She was sharp. She was tough. She was deeply kind.
She was resplendent in red.
She was a loud, happy harmony of Italian-American toughness, soft skin and sweetness, belly laugher and beautiful, dark eyes. She was flirty. She was flinty. She was piercingly honest.
She was uncompromising when it came to the truth. She understood what we generally call evil, but far more than that, she understood that we don’t yet know exactly what evil is. With that blessed and rare knowledge, she knew we had to step lightly.
But still, she knew, we had to step forward.
Teresa Scalzo was the most accomplished and respected legal expert when it came to the prosecution of sexual violence in the U.S. She changed everything; the expertise she developed as a sex crimes prosecutor in her corner of northeastern Pennsylvania became first a national challenge and then a national standard. She came of age in a time when- understandably- some leaders of the anti-sexual violence movement were turning away from prosecution as an answer to sexual violence.
Their objections to what we do were valid, of course. America, as I say increasingly in lectures, and as Teresa knew before me, doesn’t have a criminal justice system. It has a criminal adjudication system. Justice is an ideal, a state of blessed balance in human interaction, a satisfying sense of rightness embedded somehow in our common ancestry. It’s funny, actually; for all of the education and drilling we lawyers put ourselves through, what we end up striving for our entire professional lives is something toddlers grasp as they would a toy key ring. And yet this deeply human, deeply shared sense of simple rightness is also as elusive as a rainbow.
The elusiveness of justice is no more pronounced then where crimes of sexual violence are concerned. The subject itself- sex- is hopelessly tangled in thousands of years of mystery and shame, pleasure and violence, life and death. There has never been a phenomenon so central to human existence and yet so shrouded, so guarded, so punished. The punishers have been- cross culturally- mostly men. For millennia they’ve been simultaneously intoxicated by and terrified of the power of women. It’s been less even about sex than about the female embodiment of it, the women who bled but did not die, who brought forth life from swollen bellies and then fed it from their breasts, these goddesses who could erase the mind of a conqueror with a smile, or a frown. These creatures, the thinking has gone, must be controlled. Demonized. Marginalized. Our desire for them, the thinking has gone, must be projected. Sanitized. Excused.
Teresa understood these dynamics. The ancient ones. The current ones. The fact that they’re all really the same. What she fought for most ardently, though, was the redemption of the only system we have- in the most advanced society in the world- to deal with sexual violence. Teresa fought for the relevance of prosecution to the fight against rape. She did this not because she thought the system was perfect or ever could be; rather, she fought for it because she knew it was all we have. The law, at bottom, is our only living embodiment of the public will. For rape victims, the civilized response is about the system we have: The police, the advocates, the nurses, the prosecutors. Teresa looked at this system, and she knew she could make it better.
She was right.
Our system is far better now then when Teresa Scalzo started to make it better. It has a long way to go, but every step it takes moving forward, it takes with her legacy as its power.
I was in awe of this woman, this goddess, this marvelous mixture of seriousness and red wine hangovers, of wisdom and joy, of scholarship and instinct, of hope and frustration. She taught me everything. She vouched for me as a man in a woman’s world, which was so ironic because we both initially inhabited a man’s world- prosecution- that Teresa nevertheless took over where sexual assault was concerned through will, sincerity and raw skill.
I strove every day to keep in step with her, always behind but always inspired.
And then she died. But not before giving the last, full measure of everything she was- and dear God that was so much- to what we do in the service of the women and men whose lives are torn apart by sexual violence. What we do now, we do largely in her honor, and through her legacy.
I know now in middle age what an elusive ideal justice is, and I am sadder for it. But I also know what beauty is. I know how the shadows of existence are shot through with it, and how it expresses itself to us, as I believe God does.
T, you were beautiful. Thank you.