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About the Author
A graduate of Columbia Law School, Jennifer Ridha has at various times in her life been a lawyer, a law professor, and a criminal defendant in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She is pursuing a doctoral degree in legal anthropology, urban studies, and criminal justice. Criminal That I Am is her first book. Visit her website at JenniferRidha.com.
Read an Excerpt
Criminal That I Am
I can fall asleep anywhere. Airports, movie theaters, bathroom stalls. Once during law school, seated in the gallery of an overcrowded courtroom during a murder trial I was supposed to be observing, I managed to curl into the fetal position, legs pulled to my chest, head pressed against the pew. I awoke only when I felt a crude poke to the shoulder and opened my eyes to see a court guard who had but six words for me: “Wake your ass up or leave.”
I take my aptitude for sleep seriously, not only because of the pleasures it offers but also because of sleep’s unparalleled ability to provide refuge from all waking hells. It therefore strikes me as odd in the wee hours of July 26, 2010, that I suddenly sit upright in bed, as though someone has just doused me with water. I look around my bedroom for the cause. There doesn’t seem to be one: the clock indicates that the time is just shy of five in the morning, and even through my groggy disposition I can see that everything is accounted for, nothing is out of place. I am in a brief period between two jobs—one has concluded the week before, and the other does not begin for several more. Lacking obligations, I issue a personal sleep decree and go back to sleep.
An hour later, I hear my doorbell ring. Having already determined that there is no reason to be awake, I ignore it. Probably the mailman, I tell myself.
I suppose only moments pass before I hear the doorbell ring again. I don’t stir. The doorbell rings again. And then again. Soon, the doorbell is being pressed in such rapid succession that its wail is now an uninterrupted siren from the front door.
Confused, and not a little annoyed, I slink out of bed and make my way to the living room. Once there, I realize that the cry of the doorbell is accompanied by a heavy pounding, one that causes the door to shake with each blow. This is not the mailman, I think.
No, even in my half-slumber, I know that this is clearly something much more ominous. I ask through the door, “Who is it, please?”
The pounding and ringing stop.
“It’s the Department of Justice.”
I wish I could say that I’m baffled as to the reason why the Department of Justice is at my doorstep. But I will venture that most people who are visited at an unconventional hour by law enforcement have a decent idea of why they are there. I do, at least. And so, when I hear these words through the door, I feel a heavy dread run through me.
I close my eyes and press my forehead against the door in the hopes I can possibly will their presence away. This doesn’t work. After a moment I clear my throat and say, “Yes?”
“Open the door.”
The man’s request seems easy enough. I move my hand toward the knob, but before I turn it, a lawyerly thought passes through my brain.
“Why?” I ask.
There is a pause on the other side of the door. From the agent’s silence, I deduce that this visit is not accompanied by a warrant, not one for my arrest nor one for the search of my home. This means that I don’t have to open the door. I don’t have to do anything at all.
The agent seems to follow my thought process. “Just open the door. I’m starting to wake up your neighbors.”
Sure enough, I hear the chain and latch of the door of my elderly neighbor, Patrick, a sweet man in precarious health who always stops to ask me how I am doing. Even after today, he will not discuss what he sees this morning. When I run into him in the hallway, he will only ask me how I am doing. “I’m fine,” I will tell him. “I’m just fine.”
Now that poor Patrick is awake, and the agents are not going anywhere, the options are few. I take a deep breath. This is it, I think. This is where it all begins.
I open the door. I see the first of two federal agents, a burly white man in his late forties. He doesn’t seem happy that I have made him wait at my door. Next to him is a black woman, whose age I will not guess, in a pantsuit and glasses. I later learn that she is not on my case but has accompanied Burly Man because of a Department of Justice policy requiring male agents to visit female suspects at home with a female agent in tow. This is a good policy. The expression on Burly Man’s face frightens me. Lady Agent softens things up a bit.
Even though I know why they’re here, I’m still in shock. I have stepped out of my body and am watching this exchange happen to someone else. The active part of my brain has been switched off; I have only at my disposal its default settings. I’m processing everything matter-of-factly, as though Burly Man is here to fix my cable, not to advise me of a criminal investigation that is being conducted in my honor.
Burly Man shows me his badge. I look at it in the hopes it provides some loophole about why he should not be standing in my foyer. I find no loophole. He places the badge back in a black leather case and then pulls from the inside pocket of his jacket a white envelope.
“I’m here to give you this letter,” he says. “And I want you to read it right now.”
I take the letter from his hand. My default settings are in charge. I don’t have to read this right now, I think. And I don’t want to read a letter whose contents I already know, especially not in front of Burly Man, who will probably be able to detect that I already know. I stare at the envelope, wondering if there is some way I can get out of this.
I look up at Burly Man. Read it, his eyes insist. Now.
I open the letter. It is a target letter. As I read, I imagine a faint bull’s-eye appearing on my forehead.
The letter is written on stationery for the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. The letter, addressed to me, states its method of delivery as “By Hand.” The letter also says that I am a target of a federal investigation, that I should be aware that the Office plans on presenting this investigation to a grand jury. Would I like to come in to meet with the prosecutor’s office and say something for myself? Or would I prefer to be indicted? Sincerely, Some Prosecutor.
As I read the letter, I do not react to its contents. I am mindful that Burly Man is watching me closely. Lady Agent, on the other hand, appears to be somewhat disinterested. I see her looking around my apartment as though she is hoping something better will grab her attention.
I hand the letter back to Burly Man. “It’s for you,” he says, as though bestowing a gift. “Keep it.”
“Okay,” I say.
“Do you have anything you’d like to say about the letter?” he asks.
“If it’s all right,” I say, knowing full well that it is, “I’d prefer to speak to an attorney before I say anything.”
Burly Man’s face falls. I suspect that he’s hoping that in my rude awakening I don’t recall this most basic precept of criminal procedure, that I’ve never seen an episode of Law & Order. But I do, and I have.
“Well, now that you’ve said the word ‘attorney’ I can’t ask you anything else about this.” He is disappointed.
Yes, I think. That’s why I said it.
“Can we still come in?” he asks.
Shit, I think. Shit, shit, shit. I’ve already mustered all of the energy I have for this encounter and can feel my shock beginning to fade into crude awareness. I want Burly Man and Lady Agent to go away so I can fall apart in peace. But I also don’t think it would serve me well to push them away.
“Yes, of course,” I hear myself say.
Burly Man takes a seat on the sofa in the living room. As he sits down, I notice a large diet root beer stain near his feet on the cream-colored rug. The stain has been there for quite some time, only addressed in previous weeks by my stepping over it. For a fleeting moment I hear my mother’s voice admonishing me to always have my home ready for company. But I don’t think she ever had this situation in mind, and to think about her at all in this moment is too much, and so I just say, “Sorry about the soda stain.” And then, a terrible lie: “I didn’t get a chance to clean it yesterday.”
“No problem,” Burly Man says.
Lady Agent doesn’t sit down. She is casually making her way around my living room, eyeing its contents. Because I don’t yet know that she is there only as a matter of protocol, I take her saunter around my apartment to be a casual collection of information about her suspect.
You have nothing to hide, I assure myself, although I wish I did not have my DVD collection of The Wire featured so prominently next to my television set.
Burly Man says that he does not want to ask me any questions that I would prefer to answer with a lawyer. But I can tell that he wants to know if I plan to admit or deny the allegations in the letter.
Burly Man names my co-conspirator. “You did represent him in his criminal case?”
It’s common knowledge—a matter of public record, in fact—that I helped represent my co-conspirator in his legal case. Since Burly Man wants some kind of answer from me, to give him this one seems fairly harmless.
“Yes,” I say. “I did.”
“And you had a romantic relationship with him?”
I swallow. This is considerably less harmless. The answer is also yes, depending on one’s definition of a romantic relationship, but something I’ve shared with virtually no one.
Lady Agent interrupts. She is considering the wall adjacent to my television set. “Did you take these?”
She is pointing to photographs of children in rural Ghana that I took on vacation years earlier. Though I don’t understand how these could possibly relate to my crimes, hers is a decidedly easier question to answer.
“Yes, I did.”
“They’re beautiful pictures,” she says, still studying them. I am puzzled, but flattered that Lady Agent thinks much of my photography.
Burly Man’s face shows a flicker of annoyance. “I was asking you—”
I interrupt because I don’t want to hear him repeat the question. “I guess I can tell you that,” I say. “Yes.” I add, because it’s true, “After the case was over.”
Burly Man seems satisfied to have gotten somewhere with me. “Well, I suppose that isn’t against the law.”
I glance over at Lady Agent. She is now examining my bookcase. She doesn’t appear to be listening to my confession.
Burly Man is looking at me as though I should say something more. I know that he’ll find out soon enough, so I gesture toward a small carry-on suitcase located near my front door. “Actually, I just got back last night from visiting him.” It’s not necessary for me to add that I visited him at a federal correctional facility, because this is the only place my co-conspirator can be visited.
“Yes,” Burly Man says. “We know.”
I feel a chill run up my spine. If Burly Man knows something as benign as this, he has been keeping very close track of me. He has possibly seen my credit card receipts; my flight records; he probably knows the name of the bed-and-breakfast I stayed at in the town where the correctional facility is located; he has almost certainly read my e-mails and has been listening to my phone conversations. He has perhaps looked at my bank accounts, my medical records, my comings and goings.
Over the coming months, I will learn that much of this is true. Now, sitting in my living room alongside two federal agents, only one fact resonates: not only does Burly Man know what I’ve done, he has also expended considerable resources in uncovering it.
The implications of what is happening swirl in my head. I forget that Burly Man is sitting on my sofa. “You seem very calm,” he tells me.
I look at Burly Man but say nothing. On the inside, I am in emotional free fall.
Then, I hear this: “Oh, my goodness, is this your cat? She’s adorable!”
Lady Agent has caught sight of my cat, a fluffy white Himalayan. She likes to climb on humans, particularly males, usually resting in and around their crotch region. I think it may have something to do with pheromones and warmth. I usually remember to warn men of her advances before they sit down. Today, however, this has slipped my mind.
While Burly Man and I have been discussing my imminent demise, my cat has made her way into the living room. She has summarily dismissed Lady Agent’s overtures and is sauntering over to Burly Man with her eye on the prize.
I pull myself away from my inner turmoil. “I’m sorry. She’s very friendly,” I say as she rubs against Burly Man’s legs. I don’t tell Burly Man to watch his crotch, as this seems inappropriate.
“Actually, I like cats,” Burly Man says as he reaches down to pet her. “I have two of my own.”
Burly Man does not strike me as someone who would have cats. Dobermans, maybe, or a pair of cobras. But cats? All the same, I see that Burly Man has a small smile as he strokes my cat’s back. She is elated at the display of affection.
I try to imagine Burly Man at his home with his cats, putting down cat food, cleaning up litter. They curl up with him while he watches TV and drinks a beer. He strokes the tops of their heads, they close their eyes with contentment. I have to leave early, he tells them this morning. I have to go bang on someone’s door and wake her up and make her read a letter and ruin her life. I’ll be home soon.
My cat has had enough foreplay and is ready to go all the way. I see her poised to jump on Burly Man’s lap and quickly grab her. She’s not taking this well and is squirming so she can get down and return to pursuing her target.
I can’t take much more of this, so I stand up.
Burly Man stands up, too. Because he is at eye level, my cat stops squirming. “Well,” he says not unkindly, “I will tell them at the office that you were cooperative with us.”
It’s an odd segue but I take it. I say what I think to be the magic words, or as much magic that can be conjured in such a hopeless situation. “Please tell them that as soon as I consult with an attorney, I will answer their questions.”
This will keep Burly Man away from my door. It is also very likely my only way out.
Burly Man is visibly relieved to hear this. I have just made his life much easier. He throws me a bone. “Hopefully this can all be explained,” he says.
I say nothing.
Burly Man and Lady Agent make their way to the door. The relief I thought I would feel at this moment does not come. Instead, I quickly realize that their departure marks what Churchill might have called—if Churchill ever cared to describe this juncture of my criminal case—the end of the beginning. Now that prosecutors have made me aware of the investigation, I know that the next steps will likely be swift and harsh.
“Wait,” I say.
They both turn around.
“Would it be possible to call my parents? I mean, without the call being recorded?”
I don’t ask this out of any calculated legal strategy. I ask about being able to talk to my parents because it is all I want to do. Actually, to be more exact, all I want to do is go to my parents’ house. Live there, so I no longer have a door for federal agents to pound. Be a child again, so I am able to avoid the series of poor decisions that have led me to this moment.
Lady Agent and Burly Man exchange looks. “Let’s say, hypothetically, we are recording your calls,” Burly Man says. “If we hear that you are speaking to your family, we know that call is not of interest to us.”
“So you won’t listen?”
I’m not certain, but I think I see a look of pity in Burly Man’s eyes. “No, we won’t listen.”
And with that, the two federal agents are finished with me for the day. I watch them make their way to the elevator. Out of habit, I wave good-bye as though they are departing dinner guests. I wait for the sound of the elevator. Then I close my front door, sit down on the floor in front of it, and place my head in my hands.
When I finally lift my head, I have to squint to adjust to the daylight. The glare bathes my living room, as though even the sun has placed me under heightened scrutiny.
I know I can’t sit here forever. I make my way to the desk where my telephone is located and sit down. Without dialing, I push my ear to the receiver in order to listen for any surveillance. I’m not sure what this would sound like. I decide I should just assume they are there.
I take a deep breath and dial my parents’ number. Before it begins to ring, I realize that I have no idea of what I’m going to say. I hang up.
Have you ever had to call your parents to tell them that you are the target of a criminal investigation? If so, you know that this is a task that requires some forethought. The news will likely be disturbing. Also, it would be a mistake to tell them something that the government does not yet know. This would technically make them witnesses to my crime, a thought so terrifying that I consider whether I should call them at all.
I decide that I am too far gone where the government is concerned, that there is no sense in hiding anything from my parents. I make two small caveats. First, there is no reason to worry both of my parents. I will tell either my mom or my dad, but not both. Second, I will not give this parent the full story until after I have consulted with a lawyer.
The only decision that remains is which parent to tell. The issue is a complicated one given that my needs are contradictory. On the one hand, I am in need of a steady hand, one that is guided by common sense, to help me figure this out. On the other hand, I am in need of sympathy, of someone who might understand why I did the things I did.
Logic and common sense are qualities epitomized by my dad. A civil engineer by trade, he has spent a lifetime considering the science of structure, a pursuit made possible only through the avid use of rational thinking. My dad is a man who approaches every issue with an analysis that is as measured as it is detached, the type of person who not only reads the instruction manual that accompanies an electronic device, but enthusiastically highlights it for future reference. The type of person who keeps this manual in a clearly labeled file contained in an elaborate filing system located in the basement. The type of person who maintains a filing system containing four decades’ worth of such documents with a level of order akin to that of the National Archives. The type of person who retains a file labeled “Children’s Artwork.” A file labeled “Greeting Cards.” A file labeled “Blank Paper.”
That my father leads with logic is probably a product of his upbringing. He was born in an old holy city ninety miles south of Baghdad in an era of Iraqi politics rendered unstable by unsavory influences. Regimes would come and go and then come back again, each time bringing a new set of uncertainties and fears. Nothing was predictable, until the Baathists took over, and then the only thing that was assured was misery. My dad has seen the very worst of what a lack of order can bring, and so it’s my hypothesis that this is why he has dedicated himself to a life guided by reason.
I should mention that I have visited the city of my father’s beginnings, yet was unable to picture him anywhere near it. The city has a rich religious history, but because reason and religion do not always mix, I can’t imagine my father was much taken with this. The air was hazy with smoke wafting from open food stalls, the smell of spiced lamb ubiquitous. My dad invariably smells of Old Spice and refuses to eat anything out of paper or plastic. The dusty streets were teeming with local children running among religious pilgrims, their smiling faces smudged with dirt and their movements carefree. As a parent, my father admonished my siblings and me to sit still and implemented bath time as a non-negotiable demand.
My father’s measured approach strikes me as appealing. But when I consider the other side of the coin, I hesitate. For while my father will probably have the most sensible answer as to what I should do next, he will never be able to understand why I did what I did. In my father’s universe there is no justifiable reason to disobey the rules. If there is a good enough reason to break a rule, he often says, the rule would not exist in the first place.
How can one argue with this? What I learned over the course of my childhood is that one can’t. I thus received no leniency in tenth grade when I was sent to the principal’s office because I refused to throw away an apple I was illicitly eating during class. Already condemned by the school to a week of lunchtime detention, in facing my family tribunal I took the adamant position that there were starving people in the world, and to require me to waste a perfectly good apple was unjust, even immoral. My father, unmoved, grounded me for a month. When I protested that this harsh punishment was not unlike those meted out by the oppressive government he had fled, I bought myself an additional two weeks for cultural insensitivity and general smart-assedness.
Remembering my father’s unwavering adherence to the rules makes me rethink bringing him into today’s conversation. I shift my consideration to my mother. If “logic” is my father’s guiding light, then “tradition” is my mother’s. To my mom, there isn’t any problem that cannot be solved by adhering to the time-tested standards of the ancients. Of these, she is very familiar. Raised in an elegant Baghdad neighborhood in a home that was a stone’s throw from the Tigris, my mother was brought up in a sea of adages that can be traced back to the birth of civilization.
The most stringent of my mother’s standards regard the conduct of women. A woman is supposed to act in a certain way. When we watched one of the preeminent women on The Real Housewives of New Jersey proclaim that “a wife should be a cook in the kitchen, a lady in the parlor, and a whore in the bedroom,” my mother’s eyes widened. “Listen to her,” she ordered me. “This is very true.” The conviction in her voice was so cringe-worthy that I was unable to finish my ice cream sandwich.
But even these qualities are not enough. Women must also be academically accomplished. My childhood was replete not only with admonishments to study but also the pervasive sense that I was never doing quite good enough. It was not uncommon for a ninety-six percent on a math test to be met with an inquiry as to the whereabouts of the remaining four percent.
In order to enforce her impossible standards, my mother ran a very tight ship. I am of the opinion that because she lived under Baathist rule longer than my father, she was better versed in its more effective methods of control. There were no individual rights in our household. My mother kept a mental list of all of our significant schoolwork so that she could interrogate us about completion. Personal choices of any kind were subject to her approval. Book bags were routinely inspected. Time in front of the television and on the telephone was regulated and monitored. The closest I have ever come to a fear-induced heart attack—and I include the aforementioned visit by the feds—was when my sister and I snuck out of the house and returned in the middle of the night to find our mother standing out front in her coat, waiting for our arrival. She was always one step ahead, making our efforts to live outside her lines futile.
My mother’s traditionalist views make me hesitate again. After all, good girls do not break the law. And there is a romantic relationship mixed in with my case, something of which my mother will certainly not approve.
But I also think about the fact that, like most traditionalists, my mother is a sizable hypocrite. When I visited Baghdad for the first time, I learned that she was a very different daughter than what she expected me to be. She was uniformly described to me as someone with too many friends and social engagements, and with propensities not in academic achievement but in fashion and dance. Although her sisters pursued degrees in medicine and science, little mention was made of my mother’s scholastic work ethic. I later discovered that this was because it mostly didn’t exist.
When I learned of my mother’s double standard, I thought about all of the times in childhood I had to account for missing percentage points. In a brief moment of postmodern thought, I resentfully pondered what kind of punishment my mother would have doled out on her younger self had she been a member of our household. I wondered, too, if her younger self might have served as an effective lookout that night when my sister and I tried to sneak back into the house.
Still, over time I’ve come to see that my mother’s hypocrisy comes from a good place. Her role as parent-slash-dictator is likely an outgrowth of her belief that her children deserve more than what was made available to her. And for all of her insistence on perfection, she is a big believer in throwing caution to the wind. In a vivid memory from childhood, she permitted my brother and sister and me to convert her green metallic Buick Skylark into an imaginary General Lee, the iconic vehicle from The Dukes of Hazard, each of us hanging from its windows Bo-and-Luke-Duke-style while she drove us to the day care at her Jazzercise class. In my memory, with my torso extended and my arms outstretched, I felt as though I was flying. I remember looking at my mother in the driver’s seat; she was intently observing the road, undisturbed by her children’s whoops and hollers. My mother understands that there are times to set aside logic—and child-safety laws—and just be.
So while my mother talks tough, her heart is soft. Even in matters of criminal justice, she cannot bear the suffering of others. She takes the abstract position that crime must always be met with unfettered punishment, yet she will openly weep whenever she watches Sean Penn make the slow march to the death chamber in Dead Man Walking. When she served as a juror in a federal drug matter, she could not bring herself to find the young defendant guilty because she did not want to ruin his life. Though she will never say so, my mother believes that everyone deserves second chances, the benefit of the doubt, the presumption of being good.
It is this good place in my mother’s heart, and her ability to see virtue where reason can’t, where I believe my salvation can be found. She is the parent who wins the unfortunate prize. She will get why I did it, I think. She will understand.
I dial my parents’ number. It’s still early in the morning, but my father picks up after the first ring. As I expected, he is already preparing himself for the day.
“Hi, sweetheart!” he says. He does not express surprise that I am calling him so early on a weekday. He is possibly hoping that I have finally adopted the sleep schedule he has futilely encouraged since I was young. He does not know that were it not for my rude awakening by federal agents, I would still be asleep.
I ask if I can speak to my mom. “She’s still sleeping,” he says.
“Can you please wake her up?”
He pauses for a moment. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” I lie. “I just wanted to tell her something and this is probably my only chance today to call.”
I soon hear my mother’s groggy voice on the line. “Hi,” she says. I can tell that she is still supine, under the covers.
I’m not certain how to begin, so I start with the obvious. “Mom, some agents came to my door this morning.”
“Agents,” I say. “From the Department of Justice.”
“What are agents?”
“They’re like the police,” I say. I do not add: but they are much worse.
I hear my mother sit up. “The police? What do they want?”
“They said I broke the law.”
My mother lets out a long exhale. “Well, that’s ridiculous. There must be some mistake. Just tell them, Jennie, that they made a mistake. They’ll sort it out.”
Her relief is making this worse. I take a deep breath. “It’s actually not a mistake,” I say.
There is a long, painful pause.
“How can it not be a mistake?” And then, cautiously: “Did you do something wrong?”
“Yes,” I say.
“What do you mean? What did you do?”
“I can’t tell you,” I say.
“What? Why can’t you tell me?”
“Because I don’t want anyone from the government to question you.” I don’t want to say it, but I have to. “Also, my phone might be tapped.”
There is silence on the other line. My mother knows from tapped phones, having grown up under a paranoid dictatorship. Hers is a learned response, one that is based in fear.
“I think I really messed up.” Saying this out loud causes all residual shock to dissolve. For the first time that morning, I begin to cry. And then, with a tone of self-pity that only a mother can indulge, I sputter through tears, “I think my whole life as I know it is pretty much over.”
“Don’t say that. Crying is not going to help now.” And then, as I cry harder, she says: “No, no. You’re a smart girl, a good girl.”
This is a phrase my mother repeated to me in my most vulnerable moments in childhood. To hear her say it then made my troubles subside. To hear it now as a grown woman facing criminal charges is decidedly less comforting, possibly because in this moment it is the furthest thing from the truth.
“Mom,” I say pathetically, “can you please come here?”
“To New York?”
“Yes,” I say. “I want you to come here.”
She agrees. She has one condition: “Please, don’t tell your father about what happened,” she warns. “He will be sick over it.”
She’s being literal; my father’s worry usually manifests as physical ailments. Once, on a cruise vacation when he could not locate my brother and me—we had absconded to the boat’s casino in the hopes of finding unclaimed tokens for the slot machines—his fear that we had fallen overboard made him so ill that we had to summon the ship’s doctor.
But there is more to it: she is also sparing my father from what she is feeling now.
She seems eager to get off the phone. She tells me to let her know what I can, when I can, and that she will let me know when she is coming.
She is saying good-bye, and I interrupt. “Mom?” I say.
“I’m so sorry. I promise to spend the rest of my life making this up to you.”
She does not immediately respond. I hear a deep sigh. “No,” she says.
It’s not clear what she is saying no to, and I’m too afraid to ask.
When I get off the phone with my mother, I am not sure what to do with myself. That’s the horrible thing about getting tangled with the law: there is everything to think about and nothing to be done. My shock has waned, and I let reality sink in.
I halfheartedly walk into my bedroom. I might as well get dressed, I think. As I rummage through my closet for something to wear, I catch a glimpse of myself in my full-length mirror and freeze.
I’m wearing my standard-issue nighttime clothing: a pair of gingham pajama pants and a cotton T-shirt. But what I failed to remember when I ran to the door this morning is that the night before, I had selected a T-shirt that was almost completely sheer. In the commotion of my morning, I’ve also failed to put on a bra. My breasts are entirely exposed.
I reflexively pull my arms around my body, as though somehow this will erase the fact that I have managed to flash two agents of the Department of Justice. I suppose that being consummate professionals, neither Burly Man nor Lady Agent let their eyes linger on my chest. Or if they did, I was too distracted to notice it. I clutch my arms harder in the hopes that this will stop the cringing. It doesn’t.
What I don’t know as I stand essentially topless in front of my mirror is that this is a harbinger of things to come. Criminal cases have an inevitable voyeuristic streak. Personal details, even when they don’t precisely bear on the relevant facts, always seem to rise to the surface. I’ve often wondered if this is an intentional prosecutorial tactic, confronting suspects with the sordid details of their personal lives to force them to acquiesce to the government’s demands.
I’ve seen glimpses of this in practice, clients having to admit affairs or fetishes or narcotic proclivities. But now it’s me who will be standing in the spotlight. This will seem harmless at first: I will be asked to identify my birthmarks, to provide my weight, to list any tattoos. My pharmaceutical records will be discussed. I will be asked questions about my family, my bank account, the places I have called home.
But over time, the exposure will extend to the most intimate parts of human existence, the spaces that one believes, or at least hopes, will never be public knowledge. E-mails of the romantic kind, both written and received, will be presented as evidence. I will be questioned about the location of kisses, both on earth and on my person. A prosecutor will advise a judge that I maintain that I did not have sex with my co-conspirator and that he is unable to prove otherwise. In an open courtroom, a defense attorney will ask about my vagina. My bra will become the stuff of newspaper headlines. On a message board for lawyers, men will hypothesize about my ability to perform fellatio. I will learn that in the realm of criminal justice, no corners of life are sacred. Everything is for the taking.
As I stand in front of my mirror, however, I know none of what’s to come. Instead, I stare at my reflection, at the residues of my beauty regimen from the day before. My hair, perfectly coiffed for yesterday’s prison visit, has been reduced to limp waves. My skin is tan from the sweltering summer. I notice smudges of mascara on the sides of my eyelids, faint traces of eyeliner underneath. My face looks as though it was once precisely drawn but then placed in a washing machine.
I gaze at it as though it belongs to someone else. This, I think to myself, is what a criminal looks like.
Without a clear memory of the remainder of the day, I’m later forced to piece together its events through documentary evidence. Taxi receipts and legal bills demonstrate that I meet with my attorney that same afternoon. I note that he is kind and thoughtful and does not appear to openly judge what is undoubtedly my disheveled state. I give him the letter from Burly Man and in painful detail explain exactly what I did and why. As most lawyers do, he speaks reassuringly, but I do not leave his office feeling reassured.
He advises me not to talk to my co-conspirator until this matter is resolved. He also asks me to print out all of my e-mails to him so he can read our exchanges for anything relevant. I know this drill well, but not from this end. I hate the thought of my attorney reading my private exchanges for evidentiary purposes.
Still, a credit card receipt will show that on my way home I stop at a drugstore to pick up a ream of printer paper in order to follow his directive. When I leave the store, I think I hear a man’s voice calling me. Trying to avoid human interaction at all costs, I quicken my pace and look straight ahead until the voice fades into the cacophony of the street. When I return to my apartment, I realize that I’ve left the paper behind.
Home phone records for that day will show that on or around seven o’clock in the evening, my best friend calls me. She asks me about my day, and I report that federal agents came to my door and that I’ve been informed that I’m the target of a criminal investigation.
At first, she’s silent. And then she says: “Damn, Jen, your life is never boring.”
It is my first and only laugh of the day. Though I never discussed my crime with anyone—my co-conspirator and I have sworn each other to secrecy—it seems she has a sense of what I’ve done. She does know about my relationship with my co-conspirator and makes the immediate connection that he is somehow involved.
She is a good friend, and so she comforts me that everything will be fine when it most certainly won’t. She says there is nothing to do but try to take my mind off of things. I promise her that I will try. She suggests that these circumstances are extreme enough for me to employ a method of relaxation involving a substance that is currently legal in most states only for medicinal purposes. I tell her that it seems unwise to risk racking up my charges, especially so early into my case.
She says she will call me tomorrow and is true to her word. She will call the next day, and then the next, and then virtually every day thereafter until the middle of winter, when I appear in court to account for my sins. On that day, I will speak to her by phone just before my appearance. In a comforting voice, she will assure me that it will all be over soon, that my life will be boring again. Even though she can’t see me, and even though that does not end up being true, I will nod my head in relief.
Finally, U.S. Bureau of Prisons records will reveal that on or around eight o’clock in the evening, a call from one of its facilities is placed to my cellular telephone. The allowed duration of calls from this and any other federal correctional facility is exactly fifteen minutes, after which the line will automatically disconnect. The caller is announced in advance, and I’m required to declare my willingness to speak to him by pressing the number five. At five-minute intervals throughout the call, a female recording will remind me that I am a party to a call from a federal prison. The recording is not without judgment: her accusatory tone makes clear that she is addressing someone who has committed a crime or is cavorting with a criminal, or in my case, both.
The call surprises me. I assumed that he has also been confronted by federal authorities about what I did—what we did—and that he has likewise been instructed not to speak to me. When I hear his upbeat voice over the line, I realize that this isn’t true.
“Did you have a good trip home?” he asks. He starts telling me a story about something that I don’t quite register because I’m trying to figure out how to tell him that everything has fallen apart.
I finally blurt out, “I actually can’t talk to you.”
He is dumbfounded. “What? Why?”
“I can’t tell you.” Because the call is being recorded, I don’t want to implicate him any more than he already is.
“What do you mean you can’t tell me? What are you talking about?”
“I just can’t tell you.”
“Why can’t you tell me?”
I try to think of a way to tell him without really telling him, but I can’t. So I just say, “I thought maybe you already knew that I couldn’t talk to you.”
“What? How would I know that?”
I don’t know what to say. I feel my entire body begin to shake.
“I want to know who said you can’t talk to me.” He is angry.
I hesitate. I don’t know if answering would be saying too much.
“Jen, tell me who said you can’t talk to me.”
“My lawyer,” I finally say. In acknowledging this—that I have a lawyer, that I have this lawyer because I’ve committed a crime, that my crime is being pursued by law enforcement—the reality of the situation washes over me. For the second time today, I burst into tears that soon devolve into long, self-pitying sobs.
He is stunned silent. After a moment, he says, “It’s going to be okay, Jen. Everything is going to be okay.”
He does not ask any more questions.
I suppress my sobs as best I can. We speak as two people might when they know they will be separated for an extensive period of time. But this doesn’t last long. I begin to cry again, so hard that I can no longer form words.
“It’s going to be okay,” he tells me. “I promise it’s going to be okay.”
He says it over and over again, as though this might make it true. I cry even harder, knowing that it won’t.
We continue in this manner until the phone abruptly cuts out. Fifteen minutes have passed. Our time is up.
There are no further records for the remainder of the day. At some point, I realize that the sooner I go to sleep, the sooner this day is over. I decide to reinstate the sleep decree I issued earlier.
The drastic difference in my life from the time of the sleep decree to this moment is not lost on me. Everything that concerned me then has been rendered irrelevant. The people I’ve known, the plans that I’ve made for myself are now all things that once were. I try to picture what happens next. I see nothing.
I dress for bed—in an opaque T-shirt this time, just in case—and fall into the mattress face-first, my arms splayed, like I used to do as a child. With my face buried in the pillow, I wait for sleep to come. I listen for the usual bustle from the street that serves as my lullaby. I hear nothing.
The silence is eerie. If I listen hard enough, I think I can hear the shift in my life’s trajectory, far away from what I had intended it to be.
To block the sound of silence, I fill my mind with questions. I wonder if this matter might go away. I consider worst-case scenarios. I imagine how I would fare as an inmate. I wince at the thought that inmates are required to use the restroom in the most public way possible. I wonder if it is physically possible to refrain from using the bathroom for the entire duration of a sentence. I believe that it is not.
I consider the irony—and hypocrisy—in the fact that in a matter of weeks I am supposed to begin teaching criminal law. I wonder how I will approach my lecture about theories of punishment while possibly awaiting punishment of my own. I think about whether my conduct constitutes a literal teaching moment. I decide that it does not.
I think, too, about what a criminal record will mean for my future. I think about what I will do if I can no longer practice law or teach. I try to remember what I wanted to be before I decided to be what I am. I was so young when I chose a career in law that I think it was something fanciful, like becoming a mermaid or a princess. I think about sitting monarchies across the globe. I think about whether a prince would ever marry a putative princess with a criminal record. I conclude that he would not.
I consider whether I ever expected that my crimes would be discovered. I am certain that I did not.
I think about why I did not think about any of these things before I decided to commit my crimes.
I have no answer.
I lie this way for hours. At some point, I pull my face from the pillow. I squint my eyes and see that the sun is rising over the East River, filling the sky with light. It is already the next day, and my hell persists. There is no escape.