Month February 2016

Month February 2016

Inspired to Follow in Harper Lee’s Footsteps

Kathryn Pincus February 15, 2016


I read Harper Lee’s iconic debut novel To Kill a Mockingbird in my freshman high school English class (when I seemingly lacked experience in everything), and I re-read it last summer at the age of forty-eight (after I had studied and practiced law, raised a family, and embarked on a writing career).  Remarkably, at both of those vastly different stages in my life, To Kill a Mockingbirdmoved me and influenced me in a manner unlike any other work of fiction.

 Last month, to my delight, news broke of a second Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, based on the same main characters and setting of To Kill a Mockingbird.  This news coincided with the release of my debut novel Long Hill Home, a thriller about a crime and the legal process that explores contemporary issues of social justice. These coincidental events led me to reflect on Harper Lee’s influence on my work, which in turn made me feel inspired and grateful.

My reflection led me first to look into Harper Lee’s background.  I needed to know why I identified with her, despite the fact that she was born in Alabama in 1926, while I was born in New York in 1966. There had to be some common thread, some reason why her message resonated with me. I quickly discovered parallels between us that gave me timely inspiration as I release my debut novel. First, we both attended law school and then used our legal education in criminal/legal thriller novels.  Second, we both wrote about characters and settings that we were very familiar with, which enabled us to infuse our work with authentic experiences and perspectives. Finally, and most importantly, we both confronted issues of social and legal justice in our debut novels.

Harper Lee attended law school at the University of Alabama in the 1940’s. Her enrollment in law school as a woman in that place and time suggests that she was courageous. While I cannot know Lee’s reason for studying law, knowledge of the law is the best means to pursue justice and protect civil rights. While Lee ultimately left law school to pursue writing, she demonstrated bravery and the desire to pursue justice when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that highlighted racial prejudice, mob justice and other troubling social issues present in the South in the 1930s. Harper Lee’s legal studies also prepared her to convincingly write about the life of a lawyer (defense attorney Atticus Finch) and the legal process (the criminal trial of Tom Robinson, an African-American man falsely accused of rape.)  This authenticity is critical to a reader’s enjoyment of a legal thriller such as To Kill a Mockingbird.

 I studied law at the Georgetown University Law Center between 1988 and 1991, when its student body had become quite diverse in gender, race, ethnicity, religion and  socio-economic status.  I did not have to be a trailblazer of sorts (which I imagine is how a woman studying law in Alabama in the 1940s may have felt).  However, I was reminded every day that law is a vehicle for social change, and that having a license to practice law brought with it a responsibility to identify and prevent wrongs in society, or to remedy them in a civil and just manner. As in the case of Harper Lee, when I wrote my debut novel, Long Hill Home, I felt compelled to weave in storylines that provoke thought about prejudice, injustice in our criminal and civil law system, and other current issues impacting social justice. Further, my legal studies and legal practice prepared me to write authentically about the life of a lawyer (Kelly Malloy and other characters who are lawyers in Long Hill Home) and the process of civil and criminal law (the criminal proceedings against Chad McCloskey, an eighteen-year-old man falsely accused of rape, as well as the criminal proceedings against the actual perpetrator of the crime).

 It is widely reported that To Kill a Mockingbird was inspired by Lee’s childhood in Monroeville, Alabama in the 1930s. By drawing on her real life experience, Lee created characters and settings in such a vivid and authentic manner that readers vicariously experience life in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. Readers of To Kill a Mockingbird nervously watch over Atticus and Tom as a hate-filled mob gathers, they smell the scented air of a warm Southern night, and they feel the roughness of a thick tree trunk as Scout and her brother Jem look for treasure in its recesses. Readers sit in the “colored section” of the balcony in a tension-filled courtroom, their eyes locked on Atticus as he brilliantly defends the ill-fated Tom Robinson. The characters and settings of To Kill a Mockingbird are brought to life and feel familiar to readers because they were so familiar to Lee.

Similarly, the settings, characters and events in Long Hill Home were inspired by my life experiences.  I regularly run through the wooded trails of the Brandywine River Valley, the historic Wilmington neighborhood known as “the Highlands,” and the vast green space framing the Highlands known as Rockford Park. I practiced law in high-rise office buildings in downtown Wilmington, and then, only blocks away from those law offices, volunteered in dining rooms that feed hungry people with nowhere else to turn. I have boarded the city bus at Rodney Square after work, walked on the litter-strewn sidewalks of King Street, stood on the observation deck of Rockford Tower, and visited inmates in a Delaware prison. I have also represented clients in Delaware courtrooms and I have interacted with and observed countless attorneys.  Because of my familiarity with these people and places, readers of Long Hill Home will run through wooded trails and over mossy river banks of the Brandywine River Valley, sit in the eighteenth floor office of a downtown law firm, stand on a litter-strewn sidewalk in a poor section of Wilmington, shudder with fear in the shower room of a maximum security prison, and gaze out of the top of the hundred-year-old stone water tower that presides over all of these places.

I enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird because it is a beautifully written coming-of-age story and a suspenseful legal thriller.  But I was affected by it because it provokes thought and discourse about significant issues of racial prejudice and social injustice. Lee explores racial prejudice and injustice primarily through the character of Tom Robinson, an innocent and well-intentioned black man falsely accused of rape and then wrongly convicted by a hate-filled jury intent on lynching him. But Lee goes beyond the obvious racial hatred in the tragedy of Tom Robinson, and explores more complicated and subtle issues regarding race.  For example, Scout – the spunky tomboy who is the narrator of Lee’s story – has an important relationship with her family’s African-American cook and housekeeper, Calpurnia.  Scout’s mother is deceased, and Calpurnia is the woman who cares for Scout and nurtures her. Through this relationship, Lee shows that exposure to people otherwise deemed “different” – and the opportunity to meaningfully interact with and relate to them – is the antidote to  prejudice. Lee reinforces this idea by having Scout and Jem sit in the “colored section” of the courtroom as they watch their father defend Tom Robinson.

Harper Lee highlights another form of prejudice through the story of Boo Radley, a young man who is a social recluse and unable to leave his parents’ house, and who may also be emotionally or intellectually challenged. Without ever seeing him, and based solely on what they are told, Scout and Jem decide that Boo is a monster of sorts, and they make up ridiculous stories about him and challenge each other to draw him out of his house. But Harper Lee demonstrates once again that social justice requires that we must see and know people, we must assess them based on their conduct and character, and we cannot judge or hate them because they are different or because others tell us to hate. When Boo Radley finally emerges from his home in order to save Scout and Jem from a violent attack, he is finally seen and known. In lieu of the fabled monster, Scout and Jem see the compassionate and brave person that Boo Radley really is.

 There are many other examples of prejudice and intolerance in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird—too many to recount here. Notably, Lee finds a solution to these complex and enduring issues of social and legal injustice, and boils that solution down to its essence.  In the very last pages of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee tells us (through Scout’s discussion with her father, Atticus) that “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them,” and that “most people,” and even people you perceive as “scary,” are “real nice”……“when you finally see them.”

Similarly, in Long Hill Home, I share with readers story lines and characters that confront contemporary issues of social justice, including prejudice, sexual violence against women, immigration and the criminal justice system.  I remind readers how easy it is–and how dangerous it is–to judge, fear, or avoid other people solely because they are different in some way, and without ever seeing them. Long Hill Home is a story of three very different people – strangers – whose lives collide as a result of a crime. The victim, Kelly Malloy, is a wife, a mother and an attorney who is brutally attacked while running along the banks of the Brandywine River. A lonely eighteen-year-old boy, Chad McCloskey, stumbles across the victim immediately after the attack, and he is falsely accused of the crime and imprisoned pending trial, only because he tries to help her. Maria Hernandez, a young woman who emigrated illegally from Mexico, is reluctantly thrust into the role of witness to the crime, putting her in jeopardy of deportation only weeks before she is to give birth to her child.

Chad McCloskey is a lonely and shy eighteen-year-old, and the only child of an abusive alcoholic father and a depressed mother.  He is shunned and ridiculed by his classmates and ultimately retreats into himself. After Chad is wrongfully accused of a rape, he is forced to interact with his public defender and ultimately the victim, allowing them to see him—a kind, honest and brave person deserving of justice and worthy of love.

Maria Hernandez is a hardworking and honest person, and yet she notices women clutching their handbags tighter when she sits near them on the city bus and she overhears blue-collar workers talking about “dirty Mexicans stealing American jobs.” Maria struggles with her moral responsibility to the victim of an attack on one hand, and her obligation to protect her new family and not risk deportation on the other, and ultimately chooses to do the right thing and call in her witness account of a crime. Her terrifying involvement with a criminal investigation ensues, but it leads her to interact with people who see her as a person deserving of security and other rights—and not as “a Mexican” or “an illegal.”

Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Long Hill Home is a suspenseful thriller about a crime and the legal process that also imparts a valuable lesson: In order to eradicate prejudice, sexual violence against women, and other forms of social injustice, we must not judge, avoid, mistreat or fear others because they are different or because we are told to.  Rather, we must truly see them, and we must “stand in their shoes and walk around in them.”

As I conclude my reflection on Harper Lee’s influence on my work, I do so with a great appreciation for her impact on society and her influence on me, and with inspiration that I may strive to follow in her footsteps.

Fifty Shades of Grateful–Reflections on My 50th Birthday

Kathryn Pincus February 2, 2016
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On January 29, 2016, I woke up at 3 AM and these thoughts immediately flooded my brain. “My gosh, I am 50 years old. Where did 50 years go?” I have to admit it was unnerving–feeling as if fifty years of my life seemed like a blur. Since I couldn’t sleep, I decided to focus and recall some meaningful, vivid, or for some reason, just “inexplicably memorable” memories from every stage of my life.  Maybe that would help bring all of that time back in a way–or at least remind me that I had in fact lived it. 

I remembered my childhood in my small hometown of Allendale, New Jersey. Eight of us in a Colonial house that Dad kept adding rooms to, and even a pool in the backyard. Mom had a little vegetable garden. And beyond the pool, there were woods and a brook (Valentine Brook) that we waded in, caught fish in, skated on and crossed by climbing over a fallen tree to get to Bruno’s Meat Market across the brook and in the adjacent town (Mahwah) so we could buy candy. I remembered sitting around a wooden dinner table every night with Mom at one end and Dad at the other, and with three of us kids seated on a wooden bench on both sides. Our black lab Shannon would be under the table hoping to catch some scraps while we ate and buzzed about our day. I remember so many wonderful things about living in that house with my three brothers, two sisters and my parents–routine things like watching M*A*S*H episodes and Yankee games together and playing pick-up softball games with the neighbors in front of our house. I remembered the safety and freedom I felt running around my neighborhood with the other kids that lived near me–some I keep in touch with to this day.

I remembered my K through 3rd grade days at Hillside Elementary School–learning first how to separate from my mother, and how to sit still and wait to speak….and then realizing I loved books and learning. I could still see us screaming in joy as we ran outside for recess where we’d play dodgeball, climb on the monkey bars and have footraces. I remembered Brookside Elementary School, where I began to like boys, play sports and look in the mirror and wonder who I would become (after the braces and the acne were gone).

I remembered my first day at Northern Highlands Regional High School, which was gigantic, and scary, and exciting as we added a whole new town of students and many more opportunities to make friends. I vividly recalled watching the Saturday morning football games-with the Highlands marching band playing “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles at half time. I recalled carpooling or taking the train into New York with my friends to go clubbing at places like Studio 54 and to see concerts by the Grateful Dead, the Who, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, and many, many more. High school brought my first (and then second) trip to Europe to explore France, and then Switzerland. I remembered being awestruck as I experienced the antiquity and history in the “Old World” for the first time, and the sense of freedom I felt as I explored these ancient places and met young people from other countries (like “Nasko” the handsome dark soccer player from Dbrovnik I spent time with in Interlaken). High School brought teachers who influenced me, showed me “I could” and encouraged me to take risks, question, believe and explore. I remembered mistakes I made and lessons I learned–including drinking too much at a party never ends well, piercing your own ear with a long needle and an ice cube is painful, and you must find a balance of caution and aggression when driving in New York City. I realized that high school taught me how to be a friend, have a friend, accept and cherish all sorts of people…….and it gave me crushes and disappointments, and well as my first experience with authentic romantic love.

I recalled how college at the University of Delaware was a fresh page. There were thousands of new people I could meet and countless choices regarding what I wanted to study and who I wanted to become. I remembered the bustle of students along the sidewalk on “the Mall,” with its sweeping green lawn lined with beautiful old buildings that housed lecture halls, classrooms and dorms. I lived with nine friends in a house for two years and six friends in a house my senior year–and they all became my friends for life. We’d gather in the kitchen cooking our dinners at night, or walk to the Down Under night club or the Stone Balloon bar for “mug night” with our mugs in hand and an air of excitement about who we might meet or dance with. I remembered when the “Wilbur Fest” outdoor music festival happened on our block, and the Grateful Dead-inspired band Montana Wildaxe played on our back porch and throngs of people enjoyed a mini Woodstock in our back yard. I recalled twisting my ankle on that same back yard while playing volleyball and drinking too much beer the day before our graduation–and limping through our commencement ceremony at the UD Football Stadium the next day.

I remembered, in stark contrast to college, feeling very much alone and a bit lost in a new city as I walked up the steps of Georgetown University Law Center on my first day. I knew no one–and my only roommate was a person I found in a newspaper ad. I remember wondering “Can I do this?” Before long, my anxiety about law school and about navigating Washington D.C. melted away, and was replaced by a true love of the law, by the energy I felt as I walked by the dome of the Capitol or the steps of the Supreme Court and the feeling that “I can do this” growing inside of me. I fell head-over-heels in love with the city, with the sense of majesty and power around the National Mall, the beauty of the Potomac River and the reflecting pond, the shops and bars bustling with people day and night in Georgetown and Adam’s Morgan. I ran every day past the U.S. Supreme Court, Capitol Hill neighborhoods and its Eastern Market, the “Awakening” statue of a giant man coming out of the ground in Haines Point, the houseboats in the harbor in SouthWest, or along the Canal in Georgetown. I sat with my classmates at the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the wee hours of the morning–after partying all night because we had survived our first semester of law school. I remembered gazing at those lights twinkling in the reflecting pond and, beyond it, the Washington Monument reaching up to the sky, and at that moment I felt limitless possibility.

I remembered starting my law practice and my life as a young single professional in 1991. My first “home” where I lived alone. Long hours studying for the bar exam and then becoming a member of the Delaware and D.C. Bars. I felt as if I had been through the fire that summer–but I did it with my new friends who were studying and stressing out along side of me. Many of them are my friends still today. I remembered my first time in a court room– nervous as hell and excited at the same time. I vividly recalled being breathless when–during a deposition in a law office at the top of a World Trade Center tower, I got too close to the window and looked down. Mostly, I remembered countless nights where I sat alone in my small office, fighting sleep deprivation while struggling to complete a brief….. and reassured by the sounds of my coworker and friend in the office next to me doing the same. It was nerve-wracking and grueling, but it was exhilarating at the same time. With maturity and experience, I became a better lawyer and a happier and healthier one–by becoming more efficient, more confident and by ultimately finding a better work/life balance.

I remembered meeting the man who seemed to be the most unlikely of matches for me, and yet deciding on our first date that he was in fact “the one.” I remembered instantly and without waiver loving the way his eyes smile when he smiles, the way he makes people laugh, his incredible work ethic and his matching “play ethic.” I loved the way he shared my sense of adventure and he also believed you can do anything you set your mind to and are willing to work for. I loved his passion for all things important to him, his fidelity, and most of all, I loved the way he loved his young son and daughter above all else. I remember knowing, “this is it, this is what it is supposed to feel like.” I vividly recalled our adventures: roller-blading along Philadelphia’s Kelly Drive, helicopter skiing in waist deep powder in the British Columbia Rockies, zip-lining 300 feet above Echo Canyon in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, and driving the wrong way on a one-way street in Milan. Most of all, I remembered how nice it was to have someone to curl up with on the couch to watch t.v. or read the New York Times on a Sunday, to share a quiet meal with and to hear breathing beside me in the dark of night.

I could see–etched in my mind like photographs–our big life events: our wedding in front of family and friends on a hot humid September day in the garden of a small Inn, with our parents, siblings, children and friends sharing the importance of the moment and the joy with us. I recalled rushing to the hospital to give birth to my son Joshua, making me a mother only 12 hours before my 32nd birthday.  I could see every single detail of that moment, Baby Josh’s little pink hands reaching out to touch my chin, his eyes scrunched together sleepily and then opening wide and blue. Less than two years later, my second son Eric decided he was in a hurry to enter the world on Christmas night-when there were no doctors at the hospital available to give me an epidural or any pain relief. I recalled the terror I felt when the pain became unbearable and I knew there was nothing I could do but get through it, or the fear I felt when I saw doctors finally rushing in by the score after labor had gone too long and my baby was in terrible distress. Eric tested my limits and he kept fighting, entering the world with a broken collarbone, a swollen and misshapen head, and umbilical cord “rope burns” around his face.

I recalled an endless stream of moments–“mundane” at the time perhaps, but many of the most special moments in my life: curled up on the couch with a toddler at my side, and a sweaty headed baby sleeping on my chest, pushing a double stroller to playgrounds, festivals, on beaches and in 5k races.  I recalled watching them grow and mature, middle school field trips and school plays, high school sports, academic struggles and achievements, and long drives in the car to lacrosse and wrestling tournaments–and later to visit colleges.  I hold countless pleasant memories of the day-to-day activities of our household when all four of our children lived under one roof: teenagers and babies, eating family dinners, teaching some to drive while others were learning to walk. I recalled (and still have the pleasure of) amazing family vacations, with all our kids in one place, biking on the walls of Lucca in Tuscany, swimming with sea turtles in St. John or laughing on the the beach at the Jersey Shore.

I recalled getting a whole new community as my children grew. Each school they attended, every athletic team they competed on, and every neighborhood we lived in brought new friends. I recalled pro bono legal work for abused and neglected children, chairing fundraisers to build new school buildings and to help low-income children access better education, cooking and serving breakfast to homeless people who live only miles from my house and I recalled always being grateful for my blessings in life, for the people I met and for the smallest difference I could make in someone else’s life. I remembered deciding I wanted to publish that story that had been forming in my head for six years, and every step of the difficult and incredibly rewarding experience of becoming an author. 

So, it is now 4 AM and I’ve thought about all of these things I’ve done in my life, and the experiences I’ve had, and I realize I know the answer to the question that started all of this reflection—–I know “where those 50 years went.” They went to living life, living it deeply and fully and to the best of my ability. But more importantly, in every moment, every memory, every experience–it is the people by my side who made it better, made it fun, helped me through, made me laugh, shared the experience, showed me the way or let me show them the way, held me up or let me hold them up. So when I reached this conclusion–that it is Friends that made my 50 years so wonderful and so meaningful, I decided to post this on my blog.  If you are similarly wondering where those years have gone–take it step by step, remember the places, the experiences and most of all the people….it will make you grateful and hopeful at the same time.