“Hey, everybody,” says actor Jason Patric, an earnest, welcoming expression on his face, in a promotional video for Stand Up for Gus, his new nonprofit foundation. “I want to welcome you and thank you for all your support, all your donations.” The camera pans around a little boy’s room, filled with a wooden crib, crayons and toys. “We’re sitting in Gus’ room,” Patric continues, curly black locks swept back on his head and bright blue eyes piercing the frame. “This is a place I don’t come into or normally open the door, but I thought it was important to be in here,” he continues. “It’s painful. But it’s also a reminder of what we’re fighting for.”
Though Patric is best known as the handsome, brooding star of late-1980s and 1990s movies like The Lost Boys, Rush and Sleepers, the fight he’s waging today is far more personal, and contentious. For the past year, he’s been making the rounds on major TV networks begging to see the four-year-old, Gus, whom he helped to conceive (and is the inspiration for his foundation). Withholding his “son” from him is “violence,” he’s said, and “child abuse.” Gus’ mother, Patric’s ex-girlfriend Danielle Schreiber, however, argues that she always intended to be a single parent, and Patric was only her sperm donor. She alleges that Patric didn’t want to act as Gus’ father back then – and shouldn’t be able to change his mind now.
Patric has a middling career these days – this summer, he stars in The Prince, an action thriller with Bruce Willis, 50 Cent and John Cusack – but he’s supremely connected in Hollywood. The Irish grandson of Jackie Gleason, and son of actor-playwright Jason Miller (author of the Pulitzer-winning play That Championship Season, and the actor who played the Jesuit protagonist in The Exorcist), his command of the media is powerful, and more than $300,000 has been donated to Stand Up for Gus, which helps arrange legal counsel for other parents who don’t have custody but want to see their kids. Celebrity friends like Mark Wahlberg, Chris Evans, Brad Pitt and Chris Rock, who told Patric “children want to love their mamas and their dadas,” have supported the foundation.
Patric’s fight has also become much bigger than just this fight: Today, he’s a symbol for the “fathers’ rights” movement, an offshoot of “men’s rights” that is focused on supporting men in divorce and custody cases. (As a male activist put it on TMZ, “Mr. Patric is demonstrating the type of manhood that we should be celebrating as a society and honoring in the legal system.”) Though legal scholars say the courts, which once overwhelmingly sided with mothers on these issues, have at least come closer to gender parity over the past decade, fathers’-rights supporters say American men need to hit back against women’s alimony rackets, false domestic-violence and child-abuse claims, and cases of “parental alienation” – a woman claiming a monopoly over a child and cutting the man out of the equation, which is how Patric, and other stars, like Alec Baldwin, have characterized their experience.
Celebrity dads are a great way to get the fathers’-rights message across, and both the high- and lowbrow media have eaten up these stories, like Olympic skier Bode Miller’s suit with a one-time girlfriend who moved to New York, when he was in California, wherein a judge declared that her “appropriation of the child while in utero was irresponsible, reprehensible.” (Miller received temporary custody of the child, whom he even tried to rename, and they now share custody). When Patric threw a big bash to raise money for Stand Up for Gus in West Hollywood, paparazzi clicked pictures of all the stars who turned out for him: Matt Damon, Mel Gibson, Sarah Silverman, Chris Noth, David Spade and Kiefer Sutherland, Patric’s friend of about 25 years. Patric, in a tuxedo, called the turnout “overwhelming, and amazing to me. I’m so moved and touched by all of it.” He added in his video, “2014 is [when] Gus is coming home this year. He’s going to make it.”
The Jason Patric custody case, which has hit a nerve in America and commanded media attention for more than a year, is at its core about society’s shifting notion of what constitutes a family. Like the debate surrounding marijuana legalization and gay marriage, the issue of whether a child has the right to a mom and a dad – even if the mom doesn’t want the biological father involved – is fraught with cultural bias, as well as our unresolved feelings about our parents’ roles in our upbringing, or lack thereof. It’s no surprise that support for Patric and derogation of Schreiber’s single-mother status has come from the usual places, like conservative Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who called Schreiber an “angry” woman. But, oddly, it’s also issued forth from unexpected media outlets, like the women’s daytime show The View, where Barbara Walters and others listened intently to Patric and murmured their support.
While Patric has granted many interviews presenting his case, Schreiber has only made a single appearance on TV, on The Today Show, about a year ago. Worried about Patric’s perpetuation of what she perceives as a faulty narrative, she agreed months ago to speak with Rolling Stone exclusively (she is a friendly acquaintance of this reporter). “Single mothers are not incomplete equations,” says Schreiber. To say otherwise “violates my civil rights. Think of the stigma of being a single mom, and the way people are threatened by it. It’s associated with a woman who’s financially dependent on the state, sexually irresponsible, maybe promiscuous. Or I’m seen as someone in the default position waiting to complete my family. But all I’m doing is trying to protect the family structure that I have.”
As far as Patric is concerned, Schreiber says that he was psychologically and physically abusive to her. She adds, “Look, Jason is a great actor. But the Jason I knew was the role he played in Your Friends and Neighbors. People were impressed by the role. In hindsight, I’m not that impressed, because it’s not that much of a stretch.” In that movie, directed by Neil LaBute, Patric is memorably misogynistic, sadistic and delusional.
As a matter of law, Patric’s custody case is complicated, but it’s easy to understand the position of a frustrated, unmarried dad brushed aside by his onetime love, with a kid hanging in the balance. Many men in this situation are angry, particularly if they’re stuck paying alimony or child support (which Patric has not). But there’s a chance that fathers’-rights heroes can manipulate situations to their own benefit, too. For example, the room in which Patric taped the Stand Up for Gus video – the room he claims is Gus’ room – is not quite as much the boy’s room as he implies, since before he filed his paternity suit, Patric never owned a crib or a car seat, changed Gus’ diaper, bathed the child, nor had Gus sleep over at his home without Danielle.
After receiving a lengthy list of questions from Rolling Stone, Patric sent a statement reading, “All these false allegations against me from [Schreiber] and her legal team are baseless and without merit. They are an attempt to disparage me after their loss in the Court of Appeal. I will not legitimize the questions posed by Rolling Stone. There isn’t one shred of evidence to any of this slander…. I will happily present all of my evidence at trial, and will very soon have Gus back in my arms. I also will continue to refuse to disparage my son’s mother in public. I don’t intend to alienate him from her. The only one that is hurt by this is Gus. He will soon be old enough to know the truth.”
The story of Patric and Schreiber’s relationship is a sad one, with fault for sticking around too long on both sides. The couple, introduced by a famous actor in 2002, dated on and off for many years. “When we met, I thought, ‘Jason seems like a nice, thoughtful shy person, with depth and a sense of humor’ – not charming in an obvious way, but he knew how to get under your skin,” says Schreiber. Just after they began dating, Patric starred in Narc, a cop movie with Ray Liotta, but he wasn’t dating big Hollywood stars the way he had in the past, like Christy Turlington, Robin Wright and Julia Roberts, whom he ran off with to Ireland after she broke off her engagement to Sutherland.
In addition to calling Schreiber’s keeping Gus from him “child abuse,” Patric has portrayed his fight as one against a “spoiled girl” with a rich daddy, and it’s true that her family is powerful. Schreiber, who is five feet four, 110 pounds and beautiful, with long, lustrous light-brown hair and hazel eyes to match, grew up in a wealthy Jewish family in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her parents had problems conceiving, and her mother was one of the earliest users of Pergonal, an early fertility drug, in the late 1960s. Schreiber, born in 1972, was a quadruplet, the third out of the birth canal of three girls and a boy. (That brother is now the CEO of a $5 billion hedge fund.)
Danielle was the athletic and studious sibling, a competitive lacrosse player who graduated near the top 10 students of her high school class. At 17, after a bad car accident, a Rolfer (a masseuse who uses hardcore pressure to reposition muscle tissue) helped her put her body back in order. At Brown, she was pre-med for a while, but was drawn to Rolfing as a manual therapy, and a psychological one. “I realized that I wanted to work with people’s bodies, and their minds, and there was a way to not go to medical school and still do that,” she says.
A few months after meeting, Schreiber and Patric began spending most of their time together, holed up in their homes in Santa Monica. “Jason presented himself as a truth-telling wounded bird,” she says. “People say if you want to get to know someone you should spend a lot of one-on-one time, but actually I think you should see how he is out in the world. And I didn’t do enough of that, but, you know, he had a hold on me.”
The relationship had high points, like a romantic trip to London, L.A. canyon hikes and a blossoming friendship between their dogs, Tarzan and Pups. But things began going sideways after a few years. Patric blamed Speed 2, a box-office bomb, and the bad press around the Julia Roberts affair for his ailing career, says Schreiber. She says that he would rail against the success of actors like Damon, and bark at his agent about testing for parts, saying that he shouldn’t have to read. In September 2005, after Schreiber upset Patric, she claims he used force against her for the first time, grabbing her wrists and pushing her toward a wall in his Santa Monica home, which resulted in Schreiber slamming her head. “The next morning, Jason called me and told me he loved me, for the first time,” she says. “I guess that was my reward.”
According to Schreiber, Patric was sports-betting and drinking, even peeing on a dresser and another time in a closet at his New York home. She claims Patric threw a jar of almond butter at her when he found she hadn’t put on the lid tight, and hit her in the face with a land-line phone, causing contusions and bruises that lasted more than a week. “It was a cycle, a roller coaster, and I somehow accepted this kind of conduct,” says Schreiber. “Jason would apologize and then he would go out of town for an acting job, and while he was away I’d romanticize things, and think about the potential or what could be.”
Schreiber says that at the time she blamed herself for the abuse, which, she says, later included Patric fracturing his hand when he punched a wall during one of their fights. In fact, she began to pressure Patric to have a baby. In 2007, he had a surgical procedure to increase his fertility. But afterward, “things were terrible with us,” says Schreiber. “Jason was drinking, and going out until four in the morning. He was going out with other women.”
When the couple finally broke up, in 2008, Schreiber was 35 years old, nearing the end of her childbearing years. “I didn’t want to get involved with someone else with the desperation of a tick-tock clock,” she says. She decided to have a child as a single parent. “I felt such incredible relief when I made that decision,” she says. “I know it may sound reckless and irresponsible to some people, but I felt so free, knowing that I could do this on my own. I didn’t have to tiptoe around someone who really didn’t want to do it.”
In June 2008, after researching her rights as a single parent using artificial insemination – and learning that California laws dating back more than 20 years protected her rights to a child, stating that any donor, known or unknown, would have no claim – Schreiber bought and banked sperm from a fair-skinned, blue-eyed Ph.D. candidate, an athlete who also ran track and played soccer. But two days before the first insemination, Patric wrote her a 29-page handwritten letter, which was provided to Rolling Stone.
“I write this hoping that the flow of the ink somehow taps into my blood, my inner self pieced in some deep place that not only spills the truth, but alleviates this constant spinning mass of ache,” Patric writes, sounding like a man in the midst of a midlife crisis. “I feel disassociated from myself and my surroundings. As if I’m living a double or triple life. Just moving along, trying to be good. Trying to be responsible. Trying to be above the mosses…. A man and a worker, an artisan, bound up and at struggling odds with all these associations of inner doubt, shame, and low worth.” He goes on to say that “I am at my best when I am just ‘BEING.’ Whether it is with my work, or with my most intimate self.”
In the letter, Patric says he loves Schreiber “for your very essence … for who you strive to be. And I love you for how you have loved me. There is no kinder soul.” He then arrives at his point. “There is no doubt in my mind that you were meant to be a mother,” he says, adding that he is sorry he can’t be her child’s father. But he is willing to give her his sperm. “I have to find my way,” he writes. “It’s only then that I can give to anybody. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a dad.… I want you to know that if you want to use my sperm, you have my blessing. It’s all I can give you right now.”
Schreiber was floored by this letter, which she found beautiful and convincing. Two days later, she put aside her donor sperm, and went into her first round of insemination with Patric’s. “I thought, ‘The devil I know versus the devil I don’t know,’ ” she says now, wryly. “I’m friends with a lesbian couple who used a known sperm donor for their kid, and it worked out really well for them. I thought it might for me too.” Some of her close friends worried about the decision to remain tied to Patric in such a lasting way. “I thought she was crazy,” says one friend. “Her relationship with Jason was so bad back then that she wouldn’t even talk to me about him, because she knew I hated him.” Patric insisted in the letter that she not tell anyone, and said he wouldn’t, either – not his friends, or his family, nor his girlfriend at the time. “To me,” says Schreiber, riffing off Gwyneth Paltrow’s dubbing of her divorce “conscious uncoupling,” “Jason’s letter was a contract to ‘consciously un-co-parent.’ ”
After nine months of doing baby prep without Patric – prenatal visits, birthing classes, setting up a registry, building a baby’s room – Schreiber didn’t expect him to be present at Gus’ birth in December 2009, and he wasn’t, remaining in New York with his girlfriend. When Schreiber announced Gus’ birth to her family and friends, she says Patric was not mentioned in the announcement or even copied on the e-mail. He wasn’t on the birth certificate, nor did Gus have his surname. When the baby was circumcised on the eighth day of his life, Patric gave Schreiber a ride, but didn’t come in to witness the event.
Patric saw Gus sporadically during his first year, says Schreiber, but soon after, when Gus was 13 months old, Patric began telling her that he wanted to “explore us” again. He was rehearsing for a Broadway play, and Schreiber figured she would travel to New York for a visit and see where things went. As they rekindled their relationship in 2011, Schreiber tried to persuade Patric that they should tell Gus about his biological father when he was old enough to hear it. “Jason was furious,” she says. “He said, ‘You promised that you would keep it a secret, and this is you going back on and violating a fundamental trust.’ I was subjected to a huge amount of verbal abuse, yelling and anger because of that.”
Patric, however, has portrayed this time as one of great satisfaction as he connected with Gus. At times, Schreiber told Gus to call him “Dada,” and wrote him a Christmas card that read, “Thank you for teaching me to pee in the toilet, watch airplanes, learn Beatles songs. I love you Dada. Gus.” The couple stayed together a few more months, but she says he turned nasty on her again, hurling anti-Semitic epithets like “Ms. Jew Schreiber” and “Jew cunt” at her. (According to an e-mail obtained by Rolling Stone that appears to be from Patric, he commented, “FUCK THOSE JEW MOTHERFUCKERS,” while discussing a business issue with Schreiber.) She also claims that he said to her at more than one point, ” ‘You’re the kind of woman who likes to get hit,’ and it wasn’t in a kinky way.” At a wedding brunch, when Schreiber became weepy, “Jason said, ‘If you ever cry in front of Gus again, I will make sure you and your family never see him again,’ ” says Schreiber. “I started to feel not only physical fear of Jason, but started to worry about my son being taken away from me.”
In the spring of 2012, Schreiber tried to break up with Patric, but, she says, he kept showing up at her house, demanding to be let inside, or with friends, like a time when he coaxed her to accompany him to a barbecue at Chris Noth’s home in the Valley. As things became more tense, Schreiber says, Patric’s bookkeeper contacted her about putting Gus on his health insurance, which he’d never brought up before. One of Schreiber’s siblings told her that this was a sign he might sue for custody, but she couldn’t believe Patric would do that – they had a deal.
Schreiber consulted lawyers, and was shocked when they advised her to “play nice” with Patric. The courts, they said, did not look upon single parentage well, and it behooved her not to do anything that could be perceived as cutting the “father” out of her child’s life. She became terrified of doing something to set Patric off. “The lawyers told me, ‘The courts favor the man,’ ” she says, continuing, “I should not have to have someone who I dated tell me how to raise my child, what religion to raise my child, what he has to eat, where he should go to school and what state I can live in.”
In mid-June 2012, she says, the two of them had a tense dinner, after which Schreiber cried and told Patric to stay away from her. After so many years of denial and suffering she had finally come to believe that he was “very dangerous,” she says. She was frightened of doing or saying anything that would cause him to take Gus. That Sunday was Father’s Day, and Patric’s birthday, and she got him a cake. “I was tap-dancing, trying to make him happy,” she says. She didn’t know that the videotape of her and her son would become evidence when he later made the talk-show rounds.
Schreiber’s stab at playing nice got her nowhere, because at the end of June, Patric filed his paternity suit anyway. “I was so baffled, and I bumped into [actress] Jami Gertz in Brentwood, and she was asking me all about my little boy,” she says. “I said, ‘He’s good, but I’m now in a paternity suit with the donor.’ And Jami, who is a close friend of Jason’s, said, ‘Who’s that?’ ”
After an initial hearing, Patric received three and a half hours of visitation with Gus three times a week, the option to drive him to school on two weekdays (provided school was in session) and up to 10 minutes on Skype four times a week – even though, Schreiber says, he had never spent more than an hour alone with Gus at that point. (In the statement to Rolling Stone, Patric has a different interpretation of the amount of time he was awarded: “When Danielle presented her statements to the initial trial judge,” he wrote us, “he found them so baseless that he gave me time with Gus five days a week in person, and two additional days by video-chat. That time was unsupervised as there was no need to supervise it.”)
The day after Schreiber saw Gertz, she and Patric headed to mediation. The final offer – three or four nights with Gus per week, plus a provision for Patric to take Gus on location, and changing his surname – was unacceptable to Schreiber, and the talks fell apart. She wanted biological father and son to have a relationship, just not a legal one. And she says Gus was returning from visits to Patric’s house saying odd things, like “Mommy has a stinky vagina,” and “This isn’t my house,” and “Mommy is mean.” In the fall of 2012, Schreiber installed video cameras and a fence around her home.
Soon, Patric had a new plan: legislation. Aided by a California state senator who had experienced his own paternity struggles, he became the celebrity mouthpiece for a 2013 Senate bill, allowing a sperm donor to sue for parentage if he establishes a relationship later with a child. The bill passed unanimously in the state senate, but after women’s-rights organizations kicked up about the injection of what California’s NOW chapter called “the superiority of male sperm donation in family formation,” it stalled in the State Assembly’s judiciary committee, where members voted against it, 5-2.
As the couple became embroiled in lawsuits, Patric turned up his campaign to the media, telling Megyn Kelly and Katie Couric that he was involved in all aspects of his child’s life since his birth, and claiming that he paid $2,500 toward Gus’s $17,500 tuition to nursery school (Schreiber says that he owed her this money from a past hotel bill). Patric also trotted out forms that he signed consenting to medical procedures like embryo freezing at the artificial-insemination clinic, ones that listed him as an “intended parent” (courts have decided that the phrase on these forms has no bearing in his case with Schreiber), and a preschool application that he signed (Schreiber claims he was only on this application because she thought a movie star name might help Gus get into the school. It did.) He has also said he broke things off with Schreiber because she wanted to get married (she denies this), and then, he said, “within one week’s time, I wasn’t allowed in her house, and she got lawyers. She’s never spoken to me personally since, except a court e-mail that is CC’ed to Glouchman, Glouchman, Glouchman & Schwartz.” (Schreiber’s lawyer’s firm is Glaser Weil.)
In November 2013, Schreiber was awarded a domestic-violence restraining order against Patric, which says he is not supposed to harass, attack or strike Shreiber, among other actions. He is not supposed to contact her “directly or indirectly,” which, as she understood, would bar him from any of her friends or family. On Christmas Eve, Patric allegedly wrote a platonic male friend of Schreiber’s, a comedian, via e-mail to wish him merry Christmas, and additionally, “just know that when this is over, and I have my son Gus back, I will make a point of seeing you personally, no matter what. It’s coming. Enjoy your time until then.” According to text messages reviewed by Rolling Stone, Patric continued to contact this friend, even after he asked him to stop. On another occasion, when the friend was about to perform at a venue, Patric wrote, “How things going? Ill be there for your show tmrw. Have some guys w me I think will be really interesting for you. They have heard about you.”
Over the spring, Schreiber’s father was surprised to open a package that arrived to his home that appeared to be from Patric. He had mailed Schreiber’s father a “Stand Up for Gus” T-shirt.
Schreiber hoped to prevail quickly against Patric, but in May of this year, in a court of appeal, his opinion trumped hers. The court said that Patric is a sperm donor in the eyes of the law, that’s true, but because he had established a relationship with Gus, the judges were interested in “preserving and protecting the developed parent-child … relationships which give young children social and emotional strength and stability.” Patty Glaser, Schreiber’s lawyer, disagrees. “Sperm donors can change their minds – they can say, ‘You know what? I’d really like to be a dad,’ ” she says. “But it shouldn’t be unilateral. Mom needs to be part of that decision. And if Mom says, ‘Great,’ then Dad can do it.” (Through his lawyer, Patric denies all claims of abuse; read their response to Schreiber’s claims here.)
Though Patric says, “I will die fighting for my son,” Schreiber’s lawyers are petitioning the Supreme Court in California, and will know sometime this year if their case will be heard. Many years of litigation may lie ahead. If Patric wins, the laws around artificial insemination, according to an amicus brief filed by a group of reproductive-technology and family-law scholars, will be fundamentally changed. It’s true, though, that the trends in both adoption and artificial insemination in recent years have pointed toward parents wanting to use donors that aren’t anonymous to conceive their kids. Maybe, in 20 years or so, the idea that a kid wouldn’t want to know his biological parent will be outmoded, and we’ll accept that having a relationship with both of them is worthwhile for kids’ psychological development and happiness.
But right now there’s really one important thing here, and we all know what it is: Gus, and his life. We don’t know what he thinks about this – right now, at age four, he doesn’t realize any of it is going on. Someday, he will know. And Schreiber, and, perhaps, Patric, bear the burden of lessening his psychic wounds over this fight. “Gus is already asking how he got into my belly, you know?” says Schreiber. “And I told him, ‘Even though I raised you on my own, and I decided I could have a child on my own, it still takes a man’s body for a woman’s body to make a baby.’ ” She pauses. “I will tell Gus what happened, and that I made a decision to preserve the integrity of our family, whether traditional or nontraditional. And that I felt Jason would, at best, be a destabilizing force – because if he really had what’s best for Gus in mind, he wouldn’t have done all that he did.”