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Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 105) — Oblique Divorce Strategy #3

Don’t just do something, stand there.

In the third version of Betty Broderick’s version of “The Elisor,” she’d switched planes and found herself sitting next to a woman in her mid-20s. Once the plane achieved altitude the woman produced a copy of Brides Magazine. Betty ordered a drink on impulse but, shortly after it was served, she said to no one in particular, “I don’t know why I did that; I never drink on a cross-country trip.”

Her seatmate said, “Excuse me?”

“Oh,” Betty replied. “I was just talking to myself. It’s true that alcohol compounds jet lag. I’m rebounding from an experience that upset my idea of how the world works and my judgment is a bit off.”

An awkward silence ensued as Betty’s overture was ignored. She asked, “Has the date been set?”

Her seatmate beamed. “The Saturday before Labor Day.”

Betty said, “So you have plenty of time to plan and prepare.”

“Yes. It’s a mixed blessing. Maybe too much time. My mom and I are getting to know each other better than either one of us would prefer.”

Betty said, “Dan and I had a big wedding, too. In retrospect, I don’t know what we were trying to accomplish.”

The young woman said, “Wasn’t it to make public your vows to love, honor and cherish for life?”

Betty couldn’t resist, “Maybe. If so, it didn’t work.”

“I think it works if you work on it.”

Betty replied, “But both have to work on it and there can’t be any bimbos.”

The young woman said, “I think Steve and I will make it. We’ve been together four years. We’ve even saved enough for a down-payment on a house — in California.”

Betty said bitterly, “Patient, California homeowners. How perfect. I was patient. I waited until he finished medical school. Then there were four pregnancies and two children while he was at Harvard Law School. Then there were five more pregnancies in San Diego. Just the one girlfriend — his, not mine. When he tired of me he got a high-powered lawyer who talked the judge into magically turning a court clerk into an 'Elisor.' An Elisor can sign your name on a deed to your house and sell it without your consent — and that’s exactly what this Elisor did to me.”

The woman said, “I’ve never heard of anything like that. I’m sorry that you’ve had such a horrible experience. The fuss about the big wedding aside, we’re really doing it for our parents. Steve and I take the commitment very seriously. We are both from Catholic families, and we have faith.”

Betty was aware of risking the loss of her audience when she rolled her eyes and said, “Dan and I each had 16 years of Catholic education. I had never heard of an 'Elisor' either, but when I needed the church and our devout families to fill Dan with the fear of God, they were too busy telling me to ‘shut up and be a good sport.’”

She knew she’d gone too far; the conversation was over. But she felt better; she had borne witness — again. This little naïve dope, who reminded Betty of herself, would have something to think about — something they don’t tell you about in wedding magazines.

                                                                        •        •

Each of the three versions of “The Elisor” is factually correct, but each misleads in a different direction. The process of consciously and deliberately telling the same story in different ways to evoke different reactions from different people is a demonstration to yourself of the power and diversity of your narrative talent.

The challenge comes when you try to leave the story out and do your best to describe your understanding of some aspect of reality for the purpose of getting a sincere response from another person.

                                                                        •        •

Bella Stumbo, then a Los Angeles Times star reporter, tells the story of “The Elisor” in Until the Twelfth of Never (from Kindle Locations 2855-2897).

Dan's interest in selling coral reef as soon as possible was, of course, both obvious and reasonable: He was now paying the monthly mortgage on three houses — hers, his and theirs, which was sitting empty.

What followed was part comedy, part tragedy.

Once, when they had their first buyer lined up, Betty simply refused to sign the papers properly. The buyer walked out in impatience. Not until the end of January did a second buyer surface — and the same run-around began again. The man caught in the middle of all this was attorney Dan Jaffe, who was representing Betty in the negotiations — or trying to.

In a final, absurd episode, after the second buyer had been found, Jaffe flew to San Diego and drove Betty to the office of Dan's attorney, Thomas Ashworth, to finalize the paperwork. By now, Jaffe had extracted an agreement that Dan would not only pay Betty half of the selling price, but $18,000 extra — an amount she demanded to make repairs on her own new home. Jaffe's fee was also supposed to come out of the proceeds.

But upon arriving at Ashworth's office, Jaffe later testified, Betty refused to get out of the car. Instead, Jaffe was obliged to conduct what he called "shuttle diplomacy." He went upstairs, talked to Dan and Ashworth, finalized the papers, then brought them back down to the car for his client to sign. And, finally cornered, Betty refused. She had to "think about it," she said. Jaffe flew back to Los Angeles, undoubtedly as exasperated as he had ever been.

On the following Monday, Dan Broderick got a court order to sell the house without Betty's consent. He used what is called a four-hour notice, which means that he was able to make his case to the judge whether she was present or not – and she was not. Once the judge was persuaded that Betty was being unreasonable, a court-appointed official (or Elisor) was assigned to serve in her stead, signing the required house sale documents.

She was in her kitchen cooking "a gorgeous pot roast and mashed potatoes dinner" when Jaffe called from Beverly Hills to tell her that Coral Reef had been sold that day. The boys were there and her parents were visiting from New York; she also had a summer houseguest from Canada, Brian Burchell (strictly platonic, she stressed).

She hung up the telephone and didn't even pause. This time, she knew in advance that she was going to make a major, major scene. She felt almost sick she was so enraged. Carefully, habitually, she turned the heat down on her roast and brushed past her parents sitting in the living room. "Be right back," she told them cheerfully. As she got into her car, she was trembling with anger. This couldn't have happened …

She drove to Dan’s house, rang the doorbell and knocked. There was no response. She waited an hour for Dan to come home and then demanded to know where he had put her share of the money from the sale. He ordered her off his property.

One of Betty’s future lawyers privately marveled, according to Stumbo, at the way Dan had treated his ex-wife. “He was either extremely stupid or cruel, or he had a real death wish.”

Betty left Dan’s property as ordered and drove to the house that had just been sold. She poured gasoline around it and started a fire, but she “came to her senses” and put it out before it could do real damage. Then she drove back to Dan’s house.

She backed up the van and pulled forward, until it was aimed directly at his front door, flanked by its white columns. She gunned the engine, calculating her attack exactly. As she later said, "I didn't want to hit the place hard enough to knock it down, and I didn't want to hurt my car … [colorful language deleted]. Slowly, deliberately, and with enough rage to raze the Brooklyn Bridge, Betty Broderick roared across the manicured grass, across the driveway, onto the porch, and with a vicious crunch, smashed her two-ton Suburban into his pretty white door.

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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