The Family “Doomsday Machine”

At the climax of the cult movie “Dr. Strangelove”, the Soviet Union unleashes its “Doomsday Machine”, a destructive device so powerful that once activated, it can’t be shut down. In many ways a family lawsuit resembles the “Doomsday Machine.” Its destructive power can’t be recalled. Everyone loses. Nobody wins.

Fulton Oursler wrote many books, including The Greatest Story Ever Told, a popular account of Jesus’ life, eventually made into a movie. Under an assumed name, Oursler’s second wife, Grace wrote rather torrid (for the times) love stories. Fulton and Grace had two children; Fulton also had two other children by a prior marriage. Fulton’s will left everything to Grace. When Grace later died, her will left everything to their two children, but nothing at all to Fulton’s two other children. The two omitted children claimed that Grace had promised Fulton to leave them equal shares, and brought a lawsuit to enforce their claim.

The outcome of the lawsuit is unimportant at this point. But its effect on the family presents a sober lesson. In his memoirs, Will Oursler, a son by Fulton’s first marriage describes its effects. Here are some excerpts.
“It was a battle I did not seek, did not want—brother and sister against brother and sister, love against love, hate against hate. I did not seek it, but I had no escape. The challenge was there. And if I did not wish to battle for myself, I still could not leave Helen (the other child of the first marriage) and her children to go the road alone.

“To accept passively would be to believe that my father did not love my sister Helen and me, that he loved only the children of his second marriage, April and Tony. It would be to believe that my father wanted two of his children to live in luxury on the money he had earned, and the other two to know nothing but the earnings they struggled for…”

“It is an experience to be disinherited. Of a sudden there is a brand upon you, the letter etched into your flesh. You should feel guilty. But guilty for what? Of being born? For if you had not been born, Grace would have faced no problems, no lonely set of children to remind her of an other wife.”

“You turn to lawyers and courts to seek a remedy, if remedy there be. Could I go to them and ask them to give us money their mother left to them?”

“In the hands of the law, lawyers, legalism, of procedures, delays, and tactics, you are no longer yourself or even your own master. Abruptly, you are part of this too, and your lawyer informs you that introducing testimony about some of the facts might be painful. But this is the way of the law and courts; this is the meaning of conflict between human beings, the bitterness of conflict.”

“We made our claim for a share of our father’s estate. It went on for five years, the battle that hung above our lives like a smoky cloud. Helen and I were asking only for the shares that would have come to us, and for our children the share that would have come to them, under the terms of Grace’s original will…”

“While the battle of brother and sister against brother and sister went on in the courts, so also it went on in our lives, with no word between these two sets of children beyond the legalisms of complaints and answers and pretrial interrogations…”

“All this time the case went on, the battle of briefs and counter-briefs. There was an effort at settlement, and April and Tony and Helen and I had several meetings, through which would occasionally glow the feeling that we were truly brothers and sisters.”

“For a few weeks it almost seemed as though a settlement were possible; it almost seemed as though the flickering flame of brotherhood was coming alive. But it, too died in the suffocating questions that arose—lawyers’ bills and which side was to pay them, questions of who was right and wrong at this time or that. The lawyers tried to work it out and failed; we all tried to work it out and failed. The staggering legal fees remained to be met, and unanswered questions that dogged us remained.”

“Grimly, like a Greek tragedy, the plot went on and we returned to court. For this breakdown in negotiations that could have made us all more content I don’t blame April and Tony. I blame the four of us—and Grace and Fulton, the past, all our lives.”

“There were too many problems, too much involvement with lawyers and fees and bills to be paid. And below the surface perhaps the chasm had become too great to bridge.”

“We were bothers and sisters, but we could not agree. Once more the case went back to the courts…April and Tony won, four to three and it was over.”

“There are no villains in this family story. What can I be but sorry for what Grace has done to Helen and to me, to April and to Tony, to Fulton’s grandchildren, most of all for what she did to herself? Can I find it in my heart to hold rancor, where there is only pity and sorrow for the woman of many gifts and accomplishments who suffered bitter insecurity and guilt? She was bewildered and confused, torn by conflict. And her last gesture, incomprehensible to Helen and me, left our family irreparably estranged.”*

*Quoted in Dukeminier & Johnson, Family Wealth Transactions, 2nd Edition Little, Brown & Co. 1978

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