Of Human Bonding

A new take on the Mia-Woody story and other suchcouplings-now that the tabloids are quiet.

Last summer, New York's fabled Woody-Mia East Side/West Side story exploded into the ugly Woody-Mia turf war over custody and child support. Yet far from being "Woodied Out,", I've remained fascinated by the steam accusations stemming from Wood Allen's guilt-free admision that after his 12-year, noncohabitating affair with Mia Farrow, he had falen out of love with her and in love with Mia's adopted, either 19, 20, or 21-year-old, Korean-Born daughter, Soon Yi Previn. 

I might not have remained so fascinated by Mia's Medea-like wrath at Woody's alleged betrayal of her family by his "virtually" incestuous relationship with one daughter (and alleged molestation of another), if not for ex-vice president Dan Quayle's now infamous attack on Murphy Brown. Quayle blasted the TV sitcom heroine for her alleged betrayal of family values by celebrating single motherhood and "mocking the importance of men."

With her 11 children, her beauty, successful career, and network of supportive, powerful friends, Mia looked like Murphy Brown incarnate. But though she'd opted to forego a wedding band-opting out of her legal wifely chores, and Woody his conventional husbandly responsibilities, she showed a distinctly nonMurphy Brown dependence on Woody. As some people, including Boston family therapist Kathy Weingarten, Ph.D., believe, Woody actually wielded as much or more power over Mia's life as many men in traditional male-headed nuclear families.

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Woody made whoopee with Mia in bed. He was her boss by day, her children's part-time employer, the employer of at least one nanny and several therapists who cared for and treated the children; as well as the scruffy but gallivanting man-about-town escort and host for Mia and her whole oversize brood at night, on holidays, and on vacations.

And though claiming he "was not any type of father to [Mia's] adopted kids in any sense of the word," Woody had varied fatherly ties to the children he shared with Mia, either through legal adoption, by blood, or even-Mia belatedly learned through sex, with Soon Yi. Though Woody didn't sleep at Mia's apartment, her lawyers point out that after the adoption of daughter Dylan, Woody spent more time with her and her younger siblings than most traditional fathers. Despite the non-existent rules for Woody's complex paternal roles and seeming lack of an agreement on how his fathering responsibilities should mesh with her rights as a mother, Mia seems to have expected him to bond and behave towards her children within traditional fatherly bounds.

For example, Mia has reportedly demanded that Woody pay $7 million child support and her $300,000 legal fees--money she would be entitled to ask from a conventionally wed husband in a standard divorce case. But this is no ordinary case. Woody, for his part, is seeking custody of three children. Mia has also countered Woody's custody suit by suing to revoke his recent adoption of two of her adopted children, and their natural son, Satchel, on grounds that as a virtual father, he had violated ancient fatherly taboos by what she termed his "virtually incestuous" relationship with Soon Yi.

But one year after Mia reportedly told a Manhattan Surrogate Court judge that Woody had been a fit and exemplary "coparent" of the three prospective adoptees, Mia's lawyers told a Manhattan Criminal Court judge that Woody had never had any claim as a father in her household because he wasn't her husband. He wasn't even his natural son's legal father until formally designated so by the adoption, four years after his birth.

"There are no Allen children," Mia's lawyer argued. The lawyer was pointing out that Woody had chosen to have Satchel named Farrow, not Allen; reportedly, Woody had not wanted Satchel singled out by "being the only Allen among all those Farrows and Previns"--Mia's adopted and natural children with her ex-husband, Andre Previn.

Woody, however, has also veered from denying to affirming his paternity. Last summer, in explaining why he felt no guilt over his love affair with Soon Yi, he gave reporters his "I am not any type of father" to Mia's kids speech. At a hearing four months later, Woody again cloaked himself in his purported non-paternal role. This time he denied his paternity in order to duck having to pay Mia's legal fees. "It's almost laughable," Woody's sound-alike lawyer, Harvey Sladkus, said of the Mia side demand for money. "These two individuals...have never been married, never lived together in the same household." Therefore, Woody's lawyer explained, "prevailing concepts" (which might justify a husband's paying a legal wife's fees "just don't exist in this case."

But Woody is also suing Mia for custody of the three children in question, like any conventional father. And like any conventional father, he seeks to win custody by accusing Mia of being an unfit mother.

So far, the sole specified transgression is that she has been a second rate therapist-selecter and -provider for the children. According to Sladkus, Woody is the parent best able to provide the children with "a stable environment" --one fully staffed with Woody-selected psychologists and psychiatrists prepared to instantly address their urgent, "uncontroverted" treatment needs, and to heal the "fragile" mental state to which the publicized Woody-Mia mess has reportedly reduced them.

At a hastily called press conference after a surprise appearance in the courtroom, Woody again affirmed his paternity by donning a brand new role: spokesman for his fellow unwed father litigants. "I think many fathers will empathize with me," Woody said. He was referring to the suffering Mia had inflicted by barring him from visiting his children or buying them Christmas and holiday gifts. However, he neglected to mention that many women doubtless empathize with Mia's emotional distress caused by Woody's alleged non-fatherly sexual transgressions with the daughter he admits having slept with and the daughter, Dylan, he denies having abused.

With Mia battling to have Woody "declared not the father," and Woody battling to "become the father now and forever," their desperate struggles to oust each other from their parenting roles have ironically left this quintessentially unwed, unconventional couple battling more viciously over their children than most divorcing couples in conventional families.

Yet Woody Allen isn't the only famous unwed father who has lately battled an exlover in court over child support and other issues relating to their desire to be, or not to be, a father. Other such celebrities include Woody's mainstream Hollywood contemporary, the Academy Award-winning director of Rocky and The Karate Kid, John Avildsen; as well as actors William Hurt and Robert De Niro, and crooners Engelbert Humperdinck and Julio Iglesias.

Newsweek recently dubbed this spate of sensational paternity suits "the celebrity accoutrement of the 1990s." The cases show that many real-life Murphy Browns besides Mia are not leading the life of Reilly at all--without him.

Whether they bear their out-of-wedlock babies by choice or by chance, these unwed mothers show a similar Murphy Brown/Mia-type willingness to forego fatherhood's legal "befores"--like the wedding. But after baby makes two, they too crave fatherhood's familiar, dutiful "afters"--money and fatherly guidance.

Like Mia, they also seem to assume that their new right to single motherhood carries with it an implicit right to receive paternal bonding. Consequently, these women who once depended on their husbands to bond and care for their babies now depend on the law to compel the bonding that is no longer forthcoming in today's new family structures.

Although these other famous unwed fathers have resisted the unilateral but ambivalent mothering urges of their ex-lovers as fiercely as Woody, few do so with the seeming aplomb of Latino crooner Julio Iglesias. Reportedly Iglesias merely ignores the non-stop demands for him to face up to fatherhood. "If I had to take a paternity test for every girl who says I got her pregnant, I would never have any time to sing," he was recently quoted as saying.

According to matrimonial lawyer Raoul Lionel Felder, the increasingly high cost to men of paying today's court-ordered child support under the law's new humane guidelines has driven other "putative" fathers to go on the offensive. Some bring reverse paternity suits against single mothers in hopes that negative paternity test findings will keep them from being saddled with unwanted fatherly responsibilities.

Others sue for custody, like Woody himself. And they are not necessarily motivated to do so by love. Many are said to sue because they fear custody could be cheaper than paying court-ordered child support. And others file appeals and countersuits because they are wary of being bled to death by today's "gold-digging" women who try to enrich themselves not by marrying a millionaire, as in the past, but by divorcing him, bearing his out-of-wedlock child, and cashing in on new legal provisions that entitle divorcing women to sue for half a man's assets.

The clashing interests of unwed mothers who want to dispense with only part of paternity, and unwed fathers who either want no part of paternity at all or who--like Woody-want only the kids he cares to pick, show that the comparative rosy portrayal on Murphy Brown really is a fiction. These real-life unwed parents are at war. Their battlefield is the familiar old terrain of money and the new, still uncharted, turf of the psychological bonds of fatherhood.

As we've straggled in the last decades from Father Knows Best to Life Without Father, the law has struggled to reflect society's changing views of families and paternity. The word "bastard" for example, was once a legal definition rather than a defamatory epithet. But, as I was surprised to learn, the law no longer differentiates between children born in and out-of-wedlock. Today, rather than being shunned like lepers, many illegitimate children are the publicly acknowledged, royally supported, offspring of celebrities-such as Satchel O'Sullivan Farrow, Woody and Mia's biological son.

And New York law now entitles all such non-marital" children to the same amount of child support as legal, or "marital" children. Mothers can also petition the courts for more money as a child's needs, or parental circumstances, change.

But this proliferation of paternity suits is occurring when the permissive mores of the sexual revolution have radically transformed our families. As a result of rampant divorce, remarriage, cohabiting-and science-natural and legally wed fathers have increasingly vanished from homes.

As a result, emotional bonding, which has no legal meaning, has increasingly become paternity's lone, most important defining component-a psychological tie with no legal standing. And the new legal fights over custody and child support for out-of-wedlock children are confronting the courts with complex new issues related to paternal bonding.

Actor Robert De Niro, for example, would normally have reaped an economic bonanza when he recently came up negative on a paternity test. A California judge ruled that the actor could promptly stop paying $3,000 monthly child support to his ex-lover's 10-year-old daughter.

But De Niro unexpectedly found himself having to fend off his ex-lover's demands for more money nonetheless. Her lawyer threatened to appeal, saying De Niro should not stop paying for this girl because she had "bonded" with him.

"She called him 'father.' She had believed he was her father," the lawyer said. He added that "bonding, not biology...is what this case is all about now."

Not only mothers but even out-of-wedlock children have lately asked the courts to affirm their new rights to paternal bonding as well as to money. Engelbert Humperdinck's 15-year-old daughter, Jennifer Dorsey, for example, recently hired her own lawyer and appealed for court mandated visits from her famous father. Her lawyer argued that her school work had suffered, and that she has endured severe emotional distress from paternal-bonding deprivation-what a psychologist termed "the lack of a full parental environment."

Humperdinck--the "English" singer reportedly born in Brooklyn with the legal name "Dorsey" and said to have boasted of fathering at least 50 out-of-wedlock children--had paid child support. But he has repeatedly refused his daughter's requests to meet him. Dorsey's lawyer argued that because courts can order visiting-rights for parents, they should do the same for children.

But other unwed fathers can't so easily tune out an ex-lover's clamorous demands that he both pay up financially and own up emotionally for his putative child. John Avildsen has spent the last 11 years locked in a litigation impasse with Myraslawa Prystay over his refusal to bond, and reluctance to pay for, the out-of-wedlock child that she insisted on having, but whom he never wanted, and had pleaded with her to have aborted.

The stricken but still striking Ukrainian-born former model, now in her mid-forties, already had an out-of-wedlock toddler by another man when she met the then-divorced Avildsen. And Prystay admits that they never lived together and that he never even proposed marriage. But she justifies her inability to go through with the abortion she initially promised Avildsen she would have, saying "I loved John. I loved the baby."

Avildsen settled with Prystay before son Ashley Avildsen's birth. He has since paid her more than $78,000 under its terms. But they have continued to battle over her demands for more chad support and her perennial "hope" for paternal bonding despite Avildsen's continued display of utter disinterest in her or even in Ashley. "I have no proof that he's my son," Avildsen said, staring icily past the freckled, blue-eyed, look-alike boy at a recent trial.

But while Prystay "burns candles" and waits for Avildsen's bonding-seeming more like Madame Butterfly than either Mia or Murphy Brown-Avildsen has continued to accuse her of using her countersuits, appeals, and copious tears-in which she paints herself as a classic wronged woman whom Avildsen "led on" - as a "shakedown."

A taped segment from a Larry King show about fathers that his lawyer played at their recent trial suggested that Avildsen's fears were not unfounded. "He's worth millions. The guy should spring for $100,000, $150,000," a lawyer representing Prystay at that time told Larry King. "I'm going to make [Avildsen] support this kid in as grandiose a manner as I can," the lawyer said.

Avildsen's fears seemed all the more founded considering that the lawyer who uttered these threatening-sounding words had also represented Sandra Jennings, the mother of actor William Hurt's out-of-wedlock son.

Hurt, unasked, really had bonded with Alexander Devon Hurt. He had voluntarily paid child support, and a large part of Jennings' living expenses. But Jennings sued Hurt to prove she had been his common-law wife because she was hoping for more. If found legally wed, she then planned to divorce him and sue the actor for at least $200,000-reportedly more than three times the amount he was already paying.

Prystay has adamantly denied all such accusations of using her own unending litigation as a similar attempt at extortion. "I would rather John be a father to Ashley than have a million dollars for his child support," she told me at the trial.

The outcomes in these various cases suggest that, even when they win, women still mostly end up as losers. And most mothers leave the courts with neither money or love.

Reportedly, though Engelbert Humperdinck's daughter has not only been awarded added child support but actually received it, she says she would gladly take no money if she could only have a relationship with her father. The judge in the Hurt case ruled against Jennings. And though the judge ruled in favor of Prystay, who can now sue Avildsen for more money, he has vowed to appeal. And a recent decision in a Tennessee custody fight over seven frozen embryos could potentially boost Avildsen's chances of winning that or future appeals.

In this landmark case, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that a man's constitutional right to privacy gives his right not to be forced into fatherhood a higher priority than a woman's desire to be a mother.

If the courts cannot guarantee single mothers added money --despite the new liberal child-support statutes--the supposed "magic wand" of the courts has proved even more useless in supplying the desired paternal bonding. As a result, today's "non-marital" children are not much better off than the illegitimate children of the past.

Ashley Avildsen and Jennifer Dorsey will not have to spend their lives in a frustrated search for an unknown father like past generations of illegitimate children. But they seem destined to suffer equally devastating effects from being rejected for life by a non-caring one. Mired in their mothers' bonding fantasies, they may even live doubly burdened--struggling to live up not just to a famous father, but to a famous phantom father.

As a mother and psychologist, it strikes me that these women have deluded themselves by thinking of paternal bonding as a bargaining chip like custody and child support. Parental bonding typically occurs through a parent's being there and through the day-to-day caring for a baby-with a woman's nine months of gestation often giving her a head start on bonding. Regardless of the law, bonding is not an arbitrary entity, something that can be ordered in or out of existence by word or decree.

Nor is parental bonding by either sex dictated by a "lark of the moment" from any vaunted "illogic of the heart," which was how Woody justified his love affair with Soon Yi. Being a parent is not a part you try out for, or can be fired from, with the ease with which Woody fired Mia from her role in his new film.

A father's role has no understudy. It carries responsibilities that can't be relegated, no matter how many psychologists and other mental-health experts you turn to for advice. And it's certainly not confined to playing Santa during holidays, as Woody seemed to imply with his reiterated little-boy laments at being kept from buying Christmas gifts for his children during the long months of separation from them while authorities investigate the allegations of sexual abuse against him. While parental bonding may gratify parental needs, its primary purpose is to satisfy a child's needs

The law has traditionally recognized this by attempting to determine custody and child support in conventional divorce cases in accord with what the court deems the child's "best interests." But despite the new laws that have given out-of-wedlock children new rights to money and inheritance, these battling unwed parents seem to be mainly committed to themselves rather than having their children's best interests at heart.

Myra Prystay cannot have been thinking of her unborn child's best interest when she insisted on having a baby that she knew Avildsen was adamantly opposed to her having.

Woody could not have been thinking of his adopted children's best interests when he bedded Soon Yi after he'd bonded with three of her step-siblings. And Mia cannot have been thinking of her children's best interests when she amassed all those children but depended on Woody's money to support them despite the lack of any permanent committment between Woody and herself.

But today's single mothers may be asking for the impossible when they count on men cut loose from traditional legal and biological family moorings in our new fatherless families to support their maternal urges by bonding with their babies. As these women seem to forget, many such men, with no family artifact to ensure they stick around at all, rather than acting like dear old dad, are more apt to revert to the proverbial cad.

I don't think the answer to all of these unprecedented legal cases is to blame Murphy Brown for destroying family values-which never were that ideal to begin with-or return to the bondage of traditional nuclear families. But these cases show the need to begin to examine the nature of bonding, and the wisdom of trusting it to occur in the legal vacuum of today's fatherless homes.

As for Woody and Mia, I don't know what psychological baggage their kids, including Satchel, will carry as a result of what even their judge laments as their "unfortunate" exposure in the Woody-Mia mess. However, judging by the bemused comments of several women outside the courtroom after the hearing, Satchel seems destined to suffer more ridicule because of his first name, and not because he bears Mia's last name instead of Woody's.

"Satchel?" a woman kept saying to her friend. "Why didn't they call him 'Valise?' Doesn't 'Valise' mean the same thing as 'Satchel?' " she kept asking.

As for me, I have concluded that any blending was not in their family but in Woody and the Knicks-size team of psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental-health workers he has depended on so totally, for so long, and with such questionable results, to carry out his bonding and other adult and parental responsibilities.

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