As I mentioned in my last post, I am in Prague. To get here, I had to take one flight from Detroit to JFK and another from there to Prague, and I had to leave my obsession with Herodotus behind. I need a library if I am to do much on Sparta. This extended period of involuntary confinement I used to read something like two weeks of back issues of The Wall Street Journal. One consequence is that, in the Review section for 9 July I came across a long piece excerpted from a new book by Susan Gregory Thomas. Its title was The Divorce Generation. I found it intriguing, and I recommend that you read the whole thing.
In this post, I want to concentrate on a single one of the claims advanced by Ms. Thomas, and to this end I want to quote a few paragraphs from the beginning. I may in a later post return to the larger questions she raises about marriage. Here I want to focus on Generation-X. Here is what Ms. Thomas has to say:
Every generation has its life-defining moments. If you want to find out what it was for a member of the Greatest Generation, you ask: "Where were you on D-Day?" For baby boomers, the questions are: "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" or "What were you doing when Nixon resigned?"
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.
When my dad left in the spring of 1981 and moved five states away with his executive assistant and her four kids, the world as I had known it came to an end. In my 12-year-old eyes, my mother, formerly a regal, erudite figure, was transformed into a phantom in a sweaty nightgown and matted hair, howling on the floor of our gray-carpeted playroom. My brother, a sweet, goofy boy, grew into a sad, glowering giant, barricaded in his room with dark graphic novels and computer games.
I spent the rest of middle and high school getting into trouble in suburban Philadelphia: chain-smoking, doing drugs, getting kicked out of schools, spending a good part of my senior year in a psychiatric ward. Whenever I saw my father, which was rarely, he grew more and more to embody Darth Vader: a brutal machine encasing raw human guts.
Growing up, my brother and I were often left to our own devices, members of the giant flock of migrant latchkey kids in the 1970s and '80s. 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.
The divorced parents of a boy I knew in high school installed him in his own apartment because neither of them wanted him at home. Naturally, we all descended on his place after school—sometimes during school—to drink and do drugs. He was always wasted, no matter what time we arrived. A few years ago, a friend told me that she had learned that he had drunk himself to death by age 30.
My initial reaction, upon reading these paragraphs, was that Thomas captures rather well the horror of divorce – both from the perspective of her mother and from the perspective of the children left behind by one parent or another (the father's story is left untold). Am I right about the piece's accuracy?
My second thought was that she is correct that, at least some of the time, it makes sense to think in generational terms. Where there is a searing experience common to a generation, that experience shapes the generation – and one sign is that one can pose the sort of questions that she poses. Those who lived through World War II will remember where they were and what they were doing when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. We baby boomers all remember where we were and what we were doing when John F. Kennedy was killed and when Richard M. Nixon resigned. My bet is that 9/11 marks those of us who were fully cognizant at the time. And here is my question. Is Thomas right that for Generation-X the defining experience was the divorce of their parents?