Monday, May 26, 2008

Considering Marriage

The gay marriage issue has surfaced once again with the recent decision of the California Supreme Court. I am thinking of initiating a series of posts considering marriage, womanhood, and related issues. Whether I actually do so, given my sporadic posts lately, is a question, but I thought to initiate this series with some reflections I had made about ten years ago on a related topic. I am writing and revising from a draft of an article I never completed:

It is 1987 and I have returned to Birmingham. On a visit to my aunt I chanced to pick up an old issue of the New York Review of Books, a periodical to which my aunt subscribed. I was glancing through the "personals" in the back section, where people advertise in search of romantic partners of one kind or another through cleverly-phrased ads. My eye happened to fall on one of these ads.
I was struck, for this particular ad was written by an acquaintance of mine. She had told me of it at the time, and I knew as well what happened as a result of her placing the ad.
I had met Susan, as I will call her, in the Berkshires, where I lived for about a decade. Shortly before I left, in the mid-1980's, I ran into her by chance one afternoon. She had her two-year-old daughter with her, a child who, at that moment at least, seemed unusually fretful and whining.
This child was the result of the relationship that had come about through Susan's ad. Susan refused to marry the father of the child - I will call him Bill - not through any personal dislike for him - or at least, so she said - but because of her long-standing opposition to the institution of marriage. She was absolutely opposed to it, and had been for as long as I had known her. Bill, I had heard, was devoted to the child and was having a very hard time with Susan's refusal to marry him.
Somewhat obliquely, I asked Susan what had become of him. "Oh, he moved back to Boston," she said. She indicated that her anti-marriage stand had upset him, and that he had tried to change her mind.
It was one of those warm, clear, late-summer Berkshire days, and I do not know with what sudden, direct conviction of my own that I said to her, "You used him." She protested that she had not - that "she had made it clear to him from the beginning what she intended in the relationship," and that she had no intention to marry, ever. But it seemed to me to be true, that a cause is not necessarily made right through being made honest. I felt something forming, in the aura of the unseen; I felt something of Bill's bitter thoughts, that he had been made not only an object, but a fool.
Who is to be blamed, if anyone, for this situation? If Susan was adhering to a piece of folk wisdom, "Honesty is the best policy," Bill might have benefited from another - "Look before you leap." Susan's honesty led Bill to make a very human mistake. He assumed that because she possessed the virtue of honesty, it was likely that she possessed other virtues as well, such as openness to being persuaded of an alternate course and consideration for the needs and rights of others. Had this been the case, honesty would have merited first place in the series of virtues, for it presupposes the existence of others by the very nature of one's policy in dealing with them. Yet this presupposition of the existence of others stopped curiously short of the actual granting to them of legitimate rights and needs in conflict with one's assumed honesty. Others exist - but their existence has no claims; the others have no rights. Their existence is somehow truncated or shadowy or unreal. And in fact, honesty became for Susan a way to win motherhood at low moral cost to herself.
As for Bill, he could have elected to remain in the same town just for the sake of being near his daughter. He would have had to swallow his pride and a large chunk of parental rights, but at least his daughter would have known him. Susan would have been obliged, by the very terms of her self-professed honesty, to acknowledge his role in co-parenting, and Bill, through continuing involvement, would have had some of the sting removed from the bitterness of the whole situation.
As it was, all three persons in this drama seems to have been losers. That fretful little girl already at age two was showing signs of having to negotiate a life so precariously launched on the seas of egotism and disillusion.