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from Part One: Downfall
A spectacular crash, I've learned, is the quickest way to incredible accomplishment. In the summer of 1998, when I was twenty-five years old and sure of where I was going in the world, I suddenly became both Washington's most disgraced journalist and its fastest-rising star. It actually happened in that order: fall first, rise second. After I fell, my preceding achievements were greatly overstated so that my plunge, as deep and as fast as it was, would make sense.
Although I have been given many opportunities to explain myself, I have never previously discussed the events of that summer. My decision to step away now from years of self-imposed silence has more to do with physical distance than the passage of time. Removed from Washington, I am for the first time less ashamed -- even less afraid.
Please don't misunderstand me: What I did was a terrible mistake -- a serious, damaging wrong -- and they are correct to say so. However, there are some individuals, journalists mainly, who think I should always be ashamed, and perhaps always afraid, too. Because they are liberals, and have faith in rehabilitation, they never speak of it that way, but I believe they feel it profoundly. They cannot understand how after violating all their rules, fair and important rules, I go on living among them. If I am not punished further, what good is the salutary order they have imposed?
Because I know of so many who feel this way, I am conscious that some of my colleagues and friends, present and former, will be suspicious of my motives in offering this account. They will see it as just one more lie; an eleventh-hour, last-gasp, back-from-the-dead effort to spin things my way again.
And, on one level, it is.
Nothing would make me so happy as your liking me once more. But I don't expect that. Not now, not after all that's happened. I can only tell my story and hope for the best.
Here are Allison and I, walking into our apartment, hand in hand. We're giggling, giddy, and pleased with the world. As usual, her pixie blond hair and gamine charm go straight to my heart: I can't believe how fortunate I am to be with her. Allison had me from our first kiss, maybe even from the first time I heard her slight Brazilian accent, and ever since, I've chosen to ignore the flaws in our relationship in favor of its virtues.
It is the middle of the afternoon, on the first day of our weeklong vacation, and we've just come back from the movies. Allison believed you were never as free as when you were sitting in a weekday matinee. Before that afternoon, though, we hadn't been to a movie in months, let alone a matinee. I had always been working, even on weekends. Although I was The Washington Weekly's youngest staff writer, I was also one of its most prolific and, increasingly, one of its better known. And though I had expected and promised Allison that with some success would come a commensurate calm, my anxiety had only increased proportionately, and my efforts to allay it through long hours had only grown.
Allison checked our answering machine. "You have six new messages. First message: 10:49 A.M."
"Steve, it's Robert," the message began. Robert was the editorial director of the Weekly. "Give me a call when you get a second. I just got an email from a reporter at Substance Monthly. He says he wants to talk about one of your pieces. I don't know what it's about, so I thought I'd call you first. Sorry to bother you on your vacation."
"Next message: 11:21 A.M."
"Steve, it's Robert again. I just talked to the guy from Substance, and he was asking some questions about your story. It's the 'angry lottery winners' piece from a couple of weeks ago. Call me. I'm at the office."
"Next message: 1:45 P.M."
"Steve, it's Cliff Coolidge. Just want to make sure we're still on for dinner tonight. Give me a call and let me know."
Cliff was an acquaintance of Allison's and mine. He had gone to Stanford with Allison and now was a young writer at District magazine.
"I thought you canceled that," Allison said. "We have plans tonight with my brother. Remember?"
Allison had six brothers (she'd been the only girl in her family), and they all lived far away, on the West Coast or back in Brazil where they'd all gone to elementary school. So there was always a brother coming into town -- but this brother I'd never met.
I knew I should apologize for forgetting his visit, but I couldn't. I stood there, frozen, and all I could pay attention to was Robert's voice. Allison's receded into the background like white noise.
"Next message: 2:07 P.M."
"Steve, it's Robert. This is my third message. Where are you? Call me. It's really important. Have them interrupt me if I'm on the phone."
"Next message: 2:41 P.M."
"Steve, cancel whatever you're doing and come over here, I mean it. Allison, if you hear this and know where Steve is, could you get him and tell him to call me? It's Robert."
"Next message: 3:48 P.M."
"Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve. Answer the goddamn phone. Where the fuck are you? I don't care if you're having some nice little romantic thing, call me. Do I have to come over to your apartment?"
"End of messages."
I stared at the machine, my stomach churning.
"You're going over there, aren't you?" Allison asked.
"Yes," I said.
"He always gets this way. Everything's an emergency. Can't you just not go?"
Allison was accustomed to Robert's persistence. Two weeks ago, he had called the apartment five times, and tried Allison at work, because he thought I'd forgotten to turn in a story. He had the wrong disk in the computer.
"If I don't go -- "
"I know, I know. He'll just keep calling. At least promise me you'll be back in time for dinner?"
"Come back quick," she said.
I promised I would see her in about an hour. But, as it turned out, we wouldn't really see each other again, not in the same way at least. Here was where I would begin to lose Allison. I should have seen it even then, but I did not. By the time we saw each other next, the process of our unrecognition -- by which we began to feel that we knew each other less and less, and in the end that we had never truly known each other at all -- would have already begun.
The walk to the Weekly's office from my apartment was brief, maybe twenty minutes. It was May, Washington's only agreeable month. The air was warm and thin, like a pleasant dream, and it was into a pleasant dream that I then began to make my escape.
My mind drifted to Allison and the picnic we'd had the night before, sushi and white wine on the Lincoln Memorial steps. I thought also of a klezmer concert I'd recently attended called Jews with Horns and how I'd popped a contact lens while dancing and had to drive home winking. I thought of my family too: my parents and Nathan, my brother.
Crossing through Dupont Circle, I watched the last few moves of a speed chess game and stopped at the CVS to buy a Mother's Day card. The card I selected had a picture of a mom telling a young boy to put the scissors away "where you found them," which is exactly what my mother used to say: "Make sure to put the scissors away, Stephen -- where you found them."
Surely, you say, I must have known the trouble I was in -- and to some extent I did. I must have been anxious and scheming, racking my brain for a way out, even then. I must have been buying time. That is what everyone who has never been caught thinks. But, in fact, I didn't plan; I didn't scheme; I didn't even envision what was to come -- not yet. Instead, during the walk, I willed myself beyond recall. Had I concentrated on what I had done, I probably would have turned and run.
Here is the article Robert was referring to in his messages. It had appeared in the Weekly a little while before:
by Stephen Aaron Glass
Every other Sunday, Gloria Pruitt, a graying, frail woman in her early seventies, stages an elaborate protest against the state lottery outside the Pennsylvania governor's mansion.
To make her demonstration more photogenic, Pruitt drapes herself over a seven-foot-high crucifix, which she has built out
of white beach balls from Kmart, painted with black numerals. Above the cross she puts a placard that reads: "I won the lottery for your sins."
"It's my goal to have the lottery abolished before I die," Pruitt explained to me. "Having a mission with a good social purpose is what keeps me young."
Pruitt is part of a growing group of lottery winners who are planning to sue state governments that sponsor gambling. In the late 1980s, Pruitt won a $50 million jackpot. But like so many jackpot winners, the grandmother of six lost all of her money to sham investments and outlandish spending. She now folds shirts at an Eddie Bauer store outside Harrisburg; before her win, she was a successful middle manager.
"In January I had to sell off most of my winter clothes -- sweaters, coats, Neiman Marcus furs, even a parka I'd had since high school," she said. "I'm in more debt now than ever before. The lottery ruined my life. I wish I had never won. Frankly, it's a crime that I won."
"Gloria didn't win the lottery," Stan Romaine, a lawyer who organized a Virginia conference for aggrieved winners, explained to me. "She was nearly destroyed by it."
It went on from there -- with more on Gloria Pruitt and the Virginia conference, and more on other winners' tales of woe. I should have been thinking of the story as I walked -- drifted, really -- toward the Weekly, but I was not. Instead I thought of everything, anything, else that came to mind.
Soon I reached the magazine's office, and stopped to look at what had been my home since the day after I graduated from Cornell.
The Weekly occupies the eighth floor of a midsized commercial office building in Foggy Bottom, a neighborhood not far from the Lincoln Memorial. The structure's entryway is decked out in green-tinted glass and rose-colored marble, hand buffed to a perfect gleam every morning by a man named Jimmy, who also supervises the staff of nine that vacuums the hallways daily, polishes the hardware weekly, and washes the windows every third Monday when it's not raining. In all, 800 New Hampshire Avenue N.W. makes a perfect impression on one's mother.
Years ago, the magazine lived on Capitol Hill, in a weather-beaten storefront -- the kind of building in which I had fantasized a magazine like the Weekly would be housed -- with a clanking press in the basement, the flavor of printing chemicals in the air, and newsprint grime on every desk, door handle, and light switch. But the year before I was hired, the magazine's owner sold the storefront and moved us here.
The business staff invited advertisers to the shiny new space to watch the writers at work, but invariably they were disappointed. The magazine no longer looked anything like All the President's Men, with reporters crouched at desks flush against one another, grumbling about the day's news. Now the writers worked in their own offices at computers, alone. The editor no longer could yell, not even for show, "Stop the presses" -- if he ever had, which I doubt -- because the printing had been outsourced to a large corporation with a plant near the Chesapeake Bay. Every Monday afternoon, they delivered by courier the magazine's first press run, shrink-wrapped in plastic. As with a pack of Wrigley's gum, you had to pull one of those little red strings to open it up.
I loved arriving here every day. Working for my college newspaper, I had been a gadfly, detested by the campus authorities -- the provost and the dean had come to hate me -- but here, a gadfly was just what I was supposed to be. We were a nest of them. If an article didn't irritate someone, it had failed; if it didn't reveal embarrassing, even agitating information about its subject, it wasn't much of a story.
The Weekly had basically invented what became the dominant magazine journalism voice of the 1990s: the Ironic-Contrarian. Weekly pieces were attack pieces -- but not angry, predictable polemics such as you might find in The Nation or National Review. They were sophisticated, low-key takedowns, all the more devastating because they used the source's own words to hang him: It was assisted suicide, not murder. The journalist's voice was cool, calm, even cold -- at most, he or she might add the one-word sentence "Indeed," as if rolling up the noose for future use.
The key to a Weekly story was the capper: the most devastating remark by the source, in which he or she has been forced by the reporter's questions to take a position to a ridiculous extreme, a point where it is more laughable than logical. For instance, an Iowa congressman who was a leading defender of farm subsidies was pressed to say that if it was getting too expensive to pay farmers not to grow crops, then we should pay them a little less not to work at all.
Finally, the title of a Weekly piece had to be a tour de force. Whereas other magazines' titles were serviceable or vaguely clever, ours were little works of art: brief yet containing multiple meanings, pop culture references, and, again, veiled attacks that did not seem to come from the writer himself.
The headline for an article on Barbra Streisand's ill-informed attack on a conservative Israeli politician, for instance, was the manufactured word Yental. It would be a reference to both her movie Yentl and the Yiddish word yenta, meaning a gossip who gets into other people's business. (The echo of the grade-school insult mental would also be palpable.)
I'd adjusted quickly both to Weekly style, which was new to me but easy to learn, and Weekly culture, which was pretty similar to what I'd experienced at Cornell -- no one dressed up, everyone procrastinated, everyone dated one another, and we all believed we were the center of the world. One of our favorite lunchtime games was, "If you had to cast Washington Weekly: The Movie, who would play whom?" I was invariably "a young Jeff Goldblum." My friend Brian was Matthew Broderick. And Lindsey, though she always hated it, was "Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club."
Even though we had few subscribers compared to other magazines, and most of them were elderly men (an advertiser's least desirable audience), we convinced ourselves that it was the quality of the readers, not their number, that counted. When a reporter from another publication spotted a copy of the Weekly in the Oval Office and commented on it in print, the point was put beyond debate, as far as we were concerned. It wasn't important to be big, if you could be influential, and we were naive enough to believe we were actually as important as we thought we were.
That belief was enhanced by the impression that we were special; we had been chosen. For a young writer, being hired by the Weekly opened doors; Weekly alumni would hire you to write later for the Times, the Post, or The New Republic. Our combined age was that of Helen Thomas; our combined journalism experience, before coming to the Weekly, that of George Stephanopoulos. Still, we were stars -- precocious stars; Franny, Zooey, and Seymour on It's a Wise Child -- and that was what mattered.
My own star was falling, though: I felt it falling even now.
Copyright © 2003 by Stephen Glass