Erin Brockovich: Part 1
Just Getting Started
by Megan Rellahan
"Oh, please!" Brockovich chuckled. "You can ask me anything."
With that, I dove right into questions regarding her work in Hinkley, CA, and, of course, the movie Erin Brockovich.
She began telling her story with such a passionate tone that I was instantly blown away by her strong will and determination. Her raw honesty and uninhibited nature were evident throughout.
"To this day," said Brockovich, "the movie was the most bizarre thing that ever happened to me. When I went to the premiere, all the media people kept saying, 'What do you think about this—your name, your life on a film?' I wasn't really making the association; and so I replied, 'I don't know. Ask me 10 years from now.'"
"It's been six years, and I still haven't really wrapped my mind around it. I feel as if the way it came about is a fluke. It makes you think about the universe and how our cards fall. Through my chiropractic friend, I was introduced to the creators of the feature Erin Brockovich. That's how this all began. I'm telling ya, it was a fluke."
Brockovich was born in a small Kansas town, where her father was a mechanical engineer and her mother had dual-majored in journalism and sociology. Born with dyslexia, Brockovich had a tough time getting through school.
"There were a whole lot of naysayers in my life. People thought I'd never graduate from high school, and I was in special ed," stated Brockovich. "However, it was my mother who was big on teaching me to think outside the box and my father always kept slogans of 'press on' in front of me."
"When I struggled with math problems, my father would say to me, 'Erin, just because you don't get that doesn't mean you won't go somewhere in life. If you stay persistent, remain determined, stay focused, you will succeed.'"
This advice was influential in Brockovich's winning a multi-million-dollar case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E).
Her story began when a court hearing in Reno did not go in Brockovich's favor. With astronomical medical bills and attorney's fees, Brockovich was granted only a small settlement that left her with barely enough to cover two months' rent.
"We got clobbered," said Brockovich. "Unlike [in] the movie, my lawyer was actually Ed Masry's partner, Jim Vititoe."
"Jimmy is the heart," said Brockovich. "He saw what I went through and felt bad. He wanted to do something to help me after my neck injury because I had no way to live."
Shortly after being defeated in court, Brockovich phoned her father; and the biggest scare came when he told his daughter that he couldn't afford to help her anymore and she should come back home.
"I don't know what else you are going to do," he told her.
"Well, I do," replied Erin. "I am not coming home with my tail between my legs and three f***in' kids. I'm staying here, and I don't care if I starve. I'll make sure the kids eat; and by God, I'm going to do something with my life!"
While flying home from the defeat in Reno, Brockovich went in for the kill. "[My lawyer] Jim was so stressed out being with me that I think he took a Xanax, and I gave him a few drinks on top of that."
"At that point," said Brockovich, "I knew I had him."
Doing just what she said she would, Brockovich landed a job with Masry & Vititoe and remained in California. When she started working at the prestigious law firm, Ed Masry was confused as to why in "God's name" she was there.
"Other than sit up by yourself, what can you do?" Masry asked his partner.
"The thing with lawyers is that because they have a good education and understanding of the law, some people are afraid of them; but you don't have to be afraid of that," explained Brockovich.
Whenever Masry would give Brockovich a hard time, she replied, "Whatever. Get a life. Bite me."
"Ed was the kind of character who was always inspired by that," said Brockovich as she remembered him and laughed.
After working with people in the field of workers' compensation and doing a great job, Masry promoted Brockovich to the business litigation department; and that's where she uncovered the dark secrets in Hinkley.
"I got ahold of the box; and as I read people's files, I thought they were odd. Roberta Walker and her husband and children all had a high white blood [cell] count," recalled Brockovich.
"As I continuously tell people in my lectures, common sense is the most important tool we all have; but [we] are just not being taught to use it. And common sense told me that something was terribly wrong here."
"I remember reading something a woman once wrote about her experience with cancer," said Brockovich. "She talked about the shame of having cancer and wondered if she was shameful over actually having the disease or ignoring how she got it."
With this in mind, not only did Brockovich find the medical results odd among the folks residing in Hinkley, but she "wanted to know why."
"In order to help those people, I needed to get something tangible to show a lawyer—who happened to be Ed—and make him a believer," stated Brockovich.
The case was officially on after Brockovich collected enough concrete data to satisfy Masry. However, one night, after months of heavy research, Masry had a moment of doubt.
"You know, kid, this may not work," said Masry.
Brockovich replied, "You know, Ed, that just shocks me, because as we sit here in a library surrounded by law books, I can't help but wonder how all these case laws came about."
"And then it comes to me. They became laws because somebody went out on a limb. You get cases every day because a lawyer goes out and makes it one."
This is the first in a four-part series on Erin Brockovich. Check back next week for more on Brockovich's Hinkley and Kettleman cases and the effect Ed Masry's death had on her, both personally and professionally.