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Divorced At Sixteen

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To escape from an emotionally abusive mother, Lucille Lang Day married on September 8, 1962, at the age of 14. Her daughter Liana was born 10 months after the wedding. She filed for divorce in 1964 after her husband hit her. The following text is adapted from her memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story:

At sixteen I filed for divorce before a lot of girls my age had even been kissed. Mark, who'd been living with his grandmother, came to my parents' house after he was served. He rushed into my room, where I was lying on the bed, reading an article about the Beatles, who'd just completed their first U.S. tour. His blue eyes had a fierce gleam, and his usually well-greased hair fell across his forehead in disarray. He grabbed my left arm and pulled on my wedding and engagement rings, saying I no longer had any right to wear them. I said I wouldn't wear them anymore but insisted they were mine and he had no right to take them. He squeezed and twisted my arm. I told him he was hurting me, and he said he'd hurt me more if I didn't give the rings back. I was scared, remembering when he gave me a shiner, but I didn't want to give in. He kept pulling on the rings. He pulled so hard I thought my finger would come off too. I looked at him, hoping for a softening of his anger, but he was breathing hard and looked mean.

He got the rings off and thrust them into his jacket pocket, then turned to leave. As he walked away, I picked up a glass from the nightstand and threw it at him, but I missed and it smashed against the wall in the hallway outside my room.

He came back in, grabbed my shoulders, and put his face up close to mine. His breath stunk of cigarettes and beer. He said, "I could take Liana away from you if I wanted to, and if you keep acting crazy, I will." I didn't say anything, hoping he'd go away if I didn't argue. It worked. He let go of me with a push and left again.

The judge awarded me sixty dollars per month in child support and eighty in alimony, but Mark didn't pay it. My friend Cindy, also a teen mother, told me how to apply for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and the welfare office sent me to the District Attorney to file charges against Mark for nonsupport. I took Liana with me in her stroller. A wiry baby with blond curls and large hazel eyes, she was now ten months old and had been walking for a month. While I worked on the papers, she climbed out of her stroller, ran down a hallway, and before I could catch her, ran into an open elevator. "That's my baby!" I screamed as the doors clamped shut. I waited in front of the elevator, hoping somebody would bring her back to me, and after a few minutes that seemed like light years, a woman did. From then on, whenever I went out with Liana, I tried to get Cindy or my mother to come along to help watch her.

It was not easy to find a nice boyfriend after the divorce. One man I met at a bar where I'd lied about my age was about thirty-five years old, tall and angular, with dark wavy hair and an inscrutable expression. On our first date, as we drove down East 14th Street in Oakland, Calif., he told me he'd murdered his wife.

I said, "You can let me out here."

"Don't worry, I'd never hurt you. You're too sweet and pretty."

I studied his pockmarked face and hollow cheeks. Unable to bring myself to make eye contact, I asked, "How did you do it?" although I wasn't sure I wanted to know.

"I strangled her. She was no good."

"Did you go to jail?" I wondered what I was doing in this rattle-trap car with this awful-looking man, who was a murderer to boot.

"I went to a mental hospital. I was declared insane."

"I feel sick. I'd like to go home." I really did feel nauseated by my fear and revulsion.

"Don't you like me? I thought I should be honest. l don't want to hide nothing."

"Yes, I like you, but I'm going to vomit very soon. Please take me home."

After this experience I thought twice before accepting a date with anyone.

During the next few months, the attraction between Mark and me returned, and he invited me for a cruise on San Francisco Bay. With a crush of tourists, we took a Red and White Fleet boat from Fisherman's Wharf on a Saturday afternoon. Neither of us had ever done this before, despite having lived in the Bay Area our whole lives. As we leaned against the railing, looking at the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline, he said, "I still love you, and I hope we'll get back together someday. I'm sorry I hit you. I know now that it's wrong to hit a woman. If you give me another chance, I'll never to do it again."

I believed him and said, "I forgive you." We kissed as salt wind filled our hair and a fog bank stood like a tidal wave beyond the city, ready to roll over the hills. "I'm not ready to go back together," I added, "but I'll think about it."

Lucille Lang Day went on to earn a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, and is now an acclaimed writer and science educator. Her daughter Liana is a marriage and family therapist. In honor of Liana's work with abused women and children, she was selected to be one of the relay runners who carried the Olympic torch to the winter games in Salt Lake City in 2002.