Famous untruth-teller Stephen Glass is in the news again, this time via a prolonged court fight to get himself admitted to the California bar. In any saga about Glass, the trick is to find the truth. Herewith nine truths:
1) With New Year’s Eve coming right up, Stephen Glass makes for excellent cocktail chatter. First, there’s a quest: Glass in 2002 sought admission to the New York Bar but later withdrew his application when it became clear that it would be rejected on moral fitness grounds. He moved to California and tried again, passing that state’s bar exam in 2007. Two years later, the California Committee of Bar Examiners turned down his application on moral grounds. Since then, some ups and downs: Glass appealed the committee’s decision and won; the committee appealed that decision and, again, Glass won; now the committee has asked for a review by the State Supreme Court, a review that has been granted and should take place in the near future.
Second, there’s a history. Glass is the man who wrote fabrications in more than 40 articles in the mid- to late 1990s for various publications, mostly the New Republic. The commission of those fabrications, their unveiling, and Glass’s initial attempts to cover them up have given us some stunning media accounts, a movie, and now court proceedings that have gone into overtime.
Third, there are documents. Revealing documents, too. In one of them, a judge who sides with Glass notes that his parents were very strict, to the point of organizing the refrigerator just so: “apples on the left and oranges on the right.” The Glass children were prohibited to open the refrigerator.
2) Big-timers are already arguing about Glass’s fitness for lawyerdom. Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer wrote a few weeks ago: “Even if you’re supportive of Glass’s legal quest — as you might have guessed, I’m not — the unsealed documents sketch a cringeworthy picture of him.” New York Times columnist Joe Nocera this week spat at Shafer’s thoughts:
Jack Shafer, the media critic for Reuters, wrote a scathing article about Glass’s effort to become a lawyer, which essentially accused him of being a whiny excuse-maker — just like he was back then. To my mind, that’s a serious misreading of the testimony, in which Glass seems to go out of his way to not make excuses for what he did.
3) We don’t need Jack Shafer to accuse Stephen Glass of being a “whiny excuse-maker.” The court record speaks clearly on that matter. The Aug. 19, 2010, opinion of State Bar Court Judge Richard A. Honn should encourage anyone looking to excuse a history of wrongdoing. Honn sinks an untold number of words into swallowing Glass’s sob story — namely, that the demands and expectations placed upon him by his parents set him up to go to extreme lengths to please them. Hence the fabrications.
The judge’s indulgence of the family-background defense leads to the inclusion of facts that have caused embarrassment to court filings throughout the land. There’s a discussion of how the Glass parents paid for a tutor to assist young Stephen in rope climbing, one of his scholastic weaknesses; how young Stephen endured the humiliation of an annulment of his “marriage” to a female classmate in a family-life skills class; and how his brother had to undergo therapy on account of the ’rents.
Yet none of those items qualifies as the document’s OMG moment. That would be when Honn credits Glass for seeking out therapy with some established psychiatrists, including UCLA psychiatrist Richard Friedman. From the text: “Dr. Friedman treated applicant based on a diagnosis that, at the time of the conduct, he was a young man who was working through adolescent issues that had never really been resolved during childhood. . . . While Dr. Friedman recognized that maturity is a slow process that continues throughout life, he was satisfied that applicant had dramatically developed from his prior immaturity to a far more stable and thoughtful adult.”
And to those thoughts, the judge attached a footnote:
“Dr. Friedman noted that ‘adolescence begins at puberty, grows, and is terminated by death.’ ”
So we’re all juvies in the eyes of the law.
4) “Timely” works poorly as an adverb. Here’s a little outtake from a brief submitted by the anti-Glass Committee of Bar Examiners.
Applicant’s Level Of Productivity During The Time He Claims Emotional Distress Belies His Assertion That He Was Unable To Timely Atone For His Conduct.
Gross usage there, though one authority insists that “to timely atone” violates no rule in the English language.
5) References stink. Never place too much trust in the words of references — whether the reference is for a job applicant or a bar applicant. Those people are often beholden to the applicant in ways that keep important details out of the discussion.
Yet Glass’s bar application rests on 22 such references. Whether the person is a colleague or a former editor or a psychiatrist, their comments have the same adulatory sheen that I’ve read many times in job references. Honn appears to attached a high level of credibility to this vein of testimony. His decision made a special mention of an anecdote relayed by Glass’s “life partner,” Julie Hilden. Here it is:
She commented that on an occasion they had been given too much change from a purchase. Immediately upon this discovery, and, despite having driven some distance down the road, [Glass] insisted that they turn around to return to the store to give them back the overage.
That settles it.
6) Glass’s parents get jobbed. Judicial proceedings are quirky things. One side presents its witnesses, the opposing side does likewise. Sometimes valuable perspectives get left out of the court documents — in this case, that of Glass’s parents, those control-freaky creators of an approval-crazy young adult who can’t possibly be held responsible for his actions between the ages of 22 and 25. A fair-minded reader of the court file, however, can easily sketch out a parenting counternarrative to the charges that Glass has leveled against his folks. Here are a few attempts:
Glass charge: Parents forbade refrigerator access to children.
Possible parental rebuttal: We’re visionaries. We saw the child obesity epidemic long before anyone else did.
Glass charge: He was “overwhelmed” by pressure to attend a top-flight college.
Possible parental rebuttal: Guilty — we always wanted the best for our kids. Stephen is now making good money working at a law firm.
Glass charge: Parents were so insistent on excellence that they hired a tutor to address his deficiencies in rope climbing.
Possible parental rebuttal: Our child was suffering ridicule for his inability to get to the top. So we tried to remedy the situation.
Glass charge: Parents tried to get him to fit in by consuming alcohol and dating girls.
Possible parental rebuttal: We told Stephen that he could consume alcohol in moderation, provided that he didn’t drive afterwards. As for encouraging him to date girls, what’s the issue here?
7) Martin Peretz will say anything. Some pretty sturdy conventional wisdom holds that a mammoth fabrication scandal damages a publication. Credibility takes a hit; recruitment suffers; so on. Yet in testifying in favor of Glass’s admission to the California bar, Peretz, the longtime owner-cum-loss-payor of the New Republic, had this to say about Glass’s legacy:
I actually think that the scandal reawakened people to the existence of The New Republic, and the movie probably helped our circulation. I mean, I’m not proud of that, but there it is.
8) Tough-childhood argument cuts both ways. The Committee of Bar Examiners argues that Glass didn’t just ditch a life of prevarication when he was outed in 1998. On the contrary, says the bar, he held out for 11 years before surrendering a full account of his bad works. Only under the rigor of the 2009 California bar process did he come clean about all of his fabrications. Well, California bar, what do you expect of someone who suffered such a childhood?
9) Glass knows distinctions. In his testimony, Glass was careful to make the following point:
It can be easy to misunderstand me and think that, when I talk about my parents and the family dynamics that occurred, that in some way I am blaming my parents or saying my parents are at fault for what I did wrong. I feel that zero percent. My parents are complicated people who I think were trying to do really well, and did well in many, many ways, and incredibly generous. I think we had a very problematic family in lots of ways, but I take ownership of that.
So, when I talk about this, I think it’s important that I’m saying it to help explain, but not in any way as an excuse.