In 1977, Kenny Rogers became a country music superstar on the strength of his great sad song “Lucille”. If you’ve never heard it, or haven’t heard it in a long time, take a listen. It has lost none of its power over the decades. Here are the lyrics:
In a bar in Toledo
Across from the depot
On a bar stool she took off her ring
I thought I’d get closer
So I walked on over
I sat down and asked her name
When the drinks finally hit her
She said I’m no quitter
But I finally quit livin’ on dreams
I’m hungry for laughter
And here ever after
I’m after whatever the other life brings
In the mirror I saw him
And I closely watched him
I thought how he looked out of place
He came to the woman
Who sat there beside me
He had a strange look on his face
The big hands were calloused
He looked like a mountain
For a minute I thought I was dead
But he started shakin’
His big heart was breakin’
He turned to the woman and said
You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille
With four hungry children
And a crop in the field
I’ve had some bad times
Lived through some sad times
But this time your hurtin’ won’t heal
You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille
After he left us
I ordered more whisky
I thought how she’d made him look small
From the lights of the bar room
To a rented hotel room
We walked without talkin’ at all
She was a beauty
But when she came to me
She must have thought I’d lost my mind
I couldn’t hold her
‘Cause the words that he told her
Kept coming back time after time
You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille
With four hungry children
And a crop in the field
I’ve had some bad times
Lived through some sad times
But this time your hurtin’ won’t heal
You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille
I do hope you’ll listen to the song, though. The lyrics themselves can’t convey the pain in the story they convey.
“Lucille” came to mind after so many years after reading Atlantic senior editor Honor Jones’s account of her self-liberation from the responsibility of husband and family. I have tried writing about this a couple of times, but have stopped because the topic was too emotional for me. I am not surprised to find a person who can do what she did. All of us struggle with demons, and if there’s one thing living long enough teaches you, it’s that you should be hesitant to judge a marriage from the outside. Everything I write below is based on a judgment of Jones’s marriage based only on what she tells us about it. I think, however, that what tears me up about this essay is not so much what she has done — as bad as that is — but that Honor Jones is proud of what she has done, so much so that she wrote about it in the national magazine for which she works. She ought to be ashamed of herself; a healthy society would have shamed her, instead of held her up as virtuous, as the publication of the essay does. As I will explain below, the Jones essay — what it says, and the fact that it was written and published at all — is profoundly emblematic of the moral bankruptcy of our culture.
Here’s how her piece starts:
I had wanted, I thought, soapstone counters and a farmhouse sink. I had wanted an island and a breakfast nook and two narrow, vertical cabinets on either side of the stove; one could be for cutting boards and one could be for baking sheets. I followed a cabinetry company called Plain English on Instagram and screenshotted its pantries, which came in paint colors like Kipper and Boiled Egg. Plain English cost a fortune, but around a corner in the back of its New York showroom you could check out the budget version, called British Standard. But it cost a fortune too. I wished there was a budget British Standard. I wished there was a room behind that room, the cabinets getting flimsier and flimsier until a door opened and let me back into my own shitty American kitchen, just as it was.
My husband talked to the architect; my husband talked to the builder. And I kept paring the plans down, down, making them cheaper, making them simpler. I nixed the island and found a stainless-steel worktable at a restaurant-supply store online for $299. I started fantasizing about replacing the counters with two-by-fours on sawhorses and hanging the pots from nails on the wall. Slowly, I realized, I didn’t want this kitchen. Slowly, I realized, I didn’t want this life.
I didn’t want to renovate. I wanted to get divorced.
It turns out that Honor Jones’s life as a wife and mom was not something out of catalogues. She had a cleaning lady to help her with the house, but it didn’t matter.
Even with Luba’s help, the house was chaos. I could never keep the children and their mess corralled. Toys and books were always underfoot. The crumbs—they were everywhere. I knew I was lucky to have all these crumbs and the house to keep them in. To have Luba to help. Still. If our kitchen became a murder scene, a forensic investigator could have told the story of my days with those crumbs. Three percent blue Play-Doh; 10 percent toast; 87 percent Honey Nut Cheerios dust: This was who I was.
There is nothing obviously attractive about being a parent who is caring for three children suffering from various stages of vomiting and diarrhea. What makes that scene so beautiful from the point of view of a parent who has been there and done that is that Campbell Scott’s faithful sacrifices are an icon of fatherly (and husbandly) devotion. He doesn’t have time to think about himself, and how much all of this — his cuckoldry, the kids’ sickness — sucks. They need him. I have watched my wife be this person hundreds of times. I have been this person hundreds of times. It’s part of the deal. It’s what helps make a family a family.
This is not the way of Honor Jones.
But the crumbs got me down. I sometimes felt that they were a metaphor, that as I got older I was being ground down under the heel of my own life. All I could do was settle into the carpet.
I didn’t have a secret life. But I had a secret dream life—which might have been worse. I loved my husband; it’s not that I didn’t. But I felt that he was standing between me and the world, between me and myself. Everything I experienced—relationships, reality, my understanding of my own identity and desires—were filtered through him before I could access them. The worst part was that it wasn’t remotely his fault; this is probably exactly what I asked him to do when we were 21 and first in love, even if I never said it out loud. To shelter me from the elements; to be caring and broad-shouldered. But now it was like I was always on my tiptoes, trying to see around him. I couldn’t see, but I could imagine. I started imagining other lives. Other homes.
I wanted to be thinking about art and sex and politics and the patriarchy. How much of my life—I mean the architecture of my life, but also its essence, my soul, my mind—had I built around my husband? Who could I be if I wasn’t his wife? Maybe I would microdose. Maybe I would have sex with women. Maybe I would write a book. …
They divorced and moved from Pennsylvania to Brooklyn. Now her little children split time between Mommy’s apartment and Daddy’s apartment. Jones writes:
Maybe I’m deluding myself. Maybe I’m not free of anything and I just want different objects, a different home, maybe someday—admit it—a different man. Maybe I’m starting the same story all over again. “For what?” you’d ask me, and you’d be right.
But I don’t think so. I think I’m making something new.
Read the whole thing. It’s contemptible.
Again, we can never fully know what happened inside that marriage, or inside any marriage. I can only judge in this case on the information Jones provides. What we know from the piece is that she got bored and restless being a wife and mother, and blew up her family for the sake of being free, or rather, “free”. Free to think about the patriarchy, and how horrible it all is, though I do wonder what lessons her poor children will take from this about the glories of the matriarchy.
Listen, your middle-aged correspondent doesn’t have to sit here long and think about the people he knows in his wide circle of friends — both husbands and wives — who are suffering through a painful period in their marriages, but keeping it together. Some of them are doing it for the kids. Others are doing it because they are Christians, and believe that one should only divorce as a last resort. Still others are doing it because they expected to have times like this in marriage, and they have a basic belief that you don’t destroy a family over a crisis that may pass. I won’t say more about these people, because I don’t want to violate any confidences. I can tell you, though, that in no example I’m aware of does infidelity or physical abuse show up (though in all honesty, some of them are enduring some sort of emotional abuse). As I write this, I’m thinking of four people in particular — two men, two women, all Christians — who are carrying heavy crosses, 100 percent because they do not want their children to suffer. In conversation with them over the past few years, I have learned that they see their situation as dying-to-self to preserve a semblance of a stable childhood for their kids.
“You’ve got to get out of there,” I said to one of those friends, who is married to a self-centered jackass. She’s going to wait until their youngest reaches a certain age. Her husband doesn’t physically abuse her; he has simply abandoned her within the marriage, and treats her rudely and coldly. It’s horrible, but as she sees it, endurable for the sake of the children. I admire her immensely, sacrificing her own happiness to provide well for their kids. She is a heroine. True, if she left him, I would 100 percent support her, and certainly not judge her (I know what she’s gone through). But the fact that she shoulders this burden for the sake of the kids is deeply honorable. She is absolutely clear-eyed about her situation, and doesn’t ask for anyone’s pity. She sees her primary duty as giving their kids the best life she can, as long as she can bear the cost to her personal happiness.
Hear me clearly: in no way do I believe a husband or a wife should have to submit to infidelity or physical abuse, or serious and/or prolonged emotional abuse, for the sake of holding a marriage together for the kids. But having raised three kids, two of whom are legal adults, and the youngest of which is 15, and having observed friends raising their kids, I understand now in a way I could not have when I first married almost a quarter-century ago how much sacrifice is part of the deal with marriage and family. Sometimes, marriages fail, and the only realistic and reasonable thing to do is to start over. But if children are involved, there ought to be a high bar. I confess that my reasoning here is motivated in large part by my love for my own children. If I were put to the test like my friends are, there is a hell of a lot of dying to self I would be willing to do out of love for them. The Secret Lives Of Dentists shows a husband and father whose sacrificial caring for his daughters during their sickness mirrors his willingness to absorb pain inflicted by their mother for the sake of sheltering them. Knowing that she was unfaithful, he had grounds for divorce, but being confronted with the vulnerability of his children compels the husband to consider forgiveness.
None of this has a thing to do with Honor Jones and her situation. She was just bored, that’s all. I think of the story I tell in Live Not By Lies, about my Hungarian friend lamenting that she can’t discuss her struggles as a wife and mom with her friends, because so many of them believe that if she’s having any trouble at all, she should get divorced and put her kid in day care. They can’t understand that she really is happy, despite the struggles she and her husband sometimes have, and despite the drudgery of caring for a small child. My friend factored suffering in as part of the deal, because my friend is realistic. The crazy people are those who believe that obligations to spouses and children can honorably be abandoned as soon as one finds oneself anxious or unhappy. In the Orthodox Church, in the marriage service, both the husband and wife are crowned. These crowns have a double meaning: they are both crowns of joy and crowns of martyrdom, in recognition that marriage contains both, and they cannot be separated. If you want the joy, you have to be prepared to accept dying to self. There is deep wisdom in that.
But none of that makes any sense to Honor Jones. By her own account, what drove her to divorce was boredom, and the belief that she was losing herself inside this marriage.
I don’t understand this at all. And here’s the thing: no man would write an essay like this, making public the shameful fact that he abandoned his wife and children because he was bored being domesticated. In fact, the friend I mentioned above? Her husband is an older male version of Honor Jones, though they have not divorced. He thinks he was made for a more thrilling life than domesticity. He believes that Cheerios ground into the minivan carpet and all of that is beneath him. I like to think that even he would have the sense to understand what a shameful thing it would be to publish an essay about his so-called self-liberation from dull domesticity. If he did publish such an essay, the man would be subject to widespread and deserved condemnation from all quarters, as a selfish prick.
But women who do this? No — we have a double standard in their case.
Maybe it goes back to the revolutionary 1879 Ibsen play A Doll’s House. In it, a bourgeois Danish woman suffers a crisis in her marriage, the resolution of which reveals how powerless women were in 19th century Danish society. Nora Helmer, the protagonist, realizes that she was treated like a doll by her late father, and also by her banker husband, Torvald. She tells him in the final scene that she is leaving him and their children to find herself. He reminds her that she is a wife and a mother, and is walking out on those responsibilities. She responds that there must be more to her than that — and leaves for good.
I recall seeing that play for the first time, on Broadway, in Janet McTeer’s much-lauded performance. McTeer made me feel the hopelessness of her Nora, and the injustice visited upon women in that society. And I also pitied Torvald, who is a martinet, yes, but who was fulfilling a stuffy role given him by Danish middle-class society. He is both victimizer (of Nora) and victim of a rigid society that crushed people within it. It was impossible not to sympathize with Nora’s suffering, and her desire to escape a marriage in which she was treated as nothing more than an ornament, a wife, mother, and plaything of her husband. She flees in the middle of the night in search of herself.
And yet — what about the children? That question has been the bone stuck in my throat about this play over the years. We are now coming up on 150 years since the debut of A Doll’s House, and the world Western women live in has changed in revolutionary ways, in part because of works like Ibsen’s. No woman of the professional middle class lives like Nora, or has to live like Nora. Perhaps Honor Jones sees herself as Nora, but she was not oppressed in her marriage: she was simply bored and unfulfilled.
On the evidence provided in her essay, Honor Jones is not Ibsen’s Nora Helmer; she is Kenny Rogers’s Lucille.
As I said, “Lucille” came out in 1977, and became a monster hit. I was ten years old. On the school bus, the driver (my mom) played the radio for us on the afternoon ride home. I recall sitting there in my seat, transfixed by the story of Lucille. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that a mom would leave her four children because she wanted a more fun life. It was not only cruel, but far beyond cruelty: it shattered the right order of the world. Back then, I had only one friend whose parents were divorced, and it frightened me that such a thing could happen.
Now, forty-five years later, I recognize that my own parents did not always have an easy marriage. Both were at fault, though I also recognize that the struggles my parents had were ordinary struggles that all couples have. The stuff they dealt with are the kinds of things that people today, lacking the moral gravitas of previous generations, divorce over now — like Honor Jones has done. But they bore it. I am sure that all the parents of my childhood friends were also struggling too, because that’s what married people do.
Might either one of my parents have found greater happiness by leaving the marriage? Possibly. At various times in their marriage, I can easily imagine that one would have had reason to leave the other. But neither one did. A big part of the gratitude I feel today towards my late father and my aging mother is the sacrifices each made to provide my sister and me with a stable childhood home. I’m sure I will never know the full story of those sacrifices — that generation doesn’t like to talk about such things — but I am confident that the kinds of dying-to-self that both of my parents did was replicated throughout our neighborhood. That was a generation of people who, for all their faults, understood that there were more important things in this world than personal happiness.
Someone like Honor Jones, and what she has done, would have been inconceivable to that generation, or at least those around whom I grew up in the rural South in the 1970s and 1980s. I bet, though, that many of their grandchildren see the world and their obligations to it as Honor Jones does. It’s not just Americans, either; consider the testimony of my Hungarian friend about her generation. As I write this, I am thinking about a heart-shaking conversation I had back in 2013 with professors at a conservative Evangelical college I was visiting. I asked them what their greatest concern was about their students. One said, “That they won’t be able to form stable families.” This puzzled me, because this was a conservative Evangelical school.
I asked the professor why he feared they wouldn’t be able to form stable families. He said, “Because most of them have never seen one.” The other professors around the table nodded in agreement.
What a heavy burden we have placed on our children! We want them to rise in the world, marry, have families of their own, and achieve happiness, but we also deny them the help they need to do so. Dante, in Paradiso Canto V, explains the importance of keeping vows. He tells us (through the voice of Beatrice) that next to existence itself, free will is the greatest gift God gives us. When we freely sacrifice that liberty by yoking ourselves to some other person or cause, through our vows, it is no small thing. The disorder of the world, Dante indicates, comes in large part by the refusal of people to live by their vows freely made.
I am guilty too. I made a vow to live as a Catholic, but violated that vow when I left the Catholic Church. That vowed relationship had dissolved before I chose to leave Catholicism. At the end, the vow was not a fortress wall protecting something precious, but an empty cage. I don’t regret breaking that vow, because it had been rendered meaningless by events having to do with my own weakness, and the weakness of the Church, and besides, the harder I worked to keep that vow by force of will, the further it drove me from Jesus Christ.
But the dissolution of that vow was nevertheless an extremely painful thing, and it should have been! On the other hand, I bore a hell of a lot of pain to honor that vow for as long as I could, but eventually I shattered. I was not proud of abandoning that vow, and grieved over its necessity (because I was by the end well along the path to losing my faith in Christ entirely). Nevertheless, it was just for me to suffer for the sake of the vow, and to suffer after I abandoned it, in part because vows are necessary for the solidity and order of our world. The end of one’s relationship to a religion, of one’s marriage, or any other relationship consecrated through God, is a tearing of the fabric of our society, and even of our world. Children understand that, even if adults rationalize their behavior.
In my writing, I have highlighted the concept of “liquid modernity,” the phrase sociologist Zygmunt Bauman uses to describe our condition. It is one of no fixed structures, institutions, or ways of life. In liquid modernity, everything solid melts into air — even marriages. The person who thrives in liquid modernity is the one who makes no firm commitments, who keeps her options open. Honor Jones is an exemplary liquid modernist. I am sure she received lots of praise for her “brave” essay, from the kind of educated professional class people among whom she has nested. I keep trying to see Jones’s essay from a more empathetic standpoint, but I can’t do it. She writes:
Everything I experienced—relationships, reality, my understanding of my own identity and desires—were filtered through him before I could access them.
Yes! Because he is your husband, and you became one flesh! Nowhere in that essay does she write that her husband mistreated her, or, like Torvald Helmer, made his wife feel small. She even concedes that he behaved towards her as she wanted him to when they first married … but she changed her mind, so screw you, jack, and screw the kids. Honor needs to find herself. If that man’s heart is broken, if those children’s worlds are shattered, too bad. It’s all about the inaptly named Honor, who needed the freedom to think about art and patriarchy.
Once, when I was about 20, I accidentally overheard my parents having a very bitter fight about something. I can’t remember what it was, but I remember hearing my mother, who was overwhelmed by anxiety about my plans to backpack in Europe that summer, saying some extremely cruel things to my dad. The next day, when we were alone in the pickup truck, I told him what I had heard, and told him that if he wanted to divorce, Ruthie and I were both in college, and old enough to handle it. He didn’t even take his eyes off the road. All he said to me were these words: “I made a vow.”
That was the end of the conversation. I did not understand his point of view, because I was young and immature, and I thought that personal happiness was the summum bonum of life. But my father had the greater part of wisdom. He felt honor-bound by the vow he had made, and of course he understood, in a way that I could not at that age (especially coming from a family in which our parents rarely argued in front of us), that couples sometimes have hellacious fights, and that that’s just part of marriage. If my parents had divorced then, or even later in their life together, I would have forgiven them, especially as I grew older, and came to see them as real people, with virtues mixed in with flaws. The fight I overheard that summer of 1987 was no doubt not the worst fight of their lives, nor the last, but it was the first time I had seen this from my parents, which is why it shocked me so profoundly. (It was a real mercy to us kids that they didn’t argue in front of us.)
Please don’t think that I’m saying my parents had an unhappy marriage! I think they had a normal marriage, and that their immature 20-year-old son, who had been taught by post-1960s pop culture that maximizing personal happiness is the greatest good, was the historically abnormal figure. You couldn’t have convinced me of that, though, until I lived marriage and parenthood myself, and came to understand through practical experience how important stability is to children, and how complicated the concept of happiness is. It is certainly possible that one or both of my parents would have found a greater measure of personal happiness had they divorced — and it is also possible that their quest for personal happiness at the cost of breaking their marriage vows would have ended in even greater sorrow, not only for them, but for my sister and me, and our families. We will never know what sacrifices both my mom and my dad made to keep their marriage together through the hard times. What I do know is that their mutual willingness to make those sacrifices gave me and my sister a better life, and foundation for life, than we would have had if either had ended the marriage. My kids are almost all grown now, but I know without a shadow of a doubt that if I had left their mother, a large, dark shadow would have covered any attempt at personal happiness on my part, because I would not have been able to cleanse the stain of the pain I caused those children.
And that’s how it should be. One more time: I am not talking about divorce in cases of abuse, infidelity, or criminality. I’m talking about what Honor Jones did, and variations of that. Over the past twenty years, I have been acquaintances with two different men who walked out on their families because they found happiness in the arms of another woman. Maybe God forgives them, but I can’t, and wouldn’t cross the road to dump a cup of water on either if they were on fire. Such disgraceful men do not belong in the company of honorable men.
It is hard for me to believe that a world in which a woman feels that destroying her marriage and family structure for the sake of her own self-discovery is good or sustainable. Again, just think how you would feel if a man had written this essay, justifying leaving his wife and plunging his children into divorce not because his wife was an adulteress, or cruel, or any bad thing, but simply because he felt bored and stifled by marriage. Here are some fruits of the culture of narcissism, of which Honor Jones is an exemplar:
Burke’s “Little Platoons” no longer have a hold on a majority on Americans.
Today, most American adults are not:
✔️Regularly engaged IRL civic life
✔️Regular churchgoers (see below)
Update your worldview accordingly.https://t.co/5CkDA993n4pic.twitter.com/ZlwDLtHkpu
— Brad Wilcox (@BradWilcoxIFS) January 2, 2022
We in America are running up debts that we demand our children, and their children, pay, so we can live as we like. About abortion, St. Teresa of Calcutta once said:
“It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”
Along those lines, it is a poverty that a marriage and a family must die so that you may live as you wish. Not “to save you from an abusive situation” or “to sever ties to an adulterous spouse,” or any other serious thing that would make divorce a necessary tragedy. No, only so that you can pursue thinking about art and sex and politics and the patriarchy, and whatever the Other Life brings.
We have learned nothing from the Sixties and Seventies. You know that, right?