Molly Roden Winter (Nina Subin)

In 2002, Meredith Berkman sued the manufacturer of the nutritionally dubious snack Pirate’s Booty for $50 million because its label claimed it was “Good For You.” When pressed to defend its claims, the company’s founder insisted the snack bags were making a different assertion altogether: it’s not that Pirate’s Booty is good for you—but rather, hey man, “good for you!” for livening things up with some Pirate’s Booty.

I think about the difference between these two statements a lot when I think about polyamory.

To the friends who have confided in me or declared via social media that they are in open marriages, my response has always been “good for you!” If that’s what works for another person, if they are happy, then, as a member of a tolerant, pluralistic society, what else can I offer? As a religious person, a Catholic no less, I know that I am often on the receiving end of such tolerance, and I’m glad to reciprocate when given the opportunity. But, in our current moment of societal poly-curiosity, some advocates have turned to making the larger claim: that open relationships are broadly healthful, that they are, actually, good for us.

Into this climate comes Molly Roden Winter’s memoir, More, heralded as a “scorcher” (Washington Post) and a corrective to the idea that “mothers are not supposed to be sexual beings” (New York Times). One blurb on the back promises an exploration of “how nonmonogamy can be a powerful catalyst for living more authentically, breaking free of socially scripted people-pleasing roles, and having a more secure relationship with one’s self, family, and partner.” From its cover art (the solid-color cutouts of contemporary romance literature) to its media blitz, this book has been positioned as a sexy romp and societal corrective. In other words, Roden Winter’s open marriage was both good for her and also good for her!

So, I was genuinely shocked when I read the book, not by how graphic it is, but by how sad. For every one orgasm scene, there are three of sobbing fits. Molly’s, to be clear. Her husband, Stewart, is not a crier.

The book begins with a betrayal—logistical rather than sexual. Roden Winter is home with her small children as the full-time caregiver. Stewart has promised to be home early yet strolls in at almost 9 p.m. In what will be a pronounced pattern, she does not tell Stewart she is upset by his selfish behavior. Instead, she goes on a walk, finds a friend, and serendipitously meets a cute younger guy at a bar. When she returns home and confesses this, Stewart is aroused and encourages her to continue to see this guy, Matt, as long as she tells him about it. Which, because Roden Winter is very good at taking direction, she does. Stewart soon asks if he can also sleep with his ex-girlfriend Lena. Molly is not happy about it:

[T]he thought of them together makes me feel like I’ve fallen to the bottom of a well. “I’m not sure,” I say, still not looking at him. I’m afraid I’ll start to cry if I do…. “I guess it’s okay. I mean, it’s not fair if I’m the only one who gets to…you know…” “Cool,” says Stew, standing to go.

Stewart, gallantly, asks one more time if it’s okay, to which Roden Winter lies, “Yup,” and then asks, silently, “Doesn’t he know I’m lying?” Doesn’t he?

If Roden Winter seems at this point to be psychically tormented and terrible at asserting herself, wait until she meets a man on and performs a sex act on him while thinking “there is no way I can pretend I’m enjoying this.” The man doesn’t reciprocate, but then again, she doesn’t ask. “‘That was a lot of fun’ he says. ‘Yeah, it was,’ I lie,” is their final exchange, a synecdoche for much of the book.

Following a friend’s advice (I told you she was good at taking direction), Roden Winter starts seeing a therapist, Mitchell, to sort out her feelings about open marriage. In his office, she complains about how Stew is dating “like four different women right now.” And, with Mitchell’s encouragement, she vows, “I need to raise my standards, to find men who have something to offer me.” But this plucky promise only lands her with two boyfriends, neither of whom seem to treat her particularly well. One announces, upon sexual completion, “Oops! It seems I have forgot zee condom!” (he speaks French). The other sends her a list of sex toys to purchase (which of course she does), but after their encounters, she always feels “empty” and “like shit.” In therapy, she realizes that “It’s like I’m just reacting to what men want” and vows to work on her own self-worth. Meanwhile, she tells Mitchell, “from my vantage point, it seems like Stewart is having nothing but fun as he jaunts along the open-marriage path.” After having succumbed to her boyfriends’ pressure to remove her pubic hair and have sex in hourly motels, she finally reaches a breaking point, ends the relationships, and sobs alone into her pillow.

I was genuinely shocked when I read the book, not by how graphic it is, but by how sad. For every one orgasm scene, there are three of sobbing fits.

“We’re here because I don’t want to be in an open marriage anymore. But Stewart does,” Roden Winter tells their couples therapist. It’s one of the clearest statements to another person that Roden Winter makes in the book. “I don’t want somebody new,” she tells Stewart. “I want you.” Their couples therapist magnanimously declines to weigh in. So Roden Winter continues to experiment with having boyfriends who make her cry and Stewart continues to spend a lot of nights in a hotel with one of his girlfriends.

With the help of Mitchell, Roden Winter realizes that she suffers from low self-esteem, a diagnosis that the reader will perhaps have seen coming from the fact that her response to her husband’s desire to call her the most misogynist epithet in the English language during intercourse is to “do my best to ignore him if he does.” In pursuit of her elusive self-esteem, Roden Winter attends boxing classes, takes guitar lessons, has dinner with female friends—all the sorts of things that are most difficult to do with young children underfoot, and these seem to ground her and give her strength. Yet at the same time, she continues to offer herself up to men, hoping against hope that somehow, this time, it will go differently. To slog through one (male-female-female) threesome you don’t enjoy because your boyfriend asked you to may be regarded as a misfortune. But to endure the exact same scenario again with a different boyfriend looks like…well, it looks like low self-esteem.

Roden Winter sobs in hotel rooms on work trips, she sobs in hotel rooms on sex trips, she sobs in her own Park Slope home. At one point, about two-thirds of the way through the book, she confronts Stewart: “‘If you want to protect me,’ I scream, ‘don’t keep making me do this! Stop dating Kiwi and whoever else and just be with me! Don’t you understand! I can’t do this anymore!’”

Reader, they continue to do this.

While More’s advance press trumpeted the book’s extraordinary candor pertaining to sex, I was much more surprised by its honesty about Roden Winter’s emotional pain. There are a lot of sexual details, to be sure, albeit without much sexiness. Mitchell, Roden Winter’s therapist, gives the diligent part of her personality the nickname “Straight A Molly” because she skipped grades as a child and excelled at school. Aptly, her descriptions of sexual debauchery have a grim completism to them, as though she were approaching the Purity Test with the same rigor she brought to the SATs. Positions, orifices, locations, and combinations all get checked off as if gunning for extra credit, while Roden Winter dutifully highlights and dog-ears passages in polyamory guidebook The Ethical Slut.

But the most interesting part of the entire book, for me, wasn’t the sex or the crying. It was the story of her mother’s experience in the Mahikari cult movement. This has been sanitized for PR as a kind of charming coincidence—guess what? Her mom was in an open relationship, too!—but the truth is twistier and far more disturbing. Roden Winter’s mother, urged by her father, had extramarital affairs with two different men, both part of a Japanese “healing religion” that eschewed conventional medicine and instead urged its practitioners to exchange healing light. As a ten-year-old child with frequent illnesses, Roden Winter puts herself in physical and spiritual danger by taking initiation into the cult because “my mom needs me.” Her mother asks her to join, saying, “You would make me the happiest mother in the world.” Does Roden Winter’s relentless suppression of her own instincts come because of this defining moment? Or was she already the kind of person who was inclined to say yes when she meant no, to offer up her body as a way of making peace? And, was her mother, at that point sexually involved with two men that her husband told her to sleep with, a victim or a villain in this exchange—or both?

Roden Winter tells the story of her childhood self and alludes to its parallels with her current situation. But she also seems not to acknowledge the full picture she has painted. Her desire to maintain her relationships with Stewart, her mother, her children, and her father (who, it is implied, has had several extramarital affairs) means that she can show the wounds she has suffered and the wounds she has caused—but she can’t fully acknowledge what they mean. Roden Winter spends the book agreeing to things she admits she hates, while hoping that someone notices she is lying, but also takes her teenage son’s outward acceptance of her marital situation as evidence of his “cosmic maturity” rather than a similar act of family-preserving self-sacrifice.

While reading More, I couldn’t help wondering when I was going to get to the part where it all worked out. Surely, given the media rollout and cheery accolades, I was going to get some form of happy ending. But the end is as ambivalent as the rest of the preceding chapters. On the final pages, a boyfriend breaks up with Roden Winter and she calls Stewart, yet again, in tears. Her triumphant display of psychological growth and healing is that, for the first time, when Stewart asks if she wants his company in her sadness, she admits that she does. “Stew has offered to cancel his plans with Kiwi before—on other nights when I burned with rage or cried myself to sleep. I’ve always steeled myself and told him to go, lied and said I’d be fine. But tonight is different.” If, after twenty years, Roden Winter has learned through her open-marriage journey when it’s okay to admit her feelings to her own husband, I can only say good for her. But it can’t help seeming like there are perhaps easier paths to the same destination.

Someday, surely, probably someday soon, someone will write the book that More was marketed as: an upbeat, sassy, tale of a woman’s sexual awakening and how great opening her marriage was for her. In the meantime, we are left to wonder why people were so eager to see victory in a story with so much suffering, why the story of a woman’s relentless capitulation to male desire was sold as a feminist feat. And to note that, in a harsh irony, the media treatment of More was yet another time that Roden Winter finally got the nerve to say what she wanted from her marriage and her sex life—and nobody listened.


A Memoir of Open Marriage
Molly Roden Winter
$28 | 304 pp.

Dorothy Fortenberry is a playwright, screenwriter, and essayist. She spent four seasons as a writer/producer on Hulu’s acclaimed series The Handmaid’s Tale. Her most recent work was as writer and Executive Producer of Extrapolations, the first television drama centered entirely around climate change, for Apple TV +. She is the 2021 laureate of the George W. Hunt, S.J., Prize for Journalism, Arts & Letters for outstanding work in the category of fiction writer or dramatist.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the March 2024 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.