A decade ago, the mommy police savaged Rachel Cusk. The award-winning British novelist became the first literary Bad Mother for her memoir A Life’s Work, which chronicled the “abasements” of pregnancy and “the sacking and slow rebuilding of every corner of my private world that motherhood has entailed.” In return, some critics accused her of being “petty and irritable,” of “shameless self-revelation,” and of being “very depressed.”
Most of all, they never tired of asking whether she regretted having her children. As Cusk has written: “What meaning could such an admission possibly have? My children are living, thinking human beings. It isn’t in my power to regret them, for they belong to themselves.” Exactly. A Life’s Work remains better reading—exponentially more memorable and less self-indulgent—than the many Bad Mother chronicles that have succeeded it. If you have young children and feel thrown by how their small identities have subsumed your own, I recommend it, along with a stiff drink (yes, even if you are nursing).
I wish I could say the same about Aftermath, Cusk’s latest memoir, in which she dissects the breakup of her marriage and, as the title tells us, what followed for her and her daughters. The book is part puzzle and part disappointment. The image on the cover is a cracked plate, and as it opens, it’s as if Cusk has picked up the jagged shards and driven them into the heart of her marriage, to make sure it’s really dead. “The new reality, as far as I could see, was only something broken,” she writes. In pieces “it was good for nothing at all.”
The blood sport is hard to watch—and perhaps hard to write as well, because Cusk quickly pulls away, filling the rest of this thin volume with glancing impressions of her new life rather than dissecting the carcass of her old one. She is surely protecting her privacy, and her children’s, and that’s a natural and healthy impulse. But it makes the book at once too revealing and not revealing enough. It’s the kind of memoir that made me long for writers who have more distance and perspective from their material, who are less inclined toward big-gun metaphors of Greek mythology and more inclined—at all inclined?—toward humor. Diana Athill, Nora Ephron, even Joan Didion, who’s hardly a candidate for the Thurber Prize, are warmer company on a cold night.
Aftermath has caused a sensation in the United Kingdom because Cusk so devastatingly emasculates her husband. He’s the first victim in her opening pages. The second is feminism. “This cult, motherhood, was not a place where I could actually live,” she writes,
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 was to take the part of that twin, femininity. He was to offer her a body of her own to shelter in, for she didn’t seem able to find peace in me. My notion was that we would live together as two hybrids, each of us half male and half female. That was equality, was it not? He gave up his law job, and I gave up the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children.
The role reversal is a failure. Instead of finding unconventional bliss, Cusk comes to hate her husband’s “unwaged domesticity” just as she had hated her mother’s. As she and her husband take on the traditional roles of dominant husband (her) and submissive wife (him), she found her regard for him plummeting. (Never mind that in 2009, Cusk published yet another memoir about her family’s glorious sojourn to Italy: It seemed too good to be true at the time, and apparently it was.) “We were a man and woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes,” she writes. “We were two transvestites, a transvestite couple.”
From my own perch as one half of a two-career couple, I couldn’t help wondering whether Cusk could have scrubbed the devastating transvestite imagery from her brain if her husband had just gotten a job. In fact, it seems that while he quit his law practice to take care of their daughters, he has since become a well-received photographer, and recently—obligatory nod to irony here—a family mediator who helps couples manage their breakups. I guess his newfound work didn’t do the trick. Cusk has concluded that as her marriage fell apart, “the whole broken mechanism of feminism was revealed.” She continued, in an interview with the Guardian: “I had expected to find, at the end of the family structure, at least some proof of feminist possibility, however harsh, But either it wasn’t there or I couldn’t find it.” Instead, she does not want to pay him child support. She does not even want to share custody with him. “The children belong to me: once I would have criticised such a sentiment severely, but of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge,” she writes.
The Rachel Cusk of A Life’s Work, the incisive if brittle opponent of the mommy police, who knew without question that children belong to themselves, isn’t running the show in Aftermath. In her Guardian interview, Cusk says she wanted to describe her “primitive and fairly ferocious feelings” about her children, which the separation brought out, and which contradicted her own feminist politics. She succeeds, I think, in showing us her own dread that her daughters have been damaged. But the more layered emotions and possibilities go unexplored. Why precisely does Cusk think she shouldn’t share custody with her husband—after all, wasn’t he their primary caretaker? What arrangement have the ex-couple actually made? I’m not sure.
In one memorable scene, Cusk and her children visit a maker of fanciful hats and headdresses. One of her daughters tries on a mask of a stag and asks Cusk to buy it for her, please please. Cusk gropes for a sense of her own authority and decides to say no merely to establish it. Instead, her daughter withdraws the question, telling her mother not to worry, she’s changed her mind. To me, this suggests a daughter’s effort to compensate for her mother’s weakness, to self-abnegate rather than tax a parent’s strength. I would love to read Cusk on that possibility. But she lets it go, unexplored. Perhaps she feels uncomfortable probing her daughter’s psyche, but then why is she tantalizing us by starting to?
Instead of showing us the effect of divorce on her real daughters, Cusk inserts into her narrative extended interpretations of Greek tragedy. It’s meant to be insight by analogy. In Cusk’s reading of the Oresteia, Clytemnestra is the original working mother; she has to run the kingdom while Agamemnon fights the Trojan War, as she single-parents her son Orestes and her daughter Electra. The family’s biggest problem, of course, is that Agamemnon has sacrificed his older daughter Iphigenia to the gods, to win the fair winds the Greeks needed to sail for Troy.
From Clytemnestra’s rage over her husband’s terrible act, which leads her to murder him upon his return from Troy, Cusk extrapolates this question: “Do all women have a special capacity to hate their husbands, all husbands the capacity to hate their wives with a hatred that is somewhere fused with the very origins of life?” Maybe, I guess, but wouldn’t it be more fruitful to explore the particulars of her own marriage rather than to make grim pronouncements about everyone else’s? When she does, her writing can be brutally beautiful: “For months,” she writes, “black poisonous hatred has flowed from the fatal wound to our marriage, flowed through every source and outlet, soaked into everything, coated the children like the downy heads of coastal birds are coated in tar.”
But on the very next page, she goes too far again. Clytemnestra hates and kills Agamemnon, we are told, because he used their child to escape from her. “She doesn’t want a doll after all—she wants a man, a man to love her and desire her.” And this means, somehow, that Iphigenia “is perhaps the sacrifice that lies at the heart of all marriages, the death on which the whole enterprise is built.”
Maybe such an overwrought indictment of marriage is plausible, or even necessary, for Cusk in the throes of her gory divorce. But I wonder if she’ll wake up in a few years and read these pages as artifact rather than felt truth. I also wonder if being in the throes of a breakup just tends to undo good writers—it’s happened before.
In any case, my favorite thing about Aftermath is that it ends with a chapter of fiction—a short story. It’s about an au pair named Sonia who witnesses, and facilitates, the unraveling of the woman she works for and her marriage. Sonia is a modern, well-off mother’s nightmare: The younger nanny who supplants her. But in the end, it’s Sonia who has to leave. In the book’s final image, she makes a stollen for her former employers, who are living separately from each other, and divides the cake into two equal halves, one for each of them. The male and the female: symmetrical but cut apart by a knife. That’s Rachel Cusk’s vision of divorce, rendered more clearly in fiction than she can manage, as yet, in fact.
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.