlfriend Experiment. I am required to sit in the same chair for most of the day, and technicians are constantly popping in and out of my room to draw my blood and administer computer and pain tests. In one test I’m required to assess my current emotional and physical state. I slide a toggle to report how tired, happy, sad, stressed, hungry I feel on a scale of 0 to 100. In another test, I watch sixteen short clips and rate my emotional response to each one. When I watch a mountain biker accidentally fall off the side of a cliff, my reaction is intense: I physically recoil and close my eyes. I wonder if what I am feeling is authentic, or is it simulated? Is there even a difference?
In The Answers, we later learn that while Kurt may have been the major funder of “The Girlfriend Experiment,” he, and the girlfriends, were unaware that the biotech researchers had been using the sensors to influence the emotions of the participants via “internal directives.” These internal directives have myriad effects, and each participant responds differently: a directive can cause a participant to tear up, fall madly in love, or even become enraged and physically violent.
The internal directives raise the question—who, if not Kurt, is in control of the experiment? Where, as reviewer Lina Meruane points out, is the line between understanding the brain and controlling the brain? And who exactly is in control of the brain? Who is in control of how we experience love? Also, which emotional responses and behaviors are products of our own volition, and which are products of so-called internal directives? What is genuine love? What is manufactured love? Is there even any sense in distinguishing the two? These are just some of the questions that the experiment brings forth, even as it is meant to bring clarity to the murkiness of love and attachment.
Love has always been complex and mysterious—a force beyond human control—which is precisely what makes it so desirable, transcendent, and spellbinding. Historically, our interpretation and experience of love has been shaped by philosophers, poets, playwrights, artists, and novelists. The Ancient Greeks recognized six distinct types of love, three of which were romantic in nature: the uncontrollable sexual passion of eros, the playful flirtations of ludus, and the patience of enduring pragma. Petrarch created the legacy of unrequited love by writing hundreds of sonnets for Laura de Sade—a woman who was most likely married. Jo, from Little Women, humorously summarizes the melodrama of the Gothic romance genre: “In novels, the girls show [love] by staring and blushing, fainting away, growing thin, and acting like fools.” In Victorian Utopian literature, such as William Morris’s News from Nowhere, romantic love is the only contentious entity that cannot be controlled or eradicated from society. As Shakespeare wrote, “Love is merely a madness.”
The romantic ideals of Petrarch and Shakespeare still live on today, but mostly only in popular fiction like Nicholas Sparks, television shows like The Bachelor, and Hallmark movies. As a society, we are widely disillusioned by sappy, cliché love because it can’t be proven or quantified. Literary critic Catherine Belsey points to the impossibility of squaring “our experience, the statistics, our philosophy, or any documentary evidence outside popular romance” with our expectations for love’s “guarantees, its continuities, proof of its ability to fulfill its undertakings.”
Despite this incredulity, we continue to chase love because in our chaotic modern world, which has largely destabilized religion and seeks to rationalize everything, love is the last entity to remain mysterious and indecipherable. “Love,” Belsey writes, “occupies a paradoxical position in postmodern culture: it is at once infinitely and uniquely desirable on one hand, and conspicuously naïve on the other.” We no longer believe that the outdated models of love can capture or explain what exactly is going on when we’re in love, so we use science to describe it. “Love, technically, was just a neurotransmitter cocktail designed to make you feel invincible and infinite,” Lacey writes in The Answers.
Instead of trusting literature and art to help us interpret our feelings, we now rely on expertise. As sociologist Eva Illouz points out in her book Why Love Hurts, when we’re confused in love, we consult “a battery of experts”: neurobiologists, therapists, psychological counselors, psychiatrists, divorce lawyers, sociologists. And more recently, we’ve also begun relying on the algorithms of dating apps and the processes of dating shows to match us with our soulmate.
As Imran Siddiquee points out in an article for Bitch, many of the most popular dating shows sell surveillance and technology as “a path to safety and love.”
In MTV’s Are You the One? contestants subject themselves to full-body computer scans that inform them whether or not the match they chose is legitimate. And in Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle, the host, Lana, is a device that sits in every room and observes the contestants 24/7. “The contestants willingly take relationship advice from the friendly AI and embrace its role as the all-seeing rule of law,” Siddiquee writes.
Similarly, the biotech researchers in the Girlfriend Experiment spend weeks observing the participants and collecting their neurobiological data. Then, the researchers use that information to administer internal directives. When Kurt learns about the directives, though, he is strangely fine about it. He recognizes that he is being made to tear up while looking out the window, but even as he acknowledges the violation, he doesn’t feel violated. As a celebrity, Kurt values his privacy, but here it is clear that the drive to be understood by others trumps the need for emotional autonomy, which offers an allegory into the current obsession with dating apps and dating shows. We are willing, and may even believe it is necessary, to give away our privacy in order to be understood and find love.
The predominance of the expert-subject relationship is further shown in the satirical setting of Mary and Kurt’s first date. They go to an unmarked cocktail bar in the West Village, called the Savant House, which has no menu, just a bespoke cocktail artist—the Savant—who “ma[kes] each drink in a hidden lab, creating the exact beverage that he believed that particular patron needed through methods that no one knew.” Kurt explains that “some thought it was hidden cameras; others said the waiters were in on it; a few claimed he was psychic.” The immense popularity and exclusivity of the bar indicates that people are not only accepting of surveillance but eager—literally thirsty—for it; they are eager to be deconstructed, deciphered, and understood by an expert with presumably more knowledge, or innate ability, than they have themselves.
As The Answers shows, this willingness, and even eagerness, to be surveilled, poked, and prodded leads to uncertainty in ourselves and in love: “Do you ever have that feeling, that you need someone else to tell you how you feel?” Kurt asks Mary. “That you need to see your feelings reflected back at you?” Instead of trusting his own intuition, Kurt trusts the expertise of those who are surveilling him, who may not have his best interests at heart. Kurt also accepts the internal directives because he feels like they are, or have become, his own emotions: “His calmness belonged to him completely and he couldn’t manage to question it.” This reflects our modern susceptibility to internalizing ideas and even emotions so long as they are imbued with scientific authority. But who oversees scientific authority? Who controls it? Who are these so-called experts?
Other contemporary fiction written by women, like Catherine Lacey’s debut novel Nobody is Ever Missing, Alissa Nutting’s Made For Love, and Amy Bonnaffons’s short story “The Other One,” seem to suggest that patriarchal authority is at the root of such technoscientific expertise. And the statistics suggest the same: a 2022 report, put together by the National Girls Collaborative Project, shows that women only constitute 34 percent of the STEM workforce, and the National Center for Women & Information Technology reported that, in 2021, only 26 percent of professional computing occupations were held by women.
This patriarchal authority manifests in invasive surveillance that hinges on an extreme sense of entitlement. In Made For Love, Nutting’s protagonist, Hazel, was married to a billionaire who implanted a microchip in her brain without her consent, “like a file-share thing” that would make them “the first neural-networked couple in history.” Her husband tried to disguise the invasive nature of their marriage as a form of progressive technology, but really the microchip was just a means of surveilling Hazel—seeing everything through her eyes. In the same vein, when Kurt falls in love with Mary, he wished he could be in her head: “He wanted more than anything, so painfully and impossibly, to feel her thoughts and feelings at the same time as she was having them.”
Similarly, the first line of Nobody Is Ever Missing reads, “There might be people in this world who can read minds against their will and if that kind of person exists, I am pretty sure my husband is one of them.” Throughout Nobody Is Ever Missing, the protagonist, Elyria, worries if her husband gleaned data from a clinical study in which she participated: “I imagined my husband told me he’d convinced the people in charge of the study to give him the information they’d gotten from me—the pictures of my brain, my answers, my data.” She thinks he would “go to such anxious lengths” to try to find out what specifically was “wrong” with her, which implies the preeminence of science and male authority in shaping the internal emotions and mental experiences of women.
Elyria and Hazel feel that their husbands are always watching them and waiting to criticize, condemn, or challenge their emotions. In this way, Elyria and her husband also serve as an allegory for the tension between the modern trust in science and rationality, and the postmodern distrust of all authoritative knowledge, including science. Foucault put forward the idea that due to the corrupting influence of power, knowledge cannot be neutral or objective because it is created by systems of power and thus also reinforces systems of power. Elyria and Hazel are wary of their husband’s faith in science and the surveillance that comes with the institution of marriage, which contributes to the diminishment of love that they, presumably, originally felt toward their husbands.
This appeal to rational, logical, scientific authority also reminds me of the problematic and invented illness of “hysteria,” wherein female health issues, emotions, and needs were viewed as unnatural, frivolous, and indicative of a weaker mind. Tangentially, in Amy Bonnaffons’s short story “The Other One,” the female protagonist felt that when her lawyer fiancé “cut through some cellulitic worry” of hers with “the scalpel of his logic,” this rendered her “exposed, diminished, vaguely lonely.” The character wonders, “Why was there so much of me I had to explain? Why was there so much of me?” Like women wrongly diagnosed with hysteria, this character’s needs and emotions were pathologized, devalued, and displaced by male authority, which results in brutally disconnecting her from herself and her intuition—almost as if she had been fed an internal directive. “Don’t be curious,” the protagonist’s fiancé said. “Just be happy. I’m happy.”
During her dates with Kurt, the protagonist of The Answers, Mary, questions whether she is performing the role of the Emotional Girlfriend adequately: “Though Mary had studied her handbook intensely, had tried to push all the rules into a place of muscle memory, she was often unsure if she was being the correct way, an uncertainty that chaperoned her constantly.” Mary does not trust her behavior or feelings because, as a woman, she has been trained to always hold them up to imagined patriarchal expectations and expert opinions. Mary reflects on the times when her ex-boyfriend Paul used the term “limerence,” which refers to the state of being infatuated with another person:
She’d first thought Paul had invented the word, since the feeling she had around him felt so incredibly new that it seemed impossible that there could already be a word for it—this heat high in the chest and bone deep and above her head at once—but later, when Paul had brought up this idea of limerence again, she became frightened because if this feeling had already been defined, then it was possible someone might be able to prove or disprove whether she actually loved him. It was possible she might not have the right feeling after all, that she wasn’t in love, wasn’t in limerence, but was in some unnamed place, alone.
Only when the term is defined—which implies the input of an expert —does Mary begin to question herself, worrying that she might not be feeling the “right” feeling. This self-interrogation and self-surveillance effectively change Mary’s emotions by deteriorating the sense of limerence that she had initially been experiencing and degrading it into a feeling of loneliness and isolation, which is the exact opposite of what one should feel when in limerence.
Like Mary, while I’m in this sleep study, I also want to do the “correct” thing. Luckily, I am not receiving any internal directives via the electrodes and EKGs (as far as I know), but I still wonder how my emotions and sleep are influenced by the conditions of the trial and the actions of the techs. I wonder what the researchers are looking for. I hear the techs whispering in the hallway and I wonder if they’re talking about my responses. What are they expecting me to report? What is the “normal” response? Am I doing this right? Am I using the entire scale? Was I happy, joyful, surprised, or all three, when a toddler told his mother that he only loved her when she gave him cookies? Did I experience love when I watched a toddler hula-hoop and smile goofily as his family cheered? Is it even possible to feel love toward a child I don’t know, that I’ve only seen on a video?
I’m realizing that I am not very grounded in my emotions, and I’m willing to bend myself to fit into the expert opinion or theory. Maybe I’m just a people-pleaser, maybe that’s just my personality. Another friend who did this study said he didn’t have these same doubts. But maybe that’s because he’s a man and he’s been taught to trust himself. He’s been taught to be the patriarchal authority, or expertise, while I’ve been taught to abide by patriarchal authority.
Women censure their behavior in order to placate male authorities. In public, we use euphemisms to avoid discussing our problems. We whisper about our periods, refer to tampons and pads as “feminine products,” and we often stay silent on issues of sexual violence, especially in the workplace. This is because, as women, we know that we are being watched and there are consequences for speaking up and stepping out of line. Historically, the so-called experts—religious, political, and educational leaders—have fed women the internal directive that they must put the needs of their spouses and children above their own. Only when they are self-sacrificing like this, are women worthy of romantic love. Lacey shows a similar pattern as she traces out Mary Parsons’s backstory in The Answers.
Even before Mary meets Kurt, men repeatedly offer her love, so long as she agrees to forsake herself and essentially become their puppet. Her body and mind had never been her own. To begin with, Mary’s father, Merle, raised her “in a state of complete purity,” isolated from “the terrible world” to prove his point that it was impossible to live a “truly Christian life at the behest of any government.” He was writing a manifesto about all of it, effectively using his daughter as a subject in an experiment, a means to achieve his ends. The irony, of course, was that despite being off-the-grid and uncontrolled by the government, Mary was under the constant surveillance of her father, which is not to say that he didn’t love her—she recalls sweet moments together, like when they staged King Lear and Merle bragged about an essay she wrote—but that his expression of love was conditional, involving stipulations and expectations. Mary was “at the center of his life’s work, though not his life.” He expected her to be a prophet, but she had nothing to say, so she left.
The surveillance of Mary continues with the efforts of a film studies major she befriended in college. Christopher was intrigued by Mary’s complete ignorance of movies, so he made it his goal to curate her entire experience of film: “spoon-feeding” her the black-and-white classics, then telling her what to think of them, building in Mary “his own empire of taste.” Like Merle, Christopher was trying to use Mary as a blank canvas upon which he could imprint himself and create his legacy. But Mary is once again immune to control by patriarchal authority. She fell asleep during the movies, lost interest, and went to find something to read. Chris attempted to reassert control by pathologizing Mary’s lack of interest. “You know you can take something for that, right?” he said. His suggestion that she seek treatment for adult-onset ADD is an appeal to expertise: He knows what’s best for her, knows what’s wrong with her, what she needs. After a few weeks of failure, Mary told Christopher she can’t do his project, to which he responded that she “ruined his entire thesis and wasted his time,” and called Mary “a vapid pleaser.”
Christopher’s outrage demonstrates that, once again, Mary’s relationship has been shaped by male entitlement, where consent is taken for granted and Mary’s right to privacy is subordinated to the objectives of the experiment. This time, Mary sees it for what it is, telling Chris: “I didn’t know you could be one of those pretentious assholes who think they have a right to something just because they have one stupid idea.”
Individual women are not entirely blameless either—the hyper technological condition of the modern world stokes this desire to surveil in all of us, especially in the form of social media. People often no longer feel it is necessary to get consent before posting a photo of someone else online. This is represented in The Answers when Mary shows the urge to surveil those that she loves. With her best friend Chandra, she struggles to respect her friend’s boundaries:
Mary and Chandra were different people, and because they were different people, they needed different things and because they needed different things they sometimes had to be in places without the other, to go about their lives alone, and sometimes, Chandra had often reminded Mary, some people need to be unseen, to be alone, to be unreachable for a while. And there was nothing wrong with this. Everyone has a right to her secrecy. Of course they do. Of course.
Mary’s lagging certainty at the end of the long passage above—“Everyone has a right to her secrecy. Of course they do. Of course”—demonstrates that the urge to surveil someone can be a smothering attempt to love, which offers a more sympathetic reading of Merle’s controlling attempts to raise his daughter in “a state of complete purity.” Similar to how Mary wanted to pry into Chandra’s life out of love, Merle may have merely been trying to love his daughter in the best way he could. The difference, however, is that Mary’s infringement is extremely minor, and she catches herself, while Merle only doubles down throughout Mary’s life—refusing to join civilization or acknowledge the ways in which Mary had changed.
At the end of the novel, Lacey places her protagonist alone in her apartment, isolated and disconnected. Retreating from society is the only way that she can heal from the invasive Girlfriend Experiment. Eventually, rather than interrogating her emotions and beliefs, as she used to do, Mary accepts and embraces the uncertainty, the mystery of life: “Every day I tried to make a list of what I believed for sure, immediately crossing out each line. On the good days I wrote nothing.” Instead of deciphering, questioning, and overthinking, she just lets herself be.
In one of the final passages, Mary determines that we should all wake up and realize that everyone is always changing according to forces beyond their control: “I’ve never really known what to do. I just keep making these decisions or not, making right and wrong turns that are never really right or wrong.” This acceptance of not-knowing seems to set Mary free and seems to provide the “answer” to love, which is to accept that you will never understand fully; you will never know anyone fully and no one will ever know you fully. It’s possible to love without compromising your privacy; to love and be loved for only that which you have given or granted access.
In another ten-day sleep study I did last year, I wasn’t allowed to know what time it was, or have any connection with the outside world. I couldn’t have my phone or computer with me. No internet. No clocks. Just me, books, notebooks, and a DVD player. Cameras and microphones, however, monitored everything I did and said. One of the techs told me once that she could hear me laughing while I watched TV. So, the next time I was watching my melodramatic soap opera, I laughed even harder. I wondered, was the tech’s comment part of the experiment, or was she merely being friendly? I imagined her smiling in the control center. It felt nice to know that I wasn’t alone.
Jacqueline Knirnschild currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio, where she works as a substitute teacher and freelance copywriter. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Mississippi, and her writing has been published, or is forthcoming, in Poetry South, Ninth Letter, Hakai Magazine, Product Magazine, The Cleveland Review of Books, and others. You can find her on Twitter @JacqKnirn.
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