couples

'Did my memoir kill my marriage?'

A funny thing happens when you publish a book about your life.

It has an ending. And sometimes, what happens next – after the book is published – can make a lie out of that ending, however true you thought it was at the time.

The memoir I published nearly three years ago was about discovering my son is on the autistic spectrum … and then that half my family (including me) is somewhere on that spectrum. But it was also a celebration of difference. With our multigenerational divorces, shared custody arrangements and array of step-parents (and even a foster child), we were pretty far from ‘average’, whatever that is.

But I liked to think that, despite the many fractures in our family tree, rebuilding it our own way had made us stronger. I thought there was something special in that.

I thought the same about my household: my husband I had split up and gotten back together incessantly in the first two years of our relationship, before we moved in together, then got engaged, then married. We squabbled, about things as minor as how tidy a house needed to be before people came over (he liked it spotless, I thought people should take us as we were), and as important as where we should live (he wanted to move to the inner-city, I didn’t want my son to change schools, neighbourhoods, or custody arrangements). I struggled with the fractious moods that were symptoms of his ill health. He was ground down by my anxiety and workaholic tendencies.

I put all of this in my memoir.

We also had an easy rhythm to our relationship: we shared values, we joked together, we both cared passionately about my son. As a threesome, our family fit together, despite all the signs that suggested we might not.

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I put this in my memoir too, and considered this one of its messages: love doesn’t always look like what you expect, and nor does family. Flaws don’t mean something doesn’t work.

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But it turned out I was wrong.

My husband left us a year after my book was published, in what came as a total shock. Of course, it was about much more than my book. But he said that I had been very hard to live with while I was writing it, and then when it was published, when I spent the first few months drowning in first-time author neurosis. (Was I getting enough publicity? Would my family be upset about my book and the stories I told about them? Could the publicity make things worse?)

One author told me, in the first days after my husband left, that this – being left by your life partner – is not uncommon for women who publish their first books.

A friend reviewed my book on Goodreads soon after my separation: “Events in her life since this book was published … have coloured the way I interpret certain characters, and made the postscript seem far less rosy than it was perhaps intended to read.”

Jo.

I re-read those final pages: my son and I binge-watching 30 Rock DVDs in his bedroom, while my husband watched AFL in the lounge. Together but separate: I had always cherished this aspect of our marriage, and I thought my husband did too. But when he left, he told me he no longer wanted to live in a household where there was the two of us (my son and me) and him. We made him feel lonely.

A writer I knew through social media wrote to me that she’d read my book and had seen the signs of my marriage’s imminent collapse all the way through – triumphant, as if she had found the clues in a detective novel.

I was still doing speaking events about my book when my husband left: author talks, a writer's festival. I had to re-read my memoir, to refamiliarise myself with the life we’d had, as I’d written it. This time, I could see it too – the trail of breadcrumbs leading to my domestic end.

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I remembered, in the middle of one sleepless, grieving night, that my husband had only read half of my book. He’d left it unfinished on our bedside table. He said he felt like he’d read it, because he’d heard my son and I talk about it so often while I was writing it. “And I lived it already.” I didn’t mind at the time.

But now, I realised that I’d structured the book – our lives – to tell a story. To some degree, I’d built up the tension in the first half, only to resolve it in the second, where I interpreted the things that pushed us apart as less important than those that drew us together.

Did the first half of my book tell him a story of our lives together than he didn’t want to keep reading – or living? Had my memoir killed our marriage? I thought so, for a while. I was desperately looking for signs of where I had gone wrong, in the hope I could somehow fix my mistakes. This seemed like an answer I could pin down.

But the power of stories is that they’re not just handed down from the writer, but are created as they’re read. It’s about what the reader brings to the story, from their own experiences and values – and what they’re looking for.

My friends read my book knowing the ending that would follow, after the covers had shut. That could be why they read the signs of my marriage ending so clearly. I don’t know what my husband read in it, but I have to conclude that if he read the cracks in our marriage but not the love that glued it together, that’s what he was looking for. For better or worse.

You can only write what you see as the truth at the time. Sometimes that means hidden truths, the ones you sense but don’t see, are unearthed in the process. And what happens next can be unpredictable.

Jo Case is the author of Boomer and Me: A memoir of motherhood and Asperger’s, and Program Manager of Melbourne Writers Festival.
She will host What Happened Next, a Melbourne Writers Festival event where five writers of true stories will share surprising tales of what happened after their books were published, on Sunday 23 August at 5.30pm.

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