Judge writes to honor unforgettable children February 1, 2005 Laura Melvin Senior Editor Regular News Judge writes to honor unforgettable children By Jan Pudlow Senior Editor When Laura Melvin was a First Judicial Circuit judge, she winced at the tortured faces of damaged children who appeared in her courtroom. She grappled with how best to deal with their cruel abusers, while deep down feeling like tearing their faces off. To diffuse her anger, she went home and wrote her heart out at night.Now that 57-year-old Melvin has retired from the bench, she has been busy crafting those courtroom snippets, about 300 pages of rough-form vignettes, into a polished nonfiction book she hopes will be published.Recently, Melvin had a wonderful opportunity to hone her writing craft when she was awarded a fellowship to spend a month at the Jentel Artist Residency Program. She lived with another writer and four visual artists on a 1,000-acre cattle ranch in the Lower Piney Creek Valley, about 18 miles southeast of Sheridan, Wyoming.“I learned of Jentel through a magazine, Poets and Writers. I submitted 20 pages of my writing, got a couple of friends to send a reference letter, and to my total amazement, Jentel accepted me,” Melvin wrote in an e-mail from her private writer’s studio with triple windows that revealed an eight-point buck a few feet away, and a magnificent view of foothills of the snow-capped Big Horn Mountains.“My amazement has not diminished, and at times I’m sure I’ll be found out and sent home,” Melvin said.“Part of the amazement is the assignment they gave us at orientation. Lynn, the manager, explained: ‘You were each selected by the jury based on a project you submitted. But, now that you’re here, you can work on that project, a different project, or no project at all.’”Jentel is an angram of the name of Neltje, a wealthy artist from New York City and a patron of the arts who created the facility and invites artists to create in inspiring surroundings. But once there, the artists are free to do as they please.“Sleep the whole month if you like,” Lynn told Melvin at orientation. “She knows that the time you spend here will at some point impact your art work — while you’re here, or years later. Neltje believes in the process and wants to honor your art. This is a way that she gives back to the arts’ community.”After a decade as a lawyer, followed by another decade as a circuit judge, Melvin admits participating in a program without schedules, deadlines, dockets, or obligations was a difficult concept. But she adapted and wrote like crazy.By the end of that glorious month that ended in mid-November, Melvin said she has completed a rough draft of her manuscript that would have consumed at least six months in her regular life back home full of interruptions.“I feel good about what I have, and I may need to puff up some sections while deleting others,” she said. “I’m going to make contact with an agent and send query letters out to some publishers. I know even less about this next phase than the last.”What Melvin knows with certainty is the purpose of her writing: to honor the children she met in court.As Melvin describes her project, it’s a memoir.Part of it is a travelog of adventures right after she retired, trading her 2,000-square-foot home and 20 acres for a Dodge 2500 that pulls a 30-foot “fifth-wheel” RV. With her German shepherd, Grace, Melvin embarked on a quest to simplify her life, try “life without a robe,” and see America. That travelog provides a linear progression that segues into the court vignettes that often feature children.“I feel compelled to finish this because of the children,” Melvin said. “It’s not a matter of my writing it so I will not forget them. Some I would never forget, no matter what.”Rather, Melvin explains, her writing is a way to pay homage to the children who somehow survived the brutalities of messy divorces, neglectful mothers, sex-ravaging step-fathers, and abuse from “the system” itself.Some did not survive.“One little girl died. At some point, I want to do research and try to find Mama. That little girl had such a big impact, I’d like her mom to see what I wrote about her,” Melvin said.She likens her mission to a line in a song from the a capella group, Sweet Honey and the Rock, who sing about a quilt that travels the country for AIDS awareness: “And they called out your name, and you will live forever, because they called out your name.”“It is messy, perhaps, to attempt to call out the names of these kids in a nonfiction way, with hopes that somebody else will then not be able to forget them,” Melvin said.“It is first-person, singular stuff. It is what I saw, what I heard, and what I felt.”Melvin combines a journalist’s discipline to get the facts straight, even interviewing a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent who was a witness in a child murder case, while taking a humanistic approach to writing.Now back home in the Florida Panhandle, Melvin reflects on her Wyoming experience.“I knew how to work very hard and disciplined because of my work in law. I applied that same discipline to my writing out there at Jentel. I worked my tail feathers off.”One of the successful writers she met in Wyoming was Liz Gilbert, who attended another nearby artist-in-residency program called Ucross. Gilbert, author of The Last American Man, a finalist for the National Book Award, is busy working on her fourth book.“I’m glad I didn’t know anything about her ’til later, because I would have been much intimidated,” Melvin said. “Instead, we talked freely. She asked probing questions, knowingly discussed several issues I have with my manuscript, and gave me invaluable advice.“She said to me, ‘Laura, you are a plow horse. Don’t look back. Just keep going. Your only goal is to complete the project.’”And to Neltje, her patron, Melvin says, this “fiercely independent woman with a strong handshake and a warm heart gave me a gift I could not have imagined.”That gift was peaceful time to write, along with the inspiration and confidence to keep writing until her story is told. If you would like to find out more about Jentel or retired Judge Melvin’s project, feel free to e-mail her at [email protected] Jentel’s Web site can be found at www.jentelarts.org. An excerpt from ‘Larry’s Story ‘ (Editors’s Note: Here is an excerpt from a story of a case Laura Melvin handled while an attorney representing what was then called the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.) In anticipation of the trial, the case worker and I took the two brothers, age 5 and 7 years old, into an empty courtroom. I showed them where they would sit and told them who would be in each of the other chairs. They sat in the witness chair and called out to imaginary people in the courtroom. We went up behind the bench, and I let them sit in the judge’s chair. They took turns spinning each other around and around.This could have been a simple field trip, a civics lesson for two young kids in how our court system worked. But it wasn’t.We sat in the front row, and the case worker asked them to tell me what happened with their step-father. They look down and shook their heads, “No.”It was as though the little guys who had been clowning around moments earlier were gone, and two stiff, shell-shocked shadows sat in their places.I had a yellow legal pad for notes — the kind that comes pre-punched with two holes centered at the top. Larry, the 7-year-old, reached over without speaking, took the legal pad from me and hid his face behind it.I said, “Larry, it’s OK, you don’t have to look at me. But tell me what happened.”Larry began to talk, haltingly from behind the pad. As he fidgeted with the pad, I watched one small eye and then the other dart to a hole. He bent the pad slightly; now both eyes peered at me.He sat up straight and looked me in the eye. From behind his mask of cardboard and yellow paper, he calmly told with chilling simplicity how he and his little brother had been repeatedly raped by the man he called dad.That was 20 years ago, but I can still see Larry, sitting in the empty courtroom, his bright eyes peeking at me through the holes at the top of a legal pad.