Totally no-fault divorces

DivorceCakeI confess that even my magazines stacked up during the papal visit. Thus, I was a week late getting to the epic Newsweek "Splitsville" cover story by David J. Jefferson on Baby Boomers and divorce in the symbolic Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles. The heart of this story can be expressed very simply: The sins of the fathers and mothers have been visited on their sons and daughters. The whole story centers on a tidal wave of divorce in what we are told -- no real stats to back this up -- is the "quintessential American suburb," that was built on the dreams of the GI Generation.

The story is about marriage, which is a subject that religious people would argue has moral and religious content, in and of itself. Since this is a tale of husbands, wives and lovers and the impact of their choices on their children, you would think that the nature of the moral questions involved might play a major role in the story. You would be wrong.

This becomes especially painful in the next generation, which is the whole point of the story. Choices have consequences and leave scars. The children in these divorced families, we are told, "grew up much too fast," raised by parents who never seem to have grown up much at all.

Here's the section of the story where all of that comes together:

As newly single mothers went to work to support their families, children were being left to fend for themselves. "We were latchkey kids," says Elyse Oliver, whose mom took a job at Hanna-Barbera studios, painting animated characters for shows like "The Flintstones" to provide for Elyse and her sister. "We had the little necklace with the key on it and we'd walk home from school, let ourselves in and take care of ourselves until she came home about 6 or 7. We'd do chores and cook dinner. I remember making drinks for her," Elyse says. The rest of the girls who lived on her block -- the "Martha Street Gang," they called themselves -- didn't come from broken homes. "It was, like, 'Eww, your parents are divorced'," recalls Elyse, whose parents split when she was 5, and whose last name at the time was Croen. By the time she was 13, her mother had been through three marriages: the first two ended in divorce, and her third husband died of a heart attack within a year, the day before Father's Day.

Like so many kids of divorce, Elyse dealt with the instability at home by acting out. At the age of 9, she was smoking. At 13, she was having sex. "My boyfriend at the time went up to my mom and said, 'Hey, we want to have sex, can you put her on the pill?' " Her mother agreed. At least Elyse was getting birth control: a good friend at the time, another child of divorce, had a baby at 15 and gave it up for adoption. The sexual revolution was in full swing in 1977, but Elyse believes her behavior had more to do with her parents' divorce and her father's death when she was 11. "I think I had a problem because I didn't have my dad around. So I was looking for love that wasn't there," Elyse says. She settled for whatever love she could get, putting up with her boyfriend's cheating for five years, then moving from one relationship to the next. "The same night I broke up with my first boyfriend, I met my next. I was never alone; I mean, there's something wrong with that."

But my generation was trained in the art of having to move from relationship to relationship.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course (unless, perhaps, religious doctrines get in the way).

Divorce can be passed from generation to generation, it seems, but this has nothing to do with the nature of the moral choices involved in all of these broken marriages and never-formed marriages, as people slide from one relationship to another and then another and another.

There are ironic twists. Gov. Ronald Reagan -- a divorced man, of course -- signs the no-fault divorce law that unleashes the whirlwind, yet also gets some credit later for some kind of cultural recovery period.

In many ways, the urge to stay married is stronger in my classmates' generation than the urge to get divorced was in my parents'. Perhaps this was a backlash to divorce; maybe it was the result of reaching marrying age just as President Reagan's New Conservatism was shaping the social order. Whatever the cause, my married classmates seem more clear-eyed than their '50s forebears.

But don't look for religious content in this piece, for the voices of those whose vows held up -- for either secular or sacred. Other than a multi-level family feud at a bar mitzvah, religious plays no role in the choices behind these divorce earthquakes and their aftershocks.

Nope. No religious issues here. I just thought you'd want to know.

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