Beverly Willett is an almost archetypal NextTriber, creating (albeit unwillingly), in her mid-40s, a whole new life for herself after being blindsided by her husband’s infidelity. Now, 17 years after her marriage fell apart, attorney-turned-writer Willett has published her first book, a memoir of that transformative experience, Disassembly Required: A Memoir of Midlife Resurrection (Post Hill Press).
Her inspiring story—which recounts her epic struggles with deluded family court judges, a beloved 19th-century Brooklyn brownstone that seems almost determined to break her spirit, and maintaining financial solvency while parenting two adolescent girls—is harrowing at times, but also hilarious, clear-minded, and unfailingly insightful. NextTribe spoke to the author on the eve of her book’s publication.
Your marriage unraveled after you discovered your husband’s infidelity in a shocking, but classic way. Give us the context.
It was September 2002, about three months after we’d celebrated our 20th anniversary. I’d just had a knee surgery—one of many—but I was the happiest I’d been in a long time. My husband had started a fabulous new job, we owned a beautiful house, and, most of all, we were raising two terrific daughters, then 7 and 12. Like me, he was a lawyer, though at that point I’d been a full-time stay-at-home mom for four years. Then out of the blue, he said, “We should go to marriage therapy.” And I’m like, “Huh?” But I said, fine, let’s do it. I realize now this was prompted by his affair; later he told me he thought therapy would ease the split. Meanwhile, he’s sitting in therapy not really committing to therapy, and I’m sitting there thinking, Okay, we’ve got some issues to iron out. I knew nothing about his secret life.
So marriage therapy was actually a ploy?
Apparently. On the night that I finally found out about the affair, he wasn’t where he said he’d be and didn’t answer his cell phone. When he got home very late, he was angry and wouldn’t tell me where he’d been. I was beside myself, and in the middle of the night I went downstairs. Somehow, I knew his cell phone held the answer. I got it out of his pocket, made some coffee, and sat down at the kitchen table, my heart pounding. He had no password protection at all and only two saved numbers—his brother and a female colleague at his law firm whom he’d mentioned. I clicked her number on his voicemail, and it all came pouring out, love message after love message.
One fascinating aspect of your experience is that your husband engaged a hardball attorney and sued you for divorce in New York, which at that time did not have no-fault divorce, and you fought back, refusing to agree to the divorce. Why, given his determination to divorce you?
Many people hear this and say, “Really?” but the honest truth is that I still loved my husband. Plus, I truly believed divorce would be terrible for our children. I grew up in a family where divorce was basically unheard of. And I was taught—and actually had role models for this—that couples who had marital troubles got over them and became stronger. So I felt if two people had a commitment and worked hard and truly loved each other, anything could be overcome. I also thought that if I fought back, the girlfriend might just get fed up and go away. After all, our therapist had told us that our marriage was worth saving but that things wouldn’t turn around unless the girlfriend was out of the picture.
Did your ex buy into that?
Well, he said yes, but of course kept seeing her behind my back. So that became another secret kept from me. And then the whole process bonded him and the girlfriend. My attorney said it happens a lot: They began to see me as the common enemy, and that actually fueled their relationship, making it harder to combat.
You wrote in a newspaper article that you don’t regret fighting the divorce, despite the monumental emotional and financial costs of doing so. Is that still true?
I think so. I have the comfort of knowing that I did everything I could to save my marriage. And by standing up for what I believed was right, I modeled being a strong woman for my two daughters—even though they might not understand why I did it. That’s important, no matter what injustice we’re talking about. And I did feel an injustice. Yes, I wanted to save my marriage, but part of my resistance can be attributed to the fact that I was wrongfully accused of cruelty and abandonment, and I felt I had to oppose that. And, by the way, the judge did dismiss those charges.
In that regard, wouldn’t no-fault divorce be better? I know you believe no-fault is often financially unfavorable to women, but at least it doesn’t demand that one party “accuse” the other of wrongdoing.
No-fault is fine when both parties want out of the marriage, but in a situation where one party—in this case, me—wants to save the marriage, no-fault gives all the power to the person who wants out. And often—not always—that is the person who’s doing something wrong. And I think that in itself violates due process.
How long did this whole battle go on, and why did you ultimately capitulate?
Six years, from start to finish. He ended it by moving to New Jersey, where all he had to do was live there for a certain period and sue me in New Jersey courts. It was a legal maneuver, and at that point, I couldn’t do anything more. After that, my mission changed. I became determined to save my home, even if it killed me.
And at times, it seems from your memoir, it almost did. Not only did you face a judge who wildly overestimated your earning ability, which hurt you in terms of spousal and child support, but your four-story Brooklyn brownstone—itself one of the book’s most colorful characters—seemed determined to rain down God’s wrath on you, the newly single mom.
Yes, I think I suffered almost every imaginable mishap that homeowners are prey to, from the usual stuff, like flooded basements, to the downright bizarre, like bird mites that infested my bedroom via a window air conditioner. At the time, it was, “Bird mites???? Whaaaat???” I look back now and find humor in the situation, and I hope readers will, too—even if it felt pretty dark at the time.
Yes, those passages are among the most vivid and amusing sections of Disassembly Required; homeowners will definitely relate. But why were you so intensely focused on the house?
It was all about stability. Obviously, my children are the most important thing in my life, and they’d been through so much, as had I. Now that I was a single parent, I was determined to stay in our neighborhood, where we had friends, supportive neighbors, and a church half a block away. Also, by this point, my daughters were both teenagers, so they were going through adolescence and I was going through menopause. I mean, how much can a person endure at once? Relocation is supposedly the third biggest stressor, after death and divorce. I didn’t need it popping up in the middle of my already messy life!
How did being solely responsible for a large, aging house affect you?
It made me a problem solver. Maybe I’ve always been one, but divorce and single motherhood made me more of one because everything was on me. I learned skills I’d never had before. And if keeping the house meant renting out part of it and temping in terrible jobs, I did it. With every small accomplishment, my strength grew, giving me the courage to face the next challenge. And that, I think, is what enabled me, eventually, to let go of the house and move to a new city where I didn’t know anyone.
That’s especially inspiring. Even as you were selling your house, you had no idea what you were going to do afterward.
People would ask, “where are you going?” and I’d say I didn’t have a plan because I didn’t have a plan. By then, another decade had passed. One daughter was off to college, another had graduated. I was in my 50s. My mother kept saying, “What’s going to become of you?” But I’d been through so much already, I figured I could fix this, too. Somehow, I thought, What if I’m flexible and just say, “I’m not sure?”
It sounds so liberating—almost like being a very young person again, on the brink of her adult life, with a host of options before her.
Exactly. For so long, I couldn’t leave New York. I had the house; I was a parent. Then all of a sudden, I was starting over with all these options opening up. Why should I be afraid of anything?
You’re describing a stage of a woman’s life that is at the heart of NextTribe’s premise of “aging boldly.” In your case, you make a point of defining your experience as a “resurrection”—it’s in your subtitle—rather than the more common “reinvention.” What’s the distinction?
I think of reinvention more in the situation where perhaps you’ve done a certain job and that industry has dried up or you need to find something else, so you reinvent yourself by acquiring new skills. I use the term resurrection because the way I lead my life now is completely different from the way I led it before.
You ended up choosing Savannah, Georgia, as your new home. And you’ve thrived there, throwing yourself into community activities and making loads of friends. How have you managed that?
I moved here because I’d visited and really liked Savannah. I didn’t know anyone. But the funny thing is, I haven’t found making friends hard at all. Old friends who visit ask, “how do you know so many people?” I just shrug. I think part of it is that I nested for the first few months. I just found that place where I could sit on my porch, look at the koi pond, and drink lemonade. And then I just put myself out there in the community, doing a ton of volunteer work and getting involved. For instance, I sit on the board of The Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home, a historic site here in Savannah, which has been so much fun. Savannah is a quirky, easygoing town—a place where you can do your own thing.
Disassembly Required isn’t so much a divorce memoir as the story of a woman who gets thrown for a loop, overcomes one obstacle after another, and ends up with an extremely fulfilling life.
I feel like I’m picking up where I left off before I got married and had kids. Being their mother was the most wonderful experience of my life, but I’ve given them the tools and put them out in the world—and they’ve both become strong, independent young women. Taking stock of where I am now, I see the young woman who was in law school and then a single working lawyer. I’m a lot older physically, but mentally and emotionally, I feel like her again.
And that ties in with the idea of resurrection—you’ve gone through all this turmoil in order to reclaim that original girl. You haven’t reinvented her, you’ve reclaimed her. Have you ever thought that perhaps your divorce was a blessing? That if it hadn’t happened, you would never have discovered what you’re capable of?
There’s truth to that. A few years before my marriage ended, I had started a meditation practice, gone back to church, and really felt that I was returning to my own strengths as a person. I was on a different path than I’d been on. I can’t possibly know how it would have played out, but maybe we would have broken up anyway. I would never say, “I’m glad it happened,” because I’m never glad to see anyone suffer. But I do I feel extraordinarily grateful because without that pain, all these positive things in my life would never have come to pass.
Lorraine Glennon, a Brooklyn-based editor and writer, was the editor-in-chief of Our Times: An Illustrated History of the Twentieth Century.