All posts by witch


I have met a couple hundred men who tried to hire a police officer to perform sexual services for them. I haven’t felt like giving space to them as I identify more with the sex workers than the johns. I am glad that my city has changed the name of the crime of soliciting a prostitute to Sexual Exploitation. I would prefer we go even further, given the current state of the so-called market, or human trafficking trade, and call it Economic Rape.

I am not opposed to the policies in countries like Finland where it is legal for both parties to contract directly for sexual services in exchange for pay, even if I personally think it would be both creepy and sad to pay a person for sex, especially someone young, poor and vulnerable. I agree with Finland’s policy to continue to criminalize pimping as well, because at the very least, the sex worker deserves 100% of the pay for any kind of touch. And where sex work is legal, it is much easier for workers to reach out for help the same way other workers can.

Sex work has not been decriminalized or legalized in my area, but sex workers are no longer arrested and prosecuted. In parts of the country where they are still arrested, they are at risk for being harassed and exploited by law enforcement, and often have to provide services without pay to avoid jail and fines, while remaining virtually enslaved and getting no protection from their pimps. It is a very hard trade to break out of, if someone else is sending you out to touch 25 or 30 guys a day and raking in that money. They don’t want you to get away. Sound exaggerated? According to local police, that is the average expectation for “jobs in a day” among the trafficked kids they now work to rescue.

When I have interpreted for the john’s class, a member of the vice squad comes in and routinely gives statistics: 85% of area sex workers are under 18 years old; 99% of these minors are pimped out, sometimes by family members in a long, tragic lifetime of abuse and exploitation. Approximately 1% of the US population has ever gone to a prostitute, but people who do try to normalize their behavior just like those who engage in domestic violence. At the end of the workshop, the city brings in a psychologist who tries to convince the johns that this trade is bad for them as well as for the sex workers, so they should care.

But do they care? I have only met one who said it was upsetting to hear about the sex workers during class. That he didn’t realize they were mostly so young, and that they didn’t get to keep the money. He mostly talked about the money. Because he was a poor immigrant, and he could identify with doing a job and then getting shorted on pay. He could identify with some middleman sending him out on a job and then keeping most of the money. The rest of it he couldn’t fathom, because he was raised to think of “those women” as other. I saw him cringe each time a speaker suggested the sex workers “could be your mother, your sister, your daughter”.

The typical guy I meet on these cases is lonely. And lonely means isolated. Lonely means out of social network. Lonely means apart. They don’t have friends here. They are sleeping on some uncle’s couch and there is no chance to starting a family, so they can’t really date in the traditional sense of finding someone to set up a home with. They don’t even have papers to be in the US, and any day some random guy at the bus stop could ask them for the time – in their language – and then ask where they are from and then arrest them, because oops, that was an ICE agent, stupid.

So what does any of this have to do with sex work? Nothing. God gave them two hands, as the old saying goes, and they should know how to self-soothe. Yes, they live with a lot of people in a small space, but that is what the shower is for. Take care of your own business. But somehow there is an underlying loneliness and a deep well of isolation that makes these men reach out for a sex worker. Perhaps we should have compassion for them, because they are suffering, yet I cannot overlook the fact that they exhibit zero regard for the person whose body they plan to enter. A person whose work situation is much harsher and inescapable even than their own.

The typical guy I interpret for makes a big deal about how this random girl came up to him. She came up to him! And she smiled. Not a lot of people smile at poor immigrant workers with a backpack on. And she seemed friendly. And she seemed nice. And she talked to him. She talked to him in a friendly way! Then she asked if he wanted a date, and he was just blown away. What a dream come true. Then comes the hard part to stomach.

She tells him she is just fifteen, but that is not a problem. Is it? Girls get married at 12 and 13 in his village. It’s not that weird. Is it? Then she tells him she will have sex with him. It used to be around 50 dollars maybe two decades ago, but it is down to 25 or so in our new economy with lots of homeless and lots of addicts. So he says some version of full frontal and she says 35 dollars and he says 25 dollars instead and they agree to the price and the act, and he is so happy for that moment. He tells her to get into his truck. He is a stranger in a strange land seeking comfort from a stranger. It’s not that bad, is it? And he will be touched. Wow! Is this really happening?

No, it is not. Because four cops in uniform show up as he grabs her elbow to steer her to his truck and they start talking about Miranda and how he has the right to remain silent, and how anything he says can and will be used against him in a court of law, and he has the right to a lawyer, but wouldn’t he rather just do this the nice way, and admit that he was about to go off and have sex for pay – with someone who literally just told him that she is underage, so this is not just sexual exploitation, my friend, but commercial sexual abuse of a minor. Oh, and now all of a sudden he doesn’t know English after he just negotiated over “the f word” with a purported 15-year-old? Okay, dude. Let’s go down to the station.

I have heard defense attorneys argue during trials that these sting operations are unethical and racist. That they target poor men and immigrants. Why isn’t the city going after the high-end call girls?!? Then the prosecutors put the young cop on the stand. The one who has agreed to be in danger. To be groped. Yes, they are groped routinely. To be talked to in horrible ways. And then having the relief, the safety, of other cops showing up and protecting her. And she testifies about human trafficking. And she testifies that the city is doing its best to protect the youngest and most vulnerable “street” sex workers, because they are the ones at the highest risk of harm. There is no entrapment. Whoever approaches them and agrees to exchange sex for money will be arrested across the board. Most guys say no, thanks. For the others, prosecution is appropriate.


On Fridays, I have the mixed pleasure of working on the omnibus calendar at our county superior court. This is where 50 to 150 lawyers gather in a locked room and negotiate their cases, figure out their scheduling, and then bring each case on the record so the judge can decide whether to change the trial date, order discovery, change conditions of release, or grant a continuance. This and dozens of other possibilities are squeezed into a very crowded morning courtroom session. And every case or two, one of the guards yells out, “Keep your voices down!” to the milling, chatting lawyers.

All kinds of actions and requests take place, along with some emotional moments off the record. A few months ago, I witnessed a lawyer who was waiting to go on the record get arrested himself and whisked off into custody in handcuffs. He had apparently gotten embroiled in the financial crimes of his money-laundering clients. Another time, I saw a ghostly pale young married couple ushered into the courtroom in their best Sunday clothes, shakily holding hands and whispering to each other. Whatever could the poor hapless things have done to get into felony court? They went before the judge and were charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

In one of today’s cases, the defense attorney had carefully crafted an offer for two years in county jail instead of state prison and deportation, which was the likely outcome of going to trial on a drug case, but the defendant told him he had simply given up and just doesn’t care any more. We went round and round between “I don’t care, you’re the lawyer,” and “I cannot decide for you”. We ended the interpreting session with a reluctant trial set, and the defendant was still muttering on about how he just didn’t care, and had literally given up all hope. I muttered all his despair right along with him in English, to his great satisfaction. As we turned away, he called out to me cheerily, “Hey, thanks so much, Madame Interpreter! Hope you have the loveliest day ever!”

It is a weird place to spend time, partly because we all agree that time is such a commodity, and we all rush around. And yet we spend the bulk of our time there waiting. So many individuals working the system, commiserating about their backbreaking obligations and personal time constraints. The cases shift and change from minute to minute, pieces of a living, moving, complex puzzle. For each hearing calendar, the defense attorney has to find and meet with the assigned prosecutor. They then have to find me and talk with their client. Many lawyers on both sides are in trial , so they send a colleague to cover for them, and I never know who that is. If the defendant is in custody, we may have to wait in line to get a chance to meet with them. If out of custody, of course we have to wait for them to show up. Then we wait again to get our turn to go on the record, unless the judge allows an off-the-record continuance. I tend to sit where I was see the whole courtroom and gallery so I am ready to jump up at a moment’s notice and get one more case checked off my own busy schedule.

Beyond all the bustle taking place within the jail holding area and the active courtroom, there is an audience sitting in the gallery. They are locked out of the courtroom behind bulletproof glass and a guard is assigned to open the door for each person one by one as appropriate. New lawyers are routinely greeted by the door guard with a gruff, “Who are you?” But I slip by the guard as a known face, and find my spot on the bench along the wall, facing the audience in the gallery. Most of the lawyers smile and greet me. One came up to me today to say every time she sees my face, she remembers this adorable 18-year-old drunk driver – a case we worked on together where he was able to get into treatment after “blowing a two” meaning he had drunk well over double the amount needed to be drunk while driving. Last she heard, he was still sober! We all have the cases we remember more than others; the ones that trigger our emotions.

Sometimes my mind wanders as the waiting extends and in a dreamlike state, I find myself guessing which of the people in the gallery on the other side of the glass are the accused. Which are friends and family. Which are with the press. Which are private defense attorneys who don’t have the sense to come into the courtroom and inform the main bailiff that they are ready to go on the record so their case can be in line to be called. And which are parents. Today there were a mom and dad in the front row. They were already seated when I arrived early, and sat there for around two hours waiting. Then I saw both their faces light up with recognition: a pale bearded young man was led into the courtroom in handcuffs.

In-custody defendants all wait together in a locked area. As their case is called, they have their hands cuffed behind their back and are then led into the courtroom by the guards. Once standing before the judge on the record, the cuffs are removed. They are not supposed to turn around or signal to anyone in the gallery. But it is almost impossible for people who have been locked up for days, weeks or months awaiting trial not to sneak a glance into the audience to see if anyone is still there for them. On the way out, if not on the way in. This mom and dad both stood up as the defendant was ushered in. And when he turned after his hearing, in cuffs again, to be returned into the lock-up area, they each signaled to him.

As the ushering guard caught this, I saw his shifting facial expression. He was clearly contemplating whether to intervene of just let it go. It is only a matter of seconds that the defendant has the chance to catch anyone’s eye in the gallery as they are quickly walked back across the courtroom to the locked door leading into the jail holding cell. So it is a judgment call whether to scold, intervene, or ignore the contact. Most guards do intervene because when people in jail get the chance to signal to people out of jail, community safety or trial witnesses can be at risk.

In this case, the dad was a large ruddy man, well over six feet. He looked weather-worn, but his face was set and clear when he rose to his feet. You could see that this dad was here to support his wayward son during his ordeal, no matter how little he understood about what the hell his son must have been thinking to get into this kind of trouble. Dad was here to show support, and lend his strength. But when he and his son caught each other’s eyes for that split second, Dad visibly choked up. His face crumpled, like a slow motion film of a window shattering and falling into pieces as it breaks. Dad dropped his eyes as his face fell apart, and immediately raised a hand in a salute, a greeting that invited the onlookers to look away from his broken face and focus on his strong, work-worn palm, held steadily aloft.

Meanwhile, Mom was a wiry old gal with gray hair in a ponytail and a huge purse that undoubtedly had cigarettes in it. She looked worn, yet feisty. She wasn’t giving up on her baby boy! She jumped up as soon as she noticed him enter the courtroom and she stood at attention during his hearing, carefully writing down his next hearing date as it was announced. She would be there! Right when he turned around after being cuffed to leave, just as he caught his Dad’s eyes, she dropped her pen and pad and pressed both her hands right up against the glass. Then she sent her love with a wide-open mouth, exaggerating the words I LOVE YOU. Her mouth reminded me of a baby bird as they cry in their nest, opening as wide as they can in the hopes of some regurgitated nourishment from their parent. I LOVE YOU! She repeated toward her son’s back as he disappeared through the locked door.

Some guards will order the prisoner to “look away!” Some step between the prisoner and the gallery and physically block the view. When a defendant tries to turn and look about from the bench, the guards almost always order them to “face the judge!” On the walk back, I often hear a guard saying, “No signalling!” Especially with suspected gang members. But this time, the guard let a sigh escape as he witnessed the parents reaching through the glass to their son. Perhaps he was thinking of his own parents. I don’t know. But the guard swallowed and sighed and he didn’t say anything and he didn’t step between them. It takes around 12 steps to reach the lock-up area, and they crossed in silence, the only words being the mouthed I LOVE YOU that mom was so eagerly shooting through the bullet-proof glass.

Few people in the courtroom seem to notice these encounters. The lawyers are in their own world, making their own plans, hurrying along and thinking about what they have to do next. Most people do not want to engage and witness, because we prefer to remain safely distant. God forbid we should ever be in the position of these parents, raising a hand with our face crumbling and dissolving as our child sees us and looks away, with one more sad moment seared into his already sated memory bank. God forbid our own child should ever see our tears and know himself to be the cause of them. So we tend to look quickly away, and not look back until the family greeting and separation is complete and over.

Those of us who notice, like this guard, find ourselves inexplicably swallowing and sighing, almost in unison. As if we had each been administered a mouthful of another person’s sorrow. I have never heard anyone talk about it there, in the courtroom. Perhaps we cannot speak aloud of such things, while we are being so very professional. We are on camera, and we are being recorded. And as officers of the court, we exhibit due decorum. And so instead of talking, those of us who witness these fleeting greetings through the glass each silently swallow our dose of sorrow, and it tastes like love and pain in our mouths. And we each release a sigh, because we find we have been unwittingly holding our breath. Then we remember to breathe, and we pull ourselves together, and we get ready for the next case. Because time is short and there is so much more to do.


So I was seeing this guy at work, and yeah he was married, but his wife wasn’t around. I mean, she was going to come later, after her visa came through. Because he had status. From ICE. He had papers, so he was bringing her and the two kids up, but it takes years and years. And meanwhile, he is a man, and things can change, and we were both lonely, and two years go by and we are happy, and then she pops in out of the blue. Her visa came through. They arrived. Her and the kids. You know?

Well, I tried to back off and let him, you know, have his family, but I guess after all those years of waiting, he found out he wasn’t that happy with her after all. He was not the same person anymore. And I think the fact that he hadn’t really been waiting for her, like she had been waiting for him, you know, they were arguing at home. And she heard about me, of course. People talk and she was not happy about me. She heard about me, because a lot of us are here from the same area and she has like five cousins both male and female who work with us at the packing plant. So I backed off.

A few months go by. He’s still living with her but now he’s unhappy and lonely just like when I met him and he misses me and he starts looking at me all goo-goo eyes and regretful and bringing me coffee on breaks and pretty soon he is walking me to my carpool and then he wants to give me a ride himself and then he drops me off last and you know. He’s all wistful and needy. It happens. And it happens a few more times, and one time I’m like, remember, you have a wife, and he’s like, well, I want to come back. I am happier with you. I want to leave my wife and be with you. And we can have kids and all that. Me and you, baby. I love you best, and I promise to treasure you and protect you as much as the eyes in my own face.

So he gets brave for once, which our men are not known for in these situations, and he breaks the news to his wife, and she goes ballistic. She really loses it. We walk out after work the next day and she is there with two of her female cousins, and they grab me right in front of him and put me in a car – and he just stands there! He just stands there half-smiling like an idiot, in shock, I guess. But here I am in a car with an angry woman on each side of me holding one arm and the wife is driving and this is not good. Not good. I didn’t even know she knew how to drive! So she drives us out to this long gravel road and then she just pulls over by the river, under the trees, and they take me out of the car. And the two of them hold me by the arms and she starts in on me. And she is shaking with rage.

No, I know. I’m the one charged with assault here. I mean, I know I’m the suspect for this fight. I know. This isn’t that beating. I’m trying to explain the situation from before so you can try to understand. You look young. I don’t know if you’ve gotten married yet or if you have kids but people can get fierce. Where I am from, it’s not that unusual for women to fight and it is always over a man. I’ve heard women here just walk away and are like, oh well. Hope they’re happy. I’ll get another one. But we don’t like to switch. We aren’t raised that way. We get stuck on the one guy, and if there are two of us, there will be trouble until somebody wins and somebody walks away. And I tried to walk away but he came after me. Not my fault.

Anyway, the wife said a bunch of really nasty, vulgar stuff. Excuse my language, but she kept saying “I’m gonna show you what a whore looks like!” and I was thinking, well I’m not a whore, I’m more like his other wife kind of, but of course I couldn’t say anything back. I just stood there held by my arms and she kept screaming at me and then she slapped me a bunch of times but she was still mad so she punched me and pulled my hair and scratched my arms and face, and then they pushed me down and kicked me, her and the cousins did. I just curled up trying to protect my face.

I thought they might throw me into the river – I really thought this was the end of me and I was kind of glad I don’t have children yet. But then they just walked away and left me there and drove away. I just lay there for a while like a wounded deer, wondering what the hey. In shock. In pain. Thinking of the foolish look on my man’s face when his wife was shoving me into the car. What a wimp! Where was he when I needed him? Yeah, sure, he’s gonna protect me like the eyes in his face. Sure, buddy. I guess you’re destined to go blind then. He didn’t have the …. bravery to protect me after he said he would. Empty words!

I managed to get up partly because it started raining and I had to move, but everything hurt like crazy. It turns out I had a broken rib. I had to walk forever, limping along, then I got a ride and the people who picked me up took me straight to the hospital. By now my face was swollen up bad. Anyway, I guess the doctors routinely call the police when somebody shows up like I did, and luckily they didn’t call ICE on me, because I don’t have papers. The police gave me a bunch of information about where I could get help. They figured a man had done it so they gave me stuff on domestic violence and immigration both. The looks on their faces when I said it was a woman! The cops were two men and they were like, dang!

So funnily enough, because she beat me up, I called the numbers the police gave me about my rights and all that, and it turns out if you are the victim of a crime or a even witness and you help the police to solve it, you can get a special visa called a U-visa. I think it was set up for solving drug crimes or something like drug trafficking, but it also works for people who get beat up like me. So my rival was going to get me a visa. God is great. But then the devil fools with the best laid plans. My foolish pride.

The thing is, our traditions. Maybe someone from here could get that happy ending, and be like, hey lady, thanks for loaning me your husband a couple years, and then thanks for getting me a visa. I won. But what she had done rankled my heart. Not just the beating. This woman, she had hurt my feminine pride. Dragging me away in front of my man and him doing nothing. And I was really injured, too. My face was every shade of purple and blue and one eyes was swollen shut. The rib took a couple weeks to heal. I had to stay away from work because it’s a lot of heavy lifting. I was staying with some girlfriends from the plant and they would come home with gossip and tell me about my guy, who by the way never came around. And I had nothing to think about but my guy and his wife and the look on his face and the things she had said to me, and me waiting to get tossed into the river. And feel my pain and it hurt to even move. And my pride rose.

When I was better enough to go back to work the first thing I did was walk straight up to him and ask him what he was going to do. Was he going to make a life with me like he had said he would? I was ready for it now. He looked sheepish and mumbled something about how he was married in the church and he had to stay with his real wife. I started to argue and then he looked up and said, “The thing is, she fought for me. She was willing to fight for me. She might go to jail! So she must really love me.”

I was stunned silent, and I walked to my station, and just stood there, sorting apples, like a robot. Who knows where the apples ended up, seriously. So there I am thinking to myself, are you kidding me? You just told me that you are happier with me. You want to be with me. You’re going to take care of me. We’re gonna start a family. And now you get all remorseful just because your wife beats me up? Really? I mean, really! Well, okay. You find it exciting and thrilling to have a woman fight for you? Okay! I can fight for you, too, if that’s what it takes. I mean, I was willing to back up, but not after this. God who sees all knows my heart was enraged!

So yeah, in answer to your question, yeah, everything in the police report is true. Yup. We fought and I won. And he just stood there like an idiot once again. Doing nothing. And now I might get deported, unless you can help me, and then he’ll probably just find somebody else at work and start over, because that’s what men do. They’re not like us. They don’t have soft hearts. I loved him with every fiber of my being. Even if he isn’t worth it, my heart still goes out to him. So I don’t want to lose this case. I don’t want to have a criminal record. I don’t want to get deported. I have to win this.


I wonder what the judges think when they hear the same private attorney give the same canned speech about how his client is “not the kind of person” we typically see in court. This client is different. Not like a criminal at all. Would never be expected to commit a crime. Never! Week after week, these unique non-criminal individuals take their seat in the defendant’s chair in the unlikely shape of a white, educated, middle-class man, usually a family father. A homeowner. A dog walker. A decent sort of fellow, all around. Not who we (the public) would expect to beat his partner or drive drunk. And so this attorney feels justified in asking the judge to set his client apart and give him, well, special treatment at sentencing. Because he is the kind of person who expects and deserves it, and he is paying through the nose for it. Specifically and coincidentally, across the board:

“This defendant, Your Honor, is a very special person, whom I am pleased to present to You today. He extremely remorseful for his actions. He realizes that he used poor judgment and made a mistake, and he is eager to pay for it and put it behind him. This situation was truly eye-opening for him, Your Honor. It was a wake-up call. It has had an extreme impact on him and his family. They were truly shocked – it was so out of character! Let me introduce him briefly, as I know the Court’s time is limited:”

(Here comes a spiel about his job, his home, his volunteer activities and even some hobbies. He may do some woodcarving, or enjoy long walks in the mountains. He may pitch in with money or time at the children’s school (always managing to have more than one child) and if he doesn’t play an instrument, he is sporty, and likely to enjoy pickup games of (fill in sport) at his local gym or park. He is active in professional organizations, has a lot of responsibility of work, and it is vital to his family that he can keep on his career path, as he is a breadwinner of some merit. He is a pillar of the community. Any character-building challenge he faces such as chronic high blood pressure, male pattern baldness, struggles with the sedentary nature of his job, or a dependent mother-in-law may be inserted here.)

“I have truly enjoyed getting to know this defendant during the course of our work together on this case, Your Honor. He has been a real pleasure to work with. He has shown up for every appointment on time. He has never missed a court appearance. He was prompt in getting his evaluation completed, and it shows that he needs minimal treatment, which he has already completed. He has taken this case very seriously.

“This defendant, Your Honor, is stepping up and taking full responsibility today, rather than fighting the case and going to trial. He brought me on board the very day after the incident. Given all the circumstances, the prosecutor has agreed to reduce the charges in exchange for my client’s guilty plea, and I ask that you accept the plea as it is written, particularly as to the joint sentencing recommendation. It was heavily negotiated and is agreed upon by all parties.

“This truly was a one-off, Your Honor. Without attempting to minimize anything, because my client is truly remorseful and has learned an important lesson here, this defendant is not the kind of person you typically see in your court. He is as surprised as anyone, and I feel confident in stating that You will not see him in your courtroom again. In fact, I feel very confident in stating this!” (At this point, the attorney nods at his client, and the client nods back).

“In considering the sentence, Your Honor, I wish to point out that my client has already faced severe consequences from this case. (Fill in the blank for the “he has been punished enough” justification – an angry spouse, a boss who found out, a suspended license, a no-contact order, fines and fees, a night in jail, having alcohol monitoring, or an evaluation and treatment). He is very embarrassed about what happened and he has already taken the steps he needs to make sure it never happens again. So we respectfully request that You take this into consideration.”

Ironically, the whole canned speech is made mostly to convince the paying client himself that he is getting a special deal. The courts where I work do not give any reductions in the charge or lower sentences, let alone free rides, to drunk drivers or domestic violence aggressors simply because they can afford a private attorney. There are state-mandated sentencing grids with set minimums and specific consequences across the board, and required monitoring and treatment. There are victim’s advocates involved. So the private lawyers are simply getting the same offers that the public defenders do, with a lot more fanfare. But private attorneys need to set themselves (and their clients) apart in order to to earn their keep.

I long for the day when one of these private attorneys breaks out of his role and refreshes the court with something sincere, along the following lines:

“In closing, by virtue of being able to hire me, a private attorney, my client is de facto special. He is not the kind of person to commit a crime and face the usual punishment for it. No, he is the kind of person who has likely gone through his whole life with his parents, teachers, and bosses smoothing his path and lightening his consequences, just as I endeavor to do today. It would be unfair now to suddenly treat him like everybody else in the courtroom. Therefore, even though I have simply gotten him the same deal that public defenders are offered for their indigent clients, let us close with a flourish and flare that make me look like I am not the kind of lawyer whose clients face the full consequences of their actions. Because that would hurt my client’s feelings and make him feel unsafe in his cushioned, protected world. And I was specifically hired to keep him feeling safe and entitled as he faces the heavy hand of the law, and the legal consequences of his actions, perhaps for the first time in his life. Thank you, Your Honor.”


People live in such different realities. Some of us believe that we are the absolute masters of our fate. We plan our lives, take the necessary actions, and as a direct and predictable result, we make things happen. There is nothing we cannot achieve if we put in the effort. Failure is a personal problem that we can avoid if we try hard and keep pushing ourselves. Others feel that we cannot change our destiny. It is written in the stars, and our fate is to a large degree determined and inevitable. We make our puny efforts, but have very little influence on the ultimate outcome of our lives. Many religious philosophies proclaim some version of “Man proposes, and God disposes.” The other side of the same coin is the more down-home and gender-inclusive saying: “The devil fools with the best-laid plans”.

The vast majority of the lawyers and doctors I interpret for lean heavily into the first camp. They are the directors of their fate, and have worked hard to come far. They expect life to go the way they mold it. They take great personal pride in where they have gotten, and where they are going. And without question, they can say what they are going to do next week, next month, and probably next year. They have plotted out their lives, even to saving for their children’s college (born and unborn) and preparing for their own eventual retirement. They are the masters of their own universe.

Most others, though – including the patients and families, witnesses, crime victims, and defendants for whom I interpret – have a widely different experience of life in a human body. Most were raised to believe in a very near and dear higher power that rules over us all, even to the hairs on our head, and this power must be appeased and acknowledged in our daily actions. This Almighty has the absolute power to reward and punish, in mysterious ways beyond our ken. So we must be duly humble about our place in the grand scheme of the universe. Call it God or Fate.

As our lives unfold in unexpected ways, we are given opportunities to garner extensive firsthand knowledge of just how puny and helpless each incarnated soul is in this fragile little snippet of flesh. Most of us find that we – and our loved ones – are hanging onto our lives by a single thread that can snap at any moment. We can get sick. We can become disabled. We can lose what made our lives meaningful, and be cast out to seek meaning anew. We can even get struck my lightning, if that is our fate. And of course, we will all die. But not everyone is comfortable with this “helpless” philosophy. Some cling hard to the idea that life is what we make of it, and we can do just about anything if we just try hard enough. These ones fearlessly continue carrying out their life plans with great determination and self-confidence, and consider the fatalists to be passive weaklings.

Something as simple as setting a medical appointment can reveal this philosophical divide and bring these diverging viewpoints into collision.

Doctor: So I’ll see you for follow-up next Tuesday.

Patient: Yes, if God is willing.

Doctor: But you WILL come, right? I need to remove the stitches!

Patient: God willing.

Doctor: I need to know that you are coming. You need follow-up!

Patient: I’ll come if God is willing.

Doctor, angrily: Well, I don’t see why God wouldn’t want you to come to your follow-up appointment next Tuesday!

Interpreter: Doctor, the interpreter would like to clear up this misunderstanding by clarifying that making any future plan without acknowledging that God is in charge is taboo, and considered tempting the fates to intervene and remind us that we are merely human. So please understand that the patient has every intention of coming, but considers her future to be in God’s hands.

The interpreter then back-interprets the same statement into Spanish, and the patient’s face lights up, and she says, “Yes! So it is! Man proposes and God disposes!”

Now, I have a very strong philosophy that when two individuals, whatever their power differentials on the surface, become deadlocked in a linguistic misunderstanding, it is not for me to merely clarify the underdog’s strange and mysterious philosophy to the apparent overlord. No. To quote another old adage, that train runs both ways! So I quickly tell the doctor that in order to clarify the linguistic misunderstanding, as I just explained the patient to him, I now need to explain the doctor to the patient, and with his permission I will tell her that the doctor thinks he knows where he is going to be next Tuesday. He thinks he is in charge of that. He shrugs a terse consent: “Go ahead, but make it quick!”

The patient is quite frankly amused to hear that this doctor thinks he knows absolutely what he is going to do next Tuesday, without considering God or Fate or even the devil. That is simply hilarious! She literally laughs in his face and slaps her knee. Ha ha ha! She clearly finds him so delightfully innocent. She points up to the sky and nods sagely at the doctor, kindly admonishing him: “The greatest Healer, above all doctors, and above us all, will decide if we meet next Tuesday! Only God willing!” She nods again, encouraging the doctor to stretch his narrow perspective and save himself future disappointment. We must be resigned to our fate!

The doctor is quite impatient as he receives this concluding bit of the patient’s philosophy. His hand is on the door. He is on a very tight schedule, and had expected to be with the next patient by now, and here we are exchanging ideas after he had neatly closed the session with a clean “see you next Tuesday” exit. He is visibly frustrated by this delay, as he is now 13 instead of 10 minutes late to his next patient. Time is money, and wasted time is wasted money. He has yet to truly fathom that the devil fools with the best-laid plans. Far from being resigned, he is frustrated!

The patient, meanwhile, is continuing to have a very different experience from the doctor. The patient is smiling as the doctor frowns. She is slow to gather her things and leave the exam room. She positively lingers. She has thoroughly enjoyed their extra three-minute conversation, in which she not only expressed her deeply held opinion, but was able to hear his surprising and misguided view of things. What a babe in arms! Truly, it is laughable. He thinks he knows where he will be next Tuesday! She walks out beaming and shaking her head with amusement. He is a good doctor and a good surgeon, but so simple-minded. What a childish philosophy. To think he is in charge of the future! Poor, misguided soul. We know better.


Working in both hospitals and courts, I sometimes wish I had a judge to order the doctors about at the hospital. How convenient that would be! I could use an arbiter who could direct the doctors to slow their rate of speech, repeat their last utterance, rephrase a convoluted statement, or pause appropriately for consecutive interpreting for a question and answer session (instead of talking over me and confounding matters!) A judge could issue a general ruling that doctors stop interrupting me while I am doing my job. Or issue an absolute prohibition on doctors trying to do my job when I am so strictly prohibited from encroaching on the practice of medicine. Fair is fair! And a justice would understand the justice. Alas, I am on my own with no one to turn to when doctors behave badly. So I have to do my best under adverse circumstances, and decide in each case when and if to stop the session and attempt on my own to direct the medical staff so we can have more adequate communication and understanding.

Today in court was one of many routine occasions where I enlisted a judge to order a speaker to improve their manner of speech. This time, it was a new prosecutor who spoke very softly while pouring out a veritable gush of staccato words in her rush to present one of her very first cases. It was clear that she was not aware of her speech pattern although everyone else in the courtroom surely was. But thanks to being in court and not the hospital, I didn’t have to stand by wondering how to tactfully guide her into better communication. In court, I had the luxury – and the recognized right – to simply interrupt her by calling out, “Your Honor, the interpreter cannot hear the prosecutor and requests that she repeat her last utterance, speak up, and slow her rate of speech!” The judge so ordered, and we started over. Wouldn’t that be nice in a medical appointment? To have an actual judge in our corner!

In my experience, when doctors go into verbal overdrive, it is not so much nerves as hurry that causes them to squeeze words into small spaces and then either hammer them home or cut them to pieces. One solution is to switch to simultaneous and simply render the doctors’ words while they are still speaking. But for those patients who speak and understand some English, they are apt to reach cognitive overload and cannot parse out the interweaving threads of the two languages spoken at the same time. It can be confusing for doctors as well, some of whom have told me that they “cannot think while you are talking!” The standard for most medical centers is to use consecutive across the board, but for that to happen, the doctors need to pause regularly and cede the floor to the interpreter. In lay terms, the doctors need to “let the interpret interpret”. Sounds elementary, but I would literally need a judge and a court order to make some doctors do it. They are in their own world, and sadly it is one that tends to exclude their patients by obstructing clear communication.

The situation is exacerbated when some care providers understand some – but not all – of the target language, and start interrupting and talking over the interpreter before I can get the words out. Like an eager squirming child raising their hand in school and calling out while the teacher is still talking: “I know the answer!” Some doctors don’t seem to understand that from the patient perspective, when they interrupt me while I am conveying what the patient just said, the patient consequently feels interrupted. Why? Because the patient cannot possibly know how much is understood by the doctor without full interpretation, so the patient naturally feels cut off every time that I am cut off. The patient feel disrespected. Once that happens, the patient grows quiet, disengages, and doesn’t ask any more questions. How could they dare to when the doctor keeps cutting off their words, just as they are about to arrive – just as they are literally in the process of being conveyed into the doctor’s language?

I had a doctor the other day who spoke a language close to the target language and kept guessing ahead, not listening to the interpretation, and cutting me off. The patient had come in hoping to ask questions about the dire things he had read on the internet about the proposed treatment for prostate cancer. To start, he said with great fear in his voice: “I read that my penis could be dead and my kidneys could fail.” Before I could even convey that much, the doctor had raised a hand to interrupt me (but was of course interrupting the patient) while loudly exclaiming, “No, no no! That won’t happen! No!”

The patient was immediately shut down, and could not fully discuss what he cared most about, because the doctor had already moved on. So he just sat and listened resignedly with a deer in the headlights look. At the end, the doctor wondered if he had any questions. What the patient was too uncomfortable to say was: “Uh, no, doc. I just offered two questions but you shut us up by yelling no and waving your hands at us, so no. Never mind me. I can just keep waking up at night in a cold sweat, worrying about the things you didn’t have time to hear me say. Worried sick that I will either lose my life or lose what to me makes life worth living. No questions. I’ll just go back to the internet and try to figure it out myself, thanks.”

Now, I get the doctor. He had other patients waiting. He was feeling rushed. He was frustrated by his own lack of language skills, and he understood the patient to some nebulous extent. But what I also know is that his frustration was only partly due to his scheduling. It was also due to his subconscious resistance to (and shame about) needing an interpreter. And subconscious class prejudice in judging the patient for immigrating from a poor country without any education, and not learning English. Thus he vigorously interrupts me to signal that he already knows the gist of what the patient is trying to say. He knows! He is competent! Let’s skip it and move on! Close enough! He doesn’t take a moment to realize that his patient is having a very different experience. And with all due respect, the patient would love it if the doctor would just shut up for once and listen to the patient, through me. The patient wants carefully considered answers, not an offhand dismissal. His fears remain foremost.

The patient is uttering his deepest concerns and needs clear answers. He is talking about a very central organ, his precious family jewel, and the loss of his male identity. He is talking about becoming disabled, needing dialysis, and other scary, life-changing possibilities. He is being brave and vulnerable. He deeply fears the answer to his high-stakes questions. And the doctor’s manner of response to his questions and concerns is of utmost importance to him. Too bad the doctor, for all his learning, has not yet learned that the very first thing that patients using an interpreter wish to hear is their own question, their own statement, their own words, conveyed safely into the ears of the care provider, in words that the care provider can understand, by yours truly, the humble yet kick-ass interpreter. Getting their fears and doubts across is such an offload of care and worry – such a relief! Seeing it happen, watching the delivery, is hugely important.

Dear interrupting and hurrying medical care providers. God bless your fragile little hearts. Please be aware of the complete lack of respect you show when in your hurry, or in your eagerness to display your knowledge, you cut off your patient’s interpreter. You don’t have to arm-wrestle us for control of the communication. Try to think of it as a shared dance rather than attempting a submission hold in a mixed martial arts contest. The interpreters are not talking simply to display our knowledge and make you feel inadequate. We are conveying what our patient wants to say. Never forget that they have no way of reading your mind as to what you may (or may not) have understood (or misunderstood) before you interrupt and talk over us as we convey their words and thoughts. So let us do our job. Let us get their words across to you, whole, unharmed, and uninterrupted. Your answers will mean so much more to them if you do.


Grandma and Grandpa are standing by a large window, urging two little kids around the ages of 3 and 5 to wave. Wave to Daddy! Here he comes! See him? Wave to Daddy! They have been waiting for two hours for Daddy to come. So many other people have come out one by one, but not Daddy. And now finally, Daddy comes out. The older boy waves like a practiced waver, his whole skinny arm raised as far as he can stretch above his head, and moving all his fingers. He seems to feel it is an important task to accomplish, and his face is very grave. His face lights up when Daddy sees him and nods. He is helping Daddy feel better. And Grandma is praising him. There you go, boy, good job! Little sister cannot quite see Daddy over the window frame. She is jumping, and finally Grandpa picks her up, but Daddy has his back to her now. She bursts out crying. Daddy! Daddy!!

Daddy cannot hear her through the bullet-proof glass. Daddy is not supposed to look at them at all, because he is in jail and has a hearing. The guard has gotten between her and Daddy and is warning Daddy not to turn around again, not to look at her through the window. The guard will not let him out of the locked courtroom because he hit Mommy. Then after that happened, the grownups told them that they would be safer with Grandma and Grandpa until Mommy takes some classes and Daddy gets out of jail. He will be punished for hitting, because you are not allowed to hit. You can go to jail for hitting. Which is confusing, because Mommy spanks and Grandma spanks, but the grownups say that is not the same as hitting. You can punish children, they say, when children are bad. So you’d better not be bad. You’d better behave! Or you’ll get what’s coming to you. You’re lucky you don’t get the belt! You are lucky little devils.

Daddy came over to Grandma and Grandpa’s house to tell Mommy he was sorry for hitting her, but then they started yelling again. And someone called the police, and the police came. And the police said he is not allowed to come over. He cannot come over at all. He cannot be in the same room as Mommy. He cannot be in the yard. He cannot call on the phone. If he calls to talk to Sister and Brother from jail, and Mommy is there, they are not allowed to give Mommy the phone. And the phone calls from jail are all recorded. They will all get in trouble if they give Mommy the phone, and they might have to go live somewhere else again. And they might get separated. And they might never see anyone they know again. They will be fosters, and that means you have to live with strangers, Grandma says. And you can get sent to bed with an empty stomach, because the Fosters can take your money for food. So you had better behave! Shape up or ship out, Grandpa tells them. He was in the Navy and he fought for us to be free.

So they have to be careful about Daddy. But they still have to be nice to Daddy, because Daddy loves them very much. Grandma and Grandpa say so, and Daddy says so. And the judge says that Daddy can still see them, because he is safe around the children. He never hit the children. Because spanking doesn’t count. He only hit Mommy. Daddy is wearing a bright red outfit and his hands are tied together and he is in trouble. He is in trouble for hitting Mommy. And he is is trouble for talking to Mommy. And now he is in trouble for turning around in the courtroom and looking at his children through the window. And the guard steps between them and tells Daddy what to do. And Daddy turns back around so he has his back to them when Sister is finally lifted up and waving. And here she is, waving as hard as she can, but Daddy never turns around again. So he doesn’t know. It is so sad.

Sister whimpers. She rubs her eyes. She cannot stop crying. She is choking on tears. She let Daddy down! Grandma and Grandpa had them practice waving to Daddy through the window at home. She practiced over and over. She waited a whole bunch of days to wave at Daddy in real life. They came to court and went through a machine and the guard gave them each a coloring book and a sticker and a box with five crayons. But then Sister was too small, and no one picked her up on time, and now Daddy is gone again, and Sister is crying very hard as they walk back to the elevator. The hearing is over! Here little heart aches, but Grandpa tells her it’s no use crying over spilt milk. Nobody cares about your whining. So you might as well just knock it off, he tells her. And he jerks his hand away. He doesn’t want to hold hands with a crybaby! But she cries the whole elevator ride to the bottom, because that is how she is feeling. Even if nobody cares.


I was in agony the other day at Labor and Delivery. No, I was not in childbirth. And nothing was actually going wrong. The baby was born. The birth had been a success. A nice, healthy delivery. The father was at the mother’s side. The whole family was doing fine. Their three-year-old was with Grandma and they were calling her to have a video chat and show the new baby. The nurse had stepped out for a break. A relaxing moment. So what was so hard?

The three-year-old on the phone burst out crying at soon as they showed her the baby. She kept on crying. But they didn’t soothe her. They didn’t comfort her. They kept her on the phone and they let her cry on and on. They didn’t explain anything to her, beyond telling her that this was her baby sibling. They didn’t tell her they still loved her. They didn’t say when they would be home. They didn’t even tell her she was going to live with them again. They just let her cry for an agonizing extension of time.

She cried and wailed. I swear I could hear her gnashing her little baby teeth. The most basic fear of any vulnerable person – being rejected and replaced – was alive on her pudgy little tear-stained cheeks. Her fists were clenched. Her face was a grimace of pain. She cried until she coughed and choked on her tears. After her coughing fit, Grandma helped her blow her little nose. One fluttering heartfelt sigh, and this unwilling big sister again took up her loud, wailing lament. Good God!! Where was the comfort? Grandma was standing at the sink in her apron, laughing softly in the background, not in a mean way, but more like, so it is. The wheel of fortune has once again turned the only child into an older sibling.

I felt my stomach knotting up. I wanted to comfort this unknown child. I longed to give her some context for what she was feeling. I wanted her to feel safe. I wanted her to know she was still loved. I wanted to tell her there was room in these hearts for her and for the new baby. That there was no need for jealousy. That she was still welcome and beloved. My stomach felt knotted and I had to force myself to stay relaxed and neutral as the crying spell drew out from a seconds into minutes and more minutes. More than five minutes. More than ten.

More than fifteen minutes. For God’s sake, why wouldn’t anyone calm her down? And yet, why did I feel so strongly that someone should? How we show and share feelings is encoded in our cultural, personal, and moral decisions based on our values and beliefs. Each culture and each family has its deeply rooted unspoken rules around how we display anger, sadness, and even joy in commonly accepted and appropriate ways. And each individual varies these displays based on what we were taught, and how our loved ones and others react. We tend to hide what is unwanted.

So, taking a step back from my urge to help. What if the thing this big baby most wanted was a good cry? What if she felt called to express her deep pain and agony? Her fear of abandonment? Her cry for acceptance? What if she needed to fully express her instinctive jealousy of sharing the nest with this interloper who had already taken Mommy and Daddy away from her? After all, there the three of them were, and she was banished to Grandma’s! Why shouldn’t she cry if she felt like it, and exhibit her absolute rage, and why shouldn’t we simply listen, instead of explaining away her feelings and telling her to calm down?

The parents were listening. Mom had the baby on her chest and the phone in her hand. Dad leaned in, and clucked and made little sounds at his big, crying baby. Mom turned the phone to display the newborn a few times, then went back to gazing intently at her crying daughter. She didn’t tell her to shush. She didn’t tell her to quit crying. She didn’t tell her what to do at all. And she gave no explanations about how this would all work out. She just said things like, the baby has come. Well, well. There now. Okay sweetie. Look at the baby. Yes, my dear. Okay, now. Yes, so it is. There, there. Here is the baby.

The little girl cried for eighteen minutes. I kept measuring it on the clock, because I wanted it to be finite. I wanted it to end. She was still crying when the nurse got back, and the nurse immediately said, “Oh, no!” and suggested they hang up, but they didn’t hang up. They kept their daughter on the phone. They kept listening to her cry. The girl cried until her shrieks subsided to sobs and hiccups. Until she had fully expressed herself and put her arms out for Grandma to come pick her up and hold her. There was something in it that was complete. Something that went deeper than rushing in to soothe the girl and explain away her feelings and hush her up. There was something in it that was quite uncomfortable and quite grand.


Interpreters sometimes talk about the pros and cons of family members assisting patients in communicating with their healthcare team. We tend to focus on the cons: The relatives take over. They want to interpret, but they don’t say everything, and they create a conflict of interest, among other perils. And even if the family members are simply adding information in English to staff, interpreters then have to switch to simultaneous mode and back-interpret so the patient can know what is being said. Pushy or anxious family members, especially bilingual ones, take attention away from the patient and the patient ends up ignored. The list of cons can be extensive.

But here is a little story of when I was very glad to have a grown daughter to help me in a communication that I could not have effectively completed without her insider information.

Here is what I said, as a direct interpretation of my patient’s speech:

“I didn’t eat, but I drank my malted drink and I had my honey. I was told that was okay before this study. Hey! (directed to the interpreter) What you are doing here?!? Aren’t you my liver doctor’s wife? So tall and gorgeous! Just glorious! Not her? So odd! You look exactly like her! So regal! Just like her! And same hair color! Say, aren’t you my doctor’s wife?”

Now for the daughter’s explanation:

“Dad is confused because of his liver. When he said malted drink, he means his protein shake, because he’s lost a lot of weight. Honey means his lactulose syrup for the brain fog. And Dad is convinced that his doctor’s nurse is really his wife even though we keep telling him she is not, and now apparently Dad is now confusing this interpreter with the nurse!”

I simultaneously interpreted for our confused patient what the daughter was saying in English to the nurse, and the patient was very surprised that this interpreter was not married to his liver doctor, and that even my “double” was not married to the liver doctor. Wait, what? That was really a surprise to him. “Oh dear! Are there three women, then? A wife, a nurse, and another one? Oh dear! I am confused! But say, are you my doctor’s wife?” Of course I dutifully interpreted for the nurse what her patient had just said.

The daughter went on to scold the Dad for thinking the doctor is married to his nurse and that I am the nurse/wife. She told him over and over that he is wrong and that I am the interpreter. The interpreter!! Meanwhile, I was back-interpreting everything she said to her father to the nurse, who thought it was pretty amusing. It was a light moment but with a tinge of melancholy, watching this daughter try to orient her father, and watching him struggle. The nurse and I agreed, though, that it was very helpful to have a family member present and assisting with this communication.

Having a family member explain some things, just as an English-speaking family would do, is not at all the same as recruiting a family member to take on the role of nurse, interpreter, doctor, or any other paid healthcare role at the hospital, especially for free and without certification. Of course I do not advocate that. I just want to make sure that in our eagerness to avoid conflicts of interest, we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, and unwittingly exclude family members from their very important and valuable role of – family member. Because family members can offer extra-linguistic information that can be very important, especially for vulnerable patients.

Including family members can get messy. But it is important for interpreters to willingly switch to simultaneous as needed, and back-interpret whatever is being said across languages, so everyone present knows everything that is being said. This serves to bring our patients and staff as close as possible to the experience of sharing a common language. Yes, it is an added burden compared to the “clean and easy” interpreting session with one patient alone with one healthcare provider, each taking their turn and pausing for interpretation. But these family sessions, as sloppy, funny, interrupted, and often frustrating as they can be, are something interpreters need to be well prepared for. Because in most of our immigrant communities, a patient coming to the doctor alone is the exception to the rule, while bilingual, highly involved and opinionated adult children are standard issue.


I hear what you’re saying, nurse, but know what I know. How? Because I read constantly. I educate myself. There is so much about how to cure cancer on the internet! But the doctors don’t tell you about it. And if you ask, they say it isn’t a sure thing. Then again, what is a sure thing in this life? The doctors don’t guarantee me a cure. Yes, there are new tumors and new symptoms. That’s true. But I’ve been fighting this for 8 years now. I’ve read all about nutrition and supplements and herbs and natural medicines. I’m taking something now, a special kit I ordered online. They gather the herbs in the forest. Then they mail them around the world. And no offense, but unlike the doctors here, they guarantee me a cure in six months!

Tell the doctors what I am taking? Why, that would take all day! Oh, gosh. I’ll try to remember…. Cat’s claw and annatto seed. Cinnamon and turmeric. Garlic and ginger. Valerian and copal. Even cacao. Honey. And peppers! Some kinds of peppers stimulate the blood and help fight disease. Some strengthen. Some calm. And now periwinkle. Been used forever. I’ve taken dozens of different herbs and tinctures, teas and powders, and supplements. The science is advancing so quickly! There is a new product almost every day. This company is good because they put it all together.

Right now, I have a combination of tea leaves, powder and capsules that was mailed to me direct from the native healer. Probably has all of the above plus jasmine and whatnot. Hibiscus, lemon peel, all kinds of healthy things. Some you’ve never heard of! Plants only the locals know about. I make a big jar of tea from their special mix, refrigerate it, and have half a cup in the morning, another half cup in the evening, for the first ten days. Meanwhile, I mix a spoonful of their special powder into my oatmeal after I bring it to room temperature. And add raisins and cashews. And I take a capsule of the nutritional supplement with a glass of warm milk and honey at bedtime. I do these things for 30 days, that’s the cure. I am on day seven now. I already feel so much stronger! They even have dried flowers to keep under the pillow, because it makes an aromatherapy that helps as I sleep! A relaxed, well-rested body heals more. It can take up to six months after treatment to see the full benefit, just like chemo. So it is scientific.

I tried to tell one of the doctors last year about some of these supplements, and he gave me a silly argument. He said they are trying to lower my immune response with the chemotherapy, and I might be using things to raise it. And that could impact how effective the chemotherapy is on rapidly dividing – I don’t remember the details now, something about raising and lowering. But if that’s true, why are thousands of people like me getting cured every day? There are testimonials online. Why is cancer just disappearing from their bodies? There has to be something to it. The healer who sent me the cure says that we need to look at the big picture. The body seeks balance. If you lean forward, your body naturally wants to lean back to be upright again. If you stand on one foot, your other foot will want to come down! And that makes sense to me. It’s logical.

So I still do believe that if the doctors give me something to kill cells, I can take something on top of it to protect cells, and everything will balance out. Think about it. These herbs have been used for 30,000 years, and who ever heard of cancer until maybe 50 years ago? It was always cured before then. So I am willing to do the chemo and the surgeries and all that, but don’t ask me to give up my herbs. And don’t blame me for trying every possible thing. I want to be around and I have to fight on all fronts. And honestly, I don’t understand half of what the doctors tell me, because they say it so confusing. It’s like listening to the church service in Latin. They feel like they said everything. And maybe they did. But not to me. They leave satisfied. But I leave mystified. So you can’t blame me for searching for something I can get my hands on and really understand.