The headlines around the world this week are sharing details of the secret child born to Arnold Schwarzenegger. The media coverage is relentless. This media pursuit is far from unique to Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife Maria Shriver. It is also regularly seen with other high-profile celebrity couples. It is easy to recall the international media circus surrounding the Tiger Woods / Elin Nordegren and Jesse James / Sandra Bullock divorces. These voyeuristic forays capitalize on our common human interest in the sordid. This almost desperate need of our society to want to learn details of the private lives of the celebrity has certainly reached a frenzied pitch. The news of the “event,” the word Schwarzenegger used to describe his actions leading to his 14 year-old-child born out of wedlock to the family’s former housekeeper, herself married at the time she became pregnant, has the media clamoring. Schwarzenegger’s scandal has reached a new zenith in public media scolding, most likely due to the particulars of his situation: his role as entertainment superstar, his role as former Governor of the State of California, and his marriage into the Kennedy family.
We know now of the affairs of John F. Kennedy, Maria Shriver’s, uncle, but back then indiscretions were well kept and respected “secrets,” with an understanding between the media and the family that it would remain out of the public’s view. Those days of media respect for a celebrity’s privacy are long gone. The immediacy and worldwide reach of the Internet are upon us. Add to that the news media’s need to sensationalize most everything so as to attract viewers and that has lead to an unprecedented dissemination of gossip and celebrity “news.” Never before has the news of an out-of-wedlock child circulated around the globe like this, in a massive communications blast of public shaming. The public shaming will certainly continue for quite some time (at least until the next source of gossip stumbles into this net) and the ramifications of public investigations into a deceitful move will reverberate for many years.
This public outcry and interest is also the result of Schwarzenegger’s own personal decision to seek a spotlight on the public stage. However, the impact this spotlight puts on the family can be devastating, a lesson so often learned through the crucible of a public scandal. As for the actors themselves in this drama, the “grownups” if you will, we can simply offer our personal thoughts and sometimes judgment and move on; they knew what they were getting into and are presumed to have the qualities necessary to ride out their personal storms. But what of the children of these fallen heroes? A heartbreaking posting this week on Twitter by Schwarzenegger’s seventeen-year-old son demonstrates the conflict and anguish of this situation.
As reported by ABC’s Good Morning America, Schwarzenegger’s 17-year-old son Patrick changed the name on his Twitter account from “Patrick Schwarzenegger” to “Patrick Shriver.” This is a sad act by this child who clearly is upset over the situation with his father. And here we are, watching it all play out in the stark light of day, to the genuine detriment of these two families and these several children.
The harsh glare of the spotlight will be difficult for all the Schwarzenegger children: his children with Maria Shriver have just learned they have a half brother, and his son with his former housekeeper has just learned he has new brothers and sisters. Put bluntly, these kids are all likely to need plenty of therapy to help them get through what may one of the most traumatic situations in their respective young lives. It is fortunate that the family can financially afford that kind of professional help because traumatic events can lead to years and years of problems for these kids and the sooner the intervention of mental health professionals is made available the sooner these children can learn to cope with the fallout of this bad behavior.
It would behoove these parents for the sake of their children to avoid airing their dirty laundry in public (and they do indeed seem to be attempting just that so far), though this may be difficult if investigations require the testimony of witnesses in court or some other public forum. A divorce could get dicey. There is no such thing as a “good divorce,” especially when children are involved. Some of this will depend on whether or not there is a pre-marital agreement (which there most likely is), though if it was drawn up twenty-five years ago it may not have contemplated some issues that may have since arisen or the pre-marital agreement may have been very general. This could lead to negotiations or litigation over assets, something that a pre-marital agreement is intended to prevent and which would have the effect of taking the focus of these parents away from their children
Of course, the division of assets is just the tip of the iceberg in a case like this where there are children involved. And that is exactly where the epicenter of this issue can be found: the impact of this drama on the children and the effect it will have on both of these families.
This is of course not a new or even unusual situation. As a divorce and custody specialist, I have seen instances of infidelity, betrayal, deceit, and manipulation on a daily basis for nearly thirty years; even out of wedlock children. Marriage, it seems, is sometimes a nasty business. It is nonetheless an interesting and raw glimpse into the human condition, a condition readily exploited when it involves a celebrity, one of society’s “heroes.”
An interesting and unsettling dynamic is seen in this “Hero worship” that has become endemic in our society: we raise our heroes up and invest in them our adulation and seemingly never-ending praise and worship. This understandably contributes to the feelings and delusions of grandeur that sometimes take control over people’s judgment, reason, empathy, and actions. When that happens, of course, society stands poised at the ready to seize upon their lapses and then pillory them in the public eye. Sadly, this tsunami of attention is not satisfied with the fallen heroes; there is all too often “collateral damage:” the wives, the parents, the friends, the co-workers, and most importantly the children.
Throughout our shared human history, we have seen these stories of the feats of the Gods and monsters throughout Greek, Roman, Norse, Indian and other mythology. Mankind feeds on these stories, so we really shouldn’t be all that shell-shocked when they sometimes play out in reality. Ours is a history and culture born of achievement, overcoming adversity, rise to power, abuse of the privileges granted by the masses, fall from grace, and then, very often, redemption. Along the way is left a trail of disappointment, suffering, and heartache. And we watch. Indeed, as I sit here in Starbucks tapping this article out on my laptop I am privy to three separate conversations about this drama, and to hear them is a fascinating reflection on our society and our interesting (and sometimes odd) interests in the lives of these other people.
When will we realize that we as humans in general, and members of any given society or culture in particular, are all in this together?
I am deeply concerned for the future of all these children involved in this Schwarzenegger drama; here the betrayal runs the deepest and will no doubt carry these children headlong into a future forever filled with passing observation, voracious scrutiny, possible ridicule, embarrassment, shame, humiliation, pity, and the list goes on. These are the true victims of this tragedy and these are the victims that so often have no voice. How can we, the public, help them? Sadly I don’t have that answer, but I can tell you a good place to start: We can give them comfort and support. We can accept them without judgment or even commentary on the sins of their parents. We can allow them to flourish and become the individuals they were intended to be, without the need to carry this albatross that society tries to drape around their necks. We can let them live their lives fully, without worrying about us. We can leave them alone.