It is a spiritual truth of life that the darkness appears greatest just before the dawn. Life often appears most bleak and hopeless just at the moment it is preparing greater opportunity. We sometimes require the pressure of dire external conditions to awaken and release the inner intensity required for a great progress in life. At those times, life presents the very conditions needed to call forth our hidden resources and trigger a corresponding response from the universe around us. Literature and cinema are filled with such instances, but we readily dismiss them as romance or drama. But life too confirms this truth in real stories such as this one.
Acts of Desperation
This was precisely the situation that confronted Erin Brockovich, an unemployed and impoverished, 33-year-old, twice-divorced, mother of three young children. A former beauty queen who lacked the formal training and skills needed to support her family, Erin frantically searched for a way to support her family but failed continuously.
At this point when it is difficult to imagine that anything more can go wrong, Erin is injured in a car accident and decides to sue the other driver for personal injury. She approaches Ed Masry, a Southern California lawyer to take up the case. Masry confidently assures her he will win it. Erin loses the case due to lack of real evidence and because of her vulgar outbursts in the courtroom. Outside of the courtroom, Erin turns her anger against Masry for failing to keep his promise.
All her further efforts to find a job to support her family end in failure. One day, in an act of utter desperation, Erin appears at Masry’s office and brazenly demands that he offer her a job at his firm! In part out of pity and in part because of her extreme forcefulness, Ed relents and gives Erin a clerical position at the firm. Little could she imagine that life has created the very conditions needed for her to rise from poverty and humiliation to prosperity and national prominence.
Opportunity of a Lifetime
Like many attorneys, Ed Masry offered pro bono work -- i.e. free legal assistance – as a service to the community. Erin is assigned responsibility for handling documents on a pro bono real estate case in Hinkley, California. She is puzzled when she discovers medical records of a Hinkley family included among the real estate files, and asks Ed for permission to investigate. She then learns that Pacific Gas & Electric, the $28 billion electric utility company, had purchased several homes in the Hinkley area and offered to purchase many others for the stated purpose of building a freeway off-ramp to their plant. But she comes to suspect that PG&E has had actually purchased the properties because the groundwater underneath them has been contaminated by the nearby power plant, resulting in severe illnesses and disabilities among citizens of the community.
While she is away from the office seriously researching the case, Masry assumes from her unexplained absence that she is behaving irresponsibly. Before she can explain her suspicions to Masry, she is fired for not reporting into on a regular basis. He has not yet perceived the talented individual behind Erin’s rough aggressive demeanor which flares up at the slightest imagined provocation. She leaves in fury without trying to explain herself and once again resolved to search for a new job. She does not seek to convince Masry. She accepts the situation and moves ahead. Now life takes initiative to reverse the situation. A few days later Masry shows up at her home and reconciles with her. A professor Erin had contacted regarding the Hinkley case has called reporting that the lab tests show a poisonous substance in the water. Masry wants to know what it is all about. Erin gets her job back with a 10% raise and benefits.
Over the next several weeks, Erin interviews several householders in the Hinkley area whose family members had fallen seriously ill due to the contamination. Their tragic reports of suffering evoke her genuine sympathy. In fact, their feelings of helplessness resonated so strongly with Erin’s own sense of vulnerability and victimization that she became even more determined to take up their cause. They too sense her genuine personal commitment. She gradually discovers that the problem is far more serious than she had originally thought – involving hundreds of victims. Despite Masry’s reluctance to incur the high costs and risks involved in taking on PG&E, Erin convinces him to pursue the case.
Now that all Erin’s energies are channeled positively into this work rather than complaining about the injustice of life and other people, her life undergoes a change in character. For months Erin has struggled with the dual responsibilities of work and raising three children until a part-time construction worker named George moves in next door and befriends the family. Later George takes over the task of caring for Erin's children so she is free to pursue the case. An inner change in her attitude has evoked a change in the outer circumstances of her life. Instead of complaining about life and other people, she has become constructive and productive and concentrating her energies on accomplishment. Life responds by bringing a responsible into her life without her even seeking him.
As a result of Erin’s extraordinary efforts and the trust which Hinkley residents have come to place in her, more than 400 families agreed to appoint Masry's firm to represent their claim against PG&E on the condition that Masry bears all the costs and gets 40% of the award, if there is any. During this period Erin receives an anonymous call threatening her family if she persists in the investigation. Just at this crucial juncture, when Erin had come to rely on George so much, he announces he is leaving her because she has so thoughtlessly taken all his efforts for granted. Her hard work is true and it is rewarded. Her thoughtlessness and rudeness are also true and evoke a response from life.
Though Erin exhibited uncommon bravery, grit, and determination throughout, this latest near-superhuman physical and psychological effort began to take its toll. One day she collapses under the strain and is hospitalized with meningitis. Before she has even had time to fully recover, she resumes her formidable effort.
A short time later, Masry’s firm wins a crucial decision in the case at the local level. Despite the utility company’s best efforts to block Erin’s action, the local court ruled that the case against the utility was a worthy one and should proceed to trial. In response, PG&E comes forward offering a settlement of about $40 million to more than 400 Hinkley families, but Masry and Erin reject the offer as insignificant.
Having spent a considerable portion of his career savings in pursuing the case this far and faced with the prospect of long and very costly legal proceedings, Masry eagerly accepts the offer of a top law firm to partner in the case and reimburse the costs he has already incurred. The lawyers at this firm look down on Erin as unqualified and unprofessional until she demonstrates her extraordinary knowledge of all details of the case and the close personal relationships she has built up with her clients. Erin receives a $5000 bonus and a new car. The darkness is receding in Erin’s life. For the first time, she has a good job, respect for her professional capacities, and freedom from financial worries.
Erin is strong, hard working, resourceful, responsible, and self-reliant. Though her behavior is rough and defensive, her basic values and intentions are positive. She feels abused and abandoned by life and struggles to make ends meet so she can raise her children in a proper manner. She is intolerant and easily provoked by those who claim to be superior. She derives extra energy by defying social convention with her crude language and scanty dress. She exhibits a high native intelligence and a great personal empathy that wins the trust of Hinkley residence. She exhibits an extraordinary capacity for perseverance. Her personality and effort evoke magnificent responses from life.
The nature of her accomplishment complements her character and life. She is a born fighter who has learned to stand on her own and stand up to opposition, so she confronts a challenge that requires strength and stamina of considerable magnitude. She is one who believes that life and society are nonsupporting, heartless and even cruel so she discovers just that aspect of life in her investigative work. She is one who feels abused, exploited and mistreated and so she comes into contact with a large number of people who are in precisely that predicament. Life brings her opportunity, but it comes in a form that reflects her own consciousness.
This is a true story of phenomenal accomplishment by a remarkable individual who had sunk to the lowest level of desperation and then was propelled to national fame. It demonstrates that aspiration and determination are the real determinants, not external circumstances and opportunities. Erin's aspiration created its own opportunities and it brought about all the conditions needed for its fulfillment.
It is significant that life became so desperate before it turned around. It takes tremendous faith, courage and perseverance to keep striving in spite of insurmountable obstacles. Erin's story shows that it is precisely these difficult conditions that are the crucible for tremendous accomplishment. Everything depends on how we respond to them. The spiritual truth is that we get precisely those conditions which are necessary for our progress. The only thing that matters is how we respond to the circumstances life presents us.
Erin's accomplishment is the result of a combination of factors -- her personality, her external initiatives and life's response to that personality and initiative. Erin has the energy, aspiration, drive, intelligence, skills and organizational capabilities for high accomplishment, but they are circumscribed by her rough, unpolished behavior, her defensive and offensive attitude towards life and other people, her lack of social qualifications and the demands of raising a family as a single parent. Much of her energy and efficiency comes from the fact that she does not bother to relate positively to people, does not strive to forge positive human relationships and does not care what society thinks of her. It is not that she has risen above society, but rather that she feels alienated from it and therefore does not try to conform.
Still a major obstacle stood in the way of successfully prosecuting the case. Though there is ample proof that local PG&E officials were negligent and therefore culpable of contaminating the groundwater around Hinkley, there is no proof that officials from PG&E's corporate headquarters in San Francisco had direct knowledge and involvement in the matter. The Hinkley office of PG&E is incorporated as a separate company with very limited financial capacity to compensate the victims. Unless corporate is implicated, any final settlement would be grossly inadequate to compensate all the victims. They had to find some way to prove that top officials at PG&E headquarters were aware of the Hinkley problem and negligent in addressing it. In order to proceed with the case, it was also necessary to obtain signed legal statements from each and every household, an enormous, time consuming and very costly task.
Realizing that the outcome was now in her hands, Erin then took it upon herself to make the Herculean effort to secure the required signatures. Though she prides herself on her independence and self-reliance, Erin realizes she needs help to manage the family during this strenuous period. She makes amends with George and he return to support her efforts. In the days that followed, she worked relentlessly, visiting every victim in the Hinkley area to secure the signed documents. When life offers great opportunities, it also demands great perfection.
Her ultimate accomplishment issues from these psychological factors as they express in and through her actions and evoke responses from life. Her major initiatives are listed below:
- She tries and fails to get a job -- Her aspiration for work and self-reliance and her effort to get employed are genuine, but her lack of qualifications and personal characteristics make it difficult. Her repeated failures raise her energy level and break down her social behavior so that she can assert herself regardless of society's response.
- Car accident -- The accident signifies that she has come to the end of her energy and her reserves and is pressed to the point of desperation.
- Court case -- The verdict is society's response in favor of a respected physician and in condemnation of a woman living on the fringe of respectability. Her effort to solve her problem by the lawsuit fails because laws are intended to support the social norm, which the physician represents. Having rejected society, she cannot benefit by its organization.
- Can't get job -- Again she tries and fails to get a job. Life is demanding of her extreme measures of resourcefulness that do not depend on the sympathy, charity or goodwill of others.
- Demands a job -- She demands a job from Masry and gets it on the sheer strength of her determination and pushiness, without qualifications or any legitimate claim. Strength accomplishes.
- Pro bono case -- The case coming to her is a life response to her aspiration for high accomplishment. Once she has found a place in society, that aspiration opens a big door.
- Decides to research it -- Many in her position would have been content to do the work 9 to 5 and take home a regular salary. She aspires to rise. Her drive is for accomplishment, not mere survival. Therefore she takes initiative to research the assignment and discovers a hidden opportunity.
- Trip to Hinkley -- Her effort at this stage can be termed extraordinary -- above and beyond the call of duty. Extraordinary effort leads to extraordinary results!
- UCLA -- In addition to her physical effort, she exercises her mind as well and consults an expert on the hexavalent chlorine.
- Water Board -- Further initiative.
- Meeting with PG&E lawyer -- She refuses to be cowed down by the professional.
- Back to Hinkley -- She takes extraordinary efforts to win the confidence of the people of Hinkley and gain their support.
- Personal Relationships -- Now for the first time she starts building positive personal relationships with all her clients, getting to know them, sympathize with them and feel committed to their success.
- Kurt's law firm -- Here too she has the courage to speak up and confront the arrogance of her professional colleagues and demand that they respect her. There failure in handling the clients shows that she has converted her lack of professional qualification as a strength in dealing with them. She has transformed a limitation into a capacity by her resourceful attitude.
But effort alone is not enough. Her success in uncovering the grounds for a lawsuit, enlisting more than 500 families as clients, and gathering evidence of PG&E's wrong doing is not sufficient to successfully prosecute the case. Concrete evidence implicating corporate PG&E is essential. When Erin totally exhausts her capacities, life takes over and delivers a bonanza. One evening after another exhausting day of collecting signatures, Erin stopped at a Hinkley bar for one last signature. A strange looking man sitting at the bar approached her. Erin fears he has some ill intention, until he introduces himself as Charles Embry, a former employee of PG&E, who has evidence implicating PG&E corporate. He said he had been watching Erin and decided she was someone he could trust implicitly. He explained that he had approached her because the previous day his close relative had died due to illness contracted while working for PG&E and now Charles had decided he must speak up. He then revealed to her that he had been ordered to shred documents implicating corporate, but that he had not destroyed the crucial documents. He subsequently provided Erin with all the evidence needed to win the case! Maximum effort evokes a response from life.
At the end of a lengthy legal process, PG&E paid out an incredible $333 million settlement to the victims, the largest direct action lawsuit in U.S. history. For the long-suffering people of Hinkley, it was the acknowledgement that a great wrong had been perpetuated, which they were now being handsomely compensated for. As a result of their success, Masry and Erin are able to sign on several other similar cases that are even larger than the Hinkley case.
For Erin Brockovich, it meant the end of her life of struggle – of poverty, insecurity, and low self-esteem -- and the beginning of an entirely new existence. Masry had agreed to pay Erin generously in the event they won the case. In view of her extraordinary efforts and contribution, he decided that the amount Erin had asked was too small. Instead he gave her a cheque for $2 million.
Summary of Life Responses
- Erin meets Masry as the result of her car accident. In a moment of bravado, Masry promises to win the case which he fails to do. His broken promise becomes an excuse for Erin to demand a job from him later. Ultimately he does win 'the case' -- fulfilling his initial promise to her.
- After Erin loses the personal injury case, she finds it impossible to get a job anywhere. That forces her to go back to Masry and ask for work. Thus her misfortune creates the circumstances that lead ultimately to great good fortune.
- She is assigned to process the pro bono Hinkley real estate case, which is apparently a routine insignificant affair. Actually life has placed in her hands an incredible opportunity. It is her aspiration and resourcefulness that convert the routine matter into a chance of a lifetime.
- Masry fired her and then was forced to take her back after the call from the professor. As a result she got a pay rise and a more secure position in the firm.
- George moves in next door, but she rudely rejects his friendly advances. Shortly thereafter her unreliable babysitter unexpectedly leaves the children with George, who fondly attends on them. Later George befriends the family and later becomes her lover. After life has deserted her for so long, this is a sign of changing times. First a job, then the Hinkley case, and now a reliable man.
- From then on, life responses continue to be favorable. First the decision of the judge rejecting 84 objections by PG&E validates their case. Then the larger law firm comes forward to relieve Masry's financial pressures. As a result, Erin gets a $5000 bonus and a new car.
- At the most crucial juncture, Charles Embry comes forward with the essential proof required to win the case. It is a direct response to Erin's aspiration, hard work and personal commitment to the people of Hinkley.
- Finally, Masry offers Erin an unimaginable bonus of $2 million and a leading role in his firm.
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