© 2018  Laura Jean Baker

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Punchline

March 27, 2018

A lawyer and a writer walk into a bar. Sounds like the set-up for a joke, but it’s actually the way my criminal defense attorney husband and I do business.

 

At one of two watering holes on Main Street – Gardina’s Wine Bar & Café or Ruby Owl Tap Room – we meet to begin crafting the raw material of his casework into stories. Alleged crimes drop into his lap already half-formed, Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts.” Criminal complaints are fill-in-the-blank synopses, muddled with abstruse legalese, garnished with a court case ID.

 

Ours is an interdisciplinary marriage, a lawyer’s ethics and a writer’s aesthetics joined in holy matrimony. Fortunately for my inquiring mind, criminal charges – and the bounty of evidence against Ryan’s clients – are documented in open records. Scofflaws forfeit their stories into the public domain. That doesn’t make this an easy process. Adapting “discovery” into plausible explanations is Ryan’s constitutional duty, but the pressure to tell redeemable stories for rock-bottom wages is stressful. He lives vicariously through his clients’ anguish; I live vicariously through his.

 

Handing me cases to re-purpose as art is, at least, one way he copes with his burdens. And every day, something new is on tap.

 

“Do I ever have a juicy case for you,” Ryan begins.  His newest client pushed a prank beyond its limit by copying his neighbor’s Facebook photos, using them to post kinky ads on Craigslist’s casual encounters, and listing her address, not his, as the point of rendezvous. Through his window, he watched the gag progress from laughable to dangerous as strangers lined up at the victim’s door for sexual favors.

 

The cost of an evening’s good time resulted in charges which read “940.32 Stalking 2 Cnts” and “941.30 Recklessly Endangering Safety 4 Cnts” and “943.201 Misappropriation of Personal Identifying Info/Personal ID Documents 1 Cnts.” For thirteen pages the criminal complaint reads like a play-by-play. This happened, and then this happened, he-said-she-said with little narrative trajectory. People named are affiants, complainants, defendants, and victims.

 

A Bell’s Hopslam double IPA for Ryan and my cocktail of choice – a sidecar with lime – are elixirs for converting statutory language into layman’s stories before he negotiates with district attorneys, strikes positions with judges, and spins tales for jurors.

 

Ryan’s version is always about criminal defense. Is this a defensible act – just a modern twist on the innocent pre-caller ID prank of ordering your ex-girlfriend pizzas from every delivery joint in town?  Will his client plead to stalking if the D.A. dismisses recklessly endangering safety? Is his client willing to testify against his co-conspirator girlfriend, owner of the IP address and phone used to create the Craigslist ads?

 

Janet Burroway defines a story as “a series of events recorded in their chronological order” and plot as “a series of events deliberately arranged to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.” For Ryan, the narrative arc matters. What are the cause-and-effect events that compel his clients toward their crisis moments? The stories Ryan tells publicly in courts of law are amalgamations – his clients’ stories with his protective and expert re-framing, according to the evidence on record.

 

As a memoirist, I see Ryan’s casework as an appraisal kit for my own life. Laws allow us to classify human behavior. While I typically see shades of gray, Wisconsin Statutes are black-and-white designations from which I can extract meaning. As Ryan grinds out casework, stories are quickly disposed of, unless somebody like me preserves them.     

 

Growing up, I listened to my parents, mental health professionals, discuss their patients after hours. Throughout my early stages of ego development, I eavesdropped and borrowed their templates for self-knowledge. Maybe this is what we’re all doing when we lose ourselves in another protagonist’s story.

 

In my course Memoir: Theory and Practice, I assign the “Double Portrait.” Students must describe somebody influential to them but reveal themselves in the process. Nick Carraway – the quintessential peripheral narrator – does this; his fixation on Gatsby is his road to self-discovery. Storytelling is almost always an exercise in psychological projection.

 

My favorite such example is “The Book of My Life” by Aleksandar Hemon in which the author relates his literature professor Nikoka Koljević’s transmutation into a war criminal. He writes, “I became obsessed with Professor Koljević. I kept trying to identify the first moment when I could have noticed his genocidal proclivities. Racked with guilt, I recalled his lectures and the conversations we’d had, as if picking through ashes – the ashes of my library.”

 

Oftentimes, we can only tell our own stories by telling others’. If somebody’s behavior changes us, a story begins to form. Life is symbiotic. Stories slide up and down the abacus of shared human experience, connected by the same wire. We borrow beads to find the right answer.

 

Of Ryan’s hundreds of stories, I select those that punch me in the gut. If the second draft of his clients’ stories is his, the third is mine, where his defendants and their victims are further protected, entirely pseudonymous. John Gardner’s “proofs” – the details of authenticity – which neither implicate nor exonerate Ryan’s clients instead prove that crime is a way to grapple with our own transgressions. My husband’s job is to defend his clients; my job is to implicate – and comprehend –  myself.

 

For example, according to the Craigslist case file, the victim’s 11-year-old daughter came upon her mother being solicited at the door. The girl shuffled into the kitchen, rumpled in her pre-teen pajamas, just as her mom began to shriek like a fox. Neither mother nor daughter reached for a weapon, but I wonder, how close was the meat cleaver? That would likely be my instinct.

 

A husband and wife walk into a bar. “What’s on draft today?” she asks, and so it begins again.

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