Private Matters

“Le Touquet”
Henry Ossawa Tanner, circa 1910

Private Matters

The man I love has gone through harrowing surgery this week.  It was not one of the operations currently at the frontier of the surgical arts.  Once, it was.  Now it’s about at the middle.  Surgeons do it every day.  Yet, it’s not trivial.  The whole life system is put in brief storage, then reactivated on a firmer footing.

Never mind the raw details.  If the Good Lord had wanted me to relish those, He would have given me a very different sensibility.

We had less than one week between learning that it was necessary and going through with it.  And we had about four days to put everything we were engaged in, the projects of our two active lives, into storage.  Two kinds of storage had to be prepared:

(a) short term, till the recovery process would be
sufficiently achieved;

(b) “indefinitely,” if there was not going to be
 a recovery process.

So, come to think of it, there was a striking parallel between what was to be done to the body of the patient and what we were doing to the action fields of our lives:


either provisional or lasting.

If you think we weren’t scared, think again.  We each have a long list of very realistic reasons to believe that we can’t – without extreme diminishment – survive the loss of the other.

When I met Jerry, I wasn’t particularly keen to marry again.  Frankly, I was concerned about the possible sanding down of the crisp edges of my hard-wrought identity.  Hell, I’m a modern woman.  I’d be nuts not to be concerned.  I had a studio apartment on Manhattan’s upper east side for which I paid old rent; a job to kill for; an ambiance both familiar (having grown up there) and aesthetically rich, with nearby parks and museums I loved.  I had come to terms with the broken places in my personal history and looked forward to a life of meaningful work in a field, philosophy, to which I felt a profound commitment.

I married Jerry because I fell in love, in the literal sense of that image.  Once I realized what had happened to me, I tried to fall out of love.  It was like scrambling to get up from the depths of a well with steep, slippery sides — by trying to levitate!  The way down the well seemed natural and irreversible.  The way up could only have been managed artificially.

Something was happening to me on a scale bigger than the life I was managing on my own.  For me, philosophy is not a mental game.  Nor is it, primarily, a career or “profession.”  It’s the search for truth, from age to age.  To pretend that my love for Jerry was a contrivance for me to use at my convenience would be to falsify that love.  Since he felt the same, we had to work out the consequences together: to put “empirical legs under it,” as we said.  To find out what would germinate in that love, we had to live together and not hold back.  That’s called “marriage.”

What I “gave up” – as it looked to me then – were the identity-defining boundaries of my life: institutional supports from the college where I was a philosophy professor; interaction with students I loved; the city where people knew, or could sense, who I was and I didn’t have to explain why I was alone.

It could be that I call this the “Non-Advice Column” because I would never advise another woman to do what I did.  The risks were enormous and obvious.  Suppose we didn’t work out?  Suppose we were not enough for each other?

What happened was better than even I could have imagined.  From the plateau afforded by our love, I could see the broken puzzle pieces of my past begin to come together and to fit inside a larger picture,  with a larger frame.

Philosophical articles I had not been able to put together found their solution.  Projects so remote I scarcely dared to dream of them came into focus as work to be done.  I found the way to untangle morbid human entanglements that I would have thought must travel with me to the grave.

How to explain it?  How should I know?  One could say that, by now, I had become seasoned enough to understand what I was doing and knew that it would prove to be a good bet.  Yeah, but that doesn’t sound like me.  What I often say, laughingly, was that God got tired of looking down and seeing what happened when Abigail relied on her own terrible judgment, and so decided to lean down and take a hand.

So, when I say that we were preparing to put on hold the life we had risked everything to find – you can see how puzzling and terrifying it was.

As of tonight, Jerry is deemed to have come through the surgery successfully and to be on the rocky, upward road of recovery.  It’s been a difficult process.  More than most people I know, Jerry has the gift of acceptance, of the situation he’s in.  Still, he has another gift: truthfulness.  He doesn’t deny to himself the fact that this is quite a painful ordeal.

It’s a mantra of the present age that we each die alone and are alone for the most telling confrontations of our lives.  There’s something to this.  No matter how squishy our relativism, deep down we know where the account books of our lives are kept.  We either have a record we can stand on, or not.

But this week, I have been struck by the presence of friends who sensed intuitively how big and dark was the abyss we were looking at.

Their friendship encircled us —

here –

 right where we stood.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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3 Responses to Private Matters

  1. Heart-wrenching beautiful. The lived paradox of true love and inevitability of loss (whenever that loss comes) as two sides of the same coin. I’m very glad for now that your story with Jerry continues. My heart is with you both.

  2. Johan Herrenberg says:

    Beautiful. In my case all fell into place after my conversion. Then I could finish part1 of my great novel, and I know I will be able to perfect Part 2 to my satisfaction. Blessings upon you both.

    • Abigail says:

      Many many thanks to you, Johan. It is a real comfort to have your witnessing presence! About your conversion & my love story: I guess they come from the same source! Interesting how, in one’s personal life, the most spectacular miracles are not the well-known ones recorded in scripture.

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