With his ten year old son at his side, Trump made his triumphant victory speech on November 9th. His son, Barron (whom Melania refers to as “little Donald” according to an interview in parenting.com) stood blinking and bleary-eyed. Mother was not in the picture. Birgitta Sunderland tweeted: “Why on earth is Barron Trump up at 3 am? That kid is falling asleep on stage. He’s ten. So good parenting is not his policy.”
The following essay is dedicated to my late son, Louis. He was just ten years old when he bravely began to disclose that he had suffered years of abuse by his father.
May his memory be a blessing.
When this meme popped up on Facebook, I laughed and cringed simultaneously. As a veteran of the Custody Wars, having served seven terms of duty on the frontline, having lost a child to death on the battlefield, and suffering from chronic, complex PTSD as a result, this struck a raw nerve. The young people of America—the vast majority of those age 18 to 35—were absolutely right. They knew. It was Grandpa Bernie who had our best interests at heart. Sadly, children’s voices are rarely if ever heard in custody disputes, almost never in those where domestic violence is a factor. A protracted, acrimonious, contentious and wildly bizarre political spectacle has played out in America. These adjectives are also used to describe high conflict custody cases. Millions of Americans are experiencing feelings of disbelief, dread, numbness, or anxiety, perhaps even physical symptoms, the real result of months of accumulated psychic and emotional stress. Too many single mothers know this pain and shock and sense of helplessness all too well. We may be experiencing it again as “deja-vu” or what feels like a flashback as we consider our absurd new political reality. The man who actually lost the popular election was dubbed in Doublespeak, our “President Elect.” Now he is our “president.” Thousands of protective parents in the United States, myself among them, have awakened on other days wondering if our new reality wasn’t perhaps all a bad dream. Surprised at how much courage was required just to face this strange new day, we awakened feeling scared sick but determined not to give in to despair—for our children’s sake.
A mother somewhere in America today is seated in a courtroom where she will learn that it is now court order and law that she send her child the next day into the “care” of a known abuser. Should she refuse, she will face criminal charges and/or loss of the right to parent her children at all. Americans today can think about taking their children to a country where sanity still prevails. Thousands were indeed already exploring this option on-line as the election results turned angry red across the map. Had I moved any distance at all away from our abuser, I would have lost custody of my young child and all legal right to see him without a supervisor. Not Without My Daughter and Harvesting Stones are books about women caught in just such an impasse. Crows Over a Wheatfield by Paula Sharp is an award-winning fictionalized account of the underground railroad that exists for protective mothers who bravely attempt flight from a dangerous world turned upside down when all options to fight have have been exhausted. Parents around the world do choose to leave their country of origin if violence there poses too grave a risk to their children. They flee out of protective love. For those of us who choose to stay here in the U.S. where the political system is clearly broken, a close look at some of the dynamics of the shattered family court system can offer lessons for framing the political debate for the next four years.
Gender Bias is a Thing.
Think “The Taming of the Shrew.” Mother dare not appear angry. Father may rant and rail. She must aim for “likable” while he will be deemed strong and determined for behaving like a raging bull. Her many past accomplishments will be called into question and scrutinized under the highest-powered microscope. His past failures will be reframed or ignored. His singular lack of qualifications to be a fit president/parent will be fully in evidence. Women may step forward to testify with credible allegations of physical and sexual assault and of emotional abuse. Maddeningly, it may not matter in the end. The validity of their claims and their motivation for coming forward will inevitably be questioned. My family law attorney submitted sworn affidavits from two former wives attesting to their experience of domestic violence with the man who had petitioned for full custody of our child. The circuit court judge refused to consider their testimony. His explanation was that, in his experience, “ex-wives too often have an axe to grind.” The outcome of the contest, the results of which will have life and death consequences for many, may hinge on the fact that certain men in positions of power didn’t like the pantsuit “that bitch” wore to court/the debate. I learned too late that a protective mother should never wear a black suit (skirt, stockings and pumps notwithstanding) to family court. In the last courtroom, where my child’s tragic fate was decided, the wall was lined with framed portraits of past presiding judges. A more stodgy, dour, depressing line-up of old white men would be hard to find. Except of course as past presidents of the United States. The Republican nominee for POTUS in 2016 has tapped into a source of fuel for his campaign that lay just below the polite surface of American society: the deep-seated anger of white male rage. Frustrated, as they have watched their boundless and unfounded claims to entitlement eroding over the past 50 years, they see in Hilary everything they despise (meaning everything they fear.) She’s smart. She’s calm. She won’t be silenced. “Lock her up!” is the solution and final court order in too many contested custody cases where mother refuses to turn over her children to a known abuser or where she stands her ground in self-defense on their behalf. The ERA never became law. Women and children have no real constitutional rights.
The Mask of Sanity is optional dress.
Although Trump’s ever-changing inner circle of “advisors” and “managers” would prefer that he modify his behavior and speech so as to appear less unhinged, their lack of success does not mean that His Majesty the Baby may not prevail. Arrogance, grandiosity, vanity, a minimizing of past failings, a refusal to accept personal responsibility or to admit any fallibility — the hallmarks of narcissistic personality disorder — not only prohibit the diseased one from accepting any suggestion that change might be advisable, they play well to the closeted narcissists who will give him a thumbs up in his run for power. My son’s father changed legal counsel as often as Trump has engaged and dismissed campaign managers. No one can exert client control over the pathological narcissist for long. Trump’s vicious, personal attacks on his opponent in the debates rekindled terrible memories for me, as they have for countless women in the U.S. “There is hate in her heart.” “She’s a bully.” She is a “nasty woman” and quite possibly aligned with the devil. He carries on, splitting and projecting his way to the top. Author Gail Sheehey, in an October article for Politico entitled “American Therapists Are Worried About Trump’s Effects On Your Mental Health,” observes this:
It came up in the debate Sunday night, when Hillary Clinton pointed to a “Trump effect,” an uptick in bullying and distress that teachers are noticing in classrooms as their students are exposed to a candidate who regularly attacks his opponents in bombastic, even threatening terms. The new revelation of Trump’s crude boasts in 2005 about being able to kiss and grope women and ‘move on’ a married woman ‘like a bitch’ gave new fuel to the charge that his candidacy might be normalizing aggressive, disparaging talk and behavior.
It doesn’t matter what evidence turns up of women and children treated like objects. They were the pawns in this game all along. Consider the trophy wives and the children whom he paws in ways that make us all queasy. Video tape of the “man” behaving like a beast? Proof that he lied about having a foreign passport or about the number of children he sired? Evidence that he is a serial predator? Multiple convictions for international parental abduction or the fact that three of his male children have committed suicide? A lawsuit pending about the rape of a fourteen year old girl? Onward he sails to conquest.
Doublespeak is Dangerous.
My mother was taught to say “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.” This is patently not true. Words have power, as my late friend, the theologian and author, Conrad Bonifazi, used to teach. Our words go out into the world and then work to recreate it. Words inspire others, tapping into powerful human urges for either love, connection and cooperation or for death and destruction. Hate speech on the airwaves in Rwanda served to incite civil war and to unleash genocide. Many bones were broken, bodies hacked to pieces, as a result. Already, Trump’s bullying, racist and misogynist language has had a poisonous effect on the populace. Laura Basset, Senior Politics Reporter for the Huffington Post wrote a brilliant piece in October entitled, “Donald Trump and His Supporters are Actually Making Women Sick, Including Me.” She writes, “Donald Trump and his bombastic, truth-free persona is still baffling to many. But for one select group of people—survivors of domestic violence—Trump is immediately and intimately recognizable. He reminds them of the men who ruined their lives.”
It is no coincidence that at the very moment when the systematic disenfranchisement of people of color was being uncovered as a major social and political injustice in this country, Trump’s campaign stepped up bogus claims about “voter fraud.” In other words, the voices of witnesses to a well-documented and widespread discriminatory practice (seen in the purging of voter rolls, the failure to provide adequate polling places in districts of color, the rise of voter registration requirements that would prevent too many poor people from exercising their constitutional right to vote, etc.) were suddenly drowned out by louder voices echoing lies about undocumented voters and a Democratic party bent on skewing the results of our political process. The sheer temerity of such a ploy is mind-boggling, to say nothing of the fact that the media gives it play as though it were “a thing.” Those of us who have been studying the crisis in our nation’s family courts are familiar with this diabolical slight of hand. At the very moment when journalists, civil rights attorneys, and feminist scholars were beginning to shed a light on the plight of women and children facing their abusers in contested custody disputes, militant fathers’ rights groups coined the term “Parental Alienation Syndrome.” Like “voter fraud,” this bogus diagnosis for a very real problem makes finding a cure suddenly less possible than ever. Burning witches did not cure the plague but it left many children motherless. The hypothesis that vindictive, hysterical women rush to fabricate stories of child abuse, intimate violence and incest as ways so separate their children from good fathers has been thoroughly debunked. Nevertheless, the equivalent of climate change deniers continue to rule from the bench in family court, accusing us protective mothers of malicious and even criminal behavior. Their judicial operating system has been infected with a deadly virus. As unscientific and fear-based propaganda is unleashed into public discourse, finding its way into the echo chambers owned by the privileged few, it poisons the water of our consciousness as surely as lead leaching into the pipes and public drinking water in Flint. In family court, as in Flint, children are the most vulnerable. It is they who are most likely to suffer lifelong damage as the result of the toxic behaviors, the cover-ups, the croneyism, the corruption of irresponsible adults.
The Serial Litigator is also a Serial Abuser
The guy who returns to court again and again and again does so at enormous expense to the Taxpayer. That’s you and that’s me. Yes, the individual players need to have enough personal assets or money raised from supporters to stay in the game. It’s pay to play all the way. But there is also a great deal of money being made from this adversarial system which pits two players against each other, all in the name of “justice” and “equality.” (Are we talking here about the national presidential “cycle” which runs 50% of the time in America, two years out of four, or about the family court system where a case may drag on for three, seven, ten years or longer? The answer is both.) He may be the guy who, according to USA Today has litigated in over 4,000 cases over three decades. “Trump uses the lawsuits to negotiate throughout his business relationships. He turns to litigation to distance himself from failing projects that relied on the Trump brand. And he uses the legal system to haggle over his property bills and contracts with vendors.” Or again, he may be the guy involved in family court disputes with four women over the custody of nine different children in two countries and in three different States over three decades. I can tell you about him or you can look him up. Perhaps lock him up? We are all paying the price for the rampages of unbridled Ego on an epic scale. The narcissist may try to project a persona of the strong man, but one has only to look at the record. He is constantly showing that he perceives himself as the wronged and wounded victim. He will return in an endless loop of litigation to the courts because he will always be able to pay a lawyer to tell him what he longs to hear, that he is right, that he has been wronged. He is ripping off all of us and like any true con he becomes more smug with each “success.” He’s smarter than us all and tells us so. That’s why he doesn’t pay taxes and we do, he said. (And then denied that he said it.) In domestic violence circles, it’s referred to as financial abuse. American taxpayers have been the unwitting victims of Trump’s addiction to serial litigation, footing the bill for his use of our nation’s courts to wage his private battles against his perceived enemies for years. A close look at the small percentage of custody disputes which become custody wars reveals a parallel universe worth exploring.
It’s a Mad Tea Party once we’ve fallen into the Rabbit’s Hole.
Are you concerned about our children’s safety, about their future, about your ability to care for them and to provide them a future with educational possibilities beyond a lifetime of being held prisoner to war and fear? Are you concerned about violence against women and about the fact that men with histories of criminal violence can easily access assault rifles? Were you hoping for a day in court (or in the debates) where you, and others whose lives are most likely to be effected by the final outcome, might hear these urgent matters addressed? Forget about it. The conversation will always come back to Himself, how he has been wronged, how everyone is out to get him. It’s the narcissist’s open wound speaking — or oozing. Against all odds, he will manage to hijack the debate. He will claim without any sense of irony that the very system into which he inserted himself as a contender has been rigged. There will be no more logical, reasonable discussion at the table. When asked by our court-appointed mediator whether he planned to pay me any of the $58,000 he owed me in court-ordered fees, my adversary said, “Not a dime!” And when asked for an explantation, he said, “I am responsible to a higher authority.” To what higher authority was he appealing, one can only wonder, when it was he who had taken our domestic affairs dispute to the Court of Appeals in the State of Oregon? Though I had prevailed in court, his own reality prevails because he wills it to be so. Trump will accept the outcome of the election in a few days on one condition, he says: only if he wins. When the pundits began to refer to this election cycle as a circus, the officials of Barnum and Bailey protested. A real circus requires that well-trained, skilled performers operate in an organized and cooperative effort. No law will be able to hold him accountable, this Mad Hater/Hatter. Though Hillary be six, seven or one hundred times exonerated for using a private e-mail server, he will come back to the issue and will continue to call her the criminal. Each time I hear T-rump say “Crooked Hillary” I recall something one of the psychologists involved in my late child’s custody case remarked: “Think of ‘the crooked little man in his crooked little house who lived there with his crooked little cat and his crooked little mouse’ in the children’s nursery rhyme. Anyone who enters his world will be expected to pretend not to notice that everything in his world is crooked. It’s his distorted reality and he’ll do anything to preserve it.”
Coercive Control Looks Like This
It refuses to be seated though debate decorum demands it. It strides up to the Bench as pro se litigant and has to be reminded by the Judge that it doesn’t belong there. It will circle, scowl, prowl, and growl — like a wolf stalking a lamb. It says, “I seize this moment to show you that I am on the move and I am closing in on you and everyone can see and no one can stop me.” Ironically, Trump’s vile and predatory treatment of women came spilling into view over the course of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Melissa Jeltsen, another senior reporter with the Huffington Post, addressed coercive control in her piece, “Trump is Triggering Domestic Violence Survivors with Textbook Abusive Behavior. He lies. He bullies. He threatens. And he’s one step away from the presidency.” She notes that “While domestic abuse is often characterized as acts of violence, it’s more accurate to understand it as a cluster of specific behavioral tactics that abusers employ to control, intimidate and coerce victims.”
My adversary in the Custody Wars wanted to tail me down the courthouse steps after he lost the first lawsuit he filed against me. Having foreseen this, I had asked two male friends to accompany me and they provided a shield behind me so that his awfulness could not literally breathe down my neck. Too many women have been killed in retaliation after filing for separation, for a restraining order and for custody of the children, a sad fact I’ve learned from my work in the domestic violence community. Coercive Control is expert at making veiled threats, so murky that their intention can later be denied and yet so clear that when violence occurs, as it surely will, the handwriting on the wall will mock us and our refusal to see. It was written in blood. An unswerving and overwhelming desire to dominate is the essential driving force behind domestic violence, behind child abuse, and behind any sociopath’s rise to power — whether his goal is to be dictator of a nation or tyrant ruling over a woman and her children as his abject subjects. Coercive control makes wild promises (to the women whom it hopes to ensnare; to children, sadly, in the case of custody disputes; to a childish populace, in the case of Trump) on which it can never deliver. It lies brazenly to achieve its ends. When called out for these things, it rages anew, castigating those who dare oppose it as being petty, as being deluded, or as being the ones who lie. Coercive control loves the chaos that results as all possibility for any reasonable discussion is swept away in the storm it creates. Everyone wearies of what has become (very intentionally, make no mistake about it!) an interminable, exhausting, battle where no one can recall any longer the salient points. Everyone wants out. It’s all too much and so it becomes easy and tempting to frame the entire debate and dispute as a matter of “he said – she said.” The problem here being that, as Rebecca Solnit has noted, when a disagreement is framed as “he said-she said,” it’s always to discredit ‘she said.’
I have learned the hard way. This doesn’t end well. Asking mom and dad to come up with one thing they admire about the other fools no one. The system can pretend that it has the best interests of the children or the people at heart. The results may show otherwise.
This piece is excerpted from the new collection Single Mothers Speak on Patriarchy edited by Trista Hendren
Rhonda Case (www.freeasthesun.com) is associate faculty at College of the Redwoods; 2015-16 Survivor Representative to the Management Team of the Family Court Enhancement Project in Multnomah County, Oregon (a project funded by the DOJ and Office of Violence Against Women) and Portland Liaison for Dr. Riane Eisler’s Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence (a project of the Center for Partnership Studies) www.saiv.org