Books May 2009

The Passion of Alec Baldwin

The blustering actor’s memoir of divorce is really a love letter to his daughter.

The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and sometimes it doesn’t even take very long: barely a week after the world heard him screaming epithets at his young daughter, Baldwin appeared, chastened and unshaven, sitting on a couch between Barbara Walters and Rosie O’Donnell and doing some very fancy explaining to the audience of The View. He kept a cheat sheet of talking points tucked under one buttock, and he repeatedly touched the two women gently on their knees, as if to say, “Me? I wouldn’t hurt a fly!”

Watch an excerpt from Baldwin's appearance on The View

The long interview reminded us that Walters, who is a national treasure, has a pair of brass ones. When Baldwin started berating his ex-wife (whom he referred to, chillingly, as “the mother”), Barbara interrupted. Compared to the two beefy Long Islanders to her right, she looked like a child ballerina, her hands folded calmly in her lap, her slender legs pressed tightly together. “There are two sides to this,” she said. For a moment, Baldwin looked sucker-punched and dangerous, but she pressed on: “In every story, there are always two sides.” (Readers: if the runic Basinger ever decides to give an interview, you know who’s going to get it. Do it, Kim! Call Barbara!)

For the most part, Rosie adhered to the terms of the 1974 Jim Dandy Agreement (an oath of fealty between the residents of Commack and Massapequa, sworn over large helpings of the signature sundae at the Friendly’s restaurant off Exit 48), and she showered Baldwin with acceptance and forgiveness, except for one moment when she unexpectedly reached into the open wound and touched nerve: “Now surely you know, the problem that most people had was the use of the word pig.”

It was true. If you were female and heard that tape recording, you remembered two things about it: the pitch and tenor of the snarling male voice and the use of that word. When a man calls an overweight woman a pig, he is saying she is fat. When he calls a slim and attractive girl—someone like Ireland—a pig, he is using the word in another sense, one that suggests a particularly feminine kind of repulsiveness. It was a horribly crude, almost sexual thing for a man to call his daughter. The whole voice mail was clearly a product of the kind of uncorked rage that always ends in remorse and sorrow, but it was not entirely witless. It begins with a lucid description of the situation, proceeds to a vivid accounting of how the event has made him feel, and then lays out an action plan for correcting the problem: he’s going to fly to California for a day, and “I’m going to let you know just how I feel about what a rude little pig you really are. You are a rude, thoughtless little pig.”

When Rosie brought it up on The View, Baldwin squirmed, suggesting that perhaps they should break for commercial (“Nothing doing,” the child ballerina seemed to say; “take your time”); and finally he admitted that it had been “improper” of him to use the word and that he had really intended the message for his ex-wife, not his child.

He really loves this girl. For all of the recriminations and ugly episodes, one thing the child surely knows: she is important to her father. She matters to him. Children have an obdurate desire to be central in the lives of their parents, and almost no amount of bad behavior on an adult’s part can change that. To be yelled at by a father is terrible, but far worse is to be unable to incite him to any emotion at all, to become invisible to him—or, worse yet, to be replaced. As Baldwin aptly observes, legions of fathers throw in the towel if an ex-wife makes life too difficult, then invest themselves emotionally in a new and trouble-free set of children with a second wife. Ireland, for all the trauma her parents have inflicted on her, has never been a forgotten child. Her father has spent huge swaths of his life flying to California every weekend to see her; he has volunteered at her school, rented houses close to Basinger’s to be nearer to her for visits, and—though he is a prideful man—allowed himself to be humbled time and again, through various court-ordered treatments and programs, all for the sake of being able to be with her. This child must know that the endlessly engaging, personally attractive Alec Baldwin would instantly drop everything to come to her assistance if she ever needed him.

Obviously that devotion is romantic, and here is the reason this scandal has engaged us for so long: its true center is not a particularly lurid and public divorce. It’s a father-daughter relationship that is fueled with so much notoriety and bad behavior that it is sui generis, but it’s also limned by the same dynamics—of amorous engagement, maternal jealousy, and paternal protectiveness—as any other.

A father-daughter relationship is a kind of romance, one kept well in check by a variety of forces, not least of them the sexual flattening that prolonged domesticity does to all potentially erotic relationships. Dad doesn’t get too excited by the sight of Mom in her shimmy anymore, for the same reason Buddy’s never taken a hankering to Sissy: they’ve seen too much. It’s not community censure that has kept incest in check all these centuries; it’s stomach flu.

But a romance doesn’t need sex to flourish, of course, and in his daughter a father discovers a person whose very bloodline ensures that she will be charming to him: at the precise moment that his wife is fading into middle age, her beauty resurges in the daughter—there’s that unlined face you fell in love with so long ago! And instead of nattering away about all the tedious things your wife is always going on about, this ravishing new version has been programmed (by you) to talk about and care about all the things you are interested in. As for the girl’s feelings about you—well, you’re everything. You’re not a man; you’re the measure of a man.

If you want to understand a woman, you need to know her father. A woman who was cursed with a wretched mother will regale you at length with each of that woman’s hurtful acts; a mother can be dead for years, and still her daughter will tell everyone who will listen about the time she wanted a particular pair of party shoes and her mother said, “Those would look better on your sister.” But a woman who had a bad father—or an absent one, or an unpredictable one—will nurse that wound tenderly. A mean mother can be boiled down to a reduction of her bitchery, a set of anecdotes. A mean father only grows in scope and power as the years pass.

In Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” the poetess mows down all of western-European history and lore to convey the wickedness of her father, who has been torturing her “for thirty years”: he is a vampire, Hitler. He is personally responsible for every fucked-up, stupid thing she’s ever done, from unsuccessfully attempting suicide to successfully marrying Ted Hughes. “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through,” she proclaims defiantly at poem’s end (rallying call to a generation!), but it’s only in reading the biographical note that we remember that her father (whose greatest crimes against humanity consisted of writing a book about bumblebees and siring Sylvia Plath) had been dead since she was 8.

On the other hand, many women who had especially besotted and doting fathers never get over the experience; there is a childlike quality in those women, a sense that everyone in the world (and the world itself, for that matter) is forever letting them down. A little girl marches her father to a display of expensive dolls at a toy shop, and he says (in a show of delighted helplessness), “She’s got me wrapped around her little finger!” Fathers routinely (and quite callously) announce to the world that their daughters have a special and particularly feminine claim to their hearts that their wives don’t. It would be a recipe for disaster, were it not for the fact that family life is constructed so that it can contain both romances perfectly. And—as Alec Baldwin may someday come to find out—it’s the larger romance that girls (those cunning observers) really have their eyes on. If your father thinks you’re enchanting, but he’s put your mother out to pasture—well, that’s just disturbing. You have somehow beguiled this powerful, grown man in a way your own mother could not; what’s wrong with you?

A girl wants a story to build her life on, the original story of the great love that brought her here. She wants things a boy never will: the dried flowers from her mother’s bouquet, the glass ashtray from the honeymoon hotel, the telling (over and over again) of the way her father insisted to the charge nurse that there had to be, somewhere on that maternity ward, a private room for his wife.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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