The lawsuit arrived in the mail like any other bill. My mother opened the envelope at the kitchen table. It was a weekday. Her husband was at the office. Her sons were at school. It took a couple of paragraphs for reality to set in. She was being sued for $20,000,000 by a man she’d never met. The offense? My mother had invited a woman to appear with her on the Phil Donahue Show. In front of millions of Americans the woman had recounted a harrowing story of domestic abuse at the hands of her husband. The husband had responded by filing a lawsuit against my mother, the Donahue Show and the network that aired the interview, ABC.
The year was 1983. My mother, Louise Armstrong, was a writer. In 1979 she had published the first speakout on incest called Kiss Daddy Goodnight. That was the year I turned 12. In the months leading up to publication, our apartment was visited regularly by incest survivors who had come to tell stories of abuse at the hands of male relatives. And though the details were shielded from me at the time, the discussions about gender and power were not. My mother’s declaration in the book — that if it’s a crime to do it to the neighbor’s kid, it should be a crime to do it to your own — was a provocative idea in 1979, where old assumptions about women and children as property still prevailed. Who was this woman, who had never gone to college, a writer with no “expertise,” other than her talent, her experience and her sensibility, to break this silence? When she’d shopped the book, my mother had received mostly rejections. One editor told her the subject was fascinating, but too rare to make for a mass market book.
It was the next book, The Home Front: Notes from the Family War Zone, a treatise on domestic violence, that triggered the invitation by Donahue. To illustrate her point, my mother invited one of her subjects to join her on the show. A few weeks later they were both rewarded with a lawsuit.
When I was a boy my mother had a mantra. She would tell me make sure you have friends who are girls before you have girlfriends. In fifth grade, when I fell in love with Susie Ort and gifted her some of my mother’s jewelry as testament to my devotion (and my poverty), my mother took me out for ice cream. What are you doing? she asked. I’m in love, I told her. Patiently, she explained that Susie did not return my feelings, and that my…