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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

Betty Broderick is, in fact, absolutely convincing when she tells Stumbo that the choices came down to suicide or murder--"and that will put an end to it, killing yourself. . . . They would have swept my bones in the back yard and told everyone, 'See, we told you she was crazy.' " One can almost see the mesmerized look in the author's eyes as Betty adds, "Any normal person would have, a long time ago . . . done something to say I'm not taking this anymore, you sonofabitch. Any man would have beat the living crap out of him six years ago."

All of this is fine when attempting to understand Betty's motive for murder. But whatever happened to the promised case study of \o7 two \f7 people flouting the Golden Rule? Stumbo makes a point of letting us know that, though both parents put themselves above their four children, Dan "set the precedent, by doing it first." But when Betty throws her eldest daughter out of her house--an act for which the daughter never forgave the mother--Stumbo passes it off as a "strategic mistake." It's also mentioned only in passing that Betty attempted to persuade her youngest son to throw boiling water on Linda's genitals. The author expresses indignation when Dan and Linda file contempt papers on Betty for leaving obscene phone messages, walking into their house uninvited and reading their mail; after all, "she had not at that time committed a single punishable offense." Stumbo finds Betty's shortcomings--her inability to argue with a man face-to-face, for example--rooted in her conservative upbringing.

That such an unexceptional past would so severely narrow her human potential is a little hard to buy, but at least Stumbo makes an effort to understand Betty's limitations. Unfortunately, she doesn't apply any searching analysis to the behavior of Betty Broderick's two tormentors. Instead, we see Linda strictly as a compassionless home-wrecker, and Dan as an unyielding automaton. By the end of the story, Betty the murderess/victim is also Betty the self-promoter/press victim, as Stumbo paints her: "Ruined once, Betty Broderick was, in short, ruined twice, this time by her own media appeal. It was never a fair match, Betty's relationship with the press." In fact, as the author inadvertently proves, Betty Broderick more than held her own.

In "Forsaking All Others: The Real Betty Broderick Story," author Loretta Schwartz-Nobel handles the matter of bias by opting out of objectivity altogether. Her slender book has as its aim "a voyage into the soul of a woman," with Betty as the primary source. Large chunks of the book consist of uninterrupted monologues: "Betty Broderick on Her Early Years With Dan," "Betty Broderick on the Affair With Linda," "Betty Broderick on Love," etc. So entranced does Schwartz-Nobel seem with Betty--or at least with her access to her--that she fails, in her assessment of a woman's soul, to consider Betty's elaborate self-deception. Where Stumbo's book relies on a host of sources to assist in the portrayal of an exceedingly complex woman, Schwartz-Nobel takes the murderer at her word. As a "voyage," "Forsaking All Others" cannot hope to go the distance.

Then again, there is no danger of anyone interpreting Schwartz-Nobel's effort as being the last word on this disturbing subject. In contrast, Stumbo's book reflects both the ambition and the effort of a definitive work, however hampered it may be by prejudices of the heart.

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