Short by Anne Kenner

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A person measuring a child's head against a wall

“A good thing about being short,” my mother said when I turned twelve in 1970, “is that you can date all sorts of men; the short ones and the tall ones.”

“Can’t tall girls do that, too?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said, “but short men feel inferior with them. They won’t with you.”


Being short meant you couldn’t see over people who sat in front of you at the movies, and you didn’t stand out in a crowd. Your friends thought you were cute instead of pretty, and they could pretend not to see you waiting for them on the blacktop at school.

Being short was better than being fat.  People made fun of you if you were fat. They expected you to be either very funny or very stupid, and they mocked you for eating dessert.

In third grade, Barbie Belknap was fat, but no one teased her because she killed at kickball. I felt sorry for her, nonetheless, because her parents were old and slept in separate beds.


I got my period at the end of seventh grade, at which point the pediatrician told my mother I was unlikely to grow more than another inch or two.

“You’re 5’2”,” the nurse announced after measuring me on the wall chart.

“I can’t be 5’2”,” I told the nurse. “My mother is 5’2”, and I’m definitely taller than she is.”

“Technically,” my mother told me that evening, “I round up on height.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Always present your best self,” she explained.


Still, there were hopeful signs. When NASA began enrolling space pilots for its fledgling 1960s Mercury program, candidates taller than 5’11” were serially rejected. As the recruiters explained, there would only be “limited cabin space” on the rocket.

“I’m applying,” I told my mother.

“Space travel,” she informed me, “is for boys.”


Toward the end of middle school, my orthopedist father found a scoliosis in my back.

“This should be straight,” he said, pointing to the undeniable s-curve on an x-ray he’d taken of my spine.

“Can we fix it?” I asked.

“Probably not.”

We went home and told my mother.

“You’ve been robbed of at least two inches,” she said, and slapped the kitchen counter with her right palm.

“Really?” I asked my father.

“Well,” he answered, “’robbed’ is a strong word.”


I admired crimefighters as a kid, and did my part to support them by studying the FBI’s Most Wanted posters on the marble walls at the local post office while waiting on line with my mother.

It came as no surprise that the most wanted criminals were tall. Joseph Corbett, Jr., wanted for kidnapping and murdering Adolph Coors III, was a 6’1” professional typist. Hubert Geroid Brown was 6’3” and an arsonist. Benjamin “Big Daddy” Paddock was a 6’4” psychopath who excelled at transmission repairs and bank heists. Janie Duncan, a convicted murderer who escaped from a women’s mental institution, was only 5’6”, but that was tall for a girl in 1964.

“Wanted,” the posters said, “for high crimes and misdemeanors.”


There was something undeniably glamorous about these large crooks, with their long rap sheets and expansive lives on the run. My scoliosis denied me an equivalently tall and swashbuckling existence. I felt entitled to an enhancement.

On the first day of gym class, Ms. Stumbles marched down the row of eighth grade girls to record our reported heights on the class chart.

“5-3,” I said, and watched as she validated my inflated stature on her clipboard.

When I applied for my driver’s license two years later, I further asserted my best self by indicating that my brown eyes were really “hazel.” I was delighted when the confirmatory DMV card arrived the following month.


In school, we read books about presidents doing great deeds. The best presidents were the tallest. George Washington was 6’2”, and he made America. Lincoln was 6’4”, and he freed the slaves. Woodrow Wilson was almost 6’, and he rescued us from the Germans the first time. FDR was 6’2” and finished the Germans off for good the second time. Benjamin Harrison, on the other hand, was only 5’6”, and he was an idiot.

Mark Twain, whom I read in the intermittent privacy of my bedroom, provided great comfort.

“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight,” he wrote. “It’s the size of the fight in the dog.


The shortest guy I ever dated was 5’5”, and it bothered him that no one took him seriously.  The tallest was 6’2”, and he was an asshole because he took himself too seriously.  The man I married wasn’t too short or too tall, overly anxious or unduly calm.  He was steady and consistent, ambitious yet balanced, concerned about his receding hairline but indifferent to his broken nose. The only thing extreme about him was his brain, which was huge and fascinating to me.


In 1986, and fresh out of law school, I moved to Brooklyn to be a federal prosecutor.  There were six other women in the office when I started, and they were tougher and older than I was.

I was intimidated by all of them, but none more so than Luce Warner, who was six feet tall in stocking feet, and swaggered around the office with a loud voice and lowering brow.

“Don’t let them know you’re scared,” she’d admonish if she saw me in a courtroom.

“I’m not scared,” I’d say.

“Yes, you are,” Luce assured me.


We worked seven days a week on fraud and narcotics investigations, racketeering and sex trafficking cases, wiretaps and Mob prosecutions. Mob cases required the most finesse, the utmost mettle, the highest confidence from a prosecutor.

One rare and sunny Saturday, I took the afternoon off and rode the subway into Manhattan to walk the streets alone for a few daylight hours. I felt free and independent, lucky and young, when I rounded the corner at 61st and Madison and ran headlong into Michael Corleone. He mumbled an apology and quickly moved on. What struck me in the moment wasn’t that I’d just collided with a famous pretend mobster; it was that, in the half-second of our encounter, Al Pacino and I met almost precisely at eye level.


Real mobsters were famous for being short. Sammy “The Bull” Gravano was only 5’5”. Vito Genovese was 5’7”, and Carmine Galante just 5’5”. “Old Man Joe” Profaci was 5’6” and, on a good day, Tommy Lucchese could claim to be 5’2”. Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno topped off at 5’4” and Meyer Lansky, who was absolutely terrifying, was only 5’ tall. In the Mob, power came in very small packages.


In New York, I had subpoena power and charging power. I carried a badge and ran teams of agents. I used writs that moved prisoners from one holding facility to another. I had a Rolodex of phone numbers for the back rooms in judges’ chambers, the Special Agents in Charge at the FBI, DEA, ATF, and IRS, the Assistant Attorney Generals in D.C. and the international monitors at Interpol. I could get approvals to wiretap someone’s telephone or car, or search someone’s office or home. I had authority to recommend people go to jail for ten or twenty or thirty years, or to pay staggering, bankrupting fines. I guarded big secrets and knew bad things about very important people.

I was still short in New York.  But for the first time in my life, I was powerful and short.


I tried a drug case with a seventy-five-year-old witness named Emmeline Eid. Eid, who stood 4’5”, had left Beirut for the first time in her life to visit family in Queens, and she asked a nearby couple on the plane to help her through arrivals at Kennedy Airport. After Customs Inspectors found two kilos of heroin sewn into a false lining of the couple’s luggage, however, they dropped the net on all three passengers. Eid was strip-searched and detained until, a minute into interrogation, it became abundantly clear she was clueless about the drugs.

“My mother hasn’t been naked in 35 years,” her son, Ghassan, advised when he brought Eid to my office a few days after her release. “I’m telling you, you don’t want her as your witness.”

On the day of her testimony, Eid looked tiny and terrified when ushered into the witness box. After I asked her to identify the guilty couple in the courtroom, however, she transmogrified. Screaming, Eid rose to her full, if diminutive, height, and shook her fists at the defendants. She yelled, then she spat, then she yelled once again. The interpreter stared.

“What’s she saying?” asked the judge.

That,” said the interpreter, “I refuse to tell you.”


The judge lived in my Brooklyn neighborhood and, in the years following Eid’s tantrum, we’d run into each other on our morning walks to the courthouse. We couldn’t discuss cases or investigations, so talked instead about New York, the weather, my weekend plans and, once, my professional future.

“Don’t do this job for too long,” the judge admonished me.

“How long is that?” I asked.

“When all of this,” he said, waving his arm in a wide arc, “starts to seem normal.”

“It’s never going to seem normal,” I assured him.

“Oh, it will.” He said. “People always get too comfortable with power.”


The judge was right to worry; prosecutors regularly confused power with prerogative. I had long and reflexively conflated concepts of shortness and strength, size and sway. But real power, at least in the halls of justice, had nothing to do with all that.  Real authority was granted more arbitrarily, exercised more haphazardly. For the most part, my peers and I applied for our jobs without understanding the breathtaking, despoiling discretion we’d be granted as a result. Being a prosecutor—gathering evidence, weighing guilt, deciding whom to charge with what extreme crimes—suddenly entitled me to outsized clout. I had stunning authority to reorder fates, often for people who were much older than I, who had seen far more of the world, and who had reasons and explanations for their behavior that I didn’t—and didn’t need to—consider before charging them with the crimes that constrained their futures.


Being a prosecutor took all my time and attention. The crimes were shocking to investigate and prosecute, and the yelling and screaming that characterized the trade at first rattled, then inured me to grand displays of calculated anger. Gradually, I recognized a certain competence in my own practice, a comfort in my own compact body, an agreement with my own professional personality. I never got too comfortable with the power the Brooklyn judge didn’t want me to abuse, though. I never lost the fear of making big mistakes that would set the wrong person free or, worse, send him to jail.


After three years, I left New York and moved back home to work at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco. It was nothing like Brooklyn. San Francisco lacked the muscle and edge, and the attorneys in my office the drive and intensity, of my old beat. In 1990, San Francisco was still a small town; I worked bank robberies and mail frauds rather than narcotics and the Mob. Prosecutors didn’t hustle for wiretaps or tangle with racketeering indictments, and most of the agents went home to their families at night, rather than out on surveillance. The judges kept us at arm’s length, and the U.S. Marshals didn’t small talk us, either. I left the office at 6:00 each day, and most of my weekends were free. It was a smaller life, but I got used to it.


I applied for life insurance when I transferred to San Francisco, so I had to find a new doctor and go for a check-up. The nurse brought me into the examining room to weigh and measure me.

“I’m 113 pounds,” I told her, and then—sparked by some unaccountable compunction, one I hadn’t experienced during the 20 preceding years—added, “and 5-2.”

“Okay,” the nurse answered, “let’s confirm it.”

She directed me to a novel piece of equipment, a combined scale and stadiometer that required me to stand with my face to the machine, partially blocking her view.

“How much do you weigh?” she asked.

“More than 113 pounds,” I said.

Then the nurse stepped beside me and slid the horizontal headpiece down a metal rod to the top of my head. It stopped precisely at the 5’3” marker.

“That’s got to be wrong,” I told her.

“Oh, it’s right,” she answered. “The stadiometer never falls short of the truth.”

Meet the Contributor

Anne Kenner Headshot

Anne Kenner’s work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Southwest Review, Boulevard, Salmagundi, Columbia Journal, Raritan, New Ohio Review, Slackjaw and elsewhere, and has been recognized multiple times as Notable in The Best American Essays series. She was a 2016 Fellow at Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute, and has been a federal prosecutor, law professor and high school educator.

  8 comments for “Short by Anne Kenner

  1. Thanks for this! I was drawn to read your essay since I am a 5’1″-er…and my youthful experiences (including your menstrual story and the scoliosis are exactly what I remember!) I loved your professional anecdotes as well. Though I’m a 50-something English prof, I’m usually the smallest in the room too.
    “Though she be but little she is fierce”! Thanks again.

  2. This is a marvelously, entertaining and interesting essay. The author weaves together comments on power and size, in a funny and provocative way, that makes you laugh and think at the same time. Not a word in this nimble essay is wasted. It’s simply wonderfully- short.

  3. Love this essay. Happy to be introduced to a new author to follow. I also am a former prosecutor, although in a less glamorous position than the US Attorney’s office in Manhattan. I’m currently writing a memoir about childhood trauma but would like to figure out next how to interweave the creative with my professional experiences. As a young attorney, I was roped into, by a senior partner, defending a serial killer and appearing doing so on national television. I’d like to write about that. Your writing, which successfully and artfully combines the personal and professional, is instructive.

  4. My 6’7” kept from being a fighter pilot, my childhood dream, but I was too tall to be drafted to go to Viet Nam.

  5. brilliant, engaging, light-hearted. all with serious intent. The inherent tension Anne creates (where will she take us with this height thing?) coaxes us along, paragraph after paragraph, on a journey we never intended, with a delicious joy we didn’t expect, and a regret that it had to end.

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