The First Years of Marriage are the Hardest, Right?

I married my best friend, Paul, on June 2, 1994, a year after we both graduated from college.   He was the first person in my life to challenge me to think critically about my beliefs, and he didn’t shy away from creating stress to force this re-examination.  This process was not enjoyable, but I concluded it was good for me.

Paul was known by those who knew him as an angry man.  There was the righteousness indignation he expressed at injustice, which was admirable, but there was also the anger that was less understood and more diffuse.  We didn’t share many interests beyond intellectual, but he was a nice guy, smart, supportive, a Christian, open, liberal, a feminist.  He made me a better person.

Our first two years of marriage were hell.  Seminary was tough on Paul.  He was angry at the fundamentalists, angry at the Church, and angry at all the annoying things he could not master – from learning Greek to balancing the checkbook.   Paul yelled a lot, but never hit me.  He once twisted my arm and pushed me onto the bed, but that was the closest he ever came.  Paul preferred to take his anger out physically on brick walls.  He would hit them with his fists, creating a bloody mess.  I guess the pain was a release.

We were poor, but the way that students are poor.  You know brighter times are ahead.  We had some good times:  movies, meals out, and things got better.  We bonded in our struggle to survive.

I knew I was settling for a less than ideal marriage, but I had never seen one of those anyway.   Though I would not have admitted it at the time, I didn’t believe I could do any better and feared I would do a lot worse.   I was confident that Paul would never leave me, which I found reassuring.

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Connecting the Dots

Dad didn’t come around much as I was growing up.   We only lived together for about three years in Panama City, Fl., before Mama left him.  He stayed in Florida, moving eventually to Orlando.   Mama and I headed to Rome, Ga., then Pensacola, Fl., and then back to Rome.   Mama’s home base was Rome because her parents lived there; they were our safety net.   Dad hated Rome, though it was his hometown as well.

I stayed connected to Dad through his mother, Mama Cotton, who still lived in Rome.  Mama Cotton owned a little neighborhood grocery on the run-down side of the railroad tracks, i.e., where the black folk lived.   Mama Cotton was a tough woman, not liked by many — including my Dad.  She lived alone in the back of her store, having run off her fourth husband long ago. Born in 1896, she was always old to me.

Mama was committed to making sure I maintained connection with Dad’s family.  Bless her heart.  When we were living in Rome, Mama would “force” me to go with her to visit Mama Cotton every few months.  Like a normal teenager, I resisted going to sit in an old house in a “sketchy” neighborhood while she and my grandmother talked about people I didn’t know.  Later, I came to appreciate Mama taking me on these forced visits.  Otherwise, I would have never come to know this strong-willed, independent woman whose life spanned most of the 20th century and whose hand cast a long shadow over my Dad.

Dad was the youngest of a large brood of kids.  Mama Cotton had given birth to over 10 children, though quite a few didn’t survive long.  Dad was the only child of Mama Cotton’s third marriage, which also didn’t survive long.

Best I can tell, there was nothing happy about Dad’s childhood.  Not only did he grow up poor without a father in a rough part of town, but he was terrorized throughout his young life by his half-brother, T.W.  T.W. routinely threatened to kill Dad, sometimes with weapon in hand.   When T.W. , often drunk,  came looking for Dad, he would run.  Dad jokes about how he was skinny and fast as a kid.  You know, survival of the fittest.

T.W. was well known by the Rome police.  Legend has it that while he was serving time in a prison in Atlanta, he managed to escape and take the warden’s wife hostage.  In any case, years later, T.W. was shot and killed by his own son.  My cousin had enough of his father beating on him and his mother.  The police looked the other way.

Yep, this family history explains a lot about my Dad.

My First Thoughts on the Death Penalty

I didn’t think much about the death penalty before college.  I grew up a Fundamentalist Baptist.  I don’t remember a sermon on the death penalty but certainly knew that plenty of church folk were for it.   Something about “thou shall not kill” and “the wages of sin is death.”    Though even as a child, I wasn’t sure how you got around the circular problem of killing a killer is still killing.

I didn’t think much about the death penalty in college either.  As I came to better appreciate God’s grace and Jesus’ ministry to the poor and dispossessed, I knew I was against it, but my concern was more on the millions of people who needed the basics in life to survive.  Only a few persons were executed each year.  The greater need was of those dying due to the lack of food, shelter and safety from domestic violence.

I do remember one early formative moment regarding the death penalty.  My college boyfriend, Paul, was an avid fan of Will Campbell, a graduate of Yale Divinity School turned country Tennessee preacher.  I read Campbell’s book Brother to a Dragonfly and his profile in a book entitled Race, Rock, & Religion.  Campbell famously summed up Christianity in one sentence, “All men are bastards but God loves us anyway.”   He preached an expansive view of grace that unsettled conservatives and liberals alike.

Like Jesus, Campbell struck up friendships with those who made the establishment most uncomfortable – Black Panthers and KKK klansmen, heavy drinking country singers, and inmates on death row.   He became friends with John Spenkelink, the first person to be executed against his will in the modern era.  Campbell said about the death penalty that it was “just plain tacky.”   He had a way with words.  I remember thinking how courageous and fortunate Will Campbell was to befriend a death row inmate.

Getting Into Law School

Pursuing a law degree begins with taking the LSAT, a standardized test that is supposed to measure “acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills.”  Thankfully, I had always done well on standardized tests.  I would have been more concerned had it measured depth of knowledge on a broad range of subjects.   Yes, I had a B.A. and a M.Div., but I had not grown up in an environment conducive to being well-read.

When I opened the envelope containing my test results, I knew my life had just changed.  My scores were high.  In that moment, my options for law school expanded exponentially.  I would not be limited to local public law schools — not that there was anything wrong with those schools.  But staying in Kentucky to go to law school would mean I would probably stay in Kentucky after law school.  Kentucky was not where I imagined settling down.  In fact, I was not ready to settle down.  I had dreams of an education that would expand my horizons.

I sent applications off to some “safe” schools, to a couple of mid-range national schools, and a couple of “stretch” schools.  Much to my surprise, I was accepted by one of my stretch schools – Duke University School of Law.  I could not believe it.

I applied to Duke because 1) it was in North Carolina and I loved North Carolina, having spent two summers in the mountains, 2) it offered a dual degree program, giving me a chance to earn a Masters in Public Policy at the same time as I earned a law degree, and 3) it was a well-respected national school that would most certianly expand my horizons.

There was one huge looming obstacle – the price-tag.  I could attend any of the state schools very cheaply, and I was offered a full-scholarship to one of the mid-range national schools.  Duke, on the other hand, offered me very little scholarship money and was a private school.

My husband, Paul, and I visited the financial aid office on campus.  When shown the estimated cost, Paul almost fell out of his chair.   I would need to get a high paying job at graduation in order to make the loan payments, but the only reason I was going to law school was to better help the poor and marginalized.

I should have known.  Being accepted into Duke was just the Devil’s way of tempting me.   “Take the prestige.  It will be ok.  You have earned it.”  I could hear the imaginary, evil laugh of the little guy with horns and a pitchfork sitting on my shoulder.  “Then you will be indebted to me forever.  Mwahahaha. . . .”

But then I was told of one possibility that could make it work:  the faculty had just approved a loan forgiveness program for graduates who worked in the public interest.  No one could say how much money would be involved, or what the program parameters would be.  Surely, the details would be worked out by the time I graduated, right?   I grasped at the straw and ran.

I entered Duke Law School in the summer of 1988 singing my new theme song:  Got My Mind Set On You by George Harrison.

My First Brush With The Law

I obviously got beyond my reticence about being a lawyer.  My biggest hurdle in the end was my concern about the corrupting effect of power and money.  Lawyers are professionals and are (almost always) members of the middle to upper classes.  They move in circles of which I had never been a part.   Within those circles come temptations that I had never faced.

I was committed not only to serving the poor but to living simply.  Even with these priorities going into law school, I was well aware of the many intervening events that could change me and change my priorities by the time I came out on the other end. Did the risks outweigh the potential benefits?

Two things helped me make the decision.  First, I read as many stories as I could about the lawyers behind significant social change in the United States, such as the civil rights laws of the 1960s and the abortion rights cases of the 1970s. These lawyers were worthy of admiration. I could only dream of being able to follow in their footsteps.

Second, I received in the mail a notice of jury duty.  I would be able to see, for the first time, the justice system at work.

It was the summer of 1987.  At that time in Louisville, Ky.,  potential jurors were required to be at the courthouse for one week, or until chosen for a jury.  Each day, I reported to the courthouse and sat in a large windowless room with an odd mixture of randomly selected people.  There were no laptop computers, cell phones or PDAs.  The only entertainment available was from a T.V. high on the wall, and it was tuned to the Iran-Contra Hearings.  Watching Oliver North testify was now part of my civic duty.

Every few hours, a clerk would come in the room and call out names.  For three days, I waited for my name to be called.  Dozens of others were called and disappeared never to be seen again.  I stuck it out with Ollie.

Finally, on day four, the clerk called out “Cindy Adcock.”  I was thrilled.  Finally, I would see some action.  The next step was voir dire, the process through which the attorneys for both sides select jurors.  I was selected to hear a receipt of stolen goods case.  The defendant had been selling stolen tennis shoes out of the back of his truck on the city sidewalk.  The case came down to whether the defendant knew the shoes were stolen.

At the time, I had not seen the movie Twelve Angry Men, but I can now report that our jury deliberations were very similar.  Most jurors thought the case was a slam dunk: he had to know they were stolen.  But I wasn’t so sure:  isn’t it just a stereotype to say that a black man selling goods on the street must have known the goods were stolen?  I had reasonable doubt.  A few joined my position.  The twelve of us went back and forth.  It was clear we could not agree.  We summoned the bailiff and sent word to the judge.

The judge called us out into the courtroom.  “This is not a hard case, folks” he said, trying not to yell.  We were instructed to go back to the jury room and work it out.   We didn’t work it out, and the trial was officially hung.

My four days at the courthouse were instructive.  The hustle and bustle of the courthouse was interesting.  I found power in the jury system.  And I decided that I could do as good of a job as the lawyers I observed.  Neither resembled Perry Mason nor the lawyers on L.A. Law.

No, not me

The more I worked with the poor, the more I ran into the law.  I didn’t know how the legal system worked. I had never been in a courtroom or event met a lawyer. Thus, I didn’t know how to advise battered and abused women or the homeless people that attended my church how to get the help they needed when “the law” seemed to be an obstacle. And looking at the bigger picture, I wasn’t sure which law reforms to support in order to bring justice to those most in need.  My ignorance was frustrating.

“What about going to law school?” my husband suggested. No way!  First of all, law school is too hard; I could never pass a bar exam.  More fundamentally, being a lawyer was against my religion.  Seriously, lawyers are unscrupulous.  As zealous advocates, they have to lie and be willing to hurt others.  I had seen those movies in which a lawyer tears apart a rape victim on the stand, dragging up her past, making her the villain.  That was not me.  I was too gentle, too kind, too shy.

I was never one to speak up in class.  Standing in front of people made every part of my being tremble. My mouth would become as dry as a desert. A friend of mine invited me to “preach” at his church one Sunday morning.  He convinced me that his small congregation needed to hear a woman preach.  “Only by seeing a woman in the pulpit will they begin to realize that gender does not matter,” he argued.  They needed to know that God can speak through anyone, and I could help break through the prejudices standing in the way.

I agreed to do it.  After all, it would be good for me too.  One bible story gave me reassurance:  When Moses believed that God was calling him to be his mouthpiece to the Israelites, he replied, “But my Lord, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence, either before or since you have spoken to your servant. I am a slow speaker and not able to speak well” (Exodus 4:10).  But God’s call was relentless and, I told myself, “Look at the good that Moses did!”

God may be able to speak through anyone, but I am not sure her message got through the day I preached to a small congregation in rural Kentucky.  I didn’t keep a copy of the sermon, but I recollect that it had to do with something about the feminine side of God.  I still feel embarrassed for those people in the congregation, who were extremely gracious.  How they must have suffered through that sermon.  I certainly did.

So, no, I could never be a lawyer.

Violence Against Women

My interest in women’s issues deepened in seminary.  Giving voice to women and their needs was a cause that resonated with me.  I was born into a world surrounded by women: Mama, Grandmama and Aunt Mable, who was my Grandmama’s sister and my anointed Godmother.   My Dad wasn’t there; he was stationed in England with the Air Force at the time.  He and I did not meet until I was a year old, a fact that probably explains why he never really took to me.   He and Mama separated when I was four.

In seminary, my service gravitated towards helping women and children. I spent one summer volunteering at a battered women’s safe house in southwest Atlanta, a poor, primarily African-American community.  Seven hours from my husband, with no car, I lived in the house and was on duty 24/7 most days of the week.

Most, but not all, of the women who came to the house were African-American, and most had children in tow.  Upon their arrival, we would show them around the house and make them comfortable.  The house would be their home until they made arrangements to go somewhere else safe.

I had never before listened to victims of violence.  My service stints in college were to happy places – conference centers, summer camp, even the World’s Fair in Knoxville, TN.  I had interned once as a hospital chaplain, which was not the happiest place on earth, but the only fallout from violence I saw there was a vial of gallstones an old man proudly showed me.

Living in the safe-house, I quickly came to appreciate just how vulnerable women of limited means trapped in a patriarchal world of limited expectations are.  I feared for them and their children, who were hungry for positive attention but didn’t always know how to obtain it appropriately.  One night, one of the little girls in the house set a couch on fire.  I stood in disbelief staring at the blackened and charred bedroom as I learned that setting fires was a habit of hers.

When I returned to seminary, I began volunteering at the local rape crisis center.   I was on-call just a few nights a month.  If called, I was required to rush to the hospital to meet a rape victim and accompany her through the process.  Or, if lucky, the call would be from a victim who was having a hard time coping and just wanted to talk.

A couple of times my phone rang in the middle of the night – a woman had been raped.  Now, I have always been really good in a crisis, particularly when focused on helping someone else through it.  However, on these nights, I felt like a firefighter running into a burning building.  A woman has been raped, now you woman rush out into the dark night, get into your car and drive to the hospital parking garage, get out of your car and go into the hospital.  I had to fight the instinct to double check the locks on the doors and go back to bed where it was safe.