On a cool Tuesday evening last April, I went with a friend to see John Waters in conversation with curator Robert Storr at the Ninety-second Street Y. This was a nice reunion for me, as I used to work with Robert Storr and John Waters and I have long been friendly.
(By “work with,” I mean that Robert Storr may have noticed me occasionally stalking him at museum openings. By “friendly,” I meant that I can recite every conversation I’ve had with John Waters since nineteen eighty-four; with prodding, he might politely pretend to remember me before inching away.)
My friend and I went back to her apartment afterward. She went to the kitchen to open a bottle of wine. I sat at her desk to check my email. “Ah, the Tuesday tradition continues,” I called.
“You’re kidding,” she said, looking around the corner. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”
“Nope. She wouldn’t miss a Tuesday. This time she had Collie do it.” I read the email aloud.
Hi dad it's Collie and Lillie,
The new schedule began this Monday. This means that your five days in a row starts Wednesday, April 8th. This week so far has been mom's nine days in a row which ends Tuesday April 7th. To make it so Jason, Lillie, and I have the same weekends together we were wondering if it was O.K. if Jason spent this weekend with you, like normal, and then next weekend with you and Lillie and I.
Lillie and Collie
P.S. tomorrow ours field trip to the farm house!!!! 9:15 at the lobby!
“What new schedule?” my friend asked. “Is this referring to the schedule Lucy proposed in January? The one that everyone rejected as unnecessary?”
“I suppose,” I said, rereading the email. “I honestly had a hard time understanding Lucy’s scheme then. It was so complicated. Yet, by some miracle, my twelve-year-old son has conceived of the exact same plan and, by fiat, declared it in effect as of yesterday.”
“Oh, please,” my friend said, handing me a glass. “Lucy is obviously behind this email.”
I took the glass, shaking my head. “No, that can’t be. We were told not to discuss specific custody proposals with the children. Lucy would never disobey a judge’s directions, or manipulate the children.” My friend chortled. “No, I’m serious,” I continued. “No caring parent would ever put a child in such an awful position. Lucy is a caring parent. Therefore, the only possibility is that Collie was somehow, miraculously, possessed of precisely the same notion that preoccupied his mother a couple of months ago. It must’ve been a part of the collective unconsciousness. You know, just something in the air.”
“Yes, and somehow, he came up with the same plan, excluding his older brother . . .”
“ . . . thereby dividing the children, further hacking up the family. That didn’t fly when Lucy proposed it. It was clear then that Jason simply wanted nothing to do with her scheme. But now than this idea has miraculously returned . . . well, the only possible explanation is that Jason missed the Rapture.”
She leaned forward, staring at the screen. “Wait, look at that last sentence again.”
I read it over. “Right. This refers to a field trip I’m joining tomorrow morning with Lillie’s class. I mentioned it to you. She’s very excited about it.”
“Right, I remember. I’m sure she’s excited that you’ll be there. But look. The sentence reads, ‘lower-case “t” tomorrow ours, with an “s,” field trip to the farmhouse, two words, quadruple exclamation points. Nine fifteen at, not in, the lobby, exclamation point.’”
I nodded. “Sure, that’s how kids type.”
“I’m sure it is,” she agreed. “Read the paragraph above. It describes a complicated idea, with specific dates. Collie tells you, his father, that he, your child, has changed the custody agreement, effective immediately.”
She pointed at the screen. “This was not written by a twelve-year-old child. Not without help.”
“Oh, I’ve noticed that discrepancy in earlier emails from Collie that curiously echo his mother’s positions. Collie swears that his mother doesn’t write these notes. Lillie says her mom just ‘puts the words in them.’”
“Never mind that his mother has been trying change the custody agreement to her advantage for—what? ten months?—to no avail. He just decided it, purportedly on his own.”
“This is awful.” She shook her head. “What a mean, cruel thing she’s doing to her children.”
“Kidding aside,” I nodded, “It really is awful.”
Mean, cruel, awful. Yet wholly predictable.
When Lucy discovered this blog in March of last year, surprise quickly gave way to opportunism. At last, she felt she had the means to finally win the one-sided battle she had waged against me since she ended our marriage five years before. At the time of her discovery, Lucy was pushing to have my family removed from an apartment her father owned. Once that was accomplished, she planned to land the coup de grace: with the help of her family’s money and the high-profile legal team it bought her, she would sue for full custody. She had done so in the original divorce, and remained bitter that we shared joint custody.
Surely, she felt, my blog changed everything. My writing about my sexuality would give her what she needed to deny me our children. Not only would the court grant her full custody, she was sure, but I would also be ordered to shut down my blog and instructed to never again to write about the children.
While my right to keep a blog would seem to be protected by the First Amendment, parents often have their constitutional rights curtailed in custody cases, where the legal standard is expanded to include the best interests of the child. As I would later learn, this dual standard has led to contradictory rulings. Parents have been ordered to prevent their children from hunting; parents have been ordered to provide shooting instruction to their children. Parents have been ordered to provide their children with religious instruction; parents have been restricted from taking their children to certain churches. Gay parents have been forced to come out to their children; gay parents have been prohibited from coming out to their children. Run through the Bill of Rights and it’s not hard to find a custody case in which some parents have had their constitutional rights curtailed.
To up the ante, Lucy made sure the filing was made on an emergency basis, so that I would be forced to scurry for money and representation with little notice. If I failed to accomplish that, she felt, her court case would be quick work.
Lucy’s plan was upset when I showed up to court with an attorney experienced in custody cases concerning sexuality. Following a hearing in which our children were not immediately yanked from me and put into her protective care, Lucy banged her hand on the table, repeating, “No, no, no!” As she exited the courtroom, she fell into a violent tantrum. Her lawyers rushed her into a disused pay phone vestibule, frantic to hide her tantrum from view. Still, her shouting could be heard, echoing along marble hallways to reverberate in the courthouse’s domed entryway.
“Wow,” my lawyer said. “Never seen anything like that. Have you?”
The children’s law guardian stared at the vestibule, stunned. “Let’s give them a moment,” she managed.
As the case progressed, Lucy’s anger and anxiety deepened. Her entire case against me rested on my sexuality as described in this blog. To her chagrin, she saw little traction where she had expected a steamroller to crush me. The State of New York didn’t seem too concerned that my sex life had become more interesting after our divorce. Judging from the case evidence supplied pro bono by Lambda Legal, the State had heard such arguments before. Despite her expensive legal team, Lucy seemed unaware of such precedents.
Lucy’s legal team requested that I undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Bisexuality has not been considered a potential sign of mental illness for over thirty years, but involvement in BDSM remains listed as a possible symptom of paraphilia in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Given this, a psychiatric evaluation was ordered for me, and also for each member of our family.
As our sessions with the psychiatrist loomed, Lucy saw a final chance to gain advantage. She was already in the hole over one hundred thousand dollars, with nothing to show other than the court’s apparent satisfaction that I am a good father. On top of that, the economy had tanked without warning, diminishing her family’s ability to fund her second custody battle. In her heart, Lucy knew there was no reason to question my mental health. She worried about her own evaluation, given that she was diagnosed and treated for generalized anxiety disorder and depression. Having been in therapy more or less continuously since adolescence, she worried about her files being pulled and her own mental health and competence being called into question.
Given the failure of her legal team’s plan to this point, Lucy took matters into her own hands. She resorted to manipulating the children.
I took care to avoid putting the children in the middle of our conflict. It is not in a child’s best interest to be used by one parent against another. Never mind that it is a foolish strategy: there are no tricks that haven’t already been tried in custody cases. The manipulation of children is routinely detected by courts, legal guardians and psychiatrists.
Lucy surely knew this. Yet apparently, in her state of mind, she couldn’t help herself.
Lucy now alleged that the children were frightened of me, as I could not control my anger. She alleged that I routinely lost my temper and used expletives in front of the children. “This is cut from whole cloth,” I complained to my attorney. “I put up with Lucy’s rage and abuse for fifteen years and I never responded in kind. How can she make such an assertion? It’s like she is attributing her own anger to me. If I have such a problem, then why wasn’t it noted in the original motion just a few months ago?”
Soon, I saw what Lucy was doing. On the eve of the psychiatric evaluations, ordered because of my involvement with BDSM, Lucy was trying to depict me as someone unable to control an essentially violent nature. If I hit people with flogs or canes, as I had written in my blog, then surely I was capable of hitting my children.
This depiction required a crude leap of logic, in which BDSM play among consenting adults is equivalent to child abuse. But more, selling this depiction required deep cynicism. Lucy knew for a fact that there was no cause for concern that the children were in any physical danger in my care. If she had any cause for actual concern, she could have brought these concerns before the court. The court would have assuredly taken such allegations seriously and investigated accordingly. If Lucy had any evidence whatsoever of abuse—photographs, testimony, witnesses, medical records, or any signs of ill effect on the children’s behavior—she would have offered it in building a case for her full custody.
Lucy had no such evidence, as no such evidence existed. She was fully aware that the children were safe with their father. Yet this truth had little to do with the story she needed others to believe. She needed others to fall back on facile stereotypes about BDSM. Someone who would flog or cane another person must be deeply disturbed, no doubt acting on uncontrollable psychosis. Lucy could conjure stereotypes, but she could not conjure evidence. As there was no abuse, there were no photographs, testimonies, witnesses, medical records or behavioral issues.
Only on the final item—the children’s behavior—could Lucy hope to gain influence.
Suddenly, our youngest daughter began to express anxiety about being in our home. This anxiety would only be manifest when she was coming from an extended stay with her mother, never when she was coming home to me after school.
It turned out that Lucy had told her stories about me, stories designed to scare our daughter, stories that left our brave and vivacious nine-year-old child in tears on her mother’s bedroom floor. Lucy told her daughter not to repeat these stories to me. On this and other matters, our daughter would later reveal, Lucy instructed our child to lie to her father.
Suddenly, our twelve-year-old son became anxious about being away from his mother. Lucy had long referred to him as her “rock,” the anchor of her emotional wellbeing. To the law guardian, she repeatedly referred to our son as having the maturity of a “forty-five-year-old man,” attributing to a boy the precise age of her ex-husband. Lucy had long ago stopped dealing with me as co-parent of our children. She refused to speak to me, preferring to have Jason act as our go-between. Now that Jason had declined to support her goal of seeking full custody, she discarded him in favor her “rock.” She knew she could count on Collie to take care of her.
I felt for Collie. I used to have his job. As Lucy’s husband, I knew that she was always to be placated. When Lucy is unhappy with life, people around her are supposed to change life until it suits her. Her family had raised her to expect that. Her family placated her in the usual way, by writing checks, but I no longer fulfilled my role, as I declined to roll over and surrender our children. Lucy turned to Collie. He was her rock, her more reliable forty-five-year-old husband. On this and other matters, our son would later reveal, Lucy encouraged our child to do what she needed him to do to recast life to her liking.
As the two children began to exhibit signs of Lucy’s manipulation, my attorney sat me down. “If it becomes necessary,” she asked, “Are you prepared to take full custody of the children?”
I wasn’t expecting her question, but I wasn’t entirely surprised, either. “I want joint custody to work,” I answered.
“I know, and if that’s how you feel, then that’s our goal,” she answered. “Still, I’ve never seen anything so blatant. Lucille is really out of control and the children are suffering as a result. The court may direct you to take full custody. I’ve seen it happen before. Are you ready for that?”
“Yes, of course,” I nodded. “I want what’s best for the kids. Lucy was abusive when we were together, but now she’s on medication and getting treatment, so I want to be optimistic.” We sat quietly for a moment. “Anyway, this assumes Lucy can keep it together while we’re in court.”
My attorney looked at me for a moment. “Well yes, it does. Let’s see if she can.” She paused. “Look, I have to say this: manipulating children in this way is abusive. I’m your lawyer and we’ll stay this course if you want. But it’s pretty clear to anyone observing that Lucy is out of control. You aren’t still worried that she can hurt you, right?”
“No, that’s not it. I just . . . look, the kids have been through a lot. This custody thing is awful on everyone. I’d rather be optimistic and hope Lucy calms down when it ends.”
“Then let’s hope it ends soon,” my attorney said. “In the meantime, I’m investigating psychological abuse in custody cases.”
My attorney researched the free speech restrictions requested by Lucy’s legal team. To the best of my attorney’s knowledge, this was an instance of “first impression,” meaning that no other case had previously presented this mix of parental custody, sexuality and the First Amendment. If the court ruled to censor my blog, I would be able to appeal. As this was a constitutional issue of first impression, my attorney told me, it could ultimately be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Heady stuff!” I replied. “Well, my activist side says, ‘bring it.’ But as a parent, I really, really hope it doesn’t go that way. I won’t be bullied by my ex-wife but still, appeals would take so much time. So I can only hope Lucy develops some liberal shame about being so fixated on my sexuality and speech.”
“Then let’s count on Lucy’s shame,” my attorney said. “In the meantime, I’m renewing my credentials to appear before the Supreme Court.”
By this point, I felt that the writing was already on the wall. I was eager for life to return to normal for my family. I didn’t want anything to prolong the case.
Lucy, however, felt differently. She had come to fear that she had little hope of winning full custody due to my sexuality or my writing. In her desperation to win something, Lucy grasped at straws, doing what she could to turn the kids against me while making scattershot accusations.
Lucy alleged that I was unable to control my anger. She was unable to provide any evidence to that effect. The psychiatrist did not concur. It was a dead letter.
Lucy alleged that I did not care about the children’s academics. School records were offered, showing that the children were thriving in school. All had perfect homework completion records, regardless of which parent had them on the previous night. Our eldest son had recently taken the PSATs, scoring very high among college-bound students a grade above him.
Lucy compiled complaints from the children, whom she bribed to give her reports on me. She asserted that I did not do laundry often enough. I sometimes ran out of fruit juice. I failed to change the cat litter with satisfactory frequency.
We sat with the children’s law guardian. Lucy listed her complaints. I offered to try to be a more perfect housekeeper. We had come a long way, I noted, from Lucy’s original motion. She had brought me to court on an emergency basis claiming that my sexuality and writing were an immediate danger to our children. Now, we were sitting in an office in midtown Manhattan paying a lawyer six hundred dollars an hour to mediate a discussion about cat litter.
In time, the case was resolved. The law guardian was satisfied that the children were well and content at home with each parent. The court saw no reason to modify joint custody or to censor my writing. Life should have gone back to normal.
By the terms of our custody agreement, the children come to me on Wednesdays after school. After the court reached its decision, Lucy began to contact me every Tuesday with some reason why she should have the kids the following day. None of these reasons was pressing. She might have contacted me well in advance of Tuesday nights. I generally pointed this out and each week, the children came to me as usual. Her efforts were so predictable that my attorney and I began to refer to her “Custody Crisis Tuesdays.”
Finally, Lucy turned to Collie. She knew her rock wanted her to be happy. He knew that he could take care of her, so that she wasn’t so unhappy all the time. So when she told him that she wanted him and his sister to spend weekdays with her, she knew he would take care of her. Maybe he could give her what I did not. Maybe he could give her what the State of New York did not.
So it was that on a Tuesday night in April, my son’s email arrived in place of my ex-wife’s, using the words that his mother had “put in.”
I replied to Collie that his note confused me and we would talk about it the next day. I looked at the time. It was not yet ten thirty. The children would be up until eleven. “Hey, do you mind if I make a quick call?” I asked my friend. “I want to straighten out plans for tomorrow.”
“Sure,” she said. “Do you want me to leave the room?”
“No, that’s cool,” I said, opening my cell. “This won’t be long.”
For the next three hours, my friend sat nearby, her expression changing from disbelief, to shock, to dismay.
When Lucy answered, I explained that I was calling to clarify the confusion in Collie’s email. There was no change to custody, I reminded her; the court had already ruled on that. It was unfair to confuse the children by suggesting otherwise.
“It’s not me, Jefferson,” Lucy said. “It’s the kids. They really want this.”
“And Jason? He’s not included among the kids anymore?”
“Jason . . . I can’t deal with Jason anymore. He won’t do what I say. He lies to me. Did you know what a liar he is now?”
“No, I haven’t encountered that. And I don’t believe the children have suddenly generated a sui generis preference in custody—particularly one that just so happens to echo your own previous proposal.”
“It’s true, Jefferson. It’s true.” Her voice dropped to a whisper as she walked into the backyard. “I tried so hard. You have to believe me. I sat the kids down and begged them not to do this. I told them to consider your feelings; I said, ‘This is really going to hurt your father’s feelings.’ They wouldn’t listen. They didn’t care. They are scared of you, Jefferson. They are so scared of you. You don’t see that, but I do.”
“Right. I think we covered this back in the ‘Jefferson can’t control his anger’ days. Anyway, we need to clarify the plan for tomorrow. The existing plan is that I pick up the kids from school . . .”
“They won’t go with you,” she interrupted. “They’ll run away. You won’t be able to catch them. They’re fast. They will run away from you.”
“They’ll run away from me?” I looked at my friend. Her jaw hung open. “You’re saying that Collie and Lillie will run away when I pick them up at school? Why? Nothing like that has ever happened before.”
“I wouldn’t try it if I were you,” Lucy warned.
“Collie and Lillie are scared of me that they will run away, you say. But Jason isn’t scared?”
“Poor Jason,” Lucy sighed.
“Why do you say, ‘poor Jason?’ I don’t get that.”
“Poor Jason,” she repeated.
Lucy was luring me into some circular reasoning that I could not follow. It was after ten, so it was possible she was pretty stoned. I wasn’t getting anywhere with her. “Lucy, let me speak with Collie, please.”
I heard a drag on a cigarette. “He doesn’t want to talk to you.”
“He’s never refused a conversation with me before. Can you give him the phone, please?”
“I can try, but I’m telling you, he doesn’t want to talk to you.”
“Thanks for trying.” I heard the phone land on metal, presumably the wrought iron bench in the backyard. We had inherited lawn furniture from Lucy's late grandmother. When we moved into the house, I sanded the set and repainted it white.
“What’s she doing?” my friend asked.
“She’s getting Collie,” I said. "Well, she says she's getting Collie."
“Is this normal?”
“Normal is relative,” I said.
She offered me my wine, but I waved it off. A long time passed. Finally, Lucy returned to the phone. “I told you, he doesn’t want to talk to you.”
“You told him I was on the phone? What did he say?”
“He said, ‘I don’t want to talk to Dad.’”
“I see. Well, may I speak to Lillie?”
Lucy returned to her cigarette. “She doesn’t want to talk to you. None of the children want to talk to you. They are scared of you.”
“Do you mind asking, please?”
“It won’t work.”
“Fine.” Once more, the phone was placed on the wrought iron bench. Once more, an inordinate amount of time passed. Lucy picked up the phone. “It’s like I said. She doesn’t want to talk to you.”
“Just to reiterate,” I said. I motioned for my friend to pass a pen and paper. “You are saying that the children are awake at, um, eleven eighteen, and they each refuse to speak with me.”
“Yes. That is correct.”
“Okay. Well, this creates a conundrum. They are supposed to come home with me tomorrow after school . . .”
“ . . . and it is your responsibility to be sure the children are returned on my custodial days.”
“I have no control over the children, Jefferson.”
I took notes. “Are you saying you have no control over our two youngest children?”
“None of them, Jefferson,” she sighed. “Not one. Jason lies to me. Collie and Lillie do nothing I say. I have to pay them to do their homework. They don’t do anything.”
I shook my head, bent over the notepad. “I have a very hard time believing that. Now, tomorrow, you have time to talk with them as you drive to school. You can explain that they are going home with me that afternoon, as usual.”
“Why not, Lucy?”
“They don’t listen to me. I’ve told you. I was practically on my hands and knees begging them to go home with you tomorrow. They just refused. They don’t like you, Jefferson. They don’t. They don’t want to stay with you. They are scared of you.”
I drew a breath. I was not taking Lucy’s bait. I circled her main points on my friend’s notepad. “Okay, so to reiterate . . . you contend that Collie and Lillie refuse to come home with me, per usual, because they are scared of me. They will run away if I pick them up at school. Meanwhile, Jason is fine with coming home to our apartment. Also, Jason is a liar, you have no control over the children and you have to offer bribes to get them to do homework. Is that all correct?”
“Yes.” She exhaled, sarcasm in her voice. “That is all correct.”
“Okay. Well, it’s late and I don’t see any other solution. You should take Collie and Lillie tomorrow. We’ll talk after school and work this out. Okay?”
“Thanks. Maybe they’ll feel better about you tomorrow.”
“We can hope. Well, I guess we’ll talk then . . .”
“It’s just so sad they feel this way, Jefferson,” Lucy went on. “I think you are a really good dad. I really do.”
“Oh,” I replied. “Well, thanks. It’s nice to hear you say that.” I caught my friend’s eye. “What?,” she mouthed. I held up a finger.
“This has just been a really bad year, hasn’t it? Just so hard.”
“That’s right, it’s been a very bad year.” I held back my thoughts: it’s been a bad year because you dragged us all into court, my mind wanted to shout. But I sat, listening, responding only to what she said.
Lucy rambled on. Her tone became accusatory, then, on a dime, nostalgic. She laughed about the way Jason used to chase Collie around the coffee table when the baby was learning to walk. Did I remember that, she asked? I did, I said. I remembered it all. We shared other memories.
“What happened to you?” she asked finally. “You used to be so different.”
“I’m still me,” I said.
“No, you’re not. The old you wouldn’t have watched porn with your daughter.”
“Lillie?” I winced. “Lucy, I’ve never watched porn with Lillie.”
“No, I mean Rachel. You watched porn with her when she was seventeen.”
“No, I didn’t. I’ve never watched porn with Rachel. What makes you say that?”
She sighed. “It was in your blog.”
Now I was really confused. My blog is nonfiction and I only write actual events in it. “That’s not possible,” I replied. “Why would I write something that didn’t happen?”
“It was before her birthday. She was coming to visit you and she said you were going to smoke cigarettes and watch porn.”
“But I’ve never been a smoker . . . ” I began before recalling an email from Rachel that I had posted. “Oh geez, now I remember. Lucy, that was a joke. Rachel was joking. She was referring to things that she would be able to do legally once she was eighteen. She wasn’t saying we did those things together.”
“Yeah, right,” Lucy said facetiously. “Sure.”
I coughed back a laugh. “I suggest you reread that. Rachel is clearly joking. If you don’t believe me, you can ask her. I can’t believe you couldn’t see that.”
“I’m not talking to Rachel, no way,” Lucy said. She drew on her cigarette and exhaled. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Your blog is useless. Apparently I can’t get you on sex unless you rape the children.”
I caught my breath. “What?”
“It’s true. I can’t get you on sex unless you rape the children.”
I gripped my chair rail. “Are you insinuating . . . ?”
“No, of course not.” She drew another puff. “No one is saying you rape the children.”
“You sound almost disappointed.” I paused. “Actually, this sounds like something you’ve said before, the way you say it so easily. Is that true? Is that something you say to people?”
“So what? So what if I’ve said it? Look, it’s a joke, okay? Sorry I mentioned it.”
“It’s grotesque, Lucy. Really awful. Never mind that you think sex is something you can use to ‘get’ me, like you hope you can find something to ‘get’ me one day.”
Lucy was silent. “I didn’t mean to say that, that thing about ‘getting’ you.” She seemed to feel she had revealed too much. She changed the topic. “Look, here’s the thing. I read your blog and I think, why now? Why couldn’t we do fun things when we were married? I like to be touched. I like sex.”
I stared at a blank wall. I couldn’t process this.
“Plus, why do you write that I’m ‘miserable?’ I’m not miserable. Look, I’ve got a house and a car. I’ve got a full-time job and a four-oh-one-k. I’m happy. You’re the one who should be miserable. You don’t have anything.”
I started to answer that I had a nice Toyota, but that seemed beside the point. “I’m not really sure how to answer that, Lucy. Look, it’s late. It’s after one. Are the kids still up?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I need to get to bed. We’ll talk tomorrow. Good luck with the kids tomorrow. We’ll talk.”
“Okay.” She waited. I had nothing to add. “Okay, then.” She exhaled. “I guess that’s it. Good night.”
“Night.” I closed my phone.
“Oh my God,” my friend said. I’d almost forgotten she was in the room. She sat on the couch, her knees pulled up under her chin. Her face was stricken. “Are you okay?”
The phone was limp in my hand. “If I didn’t know better,” I said, “I’d swear Lucy was expecting me to end that conversation by saying ‘I love you.’”