Letters–On The Late Susan Decker And Domestic Violence In Our Community


Mary Schepisi art


My ex-wife, Susan Decker, passed away from cancer last week. She is survived by her parents, Wayne and Jane Decker, and our son, Aidan John McNarie, 13.  Some of you knew her personally.Some of you may not, but may know people who knew her, or someone who was involved in the struggle against domestic violence that occupied much of her professional life. If so, please feel free to share the story below:

Susan came with me to Hawaii 21 years ago, when we were a promising young “power couple”: I’d just gotten my PhD in English and had been hired by UH-Hilo, and she was a new-minted attorney. She got a job at the prosecutor’s office here, and got a quick lesson in racism and realpolitik, island-style: her boss there told her she needed to be “more Japanese,” and her brash, direct style didn’t set well with the local bureaucrats and secretaries. I well remember going to Christmas parties at the prosecutor’s office where de facto segregation was the unspoken norm: in one room would be gathered attorneys with Japanese last names and a few token Caucasians (usually with Japanese-American spouses), while in another room, a smaller group would collect consisting of everyone else: Portuguese, Hawaiians, women…. Of course, Susan didn’t last there. So she opened her own law office.

Meanwhile, over at the university, I wasn’t doing much better. For the first time in my life, I was getting bad reviews from my superiors on my teaching. But I kept at it for five years, because Susan and I had both fallen in love with this island and its people and I wanted to give her time for her law office to get established. When the handwriting on the wall at the university was clear, I made an agreement with Susan that I would work half-time as a paralegal at her independent law office and spend the other half on my writing.

Susan had decided to specialize in family law, especially family violence cases: a branch of law for which, unfortunately, there was an enormous, urgent need on this island. I’d already become aware of that need when I was a professor; I’d had to deal with students who couldn’t complete their assignments on time because their significant others had come home drunk and forced the family to flee the house. And I’d seen it first-hand as well; at the first apartment we’d rented in Hilo, the woman next door would go into screaming rages at least twice a week and start throwing dishes at her spouse; we could hear the impact of them shattering against the walls. At the next house where we lived, I was home writing one day when I heard shouting; looked out the window and saw a man drag his spouse from their pickup truck, knock her to the ground and begin kicking her while their young son ran away down the street. I called the police. An officer didn’t arrive until a half-hour later, when the incident was already over. He went up and knocked on the door; the abuser answered and spoke briefly with the officer, who then left without ever seeing the victim.

I’ve never seen a robbery, a burglary, a car theft or a murder. But over the course of my lifetime, I’ve personally witnessed at least six cases of domestic assault.

I quickly found out that my job at Susan’s law office could not be done half-time. There was always an affidavit to fill out or an emergency restraining order to file, and had to be done right, and done now, because somebody’s life was potentially at stake. I became very good at helping battered clients tell their stories to the court through affidavits. I never became good at some of the other skills required by the profession. But they all had to be done. We’d spend 8-12 hours a day at the office, and then go home, where I’d work until 3 or 4 a.m. on my writing.

The stories that had to be told in those affidavits were often horrifying. I documented the sodomizing of children and the breaking of women’s bones. Sometimes, after recording a particularly gruesome affidavit, I’d have to go out on the lanai of the law office building and mentally put myself back together. And even as those affidavits were filed, those stories were still going on. Abusers did not let go of their victims easily; they continued to mess with their spouses all through the divorce process, and even afterward. And some of the local attorneys, unfortunately, were gleeful participants, prolonging the fights and milking both parties for every penny of their assets.

Susan wasn’t anywhere near the top of her class in law school, but she plunged into the war against domestic violence with everything she had. We lost some heartbreaking cases, but we also won some: we extracted children from the clutches of a stepfather who’d been “sharing” them with other pedophiles, and helped a woman recover a daughter from an ex who’d fled the state with her, and helped many women to just get out of nightmarish situations. Sometimes those women got involved with other abusers; old mental habits are hard to break. Sometimes the abusers continued to stalk their exes. Sometimes, after the divorce, the abuser would charm his (or her; abuse isn’t always a male thing) way back into his ex’s life, and the whole thing would start again. But every once in a while, everything would go right, and the circle of abuse was broken. We couldn’t win the war, but every once in a while we could help an individual to escape it.

Unfortunately, those most in need of help were often the least able to pay, and Susan ran her law office more like a crusade than a business. The war eventually claimed nearly everything we had. The law office went broke. We lost our house to the bank. I suffered a physical breakdown (I’m glad it wasn’t mental as well). And the stress of fighting a war that could not be won, but was so important that it demanded everything be subordinated to it, finally claimed our marriage as well. Susan returned to the mainland with our infant son, leaving me here to liquidate our remaining assets. I’m still attempting to pay off some of the debts left from those years.

On the mainland, Susan opened another personal practice specializing in family law. She kept at it until bone cancer force her to stop.

The monster that she fought so valiantly is still out there.

Alan McNarie

15 replies
  1. Rod Thompson
    Rod Thompson says:

    Alan and Tiffany, thank you. I barely knew Susan, but I’m biting my lips to keep from crying.

  2. Casual Observer
    Casual Observer says:

    A.M. Your heavy heart comes through in this post and in all of your writings. You are a gift to the Big Island brother. May the sun shine on your face again.

  3. Russell Ruderman
    Russell Ruderman says:

    A warm, touching story. Thanks for sharing it, Alan. We still struggle to get a response to even the most urgent domestic violence cases. It’s a disgrace that they are given such a low priority by law enforcement community.

  4. hpp
    hpp says:

    It can be hard Alan, I’ve inteviened on several women’s behalf on the island and it is hard. I have a favorite anti-violence video Never Again…

  5. Don O'Reilly
    Don O'Reilly says:

    So sorry to hear this Alan, sincere condolences.

    Though I did not know Susan well, I remember her as a kind person with a sharp sense of humor. In the work I did for your office, I had no idea of the aspect or intensity of your cases.

    A brave woman with a dedication to justice, I’m sure many will remember her with a deep sense of honor and appreciation.

    Aloha, D.O.

  6. Doc
    Doc says:

    So sorry for you loss and sacrifices, Alan. The world needs more champions, not less.
    I’m glad that you and Aidan will have the chance to make each other smile again.

  7. John Burnett
    John Burnett says:

    Alan, a heartbreaking story told superbly, with passion and compassion. Your remembrance of Susan and tribute to her underscores that domestic violence has consequences for all, not just the victims and abusers.

    I am so sorry about Susan’s passing, and my heart goes out to you and Aidan. It seems he was born just yesterday, and now he has to face life without a mom at a difficult age for even the most blessed among us.

    I will never be able to adequately thank you for all you’ve done for me — as a teacher, a mentor, a friend, and a champion of my writing.

    I’m a better person for knowing you and you are in my heart, always.

    Me ke aloha pumehana, John

  8. a friend in need
    a friend in need says:

    Alan… i was fortunate to meet you and Susan when she first opened her law office. It was a pleasure doing free lance work for her. My sympathy to you and your son… May she rest in peace….

  9. Graham Ellis
    Graham Ellis says:

    thanks for sharing your inspirational story and introducing Susan to me.
    Your positive impact on Big island life has been profound. I feel fortunate to know you.
    write on

  10. Toni
    Toni says:

    Aloha Alan, Please accept our deepest sympathies…my husband and I knew Susan by doing her nails every two weeks for a little while. We came to your beautiful home in Volcano when you got your border collie…I can still remember how excited Susan was to find just the right one.

    Susan was a fun straightforward no nonsense woman and we enjoyed her company.

    Please know we will lift you and your son in prayer at this time.

  11. Barbara Heavens
    Barbara Heavens says:

    How unfair life can repeatedly be for some people! My condolences to you and I sincerely hope you will find some sunshine in your lives on a difficult path ahead.

  12. Alan McNarie
    Alan McNarie says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your kind and heartfelt responses. Susan had been away from this community for a dozen years, now, and it’s good to know that so many remember her.

  13. rich peterson
    rich peterson says:

    Alan, I’m very saddened to learn of Susan’s passing. Thank you for sharing your wonderful and moving tribute and story. My thoughts and prayers are with you and Aidan.

    Susan was a fine lawyer who had a positive and significant impact on the lives of many, many people who were facing difficult problems and in need of good legal counsel. I have always had a great deal of respect, both personally and professionally, for Susan. We battled a few times, but I always think fondly of Susan. She was special.


  14. Go Lakers
    Go Lakers says:

    The cases of physical violence are not taken seriously by our law enforcement and legal community and courts.

    There is no pro-active process to prevent, for example the Mooheau Bus Stop continued problems (right next to a police sub-station I might add), and when perpetrators are investigated and charged, no tough sentencing guidelines to protect the community and set an example.

    I never met Susan but can respect all the thankless and volunteer like type work she was doing to protect women and families. This family law type of work is truly a calling.

  15. Naomi
    Naomi says:

    I came across this website because I have come to a place in my life where I have over came and broke that abusive cycle. My mother was killed by my father when I was 17 years old and she left behind myself, my sister was 16 years, my brother 5 years, and my baby brother 3 years old at that time. I eventually cell on the abusive cycle and was with an abuser in all aspects mentally, physically, emotionally, verbal, and sexual abuse! I was with him for 7 years and had three daughters with him. 3 years ago I finally had enough and some how fought my way out and away from that abusive relationship even 3 years later he still tries every way possible to abuse especially legally. I just wanted to share that these advisers don’t stop, but it is possible to free yourself and start living again! I hope these reaches or helps someone. Don’t wait till its to late, your life and your children’s life are important and you CAN have a better life! The first few steps are hard but in the end it’s all worth it! GOD BLESS you whomever may be on this journey 🙂

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