My publishers signed me up a year ago to write a book, but not this book. “A candid and inspirational memoir by one of the most accomplished leaders and thinkers of our times,” their press release promised. They think they’re getting a slightly irreverent fleshing out of my shiny curriculum vitae, a plainspoken, self-congratulatory chronicle of A Worthy Life in the Law and the Modern Triumph of American Women, which they’re publishing, ho-hum premise notwithstanding, because I’ve written a couple of best sellers and appear on TV a lot.
By far the most interesting thing about my life, however, is nowhere in my résumé or official bio or Wikipedia entry. I’m not exactly who the world believes I am. Let me cut to the chase: I once set out to commit a spectacular murder, and people died.
But it’s not a simple story. It needs to be unpacked very carefully. Like a bomb.
Trust me, okay?
I am reliable. I am an oldest child. Highly imperfect, by no stretch a goody-goody. But I was a reliable U.S. Supreme Court clerk and then a reliable Legal Aid lawyer, representing with all the verve and cunning I could muster some of the most pathetically, tragically unreliable people on earth. I have been a reliable partner in America’s nineteenth largest law firm, a reliable author of four books, a reliable law professor, a reliable U.S. Justice Department official, a reliable law school dean. I’ve been a reliable parent—as trustworthy a servant, teacher, patron, defender, and worshipper of my children as anyone could reasonably demand, and I think on any given day at least one of the two of them would agree.
I was not an entirely reliable wife for the last decade of my marriage, although my late ex, during our final public fight, called me “reliable to a goddamned fault,” which is probably true. And which may be why the surprising things I did immediately afterward— grabbing his BlackBerry out of his hand and hurling it into a busy New York street, filing for divorce, giving up my law firm partner- ship, accepting a job that paid a fifth as much, moving three thousand miles away—made him more besotted by me than he’d ever seemed before. As my friend Alex said at the time, “That’s funny— telling Jack Wu ‘@!$%# you’ finally made him really want to @!$%# you.” I am reliable, but I’m not making the case that reliability is the great human virtue. Nor am I even making the case that reliability is my great virtue. In fact, after four decades in the law, I’ve lost my animal drive for making cases for the sake of making cases, for strictly arguing one of two incompatible versions of the truth, for telling persuasive stories by omitting or twisting certain facts.
So I am not arguing a case here. I’m not setting out to defend myself any more than I am to indict myself. I’m determined to tell something like the whole truth—which, by the way, I don’t believe has ever been done in any American court of law. To tell the whole truth in a legal case would require a discovery process and trial that lasted years, hundreds of witnesses each testifying for many weeks apiece, and rules of evidence rewritten to permit not just hearsay and improperly obtained information but iffy memories of certain noises and aromas and hallucinatory hunches, what a certain half-smile or drag on a cigarette decades ago did or didn’t signify during some breathless three A.M. conversation.
In any event, for the purposes of this book, I am extremely reliable. I have files. Since long before I went to law school, for half a century now—half a century!—I’ve saved every diary and journal, every letter I ever received, catechism worksheets, term papers, restaurant receipts, train schedules, ticket stubs, snapshots, Playbills. At the beginning, my pack-ratting impulse was curatorial, as if I were director of the Karen Hollaender Museum and Archive. I know that sounds narcissistic, but when I was a kid, it seemed like a way to give the future me a means of knowing what the past and perpetually present me was actually like. Prophylactic forensics, you could say.
My memory has always been excellent, but the reason I’m telling my story now is also about maximizing reliability: I’m old enough to forgo the self-protective fibs and lies but still young enough to get the memoir nailed down before the memories begin disintegrating.
Only one in a hundred people my age suffer dementia, and the Googled Internet is like a prosthetic cerebral cortex and hippocampus, letting us subcontract sharpness and outsource memory. But after sixty-five? Atrocious: the incidence of neurodegenerative disease increases tenfold during that decade, and it’s worse for women. I turn sixty-five next May.
So, anyhow, here’s my point: I am a reliable narrator. Unusually reliable. Trust me.