Fay Stender's triumph and tragedy
“Have you ever betrayed anyone?” the man asked.
“No,” Fay Stender replied, knowing she wasn’t giving the desired answer.
She felt the cold steel of the .38-caliber pistol press against the back of her head. It was 1:20 a.m. on May 28, 1979, and this large, angry man had just burst into her Berkeley, Calif., home.
“Don’t you feel you betrayed George Jackson?”
“No,” Stender said again. She was sitting at her small, wooden writing desk, as she’d been ordered to do. Her new lover cowered on the bed nearby. Her 20-year-old son, Neal, stood in the doorway, quietly panicked.
Fay Stender was a high-profile defense lawyer who had spent years advocating for prisoners’ rights. Jackson, a member of the militant group the Black Panthers, had been one of her best-known clients -- and so much more than that. She’d dropped his case in 1971. Just months later, Jackson had been shot dead.
Now, the man threatened, it was Stender’s turn. But first she had to confess to her crime. He made her get out a pad of paper. He told her what to write: “I, Fay Stender, admit I betrayed George Jackson and the prison movement when they needed me most.”
Stender, shivering in her short, thin nightgown, couldn’t make herself do it. The pen shook in her hand. “This isn’t true, you know,” she hissed. “I’m just writing this because you’re holding a gun at my head.”
The man pressed the pistol harder against her skull. Stender wrote the sentence, and the intruder snatched up the piece of paper and stuffed it into his pants pocket.
Then he asked for money.
Stender and the man headed downstairs to the kitchen, leaving her lover and her son tied up in the bedroom. A minute later, the sound of gunshots echoed through the house. Neal, hands still bound behind his back, managed to get to his feet. He rushed to the kitchen, where he found his mother on the floor, a pool of blood framing her. Smoke seemed to be rising out of her body. She had been hit by six bullets.
From her unassuming office in Berkeley, Fay Stender spent the early 1970s representing Jackson and Black Panthers leader Huey Newton in separate cases. State prison officials called her “the most dangerous woman in California.” Some of the prosecutors who faced her in court thought the threat she posed reached far beyond the Golden State. She was the country’s foremost activist for prison reform.
This was not what her parents had expected from her. They had raised a concert pianist.
Fay Abrahams grew up in Berkeley in a middle-class Jewish family. Her father, Sam, taught chemistry. Sam and his wife Ruby had high expectations for their two daughters, Fay and her younger sister Lisie.
For Fay, the piano was central to her life. Her mother, recognizing Fay’s musical talent early on, made her practice for hours every day. And the hard work quickly paid off: At 14, Fay played Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. But she would later complain that she felt “chained to the piano” during her childhood -- she believed her mother was too demanding, too insistent on a musical career for her. She became intent on finding her own path.
In 1949, at 17, Fay headed north to Oregon and Reed College, where she had decided to study not music but literature.
At Reed, Fay soaked in new experiences, which included radical politics. Documentary filmmaker Robert Richter, who dated Fay when they were both Reed students, says she had a torrid “romantic involvement” with notorious philosophy professor Stanley Moore. “This affected her going leftward as she did,” he says. Reed fired Moore in 1954 after the young, charismatic professor refused to answer questions before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Red-hunting Un-American Activities Committee. (When a news reporter asked him if he’d ever been a member of the Communist Party, Moore responded, “That is my own affair.”)
At this time, Fay would tell The Oregonian years later, she had figured out “there was something wrong with this country, something I wanted to change.” She’d come to realize that “all the things about government and justice in school simply isn’t true.”
By the end of her junior year, she had come to a decision. She didn’t want to be a writer or literary scholar. She didn’t want to be a concert pianist. And she certainly didn’t want to be a housewife. It would be the law for her.
After transferring to the University of California to finish her undergraduate degree (her parents insisted she leave Reed, Richter says), Fay attended law school at the University of Chicago. By now she had begun to identify with society’s outcasts. She liked to walk through the black slums near the Southside Chicago campus. She helped her professor Malcolm Sharp with an appeal for Morton Sobell, an American engineer who worked for the Soviets as part of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy ring.
Sometimes, to unwind after hours poring over law books and briefs, she’d head to International House, which had a grand piano in its lobby. She’d sit down and play Bach or Schubert or Brahms.
One of the residents, Brian Gluss, knowing her only as an intense, dedicated law student, recalled being stunned by her musical ability. “I knew even then that Fay was a very special human being, beautiful within and without,” he wrote in 2005. “Warm, friendly, with an exceptionally fine mind.”
While at Chicago, Fay met fellow law student Marvin Stender, who also had an interest in helping the dispossessed. They fell in love, married and soon had two children, son Neal and daughter Oriane.
“I came back to the Bay Area (after law school) to look for a job,” she told The Oregonian in a 1970 interview. “I started interviewing with what was called in those days ‘leftist attorneys,’ all four or five of them.”
She didn’t land a position, so she and Marvin eventually struck out on their own, taking on discrimination cases and doing legal work for Stokely Carmichael’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. (She embraced the term “leftist” but said she didn’t understand economics enough to be able to call herself a Marxist.)
“She was searching for meaning that was greater than the money she could earn, and greater than the legal principles she could establish,” a friend of Fay’s told former New Left journalists Peter Collier and David Horowitz for their 1989 book, “Destructive Generation.” “She wanted her life to have meaning, so much so that when her clients did not have as much meaning as she wanted them to have, she endowed them with meaning.”
In 1967, an Oakland police officer pulled over Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton late one October night and called for backup. A shootout ensued during the traffic stop; Newton and two officers were wounded, and one of the officers died. Prominent local defense lawyer Charles Garry, impressed by Fay’s work ethic and legal mind, asked her to assist in Newton’s defense.
The lengthy court battle, in which Garry and Stender argued that the justice system was prejudiced against minorities and the poor, proved groundbreaking. Newton was convicted of manslaughter, but the conviction ultimately would be set aside on appeal, largely thanks to Fay’s work.
“She was extraordinarily determined and focused,” says retired judge Lise Pearlman, author of “The Sky’s the Limit: People v. Newton, the Real Trial of the Century.” “She brought (to the law) the same determination and single focus that made her a piano prodigy. She turned that ability to the causes she embraced as a lawyer.”
In the run-up to the trial, Fay visited Newton regularly at the prison in San Luis Obispo where he was held. During one of those meetings, Newton told her about another member of the Black Panthers who was behind bars, a career criminal named George Jackson. Jackson was among three prisoners, all Black Power militants, charged with murdering a guard at Soledad penitentiary in central California.
“George Jackson is a legend in the California prison system,” Newton told her. “Someone who has refused to sacrifice his integrity or the integrity of anyone else to get out of prison.”
Fay visited Soledad and realized almost immediately she had found her calling: prison reform. The brutality of the place, the casual way the guards dehumanized the inmates, shocked her. She described the prison’s O Wing, where Jackson was housed in solitary confinement, as “America’s Dachau.” The 36-year-old lawyer believed she was perfectly suited to represent inmates in this horrendous prison because “our interaction is more flowing, more natural, because I’m a woman. It might also be because they know I regard them as brothers and believe in them.”
She decided to take on Jackson as a client. Prison officials considered the long-time inmate a violent sociopath. They called him a “dangerous freewheeling convict leader who must be isolated because of his impact on the prison population.” He was unquestionably smart, charismatic and mean -- a natural prison-yard general. He also knew how to play the angles among those in the outside world. “Marxism is my hustle,” he told fellow prisoners.
Fay Stender became his hustle, too.
“You are positively my favorite person,” he wrote to her shortly after their initial meeting.
The 28-year-old prisoner told her exactly what she wanted to hear. Fay sought to be part of a cause, to make the world better -- and she believed Jackson needed and deserved her help. “Given her talents, Fay was one of the least happy people I knew,” recalled a friend, Rose Linsky.
Fay began visiting Jackson at Soledad wearing not a professional outfit but a leather miniskirt, form-fitting top and high boots. The sexual sparks bounced off the concrete walls of the visiting room. They began to surreptitiously touch one another when the guards were distracted. One time, wrote Collier and Horowitz in “Destructive Generation,” guards “had to separate her physically from Jackson and drag her out of the visiting area with her clothes half off.”
Fay devoted herself almost exclusively to Jackson’s case. She made him a radical celebrity, raising money for his defense and hitting up reporters to write stories about him. She called the three accused convicts “the Soledad Brothers,” and claimed they were charged with the guard’s murder not because of any evidence but because they were politically active. “George is the sort of man they want to keep incarcerated because he is proud and militant,” she declared.
She decided Jackson’s letters should be published, just as fellow Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s prison writings had been. She culled and edited the letters, downplaying Jackson’s violent nature.
“When he began writing to me from prison I recognized the beauty and individuality of his writing,” she said. She convinced French playwright (and former petty criminal) Jean Genet to write an introduction, crowing that Genet believed “Jackson was one of the literary giants of our day.” After the success of Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice,” publishers fought for the right to publish this new revolutionary document.
Even Marvin, increasingly estranged from his wife, admitted Fay “loved Jackson.”
On Aug. 7, 1970, reality intruded. Jackson’s heavily armed 17-year-old brother Jonathan barged into the Marin County courthouse in northern California. Taking hostages, he demanded that his brother and the other two Soledad Brothers be released. Jonathan and some of the hostages -- including a judge -- ended up dead in the resulting shootout.
Just weeks later “Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson” hit bookstore shelves amidst critical acclaim.
By now Fay had come to identify all too closely with Jackson -- and with the revolutionary cant of the time. She recognized it herself. “My identity is becoming almost anti-professional, and in some sort of way that of a political prisoner,” she told law students in 1970. “In fact, I sometimes wonder whether my effectiveness will ultimately be enhanced or impaired. I don’t enjoy cars and clothes anymore. I don’t enjoy vacations. I don’t live in the world anymore. I’ve gotten so schizy going back and forth that I really prefer to spend my working time in prison. In the most selfish way, I have a better time when I am talking to a prisoner. I enjoy myself more; I am more human.” She started referring to her clients as her “comrades.”
Fay also had become a minor celebrity in her own right, arguably the country’s foremost prison-reform activist. Prisoners across California wanted her to represent them; requests for her to speak poured in from law forums and conferences. She started the Prison Law Project, taking cases that “literally would not be handled by any other law firm,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. Stender received more than 200 letters a week from prisoners seeking her help.
The Oregonian, claiming her as a Portlander more than 15 years after she’d left Reed and the city, hailed Fay as “one of the most sought after ‘people’s lawyers’ in the nation.”
“She looks more like a co-ed -- maybe a graduate student -- than a dedicated career woman … (but) her dark eyes are deadly serious and she speaks in staccato fashion, spitting out statements to support her positions,” the paper wrote.
Fay insisted she didn’t want to become a “media star.”
“The people who need real media coverage are the blacks and Chicanos, the people in jails -- not persons like myself,” she said. “I see my role as that of a technician in the service of the people.”
With his Soledad Brothers trial coming up, Jackson had been transferred to San Quentin prison in Marin County, right across San Francisco Bay from where Fay lived and worked in Berkeley. But Fay’s love affair with Jackson, both personal and political, had begun to flicker. Jackson had big plans for when Fay inevitably sprung him from prison. He wanted to be a real revolutionary, the American Che Guevara. She and Jackson had to be separated again in a visiting room, this time fully clothed. They were screaming at each other. Jackson reportedly fired her on the spot. The New York Times later wrote that “Mr. Jackson quarreled with Mrs. Stender and dismissed her … over his insistence and her refusal to use royalties from his book to buy guns for revolutionary groups.”
Fay denied the report, but her husband, Marvin, would admit that Jackson’s attitude had turned scary and Fay had refused to stand for it. “Her attitude was, ‘I was smart as a lawyer and did these superhuman things to get you out legally, and now you’re going to go and blow the whole thing.’”
Fay no longer thought of Jackson as a comrade, and so in February 1971 she left the Soledad Brothers case. Greg Armstrong, an investigator for Jackson’s defense fund, lamented that “without Fay there is no center. Quiet hopelessness has taken possession of everyone.”
Six months later, Jackson launched a prison break. “The dragon has come,” he said, brandishing a gun that had been smuggled into San Quentin for him. Snipers shot him dead as he sprinted across the prison yard.
Law-enforcement officials suspected Fay of aiding the escape, even though she had already abandoned Jackson’s case. Jackson’s supporters now viewed her as a traitor to the cause. She backed away from the Movement that had so animated her life for the past decade. She largely left behind prisoner rights issues.
“She was afraid of the authorities, and she was afraid of the people she helped,” said Marvin.
Fay closed the Prison Law Project in 1973 and began taking up child-custody cases. She and Marvin headed for divorce, and she began an affair with a woman. The shuttering of the Law Project surprised California prison officials who had spent years facing off against her and her Project colleagues. “There is still a lot of bitterness toward them,” state Corrections Department spokesman Phil Guthrie told the San Francisco Examiner, “but it also must be said that in large part due to them the re-examination of inmates rights is really just beginning.”
More than 40 years later, that re-examination remains ongoing. New York’s Rikers Island prison, for example, just agreed to bring in an independent “monitor” to help curb widespread abuses by guards.
“I love you -- I’m dying,” Fay Stender said that May night in 1979 as she lay on the floor of her kitchen, looking up at her son. But she did not die. The attack left her paralyzed from the waist down, her hands and arms numb. It was the first bullet that did it, she was sure. “I felt the first one in the abdomen, then I felt a snap and I thought it was a spinal-cord thing,” she would recall in court testimony.
Her assailant, wrote the New York Times, tried to make a cross with the shots -- “two in her chest, one in her abdomen, one in each arm and one grazing her skull.”
Even many months after the attack, Fay remained in constant pain. She had no desire to practice law. She physically couldn’t play the piano anymore, which affected her deeply. Though she had chosen as a teen not to pursue a piano career, playing had remained a solace to her through the years, a way to relieve stress.
Her friend Sanne DeWitt said Fay was “terrified by the future. She’d always been one of those people who couldn’t allow herself to rely on anybody. She would look at me and say, ‘Please wipe my mouth.’ I saw how painful it was for her just to ask.”
And she still wasn’t safe. A black militant prison gang had made up a hit list, prison officials said. Fay feared gang members would return to her home and finish the job.
The Reed College alumni magazine published an appeal for donations to a trust fund for Fay. Since her law practice tended toward “low-paying clients,” Fay had limited financial resources, the magazine noted. “The trust fund will help to pay the surgery expenses, to cover costs of remodeling the Stender home to accommodate her handicap, and to provide 24-hour protection.”
A militant ex-con named Edward Glenn Brooks was arrested soon after the shooting. Fay and her son both identified him as the man who had burst into their home. Brooks was convicted of attempted murder -- when the jury verdict was read he raced across the courtroom and punched the prosecutor in the head.
The conviction provided Fay no satisfaction. Now 48, she had given herself completely to radical causes, to helping the oppressed and the overlooked, and it had ultimately resulted only in pain and misery for her.
In the spring of 1980, she moved to Hong Kong for her safety. In the far-east British colony, in terrible physical pain all the time, she sank ever deeper into depression. She didn’t care anymore, about anything. In May, she fatally overdosed on pills. She saw no other choice. She had become an exile -- not just from her country and her body but from her beliefs as well.
-- Douglas Perry, published in The Oregonian, 2015