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Tales of the Walking Wounded

For Ava Chin, writing about being a child of divorce and compiling others' feelings was cathartic and revealing

October 02, 2002|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The divorce was like a car accident I heard happen behind me.... I couldn't say how it had happened or who might have been at fault ... I could only describe how they looked after the collision."

--Jen Robinson, from "Split: Stories From a Generation Raised on Divorce" (Contemporary Books)

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The moment parents divorce, the life of their child becomes a succession of splits: emotions ebb and flow from one parent to the other; home, in most cases, is no longer one house but two; and memories are slotted into "before" and "after" categories.

Much has been researched and written about the long-term impacts of divorce on children--the facts and interpretations always filtered through the eyes and ears of a social scientist, psychologist or academic. Some experts insist the psychological and emotional damage on children is irreversible; others maintain it is a traumatic event people can grow and recover from.

But little has been heard from the children themselves.

As a member of the generation of children who grew up amid the divorce revolution of the 1970s, Ava Chin has always wanted to hear from her peers. "When I was a kid, I heard all the dour statistics of what it was like," said Chin, 32, who edited the essays that make up "Split," a new anthology of intimate accounts by Gen-X writers from families of divorce.

"We were more likely to drop out of school, get pregnant when we're young and get married and then divorced. But none of these things fit my profile or that of my friends when we were in school," Chin said. "I had always wondered what it was like for the other kids. What was it like for them to watch their home life split in two?"

Chin, a former editor of Vibe and Spin magazines who recently moved to Los Angeles from New York, set out to find out by tapping writers in their 20s and 30s across the country. She asked them to write about how their parents' divorce affected them at the time and now, knowing full well it would prove to be a daunting assignment. She too had been trying to complete such an essay for 15 years; her father left her mother when she was pregnant with Chin, who did not meet him until she was 27.

"Even for professional writers, it was really difficult to write these essays and deal with past issues and write about them objectively," said Chin, a postgraduate literature and creative writing student at USC. "But they all identified as a kid of divorce and were enthusiastic about trying to write about it--until they actually sat down to write it. Mine came out in different permutations. At first, they were all too emotional, too overwrought. It got to the point I really doubted I was going to be able to do it, which is why I didn't pressure anybody else."

As the writers of "Split" poignantly depict in stories that cover everything from their parents' breakup to their own abilities (or lack thereof) to commit, divorce--and its aftermath--is a gray world in which there are few common experiences, no absolute truths and no easy answers.

"We just hated having two families where we'd had one before," wrote Matt Briggs, a fiction writer who lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle. "We hated being two different people, where before we could just be our parents' kids."

But within the pages of "Split" there also is resilience and hope, which is what Chin wanted to portray in her own revealing account, "The Missing."

"An essay forces you to be objective about the past and helps put the past in perspective and enables you to move on," Chin said. "The worst thing is to carry this baggage from childhood to adulthood. I hope that other kids of divorce will be able to look at it and see their own stories, as well as help the people who are involved with [those kids] gain a better understanding of them." For freelance writer and editor Michelle Patient, growing up meant dealing with the divorce of her parents, their weddings to other people and the subsequent endings of those second marriages. None of it ever made any sense to her. Still, at 32, Patient has settled down into marriage and motherhood.

"I do believe that love can endure if you give it room to evolve," Patient wrote in her essay, "Rootless." "I learned this from my grandparents--my true relationship role models--who continued to love each other, through wars and illnesses and affairs and children and travels, for nearly 60 years."

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Appalled by Responses

The idea for Chin's book struck her four years ago as she sat on a panel of half a dozen other twentysomethings for an HBO talk-show pilot that never aired. Among the questions posed to the diverse urban group: Is marriage still relevant?

"I was appalled by the responses of everyone around me," Chin said. "They were saying that marriage is just a contract, a social institution, and that it doesn't mean anything."

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