What I gleaned re: Jonah Lehrer’s implosion from Jon Ronson’s new book

Feb 28 2015

Jon Ronson devotes two chapters to the Jonah Lehrer implosion in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, his forthcoming book. There is a tick-tock of how the misdeed that brought Lehrer down — fabricating some Bob Dylan quotes — was uncovered by journalist Michael Moynihan, including how Lehrer pleads with him repeatedly not to publish what he’s found. Then Ronson hangs out with Lehrer, goes hiking with him, pushes him toward introspection:

“It was some toxic mixture of insecurity and ambition,” said Jonah. “I always felt like a fad. I felt like I was going to be hot for a second and then I would disappear. So I had to act while I could. And there was just some deep-seated … I sound like I’m on a couch with my shrink … some very dangerous and reckless ambition. You combine insecurity and ambition, and you get an inability to say no to things. And then one day you get an email saying there’s four [six] Dylan quotes, and they can’t be explained, and they can’t be found anywhere else, and you realize you made them up in your book proposal three years before, and you were too lazy, or too stupid, to ever check. I can only wish, and I wish this profoundly, I’d had the temerity, the courage, to do a fact check on my last book. But as anyone who does a fact check knows, they’re not particularly fun things to go through. Your story gets a little flatter. You’re forced to grapple with your mistakes, conscious and unconscious …”

That’s a very human stew of regret, self-pity and self-justification. If you wanted to seize on a line, you could say that doing a fact-check on your book shouldn’t require temerity; it should be a matter of course. Though I get what he means and anyone who interviews people and writes stuff for a living should sympathize at least a little bit.

What really struck me — and I love that Ronson focused on this — was what the takedown of Lehrer did to Moynihan, the person who did the taking down. Moynihan recalls the giddiness he felt when he realized he had caught Lehrer, that this was going to be a blockbuster story, and how that giddiness turns into a kind of horror after you “shoot the animal and it’s lying there twitching and wants its head to be bashed in.”

I totally know that feeling. I’ve ruined people’s reputations, albeit on a smaller scale. Years ago one professor pleaded with me not to expose his plagiarism because he knew it would cost him his tenure-track job. The wife of a retired professor called and asked me how I slept at night after I wrote about her husband’s career of blatant plagiarism (page after page of uncredited verbatim copying over decades).

The connecting-the-dots part of discovering someone’s fraud is usually pretty damn enjoyable in an amateur detective sort of way. Delivering the death blow, less so. Moynhihan, in my view, did what he should have done, the only thing he could do, and yet the fact that he has mixed feelings says good things about the dude.

There’s a brief anecdote that I keep thinking about. At one point, Andrew Wylie, the literary agent for Lehrer and a lot of other big shots, calls Moynihan (or, rather, has someone ask Moynihan to call him). “Do you think this is a big enough deal to ruin a guy’s life?” Wylie reportedly asks.

What an odd question that is (assuming that’s what Wylie actually said; that’s Moynihan’s version, we don’t hear from Wylie directly). What is the alternative? Not say anything? Let the faux-Dylan quotes stand? Let Lehrer change them quietly for the paperback edition? What exactly was Wylie proposing? I’d be curious to hear him expand on that.

Overall what Ronson manages to do here is to humanize Lehrer without letting him off the hook. That’s something.

(the end)