Sunday, March 16, 2008

Blast from the past

This post at Home of the Brave took me back in a very unexpected way:

The spectacle of Siegelman, whom I briefly met about 40 years ago in Huntsville, Alabama, being in federal prison on this bogus case is nothing short of overwhelming. And the obtuseness, if not hostility with which the district judge and the Eleventh Circuit have met his requests for bail pending appeal sets some kind of high water mark for politically motivated vindictiveness. This is the kind of judicial hostility I encountered all too often during the civil rights era. It is utterly shocking to see that kind of callousness resurrected for Siegelman.

It's about the imprisonment of a former Alabama Democratic governor, and, as an example of the vindictive dealings of the Bush government, shocking, although not especially surprising. But that's not what struck me the most about this post.

When I read this:

All too ironical and upsetting is that the conviction was in the Middle District of Alabama, a court formerly presided over by Hon. Frank M. Johnson, one of America’s great jurists of the mid-twentieth century.

I was suddenly taken back to many a fractious dinner-time conversation with my family. Judge Frank Johnson was my mother's sworn enemy, or rather, she was his. I doubt he even knew her, although I suppose it is possible.

In many ways, I am very proud of my mother. In a day when women, especially in Alabama, didn't usually go to medical school, she struggled against the culture, and insisted on becoming a doctor. She had to fight ingrained sexism to do so, and she had at least one professor who refused to teach her because she was a woman. I am very proud of the obstacles she surmounted to get to her dream--it was harder than it was for many other people, and she persevered.

Here's the thing, though--somewhere along the line, in her struggles, she lost empathy with others in theirs. She was unbudging in her opposition to the civil rights movement, for example. One of my deepest fears is that when I am old, and my mind is waning, all the work and study and growth I did on these issues will be for nothing, and I'll just be babbling out the poison that was poured in my ear when I was too young to know any better. I hope that is not my fate, but it is definitely my fear.

Her emnity to Judge Johnson was, I think, related--what I remember made his name a swear word around our dinner table was his ruling that patients could no longer be involuntarily committed to a mental institution just on the physician's authority. My mother was a psychiatrist, and she had worked hard to get where she was--fair enough. But somewhere, she took on the mantle of authority that had traditionally been part of the psychiatrists' practice at that time and place, and she deeply resented the erosion of her authority that Judge Johnson represented.

As I said, I am proud of what my mother did to go to school against all the social pressure to dissuade her from it. But I can't defend all her attitudes and her politics, and I don't know how much of that struggle hardened her and her positions to what they became.

And I haven't thought about any of this for a very, very long while, and I don't know when I would have again, except for that mention of Frank Johnson as one of America's great jurists. Now, it makes me curious to do a little bit more reading about him. But the name was such a highly-charged epithet in the home I grew up in, that I wanted to get my thoughts down first, to avoid Heisenberging them by reading other accounts.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home