There are certain people who understand the numbness you can get working in a prosecutor’s office. Mostly that includes prosecutors, defense attorneys, cops, journalists, medical professionals and military folk. I don’t bear the burden of knowing my actions will incarcerate or release a criminal; I’m in the civil division. My coworkers refer to me as a “fake prosecutor.” But hey, we do review contracts and enforce land use codes and collect taxes and advise elected officials. We’re very civil over here in the civil division.
Yet one of the duties even the civil division cannot escape is the responsibility to advise officials who are making decisions about high-profile public record releases. A couple of months ago I had to look at some pretty nasty crime scene photos and read some interviews with very young people who should never have to experience such things. Unlike my counterparts, the “real” prosecutors, this part of my job often bothers me because there’s nothing I can do; I can’t prove guilt, advocate, or counsel anyone. I’m just there to decide which of the photos are too gruesome. It feels like purposeless voyeurism.
So there I was, flicking through glossy photos as fast as possible, looking away between each one in an attempt to cleanse my brain’s palate before exposing it to the next image. I braced myself not knowing when I’d reach the ones I had been warned about by the police. I felt sweaty.
I left early that day and went to happy hour, because it seemed like the right thing to do: be happy. I called my longtime law school friend Kelly. She’s a former DA, the one who always responds to my calls for happy hour, and the one who makes me laugh until I cry by saying completely inappropriate things like “douche nozzle” just a smidgen too loud in public places. Plus she always brings along with her a crew of other ne’er do wells that sufficiently numb my headaches: a video producer I once married (as in I was the justice of the peace), a banker who likes to be called “The Sheriff,” and a securities salesman who infrequently dresses up as a leprechaun. In other words, non-lawyers. My kind of people. And they were all there.
Kelly saw me and said it first: “Are you OK?” I wasn’t. But I wasn’t about to fake it, either. Kelly Walsh comes from a big family of Irish Catholics in Montana, and she doesn’t take anything fake from anybody without calling them out on it. Instead of answering her I raised my glass for an air-clink and she hugged me before settling into the chair next to mine. Without looking up I told her I’d been looking at crime scene photos for three hours and she nodded in my peripheral vision. She knew just what I meant and she wasn’t about to ask questions. Likewise, I knew enough not to share the details because those are the kinds of things that can infect you. There’s information you want to share because it feels like it might somehow purge your memory, but you learn quickly that it doesn’t. So you don’t share, out of courtesy. Anyway I knew she already had plenty of old images and cases bouncing around in her own head. She was probably suppressing more than one of them at that very moment. So we talked about everything else for the next two hours.
When I finally got home, Randy was tucking the kids in bed and he came downstairs to find me seated at the kitchen table with a bottle of red wine and a glass. I wasn’t drinking it. I was just staring at it, remembering the day that I poured an entire bottle down the garbage disposal after finishing a particularly sickening case, because I realized I had turned to wine ten consecutive nights in a row. This was night number one, I thought. He grabbed another glass, poured himself one, and sat down. “So what’s going on?”
That shocked me a little.
It seems that over time (i.e. twenty years of marriage) when I’ve come home in a work-induced foul mood he has traditionally and successfully taken the “ignoring it till it goes away” strategy. But yet here he was, sipping wine and looking at me. It completely disarmed me.
So I did what I always do. I started talking. I told him about the bad man. I told him about the child, the blood, and the dead body. I told him about the interrogation and the police report and the autopsy. And then I told him the part that was bothering me. I told him the part that got to me. I told him the one thing that I wanted to purge. The one thing too many.
“Her hands looked like Sweet Pea’s.”
I buried my face in my hands, sobbing. I’d finally lost it, and a whole day’s worth of tension came out at once. That was it. I was identifying as the victim’s mother. I was feeling guilty but I wasn’t sure why. All the small-talk from happy hour, all the light-speed photo flipping, all the distracting office chit-chat … it all fell down at once.
And he sat very still right across the table from me as I sobbed. He didn’t move.
After a moment I stopped crying, and he spoke. “I can’t tell you details, but I know how you feel. You have to get someone else to look at those photos. Someone who doesn’t have kids.”
We disagreed quietly, and there was conversation after that which resolved nothing but was still oddly comforting. It wafted of a late night debate from a moonlit log on Glorietta Bay, a memory I had from a very long time ago. A young Navy pilot in flight training was debating with me over the pros and cons of euthanasia, and we were learning from each other. Midway through that conversation I discovered it wasn’t just theoretical for him. He’d watched his grandmother struggle with cancer and refuse treatments. His comments sounded different to me after that.
I watched him as he got up from the table to go back to whatever he had been working on before finding me and my wine bottle. Initially I felt empty when he walked away without hugging me and I wished that part of him would come back soon. But then I thought about the first thing he said: “I can’t tell you details, but I know how you feel.” And his comments sounded different to me after that. This wasn’t theoretical advice. Our experiences overlapped. It felt like connection.
Post-deployment reintegration turns out to be a series of small Paula-Abdullish cycles. It’s a two steps forward, two steps back kinda thing. (What? I’m over 40. It works for me.) But even as I’m going back and forth, it starts to feel a little like a familiar dance. It’s klutzy and outdated and I step on a lot of toes – and yet the footing beneath us is common ground.
Anyway, I say it’s high time to head over for happy hour, now. He’s been home for ten months, and the “suck phase” of reintegration is supposed to be officially coming to a close, now. So let’s just cut out early, find a leprechaun and a cop-impersonating banker in a bar, and, well … let’s just be happy. It seems like the right thing to do.