J.Larson Tributes: Rubinowitz, Spillenger, Torres

From Len Rubinowitz  — Northwestern University Law School

Jane was an extraordinary presence at Northwestern Law School on so many levels.  She was a gifted teacher, who worked so hard at it that she made it look easy.  She prepared detailed notes as part of her preparation and turned them face down before the class started…..

She wanted to engage the students, and she did not want anything to interfere with that—including her own notes.  Northwestern students appreciated the high quality of her teaching, as evidenced by her receipt of their highest teaching award.

Jane was a wonderful colleague, who cared deeply about the institution.  She worked hard to help us move in positive directions, with great energy and dedication.  Her enthusiasm and commitment brought many of us along on important initiatives.

Jane’s scholarship reflected an abiding concern for the oppressed, from those living in colonias in Texas to the lives of women.  She moved easily from theory to practice on the ground.  Her trips to Texas reflected her willingness and ability to look closely at the harsh realities of life in those communities and to use her scholarship to address the conditions the residents experienced.

And what a wonderful friend!  Her move to Madison left such a void at Northwestern, and now the void is so much greater still.

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From Clyde Spillenger —  UCLA School of Law

The Living Fire      I have never known anyone else quite like Jane.  She was blessed, and cursed, with a superabundance of those human traits that fill us with hope:  superb intelligence, emotional intensity, grace and loveliness, a pen for poetry and a voice full of music, an endless appetite for knowledge and wisdom, unmatched empathy, rage at the injustices meted out daily to so many, an intuitive understanding of both the beauty and the fragility of life.  She laughed gigglier giggles, and nurtured fiercer devotions, than anyone I’ve known before or since.  I learned something lasting from practically every conversation I had with Jane, even on subjects (from jazz to American history) that I had imagined I knew well.  Well, Jane knew more.  It never bothered me.  She always wanted to share, not to show off.

One of my sharpest memories from the years during which we practiced law together in Washington, D.C. is of Jane’s elegance in the art of living.  I benefited continually from her joyful immersion in the flavors of life.  She knew where the good food and wine were and where to find the choicest live music.  Dinner and conversation with Jane was a rare pleasure, and an excellent way of separating a young associate from his wages.  Particularly vivid in my mind is the image of Jane carrying to her office, each Monday at 8:30 a.m., a bouquet of flowers to set on her desk for the week.  (Since my office was the professional equivalent of a bachelor’s refrigerator, this made a strong impression on me.)  She explained to me the importance of doing nice things like that for oneself, to guard the soul against the wintry elements of daily life.  Since that day I’ve been mindful to give myself flowers from time to time, if only figuratively.

Life’s moral demands seemed to make a harsher claim on Jane than they do for most of us.  She didn’t necessarily believe in exempting others from those claims, and this meant that close friendship with her could be as challenging as it was nourishing.  To be drawn within Jane’s ring of fire was to experience her vitalizing love and devotion, but also to encounter high standards for how to treat people and how to meet our obligations to the world outside.  More than anyone else I’ve known, she strove authentically to live out the creed “the personal is political.”  Try doing that sometime.  Most of us discover as we grow older that it is easier to pronounce a credo than to live by it; in the words of Billy Joel, we find that just surviving is a noble fight.  That software, however, had never been installed on Jane’s machine.  It hurts me to know that her proud and unwavering adherence to her beliefs could be a source of suffering as well as inspiration.

One day Jane called my attention to an LP recording she owned of Martin Luther King’s best-known speeches.  She marveled, she said, at the way in which King’s entire being seemed to have been occupied by a larger purpose – the way in which his own life, and the quest for social justice, had become one and the same thing.  She didn’t draw any explicit parallels, but I see now how much of this convergence existed in Jane as well.  Laughter and play were a large part of her life, but underneath, always waiting, were the demands imposed by her fierce empathy with those who had been injured and her unshakeable commitment to opposing wrong.  She once said to me, half (but only half) in jest, “I get tired of always having to be Joan of Arc.”  There was a touch of melodrama as well as self-mockery in that – Jane quite enjoyed speaking truth to power – but I knew I was implicated in what she said; we all were.  Jane had a God-given ability to sense, and to seek redress for, the pain in others; it’s uncomfortable to have to acknowledge that I (like others, I’m sure) was her co-conspirator, unconsciously but willingly delegating to her tasks for which I might have assumed my own share of responsibility.

For my thirtieth birthday, Jane gave me a book of Edward Hirsch’s poetry, and she called my attention particularly to a poem of Hirsch’s that is now well known, “Wild Gratitude.”  By way of reflecting on the eighteenth-century English poet Christopher Smart, Hirsch shows how every living creature can “teach us how to praise” because of the miracles they perform daily under our very noses.  Her appreciation of that verse, and her affection and generosity in bestowing it on me, were so Jane.  I’m sure it never occurred to her that one day I would blink through tears and somehow locate my own wild gratitude – gratitude that I had been blessed, all too briefly, to share in her journey, as she wreathed herself each day (to use Hirsch’s words) in the living fire.

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From Gerald Torres —  University of Texas School of Law

Jane Larson  —   I was new to the University of Minnesota as well as to the twin cities and a climate that could charitably be called bracing. At the time, the U, and especially the Law School, was alive with ideas and personalities that made it a special place. You could have a conversation with E.P. Thompson or Jean-François Lyotard or sit with Catharine MacKinnon among others for extended periods of debate. The intellectual ferment was palpable and it affected the students, the best of whom became colleagues in inquiry. One of these was Jane Larson. Remembering Jane is like remembering a kaleidoscope. Her energy, ideas, ways of phrasing things were always a source of delight, as was the way she challenged received notions and especially power. She took inquiry seriously and because she was studying law, she took the law and its claims and its power seriously. She was never a frivolous critic.

It was her love of life, her intellectual seriousness and her visceral antipathy towards injustice that led her to participate in starting the Journal of Law and Inequality rather than take the safer route to the Law Review to which her class standing entitled membership. It was a choice that would come back as a question raised by potential academic employers: why didn’t she serve on the law review? That she had bigger fish to fry was never an appropriate response. Moreover, little did I, or perhaps she, know that the qualities that made her so wonderful to be around and such a lively mind would also be liabilities. But perhaps she was merely experiencing the gendering of power that she investigated as a scholar. I remember the chairman of the appointment’s committee at a school where she was interviewing calling to talk about her. (I was one of her recommenders.) He began by telling me what a “sparkling, brilliant, absolutely riveting talk she gave.” He then retreated into self-doubt. Perhaps the brilliance blinded us, he wondered, maybe “she had just seduced us all.” I paused, and I asked the fellow whether I could repeat to him what he had just said. I then did and asked if, maybe, he wanted to rephrase. The conversation limped along the best it could (the actionable inquiry hanging about like a bad smell) and I knew that Jane would be both invaluable and threatening for reasons that were evident in the best of her work.

Her article on the tort of seduction almost seems like it had to be written after that conversation, but, of course, I only told her about the conversation later, when she was well on her way as a scholar. That article is a model of care and honesty, and I have recommended it to many. Her book with Linda Hirshman, Hard Bargains, is similarly a model of both well researched history and incisive argumentation. Both works problematized the question of sex and gender relations by locating the provisional answers given by law and then ruthlessly questioning those answers. When Jane turned her attention to the claim that the market alone can solve the problems of the poor, she chose not to pretend this was a question that could be answered by history or logic alone. Instead there was a natural experiment going on today along the southern border of Texas that was worthy of investigation. Her work in the colonias (with some of my colleagues here at Texas) revealed the ways in which land tenure and the bargains it entails have always reflected exogenous power, and yet the law might still be changed to move the fulcrum a millimeter closer to the balancing point. Deciding to spend a summer in the airless, humid heat of the Rio Grande Valley should have been evidence enough of her seriousness, but that she chose to go back again and again and to dig among the documents and to meet and interview the residents, to listen, really listen, were hallmarks of her work. We visited together in Austin on a couple of her trips and as the sweat dripped off the end of my nose she acted as though the summer was the best time to be in a place where the heat makes even lizards beg for mercy.

I should have known all this about her, however; the evidence was always everywhere to be seen. When she got back from traveling in Muslim countries she could give an account that revealed her capacity to imagine her way into the lives of others. It was this skill or perhaps this talent that gave her the openness and compassion that made her a great teacher, an engaging and supportive friend and a brilliant scholar.  She had what Keats and Unger called “negative capability”.  She could reject the false necessity that the institutions we inhabit seem to demand, and she could envision what life where injustice was not taken for granted might entail. She could also see the bounded nature of critique and thus was always subjecting her own insights to the acid bath of her intelligence. Yet when she settled on a position you knew she had thought it through.

Of all of these virtues perhaps her sense of humor and her laugh are what remain most palpable. She was serious, but not self-serious. Her humor and sense of the absurd were often the sharp edge of the blade that cut through the cant and self-importance too often encountered. I remember many of her jokes and observations, but I won’t recount them here, sometimes half the joy is in the hearing and I am not certain they would translate well to the page. Her vocal inflections, facial expressions and occasionally wild gesticulation were always part of the story and part of the pleasure. Though I knew her from the time she was a one-L she always seemed a colleague and soon, a friend, the kind we all might wish to have known.

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