Lessons from the Fall

This book is both better and worse than one would expect. It is the story of Sol Wachtler, former Chief Judge of New York State Court of Appeals. Wachtler had an extramarital affair with a woman for whom he had been appointed executor, and after the breakup he stalked her with letters, phone calls, and threats. Eventually he was convicted of extortion and sent to prison. His fall from power is what fascinates us, of course, but that is not what is valuable about this book. It answers an outsider’s questions about the prison experience, seems to reflect accurately the dehumanizing aspects of prison, and cautions us regarding our wholesale warehousing of so much of our population. Its insights into these problems are tremendous, and many of Wachtler’s suggestions for change are brilliant. In many ways, however, the book is disappointing. The book begins with an enticing description of some of Wachtler’s childhood experiences and his rise to preeminence in the New York judicial system. But it. feels like a tease; the book really fails to answer many questions about Sol Wachtler the man, about the true nature of his illness – if he indeed had an illness as we understand the term -about his rise to prominence, or even about the real consequences of his fall. This book should have been either a complete autobiography or one with only introductory remarks about Wachtler’s adulterous affair and crime. The book would have been better had it stuck to what is wonderful about it -its insights into prison life.