Vanessa Place, The Guilt Project and Tragodía 1

Among the individuals in Los Angeles who are responding to heavyweight issues exists an uncanny force: Vanessa Place. A criminal defense attorney, she defends what some categorize as the lost, the wretched: indigent criminals, repeat sex offenders and violent predators. Some criminals learn valuable lessons while incarcerated; others leave prison refueled, angry and ready to re-enter what’s left of the world as a less worthy version of themselves, less interested in following pre-ordained rules. This is where Place steps in: the blurry space between offense and re-offense, perpetrator and victim, right and wrong, ethics and morality. Place explains, “I work as a combination street sweeper and factory worker. I follow what’s gone before, mopping up after the bloody mess, squaring the legal corners, assembling the lives disassembled by tragedy, and reducing reams of paper to bite-sized pellets.” (p. 2)

In addition to The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality, and Law (Other Press) and Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts (Blanc Press), Place is also the author of Dies: A Sentence, an experimental, constraint-based work as one continuous sentence, the Los Angeles-inspired novel La Medusa, Notes on Conceptualisms (co-authored with Robert Fitterman) and multiple chapbooks (via Lulu and Ood Press). Place also co-directs Les Figues Press with Teresa Carmody. Even though Place’s background lies in the conceptual and experimental, she now decidedly focuses on how her writing practice both supplements her day job and reconciles with America―from a realistic and mythological stance. The movement from Place’s previous work to this legal system foray indicates her growing concern with her position. This shift also suggests that one should never confine their practice by following any previously charted precedent.

In The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality, and Law, Place sees the American justice system to be based upon oversimplified codes, actions deemed as crimes and complimentary punishments intended to compensate both the victim and those related to said victim, which create convoluted consequences as either a direct result or uncontrollable offshoot. The American prison system’s reality and its variable statistics are disappointing. Prisons are often privatized, transforming prisoners into fiscal commodities, prisoners are segregated using over-simplified categories (race, sexual orientation, ethnicity) to prevent violence, as well as assessed in ways meant to be preventative―in theory. America has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, where criminals are predicted to re-offend if given shorter sentences. Yet, should this statistic grant the courts the right to incarcerate prisoners for unreasonable sentences as a prevention technique against recidivism?

Even though violent crime is on the uprise, Place reminds that too little reform (and often too late) occurs in regards to how the American prison system approaches rehabilitation, justifiable sentence length and any responsibility associated with proper treatment for prisoners singled out for either short and long-term incarceration. The author discusses how post-prison life or life available in America after being marked as a sex offender is bleak, lacking tangible opportunities to reintegrate into any community―even if the offense was a one-time-only affair. Being affected by a judicial system that is unable (or unwilling) to register shades of grey, instead choosing satisfaction in an absolutist world dominated by black-and-white extremes, it’s remarkably easy to taint a life with one flippant, erroneous decision. Place explains:

The legal definition of rape is no longer forced sex, or sex without consent; it is sex without “affirmative and ongoing” consent. This definition is protean. It includes men who grab women off the street or seek them as they sleep, and men who have sex with drunken women who say yes or sober women who never quite manage to say no. It includes men who put knives to their wives’ throats and women who nod yes and then decide, mid-ride, no thank you. (pgs. 5-6)

This definition is jumbled; it includes individuals who otherwise would not be considered rapists if it was not for the ‘ongoing’ aspect of this new definition. What once counted as one decision to either participate in consensual sex no longer applies, unless this one pivotal decision never changes over time. Place adds, “This categorical elasticity means there are now more rapists and molesters among us. There may be more people willing to report being raped, but there are also more behaviors classified as rape, more ways to become a rapist than ever before. We think we’re surrounded, but we’ve surrounded ourselves.” (p. 6)

There are too many flaws in America’s judicial system to count, but Place responsibly examines them with a razor-sharp scrutiny and hard-earned logic. Her cool-headed tone allows an interested reader entrance despite the content’s awkwardness―even when The Guilt Project‘s subject matter shares graphics of real-life crimes and twisted aftermaths. Even when it’s hard to turn the page, because of disgust, shock or an emotion associated with a once obscured tragedy now in view.

What makes The Guilt Project unusual in comparison to other law & society texts is Place’s decision to hybridize her subjectivity as a Los Angeles-based criminal appellate attorney with an objective examination of the law. Place slides smoothly between these two modes, with care and concern for the reader’s ability to grasp both her plight and that which belongs to America. How often is the firsthand perspective of a defense lawyer, one defending another who is most likely guilty, shown? Place comments:

My job is not predicated on innocence. In our famously adversarial system of justice, we the actors play the parts that are as important as the play. It’s a cliché that a society is judged by how it treats its most despicable members, a cliché that mindful people accept in the abstract and reject in practice. But freedom of speech is only when the opinions are vile, and due process meaningful only when applied to the daddy who rapes his son. Sex offenders are our most despised citizens. To defend them without reservation, I have to absolutely accept their guilt. My job is not to defend the innocent, but to defend. (pgs. 1-2)

Place’s duty is not to prove innocence when none exists, but rather a legal question of “did the State have the right to take the essence of these peoples’ lives, or how many lives are being sacrificed to a series of social expediencies, or to cultural arguments that have already been won?”. (p. 9) For instance, should sexual offense be placed in the same category of evil (which Place defines as “an act, not a cultural metaphor, not a social backdrop, not entertainment” (p. 10)) as genocide, as despicable as the Holocaust? Place notes that such repugnance towards anything deemed as an obvious evil is, in a way, a source of pride or merit badge based upon placing one’s self against any opposing force. And by doing so, an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy thrives, allowing “us” to believe that “they” are worth nothing: less-than-human.

Place does not play “devil’s advocate”―those whom she defends are usually guilty: “I pray that all my clients are guilty because if they’re innocent, something went hideously wrong at the trial, and that something is almost always impossible to undo.” (pgs. 231-232) She illuminates how the American justice system fails to respond to heinous crimes effectively by following through with a series of oversimplified assumptions based on stereotyping, masked exploitation and calculated booby traps which ensure that a criminal cannot avoid re-offending once back on the streets. By the nature of faulty definitions, classification glitches and feigned concern for the well-being and future of these once-criminals-now-again-citizens, America sets itself up for an infinite cycle of wasted resources and disappointing statistics.

The author claims, “We have become a nation that insists on innocence. Unlike other countries, we’ve been able to dodge a lot of blame based on our lack of collective history.” (p. 233) Place is not searching for redemption: “my accusations against the law are also my confession.” Perhaps, the best that America hopes for is thorough rehabilitation which overrides at least some damage caused to both victims and their perpetrators.

Place’s recent release Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts appears deliberately timed; it serves as an appendix to The Guilt Project. Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts is transcribed texts taken from legal documents and appellate briefs which focus on the prosecution and defense of violent sexual crimes and those involved. Place doesn’t offer answers or subjective opinions―she avoids cajolement, opting for hard facts. So many cases that one might grow nauseous and enshrouded in a fascination rooted in this miserable underbelly. Words recontextualized relay gruesome details of unfortunate scenarios which speak to one another in a medley, similar to a cultish lock-in or a wellness retreat gone awry.

Once inside, M went into a bathroom. The lights went off. When they came back on, appellant had a knife at M’s throat. He told her to undress; she refused. After some back and forth, appellant threatened to “do it” to M’s 13-year-old daughter, D. M agreed to undress, and appellant threw her onto a mattress in a bedroom. He tied M’s hands behind her back, tied her legs and ankles, and gagged and taped her mouth. Appellant orally copulated M, had her orally copulate him, then vaginally penetrated her. He asked M how would she like him to do that to her daughter. She said to leave her daughter alone (RT 3:1504-1508, 3:1512). (p. 49)

Place provides facts and witness perspectives from physicians, forensic psychologists, private detectives, lab technicians, criminalists and experts of perceived authority. These individuals augment Place’s selection of briefs with unearthed evidence. This writerly ambition demonstrates a spectrum of socio-political concerns, confessions and depositions; Place encourages readers to take a closer, even exhaustive double-take at the conflicting state of American law and society. It is too common to overlook factual minutiae. Statement of Facts compels not only because it is a thoughtful appropriation exercise but because it metaphorically relays the world as a universal “book” which is edited either justly or unjustly―where entire chapters, paragraphs or footnotes are deemed accessible or cut from the final proof in one authoritarian sweep. The act of publishing material considered by the general populace to be too raw, difficult or unprofitable is necessary so as to advance future liberties rooted in flexibility.

Assessing the factual, in its pure and unadulterated form, is an immediate concern. Freedom of speech and expression continues to be tested, stretched and questioned; this is evident when considering recent incidents, ranging from the Wikileaks/Julian Assange phenomenon to the Arizona shooting of U.S. representative Gabrielle Gifford (and eighteen others). Both indicate how how political strain affects or bleeds into the responses from both citizens and the masses. Some may find Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts to be unreadable; the work also resides as part of Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Publishing the Unpublishable” series on UbuWeb. The editor explains:

What constitutes an unpublishable work? It could be many things: too long, too experimental, too dull; too exciting; it could be a work of juvenilia or a style you’ve long since discarded; it could be a work that falls far outside the range of what you’re best known for; it could be a guilty pleasure or it could simply be that the world judges it to be awful, but you think is quite good.

With this gesture of publishing that which is usually muted or forgotten, Place exalts our obsession with both truth and power to another level―even if difficult to reach. The future of writing depends upon uncomfortable frontiers.To see the review in context, click here.

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