The due date was July 5. I let this day pass like all the others, without even mentioning it to anyone. By this point, a couple of days will go by without my thinking about the baby I would have had, about what all our lives would have been like. It’s a Sunday, and I spend the day watching my daughter play in a tiny pool shaped like a giant turtle. She climbs in and out, in and out.
Nearly everyone in Zaine’s life had been anxiously monitoring that line for the past year and a half, ever since both of his parents died of heroin overdoses in April 2015. His parents had become two of the record 33,091 people to die of opioid overdoses that year in a national crisis that has been worst of all in rural West Virginia, where health officials estimate that overdose rates are now eight to 10 times higher than the national average. Middle-aged white men in this part of the country have lost a full year of life expectancy during the past two decades. Middle-aged white women have lost more than two years. The opiate epidemic has essentially wiped out an entire generation of health advances, and now West Virginia has begun to focus more of its resources on prevention and preservation among the next generation entering into the void.
These children are sometimes referred to by health officials here as opiate orphans, and three of the most recent ones live in a small house in South Charleston: Zoie, 10, who believed that her parents had died in their sleep; Arianna, 13, who was just starting to wear her mother’s old makeup; and Zaine, 17, who had been the one to discover his parents that morning on their bedroom floor, and whose grades had begun to drop ever since.
Madie, 53, had retired from her maintenance job at the public schools and moved into the house to help take care of the children after the overdoses. “Mah-maw,” they called her, and she told salty jokes, cooked their breakfast and slept in Zoie’s bedroom when she had nightmares.
But, on some nights, it was Madie who couldn’t sleep, when neither her doctor-prescribed antidepressants nor her occasional swallows of Fireball whiskey could quiet her grief or her rising anxiety. She had once struggled with addiction herself before getting clean. She had raised a daughter who had become an addict. Now she was responsible for three more children in a place where that same disease had officially been classified as a “widespread, progressive and fatal epidemic.”
Mitigation specialist Jennifer Wynn investigates the upbringings of defendants to humanize them enough to convince at least one juror to bypass the death penalty for a life in prison without parole. Wynn shares the stories of three of her clients — men charged with murder — whose lives are marked by poverty, substance abuse, untreated mental illness, and extreme child neglect. Read the full story by Elon Green at Mel Magazine.
Jennifer Wynn’s job is to make jurors feel sympathy for people who’ve committed unspeakable crimes
“We hear all about the victims,” Jennifer Wynn told me recently, “but we never hear about the defendant’s story.”
Wynn, cheerful and salty, is a mitigation specialist. She is engaged by defense attorneys, mostly in capital cases, to investigate and compile the life story of the defendant. The material Wynn gathers, often heartbreaking and brutal, is used to convince the jury to deliver a sentence other than death. (In non-capital cases the same person is called a sentencing advocate, and they similarly argue for a less-severe sentence.
She has now done mitigation work on 30 murder cases, 25 of which were death penalty-eligible, and won them all.
When people share with you their deepest, darkest secrets — the worst things they’ve done — they need validation. These are people who, for the most part, have been told their whole lives, You’re a piece of shit. They’re bullied, they’re picked on, they’re shot at. Then they act out, and society says, See, you are a monster. Then, people like me come in and say, No, you’re not a monster, and you still do deserve to be part of the human race. The system is fucked up, and I tell them that. It’s the first time they’ve ever heard that.
Rumpus: There are so many characters in this story. Did these characters flow out of you during the writing process or were they more of a conscious creation? Did you think, “I need a character that represents this or experiences this kind of suffering?”
Saunders: No, it was definitely the first thing. My general approach to writing fiction is that you try to have as few conceptual notions as possible and you just respond to the energy that the story is making rather than having a big over plan. I think if you have a big over plan, the danger is that you might just take your plan and then you bore everybody. I always joke that it’s like going on a date with index cards. You know, at 7:30 p.m. I should ask about her mother. You keep all the control to yourself but you are kind of insulting to the other person.
Rumpus: I don’t want to leave the topic of your book, but I love what you said about starting a piece with as few conceptual ideas as possible. Do you approach nonfiction the same way? For the New Yorker story you wrote about Trump, for example, did you begin with a similar kind of open-mindedness?
Saunders: It’s a different form of that. With nonfiction, I go in trying to be really honest about what my preconceptions are. In the Trump piece, I knew I didn’t like Trump and I confessed that to myself and also to my interviewees. I’d always say, “I’m a liberal and I’m left of Gandhi and I don’t like Trump and this article is me trying to understand why you do.”
My theory for nonfiction is that nobody can be free of some kind of conceptions about whatever story they’re writing. But if you can find a way to build those into the story, then the story becomes a process of deconstructing and heightening and sometimes changing those notions and that makes dramatic tension. The initial statement of your position, and then letting reality act on you to change it, is pretty good storytelling.
All I really know in nonfiction is that when I come home, I’ve got all these notes and I’m trying to figure out what actually happened to me. I usually kind of know what happened, but as you work through the notes, you find that certain scenes write well and some don’t even though they should. Those make a constellation of meaning that weirdly ends up telling you what you just went through. It’s a slightly different process, but still there’s mystery because when you’re bearing down on the scenes, sometimes you find out they mean something different than what you thought.
When you enter “the meaning of Allahu Akbar” in Google, the first search results take you to Jihad Watch, Breitbart and Urban Dictionary. Jihad Watch tells you that Allahu Akbar is “the ubiquitous battle cry of Islamic jihadists as they commit mass murder.” One of the definitions on Urban Dictionary, home to some of the internet’s most passive aggressive users, states Allahu Akbar is “what is said by people beheading hogtied victims ‘in the name of God.’” And Breitbart, the ominous prophet of doom and gloom for the average conservative, insists that Allahu Akbar means “Allah is greater than your God or Government.”
Takbir—that is, Allahu Akbar—is a strange thing. It is Arabic for “God is great.” But to the westerner who consumes the world through purposefully tailored headlines, deliberate SEO and sequential images meant to invoke fear, takbir is a terrifying thing. To the westerner, it’s something ISIS members scream before bloodshed and al Qaeda members chant before deploying an IED. It’s that scary announcement from the brown man with a beard that hides his mouth, obscuring his face, making it impossible for you to trust him. It’s code for “we’re implementing sharia here,” according to astute Republicans who can’t pronounce Iran or Iraq without butchering it (figuratively and literally) but are adamant on presenting a singular, restricted and unimaginative interpretation of an expression millions of Muslims use in millions of ways.
But to the average Muslim, takbir generously lends itself to numerous occasions and emotions.
Consciously, I heard takbir for the first time when I was four, maybe five, in northern Virginia when my mother prayed in front of me. I watched her kiss the earth with all the love in her being. Before she knelt in prostration, she whispered something. She came up once more, whispered it again, then gently knelt in humility. Her forehead touched the ground, the tip of her nose softly grazing the prayer rug, her eyes closed in unwavering thought. To a child, this graceful movement was spellbinding. I strained my ear to hear her again. “Allahu Akbar.”
But takbir is introduced to us before we can even attach meaning to spoken word. When we are born, the azaan—call to prayer—is performed to us at a pitch softer than cotton. The day I was born, I had already been introduced to this expression that would later on become my refuge in times of despair, my cry in times of joy and yes, my roar in moments of indignation. My father softly recited “Allahu Akbar” in my ear when I came into this world.
Born after eight miscarriages, I was my parents’ miracle.
The Economistreports on how refugees prize mobile phone connection — even over food. Phones are their primary way to stay connected with family at home as they enter “informational no-man’s land,” not knowing who to trust or where to go. Phones help them stay motivated with photos of family and successful migrants, and offer a means to contact smugglers to help them with their journey.
Sometimes Hekmatullah, a 32-year-old Afghan, has to choose between food and connectivity. “I need to stay in touch with my wife back home,” he says, sitting in a grubby tent in the Oinofyta migrant camp, near Athens. Because Wi-Fi rarely works there, he has to buy mobile-phone credit. And that means he and his fellow travellers—his sister, her friend and five children—sometimes go hungry.
Such stories are common in migrant camps: according to UNHCR, the UN’s agency for refugees, refugees can easily spend a third of their disposable income on staying connected. In a camp near the French city of Dunkirk, where mostly Iraqi refugees live until they manage to get on a truck to Britain, many walk for miles to find free Wi-Fi: according to NGOs working there, the French authorities, reluctant to make the camp seem permanent, have stopped them providing internet connections.
Phones become a lifeline. Their importance goes well beyond staying in touch with people back home. They bring news and pictures of friends and family who have reached their destination, thereby motivating more migrants to set out. They are used for researching journeys and contacting people-smugglers. Any rumour of a new, or easier, route spreads like wildfire. “It’s like the underground railroad, only that it’s digital,” says Maurice Stierl of Watch The Med, an NGO that tracks the deaths and hardships of migrants who cross the Mediterranean, referring to the secret routes and safe houses used to free American slaves in the 19th century.
In the Sydney Morning Herald, Fenella Souter reports in detail on what it’s like to drown through the harrowing personal experience of a woman named Merav. In a bid to show off to her boyfriend 40 years ago, Merav jumped into the surf at Gunnamatta Beach in Victoria, Australia, and lived to regret it.
Her first wave is an angry, spine-jarring dumper that hurls her down and holds her down. The returning rush of water sucks her back out, still under, while one of the many fierce rips that run out from this beach takes her in its grasp. When she finally pops up, choking and spluttering, disoriented under a leaden sky, sand in her ears, bikini top hanging around her neck, she’s at least 25 metres from where she went in.
The situation is suddenly crystal clear to her.
An unpatrolled beach, deserted, at 4.30 in the afternoon. A sea whose fury she has seriously underestimated. A boyfriend who can’t save her. She can see his flailing arms, his mouth moving. “Right then and there, I thought, ‘I’m not going to get out of this.’ I didn’t lose all hope, because the will to survive is so much stronger than that but I realised it was so much more dangerous than I had thought. I was already struggling to keep breathing.”
On an adjustable bed in a room towards the front of the house is Tony Huelsmann, a retired dancer, choreographer and dance instructor whose skills were once in high demand at schools throughout Melbourne and Brisbane. Sandra was one of his dance students. He was 30 when they met, seven years older than her, and it was love at first sight.
Born in Germany, Tony has spent much of his life in Australia. Now 80, he is dying from complications associated with several internal and external cancers, including a rash of angry red squamous cell carcinomas that have colonised the skin of his swollen upper thighs. These painful sores require daily dressings, performed by a personal care worker, while Karuna’s rotating roster of nurses help with symptom management, bed-baths, toileting and bedding changes, as well as emotional support for both husband and wife.
Since May, Tony’s world-spanning life has been confined more or less to these four walls while Sandra cares for his every need. At night, she snatches sleep where possible. It is their wish for Tony to die at home and they are both determined to see this wish fulfilled.
“A good palliative care nurse should be invisible,” she says, while navigating her hatchback between house visits. “You’re there to help them negotiate the process with friends and loved ones. The Dalai Lama says compassion should be selfless: it’s not about you, it’s about them. You’re a springboard. But it’s a real dance: you’re not a robot, and you go in with your whole self and heart open. We’re all emotionally involved, and the moment you’re not – when it becomes mechanical – I think you should quit.”
By midday Friday, Tony has lost more strength and lucidity. Swollen from the waist down, he has little control of his body. Today, for the first time, he is unable to use scissors to cut the tape that his wife uses to dress his sores. When Karuna nurse Kate Hooper visits his bedside, Tony clocks her prominent baby bump. A man near death meets a woman weeks away from giving birth. Pointing a shaky finger, he smiles and rasps to her, “How long to go?”
“The Boys,” in this small, ski-crazy community, is shorthand for three well-known, well-loved local men who were killed in an avalanche at Tunnel Creek, in the Stevens Pass backcountry, on February 19, 2012: Chris Rudolph, 30; Jim Jack, 46; and Johnny Brenan, 41. The men were part of a large group of visitors and local legends who ventured out of the resort gates late on a Sunday morning and were caught up in a massive snowslide.
Avalanches kill an average of 27 people in America every year. This one attracted the attention of the national media. Good Morning America and Today came calling, wanting to speak to the survivors just hours after the slide. Magazines, including Outside and Men’s Journal, published major features on the tragedy. And, most famously, The New York Times spent months producing “Snow Fall,” an ambitious, multimedia feature about the avalanche that would go on to redefine how stories are presented online. Written by John Branch, it won a Pulitzer Prize, spawned hundreds of imitators, and is now taught in journalism schools.
That’s when the snowpack on the hillside let go.
It shed more than 2,500 feet in altitude in a matter of seconds, gaining mass as it went, ripping up trees and rocks along the way and reaching a peak speed of about 70 miles per hour. The New York Times estimated its weight at 11 million pounds.
I wrote 300 Arguments when I was in a bit of a midlife funk. I was thinking about certain types of failure that just sort of collect at midlife. The idea of midlife is itself a sort of a cliché; it’s a very conventional mode of thinking about the human lifespan. It’s an assumption, to start, that everybody has the same life span. But there really is something to getting to a point in life where major decisions have been made—maybe they’re not permanent but they feel permanent. You choose a vocation and the thing that you do all day long. You choose your people, and if you have a family you’ve chosen the people to include in your family. What felt really sharp to me at the time that I was writing this is that there’s this experience of failure that seems fairly generally applicable to being in one’s midlife. All of a sudden there are these desires that felt obsolete to me that I thought would always feel necessary. There were thwarted ambitions. You sort of realize that failing is a skill of general utility.