HILARY'S TRIAL: THE ELIZABETH
MORGAN CASE: A CHILD'S ORDEAL
IN AMERICA'S LEGAL SYSTEM.
Simon & Schuster.
276 pages. $21.95.
Perhaps it is too much to ask that someday, somehow, someone will look closely at the Elizabeth Morgan case without being driven by the tragedy and the hateful emotions of it all, and come away with an unbiased account of what it was really all about. Sad to say, no one has yet.
Jonathan Groner, using a lawyer's obsession with detail and a journalist's instinct for hidden motive, has tried to do it. He, too, has failed, and failed totally. His account is the most complete exploration so far, but it is maddeningly one-sided and, in the last analysis, hopelessly unpersuasive.
The publicity from Simon & Schuster puffs this book as "a comprehensive, objective account of the case." From first to last, however, it is a lawyer's brief, arguing the side of the father in this terrifying battle over the custody of a child, and what little literary quality there is in the book is expended on sympathetic portraiture of the father.
The story, if it is not already a matter of household familiarity, is about a little girl whose parents had broken up before she was born and who was at the center of a years-long fight over custody. The mother accuses the father of sexually abusing the child on her visits to him. The father vehemently denies it and fights back. The mother goes to jail for 25 months rather than let the visitations continue, the baby is sent into hiding with its maternal grandparents, the mother is freed by an
act of Congress, and the baby shows up in New Zealand five months after that.
The case has become a metaphor for modern America's raging quarrels over parental rights and child custody, and it is likely to be studied for decades for what it can tell about letting lawyers, judges and doctors settle those quarrels.
Mr. Groner, a former prosecutor and now an editor at Legal Times, a lawyers' newspaper in Washington, chronicles all of this with as much detail as anybody could possibly wish to know, and along the way seeks -- with the thinnest veneer of objectivity -- to show that the evidence must add up to a conclusion that it was the father, Eric Foretich, who was wronged, not the mother, Elizabeth Morgan.
If it is a convention in writing a lawyer's brief that it be stubbornly dull, Mr. Groner has met the standard exactly. No matter what heights or depths the story of the child, Hilary Foretich, reaches as the facts pile up, everything is described in an almost entirely colorless prose. The style is displayed in every chapter heading, too: merely a calendar date.
One supposes that this style was adopted to convince the reader that Mr. Groner put his passions under his pillow as he composed this work, and wrote with the utmost clinical detachment. But, if that was in fact the publisher's aim, it was doomed: doomed because the writing, bland as it is, is controlled by the author's seemingly unalloyed bias in favor of the father. The prejudice comes out, on page after page.
*The personal history of Eric Foretich and his family is told with an understanding tolerance; the personal history of Elizabeth Morgan and her family is told with venomous intolerance.
*If these parents are two troubled people, and Mr. Groner is convinced that they are, Elizabeth, to him, is certifiable, and Eric is forgivable.
*Scene after scene is reconstructed with the dark hues on Elizabeth's side, the bright ones on Eric's. Elizabeth manipulates Hilary, Eric simply loves her.
*Every one who lines up with Elizabeth is suspect, every one who sides with Eric is credible. Every lawyer who worked for Elizabeth is a charlatan (or nearly so), and every medical expert is an incompetent; every attorney on Eric's side is given a wide margin of acceptance, and every medical expert is largely taken on faith.
Mr. Groner's most noteworthy achievement with this book, ultimately, is that he shows why the awful tale of Hilary Foretich's first eight years of life has become a cause celebre in the child abuse and child custody crises of today: It is because people just can't seem to avoid choosing up sides.
One closes this disappointing book, and turns back to a publicity handout distributed by Simon & Schuster about it. It asks the question: "Will we ever know the real truth?" The answer Mr. Groner's effort suggests is very simple: not with this book.
Mr. Denniston covers the Supreme Court for The Sun.