THE DIVORCE MYTH
Before spring, there is nothing.
Call it white space.
Call it an empty preface.
It does not matter if our story, our mythos, is comedic or romantic, tragic or satirical: nothing begins until conflict claps its ugly hands together.
And it does not have to start with spring, either. Substitute a season. Substitute a story—your story—for mine, but then find some other page to write it on.
The point is this: spring hasn't fractured the vacant plane of "before." And admit it: you don't care about this time. The parents are still together. The children are untroubled. You could say, formally, that Freytag has not yet coughed. A horizon sans splinter. A limitless line.
Why, then, give space to this nothing zone?
1. For terms: I am taking slivers from Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, breaking them into anonymizing pieces, and then reassembling shapes that serve my own purposes. Thus, his distinctions of the four traditional arcs of storytelling:
a. Mythos of Spring: Comedy
b. Mythos of Summer: Romance
c. Mythos of Autumn: Tragedy
d. Mythos of Winter: Satire
used to contain my parents' divorce. It is an impulse of mine that I've witnessed for an entire decade: the reduction of my father to a tragic hero; the raising of my mother to a striving lover. And yet I still don't trust these prefabricated molds. I want to see them pushed together in predictable alignment. I want a year of distinct weather.
2. For my own selfish pathos: how could I not provide a glimpse, however brief, of our household before spring? The father wiping the dog's saliva from the back of the mother's calf; the children running through the house and hardly ever knocking over a plant or picture. I'm talking about that familiarity so complete that you almost beg it to crack. Even I don't trust that we moved so smoothly, but it's important that you understand that this is how I perceived things, both before spring and after it. And I'd like you to see it, too. I'd like for our home to seem lovely as such, not lovely as it stands in contrast to its coming fall. But then was Eden deemed perfect until Adam and Eve were kicked out? No matter. Let me grieve.
The plot structure of Greek New Comedy, as transmitted by Plautus and Terence, in itself less a form than a formula, has become the basis for most comedy, especially in its more highly conventionalized dramatic form, down to our own day. —Frye
Less a form than a formula. Interesting phrasing, as it seems one of the baseline components of "form" is being "formulaic." Predictable. Easy to map by virtue of the distinguishing borders the thing itself has. Regardless, Frye has a point. As a narrative structure, comedy is easily divided:
Person A wants Person B, but is thwarted by interference x (how often has x been a controlling father?); circumstances change, and the couple is joined at the other end of the equals sign. A grander advent also occurs. Frye explains this in terms of societies: "At the beginning of the play the obstructing characters are in charge of the play's society...At the end of the play the device in the plot that brings hero and heroine together causes a new society to crystallize around the hero, and the moment when this crystallization occurs is the point of resolution in the action, the comic discovery, anagnorisis or cognitio."
In the spring variation of my parents' divorce, the action occurs largely before my character knows that some fissure has opened at all:
2002, and the household is happy. The son is interested in great white sharks, in not playing sports, in tracing the topography of the entire backyard with his hands. The first daughter is an athlete—track, volleyball, softball—prone to bouts of endearing competitiveness. The second daughter is interested in Princess Diana, boys, and occasionally sneaking out to smoke cigarettes in fast food parking lots. The father loves to golf, to bike, to fix things with his hands. Watch him chase the children through the house with a squirt gun to develop some sympathy, but don't become too attached. He, after all, is interference x. And the mother, the Person A, is here, too. She golfs, plays tennis, and directs a film festival. She lets the son cry before school almost every day. But she is also on her way out.
Does this surmise the society that our comedy starts in?
Sort of. But this establishing outline will only last a day. The arc rises when Person A desires some elsewhere, when a cord is tightened between Here and There.
2002, and the household is happy, but the mother is focused a few miles north. There is a woman there, a teacher at the elementary school all of the children have or are still attending. She is our Person B, and a noble one at that: the school's favorite teacher with a notorious bent for adventure. Does the narrative start when the mother visits her in Costa Rica, where she is teaching for a few months? Or is that one of the major plot points?
(Potential major plot points:
- The trip to Costa Rica
- The floor hockey in the classroom, the son watching (this before Costa Rica, rife with a laughter saturated by affection...had I ever seen my mother so playful?)
- The telling of the father
- The telling of the family
- The moving into an apartment, 2003 (el fin?)
- The marriage, 2010 (epilogue?))
In the comedy, the major action focuses on the encounters between Person A and Person B. These are braided by battles with interference x, which has come to symbolize (almost invariably) an element of control, expectation, or tradition that the audience wants to be broken. In 2017, we can locate and applaud the subversion of heteronormativity; in 2002/2003, though, this society is unnamed to me. I don't mind the shift into her new society (an early premonition, perhaps, of my own sexuality), but I also don't understand the fault with the first one.
Most likely, it is because interference x does not fulfill the role we usually ascribe it. The father is not brash, angry, dominating. The father is telling my mother privately that though he wouldn't choose it, she should certainly do what makes her happiest. The father is letting go before the rope has even begun to burn his hands.
Interference x is supposed to be confrontational. Frightening. Off-putting to the audience. I could rewrite him as homophobic, patriarchal, God-loving. The comedy is funnier, I suppose, when he slips on the Bible that has failed to hit the mother on her way out.
Or maybe this is a quieter comedy. The father still interferes because there are necessary brambles that come when disentangling yourself from a marriage that is not loveless, from a man whom the mother has almost always called her best friend. He does not need to stand in order to be in the way. Even corpses block paths. "The principle of the humor is the principle that unincremental repetition, the literary imitation of ritual bondage, is funny," Frye writes. The father, then, assuring the mother repeatedly that she can leave, but that he still loves her. How tightening. How redundant. How sad.
Let's simplify: the mother falls in love with the teacher. Over the course of several months, she dialogues with the father (both with a therapist and without) about the terms of this affair. They are spending more time grieving than fighting, but the conflict moments will be brought to the forefront. We are meant to laugh. We are meant to want the father gone. The comedy ends with a banquet or celebration, Frye suggests. I'm thinking of our first Christmas in California with the teacher. The extended family surrounds us, cheering. Or maybe it is a smaller event: the first dinner at the mother's (mothers') new apartment. In either case, there is joy, triumph, a new something or other.
I have problems with the assumed ending of the comedy. It seems unfair to have my father pushed out so fully. But would it still be a comedy if it ended elsewhere?
An alternate ending: after leaving the house and moving into their new apartment, the father invites the mother and the teacher over for dinner. The children are elsewhere. The father brings the two new lovers into the kitchen and sits down. Says, "We all know this is going to be awkward. I figured we might as well start working on it as quickly as possible. I've made spaghetti."
Is this an absorption of two societies into one? Does this still count as a "new society"? Is anyone laughing?
It's still wrong. I'm fooling myself with sentiment. Never forget that the question can always be posed: What happened next? Maybe that is the essential problem with given plotlines: they close the curtain before final breaths have actually been drawn.
The complete form of the romance is clearly the successful quest, and such a completed form has three main stages... —Frye
1. The stage of the perilous journey and the preliminary minor adventures
What makes a journey through suburban Colorado perilous? We could hit the mother with a heat storm on her way to meet the teacher. There could be traffic, a fender bender. The restaurant they are meeting at might be closed for reconstruction. (Did they even meet in public?) The father might ask where she is going, at least before she confesses where she is going. And later, he might nod or bite his lip when she goes to leave. The subtle version of a collapsing bridge, a falling rock. The children, too, might ask where she is headed—woodland goblins, the lot of them. They might have playdates, practices, concert recitals. Lives that demand participation.
And how long should this journey be rendered? The romance could encapsulate a single afternoon, an entire season, a decade or more. Does the mother's peril actually end when the divorce papers are signed? Hardly, but for the romance, this might do.
I like imagining that the romantic telling of their divorce manages to occur in a single day. In the morning, the mother wakes beside the father; by twilight, though, she aims to be beside the teacher.
At breakfast, she encounters the first daughter. Can you pick me up from school?
Coffee brews. Crows caw.
Your father is getting you today.
The father stops her at the door. Before passing, you must answer a riddle. He adjusts the helmet on his head, almost ready to bike to work. Susie says you weren't at book club on Friday, but Dana says you were. How is one able to both be somewhere and not at the same time?
And the mother: I left before Susie arrived. She was late. I had to pick up the second daughter from a friend's house. Remember?
Two months reduced to two hours and now the father knows where the mother is going. (Is this easier or worse for him, I've always wondered.) He calls the mother on his lunch break. Should I plan on you being at dinner? he asks.
She breathes in and out audibly. Did the attack hit?
No, she says, I'll be out. A parry. Or a passé. No critical damage, in either case.
A car accident in front of her.
We'll say no one is injured, but it slows her down. Imagine smoke, promise of fire. We need more drama. More peril.
2. The crucial struggle, usually some kind of battle in which either the hero or his foe, or both, must die
What if the father were involved with the accident? The mother looks up and sees him emerge from the car, undamaged but clearly shaken. Now, she is ethically compromised in multiple ways. A proper battlefield.
I've always liked envisioning an encounter between a hero and villain wherein the villain proves terribly ill-equipped to fight. A depleted dragon. A breathless chaser. When the hero encounters this, they are forced toward pity and the audience, too, must ask if this evildoer really deserves to die.
My father stands in the middle of the road, assessing the damage. This is all imaginary, so my mother can defeat him here in more than one way: she might pull around the accident, turn onto a side street, leave him to deal with insurance; she might slam the car into his disoriented body, leave him to deal with the bleeding out; she might get out of her car, help him with the insurance, drive him home, and then still bid him farewell once he is safely on the couch.
Does one death hurt less?
And what moment does this allegory actually represent? The initial conversation? The decision to separate? The signing of the papers?
I suppose the details are irrelevant.
3. The exaltation of the hero
I struggle to imagine the mother in the third act, regardless of fictional components. She did not, and does not, exalt in the leaving of the father. I deny this section. Or maybe I am relocating this section: the mother is meeting with the teacher and the exaltation is confined to the joy that have with one another's company. No one rejoices with evil, necessary or otherwise. I want to believe that. So let's let them rejoice with love. A romance in late summer.
I'm bothered by the killing of the father. It places agency where agency is not necessarily due. Think: if you were hoping to push someone off of a ledge and they jumped before you reached them, could it accurately be said that you were the one who had killed them? Or, more specifically, could one say that the mother even needed to kill the father if he already raised his white flag? I'm leaving, she says. Okay, he says. And then they both come down from the roof together. Alive. Apart. Exalted.
The tragic hero is typically on top of the wheel of fortune, half way between human society on the ground and the something greater in the sky. —Frye
I've wondered before if the deification of the father came after the of divorce or whether we'd already raised him up beforehand. From what I remember, he was already heroic. Tragically so. This section is dedicated to him.
Frye cites the usual suspects, and I'll do the same: Prometheus, Adam, Christ. Figures so excessively grand that their very foundation is on an echelon leagues above most. Frye gives a nice image on this point: "Tragic heroes are so much the highest points in their human landscape that they seem the inevitable conductors of the power about them, great trees more likely to be struck by lightning than a clump of grass."
Was the father really a great tree among clumps of grass? No, but he was wonderful.
- On Friday mornings, when he would come into my room and wake me up by jumping on the bed and singing a song featuring the titular day
- On car rides, when he would lean his head out the open window and bark at people walking by (I've written of this elsewhere, but who could omit such a lovely image?)
- The number of times he held me upside down while the dog licked peanut butter from my face
- The number of times he sang "On the Road Again"—loud, brassy—whenever we left for Arizona, California, the Chili's down the street
- The way he loosened anxiety with two fingers against my forehead (has no one done this so successfully since?)
- The way he let me read on the sidewalk while he played basketball by himself
In the tragedy, it is this accumulation and more that opens him up to a frenzy of pain.
Normally, the pain has to come from some higher source (if the hero is so grand, their only challenge can be something grander, something cosmic) but I'm not sure what becomes cosmic in the realm of marriage. The father is meant to provoke anger, to necessitate revenge from elsewhere. But then who was wanting to punish him? The mother? This doesn't make sense.
I'm breaking my own rules. Allow me to recalibrate:
The father, in autumn, is a good man who is a loved father and a loved husband. He has heroic qualities. He rakes the leaves in the yard beneath a tremulous sky but does not worry about inclement weather. When the children scatter the reds and yellows with their feet, he doesn't mind.
In cosmos y, though, some enmity is conjuring itself against him.
Is there not hubris to those who trust blindly in their love?
It can't be this easy, cosmos y proclaims, surveying the course of the father's marriage (how he had met the mother in college, how they'd spent twenty years without fighting, how the children clung to him without ever once flinching). I'll break your faith in human loyalty, the cosmos says, sending down the teacher to be her own supreme being. A second love of the life, a better one.
Is it the teacher the father is supposed to be in combat with? (Later, of course, he will be, but during the divorce, in autumn and otherwise, no curse is cried against her. (The ideal counter to the tragic hero, I suppose, is a second tragic hero.))
The father gives up quietly, here, too. Not heroic by a story's standards, but heroic by mine. And consider now whether you, too, would want some other defeat. Our seasoned tragedies almost always give us grandiose endings, marked blue by their own grief, their own anger. Frye himself says that the images at the forefront of the traditional tragedy's sixth movement are meant to induce shock: "...cannibalism, mutilation, and torture," for just some examples, that lead toward a "demonic revelation."
I'll give you something else:
The father inviting the mother and the teacher over for spaghetti.
(Haven't we been here before?)
The angle is different, though. Now we see the father's face in full as he welcomes his successor into what was formerly the family's household. Is he smiling? Is he pained? I'm not sure, but I'm willing to believe that if you look hard enough, you will see his hubris limping behind his gaze. It wants to love and to be loved. If the mother says, Be otherwise, it listens. Even after it has lost everything, even after it has been banished.
I'm thinking of those made to dig graves before being killed. And what if they were resurrected, afterward, to sod the earth? Who would offer this willingly? And what would their face look like?
This, the mere thought of it, a shock.
I do not believe that any of this was my father's fault. Don't let autumn speak otherwise: he loved and he was left, but not because of his loving. And my mother did not leave him in some sort of retributive action. She left him for her love located elsewhere. Can't we just leave it at that? Why make any of it divine or demonic? Why dramatize the commitment my father had to our family as something inherently flawed or vulnerable?
I suppose I must confess this here if nowhere else: in my time since the divorce, I have spent little time sympathizing with my father. He remarried soon after and the relationship my sisters and I had with him soon fell apart; more often than not, I roll my eyes when he comes up.
Does the tragic at least bring me closer to him? Is there worth to framing him as I've framed him, to try to cast him as heroic and doomed?
I don't think so.
Salvation, at least in this frame, simply casts the stones elsewhere. And I would never wish to harm the mothers.
Sparagmos, or the sense that heroism and effective action are absent, disorganized or foredoomed to defeat, and that confusion and anarchy reign over the world, is the archetypal theme of irony and satire. —Frye
Is it at least ironic to write the satire of the parents' divorce unironically?
There's an essential problem at hand, after all: as Frye notes early on, satire and irony are distinguished from one another on the point of morality. In the former, a standardized code of morals is implicit in the work, "...against which the grotesque and absurd are measured." In the latter, though, moral adjudication is lost—not entirely, per se, but at least from the hands of the writer. An irony, then, succeeds when the audience does not feel the imposition of the writer.
- As an ironist: have you gone a single paragraph without feeling me there, hovering and pointing?
- As a satirist: can you begin to make a claim that one side of this situation is more moral or good than the other? I certainly hope not.
As with the third stage of the romance, I deny this section. I cannot pretend to be disinterested in the moral implications of this storytelling; too, I cringe at the thought of others believing they know whom to condemn or celebrate. This very morning, I told a friend about the current state of this piece and she immediately asked, "Is [the teacher] the hero?"
How can you say yes, always, and no, never, at once?
Here's what I can say:
There were and are certain ironies involved with the divorce of the parents and its calamitous aftermath. The divorce was not an irony nor satire. Some circumstances were:
- Despite being the youngest and (therefore) most naïve of the children, I was the only one who immediately knew the teacher was the one the mother had fallen in love with. I announced this as soon as the mother told me that she was leaving. (How? is a question she never asked. The floor hockey, the laughter, is an answer I never gave.)
- An irony within an irony: until recently, I misremembered the entire divorce conversation. In my fantasy version, I listened to the mother declare she was leaving and imagined it was with a man shaded by a cowboy hat.
- The woman my father remarried was left by her prior husband for a man. I've wondered how soon after meeting they brought this onto the table between them. I imagine it to be almost immediate.
- In an effort to avoid recreating the anatomy of their divorce, I have swaddled myself with cloak after cloak of romantic incapacity. That is, I have ended up alone in an arduous effort to not be alone.
- This all happened when I was in the third grade. Meaning: I don't remember most of what I've talked about. Meaning: everything that has happened since (the second marriages, the shifting of custody, the dissolution of my relationship with the father) is really much more pertinent than the immediate fact of divorce. I could tell you more about what happened next than what happened during.
- (As pertaining to 4, mostly). I have given so little here. Their divorce has not pulsed with breath or breathlessness once in this entire piece. You do not know what it was like to live in a Christian city while your mother left your father for another woman—or maybe you do, but not my city, not my mother; do not know what difficulties lie in the word affair when it is associated with someone you love so entirely; do not know how rich and complicated these people (those reduced to tired titles—the teacher, for God's sake) really are. They have given me so much. They have taken so much. I wish you could meet them.
- This is a piece that hoped the canonical forms of story would give it some new shape.
- This—an essay about a family that its family will never see.
- And this: an apology to them regardless. For everything, with love.
After winter, there is nothing.
Call it white space.
Call it an empty promise for whatever might happen next.
Elsewhere in Anatomy of Criticism, Frye writes this: "We come now to the mythical patterns of experience, the attempts to give form to the shifting ambiguities and complexities of unidealized existence." I began this essay wondering what an attempt at personal mythology might actually yield; I left still wondering.