By then I had come to accept the fact that only a radical step on my part, such as carrying on an extramarital affair, would propel Archie into agreeing to divorce.
And so, the next time, in the heat of one of our endless arguments about my political involvement and general inadequacy as a wife, when Archie asked me if I was having an affair, I responded, “Yes.” His face took on the stunned look of a slaughterhouse steer at the moment it’s pole-axed.
After a few seconds of silence, while he processed this information, he demanded to know who it was. I told him that it was a man I had met in the anti-war movement but did not tell him Cappy’s name. “You have to stop, you’re my wife,” he said.
“I’m not going to stop. I can do what I want with my body. I’m not your property,” I replied, and we proceeded in this vein for some time, resolving nothing.
I suggested we divorce, asking him to move out and leave the children with me, but he refused: “I won’t divorce you, because then you would have everything you want.”
Here’s how my confession led me to being deemed an “unfit mother”.
Towards the end of May, I consulted a lawyer, resolved to get a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. It was then that I learned that the state of Maryland required an eighteen-month separation before such a divorce could be granted, and by that time I would have moved away from Maryland to continue my training as a cardiology fellow with Dr. Richard Gorlin at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston.
Archie was still waiting to find out where he had been accepted into a cardiac surgery residency, having decided not to return to Yale. I was no longer willing to follow him wherever he went, especially if it meant giving up my fellowship in Boston.
On the last day of May, relieved to have taken the first step to end our marriage, I came home from work and cooked us all dinner for the first time in weeks. Afterward, Archie took the children and said he was going out for ice cream. I had no inkling of the bombshell that was about to shatter the last illusions I held about my husband, about justice, and about the lengths, I would go to keep my children. An hour after he left, Archie telephoned from the airport to say that he was taking Dory and little Archie to stay with his parents in Massachusetts. He hung up when I demanded to know why and when they would return.
A spider of foreboding held me fast in its web. Dread and a keen longing to hold the children in my arms kept sleep at bay through an endless night. The next morning, the doorbell rang, and I ran to answer it with crazy joy, convinced I would find the three of them standing on the doorstep.
A stranger shuffled his feet in the doorway: It was a process server holding a sheaf of court documents. These innocuous-looking pages signaled the beginning of a nightmare. He scurried away as soon as the papers were in my hands. They were an order to show cause and a bill of complaint for divorce “a vinculo matrimonii,” on the grounds of adultery.
In the papers, I was accused of having a sexual affair with at least one man, of refusing sexual acts with my husband, of stopping my wifely duties to take care of washing, cooking, and caring for the home, of expressing my dislike and opposition to religion, and of openly working for the goal of revolution against the United States. It asked that full child custody be awarded to Archie because I was an unfit mother and demanded and that I be enjoined from interfering with his care of the children.
How I Learned that Marriage Oppresses Women
Based on this bill of complaint and without any prior notification or questioning of me, the judge signed an Order to Show Cause awarding Archie temporary custody and ordering that the investigative office of the Court undertake an investigation of the “care, custody, and control of the minor children.” The same document set a hearing date six weeks later, on July 14, 1972. Dory was six and a half years old and young Archie was a few months shy of his third birthday. I was allowed to visit them every other weekend, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, but they would stay with their paternal grandparents until the hearing.
If I had any misapprehensions about how marriage oppressed women, they were irrevocably shattered by the evidence set forth in the Bill of Complaint. In enumerating the ways in which I had failed as a wife, it delineated clearly what was expected of women in marriage and what they must deliver if they wished to continue as the mothers of their children.
I called Dr. Levy, gave him an expurgated version of what had happened, and told him that I would be unable to work for at least a few weeks. He readily granted me leave, and I moved out of our apartment and in with Movement friends in the District of Columbia, spending most of my waking hours huddled on a mattress crying. My parents were horrified, but my father took Archie’s part, writing me to advise that I “ask Archie’s forgiveness and tell him you are interested only in a good marriage and medicine, nothing else.” I didn’t bother to reply.
I was notified that a court-appointed investigator wanted to interview me. I hoped that the investigator would be a woman and would have some sympathy for me. In the event, the investigator was a man, and in the space of just a few moments, it was clear that he was the worst possible man I could have drawn. He asked me to tell him of the contentious issues in our marriage.
I related to him that Archie and I both worked as doctors, but that I was expected to do all the housework and be responsible for all of the childcare, and that we argued because Archie refused to help with any of these chores.
“Well the solution to that is very simple,” he said. “You should have quit your job and stayed home with your children.” He questioned me about my political beliefs, which he clearly found repugnant. “Don’t you know that if women could get abortions, they’d be promiscuous?” he asked. Finally, he delivered the coup de grâce. “You know,” he said, “if half the things your husband says about you are true, then you’re clearly an unfit mother. On the other hand, if half the things he says about you are true, he’s an unfit father for putting up with you, and I’m going to recommend to the Court that the children be taken away from both of you and put in foster care.”
The thought of Dory and Archie being wrested away from both of us was unbearable. My mind scurried around like a cornered rat frantically seeking escape from a predicament that seemed to grow more fraught with each day that passed. I was sick with longing for the children. It was a bruising lump that lodged in my chest, taking away my appetite. I spent more and more time curled up in bed in a fetal position.
I knew I had to get my children back or die.
The Law Works Against Women Who Commit Adultery
My lawyer advised me to play the good suburban housewife, but that was impossible. My political activities were a matter of public record; they had been chronicled in the newspapers and on television. Certain she was mistaken, I consulted another attorney. What he said was not encouraging.
Rufus King III was the descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. A tall, thin, etiolated WASP, he was handsome, with chiseled features and a head full of prematurely gray curls. He’d been recommended by Carol Burris, a friend who’d founded the Feminist Lobby. Unbeknownst to me, Archie had been having me followed by a private investigator for a few weeks before filing for divorce. He’d hired the detective as soon as I told him that I was sleeping with another man. The detective would testify that I had spent the night at Cappy’s apartment. That alone was prima facie evidence that I’d committed adultery. He didn’t need lurid photos of us in the act.
In Maryland, in 1972, a woman who committed adultery was considered to be an “unfit mother.” Nothing else needed to be proven against her. If she kept a spotless house, dressed and fed her children impeccably, and steered clear of radical politics, it didn’t matter. If she slept with a man, not her husband, she was an unfit mother. It goes without saying that the same did not hold true for fathers. Rufus told me, “Look, if you go to trial in Maryland, you are going to lose.
You can appeal it, but it will take at least four years, it will cost you over ten thousand dollars, and during that time, he will have the children. That’s one choice. Your second choice is to take the children the next time you are in Holyoke, and disappear. I’d suggest you go somewhere out of the country and don’t plan on coming back until the children are grown. You have a third choice. Reconcile with your husband. Call him up and tell him you’ve reconsidered, that you want to stay married. Tell him whatever you have to, do whatever you have to do, to get him to drop the suit.”
Heartsick and defeated, I realized that I would have to go to Archie and beg him to take me back. At first, Archie refused to meet with me. I found out later if a man sues his wife for divorce on the grounds of adultery but subsequently allows her to return, or even if he just has sex with her, this amounts to “condonation” of her actions and precludes him charging her with adultery. Eventually, we met, and, sobbing with anguish, I told him that I would do anything if he would bring the children back from Holyoke and give me another chance. He was suspicious, but eventually I convinced him that we owed it to the children to try to make our marriage “work.”
He set four conditions for agreeing to drop his divorce and child custody suit. First, I had to agree to stop seeing Cappy. Second, I had to give up all my political activities in the women’s and anti-war movements. Third, I had to give up my fellowship at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and go with Archie wherever he went to complete his surgical training. And fourth, I had to agree to have another child. Knowing I had no choice, I acquiesced to all these conditions, and he brought the children home.
I did get Archie to agree that I would not have to write to Dr. Gorlin declining the cardiology fellowship he’d offered me until it was certain that Archie himself would not be joining a residency program in Boston.
I had railed against the oppression of women, I had agitated for change, but faced with losing my children, I bowed to the superior force of the law. I learned in the most traumatic, personal way just how egregiously the law was stacked against women. It was a lesson I never forgot: a lesson that kindled in me an even stronger predilection for the underdog and a deep and abiding distrust of the judicial system – a distrust that would be front and center about a decade later when I took on my most infamous patient.
This article has been excerpted from The Doctor Broad: A Mafia Love Story (Heliotrope Books LLC, September 2019) by Dr. Barbara H. Roberts. This memoir traces Barbara’s path from good Catholic girl to football star’s wife to single mother; from the first female cardiologist in Rhode Island to physician to one Mafioso and mistress to another. It is the story of a woman born in mid-twentieth-century America who was raised in one world but came of age in another; who expected to live one life but found herself ad-libbing something very different; who faced challenges undreamt of by her mother while providing a new paradigm for her daughters. This book is available at Amazon.com.