From Adult Child to Sexual Adventurer

By Alyssa Pinsker 06/14/15

The Fix Q&A with Robin Rinaldi, author of The Wild Oats Project: One Woman’s Midlife Quest for Passion at any Cost.

via Author

The early chapters in Robin Rinaldi’s controversial sex memoir juxtapose her inner good girl attending 12-step meetings versus the “whore” she became for one year after her conscious decision to experiment with open marriage. When I asked Robin if she wanted to discuss her book for The Fix from the perspective of a 12 stepper, she told me she’d stopped going many years ago. “I learned more in one year of messy ‘acting out’ than 15 years of therapy and 12-step groups.” Fascinated, I asked her more. Spoilers lie ahead, and here is a full disclosure: Robin and I attended the same writing workshop once, at separate times in our lives. 

You start the book in 12-step meetings but state that “I learned more in one year of messy acting out than 15 years of therapy and 12-step groups.” Please elaborate.

I found that I learned more through my mistakes than from sitting around talking and thinking. As Nietzsche notes, “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”

You said you haven’t been to meetings in 15 years. Was that because you have any criticism of ACA or other 12-step groups?

No, I just grew out of them after a decade of attendance at ACA and CODA (Co-dependents Anonymous). My only criticism is the same criticism I have of organizations as fringe as OneTaste and as mainstream as the Catholic Church: There is too much groupthink and in the case of 12 step, too much defining of the self based on pathology. But AA has saved a lot of lives. No method or group is perfect.

Do you still see yourself as the “good girl” versus the “wild” one?

I don’t see myself in that polarized way anymore. I can be both “good”—domestic, wholesome, faithful, hardworking—and “wild”—angry, rule-breaking, messy, instinctual—depending on the circumstance. Giving myself permission to get wild helped me integrate that part of myself so I don’t fear it anymore, and also don’t feel ruled by it.

Do you regret your years in ACA?

Not at all. I learned a lot and made lasting friendships. But I do lament certain aspects of my 12-step experience in the ’90s: For one, how so many people were focused at the time on “repressed memories” of sexual abuse, which proved to be a huge mind-fuck for me and several others.

Take what you like and leave the rest, indeed. How do you feel about 12-step groups now?

It’s wonderful that a person suffering either directly or indirectly from addiction can find a free meeting of like-minded folks anywhere in the world, and go listen and speak anonymously. But they aren’t for everyone. There are other roads to recovery that also work well for some people. 

What type of "acting out" behavior were you referring to when you said you learned more in a year of "acting out?"

I’d say that cheating on your spouse, as I did at the start and end of the project, is often construed as acting out. Lying is acting out. Channeling your grief and frustration over your husband’s vasectomy into an open marriage, instead of sitting at home, lighting candles and journaling about it, is acting out. Acting out is when you … go out and act, regardless of the consequences. Some of it—like lying and at one point becoming violent—I’m not proud of. But it does yield lessons. 

Tell us what you learned.

I learned not to expect so much from a relationship. I learned that my body could lead me where I needed to go faster and more directly than my mind could. I learned that my marriage’s “lack of intimacy” was a simple temperamental difference and no one’s fault. I learned that a woman’s forties, which I had feared, are some of the most powerful years of her life. I learned that maternal urge is deeply connected to sexual and creative urges. 

In my opinion you hit the nail on the head on the Madonna/whore dilemma for hetero-women. Do you have a name for it? Safety/passion?

When Freud named the Madonna/whore dichotomy he was referring to men who saw women as either saintly respectable wives/mothers or degraded whores. They respected but did not desire the former; they desired but did not respect the latter. We know now that both men and women sometimes have trouble feeling attracted to their nice, committed spouses. Esther Perel brilliantly describes this when she says that eroticism demands distance. 

What do you think could be the resolution for this safety/passion dilemma? Multiple satisfactions from different people? 

I think the resolution is something we’re all working on and discovering. Non-monogamy provides the obvious way of having both, but most people believe the risks of non-monogamy are not worth the rewards. You can still “source” your passion and your security widely within monogamy, so that your partner is not the sole provider of either. You can gain passion through your career, through helping others, through hobbies, through creativity. You can gain safety through friendships, extended family, and yourself. Personally, after going through the ups and downs of this wild year, I located both passion and safety inside myself, which considerably eased up my expectations for an intimate relationship. 

By the way, anyone reading this whose age, hormones, or life experience is pointing them in a sexual direction right now—if they have a huge crush, or are newly in love, or are at a stalemate in their marriage and dying to cheat—those people will probably find advice like “Get your passion through hobbies and helping others!” useless. There are moments in our lives when only sexual passion will do, for whatever reasons, and those reasons sometimes remain mysterious. Ultimately, the body will lead the soul to wisdom. 

Where do you get your confidence from?

Any confidence I have is a mix of the false confidence I fostered as a child and the true confidence that comes from age. Sometimes, the false brand suffices until the genuine kind kicks in. The book details the most confident year of my life, when I got sick and tired of feeing anxious and stuck and finally decided to risk it all. So I probably appear much more confident in that year than I am in general. Also, after you've had a few dozen major panic attacks during which you felt sure you were dying, writing about your sex life isn't the end of the world. All the self-help, the therapy, the workshops, the teachers, all these experiences tend to accrue over the years.

About some of the more shaming critics of your book, you’ve said, "I'm the daughter of a bookie, I eat slut-shamers for breakfast." Can you expand on that?

I said that jokingly, because I want to live in a world where we all laugh at the word “slut,” so I will help create that world by standing up to them. I lie awake at night considering the opinions of real critics and real readers. But slut-shamers are neither. They’re bullies, and I refuse to cower to them. I want to assure every woman reading this that slut-shaming is a ridiculous, ineffectual thing. Please. It’s 2015.

Did you learn any of this in ACA? 

Troubled childhoods produce resilience and so does recovery from those childhoods. Like many people raised in alcoholic families, I am up close and personal with shame. I have years of experience dealing with lethal voices in my head that judge every move I make as unworthy. I’ve struggled with shame enough to know it is the root of my depression, enough to know it can kill you if you’re not careful, enough to have seen it kill a friend or two. And when you are intimate with your own shame, as many of us are, then you can hold the criticism of others, no matter how painful, in perspective. Others are just a mirror. Once you refuse to carry all that shame, you can let others be responsible for their own judgments and projections.

You seem to lack the self-deprecation that most writers have in your book.

I love something Cheryl Strayed once said to the effect of: Accept your mediocrity. Once you accept it, you can work to improve it. This was my first book, and my level of gutsiness in baring such intimate details likely superseded my level of skill. I'm working on that.

What did your family think of the book?

They’ve been much more supportive than I foresaw. They live in a small, mostly Catholic town, but are pretty progressive in their thinking about sex and women’s roles. I feel like the recent national push toward gay marriage has eased up many people’s attitudes around sex in general. I did worry about the childhood scenes with my dad, because they detail some of his worst moments. But I told him about them and showed him the chapter on our reconciliation, and we’re good. That’s one thing I took away from the 12 steps: For me, forgiveness is the goal.

Do you feel you healed your trauma?

I don’t think our trauma is ever fully healed. But we live with it, manage it, accept it. In my mid-thirties, I wondered why I didn’t yet have a down payment for a house, then I calculated that I’d spent almost $30k on therapy at that point. So to my mind, I’ve done what I can and for now it’s enough. I’m grateful that there are many new tools for working with trauma these days: somatic approaches, new practical therapies like EMDR and DBT, even psychedelics. We learn more about it with each passing year. 

Your "acting out" was very controlled by the limits of a contract, and a set agreement. You had three rules for example. Do you think this helped make it a healthy acting out rather than a relapse or destructive addictive acting out?

I think it was a relatively controlled form of acting out--par for the course for a type-A “hero” child, I guess. I wouldn't call it a relapse since I'd never really acted out previously. But I would say it was both destructive and healthy. Sometimes destruction is the first step to re-creation and rebirth.

Alyssa Pinsker is a writer, working on a book called GIRL GONE GLOBAL.

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Alyssa Pinsker is a writer, working on a book called GIRL GONE GLOBAL. She is a travel, faith and food lifestyle writer for BBC, Cosmopolitan, New York Mag. Talent repped by Bicoastal MGMT. 40 countries seen, 6 lived. Find Alyssa on Twitter and LinkedIn.