“Hero child” as federal trial judge

This may read like something James Joyce wrote but without any of his talent. If so, live with it and read on, or close the page.

My mother died when she was 50 after her liver and most everything else gave out following 30 years of very hard-drinking. She was one of the smartest people I have ever known, but she was also a mean drunk. I don’t use the word “mean” as an exaggeration. Over the years, and while I was a judge, I sought help from physicians and therapists for anxiety and depression. I learned a lot along the way.

While it sounds annoyingly “new age,” I am what therapists call a “hero child.” That is, an adult who grew up as child of an alcoholic parent, typically the oldest (like me), and who responds to the chaos by serving as the self-designated family savior.

Please read this elaboration that pretty closely fits what I have learned:

The role I’m describing today is the “hero child”. It is usually taken on by the oldest child in the family. The purpose of the hero child is to bring honor back to the family’s image and identity. It’s disgraced by the presence of addiction. The hero child’s public presentation saves face for the family both to themselves and to the others.

The hero child is likely an overachiever, throws themselves into their school activities, gets high grades, and so on. They rarely get into trouble and have a longing for approval. The public good name of their family rides on their shoulders. Their desperate hope is that if they are just good enough, smart enough, responsible enough, and accomplish enough, they can drag their unhealthy family out of the pit and all will be well.

It is just a distraction, of course. The alcoholic will still be alcoholic no matter what the hero child accomplishes and no matter how clean their room is. And they are unlikely to get that approval they so desperately want. Eventually, the stress and strain of giving so much of themselves for the sake of the family – and for what?

This can sometimes be internalized as anxiety or depression. And once they realize they could never do enough, the hero child can become very resentful towards the family. The alcoholism creates a black hole that sucks the life and love away from the family, leaving a lot of pain behind.

Erika Krull, MS, LMHP, Child of Alcoholism – Hero Child, PsychCentral (2009).

As I write this, it is Sunday. I am 67 today. I have traveled out-of-state to try a civil case beginning tomorrow. Joan, my wife, was sick when I left. Given her recent bout with cancer, and despite her successful treatment, I am worried and I feel helpless. Our kids are scattered all over the world living their lives. The hotel room is odd. It is decorated in big and little images of large Elk Moose.* In the morning, I will go to work in a courthouse I have never been in before, pick a jury, and then try the case. I am both anxious and a little depressed at the thought. I am resentful too, although I volunteered for this gig.

Elk decor in hotel room

Elk Moose decor in hotel room

But here’s the deal. I am not unusual. There are a lot of “hero children” who are federal trial judges. Their drivers may be and probably are different from mine, but they have always compulsively striven no matter the personal costs. Hard and good work is never enough. Sir, may I have another?

The weird thing is that when these types grow up, they make pretty good judges. The sad thing is that they don’t have a choice.


PS You can also read this as a terribly irritating (and embarrassing) “poor me.” Honestly, that is not what I intend. But you be the judge.

*A law clerk in Lincoln and the law clerk traveling with me exchanged e-mails and advise that the critters are Moose not Elk. That’s just great. Now I am picking on poor dumb creatures, and I can’t even get that right.

15 responses

  1. As an addictions clinician I applaud you for the brave sharing you’ve just accomplished-though it too could be part of the Heroism-but it’s still genuine 🙂 As a mitigation specialist I applaud you for being a publicly self aware judge who regularly reflects on a variety of human conditions and motivations that often are not recognized or honored. Your raising consciousness one blog at a time is appreciated.

  2. Thanks for the excellent post – not something I’d ever thought of in so many words. I would be interested to learn how this differs from the usual “oldest child” syndrome – I had thought that the oldest tended to be the overachiever who identifies w/ the parents vs. the younger children. My wife’s family’s dysfunctions aren’t related to substance abuse, but my sister-in-law (the older child) fits the “hero child” mold pretty well.

  3. It seems doubly unfair that those driven to achieve by their suffering past should provide so much positive work, the benefit of which is enjoyed by those whose lives have been entirely comfortable. Whatever form it takes, I hope good Karma catches up with all the wounded heroes. Perhaps by protecting them from the Moose Mafia.

  4. Cry me a f’in river!!! With all respect, you don’t know anxiety, despair, worry, and helplessness. Try being one of the many victims of arguably the most corrupt and decrepit judiciary this side of Zimbabwe. I literally dream of the day when I will actually have the same basic human rights that the average Ivan in Sarajevo enjoys today. When you can’t even get judges to publicly admit that it is wrong for a colleague to accept or even solicit bribes or sit in judgment of her own cause, you understand on a visceral level just how foul and execrable the American court system really is.

    I never cared overmuch for approval. All I wanted was to be able to provide a decent life for my family, and be in a position to care for my aging parents when the time came. I never got to be a “hero child” … because I ended up as a victim.

    On a more positive note, where I live, we don’t have elk on our upholstery, but they are known from time to time to peer into our living-room windows.

    The weird thing is that when these [Hero Child] types grow up, they make pretty good judges.

    You sound like you are a great judge–a worthy successor to Judge Arnold’s legacy–but you are the exception that proves the rule. Most judges are like my lazy-ass high school physics teacher, who acted like a man who had tenure. Not too long ago, we caught a herd of ’em here out playing golf when they were being paid to attend CPE. Repercussions? Perish the thought!

    Unfortunately, most candidates these days are Harvard or Yale Law grads who had an attitude installed by a proctologist during 1-L, and who are prone to mistaking a used tampon for the Bill of Rights. Many would be hard-pressed to spell “judicature” if you spotted them the vowels, to say nothing of understanding what the Framers were trying to do. They all testi-lied compulsively to the Judiciary Committee, and crossed their fingers when they took the oath of office.

    We should scrap the FBI investigation, as it has produced the worst judiciary in the Western world since the Court of Star-Chamber. We need real people on the bench who have paid a few dues.

  5. As someone famous once said, everyone lives a life of quiet desperation. We all have our battles, large and small. My son, the teenager often thinks his latest problem is the end of the world. I try to remind him, no, you are just one of many…..

  6. Rich, you share this with Benjamin Cardozo, who set out to restore the family name after his father was snared in a Tammany Hall corruption episode. There’s a fascinating and wonderful biography of Cardozo written by a Harvard Law professor. It doesn’t just focus on his judicial career — but starts with him as a boy. If you’d like to borrow my copy I’ll get it to you. Best, Pat.

  7. [A] bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inferences.

    —Thomas Jefferson

    You *obviously* took the blue pill [Matrix reference], Mr. Anderson. I don’t think you understand how far down the rabbit-hole goes. Your education starts here: Anastasoff v. United States, 223 F.3d 898 (8th Cir. 2000) [1]. Judge Arnold got it dead solid perfect, but was humiliated into withdrawing his landmark opinion by his corrupt and power-besotted colleagues; rather than make a principled stand, he slunk back with his tail between his legs like a whipped cur. Now, consider the words of CJ Roberts:

    Roberts emphasized his belief that a judiciary is needed to uphold the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

    “Do not think for a moment that those words alone will protect you; consider some other grand words,” he said before reciting similar words from the Soviet Union’s constitution, which he called “all lies.” “So by all means celebrate the words of the First Amendment,” he said. “But remember also the words of the Soviet constitution.”[2]

    Every written constitution contains grandiloquent phrases guaranteeing fundamental liberties. Even North Korea’s. The North Korean Constitution guarantees the “freedom of speech, the press, assembly, demonstration and association,” to file grievances against the State, to social security, and free medical care, and to freedom of religion.[3] “In administering justice, [the North Korean courts are] independent, and judicial proceedings are carried out in strict accordance with the law.”[4] But as Roberts admits, in practice, your mileage may vary.

    The World Justice Project, a fly-by-night operation listing the current president of the ABA on its Board of Directors, and to which Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kennedy, and O’Connor, Secretaries Albright, Christopher, Baker, and Powell, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robertson, and Rev. Desmond Tutu have all lent their imprimatur to, measures what I call the Roberts Gap—between theory and practice—throughout the world, and their candid assessment of the United States has been nothing short of brutal. For purposes of their worldwide comparisons, they define the rule of law as a system in which the following four universal principles are upheld:

    1. The government and its officials and agents as well as individuals and private entities are accountable under the law.

    2. The laws are clear, publicized, stable and just, are applied evenly, and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property.

    3. The process by which the laws are enacted, administered and enforced is accessible, fair and efficient.

    4. Justice is delivered timely by competent, ethical, and independent representatives and neutrals who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.[5].

    For the rule of law to even exist, both a government and its agents must be accountable to the people they rule. Furthermore, the laws must protect fundamental rights, and must be applied in a consistent and timely manner, and without respect to persons. Anything short of that is rule by law, where “law” is defined as the tyrant’s will. And by that measure, we basically suck.

    Not only does Miss America not win this pageant, we don’t even come close to making it into the second round. When compared to our peers in the West, we don’t get into the upper division in even a single category. When it comes to justice, the only time we slip out of the basement is when we are compared to such traditional bastions of human rights as Uganda. And where we really get dinged is in our relative inability to deliver justice without respect to persons.

    If you are a corporate titan, e.g., Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U.S. ____, 129 S.Ct. 2252 (2009) (coal magnate); United States v. Nacchio, 519 F.3d 1140 (10th Cir. 2008) (former Qwest chairman), plutocrat, Marshall v. Marshall, 547 U.S. 293 (2006) (re: Anna Nicole Smith), or high-and-mighty public official, Cheney v. United States Ct. of App. for the District of Columbia 541 U.S. 913, 914 (2004) (Scalia, J., memo) (even a Justice who takes a bribe from a litigant can sit in an official capacity action involving the powers and perquisites of that litigant’s office), justice is delivered in a stretch limousine with a police escort. But if you are a person of modest means, and/or your opponent belongs to one of these favored classes, you can expect Lady Justice to smear her spent tampon all over your face.

    The fundamental problem? Unaccountable judges. Judge Gertner came onto this blog and confessed that she had literally been trained to commit felonies. You can’t even get a federal judge to publicly admit that it is wrong (and a violation of due process) for a fellow judge to sit in judgment of her own cause. Basically, our court system is the Penn State football program, with three kinds of judge: We have the Jerry Sanduskys sodomizing kids, the Mike McQuearys consciously turning a blind eye to it, and the Joe Paternos actively covering it up[6]

    Our two-track system of (in)justice was the deal-killer. We didn’t make the Order of the Coif or even graduate in the top quarter of our class, but we can always look at the bright side: As the WJP reports, we’re still ahead of Russia.

    I’ll be happy to debate the relative merits of our decrepit Third World legal system with anyone … but be forewarned that I will come armed with facts.

    [1] http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=8720164805009531718&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr
    [2] Melanie Hicken, Chief Justice Roberts Headlines Newhouse III Opening, The Daily Orange (Syracuse University), Sept. 20, 2007.
    [3] Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Constitution art. 67-9, 72 (2009), Int’l Constitutional Law Project (U. of Berne) (trans. unknown), at http://www.servat.unibe.ch/icl/kn00000_.html.
    [4] Id., art. 166.
    [5] http://worldjusticeproject.org/what-rule-law
    [6] See e.g., Heber Taylor, Judicial Discipline Needs a Full Probe, Galveston Daily News, May 15, 2009 (Fifth Circuit caught lying to the public regarding the scandal involving Judge Kent).

  8. From your blog, I take it that you are an appellate lawyer. One question: What parts of the United States Reports can you rely on? I have yet to encounter a judge who will even follow Marbury v. Madison, if s/he doesn’t like the result it precipitates.

    Basically, our court system is the Penn State football program, with three kinds of judge: We have the Jerry Sanduskys sodomizing kids, the Mike McQuearys consciously turning a blind eye to it, and the Joe Paternos actively covering it up.

    The cause of its dysfunction is obvious: a lack of accountability.

  9. Thanks for the writing, and the thinking.
    I can only shed useful light on the picture, though I see the

    That _is_ an elk in some places.
    Your deer-family identification instincts are perhaps no better than your sentencing instincts – not as bad as you think, but constrained by limited facts and not always talking the same language as everyone…
    Dear Wikipedia confirms that those of us living west of the prime meridian are the minority. The animal bearing the scientific name Alces alces is known in Britain as the elk, ‘elg’ in Danish and Norwegian, ‘älg’ in Swedish, ‘Elch’ in German, and (only) in North America as the ‘moose.’

  10. Ethan,

    What a wonderful comment!

    When you are a judge you learn stuff that you never, ever, would have learned otherwise. I delight in my good fortune when that happens and it happened today with your delightful offering.

    All the best.


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