On the Record on Abuse and Incest: Talking to the Press of Family Pathology

August 23, 1992|By LAURA LIPPMAN

Tolstoy was wrong when he said all happy families are alike, but each unhappy one has a unique misery. Even the unhappy families are beginning to seem alike.

One day recently, I talked to three parents who are in the throes of ugly wrangles over their children. Each believed a newspaper article could solve everything.

A man said his ex-wife's sister's boyfriend had hit his son with a belt, so he wanted full custody. A woman's ex-husband had been awarded unsupervised visitation with their daughter, although he had molested his stepdaughter. Another man, arrested recently in a Baltimore County sweep of "deadbeat dads," complained that he was paying support for a child never proven to be his.

"Granted, my story is a little weird," he said. If only it were.

The only thing that separates these people from Woody Allen and Mia Farrow is that couple's celebrity. If Mr. Allen can call a news conference to deny allegations of child abuse, why can't John Q. Citizen from Arbutus? If Elizabeth Morgan and Eric Foretich want to wage a public fight over the custody of their daughter, Hilary, why can't Jane Doe from Dundalk?

It should be noted that the people who call have terrible problems and, it would appear, genuine concern for their children's welfare.

But their solution -- vindication through publication -- seems an odd one. Why do these people want to provide painful, intimate details about their private lives? What do they hope to gain by sharing these stories with The Baltimore Sun's readers?

In many cases, people believe that a reporter will expose some flaw in the "system," forcing the situation to be resolved in their favor. Linda Davis, at the Dundalk-based Survivors of Incest, Anonymous, said courts sometimes fail abused children in custody disputes.

Yet, in the cases described above, it was difficult to pinpoint any systemic failure. Where abuse was alleged, investigations had been conducted within 24 hours, as required by law. And, given the conflicting evidence, it was difficult to see how even 'N Solomon could have mediated.

Sometimes, people call simply for the cathartic value. A mother who was, in this context, lucky -- she had left an abusive husband, who was not seeking custody of the step-children he had abused -- was still frustrated at the way the investigation had been handled.

"It reminds me of when the evangelist used to come to town and pitch his tent," said a social work supervisor familiar with this seeming compulsion to share such stories. "One person gets up, tells his story, and is healed. Then everyone wants to tell. They get caught up in the frenzy."

These days, the evangelists that come to town arrive daily, via television, and are named Oprah, Geraldo, Maury, Montel, Phil and Sally. Others choose the church of People, coming forward in the magazine to discuss incest or drug abuse.

Fine. Confession is good for the soul. Oprah Winfrey, by talking freely and candidly about her experience as an abused child, probably has helped thousands of similar victims.

But one person's confession can violate another person's privacy. What happens when a parent decides to involve his or her child in the quest for vindication? When does Hilary Foretich get to decide if she wants her mother, Elizabeth Morgan, to give jailhouse interviews about the alleged sexual abuse the daughter suffered? How does the 7-year-old adopted child of Mr. Allen and Ms. Farrow take control of her story, whatever it is?

"My ex-husband sexually assaulted her," one woman told me, indicating the daughter who sat at her side. "The doctor had to surgically reconstruct her sexual organs."

The girl, a young adolescent, was expressionless. It was impossible to tell how she felt about her mother revealing this information. Her mother, caught up in her quest to deny her ex-husband visitation with another, younger daughter, did not seem to think this could embarrass the teen-ager.

On an emotional level, I believed this woman. But if I write about this family, how can I omit the fact that the woman's own mother once accused her of being an unfit mother? What can I say about an incident that the mother described as an attempted murder, although her ex-husband was never prosecuted?

Finally, who would really benefit? In the Morgan-Foretich case, both parents used the media to plead their cases, especially Ms. Morgan. If one believes that Hilary was abused by her father, I suppose her exile to New Zealand represents a happy ending. (Discovered in hiding there, Hilary Morgan was ordered to remain in the country by a court, which considered only what was in her best interest. Mrs. Morgan, once jailed for refusing to produce the child, has joined her there.)

The fact is, children and parents can go into hiding without calling press conferences. They also can negotiate bitter custody disputes without involving the media. Newspapers and television stations should be a court of last resort.

At such times, we should be grateful we are not Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. And even more grateful we are not 7-year-old Dylan Farrow.

Laura Lippman is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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