Novel Comments

William Landay's (2013) Defending Jacob has been a popular read for book clubs. No wonder! This novel is a well crafted legal thriller. For me, as a psychologist, it is also a fictional case study of the father of an accused murderer. Jacob, age fourteen, is accused of having knifed to death a classmate who had been bullying him. Mr. Andy Barber, his father and an assistant prosecuting district attorney, is the first person narrator of the story and the primary defender of his son. As is appropriate, the boy has his own defense attorney, but the father's switch from a prosecuting to a defensive position is an interesting one. His behavior and reputation as a prosecutor is stellar; his behavior as a defender is not.

The father's defensive position came from his massive denial. He professed the unyielding conviction that his son was innocent. Even as their formerly mutually held belief in Jacob's innocence began to be be doubted by the mother, Mr. Barber remained steadfast. Mrs. Barber began to wonder about the possible implications of Jacob's  early behavior problems. Since Jacob had been two years old, children would get hurt around him. The father minimized her concerns. In his opinion, the injuries were simply the accidental results of boys' rough and tumble play. Although information garnered during the trial showed the teenage Jacob to be cruel and unfeeling toward others as well as to be fascinated by violent pornography, Mr. Barber saw Jacob merely as exhibiting boys-will-be-boys adolescent behaviors.

Andy Barber had a secret he had tried to keep even from himself. He only told his wife after he anticipated that it would come out in court, and it did. In court he confessed that for thirty years he had forgotten that his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all had been known murderers. His father was currently in prison for his crime. His lineage brought up the possibility of a "murder gene," which he had feared would make Jacob's guilt more credible to jurors.

And then there was the knife. A classmate of Jacob's cued Mr. Barber to look at Facebook, where classmates had said that Jacob had had a knife. The father then searched his son's room and found a sinister looking knife with which he confronted Jacob. The boy tried to shame his father for questioning him. Mr. Barber backed off but got rid of the knife. He rationalized that he was protecting Jacob from the all too frequent failures of the justice system, wherein all too many innocents have been found guilty.

Jacob's psychiatric evaluation suggested a narcissistic personality disorder, a reactive attachment disorder, and the possibility of an antisocial personality disorder. The psychiatrist made it clear that although the findings did not prove guilt or innocence, they did indicate that Jacob believed that rules did not apply to him, had a lack of empathy, and was emotionally cold.

Mr. Barker himself had no history of violence, but it seemed to me that he shared some of his son's characteristics. As already mentioned, he had defended his own violations of the rules of the legal system by hiding evidence. As a lawyer, he had been unsympathetic toward the people he had prosecuted. In spite of his frequent avowal of love for his wife, he had deceived her about his patrimony and later on he told the court that it was she, not he, who had hidden the knife.

Defending Jacob is a novel that can hold its readers' attention to the very end. There is much more to it than I have discussed here. Nevertheless, I found Andy Barber's defense of his son to be the most compelling aspect for me. Although Mr. Barber was an extreme example, can't we all sometimes see only what we want to see?

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