In Defense of Misery

Beyond Monogamy

edited by James R. Smith, edited by Lynn G. Smith
Johns Hopkins, 336 pp., $15.00

Divorced in America

by Joseph Epstein
Dutton, 318 pp., $8.95

We have done it again we are still living. Sit up and smile God bless you. Guilt is magical.
“Adultery,” James Dickey

The essential choices are always made far too early for informed free will to function. How, after all, can we know what life is about until we have lived it—too late then to decide. But choice is forced on us by events, by time. Passivity has its own consequences equivalent in impact to the wildest flurry of activity. To do nothing is to waste one’s life. To do something has equal potential for ruin.

How shall we conduct our lives with one another: to marry or not; whether to reproduce; to be monogamous, polygamous, or some combination of both; to act out fantasy with its compelling promise of permanent exhilaration or to sublimate all for stability—neither result guaranteed? We make our beds and lie in them tossing, sometimes exchanging them for others—leaving behind, in most cases, a great pile of dirty linen.

In modern history, traditional sexual behavior was so well sanctioned by society that its approval created a buffer between failure of expectation and feelings of failure. Who ever was entirely happy with family life? Or at least happy in that eternally romantic way which endured only as a conspiratorial myth, passed on by elders to the young—that venus flytrap which ensured the continued propagation of our species, catching generation after generation in its bright petals. Along with the legend of married happiness there was a concomitant conspiratorial silence—omerta—about the real realities of family life.

In an earlier time when there was little privacy for adults within families, the young knew more of what they were getting into. But economic survival, not happiness, was the motivating force for marriage then. Some knowledge, little choice. In the more recent past, as life became less rural, less close to the bone, a way of living evolved in which children were shielded from the nastier aspects of their parents lives. While we then had the choice of saying no to married life, we had little sense of what it meant to say yes to a structure which demanded that we subsume ourselves in other human beings.

I married and first had children in the Fifties—a time when these old survival techniques were no longer necessary or even desirable on any large scale. We had not been informed of this, however, and my generation leaped into the production of families somewhat like chickens hopping about the barnyard without the brains to realize that their heads had been cut off. “My God,” an old college friend said to me recently after she had spent a particularly harrowing family year, “if I had known what it was going to be like to grow up I never would have gotten out of bed.”

In the next decade, however, when the discontent of many groups became audible, the roseate vision of family life disintegrated under a barrage of books, articles,…

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