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Plea of insanity, p.48
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       Plea of Insanity, p.48

           Jilliane Hoffman

  ‘What about work?’ she asked. ‘Don’t you have cases?’

  ‘Miami’s not going nowhere. They’ll live without me for a little while. A long while, if that’s what it takes.’ He laughed. ‘I just got a cell message from Brill. Apparently some of the boys are hoping I don’t ever come home.’ He looked at her for a long moment. ‘Look, I got a ton of time saved up. I haven’t taken a vacation in years. Haven’t had a need to. This is good for me.’

  She hung her head and closed her eyes, hoping to hold back the tears.

  ‘Hey, hey, hey,’ he said, reaching over to touch her face. ‘We’re gonna get you better. We’re gonna relax. We’re gonna go fishing and walking and hiking. And then maybe we’ll go back. Maybe. But right now, let’s take this one day at a time.’

  She looked at him. He was smiling, but she could see how tired he looked. And incredibly worried. ‘I don’t want you to do this for me,’ she started, the tears falling once again.

  ‘Listen to me, Julia. I love you. And that’s real. I’ve known it for a long time. I love how strong you are. I love how unpredictable you can be. I love how determined you are. No matter how crazy life may become, I’ve never been so sure of anyone or anything before. And this,’ he said squeezing her hand, ‘this is reality. We are reality. In the Rockies or in Miami, wherever you want, wherever works, I’ll help you get through this. You’ll beat the statistics and you’ll be fine. And if you doubt it, if you slip backwards, if you relapse, just remember that we are reality. And I will still love you. And I’ll be there to help bring you back.’

  She nodded and closed her eyes. ‘I love you, too,’ she said. She just wished their relationship didn’t have to start like this. It wasn’t fair. ‘Thank you,’ she said.

  ‘Your aunt’s been calling, too,’ he said softly. ‘I didn’t tell her anything, but she wants to talk to you. She says she’s been trying you for weeks …’ his voice trailed off. ‘She told me to tell you she misses you.’

  The tears started. There was no way to hold them back. Where had everything gone? What was real?

  He smiled again, wiped her tears with his thumb and kissed her softly on the lips. ‘Now let’s get you out of here and back into all that beautiful, cold sunshine. I got a log cabin I want to take a look at with you.’


  ‘Excuse me?’ Tap, tap, tap. ‘Hello there? Is anybody home?’

  Julia looked up from the stack of accordion files, notices, motions and A-forms she’d been trying to sort through on her overcrowded desk. She still wasn’t quite sure where everything was, or where it should go, and judging by the size of the mess in front of her, she was beginning to realize that might take weeks. What a homecoming. Now, standing in the doorway, leaning against the doorframe, with one hand resting on an oversized hip, was her new secretary, and she didn’t look very happy. With her free hand, she impatiently tapped long red fingernails against the open door.

  ‘Hey,’ Julia answered back slowly, smiling. She thought her name was Linda or Lurinda. Maybe Lucinda. But there had been so many new faces to remember these past few days that she couldn’t be certain, and she was well past the point of being able to ask again. Judging from the recent exchange of pleasantries, she was guessing her new secretary might have no idea what her name was either. There was an awkward momentary pause.

  ‘There’s a lady here to see you,’ the Unknown Secretary finally said.

  ‘Is she my one o’clock?’

  ‘No. She’s set for a pre-file on Wednesday upstairs with Tessie Savastano.’

  ‘I’m sorry,’ Julia said, shaking her head. ‘I don’t know Tessie. Who’s she?’ She felt embarrassed. Again. She’d been gone less than a year, but the players were all different now. Besides the usual lightning-quick ASA turnover rate, the new State Attorney, Steve Besson, had cleaned house. Even the support staff had changed places and faces. Funny how he’d managed to find the same personality quirks in the new ones, Julia thought.

  ‘Tessie’s the C in Spivac, which is Leonard Farley’s old division. The lady outside said you got her case, though.’

  ‘I was in Judge Farley’s division before Ileft the office. Can you tell her that I’m not in that division anymore and that Tessie Savas—’ she attempted, then cleared her throat, ‘tell her that another attorney will be handling her case?’

  ‘I did. I told her she had to see the attorney who’s doin’ her pre-file. She still wants to see you, though, and she don’t wanna leave.’ Lurinda or Lucinda rubbed her nose with one of her ultra-long nails and raised her eyes up to heaven. The zillion gold bracelets on her arm chimed. ‘She looks like one of our victims, anyway,’ she said, her lip curling in distaste.

  Our victims. Welcome to the Domestic Crimes Unit. The only specialized unit at the State Attorney’s Office with readily identifiable victims. You couldn’t spot a robbery or fraud victim from a mile off, but an abused woman gave off more than a few signs.

  Julia shrugged and nodded. ‘Okay, then. I guess you can bring her in. I’ll see if I can help her.’

  The Unknown Secretary let out an exasperated sigh and walked off. ‘Whatever,’ she mumbled, flashing Julia the back of her hand. Julia wasn’t quite sure what she was mad about, but her attitude was strangely comforting. After all, she’d worried for weeks when she decided to come back that people might coddle her or treat her differently. That was the last thing she wanted. So rudeness and unprofessional indifference was somehow refreshing.

  She sipped at her coffee and looked around at the bare industrial-gray walls of her new office, pockmarked and nicked with holes and scratches and screws left behind by its many previous occupants. It had probably been years since the walls had seen a new coat of paint. It would probably be a few more before they would again. Still stacked on the floor against the file cabinet were her framed law-school and undergraduate diplomas, her license to practice law from the Florida Supreme Court and her original Oath of Office from when she was first sworn in as an Assistant State Attorney in 2002 under Jerry Tigler. She had yet to frame the new one.

  Next to her diplomas, in two cardboard boxes, was everything else she had once used to turn four walls and a desk into her own slice of home. Her coffee machine, pictures, knick-knacks, books, more pictures, a clock, her small TV and a radio. The boxes and diplomas had sat there going on a week now, and she wasn’t sure now if she’d ever actually hang them up. Only a couple of pictures had so far made it out of the box. One was of Andrew. The other was her and Lat at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park a couple of months back. That sat on top of her desk, in front of all the mess. It reminded her what she was lucky enough to go home to every night.

  John hadn’t wanted her to go back. Ever. He’d made that clear from the second they’d gotten back to Miami, when his vacation time was finally up. He made that clear every hour or so when he called to see how she was doing. Even though Rick Bellido was long gone – along with Charley Rifkin and most of the rest of the office after the elections – Lat knew better than anyone that it definitely didn’t mean the stress was. The cases still were what they were. The defendants were still criminals. The system was still irretrievably broken. And while she’d responded very well to medication and was faithful, so far, in taking all of her pills everyday, she knew he was worried. Worried about a relapse. Worried she would stop being compliant for some reason and it would be even worse than before. Worried she would become a negative, hopeless statistic, and he wouldn’t be able to reach her next time. Worried, maybe, that their time together might be limited.

  He’d begged her to reconsider, but she couldn’t stay home and collect disability, even if the law and the doctors said she could. She would always be running from her illness – always have to – hoping to be three steps ahead of it. Hoping to maybe outsmart it, if there was such a thing. She knew that to have come this far in recovery, she was already one of the lucky ones. If she gave in to the idea that she was sick – that she was broken or didn’t w
ork right – she knew it would consume her. Totally consume her. And if she tried selling flowers on the side of the road or answering phones for a living just to live an okay, stress-free life, for her, that would also mean that it had won. It. Schizophrenia. Even another field of law was out of the question. She’d only ever wanted to be a prosecutor.

  Lat had suggested, and she’d considered, another county, like Broward or Palm Beach, or maybe even the Keys, where she could be back in a criminal courtroom, but with a third of the caseload and no drama or office history to cart along as baggage, but she’d chosen to come back to Miami. When the new State Attorney – an ex-Miami-Dade cop-turned-lawyer-turned-prosecutor-turned-judge who was a personal friend of John’s – afforded her that opportunity, she took it. But now, with a pile of new cases in front of her, a new boss and a bunch of new judges to familiarize herself with, she suddenly wasn’t so sure about the decision she’d once been so sure about.

  A few minutes later, there was another tap at the door. A young, slim black woman stood just outside in the hall, a baby balanced on her hip, and a whining toddler wrapped around her legs. Julia sucked in a breath, but hoped she didn’t actually make a sound.

  Even from ten feet or so away, she could see the ugly white and pink lines that criss-crossed the woman’s face. Keloids had formed over the jagged scars, creating a grotesque network of white, raised lines that looked like termite mud tubes. It was impossible to say if she had once been a pretty woman. Julia noticed that one of her eyes was swollen shut as well.

  ‘Pamela,’ Julia said quietly, before the woman could say anything. ‘Pamela Johnson.’

  ‘You remember me?’ she asked.

  Julia nodded, rising from her seat. ‘Come in, sit. Did Letray do that, too?’ she asked, motioning to the woman’s eye.

  ‘Yeah. He got mad again. He always gits mad. But this time was worse. He tried to kill me. Said I was too ugly to touch no mo’. Said he was gonna do the job right this time. He just lost his job again.’

  Julia said nothing for a moment. ‘What was he charged with?’

  ‘Aggravated battery, I think. He hit me with my momma’s iron skillet.’

  ‘Is he in custody?’

  ‘Just made bond last night, I heard. I’m stayin’ at my sista’s house. Till he comes lookin’. She can’t keep me there if that happens, though.’

  ‘I think the case is upstairs with another prosecutor, Pamela. Her name is Tessie—’

  Pamela shook her head. ‘I been thinking ’bout what you said last time. You know, the last time Letray went off.’ She paused. ‘You kept him in jail last time.’

  There was no sense in sugar-coating the reason why. ‘But you didn’t help me. He got out, Pamela.’

  ‘I know, I know,’ Pamela finally said, shaking her head, and wiping tears from her good eye. ‘And, well, you’re the only one who made any sense, miss. I shoulda listened to ya. I got babies to take care of and the man’s gonna kill me. I know it. You were right. My momma says I ain’t got no one to complain to. Says I should have left him long ago. Says no one’s gonna want me now, anyways. That I might as well put up with Letray beatin’ on me, ’cause I ain’t gonna do no better.’ The toddler at her knee pulled on her skirt, trying to climb up on her lap. The baby pushed him away with a palm to the face. That started everyone crying.

  ‘Don’t believe that.’

  ‘Look at me,’ Pamela said quietly, putting the little one over her shoulder. She hushed the toddler with her free hand, rubbing his head.

  There was a long silence.

  ‘I know you fought for me last time and, well, I want you to fight for me ’gain,’ Pamela said finally, wiping the tears defiantly from her face. ‘I don’t want to do this no mo’. I want him to pay.’

  Julia looked hard at Pamela Johnson. At twenty-three she had two kids, no job, no future and a face full of ugly scars. She was being hunted by the devil disguised as a man and shunned not just by a cruel society who didn’t understand, but by her own family. It was hard to imagine life getting much worse than that. For Julia, it put her own daily challenges in perspective.

  She looked at the smiling picture of Andrew on her desk, the one she had taken at Kirby one afternoon in the late-winter sun. Beside it was the picture he’d drawn of her. She’d looked at them every single day since he’d died – even in the hospital – and she vowed to never again forget. No matter how frightened she might be of the future.

  She nodded at Pamela Johnson. ‘We’ll need to start with your statement,’ she said quietly, looking down at the blank notepad in front of her, blinking back tears herself. ‘And remember,’ she said, softly. ‘This isn’t going to be easy.’

  Author’s Epilogue and Acknowledgements

  She wondered if the voices did come for her, would she know they weren’t real? Would she know the difference between a DJ on the radio and a phantom?

  In my second year of law school a good friend’s brother was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. ‘Mark’ was twenty-six when he started hearing voices in his head. Voices that whispered of violent mob conspiracies and warned of treachery and collusion everywhere, even among family and friends. Voices that never quieted, that got louder and more desperate once the sun went down. According to my girlfriend, there was no bizarre childhood to report, no telltale warning signs of mental illness that had always plagued her brother, made him a misfit or labeled him as odd. He was just an ordinary, affable guy trying to finish college, with a bright future, a girlfriend, and a baby on the way. For anyone who knew him, news of Mark’s illness was as shocking as a diagnosis of lung cancer in a young man his age.

  Fortunately, Mark himself was able to recognize that something had gone terribly wrong inside his head and, with the help of his family, voluntarily checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. Although the onset of his psychotic symptoms was relatively quick, the initial long-term prognosis was good for him. Mark was discharged a couple of weeks later and sent home on antipsychotic medication.

  Sadly, though, my friend’s story didn’t end there. In fact, for ‘Tina’, a real life nightmare was only just beginning. Like a scene from a twisted soap opera, as her brother lay medicated in a hospital psych ward, surrounded by psychiatrists and protected by padded walls, Tina was just outside the door being let in on a dark family secret: Mark wasn’t the only one in the family with schizophrenia.

  The news was devastating. Throughout our last year of law school, Tina struggled to learn all she could about the debilitating mental disorder that had seemingly ravaged her family. A mental disorder that no one wants to talk about. That good families just like hers strive to keep hidden and out of sight, stashed away with the other skeletons and dirty linen in the proverbial family closet. And that was when Tina first discovered the terrifying facts about schizophrenia. There is no known cause. There is no clinical test, like an MRI or a CAT scan or a blood test, which can definitively diagnose the disease. There is no cure. But there was one consistent statistical anomaly that my friend just could not ignore.

  Although doctors don’t know why, and scientists have not yet identified a ‘schizophrenia gene’, schizophrenia runs in families. And with each family member afflicted, the risk of another relative developing the disease rises dramatically. So at the age of twenty-four, with her whole life in front of her, my friend had to cope with the very real possibility that she, too, might one day develop schizophrenia. That she, too, might one day ‘go insane’. And there was nothing she could do to stop it. I couldn’t imagine anything more terrifying.

  Except for a friend who’d struggled with anorexia in her teens, before Tina told me her family story I’d never known anyone with a serious mental illness – at least, no one who would admit it. And I’d definitely never known anyone who had schizophrenia – the Mother of All Bad Mental Illnesses. Russell Crowe hadn’t yet played the brilliant John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. And Geoffrey Rush hadn’t yet mastered Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto as Australian pia
nist David Helfgott in Shine. Unlike alcoholism or drug addiction – or even depression, as of late – schizophrenia is not, and will never be, a ‘vogue’ mental illness. No one talks about it. No one wants to talk about it. The social stigma associated with the disease is still far too heavy and damaging to careers and relationships. In fact, when Tina first told me about her brother, the only people who came to mind that I had heard of with schizophrenia were far more infamous and deadly than any gifted musician or mathematician catapulted to celebrity by brilliant screenwriters and talented actors. Like most people, I was ignorant of the facts.

  I didn’t know schizophrenia affects one percent of the world’s population. I didn’t know 2.2 million Americans have the disease. I didn’t know that that’s more than those afflicted with AIDS, multiple sclerosis and ALS (motor neurone disease) combined. I didn’t know that schizophrenia is an organic brain disease. And, perhaps most important, I didn’t know that schizophrenics are not always psychotic and they’re not always aggressive or dangerous.

  After graduation, I left New York to begin my career as a prosecutor with the State Attorney’s Office in Miami. Not less than five minutes after stepping through the courthouse doors, like it or not, my eyes were forced open to the very real, sad fact that mental illness – in varying degrees and with differing diagnoses – goes with the criminal justice system like pickle relish on a sub. It’s a condiment that’s not on every slice of bread, but it’s on a lot more sandwiches than you’d think. And I came to understand that for those who suffer from severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia and manic depression, and for their distraught families, that system can seem like a cruel revolving door, particularly for those whose illnesses cause them to resist help and refuse medication. Many self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Many end up homeless.

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