Meredith Baxter Alleges Ex-Husband David Birney Abused Her

Actress Meredith Baxter says she's a lesbian, kept orientation secret for years.

December 2, 2009, 10:58 AM

March 1, 2011 — -- Meredith Baxter says in a new book, "Untitled," that she was a victim of emotional and physical abuse.

Baxter, the actress best known for playing hippie mom Elyse Keaton on the 1980s sitcom "Family Ties," said that the abuser was her then-husband David Birney, who has denied the allegations.

In her memoir, Baxter alleges that Birney hit her more than once. "It was so sudden and unexpected, I couldn't tell you which hand hit me, or even how hard," she writes. "I do recall thinking, 'I'd better not get up because he's going to hit me again.' "

She writes that she coped with the marital violence by drinking heavily, but has been sober since 1990.

Birney was her former co-star on the television show, "Bridget Loves Bernie," which ran from 1972-73. The couple dated for two years, marrying for 15 years and having three children together. They divorced in 1989.

Birney, 71, has denied all allegations, according to the NBC interview. was unable to reach the actor for comment.


The 63-year-old Baxter discussed her relationship on NBC's "Today" show. She made headlines on the show last year, when she revealed she was a lesbian.

Baxter, who has been divorced three times, said it took her years to change her "victim" mentality. She described herself as "mousey, quiet and retiring" -- the classic match for a dominating husband.

"What I got out of it eventually was I had to change my thinking," Baxter said. "I had to look, if I did not want to be a victim -- and I'd been committed to being a victim for a long time because it felt really warm and comfortable and familiar -- but it was a disastrous position to be in. So I had to change my thinking. I had to look at, what was my part? What was in my thinking that told me it was okay to be in this relationship?"

When asked why she stayed with Birney so long, she said, "That's what everyone would want to know. I didn't know I had a choice. I didn't know I could go.

"It wasn't an accident that we were together," Baxter said. "He's not going to pick someone who's on top of themselves and confident and aggressive, no, he needs to pick someone for him to be who he needed to be, it needed to be someone who was mousy and quiet and retiring, and that's what I was."

Abuse Victims Often See Themselves as Passive

"I think that a lot of survivors of abuse use the same terms to describe themselves," said Jennifer Wilson Marsh, director of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) hotline.

"They use words like passive," she said. "They are more likely to just go with the flow instead of asserting themselves. And the switch that [Baxter] talked about is indicative of her regaining power and control in the relationship."

Alcohol is a classic "coping mechanism" for victims of abuse, said Marsh. "They try to control things like eating, which manifests itself as a eating disorder, or self harm."

Domestic violence is a crime of power and sexual violence can be used by perpetrators, according to RAINN.

Women in unhealthy relationships often make several attempts to break free before they are successful, the organization says.

"Usually it's not the first pass that allows them to leave," said Marsh. "A hotline is obviously a great place to start. It can be a safe space to ask questions and know you are not alone."

Hotline staff are trained to let callers know, "You don't deserve to be hurt," she said. "It can be a first step."

Baxter said that her work helped her cope and she did not share her personal story with others.

"You learn to compartmentalize," she said on NBC. "When I got to the studio, my home life was not happening. Nobody knew anything. I didn't have a social life. I did my work, I went home."

The actress said she also kept her sexuality close to the vest.

Baxter was "outed" in 2009 when the National Enquirer reported she was spotted "traveling with a female friend" on a Caribbean cruise sponsored by lesbian travel company Sweet.

"People say, 'You had to have known know you were gay.' I realized I was so un-self-examined, I could have been a Republican, but no, I'm just gay," she said. "That's much better, don't you think?"

The actress said that after many failed relationships with men, she started her first relationship with a woman seven years ago, and her entire world view changed.

"I got involved with someone I never expected to get involved with, and it was that kind of awakening," she said. "I never fought it because it was like, 'Oh, I understand why I had the issues I had early in life.' I had a great deal of difficulty connecting with men in relationships."

For more information about sexual violence or to reach their hotline for help, contact the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

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