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Abuse Victims' Reluctant Advocate : Ex-Battered Wife Rebuilds a Family's 'Shattered Dreams'

November 19, 1987|JIM NAUGHTON | The Washington Post

POTOMAC, Md. — The autumn landscape looks to have been designed by Norman Rockwell for the purpose of having children walk through it. Andrew and Peter Fedders are doing their part, tromping up Carmelita Drive on their way home from elementary school. As they reach the fringes of the front lawn, their mother appears on the small porch of their large house to bid a guest goodby. Charlotte Fedders is keenly aware of how vividly right the whole afternoon appears, and more keenly aware of how precarious such moments are.

"Our life doesn't revolve around what happened before and it doesn't revolve around what I'm doing now," Charlotte Fedders says. "We lead a very normal life. It's very busy. It's very dusty. It's all these things that it wasn't before. It's very happy."

Beatings, Domination, Fear

The Fedderses are a family made notable by their strife. "Shattered Dreams," Charlotte's newly published book, is the most recent retelling of the beatings, domination and fear she endured during a 19-year marriage to John Fedders, former chief of enforcement for the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The story broke in February, 1985, when the Wall Street Journal got word of the couple's divorce and published a lengthy investigation of John's career on its front page. Since then, Charlotte, 44, has become a heroine of sorts. She was the woman who blew the whistle on white-collar wife abuse, a living reminder that even the most repressed woman can take charge of her own life.

But public sympathy has little currency in court. Last month a Maryland domestic master, finalizing the couple's long-fought divorce, granted John Fedders 50% interest in the family's $400,000 home, decreased his alimony by one-third (to $500) and, most surprisingly, awarded him 25% of his wife's profits from the book. John Fedders pays $750 a month in child support.

"Overall," wrote John McInerney, the master, "the circumstances that contributed to the estrangement of the parties has got to be on an equal basis."

The ruling has been attacked by domestic violence experts, feminist groups and newspaper columnists. Mary McGrory wrote that following McInerney's logic, Adolf Hitler would have been entitled to royalties for "The Diary of Anne Frank."

Needs a Court Victory

"One person," Charlotte Fedders says. "I've convinced 2 million, but I haven't convinced one person of what's really right. I've been surprised with the other support but very disappointed with what, as I see it, continues to be part of the problem. It's a moral victory, but the moral victory is not what is going to determine our financial future. I need a victory from the courts."

The ruling was appealed this week, with Charlotte Fedders' attorney arguing that it was "clearly an abuse of discretion" for McInerney to attempt to fix blame in the divorce--and on that basis grant John Fedders a share of the royalties. In the meantime, Charlotte Fedders goes about the business of trying to shape her family's future.

She filed for bankruptcy last year and is struggling to support the family. Hers is a curious life, combining the glamour of a high-visibility book tour with the drudgery of part-time jobs that once included a weekly paper route.

For Fedders, necessity was the mother of notoriety. After reading newspaper accounts of her troubled marriage, editors at Washingtonian magazine approached her about telling the story to writer Laura Elliott. "The Washingtonian article was basically absolutely because I needed the money and I just prayed that it would be well done," Fedders says. "I was totally overwhelmed with the response (it) generated."

Scores of women wrote or called the magazine after reading the April, 1986, issue to say they too were abused. The surprise was not only in their numbers, but also in their status. "Their husbands were civic leaders, lawyers, journalists, physicians, university professors, politicians," Elliott wrote in a follow-up piece. "At least half a dozen had recognizable names."

In telling her story, Charlotte Fedders became a spokeswoman. "I thought it would die down," she says. "People wanted to hear me speak and I wasn't a speaker. I just thought it was kind of a fad almost. I really thought my part of it would fade rather rapidly. Well, it didn't and I'm really rather surprised. I never wanted to be a public person at all."

No Easy Adjustment

Nor has she adjusted easily to the role. "Sometimes I'm nervous just saying my name," she says. "The biggest thing has been being accepted as a human being rather than as Mrs. . . . Mrs. Him."

The response to the magazine article led Harper & Row to offer Fedders and Elliott a book contract. They split $100,000 minus agent fees and have yet to receive their shares of the $300,000 paperback sale. Fedders calculates that that money plus her share of the house will allow her to buy a home near Gaithersburg, Md., and tide the family over while she looks for work.

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