The Phoenix in the Prison

By Beth Eisendrath

How do you see yourselves as you live your lives? If your life was a movie, what kind of movie would it be, and what kind of role would you play in the movie?

I see myself as Sam Spade, with a trenchcoat on, walking the streets, solving mysteries as steam rises up out of the sewers.

I was in the art field for 20 years before I went to law school. Now, I’m a solo practitioner with several specialties: basic estate planning, guardianships, and criminal defense. My clients are all different from one another. I thought my criminal defense clients would have horns and tails at first, but they are just people like everybody else - - just more scared and with less on the ball.

One thing I do, is defend guys accused of violating their probation. Four years ago, I read the allegations for Mr. Smith, my first criminal defense client – and my heart swelled into my throat with anxiety. Mr. Smith was accused of kidnapping a young woman at gunpoint, and holding her against her will for a week in a basement, raping and pistol-whipping her.

I felt in a panic as I read on and the blood left my extremities – I didn’t think I could meet this man and interview him, let alone defend him. You may know that I am a survivor of violent assault. I hardly slept that night before I met my first client; I thought my criminal defense career was over before it had begun.

But, in the morning all things look new again. I decided to give it a try; I figured I could leave the room if I had to. And when I told Mr. Smith the next day what the woman was alleging, he became upset. He told me the supposed victim had been a girlfriend who, when she was rejected by Mr. Smith, made up this story.

At the visit with Mr. Smith, my internal bullshit detector wasn’t activated; the man was totally believable. So I calmed down and drove back to the office and looked some more at the discovery. There were statements from the ex-girlfriend to a nurse, to police, and to a probation officer – and when I compared them, there were huge differences throughout the stories. The ex-girlfriend told the Dr. that she was kidnapped for 3 days, but told a nurse it was a week. Some versions had a baseball bat as the weapon of choice, some versions had a gun. I drew up a graph of the problems in the different story versions, and had a great time sculpting a cross-exam to the woman, like an architectural structure. I was able to win freedom for my client.

Early on I started talking to my criminal defense clients about the story of the Phoenix, this beautiful mythical bird that lives for a hundred years, until suddenly one fine day, it catches on fire. This flame burns fiercely and colorfully, and then, all that’s left is a pile of dark dead grey ashes. For days, nothing moves, …. until … one …. day, there is a little rustling that sounds like dry leaves rubbing together. A sharp little orange beak pokes out of the ashes and smells the fresh clean air. And, soon, a little bird hops out of the ashes. It’s the new baby phoenix, being re-born.

That story means a lot to my criminal defense clients, because they are struggling to preserve some hope in a dark place – a place that’s overcrowded and full of mentally ill folks, a strong-smelling place where they miss their families and where they are not treated well. My clients are often struggling to find logical meaning to their life’s events. The myths of birth and death are universal, so anyone can own the images — my phoenix may not look like yours.

The philosopher Montaigne wrote on his library ceiling, “Nothing human is foreign to me.” I so agree! My way of working with my clients is to focus them with breathing exercises after doing a long intake interview. We talk about their ideas of a good future while I work their cases. When I first meet them, I tell them after our first interview that we are going on a journey together through a dark forest. The upcoming hearing is a road that forks out, and it can go one way or the other. So I map it out for them. But regardless of whether we win or lose our case, my clients will have their future waiting for them just around the corner, all dressed up and colorful like a hot date, when they emerge from this dark place, where they are. So I tell them that they need to plan for that time when they emerge, blinking, into the bright sunlight like the baby Phoenix - - so life doesn’t just happen to them. They need to have a plan.

And always at the end of a case, when the time comes to say goodbye, I wish my clients well, because I have always, always, always learned things from them. And as I continue to grow the different areas of my practice, I feel very lucky that my strong love for literature and the arts puts this challenging work in perspective for me.

Back to Profiles of Solutions
Back to peace of mind
Back to top

Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on August 02, 2018

Legal Information |  Designed and built by Emergency Digital. | Hosted by Steadfast Networks