October 21, 2004

Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere

Yesterday Ken lead me to a decent "how-to" essay about blawgs by our colleague Fed 84. It would seem that I've been going about this blawg business all wrong.

I've noticed looking back that I haven't been telling as many war stories as perhaps I should, on this site and in Real Life. In its short time, the blawg has migrated from personal disclosure more often to a collection of news clips about public defenders behaving badly, of which I suppose Fed 84 would say snarkily, "The point is that we can read news stories and check news.google.com ourselves. What we want in a blawg is you." Sorry, but some days you won't get me - the clients have already gotten me first.

It may be age setting in, or it may be a peculiarity of this corner of the law, but I find that I don't tell war stories as I did as a young pup p.d. The thing is, unlike most divisions of The Law, as you move up the ranks of public defender-hood, the work gets worse, not better. Still fresh out of law school, I could have regaled you with the tale of Hamburger Man, the client who was arrested driving down State Street in Boise late one night clad only in a jockstrap, with several pounds of morally - affronted ground round beside him in the passenger seat. Or the story of my unfortunately - surnamed indecent exposure client, Mr. Dick, or our sweet-natured cross-dressing Nez Perce client, Melvin. Or of the mistaken identity defense in a jury trial on a gas-n-go, where I published a certified copy of an Idaho driver's license issued to my client's "brother," "Guido Bini," looking astonishingly identical to my guy, and asked my client on direct and in all young p.d. naivete, "where's Guido now?," to be answered, "he's shootin' smack in Tampa!" (Yes, we lost, and Judge Hamilton flipped me sh*t about it for years, even at her retirement party)

Somewheres along the way, though, probably during the move up from misdemeanors to felonies, Lost in the Funhouse gave way to The Tragic Sense of Life. Coming home, the potential responses to "what did you do at work today?" became darker and scarier until it seemed more considerate to respond with, "oh, the usual," or with nothing at all. The charming liar, "Guido's" brother, became the lying jailhouse snitch in the Kuzmichev murder trial. The gentle Native American client stepped in front of a speeding semi. And as we got older and had kids, the endlessly amusing weenie-waggers turned out to be perping on children not so different from our own.

Everybody hurts. By the third murder case or so, unless you've become a cynical armor-plated bastard (which is not the worst coping strategy for the job), you're moved and more than a little shaken by the harm humans can endure, and can inflict on others. We still produce and consume plenty of in-house black humor at Public Defender Incorporated; it helps clear out the emotional space for dealing with the next client. But keep it amongst us. Most days, it feels unseemly to be broadcasting a client's f*ck-ups and Stupid Human Tricks to the wider blawgosphere, no matter how hillarious. I'd probably broadcast prosecutors' and judges' Stupid Human Tricks if I didn't know that they were in the audience of this blawg's microcast and would take it out on me and the next 20 clients, so if I'm reticent about telling tales, it's not from a noble impulse. Besides, telling it the way it really is could tend to scare off the few idealistic young things in law school who I'm counting on to relieve us middle-age p.d. plodders.

Ultimately, when I talk here about being a public defender and how it makes me feel, the talk necessarily is about my relationships with real individual humans, my clients. Can't have one without the other. A few months ago, I wrote about how I felt about a child protection client, who came all the way back from the brink, and decompensated in a spectacular way on the very day she was to get her daughter back. I went back to the post shortly after and deleted most of it. It was too personal for both of us. As it happened, I deleted the thing a week before I applied for the job which I just accepted, a job which has no child protection or dependency duties. This week I saw two of those clients I wrote about, one in the holding cell firing me from her termination of parental rights trial as it was about to start, the other expressing her disbelief and grief that her parental rights had been taken away. Their stories will not entertain or edify, and they aren't mine to tell. Sometimes empathy is better expressed by silence.