I just finished reading Philip Roth’s The Human Stain — kind of an American version of Milan Kundera’s The Joke. The story takes place during the summer of 1998 in the middle of the Bill Clinton – Monica Lewinsky scandal.
After reading the first page, I was transported back to my own summer of 1998. Most of my memories of that time are blurry , for it was spent seven day a week, fourteen hours a day, for all of June and July preparing for and then taking the New York Bar Examination. August I spent in recovery with withdrawal pains. Yes, withdrawal pains.
It is very difficult to explain to the psychology of having taken the bar exam to a lay person — and I don’t say that to sound superior or elitist. It is like someone who has gone through military boot camp or medical school. It is a right of passage, but one that requires the utmost preparation. As a matter of fact, by the time I had taken the exam (which two weeks before I was positive I was going to fail), I was probably the smartest I will ever be in my life. I became a legal machine. I could answer question after question in seconds, literally. I became so addicted, in fact, to taking practices exams, testing myself, and checking to see whether I got the questions right (similar to the addiction of a video game aficionado), that I had real trouble coming down from the exam. I needed to keep answering questions. A large quantity of the knowledge that I had amassed, continued to swim around in my brain for at least two years. Most of it now is M.I.A.
Of that summer I have only the concept of it all and just a few scattered memories: a night of vomiting after week two (and taking the PMBR pre-course); a 30 minute break allowance each day to watch the 1998 World Cup — believe it or not, I had predicted that Zidane would become a super star and France would win; a dark, quiet corner hidden in the library; massive BarBri texts; seeing everything as a potential for negligence and liability, the train ride up to Albany, NY where the people seated behind me were discussing second degree robbery under New York criminal law — a question that actually came up on the exam; cigarette burns in the sheets in the Albany hotel; taking the exam in a ballroom with thousands of people (I was like number 7,100); flying through the exam; and finally the ride back to DC with an Italian friend who talked with his hands while he drove, almost as terrifying as the thought of failing.
Even today when asked in interviews, for example, about my greatest achievements (as if I were qualified to put out a Greatest Hits album), I always mention the New York Bar Examination, even though the interviewee (especially in Europe) almost never quite understands.
Somewhere between August 1998 and January 1999 when I was told I passed and was admitted to the New York Bar, I spent an unsustainable amount of time following the Clinton – Lewinsky scandal. I had my own take on the event — which I will not entertain you with, but I was following it all very closely. When I was sworn into the Bar in January 1999, I had to first interview with the Judicial Department’s ethics committee to see whether I was morally fit to practice law. When the committee member saw that I was from the Washington Metropolitan area, he asked whether, after all I had learned in law school and in preparing for the Bar (and the MPRE), Bill should be disbarred (he didn’t ask about impeachment) for certain transgressions relating to the scandal and why. After three years of law school, the two most intense months of my life, and witnessing Bill trample on all of the rules I was made to memorize, my answer was obvious. To make a long story short, I was agreed with and admitted to practice law. The rest is history.
Later in 2003, I believe, I saw the movie The Human Stain in Madrid. I had completely forgotten about it altogether. After the firs couple of pages of the book — and having my summer 1998 flashback — I also started having movie flashbacks. I would read a passage, and then remember similar scenes from the movie, but without ever having my memory give away the plot twists. Everything was vague, almost as vague as my recollection of 1998, except for the fact that the movie had made absolutely no impact on my life (it wasn’t very good) — whereas the Bar Exam, though I am not really practicing law today, has always felt to me to have made all the difference.