We demand an elaborate dance of remorse and contrition from disgraced celebrities. We expect them to humble themselves before us, confess their sins, and beg for our forgiveness. A public display of remorse and contrition is the cost of entry we command from bad boys and girls angling to be forgiven and welcomed back into polite society. That helps explain why the Charlie Sheen imbroglio so fascinated us this past summer. Sheen’s behavior didn’t just violate the unwritten codes of celebrity contrition; they stomped them underneath massive Godzilla legs, then did a crazed celebratory dance. We anticipated the standard publicist-orchestrated rounds of apologies and promises to go into rehab. We expected Sheen to admit his powerlessness over drug and alcohol abuse and promise to get better.
Sheen roared blindly in the opposite direction. Instead of the requisite talk about faith, family, and forgiveness, we got beat poetry about tiger blood and Adonis DNA and rock stars from Mars. Sheen switched instantly from the defensive to the aggressive. In Sheen’s manic mind state, he wasn’t the one with the problem: We were. He’d evolved to a higher state of angel consciousness, and we were the trolls left behind. Sheen’s contempt for Alcoholics Anonymous fit perfectly into his rejection of the public-contrition paradigm. Alcoholics Anonymous encourages members to concede their powerlessness before their addictions and appeal to a higher power. Nothing could be more terrifying to Sheen than the idea of being anonymous; in Sheen’s mind he was a higher power. Fools in Alcoholics Anonymous should be conceding their powerlessness before him.
I thought an awful lot about Sheen while reading Burning Down My Masters’ House, Jayson Blair’s infamous memoir about his stint as The New York Times’ resident fantasist, and not just because Blair shares the actor’s history of alcohol, cocaine abuse, and mental illness. The book jacket for Burning Down My Masters’ House speaks the language of contrition, promising, “[Blair] does not push responsibility for his actions onto anyone else, but seeks to explain how someone with talent and opportunity could fall from such great heights, primarily by his own hand.” Whoever wrote the book jacket copy apparently never read the text it ostensibly describes.
Blair is borderline Sheen-like in his complete lack of contrition and frothing-at-the-mouth eagerness to blame his problems on another person. For Sheen, that’s Two And A Half Men creator Chuck Lorre. For Blair, it’s a sinister, almost satanic cabal called The New York Times that ignored the Holocaust, overworks its employees to suicide, and cares about nothing other than its own prestige and privilege. In Blair’s simultaneously self-pitying and self-aggrandizing memoir, he’s the real victim. In a passage that says everything about Blair’s attitude and his insufferable bitch-fest of a memoir, the author writes, “I wasn’t going to fight for a job at a newspaper that had disappointed my idealism, for a newspaper that I had allowed to take something precious from me.”
Marinate on that for a moment: In this revisionist account, it was The New York Times that disappointed Blair, not the other way around. In Blair’s mind he arrived at the paper brimming with energy, enthusiasm, and a burning desire to make a difference and help people, only to watch that passion die a little more each day through inter-office politics, scheming co-workers, and inhuman demands on his time and energy.
To Blair whatever petty misdemeanors he may have committed over the course of his career paled in comparison to the unforgivable felonies perpetrated by the Times during its bloodstained reign of terror. When The New York Times writes of Blair’s trickery marking a low point in the paper’s history, Blair classily and not at all hyperbolically invokes Hitler when he writes, “I wondered where that put me in comparison to the Times coverage of the Holocaust, which was covered primarily on its back pages; an omission described in a November 14, 2001, article as ‘the staggering, staining failure of The New York Times to depict Hitler’s methodical extermination of the Jews of Europe as a horror beyond all other horrors in World War II—a Nazi war within the war crying out for illumination.’” To give Blair credit where he angrily demands it, yes, making a bunch of shit up is, in the grand scheme of things, a lesser offense than downplaying the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust. But never has Godwin’s Law about the inverse relationship between an argument’s merits and the arguer’s quickness to invoke Hitler seemed more appropriate.
Burning Down My Masters’ House opens in the white-hot heat of scandal and humiliation, with Blair’s journalistic crimes being uncovered. This is a fairly common literary technique: Begin with the author bottoming out, then trace back the steps leading to his or her sordid decline. It backfires here, however, as Blair lurches zombie-like through the early passages in a state of detached numbness, coming alive only to launch incoherent attacks on his old bosses at the Times. Blair recounts going through an agonizing ordeal as his personal and professional lives unravel, a crisis that ultimately takes him to a psychiatric ward. Yet because Blair seems so numb and disengaged, nothing really registers. House has three primary modes: newspaper dry, grotesquely overwrought, and frothing at the mouth with unmerited self-righteous indignation.
Blair prides himself on being a good writer and a dogged newshound, yet he habitually buries the lead to focus on matters of interest only to him. Blair says, for example, that he both gave and accepted sexual favors for cocaine but that’s mentioned only in passing so that Blair can devote pages upon pages to self-serving accounts of battles with editors and loving remembrances of articles he’d written.
There must be something in Blair that brings out the maternal and paternal side in people: He writes repeatedly of colleagues offering comfort in times of need, yet the Blair that emerges from the book is almost defiantly unlikable—an arrogant, combative, dishonest, manipulative man categorically unable to concede the extent of his misdeeds. In Blair’s mind he simply bent the rules just a little harder other colleagues whose practices also attracted scrutiny, like Rick Bragg. Blair writes scathingly of articles composed by an army of stringers and only a star staff writer getting the byline and a practice called a “toe-touch,” where writers do all of the writing for a story in one place, then fly out to wherever the story takes place so they can give it an exotic dateline before flying right back home. Immediately. In Blair’s mind, the line separating these accepted practices and writing a story with a Virginia dateline without ever leaving his apartment is fuzzy at best.
Throughout House, I waited for a moment of clarity and brutal self-candor, when Blair would admit to himself and his readers that what he had done was wrong and that his rationales for his behavior constitute half-assed excuses and rationalizations. That moment never arrived. House doesn’t have a redemptive arc because Blair begins and ends the book fundamentally the same angry, self-righteous, unapologetic cipher. I suspect Blair could have written a much better book if he’d cooled off for a couple of years and written his memoir after he was able to reflect back on his experiences from a more thoughtful, objective place. Alas, House feels like it was written entirely on the day Blair was fired and publicly humiliated. There’s no objectivity, no distance, no empathy for his ostensible oppressors—just a whole lot of anger and painful prose.
The jacket copy promises to reveal how Blair got away with it for so long, but when he enters the most duplicitous and dramatic phase of his career as a fabricator, he demurs that he was in such a manic state—a state he nevertheless holds partially responsible for some of the finest prose of his career—that he doesn’t really remember much of it and had to fuzzily piece together what happened from outside accounts. Late in the book, Blair writes, “As there are few to this day at The Times who would not agree that I was talented, there are few who would argue that I was not a bit eccentric.” Here’s how transparently ridiculous House is: Blair boasts that his talent is incontestable even in the face of public humiliation and disgrace in a clumsy, stilted, barely comprehensible sentence.
To cite another example of inefficient, repetitive writing, the memoir’s introduction concludes, “A friend recently said to me, ‘Jayson, remember you are now telling your toughest story.’ There is no doubt that this is the toughest story I have ever had to write.” Blair’s own fall from grace is undoubtedly the toughest and most important story he’s had to write. He may have gotten all the facts right (or not), but he missed the bleeding, human, vulnerable heart completely.
Unlike Blair, fellow disgraced former journalist and flop tell-all writer Stephen Glass (he might as well go ahead and have his name legally changed to Disgraced Former Journalist Stephen Glass) understands the unspoken rules of public contrition all too well. Halfway through The Fabulist—Glass’ semi-autobiographical novel about a writer named Stephen Glass and his unmistakably Stephen Glass-like travails—the author cryptically semi-promises to drop the facade of wacky semi-incompetence and let us inside his psyche for the real story, not the bullshit he’s been spewing for the first 178 pages:
Here is where I lose you.
This is all good and fine, you say, but before we go on, before there can be forgiveness, I need to tell you more. All of the key questions, I have carefully stepped around thus far, I know that. I know you know it too: What was I thinking when I wrote those lies? What did it feel like? Where did the ideas even come from? Wouldn’t it have been easier to have told the truth? How did I ever get away with it?
The questions are there, they hang in the air unspoken and they just won’t go away, no matter what song and dance I might offer you. Until the questions are answered, you say, we cannot go on. After all, the criminal defendant who wants to plead guilty to his crimes, serves his sentence, and be allowed to return to society, is required not only to declare his crimes but also to allocate—to confess the details of them.
It’s not enough for him to say he’s sorry and accept his punishment. No, the murderer, the rapist, the check kiter, the embezzler must, in his own words, state for the record exactly what he did wrong, and how he did it. That is what everyone wants, the victims especially. They want to see whether the defendant bends a smile when he lifted the wallet out of the little old lady’s purse. Is his regret genuine? Or does he enjoy, just a bit, the reliving of what, at the time at least, might have seemed like the perfect crime?
Give up the details; I know, it’s necessary. And you ask me to believe that the more I tell you, the easier it will be for you to forget. But I fear that when I tell you what I was thinking when I fabricated, you will never be able to forgive. Indeed, it may be the very particularity, the selfsame specificity, that makes it unforgivable.
Tantalizing stuff, eh? After 180 pages of finessing his firing from The New Republic and post-firing shenanigans into the stuff of a bad romantic comedy—cartoonish Jewish parents, a mysterious new girlfriend with baggage of her own, wacky sidekicks, a redemptive arc—the author is finally promising to tell us what we really want to know, even if it renders him unforgivable. For a man with a deeply pathological need for attention and validation, that’s of the utmost importance.
The magician is promising not just to show us his tricks but also to reveal the motivation behind each. We are promised a great literary striptease. By the end, Glass will have revealed all. Glass then sets about revealing as little about the technical details and motives behind his fraud as he can without sacrificing his book contract or being egregiously dishonest, instead of merely disingenuous.
In Glass’ mind, he did it all for love. He was no super-genius, mind you, merely a lost little Jewish boy from the Chicago suburbs so desperate for the approval and validation of his co-workers and editors that he would do anything to maintain it, even if that meant traveling to the dark side of journalistic ethics. Glass didn’t just want to be liked: He wanted to be looked up to and adored. He didn’t want to be liked by some—he wanted to be loved by all. Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone wants to be liked. But Glass’ need for praise went beyond that to the level of pathology. In The Fabulist, the author comes off less like a nice Jewish boy whose teacher’s pet tendencies landed him in hot water than a narcissist whose overbearing need for attention turned him into a sociopath who cared only about professional advancement.
The Fabulist opens with a desperate and panicked Glass desperately trying to save his job, reputation, and career after his editor begins to suspect that his stories contain fabrications that run the gamut from exaggerations to out and out lies. It’s subject matter handled deftly in Shattered Glass, Billy Ray’s superb film about Glass’ undoing. While there’s an inherent tension in watching the public unmasking of a fraud, Glass’ glib prose and superficial writing keep these passages from ever being too compelling. Glass caricatures the editor who found him out as a pompous, self-righteous square, but he nevertheless emerges as a borderline heroic figure, the antithesis of our painfully light protagonist.
There’s something incredibly disingenuous about The Fabulist. It’s a classic case of bait and switch. Glass promises to reveal all, show his scars, and bleed onto the page only to shape the events surrounding his professional fall to fit the bland parameters of a half-assed, self-consciously quirky comedy. In Glass’ mind, he only became a journalistic superstar in retrospect; to him, the depth and visibility of his fall made what he considered a modest rise seem much more spectacular in retrospect. What did Glass really accomplish before being disgraced at the ripe old age of 25? He was the hotshot writer at The New Republic. He snagged plum freelance assignments from places like George, Rolling Stone, and This American Life.
He was going places, and in the crazy world of the mid-’90s, there was no limit to what an ambitious, charming young man with all the drive and determination in the world could accomplish in an era where the Internet bubble transformed teenagers into multi-millionaires. Glass’ piece “Hack Heaven” embodied the surreal disconnect from reality that characterized both Glass’ writing and the Internet bubble. With “Hack Heaven,” he took something real and dramatic and compelling in its own right—teenaged hackers suddenly calling shots and commanding power in a scary new realm where age and experience didn’t seem to matter—and pushed it to comic extremes.
In Glass’ vivid imagination, a 15-year-old computer geek angrily demands a lifetime subscription to Playboy and Penthouse, a Miata, a trip to Disneyland, and the first issue of X-Men in exchange for his services, and the ostensibly reasonable adults over at Jukt Micronics acquiesce. The problem? Jukt Micronics never existed, nor did the 15-year-old. With the benefit of hindsight, the Jukt Micronics story now looks insultingly ridiculous, as do many of Glass’ other stories. But it’s important to remember that he thrived in a frivolous age where no narrative seemed too improbable to be true. We had conquered the Russians, and the Internet was going to make us all millionaires. History was over. We had won. Now it was time for a massive culture-wide victory party.
Stephen Glass wrote stories that people wanted to read and pieces that people wanted to believe. They reinforced their biases and perception of the world. If people wanted to believe that the kids had taken over, then Glass would give them the ultimate computer-geek brat. It didn’t matter if he didn’t exist; in Glass’ mind, he should have. Glass was perpetually disappointed when the cold, grey, drab real world consistently failed to live up to the Technicolor one he had in his head.
After dealing with the fallout from his firing at The New Republic, The Fabulist becomes a story of redemption about a hotshot humbled by fate and circumstances who must learn how to live a normal, healthy, productive life outside the heat of the media spotlight. The Fabulist follows Glass as he crawls out of the wreckage of his life and career and tries to redeem himself by living a normal existence and working an unglamorous job. There’s something incredibly off-putting about Glass’ faux self-deprecation. The weakness of The Fabulist’s writing, plotting, pacing, and prose at times feels deliberate. It’s as if Glass is saying, “If I were really the cold-blooded sociopathic genius my detractors have accused me to be, would I have written a book this egregiously hacky and dumb? Especially when given such a genuinely fascinating subject?”
Glass’ “novel” finds him trying to win back his self-respect by taking on a humble job at a video store where he oversees a pair of kooks straight out of a dire workplace sitcom. In a passage sadly indicative of the rest of the book, one of Glass’ wacky employee-sidekicks begins yelling about their hatred of God while checking out a customer and Glass tries to cover for him by pretending that the man is engaged in an avant-garde performance art piece promoting The Last Temptation Of Christ. Seriously. Again, Glass seems to be taunting us to consider him anything but well meaning and incompetent.
In his bid to win back his soul, Glass gets a lap dance from a stripper confused and annoyed that Glass just wants to talk rather than get his rocks off. Our blameless hero is seduced and later humiliated by a foxy co-ed who rocked his world under false pretenses, then wrote a scathing piece attacking him. Glass does much better with a mysterious young woman who lives in his building, but wouldn’t you know it, she also has a sinister past she’s been keeping from him? It turns out that Glass’ love interest used to be a high-stakes poker shark before gambling addiction sent her life spiraling in a much different direction.
As if to prove, once and for all, that he’s barely capable of stringing words together to form cohesive sentences, let alone perpetrating the fraud of the century, Glass ends his hacky little rom-com redemption fable by having an evil old reporter from Glass’ old, pre-redemptive life (boo!!!) threaten a funny little dog with a grotesquely swollen penis as a means of scoring an interview with our reclusive and reluctant hero. If Glass wants us to believe he’s a hapless mediocrity devoid of talent, wit, or insight, he succeeded to his novel’s detriment.
In an editorial from his college days, the idealistic young Glass stressed the importance of the free press and transparency when he wrote, “Only by seeing our true self will we ever improve.” The problem is that Glass’ true self never emerges in The Fabulist, only a rom-com version prettied up to appeal to the broadest possible audience. For Glass the man and the writer, redemption will forever out of his grasp. He’s never honestly accounted for his transgressions or shown much in the way of genuine remorse, so forgiveness isn’t just difficult—it’s impossible.
Burning Down My Master’s House: Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure
The Fabulist: Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure