Of all the lines that have ever been written about any divorce, anywhere, perhaps the most frightening to the u-divorced is this one, from Susan Gregory Thomas in the Wall Street Journal: “‘Whatever happens, we’re never going to get divorced,’” she says she often said to her husband. And then, of course—because otherwise, that line is nothing more than an unfired pistol on the mantel in the first act—they do.
Divorce was the topic of the personal essay triad this weekend. Divorce, the personal experience (the above-linked piece in the WSJ). Divorce, narrowly escaped (Patricia Stacey for Modern Love, with the greatest lede ever: “By the time the scabies entered our house…“). Divorce, from the child’s perspective, as the latest thing on the list of things that, like cancer, we don’t have to pretend to be happy about (Heather Havrilesky for the NYT Magazine’s Riff). Only the magazine’s Lives column was unaffected. Everyone may not be getting a divorce, but it seems like everyone’s talking about it. For this memoir junkee, that’s a good thing. I’ve never agreed with the NYT Book Review’s Neil Genzlinger, who so famously called for a moment of silence for “the lost art of shutting up” in panning not just three of the four memoirs he was reviewing, but the entire memoir genre, earlier this year. I love a good memoir or personal essay, and I don’t require that the topic be some noteworthy accomplishment or “extremely unusual experience.” I like memoirs and essays written by relatable people with an interesting, non-self-pitying voice who’ve either experienced something I’ve also experienced, or experienced something that I would very strongly prefer to avoid. Divorce falls squarely into that latter category.
And so I read about it. I’ve already pre-ordered Susan Gregory Thomas’ book, In Spite of Everything. Read most of what Amy Sohn, in Elle, called “divorce porn:” Stacy Morrison’s Falling Apart in One Piece: One Optimist’s Journey Through the Hell of Divorce; Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put On My Pajamas & Found Happiness, by former House & Garden editor Dominique Browning; and Isabel Gillies’ Happens Every Day: An All- Too-True Story (and don’t forget The Anti-Romantic Child, in which the divorce is but a side dish). Havrilesky’s Disaster Preparedness, about her experience of her parents’ divorce and her narrow avoidance of same. Laura Munson’s amazing This Is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, in which she simply refuses to divorce a husband who richly deserves, and desires, divorce himself, until he actually comes around. Let me into your head, oh divorced person, oh victim of divorce or its ever-present possibility, so that I can reassure myself that your experience is not, and never will be, mine.
And surely that’s part of the point of divorce memoirs, riffs and essays: Divorce, no matter what the NYT headline, never had much cachet. In “The Divorce Delusion,” Havrilesky complains of sitcoms, reality shows, and even television dramas that perpetrate a “buoyant attitude” toward divorce in popular culture: “These days, divorce doesn’t sob and drink to excess; it dons a joyful Kabuki mask to obscure the anguish of marital bliss gone sour.” But no amount of buoyancy (or, in the case of the Fran Drescher sitcom or the Real Housewives, idiocy) can disguise the truth that she lays bare, and that Thomas and her fellow authors bear witness to. The survivable divorce, the better divorce, the divorce that leaves you stronger or wiser or more resilient: Those are great goals. But they’re not the goals anyone held when she walked down the aisle.