Saturday, January 26, 2013

Abandoned and Deceived (Crystal Beach Entertainment, TriStar Television, 1995)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the next movie recorded on my disc containing She Made Them Do It, a 1995 TV-movie called Abandoned and Deceived that turned out to be one of the best things I’d seen on Lifetime in some time. It begins in the early 1980’s — we can tell because not only is Ronald Reagan President (we know that because we hear a radio news report about him) but the heroine, Gerri Anderson (Lori Loughlin) is driving an AMC Gremlin, one of the most preposterous-looking cars of all time, and a junky old orange Gremlin at that. (I remember Ellen at Lite Touch Camera, where I had the Zenger’s half-tones shot until I figured out how to do them myself on the computer and no longer had to strip in photos by hand, drove an orange Gremlin, and every time I went there and saw the car in the parking lot, it was sadder-looking and there were more rust holes, until eventually it wasn’t there at all and Ellen told me it had literally rusted away.) Gerri is incensed with her husband Doug (Brian Kerwin) because she caught him having an affair with the woman who was their marriage counselor — a pretty audacious opening even for Lifetime — which she found out about when one of the officials at the therapy center (the sort of avuncular African-American they like in these sorts of roles — this time it was an avuncular African-American man instead of a woman) pulled her into a private office at the facility and told her the staff had witnessed “inappropriate contact” between her husband and the (female) therapist. Gerri not surprisingly turns on Doug with a fury and the two divorce. We hear a lawyer’s voice reading the settlement between them, which allows her to keep the house and have custody of their two sons but she doesn’t request alimony; all she asks for from him financially is child support. Shortly thereafter Doug stops sending the support checks, and when Gerri confronts him about it in her sons’ presence, he accuses her of making her look bad in his sons’ eyes and tries to shame her into not making a big deal out of it. Shortly thereafter he decides to stop sending support checks at all, and though she has a low-paying job of her own (this is in Kansas) she ultimately runs out of money to keep up the mortgage payments on the house and the electric and cable bills. There’s a marvelous scene straight out of Barbara Ehrenreich in which Gerri pores through all the past-due bills on her desk (we can tell they’re past due because they’re all on colored paper) trying to figure out what’s the next one she can afford to pay, and ultimately she says, “And the lucky winner is … the gas company!”

Meanwhile, Doug is so determined not to let his wife find him — even if that means giving up all contact with his sons, which doesn’t seem to bother him — he even quits his job and doesn’t tell anyone at his former workplace where he’s going. The bank forecloses on her house shortly after she’s lost the electric bill (with a nice bit of irony, director/writer Joseph Dougherty has the power go out just as her kids are watching the film Earth vs. the Flying Saucers — this was a production of Columbia’s TV branch and therefore they had access to film clips from Columbia’s old movies — and it goes dark just before the flying saucer crashes into the Washington Monument) and, with nowhere else to go, she retreats up the Mississippi to her native Wisconsin. (Given how much Bix Beiderbecke I’ve been listening to lately — including the superb Off the Record CD transfer of his first records with the Wolverine Orchestra — it was an emotional wrench for me when she and her kids drove that dowdy orange Gremlin through Bix’s home town, Davenport, Iowa.) Her parents take her and the kids in, but once she’s settled and has found a job (another ill-paying one, of course) she rents a dowdy house of her own and settles into such a relentlessly penny-pinching existence she yells at her kids for grabbing a few dry corn flakes as a midnight snack. The kids in turn give her a Christmas present: an old crossword book from which they’ve painstakingly erased all her answers so she can use it again (though one would think the number of erasers needed for that would cost more than a new crossword book).

After the first half of the film deals with Gerri’s adjustment to the life of a divorcée and her struggle to keep herself and her kids alive and sheltered — and her long-thwarted desire to go back to nursing school, a career path she abandoned when she got married, and at least have a shot at better-paying work — her dad’s already precarious health takes a turn for the worse and mom therefore can no longer offer her services doing free child care because she has to take care of her husband instead. This throws Gerri’s financial problems into overdrive again and forces her into the humiliating position of having to apply for welfare — and the first time she goes to the Department of Social Services she finds a long line of people waiting around the block, most of whom are sent home empty-handed because the department only takes a certain number of applications each day. So the next day Gerri comes bright and early, and she and her fellow assistance seekers camp outside the building waiting for it to open, as if they were concertgoers looking for tickets to an especially hot band. She finds that she can only qualify for welfare if she quits her job and thereby lowers her income threshold, and her problems continue when she tries to find what she can do to get her husband to pay his child support bills and finds that the process takes a year or two after her husband is located — which she has to do on her own because the state won’t lift a finger to help her find him. She locates Doug’s parents, who also live in Wisconsin and are such pieces of work that when she visits them with the children, they give her sons special toys and nice clothes but force them to leave them behind instead of letting them take them back to Gerri’s home. Gerri asks why, and she’s told, “Because we don’t think Doug’s children should be punished any more than they already have been.” Gerri naturally asks why she should be punished, what she’s being punished for, and when her punishment may be allowed to end — and of course Doug’s folks don’t tell her.

Eventually Gerri finds Doug’s home, only to be told by the officious social-service worker in charge of her case, Donald Quinn (Gordon Clapp), that they can’t do anything unless she locates his place of work as well. When she finally does so, Quinn insists that he’s investigating her case but he’s really dumped her papers in a box of files under his desk containing cases he has no intention of ever working. We’re dropped a big hint why not when Gerri comments on the picture of his children on his desk and ask where’s their mother, and Quinn snaps back, “We’re divorced.” A sympathetic but frightened woman working in Quinn’s office eventually alerts Gerri to what’s going on — or not going on — with her case, and when she confronts Quinn directly the response she gets is a speech tearing into her and all the other women out there who keep badgering their hard-working exes for money when said exes just want to forget about their marital mistakes and get on with their lives. Quinn also says that the Wisconsin Department of Social Services building is full of people whose job it is to look after women, and he’s decided to balance things out by using his office to look out for the interests of men. (It’s essentially the same ideology as that controversial “Men’s Legal Center” in downtown San Diego, that offers male clients help with custody, support and other issues and whose sign loudly proclaims, “Men Have Rights, Too!” They got unwanted publicity when the head of the Men’s Legal Center, Charles Candelore, mounted a stealth campaign to try to get himself and two others elected as judges to the San Diego County Superior Court; he failed, but two years later Right-wing attorney Gary Kreep made it onto the bench and asked for family court as his first assignment.) Frustrated and unwilling to take it anymore, Gerri scrapes her pennies together and takes out a classified ad in the paper urging women who’ve had trouble collecting child support payments to call her, and after her home fills with tens of women who’ve responded to her ad and want her to help them do something about it, she writes out a notice and posts it on the bulletin board near Quinn’s office wall.

When Quinn tells her that individuals can’t post on that board — only organizations can — she immediately improvises a name, “Association for Children for Enforcement of Support,” or ACES, and says, “O.K. Now I’m an organization.” ACES grows in popularity and influence, though not without its pitfalls; bomb threats are regularly called into its offices (once the Women’s Federation donates them office space) and Gerri gets so many harassing phone calls she tells her sons not to answer the phone and carries a police whistle with her to blow into the receiver whenever someone starts in on her. The harassment doesn’t just happen over the phone; one afternoon she’s having lunch with some of the other ACES women when a man at the restaurant gets in her face and starts berating her. Eventually she holds out, becomes a feminist heroine and gets a women’s service award; she also finally reconnects with Doug — though in the meantime she’s started dating another man, Gary Larsen (oddly the page on Abandoned and Deceived doesn’t mention who plays this role, but he’s unusually hot, especially for a Lifetime leading man!) — and at long last he pays her the $7,000 in support payments he owes her. From the title I had thought Abandoned and Deceived would be about a woman being chased by a guy she had casually dated who had turned out to be a psycho, but what I actually got was a much better film than I’d expected, a moving Norma Rae-ish docudrama (it’s supposedly based on a true story) in which the focus is Gerri’s self-discovery through activism and how she becomes a better and stronger person in her own right by helping others — and as someone who was a child of divorce and was raised on support payments I can quite understand the situation Gerri finds herself in, victimized by a deadbeat dad whose I-don’t-care attitude towards not only his ex but their kids reaches the virtually psychotic (and he seems like such a nice guy at first, too!).