After Reading Nothing But The Truth

The Toronto School Board rejected a girl’s book club event, including a speaking engagement, for Marie Henein’s memoir due to a case she was the defence lawyer for in 2016. That case, along with all of the other high profile cases Henein has been involved in do not appear in the memoir, though her concern with the public’s perception of the role of the defence does, as does her contempt for the kinds of patriarchal attitudes that tell a group of girls that they’re too sensitive to make up their minds about what a woman at the top of her profession has to say.

It is a little disingenuous to say her high profile cases do not appear at all. She references a case that led to her being interviewed by Peter Mansbridge, and her comments on how female leaders are superior to feminist leaders echo sentiments expressed during the Mark Norman case. While there are professional obligations that would impede a tell all, the simple fact is that Nothing But the Truth is Marie Henein’s memoir, not her clients’ and so a reader should not expect anyone’s story but the author’s. The fact that a reader might open a memoir by one of Canadian Lawyer‘s Top 25 Most Influential lawyers looking for the stories of the men she represented only highlights the importance of what she actually has to say in the book.

Discussing the controversy surrounding the author may be participating in the problem, but there is something of a problem with expectations going into a book like Nothing But the Truth. A likely audience for the book is going to pick it up to read a high profile lawyer’s thoughts on the sorts of things one expects lawyers to have thoughts on, and so might feel adrift when confronted with biography at the start. The memoir addresses these expectations at the start and clarifies that it is about the author, not her clients. More importantly it sets up themes of home which will return by the end of the book, and addresses both formative experiences as well as the limits of such reflection in finding oneself. These passages are not without comment on the present day, particularly with regards to people’s responses (well meaning and otherwise) to immigrants, but they are, more importantly, a glimpse into the life of an accomplished woman who, for most people, will have largely been defined by her clients. The recollections are affecting and, at times, unexpectedly humorous given the author’s reputation for (and admission of) seriousness. With Henein’s later disabusing of the belief that her ‘brand’ is calculated, these chapters also show how much of the alleged brand is simply a reflection of her personality (and, possibly, some forbearance on the part of her colleagues).

However, Henein is known for her professional accomplishments and her reflections on her professional life are among the memoir’s greatest strengths. While the book does comment on how law students are under-served in terms of education on running a practice, the memoir is light on how-to material. This may be because the landscape will have shifted by the time a professional is sought out for that advice, but it may be just as likely that Henein’s success is so tied to the personality shaped, itself shaped by the events in preceding chapters, that it does not allow for generalization. Instead the reader is offered the perspective of a remarkably accomplished criminal lawyer, a committed feminist, and a keen observer of society’s responses to both.

The role of the defence is summarized in plain English on the Government of Canada’s website, but Henein articulates the tremendous importance of this role while leaving no doubt that few outside the profession have any idea of what is going on. In addition to addressing common questions like “how can you represent someone who did such a bad thing?” Henein also addresses misconceptions like “the accused get all the rights” by placing them in the proper context where the vast resources of the government are brought to bear on the accused. In addition to providing important practical context to the practice of the law, these views are presented in the context of the role the judiciary places in defining and shaping the laws in Canada. Some of the most important insights of the book also present the justice system in the context of rising illiberalism and how politicians and social media can erode faith in that system with the consequences being borne by the most vulnerable. These chapters contain timely and important insights from a lawyer at the top of her game and are reason enough to read the memoir.

It is in her reflections on social media that one might see where organizations like the Toronto School District may have sought to reject the book had they bothered to read it. Henein refers to social media mobs and briefly mentions Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. While the comments are confined specifically to the public’s perception of the role of the defence, reference to Ronson’s book (particularly without caveats) is seen in some circles as an indicator of a particular stance with regards to the cancel culture wars and so may be seen as being “on the wrong side.” Those looking for further ammunition will likely find it, though likely through equally uncharitable means.

Henein is a committed feminist, and her views on this subject are as well articulated and wide ranging as the sections on the law. The memoir does a far better job of expressing the importance of this subject, but any reader harbouring doubts need only reflect that the public seems even more willing to opine about feminism than the law and without any more consideration. Henein has as little time for male feminists that simply seek to change the labels on the set of things she’s not supposed do as she does for male chauvinists who seek to reinforce the existing ones. Leaning in, being more/less assertive/nice, work/life balance, and all the other calibrations on the treadmill women are somehow expected to constantly keep in mind do not come out well in her analysis. The stakes are not a petty online squabble, but nothing less than the outcome of a U.S. presidential election and the calamity the double standard contributed to.

As with any matter of importance, there is room for disagreement, and fans of Lean In or any of the other targets of Henein’s criticism may find a matter of principled disagreement or simply dislike seeing a favourite come under scrutiny. The difficulty is that some of the readership may have already made up their mind about the author’s feminist credentials due to her cases and simply reduce these chapters to reinforcing their priors. There is a strong reason for a charitable reading of these chapters though. Henein’s practical solutions come off as fair and pragmatic, and have a ready heuristic in the form of “why aren’t men being asked about balancing professional and family life?” The absence of arguments she has made in the past also recommend a more charitable reading.

Some of the views held in the memoir have been stated elsewhere, such as a piece written for the Globe and Mail following the U.S. 2016 election. In the CBC interview linked above she has stated why she rejects the label that she is a traitor to her gender and does not see it equally applied to male lawyers or in disagreements between men. Elsewhere she has commented that it is unproductive to be engaging in this kind of mudslinging and has offered stronger comments. These particular views, centered on the Ghomeshi trial are not directly present in the memoir. Instead, they appear recast as a scalding criticism of Martha Stewart Living and the role it plays in the treadmill mentioned above. The point still has force but is divorced from the controversy surrounding one of her many high profile cases. It may be that this is a calculated rhetorical move, but it more likely reflects the fact that Marie Henein spends a lot less time thinking about the Ghomeshi trial than other people do. In either case, the importance of the subject and its presentation recommend a charitable reading, whatever one’s priors.

It is unseemly to insert myself into a review about a memoir, but I would like to draw on a personal experience that made me reflect on the book as a whole and I’d rather not pretend that “some readers” might think what was, in fact, in my own head. I am very much one of the people who wanted to read Nothing But the Truth because Marie Henein is a high profile lawyer and I want to hear her opinions on her cases and the justice system. There are opinions on cases, but these need to be inferred (as do some of the comments on current affairs, particularly the political content). I would have been perfectly happy to have the middle chapters expanded to the length of a full book and simply read that, but that would miss the point. Marie Henein is not defined by her clients, and reducing her down to her cases or even just her professional accomplishments means the lessons of those middle sections have not really been learned. It implicitly accepts the premise of the Toronto School Board’s rejection of the book and its author and simply argues over how far we admit these one dimensional people called defence lawyers into society. I’ll confess even the feminist arguments compelled me to seek out her mentor Edward Greenspan’s memoir to see if I was applying a double standard in terms biographical content (regrettably it was not available at the public library so this theory remains untested). The only way to read or write this book is as a memoir as any other way simply does not do its subject justice.

Nothing But the Truth has been presented here in the context past and present controversy because it is a compelling memoir written by someone who is committed to the open discussion of conflicting views. The book has something to say about the controversy surrounding it, and it deserves a fair hearing, particularly in light of the audience who was supposed to be “protected” from its contents. Despite the controversy, its prescriptive elements seem to be almost disappointingly uncontroversial. Even if one does not share Henein’s views in the middle section, confronting a case so well put can only help sharpen one’s response. We do not become more thoughtful or persuasive by confronting straw men, but we certainly can learn from an iron lady.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s