Unlike Miss Havisham, I Chose To End My Marriage

How Charles Dickens’ beloved character gave me permission to take back and rebuild my life

Screen shot from the 2021 film adaptation of "Great Expectations"

On Halloween morning when I was fourteen, I got up extra early and padded into my mom’s room, where she had left her wedding dress hanging for me on the closet door: Victorian-style, head-to-toe lace, with a high collar and a tidy line of buttons all the way to the small of the back. It felt out of place in the cold master bedroom of our house in central New Jersey, a relic from my mom’s previous life. She never talked about her wedding, but I had seen pictures: the ceremony on the broad deck of her and my dad’s house in Golden, Colorado, the steep mountainside sloping in the background. My mom beaming under a crown of wildflowers, my dad in a corduroy coat and aviator sunglasses. 

The rare times she talked about that life, her stories left a hazy gap where he might have been. It was as if she had been alone that whole time, in that other, more beautiful life she had before I was born. I imagined that had things turned out differently, I would have lived that life with her—where I truly belonged. It seemed a better fit than our lackluster suburb, where my mom referred to our neighbors’ houses as “McMansions” and the nearby Sourdough Mountains as “pimples.” Here, everyone thought I was a freak for preferring summer reading to Shark Week.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I fastened the buttons, and the dress molded to my form. With my mom’s eyeshadow, I carved dark circles under my eyes. I powdered my hair white, pulled on opaque white stockings, and slipped into one white shoe. I hobbled back and forth in front of the mirror, the perfect Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. I was a little obsessed with her. The morning of her wedding, she received a note from her swindling fiancé informing her that he would not go through with it, so she chose to quit moving through time. She stopped all her clocks, refused to dispose of the food that had already been laid, and never removed her wedding dress or donned her other shoe. For the rest of her life, she wandered her cavernous mansion, her back crooked from wearing a single high heel for decades, the lavish dining room stinking of rotten cake buried under a thick coat of dust. 

Dickens framed Miss Havisham as a harbinger of revenge, raising her adopted daughter Estelle to settle the score by breaking men’s hearts. In my melodramatic fourteen-year-old mind, I interpreted her as a symbol of endless love—something deeply romantic, even if tragic. But I also felt a strange kinship with her.

At nineteen, I shared a fleeting exchange of emails with my father after a lifelong silence. For the first hour of my life, he told me, my mom was under anesthesia from a traumatic C-section. He stood over me, feeling empty, like I was his but he wasn’t mine. So he left and broke a year of sobriety. Later, my mom admitted that before she was fully conscious, she heard the nurses saying, “We have to kick him out, he’s going to hurt the baby.” She came to while he stumbled around, veering dangerously close to me before collapsing on the floor. It took her four months to pack me up and leave him, but their marriage was over as soon as she opened her eyes. 

I’ve spent much of my life trying to untangle why my father did what he did that day, but the reasons we lose things are often murkier, and less telling of who we are, than how we respond. No matter how much a situation might have gotten away from us, the choice to leave it behind is a choice to take control. We call it “change”; we applaud ourselves for growing, for making the difficult decision. On the other hand, the transitions that feel the most violent are the ones that aren’t our choice, the sucker punches that leave us gasping: Miss Havisham crushed on her wedding day, my mom waking to a new baby and a drunk husband on the hospital floor. That’s what we call “loss.”

No matter how much a situation might have gotten away from us, the choice to leave it behind is a choice to take control.

Few things are farther from our control than what happens to us in infancy. We are completely beholden to the people around us—for survival, yes, but more importantly, for love. The way we are loved shapes our understanding of what the world is: a safe place, where we will be wanted and comforted, or an unstable one, where we might be abandoned at any moment. My first experience of the world was the sorrow of abandonment by the person who is supposed to love you. I didn’t just lose my father or the life I might have had if we had stayed in Colorado. I lost my sense that the world was a safe place.

It’s not surprising, then, that for as long as I can remember, fear has followed me like a ravenous shadow at the edges of my vision. As a child, I developed the sense that the way someone arranged objects held their feelings in that moment. More importantly, I believed, it aligned the world’s cosmic order, preserving the good and keeping things stable. When I was eleven, my obsession with hawkishly guarding the placement of objects in my room led to an OCD diagnosis. But therapy never helped me shake the feeling that if I could keep everything around me in balance, I would keep the shadow at bay.

When I was 14, right before reading Great Expectations, I got dumped for the first time. For weeks after, I kept the half-full mug of tea I’d been drinking during our last good conversation on my desk, feeling that if I could just keep it there long enough, he’d call and tell me he’d changed his mind (he didn’t, and after a raucous power struggle with my mother, she dumped the tea and washed the stinking mug).

When I read Great Expectations, I was transfixed as Miss Havisham kept one shoe on her dressing table, exactly where it had been before she got her fiancé’s letter. As she made Estelle sit at her feet and patch together the tears in her dress because she refused to remove it even for repairs. In her, I saw the darkest part of me—never wanting to change anything, preferring to create living mausoleums of the moments when I had been happy. 

In Miss Havisham, I saw the darkest part of me—never wanting to change anything, preferring to create living mausoleums of the moments when I had been happy.

Perhaps more than that, I saw the fear of what happens after the moment when you think you have lost everything: as terrible as it is, there’s an instant when you think, I’ll just stop here. You keep the shoe on the dressing table, the mug on the desk, and you let yourself believe that, even if it doesn’t bring the good back, maybe you won’t have to figure out how to weather what happens next.

Though most people don’t go to Miss Havisham’s lengths, I do think that the urge to preserve the feeling of what it was like to live before loss is relatable. In that terrible moment after loss, some of us fall into one of two extremes: we cling, like Miss Havisham, or we discard the past. My mother chose the latter. She had a divorce to file, a home to find, a child to raise. She moved me to New Jersey to be close to her family, discarded the trappings of her old life – my father among them – and barreled forward, telling me stories that excised him out. 

On that Halloween, when a neighbor commented that she couldn’t believe my mom was letting me wear her wedding dress as a costume, my mom laughed and said, “It’s a divorce dress, it might as well get some use.” I grew up grateful for my mom’s sacrifices. She left everything – her home, her relationship, even her dog – because that’s what was better for me. But I resented her silence around my father because it left me few tools to piece together my origin story. At twenty-nine, however, I began to understand the power of discarding old lives when I realized that I, too, needed to get divorced. 

For years, I had whittled myself smaller and smaller to fit the whims of my own alcoholic husband, putting off his anger by becoming the person he wanted me to be. I had little control over the volatility of his addiction—and therefore, over my life. But, like keeping an old mug of tea on the desk despite the smell, keeping the marriage intact by keeping everything – even myself – the same felt like something I could do. At a certain point, my life felt like a prison.

In a toxic situation, your marital status sometimes begins to replace your identity.

People often ask me why I didn’t leave sooner. I try to explain that in a toxic situation, your marital status sometimes begins to replace your identity. Without it, who would you be? What shape would your life take? Losing it can mean losing everything that makes your life recognizable to yourself. The prospect of losing that structure is terrifying. 

Miss Havisham likely felt similarly. When her fiancé backed out of the wedding, she no longer had the option of becoming a wife, but the prospect of it had come to structure her entire existence. Who would she have been, if not for a bride? She even insisted that, when she died, she would be laid on the dining table in her gown: a bride for eternity in death—and that, nobody could take from her.

Leaving my marriage felt like jumping straight into the shadowy maw of uncertainty I’d been running from my whole life. But as my mom learned on the day of my birth, once you’ve looked the end of a marriage in the eye, you can’t unsee it. Instead of taking Miss Havisham’s path as I might have in my youth, I adopted my mom’s strategy. I discarded the life I was losing, and did  my damndest not to look back.

I moved into a ramshackle Brooklyn apartment lovingly dubbed “The Folk Hotel” because of its coterie of musician roommates who time-shared the back bedroom when they weren’t on tour. It was bedecked with a chaotic jumble of items left by previous residents: when I moved into my room, I was greeted by a mannequin wearing a rubber eagle mask and a tiny painting of a bulldog with a Jack of Hearts card wedged in the frame. I fell into an accidental stewardship of the place, ferrying subletters in and out, each of whom added something when they left: a purple handkerchief from the French girls on holiday, sheet music from the British modern dancer who I shared pots of coffee with on brief, radiant fall mornings. It felt like home in a way that no place had in a very long time. Every time I walked in, it was like the apartment whispered to me, this is your reward for taking back your life.

I adopted my mom’s strategy: I discarded the life I was losing, and did  my damndest not to look back.

I wasn’t used to this kind of chaos. Good chaos, where people left trails of objects ripe to be shared, nothing ever stayed in the same place for very long, and everything changed all the time. Change itself became familiar. I was living Miss Havisham’s nightmare. 

It had once been my nightmare, too. But despite my OCD, and my instinct to keep everything around me the same, lest the world spin out of control, it was a relief to be unable to control all the change around me. People moved in and out, left and took and moved things, and I felt liberated. Perhaps, I realized, I was less afraid of change than I was of loss. I decorated my room with tiny mirrors so I could watch myself change: I lost weight from biking in and out of Manhattan every day. I wore crop-tops my ex-husband would never have let me wear, dyed the tips of my hair purple. I spent long nights biking the city’s bridges, every stroke of my pedals reminding me that my body, my movement, my life were mine, mine, mine

To say this was easy would be to lie. That first winter, I spent most nights sitting in my windowsill, my legs dangling over the avenue, long after the laundromat across the street had closed. It was the only time of day when the world was empty and quiet enough to match how alone I felt. Constantly, achingly. I had never been so terrified. I had never felt so powerful. No time in my life had felt so thrilling, so precious as those nights I spent sitting in that window, relishing that I was there but for my own grace. In leaving my old life behind, I had chosen myself. Even the loneliness was precious because it was mine.

In leaving my old life behind, I had chosen myself. Even the loneliness was precious because it was mine.

I was about the same age my mother was when she packed me up and left my father. I couldn’t imagine doing it with a baby. I found myself more grateful and more in awe of her than ever. I began to understand how discarding the life she had before I was born was the only way she could get through. By leaving everything behind, my mother and I created new worlds for ourselves. We became powerful in the aftermath of gutting loss. 

I wondered if Miss Havisham felt the same way. She had slipped into a horror of her own making, but it belonged to her in a way that nothing else could.

I thought that my mother’s approach and Miss Havisham’s were opposed. But, just as clinging to the past wasn’t an option for my mother, starting anew wasn’t an option for a woman in Miss Havisham’s era. Perhaps stopping time was the only thing she could control, and she and my mom weren’t so different after all. Miss Havisham hadn’t just clung to the past, she had made a world in her own image when the world around her wouldn’t comply—a radical act for a woman then, a radical act for a woman now.

When the pandemic hit, I was on vacation out west. I felt like the rug had been pulled on a life I was just learning to own. This was true for everyone: whatever lives we were living before were gone in an instant. And, unlike other losses, where we could feel some power by putting one foot in front of the other and slowly building new lives, this time, we were caught in suspended animation. 

While she paced her rooms, her wedding dress caught fire. Miss Havisham died a victim of her own obsessions.

Hunkered down at my mom’s in New Mexico, I wrote obsessively about my life at The Folk Hotel. In my dreams, I grasped at things I couldn’t see and couldn’t reach, my fists curling around air over and over again. I couldn’t face The Folk Hotel the way I’d left it, when I thought I was off for a quick jaunt and would come home to the same old wild life. I was afraid I’d go full Havisham if I went back. The possibility of stopping time and pretending the world was not upended was just too tempting. But I ended up going the Havisham route regardless: I kept paying rent in Brooklyn even though I had no idea when I would return. I felt that if I could just keep The Folk Hotel the way it was, even from afar, maybe the life that had been so precious to me there would still exist. 

But there is only so much suspended animation a person can take. Six months into the pandemic, I found myself building a new life in Los Angeles, one that I was starting to realize made me even happier than I was before. Before I could accept that I was moving on, though, I needed to go back, even if just to pack my things.

It felt even more like walking back in time than I’d expected. A part of me was tempted to burrow in it. Then, as I sorted through my books, I found my high school copy of Great Expectations and spent one last evening sitting in the windowsill, skipping through to read all the Miss Havisham parts. 

Though I’d thought about her so much, it had been years since I’d read the book. I’d always known she was unstable and, though I didn’t think of her as a true model for how life should be lived, I had respected her as a badass who took control where she could. But I was shocked to find that the control was what killed her. She kept the curtains drawn to block the light (and, thus, the passage of time), so she always had candles burning. While she paced her rooms, her wedding dress caught fire. She died a victim of her own obsessions.

How had I forgotten that? 

I closed the book and looked down at my feet, dangling out the window like they always had. I had thought that, whether you cling to the past or discard it, any control in the aftermath of loss was a good thing. That’s what made Miss Havisham a legend, enabled my mom to give me a good life, and made me happy at The Folk Hotel. 

But it also killed Miss Havisham, draped a heavy silence around my mom’s former life, and turned out to be an illusion when the pandemic yanked any control from my life I thought I’d held. At all the times when I had tried to cling to the past or discard it, all I had really done was keep myself from facing the fact that I had lost something. All I had done was forebear grief.

If we’re not careful, the illusion of control can drive us crazy. There will always be losses where we least expect them, moments that leave us before we are ready to grow out of them. Perhaps the only control we have is in choosing how we grow from loss. Grieve, preserve what you can, and begin to build again.

In Los Angeles, I unpacked my things from The Folk Hotel and realized that they looked good in the Southern California light. That they hadn’t lost any of their magic in new arrangements.

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