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Home > Child Custody & Divorce > Book Review

Sins of the Fathers

by Stephen Baskerville

Sanford L. Braver with Diane O'Connell, Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998). ISBN 0-87477-862-X. $24.95.

In just the last two years a series of groundbreaking books has come off the presses which taken together herald a new public awareness of the most massive civil rights abuse of our time. First was Jeffery Leving's Fathers' Rights (Basic Books, 1997), a legal manual and polemic that confronted the stark gender bias in family courts. Next was Robert Seidenberg's The Father's Emergency Guide to Divorce-Custody Battle (JES Books, 1997), an even more militant expos�and manifesto that, not stopping with simple gender discrimination, charged family courts with operating a profit-making racket in children. Adrienne Burgess' Fatherhood Reclaimed (Vermilion, 1997) and Cynthia Daniels' Lost Fathers: The Politics of Fatherlessness in America (St Martin's, 1998) made the subject academically respectable, especially on the political left.

Now comes Sanford Braver's Divorced Dads, in its demystification and mass appeal perhaps the most explosive of all. The virtues of this book need hardly be emphasized to readers of this journal. One by one, Braver demolishes the myths that have been used to justify judicial child stealing, forced divorce, coerced child support, and mass summary incarcerations: the "deadbeat dad," the "no show dad," the child molesting father, the violent husband, the alleged bias against women in family courts, and above all, the father who dumps his wife and abandons his children - each is exposed for the fabrication it is.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this book. These myths are among the most pernicious and destructive of our time. They have been used to justify the greatest denial of basic civil rights since segregation: the arbitrary and groundless stealing of children from their fathers. They are behind the most massive and most institutionalized witch hunt in American history, one actively perpetrated by some of the highest officeholders in the land, including the President, the Attorney-General, and leading members of Congress from both parties: the pursuit of private citizens who have been convicted of nothing under the label of "deadbeat dads." And they have contributed to the most destructive social trend of our time: the enormous growth of fatherless homes and the increase in fatherless children - a problem which has in turn been directly linked to virtually every major social problem of our age, including violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, and truancy. In three major areas of public policy therefore -- civil rights, civil liberties, and social policy - the appearance of this book is a major event.

Especially noteworthy is Braver's direct challenge to such advocates of "responsible fatherhood" as David Popenoe and David Blankenhorn. These writers, while sounding the alarm on father absence, insist against all evidence that the only kind of father absence is what fathers "choose." Braver devotes an entire chapter and then some to showing that it is overwhelmingly wives who initiate divorce (though unfortunately with no breakdown of the even larger proportion who are mothers) and courts that routinely throw fathers out of their families without any grounds whatever.

Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the ease by which involuntary separation from his children can strike any father at any time is provided by a father whose wife "had an affair with some guy from her office." "She left me for him and the two of them now live with my kid, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. My lawyer laughed when I said, 'But she's the one who did wrong!'" His testimony could come from any one of millions of fathers: I want to tell all the smug dads out there: This could happen to you. You have no rights - none that will be enforced, anyway. Your kid who you love so much can be ripped away from you, and nothing you did in the past can protect that. People think that if you're basically a good dad, it can't happen to you. But I am proof that it can.

It can and it does, now in epidemic proportions. The unfathomable reality is that, with the exception of convicted criminals, no group in our society has fewer rights than fathers. Not just divorced fathers, not never-married fathers: fathers.

One significant reservation has less to do with the power and importance of this book's findings than with some conclusions that might be drawn from Braver's disproportionately weak prescriptions for reform.

The dust jacket states that "millions of well-intentioned parents, judges, lawyers, educators, and other caregivers have been repeatedly and tragically misled" by the myths of the evil father. But here one does have to wonder who precisely has been doing the misleading. It does not require a cynic to believe that these groups, however "well-intentioned," are precisely the ones who are profiting handsomely from the current system. This is not to suggest that these myths were originally and intentionally created for this purpose; clearly they have a number of sources, as Braver recounts. But they now protect an enormous machine whose operatives have a very concrete financial and political interest in perpetuating them. The "matrimonial lawyer" whose "fondest hope is...to force myself and others like me out of business" may be sincere, but the prediction of a "professional custody evaluator" that "almost all" of his business would be lost by a presumption of joint custody leaves little doubt as to which side the bread of family law practitioners is buttered on.

Against this huge power bloc, Braver's proposed reforms are little more than a series of socially engineered gadgets: mediation, premarital and pre-divorce counseling, "education" of parents and judges, and of course "joint custody." The assumption seems to be that by simply spreading and inculcating the truth that Braver has discovered, justice will prevail and the players in the system will see the light and agree to these sensible changes that are obviously for the good of children.

Yet with the perhaps partial exception of the last, there is little indication that any of these, even if implemented, would make more than a marginal impact so long as the gross imbalance of power against fathers continues. Mediation, to take one example, is now widely touted as an alternative to litigation. But as Robert Seidenberg observes sensibly: "With the playing field slanted overwhelmingly in favor of the mother," mediation is probably "a waste of time and money."

Likewise, the book's main prescription, joint custody, does have some potential to keep fathers involved with their children and may have a significant deterrent effect on divorce. Yet in practice any father with only joint "legal" custody (which seems to be what Braver is mostly recommending) will tell you it is hardly worth the paper it is written on. As one father is quoted in this book: "Joint legal custody only means my ex-wife has to consult me before doing whatever the hell she wants with my child!"

What all Braver's prescriptions (including joint custody) have in common is that they would preserve the power of the courts and police to separate children from a parent who has done nothing wrong. So long as this wedge is allowed in, the essentially unlimited power of the courts to run a family by fiat will continue. Mandated mediation, counseling, and parental "education" may sound sensible and benign as alternatives to litigation (though the last has something of an Orwellian tone), but they are really alternative forms of patronage to be dispensed by judges to favored court hangers-on. Mediators, counselors, and therapists are all players in the enormous patronage pyramid at whose apex sits the judge. (Seidenberg describes it as a circus of which the judge is "ringmaster.")

The hard truth that must be confronted is that this is not just a sociological or a psychological or a legal problem: it is above all a political problem, which is to say it is a problem of power. No number of social scientific studies can substitute for that grim reality, and denying it may create harmful illusions. When we start calling for measures of social engineering such as "counseling" and "education" (not to mention "anger management") to remedy what are at bottom issues of power, however touchy-feely it sounds, we are engaged in a very dangerous form of self-deception. After all, the prospect of re-education centers and psychiatric prisons as a solution to political problems is by no means far-fetched in connection with fathers, as this year's Fathers' Day ordeal of Christopher Robin illustrates.

The significant point about power is not only that it corrupts but also, as Martin Luther King repeatedly proclaimed, that it never yields willingly. Fathers need to remember that their battle will not be won by "studies," however scientific or favorable to their plight. It will only be won by organizing, agitating, and speaking out against an injustice.

At only one point does Braver broach what may be the only truly effective remedy - as well as the only morally and constitutionally defensible position that respects both family integrity and the Bill of Rights: to deny custody to a parent who deserts the family and takes the children without grounds. Braver does not push this, for understandable reasons (and he deserves credit for even mentioning it). Yet it is hardly extreme. As indicated by the parents he quotes, it is what most people seem to assume to be the current law.

The only counter-argument he can come up with is that this might result in "miserable mothers" caught in "unhappy and unfulfilling marriages." Mustn't have that. Much more sensible apparently to destroy the homes of innocent children, throw their fathers in jail, and create a police state to enforce it all.

The power equation not only relates to the court system and the entire custody machine but thus extends to the marital relationship itself, as Braver amply demonstrates. "The first assertive thing I think I ever did in my life was to take the initiative to leave him," Braver quotes one mother. "What a sense of power!"

This intoxication with power that the courts share with mothers is even more extensively (and sympathetically) documented in a book published last year by Ashton Applewhite, whose title says it all: Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well (HarperCollins, 1987). Conversely, Braver's most eloquent chapter is on the "disenfranchised dad" who has been "disempowered": the father who feels he has no role, no authority, no say, no place in the lives of his children, and so drops out altogether. The last words in the book envision "a future in which fathers are empowered by the courts, mothers, and society to remain positive forces in their children's lives."

But fathers cannot and will not be "empowered" by others. By definition, the only way to be empowered is to empower oneself. And this means political action. If fathers sit back and wait for legal tinkering to restore their proper place in the family they will wait forever, because it is simply not possible. In the meantime they will continue to lose the respect of everyone, including their own children.

Another truism of the civil rights movement was that no "disenfranchised" group has ever been enfranchised by someone else; they must do it for themselves. For it is in the very process of claiming their just rights -- and if necessary doing so in the face of overwhelming odds and by paying a high price -- that the disenfranchised gain the respect of the world by demonstrating that they can shoulder the responsibilities that go with them. (Feminism may be the exception that proves the rule, the one group that never had to do this.)

No, we are not guilty of the sins that are imputed to us, and books like this can help establish that fact. But what will establish it even more effectively is standing up and speaking out against this injustice and paying the price that entails. Being a responsible father after all requires essentially the same qualities as being an effective political activist. Both demand sacrifice, selflessness, courage, patience, and perseverance. We will get back our children (and their respect) when we are active participants in the political arena. They will never be ours so long as we remain passive supplicants in secretive, bureaucratic courts.

To say all this in no wise compromises the importance of this book, and it would hardly be fair to expect Braver to say it. And not just because as a psychologist he does not have the perspective of a political activist; on the contrary, the realities of getting a book like this published are such that political prudence may well dictate certain silences.

But the rest of us must not remain silent or expect hand-outs from the holders of power, however enlightened by social science. We must speak truth to power by insisting that taking a child away from any parent (even an imperfect one) who has done nothing legally actionable is both morally repulsive and a violation of the child's and the parent's constitutional rights. We must remember that the Bill or Rights was written for a reason: to have a system of protections and remedies against precisely the kind of rapacious abuse of power that is now directed at fathers. We can sit back and hope for this massive machine to see the light and voluntarily relinquish its stranglehold on our families, or we can organize politically to demand our just rights and those of our children. There is no other choice.

Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths
Is available for your immediate purchase at a substantial discount in association with
Amazon Books

Copyright © 1998 Stephen Baskerville. All rights reserved.
Stephen Baskerville teaches political science at Howard University. This review appears in print in the coming issue of Fathers & Families.

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