Misery Builds Up, Then Dissipates

May 6, 2011


I assume that the people who put together and ultimately published the children’s activity book pictured above thought that the title was sufficiently innocuous. However, when I looked at it, I was briefly shocked and thought it might be like those terrible websites that encourage women to be anorexic (“You mean, like Vogue.com and Mademoiselle.com?” asks the sarcastic reader. “No,” I say, “but your point is well taken.”). The reason for that, I think, is that I work every day with mentally ill and emotionally disturbed teenagers, and the word “cutting,” standing alone, does not initially conjure visions of construction paper. (It’s like the joke in an early episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” where the butler, Geoffrey, mentions that he used to fence at some fancy school so Will Smith says, “Oh really? How much could I get for this stereo?” except my version, with cutting, is just sad.)

This is a necessary and generally tolerable side effect of working in the juvenile justice system, and it extends beyond linguistic misapprehension. I spend most days wading through all manner of human misery, and while the alleged offenses that bring juveniles to court tend to be less serious than their adult counterparts, the environments in which these young defendants live are frequently more tragic by a good margin. In general, if I can bring a little bit of hope to some of my clients, undo just a bit of the bad effects of a bad education system or an abusive cop, I come away energized and ready for the next day’s fight. If anything, the little victories are plenty big enough, and since they come, in so many cases, with real gratitude from clients, it all feels worthwhile: last week, I client of mine got arraigned on a new charge and I was certain he would end up in jail, but through some combination of divine providence and my lawyerly skills of persuasion, I walked him out; when I saw him on Park Street with his brother later that day and was greeted with multiple handshakes, hugs, and general good spirits, all felt right with the world – I was a defender of constitutional rights and a ghetto celebrity to boot!

But man oh man, sometimes the weight of human misery builds up. One day earlier this week, I had an eleven-year-old client get locked up, along with a fifteen-year-old whose family situation and history just made me want to give her a big hug and then possibly adopt her. I spent the day sparring with a stern judge who actually, audibly scoffed when I had the temerity to argue that children have a liberty interest in staying at home rather getting pre-trial detention. I had to argue that a lot, and there was a lot of scoffing. Then I went out for lunch, and instead of being buoyed by the salsa-blaring, “¿cómo tú ‘tás, brother?” exuberance of Frog Hollow in springtime, all I could think about was all the people I saw on the street who were plainly past or present heroin users, skinny and unsteady, haphazardly tattooed, looking young and old all at once.

I bought an eight-pack of Reese’s peanut butter cups, which I consumed quickly, and then, for possibly the first time since I moved to Connecticut, I felt a little bit glad to leave work and retreat four miles west to West Hartford’s mundane, well-manicured stability.

Today a judge granted my client a furlough to leave jail for five hours for a visit to his mother’s grave on Mother’s Day, and now I am feeling much better.


3 Responses to “Misery Builds Up, Then Dissipates”

  1. Heather B said

    Well said. Not everyone does work they find meaningful, but you do, and even though it’s hard a lot of the time, you’re making a difference in people’s lives. Seriously, that’s huge and more important than it may seem when the day has gone badly.

  2. Kerri said

    I agree with Heather. I’d add that beyond you finding meaning in your work, a lot of others do too, either personally or in the abstract. While lawyer-world is foreign to me (thankfully) I generally understand the concept and value of it. Can’t say the same about a lot of other fields.

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