It was a tough time in our country when I first heard her speak her mind. It was the Nixon years, Vietnam and Watergate. We found out our President had lied, and was going to be indicted for being a criminal. And, the long, stupid war was still a big wound in our collective spirit.
We all took a liking to the new vice president, who took over after Nixon’s vice president was indicted for influence peddling and resigned in disgrace. And, then, not too long after that, Nixon resigned and this nice guy from Michigan became our President. President Ford, it sounded good. Better than Tricky Dick. He cooked his own breakfast the first day on the job and we liked what we saw. Oh, he was a klutz, but we laughed with him when he tripped getting off the airplane, and when he beaned a reporter with a golf ball. We admired his courage when he pardoned Nixon for all his lying and cheating, saying we needed to stop the national bloodletting over Watergate and get on with the business of the country.
But, Betty was even more of a breath of fresh air. She spoke her mind, being blunt and open about pre marital sex, marijuana, and how it felt to suddenly find yourself living in the White House. She also spoke out in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. Yeah, back in the 70s, there was a serious effort to amend the Constitution, to say that women have equal rights with men. It was astonishingly controversial, and eventually, the effort failed. After all these years, the arguments against it seem even sillier than they did then. And, we had no doubt about how Betty felt about it. She had come from a poor family and worked hard most of her life, and she wasn’t afraid to tell us how women got treated in the work place.
Then, Betty got breast cancer. This was back in the day when cancer was a taboo subject and no one talked about it much. We kept the topic in the closet. Well, Betty had breast cancer and she let the whole country know about it, and how to get checked up for it, and how to treat it. Good God, woman, its not only pot and equal rights for women, now its cancer and breasts. Is there no limit to your candor?
Bam, right out in the open, and let’s talk about that difficult subject. And, we did. Millions of women flooded clinics for check ups and breast cancer detection and treatment became a normal, everyday topic. Can we even imagine how many lives have been saved, because of Betty breaking that big taboo?
After she left the White House, she floored us again, coming out with her heartfelt revelation that she was an alcoholic and prescription drug addict. And, suddenly, the country was talking about addiction, and twelve step programs, and rehab, and the signs and symptoms of addiction. Yes, even famous and powerful people can be alcoholics and drug addicts. She paved the way for millions of folks to seek out help and get clean.
She co-founded the Betty Ford Clinic, and going into rehab became something good people did for themselves. She crashed us all through yet another social taboo, and kept our attention on things that mattered.
I think she lives deep in my heart, and calls me out to speak up on tough subjects. And, one of those tough ones is domestic violence.
In my work, and in my life, I’ve seen a lot of domestic violence, and, in my professional role, I’ve been pretty vocal about it. It is another type of cancer that runs rampant in our community, and we have a habit of turning our backs on it and pretending it doesn’t really happen here, and it sure doesn’t happen in “good families”. After all, we are a good community, and bad things like that don’t go on here.
So, twice in two days lately, I got up on my high horse and went off, being direct and opinionated, not mincing any words, not hiding behind any legal jargon. I was about as blunt as I’ve ever been. And, it felt really good.
I was headed out the door, off to a lunch meeting about domestic violence. About half way down the stairs, I heard someone call out my name. I feigned deafness, my empty stomach and my Germanic devotion to the holy schedule of the day taking charge, temporarily. But, the second time he called my name, I succumbed to courtesy and turned around.
“Could I talk to you for a few minutes? I have some questions. It’s about my brother.”
It is a long, sordid, and, sadly, often told tale. A lot of cop blaming, and criminal justice system blaming here. He’s a good man, a loving, kind man. Well, and a criminal, as he harassed his wife and was aggressive, controlling, and scary. Scary enough that a cop was called and he went to jail. And, now there’s a no contact order with his wife.
The brother wants to help, but, as we dig deeper into this pit of family muck, more stories come out, a few episodes of being out of control, of depression, of frustration. All is really not well in what was originally painted as the ideal, God fearing, and loving home. There’s a lot more smoke in the air, more signs that the fires of domestic violence really are burning on the home front.
I’m usually a gentle guy, not real blunt, more the diplomat. But, today, and perhaps being on the way to the meeting on domestic violence prevention, I shed the diplomacy and get right to the meat of the conversation.
“Your brother needs to deal with this, and the first step is to recognize he’s aggressive, violent, and inappropriate. He needs to deal with his behavior,” I say, realizing my voice is filling the stairway of the courthouse, my directness echoing off the walls, in this place now almost deserted over the lunch hour.
A county commissioner, and then the DA, come by, nodding at me for what I am saying, the DA giving me the wink.
“Preach it, judge,” I sense he is saying to me.
And, I do. I sense an opening, a chink of the armor of family idyllic life that the brother has been painting for me. I talk about domestic violence being the leading cause of murder in the county, that domestic violence is the leading cause of death for most age groups of women, the ravages of domestic violence in the lives of children, and how they repeat the behavior when they become adults, lovers, parents.
And I launch into my spiel about batterer’s treatment groups, and counseling, and the work that men need to be doing to get their act together, to be better husbands, better fathers, to find some peace within their souls.
“It’s also a spiritual problem, and there’s a spiritual solution,” I say, taking a big breath to recharge my lungs.
The momentum is building here, and I’ve stolen the floor, gearing up in my sermon on the stairway.
“None of us can tolerate domestic violence, in all its forms. We all need to speak out. Society needs to have a zero tolerance for this poison,” I rant.
And, the brother nods, finally getting it. He’s a religious man, and is looking to his God to gain some understanding here.
“Jesus talked about love in marriage, and love in relationship,” I add. “He calls us to truly find what love really is in marriage, to go deeper, and to love each other without condition, without violence, without power and domination.”
And, the brother gets it. I’ve ventured into his territory, his emotional turf, and he’s getting it. It is all making sense. And, he knows his brother’s outlook on life and marriage and family needs some midcourse corrections. His brother needs to change.
I invite the brother to bring his brother back here, to talk with me. I’m willing to repeat my sermon, to have a serious, man to man talk with the brother. The brother nods, expressing his thanks, saying this has cleared the air for him, he’s getting the message. His brother needs the message, too.
I slip out of the building, forty minutes late for my meeting. The others at the meeting nod with approval, accepting my apology for being late, amazed at my telling of the story of how I went off on the guy in the stairway, cutting through the walls and defenses, and saying it like it is. They are more understanding of my bluntness than me. Perhaps they know me better than I know myself.
The next day, I show up at work, ready for another day. The defendant brother meets me at the stop of the stairs, the stairway where I had cornered his brother the day before.
“I need to talk to you. My brother sent me. He said I need to really listen to what you have to say,” he says.
We find a place to sit in the courtroom. This encore needs a comfortable seat, because I’m still feeling wound up on the topic, and I’m sensing I’ve probably been rehearsing my spiel all night in my dreams. The subconscious mind has been at work, framing my arguments, refining my message.
And, the brother is good, good at raising all the usual defenses, of polishing his own religious belief in good fathering and being the loving husband, and that he isn’t a bad guy.
Well, heck, no one is really bad. I’ve yet to meet a man who actually had horns and a forked tail, and breathes brimstone and evil.
But, I cut through his story, his gilding of the lily of what really happened. He grabbed her, preventing her from getting away from him. She was scared, and froze. OK, some insight, some recognition of the real issue here. I kept the pressure on, challenging him to really look at his behavior, his attitude, his real relationship with his wife. What really was going on with him? How was he really acting?
I like to think of my work as like a surgeon, deftly wielding the scalpel of the law to achieve justice. Yet, my blunt and direct approach here was more like a miner using a pick axe, or a small bulldozer, smashing into the rock wall of denial.
He kept up with me, sparring and telling me, and himself, more about who he really was, how he really acted. There was some guilt, and some shame, coming out now. Yes, she had struck him sometimes, too. There was more than one time that violence was present in what he had been telling me was the ideal, loving marriage.
He still didn’t want to think of himself as the criminal, the wife beater. He didn’t want me to think of him as evil incarnate. And, I didn’t. I told him that. He has a lot of good qualities, he is willing to look at himself honestly, and there were some hot sparks of being willing to change, as we wrestled with all of this in the quiet of the deserted courtroom.
I led him into his spirituality, calling on his spirit to embrace this challenge, not as a battle with the legal system, but with a call to examine his life from a spiritual perspective, as a way to commune with God and take an inventory of what wasn’t going well, and to make some deep, committed changes to how he was living his life.
His walls were crashing down. He was listening to what I was saying, and he was willing to make some changes. Now that the cat was out of the bag and he had said the words that he had been violent, that his marriage has been violent and abusive, there was a new agenda now out on the table. I hadn’t yelled at him, and called him vile and disgusting. He still had his dignity, his integrity.
I appealed to his role as an educator, teacher, role model for his kids and his students. It is time, I said, for him to plunge into this new graduate school class that he needed to take, to study himself and to embrace the syllabus of this summer school class. It was time for him to master this subject, and to dig into himself and take a good hard look at who he was, how he behaved, and to change.
He told me a bit more of his life, his family, the remodeling project on their home that had given them the reason to take a long vacation this summer. They were getting a new kitchen, a new room added on. When I suggested that God was calling him to also do another remodeling project this summer, he finally understood.
His shoulders dropped, and the anxious look in his face faded away. He was figuring this out, and wanting to get on with the program here, of facing his pain and his behavior, and to restructure his marriage, and his attitudes, and do some heavy work.
Gone in his voice was the anger at the System, at the cop, the DA, and the thought of not being the perfect husband and man. He had made mistakes. He needed to grow. The journey, now, was admirable, was worthy of his time and energy. He was refocused, seeing the need to figure all of this out.
We said our goodbyes, and I gave him a big hug. He cried a bit, then, and I said a prayer with him, trying to give him some hope, to nourish his spirit for the hard work that lay ahead. I wrote down the name and phone number of the guy to call for the batterers’ intervention group, and slipped it into his pocket.
There were other people in that empty courtroom that morning, I think. My mom was there, me still hearing her story on her deathbed, telling me how her step dad beat her mom and how she still remembered listening to that, seventy five years later. And, Betty. Betty Ford was there, too, I think.
Betty taught me to face problems. Don’t hide from them. Don’t ignore them. They won’t go away. We need to face up to what is going on, and deal with it. We need to talk about the solution. And then we need to act. Don’t be silent. Speak up. Do something. That was amazing stuff in the 1970s. And, that’s still amazing stuff in 2011.
I’ll miss you, Betty. But, you’re in my heart forever, and we all need to just say thanks for what you’ve done.
----Neal Lemery, July 9, 2011