Letter from an Insane Asylum

November 9th, 2016 by Briana Cummings

“For the first time in my life, it makes me deeply question what women can achieve in this society.” “I still can’t believe all this is real.” “There is no silver lining here.”

Many reacted to last night’s election with so much shock and pain. I feel the pain and despair too, very deeply. But I get a perverse kind of comfort from the thought that I—and so many others—feel pain and despair, on a smaller scale, almost every single other day too. To work for the little guy, in isolation and in anonymity, with little or no financial reward or social recognition, and sometimes with no success, is to feel despair on a daily basis.

I don’t have the mantle of authority that comes with being part of an organization, especially a respected white-shoe firm or district attorney’s office. I’m just me, a young, inexperienced, soft-spoken, slight, insignificant woman, who works in an attic and at night cleans up dirty diapers and folds laundry. Every day judges give me lectures that are wrong on the law and wrong on the facts; opposing counsel sneer at me or treat me like a joke; my clients often go missing and sometimes turn on me; counsel on “my side” in a case accuses me of stabbing them in the back or treats me like I’m invisible, or a child.

So this is not the first time in my life I question what a woman like me can achieve in this society. This is not the first time I’ve felt like I’ve been punched in the gut. And compared to the way my clients are treated, I have it easy. But watching Hillary suffer this loss and still come out standing gives me motivation to keep fighting my own little fight and keep taking my own little punches, day in and day out.

My hope from this election is that it wakes people up to this reality: Progress is hard. The world is not fair, bad people (and good people) do bad things in it. What happened today happens—again, on a smaller scale—every day. The bully wins, the outcome of a case is unfair. And we must continue to challenge it, not just with one vote, but with every minute of every day.

Two years ago this letter came to me post-marked from Patton State Hospital (fka “Highland Insane Asylum”):

“I am desperately seeking legal aid. I am currently incarcerated at Patton State Hosp. . . . I am charged with PC 422 (A) “Criminal Threats.” I was given 25 to life. . . .

I filed a Petition For Writ of Habeas Corpus to the local Superior Court, and was denied. I also filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus in the 2nd district Court Of Appeals, and was also denied. I need to file a Writ Of Habeas Corpus in the California Supreme Court, and if denied also in the Federal Supreme Court. I filed the first two Writs without any legal aid, and I apparently did not prepare the documents correctly which was the reason both were denied. I will also need legal assistance to file for a retoration of sanity if the Writs are denied. I have made many requests for legal aid, and have had no luck so far. It has been four months since I filed my last Writ. Please help me acquire legal representation.

I was a homeless person who was walking down the sidewalk talking to myself using profanity when a black female postal worker claimed that I threatened her. I have been arrested for this sort of thing before.

I am a 51 year old male who is handicapped with no family, or support group, or money.”

This man is—and has for a long time been—as alone as many of you feel right now. As are so many others: A man texting me his photo from prison with a plea for help. An immigrant wailing that a relative has kidnapped her adopted daughter across state lines and that she can’t afford legal assistance. A grandmother who is confused about why her granddaughter comes home from school every day with bruises and a refusal to speak about them. They all feel alone.

If you think people like this don’t really need help because they’ve got “no case,” you’re wrong. I have taken up these cases and won benefits for refugees, returned children to their families, won battered mothers custody and financial support.

If you think there’s someone else out there who will help these people if you don’t, you’re wrong. There is no one else. One client wrote to me, after I helped her:

Hi Briana Cummings is very good friendly I liking very much in my life never forget Briana Cummings is best friend in my life I like very much Briana Cummings I miss you. Thank you.

She still calls me, from halfway across the globe, with messages of love. Because I was the only one there for her.

Let this be Hillary’s legacy: the resolve to follow Hillary’s example, to rise above despair to focus on the work at hand, and to not wait for anyone—man, president, congressperson, judge—to do the work for us. We must all be Hillary. We must all be ready to run forward and get smacked in the head with  unfairness, to be bullied, to be trivialized, to be cast into self-doubt and despair, to take on risks, to leave the safety of numbers, to expose ourselves to blows, to take the ones that come, and sometimes to just hurt. If we look at history, that is the only way forward.

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