Recently on TV I saw the old film Kramer vs. Kramer, with Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman as “The Kramers.” I’d seen it years earlier and knew the gist of the story but didn’t remember very many specifics.
Then, on a recent Facebook posting, I read a comment by author Bonnie ZoBell who was talking about completing a novel. Bonnie was sort of musing over the concept of an author knowing when a book is “done.”
So, between Bonnie and The Kramers, well, I got to thinking about plot.
Some writers outline their plot points in advance of the actual book writing. Others go with the flow. I fall into the second category. I’m way too lazy and impatient to outline anything or follow any pattern. As a kid, with those paint by number kits, I always chose the paint color that appealed to me, then I painted outside the designated lines. Most were pictures of horses. Probably horrible distortions, but that’s the way I did it.
This practice carried over into my adult life in a number of ways. In my writing life, I let the characters make all the decisions. I’ve heard about authors getting stuck, or blocked, and it always occurs to me that they should step back and get out of the character’s way. Or, let the chips fall where they may (same thing, basically).
Getting out of the characters’ way got me to thinking about the plot of Kramer vs. Kramer.
After eight years of marriage, Mrs. Kramer walks out on Mr. Kramer and their small son. She leaves her husband with the task of raising the child alone, while the husband works in a demanding job in New York advertising (Mrs. Kramer did not work outside the home during their marriage).
We watch Dustin Hoffman (Mr. Kramer) as he fuddles up making French toast for the kid’s breakfast, fuddles up doing other kid-related tasks. But he tries very hard to keep things on an even keel for the kid. I respected this character for his attempts at putting his kid first. However, because of this he eventually loses his high paying, up-the-ladder, Madison Avenue advertising job. Meanwhile, Meryl (Mrs. Kramer) has gone away to “find herself.” She expresses to her husband in advance of leaving him (one foot out the door) that being a mom and wife just isn’t enough to satisfy her. Too bad she didn’t think of it before conceiving this adorable kid!
Now please keep in mind that this story takes place during the women’s liberation movement, and everyone was basically off their tank after reading Fear of Flying and Ms. Magazine and Betty Friedan (myself included).
So, anyway, Meryl departs for one year and three months. Several times in the later part of that period, Dustin (Mr. Kramer) spots her spying on him and their son at the playground. Mrs. Kramer stands inside a coffee shop and watches them through the glass. But she makes no move to connect with either of them.
Then, all of a sudden, out of the blue, she wants the kid back! Fifteen months gone by! Plus a few new lovers under her belt, and a job that pays a cool $31,000 (substantial money for those times)!
The lady wants her kid back. She hires a lawyer, then her husband hires a lawyer. Custody battle: Kramer vs Kramer.
When this film first aired, people (women mainly, and some men who acted enlightened) sided with Meryl (Mrs. Kramer). Long conversations ensued in living rooms and restaurants over this film and this issue. The film had won an Academy Award PLUS it was all about a socially charged theme. People had plenty to say.
So off they go to court and – SPOILER ALERT! – Mrs. Kramer is awarded custody. Mr. Kramer gets one night a week and every other weekend with the kid. As his lawyer explained: the courts favor the mother in almost every case.
Well, the plot turns. Mr. Kramer, who has been a dedicated and quite fabulous father to his kid, must now give up the boy.
The writers, Avery Corman (who wrote the book) and Robert Benton (who adapted it for the screen), made Mrs. Kramer a complex woman. Earlier we learn that she is from Boston, graduated Smith College, and had worked in a high level position prior to her marriage. She dresses very well, she’s classy, and her blonde hair always looks gorgeous. Her name is Joanna. It’s obvious she comes from what used to be termed a “fine family,” aka Republican.
The day of days is upon them. The child has been forewarned. Grown used to his father, the idea of separation makes the little boy dreary and tearful. Of course! He’s only seven and the mom is basically a pipe dream. Or a wisp of smoke. She’s here, she isn’t here, she’s here. Honestly!
Climax: The mom arrives at the apartment lobby to pick up the kid and take him to her own apartment where they will live. Then all at once she has this huge epiphany! In faltering speech she tells her ex-husband that she will not be taking the son, after all! That she realizes how wrong it would be (I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea). The mom gives up custody. The father is ecstatic. He tears up. He tells her to go up alone in the elevator and explain to their son this new change of events.
OK. OK. OK. Deep breath.
At the time the film aired, people were just jubilant that this mother was so brave and big-hearted. Giving up her son! The child of her very loins! And, after all, it was Meryl Streep, young and blonde and gorgeous in the role. Those eyes!
Well I got to thinking about this plot. I thought of all the sacrifices the father made as a single dad, making sure his son always came first. Then I thought about the mother: great new job, great clothes and hair, a hot body in her bed every other night. Would Mrs. Kramer make the same sacrifices so easily and willingly as a single mother? My rational mind said NO.
My rational mind said she gave up custody at the last second because… because essentially she was a selfish bitch. The writer made her one. Only a selfish bitch could walk out on a small child because she “needed to find herself.” You need to find yourself, you get a shrink, take a night class, join a running club, knit. Or write a book.
Write it as well as Avery Corman and Robert Benton did. Write a character like Mrs. Kramer who turns from a mom-goddess into a bitch, in the flick of an ash. Turn your tale on a dangerous wire. Force your readers into arguments over what is right and wrong. That’s powerful storytelling.
I applaud Corman and Benton vigorously because the character was permitted to run the show. The character was allowed to be flawed and human and selfish to her core. The authors stepped back. The character got free rein. That takes courage from an author.
And, in the end, all of them got what they needed.
Susan Tepper is the author of four published books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry. Her current title, The Merrill Diaries, (Pure Slush Books, 2013) is a novel in stories. Tepper has been nominated nine times for the Pushcart, and one time for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. She is also a named-finalist in story/South Million Writers Award for 2014. FIZZ, her reading series at KGB Bar in NYC, has been sporadically ongoing for six or seven years now. Tepper writes the author/books Interview series UNCOV/rd at Flash Fiction Chronicles. You can find her online at susantepper.com.