A fellow law student broke my nose and joked about it on Facebook

I am humiliated and outraged and don't know what to do.

Published March 30, 2007 10:18AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm not sure you're the person to ask. But, well, who better, at this point?

I am a third-year law student, about to graduate. And I don't have many friends here.

There were several people here whom I tried to be a good friend to. One has been an excellent friend. One stood me up on my birthday and refused to apologize because it was "an accident." One read my personal e-mails without permission and badmouthed me to a mutual professor. One started a series of nasty, public jokes and refused to stop when requested. (She also called at all hours with her relationship problems.) And one deliberately hit me, three times, and broke my nose -- in two places. He then apologized thusly: "I'm sorry, I didn't think it would break." (Obviously we were both drunk.) He then got on Facebook and mocked me. He said he hit me in the face with a TEC-9. He made a drinking game out of making fun of me. He said he "beat me like your step-daddy."

I didn't turn him in at first -- or call the police, as I probably should have. Instead, I told the dean of students at my law school. I gave him a copy of my bill and the doctor's report and my X-rays. I copied the Facebook pages and gave him that too. Lawyers I know said that assault and battery of a fellow law student is the kind of thing the bar committee should know about. The legal profession, despite the jokes, pays a certain amount of lip service to promoting ethical, professional behavior among its members.

The dean ignored it for a little more than a week, as far as I know. Then, when asked again, he referred it to the student affairs committee -- who will, it seems, talk about it with both of us.

And I am furious. I am so cold, and so angry, that I can hardly function at all. I am angry with the dean and the school. I am angry with the guy who hit me. I am angry with my former friends who completely failed as friends. And I am angry with random townspeople who happen to live in the small Midwestern town where it all happened. To say that I am taking it personally would be the understatement of the year. I have convinced myself that my pain is the fault of every person I see. Every person here. Every person I have ever met.

I can't seem to get past this. No matter what I do, under the thoughts that I need to think to get through my day, there runs a little voice that says, "I cannot believe this place and I am fed up. I cannot believe these people and I want out. I hate it here. I hate everyone. I hate this." And that seems a little excessive.

And underneath all that mess, I realize that I have no enemies. None of the people who hurt me really wanted to hurt me, specifically. They just wanted other things more than they wanted to not hurt me. The guy who hit me wanted to show off and be wild and crazy and out of control. The dean who blew it off wanted to avoid controversy and made a judgment on which student was more likely to sue the school (and, probably, given my pariah status, which student was more likely to be a successful alumnus).

However, I think I have about three days of self-control left before I poison the coffee of the guy who hit me. I have all this grand-gesture energy, a huge desire to show everyone that they cannot continue to mess with me. And I don't know what to do with it or where to go. I feel like I need to be away from here. And I know that even leaving won't fix the issues one would have to have to create the kind of problems I have created here. So I do nothing, and stay, sort of frozen. Because at bottom I think it was all my fault and I'm not sure why I'm mad at anyone else, anyway.

How to get past this? How to be happy again? What do I do with this fury that is choking the life out of me, instead of the people who hurt me. It's only hurting me. And forgive and forget would, probably, be the logical, healthy thing to do. But I do not want to. Not before everyone knows how mad I am. But still, the problem remains: I am so furious with these people precisely because they are the kind of people who will never really understand why someone would be mad at them.

Thank you,

Unhappy Law Student

Dear Unhappy Law Student,

You have been the victim of a violent crime. While deeply unfortunate, it may be valuable for a future lawyer. I hope you will go into an area of law where you can use this experience to advocate for victims of violence.

It's no laughing matter, is it? You feel that people do not understand what you are going through or take you seriously. You see that they are making calculations based on their own best interests, not yours. You made some mistakes in not reporting it immediately and now feel conflicted and undeserving of justice. You knew the perpetrator so feel conflicted about pressing charges. Meanwhile, you are nearly out of control with rage. You fantasize about revenge. Yet you also blame yourself. And this state of affairs has already driven you to taking one drastic and previously undreamed-of step -- writing to me!

Well, I congratulate you and I feel for you. Law school is a good place to begin your education, but education comes in all forms -- psychological, physical, social, civic as well as legal.

So get some counseling through your school to help you deal with the aftermath of this violent attack. It's the smart and manly thing to do. The weak, stupid thing to do is to try to tough it out. That is the way of the small-minded, frightened man who tries to puff himself up and appear invulnerable. Such an approach is foolish and wrong on the facts. So get some counseling.

In its fairly recent "Position Statement on Services and Supports to Trauma Survivors," the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) says, "The experience of violence and trauma can cause neurological damage and can result in serious negative consequences for an individual's health, mental health, self-esteem, potential for misuse of substances and involvement with the criminal justice system." So get yourself checked out.

And take a look at what Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, U.S. Army (retired), author of "On Killing," says in "Psychological Effects of Combat," in the chapter called "The Trauma of Close-Range, Interpersonal Aggression": "It is very natural and normal to respond to an attacking, aggressive fellow human being with a phobic-scale response. This is a universal human phobia. More than anything else in life, it is intentional, overt human hostility and aggression that assaults the self-image, sense of control and ultimately, the mental and physical health of human beings."

It's no laughing matter.

After you get yourself looked at by some professionals, examine your situation from the standpoint of your chosen profession: As a third-year law student, you stand to shoulder a grave responsibility as the upholder of a legal tradition in a free society. This comes at a pivotal point in American society, when the relationship between the legal system and executive power is being tested. The executive branch is using the federal justice system -- our justice system! -- for its own political purposes, to consolidate its power over us, the people that the executive branch is supposed to be serving and protecting. So right now, obviously, we need more lawyers who will take the law seriously, who have a firsthand understanding of why it exists and how it works.

Not to overstrain the parallels, but consider what happened to you in light of what's happening in the country. Someone took advantage of you and then lied about it and humiliated you in public. When you turned to the authorities, you encountered foot-dragging and politics. A crime was committed. You were momentarily confused about what to do, and now you feel encumbered by your own initial timidity and mistakes. And yet inside you are seething with rage and righteous indignation, to the point that you find it hard to think rationally.

Further, these very abuses of the law happened in an institution charged with teaching and upholding the law. The cognitive dissonance is deafening.

My friend, I'm no lawyer, but it sounds to me like you have suffered much injustice and that, as a future lawyer, you have a duty to pursue this in the courts. So after you read this through, get in your car and drive to the police station. Tell them that you are aware that you failed to report this crime immediately and that your case may thus be damaged or whatever, but just plunk yourself down there in the police station and tell them everything. Maybe you find out you can't press charges or that your case will be weak or whatever. So file a civil suit. At least do what a reasonable person would do who cares passionately about the law.

Do the right thing. Put the law first. Ignore the political or social consequences. Follow the law -- wherever it leads you.

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