© 2018  Laura Jean Baker

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Fisticuffs

October 3, 2017

My blog posts are inspired by my husband Attorney Ryan Ulrich’s work in criminal defense. Any casework I write about is from public record, but I have changed the names of his clients to protect their privacy.

 

The year was 1987. Outside the old Pollock Pool, some kid snapped a wet beach towel at Joe Blanchet. Joe snapped his back. Then the two goons went to fisticuffs. The scuffle would have ended without police sirens, had Old Man Blanchet not materialized, as if by magic, from the summer haze, swinging his raw-bone fists.  

 

To defend his son’s honor, Mr. Blanchet – scrawny, sweaty, wearing what my brother called “a wife beater,” a new kind of slang for me – launched head-first into the scrap heap. He was hell-bent on beating the piss out of Joe’s rival.

 

“You son-of-a-bitch,” he said, as if gargling his words. If he were not drunk and cardboard-cutout flimsy, he might have severely bruised or lacerated his son’s nemesis.

 

The police arrived, but I don’t recall whether other parents, officers, or teenagers in swimming trunks broke up the brawl. I do remember feeling humiliated on Mr. Blanchet’s and Joe’s behalf. The old man was hauled away from Pollock Pool in the back of a squad car. What could he, or his son, left behind to bandage his dignity, have been thinking?

 

Ryan was recently assigned to defend Danielle Berry, a mother my age, in a similar case – fighting her daughter’s fight. Who was it that said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes? The case struck me as familiar. What I originally chalked up to déjà vu later jogged my memory, and Joe Blanchet’s father materialized again through the haze of memory – rhyming histories set three decades apart.

 

This time around, the fight was not spontaneous. Danielle Berry’s daughter, Chanel, spent days with a group of girlfriends working up the fight. It began with a girl named Gemma’s opinion at the Boys and Girls Club. “It’s messed up that you would date your best friend’s ex-boyfriend,” she said. Sides were formed; girls decided whom to flank, and from behind their smart phones over the weekend, they sent each other threats on Instagram.

 

The teenagers agreed to settle the matter – whatever that meant – in a parking lot near the downtown YMCA, but before Gemma and her single companion arrived on foot, Chanel and her entourage emerged from a truck at a street corner and jumped her. As if a group of teenagers brawling is not bad enough, deep in the hotbed of their skirmish was Danielle Berry, Chanel’s mother.

 

According to reports, she’d chauffeured Chanel and her posse to the fight and then joined it. Some of the girls pulled Gemma’s hair; others tackled her. When Gemma curled into fetal pose, hands plied over her face for protection, Mrs. Berry – as one eyewitness put it, “a grown-ass woman” – kicked Gemma multiple times in the head.

 

“I don’t care,” she is alleged to have said. “Two of my kids are in this fight.” Much as I suspected Joe Blanchet’s dad was drunk, Gemma and her friend later told police that Danielle Berry was inebriated too.

 

Perhaps Mr. Blanchet – a man I saw only once in my life, a stranger I’d never see again – lay dormant in my brain for thirty years because that one question remained unanswered: What was he thinking?

 

Becoming a parent gave me some idea.

 

Fortunately, and unfortunately, my oldest daughter, Irie, is big, as in thick, strong, and substantial. At 13 years old, she is 5’8’” with a size 10 shoe and plenty more pounds than me. She is loud, strident, and resounding, singing a brassy alto wherever she goes. Lately, with her braces removed, she has been mistaken as a woman, not a teenager or a girl. Her good fortune is that nobody would think to jump Irie on a street corner, or in a school yard, or on a bus because by size and confidence alone, she is a force to be reckoned.

 

“I hate living in my body sometimes,” she says. This is the misfortune. Once at the downtown YMCA, when she was much younger, two girls in the locker room approached her, just as she’d slipped out of her swimming suit, and called her “fat.” They tried pushing her into a locker but failed. More recently a group of boys in eighth grade began calling her “the freak” as in “freak of nature.” With her big personality and voice comes resilience, but the harassment wears her down.

 

At a school function last month, we ended up in a line for ice cream right in front of one of these boys – the lead bully. I stared at him, waiting for eye contact, as if telepathy might help me to comprehend his cruelty. I wanted to understand him, to feel his pain, and to, maybe even, restructure his instinct to lash out.

 

I also – very much – wanted to knuckle up and bash him square in the nose.

 

The night before her trial, Danielle Berry agreed to a plea bargain. The District Attorney would drop felony child abuse charges if she plead to intentionally contributing to the delinquency of a minor, in this case, her daughter Chanel. She’d wind up serving sixty days in the county jail followed by two years of probation.

 

I can only imagine Joe Blanchet’s dad faced a similar fate. When the police car disappeared, he only resurfaced a few other times in childhood when my brother and I would imitate his zigzag balance and windmill fists.

 

There’s no doubt that the best parents are role models, not brawlers. We teach our children the art of restraint, the ability to think logically without flying off the handle, and in the worst of cases, how to forgive.

 

But sometimes I think of Irie, and I ball my own fist, studying my marbles of shiny bone just beneath the surface. Motherhood is a ferocity that can’t always be explained.

 

When Irie was a baby, food and gunk would slide down her chin and gather in the folds on her neck. We’d tip her head back to wipe her beautiful flesh clean, sometimes swabbing her with a knuckle. If ever I could not breastfeed, I’d feed her my bent finger. And today, I hug my daughter by knuckling her back, a deep tissue massage, forcing out any pain that may reside in places I can’t see, its own kind of non-violent resistance.

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