Revenge of the Wives

In late October, Barbara Walters listened to architect Peter Cook defend the extramarital sexual adventures that triggered his bitter and wildly gossiped about divorce from celebrity model Christie Brinkley this summer. Cook is the lesser known of a series of high-profile men who have suffered enormous personal and professional losses in the last several years due to sex scandals, including Jim McGreevey, Elliot Spitzer, and John Edwards.

In most cases, we watched these men's wives stand by them at press conferences, looking stunned, while their husbands announced their infidelities and family betrayals. A few of those women, however, struck back. Brinkley and Dina Matos McGreevey both sued in the courts to obtain custody and/or child support from their husbands. (McGreevey claimed he had no income at the time, having entered the seminary. He currently teaches at a local New Jersey college and lives in a nearby mansion with, and owned by, his partner.)

Both Brinkley and Matos McGreevey took their grievances to the most public forum possible. Brinkley even requested her divorce hearing be made public. As a result, the most lurid details of Cook's transgressions -- including his sexual relationship with his 18-year old assistant and his payment to her of $300,000 to keep the affair quiet -- became widely available.

Was it necessary for Brinkley to request the hearing be open to the public? Did Matos McGreevey have to sue for child support and alimony in a trial televised for the world to see? The answer is yes.

Both women employed the most powerful method available to them under the law to seek what they believed to be their rightful due. This strategy invited the fiercest public scrutiny of the facts in pursuit of a favorable adjudication of their grievances. By introducing a mountain of unvarnished facts (as well as plenty of allegations) into the record, they limited their husbands' ability to shape the story to their own favor or plausibly deny its most damaging aspects.

Many criticized these women's decisions to take their grievances public for the harm it might do their children, a concern that was essentially moot. These are public figures, and much of the information aired at these trials was already widely available. When Cook and Brinkley's split initially hit the news, Cook's mistress's attorney promptly gave an interview to Inside Edition with tantalizing details of the relationship. And who can forget Jim McGreevey's carefully staged "I am a gay American" press conference?

Of course, the sword is double-edged. During the McGreevey divorce, a former McGreevey aide told the Newark Star Ledger he had routinely engaged in three-way sex with the spouses before the governor's 2001 election. McGreevey himself soon seconded the allegation.

Even if this claim were true -- Matos McGreevey flatly denied it -- the claim had no relevance in rewarding either custody or alimony. Issued during the divorce proceedings, this allegation's sole purpose was to discredit Matos McGreevey, thereby framing the narrative in a manner more advantageous to the former governor.

In going public, Brinkley and Matos McGreevey did not exact revenge on their ex-husbands, nor did they attempt to gratuitously shame them. Rather, they exercised their rights under the law to fight for what they believed was their due -- and the courts largely saw things their way. Brinkley won sole custody of her children. Matos McGreevey won joint custody and child support.

When the facts, particularly the most sordid ones, are to one party's advantage, telling that story in a courtroom may ultimately be vital to winning the resolution that party seeks.

The question remains, which wife will be next?