My wife’s first attempt at trying to force me out of our home was a dud. In September, 1981, about a year and a half after she fired her opening shot across my bow, the court notified us it wasn’t impressed with any of her claims. None of our living arrangements need to be disturbed. The best the court could do for her is mark us down for a divorce trial some time in the indefinite future.
Score some very big points for my lawyer! He knew his stuff.
Just as my lawyer had educated me, because my wife continued to live under the same roof with me and do the things ordinary married people do together the court couldn’t swallow her story of violence. Several years later courts began to take seriously the argument that women victims of violence sometimes continue to live with violent husbands despite the violence. I can’t know for sure but I suspect it would be incredibly difficult for any court to read the particular claims she wrote and come to any conclusion other than the one our court came to. Chances I would harm her in our home were far less than the chances she would turn into a Jael of the Book of Judges.
Aside from reporting some disagreement she offered no follow-up. Her papers didn’t refer to any police or medical records. She didn’t demonstrate that she’d ever needed or tried to get any form of protection from me, let’s say from family or friends in New York City. She didn’t present any hint that she acted in a way a frightened, beaten wife would act. Bottom line: her story didn’t ring true.
Indeed if her claims that I was violent were true, waving her list of allegations under my nose and staying under the same roof with me for the next year and a half would have been a lethal gamble! I gave the court lots of evidence that she acted like the typical wife and that I was a decent guy with her. The court’s verdict certainly seemed right to me then, and I’m positive it would stand up even under more recent, more skeptical scrutiny.
At the same time it occurred to the court and my lawyer that my wife’s papers lacked enough red meat to win her case, she too must have developed a dose of plaintiff’s remorse. After all the paperwork was submitted and safely in the hands of the court, she too must have figured out she needed to juice up her case to make it more convincing. It took only a little while before she set out to correct the most glaring weakness in her pleadings.
On a Sunday morning in June, 1981, we were having our usual unpleasantries. Nothing much out of the ordinary really. We spent three or four minutes doing our usual huffy vocal exercises and nasty looks. I ended the episode and walked away after she taunted me with the very original observation that I need therapy. After a shrug of my shoulders I headed to the kitchen at the other end of the apartment and redirected my attention to breakfast.
The doorbell rang. Two policemen announced they were answering a domestic disturbance call. While they went to the bedroom to interview her I calmly finished my fifteen cent bagel, figuring it would take only a minute or two before the police figured out they were answering an elaborate false alarm.
When the cops appeared in the kitchen they asked what I had done to my wife’s head. Because I assumed they were using the word “head” in a 1960s slang way I told them she was probably psychologically worked up about the possibility of divorce. No, that’s not what they meant. She complained I hit her on the head and she wanted me arrested. I didn’t have a lot of time to react to this dire news before my wife appeared and breathlessly announced to all that she intended to go to a hospital, then flew out of the apartment with the baby. The cops confided they didn’t want to arrest me. Her abrupt departure saved them the trouble of having to make a tough decision.
A couple of days later I was served with a Family Court petition. The legend on the petition was that I threw a telephone at her head, sending her to the hospital. Aha, now she was filling in the missing catalyst in her previous papers, I realized. She was trying to trap me into holding a smoking gun.
The Family Court judge we appeared before didn’t let the hearing proceed once he was informed we had an ongoing case in Supreme Court – the name of the court in New York that gets first crack at most divorce cases. The imposing name shouldn’t lead the uninformed reader to assume the court is the most supreme court in the pecking order of courts in New York. The Supreme Court of the State of New York in the state‘s legal system is less supreme than two higher courts with less imposing names. Which leads some to wonder: if they can’t get their names right, what can they get right?
The Family Court judge was following the well-worn principle that once an action is started in one court the same parties are not permitted to begin a case on the same issues in another court.
Instead of pushing us out the door though, the judge gave her thirty days to rework her papers and submit them to the proper court. In the interim the court would give her an Order of Protection. I didn’t know what an Order of Protection is. When my lawyer told me the Order of Protection would allow her to throw me in jail if I harassed her I didn’t blink. Sure, let her have it, I said. We may have our spats and disagreements and we may not harbor the finest feelings in the world toward each other all the time. But allowing her to have an Order of Protection was no biggie because I had zero intention of harassing her or of doing anything of that sort.
My generosity was vastly misplaced.
About ten days later, when I returned home from work, we had a spat. Nothing more than an otherwise forgettable disagreement lasting a few sentences. At the end she dressed, left our son home with me, and slipped out.
A little more than an hour later she let herself back into the apartment. She was accompanied by two uniformed policemen. The officers informed me she complained at the police station that I violated the Order of Protection by harassing her, so they had no choice but to arrest me and take me to Central Lockup. I spent the night worrying myself to sleep on a plank board in a cold jail cell.
The next day after a bologna sandwich breakfast I was deposited by paddy wagon into a Family Court courtroom. My wife and the lawyers were waiting. The hearing was over mere moments after it began. The judge spotted a glaring defect in the my wife’s report of events of the night before. The petition’s sole claim was that words were exchanged. No acts of intimidation or violence were alleged. The judge declared that the Order of Protection had been abused. The judge went on to suggest with disdain that the arrest was almost certainly motivated by a desire to amass a record to add onto the ongoing Supreme Court case. She didn‘t appreciate having her court used in that way. The Order of Protection and the Family Court case were dismissed in their entirety.
Despite the demeaning treatment I received at the hands of my wife, I came away from this episode heartened that the legal system managed to work. Even though I had taken a serious hit to my dignity it was encouraging that the court has the ability to see through flamboyant first impressions – in this case the accusation that a man beat his wife. And that divorce battles often bring out lurid deceptions.
True to the Family Court judge’s prediction, within a week of having her charges unceremoniously squelched in one court my wife’s lawyer sent a supplementary petition to the Supreme Court. These grasping papers begged the court to intercede immediately to award my wife exclusive possession of our apartment based on their retooled version of the Family Court saga.
This new request reached the Supreme Court judge’s desk but it fell short of making a winning impression. Four months later the same Supreme Court broom that swept away my wife’s previous claims of violence also disposed of her supplementary petition.
The score at half time: two Supreme Court petitions alleging violence dismissed, two Family Court petitions alleging violence dismissed. Plus an asterisk to the record: out of sequence of the present chapter about five months into the future my wife took her violence violence violence dog and pony show to Criminal Court. After a trial I was acquitted and her case was dismissed. 0 for 5.
As hopeful as I felt after emerging the winner of these hard-fought court victories it wasn’t time for celebration.
For one thing, what I thought of my wife got a substantial reorientation. I would not have entered into a legal contest for custody of our son unless I thought there were things wrong with my wife. Her latest tactics shocked me. They were even lower than my previous low estimation.
I can understand disagreeing with me and thinking I’m a stubborn jerk. I can understand wanting to get out of the marriage. And I can understand believing I’m out of my head trying to get custody of our son. But her way of trying to bulldoze me was both over the top and ominous. Had she succeeded in pinning an assault rap on me I would have lost my professional license. And looking into the future, if I, an adult, got such phenomenal grief for simple verbal disagreements, what chance did our kid have when it comes his inevitable time to have his differences with her?
Back in our apartment, home life became a cold war. We morphed into two profoundly unhappy virtual cellmates, each committed to waiting for the other to wave a flag of truce. Neither of us dared concede an inch. Communication was saved for essentials; even then, mostly short sentences and grunts. We were hyper-wary ships passing silently in the day and night, when we were caught together at all. Laundry was done separately. Meals were each man or woman for him- or herself. Common spaces were never cleaned. We made our own sorry bed, and now we had to lie in it.
In theory, the court had the capacity to end our misery, but our lawyers were busy clogging up that channel with endless toxic papers. The charges and counter-charges, motions and cross-motions became so incredibly complex, no one but the direct participants could figure out what was going on. No judge took us on. There were some decisions, but nothing that broke our stalemate or brought us closer to a resolution. I wouldn’t blame the court if after a while it caught on to us and adopted a secret plan of ducking away every time we showed up in the courthouse, leaving us to hang in the breeze with our infernal paperwork.
The way our lawyers did it most of the time when either of us wanted to deliver papers to the court both of us and our sets of lawyers appeared in the courtroom first thing in the morning. Once we were called there were brief formalities and the whole shebang was over by around lunchtime. Two judges broke the routine. After putting in our time in the court room we were asked twice to meet in their chambers.
One judge, an older fellow, asked what all the fuss was about. When someone explained our impasse, he looked at us as if to ask “Is that all?” He gruffly announced that if our case wound up in his court he’d cut our Gordian knot by giving us absolutely standard-issue divorce rations: custody to the mother, every other weekend visitation to the father, and make him pay till it hurt. He obviously hadn’t gotten his memo from the chief judge about deciding custody sensitively.
Another, younger judge was bemused by me. He thought my problem was that I’m a psychologist. His experience was that psychologists want their divorces to be different from everyone else’s divorces. He couldn’t figure out why, and he didn’t particularly care to listen to any explanation I could come up with. I guess all he wanted to convey to me by calling me into chambers is that he didn’t like psychologists. Not much I can do about that. Except try my best to avoid this judge in future.
Almost from the beginning of his life I took care of our son most of the time I was not at work, including overnights and weekends. Although my wife took care of him on the days I worked she was simply not around most of the time I was around. She hardly ever wanted to be caught in the same room I was in.
In the middle of 1982 my wife unilaterally switched our routine. She took our son away overnights, mostly for a night at a time, once for as long as a week. She didn’t tell me where they were, when they’d be back, or how to get hold of them.
I went to court. I asked the court to stop her from removing our son from his home in this haphazard way. In June our lawyers negotiated a compromise which the judge signed as an Order. My wife was allowed to overnight with our son once a week, as long as she gave 24-hour notice. We were also ordered to see a court-appointed psychiatrist for evaluation.
I soon received my first unambiguous lesson in the difference in the way courts treat mothers and fathers. Within a month of receiving the court’s order – which was not terribly hard to read – my wife violated the order more than a dozen times. When my lawyer marched back to court to ask for some sort of corrective action the court blinked.
I learned the hard way that punishing a mother who doesn’t actually endanger a child doesn’t happen in the real world . Rules are only for fathers. Instead of punishing her the court ordered that in future she must be allowed to use our car – and if the car isn‘t available I’m obligated to supply her with a limousine. The court said it would entertain slapping her wrist only if she took our son away more than once a week.
We kept our appointments with the court-appointed psychiatrist.
After asking my name, our psychiatrist’s next question was “What do you think is wrong with your wife?”
I tried to evade giving an answer. He didn’t buy my dodges. He kept coming back and coming back, asking his question of the day in various guises until our time was up.
Asking me to rat on my wife as the core of my mental evaluation brought up several issues. For one, asking me to diagnose my wife seemed a squirrelly proposition. He got the court’s appointment and had the expertise to make a gourmet feast of her quirks. Why was he asking me to do his job?
The much more fundamental reason I played dumb is that our accusations about each other are matters of law, not matters of psychiatry.
Both my wife and I went to the trouble and expense of hiring lawyers. For submission to court lawyers write sworn, notarized affidavits with numbered paragraphs containing specific documentable allegations. His persistence suggested to me that this psychiatrist wanted to skip a few centuries of Common Law so the judge would put a gold star on his report, which would save the court the time and trouble of wading through our thick piles of papers.
Although both my wife and I had already submitted tons of papers to court as of the moment we stepped into the psychiatrist‘s office I hadn’t yet submitted papers specifying what I think is wrong with my wife. As my lawyer kept whispering in my ear: We still have time. Don’t play your cards too soon. Don’t rile her up with an inventory of her impairments before you have to. Some day you’ll be able to unload. But not yet, he counseled.
Because my tongue was tied by my scruples, my answers to the psychiatrist’s badgering were feeble. He said as much to me the next time the two of us were together, and again when he called a joint meeting of both parties and our lawyers to read his official report.
Fortunately he didn’t hold my scrupulousness against me.
In his report the psychiatrist wrote “She made certain allegations regarding Dr. [my former name]’s treatment of her which she categorized as not being very nice.” It’s nothing short of miraculous how spending just a few minutes in this psychiatrist’s office changed her. Several months earlier she had alleged in several court filings in two different courts that I was vicious and violent. Now I’m “not being very nice.”
If I ever wanted to take my story of being our child’s constant caretaker and diaper changer out of mothballs, the shrink’s report would be prime evidence. He reported “She made no complaints about Dr. [my former name]’s care of [our son] and confirmed the fact that he does look after [him] on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, as well as getting him up and dressed in the morning on other weekdays.”
Confirming my bygone honey trap tale she told the psychiatrist “at one time she might have been generous in her allowance of visitations to her husband if she had custody of [our son], including having Dr. [my former name] stay overnight in the home to be with [our son].”
The psychiatrist continued “It is apparent from my meetings with Mrs [my former name] that she, too, accepts her spouse as a good and adequate parent who enjoys a good relationship with their son.” In case the reader forgot, three courts had previously been fed allegations of vicious violence.
He concluded he thought we should share joint custody of our child.
A maddening burden on me was lifted thanks to the disappearance of any reference to violence. This omission could have been the result of a conscious decision or of a slip. It could have been her way of dealing with the fact that her violence stories weren’t going over anywhere. Or perhaps someone had talked some sense into her.
The storm over being accused in court of violence may have broken with this quiet, roundabout victory. But my little win still took its toll. When I opened my exhausted eyes, a sad lesson was staring me in the face.
I based everything I did about our son up to that point on the premise that we are entering a bright new day, a day when divorce justice would be even-handed. Spending almost three years living under the dark cloud of accusations of violence slowly drove in the bitter lesson that, yes, this is a new day, but, no, it isn’t the day I was hoping for.
In our time of high-stakes divorce, one way a wife can get her share of the divorce pie, if not a lot more than her share, is to accuse hubby of violence, then wait for the court to do its work. If the wheel spins her way, she hits a jackpot. No need to negotiate, no need for give and take. If the wheel doesn’t spin her way, if she doesn’t get the court to do her dirty work for her, she loses nothing but time. She could try again, or she could try a different way of throwing herself on the mercy of the court. But she can hardly lose. While I as the father am always in jeopardy of losing everything.
There might still be a chance I could come out of this divorce and custody thing a whole person, but my chance was a lot less than fifty-fifty, I began to see.
In a later chapter I will expand this observation into my Mote in the Eye Principle. A ‘mote’ is a small particle or speck. The short version of this Principle is that mother can get away with almost anything she can imagine in court, but father will always lose in court if he has a mote in his eye.
But there was nothing to do but soldier on.
The novelty of taking our son away for sleep-aways in a way that maximized my discomfort eventually ended. The issue petered out on its own, possibly because the schlepp of packing up our son and transporting him, then adjusting to strange bedrooms wasn’t worth it to her anymore.
Or perhaps she had it up to here with her mom and dad. She had screamed from the rooftops to me from the very beginning of our time together that both her parents each in their own way creeped her out. Even at this late date in life a couple of months of exposure to the villains of her childhood was beyond her psychological maximum.
Our lawyers returned to various courts at least a dozen times in the next few months, but never to the judge who set the schedule of overnights and ordered the psychiatric evaluation. Since putting off a showdown was keeping me under the same roof as my son, my lawyer kept delaying and blowing smoke in everyone’s eye. The wheels of justice grind exceedingly fine.
In January, 1983, one month shy of three years into our combat, my wife surprised me by finally suggesting we try to negotiate. If I had to guess the reason she chose that time to drop her guard I’d venture it had to do with our son becoming much more mobile, talkative and inquisitive. There are lots of things parents can hide from an infant, but the bright young mind of a healthy two-year old catches many clues.
Continuing to live the kind of parched, unhealthy life we were foisting on each other might have been just punishment for us adults, but our son deserved better.
It’s not as if we’d gotten out of the habit of trying to get under each other’s skins. But by this late date her muggings had reached a point of diminishing returns. She had established that she could and would hit below the belt, and I had established that I was determined to outlast whatever she threw at me.
What I couldn’t tell her was that by now I had seen and heard enough to learn that, despite my herculean efforts, my quest for sole custody was unlikely to make it over the finish line. Someone slipped me a law review article which set out the many reasons New York courts stuck with old-fashioned sole custody, while other states, including our neighbor New Jersey, tried to make a go of joint custody. Old-fashioned sole custody is synonymous with custody to mothers. The fashion of custody for fathers had barely wet the shore in New York before it was swept far off to sea by the pro-custody-for-mothers rip tides.
If sole custody is the overwhelming preference of New York judges, my hurdle would be to nail down in court that I’m the one who should get custody, not my wife. To overcome the pro-mother prejudice, I would have to find something manifestly and patently wrong with my wife. The odds being what they are, it slowly and painfully sank in to me that my chances were not too good.
I certainly had accumulated lots of evidence that my wife is not an admirable character. But try as I might, I couldn’t get my hands on that last piece of evidence that would prove beyond doubt that she is a real danger to our son. Without evidence of something undeniable – say a past institutionalization for mental problems – winning my case in court would mean relying on an odd possibility. I would have to rely on the chance my arguments would win over the good will of a very sympathetic judge.
Despite all the fond wishes and dreams I started my crusade on, there simply weren’t many New York courts’ judges who could be counted on to be sympathetic to fathers.
I kept running into events which reminded me that parental gender stereotyping was as alive as it had ever been. It happened that one summer afternoon I returned to our apartment to retrieve something I’d forgotten. My wife demonstrated her lack of appreciation for my presence by trying to commit a flagrant act of physical aggression with an open pair of scissors.
The advice my lawyer gave in response to my emergency phone call was to rush to the local police precinct to ask for help. After an overwhelming show of indifference to my plight, the cops finally, reluctantly issued a tiny slip of paper with a long number to record the fact that I bothered to report an incident. That’s it.
It was impressed on me in no uncertain terms that the police had one scale for mothers and another scale for father. They yawned at me. This was the same station house which supplied the cops who delivered me to the Central Lockup on charges the Family Court judge saw through and dismissed in an instant.
I had attended about a half dozen meetings of a fathers’ rights group. Just about every minute of each meeting was taken up with fathers telling their tales of woe at the hands of their wives and the courts, after which other wounded fathers tried their best to give some sort of advice and comfort. In other words, the fathers’ groups’ meetings were evenings of unremitting pain.
As a veteran of many years of political causes, I was impressed with how distant fathers’ groups were from being an effective political force. Most of the guys could hardly put aside their hurt long enough to write a letter to their state legislators, let alone negotiate a successful political campaign. Judging by my limited exposure, fathers’ rights groups were toothless tigers. I didn’t waste much time on them.
The custody for fathers picture is bleak but not entirely bleak. There is a tiny sliver of hope. New York State courts can be prevailed on to recognize joint custody. That is, the default arrangement preferred by the state is sole custody – read: custody to the mother ninety-something percent of the time. But if the parents negotiate some other form of custody sharing, the state will wave the alternate arrangement past – read: if the mother doesn’t exercise her prerogative to veto joint custody, despite everything everyone tells her, the court will hold its nose and give the father a chance to try to be listened to by the mother.
Without doubt, as far as I was concerned, our negotiations would never have gotten beyond square one if we didn’t firmly establish from the beginning that we are to have joint custody. I insisted that whatever document we hammered out must contain clear language that I am to be part of all major decisions in our son’s life. Anything less would be an indignity, I insisted.
Downsizing my dream of being sole custodian was excruciating. By giving up my dream I was not only negating all those accumulated years of being a pin-cushion, I was also committing our son to split his life with a person whose judgment, methods and motives I seriously doubted. But cut and paste joint custody was probably the best I could do in the prevailing legal climate.
It is not for me to say what caused my wife to agree to joint custody. It would be nice to think that over the years of battling she learned to respect my dedication to our son. Another possibility is that in return for joint custody I offered her more child support, maintenance and other playthings than she expected.
Nothing in my financial offer could be called eye-opening or lavish by any means. I didn’t have a lot to give. The money figures we fairly quickly settled on were just the reasonable amount a mother would expect to receive in a divorce settlement if the mother was maybe one socio-economic class level higher than we were. Nothing more.
Another spur for making such a fulsome offer to my wife owed itself to the lingering after-effects of a life-altering epiphany-moment discussion about money and life we had in the early, starry days of our courtship.
She and I were raised in similar material circumstances. Our families had the basics, but not many extras. If we wanted more than we were given, we had to scratch for it ourselves. We were taught the virtues of middle-class life. Work hard, live within your means, guard your pennies, don’t fall into debt, and if you do slip and fall into debt, work harder.
Put another way, we were taught that there’s only so much money out there in the world that will come your way in your lifetime, so be grateful for whatever you can get.
My wife’s boyfriend right before me was the scion of a wealthy family. While they were together she mixed in his wealthy social circle. Based on a life lived at two vastly different economic levels, she reported back to me that I badly needed a fundamental re-education moneywise.
She wanted me to abandon the pinched world-view of our parents and take in the reality she was introduced to by her new social circle.
I grew up believing I would make my way in the world by living off what I earned. In my case, I charged patients by the hour, so the more hours I worked the more I would earn. That’s fine and honorable and commendable as far as it goes, she said.
Except no one ever earned real money – the kind of money she had become used to seeing in her new crowd – being paid by the hour.
Even if I filled my schedule-book and worked from morning to night, at best I would be an honorable workman plying a clean, sophisticated white collar trade. But I would always be only one or two steps removed from clock-punching.
Unlike the America our parents and school teachers experienced eking their way through the great Depression in the 1930s, there really is a lot of money out there in America. My wife’s prod was to ask me why I wanted to settle for only that narrow slice of the money pie out there which I would earn by hourly labor. The gong of the epiphany-moment struck everlastingly when she suggested that there are other ways of doing things. There actually are good, honorable, legitimate ways of expanding and multiplying my bread-winning capacity which I would miss out on if all I did was confine myself to a fancy hourly wage.
I eventually took her comments about money as a kind of eye-opening challenge, a wake up call to become aware of opportunities I otherwise just plain didn’t see.
By the time we got around to negotiating the dollars and cents part of our divorce agreement, a few years had passed since her lecture on economics. Several opportunities had presented themselves to size up her ideas. As things turned out, I could see she actually made sense. Although I never said the words to her that she taught me something I needed to learn, by not giving her a hard time about the money part of our divorce agreement I was taking the opportunity to pay her back for unleashing my prospects.
Our money settlement was also helped along by a surprise gift my wife plopped in my lap. Three years into keeping two sets of lawyers on their toes and hopping, I expected to be burdened with deadly serious lawyers’ bills. It was impossible to forget the iron rule that when only one spouse works, he or she — riiiight, as if — must pay for the lawyer of the non-working spouse. Our agreement was redrawn into an exception to the rule.
When she originally went to her lawyer, he impressed on her how effective he can be. He promised her he’d have me packing and out of the apartment before she can say “habeas corpus.” Actually, as I eventually found out, her lawyer had the reputation in New York legal parlance of being a “bomber.“ In divorce circles, a bomber is a lawyer who tries to win for her or his client by inflicting maximal pain on the other spouse.
Well, her bomber huffed and puffed, but never blew me down. As bruised and battered as I was, I withstood his bombing and held my ground in the apartment for three years, well beyond his deadlines.
Her revenge was to cut him out of the agreement. The paper we signed said I take care of my lawyer bills and she takes care of hers. I have no idea how she handled her end of the deal. The impression she left is that she intended to threaten him with something like a suit for ‘breach of contract,’ since he promised to have me out long ago and he never delivered. Hey, it’s none of my business. All I cared about is that I danced away the beneficiary of her anger at someone else this time, and it felt very good. I have every confidence that in the end she out-bombed her bomber.
In the space of only one month, we banged out an agreement covering all the bases. I got joint custody, which means I have a say in all major decisions about our son. She got ‘physical custody,’ which means she got to keep our great apartment, where our son’s real, very own bedroom would be. I got a reasonable visitation schedule that would make sense for the next few years, plus her promise she would be amenable to my ready access to him at unspecified times. She got money, insurance, etc. We even set things up so that I could move back into the apartment building when an apartment became available.
We were ready to waltz into court in 1983 but there was a scheduling problem not of our making. We waited until November 1984 to appear in Supreme Court. The judge expressed approval that the grounds for divorce was ’constructive abandonment,’ a kind of toothless legal concoction. As the judge wrote, my former wife “therefore in open court having withdrawn her cause of action for cruel and inhuman treatment….” In open court she erased every allegation of violence by me she ever made. She never made any new allegations of violence by me at any later date. A proper end that ugliness!
After some obligatory questions from the judge and a few signatures, we released each other from our self-imposed hell and set out on new lives. If I would have been a believer in signs, I would have taken it as a paramountly good omen that days afterwards, despite a tight rental market, I found an apartment seven blocks away from the scene of our personal No Exit.