IT SEEMS SOMEHOW IRONIC -- and perhaps typically late-20th-century American -- that it has taken a film, Kramer vs. Kramer, to bring the issue of children and divorce to the forefront of our collective consciousness, and yet since the film appeared in December, there is hardly a national magazine that has failed to carry a story about the effects of our rising divorce rate on those too young to have any say in the matter.
For parents, whatever the marital status, it is difficult to be objective about it: our prophecies of gloom and doom, our cheerful assurances that children are resilient and can survive anything equally and inevitably come out of our own guilt or righteousness. That is why Julie List's The Day the Loving Stopped is so welcome. It presents the other side of the coin -- or the custody agreement -- an articulate and sensitive young adult's view of what it is like to have been, and still be, a child of divorce.
Julie List was 9 years old on that day in 1966 when she and her 5-year-old sister Abigail watcher their father move out of the comfortable family home in Westport, Connecticut: "He kissed us each twice and got into his car. It left no tracks in the newly graveled driveway and we kept on waving long after the maroon Buick Skylark was out of sight." Looking back, she finds it difficult to remember life before that, "as though my first signs of consciousness are directly linked to the time I remember being unhappy," as though "in order to spare myself the pain of knowing what I had lost, I allow myself only snatches of good memories."
It might seem from that quote that The Day the Loving Stopped is going to be a litany of "oh, poor me, look what my parents did to me." And yet, almost remarkably, it is not. What is especially admirable about this book is its tone, its very lack of whining and pretension; it is, rather, a straightforward and well-written account of a life, chronicling "this is what happened and this is how I felt and this is what I learned about my parents and myself."
Julie List was fortunate in many respects. The family was affluent enough so that the children never really suffered financially from their parents' divorce. Neither parent was immoral or hopelessly selfish; both loved their children and wanted open, loving relationships with them. "I was," List acknowledges, "in no sense of the word, a 'deprived' child . . . The scars are there, however."
The scars come from the sense that List had throughout her preteen and adolescent years of always being pulled between her parents, of somehow feeling that, because of their bitterness and dislike of one another, love for one parent was some kind of disloyalty for the other. List's recounting of those turbulent years, and particularly the struggle to maintain a relationship with her absent, and often preoccupied, father, is painful, sometimes funny, in the way that truth can be. There were the inevitable conflicts about going to visit Daddy when she would rather be in Westport with her friends, but in this case the conflicts were exacerbated by the fact that Daddy's own alliances kept changing: just about the time Julie worked out a relationship with her father's new girlfriend or wife or step-children, the alliance ended. "Throughout my life I have gleaned the meaning of the unspoken credo: there is no greater love than that between blood relatives . . . but the person's love you have acquired through marriage is somehow dispensable. Indeed, loyalty to your blood relative requires you turn off love for others, to cast them off like shoes you have worn and no longer need," List writes. Perhaps this dilemma is most painfully symbolized by the fact that after her parents divorced, her maternal grandfather took a pair of scissors and simply, and neatly, cut her father out of a family photograph.
That credo cannot hold between the child and the parents, of course, because the child is blood relative to both. I think Julie List is correct in saying that "the most important issue in this business of divorce, this rending of a family, is how to preserve the child's love in the midst of hate and incompatibility . . . A child has to learn that although his parents could not sustain love for each other, he has the power to continue to love them both." For that statement alone, The Day the Loving Stopped should be required reading for all divorcing parents and their children.
Indeed, List's book might have provided insight to Marilyn Murray Willison, who seems, in Diary of a Divorced Mother, to be making all the mistakes and then some, that the elder Lists made a decade ago. Willison's two young sons are, in fact, curiously absent as real people. Though they are mentioned frequently, they are never called by their given names, only "my boys," "my sons," "my children" (italics mine). She worries a great deal about the time they spend with their father because he buys them expensive presents and holds the "wrong values," because he is "someone who actively dislikes me." She has, in fact, a great deal of dislike for her ex-husband as well -- she refers to Mr. Willison, who also seems to have no given name, as "'him'" (she is overly fond of unnecessary quotation marks) -- and it would be surprising indeed if this attitude were not communicated to her sons, one of whom makes touching, and disturbing attempts to be "the man of the house."
It is, of course, little wonder that Willison dislikes her ex -- he divorced her to marry her best friend. She has been hurt badly, betrayed by not one but two people she loved, and her attempts to cope, to make a career and a home are moving in themselves. Yet her self-centeredness, naivete and relentless cheerfulness are frequently annoying. One is not surprised to learn that Marilyn Willison is the only adopted child of other parents, that she has always been an overachiever -- dutiful Catholic daughter, a straight-A student, bubbly and popular girl -- that she always set herself up to be the best -- best wife, best mother, best single parent. When she says "I no longer see life through rose-colored glasses, but I sense I see things much more clearly now," I don't quite believe her -- there are too many exclamation points, quotation marks, too much joclarity and, well, to much straight-from-the-textbook maturity. Being truly adult means, it seems to me, learning that things do not, in fact, always turn out for the best.
One wonders what the Willison boys, whatever their names are, will think of their parents' divorce 15 years from now, what their attitude toward marriage and children will be. It may be that, like Julie List, they will have forgiven their parents, learned to take responsibility for their own lives, determined not to make the same mistake their parents made. If Julie List is any indication, the next generation will marry less often or later, will have fewer children and have them later, will be more realistic about the difficulties of maintaining a marriage and family, but at the same time committed to the idea that "lifetime intimacy is a risk worth taking." With what these children of divorce have learned, it just may be possible.