Till death (all of) us do part
This is what I would consider a ‘think piece’ and it is still a thinking-in-progress, really my mind working out loud, so please indulge me as I spin this.
I have the rare opportunity to be forced out of my comfortable niche and into a foreign environment, little different from the one that Margaret Meade found when she chose to live among the Trobriand Islanders, not as one of them, not as a tourist, but as a scientist and silent observer, recorder of a culture so alien that every moment spent among them put her senses on high alert. This is my little participant observer project in progress, while I am on a completely different mission as I explained last week.
When you hang around a courthouse you find out what is really going on in the world, out of public sight for the most part, rarely covered proportionally by the media because they don’t have the long view. All most reporters care about is grabbing headlines on a daily or hourly basis.
There is plenty of downtime when you are a juror. During that space, you are sitting around the building in one or another location, inside or out, waiting for your services to be required again. Out of a typical day at trial, you might have three hours doing nothing.
I bring my tablet and phone so if I wanted to, I could entertain myself adequately for those three hours (that are not necessarily contiguous, unfortunately — otherwise I would bring my ultrabook and try to work). I get some reading done, but the subject matter is very heavy and I limit my exposure to it while I am on what is a serious case in the first place. Handling my duties as a juror requires a calm alertness and stability of mind that precludes lingering too much on anything external that might make me even jumpier and anxious than I already am (see, I know my limitations — I was my first and most complicated subject, as a psychologist, lol).
So, I tend to just sit and chill during at least half of my court ‘dwell-time’. Now, courthouses have hard floors (for easy cleaning, I assume). So, with few soft surfaces anywhere, mostly glass, stone, tile, wood, concrete, etc.) they are echo-chambers where sounds carry and bounce. The acoustics are such that every small sound is audible. Therefore, when you are sitting just about anywhere except in the courtroom, you hear everything. That in itself is nerve-racking for a relatively quiet human being like me, who avoids being noticed unless I want to be. So, for example, you won’t hear me shouting into my cell phone, opening my snack bags or beverage noisily, coughing or sneezing loudly — I keep a very small physical footprint. As Geoff reminded me, it doesn’t matter, because my persona is so potent, people just sense my presence anyway. Hmmm, not sure that is a compliment, but he is probably right. My silence speaks louder than most people’s, well, noisance. 🙂
As it happens, no matter where you are on the premises, you overhear conversations. These can be between family members, friends, or attorneys and their clients. There are also an array of clerks, court reporters, social workers, criminalists, deputies, bailiffs, and all sorts of other personnel who contribute to the many functions of the legal system housed there.
You might ask, then, what is the most common conversation one overhears or incident one witnesses, when spending hours in that environment? What would we guess? Misdemeanors, felonies, theft, bodily harm, capital crimes, juvenile delinquency? No. It is almost always divorce and custody battles, especially the latter. (I recall with considerable irony the fact that on The Good Wife, one of my favorite shows, the divorce attorneys by far bring the most business to the firm, probably a reflection of their share in real life as well).
One might also think that people would be circumspect about their private lives when in public, especially in a place where they can be overheard by law enforcement, lawyers, the public, jurors (!!) and the staff of the legal system. But, what you find is that this environment seems to stress people to the point that they become somewhat disinhibited. The venue heightens emotionality to the point that people forget where they are, and let their hair down almost completely.
So, while you are sitting, observant, quiet, watchful and contemplative, minding your own business as I tend to do normally and especially during this process, you hear a great deal of private information, whether you try to escape it or not. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable as I am used to the client-therapist privacy model. What is especially painful, is hearing children in distress (of all ages, strikingly) and parents discussing each other in such tormented terms, for all the world to witness.
What I have found thus far — and by the way, this is anecdotal and I don’t give it much more credence or weight than what can be attributed to personal experience, other than it being tempered by my background and interests. But, I am now alert to see if this experience continues along the lines of what I heard and saw the first two weeks of being on the court grounds — is that the same story line appears to crop up, over and over again. It is usually the dad, with his new girlfriend or wife, there trying to improve the visitation rights. Inevitably, the first wife/girlfriend is allegedly either blocking the process, late for the meeting with the judge, failing to hold up her end of the bargain in some way. And, curiously, it is usually the new girlfriend/wife, doing all the talking. Over and over I am struck by the way the father is the more silent of the parties. The fight is between two unrelated and adversarial women, i.e., the former significant other and the current one. Or, it is a woman trying to get away from a physically and financially indigent, irresponsible or abusive husband/boyfriend. Those women are usually there with their mothers and tend to be young.
Another common scenario is the mother, child in tow, volubly hashing things out with her attorney or the free community advocate who has gone through the process and serves as an informal guide to parents trying to make their way through the system and work out an equitable arrangement. As many people are aware, rarely are all parties satisfied. Most couples feel they should have a 50/50 time sharing custody, but it doesn’t always work out that way and someone inevitably feels they have been wronged by their opponents or the court. The anger and anguish are not only audible, they are palpable. There is a great deal of physical posturing involved that makes the impact of the arguments, phone calls, and conversations that one is privy to in this setting, all the more penetrating.
All of this is punctuated by the sights and sounds of the children themselves, often as young as a few months, tragically, but ranging all the way up to teenagers. I sat a table or two away from a woman that had to be in her 50s with two grown boys, that seemed to be in their 20s. They were clearly there with their attorney battling something that I could not imagine (and didn’t want to, as all of this seems like such an invasion of privacy, except that it is playing out in the common arena — so great is the pressure involved, that no one seems to care).
The ultimate losers are the children, no matter what their caregivers ultimately arrange. It is a travesty that adults cannot imagine (even if they had been through it themselves, it is often before the age of reason, and therefore pre-cognitive memory, i.e. about seven years) from their own vantage points, emotional needs, and rationalizations. I recall that Laura Schlesinger, of whom I am not particularly fond, advised parents to gut things out until the children are 18. At one time I thought that was bad advice. But, I have come to realize that when you have children, you owe them a true childhood, as free of these and all adult cares as possible. You chose your spouse and unless that person is committing egregious violations, you owe it to any children you share to put your own needs second to that child’s for as long as possible. You damage them irreparably, otherwise, and what that precipitates in them, as they mature, is not only scarring that may never be recognized for its origins, nor properly healed, but a lifetime of neurosis that will need treatment to be kept under control. Wounded children, typically become scarred adults, and more harm ensues because they will become flawed parents, in all likelihood, as the cycle is perpetuated. I am reminded of our societal responsibility to mitigate this, if we can, and of Melissa Harris Perry’s famous comment that children belong to all of us, not just two self-interested individuals. They are ours, because they grow up and become the society in which we and our children live. It is in the interest of the group to contribute to the health and well-being of all its members.
If only we took the time to objectively see and know ourselves, and then get to know that person we think we fell in love with, thoroughly and decide with full knowledge and consciousness whether we are equipped either by nature or preparation (which I think should be extensive) to raise a healthy, whole, happy child and launch a magnificent human being out into the world, we might change the course of humanity.
If nothing else, every couple imagining marriage and children should be sent on a field trip to a courthouse and spend a few days ethnographically, observing, watching, listening. That is just one more benefit to living in a free and open society where human interactions play out in full view for anyone who is paying attention. When we marry someone and have children with them, we are tethered to that person for life. The success or failure of that relationship is not just a couple affair, it is a group project. Our children are transactors in this group that we formed and thus are raised in it, for good or otherwise. We are parents for life, once that takes place. They are shaped and influenced by the choices we made, again, for life. That should be a sobering prospect, so great is the responsibility involved. It all began with some sort of relatively fleeting attraction, but it set off a cascade of rippling consequences that virtually never ends.
More to come on this in some future post …
Images: imdb.com, theatlantic.com, berlinale.de, lifestyled.com.au