MAY DIVORCE BE WITH YOU

FOR BOB HIRSCHFELD---MEN'S-RIGHTS ACTIVIST AND DOMESTIC-RELATIONS LAWYER---BREAKING UP IS FUN TO DO

On the hot seat is Ann, whose husband, Dave, wants a divorce. For more than a decade, she has lived the life of a cloistered housewife, caring for her husband and children while remaining nearly oblivious to the hard realities of the outside world. She is confused about the legal process that has engulfed her, but she knows that Dave--along with the rumpled attorney sitting next to him, who is now peering at her intently over the rim of his glasses--wants to take her kids away.

The air is charged with tension as Hirschfeld begins his interrogation. He doesn't get far. Ann suddenly interrupts, in an explosion of pent-up emotion.

Hers is a sad tale, and it comes streaming out in one long, stream-of-consciousness plea. The nervous breakdowns, the fights, the turmoil; all the gut-wrenching milestones on the road from honeymoon bliss to divorce court. She never wanted to split up, really. She still believes her horribly wounded marriage can be revived.

At least she believed it until she was inundated by a wave of court orders requested by Hirschfeld.

Now, Ann says, she finds herself kicked out of her home--prohibited from coming within 500 feet of the front door. Her bank cards have been revoked (Hirschfeld again), cash assets frozen (and again). Her husband doesn't want her, her kids are being taken away . . . her whole life--gone. She slouches despondently, lost and bewildered, staring blankly at Dave. "For 15 years, I've been ignored in every way, physically, emotionally, intellectually," she cries. "I have low self-esteem. My husband never even introduced me to persons he works with. He makes $100,000 per year . . . but now I'm out on the streets, and I barely have enough money . . . ," her voice trails off, cracking, "while this man makes $9,000 a month." She tries to go on, haltingly and in tears.

Hirschfeld is laughing.
Ann looks up incredulously. Her attorney objects.
"It is very difficult to keep a straight face," Hirschfeld shrugs. She's doing the best she can, Ann's lawyer replies indignantly.

"So are we," Hirshfeld smiles, "at restraining ourselves."
Hirschfeld cuts off her monologue and presses ahead--firing off questions in quick bursts.

Who are you sleeping with? Why are you taking Prozac? Have you ever thrown a telephone at your husband? How about a sharp object? Ever hit your kids? He leads her into a verbal cul-de-sac, spinning her in a disorienting flurry of talk--all the while probing at her raw nerves. Her answers are muddled, confused.

He leads Ann to the subject of money, pushing her a bit nearer emotional ground zero. She claims that since her credit cards have been taken by her husband, she has no way to support herself. "I'm starving," she says quietly.

"You're not starving," Hirschfeld scoffs.
"I've lost 15 pounds. In fact, my psychologist is worried," she nervously replies.

"Is that because you are unable to afford food?"
"Well, it's expensive."
"You're losing weight because you are so destitute you can't even go to Jack in the Box and buy a hamburger?"
"I'm too busy crying in bed most of the time."
"So, your statement that you are starving is not accurate?"

He ends the exchange with the biting suggestion that if she is so poor, she should get a job at McDonald's.

And so it goes, through waves of tears and screaming fits, looks of recrimination and hate. But while the woman before him crumbles, never does Hirschfeld lose his composure or falter. He is a machine, inexorably moving forward--like Sherman on the march to the sea, methodically burning down each of her claims and arguments, showing them to be fraught with apparent contradiction.

He fires another question. Ann replies that she doesn't know.
"You don't recall? Do you have a memory problem?" Hirschfeld snaps back, not really caring what the response will be. If the answer is yes, she is obviously an unfit mother. If the answer is no, she is being uncooperative, and should be cited for contempt of court. Either way, this woman isn't capable of taking care of children. Isn't it clear? She's too unstable to be a parent. Too volatile, too confused. She's a liar. A cheat. A slut. She's dumb, violent, hysterical.

Hirschfeld's coarse, rapid-fire questioning has elicited answers that--if viewed solely on the cold, sterile paper record of the deposition--could be interpreted as evidence that all these charges might be true. And he has done it so quickly and skillfully that Ann's attorney does not manage a further objection, but merely sits mute as Hirschfeld spatters the floor with his client's blood.

Finally, Ann snaps. "What did I do to deserve this?" she sobs.
There will be no more questions today. Or any other day.
A few months after the deposition, a judge, upon reviewing the testimony, concludes Ann is not best-suited to raise her children. Dave is awarded sole custody.

Hirschfeld rushes to defend such scenes. Yes, questioning women in custody cases is a ruthless game, he admits, but necessary.

"What it comes down to is," he says, "are you worried about the mother's feelings or the best interests of the children? I'll take the children's interests every time. "If she is a mom-ster, the kids don't belong with her, they belong with him--and we just need to show that conclusively, by any means necessary."
There is, of course, more to it than that. It isn't simply a concern for the children's welfare that prompts Hirschfeld to vigorously perform emotional vivisection on women like Ann. With disarming honesty, Hirschfeld fesses up--there is more than a little vindictiveness and ego in the mix.

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