The incomplete contrition of serial liar Stephen Glass.

Media criticism.
Nov. 7 2003 9:51 PM

Half a Glass

The incomplete contrition of serial liar Stephen Glass.

Stephen Glass
Six steps for Stephen Glass

Stephen Glass lay low after New Republic Editor Charles Lane busted him in 1998 for fabricating hundreds of facts, quotations, individuals, and events in dozens of stories. Removing himself from the public eye, Glass finished law school at Georgetown University and clerked for a D.C. judge, and whenever he accidentally encountered former New Republic chums, he'd cross the street and run in the opposite direction.

Glass then moved to New York City where he continued to live as anonymously as Thomas Pynchon. His reclusion was so absolute that as recently as 2001 he avoided attending a wedding on the long shot that he might bump into a journalist (me) that he scarcely even knew. He completely dropped out.

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With the May 2003 publication of The Fabulist, * his self-serving roman a clef about his serial treachery and ensuing humiliation, Glass began his re-entry into the public sphere, appearing on 60 Minutes and sitting down for interviews with the New York Times and Salon to discuss his book and the new bio-pic about his perfidy: Shattered Glass.

On Friday, Nov. 7, Glass accelerated his coming out by appearing on an ethics panel at George Washington University where more than 60 students, faculty, and journalists listened as he discussed his transgressions in a soft voice and took questions from the audience. Wearing a white T-shirt that peeked out from under a dark crew-neck shirt topped by a corduroy jacket, Glass looked a little like a free-lance priest as he apologized repetitiously about causing so much pain to so many people with his lies and betrayals.

"There is almost nobody I didn't betray," Glass said. "I've led a pretty unethical life."

In answer to a panelist's question about why he did what he did, he claimed a new self-knowledge based on "a number of years of therapy." Self-loathing and self-hatred drove him to his dastardly deeds: "I was a very broken person."

"I would be working on a story and find it not to be good," he said. By inventing racy details that improved his stories, he hoped that "people would think better of me, and I would think better of me." Instead, the published lies only increased his low self-regard. An ugly feedback loop, you might say.

The audience alternately empathized with Glass and pummeled him with tough but polite questions. But it was Andrew Sullivan who set aside Glass' psychobabble with a set of searing questions and denunciations. Sullivan, the New Republiceditor who had hired Glass, accused him of compounding his moral errors by publishing The Fabulist for a reported six-figure advance. (Glass refused to confirm or deny the amount when Sullivan asked directly.) How can you defend profiting from your betrayal by publishing this book, Sullivan wanted to know, how can you so shamelessly exploit your fame and dare to appear on an ethics panel?

"If you had any integrity, you would go away," Sullivan growled with a hint of a grin, dismissing Glass' excuse that he invented his stories to win love from his magazine peers. "You were loved [at the magazine]," Sullivan continued. "I didn't know anybody at the New Republic who was as loved as you."

Anybody else would have spontaneously combusted at Sullivan's assault, or sputtered out a defense, or punched him out. But Glass took Sullivan's punches like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. "I don't know how I can demonstrate my remorse," Glass responded, a sentiment he used earlier in the session and would use again.