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In this edition, we recommend:

  • A journalist’s essay about her childhood—and finding a voice through words.
  • A story about a drug overdose prevention hotline operator who saves lives.
  • A look into whether we can harness AI to communicate with whales.
  • A portrait of Louisiana and singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams.
  • A glimpse into sumo wrestling, a sport that’s becoming more popular in America.

1. I Never Called Her Momma

Jenisha Watts | The Atlantic | September 13, 2023 | 11,129 words

Journalist Jenisha Watts was raised in Kentucky, in part by her mom Trina Renee Watts, and in part by her granny. At one time, Trina was a promising track star. She loved words and was accepted to Western Kentucky University. But when she became pregnant with Jenisha, she dropped out. Soon, Trina was addicted to drugs, with five children from five different fathers, often leaving the kids alone when she left to get high. How did everything go wrong, seemingly so suddenly? Jenisha, a senior editor at The Atlantic, unravels a tangled family history skein by skein, discovering that Trina was sexually abused by her stepfather, Big Dishman, childhood trauma that became generational when Trina spiraled into addiction. Jenisha goes to Florida to live with relatives; her siblings went into the child welfare system. They never gained a stable living situation, causing damage that spurred their own addictions. This is a very tough read. It is a master class in craft, a bold testament to courage in the face of repeated humiliation. The final line of this piece is the most triumphant and inspiring sentence I have read this year. I won’t spoil it for you. It speaks to a truth: that we come into this world with part of our story written for us unless we can stand up, take the pen, and start to write the story for ourselves. —KS

2. The Woman on the Line

Aymann Ismail and Mary Harris | Slate | September 10, 2023 | 3,418 words

“Alive is better than clean.” This belief guides the operators who talk to drug users who dial the Never Use Alone (NUA) hotline, a service they can call while they use alone. If they become unresponsive during the call, the operator then sends help. This moving story by Aymann Ismail—a companion piece to Mary Harris’ This American Life episode—follows Jessica Blanchard, one such operator in Southwest Georgia, who takes these calls from her cellphone. Blanchard, a former nurse and NUA’s education director, is also a mother to an addict; she has a “mama spirit,” a sixth sense, and knows within a few minutes of talking to someone whether she’ll need to call EMS. Critics ask: Does this approach to overdose prevention enable drug use? Isn’t supplying your own daughter with a clean needle a step in the wrong direction? Blanchard is nonjudgmental, caring, and quite literally an angel, giving each person on the other end of the line another chance. As Ismail shows, the work of NUA makes a strong case for harm reduction, and how treating others with dignity is not only compassionate, but life-saving. —CLR

3. Can We Talk to Whales?

Elizabeth Kolbert | The New Yorker | September 4, 2023 | 8,276 words

David Gruber is the kind of man who contemplates such questions as “What would a fluorescent shark look like to another fluorescent shark?” He’s the kind of man I want to read about. One of the founders of the Cetacean Translation Initiative—Project CETI for short—Gruber is currently trying to decode sperm whale click patterns. In a nutshell: he wants to talk to whales. (I presume he has questions for them, too.) Animals having language can be a fraught topic in the scientific community, but Gruber has gathered an impressive group that includes big names from the artificial intelligence field. The theory is that with enough data machine learning, algorithms could be taught to understand whale clicks. However, getting the data requires sticking a recording device on a suction cup to the back of a whale—no mean feat, particularly with a reporter watching. Despite the odd wayward recording device merrily bopping about the Caribbean Sea, the team is persevering. I am glad. A lot is at stake with the development of AI models, but a better understanding of nature would be in the plus column. This piece gives you a lot to think about but rewards you with some incredible scenes I will let you read to discover. —CW

4. Lucinda Williams and the Idea of Louisiana

Wyatt Williams | The Bitter Southerner | September 4, 2023 | 6,303 words

When I opened the email from The Bitter Southerner on September 5, I saw that they were sharing a new piece about Lucinda Williams. They had my attention. Then I noticed the author: Wyatt Williams (no relation). I sat up straight. I remembered Williams from “Eating the Whale” at Harper’s Magazine, a piece I savored, start to finish. That feeling when you know something is going to be good, so very good? I had it. I ingested this piece over a few days because I didn’t want it to be over. Williams’ mother and the singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams were born a few months apart in Louisiana in 1953, though this is no mere profile of Lucinda or a survey of the author’s personal history. Williams traces her voice through his life from childhood car rides to porch evenings spent listening to her songs with his mother, songs that evoke the “idea of Louisiana,” a waterlogged place slowly being washed away, populated by people trying to get by despite poverty, abuse, and alcoholism. What captivated me about this piece is that Williams by no means comes to terms with his mixed feelings about his home state, even after a deep study of Lucinda’s work, saying, “But if you asked for an explanation why I love this place, the only answer would be just the same as why I hate it.” What you end up with is a profound portrait of a place and a family, where if you look hard enough, beauty still resides if you choose to see it. —KS

5. “I Shall Not Be Moved”: Inside a New York City Sumo Wrestling Club

Jackson Wald | GQ | September 13, 2023 | 2,725 words

When you first meet James Grammer, the central character of this underdog sports tale, you’d be forgiven for thinking something along the lines of this again? The seeming disconnect of a white sumo wrestler, or any athlete in a sport that tradition (or racism) has deemed “not theirs,” has fueled many a glib fish-out-of-water piece. Thankfully, Jackson Wald’s story fully ignores that trope, and Grammer becomes one of the most interesting people I met this week. While sumo has grown in the U.S. over the past few years, it’s still a curiosity; when Grammer and his fellow enthusiasts began practicing in a Brooklyn park, they had to deal with onlookers asking to join or even betting on their matches. Grammer wants to be a champion, but the charm of his story lies less in his quest for greatness than in his human complexity. Before a match, most sumos think about their opponents’ weakness. Not Grammer. “As a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism,” Wald writes, “he believes in a series of deities, including ones that are fierce and wrathful, and that as he’s staring his opponent directly in the eyes, he imagines he and his opponent as two forearm hairs on one of the evil deities, blowing against each other in the wind.” Yes, you’ll find the hallmarks of a good niche sports piece—a giant boa constrictor, a guy who seems to want to be a samurai, Wald sparring with the 340-found Grammer to predictable results—but it’s Grammer himself you’ll remember, and particularly the man he is outside the dohyo. —PR

Audience Award

The story our audience loved this week:

The Decomposition of Rotten Tomatoes

Lane Brown | Vulture | September 6, 2023 | 3,179 words

Critics are everywhere; great critics, not so much. But all of them have seen their influence wane over the past 15 years, as the Mitchells and Dargises of the world have been subsumed by Rotten Tomatoes and its nuance-flattening Tomatometer score. Why? It’s gameable. (Also, as filmmaker Paul Schrader points out, “audiences are dumber.” No argument there.) Lane Brown digs into the rottenness, aided by one of the grossest lede images you’ll ever see at the top of a magazine feature. —PR