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In Spite Of Everything: Generation X And Marriage

We’re talking about Gen X marriage in the shadow of boomer divorces, and the longing not to do what their parents did – the longing not to break up.

Generation X reconsiders marriage. (jcoterhals/Flickr)

Generation X reconsiders marriage. (jcoterhals/Flickr)

Susan Gregory Thomas’s baby boomer parents split up, divorced, and nearly destroyed the elements of their family.

She, and a lot of other Generation X survivors of boomer divorces, swore it would never, ever happen to her.

She would be more careful. She would marry a true friend. They would stay together no matter what. No matter how bad it got. For the kids.

And then they failed, too.

Now, she’s writing about a stony Gen X determination not to repeat boomer marriage failures –- and its costs.

This hour On Point: Gen X marriage, in the shadow of boomer divorce. And Erica Jong responds.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests:

Susan Gregory Thomas, author of In Spite of Everthing: A Memoir. She’s a former senior editor at U.S. News & World Report who’s also written for Time magazine, The Washington Post, and Glamour.

Erica Jong, the author of “Sugar in my Bowl” and many works of fiction and non-fiction that opened the way for women of her generation to think differently about sex. You can read her latest New York Times column here.

This hour we’ll hear:

“Violet” by Hole
“Sugar in My Bowl” by Nina Simone
“Father of Mine” by Everclear

From Tom’s Reading List:

Excerpt from In Spite of Everything: A Memoir by Susan Gregory Thomas

PROLOGUE: MORE THAN THIS

Every generation has its life-defining moment. If you want to find out what it was for a member of the Greatest Generation, you ask: “Where were you when Hitler invaded France?” or “Where were you on D-Day?” If you want to find out what it was for a Baby Boomer, there are three possible questions: “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” or “Where were you when you heard about Kent State?” or “Where were you when the Watergate story broke?”
For most of my generation—Generation X—there is only one question: “When did your parents get divorced?” Our lives have been framed by the answer. Ask us. We remember everything.

My dad left in the early spring of 1981, while my mother was leading a school trip to England. While she was away that week, Dad was in charge. I was twelve; my brother, Ian, was nine.

On the first night, Dad called to say he was running late, that he might not be there by dinnertime. We’d never had to make dinner for ourselves before, but I knew that Mom had a stash of Stouffer’s French bread pizzas in the freezer. Unsettled, Ian and I were nonetheless united in one thought: unmediated access to TV. We sat on the floor of our parents’ room, watched Magnum, P.I., and ate the pizzas. We ended up falling asleep on the rug.

When we woke up the next morning, our father was lying on top of the bed in his dark gray pinstripe Brooks Brothers suit, his standard investment management uniform. The whole room smelled of Dad: scotch, sweat, and shaving cream. His white dress shirt was pressed to his chest like wet tissue paper; his face was dusted with unfamiliar salt-white whiskers. Ian and I looked at each other, scared. Dad was a perennial early riser: up hours before anyone else, impeccably shaved and dressed—reading the paper and drinking coffee by 5:30 a.m. It was now after eight; we had to be at school, sitting at our desks, by 8:25. Ian and I swapped staccato whispers over our father’s body, when suddenly he opened his eyes, webbed with raw capillaries. “Let’s go,” Dad growled, and got up immediately. We followed, mute. He drove us to our respective schools without a word.

The second night, no phone call. It was cold in the house; usually, it took two furnaces to heat it, and I didn’t know how to turn them on. I called our current babysitter, a college student at Villanova University named Carol. I told her that my dad wasn’t home and asked if she could call him. There was a pause on the line. Then she said she’d be right over. She was there in fifteen minutes.

The next afternoon, I came home from school and no one was there. My brother had been taken to Cub Scouts by someone’s mother, I think, and Carol was still in classes. I was in the kitchen prying frozen orange juice concentrate out of its canister when my dad pulled up. I looked out the kitchen window, waiting for him to get out of the car. A few minutes went by. I went outside.

He was sitting in the driver’s seat of his sports car, a plastic tum¬bler of scotch in his hand. He was wearing the same clothes. He didn’t look at me. I ripped a hangnail off my thumb and chewed it. Finally, I opened the door and got in. “Hi, Dad,” I said.

He didn’t say anything. The ashtray was open; there were three cigarette butts inside, each O’ed with pink lipstick. He tilted the tum¬bler back, slipped the scotch into his mouth, opened the car door, got out, and popped the trunk. My thumb had bled onto the sleeve of my white school shirt.

When I came around to the back of the car, I saw that there was a case of scotch in the trunk. Dad was pouring from a newly opened bottle into his tumbler. He silently screwed the cap back on and clinked the bottle into the box. He chugged it back, eyes closed. He set the glass on the hood.

“Everything okay here?” he asked.

“Carol came,” I said, sucking at my thumb.

“Can she stay?”

“I don’t know.”

“I have to go on a business trip,” he said. “As it turns out.” He slammed the trunk shut and finally looked at me.
“I have to go now,” he said. “Call if you need me.” He squeezed my shoulder, got in the car, and drove out of the driveway.

After a few moments, I sat down. I was wearing the navy blue tunic uniform of my all-girls’ school, and loose driveway pebbles stuck to my bloomer-covered bottom and the backs of my thighs. I wrapped the belt of my tunic around my wound. It was cold and wet still, early spring. The edges of the front yard were flanked by for¬sythia, which were just budding Crayola yellow. I’d never had his number to begin with.

“Whatever happens, we’re never going to get divorced.”

Over the course of sixteen years, I said that often to my husband, Cal, especially after our two daughters were born. No marital sce¬nario would ever become so bleak or hopeless as to compel me, even for a moment, to embed my children in the torture of my own split family. After my dad left (with his secretary, who would become his second of three wives), the world as my brother and I had known it ended. Just like that. My mother, formerly a regal, erudite figure, shape-shifted into a phantom in a sweaty nightgown and matted hair, howling on the floor of our gray-carpeted playroom. Ian, a sweet, doofusy boy, grew into a sad, glowering giant, barricaded in his room with dark comic books, graphic novels, and computer games. I would spend the rest of middle and high school getting into a lot of surprisingly bad trouble in suburban Philadelphia: chain-smoking, doing drugs, getting kicked out of schools, ending my senior year in a psychiatric ward. Our dad was gone. He immediately moved five states away, with his new wife and her four kids. Whenever Ian and I saw him, which was, per his preference, rarely, he grew more and more to embody Darth Vader: a brutal machine encasing raw human guts. Growing up, Ian and I were often left to our own devices, circumstances that did not so much teach us how to take care of ourselves as simply how to survive. We dealt. We developed detached, sarcastic riffs on “our messed-up childhood.”

We weren’t the only ones. The particular memorabilia that comprise each family’s unhappiness are always different, but a lot of our friends were going through the same basic stuff at the time— and a lot of people our age we didn’t know were, too. The divorce epidemic of the 1970s and ’80s wiped out nearly half our generation.

Excerpted from IN SPITE OF EVERYTHING: A Memoir by Susan Gregory Thomas. Copyright 2011 by Susan Gregory Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Random House, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group. All rights reserved.

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