Rachel Cusk has written a new memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, extracts from which were published in the Telegraph and the Guardian at the weekend. (There’s also an interview with her here.) Just as A Life’s Work, her earlier book on motherhood, provoked rage and disgust, so Aftermath is already garnering attacks, mainly from people who have read no more than the extracts printed in those two newspapers.
Some of these attacks are on her style, which is a fair enough target for a writer, but many seem depressingly ad hominem: she is selfish, a bad mother, airing her dirty laundry in public, invading her children’s privacy; she was thrown out of a reading group for being difficult; she might not be a very nice person; her husband is well rid of her. Perhaps this is a consequence of Cusk’s quite remarkable ability to show herself in her worst colours without excuse or qualification, to be honest in a way that few of us can manage. She has always maintained that her own identity and her writing are important to her, and that these have been threatened by motherhood – claims which upset some people. Now that she is looking at her divorce, and what it has taught her about herself and about what she sees as the limitations of feminism.
Cusk’s husband gave up work as a lawyer in order to stay at home with the children (and, somewhere along the way, seems to have started a career as a photographer) – or, as she puts it, she ‘conscripted him’ to do so. She worked, supporting the family with her writing. But somewhere, resentment set in:
I earned the money in our household, did my share of the cooking and cleaning, paid someone to look after the children while I worked. And my husband helped. It was his phrase. I was the compartmentalised modern woman, the woman having it all, and he helped me to be it, to have it. But I didn’t want help: I wanted equality. In fact, this idea of help began to annoy me. Why couldn’t we be the same? Why couldn’t he be compartmentalised, too? And why, exactly, was it helpful for a man to look after his own children, or cook the food that he himself would eat? Help is dangerous because it exists outside the human economy: the only payment for help is gratitude. And did I not have something of the same gratuitous tone where my wage-earning was concerned? Did I not think there was something awfully helpful about me, a woman, supporting my own family?
When they separate, Cusk finds further cracks in her idea of feminism:
Call yourself a feminist, my husband would say to me, disgustedly, in the raw bitter weeks after we separated. He believed he had taken the part of woman in our marriage, and seemed to expect me to defend him against myself, the male oppressor. My husband said he wanted half of everything, including the children. No, I said. What do you mean no, he said. You can’t divide people in half, I said. They should be with me half the time, he said. They’re my children, I said. They belong to me.
Once I would have criticised such a sentiment severely, but of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge. Where had this heresy gestated? If it was part of me, where had it lived for all those years, in our egalitarian household?
And in the solicitor’s office:
[The solicitor] told me I was obliged to support my husband financially, possibly for ever. But he’s a qualified lawyer, I said. And I’m just a writer. What I meant was, he’s a man. And I’m just a woman.
These last two extracts earned her particular ignominy among many commenters to the Guardian and Telegraph pieces, as well as elsewhere. But Cusk appears fully aware of the gap between what she ought to think or say as a feminist – even, as a rational person – and what she does. Cusk believes that she internalised male values, became a pseudo-male, while only making herself and those around her unhappy and then retreating into an über-female role – the children belong to me, I’m just a woman who shouldn’t have to support her husband.
We were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes. We were a transvestite couple – well, why not? Except that I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband – meaning well – only did one. […] I had to keep out of the kitchen, keep a certain distance from my children, not only to define my husband’s femininity but to appease my own male values. The oldest trick in the sexist book is the female need for control of children. I perceived in the sentimentality and narcissism of motherhood a threat to the objectivity that as a writer I valued so highly. But it wasn’t control of the children I was necessarily sickening for. It was something subtler – prestige, the prestige that is the mother’s reward for the work of bearing her offspring. And that prestige was my husband’s.
Cusk is convinced this is a social problem, not hers alone – hence the memoir. It seems an angry book, but considered too. The extracts suggest that it poses some very interesting questions about families and feminism which need to be discussed. This isn’t to say that the personal aspect of the memoir doesn’t make uncomfortable reading, because it does. Still, it struck me as a pity so many people want to shut down the conversation, simply because they dislike the person who wants to start it.
(Photograph of Rachel Cusk from the Faber & Faber website)