Author Archives

Native New Yorker, Cartoonist at The New Yorker since 2003, writer and storyteller. Education in Liberal Studies/Fashion Design (USA) Letters and Linguistics, Medieval Anthropology (France). No driver’s license, by choice. Currently living, nevertheless, in Kingston, NY.

A Woman’s Work: Becoming a Home of One’s Own

All illustrations by Carolita Johnson

Carolita Johnson | Longreads | December 2019 | 24 minutes (6,000 words)

This essay began very differently a few months ago. I had started writing it at the same time as the previous one in this series, “Till death do us part,” and, just as I observed while writing the fifth one, the very act of writing it resulted in a real-time evolution of my understanding, processing, assessment, and reassessment of what I was writing about, to the point that by the end of the essay, it was obvious I was not the same person who had begun writing it. Just as I’ve changed from the beginning of an essay to the end of it, every few months I look back on my life and think, yet again, how much more like myself I feel. Three years, three months or three pages — it can be a long, slow recovery, or it can happen in shorter but exponentially more intense increments. Recent widows and widowers will either be glad to know, or be dismayed to know that, well, from what I gather, and with luck, it never really ends.


Immediately after my husband Michael died I found myself alone in the house we had been renting from his daughter for the last year and a half. It had been full of his relatives for a week, from the moment he came home to die. Now, it was empty. Empty except for our stuff, and not just our stuff from our life together: preparing for a future that would now never happen, for the six months of treatment and recovery we had expected to live through after his surgery, I’d stocked up on six months’ worth of toilet paper, paper towels, laundry soap, dish soap — soap and cleaners of every kind — dry goods, anything that was heavy and not available within a mile’s walk for me, since I don’t drive. Now, I felt like a stowaway on an abandoned frigate, floating along aimlessly.

I still had our dog, Hammy, with me, a 14-year-old poodle named after the noir fiction writer, Dashiel Hammett, of the “Thin Man” movies, whose dialogue Michael and I often quoted to each other. Hammy, too, was close to approaching the home stretch of his life, but for now he was there to stand guard while I cried on every floor of the house, with a preference for the one in the kitchen. Have you ever noticed that the kitchen floor is somehow the most suited for letting your knees give out before crumpling to the floor in wretched tears? I recommend it. I suppose it’s because the kitchen is where so much of coupled life happens. That’s where you will have eaten together, had coffee in the morning together, sipped hot lemon water and honey to ward off colds together, cooked for each other. If you’re going to mourn your lost partner, it might as well be in the place where the spirit of your partnership seems to occupy every cupboard, shelf, and drawer.

A friend immediately insisted on “sitting shiva” with me, which, as a modern adaptation (though I’m not religious and am unfamiliar with this Jewish tradition), took the form of bringing me my favorite coffee beverage, a cortado, from my favorite cafe so I wouldn’t have to go outside with my leaky-faucet eyes. This is exactly how the crying began to feel: tears that puzzlingly continued even when I thought I was done crying. I mused that it was as if a pipe were broken inside me and I might need to call some kind of metaphysical plumber soon.
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A Woman’s Work: Till Death Do Us Part

All illustrations by Carolita Johnson

Carolita Johnson | Longreads | October 2019 | 26 minutes (6,450 words)


Death is a process I knew very little about until my life partner began dying. He and I had to learn everything while we went through the process together. I say “learn,” but at this point I’m not sure we learned anything. Sometimes I think Michael was the only one who learned anything real and true, as in Pete Townshend’s words in “The Seeker”:

I won’t get to get what I’m after, till the day I die.

He died three years ago, and this is the first time I’m writing about it in retrospect. I took notes during it all — the before, the during, the after — and I’m glad I did because I sometimes barely recognize the hand of the person who wrote them, much less remember much of what I wrote about. If there’s anything I’ve come to understand while reading these notes, it’s that dying isn’t just about the one person doing the dying. It’s an undertaking woven by and around many people, and this has a certain beauty.

In a couple, though, along with the unfathomable strengths it can prove, it also has the potential to expose deep, carefully camouflaged structural flaws in a relationship. It imposes financial considerations and logistical burdens, sometimes revealing unsuspected shabbiness; or worse, deliberate malice. For good or for bad, what a death unfurls in its wake will always surprise you.

The deaths that I’ve known so far all began with aging and illness. So, I won’t presume to understand death by any other cause, not by war, not by accident or any form of deliberate (first, second, or third party) intent. The deaths I’ve seen involve watching the body of someone I love get tired, begin to fall apart, stop working right, and finally begin to degrade, as they watch in helpless terror, into food for pathogens.

First my husband, then a couple years later, my dad.

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A Woman’s Work: The Inside Story

All artwork by Carolita Johnson.

Carolita Johnson | Longreads | April 2019 | 23 minutes (5,178 words)

The subject of my pre-doctoral studies was medieval nuns and their relationship to their menstrual cycles. Long story short: my theory was that this relationship was determined by the very real divide between the early Christians who favored either the Old Testament or the New Testament on the inherent “sinfulness” or absence thereof of the human body. The traditional, Old Testament attitude that menstruation made women “unclean” somehow prevailed. Fancy that. Call me crazy, but I had to believe that the way the Church, the Patriarchy, and all of society saw women’s bodily functions had an effect on women’s relationships with their bodies.

Stories of menstruating women ruining mirrors they looked into, or causing soufflés to fall, causing farm animals to miscarry, mayonnaise to “not take,” etc., and menstrual blood used as an ingredient in cures for leprosy or magic potions, were common. But even if they were all but forgotten by modern times, they merge easily into my being taught, in the 1980s, to call my period “The Curse.”

I’d noticed, in many hagiographies, that one of the first signs a woman might be a saint, besides experiencing ecstatic “visions,” was that she’d barely, if at all, need to eat or drink anymore, and her various bodily secretions would cease. I wondered if nuns might be using herbs, self-starvation, and/or physical exertion to put an end to their secretions, amongst which, their periods.

Compare this to how, in modern times, many women, including myself, would use The Pill without the classic 7-day pause in dosage to skip an inconveniently timed period. This pause was designed to give women on the Pill a “period” that was more symbolic than functional, almost more of a superstition, and totally unnecessary, medically speaking. Recent years have even seen the introduction of contraceptive pills actually designed to limit a woman to 0-4 periods a year — hormonally inducing amenorrhea, or absence of menstruation. There are times when women want to avoid having their periods, for example, during vacations, sports events (with the notable exception of Kiran Ganhi), honeymoons; in other words, times when we want to be at our best and free of physical impairments or, let’s be frank: free from the anxiety of being discovered menstruating. Some of us opt to be free from that anxiety year-round now. I think medieval nuns would have loved to have that option.

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A Woman’s Work: The Outside Story

All artwork by Carolita Johnson

Carolita Johnson | Longreads | January 2019 | 23 minutes (5,775 words)

When I freelanced as a “fit model” in the early aughts (the unglamorous kind of modeling that helps patternmakers adjust their patterns to fit humans correctly) I signed a contract with my agency that legally bound me to “maintain” my “appearance” while they represented me. My skin, all my visible hair (on my head, my eyebrows, my legs, armpits, and face), as well as my weight and several key body measurements all fell under this rubric.

There is nothing unreasonable about this: the main part of the job, besides the obvious — trying clothing on for patternmakers to see if there’s anything in an item that needs correcting, to avoid producing thousands of flawed garments — is to make sure your body is always the same so that a designer can produce clothing that is a consistent fit. The unspoken truth is that even though it’s technically only about measurements, it wouldn’t do to show up without a minimum of good hair and makeup, looking as attractive as you possibly can with whatever looks you pulled in the Lotto of good looks. This goes for all size categories, from junior to plus size.

Accordingly, my accountant and I came up with a deductible category we called “maintenance” — well, I came up with it and she translated it into the IRS-accepted language — and under this category I placed gym membership expenses, haircuts (and eventual hair color as I aged, because my gray hairs upset some designers even if their clothes still fit me perfectly), mani-pedis, and occasional waxing for lingerie and swimwear jobs. I might even have been able to get Botox deducted if I’d kept doing the job long enough. I left it to my accountant to decide what I could legally include.

For context, just because most people are curious about the job description, the ideal fit model has a body that isn’t extraordinary in any way. I was a size 6/junior medium, a size for which there’s a relatively small market, so I didn’t work 9 to 5 like a size 10 or a size 18W would have. This was what made the job perfect for a cartoonist/writer like me.

It was extremely enjoyable to be able to deduct these expenses for that relatively brief period of my life as a woman. It never escaped my ironic notice that with few exceptions, most women feel contractually bound to maintain their appearance in all the same ways I had to as a pro, while paying for it all on a sliding scale from “religiously” to “happily” to “begrudgingly,” usually depending on the amount of social and financial power they are born into or acquire through hard work or marriage.

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A Woman Becomes a Nightingale

All artwork by Carolita Johnson

Carolita Johnson | Longreads | October 2018 | 8 minutes (1,969 words)

On October 5th, 2018, the Nobel peace prize went to activists Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege, for their work to end rape and sexual violence as weapons of war.

Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege

On October 6th, Brett Kavanaugh was named to the Supreme Court, in spite of multiple allegations of sexual assault against him and his shameful response to them, goaded on by a man who promotes the violation of women’s bodies as one of the wages of financial and political power, and ridicules women who speak out against and report sexual assault; I’m talking about the 45th president of the United States.

The bodies of women have historically been used to unite men in drunken fun of the type that remains, as Christine Blasey-Ford memorably said, “indelible in the hippocampus” at traditional frat parties that purportedly upstanding citizens like Brett Kavanaugh attended and organized and which continue to take place. These same men are often united in their outrage over the questioning of their right to be excused for such “youthful indiscretions” or collegiate, “boys will be boys” fun.

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A Woman’s Work: The Art of the Day Job

Carolita Johnson | Longreads | August 2018 | 19 minutes (4,656 words)

At first I was worried about saying my first day job was as a model in Paris, because I don’t want to infuriate people out there who have certain very hard-to-shake preconceptions (involving envy and scorn, simultaneously) about models and modeling. But you know what? Screw it. My first day job was as a model in Paris.

This is how it happened.

I was a fashion design student at Parson’s School of Design back in 1984. A reluctant one. I had wanted to go to SUNY Stonybrook to be an English Major, another thing that infuriates certain demographics, particularly the one my parents belong to: firmly middle class, non-college-educated first-generation Americans. They, with visions gleaned from TV sitcoms and 1950s movies of “mad men of advertising” in their heads, decided they’d rather see themselves dead — “over my dead body” said my father, only the second time in his life, the first being when I asked for bagpipe lessons — and made me go to art school instead. Who ever heard of that? But yes:

Dad: "I'm not paying to turn you into some kind of pathetic... English Major. Me, thinking: "There's got to be a way to judo-flip this crap to my advantage." Mom: You have talent! Why hide it under a bush?" Me: "So, I can draw. So what! And it's a bushel. Also way to abuse bible verses in the name of capitalism!"

I fought them to at least let me go to Parson’s, because of the BFA in Liberal Studies that was attached to the art degree on offer, unlike F.I.T. at the time, which only offered certificates but was cheaper and therefore more attractive to my dad. I posited that neither of my brothers wanted to attend college, and it wasn’t like I was asking to go to medical school, so they were getting off easy. Also, after raiding my dad’s dresser and finding his bank book, which explained why I’d been turned down for every kind of financial aid I’d applied for, I shamelessly blackmailed him with the terrifying specter of my mother’s rage if she were to find out he was limiting my access to a better, more high class diploma, which he could perfectly afford. Education was everything in our house, right up there next to financial security and a constant sense of unspecified shame.
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A Woman’s Work: Home Economics* (*I Took Woodworking Instead)

Carolita Johnson | Longreads | June 2018 | 10 minutes (2,600 words)

By the time I was 44 I’d never lived with a boyfriend, a fact that I, a woman living under a patriarchy and not getting any younger, sometimes thought should be bothering me more, but which didn’t.

I even had fond memories of a day when I was 41 and freshly dumped, on which I woke up alone in bed, stretched out, and had a remarkable, quite unexpected realization…

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