Finding My Words – the debt I owe to Phil Hartman

This chapter of my story is important, not because it is joyful or because I am proud of it, but because it sets the scene for the struggles that have plagued me ever since. You cannot understand the turmoil of my placement struggles until you know the turmoil of the marriage that preceded them. My fast is NOT about the violence I suffered at the hands of my ex-wife. It IS, at least in part, about the unwillingness of Family Court to acknowledge this as a dynamic in the ongoing difficulty around placement. Still, this is MY story, and I am not telling it to get revenge. So here my ex-wife and my children remain unnamed. It will be their choice someday whether to add their names and incorporate it into the story of their lives, too.

1. Finding My Words – the debt I owe to Phil Hartman
David Weiss, November 29, 2010 (Day 1 of the fast)

I owe Phil Hartman, the late Saturday Night Live comedian and actor, the sort of debt of gratitude you don’t want to owe anyone. He probably saved my life—by losing his own.

In the spring of 1998 I’d been married for almost eight years. By most outward appearances we were a happy couple, in church every Sunday, helping to raise my 10 year-old son and with a 2 year-old daughter of our own. But beneath the thin veneer of happiness lay an altogether different reality.

I don’t know that the marriage was every truly healthy, but I do know that by 1998 it had been deeply dysfunctional for years. Neurotic behaviors had become manipulative and then emotionally and verbally abusive. Sometime in 1996 (the year my daughter was born) those behaviors lurched over into physical violence.

And I was speechless. In an all too literal sense.

A polished writer—a wordsmith—I had no language to name the truth of my life. Already divorced once after a marriage that lasted less than a year, and currently working on a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics, this marriage would workno matter what. There were no other options on the table. In sight. Anywhere.

And as the chasm between my lived experience and any marginal notion of a marriage that “worked” yawned wider, I simply had no words.

I was, as it were, dumbstruck. I was, in fact, being physically struck with increasing regularity, and with each new strike my confusion and fear and shame grew. Whether there was a moment early on that I could have asked for help I don’t know.

The closest I came to being truthful to my friends was to lament in desperate but cryptic tones about my wife’s irrational temper: “When I walk through the front door of our home at the end of the day I feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. All the rules that I take for granted in the rest of my life change. I mean, all the rules change.” I didn’t know how to say more.

I pleaded with my wife to get counseling, but she refused every plea. When I sought out a counselor for myself in 1997 I self-censored any mention of the violence in which I dwelled. My shame barricaded me in silence. And when, in the early months of 1998, I had finally begged and pleaded enough to get the two of us to see a marriage counselor, every session we had became an awkward, distorted dance to avoid naming any truths for which I might later be hit. As each session approached I wondered if this would be the one in which I dared to name the violence, but I never did. And I left each session loathing my own fear and condemning the complicity of my silence.

When our counselor, exasperated that he could not seem to break through to any sense of the “real issues,” suggested that he meet once or twice with each of us separately and then resume our joint counseling, I saw my moment of opportunity. And I saw it fade just as quickly. He was clear that he would only do these individual sessions if we both consented. My wife immediately sais, “No. Absolutely not.” When pressed as to why, her response was perhaps the most simply honest words she uttered in his office: “Because I don’t trust what David would say if I wasn’t in the room with him.”

Deal off. That was the last counseling we attended. And as I left his office that day I did not recognize any longer the meaning of the word “future.” I had none. Locked in a present framed by escalating violation and deepening isolation, and now seemingly definitively—indeed, clinically, professionally—silenced I was as good as dead.

And then Phil Hartman died. It happened on May 28, 1998, and I’m sure I heard about it on the news. But it was in the June 8 issue of Newsweek that I read the details of his death. The article hit home—because it was the first time I had ever read about a home in which the man got hit. The article described Hartman and his wife as a couple with an outwardly happy appearance, but reported that Phil had confided to his closest friends that he lived in genuine fear of his wife’s irrational temper. The article described my home.

It is impossible to know with any certainty what actually went on in their marriage or what actually transpired that night. I know that her family filed a lawsuit later, alleging that her behavior was triggered by a drug reaction. I won’t ever know the full truth, but on the day that I read the Newsweek piece I knew enough. I knew more than I had ever imagined knowing: there were other men that got hit. And sometimes those men died.

It would be months before I actually found my voice and nearly a year yet before I reclaimed my freedom, but that day I began to reclaim my words.

Silently—still framed by terror and shame—I began to imagine what the article would read like in the News-Dispatch after I died. Obviously my life had never been touched by fame and fortune like Phil’s, so I wouldn’t make it into Newsweek. But my life had been touched in other ways like his–by violence, bruises, and fear. And, at least my hometown paper would carry that story. (If anyone stepped forward to tell it after I was dead.)

Here is the measure of my sorrow back then. I probably spent a whole month writing and re-writing that news story in my imagination … because I couldn’t imagine any other ending. So for a while I just hoped I could get the tragic ending right.

But I am alive today. Happily remarried. And a grandfather three times over the last two years. My journey from June 1998 to November 2010 is not a hero’s tale. It is a long stumble with moments of occasional grace. Some of that grace is mine. Much of the grace is that of family and friends who have comforted, steadied, encouraged, and accompanied me along the way.

And it is fair to say—though with sweeping sadness—that on this journey the first person of grace was Phil Hartman. I am indebted to his death for my words. Probably my life.

God forbid that I ever be speechless again.

*                  *                  *

This entry is the first written during my 21-day fast for justice in family court. You can learn more about the fast here (https://tothetune.wordpress.com/hungry/), including ways to support me.

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7 thoughts on “Finding My Words – the debt I owe to Phil Hartman

  1. David, your words and experience written here touch my heart and soul. Your courage in speaking them fills me with the light of hope for healing of all with similar endured experiences. You’re in my prayers. God has truly blessed each of us who have the honor of reading your words. Advent Blessings and Love to you, Margaret and your family. Jan

  2. David: Thank you for your courage to live, and to tell your story. You are in my prayers throughout Advent. May your hopes be fulfilled.
    Peace and joy,
    Julie

  3. Dear David; You have our support as well, many men suffer through abusive marriages to women. Mine wasn’t quite that bad. Now I have a husband that truely loves me. My stepson went a year without speaking to us in an attempt to save his marriage. Thanks for supporting us, it’s the least we can do for you. Your words mean a lot to so many people. It was a letter from you that opened the door for me to come out to my father who was very supportive of my life until the day he died. Bless you for all the work you do. Love, Paul and Dannie

  4. David,
    Thanks for putting into words some of my own experience of abuse and the road to recovery. In my case it was at the hands of my 6th grade (male) teacher and the abuse lasted for close to a year. I assumed the guilt because somehow I was a “sinner” and God was using Mr. Stark to punish me. Never told my parents until 30+ years later and their non response was crushing once again after a long period of healing. What triggered my healing was The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, where the songs about “wicked Uncle Ernie fiddling about” led me to share with my roommate at college just a little of my 6th grade trauma – after 8 years of never telling another soul. He told me of his own molestation by his Boy Scout leader – and for the first time I knew I wasn’t alone. Years of therapy, the support of a loving partner, and a community of acceptance goes a long way!
    Thanks again for putting words to the experience. May we all heal, breaking the silence which so often accompanies the shame and guilt we survivors feel.
    in love and true shalom,
    Steve
    P.S. I was in Cuba when you first posted this so I’m just catching up on my emails.

  5. David,I am very moved by your hunger strike. My brother also suffered injustice at the hands of family court in California. I was Pastor to a man who suffered physical violence, he lived almost 40 years with it, he was one of the most tormented people I ever knew. Your ability to bring light to the situation with your writing and your fast is inspiring.

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