Divorce has many witnesses, many victims. It is a lurid duet that entices observers to the dance; the pas de deux expands, flowers into a monstrous choreography and draws in friends, children and relatives. Each divorce is the death of a small civilization. Two people declare war on each other, and their screams and tears and days of withdrawal infect their entire world with the bacilli of their pain. There are no clean divorces. Divorces should be conducted in abattoirs, surgical wards, blood banks or funeral homes. The greatest fury comes from the wound where love once issued forth.
Illustration by Jaff Seijas
I have studied the divorces of my friends and learned some things. I have studied my own divorce and learned much more. I find it hard to believe how many people are getting divorced in Atlanta, Georgia. I find it hard to believe that this number of people voluntarily or involuntarily submit to such extraordinary pain.
I think it would have been easier if Barbara had died. I would have been gallant at her funeral, worn dark glasses, shed real tears and taken the children aside to tell them myself. It would have been far easier to have a mate die than to stare at each other across a table, telling each other that it was over, that it did not work. It was a killing thing to look at the mother of my children and know that we would not be together for the rest of our lives. We would not grow old with each other as we once had thought. It was strange to think of her growing old with another man. It was terrifying to cast off, to pull up the secure anchorage of our marriage and say goodbye to all of that. It is hard to reject a part of your own history.
When I moved out of our house into my apartment, I told myself one thing: I did not want to die alone. When I meet men or women who are separated or divorced, I ask them how they are dealing with solitude. They never ask what I mean. By then they are veterans of loneliness, and they have learned to deal with it. Or, they have not. I have not learned to enjoy my solitude. It is but one of the failures of my divorce.
Each divorce has its own special grotesqueries, its own labyrinthine excesses and its own bizarre denouements. It often is a communicable disease, and married couples feel threatened around their divorced friends. Cancer patients have felt the same rejection from their friends whose cells are healthy, whose cells are not under the obscene assault.
There is an unanswerable mystery in all divorces. How does it happen that two people who once loved each other, who promised to live out their lives together, who were not happy when deprived of the other's presence, who felt incomplete and unfinished in the absence of that person — by what dark conjuring of circumstances, by what sordid legerdemain and by whose dispirited auspices are they brought to that moment of grisly illumination when they decide it has gone irretrievably wrong? How can love change its garments and come disguised as indifference, anger, even loathing? These are some of the questions that thunder obsessively through the minds of men and women who voluntarily or involuntarily enter that injured league of the divorced. The league is an alliance of the damaged.
Divorce should be declared a form of insanity. I have seen no one walk out of a divorce unmarked. It is one of the few acts you can go through that changes you completely, that by definition will make you a different person than you were before the process began. And that is precisely why divorce is so insidious and harmful and also why it is often so good for you. You can enter the sinister cocoon as a butterfly and stagger out later as a caterpillar doomed to walk under the eye of the spider. Or you can reverse the process.
There are no laws of nature which apply, only laws of suffering which are different for every single person who enters that sad, sad country. When I went through my divorce, I saw it as a literal country, and it was treeless, airless and had no transit system to take me out; in that country there were no furloughs, no flags and no holidays. I entered it as an initiate to the league, and I entered without passport, without directions or maps, and I entered it absolutely alone, and I had to make my own roads as I walked and to choose my own landmarks and memorize the shimmering, hostile geography of that terrain. Insanity or hopelessness was a natural product of that land, and it grew in vast orchards like malignant fruit. As the marriage broke up, everything broke up. The mind was set on fire with startling images of decay and loss. I did not know the precise day that I arrived in that country, nor was I ever certain about the precise day I left. I am not even certain that you can ever renounce your citizenship there completely.
One thing is certain: a divorce does not begin when one person looks at another and says, "I want to put an end to this." The divorce has begun long before those words are uttered. Nor does the divorce end when the papers are signed. Its life span is unpredictable and open-ended. It begins when the hurt begins, when you come to the astonishing realization that you are lonely even though you are married, that you feel ineffably alone even though you are with the person that you vowed to be with all of your life. Divorce is the process of institutionalizing that loneliness, of building a grotesque cathedral out of nightmare and anger and guilt to pay loathsome homage to that loneliness. I studied the architecture of that cathedral and tried to learn some things. It is one of the surprising byproducts of divorce that you learn more from it than anything you have ever done before. All veterans of the dark country agreed with that. All of them.
When I drive around the city of Atlanta, I am acutely aware of the number of people who are enduring their own personal seasons of loneliness as marriages come apart and the histories of couples stagger toward their completion. Not enough people seem aware that divorce is a time of mental illness, a process of psychological deterioration so severe that the city itself becomes an enemy landscape, the city receives the embittered investiture of blame for all that has taken place. For no esthetic reason whatsoever, I still hate the silhouette of the Peachtree Plaza hotel simply because it was being built as I was falling apart, that it was rising inexorably skyward as I was plunging into the depths, that it was a symbol of growth and renewal at the very moment that I had slipped into the ice of a long and brutal psychic Winter.