BELVEDERE, Calif. -- At 75, Judith Wallerstein calls herself a tribal elder. The tribe she heads is extraordinary in the annals of psychological research -- 131 children of divorce she has followed for 25 years. Sitting on her sofa in a denim skirt and white blouse, with her stocking feet curled under her, Wallerstein says she serves as a "picture album" for these children, who are now grown.
"The remarkable thing is I have them all in my head," she says. "I remember every dream, every fantasy. I remember how they played, so I can remind them, and they love that because they have a sense of discontinuity."
She knew their parents' marriages and their divorces, and in some cases, the re-marriages and the second, third and even fourth divorces. She knows which children smoked pot, which kids earned straight As and which girl cut herself as a way to express her pain.
In the heated debate about the future of the American family, she has given voice to a group that has been unheard: the children. Her latest findings -- that 25 years after a divorce the children continue to suffer the emotional fallout -- have helped fuel a nationwide backlash against no-fault divorce. At least 20 states are considering laws to make divorces more difficult to obtain.
But that wasn't Wallerstein's intent. As one of the nation's leading researchers on divorce, she isn't on a political crusade. And she isn't against divorce.
The clinic she founded, which has been renamed in her honor as the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition in Corte Madera, Calif., has counseled more divorcing families than any center in the country, she says.
"I've probably seen more misery in marriage than anyone I know, so it would be foolish for me to say don't divorce," she says. "But I think people should take divorce very seriously when they have children. The question is: Should people stay married for the sake of the children? It's really a very individual decision, and I don't think society should make it for people."
A petite, gray-haired, energetic woman, Wallerstein says her interest in the plight of the children of divorce stems from her own experience -- not with divorce, but with the loss of a parent.
"My father died when I was 8, and that has had a major effect on my life," she says. "You can trace all this work to my own suffering as a child and how my mother tried to handle the situation. I know the importance of an intact family, about the importance of fathers."
Growing up as the oldest of two children, Wallerstein says she watched her mother struggle to work a full-time job, care for the children and have a social life. She tried to help.
"I was an independent kid, and my mother needed me to be an independent kid," she says. When her mother, who taught English to adults, was sick one day, a 14-year-old Wallerstein stepped in to teach the class. "I grew up with teaching," she says. "I don't get frightened."
Born in New York City, Wallerstein spent her adolescence in Palestine with her family, then returned to New York to study at Hunter College and Columbia University. Eventually she earned a psychology Ph.D. from Lund University in Sweden. With her husband, Robert, a psychiatrist, she worked for years at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., before moving to California.
The Wallersteins raised their three children in a modern, high-ceilinged hillside house in a waterfront community just north of San Francisco in Marin County -- which is where the children in her study were raised. Her two daughters sometimes brought their friends home for impromptu counseling from their mother. "My daughter would appear at 11 o'clock at night and say, 'You have to talk to Mary.' And I would," she recalls.
In the 1970s, when divorce was becoming the rage, Wallerstein watched some of her neighbors and friends end their marriages. But she says she never had a crisis in her own marriage where she considered divorce.
"I have a lovely marriage," she says. "And we've been lucky with our kids, too." She has a daughter who lives in nearby Berkeley, a son in Chicago and another daughter in Albuquerque; among them, she has five grandchildren. None of her children have divorced. They turn to their mother for child-rearing advice, she says. "They trust me very much when it comes to opinions about children."
As her findings about divorce became public through books such as "Surviving the Breakup" and "Second Chances," strangers wrote to protest what she said. "They were furious," she says. "Especially mental-health professionals and lawyers. They said I was wrong -- divorce was creative."
After years of researching family unhappiness, her own findings distressed her. "I was getting very depressed," she says. She took a break and researched happy marriages, which resulted in a best-selling book with co-author Sandra Blakeslee, "The Good Marriage." It restored her sense of equilibrium.
Easing divorce laws