The Book That Changed My Life
On May 17 I’ll publish my tenth book. It’s called POISONED and this one is incredibly personal to me. This book tells the story that sparked the food movement in the country. During the two years it took me to write it, my family has revolutionized the way we eat. We now grow much of our food on the organic farm we created. We raise our own chickens. What we don’t produce we buy from local organic farmers. We eat in season. My children haven’t tasted fast food in two years and we seldom visit grocery stores. Now when we say grace we mean it.
I’m so passionate about POISONED that I created a custom Facebook page just for the book and for information about it. Check it out. And if you “Like” it, you’ll receive more updates about the book and issues in the organic and local food movement.
The story I tell in POISONED centers around the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak that poisoned over 700 children and killed four. It was the first and largest outbreak of its kind. From this tragic backdrop emerge some of the most compelling illustrations of hope, courage, strength and determination. I conducted over 200 interviews for this project. The ones with the parents whose children were at the epicenter of the outbreak were the most emotional ones of my career. Mothers wept and so did I. Following those sessions I held my children a little longer before tucking them into bed. It’s a story that makes you appreciate life and respect food.
I even interviewed the executives who were at the helm of Jack in the Box during the outbreak. These executives’ cooperation gives POISONED a deeper layer of truth and consequences.
I wrote the book like a legal-medical thriller, told through the people who lived it. Between now and publication day on May 17, I’ll introduce you to a few of them, starting with Seattle attorney Bill Marler. Today, he is the top food safety advocate in America. Over the past two decades he has represented thousands of children poisoned by pathogens in our food system. He has never lost a case; he’s often three steps ahead of the FDA and the USDA; and he donates a lot of his legal fees to fund scholarships and research to improve food safety.
Bill Marler Today
But in 1993 when scores of children started showing up at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital with a mysterious intestinal illness, Bill was a fledgling lawyer who had never heard the term E coli. Then he got a call that changed his life. It came from the mother of one of the children swept up in the outbreak. At that moment Bill was a frustrated associate at a large law firm, handling run-of-the-mill personal injury cases and wondering if he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then this mother asked for Bill’s help.
Bill as a young lawyer
Within two months Bill was representing over 100 children in the food poisoning case that had captured the country’s attention. When I set out to write this book, Bill was the first person I interviewed. I flew to Seattle and took a ferry to his home on Bainbridge Island, where he picked me up at the dock in his red Volkswagen convertible with a license plate that read: ECOLI. I spent the next two days and nights at his home, interviewing and observing him and his family.
We spent little time talking about the Jack in the Box case. I was interested in Bill’s personal story. Since his junior year of high school, Bill had one ambition – become a lawyer. Not just any lawyer, but a great one. While in college he got married and became the youngest person in Washington State history to get elected to public office, joining the City Council in Pullman. As a first-year law student he started clerking at a big firm. In his second year he landed a coveted clerkship with a superior court judge.
There seemed to be no speed limit signs on his road to success. Then just before the end of his second year of law school, his wife said she wanted a divorce. Madly in love, Bill went into a tailspin. The realization that he wasn’t everything to his wife made him suddenly question everything about himself. It occurred to him that his workaholic approach to law school might have cost him his marriage. Maybe if his wife had seen a little more of him she wouldn’t have been seeing someone else. Resentment set in; law school became an afterthought; and Bill ended up living alone on a friend’s sailboat in Puget Sound until the divorce was finalized.
Bill’s eyes welled up as he shared this chapter of his life with me. I had only known him a few hours at that point, but this kind of candor tells a lot about a man. A lump formed in my throat and the hair rose on my arms as he talked. You see, there’s a story here – how does a guy on the verge of throwing it all away end up becoming the go-to guy for families whose kids are caught in the biggest food scare in contemporary history?
While staggering through the aftermath of a divorce, Bill kept his job as a law firm clerk. One day he encountered the firm’s twenty-year-old receptionist Julie Dueck at the front desk. Like everyone else at the firm, she’d heard about Bill’s situation. She greeted him with a warm smile. Privately, she had always considered him the cutest guy in the office.
Bill observed her punk haircut. Julie had a shaved head with just a few long strands of hair.
“Nice hairdo,” he said sarcastically.
Her smile melted. “I’m going through chemotherapy and radiation and my hair is falling out,” she said.
Bill’s jaw dropped. Embarrassed, he stepped back and scampered off. Later that day, he verified that it was true – Julie had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was on powerful cancer-killing drugs and undergoing regular radiation treatments. The shaved head wasn’t a style choice.
The next day when Julie got to work she found a teddy bear holding a get well card. It was from Bill. They became friends. Over the next year he helped her through cancer and she helped him through a divorce. In the process, Bill rediscovered his passion for law and the two of them fell in love.
Bill and Julie on their wedding day
Shortly after Bill and Julie had their first child, Bill made his first visit to Children’s Hospital to visit a child in the ICU with E. coli poisoning. What he saw shook him. Then he did what every lawyer is taught not to do – personalize the case. That’s why I like Bill; he isn’t like every other lawyer. He put himself in the shoes of the parents. He looked at the sick child and imagined what it would be like if it was his daughter in the hospital. All of a sudden, the case went from being a legal matter to a mission.
I’m a believer in the notion that we all possess an irreplaceable quality, the one thing that each of us is born to do. Bill Marler was born to take on big corporations and advocate for children poisoned by food stamped SAFE. He was an easy choice as the lead character for POISONED.