What People Going Through a Divorce Can Learn From Cheryl Strayed’s Wild
Published in 2012 and recently released as a film starring Reese Withersoon, Wild is the autobiography of Cheryl Strayed’s thousand mile solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State. At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed lost her (very young) mother to cancer. She was devastated, her family fell apart, and in her mourning she became self-destructive. Wild is often thought of as a book about Strayed’s literal and figurative journey, along the lines of Eat, Pray, Love or even the (devastating) Into the Wild. In the author’s words, “Some of our most ancient narratives are about that journey. We go out into the unknown and we return changed. That’s timeless. Even in American literature of the last 50 years or so, the books we think about as Great American Novels, most of them are about people who make a new home for themselves in a brand new world, casting yourself into a wider world, having a transformative adventure.” As Kristen and I recently watched Wild, I was reminded what the book can also teach us about divorce. Although her mother’s death is the transformative tragedy in Strayed’s life, her divorce is a casualty of that tragedy, and she writes about it with notable insight and candor. Strayed again: “But I feel like my hike was not about escaping so much as it was about going more deeply into life, my life. Wild, I think, is actually about the reverse of escape. It’s about when I gave myself the opportunity to find some perspective and reflection, really discover for the first time what was true.”
Some of Strayed’s most poignant writing on divorce involves her decision to change her name.
In that uncertain period when Paul and I had been separated for several months but were not yet sure we wanted to get divorced, we sat down together to scan a set of no-fault, do-it-yourself divorce documents we’d ordered over the phone, as if holding them in our hands would help us decide what to do. As we paged through the documents, we came across a question that asked the name we’d each have after the divorce. The line beneath the question was perfectly blank. On it, to my amazement, we could write anything. Be anyone. We laughed about it at the time, making up incongruous new names for ourselves—names of movie stars and cartoon characters and strange combinations of words that weren’t rightly names at all.
Many people, often women, struggle with the decision of whether to change their name at the time of a divorce. In Connecticut, the options at the time of divorce look different than Strayed’s. Under Connecticut General Statutes 46b-63:
(a) At the time of entering a decree dissolving a marriage, the court, upon request of either spouse, shall restore the birth name or former name of such spouse.
(b) At any time after entering a decree dissolving a marriage, the court, upon motion of either spouse, shall modify such judgment and restore the birth name or former name of such spouse.
Unlike Strayed, who could choose any name she wished, at the time of a divorce in Connecticut, courts are only authorized to “restore the birth name or former name.” (You can always petition the probate court to change your name to something other than your birth name of former name. “An application for a change of name should be granted unless it appears that the use of the new name by the applicant will result in injury to some other person with respect to his legal rights, as, for instance, by facilitating unfair competition or fraud.”)
The decision to keep or change a name at the time of a divorce is intimate — feelings about identity, desires to share a family name with children, and concerns about professional impact all come to play.
For Strayed, who chose her own last name:
But later, alone in my apartment, that blank line stuck in my heart. There was no question that if I divorced Paul, I’d choose a new name for myself. I couldn’t continue to be Cheryl Hyphen-Hyphen, nor could I go back to having the name I had had in high school and be the girl I used to be. So in the months that Paul and I hung in marital limbo, unsure of which direction we’d move in, I pondered the question of my last name, mentally scanning words that sounded good with Cheryl and making lists of characters from novels I admired. Nothing fit until one day when the word “strayed” came into my mind. Immediately, I looked it up in the dictionary and knew it was mine. Its layered definitions spoke directly to my life and also struck a poetic chord: to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress.
I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.
Perhaps even more important are her comments about how she feels about her choice of Strayed now.
I would never change my name again today. Never. When I chose Strayed for my name, I wasn’t looking at the word’s negative connotations. I was aware at that time in my life that I’d really lost my way, that I’d gone off the path. But the other definitions of that word “strayed” are very powerful too, you know? A stray is somebody who makes, or has to make, his or her own way in the world. A stray is someone who lives without the essential mother and the essential father, which is how I lived. So I was embracing that word, that name, for all of its darkness and all of its light, and I hoped I would keep growing and living into the name, sort of embodying it in my life, you know. I’ve had the name Strayed the longest of any name in my life. It’s like my heritage. I feel it is my real name. When people ask me if it’s my real name, I’m, like, “Yeah.” And that’s the truth.
— Cheryl Strayed, in her interview with Todd Aaron Jensen for Bio.
As a parting final thought, I would encourage those going through a divorce to read Wild. (The movie is great but doesn’t go in depth about the divorce.) Here is one part that gets me every time:
“And it’s all my fault,” I said, my voice swelling and shaking. “He didn’t do anything. I’m the one. I broke my own heart.”
Paul reached for me and squeezed my leg, consoling me. I couldn’t look at him. If I looked at him I would cry. We’d agreed to this together, but I knew that if I turned to him and proposed we forget about divorcing and get back together instead, he would agree. I didn’t turn. Something inside of me whirred like a machine that I had started but could not stop. I put my hand down and placed it on top of Paul’s hand on my leg.