• St. Martin's Press
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Mothers and Other Liars

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An Original Essay by the Author

“A Muse Named Johnny” 
An Original Essay by the Author

I went to law school because I wanted to be a child advocate. Yale has a terrific clinical program where students can take on real-life cases. My very first assignment was representing a twelve-year-old boy. Let’s call him Johnny Doe. A teacher had recognized signs of abuse in Johnny’s younger sister, and—warning, there’s an ick-factor here—an investigation had revealed that Johnny had been sexually abusing her.  Johnny was being prosecuted in juvenile court for child molestation. And I was his lawyer.  The kicker was—and this one really puts the “ick” in “kick”—that the children’s mother, a single parent with mild retardation, was sharing her bed with the boy. Johnny had clearly committed a crime, but he was no criminal; he was only doing what was “normal” in his little world.

In an instant, that boy’s little world imploded.  He was taken away from his mother, his sister, his school, and thrown into a juvenile detention center. When I met with him, all I could see was a skinny, scared boy peeking out of a too-big orange jumpsuit. Johnny was book-smart. He excelled at science. And he didn’t understand why he was being punished for something he was “supposed” to do.

It’s been over twenty years, and that boy’s story is still vivid in my mind, along with Janie, whose mother’s boyfriend found sport in dipping her in scalding water, and  every other Johnny and Jane who I represented. Stories are never pretty in child advocacy. But the children, they were all beautiful enough to break a heart. Every time. Which is how I ended up practicing corporate law, and taking on one pro bono child advocacy case at a time—that was as much breaking as my heart could handle.

 Over the years, more than just the details of those stories has stayed with me. The cases made me wonder, what would I do if one day my whole world changed? What if I discovered that the assumptions upon which I had built my life were wrong? The cases also made me think about nature versus nurture.  Johnny’s actions were surely a product of his environment—he learned at the hand (or other body parts) of his “nurturing” mother. Or were those actions “nature”?  Maybe both Johnny and his mother were hard-wired that way and would have acted accordingly in any environment.

And what about me? I have tight bonds with my family. When my sister’s friends meet me, of course they notice the dimples. No doubt my sister and I swam in the same genetic pool. Yet people also comment on how we make similar gestures, how our voices have the same timbre. I have my mother’s eyes, and her sense of humor. My interest in furniture refinishing is a piece of my grandfather that I carry around like a precious family heirloom. So which of these are nature, threaded through that double helix, and which are nurture, mere products of the times our family has spent together? Yes, I’ve been told a time or two that I think too much.

Like my character Ruby, I left one life behind and moved to Santa Fe. That area is like a candy store for a hiking lover such as myself. My meanderings are prime musing time—I ponder as I wander, so to speak.  And somewhere along the way in those dalmation hills, spotted with pi~non bushes, and beneath the shivering gold of the Aspen trees, I noticed that other voices were chiming in to the conversations in my head. Either I was in the midst of a psychotic episode, or all of those musings about nurture and nature and what is family and lives changing in an instant were weaving themselves into a story.  I decided on the latter.