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Breaking Up Is Hard to Do : UNTIL THE TWELFTH OF NEVER: The Deadly Divorce of Dan & Betty Broderick, By Bella Stumbo (Pocket Books: $22; 546 pp.) : FORSAKING ALL OTHERS: The Real Betty Broderick Story, By Loretta Schwartz-Nobel (Villard Books: $20; 237pp.)

August 08, 1993|Robert Draper | Draper writes on topics of crime and punishment for "Texas Monthly," where he is senior editor

The ugly tale of how La Jolla attorney Dan Broderick dumped his wife Betty for his secretary, and how Betty took revenge on them both, is a human monster movie we can't seem to tear ourselves away from. Anyone who has ever risked his or her heart for another knows the potential for betrayal, for suffering, for madness and for violence. The 1989 tragedy encompassed every such romantic pitfall, to the unimaginable extreme: Betty Broderick shot her faithless husband and his mistress dead.

Naturally, then, the Broderick case has been laid bare in the daily press and national magazines, dramatized in a two-part made-for-television movie, and now occupies the subject of two recently published books. The far bigger and far better of the two, Bella Stumbo's "Until the Twelfth of Never," persuasively depicts the Brodericks as people not so isolated from the mainstream of human conduct. There is something to be learned, Stumbo suggests, from the demise of a woman and a man "who failed almost every step of the way to honor that most ancient, sanest of all social maxims: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Stumbo, until last spring a longtime Los Angeles Times reporter, has delivered a massive account of the Broderick tale--perhaps over-long, considering that seemingly every one of its 546 pages bears the stain of human behavior at its most dismal. After reading "Until the Twelfth of Never," even those who lionize Betty will be offended by her, just as those who feel for her murdered ex-husband will regard him as a royal jerk. (Still other readers might find themselves arrested by the notion that the two deserved each other.) It is to the author's credit that she has not spared us the mutual indecencies, even at the risk of repelling us. Breaking up, after all, is hard to do.

But the Broderick story amounts to more than just a rich parable of a relationship gone disastrously ragged. It also presents a severe, if subtle, challenge to journalists who are themselves human, and themselves predisposed to one side or another when it comes to domestic sagas.

Those who have ever left one partner for another could scarcely resist viewing Betty Broderick as the Ex-Wife From Hell, a wild-eyed woman who would devote the remnants of her life to tormenting her ex-husband with obscene phone messages, driving her car through his front door and threatening repeatedly to blow him away before finally making good on the threat. Likewise, legions of spurned women have hailed Betty as a real-life Thelma and/or Louise--a long-suffering housewife and mother who, as she herself put it, "just decided I didn't want to be a nice girl anymore. I wanted the life I built, I deserved, I earned. MY LIFE was worth fighting for!"

Such bias has crept into the press, and Stumbo herself has chronicled it. She notes that one women's magazine chose the headline, "In Hot Blood: Why Did Betty Broderick Wait So Long to Kill Her Husband?" On the other hand, the author dismisses an early story in the Los Angeles Times as a "decidedly unsympathetic" article written by "a young woman about to be married for the first time."

Yet for all her thorough research and meticulous coverage of the two murder trials, Stumbo's book suffers greatly, if not fatally, for its own lopsided sympathies. Put bluntly, the author views the murderess as a victim from beginning to end, and sees the deceased as two people who virtually forced Betty Broderick to pull the trigger.

It's easy to see how Stumbo was seduced by this angle. First, there is only one surviving member of the love triangle, only one principal left to quote; and despite the pathos of Betty Broderick (who is now serving two 15-to-life prison terms), she is masterful at articulating her point of view. As it happens, Betty is surely the most interesting of the three characters anyway. For it is she who sinks to unfathomable depths, and it is she who rears up and avenges her own decline. It's impossible not to feel for a woman who forfeits 10 years of her young adulthood for the sake of nine pregnancies (five unsuccessful), who lives on the margins of poverty for the sake of her husband's budding career . . . and is then, at the pinnacle of his success, discarded for a younger, blonder bride. It's just as hard not to root for this woman who challenges her powerful attorney-husband in divorce court by representing herself, and showing up to trial in four-inch heels so the men in the courtroom can't look down on her.

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