Sunday, 10 June 2018

Kathleen Dehmlow: The sheer rage against women who leave

Kathleen Dehmlow's death notice went viral. Instead of the usual platitudes about being "much loved" and "sadly missed", Kathleen's children, Gina and Jay used the death notice for revenge against the mother who left them in 1962.

It didn't take long for Twitter to erupt in a self-righteous festival of online pitchfork-waving at a woman they never knew. A woman who dares to leave her husband and kids receives a special kind of ire that simply doesn't happen when a man does the same thing. Even if the first instinct is to condemn a man who leaves his wife and kids as a bastard, it's easier for him to rehabilitate himself - Will Smith, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Ted Danson are all better known for their careers rather than the fact that they all left wives and kids for other women. 

The fact that Kathleen was pregnant by her brother-in-law when she left Dennis, Gina and Jay added extra fuel to the fire around the virtual stake to which she was now tied. 

But Kathleen's death notice raises more questions that it answers. Firstly, it's not an obituary, even though people keep referring to it that way - obituaries are written by journalists and should not be used as a one-sided revenge attack. That is not how obituary journalism works. It is a death notice, a classified advertisement paid for by someone who wants to announce that someone has passed away.

But journalistic pedantry aside, it comes as no surprise that a relative, Dwight Dehmlow, spoke up, telling a newspaper that "there is a lot of stuff that is missing" from Kathleen's story. He said she was admitted to a nursing home a year ago and died with her sisters by her side, perhaps the first indication that she was not an evil witch who abandoned her kids on a whim or ended up in a sexual relationship with her brother-in-law for frivolous reasons.

Was her first marriage abusive? Did she find happiness with Lyle Dehmlow? Why were Gina and Jay then raised by their grandparents rather than their father?

It is important to look at Kathleen's life in historical context. Assuming the dates in the death notice are accurate, she was married by the age of 19, had two children in less than five years - by this time, she was just 24. It was around this time that she fell pregnant to her brother-in-law and left her first husband and two kids.

If her marriage was abusive, either physically or psychologically, or even if it was just plain miserable and there was no hope of it ever becoming a joyous union, she may not have had many options in the Minnesota of the late 1950s. 

Today, Minnesota is a no-fault divorce state with "irretrievable breakdown of the marriage relationship" as the only grounds for divorce. This is a good thing, especially for anyone in an abusive or loveless marriage. But this did not become law in Minnesota until 1974. When Kathleen left her husband and children, anyone wanting a divorce in Minnesota would have to prove that their spouse was guilty of one or another of a list of grievous offences toward the other spouse. If Kathleen's marriage was violent, her options were probably limited - the Domestic Abuse Act wasn't passed in Minnesota until 1979. Roe vs Wade, which enshrined the right to abortion in the US wasn't passed until 1973. The birth control pill was not approved by the FDA until 1960.

This is by no means a criticism of Minnesota or indeed America - the late 1950s and early 1960s did not exactly comprise a golden era for women in terrible relationships in most places. 

It could also have been the case that Kathleen was suffering from post-partum depression or she was struggling to cope with motherhood at a young age - again, she was living in an era where mental healthcare for new mothers was not exactly brilliant and, if this was the case, she may not have had many options, short of being dismissed with a bottle of pills or nothing at all by a doctor. She may have been fobbed off as "hysterical".

The 1950s was the start of a busy time for research into depression but it is debatable as to whether those findings would have turned into good treatment in Wabasso, Minnesota.  

Admitting that motherhood is difficult can still be a tough thing to do. The expectations have always been ridiculous, whether it was automatically engaging angelic 1950s motherhood mode or today when women are expected to be invincible supermums, juggling multiple commitments with aplomb while raising perfect kids. 

But Kathleen will never get the right of reply - all we have are testaments of people who have known her for a long time coming to her defence, people who are able to acknowledge that none of us are perfect.

Nobody reasonable would argue that going through the experience of one's mother leaving the family home would ever be easy. It would mess with the minds of young children in 1962 just as surely as it does today. But, with the benefit of the intervening 56 years of changed divorce laws and social mores, as well as better research into mental health and relationships, it is unfortunate that Gina and Jay do not appear to have benefited from the modern trend towards talking through family issues and seeking appropriate counselling. We may well be living in the age of the overshare, but when it means people actually communicate and seek sensitive, professional help for the problems that affect every aspect of their lives, that is no bad thing.

I remember spotting a book at home called The Heartache of Motherhood  by Joyce Nicholson - my mother bought it sometime in the 1980s, when I was in primary school and when my sister and I were probably more of a handful than we realised. As a teenager, I read Joyce's account of becoming a mother in Australia around the same time as Kathleen did in the US. She wrote of how she felt as if she didn't fit in with other mothers at social gatherings. She would gravitate towards men at parties so she could discuss something other than child-rearing, only to get told, sneeringly, that she "liked the men". It was easier to shame her rather than consider the boring truth that she simply liked conversation that was not about nappy rash.  

Joyce Nicholson did not leave her husband until she had been married for 35 years. Obviously, by that time, her children had left home and when a marriages ends after such a long time, people are generally a bit more sympathetic. "Oh well, you gave it a good shot," you'll probably be told in such circumstances. Joyce would not have been branded as an abandoner of children in the way Kathleen has been.

For my own mother, I am sure there were large swathes of the book to which she related. I remember one morning when I was about seven and my sister was about four, Mum became so frustrated with our constant fighting that she grabbed her car keys and handbag and said she was leaving us. She was a woman of her word, driving off in her Mini, leaving my sister and I alone in the house and aghast. She was probably only gone for about five minutes but it seemed like eternity to me. As a seven-year-old, I didn't yet have the logic to realise Mum wasn't going to be gone for too long or get too far with nothing but her handbag and an ageing car for company.

The incident is nothing like the experience of abandonment that Gina and Jay went through but I bet plenty of people will read that and be horrified at my mother's behaviour. I'm not. I don't blame her. I remember how awful my sister and I could be when we fought as kids. Something must have snapped. She just needed a few minutes to drive around the block and calm down. I am not psychologically damaged by it. That's a ludicrous suggestion.

There are probably plenty of mothers out there who have had the urge to drive away from their kids, even if it is only for a few minutes. Equally, plenty of mothers over the centuries have probably wanted to leave awful relationships even if it meant leaving children behind too. The very notion of maternal abandonment offends people so mightily because it's about women not fitting into the ideal of motherhood, that they are somehow belligerently defying nature if they have children and then realise it's difficult or depressing - or it was not the right decision because of time or circumstance.

If Kathleen was 19 today, her life may have been completely different. Would she have married so young? Would she have had two children in relatively quick succession? Would something drive her to leave her family? 

We will never know. But we can be pretty sure that, thanks to the age of the internet, we will probably hear from Gina and Jay again. One can only hope that they find some sort of peace in taking out a hatchet-job death notice and that perhaps they try and find out more about their mother's early life, even if it is too late to tell her she is forgiven.

Photography by Johannes Plenio

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