Kramer v Kramer. Fo realz.
September 26, 2007 12:03 PM   Subscribe

[Child of Divorce Filter]. I have discovered I have the ability to view a 400+ page set of documents that are the sum of my parents' bitter legal divorce. On one hand, I hope it may shed some insight for me on people I never really knew. On the other hand, I fear doing this may cause a lot more emotional baggage than it will be worth. What do you think?

My parents divorced when I was a whee little thing. They apparently couldn't agree on the divorce, and spent the next several years in court arguing back and forth. They didn't necessarily have a lot of money; it wasn't a property dispute, as I seem to recall it was more just general nastiness.

I lost one parent years ago without asking about it, and the other one I can't bring up the mention of without sending them to a "bad place". So that's out.

I'm torn. I've asked folks around me and they are split pretty 50/50 on the discovery. On one hand it is knowledge, they say, on the other hand it's the carefully crafted and lawyer layered Machiavellian barbs that will surely offer nothing but headaches and tears.

So I ask my peers here! Which I am too chicken shit to do directly. What do you think? What would you do?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (39 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What unanswered questions remain for you? Why do you really need to know the answers? What if you find out stuff you didn't want to know about the deceased parent? You can't confront them about it now.

I think this is like a scab you're tempted to pick at, even though you know it will hurt you and slow the healing process. I vote no.
posted by desjardins at 12:06 PM on September 26, 2007

Perhaps you could start reading, read 10 pages or so, or maybe just flip through, and see how it makes you feel and if you want to proceed.
posted by orange swan at 12:06 PM on September 26, 2007

Don't read them. Keep the option open, keep the documents around, and read them if one day you're very sure you want to. If you're at all ambivalent, let it go for now.
posted by pocams at 12:13 PM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Recognize that the past is history.
History mediated by lawyers.
Move on.
posted by terpia at 12:13 PM on September 26, 2007

How long ago did you learn about these documents? Have you spent months thinking about it already?

If so, you probably won't be able to forget that those documents are out there. There will always be this thing out there that may or may not give you insight into your parent's troubled divorce. The sooner you read it the sooner it will be behind you.

If not, give it a little time and you'll know what to do.
posted by Alison at 12:14 PM on September 26, 2007

If you want to know more about them as "people" as opposed to "parents" it might be tempting. But if you're comfortable with your relationship with them individually, let it go. People in emotionally leveraged positions are rarely at their best, and reading 400 pages of that isn't going to help.
posted by maxwelton at 12:18 PM on September 26, 2007

If you think that you can read these documents wihtout them raising more questions for your living parent, then I'd say go for it, what do you have to lose etc. However, if you think that reading them may make you go "Hey mom/dad why did you say this to dad/mom?" then that would be, it seems a hassle for them and give you the fidgets. Since you have one living parent and one non-living one (I presume) this might be weird, really only being able to get one parent's view of things if you DID have questions. On the other hand, maybe being able to talk to the parent where they get the last word might be freeing in some way. I have the weird, though uncharitable, opinion that whichever of my parents outlives the other will feel that event as a sort of victory.

My parents' divorce happened when I was old enough to know what was going on, and I wish I'd known even LESS about what went on then I did -- even when both my parents did a pretty good job at not putting me or my sister in the middle of things -- because of how icky things got. Both had lawyers, both disavowed some of the things that happened in the actual divorce because the lawyers put them up to it, I felt worse abotu both of them. Not in a "I loved them less" way but in a "wow my parents can be shabby humans sometimes just like other people" way. Not a bad thing, overall, but still I would have been a little happier not knowing and their divorce wasn't even that acrimonious (not contested, generally, over and done with fairly quickly)
posted by jessamyn at 12:23 PM on September 26, 2007

I, as a child of divorce, later in life chose not to ask questions about it from either of my parents. Years ago my father suggested that if I ever wanted to know the details, all I had to do is ask and he would tell me.

I have decided that I don't need to know the details, I love both of them, and that's all that matters, regardless of whatever happened between them. I am comfortable with that decision, and if it were me, I wouldn't look at the papers.

I've been OK with this decision for about 10 years now, so I've had plenty of time to think about it.

Also consider that just thinking about that time sends one of your parents to a "bad place". What will it do to them if they know you read the documents? If you read them without their knowledge, do you really think you can interact with them without wanting to talk about what you saw?

Regardless of it being knowledge vs carefully crafted lawyer -speak, I'd pass. It just wouldn't matter to me.

posted by blind.wombat at 12:26 PM on September 26, 2007

You can always read it later. You can't un-know what you find out. Wait it out as long as you can.
posted by ferociouskitty at 12:29 PM on September 26, 2007

I fear doing this may cause a lot more emotional baggage than it will be worth

I say that if this is a fear for you to any extent, then don't read it now. I sounds like maybe you are just curious, which doesn't seem like a good enough reason to go down this path. All the best with your decision.
posted by mrmarley at 12:37 PM on September 26, 2007

I would probably read them, in your shoes, regardless of what information it might contain. Otherwise I know it would hang over me forever, wondering whether I should or shouldn't and never deciding.

I assume, though, that you are an adult. As an adult, I have learned some upsetting things about members of my family that I probably couldn't have handled as a teen or in my college years and I really feel like it gave me information that I needed to know to really understand who these people I knew truly were.

I did learn something fairly shocking that explained why a very eccentric and often irrational family member acted the way she did. It gave me a greater understanding of who she was, but it also gave me a greater understanding of who her husband was, and despite him being a favorite of mine when I was little, how he had a lot of cruelty in him.

So yes, there could be very unsettling information. If you can handle that, then read it.
posted by tastybrains at 12:37 PM on September 26, 2007

Since the divorce wasn’t directly about you anything included in the document has to do with a bad time in your parent’s lives and while that might be interesting should not impact how you view your parents.

I personally would let it go and keep the memories I have intact.
posted by doorsfan at 12:39 PM on September 26, 2007

If you found the diary of either, would you read it? I think not. Even though it's a public document (I assume), give your parents some privacy. It's really none of your business. Unless of course, they're both dead. In which case, read away.
posted by b33j at 12:46 PM on September 26, 2007

What good would come of it? Burn it all.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:51 PM on September 26, 2007

I'm a little confused about who you know and to whom you could direct questions. Is there anyone in your family, or any old family friends, who might know details about the situation and would be willing to field questions?

That might be a deciding factor. You admit that the documentation will probably be more confusing than not in more places. If there's anyone you could talk to for clarifications, then reading it all could be a useful way to get to know your family past. But if you really feel that there is no one you could possibly ask about this, then.. Well, I'd put it off. You don't want to be left with more questions than you started with.

I say put it off, not completely nix the idea. As others have said, if you decide you're not ready for it now, you don't know about the future.
posted by Ms. Saint at 12:53 PM on September 26, 2007

I have had to read some of those things, and I can tell you that they are just ugly. You won't know your parents better as people by looking at them. It would be like asking Ann Coulter for an honest depiction of Hillary Clinton. It will have been written by lawyers who probably never met whichever of your parents they are describing and will be second hand accounts of the worst possible description of them, made to sound as bad as money can buy. You could take a saint and make them look like a monster if you were going through a divorce from them. I think that you have nothing to gain by reading them and you will just be left with an abhorrent and inaccurate picture of your parents, who like everyone else had both good and bad things about them. All you will learn will be the bad, magnified by a thousand.
posted by ND¢ at 1:14 PM on September 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

I remember my divorce papers brought out the worst in everyone, not just myself and my ex, but parents, friends, etc. who were asked to testify and provide statements. A lot of things in there were forgiven and forgotten a few years later, despite the acrimony at the time, because everyone moved on and everyone wanted the child involved (my daughter) not to be harmed by any bad feelings.

I vote no.
posted by workinggringa at 1:21 PM on September 26, 2007

I also vote "no". I worked for a law firm for awhile as a gopher and was tempted on several occasions when I was in the courthouse anyway to get copies of the documents to read them. In retrospect, I'm glad I didn't, for all the reasons listed here.

You are right, in that it is an opportunity to see your parents--at what is probably the absolutely lowest point of their lives. I'm not sure information about somebody at that point is even reflective of anything.

Imagine somebody had the opportunity to see a video composed of the worst and most painful moments of your life. Is that video really reflective of you and representative of who you are?
posted by jtfowl0 at 1:39 PM on September 26, 2007

Have someone else read the documents. Ask them to write a summary of any information in them that you would actually want to know.
posted by yohko at 1:54 PM on September 26, 2007 [5 favorites]

My parents divorced when I was four, and I never had a relationship with my father. He disappeared and died when I was 21. My mother had told me the essentials of the situation, but never tried to demonize him. His absence was hurtful enough. After my father's death I went through a couple of years of counseling to deal with related issues.

Two years ago (10 years after his death) I found out some information about my father and my parents' divorce that I didn't know before. And it was very very painful. Even after I thought I had "dealt" with the issues around my father's abandonment, this new info stirred up lots of unpleasant feelings that served no purpose. This wasn't an enlightening experience, and didn't offer any greater understanding into my father. I would have much prefered not to know.
posted by kimdog at 2:00 PM on September 26, 2007

You're not going to learn about who they were as people from those documents. You're going to learn what the emotions and anger associated with divorce turned them into when they were at their worst, dealing with lawyers and judges and each other. I was a complete wreck any time I had to deal with the divorce or custody matters, so I wasn't always "myself." No one I know is quite him- or herself when it comes to the exes or their kids or legal proceedings in general; a divorce and custody case combines the worst of all three.

If you feel that it will help you understand some of what happened, then read it. If you feel like it will help you know your parents better, then don't.
posted by Cricket at 2:24 PM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

My parents divorced when I was 11, and I was privy to information I never should have known - be it at that age, or now. I don't know what was true and what wasn't because I only heard biased versions from either party (which is what will be in these records). From my experience, divorce is an ugly thing that blows a lot of normal behaviour and weaknesses into gigantic blemishes. It will probably alter your opinions of your parents forever, and not in a positive way. It was their divorce, not yours, leave it be.

IMO: if you want to better your knowledge of your deceased parent, go chasing around their home town, their living relatives, their public records - everything except for this. There are other ways to know a person. Good luck!
posted by saturnine at 2:34 PM on September 26, 2007

Second, yohko.

Have someone else you trust read it and tell you whether or not to read it.
posted by aetg at 3:05 PM on September 26, 2007

I would leave it alone. You'll never know what was true, what was not; nor in what spirit, or under what pressure, statements were made and courses of action selected. To base a judgment of either of your parents on such a record would be a mistake, imho. Take them as you knew them, I believe that is most respectful to them and most useful to you.
posted by londongeezer at 3:17 PM on September 26, 2007

Don't read it.
posted by PowerCat at 3:27 PM on September 26, 2007

I had a long-unanswered question about my late father. When my mother became ill with cancer, she began spilling the family secrets. The truth broke my heart. Better never to have known.
posted by astruc at 4:08 PM on September 26, 2007

You can never unread something
posted by dripdripdrop at 4:30 PM on September 26, 2007

No, no, no, no. My parents divorce when I was young was less about money and more about nastiness. They've managed to forgive one another (somewhat), and I KNOW they regret the way they acted at the time of the divorce. I was also pretty young during the divorce, and to this day when one of them lets a little information slip I get that queasy panicky feeling all over again.

Burn it.
posted by missmle at 4:40 PM on September 26, 2007

yohko ftw. Surely you have a trusted friend who would do this.
posted by desjardins at 4:59 PM on September 26, 2007

If there's zero chance of there being anything really useful in there (e.g. the passcode to the secret Swiss bank account), just toss it. There's probably not anything in there you want, and plenty that you don't want.

I mean, if I gave you a choice between A) nothing and B) a 50-50 chance I would either smack you in the face or tell you a story that would make you go, "Meh," would you choose A or B?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:35 PM on September 26, 2007

I wouldn't. When my mother was dying I found out a ton about her life and my parents divorce. It wasn't pretty. A lot of it just made me angry and I lost a lot of respect for both of them.

Also, this was them at their absolute worst. Is that really how you want to remember them? I mean we've all done some things we are ashamed of, but I wouldn't want my children to judge me based on that. Or future children I should say.
posted by whoaali at 6:14 PM on September 26, 2007

Have a trusted friend (who doesn't know your surviving parent) read it first. Perhaps the friend will be able to pull out one or two items that you should know. More likely they'll say "there's nothing in there you need to know".
posted by anastasiav at 6:24 PM on September 26, 2007

Another child of divorce here, chiming in to say that you do not want to read those papers. You have NOTHING to gain by reading that stuff.

You don't need to know everything about your parent's lives.

Let some of it be a mystery to you. Specifically, those parts which might cause you to lose respect for them and cause you emotional trauma as well.
posted by jason's_planet at 6:57 PM on September 26, 2007

kimdog's got it - the knowledge in this kind of document doesn't serve any positive purpose. I hate cliches, but this one could be filed under "curiosity killed the cat." As a child of divorce myself, I know one or two things that I really wish I didn't - my parents are my parents, and their marriage has no bearing on who they are to me as my mother and father. I choose to see them as parents and friends, and to let their private lives remain thus. And good god, am I happier for it.
posted by AthenaPolias at 7:10 PM on September 26, 2007

Uhm, 400 pages of lawyer-anything is a LOT. Is this the total from both parties? A property inventory, if they just dump a form letter style stack can last 80 pages or so... so lets say between two and three hundred pages of more or less paperwork... leaves 100 or so pages of nastiness. Meh. I understand curiosity... but.... 300 pages of lawyer talk, + 100 nasty? What sort of masochist are you?
posted by Jacen at 9:38 PM on September 26, 2007

Burn it and consider your ignorance bliss. You have one parent that you can ask any questions of, so of course they're going to tell you their side of any disagreements, and it sounds like even they don't want to talk about it. If I were in your place, reading this would be a horrible temptation, but I know for a fact that it would be like focusing a magnifying glass on all of my parents' flaws. I think that if you do decide to read it, it will always be in the back of your mind.

I happened to read something a few months ago that made it easier to understand why one of my parents did one thing during their divorce, but at the same time, it really disappointed me in the other parent's behavior as a human. People do some very nasty things in the midst of a divorce and it's hardly ever just on one side. I can't imagine that you would want to see those kinds of hurtful things and remember them when both of your parents are gone.

Unless there is some burning desire deep within your soul to know the truth, I would leave it alone. Remember that they were your parents, love them and their memories, and move on.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 6:11 AM on September 27, 2007

Don't do it. You won't find out anything you'll be happy knowing. This is not their diaries or any kind of real insight into their minds, it's only mudslinging from one of the worst times in their lives that neither of them would probably be proud of or want you to know or judge them by.

If you're that eager to find out more about your dad, could you possibly track down some friends of his and ask them?
posted by widdershins at 10:26 AM on September 27, 2007

There are generally three sides to any story: His side,
Her side, and what actually happened. What appears in court documents is not always the truth, it's simply a record of what was said. My uncles have admitted to lying to "help" my father when my folks divorced. My ex tried to get his friends to lie for him when we divorced. I agree with widdershins it is about mudslinging......not about truth.
posted by misspat at 12:49 PM on September 27, 2007

To offer an alternative perspective, I'd read it. My parents got divorced after I graduated from college, and there are a number of mysteries I'd like cleared up. My mom is dead now, and my dad won't talk about it.

One thing I don't understand at all: the idea of losing respect for my parents by seeing them at their worst. Parents are people (with all that entails), not the mythologically perfect gods of my childhood.
posted by Irontom at 12:54 PM on September 27, 2007

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