“It has taken me a long time, Mother and Dad, to realize that you have a right to your own happiness. It is selfish for me to ask that you live any more for me. You did that for years.” So writes Betsy Williams in her farewell letter to her parents before attempting suicide. Betsy is the protagonist of the short story “Natural Causes”, written by Catholic Hollywood writer and producer Myles Connolly. Painting a picture of a 1950s divorce from the point of view of the couple’s daughter, Connolly’s casual writing can wring the heart.
Like other short stories in the collection The Reason for Anne, Connolly is trying to shine the light of Catholicism upon the quagmire of modernity through narrative rather than discursive argument. Thus his characters struggle with issues like atheism, divorce, gang crime, and communism. The six stories in this collection deal with heavy and poignant topics but in a surprisingly light—even fluffy—way. As with other Catholic writers of the 1950’s who were trying to be trendy and up-to-date in their own day, some of Condolly’s tropes can sound trite or cliched to us.
Yet “Natural Causes’’ presents insights that outweigh whatever dated dust clings to its edges. As a portrayal of divorce’s destruction of security and trust in the heart of children it is extremely effective. “Connolly’s principal aim in the story,” writes Stephen Mirarchi in the Introduction to The Reason for Anne, “is to dramatize the breakdown of the family in the face of the deadliest temptation for people of good will: acedia, or spiritual sloth—here, specifically, the pursuit of lesser goods at the expense of the greater ones.”
Connolly portrays the marriage of the Williams as initially very loving and close. When Betsy walks through the empty family house before attempting suicide, she
Stopped at the door of the large bedroom, looked in, her eyes moving about with the same slow intensity they had had in the living room. They rested on the great four-poster bed with its white, frilled canopy. There she had been conceived, there she had been born. Her father had insisted the delivery be at home. No cold, metallic hospital for his wife. Not even a single night’s separation for him and his love.
Betsy remembers how proud of her her parents were of her different accomplishments. Yet their affection cooled and they became offended at the way they both were giving attention to other activities—ironically, it was Betsy’s mother spending too much time at the “Children’s Hospital Drive” that would initiate the coldness between her and her husband.
When Betsy’s parents separate and each begin a “new life” with a new partner, their reassurances of parental love fell on Betsy’s ears with a hollow ring. She writes in her farewell letter:
When I was divided up between you, so many days to be spent with one, so many days with the other, this week-end here, this week-end there, I felt as if I’d been divided up with the stocks and bonds and the real estate. I felt like another piece of furniture and not like a daughter who had been led to think she was the apple of your eye. And when you’d keep telling me not to be unhappy, I’d always have a home, I knew I’d never have a home again and never had.
What makes a home is a united father and mother, Connolly suggests through this young girl. Throughout the story the motif of the telephone ringing reoccurs. Betsy remembers how on Christmas Eve her father and mother would spend time together and never answer the telephone, refusing to allow it to disturb their familial communion. “For Connolly, the intrusion of technology is symptomatic of acedia, for it demands that we often pay attention to lesser goods rather than our vocational duties,” Mirarchi comments in the book’s Introduction. I myself have written of this recently on Crisis.
Seventeen-year-old Betsy writes that she was “old enough even a year ago to know that money and food and beds and television sets do not make a home. I knew that father and mothers, and love and loved ones made a home.” This is a paradoxical failure of the familial reflection of glory which Marc Barnes recently discussed so well, writing that “The parent’s glory is not in the parent, but in the child, but the child’s glory is not in the child, but in the parent!” Parents can truly receive glory from their children, but not in a selfish way—not even very much in this life (I highly recommend reading Barnes’s article).
Ultimately, Betsy seems to think that she was not truly loved but was part of her parents’ “marriage career.” She was a “parental achievement,” “simply the thing to do, the fashionable thing to do.” Thus her parents’ love for her seems not so much loving her as loving themselves. Yet Betsy’s grandmother holds out hope that one day her parents will “return to themselves.” Her grandmother tells her that “The later years are always happiest for well married couples, for the last is always the best.” Yet Betsy begins taking modern sociology courses at college and learns that there are many other conceptions of the family and that really, she should be OK with her parents’ separation. That would be the “modern, intelligent thing to do”. But deep down, Betsy knows this is wrong and that no matter how she tried, she could never become “modern and sophisticated.”
Ultimately, Betsy tells her parents that she is committing suicide because she has been “loving too much.” Dying from love is a “Natural Cause” she explains. Betsy’s heartbreak is not for nothing, however. Healing comes despite the hurt: and to find out exactly how, you will have to read the book yourself!