The Story of Charlotte Fedders

By Charlotte Fedders and Laura Elliot

Harper & Row. 248 pp. $17.95

IN FEBRUARY of 1985, Charlotte Fedders took her husband John to divorce court, effectively ending his public career. (A reporter from The Wall Street Journal was in the courtroom, the Journal ran a piece detailing John Fedders' history of wife-beating, and the next day Fedders resigned as chief of enforcement for the SEC.)

According to Shattered Dreams, written by Charlotte Fedders and Laura Elliot, the FBI estimates that every day in this country, "four women are beaten to death by their husbands or boyfriends." This statistic would make Charlotte Fedders one of the luckier battery victims, since she's still around to tell her story. And a pitiful story it is. I use the word pitiful, rather than tragic, because Charlotte Fedders and her husband seem pathetic creatures, he bossy and out of control, she a self-loathing whiner who stayed with him for 16 years as their family and their houses got larger and their ability to cope shrank.

When they met, he was a law student at Catholic University, she a devout Catholic girl who considered the King James version of the Bible "almost . . . a dirty book" and was "positively terrified of the opposite sex."

The tall, dark, handsome Fedders liked Charlotte, and said he wanted a big family. That was all it took for her to fall in love with him. He was ambitious, hard-driving; he aimed to be a Wall Street lawyer, and he "definitely didn't plan to represent the poor," Charlotte reports.

He slept through their first date. He told her she was too fat. At their wedding reception, he grinned for the camera as he shoved a piece of wedding cake up her nose. You want to yell at her, "Run! Or at least fight back!"

The first time he slapped her, he broke her eardrum. Her father told her to leave him. She wouldn't. After he hit her in the belly (she was pregnant), her doctor told her to leave him. Still she wouldn't. They moved across the country as his jobs changed -- New York, Dallas, Washington. When he wasn't abusing her, she did the job for him, slapping her own face, crying, "I'm so stupid . . . I'm so ugly."

He was a tightwad and a spendthrift. He bought expensive carpets that he wouldn't let anyone walk on; he beat Charlotte for writing a check, and said he didn't care if he killed her. He punched her in the eye and broke her glasses. And still Charlotte hung in, although not always quietly. As a 36-year-old woman with four children, she still ran to complain to her in-laws, and often she showed up at her mother's house, or a neighbor's place, looking for comfort. Sometimes she even tried the police, only to grumble later that they were "so cold to me." The police told her they could issue a warrant for John's arrest, but Charlotte wouldn't swear out the complaint: "I didn't want to ruin him. I just wanted someone to talk to him."

This was not a marriage, but a war, with both sides losers and the children held hostage. "I was afraid of him at the end, when he wasn't talking and stuff," says his teen-aged son Luke.

Finally, even Charlotte had had enough, and she hired a lawyer, after first writing President Reagan to tell him John was a wife beater though "This letter is in no way meant to undermine your confidence in John's ability as a top-notch enforcer."

Shattered Dreams says John's subsequent resignation "saved the administration and his boss the trouble of an official review." Ironically, it was Fedders' own parsimony that brought him down. If he'd been willing to negotiate on alimony or child support, Charlotte would never have gone public with the case. In court, John Fedders rambled, and at the end, he elected to contest the divorce, so Charlotte still is not free.

The reader tends to sympathize with Charlotte's sister Martha, whom Charlotte used "as a kind of wailing wall." Once, Martha thought Charlotte had finally got strong enough to leave John. "Then he came home and she called me and gave me the I-can't-live-without-a-man and the-Church-says-it's-wrong-to-get-divorce conversation, and told me they were back together. I hung up the phone and went completely to pieces. I had to distance myself after . . . I went through a real grieving process. I probably would have felt worse if she had died, but not much."

We don't really know Charlotte -- who she is -- from this book, we only know what she endured. We also know that John Fedders, in destroying his family's domestic tranquility, destroyed himself. This isn't literature; the prose is pretty mundane, but it's a hell of a cautionary tale.

Chris Chase is coauthor, with Betty Ford, of "Betty: A Glad Awakening."