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Ultimate Betrayal (1993) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

abuse children sisters father

Principal social theme: child abuse/spouse abuse

Hearst Entertainment. PG-13 rating. Featuring: Marlo Thomas, Mel Harris, Eileen Heckert, Ally Sheedy, Kathryn Dowling, Henry Czerny, Donna Good-hand, David B. Nichols, Joanne Vannicola, Justin Louis, Chandra Muszak, Kim Schraner, Brett Pearson, Valerie Buhagiar, Nigel Bennett, John David Wood. Written by Gregory Goodell. Cinematography by Dick Bush. Edited by Sharyn L. Ross. Music by Chris Boardman. Produced by Julian Marks. Directed by Donald Wrye. Color. 94 minutes.


Ultimate Betrayal is generally regarded as one of the best depictions of the cycle of abuse, seen from the viewpoint of four adult sisters who were not only beaten as children but suffered sexual molestation by their father. This film attempts to deal with this highly inflammatory material in a sober, nonsensational manner. Groups of survivors of abuse have utilized screenings of Ultimate Betrayal in their counseling sessions. Ultimate Betrayal was originally broadcast on the Lifetime Cable Network.


All four of the grown Rodgers children are experiencing continual psychological problems. Sharon (Marlo Thomas) has become cold and unloving toward her family and is unable to sleep except in the closet or in a parked car. The others frequently strike their own children, and Mary (Ally Sheedy) plans to sue her father to help pay for her therapy bills that exceed $400 a month. Mary’s potential suit upset the other sisters, who start to recall more and more of the abuse they suffered as children. Consulting lawyer Dana Quinn, they learn of new rules regarding “delayed discovery” that would permit lawsuits of events occurring over thirty years earlier. Due to pressure from her husband, Mary decides not to proceed, but two other sisters, Sharon and Susan (Mel Harris) decide to file suit. Beth (Kathryn Dowling) decides not to join the suit, but to testify for her sisters at the trial. Their father, Ed Rodgers, a retired FBI agent, comes to the deposition and denies all charges. When the trial begins, however, the father chooses not to appear, and neither does his attorney. The judge allows the trial to continue. The two Rodgers brothers, Steve and John, later appear in court and ask to be permitted to defend their father. The judge denies their request, and the trial proceeds.

All four of the sisters take the stand and provide testimony about the abuse they each suffered. Their depositions are emotionally charged, yet restrained. These incidents are depicted in flashbacks. For example, whenever their father mowed the lawn, he would put Sharon in charge of a stick patrol to gather every fragment of wood. Inevitably Ed would find a twig, leading to a thrashing for one or more of the children. Their mother was also a victim of abuse, but she would do nothing to protect them. However, once in a while, the mother also was an abuser. When teenage Susan became pregnant, Ed was surprisingly considerate and supportive, but her mother turned against her vehemently. Ed’s sympathy for his daughter vanished, and Susan was sent away to have her baby; her parents had no contact at all with her during this difficult time. The four daughters felt relieved and strengthened by telling their experiences, bur they are also frustrated that Ed was not present to hear and acknowledge their suffering. Nevertheless, they now feel that they can get on with their lives. At the conclusion of the trial, the court awards Sharon and Susan a judgment for 2.3 million dollars, over twice the amount they requested. However, the sisters were unable to collect since Ed, along with his assets, had completely disappeared. Due to publicity from the case, the “Child Abuse Accountability Act” was introduced in Congress that would address other cases similar to this one.


Based on a true case, Ultimate Betrayal is an emotionally draining and riveting viewing experience. The production is multilayered, considering the question of abuse from various angles. The problem is clearly portrayed as a vicious circle, the father’s abuse spreading out to his wife, children, and eventually grandchildren. Ed Rodgers is depicted as somewhat of an enigma. The origin of his behavior is not explored (except for Sharon’s observation that he was unloved by everyone), only the tragic results. He never acknowledges the abuse, either consciously or unconsciously, and this is all the more puzzling because he had been considered an expert on child abuse in his law enforcement work. He was also an advocate who spoke in support of the rights of abused children. Yet at the same time, he instigated the worst possible abuse within his own family. As for his sexual molestations, the script suggests that it was triggered when his wife ended their sexual relationship and he moved to a basement bedroom. In the film, Ed is seen only in the flashback memories of his children, except for at the deposition, where he appears elderly, tired, and apparently perplexed by the charges leveled against him. He then disappears, and it is surprising that he manages this deception so completely, given his notoriety. One would imagine that any good detective would be able to track him down. The mother is another enigma. She divorces Ed after the children are grown, but never interfered or threatened to do so while her children were being beaten and molested. When questioned before the trial, the mother tells her children that she did indeed helped them through her prayers, a rather feeble rationalization.

The abuse pattern of the children is covered as well, including their sudden irrational anger and their instinctive resort to violence. The script of Ultimate Betrayal wisely avoids the side issue of repressed memory syndrome. The memories of the Rodgers sisters are portrayed as actual memories, not artificially derived from hypnosis. The accuracy of memories stimulated by this method has been scientifically questioned, and in some cases these memories have been proven false. Most of the experiences discussed in the court case were shared by two or more of the sisters.

The hostility of Steve and John, the Rodgers brothers, is another tragic element of the plot. According to the sisters, the brothers suffered the worst of the beatings. David and John admit they were hit, but claim it was not excessive. On the other hand, they deny their sisters were ever molested. Since they never witnessed it, they would rather regard their sisters as liars than accept that their father was perverted. Their stance can stimulate additional discussion from viewers. The story does not suggest that the children of Steve and John are abused. This suggests that the main trauma suffered by the sisters was due to the molestation rather than the physical abuse. It is also instructive to compare the pattern of abuse in Sybil to that in Ultimate Betrayal . The mother in Sybil provided psychological torment in addition to physical punishment. In Ultimate Betrayal , the father created an atmosphere of fear without any mind games. Sharon felt she could hold off her father’s wrath by doting on him, being his favorite, and to some extent this worked, as she was the least abused of the Rodgers offspring, never having been struck after the age of two. Finally, should the father’s disappearance be regarded as an admission of guilt? Is there any chance he was mentally ill and unaware of the extent of his monstrous behavior?

[back] Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher (1938–) - Colonial U.S. History, Biography

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