Sorrow versus Remorse, by Foster Winans

on Feb 16 in Essays & Reviews by

R. Foster Winans

This piece was commissioned by the Hartford Courant on the occasion of the release of Connecticut former Governor Rowland from Federal prison after serving 10 months for bribery. Bucks County, PA writer, Foster Winans, a former Wall Street Journal columnist who was convicted of insider trading 22 years ago, is the author of “Trading Secrets: Seduction and Scandal at The Wall Street Journal,” (St. Martin’s Press, 1986), a ghost-writer and the founder of a non-profit writing center.

John G. Rowland (Federal Bureau of Prisons Register No. 15623-014 ), once a shimmering star in Connecticut’s political galaxy, has returned from his 10-month stay in prison, uttering the usual platitudes of the high and mighty who fall from grace. He’s sorry that he sold the office of governor and betrayed the people of Connecticut; the last year has been difficult for him; and he’s blessed with the love and forgiveness of family and friends.

I’m sure Rowland feels all those things, but it’s hard for someone like myself (Federal Bureau of Prisons Register No. 10166-054) to hear them without cynicism. Coming from a guy who tried to blame his troubles on politics and denied everything until he couldn’t, saying he’s sorry now is insulting. Sorry about what, getting caught?

During my nine months in federal prison (for insider trading while a columnist for The Wall Street Journal), I learned the difference between sorrow and guilt. Sorrow is a simple emotion we all feel when things aren’t going our way or when we’ve embarrassed ourselves. Guilt is an awareness that we caused harm or grief to others. Most of the men I met in prison were sorry, but they were a long way from understanding their guilt.

Rowland may comprehend this. He told an impromptu press conference on his front lawn, it’s good to be back, but I still have a long way to go. He does, in fact, have the rest of his life to contemplate his spectacular implosion. His crimes will define him wherever he goes, and I have a few suggestions, based on my own experiences, to guide him along the way:

1. Shut up. Almost nothing you have to say right now is going to be received with much sympathy, let alone credibility. Yapping about your loving family and friends, and how tough your life has been, is self-indulgent. You may be flattered by what you think is the media’s genuine interest in how sorry or grateful you are, but the truth is that you are a sideshow freak in their circus. Give yourself a break and let someone else look the fool.

2. Speak up. Admit what you did and show exactly how it happened. Your leading expertise right now is government corruption. If you’re thinking about your next career, consider becoming a public speaker and adviser on how official corruption works and how it can be detected and reduced. Teach, write, advocate for ethical government and public service and for sentencing and prison reform. Inspire, motivate, educate. It’s the best medicine there is for guilt.

3. Find a guru. Look for the wisest, most honest person you know — a therapist, a clergyman, your third-grade schoolteacher, your cousin Vinnie — and let him help you learn about yourself and how you could become so arrogant and careless with the public’s trust. Explore life’s meaning, and decide what’s yours.

4. Help everyone. Even if it drives you into the poorhouse, give away as much of yourself as you possibly can. Volunteer your skills and knowledge in a quiet, invisible and relentless way, whether in an institutional setting or person-by-person. Do it with zeal and without any expectation of return. Do it long enough and well enough, and people will see that you are trying to redeem yourself.

5. Stay out of trouble. Come to a complete stop at stop signs, pay all your taxes, never drive drunk, never cheat at golf, never bounce a check. Think about every single thing you do before you do it. You’ll avoid embarrassing news coverage, and you’ll sleep better at night. Never ask, “Is this legal? Always ask, Is this moral?”

6. Be patient. It took me all of 17 years to process the shame and guilt I felt about what I’d done in bringing disgrace on my profession and my colleagues. Maybe, if you gain some insight from the experiences of others like myself, it won’t take you as long. Meanwhile, accept that your very public disaster is, for now, your legacy. The burden of the rest of your days should be to shape that legacy with noble intentions, an open heart and sincere good deeds.

One Comment

  • For Rowland to only get a year in prison after being such a dirtbag, it only shows that all of the corrupt officials have not been routed out.

    There must be Federal and State Official criminals still in power in Connecticut.

    The courts are racist. The police are racist. And, those that complain or blow the whistle face arrests, prison, break up of their families, their kids taken away, and losing all they have even worked for in their lives.

    Try putting “Steven G. Erickson” in a search engine.