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Saturday, November 06, 1999

Adrienne Clarkson's painful separation
When she left her family, Adrienne Clarkson did not leave her daughters without guidance and love. She knew they would have that from an ex-husband who, though he appears to have hated her, loved and obviously coveted them. Still, the separation has taken a toll on all their lives
Rosemary Sexton
National Post

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I would like to revisit the topic of Adrienne Clarkson's estrangement from her two daughters.

When Adrienne Clarkson walked out on her marriage with Stephen Clarkson several decades ago, some friends say she was given an ultimatum by him -- that she would never see her children again. Others say they know nothing about an ultimatum. Many threats are made between warring spouses that they regret later. But the fact such a threat has even been mentioned is illustrative in itself of the poisoned atmosphere between the Clarksons at the time of their divorce. One friend describes the breakup of the marriage as a "five-car collision." Says another: "After Adrienne left, Stephen's only recompense was to take the girls."

It is not just his ex-wife from whom Stephen Clarkson was estranged. He and his older brother, Max, did not speak for more than a decade. The estrangement resulted from a business deal entered into by two other Clarkson brothers and a third person, an arrangement Max Clarkson had warned them against. The deal went sour and one brother, John Clarkson, committed suicide. According to a family member, Stephen blamed Max for John's death. The two brothers still weren't speaking when Max Clarkson had a fatal heart attack.

It was a bad situation made worse by the arrival upon the scene of Christina McCall, a prize-winning author who is described by those who know her as both intelligent and prickly. In several conversations with people close to Adrienne and Stephen, who have asked not to be identified, Christina has been brought up as a catalyst. "Maybe if Stephen declared war on Adrienne," said one, "it was to help out Christina who is very quiet and self-contained." Why? Was Christina jealous of Adrienne? Not jealous, is the response. That's not the right word. Overly sensitive.

Sensitive is a word one hears often in conjunction with both Stephen Clarkson and Christina McCall. The shroud of secrecy enveloping the couple and their children is quite extraordinary. Stephen Clarkson wrote to The Globe and Mail on Oct. 5, after Adrienne's appointment as governor-general, complaining about his daughters being harassed. And the touchy reaction of those close to the couple, now and formerly, bears this out. Wanda O'Hagan, wife of former Bank of Montreal public affairs head Richard O'Hagan and a close friend of Christina's, said: "If anything, they are insanely sensitive about their daughters. You will understand, won't you, if I don't help you out?" Another friend, Ethel Teitelbaum, who also declined to talk, said: "It's a delicate situation and a very painful one for everybody." A former associate, who asked his name be left out, said: "Many people close to them have been shut out. It is a state of siege which no one can understand. I know Adrienne. Certainly, she is ambitious, but there is no way she wanted this to happen. She is bleeding every time she mentions it."

Contacts between the children and Adrienne, fairly frequent at first, have lessened as time has gone by so that presently they are non-existent.

To be fair, Adrienne Clarkson herself is less than forthcoming about her relationship, or lack of it, with her daughters. When asked about them, she either refuses to answer or uncharacteristically bursts into tears. No doubt, as she claims, the pain is too great. As well, she may be deeply ashamed that in this one area of her life, the personal area, she has failed. Like Stephen and Christina, she is intensely private about her personal life. She has been heard to say that she will burn all her private papers rather than let the press get hold of them.

And to give Mr. Clarkson and Ms. McCall credit where credit is due, they seem to have raised three exemplary young women. Kyra Clarkson, 30, an architect, lives in New York City. Blaise Clarkson, 28, is in medicine at the University of Toronto. The product of Christina McCall's 17-year marriage with author Peter C. Newman, Ashley McCall (formerly Ashley Newman), who is in her mid-30s, is presently a senior economist at the Ontario Department of Finance.

When she made the choice to leave her family, Adrienne Clarkson did not leave her daughters homeless, out in the cold, without guidance and without love. She left them intact in a household where she doubtless knew there would be love and commitment from an ex-husband who, though he appears to have hated her, loved and obviously coveted them. Perhaps she thought 20 years ago that that was the price she must pay to escape a bad marriage. For many women that price would be too high, but for the ambitious and career-bound Adrienne Clarkson it probably was not. She doubtless believed, at the time, that she would stay in close touch with her children, that she would be able to see them and watch them grow.

Still, the toll taken, not only on Adrienne Clarkson but on her two daughters as well, must be enormous, though the latter, with the insouciance of the young, seem to shrug it off. No matter how well the two girls turn out, it is wrong, and ultimately harmful, for them not to have regular contact with their own mother. Even if it is the girls themselves who now refuse to see her, it is a decision that seems to have been facilitated by the internecine climate of their childhood. Although Adrienne Clarkson may have suffered over this, and suffered greatly, it is Kyra and Blaise who will bear the scars.

It is too late to repair the tattered relationship between the Clarkson brothers. It is to be hoped that it is not too late for the next Clarkson generation.

Copyright Southam Inc.