So You've Been Publicly Shamed (Excerpt)
by Jon Ronson
© 2015 by Jon RonsonNOTICE: THIS WORK MAY BE PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT
Two: I'm Glad I'm Not That
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In the middle of the night on July 4, 2012, Michael C. Moynihan lay on his sofa. His wife, Joanne, was asleep upstairs with their young daughter. They were broke, as they always were. Everybody seemed to make more money in journalism than Michael did. "I can never turn it into money," he'd later tell me. "I don't know how to do it."
These were anxious times. He was thirty-seven and scraping by as a blogger and a freelancer in a walk-up in a not-great part of Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
But he'd just had a job offer. The Washington Post had invited him to blog for ten days. Not that the timing was so great: "It was July Fourth. Everyone was on vacation. There were no readers and there wasn't a lot of news." But still, it was a break. And it was stressing Michael out. The stress had just spoiled a vacation in Ireland visiting his wife's family, and now it was stressing him out on his sofa.
He began hunting around for story ideas. On a whim he downloaded the latest number-one New York Times nonfiction bestseller from the young, handsome, and internationally renowned pop-psychology author Jonah Lehrer. It was a book about the neurology of creativity and was called Imagine: How Creativity Works.
The first chapter, "Bob Dylan's Brain," piqued Michael's interest, as he was a keen Dylanologist. Jonah Lehrer was reconstructing a critical moment in Dylan's creative career -- the thought process that led him to write "Like a Rolling Stone."
It was May 1965 and Dylan was bored, weary from a grueling tour, "skinny from insomnia and pills," sick of his music, thinking he had nothing left to say. As Jonah Lehrer writes:
The only thing he was sure of was that this life couldn't last. Whenever Dylan read about himself in the newspaper he made the same observation: "God, I'm glad I'm not me:' he said. "I'm glad I'm not that."
So Dylan told his manager he was quitting the music business. He moved to a tiny cabin in Woodstock, New York. His plan was to perhaps write a novel.
But then, just when Dylan was most determined to stop creating music, he was overcome with a strange feeling.
"It's a hard thing to describe," Dylan would later remember. "It's just this sense that you got something to say."
It was no wonder Imagine had become such a bestseller. Who wouldn't want to read that if they're creatively blocked and feeling hopeless they're just like Bob Dylan immediately before he wrote "Like a Rolling Stone"?
Michael Moynihan, I should explain, hadn't downloaded Jonah Lehrer's book because he was blocked and needed inspirational advice about how to write a Washington Post blog. Jonah Lehrer had recently been embroiled in a minor scandal and Michael was considering blogging about it. Some columns he had written for The New Yorker had, it turned out, been recycled from columns he'd published months earlier in The Wall Street Journal. Michael was considering blogging on how "self-plagiarism" was considered less of a crime in Britain than in America and what that said about the two cultures.
But now Michael suddenly stopped reading. He went back a sentence.
"It's a hard thing to describe," Dylan would later remember. "It's just this sense that you got something to say."
Michael narrowed his eyes. When the fuck did Bob Dylan say
that? he thought.
"What made you suspicious?" I asked Michael. The two of us were eating lunch at the Cookshop restaurant in Manhattan's Chelsea district. Michael was handsome and fidgety. His eyes were pale and darting like a husky's.
"It just didn't sound
like Dylan," he said. "In that period, in every interview Dylan did, he was a total asshole to the interviewer. This sounded like a Dylan self-help book."
And so, on his sofa, Michael scanned back a few paragraphs.
Whenever Dylan read about himself in the newspaper, he made the same observation: "God, I'm glad I'm not me," he said. ''I'm glad I'm not that."
In D. A. Pennebaker's documentary Dont Look Back (the missing apostrophe was the director's idea), Dylan reads an article about himself: "Puffing heavily on a cigarette, he smokes 80 a day . . ." Dylan laughs, "God, I'm glad I'm not me."How did Jonah Lehrer know that Dylan said this whenever he read about himself in the paper? Michael thought. Where did "whenever" come from? Plus, "God, I'm glad I'm not me" is verifiable, but ''I'm glad I'm not that"? When did he say, ''I'm glad I'm not that?" Where did Jonah Lehrer get ''I'm glad I'm not that"?
And so Michael Moynihan e-mailed Jonah Lehrer.
I picked up your book and as an obsessive Dylan nerd eagerly read the first chapter ... I'm pretty familiar with the Dylan canon and there were a few quotes I was slightly confused by and couldn't locate.
This was Michael's first e-mail to Jonah Lehrer. He was reading it to me back home in his Fort Greene living room. Joanne sat with us. There were toys scattered around.
By the time Michael e-mailed Jonah on July 7, he'd pinpointed six suspicious Dylan quotes, including "It's just this sense that you got something to say," ''I'm glad I'm not that
," and this angry retort to prying journalists: ''I've got nothing to say about these things I write. I just write them. There's no great message. Stop asking me to explain."
Dylan did once verifiably say in Dont Look Back, ''I've got nothing to say about these things I write. I just write them. There's no great message."But there was no "Stop asking me to explain."
Michael mentioned to Jonah his deadline -- he was blogging for The Washington Post for ten days -- and then he pressed send.
minutia: a minute or minor detail —usually used in plural
Minutia was borrowed into English in the late 18th century from the Latin plural noun minutiae, meaning "trifles" or "details" and derived from the singular noun minutia, meaning "smallness." In English, minutia is most often used in the plural as either "minutiae" or, on occasion, as simply "minutia" (as illustrated in our second example sentence). Latin minutia, incidentally, comes from minutus, an adjective meaning "small" that was created from the verb minuere, meaning "to lessen." A familiar descendant of minutus is minute.
-- Minutiae, by Merriam Webster Dictionary
Jonah e-mailed Michael back twice the next day. His e-mails sounded friendly, professional, businesslike, maybe a little superior. His air was that of a smart young academic understanding Michael's questions and promising to answer them during an appropriate moment in his schedule. Which would be in eleven days. He was on vacation in Northern California for ten days. His files were at his home, a seven-hour drive away. He didn't want to disrupt his vacation by driving fourteen hours to check his files. If Michael could wait ten days, Jonah would send him detailed notes.
Michael smiled when he read out that part of Jonah's e-mail to me, Eleven days was quite the convenient vacation length given the duration of Michael's Washington Post contract.
Still, Jonah said he'd try to answer Michael's questions off the top of his head.
"And this," Michael said, "was where it all began to unravel for him. This is where he makes his first underplayed lie. He's hesitating. 'Do I make this lie?' "
Jonah made the lie.
"I got a little bit of help," he wrote, "from one of Dylan's managers."
This manager had given Jonah access to previously unreleased original transcripts of Dylan interviews. If there were any discrepancies with common references on the Web, that was why.
Jonah's e-mails continued in this vein for several paragraphs: Dylan had told a radio interviewer to "stop asking me to explain" in 1995. The interview was transcribed within the pages of a rare multivolume anthology called The Fiddler Now Upspoke: A Collection of Bob Dylan's Interviews, Press Conferences and the Like from Throughout the Master's Career.
And so on. Then Jonah thanked Michael for his interest, signed off, and at the bottom of the e-mails were the words "Sent from my iPhone."
"Sent from his iPhone," Michael said. "A rather lengthy e-mail to send from an iPhone. Slightly panicky. Sweaty thumbs, you know?"
Who knew if Jonah Lehrer really was on vacation? But Michael had to take him at his word. So they had a lull. The lull made publication in the Washington Post blog impossible, given the digging Michael would need to do. The Fiddler Now Upspoke
was a nightmare source: "Eleven volumes, twelve volumes, fifteen volumes. Individual ones cost a hundred fifty, two hundred dollars."
Jonah Lehrer presumably thought Michael hadn't the wherewithal to trace, purchase, and scrutinize an anthology as epic and obscure as The Fiddler Now Upspoke
. But he underestimated the nature of Michael's tenacity. There was something about Michael that reminded me of the cyborg in Terminator 2
, the one that was even more dogged than Arnold Schwarzenegger, running faster than the fastest car. As Joanne told me, "Michael is the guarder of social rules." She turned to him. "You're a nice guy as long as everyone else ... "
"When I go out in the world," Michael said, "if someone throws some garbage on the street, it's the most senseless thing to me. I lose my mind. 'Why are you doing this?'''
"And it's for hours," Joanne said. "We're out on a nice walk and it's a half-an-hour rant ... "
"I see things collapsing," Michael said.
And so Michael tracked down an electronic version of The Fiddler Now Upspoke
. Well, it wasn't an actual electronic version, but "a complete archive of all known Dylan interviews called Every Mind-Polluting Word," Michael told me, "basically a digital version of Fiddler that a fan put together and dumped online." It turned out that Bob Dylan had given only one radio interview in 1995 and at no time during it had he told the interviewer to "stop asking me to explain."
On July 11, Michael was in the park with his wife and daughter. It was hot. His daughter was running in and out of the fountain. Michael's phone rang. The voice said, "This is Jonah Lehrer."
I know Jonah Lehrer's voice now. If you had to describe it in a word, that word would be measured.
"We had a really nice talk," Michael said, "about Dylan, about journalism. I told him I wasn't trying to make a name for myself with this. I said I'd been grinding away at this for years and I'm just -- you know -- I do what I do and I feed my family and everything's okay."
The way Michael said the word okay made it sound like he meant "barely okay." It was the vocal equivalent of a worried head glancing down at the floor."I told him I'm not one of those young Gawker guys going, 'Find me a target I can burn in the public square and then people will know who I am.' And Jonah said, 'I really appreciate that.'''
Michael liked Jonah. "I got along with him. It was really nice. It was a really nice conversation." They said their goodbyes. A few minutes later, Jonah e-mailed Michael to thank him once again for being so decent and not like one of those Gawker guys who delight in humiliation. They didn't make them like Michael anymore.
After that, Michael went quiet so he could dig around on Jonah some more.
These were the good days. Michael felt like Hercule Poirot. Jonah's claim that he'd had a little bit of help from one of Dylan's managers had sounded suspiciously vague, Michael had thought. And, indeed, it turned out that Bob Dylan had only one manager. His name was Jeff Rosen. And although Jeff Rosen's e-mail address was hard to come by, Michael came by it.
Michael e-mailed him. Had Jeff Rosen ever spoken to Jonah Lehrer? Jeff Rosen replied that he never had.
So Michael e-mailed Jonah to say he had some more questions.
Jonah replied, sounding surprised. Was Michael still going to write something? He assumed Michael wasn't going to write anything.
Michael shook his head with incredulity when he recounted this part to me. Jonah had obviously convinced himself that he'd sweet-talked Michael out of investigating him. But no. "Bad liars always think they're good at it," Michael said to me. "They're always confident they're defeating you."
"I've spoken to Jeff Rosen," Michael told Jonah.
And that, Michael said, is when Jonah lost it. "He just lost it. I've never seen anyone like it."
Jonah started repeatedly telephoning Michael, pleading with him not to publish. Sometimes Michael would silence his iPhone for a while. Then he'd return to find so many missed calls from Jonah that he would take a screenshot because nobody would otherwise have believed it. 1 asked Michael at what point it stopped being fun, and he replied, "When your quarry starts panicking." He paused. "It's like being out in the woods hunting and you're, 'This feels great!' And then you shoot the animal and it's lying there twitching and wants its head to be bashed in and you're, 'I don't want to be the person to do this. This is fucking horrible.' "Michael got a call from Jonah's agent, Andrew Wylie. He represents not just Jonah but also Bob Dylan and Salman Rushdie and David Bowie and David Byrne and David Rockefeller and V. S. Naipaul and Vanity Fair and Martin Amis and Bill Gates and King Abdullah II of Jordan and Al Gore. Actually, Andrew Wylie didn't phone Michael. "He got in touch with somebody who got in touch with me to tell me to call him," Michael told me. "Which I thought was very Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He's thought to be the most powerful literary agent in the United States and I'm a schlub, I'm a nobody. So I called him. I laid out the case. He said, 'If you publish this, you're going to ruin a guy's life. Do you think this is a big enough deal to ruin a guy's life?'''
"How did you reply?" I asked.
"I said, 'I'll think about it,'" Michael said. "I guess Andrew Wylie is a bazillionaire because he's very perceptive, because I got a call from Jonah, who said, 'So Andrew Wylie says you're going to go ahead and publish.'"
On the afternoon of Sunday, July 29, Michael was walking down Flatbush Avenue, on the telephone to Jonah, shouting at him, "'I need you to go on the record. You have to do it, Jonah. You have to go on the record: My arms were going crazy. I was so angry and so frustrated. All the time he was wasting. All his lies. And he was simpering." Finally something in Jonah's voice made Michael know that it was going to happen. "So I ran into Duane Reade, and I bought a fucking Hello Kitty notebook and a pen, and in twenty-five seconds, he said, 'I panicked. And I'm deeply sorry for lying.'''
"And there you go," said Michael. "It's done."
Twenty-six days, and it took Michael forty minutes to write the story. He'd still not worked out how to make money from journalism. He'd agreed to give the scoop to a small Jewish online magazine, Tablet. Knowing how lucky they were, the people at Tablet paid Michael quadruple what they usually pay, but it was quadruple of not much: $2,200 total -- which is all he'd ever make from the story.
Forty minutes to write it, and what felt to him like nine packs of cigarettes."If anything, Jonah Lehrer nearly killed me I smoked so many fucking cigarettes out on the fire escape. Smoking, smoking, smoking. When you have the ability to press send on something and really, really affect the outcome of the rest of that person's life. And the phone was ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing. There were twenty-odd missed calls from Jonah that Sunday night. Twenty-four missed calls, twenty-five missed calls."
"He kept phoning," Joanne said. "It was so sad. I don't understand why he thought it was a good idea to keep phoning."
"It was the worst night of his life," I said.
"Yeah, yeah, for sure, for sure," Michael said.
Finally, Michael picked up the phone. "I said, 'Jonah, you have to stop calling me. This is almost to the point of harassment.' I felt like I was talking him off the ledge. I said, 'Tell me you're not going to do anything stupid.' It was that level of panic. So much so that I thought maybe I should pull back from this. He was, 'Please, please, please,' like a child's toy breaking, droning, running out of batteries, 'Please please, please ...'''
Michael asked me if I'd ever been in that position. Had I ever stumbled on a piece of information that, if published, would destroy someone? Actually destroy them.
I thought for a while. "Destroy someone?" I said. I paused. "No. I don't think so. I'm not sure."
"Don't ever do it," he said.
Michael said he honestly considered not pressing send that night. Jonah had a young daughter the same age as Michael's young daughter. Michael said he couldn't kid himself. He understood what pressing send would mean to Jonah's life: "What we do, when we fuck up, we don't lose our job. We lose our vocation."
***Three: The Wilderness
Runyon Canyon, West Hollywood. If you were a passing hiker and you didn't know that Jonah Lehrer had been totally destroyed, you wouldn't have guessed it. He looked like he did in his old author photographs -- pleasing to the eye, a little aloof, as if he were thinking higher thoughts and expressing them in a considered manner to his fellow hiker -- me. But we weren't having a considered conversation. For the last hour, Jonah had been repeatedly telling me, in a voice strained to its breaking point, "I don't belong in your book."
And I was repeatedly replying, "Yes, you do."
I didn't understand what he was talking about. I was writing a book about public shaming. He had been publicly shamed. He was ideal.
Now he suddenly stopped in the middle of the hiking trail and looked intently at me. "I am a terrible story to put in your book," he said.
"Why?" I said.
"What's that William Dean Howells line?" he said. "'Americans like a tragedy with a happy ending'?"
The actual William Dean Howells line is "What the American public wants in the theater is a tragedy with a happy ending." I think Jonah was close enough.
I was here because Jonah's shaming felt to me like a really important one -- the shape of things to come. He was a dishonest, number-one bestselling author who had been exposed by the sort of person who used to be powerless. And despite seeing Jonah's face etched in panic and misery on the hiking trail, I was sure the renaissance in public shaming was a good thing. Look at who was being laid low -- bigoted Daily Mail columnists, monolithic gym chains with pitiless cancellation policies, and. most heinous of all, horrific academic spambot creators. Jonah had written some very good things during his short career. Some of his work had been wonderful. But he had repeatedly transgressed, he had done bad things, and the uncovering of his lies was appropriate.
Still, as we walked, I felt for Jonah. Close-up, I could see he was suffering terribly. Michael had called his cover-up a "great deception that was very, very well plotted." But I think it was just chaos, and on that last day before the story broke, Jonah wasn't "icy" but wrecked.''I'm just drenched in shame and regret," he had e-mailed me before I flew to Los Angeles to meet him. "The shaming process is fucking brutal."
Jonah was offering the same dismal prediction about his future as Michael and Andrew Wylie had offered. He was foreseeing a lifetime of ruin. Imagine being thirty-one in a country that venerates redemption and second chances, and convinced your tragedy has no happy ending. But I thought he was being too pessimistic. Surely, after paying some penance, after spending some time in the wilderness, he could convince his readers and peers that he could change his ways. He could find a way back in. I mean, we weren't monsters