Book 8: Kramer v Kramer



"And if they could get this over with soon, in a few years they would be out of infancy and they would have this beautiful family, his beautiful wife, his beautiful children. And so, to be complete in some way, to create a perfect universe with himself in the center, husband, father, his domain- for all the old, buried feelings of not being attractive, for all the times his parents were disapproving, for all the years he struggled to place himself- he would have something special, his beautiful little empire, which he, in his self-delusion, was going to build out of sand from a sandbox."

Dates read: November 9-12, 2015

Rating: 7/10

I feel like I have a unique perspective on stories about divorce and custody. For one thing, I was raised by a single mother and had a relationship with my father only after the time I turned 10. For another, I actually spent about a year and half working as an attorney specializing in post-divorce custody litigation after I graduated from law school. I have a whole rant about how doing that kind of work was a significant factor in driving me out of the practice of law, but that's not what we're here for. We're here to talk about Kramer v. Kramer.

I saw the movie before I read the book and it's one of the more successful literary adaptations I've seen...it might actually be more effective than the source material. Which isn't to say the source material isn't very good in its own right. There's a legal philosophy known as the "tender years doctrine", which basically boils down to the belief that women are presumed to be better parents of very small children. There was a time when it was applied essentially automatically to grant a mother custody of a young child, almost regardless of the circumstances of the situation. This book, and its big-screen adaptation, were a part of helping drive a social shift away from that doctrine, ultimately making a difference in how custody law is determined by the courts.

The story is simple, with a straightforward plot: Ted and Joanna Kramer get married and have a son. Joanna stays home to raise him, but finds herself increasingly unsatisfied by an entirely home-and-child-based existence. Ted is unsympathetic, believing child-rearing to be Joanna's responsibility, particularly while their son is small. So Joanna leaves. Ted is has no choice but to assume full parental duty in her absence. The couple divorces and Joanna signs away her custody rights. After over a year, in which the father and son become extremely close and Ted completely rearranges his life and his thinking to be the father his son deserves, Joanna returns out of the blue, demanding custody. And she gets it, based on the tender years doctrine.

I didn't feel compelled to spoiler alert any of that, because the book and movie have been around so long that the conclusion is no longer a surprise. But also because the power of the book comes not from the outline of the story, but from how it's told. The beginning portions, detailing how Ted and Joanna came to be married, could in large part take place in the present day. They don't end up together because of their undying love, but because they're both bored of the singles scene and the other is good enough. Joanna's frustration at being forced into the primary caregiver role, at the expense of her own desires to be a contributing member of outside society, also feels like it could be written about any number of women today. We watch Ted go from the kind of man who insists that his wife stay home to take care of their son even though she doesn't want to, to the kind of man whose whole world is his son, slowly and organically. It's not forced or rushed or false, which makes the gut punch of Joanna's return that much harder to take. It ends happily enough, with Joanna relinquishing her victory and Ted retaining custody. The novel makes its point without preaching, and is all the more powerful for so doing.

Tell me, blog friends...what do you think of the tender years doctrine?

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