Rachel Cusk: my broken marriage

When Rachel Cusk’s happy relationship of 10 years turned into a bitter break-up, she wondered how she and her two daughters would cope

Recently my husband and I separated, and over the course of a few weeks the life we’d made broke apart, like a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces. “The new reality” was a phrase that kept coming up: people used it to describe my situation, as though it might represent a kind of progress. But it was in fact a regression. A plate falls to the floor: the new reality is that it is broken. I had to get used to the new reality. My two young daughters had to get used to the new reality. But the new reality, as far as I could see, was only something broken. It had been created and for years it had served its purpose, but in pieces it was good for nothing.

My husband believed I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn’t be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth. For me, life’s difficulty has generally lain in the attempt to reconcile these two, like the child of divorce tries to reconcile its parents. My own children do that, forcing my husband’s hand into mine when we’re all together. They’re trying to make the story true again, or to make the truth untrue.

In the mornings I take my daughters to school. We spend the evenings mostly alone; I feed them and put them to bed. Every few days they go to their father’s and then the house is empty. At first these interludes were difficult to bear. Now they have a kind of neutrality about them. It is as though these solitary hours, in which for the first time in many years nothing is expected or required of me, are my spoils of war, are what I have received in exchange for all this conflict. I swallow them down like hospital food.

Call yourself a feminist, my husband would say to me, disgustedly, in the raw bitter weeks after we separated. He believed he had taken the part of woman in our marriage, and seemed to expect me to defend him against myself, the male oppressor. My husband said he wanted half of everything, including the children. No, I said. What do you mean no, he said. You can’t divide people in half, I said. They should be with me half the time, he said. They’re my children, I said. They belong to me.

Once I would have criticised such a sentiment severely, but of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge. Where had this heresy gestated? If it was part of me, where had it lived for all those years, in our egalitarian household? Where had it hidden itself? My mother liked to talk about the early English Catholics forced to live and worship in secrecy, sleeping in cupboards or underneath the floorboards. To her it seemed extraordinary that the true beliefs should have to hide themselves. Was this, in fact, a persecuted truth, and our own way of life the heresy?

It has existed in a kind of banishment, my flesh history with my daughters. Have I been, as a mother, denied? The long pilgrimage of pregnancy with its wonders and abasements, the apotheosis of childbirth, the sacking and slow rebuilding of every last corner of my private world that motherhood has entailed – all unmentioned, wilfully or casually forgotten as time has passed. And I was part of that pact of silence: it was a condition of the treaty that gave me my equality, that I would not invoke the primitivism of the mother, her innate superiority, that voodoo in the face of which the mechanism of equal rights breaks down.

Call yourself a feminist, my husband says. And perhaps one of these days I’ll say to him, yes, you’re right. I shouldn’t call myself a feminist. I’m so terribly sorry. And in a way, I’ll mean it. She wouldn’t be found haunting the scene of the crime, as it were; loitering in the kitchen, in the maternity ward, at the school gate. She knows that her womanhood is a fraud, manufactured by others for their own convenience; she knows that women are not born but made. So she stays away from it, like the alcoholic stays away from the bottle. So I suppose a feminist wouldn’t get married. She wouldn’t have a joint bank account or a house in joint names. She might not have children either, girl children whose surname is not their mother’s but their father’s, so that when she travels abroad with them they have to swear to the man at passport control that she is their mother.

My father advanced male values to us, his daughters. And my mother did the same. What I lived as feminism were in fact the cross-dressing values of my father. So I am not a feminist. I am a self-hating transvestite.

I remember, when my own children were born feeling a great awareness of this new, foreign aspect of myself that was in me and yet did not seem to be of me. It was as though I had suddenly acquired the ability to speak Russian: I didn’t know where my knowledge of it had come from.

To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character, which had evolved on a diet of male values. I was aware, in those early days, that my behaviour was strange to the people who knew me well. It was as though I had been brainwashed by a cult religion. And yet this cult, motherhood, was not a place where I could actually live. It reflected nothing about me: its literature and practices, its values, its codes of conduct, its aesthetic were not mine.

So for a while I didn’t belong anywhere. I seemed, as a woman, to be extraneous. And so I did two things: I reverted to my old male-inflected identity; and I conscripted my husband into care of the children. He gave up his law job, and I gave up the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children.

Ten years later, sitting in a solicitor’s office, my maternalism did indeed seem primitive to me, almost barbaric. The children belong to me – this was not the kind of rudimentary phrase-making I generally went in for. Yet it was the only thought in my head, there, with the solicitor sitting opposite. I was thin and gaunt with distress, yet in her presence I felt enormous, rough-hewn, a maternal rock encrusted with ancient ugly emotion. She told me I had no rights of any kind. The law in these cases didn’t operate on the basis of rights. What mattered was the precedent, and the precedent could be as unprecedented as you liked.

She told me I was obliged to support my husband financially, possibly for ever. But he’s a qualified lawyer, I said. And I’m just a writer. What I meant was, he’s a man. And I’m just a woman. The old voodoo still banging its drum. The solicitor raised her eyebrows, gave me a bitter little smile. Well, then he knew exactly what he was doing, she said.

For a while I cleaned incessantly, a maternal Lady Macbeth seeing bloodstains everywhere. The messy cupboards and cluttered shelves were like an actual subconscious I could purge of its guilt and pain. In those cupboards our family still existed, man and woman still mingled, children were still interleaved with their parents, intimacy survived. One day I took everything out and threw it away.

Summer came, clanging days of glaring sunshine. I could no longer sleep; my consciousness filled up with the lumber of dreams, of broken-edged sections of the past heaving in the undertow. At the school gate, the other women looked somehow quaint. I saw them as though from the emptiness of the ocean, people inhabiting land. They had not destroyed their homes. Why had I destroyed my home?

My children have been roused from the unconsciousness of childhood; theirs is the pain and the gift of awareness. “I have two homes,” my daughter said to me one evening, clearly and carefully, “and I have no home.” To suffer and to know what it is that you suffer: how can that be measured against its much-prized opposite, the ability to be happy without knowing why?

You know the law, my husband said over the phone. He was referring to my obligation to give him money.

I know what’s right, I said.

Call yourself a feminist, he said.

What I need is a wife, jokes the stressed-out feminist career woman. The joke is that the feminist’s pursuit of male values has led her to the threshold of female exploitation. This is irony. Get it? The feminist scorns that silly complicit creature the housewife. Her first feminist act may have been to try to liberate her own housewife mother, and discover that rescue was neither wanted nor required. I hated my mother’s unwaged status, her servitude, her domesticity. Yet I stood accused of recreating exactly those conditions in my own adult life. I had hated my husband’s unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother’s; and he, like her, had claimed to be contented with his lot. Why had I hated it so? Because it represented dependence. But there was more to it than that, for it might be said that dependence is an agreement between two people. My father depended on my mother, too: he couldn’t cook a meal, or look after children from the office. They were two halves that made up a whole.

My notion of half was more like the earthworm’s: you cut it in two, but each half remains an earthworm, wriggling and fending for itself. I earned the money in our household, did my share of the cooking and cleaning, paid someone to look after the children while I worked. And my husband helped. It was his phrase. I was the compartmentalised modern woman, the woman having it all, and he helped me to be it, to have it. But I didn’t want help: I wanted equality. In fact, this idea of help began to annoy me. Why couldn’t we be the same? Why couldn’t he be compartmentalised, too? And why, exactly, was it helpful for a man to look after his own children, or cook the food that he himself would eat? Help is dangerous because it exists outside the human economy: the only payment for help is gratitude. And did I not have something of the same gratuitous tone where my wage-earning was concerned? Did I not think there was something awfully helpful about me, a woman, supporting my own family?

And so I felt, beneath the reconfigured surface of things, the tension of the old orthodoxies. We were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes. We were a transvestite couple – well, why not? Except that I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband – meaning well – only did one.

So I was both man and woman, but over time the woman sickened, for her gratifications were fewer. I had to keep out of the kitchen, keep a certain distance from my children, not only to define my husband’s femininity but to appease my own male values. The oldest trick in the sexist book is the female need for control of children. I perceived in the sentimentality and narcissism of motherhood a threat to the objectivity that as a writer I valued so highly. But it wasn’t control of the children I was necessarily sickening for. It was something subtler – prestige, the prestige that is the mother’s reward for the work of bearing her offspring. And that prestige was my husband’s. I had given it to him or he had taken it – either way, it was what he got out of our arrangement. And the domestic work I did was in a sense at the service of that prestige, for it encompassed the menial, the trivial, the frankly boring, as though I was busily working behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of the spectacle on stage.

Sometimes, in the bath, the children cry. Their nakedness, or the warm water, or the comfort of the old routine dislodges their sticking-plaster emotions and shows the wound beneath. I gave them that wound, so now I must take all the blame. I wounded them and in this way I learned truly to love them. Or rather, I admitted it, admitted how much love there was. What is a loving mother? It is someone whose self-interest has been displaced into her children. Her children’s suffering causes her more pain than her own.

Yet it is I who am also the cause of their crying. And for a while I am undone by this contradiction, by the difficulty of connecting the person who acted out of self-interest with the heartbroken mother who has succeeded her. It seems to be the fatal and final evolution of the compartmentalised woman, a kind of personality disorder.

In the mornings the sun streams through the windows into the half-empty rooms, like sun falling on a ruin. The water mutters in the pipes; the boiler grumbling cholerically in the basement. One day it finally falls silent; the dishwasher breaks, the drains clog, the knobs of doors and cupboards come away unexpectedly in the hand. There is the sound of dripping water, and a dark stain spreads across the kitchen wall.

A man comes to look at the spare room. His name is Rupert. The clocks have gone forward and now the evenings are long and as blank as paper. People stay out late calling and shouting, music pouring from open windows, cars honking in the dusk. I wander through the dark house, checking the locks on the doors and windows, for it feels as though the outside is coming in. I wonder whether we will be safer with Rupert in the house or more at risk. There is a space here, a male declivity in the shape of my husband. Vaguely I try to fit Rupert into it. I imagine him fixing the drains, the door handles.

Rupert brings his iron and his humorous posters, his suits. My husband comes to collect something while Rupert is in the hall and the two of them shake hands. “Pleased to meet you,” they both say.

Most marriages have a public face, an aspect of performance. A couple arguing in public is like the body bleeding, but there are other forms of death that aren’t apparent on the outside. People are shocked by cancer, so noiseless and invisible, and by the break-up of couples whose hostility to one another never showed. You were the last people, a close friend said to me, the last people we expected this to happen to. And this friend, like some others, went away for fear it might be catching.

The first time I saw my husband after our separation I realised, to my surprise, he hated me. I had never seen him hate anyone: it was as though he was contaminated by it, like a coastline painted black by an oil spill. For months black poisonous hatred has flowed, soaked into everything, coated the children like the downy heads of coastal birds are coated in tar. I remember how towards the end it felt like a dam giving way by degrees, the loss of courtesy and caution, the breakdown of civility and self-control: these defences seemed to define the formal core of marriage, of relationship, to articulate the separation of one person from another.

Most evenings now Rupert and I meet in the kitchen. He is always in: I go downstairs and there he is. One evening he opens a bottle of wine and offers me a glass. Upstairs the children lie asleep in their beds: I imagine them there, like people sleeping in the cabin of a ship that has sailed off its course, unconscious of the danger they’re in. Rupert sloshes more wine into our glasses. He tells me I’m doing a great job. He tells me we’re in the same boat, in a way. After a while I say goodnight, and go and shut myself in my room.

I book our summer holiday, the same holiday we always take, to a much-loved familiar place. I tell my husband we can split the holiday in half, changing over like runners in a relay race, passing the baton of the children. He refuses. He says he will never go to that place again. He thinks there is something ruthless and strange in my intention to revisit a place where once we were together. Great if it doesn’t bother you, he says. I say, you want to deny our shared history. You want to pretend our family never happened. That’s about right, he says. I say, I don’t see why the children should lose everything that made them happy. Great, he says. Good for you.

Rupert is gone in the mornings by the time I get the children up for school, and in the evenings I avoid him. I stay in my room. My daughters and I do not leave home very often. For a while I thought that going elsewhere created possibilities of consolation, even of recovery, but I have discovered that every welcome is also a form of exposure. It is as though, in other people’s houses, we become aware of our own nakedness. At one time I mistook this nakedness for freedom, but I don’t any more.

It is my mother’s 70th birthday party. The youngest person sitting down to lunch is two, the oldest – my grandmother – 92. There has never been a divorce in this clan. Other than myself, of the many assembled adults only my grandmother is without her mate. My grandfather died when my grandmother was in her 60s: for nearly 30 years she has lived without a husband. When I was younger I thought she must be relieved to be alone, after all those years. Though I had loved my grandfather I saw it as a liberation. It never occurred to me either that she might have remained alone out of loyalty to the familial enterprise; that she might have been lonely, but continued to play her part for the sake of her children; that she might have understood, as I did not, that the jigsaw is a mirage, not a prison. It is not to dismantle but to conserve it that strength is required, for it will come apart in an instant.

My sister comes to stay and we take our children to the swings. Later, at the train station, she says to me: you have to learn to hide what you feel from the children. They will feel what they think you feel. They are only reflections of you.

I don’t believe that, I say.

If they think you’re happy, they’ll be happy, my sister says.

Their feelings are their own, I say.

What I feel is that I have jumped from a high place, thinking I could fly, and after a few whirling instants have realised I am simply falling. What I feel is the hurtling approach of disaster. And I have believed they were falling with me, my daughters; I have believed I was looking into their hearts, into their souls, and seen terror and despair there. Is it possible that my children are not windows but mirrors? That what I have seen is my own fall, my own terror, not theirs?

I can’t eat, and soon my clothes are too big for me. As a family we would eat around the kitchen table, but now I carry my daughters their supper on a tray. The table is covered in papers and books and electricity bills. I remember our family meals as a kind of tree, nourishment. I ask my children what their father feeds them. Takeaways, they say. The tree is dead for him, too, then. He was once an extravagant cook, a person who made pastry and boeuf bourguignon.

A friend comes to visit. I say to her, all my memories are being taken away. I don’t go near the photograph album any more, don’t look at the art books I once loved, don’t listen to the music or read the poetry that have been my life’s companions; don’t walk on the hills I walked with my husband, don’t contemplate foreign trips or visits to interesting places. And I don’t eat, for fear that nourishment will hurt me with its inferences of pleasure.

At a party in London I meet Z. A room that is too warm and full of people. I had to walk around the park across the road for an hour before I could bring myself to go in. I don’t want to talk; I have nothing to say. I feel like a soldier come back from a war, full of experiences that have silenced me.

X calls. Our conversation is like chewing on barbed wire, like eating ground glass. Our talk is a well that has been poisoned, but all the same I drink from it.

Every week I drive for 45 minutes along the coast to see Y. I sit in the armchair. Y sits in a beige leather swivel chair. I say, I don’t ever want you to tell me that I think too much. If you say that I’ll leave.

It is strange to discuss my marriage in this room; its neutrality is almost chastising, makes the story both more lurid and more sombre.

Z comes to see me. We take a walk in the countryside. He is quiet, nervous, taller than I remembered. He seems different every time I look at him. I don’t know him. He is mysterious.

As we walk we talk. In our conversation I keep missing my footing. I’m used to talking to someone else. Z walks quickly; I have to run to keep up. He says, narrative is the aftermath of violent events. It is a means of reconciling yourself with the past. I want to live, I say. I don’t want to tell my story. I want to live. Z says, the old story has to end before a new one can begin.

That night I call X. I don’t know why I call him. I just want to talk, like a climber trapped in a snowstorm on a mountaintop calling home. It is rescue she hopes for. Perhaps she just wants to say goodbye. The roaming itch that drove her away from home, away from ordinary satisfactions, remains mysterious even as it devours her in that cold and lonely place. She calls what she left, calls home.

X answers. Our conversation is like chewing on razor blades, like eating caustic soda. Our talk is a well that has been poisoned, but all the same I drink from it.

I say to Y, marriage is civilisation and now the barbarians are cavorting in the ruins. Yet we find ruins exquisite, Y says. He seems to suspect me of nostalgia. People overthrow their governments and then they want them back, I say. They evict their dictator and then they don’t know what to do with themselves.

Y raises his eyebrows at the word “dictator”.

I tell him about the walk with Z. If I was looking for a new dictator, Z didn’t get the job. I tell him of the way I showed him around my house, bought flowers, made him a beautiful lunch, like a small country advertising itself for invasion. Is it male attention I want, or male authority?

Is there a difference? Y says.

Z attended to my vision but he wouldn’t take possession of it. He backed away and was silent.

X talks. X is a talker. He is like a well signposted museum: it’s easy to find your way around, to see what he chooses to display. There are new things there now, new people, new opinions, new tastes in evidence; the old ones have been taken down to the archive, I suppose. But he doesn’t like me to visit, doesn’t want to talk to me any more. I keep inquiring after what is no longer part of the collection. X furrows his brow, as though he has difficulty recollecting it, this past to which I insist on referring. As soon as he can, he shows me out. The big institutional door, so reassuringly heavy, closes in my face.

Z comes to the house with a bag of tools. He fixes the broken shower, the pipe that leaks water into the kitchen wall. Are all these pieces of paper bills, he says. I don’t know, I say. I don’t want to open them. I want to live. Z opens one and reads it. He raises his eyebrows, gives a small smile. It’s a speeding fine, he says.

I go with Z to the cinema and when we come out I say something about the film he doesn’t understand. I feel, suddenly, that I’ve lost my power of communication. The loss feels as tangible as if I’d boarded an aeroplane and flown to a country whose people didn’t speak my language, nor I theirs.

Z lives alone. In my own house I charge from room to room, like a dynamo. I’m trying to keep the house alive. Sometimes it feels that the real house has gone but the children don’t know, don’t realise that I’m behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz, frantically turning knobs and adjusting microphones to keep the illusion going. In Z’s flat I don’t move. I become aware of myself, too close, like a stranger sitting down right next to me in a train carriage full of empty seats.

Z waits for the cloud of the cinema trip to pass over. He cooks, runs a bath, gives me a book to read. He says, sometimes for you the saying is a kind of working out, like doing a sum on a bit of paper. You can’t always expect people to grasp it. But I want you to know what I mean, I say. So do I, he says. I want to know what you mean. It’s late at night, too late to run away from something whose nature I can’t in any case discern. It’s just a shape in the darkness, understanding or its opposite, I can’t tell.

In the neutrality of Y’s consulting room the whole bloodstained past has been unravelled, but of Z very little is said. I find that I am protective of the silence around Z. The old war can be turned into words, but a living silence ought not to be disturbed. Things might be growing there, like seeds under newly ploughed earth.


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