Remembering Susan Jordan


May 30, 2009 Ukiah, Mendocino County, North California

Over the past year and a half, Susan had become a friend. I am an author and writing coach and Dave Smith had introduced us, hoping I could help her write her memoir.

When Dave contacted me yesterday (May 29, 09) to tell me Susan died in a small plane accident in Utah, I was stunned. My first words at the news were expletives, probably much like the last words that pilots record in those black boxes when they crash—outrage at the suddenness and randomness of violent death. And later I would speculate that Susan, being Susan, probably uttered similar words in the final seconds of life in her friend’s plane.

The last we met on her book project was sometime near the end of April. After months of struggling with the project, she announced that she’d had a breakthrough. She emailed me a new book proposal that started with the following—which I believe she would have loved to share with her friends and loved ones, though probably with some hesitancy and, certainly, modesty. These are her words. I’ve edited them only for minor typos (she was an impatient typist):



How to change the world, be successful, have a good time—and stay thin!

This book is about the four decades I spent as a trial lawyer. It is a memoir; it tells the stories of my high profile trials that made history.

It is my story and it is the story of Inez Garcia, the woman whose case I tried and won, who showed me that a woman can commit the most radical of acts – murder—and,  if she is righteous, she will fly free and everyone will see her airplane in the sky, forever.

It is about the muse who has been my life-long companion and guide wherever I ventured–into the world of criminal law, into the realm of spirit, and into the universe of flying small airplanes.

It is about my world as seen from the cockpit of my airplane: the earth and its residents; in places scarred and battle weary from handling her brutally, in other places pristine and shining, even with all her injuries and pain.

Georgia O’Keefe said it better than me: “What one sees from the air is so simple and so beautiful, I cannot help feeling that it would do something wonderful for the human race – rid it of so much smallness and pettiness—if more people flew.”

*     *     *

In 1967 I entered law school with the sole purpose of changing the world. I intended to rid the world of poverty and racism. I knew nothing about whether this would be hard or easy; I didn’t know whether a woman could be a successful lawyer in a world where there were few women lawyers. I didn’t know what it took to do such a thing. I didn’t know if I had it in me.

I had no idea I was starting on a life-long mission and path, and that I would be guided by an unseen friend, silently and always by my side, a genie, a spirit, to whom I spoke regularly, and who spoke back in a language that took me many years to understand.

I didn’t know that I would become intimate with the kind of violence one only reads about: my clients were terrorists, murderers, kidnappers, gang leaders and drug dealers. I didn’t know that I would come to know and care deeply for them as people.

It never occurred to me, starting out along this journey, that I would be sexually harassed, jeered and leered at. I didn’t know that friends would be killed, that I would become afraid, worried, and discouraged.

Until I tried to change the world, I didn’t know what lonely meant.

I didn’t know the pain I would feel at watching human beings come to court in chains, sentenced to decades in prison because their poverty never allowed them any options other than the crimes they’d committed.

I didn’t know how to make my way through what I saw as the injustice and cruelty that surrounded me everywhere I turned in the criminal justice system. I didn’t know–but I had to find—my own source of courage and compassion.

I didn’t know that I could make a difference.

What I did know was that what I saw around me wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that the people I knew in New York City when I started the journey all had enough to eat, had warm clothes for winter, had places to live, yet I saw others who had few of those things, few of even the bare essentials of life. It made no sense.

It wasn’t fair, I felt, that early in my life I was schooled in one of the best high schools in the country because my parents could afford to move to its district, while children in Little Rock, Arkansas had to be escorted by the National Guard for the privilege of just going to an ordinary school.

It wasn’t fair that the children in my fourth grade class, when I was a teacher in Bedford Stuyvesant, went to school in a system that had no way to educate them out of the cycle of poverty and despair—and so they were doomed never to escape. Today, it’s not fair that a patient who needs marijuana to create an appetite to feed herself while undergoing chemotherapy, or AIDS therapy, risks arrest and prosecution for possession of marijuana.

I remain determined to fix what isn’t fair — to change the world.

This has been my driving mantra. This memoir is about following the lead of this mantra–into prisons, courtrooms, into the air, to the great Indian nations of the Southwest, into homes of those living in dire poverty, into mansions of drug dealers, and deep into the gang territory of teeming urban ghettos.

And, always back into the courtroom, where the stories of our time play out like the Greek tragedies of antiquity. My cases have carved indelible grooves in my soul—Inez Garcia, Emily Harris, Sara Jane, Annika, Yvonne, Lynne—which, like scar tissue makes me stronger, tougher and more feeling at the same time.

Far into this journey, buoyed by the symbolism of electing our first non-white President, whose explicit agenda was change, I finally looked back, and to my real surprise I could see my dream had come true. We had changed the world.

No question about it.

~Susan B. Jordan, Redwood Valley California, 16 April, 2009

Copyright©2009 by Susan B. Jordan


There are many moments in Susan’s manuscript that reveal the tenderness and caring that she somehow managed to maintain in spite of the harsh world she participated in as a trial attorney. Here are just a few moments that reveal a little of what this woman’s life was about:

~Susan’s first job, in 1964, was as a copy editor at Glamour magazine in NYC. While there she read a book titled The Other America, by Michael Harrington. It was about poverty in America. She tells how on her walk to work, she suddenly began seeing the world with different eyes. She said: “Reading the book opened my eyes to those less fortunate than me, and I realized I felt for them…how hard life must be for those around me, but what I felt most powerfully was a sense that I had to do something about it. This wasn’t right, and I had to do something. I can’t explain how this happened. But once I saw, I couldn’t unsee.”

~When Susan was called to the jail cell of Bill and Emily Harris, just arrested for bank robbery and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, she first noticed how cold and damp the cell was and how her clients were still in the thin jogging clothes they wore when they were captured. Susan’s first thought was that she wished she’d  brought sweaters for them, they looked so cold and uncomfortable.

~On a plane from DC to Chicago the man next to her introduced himself as being from the Justice department. Halfway to their destination he told her he knew who she was—that she was an attorney for the Weathermen (today they’d be labeled “terrorists”) in Chicago. At this moment she realized that in her effort to change the world, “the government was at war with me and I was at war with the government.”

~Before becoming an attorney Susan taught in poverty programs in NYC and Boston. Later, defending drug addicts in Chicago courtrooms it suddenly occurred to her that her clients were “a grownup version of those kids I had been teaching.”

~One day, at the beginning of her law career, the judge called her into chambers and told her, “You’ll be a good lawyer one day but first you’ve got to do something with your hair.”

~Again and again she told me how much she loved flying (she flew her own plane) and hiking. She also said how tricky it could be flying in and out of the small airport near the trailheads where she hiked in Utah. She often showed me photos shot over the wing of her Mooney, usually of the Pacific coast or the desert, or the mountains.

~When a literary agent asked her to define the message of her book, she answered, “I have none except that this is how I have lived. Gandhi had it right: Be the change you want to see happen.”

“And always, held large in her heart, was her love for her daughter Jennifer, her life-partner Ronnie Wong, her many friends, and the gratitude she expressed so often for her spiritual teachers, notably Norman Fischer.”

One of the last conversations I had with Susan was about the regrets we all have about our lives. She was constantly asking if her life had made a difference. It was an odd conversation—particularly from one who’d given so much—the knowledge that you could never take back what you’d done and that the only value of regret was to maybe know how to do it better if you had another chance. Doing it better was surely one of her genie’s mantras. And surely it’s part of what Susan called “living the righteous life,” where, even after death, “she will fly free and everyone will see her airplane in the sky, forever.”

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