Magazine writer fired for fabricating stories in late '90s wants to be a lawyer
California Supreme Court will decide if Stephen Glass is morally fit to practice law
Court files paint compelling story of young man driven to please parents, peers
Attorney, friends, boss say he's changed; bar examiners, others not so sure
Stephen Glass, the whiz-kid magazine writer exposed 13 years ago as a serial fabricator, is telling what may be his most compelling story yet – his own. He swears he’s not making it up, and he’s asking California’s highest court to believe him and give him a chance.
Glass, who graduated in 2000 from Georgetown’s law school, works as a paralegal for a firm in Beverly Hills, California. But he really wants to be a lawyer, and he insists he’s remorseful, reformed and committed to telling the truth. Others aren’t so sure, which is why a bar application that usually would be a no-brainer is taking five years and counting.
There is no question that Glass is brilliant, and he easily passed the bar exams in New York and California. But his budding legal career has become snagged on the jagged rocks of good character and moral fitness.
The latest installment in the infamous fabulist’s saga is contained in a thick file at the California Supreme Court. Opened to the public late last month, it finally offers an explanation for why Glass once felt driven to publish lie after lie, and then lie some more to cover it all up. But this case also raises some difficult questions: Can he, should he be forgiven? Is his redemption even possible? Or, once a liar, always a liar?
“Maybe there are certain types of behavior you never get over,” said Arnold Siegel, an ethics professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. But, he added, “The Bar has a fairly compassionate view. They do believe in rehabilitation.”
Adam Penenberg, the writer who first outed Glass’ lies in 1998, took a more ironic view:
“When I first learned of Glass’ quest to join the legal profession, I thought, Christ, it’s been 13 years. And, since when does lying disqualify someone from being a lawyer? Let the guy earn a living,” he wrote for fastcompany.com. “Leave it to Glass to disgrace himself in one mistrusted profession only to apply to another.”
Lawyers and journalists aren’t highly regarded, although they usually rank a notch above lobbyists, members of Congress and used car salespeople in Gallup’s annual Honesty and Ethics survey. Nurses, teachers and doctors are considered the most trustworthy professionals. Glass’ father was a doctor, and his mother a nurse, and they didn’t think much of lawyers or journalists, which is a big part of his story.
Glass insists he has undergone a dramatic character change, even if he looks very much the same as he nears 40 as he did at 25 – wiry with short brown hair and glasses, the prototypical nerd. One of his psychiatrists explains that as an immature young man, Glass was so eager to succeed that his lying became compulsive, like a gambler’s high. He lied and lied and lied until he lost it all.
Glass and his supporters say he is now almost compulsive about the truth – to the point where he usually volunteers that he is that Stephen Glass, and even went back to a store to return excess change he’d been given.
But he shouldn’t be permitted to simply gloss over his past, Rachel Grunberg, associate counsel for the California State Bar, said in an interview with CNN. “Given the egregiousness of Glass’ past misconduct, that goes to the heart of what we look at – truthfulness, honesty, respect for others.”
Those aren’t traits magazine editor Richard Bradley associates with the Stephen Glass he knew in 1998. At least three of the pieces Glass wrote for him at George magazine contained fabrications, he told CNN. The bulk of Glass’ lies were concocted at The New Republic, a small but influential magazine, where he was unmasked as a serial faker and fired.
“Steve was figuring out people’s blind spots – their biases, prejudices – including myself. He wrote pieces that benefited him at the expense of those people,” said Bradley, now the editor-in-chief of Worth magazine. “I do forgive Steve, but being a lawyer is a privilege, not a right,” he added. “He can be a fully contributing, valuable member of society without being a lawyer.”
Glass withdrew his application to the New York State Bar in 2003, when it became obvious he would be turned down. He applied to the California Bar in 2005, after he moved to Los Angeles. The bar committee declined to find him morally fit to be a lawyer; Glass appealed and the State Bar Court sided with him last year. The California Supreme Court will have the final word, having added “In Re Glass on Admission” to its docket for 2012.
Everyone agrees that what Glass did in 1998 was inexcusable. But, as the State Bar Court points out, the past is not the issue: it’s Glass’ moral character today. The bar examiners – the lawyers who vet other lawyers – argue that Glass’ lies were so “staggering” he hasn’t done enough to demonstrate he has reformed.
“Going to law school and living a normal life isn’t enough,” Grunberg said.
If Glass “were to fabricate evidence in legal matters as readily and effectively as he falsified material for magazine articles, the harm to the public and the profession would be immeasurable,” observed State Bar Court Judge Catherine Purcell, dissenting from two other judges who found Glass morally fit to practice law.
Glass’ lawyer, Arthur Margolis, argues that his client has indeed changed and that the sins of a callow 25-year-old won’t be repeated: “He is now 39. The overwhelming evidence testifies to his maturation, reformation and rehabilitation over the past 13 years.”
Without a doubt, Glass knows how to tell a great story. His eye for whimsical detail and ear for the salient quote made him Washington’s journalistic darling. An internal investigation at The New Republic revealed that more than half of his stories had been fudged in some way – starting with a quote here and an anecdote there until entire stories were pure fiction. Even the notes, e-mail and voice mail messages that were supposed to back up his stories were faked.
Friends and colleagues felt betrayed by the amusing but insecure boy wonder. His dream profession – journalism – took a credibility hit, and Glass holed up in his apartment, cringing and crying as he was hounded by reporters who were like him in so many ways – except that they sought the truth: Why’d you do it, Steve?
Part One: The Failure
Glass didn’t really have an answer until now, and he says it took years of psychotherapy to find it. His quasi-autobiographical 2003 novel, “The Fabulist,” didn’t come close to telling the story the California Bar has heard.
He turned down CNN’s request for an interview. His past attempts to explain have been viewed by some as self-serving, and so he has little to gain and much to lose by speaking out as he awaits the court’s decision. Almost all of his supporters also declined to comment, as did one of his most vocal critics, Charles Lane, the former editor who investigated Glass’ lies at The New Republic.
Of those who know Glass, only Bradley and a former law school professor would talk to CNN; besides their words, we’re left with what was said in the court papers. The thick court file reveals that Glass has won over some very smart and accomplished people who initially doubted him but now can be counted among his closest friends.
They tell an inspiring story of failure, remorse and redemption, one that makes you want to believe there is good in everyone. But others who feel burned and betrayed by Glass – as well as those whose duty it is to protect the public – can’t help wonder whether the fabulist has told his last lie.
More than anything, Glass’ parents wanted him, their first-born son, to be a doctor, just like his father. “It was a moral calling in my family that one becomes a doctor,” he said at a bar hearing. But Glass wasn’t cut out for medicine. He fainted at the sight of blood. Dissecting animals made him squeamish. (He’s now a strict vegetarian.)
Growing up in Highland Park, an affluent suburb on Chicago’s North Shore, Glass was a standout student and a social dud. His mother kept a meticulous home. Beds were made with hospital corners and, as Glass told the court, “you could eat off the floors.” Food in the refrigerator was arranged just so – “apples on one side, oranges on the other” – and only his mother could open the refrigerator door.
But this orderly house was a pressure cooker. There were lots of rules and high expectations. As Glass’ lawyers noted, almost drolly: “The family members’ interactions with each other precluded dissent by the children.”
The parents grilled Stephen and his younger brother, Michael, on their studies, making them stand and recite answers. Stephen Glass recalled being “frozen out” by his mother when he disappointed her.
“If she 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.”
He was an anxious kid, eager to please but always seeming to fall short. He had frequent chest pains, caused by stress. Sometimes he’d double over in pain.
“It was apparent to everybody that I was just insanely worried about everything all the time,” he recalled.
He felt woefully inadequate and believed he was a failure as a son. At school, it wasn’t any better. He was a “nerd,” so bad in gym class that his parents hired a tutor to teach him how to climb a rope.
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.
He withdrew socially and sought the company of adults, eating lunch every day with his Spanish teacher. His parents worried that his lack of social skills would hurt his chances of getting into medical school.
“My dad would just say to me – it was in high school – ‘Why can’t you just hold a beer when you’re at a party? Like, I want you to, like, meet girls.’
The court heard only Glass’ version of his childhood. His parents and brother did not participate in the bar hearings. His psychiatrists say Glass has mended his relationship with his parents, but has set up “boundaries.” There was no response to messages left at his father’s medical offices.
Glass insists he’s not resorting to the abuse excuse.
“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,” he told the California Bar Court. “I feel that zero percent. My parents are complicated people. … So, when we talk about this, I think it’s important that I’m saying it to help explain, but not in any way as an excuse.”
Part Two: Shattered Glass
The chest pains intensified as Glass waited to hear whether he’d be accepted by his father’s alma mater. They immediately stopped when he learned he’d gotten in at the University of Pennsylvania – with a scholarship. He enrolled in the pre-med program but also joined the college newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, over his parents’ objections. They considered it “frivolous” and feared it would interfere with his studies.
Glass thrived at the paper, even as he flunked organic chemistry.
“This made my parents very, very, very angry. My father was rageful and my mother was freezing me out,” he recalled. The future they’d so carefully mapped out for their oldest son wasn’t going according to plan, and so a compromise was struck: Glass could go to law school – “a garbage profession” in his parents’ opinion – if he enrolled in a program that also gave him a medical degree.
He got into New York University but deferred enrolling to try his hand at Washington journalism. His parents considered it a “ridiculous” career move.
He joined The New Republic in 1995 as an intern and immediately felt at home with a group of people he genuinely liked being around. To Glass, the weekly editorial pitch meetings felt like “a family dinner.”
“You would go around the table and you would announce what stories you were working on, and these were jovial meetings,” he said. “There was a lot of energy and electricity in these meetings,” he added, calling them “the highlight of my entire week.”
He was thrilled “seeing all these people that I had been reading.” He desperately wanted them to like him.
Back at home, tensions between Glass and his parents came to a head during a Passover visit in the spring of 1996. He was proud of what he was doing and had given his parents a subscription to the magazine.
“They thought this was the stupidest thing in the world. They didn’t read my pieces,” he said. “They just thought this is folly.” He was “doing a bad job, poorly,” they scolded, and his mother added a dig: “Maybe at least you’re working on your social life.”
He took it hard: “I cried some, I know, and I had trouble sleeping, and I felt really distant from my family. I felt that I would not be a success in any way in their eyes unless I went to medical school and fulfilled those dreams and, you know, I knew that I was not suited for medical school.”
Not long after the Passover confrontation, Glass began fabricating articles.
“The Hall Monitor” included his first made-up quote – initially inserted as “a place holder,” he said. He kept the quote in the story and was praised for it. The boy who had learned to recite his lessons for his parents soon was the star of the weekly pitch meetings. He replaced the disapproval he received at home with the praise and popularity he found at work, where he was known as “The Hub” – always seeming to be at the center of office gossip.
His fabrications mushroomed. From July to December 1996, they were limited to a few fudged quotes or anecdotes. They increased through 1997. From that December until he was fired in May 1998, nearly every article Glass wrote either contained huge fabrications or were completely made up.
“I was very, very, very much wanted, and felt very powerfully the desire to please my parents, please my editors, and to succeed at this,” he said. He wanted the magazine staff to love him the way he felt his family did not.
One of his psychiatrists, Richard Rosenthal, told the bar that Glass’ relationship with his parents, “set the stage” for his “almost addictive need for approval and success.”
He compared Glass’ compulsive lying to behavior shown by gambling addicts: “They just want it to be over. They’re physically and emotionally exhausted, and they can’t lose it fast enough, they can’t stop, they’re just going through it as quickly as they can until there’s nothing left.”
When the lies were discovered, editor Charles Lane fired Glass.
“I was terrified and insane and anxious, and I saw my world collapsing around me. I thought that I would lose this entire family that I had built. I didn’t really have this family. I was lying to them all,” Glass recalled.
The court file lists his final accounting: 43 fabricated articles, 36 of them in The New Republic. The others were published by: George, 3; Rolling Stone, 2, and a single freelance piece in Policy Review.
He went home to his family a basket case. He talked of suicide, and his parents kept a close eye on him. And then they suggested his firing was “an opportunity to go to medical school.”
Part Three: Reinvention
Glass returned instead to Georgetown’s Law Center, where he had been taking classes at night. One of his professors, Susan Low Bloch, reached out to him.
“I realized there had been a Steve Glass in my class who had done very well, so I called him and asked, ‘Are you that Steve Glass who is in all the papers?’ ” she told CNN in a telephone interview. He said that he was, and she invited him to stop by for a talk. She saw him “as someone who just got in this whirlpool,” and so she offered him a hand.
“He was so remorseful and so devastated by this that it was worth my while to give him a chance to show me he could do legal research without embellishing it,” said Bloch, who had clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as a law student.
She hired Glass as her research assistant. But first she made him promise to be honest with her if he couldn’t find an answer “and not make something up just to please me.”
She never regretted taking a chance on Glass, and eventually came to trust him so much that she recommended him to two judges. She flew to California to vouch for him at his bar hearing.
“I take in stray cats, too,” Bloch told CNN. “I believe you don’t throw people out; you don’t toss them out as garbage because of a mistake.”
Julie Hilden also gambled on Stephen Glass. She had first seen him in the offices of Williams & Connolly, the prestigious Washington law firm where she worked for David Kendall, the civil lawyer for Bill and Hillary Clinton. It was 1998, the height of the scandal, and Glass was talking with his lawyer at the firm about how he could confirm his fabrications to the magazine without digging himself into a deeper legal hole. She walked in to get some papers signed for another case.
“I looked at him and I just went, ‘My God, this person is the most depressed person I’ve ever seen,’ ” she told the bar court.
Two years later, a mutual friend introduced them. She was skeptical, but they started dating, putting him “on probation.” If she sensed he was untrustworthy, she was gone. And then she says she “fell in love with him.”
In 2001, after she had moved to New York to pursue writing, Hilden woke up in a hospital emergency room and, she said, “He was instantly, immediately there.” He drove from Washington to New York every weekend during her seven tough months of recovery from colitis. “He put up with me even though I was not in a great mood because I was just dead sick,” Hilden told the court.
During early parts of their relationship, he seemed traumatized and insecure and often woke up with nightmares. He always seemed to be looking for affirmation, which she found “a bit irritating.”
Now, she says, he has matured and gained confidence, and she considers him her “life partner.” Their relationship wouldn’t have lasted if he were not “completely honest” with her, she said. “I feel completely committed to Steve.” They only reason they haven’t married is one of principle: There will be no wedding until their gay friends can also get married, she said.
When Hilden began dating Glass, one of her best friends was horrified. Melanie Thernstrom, a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, said she tried to talk her out of seeing him.
“As a journalist, I had very strong negative feelings about what he did, as the members of my community all did.” Thernstrom told the bar court. But he eventually won her over, too.
“Getting to know him, I went from horrified to skeptical, and then grudging, like, ‘Well, he seems nice but he probably isn’t, you know, deep down. Maybe it’s all an act.’ ” Over the years, she said, it slowly dawned on her that “he is really a wonderful person.”
She added, “This journey I took from horror to affirmation is one I saw every one of Julie’s friends go through over the years, and there is not a single friend of hers now who doesn’t feel the same way I do.”
She has so much trust in Glass that in 2009, she and her husband asked Hilden and Glass to be the godparents of their children, she said.
Glass has undergone extensive therapy – in Washington and New York, as well as in Los Angeles, where he still sees two therapists. He long ago ended his compulsive lying, they say, but he continues to work on rebuilding his life. As part of that process, he wrote his book and about 100 letters of apology to the people he harmed with his fabrications.
Bradley, who met Glass for coffee, forgives him for fudging at least three of the articles Bradley edited at George magazine. But because the apology letters came when Glass had a book coming out and was trying to gain admission to the New York Bar, Bradley considers them self-serving.
He told CNN he was disappointed.
“I wasn’t reassured. I wanted to be reassured,” he said. He wanted to hear a heartfelt apology. “There were things he could have done to show more genuine regret,” Bradley added. “He could have written a memoir, not a novel.”
Glass’ lawyers point out that if his motives were truly selfish, he would have sent a computer-generated mass mailing and kept copies. Instead, he wrote each letter out by hand, tailoring it to an individual. Friends who knew him at the time say it was exhausting and agonizing for him.
After Glass and Hilden moved to Los Angeles in 2004, he applied for jobs at law firms. One of his resumes crossed the desk of Paul Zuckerman, managing partner of a plaintiff’s litigation firm. He was impressed with the resume, but then he read the cover letter.
“I was familiar with the story. I knew who he was. And I kind of laughed to myself and promptly deleted his resume,” Zuckerman told the bar court.
But then he thought about his own struggle with alcohol, and how he’d come back from the brink.
“I sat there, which is unusual for me, to sit there and be reflective during the day. … I have been a liar in my life. I myself have had some problems and have had difficulties that I’ve overcome, and I’ve been given a very big second chance, and I thought that I was being incredibly judgmental …”
He invited Glass in for an interview.
“I called him mainly because I felt … it was wrong for me to be judgmental and to throw somebody away without ever having given them a chance or ever having talked to them,” Zuckerman said. Upon meeting Glass, he became convinced that he had gone through a genuine transformation. He could see the remorse in his eyes.
He hired Glass on the spot, but at first watched him closely.
“When I first hired him, there was no way I was giving him my Social Security number and my mother’s maiden name,” Zuckerman told the California Bar. “He can have that today.”
He advised Glass that his downfall ultimately would make him a better lawyer:
“I’ve always found brilliance untempered by failure is purely arrogance but brilliance that has overcome failure can be truly useful to your fellow man,” he said. He’s glad he opened his mind to Glass’ potential.
Those who saw the promise in a 25-year-old fabulist may still feel the sting of disappointment and betrayal. But for Zuckerman and others who believe in redemption, the latest story by Stephen Glass is nothing short of fabulous. It’s about a man transformed.
“I love having him at the office, because he is like my touchstone, my benchmark for honest and proper conduct. It’s like ‘What would Steve do?’ “
Editor’s note: Beth Karas, a correspondent at In Session on CNN’s sister network, truTV, is a former Manhattan prosecutor. She is an inactive member of the New York State Bar.