Cheryl Strayed on Trusting Your Truest Truth and Having the Courage to “Go”

“You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love.  You don’t need a reason to leave.  Wanting to leave is enough,” Cheryl Strayed reassures her younger self in the concluding letter of Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her much-beloved Dear Sugar advice column.  In a “rash and romantic impulse,” Strayed married her husband when she was one month short of twenty.  Though she loved him deeply, devotedly— he was gentle and tender and caring, he was an artist and political and outdoorsy— she didn’t love him “absolutely.”  She resented that he had all the privilege of an upper-middle class upbringing while she grew up in a house without running water and was orphaned when her mom died suddenly from cancer in her early twenties.  She still lusted for scandalous sex with strangers in bathrooms scrawled with graffiti; she was too young to commit to lifelong monogamy.

There was nothing wrong with her husband— he didn’t go out drinking and disappear for days, he didn’t lie or cheat; there was nothing wrong with their relationship per se— they didn’t scream or slam doors or shout obscenities, they didn’t hurl grenades of nasty names or launch bitter campaigns against each other as if they were enemies— yet she still wanted to leave.  “There was in me an awful thing from almost the very beginning, a tiny clear voice that would not, no matter what I did, stop saying go,” she writes with heart-breaking poignancy.

cheryl go

In what are perhaps the most gut-wrenching letters in all of Tiny Beautiful Things, five women write the always sympathetic Strayed with a similar dilemma: they love their significant others but want to leave.  Each woman cites a different reason: while Standing Still is miserably depressed and feels misunderstood by her devoutly religious husband, Claustrophobic— like too many women in their late twenties/early thirties— feels pressured to marry her long-term boyfriend though the thought of tying the knot makes her “claustrophobic and panicky.”  Playing It Safe adores her husband whom she calls “terribly romantic” but worries she was too young to get married.  Secretly, she longs for a life of adventure and daring: she wants to date other people, gallivant around the globe, join the Peace Corps.  Similarly, Leaving a Marriage describes herself as “living in limbo”: on one hand, she loves her husband and feels it’s her duty to honor the binds of marriage; on the other, she feels “distant and remote” in their passionless union and is “repulsed at the idea of having sex with him.”

Though their circumstances differ, each woman is essentially saying the same thing: “I love him but…”  I love him but he doesn’t think depression is a real thing.  I love him but he doesn’t inspire/challenge me.  I love him but we don’t have any chemistry.

And isn’t that what makes the decision to end a relationship so excruciating?  You’re confronted with multiple truths.  There is the truth that you love your boyfriend/husband but there’s also the competing, contradictory truth that— for whatever reason— you no longer want to be with him.  How can you know which truth is the most true?

If you approach your decision with hard, rational logic, you might make a pro and con list.  On the pro side, the reasons to stay are endless: we stay because marriage is a commitment (as Leaving a Marriage writes, “marriage isn’t all puppies and rainbows, it requires hard work and endurance.”); we stay because our husbands have been faithful to us; we stay because we’re afraid to start over; we stay because we have a house and children.  We stay because it is familiar, because it would be inconvenient to sell our family home and find our own apartment.  We stay because custody battles are ugly and a good lawyer is expensive.  Mostly, we stay because we know leaving will devastate our husbands.

On the con side, we might have some compelling reasons to go: maybe our husband is petty and always puts us down; maybe he has outmoded ideas about gender roles and believes it’s our duty as a woman to give up our career and stay home; maybe we’re just incompatible on a fundamental level.

So what should we do?  In a passage of distressing beauty, Strayed stirs her letter writers to go and follow their truest truth:

“Go, even though you love him.

Go, even though he’s kind and faithful and dear to you.

Go, even though he’s your best friend and you’re his.

Go, even though you can’t imagine your life without him.

Go, even though he adores you and your leaving will devastate him.

Go, even though your friends will be disappointed or surprised or pissed off or all three.

Go, even though you once said you would stay.

Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone.

Go, even though you’re sure no one will ever love you as well as he does.

Go, even though there is nowhere to go.

Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.

Go, because you want to.

Because wanting to leave is enough.”

But if we do finally make the courageous choice to “go,” how do we cope with the crushing guilt that comes with hurting someone we love?  Rather than mire ourselves in a pit of self-punishment and self-hatred, we should treat ourselves with compassion and gentleness.  We made a tough decision.  Will leaving break our husband’s heart?  Yes, but it’s actually the kindest thing we could do.  It may seem cruel to utter the words “it’s over” and simply walk out the door, but it would be even more cruel to stay when we wanted to go.  After all, what’s worse: weeping inconsolably on the floor for a few days/weeks/months after your wife leaves you or tossing and turning in bed for years tormented by the terrible, inescapable sense that the person you love no longer loves you?  As Strayed writes with equal doses no-bullshit tough love and large-hearted encouragement, your partner deserves “the love of a woman who doesn’t have the word go whispering like a deranged ghost.”

A Shattered Marriage: Trauma & Heartbreak in “The Squid and the Whale”

divorce

The governing philosophy of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s heartfelt, sharp-witted The Squid and the Whale is nicely summed up by the unsparing words of one of his central protagonists Barnard: “people can be very stupid.”  A tender, exquisitely painful look at the aftermath of a messy divorce, The Squid and the Whale is also a portrait of the manifold ways people can be petty and foolish when heartbroken.

Barnard (Jeff Daniels) is perhaps the stupidest of all Baumbach’s characters.  A once acclaimed novelist whose stardom has dimmed, Barnard is an insufferable bastard for most of the film. Haughtily pompous, he speaks with an obnoxious pretension, assuredly telling his teenage son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) not to bother with A Tale of Two Cities because it’s “minor Dickens.”  So self-important is he that at one point he calls Kafka “one of his predecessors.”  When he’s not bragging about an alluring woman he could’ve slept with at a George Plimpton party, he’s subtly boasting that one of his scenes was a favorite of Norman Mailer’s.  One gets the sense that Barnard drops the names of impressive people and touts sophisticated-sounding opinions to conceal a deep-seated insecurity: though he was once a novelist of some renown, now he can’t get an agent or a book published.  Every time Barnard uttered yet another one of his overblown opinions or self-mythologizing stories, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.  Needless to say, my eyes were rarely straight ahead for the brief 80 minutes of the film…is it any wonder his wife Joan (Laura Linney) leaves him?  

A literary talent on the rise, Joan is also a writer but-unlike her has-been husband- she actually writes.  In a revealing scene, Barnard is setting up his bed on the coach, a tattered copy of Saul Bellow’s The Victim daring us to analyze its significance on the night stand, when he hears the clatter of typewriter keys in the kitchen. Curious, he follows the sound to find his wife visited by the muses who’ve so long forsaken him.

What are you writing?” he asks obviously jealous, “Did you take my note about the ending?”

Yeah, some of it….” she nods evasively, clearly not wanting to quarrel.

Does he still die?” Barnard presses.

Yes,” she finally admits like a child who’s forced to concede to a bully at school.

Then you didn’t take my note.”

What follows is a sad scene all too familiar to those who grew up in a turbulent home.  As Barnard and Joan holler and shriek, their two sons find their own ways to cope: 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) tries to ignore their fighting and hide under the covers; older brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves his room to check the commotion, looking painfully vulnerable as he sprawls out on the stairs in his underwear.  Baumbach’s directorial touch here is beautifully subtle: though he never states it outright, it’s undeniable envy plays a central role in their breakup.

unhappy couple

When Barnard and Joan finally break the news of their split, both are startlingly distant; rather than console their sons with loving assurances, all they discuss are the logistics of joint custody.  Yes, after some time Joan hugs a tearful Frank but what should be a heartfelt exchange still seems oddly devoid of emotion.  

Divorce is traumatic.  We hear this over and over.  But never before has a movie so faithfully limned the pain and grief that follows marital dissolution.  After the disintegration of his 17-year marriage, Barnard becomes more angry and bitter, constantly bad-mouthing Joan to his sons, even tactlessly revealing to Walt that his mother had an affair.  Little thought is given as to how such a divulgence will affect the teenager- all Barnard cares about is enlisting recruits on his side of the war.  

Joan isn’t entirely innocent either: unhappy in her loveless marriage to a self-absorbed writer, she finds solace in passionate affairs with several men, including her youngest son’s tennis instructor.  Rather than divorce Barnard, she remains unfaithful for many years.  Much like her ex-husband, in the immediate aftermath of their divorce she behaves selfishly and insensitively, telling Frank when he shows up unexpectedly for a visit that she needs a “break” from him and his brother once in awhile.  

While Joan is romping with a sexy tennis instructor and Barnard is lambasting Joan, their sons are finding their own ways of coping with the devastation of a broken home.  A masterful storyteller (he was once a novelist, after all), Barnard fashions a narrative in which he’s the irreproachable victim.  Walt, who idolizes his father, whole-heartedly believes his versions of events and channels his rage at Joan, at one point accusing her of “running a brothel.”  Outraged by her infidelities, he blames his mother for the divorce and relentlessly defends Barnard.  Yes, Joan was unfaithful but- as more impartial viewers witnessing these events-we possess the context to understand her affairs were most likely a symptom of an already strained marriage, not their cause.

walt & barnard

The stupidest thing Walt does, I think, is side with Barnard.  Not only does he unfairly hold his mother responsible for the divorce, he worships an uppity, self-satisfied snob.  In the cult of novelist Barnard, Walt is his most devoted follower: he reveres his father’s judgement so much that he trusts his assessments of literature without question, often passing over books simply because his father dismisses them.  So ardent is his adoration that he develops the off-putting habit of imitating his father’s elitist opinions, though he’s never actually read the books he so confidently critiques himself.  In a hilarious scene, he tells his love interest that Metamorphosis is very “Kafkaesque,” a bookish adjective he’s undoubtedly heard his father spout around the house.  “Uh, yeah,” Sophie (Halley Feiffer) replies, “it would have to be. It’s by Franz Kafka.”

In the wake of his parents’ acrimonious break up, the most despicable habit Walt adopts from his father is his misogyny.  It is from Barnard that Walt learns women are but a prop for man’s colossal ego- nothing but pretty play things to be assessed by their exteriors alone.  Throughout the film, Walt treats Sophie not as a first love to be courted and wooed but as a placeholder until he finds someone better.  “What do you mean, better?” his mother asks in disbelief, knowing “better” is code for more attractive.  Barnard encourages this detestable attitude toward women, at one point telling him to have sex with Sophie once to see if he “likes” it and on several occasions urging him to “play the field” and “not get tied down.”  After Walt wins the school talent show by passing off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own, Barnard is more adamant in his recommendation to sidestep commitment: “Things are going to change for you after tonight,” he assures him, hinting Walt will attract more tantalizing, desirable prospects after the evening’s show.  

Despite their (many) failings, film critic Nick Schager has said, The Squid and the Whale “dares not harshly judge its all-too-human characters.”  I would have to agree.  Barnard, Walt, Joan: all are but frail, flawed people trying to navigate heartbreak on their own.