The other day on NPR I heard a really unusual story. I’ve grown used to expecting a heavily ideological message from them, but I was happily surprised this time. There wasn’t really a positive ideological message, either; the characters—an Iranian couple and their two American-born daughters—were just allowed to tell their stories.
The couple’s arranged marriage began promisingly enough. The two liked each other and were excited to begin their adult lives together. But the transition from girl who had never so much as held hands with a boy to wife was difficult. So was her husband’s explosive temper.
They moved to America, where, eventually she became so disgusted with her husband’s slightly tyrannical style and arbitrary dismissal of her opinions that she began secretly planning a divorce. He was oblivious. There had been no divorce on either side of the family for 125 years. His treatment of her was normal by Iranian standards, but it was making her miserable. She waited until their daughters were grown and then presented him with the papers.
He took it hard, but the girls, thoroughly Americanized by now, were happy and excited for their mother, though also concerned for their father. They pictured her relaxing with a glass of wine after a fulfilling day’s work. She’d have boyfriends; she’d date; she’d be liberated.
She did sit in a café with a newspaper, twice, enjoying the leisure of having nobody to answer to. But that was the extent of her liberated lifestyle. She never went on a single date.
The father, meanwhile, was miserable. He called his daughters at work, sobbing. He tried to become an American bachelor, dating, eating out. When his daughters came to visit they’d see a completely empty refrigerator.
Over the next three years, the mother grew more and more unhappy. She reached a breaking point one day when she called a relative, wanting to celebrate her own birthday, and was told that the relative couldn’t fit her into her schedule, and that what she really needed was to get a boyfriend.
Meanwhile, the husband was delving into “that most American of genres”: self-help books. He read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. (The NPR host could hardly bring herself to spit the title out.) He began to reflect on foreign-to-him ideas like considering a wife’s feelings, asking her opinion.
His daughters had gone from being American enough to think this reading normal to being so American that they were embarrassed by it.
The mother, disillusioned with the life of an American divorcee, decided, in her words “to give that old man a call.” He was shocked to hear from her. He was also engaged to marry someone else, but told her she was his real wife and cancelled the wedding. They went on their first date, and he tried to put into practice the American pop psychology he had been immersed in. They remarried, and everybody was overjoyed for them—except the two daughters, who were disgusted to see the whole cycle starting up again.
But the story had a happy ending. He continued to work on the trite, obvious principles he had learned from his American self-helpism, and had enough success that even his daughters began to believe this was a good thing.
So the moral of the story is—what, exactly? Read John Gray and live happily ever after? Modern, western marriages are better than old-fashioned, patriarchal ones? Sort of, but usually the story line would be woman divorces man, finds herself, lives happily ever after. Or woman divorces man, finds better man, lives happily ever after.
The daughters point out that if they had stayed in Iran none of this would have happened—she would not have been able to divorce him in the first place, nor would it have occurred to her. Only in American (or in the West, anyway) would they have broken up, and only in America would they have been reunited through the ministrations of pop psychology.
There was something else incongruous, too—at least if, like me, you had been expecting a politically correct fable with a politically correct moral. The girls said that at first they would have described the storyline as simply: My dad learned to control his temper, and then everything got better. But their mother objected to this reading. She found that once he was gone she was plagued by the same character defects as ever: it was just that she could no longer reflexively blame them on him. She showed an endearing ability to laugh at herself—to take neither her own earlier suffering nor the apparently miraculous powers of American self-help tracts too seriously. Her delivery was more along the lines of “Here’s something strange that happened to me; make of it what you will.”