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Listen Along: a Story of Divorce as Told by the Mountain Goats

TW: DV and Suicidal Ideation

I consider myself an avid Mountain Goats fan—something that I’m not alone in and highly competitive in its way. There’s something about Indie that makes people territorial; the Mountain Goats leans into this aesthetic in that the band regularly produces music that is made to feel ‘small.’ Some albums—one of the most recent, Songs for Pierre Chuvin, being a great example—are just Mountain Goats writer and singer John Darnielle and his boombox. This makes it easy for a fan to feel like The Mountain Goats is theirs. Their band, something that they happened upon and can hold as precious to them. I’m guilty of this, even when I know the reality. Even when I can clearly see that the band has over 180,000 followers on Twitter. Even when Darnielle has put out two novels, one of which was nominated for the National Book Award. Even when Darnielle has said himself on the podcast I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats—dedicated solely to interviewing Darnielle about his music—that he’s continuously flooded with fans sharing these exact same sentiments with him. Not exactly small. 

But The Mountain Goats is personal in that it’s confessional; the songs are about people. Often, they are about people that would broadly be considered small. Teenagers struggling to be taken seriously. Couples who have sunken into the repetition of watching TV together even as their relationship falls apart. Children escaping volatile home lives. They’re relatable, and it is this relatability, this realness, that made them feel so accessible and so true to me when very little else did. 

My introduction to The Mountain Goats coincides with the deterioration of my marriage in 2016. My subsequent obsession with the band sees me through to the finalization of my divorce in 2018. The Mountain Goats not only accompanied me on this journey, though; more than that, the songs I feel most drawn to earmark my experiences as an unhappily married, then separated, then divorced woman. To me, these little vignettes of my very real life are inseparable from the songs that framed them. 

“No Children,” or, September 2016

Each Tuesday and Thursday, I traveled 51 miles to work and 51 miles back. The trip was two hours round-trip on a good day, four hours on a bad day. Either way, I didn’t resent my commute the way so many other long-suffering drivers do; I was 23, a mother of a two-year-old, and constantly crafting escape plans to leave my abusive husband. Escape plans that kept collapsing. I welcomed this little respite, this time away from the cycle of demands—of want and need and want—from the people in my life. Even in the stiff front seat, even pushing through a wall of traffic, it felt like a treat. It is in this precise scenario that I committed “No Children” to memory, in this precise scenario that I’d even decided I wanted to do such a thing. My plan was simple: spend every single minute in the car listening to this song on loop until I could sing along to it without a single error. 

From the minute I was introduced to the band, I felt like the songs had somehow tapped into all of the words I needed to say. “No Children” was perhaps the pinnacle of this. No one can fully understand the dissolution of marriage outside of the couple. The little ways that couples cut and cut and cut at each other are too individualized. Yet this song was such a deep embodiment of my feelings about my marriage at the time. There is a particular kind of hate that grows when someone has been subjected to years of abuse, and that is what I found in myself, flying down the highway. That is what I found in this song. 

The spite of the song was a musical mirror. I wanted to feel that absolute weight of our own bad choices crumbling down on top of us. I wanted that destruction. I didn’t want anything recoverable. I didn’t want to make up, to patch things up, to work things out. Everyone in my life seemed to be pushing this, and I couldn’t seem to get them to stop pushing. “Do you want us to take the baby?” They’d ask. “Have a date night! I bet that’s what you need!” On only one occasion did I point out that a ‘date night’ would do little to fix my husband repeatedly assaulting me, often with the intention of choking me to death. 

It’s no secret that Darnielle did not intend the song to be literal or encouraging. In an NPR interview, Darnielle made it clear that he was upset when couples identified it as ‘their song.’ I do wonder if he imagined me, though. A young 23-year-old wife with a violent husband and a feeling of inescapability. I wonder if he imagined anyone like me could find bravery in it. “No Children” made me feel okay about hating a man who had ruined my life—who, in his own words, wanted to make my life “a living hell.” 

The night I had mastered the lyrics of the song, sang it three times in a row without one error, I hid in a bathtub of bubbles, away from anything my husband could do to me. He stood on the other side of the locked bathroom door as I played the song for what must have been the hundredth time that day. “Is that the drowning song?” he yelled, and I sank deeper into the bubbles and pretended I hadn’t heard him. 

“The Mess Inside,” or, November 2016

I won’t pretend things weren’t complicated. What an absurdity that would be—something that I find abhorrent in other stories of divorce and separation. When you’ve been together for years; stood in front of everyone you care about and promised to make it work with rings and $5,000 in decorations, food, outfits, music; made and welcomed a baby that looks a little bit like each of you, it’s not so easy to just detach. Even if you hate each other. Even if you know it’s what you want. Even if it’s the best thing for you and everyone around you. It’s not simple.

My separation was like that, though I resented that reality and resented myself for indulging in it. I wanted it to be simple—a clean, easy break. But we’d planned a little life together, and watching that little life shatter was painful, even as I knew I was escaping a situation that could have become deadly—maybe that already was becoming deadly. 

When I first listened to “The Mess Inside,” my immediate reaction was guilt. It felt too close to pining, to trying. I didn’t feel I was supposed to have any of this lamentation, but my underlying response to “The Mess Inside” was undeniable. 

A ‘good’ domestic violence victim hates her abuser completely: wants nothing more than to get away from him, does everything she can to do so, and doesn’t look back. Most of these things were true for me, but there was something else, too. Something more, that this song captured: there’s a loss in that hatred. There’s a sadness in it. A sadness that I didn’t feel entitled to, but that this song seemed to welcome. 

Like the song, we had visited the Bahamas. Our honeymoon. Temporal things. Like the song, there was a bench we sat on a thousand years ago, on our university’s campus, where we’d had our first kiss while looking out at the Philadelphia skyline. We’d searched in other places, too. We searched for it in New York City with my sisters when I was pregnant, and we went to a little Irish pub where deeply American waiters pretended to have thick Irish accents and where my husband slipped on ice and nearly fell into an oncoming cab. We searched for it in my mother’s house, where we visited for Christmas, only for my brother and brother-in-law to express doubt that I was being abused at all, given the way my husband and I laughed with each other on the couch. We searched for it in our child, who was somehow beautiful, perfect, even as we realized that the things that brought her into existence should never have been. We searched, and we searched, tirelessly, painfully, but, so much like the song, we couldn’t recover the wreck we’d made of our house. There was no salvaging the damage we’d done. 

When I send my husband the song, neither one of us needs to name any of these things. I send it to him, and he feels it, and he knows I feel it too. “Oh wow,” he texts back. “Ouch.” 

“Going to Georgia,” or January 2017

I’d never really been alone—not in this way. Not in the way that I needed and wanted someone to be there for me, but there was no one, and there was no one even to ask to be.

When my ex-husband told me that he was looking for apartments, I was thrilled. It had been years that I’d been insisting that we separate and months that I’d been actively trying, vehemently, to get him out. I shot down every conversation as quickly as it arose: “I’m just done. I just want you to move out.” Not escalating these little attempts at spats worked small miracles, and, eventually, he told me he was moving out. January. The day after New Years’.

It took longer than it should have for the reality of that impending week to sink in: I would be completely, insurmountably alone. My ex-husband would leave. My child would leave with him—would leave me for the first time in her life and mine. And there was no support system to turn to. My ex-husband had decimated that. 

It hurt as much as I’d expected it to when it arrived. Though in reality, we took our time, explained to our daughter what was happening, walked slowly through each step: packing her things, transitioning her from the house into the car, buckling her in her seat, it felt like my daughter had been ripped out of my arms, torn away from me in a swift, sharp suddenness. When the car pulled away, there was nothing. When I returned upstairs to the apartment, there was less. 

I know now that John Darnielle no longer plays this song live. His rationale, he explained on I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats, is that he finds the story of a man returning home to a woman with a gun in his hand to be too toxic, too dangerous given the current cultural context. He can’t imagine singing this song now. Listening to him explain this, I recognized two truths: 1. He is right, and 2. I had been so absorbed in the feeling of the song that I’d not even realized this was the action of the song. A man returning to a woman. A woman pulling a gun from his hands. Of course, it is, if you listen to the words. But sitting on my living room floor, the clutter of a broken marriage all around me, I hadn’t thought much of the gun.

Instead, my mind had focused on one image, on one feeling only: being in motion again. I sat, immobilized on my floor. The mere idea of getting up seemed excruciating to me. But there was John Darnielle— singing about freezing not in pain but with joy, singing about the most extraordinary thing in the world: movement. Not just movement, but movement again. 

I will not fictionalize the reality of that pain; I did not move right then. The truth is, I don’t know when I moved. My memory tells me it was days. Rationality tells me it must have been hours at most. Incrementally, though, I returned to myself. Little shifts. Little openings. “The feeling of being in motion again.”

“This Year,” or March 2017 

Things did not get easier.

I wanted this divorce to be a clean break, to be an easy, identifiable resolution. I wanted everything to suddenly get easier because poof! my ex-husband was gone. That’s not how it worked, though, and maybe that’s not how it ever works. Divorces take time. Mine took two years.

It didn’t work in part because my ex-husband wasn’t necessarily the whole problem. He was indeed a significant part of the problem—the active threat, the active danger. But there was still the agony of frequent loneliness. Added to this, too, was the intrusion of new pains: the brutality of a separation—all that rage and suffering broken open. The legal labyrinth of an on-paper divorce. The sudden loss of my child three days a week.

The suicidality was not a surprise. It wasn’t necessarily new, either, but it felt so much more possible now. There was so much more time alone. The likelihood of being caught and stopped mid-action was significantly lower. I could kill myself, I realized, and it brought me a little comfort in moments that felt too suffocating to survive. There is an out and, if I want to take it, there’s something to be done.

I wasn’t alone in “This Year” being the song to stop me from pursuing what I thought was a perfect solution to all of this suffering—a newfound ambition to simply end it myself. In fact, the song seems ready-made for this purpose. The message itself is in opposition to the root of suicidal ideation: make it, make it, make it. You can, can’t you? Just until the end of this year. That’s not so long, is it? Make it through this year. It didn’t hurt that this read to me as a challenge, something that I respond well to. 

When played live, this song is an anthem: a group of people, often marginalized at many intersections, always hurting, making a sort of promise to each other. I will make it through this year. Even if it kills me. Even if it kills me; not me. It. In essence, in its most basic form: I will not kill myself. I will not kill myself this year. Darnielle knows this even now, amid a global pandemic, as he harkens back to the song’s message in one of his latest songs, “Exegetic Chains”: “Make it through this year. If it kills you outright.” 

And so it was. I did not kill myself. Not that year. Not since. Instead, I sought out this song. At times, I would put it on and, upon hearing those first few lines—upon hearing John Darnielle’s voice, the beat, the introduction of those images of fast cars, of the morning, of someone broken just like you—I would say out loud, to myself, alone, “Oh, thank God.” Like the Indie rock version of guided meditation, I would immediately feel everything ease, unclench. I would breathe. 

“Waving at You,” or November 2018

This time I didn’t send it to him. 

Had I sent “Waving at You” to my ex-husband a year and a half into our separation, and just as our divorce was in the process of really being finalized, I know what he would have said. “Ah,” one text. “That’s really sad,” another. It would have enraged me how short and simple he could be in his response. How short and simple all of it could be to him. It would have hurt even though I often thought he couldn’t hurt me anymore. How could I be grieving this more than him, when he was the one who hurt me?

So, I kept this song, this pain, to myself this time. It was just for me.

Like “The Mess Inside,” “Waving at You” is a story of the end of a relationship and the way that, even when that end is right, there is some sadness in it. Unlike “The Mess Inside,” though, this song is explicitly about the end of a marriage. It’s not just about a couple realizing the limitations of their relationship and painfully parting ways—it’s about telling a lawyer he can go to hell. It’s not just about being ready to let go of years of effort and fondness; it’s about being prepared to accept what some outside legal force is offering up. It is, explicitly, about the ways that true, legal divorce makes the relationship something else—something outside of just the two people that make up the couple, that made up the marriage. 

This song is also soft. Softer than so many of The Mountain Goats songs (though many rival this— “Midland*” is undoubtedly one of them). It is soft in its literal, actual sound, in that it is quiet, with little behind it musically beyond Darnielle’s voice, and it is soft in its message: “four long years come to nothing, it’s alright.” It’s alright. This song feels like heartbreak. It is theoretically delivered to the ex-spouse (“it’s your birthday”), but it feels so much more like something someone would sing to themselves in hushed tones—a little self-soothing. It’s alright. 

And as a song to one’s self—to one’s mind and memory—in the wake of a broken marriage, the song ends in a way that, to me, feels authentic to the experience of being left alone as that relationship ends. That pool of now-useless knowledge that no longer has a place or reason to be. It ends in a plea to the self, the only thing left with you when a marriage crumbles: “Die hard. Die kicking. Old habit of mine. Die hard. Die. Die kicking.”