An Unmarried Woman
Aftermath chronicles the breakdown of author Rachel Cusk’s decade-long marriage to lawyer Adrian Clarke. Cusk has always been a brutally direct , brusque writer without time for niceties; her great talent saves her from unreadability. Aftermath is no exception, a tightly written narrative high above the run of tell-all memoirs clotting the market (and our minds). But this time, some readers may feel Cusk has gone too far.
Aftermath is maddening. We are informed the marriage ended when “...an important vow of obedience was broken” by Clarke, here called “X”. We learn no more of his crime, nor of the rather odd choice of adjective: obedience? As Clarke has opted to remain silent on the subject, readers may never know what caused the Cusk /Clarke marriage to explode. And perhaps we shouldn’t.
Divorce is inescapable: your parents, your own, your friends. Recently my husband and I were witness to an especially bloody breakup, facilitated by social media. Husband and wife were both good friends of course; thus, we averted our eyes, we avoided taking sides. The truth is—and I write this as person who is married for almost 20 years, now—outsiders never truly know what happens in the heart of a marriage. Memoirs like Aftermath are bound to be single-sided, a lopsided dispatch from married life, that most complex of countries. In this case, a married life with children, who suffer no less exposure than their excoriated father.
What Cusk brings forth ranges from the expected—insomnia, anorexia, the perverse enjoyment of anorexic renouncement, depression—to what seems a series of arguments against marriage. She turns repeatedly to Greek mythology to explain marriage’s failed efforts at civilizing society. She notes that men go off to war while women wait at home, keeping the city-state running. When the men return, blood spills not only on the battleground but right in the foyer, all over the tapestries Clytemnestra has laid down for Aeschylus’s return.
When not using Greek mythology to conveniently explain marriage’s essential uselessness, Cusk searches Feminism, holding her marriage up to the light. Clarke left his job as a civil rights lawyer to care for the couple’s two daughters while Cusk wrote. A fine home in England, extensive European travel, and nannies indicate they were well-off. Clarke sounds like the mate many would long for, a fine cook who cared for the children while pursuing a serious photography career. Yet Cusk is gradually enraged by their role reversal: they are “transvestites”. Clarke is emasculated, while Cusk realizes she has internalized the male view of success.
She considers her female friends and acquaintances in a careful, silent tally: are the stay-at-home mothers truly happy? They are financially dependent on their husbands, overly invested in their children’s lives: “The child goes through the full-time mother like a dye through water: there is no part of her that remains uncolored.” The working mothers must divide their “power” between work and home, leading to role confusion in both places. The situation Cusk posits is irredeemable: “Either she’s doing twice as much as she did before, or she sacrifices her equality and does less than she should.”
Which? Who could possibly please in this situation? It’s a no-win for both parties. Meanwhile, the children are hungry, the toilet requires scrubbing, the laundry must be folded.
Those hungry children are the innocents in this story, dealing with their parents’s divorce and its public recounting. Cusk is a famously ambivalent mother, whose 2001 A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother caused a firestorm for its descriptions of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. Cusk views motherhood as an atomization of the self, one requiring meticulous reconstruction.
In Aftermath, Cusk likens her early years of motherhood to being inhabited by a heretofore unknown twin possessed of a strange expertise. The products of all this destruction—children—don’t necessary command immediate motherly love. But divorce has changed resentment to ferocious attachment. When the girls go to visit their father, Cusk is adrift. When Clarke asks for shared custody, Cusk reacts viscerally: “’They’re my children,’ I said. “they belong to me.’”
Cusk’s daughters are just entering adolescence, mercifully too young to read Aftermath. One day, though, they will be old enough to read the book. Then what? In the acknowledgements, Cusk writes: “I hope one day they will read this and feel, at least, not ashamed.”
Cusk has come under heavy fire since Aftermath’s publication. She’s an easy target, particularly when Clarke remains steadfastly silent. Cusk is no fool: surely she knew writing Aftermath would bring merciless public critique and the possible anger of her children. That she wrote the book anyway indicates either great courage or complete craziness.
The furor is reminiscent of the media frenzy following Kathryn Harrison’s 1998 memoir The Kiss, detailing the author’s incestuous relationship with her father. At the time, Harrison admitted she wished to write the book while her children were too young to understand it. And while her children appear briefly in the book, nothing about them is exposed.
Since their divorce, Adrian Clarke has resumed his work as a lawyer. He is now a specialist in negotiating family breakups. As for Cusk, as the book closed she was in a relationship with “Z”. I was amazed by this—146 pages of invective against marriage, yet she is with a man again. Perhaps unmarried allegiances are acceptable in Cusk’s world? The book concludes on an incongruous note, with a fictive chapter about the Cusk/Clarke marriage as seen through the eyes of their Eastern European nanny.
Ironically, the author photograph on my copy of Aftermath was taken by Adrian Clarke. Given the rancor between the couple, one would think a new photograph was in order. It’s a shame Diane Arbus is no longer available.