The autumn landscape looks to have been designed by Norman Rockwell for the purpose of having children walk through it. Andrew and Peter Fedders are doing their part, tromping up Carmelita Drive in Potomac on their way home from elementary school. As they reach the fringes of the front lawn their mother appears on the small porch of their large house to bid a guest goodbye. Charlotte Fedders is keenly aware of how vividly right the whole afternoon appears, and more keenly aware of how precarious such moments are.
"Our life doesn't revolve around what happened before and it doesn't revolve around what I'm doing now," Charlotte Fedders says. "We lead a very normal life. It's very busy. It's very dusty. It's all these things that it wasn't before. It's very happy."
The Fedderses are a family made notable by their strife. "Shattered Dreams," Charlotte's newly published book, is the most recent retelling of the beatings, domination and fear she endured during a 19-year marriage to John Fedders, former chief of enforcement for the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The story broke in February 1985 when The Wall Street Journal got word of the Fedders divorce and published a lengthy investigation of John's career on its front page. Since then, Charlotte Fedders, 44, has become a heroine of sorts. She was the woman who blew the whistle on white-collar wife abuse, a living reminder that even the most repressed woman can take charge of her own life.
But public sympathy has little currency in court. Last month a Maryland domestic master, finalizing the couple's long-fought divorce, granted John Fedders 50 percent interest in the family's $400,000 home, decreased his alimony by one-third (to $500) and, most surprisingly, awarded him 25 percent of his wife's profits from the book. John Fedders pays $750 a month in child support.
"Overall," wrote John McInerney, the master, "the circumstances that contributed to the estrangement of the parties has got to be on an equal basis."
The ruling has been attacked by domestic violence experts, feminist groups and newspaper columnists. Mary McGrory wrote that following McInerney's logic, Adolf Hitler would have been entitled to royalties for "The Diary of Anne Frank."
"One person," Charlotte Fedders says. "I've convinced 2 million, but I haven't convinced one person of what's really right. I've been surprised with the other support but very disappointed with what, as I see it, continues to be part of the problem. It's a moral victory, but the moral victory is not what is going to determine our financial future. I need a victory from the courts."
The ruling was appealed this week, with Charlotte Fedders' attorney arguing that it was "clearly an abuse of discretion" for McInerney to attempt to fix blame in the divorce -- and on that basis grant John Fedders a share of the royalties. In the meantime, Charlotte Fedders goes about the business of trying to shape her family's future. She filed for bankruptcy last year and is struggling now just to support the family. Hers is a curious life, combining the glamor of a high-visibility book tour with the drudgery of part-time jobs that once included a weekly paper route.
For Fedders, necessity was the mother of notoriety. After reading newspaper accounts of her troubled marriage, editors at Washingtonian magazine approached her about telling the story to writer Laura Elliott. "The Washingtonian article was basically absolutely because I needed the money and I just prayed that it would be well done," Fedders says. "I was totally overwhelmed with the response Washingtonian magazine generated."
Scores of women wrote or called the magazine after reading the April 1986 issue to say they too were abused. The surprise was not only in their numbers, but in their status. "Their husbands were civic leaders, lawyers, journalists, physicians, university professors, politicians," Elliott wrote in a follow-up piece. "At least half a dozen had recognizable names."
In telling her own story, Charlotte Fedders became a spokeswoman. "I thought it would die down," she says. "People wanted to hear me speak and I wasn't a speaker. I just thought it was kind of a fad almost. I really thought my part of it would fade rather rapidly. Well, it didn't and I'm really rather surprised. I never wanted to be a public person at all."
Nor has she adjusted easily to the role. "Sometimes I'm nervous just saying my name," she says. "The biggest thing has been being accepted as a human being rather than as Mrs. . . . Mrs. Him."
The response to the magazine article led Harper & Row to offer Fedders and Elliott a book contract. They split $100,000 minus agent fees and have yet to receive their shares of the $300,000 paperback sale. Fedders calculates that that money plus her share of the house will allow her to buy a home near Gaithersburg and tide the family over while she looks for work.
Fedders has considered making advocacy for the abused her life's work, perhaps in a public relations capacity. But she realizes that this is a troublesome choice.
"Right now the reason I am in this situation is because of him," she says. "He made me a battered wife. I don't want to feel that the only reason I have made a significant contribution to society is because of what he made me.
"I think I can choose to walk away from it if I want to. I just don't know if I do. How many of us get an opportunity in life to make a major impact? It's almost like I've been given this golden opportunity and I don't know if I can walk away from that."
Many of the women who approach Fedders on the road, or call her on phone-in radio shows, are mired in marriages like hers. They have successful, authoritarian husbands who expect their wives to feed the furnace of their ambition.
She endured a broken eardrum and black eyes. Her 6-foot-10, 230-pound husband struck her in the abdomen while she was pregnant. Throughout the marriage, John Fedders exercised rigid control over his family and expected Charlotte to dress him each morning, keep an immaculate house and throw lavish parties to support his promising legal career.
"I can be a wife and a mother," she tells people. "I had trouble being a slave."
Yet she remained with the man she married. "It really was an addiction and it's hard to kick an addiction," she says. "I was addicted to this man."
During the divorce proceedings John Fedders, now 46, portrayed both himself and his wife as "neurotic." "Charlotte is not a sympathetic or compassionate person," he said. "She enjoyed going after me and, unfortunately, I enjoyed going after her."
Fedders said his once shining career had been ruined. As a partner at Arnold & Porter he'd earned $160,000 a year. Now in private practice, he estimates he will make less than $30,000. Charlotte believes he is "deliberately impoverishing himself," but he attributes his financial predicament to the negative publicity surrounding the divorce.
John Fedders refused to be interviewed for this story, but in court papers he charged that his wife "has been overcome by the aroma of her celebrity status and lost sight of what is in the best interest of the boys." Fedders charged that he and his five sons were "separated by her hate." He is particularly eager to see an end to the "Shattered Dreams" publicity campaign which, he argues, constitutes child abuse.
Nothing, his former wife says, could be further from the truth. "The major change in our life is when he left, not the publicity," she says. "In general the people who know my kids know that the publicity has relieved them a great deal. There's no guilt. It's all out there now. There's no need to explain anything about their parents' breakup."
The boys' relationship with their father is still in flux. John Fedders sees Peter, 6, and Andrew, 9, on alternate weekends. The court also awarded him "reasonable" visiting privileges with Mark, 14, and Matthew, 13. Luke, 18, is no longer a minor and not under the court's jurisdiction. He chooses not to see his father.
Charlotte Fedders and her children still live in the house that was once a battlefield. John Fedders used to hold what his wife called "white glove inspections" and forbade his family to wear shoes on the carpeting. Now the living room has a casual feel. Three cats and a puppy roam the rug playing with shoes, curtains and chair legs. Charlotte Fedders apologizes at regular intervals for not having cleaned up.
"We have so changed the house that there is nothing of him left," she says. "I mean to tell you that my house was never the way it is now. Never ever. Not for one moment."
Her time at home has been curtailed by her 17-city tour, and her sisters have helped out, staying with the boys. "As soon as this is over I want to put it farther and farther behind me," she says. "I am still centered on this home thing here. My major job is still being a mother."
Being a mother will become more complicated in the months ahead as the family prepares to move to a new neighborhood. She feels her boys are ready for the experience.
"Teachers, people who knew them five years ago, four years ago, two years ago and now, have seen a gradual increase in the levels of self-esteem, maturity and happiness, being able to be relaxed kids," she says.
The change is most evident in Luke. "He's made a dramatic turnaround in the last years," his mother says. "Everybody at school sees it. He's much more self-assured and much less the clown or the cutup. I haven't allowed him or allowed myself the luxury of saying, 'Well, poor us. This is what happened to us and that's the reason I can't get good marks.' Or in my case, the reason I can't lose weight."
Charlotte Fedders remains self-conscious, not even willing to admit that she makes a good role model for other abused wives.
"Frankly I'm not sure I'm that encouraging for a lot of people," she says. "Here we are in this affluent society and this supposedly intelligent, informed area and look at what the court system has done to me. I can see people saying, 'I don't want to be poor. That woman is poor. I'm not going to be able to write a book. The only way she's getting out of it is she's writing a book.' "
It is true enough that these are hard times for her, Fedders says. But, she adds, "If I was wearing a sack and I only had one sack to wear I'd be better off than I was before."