Becoming an Adult on the Witness Stand

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Jennifer Tonti has a poignant story for our reader series:

I was 18, in my freshman year of college. My father had been killed in an auto accident three years prior and our family was suing the insurance company of the driver who hit him. There were a lot of mysteries surrounding the circumstances of the accident—mysteries that the defense would certainly use to poke holes in our case—and our lawyer thought it was important to our success that we paint a picture of the man, a picture independent of that fateful night.

Which is where I came in, as a character witness.

The trial was to take place during spring break. Needless to say, I could not have been looking forward to my break less. I spent the train ride to Philadelphia silently cursing my friends who were headed off to warmer and more pleasurable pastures, wondering why my mom was burdening me with testifying on my father’s behalf for a stupid tragedy from which we had since recovered.

On the first day of the trial, I had spent the better part of the morning in the back of the room listening to the testimony of a series of witnesses and forensic experts. By the time we broke for lunch, I had concluded that we didn’t exactly have a lock on the win, in no small part due to the tenacity of the defense attorney. But I had seen enough episodes of LA Law to know this was just business.

At 2:00, I was called to the witness stand. Our lawyer asked the first question and I dutifully launched into a rehearsed soliloquy about how loving and supportive my father was: how he built me a tree house from scraps when I was seven, how he taught me to drive a stick at 12, how we shared a daily breakfast ritual during the school week.

It was while I was talking about our mutual love of fried eggs that I realized I was sobbing. The frozen recollections that I had impassively recounted myriad times in our lawyer’s office had somehow defrosted into clear and profound memories, and suddenly the emotions that I had been stifling for three years were streaming onto my face. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to flee from the courtroom.

The judge had us pause, handing me a tissue. As I wiped my eyes I noticed that the defendant’s attorney was crouched beside his client talking at him more animatedly than I had seen him all day. He kept looking over his shoulder at the jury, who were regarding me through collectively concerned eyes. When he put his hand up to indicate to the judge that he needed a few minutes, it suddenly hit me that the defense was going to settle.

Everything came into focus. I finally comprehended that the point of my testimony was not simply to tell stories about my father, but to humanize him in the eyes of the jury. What’s more, my participation was so much bigger than simply helping us win the case; it was helping my mom secure a future for what was left of our family. In other words, it was business for us, too.

And the mere fact that I had had this insight made me realize right then that I was an adult.