Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mothers on Trial, by Phyllis Chesler

Mothers on Trial, by Phyllis Chesler
Reviewed by Talia Carner

Not since slavery in the USA were mothers punished by having their children taken away from them. Yet, in family courts all across America, judges and quasi-judicial officers of the court do just that: children who are abused or molested by their fathers are removed from their primary-care good mothers and are placed in the hands of their molesting fathers.

How this scandal can go on for decades with hardly any change, without any public outcry, and without any protest from human rights’ activists is due to the fact that outsiders to the gutter of our family courts’ justice simply refuse to believe it.

In her revised and updated milestone fact-filled book, “Mothers on Trial,” Phyllis Chesler fights to save thousands of children from becoming yet another generation of victims of a court system that betrays them time and again. She points out that while adult women often recount childhood sexual molestation at home by close relatives—and these women’s stories are believed—people tend to disbelieve when actually facing such cases as they happen in real time, right in front of them.

It is a documented fact that when fathers fight for custody, 70% of the time they obtain full or partial custody. People often assume that the reason these men who, in most part, have not been fully involved in their children’s lives—sometimes have been absent for months or even years—now gain custody is because the mothers are unfit. The naked truth is that in most of these cases, the father is emotionally and verbally abusive or outright violent. The mother, often the product of an abusive home, often abused for years in her marriage to the father of her children, now faces battle for which she is woefully unequipped to wage. Distraught, terrified, isolated, alienated in a system that scrutinizes her with the same critical and belittling attitude she’s encountered in her private lives, panicked over the fate of her sexually molested children, she seems “emotional” “unreasonable” and “difficult.” Her refusal to share parenting or give access to a man who sexually molest her children is viewed as her being “rigid” and “uncooperative.”

Furthermore, with limited or no financial resources, she comes to court either unrepresented by an attorney, or by an incompetent lawyer with little interest in the complexity of such a case. Or, as is often the case, she does not have the funds to keep the protracted legal battle a high-conflict custody case requires. Filing fees, transcripts, payments to evaluators and her lawyer’s hourly rate quickly rise to thousands of dollars.

In the 1990s I stumbled upon the phenomenon of protective mothers losing these battles in drove, researched it for a few years, and finally published a novel about one such fictional mother in 2002. (Puppet Child.) Since then, I became an activist, trying to find ways to save thousands of children each year from family court’s “justice.” What amazes me is how little has changed in the over decade in which I’ve witnessed more mothers enter the nightmare of family court, where they are discredited, disenfranchised and disbelieved.

Dr. Chesler has been at it a lot longer. Twenty-five years ago she published “Mothers on Trial,” a book that starts with the history of men’s ownership of their families and the lingering feudal notion of male supremacy as the head of the household. She pointed then—and continues to do so now in this excellent revised edition—that society and court hold men to much lower parenting standards than they do women. Mothers fail at every single check list (Does the divorced mother have sex? Is she overwrought with anxiety? Is she poor?) while men can be cold, disinterested, dysfunctional or even violent and they will be excused. In fact, fathers are given new chances time and again to foster their relationships with their children regardless of their abhorrent personal histories, while mothers’ contact with their children are not only curtailed or cut down to expensive supervised visitations, but all too often are severed completely.

If a father poisons a child’s mind against the mother, it does not enter into the question of his parenting skills. But all too often, a child’s fear of an abusive father is regarded as the mother’s brainwashing the child, rather than the father’s own doing. A judge will then chastise the mother for not encouraging enough the relationship with the father—and actually transfer custody to that abusive father. The notion of the best interest of the child and how much the child stands to suffer from cutting the bond with the primary caretaking mother while shuttling into a new life with a man the child fears, does not enter into the equation.

A chapter on Fathers’ Supremacist Movement, reports that fathers’ rights groups have also gathered steam in recent decades and have organized themselves in ways that mothers have failed to do. Some leaders in fathers’ groups have a recorded history of battering their wives or girlfriends, or are convicted pedophiles. Others may have a legitimate concern about shared parenting, but have been expressing strong misogynistic opinions. Common to both ends of the spectrum is the way fathers have been presenting themselves: as persecuted victims. They have been receiving media attention and courtroom sympathy with bogus theories (foremost is Parental Alienation Syndrome that is used almost exclusively against mothers,) and have been successful in passing legislation, due in part to Federal funding under the uncritical assumption that children need equal contact with both parents. Mothers do not have access to equal Federal funding.

In this revised edition, after editing out six chapters and adding eight more while updating the available research, Dr. Chesler examines closely many such cases of outright injustice that defy anything people know and believe possible in our society.

Phyllis Chesler’s book is a must read for every judge, court evaluation, guardian ad litem, social worker, psychologist and lawyer. But more importantly, it should be read by anyone who cares about human rights or about children, because it is time we raise our collective indignation to stop and reverse the life sentence without parole our courts inflict upon children placed in the hands of their molesters.

(To order the book, please click: Mothers On Trial )
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Author Talia Carner’s novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN (HarperCollins, June 2011) is the story of a woman’s struggle for individuality and freedom within the confines of her society’s strict religious dictates.

Monday, June 6, 2011

My personal feminism--and JERUSALEM MAIDEN

I was recently asked about the roots of my feminism--and my newly released novel's relevance to today's women. Here are my responses:

1) Over the span of your professional life, you have held several influential positions related to women's issues, rights and activism. At what point in your career did you begin to formulate thoughts that would be later used to craft the story of JERUSALEM MAIDEN?

While stories find me in “Eureka!” moments, their seeds have often been planted in me long before, creating the fertile soil for the blooming of a novel. This is certainly the case with JERUSALEM MAIDEN. I come from a family with a strong maternal line of talented, capable, ground-breaking females. I heard stories about my great-great-grandmother who traveled from Jerusalem to Russia at age fourteen to get Halitza (a form of Jewish release from marriage), and about my great-grandmother who was so intelligent that her father, a rabbi, allowed her to sit outside the door to his yeshiva (Jewish religious school) and listen. As an adolescent, I already had a sense that my grandmother Esther was a superb artist who did not belong in her world and who was bitter about being kneaded into a mold that she hated. Her oldest daughter actually ran away from home in the early 1940s to study law in Beirut (under the British Mandate). My grandmother’s youngest daughter manipulated her way to New York where she eventually became the first woman stock broker at Dean Witter Reynolds, then third largest US brokerage firms. My own mother, now a successful Israeli artist who’s sold literally thousands of paintings in her career only began painting at age forty. In my nascent feminism of the early 70s which I developed independently from the lexicon and ideas that had already entered US culture, I ached for the tremendous waste I sensed in the previous generations. It took the penning of three novels and the premature death of a talented cousin with whom I had discussed our grandmother many times for me to finally begin to tackle this big subject that was both personal and global.

2) In JERUSALEM MAIDEN you introduce readers to a young woman in early 20th-century Jerusalem who struggles with her traditional faith as her personal desires pull her away from home. Is there a message for today's women in Esther's journey? What about women in non-Western style societies?

Esther's story is still universal. Having lived and traveled abroad, and having worked with women in Third-World nations, I learned to appreciate our freedoms and opportunities. Yet, even in the 21st century, all too many women in Western societies are bound by self-imposed social, religious or psychological constraints lodged in their heads, constraints that hold them back no less than did Esther’s God—or the rabbis’ interpretations of His will.

This is not the case with women living in non-Western societies. Whether in China or Congo, Argentina or Saudi Arabia, women do not have the access to education, health care, economic resources, birth control, political power or civil liberties that would make it possible for them to even envision—let alone accomplish—independence and personal fulfillment. Also, not mutually exclusive is the fact that around the globe poverty is feminized, which immensely affects priorities. The key to change, of course, is education—of women, but also of men and governments, for development can be accelerated when women share the resources, gain confidence, and contribute to the betterment of society.