Divorce, American Style

New York City

In The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Judith Wallerstein argues that the consequences of parental divorce for children are typically harmful and long-lasting. Katha Pollitt disagrees [“Subject to Debate,” Oct. 23], charging that Wallerstein’s study cannot be trusted because her sample is too small and because the families she studied suffer from multiple problems, not just divorce. Wallerstein’s anti-anti-divorce critics have been making these charges for years, but fortunately we now have independent evidence to show who is getting it right. The two most important quantitative studies based on representative samples seeking to distinguish the effects of parental divorce from the effects of pre-divorce family problems are A Generation at Risk (1997), by Paul Amato and Allan Booth, and a study by Andrew Cherlin and colleagues published in the American Sociological Review in 1998. Both studies broadly support Wallerstein’s main findings and offer little or no support to her critics. Which is why your readers aren’t likely to hear about these studies from Katha Pollitt, even as she improbably appoints herself guardian of the scientific method on this topic.

Institute for American Values

Belvedere, Calif.

In her strident column, Katha Pollitt attacks my book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, with a plethora of misstatements. I reply to the most egregious. I state categorically several times in my book that I am not against divorce: “I am not against divorce. How could I be? I’ve probably seen more examples of wretched, demeaning, and abusive marriages than most of my colleagues.” And further: “I don’t know of any research, mine included, that says divorce is universally detrimental to children.”

What I do say throughout my book, which Pollitt chooses to ignore, is that when people decide to divorce, it has a short-term and long-term traumatic effect upon the children that makes their subsequent life journey more difficult and that society, including the courts and their parents, must recognize this and take steps to mitigate this impact. They can come out well, as I demonstrate. It is simply harder.

Pollitt attacks my work as “pseudoscience.” My method, the case-study method of qualitative research, is well established in biological and social science. It is a major method in medicine, psychiatry, psychology and anthropology. It depends on intensive interviewing to learn the internal landscape of the person and is the chief source of hypothesis formation and knowledge generation. The twentieth-century contributions of Piaget, Freud, Erikson and Bowlby were based on this method. Quantitative survey research cannot tap inner life experience.

About controls, Pollitt is again wrong. At the twenty-five-year mark, when I was elaborating the life experience of these children from childhood into adulthood, I assembled a comparison group of youngsters in the same neighborhoods with parents in comparable social and economic circumstances. They were matched (as a group, as do most sociological studies) along major parameters that I found relevant to my study. It is not clear what more Pollitt, who is not a behavioral scientist, could have in mind. This group was not solicited earlier because I was starting in a new area–no one had studied the impact of divorce on children before me–and I could not have known then what to control.

Pollitt asserts that mine is a skewed sample consisting of “crazy” divorcing parents, primarily responding to an offer of treatment. Certainly, people who are divorcing are distressed at the time and can exhibit very disturbed behaviors, including violence, which did not characterize the prior relationship until its downhill course brought the couple to the divorce decision. Certainly, people who divorce–across the board, not just in my sample–are people who have failed at a central relationship and therefore may have more psychic disturbances than those who maintain successful marriages.

It is shocking to call my sample “crazy” and therefore not representative of a divorcing population. I was working for divorce under the best of circumstances and was happy to have such a relatively affluent and well-educated sample. It is altogether untrue that they came as “sixty disastrous families, featuring crazy parents, economic insecurity [and] trapped wives.” As for the 131 children of the sixty couples, they were screened to be developmentally on course, without significant school, home or play disturbances prior to the breakup.

Pollitt states that our world has changed significantly since my study began in 1971. Fathers are now more actively involved with their children, mothers are now better placed economically, etc. It remains to be seen how much difference this makes. In my study, a significant number of the women had professional degrees and careers, and that has not made the post-divorce relationships of their children significantly better than the others in the cohort. And it remains to be seen, when 50 percent of divorces occur with children under 6, and 75 percent of the divorced fathers remarry, how many fathers can maintain their parenting in the first marriage, while living with the requirements of the second marriage and new children.

My main point is that although I was the first to call attention to the traumatic impact of the divorce experience, during the early seventies, there have by now been many corroborating studies–done in our contemporary climate–that uphold my findings, and what seemed to many to be an alarmist view then is now conventional wisdom. I trust that my current findings of the long-term impact of parental divorce that crescendos as these children face the issue of man-woman relationships in adulthood may be similarly concurred in as further studies are carried out by others.



New York City

It is true that Judith Wallerstein says in her latest book that she is not “against divorce.” But what does that mean? She writes, “I think you should seriously consider staying together for the sake of your children,” and she praises parents who stay in unhappy or dead marriages “with grace and without anger” but not those who leave such marriages and still put parenting first, something she seems to think is nearly impossible (“parenting erodes almost inevitably at the breakup and does not get restored for years, if ever”). Everyone who has written about her research takes it to argue that divorce is a great evil, to be avoided if at all possible–certainly that is what David Blankenhorn thinks she is saying. If Wallerstein is not “against divorce” why does she sit on the Council on Families of Blankenhorn’s Institute for American Values, which has an explicit antidivorce agenda, opposing no-fault divorce, favoring “covenant marriage,” waiting periods and mandatory counseling?

Wallerstein compares her methods to those of illustrious modern psychologists. It’s odd to see Freud, who has been widely criticized for massaging his data when he didn’t make it up, invoked as a model practitioner, but in any case, none of these men co-wrote their books with popular journalists (in Wallerstein’s case, Sandra Blakeslee), used composite characters or presented as interviews done by themselves interviews that were conducted by other people. Case studies are all very well, perhaps even when written up with an obvious eye to mass-market advertising and media soundbites, but interviewing people for a few hours every five years (or listening to the tapes of such interviews by others) is not “intensive interviewing”–it’s a conversation, a visit, a tête-à-tête. Nor is a group of high school classmates of one’s original subjects assembled twenty-five years into one’s research a valid scientific control. Besides, as she herself notes, the comparison group parents were much better educated and wealthier.

As a sample of children whose parents are divorced, Wallerstein’s 131 subjects leave much to be desired. For one thing, she didn’t follow up on the ones who dropped out–thirty-eight people, almost 30 percent of the original group! If, as is likely, the ones who stayed were the ones with more problems, and the ones who left were the ones who adjusted well to divorce and moved on with their lives, then failing to do “case studies” of the dropouts leaves her with a sample biased toward gloomy findings. (That Wallerstein’s continuing subjects came disproportionately from families that had a hard time coping with divorce is suggested by the fact that 32 percent of their mothers had only a high school diploma or less versus 24 percent of the mothers in the original group.) It is disturbing that Wallerstein seems incurious about the melting away of so many of her original subjects, and the result is that she not only cannot say how representative her interviewees are of “children of divorce” in general, she can’t even say how representative they are of her own sample!

As she has done many times in recent years, Wallerstein fudges the fact that she recruited her group–and skewed her sample–by offering free therapy, as she herself clearly acknowledged in her first report on her study “Surviving the Breakup.” Similarly, although she professes herself shocked by the word “crazy,” it was she who, in the same book, described her sample as consisting largely of people who were mentally or emotionally troubled. According to her own words, only one-third of the parents in her sample were “those whose functioning overall during the life history of the marriage was generally adequate or better.” Roughly 50 percent were “moderately disturbed”–nor does she suggest in the earlier book that this is a temporary aberration caused by the stress of divorce, as she now claims. On the contrary, she speaks of addictions, suicidal tendencies, chronic depression, “severe neurotic difficulties,” “handicaps in relating to another person” and “longstanding problems in controlling their rage or sexual impulses.” This is half the parents. The remainder–15 percent of the men and 20 percent of the women–were “severely troubled during their marriages, perhaps throughout their lives,” with “histories of mental illness, including paranoid thinking, bizarre behavior, manic-depressive illnesses, and generally fragile or unsuccessful attempts to cope with the demands of life, marriage and family.” Divorce or no divorce, the offspring of such people are not likely to reach adulthood unscathed.

Wallerstein labels her subjects “children of divorce.” The very process of participating in her study may have encouraged her subjects to embrace that self-definition, as “children of alcoholics” often view their lives through the lens of parental drinking, which is taken to explain every possible deviation from the ideal. Another researcher might label them “children of the emotionally or mentally ill.” Perhaps, as Wallerstein seems to believe, two disturbed parents are better than one. But that tells us little about what the effects of divorce are for the children of parents who are nonviolent, sane, stable and capable of loving and responsible relationships. Paradoxically, these parents, the ones most likely to raise healthy kids after divorce, are the ones most likely to heed Wallerstein’s advice to remain in bad marriages.



Brooklyn, N.Y.

In “When Women Spied on Women” [Sept. 4/11], the piece excerpted from Ruth Rosen’s book regarding women spying on and infiltrating the women’s movement, contained a reference to Seattle that I wish to clarify. Rosen repeats Betty Friedan’s contention that the FBI had infiltrated a number of women’s organizations and manipulated the gay-straight split. She cites Friedan’s charge that when she was invited to speak in Seattle, she was met with protesters. Friedan told Rosen that she thought “the Seattle thing was [the result] of agents.”

I was active in the left and women’s liberation movement in Seattle, am writing a book about the women’s liberation movement in Seattle, helped organize the protests against Friedan–and I know I wasn’t an agent. The protest against Friedan was organized mainly by individuals and groups like the University YWCA, the University of Washington Women’s Commission and the Seattle Gay Women’s Alliance, who were disturbed by Friedan’s homophobia. One of the main organizers of that protest was Mary Aiken Rothschild, now a professor of women’s studies at the University of Arizona, then a PhD candidate in history and acting director of the University of Washington women’s studies program. In an interview with Pandora, a local feminist newsletter, Rothschild challenged “Friedan’s idea of what a feminist movement is about…. Mary defined herself as a straight woman, a mother, a professional who supported her lesbian sisters. Gay and straight women work together in Seattle and that is why we are getting somewhere. We didn’t need big name leaders from the outside coming in to disrupt our movement.”

Those of us involved in organizing the protest were very proud of our activities. We had attempted to convince Friedan to share a platform with an activist in the lesbian movement. She refused. We tried to meet with her and discuss her political point of view. She refused. So, we confronted her at a cocktail party and then at her public meeting at the University of Washington. This was not the first time that the radical women’s liberation movement publicly confronted movement “leaders.” In the fall of 1972, largely through the efforts of the University of Washington Women’s Commission, we met with and publicly demonstrated against Gloria Steinem. The women were particularly critical of her support for the Democratic Party and her role in voting down the pro-choice plank at the 1972 Democratic convention.

As Rosen demonstrates, many women were hardly “sisterly.” Others, to their discredit, accused women of being agents, provocateurs or male-identified as a way to dismiss their ideas or persona. As historians, especially as historians of our own movement, we have an obligation not to leave these charges unanswered.


Brooklyn, N.Y.

I can verify that the FBI continued its surveillance of the women’s movement long after the late sixties and early seventies. Three months after my book Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody was published, in 1986, the FBI convened the first grand jury in the history of our country to question an American citizen, me, about the whereabouts of a missing mother and her “allegedly” sexually abused daughter, who had fled “underground” when a court awarded custody of the girl to the “alleged” paternal incest-abuser. Had I been granted immunity to testify before the Buffalo grand jury and failed to do so, I might have sat in jail for a long time.

What terrified me was the possibility that few feminists understood that my silence was a political act. At the time (long before TV began to air docudramas about a Mother’s Underground) virtually none of the liberal feminist organizations with whom I had worked on other issues–NOW, NOW’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Center for Women and Family Law, Ms. magazine and Foundation–were institutionally or ideologically ready to face this kind of danger. Lawyer Margy Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights was, and the center stood by me. A few days before the grand jury was to take place, I received a call from the FBI telling me that they “had captured the felon” and that my testimony was no longer needed. Meanwhile, feminist and lesbian networks were disbanded, a number of feminist and lesbian lawyers were harassed, and one lost her license to practice law in Mississippi because she dared to represent a mother in a similar circumstance. The FBI successfully hunted down and jailed a number of runaway mothers.