Monday, July 20, 2009

Caitlin Flanagan on Alec Baldwin: Who's Your Daddy?

Caitlin Flanagan's essay-review on Alec Baldwin's book about divorce (A Promise to Ourselves) has some witty, whiplash insights and a chewy center. Flanagan reports that the book "proceeds from a double-pronged thesis: that American divorce laws are deeply flawed, and that Kim Basinger is a crazy bitch," adding, "I would have liked to hear more about the latter..." As he made clear in the interviews he gave at the time it was published, Baldwin's book is intended as a serious examination of the toll that divorce can take--"this," writes Flanagan, "is the go-to book if you’re thinking of ending a two-movie-star marriage"--with a special emphasis on the way the legal system, particularly as it relates to child custody, can exacerbate unfairness and human suffering. However, his own experience may be more specialized than he cares to realize. Flanagan claims to "have a fair grasp of the way contested-custody decisions are made in California, and it’s not too difficult to read between the lines of Baldwin’s book and get a sense of what has probably been taking place over the years. Baldwin’s fury at the system emanates from his belief that the institution is reflexively anti-father. Yet he also admits to having a terrible temper, and to having displayed this protean force in front of the very people authorized to decide his fate. Family court is charged with protecting the physical and emotional safety of children, and if you tend to rave during depositions, you’re not going to like the custody orders you get."

Flanagan probably speaks for the room when she guesses that, whatever Baldwin thinks he's doing, "his real purpose is to exonerate himself from an incident so grotesque that it’s hard to imagine any piece of written communication short of a suicide note changing our opinion of it." The "incident" in question is, of course, the night two years ago when Baldwin "stepped away from a dinner table in Manhattan to place a call to her. He stood outside the restaurant, like a man calling his mistress, and eagerly dialed the number (the court order having guaranteed him telephone contact), but all he heard was the child’s familiar, lilting voice, inviting him to leave her a message. Standing on the street, once again confronted by life’s inability to meet him halfway with his simple desire to be the center of the universe, he snapped. He raved at the child in the ugliest language imaginable, threatening her and calling her terrible names. Shortly thereafter, the message was leaked to an Internet scandal site. (By whom? Cherchez la femme.)"

Flanagan continues: "If you were female and heard that tape recording, you remembered two things about it: the pitch and tenor of the snarling male voice and the use of that word. When a man calls an overweight woman a pig, he is saying she is fat. When he calls a slim and attractive girl—someone like Ireland—a pig, he is using the word in another sense, one that suggests a particularly feminine kind of repulsiveness. It was a horribly crude, almost sexual thing for a man to call his daughter. The whole voice mail was clearly a product of the kind of uncorked rage that always ends in remorse and sorrow, but it was not entirely witless. It begins with a lucid description of the situation, proceeds to a vivid accounting of how the event has made him feel, and then lays out an action plan for correcting the problem: he’s going to fly to California for a day, and 'I’m going to let you know just how I feel about what a rude little pig you really are. You are a rude, thoughtless little pig.'” She adds, "For all of the recriminations and ugly episodes, one thing the child surely knows: she is important to her father."

The essay also includes surprisingly compelling, considering what she's describing, narrative accounts and examinations of the power dynamic of Baldwin and Basinger's courtship on the set of The Marrying Man, their subsequent three-arc marriage, and Bladwin's post-voice-message appearance on The View. It concludes with a long, provocative speculation on the sexual dynamic of the father-daughter relationship which some may find as interesting as it is icky. I am not sure that I am one of those people. But it may be a kind of tribute to its power that I rather wish that I had read right the piece right up to the beginning of that section and had then been spared reading the rest of it by suffering a well-timed fatal stroke.

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