Excerpts from Must Read Books & Articles on
Mental Health Topics
Articles- Part IX
Charles D'Ambrosio, New Yorker- 6/24/2002
Poem by Father (1972). One Sunday morning when I was a boy, my father came out of his
office and handed me a poem. It was about a honeybee counseling a flea to flee a doggy
and see the sea. The barbiturates my father took to regulate his emotions made him
insomniac, and I understood that he'd been awake most of the night, laboring over these
lines, listing all the words he could think of ending in a long "e." This meant
using many adverbs and the elevated "thee" as a form of address. My father was a
professor of finance who wrote fairly dry textbooks, where the prose marched in soldierly
fashion across the page, broken by intricate formulas calculating risk and return, and
this poem was a somewhat frilly production for him. The poem was an allegory about his
desire to leave our family. Like a lot of people, my father felt that a poem was a bunch
of words with a tricky meaning deeply buried away, like treasure, below a surface of
rhyming sounds. I was twelve years old, and I understood the sense of the poem instantly,
but the strange mixture of childish diction and obvious content silenced me. I was
ashamed. That Sunday morning, I was sitting on the living room floor, on a tundra of white
carpet that my father considered elegant. The drapes were closed, because he worried that
sun would fade the fabric on the furniture, but a bright bar of light cut through a gap
in the curtains, and that's where I sat, since it was warm there, in a house where we were
otherwise forbidden to adjust the thermostat above sixty-two degrees.
Letter from younger brother (1997). Not long ago, I was in Seattle,
sitting in a cafe downtown. It was raining. I'd been there for sometime before I realized
that someone was staring at me through the window I turned around and saw worn tennis
shoes and dirty gray sweats. The man outside the window was my brother Mike. My father had
three sons. I'm the eldest; Danny, the youngest, killed himself sixteen years ago.
In addition to the tennis shoes and sweats, Mike was wearing a white T
shirt that hung to his knees and a black leather jacket he'd bought with V A. money at a
thrift store. His thinning hair was soaked, and his face had the pallor of warm cheese. In
a plastic sack he carried a carton of cigarettes he'd bought at the Navy PX. He's
schizophrenic, and on some level I'm always aware that he's a stranger. I went outside,
and we talked and, in talking, we were brothers again. He did not look good; he was
shivering. He was several miles from his halfway house, but when I offered to give him a
ride he said, quite happily, that he preferred to walk. He started up the hill, limping a
little from a pelvic injury he received, years ago, when he tried to kill himself by
jumping off the Aurora Bridge, in Seattle. Very soon he was gone.
Only a few years ago, Mike was doing much better, and he wrote letters
regularly, often two or three a month. Here is one:
Mike here, who is there? I am fine as a blade of grass. How about you? As I was leaving
church the other day there was an opportunity to be part of a poor person's Kriss Kringle.
I decided to buy an AIDS patient some high-quality gloves. The situation reminded me of
Danny-I don't know why. The gift will be given to him although I believe I will never
actually see the recipient. I will give him a card that says, "To a friend I don't
know" I don't think of Danny a lot. I don't feel pain about his death a lot either.
Jesus has stepped into his boots and has replaced him. It caused me to heal and be born
again. It is really quite beautiful. My heart is still with that kid like you cannot
believe-or I suppose you could. Love can play a trick on you. It can cause you pain like
you were suffering in hell, but it is still love and still beautiful like heaven and the
heaven and the hell of it are woven into one fabric, which is love. It's a mindblower to
think like that but that is what Danny has done to me. Call or write please. I don't own a
cat or dog--but I do the same by looking at squirrels and crows. I plan to buy some
peanuts to feed the squirrels and bread for the birds. It is so much cheaper and I enjoy
it the same as having my own animal. When I pray I can see my life flash before my eyes.
It is very beautiful. My life flashes before my eyes about twenty times a year. Other
stuff like that happens to me also. I've been through so much since becoming mentally
ill-most of it, believe it or not, was good. Because of that I became sort of an
Letter from youngest brother (November 26, 1986). My brother Danny wrote his suicide
note in my bedroom, and then, after a caesura that I know exists because he had to put
down the pen in order to pick up the gun, he shot himself: For some reason, I've always
been concerned about the length of the lapse, whether he reread what he'd written or
stared dumbly at his signature, his name the final piece in a puzzling life he was about
to end, before he pressed the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Most suicides go
about the last phase of their business in silence and don't leave notes. Death itself is
the summary statement, and they step into its embrace hours or days before the barrel is
finally raised to the roof of the mouth or the fingertips last feel the rough metal of the
bridge rail. They are dead and then they die. But Danny wrote a note, or not so much a
note as an essay, a long document full of self-hatred and sorrow, love and despair, and
now I'm glad that I have it, because, this way, we're still engaged in a dialogue. His
words are there and so is his hand, a hand I'd held, but, more important, one that left
words that, like an artifact, are as real and physical to me as the boy who, at
twenty-one, in a November long ago, wrote them.
I read the pages he wrote two or three times a month, often enough so
that the words ring like the lines of poems I know well. All the struggle is still there
in the headlong sentences that tumble toward his signature, in the misspelled words and
syntactical errors, in the self-conscious language of a boy starved for love and trying,
instead, to live a moment more off pride. The note has the back-and-forth of a debate, of
words equally weighed and in balance, of a slightly agonized civility. He says, "I
stopped making dreams." He says, "I don't know why I am doing this. I don't want
to. I have dreams." He says that there is no God and that God is looking over his
shoulder as he writes, making editorial remarks. He says, "I am glorifying myself now
I am afraid to stop writing though. I want to keep talking." He says, "I don't
know what to say except I am sorry and I love. I love the whole family quite a bit and the
terrible ____." He clearly wants to find a way back, but he can't. He asks that we keep
"the way" he died a secret and, as though he were done, signs his name. But on
the next page, the last, he again asks that we keep "the way" he died secret,
and again he signs his name. Much of the note is printed, and those letters stand upright,
but in the end Danny slips permanently into a sloping cursive as despair and self-hatred
accelerate beyond return, as if he were being pulled down by the dark undercurrent of his
life, his last words looping quickly across the page, continuous as breath.
Letters from eldest brother (2001). Two years ago, I moved to
Philipsburg, Montana. In the fall, I went for walks and brought home bones. The best bones
weren't on trails-deer and moose don't die conveniently-and soon I was wandering so far
into the woods that I needed a map and compass to find my way home. When winter came and
snow blew into the mountains, burying the bones, I continued to spend my days and often my
nights in the woods. I vaguely understood that I was doing this because I could no longer
think; I found relief in walking up hills. When the night temperatures dropped below zero,
I felt visited by necessity, a baseline purpose, and I walked for miles, my only objective
to remain upright, keep moving, preserve warmth. When I was lost, I told myself stories,
recounting my survival, implying that I would live and be able to look back at it all. At
some point, I realized that I was telling my father these stories.
The above text covers the first one & one-half pages of this three page article. For the remainder, visit the archives of the New Yorker Magazine at www.newyorker.com/archive.
Sick With Worry
Jerome Groopman, The New Yorker- 8/11/2003
Amanda was sure that she had contracted leukemia, developed a brain tumor, and had a
stroke--all around the same time. She made this self-diagnosis while experiencing
intermittent discomfort in her abdomen and feeling a persistent wooziness in her head. She
often felt off balance, as if she were walking on a warped floor. "I was also really
worried about my spleen," she told me in a recent conversation. (Amanda is not her
real name.) For almost a year, she had sought explanations for her various complaints,
discussing her symptoms with twenty physicians in her H.M.O. All of them told her that
they could find nothing wrong. These doctors spent little time with her, and none offered
a follow-up appointment, although they readily referred her to other physicians.
With growing frustration, Amanda visited more specialists, undergoing
physical examinations, blood tests, and sonograms. Nothing abnormal was found, but with
each test she became more convinced that she was seriously ill. She kept looking for a
doctor who would tell her, unequivocally, that her symptoms could not possibly indicate a
fatal sickness. When doctors couldn't give her absolute assurance, she concluded that
something terrible must be wrong with her. I asked Amanda, a petite woman with a lightly
freckled face, why she thought doctors kept referring her to others. She was perplexed by
the question. "We live in a litigious society," she said. "Maybe they were
afraid of lawsuits, if they missed something." She paused. "Maybe they were
confused by what was wrong with me."
Amanda, who is thirty-three years old and teaches theatre arts at a
West Coast college, has suffered from medical anxieties many times before. Several years
ago, she was in a travelling theatrical group for children, and played a role that
required her to wear an elephant costume for more than a hundred days in a row. After a
long day spent in rehearsal and onstage, she often felt exhausted and queasy. Most people
would attribute these feelings to stress, but she was convinced that her symptoms
indicated a dire disease; one day, during a prolonged episode of abdominal pain, she
thought she might be dying and, in a panic, asked a colleague to take her to a local
hospital. The doctors there failed to detect anything out of order. The next night, she
went again, and once more the E.R. physicians sent her home.
Amanda's fears about illness began when she was nine, after she heard
that a schoolmate had almost died from a severe case of chicken pox. As a teenager, she
was terrified each time she had to visit a doctor. "I remember when I was fourteen
years old, and I was sitting in biology class and had a doctor's appointment later that
day," she said. "I was so scared, I couldn't think." She entered college at
the peak of the AIDS epidemic. Though she told me that she "wasn't strongly at risk
for H.I.V. "--she had few sexual partners and regularly used protection--she became
consumed by the idea that she was infected. "I really thought I had the virus,"
she said. Shortly after graduation, Amanda moved to New York City, where she got a job in
a bookstore. "Each day, I checked reference books in the store, and called people
about AIDS," she said. "It got so bad that my co-workers tried to keep me away
from the health section."
She finally decided to be tested for H.I.V. and, one day, stood for
more than an hour in a long line at a New York public-health facility. Part of the free
testing procedure involved undergoing a pelvic exam. "I was up in the stirrups,"
she recalled. "And this horrible doctor I didn't know said to me, `Oh, my God! There
is something definitely wrong with your cervix.' " Her heart started to race, and she
asked the physician whether her condition could be related to cancer. He replied that her
cervix was inflamed, and that some women with H.I.V. had a similar condition. "I
began to cry hysterically," Amanda said. "The doctor looked at me and said I
should learn to relax--listen to music or something." Amanda ended up getting two
tests for H.I.V. , in case one yielded a false result. Both were negative, and the
inflammation was benign, but she was so traumatized that she didn't have another
gynecological exam for three years.
People like Amanda populate every doctor's waiting room. Studies show
that at least a quarter of all patients report symptoms that appear to have no physical
basis, and that one in ten continues to believe that he has a terminal disease even after
the doctor has found him to be healthy. Experts say that between three and six per cent of
patients seen by primary-care physicians suffer from hypochondria, the irrational fear of
illness. The number is likely growing, thanks to increased medical reporting in the media,
which devotes particular attention to scary new diseases like SARS, and to the Internet,
which provides a wealth of clinical information (and misinformation) that can help turn a
concerned patient into a neurotic one. Nevertheless, hypochondria is rarely discussed in
the doctor's office. The "worried well," as sufferers are sometimes called,
typically feel insulted by any suggestion that their symptoms have a psychological basis.
Most patients are given a formal diagnosis of hypochondria only after ten or so years of
seeing physicians, if they get such a diagnosis at all.
Doctors often dislike their hypochondriac patients; they consume
inordinate amounts of time, and strain hospital resources with their interminable
complaints. In the United States, it is estimated, twenty billion dollars a year is spent
on patients whose psychological distress requires repeated tests and procedures. Many
doctors and nurses make fun of hypochondriacs, calling them "crocks" and
"turkeys." The favored epithet among interns and residents is GOMER, which
stands for Get Out of My Emergency Room. Many doctors are relieved when a hypochondriac
leaves them for another physician.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, research on the subject is sketchy. The most
recent edition of the "Cecil Textbook of Medicine," a volume of more than two
thousand pages that is one of the bibles of internal medicine, includes only two sentences
on hypochondria: "Chronic preoccupation with the idea of having a serious disease.
The preoccupation is usually poorly amenable to reassurance." The National Institutes
of Health currently funds no studies on the topic.
Among the few psychiatrists and primary-care physicians who are
interested in the problem, there is little agreement about the reasons for the disorder
and what to do about it. Only in recent decades has a working definition of hypochondria
been formulated by the American Psychiatric Association: "The fear or belief of
serious illness that persists six months or more despite physician reassurance."
Conventional medical wisdom holds that hypochondria is a hopeless condition and should be
treated by ignoring it, because a hypochondriac's recognition of his problem does not
result in a change in his symptoms or in his behavior. Indeed, doctors like to joke that a
hypochondriac's symptoms will disappear only when the patient lands on a desert
island--and nobody is around to listen to his whining.
The term "hypochondrium" can be found in the writings of
Hippocrates. The word originally had an anatomical emphasis--indicating the area under
(hypo) the cartilage of the ribs (chondros)--and referred to digestive disorders of the
liver, spleen, and gallbladder. Starting in the seventeenth century,
"hypochondria" was used to describe a melancholic disorder that was also marked
by indigestion and vague pains. Leeches were the preferred mode of treatment. The
diagnosis developed a certain cultural chic, particularly in eighteenth-century England,
where it was called "hyp," and an anxious, gloomy temperament was considered a
sign of high intelligence. Samuel Johnson and his biographer, James Boswell, both suffered
from the malady. (In his "Life of Johnson," Boswell wrote of his friend,
"All his labours, and all his enjoyments, were but temporary interruptions of its
baleful influence.") Men were thought to be affected by hyp more than women, whose
nervous behavior was typically interpreted as hysteria.
It wasn't until the nineteenth century that hypochondria came to be
narrowly defined as an excessive fear of illness. Not coincidentally, the disorder
flowered at the same time that modern medicine began identifying one rare disease after
another. In his novel "In Search of Lost Time," Proust wrote, "For each
illness that doctors cure with medicine, they provoke ten in healthy people by inoculating
them with the virus that is a thousand times more powerful than any microbe: the idea that
one is ill."
Modern psychologists have devoted surprisingly little attention to the
disorder. Freud simply asserted that it was the result of libidinal energies being
directed at one's own body, and declared that the disorder was not susceptible to
"purely psychological inquiry." In later years, psychoanalysts offered a variety
of explanations for hypochondria. Some saw the behavior as a general cry for help from the
subconscious; others defined it as a targeted, if covert, expression of anger toward
Hypochondria is so hazily understood that most doctors have no dear
idea how to manage patients who suffer from it. The disorder is particularly tricky for
the primary-care physician, who often sees patients with nebulous complaints and must
judge how deeply to explore these ambiguous symptoms. The doctor knows that a fair number
of people in his waiting room each day will prove to have no physical disorder--yet he
must remain open to the possibility that each patient might truly be sick. Hypochondriacs,
in effect, risk deafening a physician with their relentless background noise.
I am a medical specialist who cares for patients with blood diseases,
cancer, and AIDS. Several years ago, I was a consulting oncologist for a woman who had
developed breast cancer. The tumor had been found early and was removed by surgery. I saw
her only once or twice a year, but her internist had told me that she was a severe
hypochondriac. At each visit, she unloaded a series of complaints, but almost always
mentioned having a queasy feeling in her stomach. Her husband sometimes accompanied her to
my office; once, when I asked her how long she had suffered from the stomach symptom, he
interrupted and said, "Since I married her." The couple had been together for
thirty years. I looked at him from the corner of my eye and we exchanged a dismissive
look. Some weeks later, I was called by the patient's primary-care doctor, who told me
that she had almost died from sepsis owing to an infected gallbladder. I was distraught
that I had treated her complaints with such a cavalier attitude. Sometimes, even a
hypochondriac's complaints are valid.
The above text covers the first two pages of this six page article. For the remainder, visit the archives of the New Yorker Magazine at www.newyorker.com/archive.
Untying the Knot
Melanie Thernstrom, New York Times Magazine- 8/24/2003
In most public accounts of divorce, there is no confusion as to why the couple is
splitting up. The reasons are so sound -- the trails of manipulation, exploitation and
betrayal so thick -- the only mystery is why the couple were together in the first place.
Is it possible to imagine that Ronald loved Patricia or that Donald truly cared for Marla?
What does love mean to someone who presents his bride with a prenuptial on the eve of
their wedding, stipulating that she would get many millions of dollars for a marriage of
four years, but only $1 million for less than that -- and then discards her on the
deadline? And what does love mean to a woman who'd sign on that particular dotted line?
In contemplating these questions, however, we neglect the more
difficult ones. The truth is that most Americans do not marry for power, money and status.
Nor do they marry out of social and economic necessity, as in an earlier era. They marry
for love. Yet an enduring truth of our time is that marriage dissolves as often as it
holds. So how is it that ordinary love ordinarily fails? If love is, as Wallace Stevens
suggests, a dwelling ''in which being there together is enough,'' how does silence fall on
a thousand evenings and the possibility of intimacy flicker and die? How do lovers become
Marriage: The Spaghetti
''It was a good story -- a story we liked to tell when we were together,'' Max says, in
the slightly droll drawl he uses when speaking about his marriage now, as if irony will
obscure his sentiment when its actual effect is more like chiaroscuro. Yet the story that
Max tells of meeting Kate is simple. (Both of them asked to be identified only by
childhood nicknames.) Fourteen years ago this fall, Kate showed up at an opening at the
museum where Max was working. They seemed to have a lot in common; they were both 32, with
graduate degrees in education and experience working in nonprofit agencies, although Kate
was already on a corporate track. She was visiting from the Midwest; he invited her to
lunch at an Italian restaurant near La Guardia, before her flight the next day. ''She had
a slightly wicked sense of humor,'' Max says. ''She was from a rural town and had these
appealing colloquialisms, such as 'cold as a witch's elbow.' '' He gropes for adjectives.
''She was energetic and enthusiastic, intelligent, athletic . . . beautiful. She surprised
me. And as I got to know her, she continued to surprise me.''
It's not hard to picture them together: everything each recalls liking
about the other still seems true. In fact, if you met both of them today, you might think
to introduce them. They are equally distinctly attractive, in differing genres: Kate looks
a bit like Dorothy Hamill, with short, silky brown hair, fair skin, impatient blue eyes
and a trim, compact build. Max looks like the man who ruins or rescues the heroine: dark,
tall and lanky, with a languor about his body and voice. Kate remembers being drawn to his
attentiveness and intensity. ''He had cool interests, jazz and wine and art and
literature,'' Kate says. ''And he was very cute.'' She laughs, her voice lingering in the
''very'' in which she once fell in love.
But the story she tells of their first date includes a layer absent
from the one that Max tells. Like Max, she felt an urgency in their conversation -- a
possibility of intercourse, in all senses of the word. But at the same time, there was a
way in which she was already dropping out. When lunch was over, Max insisted she take the
remainder of her spaghetti home. He must already have cared for her, he explains now; he
had never done such a thing on a first date before. ''It was so him,'' she says, in the
way that the fondest of phrases -- it's you, darling! I understand you! -- can
metamorphose into the bitterest, as caring begins to be seen, through the lens of years,
as controlling. ''I hate leftovers; I was hardly going to lug that damn spaghetti back to
the Midwest. But I said, 'Fine,' and threw it out when I got to the airport. So there you
have it, that's the whole thing -- the beginning and the end.'' It was the first of 11
years of things she said 'Fine' to while thinking something different.
Divorce: A Failed Conversation
In his radical address to Parliament in 1643, ''Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce,'' John
Milton argued that ''in God's intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and
the noblest end of marriage,'' and that divorce is not only necessary but right when that
special conversation fails. Does it follow, though, that divorce must maintain silence? Or
is there a possibility of dialogue even in separation? Can two people come to a shared
understanding of fractured love? And if so, is that valuable? What is the good of a good
The questions have grown only more urgent: four centuries after Milton
urged that divorce become a civil right, American matrimonial law is still punitive --
protracted, expensive, confusing, damaging. Yet divorce is now an ordinary -- perhaps even
a likely -- outcome to marriage. Over the last two decades, the proportion of failed
marriages had held stable at around 50 percent, but (while national data lags) some
experts suggest that the rate may be tipping over half.
Historically, periods of economic hardship tend to keep couples
together; the current economic downturn, however, appears not to have had that effect. A
survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 78 percent of divorce
attorneys say that their caseloads are steady or increasing. Several studies, according to
The Wall Street Journal and others, show that divorce filings have increased in many areas
and, moreover, that there is an increase in the number of contentious divorces.
Kate and Max vehemently disagreed on the terms of their separation. But
they avoided the quagmire of litigation through an increasingly popular alternative to
handling disputed divorce: mediation. Although mediation began in the 1970's, it is now
beginning to reach critical mass. In California, Maine and other states, mediation is
mandated in custody disputes in divorces, and other states are considering similar
legislation. Oklahoma, which has one of the highest divorce rates in the country, has
recently instituted a program that refers couples to free or low-cost mediation. If the
trend continues, someday soon people may look at litigation as a last resort only for
unusually contentious divorces (cases in which one partner is abusive or absent), rather
than the norm.
Jack Himmelstein, co-founder and co-director of the Center for
Mediation in Law, which trains mediators, says that the trend is spurred by the grown
children of baby boomers who were victims of their parents' 80's ''Kramer vs.
Kramer''-style divorces, and who want their own divorces to be less damaging. And there is
a growing interest in a concept that has newly made its way into our culture, ''the good
divorce'' -- a phrase that once would have sounded not only oxymoronic but also unseemly
-- something that implies permission instead of punishment, like ''happy hooker.''
Litigated divorce inherently fosters enmity. In litigation, ''meet
conversation'' immediately ceases: the first rule a lawyer conveys to the client is
literally to not talk to his or her spouse -- lest self-scrutiny prove contrary to
self-interest. Refusing to join the modern ''no fault'' trend, New York continues to
require one of three extreme grounds for divorce: cruelty, adultery or abandonment.
(Milton advocated that the 17th Puritan Parliament liberalize grounds to include
incompatibility.) Individuals in contested divorces have to pay lawyers to establish
grounds by creating false narratives about their spouses. Thus insensitivity becomes
cruelty, a busy father turns into a negligent one and so forth. By the time litigation is
completed, the anger -- if not the accusations -- becomes reality.
Mediation, by contrast, ''relieves couples of the need to demonize each
other,'' says Barry Berkman, a matrimonial attorney and mediator who drafted the final
agreement with Kate and Max at the end of their mediation. Couples employing mediation
have been shown to be significantly happier with both the process and the results than
couples using litigation. As an article in St. John's Law Review noted, one study found
that 73 percent of those in mediation were satisfied or highly satisfied. Trials yield
little satisfaction, and even attorney-negotiated settlements were satisfactory to only 23
percent of divorcees. Himmelstein, who acted as the mediator for Kate and Max, says, ''In
mediation, you have the opportunity to tailor the law to your own needs.'' Kate and Max
''wanted to create a separation that reflected the relationship they had.''
The only problem was that Max and Kate had profoundly different notions
about what that relationship had been. Like most divorcing couples, they found themselves
disputing not so much their desires for separate futures as their beliefs about their
common past: the nature of the marriage they shared -- or thought they shared.
Marriage: A Dangerous Intimacy
How do we describe the arc of a failed marriage? In one model, a period of
happiness would turn into unhappiness, as if the marriage were a plant that bloomed and
then withered. There might be identifiable adversities -- weather, soil, pestilence - and
turning points, or at least a progression, as in a snowfall. The accumulation of moments
might be too numerous for each to be observed, but the trend would be clear: you look once
and see a light dusting, and the next time you look, it's an impossible snowdrift.
Another model of a failed marriage holds that the crucial elements are
written into the marriage contract from the beginning, and like genes, express themselves
over time. Those elements -- the strengths of the bond -- might even prove to be the
weaknesses, the way a certain kind of intimacy, for example, might protect against
loneliness while weakening autonomy, the way a gene that protects against malaria also
causes sickle-cell anemia.
In the 11 years they were together, the dynamic between Kate and Max
changed very little. But in the early years, the dynamic worked. Soon after that first
lunch, their lives began to merge. Kate relocated to New York, and they moved to an
apartment on the Upper West Side. When Max describes the joy of their relationship, he
stresses their easy unity: the interests they cultivated together -- the pleasure of
finding a partner. For Kate, the joy was one of transformation, as Max's world opened up
to her. She had grown up in a rural town, the eldest daughter of a construction worker and
a housewife in a Protestant household where money was tight, whereas Max was the
doted-upon child of cultured, Jewish intellectual New Yorkers who reared their children in
Westchester. Kate began to learn about bird-watching, baseball, wine and theater. They
baked bread, went camping and tried to practice tsedakah -- acts of loving kindness -- by
boxing lunches for homeless people in their neighborhood. They got involved in a local
temple, and five years after they met, when they were both 36, Kate converted to Judaism,
and they decided to marry. They went to a jeweler on 47th Street and picked out a ring
with a modest row of small diamonds. Then they went for lunch to a Chinese restaurant
where Max, teasingly, proposed. They each recall having paid for the ring. ''I told myself
it didn't matter who paid for it,'' Kate says. After all, from the beginning Kate made
more money, working in finance at a large corporation, than Max did at a nonprofit
organization -- a gap that would grow.
Their intimacy was sufficiently consuming that neither of them bothered
to develop other friendships. Kate loved spending all her free time with Max. But while
she was genuinely engaged by their joint hobbies, she secretly suspected her level of
interest was slightly inferior to his. She'd find herself gamely tramping along on daylong
bird-watching expeditions, when she'd rather have kept it to a morning and gone out to
lunch, or she'd observe the Sabbath when she would have preferred to watch birds. And she
never quite forgot that each of their shared interests had originally been Max's idea.
When I ask Max, he exclaims, wounded: ''I can't believe she's trying to put these things
on me. I wasn't into Judaism before her. These were things we discovered together.''
A few years into their marriage, Kate had brief flirtations with
hobbies of her own invention -- singing and horseback riding -- but they never really
took. Kate had one close girlfriend, and sometimes in the summer, she'd take the train to
see her on Fire Island, play tennis and come back late. ''He hated that -- he'd always be
in a bad mood when I got back,'' she says. ''I guess I wasn't entirely sure I had the
right to want that,'' Kate adds. ''I feel like it was very important to him that we have
the same interests and do everything together.'' Max now acknowledges, ''Perhaps I was a
bit threatened by it.''
While Max found his job satisfying, it had fewer demands than Kate's
did. She worked long hours, concentrating so fiercely she'd sometimes not eat or go to the
bathroom. Max would pack a lunch for her or thrust an apple into her hand as she walked
out the door, and then call her at work and urge her to take a break. He wanted to take
care of her while she was away from him, and he wanted her to take care of herself, and
those two things seemed indistinguishable to him. ''Good lord, the idea of deciding what
you're going to eat in the morning is so unappealing,'' Kate says. ''Perhaps he didn't go
to school every day for 12 years and take the same boiled-ham sandwich on white bread, but
I did. You want caretaking, but you want it in the way that's meaningful to you -- which,
for me, is not in a brown paper bag.'' Max does recall Kate mentioning she didn't want the
food. ''I heard it at one level,'' he says slowly. ''But I didn't really hear it -- you
The only aspect of their home life that wasn't communal was finances.
Kate insisted they keep their earnings separate and divide their bills proportional to
their salaries -- a formula that shifted with Kate's raises. Each year when Max's parents
gave them each a tax-deductible gift toward a down-payment on an apartment, Kate put hers
in a separate account. The arrangements struck Max as a bit odd, but he tried not to think
too hard about it. After all, he knew Kate was compulsively organized, and he reasoned,
since they were spending their lives together, all her money was really theirs. If Kate
preferred to have her name on an account, what did it really cost him?
Divorce: Balance of Power
It makes no sense to say that a good marriage requires parity, as most marriages
in the world and throughout history have been based on entirely different principles. You
might even conclude from America's unusually high divorce rate that the expectation of
equality and personal fulfillment is itself a more problematic prescription than that of
honor and obedience.
Or perhaps the problem lies not in equality, but in the ambivalence
that inevitably surrounds a titanic cultural shift only decades old. Many women today
still sign up for marriages in which the man, to some extent, dominates. Traditionally
those marriages have ended when the stronger party tires of the dependent. When Harriet
Newman Cohen began practicing matrimonial law three decades ago, her clients were mostly
women whose breadwinners had walked. But she and others have observed that today, it is as
often the weaker party who calls it quits, tired of a role that is no longer culturally
sanctioned. And, once equitable distribution laws -- which forced the higher-earning
spouse to share the wealth equitably -- were passed in the 80's, there was no longer any
financial penalty for divorce.
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