In Heartbreak (Norton, Feb.), journalist Williams recounts her divorce and digs into the science of broken hearts.
A couple of months after the split, I had an amazing conversation with anthropologist Helen Fisher. That’s when I decided to start recording all these conversations I was having with scientists. Pretty soon, I was sure it could be a book. I wasn’t sure if the writing would actually be cathartic or not, but I knew it would be an interesting journey and helpful to other people.
Sadness, loss, grief, separation are consistent themes, yet the book is also very funny at times.
I’m keenly aware of wanting to entertain readers and keep them turning pages, even when the subject is at times sad. I think it helps to be conversational and relatable and human.
This is a very personal story, but it’s also got a lot of science reporting. How difficult was it for you to keep switching points of view?
Actually not that difficult, because it’s the way I’ve written—in the first person—for years. I’m kind of a nerd at heart, and I’m so curious about why our brains and bodies are the way they are. This curiosity is, I learned, in and of itself important for emotional resilience, so I’m glad I let it fly. Writing about something this personal, however, was new and at times uncomfortable, I’ll admit.
You experiment with dozens of therapies, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, rock climbing, and Ecstasy-assisted sessions. Do you feel they helped you heal?
I do believe most of the things I tried—plus friends, plus time—sped up my healing, even if they didn’t immediately “cure” me of heartbreak.
Through your writing of this book, would you say you discovered more about yourself or about the science of emotion?
Probably myself. But to get sort of meta about it, learning about yourself is part of an emotional education. We’re so good at not always reflecting deeply on our emotional state, and the science certainly suggests we are better off when we do. Not to sit in difficult emotions forever, but at least to reckon with them and say hello, or as Billie Holiday sang, “Good morning, heartache!”