it's complicated

The Terrible Relationship That Inspired My Novel

Photo: J.V. Aranda

People always ask me if the sociopathic womanizer in my novel is based on a real guy I dated.

It’s not surprising; I’d fully expected the question before the book came out last summer. Of the various stressors surrounding the launch, the inevitability of that question was the thing I dreaded most. This was for a couple of reasons, one being that several people had advised me against sharing on the subject. But mostly, I just didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to publicly rehash something that had been such a toxic situation my life. Writing about my unhealthy relationship had been cathartic; the prospect of discussing it with strangers made me severely uncomfortable. In an effort to regain control of my anxiety, I armed myself with a well-rehearsed answer: No, haha. I can see why you might ask that, but, no. Stephen DeMarco is purely fictional.

I don’t know why the inspiration behind Stephen is the most pressing inquiry — perhaps it’s because I held very little back in my depiction of a manipulative narcissist, a persona that a shockingly high number of readers recognize in their most appalling exes. To many, the dynamic in my book is all too familiar; particularly charming Joe Schmoe entices girl with calculated game of cat-and-mouse; girl falls head over heels and turns into desperate, delusional, self-destructive mess.

Readers wanted to know if I was speaking from experience, and with a saccharine smile, I gave my practiced answer. What was hardest to stomach, though, was the heavy disappointment that settled in the room as the lie landed.

One girl came up to me after a panel discussion. “I can’t believe Stephen isn’t real,” she said. Her tone was friendly, but something in her voice was distraught. “I just — I can’t believe it. My friends and I all thought he had to be real.”

Similar interactions followed at various events throughout the rest of the year. On social media I was receiving countless messages from women thanking me for writing the book, and sharing that they’d dated men just like Stephen.

One reader wrote: “I have never been able to put into words my feelings for my Stephen DeMarco. To read on paper the thoughts that had consumed and continue to consume me and to know that my experience was not unique was one of the most refreshing feelings imaginable. From the third chapter I immediately wanted to email you, tell you that I felt like I wrote this book. I am so grateful to know I’m not crazy or alone.”

Messages like this are everything to me — the hope that my writing might be able to make readers feel less isolated in their pain and more connected to the human experience is the reason I wanted to create fiction in the first place.

As I received similar notes from more and more readers, I began to understand just how real — and startlingly prevalent — the character of Stephen DeMarco was.

Another reader said: “I was recently engaged to my Stephen when I finally found the strength to leave. I struggled with wanting to run right back after, and I very nearly did, until I found your book. Reading it cut me deep a lot, I was in tears most of the time, but it put everything in perspective.”

Despite these raw, moving messages that I’ve been so proud to receive, when asked straightforwardly if Stephen DeMarco was based on someone from my life, I still couldn’t bring myself to share anything but my safe, automated answer.

And the truth is, I can’t stand it anymore. I can’t stand to see or imagine the look on readers’ faces when I tell them that it’s all just fiction, that I cannot actually validate their pain from a place of empathy. Instead, I’ve been playing it safe. I’ve been laying down a big barrier in the space between us where there could have been genuine connection. And that is nothing to be proud of.

People need Stephen to be real because the addictive, poisonous, hot-and-cold relationship you know you shouldn’t be in but can’t get out of is real. And if I, as the author, can’t empathize with my own readers in the experience I’ve created on the page, how can I hope or expect them to find lasting comfort there?

The problem is that the closer you look at the line between fiction and truth, the blurrier it gets. I’ve been so hesitant — and scared — to talk about the “real” Stephen, because while there is certainly a person who inspired his character, that person isn’t actually the character. And that is a distinction I need to keep intact.

Still, I’m tired of skirting around the truth. I’m tired of pretending I don’t know the specific pain that comes from giving your heart to someone who was never really yours, someone who never actually asked for it in the first place. It’s a pain that cuts deep, resurfacing in intense feelings of shame and worthlessness, and I’m done acting like it’s something I’m not intimately familiar with. I’m done pretending that I don’t have a Stephen DeMarco of my own.

So, here’s a bit of truth about “my” Stephen.

When I was 23 and still living with my parents in Westchester, I took the train into New York to have dinner with him. We met at a small, dimly lit Venezuelan place in the East Village, a block from my friend’s apartment where I planned on crashing that night. The restaurant was grungy and dark — in retrospect, it’s the kind of place you go when you’re trying not to be seen.

We snagged a table in the back, and simply being near him left me content and electrified. He was living with his girlfriend at the time — a fact I was well aware of, a fact that I had, in one way or another, accepted.

“Like I’ve said, it’s not for much longer,” he stated blankly, pouring me more wine. “She’s not the one for me.” He hooked my foot underneath the table and locked his gaze to mine. His eyes said: you are the one for me.

Behind the way he looked at me and spoke to me there was a magnet, an inexplicable compulsion, as vital as oxygen. Being there with him, I was only obeying the urge to breathe.

Our “thing” had been going on for a long time — it was much more than a “thing” by then, and I convinced myself we both thought so. It had started with his hungry stare at a party in college years earlier, which morphed into his unabashed, almost manic pursuit of me. His approach was different than that of any guy I’d ever met, and my reaction surprised me: I became obsessed with the feeling of being wanted, and it persisted, even when I learned, through the grapevine, that I wasn’t the only girl. I decided that his perseverance was romantic, that his commitment to our chemistry, year after year, had meaning.

During the intermittent periods when I would finally shake myself awake with the seemingly profound realization that our relationship was never going to be what I wanted and needed, I promised myself and my friends that this time, I was really done. And I would be, for a stretch. But he was like blood from a cut that refused to heal; he kept reminding me that he was there, that he still wanted me, that he could change, that our future held limitless possibilities. He itched, I scratched, blood pooled, and the cycle began again.

The draw was simple: I’d never met anyone else who made me feel alive the way he always had. There were other girls, yes. There was prevalent dishonesty. There was drama. But relationships were supposed to be complicated. Nothing good ever came without its hurdles. Mr. Big had to marry Natasha before he could realize his true love was Carrie. I’d become an expert at telling myself what I wanted to hear, at finding circumstantial evidence to back my claim.

After dinner, we walked down the street toward my friend’s apartment. Outside her building, he interlaced his fingers in mine and pressed me against the brick exterior. There was nowhere to go but inside. We dragged each other through the dusty lobby and into the building’s old, rickety elevator, where it was silent, where we screwed. The antique scissor gate was sharp against my skin, but I barely noticed the pain.

Afterward, I felt high, inflated with an adrenaline that I had mistaken, many times, for love.

He kissed me long and hard, ran his fingers through my hair.

“I don’t want to leave,” he whispered. “But it’s late. I should get home. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat as he finished buttoning his shirt. I still sometimes wonder what his thoughts were while he walked back to the apartment he shared with his girlfriend. I still don’t fully understand how I was (and am) someone who let that kind of thing happen.

I wish I could say that night was the end of my Stephen saga, but it wasn’t. If I’m being honest — which is the goal here — it was a vicious cycle, and it didn’t end with some pivotal realization on my behalf. It ended because he decided it should. And even though I was devastated, even though I felt as though I were free-falling in a vacuum of doom, there was a tiny, forgotten piece of myself that suspected his letting me go was a gift.

That tiny piece of myself is the person I fought my way back toward, the corner of my heart I willed to swallow the rest whole. What allowed me to heal, I think, was this commitment to introspection. For me, this meant sitting down in front of a blank Word document, cursor blinking. Joan Didion famously said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” Writing Tell Me Lies was like that for me; I had to create a fictitious person on paper in order to finally understand him. He revealed himself to me as Stephen: the fickle, alluring charmer with a spine-melting touch, who always says the right thing, even if it’s a lie.

Ultimately a relationship with Stephen isn’t unfamiliar, and it isn’t gender specific; we all have our Stephen stories welled within us. As humiliating as it is to acknowledge the weakest versions of ourselves — the selves we willingly debased — there is wisdom and connection to be found there, too. Thank you, readers, for teaching me that. Thank you for helping me to stop being ashamed of my shame. In full transparency I did have a Stephen, and he was horrible. But it’s okay. It got me here.

The Terrible Relationship That Inspired My Novel