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PHOTO/CAPTION: Barbara Pierce

The Runaway Author

by Barbara Pierce

Some people harbor a secret passion for the books of Danielle Steele and others for the works of Stephen King. For me it's fast-paced, good-guy-lawyer adventures. Not surprisingly, then, John Grisham is a favorite. So, when The Runaway Jury (RC 42334) by John Grisham spilled out of my mailbox the other day, I was delighted. I have just finished reading it—all 401 pages (ten sides) of it—and I was both disappointed and annoyed.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the story line though I prefer books in which I can respect someone among the major characters. Without giving away the plot, I can say that the action centers on a tobacco liability trial. The plaintiff is the widow of a man who died of lung disease after thirty-five years of smoking. The lawyers on both sides are pretty unsavory, and the witnesses are all just walk-ons with no personality. In the opening pages, however, a young man gets himself named to the jury and begins manipulating the jurors, the judge, and the trial strategy. All of this, as I say, is clever and fairly well done.

In order to get the plot off to a fast start, the protagonist, Nicholas Easter, has to take control of the jury without calling any attention to himself. Understandably, Grisham wants to keep the reader in doubt about which side Easter is working for, so he avoids telling the story from Easter's point of view. All the lawyers and jury experts are worried because they can't learn much about Easter's past or his prejudices.

So Grisham's literary problem is how to focus attention away from Easter, the true leader of the jury, enough to divert the attention of the lawyers on both sides while maintaining reader interest. Grisham's answer is to introduce a blind man, Herman Grimes, into the jury pool and begin with his threats to sue if he is not allowed to remain in the pool. Then, when he makes it onto the jury, Grisham has the group elect him foreman. It's an interesting solution to the problem, but I'm pretty sure Grisham never bothered to learn anything about blindness or blind people competent enough to be elected foreman of a jury.

Some things about Grimes are plausible and appropriate. He is a computer programmer and a conscientious note-taker during the trial. He adheres exactly to the judge's instructions about jury behavior. He is clearly bright and wants others to treat him with dignity.

But the poor guy never has a chance. Grisham saddles him with a wife from Hell. Part way through the trial the judge has to sequester the jury in a local motel. The sighted wife, who has been delivering him in the morning and retrieving him at the end of each day, insists that she be included in the sequestration order so that she can take care of her husband. During the discussion in which she convinces the judge to include her, the blind man is present, clearly does not wish to have his wife included, and is incapable of arguing his case.

From first to last Grimes is a social misfit. Even when his wife is not preventing him from talking with the other jurors, he shows little capacity for making friends or engaging in small-talk.

The blindness stereotypes are all present. His entrance the first morning is heralded by a thump at the door. When it swings open, he comes in waving his "walking stick." His wife follows him in, providing a description of the size and layout of the room in a rapid undertone. Easter rushes up, despite the wife, and guides him to the table, where he immediately "gropes" for a chair, orients himself to it carefully, and sits down while his coffee is brought to him. Despite the fact that the trial takes weeks, he never does learn, or even try, to get his own coffee in the jury room or do anything for himself at the motel. His only significant interaction seems to be with his "Braille computer"— whatever that is supposed to be. A specially assigned court reporter prepares detailed descriptions of the exhibits, which are given to him on disk. But all this detail is inconsistent, as far as I can tell, with actual access equipment. The real purpose of the detail seems to be to construct additional barriers between the blind juror and the other eleven.

I have asked myself how I would have preferred Grisham to resolve his structural problem. The honest answer is that I wouldn't much care as long as he didn't make things more difficult for blind people or members of any other minority. He could have made the foreman a sighted geek, or a fussy university professor, or how about a self-absorbed country singer preoccupied with fan mail and show bookings. I find it significant that Grisham did not make the foreman a woman or a member of a racial minority. The character's narrowness of outlook, inability to deal with relationships, and fundamental helplessness necessary for the plot's development would have been perceived by virtually everyone as an insult leveled at every woman or member of the ethnic group. Only a character from a group generally recognized by the rest of us to be superior in some way could have failed to be an insult to every reader similarly situated.

I feel pretty confident that Grisham never considered these issues before deciding to make his foreman a blind man. After all, poor old Grimes simply embodies a lot of the stereotypes of blindness today. But we know how insidious and damaging those stereotypes can be, and we know just how untrue they are. It's the millions of readers who already share Grisham's prejudices about blindness and blind people who will be all the more grounded in their ignorance for having read The Runaway Jury. And there doesn't seem to be a lot we can do to counteract the damage Grisham has done, except to speak out against the injustice and live, as clearly as we can, lives that refute his foolish notions.

The one mildly amusing piece of poetic justice near the end of the book occurs when the author is forced to remove the foreman from the trial. He has anchored the foreman in such isolated moral rectitude that he has no choice but to get rid of him before he can bring the verdict in. Grisham can think of no better way of removing Grimes, the conscience of the jury, but to drug him—he thought his coffee tasted peculiar but drank it anyway. Grisham couldn't be bothered to create a blind character who could serve as a role model showing what blind people can do, but at least the poor man refused to lie down and be disposed of quietly. In this way, at least, Grimes can serve as an inspiration to all blind people. None of us can be suave, commanding, and independent all the time, but we can and must refuse to lie down and be written off.

Occasionally one comes across a blind character in a book who does not embarrass the rest of us in some way. With The Runaway Jury, John Grisham has not contributed to this small collection of normal blind characters.