On the face of it, Beverly Engel’s premise--that some parents, like some spouses, are basically incorrigible--is a relief. Who among us, hanging from particularly gnarled branches of a family tree, haven’t squirmed uncomfortably at the legions of therapists who advise us to forgive and forget. Reconciliation may only be possible once one has done so--but aren’t there some family felonies we shouldn’t have to grin and bear?
Engel thinks there absolutely are, from the obvious ones such as child abuse and alcoholism to more subtle forms of psychological and emotional mistreatment. If your parent’s behavior debilitates you, and if that parent is unwilling or unable to change, Engel suggests that separation is as appropriate a solution to the disunion as it is in marriage; blood is not thicker than a marriage certificate.
The problem is that her solutions are primarily external (figuring out how to split from a troublesome parent who denies your efforts and still expects you to show up for Sunday brunch) or simplistic (a list of physical expressions of anger, designed to help purge animosity). She does not sufficiently address the real dilemma of the captive child, which is that he or she has managed to internalize many parental messages. Not seeing Mom or Dad is a first step but not the last word: The lasting question is how to keep them from jabbering inside your brain.
“Divorcing a Parent” may look like a lifesaver to the segment of Engel’s readership that is drowning--people whose parents crippled them, who bear lasting emotional and physical scars. In fact, it’s only a start, and the title does that vulnerable reader something of a disservice by implying that the split is, in itself, sufficient. To give Engel credit, the book is worthwhile if one sexually abused adult can find the courage in its pages to make sure her children are kept safe from the relative who, statistics show, is likely to be abusive again. But this book is a primer, a place from which to begin to build a healthier life, not the last word on leaving the past behind.