To all appearances John and Charlotte Fedders had it all. He was chief enforcement officer at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and they lived with their five sons in the exclusive Washington suburb of Potomac, Md. The children attended private schools, and the family belonged to the exclusive Congressional Country Club. But behind the carefully wrought facade of normality, Charlotte and her sons were being terrorized. John Fedders, a 6’10” former Marquette University basketball standout, was given to fits of depression during which he beat and humiliated his family. He also instituted boot camp-like rules in the house-no shoes worn on the carpets, no laughing at mealtime—which, if broken, led to verbal or physical abuse.
Finally, in July 1983, after 17 years of marriage, Charlotte filed for divorce, which won’t be finalized until early next year. Her husband’s violence toward his family was revealed in the bitter public trial that followed, leading to his resignation from the SEC and his return to a private law practice. Today, two years after a Maryland circuit court judge found John Fedders guilty of “excessively vicious” conduct, he and Charlotte, 46 and 44 respectively, are still battling. In October a Maryland divorce court awarded John 25 percent of the profits from Charlotte’s new book, Shattered Dreams, a chronicle of their troubled marriage. Charlotte is appealing the decision, which was based on the court’s belief that both parties were responsible for the divorce.
Charlotte had to file for bankruptcy in 1986 and will soon sell the house in Potomac, where she has lived with her children (Luke, 18, Mark, 15, Matthew, 13, Andrew, 9, and Peter, 6) since the separation. Still, she feels she has finally found peace. After she finishes her current book tour, she is considering working with other battered women, of whom the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates there are 3 million to 4 million in the U.S. alone. “Every 15 seconds a woman somewhere in this country is battered, “says Charlotte. “I want them to know they are not alone and that they can get out.” She spoke with correspondent Jane Sims Podesta about her own ordeal.
Ever since I was a girl growing up in suburban Baltimore, my dream was to be a wife and mother. I went to college because it was the thing to do, but when John and I married in 1966, it was my dream come true. We moved to New York City. He worked for a law firm, and I was a public health nurse. John ruled the household. Every Sunday night he conducted what he called white-glove inspections. Everything had to be just so. I took note of what displeased him, like piles of old magazines, and tried not to repeat the offense. But one night, in 1968 disagreed with him. I don’t remember what we argued about, but I was sitting at the dining room table and he was standing over me. All of a sudden his right hand hit me hard on the side of my face. I heard this ringing sensation in my ear. I was shocked. I remember thinking, “Gee, I wasn’t yelling.” I felt I must have been doing something wrong other than disagreeing.
I went to the doctor the next day. It turned out that I had a broken eardrum. I felt very guilty. I didn’t tell him how it had happened, but I was sure he thought, “Oh, this is obviously an eardrum broken by her husband because she was very bad and he got angry and hit her.” I told my parents what had happened, and my dad, a doctor, told me to leave John. But I was raised a Catholic, and to me divorce was unthinkable. Besides, I was sure that if there was a problem, it was my fault.
I grew up in the ’50s, the Father Knows Best era, and our life centered around my father. He wasn’t violent, but if he got upset we all knew it, so we tried to keep him happy. And when he did get mad at me, I felt that I deserved it. My sisters and I all went to parochial schools, where the nuns reinforced a patriarchal way of life. That attitude carried over into my marriage.
After that first beating, John never offered an apology, and I didn’t ask for one. Instead we would reconcile in bed. Lovemaking was the only thing he ever told me I did well. Once we had made love, I contributed to the honeymoon by never mentioning the fights. That became our pattern.
I was three months pregnant with our first child, Luke, when John hit me again. I don’t recall the exact circumstances; I think we fought over moving to a new house on a busier street. But it could have been a little thing like not unplugging the iron. I was verbally fighting back, stating my opinion, which John called “open defiance.” I remember his fist coming at my abdomen. He slugged me probably five times. The next day I went to the doctor because I was scared about the baby. This time I told the doctor what had happened. He too told me to leave John, but because I had talked back, I felt I had provoked the attack.
People ask me, “Why did you stay?” and even now I have trouble explaining it. The psychologist I’ve been going to for five years once said that happiness for me was the absence of pain. That hits it on the head. As long as I wasn’t being put down with four-letter words or being physically hurt, I thought I was happy.
We moved to the D.C. area in 1973, and John went to work for a prestigious firm in Washington. But in the summer of 1981, when he took the job at the SEC, things became even more tense. His salary was less than half the $160,000 a year he had been making in private practice, yet we had to entertain lavishly, and he insisted on joining an expensive country club. We kept going deeper into debt.
I felt like a slave. John wanted me to put out his clothes every day and help him dress, and I did. But I couldn’t predict when he would go into one of his depressed moods. For weeks at a time he would just withdraw. In November 1981, after he hadn’t come near me for weeks, the tension became intolerable. I kept trying to make him talk to me. I followed him upstairs to the study, stamped my foot and said, “I’ll wear shoes in my own house anytime I want.” John grabbed me by the hair and leaned me backward over the banister. He was hitting me on the arms and back with his hand. Then Luke and Andrew came into the hall. Luke said, “Leave her alone,” and John dropped me.
I was in a constant state of terror. Even though he might not hit me for a year, I knew that he could. A number of times I slapped myself in the face for not being able to make this marriage work. I thought it was my fault, because I was fat and ugly and wore glasses. It got so that I used to be afraid to smile. When I did, John would look at my teeth and say, “You ought to get that filling fixed” or “Have you brushed your teeth lately?”
A neighbor, an internist, had a sense of what was going on, and in 1982 he recommended I go to a psychologist. It was advice that changed my life. I started seeing Dr. Mary Donahue twice a week. She made me realize I had become neurotic but that it was not my fault—that John was literally driving me crazy. She showed me I wasn’t a bad person and that I didn’t deserve this type of treatment.
Nevertheless it took another year before I got up the courage to leave. If the children had stayed young forever, I probably never would have gotten out, but as they got older John started to hurt them too, pushing them off swings or hitting them with a paddle. I didn’t find out until two years ago that they used to compare the bruises they received for things like giggling in church or not eating their dinner.
In the winter of 1983, after a heavy snowstorm, John, the kids and I shoveled the driveway. John started poking at the garage roof, and all the snow fell off. He yelled, “Come on, boys, let’s go,” but they were really tired. I told him I would help him after dinner. He yelled an obscenity at me—something really ugly. I picked up a toy fire truck and threw it at him. What he had said was so horrible, I wanted to hit him right smack in the face. But I missed, and all hell broke loose. I wound up with a black eye.
I got all the children together, and we went to a friend’s house. Then I went to the police. I thought they could do something, but they said I would have to come back the next day to file a complaint. I never did bring charges against John—I was too emotionally exhausted. But that incident was the turning point, and I filed for divorce. Never did I think it would all be this public, but John contested it, so we wound up in court and a Wall Street Journal reporter covered the hearing. John fell apart on the stand. He cried and asked for time to work on a reconciliation, and the judge granted it. It shattered my self-confidence and my faith in the legal system.
John kept calling me, and I did try reconciling, but after three weeks I knew it was wrong, so I ended it. But because I had slept with John in the meantime, the court granted me only a legal separation.
Once we are legally divorced, John won’t have any control over me. Still, I am not financially self-sufficient. John pays me $750 a month in child support and alimony. Laura Elliot, my collaborator on the book, shared the $100,000 advance, minus 15 percent in agents’ fees. We have yet to receive any of the $300,000 for the paperback rights. I’m going to have to go to work and occasionally give speeches. I’m poorer than I ever thought I would be.
Nevertheless, after all those years of fighting, I would give everything away tomorrow to live quietly. Even if we end up with only a tent, it will be a happy tent where the children and I can live, laugh and be silly and messy. A tremendous load has been lifted off this family. It’s wonderful to live in a house no longer filled with fear.