Divorce American Style

The Complete Guide to Divorce

by Samuel G. Kling
Bernard Geis, 298 pp., $6.95

Your Marriage and the Law

by Harriet F. Pilpel, by Theodora Zavin
Collier Books, 333 pp., $.95

Wives’ Legal Rights

by Richard T. Gallen
Dell Purse Books, 64 pp., $.25

The Road to Reno: A History of Divorce in the United States

by Nelson Manfred Blake
Macmillan, 262 pp., $5.95

Divorce is a depressing subject from almost any point of view. For participants, it is not likely to be an ennobling experience; nor does it have the compensatory virtue, like other forms of suffering, of lending itself to literary uses. Artistically divorce is a disaster, combining the maximum of pain with the minimum of dignity—not exactly the ingredients of tragedy. The subject might have comic possibilities, in the hands of a writer with a talent for the bizarre. Such talents, however, are not the kind usually attracted to the subject. The accepted way of writing about divorce, for novelists and scholars alike, is to adopt at the outset the grim earnestness considered appropriate to discussions of important but somewhat marginal social “questions”—venereal disease, illegitimate births, and the like. Divorce, like these other issues, belongs by literary and scholarly convention to the category of questions to which readers have to be urged, implicitly or explicitly, to “face up.” Because divorce has never securely established itself as a subject of serious inquiry, tinged as it is with sensationalism, a serious writer dealing with the subject has to expend most of his energy trying to establish his seriousness: a dreary business, not very conducive to flights of the imagination.

If divorce is depressing, American divorce is peculiarly so, because of the peculiarly irrational character of our divorce laws. If they had been deliberately designed to corrupt all whom they touched, the laws could not more effectively bring out the worst in everybody. The definition of divorce as an adversary proceeding, instead of a mutual agreement, turns husbands and wives into embattled witnesses against each other, poisons the air with recriminations, locks the contestants more firmly than ever in postures of outraged self-righteousness, and makes more difficult than it already was a peaceful parting of ways. Even if the couple agree to divorce, the law requires them to act out the charade of charge and counter-charge—prearranged discoveries of illicit assignations in “love-nests,” fabricated injuries and affronts, rituals and conventions which deceive no one but which have to be performed in the name, of all things, of justice. Anyone who passes through this process must emerge in one way or another humiliated and degraded. Worst of all are the divorce lawyers, men exposed not to a single one of these episodes but to a whole career of fraud, perjury, and marital distress—itself an intrinsically unedifying spectacle, quite apart from its legal ramifications—and who, thus toughened, are called upon to advise people faced with a situation abounding in moral and emotional ambiguities. One of them recently summed up his advice to a client: “Screw her before she screws you!” Given our laws, this counsel is not inappropriate, but it hardly adds to the sum of the world’s wisdom and beauty.

Something of the flavor of American divorce is conveyed by handbooks like Pilpel and Zavin’s Your Marriage and the Law and Kling’s Complete Guide to Divorce, even though …

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Divorce American Style March 31, 1966