The Susan Hawk Story Is About Lying

One of the smartest things former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller said to me when she was serving on the City Council was, “In Dallas, the most important thing is never to say anything about anything, ever.”

I agreed with her. Sometimes it’s almost but not really funny. This is a culture that has a really hard time pinning the tail on the donkey of truth.

Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk went AWOL about a month ago. While she was away from her post, her flak, political consultant Mary Woodlief, was telling people, “She’s fine,” and her top staffers were saying she was on vacation.

Wednesday she posted a statement on her Facebook page saying the truth was that she had departed from her duties because she was depressed. This is the same person who went AWOL while running for election in 2013, said it was something about back surgery and then later (after she got elected) admitted she had left the campaign trail to be treated for addiction to multiple prescription drugs.

After Hawk fessed up to the real reason for her most recent abstention, The Dallas Morning News editorial page immediately praised her 
for “taking control of her life and attempting to deal with the stresses that can exacerbate her condition.” The editorial said proudly that the paper “has been a leader in the ‘Erasing the Stigma: Mental Illness and the Search for Solutions’ initiative.’

“Stigmatizing those with mental illness only worsens the suffering,” the editorial decreed. “It denies the reality of diagnosable, treatable diseases. It drives a wedge between sufferers and life-restoring help.”

In her Facebook post, the district attorney said, “For the past three weeks I have taken a break from work in an attempt to work through a serious episode of depression. It was my intention to return to work this week, but I have been unable to do so.

“I’ve decided that it would be in my best interest, and the best interest of the DA’s office for me to take a four-week, unpaid leave of absence starting today and give this illness the professional attention it deserves.”

A thing I can’t help noting in her statement is that she describes her depression not only as an “it,” as if a thing apart from herself, but that the it in question deserves things. She goes on to say, “I’m sorry that my absence has created this unnecessary distraction,” which sounds like a classic non-apology apology, as in, “I apologize if my remarks were misunderstood.”

Former state District Judge John Creuzot, a national thought-leader in the field of court-ordered rehabilitation for addicts, told the News he was glad Hawk was getting help if she needed it, but he was concerned that her personal problems might impair her ability to perform her duties. He also said she needed to be “more honest with the voters who elected you.”

Creuzot told me his main concern in the Hawk situation is lying. He also pointed out that an element in all addiction recovery regimens is "brutal honesty."  That certainly has been my experience. Every addiction program I have ever heard of, from Alcoholics Anonymous to Hazelden to Betty Ford Foundation views lying and dishonesty as fundamental markers for and underlying characteristics of addiction. Most programs assume an addiction cannot be cured unless the lying is cured first.

I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten stuck at the Thanksgiving Day table next to your longtime dried-out uncle, but he’s always the one who’s going to say, “No, Alice and I actually got married 25 years ago because I knocked her up while we were drunk.” Former addicts typically are honest to a fault.

Once you know that about addiction, and once you realize a former addict is still lying to you about stuff that could just as easily be dealt with honestly, then, when you do hear a lie from those lips, a little alarm goes off in your head telling you the person isn’t dried out yet.

Does it seem unfair? Other people lie. But this is not a question of fairness. It’s a tell, or, if you prefer, a symptom. Blisters and fever: chickenpox. Needless lying: not off the stuff.

In a written statement, Hawks’ on-again off-again hired spokesperson, Woodlief, a very bright and nice person, took Creuzot to task for, in her view, criticizing Hawk: “It really doesn’t get more honest than blasting out to all the media that you have a mental illness and are asking for help,” Woodlief said, “and there is no doubt that this will make her stronger and better at her job.

“It’s unfortunate that Judge Creuzot has chosen this moment to be critical — as someone who holds himself out as an advocate for recovery and rehabilitation, he should know better.”

But I didn’t hear Creuzot criticizing Hawk for acknowledging her illness, seeking treatment or doing anything else honest. I heard him expressing concern about the lying, and here it is important to recognize that both Hawk and Creuzot are lawyers and former judges with long experience in the criminal justice system, where lying is the best, fastest way to get yourself into serious Dutch.

I don’t know if it’s humanly or legally possible, but if I were a criminal defense lawyer in Dallas County and an assistant D.A. laid one glove on me or my client to impeach our integrity, I would find some way to get Susan Hawk into the discussion, even if I had to put a framed glamour shot of her in front of me on the defense table.

It’s a fair issue. It would be fair to say to an assistant Dallas County D.A., “So you work for a person who requires her top staff to lie for her, is that right?”

Or would you even have it bring it up? Isn’t it pretty much out there anyway?

It seems to me Woodlief’s construction of things — that the big, brave thing is publicly confessing to something embarrassing — expresses, in an odd way, the core of that culture I talked about at the top, as if the most important issue is public humiliation.

That’s not why addicts lie. They lie so they can keep getting stoned. It’s not why politicians lie. They lie so they can keep getting elected.

Hawk said she was sorry if her absence created a “distraction.” Her absence created the opposite of a distraction. It created an intense focus. That focus was what forced her to issue her Facebook non-apology.

Depression really is a disease. You don’t have to confess to depression. In this world? At least half the people you’re talking to are waging war against similar demons.

Public office is not baseball.  If you have sought and received the public trust as an elected official, and if you have already suffered two episodes of lying to that public, then I don’t think there’s a strike three. Hawk says she’s taking another month to give her depression the treatment it deserves. She should give the public what it deserves and not come back.