A Baltimore County jury has awarded a woman $ 500,000 because the man she married had not divorced his first wife. 

Dara Ann Lawrence married Ronald L. Bradley in 2007 in Las Vegas.  Lawrence met Bradley while she was working as a clinical care manager at Kennedy Kreiger, where Bradley’s son was being treated.  Bradley told her he was separated from his wife and the two eventually moved in together.  Lawrence developed a close relationship with Bradley’s three children.  In September, 2006, Bradley showed Lawrence an elaborately forged divorce decree which included the county seal and the signature of the court clerk, as well as the signature of a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge.  He and Lawrence married a few months later. 

Meanwhile, Bradley was continuing to see his first wife, sleeping with her and assuring her that they would be reunited soon.  He paid her bills and lied to her about his whereabouts. 

Lawrence learned of Bradley’s misrepresentations when she looked for records of prior criminal activity by Bradley, who she says was physically abusing her.  She could find no records of Bradley’s divorce. 

The jury’s verdict was based upon wages Lawrence lost when she left her job to be with Bradley, the expense of the wedding, and punitive damages of $ 180,000.00.   Lawrence also claimed that she had forgone her last opportunity to have children in order to marry Bradley and care for his three children. 

The wedding was annulled.   

There are more than a few sensational works of fiction on bigamy.  I like Wilkie Collins’ Man and Wife and am crossing my fingers that the BBC or some other good folks will film it.   

“Take care, Mrs. Glenarm!” she said, still struggling with herself. “I am not naturally a patient woman. Trouble has done much to tame my temper–but endurance has its limits. You have reached the limits of mine. I have a claim to be heard–and after what you have said to me, I will be heard!”

“You have no claim! You shameless woman, you are married already. I know the man’s name. Arnold Brinkworth.”

“Did Geoffrey Delamayn tell you that?”

“I decline to answer a woman who speaks of Mr. Geoffrey Delamayn in that familiar way.”

Anne advanced a step nearer.

“Did Geoffrey Delamayn tell you that?” she repeated.

There was a light in her eyes, there was a ring in her voice, which showed that she was roused at last. Mrs. Glenarm answered her, this time.

“He did tell me.”

“He lied!”

“He did not! He knew. I believe him. I don’t believe you.

“If he told you that I was any thing but a single woman–if he told you that Arnold Brinkworth was married to any body but Miss Lundie of Windygates–I say again he lied!”

“I say again–I believe him, and not you.”

“You believe I am Arnold Brinkworth’s wife?”

“I am certain of it.”

“You tell me that to my face?”

“I tell you to your face–you may have been Geoffrey Delamayn’s mistress; you are Arnold Brinkworth’s wife.”

At those words the long restrained anger leaped up in Anne–all the more hotly for having been hitherto so steadily controlled. In one breathless moment the whirlwind of her indignation swept away, not only all remembrance of the purpose which had brought her to Swanhaven, but all sense even of the unpardonable wrong which she had suffered at Geoffrey’s hands. If he had been there, at that moment, and had offered to redeem his pledge, she would have consented to marry him, while Mrs. Glenarm s eye was on her–no matter whether she destroyed herself in her first cool moment afterward or not. The small sting had planted itself at last in the great nature. The noblest woman is only a woman, after all!

“I forbid your marriage to Geoffrey Delamayn! I insist on his performing the promise he gave me, to make me his wife! I have got it here in his own words, in his own writing. On his soul, he swears it to me–he will redeem his pledge. His mistress, did you say? His wife, Mrs. Glenarm, before the week is out!”

In those wild words she cast back the taunt–with the letter held in triumph in her hand.

Daunted for the moment by the doubt now literally forced on her, that Anne might really have the claim on Geoffrey which she advanced, Mrs. Glenarm answered nevertheless with the obstinacy of a woman brought to bay–with a resolution not to be convinced by conviction itself.

“I won’t give him up!” she cried. “Your letter is a forgery. You have no proof. I won’t, I won’t, I won’t give him up!” she repeated, with the impotent iteration of an angry child.

Anne pointed disdainfully to the letter that she held. “Here is his pledged and written word,” she said. “While I live, you will never be his wife.”

“I shall be his wife the day after the race. I am going to him in London–to warn him against You!”

“You will find me in London, before you–with this in my hand. Do you know his writing?”

She held up the letter, open. Mrs. Glenarm’s hand flew out with the stealthy rapidity of a cat’s-paw, to seize and destroy it. Quick as she was, her rival was quicker still. For an instant they faced each other breathless–one with the letter held behind her; one with her hand still stretched out.

At the same moment–before a word more had passed between them–the glass door opened; and Julius Delamayn appeared in the room.

He addressed himself to Anne.

“We decided, on the terrace,” he said, quietly, “that you should speak to Mrs. Glenarm, if Mrs. Glenarm wished it. Do you think it desirable that the interview should be continued any longer?”

Anne’s head drooped on her breast. The fiery anger in her was quenched in an instant.

“I have been cruelly provoked, Mr. Delamayn,” she answered. “But I have no right to plead that.” She looked up at him for a moment. The hot tears of shame gathered in her eyes, and fell slowly over her cheeks. She bent her head again, and hid them from him. “The only atonement I can make,” she said, “is to ask your pardon, and to leave the house.”

In silence, she turned away to the door. In silence, Julius Delamayn paid her the trifling courtesy of opening it for her. She went out.

Wilkie Collins, Man and Wife (Oxford Univ. Press, 1995)

Collins, by the way, was a lawyer.

Ablene Cooper, a sixty year old African American woman in Jackson, Mississipi, has filed suit against Kathryn Stockett, author of the bestseller, The Help.   I haven’t read it.  Admittedly there are certain books that feel too Oprah Book Club-y to me and “The Help” has all the hallmarks of being that kind of book.  This may mean that I am a Franzen-style snob.  Don’t care.

But let me say this.  I have started three or four novels since my twenties and every single one of them suffers from the same flaw: I can’t get myself out of the story.  Or, if not me, then someone interesting I know and wish to write about.  I get maybe five chapters in and can’t keep going.  The whole thing falls apart because I’m trying too hard, consciously or not, to model a fictional person after a real person or to tell a real story in a fictional guise. 

I suspect this is the novelist’s greatest sin, save cliches and stories that turn out to be dream sequences.  It’s true that real life informs our writing.  Look at Hemingway.  He lived and fought in Spain and wrote The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls.  But he knew how to separate himself, and his life, from the story.  The same goes for Salman Rushdie, Pat Conroy, Gore Vidal, and any number of former lawyers who churn out legal thrillers like billable hours.  They start with the basis, then move on.

Then there is the thinly veiled autobiographical/biographical novel, like Peyton Place or Citizen Kane.  Part of the appeal of books like this, though, is the frisson of excitement that comes from peeking into someone else’s (real) life.  The stories succeed exactly because the characters are recognizable.  But this comes with a price.

Authors need to understand that the publisher’s disclaimer on the frontispiece of the book – “This is a work of fiction, any resemblance to persons or places, blah, blah, blah “- is not a perfect hedge against recrimination.  Nor is Michael Crichton’s small penis rule.  The legal actions available to claimants vary from state to state and nation to nation, but typically they take the form of libel/defamation, invasion of privacy, “false light” and so on.  Most of these torts are intentional, meaning that – again, depending on the relevant law – punitive damages may be available.  Punitive damages may or may not be covered under your or your publisher’s insurance policy, so your personal assets may be on the line to satisfy a judgment, if there is one.  And in the United Kingdom, where libel suits are really bad news, you may also have to pay the claimant’s attorney’s fees. 

I think that when people write a fictional character that very closely resembles a real one, it’s because they want to stick the knife in and twist it.  So if you feel yourself doing that, stop.  Fold.  Re-deal.  Let’s say, hypothetically, that I know someone named Hal.  And I write a book, and include a character named “Hal,” a fat, socialist derelict on welfare who smokes pot, wears a dirty Che t-shirt and listens to Bob Marley.  So long as Hal doesn’t closely resemble that character in real life, the use of his name should not trigger liability.  And I still get to enjoy my delicious secret, no less wonderful for not being actionable.