Eminentoes

Absolutely Fabulist

Stephen Glass is back, with a new bandwagon of defenders.

By 12.28.11

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Applying to the bar is very difficult, but New York Times columnist Joe Nocera would have you believe that it should be a cinch for a recovering pathological liar. He writes that Stephen Glass, who had fully or partially fabricated anywhere from 35 to 50 articles for the New Republic, Harper's, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere, has had a hell of a time trying to become a lawyer on account of the scandal. California's Committee of Bar Examiners has rejected his application, a decision which was overturned by the State Bar Court, and which is now heading to the state's Supreme Court.

But should the rest of his life also be destroyed? That, apparently, is the view of the Committee of Bar Examiners, which vets bar applicants for the State Bar of California. Given how Glass has turned his life around (more about that in a minute), it is a little hard to understand its resistance. So far, the committee has lost in two separate judicial proceedings, but it continues to press on, making this last-ditch appeal to the California State Supreme Court.…

The line, "But should the rest of his life also be destroyed?" betrays too much hyperbolic self-absorption to be taken seriously. There are a number of livelihoods Glass can pursue without a license, ones that won't become a joke because of his participation. The California legal system has more to lose than he does.

Besides, the California State Bar hasn't set fire to Glass's house or maimed his dog, but rather upheld its own ethical standard. And how is this a surprise? When enrolling in law school, students are prepared not only to pass the bar, but to expect a rigorous moral and ethical examination from the state bar. Suffice to say, lying is a big no-no. That Glass would push on with his law degree so that he still might take the bar tells us something about Glass's moxy.

Nocera buys in fully, summarizing Glass's road to redemption as sign enough that he's done his penance:

…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.

Not only did Glass press on, by the way, but he also appealed when California rejected his bar application, enlisting 22 witnesses:

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.

His prodigious, phoenix-like success and his ensuing battle is reminiscent of the first go-round. Glass hasn't lost his touch. He is still capable of recruiting sympathizers who will argue on his behalf. In so doing, these people turn a blind eye to the many questions that would naturally arise when dealing with someone deserving greater scrutiny.

There's nothing remarkable about Glass finding character witnesses. He has always found ways to hide behind others. Recall that when Glass was first exposed, it wasn't by his friends at the New Republic, but rather by an online Forbes publication. Distance from Glass's charms appears to be the only way to see through the smoke and mirrors. (Peretz, on the other hand, still infantilizes him with the words "a good kid.")

Richard Blow, who had edited Glass's faked stories for George magazine, recounts times he stood by his friend "Steve" as editors questioned the material. Others would similarly stand up for him. As Blow wrote in Salon:

Steve was a delight to edit. I'd call him about a manuscript, and as soon as I said hello he'd blurt, "You hate it, don't you? It's terrible, I know. I'm so sorry. I know. It's awful. Just kill it. Really. I won't mind."

He was disarming, like a little kid who's pissed off at himself; you couldn't help reaching out, reassuring him that everything would be OK. "Steve, it's great," I'd say. "It just needs a little tweaking."

"You really like it?" he would ask, his voice brightening. "Really?

So it was that the "disarming little kid" would skate past scrutiny by playing on the sympathies of his colleagues.

If Peretz finds Glass sufficiently reformed, will he offer Glass another opportunity to publish in his magazine regularly? Is he confident that something Glass wrote could be published without a thorough review? Would Jeffrey Rosen (TNR's legal affairs columnist) be comfortable sharing a blog with Glass?

It depends on how willing they are to look at the details. Peretz is a busy guy, and he might not have examined the full record of Glass's past decade. Perhaps if Peretz had read Glass's book, The Fabulist, he might have hesitated.

The fictional account of the scandal allows Glass to do the thing he's always done. Hanna Rosin, once a close friend of Glass, was struck by how his deception seeped into the narrative. When The Fabulist was published in 2003, Rosin noticed that while the author felt bad about lying to his friends, he described them as unsavory characters anyway:

Our hero, meanwhile, is a soul repentant. He is humble, contrite. He is sad and afraid. He sweats, he shakes, he is haunted by night terrors. And he's also a few shades hipper than the original: Rather than going to law school, as Glass did in real life, he works in a video store, goes to strip clubs and Vietnamese massage parlors -- and always gets his girl after the first date.

In a way we are lucky Steve wrote this book as fiction. With a memoir, he might have strived for a coherent mea culpa. Here we have his imagination unfettered, his true fantasy of how things might have been.

The release of the book, by the way, neatly coincided with the movie that portrayed him negatively (and accurately) as the inveterate liar he was. In the communications world, this is a common technique. By turning negative news about you into an opportunity, you create a soapbox to "tell your side of the story." Glass surely felt it was necessary given the damning account in the movie.

Her husband, David Plotz, pointed out that the problem with Hayden Christensen's portrayal of Glass in the movie Shattered Glass was that Glass was eminently more charming in real life:

Our Steve was a lovely, winning, hilarious, endearing person. Christensen's Steve is not. He's got all the Glass tics -- the endless apologies, the constant helpfulness, the excessive ingratiation -- but while Steve made them endearing, Christensen makes them only creepy. Our Steve rubbed off on all of us, made us think that life could be luscious and fun. We loved Steve, but this cinematic Steve seems too weird to love. He doesn't have enough magic.…

Here is a more troubling thought: Maybe Shattered Glass is right, and my memory has deceived me. Maybe this Steve is the real one. Maybe Steve was creepy in his insecurity; maybe he was constantly manipulating us emotionally, and maybe we were too stupid to notice. Maybe what I remember as his charm would seem noxious to me today. I don't know. I prefer my memory-bank Steve: It makes me feel slightly less a dupe.

This is reminiscent of Shakespeare's tragedy Othello, in which the villain Iago banks on his charm and wit to infect the minds of his clueless companions with lies: "When devils will the blackest sins put on/ They do suggest at first with heavenly shows/ As I do now." Glass's infecting charm was just that: Infecting. And Rosin and Plotz aren't the only two people to sniff out the fraud in Glass's fiction. Even Amazon.com's review of the book catches the flatness of the characters:

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.

Rosin points to how easily (and frequently) he apologized for matters both small and large, so as to remain in the good graces of his company -- or, as could now be the case, to ensure his own advance.

The New York State Bar heard those apologies and remained unconvinced. Later, the apologies also failed when presented to the California State Bar, for reasons that Jack Shafer smartly examines:

According to the committee, Glass didn't begin writing most of his 100-plus letters of apology until after he graduated from law school, with most of the letters sent between 2001 and 2004, and as earlier noted, he waited until 2009 -- 11 years -- before compiling his complete list of fabricated articles "and only then in connection with these moral character proceedings," the committee writes. "[T]he full list of fabrications was only compiled when it suited him, and not when it was most needed by his victims." (The official list now contains 35 New Republic pieces, one at Harper's, one at Policy Review, two at Rolling Stone, and three at George.)

The committee also noted that he made $193,000 on his book, and that he did not compensate those he defrauded (TNR paid him to write truthful articles, he furnished them with false ones). 

But maybe that's not necessary, because we're all thinking in this forward frame of mind, right? Glass has changed, or so he claims, so we should look at how (as Nocera puts it) he's turned his life around.

But if we are to move forward, why does Glass dedicate such an immense volume of his testimony on his past? He turns to blaming his parents, whom he describes as controlling and vindictive, as they applied pressure for him to go to medical school. He cites the rejection of his childhood classmates. No slight in his past is left untouched, revealing that Glass is still hoping to distract you from his shortcomings by portraying himself as a victim. Classic.

The Times's Nocera claims that viewing these anecdotes as "excuses" (as Shafer does) is a "serious misreading" of Glass's testimony, because Glass "seems to go out of his way to not make excuses for what he did." But even if these aren't excuses and merely biographical points explaining how Glass disgraced himself, one must wrestle with the fact that Glass has been the compulsive liar and abused child-victim of his parents for longer than he's been the penitent law clerk.

Addicts like this are never actually cured, they're just recovering. When Nocera writes "People who know him tell me that he is 'relentlessly honest.' Having once been a pathological liar, he now won't tell even the tiniest of white lies," it sounds like the description of the recovering alcoholic who lacks the self-control to stop drinking once he starts. Should California tell potential clients that they can trust someone so publicly standing on that rain-slick precipice?

That it took until only two years ago for Glass to "fully" catalog his transgressions, and only as part of his effort to become an attorney, is damning. But what's even more damning is that Glass has found yet another area where he can cling to the status of victim, skate along the hard-earned reputations of others, and force a showdown, not about justice, but about himself.

This was as true 10 years ago as it is now. It almost makes you wonder about his author description for The Fabulist, which appears on Amazon: "Formerly a journalist, Stephen Glass is currently at work on his second novel." Yes, he sure is.

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About the Author

J.P. Freire is a writer in Washington and a former editor at the Washington Examiner and The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jpfreire.