A friend — a friend I admire for his direct approach because it reminds me of me — asked me the other day why I wrote “The Percussionist’s Wife.”
“Was any of your motivation for writing this book anger or vengeance?” he asked.
Since the book is about my first marriage — which implies I have a second marriage and therefore have divorced the first husband — and many divorces are accessorized with acrimony and blame, I understood why he asked this question.
Why I wrote it
The short answer is no, I didn’t write my memoir out of anger or vengeance.
The long answer is I felt compelled, literally pushed by my psyche, to write this book. It was a story that demanded to be told. While the drama was unfolding, I felt I had no voice but the feelings evoked by the drama and that I suppressed to just get through it were percolating inside me for 10 years, itching to get out. I couldn’t not write the story. Putting words to the demise of my first marriage was therapy and, I learned as I wrote and rewrote, it was the only way I ever could have untangled all my justifications for why I stayed, how I contributed to the wreckage and why I ultimately left that marriage.
I didn’t simply want to write this book. I needed to. And after I divorced, found a safe harbor and put pen to paper, I was finally able to explore my feelings about why I tolerated unreasonable behavior and the pain that behavior caused.
If I could have written the book without “the percussionist,” I would have. But like the Siamese twin construction my title “The Percussionist’s Wife” is meant to convey, my story is entwined with the percussionist’s and I couldn’t tell a story of sex, crime and betrayal without including him. If you know me, you know him, and there’s no way around that. Even a fictionalized version of the story of a basketball player (instead of a percussionist) set in a different place with a pseudonym written under a pen name would have been transparent to anyone who knows the real story. He’s paid his debt to society, and our divorce ended our commitment to each other, so I honestly hope he can live happily beyond the perimeter of my little memoir. (Knowing him as I do, I can imagine him repeating to anyone who will listen the old proverb, “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” the way Ricardo Montalbán says it as Khan Noonien Singh in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” He never liked my cooking when we were married so I’m not surprised he wouldn’t recognize it for what it is now either.)
To eliminate some of the perception that I was exacting vengeance, I excised his surname from the book and I attempted to write him as a complete character instead of simply as a cartoon villain. One early reader of the manuscript said, “I think that you write fairly objectively about a highly emotional, subjective experience” while another person told me, “the tone of the book literally drips with blaming and judging” so I believe I must have successfully walked the tightrope between defending him and vilifying him.
Why I’m publishing it
Publishing this memoir is a separate issue. I could have written it and then put it away, having successfully vanquished my demons.
But my experience of opening up to others and admitting my shortcomings taught me the old adage is true: Shared sorrow is half sorrow.
Quite often, the news is filled with stories of philandering husbands: Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mark Sanford, Tiger Woods, John Edwards … Unfortunately, I could go on for pages and that’s not to mention the lesser news makers and petty targets of girlfriend gossip. I always wonder, “What is the wife thinking? Why is she standing there, beside him?” Or “why did she leave?” Occasionally, she speaks out (Jenny Sanford and Elizabeth Edwards wrote high-profile memoirs that included their thoughts on their philandering husbands), but usually the storm passes and we never hear “how?” or “why?” from the quiet spouses standing in the shadows.
Standing behind spouses who behave badly — philanderers, sex offenders, porn addicts, Ponzi schemers, gamblers, embezzlers, alcoholics, mental patients, chronic liars — is a desperate and exceedingly lonely place. I want women (and men) in that place to know they’re not alone; I can understand why they might stay, why they might stay quiet and why they might decide to leave. Maybe, by reading my story, they will dig beneath their own denial in order to stay for the right reasons or they would be smarter about leaving than I was.
Like most members of the human race, I care what people think of me. But those perceptions of society’s expectations are exactly what kept me quiet and left me feeling trapped when I was in the middle of the drama that plays out in “The Percussionist’s Wife.” By publishing my memoir, I am releasing those cares. Keeping my story a secret would only serve to continue the denial of reality.
I heard an interview recently with memoirist Eric Nuzum who writes about his troubled youth and experience with drugs, depression and a mental health institution in “Giving Up the Ghost.” Nuzum told NPR host John Donvan something that probably many memoirists, me included, can relate with: “Billy Kyles, who was on the balcony … when Martin Luther King was shot, said history gives us witnesses to tell what happened. And I think that part of my responsibility of living this is, to talk about it.”
“The Percussionist’s Wife” starts the conversation.