CJ Hauser, author of The Crane Wife: “Should men be relatable? Maybe not’
Jhe internet is the worst. But, about three years ago – just for a while – it was the best. Why? Because everyone was reading “The Crane Wife”. Then tell their friends to read “The Crane Wife”. Then… talk about “The Crane Wife”. New York novelist CJ Hauser’s elegant and bittersweet essay explaining why she called off her marriage has been published by The Paris review in July 2019 and quickly went viral. It has been read by more than a million people and won big-name admirers, from writer Roxane Gay to actor Busy Philipps (who simply tweeted “Yes. Yes. YES”.) In the middle of the fervor, Hauser enjoyed one tweet in particular: “Forget your zodiac sign, tell me what parts of ‘The Crane Wife’ you immediately captured to show your therapist.
The internet doesn’t usually revolve around clever literary essays. So what was going on? Well, to use online parlance: people felt seen. Women, in particular. In “The Crane Wife”, Hauser goes to study the North American Whooping Crane as part of his research for his novel, Family of origin. She does it 10 days after calling off her engagement. In the field, she discovers a Japanese folk tale about a crane that plucks its own feathers every night to maintain the illusion, in a man who otherwise wouldn’t care for her, that she is a woman. “Continuing to become a woman is such a work of self-effacement. She never sleeps. She pulls out all her feathers, one by one,” Hauser writes.
Self-erasing: it was familiar. Through this ancient tale, Hauser found a metaphor for how she had to crush her desires until she almost disappeared. She used to ask her fiancé how she could be sure of his love; he reminded her that he had said “I love you” once or twice before. “Why couldn’t I just to know what he did, in perpetuity? she wrote. His needs were “a personal failure”; she “learned… to survive on less”. What she was describing seemed pervasive, but mundane. But – not to be dramatic – it was actually pretty high stakes. It was, after all, about the destruction or survival of the soul.
Hauser had grown up in Connecticut, a place she describes as “manners, politeness, don’t air your dirty laundry, social niceties above all else, secrets stay inside.” It planted in her a rebellious instinct to do the opposite. The essay exploded, she believes, because she said, out loud, something that so many people had felt. “It felt good to be like, oh yeah, I can say more things out loud. I like saying things out loud!
Remarkably, this was only ever meant to be a promo track – a track written to plug Family of origin. Going viral was “delicious, confusing, terrifying”. She was in no rush to write more non-fiction. In fact, when her publishers suggested she go on with an entire book, she resisted. She was stubborn. “I am a novelist!” She cried. She didn’t want to write something just because the internet said so. Her publishers kindly encouraged her to give it a try. Reluctantly, she did. “It was like a new puzzle. It was like… I have all these tools of fiction and I can build new things. And I just started getting pissed off about it, and sooner rather than later I was like “- her tone changes, faux-hangdog teenager -“‘…you were all right’.”
The Crane Woman – the book – is brilliantly idiosyncratic. It’s funny, beautiful, and weird, full of seemingly random collections of cultural references and stories from Hauser’s past — things that seem to make no sense together, until they do. The collection, written in Hauser’s very immediate voice, covers a broad topic, including family, breakups, fertility and home ownership. She uses that of Daphne du Maurier Rebecca as a model for undoing our cultural obsession with the purity of first love. She writes that comedian John Belushi’s grave has become a place of pilgrimage and if her niece is the reincarnation of writer Shirley Jackson.
But who is CJ Hauser, this initialed enigma who lives in all our souls? (Her full name is Christina Joyce, but everyone calls her CJ.) She lives between Syracuse, where she teaches creative writing at Colgate University (after the pandemic, many of her students write about purgatory), and Brooklyn. “I’ve determined that I’m an amphibian,” she says, shyly, a little proud. That is to say, she is bisexual, writes in several genres, and lives in the countryside and in the city. “And a Libra,” she adds with a knowing chuckle. So, undecided? “Yes”, in a voice that is supposedly tired of the world.
She is also incredibly cheerful, despite having arrived in the UK a few hours earlier. As we speak outside Tate Britain, her voice is full of a rhythm that could tip into laughter at any moment. She has a story for everything. (When I ask her if she’s worried about “The Crane Wife” becoming her “Wonderwall,” she tells me how her roommate was tapping on her wall when she was learning it on guitar: “You’re MY wonderwall! ***ing song!”) It’s hard to reconcile her easy conversation with the emotional intensity she describes in other parts of her life. Her reaction to breakups, for example, is apparently, “I’m going to have 40 dogs in a cabin in the woods! And never see anyone again! Oh, and she’s not wearing overalls – or overalls, as she calls them – and can’t believe I am. Her mother told her not to take some away as we Brits wouldn’t have it.
It’s fascinating to meet the real person behind a viral sensation. The world is shamelessly nosy; “CJ Hauser ex-fiancé” is a popular search term. Doesn’t that make her feel a little weird? “Yes. Very. I don’t know what to make of that. Other than that… Oh, I don’t know. It’s the only time in our conversation that Hauser’s sunny disposition fades. She also writes about d’ other exes in the book and: “I only wanted to write about them to tell stories about myself and the things I learned. And I hope that whenever I had the choice to leave something side thing that would hurt somebody, I took it. And that whenever there was a chance for me to be the butt of the joke, I took it. Yeah. That’s how it is. I sleep at night. But I worry. I live in horror of hurting anyone. But I also feel like I can’t not tell my own life story, just because other people have been in. Other people are still in it.
Has her ex-fiancé read ‘The Crane Wife’? “Uhhhh…I think he did.” Yeah.” There’s an unease. It becomes apparent that this isn’t a writer going through her life, picking up bits and pieces with eyes eager for copy. It weighs on her. “Oh yeah! I am a worrier. Lots of feelings here. From time immemorial.” Those in the book and still in his life, however, gave permission “a thousand times over.”
It is a very thirty-year-old book. Trials revel in solving problems, learning to go a little slower, not panicking in the face of uncertainty, and forgiving your younger, dumber self. “I couldn’t have written this book in my twenties. Even though some of the things in there happened a long time ago. Because I just had a very different attitude towards… I don’t know, being wrong? Now I’m, like, all about it. It’s all part of texture, learning and life. Throughout her 20s, she wondered if she was on the right track or not, and nothing in between. Getting engaged seemed important, because “I think that was the moment I was like, yeah, I’m going to do the thing. Because it makes your happiness readable for others, and it makes it readable for yourself. Canceling it made the twin fear that she would “do this”.
I’m aware of something: Everyone kept telling Hauser how relatable “The Crane Wife” was. I did that too, quoting him insufferably from his own book. “Relatable” is a word that seems obsessed with the publishing world, especially when it comes to women’s work. Is it useful? Hauser was firm that the word “women” was not used to market the book.
“I’ve had some really amazing conversations about the kinds of issues and things I talk about in the book with trans friends, with men.” In fact, one male friend was even told by his therapist “The Crane Wife” during a session. He relayed the exchange to her, “Don’t fucking quote me CJ! If I wanted CJ’s opinion, I’d call him! And maybe I will! But don’t quote it to me!
“I think, if it’s relatable, I hope it’s relatable in a way that’s not limited by gender,” she tells me. “I really bristle at being limited by gender – anything that makes me feel like I’ve been shoved into a ruffled dress and I’m five again. I’m so grateful that my book hasn’t wasn’t positioned that way. Do men need to identify? Maybe not. Maybe men just need to be interesting, and women need to be able to relate to themselves,” she says.
In her essay “The Lady with a Lamp”, having identified an impulse to care for others rather than herself, Hauser asks, “How does it feel to be me? I had no idea.” Did she come close to an answer? “I think I’m starting…?” she says. There’s still a question in her voice, the sense that it’s an idea she’s still adjusting to. Along the way, she’s turned self-discovery into an art again. But not a try this time. She shows me a new tattoo on her arm. is funny, beautiful, weird — Hauser-ish, you might even call it — and depicts a bat with two bouquets of flowers.” One is for him to keep, and the other is for him to give. So that’s kind of where I’m at right now.
The Crane Wife is published July 14 by Viking