Evoking jurors' sympathetic imagination is key for lawyer storytellers

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After breakfast, buzzing on an overload of caffeine and pastries, I finally headed downhill from the coffee shop. San Francisco is a magnificent city for walking, and I was in no hurry to get to the conference, strolling along the waterfront on the Embarcadero. The fog rolled back in. Then came a downpour. I had no umbrella or raincoat, so I went inside the Embarcadero Center shopping complex. A boutique multiplex theater was just opening. I watched an afternoon screening of Barry Jenkins’ movie Moonlight.

Moonlight is an understated and profound movie about black lives in Miami, beginning in the 1980s. Jenkins’ characters inhabit such a different world from my own, one I have not seen before, at least not depicted in this way. The story is enthralling precisely because it cuts against so many popular cliches and stereotypes. It avoids the easy messaging of many commercial films and doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator of unambiguous moralism and comfortable cultural affirmations seen in Hollywood.

Also, the story does not track the conventional linear Hollywood movie structure. The plot presents three discrete elliptical pieces set in different times: The initial story is about a brutalized young boy, Little, who initially finds some intimation of the possibility of love with a surrogate father, a crack dealer who sells to his addicted mother.

In the second piece, Little has grown into the adolescent Chiron. He has an awakening of his own sexual identity with his close friend Kevin. But then Kevin betrays Chiron and his sexuality to the now-adolescent gang of thugs. Chiron is physically brutalized. He takes violent revenge on the leader of the gang and is incarcerated.

In the final episode, more years have passed; after his release from prison, Chiron has remade himself as the buff and hardened drug dealer Black. He reconnects briefly with his mother, who is now in drug rehab, and the film closes with the suggestion of the possibility of love and a reconciliation with Kevin.

The characters are evoked with compassion, captured meticulously in complex and compelling performances. This world is reconstructed with an overwhelming cinematic beauty. There is not a false note or a bump in the lyrical composition of the story.

Sitting in the plush reclining seats, I was completely drawn in; I inhabited empathically the world of these characters and lived their stories with them.


After the movie, I wandered through the business district along the Embarcadero, drifting toward the law professors’ conference. I was still thinking about Jenkins’ movie Moonlight and about Lanier’s Vioxx opening statement. The stories told are, in different ways, commercial and artistic. I imagined how difficult it must have been for Jenkins and his producers to initially pitch his story to get funding to make this seemingly unsparing movie—somewhat akin to Lanier pitching his story to a jury, walking the twisted and difficult line between art and commerce.

I also thought how Moonlight was akin to Lanier’s opening statement in deeper ways. Both storytellers were sharing tales of suffering and injustice, both attempting to derive human meanings and truths from the events depicted in their stories, artfully and purposely engaging the sympathetic imagination of their audiences.

As I headed to the conference, I was hyperaware of the many homeless people on the street along the Embarcadero, ignored by the legions of businessmen and office workers now going home. A young woman sat on the sidewalk clutching a battered Raggedy Ann doll. She began sobbing a name, “Pammy.” Was it the doll’s name? Her child’s name? Perhaps her dead child’s name? Then she began howling; her pain pierced the street noise. Pedestrians, myself included, stepped carefully around her.

Afterward, I drifted through crowds of busy shoppers gorging on consumerism in the department stores at Union Square. I couldn’t shake the image of the young woman howling and clutching the Raggedy Ann doll.

At the Hilton, before heading into the final sessions at the law professors’ conference, I scrawled my own version of Franz Kafka’s famous dictum on the back of a lawyer’s professional card about how stories—in books and in life—are the ax that cracks open the frozen sea inside us.

Back home, I found the card in my wallet. The emotional power of Lanier’s opening statement, of Jenkins’ Moonlight, and of the sidewalk scene of the young woman with the rag doll howling a child’s name all returned to me. Evoking the sympathetic imagination is crucial to the work of all storytellers, including lawyers, and helps explains why these stories remain so vivid in my mind’s eye and in my heart so many months later.

Philip N. Meyer, a professor at Vermont Law School, is the author of Storytelling for Lawyers.

This article was published in the February 2018 issue of the
ABA Journal with the title "Paint a Picture: Evoking jurors’ sympathetic imagination is key for lawyer storytellers."

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