Review: John Kroger’s Convictions
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 466 pages, $17)
John Kroger: Reed College President. Ultimate Prospie. Diehard white shirt wearer. Iron-willed mafia prosecutor.
Uncharacteristic as it may seem, the man who has spent the past semester chatting up Reedies in Commons, handing out fruit to students from a platter, and hiding the Doyle Owl under his desk (unconfirmed), is the same man who, as the subtitle of his memoir, Convictions, reads, successfully prosecuted “mafia killers, drug kingpins, and Enron thieves.” Convictions is the story of Kroger’s success as federal prosecutor—but it’s also a story of a soul-searching man concerned about the lawyerly ruthlessness that surrounded him as an attorney.
During his six years as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Eastern District of New York, Kroger did more than just cross-examine witnesses and make arguments before a jury. As an AUSA, Kroger supervised surveillance, searches, stings, and wiretaps, and at times had to decide whether or not to give federal agents the go ahead to arrest a suspect while the agents waited on the phone for his answer, just yards away from their target.
Despite its lack of sensationalized court scenes and its abundance of background information, Convictions is a thriller. Kroger’s explanations of important legal cases, of the ethical questions he debated in his head, are so clear and candid that his transitions from riveting court scenes to legal clarification are seamless. This makes Kroger a rare creature—a philosophy major who managed to escape from the Academy with a degree and his writing style unscathed.
Like any true Reedie, Kroger doesn’t shy away from ethical philosophizing. Often forced to choose between using ethically gray investigative and legal techniques and potentially losing a case, Kroger felt less and less comfortable with the thought that he had made a career of putting people in prison as his years as an AUSA wore on. Eventually this discomfort and years of eighty-hour work weeks, which he put in for fear of letting criminals get off easy, drove him to retire from his job as an AUSA and take a teaching position at Lewis and Clark Law School in 2003. His desire to take a three-month vacation and bike across the country, which Kroger did in 2000, is immediately relatable to any thesising senior.
But in Convictions, Kroger doesn’t ignore the earlier years of his life, the ones he spent as a hubcap-stealing teenager in Texas, a Marine, a legislative assistant, and a policy analyst for Clinton’s presidential campaign. While he spends the bulk of his book discussing his time as an AUSA, Kroger is quick to acknowledge the influence his youth had on his development into a federal prosecutor. But if Kroger’s account of his time at Yale as an undergrad is anything close to the truth, he spent his entire four years there holed up in his room with a book. (Though I hear he spent at least enough time outside to co-publish a literary magazine with Jan Mieszkowski.)
Kroger opens Convictions with an epigraph: Joan Didion’s oft-quoted aphorism, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But after my initial fist pump for having it listed on my Facebook profile as one of my favorite quotations, and as Kroger launched into courtroom battles with mafia bosses and international cash smugglers, the epigraph quickly faded from my mind.
It wasn’t until Kroger became more retrospective himself at the end of the book that I remembered the epigraph and realized its significance. Kroger only quotes the first sentence of Didion’s paragraph—Didion goes on to write, “We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five…We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Convictions is not just Kroger’s literary debut—it’s also his exercise in introspection, in imposing a narrative line upon the disparate images of his life.
Convictions is a beacon of hope for the thoughtful but directionless Reedie, proof that time spent in the Ivory Tower, and the work ethic instilled therein, does yield results. It’s also the best way to get to know John Kroger. Aside from sitting down next to him in Commons, of course.