28 Seconds: A True Story of Addiction, Tragedy and Hope
Viking, 337 pages, $32.00
Reviewed by Bob Tarantino
In 28 Seconds: A True Story of Addiction, Tragedy and Hope, former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant details with noteworthy candour his damaged personal life and his journeys through the elite circles of Ontario politics and the seemingly inexorable workings of the criminal justice system. But what is truly remarkable about his story has hardly been remarked upon either by him or by his reviewers to date: the curious and paradoxical trajectory of his career and the workings of the upper tiers of political life in this country.
Outside of Ontario, Bryant is probably best known for the incident which is the subject of this book and is recounted in its title: the 28-second incident on August 31, 2009 in which Michael Bryant and his then-wife, driving home from an anniversary dinner, encountered Darcy Allan Sheppard. Sheppard, an intoxicated bike rider who was confronting cars along the Yorkville stretch of Toronto’s Bloor Street -an incident which ended with Sheppard dead, Bryant under arrest and, shortly, charged with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous driving causing death.
Those twenty-eight seconds and their aftermath, which form the crucible of Bryant’s life and the narrative pivot of the book, are ultimately perhaps the least interesting part of Bryant’s tale. Instead, the most compelling element of these three hundred-plus pages is the largely unexamined context in which Bryant’s life unfurls but never, despite the incredible stresses to which it was subjected, really falls apart: the welcoming embrace of Canada’s political, media and legal elite.
Bryant’s first effort at narrative non-fiction performs well enough. 28 Seconds is something less than a biography (we skate from Bryant’s birth through his first election victory and then ten years as a politician, including multiple cabinet stints, in less than one hundred pages). It is not quite the kernel of a platform for the future run for electoral office which Bryant all but uses semaphore flags to confirm (his proposals for various criminal justice and other legal reforms do not fill even thirty pages).
Author confessions: The now-humble Bryant narrative
Instead, 28 Seconds is best understood as Bryant’s declaration. It is a declaration of his version of the events of August 31, 2009, a declaration of his addiction and struggles for sobriety, and of his humility (and his need to publicly proclaim it) in the wake of Sheppard’s death. It is far from a perfect read–he too often lapses into maudlin prose, footnotes inexplicably pop up and disappear over the course of the book, and his sporadic (and unnecessary) dropping of French phrases threads the needle between distracting and annoying. A more firm editorial hand could have been used in some spots: Chapter 13, which seems intended to function as the central stanza of the book, is an oddly sequenced mess of recovery-speak. Also, “cringe-inducing” is probably the kindest description of his “frozen carrot” analogy, about which the less said, the better. He aims at profundity but often lands instead deep in the heart of banal platitudes.
When Bryant’s writing is controlled, it can be quite affecting: he skillfully slows down the chronology of his recounting of the titular twenty-eight seconds, rendering a living nightmare of an evening (and night in jail) in taut, claustrophobic prose. But such moments are usually outshone by bothersome tactics which seem intended to torque the dramatic impact of his story: he repeatedly refers, for example, to the stigma of being branded a “felon” or of the danger of his being convicted of a “felony.” But both are terms which have no meaning in Canadian criminal law. (Presumably the accurate term “indictable offence” was deemed insufficiently stigmatizing.)
In a bit of authorial over-reach, he repeatedly tries to invoke foreshadowing by highlighting a decision he helped write while a clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada. Perhaps he hopes readers will swoon at the irony of how that same decision ostensibly played a major role in the consideration of his criminal charges more than a decade later–except that the decision he helped author had little to do with the decision to drop the charges against him. Even Bryant, by the time he relates the dropped charges, doesn’t seem to believe any longer that the case has any relevance to his situation; he also neglects to ever mention it again, despite the earlier staging.
The ultimate decision by the independent prosecutor to drop the charges against Bryant and not proceed to a trial was met with outrage by some–a lingering outrage stoked by the perception that Bryant was handled with kid gloves by a system biased in favour of rich white males like him. It is difficult to imagine that anyone reading the book would conclude that Bryant or the special prosecutor could or should have acted differently, or, at the very least, that anyone would think he should have faced criminal punishment for what he did.
Whether the book will result in changed minds about Bryant and what happened in the wake of Sheppard’s death remains to be seen, but initial impressions are not terribly promising–Bryant tends to inspire polarizing views in his audience. His case remains the subject of sometimes obsessive moral parsing and he isn’t a deft enough writer, or sympathetic enough character, to entirely persuade those inclined to view him in a negative light. (The popular Torontoist newsblog recently nominated Bryant as one of its 2012 “Villains of the Year”, for not “paying the deceased, his family, his friends, and his supporters, due respect”–whatever that might mean).
In the main, the negative reaction to Bryant’s decision to write this book stems largely from an aversion to the sense that he’s seeking, with the aid of high-calibre public relations advice, to somehow leverage the entire mess of a scenario into merely another platform for his own ambitions. That seems an unfair reading of the book; Bryant seems genuinely and profoundly altered by what happened. But he suffers from the politician’s syndrome of finding a shared trait or common anecdote with a potential voter and then attempting to craft a relationship from that. In Bryant’s case, his repeated attempts to describe some kind of solidarity or bond of understanding with Sheppard–because of their shared alcoholism, because of Bryant’s long-standing interest in aboriginal affairs–comes across as opportunistic and crass, regardless of his bona fides. But from within the framework of Bryant’s past and future political aspirations, readers can begin to glimpse the true value of 28 Seconds.
The largely unexamined subtext of 28 Seconds relates to the arc of Bryant’s career and how resilient his life was to the trauma of his charges. Bryant’s ascent from relatively unexceptional undergraduate student to being, at thirty-seven years of age, the youngest Attorney General in Ontario history is impressive, but not quite admirable. While his story demonstrates how permeable the threshold to the elite is, it also serves to evidence the extent to which the distribution of political power is a function of luck, timing and the fortunes, both good and bad, of personal relationships. As even Bryant admits, the bewilderingly steep ascent of his standing seemed more a result of chutzpah and timing than qualification or commitment, a theme which repeats throughout the book.
Bryant: A frat boy makes good
Here, Bryant is charmingly open about such luck: he notes that his ex-wife called him a “frat boy-savant”, and that he suffered, by turns, from delusions of grandeur and, once he actually achieved the grandeur, imposter syndrome.
He first catches the attention of Beverly McLachlin (now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada) when his friends in Phi Delta Phi, a legal fraternity, facetiously sing his praises as a leader at the law school. His appointment as Attorney General seemed as much due to his performance while in opposition in front of a friendly media as his experience. Though he had clerked at the Supreme Court of Canada (a position reserved for the best law students in the country–and Bryant certainly was one, obtaining the silver medal in his graduating class at Osgoode Hall), he in fact practiced law for less than two years and had no experience whatsoever with the organized aspects of the profession, such as the bar associations or law societies.
Even when he is demoted to Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, it is largely because of Dalton McGuinty’s desire to stunt Bryant’s ambitions for the top job. It was only after the appointment that the Premier was informed that Bryant has had a life-long interest in aboriginal affairs.
Though Bryant enjoyed some peripheral connections to power, they weren’t the sort that translate obviously into success (his father was law school classmates and close friends with a Supreme Court justice, and both his father and grandfather were municipal elected politicians).
What Bryant achieved, he achieved on his own and because of the sometimes inexplicable personal regard that others have for him. After the Sheppard incident, Patrick Monahan, then dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, is quoted in news reports as saying he would “do anything for Michael Bryant”. We are offered not the barest whisper of an indication as to why such a man would provide such an unqualified public expression of support for Bryant–the only connection between the two which is mentioned in the book is that Monahan once taught Bryant in law school.
If 28 Seconds is a story about how access to the elite is still available, it is also about how nice it is once you get in there: people offer you jobs with vaguely defined responsibilities, but very attractive salaries. When Bryant decides to leave electoral politics, following a pleasant conversation with Mayor David Miller and an interview process, he becomes president and CEO of Invest Toronto, a city agency tasked with encouraging investment and job creation in the city–despite a notable absence of business, investment or job creation experience on his resumé.
Following his arrest and the laying of charges, a former law school classmate contacts the head of the Toronto office of Ogilvy Renault, then one of the country’s premier law firms (now a part of the global giant Norton Rose firm); within three months, Bryant is offered a job as a “senior adviser”. The reason for his hiring (as articulated by Bryant) is that the law firm wants to express support for the presumption of innocence. That’s an admirable sentiment, but I can assure you, dear reader, that if you ever find yourself charged with a crime, one of the largest law firms in the country will not offer you an unsolicited job, with no clear job requirements, and no obvious reason why you are qualified to carry it out. What his job entailed is difficult to discern: all Bryant will describe is something about “helping companies do business with First Nations … less law than commercial matchmaking”. None of which is a knock against Bryant–large law firms are sprinkled with well-connected individuals like him, whose precise function is difficult to discern, but it’s nice work if you can get it.
All of this is even more peculiar because, as Bryant repeatedly notes, he wasn’t always the most attractive personality in the room. Self-regarding, nakedly ambitious, attention-starved–it will take the writing of others to explain quite what they saw in him which merited his outsized successes.
The unexamined life—and marriage
There remain two big imponderables about the book and Bryant’s life. The first is the curious inversion of what one would expect his life to be like. He was a prodigious (if functioning) alcoholic when he shouldn’t have been, and not one when he should have–as just a single illustration, he celebrated his appointment as Attorney General by downing a bottle of scotch. He enjoyed his greatest successes (silver medallist, Supreme Court clerk, dislodging a sitting cabinet minister, becoming Attorney General) when he was in the grips of what seems to have been a truly frightening addiction; only once he sobers up does his prodigious ascent slow, stutter and then stop.
Bryant has evidently been sober since 2006 and when his life is upended by his encounter with Sheppard, he never takes the obvious, and easy, shelter in the bottle. To the contrary, though the chronology is sometimes garbled because of Bryant’s tendency to skip around for dramatic effect, his prior struggles with alcohol and his current investment in sobriety provide him with a source of inspiration and strength in his darkest hours.
The second imponderable stems from that same inverted state and from the relationship which haunts the book: quite why Bryant’s marriage to successful lawyer Susan Abramovitch crumbled is never entirely clear. When he seemed to be a busy, absent, egocentric husband, his marriage survived. When he stopped being those things, it fell apart. It survived his entering politics, leaving politics, his being charged and the charges being dropped.
As Bryant notes, the end of his marriage was “tragic, sad, mysterious, right, inevitable, hopeful and bizarre”. We never get a solid sense of why it happens–he feigns offering the reader an intimate look at the relationship with banal observations (a description early in the book of a busy morning in the Bryant household, replete with morning breath and kitchen appliance brand names). But we never get an honest autopsy of the truly wrenching differences which must have arisen and festered in order to drive what seemed a perfectly matched couple apart. Of all the unexamined deficiencies in the book, this seems the most mysterious.
One cannot finish reading 28 Seconds without pondering what public initiative is next for Michael Bryant. As much as he desired to set the record straight on his twenty-eight seconds, 28 Seconds also reads like a clearing of the decks in anticipation of the next stage of his career. Bryant comes across as a damaged, fascinating, even compelling individual. Perhaps from flawed but compelling charisma we can glean a hint of why those who have encountered him in the flesh seem so willing to indulge his inclinations. He seems possessed of a form of ineffable charm–the kind of charisma that prompts inexplicable declarations of fidelity from others, and a willingness to enable his ambitions.
There are some truly bizarre moments in 28 Seconds–at one point, Bryant seems convinced the “ghost” of Darcy Alan Sheppard inhabited but then exited his body via a yoga exercise, but is due to return. Politicians convinced they are on some kind of mission informed by their spiritual beliefs may be the most dangerous. But it is difficult to discount Bryant’s history of parlaying his talents into positions well beyond his years or accomplishments as measured by traditional metrics. Benjamin Disraeli once remarked that “the conduct and opinions of public men at different periods of their careers must not be curiously contrasted in a free and aspiring society”. Whatever else can be said of Michael Bryant and 28 Seconds, I suspect that will be of significance in the years to come.
Bob Tarantino is a Toronto-based entertainment lawyer and freelance writer. His columns have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and This Magazine. In addition to graduate degrees in law from Osgoode Hall Law School and the University of Oxford, he has published academic legal writing in journals in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. His book, “Under Arrest – Canadian Laws You Won’t Believe”, was published by Dundurn Press.