In the past week alone, three people were very angry with me. Not because I offended them, though that could well happen, but because I failed them. At least in their eyes. Normally, I shrug this off as part of the deal, both as a lawyer and a blawger.
But a call yesterday afternoon brought the problem home in a particularly harsh way. Someone who had been a regular commenter here for a while, who had emailed me asking if we could get together and talk, who had called me before to talk to me, called in hysterics because she was being arrested. As it turned out, she wasn’t actually being arrested, but was with paramedics who were trying to take her to the hospital.
Where she was, in her home, on the street, I can’t say. Between sobs, she offered no information. What I was told is “the cops are arresting me, I have no one else. Help me.” In the background, I heard a paramedic explaining he wasn’t the cops, she was intoxicated and she had a serious gash in her head from having fallen down.
The paramedic got on the phone and told me this, and said that if she resisted their help, he would have no choice but to call for police. He didn’t want to do that, as . . . he understood it doesn’t usually turn out well for people. He asked me to persuade her to be cooperative. I tried, then hung up the phone.
Here’s the thing. I don’t know her. I know a few details of her life, but nothing of substance. She is not my client. She is not my old friend. She is not my family. When I spoke with her before this happened, she went on at some length about some vague problems in her life. All adjectives, no nouns.
She wanted to meet with me so she could tell me the story of her life. I demurred. I get a lot of phone calls from people I don’t know who read something I write here, and think that they should get an hour, a few hours, of my time to telling me all about them. It’s not possible. When I tell them so, they get angry. Every blawger knows this experience, where readers believe an intimate, personal relationship exists based upon their having read something.
But you care about this. You must care about me. You owe me. You must do for me as I want you to do.
No, I do not owe you. And no, I cannot, and will not, give you what you want just because you’ve decided you want it. And if that means you are going to be angry, call my office to leave ranting messages in the middle of the night (which happens with surprising regularity by distraught people who are furious that I have not agreed to dedicate my life to their problems), then so be it.
But when someone is out of their head, desperate and alone, the demand changes. The caller yesterday told me she had no one else to call. There are a lot of people out there who are alone, without family or friends. Often, they’ve alienated anyone with whom they had a personal connection, and are left to fantasy relationships with someone on the internet. It was sad that she said she had no one else but me.
Except, she doesn’t have me either. Nor do you. Nor you.
On your side of the computer, you wouldn’t know how things look or happen on my side. You don’t know about the dozen ten thousand incomprehensible word emails I receive, tell me stories of their personal injustices, and seeking, sometimes demanding, my pro bono help. Or the telephone calls from people I don’t know who want to “discuss” a blawg post. Or the hundred people who “just have a question.” Or the people who email me with their comments about a post because they feel that my writing about an issue means I want to engage in a personal discussion about it with them. Or the people like the woman yesterday, who have no one else to call.
In the early days of SJ, I tried to be kind about it, explain that it wasn’t possible for me to do as they ask, or even to spend the time necessary to discuss whatever it was they want to discuss. My time is spent writing SJ, not talking to anyone who felt entitled to call me. As even this quickly became untenable, I cut it all short. I won’t take phone calls, return emails, engage with people with whom I have no relationship, because the time that’s lost has to come from somewhere.
They don’t care, and they get very angry about it. How dare I not be there for them. How dare someone who says one thing on the internet not be their personal sounding board, savior, lawyer. They pick me, and in their mind, that makes me obliged to do as they demand. And so, I’m constrained to say no, and suffer their diatribe. Some are flaming nutjobs. Some are just sad and pathetic. Most are desperate. Almost all are angry when they don’t get what they want.
But when the call comes at the moment of extremis, when they say the police are there to arrest them, they don’t know what to do, they have no one else to call, and despite the absence of any personal relationship, as client, friend or family, expect me to save them, it’s more than I’m willing to take.
I write SJ. That is my contribution to the public weal. What I do in my practice, the people I represent, the terms of my representation, has nothing to do with my writing SJ. I don’t do it to get clients, and don’t get clients because I do it. To the extent that it proves helpful or interesting to readers, that’s great, though I don’t write for your sake but for mine.
But when the writing translates into insanity in real life, expectations and demands from readers, people I don’t know but who think they know me, it crosses a line. I don’t want to be a bastard about it. I don’t want to appear unempathetic. I don’t want you to suffer. And I don’t want the messages in the middle of the night, ranting about how I failed to dedicate my life to your craziness. But I can’t be the one to save you.
The alternative to enduring the insanity is that I stop writing SJ. I don’t want to do that, but I could well be pushed to the point of walking away. Instead, I say no. You may believe that you’re different, your situation is special, you deserve my time and attention because it’s you. I am sorry. Truly. But no. I am not your savior. Don’t call.