he Iranian government operative I sat across from was clearly growing weary of being interviewed by me, a woman at least forty years his junior, and from the minority group he spent his life discriminating against. “I am well aware that the Jews [in Iran] live a double life — in the streets a man says his name is ‘Mousa,’ but at home his family calls him ‘Moshe.’ ” His statement caused me to tremble. Was his statement an honest reflection or a subtle threat? This man was one of the Islamic revolutionaries who helped him bring Ayatollah Khomeini into power during the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, the revolution that changed the course of my family’s history, and the lives of countless other Iranian Jews. This interview, along with a series of others I conducted throughout Iran, was part of the comprehensive research I did before writing my book, A New Cold War, about political relations between the United states and Iran and Iran’s political and legislative history. Following a series of tragedies that befell my family at the hands of the Iranian government, I researched and wrote a book to understand the precarious state of affairs in a nation that for centuries was my family’s home. In the process, I discovered my calling as an attorney, serving as an advocate for the voiceless.
In the summer of 2003, my grandfather was killed in Iran because of his Jewish identity. Ultimately, his legal system failed to protect him from religious discrimination of the most serious degree. I soon discovered that this was not the first time my family was the target of intolerance. My great-uncle, my grandfather’s brother, was publicly executed during the Islamic Revolution in 1979 because he was a wealthy Jew and the revolutionary government wished to seize his holdings. Even though the loss of my grandfather weighed on me greatly, the end of his life served as the catalyst for my exploration of the fields of public policy and law. I set out to find an explanation for the current state of affairs in Iran through learning about the religious codes that penetrated its legal framework. I soon broadened the scope of my research to other Middle Eastern states and found similar trends in the evolution of their governments and laws, leading me to go back through history to examine their origins. For the next four years, I continued to research the laws and legal systems of many Middle Eastern states as well as the development of their political relations with the United States. After years of research, interviews, and broad discovery, I channeled my findings into a book.
When my book was ready for print, I excitedly phoned my family in Tehran to tell them the great news. I received a reaction I was unprepared for, but should have anticipated: fear. My family urged me to publish under a pen name and remove any mention of my grandfather’s life because they were terrified of retaliation. The regime that had killed my great-uncle and my grandfather was now silencing me. In that moment, I realized that although a book can serve as a platform for shedding light on information, it can only go so far when it comes to initiating real change. My decision to refrain from publishing my book demonstrates how fear of government retaliation can create self-censorship. The one thing that can combat this fear and protect an open forum for self-expression is the law. The U.S. legal system’s protection of the right to free speech is not something I take lightly. My deep appreciation for U.S. constitutional law is born of its ability to allow individuals to openly express their ideas without the fear of persecution.
Equally important is the law’s ability to reconcile differences between conflicting parties and ensure justice is served. A book is one outlet for voicing the need and means for a change in public policy, but actual improvements to the legal framework are only achieved through the enactment of laws. While a book can explore a set of facts in conjunction with differing opinions, the law is an essential tool that uniformly addresses the merits of each view and links conflicting interests, however diverse each may be. Lawyers can be the agents for change by linking the concerns of minorities to the constitution’s protection of an individual’s inalienable rights. I am eager to study and influence the legislature texts that shape our lives, thereby giving a voice to those who suffer from discrimination. Thurgood Marshall’s career is an exemplary case of a lawyer’s ability to use the legal system to secure the interests of a minority group. Hopefully with time and effort, the threat to my family in Iran will subside and the opportunity to publish my book will emerge once again. By pursuing a law degree and ultimately working as constitutional attorney, I will empower myself to contribute to the legal protection of minorities, thereby honoring the loved ones I have lost.
While the events detailed in this essay are compelling in their own right, it’s the cohesion of this essay’s narration that separates it from others. Natalie Rad starts in a relatively safe manner—placing the reader “in the moment’’ of a particularly stressful episode, but then goes beyond that moment to reveal a broader life path that exquisitely justifies her interest in the law. The interview described in the first paragraph would be meaningless without the context of Rad’s life, and it is her depiction of that life that both adds meaning and entices the reader to consider her as a worthy applicant.
Had Rad started out with the last paragraph, assaulting the reader with an abstract claim about “the law’s ability to reconcile differences,” there’s no doubt that this essay would have been passed over as yet another try-hard attempt to display familiarity and interest in the law. What Rad does instead is recognize the fact that the most important and interesting part of an application is not that the person who filled it out is interested in law (that’s already apparent), but why that person is interested in law, and what events in her life have driven her to this conclusion. A personal statement is supposed to say something personal, intimate perhaps, that allows the reader to begin the process of understanding the writer’s motivation for writing, and this essay accomplishes that goal convincingly. The abstract statements of the last paragraphs flow from the narrative established in the first three; it’s only after Rad has established her personal journey that she deals with its logical conclusion: going to law school.
At the same time, this essay, while successful, isn’t perfect. Rad’s decision to leap from details about having to censor her own writing to meditating on the ultimate value of the printed word strains the credulity of the reader and invites the criticism of forcing her rationale for law school into a place where it doesn’t belong. Still, the collective force of Rad’s narrative manages to quite the reader’s unease, ultimately making for a successful essay.
– John Finnegan