Listen: Ayelet Waldman on the ACLUs 100 Year Fight
"Cases shaped American history and brought about the kind of America that people know and love fiction is a great way to help the medicine go down sense and I didn't had no idea what we're going to get right. I mean especially when you ask like the most important American writers you know Oh carte blanche do whatever you want. We had no idea what we're gonna get but we just hoped an imagine that the essays that we received would shine a light and allow the layperson not lawyers to really understand why what the US doing is so necessary and how this fight for civil and human. Right is the most patriotic thing that an American can do and that any American has done a really powerful awful story. Of course you're the fiction writer. You were the CO editor of this book and other books. But you're also an attorney and former public defender. Yes in some ways. This was is the perfect project for you bringing all those different skills to bear and you not only edited the piece but also contributed a piece right. I wrote an essay edited. The mall help solicit the writer in one of these books as a huge project. It's like you know it's almost tried to say it's like herding cats but it really. It's like herding we cells forget the macaques and it must have been particularly difficult. Heard these cats given that they weren't being paid for this particular project is exactly although you know what and nobody ever won. Nobody said anything about that. Nobody ever wanted to be paid. Everybody the thing is I mean. We're all looking for a way to help right. We are all looking for something to do in this time of crisis the where we can bring our own individual skills to bear and you know not everybody's a lawyer not everybody in court on everybody is able to go. You know witness at the border the incarceration and torture of small children but everybody everybody wants to do something so I felt like you know. This is a way to allow lots of different people with a specific skill. Set to participate in the work of resistance. which is what we all have to be doing all the time now? You talked about the range of writers that you have they're all imminent in their own way But they take slightly different approaches to the work as you gave them carte blanche but many of the writers really made it a very personal story connected the cases in some way eight to their own personal experience and this was very much the case for your essay which addressed O'Connor Donaldson which is a case that granted due process to people with mental health disabilities. And and of course you've discussed your own bipolar disorder. A great deal so I was wondering if you might be willing to read an excerpt of European the end of your essay where you reflect on the cases relevance to your life and absolutely would be as a high functioning person with a mood disorder who has written openly about her mental illness. I found myself self reading Kenneth Donaldson's case and personal account with an eye toward drawing a distinction between him and me is if to reassure myself that I wouldn't ever have fallen into such a circumstance I latched onto his various expressions of seemingly paranoid delusions with a sigh of relief relief. I'm not crazy like that. I thought AM I. It's true that I've never been hospitalized. But I came of age in Post O'Connor versus versus Donaldson World where I have my grandparent's generation. It's entirely possible that my occasional bouts of suicidal itchen would have resulted in commitment event and once committed. I like Donaldson might have found it all but impossible to convince the arbiters of my incarceration that I should be free. Thank you very much and I think the connection that you draw their between the client or the person who actually brought the case and the broader impact I think really speaks speaks to the heart of impact litigation which is what the ACLU does on a daily basis. We tried to pick cases that have a broader impact to try to make a point for the society. Yeah I wonder how you navigated the sort of tension between the individual story of the case while also making the broader impact. It's almost analogous August to the way fiction can believe both on the micro level investigating a particular character while also trying to have some resonance with the reader. That's a really interesting in question you know I think for the older cases. It's often easier because they're already sort of part of the historical firmament so the the The ramifications of them are more important than the contemporary imagination than the individual cases. Although that's one of the exciting things about some of these essays which actually kind of dig big into those original cases and shed light on not just the law that resulted but what actually happens in those individual cases but I think the balance silence is what's most interesting because it is those personal stories that gives the reader something to latch onto you. Give them away to understand. Analogy makes things comprehensible in a way. That simple description does not and you know I think law students learn that you know when you're in law school and you're presenting a case when you're called on by your professor the first thing you do is you. Give the facts of the case. It's a really a useful tool for student because it's memorable and it allows you to really kind of understand through analogy and I think that's kind of what this book does to. It uses analogy Ajayi and personal story both of the writers and then also back towards the facts of the original cases to make them comprehensible and to allow you that kind of moment kind of empathy that can make you realize that Brown versus board of Education isn't just about segregation at a macro level. It's about what happens funds to a specific child or a specific group of children when they are not given the opportunities that the people around them are in the forward are legal director. David Cole writes a lawyer's job is to weave a compelling narrative in the hope of persuading a court that injustice has been done and that the court has the power our to right the wrong. You're in a unique position where you've been both illegal writer and illegal storyteller but also a fiction writer. I mean the law often plays is heavily into your stories. I always tell people that though. The murder mysteries were the first books that I ever published. They weren't the first fiction than I ever. Because one of my jobs dubs was to write sentencing memoranda. And in those you have to convince the judge that your client is the most lovely person on earth does not deserve the terrible at the mandatory minimums imposed on him or her. Well you know it. Creativity is certainly a part of legal practice absolutely although one and is not permitted to lie. No one really wants to fiction writing. You gotTA write a book but license and embroidery. That's the name indicate. Many person with a law degree has eventually ended up writing novels. But I'm curious you talked about. It's everyone's responsibility to join the resistance at this point and clearly there's a role for ACLU lawyers. There's a role for fiction writers and I wonder if you can sort of compare those different roles that you've done. Is there a place where the law ends in this kind of need for empathy and storytelling begins on a broader level. Look think in terms of where one can have the most impact on society. I wouldn't presume to say that. Fiction has the same impact as the kind of impact litigation that the ACLU does that changes the culture and the legal system. Tom and the lives of people in a very specific and in a massive way you have access to education and you have privileged than you need to use that access in that privilege village to help bring people up behind you. So you know in terms of WHO's doing more good for the world they hands down but I do think there's a role for fiction in your part of that is just pure entertainment. It's just giving joy but part of it is like a talked about engendering empathy. I feel like a person who reads the work of Jesmyn Ward for example has a harder time being a miserable piece of coop racist. Then a person who doesn't read the work of Jesmyn Ward. I mean I think the capacity to see the other as human just like you is something that can really be done through fiction. So it's like a twofer it's beautiful and entertaining and then also Has Serves US larger purpose. But you know they're they're many writers who kind of reject that premise. And say you know my job is not to work towards social justice. My job is just to write the best words that I can and do you ascribe to that in your other non editorial overtly political work. Do you feel that you have a message. Obligation to say a something particularly relevant. Oh you know I think because I came to fiction after being a public defender fiction was always a tool for me. I mean and I look I I write because I like telling stories. I love right because I love to read but all my work has a larger message so the TV series. That I just had out on net flix. It's called unbelievable. His story of what happens what we don't believe women who are victims of rape and my novels have been about things as disparate as homophobia in the Orthodox Jewish community. In a lighthearted mystery. I would like to point out too easy to pull off. No it was quite something. And who does he pulled it off and to you know the right to choose and the price of ignoring a woman's right to choose. I mean I wrote a novel about mandatory minimum sentences so my fiction is if not overtly political than purposely political and I try as I get better at it. I hope I become less die tactic. That's the goal to kind of trick people into at least enjoying the book even while you you try to get this larger message across. I think it comes through especially one of the themes of the book. We talked about it being resistance and in some ways the ACLU has had a long history of taking controversial cases. Defending folks that we don't agree with really trying to broaden the political dialogue as wide as we can and I know that there's also resonates a lot with a lot of writers because censorship banned books and those sorts of issues have always been front of mind for creative folks in your husband. Michael Chaban who co edited volume with you actually wrote about the banning of Ulysses and the brilliant lawyer the Aclu who argued the case and got the ban overturned. So I wonder if you can just talk about. Is there a special place. I'M GONNA. I'm biased I'm a first amendment lawyer at the I wonder if as a writer the first First Amendment cases and particularly the ban books hold a special resonance absolutely every writer that I talked to and every writer I know is now. Oh very on some level really worried about the first amendment perils of what we all do and that's one of the reasons that we included journalists like Timothy Egan Bill Oh Finnigan a nonfiction writers in the collection is because of that because they are particularly at risk right now but I don't think there's a writer in the country who isn't thinking about the banned books movement the vilification of the press the vilification of intellectuals electricals writers people who think and write for a living. I mean it's hard for people to believe that we are at a dangerous time in terms of the First Amendment because we we take so for granted I right to say whatever we want America I mean that's the rhetoric of the right to you. Know like how this is my first amendment rights. I get to say no. Oh kill all black people because I have a right to kill all black people but we take that for granted all of us and we on some level. Don't really believe that we could lose our rights to free expression. But I actually tell me if you agree with me. I mean you're on the of this actually believe that we are facing a constitutional crisis that we are facing the potential of losing that right to all unfettered free speech. You know within reason and or you raise an interesting point. I mean for my perspective I come at the First Amendment and free speech from an international human rights perspective. And I actually agree with you. And I am not not much of an American exceptionalism and I've seen what happens when you have restrictions on speech and when dissent is allowed to be trampled by the government. And it's not pretty the I've had friends and colleagues go to jail more than once for criticizing the government for standing up for different unpopular groups whether they'd be lgbt indigenous groups. Activists Fists Environmentalists. Whoever it is so I agree with you? I think you know we're only our rights are only as strong as we're willing to protect them and if we change the rules society changes ages and there's nothing that says that that can't happen or it won't happen so I totally agree. That vigilance is necessary. And that there's nothing that's preordained about freedom in the United States and I think the thread of it is this sort of inherent distrust of government's ability to fairly regulate especially speech. And I know that sort of contrarian ISM is one of your hallmarks as well. I wonder if that was also sort of a resonance with the ACLU and we do have this sort of fundamental skepticism schism and belief in people as opposed to the rulers. Email absolutely. Look I was raised by. I can say this now. He's."