Sidebar May 2009

Divorce, American Style

Alec Baldwin's self-serving memoir will strike a chord with fathers struggling against a campaign of alienation

It is here that Baldwin’s book has its widest potential applicability to the lives—let’s call them lives of common desperation—lived by parents, fathers mostly, who have had their children turned against them or who struggle to prevent or undo a campaign of alienation. It’s a hard thing, but it’s also a weird thing. At one point he allows himself to quote a statement he made at a custody hearing, a statement that neatly lays out the basic equation governing parental alienation: “Now we see, incontrovertibly, that the mother’s hatred of the father is greater than her love for the child.” To harbor a hatred of the father greater than the love for one’s own child, to be able to convince oneself that clearly traumatic manipulations of one’s children are justified, are proper somehow, are actually protecting those children—these are unusual states of mind and emotional imbalance. The combination of these delusions with a family-law system, corrupt and incompetent at its norm and ever so slowly emerging from the feminist time warp in which it robotically seeks to give belated remedy to long-vanished problems, is a toxic social recipe. Baldwin honestly tries to describe the result, but expressive insight into that emotional maelstrom is not a power within his possession and is not really on offer here.

As Adorno indicates, divorce retrospectively poisons the shared life that precedes and gives rise to it:

Intimacy between people is forbearance, tolerance, refuge for idiosyncracies. If dragged into the open, it reveals the moment of weakness in it, and in a divorce such outward exposure is inevitable … Things which were once signs of loving care, images of reconciliation, breaking loose as independent values, show their evil, cold, pernicious side.

In my own life, I occasionally try to look back to the moment just before the dust cloud, the transforming poison, entered into the lives of my children, even though all of it had long since entered mine.

The day before my ex-wife and I told our children that we were getting divorced—it was supposed to be the day itself but, like so many other plans, it didn’t work out that way—I took them down to the beach for an early-morning swim. This was before any other people were in the picture—before the lawyers, the mediators, the fake friends in it for sport; before the child therapists, the realtors, the accountants, the policemen, the court clerks; before the tears and the recriminations and the adolescent disengagement and the love doubted and the love assailed and the hopelessness and the questioned purpose and the understanding of how little of one’s life can be shaped or helped. We were happy together and we had the beach to ourselves, the beach in the small fishing town where I had lived when I was a kid, where my own parents had met as children, home. My then-wife had been gone for a few weeks, pretending to visit her mother or something along those lines. That evening, as my children and I ate dinner at the local pizzeria, I would watch her drive into town in her red minivan, seeming for all the world like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with his tricked-out carriage of lies and lures and false reassurances. Later that night, at the time when we had agreed we would be giving them the bad news, I would find her watching The Parent Trap with the kids in the downstairs bedroom. Things have not gotten less strange.

That morning, though, all of that was in front of us and unknown to them. I had an old camera that used large negatives—I don’t know where that’s gone, either, now that I think of it—and I took a handful of photos of my children in that beautiful light. My oldest daughter took a few of me with my younger daughter and my son. A year or so afterward, I went as far as having test sheets made from that film—tiny, velveteen images to choose among to develop into real pictures—but I’ve never had them printed up. Once in a while I take a look at those test sheets. If I squint at them, I can see in my children the calm and ease and joy that were theirs then, and the joy as well as the foreboding that were mine. Everything seems to be held in place, as though it would stay there forever, when in reality it was speeding away so quickly it hardly seemed to be moving at all.

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