In the Shadow of Woburn

By Paul Kix | Boston Magazine |

After Woburn, Schlichtmann blamed his problems with the case on Judge Skinner. After Skinner’s final decision, according to A Civil Action, he yelled in the courthouse, "The man is a fucking monster!" Schlichtmann shook with rage, and would not stop shaking for five years.

Schlichtmann calls this time his "wilderness years." Woburn was his life and his life had been deemed a failure. And not just by Judge Skinner, either. In 1990 Schlichtmann appealed his evidentiary findings all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He couldn’t convince anyone of his version of the truth. He’d dedicated nine years to the case, nine years. He’d bankrupted himself, in every sense of the word. He at one point had $114 to his name and $1 million in debt; he’d lost so much weight during court proceedings that he looked like a refugee.

Schlichtmann said he was done with the law. A friend loaned him money so that he could escape to Hawaii, where he began selling energy-efficient light bulbs.

Not surprisingly, Schlichtmann views his own story in terms of extreme, dichotomous themes. He moved to Hawaii but couldn’t lose "the hollowness" inside, he says. He sensed that the rest of his life would offer nothing but pain and failure. He hiked a lot, thinking that might help. He enjoyed hiking. One late afternoon, deep into a daylong trek through the Big Island’s northern jungle, he came across a stream that "had this music to it," he says. It had rained that afternoon, and the leaves around him were a surrealist green, heavy now with water, spilling droplets one at a time. And the sun reflecting off the stream— Schlichtmann thought the scene was stunning, the most gorgeous he’d ever witnessed. Or rather, he thought that he should be thinking this. Because in reality he couldn’t feel any of it. He couldn’t allow himself to enjoy it. And so he cried right there along the bank.

Schlichtmann returned to the law, slowly, intermittently, and only because he couldn’t not go back. He was a lawyer at heart. For all the pain, this was what he enjoyed doing—even if it caused more pain. But he was a different lawyer. In one case, the court found him to be so angry (sneering at the judge and slamming onto the clerk’s table exhibits that had received an unfavorable ruling) and so reckless (repeatedly and "flagrantly," the court found, asking questions and entering evidence it had ruled inadmissible), that it barred Schlichtmann from practicing in Hawaii. (Ever the zealot, he appealed twice and had the ruling overturned by the state’s Supreme Court.)

What Schlichtmann couldn’t shake, as he dropped all pretense of being anything but a lawyer and shuttled between Hawaii and Massachusetts in the early 1990s, was this idea that the system was corrupt. How else to explain that while his Woburn case had foundered, the EPA, on the strength of his evidence, had ordered the Woburn tannery and chemical plant, among others, to spend nearly $70 million cleaning up their sites? The legal system was "diseased"—that’s the word Schlichtmann kept using now—the truth sickened and made weak by arguments that may win the day in court but have no bearing on what the case is trying to resolve. Schlichtmann felt like a sucker. He felt lost.

That is, until he had the good sense to marry Claudia Barragan. "It took me a long time to appreciate: There’s just not going to be any other human being in the world I’ll be luckier to meet," Schlichtmann says of his wife. "She was there for me at the most desperate time in my life. She sustained me, and fed me and housed me and loved me and made me believe in myself, and then when I stopped believing in myself, she wouldn’t let go."

He can go on like that all day. The way he tells it, Claudia was a woman of unending forbearance and grace, gently healing all the chaotic and ultimately destructive elements in the house of Schlichtmann. But Claudia doesn’t remember herself approaching sainthood. A lot of the time, Schlichtmann pissed her off. By suddenly moving to Hawaii with little warning and no regard for the four years the couple had spent together. Or by, after they later got back together in Massachusetts, suddenly moving his things out again while she was at the hair salon.

Schlichtmann says now, by way of explanation, "I was at war with myself."

Even today, Claudia’s not completely sure why she came back. But pretty soon they were looking for another place, this time in Beverly. They found one with a beautiful view of the ocean, a secluded spot with the house built right on the cliff. The home itself was in disrepair, the yard overgrown with briars and poison sumac. But Schlichtmann had always viewed his home as a measure of his standing in the world. His condo in the 1980s, with its breathtaking views of Boston, showed his towering achievements. This home in Beverly would be no different.

As he cleared it of weeds one night, he had an epiphany: He saw the land as a metaphor for all it could teach him about himself. The bedrock on which he stood—this was among the remnants of the Ice Age, Schlichtmann thought. The land emerged transformed—literally starting over. Schlichtmann thought he, too, could start over. He could show the scars of his failures, but he could live a life that didn’t dwell on them. Better still, he could learn from them.

Viewed this way, Woburn wasn’t a defeat to be relived until he died. It was a lesson, and it could teach him until that day came. "Coming to this place absolutely saved my life," Schlichtmann says.