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Fictional Social Workers

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Trauma Survivors, Secret Keepers, and Goofy People with Hearts of Gold:
Social Workers in Contemporary Fiction

by Kiersten Marek

Novels about social workers are not plentiful and, in fact, I was not able to find any that feature Master’s level social workers as their main characters. Why is this so? Laura Kalpakian’s main character in Graced Land, provides one provocative answer to this question:

“Why are there all those cop shows on TV and not one about social workers? I’ll tell you why! Because the poor people on cop shows, they’re doing something about their situation! They’re colorful and desperate! They’re out there robbing banks or ripping off gas stations, forging checks, risking their lives to peddle drugs! That’s who the cops get to deal with! Who does the social worker get to see? Day in, day out? Just a bunch of women who’ve screwed up their lives and don’t know what to make of it, or where it all went wrong or how, except that they’ve been screwed, really screwed.”

Emily Shaw, the main character and fledgling caseworker in Graced Land, says this in a fit of exasperation over her new job, but it’s only one side of her rant, for the rest of her monologue goes on to praise one of the exceptions to her diatribe, the client whom she has gotten overinvolved with, Joyce Jackson. Joyce is not taking life as a welfare recipient lying down. Like many quietly powerful people, Joyce Jackson is a subversive: she is creatively finding ways to make money on the side, to give to those less fortunate than herself, and to live the way she wants to live, devoted to the music and the memory of Elvis Presley.

One of the striking things about Graced Land is the nuanced understanding that Ms. Kalpakian conveys for the social worker’s plight: wanting to help, but being able to only help so much, lest we become “unprofessional” in our genuine caring for our clients. Emily Shaw is constantly stumbling over boundaries, moving between chatting with her clients like they are coeds in her esteemed sorority, the Tri-Delts, to taking them up on their offers to join them for drinks. While she gets categorized as “goofy” by some, she is not much more goofy than I was as a beginning social worker. While at times I cringed with self-recognition, for the most part I appreciated Kalpakian’s gentle mockery of her novel’s protagonist.

Joyce Jackson’s 12-year-old daughter, Cilla, has a shrewd and convincing voice which shares the telling of the story with Emily Shaw’s point-of-view. Cilla lives in mortal fear that she and her mother will be “found out” for their tag-saling and mending of clothes and cutting up of scrap material to make faux-antique quilts. Graced Land also has some colorful minor characters in the social work field including “Large Marge,” Emily’s supervisor, who is hell-bent on using her bureaucratic power to make miserable the lives of the uppity poor like Joyce Jackson. And there is even a social work Knight in Shining Armor waiting in the wings to save Emily from her destined-to-be-horrible marriage to Rick, who is away at law school prepping to join her father’s law firm:

“[Rick] would come back to California, pass the bar exam first time through and join the lucrative butter-slathered practice of her father’s Newport firm, Shaw, Swine, Swill, Slime, and Turdlock, which is the way Emily usually thought of her father’s partners. Rick did not think this funny at all. Quite the contrary. He reminded her that Shaw, Shine, Brill, Syme, and Turlock would enable the two of them to have a lovely, opulent Laguna Beach life where they would entertain lavishly…”

While I started the novel as decidedly not an Elvis fan, I have to admit that I am now ready to quote Elvis lyrics at the drop of a hat (it’s all about Money, Honey) and I have a newborn respect for The King and his rise from poverty to performing more than 1000 shows in his final years. I can’t help but admire someone who had that much rockin’ and rollin’ and crooning to give to live audiences. More than causing me to love Elvis, however, the Elvis part of the story caused me to consider the complexity of devotion — of how and why a person chooses to devote their life to another person or to a cause, or to a Rock ‘n Roll icon, as in the strangely compelling case of Joyce Jackson.

You get the impression that Laura Kalpakian had a good time writing this novel, with all the richness of the Elvis world strewn throughout, and also playing with the acronyms that seem to creep in and take over in the social work vocabulary, as in: “The county has this program, the GGP, the Good Grades Program for AFDC mothers, and if you keep your grades up, the county pays your fees at SECC, St. Elmo City College.”

Graced Land is by far the most polished, entertaining, and fully articulated of the three novels. I could read it again and, in fact, have enjoyed rereading particularly fabulous passages, such as Chapter 13, a streaming ode to passion, with its wonderfully placed refrain of Oh Burning Love sprinkled throughout.

The First Annual Soci Awards

The copy of Graced Land that I got out of my local public library had been checked out 18 times since its publication in 1992, for an average of 1.5 readers of the novel per year. While this may cause some to despair at how little literary interest there is in us, I say it’s time for a positive reframe: Graced Land was actually the most-checked-out of the three books that I read for this article. At 1.5 readers a year, it’s a comparative best-seller.

Given the lack of attention to social work novels, I’ve decided to establish a new category of awards: the Soci (pronounced so-shee) Awards, akin to the Emmy Awards, for the best social work novel published that I know about. Laura Kalpakian is the 20th Century’s winner for the Most Engaging and Insightful Novel about a Fledgling Social Worker. I’m sure Ms. Kalpakian is thrilled beyond words at this honor.

Zachary’s Wings by Rosemarie Robotham is decidedly more realistic, and takes on a rare bird in a fictional subject category already rarefied — the male social worker. The book stars Zachary, a twentysomething African American guy living in Philadelphia and moseying along as a caseworker for the chronically mentally ill. Zachary hooks up with Korie, a Jamaican-born reporter for a magazine that seems to be based on the magazine Life. It’s the ’80’s, and drinking and drugging are part and parcel of the lifestyle for both Zachary and Korie, except that Zachary, who has been drinking since childhood when his single mother gave him beer on the porch most evenings, can handle his intoxicants, while Korie, the child of affluence and a troubled first marriage, can’t handle life or drugs, and is in over her head on both counts. Zachary becomes her caretaker as she spirals into full-blown addiction. He accepts a role similar to the role he played with his mother as a child: secret-keeper and pain-bearer. With a kind of devotion that is both beautiful and tragic, Zachary keeps on helping, taking on the care of Korie’s first husband, a task which gets uglier unto death. Meanwhile, Korie becomes incapable of reciprocating Zachary’s deathless devotion, unable to desire anything but her next high.

Zachary’s Wings had some striking insights on addiction and the addictive lifestyle. One of these insights is about how the substance a person craves gives them stability and predictability in life. In Korie’s voice, after she has entered into recovery and is watching the movie Drugstore Cowboy, we get this glimpse:

“‘Most people don’t know how they’re going to feel from one moment to the next,’ the Matt Dillon character says at the end, ‘but the junkie has a pretty good idea.’ That’s the thing about drugs. About life. About those of us who feel buffeted by a surfeit of emotion. Drugs hook us because it seems they offer a little certainty. You do the drug, you know how you’re going to feel. I guess only when the uncertainty the drugs ends up giving becomes greater than the uncertainty of life itself does it become possible for a junkie to dream of quitting.”

For Korie, whose life becomes mired in harsh losses that she can’t predict or control, drugs become the reliable consolation that she craves, until finally she ends up in “the rooms,” — what she and other people in recovery call the anonymous meetings they attend for support. Here again Robotham provides rich and unique description:

“Most of them are located in church basements, and the people who assemble here are an extraordinary assortment of lost and found souls: thirtyish types like me, trying to start over; street people in rags who come in for free coffee and to escape the cold; corporate executives down to their last dime; artists, musicians, teachers, housewives, thieves, rich kids, gang kids, firefighters, lawyers, and actors whose faces you’ve seen on TV.”

My public library’s copy of Zachary’s Wings had been checked out 8 times since its publication in 1998, for an average of 1.3 reads a year. Zachary’s Wings gets the Soci Award for Best Social Work Novel about Addiction. Bravo, Rosemarie Robotham. We’ll toast you at our next substance-consuming event.

Of the three novels I read for this article, Madchild Running by Keith Egawa was the story most fully grounded in the world of social work, primarily taking place within the confines of the social service agency that Levi, the main character, works for : The Urban Native Support Services, a social service agency for Native Americans in Seattle, Washington. Levi gets involved with all sorts of families that were immediately familiar to me. Also, the dilemmas that Levi comes up against, particularly the dilemmas around custody of children in abusive homes, were dilemmas that I ran up against (and continue to run up against) frequently in my work.

For a first novel, Egawa has written a book of great emotional strength. His prose carefully express the tenuous position of Levi as he straddles the issues of identity (Levi, like the author, is part Native American) both personal and professional. At one haunting moment in the book, Levi comes across a bag of valium in the possession of his 12-year-old-client, Nicki, a girl who looks like his younger sister, and who later gives him his Indian name, a critical step toward the development of his own Native American identity. Against his own better judgment, Levi promises not to tell anyone about the pills. “I had promised not to tell. What was I? I couldn’t say I was a social worker. I was a lie, a mass of unavailing good intentions set afire by the things I had witnessed and the inability to answer my own questions. I felt that I had to get out soon, but I knew that I would not.”

Levi is in too deep and can’t tell why, until the flashbacks start — flashbacks to his own father’s beatings of his mother — flashbacks that explain his misguided protectiveness for Nicki. Like the Indigo Girls sing, What would you give for your kid fears? Levi wants to give everything to protect Nicki from his “kid fears,” his fears of abandonment and loss of his mother at the hands of his father’s brutality. But in doing so, he loses perspective. He becomes a child again with Nicki, an impulse that I can at once recognize from my own experience as a social worker. Unfortunately, Levi is destined for the worst kind of punishment for his transgression.

Having seen a lot of dead people on gurneys from my two years working in the ER — people taken from this life by murder, suicide, fire, drowning, alcohol and drugs, car crashes — it takes a lot to make me cry. Keith Egawa did it, which means he gets the Soci Award for Most Grim and Tragically Realistic novel about a social worker. Thank you, Keith Egawa. Weep, weep, sigh.

Published in 1999, Madchild Running had been checked out 5 times since arriving at my public library, giving it a solid average of 1 read a year.

Given these averages, I am a bit consoled that no agent has been chomping at the bit to represent my novel about two Masters level social workers. Clearly, writing about social workers is a labor of masochism and/or love.

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About Kiersten Marek

  • Robin

    I too am a Social Worker for a State Child Welfare Agency. I avoid books about child abuse because it often seems like it is just more work. I gravitate instead towards Sci-fi/Fantisy, or the latest spiritual solution or political rantings, but you have piqued my interest to go exploring in the fields of my own kind. I find often that others do not understand the real frustrations that we face like the realization that our superman’s suits really dont stop the bullits or that we are just really bureaucrats or social plumbers. There is no RIGHT and WRONG and I cannot save people. I have found that a prayer, smile or just an objective observation is often the best that I have to give. In the face of all the insanity and sadness I love my job. Thanks for the reasearch and the referral. Robin

  • Eric Olsen

    excellent and absorbing overview of a topic that never would have occurred to me – thanks Kiersten!