A Beginner's Guide to Legal Education

Professor James R. Elkins
College of Law, West Virginia University

The Transformation of Self

[A different version of "The Transformation of Self" was published as "Becoming a Lawyer: The Transformation of Self During Legal Education," 66 Soundings 450 (1983)]

A lawyer friend told me as I was starting to law school — "stop and take a good look at yourself, because in three years, you won't have the slightest idea of who you are." Another lawyer friend warned, "keep a little piece of yourself tucked away and safe, and don't let them get to it." I feel uneasy about what I was being told. It all seems very dangerous, like a brainwashing I'm helpless to prevent. I don't know what's it all about. [From a Law Student Journal]

I cried the night before I left for law school. I knew that this was it. I finally had to grow up, to become an adult. I didn't, don't, want to. I feel the need to become an adult, but my childish ways just won't subside. I am in limbo, neither child nor adult. Does anyone ever make the transition completely? I had pinned my hopes on becoming happy when I became an adult. And, what better magic road to adulthood than law school. [From a Law Student Journal]

There is a subtle moral transformation that takes place when a person undergoes a rite of passage and moves from one stage of life to another. What happens to one's moral sensibility when you become a lawyer? This question is significant because it calls attention to the human dimension of the education and socialization of future lawyers. If law students, forget who they are as persons, will they not also give up their commonsense notions of truth, fairness, and justice? And what will replace a person's commonsense? For many students being cool, detached, objective, analytical, and verbally aggressive is worth giving up their commonsense and their intuitive sense of fairness and justice. And it is possible that students give up more than commonsense in the devil's bargaining they engage in with themselves to become lawyers.

Seeing and understanding how professional education affects students as persons is difficult because law teachers pay more attention to law than to persons. Law school does not, from what little we know about its effects on students, turn liberals into political conservatives, or induce a lemmings rush to authoritarianism. Ideals and beliefs are not lost, one's concern for social justice is not obliterated. One might contend on this basis then, that law school has no lasting harmful effects on ideals and beliefs that keep us moving toward the good life.

Law school is an initiation, a rite of passage, and like a rite of passage in any indigenous culture, it is a powerful and potentially transformative experience. Having passed through the ritual rites of passage, the initiate stands in the same shoes as before, but now sees the world differently. Imagine living with a person in a love relationship and then undergoing the initiation rites of marriage. You and the loved one are the same, but you are also different. You have done nothing that is noticably different (nothing that could be quantified or measured) and yet your world is different. Law school is something of a similar phenomenon. Something happens to law students that significantly alters their sense of themselves and their experience of the world, a transformation that social scientists fail to understand. (One is reminded of the patient who tells the doctor about his pain. The doctor cannot measure the pain or locate it "scientifically" — that is, by known medical procedures — and consequently, shows less interest in pain than something that can be located in some "physical" sense. The scientific medical model has no place for pain.)

The exact nature of the change that takes place in legal education, where it is going to carry the student, and what it will ultimately mean is unclear. One student noted that law school simply "does not aid you at all in telling you where you are headed" and consequently he reported feeling like he was "simply going through the motions while reading and briefing cases." He did not know where he was going, and more importantly he did not know what was happening to himself, but he did know that reading judicial opinions and participating in his classes was affecting him deeply.

Part of the mystery about where legal education is taking you (even if you are reasonably assured you know where being a lawyer will take you) is that law teachers are unwilling to make clear whether you are "getting it" or not. The feeling of uncertainty during the early weeks and months of law school is, admittedly, part of the mystery. But even when you figure out how to brief a case and participate in the classroom question and answer sessions (that law teachers are fond of imagining as an example of a Socratic dialogue) it is easy enough to remain, as one student put it, "mystified as to my future." But even this student found the mystery to be manageable because he saw his colleagues as all being "in the same boat." He went on to say that everyone in the boat had "one thing in common" and that was "the growing feeling of power."

Another student captured the sense of mystery and awe, in this poetic statement:

I feel like I'm camping at night in a vast forest, and I have a campfire. I can see the things that are illuminated by the fire . . . . I know those things. But there is always an urge to build the fire bigger and see more things. This requires venturing out into the darkness and stumbling over obstacles to gather fuel for the fire. The bigger the fire gets, the more I can know, but each time I increase my circle of light, I must go further out into the darkness in search of fuel. With each trip I realize that the extent of the darkness is greater than I had imagined ... even though my circle of knowledge is increasing at a much greater rate.

But to say that students are mystified by law school or even that they appreciate it as a mystery does not tell us, in concrete terms, what the mystery means or what or the moral consequences as one becomes an insider to the mystified process. Students take the transformation seriously; some believe that the change that is taking place is permanent and irreversible. One student put the point succinctly: "Law school has affected my thinking irreversibly. I'll never be the same again." Another says, "once a person learns to 'think like a lawyer,' it can never be unlearned." Another student echoes the sentiment and remarks:

The scariest thing about law school is that its effects are irreversible. Once you step through those doors and become a pilgrim in search of a legal career, your life is changed. It is really a sad process in a way. I want to go through it because I want to be a lawyer, but my life and its surroundings will never be the same.

In some cases students are oblivious to the changes taking place, or accept the changes without awareness of how their lives are affected:

I want to sharpen my mind, my tongue, my manners, my logic, the way I hold myself and the like, instead of having a mind full of ancient clutter. Yet I know there are special parts of me I will not give up, will not change. My adolescent fears have not come true so far; I am still me no matter what vocation I chose.

But it is not so clear that every person is his own best judge of the transformation. Consider the student who, during his first semester of law school writes:

So far I haven't changed much. I still do practically the same things, with the exception of more time spent on class work and less watching television. I still buy as many punk rock albums as I can afford, see every movie I feel is worthy, and otherwise live a boring life. My attitudes in general are the same and my prejudices remain.

But in the paragraph immediately preceding this one, he tells a different story:

[P]eople often ask me legal questions in spite of my short tenure as a law student. I had a particularly satisfying experience in that regard last night. My father called and during our conversation he asked me a question about removing the snow from the front of our house this winter. Coincidently [sic] we covered this exact subject in tort class yesterday. I was able to give him a lot of information about licensees, invitees, duty requirements and effects of local ordinances. I felt very much like a lawyer. I was able to be authoritative, reserved (I acted very casually, I wanted to sound as if I could give this much information on any question he might ask) and professional. I was even able to use legal language and probably too much of it. It felt very good to be playing this role of counselor. It also felt very good to impress my dad.

The drama of the transformation is poignantly expressed in the reflections of a student struggling with how he has dealt with the death of his grandmother during his first semester of law school:

I am ashamed and confused about how I have been able to set her death aside and continue with the all important study of law. When I tried to sleep last night it was not the loss of my grandmother that worried me but the practice exam in Criminal Law and the completion of my memorandum problem in Orientation. Where did law school get this aura that makes everyone submit themselves totally to its dictates. It invades your character and mind in a way that supersedes emotions, desires, and even consciousness. And the most confusing thing of all is that I still enjoy it and do not recognize the extent of its control until I actually sit down and think about what it was like before law school.

When students try to describe more precisely the nature of the transformative change they speak of it as using "words more precisely," becoming "more thorough and thoughtful," "more disciplined," more analytical, better able "to analyze situations" and make sound judgments based on evidence.

The most frequently cited cognitive changes are analytical skills and greater discipline, discipline first, in the way the work of law school is managed, and secondly, disciplined thinking more generally.

[i]

Now I feel that yes, on the one hand, I do see factual situations through the eyes of my experiences and gut feelings, but the facts should not be received in a distorted and narrow manner. I must see beyond that initial (fact) perception; I must force myself to view the factual situation from all facets and analyze my thoughts as cooly, clearly and coldly as humanly possible.

[ii]

The change is more a way of analyzing situations rather than reacting to them personally and emotionally . . . . I, or a part of me, sits back and analyzes them from the perspective of the lawyer.

[iii]

I do like the way I've begun to weigh my words and argument before speaking; I'm trying to use just the right words, in just the right way, to make my point and to use logical reasoning instead of emotions. The cobwebs of many years are finally being swept from my mind, and I like it — I'm having to use my brain for the first time in my life.

But this objective, analytical way of looking at the world and the controlled voice that carries our speaking does not come easy. To attain this new level of objectivity one encounters a battle, between various parts of the self, a battle one student says is "between heart and head." It is a battle she fears the head will win, although it is her heart that she now finds to be winning:

My heart seems to be way ahead. I feel I must temper myself. I must seek to maintain an objectivity of thought. I notice in tort cases I focus on the plaintiff, in criminal law on the defendant, and in contracts on the plaintiff, even though in many cases parties have had no cause of action or have shown fault equal or greater than their opponents. I find this identification with the underdog or the injured to be disturbing to the development of my skills of analysis and argumentation. Perhaps this is because of societal identification with the underdog or the injured. I feel that my compassion as an individual is very important, but I believe I must maintain my analytical objectivity. This has not been as easy for me as I once thought before coming to law school. There must be a balance between the forces of head and heart. I need to get into it. I do want to do well, and I hope my inclinations are not reflected on exams. I must become a disassociated party to learn fully. If I do not, I will miss something because of my own perceptual filters.

One might be thankful for having greater discipline. It is, one student explains, "probably the most welcome change that I can see in my character." The work of a lawyer requires discipline, and the law school needs to teach that. One student sees that he has indeed learned to organize his schedule. He says, "My schedule is highly organized and routine now, and this discipline has been very comfortable to me." But it is not just an aptitude for disciplined work that one gets in law school. This same student found that he carried his new discipline "over to certain other areas" in his life and that this new discipline was "essential to successful living." The phantasy, if not the reality, is that law school teaches the discipline one needs to do the work, and that this same discipline can be put to good (controlled) use in all aspects of life. One student put the phantasy of transformation this way:

My mind is becoming more disciplined; I tend to analyze many things now, yet I have not let this become a constricting force for me. People's attitudes towards everything are changing. I would say that a great many of us who are striving to conform are becoming more analytical of ourselves and of the world, possibly a constant practice of the thinking process we are striving to master.

There is implicit in this development of discipline, the idea that law school toughens the mind (and strengthens those who have a tendency to be weak). It is, said Denise, using language she had learned from her Marine Corp husband, "a bootcamp of the mind." This business of law school discipline, promoting intellecutal powers of analysis is evocatively expressed by one student who welcomed the transformation with open arms:

One reason I wanted to come to law school was because I always felt that I was too sentimental and just basically too nice; I was always letting people step on me and push me around and I hoped that I could reach a balance between callousness and the other extreme by the discipline required in the law program.

Analytical ability is indeed a cornerstone of legal education, but it is not without its critics. In the transformation of "nice" to objective, from sentimental to analytical, there is a price to be paid. Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) points out that "[s]omething is always killed" when we use the knife of analytical thought. While the "qualities" acquired in law school — analytical ability, precision, and discipline — are necessary attributes of the competent lawyer, these qualities are often (but not, it should be added, always) gained at the expense of other desirable virtues. The student "learns" from legal education that the virtues of the "good lawyer" and "good" law student are analytical skills, an objective view, a rational and logical mind. The problem is that these virtues are juxtaposed against other qualities, equally necessary for a lawyer, but more difficult to teach, the virtue of feeling, commonsense, and commitment to a coherent set of ideals and beliefs. One student, "shocked" when he realizes what was happening to him said, "I have become more analytical; yet, at the same time, situations of an emotional or ethical character often lose their sting as logic and rational reasoning are put to use."

Professional role-centered morality and a strong sense of individual conscience are likely to come into conflict for many students even during their first weeks and months of law school. The conventional wisdom on the battle between head (professional morality and a legal world-view) and heart (ordinary morality and commonsense view of the world) is that it is a tension inherent in life and that the battle is neither induced by or particular to law schools. But whatever the conventional wisdom, when the role (and the ethic most frequently associated with the lawyer role, the adversarial ethic) is "split" off from one's personal sense of right and wrong, and the regard and respect for others, the transformation of lay person to lawyer takes on profound moral significance.

Mark Twain captures, as well as any, how an increase in knowledge of the Mississippi River by his learning to pilot a river boat destroyed a beauty that he had previously seen, but was no longer able to experience, on the river. Twain is not sentimental about his initiation. He reassures the reader that when he "had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet," he "had made a valuable acquisition." Learning to pilot a river boat on the Mississippi is no small feat and Twain does not underestimate the value of what he has learned. But there is more to the story. Twain goes on to say:

I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river . . . . [A] day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river's face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them.

James Boyd White, reflecting on this passage from Twain's narrative asks law students, "Have you lost something in learning to speak and think like a lawyer, are the romance and beauty gone from the river?" White, and the journals and introspective writings of my students, suggest that in learning a body of legal knowledge and acquiring new analytical skills and discipline the law student, like the riverboat pilot, begins to reinterpret her way of seeing and experiencing the world:

Today, while I was driving home, I witnessed a near collision at the intersection of University Avenue and Patterson Drive. The first impression that registered was "personal injury." I find that interesting because never before had I thought of two cars (one negligently driven) colliding as anything but a fender bender (i.e.,crumpled metal and hurt people). For the first time, my mind screamed negligence — "sue the bastard."

It was clearly evident the first day of law school that my professors were redirecting my conscious reasoning in new directions. What I have just now come to realize is that these professors are also adjusting my perceptions along a whole new line.

* * * *

[M]y classmates now converse in "relevant" terms. Unless one is speaking to someone close to him, there seems to be a pressure to say only things that are concretely tied to the topic being discussed. They do this almost as if points were being counted or deducted in casual conversation. At times it seems so absurd, as if someone was going to be awarded a prize for "Most Legalistic Conversationalist."

The transformation has both a positive and negative element. It is viewed positively when the student gets "something" that he wants or needs, a new skill that can be used to help others, a personal sense of competence, a purpose or direction in life. Broadly put, the transformation can give life meaning that it did not have. An education in law results in skills that give work purpose and meaning. But this aspect of the transformation is expressed by students in less grandiose terms. For example, "I am," Joel says, "much more disciplined than I was and I'm less fidgety." Joel goes on to say:

I don't feel like the process has had the effect of a major, eye-opening overhaul of my life, but I do feel that it has brought me in touch with a renewed sense of purpose. The purpose right now is shallow at best — that of mastering the material sufficiently to perform well on the final exams. But even the fragments of a purpose instill my life with a meaning that it hasn't had for a long time. I was an Orthodox Jew for most of my life, and I gave that up. I was ambitious, and I gave that up. I've had a countless number of career ideas, all of which I've given up. I've had no replacement for these facets of my life; I have been dangling. Now, law school is a fairly flimsy substitute for religion, ambition or life, but I've at least got the feeling that all the studying isn't an entirely silly thing to do. And that is . . . well, is a very nice feeling.

There is, however another aspect of the transformation that is troubling. Law students begin to see how they have changed (but not grasping its full significance) when the realize that others have begin to treat them differently. Friends, parents, even landlords treat them, even as first year law students, as if they were already lawyers. The danger in such easily acquired status is that it depends on position rather than knowledge and skill. The student has a need to see this new status as deserved. The underlying lesion, unless one is careful, is that status is associated with law and that professionals earn the recognition of others.

How is one to deal with the fact that people treat lawyers like lawyers? Listen as one student works on this issue:

[W]hen I meet new people they seem to be very impressed by the fact that I'm a law student, which I find extraordinary. I first became aware of this when I came to Morgantown to find a place to live. I found most landlords were eager to rent to law and medical students, would actually try to sell us on their apartments because they felt these students would take better care of the premises.

The following are variations on the theme of recognition and the struggle with how being "special" works:

[i]

The only noticeable effect of law school on me is that I want everyone to know I'm in law school. As I walk through Towers on my way to the PRT [the local monorail transit system], I make sure the titles of my texts are plainly visible to any passer-by. Anytime I see an old friend from my hometown, I never fail to mention I'm in law school. I'm proud of the fact and want to flaunt it in the face of everyone I can.

[ii]

My ego says I must be special; music allows me to be that. Maybe law will allow me to be special, too. That is why I'm here. This law school thing carries with it a bit of prestige. Kind of makes me feel good. I guess there really are rewards for busting your ass.

[iii]

My girlfriend repeatedly warns me that many women are attracted to professional men regardless of their other qualities. The important thing to me is that I know I didn't acquire mystical powers or devious motives when I entered Property I. The people are reacting to the rumors and myths attached to any profession.

[iv]

I tell [my friend] that we law students are no different than anyone else. It's an information game. Use your information to beat the other person. You get the prize or you don't. Law students love to argue but love winning even better. We're not any smarter or certainly not any more valuable than anyone else. We are not special, but it is part of our training to think that we are.

[v]

Obviously, something has changed, but I have not yet realized the nature or depth of this metamorphosis. I still feel like an individual, and I still feel differences between myself and others. I have an increasing sense of worth, and a degree of this derives from the "non-lawyer" world. There is no longer the need to impress others with my wit, intelligence, or accomplishments — I merely have to identify myself as a law student. Now that is humorous.

[vi]

Since I have been in lawschool, friends and family act differently toward me. Even strangers react differently than they used to, when I am introduced as a law student. This change is both good and bad. Many of my old high school friends seem to resent me.

[vii]

I talked to my father tonight, and I spiced up my conservation with words gleaned from my first few weeks here in school. Before I discuss our conversation, you need to know that he has only a third grade education, but he has been very successful in the home remodeling business. My father allowed me to talk to him about what I was learning and listened to me discuss it in what (I thought) were important legal terms. He said, "that's fine, but I really don't understand exactly what you said." After he hung up the phone, those eleven words stung me and continue to bother me.

The difficult task is working out a sense of self that takes account of how others see us, knowing on the one hand that some overvalue our status and are overly deferential, and that still others are openly hostile to us simply because we stand as symbols of law and its subversion of justice. Becoming a lawyer turns out to be a mixed blessing. Some students, faced with public hostility, learn to conceal the fact that they are in law school. One woman notes that she avoids telling people she is in law school because "it evokes hostility." Law students represent the legal profession. The task, as one student notes, is to try to "integrate the new [law school] values...with old perceptions of self" so that one can build a "richer basis of reasoning and more meaningful perceptions." The student points out that this process of integration is not always unsuccessful, when it isn't, it "spells trouble." The story that he told to explain how the trouble works was an imaginative retelling of the Aesop tale of the woodchopper and the inquisitive monkey:

In law school, your tail and your mind get caught in a crack. If a person is not careful, he may lose some of his freedom of reasoning by relying solely on precedents, restatements, and hornbooks. The harder he struggles to "learn," the narrower his thinking gets. In essence, his mind is caught in a crack.

The mind gets caught in the crack because of our compulsion to "make it," to be on top, to take advantage of the new status (albeit often underseved), to become our idealized self-image.

The Tragic Dimension of the Transformation

I am fighting hard to keep myself as I know me to be. I feel as though I'm a rock and there's constant erosion with constant water forces beating at my sides. I can succumb to these subtle, gradual modifications or I can add back the old sediments as quickly as they're worn away. In the early months of law school I fought and resisted this change. Lately, I've decided to go along with some of these alternatives for my own good. I want to keep my identity, but that doesn't mean that all the "baggage" I had was worth keeping and saving. [Law Student Journal]

The student's comment is extraordinary in the vivid imagery associated with transformation. The self is imaged as a rock, hard and resistant to the forces of nature (law school). The rock (self) is subjected to the constant "erosion" (learning) which is "beating at my sides." The hard rock-self is fighting, "fighting hard," "to keep myself as I know me to be." The hardness and the fight prevail in the beginning but give way "for my own good." Fighting for self she comes to the realization that part of that self is "baggage" which is not "worth keeping and saving." Even in this brief passage there is a sense of both resistance and submission and ultimately the need to choose how much "erosion" will be tolerated.

Something happens when one undertakes to study law. It is perhaps not overly dramatic to suggest that it is a bit like dying, dying in a sense of giving up "something," of losing a part of yourself (both the self that you have been and the self you want to be). One student described it as the sense that "something is being taken from you which cannot be easily recovered."

There is a profound sense of "loss" in becoming a lawyer, a loss which makes law a "tragic profession." [I have taken the idea that law is a tragic profession from an essay by Stanley Hauerwas. See Stanley Hauerwas, Truthfulness and Tragedy: Further Investigations Into Christian Ethics 184-202 (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977) where it is suggested that medicine is a "tragic profession."]

[i]

After only a couple of weeks in law school it was as though I had lost something or, rather, that someone had taken something from me, someone who certainly had no right to do so.

[ii]

I have learned, for whatever that means, something about the law in the three odd weeks I've been here. I can talk intelligently (or should I say intelligibly) about most of what has been covered thus far. But has that information and perspective gained or contributed to anything I treasure in myself? Do I need what I am learning? I miss the soulful discussions characteristic of my favorite and most fruitful undergraduate classes. There, we discussed potentiality, not limitations; we discussed how we know what we know and did not only exercise the prime rationality required in law school courses.

[iii]

[A]fter only a couple of weeks in law school, I feel that there are probably some fairly radical changes which this experience can work in a person's life. I suspect that this experience can be very destructive of one's self concept, as well as one's perspective of what is happening around one.

[iv]

I seem to be acquiring a one-track mind . . . .

[v.]

I find my conversation predominated with the law and the aspects of lawyering.

[vi]

My wife tells me Friday I am starting to sound like a law student. I tell her it's just exhaustion, but I get a funny feeling I don't want to be a guy who sounds like a law student. I want to be plain old me who goes to law school on the side.

[vii]

I am convinced that in the next three years, I will be trained to be a sophist. That is a person who practices clever but specious reasoning in advancement of persons or cases he does not necessarily believe in.

[viii]

Years ago, mental institutions performed frontal lobotomies on people who exhibited deviant behavior. The theory was that by excising that portion of the brain which was thought to control behavior, the deviant behavior would no longer be manifested. To medically include this analogy, that part was true, but the person also ended up manifesting no behavior, i.e., a vegetable. The correlation of this surgical procedure to legal education is that for those few students who are willing to accept it an academic lobotomy will be performed.

After putting the above on the back burner for a few days, I am no longer comfortable with the thought that part of my mind has been removed. (I think the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was still on my mind.) I have changed; I do see things differently. My speech is different; it is becoming more precise, and my vocabulary is being augmented. Is this because something else has been removed?

[ix]

When the automobile was invented the horse and buggy became obsolete. Carriage manufacturers were suddenly without a market and out of business. Phoenix-like, the automobile industry rose from the ashes of the carriage business. Social utilitarians call this phenomena "constructive-destruction", meaning one thing has given way to something more functional and practical. Laymen refer to this simply as a change for the better. While the horse can still transport a man, carry a pack, and pull a plow, in relative terms, its functional value as a tool has disappeared. But since the horse is flesh and bone, we can see that it did not literally vanish into thin air. Ironically, we view them while speeding past automobiles. The look, touch, smell, and sound of the horse is not really lost. But what about the era the horse and buggy occupied in time? What about the attitudes feelings of the period? Nostalgia buffs call it slow, pastoral age. That time is gone forever.

So, what does the horse and buggy "constructive-destruction," have to do with my becoming a lawyer? The thought of a part of me being lost forever is the crux of the matter. Will some of me be out in the pasture waiting to be harnessed again like the horse? Or is part of me gone forever, never to be experienced because of the legal profession?

[x]

Be assured, you will be intellectually sharper and ethically and emotionally duller than you are today. You well may be more impressionable and vulnerable to indoctrination than you have even been in your post-cradle life. The whole thrust of this indoctrination is toward the sterile and narrow elements in human situations. Expect this at virtually every turn.

* * * *

Law school is a place where one acquires power and privilege, or for many people here, more power and privilege. These two tempters, we are reminded often by good and wise men, corrupt the spirit and destroy our mental vision. We thus see persons who never spent a day in jail blandly sending other people to prison for thousands of days.

We learn how to steal with a fountain pen, and then to pronounce it good. We demand a greater share of GNP, of prestige and of other sought-after things in life than is rightfully ours.

If you have been fortunate enough to have been reared in poverty, or have been endowed with a highly sensitive empathy, then maybe you have a chance of surviving law school. But you will probably have to make a conscious effort. It could be that the law school experience is comparable to the acting of the late Elvis Presley. As one critic put it, "It grows on you; the only thing is, you have a hard time scraping it off."

We must ask, what is being lost, given up? What does one forfeit to become a lawyer? In what sense is this loss a phenomenon peculiar to "learning law," to law as an institution, and the life that one leads as a lawyer? Will Barrett, the protagonist in Walker Percy's novel, The Second Coming (1980), is a successful lawyer who is now trying to understand how he lost so much along the way.

Absently, he held the barrel of the Luger to his nose, then to his temple, and turned his head to and fro against the cold metal of the gunsight.

Is it too much to wonder what he is doing there, this pleasant prosperous American, sitting in a $35,000 car and sniffing cordite from a Luger?

How, one might well ask, could Will Barrett have come to such a pass? Is it not a matter for astonishment that such a man, having succeeded in life and living in a lovely home with a lovely view, surrounded by cheerful folk, family and friends, merry golfers, should now find himself on a beautiful Sunday morning sunk in fragrant German leather speculating about such things as the odd look of his wrist (his wrist was perfectly normal), the return of North Carolina Jews to the Holy Land (there was no such return), and looking for himself in mirrors like Count Dracula?

At any rate, within the space of the next three minutes there occurred two extraordinary events which, better than ten thousand words, will reveal both Barrett's peculiar state of mind and the peculiar times we live in.

First, as he sat in the Mercedes, Luger in hand, gazing at the cat nodding in the sunlight, there came to him with the force of a revelation the break through he had been waiting for, the sudden vivid inkling of what had gone wrong, not just with himself but, as he saw it, with the whole modern age.

* * * *

But first his "revelation." As he sat gazing at the cat, he saw all at once what had gone wrong, wrong with people, with him, not with the cat — saw it with the same smiling certitude with which Einstein is said to have hit upon his famous theory in the act of boarding a streetcar in Zurich.

There was the cat. Sitting there in the sun with its needs satisfied, for whom one place as long as it was sunny — no nonsense about old haunted patches of weeds in Mississippi or a brand-new life in a brand-new place in Carolina — the cat was exactly a hundred percent cat, no more no less. As for Will Barnett, as for people nowadays — they were never a hundred percent themselves. They occupied a place uneasily and more or less successfully. More likely they were forty-seven percent themselves or rarely, as in the case of Einstein on the streetcar, three hundred percent. All too often these days they were two percent themselves, specters who hardly occupied a place at all. How can the great suck of self ever hope to be a fat cat dozing in the sun?

There was his diagnosis, then. A person nowdays is two percent himself. And to arrive at a diagnosis is already to have anticipated the cure: how to restore the ninety-eight percent? [Percy, The Second Coming, at 15-16]

We are only two percent ourselves because we fail to ask ourselves what we are doing and the price we pay to live the way we do.