We asked all of our contributors to Longreads Best of 2015 to tell us about a story they felt deserved more recognition in 2015. Here they are.
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Author of The Empathy Exams, hailed as one of the best nonfiction books of 2014. Her work also has appeared in publications including Harper’s, Oxford American, A Public Space, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Believer.
I love this chilling, deeply insightful piece of longform journalism by Rachel Monroe. In its substance, it’s an examination of a killing in Big Bend National Park in West Texas, but in its mode of inquiry—in its devotion to doubt and complexity and wondering—it has so much to say about violence, about youth and vulnerability, about the complicated relationship that forms between journalist and subject. Monroe looks at the stories her subject, a self-confessed killer, wants to tell about himself, the stories she wants to tell about him (the divide isn’t what you might imagine), and the distance that remains between her and the tragedy she documents. She writes the horrible in a way that finds something human in its bleak contours. The piece is gripping. It won’t let you go. Or at least it didn’t let me go anywhere; I read it straight through without pausing—and it’s still with me, in many odd moments of haunting and recollection. It’s sharp, vivid, beautifully intelligent writing—intelligence directed towards a powerful openness of spirit, a commitment to nuance and insoluble mystery.
Author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, and Hunger, forthcoming from Harper in 2016. Her writing has appeared in A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, and Bookforum, among many others.
I admire the structure, the elegance of the prose, and the unexpected way in which Mecham writes about trauma and growing into womanhood.
“Where do you live now?” Wendy Darling asked Peter Pan, who was floating mid-air in her nursery and covered all in autumn leaves and cobwebs,. “With the lost boys,” Peter answered, “They are the children who fall out of their prams when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Never-Land. I’m captain.” Those lines kept getting all mixed-up in my head when I re-read for maybe the fifth time “An American Void,” probably because I knew I couldn’t think of the right words to describe “An American Void.”
The premise is: A Washington Post reporter hangs out in the South Carolina trailer where Dylann Roof crashed in the weeks before he murdered nine black church members at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. Now: There are few journalistic genre more bankrupt, less defensible, than the pitying, baffled, we-never-ever-saw-it-coming portraits of white spree shooters. But that’s not this: This is the story of the people still crashed-down in that trailer. This is story of the lost boys and lost girls who fell out of their prams when the country was looking the other way and who were never claimed. They spend day after indistinguishable day getting high and getting drunk, updating Facebook and making the Xbox scream, cutting themselves or killing themselves, staring at their cellphones or out through the blinds but never seeing anything. At first, their story seems unremarkable, except for its proximity to remarkable violence, but after a while you realize McCrummen without ever coming out and nut-graf-ing it, has turned it into the whole story of America, or America at its least remarkable, hopeless, pointless, killing people quickly in churches or slowly in trailers.
“What kind of people would do nothing?,” McCrummen asks, about the broken family who took Dylann Roof in but didn’t know how to help him or themselves, and the answer will ruin you.
Executive Editor, Features at BuzzFeed, where he’s worked since 2012 overseeing longform feature assignments.
It’s a little weird to be casting a Zach Baron GQ profile of one of the most successful pop artists in recent decades as an underdog, but this one seems to have slipped under a lot of radars. (The story didn’t run in the magazine, hence the movie still art and the relative lack of promotion.) But this is just a stunningly frank and melancholy snapshot of a guy who has been famous for more than half his life and just isn’t really sure what to do with himself now that the one thing he’s always done—make music with his best friend Adam Yauch, who died in 2012—isn’t an option. He doesn’t need to work, but he’s not totally sure of what to do with himself every day. Stars, they’re just like us, etc.
Senior Reporting Fellow at ProPublica.
Saslow takes a classic reporting assignment—personalize an obscure policy initiative by following a person who’s navigating it—and he does it just about perfectly. This piece tells the story of Paul Gayle, a 19-year-old single father in Milwaukee who is enrolled in one of the “fatherhood classes” that are so heavily favored and funded by the Obama administration. He’s broke, but he’s trying; he’s looking for a job he can get to without a car and selling his PlayStation for baby food.
Saslow follows Gayle to class, to home, and back, and on all the bus rides and transfers in between. His portrayal of Gayle’s current situation, and how he got there, is closely observed and beautifully rendered. “Paul had come mostly because of the promise of free baby supplies, and lately he had been purchasing his Pampers one at a time, repeating the same transaction so often at a corner store that a clerk had dubbed it the Daddy Paul Special, 75 cents for a single cigarette and a size-3 diaper,” he writes. Bonus: the accompanying photos, by Jahi Chikwendiu, are gorgeous—maybe another reason that this story hasn’t left me since I read it.
Freelance journalist and former LA Times national correspondent who teaches literary journalism at UC Irvine.
Our social media streams show how happy we are, how deeply we read, how thoughtful we are on the issues of the day. These idealized online selves, we all know, filter out our bad days, and all that we may not want the world to know. But this story by Meredith Talusan turns that idea of the real vs. ideal virtual self on its head, presenting a transgender woman who lives her truth on the Web, but not at home. It is a fascinating deep dive into her life. The writer handles the main character’s privacy carefully and respectfully, capturing Eve’s journey as she moves closer to coming out offline.
Longform editor and writer at Texas Monthly.
I don’t know that this piece was overlooked, exactly. It’s more like, I would have overlooked it, if not for its author. I love Anne Helen Petersen’s sharp, funny, seriously penetrating and seriously unpretentious prose. Her profile of Enya is no exception. Petersen’s portrait honors our international nostalgia for Enya.
Deputy editor at Jezebel, and her work has also appeared in Pitchfork, FADER, Grantland and the New York Times.
Like Dave Philipps’s New York Times story on the Marine unit that’s been battling suicide as if it were a virus, Wil S. Hylton’s NYMag story on American deserters brought the particulars of military service in the post-9/11 era to chilling, immediate and surreal life. A paragraph in this story mentions a man named Rodney Watson who watched American soldiers assault Iraqi civilians in Mosul, then afterwards deserted; he claimed sanctuary in a church that he has been unable to leave, even for a moment, for five years. More than 20,000 American soldiers deserted from 2003 to 2006 alone, Hylton writes, and the act still carries a possible death penalty. In patient and compelling detail, “American Deserter” follows soldiers who fled to Canada, and now fight deportation and imprisonment for the crime of removing themselves from a war that a majority of the people they were ostensibly protecting now agree, from the comfort of our phone polls, was a mistake.
Don Van Natta Jr.
Senior Writer at ESPN.
“No one ever told me the truth about dying,” writes Matthew Teague. “Not once. When it happened to my beloved, I lost my footing in more than one way.”
Teague’s beloved is Nicole, his 34-year-old wife and mother of their two daughters who is dying of cancer. After her diagnosis, Teague’s friend, Dane, moves in for a couple weeks to help out and just be there. Dane ends up staying for more than a year. Even after Nicole dies, Dane stays—for a while, anyway.
It may seem silly that I’ve chosen this essay as my favorite under-recognized piece of 2015—after all, it’s been shared on social media 48,000 times. That’s a pretty good number, but it’s still not enough. I hope you haven’t read it yet. Few pieces have touched me as deeply as this story about friendship, the kind that’s so true that it can pull a man through hellfire.
Editor-in-chief at Next City.
The Threat to Detroit’s Rebound Isn’t Crime or the Economy, It’s the Mortgage Industry (Anna Clark, Next City)
“One of the most sinister legacies of urban development—redlining—is making a de facto reappearance in Detroit,” writes Motor City journalist Anna Clark in this Next City feature. Clark details how mortgage industry practices are handicapping Detroiters’ ability to buy homes in the city even as hundreds of thousands of structures sit vacant and in need of purchasers. This story had never been told before and in the way it week published, it was shared by thousands of Detroiters and covered by several local news outlets. Its impacts will surely be felt as mortgage lenders and local officials feel pressure to reform a system that has silently held back the city for too long.
News director at Fusion, and the executive producer of Real Future, a new TV documentary series about technology and the future. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Young Money and The Unlikely Disciple, and was previously a business and technology writer for New York magazine and the New York Times.
The one I felt was under-recognized was this Wired cover story on Crispr. I expected (and, to some extent, am still puzzled by the lack of) an extended national discussion about Crispr and gene-editing technology more generally, because it is the *craziest fucking thing*, and the work being done with it now will have implications bigger than 99% of technologies out there. Wired did a nice job of drawing the threads of the Crispr discussion together, and the only reason that I can think of that it hasn’t blossomed into a huge national issue is that most people still mistakenly think gene editing is sci-fi? But it’s not! It’s happening now! It’s going to happen a lot more! We should probably talk about it!
Articles Editor at Boston magazine.
How An American Tourist Lost His Passport In Istanbul And Was Sucked Into Syria’s War (Mike Giglio, Buzzfeed)
Here’s a look at the Syrian refugee crisis that sheds light on the current dilemmas and was under-recognized when it came out in May.
Senior Writer at ESPN the Magazine and espn.com.
A lot of people missed this story, and it’s easy to see why. It’s about a quirky sport that no one’s ever heard of, centered around a protagonist with an unfamiliar name. To be honest, I wasn’t interested in reading this story until I started reading it. Then I couldn’t stop. Chris Koentges pulled off a series of difficult feats here: He tells the story of the game, explains how it works, imbues it with a sense of wonder, and then uses that mythology to build a compelling, heartbreaking narrative around a singular character—Steve Gosskie, the son of Detroit who became its featherbowling champion. Koentges created a small, specific, beautifully rendered world, and when I finished the story, I didn’t want to leave it behind.
It’s a fallacy to think that because of the Internet we all have access to every story ever written and every story worth reading gets passed around like the flu until we’re all coughing in unison. It doesn’t always happen that way, particularly in the United States for stories from Canada, my other country (at least my other country when, as a dual citizen, I’m down here in my other country, the U.S.)
I couldn’t shake this story, and I think that is because Shannon Proudfoot knew well enough to get out of the way of this story about 38-year-old Jo Aubin, who is dying of Alzheimer’s. I talk a lot to writers about “transparent” writing, knowing when not to let style intrude, and how that takes as much craft and artistry as writing with backflips. If anything, the decisions can even be more difficult, because the story must be teased out organically, entirely through the reporting and details. I love it when I encounter a story that shows how true this is, when truth of the reporting does not need any embellishment. A measure of this is that although I could remember the story, and the impact it had on me, when asked to selected a story for this category, at first I could not recall where I read it or who wrote it. I only remembered the story, about someone who cannot remember, and the subject, who I cannot now forget. There is something to be said for that.
Freelance writer based near San Francisco.
Some stories you feel on a visceral level, even though it’s rooted in a specific scenario or environment that may be completely foreign. Such is the effect of Yager’s compelling exploration of women who give birth while incarcerated and the rationale for creating more on-site nurseries so that being in prison doesn’t preclude being a mother. Yager neatly sums up the inherent tension (“Should institutions that limit so many basic rights allow inmates to be active parents?”) and then shows readers the real-life ramifications contingent on that question’s answer, in addition to providing a remarkable and eye-opening history of women in American jails. With a deft narrative touch and more than a little empathy, Yager illuminates a very real, national problem that often goes unseen.
Writer who lives in New York with her dog, Benji.
I read this piece, or part of it, late on a Sunday night in Kennedy Airport. I was standing in line for a taxi to go home, a line that seemed almost humorously long, agitated-human noises blaring into the harsh flourescence. An unpleasant situation. Yet as I stood reading this remarkable piece, surrounded by bags, all of that disappeared. Life was a pinpoint: this essay. Johnson’s meditation on solitude is lyrical and precise, a slow and thoughtful accretion. Johnson had lived alone for more than two decades by the time of writing, but his focus is not singles or hermits but “solitaries.” “The call to solitude is universal. It requires no cloister walls and no administrative bureaucracy, only the commitment to sit down and still ourselves to our particular aloneness,” he writes.
To define a solitary as someone who is not married — to define solitude as the absence of coupling — is like defining silence as the absence of noise. Solitude and silence are positive gestures. This is why Buddhists say that we can learn what we need to know by sitting on a cushion. This is why I say that you can learn what you need to know from the silent, solitary discipline of writing, the discipline of art. This is why I say that solitaries possess the key to saving us from ourselves.
Johnson assigns the solitary a great responsibility: a fierce introspection and moral engagement. This is by no means a passive pursuit. It requires a deliberate slowing-down — an effect of reading the piece, too. When I finished, I could only blink repeatedly, registering the world again, now reminded that my internal world was just as great, and mine.
Senior writer with Sportsnet magazine.
The first mention I saw of Richard Kelly Kemick’s story “Playing God” was a tweet along the lines of, “Give yourself a good 15 minutes after reading this to just sit and stare into space for a little while.” And, holy man, does it live up to that billing. This piece starts in one place—something like a grandmother’s charmingly navel-gazing column in a small-town weekly newspaper, maybe?—and then takes a hard left turn into David Sedaris-esque territory of weird, dark wonderfulness. It’s a testament to the crackling writing that even while one corner of my brain kept screaming, “You need to get a real job and apologize to your wife!” I was utterly transfixed by this. It’s a totally original and deliciously twisted meditation on obsession.
Science writer at Pacific Standard.
I’m abashed that as a science journalist and former genetics teacher, I’ve never, never, never known that American Indians aren’t genetically more vulnerable to alcoholism. As Maia Szalavitz reports for the Verge, however, “there’s no evidence that Native Americans are more biologically susceptible to substance use disorders than any other group.” Instead, aboriginal people’s higher rates of addiction all around the world are better explained by early-life poverty and trauma. Luckily, there are ways societies can fix those risk factors—unlike people’s genes.
Every paragraph in this story uncovered new facts I wanted to share. I love that about great science journalism.
GQ correspondent and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.
This story is not in my beat, but it’s written by one of my favorite writers, Steve Friedman, who (disclosure) has been my mentor and friend. He sent me an early draft of this, and it was great then, but it emerged as a heart-wrenching story of addiction and love and people who find each other and therefore themselves, written with sensitivity and a quiet respect, and I don’t know why more people didn’t find it. This is fully absorbing, the kind of story you come out of as if you just walked out of a dark movie theater into a bright light, and those are the stories that make it all worth it.
Elizabeth Weil and I are close and typically read each other’s first drafts, and this was just great from the beginning: “Shrimp Boy’s Day in Court” is the very colorful life story of a gangster facing the legal system that Liz captures with a pitch-perfect tone—spare, certainly not too heavy—that allows his story to come through and stay with you long after you’re done reading it.
Culture writer at BuzzFeed News.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s essay is about mayonnaise. But it’s also about immigrant parents, and relationships, and how people can surprise us even when we’ve known them all our lives — and told in a tricky-to-pull-off tone that is at once poignant and sardonic, bordering on the absurd. In one scene, Moshfegh cuts her boyfriend’s toenails, and draws blood. The symbolism is hard to miss, and yet, he’s sitting there in a fluffy pink bathrobe from Victoria’s Secret when her parents walk in, and I couldn’t help but laugh.
Writer at Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of the New York Times bestseller Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.
Freelance science writer based in New Orleans.
Charles Bowden wrote an army of innovative and fiery longform stories. Last year he died, but shortly before his death Scott Carrier visited him. Another titan of the literary frontier. This short sweet essay shows the two firebrands meeting around the hearth. It is about the death of a master, and it is about what writing is all about. It is beautiful. You can see Carrier struggling with the form, the message he needs to convey is too powerful for words alone, which is why I suggest anyone interested in long-form writing also watch the 8 minute video clip of Scott Carrier interviewing Bowden.
Senior writer for BuzzFeed News covering technology and culture.
Adrienne LaFrance’s recent feature in The Atlantic tells the story of a pivotal moment in technological history — where enigmatic “titans of Silicon Valley” are investing billions of dollars in a race to build something unprecedented that could (truly!) change the way we live. While engineers on the “frontier of knowledge” experiment in secret, the corporate struggle to dominate this nascent market is already playing out in public. LaFrance was writing about the race between Google, Tesla, Apple, and Uber to build the best driverless car, but she could just as easily have been writing about Elon Musk competing for data and talent in artificial intelligence or billionaires (hello again, Elon!) squabbling over sending unmanned rockets into space.
LaFrance makes an esoteric subject accessible and exciting. At this early stage, when companies are more guarded than usual, questioning motives and differentiating between pomp and possibility is crucial, especially as tech corporations come to control more infrastructure and aspects of our lives.
Co-editor of The Awl.
Because those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it??? The best possible story about the worst possible thing.
Longreads Editor’s Pick: Emily Perper
It is one thing for a man to confront his trolls. For instance: comedian Chris Gethard invited his teenage Twitter antagonist to appear on The Chris Gethard Show on Fusion. It was charming and hilarious. Soon after, Gethard recounted the experience for NPR, saying “This kid’s bored, but he’s actually pretty funny.”
It is another thing, completely, for a woman to take on her online harassers. Women receive far more vitriol online—including rape and death threats, doxing, and stalking—than men. Writer and feminist Lindy West never shies away from speaking her truth or sharing her opinions. And people—especially men—hate that.
I listened to Episode #545 of This American Life, “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS”—the first and only episode I’ve ever listened to—while I was at my temp job, archiving papers. West’s segment, Act I, moved me. She interviews one of her most vicious trolls via phone. This man created a new Twitter profile, impersonating West’s deceased father, in order to harass her. I gasped and teared up over the paper clips and the staples. It seemed unbelievably cruel. I couldn’t believe someone would take the time to hurt a person they’d never met in such a cruelly specific way. And I couldn’t believe West was willing to talk to someone who’d done this to her.
Longreads Editor’s Pick: Aaron Gilbreath
It’s surprising how you can groan about ugly decor your whole life, yet never ask any questions about its origins. Fortunately, in The Awl, writer Colette Shade asked questions about that ugly 18th century European textile pattern called toile. Depicting, in Shade’s words, “images of happy poor people,” as well as French colonialism and exoticism, toile shows peasants farming, peasants lunching, peasants feeding ducks and doing other rural labor that, removed from the actual poverty and labor, look quaintly pastoral inside a wealthy person’s home. The French bourgeoisie decorated with toile wallpaper, curtains and upholstery, just as a certain breed of affluent American decorates with it now. Shade tells where the patterns came from and how they functioned “as a reminder that everything is okay, showing wealthy people how idyllic poor people’s lives can be,” during a time when the French were largely subsistence farmers suffering bad harvests and over-taxation, and preparing to revolt. Toile’s is a story of social and economic inequality, of how the privileged use interior design to warp reality and assuage any bad feelings about the status quo. Read in our era of increasing class divisions and political divisiveness, it’s the story of how, in many ways, little has changed.
Longreads Editor’s Pick: Sari Botton
I was so moved by this essay by Grace Talusan, a writer on a Fulbright fellowship that has brought her back to her native Manila. It was originally posted on The Butter, The Toast’s sister site, which was discontinued shortly after this piece appeared. Talusan writes about sublimating her loneliness and frustrations—with the staggering poverty she encounters, with her powerlessness to help poor children living in horrendous conditions, with her infertility–in obsessively making yogurt, from scratch. It’s wrenching, reflective personal narrative with a thread of sensuous food writing artfully wound right through it.
Longreads Editor’s Pick: Matt Giles
During his senior year at Saint Joseph’s University in Phialdelphia, Pearson was robbed at gunpoint and then kidnapped for hours. Now, a decade after his assailants were convicted, Pearson revisits the crime, recounting what happened that night, how he dealt with the lingering trauma and stress in the ensuing years, and how, this past spring, he visited two of the three men who assaulted him. It’s a gripping first-person feature, and Pearson does a good job straddling the line between emotion and objectivity.
Longreads Editor’s Pick: Brendan O’Connor
During the Spanish Civil War, a group of some three thousand Americans traveled to Spain to fight on the side of the democratically-elected government, against Franco. This is the story, in his own words, of 99-year-old Del Berg, the last-known surviving veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. “It bothers me a little that at 99 you’re going to die any minute, because I have a lot of other things I want to do.”
Longreads Editor’s Pick: Mark Armstrong
For several years I’ve known Win Bassett mostly as an avatar on Twitter, a distant connection that exists mainly because he occasionally tweets #longreads. What I’ve since discovered is that he is a former criminal prosecutor who discovered poetry and went to divinity school. Through his remarkable essay in Poetry magazine about working as a hospital chaplain, he takes us far away from Twitter—to the hospital beds of those who are dying. Some have hope, many have lost it. Some have no one to pray for them except those, like Bassett, whose job it is to make sure that never happens.
“I’ve found the lines about cursing God, ‘Shame on Him,’ to be true. My supervisor had told us—me and my fellow chaplain interns—that we might find it appropriate to tell a patient that it’s all right to be angry at God. … Some refuse pain-alleviating medication because they believe God wills them to suffer like Christ. ‘Sometimes, God sucks,’ I eventually tell one woman around midnight before she goes into surgery the next morning for a cancer.”
Bassett’s reflections are lessons in empathy and spirituality, what poetry tells us about the unfairness of illness, about words that matter to the dying and the grieving, the trouble we face in making sense of why god, if she exists, would allow so much awfulness into our world, and the generosity that is on display—every hour, every day—in hospitals around the world.
Longreads Editor’s Pick: Mike Dang
The Hidden Story of Harley Quinn and How She Became the Superhero World’s Most Successful Woman (Abraham Riesman, Vulture)
I’m not much of a comic book person, but I found myself engrossed in Abraham Riesman’s look at the history of the DC Entertainment character Harley Quinn, whose origins stem from a daytime soap actress and evolved to be one of the most fascinating female characters in comics. As one writer put it, “Wonder Woman sort of represents perfection, whereas Harley represents everybody else.” I’m not sure if this story was read much aside from those already interested in the superhero genre, so I’ve selected it here.
Longreads Editor’s Pick: Julia Wick
Listen, I’m a twenty-something yellow dog Democrat—about as un-pro Ted Cruz as they come—but I honestly can’t comprehend why more people weren’t obsessed with this story. The piece, which recounts Cruz’s year as a clerk for then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist, opens with Cruz standing behind Sandra Day O’Connor while they look at hard-core porn on a giant computer screen. It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s full of great details (Rehnquist wore “big wide ties with floral patterns and Hush Puppies,” Souter had an ascetic yogurt lunch routine, Breyer had a habit of talking loudly about pending cases in crowded restaurants, et al). Was this ghostwritten or is Ted Cruz secretly kind of cool?