To this day I shiver whenever anyone mentions the movie, The Paper Chase. It came out in 1973, when I was a sophomore in high school, and I saw it at the dollar movie theater in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. The movie, staring Timothy Bottoms and John Houseman, is about a first-year law student (Bottoms) and his masochistic law professor (Houseman) who is intent on teaching the law by browbeating his students. My favorite line from the movie is when Houseman calls on Bottoms to approach the front of the lecture hall, and softly sneers at him: “Mister Heart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.”
After seeing the movie, I thought I would steer clear and never apply to law school. My father was a lawyer, so chances were that I would follow his footsteps; but I could not imagine myself surviving the Socratic-interrogation method and bombastic law professors portrayed on the screen. Seven years later, after graduating from high school and then college, I found myself, of all places, in law school. I was more or less “encouraged” by Dad to go this route. I was not quite as afraid as when I first saw the Paper Chase, but still very hesitant.
By the grace of God and in answer to my numerous prayers, the professors at Columbia Law were not the preposterous, pompous torturers depicted by Houseman. They were vibrant and enthusiastic professionals, truly interested in teaching. Also, to my surprise, studying law was not particularly difficult for me. By dumb luck, I was good at it. I had been a literature major in college and often had to read five novels a week. The thing with novels is that they are subject to interpretation. Sure, you can memorize Unamuno’s Niebla (Mist) and you know that Augusto (the main character of that novel) decides that he has to consult with Unamuno (the author of the novel) who has written an article on suicide. After chatting with Unamuno, Augusto goes home and dies. These are the facts of the novel, but what does it mean? Does it mean Augusto is killed by Unamuno, or that he committed suicide? The book ends with Unamuno debating with himself as to whether he should bring Augusto back. Such are the novels I fancy: complex, surreal, confusing and open to many interpretations. The law is not the same.
I find that the law is much more straightforward than literature. In law, first and foremost you deal with objective facts, and not with subjective interpretation. Studying literature, I would become intricately and emotionally involved with the characters of novels, as if their thoughts were my thoughts, their suffering my stigmata, their pain my sorrow. In studying law, I was not emotionally involved with the cases I read; I could look at them objectively and unemotionally, with a clear mind. It was easy for me to read a case, memorize the facts and regurgitate them in class. I discovered that I had an uncanny ability to memorize case law. Like many other lawyers, to this day I still remember a plaintiff named Helen Palsgraf, who had waited at a Long Island Rail station and was injured in a freakish chain-of-events accident: a passenger dropped a package; the package exploded; the explosion caused a large coin-operated scale on the platform to shake; the scale fell down and hit poor Mrs. Palsgraf on the head. Judge Cardozo ruled that the railroad owed no duty of care to Helen Palsgraf, and was therefore not liable. Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., 162 N.E. 99 (N.Y. 1928). Lawyers can recite the facts of the landmark Palsgraf case no matter how long ago they graduated from law school. If it were examined as a piece of literature, I would be wondering what poor Mrs. Palsgraf was doing standing at the railroad that fateful day, and why did Karma steer her that way. As a law student, all I needed to remember were the facts of the case and the ruling. Straightforward, facts and circumstances.
Of course, in the course of my legal career, I have learned to use a bit of finesse when applying the law to the facts, and to make reasonable and nuanced recommendations based on the circumstances. I care for my clients and for outcomes, and I am vested in their cases. But I am able to be objective; I am not uncaring, but I am not emotionally biased. I understand that if A and B are present, then C and D must follow. It is almost formulaic.
The same cannot be said about my personal life. At work, I’m attentive to the details; at home I am the absent-minded relative. Apparently, I have no ability to remember things the way other members of my family see them. For example, my siblings insist that as a child I elbowed everyone at the dining room table so that they would move over and give me more space. We are eight brothers and sisters. They claim the seven of them sat on three sides of the dining room table, and I had the fourth side all to myself. This story has become family lore, but I struggle in remembering the incident. Although they claim I hogged the table every night, I maintain their version of the facts is clouded, erroneous, confusing and wrong (albeit with a giant grain of truth). Their facts don’t match my memories which, shall we say, have been whitewashed and beautified.
I recently read in the Washington Post (December 30, 2021) that vivid movie-like dreams tend to happen most frequently during the REM phase of sleep. This is the phase of sleep during which memory consolidation is believed to occur, so dreaming may be our perception of the process of “getting rid of some data files in your brain and reinforcing others to create better memories.” Unlike facts, memories are manufactured by our brain, often through dreams, time and distance.
Lawyers can be very objective at work, but like all humans, in our emotional lives we synthesize, we embellish, we consciously and subconsciously choose what to remember and what to forget, and what to modify. These are called memories. At work, when dealing with decisions for helping our clients, you cannot afford the luxury of memories. You stick to the facts. When it comes to my daily life and my dreams, I choose and curate my memories.
The other day, in a group zoom call with my family, we each told funny stories about growing up. Inevitably, I had to disagree with many of the stories being told, or simply plead the fifth by claiming “I don’t remember that.” My youngest sister, possibly the smartest of the group, laughed and asked, “What do you remember, Ernesto?” My answer: “I remember very little, but I do it very well.”
(c) Ernesto Beckford. January 2022.
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