Friday, December 20, 2013

Solemn Thoughts Near Christmas: Intimate Memories Part 2

My family was happy in 1983.  My three sisters and one of my brothers were married.  I had several nieces and nephews.  I was finishing up my second year in law school, working part-time to try and support myself and pay tuition, living with Connie, a long-time roommate, on the fashionable east side of Milwaukee in a lovely two-bedroom apartment.

This is what my siblings and I looked like back then:

That's me, lower left, next to youngest brother Jeffrey.  Across the back, left to right are Dennis, Yvonne, Darlene, and Deborah.  I'm the oldest of us six.

When I look at this old photograph now, I see a radiant, confident young woman with bad legs (even then, geez).  I was 32, a year away from graduating law school, still working toward getting to the top of my game.  I was a full-time student at Marquette University Law School.  One of my volunteer activities, besides working at the legal clinic for people who could not afford to hire an attorney to help with routine legal problems (evictions, traffic tickets, consumer debt issues), was working with a group that helped out victims of domestic violence.  I did a year's stint at the District of Attorney's office in Milwaukee as an advocate for victims of domestic violence.  I manned a telephone hot-line for an afternoon a week where domestic violence calls would come in from traumatized female victims (I never fielded a call from a male).  I would sit-in at meetings of assistant DAs, victims and alleged abusers, holding hands if necessary, lending whatever moral support and strength I could to the victim.  I would go home at the end of the day and worry and fret about my "cases."

The majority of the women who actually came in to file a complaint against a "batterer" were white women.  All ages.  All socio-economic groups. Caucasian women.  It was very rare to see a woman of color or of another race come in and file a complaint during the hours I manned the Women's Task Force Against Domestic Violence desk at the DA's office.  I would talk to other (non-Caucasian) women on the hot-line, but they almost never actually came down to file a criminal complaint. A few times, some women of color did come.  I would sit with them and talk with them, and they would pour their hearts out to me.  But in the end, they would walk away without taking the legal process further.  It seemed, just sitting and talking to another female, and others like me, was enough to -- send them back to where they came from...  Just having someone to listen. Someone whom they sensed was trying to, wanted to help them...

I did what I could.  On the hot-line and in person, I gave women information about local resource groups to whom they could reach out for emotional, physical and financial support.  Safe houses where they could go to if they were leaving, with their kids if they had kids (most women did), a big thing for women thinking of fleeing a dangerouus domestic situation. Back in the 80's, this was just barely getting underway, and the need was so great.  Many women stayed in place simply because -- as I was taught when growing up -- a woman stayed because that is what a woman did, and she couldn't rip her children away from the home.  Not that there were many places to go -- back then.  But there were a few.  We volunteers did what we could.  It wasn't enough.  But it was something.  In so many instances family members did not step in to help.  Unlike in my family's situation.  You know, that was just the way it was.  And as a woman you coped with it.  You got the crap beat out of you.  Your kids got the crap beat out of them in front of your eyes.  Sometimes you ended up dead, or nearly so.  Or --

To this day, I remember a lovely young lady who came in to "my" desk at the DA's office.  She was in her early 20's.  Well spoken.  Dressed well.  Not a dummy (you know what I mean).  She had been involved in a relationship with a much older man for three or four years.  He had money. He had a good job.  He was an executive at a high powered company.  He had a commanding presence. He was handsome, but older than her father.  Caucasian.  Lived in a wealthy suburb of Milwaukee.  Not the kind of people one would ever think would be involved in "wife-beating."  She wasn't his wife. She was a live-in girlfriend.

So what?  Being a wife does not give one special status or particular safety from an abusive mate.  Or potential killer.

One night, in a fit of rage (not alcohol-fueled), after months of physical beatings and psychological abuse, he picked her up and physically threw her out of a second story window of the fancy home they shared.  She was lucky.  She survived with numerous cuts, bruises on her face where he had punched her numerous times (and cuts, scrapes and bruises suffered during the fall), and a broken arm.

There had been previous incidents where he physically marked her with bruises and choke marks about her throat. This time, she was frightened enough to come in and file a complaint against him.  I was the "lucky" one who was at the desk when she came in.

She was SO fricking brave!  She was scared half-to death of that man and by the time she finished her recital of abuse, so was I. But she filed a complaint against him, and the wheels of justice slowly started to turn. The assistant DA assigned to the case was a young black female attorney (not too many of them in the 1980's), tough as nails and street-smart.  Been there.  Done that.  She wasn't taking any crap from anyone.  And there I was, in the thick of things, a now third-year law student who had seen and experienced more than a few things in her lifetime but sure as hell wasn't prepared for this confrontation.

I don't remember all of the details, but I do remember the initial conference where the accused was brought into a small room with a court reporter/stenographer, the Assistant DA, the accuser (victim), and the advocate (me).  I was there solely as victim support.  Not allowed to speak.

That man scared the crap out of me.  There was a definite miasma of evil about him.  I could see it in his eyes.  It seemed as if he didn't bothering looking at his victim. He focused on me.  I was the enemy.  He stared at me the entire time he was in the room.  Arrogant.  Self-assured.  An attorney with him, male, far less arrogant but just as self-assured.  They tried every which way they could to beat the victim down into retracting her complaint.

I sat there the entire time, sometimes holding her hand, but always staring in as self-assured stance and style I could muster, my eyes never leaving his face. I was scared shitless, to tell you the truth.  But I sat there staring back at him the entire time, pouring as much pride and disdain as I could muster into my eyes to shoot back at him and his evilness.  Thinking all the while that it wasn't doing any good, because he was absolutely relentless.  He was the Devil Incarnate.  And I am pretty sure I never let my hands shake a single second when the victim clutched at them, harder and harder.  I wasn't going to let HER down the way I let myself down, feeling such fear, such trembling, inside.  i wanted to run away.  I wanted to go hide and cower.

But I sat there, determined as I could be, pouring every bit of self-will into putting on a brave front.

Up until that point, I had never, ever, been afraid of a man I'd met in my entire life.  Not even my Dad, who had been a physical abuser.  I was afraid of the beatings at Dad's hands, but I was never afraid of HIM!  But this man, that day, across that small conference room, I was scared. Scared shitless.

She did not retract her complaint.

Eventually he plead out to some minor crime, and it was disgusting!  I was so pissed at the time, indignant!  He got a suspended sentence.  In the interim, she had moved out of his house (Thank Goddess!), back home with her parents for awhile, and then moved out of state. Smart move.  Assholes like that tend to come after you and hunt you down.  Don't we see it every weekend on "48 Hours?" on CBS network television...

I remember leaving the Safety Building that day, after that initial conference was over.  Ha - what a misnomer -- Safety Building!  I first escorted my charge down to a waiting cab at a "secret" exit, paid the driver with a voucher and, after making sure she wasn't being followed as far as I could tell, sent her on her way.  There were two cab companies at the time that donated services to help the victims of domestic violence.  They sent experienced drivers, but all of them were male drivers.  To this day, one rarely sees a female cab driver in Milwaukee.  Sigh.  That day, she got to where she was going safely.

Wells Street view of Milwaukee County Safety Building.  Secret entry
not visible from this photo (a good thing). 

Me -- I walked backed up to my desk, briefed the next woman at the desk on what had happened during my "tour of duty" and what was going on (we kept a written log of calls, among other things, and also wrote up reports for our time spent there and turned them in at the end of each 'shift').  I went into a vacant interrogation room and wrote out my report.  I then walked out of the Safety Building feeling haunted, feeling like that perp's eyes were all over the damn place!  Feeling like he was going to jump out at me at any second and beat the crap out of me, or shoot me.  I remember nodding at people I recognized and smiling as I made my way along the hallways going toward a particular elevator block, saying goodbye until next week.  I remember leaving the building.  I walked to the corner of 9th and Wisconsin Avenue (a few blocks away) to catch a bus home, shaking the entire time.  I was certainly shaking internally.  I don't know if I was physically shaking on the outside.  I tried never to manifest fear or cowardice in front of the enemy, just in case they were watching.

I spent the rest of my commitment at that desk without further incidents such as that one. 

It has been more than 30 years.  I've never gone back there.  Chamber of Horrors. 

Oh, it brings me to tears now, recalling the echoes of some of the women's voices.  So many of them would come in, and talk to me, and I would hold their hands, and try to give them encouragement and strength. Now, I remember physically feeling that I wanted to somehow magically transpose into THEM all of MY physical strength and mental determination and self-righteous anger and indignation I felt at the time.  I would tell them what we would do at the DA's office if they filed a criminal complaint.  I gave them hand-outs about what services were available then if they decided to leave their abusive situation, and information about the few support services that were available to help them and give them support even if they didn't leave. A few I gave them my personal telephone number, too.  We weren't supposed to do that.  AGAINST THE RULES! 

And then the women would leave my desk and walk down those marble hallways, and I never saw them again.  But a few, a very very few, would file complaints.  And a few, a very very few, did call me a couple of times, on my personal telephone number.  And I did the best I could to give them encouragement and strength over the telephone, and tap them into available resources to help them more than I could. And other things.  I don't want to talk about those. Totally broke rules, OHMYGODDESS. Totally put my own life in danger (not as if it wasn't in danger to begin with, doing this kind of work, even for the short time I did it).  I hope those two women got away! 

I like to think I helped a few women along the way; those who came down to the DA's office in the Safety Building in person, those I talked with on the telephone.  No way of knowing, except that one particular case, because the Assistant DA let me know afterwards what was going on.  And the two women I helped, let's see, what is the term?  Exo facto?  Well, something like that. 

Do those women remember me like I remember them?

Right now, I'm feeling like a coward.  I abandoned them.  I could have, should have, done more.

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