If the Motion Picture Association of America gave ratings to books, mine would be rated R. For the bleeping language. To illustrate my point, I have included the opening paragraphs of “unprotected”:
“You think you’re pretty hot s—, don’t you? All tripped up on power, like you’re Queen of the F—ing World!”
Amanda flinched, but Leah just sighed. As a brand new child protection social worker, Amanda still wasn’t used to being hated. Their client, Marlys, whose children had just been removed two days before in an ugly scene that culminated in Marlys dropping to her knees and wailing “my babies!” in her apartment parking lot, clearly despised her social workers.
“It’s not like this every day,” Leah said under her breath, passing through the door that Amanda held open to the Courthouse. “Marlys is a bit dramatic.” Marlys was quickly approaching, and Amanda had the sudden fear that she was going to body block them to the ground. A size 22 (if she sucked in a lot) and wearing a dress that had to be a tight 12, Marlys looked like a chocolate sausage stuffed in a leopard print casing. Amanda managed a simpering smile as she held open the door for Marlys in a gesture of peace.
“Oh f— you and the horse you rode in on!” Marlys huffed at Amanda, her face coming within inches of Amanda’s. “You think I can’t open my own damn door?”
“No…I mean yes….I’m sure you can open your own damn…uh… your own door.” Amanda cringed as Leah stifled a giggle.
Leah put her hand on Amanda’s arm to allow Marlys to get ahead of them. As Marlys ambled up the stairs, Amanda finally exhaled.
One of my friends who read an early version of “unprotected” asked if the families that I worked with really talked like that. The answer is yes, sometimes. Her next question was, “how can you stand that?”
I have had many clients yell at me, call me all kinds of colorful names, occasionally throw things at me (I ducked), and threaten me. Their anger is understandable—they are at risk of losing their children forever. It’s things like road rage that makes no sense to me: Erupting into fits of anger over getting cut off in traffic is an overreaction to one of life’s irritations. But anger over losing a child—I get that.
Understanding the anger helps, but there are times when it isn’t enough. I have had clients who have called me such personal and ugly things that I can’t help but react, but unfortunately that reaction is barely contained laughter. One time, after a client creatively and colorfully expressed her hatred of me, I had to leave the room before an uncontrollable attack of nervous, inappropriate giggles took over.
Recently I saw a man berate a woman working at a hotel front desk. As soon as he left, the woman tried to maintain her composure but after a few minutes excused herself to audibly cry in the back room. It wasn’t her mistake or anything she could change, but he was rude to her anyway. Ask anyone who has ever worked in customer service, and they will be able to tell stories of people yelling, swearing, and namecalling.
The difference with my job is that almost always I can tell my clients that I will end the conversation if they continue to talk to me that way. Sometimes, I just let them vent, because ultimately it’s helpful to get the anger out. But in customer service, those workers usually just have to tolerate the verbal abuse. They are trying to keep customers, and so telling the angry client that they will end the conversation means they lose the customer. As a child protection social worker, I usually have the power, so my client can’t go anywhere. Sometimes calling me names can help my client feel like they are leveling the playing field, and if we can work together after that, then it’s worth it.
So even though it doesn’t happen every day, I wanted my novel to start this way…with a whole lot of bad language, anger and awkwardness that Amanda struggles through in the name of trying to do her job.
I hope readers will enjoy following Amanda and the colorful language that makes the child protection system a solid PG-13 most of the time. “Unprotected” will be released by North Star Press in September, 2012. And check out the “upcoming events” page to see the events I have scheduled in several local area book stores and libraries!