“The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” -David Foster Wallace
It is the summer of 1985 and gossip in my small community buzzes like the fat, lazy bumblebees sipping nectar from the flowers blooming all over Mississippi. Suddenly, it seems as if my whole life is on display. According to my newly hired attorney, there are rumors I am being followed. I spend a lot of time vacillating between fear and excitement, hiding my car or hers. I avoid being in public with the person who, in this post, I euphemistically refer to as my friend. I file for divorce and it starts to dawn on me that things are going to get ugly.
On a recent family outing, my oldest daughter caught up to walk beside me. To my surprise, she started right in on things her grandmother (my ex-husband’s mother) had told her when she was younger. Her questions were most likely prompted by this blog.
Her: “Mom, Granny said she was at the custody hearing and your lawyer had white hair and wore a white suit and looked like Colonel Sanders.”
Her: “She said you got up on the witness stand and you lied about everything.”
And then I said the thing that I’ve always known in my heart. The thing that created my deepest wound as a queer mother. “If I hadn’t lied, I’d have lost you.”
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
“I do,” I answer with my right hand raised, my left hand resting on a book I know so well—The Holy Bible.
The Witch Hunt
From my position in the witness box, I see three women scoot single-file into a bench in the back of the courtroom. They do the things polite Southern women do when they settle into a church pew—or a bench in the courtroom of an antebellum Mississippi courthouse. They glance behind them to make sure the seat’s clear, smooth their dresses, and sit down primly, placing their purses on the floor so that their friends can sit close. I recognize them. I’ve gone to Sunday School parties with them, traded recipes, eaten with them after church at the local fried chicken place. But there is no joy in the recognition. They aren’t there to support me or to speak on my behalf. They are there to watch. Curiosity and good ole Christian love—I suppose for my husband—has brought them out on this hot summer day to witness this witch hunt.
One of their husbands has just left the witness stand. He was my husband’s best friend at the time. He has just finished telling the court how I have changed in the past months. “She dresses different and she cut her hair.” I’m sure he said other things, but those are the words that end up etched in my memory.
Save Her From Her Evil Ways
My attorney was well known and established in the community. Somehow, because of a family connection, he agreed to take my case. My family was, after all, still trying to save me from my evil ways—from a distance. Prior to the day of the hearing, I had several traumatizing meetings with my Colonel Sanders attorney, to whom I doggedly refused to admit any wrongdoing. In retrospect, he was quite a showman in his white suit with his white hair and deep Southern drawl. He was probably just who I needed in my corner. During our pre-hearing meetings, he dug around gleefully in my life, while I sat across the desk from him, young and naïve, dressed in my white nursing uniform. “How are the sexual relations with your husband? Is your sex orgasmic?” Did he really need to know that? And why didn’t I lie in answer to that question? Would telling him “yes, yes, yes!” have helped my case, or left him even more titillated?
Fitness for Motherhood
I wanted full custody of my daughter and so did my husband (at least, his mother wanted him to have custody). Our daughter was a year and a half old. I knew without a doubt she belonged with me. This is a truth I never questioned. And up until that point in my life, no one else would have either. But none of the people who knew me, who knew how I parented, showed up to the custody hearing to speak up for me, or for my mothering.
After all, it was common knowledge that the woman I associated with, whom I was allegedly sleeping with, made me unfit to be a mother. The whole basis of the hearing had nothing to do with my fitness for motherhood or the facts that I had a better income, better education, and better parenting skills. I knew that if my husband got custody of our daughter, his mother would be the one to raise her. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but I could NOT let that happen.
Back to the Courtroom
Meanwhile, back in the courtroom, I take my oath and sit down on the hard, wooden chair in the witness box. For two hours my husband’s attorney hammers me with questions, most of which I can’t remember now. Each question is designed to create the image that I am a perverted sexual deviant who runs around with a bull dyke and lets her live at my house. “What articles of her clothing are currently at your house? …How much time does she spend at your house?” Never anything as direct as “have you had sex with her?” Oh no. That is unspeakable.
I watch with a mounting sense of doom as my husband’s lawyer—with a final flourish—pulls out a Mississippi State yearbook—The Reveille—from 1980, the year my friend graduated. She had been a member of a sorority. The yearbook contains a whole section entitled “The Greek Family,” with the traditional group pictures of sorority and fraternity members, photos of parties and events. The lawyer flips the yearbook open to a page he has marked and passes it around for all to see.
In the damning snapshot my friend poses with one of her sorority sisters at a Roaring Twenties party. Dressed as a gangster (think Al Capone), she holds two fake (at least I hope they were fake) guns to the neck and sternum of a smiling, dark-haired sorority sister. Now granted, my friend is what you’d call androgynous if you are being politically correct; butch if you aren’t. This yearbook picture is presented to the men (the three lawyers, the judge, the ex-husband) as the final definitive evidence that I am surely a deviant-by-association with a woman who looks like a man. And I suppose, for them, the logical conclusion is that this makes me unfit for mothering.
I lie about how often I see her. I lie about her clothes being at my house. And finally, I lie when my own lawyer in his deep Southern drawl dramatically asks a final question as he stands in the middle of the courtroom shaking his finger toward me.
“Have you ever been, are you now, or will you ever be a lesbian?”
Something inside me cracks when I look directly into his eyes and answer, “No, sir.”
I am dismissed from the stand. My lawyer, his assistant attorney, and I go into a windowless anteroom to wait while the judge deliberates. I sit down and the men immediately leave to go outside and smoke. Utterly alone, I wait for an hour not knowing if it was enough. Did I lie enough to convince the judge to let me keep my daughter? Pushed far, far back into my consciousness is the knowledge that I’ve never lied before. I am ashamed of being put on display and questioned about the details of my private life. I feel so wrong and so angry at the same time. Most of all, I work to shut down the crippling fear that my punishment will be that I no longer get to be a mother to my child.
Were my lies justified? Some would say no. They might say lying is never justified. Was the truth—my infidelity, my lesbian curiosity—more important than keeping my child? Although I swore to myself that day I’d never lie again, under the same circumstances I know I would.
Finally, the bailiff calls us back in. My lawyers put out their cigarettes and scurry back into the courtroom. From his high seat, the judge announces that I will be awarded full custody of my daughter. He goes on to establish the standard visitation schedule and sets child support at two hundred dollars per month.
Missing Memories and The Unforgettable
It’s so strange to me that my memories stop there. I can’t remember leaving the courthouse. I can’t remember walking out of the cool, dark building into the steamy heat. Or getting in my car. Or going to pick up my daughter. Or where she was that day. I assume day care. Not with my mother. My mother was still angry with me because my husband’s lawyer subpoenaed her to testify. She called me the night before the hearing demanding, “Why are you doing this to me?” I remember how horrified I was that she’d gotten dragged into my shame. I remember crying for hours that night at the thought of my mother’s pain. She came to the courthouse the next day, but, thankfully, did not get called to the stand. She left before the hearing started. We never spoke of it again. I’ve lived with the knowledge ever since that she most likely would have testified against me.
I’m sure I picked my daughter up and went home. But I have no memories of the rest of the day. I do remember relief, but mostly I remember deciding that I could never lie again about who I was. Something inside me knew I’d better figure out this lesbian thing—or whatever it was—because I could not live my life in hiding.
I could not hate who I was and mother a child.
The truth wasn’t finished with me yet.