Written by Erika J. Ahern |
Monday, October 31, 2022
We make a promise in marriage that offers unconditional love to one person and the children that come from that union: we say “you can place your happiness in my hands.” In that moment, both you and all your dependents are inextricably linked by your own choice until death. No amount of re-imagining your life will change the fact: you will never be fulfilled personally until you have fulfilled your vow. We don’t understand the vow when we make it, but it hangs in our hearts as an immovable lodestar.
Just after Christmas 2021, Honor Jones, a senior editor at the Atlantic, published “How I Demolished My Life: A Home-Improvement Story.” It’s a self-portrait of a mother who, while wrangling with kitchen renovation plans, decides she doesn’t want a new kitchen.
She wants a divorce.
Jones spends the next three thousand perfectly manicured words trying to justify her decision to break up her family. She displays all the self-congratulatory bravado of middle-aged white women who read Henrik Ibsen’s Doll’s House or Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray for a high school literature class and then imagine themselves forever in the role of Brave Protestor of Victorian Oppression.
Jones describes her marriage, which produced three children who are still young, as her cage. Her imperfect suburban home is, to her, an icon of her imprisonment.
She doesn’t like the “chaos” of her house and, even with the help of sensible Luba, her hired cleaning woman, she finds the lived-in quality of a home with children irksome.
“[T]he crumbs got me down. I sometimes felt that they were a metaphor, that as I got older I was being ground down under the heel of my own life. All I could do was settle into the carpet.”
So she tells her husband she’s divorcing him. She loves him, she really does. He gave her everything she’d asked for. But it wasn’t enough.
“I loved my husband; it’s not that I didn’t. But I felt that he was standing between me and the world, between me and myself.”
She seems to think she has now suddenly come to herself: only by breaking free and feeling “cold wind on my face” will she be herself again.
So they move their three children into a large apartment in New York City (the city is “better for our careers”). She and her husband alternate staying with the kids and camping out in a smaller, one-bedroom apartment that they can afford. She sells their Pennsylvania home, folds her husband’s sport coats for the last time, and ruminates on the deep mysteries of self-actualization.
Jones is a gifted writer. She applies all her considerable talent in the art of rhetoric, but only to showcase her utter failure in the art of self-knowledge.
All in all, she paints a vivid picture of what we might call a “good divorce.” She applies just the right measure of compunction and sincerity, as well as compassion for her children (whom she admits she’s deprived of their family).
The piece struck a nerve. It received pointed censure on the Atlantic’s Twitter feed and comment box, much of it along the lines of “you sad, pathetic, entitled woman” and “what about your children, you selfish pig.”
It’s unlikely a Twitter mob will ever change a heart or mind. And to be fair, we don’t know the real Honor Jones, who may be far more conflicted about her decision than the picture she has put forward. We can’t know what other factors in her life and marriage she has chosen not to share. The fact that such “brave,” “confessional” writing is encouraged, let alone celebrated as heroic and cathartic, tells us more about our society and its appetites than about the writer.
But the public response to the piece does get surprisingly close to the heart of the matter. Marriage was not the prison. Jones was terribly, tragically wrong, because her marriage was in fact her best means to finding herself. By jumping ship on her family, she abandoned the one vessel that could best carry her on her voyage of self-discovery: the life-long, exclusive commitment made in a marriage.
Self-knowledge is the key to the happy life. Greek philosophers inscribed the admonition “know thyself” over the entrance to the oracle at Delphi. Confucian and Daoist philosophers, in their distinct ways, call for self-awareness and self-cultivation.
We are a puzzle to ourselves, as Jones demonstrates. But she has swallowed the lie that only by breaking free of commitments and disappointments and the daily grind of life together will she find out who she really is. That daily grind is called “losing yourself,” and it hurts.