In Defense of Women: Memoirs of an Unrepentant Advocateby Nancy Gertner
In the boys' club climate of 1975, Nancy Gertner launched her career fighting a murder charge on behalf of antiwar activist Susan Saxe, one of the few women to ever make the FBI's Most Wanted List. What followed was a storied span of/b>
From a “Human Rights Hero,” a memoir of her illustrious career litigating groundbreaking cases
In the boys' club climate of 1975, Nancy Gertner launched her career fighting a murder charge on behalf of antiwar activist Susan Saxe, one of the few women to ever make the FBI's Most Wanted List. What followed was a storied span of groundbreaking firsts, as Gertner threw herself into criminal and civil cases focused on women's rights and civil liberties.
Gertner writes, for example, about representing Clare Dalton, the Harvard Law professor who famously sued the school after being denied tenure, and of being one of the first lawyers to introduce evidence of Battered Women's Syndrome in a first-degree murder defense. She writes about the client who sued her psychiatrist after he had sexually preyed on her, and another who sued her employers at Merrill Lynch--she had endured strippers and penis-shaped cakes in the office, but the wildly skewed distribution of clients took professional injury too far. All of these were among the first cases of their kind.
Gertner brings her extensive experience to bear on issues of long-standing importance today: the general evolution of thought regarding women and fetuses as legally separate entities, possibly at odds; the fungible definition of rape and the rights of both the accused and the victim; ever-changing workplace attitudes and policies around women and minorities; the concept of abetting crime. In Defense of Women is the one-of-a-kind memoir of an exceptional, self-proclaimed "outsider lawyer."
“At age 29, barely out of Yale Law School, Gertner takes on the defense of Susan Saxe. It is the beginning of a long career pushing the boundaries of law and society. With wit, heart, and honesty, Gertner . . . looks back on the decades just after feminism’s Third Wave, when issues like abortion for poor women, shield laws for rape victims, ‘battered wife syndrome,’ and the rights of lesbians to adopt children were unconventional, to say the least.”—Renee Loth, The Boston Globe
“In this season of television re-runs, devotees of Law and Order or The Good Wife would do well to turn off the tube, and sit down with Gertner’s book. They might pull an all-nighter.”—Senior Women
“Nancy Gertner's In Defense of Women is fascinating, fearless and fun - an exemplary life told with both wisdom and warmth.”—Jeffrey Toobin, Author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court
“This is a wonderfully readable and involving memoir by one of the legendary lawyer advocates of our time, a determined representative of the underserved who improbably ended up on the federal bench. A terrific book.”—Scott Turow, author of Innocent
“This is a fascinating memoir of a life lived in the law with passion, guts, humor, and great skill. Nancy Gertner’s clients were lucky to have her then, and the legal system is lucky to have her today.”—Linda Greenhouse, author of Before Roe v. Wade
“An extraordinary story by an extraordinary judge! Gertner’s memoir succeeds brilliantly in explaining why women’s voices are urgently needed in the law and on the bench. This book is as irreverent, funny, and dramatic as the justice herself.”—Joyce Antler, author of You Never Call! You Never Write!
“Nancy Gertner is a courageous pioneer and brilliant jurist whose life lessons will interest anyone who has ever stood in a courtroom, fought for a cause, or juggled a demanding career and loving family.”—Rosabeth Moss Kanter, author of SuperCorp
“Nancy Gertner’s book should be required reading at every law school in the country where women—and men—are learning these days that they have to choose between a successful legal career and their deepest convictions about justice. She is living proof that you don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. You can have it all. Indeed, she has done it all.” —Ellen Goodman, author of Paper Trail
"This is a fascinating memoir of a life lived in the law with passion, guts, humor, and great skill. Nancy Gertner's clients were lucky to have her then, and the legal system is lucky to have her today."—Linda Greenhouse, author of Becoming Justice Blackmuna (and Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who covered the United States Supreme Court for nearly three decades for The New York Times.)
“Gertner adeptly describes insider courtroom strategy as well as both the blatant and insidious institutional sexism she faced. Her story is a well-told reflection of the growth and growing pains of the legal system regarding women as advocates, educators, plaintiffs, and defendants.—Publisher's Weekly
“A riveting legal memoir by a superstar lawyer, a compassionate judge and a page turning writer. In Defense of Women is a rare treat: an insider with an outsider’s perspective speaking truth about power.”─Alan M. Dershowitz, author of Supreme Injustice
“[A] thoroughly engaging, outspoken memoir…She writes this memoir to preserve her pre-judge identity as an advocate, as well as to remind the next generation of women, particularly those rejecting feminism, of the choices she and her contemporaries fought hard to maintain.”─Kirkus Reviews
U.S. District Court Judge (Massachusetts) Gertner spent 25 years as a civil-rights and criminal-defense lawyer before being confirmed in 1994. Her thoroughly engaging, outspoken memoir about those years might be considered a bold move for a seated judge who should maintain an image of neutrality, but not a surprising one if you consider the values that have defined her career.
The author's story is that of "breaking into and succeeding in the quintessential man's world...told by one of many women who desperately tried to put her fancy legal skills at the service of society's most maligned members." She writes this memoir to preserve her pre-judge identity as an advocate, as well as to remind the next generation of women, particularly those rejecting feminism, of the choices she and her contemporaries fought hard to maintain. Gertner narrates her personal experiences—of a humble upbringing in Queens, attending Barnard and Yale, building a law practice, earning the respect of her opponents and balancing her job with a family (she has three children with husband John Reinstein, ACLU Legal Director)—alongside stories of the landmark cases she worked on. Defending anti–Vietnam War activist Susan Saxe from accusations of robbery and murder catapulted Gertner onto the legal stage at the beginning of her career. Rape, abortion, malpractice, murder, sexual harassment, extortion and academic discrimination trials followed, cementing her formidable reputation as one of Boston's best lawyers. While the author can be a little too obvious about the pride she takes in her impressive persona ("I suppose you have to be somewhat driven to characterize teaching at Harvard as time off"), the narrative is well-paced. Lofty musings on the justice system's ability to access "the truth" and the role of litigation in shifting social standards will be cited in law-school classes, while amusing anecdotes will resonate with general readers.
Fits Gertner's description of herself: "funny, irreverent, dramatic, prepared."
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Read an Excerpt
A “Real” Feminist
Peter, my fourteen-month-old, was up all night before the closing. The trial of a woman accused of murdering her husband, who had beaten her, was two hours away in Springfield, Massachusetts. I spent every other night there, to minimize the time away from the boys. With absolutely no sleep, except a few minutes in the car, I was going on pure adrenaline.
I pace back and forth in the silent courtroom telling Lisa Grimshaw’s story, a story so very far from my own:
She was the youngest of three sisters. The older two had been raised in comfort, but by the time Lisa was ten, her father was unemployed. Often drunk, he would fly into unpredictable rages. At first, the target was his wife, but soon it was Lisa. Alone with her father after school, the abuse turned sexual.
Remember the sound of her voice as she had described the pink bedspread on which he violated her. She seemed like a child, reexperiencing the pain.
At fourteen, she fled to Darryl Fredette. He was twenty-one, a batterer too, her face his favorite target. “I was the one who knocked out her front teeth!” he had crowed at trial. A son is born, Darryl Brandon Fredette, a boy so badly retarded that, within months, he was placed in foster care.
Then from Darryl to Tom Grimshaw. After moving to Miami, Tom could not find work, and like Lisa’s father, he began drinking and beating her, drinking and beating. She fled; he followed.
They reconciled. But when he found out that she was pregnant, he threatened to cut the baby out. Still, they stayed together. She loved him, she said.
Chad was born, this time, a normal son. They married and soon, much too soon, there were 911 calls, restraining orders, and finally, divorce. Now Tom’s visits to Chad were an occasion to torture her. Remember her testimony? One incident more degrading than the next—forcing her to have sex by threatening her with scalding water, handcuffing her while she slept, raping her when she awoke. Wherever she moved, he stalked her, found her, beat her.
Five months before Tom’s death, November 21, 1984, in the middle of the night, Lisa awoke to the sound of breaking glass. She had changed the locks to this new apartment, even nailed the windows shut, but Tom smashed them open. In the fight that followed, he knocked her front teeth out with a hammer—the second time her teeth were bashed at the hands of an abusive lover.
- - - -
I pause. I bring a chair directly in front of the jury. I sit down, lean over as far as I can, and wrap my arms around my legs. This was as close to a fetal position as I could get, dressed as I was in court clothes and heels. For my closing, I will relive Lisa’s story of the hours before Tom’s death. I will transform myself into her.
June 3, 1985. Tom picked up Chad. They fought; she bargained: “You can have him now, but don’t give me shit when I come to get him.” When she returned, there was a struggle. Chad, only four, ran into the middle of the street. An oncoming car missed him by inches. Tom grabbed Lisa’s keys and struck her with them. She scrambled away, grabbing spare keys and her young son.
Back in her apartment, safe for the time being, she drank and drank, sitting in a chair, staring at the apartment door.
And, as I recite these facts, I slowly rock back and forth, staring into space.
Every sound frightened her; Tom would surely break in at any minute. Then, taking on her voice, I say: And this time, he will kill me or Chad. This time he will really do it.
Two men, acquaintances really, came to the door after a night’s drinking. Lisa had met Michael Bruyette at her job at Bo’s Lounge in Chicopee. She was just twenty-three; he, nineteen. Michael Ashey, sixteen, hung out with Bruyette. Lisa complained about her husband’s abuse. Bruyette, wooing her with his machismo, once threatened Tom on the phone. Lisa told Bruyette and Ashey what happened that night. Bruyette announced: “OK, that’s it, let’s go.” In her alcoholic haze, she said, “OK.”
Bruyette called the shots: Ashey’s older brother, Ronald, would babysit for Chad. “You pick up Tom at work,” Bruyette said. “We’ll do the rest.”
She met Tom as he was leaving the night shift. “I’m horny,” she told him. They drove to a remote area. When they stopped, she said, “You walk on. I have to pee.” Instead, she returned to her car, hands frozen to the wheel. The idea was to beat Tom, not kill him, but Bruyette and Ashey got carried away.
A very young woman, lurching from moment to moment, driven by her fear, her past, the abuse, the torture, believes that she has no choice but to fight back.
My voice breaks. I stop speaking, but rock slowly—my eyes closed.
Francis Bloom, an assistant DA in Springfield, Hamden County, stands up. He shouts. He paces. He is furious, his words dripping with contempt, as he counters:
Lisa was conniving and manipulative. A cold-blooded murderer. She had taken a nineteen-year-old and a sixteen-year-old, Bruyette and Ashey, “plied” them with sex in one case, alcohol in another, and promised them the proceeds of Tom’s life insurance policy. She “lured” her husband to the boat ramp, in the middle of the night, where these two hired assassins were waiting behind a tree, knowing that they were going to splatter his brains all over the rocks.
Then he turns to the details: the officers who had found the body in the early morning hours, its battered condition, the contents of Tom Grimshaw’s wallet tossed contemptuously in the dumpster en route from the Chicopee boat ramp, the brother’s heartrending testimony when he described the last time he saw Tom. From what he could see of Tom and Lisa’s marriage—and he saw them all the time—it was entirely normal.
Bloom recounts the testimony of Michael and Ronald Ashey in a rapid-fire narrative: Ronald, the older brother, who babysat for Chad while Lisa and Bruyette killed Chad’s father, was charged as an accessory before the fact of first-degree murder. Michael, who had accompanied the others to the boat ramp, was charged as a co-conspirator.
Lisa promised them money from an insurance policy on her husband’s life in return for the murder. Sure, she talked about her husband’s brutality, not because it was true—but because she was manipulating them. Just as she was manipulating you.
Bloom pauses to glare at the jury.
When she told Bruyette and Ashey about the November 1984 hammer incident, she had added, “I want him dead.” Bruyette was her special focus. She was sleeping with him, leading him on. Killing her husband was the return on her investment in these boys.
This was no spur-of-the-moment, no instant crime of passion. It was planned, and Lisa was the ringleader. Bruyette and Michael had picked up bats from Tom Grimshaw’s house some time before the killing. She told them where to go. When she arrived at the boat ramp, she signaled them. Hardly sleepwalking, frozen, or dazed. And afterwards, when they left Tom moaning, grievously injured, she conspired about disposing of the body (“throw it in the river”) and covering up the crime (“wash the car”).
It was cold-blooded, first-degree murder, murder for hire, nothing more, nothing less.
- - - -
From afar, this was an easy case for me—easier than the political corruption trials that I had recently finished, easier than the runof- the-mill murder case. This was, after all, Gertner the feminist, representing a battered woman. True, Lisa set in motion the night’s events, but should the law hold her responsible? Wasn’t the killing committed in self-defense because of her state of mind, the psychological condition known as “battered woman syndrome,” and therefore legally excused?
But it was not easy on many fronts—professional, political, and now personal. Should battered woman syndrome/self-defense excuse such an act entirely, with a not-guilty verdict, or should it mitigate the outcome with a finding of manslaughter, a lower sentence? What about other so-called syndromes that lead to killings— road rage, homosexual fear, “Twinkie” defenses? Or the “white fear” that a small white man, Bernard Goetz, claimed justified his shooting of four black teenagers on a New York subway? What about the “black rage” of any African American treated with contempt by our culture? If we exonerate one, do we exonerate them all?
I could not forget that a man, a father, had been killed. At this stage in my career, I could not pretend that the legal discourse framed all the complicated issues in this human drama.
But had I finally learned to just say whatever it took in court, what I didn’t believe in, craft so totally trumping principle? No. But, sixteen years into the practice of law, I understood advocacy and its boundaries, complex reality and simple trial narratives. Trials, unlike one-sided grand jury investigations, are competing narratives, as Janet Malcolm once noted in The Crime of Sheila McGough—my version versus their version. Life, though, is chaotic; when you shoehorn it into neat stories, it is no longer, strictly speaking, the truth. Advocacy colors both sides. Lawyers are, after all, storytellers—even caricaturists—not reporters. And when the issues are complex, as in Lisa’s case, the distance between a trial’s stories and life’s stories widens.
Still, there were limits to how far I was willing to go to separate legal argument and life—especially now that my time was more limited, my life more complex. These were not just the traditional ethical limits on lawyers. I had to believe in the cause, the person, the issues, or some combination. The label “a feminist case” was not enough. Why, then, this person and this case?
Meet the Author
Nancy Gertner was appointed a Federal District judge by President Clinton in 1993 and serves on the bench for the District of Massachusetts. Before her appointment, Judge Gertner was a defense and civil rights lawyer in Boston. As a judge she has decided cases where racial profiling, employment discrimination, and fair housing were at issue. A graduate of Barnard College and Yale Law School, she has taught at the law schools of Yale, Boston College, Boston University, and Harvard.
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