A few months back, my little musical variety and storytelling show, “The Liars Bench,” was visited by a lady named Maren Chaloupka. I had no idea that she was a noted attorney from Colorado and was part of the staff of Gerry Spence’s Lawyer’s College in Wyoming. Instead, she approached me after our show (It was the program devoted to the details — fictional and true — of the Jack Lambert hanging in Bryson City in 1886). Maren offered me an impressive fee (impressive to me, anyway) to come to Wyoming and conduct a workshop on how to tell stories. Then she added the provocative detail that the students would be lawyers. I accepted the job.
I flew from Asheville to Atlanta to Denver to Scott’s Bluff, where a cowboy who looked like the actor Sam Elliott (The Big Lebowski) drove me in a vintage pick-up through 10 miles of sagebrush and mesquite to the Lawyer’s College Ranch, which was situated in the middle of some of the most stunning scenery (desolate, lonely and beautiful) I have ever seen. Lots of antelope and horses! When I entered the bunkhouse, I noticed a large photograph on the wall of a smiling man wearing a Stetson, and I realized that he looked familiar. When I said, “Who is that?” the cowboy told me that the man was Gerry Spence, “the fellow who owns this place.”
I spent the remainder of the week talking to approximately 60 lawyers about storytelling. I found out that I was the “primary resource” in a special session that was called “psychodrama.” The lawyers were encouraged to “act out” the details of cases that were pending in their practice. The dramatizations would go on for hours as the lawyers exchanged roles, acting the parts of victims, arresting officers, and significant witnesses. At some point, I picked up a brochure that contained a statement by Spence regarding the qualifications for being accepted into the Lawyer’s College. Specifically, the only lawyers who would be accepted would be those who had no ties to governmental agencies and institutions. The college readily accepted lawyers who had their own practice and who were committed to serving the poor, the handicapped and the abandoned. In addition, Spence stressed a commitment to the needs of Native Americans, abused children and “forgotten” people.
A review of Gerry Spence’s career quickly illustrates who he chooses to defend. Beginning with Karen Silkwood and continuing through the Randy Weaver case (known as “Ruby Ridge”), Spence has consistently, and successfully, defended those that he characterizes as “the damned and the forgotten.” I recognized several because the trials have received extensive media coverage. For example, the case against a large hospital that had ignored a 911 call from a child regarding his stricken mother who subsequently died, and a major pharmaceutical company that marketed a birth control product that left a child without arms, legs, a chin or a tongue.
I guess I am a little old to be a fervent fan of a superstar lawyer, but I think I will weigh in anyway. Before I went to Wyoming, I only had a superficial knowledge of who Spence is. Now, I have spent most of this day prowling through the Lawyer’s College website. Amazon has allowed me to read excerpts from a half-dozen books — especially, Bloodthirsty Bitches and Pious Pimps of Power. I like what I see. Quite frankly, almost every opinion voiced by Spence finds a responsive chord in my own heart. Consider this: “We are living in a country where people can no longer love, where God is money, where the earth is a commodity to be destroyed for profit.” I fear that this is true.
However, Spence’s most devastating attacks are reserved for the media. Again, I feel that Spence is correct. Not only is the public fed hate by a bizarre collection of media stars (Nancy Grace, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robinson, etc.), but that the same public has learned to “crave hate.” Essentially, Spence feels that the television audience is composed of people who have become increasingly frustrated and angry due to the growing incompetence and/or corruption of governmental agencies, industries and institutions. As a consequence, some of the major networks employ a professional hate monger: TV personalities like Nancy Grace provide viewers with scapegoats. In effect, she invites the viewers to join her in a brutal and callous attack on people accused of crimes and which usually involve rape, murder and child abuse. Grace does not hesitate to pronounce plaintiffs guilty in her own personal court. Although Spence does a masterful analysis of the major hate mongers, his most devastating comments are directed at Grace, who has hissed, clawed and roared herself to the top of Court TV programming. For anyone who has watched this raging, snarling woman bait, insult and intimidate hapless guests, the chapter that is largely devoted to Grace (“Hate Sells”) in Bloodthirsty Bitches and Pious Pimps of Power is Spot-On perfect.
Grace is pegged “the Prime Time Peddler” of hate and Gerry Spence reproduces some of Nancy’s most offensive programs, including her notorious interview with members of the jury following the Michael Jackson verdict. Grace repeatedly refers to her legal credentials (she was a prosecutor of questionable merit in Georgia) and makes frequent self-righteous references to her murdered boyfriend some 24 years ago — all of which allegedly has inspired her to go on a courageous quest for truth and justice. Then, she proceeds to intimidate and shout down, harangue and insult every luckless person who has the misfortune to raise her ire by expressing a contrary opinion. As in the Michael Jackson case, she manages to disregard all of the rules — especially the one that says that the plaintiff is innocent until proven guilty.
Here is a curious paradox. This woman is adored by multitudes of viewers and many media commentators credit her with having “saved” the network which employs her. She sometimes boasts that she gets more hate mail than anyone in Court TV. Why does this virago not only survive, but manages to prosper? Spence is of the opinion that the hate mongers are burgeoning and their success may well indicate a growing social and spiritual sickness in America.
I have just been back to the Lawyer’s College website, and I see that it is possible to order sweatshirts, baseball caps and T-shirts that are inscribed with the Lawyer’s College logo. I want one of each. I already have the T-shirt which I intend to wear until it is in tatters. Goodness, the last time I felt this dedicated was when I belonged to the Mickey Mouse Club.