Divorce from Hell
The fundamental strength of this book is also its central flaw. While [Wendy Dennis] can catalogue the Chinese water torture of this divorce in all its intricacies, she is, without apology, entirely on the side of the husband. She is also in love with him, lives with him and cannot, therefore, judge him with the clarity she might find at arm's length. Everything she claims about [Ben Gordon]'s feelings must therefore be interpreted with that in mind.
In telling the sad story of one man's struggles, Wendy Dennis offers a devastating indictment of our adversarial divorce system. But then, she's in love with the guy. THE DIVORCE FROM HELL: How the Justice System Failed a Family
Saturday, November 14, 1998
By Wendy Dennis
Macfarlane Walter & Ross,
371 pages, $34.95
This is a story worthy of Trollope or Thackeray writing at the very top of their powers. It is worthy of satire and humour and the vicious criticism of our time by a great soul who sees through our values, our narcissism and I-gotta-have-mine-or-someone's-gonna-pay childishness. Wendy Dennis is neither Trollope nor Thackeray but she is more than competent and her story is strong enough to withstand her necessarily skewed point of view.
I challenge anyone who is divorced, considering a divorce or considering marriage to someone they don't quite trust but somehow adore to put The Divorce from Hell down at the sensible hour of 10:30 and turn off the light. It is simply not possible. You'll read into the small hours, your dreams will be haunted and you'll twitch for a week because you have been to the Dark Side of our arcadian dream.
In 1984, Dennis, then a fledgling Toronto journalist with a four-year-old daughter, negotiated a joint child-custody arrangement with her litigator husband in the midst of a relatively pain-free divorce. Six years later, healed and prospering, her daughter thriving under her regime, she met Ben Gordon, a handsome actor and comedy writer who, like many men in 1990, was going through a "bad divorce." Dennis liked what she saw, grabbed him, fell in love and found herself in the middle of a battle that lasted eight years, has still not ended and which careened from disaster to tragedy to Jacobean tragedy to utter devastation. It is to her credit that she survived, still lives with the man she champions and can bring such a document out of chaos. Based on the highly controversial Toronto Life magazine piece (February, 1996), The Divorce from Hell is a book that anyone involved in family law or practice should be forced to read every single year, for it is an indictment of the greed, self-importance and ignorance of the jackals who prey on desperate, emotionally vulnerable people, and who, Dennis's case seems to prove, are most to blame for the misery inflicted on these four confused people, two of them children. Never did the street dictum, "Stay out of the hands of social workers," carry more weight.
Terry Nusyna was a nice Jewish girl who went to York University, took film and art and was so pretty that she snagged David Clayton Thomas, a now-obscure rock star who married her and, according to Nusyna, abused her. She ran away with nothing to show but her Camaro. It was something, she vowed, that would never happen again. Gordon was also a bit of a star when she met him. He was performing at Second City in Toronto and on television; he was a popular local comedian, who for the first few years of their marriage kept her in the style she could just about handle, given that she expected much more. She wanted Gordon to be a bigger star, to go to Hollywood. He was a family man, he wanted a connected life in his community, with his friends, wife and children. She started to criticize him, he fought back, the marriage deteriorated and finally they agreed to divorce.
Between them they had a detached house in the posh Forest Hill section of Toronto, and two daughters, 6 and 3. Nusyna decided that there was no way she was going to slip even further down the slope of the glitterati, decided to keep both house and kids and hired herself the meanest lawyer she could find. From then on, according to Dennis, who documents her case meticulously, Nusyna used the law to fox Gordon at every turn, over a period of seven years misappropriating and hiding every penny she could, estranging his daughters and in 1997 disappearing without a trace with both children in tow.
Gordon tracked her down in Thornhill, a suburb north of Toronto where she is now under indictment for theft in a separate matter. His children think Gordon is to blame for everything and refuse to answer any of his imploring letters and cards. Despite having a joint custody agreement in hand, he cannot get the police to enforce it. Go to court, he is told. He can't; he is bankrupt. Besides, the decisions of the court have never favoured him.
All Gordon wanted, claims Dennis, was half the profits on the house and joint custody of his daughters, whom he adored, wanted and, because of his profession, had been able to spend a great deal of time with when they were babies and toddlers. He was more attached than the average working dad and losing his children was utter unending agony; he fought for them in any way he could, long past the time that most normal men would have shrugged their shoulders, closed their chequebooks and started other families. Father's rights, Dennis makes clear, are secondary under the law, and the law has absolutely no way of defending itself against a manipulative woman bent on revenge.
The fundamental strength of this book is also its central flaw. While Dennis can catalogue the Chinese water torture of this divorce in all its intricacies, she is, without apology, entirely on the side of the husband. She is also in love with him, lives with him and cannot, therefore, judge him with the clarity she might find at arm's length. Everything she claims about Gordon's feelings must therefore be interpreted with that in mind. Gordon is too good, too kind, too forebearing, too loving. He is less than real. He also appears to be not very smart: He caved when he should have fought and he only began fighting when he had lost. He is a dumb saint and Nusyna a crafty sinner. And one wonders about the devotion of a man who would allow the malevolence of his children's mother to be made such a cause celebre . What chance has he of regaining his children's trust with Divorce from Hell in every bookstore in the country?