This week, we’re sharing stories by Ijeoma Oluo, Michael Hall, Erika Hayasaki, Jerry Saltz, and Caren Chesler.
In the 2000 film Unbreakable, we’re introduced to two characters at opposite ends of a spectrum: an extremely frail man with a brittle bone disease played by Samuel L. Jackson, and a man with superhuman levels of strength and invulnerability played by Bruce Willis.
“However unreal it may seem, we are connected, you and I,” Jackson’s character tells Willis’. “We’re on the same curve, just on opposite ends.”
In a recent issue of Wired reporter Erika Hayasaki introduced us to another set of people on the opposite ends of a spectrum.
Steven Pete has a rare neurological condition that makes him unable to feel pain.
Pete pauses for a moment and recalls a white Washington day a few years ago. “We had thick snow, and we went inner-tubing down a hill. Well, I did a scorpion, where you take a running start and jump on the tube. You’re supposed to land on your stomach, but I hit it at the wrong angle. I face-planted on the hill, and my back legs just went straight up over my head.” Pete got up and returned to tubing, and for the next eight months he went on as usual, until he started noticing the movement in his left arm and shoulder felt off. His back felt funny too. He ended up getting an MRI. “The doctor looked at my MRI results, and he was like, ‘Have you been in a car accident? About six months ago? Were you skydiving?’ ”
“I haven’t done either,” Pete replied.
The doctor stared at his patient in disbelief. “You’ve got three fractured vertebrae.” Pete had broken his back.
Pam Costa has the opposite neurological condition — she feels pain constantly, as if her body is on fire.
Because the inflammation is exacerbated by physical contact, stress, and even the smallest elevation in surrounding temperature, Costa lives her life with great care. She wears loose-fitting clothes because fabric feels like a blowtorch against her skin. She sleeps with chilled pillows because the slightest heat makes her limbs feel like they are crackling. “Have you ever been out in the bitter, bitter cold, where your feet were ice?” she asks me. “Almost frostbite? Then you warm them up and it burns? That burning sensation: That is what it feels like all the time.”
Pete and Costa are also connected, sharing a genetic link that has helped scientists understand why we experience pain and how to treat it.
We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in under-recognized stories.
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Michael J. Mooney
Dallas-based freelance writer, co-director of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.
You Are Not Going to Die Out Here: A Woman’s Terrifying Night in the Chesapeake (John Woodrow Cox, The Washington Post)
I saw this story posted and shared a few times when it first ran, but in the middle of an insane election cycle, it didn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. This is the tale of Lauren Connor, a woman who fell off a boat and disappeared amid the crashing waves of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s about the search to find her, by both authorities and her boyfriend, and about a woman whose life had prepared her perfectly for the kinds of challenges that would overwhelm most of us. This is a deadline narrative, but it’s crafted so well—weaving in background and character development at just the right moments, giving readers so many reasons to care—that you couldn’t stop reading if you wanted to.
A science reporter from Oakland, California, who teaches at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of We Have the Technology, a book about biohacking.
A clear-eyed, thought-provoking retelling of Michelle-Lael Norsworthy’s long legal battle in hope of becoming the first American to receive sex-reassignment surgery while in prison. Her lawyers argued that the surgery was medically necessary and withholding it violated the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But, they argued, rather than grant the surgery and set a legal precedent, the Department of Corrections instead ordered her parole. The piece is a nuanced take on what it’s like to transition in prison—at least 400 California inmates were taking hormone replacement therapy when the article was published in May—where trans women are vulnerable to sexual assault and survivors are placed in a kind of solitary confinement, stuck in limbo in a prison system where it’s unsafe for them to live with men, but they are generally not allowed to live with women. And it asks a bigger question: What kind of medical care must the state cover?
Investigative Reporter, New America Future of War Fellow.
At first, it may seem like a simple essay about cultural appropriation, but this opus on the nameplate necklace is so much more than that. It is a beautiful ode to black and brown fashion. It is a moving history of how unique names became a form of political resistance to white supremacy. And it is the biting reality check Carrie Bradshaw so desperately needed. Read more…
We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in investigative reporting.
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Senior Editor at The California Sunday Magazine.
Hands down the best reporting I read all year is Shane Bauer’s “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.” Bauer applied for a job at the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana; though, let’s be real, as you’ll learn from the piece, applications are hardly necessary. Winn, which is run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the company that basically invented private prisons in the eighties, pretty much begged him to come onboard. After all, the pay is $9 an hour, the shifts are twelve hours long, and only some one-third of hires stick around. Bauer’s piece gets readers up to speed on the history of private prisons and their ubiquity today and takes readers deep into the particulars of the understaffed hellhole that is Winn–a place in which the guards, having so little support, are left to negotiate their own rules with prisoners. Bauer’s portrait of the prison community–and it is a community–is rich, illuminating without being condescending, in part because Bauer is, to some extent, a participant. Here’s a taste of an exchange between Bauer’s 19-year-old coworker, a kid all too keen to demonstrate his power named Collinsworth, and a prisoner he won’t deign to talk to:
“The best thing you could do is get to know people in the place.”
“I understand it’s your home,” Collinsworth says. “But I’m at work right now.”
“It’s your home for 12 hours a day! You trippin’. You ’bout to do half my time with me. You straight with that?”
“It’s probably true.”
“It ain’t no ‘probably true.’ If you go’ be at this bitch, you go’ do 12 hours a day.” He tells Collinsworth not to bother writing up inmates for infractions: “They ain’t payin’ you enough for that.” Seeming torn between whether to impress me or the inmate, Collinsworth says he will only write up serious offenses, like hiding drugs.
First of all–mini spoiler alert–you can make a diamond out of someone’s ashes! That’s just one of the odd little twists in Alice Gregory’s nail-biter about the most unlikely of nail-biter subjects–an architect’s archive. The architect in question is the very on-trend (and truly talented) Luis Barragán, who designed geometric buildings with vivid colors throughout Mexico. And the problem is that a Swiss manufacturing family owns his archive. The woman in that family for whom the archive was bought is determined to carefully catalog his work herself and protect his legacy and so she has refused to grant anyone access to his archive for the last two decades. This story is about a contemporary artist’s clever plot to persuade her otherwise. Gregory’s excellent structuring lends suspense and urgency to questions about how to best maintain a virtuoso’s legacy. Who should be allowed access to his archives and who should determine who should be allowed access? Read more…
Seven years ago this month I started Longreads. To say the word “longread” has taken hold beyond my wildest expectations would be an understatement. It was a Twitter hashtag experiment — which I started because I wanted story recommendations for my subway commute — that turned into a company, a meme, an original publisher, and, of course, an endless cycle of writers debating whether longform storytelling is good or bad for the internet. (Well, thank god for that.) Read more…
Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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The best in crime reporting, with picks from Susan Dominus, Steve Kandell, Erika Hayasaki, Chris Vogel, and Brendan O’Connor.
We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in specific categories. Here, the best in crime reporting.
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Articles Editor at Boston magazine.
This is easily one of my favorite stories of the year, regardless of genre. Sure it has buried treasure, 70 pounds of cocaine, and a questionable undercover sting in the Caribbean, but it’s also a tale about the power of story and good story telling. I’m pretty sure I emailed Riley’s opener to more people this year than any other, which starts like the seductive thrum of a GTO:
Good Goddamn, the way Julian told that story. It was the sort of story that imbued the mind with possibility. That lingered like campfire smoke in a sweater.
But it wasn’t just the particulars of the story—Julian burying the million-dollar stash of coral-white cocaine he’d found washed up on the beach in Culebra—that captured Rodney Hyden’s imagination. It was the sounds of the story—the slithering South Carolina accent, the whistly snicker at parts that weren’t funny to anyone but Julian. And the picture of the storyteller, too. The silver hair down around Julian’s shoulders, the big Gandalf beard distracting from his slight frame, the bare feet, and always that Mason jar of wine that kept bottoming out and filling right back up again.
I mean, c’mon. Read more…