At turns crushing, sweet and funny, How We End captures the death knell of romantic and sexual relationships. Written by Hannah Schneider with imagery by Kate Stone, the book is based on true accounts and speaks to the universality of breakups and the unreliability of memory through 41 short stories told by an unnamed narrator. One woman gets left at an LL Bean. Another gets pink eye. Another hooks up with a man who can’t wait to cheat on his wife with her. Each tale is matched with a poignant collage to heighten the emotion of the plot: an empty movie theatre, a spider spinning down towards a beautiful bouquet, an unmade bed. If you’ve been through a split, you can relate.
This past summer, Stone and Schneider brought How We End to life through an exhibition at Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space in New York City’s Lower East Side. On opening night, many of the exes themselves showed up to do public readings of the stories written about them. The majority of the readers were men, and it was awkward and yet very satisfying to watch them relive their past breakups in a hot, crowded room full of people — and a beautiful subversion of gender roles to hear men voicing the words and feelings of their female exes.
We caught up with Kate and Hannah to ask them about How We End.
What was the original impetus for creating How We End?
Kate: We always wanted an excuse to collaborate. We already talked all the time about our relationships and it seemed like it would be a fun thing to archive.
Hannah: We were in our mid-20’s when we started. I think that’s a natural place to take a step back and start recognizing patterns. We both use our art as therapy.
How did it take shape? Although each of you were responsible for two distinct aspects of the book (text and visual), was there further collaboration that crossed those boundaries?
Hannah: At first, it was mostly just call and response, but it developed past that to the point where Kate was editing the stories and I was giving more input on the images. There was also a lot of emotional encouragement when one of us would start to lose our nerve.
Kate: In a way, relationships themselves are collaborative because we turn to friends for support and advice. So when we are dealing with something in a romantic relationship, we come to it with their input. In some ways, our boyfriends are dating all of our friends. Lucky guys.
Do you have a favorite breakup story in the book? Which one and why?
Kate: “Adam” is my favorite. It exemplifies the one-sidedness of the book — that our perception is totally skewed. In the story, the narrator catches Adam sneaking out in the middle of the night and she gets offended. She takes it personally but it turns out it has nothing to do with her. We like to think that everything is about us, but we’re wrong. Everyone has their own experiences, issues, baggage, secrets, and those things all affect their behavior. I also love “Lukas” because…well, I married him.
Hannah: I love “Adam” too. That was one of the hardest ones to write. I was so worried about what the reaction from the guy would be. I still cared about him and wondered whether I should even include it. I have a soft spot for “Bennett” too. It was one of the first stories we did, and it just highlights the absurdity of certain relationships. It’s funny to look back on these moments that were so consuming and realizing how futile it was. You can’t make certain people love you. Even if you drive all the way to Maine and pretend to like camping.
In the accompanying exhibition, you somehow got your exes to come up and read stories that were about your breakups, but what struck me as so unique was the subversion of gender roles that was enacted when men read in the voice of a woman (save for the one woman, of course). How did you get them to agree to do that? Did they tell you that their perceptions of the breakup changed after reading the account?
Hannah: Everyone we invited was close to us at some point, which means on some level they knew what they were getting themselves into. We just asked nicely. Almost all of them responded positively, if a little awkwardly. Some of them felt like they owed us. There were some people we didn’t reach out to, because we didn’t want to see them. We were okay with it being uncomfortable, but we aren’t masochists. Hearing exes read the stories felt really powerful. We were forcing them to put themselves in our shoes and acknowledge what we went through.
Kate: Not everyone felt that their stories were accurate. One ex-boyfriend was surprised his story wasn’t meaner. He kept asking if he was missing a page. Another was surprised how bitter the tone of his story was. The most surprising thing to us though, was how nice they all were when we reached out to them — nicer than we remembered. Reconnecting with them felt like such a relief, like we were all absolved of our baggage. I think we both kind of fell in love with each of them all over again.
Since you’ve written this, have you found people wanting to tell you their breakup stories? If so, have you heard any particularly memorable ones?
Kate: It’s definitely a conversation starter. People are really surprised that we were willing to do this. Most people would rather avoid than reconnect with their exes. One of the best stories we heard was from the guy who installed the vinyl lettering for our exhibition. He was there with us for hours and didn’t say much. He didn’t seem like the type to open up to strangers, but when he finished installing, he told us all about his divorce. He explained how hard it was because they have a child together and now he was starting over in his 40s.
Hannah: He reminded us of a story in the book — “Patrick” — in which the narrator fantasizes about this electrician. The vinyl guy was so handsome, and we were totally objectifying him in the same way, but then we learned too much about him and the fantasy was shattered. It was disappointing…please do not mess with our female gaze, thank you.
Your book description talks about unreliable narrators and includes the phrase “Break-ups are nothing if not one sided, skewed.” Did the process of creating this book inform the way you perceived your own past relationships?
Kate: Definitely. The stories aren’t entirely accurate, but now they’ve become truer to me than what really happened. It’s hard for me to remember the experiences any other way. I think that’s how perception works. We tell ourselves something over and over again until we believe it.
Hannah: I’ve found that now, when I imagine an old relationship, I conjure up Kate’s image of it. It’s a reminder of how unreliable perception is. Accurate or not, the book gave us closure. We’re both in relationships now and don’t feel the past weighing on us like it used to.