The Marriage Monster
Look, marriage is hard. I'm only weeks away from being officially divorced, a fate that I never imagined for myself, one that shocks and embarrasses me even now, almost a year since my wife told me she had filed, and one that I lived for most of the last decade trying to avoid, solely for the sake of our children. I'm not going to say that everybody should stay married for the sake of their kids, but my soon-to-be-ex-wife and I managed to sustain a modus vivendi that did not traumatize the children (or even disclose to them that their parents were in trouble), until she decided she couldn't bear it anymore. As I have said here before, I don't judge her for that decision. We both hung in there for a long time after the marriage had died, and though I've not talked to her about it, I feel confident in saying that we both did it to spare our kids the pain of divorce. (Fortunately, two of them were already adults at the time of filing, and the third is now 16.) I believe that under ordinary circumstances -- meaning, unless there is infidelity, substance abuse, physical abuse, or serious mental abuse -- husbands and wives should live sacrificially through unhappy marriage, for the sake of giving their kids stability. I accepted a lot of private pain over the past decade out of love for my kids, and wanting to protect them. I don't think I did anything remotely heroic. I think it's what moms and dads should do, period. Hear me clearly: I am NOT justifying accepting abuse, drug or alcohol abuse, infidelity, or things like that. I'm talking about accepting unhappiness, loneliness, things like that, at least till the kids are adults.
I say that as background for the contempt I feel towards Agnes Callard, a University of Chicago philosopher, and the colleagues who justify her scandalous behavior. In a New Yorker profile, we learn that she fell in love with one of her students, divorced her husband and father of her children three weeks later (with his consent), and ran around making philosophical justifications for what she had done, almost bragging about it. Eventually she and her lover, Arnold, married, and later they moved in with Ben, her ex-husband. Naturally, these philosophical types are Beyond Good And Evil, and petty bourgeois morality.
Agnes views romantic relationships as the place where some of the most pressing philosophical problems surface in life, and she tries to “navigate the moral-opprobrium reflexes in the right way,” she said, so that people won’t dismiss the topic as unworthy of public discussion. “If you’re a real philosopher,” she once tweeted, “you don’t need privacy, because you’re a living embodiment of your theory at every moment, even in your sleep, even in your dreams.”
Jonathan Lear, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, said that Agnes approaches every conversation as if it were integral to her life’s work, as it was for Socrates. “She’s attempting to live a philosophical life, and this includes taking responsibility for the very concept of marriage,” he said. “Part of what I take to be her bravery is that she is looking around, asking, ‘Hey, I know all these couples have gotten rings and gone to the courthouse, but are they married?’ One thing you can do with that question is forget all about it and find some deadline to be anxious about. Or you can really hear the question, vividly. That’s the place where philosophy begins—with a certain anxiety about how to live the life that is yours.”
Gross. Now, if you read the story, you'll see that they formed a (non-sexual) threesome because they all got along, and because Agnes and Ben's kids liked having their dad around. You might be able to make a case that Ben is sacrificing heroically for his kids, but he doesn't see it that way. Ben comes across not as a heroic self-sacrificer, but as a beta male who endures humiliation at the hands of his wife because he doesn't know what else to do.
Here's a revelation:
A few months into their relationship, Agnes and Arnold had a bad fight, and she came across a copy of Cook’s Illustrated that Ben had given her for Hanukkah years before, inscribed with a loving note. She remembered that she had been happy at the time. “I was just, like, Wait a minute, maybe I’m just doing the same thing again. The veil was lifted with Ben, and now it is being lifted again.” But she was consoled by the idea that she and Arnold were philosophical about their relationship in a way that she and Ben had not been. Agnes, who was diagnosed with autism in her thirties, felt that she and Arnold were trying to navigate the problem of loneliness—not the kind that occurred when each of them was in a room alone but the sort of loneliness that they felt in the presence of another person. Most couples struggle with a version of this problem, but it often feels like a private burden. For Agnes, it was philosophical work, a way of sorting out “what one human can be to another human.” It seemed to her that Arnold had come to her with a question: Is it possible to eliminate the loneliness that is intrinsic to any relationship, to be together in a way that makes full use of another person’s mind?
Whaddaya know, marriage isn't about permanent happiness! Who could possibly have seen that coming?! It seems to this reader that Agnes is being a self-centered hooch, but dressing it up as some kind of philosophical virtue. The fact that she has autism explains a lot. A fundamental characteristic of autism is the inability to empathize, or at least empathize easily, with others. Agnes seems to treat others as objects, and not to grasp how hurtful her actions might be. If you go on through the story, you'll find that Agnes appears to be leaving the door open to leaving Arnold too, and to justifying it philosophically. It's all like a chapter in Paul Johnson's great book Intellectuals, which is about how monstrous some great thinkers behaved towards people in their private lives.
However, I have to confess that this part stung me a little bit. Maybe more than a little bit. It's from a session that Agnes did with ex-husband Ben for students, in which they talked about their divorce:
Throughout the event, Ben seemed to recede. He kept pulling the discussion away from his own life toward increasingly academic problems. It was a testament to his generosity that although he didn’t seem to feel comfortable with the project—he told the students he was an “under-sharer”—he was doing the best he could, because Agnes wanted to show their students how philosophy could apply to the most consequential decisions of their lives. Ben told me that the process of becoming a well-known public philosopher, as Agnes has, would “ethically devastate a lot of people.” He went on, “For most of us, having fans and followers feeds terrible things in our soul. But Agnes doesn’t have that. She’s changed very little, as far as I can tell.” She seemed immune to the damage, he said, because she saw each reader or audience member as a potential interlocutor, another person who could challenge her thinking. “It’s not that she lacks interiority,” he said. “It’s that she has a low view of the significance of that interiority.” As she saw it, thinking is not something that one person can do alone. It takes two people to have a thought.
Here she is in an exchange with Arnold:
Their marriage had ended up being more asymmetrical than they had expected. “Your entire philosophical career is a discussion of our marriage, in one way or another,” Arnold said. Agnes agreed. If their marriage was a kind of play, she was the central character, and the author, too.
My confession is that there is a lot of Agnes in me. For the last decade, a big part -- not "entire" or even "most of," but a big part -- of my writing career has been a discussion of my family. Not my wife and kids -- they have been intentionally left out of my writing, for the most part, at my wife's request -- but my mom and dad, late sister, and her kids. This was the point of the celebratory Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, which was mostly about their virtues, and only turned dark at the very end, when I discovered, as I was almost finished with the book, that they all quietly rejected me and my wife, and would never accept us, because we were not like them. I wrote all this into the manuscript, and tried to be hopeful that there would be a resolution going forward. I gave all of them the opportunity to read the manuscript before I turned it in to the publisher, and offered to take out anything they didn't want me to disclose. Nobody asked me to. My father, who doesn't always come off well in the narrative, gave me this imprimatur: "You told it like it was."
As my regular readers know, everything went to hell after that. I fell chronically ill with mononucleosis over the stress from the rejection, and their refusal to accept us. I was sick for three years. I am absolutely confident that all of this led to the collapse of my marriage. I can't say for sure, of course, but I am pretty sure that if we had never gone back to Louisiana, I would still be married today, and my kids would have a mom and a dad who lived together. This has made me extremely bitter, but I try to fight that, because that bitterness hurts them not one bit, and only could poison me. Still, I wrestle with it, as I come to terms with the fact that I've lost almost everything in my life -- and did so, I think, because I tried to do the right thing and go back home to serve my family.
How Dante Can Save Your Life is a follow-up to Little Way, and describes how reading the Divine Comedy helped me navigate the exile I fell into in the middle of the journey of my life. I tried to be honest in that book about the family situation, without being gratuitously mean, or disclosing more than needed to be told to grasp the meaning of my analysis of the poem. And it ends with my dad and me reconciling before his death, so that was good. But that was the last good thing that happened in my family, the story of which has come to an end, at least with me. They got what they wanted.
I have to admit, though, that it was their bad luck to have had a writer in the family. When I think about the narrative arc of my family and its dissolution, I realize that what brought us to ruin was the insistence that our Story was the ideal, not the reality -- and when reality contradicted the official story, well, we ignore the reality, and expect those who point out the contradictions to bear the weight of stress displaced by the load-bearing structures not doing their part. But you know, isn't this just how it is with all of us, all the time? I was telling a Hungarian friend the other day, as we talked about church stuff, that what broke me as a Catholic was not so much the abuse itself as the insistence, both by the hierarchy and by a shocking (to me) number of lay Catholics, that the victims and their families needed to suck it up and bear their pain quietly so as not to contradict the Story. I hated that. Hated it. It tore me apart.
It was the same way with my folks, my sister, and her kids. Being family meant that everybody had to conform to the Story, and if you didn't, you were bad. This orientation was so destructive. I wrote in Little Way about how the night before she dropped dead in her living room, my sister, who was by then skin and bones from the cancer, told her best friend that the time might have arrived when she and her husband should have "the talk." What talk? asked her friend. The answer: "About how I might not make it."
She had lived for 19 months with Stage IV cancer, and was at that point clearly on her last legs, and they had never confronted this fact as a husband and wife, much less as a mother and father who needed to prepare their children. The next morning, she was dead. I didn't pass judgment on her in Little Way, because God knows how I would have done in her place. But with the passage of time, I was able to perceive the deep destruction that this method did, and beyond that, the way that our family's way of dealing with difficulty contributed to its demise. We were a family that lived by Story. As I see it now, they felt obliged by that to make me the permanent outcast, because I diverged from the Plot. The intolerable thing was that I had done what our family members were not supposed to do -- move away, and be Not Like Us -- and had not failed, as I deserved to do, but had prospered. Not only had I prospered, but my sister, the golden girl who did all the right things, had fallen ill with cancer, and died young. In order to keep faith with her, and with the Story, they could not receive me and my family back. The just order of the cosmos demanded it.
And here we are today. I'll never go home again, because I have no home left. And yet, here's the Story I write: I believe that God is the great Author, and that there is ultimate meaning in all this suffering, and that I have to live into it. I went to dinner the other night in Budapest with some old friends I hadn't seen in a while. I caught the wife up on all the things that had happened to me in the past year. At the end, she said, "My God, how are you even sitting here?" I thought for a second, and said, "That's easy: through Christ alone." I explained how having everything I cared most about taken from me had compelled me to realize my radical dependence on God, and had forced me to go deeper into my faith than I ever had. He has given me the grace to bear it all, with confidence. It's not me; it's Him.
So maybe that's the lesson here, or part of the lesson. I think so. We will see.
But I have to criticize myself, in light of the Agnes Callard profile, and in the interest of honesty. I am a highly confessional writer, meaning that I do turn events of my own life into writing material. I know that there is nothing particularly interesting about me, but if I can find a way to connect the particular events of my own life to the universal experiences of others, then there can be meaning there. That can be read as a justification for oversharing, and I wouldn't fault you for it. Where my life intersects with Agnes Callard's -- and where my judgment of her has to be self-judgment as well -- is that I think I can be fairly accused of making real people unwilling characters in a story that I tell. Nobody in my family asked me to write about them. If I'm honest, there was probably some resentment at the back of my post-Little Way writing, in this narrow sense: I felt that they were happy for me to tell the heroic story about my sister and her battle with cancer, and the many virtues of our family -- which were real, and which cannot be denied, even now -- but the shadow side they expected me to keep quiet about, even though it shattered me emotionally, destroyed my health for three years, and now, has contributed mightily to the break-up of my marriage. Yeah, I resented the hell out of that. I always tried hard not to let resentment have anything to do with the way I wrote, but though nothing comes to mind now, I can be reasonably sure that I did what Agnes Callard does in a different way: veiled low motives in high principle.
Now that I'm wrapping up my years at TAC this week around the same time as my marriage legally draws to an end, and in a period in which I have left Louisiana for what will probably be the last time, because the family I went home to love and to serve no longer exists for me, it is the case that I should put it all behind me, and start a new chapter in my life. My (soon to be) ex-wife -- God, I hate that word -- always hated that I was a writer, for the attention it drew to our family, even though I mostly kept her and the kids out of it. The anonymous threats from my haters that would be mailed to our home -- she doesn't have to worry about that anymore, and I'm glad for that. She is now writing a new chapter in her life without me in it. I will continue not writing about my kids, who are having to carry a terrible burden right now because of their mom and dad's failures. And there's really no point in writing about my Starhill family anymore. My dad is dead, my mom is in assisted living (our relationship is extremely stressed by the divorce and related events), and my sister's family are scattered, and in any case, we are not in touch. Perhaps the biggest lesson I've learned in the past year or two, mostly from reflecting on the Tarkovsky film Nostalghia, is how obsessing about the past, and what I have lost, can only paralyze me, and leave me deaf and blind to what God is saying to me right here, right now. I've got to try to live for what's in front of me, including my dear son Matt, who is living with me now in Budapest, and who needs his dad as much as his dad needs him.
I think Agnes Collard is a bad person for living the way she does. But in judging her, I recognize that I'm kind of judging myself too, insofar as I am guilty of callously treating real people close to me as characters in a story. I don't have enough insight into myself of the situations to know for sure if I have been unjust, but I hope I am self-aware enough to realize that it is time to close the book on that part of my life, and on the family members who were in it. It was a tragedy. I don't know if there's any redemption in it, except to warn others: don't let this happen to you. And you know, we all treat real people as characters in a story, to some extent. My folks and my sister and her kids did it to me, though none of them were writers. My feelings, my hopes, my dreams -- none of it mattered, except insofar as it served the Story that they wanted to believe was true. I suppose that to some extent, I did it to them, instead of quietly going away -- and I can't say with confidence that I did it out of the highest motives. I guess it's unavoidable sometimes, but don't you think we would all do well to work harder towards empathy? I know I should. This is one thing that has gotten me intact through this hellish past year (Louisiana requires couples in no-fault divorce to wait one year after filing before it is approved): trying hard to find mercy for my wife, and to understand why she did the things she did, even though I believe they were quite wrong. I remember well learning from my experience told in the Dante book, and the advice back then from my priest, that the anger I held onto at my folks and my nieces for their rejection of us was not only destroying me internally, but was a stumbling block to the love that Our Lord told me to have, even for those who set themselves as my enemies. That was true, and repenting of that anger, even though I believed at the time it meant allowing people to get away with injustice, was the secret to my recovery from chronic illness, and to being present when my father, in his dying months, told me he was sorry for how he had treated me, and made our reconciliation possible.
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