Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Here's Where I Fell. I'm Up Now.

This morning I watched "Blues Brothers 2000," which I'd never have seen if not for TiVo. That's too bad. For all the things wrong with it, I think it would have been a hoot to see in the theater, on the opening weekend. If I'd been in my home state of Illinois, I can only imagine the whooping and hollering when the strip club sign "Featuring Miss Carbondale" splashed across the screen.

Sometimes I miss Illinois. But not much.

I haven't really blogged in-depth about the abusive relationship I got stuck in between high school and college. I've pretty much made my peace with it. I have no problem talking about it in person to pretty much anybody who asks, and have done so freely on many occasions. People are often shocked to hear that I lived through something like that. I have a strong personality, and don't appear domitable. The truth is, I was anything but formidable at seventeen. My New York peeps have never seen me like that, the little girl that I was, but it's true. Back then I fit the typical victim profile, if there is such a thing. So, yeah, folks, hard to believe, but it's true. I was Carol Ann, and although I had plenty of girlfriends with Adam's Apples, none of them beat up Earl.

A few weeks ago, I was called for Jury Duty in Rockland County. I was actually looking forward to it. Everybody has to do it sometime, and I have no problem doing my civic duty. G commented how ironic it was that I lived ten years in New York City and was never called, but after just over two years in this less densely populated area, my number came up. Not surprising.

The Orangeburg courthouse is a civilized looking building, on a plot of land all it's own, not hard to access from one of the main roads traversing North Jersey into New York. I parked right in front of the building, and walked through the lobby. It was deserted. I wore office casual clothes, something I feel oddly secure in. I brought a book to read, two pens, a pencil, and my summons.

It seemed like there were a hundred people in that room, though it was probably less. There were so many of us, from all walks of life, but all looking like decent citizens. I kept to myself, interacting only as much to loan my pen to the guy in front of me. We filled out forms with the basic demographics.

Then we filled out another form. Have you, or any member of your family, ever been the victim of a crime? Well... that would have to be a yes. Not only was my whole stalker/abuse thing in my mind, but there was that time in high school when someone broke into our house and stole our VCR. I checked the "Yes" box.

There were other questions relating to the crime in question, including whether or not it was a violent crime. I dutifully answered everything. I turned in both forms to a lady up front, who took mine and everyone else's and put them in a big stack.

We all rose as the judge came in. The attorneys were already there, and so was the defendant although I hadn't noticed him. Judge had us all sit down. I didn't see anyone looking at the forms we'd all filled out.

The judge called out twelve names, one of which was mine. As our names were called, we walked up onto the stage - or whatever they call that area where everything happens - and sat in the jury box. He asked us to raise our right hands, and right there, before anything had happened at all, he swore us in. We had promised to honestly answer any and all questions put to us. Ok... just like on TV.

The Judge proceeded to introduce the defendant. He was a stocky, rather tall, handsome Irish guy, probably about my age, with a poker face. No way to tell how he was feeling about all this. He looked like he'd played football in his youth. He looked like anyone you might see in a bar, or on the subway.

The Judge then read to us the official charges: violation of a restraining order in the year 2005. Two years ago!? The plaintiff was a woman who now has a new last name, but in 2005, shared the defendant's last name. His ex-wife.

We were read the details of the crime: the defendant had called the plaintiff's place of work, and left voicemails. The voicemails were not in any way violent or threatening. He told her he loved her, then called back and apologized, then called again and reiterated. That's it.

At least, that was the extent of the specific violation for which the defendant was standing trial today.

I listened to all this with interest, but made a concerted effort to remain professional, even cold. I was here to determine the facts, and not project. But the fact that I had to remind myself not to project was bothering me.

At this point, the judge asked all the potential jurors in the room to raise their hands if they or someone close to them had been the victim of a crime - a close friend or immediate family member. Half the room raised their hands, and reluctantly, I did too. I had to. I'd been sworn in.

The judge then proceeded to explain that if any of us were uncomfortable answering a question, we would be welcome to be questioned in chambers, and pointed out the tiny little room behind the bench. I could see part of a table and a couple of chairs. "There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, only honest answers, the judge impressed. He seemed like a kind, fair man, and I wasn't sure exactly where he was going with all this.

The judge then proceeded to ask the juror sitting in the end of the jury box the nature of the crime he or his friend or family member had been a victim of. He proceeded to tell the story in reasonable detail, about how his daughter's apartment had been broken into, and some items stolen, but nobody was hurt, and they caught the people who did it. The judge asked the man if he felt that is ability to remain impartial during this hearing would be affected by this experience.

"It's a totally unrelated situation," the potential juror said. "I don't think I'll have a problem remaining impartial."

The judge asked the prosecuting and defense attorneys if they had any questions for the juror. They did not. The judge asked if they attorneys had any objections to this man sitting on this jury. They did not.

I froze. I was next.

"You stated that you or someone close to you has been a victim of a crime?" the judge asked me.

In front of all those people. "Yes," I stated firmly, if a but quietly.

"Do you feel comfortable discussing this here, or would you prefer to discuss it in chambers?" The judge asked.

Something deep inside me froze solid. I felt myself sweat just a bit. I motioned with my head, slightly inclined toward the chamber. I opened my mouth a bit, but nothing came out. I nodded.

"You'd like to discuss in chamber?" the judge asked?

"Yes," I affirmed.

The judge picked up his notebook. The attorneys picked up their notebooks. The Court Reporter picked up her machine. I picked up my purse and book and followed all of them into chambers. I had to climb over a few juror's feet, whispering "I'm sorry" on the way out.

I sat down around the small table with these three men in black and one woman with Jersey Hair who did not look at me. The judge asked the question:

"What was the nature of the crime?"

I was raped repeatedly for over a year. When I broke up with him and tried to date someone else, he stalked me. He threw me across rooms, threw me into and out of cars, threw me down onto the front lawn in the middle of the night and held his cigarette over my face. He drove me outside the city to a remote rest stop, threw me out of the car, and left me there. He...

"I was... assaulted," I stated flatly, looking the judge directly in the eye.

"You were... assaulted," the judge repeated.

"Yes," I replied.

"Was your assailant prosecuted?" He asked.

"No." I didn't flinch. I never pressed charges. His father was a police officer.

"I see..." said the Judge. He glanced at the attorneys, and so did I. No real reactions. The prosecuting attorney seemed to have a sympathetic gaze, an almost sad look. The defense attorney stared at his shoes, rigid as a stone. The court reporter minded her machine.

"Now, being assaulted is certainly a terrible, tragic crime," the judge said, a somewhat softer tone to his voice. "Do you think that you might be able to remain impartial, given the nature of this case?"

I thought hard. "I don't... I don't know," I whispered. The frozen spot inside me ached. It grew. I felt 400 pounds, sitting in that chair.

The judge said something, I don't remember exactly what. He asked the question again; would I be able to remain impartial? The silence in the room was deafening.

"I don't know," I choked. "I wish I did know. Clearly I'm experiencing some emotions just answering these questions, which I didn't expect. It was a long time ago, and I'd like to think I could remain impartial, but I don't honestly know."

No one said anything. Clearly I was screwing this up. "I'm sorry," I stammered. "I wish I could tell you what you need to hear. I wish I knew what to tell you."

"Now, now," said the judge, "As I said before, there are no right or wrong answers, only honest answers, and we all appreciate your honesty in this situation." He's trying to diffuse something, I thought. "Do you feel that you'd like to be excused?"

I was tired. I was exhausted. "Yes," I sighed. "I should probably go."

The judge turned to the prosecuting attorney. "Do you object to releasing this juror?"

The attorney made a somewhat dismissive gesture with his hand. "She's been through something that's very similar..." his voice trailed off.

"Do you object to releasing this juror?" Now it was the defense attorney's turn.

The man didn't look up from his shoes. Didn't move. "Nope," he stated, sounding like a pop-gun.

The judge asked me if I'd like some water, or to use the bathroom. I declined.

There was a bit of confusion, as though nobody wanted to be the first to get up and leave. I was hoping to be shown out. I was hoping there was an invisible door in the wall I could disappear into. I was hoping for anything but what I knew lay ahead. But in the end, the judge got up, held the door for me, and I did it.

I walked out, alone, across the trial floor, in front of the jurors in the box, in front of all the jurors sitting in the chairs, walked through those 80 or 90 or six million people all the way to the back of the room, feeling all those eyes, some on me, some averted, all wondering what had happened. I did the walk of shame out the door, past the glass walls, until I finally reached the lobby.

I was shaking all over. I put my purse down, jiggled the zipper open, rattled a Kleenex out, blew my nose, and released just a few sobs. Just a few. Then I took a deep breath, and clacked my office heels out to the parking lot, walking briskly to my car, blipping the remote control door lock, leaping behind the wheel, slamming the door.

I had a good, loud, hard cry, right there in the parking lot, behind the wheel of my Buick sedan. I have NOTHING to be ashamed of! I thought to myself, screaming inside my own mind. I HAVE NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF! I HAVE NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF!

But I was. I felt humiliated.

Why didn't they read the form I'd filled out?

I drove home in a fog. Why was this bothering me so much? I was a victim! I was a child! I did nothing wrong! I learned from this! I've helped others because of it! I've become everything I wasn't back then, I'm strong, I have agency, I don't take shit off nobody anymore. I'm a WOMAN now. I'm an adult. I'm a professional. I'm... in control...

G was working on his car in the parking lot as I walked across the driveway. I don't remember what he said to me, but he noticed immediately I wasn't myself. He walked inside with me, and we sat down on the couch, and I told him the story.

I stayed calm as I told him. I did not cry again. He poured me a soda, or got me an ice cream bar, or something, I remember something sweet in my mouth.

"Of course, this is going to hurt," he said to me. "They poked at your tenderest, oldest, deepest wound. No matter how many years of scar tissue may have formed, it's still going to hurt." He gave me that what-were-you-thinking look, with his eyebrows disappearing into his hairline. "Those assholes," he said.

I laughed. "Yeah. Assholes."

I slept hard and dark that night, like a drunk, like an overdose.

The next night, I went to the spa. I had some time before my client arrived, so I chatted with our new receptionist. She's working at the spa part time for extra cash. In her real career, she's a domestic violence victim's advocate, or some such impressive title. We've talked several times about domestic violence, on a societal level, intellectual discussions.

I told her about my experience. She was livid. "You should call and complain! They handled that terribly! You never should have been required to go through that! They had it all on a form for God's sake!"

It made me feel better, seeing her so outraged on my behalf. I felt somewhat validated. I was able to articulate that I felt victimized all over again, by being forced to talk about this in the manner I was. I felt violated. I had no choice but to open up to three strange men about a very intimate detail of my life. Would I have been any worse off discussing it openly in front of everyone? Who knows.

I can't say this experience caused me to relive the events of my abuse, but it did cause me to remember, viscerally, the humiliation, the shame, the feeling that everybody knew, the feeling of being judged, even damned, for being in that situation. That's a feeling I'll never forget. Even writing these words brings it back, the heartburn-like sensation, the heaviness, the desire to turn invisible, to blink out of existence, anything to escape the feeling of judgement.


I had chosen him to be my first time, but he was determined to also be my last. When I lost interest in having sex with him, he forced me. "You wanted this," he'd say, "You still do. You're just trying to hurt me but you'll never leave me."

After I shoved him out of my life for good, I became a sex symbol in my own right, in an effort to reclaim my own sexuality. I went too far with it. It's common.

Years later, I have problems with the image of myself as a sexual object, because although I have been one in several ways at different points in my life, it has never been in a healthy way. First I was jailbait - a tease who liked the attention. Then I was a sex kitten. Then I was a slut. Then I was a fun date, a fun girlfriend, a wiser gal with a past. Then I was a wife. Then I was a wild divorcee.

I don't want to be any of those things anymore. I don't want to be defined by my sexuality. It's a part of me, and it does speak to who I am and how I got this way, but it's not the first thing a person needs to know about me.

Not anymore.


Ever since that night at the courthouse, I haven't wanted to do anything. I've been staying indoors as much as possible, sometimes for days at a time, when I can get away with it. I watch a lot of TV. I crocheted so much that I need more yarn to finish this throw pillow I'm working on. I did not cook. My eating slowed.

I had a birthday. My parents and a few friends gave me some very nice gifts. I threw an end-of-summer party at Lucky Strike Lanes, and had a great time. I went into Manhattan, had a makeover, bought $400 shoes for my wedding.

I felt numb through it all.

My friend from the spa gave me a business card for a therapist, but there is a pointlessness that comes from having had all the therapy in the world, knowing it's just going to be more weeks of her getting to know me, and finally her telling me everything I've already heard before. It's ok to be mad. It's ok to feel all the things I feel. It's ok to slow down when you need to. Yada yada yada.

I'm pulling myself up out of the hole now, bit by bit. here I am, sitting on the edge of the hole, taking a breather. It wasn't even a hard climb, I've done this plenty of times before. I don't need to stare wonderingly down into the hole - nothing there I haven't seen before. I don't need to stare ahead of me, wondering what's out there - it's the world, like it always has been, full of ups and downs and surprises. I'm still getting married in February. I'm flying to Wisconsin in two weeks for a short vaca with my parents. I'm still a massage therapist with clients in Westchester. Nothing dramatic has changed.

Just a speed bump.

I tell ya, how can you East Coasters stand living like this? The traffic sucks, everyone drives like maniacs, with this "Fuck Everybody" attitude. Everyone has to go 80 fucking miles an hour all the time. People get smeared all over the pavement every day. And then they complain that the accident is making them late to work. The ambulance is hauling away someone's son or daughter or spouse and all people care about is their own fucking schedule, making them late to jobs they don't even like.

Sometimes I miss Illinois.

But not much.

(Don't worry. I called the therapist.)


Jess said...

I think I need a drink after reading that post. Just reading about the abuse you suffered made me want to be able to step into that scene and kick the shit out of the guy who did that to you! I hope karma is coming around to take care of him by now and will continue to give him what he deserves.

As for the judge and lawyers, I suspect that some of that comes from all of the people who try to lie their way out of jury duty. That's very common (far more common than actual victims getting drawn into the process), so they need to hear at least some details to be sure you're not right for the jury. That doesn't mean they have to be insensitive in how they handle it, but it may shed some light on what was going on.

BTW, I'm impressed (not necessarily in a good way, but impressed nonetheless) that they had such a case going to trial. I guess the docket isn't too crowded in Rockland County! In most places, they'd never spend the time and money on a jury trial for that. There would have to have been much more to it. Maybe they have it right and that should be enough to prosecute (although the two-year delay is puzzling), but the reality of the justice system in most places is that such a charge would never make it to trial.

Anonymous said...

What you brilliant, beautiful, sensual, feeling, artistic and above all kind and giving. Reading your words and seeing your picutres, is a gift you have givien to those who are wise enough to appricate them. I adore and respect you, from afar. Thank you. Thank you for all that you give Dierd, and for being in this world.
David :)