Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remembering Celestial Summer Dove Cassman

Students are, of course, one of the great joys of teaching. But every once in awhile, a student comes along who leaves an indelible imprint on a professor. For me, Celestial Cassman was one of those students.

Although she was active around King Hall during her first two years here, I didn't get to know Celestial until she enrolled in my Sociology of the Legal Profession seminar in the fall of 2003. It was the beginning of Celestial's 3L year, and I soon learned that she had enrolled in the course as a woman on a mission. She wanted to investigate whether King Hall was as "kind and gentle" as its reputation suggested. She'd been here for two years, after all, and I think her observations and experiences made her skeptical that King Hall was actually any more user friendly for minority, women, and lower socio-economic status students than studies had shown Ivy League schools to be. She announced to me her desire to conduct her own empirical study of student experiences at King Hall, and I agreed to work with her. We were pretty sure the study data would yield an article we could publish.

Celestial was a delight to have in class and to work with on the study because she was so focused, self-possessed, and intelligent. Celestial proved herself a force of nature as the project unfolded. She considered the methodology of studies at other schools, drafted the survey instrument, plotted the schedule by which we would gather the data, and made posters to generate interest and optimize student participation. She also dealt with the Institutional Review Board, tirelessly and with good cheer. Once the survey period ended, she entered the results from completed paper surveys and identified resources to assist with the statistical analysis. My computer is chock full of working documents related to the project, many created by Celestial. They remind me of the mature, highly organized, methodical and thoughtful scholar and woman she was.

In addition to being so amazingly competent, Celestial was also unfailingly pleasant, with a radiant smile, a radiant persona. Even after she was comfortable enough around me to tell me what she really thought--to offer sometimes biting observations on life and law--she delivered these comments from beneath the sunniest possible veneer. This amused me greatly. So, the ever-smiling woman who so often wore a flower tucked behind her ear wasn't a Pollyanna after all! No, indeed. She made incisive, witty, and poignant observations about the data we were collecting--and what it revealed about our reputedly kinder, gentler law school.

Celestial was fun to get to know for all of the reasons I've mentioned, but also because she was full of surprises. I probably laughed out loud when she told me that her middle name was "Summer Dove," and that she'd been known by "Dove" most of her life, especially by her family. As her distinctive name suggests, Celestial's pedigree was not that of your typical law student, and it was one that illustrates well the slipperiness of socioeconomic class. That pedigree also helped explain her maturity, her no-nonsense approach to life and law school. Nothing had been handed to Celestial on a silver platter, a fact that no doubt had sharpened her class consciousness. Working with Celestial helped sharpen mine, too. A critical goal of our study came to be charting the impact not only of race/ethnicity and gender on the law school experience, but also the influence of a student's socio-economic background.

By the time commencement rolled around, we were well on our way to completing our joint article. I was on the verge of giving birth, but made an appearance at Celestial's Davis home to celebrate briefly with her visiting family. That summer, amidst her bar exam studies, Celestial dutifully made time to join me for meetings with statistics consultants and such. By fall, our article was in the publication pipeline, and Celestial was ensconced as an associate at McDonough, Holland & Allen. We saw each other only rarely, and then in the summer of 2007, she summoned me to lunch--to catch up, tell me about a painful relationship break-up, and let me know she was looking to return to "sunny Santa Cruz," where she had done her undergraduate work. Soon thereafter, Celestial joined a Santa Cruz law firm. I saw Celestial only twice after that, on a brief visit to Santa Cruz, and when she attended the five-year reunion of the Class of 2004. She arrived a little late to the reunion, after lunch, a signature flower tucked behind her ear. She was well. Work was good. She was learning to surf. We couldn't chat for long because I had to get my child home for a nap.

Ten days ago, Celestial was brutally murdered while on vacation in Hawaii. The man with whom she was traveling--whom the media varyingly characterize as her boyfriend or ex-boyfriend--has been charged with her murder.

Details of the crime are chilling. One witness saw the man grabbing Celestial in a choke hold, slamming her body to the pavement of a remote Maui highway. Other witnesses saw the two struggling as they drove along that highway minutes earlier, with Celestial trying to escape, her car door open. The police report suggests that Celestial may have been sexually assaulted. It also makes clear that she fought back, that she was courageous.

So many questions about Celestial's death will likely never be answered: Why didn't one of the Maui witnesses to Celestial's distress call 911 sooner? Why didn't someone try to help Celestial before the 60-year-old woman who did call 911, after the older woman naturally cowered in the face of Celestial's angry assailant, leaving the scene to find a cell phone so she could call for help. I am reminded of the Kitty Genovese incident and the reasons we may turn away from getting involved, from helping those so clearly in distress. Did the witnesses in Hawaii fail to help because they assumed they were witnessing a "private" or "domestic" matter?

And was this, in fact, a "domestic" incident, as the media have tended to characterize it? Or some other type of extreme misogynist behavior? Whatever the underlying circumstances--and however those close to Celestial (and the general public) may attempt to understand the events surrounding this tragedy--violence against women has devastating, far-reaching consequences.

One thing we can take away from Celestial's horrific and untimely death is a reminder that we are all vulnerable to violence. As one reader commented on a news report of Celestial's death, "even beautiful, well-educated, successful women ... can and have experienced" violence at the hands of intimates (or, perhaps in this case, a former intimate).

But I want to focus, too, on what we can take from Celestial's life. I knew her as a model of industry, but also full of joie de vivre; as level-headed, but also compassionate; having a sense of service and duty, but also one of delightful whimsy. I shall cherish memories of a young woman wise beyond her years, who followed her star with equanimity and good cheer, and who enriched many lives.


Rose Sawyer said...

I didn't know Celestial Cassman. But one line from your blog post, Professor Pruitt, has really stuck with me: "The man with whom she was traveling--whom the media varyingly characterize as her boyfriend or ex-boyfriend--has been charged with her murder."

I didn't know Celestial Cassman, but I know a few strong young women in relationships with men who they themselves "varying characterize" as boyfriends or ex-boyfriends. More often than not, these relationships have borderline (or not-so-borderline) abusive elements.

As someone who was myself once in a relationship that I would now characterize as (at least somewhat) abusive, I don't know how to respond to this type of situation. I know that, when I was dating my ex, I was trying so hard to be "compassionate" that I made excuses for him when I shouldn't have. I also know that I sometimes lashed out at him more than I should've because I lacked the confidence to calmly stand my ground -- and walk away.

So what do we do, when our friends are in relationships that seem unhealthy? Is it better to say something, and to risk potentially alienating the friend (thus depriving her of a link to the outside world, and driving her closer to the boyfriend)? Is it better to say nothing, and maintain the friendship -- or is that enabling?

I would genuinely appreciate your -- and my classmates' -- thoughts on strategies to cope with this sort of situation.

Chez Marta said...

Rose, insightful questions, again. I feel that we should be friends, you capture my thoughts so well. At any rate, I think you can't call yourself a friend if you don't voice your concern about a friend's abusive relationship. You must say something, lest you become an accomplice in the silence surrounding the issue, or an enabler, as you suggested. We must fight to break the silence, and stop making excuses for bad behavior. And sometimes we have to call the police. If the friendship should end because of your concern for your friend's safety, then it wasn't a great friendship to begin with. I really don't know what to do with the thought that losing your friendship would cause her to be deprived of yet another link to the outside world: said link has to be useful, too, functioning in keeping her safe from the abuse.

P.S. By all means, look me up on Facebook.

tomindavis said...

Professor, this is a caring and illuminating post. In such a short space you have taught me about a special person -- not through outward sketches or descriptors, but through her conduct, and through her passion for her work. I believe that I now know quite a lot about who she was as a person. You were lucky to have worked closely with her, and I am sure she was grateful for the chance to work with and learn from you.

You remind us that women are vulnerable to abusive and violent men. The threat is always there for all women. As a man, I find such repeated behavior deeply troubling.

I often think of the survivors in moments like this -- those who are left with the wholly raw deal of having to make sense of senselessness, to make peace from such brutality.

thanks for the post.