A client of mine, Terry, called me to begin counseling services after being charged in New
Orleans La., for: Conspiracy to sell marijuana. A search of his hotel room had revealed nothing significantly out of the ordinary except a food saver machine used to seal plastic baggies, a small bottle with 2 valium, and 3 different identifications. The valium was prescribed, and the sealing machine had been left by an acquaintance whom turned out to be a local habitual offender who implicated Terry in wrongdoing. The state alleges that Terry was using aliases to traffic drugs,the sealing machine was used in the bagging of the merchandise to be sold on the street and the valium was further indication of wrongdoing and involvement with the use and trafficking of substances.
The attorney hired to represent Terry was finding it difficult to find a rational explanation for the accumulation of identifications. He felt that the crux of the case hinged on the ability to decipher another reason for this behavior, one so often affiliated with criminal activity.
During our initial discussions in early fall Terry expressed a desire to better understand the
events of his life. Early on it became clear that he had conflicting perceptions of himself and of the family he grew up in. From my perspective I felt it was important that he explore his experiences and how they influenced his understanding of the world around him. It was this issue that led him into the legal situation that he now found himself. Methodically my client began to recall the events of his own life and what emerged was his own story, the foundation for the explanation of the accumulation of aliases that his attorney could not find.
Terry grew up in a chaotic environment, the product of an absentee but successful father and a mentally ill and alcoholic mother. The middle of three children, he always spoke in admiration of his father describing in detail his reported brilliance and giftedness. In Terry’s recounting of those times he also paid tribute to his older brother who was often held up as the role model and person within the family to emulate. Despite the fact that his older brother was an overachiever, he also was severely abusive to my client.
In Terry’s own words, based on the recollections of growing up with his brother he shared these events with me:
1) “My older brother by three years was the Golden Boy and chosen one of the family;
always getting straight A’s, elected head of the class, good at sports. He did it all”.
2) “One of my earliest memories is of being in a sandbox that my father made out of an
old truck tire. I was playing with a toad that had gotten in. My brother came and took
the toad then smashed it with a brick”.
3) “My older brother had a bb gun and shot me in the cheek with it. He told me not to
tell my parents and I didn’t. I had the bb in my cheek until I was 15”.
4) “He (the older brother) was given a shot gun at the age of 17. I had a bb gun and we
would go out shooting birds and rabbits. When one wasn’t dead, so as not to waste
a shot, he would kick it to death. One day I shot a bird instead of kicking it. My
brother punished me by placing the shot gun on the side of my head and shooting it
off repeatedly alternating from one ear to the other. It very well may have started my
5) “My parents would go on vacation in August. At 15 my brother had gotten his
driver’s license so my parents dropped my sister off at my uncles who had three
daughters around her age and left my brother in charge of me. My brother had been
sneaking into the liquor cabinet for a long time. We were watching TV and he started
pushing me to drink until I started puking. He dragged me into the bathroom to the
toilet and the next thing I knew he was screwing me in the ass. The next day he told
me that any way he had hurt me before would be nothing compared to what he would
do if I told anyone. I didn’t”.
6) “He learned to punch me in the gut and knock the wind out of me and put me in a
headlock until I passed out”.
7) “My father was a popular public speaker and my parents were out at parties and
functions a lot. The sexual abuse would happen when they were gone and my brother
would get into the alcohol”
Terry found himself struggling with understanding his brother’s two sides; the overachieving and perfect brother and the one that he knew most, the one who beat and abused him. Beaten down by the effort it took to live on a day to day basis, he suffered from poor health, learning disabilities and emotional issues. He shared the list of problems with me:
1) “From an early age I had constant bouts with strep throat, and had mononucleosis”.
2) “At thirteen I had a severe kidney infection and was in the hospital for three weeks
hallucinating with a high fever”.
3) “I got painful warts that needed to be irradiated off. Sores developed along my gum
lines. The doctors had no idea what to do with them”.
4) “I had bad feet and had to walk with orthopedic shoes”.
5) “My teeth were a mess and for years I had to wear braces”.
6) “At nine I was fitted with glasses and my eyesight has progressively worsened. Now I
am extremely nearsighted (20/650), with developing cataracts. I have floaters (in my
eyes) and am at risk for detached retina and macular degeneration”.
7) In high school I started developing tinnitus which evolved into my current deafness”.
8) “In school I just couldn’t get it. Things just didn’t make sense to me. Math was
9) “I couldn’t tell time until I was fourteen and I was too embarrassed to tell anyone
It became clear that his sister was also able to perform well and emulate the kind of persona that his father held in high esteem. His sister was also an over achiever, dutiful, accomplished but manipulative.
His father was not at home. His mother was drunk and mentally ill. His brother was aggressive and abusive. His sister was manipulative and mean. Terry was in need of someone to help him understand the conflicting messages he was receiving by the people around him. In his own words he felt hopeless. He felt exposed with no “place to hide to be safe”
1) “If I went to my parents (about my brother’s abuse) they would side with him”.
2) “Growing up I never knew what person to expect with my parents, brother and sister;
someone loving and caring, or, a crazy person that made no sense at all and was best
to stay away from”.
3) “I learned that the best way to survive was to be invisible and stay out of sight, never
argue and most importantly, go along to get along”.
It was in this environment that Terry never knew what to expect and was punished for seeking understanding and support. Unable to reconcile the conflicting messages from his family he learned to become “invisible” to find relief from his unsolvable situation. Chronological examples are available from his life story:
1) In high school he joined no clubs, played no sports, and had no close friends.
2) In college (which his father “assisted” him getting into due to his bad grades), Terry
found that a good way to stay invisible was to be where no one knew about your past.
“When I got to college it was like a great weight was lifted off of me. No one
knew who I was”.
After struggling for years to maintain the “perfect” family image, the family itself began to break down.
1) His mother’s alcoholism was severe and she refused treatment despite a family
intervention. The family took matters into their own hands by going to court
obtaining an involuntary commitment. “Police came to the house and my father, brother and sister were all very
embarrassed and humiliated. I wasn’t, I was just hurt”.
2) “My sister’s attitude was that my mother was an imposition”.
3) “During those years my brother’s mental illness had been progressing and he became
more anti-social and difficult to get along with”
One part of Terry was relieved to think that at long last the world would see what he had always known; that the perfect family was not. At the same time he felt like a failure for not saving them… similar conflicting feelings that had no resolution. He retreated to his new found haven of invisibility.
1) “After my mother’s failed rehab I could not handle being around her and had very
little contact with my parents and brother and sister”.
2) “At thirty-nine nothing had really changed and I moved out to San Diego, CA. I
didn’t update my family about the move because I wanted less and less to do with
them. When I got to CA it was very much like when I had gotten to college. A weight
was lifted. No one to know that I wasn’t good enough, no pressure, no expectations,
no real friends.
It was there in San Diego that Terry found the power of assuming aliases to hide and find relief.
“At the time San Diego was being overrun with illegal immigrants. On almost any street
corner you could buy a driver’s license for twenty dollars. I got one and it felt good, like
a new set of clothes. I rented a mailbox at Mailboxes Etc and in a couple of weeks was
getting all kinds of junk mail. I would go in and pick up my mail and pass the time of day
with the people who worked there and “knew” me. I was a real person! All of this was
very safe (or at least Terry thought). The best was picking up the mail. That was official.
When I would feel down, it would become a routine for me to go out and get a new
driver’s license. I didn’t have to do anything with it. It just felt good”.
The problem was that he longed to be an accepted part of a family, to “fit in”… even though it ran contrary to the wish to escape.
“One year I went to the New Orleans, La. for Mardi Gras. I was alone, always alone. I
got there and the whole city was ready to party. I was immediately adopted by a group
of people who I met. Pretty soon it turned out I must be a distant cousin. In New Orleans
it’s enough for you to be there and you’re welcomed. It became a refuge for me… a place
where I could go and be a stranger and yet someone’s relative”.
My client could disappear in the New Orleans while at the same time meet people who he
considered family. They were connections made to order and could be experienced with a plane ticket. New Orleans was a place to visit and make peace with himself.
Summarizing the Case:
Growing up Terry could never live up to the family’s expectations of perfection. The conflict
between his treatment by family members and the family ideal of perfection left him confused and afraid. He began to suffer health related conditions. His schooling and his personal relationships suffered. He learned to protect himself by being “invisible”, that is, choosing:1) To distance him from family and friends 2) Keep new relations “at arm’s length”, and finally 3) By assuming new identities to protect himself. My client’s efforts to distance himself from others left him longing for the connection he never had. In New Orleans he found a place where he was accepted as he was. There he sought refuge and peace.
My client has found a way to live within the world that, while unusual, poses no threat. Since early this fall he has been engaged in therapy trying to make sense out of his own life. We continue to work together.
The importance of this case: As is often the case, the appearance of a behavior does not constitute criminal activity! As in Terry’s case, personal stories hold a wealth of information court and legal representatives do not have the time or perspective to access. Within those stories lie the counterarguments so needed in the development of an effective defense. Litigants need to routinely be able call into question the allegations made of them within courtroom settings. Without the ability to critically consider life events that hold answers to the court’s concerns, client’s lose motivation, can become hostile and oftentimes makes defending them difficult if not downright dangerous. The example here illustrates an important technique when considering assumptions made of litigant behaviors, especially when the court relies on allegations made by repeat offenders or are linked to assumptions without significant evidentiary back-up.
Nanaymie Kasmira Godfrey MS, MAC, LMHC