Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Divorce Connection

    Elliot Rodgers' trauma  started when he was 7. As Michael Cook writes, according  to his "manifesto" his parents
had been divorced when he was seven – a moment which he fingered as the beginning of his inner torment. But his father – who worked in Hollywood films – quickly found another girlfriend. This seems to have warped Rodger’s view of women, sexuality and relationships. "Males who can easily find female mates garner more respect from their fellow men, even children," he wrote. "How ironic is it that my father, one of those men who could easily find a girlfriend, has a son who would struggle all his life to find a girlfriend."

Psychologists,sociologists, priests, ministers, rabbis and even skeptics know that divorce is a catastrophic event in the life of a child. Even adult children are traumatized by divorce. A trauma is something that destroys one's concept of the universe as a stable, dependable place. When you suffer post traumatic stress you are aware that things can fall apart for no reason, because you have experienced it. The vividness of that experience cannot be counteracted by expressions of reassurance or most forms of psychotherapy, and medication doesn't touch it. This kid learned very early that underneath the suburban sang-froid lay  chaos.  Without drastic countermeasures, such an experience cannot simply be "accepted".  In divorce the ground disappears---children find themselves trying to stand up in quicksand in the midst of the emotional storm of their parent's sudden and inexplicable split. Whether this is done calmly or not, it is never, ever "friendly"---the person you vowed to stay with until death and to love for the rest of your life becomes your legal adversary.  There is no way this can ever be more than superficially calm. And in a society which discourages inhibition, children suddenly get the very loud unspoken message that they must swallow their feelings and adjust their lives to a strange and alien  landscape of separate houses, separate lives, one parent replaced by a girlfriend or boyfriend (which would lead any child with a brain to fear that he, too could be replaced), financial instability and the emotional sufferings of the abandoned spouse. (There is always an abandoned spouse, despite protests to the contrary. )
     There is a very good book about the effects of divorce on children by Judith Wallerstein called The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study; the results of her extensive research remind us very forcibly of the validity of the saying, "staying together for the sake of the children".  That marriage is sacrifice is not something new, but the people now making the most severe and punishing sacrifices in American marriages are the kids,  before divorce, when they must live up to their parents' ambitious and self-gratifying fantasies (starting in pregnancy when they are often subjected to barrages of classical music in the womb, continuing in early childhood when they are socialized too soon,and  neurologically damaged by misguided attempts to teach them reading and afterwards overstimulated into hyperactivity by parents and teachers relentless efforts to turn them into "stars"), and after divorce, when the world of the family and the home and the hearth becomes  a series of different houses and apartments and what used to be intimate and casual interactions between  two people who gave them life turn into   tense and brittle negotiations about transportation, money, and forgotten  visits.

Everybody knows that divorce and broken families breed crime. It's just one of those things that nobody talks about very much. It's one of those operant denials that we seem to incorporate into our public consciousness. Drug addiction used to be called, in Europe, the American Disease. But the War on Drugs will do nothing--because there will always be a demand for drugs. Heroin dealers would fade away if they had no customers.  We also have a more violent society than most Western Democracies--and that is not being blamed on human behavior  or societal decay but on the availability of guns, which is like blaming rape on the appearance, demeanor or life-style of the victim, or car theft on the presence of unlocked cars.
Gun control is opposed by many Americans because gun-toting is said to be a fundamental freedom. But what about the fundamental freedom of quick-and-easy no-fault divorce? Marriage breakdown is one of the most serious problems faced by the US – and every other Western society. It destroys lives. And, as the latest rampage killing demonstrates, not just the lives of the kids of the divorced couple. Perhaps they wouldn’t need more gun control if they had better divorce control   
     In a culture so tediously dominated by the verbal abstractions of social science, which have replaced prayers as expressions of popular piety, one would expect more rigor in our approach to the crimes of adolescents. But people choose their beliefs now, not just in the matter of religion but in the matter of which phenomena they will study and which they will ignore.  When a woman rather pompously announced, in the presence of Samuel Johnson, "I have decided to accept the universe," he said "By Gad, she'd better!"

     We'd better.


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