The problem for William was his legal status, given the U.S. ban on Cambodian adoption. Lionel had tried to circumvent the ban using his Trinidadian citizenship and his membership in the Native American band, to no avail.
Then in November 2004, Libet mentioned a new plan to Lionel. “I am going to try to adopt William myself,” she wrote casually. “I think this will be the best thing for William and I hope you agree.” She signed off cordially, “Hope everything is going well … Libet.”
She knows she’s not perfect, Libet told Lionel. After five divorces, who could think otherwise? She was drinking too much, too, which didn’t help. “I have some growing up to do,” she confessed. “Please don’t give up on me. I really love you.”
For Lionel, Libet’s suddenly cool e-mails were maddening, as was the notion that she alone knew what was best for William. In response, Lionel was petulant yet resigned. “I will stay out of William’s life … I will no longer call him or come to see him,” Lionel wrote on December 2, 2004. “Good luck with the adoption process … William will always be your son and I will always be a stranger who comes to visit … It is easier for me to stop seeing him now than to be a part-time figure in his life … He is young enough and he will soon forget me.”
Libet responded tenderly, though it’s difficult to miss the pity. “Dearest Lionel,” she wrote, “I am sure there is some happy middle ground here where it doesn’t have to be all or nothing”—with William. “It is up to you.”
A couple of months later, a tragic tone had worked its way into Lionel’s e-mails. “I will do what I always do, walk away,” he wrote dramatically on February 1, 2005. “Let me know what your attorney wants to do and I will do it.” Even as he wrote, though, Lionel roused himself. Libet was bullying him, and that irritated him. “One day he will know I was once in his life and I was forced to abandon him,” he wrote. “In my heart I know he is my son and I will do anything to help him.”
Libet deployed her attorneys—in all, five sets would work on various adoption issues. In a March 14 letter drafted by one of Libet’s attorneys, Lionel told Cambodian authorities that he no longer would adopt William. Seven months later, in October, Cambodian authorities issued Libet an adoption certificate for William.
Later, Lionel is at pains to explain why he seemed to abandon his claim on the child. “It was a low point,” he says. “I was angry.” He says he suffered not seeing William. And soon, he points out, he started visiting again, even helping with parental duties. When Libet flew off to rehab in the fall of 2005, Lionel was there for William—sometimes or often, depending on who’s counting. Libet didn’t mind. “You are welcome to love William,” she told him. Libet, though, defined Lionel’s privileges narrowly—she told Lionel she didn’t want William to call him papa.
Then on December 5 of that year, Libet and Lionel had a fight. The issue seemed inconsequential: Lionel had come by Libet’s apartment to see William and reacted to the smell of William’s dirty diaper. In Libet’s mind Lionel’s reaction was overly dramatic. She recalled him holding his nose, motioning that it stunk.
This is the incident Libet invariably refers to when she thinks of Lionel’s parenting deficiencies. “You are shaming him, and I won’t allow it,” she said. She told Lionel he should celebrate a child’s bowel movements. But he didn’t listen. Libet thought, He never listens.
“What makes you think you know so much about children?” Lionel yelled.
“I’ve raised four children,” she said. “As a single mother, I think my kids have turned out very well.”
“Four fucked-up children,” Lionel said.
Lionel stormed out of the apartment, and Libet barred him from further visits. As far as she was concerned, he’d sent the renunciation letter to Cambodia. That was it, she decided. She cut him out of William’s life, and kept the adoption proceedings secret from him.
If Lionel had once renounced William, he soon told a different story. He’d missed a father’s presence when he was growing up; he didn’t want William to have the same absence. “This child deserves both a mother and father in life” was Lionel’s view now. And so, a couple of months after the fight, on January 26, 2006, and again on March 7, Lionel’s business attorney Richard Farren wrote to Libet. “Lionel is determined to be the father figure in young William’s life,” he wrote. Lionel now opposed any attempt by Libet to adopt without his involvement, he added.
And then Farren wrote this provocative line: “The highest priority should be to create a comfort zone for William so that he is not directly aware of the vast disparity between the wealth of Lionel and the wealth of Elizabeth.” Farren later told Libet’s lawyers that she ought to buy William an apartment, a place where Lionel might live and visit with his son. There was also, said one of Libet’s attorneys, mention of an annual stipend, which Farren denies.