She and I had driven out to the lawyer's office in El Cajon to see if we couldn’t resolve our differences peacefully.
  • She and I had driven out to the lawyer's office in El Cajon to see if we couldn’t resolve our differences peacefully.
  • Image by Catherine Kanner

My wife and I had been living apart peacefully for three years before she decided to “make it legal.” And thus the long war began. We’d been married fourteen years, practically our entire adult lives, and although we were resigned to the marriage’s failure, talk of divorce had been a frightening idea. Specific issues, such as who would have custody of the two boys — seven-year-old Sean and five-year-old Richard — were too unsettling for me even to think about. Of course those aren’t my sons’ real names. Discussing in public the breakup of one’s family is difficult enough without having to ruin whatever privacy your own children have managed to keep for themselves. Back then they’d been living with their mother in Clairemont, and I would see them every two or three days, taking them places like Bob’s Big Boy or the Mission Beach plunge, sometimes along with their mother, while maintaining my own life in a one-bedroom house in Ocean Beach. Perhaps I didn’t ever think about the details of divorce because I knew — and feared — what my wife would do. But when I got word that she had decided to take action, I telephoned her one October night in 1977 to ask what she was planning to do. “My attorney told me not to discuss that end of it with you,” was her hesitant answer. Three days later I got the news officially from the attorney’s secretary. “Yes,” she informed me, “the form you’re to sign indicates she is asking for custody of both children.”

“I know how you feel about that,” my wife later explained. “But I believe this is what’s best for the children. You obviously didn’t care about them or you wouldn’t have moved out on us,” she said bitterly. I pleaded that she consider joint custody, but she was adamant. The next day, half blinded by anger and dread, I did the only thing I felt I could do. I went looking for an attorney.

Over the next five months prior to the divorce trial (known as the “interlocutory hearing” by the legal industry), my life became a long, muffled scream. Every attorney I spoke with confirmed the worst: as the father, and especially as a father who had moved out, I had absolutely no parental rights after divorce. My wife could legally take the children with her back East to live with her parents, as she had mentioned doing. My only recourse, the attorneys said, was to sue for child custody myself, which, they all agreed, was a waste of time. As for an injunction preventing my wife and children from leaving town, I was told no judge would order it if my wife did not agree.

It was true that during the last three years of my marriage I had been less than the model husband, having had affairs with other women, even as my wife was aware of them. While I feared her anger and felt guilty about the pain I caused her, I honestly believed my life was my own, and I wasn’t happy turning down another woman who wanted a part of me my wife never knew and never really wanted. We attempted various arrangements, but nothing seemed to work. First I asked her to have affairs of her own, but she wasn’t interested. We went to group therapy for a year, but that only solidified my resolve to have more affairs. My guilt about the whole thing finally led me to move away to begin my own life. Naturally she felt betrayed of all she had invested in building a family, and today, with my anger having been transformed into purpose and action, and with most of the fear having vanished, I can understand why she wanted to get even. She would say that vengeance had nothing to do with it, that she was only trying to protect the children. Beginning in the fall of 1977 and during the turbulent winter that followed, so was I.

By March of 1978, our divorce hearing had been set, and I had been working with an attorney who thought he could help. My plan was to get an injunction from the judge, added onto the divorce, which would prevent my wife from taking our sons out of the county. We appeared before Judge Francis Gallagher. My attorney knew how hard I’d prepared for this appearance, and to my chagrin I quickly discovered it was good that I had, too. If I’d left matters solely to my attorney, nothing would have been done. Family-law attorneys, I’ve learned, generally are unprepared to fight hard for all their clients; they each have far too many cases (about sixty at any given moment, my attorney estimated for himself) to get deeply involved in any one. They can spare just enough time to line up the legal dominoes, tap the first one, and hope everything falls according to plan. In my debut court appearance, I learned a great deal about how that plan works.

My wife’s attorney was the first to speak. I’d already formed an unfavorable opinion of this man, with his soft body and even softer voice. Six months earlier and weeks before that portentious phone call to my wife, she and I had driven out to his office in El Cajon to see if we couldn’t resolve our differences peacefully. It was a cordial meeting, and the issue of child custody didn’t come up, at least not to the point of serious discussion. We both cared enough about Sean and Richard that I believed any attorney would only naturally want to help us arrange for joint custody. As we walked into his office I felt proud of the fact that, unlike many angry couples we had heard of but had never known, we at least had the good sense not to run out and each get our own lawyer. The El Cajon attorney listened to our complaints, then said he’d try to work out something for us. Two weeks later he telephoned me to announce that he could not represent two opposing clients and that he was now representing Mrs. Corvus exclusively. Furthermore, he advised, I should find myself an attorney.

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