Dr. Elizabeth Morgan became a cause celebre after she went to jail in 1987 for refusing to reveal to her former husband the whereabouts of their daughter Hilary so he could take her for court-ordered visitation. Morgan had accused her ex, Dr. Eric Foretich, of sexually abusing the child, and Morgan’s willingness to suffer the consequences of her belief--she would be incarcerated for more than two years for contempt--backed up her charges convincingly.
Before long, pickets showed up at courthouses, Congress was being lobbied by the National Organization for Women, People magazine profiled Morgan in heroic terms, and Harvard law professor Arthur Miller invoked the shades of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Morgan, in short, became martyr to a cause, once comparing herself in court to Thoreau by saying, “If the law makes you an agent of injustice to another, then you must break the law.”
The case ended happily for Morgan, for in 1989 President Bush signed a bill drawn up specifically to set her free. She now lives with her daughter and her own mother, Antonia, in New Zealand, and a judge there said last fall that Hilary was “in every respect a normal child.”
“Hilary’s Trial,” the book, is a very different story, for while researching Morgan v. Foretich and its related lawsuits, Jonathan Groner, a former federal prosecutor and now an editor of the Legal Times, was convinced not only that Morgan’s claims were false but also that Hilary’s greatest suffering probably was produced by the psychological and emotional manipulations of Morgan’s extended family. Groner doesn’t push that analysis--his argument is based primarily on court records--but he strongly implies that Morgan’s extreme possessiveness toward Hilary, and her hatred of Foretich, are intimately connected to her relationship with her own parents.
Morgan, a plastic surgeon trained at Harvard, Oxford and Yale, never seems to have become a self-reliant, autonomous adult. Author of a number of popular books about medicine, she lived with her parents into her 30s and subsequently next door, even while making enormous sums from her surgical practice. Morgan would live with Foretich in a rented house for seven months, but her mother Antonia, then separated from husband William, would live there as well, and many evenings the two women would lock themselves in the bathroom together for hours on end.
Morgan’s relationship with her father was more adversarial but equally peculiar. William Morgan had a violent temper; he occasionally hit Antonia, threatened some of the men with whom his daughter became romantically involved, and at one point sued both Antonia and Elizabeth on various counts of fraud (the suits were later dropped).
The Morgans, as Groner portrays them, were successful on the outside--both parents were psychologists; the three children became doctor, lawyer and stockbroker, respectively--but empty on the inside, and they found in Hilary a way of enforcing the fragile family unity and confirming their sense of moral and intellectual superiority.
Eric Foretich, a dental surgeon, is no great specimen himself. Though the Foretich family, unlike the Morgans, generally cooperated with Groner, he presents Eric as self-centered, materialistic and immature, and describes in some detail the almost immediate failure of his first three marriages. (Morgan was Foretich’s third wife, and he has since married for a fourth time.)
But nothing in Foretich’s family history leads the reader to think he might want to use a child for pathological purposes; his relationship with his parents appears unremarkable, and although excessively dependent on women, Foretich seems more motivated than Morgan in the marriage department. (Morgan also was remarried, in 1989, to a federal judge who sits in Washington, D.C., 10,000 miles from New Zealand.)
Foretich’s emotional investment in Hilary was considerable, to be sure, but he had another daughter, Heather, by his second wife, so holding onto Hilary was undoubtedly less important to him than it was to Morgan--though as it turned out, he would lose Heather as well. Foretich expected the older child, who was usually present during Hilary’s early visits, to exonerate him, but initially Heather said she too had been abused. Heather would repeatedly deny the accusation later, but by then the damage, to all parties, had been done.
It’s impossible to say, as Groner acknowledges, that Foretich never abused either of his daughters, but it’s significant that Morgan had to go through a passel of doctors before locating one who found physical evidence of molestation (which in any case may have been caused, perhaps inadvertently, by Morgan herself). Groner certainly sides with the father, as did every judge who heard testimony about possible abuse, and his argument is persuasive largely because Morgan, despite her obvious devotion to Hilary, seems strangely oblivious to the damage her relentless, single-minded approach to custody might cause her daughter.
Morgan appears more interested in her family’s approval, and her own martyrdom, than in Hilary’s welfare; how else can one explain her willingness to deprive her daughter of both parents for more than two years when fully supervised visitation with the father was easily obtainable? Even assuming that Foretich was abusive, Morgan’s methods made a grave problem worse.
The bottom line in any custody case is “the best interests of the child.” It’s always difficult for a judge to define “best interests,” and although it took more than seven years for Morgan v. Foretich to wend its way through the courts (a separate suit, in which Morgan charged not only Foretich but also his parents with having sexually abused Hilary, was disposed of more quickly) for once the legal system can’t be blamed for the ineffectiveness of the process or the injustice of the outcome. In this case the clients caused most of the problems, and they alone must accept blame for the difficulties Hilary, now 9 years old, will face later in life.
“Hilary’s Trial” is as fascinating as it is appalling, a frightening reminder that the sins of the parents usually are paid for by those who come after.