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The Great Divide: Divorce, American Style

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An Attempted Murder Reveals What We Think About 'Dead-Beat' Fathers

I wish I could say I don't understand what drives a man to stab his ex-wife, but I do. It's not justified or sane but it's not incomprehensible if you have seen how ugly divorce can be, as I have.

Last Friday I got an automated call from my school district. A Valley Cottage elementary school (not my daughter's) was in lock-down due to "some kind of domestic abuse situation." When I told my husband what I'd heard he half-joked "maybe an ex-husband lost his mind." I turned on the local news channel. A woman had been viciously stabbed and run over with an SUV shortly after 8 a.m. in the parking lot of the Sheraton Crossroads in Mahwah, New Jersey.

Police initiated a man-hunt for the victim's ex-husband and barricaded Liberty Elementary School, where the former couple's children are students.

By Friday evening Allan Pelcak Jr. was in custody and his ex-wife, Laura Matousek, was in surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center. The news reports kept rehashing the same details. Curious, I turned to public records on the Internet. The couple divorced two years ago. The house they owned went into foreclosure in August. They had two mortgages, meaning they probably owed more than the house is worth. Ms. Matousek had a judgment against her ex-husband for $11,544 in child support that threatened him with jail. Mr. Pelcak owed town and state taxes. The 41-year-old engineer was unemployed.

Next I signed on to the court of public opinion: my local newspaper's online comments section. Anonymous (they're always anonymous) 'two-centers' were sending Mr. Pelcak to the guillotine. They called him a monster, a murderer, deranged. He deserved to rot in prison. Pray for Ms. Matousek, they wrote, an innocent mother juggling two jobs and taking care of two beautiful children.

Then I noticed RatBastid's comment:

"Have you ever been subject to what Allan was? Where were you when he needed people on his side after being humiliated by his ex-wife? Yep, he lost it ... couldn't take the pain she caused him anymore."

You are more likely to relate to RatBastid's sentiments if you have seen firsthand how a decent man can get sucked under by the riptide of divorce. In America, fathers who can't pay child support are "deadbeats" rather than men who have become overwhelmed or sabotaged by unreasonable financial obligations ordered by family court judges. Too often these men are up to their ears in financial debt or facing bankruptcy but are too proud to let anyone know they're suffering. In an ideal world this man would be able to go back to family court to seek "modification" of child support or alimony because his circumstances have changed but he's too deep in debt to even think about hiring a lawyer. Instead he slips further and further into the abyss. This is Divorce, American Style. I know. I've seen it.

By Saturday morning Bergen County police had released Mr. Pelcak after 12 hours of questioning. Ms. Matoucek is in a medically-induced coma. In the absence of any real news, Internet commenters who apparently know the former couple have kept the story alive with conjecture, scuttlebutt and gossip. They have painted conflicting pictures of what went on inside the home between a man and a woman. Depending on who you believe Mr. Pelcak was either a dedicated father who prevented from seeing his children or he was an angry volcano waiting to erupt. Ms. Matoucek has a new boyfriend; she was rebuilding her life but she insisted the children call her boyfriend "dad."

We voyeurs read these prurient comments with detachment. We get just a glimpse of how painful divorce can be on people no different from you and me. We squirm when we think about the children who are the objects of tug-of-war between Ms. Matoucek and Mr. Pelcak. If we are in a happy marriage, we thank our lucky stars. Even we are not, we think that can never happen to us. That we will never become that ex-wife bleeding to death in a parking lot or an ex-husband so crazed that he not only stabs his wife but then runs over her with his car.

We think this can never happen to us but it can because this is Divorce, American Style.

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