Each week for the past six months, I’ve essentially written you a love letter. I pick a theme that I hope will interest you when you reach adulthood, and then I weave a narrative around it using your life experiences and mine. The letters are fun to write, hopefully inspiring, and fulfilling beyond measure.
On another side of town, several afternoons each month I write narratives of a different kind. These also weave a theme around life experiences, but they are not at all fun to write. They are not inspiring either, although in a different way I find fulfillment in writing them too.
Room 245 of the Los Angeles County Superior Court is a courtroom in the Family Law area of the downtown courthouse. A sign hangs ominously over the door that reads “Temporary Restraining Orders”. It’s a daunting place. Every morning at precisely 8AM and every afternoon at precisely 1:30PM, a sheriff unlocks the doors and a long line of people enters, hoping to get urgent relief from a spouse or significant other who is beating them, or threatening to inflict great bodily injury on them, or otherwise abusing them.
In the back of the courtroom sits a little bullpen area with run down furniture and outdated computers. Three staffers from the LA County Domestic Violence Project and a rotating handful of volunteers listen to people’s stories and help victims of domestic violence prepare forms and declarations to submit to a judge. The judge then decides on the spot whether or not to grant a TRO based on the application.
On the second and fourth Tuesday of each month, I donate a little of my time and what’s left of my legal brain in one of the volunteer cubicles. The stories we hear shouldn’t shock me but they consistently do. Law and Order SVU has nothing on these real life victims.
Recently a very attractive and conservatively dressed young woman entered our bullpen looking like a deer in the headlights. She couldn’t have been more that twenty-five years old, and she looked like she had gone ten rounds with Manny Pacquiao. Her blonde hair hid two black eyes, and she had a deep bruise that went all the way around her neck from where she had obviously been choked. Abrasions adorned her left shoulder.
As we helped her prepare a declaration for the judge, I thought to myself that there but for the grace of God went Heather or Jamie. My heart ached for the young woman and I wondered how I would react if that was one of you guys. If someone violated one of you like that, I suspect it would take every fiber of my being to not track down the person who did it and beat him to a pulp myself. I reminded myself that for all its inefficiency, at least a legal venue exists where one can get help without taking the law into their own hands.
The stories of the people who come to the domestic violence project are all different, but the narratives are the same. A guy comes home drunk repeatedly and beats his wife. A woman tells her boyfriend she is breaking up with him, so he threatens to kill her and their young son or daughter. A man thinks his fiancée is cheating on him so he takes a baseball bat to her car and tells her she’s next. A man abuses and humiliates his undocumented girlfriend and tells her that if she speaks up he will have her deported and make sure she loses her child.
The large majority of domestic abuse victims are female, but they’re not exclusively so. I wrote a declaration for a guy whose girlfriend put sugar in his gas tank and then tried to set him on fire. I wrote one for a guy whose ex would come to his work place and threaten to kill him and everyone at the company.
It goes on and on until your head starts to spin and your stomach is in knots. By the way, my sweet daughter, the victims are not always sympathetic. The fiancée whose significant other thought she was cheating on him in fact was, and openly. She said she wanted to “humiliate him for having a menial job”. The guy whose girlfriend threatened him and his co-workers had shown the co-workers pictures of her in compromising positions and then bragged to her about it.
The judicial system doesn’t allow for personality, though. Unsympathetic people have the same rights as sympathetic ones. If you don’t like that I’m cheating on you, you get to leave me or sue me for divorce. Yet the law is pretty clear that you don’t get to kick my ass. If you think I’m not good enough for you, you get to try to improve your lot. You don’t get to set me on fire, or threaten our children, or stalk me at work, or take a two-by- four to my head.
Why do people resort to domestic violence? Lots of reasons, it seems. They get angry. They get frustrated. They feel impotent. They don’t feel heard. They feel humiliated. They perceive that they have no options. The crazy part is that their feelings are often valid. It’s an unavoidable fact of life that people are sometimes unkind to each other. It’s a difficult pill to swallow. Yet justified or not, these feelings don’t give us the right to beat each other up.
Unfortunately, leaving is also easier said than done, and doubly so if you’re indigent, or undocumented, or don’t speak the language, or don’t even have a car in which to leave.
And so people go at each other instead, and I continue to go to the courthouse every couple of weeks and write declarations of pain to give to a judge.
I pray you and your sisters are never in need of these particular declarations. I’ll be there for you if you do of course, but I much prefer writing you my declarations of love.
All my everlasting love,