When I explore the meaning of an important turning point in my life and share it with a friend or loved one, I’m better known, to myself, and another. Loneliness dissipates. And belatedly, I can acknowledge and express gratitude to someone who offered me a positive, fulfilling new direction. But what about recalling those memorable times which were negative, a rejection of who we were and hoped to become?
What follows is the story of a man who stood in my way.
The year was 1980. After eleven years of practicing law, I had no practice.
Federal funds were no longer flowing into the City’s coffers to support the Public Defender office I directed. New State legislation provided for joint State and County funding for public defenders, and in my county, hiring was controlled by political patronage. Lacking partisan credentials, what had been my professional home for the past eight years closed. I needed a job.
As my search began, I was contacted by a prominent local attorney, one of the named partners in a prestigious medium-sized firm, inviting me to consider joining their practice. Two days later, I was greeted warmly as I arrived at his office, was interviewed at some length and shown about the premises. On leaving, he told me he would contact me in about a week.
The call never came. I waited an additional week and then placed the call myself. Without preamble, but with what sounded like heartfelt regret, he said, “I’ve been dreading your call.” He told me that the senior managing partner of the firm had emphatically declared, “There will be no women in this law firm.” With a quick, “Thank you, I understand”, I hung up, hurt and disappointed. But shocked? Not really.
Even though by 1980 more women were entering the profession (nationally about 12% of the practicing bar), locally I knew of only one woman who had been hired by a major firm. Although discouraged, not even for a moment did I consider applying to another firm. I decided to practice on my own, and fate was about to smile at me.
As a Public Defender, I was in court every day and observed and came to know the criminal defense bar. Almost all of them were solo practitioners. The lawyer I most admired, Jim Perry, reached out and invited me to fill an empty office in his small Carew Tower space, four lawyers all practicing independently while sharing overhead costs. My solo practice was born, and soon broadened to include civil rights and domestic relations work, and as the years went by, I became a success in the eyes of my profession.
Fast forward seventeen years. Now, well established as a mediator, I received a call from a woman I knew only casually. She was widowed and had been living for some time with a man a few years her senior. He was a lawyer, now retired, and although they were both financially secure, issues regarding their shared finances had arisen that were causing serious disruption in their loving relationship. She asked if I could mediate their dispute and we made an appointment for the three of us to meet. Over several weeks, they successfully developed some new financial guidelines and were happy to move on. During the process, I came to really like and admire her partner who trusted me with his feelings when we discussed the intimate issues they were addressing. He displayed respect and kindness, both towards me and his partner, which I found admirable. He praised the development of mediation as part of a legal practice
Perhaps you have already surmised that the man who reentered my life as a mediation client was the managing senior partner who many years before had denied me a position in his firm. He showed no memory of that long past event, and I never made reference to the invisible but important role he had played.
When I recently talked about this hurtful episode with a friend, I realized that in 1980 I viewed this man who denied me a job because I was a woman, as an arrogant misogynist, and until our meeting seventeen years later, he remained frozen in my memory as who he had been long ago. In reality he had evolved in important ways. Had I asked for an apology, I’m sure it would have been given.
For some time now I have been conflicted about my reaction to those times when someone, typically a man, often in politics, is vilified for behaviors long in the past. A fiercely judgmental response arises which denigrates and often destroys the career of a political figure who decades ago uttered a derogatory phrase, posed in blackface, acted out at a drunken fraternity party, or hugged someone at a political rally.
This is my conflict: I know that there are times when behaviors laughed off in years past, often fueled by alcohol, have caused egregious long-term harm to another. While I’m drawn to the concept of restorative justice, it requires an acknowledgement of the wrongdoing which is only sometimes forthcoming. But here is something else I take account of: believing is not knowing.
To live with the unease of uncertainty is the human condition. Despite the conflicts I recognize in my thinking, in general I conclude that we all need to be forgiven for past insensitivities and certainly for having been influenced and fallen in with the accepted practices and attitudes of earlier times. The life lived after misdeeds should be weighed in the balance.
While our past actions define who we were, we deserve to be accepted and respected for who we have become.
Nancy Nolan here: During this time of great uncertainty, while sheltering in place, consider reading a few of the essays included in Bea’s book, The Third Person in the Room, which can be found at www.bealarsen.com under “my posts.” If you like what you read, you can purchase the book on www.Amazon.com. Thank you.