Letters: Saving a Life

Dear D:

            One day a summer or two ago, I encountered a new photograph in your Facebook feed that looked somehow familiar.  In it, you stand next to the congressmen I gather you worked for; you and he wear suits and ties; behind you, the American flag.  The picture wasn’t familiar because I’d seen it before, but because I had one almost exactly like it.  In mine, I stand next to Janet Reno, the attorney general under President Clinton, with a statue of Lady Justice (or something like that) in the background.  Janet Reno dates the photograph, snapped by a colleague, to the mid-1990s; the first President Bush had been voted out and Bill Clinton voted in.  None of the Clinton scandals had yet happened, but we had recently lived through the Oklahoma City bombing, the first large-scale attack by home-grown terrorists.  I remember being hastily evacuated from my office building as bomb-sniffing dogs were let in; all the federal buildings were at risk.  It was my first experience of a threat to national security, but it wouldn’t be the last.  (The second would come a year after your birth, when I put you down for a nap and turned on the television to witness the collapse of the World Trade Center.)  A week or so after the bombing, I was in my office with the door shut, writing a draft presidential proclamation, gold seal and all, that would be passed out to attendants at a Rose Garden ceremony.

            I don’t know if the Reno photograph was taken that year or the next, but it captures the moment right after she read remarks that I—one of many anonymous wonks—drafted for her on the annual occasion of Crime Victims Rights Week.  What struck me from a side-by-side comparison of your photograph and mine was not only the shared experience of public service, but also the rarity of our being dressed in formal wear (the male and female versions of business attire).  I traded pantyhose for athletic-wear decades ago, and in the few recent photographs of you that I’ve seen, you sport a sweat-soaked bandana and hiking gear.  We are alike in particular ways, as interested in public policy as we are in scaling peaks.

            I lived in Washington, DC for almost nine years, having gone there as a recruit straight out of graduate school.  After graduating from Beloit college, I took a job as the night manager of a battered women’s shelter, as much for the work as the compensation, free room and board.  By then I had given up studying art, partly because of the impracticality of making pottery sculptures for a living—I had student loans to repay.  I took the front room of a two-story house on the rough side of town, living with women and children who often showed up in the middle of the night, delivered by an unmarked police car and confined to the shelter until new housing was found.  The experience was profoundly unsettling, mostly because of the children.  I remember a little girl of about three named Jen, blue-eyed with a matted tangle of long blond hair, and bare feet that looked too big for her skinny legs.  She didn’t speak, and when I tried to play with her, she hid.  The morning after Jen and her mother arrived, the full gallon jug of milk was missing from the refrigerator.  The replacement that we bought disappeared the morning after that, and so on, until someone realized that Jen was sneaking downstairs at night and lugging the jugs back up to her room, where she stashed them under the bed.  Jen, her mother, and her siblings had been routinely chained up in their backyard so her father could “keep an eye on them.”  She hadn’t ever had enough to eat.   None of them had.

            Bearing witness to the peculiar behavior of this very hungry little girl shattered me.  I had signed on for the night manager position with genuine hubris, having written my senior honors thesis on the shelter movement.  I had the academic bona fides for the job, I thought. What I didn’t anticipate was the emotional toll of living with women who showed up beaten within an inch of their lives or children who had witnessed the assaults.  One woman showed up with her arm nearly hacked off by her husband’s machete.  The situation worsened considerably when I learned that the “woman” who called the crisis line regularly in the middle of the night was actually a man well known to the staff.  Listening to him nauseated me, as did learning the truth.  As bright as I was, I was also naïve.  I couldn’t have imagined that a sympathetic female ear for his lurid tales gave him a sexual thrill.

            I could do more, I decided, putting my intellectual skills to better use.  I got into a public administration program at the University of Wisconsin where a faculty member nominated me for a Presidential Management Internship.  That fact seemed as ridiculous to me then as it does improbable, now; I have no idea what made me appear qualified.  I hadn’t distinguished myself in any way except that I was more bookish than talkative, and I ended up walking out of a day-long competitive interview convinced that I was not government material.  The group interview had gone reasonably well but for the distraction of the panel’s only woman, who wore a ridiculous paisley jabot over an ivory satin blouse. All I could think about was how I didn’t want any job that required me to dress that way.  I stood up in the middle of her question and said, simply, “I need to leave now,” practically running out of the building in the cheap navy pumps I had bought for the occasion.

            I don’t know how or why, but the PMI program invited me back for a second interview, and in the end, every agency that interviewed me offered me a job: the Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health; the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services; and the Office for Victims of Crime in the Justice Department.  That last job is the one I ended up taking, and it was probably the roughest of the three.  One of the first constituents I met was the father of a young woman who had been sexually assaulted and murdered.  Imagining the suffering of the bright beautiful young woman in the photograph he carried was bad enough; but much worse were his eyes, which ran constantly with something like shiny jelly, as if they were melting.  I wanted to say something compassionate and polite, but the sight of his watery eyes brought up an urge to cry that forestalled rational thought.  Jack and I would eventually develop a friendship that lasted nine years, during which time his eyes never stopped leaking chronic anguish and grief.

            I did a lot of writing at Justice because I was good at it.  Crime victims from all over the country wrote letters about mothers and fathers and children who had been assaulted or murdered or kidnapped and perpetrators who got off or got out and came back to harass the victims.  Though most of the crimes were not federal, we wrote back with suggestions for support and information, which was all we could do.  I revised all our form letters so that they were more personable and genuine, and on the basis of that work, my boss—a diehard Republican whom I adored—sent more writing tasks my way.  I wrote testimony for Attorney General Bill Barr and briefing books for lower level political appointees.  I wrote part of a presidential report on crime that was highlighted in Time magazine.  I wrote talking points on crime victims’ rights for presidents Bush and Clinton, and I wrote the aforementioned Oklahoma City proclamation.  But my most important achievement at the Justice Department was saving the life of a Filipino woman I would never meet.  Her name was Eunice Alfred, and her handwritten letter to Janet Reno—pages and pages of line paper ripped from a spiral bound notebook—happened to land in my inbox one summer day in 1994 or 1995.

            Eunice was writing from a woman’s prison in Louisiana, as I recall, where she alleged that a prison guard had raped her.  She had been jailed for forging a check with the name of the husband, but she insisted that her husband had set her up after he learned she was leaving him.  Eunice had two young children, a son and a daughter from a prior marriage, and the current husband was physically and sexually abusing them.  The criminal check-writing charges had prompted the revocation of her green card, and she was scheduled for deportation.  She was frantic about her children, who would be left behind with their abuser, and pleading for help.

            As with all such letters, I made phone calls to victims’ advocates in her state to learn more about her case.  Most of the time, these calls were dead-ends.  The case had been decided, or all leads had been exhausted, and there was nothing else to be done.  But in Eunice’s case, I reached a woman prosecutor who told me that Eunice had indeed been set up by her husband to forge the check; that he had abused her children; and she had been raped by a prison guard.  What was the problem? I wanted to know.  It seemed that her husband was protected by buddies in power, which is to say, the obstacles were institutional sexism and racism.  She had been convicted, and her case seemed hopeless.

            I knew that the Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, included a provision whereby immigrant women, whose status normally hinged on marital status, could not be denied green cards for seeking shelter or obtaining a restraining order.  Buoyed by this emergent legislation, I put together a detailed memo about Eunice Alfred along with her letter and the relevant excerpted sections of VAWA, arguing that she was a woman in exactly the circumstances that the law was designed to address.  What’s more, rape by a corrections official made Eunice the victim of a felony.  I sent the document through the appropriate channels to the attorney general’s office, recommending that she intervene.  Then I waited.

            Many such letters and memos went up the ladder, and many did not.  Taking an interest in a case was entirely the choice of the person whose desk they landed on.  Most of the time we spit out form letters with little more than a referral, and in almost all cases, we knew nothing of the eventual outcome.  Weeks passed, then months, without my hearing anything about Eunice Alfred.  Then one day, about ten days before Christmas, my boss knocked on my door.

            “Can I come in?” she said.  “I have something important to tell you.”

            I thought—as usual—that I was in trouble, but she was smiling.

            “Eunice Alfred is on a bus heading home,” she said.  “She gets to spend Christmas with her children.”

            She set a hand on my arm as I began to cry.

            Minutes before take-off, federal marshals had boarded the plane set to return Eunice to the Philippines, plucking her from the flight at the direction of Attorney General Janet Reno.  Charges would be brought against the guard who raped Eunice, and she would be allowed to remain in the United States.

            I couldn’t believe it.  We received hundreds of letters from anguished victims, some of them so traumatized that they sounded insane.  People wearing foil helmets, accusers of aliens, political conspiracy rants.  Nothing shocked us, inured by the scope of human fallibility and our own powerlessness to help.  I often coped by indulging black humor that might have horrified outsiders.

            “Dear Janet Reno,” I once wrote to a colleague, “I am writing to ask you to intervene on my behalf.  I fear for my life.  I am being relentlessly stalked and harassed by a large black cat with a pronounced lisp. Yours truly, Tweetie Bird.”

            Sounds stupid, but we roared; if I didn’t laugh, I fell apart.  One day a young mother died while trying to pull her infant from the backseat during a carjacking; she had been dragged a mile, her arm caught in the seat belt, before she was thrown to the curb.  After hearing the news, I wandered across the street and sat in a garden behind the National Gallery of Art, taking in the garden.  My boss happened to see me on his way back from lunch.  When he sat down beside me, I didn’t bother to hide that I had been crying.

            “You’re a good person to feel so deeply,” he said before squeezing my shoulder.  “It’s good to let yourself be around flowers and sunshine.  Take your time coming back.”

            The words “you’re a good person” stuck with me; no one had ever suggested that being moved by tragedy was evidence of my innate goodness.  On the contrary, the fact that so much of my work made me cry confirmed my belief that people were basically cruel and unjust.

            Some of my faith was restored the day I got the news about Eunice, and not solely in other people, but also in myself.  I wasn’t just a paper-pusher.  I had gone the extra mile for someone I didn’t know, saving her life and probably the lives of her children.

            I don’t know how many weeks passed before my work telephone rang with a follow-up call.  Eunice Alfred had managed to track me down.

            “Oh, Miss Melanie Smith, I am so happy to hear your voice!” she practically shrieked, when I answered.  In a minute we were crying as easily as if we were sisters.  Strangely, though, I didn’t want to bask in her thanks or my own glory.  Instead I felt overwhelmed.  Her elation at being freed was a measure of how much she had suffered; the tremulous thanks conveyed an undercurrent of still-raw pain that overwhelmed me.

            After we said our goodbyes, I closed my office door and bawled.

            I wonder where she is today and what happened to her children.  Have they healed and moved on to more prosperous lives?  It is strange to think of having helped reunite children, now adults, with their imprisoned mother, for obvious reasons.  The legal system was used to keep me from you for weeks that became months that became years; and even with a well-paid lawyer, our “reunification,” as they called it, could not be considered a success.

            The case of Eunice Alfred was a bright spot in almost nine long gray years, and my time in Washington ended in much the same way that initial interview had.  One day I decided I was done—sick of working in a tiny cubicle under the glare of fluorescent lights.  Sick of the gendered dress code–pantyhose and dresses–I had broken by wearing wool pants in winter.  And sick of an intractable loneliness as perennially gray as my cubicle walls. The irony is that, as adept and ready as I was to help Eunice Alfred, there was one life that I could not so readily save, and that was my own.  I had made some friends, gone on dozens of solo hikes, and acquired the dreaded wardrobe necessity of satin blouses (though not jabots).  But I had also moved out of emotional numbness into the relentless monotony of depression, and a geographic cure was appealing.

            First I made a detour to North Carolina, but within a few years of leaving my government job, I would meet your father and contemplate motherhood.  It would not be the first time, just as Eunice Alfred’s was not the first life I saved.  But that will have to wait for another day.



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