Juanita Mantz is a force of nature. Her debut book is a thumbnail polaroid that develops in your hands over the course of sixty pages. There she is burdened as a troubled youth, dropping out of high school to a mix tape of Siouxsie, X, The Smiths and The Cure and then voila, she puts herself through college (spoiler alert for those that haven’t read the title of her book) to become a public defender.
But wait, better than that is that her new book Portrait of a Deputy Public Defender (or, how I became a punk rock lawyer is an inspiring read that showcases Mantz’s ability to write in a number of different modes. Essays, autobiography, young adult narratives all crash into one another like the soundtrack of her youth and womanhood, making apologies for nothing and making the case for all that she holds to be of great import. Her family reminds me of my family, might remind you of yours. That she economically fleshes out her uncle and sister in a vignette in the book that still slugs me and stops me in my tracks on the seventh read speaks volumes. This is good writing powered by good intention. Good intention delivered in the work that she does as public defender and as a force for change in our thirsty world. I have told you twice now, she is a force to be reckoned with. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Your book reads like a thoughtful mix-tape. There are deeply personal passages, SE Hinton/Young Adult offramps, Charles Mingus underdog autobiographical entries, treatise that get thick into it on the injustices of the justice system…sewn together by your unique voice. It reads to me like you did a lot of surgery to get to the root of all of these things, leaving a lot on the cutting room floor.
I cut the most from the first chapbook story How Did I Get Here? Interestingly, that story is one of the last stories in my 200 plus page YA memoir which ends with me dropping out. This chapbook, funnily enough, begins with that same “HS dropout” story, and is about why my dropout history is my magic wand as a deputy public defender. It’s a reframing in a way…. it’s a YA tragedy in my other book which is written in present tense YA voice, but looking back as an adult in this chapbook, I’m glad it happened. It gave me resilience, and empathy.
For this chapbook, I cut a lot out of that “dropout story” and left the longer version in my longer YA memoir. The stuff I cut out was about my older half sister Barb dying my junior year of HS and my dad almost committing suicide when she died…It just seemed like too much. So I cut it. But it was hard to cut. In the longer memoir, the dropout story is much longer and more detailed and is retitled “Under the big black sun” as a nod to the LA punk band X which mirrors the cover on this chapbook. I also worked on making my mom more well rounded. In both of my books, I had to show just how much my mom put into me so her anger feels justified. She thought I was gonna make it to college, which I did eventually years later, and then law school, but me dropping out of high school 5 units short almost broke her. My twin Jackie made it, just barely, but that’s her story to tell, not mine, but I’m glad one of us did graduate that day.
It’s funny you mention SE Hinton because I have a whole story in my longer YA memoir book called Stay Gold that’s inspired by SE Hinton’s writing and the book The Outsiders… it’s about me and my friends at a club called Marilyn’s in Pasadena. SE Hinton, along with Judy Blume, was a huge influence on my writing style. The jazz reference is also interesting, because I do tend to write in a trance and just go with it. In fact, most of the essays and stories were written in one sitting. Like I said, I get inspired and go into a trance and write a first draft and then I edit and edit. And edit some more. I edit the whole piece word by word over and over. And sometimes that can take a while. Then again, I also have a couple of stories that came out perfect in the first draft that I never had to edit, one of those was a story about visiting my grandpa in Norco. That’s the universe/muses working through me when that happens.
A lot in the chapbook is really about blue collar life which intersects with punk rock and public defense nicely. And my dad’s bar and my parents’ professions and my upbringing etc.
Ultimately, I could see expanding the chapbook into a longer academic book about the legal “other”, which was the topic of my USC Law school “note” or thesis. I would use Edward Said (Orientalism), along with James Joyce (my title mirrors his book Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), and I would use the teachings of Gloria Anzaldúa’ and her book Borderlands / La Frontera and the philosophy/social justice writings of Cherie Moraga, Angela Davis and others…. I do some of that in this chapbook, but there’s a lot more to be said.
The passage in the book about your sister graduating from high school after you dropped out and your uncle’s disgust about this is such a visceral piece in the book. It is not a spoiler if you answer this, has he seen the work that you did and are now doing on behalf of the underserved in need of a public defender?
Regarding Uncle Roland, that was the hardest part of my dropout day. My godfather’s disappointment was palpable. I saw myself through his eyes that day and I was ashamed. Sadly, my Uncle Roland died in 2003, just after I graduated from law school. The year after in fact. He never got to see me as a deputy public defender. But Roland, aka Wolfman Jack, did live to see me become a lawyer. Another fun fact, my uncle Roland was initially only my godfather, but I had to share him with my twin sister Jackie (like most stuff as kids/twins) after her godfather Mickey died suddenly (he was very obese and lived in Montana and died after gastric bypass surgery in the 1970s).
The poor, the indigent, those lost in the legal malaise, it is one thing to spray paint “punk’s not dead” on a wall or scrawl “society sucks” on a peechee folder in yer teens, another altogether to work within the system, for the people instead of dismissively rejecting the system. I dig this as your definition of punk rock.
Yes, music is my everything. It saved me along with writing. I love lyrics and beats. I love to dance and sing (I am off key usually) and music is just a huge part of my life along with concerts! I’m excited to see “X” soon. A live show makes me feel young again. It’s what my best friends and I always gravitated to. It’s our joy. Thank god my husband loves the same music too. Ironically, I came back to punk rock and post punk right after I left corporate law. There’s a direct relationship between finding the two things again, ie, finding myself again, and the fact that one of my PD supervisors had seen the Sex Pistols live! Because in HS, I was obsessed with The Sex Pistols. And PIL. And Sid who was long dead by then.
Most of my fave bands in HS were a mix of punk and post punk. I’m not that knowledgeable about later punk to be honest. I’m more into the proto punk bands like the NY Dolls, The Stooges, Velvet Underground and then The Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols, and other Cali punk bands like X and Social Distortion and of course post punk people like Siouxsie, Robert Smith/the Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus along with The Smiths… and early U2 and the Replacements (who started out punky but turned almost pop in their last album) and The Pixies. Of course, I’m also super obsessed with Bowie, and I am a huge Runaways/Joan Jett and Go-Go’s fan. Those were my bands. I tend to deep dive into bands and singers.
Being punk for me is now more of a political statement and a way of looking at the world. I’m trying to create a discourse in my chapbook to show the intersections. We’ve created an incarcerated class. It’s tragic. I also wanted to redeem the image of a deputy public defender in the media. We’re hard working, punk rock lawyers. We’re doing it for the clients. Not ever for the money. At least not most of us. We’re usually true believers. I could never go private because I could never have a client’s family mortgage their house to pay. I’d go broke in a month. As a deputy public defender 4, don’t get me wrong, I make a decent living but still after 13 years, I make only a bit more than what I made in my 1st year of practice as a corporate civil lawyer.
Lawyers are white collar but I still think of myself as blue collar in my soul. Public defense is blue collar work. It’s blue-collar life, it’s fighting the powers that be, it’s everything. As is punk music. And what’s weird is that I so resisted writing about my work for years. I had so many blocks, the privileges, privacy, fear, but after George Floyd, I said fuck it. I’m gonna say what I want. It’s why I could never be a judge, among other reasons such as imprisoning and caging humans, because I need to say what I think aloud and loud, and not be constrained, in writing, both personally, & politically. In sum, I need to tell my stories.
Music is such an important part your life. You have touched upon how records by The Replacements, X, Bowie, etc. offered you a place to land in conversations with me, and it is in the book to a degree as well. Your experience having been sidelined and outcast reads in the book as a means with which to rescue those asea. How many years have you now worked as a public defender?
I’ve been doing this public defense work almost thirteen years now which is more than half my almost 20 year legal career. I graduated in 2002. My job is hard on the soul. But I love it. Yet, it’s hard, so I’m hoping to make it to at least 55 and I’m almost 50. But maybe I’ll last another ten years who knows? The old corporate law Juanita feels like a different person, that was never me. I was Eliza Doolittle. Pretending. For almost 7 years. Glad I got out when I did. I might not be here otherwise.
I love my job, but the work gets harder and harder the more experience you have. I handle very serious cases, and I do a lot of consulting with other lawyers from my office. The only thing I won’t handle is death penalty. I’m happy to consult but I cannot do those cases as I’m not DP certified and frankly could not stomach participating as a lawyer in that field. It would probably harm me in my soul irrevocably but I so, so admire the lawyers who can do that work.
Also, I’ve created this specialty in mental health and incompetency and it’s taken almost a decade to become an expert. I love the field so much and it’s where everything is heading. Recognizing that the majority of those incarcerated are mentally ill and traumatized is the first step to really seeing people. That way we, as a society, can help them. Rather than harm them.
At day’s end, after the myriad of heartaches & injustices that have transpired in your courtroom, there is hope for me and others that it is not always a miscarriage of justice for the working poor. Are there red letter days for you?
I talk about a couple of “red letter” days in this chapbook. I had to change details but over the years, I have had some very big cases go well for the clients. And yet, it’s not a win per se, but a win where justice reigned and the client is in a safe place.
I’m convinced it’s visualization and tenacity. I’ve had prosecutors give in because I simply won’t give up. I fight and fight for my clients and make life hard for the prosecutors and sometimes they come around and do the right thing. Sometimes, I plead, beg, tell them my clients’ stories over and over. I humanize the clients.
Does your work as a public defender get more difficult with time?
Recently, I had a miracle happen in a very serious case with an autistic client who I became very invested in, so attached and invested that I said aloud, if the wrong thing happens, I’ll quit doing this work. Thankfully, the miracle happened and he’s OK. I’m still here as a result. I cried like a baby the day I “won” that case. It is my finest moment.
The hardest part recently is being so open emotionally after Covid. After a year of working mostly from home, my eyes are wide open to the horrors I have to bear witness to. It’s raw. So many people are suffering. All of my desensitization is gone. I come home from court and want to puke. The other day, they took a guy down and he was struggling, and all these lawyers are just in there chatting, and I said aloud, “what the hell is wrong with everyone?”
The title of the book in and of itself is an interesting definition of terms.
The title of the chapbook, like I said, is based on Portrait of the Artist by James Joyce and I use his quote at the start of my chapbook, which is so apt, he wrote:
“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.”
What Joyce is saying is that be true to yourself. To your art and soul no matter what. Amplify your voice. No matter the cost, whether it be exile, censorship, critique, illness and/or poverty. Joyce dealt with all of those. Because in the end, that’s all we have. I’m a huge Joyce fan. I took classes in him at UCR with a Joyce Scholar. I went to Ireland to see his birthplace of Dublin and his wife’s (Nora Barnacle) house in Galway. His short story collection “Dubliners” was one of the first books that made me want to be a writer.