Sidebar May 2009

Divorce, American Style

Alec Baldwin's self-serving memoir will strike a chord with fathers struggling against a campaign of alienation
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Books: "The Passion of Alec Baldwin"
The blustering actor's memoir of divorce is really a love letter to his daughter. By Caitlin Flanagan

Divorce, as Theodor Adorno observed, “even between good-natured, amiable, educated people, is apt to stir up a dust-cloud that covers and discolours all it touches. It is as if the sphere of intimacy, the unwatchful trust of shared life, is transformed into a malignant poison as soon as the relationship in which it flourished is broken off.”

The impact of impassioned, antagonistic divorce (of divorce itself, in truth) on the romance within each family—all the delicate, furious, persistent mutabilities, dependencies, enamorments, and rejections—is so large and extreme, and yet so specific to each family, that it is difficult to conceive of a way to begin mapping it, let alone imagine that map drawn. Still, considerable pieces of the territory that are familiar to manyand can be delineated, and it andthe dark heart of these formsthe backdrop of Alec Baldwin’s odd, imperfect, poignant, and self-serving book. One of the main themes of his narrative, what he sees as the dominant malignant force in his tortured experience of fatherhood after divorce, is what he calls Parental Alienation Syndrome. This phenomenon—first named by Richard Gardner, a child psychiatrist, to describe domestic situations in the aftermath of a heated divorce in which the custodial parent (usually the mother) has successfully turned the child or children against the noncustodial “target parent”—is debated both medically and legally. Still, one would have to live pretty deep in an Amish wonderland not to have encountered mothers who have tried to turn a child against a former husband. Sometimes the guys get into this game as well, but it is much more of a ladies’ pastime.

Divorce is a matrix (etymologically, a “womb”) in which the emotions and relationships that lead into and, for better or worse, emerge from marriage and the start of a family are all made strange and reborn—or rather, miscarried, except without the finality. Whereas men are commonly recognized as having the financial advantage in a marital breakup (a situation that divorce law, undoubtedly the strangest branch of contract law in existence, has sought to remedy with a system of arbitrary, untethered, cruel, and unusual punishments and rewards worthy of the Queen of Hearts), then on the familial, emotional level—that place where the children keep living as the parents fight it out—the advantage is firmly held by the women. This is so for two reasons, one having to do with legal bias, the other with a gender-specific propensity for long-term psychological manipulation. Of course, there will never be any kind of agreement on my claim that women are more given to banking the embers of emotional vendetta, to confounding themselves with their children, and to seeking to transfer down the generational line, no matter the damage, their own animosity toward a spurned or spurning ex-husband.

But before there were Kim and Alec, there were the gods, and we might still look to them for some clarification of these matters. Men and women, at the fever pitch of their exemplary worst, are never so memorably fixed as in the bloodiest tale of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story of Tereus, who rapes Philomela, the sister of his wife, Procne, and then cuts out the girl’s tongue to prevent her from telling what he has done to her, illustrates, as well as anything in the works of Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, or Bret Easton Ellis, iconic male brutality and its attendant silencing of the women who complain about it. The conclusion of the story, in which Procne kills their son then bakes him in a pie and serves him to Tereus in revenge, is less recounted somehow, arguably because the scorched-earth emotional relentlessness it exemplifies sits so uncomfortably withinthe heart of the genuinely feminine. It’s a little hard to give a “You go, girl!” to that one.

Fortunately for the Baldwin-Basingers, and for most Americans who have gone through combative divorces, the ground is usually less bloodstained at the end of it all. Still, fathers, mothers, and children find themselves taking some very odd turns once a parent embarks on a campaign of alienation. In many ways, these are places that the parents have not visited since the outset of their courtship.. To have your love actively impeded by someone who claims to also love the object of your affection is a scenario familiar in romantic competition, but feels as though it should be absent from one’s experience as a parent. In the new and strange dynamic of competitive divorce, though, the child comes to be treated as a kind of love object, the conquest of whom is pursued with all the wiles and snares formerly deployed against the object of the alienating parent’s romantic or financial desire. The vengeful parent is consumed by a kind of amorous hatred of both the former spouse and the once shared, now torn, child. The target of (let’s say) her attacks often enough embarks on a counter-seduction, not necessarily a counter-alienation but an attempt to curry favor with the child, to win him or her back, falling into the desperate, doomed, pleading strategies that are more commonly encountered in breakup manuals with chapter titles such as “Dude, Get Off Her Lawn!”

It is the stifled and inadequately expressed emotions—emotions no less real for that expressive shortfall—that lend A Promise to Ourselves its moments of true feeling. Baldwin is quite perceptive about what he identifies as the real goal of the alienating parent: “the destruction of contiguous time.” He knows himself to be someone who has already lost that for which he was fighting: time—real time, unthreatened and not offered on sufferance—with his daughter, his only child, during her childhood. The clock was run out on him—by his ex-wife, her lawyers, the various deputized gatekeepers who rose up, once his subjection to the law was made clear to him, to consider what access to his daughter he should be granted. The death of romantic illusions is nothing compared with the destruction of the dreams and wishes you hold for, and would have wished to share with, your children. It is scant consolation to know that life destroys those regardless.

Presented by

Christopher Cahill is director of The American Irish Historical Society and is the author of a novel, Perfection.

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