No one can understand how a brilliant politician like Rudy Giuliani, his soon-to-be ex-wife, Donna Hanover, and a cadre of world-class attorneys could allow a private domestic dispute to turn into such public blood sport. Well, not quite no one. Divorce lawyers understand it. And I understand it because I worked for divorce lawyers and witnessed firsthand the truism that criminal lawyers see bad people at their very best while divorce lawyers see otherwise good people at their very worst.
The easy explanation is to blame the lawyers. Divorce attorneys (long considered the catfish of the legal world) prey on vulnerable clients, escalating hostilities for their own financial benefit. I disagree. Rudy is no doormat, and in my experience, the best divorce attorneys are fair and temperate. Even an operatic character like Giuliani attorney Raoul Felder, who recently made references to Donna Hanover “howling like a stuck pig,” knows better than to go thermonuclear on the other party without provocation.
The real reason divorces can spin out of control so fast is that a valuable commodity is being divvied up. Not the crystal or the stereo equipment, or even the children. The fight is over victim status. And no matter who left whom, who abused what, each party will fight to the death to be the victim. Is there any other reason why the most powerful man in New York, a man who cheated on and humiliated his wife, would be snuffling to the press about how mean she was to him while he was on chemo? Or what a bad mommy she is to their children? Rudy is notorious for attempting to crush anyone who crosses him. But broadcasting to the universe that he’s impotent? That he just wants someone to hold him and talk about feelings?
Wallowing in self-pity is hardly the Giuliani way to thrash an enemy. But when he wants his girlfriend to be allowed to come over and jump on the canopy beds in Gracie Mansion, making prank calls and ordering pizzas, he’s the victim. And Felder will paint-by-numbers to make him look that way.
We are never more self-deluding than when our marriages come apart, and the delicious part lies in blaming the other spouse for everything that went wrong. We marry to some extent to compensate and cater to our broken places. If we’re controlling, we marry someone passive. If we’re angry, we marry someone who needs to be hollered at. With years of work and effort, we can become self-aware and balanced. But when we divorce, we lose sight of our own breaks and cracks. “He’s too controlling!” we scream (and if we are lucky, or look like Nicole Kidman, the press will pass the word on), disregarding that he or she is one-half of a broken machine, of which we are the other, equally broken half. This is why divorced people so often re-marry someone with the exact same pathologies and dysfunctions as their first spouse.
Donna Hanover’s accusations about Rudy are probably true. He’s an insensitive, philandering narcissist. And his counter-screeds are also probably true. Donna’s an attention-grubbing, vindictive brat. That makes each of them a very broken half of a broken zipper.
Blame and recriminations are irrelevant to almost all of the legal issues of property division and the best interest of the children. They are also irrelevant to the actual spiritual act of dismantling a marriage. But being a victim is easy. It’s fun and self-indulgent and can get us on the big chairs on Sally Jessy Raphael. It’s also easy for attorneys to prove in court. (While it’s really rarely relevant to the divorce, looking like the victim is a smart way to co-opt a judge.) Being the victim leaks well to the press. But except for the cases of actual victimization and abuse, it’s a zero-sum, lose-lose effort that will spiral infinitely, spitting out bits of children, feeding on time and money, and actually creating real victims in its wake. In fact, the great cosmic joke underlying the Judi-cleansing of Gracie Mansion this week is that it was wrought, as was all the carnage in the Giuliani divorce, “in the best interest of the children.”
The best interest of the Giuliani children would be served not by barring Paramour Judi from the family home, or by forcing these kids to meet with her next month, or by trading accusations about who is hurting them more. The only way to promote the interests of the Giuliani, Ryan-Quaid, Kidman-Cruise, and the rest of the ordinary peanut-buttery children of this country is by demanding that the next time a divorce attorney hears the phrase–or a family court judge reads the words–“he/she started it,” the children are removed to foster care until their grown-ups learn to act like it.
Gary Silverman, my former boss and a member of the “Dirty 30”–one of the country’s elite groups of divorce lawyers–tells his clients that no matter how ugly the divorce gets, they might keep in mind that some day they’ll have to dance with their ex-spouse at their kids’ weddings. To which I’d add that they should probably tango since it takes two to do it, and that’s a lesson best learned early.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.