The mothers at the Saturday soccer game were outraged. They had read the newspaper that morning, and it is a good thing for one John S. McInerney that he wasn't around Lake Fairfax Park in Reston at high noon. He would have been lynched.
McInerney is a domestic relations master in Montgomery County who has come up with one of the most crackpot rulings to emerge from a divorce court in recent times. The case, as everybody must know by now, involves John M. Fedders, the former chief enforcer for the Securities and Exchange Commission and confessed wife abuser, and his wife, Charlotte, who did the unthinkable. She blew the whistle on him.
There isn't much that is any uglier in intimate relationships than spouse-beating or much that's more destructive. And the Fedderses' story is about as ugly as anything to come along. Charlotte Fedders testified in her divorce proceedings, for example, that her husband punched her in the abdomen when she was pregnant with their first child. The abuse continued for 16 years and occurred at times in front of their children.
What was so unusually instructive about the Fedderses' story, however, was that it brought out into the open one of the deep, dark secrets of the middle and upper class: Wife-beating is not some deviant behavior confined to poor people. It goes on in the homes of Nice People as well. Charlotte Fedders' painful revelations early in her divorce proceedings were spread out all over Page 1 of The Wall Street Journal. Her husband was forced to resign his $72,300-a-year position at the SEC, and he has had a tough time making a good living ever since.
This is something he should have thought about before he started beating his wife. There are still some acts that have dire consequences.
Or there should be.
And this is what makes the latest twist in the Fedderses' story so astonishing.
Thanks to McInerney, John Fedders is about to profit from wife abuse.
Charlotte Fedders has continued to speak out about domestic violence and has written a book with Washingtonian magazine staff writer Laura Elliott about her marriage. Harper & Row is the publisher. At a final divorce hearing in September, Fedders said he expected to make no more than $30,000 this year and he asked for half interest in the $425,000 family home in Potomac, a reduction in alimony and a portion of the proceeds from Charlotte Fedders' book.
In the course of the hearing, John Fedders took the "Mommy-made-me-do-it" excuse to new lows. He blamed his wife for denying him emotional support during bouts of depression he sufferred during their marriage. And he blamed his mother for his bouts of depression. This is a guy who really knows how to take responsibility for his actions.
Fedders, who has been undergoing psychoanalysis since 1985, has traced the source of his depression to his childhood and his mother's hospitalizations due to complications of pregnancies. His mother lost six babies. He told the court that his wife was an unsympathetic spouse who aggravated his mental state. He said she had baited him with suggestions that he commit suicide. He claimed she was equally to blame for the violence in their marriage, and thus he claimed a share of the proceeds of the book. He also said that publicity repeatedly generated by his wife had kept him from rebuilding his life.
What had the women at the soccer game steaming is that McInerney agreed with Fedders. He ruled that Fedders was entitled to half interest in the family home, cut Charlotte Fedders' alimony by a third and awarded John Fedders 25 percent of the proceeds from the sale of the book. Charlotte Fedders had split a $100,000 advance with her collaborator and her agent and paperback rights for the book sold for $300,000. It's a natural for the movies.
This ruling flies in the face of the spirit of laws that have been passed in 35 states, making it impossible for persons to engage in criminal activity and then profit from writing about it. Fedders was not charged or convicted of any criminal wrongdoing, but he has admitted hitting his wife. For this, he should make money?
We are not talking here about a book that was written while the couple was together, about a creative effort that Fedders nurtured along and encouraged. He took no part in the writing. There is no legitimate basis for treating the book as marital property. The work was done after the couple separated. There was, in other words, ample legal basis for McInerney to throw out Fedders' claim, precisely the way judges across the land have thrown out claims by rapists that their victims made them do it.
His claim had no more merit than that.