by Stephen Baskerville
Jeffery M. Leving with Kenneth A. Dachman, Fathers' Rights: Hard-Hitting and Fair Advice for Every Father Involved in a Custody Dispute. New York: Basic Books, 1997. ISBN 0-465-02443-2. $23.00.
Robert Seidenberg with William Dawes, The Father's Emergency Guide to
Divorce-Custody Battle: A Tour Through the Predatory World of Judges,
Lawyers, Psychologists, and Social Workers in the Subculture of Divorce.
Takoma Park: JES Books, 1997. ISBN 0-9657062-0-6. $15.00.
It is often said in men's rights circles that a war began twenty-five years ago and only one side showed up. Today the other side is building its arsenal, and in the age of total war we may be headed for a holocaust. The vanguard of the new campaign is fathers, with two new books on fathers' rights (or the lack thereof) heralding a new political consciousness and what may well be a new civil rights movement. Both are more than the legal self-help their covers advertise. Each contains extensive essays on the politics of a court system whose quasi-totalitarian power (and proclivity) to separate children from their parents is virtually unknown except to those who become its victims.
Jeffery Leving is an attorney who writes with the assistance of a psychologist. Coming with the imprint of a major current affairs publisher, his book will likely become the authoritative work for some time. More than that, it gives a respectable imprimatur to a phenomenon that until now has been often dismissed in the press for its religious and working-class constituency (as in the "Million-Man March" or "Promise Keepers"). Poignant anecdotes and surveys document the horrifying consequences of not simply a predictable gender bias in family courts but, much more disturbingly, the virtually absolute power of mothers and courts to deprive children of their fathers with no grounds whatever. Sections on custody, child support, litigation, mediation, paternity, false accusations of abuse, along with a useful reference section make this the most complete book on its subject to date and one that deserves the accolades it has already received.
Yet for all its qualities, one flaw deprives this book of the power it might otherwise have: It seems to accept the common assumption, implicit in the oft-quoted statistics on an ever-escalating divorce rate, that the
dissolution of a family begins when two consenting adults both agree to
separate. Fathers receive the raw end of the custody deal, one might
conclude, but at least now they know what they are getting into when they
"decide" to dissolve their family.
Yet most make no such decision. The shocking statistic is not that 50% of marriages end in divorce but that some 80% are unilateral. With between 70% and 90% initiated by women, and as much as 100% in cases involving minor children, it is clear that we are in the midst of a major epidemic of maternal -- and judicial -- child-snatching.
It is here that Robert Seidenberg's book is different from anything written before. Given its local roots -- Seidenberg is head of an Arlington, Virginia fathers' rights group (which is albeit one of the largest in the country) - one might be tempted to dismiss it in light of Leving's better-publicized effort. In fact Seidenberg has produced a finely-crafted expos�of a shocking national scandal. Where Leving attributes the forced destruction of father-child bonds to outdated prejudice, Seidenberg insists that gender bias alone cannot account for virtually automatic custody awards to mothers and instead sees something akin to "racketeering." Where Leving writes entire chapters (and good ones) on mediation, Seidenberg and his legal collaborator are more categorical: "With the playing field slanted overwhelmingly in favor of the mother...Mr Dawes emphatically insists that mediation is a waste of time and money. And from what I have seen, it is hard to disagree with him."
This is not a cynical or defeatist work. Like Leving, its title and cover reflect the fact that it is marketed foremost as a reliable practical guidebook for individual fathers, and it therefore has a stake in being accurate. This makes the implicit political message all the more explosive. Seidenberg breathlessly relates some horrific tales from the Kafkaesque world of family courts: fathers who lose not only their families, but their homes, jobs, and assets; men ordered to continue support payments for children proved to be the issue of their wives' adulterous affairs; the enterprising woman collecting child support from two men while working on getting impregnated by a third; chapters with headings like "Your Lawyer, Your Enemy." The result is an eye-opening picture of a lucrative industry where lawyers are getting rich, judges are getting promoted, and wives are getting revenge (and money) -- all by ruining the lives of innocent children and their fathers.
With an unorthodox reordering of priorities, Seidenberg announces up front the most startling (and least realized) facts for those faced with the confiscation of their children: the temporary custody hearing is "the most important event in your life for the next twenty years" because its results are virtually irreversible; an enormous proportion of "separations" are in fact child snatchings and kidnappings which are generally rewarded by the courts with custody; "grounds for divorce are of no consequence" in determining custody; family courts, far from being "over-burdened" as they would have us believe, in fact issue lopsided rulings favoring the most belligerent party to encourage more litigation.
The rapacity of the legal profession is now the stuff of popular legend. Yet it is usually assumed that lawyers exploit and profit from family tragedy, but do not actually cause it. It is no longer possible to believe this. The dirty secret that emerges from this book is that courts reward child-snatching and family destruction with custody in order to generate business.
Ignorance of this central truth leads to a plethora of misconceptions, some of which are so thoroughly internalized even by fathers themselves that they continue to accept them even after falling victim to them:
It is typical for a man to believe...the media myth of the Evil Male. While he knows that he is a great father himself, he thinks everyone else is a deadbeat dad.
Similar ignorance and naivet�about the judicial system can have more severe consequences that defeat fathers almost before they start and plague them for years afterward:
Typically a father believes that the judge will give him brownie points for not "snatching" the children (that is, doing what the wife did) when he had the opportunity to.
When in fact precisely the opposite is invariably the case.
This brings us to the most disturbing, indeed terrifying, part of this book: the practical recommendations. Again, the fact that it is marketed primarily as a practical guidebook and not a political manifesto renders the sober logic of Seidenberg's advice to the embattled father all the more chilling. The most effective strategy for a father, it seems, is to imitate the technique of mothers: snatch the child; conceal the child; keep the child away from the other parent as much as possible. "Your object is to establish for as long as possible the pattern of being the sole caretaker for the children." This appalling advice is exactly what lawyers have long been counseling their female clients. In fact failure to apprise a female client of this option (like that of making knowingly false charges of abuse) may constitute malpractice according to some lawyers. Seidenberg evidently takes an analogous position: "If you do not take action, your wife will."
So, to be avuncular about it, this is what we have now come to in America. Those of us who remember the Cold War find this reminiscent of the nightmare scenario known as the "counterforce syndrome." This was where the superpowers, rather than aiming at each other's populations with the paradoxically deterrent logic of "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD: also perhaps a fitting analogy with divorce litigation, men's and women's groups can at least agree), target one another's nuclear strike capabilities with an accuracy that begins to make a first strike look not only logical but irresistible: the famous "race to the trigger."
This may now be the poison that is turning family discord into family destruction, with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reporting almost 1,000 parental kidnappings in this country every day. These are still overwhelmingly maternal, but if fathers begin launching pre-emptive strikes (perhaps after reading Seidenberg), even this astounding figure could increase.
But I do not want to end on a note of gender militarism, much less of "misogyny." A proportionately smaller part of the feminist campaign involves demonstrating that women end up being exploited by unscrupulous matrimonial lawyers (and non-custodial mothers certainly do face a similar ordeal). Karen Winner's Divorced from Justice, among others, does not always resist the opposite temptation to "misandry." But if we grant their argument, perhaps it is time fathers and mothers stop arguing over who is most victimized by the "divorce industry" and come together to put an end to it.
Copyright © 1998 Stephen Baskerville
Stephen Baskerville teaches political science at Howard University.
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