Her heart was broken – so she turned to science

Marianne Szegedy-Maszak

THE WASHINGTON POST – Who hasn’t asked themselves the same aching question framed by the Bee Gees in their plaintive 1971 masterpiece, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart? Broken hearts seem in vast supply these days, as we engage in individual and collective grieving for so many and so much lost during the cataclysm of the pandemic.

But then there is the very specific subgenus of heartbreak that is untethered to a particular historical moment and has probably existed since the Neanderthals: the sheer, abject misery of being rejected by someone to whom you are still deeply attached. You’ve lived a life together and envisioned that life would continue. How is it possible to exist without this person? How is it possible that this person suddenly finds it impossible to exist with you? Often what happens is the worst of both worlds: Their presence weirdly endures in the form of immense physical and emotional anguish, impossible to ignore, like a kind of phantom limb.

This is the situation that science writer Florence Williams found herself thrust into as she tried to cope with the emotional and physical wreckage following her divorce from a man she had met and fallen in love with during their freshman year at Yale. They had married, parented two children and loved until she was at the cusp of 50, when he “decided to live on his own after three decades of togetherness”, leaving her feeling as if she’d “been axed in the heart”.

Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey is a raw and exhaustively reported exploration of her suffering, the kind of reportage engaged in by Michael Pollan as he looked at his diet and his brain, or Ross Douthat when coping with his chronic Lyme disease; the kind when a journalist lands on a rich subject because he or she happens to be living it.

Williams brought to this life-exploding event two important areas of expertise having nothing to do with her family life. First is her profession as a science writer and reporter, at home with placebo-controlled double-blind studies, scientific literature and interviewing a range of experts – biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, endocrinologists and others – while translating technical parlance into layman’s language. The second is that the natural world is almost her second home. In one of her earlier books, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, she immersed with professionals around the world who used the curative and regenerative powers of nature to help all sorts of people, including those with PTSD, ADHD and other disorders.

In Heartbreak she reprises that kind of determined, deep-dive reporting, this time seeking the same healing for her shattered self. Her quest takes her to conferences, wilderness programmes for sex-trafficked women, universities, medical specialists, countless studies, an epic paddle down the Green River and even a Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia. She discovers that even though heartbreak may be thoroughly explored in literature and art, few scientists have studied it beyond the grim health and wealth outcomes for divorced people. In teasing out aspects of her own experience, she assembles scattered pieces of a vast puzzle of research, dissecting her pain so it fits into areas experts have examined – for instance, her heart, her brain and her leukocytes, which are blood cells that help the body fight infection and other diseases.

She wrote eloquently of her misery. Sleepless, agitated, anxious, she lost enormous amounts of weight, developed heart problems, and had a depressing and infuriating affair whose appeal vanished when she became aware of his creepy sexual proclivities and many other women. Eventually, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes from having so stressed her pancreas. This discovery leads her to research how “stress influences our immune systems” and wondering if “divorce diabetes” was “a thing”. By this time, Williams had already spoken to psychologists, neuroscientists, cardiologists, physiologists and biologists, packing each chapter with the results of their many studies. This is one of the joys of reading a gifted science journalist: You learn so much stuff without having to study it yourself. At the same time, she enlists a dizzying, and sometimes distracting, number of people – not just all those researchers but historical figures: William James! Simone Weil! – in her attempt to understand why she was so miserable and what it would take to feel better.

When she learned about her incipient diabetes, for instance, off she went to have a conversation with a molecular geneticist (and, conveniently, a midlife diabetic) at Stanford. In three paragraphs we speed from his explanation of how stress can encourage our DNA to “start expressing diabetes promoter genes”, to Ohio State researchers’ discovery that adults, like her, “who were struggling emotionally with their recent divorces… produced fewer natural killer cells, which are important for fighting cancer and other diseases”, to a pithy quote from a psychologist at the University of Arizona: “There is an inflammation story related to divorce.” Impressive mastery of the material, to be sure, but sometimes the density feels as if we are racing past one billboard after another, each offering respite at the elusive next rest stop.

To rediscover her competence and autonomy, Williams took a solo trip down the Green River in Utah, “the largest tributary of the Colorado River”. She started at its headwaters in Wyoming and spent two weeks going down the river with friends and family, and another two weeks on a solo journey in a canoe, hoping she might craft “a new story” for herself.

She faced her solitude and the physical demands, and the landscape comes alive in her telling, but in the end, the metamorphosis she had hoped for never materialised. It did, however, when she took a page from Pollan and sampled some stuff. “Maybe I could both assuage my hurt,” she wrote, “and have a bang-up awe experience”.

Many others have sought answers to the Bee Gees’ question. Nora Ephron cooked, Anna Karenina leaped, and Bridget Jones sang. Others obsessively talk about the former beloved, wallow in misery, indulge in mind-bending substances, write poetry, lie awake, consult with therapists and friends, plot revenge, and of course cry – a lot. Once when I was recovering from a fickle college boyfriend, one of my (oft-married) old Hungarian aunties consoled me with her own tried-and-true strategy, “Best cure for old love is new love”.

But, as Williams concludes in this wise and brave book, after having explored so many options, “the best heartbreak cure of all” is something we cannot control but on which we can rely: the simple passage of time.