Why you should care

Because divorce is impossible to understand when you’re a kid — and still hard to make sense of as a grown-up.

Greg Gerke is the author of a short-story collection, My Brooklyn Writer Friend. His work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, and other publications.

A year after my parents’ separation, when I was 13, I accompanied my mother to Parents Without Partners functions, where single men and women and their children were thrown together to heal the wounds of broken marriages. Suitors for my mother’s hand smiled and pushed their aftershave into my lungs while buying pizza to keep me happy. A teenage boy is not the brightest vessel on the planet, but children of sluiced houses tend to have a well-exercised sense of wrong, so they see into the folly of human relationships a little sooner than others.

Searching for why her life had soured and how something essential had continued to elude her into her 40s, my mother insisted I also join her in listening to audiotapes of some of the most popular self-help gurus of the 1980s. The lachrymose words of John Bradshaw and Leo Buscaglia assuaged her and puzzled me. Their main subjects: love, anger and potential. Their importunate voices were raised and pitched in a way to suggest they were competing with televangelists. But they told good stories and made people listen by adopting a folksy tone, amplifying their own pain to connect with the quiet suffering in their audiences.

Did victim culture begin here? If not, these successful self-help souls were certainly an important footnote in its history. Could there be this much pain in the world? AA meetings, Al-Anon meetings, Gamblers and Debtors Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. People had been drinking for thousands of years. Did the Romans ever stand in front of their peers and tell a tearstained story? But at that age, I barely knew that the Romans existed or that the Easter Bunny didn’t. The self-help tapes weren’t G.I. Joe or baseball; these gurus were talking emotion, and what they had to say percolated about our unease — we were castaways from happiness, people unmoored from the kind and loving gestures of a family. By continually being reminded of what was missing, I soon saw that the powder puff of cartoons and comic books was just that — only real drama would do.

The lives of a family rent remain jagged and deformed.

And though suitors vying for my mother tangled my emotions and twisted my sense of safety, it was a bigger blow when I found out that my father had started seeing another woman five months after he left our house. When he moved out, he lived first with his mother and then with the aforementioned woman. She would become my stepmother — and conveniently shared the same first name as my mother.

Even at 13, I must have been under the illusion my parents would get back together, because when I learned one cold autumn evening that my plans with my father would be cut short so he could meet up with a new girlfriend, I was mortified. The core of my body became hot in a bellicose way, the heat forging its way through my muscles and bones. My father didn’t seem like himself anymore. He wore a leather jacket — a long way from his usual plain, casual look — his face and neck saturated with a heavy dose of an unfamiliar scent. I tried not to cry. I couldn’t be around a man making himself pretty for a strange woman, an outsider. Who has more loyalty than a child? I ended our evening by walking away, not seeing how helpless and scared he was. He had lost weight trying to survive on his own and adjust to his new reality. What happens in the wake of divorce? The lives of a family rent remain jagged and deformed; the limbs, muscles and mind still work, but the cleft in the spirits can’t be hidden.

By walking away from my father that night, I chose to lose him for four years. I rejected the only power I had.

What would Bradshaw and Buscaglia have said to my teenage self in heat? “No one can make you feel anything without your permission”? If the body doesn’t break out, if it doesn’t turn blue, grow warts, hatch a hive or inherit a hot flash, is the mind any more open than an anvil? In one of his poems, Wallace Stevens wrote of a heavenly being who spoke of his or her duty on Earth: “I am the necessary angel of earth / Since, in my sight, you see the earth again.” In the passing years, I would learn that the same necessary angel has alternating light and dark wings to banish our regrets and recalcitrance and let wisdom flower, because only with contrast can we see the mountain from the mountain, as Emerson said. To see again, to consider after more years have passed, is the truest mechanism to living. Colors buckle, go grainy or form vivid, inhabiting spaces. Families unmake and remake themselves with the runoff of their shrinking glacier that pervades the rest of their days, but at 13, I could see only the former as a choice. By walking away from my father that night, I chose to lose him for four years. I rejected — the only power I had.

I retained an equanimity and rejected my mother’s boyfriends as well. I kept stumping for marriage as a sacrament, till death. I didn’t break out of the stranglehold of the divorce until years later, at a West Coast self-help retreat called Naka-Ima, which a friend joked was a Japanese word for a $450 rock, as everyone, upon reaching the final ceremony, received a small piece of earth to take with them as they rejoined the real world. Each would embark on the next step they had mapped out for themselves. Mine had to do with calling my father and telling him I wasn’t mad about the divorce anymore; I accepted it. He often spoke of the divorce as his greatest failure, and I could hear in his voice an oily shock at the bounty of words I had for him on his least favorite subject. He cried. I cried. And we both recognized we were somewhat changed men.

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