A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce
Author: Alec Baldwin (with Mark Tabb)
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY (2008)
Book Review by Matt Krogh
“I never wanted to write this book.” That’s the first thing that Alec Baldwin writes us, but every divorcing parent should be glad that he did.
The difficulties of divorce multiply when children are involved. Most parents, however, don’t have to deal with constant media coverage, international therapy requirements, and expenses of over a million dollars in legal fees—all spent in Baldwin’s effort to preserve parental rights after property settlement had already been reached.
Both he and his ex-wife Kim Basinger suffered through huge amounts of negative press and hard feelings during their divorce and ensuing custody battles. This cautionary personal account of divorce is interleaved with a compelling and useful explanation of how legal proceedings damaged his status as a father. As Baldwin writes of his own ordeal, “Here is where your case inside the family law system, a civil procedure, quickly morphs into a criminal case. You are about to be thrown ‘into the pit’…”
A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce shows clearly that Baldwin is a father who cares deeply for his daughter Ireland. In truth, the book is a kind of manual describing the emotional and legal issues that willing, loving fathers will encounter during the divorce process. It also shows a remarkable willingness to describe the emotional toll taken on him by court-ordered therapy, custody evaluations, and parenting classes.
Baldwin claims to be beyond the need to denigrate his spouse, comparing her at times to his father and explaining his attraction to her. At one point he writes, “She felt she should be judged by her merits, nothing more. It was this quality, more than any other, that most attracted me to her.” He also describes their early years together as a real, loving relationship: “Life held no stress, no entanglements….Life seemed easy, and I enjoyed Kim’s company enormously.”
His real motivation in writing the book seems to be exactly what he says it is, and that is to help other parents preserve their loving relationships with their children even while divorce proceedings push them apart. As Baldwin points out in an especially poignant passage, “PAS [Parental Alienation Syndrome] is not just a theoretical issue in divorce. It is the issue, and the reason I wrote this book.”
While not yet a medically certifiable syndrome, PAS (when a child, whether influenced by the ex, the situation, or the courts, decides that one parent is 100% good and the other 100% bad) can be devastating both emotionally and legally, especially when a child’s testimony about the alienated parent is accepted into a court of law.
Even though Tabb and Baldwin keep the book focused on parents, children, and their needs, they don’t obsess about PAS. Baldwin provides sometimes hysterical cinematic descriptions of various real-life people he meets (“A remarkably pale, almost cadaverous woman, [she] looked like something out of an Edward Gorey illustration”) while touching on the aspects of Hollywood life that contributed to his marital difficulties.
In a smattering of chapters throughout the book, they also provide background on how the Violence Against Women Act (which he supports) has helped turn the American home into a legal minefield that presumes family life to be dominated by the threat of male violence or misbehavior. Any father who may be experiencing feelings of frustration and anger around a divorce—and that would be pretty much all of us—would do well to read and understand these portions of the book.
The book is rich with details about how your actions as a party to divorce litigation—decisions about childcare, work travel, and the like—will impact custody decisions in ways you can’t anticipate. In the final chapter,
“Admonitions,” Baldwin writes “If you are contemplating a divorce, you will likely need all the help you can get….I therefore make certain recommendations, each of which has grown out of my seven years of experience within this system.” The final chapter’s thirteen recommendations summarize the lessons that Baldwin wants to share.
In writing A Promise to Ourselves, Baldwin shows that he has made his peace with what happened to him during the seemingly insurmountable task of trying to being a good parent during divorce. By reopening the issue two years after the finalization of the divorce, however, he has demonstrated real courage, and a real willingness to help others not make the same mistakes. At each step of the way, he is willing to expose and analyze his own part in it all; his hopes and fears as a parent; and how he could have done better. And that is a gift to any parent contemplating divorce.
Matt Krough writes for DadsDivorce.com