“I’m not going to shoot you, Dr. Delaware. Even though I should.”
What’s the proper response to something like that?
“Gee thanks, appreciate the discretion.”
“Hope you don’t change your mind.”
“Hmm. Sounds like you’re feeling . . . homicidal.”
When in doubt, say nothing. My job features doubt on a daily basis, but it’s good advice for anyone.
I sat in my chair and crossed my legs in order to appear unperturbed and continued to look into the eyes of the person who’d just threatened my life. In return, I received a serene stare. Not a flicker of regret in the flat brown eyes. Just the opposite: icy contentment.
I’d seen the same creepy, inanimate confidence in the eyes of psychopaths locked up in supermax cells. The person across the room had never been arrested.
None of the usual warning signs had been present. No delusions or command hallucinations, none of the bizarre mannerisms or twitchy volatility that can result from too many crossed wires. No seepage of testosterone leading to unbridled violence.
The person who’d just threatened my life didn’t have much in the way of testosterone.
Her name was Constance Sykes and she preferred to be called Connie. She was forty-four years old, medium build, medium height, blond turning to gray, with a handsome, square-jawed face, a mellow voice, and perfect posture. She’d been a straight-A student, had earned a B.A. in chemistry, Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude, followed by an M.D. at a top medical school, then a prestigious internship and residency and board certification in pathology.
She owned and operated a small, private lab in the Valley that specialized in testing for sexually transmitted diseases and arcane infections, drove a Lexus, and lived in a house far too large for one person. Most people would call her wealthy; she described her financial status as “comfortable.”
Every time I’d seen her, including this morning, she’d been well groomed and dressed in quietly fashionable clothing. She wore jewelry but if you spent enough time with her, she’d inevitably remove bracelets and brooches and earrings and stare at them as if they were bits of alien flotsam. Then she’d put them back on, frowning, as if the notion of embellishment was a nuisance but also a responsibility and she was no shirker.
She had her issues, but nothing that had predicted this.
A self-professed loner, Connie Sykes seemed at ease with never having lived with anyone since leaving home for college. Matter-of-factly, she’d let me know she was an expert on self-sustenance, had never needed or wanted or imagined another person in her life.
Until “the baby” came along.
She hadn’t gestated the baby or given birth to the baby but she wanted the baby, felt she deserved to have the baby, had gone to considerable effort and expense to get the baby.
That quest had been doomed from the outset, with or without my input, but I’d been paid to offer an expert opinion on her case and Connie Sykes had just learned that she’d most certainly fail in her claim and she was unaccustomed to losing and someone needed to be blamed.
She’d stirred up needless pain but I felt some sympathy for her. My best friend, a gay homicide detective, describes psychologists as reflexive yeah-sayers. (“Forget Dr. No. You’re Dr. Sure-no-problem.”) Of course, he’s right. If therapists enjoyed deprivation and prohibition, we’d have studied for the clergy or run for office.
I figured if Connie Sykes called, I’d do my best to offer support, maybe smooth the edges.
She didn’t. She just showed up. I had time so I led her to the office.
She entered no differently than before. Settling, straight-backed, butt barely perched on the battered leather sofa the way she always did. Removing her glasses, she placed them in a hard leather case that she dropped into her fine, oversized, Italian drawstring purse and smiled.
I said, “Morning.”
She said, “Is it?”
Then her smile died and she cleared her throat, as if preparing to deliver a well-rehearsed speech, and informed me that she wasn’t going to ready-aim-fire in my direction. Even though she should.
I kept my mouth shut, figured I was coming across calm as the two of us danced the eyeball tango.
Connie Sykes broke first, smoothing her black gabardine slacks and stroking her purse’s whiskey-colored leather. Tapping the bag, she ran her finger over a swell in the leather and smiled wider and waited.
Well-timed comedian, waiting to see if the audience got it.
Implying she’d come with a weapon.
Her finger continued to circle the swell and my heart skipped and my gut churned and the shock must’ve shown on my face.
Connie Sykes laughed. Then she got up and left the office and continued up the hall.
I always walk patients to the front door. I let this patient find her own way out and locked my office door and pressed my ear to oak until I heard the front door close.
I remained inside the office for a while. A shot of Chivas didn’t help much but the passage of time and a shot of rationalization did and eventually I convinced myself she’d just been letting off steam. Given all the court work I’d done, the big surprise was that it hadn’t happened before.
A week and a half passed and when I didn’t hear from her or spot her skulking around my property or receive any anonymous hate mail or field any weird phone messages, I told myself I needed to forget the whole thing.
What I didn’t forget was the battle that had brought Connie Sykes to me in the first place. And while I hoped that she’d file me away as a distant, sour memory, I suspected her loss and grief wouldn’t fade for a long time.
When the divorce process begins, some people shoot out of the gate like corrida bulls, itching to inflict damage. Others declare good intentions and delay the attack. A small percentage manage to maintain civility, but the default is guerrilla warfare.
Combatants who have children often end up obsessing on the kids. That includes people who don’t much care about being parents but lie and say that they do. Admitting apathy about your offspring—going public with those fantasies you’ve had for years of divorcing the whole idea of family life—breaks a lot of social rules.
Parents who couldn’t care less about the kids often fight the hardest because it’s all about winning.
In the worst of divorces, children become hand grenades. Allegations of neglect, cruelty, and abuse surface, usually false. But when kids are involved everything needs to be checked out. Those are the cases when the courts call someone like me in to offer wisdom.
There’s another side to my professional life: working with Lieutenant Milo Sturgis on hideous murders.
That’s the easy stuff.
Back when I left Western Pediatric Medical Center and began private practice, I avoided child custody cases, going so far as to refer away patients remotely likely to become embroiled in legal conflicts. I knew that court work was lucrative but I always had plenty of work, and colleagues who’d struggled to work within the system described it as an unpredictable mess cobbled together by a loose confederation of morons and sadists.
Best interests of the child, indeed.
My practice rolled along nicely: mostly good people bringing in mostly good kids with problems that could be handled short-term. The kind of patient load that can make you feel like a hero and who doesn’t like that?
Then a child I was already treating became a custody case. Four-year-old Amy was being raised by a single mother who’d done a fine job, overall, but had come to me for pointers on discipline and development and school placement. The quiet little girl owed her existence to a one-night stand between Mom and a father she’d never met: a then-married, former Washington State trooper fired for taking bribes and suspected of worse.
Said dad had never been in Amy’s life nor had he paid a penny of child support. Amy’s mom had filed for payments but had never pushed; she was making do and the status quo seemed fine.
One evening her doorbell rang and there he was, trying to grope her and kiss her, leering smugly when she backed away as he served her with papers for a joint custody suit. Recently divorced, he’d been denied contact with his other two children, had been spottily employed since being booted from law enforcement, decided it was time to “get involved with the kid. She kind of looks like me, anyway.”
You’d think there’d be no chance of his muscling into Amy’s life. You wouldn’t be counting on the morons and the sadists.
“Dad” had hired a lawyer with an aggressive streak and that legal eagle had brought in a psychologist whose wordy report strongly recommended fifty-fifty joint physical and legal “sharing,” which would entail Amy flying between L.A. and Spokane on a weekly basis. All in “the obvious best psychosocial interests of this child.”
The author of that bit of brilliance, a woman named Joan Mort, hadn’t met Amy or her mother, relying, instead, upon “well-documented research data on the deleterious effects of paternal absence, particularly for prepubescent girls.”
Amy’s mother was already scrimping to pay for therapy so I took the court case gratis and wrote my own report. The judge, one of those jurists who actually reads what lands on his desk, called for a meeting in chambers with both attorneys and both experts.
I encountered Dr. Joan Mort as she walked up the court corridor. An older woman with a slight walleye and all the right paper credentials, she had a bouncy step and one of those soft, pseudo-sweet therapy voices that cloys quickly. She gripped my hand with both of hers, said it was a pleasure to meet me, had appreciated my input. As if we were both on the same team.
Once inside, she volunteered to go first. Speaking slowly and clearly, in a well-practiced academic tone that drew heavily on jargon, she managed to couch the absurdity of her argument with apparent scholarship. Made delivering a four-year-old to the mercies of a felonious stranger sound almost reasonable.
Flipping the final page of her report, she patted my hand and smiled reassuringly.
Your turn, sonny boy.
I began with a point-by-point refutation of her little oration, keeping my voice even as I slid into a side lecture on quacks and whores-for-hire willing to say anything for a fee. Using temperate language, of course. (“Superficial so-called evaluations that fail to pay attention to the patient nudge up against scientific and ethical boundaries, at best. At worst they cross those boundaries in a highly destructive manner. I find that inexcusable in any case but particularly destructive and cruel when a child’s well-being is at stake.”)
Mort and the lawyer who was paying her blanched. So did Amy’s mom’s attorney.
But the judge was working hard at not grinning. Thanking everyone, he adjourned the meeting. Joan Mort marched ahead of everyone and I thought she’d lost some bounce in her step.
The following morning the judge called and asked if we could meet.
“May I ask why, Your Honor?”
“I’d like to talk to you.”
“No, that’s resolved. In a manner that won’t make you unhappy. I’d like to discuss some general issues. If you need to be paid for your time, the court’s got a little discretionary fund.”
“No need,” I said, “but you can buy lunch.”
We met at a steak house near the downtown court building, a place Milo frequents when he’s testifying or meeting with deputy D.A.’s. His waistline-busting approach to nutrition features enough red meat to feed a bunkhouse full of ranch hands and I’ve never seen him leave with a doggie bag. The judge, a trim man in his sixties, nibbled a six-ounce rib eye and sipped a martini and told me he liked my style and would appreciate my joining the panel of custody evaluators employed by the court.
I said, “Is Joan Mort on the panel?”
“Then forget it.”
“It’s a list, Dr. Delaware. No list is perfect.”
“Granted, but that’s a club I’m not interested in joining.”
“Hmm,” he said. “You don’t hem and haw like most shrinks.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“So you won’t consider it? You really should, precisely because of people like Mort. There’s work to be done refining the system.”
“I’m sure there is but I’m happy with my practice and I really don’t want to dive into the . . .”
The word I’d been thinking of was “muck” but while I groped for a more appetite-friendly synonym, he said, “Cesspool? Hell, yeah, it can stink to high heaven. But here’s the thing: In a few weeks I’m going to be appointed presiding judge and I’m thinking I can clean things up. Why not help me, Doctor?”
“By targeting the bad ones? I’m not a henchman.”
“No, no, I’m not asking you to break some code of silence. Just do good work consistently and help raise our standards. Right now the only cases I’m able to ensure get done right are my own. Once I’m presiding I’ll theoretically have more control, but in truth, I won’t once the other judges get their assignments. Because each of us is a despot in his or her courtroom. One of my esteemed colleagues would have to rape a goat in the hall to get bounced.”
The image made me smile. “The corridors of justice takes on a new meaning.”
I said, “Why bother with one new psychologist?”
“Because it’s a start. There are other decent evaluators, even some on the panel. But I’ve never seen anything quite like your level of . . . assertiveness. We can use some serious cojones.”
“Flattered, Your Honor, but—”
“Legal work’s just not my thing, Steve.”
Shrugging, he sliced steak into little trapezoids, ate and drank. A few moments later: “How about this, Alex: You won’t need to join the panel, we’ll start with me referring cases to you directly. And encouraging my brighter colleagues to do the same. You’ll never end up looking like a trial slut because you’ll be working for the court, not the parties. As an objective finder of fact.”
“All that from the discretionary fund?”
“No, you’ll be reimbursed like everyone else.”
“By the parties.”
“Fifty-fifty, so there’ll be no favoritism.”
“Steve, when people pay bills, they start to feel entitled.”
“I’ll make the rules clear.”
“On top of that, the bills would be substantial,” I said. “Because I think the usual approach—brief interview, a few psych tests, boilerplate report—is a joke. The right way takes time and time is money.”