Anatomy of a Divorce

An accomplished author’s singularly eloquent account of the excruciating pain of divorce — from which he has surfaced as if from death by drowning — with considerable insights toward human caring.

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.

For an entire year I did little but talk about my divorce, and I searched out people who had shared the experience, who had made the promenade through the volcano. People who have gone through divorce compose an obsessed and articulate tribe, minstrels of hurt who can sing of those days with insight and defeat and wonderment. We find each other at parties, we become friends with each other, we date each other, and we compare scars and stories. The nights of Atlanta are filled up with our voices repeating over and over again the tales of our wounded folklore as we greet each other honorably and tenderly, as brothers, as sisters, as survivors of the worst times of our lives.

I have listened to stories of extraordinary destructiveness and anger, and I have recorded them in a journal I keep on divorces. One woman took her wedding pictures and cut them into small fragments. At a party celebrating his divorce, a man played — for his friends’ edification — the tapes of his wife and her lover talking on the telephone. A neighbor of mine had her face beaten in by her drunken husband who threatened to shoot her with a riot gun if she left him. A man was run down in the street by his wife after he told her firmly in the office of their marriage counselor that their marriage was over and that he was having an affair with a woman he loved more than her. She broke his pelvis, and he urinated out of tubes for six months. His affair was platonic for the same period of time.

Each divorce has its own natural metaphors that organically grow out of the special circumstances of the dying marriage. The metaphors assume many shapes, some unthreatening, some ludicrous, some hilarious and some phantasmagoric, all final. They come to represent the end of the thing, the last acting out of the ceremony of amputation.

One man and woman separated in a tearful angry scene, and both of them removed their wedding rings simultaneously as a symbolic and official gesture that it was over. They had a brief reconciliation and put their rings back on when he returned to the house. The husband’s ring finger broke out in a terrible, swollen rash, and he removed his ring again. He left for good a week later.

Another man was inordinately proud of his salt-water aquarium that he filled with exotic eels, brilliant fish and graceful plants that flourished in that fake, diminutive ocean five hours from the sea. He left his wife two weeks after witnessing the birth of his first son. What visitors noticed when they went to check on her and the children was that she was not taking care of the aquarium. The fish began dying of negligence, of starvation and of unconcern. An eel escaped the tank, and she did not find it until it began decomposing. The aquarium was the pride of the husband who abandoned her — his hobby, not hers; his identity, not hers. The death of the marriage and the death of the aquarium became irretrievably linked in my mind. There came a day when there was not a single thing left alive in the tank, but it continued to sit in the same place, with the light on, with the oxygen bubbling, supporting nothing except the memory of life.

For a long time I could not discover my own metaphor of loss. Often the people involved find the metaphor invisible, and it is sometimes only visible to those who are watching the disintegration from a distance. It was months after the event that I realized the death of our dog, Beau, was the irrefutable message that Barbara and I were finished.

Beau was a feisty, crotchety dachshund Barbara had owned when we married. Dachshunds had never seemed like real dogs to me, and it took a year of pained toleration for us to form our alliance. But Beau had one of those brilliantly illuminating inner lives that only lovers of dogs can ever understand. To be licked by Beau when you awoke in the morning was a fine thing. Beau had a specific and unrepentable genius for companionship and for making himself completely comfortable. He had perfected the arts of sloth and cowardice except when I was with him on walks through the streets and parks of Atlanta. On those walks he would transfigure himself and his fat, ludicrous frame into a creature from the pages of The Call of the Wild. Without the slightest provocation he would attack all dogs who weighed over a hundred pounds, were closely akin to German police dogs and Dobermans and who had not gotten their rabies shots. These big dogs, amused and randy killers, would be ready to swallow Beau like he was a vitamin E tablet when I would be forced to enter the fray to remove the fangs of the Doberman or the mastiff from Beau’s throat. I was bitten three times the first year Beau and I got together. We noticed that Beau never picked a fight when I was not inches from his side, and I just hoped we would not one day surprise a lion together.

On one of the first days of our separation, when I went to the house to get some clothes, my youngest daughter, Megan, ran out to tell me that Beau was hit by a car but that he would be all right since a man had taken him to Briarcliff Animal Clinic. I drove to the clinic, ran past the receptionist and found Doctor Ruth Tyree, who had been Beau’s veterinarian since we had come to Atlanta. She carried Beau in to see me and laid him on the examining table. I had not cried during the terrible process of breaking away from Barbara. I told her that I was angry at my inability to cry, that the imprint of the American male weighed heavily upon me, and I hoped that I could weep with ease some day.

I did not cry when I saw Beau; I came completely apart. It was not weeping; it was screaming. It was not sadness; it was despair. The wheel of the car had crushed Beau’s spine, almost severing it in half. Heavily drugged, Beau looked up at me while Doctor Tyree handed me a piece of paper, saying that she needed my signature before they could put Beau to sleep. She also handed me an X-ray showing the massive, irreparable damage done to Beau’s spine.

I could not write my name because I could not see the paper and because I could not hold the pen. I leaned against the far end of the examining table and cried as I had never cried in my life, crying not just for Beau but for Barbara, the children, myself, for the death of marriage, for inconsolable loss and for the agony, the agony, the unspeakable agony of those days. Doctor Tyree touched me gently on the shoulder and I heard her crying above me. And Beau in the last grand gesture of his life dragged himself the length of the table on his two good legs and began licking the tears as they ran down my face.

I do not remember signing the necessary papers or thanking the veterinarian for her help or stumbling out into the bright afternoon and into my car. I remember the vet telling me that there was nothing anyone could do, that it was over. And I remember looking into Beau’s eyes arid telling him that I loved him, that I needed him, and that I would miss him. It was over and there was nothing anyone could do. I had lost my dog and found my metaphor. In the X-ray of my dog’s crushed spine, I was looking at a portrait of my broken marriage. But there are no metaphors powerful enough to describe the moment when you tell the children about the divorce. Divorces without children are minor-league divorces. To look into the eyes of your children and to tell them that you are mutilating their family, that you are changing the structure of their world by a process of radical surgery that will make all their tomorrows different is an act of desperate courage that I never want to repeat in my life.

When I talk to people about their divorces, the children are the subject that produces the heaviest sorrow. It is their parents’ last act of solidarity together, and it is the absolute sign that the marriage is over. No parents lightly skip into a room to inform their children that their life as a family is finished. How did it feel? How did you do it? Friends asked me after the fact. It felt as though I had poured gasoline over myself, called my children into the room and struck a match. Or, more precisely, that I had doused my entire family with gasoline, and we sat in our house on Briarcliff Road and burned together, our screams a pained, exquisite symphony of our collective grief.

When the three girls entered the room for the conversation that would bring them into the furious center of the divorce itself — when they no longer would be merely silent, involuntary victims of the dance macabre of those harsh days — they held their eyes to the floor and would not look at me or Barbara. A majestic fragility shimmered about the room. The natural inclination of every parent is to spare his or her children from as much pain as humanly possible. Barbara and I had not told them a single thing about our problems, but their faces on this day told me that they knew. Their faces were all dark wrings and grief of human hurt. As I studied the profiles of these young sweet girls, I felt like Judas Iscariot studying the beads of Caesar as he fingered his 30 pieces of silver. My betrayal of them filled the room as I told the children while Barbara wept. My betrayal of them trailed behind them as they left the room and went upstairs to talk the divorce over with each other and Barbara went to the kitchen to make us very strong drinks. My betrayal of them shouted at me when they returned to the room and still refused to look at me.

But they had written me notes of farewell since it was me who was moving out of the house. When I read the notes, I did not see how I could ever survive such excruciating pain, such colossal guilt and such relentless melodrama. The notes, scrawled in childish hands, said, “I love you, Daddy. I will visit you.” The notes had that existential smell of the moment, of gasoline and phosphorous, and matches held by small and fragile hands. At that moment the seeds of nightmare rooted deep into the outback of my subconscious, and for months I would dream of visiting my three daughters locked in the same lightless room of a mental hospital. The fear of damaged children was my most crippling obsession in those first months alone.

For a year I walked around feeling like I had undergone a lobotomy. My voice was edged with desperation, and I sometimes did not recognize my own voice as I spoke. Anxiety became a longterm tenant in my stomach, and it was my first experience with completely losing my sense of humor. I felt like a piece of Gothic architecture set loose to roam on Peachtree Street.

Even familiar objects acquired an emotional significance, a psychological content they never had before. There were records I could not listen to because of their association with Barbara, poems I could not read from books I could not pick up, pictures that wounded; and I found it difficult to ride by the house where Barbara and I had lived the final years of our marriage. The house itself was a villain in my consciousness as though the design of the wallpaper or the shape of its rooms affected the structure of the marriage itself. There is a restaurant I will never return to in my life because it was the scene of an angry argument between us. I returned to none of the stores where we used to shop, and I visited none of the neighbors. It was a year when memory was an acid.

I began to develop the odd habits of the very lonely. I turned the stereo on as soon as I entered my apartment. I needed to hear another human voice and the companionship of noise, and I dreaded all moments of silence. I turned on every light in the apartment as I feared nighttime irrationally. I called my friends long distance, then would sometimes call them again. I invented excuses to call my friends in Atlanta. I would drink to the point of not caring that I was alone and lonely and desperate. Then I would call other friends in Atlanta. I cooked elaborate meals for myself, then would not be able to eat them.

My brain swam with images, with fantasies I could not control nor slow down. I worried about the men that Barbara would date. I knew I had no right to worry and I worried even more. I was afraid that she would date men who would be cruel to her, who would abuse her, who would be unworthy of her, who would take advantage of her loneliness and vulnerability, who would ignore the kids.

I wondered what movies they would see, where they would eat dinner, whether or not they would hold hands or make love, whether they would make love at Barbara’s house and if the children would know or hear. I had left Barbara, and I still had a primitive need to possess her. I wanted her to have a wonderful time with men, and at the same time I wanted her to have a terrible time. I wanted her to forget me; I wanted her to miss me.

I had entered into the dark country of divorce, and for a year I was one of its ruined citizens. I suffered. I suffered. I survived. For an entire year I studied myself on the edge, and I learned things that I could not have learned except through total submergence in grief and anxiety and guilt. I introduced myself to the stranger that lived within. It was at once the most painful and valuable year I have ever spent. That is the one gift of the dark country.

I want to write a novel one day and tell about the lives of American men and women in the Seventies and how they related to each other and, more significantly, how they failed to relate to each other. I will write about my divorce from Barbara, about my friends and how they reacted during the divorce, and about the kind men and women who helped pull me through it. If people did not understand what I was experiencing, there was at least a sublime heroism in their attempts to understand.

I want to tell about what I learned during my year of grief. I want to say in the book that in the Seventies I found myself locked in the dilemma of the American male. In that season of inestimable sadness, American women were beginning to find out exactly what was wrong with men, and they began writing and talking about it with extraordinary clarity and the gifts that came from centuries of studying the subject firsthand.

I will try to tell honestly what it was like for a woman to have a relationship with me and what I was thinking and how I was feeling toward her and how it seemed like a very bad thing to love me. Because I was raised an American male, I will tell that I did not learn to give or receive affection, that I did not learn to weep when I was hurting, that I did not learn to love women in ways that made them feel secure and desirable and needed. I will tell of the day I told the great Atlanta therapist, Marion O’Neill, that whenever I uttered the words “I love you” to a woman, they had the hollow dispossessed sound of someone ordering a meal for the first time in a foreign language. I will tell that I felt inexhaustible but inexpressible reserves of love within me, and I searched for women who were able to translate my silences, interpreters who understood about the inarticulate lover screaming from within.

I looked for women who would make me more like women. And it was unfair and cruel to all of them and far too much to ask. I will tell about listening to feminists and reading Ms. Magazine and feeling as if every one of the women had studied me personally for a very long time. I will tell about being an American male in the Seventies and how I became a feminist because I thought it right and because I knew it was my only hope and the only hope for other men like me.

Barbara and I have had one success in our divorce, and it is an extraordinarily rare one. We have remained friends, and when the residue of anger and hurt subsides with time, we have an outside chance of becoming best friends again. We meet each other for drinks or lunch occasionally, and I have become friends with her boyfriend, Tom Pearce. When she was graduated from Emory Law School, I gave her a party to celebrate. When I left the party, I looked back and saw Barbara and Tom holding hands. They looked very happy together, and it was painful to recognize it. I wanted to go back and say something to Tom, but I mostly wanted to say it to Barbara. I wanted to say that I admired his taste in women.