In Maryland, a Soviet-Style Punishment for a Novelist

UPDATE (September 2, 2:51 p.m.): According to The Los Angeles Times, a law enforcement official is saying that McLaw drew the attention of authorities not because of his books, but because of a "a four-page letter to officials in Dorchester County." The report goes on to say, "Those concerns brought together authorities from multiple jurisdictions, including health authorities."

The story goes on to state, "McLaw's letter was of primary concern to healthcare officials, Maciarello says. It, combined with complaints of alleged harassment and an alleged possible crime from various jurisdictions led to his suspension. Maciarello cautions that these allegations are still being investigated; authorities, he says, "proceeded with great restraint."

I'm glad local authorities are releasing more information about McLaw, but these are the same authorities who last week told the press that McLaw was removed from his job because he wrote novels about a school shooting under a pseudonym (see, for instance, this CBS story: "Police: Md. Teacher Placed on Leave for Authoring Fictional Book of the ‘Largest School Massacre"). I've been trying to get the sheriff of Dorchester County on the phone, to no avail. It would be useful at this point for the authorities to get their story straight. 

UPDATE II (September 2, 5:37 p.m.)

I just got off the phone with Matthew A. Maciarello, the state's attorney for Wicomico County, Md., where McLaw lives -- he taught in Dorchester County, which responded to his various troubles by sending K-9 units through the schools in search of bombs and guns. Maciarello told me that the issues here have less to do with McLaw's books and the overall state of his mental health. When I asked him if Dorchester authorities led the press -- and public -- to believe that McLaw was being removed from his job because of the books he had written, Maciarello said, "We have a different way in Wicomico County. I can't speak for Dorchester." (The Dorchester sheriff has not returned my phone calls seeking comment.) 

"From our perspective, this was more about a health concern about Mr. McLaw than about a security issue," Maciarello said. Authorities grew concerned about McLaw after he sent a "four-page letter" to a school administrator over the summer. According to Maciarello, the letter contained no threats against schools or school personnel, but that it indicated that McLaw was not mentally sound. "Health care professionals were concerned, he was in a relationship that had just come to an end, he was talking about his mother as being overbearing, there was some thought that he could be a threat to himself." Based on the "totality of the circumstances," Maciarello said, McLaw was involuntarily committed for evaluation. Among those circumstances: Authorities said that McLaw had built a model of a school building in his home, and had asked an administrator to move classrooms, to one near the "point of ingress and egress" of the school. 

Yes, I too was underwhelmed by that response. I asked Maciarello if the novels McLaw had self-published had been a factor in county decision-making: "The books are a factor," he said. "You cannot consider the total picture without knowing that he had this book, this other writing. This was very concerning to the administrators. It's 2014 -- you can't have a person who has mental issues, someone who's complaining about his mother, complaining about teachers -- it's all taken into totality. It was a very restrained response, actually. We didn't freak-out because of the books. The main impetus was the four-page letter. It was just out there, you know, it wasn't something you give to your employer. To quote our health officer, it was a cry for help." One other thing: "He had some Columbine material at his house."

I asked for specifics. He said the "Columbine material" consisted of a report on the infamous Colorado school shooting. It could have been meant for research for his novels, I suggested.

"Absolutely, that could be true. We played all the angles on that. You can't just dismiss every little thing in a situation like this, in 2014." He went on to say, "If someone wrote a novel about school shootings it wouldn't concern me. I person is allowed to follow their pursuits. I love fiction. I love expression. But some citizens did react to this, there were citizen complaints based on the book, but this wasn't an overreaction. If you add this to the model of a school that he was building -- is this a tortured artist, or is this someone obsessed about schools? But I don't know how this story got out there that he was placed on leave because of these books. The main concern here is therapeutic, that he gets the help he needs." 

 

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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