When looking for a book to read, I avoid true stories of crime or divorce (too dramatic, too horrific, especially if both appear in the same book). However, I recently grabbed "In Spite of Everything," by Susan Gregory Thomas, because of its novel combination of memoir and social commentary.
Every American generation has its unique set of cultural touchstones, such as music, television shows or fashion. For children of the 1970s and '80s, the so-called Generation X, divorce is one of those touchstones. A reported 40 percent of Gen-X children's parents divorced in that time, mine included. Ours was the era of the latch-key child and the popularization of the term "benign neglect."
Thomas' memoir talks about her own childhood and how the epidemic of divorce shaped a generation of battle-scarred, neglected children who grew into insecure, though very self-reliant, adults whose attempts to avoid the mistakes of their parents led to child-obsessed helicopter parenting, poor financial choices and many unhappy marriages.
Thomas discusses the impact of her parents' divorce on her own life as a wife, mother and eventually a divorced parent. While it's a sad story, it's well-written and surprisingly funny at times. She interweaves statistics and references to literature, religion and pop culture. Those who grew up in that era will find nostalgic warmth when they encounter references to the stuff of their childhood, such as "The Brady Bunch" or Strawberry Shortcake dolls.
When Thomas was 12 and her brother 9, their father, a charming alcoholic, dramatically abandoned them while their mother was out of the country. He later remarried and moved five states away. After the split, Thomas describes her mother, "formerly a regal, erudite figure," as "a phantom in a sweaty nightgown and matted hair, howling on the floor."
Post-divorce, Thomas and her brother were left to their own devices. They came home after school to an empty house, watched a lot of television and prepared their own meals of Top Ramen washed down with Tang. Her adolescence was rich with angst and bad decisions, binge drinking, drugs, and by her senior year, a brief stay in a psych ward for anxiety. In spite of the emotional (and in her father's case, physical) distance of her parents, Thomas did not have an underprivileged childhood. She and her brother attended private school, but they were left to navigate childhood on their own.
When Thomas met her husband, Cal, in 1991, she believed she had found her soul mate. She writes, "I entered marriage with the presumption that Cal and I were going to outdo my parents altogether."
She and Cal both worked from home, used an "attachment parenting" style to raise their daughters, and focused almost obsessively on renovating their Brooklyn brownstone. She reflects on their preoccupation with the home and its larger meaning: "Gen X's rapacious need for the perfect nest drove them to take out more home equity loans and spend more on house remodeling, per capita, than any generation before." (Thomas' previous book, "Buy, Buy Baby," is an investigation of manipulative marketing and consumer culture.)
After 16 years, her marriage crumbled. Thomas is honest in discussing its end, including her and Cal's sincere attempts to shield their children from pain.
I kept waiting for the book to turn whiney, for Thomas to blame all her problems on her parents, but that didn't happen. Even the story of her own divorce is told with calm reflection. Thomas' anger in the book is solely directed at a culture that looked the other way when so many children were adrift. What she smartly points out is that her own story is sadly typical of many Gen X-ers, with a legacy of divorce on an unprecedented scale. While readers may not agree with everything she says, the book is a thought-provoking look at that era's epidemic and its ripple effect on its children.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at email@example.com.