Charlotte Fedders ushers a guest from the cluttered kitchen of her suburban Washington home to the sunny living room filled with photographs of her children.
A cat snuggling on the couch is quickly shooed away and Fedders begins to describe in even tones the physical and mental abuse inflicted by her husband, the former top chief of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission.
She speaks about the violence during her 18-year marriage, the legal battles with her ex-husband John Fedders, the resiliency of her five sons, and her own inner strength. She pauses to deal with a question from son Peter, who has padded downstairs in bare feet to ask, “Do elephants have tails?”
Five years ago, a messy kitchen, cat hairs in the living room and a sudden display of precociousness would have been verboten . In her book, “Shattered Dreams,” Charlotte Fedders described her husband’s weekly white-glove inspections, in which he ran his fingers along tops of doors and windows, and how he liked to see the vacuum marks in the carpet all going the same way.
As the result of her experience, Charlotte Fedders has become one of the nation’s best-known victims of spouse abuse. She speaks out on the issue around the country and in return receives thousands of letters filled with words of encouragement and personal tales of domestic violence.
“I have folders of letters that I can’t respond to,” she says. “They pour their hearts out to me. There’s enormous support.
“They say I’ve done just what I had to do. I had no other choice.”
At one time, the Fedders family gave the appearance of an ideal existence--wealthy suburban home, exclusive country club membership, private schools, powerful Washington job.
But a dirty secret festered inside the six-bedroom, beige brick house in Potomac, Md.: John Fedders beat his wife.
“We had been talking for a while. All I remember is that this conversation seemed to be going well. That we were really conversing, sharing ideas. We were not fighting, we were not being sarcastic or nasty. I swear we were just talking,” Charlotte Fedders wrote in her book, referring to the first time her husband struck her in 1968.
“But I think it was the first time I disagreed with him and was sticking to my guns. I was arguing my point calmly, but I was holding to it. . . . It was one goodsock to the left side of my ear. Then I heard this ringing sound. I found out later that he had broken my eardrum.”
In court testimony during the February, 1985, divorce trial, Charlotte Fedders described seven violent incidents that occurred during her marriage, including the time her husband struck her while she was four months pregnant with their first child.
“He loomed over me and hit me in the abdomen, three, maybe five times, hard. I bent over, trying to protect my tummy. They were powerful blows. It felt like taking a heavy fall. . . . I tried to push him away, which only seemed to make him madder. He yelled that he didn’t care if he killed me or the baby,” she wrote in her book.
Among those present in the courtroom during the divorce proceedings was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, whose article of Feb. 25 on John Fedders’ problems touched off a furor that forced Fedders to resign his SEC post late the next day.
In his resignation letter to then SEC Chairman John Shad, Fedders said, “On seven occasions during more than 18 years of marriage, marital disputes between us resulted in violence for which I feel and have expressed great remorse.
“These isolated events do not, however, justify the extreme characterizations made in the press,” he said.
Fedders did not respond to several telephone calls seeking his comments on his former wife’s charges.
The ideal family was no more, but the legal battles continued. After John Fedders testified, he pleaded with the court to give him time to work out a reconciliation with his wife. Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James S. McAuliffe suggested that the couple go out to dinner and try to talk things out.
“That was a devastating moment,” Charlotte Fedders said in a recent interview, recalling the 5-year-old incident. “He thought it was the right thing for the kids/me. John had promised never to do it again. The judge showed a total lack of understanding of domestic violence.”
In 1987, a Circuit Court domestics relations official, John S. McInerney, reduced John Fedders’ alimony payments from $750 a month to $500. McInerney also awarded Fedders a 25% share of the proceeds from his wife’s book, saying she shared the blame for his violent outbursts because she withheld emotional support during his depression.
“He obviously ruled very poorly. . . . He doesn’t know what’s going on,” she said.
McAuliffe in February of this year reversed McInerney’s action, ruling that Fedders could not share in the profits from his wife’s book, but his decision was based on the belief that no exact monetary value can be placed on a book. McAuliffe said that it cannot be considered a marital asset.
The judge also reduced John Fedders’ alimony payments to $400 a month. Fedders had asked the court to end the payments, saying the publicity had hurt his earning capacity by damaging his once successful legal career.
“This particular judge made the final ruling and I did as well as I could do,” Charlotte Fedders said. “He didn’t understand that John was manipulating the system, manipulating lives.
“There isn’t a soul who doesn’t think John Fedders couldn’t be doing well--in a small way John won. The judge bought John’s truth.”
For Charlotte Fedders, the product of a strict Roman Catholic education and a family dominated by a strong father, her lone desire was the realization of an old-fashioned dream.
“All I ever wanted to be was a wife and mother,” she wrote in her book. “To marry a man who could give me children and a comfortable life, filled with love and little strife. . . . So finding that man was very important.”
While working at Washington’s Providence Hospital during her senior year of college, Charlotte O’Donnell met John Fedders, then a second-year law student at Catholic University.
He was the man she imagined--tall (6-foot-10), handsome, a Catholic who wanted a family. They married, moved from New York to Texas to Washington, as John succeeded in his law career, and had six boys, one of whom, John Michael, died of spinal meningitis.
During their marriage, according to Charlotte’s book, the couple lived beyond their means, taking out loans to buy furniture and homes in wealthy neighborhoods.
The physical abuse, which began in 1968, occasionally stopped when work went well for John Fedders. There was one 3-year break from violence. But when the demands of the SEC job and the family’s financial problems got to John, the beatings resumed.
There were also incidents of black moods, depression and long silences, Charlotte Fedders says.
“I . . . used to hide in the closet. . . . It was terrible, a human being huddled in a closet like a prisoner of war. I wasn’t hiding from him because he was yelling at me, or because he had threatened me. I’d usually hide when he wasn’t responding at all. Looking at me with hate or looking straight through me, saying nothing. I just couldn’t stand the emotional rejection anymore,” she wrote.
On a number of occasions, Charlotte took steps to end the marriage, finally contacting a lawyer in February, 1983. John moved out of the house on July 2.
Asked why she had finally pushed herself to end the marriage after years of abuse, she talks about her own self-esteem, her ability to survive and support a family and the impact on her sons.
“The prime reason was the effect it was having on the children,” she said. “It took me close to a year. It was obvious what was being directed at the children. I might not deserve more, but they deserve more.”
Since Charlotte Fedders took that step, she has written a lengthy magazine article and collaborated on the book with Laura Elliot, a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine, to defray the legal costs. Her older boys are working to pay for their education.
The Potomac house is up for sale and the family plans to move to another Washington suburb, Gaithersburg, after a trip to Disneyland this summer.
“I still don’t know if we’re finally going to make it,” she said. “But I’m really happy about things, content, hopeful, upbeat about the future.”