Author Archives

Jessica Gross
Writer in New York City.

Mathematics as a Cultural Force

Tuileries Garden in 1680, Paris, France, engraving from Les Promenades de Paris (The promenades of Paris), by Adolphe Alphand, published by J Rothschild, Paris, 1867-1873. (Photo by Icas94 / De Agostini via Getty Images)

Jessica Gross | Longreads | Sept. 2019 | 14 minutes (3,556 words)

In his new book, Proof!: How the World Became Geometrical, historian Amir Alexander advances an audacious claim: that Euclidean geometry profoundly influenced not just the history of mathematics, but also broader sociopolitical reality. In prose that makes his passion for the material both clear and catching, he describes how Euclid’s Elements present a vision of a perfectly rational order, but one that was viewed as purely theoretical: There was no place for geometrical ideals in messy reality. In the 1400s, Leon Battista Alberti, an Italian polymath, upended that understanding, countering that the world was, in fact, fundamentally geometrical. Other thinkers, from Copernicus to Galileo, followed. And, as Alexander argues, this sea change had profound implications: If the world was geometrical—not only rational, but also hierarchical and permanent—then that was the divinely ordained social order, too. Euclidean geometry, that is, was used to justify monarchy.

Explaining the interconnectedness between mathematics and culture—how mathematical principles aren’t separate from or even just born into a culture, but profoundly shape it—is nothing new for Alexander, whose previous books include Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World and Duel at Dawn: Heroes, Martyrs, and the Rise of Modern Mathematics. When we spoke by phone in August, we discussed French gardens’ geometrical designs as propaganda; how cities’ structures advance their ideals; and how Euclidean geometry’s decline had as deep an effect as its rise.

Because I struggled with history in school, I am always curious when people choose to make it their life’s work. So maybe we can start there: What do you love about studying, writing about and now, at UCLA, teaching history?

I do love history, and I think it has something to do with growing up in Israel, in Jerusalem. There, it’s not just the one history, but layer upon layer upon layer of history—different histories, competing histories. Every stone and every building there has its own story. You can go back 100 years, you can go back 1,000 years, sometimes thousands of years, and everybody is very much invested in their version of history, often to the exclusion of others.

Also, especially the years that I was growing up in Israel, archaeology was huge because it was seen through a Zionist perspective. That is, you’re digging up Biblical history, you’re digging up the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. It was all around; the air was imbued with it. I think in some ways, whatever your politics—whether you’re a Zionist or an anti-Zionist, whatever your view of the occupation—in some ways, living there, you feel like it is just the latest chapter of a story that began a very long time ago.

So I think that was the origins of my fascination with history, although, as for my work, it went in a very different direction. Read more…

Why Bugs Deserve Our Respect

Insect hotel with male Osmia bicornis wild bees. (Getty Images)

Jessica Gross | Longreads | July 2019 | 14 minutes (3,842 words)

The ants arrived with the heat in May, streaming into my bedroom through my air conditioner. My roommate had covered hers in tape earlier that week, and I used her supplies to block any and all points of entry. Me: in. Insects: out. I can imagine the disgusted grimace I wore on my face as I taped and taped. One of the ants got caught underneath, and I remember feeling a perverse sense of retribution.

I thought about this stance a lot while reading ecologist Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson’s new book, Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects, which first came out in her native Norway last year. With a combination of delight and passion, Sverdrup-Thygeson makes the case that, first, insects are fascinating creatures who deserve our curiosity, and, second, they are essential to our survival and deserve our protection. As I considered the multitude of impressive and strange facts she presents (there’s a species of swallowtail butterfly with eyes on its penis, and spiders’ silk is, on a per-weight basis, six times as strong as steel!), I was transported back to childhood. I remembered how, when my parents lay new sod in the backyard, my brother and I peeled it back to find the worms slithering underneath. I remembered plucking cicada shells off trees and storing them in a shoebox, which I kept in my closet for years. Back then, bugs didn’t disgust me — they filled me with a sense of wonder.

When we spoke over the phone in early June, Sverdrup-Thygeson suggested that the disdain for insects that I and so many others have grown into isn’t natural or necessary, but a learned response. Witnessing her awe, as she put it, for these tiny creatures, it was hard not to feel that she was right. I haven’t stripped the tape from my air conditioner, but when I saw a little bug crawling up the wall of my shower a few weeks ago, I let it be, and took a moment to marvel at the way it moved with such delicate grace.

You describe in the book how, when your children were in elementary school, you would turn brown mud over with a metal sieve for them to see all the bugs, and get excited about them. So I wondered if you could start by talking about your own childhood relationship with insects. Was that something your parents instilled in you? When did this fascination begin?

Yes, I think it started when I was a kid. My family spent a lot of time in the outdoors — we picked berries and mushrooms in the fall, and we went skiing and slept out in a snow cave in the winter. We did all these things together. We also had this very simple cabin on a tiny forested island in a lake. There were no other houses on this island, and there was no electricity, so no television, of course. You pretty much had to play with whatever was there, which was nature.

So I got used to having bugs around me. Even if I sat reading, I would still sit in nature: bugs would crawl over me or fly past. When we put fire on the firewood, which was how we kept warm if it was cold, there would always be bugs in these pieces of wood. It was part of life to have bugs around, and it never occurred to me it was supposed to be annoying, or something to fear.

I also had a grandfather who was really good at showing me not insects, really, but other things in nature. He told me the names of flowers; he taught me birdcalls so I could recognize them. And I think that meant something. If someone you love shows you that nature means something to them, that transfers and has a lot of impact on a small kid. Read more…

In Defense of Schadenfreude

Getty Images

Jessica Gross | Longreads | February 2019 | 16 minutes (4,130 words)

Tiffany Watt Smith is a historian of emotions. How’s that for a profession? In The Book of Human Emotions, which came out in 2016, Smith profiles 154 emotions in sharp, concise bursts. Torschlusspanik, she writes, “describes the agitated, fretful feeling we get when we notice time is running out.” (The German term translates as “gate-closing panic.”) The Japanese word amae refers to the “sensation of temporary surrender in perfect safety.” And there is a two page–long entry on schadenfreude—“from the German Schaden (harm) and Freude (pleasure)”—that often-shameful feeling of pleasure at another’s pain.

In her new book, Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune, Smith—who is a Wellcome Trust research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London—takes a close look at the various flavors of this feeling. There is the schadenfreude we feel witnessing someone else’s accident, the burst of joy when our rival falters, the satisfaction when justice is served, the pleasure of watching the morally superior get their comeuppance. There is sibling rivalry (and sibling-esqure rivalry in the workplace). There is the guilty pleasure when a friend we envy suffers a disappointment.

Smith makes reading about schadenfreude fun. She also convincingly levies the broad argument that, although there are circumstances in which it can be dangerous, schadenfreude is a vital part of the way we relate to one another and doesn’t deserve to be held in such poor esteem. I spoke with Smith by phone about the nuances of schadenfreude and her experience writing about this much-judged emotion.   Read more…

The Science of Dreaming

Photo by Eddie Kopp / Unsplash

Jessica Gross | Longreads | December 2018 | 14 minutes (3,551 words)

In 2011, when she was in college studying abroad in Peru, Alice Robb ran out of reading material and picked up a copy of Stephen LaBerge’s Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. Her initial skepticism quickly dissolved, and she and a friend spent the summer practicing LaBerge’s tips: they recounted their dreams to each other; they did “reality tests” during the day to trigger similar checks while sleeping. Robb began keeping a rigorous dream journal and found that, after very little time, she began remembering her dreams in detail.

In short, she began taking her dreams very seriously — a stance that she has maintained since. In her new book, Why We Dream, Robb, a science journalist, presents a comprehensive and compelling account of theories of and research on dreaming from ancient times through the present day. Throughout, she displays an intense respect for what our minds do while we’re sleeping, and the findings she presents — that dreaming is essential for sanity, that analyzing our dreams can be revelatory, that dreams can be used as diagnostic tools and even manipulated for our own mental health—corroborate her conviction that, as a culture, we would benefit from paying more careful attention.

Robb and I met at a bar near where she lives in Brooklyn to talk about dreams’ predictive power, what it’s like to make your dream journal entries public (hint: uncomfortable), and what closely observing our dreams can offer.

Toward the end of the book, there is a line that moved me so much: “I like seeing proof that even while I’ve been unconscious, I’ve been alive.” It seems to me that dreams as proof of life — so then, maybe, as defense against death — is a pivotal concept in this book.

I used to have a lot of trouble sleeping and I was kind of afraid of sleep. A lot of people have compared sleep to death, and being unconscious is a scary thing to think about. But paying attention to my dreams and improving my dream recall and seeing that there’s actually so much going on in my mind while I’m asleep has made sleep feel more like a lively time — more integrated with the rest of my life and waking hours — rather than this weird period where I just shut down. Read more…

Finding Comfort in Small Spaces

fottodk / Getty, Composite by Katie Kosma

Jessica Gross | Longreads | September 2018 | 11 minutes (2,864words)

In January of 2014, I rode a train from New York to Chicago, then back again. My little cabin had been provided by Amtrak: a “test run” of what later became the Amtrak Residency. In an essay for The Paris Review Daily, I tried to explain — that is, explain to myself — what trains offer writers, and, particularly, me. I arrived at the sense of containment I felt, bound by the train car and, even more so, by the little private bedroom that ensconced and held me.

What I didn’t say in that essay is that, when I began the journey, I was very, very lonely. On the overnight train trip to Chicago, I rotated between crying, reading Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (which, by absorbing and distracting me, would make me abruptly stop crying), talking on the telephone, taking notes for my essay, and frantically researching a last-minute freelance assignment. When I got to the hotel in Chicago — my plan was to stay over that Saturday night, then take another overnight train back the following day, to arrive back in New York on Monday — I called my mother, forlorn. She suggested I go home early. Instead, I took myself to dinner and people-watched. But it wasn’t until the next day that I was lifted out of my loneliness and into delight, or maybe peace.

On Sunday, before my train home and after an obligatory visit to the Bean, I took myself to the Art Institute of Chicago. There, wandering the basement in search of a bathroom, I happened upon the Thorne Miniature Rooms, a collection of intricate dioramas. Nestled into the wall, behind panes of glass or plastic, were almost 70 tiny scale models of interiors from different eras: European homes from the 1200s through the 1930s; American homes from the 1600s through the 1930s (the models were constructed between 1932 and 1940). I spent many minutes peering into these rooms: the replica of a New York parlor from the mid-1800s; the early-1700s-era English library; the Virginia dining room from around 1800. I suppose another person would have viewed the rooms in their proper historical context, or concerned themselves with what the designs revealed about the styles of the time. I — a person who has just listed several rooms out of chronological order — viewed the rooms from a position of purely personal need. I projected myself into their spaces, imagined sitting on the tiny couches and lying in the tiny beds. Their very littleness gave me a way to contain myself; and suddenly I was not lonely anymore.
Read more…

People Sorting: An Interview With ‘Personality Brokers’ Author Merve Emre

Jessica Gross | Longreads | September 2018 | 23 minutes (5,900 words)

If you haven’t yet read Merve Emre’s writing on the history of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, you might assume that Myers and Briggs were men. In fact, as Emre documented first in a 2015 piece for Digg and with great depth in her new book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, the indicator was the brainchild of Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers. Over the course of decades starting in the early twentieth century, and shaped by their interests in childrearing and the theories of Carl Jung—if not formal training in psychology—Katharine and Isabel created what has become one of our preeminent means of categorizing, and thus conceiving, people.

Though her writing ultimately accrues into a critique of the MBTI along several dimensions, including the way it upholds extant social, racial, and class inequalities and its perpetuation of insidious capitalistic values, Emre excavates the history of the indicator from its inception through its modern expression with tremendous rigor, nuance and, ultimately, empathy. It seems as important to her to honor these two women’s work as both inventors and mothers—as well as the profound meaning the MBTI can hold for people—as it is to examine the intent and effects of their creation. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Jennifer Szalai described the book as “history that reads like biography that reads like a novel — a fluid narrative that defies expectations and plays against type.”

Emre, an associate professor of English at Oxford University, has written prolifically for both academic and popular literary outlets. (Her first book, Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America, came out last year.) She is, in my estimation, one of the sharpest critics working today. But we first met long before she published her first piece—in fifth grade.

This past June, when I visited Emre in New Haven, where she was staying with her family before moving to the U.K., we spoke not only about the MBTI but also about our own history. Though we were friendly and moved in similar circles during our childhoods, we didn’t become close until our early twenties, by which point both of us had changed enough that we were able to become real friends. If the MBTI is predicated on the understanding that a person’s personality type never changes, how does one account for personal evolution?

* * *

Even though parts of your Digg piece are incorporated into this book, there’s a great tonal difference overall. The Digg piece is acerbic in a way that was kind of fun, so I assumed the book was going to be more of an outright critique. But it’s much more biographical than critical, and tonally much more subdued. Can you talk about that choice?

The Digg piece was sharper and a little bit snarkier, you’re right. Part of what that was registering was my frustration that I had gone to these great lengths to follow the directions of CAPT [the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, which holds the personal papers of founder Isabel Briggs Myers] in order to get access to their archives, and then they denied me access for no discernible reason or purpose. Or rather, the purpose was discernible, and it was that they wanted to protect this person’s image and they didn’t want anybody to write anything that might be even a little bit critical.

So the Digg piece was in some ways excavating those frustrations. But when you sit with any subject for long enough, certain nodes of sympathy begin to open up that you might not have anticipated.

Once I got access to Katharine’s papers, I saw that there was that there was a real struggle for her and for her daughter to figure out how to take what at times seemed to them like the banal and unpromising labor of motherhood and domestic care and transform that into something that they felt was self-actualizing, and self-actualizing in a very professional way. It’s hard for me not to feel sympathy for that. The more I sat with their materials, with their letters—the more I learned about their lives from primary sources—the less I wanted to write a straightforward critique. Or, I felt that I had written a straightforward critique for Digg, and that it had served its purpose.

For the book, I wanted something that would make a little bit more sense of why we continue to be drawn to an instrument like the MBTI even when I think many of us know that it’s not valid or reliable, that it’s a flat and unspecific understanding of human personality. It seemed to me that I couldn’t answer that question with critique alone—or that critique alone would only answer half of that question and leave the other half, which was about the human desire to know ourselves and to know our intimates, unanswered. Read more…

The Invisible Lives of Young Women With Chronic Illnesses

Michele Lent Hirsch

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2018 | 18 minutes (4,580 words)

When Michele Lent Hirsch was growing up, she was hardly ever sick. In college, she had to have hip surgery; by her mid-20s, she had also been diagnosed with idiopathic anaphylaxis, thyroid cancer, and Lyme disease. In the midst of these issues, her father, who’d had multiple sclerosis, ended his own life. Now in her 30s, Hirsch has had years of experience moving through the world as a chronically ill young woman. In her new book, Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine, she interweaves personal experience and reporting to examine, through the lens of chronic illness, issues that she believes all women face.

Hirsch and I are friends—we get together every few months to talk about writing and our lives (she’s a poet, too)—and yet I didn’t know the depth of her experience until I read her thoughtful, complicated, and beautifully written book. I think that’s part of her point: to bring these under-discussed experiences into the light. We met at a restaurant in the West Village and spoke about how chronic illness throws issues of being young and female into sharper relief, how illness intersects with not only gender and age but also sexuality and race, and how, in the midst of these deeply challenging experiences, there is a basic need for empathy.

* * *

I imagine it was an intense decision to write publicly about your experience of illness. Can you talk about deciding to write the book?

I’d had this idea for an embarrassing number of years before I acted on it. I’d had hip surgery, I’d had anaphylaxis that almost killed me, but it wasn’t until I got cancer that I started to think, “This is a very particular experience that I’m having.”

I was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, right before my 26th birthday. Originally, I wanted to write an essay about the particulars of being young, female and sick and all the ways that illness bumped up against what was already difficult about being a young woman in the world. I mentioned it to a friend who was an editor and a writer, and she said, “That sounds bigger than an essay. That sounds like a whole book.” I thank her in the back of the book, because she was right.

For a few years, I didn’t believe her. I think that’s because so many women don’t talk about this stuff with each other, so you could be friends with someone and not even know that they have a chronic illness. But over the next few years, I started to see how often it just came up at parties or in conversation with a stranger or a friend of a friend. I began to realize that not only was this bigger than an essay, it was also way bigger than my experience. So at some point I said to my friend, “You’re right, it’s a book.” It is this vicious cycle: If you keep thinking you’re the only one, then you’re not going to share your experience, and then no one shares it, and then we’re all living in these weird, sad little silos. Read more…

An Interview with ‘Call Me By Your Name’ Author André Aciman

Andrè Aciman attends a screening of "Call Me by Your Name" during the 55th New York Film Festival in New York City. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Jessica Gross | Longreads | November 2017 | 20 minutes (4,900 words)

I spend the first day in any new place, particularly when I’m traveling alone, feeling massively out of sorts and wondering if I should turn right back around and come home. By now, I know that by the end of my stay that initial despair will feel almost unreal. But last summer, on a trip to Vienna, my sense of dislocation was so acute I didn’t know if I’d last. I’d spent the long train ride over from Paris re-reading my great-grandmother’s autobiography—as told to my grandmother—which details my Jewish family’s flight from Vienna in 1938. Arriving in the city so many decades later, I still couldn’t shake the sense of terror they’d described. No matter how much I tried to talk myself down, I couldn’t seem to stop conflating the cold stares of the Austrians I passed on the street with the fact that this country had wanted my relatives dead.

So: It was fraught. Until, that is, a friend sent me an essay by André Aciman. In “Parallax,” the epilogue to his essay collection Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, Aciman—a Jew and an exile from Egypt to Europe, who now lives in New York—writes of the dislocation that seems by now intrinsic to his personhood. He cannot, he writes, appreciate one place unless through the projection of another. “What we missed was not just Egypt. What we missed was dreaming Europe in Egypt—what we missed was the Egypt where we’d dreamed of Europe,” he writes. “Parallax is not just a disturbance in vision. It’s a derealizing and paralyzing disturbance in the soul—cognitive, metaphysical, intellectual, and ultimately aesthetic. It is not just about displacement, or of feeling adrift both in time and space, it is a fundamental misalignment between who we are, might have been, could still be, can’t accept we’ve become, or may never be.” I can’t remember whether reading this made me abruptly stop crying or, in the way that transcendent literature can, made me sob even harder.

Since then, I’ve read enough Aciman—a memoirist, essayist, and novelist—to know that dislocation is one of several central and vital themes. He also grapples with evasion of the present, and of pain; with ambivalence; and with desire. These last two are on particular display in his masterful novel Call Me by Your Name, which has now been adapted into a gorgeous film. Aciman expresses what it’s like to inhabit a human mind with more intricacy, subtlety and lyricism than almost any other writer I’ve read. We met at a café on the Upper West Side, where I tried to keep my reverence in check, and spoke about his distaste for realism, mitigating joy, trying to induce a sense of immersion in the reader, his respect for editors, and the new film. He began by telling me there was only one question I couldn’t ask: whether he thinks it did justice to the book.

Are there any other questions you absolutely loathe?

No.

How do you generally answer when people ask that question?

“I loved it!” Okay, now you’re asking the question. [Laughter] Okay, fine, I’ll answer.

As a writer, you have two choices. You can be very proprietary—in other words, you own the book, you own the story, and the movie has to follow, otherwise you get upset, you go crazy.

Or, you can say, “I’ve written the book. You want to make a movie, you want to make a play, you want to make an opera out of it? Do with it what you want. And if you want my opinion, I’ll give it to you; if you don’t want to hear it, I won’t give it to you.” I’m probably the easiest author to edit because I feel that an editor knows what they’re doing.  So if they say, “This sentence is horrible,” I’ll listen. I disagree one percent of the time. Read more…

Why Are Humans So Curious?

Jessica Gross | Longreads | July 2017 | 18 minutes (4,600 words)

Astrophysicist Mario Livio worked on the Hubble Space Telescope for almost 25 years, until 2015. Throughout his scientific career, he has not only written hundreds of scientific articles and books on subjects ranging from the Golden Ratio to brilliant scientists’ big blunders—he’s also extended his creative reach to musical collaborations, including in his role as Science Advisor to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Livio’s latest book, Why?: What Makes Us Curious, is, by his own admission, the farthest afield from his usual subjects of study. But it’s no surprise that someone with as wide a scope of interests as Livio would want to know more about the nature of curiosity itself. We spoke by phone one Thursday morning in early June about what we know thus far about how curiosity works, the purpose it serves, and how to nurture curiosity in children. Livio also answered, with the patience and enthusiasm of an excellent teacher, my rudimentary questions about telescopes and astrophysics, and calmed the terror I feel when I think about how our universe is expanding into nothingness.  

I thought we could start with you defining what curiosity is and the way you came to understand it through researching this book.

It’s funny that you should ask this question because one of the things that I concluded in the book, and this was only after I did all the research and everything, is that when we talk about curiosity, it turns out that there are several mechanisms involved. There is a curiosity that we feel when we see something that surprises us or when there is something ambiguous and we want to understand that. But it’s a relatively transitory-type feeling. There is a curiosity that we feel when we cannot remember the name of the actor who played in this or that film. That is another type of curiosity. And then there is the curiosity that drives, for example, all basic scientific research, and that’s our love for knowledge.

So while you will see various types of definitions, like a state for acquiring information and things like that, those never quite capture everything that is involved. Had we known as much we know now about curiosity, we might have invented different words for these different mechanisms. Read more…

Becoming Estranged from My Family ‘Was the Best Thing for Me’

Jessica Gross | Longreads | July 2017 | 20 minutes (5,000 words)

When Jessica Berger Gross told her parents not to call one summer day on a street corner in Manhattan, she didn’t know she’d never speak to them again. Seventeen years later, she remains estranged from the father who physically abused her throughout her childhood, the mother who stood by, and her two brothers, who minimized the abuse. In her memoir Estranged, which follows a much shorter Kindle Single of the same name, Gross—whose previous books include About What Was Lost, an anthology she edited on miscarriage, and the yoga memoir enLIGHTeneddetails these violent rages, and the bewildering way in which they were intertwined with love and affection.

Gross and I spoke by phone about the process of getting her history on the page, the intricacies of her family dynamic, Long Island (where we both grew up), being Jewish (which we both are), and, inevitably, the fact that we have the same name.

I’d love to start by talking about the title you chose for both your Kindle Single and your memoir, Estranged. It’s an interesting word, now that I’m rolling it around in my mind—it literally means you’ve become a stranger to your family. What does it mean to you?

At the very start of the Kindle Single, I had the definition of that word. And that is, becoming a stranger and becoming a foreigner and, in a sense, becoming strange.

When I made the decision to stop talking to my parents, I didn’t even have a word for it. I had done a lot of thinking about child abuse and I knew that that’s what had happened to me, but I didn’t realize when I said, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” that basically I was making a choice to become estranged. I had never met anyone who had done that, that I knew of. I’d never heard anyone talk about it. It’s such a strange thing when you take an action and it’s not till years later that you can name it.

As we’re talking, it’s occurring to me that it’s an odd word in a certain way—because the truth of it is that in some ways you were estranged even when you lived with your family, right?

Yes.

You only become estranged afterward if you feel like a stranger in your own home in the first place.

That’s so true! [laughter] My brothers would always say, “Oh, you were adopted, you’re not really a part of our family,” [though I wasn’t adopted]. But their idea was that I was different—and I really was. And everyone in my family really resented that I was different, and I felt that so strongly growing up. So, absolutely. I felt strange in my family and it was in leaving them and making my own family and the family of the larger extended family of my friends that I could no longer feel strange. Read more…