Book excerpt

A Promise to Ourselves

A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce

Alec Baldwin with Mark Tabb

St. Martin's Press

Introduction

I NEVER WANTED TO write this book. Although my experiences with judges, lawyers, and court-ordered therapists during my own high conflict divorce proceedings left me outraged over the injustices I believe are endemic to the family law system in our society, I had no desire to revisit them. The pain I suffered, the fear of and anger I felt toward nearly all of the principals involved, and the inescapable sense of helplessness and isolation exhausted me. However, to live inside the divorce matrix, to be engaged in that battle, ultimately means to be poised to tell your story, to make your point, to argue your side at a moment’s notice. It is a fire that is constantly burning.

These feelings moved me to share my own experiences with nearly any kindred spirit who broached the subject. In restaurants, ticket lines, airplanes, men’s locker rooms, wherever I might be, when that particular conversation started, the facts of my own case would spill out in a torrent.

Other times I would sit and listen for hours, grateful for the opportunity to allow someone else to unburden themselves. I could never tell my story urgently enough, and I never tired of the subject of divorce’s iniquities. I believed that a book on the subject would write itself.

Eventually, that would change. The passion I had for this issue dried up. The ideas and stories, once so fresh in my mind that I thought they would pour out of me and onto the page like a Pollock painting, began to fade. For three years I had told my story, each recitation as fresh as the first. But any normal human being has a limited capacity for ongoing conflict, and I believed I had reached mine. I have heard people use terms like spent and hollowed out to describe the ultimate result of protracted divorce litigation. Sadly, I have learned that little of this is hyperbole. Divorce litigation becomes like the island of Dr. Moreau in H. G. Wells’s novel. The abused and horrified litigants want to row their boat away from that island at any cost. I was no different. I wanted nothing more than to put this entire experience behind me and get on with my life. I had grown weary of writing this book, until I would meet another man who had suffered the same way I had. Suddenly, the old passion to address these issues would return.

DIVORCE LITIGATION IS A UNIQUE phenomenon in our culture. When someone is sick, our society usually offers some means of care. Often that care extends to their families as well. The sick individual reaches out to professionals who arrive with their skills and training at the ready, prepared to solve the problem. When illness afflicts a marriage, however, the professionals who arrive on the scene often are there to prolong the bleeding, not to stop it. To be pulled into the American family law system in most states is like being tied to the back of a pickup truck and dragged down a gravel road late at night. No one can hear your cries and complaints, and it is not over until they say it is over.

Early in my own divorce proceedings I came upon men who told me that the corrosiveness and complexity of their divorces had forced them to give up. They "wrote off" not only their first marriages, but their children as well. Many went on to remarry. The chance to "make things right" meant starting another family. I could never, ever comprehend how a man could abandon his child in this way. However, as my own proceedings went on, and the recriminations became more severe, I began to appreciate these men, and some women as well, better than I imagined possible. I have sat with men whose hearts are filled with love for their children. Before their divorce there had never been any doubt of that love or their abilities as parents. Then divorce lawyers entered the picture to do what many of them do best: destroy an innocent parent’s reputation and their bond with their children. Therefore, lawyers, along with ineffectual judges who do little to curb such destructive forces in American family law, are a principal focus of this book.

Family law in most states has become its own preserve, one in which litigants come and go while the principal players remain the same. Those players, not the families whose fates are determined by this system, are the ones who profit from protecting the status quo. We have, I believe, a system designed to line the pockets of these principals. Anything that results in effective conflict resolution, protection of both parents’ rights, and, most important, a healthy environment for the children of divorce is a happy accident. The problem lies not only with antagonistic lawyers who perpetuate conflict but also with the judges who sit idly by and do nothing to rein them in.

However, this book is not a blanket indictment of all attorneys and the legal profession. I will cite by name some of the truly constructive and decent men and women I have encountered during my own proceedings. (Unfortunately, under the current system, decency and humanity often work against family law attorneys.) Nor do I mean to imply that a legal divorce is always an unsafe option when a relationship has degenerated beyond repair. There are times when dissolving a marriage is the best decision a couple can make. American taxpayers, however, continue to fund a system that turns a sensitive and private decision into a destructive process that leaves few unscathed. If getting out of your marriage is good for both you and your estranged spouse, it ought to be easier to achieve. The truth is that we maintain a system in which destroying one’s ex-spouse, not effectively resolving conflict, is the order of the day.

WHAT FOLLOWS WILL DISAPPOINT those who hoped to find a gossipy, salacious tale of a show business marriage gone bad. Tabloid publications have already put out enough such stories about my protracted divorce and ensuing custody battle. I do not feel compelled to set that record straight. Think what you will. What stories someone’s own imagination can come up with will be far more satisfying, in that regard, than the truth. Necessity demands that I include some of the particulars of my own case, but only those germane to the book’s purpose. However, you will come away disappointed if you hope to find a bitter, angry attack against my ex-wife. When I write of my own experience, I present my side of the story and interpretation of what occurred. As all divorce litigants should eventually realize, attacking the other party is not in anyone’s interest, especially when children are involved. It does no good for a parent to bury their ex-spouse on the pages of a book, so I reserve my attacks for the family law system, specifically the Los Angeles County system where my own case was adjudicated.

Most important, this book is not an attempt to escape responsibility for my own actions. I do not ask anyone to believe that this is all someone else’s fault. Much of the trouble I found myself in came about as the result of a series of mistakes and bad judgments I made throughout both my marriage and divorce. Knowing what I do now about myself and my ex-wife, about our approaches to life, our personalities, what makes us happy, even something as simple as where we wanted to live, it might have been in everyone’s best interest if we’d never married. But that kind of thinking is pointless. We did marry, and in the process we, like so many others, ignored signs of what lay ahead. I made choices that led to the place where I am now. In the pages that follow I accept full responsibility for them.

Because of the scope of the problem this book explores, the issues raised could never be fully articulated through my own case alone. Therefore I have chosen three men to share their own stories and perspectives. All of them have changed their names and the specifics of their identities. One of the subjects is an amalgam of different individuals’ stories. Although I believe that to omit the particulars of my own case would be counterproductive to the book’s purpose, it has never been my goal to embarrass anyone in the process. Adding some of my own experiences to those of my contributors proved to be the most effective way to explore key issues while leaving everyone’s dignity largely intact.

MANY READERS, ESPECIALLY the attorneys and other professionals who play integral roles in the family law system, will automatically dismiss this book as nothing more than the grumblings of a bitter and angry man. Rather than falling prey to a corrupt system, they will say I am the victim of my own poor choices and brought all this on myself by marrying the wrong woman, hiring the wrong lawyer, or through my own boorish behavior. After all, I should have known I stood a good chance of ending up inside a divorce court. Half of all marriages end in divorce, and Hollywood marriages fare even worse. My time of being chained behind the pickup truck of the legal system was my own bad luck. Everyone knows little good ever comes out of our legal system, usually varying degrees of bad. I should have had the good sense to avoid it at all costs. Besides, my situation is, in these critics’ eyes, an anomaly. It is the exception, not the rule. I could have chosen a course that would have shortened the legal process and lessened my pain. I could have given up. Caved. Others have. I should have as well. Instead, these same critics would say my persistence only made things worse for myself.

I agree that I did make things worse for myself. Foolishly, I walked into a courtroom with the expectation that I would be given some equitable rights regarding my daughter. I ignored the less than subtle message that tells noncustodial parents, especially fathers, to abandon such hopes and face the realities of this system. Walk away, we’re told. Accept your fate as your penance for the poor choices you’ve made. Write off this failed family as the price of learning difficult lessons. The longer you hold out for what should be the right of every parent, the more expensive and painful the process becomes.

Indeed, I went through very bitter litigation. But I did not have a contentious divorce proceeding because I sought alimony or other financial concessions from my ex-wife. My litigation did not involve unreasonable personal demands about where my ex could live or whether she could move on with her life. Alternately, I did not seek to move my daughter to London or Paris. I had a contentious divorce because I wanted a meaningful custody of my daughter. I refused to settle for becoming a "Disney Dad," one whose role is nothing more than outings to theme parks once or twice a month. Instead, I wanted to share the joys and responsibilities of raising my daughter. I wanted to be a real father, and the system punished me for that. Ultimately, I refused to give in, and for a period, I prevailed.

If the circumstances of my case had been truly anomalous, I likely would have taken my lumps and got on with my life. I would not have written this book if I felt that my experiences were isolated. However, I have seen the other broken lives and destruction that this system leaves in its wake. I have even had attorneys, in a fleeting moment of candor, admit that the system is terribly flawed. I am not stating that every divorce proceeding is the same. Nor am I suggesting that most divorce lawyers and family law judges are at best inept or at worst corrupt. There is, however, enough injustice, inefficiency, and corruption within the system to compel us as a society to closely examine what is being perpetrated on innocent men and women, funded by our tax dollars. As you read my story and the stories of others that follow, I believe you will reach this same conclusion.

SOME PEOPLE WILL, NO DOUBT, criticize me for tilting this book so much toward my own dilemma as opposed to that of my daughter. However, due to restrictions set by court orders, as well as a desire not to expose my child to any further unnecessary scrutiny, an open and frank discussion of my observations of my daughter’s experiences is, to an extent, better left alone. My relationship with my daughter might have been a casualty of parental alienation, aided and abetted by the Los Angeles family law system. As I have suffered, so has she, in my opinion. I have included only as much of my daughter’s reality as I saw fit.

I have seen the psychological toll that divorce litigation takes on people. These victims are not an isolated few, hidden away from the rest of society, as was often the case some generations ago. Today, more than half of all marriages end in divorce, and the damages are not limited to the couples themselves. The aftereffects of divorce seep into all of society. This phenomenon of acrimonious divorce litigation exacts an incalculable psychological and emotional toll not only on the litigants but on innocent bystanders as well. Like any social issue, there is a cost we all bear, spiritually as well as financially.

Among the several topics that my contributors and I will examine in this book are:

• Prenuptial agreements and how couples can attempt to preemptively protect themselves, their respective ex-tended families, and, of course, their children from the unnecessary pain of divorce litigation.

• How to approach the ultimate decision to file for divorce, specifically in both high-and low-conflict divorces. We explore the question of when, as well as how, to file.

• Divorce strategies and assessments for couples with above average, average, and below average assets.

• Selecting an attorney. Is word of mouth all it’s cracked up to be?

• Private mediation versus going to trial.

• Observations on judges, forensic accountants, custody evaluations and evaluators, collateral witnesses, child psychologists, and other court-appointed therapists.

• An examination of actual custody/visitation strategies. What should your time with your child be like? How does the inevitable passage of time affect you and your growing child?

• The newly divorced parent’s life and the hopeful prayer of constructive co-parenting.

• The political influences on current family law. How the political apparatus of lawyers, judges, and feminist groups assaults fatherhood and impacts custody.

I have been through some of the worst of contentious divorce litigation. I have lost some proceedings that seemed important at the time, but I prevailed in many others. Wisdom has urged me to walk away from this experience and count my blessings. But I have chosen to return to it, to examine it again, and to share with you not only my thoughts but those of others, as well. A book is not a Pollock painting; its web of facts and feelings must be arranged in an ordered way. To that end, I have enlisted the aid of Mark Tabb, who helped me with the research, organization, and writing of what follows.

This book is entitled A Promise to Ourselves. And it is in fulfillment of that promise that I offer to all divorced fathers, to all parents, the dreams and nightmares, the insights and ultimate lessons of my own story.

Excerpted from A Promise to Ourselves by Alec Baldwin with Mark Tabb

Copyright © 2008 by Alec Baldwin.

Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Alec Baldwin graduated with a BFA from New York University. As an actor, he has been nominated for a Tony Award and an Oscar, and has received an Emmy. He stars in the award-winning television series 30 Rock on NBC.