Five years after Buddhist teachers Christie McNally and Michael Roach received publicity for their bizarrely close—literally, they never strayed more than 15 feet from one another—and celibate relationship, the couple is now divorced and back in the news with the recent death of McNally’s new husband Ian Thorson near Roach’s Buddhist retreat. A delirious McNally and a dead Thorson were found in a cave in the Arizona desert after being expelled from the retreat. Back in 2008, David Plotz and Hanna Rosin attempted McNally and Roach’s practice of staying within 15 feet of each other for 24 hours. The original piece is printed below.*
Of all the relationship experiments ever tried—polygamy, wife-swapping, no-fault divorce, open marriage—the one described in the May 15 New York Timesmight be the most perverse. For 10 years, Michael Roach and Christie McNally have been together—for every single minute. The two never stray more than 15 feet from each other. When they eat, they share a plate. When they read, they share the book—the faster reader waiting for the slower to finish the page. When they do yoga, they inhale and exhale together. When "he is inspired by an idea in the middle of the night, she rises from their bed and follows him to their office 100 yards down the road, so he can work." Oh, and did we mention that 1) they live in a yurt in the Arizona desert and 2) they're celibate?
Roach and McNally, who are Buddhist teachers (though he also made a fortune in the jewelry business), consider their partnership a "high form of Buddhist practice." Roach told the Times, "It forces you to deal with your own emotions so you can't say, 'I'll take a break.' "
Slate V Video: Watch David and Hanna's day of closeness.
When we read about the couple—separately, because we would never read the newspaper together—it didn't remind us of a high form of Buddhist practice. It reminded us of a particularly sadistic reality TV show or the "Love Toilet," Saturday Night Live's commode built for two. ("Why not share the most intimate moment of them all? … Because when you are in love, even five minutes apart can seem like an eternity.")
But then we began to wonder if we could learn something from these Buddhist claustrophiles. * We've been married (extremely happily!) for almost 11 years, with two children to show for it. But the idea of enforced physical proximity seemed terrifying—not to mention logistically impossible. How could we stay 15 feet apart if one of us had to take child A to her school while the other walked child B to his? Or when David had a meeting in his office at the same moment Hanna had a meeting in hers across town? It also seemed masochistic: Given even the briefest reprieve from work or child care, we're each of us out the door for a fortifying run, shopping expedition, or Starbucks jaunt. Which in turn led us to wonder if all the solo rushing around is its own kind of avoidance. Maybe we're crippling our marriage by neglect. Maybe we've turned it into a tag-team business partnership in which we mechanically swap off work and kid obligations, each viewing the other as a shift laborer.
Inspired by Slate's "Human Guinea Pig," we decided to subject our marriage to the Roach-McNally discipline. We would follow their rules for 24 hours and see whether it would be an exercise in mutual mindfulness or protracted torture. We cut a 15-foot length of string. Then we warned the kids that Wednesday was going to be very weird. Here's what happened:
David: I'm flossed, brushed, reading in bed. Hanna, who's putting laundry away, decides she needs to walk down the hall to deposit some clothes in our daughter's room, which means I have to get out of bed and follow her. Two minutes later, she does this again, and again I must get up. I utter some very un-Buddhalike curses. I can see why Roach and McNally moved into a one-room yurt—no hallways to negotiate, no kid bedrooms, no kids.
Hanna: "This is annoying." "This is annoying." "This is annoying."
This is the love song that opens our 24-hour experiment in marital harmony. Right before I get into bed, random, misplaced objects will sometimes catch my eye. In this case, it was my daughter's clean underwear on the floor and a gong on David's dresser. David wants to get into bed and read his book, and I want to put things in their proper places. I win. Thus, naked, muttering, glasses-free David trudging half-blind behind me into dark rooms trying not to wake up the kids.
Five minutes in, and I can already see the problem with this experiment: It's one thing to stay within 15 feet of your soul mate when you live in a yurt and do yoga all day. Not so easy when you have kids, two jobs, and a house with stairs. So far, this feels more like Lucy and Ricky or warring Siamese twins. But that's OK, right? It's like the few times I've tried (unsuccessfully) to meditate. They say it takes a while before you stop fidgeting and running through your to-do list and just settle down and empty your mind. That's why they call it a journey.