Professor alleges Tony-nominated play steals from her life story



Yale professor Dorothy Otnow Lewis has alleged that playwright Bryony Lavery stole quotes and details of Lewis’ life story in Lavery’s Tony Award-nominated play “Frozen.”

In the second high-profile case of plagiarism of a Yale professor’s work this academic year, Lewis, a clinical professor at Yale’s Child Study Center, accused Lavery of lifting direct quotations from a New Yorker article about Lewis and autobiographical events from Lewis’ book, “Guilty by Reason of Insanity.”

According to Lewis’ lawyer, Martin Garbus, 650 words in the play are directly copied from the New Yorker article, which was written by Malcolm Gladwell. Half of them appeared in the article as direct quotes from Lewis. In addition, Garbus said, “a great deal of material” is paraphrased from Lewis’ book — so much, in fact, that Garbus described the play as “completely” based on Lewis’ story.

Earlier this month, Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree admitted to copying a six-paragraph passage from a book written by Yale Law professor Jack Balkin. Ogletree said the plagiarism was accidental.

The Ogletree incident is one of a recent rash of plagiarism cases at Harvard Law School. Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe this weekend acknowledged a “failure to attribute” some material drawn from a 1974 book by a former University of Virginia law professor, Henry Abraham.

“I personally take full responsibility for that failure,” Tribe said in an e-mail to the News.

Recently, accusations of plagiarism have also been leveled at Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz and Harvard Overseer Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Representatives for Yale Law School declined to comment on the alleged plagiarism by Harvard Law professors.

Lewis could not be reached for comment Monday. Regarding her reaction to reading Lavery’s play, she was quoted in The New York Times on Saturday as saying, “I felt I’d been robbed. She’d lifted my life.”

Legal negotiations between lawyers for Lewis and Lavery are currently ongoing. In a potential settlement, Lewis is seeking financial compensation, credit in the playbill, and an advertisement in New York City conveying that Lavery’s play is “a derivative work,” Garbus said.

“It seems that we can resolve it amicably,” he said.

A comparison of the New Yorker article and the script of “Frozen” seems to provide support for Lewis’ allegations that large chunks of text were lifted entirely from the article and incorporated into Lavery’s play.

The following quote by Lewis is included in the article: “I just don’t believe people are born evil — To my mind, that is mindless. Forensic psychiatrists tend to buy into the notion of evil. I felt that that’s no explanation. The deed itself is bizarre, grotesque. But it’s not evil. To my mind, evil bespeaks conscious control over something. Serial murderers are not in that category. They are driven by forces beyond their control.”

The passage is copied in its entirety as a speech delivered in the second act of “Frozen,” with the addition of one word, “but,” according to The New York Times.

Sterling Memorial Library and the Drama School Library hold copies of the play’s script, but the copies were unavailable Monday.

Gladwell, the author of the New Yorker article, said he has declined to pursue any legal action because the parts of the story allegedly lifted by Lavery are either Lewis’ quotations or scientific explanations.

“I would only ask for damages if I felt I’d been harmed,” Gladwell said. “I just wasn’t that upset about it — I would feel differently, I imagine, if I was Dorothy and it was my words that were being used.”

A representative for MCC Theater, which produced Lavery’s play, issued the following statement in an e-mail to the News: “Attorneys have been engaged, the discussions are amicable and we expect a resolution.”

Gladwell said he did not know whether the alleged plagiarism was deliberate or accidental, but he expressed hope that the situation would be resolved quickly.

“I have no desire to harm anyone’s reputation, and from everything I heard it was an extraordinarily powerful play and a wonderful play, and I don’t think that’s something we should lose sight of,” Gladwell said.

Comments

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