This 1996 Toronto Life feature ignored journalistic convention. Dennis is not only in the middle of the story, she has a considerable stake in the outcome.

[[{“fid”:”3809″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“style”:”width: 300px; height: 200px; float: right; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]The Divorce from Hell” by Wendy Dennis, Toronto Life, February 1996

By Shannon Clarke 

The daily inconveniences described as being “from hell”—commutes, exams, meetings—are rarely ever as bad as they seem. Unfortunately, Wendy Dennis’s cover story for Toronto Life lives up to its incendiary headline. “Over the next few years, I came to learn a great deal about the way in which our family courts work, and much of what I saw turned my stomach…I saw a father who simply wished to parent his children dragged through a system where the cards are stacked against him from the start,” she writes. “The Divorce from Hell” is Dennis’s account of her then-partner Ben Gordon’s divorce and custody battle with Terry Nusyna. Though few people would assume divorce is a painless experience, what follows is any family’s nightmare. 

Dennis attacks the system’s insistence that it works “in the best interest of the children” and harshly questions the power afforded the experts involved. She pulls readers through a gruelling court process and scrutinizes its players, from Nusyna to Gordon, to the psychiatrist with a “worn Wallaby look” and the social worker with a “sing-songy voice.” For couples considering a trip to divorce court, wrote Donna Lafromboise in the Toronto Star,  “[it’s the] cheapest advice you’ll receive about how not to behave.” 

Dennis meets Gordon a year after his separation. She’s separated, too. The 13-page saga, expanded into a book in 1998, spans seven carefully documented years. By the end, Gordon spent nearly $300,000 in legal fees and accumulated thousands more in debt. He was charged with assault and watched his relationship with his daughters deteriorate until he didn’t know where they were living. His calls, letters and gifts go unacknowledged, and Dennis witnesses his defeat. 

The access that tends to be standard in literary journalism in this instance incited criticism and divisive reviews from Dennis’s colleagues. Readers should be skeptical, too: the writer’s relationship with her source is a clear conflict of interest, and the Toronto Life cover story was, predictably, fodder for op-ed columnists across the country. Some writers, such as Margaret Wente, praised the piece for its thorough takedown of family court. Others took issue with what they saw as an exploitative and biased story. Toronto Life received and published dozens of letters from incensed readers. The lawyers and court-appointed professionals named in the piece—depicted as (among other things) distracted, self-important and prejudiced—fired back at Dennis, denying their comments and in one case withdrawing a favourable assessment of her. 

I can reconcile some of the concerns of bias with the early revelation that Dennis is Gordon’s girlfriend (the print edition also included an editor’s note disclosing the relationship between writer and source). Knowing this, I read “The Divorce from Hell” as a narrative essay and accepted that though there was some reportage, Nusyna’s point of view wouldn’t be part it. Dennis comes to her conclusions with the support of court records and personal documents, while Nusyna’s role in the narrative is to serve as a catalyst for Gordon’s financial and emotional downward spiral—a natural adversary in a brutal custody fight. It is unlikely this would’ve been different given the equally unlikely possibility that Nusyna would or could speak with her. 

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“The Divorce from Hell” is compelling as a work of literary journalism because of its emphasis on the father’s point of view. It’s not about what happens to a couple during a divorce—it’s about what happens to a dad. If it feels exhausting (Wente compared reading Dennis’s memoir to “watching a car crash that goes on in slow motion, for years”), it’s because each time there seems to be relief for Gordon, something more outrageous happens. Dennis makes the transition from one roadblock to the next with phrases such as, “Then, another bomb exploded.” Laframboise wrote: “If you find reading it painful (the absurdities go on and on), count yourself lucky that you didn’t have to live through it.” 

The exasperation comes not just from the legal hoops Gordon must jump through, but also the inclusion of scenes with his daughters, who go from confused kids to hostile teens. They are the emotional punch to the more traditional reporting of court decisions and legal shuffling. Their portrayal is Dennis’s way of showing how the court system convinces parents that every compromise, ruling and report has noble ends. “The moral course of action was legal suicide,” she writes. In one scene, she sits with Gordon, Deja and Zoe in a McDonald’s as a child psychiatrist takes notes. In another, she stands outside the girls’ bedroom door and listens as they ask why Daddy is taking their money. Dennis has reason to exaggerate Gordon’s devotion to his children and vilify Nusyna. Yet she also includes a scene in which the frustrated father hits Zoe for throwing a tantrum on the street and comes to Nusyna’s defence against Gordon’s “snide ex-wife cracks.”  

“The Divorce from Hell” stood out in 1996 because it ignored journalistic convention. Dennis is not only right in the middle of the story, she has a considerable stake in the outcome. Even today, when personal journalism is accepted and in some cases respected, this cover story feature could be debated in any newsroom or journalism school ethics course. Journalists should write about their own lives, if what they experience is relevant to the public and what they write can be supported by fact. But how much leeway should they have, even if their work is of significant interest to the public? 

In this case, Dennis found that her partner’s life—and, for a while, her own—mattered to Canadians. It’s a shame that the controversy wasn’t more about the courts, though it did bring attention and credibility to a generation of men’s rights activists. Patricia Best, covering the fallout for The Globe and Mail, wrote: “The manner in which the tale had been told appalled them all.” This doesn’t make it a failure. It’s because of its style that it is still read, shared and discussed nearly 20 years later. 

[[{“fid”:”3806″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“style”:”width: 100px; height: 100px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]] Shannon Clarke is features editor of Shameless magazine in Toronto.

Students and non-students alike may write a Great Canadian Literary Journalism story on a worthy piece of literary journalism/long form/feature writing/reportage. If interested, please contact Bill Reynolds, reynolds@ryerson.ca.