In the late ’50s, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg observed that as we mature, we progress through three basic levels of moral development.
At the pre-conventional levels, our sense of what’s fair and just is self-centered; we are concerned mainly with satisfying our own needs and avoiding punishment.
Most of us move on to the conventional levels, where our sense of justice is based mainly on societal expectations; we make moral decisions based on rules, customs, and laws.
Some reach the post-conventional levels, where principles and the desire for the greater good may take precedence over social norms and strictures. We move to the next level when we discover that the governing principles of our current level can no longer guide us. Then we are in new moral territory.
My own guiding principles have been challenged many times, but never as severely as they were in the aftermath of a successful medical malpractice trial in 1998. The story began with my nearly dying because of a series of medical errors five years earlier, continued with bringing the surgeon to trial, and took a bizarre turn when I discovered that the attorneys who won my case had absconded with the jury’s award.
I had signed a release allowing my attorney, Jay, to deposit the check in his firm’s escrow account, from which they were to pay me my share. I expected the award check to arrive soon after the trial ended. I spoke with Jay or his partner, Alan, every week or ten days, each time trying to pin down the date I would receive the money. They answered my direct questions with vague promises to “make some calls” and get back to me, reassuring me that delays were normal in cases like mine. “You have to trust your lawyer,” Jay said, ending each call on a friendly note, suggesting we have a meal together or take in a movie at the Film Forum the next time I came to New York.
As the weeks passed, I grew frustrated and anxious. Two months after the trial, I still had not received my award. When I called the firm, their receptionist told me the office had flooded. She put me through to Alan, who explained that some of the records were water-logged and their computers may have been damaged. He assured me, though, that everything was still proceeding normally. I started to express my impatience and he quickly put Jay on the phone. “These things take time,” Jay said. “You just need to be patient and stop being so anal about this, David. Your money’s good as gold.”
Another month went by. I called again, this time pressing hard for an exact date. Alan confessed that the reason for this latest delay was their fault. “I’m being honest with you,” he said, “with all the mess after the flood, there’s paperwork we forgot to put in.” But I was not placated, and for the first time it dawned on me that my money might not be “good as gold” after all.
I realized something was seriously awry only after talking with the referring attorney, who told me that neither he nor our expert witnesses had been paid. “The big question,” he said, “is why? Why would they throw away their expert witnesses? Why would they give up a stream of cases I could pass on to them? To me this makes sense only if they don’t plan to be lawyers anymore.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I think they’re going to skip.”
I contacted the firm that had defended the surgeon I’d sued. His attorney called the doctor’s medical malpractice insurer, and they faxed me a copy of the award check. They’d mailed it out five days after the trial ended. Within minutes of receiving that fax, I decided to go to New York and demand my money. I spent the remainder of the morning writing a detailed complaint to send to the Manhattan D.A., the New York State Bar Association, and the federal, state, and city tax agencies.
I quickly packed a bag and then called a friend on the Upper East Side. “I’m either coming back with my money or I’m starting a shit storm,” I told him. With the chilling sense that I was about to take a step after which there would be no turning back, I called their firm again.
“Oh, hello, Mr. Bookbinder, how are you?” the receptionist said. “What can I do for you?”
“You can tell your bosses that I’m meeting with them tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m.”
“Um… Do you want to talk to them?”
“No. Just give them that message. And tell them that if they don’t make this meeting, they’ll be getting calls from people they want to hear from even less than me.”
She was silent for a moment, apparently writing down my message. “Less than you… Okay, sir. So, tomorrow at 10:00 a.m.?”
“Yeah. Just give them that message.”
I printed duplicate copies of my complaint letters, put them in envelopes, and left one set on my desk for my girlfriend to mail if she didn’t hear from me within two days. It was a melodramatic gesture, I knew, but at the time melodrama didn’t seem entirely out of place. I grabbed my backpack and briefcase, a pocket knife I’d made years before, and a copy of Homer’s Odyssey. On the commuter train to Boston, I turned to the section where Odysseus arrives home after his arduous journey, only to find that brutes have taken over his kingdom and squandered his fortune.
I had a regularly scheduled appointment with my therapist that afternoon, and I kept it. His office was decorated with Asian art and religious artifacts, as well as his own photographs, which strongly resembled oriental paintings. The meditative setting contrasted strongly with the fury inside me.
He noticed my backpack and gave it a quizzical nod. “I’m catching a bus to New York as soon as I leave here,” I said. I filled him in on the events of the past week and explained what I planned to do when I got there. “My girlfriend thinks I’m crazy, but I feel like I need to do this. What do you think?”
Jim leaned back in his big, black leather chair and stroked his goatee. “I’m not sure I would go,” he said. “It could be explosive.”
“I’m not afraid of them,” I said, though my heart was pounding. “What are they going to do, hire a hit man? Too many people already know about this.” I took a breath to calm down. We talked about how helpful it had been to bring a collection of objects from friends and family to my medical malpractice trial. “I could use another set tomorrow,” I said, “but there’s no time.” I took my homemade knife out of my pocket and handed it to him. “I did bring this, though, for luck.”
Jim ran his fingers along the brass and ironwood exterior, then opened the knife and tested the blade on his fingertip before he passed it back. “It’s a beautiful piece of work,” he said. “Wait a minute. I have something for you.” He reached over to a small altar near his desk and picked up a short silver dagger with a fluted, three-sided blade. “It’s called a phurba,” he explained. “It’s one of the symbolic armaments Tibetan Buddhists use to deal with illusion.” He handed it to me and I felt its unexpected heft. “It’s a good image for you – the warrior with his sword of justice.”
“I don’t know if justice is what I’m after,” I said. “What I want is vengeance. Those bastards tried to take my future. Whether they pay me or not, I’m going to take theirs. I’m an Old Testament Jew, Jim. We don’t turn the other cheek.”
It was not the first time we’d discussed revenge. “That’s why I’m giving you the phurba,” Jim said now. “It’s the Dagger of Emptiness. You don’t use it to attack your enemy; you use it to kill your own illusions.” He waved a hand in front of his eyes. “The hero cuts away illusions – attachment, aversion, indifference – until all that’s left is the truth. It’s illusions that keep you feeling like a victim.”
I shifted in my seat. “But I am a victim,” I said. “That’s the phrase, isn’t it? ‘A crime victim.’ These are bad guys. They’re probably hurting other people even as we speak. What’s wrong with vengeance if it stops the bad guys?”
“In your shoes, I might feel the same way,” Jim said. “Who wouldn’t? But vengeance doesn’t strengthen, it weakens. It comes from the rage of helplessness.”
I fingered the phurba’s soft, dull edges. “I’ve been re-reading the Odyssey, the last third. Odysseus is consumed with rage, and he acts on it with the blessing of the gods – slays the suitors who’ve taken over his kingdom, rivers of blood, and all that. Isn’t he the archetypal hero?”
Jim shook his head. “Odysseus isn’t the best model for what has to happen here. You don’t have to slay the suitors. You have to slay the suitors within.”
He told me a story of a young samurai whose master was murdered by an assassin. The samurai dedicated his life to tracking down the killer and bringing him to justice, finally cornering him in an alley halfway around the world. As the samurai drew his sword and prepared to take his enemy’s head, the assassin spat in his face. The samurai paused, then sheathed his sword. The killer, shocked, said, “I murdered your master. I admit that now. Why do you not slay me?” The samurai replied, “For all these years I have been seeking justice. But when you spat at me, I became enraged. Then I was no longer a samurai upholding justice. I was just an angry man with a sword.”
“The compassionate warrior doesn’t act out of vengeance,” Jim said. “He sees his enemy as a diminished, tragic figure. You could say that these guys are winning because they seem to be getting away with robbery. But you can’t be a person with no conscience and also experience everything that makes life worthwhile. Sociopaths like them are not whole human beings, and that’s pitiable.”
He took the phurba from me and stabbed toward his chest. “You can use this to help you direct your rage not at your enemies but at the forces in you that keep you from experiencing your true nature.” He handed back the phurba. “Use it before you go in to talk to them tomorrow.”
I thought about what he was saying, then put the phurba in my pocket. “Okay,” I said. “I think I know what you mean.”
“I know you do.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “You may get your money or you may not, though I hope you do. These guys may be punished or they may not, though I hope they are. But whatever happens, if you stay on this path, you’ll gain something that’s worth a thousand times the money.”
I looked at him skeptically. “What’s that?”
“You’ll throw off the chains of your victimhood. And nobody can take that away.”
That afternoon, I took the bus to New York and, Jim’s opinions about Odysseus notwithstanding, completed my re-reading of the Odyssey. I spent the night at my friend’s place, then the following morning took the subway to the attorneys’ midtown Manhattan offices. I was early and stopped in a diner for breakfast. In the restroom, I used the phurba as Jim had instructed. But on the way out, I also patted the pocket where my own knife lay, with its blade sharp enough to split a hair.
In a tense meeting with both attorneys, knife and phurba, Odysseus and samurai, struggled for control. I laid the envelopes I’d prepared on their conference table and stated my intentions. “Are you threatening us?” Jay said angrily.
“No,” I said. “I’m just telling you what will happen if I don’t get my money.”
For most of the meeting I stayed firm in my resolve. Toward the end, though, I was won over by their claim that the IRS had frozen their escrow account, Alan’s tearful plea not to “ruin our lives,” and an offer of $10,000 on the spot, with more to come weekly until the end of the month, when, they assured me, I would be “made whole.”
“I am whole,” I said. “You’re the ones who are broken.” But I took the check.
I rode the bus back to Boston that afternoon feeling confused and uncertain, Jim’s samurai tugging on one side, Odysseus on the other. A few days later I received another check for $5,000. I cashed it, but by then the samurai was gaining ground and I was starting to feel compromised. By the end of the month, there had been more pleas and more promises, but no more checks.
I contacted a local attorney, who stumbled on a Westchester County lawyer who represented another of my attorneys’ clients. I learned that her funds, too, had been “delayed.” That confirmed my suspicions that I was not unique and tipped the balance in favor of the samurai. I knew I had to stop them. I mailed the complaint letters to the Manhattan D.A., the New York State Bar Association, and the tax agencies, and let the judicial system begin its process. As I dropped the envelopes into the mailbox, the veil of confusion lifted.
By the time I testified before the grand jury a year later, the samurai and Odysseus had reached détente. The following year, when I read a statement at my attorneys’ sentencing hearing, I no longer desired revenge, but only for them to be separated from people they would otherwise continue to harm. On that day in court, as I looked at these formerly high-flying men standing before the judge in their orange jump suits, I felt, unbidden, the faintest glimmerings of pity and the barest intimations of compassion.
The legal term my attorneys had used, “made whole,” means “to pay or award damages sufficient to put the party who was damaged back into the position he/she would have been without the fault of another.” It seems apt in a larger sense. In the weeks following my turning them in, I gained a sense of wholeness, of no longer being the victim of the surgeon, the attorneys, or anyone else. I moved on, changed in ways that, as Jim predicted, nothing has taken away.
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