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Englit prof to lawyer: a trip to Wonderland

published December 14, 2017

By Gary Botting

Having worked as a professor of English literature and drama for 20 years before attending law school, I naively peppered my early legal arguments in court with references to the enduring liberating principles of great literature, rather than relying on last week’s ephemeral precedents, however more on point they might have been.

When a runaway child was found by a concerned passerby at midnight sleeping under a Garry oak in a public park in Victoria, with a white kitten and a white rat nestling on her chest, family services quickly scooped the child and all her siblings. I was asked to represent the mother in the inevitable custody battle. Reading up on the case, I realized that it had all the elements and characters of Alice in Wonderland — the White Rabbit, Dinah, the Cheshire Cat, the Dormouse, the Duchess, and indeed the Mad Hatter, himself. It was my very first legal aid case.

Neighbours had other tales to tell about my new client — of roughhousing, bawling kids, near drownings in the mother’s oversized wading pool, of food and drink left out for the kids to eat at random — but the most striking complaint was the way the "Duchess" had treated the newest addition to the family, over the protests of "Alice."

To entertain the other children, the "Duchess" tossed her baby, swathed in a blanket, high into the air and caught it, then tossed it up again high, higher, higher, always catching it to cheers and peals of laughter from the rest of her kids. Only "Alice," the eldest, seemed upset and tried to stop her mother as the baby soared up again, still higher. And then, as a nauseated neighbour looked on through the window from outside, the baby hit the ceiling, bounced back faster than usual, and crashed unconscious to the floor.

The horrified neighbour had seen quite enough. She telephoned both the police and family services with a complaint of abuse, possibly infanticide, and the police were quickly on the scene. Again the children were taken away to foster homes until the "Duchess" mended her ways. The "Duchess" was taken to the police station to explain herself. She called me. I told her not to talk to the police.

My client admitted that "Alice" had run away, taking her pets with her, but like Little Red Riding Hood had merely gone to visit her grandmother, as she was wont to do. However, when she got there, the door was locked. So she walked to the nearby park, sat under a tree and began to read. Soon, she fell fast asleep.

When the young girl had taken out her book, her satchel strap became loose enough for her pet kitten and rat to wriggle out. After the stranger in the park woke her up and escorted her to her grandmother’s, "Alice" was horrified when caseworkers arrived and took her home, only to tell her to pick up her schoolwork and pick out her favourite toy. No kitten. No pet rat. Just her favourite doll.

Initially hysterical, the mother became by degrees angry, concerned, then relieved when family services returned her eldest daughter. But she quickly became hysterical again when they took all her children away, and, after they were all gone, arrested her. Where had she hidden the baby, they wanted to know. Was it battered, bruised, even alive? No infant matching the size and age that the neighbour had described was present in the apartment.

By the time I got there, no infant of any age was present. The mother was in tears. I had not yet been able to obtain a coherent story. But as we sat there, the baby’s blanket moved. I pointed to it as it skittered across the floor. Exasperated, my client grabbed a corner of the blanket and Hey Presto! Out toppled a white rat, followed by the kitten.

“It all hinges,” I explained to the woman, determined not be distracted, “on the health of the baby.”

“You too?” she retorted. “You don’t believe me, either? Look, there was no damn baby, okay? Unless you count this one.” She pointed to her belly. “I’m six months pregnant!”

“Congratulations! But your neighbour says she saw you tossing your baby in the air. That’s why she complained.”

“Baby! That’s wasn’t a baby! That was Alice’s new Cabbage Patch doll! That’s why she was so pissed off! She wanted to keep it all to herself.”

There were many more parallels between Alice in Wonderland and my first family law case. My submissions to the judge were full of them. But unfortunately, they all led to one inexorable, and unintended, conclusion.

The provincial court judge stared down sternly from the bench, dressed appropriately in scarlet for her cameo performance.

“And who, precisely, Mr. Botting, is the Queen of Hearts, in this bizarre scenario?”

The silence seemed palpable. Hadn’t thought of that.

She sat back on her throne, bemused if not flabbergasted by my temerity.

“But, with the greatest of respect, Your Honour,” I said lamely, “the Queen of Hearts only threatens to chop off heads. She doesn’t actually do it!”

“Are you suggesting ... ?”

Tentatively, I said, "Her bark is worse than her bite?”

“That’s what I thought.”

“My sincerest apologies, Your Honour.”

The mother did eventually get all her children back, fighting three different fathers for custody to do so. And a decade later, “Alice” became a veterinarian. But I’ll never forget the real lesson of transitioning from English prof to lawyer: the law trumps metaphor every time.