Read CHAPTER I - INTRODUCTION of Broken Homes A Study of Family Desertion and its Social Treatment, free online book, by Joanna C. Colcord, on

It has frequently been said that desertion is the poor man’s divorce but, like many epigrams, this one hardly stands the test of experience. When examined closely it is neither illuminating nor, if the testimony of social case workers can be accepted, is it true. It is true, of course, that many of the causes of domestic infelicity which lead to divorce among the well-to-do may bring about desertion among the less fortunate, but the deserting man does not, as a rule, consider his absences from home as anything so final and definite as divorce.

In a study of desertion made by the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity in 1902, it was found that 87 per cent of the men studied had deserted more than once. The combined experience of social workers goes to show that a comparatively small number of first deserters make so complete a break in their marital relations that they are never heard from again, and that an even smaller number actually start new families elsewhere, although no statistical proof of this last statement is available. One social worker of experience says that in her judgment desertion, instead of being a poor man’s divorce, comes nearer to being a poor man’s vacation.

A man who had always been a good husband and father was discharged from hospital after a long and exhausting illness and returned to his family wife and seven children in their five-room tenement. Ten days later he disappeared suddenly, but reappeared some two weeks later in very much better health and ready to resume his occupation and the care of his family. His explanation of his apparent desertion was that he was unable to stand the confusion of his home and “had needed rest.” He had “beaten his way” to Philadelphia and visited a friend there.

The reporter of the foregoing remarks that it illustrates “unconscious self-therapy,” and that the patient’s disappearance might have been avoided if the services of a good medical-social department had been available at the hospital where the man was treated.

It is more difficult to justify the thirst for experience of another deserting husband who came to the office of a family social agency after an absence of a few months, with effusive thanks for the care of his family and the explanation that he “had always wanted to see the West, and this had been the only way he could find of accomplishing it.”

In fact, case work has convinced social workers that there are few things less permanent than desertion. In itself this provisional quality tends to create irritation in the minds of many of the profession. It is upsetting to plan for a deserted family which stops being deserted, so to speak, overnight. But in their understandable despair social workers sometimes overlook essential facts about the nature of marriage. The permanence of family life is one of the foundation stones of their professional faith; yet they may fail to recognize certain manifestations of this permanence as part and parcel of the end for which they are striving. They would see no point in the practice adopted by a certain social agency which deals with many cases of family desertion. This society, when it has had occasion to print copies of a deserter’s photograph to use in seeking to discover his present whereabouts, often presents his wife with an enlargement of the picture suitable for framing. The procedure displays, nevertheless, a profound insight not only into human nature but into the human institution called marriage.

In the next chapter will be considered some of the causes that make men leave their homes. To deal effectively with the situation created by desertion, however, we have need of a wider knowledge than this. Not only what takes men away but what keeps them from going, what brings them back, what leads to their being forgiven and received into their homes again, are matters that seriously concern the social case worker. What is it that makes this plant called marriage so tough of fiber and so difficult to eradicate from even the most unfriendly soil?

It is fortunate (since the majority of case workers are unmarried) that simply to have been a member of a family gives one some understanding of these questions. The theorist who maintains that marriage is purely economic, or that it is entirely a question of sex, has either never belonged to a real family or has forgotten some of the lessons he learned there.

Many volumes have been written upon the history of marriage, or rather of the family, since, as one historian justly puts it, “marriage has its source in the family rather than the family in marriage." In all these studies the influence of law, of custom, of self-interest, and of economic pressure, is shown to have molded the institution of marriage into curious shapes and forms, some grievous to be borne. But is it not after all the crystallized and conventionalized records of past time which have had to be used as the source material of such studies, and could the spiritual values of the family in any period be found in its laws and learned discourses? We might rather expect to find students of these sources preoccupied with the outward aspects, the failures, the unusual instances. It is as true of human beings as of nations, that the happy find no chronicler. “Out of ... interest and joy in caring for children in their weakness and watching that weakness grow to strength, family life came into being and has persisted." It is hardly conceivable that in any society, however primitive, there were not some real families even when custom ran otherwise in which marriage meant love and kindness and the mutual sharing of responsibilities. And these families, today as always, are the creators and preservers of the spiritual gains of the human race. It has been beautifully said of the family in such a form, that “it is greater than love itself, for it includes, ennobles, makes permanent, all that is best in love. The pain of life is hallowed by it, the drudgery sweetened, its pleasures consecrated. It is the great trysting-place of the generations, where past and future flash into the reality of the present. It is the great storehouse in which the hardly-earned treasures of the past, the inheritance of spirit and character from our ancestors, are guarded and preserved for our descendants. And it is the great discipline through which each generation learns anew the lesson of citizenship that no man can live for himself alone." It follows that the most trying and discouraging feature of social work with deserted wives; namely, their determination to take worthless men back and back again for another trial, is often only a further manifestation of the extraordinary viability of the family.

It is true that, into this enduring quality, many elements enter, some homely or merely material. A desire for support, or for a resumption of sex relations, may play a part in a wife’s decision to forgive the wanderer. There are many other factors use and wont; pride in being able to show a good front to the neighbors; a feeling that it is unnatural to be receiving support from other sources. Just the mere desire to have his clothes hanging on the wall and the smell of his pipe about, the hundreds of small details that go to make up the habit of living together, have each their separate pull on the woman whose instinct to be wife and mother to her erring man is urging her to give in; Home is, in both their minds,

" ... the place where when you have to go there
They have to take you in....
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve."

A woman who had left her home town and found clerical work in a strange city, in order not to be near her syphilitic husband from whom she had determined to separate, said, “When you’ve been married to a man, you can’t get over feeling your place is with him.”

However we may deplore the results in a given case, the spineless woman who takes her husband back many times may nevertheless be giving a demonstration of the thing we are most interested in conserving the durability and persistence of the family. And so the social worker who is enabled by experience or imagination to enter into the real meaning of family life is neither scornful nor amused when Mrs. Finnegan is found, on the morning when her case against Finnegan is to come up in the domestic relations court, busily washing and ironing his other shirt in order that he may make a proper appearance and not disgrace the family before the judge.

An attempt will be made in this small book to analyze some causal factors in the problem of the deserter, to touch upon recent changes in the attitude of social workers toward deserted families, to present illustrations from the best discoverable practice in the treatment of desertion, and to suggest certain possible next steps, both on the legal and on the social side. For lack of space, it will be impossible to consider the closely related problems of the deserting wife, the unmarried mother, or the divorced couple. It is assumed throughout that the reader is familiar with the general theory of modern case work; and no more is here attempted than to give a number of suggestions which will be found to be practical, it is hoped, when the social worker deals with the home marred and broken by desertion, or when he seeks to prevent this evil by such constructive measures as are now possible.