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.

Glass's inadequacy on the contrition front rang as false as anything he's ever written. Although he has recently penned personal letters of apology to many of the New Republiccolleagues he duped, his "faction" novel undercuts those regrets. He portrays himself as a victim in The Fabulist and presents easily identifiable co-workers as the ass, the flunky, and the backstabber. (Please don't tell me it's "just a novel.")

There are many paths to redemption the wicked can choose. Confession, for example. Regret and apology often work, as do acts of contrition and humility. But a roman à clef in which the evil-doer comes out on top to the detriment of those he harmed would not make my list.

Glass probably thinks that his therapy has set him on a course that will return him to humanity's good graces, and that his five years of self-imposed silence and urban hermitry constitute some sort of penance. They don't, of course. But what gestures could this pariah make that would satisfy me and dull Andrew Sullivan's righteous anger? Because Glass swaddles himself in the language of recovery, I'm not out of bounds to prescribe him a 6-Step Program for making amends. To wit:

1) Sullivan makes an excellent point when he notes that The Fabulist compounds Glass' sins because he deliberately traded on his notoriety for commercial gain. Nobody would have published this book had it been a pure act of imagination. Glass should repudiate the book, return the money to the publisher, or give it to a charity.

2) Glass should block the publication of a paperback edition of The Fabulist to avoid any additional gain from his heinous behavior. Lest I be accused of Comstockery, I propose that Glass make his novel available for free on the Web for the edification of the curious.

3) There are at least a dozen Glass articles that the New Republichas never been able to verify. Glass, who parried questions about the veracity of those articles, should correct the record. Until he comes completely clean about his journalism, his remorse is empty.

4) Glass recently wrote a piece for Rolling Stone, indicating a desire to return to journalism. Until he completes Steps 1, 2, and 3, he shouldn't even think of writing for publication.

5) Glass passed the New York state bar exam and awaits the review of the bar's character and witness examiners. Unless they find evidence of criminal wrongdoing, he'll probably win approval. Washington City Paper's Tom Scocca made an excellent observation at the discussion when he pointed out to Glass in so many words that becoming an officer of the court might be a little presumptuous for someone who broke so many journalistic laws. Glass should withdraw his application from the bar and not think about practicing law … until I say so.

6) Last, Glass should think of spending a couple of months (at the very least) on an endeavor that does not benefit him or his ego—he should shelve that new novel he's working on immediately. Glass needn't bathe lepers, or join Charles Colson's prison ministry, or donate a kidney to a Guatemalan peasant, but he needs to do something symbolic that shows more remorse than mumbled and scribbled apologies. Send your suggestions to pressbox@hotmail.com and I'll amend this piece with the most constructive ones. (Click here  for the reader contributions.)

Not being any sort of Christian, I don't believe in redemption. But criminals, jerks, and even chronic prevaricators such as Stephen Glass should get second chances if they prove worthy. If, by coming out of his shell, Glass means to pave some sort of path to normality, I'm willing to entertain sincere gestures on his part. Shutting up and doing something substantive to regain our trust would be a good place to start.

Correction, Nov. 11, 2003: The original version of this article stated that The Fabulist was published in August 2003, instead of May. Return to the corrected sentence.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.