There is a special place in hell for child abusers. As I sit in this gorgeous, wood-lined room, with its peaked ceiling and slatted blinds, I find comfort in knowing that I have occasionally made a difference to a child who might otherwise have suffered an extra day.
My week has reeled from client-crisis to client-crisis, starting with a hearing at which I managed to expand the time that a frail girl spends with her father, my client, for whom I had won residential placement months ago. Delay after delay has kept the trial from putting a permanent stamp on the situation, while the girl's school work suffers on the days she spends with her mother, and her emotional health declines because of the mother's unstable household.
A day later, I stood before the same judge representing a mother whose children have suffered repeated, continual abuse at their father's hands, and we fretted about how to navigate the morass of the system in which they now find themselves. The judge's brow line deepened as the lawyers wrangled. My stomach clenched. Later, in a friend's office, I realized that some of my tension stemmed from old memories, stirred by patient listening to my client's accounts of what she has seen and suffered. I gazed out my friend's window while she sat, quiet, caring, as patient with me as I had striven to be with my client.
I tell my friend that when I was a prosecutor, defense attorneys would whine that their clients had had bad childhoods. I should give them a break, I was often told, because of their terrible suffering as children. I would make each one this offer: Bring your client up to my table. I will match them story for story about bad childhoods. If I run out of stories before they do, I will dismiss all charges.
No one ever took me up on it.
On the night before my mother died, I stood in her kitchen, gazing, almost sightlessly, upon the counter my mother had re-tiled just a year or two before. My sister Joyce sat on the little bench that our Austrian great-grandfather had made. "I keep thinking, 'this will be our year for only good things to happen'", she said. I heard a note in her voice that I recognized but could not define, a little wisp, an elusive, smokey scent of sorrow. "That year, our year, I guess it's not going to be 1985," she said, soft and low. I put my hand on her shoulder. I could not think of anything to say.
Some one recently asked me what my earliest memory was. I shrugged, and changed the subject. But that memory rose in me like that smokey note in my sister's voice: Walking the streets of Jennings at night, with my seven brothers and sisters, in pajamas, with coats thrown over them, holding my mother's hand. I asked my mother when we could go home. "In a few minutes," she said. "When Daddy falls asleep." She sang as we walked, in a low voice, while people slept in the houses which loomed on either side of us. I tightened my grip on her hand so I would not be lost.
Page after page of memories come to me over the internet from my clients who have experienced violence in their homes. I encourage them to write. Better to send the memories to me than to their adult children, or their siblings, or their friends who stare helplessly at the words, not understanding. I read what they write, and put their letters in a file. If we ever come to trial, what they have shared will help them prepare to testify. If we settle, as we should, as we usually do, their words remain unspoken. But the writing of them leaves behind a clean space for new memories to flourish.
As my week drew to a close, I joined a hundred other folks in honoring the clients of the Johnson County, Kansas District Attorney's Office's Crime Victim Rights art therapy program. I walked around the VALA Gallery, overwhelmed with the starkness of the pain in the drawings, paintings and poems. But something else shown through the canvas: Hope. The flip side of despair.
Saturday dawns grey and gloomy. I've little to do but laundry, and later, I will meet my friend Penny Thieme for coffee. She of the VALA Gallery, she who has shown me the vibrant colors of a dawning day when glory triumphs over desperation. In the meantime, I'll drink another cup of tea, and maybe, go back to bed for an hour or so.