I spent my entire brief career as an attorney trying to get income- and disability-based benefits for vulnerable people. It was a grueling and traumatizing career track that I realize now (and kind of realized at the time at different times) was based not in actually helping people by understanding their circumstances and getting people what they desperately needed, but in cruelly gaslighting them and wasting their time and energy doing “intakes” and whatnot when they could least afford the expense. I have written here before about one potential client that was referred to me by a medical provider because he said people were threatening and following him. Turns out, this man was quite mentally ill and was having delusions and it was left not up to his doctors (who palmed him off on me) but to me, a young attorney, to put the pieces together for him and to figure out what was really going on, but not before wasting a significant amount of his time.
Of course, even if there were people following and threatening him there is little to nothing a lawyer could’ve done about it. I told the man to call the police if he felt threatened, and as was the policy of the nonprofit I was working for at the time, got the man’s consent to speak with the referring medical providers about his “case” when what I really wanted to do was punch the lot of them in the mouth for failing their own patient so egregiously and palming him off on me like he was garbage and I was a can. Don’t even get me started on how much I hated that job. I wasn’t well liked either and after 10 months was invited to leave. To be fair, if I hadn’t needed the money myself, having just quit a perfectly good job at a for-profit law firm (which I also hated) in order to take that one, I would’ve quit my dream job at this nonprofit after a couple of weeks once I realized what really went on there, and that “case” with the elderly Spanish-speaking mentally ill man is a decent example of what a day at the office looked like there. Here’s another:
Another of my clients was a Spanish-speaking woman who was about as bad off as anyone can get. I had gleaned from the referral paperwork that she had a couple of young kids and was close to being homeless in New York City (or was on either side of the homeless/sheltered line at different times, which is so common, I don’t even remember now). For readers who have never attempted to survive there with no resources and no money, and so don’t know what it’s like, New York City is something like a concrete meat grinder, with Satan himself at the controls, and pimps and “mental health” enforcers in every nook and cranny soaking up the blood and making sure the victims — the “meat” if you will — are never allowed to fully die. To say that these living and working conditions were brutal only underscores the problems with language that I will attempt to address in this post. “Brutal” and in fact any word or word-combination does not even come close to describing the reality of what any of this was actually like for myself or surely for my clients. Hellish isn’t enough. Suicidal isn’t enough, but it’s close.
What I remember about this woman, besides the fact that I wasn’t able to give her anywhere near the kind or degree of help she actually needed, was that it was almost impossible to communicate with her. I didn’t speak Spanish but in that situation it wouldn’t have mattered: her normal speaking voice was literally screaming and what she was screaming were not even fully formed words. My employer utilized an expensive, top of the line translation service that provided telephone translation for dozens if not hundreds of languages but in this case the translator was unable to tell me what she was saying because he couldn’t understand her himself. She was just screaming, screaming, Jesus. If she hadn’t been referred to me by a medical provider, and if we hadn’t already been conducting the interview in a hospital setting I probably would’ve called 911. Medical and social services providers just swished past my open door like what was happening in there was completely normal and not an emergent medical issue, but from what I could tell it wasn’t a legal issue either so this woman received no help from me or anyone.*
I had no idea what to do or how to help this woman because my job was to get information from her, have her sign paperwork and to “get the ball rolling” on emergency, short and long-term legal services for her. What I know now, as a hopelessly ill and unresourced person myself, is that my even asking the questions and wasting her time insisting that she talk to me was just gaslighting her, and she surely did not have the energy and mental or physical reserves/resources to be gaslighted just then. What I know now, because I am mostly there myself, is that the only relevant question for someone in her situation is “Do you need protection from any man in particular, or just all men?” and the only relevant action on my or anyone’s part would be to then assume she needed EVERYTHING and to get her every benefit available with no further discussion or delay including shelter, food, medicine, childcare, peace and quiet, and a permanent place to rest her head.
Because that’s what all women and all oppressed people need, and the fact that she was alone in my office screaming was the only type and degree of communication I should’ve needed and the only kind she should’ve been expected to provide, but it doesn’t work that way. Also, I wasn’t a fucking social worker but referring her to one would’ve just been more gaslighting since they, along with her medical providers, were the ones who referred her to me in the first place, but they never actually told me why or hinted at how or why they thought the law could help. They probably just needed/wanted the incoherently screaming Spanish-speaking lady out of their hair. And on it goes.
Do you see what I am saying? Just asking oppressed people what their situation is is fucking gaslighting on its face when we know their situation is that they are oppressed and everything that flows from that including poverty and extreme physical and mental strain. Utilizing an expensive “translation service” means that providers can maybe sometimes — but not always — gaslight people in their own language but it does nothing to get them what they actually need, which is a respite from hell and an emergent, short and long-term plan to not be oppressed anymore. But that “plan” and that kind and degree of help does not exist nor will it ever. And in that situation with my client, we were both left with the impression that she received no help that day because of her failure to “communicate” with me but in reality, she was telling me everything I should’ve needed to hear. Just being there exhausted both of us because being gaslighted is exhausting and gaslighting oppressed people is exhausting, or at least it’s exhausting for providers who actually want to help but are stymied at every turn and all the straightaways too where “communication” and “information” is absolutely required to do our jobs but our clients are too far down the grief-hole or chronic illness-hole or hell-hole to give us what we need. Of course, there is no guarantee that benefits or services will be available at all depending on the information we receive.
I have noticed (and experienced firsthand) that particularly women don’t even ask for help until they are not just drowning but going down for the final time because particularly women know what happens when women ask for help of anyone, and that the “help” they need is just not there. They know their friends, families and communities are frequently unable or unwilling to help in any meaningful way if they are able to offer anything at all; they either know because they were never helped/supported at all from day one, or because they’ve already asked for help/support at different times and been denied. On some level I imagine women are also clued-into that fact — that there is no help available no matter how badly it’s needed and even if you ask — by the objective, observable reality that if this was a society that freely offered “help” this society would probably offer “help” meaning, food, shelter, medicine, childcare, peace and quiet and a permanent place to rest our head in the first place without us having to fucking ask for it.
And finally, I will point out that just asking for help under these conditions and all that “asking” requires is so depleting that it makes oppressed people legitimately need even more help even more than they needed it before. It makes them worse. There simply are no words for how evil and life-sucking and tragic this all is and that’s kind of the point: words fail. They fail women all the time.
*I hadn’t yet recognized that medical and social services providers often palmed hopelessly physically and mentally ill patients off on legal service organizations, nor had I realized that doctors seem to think that lawyers are fucking social workers but that’s probably what was going on there. My directors didn’t mind any of this because just getting warm bodies in the door equaled funding for their program whether we were able to actually help these people or not. I, of course, was only there because I wanted to “help people” and elevate both my soul and my career but I failed at all of that.