Monday, March 15, 2010

Susan Decker, 1952-2010

My ex-wife, Susan Decker, passed away from cancer last week. She is survived by her parents, Wayne and Jane Decker, and our son, Aidan John McNarie, 13.

Susan came with me to Hawaii 21 years ago, when we were a promising young "power couple": I'd just gotten my PhD in English and had been hired by UH-Hilo, and she was a new-minted attorney. She got a job at the prosecutor's office here, and got a quick lesson in racism and realpolitick, island-style: her boss there told her she needed to be "more Japanese," and her brash, direct style didn't set well with the local bureaucrats and secretaries. I well remember going to Christmas parties at the prosecutor's office where de facto segregation was the unspoken norm: in one room would be gathered attorneys with Japanese last names and a few token Caucasians (usually with Japanese-American spouses), while in another room, a smaller group would collect consisting of everyone else: Portuguese, Hawaiians, women.... Of course, Susan didn't last there. So she decided to open her own law office.

Meanwhile, over at the university, I wasn't doing much better. For the first time in my life, I was getting bad reviews from my superiors on my teaching. I wouldn't learn, until later, some of the politics behind those reviews.... But I kept at it for five years, because Susan and I had both fallen in love with this island and its people and I wanted to give her time for her law office to get established. When the handwriting on the wall at the university was clear, I worked out a deal with Susan, where I would work half-time as a paralegal at her independent law office and spend the other half on my writing.

Susan had decided to specialize in family law, especially family violence cases: a branch of law for which, unfortunately, there was an enormous need on this island. I'd already become aware of that need when I was a professor; I'd had to deal with students who couldn't complete their assignments on time because their significant others had come home drunk and forced the family to flee the house. And I'd seen the scourge first-hand as well; at the first apartment we'd rented in Hilo, the woman next door would go into screaming rages at least twice a week and start throwing dishes at her spouse; we could hear the impact of them shattering against the walls. At the next house where we lived, I was home writing one day when I heard shouting; I looked out the window and saw a man drag his spouse from their pickup truck, knock her to the ground and begin kicking her while their young son ran away down the street. I called the police. An officer didn't arrive until a half-hour later, when the incident was already over. He went up and knocked on the door; the abuser answered and spoke briefly with the officer, who then left without ever seeing the victim.

I've never seen a robbery, a burglary, a car theft or a murder. But I've personally witnessed at least six cases of domestic assault.

I quickly found out that my job at Susan's law office could not be done half-time. There was always an affidavit to fill out or an emergency restraining order to file, and it had to be done right and done right now, because somebody's life was potentially at stake. I became very good at helping battered clients tell their stories to the court through affidavits. I never became good at some of the other skills required by the profession. But the jobs all had to be done. We'd spend 8-12 hours a day at the office, and then go home, where I'd often work until 3 or 4 a.m. on my writing.

The stories that had to be told in those affidavits were often horrifying. I documented the sodomizing of children and the breaking of women's bones. Sometimes, after recording a particularly gruesome affidavit, I'd have to go out on the lanai of the law office building and mentally put myself back together. And those stories were still going on, even as the affidavits were being filed. Abusers did not let go easily; they continued to mess with their victims all through the divorce process, and even afterward. And some local attorneys, unfortunately, were gleeful participants, prolonging the fights and milking both parties for every penny of their assets.

Susan wasn't anywhere near the top of her class in law school, but she plunged into that battle with everything she had. We lost some heartbreaking cases, but we also extracted children from the clutches of a stepfather who'd been "sharing" them with other pedophiles, and helped a woman recover a daughter from an abusive ex who'd fled the state with the girl, and helped many women to just get out of nightmarish situations. Sometimes those clients got involved with other abusers; old mental habits are hard to break. Sometimes the abusers continued to stalk their exes. Sometimes, after the divorce, the abuser would charm his (or her; abuse isn't always a male thing) way back into his ex's life, and the whole thing would start again. But every once in a while, everything would go right, and the circle of abuse was broken. We couldn't win the war, but sometimes we could help an individual to escape it.

Unfortunately, those most in need of help were often the least able to pay, and Susan ran her law office more like a crusade than a business. The war eventually claimed nearly everything we had. The law office went broke. We lost our house to the bank I suffered a physical breakdown (I'm glad it wasn't mental as well). And the stress of fighting a war that could not be won, but was so important that it demanded everything be subordinated to it, finally claimed our marriage as well. Susan returned to the mainland with our infant son, leaving me here to liquidate our remaining assets. I'm still attempting to pay off some of the debts left from those years.

On the mainland, Susan opened another personal practice specializing in family law. She kept at it until bone cancer forced her to stop.

The monster that she fought so valiantly is still out there.