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"I was stuck in a situation of chaos, going in circles," Choate says. "I'd get stronger, Millie would get weaker, then I'd fall down; it was a continual chase. And not being able to talk about it put me over the edge."
After a particularly nasty fight with Brown, Choate says, she tried to commit suicide. Santa Clara police officers were called to the New Savoy twice in one night after the bar had closed -- first by Brown, when Choate began cutting her arms again, and then later by Choate, when Brown began having chest pains that began, she claimed, after Choate chased her with a knife.
A few weeks later, Choate was still living with Brown and upset that her lover was going on a trip to Europe with her husband. Choate says she attempted suicide again, driving to Mission Beach near Carmel and swimming out into the ocean after ingesting a combination of pain killers and tequila. Choate held on to a kelp bed, hoping the waves would drown her. But, she says, she blacked out and was eventually washed ashore. She checked into a nearby hotel for the night and arrived home the next morning to discover Brown had indeed gone to Europe. But Brown left a note that said she hoped Choate felt "better and calmer," signing it "love, Millie." Choate says she snapped. She tore up photos of Bernard and Mildred on the refrigerator, grabbed a handgun she kept in her room, walked into the master bedroom and wrote in lipstick on the adjoining bathroom mirror, "Don't sleep in my bed." Then she shot the bed Mildred slept in with her husband, and secretly shared with Choate.
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Choate says she fired 10 rounds, put the gun in her mouth, and squeezed the trigger. There were no more bullets.
"All I had done my entire life was be self-destructive; I didn't know better. But now that I do, I won't be a silent victim anymore, and no one else should have to be, either," Choate says. "I loved Mildred and I was hurt by her. What makes me the angriest is that she continued to give therapy to people when she knows what damage she has done to me."
Choate's lawsuit alleges that Brown has been professionally negligent, inflicted emotional distress, and committed sexual battery, and seeks $2.5 million in damages. Brown and her husband have countersued, claiming it was Choate who inflicted the emotional distress by assaulting Mildred Brown, threatening both Mildred's and her husband's lives, and interfering with Dr. Brown's "prospective economic advantage" by telling other transsexual clients to stay away from her practice. Mildred Brown's attorney, Steven Fink, had no comment on the case, other than to say, "The proper place for the resolution of these issues is in the courts, not trial by unproven allegations in the media."
Bernard Brown's lawyer, Rick Pedersen, however, questions Choate's claims. "This case revolves around credibility," Pedersen says. "This person is a convicted felon who shot up the Browns' house. You have to view some of what she says with some degree of skepticism."
It is a fact that Choate pled guilty to the felony of discharging a firearm in an uninhabited dwelling in connection with the bed-shooting incident; she subsequently served eight months in the Elmwood Correctional Center for Women. The forensic psychologist who evaluated her for the court said in his report that Brown's misconduct contributed greatly to Choate's behavior. Choate, then in her 40s, had no history of violence or aggression, nor any propensity for it, the report said.
"The relationship between the professional boundary violation by Dr. Brown and Ms. Choate's offense is self-evident," psychologist Jules Burstein concluded. "But for the betrayal of trust by Dr. Brown -- the erosion of maintaining a professional role as a therapist by inviting Ms. Choate to... live in her house, and finally become her lover -- there would almost certainly be no offense."
Burstein ended his report with a scathing opinion: "I would say that this case is one of the most pernicious I've ever worked on. This is so because Ms. Choate began her therapy as an aspiring transsexual with Dr. Brown at a time when she was more emotionally vulnerable than ever before in her life, anticipating a surgery which would revolutionize her sense of self in largely unforeseeable ways. And it was precisely during this period that Dr. Brown violated her professional commitment to do no harm."
Burstein recommended that Choate receive probation, with this caveat: "Though Ms. Choate must bear responsibility for her actions, it is important that the court consider the malignant damage done to patients by therapists who exploit vulnerable patients for their own narcissistic motives."
Superior Court Judge James C. Emerson, however, sentenced Choate to a year in jail, later reduced for good behavior.
Choate's lead attorney, Linda Scaparotti, believes her client was open to abuse by Brown because of a phenomenon, known as transference, that commonly occurs during psychotherapy. That is, a patient who trusts her therapist may transfer feelings she had for significant people in her life -- such as a parent -- onto her therapist, in hopes of acting them out. "The appropriate therapist explores those feelings, and does not exploit them to fulfill her own needs," Scaparotti says. "Toni says Mildred wanted to be called 'mom'; how confusing then, if the mother wants a romantic, sexual relationship."