Almost 35 years have passed since Kramer vs. Kramer swept the Academy Awards and focused the nation's attention on the pain of child custody battles. Attitudes about divorce and laws governing custody have evolved since that time, but the United States is still home to thousands of conflicts every year that put kids under siege from parents hurling accusations and tearing open intimate spaces.
A plaintive new novel from Amity Gaige called Schroder explores this common tragedy in a most uncommon way. The entire book is a testimony, written in prison, by a divorced dad to his ex-wife. Equal parts plea, apology and defense, this enthralling letter rises up from a fog of narcissism that will cloud your vision and put you under his spell. "There are castles of things I want to tell you," Schroder says at the opening. "Which might explain the enthusiasm of this document, despite what you could call its sad story."
Indeed, it turns out that Schroder has been building castles in the air for a long time, ever since he and his father fled East Germany and came to America in 1979. At the age of 14, without his father's knowledge, Erik made up a fake name — Eric Kennedy — and applied for a scholarship to a summer camp. There, in the idyllic woods, he invented a fresh new identity, scented with rumors of a distant connection to the Hyannis Port Kennedys.
In the grand tradition of American immigrants, he hammered together a usable past from the basic blocks of American myth. "I was constantly at work being Eric Kennedy," he says, disguising his accent, hiding his "Germanness." He went to college, married an earnest young woman who knew nothing about his real identity, and they had a little girl named Meadow. Soon, though, Eric's erratic behavior ruined their marriage, and they entered into an unstable separation.
Gaige was inspired by a news account of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who immigrated to the United States from Germany in his teens, assumed the name Clark Rockefeller, and went on to develop a fraudulent life as a wealthy married man. But Schroder isn't a fictionalized version of that sensational real event. Gaige has developed her own less glamorous but more poignant story.
What's more, she's cleverly woven together the national psyches of Schroder's old and new homes. He's a man compelled by the complications of German history to deny his past and seduced by the promises of American mythology to invent a new one. The Wall that he and his father crossed over was no more solid than the barrier between the two selves he's constructed in his own mind.
A visiting writer at Amherst College, Gaige displays an unnerving insight into the grandiosity and fragility of the middle-aged male ego, what Schroder refers to as his "latent exceptionalism." He speaks about himself with glib self-knowledge and psychological insight that seem an act of confession, but they're actually symptoms of a faux identity. Beneath the surface of Schroder's "lovingly constructed American life," Gaige lets us feel the slow-acting poison of his deceit. Yes, he can write beautifully, he's charming and loquacious, full of engaging factoids about history and mildly amusing observations on modern culture, but there's something manic about this con man's patter, something a little too polished about this effort to humanize himself, something that scratches the inner ear of our suspicion.
What follows is the shocking story of how he skipped town with his 6-year-old daughter during one of her weekly visits and took her on an increasingly treacherous flight from the law. "The word abduction is all wrong," he insists. "It was more like an adventure. . . . I was merely very, very late to return her from an agreed-upon visit." How many times have newly divorced, thoroughly exasperated young mothers had to deal with their own glad-handing Schroders? "This is exactly the sort of easily misunderstood intrigue that could find its way into the tabloids," he says with that reflexive dismissiveness that once infuriated his wife.
Adventure or abduction, his tale makes for a fascinating mixture of candor and self-justification, a testimony that glosses over the most harrowing and negligent behavior with buoyant good cheer and professions of love. And what makes it all deeply tragic, instead of merely psychologically thrilling, is that Schroder really does adore his daughter. His descriptions of their little science experiments and charming repartee are moments of bliss that will resonate for any parent. The delight he takes in Meadow is as palpable as the panic he feels at losing her.
That affection, though, is tinged with dread: "I wanted to be with my daughter more than anything," he says, "and yet I also wanted to be free of that desire. I wanted to be free of that desire because I knew being with her had an end." How dangerously might a congenital liar behave when threatened with the prospect of total exposure, the complete dismantling of a tower of lies? "I was reckless, illogical, maybe even lacking moral character," he confesses, "but I was not crazy." As always, there's just no way to say that without sounding a bit loony.
Gaige has published two previous novels and was chosen in 2006 for the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" honor, but with endorsements from such heavyweights as Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Egan, Schroder is clearly her breakout book. With its psychological acuity, emotional complexity and topical subject matter, it deserves all the success it can find. I wish there were such a thing as a Divorced Couples Book Club just so we could listen in on the tangled responses.
"Look at me. Imagine me," Schroder pleads near the end of his wildly rambling, incriminating statement, awash in grief so desperate that your heart breaks for him but so self-absorbed that he's a little repellent. "There is almost nothing that distinguishes me from all the other sad men and women who have languished in the American family court system," he says. "They became damaged people, really. Deranged people. Because, of course, there is one thing that really deranges us, and that is the disappearance of love."
It's a testimony, finally, to our extraordinary powers of self-delusion. His crimes may be unusual, but any number of us might mutter, "Ich bin ein Schroder."