Raised in Berkeley, Susan Gregory Thomas grew up in a seemingly stable household. But when the family moved east when she was 12, her father, a charming alcoholic, ran off with his secretary, and her mother collapsed. Thomas and her younger brother joined the ubiquitous flocks of 1980s latchkey kids: collateral damage in their parents’ wars, sustaining private injuries they would try to self-treat throughout adolescence and adulthood.
When Thomas became a wife and mother in her early 30s, she made a fierce promise: She would never let her own children know the scorched earth of divorce. It was a vow shared by many of her peers, who, in reaction to the divorces of the 1970s and ’80s, sought out marriages based on deeper friendships and more genuine partnerships than those of previous generations. So Thomas was stunned when, after 16 years with the man she considered her best friend, she found her marriage coming to an end. Not only did the divorce reopen all the old wounds, but she would now have to contend with the aftershocks affecting her two young daughters.
Thomas’ memoir, “In Spite of Everything,” is an account of her efforts to protect her children’s world and make sense of the culture of divorce in which she was raised. Here is an excerpt.
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.
‘I have to go now’
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 12; my brother, Ian, was 9.
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 8; 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 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 tumbler 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 tumbler 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 forsythia, which were just budding Crayola yellow. I’d never had his number to begin with.
‘Our messed-up childhood’
“Whatever happens, we’re never going to get divorced.”
Over the course of 16 years, I said that often to my husband, Cal, especially after our two daughters were born. No marital scenario 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.