Get the Longreads Top 5 Email

Kickstart your weekend by getting the week’s best reads, hand-picked and introduced by Longreads editors, delivered to your inbox every Friday morning.

An investigation into a heinous (and lurid) crime. A look at the spirited world of competitive cheer. A visit to the world’s creepiest motel. An empathic eye on assisted dying. And the true planetary cost of your beloved cat. Our favorites of the week, pulled from all of our editors’ picks.

1. What Happened to Heather Mayer?

Andy Mannix | The Star Tribune | June 2, 2023 | 10,330 words

This investigative feature comes with a warning at the top to “read at your own discretion,” and I feel obliged to say the same thing here. What follows is a deeply upsetting story about the suspicious death of a woman who was part of the BDSM community in the Minneapolis area. Heather Mayer was found naked, hanging by a chain that had been locked around her neck; she was covered in bruises and scars, with the words “Daddy Knows Best” carved into her arm. Police ruled her death a suicide, but that never sat right with the death investigator on the case or with Mayer’s mother, who was immediately suspicious that her daughter had been killed by Ehsan Karam, a “dominant” with whom she was in a relationship. Reporter Andy Mannix does a brilliant, sensitive job interrogating the lines between sex and violence, pleasure and pain, consent and coercion. There’s no judgment here, except of the dangerous assumptions many people (including members of law enforcement) make about BDSM practitioners—and of men like Karam, who crossed lines willfully and often, at the physical and emotional expense of their partners. —SD

2. Hitting Zero

Jana G. Pruden | The Globe and Mail | June 7, 2023, | 3,231 words

Jana G. Pruden’s Globe and Mail piece is a masterclass in longform journalism. Pruden goes behind the glitter of the Canadian Cheer National Championships in Niagara Falls, Ontario, to introduce us to the hardcore, competitive subculture called cheer. Pruden’s laser focus on original detail puts you in a front-row seat at this raucous, high-energy competition, and before you know it, you’re rooting for these tough-as-nails, besequined athletes as they run their routines before the keen-eyed judges. “Then, as a flyer spun a pirouette atop her teammates’ uplifted hands, a momentary loss of balance,” she writes. “It was the final moment of the final stunt, the last seconds of the routine.” Reading this, don’t be surprised if your spirit lifts like a cheer flyer in motion. —KS

3. In the American West, a Clown Motel and a Cemetery Tell a Story of Kitsch and Carnage

Andrew Chamings | New Lines Magazine | May 19, 2023 | 2,786 words

A clown motel—built to honor the clown collection of a man who died in a mine fire in 1911—would not be top of my must-see list. While Andrew Chamings seems equally bemused, he bravely makes it through a lobby filled with clown memorabilia to stay in a room themed around clown Elvis (Clownvis). Tonopah, the small American town where the clowns reside, has a devasting past. In the early 1900s, a mysterious illness known as the Death Harvest decimated its population, and the motel sits across from the cemetery where many of its victims lie. The graves draw more tourists than the clowns. As Chamings explains, “America … strangely and uniquely fetishizes its brutal past.” The American West has long held a particular fascination: The more gruesome the tale, the more the appeal. Chamings, a Brit, ponders on the cultural difference to England, where “every inch of soil has been warred over, killed for, harvested, bought and sold a hundred times, from the Druids to the Romans to the Gauls to the modern day[;]” concluding that this vastness is why the British lack the same interest in historical tragedies. I concur. When I lived in London, I no doubt had picnics over Black Plague pits—they lie under several green spaces, unmarked. As long as you have a decent sandwich, what does it matter the skeletons that lie beneath? As Chamings eloquently puts it, the “carnage of America’s manifest destiny is fresher, a bloodstain still drying in the sand.” Some fascinating reporting. —CW

4. ‘A Good Death’

Jason Warick | CBC News | June 4, 2023 | 4,312 words

In Canada, while the government has been criticized for proposed expansions to the Medical Assistance in Death (MAiD) program that could include people with mental illness and disabilities, the program’s intent was originally to allow Canadians with terminal illness the right to die with dignity on their own terms. Saskatoon artist Jeanette Lodoen, 87, wanted Canadians “to understand the realities of medically-assisted dying.” She and her family granted CBC News reporter Jason Warick and videographer Don Somers unrestricted access in the weeks before, during, and after her death, allowing them to share an intimate portrait of a vibrant woman who—in relinquishing her life—reminds us how to live. “I thought, thank you. Thank you,” says Lodoen. “I’ve had enough. I’ve had a long life. I’m 87 years old. I’ve had a wonderful family who support me and I love dearly forever. It was such a release to know that I didn’t have to suffer anymore, and that it was OK to go.” —KS

5. Cat-astrophe

Carrie Arnold | Noēma | June 6, 2023 | 3,186 words

Let me preface this by saying I am both a cat person and a dog person. That said, cats are assholes. That’s okay! It’s part of their charm. They’re loving, yes, but they’re also haughty and destructive and give approximately half a damn about your feelings or possessions. Carrie Arnold allows as much when she sets out her own felinophilic bonafides in her Noēma piece. Yet, even she, a woman who calls cats “the only phenomenon on Earth that could lure me out of bed before sunrise,” was surprised to learn of the havoc they wreak on the natural world. In the U.S. alone, as many as 80 million unowned cats (and another 20ish million pet cats with outdoor privileges) present a legitimate existential threat to birds, plants, and other wildlife. The story, for all its essayistic tendencies, focuses on the rift between conservationists and cat defenders—and also on the hypocrisy lurking in the way we think about outdoor cats. We shun the peaceful “free dogs” of India, yet we don’t give a second thought to the cat with a bird in its mouth (nor do we realize that for every mouth-bird we see, many others have been ravaged out of sight). Then again, as Arnold points out, “the problem with cats has nothing to do with cats at all. The issue is a fundamentally human problem.” We’re so busy marking our own territory, it seems, we don’t think about the responsibility of pet stewardship. Bob Barker was right all along. —PR

Audience Award

What piece did our readers love most this week? The envelope, please!

A Catatonic Woman Awakened After 20 Years. Her Story May Change Psychiatry.

Richard Sima | The Washington Post | June 1, 2023 | 4,122 words

Could autoimmune diseases be at the root of some mental illnesses? Sander Markx, director of precision psychiatry at Columbia University, thinks so. “By all accounts, she was thriving, in overall good health and showing no signs of mental distress beyond the normal teenage growing pains,” they said of April Burrell. This was before she suffered a traumatic experience, became incoherent, and was hospitalized. Twenty years after she became catatonic, Markx discovered that April’s bloodwork showed antibodies were attacking her brain. Miraculously, after several courses of steroids and immunosuppressive drugs, April improved to the point where in 2020, she was deemed mentally competent enough to check herself out of treatment, but not before a joyful reunion with her family. —KS