Authors: Rachel Cusk
Over the years they had watched their contemporaries fall at one hurdle or another and they had
even tried to help in these emergencies, which only increased their feeling of superiority. At around the time she met me, she went on, she had a good friend at home who was going through a terrible divorce and who spent a lot of time at their house getting support and advice. The two families had been close and had spent many evenings and weekends and holidays in one another's company, but now a completely different reality was revealed. Every day this friend would appear with some new story of horror: the husband had arrived with a van and taken all the furniture when she wasn't there, or he had left the children alone all weekend when it was his turn to have them; then that he was forcing her to sell the home where they'd lived all their lives and going around to all their friends saying the most awful things about her and poisoning their minds against her. She would sit at our kitchen table, the interviewer said, pouring out these stories in utter shock and dismay and my husband and I would listen and try to comfort her. But at the same time it gave us a kind of pleasure to watch her, though we would never, ever have admitted it to each other, because the pleasure was part of our unspoken secret.
âThe fact was,' the interviewer went on, âthat my husband and I had once envied this woman and the man she was married to, whose life at one time had seemed in numerous ways superior to our own. They
were very lively and adventurous people,' she said, âand they were always setting off with their children on exotic travels, and they also had very good taste, so that their home was full of beautiful, unusual objects, as well as the evidence of their creativity and love of high culture. They painted and played musical instruments and read tremendous numbers of books, and as a family they behaved in ways that always seemed more free-spirited and fun than our own family activities managed to be. It was the only time â when we were with them,' she said â âthat I became dissatisfied with our life and with our characters and our children's characters. I envied them, because they seemed to have more than we had, and I couldn't see what they had done to deserve it.'
In short, she had been jealous of this friend, who nevertheless constantly complained about her lot, about the injustices of motherhood or the indignity of the domestic work involved in bringing up a family. Yet the one thing she never complained about was her husband, and perhaps for this reason the husband became the thing the interviewer envied her for most of all, to the extent that he almost succeeded in making her own husband look inadequate to her. He was bigger and more handsome than her husband, extremely charming and sociable, and he possessed a formidable range of physical and intellectual talents,
winning every game he played and always knowing more than anyone else on any subject. In addition he was very domesticated and appeared to be the ideal father, spending all his time gardening and cooking with the children and taking them on camping and sailing trips. Most of all he was sympathetic to his wife's complaining, and was always egging her on to become more and more indignant about the travails and oppressions of womanhood, which he himself did so much to relieve her of.
âMy own husband,' she said, âwas physically unconfident and also spent so much time in his law office that he missed out on many of our family routines, and these failures â which were the cause of private feelings of resentment and anger for me â I energetically concealed, boasting instead about his importance and how hard he worked, to the extent that I almost succeeded in denying those feelings to myself. Only when we were with this other couple did the truth threaten to become apparent, and I wondered sometimes whether my husband had ever guessed my thoughts or might even have privately suspected me of being in love with this other man. But if it was love,' the interviewer said, âthen it was of the kind the Bible calls covetousness, and my friend's husband enjoyed nothing more than being coveted. Never have I met a man so dedicated to maintaining appearances,'
she said, âto the extent that I came to see something almost female in him, despite the manliness of his persona. I felt a great kinship with him, and never more than when I was boasting about my husband's slavish dedication to his work and he was likewise taking his wife's part and describing some undignified aspect of her life as a woman. In a way we recognised one another: we liked one another as a way of liking ourselves, although of course nothing was ever said because then the picture we had made of our lives would have been completely ruined. My friend once told me,' she went on, âthat her mother had said to her that she didn't deserve her husband. And at the time,' the interviewer said, âI privately agreed, but in the divorce those words took on an entirely opposite meaning.'
With each fresh story she heard at the kitchen table, she said, she was forced to wonder more and more about the character of this man, which she had at one time found so appealing and even now, with the evidence before her, had trouble condemning. And she would look at her own husband sitting patiently and kindly while their friend talked, even though he was exhausted from work and hadn't even had time to change out of his suit, and she would feel astonished anew at her good sense in choosing him. The more terrible things their friend said about the other man, the
more she hoped no one had noticed how much she had liked him, to the extent that she began to criticise him harshly, even though she still secretly thought the friend might be exaggerating the things he had done. And her husband, she noticed, was unusually critical of him too, so that she began to see that he had actually hated him all along.
âIt started to seem,' she said, âas if between us we had somehow brought about the destruction of their family life, as if my secret love and his secret hate had conspired to destroy the object of their disagreement. Each night after our friend had gone home we would sit and talk quietly about her situation, and it felt like we were writing a story together,' she said, âwhere things that never happened in reality were allowed to happen and justice could be done, and it all seemed to be coming from inside our own heads, except that it was also happening in actuality. We became closer than we had been in a while. It was a good time in our marriage,' she said, with a bitter smile. âIt was as if all the things we had envied in that other marriage had been released and bequeathed to us.'
She turned her head, still smiling, and looked down the hill towards the city, where cars were moving in swarms along the roads beside the river. The distinctive shape of her nose, which from the front slightly marred her fine-featured face, in profile attained
beauty: it was upturned and snub-ended and had a deep V in its bridge, as though someone had drawn it with a certain licence, to make a point about the relationship between destiny and form.
I said that while her story suggested that human lives could be governed by the laws of narrative, and all the notions of retribution and justice that narrative lays claim to, it was in fact merely her interpretation of events that created that illusion. The couple's divorce, in other words, had nothing to do with her secret envy of them and her desire for their downfall: it was her own capacity for storytelling â which, as I had already told her, had affected me all those years ago â that made her see her own hand in what happened around her. Yet the suspicion that her own desires were shaping the lives of other people, and even causing them to suffer, did not seem to lead her to feel guilt. It was an interesting idea, I said, that the narrative impulse might spring from the desire to avoid guilt, rather than from the need â as was generally assumed â to connect things together in a meaningful way; that it was a strategy calculated, in other words, to disburden ourselves of responsibility.
âBut you believed my story all those years ago,' she said, âdespite the fact that I didn't expect you to and that probably I only wanted to make my life seem enviable so that I could accept it myself. My whole
career,' she said, âhas involved interviewing women â politicians, feminists, artists â who have made their female experience public and who are willing to be honest about one aspect or another of it. It has been up to me to represent their honesty,' she said, âwhile at the same time being far too timid to live life in the way they do, according to feminist ideals and political principles. It was easier to think,' she said, âthat my own way of life involved its own courage, the courage of consistency. And I did come to revel in the difficulties such women experienced, while at the same time appearing to sympathise with them.
âAs a child,' she said, âI used to see my sister, who was two years older than me, take the brunt of whatever came, while I watched it all from the safety of my mother's lap, and every time she went wrong or made a mistake, I made a note to myself not to do the same thing when it was my turn. There were often terrible arguments,' she said, âbetween my sister and my parents, and I profited from them simply by not being the cause of them, so that when it came to these interviews I found I was in a familiar position. I seemed to profit,' she said, âfrom the mere fact of not being these public women, while they were in a sense fighting my cause, just as my sister had fought my cause by demanding certain freedoms that I was then easily granted when I reached the same age. I wondered
whether one day I might have to pay for this privilege, and if so whether the reckoning might come in the form of female children, and each time I was pregnant I hoped so ardently for a boy that it seemed impossible that my wish would be granted. Yet each time it was,' she said, âand I watched my sister struggle with her daughters as I had always watched her struggle with everything, with the satisfaction of knowing that by watching closely enough I had avoided her mistakes. Perhaps for that reason,' she said, âit was almost unbearable to me when my sister made a success of something. Despite the fact that I loved her, I couldn't tolerate the spectacle of her triumph.
âThe friend that I told you about earlier,' she said, âwas in fact my sister, and it did seem to me that her divorce and the destruction of her family was the thing I had been waiting for all my life. In the years that followed,' she said, âI would sometimes look at her daughters and I would almost hate them for the damage and suffering that showed in their faces, because the sight of these damaged children reminded me that it was not, after all, a game any more, the old simple game where I profited by watching â as it were â from the safety of my mother's lap. My own sons continued to live normal lives full of security and routine, while my sister's house was racked by the most terrible troubles, troubles she continued to be honest about, to the
point where I told her I thought she was damaging the children even more by not putting up a pretence for them. In the end I became reluctant to expose my own children to it, because I worried they would find the sight of such violent emotion disturbing, and so I stopped inviting them to our house and to come on holiday with us, as I had regularly done up until then.
âIt was at that point,' she said, âwhen I took my eyes off my sister's household, that things began to change for her. I noticed, in the communications I still had with my sister, that she sounded calmer and more optimistic; I began to hear stories of her daughters' small successes and improvements. One day,' she said, âI was on my bicycle and it began suddenly to pour with rain. For once I had come out without my waterproof, and looking for somewhere to shelter, I realised I was close to my sister's house. It was early in the morning and I knew she would be at home, so I pedalled through the rain to her front door and I rang the bell. I was completely bedraggled and soaking wet, as well as wearing my oldest clothes, and it didn't even occur to me that someone other than my sister might open the door. To my surprise, it was a man who opened it, a good-looking man who immediately stepped back to let me in and who took my wet things and offered me a towel to dry my hair with. I knew,' she said, âthe instant I laid eyes on him, that this was my sister's new
partner, and that he was a far better man than the husband I had once envied her, and it was indeed the case that he represented a change in her fortunes and in her daughters' fortunes too. I realised,' she said, âthat she was happy for the first time in her life, and I realised too that she would never have known this happiness had she not gone through the unhappiness that preceded it, in precisely the way that she did. She had once said that her former husband's cold and selfish character, which none of us â she least of all â had really perceived, had been like a kind of cancer: invisible, it had lain within her life for years, making her more and more uncomfortable without her knowing what it was, until she had been driven by pain to open everything up and tear it out. It was then that our mother's cruel words â that my sister hadn't deserved her husband â came back to me with their altered meaning. At the time it had seemed inexplicable to us all that my sister would leave such a husband, driving him into acts of whose callousness she was clearly the catalyst and doing irreparable harm to her children, but she now told a different story: his incipient callousness was the thing from which she felt duty-bound to save her children, despite the fact that at the time she couldn't really prove that it was there. My sister told me,' she said, âthat she and her husband were once having a discussion about the former GDR and the awful ways in
which people betrayed one another under the regime of the Stasi, and she had made the point that none of us truly knows the extent of our own courage or cowardice, because in these times those qualities are rarely tested. He had disagreed, very strangely: he said that under those same circumstances he knew he would be among the first to sell out his neighbour. That, my sister said, was the first clear glimpse she had had of the stranger inside the man she lived with, though there were many other incidents, obviously, during the course of their marriage that might have told her who he really was, had he not succeeded in persuading her that she had either dreamt them or made them up.