Finding My Moral Compass
I’ve always believed people could change. Under warm, incandescent lighting at a plea bargain negotiation, I argued that my client, charged with arson, had turned over a new leaf. He was running a horse stable in an affluent, nearby town, no longer one of the many seedy, unemployed men in my slummy community.
The judge smirked at me from behind his desk and said “The horse business? You’ve got to be kidding me, Michele. That’s almost as crooked as the siding business.”
“Your Honor,” I said, pressing my hand to my heart, “my father was in the siding business.”
The judge, a Boston Irish Catholic named Sullivan, turned beet red. Spluttering, he gestured at his court officer, who pointed me and the prosecutor toward the door.
A few minutes after we left the judge’s lobby, Sullivan came back on the bench, hit it once with his gavel, and said “Case dismissed. Not enough evidence.”
The prosecutor threw a shit-fit, but only after Sullivan was gone. The judge was known as a vindictive man who’d made lawyers cry and faint in his courtroom.
It was the early 1980’s, and as a woman trial lawyer, I belonged to a very small demographic. I looked Irish, and loved a good argument. Sullivan liked me, but that wasn’t why he dismissed my case. He believed in confession and redemption, and his moral compass pointed him toward making restitution when he did wrong. He felt it had been wrong to insult my father; to make up for it, his penance was to let my client the arsonist go free.
I’d mouthed off because I believed it was wrong to categorize people as good or bad based on their status – stableman or siding salesman, or rich or poor, or black or white. I didn’t mention I had no love for my father, or that my father had done time in federal prison for loan fraud.
The moral values in the home where I grew up never seemed right to me. Maybe that’s because I was adopted and had a different temperament from both of my adoptive parents. I don’t know if my adopters were genetically programmed to be cut-throat materialists, or if they were shaped that way by their Depression-era immigrant families’ cultures. They expressed contempt for people who hadn’t made it into the middle class, and for poor people who were taken in by frauds meant to exploit them. They didn’t believe in philanthropy. They poked fun at my childhood impulses toward sympathizing with weaklings, or rooting for losers.
I didn’t learn I was adopted until I was twenty-one, but I always felt a bit out of place. I craved clarity about what was right and what was wrong, but I didn’t know where to find it. The family wasn’t religious, and I floundered around without much guidance until the fourth grade, when illness kept me out of school for a term. I read every book in the house more than once, and whined for more. Exasperated, my mother asked our local librarian for recommendations. The librarian sent her home with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and the heroines of those novels became my models for a moral life.
For readers familiar with these stories, claiming both women became the foundation of my moral code may seem absurd. Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw – even now I find I must speak of them as real people – are so different from one another. Jane sacrificed love to convention. Catherine’s concept of love defied that convention. Jane refused to supplant Mr. Rochester’s wife. Catherine was happy to supplant Heathcliff’s. Jane relied on God when in distress, saying things like “Grant me at least a new servitude!” Catherine relied on her own psyche: “I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas.”
I liked Jane better when she was a child rebelling against injustices heaped on her by her wealthy guardian’s family than when she was a more pious adult. I liked Catherine better when she was a girl, wild and free, before she aspired to class-climbing. But two traits Jane and Catherine shared were stubbornness and speaking their minds – their stubborn refusals to be dissuaded from the ideas they’d spoken aloud. Once each woman decided what was right for her, she could not be swayed by argument, or patriarchal authority. Both spoke truth to power.
As girls, Jane and Catherine were more like me than anyone I knew: rebellious, prone to rants, stubborn to the point of stupidity. Their stories mothered me by giving me models that made a visceral, unconscious sense. I read their stories over and over again. I still read them every year.
I ran away from home at sixteen for many reasons, one being that I was stubborn. When I went to law school, it was because I wanted to even up the odds against marginalized people I’d seen being singled out by police for prosecution and long state prison terms. While blue-collar criminals were punished for life, white collar criminals like my adoptive father did short, cushy stretches in federal prisons. White, upper middle-class men like my adoptive father also got away with beating their children. I was a mouthy middle-schooler who’d stripped in the nurse’s office at school to speak truth to power and show the welts and bruises from those beatings. Back then, in the twentieth century, though, it was me who was punished, not him.
Children are the ultimate underdogs, and I felt my own powerlessness as bitterly as Jane and Catherine felt theirs. But as an adult, I’ve been a lucky woman. My work has always allowed me to do what matters most to me – to attempt translation of one person’s experience to another.
Shortly after my arsonist case, Judge Sullivan was transferred to a remote court. The rumor was that someone with political pull complained about his brusque manners and off-the-cuff rulings. Seven years later, I ended up his courtroom again. When he saw me leaning against the bar that separates the lawyers and court personnel from the hoi polloi, he chuckled and motioned his bailiff and me up to the bench.
“This,” he said to the bailiff, “is the lawyer whose father was in the siding business.” The bailiff let out a hoot.
The judge and I had both been telling that story, over and over again. For him, it was about how he confessed a mistake by making amends. For me, it was about how I’d called him out for his prejudices, and stuck to my own flawed ethics. If I’d never met my mothers, I wouldn’t have known how.
Michele Leavitt, a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, and former trial attorney, writes poetry and nonfiction. Her essays appear in Guernica, Sycamore Review, Catapult, Narratively, and elsewhere. Recent poems can be found in North American Review, concis, Baltimore Review, and Cleaver. She’s the author of the Kindle Singles memoir, Walk Away.