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The Lobster Clause

On a new podcast, Danny Jacobs grapples with the legacy of a narcissist father who used the law to manipulate people. Take that time at the upscale restaurant . . .

March 2024

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Portrait of Danny Jacobs

Photo: Kwaku Alston/Foureleven.agency

Danny Jacobs was nervous. His dad had taken him and his older brother to Bristol, a tony seafood restaurant in St. Louis, and they’d ordered 10 lobsters. The waiter had been astonished, as had Jacobs, though for his 10-year-old mind, the order didn’t seem insurmountable for one man and two kids.

They’d feasted and packed up the leftovers, and when the bill came, Jacobs’s father, Richard, left. That was when Jacobs, ’01, got worried. His dad, he suspected, was up to something.

Richard returned carrying two trash bags, which he handed to the waiter. In the bags was not cash but corks.

Bristol was having a special: If you brought in a wine cork, you’d get a dollar off your meal. Richard had been going to wine stores across St. Louis for weeks, collecting thousands of them. The manager was called. Richard produced the ad, and, indeed, there was no stated limit to the number of corks you could redeem. An argument ensued. Jacobs sank into his chair. The roomful of St. Louisans in jackets and ties or understated jewelry and sensible pumps looked up from their crab cakes and ahi tuna to watch. 

“We were being ogled,” Jacobs recalls. “As a kid, that was very, very difficult to get through.” Ultimately, the corks were accepted as payment, and Richard was banned from Bristol. 

The incident was vintage Richard Jacobs. A disbarred attorney who had once prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court in a dispute over what lawyers could say in their ads, Richard would use the law to harass people. When the Bristol manager touched his shoulder, Richard threatened to sue for assault. He worked relentlessly for months, even years, on retribution for perceived wrongs. His family was not only humiliated by his behavior—“I felt really intense shame on a daily basis,” says Jacobs—but also targeted by it. Richard opened bank accounts in Jacobs’s name and hacked into his email. He lied about having had a heart attack, toying with Jacobs’s emotions. He sent long letters to Jacobs’s future mother-in-law, claiming that his son was an abusive narcissist.

In reality, it was Richard who was the narcissist. After Richard died in 2015, Jacobs, an actor/writer/director who has appeared in Grey’s Anatomy, Masters of Sex, and American Crime Story, began kicking around the idea of doing a TV pilot that would let him tell the story of his relationship with his father. Then he had kids, who are now 3 and 6.

“I just started revisiting everything that my father was to me,” Jacobs says. 

The result, he realized in talking with his childhood friend Darren Grodsky, would not be a fictional TV series but a nonfiction podcast. It would detail the bizarre events of Jacobs’s childhood and why he ended his relationship with his father four years before Richard died. It would unpack why his mom even married his dad in the first place. It would look at the man Richard Jacobs was and all that he did, and it would be called How to Destroy Everything

Grodsky and Jacobs have been close friends since first grade, but growing up, they never talked much about Richard. “Maybe I felt embarrassed for [Danny],” Grodsky says.

Jacobs’s parents separated when he was 6, beginning a protracted custody battle during which Jacobs’s father regularly absconded with him. “I remember being chased around the parking lot at a grocery store, and then he put me in his car and drove me off,” Jacobs says. Around age 12, Jacobs made a declaration: He would split his time evenly between his mom and dad, alternating weeks at their houses.

‘For good or ill, my dad’s superpower was he had this innate understanding that what we think are rules of society are often merely suggestions.’

As part of the divorce proceedings, Richard had to undergo a mental health evaluation. The doctor diagnosed him with narcissistic personality disorder.

“It’s a chronic, maladaptive interpersonal style that continues beyond adolescence into adulthood,” says Anna Lembke, MD ’95, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. “It’s usually characterized by a grandiose and inflated sense of self, preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty, thinking that they’re special and only can be understood by other special people.”

Jacobs developed a coping mechanism—a big persona as the “wacky neighbor kid”—that he would use whenever he went over to the Grodskys’. “It was a way of sep-arating myself, about not being emotional,” he says on the podcast.

With all the pretending, it’s no wonder that Jacobs gravitated toward acting and improv in college, appearing in Gaieties and joining the Stanford Improvisors as a frosh. He majored in political science, interned at the White House, and was junior class president, but he also starred in the drama department’s production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing and booked Taco Bell commercials. When it came time to choose between his interests, he elected to try his hand in Hollywood. So did Grodsky. The two eventually became writing and directing partners on such films as Humboldt County and Growing Up and Other Lies.

But when Jacobs moved to L.A. after college, Richard started writing letters to Hollywood bigwigs asking for a meeting—in his son’s name. Without Jacobs’s knowledge or consent.

“It’s a great example of my dad’s skewed nature,” Jacobs says. “Like, he’s trying to help my career, but he’s doing it in a way that’s extremely hurtful. He would do something like that, and I would get really mad, and I wouldn’t talk to him for a little bit.

“But I so desperately wanted a father figure who was a normal human being. I would just grasp at any straw I could when he would behave normally, and I would convince myself this is OK.”

Danny Jacobs with his dadPhoto: Courtesy Danny Jacobs

Richard was incredibly intelligent but used that intelligence to flout rules. He was fired from the Securities and Exchange Commission for trying to access a classified database. He called Child Protective Services on a neighbor who had asked him to drive more slowly because the neighbor’s kids played in the street. He harassed the St. Louis County assessor’s office with hundreds of letters and phone calls until he was allowed to change his address on Royal Manor Drive to The Royal Manor—no street number. At one point, there were so many people in the St. Louis area who felt victimized by Richard that they established a support group—and invited Jacobs’s mother to join them.

“It sounds like he had more than narcissistic personality disorder,” Lembke says. Although he’s not here to diagnose, Lembke wonders whether Richard might also have had antisocial personality disorder. The two conditions, she notes, often exist together. 

People with antisocial personality disorders “take advantage of others to achieve their own ends,” she says. Jacobs says other people in his family have also suspected his father had other diagnoses, though Richard never thought he had any.

“For good or ill, my dad’s superpower was he had this innate understanding that what we think are rules of society are often merely suggestions,” Jacobs says.

Jacobs has noticed in himself a resistance to authority figures, especially if he feels he’s being treated unfairly. But he’s not sure whether that’s something he learned from his father or a reaction to Richard’s own capricious wielding of power.

“When I grew up with my dad, I felt helpless,” Jacobs says. “I felt so trapped by this authority figure who was irrational in the way that he parented. So when I engage with an authority figure where I feel that same irrationality, I get a very deep rage.”

‘I think the podcast asks whether Danny can find a pathway to forgiveness. And we genuinely don’t know the answer to that.’

The podcast is a chance, as Jacobs says in the first episode, to make his painful childhood have a purpose, but it’s also an opportunity to uncover what parts of Richard still linger, phantom-like, in Jacobs, so he can stop himself from passing that down to his children.

“The only areas that have given me pause in terms of my own parenting are the ways in which subconsciously I may be my dad,” Jacobs says. “And I do feel it.”

Jacobs and Grodsky co-host the podcast, which blends multiple methods of storytelling: reenactment, interviews, and conversation. The initial episodes last fall garnered more than a million listeners; at press time, the team was in negotiations with a podcast network to host the show and release new episodes regularly. In the meantime, the team has released teasers that hint at topics the show could unpack: the gratitude of listeners who grew up with a narcissist parent, the tumult the podcast has created for Jacobs within his family, and the trip Grodsky took to The Royal Manor after a listener—and current manor resident— uncovered secret compartments there.

“I think the podcast asks whether Danny, after discovering who his dad was, can find a pathway to forgiveness. And we genuinely don’t know the answer to that,” Grodsky says. “It was almost a scary question, because for years that would have never even occurred to us, because he was responsible for this monstrous childhood.”

The podcast begins at the end, with a dramatization of the moment Jacobs finally decides to cut his dad off. Jacobs is introducing the woman he’s going to marry, Katie (played by Roxana Ortega), to his dad, and is coaching her on how to keep herself safe during the dinner conversation. Don’t tell him your birthday. Don’t tell him your phone number. Don’t tell him where you work or your address. With just that bit of information, he will destroy you.

But Jacobs leaves the table to go to the bathroom, and when he returns, he sees Richard with notebook and pen in hand. His father has sweet-talked Katie into divulging her phone number and birth date, and is working on the address. A scene follows—Jacobs and Richard begin tussling over the notebook—and Jacobs knows he has a choice to make.

He chooses Katie and cuts his dad out of his life. “It was extremely painful,” Jacobs recalls. “I essentially had to mourn him while he was still alive.”

Richard would live another four years. Jacobs gave the eulogy at his funeral.

“He loved very deeply, but he didn’t know a healthy way to love,” Jacobs said in the eulogy and repeats on the podcast. That’s one thing Jacobs fears gets lost in the podcast as the co-hosts recount Richard’s oddball stunts. “I did love my dad, and he did have my best interests at heart.”

When Richard died, he left a house teeming with stuff, mostly papers that filled boxes in every room and even covered the bed. Jacobs had no interest in going through anything at the time, but he now wishes he had. Instead, he is doing a different kind of sorting to figure out who his father was and how they are similar and different, all with an eye toward his own parenting. It’s a process full of ambivalence and wistfulness. 

“I do wish my children had the opportunity to meet him,” Jacobs says. “I would not have been comfortable with them having a relationship with him, because I know how toxic he was. But I wish they could say, ‘I met my grandfather.’ It’s a moment that I miss.”


Rosalind Early is a writer in St. Louis. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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