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the sentence not spelled out at sentencing so to speak. The price we pay goes way beyond incarceration and humiliation. We lose our place in society, our professional careers, friends and sometimes our families .
We live our lives with the constant reminder of our mistakes. Society is not forgiving or felony friendly…”
Many of us have encountered someone when we were younger, only to have that chance meeting take on real meaning decades later. Such is the case with my meeting Alger Hiss.
For those of you of a certain age, Hiss was a Harvard trained lawyer and a foreign service officer in the FDR administration. He was actively involved in the creation of the United Nations and was deemed a rising star in the State Department. He became famous when he was convicted in 1950 of espionage in the ‘Pumpkin Papers’ case.
Hiss spent 4 1/2 years at my prison ‘alma mater’, Lewisburg FCI. He did his time in the penitentiary; I did my time in the camp!
I crossed paths with Mr. Hiss in 1974 when I was fresh out of graduate school. Hiss was working as a paper salesman for a company in downtown Manhattan where I was temporarily assigned by the company’s outside accounting firm. I had a passing knowledge of Hiss due to his connection to Richard Nixon. In the post mortem of Nixon’s presidency the press liked to link Nixon’s nastiness early in his career to his merciless persecution of Hiss.
When I met Mr Hiss, he displayed a solemn dignity despite his unfortunate notoriety. He was clearly a man of substance and intellect as he smoked his pipe and peppered us young accountants with questions about our careers and work. I remember being puzzled by the fact that this obviously capable and smart individual was now vastly underemployed as a salesman. One couldn’t help being stunned at his new circumstances. Gone were the trappings of success, power and prestige. At the time, I wondered how he dealt with such a drastic change. What was it like to see his education and experience become totally useless? What was it like to wake up everyday with the knowledge that his career and reputation, the product of decades of hard work had been destroyed.
Little did I know that I would find myself in the exact same place after being convicted of a white collar crime. I have found myself asking the same questions forty years later. And I am certainly not alone in asking these questions. Thousands of us who have made a mistake recognize the extraordinarily high price for committing a felony—-the sentence not spelled out at sentencing so to speak. The price we pay goes way beyond incarceration and financial restitution.. We lose our place in society, our professional careers our networks, our friends and sometimes our families . We live our lives with the constant reminder of our mistakes. Society is neither forgiving or felony friendly.
Just like Mr Hiss, we learn very quickly that our life has become a whole new ball game with rules that are sometimes incomprehensible. By absolute necessity we begin a process that can take years as we rebuild and re-purpose our lives. The disbarred attorney, the doctor who can never practice again, the trusted advisor that can no longer be entrusted all have been busted – thrown off the team. We become ostracized if not outright exiled.
Virtually alone, we are shrouded in the dense ‘fog of felony’ to find a new path forward. We begin to connect with new values, new friends and search for forgiveness of ourselves and others. I assume our journey is much like the one Alger Hiss made. In this process one’s identity is transformed and place in the world is reset. Our old life evaporates like mist in the early morning. But it is through this process that we make peace with ourselves, those we love and what we once loved.
I think that when I met Mr Hiss that he had successfully completed his journey. He made peace with where life had taken him—-his new normal was accepted and he lived life on new terms and with new values. Through the process of self renewal he was able to move on from his life in diplomatic corps to something totally different. In his later life, he wrote books, became a sought after lecturer and even was reinstated by the Massachusetts Bar. But it was a long, arduous and uneven process of redefining his life. We are all on this well traveled road.
Those of us who have committed a white collar crime, come home to start a unique and existential journey. But we are not alone. We can learn from other fellow travelers like Alger Hiss and countless others.
I encourage all Fellow Travelers to add your comments to this blog.
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