Part 2 of 2 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.
Science writing had been Jonah Lehrer's ambition from the start. After he'd agreed to meet me, I found an old interview he gave ten years ago, when he was twenty-one.
[He] hopes to become a science writer. "Science is too often perceived as cold," he says. "I want to translate science and show how beautiful it can be."
-- KRISTIN STERLING, Columbia News, DECEMBER 2002
That interview was published on the occasion of the announcement that Jonah had been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford as a graduate student for two years. "Each year 32 young Americans are selected as Rhodes Scholars," according to the Rhodes Scholarship website, "chosen not only for their outstanding scholarly achievements, but for their character, commitment to others and to the common good."
Bill Clinton had been a Rhodes Scholar, as had the cosmologist Edwin Hubble, and the film director Terrence Malick. In 2002 only two Columbia students were awarded the accolade-Jonah Lehrer and Cyrus Habib, who is now, ten years on, one of the few fully blind American politicians and the highest-ranking Iranian-American in political office in the United States, serving in the Washington state legislature. Cyrus Habib sounds amazing.
Jonah began writing his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, while he was still a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Its premise is that the great neuroscience breakthroughs of today had all been made one hundred years ago by artists like Cezanne and Proust. It was a lovely book. Jonah was smart and he wrote well-which isn't the same as saying Mussolini made the trains run on time. Jonah wrote good things throughout his short career, essays untainted by transgression. After Proust came How We Decide and, last, Imagine. Along the way, Jonah earned a fortune giving inspirational keynotes at-to name a few of the innumerable conferences he spoke at that I had never heard of-the 2011 International Association of Business Communicators World Conference in San Diego; FUSION, the Eighth Annual Desire2Learn Users Conference in Denver; and the 2012 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations National Conference in Seattle.
At this last one he told the story of a young athlete-a high jumper who could never clear the bar, however hard he tried. All the other jumpers mocked him. But then he thought counterintuitively about it, invented a new jumping style that would be called the Fosbury Flop, and won the 1968 Olympic gold medal. By now, Jonah was commanding vast speaker fees-tens of thousands of dollars. I suppose he was being rewarded so richly because his messages were inspirational. My talks tend to be more disincentivizing, which, I have noticed, pays less.
The adjective most often applied to Jonah was "Gladwellian," Malcolm Gladwell being the New Yorker writer and author of the era's most successful counterintuitive popscience book, The Tipping Point. Jonah's book jackets looked like Malcolm Gladwell's book jackets. Their jackets looked like Apple computer packaging. Jonah was becoming a sensation. When he switched jobs, it was a news story.
JONAH LEHRER JUMPS FROM WIRED TO THE NEW YORKER
Jonah Lehrer, the author of the popular science books "Proust Was a Scientist [sic]," "How We Decide" and 2012's "Imagine," has left his post as a contributing editor at Wired for the New Yorker, where he'll be a staff writer.
In many ways, Lehrer is a younger, brain-centered version of Gladwell, making him a natural New Yorker fit.
-- CAROLYN KELLOGG. Los Angeles Times. JUNE 7, 2012
Jonah resigned from The New Yorker after seven weeks in the job, the day Michael's article appeared. On the Sunday night before publication, Jonah had been giving a keynote at the 2012 Meeting Professionals International's World Education Congress in St. Louis. The subject of his talk was the importance of human interaction. During the talk -- according to a tweet posted by an audience member, the journalist Sarah Braley-Jonah revealed that since the invention of Skype, attendance at meetings had actually gone up by 30 percent. After he left the stage, Sarah found him and asked where that implausible statistic had come from. "A conversation with a Harvard professor," he replied. But when she requested the professor's name, he mysteriously refused to divulge it. ''I'd have to ask him if it's all right to tell you," he explained. She gave Jonah her card but never heard from him, which didn't surprise her because the next morning he was disgraced and resigned his job.
In the days that followed, Jonah's publisher withdrew and pulped every copy of Imagine still in circulation, and offered refunds to all who had bought one. The Dylan quotes had been enough to bring Jonah down. His subsequent panic spiral was definitely enough-Michael wrote in his expose that Jonah had "stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied" to him. Internet message boards were replete with comments like "The twerp is such a huge over-achiever that there's something delightful about seeing him humbled" (The Guardian) and "Save the royalties from your book, blockhead, 'cause you're gonna need the money" (The New York Times) and "It must be strange to be so full of lies" (Tablet).
In Brooklyn, Michael was agonizing over whether he'd been right to press send. Although he'd essentially seen his takedown of Jonah as a righteous strike against the popscience genre- "To make a tight little package where my mother would be like, 'Ooh, I just read this thing, did you know that X leads to Y,' you have to fucking cut corners" -- Andrew Wylie's words were haunting him. Maybe it wasn't enough to ruin a man's life over.
But there was worse to come. Wired magazine asked the journalism professor Charles Seife to study eighteen columns Jonah had written for them. All but one, he reported, revealed "evidence of some journalistic misdeed." It was mainly Jonah reusing his own sentences in different stories, but that wasn't all. Imagine if I had failed to put quotation marks around the sentences I lifted earlier from the Rhodes Scholarship website. It was that kind of pervasive sloppiness/plagiarism. Probably the worst infraction was that Jonah had taken some paragraphs from a blog written by Christian Jarrett of the British Psychological Society and passed them off as his own.
Michael was massively relieved-he told me-that "the rot spidered out to every book, every piece of journalism."
Jonah vanished, leaving a final, innocent prehumiliation tweet like a plate of congealing food on the Mary Celeste.
Fiona Apple'snew album is "astonishing," rhapsodizes @sfj.
-- @JONAHLEHRER, JUNE 18, 2012
He ignored all interview requests. He resurfaced only once, to briefly tell Los Angeles magazine's Amy Wallace that he wasn't giving any interviews. So it was a great surprise when he responded to my e-mail. He was "happy to be in touch," he wrote me, and "happy to chat on the phone or whatever." In the end, we arranged to go hiking in the Hollywood Hills. I flew to Los Angeles even though his final e-mail to me included an unexpected and unsettling sentence toward the end: ''I'm not sure I'm ready to be a case study or talk on the record."
It seemed appropriate that we were hiking in a desert canyon, because his punishment felt quite biblical, a public shaming followed by a casting out into the wilderness, although that analogy only went so far because biblical wildernesses tend not to be filled with extremely beautiful movie stars and models walking their dogs.
We walked in silence for a while. Then Jonah listed two more reasons (alongside the "Americans want tragedies with happy endings" one) why I shouldn't write about him. First, if I was planning to be kind to him, he didn't deserve it. And, second, a warning: "What I mostly feel is intensely radioactive. So even people who come to me with good intentions, I end up transferring my isotopes onto them."
Jonah was saying that spending time with him would ruin me in some unexpected way. "Well, that's not going to happen to me!" I laughed.
"Then you'll be the first," he said.
As he said this, a bolt of panic shot into me. It was a frightening thing for someone to say. Still, I kept trying to convince him, on and on, but each line of reasoning seemed to make him more anguished, as if I were a siren trying to lure him to the rocks with my song of possible redemption. He said his worst days were when he allowed himself to hope for a second chance. The best were when he knew it was over forever and his destruction was necessary as a deterrent to others.
I gave up. Jonah drove me back to my hotel. In the car I stared at my lap, exhausted, like a cold-caller after a long shift.
Then, suddenly, Jonah said, "I've decided to make a public apology."
I looked up at him. "Have you?"
"Next week," Jonah said. "In Miami. At a Knight lunch."
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation was created by the owners of the Chicago Daily News and The Miami Herald to fund young journalists with innovative ideas. There was to be a conference for the fund organizers, Jonah said, and he'd been asked to deliver the after-lunch keynote on the final day. As an advocate of digital media, the foundation planned to broadcast his speech live on its website.
"I keep writing and scrapping and rewriting it," Jonah said. "Would you read it over? Maybe after that we can discuss whether I fit your narrative?"
I am the author of a book on creativity that is best known because it contained several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes. I committed plagiarism on my blog. I lied. repeatedly, to a journalist named Michael Moynihan to cover up the Dylan fabrications.
I sat on the plane reading Jonah's apology speech. It was a stark opening-an unembellished declaration of guilt, followed by an account of his shame and regret.
I think about all the readers I've disappointed, people who paid good money for my book and now don't want it on their shelves.
I was surprised by his candor. Jonah had insisted on our hike that if he did decide to give me an interview the one off-limit topic would be the shame. It was too private and personal, he said. But by the next sentence, it became dear that the shame was something he intended to deal with as hurriedly as possible on the way to something else. This was, it quickly became dear, an apology speech like no other. He was going to explain his flaws within the context of neuroscience. It was a Jonah Lehrer keynote speech on the unique flaws of smart people like Jonah Lehrer. He began comparing himself to inadvertently imperfect scientists working at the FBI forensics lab. Innocent people had been convicted of terrorism because brilliant FBI scientists were "victims of their hidden brain, undone by flaws so deep-seated they don't even notice their existence."
He gave an example-an Oregon lawyer, Brandon Mayfield, who was falsely accused by the FBI of committing the Madrid bombings of March 2004. A fingerprint had been lifted from a bag of detonators found at the scene. After the FBI fed it into their database, Mayfield's name came back as a match.
The detectives soon discovered that Mayfield was a Muslim, married to an Egyptian immigrant, and had represented a convicted terrorist in a child custody dispute.
The FBI held Mayfield for two weeks before acknowledging that the fingerprint match was "not even close." In fact, the agency had fallen victim to something known as confirmation bias. It was taking seriously only those pieces of information that confirmed the preexisting belief that Mayfield was the culprit. It was unconsciously filtering out evidence that pointed to his innocence. As a result of the scandal, the FBI implemented rigorous new reforms to root out errors. It would be great-Jonah ended his speech by saying-if something like that could happen with him. If I'm lucky enough to write again, I won't write a thing that isn't fact-checked and fully footnoted. Because here is what I've learned: unless I'm willing to continually grapple with my failings-until I'm forced to fix my first draft, and deal with criticism of the second, and submit the final for a good, independent scrubbing-I won't create anything worth keeping around.
This was the happy ending Jonah believed Americans wanted. As I sat on the plane, I realized I had no idea if his speech was good or bad, or if it would go down poorly or well. The FBI stuff was overly tangential and evasive. Jonah wasn't really like the FBI. As it happens, I've done my own research on the perils of confirmation bias and agree with Jonah that it is a powerful bias indeed, often found at the heart of miscarriages of justice. In fact, ever since I first learned about confirmation bias, I've been seeing it everywhere. Everywhere. But even a confirmation bias aficionado like me could see that Jonah hadn't succumbed to it. Deliberately padding out Bob Dylan quotes to fit a thesis about the creative process wasn't confirmation bias.
So I found the FBI digression a bit slippery, but there was still a good chance his speech could be like the end of Neil Diamond's The Jazz Singer, where the disgraced synagogue cantor wins over the congregation by reminding them how beautiful his singing voice is. I e-mailed Jonah to say I thought his speech was fantastic. He sent me an appreciative reply. I asked him if I could come with him to Miami. He said no.
I am the author of a book on creativity that ... contained several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes ... I lied to a journalist named Michael Moynihan.
Jonah was at the Knight Foundation lectern, standing very still. I was watching at home on my computer. In his old lucrative public-speaking days, his voice would rise and fall to emphasize this word or that, but now he sounded flat, like a scared child in front of the class. This was the most important speech of his life. He was begging for a second chance. If things weren't stressful enough for him, the Knight Foundation had decided to erect a giant screen behind his head that displayed a live Twitter feed. Anyone watching from home could tweet their ongoing opinion of Jonah's request for forgiveness using the hashtag #infoneeds and their comment would automatically appear, in real time and in gigantic letters, right next to Jonah's face. A second screen was positioned within his sightline.
I saw Jonah's eyes flicker to it.
Wow. Jonah Lehrer talk dives directly into a listing of failures, errors and mea culpa.
And that, people, is how you apologize.
During the preceding seven months, Jonah had been disgraced and ridiculed and cast out. He had shuffled along the canyons of Los Angeles in a never-ending sweat of guilt and shame, a constant clenched pain. And now, suddenly, there was light. I felt as if I were witnessing a kind of miracle. Just like with my spambot men, we knew when to shame and when to stop. It was as if we instinctively understood that Jonah's punishment had reached an appropriate peak and now it was time to listen to what he had to say.
And then Jonah moved on to the FBI analogy.
I'd like to tell you a story that has given me a little hope. It's a story about a mistake and how it was fixed. It's a story that I was working on at the time my career fell apart. The story is about forensic science.
It quickly became extremely clear to Jonah, and to me watching at home, that the audience had no interest in his opinions on forensic science. Perhaps they would have had at some point in his career. But not anymore.
Jonah Lehrer boring people into forgiving him for his plagiarism.
I am not feeling terribly convinced by the deadpan mea culpa droning on by @JonahLehrer.
I can't handle watching the @JonahLehrer apology. He is boring and unconvincing. Time for something else.
Jonah carried on. He talked of how, a month before he resigned from his job, he interviewed the behavioral economist Dan Ariely on the subject of how "the human mind is a confabulation machine."
"The human mind is a confabulation machine." Now 'that's' passing the buck.
Using shoddy Pop-psych to explain inability to even write shoddy Pop-psych from scratch.
Jonah Lehrer is a friggin' sociopath.
Trapped at the lectern, Jonah had twenty minutes of his speech to go, followed by the Q&A.
I agreed with the tweeter who wrote that Jonah was passing the buck when he said that the human mind was "a confabulation machine." But by mid-apology, it seemed irrelevant whether the criticisms had legitimacy. They were cascading into his sightline in a torrent. Jonah was being told in the most visceral, instantaneous way that there was no forgiveness for him, no possibility of reentry.
The only way @JonahLehrer can redeem himself from his failures is by doing completely different work. He is tainted as a writer forever.
I have zero inclination to forgive or read his future work.
Rantings of a Delusional. Unrepentant Narcissist.
Jonah Lehrer's speech should be titled "Recognizing self-deluded assholes and how to avoid them in the future."
Still, he was forced to continue. He had no choice. He had to reach the end. He flatly intoned that he hoped that one day, "when I tell my young daughter the same story I've just told you, I will be a better person because of it. More humble."
Wait, Jonah Lehrer is speaking at a journalism conference? Did they run out of people who aren't frauds with interesting stuff to say?
Jonah Lehrer putting on a great demonstration of the emptiness of pop behavior-psych: a moral defective tries to blame cognitive failure.
He has not proven that he is capable of feeling shame.
Power shifts fast. Jonah was being punished on Twitter because he was perceived to have misused his privilege, but he was on the floor then, and people were still kicking, and congratulating themselves for punching up.
The speech ended with a polite round of applause from the people in the same room as he was.
Amid the tidal wave of abuse, there had been some calls for humanity, a few tweeters noting the terrible strangeness of what was unfolding.
Ugh, Jonah Lehrer is apologizing next to a live Twitter feed of people mocking him. It's basically a 21st century town square flogging.
Jonah Lehrer is a real person. Twitter is making me so uncomfortable right now.
Jonah Lehrer's crimes are significant, but apologizing in front of a giant-screen Twitter feed seems cruel and unusual punishment.
But all that was wiped away when someone tweeted: Did Lehrer get paid to be there today?
Of course he didn't, I thought.
And then Knight answered that question.
Jonah Lehrer was paid $20K to speak about plagiarism at Knight lunch.
Wish I could get paid $20,000 to say that I'm a lying dirtbag.
And so on, until late that evening, when this tweet arrived.
Journalism foundation apologizes for paying $20,000 to disgraced author Jonah Lehrer.
Jonah e-mailed. "Today was really awful. I'm filled with all sorts of regret."
I sent him a sympathetic reply. I said I thought he should donate the $20,000 to charity.
"Nothing can turn this around," he replied. ''I've got to be realistic about that. I shouldn't have accepted the invitation to speak, but now it's too late."
Fuck off, you can't even do your apology without slotting it into some stupid Jonah framework," Michael Moynihan said to me over lunch at Cookshop in New York City. Michael shook his head in wonder. "That wasn't an apology. It was a string of Gladwellian bullshit. He was on autopilot. He was a robot: 'Let me get this study from some academic.' All the words he used to describe his dishonesty. It was like a thesaurus had landed on his head." Michael paused. "Oh!" he said. "Someone sent me a text. I thought he was reading way too much into it. But he pointed out to me that Jonah said, 'I lied to a journalist CALLED Michael Moynihan.' I love that. I said, 'Yeah. I see what you're saying.' He didn't lie to 'journalist Michael Moynihan.' That's the great trick of the language. 'A journalist CALLED Michael Moynihan.' 'Who's this fucking schlub?'''
Michael took a bite of his steak. The fact was, his was a great scoop. It was great journalism, and what did Michael get from it? Some congratulatory tweets, which probably give you a bit of a dopamine rush or something, but otherwise nothing: $2,200 plus a veiled insult from Jonah if Michael and his friend weren't being paranoid about that part.
Michael shook his head. "Nothing came out of this for me," he said.
In fact, it was worse than nothing. Michael had noticed that people were starting to feel scared of him. Fellow journalists. A few days before our lunch, some panicked writer-someone Michael barely knew-had confessed out of the blue that a biography he'd written might have inadvertently veered into plagiarism.
"Like I adjudicate these things," said Michael.
Whether Michael liked it or not, there was fear in the air now because of what had happened to Jonah. But Michael didn't want to be some witchfinder general, roaming the countryside with writers blurting out declarations of guilt to him, begging his forgiveness for crimes he hadn't known they'd committed.
"You turn around and you suddenly realize you're the head of a pitchfork mob," Michael said. "And it's 'What are these people fucking doing here? Why are they acting like heathens? I don't want to be associated with this at all. I want to get out of here.' "
"It was horrible," I said. "All this time I'd been thinking we were in the middle of some kind of idealistic reimagining of the justice system. But those people were so cold."
The response to Jonah's apology had been brutal and confusing to me. It felt as if the people on Twitter had been invited to be characters in a courtroom drama, and had been allowed to choose their roles, and had all gone for the part of the hanging judge. Or it was even worse than that. They all had gone for the part of the people in the lithographs being ribald at whippings.
"I'm watching people stabbing and stabbing and stabbing Jonah," Michael said, "and I'm, 'HE'S DEAD.'''
The next day I drove from New York to Boston to visit the Massachusetts Archives and the Massachusetts Historical Society. Given how vicious the resurgence of public shaming had suddenly turned, I wondered why that type of punishment had been phased out in the nineteenth century. I had assumed-like most people do, I think-that this demise was due to the migration from villages to cities. Shame became ineffectual because pilloried people could lose themselves in the anonymous crowd as soon as the chastisement was over. Shame had lost its power to shame. That was my assumption. Was it right?
I parked my car outside the Massachusetts Archives, a slablike Brutalist building on the waterfront near the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Inside were the microfilms that preserve early legal documents handwritten by the Puritan settlers. I took my seat at a microfilm reader and began to carefully scroll through them. For the first hundred years, as far as I could tell, all that happened in America was that various people named Nathaniel had purchased land near rivers. The spindly words swirled on the fraying pages. They really should have spent more time on paragraph breaks back then and less time on the letter f I began to speed up, scrolling unprofessionally, decades passing before me in seconds, until I suddenly found myself face-to-face with an early American shaming.
It was July 15, 1742. A woman named Abigail Gilpin, her husband at sea, was found "naked in bed with one John Russell." They were both to be "whipped at the public whipping post twenty stripes each." Abigail was not appealing the whipping itself, but was begging the judge to "let me have my punishment before the people are stirring. If your honor pleases, take some pity on me for my dear children, who cannot help their mother's unfortunate failings."
The documents don't reveal whether the judge consented, but straight after that, I found a transcript of a sermon that offered a clue as to why she might have pled for a private whipping. The sermon, by the Reverend Nathan Strong of Hartford, Connecticut, was an entreaty to people to be less exuberant at executions: "Do not go to that place of horror with elevated spirits, and gay hearts, for death is there! Justice and judgment are there! The power of government, displayed in its most awful form, is there ... The person who can go and look on death merely to gratify an idle humor is destitute both of humanity and piety."
After lunch, I traveled the few miles to the Massachusetts Historical Society, a grand old townhouse on Boylston Street. I remembered something Jonah had e-mailed me before I flew to Los Angeles: "The shaming process is fucking brutal." I thought about the phrase "shaming process." It was probably reassuring for a shamee to envisage their punishment as a process rather than a free-for-all. If you're being destroyed, you want to feel that the people tearing you apart at least know what they're doing. Well, maybe less delicate shamees wouldn't care how orderly their shaming was, but Jonah struck me as someone for whom structure was important and someone who had only ever wanted to impress people and fit in.
It turned out that public shaming had once been a process. A book of Delaware laws I discovered at the Massachusetts Historical Society revealed that if Jonah had been found guilty of "lying or publishing false news" in the 1800s, he would have been "fined, placed in the stocks for a period not exceeding four hours, or publicly whipped with not more than forty stripes." If the judge had chosen a whipping, local newspapers would have published a digest detailing the amount of squirming that had occurred. "Rash and Hayden squirmed considerably during the performance, and their backs were well-scarred," wrote the Delawarean of an 1876 whipping. If Jonah's whipper had been deemed to have not whipped hard enough, the reviews would have been scathing. "Suppressed remarks were expressed by large numbers. Many were heard to say that the punishment was a farce. Drunken fights and rows followed in rapid succession," reported Delaware's Wilmington Daily Commercial after a disappointing 1873 whipping.
The common assumption is that public punishments died out in the new great metropolises because they'd been judged useless. Everyone was too busy being industrious to bother to trail some transgressor through the city crowds like some volunteer scarlet letter. But at the archives I found no evidence that public shaming fell out of fashion as a result of newfound anonymity. I did, however, find plenty of people from centuries past bemoaning its out sized cruelty, warning that well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take it too far. But according to the documents I found, that wasn't it at all. They didn't fizzle out because they were ineffective. They were stopped because they were far too brutal.
The movement against public shaming was already in full flow in March 1787 when Benjamin Rush, a United States founding father, wrote a paper calling for their outlawing -- the stocks, the pillory, the whipping post, the lot.
Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death . . . It would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment than death, did we not know that the human mind seldom arrives at truth up on any subject till it has first reached the extremity of error.
-- BENJAMIN RUSH, "AN ENQUIRY INTO THE EFFECTS OF PUBLIC PUNISHMENTS UPON CRIMINALS, AND UPON SOCIETY," MARCH 9, 1787
In case you consider Rush too much of a bleeding-heart liberal, it's worth pointing out that his proposition for alternatives to public shaming included taking the criminal into a private room-away from the public gaze-and administering "bodily pain."
To ascertain the nature, degrees, and duration of the bodily pain will require some knowledge of the principles of sensation and of the sympathies which occur in the nervous system.
Public punishments were abolished within fifty years of Rush's paper, with only Delaware weirdly holding out until 1952 (which is why the Delaware whipping critiques I excerpt were published in the 1870s).
The New York Times, baffled by Delaware's obstinacy, tried to argue the state into change in an 1867 editorial.
If it had previously existed in [the convicted person's) bosom a spark of self-respect this exposure to public shame utterly extinguishes it. Without the hope that springs eternal in the human breast, without some desire to reform and become a good citizen, and the feeling that such a thing is possible, no criminal can ever return to honorable courses. The boy of eighteen who is whipped at New Castle [a Delaware whipping post] for larceny is in nine cases out of ten ruined. With his self-respect destroyed and the taunt and sneer of public disgrace branded upon his forehead, he feels himself lost and abandoned by his fellows.
-- QUOTED IN ROBERT GRAHAM CALDWELL, Red Hannah: Delaware's Whipping Post
As Jonah Lehrer stood in front of that giant-screen Twitter feed on February 12, 2013, he experienced something that had been widely considered appalling in the eighteenth century.
I left the Massachusetts Historical Society, took out my phone, and asked Twitter, "Has Twitter become a kangaroo court?"
"Not a kangaroo court," someone replied quite tersely. "Twitter still can't impose real sentences. Just commentary. Only unlike you, Jon, we aren't paid for it."
Was he right? It felt like a question that really needed answering because it didn't seem to be crossing any of our minds to wonder whether the person we had just shamed was okay or in ruins. I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.
Lehrer's intention in submitting himself to a public grilling was to show the world that he's ready to return to journalism, that we can trust him because he knows now not to trust himself. All he proved is that he's not wired like the rest of us. If he can figure out why that is, that would be a neuroscience story worth publishing.
-- JEFF BERCOVICI. Forbes, FEBRUARY 12, 2013
I've been banging the drum for Lehrer to quiet his detractors and bank some goodwill by donating that $20,000 to charity ... Finally, I managed to get him on the phone this afternoon. ''I'm not interested in commenting," he told me. Could he at least say whether he planned to keep the money? "I read your article. I have nothing to say to you," he said, before hanging up.
-- JEFF BERCOVICI, Forbes. FEBRUARY 13, 2013
''I'm still not entirely sure what I can give you .. " Jonah was talking to me on the phone from his home in Los Angeles.
"The twenty thousand dollars ... " I said.
"It was absolutely a mistake," he said. "I didn't ask for it. It was offered. They just gave it to me. I mean, what else do you want? I ... " Jonah paused. "Look, I got bills to pay. I haven't earned a penny in seven months. I was flying high, I was making lots of money. And all of a sudden you're making no money."
Jonah had finally agreed to a lengthier interview. He sounded exhausted, like he'd been inside some spinning machine designed by aliens to test the effects of stress on humans. For a smart man, everything he'd done from the moment Michael first e-mailed him had been a giant miscalculation. He'd been like a popped balloon shooting wildly in all directions, lying frantically to Michael before slumping, the air all gone, in the middle of one of the most terrible shamings of our time.
"A friend forwarded me a blog post by Jerry Coyne from the University of Chicago," Jonah said. "An eminent guy, I interviewed him on occasion. He wrote a blog post about me where he called me a sociopath."
I sense that Lehrer is a bit of a sociopath. Yes, shows of contrition are often phony, meant to convince a gullible public (as in Lance Armstrong's case) that they're good to go again. But Lehrer can't even be bothered to fake an apology that sounds meaningful. Call me uncharitable, but if I were a magazine editor, I'd never hire him.
-- JERRY COYNE, QUOTED ON RICHARDBOWKER.COM, FEBRUARY 18, 2013
"I thought of you," Jonah said. "I thought, That's an interesting question for Jon. Jon's spent some time with me. Maybe I am a sociopath."
The question didn't surprise me. Ever since I published a book about psychopaths, people have been asking me if they're one (or, if not them, their boss or their ex-boyfriend or Lance Armstrong). Perhaps Jonah was honestly intrigued by the possibility that he was one, but I didn't think so. I think he knew he wasn't, and he had a different reason for wanting to have this conversation. Academics shouldn't diagnose people from afar as sociopaths. It was a stupid thing for Jerry Coyne to have done. I think Jonah wanted us to bitch about his stupidity for a moment. It would be a way for him to recover some self-esteem-to do a bit of shaming of someone else. Jonah was at rock bottom, so I was happy to go along with it. I told Jonah that he didn't seem like someone who had no conscience.
"Who the hell knows what a conscience is," Jonah replied. "If a conscience is living in a world defined by regrets, then, yeah, I've got a conscience. My very first thought every morning is what I've done wrong. That sounds self-pitying and I'd like you not to use that quote, but there's no other way around it."
"If it felt really important to use that quote, could I?" I asked him.
Jonah sighed. "I mean, it depends how you use it, but I'd prefer you not use it," he replied.
I use the quote here because it seems important, given that so many people imagine Jonah has some neurological lack of conscience.
"Regrets of the sort I have are all-consuming," Jonah continued. "I think about what I've done to the people I loved. What I've put my wife through. What I've put my brother through. What I've put my parents through. That is haunting. Long after I get over the loss of my status, and the loss of my career, which I enjoyed, I will never ... Life is short. And I have caused tremendous pain to the people I love. I don't know what that feeling's called. Remorse sounds about right. There's a tremendous amount of remorse. And as time passes, that isn't going away. It is miserable and haunting."
I heard Jonah's daughter crying in the background. We talked about the "slippery slope" that led to the fake Dylan quotes. It began with the self-plagiarism-with Jonah reusing his own paragraphs in different stories. I told him I didn't consider that the crime of the century. "Frank Sinatra doesn't only sing 'My Way' once," I said.
"The self-plagiarism should have been a warning sign," Jonah said. "It should have been a sign that I was stretched. If I needed to recycle my own material, why was I bothering to write this blog post in the first place? Look, we can debate the ethics of it. And I've certainly heard lots of debate about this. But at the time I didn't think it was wrong. If I'd thought it was wrong, I would have taken some trouble to hide my tracks." He paused. "It should have been a huge flashing neon sign telling me, 'You are getting careless.' You're taking shortcuts and not noticing, and shortcuts become habits, and you excuse them because you're too busy. I wasn't turning anything down."
"What would have been wrong with turning things down?" I asked.
"It was some toxic mixture of insecurity and ambition," said Jonah. "I always felt like a fad. I felt like I was going to be hot for a second and then I would disappear. So I had to act while I could. And there was just some deep-seated . . . I sound like I'm on a couch with my shrink ... some very dangerous and reckless ambition. You combine insecurity and ambition, and you get an inability to say no to things. And then one day you get an e-mail saying there's these four [six] Dylan quotes, and they can't be explained, and they can't be found anywhere else, and you realize you made them up in your book proposal three years before, and you were too lazy, too stupid, to ever check. I can only wish, and I wish this profoundly, I'd had the temerity, the courage, to do a fact check on my last book. But as anyone who does a fact check knows, they're not particularly fun things to go through. Your story gets a little flatter. You're forced to grapple with all your mistakes, conscious and unconscious ... "
"So you forgot that the fake quotes were in the book?" I asked Jonah.
"Porget gets me off the hook too easily," he replied. "I didn't want to remember. So I made no effort to. I wrote well. So why check?"
"So you were sloppy?"
"I don't want to just blame sloppiness," he said. "It was sloppiness and deception. Sloppiness and lies. I lied to cover up the sloppiness."
I'd been thinking that when I told Jonah his speech was fantastic it was probably a bad steer. In truth, I'd needed to read it three or four times on the plane because the words kept swirling around on the page, and I didn't know whether that was a reflection of attention deficiency on my part or abstruse phrasing on Jonah's. But like all journalists, I really love a scoop-a scoop keeps at bay the scream of failure-and I thought that telling him it was fantastic was my best chance of winning the interview.
"I worked really hard on it," Jonah said. "I was looking at the Twitter stream during it and the things people were saying ... Some people saw the FBI analogies as the worst possible thing in the world. But that's not some deceptive trick. That's the way I make sense of the world. That's how I think. Clearly it was a mistake. But ... "
"That Twitter stream!" I said.
"I was trying to apologize, and to see the response to it live ... I didn't know if I was going to get through that. I had to turn off some emotional switch in me. I think I had to shutdown."
"What are the tweets you remember most?"
"It wasn't the totally off-the-wall cruel ones, because those are so easy to discount," he said. "It's the ones that mixed in a little tenderness with the shiv."
"I don't want to ... "
Jonah said he couldn't judge why people "got so mad" about his apology. I said I thought it was because it sounded too much like a Jonah Lehrer speech from the old days. People wanted to see him altered somehow. His not being overtly cowed gave the audience permission to envisage him dramatically, a monster immune to shame.
"They didn't want you to intellectualize it," I said. "They wanted you to be emotional. If you'd been more emotional, they'd have gone for it more."
Jonah sighed. "That may have been a better strategy," he said. "But it wasn't a strategy I wanted to rehearse onstage. It was not something I wanted to share with the universe, with everyone on Twitter. I didn't want to talk about how this had ruined me. That's something for me to deal with, and for my loved ones to help me through. But that's not something I wanted to get up onstage in front of the Internet and talk about."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Oh, gosh, I don't know," said Jonah. "Could you do that?"
"Yes," I said. "I think I could. And I think that would mean I'd survive better than you."
"So what would Jon Ronson's apology speech be?" Jonah said. "What would you say?"
"Right," I said. "I'd say okay ... I ... Hello. I'm Jon Ronson and I want to apologize for " What would I say? I cleared my throat. "I just want everyone to know that I'm really upset ... "
Jonah was listening patiently on the line. I stopped. Even though I was just play-acting, I felt wiped out. And I hadn't really even got anywhere in my attempt.
"What happened to you is my worst nightmare," I said. "Yeah," Jonah replied. "It was mine too."
Four more months passed. The winter became the early summer. Then, unexpectedly, Andrew Wylie began shopping a new Jonah Lehrer book proposal around New York City's publishers. A Book About Love. The proposal was immediately leaked to The New York Times. In it Jonah described the moment he felt "the shiver of a voice mail message."
I have been found out. I puke into a recycling bin. And then I start to cry. Why was I crying? I had been caught in a lie, a desperate attempt to conceal my mistakes. And now it was clear that, within 24 hours, my fall would begin. I would lose my job and my reputation. My private shame would become public.
Jonah then described leaving St. Louis and returning to Los Angeles, his suit and shirt "stained with sweat and vomit."
I open the front door and take off my dirty shirt and weep on the shoulder of my wife. My wife is caring but confused: How the hell could I be so reckless? I have no good answers.
-- JONAH LEHRER'S BOOK PROPOSAL, AS LEAKED TO The New York Times, JUNE 6, 2013
The New York media community declared itself resolutely indifferent to Jonah's suffering. "'Recycling bin' is a hilarious choice of detail for the compulsive plagiarist," wrote Gawker's Tom Scocca. "And, obviously: Bring us two witnesses who saw you puke when and where you claim you puked. Or don't bother."
And then, to my amazement, Slate's Daniel Engber announced that he had spent a day combing through Jonah's proposal and believed he had uncovered plagiarism within it.
Surely Jonah hadn't been that insanely reckless?
When I read Engber's article closer, things didn't seem quite so clear-cut. "A chapter on the secret to having a happy marriage," Engber writes, "comes close to copying a recent essay on the same subject by Adam Gopnik, Lehrer's onetime colleague at The New Yorker."
Gopnik: In 1838, when Darwin was first thinking of marriage, he made an irresistible series of notes on the subject-a scientific-seeming list of marriage pros and cons ... In favor of marriage, he included the acquisition of a "constant companion and friend in old age" and, memorably and conclusively, decided that a wife would be "better than a dog, anyhow."
Lehrer: In July 1838,Charles Darwin considered the possibility of marriage in his scientific notebook. His thoughts quickly took the shape of a list, a balance sheet of reasons to "marry" and "not marry." The pros of wedlock were straightforward: Darwin cited the possibility of children ("if it please God"), the health benefits of attachment and the pleasure of having a "constant companion (& friend in old age)." A wife, he wrote, was probably "better than a dog anyhow."
Gopnik: And the Darwins went on to have something close to an ideal marriage.
Lehrer: This might seem like an inauspicious start to a relationship, but the Darwins went on to have a nearly ideal marriage.
And so on, for a few paragraphs. Engber wasn't totally sure this counted as plagiarism, "or if [Lehrer] modified his words to stop just short of doing so." Or maybe both men had drawn from the same source: "In the footnotes Lehrer cites page 661 of Desmond and Moore's 1991 biography of Darwin. Anyone who has a copy of that book is invited to check the wordings."
But even if it wasn't plagiarism, Engber was "convinced that Lehrer hasn't changed his ways at all. He's set his course as clearly as can be. He'll recycle and repeat, he'll puke his gritty guts out."
No matter what transgressions Jonah had or hadn't committed-it seemed to me-he couldn't win. But his Book About Love is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster around the same time that this book will appear, so we'll all learn at once if it will win him some redemption.
Four: God That Was Awesome
During the months that followed, it became routine. Everyday people, some with young children, were getting annihilated for tweeting some badly worded joke to their hundred or so followers. I'd meet them in restaurants and airport cafes-spectral figures wandering the earth like the living dead in the business wear of their former lives. It was happening with such regularity that it didn't even seem coincidental that one of them, Justine Sacco
, had been working in the same office building as Michael Moynihan until three weeks earlier when, passing through Heathrow Airport, she wrote a tweet that came out badly.