Mount Alvernia High School, Newton, Massachusetts


Joan  Didion

Saugia  Walsh 
A History of American Divorce Law in the Twentieth Century

Detachment as a Survival Skill in the Works of Joan Didion

Death disrupts the normal patterns of everyday life, leaving family members and friends of the deceased with feelings of pain and loss. In some cases, people are unable to handle the emotional stress and psychological upheaval associated with grief, and in the worst cases, it results in a mental breakdown. As a woman who has herself suffered the loss of both her husband and daughter, Joan Didion effectively portrays how the mind uses detachment to survive. Maria, the protagonist of Play It As It Lays, becomes deeply depressed following the loss of her mother and the diagnosis of her child with Down Syndrome. Adding to her pain is her husbandís decision to divorce take custody of their child. This causes Maria to descend into a reckless state that endangers her well being. Fortunately, Maria has the ability to detach herself from all of the emotional upheaval. In essence, her ability to detach from the traumatic experiences in her life allows her to survive in a world that only causes her pain and suffering.

Emotional detachment can lead to divorce. Before the twentieth century the ability to obtain a divorce was not awarded unless someone was at risk of losing his or her life. Women were generally the ones in fear of their lives and they had no laws to protect themselves from mistreatment. Men had the upper hand in the law; they could file for divorce on the grounds of a petty situation or a serious problem. This caused women like Betty Friedan to work for no fault divorce laws to ensure equality between men and women. Womenís new roles in the workplace during World Wars I and II laid the groundwork for a no fault divorce law, as did the growing womenís rights movement in the 1960s. In 1969 the California Legislature passed the first no fault divorce law. This law empowered women to leave bad marriages with no requirement to name a guilty party. Although the no fault divorce law did help women gain equality, it sometimes threatened alimony payments and the well-being of children.

Major Works Consulted:

Berry, Dawn Bradley, J.D. The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America. New York: Free Press, 1985.
Didion, Joan. A Book of Common Prayer. Play It as It Lays. New York: Noonday, 1970.
---. New York: Simon Schuster, 1977.
Difonzo, J. Herbie. Beneath the Fault Line: The Popular and Legal Culture of Divorce in Twentieth-Century America. Charlottesville, VA: UP of Virginia, 1997.
Photo Credit: Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Knopf, 2006.


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