Not all women are cut out to be professional divorcées. While she may lack talent and want to be a writer, a woman may find she never pretended to make a lifelong commitment. Such women are often relegated to the role of professional spinster, and have to elbow it out with the likes of Kate Bolick and Lori Gottlieb. This is the nature of the world; not everyone can be a fashion editor, and credentials matter.
Even if a woman finds she meets all three essential requirements, there is still the question of what type of professional divorcée she should be. Everyone’s favorite of course is the empowerment divorcée, but this adds the prerequisite of having a foreign man marry you for a visa. Elizabeth Gilbert made it look easy when she found an old guy to marry her for a visa so she could write her blockbuster divorce empowerment book/movie Eat Pray Love. Before that, Terry McMillan set the gold standard by having a gay man marry her for a visa and writing about it in How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
But what if you didn’t manage to have an old dude or a gay man marry you for a visa after divorcing? While you can’t join the ranks of professional empowerment divorcées, you still meet the basic requirements; there is no need to forego the opportunity to make your lack of marital commitment your springboard to fame and fortune. After all, who had ever heard of Sandra Tsing Loh before she joined the ranks of professional divorcées? She had been writing for years as a professional unhappy working woman, professional harried mom, and professional unhappy wife, but becoming a professional divorcée was her ticket to the big show.
The problem is there is no shortage of women who lack talent, want to be a writer, and pretended to make a lifelong commitment. While modern women have created a massive market with their shameless collective obsession with divorce, there is still only room for so many professional divorcées. Modern women may be fickle when it comes to sacred vows, but they won’t settle for anything but the best when it comes to reading about divorce. As a result the go-to female writing technique of baring their souls isn’t enough here. To stand out, a divorcée must be willing to sell her soul. Simply divorcing and then telling all won’t cut it anymore. Want to make an impression? Your divorce has to harm children, preferably your own. Better yet, announce that your divorce not only harmed your children, it was frivolous. This way millions of women can feast vicariously on your obscene sense of self pity, the trail of wreckage you leave in your wake, and your intense solipsism.
Sandrah Tsing Loh is no slouch, but if you want to observe the master at work you really need to witness Susan Gregory Thomas. Ms. Gregory Thomas exploded onto the professional divorcée scene in mid 2011 with her seminal book In Spite of Everything: A Memoir and its accompanying piece in The Wall Street Journal The Divorce Generation.
Ms. Gregory Thomas masterfully spends the first two thirds of her lengthy WSJ piece recounting how devastated she and her peers were by the divorces of their parents, and explaining how as a result she vowed never to do the same to her own children.
For much of my generation—Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980—there is only one question: “When did your parents get divorced?” Our lives have been framed by the answer. Ask us. We remember everything.
Our suburb was littered with sad-eyed, bruised nomads, who wandered back and forth between used-record shops to the sheds behind the train station where they got high and then trudged off, back and forth from their mothers’ houses during the week to their fathers’ apartments every other weekend.
I can’t help feeling that every divorce, in its way, is a re-enactment of “Medea”: the wailing, murderously bereft mother; the cold father protecting his pristine, new family; the children: dead.
She tells us that the impact of her parent’s divorce on her was so profound, she is like a war orphan:
After hearing about my background for some time, my distinguished therapist made an announcement: “You,” she said, “are a war orphan.”
She explains that she and her husband were determined not to inflict the same harm on their own children:
..those of us who survived the wreckage of split families were determined never to inflict such wounds on our children. We knew better. We were doing everything differently, and the fundamental premise was simple: “Kids come first” meant that we would not divorce.
At this point my audience may be somewhat confused. You promised us a professional divorcée, a woman who is willing to feed her kids to the meat grinder for attention and profit. Why are you telling us about this woman who loves her kids enough to honor her marriage vows and resist the siren call to evict their father from the house? But this is where the true genius of Susan Gregory Thomas becomes evident. She may lack the talent needed to make it as an honest writer, but she is a master at playing the gruesome game of selling out her own children for status and drama. Once she has made an airtight case that only a monster would frivolously divorce knowing how it would devastate her children, she coolly tells us that is exactly what she did four years ago.
She spends the rest of the piece explaining how her divorce (as she just told us about her marriage) will be different and won’t harm her kids. While she and her peers had to deal with the trauma of parents remarrying and shuttling from household to household, her children will benefit from a joint custody arrangement and the fact that their parents are still primarily focused on being parents.
In the fall of 2011 she followed up with a piece in the New York Times titled The Good Divorce. She starts by explaining again how against divorce she is, how damaged she personally was as a child by divorce, and how she has discovered the key to divorcing without harming her children. But this kind of story won’t sell copy. The audience demands something gruesome to feast on, and Ms. Gregory Thomas delivers. She explains that as a result of her frivolous divorce her children experienced financial hardship*, the depression of a parent (her), and the shuttling between two households. In case we miss the significance of this, she points to studies showing that these are the very things which most damage children following divorce. She then proceeds to share anecdotes of how her children were harmed:
As if on cue, our older child had had a very difficult third-grade year, two years ago, in which she was at the vortex of a mean-girl. She’d always had an entrenched sense of justice, but when she perceived that a classmate had deeply violated her code, the propulsion of her hate-mongering was breathtaking. Her father and I were dumbfounded: “Heathers” — really?
Then, our younger one had reading and math problems. We couldn’t understand: She was so bright, so eager to learn, had such an allusive imagination. What was the problem?
One bright side to this is her own children won’t have to tell their stories to therapists as she herself did; the therapists and everyone they know will have already read all about them.
In July of this year Ms. Gregory Thomas wrote a piece on wives who outearn their husbands: When the Wife Has a Fatter Paycheck. You may be thinking “Finally, an honest piece of writing, not another round of it’s all about me.” Maybe someday, but not with this piece. This one turns out to be about how she personally suffers now that she is at the 8th and final step of having it all. The problem? In her bid to remarry after putting her kids through the meat grinder, she had to make a few concessions. For reasons she doesn’t explain, it seems that her secret multimillionaire hunky handyman failed to appear:
Like millions of my sisters, this puts me smack in the middle of a distinctively modern dilemma: how to handle the tensions of a marriage between an alpha woman and a beta man.
My husband, an antiques restorer whose field has all but evaporated as a result of the recession, does his best to help with chores and child care, while earning enough to pay utilities and car-insurance bills. I’m the one who works an octopus-armed 12- to 14-hour day, often seven days a week.
All great divorce tales are stories of rebirth, and Ms. Gregory Thomas has metamorphasised from largely unknown writer to Alpha Woman in her role as professional divorcée. Writing articles and a book about how you failed your children is a full time job, and the clear mark of a strong independent woman.
*In her web page Ms. Thomas claims authorship of the blog Broke-Ass Grouch, and a recent blog post confirms this. While I don’t doubt that she and her children have experienced financial hardship as a result of her frivorce, I’m not convinced that she lives in the ghetto, raises chickens for eggs, and makes her own cheese as she claims. I suspect this is just part of her octopus armed attempt to make it as a writer. One of the reviewers of her “memoir” on Amazon writes that she tells us she spent $100k on a kitchen remodel during marriage #1. This appears to be what she is spinning in the WSJ piece as “her generation” being so invested in their children that they spend more money “improving the nest”. From her gravatar picture, she appears to have a newborn child as well as a classy tattoo.