Divorce Blows

by Barry Drogin

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I had wanted to see "The Squid and the Whale" since its release, but was a little scared of how it might effect me, given my divorce is only two years past, and my children are still struggling with the impact. I got invited to a screening followed by a discussion led by a lawyer and a psychologist, which was ideal for my personal situation.

I’m not really interested in rating the film, or commenting on its on-the-cheap independent film cinematography. Judging the performances or casting of the four main characters is also not my concern.

It does disturb me that it is generally agreed that, given the screenwriter and the resulting film itself, the narrative is taken from the children’s point-of-view, and yet discussion concentrates on the adult characters, and the actors portraying them. To get that out of the way:

1. Are the parents good people? The mother is an adulteress, and prior to the divorce she is “caught” on the street as her husband and older son go through their typical ritual of parking space hunting. She also receives calls from her lovers at the family home. The father is judgmental, dismissive and overly competitive. He is never shown engaging in any social activities with friends or colleagues, although he does challenge the tennis instructor and allows himself to develop a relationship with one of his students. If I remember correctly, he loses his agent due to his arrogance.

(Sidebar: This is not “A Star Is Born,” but the mother’s successes rub up against the father’s failures. Despite the father’s early literary success, the mother is somehow the owner of the nice family home, and the father’s relative poverty is made explicit in the film: we are shown the house needing repair, the empty refrigerator, the father’s underestimating the cost of drugs (and request for change), the neighborhood (when the son goes to get the drugs), the father’s refusal to pay for the tennis lessons. I hope viewers don’t interpret these as cheapness or stinginess; statistically, single mothers may experience poverty more than single fathers, but this film is truthfully semi-autobiographical and particular.)

2. Are the parents good parents? The father freely uses excessive profanity, and does not object to his children using it either. He brings his older son into his college class to expose him to the sexual content, and discourages his older son from having a steady relationship. The mother allows her 12-year-old son to drink beer, and dates his tennis instructor. She shows some maternal affection once or twice to the younger son, and shows some concern for making the divorce “work” for the children, but neither parent is shown enforcing rules, limits, or discipline, or setting an appropriate example. Both parents try to treat their children as friends, as equals, for emotional support, and both try to turn the children against the other parent.

But enough about them, what about the kids? BEFORE the separation, the younger child is shown shoving a nut up his nose, and the older child is shown to be a plagiarist (he steals a pop tune which his intellectual parents would not be familiar with, perhaps as a way of tricking them into expressing admiration for low-brow culture). The younger child’s weird behavior continues, with his mother’s acquiescence, into drinking, and his sexual passive-aggressive behavior seems to me to be a consistent progression. The older son, meanwhile, refuses to do assigned reading (but writes school reports anyway), and passes on opportunities to lose his virginity (perhaps due to some process of over-rationalization).

(The film contains the statement, “Shared custody blows,” but viewers shouldn’t take this to mean that sole custody and visitation is better, especially given that, in this case, both parents are bad parents. Divorce blows, bad parenting blows, and sole custody, Solomon notwithstanding, does not always go to the better parent. I’d say the opposite – when it is contested, the parent who is more willing to injure the child is usually awarded custody.)

It is hard to portray, cinematically, ABSENCE. The key to the film is that, despite the fact that the parents agree to shared custody, the older son, as one of the panelists at the screening put it, “votes with his feet.” For the duration of the movie, he refuses to live with his mother, talk to his mother, share a celebration with his mother. In his session with the psychotherapist, he surprises himself by choosing to recall a happy time with his mother. The filmmakers need an ending, and so they choose to show the older son rejecting his father and returning to his mother (and the film itself, of course, shows his father in a bad light), but one extreme is not better than the other. If the son is now able to look at the squid and the whale locked in constant, frozen conflict, perhaps that means that he will continue to spend time with BOTH of his parents; the implication (when he tells the nurse that “the man” (rather than “my father”) wants breakfast) that he has rejected his father’s authority and position does not necessarily have to mean that he will now go to the other extreme and refuse any contact with his father. I certainly hope not.

The children start this film injured. The separation results in the children becoming MORE injured. The older son takes the father’s side, the younger son takes the mother’s side; this is typical. The brothers try to form their own family unit, but also act out against each other; this is typical as well. “E.T.” showed Spielberg’s yearning for his absent father. “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” are about the parents. “The Squid and the Whale” is about the kids. It is questionable whether divorce brought an end to the hostility of the adults, or merely escalated it. It is obvious that the divorce traumatized the children. We know they’ll eventually grow up and move out, but whether, as the psychologist at the screening put it, either will become “well-adjusted” is unknown. Funny term, that: the goal is not to be healthy, or happy, but merely to adjust well to the fallout.

Bad people have kids. Good and bad people can be lousy parents. Except in so-called “high-impact” divorces (where one parent is physically abusing the other or the children), statistics show that, 2/3 of the time, hostility between parents increases after divorce. At least, 1/3 of the time, it does not. The state cannot provide a solution, and does not. This film is one grown-up child’s attempt to show the world, in an entertaining and semi-humorous way, that divorce blows. The squid and the whale will always be locked in conflict; it’s time we learned to at least look at it.

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Last Updated: March 15, 2009