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Posts Tagged ‘Clarence Thomas’

susan b anthony
It’s time to go back to 1972 or so and start the Women’s Liberation movement up all over again. We need it.

A client, who was sexually harassed at her old firm, tells me a new fear haunts her – that her “reputation” will be transported via gossip to wherever she goes next. I asked what that “reputation” would be – I mean, how do you get a reputation for being harassed by some clown at a law firm?

“Well, they might think I’m difficult, or unstable, or a trouble-maker,” she explained.

That makes me want to scream – particularly because she might be right: Some sort of reputation along those lines might stick to her, and it might get around at her new firm. When you’re a woman at a law firm – or a woman, period – there are times when it seems you just can’t win.

Another client – a young partner at a biglaw firm – told me she’d been harassed, but stated flatly, “you can’t report it – they’ll just push you out.” I asked her what she did instead. “Oh, you’re supposed to be able to handle it. Tell him to fuck off, or whatever.”

That was upsetting to hear. She delivered it with gusto – and I wanted to believe she really meant it, had the fortitude to say “fuck off” to the guy slipping his hand up her thigh, then briskly smooth her skirt, and move on. But is it really that easy?

Therapists love empathy exercises – it’s kind of our business, in a nutshell. So let’s go ahead and imagine the reality of sexual harassment – having someone you have no interest in sexually or otherwise, someone you work with or work for, pawing over your body at a firm function. My guess is it would unsettle me more than I’d like to admit. And how about going into the office the next day and trying to work with the guy – especially if he’s senior? Could you just “handle it”? Or would the whole unpleasant business get under your skin, leave you seething, angry and humiliated and wanting someone to listen to what happened to you and do something about it? And what would you do with the thought that he’s probably doing this to other people, and getting away with that, too?

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It’s hard to conjure up bad stuff to say about clerking. It’s an honor, and an all-expense-paid ticket on an exclusive legal gravy train. If you’re lucky enough to clerk for a federal district or circuit court judge, you can rest assured you’re looking good and feeling good. You might even shoot the moon and sing with the Supremes. In that case, you’re good to go: You’ll never have to practice actual law again. You can sign up now to teach a seminar on “Law and Interpretive Dance” at Yale or attend sumptuous international human rights conferences hosted by African dictators. Life is good at the top. Imagine the stimulation of interacting one-on-one with the mind of a Clarence Thomas (and acquiring access to his porn collection.) You could be the clerk who builds an ironclad case striking down universal access to healthcare – or witness the day Justice T opens his mouth to speak during oral argument.

Even if you’re clerking for an obscure political hack (which is the norm), as a clerk you qualify to skip out of biglaw hell. The deal – as you probably know – is thus: you get to work non-law firm hours for a year, then return to the firm as though you’d suffered with the other monkeys. If you finish two clerkships, you double your fun and skip two years of Hell-on-Earth – then return with a third year’s salary!

Clerking gigs can be hard work – you could be researching and writing twelve hours a day. But you’re not putting in weekends (usually), and thanks to the court calendar, there are slow times built into the schedule. Your judge could turn out to be geriatric and losing his marbles (not a rare occurrence) or simply a lunatic – but you’re still doing substantive, important work – rather than, say, researching an un-busy partner’s attempt at a treatise or frying your brain with doc review.

Clerking is a sweet deal – one good reason to do litigation instead of corporate. As a clerk, you might learn something. That’s probably not going to happen as a junior doing corporate.

Yes, there’s a catch, and it’s a whopper: Most clerkships – a whole lot of clerkships – require relocating to the middle of freakin’ nowhere.

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Towards the end of a session a while back, one of my patients, who was African-American, laughed out loud, like he was sharing a personal joke.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know.  I still can’t get over the fact that my therapist is a white guy.”

I shrugged and smiled – there wasn’t much else I could do.

But I was pleased.  I admit it.  I liked being his therapist.  And that patient has referred a bunch of people to me since, mostly African-Americans.  That felt good, too.

I wish I had a simple, clear answer to the question posed by the title of this posting.  But like so much else in psychotherapy and human life in general – it’s complicated.

On the one hand, a strong case could be made that a person’s background, and his experiences, should shape who he is, and his ability to connect with someone who has had a similar or different background or experiences.  By that logic, an African-American should be better off with an African-American therapist.

But it doesn’t always work out that way.  For one thing, the patient I was working with was gay – so did he have to find a gay African-American therapist, or was a gay white therapist okay, or a heterosexual African-American therapist?  And what about the fact that I’m Jewish?

I think one of the reasons I worked so well with that patient was that I studied African-American history and literature in college, and am a connoisseur of jazz and other African-American music.  It might also have helped that, as the Program Coordinator for a counseling program at a large urban hospital for a few years, I assigned myself lots of African-American patients, partly because I was interested in learning more about their culture and experiences, and partly from necessity.  We had a small, mostly-white staff, and the other full-time counselor spoke Spanish and Portuguese, so he was occupied with immigrant patients.  I became a sort of resident African-American expert.

Maybe that’s why I did so well with this patient.  Or maybe we just clicked.  He was an elegant, educated man, and a jazz fan, and, well, we liked each other.

Choosing a therapist is a bit like choosing a Supreme Court justice.  You collect all the information you can – and then you take your best guess.  An African-American jurist ought to have a better understanding of the issues affecting African-Americans – right?  But then, sometimes you get Thurgood Marshall – and sometimes you get Clarence Thomas.

Many therapist list their “specialties” on their websites, or even their business cards.  I don’t, because I find it limiting.  I don’t see why, if a patient with a new issue comes into my office – whether it’s bulimia or childhood sexual abuse or crystal meth addiction – I shouldn’t be able to get some books, talk to colleagues, and do whatever it takes to get myself up to speed. That goes with human diversity as well.  I’ve treated Kazakhs, Navahos, Cameroonians, Indonesians, Peruvians and Dubaians, among others.  They all taught me something about who they were and where they came from.  That’s part of my job – a fun and necessary part.

I once commented to a transsexual psychotherapist that it must be great to help others within her community.  She let out a rueful sigh.  Sure, she admitted.  But the real issue was that she worked within a ghetto.  She wanted to treat all sorts of people, not just transgendered patients.  Being seen as someone who worked only with other transsexuals limited her practice, and her ability to grow as a clinician.  I realized I was losing something, too, when transsexuals went to see her instead of bringing their unique diversity to my practice.

Seeking out the “logical” therapist for you can have drawbacks for the patient as well.  I once did a session with a deaf woman who was dealing with a domestic violence situation.  We worked with a sign-language translator, but afterward I discovered the hospital had a limited budget for translation services.  An administrator recommended I refer this patient to an American Sign Language-fluent psychotherapist.  I found two names, and gave them to the patient.  She only rolled her eyes.  She didn’t want to see a psychotherapist who worked with the deaf – those two therapists were already seeing all her friends in the deaf community, and she didn’t feel comfortable opening up to them.  She said she would much rather work with me, through a translator.  I was surprised – but I got her point.  I wanted to work with her, too – but I couldn’t find an ASL-translator, so we didn’t have that option, which was heart-breaking.

I ran into a similar situation with a Japanese patient.  His English wasn’t very good, but he could communicate.  I suggested he might be more comfortable working in Japanese instead of English, and proposed two Japanese-speaking therapists.  The problem, he confessed, was that he was gay, and working on coming out to his friends and family.  Of the two Japanese therapists, one was straight, and the other knew all the other gay Japanese people living in New York City.  He wanted a gay therapist to work on gay issues, which are sensitive in Japanese society – but he didn’t want someone who knew his friends.  He decided to stay with me.  Yes, he sometimes had to repeat things two or three times so I could understand him, but we did okay.  He’d come to America, he said, to live like an American – and he liked having an American therapist.

It’s worth pointing out that therapists spend most of their time listening, not talking.  When I do talk, I’m usually asking questions or taking a guess at interpreting something I’ve heard.  My job is to listen, and try to understand.  Theoretically, I should be able to listen to anyone – anyone – and understand him, whether he’s black, white or purple.

I take pride in showing off my bits of cultural competence.  I enjoyed greeting a Chinese patient from Hong Kong the other day with “Please come in!” in Cantonese.  Last month I shared a laugh with a Dominican patient when we realized we both have little half-Dominican nieces who call us “Tio.”

These touches might help make a patient feel more at ease.  But in the big picture, they’re minor details.

What really matters isn’t whether your therapist looks like you, or acts like you – it’s whether he understands you.  Just like a Supreme Court Justice – his competency depends not only on his background or experience, but how well he does his job.

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