The word “cleave,” as defined in Webster’s Dictionary, holds two wildly divergent meanings: (1) to adhere closely, stick, cling, remain faithful (the italics here will make sense in a few seconds); and (2) to split or divide. Cleaving, then, is a stunningly apt title for a book documenting the tempestuous, 22-year marriage of writers Dennis and Vicki Covington: Wracked by alcoholism, infertility and infidelity, the couple nevertheless has managed — through a potent blend of grace, forgiveness, unflinching honesty and a fiery spirituality that’s part wayward Southern Baptist fervor, part holy mysticism — to forge a conjugal bond that’s all the deeper for the strife endured.
Dennis is best known for Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (Addison Wesley, 1995), the darkly charged story of his obsession with the often poverty-stricken hill people who handle deadly snakes as a means of bearing witness to their fundamentalist religious faith (Sand Mountain was a finalist for the National Book Award). This ruling passion grew out of Dennis’ experiences while writing an article on the topic — which culminated in his own taking up of poisonous snakes, in a moment of otherworldly ecstasy.
Vicki is the author of four novels, most recently The Last Hotel for Women (Simon & Schuster, 1996). The two met in Birmingham, Ala., when she was 13 and he was 17 (Dennis was a friend of Vicki’s big brother). They crossed paths again nine years later at a Birmingham party, where Vicki impulsively pulled Dennis into a darkened bedroom and kissed him with a rapt passion reserved for those destined to irrevocably change our lives. They married on Christmas Eve in 1977.
Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) — written by Vicki and Dennis, in alternating chapters — is a study in excruciating candor. In the opening paragraphs, Vicki tells of a woman (named Kira, as we later learn) with “wild and beautiful dark curls” who storms unannounced into the Covington kitchen: “She was waving a handful of letters. ‘You’re f••king my husband,’ she spit.”
And so it begins. The sober-for-nearly-two-decades Covingtons take us on a journey through their reckless, drinking days (“We were caught in a terror worse than adultery,” Vicki writes at one point. “We were drinking ourselves to death and we knew it.”) and out the other side. Along the way, there are affairs — some long-term, deeply serious relationships (such as Dennis’ with a young artist named Chance, and Vicki’s with a man identified only as “Kira’s husband”) and a few that are more casual (“People came and went out of the house on Green Springs Avenue that year,” writes Dennis of a time fairly early in their marriage, adding, “Some of them spent the night.”).
There’s also the matter of Vicki’s supposed infertility. “No baby? Then let’s wreck the nest,” she writes about her feelings after receiving the grim announcement from her doctor. That trauma is bittersweetly broken when she becomes pregnant but is unsure whether the father is Dennis or his friend, with whom she’s had an affair. (In a wrenching passage, she tells of aborting the child, with Dennis holding her hand; remarkably, however, Vicki went on to give birth to two daughters, Ashley and Laura, now ages 12 and 14, whom the couple calls their “two miracles”.).
And then, in spite of everything, there is the couple’s hotly consuming spirituality. One of the most powerful images in Cleaving depicts the Covingtons praying aloud, their voices rising and coming together in a fever pitch that borders on the sexual.
Through it all, stories of the Covingtons and their daughters hand-augering water from the depths of the earth — “practicing” in their Birmingham yard before embarking on a church-mission trip to El Salvador, where they created wells in parched villages — metaphorically suggest the deep “digging” that was needed to redeem their relationship.
Despite the book’s hot-button subject matter, Cleaving is anything but a tawdry romp through illicit sex and drunken binges. It’s ultimately a tale of grace, unflagging honesty and a hard-won respect for the realities of holding a relationship together over the long term. “How does the story of our marriage end?,” writes Dennis. “End it as Beckett would, a friend once advised me: We can’t go on. We can go on. We can’t go on. We can go on. We can’t go on. We can go on. We can’t go on. We go on.”
What follows are excerpts from a recent telephone interview with the Covingtons about the book — and about their marriage. (Unfortunately, heavy electronic distortion made parts of the tape inaudible, particularly when Dennis was speaking.)
MX: What qualms did you have about putting such excruciatingly intimate and honest information about yourselves out there for all the world to read? Was it pretty tough?
VC: The writing of it was not that hard. The living of it certainly was. … But the very things you think you can never write about are the things you ultimately have to write about. The same was true for this book. I was telling myself, well, I’m going to write everything, and I can edit a lot out later. But those things that I originally intended to edit out became the most powerful parts of the book, of course.
MX: This is a larger philosophical question, and I’m not sure there is an answer to it, but do you think monogamy is in any way a natural state for humans? Or is it simply the product of religious and moralistic dogma that’s been deeply ingrained into our collective consciousness?
VC: I don’t think we’re set up biologically for it, certainly. Not at all. But it’s something we need, I believe.
DC: We’re really not biologically geared to be walking upright yet. [Laughs] But in order to avoid total chaos, I agree that monogamy is necessary, if a relationship is to thrive.
MX: Besides the obvious, deeply abiding love you have for each other, was there anything else — some deeper spark or understanding — that you feel is responsible for holding the two of you together through everything?
VC: I guess grace and forgiveness and mercy are the most important things that have kept us together. And, too, we just went into marriage in the ’70s with low or no expectations. So everything has been a surprise — a good surprise, you know. When you go into something knowing that you’ve got a 50 percent chance of failing — or maybe not failing, but not working it out … it’s all been good, considering that. And I think, actually, that [the] cynical, jaded attitude we entered into marriage with has served our marriage well. When you don’t expect anything, you’re pleasantly surprised when things work out.
MX: Do you think your marriage is special, or extraordinary? Because a lot of couples would say, “Forget it, we’re not going to go through this!”
VC: Well, I think it’s different, in that we were honest with each other about the affairs and everything. A lot of people lie and stay together because they lie.
MX: Maybe the fact that both of you had affairs was in some ways the saving grace. If it had been only one of you, do you think that would have made a huge difference?
DC: Oh, yes; definitely. But on that question of whether our marriage is special: I just have to say that it’s a day-by-day process, constantly evolving. I think the problems that we had are common, not special at all [the Covingtons once called adultery “the sore tooth that the tongue is always seeking out, checking on” in most, and maybe all, marriages], but maybe the way we dealt with [those problems is] different.
VC: Sure, if we hadn’t both had affairs we, ironically, probably would never have stayed together. But the way we dealt with the whole thing was like when we quit drinking. We didn’t say we’re never going to have another drink. It was just, we’re not going to drink today. Today, we’re sober. The same with making our marriage work: It’s like, today, we’re married. Today, we’re faithful.
MX: I wanted to talk about religion a little bit — or maybe spirituality is a better term; that’s obviously a huge part of your lives and your marriage. I know you attend a Southern Baptist church, but the Southern Baptist faith you describe in the book isn’t like the Southern Baptist faith I knew when I was growing up; it’s much more rooted in a core kind of spirituality. Can you describe the kind of spirituality you practice and believe in?
DC: Well, we’ve since resigned our positions [they were deacons] in the church we spoke of in the book [an inner-city, Southern Baptist church in Birmingham]. We loved our earthly church, but we’re also believers in the spirit of Christ. We know we’re flawed, and we’ve sinned. And we’re sorry. [Covington wrote in Salvation on Sand Mountain that Christianity without passion, danger and mystery may not be Christianity at all.]
VC: I’m not so sure, now, that that particular church was ever right for us. I mean, the reaction in our church and in the city in general, after the book came out, was incredible.
MX: What was the reaction?
VC: Oh, it was horrible. It was just horrendous. We were publicly persecuted.
MX: What happened? Did you show up for church after the book came out, and they were waiting to crucify you, or something?
DC: Well, it wasn’t just the church. It was all of Birmingham. What really happened was that the book was portrayed in ways that were misleading and sensationalistic. One of the local radio-talk-show hosts lambasted us, without even having read the book. … I mean, we’ve really become kind of pariahs in our hometown. It’s been one of the worst times of my life.
VC: Fellow artists and fellow writers understand that, when you have to do something, you have to do it. But lots of other people, particularly in the South, don’t seem to understand why we had to write the book.
MX: Have you ever regretted writing the book?
VC: No. I feel I did the very best work that I can do, at this point in my life. I mean, it was all I had.
MX: Have you considered leaving Birmingham because of all the flack?
VC: Oh, yeah.
DC: That’s sure crossed my mind — actually, even for different reasons. Birmingham’s still kind of a small city, and I’ve lived there all my life. And after a while, as a writer, you become a public figure and you’re recognized and you’re sort of fair game, everywhere you go. But our girls are in school there, and so we won’t be leaving in the immediate future. But it’s so good to get out on the road, on this book tour.
VC: It certainly does sting, though, because I’ve always defended Birmingham when people have criticized it. I’d say, “Yeah, I know it’s dirty, but it’s my dirty place.” But suddenly, it’s turned on me.
MX: I wanted to ask each of you what’s the most important thing or things you’ve learned from each other.
DC: Well, I’ve learned a lot about keeping a calm head during times of incredible stress and strife from Vicki, and a lot about simply holding yourself together during difficult times. And also trust — trusting each other enough to be honest.