For several years, the case of Stephen Glass has fascinated me. Even before the excellent film Shattered Glass, I had followed the story of the serial fabulist, who fabricated dozens of stories for The New Republic and other magazines, and who then tried to cash in on his notoriety with a novel called The Fabulist, a thinly-disguised fictionalization of his own antics. When that failed, Glass decided to pursue a career as an attorney, but found that the state of New York took the requirement for honesty and integrity for admission to the bar a bit too seriously for him to qualify. He headed to California, and the state Supreme Court will mull over his request for admission to the bar there.
The New York Times’ Joe Nocera says we should all cut the kid a break:
But the record that was assembled during the first judicial proceeding, which took place in the spring of 2010, sends a powerful, and even uplifting, message about how a troubled soul can turn his life around. Enrolled in Georgetown University Law Center when the scandal broke, Glass was unhireable as a lawyer when he got his degree. A sympathetic professor, Susan Low Bloch, helped him land a clerkship with a District of Columbia judge. Then he moved to New York where he passed the bar but withdrew his application when he learned he was going to be turned down. To support himself, he wrote a fictional account of his misdeeds. He underwent intensive psychotherapy and sought out those whom he had wronged to apologize. He fell in love, moved with her to California and took — and passed — the California Bar exam. …
In all, 22 witnesses testified to Glass’s good character, including Professor Bloch, the judge he had clerked for and, most remarkably, Martin Peretz, who was the sole owner of The New Republic when Glass fabricated his stories and was deeply embarrassed by the scandal. “I always thought redemption was within his means because he was fundamentally a good kid,” Peretz told me. …
We like to tell ourselves that we believe in the power of redemption. People can make mistakes — even big mistakes — and, in time, recover from them. Stephen Glass is someone who made a big mistake. The infamy of his misdeeds will follow him forever. But if anyone can be said to have redeemed himself by his subsequent actions, it is Glass.
I believe in the possibility of redemption, especially as a person of faith. If I didn’t believe people could change and redeem their past mistakes, I would despair for myself and everyone I know; none of us are perfect or free from stain. However, I’m not so sure that a pathological liar can change his stripes quite so easily, and it’s certainly a good question for the Supreme Court to consider in this case. For instance, let’s return to The Fabulist for a moment, a novel that flopped despite Glass’ notorious reputation, or perhaps because of it. Book critic John Moe ripped Glass for not getting the point in a review published by Amazon as the sales lead for the novel:
The Fabulist is a mostly an empty exercise, devoid of strong characters, compelling action, or, finally, a reason to exist. Glass told lies, got caught, got fired, and then wrote a book about it. Why should we care? While interesting possibilities surely existed in tracing the arc of a career of fakery, Glass chooses instead to begin his story just as “Stephen” is being exposed for the first time. He fills the rest of the book by taking us through the character’s dull and lengthy process of recovery as he seeks sanctuary with his parents, changes girlfriends, finds a new job and a new apartment, and avoids the spotlight of his scandal.
The Fabulist is populated with characters seemingly pulled from the scrap heap of numerous failed sitcoms: the Egotistical Boss, the Girlfriend Who Doesn’t Understand, the Pushy Older Jewish Lady with a Single Granddaughter, and the Comically Mysterious Co-workers. Many of the characters are reportedly based on real people and are portrayed, disappointingly, as jerks and fools more deserving of derision than apology. Perhaps the most distressing part of The Fabulist is that there’s no heart and no center. The central character, the only hero we are offered, never seems to understand who he is. He lies, those lies get him in trouble, he searches for an explanation or redemption for his actions, but neither he nor we ever understand what is to be gained from it all.
The Fabulist was published five years after Glass’ exposure as a serial fabricator, which gives some indication that whatever remorse or reform Glass experienced was quite a long time coming. Jack Shafer can’t believe that anyone would consider admitting someone with Glass’ record to the bar in any state, especially since the application relied heavily on casting Glass as a victim of parental mismanagement:
Glass’s lawyers give his updated side of the story in a September 2011 filing, insisting that their client’s youth at the time of the original scandal should mitigate in favor of his rehabilitation. On this note, a Glass psychiatrist maintains that his patient suffered from arrested development prior to therapy. Witnesses aplenty testified to his moral fitness to work as an attorney, the pleading states, and substantial time has passed since the fabrications, during which Glass has confessed to his wrongdoing on national television (a 2003 60 Minutes segment, in which he promoted his novel) and has repeatedly stated that his journalism is not to be trusted.
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. How many people would make the sort of confessions and excuses that Glass does in this case, just to gain admittance to the bar? Take for example, the passage in Judge Honn’s decision, in which he recounts another high school humiliation of Glass. In a footnote, Honn wrote:
As an example, applicant took a family life class in high school where the boys and girls were paired and assigned to be a “husband” and “wife” to study the development of an egg into a baby. Applicant’s partner was distressed to be assigned to applicant, and she complained to her parents, who in turn, complained to the teacher. The next day, the teacher continued the theme by having the marriage “annulled.” As one would imagine, this caused applicant to be ashamed and humiliated.
I don’t know what’s worse—that Glass’s side introduced these “facts” to create sympathy for him or that the judge appears to have bought them. As high school humiliations go, annulments of family life class marriages rate pretty low. Yet this isn’t the lowest grab for sympathy recorded in the court documents. In another footnote to his decision, Judge Honn writes:
Although applicant has recently established a relationship with his parents by setting boundaries in their interactions, his brother has had more difficulty doing so. In fact, despite his brother having a wife and two-year-old twins, his parents have not actually seen the grandchildren for more than approximately ten hours.
What sort of person would enlist the story of his brother’s estrangement from their parents as legal leverage in a civil proceeding? …
If it weren’t for the paper trail, this decade-long struggle to become an attorney, with all of its emotional striptease and maudlin confessions, might be mistaken for one more Stephen Glass fabrication. Maybe, when it’s all over, he’ll write about that.
Glass has an impressive character witness in Martin Peretz, the publisher of TNR, who suffered the most damage from Glass’ fabrications and who can rightly be called the most victimized single person in the scandal. However, close behind that would be Glass’ former editor, Charles Lane (now of the Washington Post), who explained that Glass’ fabrications went far beyond the page itself:
Lane joked that people have always wondered which profession has lower ethical standards – law or journalism – and the Supreme Court is set to determine the answer when they hear Glass’ case. The court is basically in a position to figure out when Glass, a person who used to do nothing but lie, stopped lying, Lane said.
“My reaction was, ‘I can’t believe after 13 years this is all still going on,'” Lane said. “It’s an incredible saga.”
There has been a long list of character witnesses who’ve come forward on Glass’ behalf and testified that he’s a changed man who is now honest and straightforward, including two law professors and the owner of The New Republic.
Lane said that Glass’ whole way of life was false, and to really be an honest person he would have had to completely reconstruct himself.
He pointed out that Glass has never come completely clean about the total number of fabrications and lies he told at The New Republic and has minimized the extent of his deceptions in applying to the California Bar, a detail that was cited by a dissenting judge in the California State Bar case.
In the full interview, Lane says he’s not surprised to see character witnesses now support Glass, but says they’re saying the very same things he and his TNR colleagues would have said about Glass before his exposure.
Could Glass have found redemption? It’s entirely possible. Has he? Others will know that more than I would, of course, but the record here doesn’t look promising. Nocera says that the court shouldn’t destroy the rest of his life. However, there are plenty of professions that Glass could have chosen that require less risk and trust than as a practicing attorney, and if the court doesn’t admit him to the bar, Glass will have plenty of opportunities to choose one.