In this chapter I relate the last sequence of events that led me to begin my hunger strike.
10. Nothing Left but Hunger
David Weiss, December 14, 2010 (The fast is over! Watch for my next post to explain why.)
Late in the spring of 2010 my daughter was overjoyed to announce that she had been accepted into the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra (WYSO). I was excited for her. It was quite an honor: WYSO uses an audition-based selection process. I was also a bit apprehensive because I knew WYSO had a pretty rigorous Saturday morning rehearsal schedule and that it would provide her mother with one more reason to view time with dad as an unneeded and unwanted interruption in her daughter’s life.
Still, as we moved into summer of 2010 I was heartened by the new guardian ad litem’s (GAL) choice to actually lift up my daughter’s voice during the spring. It suggested a new approach, in which her wishes might finally get heard in the conversation. This was especially important because the 2006 Order (and hopefully all of its errors) would lapse at the end of this summer. This would be my window of opportunity to seek a new Order that governed my daughter’s high school years with far more wisdom than the Order of the past four years.
I was less heartened by my own attorney. After promising to vigorously pursue my cause, he now seemed increasingly reluctant to champion my rights and desires as a dad. He seemed uneasy pushing for justice; I began to suspect he was wary of angering the judge for whom he served as a court commissioner by pressing her about errors she had clearly made and refused to either acknowledge or correct in my case. Instead of working to press my position, he began to suggest that all teenagers want less time with their parents and their families in high school and that I should just “make peace” with less time.
In early June the breath of fresh air ushered in by the new GAL suddenly turned foul. His proposal for my daughter’s placement through her high school years was a complete disaster. Over the last four years I’d seen my school year placements trimmed from 15 (2003-2005) to 12 (2006-2009) per year. He proposed not only trimming them back further—to just 9 per year, but he wanted only 6 of them to involve trips to Minnesota. The other 3 would require me to spend the weekend in a motel in Wisconsin and “exercise my placement without disrupting her Wisconsin routine.” He scheduled each of the 9 placements for me, as though I was not even a fit enough father to exercise my own choice of time. He worked around WYSO rehearsals meticulously, several times gerrymandering long weekends in senseless ways.
His proposal offered no extra time over the summer to compensate for the further erosion of school year time. And it erased my daughter’s continued participation in the Young Author’s Conference (she’d been invited to start serving as a mentor to younger students now) without a word, although I knew she remained vocal about her desire to keep attending.
The greatest insult in his proposal was what you couldn’t see: any of my daughter’s Minnesota family. Over the four pages of his recommendation he mentioned WYSO sixteen times, identifying month-by-month the impact of his proposed placement on her WYSO rehearsals. Seven more times he explicitly referred to his goal of promoting her participation in her high school activities. But not once did he even mention the blended family that she had been part of for more than a decade now. Over the past two years my daughter has become an aunt three times to her great delight. But preserving her relationships with parents or sibings—or promoting these new relationships with niece and nephews in Minnesota wasn’t even part of the equation. Rendered entirely invisible, you’d never guess she had anything more than a bachelor dad who “lived out of a van down by the river” (to echo Chris Farley’s SNL phrase).
The entire proposal was crafted to prioritize everything in her Wisconsin life, mention not a single facet of her Minnesota life—leaving it invisible and without value—and then schedule her placement time with this ‘home-less/family-less’ dad in a way that least interrupted one life and entirely ignored the other as though it didn’t exist. This was his effort to promote my daughter’s best interests. I could not believe it.
In mid-July, after another round of mixed signals from my attorney I sent him a pointed message making clear my “bottom line” non-negotiables:
- If WYSO was indeed going to cost me the loss of another three school year placements, then by God, as the dad with precious little time left during the school year I was going to be the one to schedule them. No other person, man or woman, lawyer or judge, was going to act as though I couldn’t be trusted to plan out time with my own daughter.
- Except in very rare cases these placements would happen in Minnesota, fostering as best possible the ongoing relationships with her entire Minnesota family.
- My daughter’s participation in the Young Author’s Conference would be guaranteed for as long as she so desired.
- We would finally receive significant extra time over the summer. The 2006 Order’s “50% plus four days” had proven, in fact, to be a sham of about “50% plus one day” each summer. I would ask for two-thirds of the summer, and negotiate from there.
- I wanted clear explicit recognition of the value of her Minnesota family. We would not allow them to be invisible any longer.
- And I wanted to press for the inclusion of a family therapist in any future conflict resolution process.
That was my “dream” list, but I made clear that I was going after these things with a vengeance and I expected him to be on the same page as me. My letter concluded: “I am pissed. My daughter’s welfare—and her relationship with me and her blended family—have been utterly disregarded by the whole family court system these last few years. And [the GAL] has signaled his readiness to carry that even further. Whatever it takes, I will challenge this ... I need to know, are you on board or do I need to look elsewhere?”
I heard nothing from him for three weeks. His response came when I received my copy of his Motion to Withdraw as my attorney. His two-sentence explanation ran as follows: “In correspondence [Mr. Weiss] advised me that I should not continue as his counsel if certain objectives were unattainable. I consider the objectives requested by Mr. Weiss unattainable.”
In late August the court heard his motion. I had no desire to force him to stay on my case. I didn’t need to be battling my own attorney alongside my ex’s. So I let him withdraw and I scheduled the hearing to determine the last four years of my daughter’s placement for late September. I would represent myself again. I would no doubt lose again. I had no hope left, only hunger for justice. But I would hold onto that.
On September 21 I rose before dawn to drive down to Wisconsin for another beating. Margaret’s work schedule prevented her from making the trip with me, so I would be driving down alone. There are no words to describe the heaviness in my soul. I had prepared arguments and exhibits. I was sure of my position. And I was sure I would never get a chance to actually make my case. I would fight the long defeat for as long as I had energy, but I had all but given up on that far-fetched fantasy called “hope.”
I carried with me hope’s cousin, “love,” in the form of a piece of construction paper on which Margaret had written in colored markers the names of family and friends who held me in prayer that day. The paper was overflowing; it was as beautiful as it was desperate: well over a hundred names whispered themselves to me, evoking yet others for whom there was no room. A whole cloud of witnesses. When I reached the courtroom this was the first piece of paper I set out before me. I remembered Father McGonigle’s words (a seminary professor of mine): “You are capable of doing almost anything if you believe you will loved while doing it.” Even losing on behalf of your daughter one last time, I thought to myself ruefully.
The hearing ran about two hours. I do not even want to remember it. I was in the pinball machine all over again. I managed to present my carefully crafted proposal for the next four years: it was my effort to put the manifesto I had sent to my attorney into language that was less impassioned but just as clear. Everything else I tried to say was squashed by objection left and right. I, the wordsmith, the public speaker, the teacher, was left mute. Although my body stayed in the chair, my psyche was curled up in a fetal position somewhere deep inside.
I listened as the GAL presented his proposal that belittled me as a father, erased my daughter’s blended family from sight and from her life, and carved out crumbs in my daughter’s life and called them “placement time.” I listened as my ex’s attorney presented her proposal that reduce me to little more than an occasional guest in my daughter’s life. Her plan sought to lessen my time even more than the GAL’s, to repeat all the errors of the 2006 Order, to map the dates out and chisel them in stone four years in advance, but then give my ex unilateral authority to further “adjust” the schedule as needed to promote my daughter’s involvement in her Wisconsin life. This nightmarish proposal would completely devastate me.
I listened as voices swirled around me presenting a portrait of a father who couldn’t accept the court’s authority, who couldn’t be trusted to manage his own affairs as a dad, who clearly had a host of unresolved issues and was worthy at best of pity, but was pretty clearly being offered not much more than contempt. I remember wondering at some point, “Who are they talking about—and realizing just as quickly as the thought appeared: me, of course.”
I have been through some rough situations, some awkward encounters, some embarrassing moments, some occasions in which I have felt deep shame. But never in my life have I felt so dehumanized as I did that day in court. At the end of the hearing the judge thanked everyone for their time and told us she would issue her decision in a few days.
I was in a daze as I packed my things up. The last three things I remember are hearing my ex laughing with her attorney and her sister as they left the courtroom; the GAL wishing me a safe drive home as he stepped over my beaten self pretending not to notice how badly I’d been battered; and the names on the page that, true to their word, still whispered love to me through watery eyes as I slid them back into my briefcase.
I drove home trying not to replay anything in the courtroom. Four hours is a long time to not replay the beating of your life. I had phone conversations with Margaret and with my parents. I told them it didn’t go well, but I didn’t get into visceral details while driving. As I recall Margaret had meetings for a large chunk of the drive home and was unreachable by phone. At some point the anguish began to eat me alive. I called one close friend; no answer. I left a short message. I called another close friend, a woman who had been like a daughter to me for a decade; no answer. I left a message that ended in tears. She called back minutes later and we wept words of love to one another. I told her I needed someone to tell me I was a good dad because I felt for all the world like I was worthless and horrible. And she spoke gospel to me while I drove home through the greatest stretch of the middle of nowhere in my life.
The next day my Facebook status read “This is the nature of structural evil: it destroys lives without malice. Therefore it is at once morally innocent and purely evil. It is bureaucracy become psychopathic.” I don’t expect anyone in the courtroom other than me had any difficulty sleeping the night of the hearing. I’m sure for everyone else it was business as usual. No one had acted with malice. The system could grind people up, could shred lives, without ever getting angry or raising its voice. It was just doing its job. And its job just happened to be destroying lives while murmuring always about the “best interests” of the children. I’m sure most of them thought about the day, “job well done.”
I had nothing left but hunger. I had told both Margaret and my parents even before the hearing, that if the results were as I expected I was prepared to do a hunger strike. I was clear that this wouldn’t have any outward impact on the court; that wasn’t the purpose. The purpose was to finally allow my body to claim as fully as my soul the hunger that has gripped me for so long. And to symbolically mark out time to tell my story.
Eventually I mentioned it as well to a handful of my closest friends. No one was “excited” by the idea, but my palpable dread before the hearing and my somber resolve afterwards kept anyone from trying to talk me out of it. This was my grief and I think everyone knew they better not seek to console me lightly.
I first picked 27 days as the length, because I could make a strong case for having lost 27 days of placement time over the past four years. Many friends voiced alarm at the length. I said, I didn’t pick it to be easy, I picked it to match the ache of the days I’ve lost. But eventually, to ease their concern, I settled on 21 days since I could make an entirely objective case, a descriptive case really beyond argument at all, for having lost 21 days since the 2006 Order went into effect.
I never looked forward to doing this. It has brought me no joy. But it has proven to be a way to integrate the brokenness of my spirit into the bodily narrative of my life. When my spirit had nothing left but hunger, the fast allowed my body to say to my soul, “I hear your pain, I feel your ache, I know your hunger.” It has been a strange way to become whole. But as I have allowed hunger to move to all the corners of my body I have touched the strength I needed. And I have created a space, both in my gut and in my heart, to let the words of my story gather and arrange themselves to be heard.
Speaking the story goes a long way toward exorcising shame. Even apart from “shame,” the sheer hiddenness of this tale has kept my anguish from being known and held up in care by many. Hardly any of my friends have known this whole tale, and until today no one has seen it in print. But now I have told it. This is the why behind the sorrow that sits so often in my eyes. This is the what that weights the lump in my heart with every beat. This is the who that bends my shoulders some days, not because she is so heavy but because she is my daughter, and I have loved her since before she was born … and I will love her no matter how difficult it becomes.
Speaking the story sets its truth free. And allows its truth to touch the truth in your lives as well. And then, held between us, it becomes holy. It makes us all a bit more whole. Thank you for listening.
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This entry is now the tenth written during my 21-day fast for justice in family court. In the next one I explain the truly good news that prompted me to end the fast early. You can learn more about the fast, including ways to support me, at https://tothetune.wordpress.com/hungry.