Aftermath - On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk (Faber - March 2012)
It is over ten years since Rachel Cusk published A Life’s Work; her passionate and provocative tour de force that exploded the cosy myth of early motherhood as some kind of immaculate state of grace, and showed it up for what it actually is—consenting slavery.
Her book shocked people, but it exhilarated a lot of them too—here was someone with a powerful gift for telling the ugly truth beautifully, ripping into one of society’s most sacred cows as if it was a Mexican Piñata doll. She perfectly articulated how the exhausting intimacies of pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood require a woman to hand over not just her body, but her sense of self, and she attacked, with wit and venom, those self-appointed institutions which appear to condone that sacrifice—health workers, midwives, baby-book authors, even other mothers. She made new mums feel that we weren’t alone in our horror at what our bodies and our emotions were capable of, and in the guilty despair we felt at not being able to get our babies to sleep/feed/stop crying. Even for wanting a vestige of our old lives back again. True, there were times when some of her complaints chimed a little hollow—what kind of dreamer really expects to be able to go to a concert a few days after giving birth to a premature baby by C-Section? And there was also the skimmed-over matter of Cusk’s husband—the father of her child, and supposedly her partner in parenting—at best a shadowy peripheral presence in the book, but most of the time, unspoken of.
In Aftermath this husband/father looms much larger but is just as anonymous, despite the fact that he is now the catalyst for Cusk’s narrative; as the book begins the couple are in the process of splitting up and they are making each other miserable. Their lives have come to resemble an undone jigsaw puzzle, and bitterness and recrimination pollute the clarity of love that once held the family together. Cusk is vague about the exact context for the break-up, perhaps because she feels we might be distracted from what she really wants to talk about; the guilt and sense of loss that comes in the wake of a marriage break-down, and the social purgatory in which the newly separated woman can find herself. So inevitably the husband’s presence lurks in the shadows of Cusk’s story, and when we hear his point of view it is channeled by Cusk’s reaction to it. She writes
‘My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn’t be shaken: his whole world depended on it.’
Then she tells us that she has grown to distrust stories because they inevitably stray too far from the truth. But by its very nature Aftermath can only ever give us one version of the truth and so at times there is a claustrophobic sense of being down a tunnel with Cusk—not just because of the lonely gloom that her post-break-up depression casts over her life for a while, but because inevitably, we don’t get to see the full picture. As the ‘New Reality’ of life as a separated mum kicks in, Cusk feels her isolation and difference from the rest of society acutely, but there is also a sense that she has always felt something of an outsider, an onlooker rather than a participant—she has been a successful writer since her early twenties, her family moved around a lot when she was a child, and vitally, she felt held back from growing up like her mother.
‘In that world of femininity where I had the right to claim citizenship, I was an alien.’
She tells us how her parents brought her up to have the same ambitions and desires as a man. And as an adult it must have seemed, to friends and colleagues, that she was ‘having it all’ with a husband prepared to swap traditional gender roles and give up his own career path so that she could follow hers. Unfortunately, the truth was not so rosy, and there are strong hints that this domestic set-up left both parties feeling frustrated and resentful about the limitations of their life-swap. Cusk now feels that she has missed out on the ‘prestige’ of being a mother, and her husband feels that she has reneged on their deal.
‘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 a woman in our marriage, and seemed to expect me to defend him against myself, the male oppressor.’
The lawyers are called in but Cusk refuses to hand over half of everything, including their children—she makes it sound as if her husband wants to chop them down the middle—despite the fact that a male breadwinner would be required to do so under the same circumstances. Her indignation at her husband’s demand flows from her gut-felt belief that as the children’s mother she is entitled to more of them than he is, and that as an ex-lawyer, he should be able to support himself financially after the split. It quickly becomes clear that by its very nature, the intensity of her maternal feeling means that she is not prepared, or rather unable, to stick to the unwritten rules of the arrangement—she admits that in trying to act as both the man (breadwinner) and the woman (mother), she has failed at both. Feminism has become a problematic term and, like the rest of her generation, she discovers that its meaning has wobbled and lost shape—she can’t align herself with it any longer.
‘What I lived as feminism were in fact the male values my parents, among others, well-meaningly bequeathed to me—the cross-dressing values of my father, and the anti-feminine values of my mother. So I am not a feminist. I am a self-hating transvestite.’
Cusk is brilliant at showing us how we are all still bound by the mores of our parents’ generation, however hard they once strived to make us do things differently. She is also breathtakingly honest and visceral in her account of how it is to be the mother of young children caught in the middle of their parents’ split. She realises that, in her children’s eyes, she has become both hero and villain, and she perfectly captures their vulnerability and their grief.
‘Sometimes in the bath, the children cry. Their nakedness, or the warm water, or the comfort of the old routine – something, anyway, dislodges their sticking plaster emotions and shows the wound beneath.’
But there are also times when her attempts to explain why all this is happening blisters into a defensive kind of plea that, as her family’s breadwinner, she is superior despite, or more truthfully because, of the fact that she must divide her time and her self between mothering and work.
‘Like many women I know, I have never been supported financially by a man….What can I say about the ones that are? That they’re usually full-time mothers, and that they live more through their children. That’s how it is to me. The child goes through the full-time mother like a dye through water: there is no part of her that remains uncoloured.’
Cusk’s use of newspeak terms like ‘full-time mother’ and what she goes on to describe as ‘that curiously titled creature, the stay at home mum’ seems to me reductive for a writer whose way with words is usually so precise and original. We are all full-time mothers, even those of us juggling part-time or full-time employment—paid or otherwise—with looking after kids. To make sweeping judgments like this is condescending and short-sighted—not all mothers who want to work, can, and not all ‘stuck-at-home’ mothers (as I prefer to see us) live vicariously through our kids. It is for me one of the few let-downs in a piece of work which is otherwise a telling scrutiny of how traditional gender roles are still too imbedded in our collective psyche to remain twisted out of shape for long.
The personal and the political collide in this book. Alongside the treatises on what it really means to ‘have it all’ or to call yourself a feminist, are anecdotes and stories that spring off the page like mini-movies playing alongside the main feature—a trip to the dentist to have a tooth extracted is both witty and innervating, summing up, among other things, that sense of loss when something we took for granted is gone forever. Other anecdotes include a disastrous holiday in the West Country, a birthday cake gone wrong and a lodger who takes to wandering naked in the garden; tragi-comic dalliances along the slow path to recovery that Cusk invites us to share.
Aftermath offers up a dissection of a divorce, and there are times when we do want to look away because we feel that we are being shown just a little too much for comfort. Unflinchingly the author scrapes back the skin of her persona and worries away at the tenderest parts of her psyche, and in doing so she sacrifices her privacy so that we might see clearly the truth of how things are. And that, in my opinion, is a heroic achievement.