Living the life of a petrified leper.
– Emily Dickinson
Imagine, for a minute, that you are Ken. You’re standing in your bedroom holding a paper bag that you’ve put your underwear and socks in, with two cops who were ordered by the judge to escort you back to the house and won’t let you out of their sight to go to the bathroom. And you can’t even take a suitcase because that’s “marital property.” I’m not kidding.
But first a confession: I didn’t tell the truth about how the world ends, at least regarding what happened to our hero, Ken, in The Mouth of Truth – not the whole truth anyway, because I was trying to make the heartbreaking mess seem less horrible than it really was while still getting the painful ugly point across. And I’m going to finish Ken’s hypothetical story as best I can without coming completely clean because the specific details of this exquisite and malignant treachery are so utterly damning and shameful, but luckily aren’t crucial to the plot and character arc, or lessons learned.
And lest anyone think this type of treachery is unusual, or that I’m making this stuff up for effect or sympathy, or that I’m exaggerating, I urge you to peruse an excellent article I found on Quillette.com – it lays out the sobering statistics of this reprehensible and criminal home-wrecking tactic that's so pervasive it even has its own magical sounding name: The Silver Bullet.
You ask them if you can wait fifteen minutes – Morgan is coming home from school and you want to at least tell her what happened. They say ok. The tall one looks vaguely familiar and you ask him if he’s any relation to a friend of yours who owns the local service station. He says yes, that’s his dad. You ask him if he was the guy who used to work in the local video rental store years ago when you first moved to town. He said that was his brother. So, you’re the little kid who would come into the hardware store to say hello to Mike, the owner’s son and pet his dog, Ace? He said yup, that’s me. Standing in your bedroom, next to the bed you slept in that night, with two cops, holding a shopping bag with everything you’re allowed to own in this world, believe it or not, is you.
Morgan comes home and she’s so happy to see you, but then notices the police and freezes. Why are they here – are you getting arrested? You say no, they’re here because the judge has thrown you out of the house. She asks why. You say it’s a long story. The cops say they’ll wait outside. She asks when are you going to come back? You say hopefully soon. She knows you’re lying and throws her arms around your neck, bursting into tears that would drown the world.
Finally, you get Morgan a snack, and the police escort you off the premises. You go and stay with a friend in the next town over, shell-shocked, and try to make some sense of everything. She’s an old friend, and sets you up in a spare bedroom with a separate entrance. You just sit on the bed. Probably for hours. The phone rings and it’s Ryan – hey, dad, can you pick me up from rugby practice? Sure, because mundane, unstoppable indifferent life goes on, and the billion shattered pieces still need to be picked up. And you do. But you can’t go on the property, so you pull into the driveway across the street and drop him off there. He turns to you with the honest unfiltered sadness of a child as plain as day on his beautiful face that you, you... you know what I mean?
Your friend, let’s call her Alisha, is trying to be as consoling as possible, but is probably as baffled and angry as you are. She’s had no experience with a “domestic”, or evil, really, so can’t give any advice beyond tinny platitudes and clichéd urgings. You go back to your bedroom and lie down, staring at the ceiling. You call Uncle Howie – he used to be married to Debbie’s cousin, a hilarious New York Jew with a wicked wit, and someone you consider a friend. He’s also a lawyer – you tell him what happened and he tells you what’s going to happen, and the next things you need to do to be as prepared as possible. He tells you it’s going to get darker before it gets lighter, but to do everything your lawyer, and especially the judge, says. You kind of don't sleep that night because obedience has never been your strong suit.
The next morning the phone rings early, and it’s Uncle Howie. You think he’s calling back to try to cheer you up, but that’s not the case at all, grasshopper. He says he just got a call from Debbie and she’s been ringing everyone and their sister up and telling them that you abandoned the family to “do your own thing” and now she has to go to work and raise the children all by herself. I thought he was kidding. He said no, he called Lisa (his ex-wife and Debbie’s cousin) and Debbie had told her the same story. What? If you can’t control a person, then control what other people think about them – classic character assassination. Reprehensible and disgusting, but deadly-effective tactic, I’m afraid. Fuck – you’re going to have to learn how to fight like a girl, brother!
Child Services calls you Monday morning and wants you to come in and meet with your counselor as soon as possible. Here’s a representative vignette you witnessed when you got to the basement waiting room, which hopefully will give our dear readers the full unflinching flavor of the place. After walking through a buzz-in door and a metal detector and then being frisked by the armed security guard, who didn’t even acknowledge your quip about isn’t stop and frisk illegal? you come across this charming scene: there’s an obviously distraught woman standing in front of the receptionist waving some paperwork, yelling, “I don’t know how to spell his name. I have to call and ax my sister.”
You meet with your counselor, a petit Hispanic woman, and tell your side of the story, and you will say this: of everyone in the whole corrupt and contemptible divorce machinery you had the misfortune of grinding gears with, she probably had the least amount of guile – she actually listened without judgement, and made her recommendation to the judge based on the facts, after talking to you, Debbie, and the children. She wasn’t educated or polished or particularly impressive in any way, and she laughed at exactly none of your jokes, but did her job with a quiet confidence and unshowy earnestness that gave you pause, like noticing a flower in a ghetto sidewalk crack. Props and eternal gratitude, Maria.
Through a friend, you find a small cottage close to your house and the kids that might be for rent and you call the owner. She tells you it’s not for rent: there’s not only no heat, there’s no oil barrel, no electricity and the toilet doesn’t work. And it’s wicked expense. You tell her it sounds perfect and you’ll take it. So you go over and get the key. That night you lie down on the bare living room floor, freezing, in the dark, with a chamber pot and consider yourself really, really fortunate to have found that tiny place in the world because anything else would only have been farther away from your children and any sort of sanity or hope.
You sleep every night on that same floor for the next nine months, in the fetal position, weeping. You only realize years later that what you were suffering from was PTST – which usually happens during wartime, but is essentially just a normal person coming face to face with malevolence and intentional brutality for the first time in their lives. Believe me when I tell you it’s a cold-sweat spiral staircase all the way down to hell, epicentered in soul-crushing immobility, frequent terror, and despair.
And this wasn’t some sort of psychological problem at all, it was a real problem. Because all it would take would be one phone call to the police, either from Debbie or Elaine, and you would be in jail – violating the protective order is a Class-B Felony. And Ken had been threatened: one time he was going to visit Morgan at the ice cream shop where she worked and Morgan called him just before he left and said that Elaine was coming and that he better stay away, or there’d be trouble. Another time Debbie “accidentally” called Ken and if he had answered the phone he would have been arrested for having ‘contact’.
Did I tell you the principal of the school sent a letter to Ken saying he was no longer allowed on school property because of the protective order? Ken called her and asked her what was up with that? He had to pick up Ryan and Morgan every day and take them to practice and the protective order had nothing to do with the school. She said that it was school policy and that they wanted to make sure everyone was “safe” and that if Ken came onto school property they would have him arrested for trespassing, or worse: endangering minor children. I am not making this up.
And I’m not going to even mention the whole “I don’t want to take sides” blather you heard from your friends, family, and foe alike. Needless to say, you became the town leper overnight.
But back to putting ourselves back in Ken’s immediate shoes: your hearing finally comes and you’re hopeful that justice will be served – you’ve met with the court’s expert on cases involving minor children, Kelly, and she was sympathetic to your side of the story. You’ve already mentioned your child services case worker, and she had recommended “no cause” or some other anodyne-sounding legalese that basically meant not guilty. You’ve met with the court-appointed “violence and domestic abuse” psychologist and told him that you didn’t need violence and domestic abuse counseling – you never raised a finger to anyone in your life – you needed help dealing with betrayal and treachery. Come to find out he was head honcho of the whole program in Connecticut, and even though he couldn’t make a recommendation to the judge, his opinion about your innocence was made very clear.
Law & Order is one of your all-time favorite shows, and so that’s always been your now-laughable idea for what courtroom drama was like in real life. Ha. The first person to speak, after all the procedural stuff, is our friend Courtney, the GAL from Harvard. She gives a glowing recommendation on what a fine young lady Elaine is – articulate, poised, and completely believable. She presents her “report” to the judge. Your lawyer Dave asks if she even interviewed you. She said no, her responsibility was the welfare of the children. Dave said how do you know what Elaine said was true if you didn’t even ask her dad for his side of the story? Whut? Is this a kangaroo court?
And then Kelly stands up and says that you absolutely are a threat and a danger to the children, and that the protective order should be kept in place. She’s the ‘child advocate’ for the court, representing the “best interests” of the children and the judge almost always defers to her. She plays a recording in open court. Unbeknownst to you, Ryan had recorded you yelling at Elaine years ago and had given it to Debbie, who kept it all this time as a weapon, a trump card to be used one day against you. She played it for Kelly when she had her interview and made it seem like it just happened and that you were an imminent danger to the children. Kelly believed her and your fate was sealed. Wait! No! You wanted to jump up and scream that that was years ago, and that you’d had your epiphany, and hadn’t yelled once since, and that it was all a travesty and the best thing for the children was for you to be back in the house as the firm hand and moral center you had always been since day one.
But that’s not what happened. You didn’t jump up. In fact you weren’t allowed to speak at all. You stood there with you hands by your side, helpless, betrayed, humiliated, and didn’t open your mouth. Your lawyer started to object but the judge put up his hand and stopped him. What happened was the judge extended the protective order until a trial date could be set and that was that. Next case. Except, to add insult to injury, the pernicious Debbie had a printout of a text you had sent her a few days earlier that said something like “are you happy now you finally got me ‘the fuck out of the house’ like you were always telling me you wanted?” (For years, whenever Ken asked Debbie what she wanted she’d say “For you to get the fuck out of the house.”) Her lawyer told the judge that she now felt threatened and could he extend the protective order to her too? He said of course.
The die was cast: divorce court was essentially a moot point because you were already labelled (libeled?) and there was no way that judge was going to let you anywhere near the house. Debbie had all the money, the kids, the home, and a protective order against you for the next nine months – why would she make any concessions on anything? And she had done her best to assassinate your character in the meantime. What about the 10,000 diapers you had changed? Meant shit. In the next meeting you had with all the divorce lawyers, your man Sean starts off by asking Debbie: would you rather put all of your hard-earned money into my children’s 529 plan or your own children’s 529? She told him, in a fierce whisper to steel anyone's spine – she would burn down the house rather than let you back in it with the kids, quote unquote.
You turn to her lawyer, Erin McDonald, who was showing everyone how tough and competent she was by virtue signaling all over the place – self-righteous and condescending – and ask her: wasn’t your maiden name Covino? She said yes it was. And you grew up in the Bronx, didn’t you? She said yes again. So you were raised old-school Italian? She nodded. Let me ask you a simple question, since you seem to have all the answers: what would have happened if you punched your father in the face? Silence. You have all the answers, Miss McDonald, and know everything, and are telling everyone what a piece of dung I am. Well? Silence. I’ll tell you what would have happened: if he didn’t kill you right then and there your mother would have. And God would understand.
We’re almost done, but first an aside, and then a sidebar, and finally a minor point of law. Here’s the aside: after that meeting you tell your lawyer that he knows the best thing for the children is to have you back in the house, Debbie also knows that’s what’s best, her lawyer knows it, and so does the GAL. And Ryan and Morgan want it. WTF? The only way the judge will remove Debbie from the house is if she kills someone, and that’s not hyperbole, Sean says. Really? That’s so wrong I don’t even know where to start. Let me ask you something, Sean – if you were Debbie’s lawyer and she told you she wanted to get me out of the house so she could beat the kids senseless every single night when she came home from work without me there to protect them, would you do it? Absolutely, came the reply, without so much as the batting of an eye.
But anyway, he left the next morning to drive back home – they were going on to climb Mt. Katahdin in Maine – and he went through customs right back in Niagara Falls, just like he had done the day before. Except he didn’t. He bantered with the customs agent as he handed him his passport, and then the agent’s face turned grim. He said he was going to have to ask Ken to get out of the vehicle. Ken thought he was kidding. He came out of the booth and said pull over right there and exit the vehicle. Ken did. He said he was going to escort Ken into the building, which was an immigration detention center. Ken asked why. He said because you have a protective order against you. Ken said, yeah, but you can see I’m alone. Please, get out of the vehicle and come with me.
He put our hero in a room for about fifteen minutes with an armed guard. Fifteen minutes is a long time when you don’t know if you’re going to be arrested because you violated some fine-print bullet point you didn’t even know about, on a protective order that was a complete joke in the first place, only it wasn’t a joke, or whether they were going to let you go. It’s scary stuff, believe me, because we take our fundamental and precious freedom for granted. Speaking of only it wasn’t a joke, Ken noticed the humorless guard’s nametag read “Ferris” and he was going to start humming: Dum. Dum. Dumdumdum. DumdumdumdumDUMdumdumdumdum. Ha ha ha. Get it? Ferris is a homophone for ferrous which is the chemical name for iron. I am Iron Man. Pay attention, son, I said pay attention, there’s humor in there somewhere. Luckily, and for some inexplicable reason because it has almost never happened before or since, Ken exercised some common sense and restraint and didn’t try to add any ‘levity’ to the situation.
The point of law is this: Ken was arrested on a charge of “Disturbing the Peace” which is classified as an ‘infraction’ – not even a misdemeanor, for crying out loud. Look what we have here: Debbie and Elaine committed a fistful of felonies between them that night, and all Ken was accused of was committing an infraction, which is the same as a parking ticket or a traffic violation, like not putting a turn signal on when you take a left turn. Because of that he was removed from his home, separated from his children (cue Sophie’s Choice music), was stripped of his second amendment rights, and then had a protective order put in place that essentially left him homeless and with a real and petrifying legal Sword of Damocles hanging over his head, for the next nine excruciating months. On a charge of Disturbing the Peace.
Think about that for about 10 seconds, all you lovers of fair play, and America, and every skeptic and cynic and Constitutionalist out there rubbernecking. And don’t imagine for a minute it couldn’t happen to you. Or your father. Or your brother. Or your son. It can, and does, all the time, with one phone call. Cowardice and mendacity exist in this world, good people. In fact, you might be sleeping with the devil right now and not even know it.
So what happened in the criminal case, you’re probably wondering? After the nine months was up, and he had completed the "violence counseling" the DA offered Ken a deal of nolle prosequi which he took, and the case was immediately dismissed and his record was expunged, as easy as kiss my hand. But I imagine and hope that high above these fair fields of Connecticut the cloudless moon is still rattling like a fragment of angry candy.
That’s all, folks. As honest and specific as I can muster – it’s up to you to decide how heinous and soul-crushing the world can be. Or terrific and true. Me? After all I’ve been through I’m more positive and grateful every day than I ever was. Every damn day. It’s wonderful just to be alive, and free. And I’ve forgiven Elaine and Debbie for what they’ve done because I’m just as responsible for what happened as they are. In fact, it’s as much my fault as theirs – I’m not saying I deserved being screwed to the wall, but every decision I had made in my life up until then put my nose in front of that fist, so-to-speak (see John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty), so I’ve got no one to blame but myself. My heart, my mind, and my door are now and always open to them: I’m convinced the truth is not only cathartic but curative, and the integrity of the individual is the answer to the suffering that is life.
But I thought I would give the last word to someone else, an anonymous brother-in-arms with it seems a sly, Socratic sense of justice, and wicked black humor. A week or so after Ken was arrested and kicked out of his beloved, beloved home, this imp, under the cover of the night snuck onto the property and lowered the American flag to half staff. It was the most ludic, lovely and poetic gesture of sadness and solidarity I’ve ever heard. To this day Ken doesn’t know who it was, and neither do I, but the universe knows. The universe knows.