Picks and Pans Review: Life After Johnnie Cochran
Berry's heartbreaking biography of her life with Johnnie Cochran, subtitled Why I Left the Sweetest-Talking, Most Successful Black Lawyer in L.A., reads less like a vengeful woman's bid for quick cash than the sad portrait of a painful, often degrading 17-year marriage to a man she describes as "deceitful, manipulative, controlling and abusive."
Berry, an elementary-school teacher, married the upwardly mobile young law student in 1960. Seven years later she sought a legal separation, then reconciled and finally filed for divorce in 1977—accusing Cochran of assaulting her. When a Los Angeles Times Magazine reporter, with access to the divorce records, approached Johnnie for a comment, he insisted the reporter check the allegations with his ex-wife. Berry then notes that Cochran called her and promised, "You will want for nothing, ever, if you'll just deny the allegations. Tell the reporter I was a wonderful guy."
Writes Berry: "If I had been prepared to deny those allegations, I could have negotiated for much more than I received for this book." Berry refused. "For a person who has been abused to stop seeing herself as a victim," she writes, "she must stop denying that the abuse ever occurred."
The author's allegations that Cochran hit and tore off her dress are less haunting than her descriptions of his cruelty and infidelities. Berry, who swapped stories with Cochran's longtime mistress Patricia Sikora (with whom he had son Jonathan, now 22), writes that Cochran's double life began in 1966: "He was essentially a bigamist, portioning himself out to two families." When Berry got pregnant with the couple's second child in 1968, she says Cochran told Patty that it wasn't his baby, that Barbara "had been sleeping around."
Berry, whose parents died when she was a teen, says that Cochran would belittle her with such comments as, "You're just a poor orphan schoolteacher—you wouldn't have anything if it weren't for me." When Cochran no longer hid his infidelities, he'd say to her, "Out of all my girlfriends, you are the ugliest."
While Berry bristles at the notion that the black community would lionize Cochran as "a squeaky-clean defender of truth, justice, and an American hero wrongly accused," her larger message is directed to abused women: "Tortured relationships need not be life sentences," she writes. "If this book encourages even one woman to try, it will have been worth all the flack I know will be thrown at me for having undertaken it." (Basic Books, $18)