By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009
Turns out Washington isn't a bad place for 'em. Almost lost amid the news that former House majority leader Tom DeLay is going to be hoofing it on "Dancing With the Stars" was the intriguing tidbit that former New York Times plagiarist Jayson Blair is now a life coach . . . in suburban Ashburn.
Blair, now 33, has been trying quietly to rebuild his life in the Northern Virginia suburbs for the past four years. Given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in the days after the Times scandal in 2003, he first ran support groups for fellow sufferers and now works as a "certified life coach" for a well-known psychological practice in Loudoun County.
Blair scoffs at those who wonder whether the young man publicly vilified for plagiarizing stories in the Times while under the influence of drugs and alcohol can now help others.
"The notes in my inbox don't say, 'Oh, it makes no sense to be a life coach.' What they say instead is: 'Hey, look at your experiences. Maybe you can help me,' " Blair said.
Blair isn't the first to choose a safe spot in the Washington exurbs to make a new life after a bruising scandal. Monica Lewinsky confidante Linda Tripp, for example, retreated to chic Middleburg after that scandal died and runs a gift store there called the Christmas Sleigh. (She did not want to comment for this article.)
"I think that Washington, D.C., and Hollywood are the two places you can [rebuild your life] successfully," said Deborah Gore Dean, a Housing and Urban Development official during the Reagan years who has run an antiques store in Georgetown in the 17 years since her fraud conviction.
"Almost everywhere else, people remember every detail, every indiscretion," Gore said. "In Washington and Hollywood, people are constantly reinventing themselves. They have more than one life. People in Washington are pretty forgiving. They pretty much understand that these issues are" -- she paused -- "multifaceted."
Gene Grabowski, who specializes in crisis management for the public affairs firm Levick Strategic Communications in the District, said that second chances are possible if the public figure is appropriately remorseful, moves on quickly and seeks redemption -- for instance, Michael Vick being tutored in the error of his ways by animal rights activists.
"Washington is the home of the second act," Grabowski said.
Blair resigned from the paper in 2003 after an extensive Times investigation showed that he committed "journalistic fraud" by concocting incidents, making up quotes and claiming to be reporting from places he had never been. He apologized on national TV, wrote a book about his experiences called "Burning Down My Master's House," then retreated to his childhood home in Centreville. That's where the real process of rebuilding his life began, he says.
He struggled to find his way, living with his parents and making pocket change selling used books on the Internet. Ultimately, he started running support groups for others who suffered from bipolar disorder in Northern Virginia, including one in his parents' living room.
He was leading a support group that met at Ashburn Psychological Services over a year ago when his empathetic touch with patients attracted the attention of the clinic's founder, psychologist Michael Oberschneider.
Despite Blair's "colorful" past and history of substance abuse, Oberschneider said he encouraged him to get his life coaching certification, then gave him a job. Blair has about 25 clients he helps with career coaching and substance abuse counseling and works with the psychiatrists and psychologists on staff with patients who have more serious medical disorders.
"I knew I had to monitor him; there is no doubt about it," Oberschneider said. "I watched him very closely. But after a short time, he proved himself, and I trust him completely. Now that he's clean and sober, he's a different person."
Blair said he's been able to find a kind of fulfillment in helping others who, like him, suffer from psychiatric disorders. But it's bittersweet: He still grieves for his lost career and the role he had in destroying it.
"There is nothing I ever wanted to do other than be a journalist," Blair said. "From the point I was in junior high school, I fell in love with writing. There was nothing I ever thought about but writing. I thought nothing would give me the same pleasure."
He's not planning to join downtown Washington's political and media whirl any time soon.
Last weekend, he had dinner with friends at an Applebee's near his home and went to see a performance of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" by the Sterling Players.
"This is home," he said. "It's comfortable."