Representing the local writing scene at this year’s Savannah Book Festival is author Beverly Willett, whose memoir “Disassembly Required” came out last summer. The book begins with Willett’s divorce and chronicles the subsequent cataloging of her home, her assets, and her life. But, Willett says “this is not a divorce memoir. It’s about overcoming.”
Willett sat down with Do Savannah contributor Ariel Felton to talk about the book.
Ariel: Coming from your background in law, when you began the divorce process, do you have any idea what you were in for?
Willett: I had absolutely no clue what to expect. I would have to say completely dumbfounded. Obviously I knew this stuff from taking family law in law school 20 years before. But this was all happening to me. If I knew anything at all, it was book knowledge from decades before and it completely threw me.
Ariel: What was the most shocking part of being on the other side of things?
Willett: Probably one of the reasons I went into law is because I was always an idealist and had a sense of justice. The law is not that pure, believe me, when you're in it and you're practicing. But I always had a sense for me, it was about fairness. It's got to be because the family is the most important thing we have in our society. So to find out that the process is not fair to find out that it really doesn't care about truth, honesty, the family, fairness, justice, nothing — it totally blew my mind.
So not only did I realize that my life with my family and my husband wasn't what I thought it was, but this profession wasn't what it was supposed to be either. It threw me completely and I think that's why I was so devastated.
Ariel: Your book addresses a woman’s right to go to work or be a stay at home mom and how that can affect her experience mid-divorce. In your life, you’ve done both. Can you talk about the experience of switching to being a stay at home mom?
Willett: In New York, my ex and I were both lawyers and being a lawyer in New York is really hard. I was traveling, and we had two kids, and both of us are working. We have a big house to take care of, and the kids have their activities. It was really crazy. By the end there, before I stopped working as a lawyer, I was just miserable because I just didn't see my kids. And then I'd come home and there's dinner and homework and all this stuff to do. I really just wanted to play with my kids. I wanted to spend time with them.
Those few years before [my ex] sued me and left, when I was just at home with the kids — it was really wonderful. I never thought about it as a forever thing. It doesn't mean that I can't pick up my career or a different career at some other point.
Ariel: And you write about how one of the judges held that decision against you.
Willett: [When I saw my last judge], I thought, ‘Oh, I've got this woman, she's going to understand now. She’s probably a mother who is going to understand why I wanted to stay home with my kids.’ But for this woman to just come after me and tell me that I had done something wrong by wanting to raise my children with a man who was earning $500,000 and telling me that I had shirked my responsibility. She used those words, ‘you've shirked your responsibility.’ I was again dumbfounded that the family court does not protect the family, but the family court is siding with the person who wants to destroy the family.
Ariel: How did you cope in the midst of this huge life upheaval?
Willett: Definitely my spiritual life kept me going at this point. I had been studying Buddhism, had a meditation practice, and I went to meditation classes. I also had the Episcopal Church. The kids and I went there, and it was really like a family there. It was a welcoming church. The priest there is still a good friend of mine.
Ariel: When you do get the house, all the things start to go wrong. With the house, as well as just your physical health. Did you ever think the house was cursed? Or at least that you’d made a mistake in fighting for it?
Willett: [laughs] No, I didn't. I felt like I had made the right decision. I still believe that we needed some stability and I was just gonna fight through it. I never really did doubt.
Ariel: After it was all over, why’d you choose to come to Savannah?
Willett: I had been here the first time when my oldest was looking at colleges. We were in Atlanta, and I remember thinking, we all need a few days of downtime. So we came down from Atlanta to Savannah for three days, just the three of us get away and have a little mini vacation. I remember thinking Savannah was just absolutely this beautiful, magical place.
Then after being hit with this decision from this judge, I was reeling and wondering what to do with my life. I thought, just to go to Savannah for a few days. It felt really comfortable to be here. I want to go somewhere where I can have a few months to continue this great feeling of freedom.
Ariel: When did you first get the idea to write this book?
Willett: I was journaling the whole time because I just felt like the need to journal, but I'm not even sure that it was about writing this book. It was very helpful to just write about things that were happening and process it that way. It probably occurred to me when I first came to Savannah, during those first few months questioning, what am I gonna do now?
Ariel: I imagine it must’ve been difficult to write about some of these memories, but there’s so much humor in your book, too.
Willett: When all of the things were going wrong in the house, I was kind of a mess. Now, people talk about my book and they say, ‘Oh, there's this funny thing.’ [laughs] But now I read what I wrote about those hard things, and I see so much humor, which I find really comforting. It means I've gotten to a place where I can look at some of those difficulties and know I got through that.
Ariel: What’s been one surprising thing about writing such a personal work?
Willett: I always make a point that this is not a divorce memoir. I’ve spoken to people who’ve gone through other losses, and what’s really intriguing to me is how many young people are interested in this book. People in their 20s. I’ve always thought of it as a book about loss and overcoming that loss, and figuring out how to start over when you’ve gotten knocked off your horse.
Ariel: Since you’re a local, can you suggest one thing for the other authors to visit before they leave?
Willett: Do not leave time without going to the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home. If you don’t do anything else, go there! And then walk across Lafayette Square and peek into the cathedral that she saw from her crib.
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