[P]recisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.
James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers“, 1963. War is many things, none of them good. This job, this fight, this battle to protect and preserve and to traige, is war .
Sure, nobody dies , but there is much loss and there is much lost. The hallmarks are there: the thousand yard-stare; the separation from reality; the perverse sense of humor; the paranoia; the anger, so much the anger.
War has casualties. Ask my friend and fellow public defender and blogger Daniel Partain, who loves to quote Hawkeye from M*A*S*H. After 13 years, he’s walking away from the calling for good . Daniel’s journey to this point reads like a script for a movie about the struggles of an indigent defender:
Just like the ocean slowly ebbs away the coastline, so did being a public defender to my well-being. I made poor decisions regarding my health, both physical and mental, and I suffered for it. However, a day came where I realized that I needed to take better care of myself, and I started to alter some of my lifestyle choices. While my physical health improved, the diminution of the joy that I had in being a public defender continued to fade away from me. Without warning or great fanfare, one day I woke up, and I started viewing being a public defender as a job, and not as a calling. My viewpoint about being a public defender had become like one of Hawkeye’s rants from MASH about the disdain for being in the Korean War. However, I am my father’s son; I am my mother’s son; I refused to quit. I told myself that I was letting the stress get the better of me, and that I can persevere. For a while, it worked. I was able to carry on, and be the dutiful advocate for my clients. Yet, I knew that I needed a change.
Daniel’s story isn’t unique. Every public defender office and system throughout the country has tales to tell of similar people. Those that “lost it”, or “had a nervous breakdown” and couldn’t handle the work anymore. Those who had to be shifted around into less stressful positions because the job got hold of them and gave them the beating of their life.
Sometimes I wonder, here on this blog and out loud in real life, why we do this. The pay isn’t spectacular – even 30 year veterans who are supervisors make less than first year associates fresh out of law school do at big firms; the day to day drudgery of the work is overwhelming; the rewards are fleeting and far between; the accolades non-existent. Some get shot at, some stabbed, some stalked, some threatened and spat upon – literally and figuratively- and mocked and ridiculed and not always by our clients.
To do this job right is to do this job all the time. There is always something to be done. But you can’t do it 24/7. And that brings guilt. Because every minute I’m at home watching True Blood is a minute less spent on a client sitting in jail. But you can’t do it all the time. So you do it most of the time. It’s in your head. It percolates. You become anesthetized. The three bullet wounds to the head aren’t a tragedy, they’re a fact. The little boy who claims to have been anally raped isn’t a horror, it’s a problem .
You take a part of your brain, add a part of your soul and mix in a healthy heaping of emotions and you lock them away. The alternative is to render yourself unable to function.
It’s a war alright. A war against a system that’s eating itself without realizing. A war against a society that is full of so much hate that it is blind to the devastation it is causing to itself. A war against those that purport to exercise their better judgment for me. A war against a machinery that sees people as cattle, to be branded with the mark and shepherded into dark corners, ignored and forgotten.
It is a war that cannot be won.
And for what? Is it worth it? Are the six months I shaved off the offer because I worked till 7:30pm or because I spotted a legal argument worth any of that? Maybe yes. Because it’s 6 months less that someone needs to spend in those hell-holes we call “correctional facilities”.
Or is it the principle of the thing? Is it the ideal. The ‘one for all, all for one’. “My rights are your rights.”
And if it is the principle that drives you, then be prepared for the anger. Because there are no principles that the establishment won’t run over, leaving us on the sidelines, helpless.
Trial courts and prosecutors are in the conviction business. Appellate courts are in the affirmation business. We are in the triage business. You don’t care unless it happens to you. No one is in the rights business.
But for now, it goes on. Monday morning comes and there are people clamoring for attention. There are deals to be struck and clients to placate. There are lunches to miss and jails to visit and a mountain of stress waiting to strap itself back onto your back. It is both a job and a calling. For Daniel, it stopped being the latter. He walked away. Others may not have that courage. As for me, it sates for now, but how long is now?