From the Series: Justice

Photo by Ben Sutherland, licensed under CC BY.

I saw Colleen’s face through the window in the door that separated the courtroom from the hallway. She was waiting, but for what exactly, I did not know. She did not want to be at court—a mental health court—as she did not understand herself to have mental health problems, and so she was not waiting for the judge to call her case. He would do so, anyway, in an hour’s time. Colleen’s mother was waiting with her daughter, waiting for Colleen to accept a guilty plea and, with it, the court’s mental health services. Colleen would accept no such things; still, there Colleen stood, out in the hallway of the Northern California courthouse, waiting.

Andie, a psychologist who worked at the court to provide public mental health care to the people whose criminal cases the court processed, tapped my shoulder and led me outside to Colleen. Out in the hall, Andie spoke first: “Why, hello, Colleen. I’m Andie and I work here in the mental health court. What can I do for you today?”

Colleen launched in:

I’m sorry. Yes, it’s nice to meet you, too. I’m sorry but I don’t understand why I’m here. It says something about mental health in there? On the sign? It says something about mental health? And, you see, I’m not mentally ill. I’m not mentally ill. I don’t have any mental health problems. I’m normal. Like you. I’m normal, just like you, so I don’t understand why I’m standing by a courtroom that says mental health on the door. That scares me, you see, being at a courtroom for mentally ill people. I don’t belong here. I’m a PhD, I’m a PhD in psychology, how did I end up here? I just don’t understand why I’m here. Let me tell you what’s going on here, for a minute. I’m being framed. My brother, my father . . . Okay, I’m sorry, I’m just exhausted because I’ve been living out of my car for the past four days, so I’m really exhausted because I haven’t slept in a week because of the car and the highways. I’m exhausted. Because I was living with my mom. She had a stroke and she kept falling and none of my family members, not even my brother, who’s a doctor, would go and help her and so I had to go and live with my mom all by myself and I was the one taking care of her all by myself and then my dad and my brother, they framed me and had me arrested, which is just insane, you see. I got this weird text message about a fight, but I really didn’t have anything to do with it. Just like my cousin and my neighbor, and one of them did something, I don’t even know. I just got this text! That’s all. And then, after I got this text, suddenly the police are at my door to take me to jail. I swear to God, it was just like Hollywood, just like a TV show or a movie or something—and I would know, because I’m a movie producer! It was something from HBO or like from one of my sets in Hollywood. Taken to jail. And here’s the Hollywood plot twist: the police were in cahoots with my dad and my brother the whole time . . .

At some point, Andie left. Colleen did not interrupt herself to register Andie’s departure. I stayed, not knowing what else to do, shifting my weight, my back up against one of the courthouse’s columns, waiting to see what would happen. Colleen continued in much the same manner as she had when Andie was there. At some point, her protestations turned into a howl.

* * *

At some point during my fieldwork, I stumbled upon a text by Vladimir Nabokov (1966) that I had never encountered. It was entitled Despair and, in it, Nabokov meditates, like Jessica Greenberg in her contribution to this Correspondences session, on the temporality that undergirds despair. Despair is a crime drama whose thrills turn not on the perpetration of a particular act but on fluctuations in temporal orientation. Unlike his “innumerable forerunners”—whose crimes fixated on “the act itself” and the “subsequent removal of all traces” (Nabokov 1966, 122)—the novel’s protagonist, Hermann, intends to commit the perfect crime by proactively planning it. His goal is to create a narrative for the crime in which all of the pieces come together such that “were the criminal to give himself up on the very next morning, none would believe him” (ibid). Time moves back and forth for Hermann, until it levels out, freezes, stands still. “Listen, listen!” Hermann implores, “I fell to doubting everything, doubting essentials, and I understood that what little life still lay before me would be solely devoted to a futile struggle against that doubt; and I smiled the smile of the condemned and in a blunt pencil that screamed with pain wrote swiftly and boldly on the first page of my work: ‘Despair’” (Nabokov 1966, 203–204).

That dull scrawl—despair—is temporal. In it, Hermann looks toward a future of which he is certain; doubt will be his existential condition, that to which he will be “solely devoted.” This certainty contrasts with the pervasiveness what Karen Ann Faulk, in her contribution to this Correspondences session, identifies as the despair of risk culture among chilangos, who can never be sure when the next #19S will strike. But Faulk gestures to a common aspect of this unsettling uncertainty: the inevitability of incumplimiento, or the “laxity of regulation.” Chilangos may not know when the next earthquake will strike or where it will be centered, but they are certain of the state’s inability to adequately prepare. Perhaps it is that—the uncanny complementarity of “doubting essentials” while knowing for certainthat the steps taken to stabilize those doubts will be in vain—which is a feeling of despair antithetical to justice.

* * *

Back inside the courtroom, Andie said that she had left the scene of Colleen’s unending narrative to try and quickly scrawl, with a “blunt pencil that screamed with pain,” notes for a psychiatric hold for Colleen. But she never filed it; Colleen’s speech turned out not to be material cause enough for the hold. I asked Andie what she thought justice would mean for Colleen’s family. She shrugged: “Oh, don’t even go there. . . . It’s impossible to know. Patience, Jessica, patience.”

If, following Jessica Greenberg, we are to rethink the justice/injustice binary, then perhaps Andie offers a way out of a revised justice/despair binary. For patience, like Hermann, reorders time. If you occupy a position of patience, can you despair? Or might patience cut through despair, recalibrating its preoccupations, directing them towards different ends? What if we think of patience—an act of accompaniment, persistence in listening to others, a social and affective modality that is frequently frustrating and difficult to sustain—as the labor of justice?

Patience is slippery, easily gliding into complacency, acceptance, normalization—those postures that we tend to think enable injustices. But need patience be these things? Attentive patience, practiced patience, patience as action rather than passivity: what possibilities for justice lie with that particular patience? Patience is not tantamount to waiting; it departs from waiting precisely at the crossroads of doubt and certainty on which Hermann puts his finger. Waits require objects: you wait for something. But patience, in Andie’s view, indexes the unknowability of the horizon. What would justice look like were we to acknowledge that we might not ever know its form, but instead regard it as a horizon of aspiration, demanding patience nonetheless?


Nabokov, Vladimir. 1966. Despair. New York: Vintage. Originally published in 1934.