Chapter 2: What could society do?

At this moment in the early 1980s public debate about the family was dominated by the confluence of several unhappy realities: Families were breaking up. Divorce for those who bothered to get married was becoming the new normal. More and more children were born out of wedlock, and most of these kids grew up with no adult males in their homes. Single mother heads of households were said to be drifting into lives of poverty. And the cost to taxpayers of family support systems was rocketing out of control.

What could society do?

Some people claimed to have found the answer to the financial and social costs of family breakdown. Their answer picked up on trends in social thought which were well on their way to acceptance for their own reasons. The proposed answer then topped off these trends with a new twist.

All over the contemporary landscape, the role of morality in public life was under growing suspicion. In the past a result of the influence of religion on American thought was a decidedly moralistic view of certain family-related practices. Some activities were thought of as good, so were deemed worthy of encouragement. Other activities were bad and brought down chastisement on those who practiced them. Having children out of wedlock was definitely bad. The English language has an ancient and pejorative b-word name for the children of the unmarried. Traditional society had a very narrow view of the women who engaged in the ‘sin’ of bringing these so-called b–tard children into the world.

But by the 1980s these ancient attitudes were past their sell-by dates.

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Chapter 3: You can never again be sure

Divorce is humbling. It wrecks one’s sense of entitlement.

Before divorce it’s possible to believe that life will be fine if you just keep your nose clean. That the fulfillment of dreams is simply a matter of effort. And that mistakes can be remedied.

After divorce life is full of velvet traps. Even your spouse – the person closest to your heart – can’t be trusted. And your instincts are not always your best guide.

The iron lesson divorce teaches is that you can never again be sure. About anything.

The documents delivered to me – the pleadings my wife submitted to court to begin running the divorce clock – were ferocious. She asked the court to give her custody of our son, to have me removed from our apartment, to make me pay alimony and child support in amounts greater than my income, and to have me pay for her lawyer.

To justify this heart-stopping list of demands my wife used perhaps the most common excuse for divorce of the day. She accused me of domestic violence. On three occasions, no less.

Right from the start of the game I was deep in the hole.

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Chapter 4: No exit

My wife’s first attempt at forcing me out of our home was a dud. In September 1981 – a year and a half after she fired her opening shot across my bow – the court notified us it wasn’t impressed with any of her claims. None of our living arrangements needed to be disturbed. The best the court could do for her was mark us down for a divorce trial at some time in the indefinite future. 

Score some very big points for my lawyer! He knew his stuff. 

Just as my lawyer had lectured me, because my wife continued to live under the same roof with me and do the ordinary things most married people do together the court couldn’t swallow her story of violence. Several years later courts began to take seriously the argument that women victims of violence sometimes continue to live with violent husbands despite the violence. I can’t know for certain but I suspect it would be incredibly difficult for any court to read the particular claims she wrote and come to any conclusion other than the one our court came to. Chances I would harm her in our home were far less than the chances she would turn into a Jael of the Book of Judges.

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Chapter 5: My drummer was too fast

When I finally fell back down to earth off my lofty perch, I discovered I had grown much, much smaller.

In my rebellious years around college I had pushed the envelope of social values. My hell-raising – such as it was – was part of my generation’s struggles in the name of civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, feminism and gay rights. I also directed energy to organizing migrant grape pickers in New York State – nothing to do with the more famous California grape workers group; college professors at CUNY as a member of the negotiating committee of the first union-CUNY contract; and hospital social workers at NYU on behalf of my then-wife’s employer Local Union 1199. Eventually all of the causes got melded into routine American values. I had solid proof my vision wasn’t completely out of whack.

For four plus years – from the moment the guy in the elevator served me with divorce papers to the one note funeral oratorio of our son’s apartment door slamming behind me – my life was brimming with optimism. Futurist talking heads convinced the world that women and men of tomorrow will not be like women and men of the past. Women in droves were already abandoning their aprons and vacuum cleaners to venture into the world of jobs and careers. It struck me as more than plausible to expect men to stake out new territory too. It seemed inevitable that the world would be making room for a brave new kind of Father. I invested all my chips on that bet.

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