WASHINGTON -- What happens to a bright young reporter who is caught making up stories? A former fabulist-cum-life coach in Northern Virginia has some insight.
"Nine years ago, I was Jonah Lehrer," former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair wrote in The Daily Beast:
His story is familiar to me in many of its details. A promising young journalist working at one of the most prestigious publications in the world heads down a slippery slope that starts with sloppy corner-cutting and leads to all-out fabrication. The lies are blatant and remarkably foolish, and yet go undetected by a profession that prides itself on truth but ultimately must rely on trust. He admits to his minor sins while denying the major ones, until the house of cards collapses at last around him. He resigns in disgrace.
That's the public side of a story, anyway. The personal tale is filled with renunciation, apologies, and agony for us and those who gave us a chance; humiliation, heartache, and the immeasurable loss of no longer being able to participate in a profession in which we had invested so much, and which had invested so much in us.
Blair, who now works as a life coach in Centreville and McLean, Va., spoke with The Huffington Post this week about Jonah Lehrer, redemption and life in the D.C. suburbs. (The conversation has been edited for length.)
The Huffington Post: This must be a very strange experience, seeing Jonah Lehrer go through this.
Jayson Blair: Unusual. We've had a couple of different instances like this. Like Mike Daisey's situation. There are a couple of similarities, in terms of age, type of publication. It kicks up for me a lot of the emotions that surround my own experience.
HuffPost: Your Daily Beast piece on Lehrer was very empathetic.
Blair: Empathetic toward him. I'm empathetic toward his colleagues. I know what they're going through, and his family and friends. It's kind of the hidden story behind it all. To disappoint those people who want to invest in you. It's not just like a cop coming after you. But it's like a cop who, two days before, you worked side by side. It's like your partner.
HuffPost: Do you feel like now that you're working as a life coach, you see this differently? Now that you've got some therapeutic training?
Blair: It took about six years for me to get good perspective on the situation. One of the things that's helped me is working with other people who are going through similar situations, whether it's their marriage or in school or it's in their profession. Seeing it from the outside. There are enough similarities that have helped me to gain perspective.
The biggest thing I've realized is that anybody is capable of anything. Mostly these are good people who are doing bad things. Not bad people. Mostly.
I would say that the third thing is I think we underestimate how much pressure there is out there for young people to perform at a certain level. A lot of this is self-inflicted pressure.
Things like this are happening every day to people in their marriages, people who work in banks, people in all sorts of situations. The unfortunate part is when you, as in my case, work for a publication that's famous or well-known or well-regarded. Or in his case, you're well regarded and famous in your own right.
One of the advantages that we have, from going through this in such a public way, is it forces us to reconcile things. It forces us to work on it. A lot of people aren't forced to do it until they get to that giant situation, so they go through the cycle of repeating these things over and over and over again. So in one way, I think I'm kind of blessed, that it happened in such a public space. Because if it hadn't, would I still be doing some of the things, just in some other profession or some other place?
I wouldn't have said that in 2003. But now I've gained some perspective.
HuffPost: What brought you to the Northern Virginia area?
Blair: My family is from around here. We moved here when I was in high school. So in 2004 when I decided I really needed to work on my mental health and get my life back in order, I decided to come back here. I initially, when I first got back, started a support group, called the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. We built a bunch of support groups around the area.
From there, I got into life coaching. I had a practice up in Ashburn. Then I started my own practice. We just opened an office in June in McLean. It's going really well. I feel really lucky to be able to give back.
HuffPost: It's a happy thing being in the D.C. area?
Blair: Oh yeah. I love D.C.
You see it with the D.C. suburbs in particular. Who was the woman in the Monica Lewinsky case? Linda Tripp. A couple of other people who have done difficult things. We kind of hide out in the Virginia suburbs, Maryland suburbs. I think it gives you an opportunity to be close to a lot of things you enjoy, to be close to smart people. But to also kind of pull back. Unlike a city like New York or L.A., where people are going to see you, notice you, you're constantly going to end up back in the news, it allow you to be close to all of these interesting cultural and political things, and these interesting and intelligent people. But also to be far enough removed, so you're not constantly in the spotlight.
HuffPost: With your clients now, are any of them people who come to you specifically because they know your story?
Blair: It's a mix. I would say that I get about half my clients through referrals. About half come from two categories of people. People who know what happened with me in journalism, and think that they can gain some insight from the notion of somebody having been through something similar to them. And then the second group are people who know me through the mental health work. They've heard my story about bipolar disorder and they think I can offer them something from that perspective.
HuffPost: Do you find it easy to have a normal life around here?
Blair: I would say when I first got back, it was a little difficult. I would say that I pretty much have a normal life like any small businessperson.
When I'm in some of the mental health circles, I think that I'm well-known. But the journalism piece of it? I can walk down the street in D.C. all day long and no one will notice who I am. Which is a very nice thing.
So, yeah, it is a pretty normal, healthy life. As healthy and normal as anyone in an area with this kind of traffic can possibly have.
My girlfriend and I spend a lot of time in D.C. East Potomac Park, hanging out in Georgetown. As well as the suburbs. I'm a big nature guy, so give me an open field with some beautiful grass and I'm happy.
HuffPost: Are you living in McLean?
Blair: I'm living in Centreville. About two minutes from my office.
HuffPost: What do you predict for Jonah Lehrer at this point?
Blair: It's very hard to say. From my perspective he's done the right thing. He's come out, in my mind relatively early, and admitted what he's done. The first stage involves reconciling with yourself and your loved ones. I'd resist the temptation to try and reconcile with your colleagues this early, because they're in shock probably. That stage comes later.
There will be plenty of opportunities for him to give back. There's opportunities to go directly to students. I've done this a lot of times, quietly, without any publicity. Talk to journalism classes, to help people learn. That notion of redemption has to build up in yourself. That you are good. That there is something valuable. Hearing back from students and their temptations, and the things they've almost done, kind of reminds you, hey, you're a human being.
I think doors will eventually open. He's a smart guy, clearly. That's one thing he has going for him is his intelligence. He's not going to go back into journalism but hopefully he'll be able to point those things toward something very good.
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