It was only after he divorced his first wife that he had to “modify my opinion about myself as a father.” A good father “wouldn’t have gotten the divorce. The divorce was very much traumatic for all of us, and especially for me, since I was the one who wanted it.”
It occurs to me that divorce is as much a central subject of The Witches as female psychology. It is Updike’s original sin. “I was in control!” he recalls of his own divorce, in 1977, when he left his first wife for his second, to whom he has been married for 30 years and with whom he shares several stepchildren. “I’ve tried to be a bystander for much of my life. But I couldn’t pretend to be one in this instance, and so I felt guilty for years. My stammer came back when I would talk to my own children. But time has gone, and that was 30-odd years ago, and they’re all adult and seem cheerful. And they live close, so I’m able to observe somewhat.”
He and his first wife went to therapy long ago, back in the sixties, he says. “It was done. A little like adultery: It was done. I was unhappy and restive; my doctor thought it would be good for me. I was conflicted, too—you may say these are descriptions of the human condition. There were certain unexamined, perhaps, looking back on it, unexamined aspects of my sense of myself. Even though as a writer you’re spilling your guts all the time, aren’t you? You’re dealing with somewhat the same deal the psychiatrist tries to get you to look at.
“It was good. It was sort of empowering too.” But he sounds doubtful even as he says this, uncertain perhaps—this notion of health seems so corny, an end to everything, to guilt itself, that enduring life force that has fueled so many of his works. “They make you feel sort of good to be you.”