Dusk at Lake Massapoag (Picture Courtesy Rumni Saha)
A warning -- this essay is not for the prude or the faint-of-heart. This is my personal quest to understand a woman like no other I have ever met and an intimate mission to unravel a relationship so strange that it's hard not to judge instantaneously. And although it's easy to criticize, I want us to keep an open mind and refrain from rushing to a conclusion until we've had a chance to read it all.
A few years ago I met Valerie White. It was when I had spent an entire day cooking more food than I knew what to do with. Craving company, I called my longtime friends, Ken and Jean, to stop by with an open invitation to "bring anyone you wish." The fine, compliant couple showed up for dinner with a bunch of folks, one of whom was Valerie. She was accompanied by an older gentleman, George, with a shaggy beard, a sprouting ponytail, an unassuming personality and a profound knowledge of music, literature and technology that left me baffled. I was stunned by the ease with which this erudite Jewish gentleman who happened to be a Computer Programmer started quoting works of Tagore. I was speechless when he began conversing fluently with me in Bengali (Bangla), my mother tongue, which I shortly found out was self-taught like the other three foreign languages he spoke viz. Arabic, German and Japanese. (Years later I would hear my good friend, Tim, describe him perfectly -- "He is understated yet articulates his world view emphatically and has the demeanor of a monk.") There was no doubt that George was a brilliant scholar; he also happened to be one of Valerie's lovers.
In the course of the next few months I met Valerie's two other companions --Ken and Judy. Ken Olum, 55, an eccentric professor with a recumbent bike, an electric car and a nervous smile, is a noted Physicist at Tufts University in Boston; Judy Anderson, 56, who rides her motorcycle with the same ease as her bicycle, is a brilliant Computer Programmer. I also met two incredibly smart teenage children --Jocelyn and Perry, who often accompanied them.
Valerie's resume is long, unique and commendable. She was a respected attorney who had a fourteen-year contract to do public defense for the state of Vermont; she was also an adjunct professor of legal writing at the Massachusetts School of Law, not to mention the President of ACLU, VT for three terms. Throughout her career, she has held various management positions at battered women's shelters in Greater Boston and was the director of program development at Boston Alcohol and Substance Abuse Programs, Inc. She has always been a strong voice for women's sexual freedom and is the current Executive Director of the Sexual Freedom Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. Last but not the least, Valerie is a Humanist minister, ordained by the Humanist Society. At first glance, they seemed like a regular family -- loving, caring, warm, open and well-adjusted. I also came to realize that they are extremely well-liked and respected in their community. They are smart, generous and distinctively kind-hearted. They are also major advocates of fairness and equity, and tirelessly work towards promoting social justice.
I couldn't quite understand the dynamics of the family and therefore casually asked a friend, "So- what's up with Valerie White?" That was the first time I would hear the word "Polyamory." My appetite was whetted and I had to do something to satiate my prurient curiosity; therefore, I did what any self-respecting person would do -- ask shamelessly. It was a choice between mustering up enough courage to ask directly or keep guessing and entertaining half-truths and rumors. I decided to go with the former.
I met with Valerie one pleasant September afternoon to ask questions about her bold lifestyle. She easily lived up to her reputation of being a gifted conversationalist. She was also most gracious, open and willing to share. She began by explaining to me that Polyamory is a bastard word -- half Greek & half Latin, coined in 1989. While the idea of non-monogamy has been around especially since the '60s from the time of the sexual revolution, it was only in the early '90's that the term Polyamory came to convey that "one can responsibly engage in romantic/sexual relationships with more than one person at one time with full disclosure & consent of all parties." Polyamory is not cheating and definitely not swinging because it is about love (amor). At one point Valerie assertively instructed me not to confuse "Polyamory with Polyfuckery." This unabashed use of slang by an aging hippie made me chuckle nervously. "In Polyamory, one doesn't have to stop loving someone simply because she has started loving another" -- Valerie explained. By now, my naivety was becoming quite obvious; I would soon learn that hundreds of thousands of people in the US practice Polyamory. Next, I cheerfully learned the difference between Swinging and Polyamory. Again, Valerie was open and forthright: "Swinging is essentially recreational sex; most swingers have rules against emotional involvement. Some may develop close friendship with some couples but classical swinging is not intended to include emotional attachment. Swinging also is homophobic & is steeped in gender binary stuff. Generally, any kind of homosexual connection amongst swingers is frowned upon." Valerie's casual but astute observation made me smile. She mentioned how within the swinging community, there is often a tendency among women to portray themselves as sexy and exciting by wearing provocative clothing like mini-skirts, revealing blouses, fish net stockings whereas men are content in their khakis and Dockers. "Men do not generally have to look 25 and hot". Polyamory does not have any such expectations of their women. Polyamory is Egalitarian and woman-centric. Lastly, I heard, once again, how Mormon-style polygamy is top-down patriarchal and often child-abusing sexist where women have little or no say.
Next Valerie explained that there are "as many ways to do this (Polyamory) as there are people doing it. Polyamorous people have to make up rules as they go along whereas heterosexuals have a sexual contract that they need to follow".
Polycule is a general term for a poly household within which are triads, quads, married couples and many more. Family groups are always faithful to each other. The defining factor amongst all Polycules is complete transparency. "If it is not transparent, honest with full disclosure and consent of all involved then it is not polyamory. It's cheating." Simply stated. Powerful enough.
Valerie's family or Triad has three residential partners. Ken has an outside partner who visits often. Judy has also had an outside partner in the past.
Theirs is an open Triad. If any of the members is to have a continuing connection, he/she needs to be introduced to the family to see if it will work for all. All of their relationships are also heterosexual although an informal poll recently concluded that 60% of polyamorous people are bisexual.
Valerie met Ken in 1994 & in 1996 she moved in with him. Ken & Judy have been together since 1970s when they met as freshmen at Stanford University. Peg joined them as a partner of Ken 10 years ago. Valerie added that "During the time when there was a big push for marriage equality for same sex people, we kept quiet not to give ammunition to anti-marriage equality; none of us are married to each other."
The triad is not much different from other families. They do the things that other families do --take out the garbage, cook dinner, do homework. "It's more like a village where we take care of each other." Many years ago when the twins were 5, Ken got critically ill with a collapsed lung. There was someone at his bedside 24 hours a day between the three of them, the twins were taken care of and the family was able to overcome the crisis together and came out stronger. Isn't that what family and love is about?
One thing is a constant -- transparency. In fact, George is no longer a partner as he ultimately could not come to terms with the dynamics of the family. Valerie and George are not lovers anymore but are still good friends and communicate by email daily and often go out together as friends.
I loved how grown-up and mature this new concept was turning out to be. No bitterness, no resentment, no judgment -- boy, I could live with these!
There is much debate whether Polyamory is an orientation or lifestyle choice. Valerie truthfully brought my attention to the fact that there are not many people who can claim to be monogamous; by & large most are polygamous whether they want us to know or not. "How about celebrities that we are fascinated with and the endless relationships they engage in? That, my friends, is not Monogamy. In fact, people don't seem to be naturally monogamous. Even birds who are fiercely committed to their partners stray". Valerie pointed out that it is "normal for me to have multiple partners because it is evolutionarily sound and better for women reproductively". She then explained the premise of the book "Sex at Dawn" which appropriately theorizes that during the Hunter/Gatherer period, people were polyamorous in their relationship; as communities began to settle down, monogamy was enforced on women to ensure rightful distribution of wealth to one's own children. Another logic that made complete sense.
By then, I wanted to know Valerie's story, specifically how a well-educated child of the 60's ended up being a Polyamorist. This is what she related to me: "In 1965 my first husband & I opened up our marriage. I remembered the feeling of enormous possibility & openness. I adored the fact that a door I thought was slammed shut was not shut. It was the French movie, Le Bonheur, about a man who introduced his lover to his wife that was affirming to my husband & I what we were trying to do."
The truth is that a lot of people find their way into Polyamory through science fictions. Stranger in a Strange Land, Friday, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress -- are a few such books written by the well-known author Robert Heinlein who was one of the earliest advocates of Polyamory. The Harrad Experiment (1973), a novel about sexual freedom and experimentation during the height of the sexual revolution also introduced many to Polyamory.
During our conversation, and my subsequent research, it became evident to me that the Polyamorous community is a very educated group. It is also overwhelmingly white. Many tend to be geeks and science fiction fanatics. When I asked why it is so, Valerie rightly explained to me that "it's a think-outside-the- box thing. As such they often tend to look at their relationships that way also." Makes complete sense; Polyamory is a commitment to "go where no one has gone before." From a somewhat boring health stand point but important nonetheless, are studies that conclude that STDs are less frequent in poly communities because they are all about transparency and communication. A person who will have outside partners will have rules about testing whereas someone cheating will not go through such pain. Makes complete sense -- doesn't it?
Alright -- so I had learned a lot about Polyamory but what I was itching to know was how does it work. What really happens behind closed doors? In short, how does sex take place in a Polyamorous relationship? So I asked Valerie matter-of-factly and in the classiest way I knew how: "Well, tell me how you do it." Valerie smiled and said that there is a standing joke in the polyamorous community that "We don't have as much sex as you think we do because we are too busy communicating. Polyamory (and sex) requires a lot of communication." (Amen to that Sister.)
What I learned is that Ken compiles a well-thought out schedule at the beginning of each month about when who will be with whom. These times are often traditionalized dates when the two partners have the evening to themselves and they engage in activities they enjoy like sailing, contra dancing, square dancing, bicycling, or cerebral activities like cross-word puzzles, composing together all leading to physical gratification. Sex is not solely prioritized, rushed and is never viewed as a duty, to be checked off hurriedly. Valerie makes me laugh out loud when she admits that the "Google calendar is a great invention for Polyamory." Their triad is fortunate to live in a big house. (And what a big, beautiful house it is overlooking the pristine Lake Massapoag). No one sleeps in the same bed. Everyone has his/her own space. "We don't pretend that we are not having dates or being intimate but we don't do anything overly sexual in front of the kids. But then no responsible parent should do that anyway." Again, sensible and classy.
All three in the Triad are co-guardians through the courts, the agreement is that each is an equal co-parent. After the birth of the twins, Valerie enrolled in a lactation induction program, a way of fooling the body into thinking that she gave birth even though she was post-menopausal at that time. And that way she too was able to nurse the babies and soothe them when needed.
The twins, 14 years old now, are open about their unique family situation with their classmates; they have never known any other way, and fortunately, schools in the towns and cities in and around Boston, no longer care about complex blended families. They are also open with their church community that encourages people to think outside the box and embraces diversity.
For Polyamory to work one has to be flexible. There is no room for rigidity. "What about Jealousy?" -- I ask; Valerie's answer blows me away. "If your partner cares about you, it is incumbent upon all of us to comfort & assure that it will be okay when jealousy rears its head". Valerie goes on to outline the difference between "Envy as desire -- as in I wish" and "Jealousy as based on a fear of loss." Envy is "I want what he is having" whereas Jealousy is "I don't want him to have that". By this point, I was loving it! "There is no point of being jealous of Suzy for Suzy is good at being Suzy. Of course it is natural for NRE (new relationship energy) and BSLS (bright shiny lover's syndrome) but one must be careful not to step on your partner's toes. You have to take care of each other, you have to be kind & scrupulous." Valerie casually ends with the lyrics: "My Boyfriend's girlfriend is not me". Wish I had that kind of confidence!
I was in awe of everything that Valerie was sharing. No wonder she is loved by many. I also learned a new word, whose meaning left me immensely fulfilled. The word "Compersion" is intended to mean the opposite of jealousy. "Compersion is the warm glow when you know your partner is having a good time with someone else." A truly selfless concept.
When I asked Valerie the obvious question gnawing at me ... "Can you love more than one person at a time?", her prompt answer was -- "Do you have more than one child? Did you love your mother at the same time you loved your husband? ... Of course you can. You don't have to be somebody's everything & you don't have to expect someone else to be your everything." Frankly, I like that.
What struck me was the picture of honesty, integrity (yes- I said integrity) and tenderness that emerged in the course of our conversation. I will always remember the impassioned message with which Valerie ended our exchange... "I don't think it matters what people do with their sexuality; it is no one's business as long as no one gets hurt." So true. And so powerful.
The Triad that Valerie is part of will celebrate 22 years of Polyamorous life this November. It is a relationship that has stood the test of time -- one that is replete with excitement, romance and in harmony with sexual proclivity even after all these years. Honestly, how many of us wouldn't want a bit more of one or all of these gifts in our monogamous relationships? How many amongst us have the gumption to fix what is broken or even dream to make it better? How many of us are able or willing to comfortably, confidently and publicly discuss our most intimate lives with the utmost pride and joy? How divine is it that at age 71 Valerie continues to enjoy a fulfilling physical and emotional relationship with a man 16 years her junior? It wouldn't hurt for us to do a bit of soul-searching -- behind closed doors, of course.
In conclusion, these are the lessons I took away from my revealing/reveling dialogue with Valerie:
- Never be afraid to ask or engage because there is too much to experience and little to lose.
- It is important to confront the uncomfortable or what seems to be out of our comfort zone. What fun is being comfortable anyways? (I don't remember the stilettos from "Red Shoe Diaries" being comfortable but boy- did they fit right).
- Why not push the boundaries a bit for we never know what awaits us on the other side unless we actively seek it out? Adventure is liberating; it feeds the body and nourishes the soul. And what is life without adventure anyways?
- Erotic is not a dirty word. Erogenous is scintillating but it turns out that communication is the finest foreplay.
- Who the heck, are we, with our flawed characters to judge another? And what is there to really judge? Love, compersion, honesty, fidelity, joy? Perhaps not in the way we have been conditioned to believe but these prodigious attributes are the very cornerstones of Polyamory. The more I think about it, the more I realize that it is what ethics and integrity are all about; not hypocrisy and duplicity that are the keystones of many monogamous relationships.