“I think I file these cases so I can see my mother.” I was talking to Rachel this morning on the steps of the Queens County Supreme Court, where the judge had just adjourned the case of my application for guardianship of my grandmother — my mother’s mother — to January. I wasn’t surprised that my mother had shown up this morning, despite her failure to respond to the court investigator’s (or my own) inquiries. I had realized that probably the majority of times I’ve seen my mother in the last dozen years has been in a courtroom setting.
“I’m kidding,” I continued. “It’s the kind of line I’d use to conclude a treacly essay for the back page of a magazine.” And while I had no motive for filing this case other than ensuring the well-being of my grandmother, it’s also true that I haven’t seen much of my mother in recent years. Only a court case seems to compel her out of her home-bound stupor.
My mother is among that set of mentally ill people who are drawn to the legal system. The measured pace by which cases proceed, the right to speak and be heard, the clarity of rendered decisions — these all provide a certain solace in a baffling and incomprehensible world. That the judges’ decisions often go against her merely confirms her paranoid worldview. There’s a paradox here, for sure, between her mistrust of everyone around her and her abiding determination to continue fighting within the system.
For the current case I’ve sought to retrieve the final order from our first court battle, in which I won custody of my sister. The clerk at the family court was unable to pin it down to one. “There’s over twenty petitions here,” she said to me, with more than a little surprise. I had an unpleasant recollection of those hearings, the interminable harassing counter-suits that my mother filed, trailing off into a series of increasingly rambling claims dismissed by an increasingly irritated judge. Then she was verbally expressive but a courtroom neophyte. Now she pulls around a black rolling case everywhere and lets the documents she keeps inside speak for her: various papers detailing her divorce, the child support orders, her loss of custody, and now her mother’s decline — a legal timeline of her second, lifeless, life.
The black rolling suitcase testifies to my mother’s paradoxical relationship with the legal system. You would think that a person who is convinced that evil agents eavesdrop on her every word and siphon money away from her every transaction would see the courthouse as the epitome of oppression. And yet that same institution quite literally gives her voice (I have not heard as many coherent sentences from my mother’s mouth as I had this morning in many years) and, in her eyes, gives her freedom. Many years ago when she was still flailing back at her imagined enemies, she gave me a copy of her divorce papers. I had the sense that through me she was serving those papers to Them, her oppressors. I may lose these cases, she seemed to be saying, but I am still a person in the eyes of the court.
And when I really think about it, perhaps my own faith in the legal system is just as irrational as hers. My law professors drilled into me the limited powers of courts. What’s more, I know that the skein of relationships among my family is too tangled for anyone, least of all a judge, to straighten out. Yet here I am again appealing to the courts to intervene in yet another losing situation. There’s something in common between my mother’s and my legal skirmishes. They speak to a desperate yet abiding hope.