I approached Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath (2012) like someone visiting a fortune-teller at a fairground. In the book, she was to describe the break-up of her ten-year marriage and her struggle to restart life after the divorce. I wondered if I would see my own future written in her story. Cusk’s husband was the kind who’d given up his job to help look after the children and be a home-maker, letting her get on with her writing and work outside the home. I had a variant of this domestic arrangement, my husband working part-time and doing just about everything around the house, me earning more money and wondering how long I was going to get away with doing no housework. I soon discovered that Cusk’s views differed radically from my own. Initially Cusk seemed to need her husband to look after the children, finding motherhood alienating:
I reverted to my old male-inflected identity: and I conscripted my husband into care of the children. He was to take the part of that twin, femininity. He was to offer her a body of her own to shelter in, for she didn’t seem able to find peace in me. My notion was that we would live together as two hybrids, each of us half male and half female. That was equality, was it not? He gave up his law job, and I gave up the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children.
The difficulty came with the separation. Cusk decided to reclaim the old primitive maternal right and declared that the children “belonged” to her. She objected to having to pay any kind of financial support to her husband, too. Suddenly it turned out that the arrangement hadn’t suited her at all – she hated her husband’s unwaged domesticity, the dependence it represented. To explain her new position, Cusk referred to Greek drama, where “to traduce biological human roles is to court the change that is death, the death that is change”. She blamed Christianity, which had replaced the “Greek” values with hypocritical sentimental ones.
The day feeble Joseph agreed to marry pregnant Mary the old passionate template was destroyed. That was an act of fundamental dishonesty all round: the new template of marriage – a lie! The family was reinvented, a cult of sentimentality and surfaces; became an image, bent on veiling reality – the stable in all its faux-humility, the angels and the oxen, the manger to which kings come on bended knee, the ‘parents’ gathered adoringly round the baby – an image of child-worship, of sainted unambivalent motherhood, of gutless masculinity and fatherly impotence.
This may seem like a radical rejection of traditional family values, but it’s not. Cusk’s real target is equality, and on this point she would find many Christian fundamentalists agreeing with her. She isn’t saying that the family forces people into traditional stereotyped sex-roles; she’s saying it doesn’t do it enough. This is clear from a recent interview in The Observer where she says her struggle has been about her femininity being “unavailable” to her. She sees herself as having moved away from feminism to a view of gender of the kind espoused by D. H. Lawrence. “I would so love to have had him as my friend,” she says. She should beware. George Orwell once reviewed a collection of Lawrence’s short stories: “From The White Stocking,” he said, “I deduced the moral that women behave better if they get a sock on the jaw occasionally.” Is this the alternative Cusk is proposing to the “gutless masculinity” that she despises?
– Catherine Vigier, Zeteo Contributing Writer
- Rachel Cusk, Aftermath – on Marriage and Separation (London: Faber and Faber, 2012).
- Kate Kellaway, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/24/rachel-cusk-interview-aftermath-outline
- George Orwell, review, “The Prussian Officer and Other Stories by D.H. Lawrence,” in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Vol 4 (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971), 51.