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Divorce as History in Reno

An historical landmark by definition would preserve that place in time that added to the national fabric, ostensibly to be celebrated for many generations to come. Leave it to some in Nevada to consider as contributions landmarks recognizing their city of Reno's unique contribution: divorce.

Hard as it may be to believe in today's culture, it bears remembering that once upon a time in America divorces were generally difficult to acquire. Nevada was an exception, and "the Reno divorce," writes the New York Times' Patricia Leigh Brown, "became a national institution in the 1930s, largely because of a 1931 law that allowed a person to obtain a divorce after residing in the state for six weeks."

Divorce laws long have been liberalized from coast to coast, making the Reno of the '30s about as timely as Plymouth Rock. This apparently makes Reno as important to some preservationists, who want to protect the city's Virginia Street Bridge (from which, Brown relates, "newly divorced women were said to fling their wedding bands into the roiling waters" of the Truckee River) and the Silver State Lodge, temporary residence for many of the soon-to-be-single-again.

Some landmarks preserve the freaky, unsavory moments in time meant more for the curious tourist than for history. But not this. They are serious about making a statement.

What statement? Peter Breen, the Washoe County judge who now runs the Reno courtroom that was, in Brown's words, "once the divorce seeker's promised land," believes that Nevada's early permissiveness regarding marriage dissolution "shows how enlightened we were out here...It's valuable to remember the unnatural restrictions we've placed on human relations, and the position women have been in...We've come a long way."

In truth, we really haven't come very far at all if society believes that line straight out of Haight-Ashbury, circa 1967. Only the free-love crowd, after a healthy dollop of mind-altering drugs, said things like that, and I doubt many believed it after sobering up.

Is anyone in his right mind (I think I just excluded the Haight-Ashbury crowd) not aware that the divorce avalanche of the past thirty-plus years has devastated the nuclear family?

This past Valentine's Day saw the release of "Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-One Conclusions from the Social Sciences," a report examining the effects of marriage, divorce, and cohabitation.

Two of its authors, Linda Waite of the University of Chicago and Norval Glenn of the University of Texas, summarize its findings in a newspaper piece which reads, in part, "Both men and women...experience substantial benefits from the average marriage, living longer, healthier, wealthier, and happier lives as a result. Neither remarriage nor cohabitation appears to offer the same benefits."

What really packs a punch, though, are the report's findings concerning the young. "Children raised by their own two married parents," write Waite and Glenn, "are less likely to drop out of school, commit crimes, or suffer from child abuse. They are more likely to attend selective colleges and achieve higher-status jobs. Children whose parents stay married have lower rates of infant mortality, childhood illness, and actually have significantly longer life expectancies than children whose parents do not get and stay married. For children, coming from an intact marriage is associated with reduced rates of mental illness, suicide, depression, alcohol abuse, and illegal drug use."

Make no mistake, we're talking about a lot of youngsters here. The percentage of children not living with both of their parents more than doubled from the '60s to the '90s.

Some have heralded "For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered," a recent book by E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, as a rational response to those - like the authors of "Why Marriage Matters," presumably - who express alarm over the impact of divorce. Yet, as Maggie Gallagher notes in National Review, "For Better" acknowledges, among other data that would suggest alarm is very much due, that when children from split-up families become adults, they are two and a half times more likely to suffer from "serious social, emotional, or psychological problems" than are adults who grew up in intact families. These children of divorce bring those problems to their own marriages, which (according to, yes, "For Better") are far less likely to last than are the marriages of those whose own parents stayed married, and a cycle is established.

Reno's divorce-a-go-go merits commemoration, but not celebration. It deserves a spot in history as the landmark for a town that, sadly, made its name promoting the destruction of the family.