Divorce among 19th century Shakers

Thursday September 30, 2010

Editor’s note: The ninth annual Brattleboro Literary Festival gets under way on Friday, Oct. 1. Below is the next in a series of reviews of books by authors who will be attending the 2010 Brattleboro Literary Festival.

For more festival details, visit www.brattleboroliteraryfestival.org.

Ilyon Woo holds a bachelor’s degree in the Humanities from Yale College and a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University. Her first book, "The Great Divorce," is a riveting tale of betrayal and redemption. It tells the story of one extraordinary instance of conflict between a man and woman divided over the Shaker faith; a scandalous true tale involving a distraught mother, her errant husband and their missing children. She lives in New York City.


"The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times"

By Ilyon Woo

The night after I finished "The Great Divorce" by Ilyon Woo, I had a dream that my children were leaving me on a long flight.

I am a divorced man, reading this book, and I have been very lucky that I did not back then lose my children on any long flight. Yet I still carried scars, and now as they are older, going off on their own, I feel my own particular threat with their departure. It is a part of my psyche, and perhaps why I was drawn to this book.

This is a true story of losses, but also a momentous ("great") emancipation, and what it took to get there. Eunice Chapman is acting in a time when a woman, upon marriage, lost all her rights to property, earning her own wages, any private contracting at all, and even her children.

When Eunice’s husband moved in with the Shakers, her only possibility for keeping the family together was to join them. This meant her complete acceptance of all the rules and practices of the community. She quickly found out that both men and women as well as boys and girls were mainly kept separate. As readers, we gradually come to understand how the Shakers encouraged members to love everyone, but they were never permitted to be more deeply intimate with any one individual.

We also learn of many truly wonderful attributes of this community including their generosity and racial tolerance. Certainly we are reminded how their industrious character and design toward usefulness meant they created clean efficient and warm accommodations. Everyone was assured of plenty of food year round and warm clothing for the winters.

The founder, Mother Ann Lee, came from a "wretched personal life," giving birth to one child after another, and then losing each one to death shortly after. We cannot help but believe that this experience, along with her "vision," as she explains it, clearly makes it obvious why she established celibacy as a requirement for membership. When you read Mother Ann’s description of this vision, maybe you, like me will wonder if a different interpretation might be possible.

The Chapman and Shaker family struggle took place in the early 1800s when debate and counter argument were the commonly known and accepted way of settling disputes. Today, sometimes other alternatives such as mediation and dialogue are practiced. Restorative (as opposed to retributive) justice was not talked about in those days.

So how could any woman deal with these circumstances? We get such a full presentation of many important factors contributing to Eunice’s long battle, not the least of which was her willingness to very effectively speak out and write about her unfortunate circumstances.

Woo said just recently on the Diane Rehm show that she has been engaged in this story for 12 years. She recalls visiting Shaker communities with her parents. This makes her a wonderful resource to us today, especially given as she tells us there are only three remaining living members of the community today.

Woo shows us in such great detail all of the forces at work in such a conflicting environment from the legal viewpoint for sure, but also from the prevailing social and religious standpoint as well. Near the end, in the climax of the story, with so much information that had come before, I felt as if I was gaining the kind of truth and wisdom that comes more often for me from a novel.

I read how men wounded women by establishing marriage as an institution that makes them became "civilly dead." We, as men today, have to live with this history of such an inhumane patriarchal system. As perpetrators we have the difficult task of owning up to this while also finding our own healing standpoint in the present.

This book can help us get another perspective on why we still have so many relationship and marital challenges today. These tragedies of almost 200 years ago, while legally addressed, were emotionally still buried.

In another recent radio interview on WAMC in Albany, N.Y., Woo tells of the reminiscences of one of Eunice’s granddaughters describing the lifelong effect the whole incident had on her grandmother. As a true story of progress, it reminds us of our very long path.

Come hear Ilyon Woo share with us what she discovered Š something otherwise forgotten; and with this enlightenment, help us consider what still remains to be done today.

David Ritchie, is "sometimes writing a poem, but most of the time, fellow owning and operating Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney."


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