Words by Jessica Rovniak.
Everyone’s done some embarrassing things after a breakup, but if you’ve refrained from destroying a major city or creating a sex doll replica of your ex–historically you’re doing pretty great. It Ended Badly: 13 of the Worst Breakups in History, by Jennifer Wright, can back that up. A hilarious and historically accurate compilation of history’s worst handled breakups, this book will prove irrevocably that a pint of ice cream and bottle of whiskey for dinner is completely reasonable, nay a socially responsible response to a broken heart. Wright and I chatted about the book, and our theories on modern relationships and breakups.
JESSICA ROVNIAK: I have literally told everyone I’ve come into communication with about your book. I think I’m going to buy copies and send them to my friends that just went through break-ups and be like, ‘calm down.’
JENNIFER WRIGHT: Oh my gosh. I’m so glad. That is exactly like I intended it for.
I love it. What inspired you to write this book, and what was your background going into it?
I originally wrote a lot about sex and dating for the New York Post before writing the book, so I know it was a topic that people were really interested in. I’m always really interested in history books. I love reading historical biographies. So, I wanted to tie my love of history to something that would make it a little bit more accessible [to] people, and I came up with the idea when I was going through a breakup.
There were a lot of books out there that tell you about how to behave really well during a break-up and how to handle things in an incredibly ‘ladylike’ fashion, but if you’ve gotten drunk and texted your ex the night before, that ship has already sailed. I thought it would be really comforting to show people that in history, most people handled breakups worse than you and I will begin to handle them. Fortunately, there are endless numbers of historical figures that handled things really badly.
Were there any stories that you came across that you omitted, but you still want to tell the story?
There are so many. Abraham Lincoln got himself into a really awkward situation when he was joking around at a party. He told a woman’s sister that if her sister moved to Illinois, he would marry her. He did not mean it, but the sister took his offer entirely seriously, and he had to send her a series of very awkward letters about how he was not a good guy to be married to. It was him. It wasn’t her. It was all on him.
It’s the classic, “It’s not you. It’s me.”
It’s not you, it’s me. Yeah.
Abraham Lincoln founded it…[Laughs]
One of the most wonderful figures in American history trying to be like, “Really, I’m a jerk. I’m so bad.”
That’s hilarious. Do you have a favorite story in the book?
My favorite story is probably the one about Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler. Maybe just because certainly nobody I know has gone around building a giant doll, shaped exactly like their ex. They took it very quietly and took it out through the park and out to French dinner parties. I find it very comforting that in spite of the fact that Oskar Kokoschka did that, he had an incredibly happy forty-year long marriage to another woman who was not at all put off by the fact that he had built a giant sex doll at one point, and he was known for fighting against the Nazis, being an outspoken opponent of fascism, aiding refugees who were persecuted by the Nazis, and being a great artist.
If you’ve done some crazy stuff, you can feel like, “Oh god, everybody’s just going to remember that I did this crazy thing.” But practically, no one will. It will not stop you from having other very happy relationships.
I really loved the first chapter about the Roman emperor.
Nero, yeah. I’ve told people, “This guy had a slave, castrated him, and dressed him up like his dead wife.”
I know. There’s certainly a question in my mind about whether or not the story is exaggerated because they were written by various political enemies, but they all seemed to agree. They might disagree a little bit about what kind of torture he liked the most, but every account pretty much lines up with [that] he castrated his slave boy and forced him to marry him.
Do people tend to come to you more now since you wrote this book for advice?
I’ve always kind of done that. I’ve had terrible break-ups myself. I think the most important thing, at least in terms of the book, was the only people in the book who got totally destroyed by their break-ups were the people who never let it go, ever. There are people like Caroline Lamb who basically devoted their entire lives to telling everyone that their ex was a terrible, terrible person.
It’s important to keep in mind that for your own sanity, it’s best to try to stop being serious [about] your ex every moment of every day, which can be a hard thing to do immediately after a break-up–if that break-up wasn’t very friendly. Trying to see it from their side, and trying to remember that they are a human being who you at least at one point loved, is really important to try to do. At least that’s been important for me to try to do with my exes. Hopefully if you’re able to get yourself into that mentality then there might be a time when you can be friends with them again, and at least see them as important people in your lives. I’m a big believer in trying to have a period in absolutely hating your ex, and then try to remember what was good about the relationship; maybe you at least found a TV show that you liked out of that relationship. [Laughs]
One of the stories that resonated with me was the chapter about ghosting. People think it’s a new term, and I just got ghosted super hard personally. It’s the worst.
Oh, I’m so sorry. It’s the worst.
Right? Six months we were hanging out. He then moved to the Bahamas out of nowhere on my birthday. Literally, the last conversation we had he was like, “I’ll hang out with you on your birthday and then I never heard from him again.”
Oh my god, he’s a monster. You know what? You dodged a bullet. Imagine if that happened to you after you had been married for ten years.
Also, I hate the term “hanging out.” We’re dating. I don’t understand why people seem to have decided they don’t want to have feelings in a relationship. It seems more appealing to me to look at these historical relationships where people at least breathe themselves into it really passionately. It seems a lot more inspiring, at least for the sake of our stories, to try to feel things passionately. If it doesn’t work out, it’s terrible, but it’s not like you don’t feel terrible spending the whole time saying, “Well, we’re just hanging out, so it’s not like we had feelings or any commitments of any kind.”
Yes! You’re right. I think, in my case, I was trying to be so hyper-cool about everything.
It’s a virtue that will destroy us all.
Yeah. [Laughs] I completely agree. I had a moment of clarity, being like, Why have I tried to change? I’ve always considered myself a romantic. Why is that such a bad thing these days?
I live with my boyfriend, and I love him very much. He’s great. Pretty much immediately after I started dating him, I told him, “I’m not looking for something casual. I’m looking for something serious, and relentlessly un-fun, and maybe just miserable–maybe just a long slog of commitment.” He said, “That sounds great, I am into that.”
Right? That’s the opposite of what everyone seems to say these days.
I spent my early ’20s telling them (men) that I wasn’t looking for something serious, and then feeling completely heartbroken when they took me at my word.
Sometimes as women, we’re told we’re not supposed to want anything from relationships because we’re earning $0.77 on the dollar, so that was the trade-off we made, but no. You can still want men to treat you nicely and sexually and take you seriously. That’s very reasonable.
Do you feel like a sequel coming on?
I’m almost done with my second book right now. It’s coming out next winter. It’s called Get Well Soon. It’s about terrible diseases in history, and how we cured them or didn’t cure them. I hope it will be a gift people can give to their friends during winter colds and flu season, to remind them that it’s not as terrible as it could be.