Episode 015: Dave Klaus

Episode 015: Dave Klaus

A Hero's Journey

Dave Klaus is a man of many roles. He is a father and a husband. He is a writer, a black belt instructor of jujitsu, and an ordained Zen priest. Dave Klaus is also a criminal defense attorney that has represented indigent defendants accused of serious crimes in Alameda County for the last twenty years. To put it simply, Dave is a boundless seeker—endlessly exploring new ways to grow his edges and learn more about himself and the world around him. When I acknowledge that quality in him, he responds nonchalantly, explaining that his digging deep into personal work was something in which he didn’t really have a choice. 

Our conversation begins with Dave sharing his experience and role with the ManKind Project, a nonprofit training and education organization that Dave holds dear to his heart. The international organization offers trainings and circle gatherings for men all over the world, with an emphasis on teaching accountability, integrity, authenticity, and emotional literacy. Dave has been an active participant in the project since 2010, using the tools and teachings of the group to transform his relationship with his masculinity and how he engages with all the men and women in his life. He sits in a weekly men’s circle and works as staff during many of the weekend-long retreats. He says that this work is “an integral part for how [he] keep[s] [his] shit together.” 

Right before Dave began his journey with the ManKind Project, he remembers how challenging of a year he was having. He had a medical issue that was causing him chronic pain, he was having a hard time at work, his children were going through rough patches, and he got into a space in which he was regularly drinking and smoking as a way of coping with the discomfort and stress of his life. Although many of his friends had encouraged him in the past to attend ManKind’s events, he had always pushed the idea aside—an easy thing to do in our busyness-based culture. It was really by happenstance that he wound up at his first retreat, an experience that he says “changed [his] life.”

I ask Dave if he is comfortable sharing a memorable moment from that first weekend. He remembers speaking in the circle of men, sharing about the sadness and hopelessness he had been experiencing that brought him there. While sitting in circle, one of the tenets of the ManKind Project is to raise your hand if what is being shared or spoken about resonates with you personally. When Dave was done sharing, he looked up to find all of these men with their hands raised. In that moment, he had the realization that “[he’s] not a freak. It’s not just [him]. Other men feel that way too.”

Our conversation moves to the topic of judgment. Dave notes that in the past, if he didn’t understand something, he would often label it as stupid. However, after enough self-reflection Dave came to see it differently: 

“I realized how much of life experience I was shutting myself out of because I didn’t understand it and of course the truth is, I don’t understand hardly anything.”

In April of 2012 there was a school shooting that killed seven and wounded three at Oikos University in Oakland, California. After the massacre, the shooter, One Goh, turned himself in to police. When Dave heard about this story, he knew that it would be a case that came to his office and he had a strong intuitive feeling that he was supposed to defend Mr. Goh. He felt that between his experience as a criminal defense attorney and the tools that he had learned from the ManKind Project, he had an opportunity to be a part of the community’s healing—to be of service and help make something good come out of something horrific. He describes his role as a public defender as one in which he is a part of a team that helps control damage: 

“It’s a really sad and tragic job a lot of the times because we’re dealing with mostly young men who get into really bad situations and end up looking to prison for ten, twenty, thirty years, or the rest of their lives. And so, frankly, that’s part of what drew me to the ManKind work—I felt like I was so much in the sadness and the tragedy of this. I needed some balance and some way of bringing healing to me and to everything.”

The district attorney deemed the case of Mr. Goh worthy of death penalty sentencing. Dave—adamantly opposed to the death penalty as he does not find it to be helpful in healing the community’s trauma or creating closure for the victims—was willing to do anything in his power to take the death sentence off the table. This is the part of the story in which Dave shares how his intuition led him to take on a large responsibility with the case, but he had not factored in the amount of complication that would be involved in this case and the intensity or impact it would have on his personal well-being and code of ethics. He notes: 

“Strict ethical questions came up as my client kept telling everybody in the press that he wanted to die. He didn’t want to live. Sometimes it felt like that came from major shame, sometimes it seemed like it was [his] illness, sometimes it was remorse. I mean it was all of those things, but my job, my legal ethical duty was to make sure that he did not receive the death penalty in the case… [As a public defender] your job is to be in defense [of your client], but because of legality and the American Bar Association guidelines [your goal] is to keep him alive.”

There were so many moments during the case in which Dave’s inner knowing was tested, as he was constantly being challenged to support his client, listen to his gut, and do what was within the boundaries of proper ethics. There were so many moments in the case that felt incredibly dark, moments in which Dave was questioning who he was and what his responsibility was in performing this kind of work. I ask Dave how he continues to trust his intuition even if he knows it is going to lead him to really dark places. He responds by saying, 

“Intuition to me is a much more of an informed instinct. You know there's a gut feeling but in conjunction with my experience, my training, my awareness and my heart—it kind of emerges into a more whole kind of feeling. And I agree it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be on that easy path, [but] it’s the hero's journey.”

As we conclude our conversation, I ask Dave about some of the ways he believes intuition can be used on a systemic level, especially with the legal system. He replies, 

The first thing that comes to mind is that I think our fundamental intuition as human beings is to be compassionate and to see each other and to support each other … Nobody wants to be afraid and alone and fucked up … How do we get back to what's true about us? … What's true is [that] we're loving compassionate creatures.” 

He finishes our conversation by stating that he likes a dirty job and that he thinks that’s what being human is all about. To get in the muck, to be in experience with the awfulness and the glory, to truly be in the mix of what it means to be alive. And, according to Dave, as long as he’s with people who have his back, he knows that everything is going to be all right. 

Dave Klaus is a life coach and criminal defense attorney living in San Francisco, and for the last twenty years he has represented indigent defendants accused of serious crimes at the Alameda County Public Defender’s office. He is also an ordained Zen priest, a black belt instructor of jujitsu, and a writer and poet with his own blog. He has been married for two decades to a wonderful woman with whom he shares two teenage kids.

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