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Divorce and the Heroine's Journey

Fire tale - Paula Rego. Centro de Arte Manuel de Brito, CAMB, Palácio dos Anjos, Algés, Portugal.

Divorce is often experienced as trauma by one or both parties, but it can also be the first step on the hero’s journey—a decision to retrace one’s steps in search of lost former identity.

Meet my mother.

Betty Steck was raised in a devout Irish Catholic family and married into a devout Italian Catholic family. And while the two merging clans had little in common, culturally, socially, or financially, they did hold as sacred the belief that divorce was a mortal sin, basically the worst kind of sin, the kind that sends you straight to hell.

That’s the way it was taught. Thus, mid-century attitudes about divorce provided a very powerful disincentive to unhappy wives and miserable husbands to make a break for it. I think my mom was part of a distinct demographic of women who married under false circumstances, that is, believing that patriarchy was a noble system which existed for their best interest. That idea was dying in real time for women married in the 1940s and 50s, coinciding with the famous “second wave of feminism.” Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1964. No-fault divorce became the law of the land in our adopted state of California in 1969, and two years later Mom and Dad availed themselves of this new legal remedy to their irreconcilable differences.

Halfway through the journey of life

The day came when mom would simply proclaim that the legal and moral underpinnings of her union with my father were henceforth dissolved. She was taking a road no one on either side of the family had even considered before, the kind of road we meet in the first canto of Dante’s Commedia.

When halfway through the journey of our life

I found I was in a gloomy wood,

Because the path which led aright was lost.

And ah, how hard it is to say just what.

This wild and rough and stubborn woodland was,

The very thought of which renews my fear! (1.1-6, Langdon)

Mom had every right to be afraid. The benefits of divorce seemed obvious to her, but so did the disadvantages. Without Dad, she would be at the bottom of the economic ladder, struggling to meet basic expenses. Dad had been the “breadwinner.” Without Dad, her credit rating would plummet. Bank officers would find it easy to disqualify her for home and car loans. Employment possibilities would dry up—all those years of wiping butts and cooking dinner meant little in the job market, a market which did not recognize the value of her domestic experience.

Dante at least had Virgil to guide his path. Mom had a really second-rate litigator whose attempt to navigate the intricacies of divorce law in California left her, in the end, technically independent, but factually broke.

Neither side of the family was supportive of my mother’s mad dash for freedom, but she pursued some version of happiness in spite of them. She was now an outlier, estranged from family and friends and ably playing the role of the ostracized hero described by Campbell as being "in diametric opposition to that of social duty and the popular cult. From the standpoint of

the way of duty, anyone in exile from the community is a nothing. From the other point of view, however, this exile is the first step of the quest” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces 332).

Inanna's descent as the divorce journey

I have already invoked Inanna this MythBlast season to explain my (positive) reaction to the movie Barbie, but, really, the image of Inanna as a divorcee being stripped of her titles, dignity, jewelry, and by inference, her gym membership, job prospects, and Gelson’s credit card and then ending up with her problematic sister—well, that’s irresistible. That happened. Mom ended up moving in with Aunt Jackie, her sister, her confidante and her Ereshkigal.

One humiliation after another. In Campbell’s retelling of the Sumerian heroine’s journey, each level of approach to the “land of no return” was marked by some degradation, the loss of some token of power, a necklace here, a crown there. So it was with Mom. Like Inanna she starts out in the Great Above. Mom starts out in the Great Above in terms of southern California property values. Great Above? Hell, we were “South of the Boulevard,” the fancy part of town. Four bedrooms. Two baths. Water softener! We were gods. We lived in the hills, the Great Above, and we looked down on anybody north of the Boulevard. Just as Inanna inexorably dropped level by level into the underworld, so did Mom find herself in cheaper lodging among the glittering lights which had once been our backyard view.

In Campbell’s retelling of the Sumerian heroine’s journey, each level of approach to the “land of no return” was marked by some degradation, the loss of some token of power, a necklace here, a crown there. So it was with Mom.

You’re gonna leave the Great Above? Really? You’re gonna leave our automatic sprinkler system? Our dishwasher? Our intercom? The Mercedes? The Gelson Credit card? Us?

Aunt J was insufferably superior at times, but she, unlike Ereshkigal, had a good heart and an extra bedroom. And if Aunt Jackie had one thing to teach my mother, it was: Life without a man is doable, baby. Try it. Auntie was going on her fourth decade since she’d broken up with her fiancé in college, and she looked none the worse for it.

So Mom ended up in this intense, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? sort of arrangement. She went through the fearsome passage—the door of which dissolved her status in society—and came back changed, full of harmless revelations and emptied of formerly held belief systems.

The woman who raised us, who took us to church, who taught us table manners and slipped sex education pamphlets under our doors at night, simply disappeared at some point in her heroic journey. As Ananda Coormaraswamy writes, “No creature can attain a higher grade of nature without ceasing to exist” (qtd. in Campbell The Hero with a Thousand Faces 77).

Mom ceased to exist.

In her place, a hero emerged who had learned to embrace solitude as others might an old friend. I have never met a woman so unspeakably complete in the absence of a husband.

MythBlast authored by:

John Bonaduce, PhD, a seasoned writer for Norman Lear and for most of the major Hollywood studios (Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros, et al.) developed a profound interest in story structure beyond the commercial objectives of the industry. His exploration led him to conclude that much of what we call myth derives from a biological origin. This insight inspired his pursuit of deeper relationships between biology and narrative through his theory of Mythobiogenesis, which he explored in his dissertation at Pacifica Graduate Institute and was recognized as a “discovery” in the field of prenatal psychology by Dr. Thomas Verny.

John was recently appointed to the editorial board of the Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health (JOPPPAH) where he advocates for an unrecognized level of human consciousness which exists at the border of biology and mythology.

As a featured writer for the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast, he passionately showcases Joseph Campbell’s enduring relevance to a modern audience.

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 6, and The Hero with a Thousand Faces


Latest Podcast

In this episode, we welcome Dr. Ben Rogers. Dr. Rogers is an Assistant Professor of Management & Organization at Boston College. He the author of a groundbreaking research paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which reveals how framing our own lives a Hero’s Journey is associated with psychological benefits such as enhanced well-being, greater life satisfaction, a sense of flourishing, and reduced depression. “The way that people tell their life story shapes how meaningful their lives feel,” he says. “And you don’t have to live a super heroic life or be a person of adventure—virtually anyone can rewrite their story as a Hero’s Journey.” In the episode, JCF'S John Bucher speaks with Ben about Ben’s research, why Campbell’s Hero’s Journey structure is such a powerful context for storytelling, and how adopting the narrative structure of the hero's journey can enrich our lives with greater meaning and sense of fulfillment.


This Week's Highlights

A picture of Joseph Campbell, a white man in a brown suit.

"I have taught hundreds of young women, many of whom have gone into the arts, as did Jean, who went into classic dance. But many of the others had husbands who would not stand for that. Each of these women had to make a choice, and if she chose to knuckle down to what her husband wanted, that ended her adventure. It really did. Everything else then became a substitute. But the objective is to have your own adventure, not a substitute, and it is not by any means an easy thing to do."

-- Joseph Campbell



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