TLC: Morbidly Curious
I've received private notes and a few public comments asking why I have picked an unnecessary fight with Gerry Spence's Trial Lawyers College. One infuriated loyalist calls me obsessed, a soul in so much pain I cannot let it go. Another wants to know simply what happened to cause such disappointment. With some reservations, I give a more complete account.
I went to TLC in 1997 to learn to become a better lawyer. I was younger, ambitious and competitive. I did not see another lawyer at the ranch who so outclassed me that I felt over matched. I enjoyed the camaraderie, and, I wanted the approval of Gerry Spence. When asked to return as staff, I was thrilled: It was recognition of my skill. But it was also more.
My father abandoned my family when I was a child. In my initial psychodrama, Spence played my father. When things got a little intense, I accused him of abandoning me. I didn't know Spence well at the time, but I saw him flinch. I knew that I had struck a chord in him that resonated from his life experience, not mine. I recall the startled look of panic still. I let it go. I had never heard of psychodrama before this. I had no idea what was going on.
I am not sure how close Spence and I became in the years I ran around at the ranch. Some folks perceived us to be close, but that is different. I am a difficult person and don't yield easily to another's embrace. We spent time together at one location or another. He arranged a speaking gig for me in Idaho; we traveled to New York City together; I enjoyed that time, but I was worried that I was becoming too comfortable eating off of someone else's plate. No one fed Spence table scraps when he was learning to bark. It is hard for me to respect someone comfortable wearing a leash.
When I left the ranch, I did so for two reasons: First, I am ambitious. I had the sense that I was a favored son and could have carved out a comfortable place for myself at TLC. But I wanted to see how far I could fly on my own power. Living under the wing of another was too safe. Being a top dog at Gerry Spence's Trial Lawyers College was still living in someone else's kennel. And how could I agree that he is "America's Finest Trial Lawyer?" I cannot bend a knee to someone who makes that claim of himself. I just can't, and I cannot get used to the idea that others would settle learning to play only second fiddle.
I also left because the college was becoming something akin to a psychodramatic day ward. Each year another group of students arrived, each with headstrong and needy folks all its own. In each class there were new souls battling for the limited resource of recognition. When I was perceived close to Gerry, others wanted things from me. One current board member asked me to broker an approach to Gerry. I did, and the board seat was given. All this politicking cost me far more energy than the limited gains I received from attending.
So I broke free, and shook loose. I wrote about my need to get out from under Spence's shadow. And I got a very intense letter from Spence. I've hesitated until now to share its contents. But since folks keep assuming I have a screw loose for asking questions, I'll air some of it.
"Norm, let me tell you first that what you did, did hurt me. I have not felt this kind of hurt since my mother's death. It took me nearly thirty years to realize that her need to kill herself was hers, and that it was not my fault," he wrote. The letter is three pages long. It stunned me, and surprises me still. What, possibly, could I have meant to him and why? Our paths intersected briefly when he was about 70 years old. I did not respond to the letter. I simply walked away, as I knew the seduction of the man's shadow, and wanted to learn to cast my own.
A year or so ago, I went to watch Spence in action in Detroit in the Feiger trial. I had never seen him in trial. This was the first time he'd faced a jury in all the years I knew him. I wanted to see if he was good on his feet. He was, and I wrote about it. We talked, and resumed a guarded email communication.
Much to my surprise, he mentioned the letter about his pain again. I asked him to send me a new copy as I had long since discarded mine. He did, and as I read it I once again was startled. First, he had saved the letter. But more: how had I come to mean this much? Did all the bizarre energy in our relationship come just from me, or had he unleashed a hurricane all his own? I had been open about my paternal issues with him. I asked him to be open with me about his. Could two adults meet on a bridge of sorrows?
How had I become so important to him? I asked. The response disappointed, and disappoints still: "That's a good question." In fact, it is no response at all. Instead, our correspondence quickly dwindled to a farce. Spence manipulated the mirror to keep the focus on me, never acknowledging the mirror he was holding, and why he felt the need to hold it. It is a pattern I have observed in him over and over again, in things as small as his own blog page. He pronounces, others adore. But he never acknowledges the voice of another except as a reflection of his own. Hold a mirror to Spence and the image vanishes.
Friends and lovers share. I do not believe that Gerry did or does in any meaningful way. He takes particulars and gives universals: in exchange for your truth you receive platitudes. I felt manipulated. It is a nifty trick this receipt of love, contributions, and institutional immortality in exchange for wind-blown wafers.
So am I obsessed with TLC? I don't think so. I hardly thought of the institution at all for the nine years that lapsed between leaving and returning for a reunion. When I returned, I was stunned to see a place that had wilfully forgotten its past. I was saddened to see proud lawyers craning and crooning to become fixtures in another's crown. And I was startled to see how easily my need to believe could be rekindled. I am weak, and I know myself to be so.
When I got home from the reunion, folks sent me information about the financial underpinnings of the place. What I learned shocked me, and, frankly, no one at the ranch has yet come clean in any public forum about just who owns the ranch. Instead, ranks close, communications are shut down: the college no longer lists blog pages of alumni, but links merely to Gerry's. I'm told one board member hired a private investigator to poke into another's affairs. It's a hot house of misplaced desire.
I admit to a certain forensic fascination with what is going on there. One old hand told me he is writing a book about the history of the place. The dynamics that transform proud lawyers into shadow dancing souls content to sit second chair in life's great drama, and to contribute tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of being counted a disciple, fascinates me. There is a netherworld bridging the gap between Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and the lost boys playing at survival in Lord of the Flies: that world is on display at the Thunderhead Ranch. Forgive me if I cannot help but look, mouth agape. This train wreck of the soul causes me to stare: how narrowly I missed the carnage myself.
Why have I not asked TLC for comment about the finances and board shenanigans? I suppose it was because I have already learned once that honest questions are met with evasion. The college knows what the issues are that I have raised. It refuses to answer honest questions. It won't answer because doing so shares its power with a critic. Starve a flame of oxygen and it expires. Keep taking but don't give. And if a truth is uttered that cannot be met, evade.
I will lose interest, eventually. I did once before and it will happen soon enough again. But until I do, I'll keep turning over the rocks to see what slithers away in the light of day. Obsessed? Call it that if you will. It feels more like morbid curiosity.