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'90s FAMILY : A Custody Battle Plan That Takes No Prisoners

March 22, 1995|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lest anyone suspect a truce has been called in the Great Custody Wars, a Costa Mesa attorney has just published a tactical manual, "Custody for Fathers: a practical guide through the combat zone of a brutal custody battle."

The attorney, Michael Brennan, assisted by wife Carleen, takes no prisoners.

A partial list of topics in a chapter called "Mom's Dirty Tricks":

* Mom Says, "No Money, No Contact"

* Mom Brainwashes Children

* Mom Pushes Dad's "Hot Buttons"

* Mom Files False Criminal Charges

* Mom Gets a Spy

In his self-published book, Brennan refers to mothers as "mom" or "the enemy," adversaries who hold all the cards in court because they have spent years developing tricks such as crying on demand; telegraphing messages by facial expressions; communicating with their eyes; using body language, hand gestures, melodrama and innuendo.

Among his tips for dads:

* Watch your language. "Incorrect: 'Ann's house is a pigpen.' Correct: 'I am very concerned about the living conditions of our children.' "

* Look sensitive. "When mom is testifying and using histrionics to add emphasis to her story, do not smirk. Instead, get the judge's eye and hold your eye contact without any facial gestures."

* Bring a girlfriend to court. Not only will this tactic show that the man has moved on and is probably no longer a physical threat to mom, but it will also "rattle mom, keep her off balance, and throw her off her game."

* Anticipate embarrassing questions by mom and her witnesses with "pat little rebuttals." "Notice how politicians have prepared and rehearsed very short replies that cannot be edited out of context."

Not until Page 236 does he offer a list of what divorcing fathers can provide for their children:

"Well-balanced meals, proper sleeping arrangements, regular church attendance, healthy relationships, support of relatives, extracurricular activities, stable and secure environment."

Correction: It's a list of what fathers need to appear to be doing if they want to win.

Many individuals--including even some fathers' rights activists--now think all-out war is conceivably the worst possible way to settle delicate emotional issues involving children.

Surely, Brennan's book, which he says is targeted directly at the testosterone, will appeal to the in-your-face fringe. But his basic complaint--that the playing field isn't level--is a complaint increasingly heard by both men and women.

Monica Getz, founder of the Irvington, N.Y.-based Coalition for Family Justice, says the historical roots of Brennan's argument lie in Roman codes that looked upon the legal system as two armies approaching with a judge sitting above the fray like a referee. The system worked well enough in small communities where people were so accountable, they rarely lied.

That's all changed now. To win, overzealous attorneys like Brennan pour oil on already existing flames, without seeing the consequences.

Getz says she has attended funerals of mothers who killed themselves, and in one case, the child as well, after having lost court cases to aggressive spouses. In the famous La Jolla case, Betty Broderick shot and killed her ex-husband and his new wife. In Santa Barbara, family law judges have been issued bulletproof vests to protect themselves from angry spouses.

Getz's coalition, with 15 chapters nationwide, works with men and women for court reform.

Brennan acknowledges that brutal custody fights can be incredibly damaging to children. But he argues that men can't wait for laws to change. They must deal with the way the law is today--a win-lose system.

Besides, he says it is inherently more difficult for men to say, "let's be friends" to an ex-spouse, "especially when there's another male involved."

The way for them to deal with it is to "position their fan missiles and shoot a deal at the last minute." A Vietnam veteran, Brennan says divorce is actually worse than war. With a war, he says, you can get closure. With a bitter divorce, he says, "you always have to sleep with one eye open."

Fine. But unlike enemies, moms are people these men once presumably loved in the manner described by Romantic poets. Their children are the casualties.

Judith Wallerstein, the Corte Madera psychologist who has conducted the nation's most extensive studies of children of divorce, says that when they grow up, the embattled children of bitterly fought divorces don't see either parent as a winner.

"They say, 'I was in World War III,' " Wallerstein says.

Once they get past adolescence, she says, children rarely side with one parent over the other.

"They're ashamed of their parents," she says. "They really are."

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