This story was funded by our members. Join Longreads and help us to support more writers.
Catching nonagenarian Nazis, trying to live forever, the overpowering need to return home, forgiving your dad, and finding humor in getting scammed, repeatedly.
Tom Lamont | GQ | September 12, 2023 | 6,622 words
Thomas Will is the bureau chief of—wait for it—the Central Office of the State Justice Administration for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes. He is a Nazi hunter. The last to hold the role in the same capacity; it will end here, in the 2020s, with the final generation of perpetrators already in their 90s. Tom Lamont has spent a great deal of time with Will for this piece, much of it in offices. Yet, somehow, in setting scenes of bureaucracy, Lamont creates a searing, chilling atmosphere. At one point, Will uses a packet of sugar and an empty espresso cup on a conference table for a demonstration. The cup represented mass murder, and the sugar the limits of criminal culpability. The sugar is now at the outer limits. They are investigating secretaries, not camp commandants. People who would have sat in similar offices at similar tables, typing up death orders. The Holocaust was so efficient because every day, civilians turned up at an office and did their jobs. Incredibly uncomfortable to think about. Incredibly necessary. At one point, Lamont asks Will: “What if Hitler’s army had conscripted him and sent him to work in a camp? Would he have gone?” His answer: “I don’t know.” Some people question sending nonagenarian office workers to trial—but it is noticed, it is discussed, and therefore worthwhile. There is such powerful writing here, with many subtle messages. I could not stop thinking about it. —CW
Charlotte Alter | Time | September 20, 2023 | 4,575 words
The idea of rich people trying to live forever is nothing new. But Charlotte Alter’s profile of entrepreneur Bryan Johnson offers food for thought in a time of fast-evolving AI. Johnson is developing a life-extension system, optimized by an algorithm, in an attempt to reduce his biological age. “The goal is to get his 46-year-old organs to look and act like 18-year-old organs,” writes Alter, by following a peculiar lifestyle routine and strict diet, including dark green sludge and a special chocolate that “tastes like a foot.” Johnson seems to view himself as some kind of elevated biohacker in an unprecedented age of humanity—“I have a relationship with the 25th century more than I have a relationship with the 21st century,” he tells Alter—but critics are skeptical of his age-reversal experiments that aren’t backed by science. (Quite frankly, he looks pale and lifeless, like an android straight out of Alien, thirsty for hydraulic fluid. That said, maybe he’s on to something?) Alter visits his home, which resembles an “Apple store in a jungle,” to see what an algorithmically controlled (and ultimately austere and cold) life looks like. Come for the hilarious lines and bizarre scenes, stay for (and ponder) the profound questions: “Aren’t humans more than just brains and meat?” asks Alter. What makes us human? —CLR
Dženana Vucic | Sydney Review of Books | August 14, 2023 | 3,876 words
“Bosnia is a long way away, and it’s an expensive journey,” writes Dženana Vucic in this haunting braided essay from The Sydney Review of Books about escaping from and returning to a place that was once home. There is so much meaning packed into Vucic’s spare, yet beautiful prose. The distance implicit in “a long way away” is far more than just physical; the “expensive journey” exacts a cost far more profound than a monetary sum. In relating the habits of migratory birds, Vucic notes that caged birds prevented from migration feel anxiety, marked by “changes in their sleep behaviour, frantic jumping and wing-fluttering in the direction of migration,” she writes. “When I haven’t been home for a while, I feel the absence welling in the pit of my stomach, a hollow with the gravitation pull of a black hole. Time passes and a mass rises into my chest, my throat, becomes a thing with texture, edges.” In returning, she describes the physical scars of conflict in post-war Bosnia. “The land wears this loss in ruins and abandoned homes with gaping windows, in exposed brick and plastic UN sheeting which, thirty years later, still replaces glass in our poorest neighbours’ homes. Trees erupt from broken walls; blackberry and nettle swarm the hollow bellies of houses across the street.” What’s less plain to see and well worth examining is how Vucic reveals the personal, human toll of a war that forced her to migrate away and yet compels her, time and again, to return. —KS
4. Off Camera
John Paul Scotto | The Sun Magazine | October 3, 2023 | 2,110 words
We’ve all done it: we’ve concealed our true selves to conform to another’s idea of acceptable behavior. John Paul Scotto did it at school, after being told to shut up for sharing baseball facts and figures with enthusiasm. He did it at home too, shouted into silence by his father. Scotto does a brilliant job reminding us of the power that parents have over us, one that persists into adulthood whether we like it or not; how a sharp word or a dismissive comment can diminish us, reducing us to that frightened child determined to avoid notice—and their parents—as much as possible. “I’d learned how to keep him calm: Don’t complain. Don’t speak to him when he’s focused on a task. Be where he wants you to be at the precise time he wants you there. Do what he tells you to do immediately,” he writes. The beautiful thing about Scotto’s essay is an epiphany worth examining more deeply. His father’s anger and need to maintain order—even at the expense of his son’s spirit—was not because they are so different as humans, but because they are so much the same. —KS
Devin Friedman | Insider | October 1, 2023 | 6,021 words
Devin Friedman and his wife wanted a pool. So they hired a contractor. And when their contractor emailed them to ask them to wire the money to a couple of odd-sounding usernames, they did. Then they did it again. And again. And then they learned that those emails weren’t from their contractor at all. Rather than simply marinate in the shame and self-pity of getting royally scammed, Friedman tried to get his money back. When that failed, he wrote a piece about why he couldn’t get his money back. Sounds like a bummer, right? Not so fast. I mean, it is for them, but it also turned into what might be the funniest feature I’ve read all year. Sure, there’s a little Joel Stein here. (“Like so many things I use to conduct the most critical tasks in my everyday life with a carefree obliviousness, I didn’t really know what Zelle was.”) But Friedman’s self-deprecation is perfectly tuned, and even when the reporting gets heavier, he threads humor through at just the right angle, a necessary weft to the piece’s warp. (“Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the financial industry regulator banks most love to hate, has been petitioning Zelle to find out exactly how much fraud there is. And the data she’s collected suggests there’s probably, technically speaking, a whole fucking lot.”) As he says himself, “[o]ut of all the kinds of money, money to build a pool is probably the very best kind of money for the world to suffer the loss of.” There’s no poor-me going on here. You, however, will be poorer for it if you skip this one. —PR
Do you hear timpani? Here’s the piece our audience loved most this week:
Katherine Laidlaw | Toronto Life | September 20, 2023 | 6,174 words
A cop with expensive taste and money troubles. A wealthy woman who loved and supported him. An old man with dementia with a large estate and no next of kin. And a secret girlfriend and a fake will. Mix these elements together and what do you get? Katherine Laidlaw’s latest story for Toronto Life about a romance and financial scam gone wrong. —CLR