Ever since I began living the Groucho Marx joke by joining the club where no one wants to be a member (raising a child with a chronic, permanent disability), I’ve read a lot of stories about the disabled. And I’ve seen heart-rending documentaries. But of all the stories I’ve ever read, none of them screamed MOOOOOOOVIE like Daniel Engber’s account of the bizarre Dana Stubblefield story in the latest New York Times Magazine.
I know how the movie would go. It’s almost like The Miracle Worker meets Fight Club. Among other things, it would be a David Fincher-esque, twisty morality play that served lip-smacking comeuppances to much of the academia-led politically correct movements of the Obama era. I just can’t decide if the movie should be made or not. Clearly, it won’t be approved by either Anna or her victim/lover’s family. But that won’t really matter; Hollywood changes names all the times, casts thin veils over troubled lives. Perhaps if I sound it out, I’ll know what I think.
Okay, now that I’ve done that (below), I realize why it’s so tempting. We all see a lot of movies, and we want our three-act structure, but at the same time, most stories of the disabled have a somewhat predictable three-act structure. They’ll get better, they’ll get worse, then they’ll get better toward the end. Sure, it can make a fine film, as with The Theory of Everything, but you rarely feel as though you’ve seen something you haven’t seen before. This story though…wow. It might be the greatest movie that should never be made.
UNBELIEVABLE: The Treatment
Act I: Life, with Challenges
The movie starts by cross-cutting between a mostly black gospel choir performing for a mostly black church, and a mostly white orchestra performing a symphony for a mostly white audience. In both places, we get a good look at a particular audience member who responds to the music by moving and vocalizing rhythmically yet inappropriately. In both places, we see a woman behind the handicapped person, looking on, perhaps judging. The musical sequence uneasily jumps between gospel and classical, and also flash-forwards – in quick staccato bursts – to police cars, an arrest, a CNN reporter, and a courtroom full of anxious, teary-eyed people, some of whom are familiar from the church/concert hall locations to which we return. In editing, communion wine is contrasted to the red wine of the hoi-polloi.
After the convocation/concert, we cross-cut between two scenes of the judging woman approaching the family with the disabled person. In this way, at church, we meet James, a black 30-ish-year-old with severe cerebral palsy, who was “Stevie Wonder”ing during the music, as well as his older brother Morris and his mother Laetitia. The judgey woman, who is also black, asks Morris where he’s been, and he says “graduate school,” and in the ensuing conversation we learn that James has many helpers, and that the judgey woman suggests they may be a waste of money and that Morris should do more to help his brother. At the symphony mezzanine, we meet Jenny, a white 40-ish-year-old with a mixed-race 12-year-old girl, who puts down a glass of red wine and offers her help to the family with the disabled man. The mother of the disabled man resists. Jenny says she’s a Rutgers professor who has been published on disability rights, and she recently took a seminar on how to use facilitated communication…the mother tells off Jenny, saying that F.C. doesn’t work, and besides she doesn’t want her child to be part of a research project or Jenny’s attempt to fill her nest again. As the family leaves, Jenny calls after them “but what if he has a world of things to tell you?”
In a modest house, Laetitia helps James to take off his church clothes. James displays all kinds of spasms and involuntary noises. Morris reads a thick academic book by Jenny Washington, PhD, lingering on the quote “I was raised to believe that I have the responsibility of tikkun olam, healing the world.” Laetitia wants Morris’ help changing James’ diaper. Morris says he’ll be doing plenty of that whenever Laetitia dies; Laetitia replies that he might use his fancy degree to get a job where he can pay to put James where he’ll almost never have to see him again. Morris helps with the disgusting diaper as James chirps incomprehensibly.
Jenny comes home with her daughter and black husband, Robert, whom we had seen playing tenor saxophone in the orchestra (the only black on stage). Like any 12-year-old, the girl goes right to her room/computer; Robert turns on a game; Jenny calls her mother. In their phone conversation we learn that Jenny’s mother has been working with disabled people for forty years and with F.C. for 20, and that the mother thinks Jenny shouldn’t push herself on people as at the symphony, but simply proclaim her qualifications at her university, and people will come to her. While in conversation, Jenny compares the symphony’s “playbill” to an old wrinkled playbill that she pulls out of a drawer. In the older one, tenor sax Robert Washington described himself, among other things, as thankful to his wife Jenny; in the latest one, Jenny is edited out.
Morris attends Jenny Washington’s college class. She lectures, ‘‘Our world is in shambles. White supremacy is central to this state of affairs, and we cannot repair the world without ending it. Even in well-intentioned quests to be antiracist, white people all too often invade or destroy the space of nonwhite people. It is crucial and necessary for white philosophers to wrestle with the horrors and conundrums of whiteness.’’
On a different day – marked by different clothes – Professor Washington shows the class a video, “Autism is a World,” narrated by Julianna Margulies. Morris watches as a child with an apparent IQ of 29 learns to talk with a keyboard. After class, Morris approaches the professor, describes his brother, and wonders if she knows where he might find such a keyboard and perhaps a trained professional. Jenny replies that she has taken a class, and she’d like to help.
One day, Laetitia and Morris bring James to Jenny’s college office. James can’t answer Jenny’s simple questions, like “which is the tiger?” in a Field of 4. Jenny begins to cradle James hand, explaining to his family that this was from the workshop. Jenny asks James to point to the President, and he successfully indicates Barack Obama.
As Jenny gets to know James, so do we. It’s hard for him to stay in one position; muscle contractions sometimes twist his spine and clench his fingers in a useless ball. James has trouble making eye contact and keeping objects fixed in view. He has a tendency to rock from side to side and to bang his face against his knees; his nose looks as if it has been broken once or twice. When he is anxious or upset, he puts his hands in his mouth and bites them, leaving open sores. James loves to look up at ceiling lights. James can’t walk without help, but he can scoot.
After several more Field of 4 successes and a few failures, Jenny introduces a letter/number board, and he does quite well. Laetitia and Morris are guardedly happy. They say this is more than they’ve seen in years. Jenny offers to continue to see James, and gives the family a letter/number board and some instructions.
Act II: James and Jenny
In a brief montage, we learn: Jenny keeps seeing James in her office, using an iPad; James makes progress with her; he makes no progress with Morris and Laetitia; Jenny begins to see James at his home; Laetitia is so excited at her son’s progress that Jenny has to forbid her from the room. In edits, we see a steady series of heart-warming steps toward full communication.
Laetitia emails her support group and one day, many of them, along with their disabled dependents, meet with Jenny at an outdoor café space on campus. One asks about “scaffolding” the procedures with James’ other therapists; Jenny admits that so far, that hasn’t gone well. Some are skeptical; how can they be sure Jenny isn’t feeding James the answers? Jenny demonstrates with James, who isn’t great at performing on cue. Jenny explains that he has told her things that she never could have known by herself. Another mother asks Laetitia about James’ performance with her, and Laetitia admits that he has yet to show the same progress with herself or Morris. Jenny smiles that that’s not unusual. Jenny says she’s known Braille and sign language since she was in high school. Someone compares Jenny to Annie Sullivan. One white lady says, “Sign us up.”
Last day of Morris in Jenny’s class, Jenny lectures, “A person’s intellect — and the degree to which he or she is ‘disabled’ — could be as much a social construct and excuse for tyranny as race, gender or sexuality. It was, after all, white elites who first devised measures of I.Q. as both a rationalization and a tool of anti-black oppression. If poor, black Americans were the most vulnerable members of society, she wrote in 2009, then poor, black, voiceless disabled Americans were the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. They are the ones whom we push so far to the margins of our society that most of us, regardless of race, do not even notice when they fall off the edge.” Morris smiles happily, writing in the margins of his notes “James is the Jackie Robinson of F.C.”
In a session at Laetitia’s house, adorned by a Christmas tree, Jenny brings James a Christmas gift of books – for the first time. They start with a book of Maya Angelou poetry, and James tears through it like a savant, at several pages per minute. Laetitia is stunned. James also takes breaks to play outside, and play with plastic coat hangers, and scoot over to the refrigerator for his snacks that are kept on the bottom shelf. But he seems to be reading, and the three of them are thrilled.
Jenny spends Christmas with Robert’s big African-American family in another city. Jenny’s the only white one. Jenny keeps checking her phone, to the exasperation even of her daughter. Robert says, “Come on, Jenny.” Jenny says she has journals that expect papers, academic deadlines, and now way too many clients now who depend on her. We see her phone that makes it clear she’s waiting on James – but there are no messages from him, ever.
Winter now, and Jenny and James are in a session where he reads quickly. James signs that he’d like to take one of Jenny’s classes, and Jenny replies that that wouldn’t make sense for this semester, but that she may be able to arrange for him to audit another class, and she would make sure she handpicked an aide. James likes the idea. Jenny tells James that her mother is organizing a panel for the annual conference of the Society of Disability Studies, and they’d both like James to read a paper – just a short one. James doesn’t signal yes right away. Eventually, he signs he’ll try.
In a brief montage, James begins auditing an African-American Studies class at Jenny’s university. His aide, a black undergrad named Stephanie, works with him on the iPad, and it seems to go well. Jenny and James work on his speech, and Jenny steals looks at James. As much as he can, James seems to steal looks at Jenny as well.
James and Jenny begin talking more informally, less about the paper or the goals/exercises, and more about who they are. James asks about Jenny’s husband and daughter, and Jenny admits that she’s not as close to Robert as she was. Jenny asks about James’ family; he loves his brother and mother, but sometimes he feels like he burdens them way too much. They each look like they want to physically comfort the other one.
James gives the paper at the conference. To a packed house, he signs, ‘‘The right to communication is the right to hope. I am jumping for joy knowing I can talk, but don’t minimize how humiliating it can be to know people jump to the conclusion I am mentally disabled.’’ He says that the only limits in life are those imposed by others. Thunderous applause. In a Q&A, one academic asks, “What are your hopes and dreams?” James replies that he’d like to go to college, become a writer, and work in disability activism. A young academic asks “Would you like to be in a romantic relationship?” James replies, “I want that more than anything. But I don’t know if that’s possible for people with disabilities like mine.” Helping him to say this, Jenny looks as though she’s about to cry.
Afterward, at the conference dinner, James is something of the belle of the ball – and what a ball, where whoops and hollers and dissonant shrieks are heard throughout the dining hall. One academic invites James to another conference; another one asks him to submit his work to a journal. Jenny says something like “and the doctors said you had the mental capacity of a toddler.” Jenny’s mother proudly introduces him to other F.C. users, who communicate with him through aides. One of them laughs that they’re not supposed to call it “F.C.” anymore – “supported typing” instead. Jenny flashes as though she’s keeping a secret from James.
In Jenny’s office, during a session, Jenny says that she can’t hold herself back anymore: “I love you, James.” James types – with her help, as usual – “I love you, too.” They both say they had known it for a long time. James types: “So now what?” Jenny asks how James’ family will take it, and James types that they’ll be thrilled; he’s single. What about her, he asks. After back-and-forth, James asks if she would someday marry him. She replies, “I love you very much, but don’t ask me that now. I have a lot of thinking to do.” He types, with her help: “Sorry, that was childish of me.”
James back in class, listening to a lecturer on Ralph Ellison. Cross-cut to Jenny lecturing to her class about theories of reparations.
Laetitia with James, alone at their house. Laetitia still can’t make the FC work for her; when she holds his hand, he pulls it away and scratches at her. Laetitia is frustrated at that, but she’s pleased that the pre-Jenny programs are still going well – James can point to another iPad to indicate Yes/No and certain things that he wants. Laetitia grills James on Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” a book he supposedly read. He only gets about 75% of Yes/No questions right. Laetitia frowns.
Another session at Jenny’s office. It’s now been weeks of sessions since their “I love you” conversation, and James doesn’t believe Jenny. She swears on the life of her daughter. James types, “Okay, I believe you really love me, but are you physically attracted to me?” FLASH-FORWARD: Jenny types on her laptop, alone, “That broke my heart all over again. So I said, ‘I’m in love with you the whole way.’” Back to session where Jenny indeed says this. James types, “Then kiss me.” She does. He types, “Kiss me again.” She does. He types, “With my CP, do you think it’s even possible for us to make love?”
Laetitia in church. Similar to first scene, gospel choir. Soundtrack carries over to James’ house, where James is on his bed, with Jenny. They kiss there and try to go further, but it isn’t working well. Jenny says that she thought this would be easier, given his impairments. James says that he is happy but overwhelmed. Flash-forwards make it clear that Jenny is typing this account – and that it’s part of a document that she’s titled “CONFIDENTIAL Letter to Attorney, Opening This Subjects You to Harmful Legal Consequences.” Jenny types that she said at the time: ‘‘Look, whatever we’re going to do, you set the pace. You call the shots. This is all about what feels right for you. I just love being close to you in whatever way works for you and for your body. No pressure.’’ Back to gospel/house, and Jenny is naked.
In the flash-forward, she types to her lawyer, “He said he’d dreamed about this. Then he asked me to do something…” Back at house, she pulls down his pants, loosens his diaper, and performs oral sex on him. Her typing to the lawyer: “He didn’t finish…then.”
Morris trying F.C. with James in a quiet study hall within the campus library. James scratches at him. Morris says, “Don’t you do me like Mom, I don’t mother you.” Morris hands him the Yes/No pad. “Did Jenny tell Mom to stop mothering you?” James won’t answer. “Do you like red wine? Cause Jenny says yes, but you never had it in communion.” Morris says if he won’t answer, Morris is going to leave him in this room and let him scoot home. Morris leaves, goes to a bank of computers and monitors in the campus library, puts on headphones. He googles “Autism is a World.” FLASH-FORWARD to a courtroom, where Morris says “I was looking for a model to pattern myself after.” Back to library, where Morris sees “60 Minutes: Less Than a Miracle” and then clicks on a Frontline expose:
Facilitated communication is an elaborate display of what psychologists call the ideomotor effect, in which an external suggestion or a person’s beliefs or expectations trigger unconscious movement: The facilitator was guiding the typing, even if she didn’t know it.
And Morris finds out about children who have been abused through F.C.
Jenny arrives at session at James’ house, only to see Morris there with arms folded. Morris confronts her with what he now knows. Jenny explains that it’s true that there have been abuses, but F.C. is a tool that works for some and not others, and it works great for James. Jenny says her mother has used it successfully for 20 years, and serves on several boards for Disability Rights. Jenny reassures Morris that she thinks of James as family – after all, she’s doing this work for next to no money, just occasional state reimbursements – and that she would have the most to lose if she were to be found guilty of some kind of abuse. Morris is skeptical about that, and now he wants all of James’ messages to be saved in the iPad. Jenny says this version can’t do that, but a new version can, so she’ll order it right away. In the meantime, session is the best thing for James.
Morris and Laetitia watch James and Jenny in session, looking for signs of something peculiar. Jenny announces that James is asking for music, and when Laetitia puts on Mahalia Jackson, James says – through Jenny – that he doesn’t like gospel music. Morris and Laetitia share a look as though to say they know that’s not true.
In Jenny’s office, she and James fumble toward intercourse. They do it. FLASH-FORWARD to Jenny in a courtroom – not just typing to her lawyer now – saying “He was very happy with what was going on.” Her vocals over the images from the office: “If he needed to say something, he would bang the floor, and she would pause to set him up with the keyboard. It was a few hours from getting undressed to afterglow. When we were finished, he typed: I feel alive for the first time in my life.” Cross-cut him typing this, with Jenny’s help, with shots of a skeptical judge.
Late at night, Jenny watches Robert sleep. James is up as well, thinking.
James arrives for session with Jenny. James wants kisses; Jenny says that she can’t live in the shadows. She explains that if things go on this way, she’ll have to hurt either Robert or James, and she could never hurt James. She’s prepared to split with her husband, but first, she wants to confess to Laetitia and Morris. As their legal guardians, she says, they could take him away from her. James types that they love him and they would never do that. She says that other consequences could happen, for example, the parents could restrict visits, or she (Jenny) could potentially lose her job, making it difficult for them to build an independent life together. Jenny believes this to be unlikely. James suggests they make love. Jenny says she’d like to, but not without telling his mother and brother. “But it’s your call, up to you,” says Jenny.
A fine late spring day as Jenny arrives at Laetitia’s house. Morris is working on a paper for a class. Jenny has iced tea with Laetitia; they discuss James’ ongoing schooling and plans to eventually get an apartment. They quibble over his clothes. James and Morris join them. Jenny says that eventually, James has to be his own man. Jenny takes James’ hand and says, ‘‘We have something to tell you. We’re in love.’’
‘‘What do you mean, in love?’’ asks Laetitia, the color draining from her face. FLASH-FORWARD to court, where Morris says his mother looked pale and weak, like ‘‘Caesar when he found out that Brutus betrayed him.’’ Back to the house, and Laetitia stands and says to Jenny: what have you done? And to James: what have you done? With Jenny’s help, James types: ‘‘No one’s been taken advantage of. I’ve been trying to seduce Jenny for years, and she resisted valiantly.’’ Then he types another message, meant for Jenny: ‘‘Kiss me.’’ Get out, Laetitia tells Jenny. Get out of my house right now. Jenny touches’ James hand, and Morris swats it away. Jenny reaches, and Morris gets in the way. Jenny leaves.
Mini-montage of Jenny leaving voice mails for Laetitia: “I just want to explain to James why I wasn’t there today.” “It’s Jenny, wondering if we’re going to be able to work something out.” “Laetitia, look, in terms of why we didn’t tell you sooner…I was not pleased to realize that I was feeling that way. I didn’t think it was professional. I mean, I’m married and all that stuff — it wasn’t something that I was looking for, and so I just kind of really, really repressed it.’’ ‘‘I will put in writing, prick my finger and sign with blood — whatever makes you reassured that this is for real. I will leave my husband, and I will make a permanent life and home with James.’’
Jenny waits in her car outside, and in the evening Laetitia arrives home. Jenny says “We have to talk.” Laetitia calls Morris and brings Jenny around to the backyard, so that James and the aide inside won’t hear them. Jenny: “I could sign a formal declaration promising to leave my husband and marry James.” Laetitia is skeptical about the binding of such a thing, but they talk details. When Morris arrives, Laetitia is telling Jenny to go home to her family.
Morris says that since Jenny’s been gone, they’ve asked James quiz questions, warning him that if he doesn’t get them right, he’ll never see you (Jenny) again – and he still doesn’t. Jenny replies “what do you expect, from that kind of pressure?” Jenny says she’s seen this skepticism from the neuro-typical before, where if he fails, the device is a failure, and if he succeeds, he was never disabled in the first place.
Morris says that if F.C. really works, he should be able to answer questions with Jenny at least. Jenny agrees to a test. James comes out, happy to see Jenny. Morris asks, ‘‘Who is Georgia?’’ With Jenny’s hand on his, James types an answer, very slowly, over several minutes: ‘‘Georgia in high school worked for Mom.’’ Then Wesley has a second question, and Jenny objects. ‘‘Well, this is just a follow-up question. Tell me who Sally is.’’ Now James types, with Anna’s help, something about ‘‘Mom’s little nephew,’’ but the answer trails off. Morris takes the iPad during the trailing and tells Jenny “thanks for everything you’ve done.” Jenny says, “Don’t thank me for what you’re taking away,” and kisses James’ hand tenderly until Morris breaks them up. Driving away, Jenny pulls over to the road, shaking and crying. Flash-forward to her typing on her laptop: “That was the worst day of my life.”
Now we seem to enter the flash-forward as “reality.” Jenny opens a separate file on her computer, “Email to STE.” In it, she names all her qualifications, her years of study and time with James. “And I know you know James even better than me, having done such tremendous care for him for so many years. He must be agonized by my absence. James’ family is unsure if she could see him anymore. It’s a mess, and really frustrating for me, because it has more to do with issues within the family and who gets to make decisions about James. Could I just come in the house quietly, at the discretion and convenience of one of your aides, so I can tell James why I’ve disappeared? I’ve lost 20 pounds worrying…” She deletes that last sentence fragment. Instead: “I have to let him know that I still care about him, that I’m trying to fix the situation.”
Cut to Morris on his laptop, looking at the forwarded email from STE as he types a letter in another window, “To the Dean of the Faculty.” Laetitia looks on, and says “I don’t want you to mention the sex.” Morris: “I have to, Momma. If I don’t want to be thrown out of the same college myself, I have to make the best case we have. They’d ask us later why we held something back. We have to say that we gave her every chance to walk away, but the STE letter was the breaking point.”
Morris types: “Professor Washington once wrote, ‘White people uphold white privilege in ways that they repress. Even when they mean to help, they behave in ways that are disrespectful and that undermine the self-empowerment of the people whose space they invade.’ Ms. Washington’s continued attempts to see James and her insinuation that my mother and I do not know what is in James’ best interest is insulting and straddles the racial assumptions about the capacity of black parents to properly raise their children.’’
Morris arrives at Laetitia’s house, notices James happily working with his aide. He confirms with his mother that they’ve received nothing from the college. On the phone, the admin says they’re backlogged and it’s summer anyway. They call the police.
Jenny is working in her office when she sees her phone ring – Laetitia! Jenny can barely believe the joy. She answers. The two women talk. Jenny says, ‘‘Yes, James wanted to be physically involved with me, and I wanted to be physically involved with him, but our relationship is not just about or primarily about the sex part. We love each other very, very, very much, and I wouldn’t have sex with somebody that I didn’t love.’’
“How serious were you about this?’’ Laetitia asks, baiting her for details. We see that police are eavesdropping. Jenny: “Very serious. I mean, you have to understand, literally, I’m lucky if I get through 20 minutes of any day without thinking about him. That’s how much I miss him.’’ She goes on, ‘‘If — if — if I did things like bite my hands, I’d be biting my hands right now, too.’’ “You were intimate?” “We were intimate, yes.”
Two detectives knock on the door of Jenny and Robert’s house. Everyone happens to be home, and Jenny shoos away her daughter. A detective explains that Laetitia’s family is suing her, including two counts of first-degree sexual assault. She hasn’t been judged a flight risk, but she should get her affairs in order, and get a lawyer and perhaps a shrink.
James plays happily with a new aide, back to his old, easier work on an old iPad.
Jenny hangs up the phone at her house. “That was the Dean, he wants to see me right away, I have to go. Wish me luck.” Stone face. “The couples counselor said you should be nice to me.” Robert says, “He also said you should forget about James.” Jenny leaves. Robert sees that she’s left her laptop. He checks her browser history; she’s been looking into one-bedroom apartments. Robert is furious and opens the file marked “CONFIDENTIAL Letter to Attorney, Opening This Subjects You to Harmful Legal Consequences.” Screw it, he says to himself, as he reads about their sex among other things. He decides that if she’s so proud of this so-called relationship, let the world know…he forwards the document to Laetitia and to the Dean and to the State Prosecutors.
Act III: Trial
Prosecution: What at first struck James’ family as a miracle — a voice for James, his inner self revealed — now seemed a fraud. James could not have given his consent to any love affair, because he suffers from profound mental disabilities, just as the psychologists had always told them. His ‘‘messages’’ must have been a sham. If Jenny pretended otherwise, it was only so she could use James as a guinea pig for research, or to further her career, or because, as Morris tells the court, ‘‘she was having some sick, twisted fantasy.’’
Defense: We do not agree with the diagnosis of some of James’ doctors. We have not been able to perform an unbiased assessment. In the summer, James’ access to his means of communication was taken from him, and he is once again treated as severely intellectually impaired by those who have control over his life. We are here partly in hope that he will one day regain his voice and his freedom.
Prosecution: the proponents of F.C. have argued from the start that when typers fail in formal testing, it’s because they become confused or feel antagonized; they freeze up in the face of inquisition. If the method works for someone, we say, then have that person tested — and don’t claim that he hides his skills only under careful scrutiny.
Defense: Those who do raise doubts about F.C. tend to go too far. ‘‘Although opponents of F.C. present themselves as engaging in scientific debate, some instances of continuing anti-F.C. expression meet the criteria to count as hate speech. We concede that there were studies showing that the method didn’t work, but there were others that indicated just the opposite. The skeptics’ dismissal of F.C., their insistence that it never works, could be taken as a form of ableist oppression.
Citing rafts of conflicting studies, the prosecution persuades the judge to throw out F.C. as scientific evidence. Now Jenny must persuade the jury alone, without the help of F.C.
The lawyers go over the moment where Morris “tested” James with Jenny. According to the defense, James actually answered correctly, but the prosecution sees it very differently.
Morris testifies, we see the flash-forward moments from earlier. He says that the only people who could make F.C. work with James were Jenny, her mother, and an aide that she handpicked. Not enough, and that includes the new people hired by the defense.
Jenny testifies, we see the flash-forward moments. How, she wonders, could something ‘‘so special and so incredible for both of us’’ have been turned ‘‘into some kind of horrible, wrong thing?’’ “Of course I assumed that the typing was working – why wouldn’t I?” “He’s not my puppet.” ‘‘I wouldn’t have fallen in love with him if he wasn’t capable of consent,’’ she would later say in court. ‘‘I wouldn’t have fallen in love with him if he wasn’t someone interested in reading books and talking about them. He was my best friend.’’
Laetitia brings James into court, holding up his tiny frame at the armpits. She walks him down the aisle and over toward the jury, as his head rolls back and his eyes seem to focus on the ceiling lights. ‘‘Jury, this is my son,’’ she says. Then she turns James to face the judge. ‘‘Your honor, this is my son.’’ If James spots Jenny in the courtroom — it would have been the first time in years — he does not react.
The defense later argues that the prosecutor tried to block her from his view, so D.J. wouldn’t reach for her as he used to. It also notes Morris’ strangely racialized letter to the Dean, wondering if this entire trial is some kind of revenge for centuries of misplaced black-on-white rape accusations?
Jenny is found guilty and sentenced to 40 years. She collapses in the courtroom, crying.