December 11, 2009
When actor Alec Baldwin appeared at HLS last fall to discuss his new book on his personal experience with the divorce court system, it marked the second time that Assistant Professor Jeannie Suk ’02 brought him to campus to discuss issues of mutual interest, including whether the law goes too far in defining minor incidents of “bad behavior” as evidence that a parent is unfit.
Baldwin, of course, is a kind of poster boy for this situation, after a now-famous incident in 2007 in which, during a rancorous child custody battle with his then wife, Kim Basinger, he left a phone message for his daughter, calling her a “rude, thoughtless little pig” for failing to answer a phone call from him. A tape of the message was released to the press, and Baldwin was widely vilified. His frustration and pain over that experience and the wider issue of divorce courts led him to write a book—and to reach out to Suk.
“I came to know Alec Baldwin when he called me up to have a conversation about family law because he was going to be at Harvard for an event,” recalls Suk. Baldwin wanted to reach out to a family law expert, and Suk was recommended to him. “He came to my office, and we talked about a lot of things,” she says. A lively but serious interview with her about family law and child custody eventually appeared in a chapter of his book.
While they don’t agree on everything, Suk is interested in Baldwin’s perception of the family law system as gender-biased. “Many of his ideas are different from mine,” she says, but “he’s talking about a set of developments related to the ones I’m talking about, so I didn’t have a feeling that this was something I wanted to distance myself from.” If Baldwin were not famous, of course, the voice mail incident would not have become notorious and he could simply have apologized to his daughter, she says. Once his comments were released, the specter of domestic violence was evoked, Suk says, and there were “these dark implications that maybe he beats her or is menacing in some way.” It’s this reflexive categorizing of a regrettable act as evidence of something very serious that needs government intervention, rather than a human mistake, that Suk addresses in her new book.
Suk recognizes that some of the articles she has written are taken by fathers’ rights groups or men’s advocacy groups to support positions with which she may not necessarily agree. “The fact that I’m not politically identical to those people and aiming for exactly the same things doesn’t make me worried … that they find something in an article that might resonate or illuminate a problem they may not know how to verbalize,” she says. “My articles have given tools for reflection to all kinds of people across the political spectrum, but that’s what you do as an academic. You try to tell the truth as you see it.”