one woman's quest to find meaning beyond motherhood


San Francisco, California,
April 26
A San Francisco attorney who has spent the past five years raising her two children. She moonlights as an appellate lawyer - writing long briefs against the termination of parental rights.


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OCTOBER 29, 2009 10:29PM

Not Just Another Day in Richmond

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An attorney friend of mine keeps me up to date on the horrors of Richmond – the city that she commutes to everyday for work.  She peppers her face book page on an almost daily basis with wise cracks about the gang bangers, hookers and drug addicts that she encounters at the courthouse as she heads off to trial or mediation.  Her depictions of working out there are flippantly outrageous, shocking and utterly unenviable.  I used to wince at some of her remarks – but over time I have become more jaded.  So when she posted last week that she was “glad to see that Richmond was still making national news,” I didn’t think much about it.  Some random shooting, a car jacking or just your garden variety murder I assumed.  If only.

When I finally flung myself into bed a few nights ago and switched on CNN to escape the ravages of my child-centered day, I realized that this wasn’t just any Richmond crime story that she was referencing.  Instead of some story about another missing foster kid, or some young promising athlete gunned down in his neighborhood, (admittedly tragic but  all too common), I learned about a crime that was qualitatively different both in its depth of brutality and also scope of perpetrator involvement.   The facts, as far as we know them, are stark.  A 15 year old girl was led outside of her high school homecoming dance and gang raped by ten different young men while numerous others watched, laughed, took pictures and videos. This took place over the course of two agonizing hours and evidently no one came forward to try to stop it or call for help.  She was eventually found unconscious and was hospitalized for four days in critical condition.  Five young men have been arrested so far and there is an ongoing investigation to find the others.


Those are the facts and to call them shocking would be a gross understatement.  They deal with the unmentionable on so many levels.  In conversation this past week, I found myself struggling to find words to express the horror of this story.  Upon reflection, I realize that these facts require no elaboration.  My attorney friend’s ostensibly flippant comment about how “Richmond made national news again” is as good a description as any.


Today, on National Public radio numerous hate crime experts, psychologists, counselors and school administrators used this incident as a springboard to discuss a wide variety of issues including hate crimes, mob mentality, violence in today’s youth culture and the overall desensitization of cruelty through media images and video games.  I listened intently to what each of these commentators said on these topics and thought hard about how they applied in this instance.  And while most of it made sense to me, there was something disturbingly clinical and detached about their analysis that made me feel like they weren’t quite getting it.  As someone who has worked with foster youth (through my trial work as a dependency lawyer and now as an appellate lawyer), I had a visceral reaction to this incident.  I know all too well the type of kid that is capable of committing such a heinous act as I sadly come across them in my work with regularity.  No, they haven’t gang raped anyone; in fact most of them have never committed any crime.  But the elements and potential are all there, just wait. 


The cases I work on involve boys and girls whose have faced so much turmoil in their short lives, have seen so much ugliness in their family and neighborhoods and have received so little support that their sense of humanity (to the extent it ever existed) have left them long ago.  Children who have survived incest or beatings or burns or just garden variety neglect.  Children who from a young age stopped dreaming of anything and have just accepted life as disappointing, hurtful and empty.  Children who have raised themselves, while being shuffled back and forth from house to house with nothing constant in their lives except the constancy of change.  I would bet good money that the boys who perpetrated these crimes, like the observers who did nothing, have histories that are similar to the ones my clients have.  They were frustrated, hate-filled, lost children who never developed any tools for self-empowerment, empathy or self-acceptance.


Ask my seven year old son what he wants to be when he grows up and he will rattle off a million different possibilities – from astronaut to bacteriologist, from super hero to artist or dishwasher (huh?).  Ask one of my clients (the same age) what they want to be when they grow up and they invariably shrug their shoulders, mumble “nothing” and turn away.  How does a child who has never experienced love or nurturing develop any sense of optimism, generosity or hope?  How does a child who grows up in a household without parents, a household where drugs or mental illness or both is a way of life, develop a true moral compass or sense of right and wrong? How does a child who is surrounded by other disenfranchised wounded children learn to develop emotional intelligence or empathy for others?  I certainly don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I am pretty sure that they don’t involve monetary incentives to report crime, extra police patrols or better lighting in alley ways. 


Let me be clear, I am not trying to make excuses for the atrocity that happened the other night in Richmond.  Clearly, something is broken with those boys and unfortunately the time to figure how to fix them as individuals has long past   Beyond the outrage and the theories and questions however, we all need to stop for a moment and reflec..  This wasn’t simply an aberration or some inexplicable “wrong place wrong time” situation.  This isn’t about “mob mentality” or the influence of video games on our youth.  The issues raised through the incident in Richmond hint at something far more primal about what is missing for these and other children in our communities – a steady loving  presence in their lives that gives security, time and space to believe in a  better way.  It sounds trite and idealistic and perhaps ridiculously simple.  But its what I think about every time I work on a child abuse case.  I think about how my small role in trying to piece together a broken family with a child in the middle might some day prevent a crime such as this.  I try to remind myself that for every child that gets out of the foster care system and back into a healthy home that really wants them, I am helping give that child a second chance at reconnecting to his identity and community.


I have no doubt that there will be more crime in Richmond.  I also have no doubt that my attorney friend will continue to make nonchalant comments about the situation on face book as her way of processing the horror.  I can’t quite manage the same casual shake off.  So instead I process this experience through blogging and working (for now) on my few child abuse cases with understanding, compassion and a sense of higher purpose – qualities that were sadly lacking in that alley in Richmond that night. 

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I'm going to assume tht no one wants to hear the Viking in me react.

At a certain point "why?" is not a valid question.
I, too, listened to the NPR analysis this morning. I had a number of thoughts.
I think your analysis of the way these kids live is astute. Without love, without simple human touch, children withdraw, become hateful, deteriorate.
Last year, I had a remarkable student in one of my classes. (I teach creative writing.) The final assignment was to write a 15-20 page memoir. He wrote 120 pages chronicling a life of abuse and neglect. What turned his life around was getting taken into his aunt's house when he was 13, going to school, and getting into college on a special circumstances scholarship. There was every reason that he should have turned into a gang-banger or a sociopath. He was neither. Instead, he was compassionate and reached out to his classmates, especially if he sensed someone was having a bad day.
The boys who did this to this young woman are, at this point, irreedemable. I hope that she can survive this, can put her life back together, that she will find shelter and solace and strength she didn't know she had.
And I wonder what the rest of us can do to intervene in the lives of our throw-away kids.
Thank you for writing this.
What an incredible post! How refreshing to have someone look beyond the surface of such a hideous act and see the humanity beneath.

As awful as this assault was, it is important to recognize that these boys are not abberant mutants, vastly different from normal humanity, but people whose humanity have been snuffed out. This realignment of perspective makes a difference. It allows us to be appalled at the act, while displaying compassion for their suffering.

As the saying goes, "there but for the grace of God, go I". The most frightening thing about such crimes, isn't the crime itself. It is the understanding that much of our lives are a crap shoot. Any one of us might have been born to such horrendous abuse and neglect, that the unspeakable becomes an option.

I believe that only by embracing this ugly truth can we truly face down the fear and allow healing for victims and perpetrators alike.

Once again, great post! Definitely rated!
This makes me wonder how many children have had their very life spirit snuffed out in this way. I think it's probably very rare for someone to be born a sociopath or psychopath (I'm using those terms as a layman, of course). It takes an entire childhood to make someone that hopeless, angry and unable to empathize with another human being.

So, we're talking about 10 young men and how many bystanders? A couple of dozen or more? What percentage of this is of the student body? It's more than a little frightening to think of the sheer numbers here. Although these kids are probably in the minority, it seems like a pretty sizable one.
I think that your assessment of how these boys can do this is largely correct. I think another element that I saw one local official (I think school teacher or administrator) point out is also an essential part of the mix: she said that women are portrayed in the media as pieces of meat, and this is what comes of seeing those images and words. It wasn't in the quote from her, but my mind in particular went to rap music and videos for it, which is one of the most egregious outlets for misogyny at the highest level. If you hear all the time that women are just hos, bitches, booty and the like -- why not rape a young woman?
It’s sad, but I have to agree with you. There is a breaking point with people and once you reach it, your humanity is lost… In some people forever. I wonder how many of these guys will continue to pose a threat to prison guards, fellow inmates and again the general population once they are inevitably released. You’re right.. As a society we have failed the victim here, and previously the criminals. It’s really


I just now scrolled up and saw your picture. Wow. You damn near stopped my heart; you look stunning in that picture.

I really did have more, uh, words and, uh stuff to say about, uh, things. And stuff. Yea. I’ll just go now.
"How does a child who has never experienced love or nurturing develop any sense of optimism, generosity or hope?"

As a former foster kid who saw the inside of the juvenile justice system during the 1960's in San Diego County, I want to say a little bit about the way you framed your question. I don't think that most folks would define love in the same way. I can remember seeing the 'bad' parents visiting with their children when I was in the receiving home. The children were bonded to their horrible parents and loved them. The problem I saw was the perversion of what love meant. I bathed toddlers and the small children and saw a lot of physical scars that had been inflicted on their tiny bodies. It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to hurt children so small, and it isn't a far off possibility to becoming someone who hurts others when such violence is what has happened in ones life, when anger and pain are the only arena for the expression of love that a child has known.

What I know is that in my own life there were a couple of people who I had very brief contacts with that opened the possibility of a better life and I attached to that vision and learned what I had to accomplish to realize that dream. I know that I have a stronger will than many do.

I shared a room with a girl who was pregnant at 14 by her own father. I was there in the dark when she cried herself to sleep. It is hard for any child to develop a sense of hope when their environment is full of dispair and when the adults around them explain almost nothing.

I remember a total idiot who called me into the counselling office in my junior year in high school to read the riot act on me for 'failing to live up to my potential." This counselor had no idea what I was living through. She was sitting there with our recent IQ tests, my Iowa tests and nothing else that had anything to do with my life. She was willing to condemn me without knowing me. I wondered what education actually does for anyone at the time. Education clearly didn't protect her from ignorance anymore than it had protected me.

But there were a couple of people who reached out to me, who bothered to get to know the me that was living inside those horrifying circumstances. The encouragement of my interests and the respect for my intelligence went a long way toward helping me move forward proactively on my own when I was old enough not to be interfered with anymore by people who didn't know what it means to be hungry, afraid, accustomed to danger, confused or loyal to those who had hurt me in the first place.

I have two sisters. All of us were raped at some point in our teens. For my sisters it was gang rape and for me it was date rape, but we had all been molested by relatives and strangers. Girls are particularly vulnerable when there is no one there to protect them, which is so often the case with kids in foster care or whose parents cannot afford childcare when they are at work.

Keep doing what you're doing. It was someone like you who gave me hope as a child.
This incident is disturbing on a number of levels. The public location of the sexual assault, the number of alleged perpetrators involved; the number of witnesses that made no attempt to intervene, and the lack of cooperation afterwards in identifying the assailants all paint a very troubling picture of depraved indifference.

Although this may appear to be an aberration, there is no doubt, major segments of our population continue to head down the wrong path. It may be too little too late for this group of wayward youths, but what of the neglected and abused children that are destined to follow the same path? Today’s problem child is tomorrow’s monster.
the breakdown in the family and the trivialization of sex in this culture is huge in all this and it will continue as long as those facts do
I am with you and FLW. I HATE what these boys did..... but somewhere years ago their hope and humanity was taken. Very few people are born truly evil but many many more are made evil.
At this point I don't think we know enough about the perpetrators to draw any conclusions. I just finished Dave Cullen's book on the Columbine attack. There you had a sociopath leader and a depressive/suicidal follower, both very different people, both with different motivations, and both with what on paper would seem to be good upbringings and adequate parenting.
Today we like to think we are modern people. We don't burn witches any more, or even heretics. But just think how we "modern" folks will look in, say, a thousand years -- assuming some degree of civilization, or improvement, takes place in the meantime. What will people of the future think when they learn about the dark side of our "modern" world? Uh-huh. That's what I thought. Glad I won't be there to hear it.
The numbers of witnesses, cell phones and no one calling 911 for two hours is really getting to me.
Thank you for this thoughtful post. It's just sad and depressing to think about. And Susanne, your comment is remarkable. You, in fact, are remarkable.
I agree with Lainey. You are remarkable. I've felt pretty much numb since reading this news afraid that to feel any of the normal emotions (anger, sadness, grief, disgust, anger) would be too big. This is the first thing I've read that makes sense about the whole situation. And you are so right. It's bigger than video games or any of the usual stuff that gets trotted out. I ride the Richmond train to work every morning. I've spent a little time working with this at risk population, in girls ages 13 to 17, and I found it extremely hard and heart breaking.

You write, "This wasn’t simply an aberration or some inexplicable “wrong place wrong time” situation. This isn’t about “mob mentality” or the influence of video games on our youth. The issues raised through the incident in Richmond hint at something far more primal about what is missing for these and other children in our communities – a steady loving presence in their lives that gives security, time and space to believe in a better way."

It doesn't sound simple or idealistic. It sounds true. And it takes courage to say it and for our culture to hear it.

Thank-you for making sense on this issue when so few do get it on a deeper level as you do. And thank-you for the work that you do.
I meant to say both Suzanne and moveovermommy are remarkable. (sorry I didn't read lainey's comment carefully enough).
Sometimes there is an opportunity to share what I know with folks who are brave enough to hear it. Thank you for being those people.
You're right, of course. Those other things, bad attitudes, mob mentality, all that, do come into it but are not at the core. This incident makes me physically ill.

When I was teaching, more than one girl told me she wanted to have a baby so that she could have someone to love her. Imagine. What a recipe for disaster and how sad that kids need to even think this. I'm glad you're doing the work you do.
Good on you for working with foster kids. Great post about this problem we all face - how do we deal with the abused, who are acting out in ways we cannot comprehend? Another population scares me as well - the returning vets from our wasteful, dishonorable wars. No one seems to be addressing the trauma they have seen, caused, and felt. God, or whoever, help us. Rated.
Gotta say more - Our broken foster system is up there with our broken prison system; imagine all those going into jails and prisons with their head on relatively straight, then spending a few years in hell having it twisted. There is precious little rehabilitation or therapy provided for the poor souls in our overcrowded prisons.

The movie 'Precious' comes out Nov. 6th. I know what it's about without seeing it. If you want to see how broken people are created, go see it.

I'm glad there are people like you and Suzanne Freeborn in this sad old, beautiful old world.
Sad for the city to get so much exposure for a henious crime. The boys are plain and simple animlas who need to dealt with severely. Of course their are a rash of lawyers who just migh try to get the guys off or a light sentence. Thenyou need to look at the victum and how she will face life in the future. The society we live in at times is just cruel and not really caring. Thankfully at this time Ilive and work in a country where this sort of thing does not happen that often. If it did then the one committing the crime will die no questions being asked.
A decade or so ago a Columbia journalism prof wrote a book, "Our Guys" about a football team at an uppermiddle class town in New Jersey--Glen Ridge, I think. These boys did the same thing to another young woman.

Maybe there is more than one pathway to the dark side-- I think you've written powerfully about one of them. But there are others.
The football team in Glen Ridge exemplifies the other, and should keep us from thinking that something like this will never happen in our well-heeled, two-parent, mcmansion communities.
This came to mind:

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

--excerpt from "The Shield of Achilles" (1953) by W.H. Auden