Books on Divorce

Book reviews

Subject: "THE DIVORCE CULTURE" BY BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD, REVIEW BY WENDY DENNIS

GLOBE AND MAIL:

970460142 SAT FEB.15,1997 PAGE: D14 (ILLUS)
BYLINE: WENDY DENNIS
CLASS: Book Review
DATELINE:
WORDS: 1268

Divorce matters

Not all children of divorce are doomed, but in

just about every way we have to measure such

things, divorce hurts children

THE DIVORCE CULTURE

By Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
Knopf, 224 pages, $33.50
Review by WENDY DENNIS

IN 1993, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote "Dan Quayle Was Right", a widely read article for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, in which she argued the verdict was in on *divorce* and it wasn't good: *Divorce* devastated huge numbers of children in lasting ways; kids raised in intact families did significantly better than others; alternative family structures weakened the social fabric.

This was not a particularly popular point of view to be espousing in North America at the end of the 20th century, and she took a fair bit of flak. Single parents, doing the best they could, got mad. Feminists, who saw *divorce* as a hard-won right, got mad. *Divorce*, like abortion, is one of those issues that tends to cause riots in the streets. If the message is politically incorrect or uncomfortably disturbing - as this one was - people take aim and shoot the messenger.

Faced with widespread resistance to hearing the dark truth about *divorce*, Dafoe Whitehead did what any self-respecting writer would: She wrote a book.

In The *Divorce* Culture, *the author, a social historian and critic, debunks many of the ideas behind current *divorce* trends. Peering through a historical and cultural lens, she argues that since the mid-sixties, Americans have embraced an "expressive *divorce* culture*" which sees *divorce* as an individual entitlement, ticket to personal growth and vehicle for social progress, particularly for women and children. After 30 years of persistently high *divorce* rates and a significant body of research studying the phenomenon, the latter view, says the author, is an illusion.(Today, nearly half of all North American children are likely to experience parental *divorce* or separation by the age of 20. In Canada, an estimated 31-32 per cent of marriages end in *divorce*, while in the United States, the figure is just under 50 per cent.)

If you're a reader who likes to know the truth, however awful, The *Divorce*Culture* is for you. Still, I think this book should come with a warning label for divorced parents, or anyone considering becoming one. You think your kids will "bounce back" from your *divorce* ? Guess again. *Divorce* is less like a cold for children than "a serious chronic disease." You think you'll eventually re-partner and create a new family unit where the kids will live happily ever after? Forget it. Children in stepfamilies are more likely than kids from intact families to drop out of school, become unwed teenage mothers and wind up unable to hold steady jobs as young adults.

Of course, not all children of *divorce* are doomed, but, in just about every way we have to measure such things, says the author, *divorce* has hurt children. It sets in motion a chain of disruptive events which unleash "a host of destabilizing forces" into their lives. She writes: "Indeed, if recent social history were written through the eyes of children, 1974 might be described as the Great Crash, a moment when *divorce* became the leading cause of broken families and unexpectedly plunged children into a trough of family instability, increased economic vulnerability, and traumatic loss."

Dafoe Whitehead offers persuasive evidence to depict a world of exhausted mothers, lost fathers and uninterested, sometimes cruel step-parents. But those who've managed to stay married and defy the statistics have no cause for smugness; the author sees a society corroding through its abandonment of the value of commitment; juvenile crime is up, and more violent; the teen suicide rate has more than tripled; school performance has continued to decline.

A meticulous researcher, the author is as comfortable surveying Edith Wharton's writings, the social trends in Hallmark's greeting cards and the etiquette manuals of Emily Post as she is interpreting social-science data. Those familiar with the latter will recognize a trustworthy reporter; those unfamiliar will sense a broadly informed, even-handed writer who refuses to draw conclusions unless they're firmly rooted in empirical evidence.

Much of her data is fascinating, and little-known: These days, a marriage may be a more important resource than a college degree; parents who are college graduates and married form the new economic elite among families with children.

Legislators and family court judges take note: Children continue to long for their fathers after they leave the household, and one form of long-term damage suffered by a majority (italics hers) of such children is the disruption of a relationship with their dads. Fathers who live with their kids usually work hard to increase their incomes, while fathers who've been banished from the day-to-dayness of their children's lives tend to lose the incentive to put more money into their households. Moreover, the trend toward punitive child-support enforcement measures has been largely ineffective in resolving a problem whose origins go far deeper than a loaded label like "deadbeat dad" suggests. The *Divorce**Culture* is an intensely moral book, but not a moralizing one.

Unlike "family values" advocates who tend to see the world in black and white, or pretty colourized pastels, Dafoe Whitehead sees *divorce* as an event with a chain of moral and social consequences.

At the book's heart is a passionate respect for children. She doesn't argue against *divorce* per se, but questions " casual *divorce* ", in which an adult's desires take precedence over a child's needs. She concludes by imagining a world where marriage is strengthened as the central institution for child-rearing, a world offering a "vision of the obligated self" bound to sacrifice for the next generation, where a new consciousness about the meaning of commitment flourishes.

The author appears, from the acknowledgments, to be living with her husband and kids in an intact family. Since I've yet to meet a parent for whom getting divorced was anything but a wrenching experience, the term " casual *divorce* " struck me as an oxymoron, and made me wonder if the author had ever been through a *divorce* involving children. As a divorced parent who has seen, perhaps more than some, the dark side of *divorce* for children, but has also witnessed some of its unexpected triumphs, I felt uneasy at times reading about *divorce* by someone who may never have been there. Admittedly, this is an emotional reaction, and to some extent an irrational one. Never having been divorced certainly doesn't disqualify a writer from tackling the subject, and Dafoe Whitehead does a superb job. But *divorce*, like parenthood, is one of those experiences that can't fully be understood, I think, by someone on the other side. When one looks at children of *divorce* only through the clinical eye of the social scientist - or indeed from on high, where judges sit - a key element of the story may go missing.

Still, Dafoe Whitehead has written an original, iconoclastic book on a subject long overdue for public debate. Anyone with an interest in *divorce*, which means anyone living in North America as the millennium approaches, will find it thought-provoking. But it should be required reading for every legislator, policymaker, family court judge, lawyer, mediator and mental health professional working in the *divorce* industry. No doubt many will be surprised and uncomfortable to discover that a great number of their sacrosanct notions about what is in the "best interests of the children" are nothing more than misconceptions that fly utterly in the face of the evidence.

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Wendy Dennis wrote the widely discussed article "The*Divorce*From Hell ", published by Toronto Life in February, 1996. She is currently working on a forthcoming book of the same title to be published by Macfarlane, Walter & Ross.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
WENDY DENNIS is a journalist and author who has written for numerous publications,including The Globe and Mail, Maclean's, Cosmopolitan, New Woman and TV Guide. Currently a contributing editor to Toronto Life, Dennis has been a columnist for Flare, won a National Business Writing Award, been nominated for a National Magazine Award,and taught at Ryerson University's School of Journalism. Her bestselling book, HOT AND BOTHERED: Men and Women, Sex and Love in the 90s, was published in eight countries.

ABOUT THE DIVORCE FROM HELL

THE DIVORCE FROM HELL
BY WENDY DENNIS
MACFARLANE, WALTER & ROSS
$29.95 IN CANADA

The painful dissolution of a marriage is a tragically familiar phenomenon; the unexamined question is why it is so. This searing anatomy of a divorce, from mediation to litigation--through motions, appeals family assessments, and custody trial--illuminates a real-life drama in which the villain is a process that encourages conflict, rewards manipulation, and reinforces cultural stereotypes. For beyond the courtroom is the culture: the expectations and assumptions of wives and husbands and the prejudices that surround our notions of motherhood, fatherhood and the nature of parenting.

Circumstances conspired to place Wendy Dennis at the edge and the centre of this story. When she met Ben Gordon, he was going through a bad divorce. An ex-wife in a difficult divorce herself, Dennis knew the pitfalls from a woman's and a mother's perspective. She was also a seasoned journalist, skeptical and observant. As she and Ben became intimately involved, she had an unprecedented inside look at the system we have devised to deal with contested divorce. Nothing in her experience or imagination prepared her for the events to which she bore witness. When his marriage failed, Ben's simple ambition was to ensure that he would remain deeply involved as a father to his two young daughters, and avoid a long, messy divorce in which the children suffer and no one wins by the lawyers. But after seven painful years and $275,000 in legal fees, the "remedy" of the courts left him deep in debt and a stranger to his children.

Dennis' observations of Ben's attempts to remain more than a visitor in his children's lives overthrew virtually every popular assumption about the family law system, and many of her own. She saw lawyers play the game of law and grow richer; she saw judges with too many cases and too little wisdom; she saw therapeutic "experts" wield extraordinary power with devastating consequences; and she saw an arbitrary system without accountability profess to act in the best interests of children but fail spectacularly to do so.

Rarely does a book appear that can touch its readers' hearts and minds at a deeply personal level and at the same time challenge a society's prevailing archetypes. Such books become lightening rods, arousing passion and controversy. This year THE DIVORCE FROM HELL is that book.

TO PLACE ADVANCE ORDERS FOR THE DIVORCE FROM HELL:

IN CANADA:
Toll free phone order lines in Canada (Ontario and Quebec, except NW Ontario):
1-800-387-0141
Other provinces and NW Ontario: 1-800-387-0172

TO ENQUIRE ABOUT ORDERING THE BOOK OUTSIDE OF CANADA, CONTACT THE PUBLISHER AT:

Macfarlane Walter & Ross
37A Hazelton Avenue
Toronto, Ontario
Canada, M5R 2E3

e-mail mwandr@interlog.com
Tel (416) 924-7595
Fax (416) 924-4254

TO PLACE ADVANCE ORDERS FOR THE DIVORCE FROM HELL:

IN CANADA:
Toll free phone order lines in Canada (Ontario and Quebec, except NW Ontario):
1-800-387-0141
Other provinces and NW Ontario: 1-800-387-0172

TO ENQUIRE ABOUT ORDERING THE BOOK OUTSIDE OF CANADA, CONTACT THE PUBLISHER AT:

Macfarlane Walter & Ross
37A Hazelton Avenue
Toronto, Ontario
Canada, M5R 2E3

e-mail mwandr@interlog.com
Tel (416) 924-7595
Fax (416) 924-4254

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PS. (NICK-F.F.K.): WENDY HAS KINDLY DONATED THE ORIGINAL TORONTO LIFE ARTICLE " The Divorce From Hell" - TORONTO LIFE, FEB/96, FOR DESSIMINATION PURPOSES. IF YOU WISH A COPY, PLEASE R.S.V.P. YOUR REQUESTS TO MYSELF AT .

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