Anne Roiphe's account of growing up reminds you what a great thing divorce can be.
These days, the discussion--rightly--is about the wreckage from the divorce revolution.
We know that widespread divorce is costly to both children and society. Yet everyone agrees: Sometimes there is no choice.
Roiphe's memoir is of growing up rich and Jewish in the 1940s.
Her life-defining problem was that her parents should have divorced but did not.
In "1185 Park Avenue" (Free Press, $25), Roiphe writes:
"Our mother, my brother's and mine, was a small woman, not five feet tall. This is significant because my father who was a little over six feet tall in all sincerity admired very tall women. He found long legs on a woman a particular delight. So why did he marry my mother who was the very opposite of his ideal? . . .
"In a more perfect world he would have married her because he wanted to take care of her, cherish her against the wear of time, count the spill of brown freckles on her pale skin, watch her plump thighs move under her lace-trimmed silk slip, but he truly preferred tall women and he married her because she was rich."
He was handsome, a self-made Columbia law graduate. His practice: the business of his wife's family, the Van Heusen shirt company.
Roiphe, born in 1935, is still trying to make sense of the ugly and unjust aspects of family life.
Her father, she adores.
"I thought my mother was at fault. She simply didn't know how to love him. I would. I knew I would."
She has one sibling--a very allergic and asthmatic and odd little brother. (Her father avoids looking at the boy because he's short.) Anne is not kind to her brother. This is never resolved.
Roiphe's father is merciless. She writes of her parents fighting during an air raid drill: " . . . Now he has to pay her back. I know that. Why hasn't she been more careful? He shouts again. I am frozen in place. I feel the familiar cramping in my stomach that these fights always bring. I try to think of something to say, something that will interrupt, turn attention, create a new direction for their words to fly. I consider vomiting on the floor but that's harder to do than you might think. My father's arms are coiled and his legs are stiff. His face is cold and his lips are pressed together. The sounds from his throat are alternately loud and grating or low and hissing. My mother's hair is becoming disarranged. My father is clean and cool. His shirt is sparkling white. His blue tie is held to his chest with a gold clip.
" 'Your legs are flabby,' he says. 'You disgust me with all that flesh on your tiny spine. You're nothing but a dumb broad,' he says, 'and you stink. . . . You should try soap and water.' "
Around all this abuse, psychoanalysts are called in--first for the boy, then for the mother. It seems the analysts don't accomplish much. But it gives mother and daughter a lot to talk about: "Her analyst explained to her about masochism. She explained it to me. I understood perfectly. 'I must be a masochist,' she would say to me and her eyes would fill with tears and I would say, 'Promise me you'll stop being a masochist,' and she would say, 'I will, as soon as I can, I promise.' "
Here's a look back in social history:
Mother's sister, Aunt Libby, "told my mother she was making a fuss about nothing. . . . My mother's analyst definitely did not agree with this position. But my Uncle Sy advised his beloved sister to remain in the marriage. The scandal would be bad for the entire family. She would be a threat to other people's marriages as a divorced woman and would be invited nowhere. . . . Divorce at the end of the forties and throughout the fifties was not common and often left a woman without friends. Divorce was an admission of failure not just of your marriage but of your life's purpose, your assumed work, your absolute duty."
Indeed there was a cost, too, to not divorcing.