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Book Reviews   |    
The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study ? The Love They Lost: Living With the Legacy of Our Parents' Divorce
Reviewed by William Vogel, Ph.D.
Psychiatric Services 2001; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.52.8.1108
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by Judith Wallerstein, Julia Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee; New York, Hyperion, 2000, 345 pages, $24.95 • by Stephanie Staal; New York, Delacorte Press, 2000, 246 pages, $23.95

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The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce is a 25-year follow-up by Wallerstein and her colleagues of a group of children of divorced parents. Earlier studies evaluated the children at five, ten, and 15 years. The children, 131 in all, were recruited in 1971; the youngest are now in their late twenties and the oldest in their early forties.

For this study, the authors use case histories of five persons from the original sample; two of them are compared with persons who were raised in troubled homes in which the parents did not divorce, and another is compared with a child from a happy, intact family.

In the course of these case histories the authors include and integrate material from the longitudinal study, all of it interesting and thought provoking. For example, only seven of the 131 children from the original sample experienced a postdivorce home in which they had a good relationship with a step-parent. At this 25-year mark, only 60 percent had contracted for marriage. Two-thirds of the sample decided not to have children. Only 30 percent of the sample received financial support for college, as contrasted with 90 percent of children whose parents were not divorced, an indication of the nature and quality of their troubled relationships with their parents.

The case studies provide graphic, moving reality to the actual lives behind the statistics and to the tragedy of divorce. A significant number of those in the cohort seem to have developed a sense of being less than wanted by one or both divorced parents as the parents became involved in their own postdivorce worlds. In these cases the children came to feel like inconvenient baggage from the parents' "old" lives. The trauma projects well into the adult lives of these children of divorce; they do not grow out of it.

This is a fascinating, important, and touching book. It is especially necessary reading for those familiar with this group's earlier work and for anyone, professional or layperson, who is concerned with the problem of divorce.

The Love They Lost, by Stephanie Staal, is a must-read for mental health professionals, lawyers, child care professionals, parents, and indeed anyone who has a personal or professional interest in divorce. It is, in its own way, a groundbreaking book that may well become a classic. It says important things, and it is beautifully written. It is difficult to put down.

The author is a 27-year-old woman who was 13 when her parents divorced. The book is, in effect, an oral history based on her experiences and those of 120 other adult children of divorce. Her aim is to describe and record the phenomenological experiences of adults who were raised in families in which the parents had divorced. Staal makes it plain that she does not "offer solutions, prescriptions, or policy recommendations. . . . I am not here to state whether children of divorce are any better or worse off than they would have been" had their parents not divorced. She does not engage in political, scholarly, or ideological debates. She seems very well acquainted with the professional literature and cites it where relevant, but she does not formally review it: "I am not a therapist nor a social scientist."

What she does offer is a rich body of experiential data that permit us to grasp the emotional impact of divorce on individuals from the time when they were children until well into their adulthood and into their own marriages. In these data there is evidence of an impressive commonality in the lives and experiences of the people who share their stories. Although experts agree that, to some extent, the effects of divorce can be ameliorated if the child has a warm, loving, positive relationship with the custodial parent, if the divorced parents maintain a civil, cooperative relationship, and if the child maintains a satisfying, ongoing relationship with the noncustodial parent, that happy constellation seems largely to be absent in the lives of the subjects in Staal's sample. The effects of divorce on all of them would appear to be lifelong, although there would seem to be variability in the degree to which these people were able to survive those effects.

Common themes appear that I have not seen discussed elsewhere, such as fixation on hoarding money as a source of security and safety. Let me quote a passage about this commonality of their experience: "As I began to speak with others about the emotional impact of their parents' divorce on their romantic lives today, similar themes came forth again and again, described in similar language: I have built up walls, rarely letting anyone in. I have trouble living in the moment, and often find myself wondering how things will end, even as they start. I feel like the rug could be pulled out from underneath me at any time. I constantly set up tests, forcing people to prove their love to me. I have a hard time trusting. I am so scared of being abandoned."

Buy this book.

Dr. Vogel is associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

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