The three middle-aged women crossing the University of Southern California's campus one recent Saturday morning were in a bind. Would they start with "Depression: Loss and Mourning" or "Property Settlements: Traps and Taxes?" Both would be offered again during the two-day workshop on divorce. It was a question of which to do first.
The choices may sound like slim pickings but the women were approaching the schedule like a grab bag of goodies. They were in high spirits, excited by the opening session they had just emerged from and happy to extend themselves to strangers.
"This is fantastic," one of them, a tall, slim woman in slacks and a jacket, said. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just saw the notice and came. I think I need everything they're offering."
She had been separated about two months, she said, Dec. 16. Her husband had called her that morning, shocked to hear what she was spending the weekend doing, still not quite believing she was actually going through with all this.
"When actually," she said, "he did it all himself." she had discovered at a Christmas party that he was having an affair with his secretary. The last straw.
Two months and the pain had subsidied enough to let in a look of determination on her face. She could still laugh. She could even laugh about it. She would start off the weekend with the property workshops.
"We'll get the money settled," she joked, "and then I'll figure out how depressed I am."
As prevalent as divorce is, the word has yet to connote great human achievement or happiness. Some do celebrate their divorces, but it often seems a manic fight-back-the-dawn act of desperation. It is a backward looking word.
That is why the title the L.A. Chapter of NOW (The National Organization for Women) chose for its workshop was so arresting: "The Family . . . Divorce . . . Renewal."
"We hope you will experience some renewal here," Gloria Allred, chapter president, told the 150 women and a handful of men Saturday morning.
Renewal was clearly the weekend's emphasis. Nobody was saying "Ditch your happy marriage. Go get a divorce. They're great!" But there was a message, both subliminal and articulated specifically that life does go on, and sometimes it is much, much better.
That was a message people wanted to hear. Most of the participants were in some stage of separation or divorce and what kept being expressed throughout the day was their desire to learn, specifically, that they were not alone in their experience, that what they were feeling was normal, and that things would get better.
Allred also spoke "as an attorney" about the need for a "more just and equitable dissolution procedure," urging, especially, a more realistic assessment of the costs of child rearing when it came to determining child-support payment, and enforcement of those payments.
Barbara Biggs, a clinical psychologist, had advised them at the opening session to approach their new life-styles, relationships, careers, as adventures. Rather than plague themselves with anxious sessions of "How am I doing?" they would do well to say to themselves, "We'll see what happens to me."
Some people were still in a lot of pain, but the universal feeling seemed to be an impatience to have done with it and get on with the adventures.
After Julie Steckel, a clinical social worker, had described the stages of grief that accompany divorce, saying the death of a relationship was analogous to the death of a person, she asked, "How many of you went through that?"
The use of the past tense made them laugh. Finally the one man among the dozen or so women in the workshop in depression said, "In it. We're in it."
What they were in, or experiencing, were stages, sometimes concomitant, sometimes sequential, of denial, anger and depression. They were either feeling guilty or rejected.Vulnerable. Afraid of the future. Bitter. Resentful. Enraged. Sad. Hopeless. Withdrawn. They had failed.
After the initial description the meeting tended to focus on a woman with softly curling brown hair who was quietly, calmly crying behind her big, cloudy glasses.
"I don't experience any rage at all. Just depression," she said.
"Me, too! Until a few months ago," another assured her. "Now I have unbelievable anger. I rage at those who don't deserve it. I feel good at the time, releasing it. Then I feel guilty."
A third spoke up and told of a "safe anger workshop" she had attended where she had learned to knock the hell out of inanimate objects with a newspaper bat.
"Your body will do it for you," she said of expressing rage. "Okay, Okay, thank you," the depressed woman said, sounding like she was accepting a homework assignment.
In the course of the hour, the woman who was now expressing so much rage revealed her violent mood swings really concerned her. Steckel guessed. She had become involved with a man. It threatened her. He reminded her of her husband when she had first met him.
"Does this mean my relationship is healthy?"
"Okay." Read: Thank God I came to this workshop.