Family business is considered private business, so it is rare when the public gets a truly penetrating look at the complexities, tensions, attitudes and behaviors that weave a family together -- or destroy it. An exception occurred this week when The Wall Street Journal, using evidence developed during divorce proceedings, revealed in harrowing detail the violence that occurred in the family of John M. Fedders, the top enforcement official of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Fedders, according to The Wall Street Journal and subsequent news accounts, beat his wife Charlotte for years. Theirs is a classic story of an authoritarian man who ran his family like a patriarchy, treating his wife like property, and of a frightened, submissive, insecure woman who blamed herself for his emotional and physical abuse.
It is an ugly story for both, as it is for their five sons. And it is an ugly story for the public: it forces us to confront the unpleasant fact that wife-beating and all its attendant horrors don't just happen to poor people or ignorant people or lower-middle-class people but to "the best of families."
Lenore Walker, author of "The Battered Woman," described the particular plight of these victims. "These women get the message that if they do not obey orders, they will be seriously harmed," she wrote. "They also believe that no one will help them. First of all, no one wants to believe that the men, who are pillars of the community, are capable of the kinds of abuse the women report. In addition to not being believed, these women also feel that no one would dare to take action against their husbands . . . . They are also painfully aware that if they attempt to seek out help, they must be prepared for immediate publicity, embarrassment and the potential ruination of their husband's careers. A double system of tacit coverups and concealment thus results. Everyone around the batterer becomes an accomplice to his violence."
Fedders, according to news accounts, is blaming his marital troubles on business-related problems, but court testimony shows that he broke his wife's eardrum two years after their marriage and struck her in the abdomen when she was pregnant with their first child, who is now 16. Over the years, she suffered black eyes, bruises and a wrenched neck from a 1981 incident in which her husband twisted her by the hair and yanked her around, according to her court testimony. That incident was witnessed by two of their sons.
The Fedders separated in February 1983. A judge this week postponed the divorce proceeding for three months, and according to news reports, the administration initially had no plans to ask Fedders for his resignation. This was rather remarkable, and it raised very real questions about how seriously the White House views spousal abuse and how seriously it thinks the public views it.
The administration had known about the allegations for some time, but with the publication in The Wall Street Journal of evidence presented in divorce court, the allegations became public admissions. White House Counsel Fred Fielding, who discussed the allegations with John Fedders before the divorce suit, told The Wall Street Journal he regarded the divorce proceeding as a "pending matter" and added that this was not the first time allegations of domestic violence had come to his attention. "There are two sides to every story," he said.
In this case, however, both sides seemed to agree. While Fedders disputed some aspects of his wife's testimony and said through his attorney that he is not a wife beater, he admitted to physically abusing his wife, an activity that is widely viewed by many as poisonous and just plain wrong, which is why we have laws against it. The revelations utterly stripped him of the moral authority he needed to do his job. He was right to resign.
Charlotte Fedders, in an interview with The Washington Post, said she went from an authoritarian father to an authoritarian husband, and her marriage is a textbook case of what can happen to women who allow themselves to become, in effect, doormats. From The Wall Street Journal: "Her daily routine included laying out his suit, socks and underwear in the morning, and picking up his clothes where he dropped them at night. He didn't allow shoes to be worn in their carpeted house. One witness testified that Mr. Fedders once reduced his wife to tears with abusive remarks at a dinner party."
Her story and the pattern of her life happens to women in every social and economic group and will probably continue to happen for as long as society tells women that they are second-class people. In the Fedders' public travail there is a lesson for all.