Below is a guest reading list from Daniel A. Gross, a journalist and public radio producer who lives in Boston.
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As a teenager growing up in Southern California, I remember looking up one day and seeing a fine white powder falling from the sky. It was the middle of summer, and for a moment I wondered, absurdly, if it was snowing. The flakes crumbled between my fingers and left streaks like flour on my clothes. They were ash.
Every summer, swaths of California burn. Grass, brush, trees and even houses go up in smoke. In the worst years, they drift back to earth in the form of a thin gray coating on windshields and awnings. On local TV, between late-night car chases and tanned weather reporters who know every synonym for sunny, I remember images of hillsides that glowed orange and black.
It’s fire season again. So far, nearly 30 major wildfires have torn through 12 states. As this year’s blazes seem to reach their yearly peak, here are four stories about risk and resilience in the face of fire. They’re a glimpse into the lives of those who fight fires, those who flee them, and those who rebuild, literally, from the ashes. Read more…
Below is a guest reading list from Daniel A. Gross, a journalist and public radio producer who lives in Boston.
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Comic books bridge continents. Superman spin-offs are a hit in China; Japanese manga trickled into American culture through Frank Miller’s Ronin and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Adventures of Tintin was translated from French into more than 50 languages. Alongside the superhero franchises and funny pages, a thriving genre of nonfiction comics has created new audiences and new appreciation for everything from war reporting to memoir. Here are five modern classics whose intricate illustrations have shaped the form.
The Fixer is a war story set in peacetime. In 2001, Joe Sacco traveled to Sarajevo, hoping to find the interpreter who’d helped him during the Yugoslav Wars. By this time, correspondents had cleared out and soldiers had become civilians. Memories of atrocity were starting to slip beneath the surface—but Sacco’s book excavates them. During one flashback, Sacco portrays his wartime arrival to Sarajevo, and it’s styled like film noir: hulking architecture, empty streets, long shadows. In a surreal scene at the Holiday Inn, the concierge points to the hotel on a city map. “This is the front line,” she says. “Don’t ever walk here.” Then, in the lobby, Sacco meets his fixer. Read more…
New reading list by Daniel A. Gross: “Sports in the 1960s proved a rich arena for writers looking to flex their literary muscle, and Talese and Wolfe tried out unconventional sports writing while still kicking off their careers.”
Below is a guest reading list from Daniel A. Gross, a journalist and public radio producer who lives in Boston.
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Fifty years ago, a champion boxer picked up his son from school, a literary critic was tackled by NFL players, and a famed NASCAR racer tended to his chicken farm. Such was the sidelong view of sports presented by Gay Talese, George Plimpton, and Tom Wolfe. Sports in the 1960s proved a rich arena for writers looking to flex their literary muscle, and Talese and Wolfe tried out unconventional sports writing while still kicking off their careers. You won’t find much reference here to the sweeping political developments that tend to dominate our narratives of 1964. Instead, you’ll get some sense for the texture of the time. Read more…
In a recent piece for The Big Roundtable, Daniel A. Gross profiled Alasdair Ekpenyong, a gay Mormon struggling to make sense of his sexuality within the context of his faith. Alasdair sought answers in many venues, including alternative communities and Mormon history. From the story:
That winter, Alasdair began to write a series of academic essays about the Mormon city. This was the topic that his former bishop studied, the topic that Alasdair had been researching at the commune back in April. He still worked for that bishop sometimes, combing through old Mormon documents that might illuminate the spiritual dream of a utopian city. The bishop had supported him for a long time. He had been there at the end of Alasdair’s mission, after that first sexual experience with Rick, and during Alasdair’s transition to earning a living without his mother’s support.
In those months and months of research, Alasdair felt he had found some deep kernel of truth. He had read the prophet Joseph Smith’s writings on architecture and urban planning, writings that had deeply influenced the layout of both Provo and Salt Lake City. Smith had mapped out the city of faith he imagined. It was a careful grid, split up for farms and factories, for houses of worship and houses of men—each of the many pieces that comprise a House of the Lord. “Let every man live in the city,” wrote Smith, “for this is the city of Zion.”
One of Alasdair’s essays took Smith’s command literally. In the city Alasdair described, perhaps a man did not need to date a woman to remain in the church. He proposed a city designed for inclusion, a city with fewer locks and more doorways.
A new technology reading list by Daniel A. Gross, featuring Wired, The Atlantic and Esquire.
Below is a guest reading list from Daniel A. Gross, journalist-in-residence at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. He also writes and produces radio about the lives of stuff and the stuff of life.
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Journalism has been called the first draft of history. Here are 5 technology stories that belong in the second draft. Like a lot of technology journalism, they’re each focused on an emerging future, which at times makes them a bit breathless with excitement. But unlike most technology journalism, these stories have only gotten better with age. They’re sprinkled with uncanny predictions and unexpected depth about the devices we’ve come to take for granted. Read more…
Jennifer Berney | Longreads | May 2019 | 16 minutes (4,486 words)
“He’s really cute,” my partner Kellie whispered to me, moments after our first son arrived. He had a head of black hair and a pug nose. His eyes were alarmingly bright. Kellie rested one hand on the top of his head as he lay across my chest. “So cute,” she said.
Her declaration meant something to me. Because the baby wasn’t of her body, because he was of my egg and my womb and a donor’s sperm, I’d been haunted by the worry that she’d struggle to claim him as hers — that he’d seem to her like a foreign entity, like someone else’s newborn, red-faced and squirming.
Hours later, in the middle of the night, a nurse came into our room, tapped Kellie on the shoulder, and asked her to bring our newborn to the lab for a routine test. Kellie cradled the baby as the nurse poked his heel with a needle and squeezed drops of his blood onto a test card. Our baby, who was still nameless, wailed and shook. In that moment, she tells me, she was overwhelmed by biology, by the physical need to protect a tiny life.
* * *
In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle proposed a theory of reproduction that would persist for thousands of years. It’s a theory that, while scientifically inaccurate, still informs our cultural thinking about parenthood.
According to Aristotle, the man, via intercourse, planted his seed in the woman’s womb. The woman’s menstrual blood nourished that seed and allowed it to grow. She provided the habitat, he supplied the content. The resulting child was the product of the father, nourished by the mother.
When it came to parenthood, the woman’s essential role was to nurture what the man had planted within her. To father was simply to provide the material — a momentary job. Fathering was ejaculating. But mothering was nurturing. This job was ongoing, never-ending. Her care began at the moment of conception and continued into adulthood and beyond.
* * *
When Kellie and I came home from the hospital with our newborn, our house felt strangely quiet and bare. In the days preceding delivery, Kellie had cleaned and organized as a way of getting ready for the baby, and our house was now unusually tidy. We sat on the couch with our sleeping baby and admired him. We smoothed his hair so that it crested at the center of his forehead, Napoleon style, then we smoothed it to the side. We said his name — West — over and over, trying to teach ourselves the word for this new being. Every so often he twitched. I had the sense that our world was about to transform, that the quiet of the first newborn days was temporary.
In the days that followed, I roamed the house in mismatched pajamas and snacked on casseroles that friends had brought over. I nursed the baby and rocked the baby and watched the baby while he slept. Meanwhile, Kellie, wearing her daily uniform of work pants and a worn-out T-shirt, built walls around our back porch to create a mudroom for our house. In the months leading up to our baby’s birth, we’d agreed that our dogs would need such a room, a place set away from a baby who would one day be crawling and drooling and grabbing, and so we called Jesse — a carpenter acquaintance whom we had once, long ago, asked to be our donor, and who had considered it for two months before turning us down. He wasn’t game to donate sperm, but he was game to bang out some walls. All day, I heard Kellie and Jesse’s hammering and muffled conversation.
In this way we entered parenthood. I was the full-time nurser and the guardian of sleep; Kellie was the builder, the house-maintainer. At night, the baby slept between us.
* * *
The idea that paternity is primarily a genetic contribution, that a father’s role is simply to provide the seed, is a very stubborn one. An absent father is still considered a father. When we use father as a verb, we usually mean the physical act of conception, while to mother more often describes the act of tending to. When a father takes on some of the active parenting, when he drives the kids to school or makes them breakfast, we often refer to these acts as “helping,” as if he were doing tasks assigned to someone else. “He’s a good father,” I’ve heard people say, bemoaning a wife’s lack of gratitude. “He helps.”
“Who’s the dad?” is a question friends of friends ask at parties when they learn that my children have two mothers. It’s a question that distant relatives ask, eager for the inside scoop.
The idea that my son doesn’t have a dad, that it is indeed possible to not have a father, is a hard thing for people to wrap their minds around. They may understand the process of donor insemination, but still, they think, because conception requires sperm, every child must have a father. Even for me, it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. When I say that my child has no father, I feel like I’m not telling the whole truth.
“Why doesn’t West have a father?” a wide-eyed boy asked me one day as he sat at a classroom table with West and three other first graders. I was helping them make illustrated pages, and somehow the topic of our family had come up. West looked at me anxiously.
“He has two moms,” I told the boy.
“But why?” he insisted.
Of the kids I knew in West’s class, one was being raised by grandparents and several more had stepparents or were being raised by a single mom. But I could see that our situation was the most confounding.
“That’s just the way our family works,” I said before rattling the crayon box and offering it around the table. The curious boy did not look satisfied, and West remained steady and silent.
* * *
* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
By the time our donor, Daniel*, met our baby, he and his wife Rebecca had a baby of their own and had resettled on the other side of the state. We met them at a pizza place on a weekday afternoon. It was spring in the Pacific Northwest and the sun glared on fresh puddles. They had come to town to visit family and meet with longtime friends who wanted to meet their new child. At the time, our relationships with one another were still undefined, and we counted more as friends than family.
I remember that meeting in fragments, like bits of color held up to the light: Trays of half-eaten pizza. Plastic cups filled with ice water. Rebecca holding her newborn, Wren, against her, a burp cloth draped over her shoulder. Wren’s bare baby feet and the creases in his chubby ankles. My own baby, old enough to crane his head, looking around with wide eyes and a two-tooth smile. All of us in constant motion — standing to rock the baby, sitting to feed the baby, slipping into the bathroom to change the baby’s wet diaper. We passed our babies from one parent to the other, then across the table. We lifted the babies, assessing their heft, then tried to meet their eyes so that we could bombard them with smiles.
I remember it this way: We were neither distant nor close, neither awkward nor easy. We’d all been remade by parenthood, and it was like we were meeting for the first time.
I had wondered before our meeting if West, at 6 months old, would connect to Daniel especially, if there really was some magic carried in their shared DNA, if our son would recognize him, cling to him, fall asleep against his chest. But he didn’t. West greeted Daniel with joyful curiosity, the same way he greeted any stranger, and then returned to my arms to nurse.
* * *
Several months later, Kellie and I drove six hours across the state — baby tucked in his infant car seat in the back — to meet Daniel and Rebecca again, in their new home.
The fog of new parenthood had lifted, and this time, the ease between us was instant. Rebecca and I each claimed a spot at her kitchen table, sat with coffee, and watched as our children chewed on toys and pulled themselves across the wood floors. Conversation between us was continuous. We found a rhythm of interrupting one thought with another, then picking up where we left off, all the while tending to our babies as needed — rising to lift and nurse them, to change a diaper on the floor, to pull a board book from a mouth. Time with Rebecca was a respite from the solitude and repetition of early motherhood, a dose of medicine I needed.
So I found something deeply healing in having an extended family that was at once chosen, but also truly family, tied by blood.
Kellie and Daniel found their places just as easily. They spent their time rewiring Daniel’s carpentry studio, or salvaging beams from a nearby teardown, or driving to the forest to cut up fallen trees for firewood. Each of them, I imagine, had experienced their own kind of solitude as they watched their partners devote themselves fully to another human, and they both, I imagine, felt relief in working side by side.
We became parallel, symbiotic. Two families on either side of the Cascade Mountains. Sometimes they traveled to us; other times we traveled to them. Our boys knew and remembered each other. They splashed each other in a steel trough in Daniel and Rebecca’s backyard, climbed trees that had grown sideways over the shore of Puget Sound, built forts together out of cardboard in our kitchen.
The beauty of our new extended family had little to do with anything we had asked for or planned. Two years earlier, a friend had suggested that Kellie and I ask Daniel to consider being our donor. We had met him only a handful of times, but we knew that we liked him. He was strong but soft-spoken, handsome but unassuming. We were nervous to ask him. We’d explored the prospect with several men already — with Jesse the carpenter, with a coworker, with other peripheral friends — but two ghosted, one said no, and another seemed to think that the resulting child would be his own. Daniel turned out to be different. When he and Rebecca showed up at our house to discuss the possibility, it seemed he was already clear. “What kind of involvement would you want?” he asked us. We had agreed only to stay in some kind of touch over the years, to not become strangers to one another.
And yet we wound up with something I’d never had and never would’ve thought to plan for. I grew up with cousins, but none my age. They were five years older, or 12 years older, or three years younger, or 20 years younger. They were also scattered far and wide across the country. My brother was seven years younger than me, and my half-siblings were so much older that they were almost like aunts and an uncle. So I found something deeply healing in having an extended family that was at once chosen, but also truly family, tied by blood.
Or was it even blood that tied us? In theory, we wanted to know Daniel forever because questions might arise about the DNA he’d shared with us. We might someday need to ask him about some rare disease or mental illness, to probe beyond the brief set of questions we’d asked over dinner that first night we talked. And then there was the way we’d been trained to see blood as a legitimizing factor, trained to understand that blood equals family. Like many queer families, Kellie and I, while challenging this notion, unconsciously embraced it. Daniel was blood-tied to our children and therefore he was kin.
But, even more than blood, it was fate that tied us. It was like that film cliché where one stranger saves another’s life and they are therefore bound to each other forever. Rebecca and Daniel had agreed to help us build a family, and their choice had a moral weight. Gratitude would forever bind me to them. The love that I felt for West contained a love for them. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
So it made sense to me when, four years after we’d first shared a meal and talked about becoming family, three years after our sons were born, Rebecca called us to ask if we’d considered having another baby. We had.
“Do you guys want to get pregnant again?” Rebecca asked me that day on the phone. “Because, you know, we are.”
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We went to visit them two weeks later and stayed in a motel two miles away. On our first morning, Kellie woke up before me and left in search of coffee. She came back with two paper cups filled with coffee, and also a small mason jar that held a quarter inch of semen. Later she showed me the text that Rebecca had sent: “Good morning! Donation is ready. Cum on over.”
Rebecca delivered a second son, Ryan, in November. I delivered a second son, Cedar, in January.
* * *
I am a gestational and biological parent. Kellie is an adoptive parent. We come to our roles differently.
That I gestated and breastfed my sons carries immediate, clear meaning for me. When they were babies, my smell, my voice, my touch meant sustenance. Kellie held them and bathed them and changed them, but she did not offer milk. In the middle of the night, it was my body they reached for. My role as gestational parent had immediate consequence: for the first three years, my children’s need for me was more urgent, more connected to their survival.
The other difference, the difference of biology, is far less clear. What does it mean to my family that Kellie shares no DNA with our children? Does it mean next to nothing? Or does it mean more than I want to admit?
In the 10 years that Kellie and I have raised children together, I’ve avoided asking her how she feels about being the adoptive parent. I’ve avoided it because I was afraid — afraid that she would confide that our children never fully felt like her own. I’ve been worried she might say that they felt more like small people she lived with and cared about, but that if our own relationship ended she wouldn’t know exactly where they fit.
In my own community of lesbians, there’s a legacy of loosely defined second parents. I know a number of women who conceived in the ’80s (back when artificial insemination was just beginning to be available to lesbians) and planned to be single parents. But then, during pregnancy or early in the child’s life, a partner entered the picture, stayed for a year or two, then left. The partner had no legal claim to the child, but in many cases continued to parent from a distance. I’ve spoken to some of their children — grown now — who have trouble defining their role with a single term. “She’s certainly my other parent,” one of them told me over beers, then went on to explain that the word Mom doesn’t feel right when her gestational mom “did every load of laundry, packed every lunch, and cooked every meal.”
“We had no blueprint,” she told me. “She was kind of like a weekend dad.”
Though Kellie is much more than a weekend dad, I’ve long worried about the ways in which her role as other-mother remain ambiguous and undefined.
“I feel like they’re mine” is the first thing Kellie told me when I finally summoned the nerve to ask her. But sometimes she worries that if I died, the world would not recognize her as a parent, and that our own kids might reject her. She feels secure in her own attachment, but the role the world assigns her is a tenuous one.
What does it mean to my family that Kellie shares no DNA with our children? Does it mean next to nothing? Or does it mean more than I want to admit?
In her book Recreating Motherhood, Barbara Katz Rothman writes that the value our society places on genetic relationships is inherently patriarchal, tied to our initial false belief — based in Aristotle’s “flowerpot theory” — that men were the sole genetic contributors. Because the child was of the man, he belonged to the man. Once we recognized that mothers contribute half of the genetic material, we began to see mother and father as having equal claim to their child. Rothman asserts that this is still an inherently patriarchal position, one in which blood ties indicate a kind of ownership, and one in which the work of nurturance is not accounted for.
In our own contemporary culture, we may sometimes act as though we value nurture over nature. These days I see the truism “love is love” everywhere I turn — on signs, in social media, spoken aloud by celebrities and friends. The statement suggests that love alone is the element that legitimizes a couple or a family. Still, we track our ancestry and meet new genetic relatives — strangers whom we’ve been told are family — through services like 23andMe, and we marvel at the overlapping traits and mannerisms of close relatives raised apart from one another.
We’ve learned to be careful, when speaking of adoptees, to use terms like “birth mother” instead of “real mother,” acknowledging that genes and gestation are not the only thing that make a parent real. And yet, when someone does say “real mother,” we know exactly what they mean.
“Kellie’s not your real mom,” a neighborhood kid once told Cedar, who stood there agape because he had not yet thought to wonder too hard about his origins. At the time, he already understood that his family was different. When other people asked about his father, he had learned to explain, “I have two moms.” But as far as I could tell, this was the first moment someone had invited him to wonder about the actual legitimacy of his family — its realness.
* * *
Rebecca and I are tied by blood tangentially, but not directly. Our children are blood-related. She and I are not. Still, she feels more like family than many of my actual blood relations. Rebecca’s sister and nieces feel like family too, though they are not tied to my family by heredity. We live in the same community, so when Rebecca and Daniel come to town we have large family get-togethers: picnics at parks and birthday celebrations at restaurants. Sometimes Rebecca’s mom joins us too. When we meet she always hugs me and says my first name sweetly. She knows about what ties us, and so she feels tied to me too.
Meanwhile, Daniel’s family of origin is a mystery to me, for reasons of geographical distance and family culture. I see pictures of his relatives on Facebook and have to remind myself that his kin are also my children’s blood kin. My children’s faces may grow to bear resemblance to the faces I see in these photos: the long jawline, the aquiline nose. Or, pieces of these relatives’ histories may give clues to my own children’s futures — special talents and obsessions, illnesses and struggles. Even when I remind myself of this, it feels distant, hard to reach.
Why do I look so hard to find my reflection in blood kin, as if seeing myself in my ancestors will somehow legitimize me?
Kin: Your mother who birthed and nursed you, your father who bore witness to your childhood. Your grandmother who let you sleep beside her in the bed when you came to visit. Your aunt who drove you to her home for long weekends, where you lay alongside her golden retriever and looked at the forest through her windows.
Kin: The grandfather you never met who was a ne’er-do-well, whose legacy is a stack of letters and a rainbow painted on a barn. The uncle who joked around with you in childhood, but became distant as you got older. Your second cousin who discovered you online and now sends you a Christmas card every year.
Kin: Your brother who you speak to only a few times a year, but who you carry in your heart. Your aunt by marriage (then lost through divorce) who delighted you with her easy brand of sarcasm.
Kin: The cousins you’ve only met once or twice in a lifetime. When you see photos of them, some of them look like people you might easily know. Others look like strangers, like someone you might pass in a grocery store and immediately forget.
* * *
Kellie told me once that she hesitates when telling our kids about her family’s history. It’s not quite clear to her: Is her history their history, or is it something else? Long before she spoke this aloud to me the same question hung in my mind. Does her history matter to our kids because it’s their mother’s history, or because it is, somehow, their own?
When I look at my own ancestral family photos, I seek clues to who I am, traces of a self that predate me. Are these connections real, I wonder, or are they lore? Why does ancestral connection hold a sense of magic? Why do I look so hard to find my reflection in blood kin, as if seeing myself in my ancestors will somehow legitimize me?
And yet it turns out that some of my ancestors are not related to me genetically any more than Kellie is genetically related to our sons. Over the course of generations, our genetic ties to individual ancestors dissolve. Geneticist Graham Coop writes that if you trace your genetic heritage, after seven generations “many of your ancestors make no major genetic contribution to you.” In other words, your cells carry no trace of their DNA. They are no longer your genetic relatives, and yet they are still, of course, your ancestors. “Genetics is not genealogy,” he writes.
What if, more than heredity, families are really a collection of stories, some of them spoken, some of them withheld? Kellie’s ancestors were pioneers. My boys spent the first years of their lives in a house that her grandfather and great-grandfather built together. Kellie spends most of her free time splitting wood, building fences and sheds, capturing bee swarms. Cedar can now spot a swarm from a great distance. West is learning to measure wood and use a chop saw. They may one day raise their own families on the same land they grew up on. They may add new walls, new buildings, new fixtures. They do not require Kellie’s genes to carry on her legacy.
* * *
Four years after West was born, he asked me where he came from. It was a bright summer day and his brother — a baby then — was on a walk with Kellie, strapped against her chest. We were staying at a ranch in Colorado and the land was expansive: trails that went over bare hills and into forests, rocks and brush under wide blue sky. That afternoon West and I were inside our dark cabin, with light streaming through the windows and making patches on the floor.
I asked if he wanted to know who his donor was. “Do you want to guess?” I asked him. I was curious to see if he already had a sense.
“JoAnn?” he said, referring to a close family friend.
“The person who helped us is a man,” I said.
“Oh right,” he said. He thought and guessed some more, until I finally told him.
“It’s Daniel,” I said. “Wren’s dad.”
I watched him closely to see how he’d respond, but I detected neither joy nor surprise nor disappointment.
“Did Daniel help make Cedar too?”
“Yes,” I said.
He smiled. It didn’t surprise me that this was the thing that mattered to him — that he and his brother had the same origin story, that he wasn’t alone in the world.
* * *
We tend to understand our DNA as a simple blueprint for who we are and what we might become. We see experience as the tool that can push a person toward or away from their full potential, yet we see the potential itself as innate and fixed.
But in truth DNA and experience interact with each other. The field of epigenetics tells us that genes are turned on and off by experience, that the food we consume, the air we breathe, and how we are nurtured help determine which genes are expressed and which ones are repressed. Our DNA coding isn’t static. For instance, drinking green tea may help regulate the genes that suppress tumors. A sudden loss may trigger depression. And the amount of nurturing and physical contact a child receives in the early years may help determine whether or not he’ll suffer from anxiety as an adult. Currently researchers are investigating to what degree trauma in one person’s experience can cause a change in DNA that is transmitted from one generation to the next. Experience might become a legacy carried in blood.
Frances Champagne, a psychologist and genetic researcher, writes that “tactile interaction,” physical contact between parent and child, “is so important for the developing brain.” Her research shows that “the quality of the early-life environment can change the activity of genes.”
When Kellie held our newborn sons against her chest, when she bounced them and rocked them until they slept, she was not simply soothing them in the moment. She was helping program their DNA, contributing to their genetic legacy. Parents, through the way they nurture, contribute to the child’s nature. There is no clear line between the two.
* * *
In her memoir on adoption, Nicole Chung discusses the concept of family lineage and writes that she has been “grafted” onto her adoptive parents’ family tree. The graft strikes me as an apt metaphor. The scion is not of the receiving tree, and yet it is nourished and sustained by the tree. In the process of grafting, the tree is changed. The scion is changed. Through a process called vascular connection, they become one body.
The rootstock does not automatically reject the scion. The human body does not automatically reject an embryo conceived with a donor egg and sperm. A baby is comforted by warm skin, a smell, a heartbeat. A body loves a body. The baby may care that the source is familiar, but not that the DNA matches his own.
When Kellie’s mother visits with us, she often compares our boys to other members of her family. “It’s funny how Cedar’s blonde just like Noah, and wild like him too,” she’ll say, or, “West’s eyes are that same shade of hazel your grandpa’s were.”
I used to think she was forgetting that our children are donor conceived, or maybe just being silly. Now I realize it’s the opposite. Kellie’s mother doesn’t forget. She knows. She’s claiming them: tying her family’s present, past, and future, like stringing lights around the branches of her family tree, affirming that we belong to one another.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Offing, Tin House, and Brevity. She is currently working on a memoir that examines the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry, and the ways that queer families have both engaged with and avoided it.
* * *
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
Alice Driver | Longreads | May 2019 | 7 minutes (1957 words)
She will tell the story of her child’s murder as many times as needed. She will tell it until her voice breaks, until her eyes no longer fill with tears, until her demands for justice are met. She could be the mother of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or Alyssa Alhdeff in Parkland, Florida, or Álvaro Manuel Conrado Dávila in Managua, Nicaragua. The history of mothers as activists in the Americas is firmly rooted in the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, a group of hundreds of mothers who marched weekly in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires to protest the murder and disappearance of their children under the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. These mothers, bound together by the private pain of witnessing a child’s murder or disappearance, turn their anguish and rage outward into public movements to demand justice, often at great risk to themselves.
I witnessed the birth of one such movement in Nicaragua in 2018 — the Mothers of April, a group of more than 400 mothers whose children have been murdered or disappeared by pro-government paramilitary forces. Álvaro, known affectionately as Álvarito, 15, was the first child murdered by pro-government paramilitary forces in Managua on April 30, 2018. I met his mother, Lizeth Dávila, 39, at the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH). To get there I had to pass through military checkpoints and by streets blocked off by walls of sandbags. Dávila sat at a desk with Álvaro’s framed school photo gripped in her hands, as she recounted how shortly after turning 15, he decided to use his birthday money to buy water for students protesting President Daniel Ortega’s social security reforms. Ortega, who was elected in 2006 with 38 percent of the vote, plans to stay in office until 2021 despite increasing protests over his government’s human rights violations. Dávila’s 5-year-old son, who played on the floor during the interview, sang out repeatedly his brother’s last words after being shot in the throat by a pro-government sniper: I can’t breathe. It hurts. Álvaro is one of more than 300 students, including 18 minors, who have been murdered by pro-Ortega paramilitary forces since last April. As Gonzalo Carrión, the legal director at CENIDH described the situation, “The people of Nicaragua are suffering from what we would call a despotic dictatorship that has expressed itself and become increasingly violent since April 18 — the dictatorship has taken out its hidden claws.” Of her murdered son, Dávila said, “I imagine that he never thought that the police would respond with bullets.” Given the accuracy of the shot, which clearly aimed to kill, Dávila believed a sniper had taken out her son. When police came to her house and tried to blame her son’s murder on other protesters, she told them that no mere civilian had the aim of a professional sniper.
When police came to her house and tried to blame her son’s murder on other protesters, she told them that no mere civilian had the aim of a professional sniper.
Álvaro was still alive after getting shot, but when protesters helped get him to the nearest hospital, the hospital denied him entry. By the time he was taken to another hospital, he had almost bled to death, and after four hours and 15 minutes in the operating room, he died. Dávila explained, “State hospitals had closed their doors — they were not allowed to treat protesters. They were only allowed to treat government people.” The hospital paperwork listing the reason for his death cited “natural causes.”
As Carrión saw it, young people were exercising their constitutional right to protest and they should be able to take to the streets without fear of being oppressed. However, the reality he described was that “hundreds of government forces have assaulted citizens, journalists. Many journalists have been robbed, have been assaulted, including one of our colleagues, a photographer.” When I asked him about the state of press freedom, he looked me in the eyes and said, “You have the freedom to say what you want at the risk of losing your life.” Adelaida Sánchez Mercado, who had worked at the CENIDH for 12 years as a media liaison described a situation in which “young men and young women have been killed, basically kids. The repression has no limits. It has been ruthless; it has been bloody.” In December, Nicaragua’s National Assembly canceled the legal registration for the CENIDH, thus ensuring less oversight of human rights violations.
The hospital paperwork listing the reason for his death cited ‘natural causes.’
Sánchez Mercado had witnessed the Mothers of April play a crucial role in demanding freedom and justice for murdered and detained youth. “The mothers are the ones who are showing up and demanding respect for life, respect for integrity and that the government free their children.” she said. “As women, we are defending our lives, those of our children, the lives of our partners.” Sánchez Mercado introduced me to Jaqueline del Socorro Valdivia Aguilar, the mother of one of hundreds (the exact number is unknown) who have been illegally detained for protesting. Her son Christopher Nahiroby, a 19-year-old student who studied English and wrote poetry, was detained for his role in protests on August 25, 2018. His mother explained, “Seven young people were arrested, including Nahiroby, on August 25. … What the government wants is to quiet those voices demanding liberty and democracy.” Valdivia Aguilar has not been allowed to visit her son in detention and she worried that he has been tortured.
When I asked him about the state of press freedom, he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You have the freedom to say what you want at the risk of losing your life.’
Eight days after the death of her son, two women arrived at Dávila’s house — their sons had also been murdered while protesting Ortega government policies. They asked her if she wanted to form part of a group of mothers in a similar situation, and they shared stories of their dead children. “If they lay a hand on our sons, they lay a hand on us,” said Dávila, describing how the mothers felt about the violence perpetrated by pro-Ortega forces. When Dávila protests, she carries a large photo of Álvaro, and mothers come up to her and say that his death moved them to take to the streets because they saw their own son in him. The protests in Nicaragua began on April 18 as youth took to the streets to protest social security reforms that they saw would hurt their parents and grandparents. When pro-government forces, who often dressed as civilians, started killing protesters in the following days, latent anger over the stranglehold of the Ortega government on things like a free press and freedom of speech made citizens, especially youth, fearless, and marches occurred almost daily. As Dávila described, “They are killing our young people, our sons, but we are the women who are organizing a movement.” The Ortega government accused the mothers of being paid by foreign agents to sow disorder and said that they had been manipulated, deceived. As Dávila and I sat side by side, a photo of Álvaro in front of us on the table, Dávila apologized to me that she couldn’t take me to visit her son’s grave. She was afraid we would be followed by people who “want to dig up the bodies” of youth like her son, youth who had been murdered while protesting Ortega.
In September 2018, when several of the members of the Mothers of April invited me to accompany them during a march in Managua to honor their children, they led the thousands of citizens gathered in the hopes that their bodies would protect students, who are the clear target of government violence. Marching with the joyous, angry, pulsating mass of humanity, I saw costumed women on stilts, a group of trans women dressed in sequins and dancing, mothers holding life-size photos of their murdered children, teens with bandanas tied around their mouths spray-painting stenciled slogans on the sidewalks, mothers marching hand in hand with daughters. “We aren’t animals. We aren’t cattle,” said Josefa Esterlina Meza, 55. “We are thinking people. We are human beings, and we have the right to have an opinion.” Meza and the other mothers were met by heavily armed police and military forces who blocked the protest route, shouting insults and beating those within their reach with batons. The women were prepared for such resistance and rerouted their supporters, only to be met at the end of the march again with police forces who fired two shots, causing marchers to dive for cover, the memory of recent murders fresh in their minds.
On May 30, Meza had taken her two sons to a march to support mothers whose children had been murdered. “It was the mother of all marches,” said Meza, “and there were almost a million people there.” She said she never imagined that at that march, pro-government forces would murder her son Jonathan Morazán Meza, 21. He was shot in the head and, though he did make it to the hospital, he died there. As Meza explained, those who perpetrated acts of violence against her son and other youth “are snipers. They shoot at the head, at lethal areas — the heart, the head, the chest, the liver.” On the day that Jonathan was murdered, eight other protesters were also killed, students who Meza described as being 15 to 18 years old and unarmed. After Jonathan was killed, she, like so many of the mothers, had to flee her home due to constant threats. As Meza described, in April 2018, “The paramilitaries started to commit crimes against poor kids: They disappeared them, they threw them in jail, they killed them. That was the birth of the Mothers of April.”
Meza, who I met at twilight in a home in Managua where she sometimes stays, showed me photos of Jonathan on her phone. Her stoic face bathed in the electronic light of the device, she spoke of his love of school and the danger of being a student in a country where independent thinking is not allowed and a free press hardly exists. She said, “It’s dangerous to be young. It’s a crime to be young because they chase you and try to make you out to be terrorists.” She described how at marches, paramilitaries would disguise themselves as civilians then incite riots, burn cars, or kill other protesters. Meza petitioned for government officials to investigate her son’s death, but she says her requests were ignored and she was put under surveillance. Of government officials, she said, “They’re not going to harass us, the mothers, because you can’t put a price on our kids and we prefer to die of hunger [than remain silent]. I’m not going to say that my son wasn’t murdered; he was murdered.” Since the government wouldn’t offer her justice, she told her story to what she described as “the few independent media outlets” in the country.
The paramilitaries started to commit crimes against poor kids: They disappeared them, they threw them in jail, they killed them. That was the birth of the Mothers of April.
After Jonathan’s death, Meza sent her remaining 18-year-old son to Costa Rica where he would join some of the 50,000 Nicaraguans who have fled the violence in the country. When I asked if she wanted to flee with her son to Costa Rica, she said she felt that it was her duty to stay and fight, to bear as much as she could in the quest for justice for Jonathan and other murdered youth. “I am here enduring what I must to ensure that my son didn’t die in vain,” she said.
Meza said that she feels happiest when she is at marches, that she and the other Mothers of April will keep the memory of their children alive by putting their bodies in the streets, by making the pain and glory of motherhood into a show of strength and persistence for which corrupt governments, agencies, and organizations are no match. Justice, more often than history books admit, is kept in balance by the public display of anguish and rage of mothers, whose resolve is both underestimated and unmatched.
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Alice Driver is a longform journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She covers borders and migration, and she is the author of More or Less Dead. You can find her work at National Geographic, California Sunday, Time, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN.