Jamison vs. Jamison

Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story by Leslie Jamison. New York: Little, Brown. 272 pages. $29.

The cover of Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story

THIS IS ONLY AN OPINION, BUT: no one should make art about their divorce until they’ve experienced at least one heartbreak after the marriage’s end. I keep an inventory of all the times I encounter an artist who manages, in telling a story about a divorce, to also include the story of another breakup that followed the supposedly definitive one. I love to see anything that complicates more straightforward accounts of life after divorce. That next heartbreak—the more devastating, the better—must be reckoned with, because it dispels any remaining illusions, or maybe delusions, about what one is capable of in pursuit of what we call love.        

I recently added Leslie Jamison’s memoir of early motherhood and divorce, Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story, to my list. In the book’s third act, a musician Jamison refers to only as “the tumbleweed” suddenly appears. Theirs is a torrid romance, sudden and fast-burning. The arc of their love story, like so many others, conveys a sense of narrative inevitability that Jamison keeps noticing: “The doom embedded in our premise was also fuel,” she writes. “We both liked turning ourselves into stories.” In Splinters, Jamison is attuned to patterns and familiarities in her relationships, and wary of when and where she might be living inside a cliché. “I was a walking punch line. A woman walks into a divorce . . . ” she writes at one point, making fun of her habit of taking long, scented baths in precious moments of solitude. In one scene, her friends take her to Target to get replacements for all she left behind in the matrimonial home: a knife block, water glasses. “Forget wedding registries, we joked. What about divorce registries?” I’ve heard this joke before. Lots of divorcées are compulsive comedians, jokes being the preferred valve for anxiety’s relief. I sometimes wonder if the divorce memoir, or any art about divorce, fulfills needs that the legal process of dissolving a marriage—with its conference rooms and paperwork—doesn’t satisfy. 

While Jamison’s writing is almost always personal (she mentions that her writing students sometimes play a drinking game that involves noticing “Leslie Words” like “interiority” or “granular”), Splinters is her most inward book. Her previous nonfiction work has taken memoir as a starting point for meditations on topics like romantic betrayal, extreme running, alcoholism and recovery, and whale-watching. She has written about herself, but mostly as a first-person narrator who has happened upon a larger story, her self-reflections intertwined with the subject. In Splinters, there are asides about the impact of no-fault divorce on the law, references to books and music, and pop psychology in the form of Jamison’s late-night Google searches, which lead each new section, hinting at themes to follow (“Does the skin shelf above a C-section scar ever go away?” “What is the average hourly rate for divorce lawyers in New York City?” “Why can’t a Scorpio Moon ever let go of anything?” “Time zone Barcelona”). But Jamison is determinedly both the subject and the material—the stories she finds herself investigating here are her own. 

There are many love stories within this book: a story of love lost, of platonic love between friends, of Jamison’s love for her infant daughter. But the crux of the book is divorce—not only Jamison’s own, but the growing, irreparable rift between her experience and her writing about that experience. Jamison’s ex-husband, a novelist referred to here only as “C,” has appeared before. “The Real Smoke” is the essay in Make It Scream, Make It Burn (2019) that tells their love story—the one Jamison intended to be the official version, or the one that she wanted to believe at that time, complete with the sweet decadence of their Las Vegas wedding ceremony. In Splinters, she summarizes those essays: “They were about my own pivot from the volatile thresholds of infatuation and heartbreak to the daily rhythms of parenting and partnership. The book ended with a version of my life that was no longer my life. . . . The narrator of those essays was trying desperately to convince herself to stay inside her marriage.” Now Jamison can’t decide how or when to let go of those stories. In Splinters, she notices how “years later, I found myself bewildered by the woman who got married in Vegas—humbled by the residue of her choices, angry at her for all the harm she’d caused. So I handcuffed her with the anecdotal version of our Vegas wedding because I was afraid to let her hands go free, to let her protest, No! There was something beautiful that night, something you actually believed in.

“Unless you say otherwise,” Jamison says, briefly addressing her readers, “people assume the end of a marriage involves an affair. So I am saying otherwise. This one did not. Just the mistake of two people believing they could make a life together, when in fact they couldn’t. Which is its own betrayal.” This idea raised questions that I couldn’t stop myself from trying to answer. Do silences create assumptions? Do disclosures rebut those assumptions? I understood that what Jamison was saying was true, both of her own marriage and of the assumptions some people make about divorce and infidelity, and yet, Jamison’s need to say otherwise revealed how limiting our expectations are of what it takes to break a commitment—is infidelity all there is? Isn’t no longer believing in something reason enough to let it go?   

Photo by Donna S./Flickr.
Photo by Donna S./Flickr.

Jamison has often returned to the idea that belief is strengthened each time it is renewed. She remembers herself as a child who “liked to write fairy tales with unhappy endings.” Dragons blew their flames on her characters; princesses flew away from their princes in hot-air balloons. “As an adult, I said this about myself so many times—When I was a child, I liked to write fairy tales with unhappy endings—that I started to forget another girl prowling the halls of memory.” This other little Leslie had begged her mother for the bridal magazines at the grocery store checkout. Perhaps this isn’t really that contradictory; an unhappy ending needs to start somewhere. “I was myself a ‘child of divorce,’ as they say, as if divorce were a parent,” Jamison recalls. As a child, she imagined that divorce involved a ceremony, like a wedding in reverse. “I once asked a friend of my parents, ‘Did you have a nice divorce?’” Jamison suspected that she was destined to divorce. “Almost every marriage in my family had ended in divorce, and it was hard to imagine my own turning out another way.”

Just as some people romanticize a long marriage, Jamison rhapsodizes about her parent’s divorce—their heartbreak eventually turned into a deep friendship, the apex of which involved her mother officiating her father’s third marriage (later, in retrospect, her mother would admit that maybe that had been “a bit much”). As Jamison comes to realize, we do not always return to what is familiar because we like it, or because it is good for us. Familiar is enough. Jamison recalls how in couples therapy, “when we talked about the possibility of separation,” her then-husband said: “If you think we’re going to get divorced and then have what your parents have, think again.”

In Splinters, the fact of repetition and sameness is fittingly recurrent. Jamison’s 2018 book, The Recovering, was, as she puts it in Splinters, about “the only thing I ever wrote about: the great emptiness inside, the space I’d tried to fill with booze and sex and love and recovery and now, perhaps, with motherhood.” In one of the many passages in Splinters that discuss her previous writings, she explains how that book’s acclaim brought up the same heady, nauseating feeling of addiction itself, making her both sickened and excited for as much recognition as she could get. Her time in AA, as she recounts in The Recovering, showed her that no one tells just their own story; the circumstances may change and the details may surprise, but the power comes from how much every listener can find themselves within someone else’s distinctly individual story.  

Divorce, too, has similar limitations of narrative: it is not a coincidence that divorcées find themselves telling the same jokes, having the same epiphanies. Then, for Jamison, there was motherhood, which was everything, but when she searches for the words, the only phrase she can settle on is “nothing at all: milk and diapers, milk and diapers, milk and diapers.” (In a later story about sitting on a turbulent airplane, waiting until she can stand up and change her daughter’s appallingly full diaper, Jamison worries over the same problem: she wishes she could find a way to explain how profoundly close she felt with her baby, how serene and determined as a caretaker, but when she finds the time to try to write it down all she can conjure is: “She took the biggest shit. . . . It got all over us both.”) 

Really, though, what more is there to say? Splinters is Jamison’s story—new to us—but the meaning is found precisely where it repeats something practically any adult person will recognize: a fear of what is happening within their own intimacies, a pain that emanates from their role played in breaks and endings, a fatigue of their own friendships. The mantras and clichés from AA that Jamison returns to (“Feelings aren’t facts,” “One day at a time”) were all “things I’d heard before. Things that didn’t help, until I woke in the middle of the night and needed them—not as a woman needs wisdom, but as a thirsty person needs water.” Nothing that repeats does so as a cure; reminders are, instead, much better applied as a daily reprieve.

But how many times can one return to the same salve? This is another of Jamison’s perennial questions, to her reader and to herself. How many times is too many times to try the same thing? Another cliché comes to mind: that one about how the mark of insanity is turning to the same thing and expecting different results. Still another appears: people don’t change. Jamison has always been a writer who will, instead, try to find new ways to be herself. “One of the lessons I kept learning,” she writes, was “the difference between the story of love and the texture of living it; between the story of motherhood and the texture of living it; between the story of motherhood and the texture of living it, the story of empathy and the texture of living it.”

Jamison mentions that in the months following her separation she kept Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights “perched on my nightstand like a jinx.” Hardwick’s novel, which she began writing after her own divorce from the poet Robert Lowell, is an elusive, haunting exercise in memory and memoir; its beauty compounds with every reread. Jamison is teaching her students about revisions, and quotes Hardwick’s character asking another: “Don’t you see that revision can enter the heart like a new love?” Jamison loves to revise, loves seeing the way an edit or a deliberate absence can throw what remains into relief. “In writing, these removals were a form of rigor,” she knows. “But in life, they felt like cruelty.” 

Still, it’s that awareness of what writing and revision can do that protects Splinters from a callousness Jamison seems to fear. There is little cruelty in her finished work, though that’s not to say there is no pain; I winced hard at some of her recollections of how her marriage ended, and the fraught beginnings of her life as a co-parent rather than a spouse. I could feel, in her telling, the wounds of that relationship lift off the remembered dialogue and into my own memories. I could also feel Jamison’s hurry to rediscover life in a new role—her commitment to work as a way of proving something to herself, her diligence to romance seemed of much the same stuff. 

I return to Hardwick frequently because of a quality I admire, one that I recognize in Jamison’s writing: both let readers feel that a writer’s mind is most alive when it turns over a question. There is, in their words, that lifting, elating rush of ideas—the rush of too many thoughts for the page, the feeling that one can find an answer even better than the answer having been found. The lingering sense of more to think, more to feel, more to know: Splinters is that other love story, the one in love with our dedication to yet another kind of love, and another, and another.

Haley Mlotek is a writer based in Montreal. Her first book, on romance and divorce, is forthcoming from Viking.