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.

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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