Spoiled Children of Divorce

Memoirs About Growing Up in Divorce

For some reason I suddenly became aware that there are several memoirs written by Children of Divorce. Just in case you need company during the Holidays…

(I haven’t read any of them yet)

Susan Thomas
In Spite of Everything

Clair Dederer

Mark Crandall
Eulogy of Childhood Memories

Amanda Stern
Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life

“The Halo Effect” and Paul Ekman
July 31, 2010, 7:39 am
Filed under: Stepfamilies, Uncategorized | Tags:

This is pretty cool.  It in part explains why step-parents treat their step-children so badly and don’t have a clue that they are doing so.  Psychologists supposedly don’t trust their research because they fear the part about how they can’t judge the kids subjectively.  The problem is called “The Halo Effect.”

I’ve been browsing through a book written by Paul Ekman called Why Kids Lie.  My basic interest is the chapter called “Lying at Different Ages”  in order to compare what Ekman writes about how kids develop into the lying little devils that they are and the planetary return cycles to see if they line up with each other.  Paul Ekman is a great psychologist, one of the few.  We note that he is a man, not a female (and I’m seriously concerned that this is why he is good at psychology).

Ekman is the psychologist who has studied expression in the Human Face.  He’s an expert at figuring out how to judge what a person really thinks just by reading facial expressions.  Law enforcement uses Ekman’s research and teachings in order to train employees.  I seem to remember that National Geographic had a really fun interactive program on their website that one could play with to try to determine what different facial expressions mean.

I suspect that Children of D have a special relationship with lying that kids from intact families don’t have because they get stuck in the middle of so many of their parents’ fibs.  They also lead double lives which can, of course, lead to duplicitous  behavior, or fear of duplicitous behavior, whatever the case may be.  I have no idea whether this means that we grow up better liars, or more deceitful, or what.  The step-mothers keep pounding in the fact that all step-daughters are manipulative.  Of course, they never say that the step-daughters’ fathers are passive-aggressive (male version of manipulative).  I don’t even think that most step-mothers have brains, but that’s another story.

According to what I’ve read so far in Ekman’s book there aren’t really that many compulsive liars among children (maybe 5 percent?) and his research doesn’t study whether or not kids who lie a lot as children grow up to be deceitful.

What’s really fascinating is a description of “The Halo Effect” that seems to get in the way of psychologists’ studies of lying.  Ekman says:  “That phrase refers to the fact that if you know something good or bad about a person, you are likely to think he or she will have other good or bad traits.”  “I call it the “halo/horns effect” because it can work either way, positively or negatively.  Asked if Hitler liked babies, most people would probably say no.  The halo/horns effect misleads us into expecting that someone bad like Hitler would not do something nice, such as liking babies.”  Ekman goes on to describe how a teacher will naturally accuse a child who he/she has previous problems with and will tend to catch that child doing more bad things just because he will be watching for the negative traits.

Biological parents do this a lot.  Nobody really needs to add Step-Parents into the scenario.  Bio Parents generally have a favorite child and then they have a child who they just don’t get along with.  My Mother liked my Brother best and my Father liked me best.  It was clear that neither parent was really comfortable with that but we just sort of accepted it.

It seems almost certain that step-parents apply the Halo/Horns effect to their step-children even if they don’t want to.  The step-parent has to not only get along with the personality of the child but has to not get irritated by the fact that the child generally lives according to two sets of households.  Besides, blood is thicker than water, and the step-parent will always choose his own kid over the step-child.  And the really ballsy ones pretend that they don’t.

The Halo-Horns effect also applies to how step-children perceive their parents and step-parents as well.  I’m just not going to go into it as heavily because a child has no choice or say in whether or not he receives a step-parent into his/her life so there is a much deeper level of stress involved which apparently will never be looked at in any damned studies because divorced parents work at all the middle management jobs that control funding for such studies.

In this book Ekman talks openly about divorce within his own life as it seems that his son from a previous marriage was a big part of the reason for writing the book.  As a child Ekman also pulled off some pretty serious lies himself.  At any rate, I appreciate hearing a divorced parent talk about divorce.  In 1989 when the book was published some studies were showing that boys in particular suffer from divorce and from having absentee Fathers.

Face Reading
February 21, 2008, 3:28 am
Filed under: Books, Possible Personality Traits of Children of D. | Tags:

Just listened to the audiobook version of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. What fun.

If I’ve got it right, the overall jist of the book is to discuss the side of human perception which is more accurate when it occurs within a flash or small moment in time. This is compared to instances where better perceptions are made when over time time and through conscientious thought. Some researchers (I forgot their names) can actually watch couples talk with each other for 10 or 15 minutes and decide whether or not the relationship will last in a very high percentage of the cases. I think their accuracy rate was around 80 percent but my memory is not the greatest.

Another interesting comment came up in the discussion on psychologist Paul Ekman. Ekman is a psychologist who has studied emotion as expressed in the human face. He can describe facial expressions in terms of the numbers he has assigned to each of the 43 muscles on the human face (hope that’s the right number). There was a fleeting mention about how kids who grow up in traumatic family environments become very good face readers because they always have to gauge what their parents are thinking. I’ve found this to be a pronounced difference in friends from divorced families and friends not from divorced families.

I’ve been told that I’m very good at this myself. This sort of became a problem though when I tried to become a professional portrait painter. My victims said that I needed to stop showing what mood they were in. Sitting still like that is very boring and often very stressful and I usually ended up putting those expressions on their faces.

Great audiobook.

“Her Last Death”
January 6, 2008, 11:22 pm
Filed under: Books, Mentally Ill parents | Tags:

A new book out that I haven’t read and don’t know if I can really face because it sounds a little too much like my own story.  Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg.  The wild Mommy, Britney Spears kind of crazy but with child custody.  Rather the children have been given custody of the Mommy because the Daddy couldn’t handle her.
From the review in today’s paper it sounds like Sonnenberg’s parents divorced when she was 7 and she became the parent in the family.  I don’t know what happens to her Father, he sounds pretty much absent. As usual I suspect that the part about “The Big D” is kept under glossy wraps for the more tolerable drugs, sex and death story. Divorce doesn’t sell because the lawyers and the therapists are the only people with any money to spend.  The book concentrates on Sonnenberg’s relationship with her druggee, sexed out Mommy and is written maybe as a way of dealing with the guilt from the subsecquent estrangement and of not being able to visit her Mother as she lay dying.  Hey, at least she went fast (car crash).  Here’s a link to a funny review of the book where silly children of normal families crack jokes about how “awful” their own childhoods were in comparison. If you can’t talk openly about this shit you might as well laugh about it:  http://gawker.com/336705/susanna-sonnenbergs-mom-sounds-cool-scary.

I’ll probably never read this book because it hits too close to home but thanks for writing it, Susanna Sonnenberg. Maybe I’ll go to the movie when it comes out.

Success Story – Rebecca Walker

Rebecca Walker is the daughter of the poet Alice Walker & Mel Leventhal, a famous civil rights lawyer. She is a feminist and writer herself and has written about growing up in a mixed race family(ies) and of her parents’ divorce in Black, White & Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. Time Magazine has named her one of the 50 Future Leaders of America.

Rebecca’s parents divorced when she was in the 3d grade. She switched back and forth between her parents, 2 years with one then 2 years with the other which meant that not only was she living with 2 separate parental households, but she was living on different coasts in the U.S. every other year, as well as having to living with biracial ethnicity. “Exhausting” is how she now describes bouncing between families of two races and two religions. She went through a drug phase and got pregnant when she was 14. When she was 18 she switched her last name from her Father’s surname to her Mother’s.

She is bisexual and has currently had a baby boy. She is estranged from her Mother. Her most recent book is about her attitudes and experiences with Motherhood.

Here’s a quote and link from a 2001 article about Walker’s book:


Trapped in a destructive cycle, needing to re-invent herself every couple of years (and having had little clue as to who she was in the first place), Rebecca found she belonged simultaneously to two worlds and to none. Not surprisingly, some of the adjustments she made took on a racial twist: Denying part of herself each time she shuffled from city to city, from Jewish to black, from status-quo middle class to radical-artist bohe-mian, she trained herself to keep the code, not to say anything too white when she was with friends from the inner city, not to say anything too black when she was at Jewish summer camp.

But mostly Rebecca Walker’s story, as she tells it, is about raising herself. Her mother bragged in interviews that she and her daughter were like sisters, but as Rebecca points out, “being my mother’s sister doesn’t allow me to be her daughter.” So while Alice Walker was off on speaking engagements, sometimes for days on end, her “sister” Rebecca was choosing her own high school, taking drugs, having sex and generally fending for herself.

“About A Boy”
December 17, 2007, 3:40 am
Filed under: Books, Movies About Growing Up in Divorce | Tags: ,

After years and years of psychotherapy in which I probably only mentioned my Mother’s suicide attempts once and with a non-chalant shrug, I finally got my first feeling of release from these horrible experiences while watching a movie called About A Boy. The movie stars Hugh Grant which I’m sure helped in the feelings department, of course.  In the movie, a mother tries to kill herself because she can’t handle how difficult her life has become.  Her little boy walks in and witnesses the whole rescue scene.  Later on he makes friends with irresponsible, irrepressible Hugh Grant who is a 30 something womanizing cad and he tells Grant’s character about what has happened.  Grant’s reaction is perfect.  He doesn’t try to react with wisdom, just blurts something British like “Bloody Hell,” but you can tell the information sinks in.  Hugh Grant actually listened and “got it.” Or at least he acted like he got it. He’s an actor so who knows what he actually gets and doesn’t get. Somebody on that set “Got it.” The movie is based on a book by Nick Hornby. Nick Hornby gets it.  Anyway, you can tell I prefer to talk about Hugh Grant over my Mother’s Suicide attempts any day, just not an easy topic.

My Mother tried to kill herself 4 times during the year that my Father left. The first time was before he had left, the other three times were after he left. They were both alcoholics so self-destructive behavior didn’t really seem out of place. Plus my Mother was part of the Valium generation so she had been slowly degrading for years, always out of energy and becoming more and more confused, always needing to go home to take a nap.

The last 3 suicide attempts came after my Father left and were part manipulation to try to get him to come back. I was the one who walked in and found her. I was 14. Lots of adrenalin that year and blinking ambulance lights. My Mother had two visits to the Mental Hospital. The County Mental Hospital, where she was taken first, almost let her die because they didn’t treat her for the Clorox she had drunk. County Mental Hospitals are some of the most frightening places in the world.  If you really want to die they give you every reason why you should do so.  My Mother was taken in in the back of a police car in the afternoon and by the morning she had no heart beat and no pulse and my Father had her transferred to a less deadly, private facility. My Father refused to show up after the first attempt because the police had handcuffed him and stuck him in the back of the car because of something my Mother had said. Eventually my Mother found a semi-stable boyfriend and stopped trying to kill herself, but she never calmed down. I never said anything about it and never felt anything about the scenes until about 10 years later. One day, I came home from work, put my key in the lock to the flat where I lived and all the memories cames rushing back to me. I remembered that every day when I came home from High School and opened the front door I would walk around the house to see if my Mother’s body was lying around.

My Mother only remembered the one Attempt and that’s because it led to the Mental Hospital which cost money. Once she scoffed about the time she tried to 86 herself. I didn’t say anything and that’s the only discussion I’ve ever had about it with a family member.

I haven’t read it but About A Boy is based on a novel by Nick Hornby. From all accounts I can figure, Hornby’s parent’s divorced when he was 11. He’s written a memoir that discusses his parent’s divorce and the obsessive love he developed of football, or soccer. Hornby’s English so maybe it’s Soccer. The book is called Fever Pitch.

The World’s Room, Names Will Never Hurt Me
December 9, 2007, 12:23 am
Filed under: Books, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

I opened up the car door yesterday and some stuff fell out and I think I drove off and left the book and my new mittens on the ground in a parking lot somewhere. Kitten’s lost her Mittens and her new book. The book was The World’s Room by Todd London. Boo hoo. It actually rarely bothers me not to know the endings of books. I rarely read Thrillers or Romances so it doesn’t really matter. My brother used to get really angry when we were kids because I would walk away from the TV in the middle of a movie. I’m sure that’s diagnosable behavior now but truth is I just don’t really care what happens most of the time. I think I told my brother that it was pointless to watch a movie because the hero always wins. My brother felt challenged by this and now has developed a supersensory ability to predict the endings of movies by the time they are 1/3 of the way through. And it’s not the 50s anymore and the Hero doesn’t always win in modern movies so this is a really amazing skill. My brother’s sort of no fun to go to the movies with, though.

The story for the The World’s Room is really great. It’s another Emerald Flash tale about crazy Mommy who drags the kids out to California for fun and amusement and is told from the point of view of the 13 or 14 year old youngest Son. There’s a great description of the one-eyed Father who has is blind-sided by his wife’s behavior and subsequently drops out of the picture leaving the kids to keep Mom going. There’s a description of living with a mentally ill, divorced Mother who disappears for a week at a time leaving the kids to keep themselves going. Then there’s the story of the older brother who commits suicide, either from his own mental illness or from the stress of the situation. Most likely from both.

The book starts out talking about how the narrator assumes his older brother’s name after the brother’s death. You never learn his own name. You just learn that he didn’t mean as much to his mother as his older brother, probably because he doesn’t share the mentality.

This No-Name theme seems to repeat in stories of kids who grow up in families about the name. A name is one’s identity and authors continually use this device to show that the kids seem to lose theirs during their parent’s divorce. The narrator in Important Things That Don’t Matter by David Amsden was also nameless. There are some other examples that I’ve gone blank on as well.

This makes sense. When adults divorce they spend a few years readjusting their own identities as single people and then often again as remarried people. If the kid has problems he goes to therapy. This isn’t what the kids needs. The kid needs to develop his own life, not redevelop his parents’ lives. Certainly it’s a waste of energy to try to redevelop as a member of a family. I remember my step-sister changed her name and this seemed to help her develop an identity of her own that was not birth-given since her birth-given name was so tarnished with bad memories anyway. She also turned into a bitch around the same time. Maybe kids should take new names as part of the divorce settlement. It will give them the permission and freedom to develop their own identities that’s separate from their parents’ selfishness and/or insanity.

So, I don’t know how the book ends. Big repeat themes: Crazy Mommy. Crazy California. Dopey, useless Daddy. No-Name. 70s style divorce. Wish I hadn’t lost it. Maybe I should call my brother and ask him how it ends.