Author Archives

Erin Blakemore
Erin Blakemore is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist. Her work has appeared in publications like The Washington Post, TIME, mental_floss, Popular Science and JSTOR Daily. Learn more at erinblakemore.com.

Letting Go As a Way of Living: Writing About Radical Forgiveness

When Cliff and Wilma Derksen’s thirteen-year-old daughter didn’t come home one afternoon in 1984, they faced every parent’s worst nightmare—the eventual discovery that their child had been abducted, tortured, and left to freeze to death in the harsh Winnepeg winter. They could have chosen to dwell in the unendurable sorrow of that new reality, but the Derksens took another path, writes Jana G. Pruden for The Globe and Mail: They decided to forgive the man who tormented and killed their daughter.

Their 33-year-long journey may be almost unimaginable to anyone who struggles with forgiving others. It’s hard enough to forget an imagined slight or overlook a harsh word, much less extend anything but hatred to a person who destroyed another human’s life. But strangely enough, the Derksens are not alone. Though the road they walk is largely uncharted, they do so as part of a long line of victims who have not just forgiven, but embraced the perpetrators of unthinkable acts—people who somehow find grace in the darkest human emotions.

How did they do it? For the Derksens, the answer was part religion, part personal resolve. After speaking with the father of another murdered child, they decided to forgive no matter what, even though they had no idea what that might mean. And as the years go by, their seemingly simple choice becomes more and more complex.

There was so much to forgive, and it went far beyond forgiving the brutality of a stranger they did not yet know. There were the police, for not believing them when they said Candace wouldn’t have run away, for implying that they were bad parents, and for focusing so long on Cliff as a suspect. For not finding her when she lay in a shed not more than 500 meters away from home. There were their own actions and choices, for the small things said and done, for not picking her up that day. There were the friends and family that disappointed them, the media that sometimes got things wrong. The strangers who piled on more hurt with false confessions and crank phone calls. There were the years Cliff spent under suspicion, even after a polygraph declared him a truthful man.

Forgiveness was not something to be done only once. It had to be a constant choice, letting go as a way of living.

The Derksens’ forgiveness is not an event, but an endless process that has changed over the years. Now that their daughter’s killer could walk free, they are once again being forced to confront their decision to forgive—this time at much closer quarters than the decades they spent having no idea who murdered Candace.  Forgiveness allowed the Derksens to survive, yet Pruden paints a picture of mercy that, no matter how radical, is under continual threat.

But what if forgiveness is also an attempted shortcut at healing? In a November 2015 cover story for TIME magazine, “How Do You Forgive a Murder?” reporters David Von Drehle, Jay Newton-Small, and Maya Rhodan interviewed the families and survivors of the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Just days after Dylann Roof gunned down their loved ones at a Bible study, a few of the family members stood before Roof at a bond hearing and told him they forgave him.

Somehow—perhaps the idea was planted by the judge’s remarks—Nadine Collier was able to recognize the wreckage this man had made not just for her and the other survivors but in his own life. “I kept thinking he’s a young man, he’s never going to experience college, be a husband, be a daddy. You have ruined your life,” she recalls thinking.

What she said at the podium, while choking back sobs, came out like this: “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again—but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”

Since that day, Collier has had many hours to reflect on those spontaneous words, and she says she has no reason to regret or revise them. They expressed a sense of loss and absence that remains unfilled months later, as well as her desire to move beyond the horror—a desire she still feels keenly. And she believes that her mother might have said something similar if she had lived.

For those who forgave Roof publicly, the choice to do so was a matter of freedom, of refusal to be bowed by a 21-year-old’s racially-motivated hate crime. Their decision to forgive—made in a split second in an emotionally harrowing moment—gained national attention. But for those who did not or could not make that choice, both the forgiveness and the fame that came along with it are discomfiting. If forgiveness really is a choice, their story suggests, so is the refusal to reconcile. The Charleston families who are less ready to forgive suggest that to do so might lead to forgetfulness—and lay claim to a path that is theirs to direct and experience.

Not everyone occupies the place of forgiver, though. When Darin Strauss struck and killed one of his high school classmates in an unavoidable car accident, he was saddled not just with his own guilt, but also with the ramifications of a community’s unwillingness or inability to forgive.

Strauss, who discussed his experiences on a 2008 episode of This American Life, and later in the memoir Half a Life, has lived with his actions for more than twenty years. And though he has eventually forgiven himself for what he now sees as a freak accident, his interactions with the family of the girl he killed—including their years-long lawsuit against him—illustrate the tense gray area of life without reconciliation.

Should we forgive? Not everyone is cut out for mercy and certainly they’re not required to be. Whether an act is unforgivable depends entirely on the circumstances, and the victims. But the experiences of those who have lost everything raise intriguing questions about the choices we do and do not have—and what might change if we walk a largely uncharted road.

Further reading:

File, Deduct, Hide: Six Essential Stories About Taxes

Today is Day 85 of the Trump Administration, and like a sailor condemned to four years at sea we carry on, stooped and weary from the weight of this albatross around our necks—Donald Trump’s taxes.

We know they exist—but what does their existence even mean any more? We’ve seen a few pages here and there, sent as proof of life to the New York Times and waved around by Rachel Maddow. In a bid to bring attention to President Trump’s noteworthy silence on his financial position, a tax march will take place on April 15 worldwide in response to a single tweet by a Vermont law professor.

Taxes are at once no one’s business and everyone’s business. We all pay them: how we pay them, what they are used for, what we want them to be used for, and what the government would rather do with them instead, is the Great American Story.

1. “Tax Time” (Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, November 2012)

Lepore takes the long view on taxes with a history of how the U.S. decided to levy an income tax. It’s easy to dismiss taxes, she argues, and much harder to defend them. But that’s not a problem our ancestors shared—despite opposition to King George’s levy on goods like tea, the founding fathers had no problem squeezing the rich with large indirect taxes for market exchanges such as imports. More than a century later, the constitutional amendment that made income tax the law of the land wasn’t even an issue in Congress. But taxes have since become a bone of endless contention, especially as they concern how much rich and poor should pay. Lepore weaves a deft story to tell us exactly why.

Taxes dominate domestic politics. They didn’t always. Since the nineteen-seventies, almost all of that talk has been about cuts, which ought to be surprising, because more than ninety per cent of Americans receive social or economic security benefits from the federal government. Americans, though, find it easier to see what they pay than what they get—not because they aren’t paying attention but because the case for taxation is so seldom made.

2. “Too Rich to Live?” (Laura Saunders and Mary Pilon, The Wall Street Journal, July 2010)

One of the most hotly contested forms of taxation is the estate tax, when a dead person’s estate is transferred to another person. Though the idea is thousands of years old and the American permutation has been around in some form or another for a century, the tax was gradually phased out starting in 2001. But when it came back in 2011—the product of impermanent legislation—the rich who stood to lose the most from the transfer of their substantial assets bucked.

It didn’t matter; the tax became permanent in 2013. But when Saunders and Pilon interviewed dying people and their potential heirs on the eve of the tax’s return, they found a strange phenomenon—people who make life-or-death decisions about their health and end-of-life care based on the potential of saving their heirs money on taxes.

In 2009, more than a few dying people struggled to live into 2010 in hopes of preserving assets for their heirs. Clara Laub, a widow who helped her husband build a Fresno, Calif., grape farm from 20 acres into more than 900 acres worth several million dollars, was diagnosed with advanced cancer in October, 2009. Her daughter Debbie Jacobsen, who helps run the farm, says her mother struggled to live past December and died on New Year’s morning: “She made my son promise to tell her the date and time every day, even if we wouldn’t,” Mrs. Jacobsen says.

In New York the lapsing tax spawned a major family conflict, according to one attorney. As a wealthy patriarch lay dying at the end of the year, it became clear that under the terms of the will his children would receive more if he died in 2010, while his wife (not the children’s mother) stood to benefit if he died in 2009. The wife then filed a “do not resuscitate” order and the children challenged it. The patriarch lived a few days into 2010, but his estate, like Mrs. Laub’s, remains unsettled given the legislative uncertainty.

3. “The Throwaways” (Melissa Chadburn, The Rumpus, January 2012)

Taxes are a matter of life and death not just to the wealthy, but to the people who need tax-funded social services to survive. Chadburn, who endured horrific abuse and a traumatic stint in foster care, considers what taxes mean to the people she calls “the throwaways,” those who depend on the small sums of money that anti-taxation advocates fight not to have to pay. As disparities between poor and rich grow, she argues, taxation can be seen as a revolutionary lifesaving act, a statement about the very worth of the people it helps.

Strangely, it was for dreams like these—the simplest dreams of rest, of feeling, of safety—that I first began to look at taxes. Taxes are the tool that makes these dreams of ours possible. Shelter for everyone, food for everyone, taxes ensure public safety. And what about love? Love is given and received. Love is not a solitary act. Love requires people to commune with one another.

My previous associations with taxes were shame and guilt and trickery. Then I looked at my history with money and public funding in general. Some people have argued that we are a nation of self-interested people. People who only care about themselves. Their own well-being.

I disagree. I think we are better than that but have been assaulted by the overwhelming personification of Greed….It’s our first lesson in pain.

4. “Tax Hero” (Planet Money, NPR, March 2017)

Despite the stakes of taxation, the act of filing taxes can be unbearably mundane. But there’s a darker side to doing taxes—the poor pay a disproportionate amount to tax preparation firms that gouge them on relatively simple filings. Enter Joseph Bankman, a Stanford tax law professor who thought he’d figured out a simpler way. But as Planet Money reveals, simpler isn’t always better for those who benefit from the current, complex system. His fight for painless filing became a legislative battle—and his opponents were a strange coalition of their own.

5. “Mossack Fonseca: Inside the Firm That Helps the Super-Rich Hide Their Money” (Luke Harding, The Guardian, April 2016)

While your average Joe struggles to pay the tax preparers, there’s a shadowy world of ultra-wealthy corporations and individuals who’ll do anything they can to not pay taxes at all. Last year, the lid on one of these complex tax-avoidance schemes blew open when 11.5 million documents—now known as the Panama Papers—were leaked, revealing inside information on over 200,000 offshore shell corporations that exist to help the one percent sidestep their tax obligations.

The Guardian won a Pulitzer for their groundbreaking investigation of the Panama Papers (Here’s a breakdown of how they got the scoop—and an in-depth podcast that tells the entire sordid story behind their award-winning investigation.) One of their most fascinating stories was about Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm that helped the rich find tax-friendly parking places for their cash. Harding tells the story of a company that’s part financial services provider, part peddler of international intrigue—one that’s marketed directly to Americans with money to hide.

Mossack Fonseca’s leaked emails reveal the extraordinary measures that some of its well-heeled clients took to keep their financial affairs secret. Especially the Europeans and Americans, who have latterly found themselves under scrutiny from their own governments.

One theme that emerges is anxiety. Wealthy individuals with “undeclared” offshore bank accounts are afraid they might get rumbled.

Another theme is victimhood. The super-rich, it appears, feel they are being unfairly picked on—persecuted even.

6. “Donald Trump Tax Records Show He Could Have Avoided Taxes for Nearly Two Decades, The Times Found” (David Barstow, Susanne Craig, Russ Buettner, and Megan Twohey, The New York Times, October 2016)

What happens when a tax evader is not an average citizen but the President of the United States? Of course, the answer is “we don’t know yet,” because we have no idea what’s in Donald Trump’s personal tax returns. Despite Rachel Maddow’s overhyped scoop on a few pages from Trump’s 2005 return, nobody’s been able to get ahold of what could be the most sought-after documents in modern history. And thus, we don’t know what wealth the President has to brag about—or hide.

After receiving several pages from Trump’s 1995 returns from an anonymous source, Barstow, Craig, Buettner, and Twohey hypothesized that back when he was a mere real estate mogul, the president used a $916 million business loss to cancel out his tax debt for decades. Is it true? Until Trump comes forward with his tax returns, there’s no way to know. But journalists won’t stop piecing the story together—and if the tax march is any indication, citizens won’t stop insisting that he tell the truth about his financial situation.

But the most important revelation from the 1995 tax documents is just how much Mr. Trump may have benefited from a tax provision that is particularly prized by America’s dynastic families, which, like the Trumps, hold their wealth inside byzantine networks of partnerships, limited liability companies and S corporations.

The provision, known as net operating loss, or N.O.L., allows a dizzying array of deductions, business expenses, real estate depreciation, losses from the sale of business assets and even operating losses to flow from the balance sheets of those partnerships, limited liability companies and S corporations onto the personal tax returns of men like Mr. Trump. In turn, those losses can be used to cancel out an equivalent amount of taxable income from, say, book royalties or branding deals.

 

Are Regular Russians Ready to Take On Vladimir Putin?

The Russian presidential election is a year away, but protests have already begun. Last week, images of Russians being carried and even dragged from Moscow’s Red Square spread throughout the Western media. Then came the crackdown—blocked access to web pages and social media showing the photos, and a criminal case against the protesters. Earlier this week, the square was nearly empty despite another planned action.

The protests demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and objected to widespread corruption, but they also served as a rare moment of rebellion in a country that rarely dares defy its leader, President Vladimir Putin.

Read more…

We’re Living in the Golden Age of the Corporate Takedown

Miki Agrawal, co-founder and “She-EO” of menstrual underwear phenom Thinx, raised eyebrows when she stepped down from her role in the company in early March. Agrawal had long been infamous for her company’s boundary-pushing ads and her well-publicized hesitance to use the word “feminist.” Within days of Agrawal’s announcement, Racked published a gripping article examining corporate dysfunction and alleged sexism at Thinx, and Agrawal struck back with a lengthy post on Medium that detailed her “incredible ride” with the company. “I didn’t put HR practices in place because I was on the road speaking, doing press, brand partnerships, editing all of the creative and shouting from the rooftops about Thinx,” she wrote. Less than a week later, Agrawal was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee.

Such is the power of the corporate hit piece: Fueled by eyewitness accounts, scorned ex-employees, and juicy tidbits about a CEO’s bad behavior, a corporate identity that took years to build can unravel in days. These piquant stories might smack of a slow-motion trainwreck, but they satisfy more than our inner gossips and gawkers. Today, the myth of a CEO is often of their own making—once minted by years of climbing the corporate ladder, now CEOs are made in weeks or months. CEO, we are told, is less a work status than a state of mind.

Read more…

Why We Still Can’t Quit F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s been almost a century since a 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald penned “The I.O.U.,” a short story that pokes fun at the publishing industry’s obsession with sensation over substance. But until now, you couldn’t read it; it was among Fitzgerald’s still-unpublished papers. Last week, the long-lost story appeared in The New Yorker, another chapter in what the magazine calls its “imperfect romance” with the author. In 1925, Fitzgerald was “was a little too famous to appear often in its upstart pages,” though they were able to snag two poems and three “humorous short stories” before he died in 1940. Read more…

Voices from the Last Days of Obamacare: A Reading List

Repeal and replace: Republican candidates used these three words throughout the election cycle almost as an incantation. There was no other option for dealing with Public Enemy #1: Obamacare. When President Trump took office they became a battle cry for Republicans intent on undoing his predecessor’s signature legislation.

But what would repeal and replace look like? Last week, the House Republicans unveiled draft legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act, seven years in the making. The American Health Care Act shares part of the old plan’s name, but not many of its current features. Everything from the insurance mandate to Medicaid expansion is missing from the new plan, and leaders from both sides are unhappy with the half-baked results. Read more…

Social Networks Have Always Battled HIV/AIDS

When’s the last time you saved thousands of lives with a Facebook post? It happened last year to Greg Owen, recently profiled by Buzzfeed UK, a part-time bartender and club promoter from Northern Ireland who contributed to last year’s steep drop in new HIV diagnoses in London while homeless, underemployed, and himself HIV positive.

On 11 August 2015, Owen posted on Facebook to let his friends know that he planned to begin taking PrEP. A friend, who was HIV-positive and had been prescribed the drug as part of his treatment before switching medication, offered him some spare pills. Owen’s plan was to start taking them and blog about his experiences—a “blow by blow” account, he says, laughing…

The day after the Facebook post, he went to a sexual health clinic to double-check he was HIV-negative before taking the pills. Moments later, the nurse gave him the result of the rapid pin-prick blood test: It was positive. He had missed his chance to prevent it.

“I felt sick,” says Owen. “I said, ‘I need to have a cigarette.’ I was in shock.”

The following evening, aware that his friends on Facebook would soon be asking how he was getting on with PrEP, and while working a shift in a gay bar, Owen posted an update on the site telling everyone he was HIV-positive.

That single act triggered a chain of events that would change everything.

This single post caused Owen to become the unintentional poster boy for PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, also known by the brand name Truvada, a pill taken daily that can help prevent the risk of HIV infection. PrEP is available in the US under most insurance programs, including Medicaid, but in 2015, it was still unavailable on the UK’s National Health Service.

With the help of social media and a homegrown website about the PrEP regimen, Owen got word to thousands of people, garnering the attention of public health officials along the way. It’s a trajectory made all the more surprising by Owen’s total lack of resources and official support. Owen managed to turn his social contacts and personal commitment to HIV prevention into a movement—and by doing so, unwittingly became the latest in a long line of underfunded, grassroots activists who have battled HIV/AIDS through social networks.

The gay community confronted the illness in the early 1980s, when public health officials heard reports of a “gay cancer” spreading through San Francisco and New York. Before HIV or AIDS even had a name, gay men gathered in the Greenwich Village living room of playwright and activist Larry Kramer, where they met with Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien, a dermatologist and virologist who told them what he knew about the disease. They could hardly believe what they heard.

Kramer’s living room became the headquarters for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, now America’s oldest AIDS organization, as HIV/AIDS began to decimate gay communities and disbelief turned to action. The group, and others like it, relied on social networking to get the word out about AIDS. They disseminated the latest research, raised funds, and provided critical support for patients at all stages. “Nobody paid any attention to it, recalls Kramer in an interview with Frontline. “We didn’t exist.” (Kramer later parted ways with GMHC and went on to help found ACT UP, an advocacy group whose in-your-face tactics drew national attention to the crisis.)

For early HIV/AIDS activists, grassroots organizing wasn’t a choice—it was a necessity. Scientific understanding of the virus was in its infancy, and a social stigma surrounded its victims. Researchers struggled to get enough money to finance their work and activists struggled for media attention. Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration ignored both groups’ pleas for public acknowledgment, and the president famously failed to even use the word “AIDS” in public until 1985, and didn’t give a major speech on the subject until 1987. There was no choice but to pick up the phone, make a flyer, or get out into the street.

Part of the problem was what sociologists call “social death”—the exclusion of people who are thought to be beyond saving because of their social status. But grassroots activism gave hope to patients, challenged stigma, and ultimately pushed forward research. Celebrities whose own social networks were torn apart by HIV/AIDS eventually came forward, and slowly, an international movement was born. Today, those living-room gatherings, phone calls, get-togethers, and grassroots marches have resulted in prevention like PrEP and better treatments for HIV/AIDS patients. And they still fuel efforts like Owen’s to make sure those interventions get in the hands of those who are at risk.

As Owen’s story illustrates, there are still big gaps in awareness despite the existence of better treatment and prevention options. In March 2016, the NHS ceased—before it had even started—the process of funding the drug.

The resulting publicity surrounding the decision, however, had an interesting effect: More and more people were becoming aware of the drug and, says Owen, seeking it out on IWantPrEPNow. Traffic began to double and triple. His social media presence swelled, fueling further traffic and media traction: appearances on the BBC, more radio discussions, more press coverage. Greg Owen was becoming Mr PrEP.

In response to NHS England’s decision, all the major HIV charities joined forces to fight it. A series of meetings ensued. Owen was the only activist invited to attend, as every HIV specialist knew that he was the main link to thousands of people wanting the drug…

A legal battle commenced, brought by the National AIDS Trust, to counter NHS England’s claim that it was not their responsibility to provide PrEP as HIV prevention was the job of local councils. At each step of this process, as news reports described what was happening, traffic to IWantPrEPNow continued to climb.

By the time NHS England lost in the High Court in August last year, 12,000 people were visiting the site every month. NHS England swiftly appealed the ruling. Orders of generic PrEP kept rising… As the NHS stalled, an underground movement, facilitated by Owen, was in full swing.

The NHS eventually lost the appeal in November, and announced that it would provide the drugs for at least 10,000 people, but earlier that summer a panel discussion at the International AIDS Conference warned that global funding for the disease is still in danger of a “collapse” that could set back public health goals. If history is any indicator, activists won’t lay down their arms anytime soon. Like Owen, they’ll pick up their cell phones and carry on—even if their invisible labor goes unpaid and unrecognized.

Further Reading
The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness (Huffington Post Highline)
Dustin Lance Black, The Screenwriter Behind “Milk” and “When We Rise” on Coming Out as a Gay Activist (The New Yorker)

Read the Buzzfeed story