The idealist in me wasn’t entirely certain that our society needed even a tongue-in-cheek primer on how to end a marriage. Yet, if one looks objectively at the plethora of relationship-guidance books, the thriving need for marriage counselors, and the success of Dr. Phil, perhaps the occasional archaeological dig through the detritus of a failed marriage is needed. Usually when a relationship ends more or less amicably, or at least without SWAT teams in riot gear, the answer to “what happened” is “I don’t know; it wasn’t any one thing; it was just a bunch of things.”
In How to Get Divorced by 30: My Misguided Attempt at a Starter Marriage, debut memoirist Sascha Rothchild painstakingly deconstructs with wit and brutal self-honesty all of the things that went wrong before and during her marriage. In a book that flirts with narcissism and wobbles along the line between self-examination and self-excusing, Rothchild manages ultimately to give a clear view into the well-meaning self-delusions that plague all of us and that set in motion the cascades of small failures in our lives.
Broken into 30 chapters or “steps,” How to Get Divorced by 30 begins with “Step 1. Don’t Invite Your Husband to Your Thirtieth Birthday Party” and neatly closes the circle with “Step 30. Arrive at Your Thirtieth Birthday Party Single.” “The problem was, Jeff was my husband. And not wanting him to be with me on my thirtieth birthday was a feeling I couldn’t ignore. In the scheme of relationship red flags, that one was crimson.”
Rothchild’s voice, that of a young, and somewhat frivolous woman, may be slightly off-putting to readers for whom the paradoxes of intense introspection and self-conscious image awareness have faded into the recesses of memory. But, Rothchild deserves a chance here.
I don’t remember the first time I saw Jeff. I don’t even remember he first time I spoke to him. I was too busy being single, self-absorbed, and skinny. And because I was the new girl at the illustrious comedy club the World Famous Improv, I was the new conquest for all the comics. I lapped up the attention with the grace of a drunk warthog. I wore sheer skintight tops with no bra to show off my toned body and perky boobs. I wore tons of eyeliner to let people know I was a badass. I was like a starving caged lion just let out into a room full of injured wildebeests; not sure which to eat first, I haphazardly flirted with everyone, including the other female servers.
This sort of hyper-caffienated navel gazing appears at first glance to be frivolously self-indulgent. However, Rothchild dutifully collects each piece, each seemingly pointless incident, and with the skill of a veteran prosecutor, binds the parts into a damning testimony. From intellectual, witty, and emotionally remote parents, “Susan and John,” to Adam, the world-saving, emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend, and Berns, Rothchild’s adored big sister possessed of “heaps of compassion mixed in with the perfect amount of bitchiness,” not to mention Jeff, the stable, lethargic, pot-smoking husband, How to Get Divorced by 30 is populated with a cast of bright – nearly Technicolor – characters. Each character and each incident plays a role in the chain of events that becomes Rothchild’s doomed marriage, and Rothchild herself.
These characters are not only bright; they are, at moments, brilliantly funny. “One night we were having sex and Jeff’s favorite pre-prime-time show, Jeopardy, was on in the background … we were actually in Vegas, having hot hotel sex on the bed. While we were literally in the middle of intercourse, Jeff yelled out, ‘What is Vermont?’” Now, this would seem to me to be a relationship red-flag with the wattage of Rudolph’s nose, but, for Rothchild, “‘What is Vermont?’ became one of our favorite stories to tell and phrases to say.” There is also Cody, a drug addict who attempts to get high by stealing Rothchild’s migraine pills from her bathroom, and Sam who can only get an erection by – well, it’s far too disturbing, and too funny to print here, but involves a yearbook.
Rothchild’s peculiarly detached approach to intimacy has its roots in her idiosyncratic family. “Not only did Susan never want to be called Mom, or any derivative of the word, she hated all cliches: I-love-yous, rainbows, teddy bears, and long hugs.” Rothchild grew up in a household where “I love you” was considered “the biggest offender of all.” She depicts how she once “tried to hold an ‘I love you’ intervention.”
“I wanted all of us to put the cards down, look each other in the eye, and say, ‘I love you.’
It didn’t go well.
To his credit, Chauncey [her brother] really tried. He looked at me earnestly and said, ‘I –,’ and then he stopped. The rest of us couldn’t even get the ‘I’ out without sounding sarcastic. After a few tries we all burst into hysterics and laughed for hours."
At moments, as she collects the vignettes that shape a life, Rothchild treads perilously close to applying the blame for her problems to others. Close, but never quite. Ultimately, Rothchild claims responsibility for, and even embraces, the pieces of her puzzle. “From the middle, a train that is coming looks eerily similar to one that is going, like a relationship that is dying or growing. It’s hard to tell upon first glance what is really happening. Yes, if I had waited a minute, been less impulsive, and a bit more self-aware, I would not have married Jeff. But then where would I be? There is no way to know.”
As she tracks through the rubble of “what happened,” Rothchild reaches the conclusion that lurks beneath the delusions and insecurities of most of us: that intimacy with others is impossible without first being intimate with oneself.
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The night of my thirtieth birthday I fell asleep alone knowing there were a million things I needed to figure out. But I also fell asleep knowing I would never again be unhappy on someone else’s terms. I would only be unhappy on my own terms. With that thought, I slept soundly.