On Herself

De-Storyed: On Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

When I type the word “destroyed” –which I have had reason to do a lot in the past year, as I’ve written about my messy divorce–I often mistype it as “destoryed.”

De-storyed is actually an apt description of what I experienced. With the end of my marriage, the major stories of my adult life were obliterated. The stories that l would tell about my life, about my husband’s life. The story of how to spell my name: “one L in Alison, but two Ls in my last [married] name.” The joke I used to like to make about our marriage at an early age: “I was a child bride.”  The story of how I changed colleges three times (to be near him); the story of why we’d moved every two years (his job). All of these stories changed.

The cruelest part of my divorce, though, was not that my stories had changed, but the critical story to which I had no access: the true story of why my marriage had suddenly ended.

The facts I have are these: Ours was not a marriage of fighting, screaming, yelling, or of long chilly silences. On one night my husband was a man I would have described as impulsive, yes, but also someone whom I would have described as smart, loyal and good. We had recently made our weekend house our full-time home; we were preparing for him to start his own business.

The next night, this same man came home from work, packed his bag and within a half an hour was out the door. The few explanations he did make that night were either flimsy or untrue, as evidenced in bank records and such.

Within three weeks, we had stopped communicating except through lawyers, and mutual friends either stopped communicating with him, or him with them. And so a person I’d been with for more than half of my life, and my entire adult life was simply gone, and without an explanation that made any real sense to me.

At first I seriously wondered whether he’d had a stroke, or an aneurysm, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Very gradually, I began to accept that I would never learn the true story, or at least from him.

The brain is adept at finding a coherent causal story that links the fragments of knowledge at its disposal. – Daniel Kahneman

At first, I thought that being de-storyed in this way was especially cruel to me, because I make my living as a writer. I live for stories. But when I read Daniel Kahneman’s book book, Thinking Fast and Slow, I understood that this situation would be uncomfortable for anyone — and my strong urge to knit my broken pieces into a coherent narrative, a reflex.

Our brains automatically create causal, plausible stories out of limited information. We fill in the blanks when a cause isn’t provided. For example, in the book, Kahneman describes an experiment in which people are asked to read this sentence:

After spending a day exploring the beautiful sights in the crowded streets of New York, Jane discovered her wallet was missing.

When tested later, people are more likely to recall the word “pickpocket,”  than the word “sights” — even though “pickpocket” did not appear in the sentence. He explains:

The event of a lost wallet can evoke many causes. It could have slipped out of a pocket, left at a restaurant. However, when the ideas of a lost wallet, New York and crowds are juxtaposed, they jointly evoke the explanation that a pickpocket caused the loss.

In the absence of facts, the mind creates a plausible story — and then, this is Kahneman’s major point — it’s really hard not to believe that story. But the key word here is that the mind “creates” the story, or maybe “conjures” is a better word for it. The mind tends to discount random events, the inexplicable, and come up with a story that identifies a cause, whether or not there is any proof. The mind, he writes, is a machine for jumping to conclusions.

We are pattern seekers, believers in a coherent world. – Daniel Kahneman

Absent an explanation from my husband, I took the fragments of information that I had and a coherent story began to coalesce. The night he left, one of the few things he told me was that he wanted to have a child and not with me. (Childbearing was a topic we’d discussed often, and hadn’t come to a definitive conclusion.) Within a few days, after I confronted him with evidence in financial records, he confessed that he was involved with a woman he’d dated in high school.

Six months later, they were engaged, bought a house in the suburbs, and a baby was on the way. Forgive me this vanity, but it’s germane to the point that I’m making here to say that it was universally agreed, even by people who do not hesitate to tell blunt truths, that I was more attractive compared to his new love, and certainly the more worldly. Usually, the story would go that a man would leave someone like her for someone like me, not vice versa.

Anyway, the narrative that I developed to explain my divorce to myself was this: he wanted a different life than the one he had with me. A more traditional life, with a woman who would make him the center of her world, and have his babies, and not care a whit about writing, traveling, the life of the mind. I didn’t want to live in the suburbs and think about municipal rules and regulations, that was never going to be me.

Plus, I’d read that first loves, those connections you make in high school, have special resonance, so possibly some part of him had been in love with her all the time of our marriage.

In any event, if that was what he wanted, fair enough. It was terrible that he couldn’t have told me that flat out, that we couldn’t have come to the decision mutually. But hey. Most marriages don’t end gracefully. He would have his suburban life with his new love, and I, relocated to Greenwich Village, would have my life. I liked my life better.  I was recovering, and in fact, I was easing into a satisfying new relationship of my own.

Just over a year after he announced the end of our marriage, I emailed to congratulate him on the birth of his child, and in the process of these congratulations, inadvertently summarized my understanding of the events that had transpired.

Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our own ignorance. – Daniel Kahneman

He didn’t correct me, but here’s the thing: I recently learned that the story I had created for myself was wrong. After a few months of suburban life, and possibly by the time my congratulations reached him, he was no longer in a relationship with his high school love with whom he’d fathered a child. He’d moved on, both romantically and literally, and was with someone else entirely.

When I learned this news, I sat with one of my closest friends and tried to figure the whole thing out, which is to say, to make a new story to accommodate the new facts. What in the world is he doing? If he hadn’t destroyed our life together for true love, to be in a traditional family, or just to have sex with lots of women, then why had he done this at all?

She told me not to bother trying to construct a narrative, that I would never understand what he was doing, because what he was doing makes no sense. A man who has lived three different lives in the space of, oh, 19 months is most likely not a man making considered choices. He’s behaving randomly, in the truest sense of the word. (Definition of random: made, done, happening, or chosen without method.)

We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgement is missing — what we see is all there is. – Kahneman

I obviously had to retire the explanation that I’d made for my divorce–that he wanted a more traditional life than I did. This retirement had some extra relief for me in it: on some level, I had been wondering what I know many acquaintances were whispering: if I had somehow managed to be a more traditional woman, if I had used my passport less and my uterus more, would I still be married today?

Perhaps if his relationship with his daughter’s mother had lasted, the answer would have been yes. But that relationship didn’t last. He didn’t want my kind of life, and as best as I can tell, he didn’t want the life he walked into when he walked out on ours.

Of course, I realize that what he does with his life now is no longer any of my business, outside of how he handles the payments he’s legally required to make to me. But my mind’s story-making reflex still sprung right into action, and now I have a new one.

It involves me feeling sorry for him, and actually feeling concern for the apparently haphazard way he’s running his personal life. It involves me thinking that despite the undeniably shitty way he’s behaved towards me, he will always be my first husband, always be a person with whom I spent all of my twenties and most of my thirties, and it includes the hope that he finds some peace.

This new-new story makes me feel good, because it makes me feel more compassion and sadness than anger. (And also, yes, because this story makes me an entirely blameless bystander to his meltdown, innocent victim being the role I much prefer to play here.) But I also realize that it’s just another theory, based on very few facts.

Kahneman points out that it’s incredibly hard to sustain doubt in a coherent narrative that seems to make sense, even when you know, as I do, that I’m missing most of the true story. And he’s right. Although I know it’s based on precious little, at this moment I really do believe this version of the story of my de-storying. And I suppose I will believe this until something new emerges. If it ever does.


6 thoughts on “De-Storyed: On Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

  1. Thanks, Eileen, that’s a great point. And the answer to that question is no — nor would I be happier today were I still married. 😉

  2. What a wonderful and thought-provoking piece, Alison. And interesting timing, after I just finished reading Allison (two “l”s) Winn Scotch’s The Theory of Opposites, a novel about a woman whose husband separates from her in search of more. Reading your story, Allison’s novel and watching a couple I know now going through their own divorce makes me realize that there is not always a solid reason for people behaving the way they do. Sometimes they just don’t know what they’re doing, or they can’t help themselves from destroying (there’s the word again) their good life. I’m glad you’ve come to a place of compassion rather than self-blame and anger.

  3. Thanks so much Debbie! I didn’t realize that Allison’s novel tackled this subject; it’s definitely on my reading list.

    You’re making a great point. One of the great lessons in this experience for me is that people generally behave consistently, and sometimes they don’t. One of the hardest parts for me in moving forward has been to re-develop a sense of trust that people will generally behave in a logical, consistent manner. It’s very hard to function in the world unless you can believe this. And pretty much impossible to function in a relationship.

    I commented on this on Facebook, but I think one of the pleasures of fiction is that characters behave more consistently than people do in real life. If they’re inconsistent, they’re consistently inconsistent.

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