A few days ago Beth Karas, a legal reporter for CNN, interviewed me for an article she was writing about Stephen Glass, the serial fabulist whose story was turned into the film Shattered Glass.
For several years Glass has been trying to convince the California bar association that it should accept him into its ranks, and the matter has progressed all the way to the California Supreme Court. (Here’s a nice summation by Jack Shafer of how the case has developed.)
Karas wanted to talk because Glass wrote for me when I was an editor at George, and I subsequently wrote this short essay about the experience.
To really understand why the story of Steve Glass still causes such pain, you have to know that making up facts was only part of what Glass did to his colleagues. We opened ourselves to him, and in turn he probed our minds, pinpointing our vulnerabilities, our vanities, our prejudices. He exploited the worst in us and betrayed the best. And then he just vanished — until now. Now he’s back, promoting a tale of fall and redemption.
Promoting a tale of fall and redemption…. Those words remain almost exactly true; Glass is now telling the court that the reason he made up dozens of articles is because he wanted to impress his parents, who disapproved of him going into journalism.
“If [Glass' mother] was upset with you, she would stop speaking to you in the house, except for the most minute things,” he testified. During the freeze-outs, which could last weeks, she showered “over the top love” on his brother “so I could see what I was not getting.” His father would react in a manner Glass described as “rageful, stomping around, screaming and yelling.”
Glass’ parents declined to comment.
And because Glass was a nerd in school, things like this supposedly happened:
Classmates mocked him. During a health class focusing on the dangers of teenage pregnancy, the teacher “married” him to a classmate, and they were to jointly care for a doll. The girl was horrified, and she and her parents lobbied to have the marriage annulled.
Adam Penenberg, who first investigated Glass’s lies, is skeptical of Glass’ rehabilitation, and so am I.
(It’s important to note—I asked Karas to do this when quoting me, but she didn’t, how frustrating—that I haven’t seen Glass since 2003 or ’04, and I have absolutely no firsthand knowledge of his life since that time. He had written me a letter to ask if he could apologize to me in person. It happened to coincide with the publication of his dreadful novel.)
But reading that anecdote about the girl in school, I have this unpleasant sense of deja vu. Her parents lobbied to have the marriage annulled? I call bullshit; what kind of parents would do that? Like all of Glass’ stories, it’s possible. But it has exactly the color of all those invented stories from Glass’ pre-rehabilitation days.
And as for his family—well, look, I concede that something has to happen for a guy to turn out so f’ed up. Without question, Stephen is a very psychologically complicated guy. Maybe his parents did mess with his head. But still…his parents aren’t talking. I’d feel better if they were.
Ultimately, though, I go back to some Harvard book-learning on this one. As Donald Fleming, one of the members of my oral examination committee in graduate school, discussed with me, lawyers’ bar associations are simply guilds—trade organizations whose purpose is to elevate the profession (and its salaries), and protect consumers, by imposing some quality control. Some people get to be lawyers, some don’t.
If the California Bar Association can’t exclude someone who’s lied in public, in print, hundreds of times, who could it exclude?
In his article linked to above, Adam Penenberg makes a joke about Glass wanting to join one of the few professions as distrusted as journalism is. I’m not so cynical; the lawyers I know actually take this stuff pretty seriously. (An old friend of mine, for example, traveled from New York to Washington to dig up police records of an old traffic ticket he’d received for riding a motorcycle without a license so that he could file an accurate application for the bar. Of course, the DC police had lost the record.)
I don’t wish Stephen Glass harm; I hope his protestations of rehabilitation are true. But I don’t feel obligated to give him the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t see why the California bar should take a similar leap of faith.