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Love in the House


On fiction, reality television, and why crushes thrive in small spaces.

From the age of eight to thirteen, Heidi Julavits kept a diary, writing one page per day, and beginning each entry with the words, “Today I …” Recently she decided to resume the practice for one year. The following was written on July 18, 2012.

Today, or rather tonight, my husband and I will be watching “The Men Tell All.” This is the penultimate show of The Bachelorette, Season Eight. On “The Men Tell All,” the men whom the bachelorette, Emily Maynard, has rejected over the course of the season are interviewed by Chris, the host of what my husband and I call “The Franchise.” The Franchise comprises three shows: The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Bachelor Pad. It is my husband’s contention that everyone on the planet will eventually be part of The Franchise. We dream of this happening.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter.

On “The Men Tell All,” the guys don’t dish on Emily; they dish on the other guys. They dish about inter-guy relations. The guys live in a house called “the house,” and “the house” remains the name for their communal living situation, even if “the house” is a hotel suite in Dubrovnik. In the house there are assholes, there are sweetly misunderstood wallflowers, there are asshole wallflowers, and, on “The Men Tell All,” everyone accuses everyone of being exactly what they are, and a studio audience boos when jerky guys refuse the mantel of jerkhood, and applaud when the jerks are called out by the narcs, who would probably be jerks themselves if the bigger jerks hadn’t been around to fill the role.

I am asked by apparently more sensible people why I watch this show. It’s so fake, the sensible people say; it’s totally rigged. The contestants are actors. They just want to become famous. To enjoy the show, to these people, is to fail to remember this, and to be swept up by a fiction you think is not one.

But I believe there are a few more floors to the house of fiction/reality than these people, and maybe even the contestants, realize. I honestly believe that people fall in love on these shows. I do. Here is why: Crushes thrive in small spaces. Humans must be programmed to respond in a certain way when faced with a small sampling of other humans in, say, caves. You’re stuck in a cave with three other people—all mankind, presumably, was hidden away in such tiny groups during the winters until the thaw—and so, in order for the species to thrive, you must biologically be compelled to fuck at least one person in your cave, despite the fact that, when surrounded by a plenitude of Neanderthals at the Neanderthal summer barbecue, none of them struck your fancy. Without the element of choice, and in conjunction with captivity, you find love, or at least you find lust.

This has happened to me many times. It happened to me on a canoe trip; the minute we returned to civilization, I recanted my crush on the guy I’d angled to sit next to at the nightly campfires. I have been so cognizant of this phenomenon, and its inevitability, that I got nervous in college while waiting for to hear where I was to spend my semester abroad in France, because I knew that a guy my friend was dating, and who I’d always abstractly found cute, was also going to France. Fortunately we were sent to different cities. Had we been in the same place, I am certain we would have fallen in love, or the sort of love that occurs in those situations, call it what you will, probably a mistake. This is also why I get nervous going to art colonies, especially now that I am happily married to a man I met at an art colony. I don’t want to fall for anyone else—I am pointedly not looking to fall for anyone—but these situations conspire against our best intentions. Art colonies, often located in remote woods or on beautiful estates, are communities that sever all ties to the real world within hours of arrival; they are like singles mixers for the married or otherwise spoken for. (I was married when I met my now-husband, who was otherwise spoken for.) When I arrive at a colony these days, I take a measure of the room, I identify the potential problems, I reinforce my weak spots, and then I relax.

Even the big world can conspire to trick its inhabitants with caves of a sort. A few summers ago I developed a crush on a guy working on the barn outside my studio in Maine. He worked every day while I worked, so for many hours we were working in the same approximate air space. I’ve known him for years; he and his partner are good friends of ours. My point is that this crush had no basis in reality; it had so little basis that I couldn’t even fantasize about a next move, because there was no fantasy. I couldn’t even imagine kissing him. He was just a fun reason to go to work each day, and he reminded me how, during the eighteen months that I had a real job, i.e. an office and not a waitressing or teaching job, I had to develop a crush in order to want to go to work. My office crush was a married Norwegian whom I think about often these days, because he said to me once, when I was twenty-five, “you will always be beautiful.” He probably wasn’t predicting quite this far into the future, but I’m hoping that he was, and that he possesses Scandinavian alewife wisdom about women and their face trajectories. Regardless. My crush on this guy working on my barn explained much that I’d formerly failed to understand—how, over the course of a Maine winter, husbands and wives manage to fall in love with other husbands and wives they’ve known forever.

However, as a believer in The Franchise, and as a believer in my own marriage, I feel the need to defend the attractions that can arise in such deceptive environments. My husband, for example, is not the sort of man I would have been smart enough to date and marry until many more years of dating and marrying the wrong kind of man. Were it not for the intense art colony exposure to my husband, who was so different from the husband I had at the time, I may never have fallen in love with him. And yet he is the perfect human for me. Were it not for my own personal version of The Franchise, I’d have made some honestly terrible mistakes.

Which does not explain much about the actual Franchise—for example why the bachelors and bachelorettes always select the hottest person, even if that person’s hotness is massively iced by their personality. I got really excited, for example, when I thought that Brad, the man-boy with abandonment issues from Season Fifteen, might pass over the obvious, beautiful girl for the cute-enough girl with the cool father. I was really touched by the idea that Brad might choose to marry a woman because he wanted her dad to be his dad too. Of course Brad chose the obvious, beautiful girl.[1] Does that mean Brad didn’t love Emily, because she was obvious? I think he did love her, and I think she loved him. Sometimes we love obvious people. I also think that all of the rejected women who claimed to love Brad really did love him. Most of the men who claim tonight that they love Emily really do love her, even if they’ve barely spoken to her. Is this normal? No. But that doesn’t mean it’s dismissible as acting. Fakeness gives rise to realness that, granted, given The Franchise’s dismal record,[2] may not survive when the fakeness ends. But the contestants do, or did, experience real feelings as a result of fiction. The readers of novels experience real feelings as a result of fiction. And what about the characters? They don’t not fall in love, just because a writer orchestrated it.

[1] This girl was Emily Maynard. A few months after their televised engagement, she and Brad broke up. Emily then reappeared as the star of Season Eight of The Bachelorette.

[2] Twenty-three seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have resulted in two marriages to date. (Ashley and J.P. will be the third couple from The Franchise to get married; their televised wedding will be aired on ABC in December.)

Heidi Julavits’s story “This Feels So Real” appears in the November 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Subscribers can read it here.

is the author, most recently, of The Vanishers (Doubleday), and a founding editor of The Believer .

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