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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

(Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

This week, we’re trying something new. In addition to our usual list of five great stories to read, we wanted to share a little insight into why we chose each one.

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1. Courtney’s Story*

Diana Moskovitz | Defector | September 13, 2021 | 13,800 words

Diana Moskovitz’s investigation of Ohio State’s handling of domestic violence allegations against one of its football coaches centers the survivor, a young wife and mother named Courtney Smith. It shows how some of the most powerful people in Ohio, and in college football, worked to protect themselves and their reputations, all at Smith’s expense. In the dictionary, “Courtney’s Story” should be found under the listing for “damning.” —Seyward Darby

*Subscription required.

2. A New Nurse Struggles to Save Patients in a New COVID Surge

Kathryn Ivey | Scientific American | September 16, 2021 | 1,757

Kathryn Ivey became a registered nurse on July 27th, 2020, and went straight into a COVID ward in Nashville, Tennessee. “I learned how to be a nurse with death constantly at my heels,” she says. Recounting the terror and dread of the ward, she remembers “every single 2 A.M. phone call to family members so they could hear the voice of the person they loved at least one more time.” Ivey’s first-person account is nearly surreal, it’s that terrifying. What’s worse is that so much of this suffering and death could have been prevented. Here in Canada, Alberta’s ICU is near capacity after a premature summer re-opening plan eliminated protections and restrictions. The provincial government only just admitted they were wrong. Now, Canadian nurses like Ivey will have to deal with the casualties of a government more concerned about freedom and economics than human lives. Ivey’s piece should be required reading for anyone who’s eligible, yet remains unvaccinated by choice. “We are haunted by failures now, starting with the failures of policy that allowed human lives to be sacrificed on the altar of the economy and ending with us telling a family that we can do no more. COVID has made martyrs of us all,” says Ivey. —Krista Stevens

3. Rain Boots, Turning Tides, and the Search for a Missing Boy

Katherine Laidlaw | Wired | September 9, 2021 | 6,900 words

I picked this essay because Laidlaw’s powerful, descriptive language pulls you in right from the start. This tragic story of a missing 3-year-old is also told with respect and sympathy toward the family — against the grain of an online community that has them marked as the prime suspects. —Carolyn Wells

4. Hawai’i Is Not Our Playground

Chris Colin | AFAR | September 2, 2021 | 2,943 words

Tourism has “tamed and reinvented [Hawaii] for the mainlander imagination,” writes Chris Colin in his latest story for AFAR. From countless sacred sites to Native Hawaiian traditions, the land and history of its Indigenous population have vanished and been forgotten over time. Colin’s view of Hawaii as a vacation destination unraveled as he toured Oahu in late 2019 with local activist Kyle Kajihiro. Kajihiro told him that even responsible, politically conscious visitors automatically slip into “vacation mode” as soon as they step foot outside of the airport, expecting no less than the idyllic “lei-draped, aloha-dispensing, honeymooner-welcoming” version of Hawaii. As visitors, what more should we be doing — and what does reciprocity in the context of travel look like? What does decolonizing tourism — and decentering the outsider — mean? And ultimately, how can we all support Native Hawaiians in their fight to reclaim their land? Colin’s piece is thought-provoking, pushing me rethink when and how to visit. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

5. Revolt of the Delivery Workers

Josh Dzieza | New York Magazine | September 13, 2021 | 7,479 words

Convenience has always come at a cost; this we know. Yet for the class of delivery cyclists that has emerged in New York City over the past decade, ferrying Doordash and Seamless orders across bridges and boroughs, those costs grow ever steeper. If it’s not draconian apps like Relay pushing riders to the brink of danger, it’s bike thieves robbing riders of their transportation and livelihood — often inflicting injury in the process — and a police department that hasn’t exactly leapt to help. As Josh Dzieza chronicles in a vividly reported feature called Curbed, a patchwork of collective action has arisen from this fraught landscape. Riders band together to navigate attack-plagued routes en masse; they protest outside NYPD precincts and lobby for legislative protections from predatory employers; most jaw-droppingly, they track stolen bikes to their new homes and manage to get them back. “For Cesar [Solano] and many other delivery workers,” Dzieza writes of one organizer, “the thefts broke something loose.” His story doesn’t help put those pieces back together, but reading about these workers and the steps they’re taking ensures that you’ll think about what it really means to have a salad ferried crosstown. (And if you still can’t do without that Sweetgreen, then tip well — in cash, if possible.) —Peter Rubin

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Michael K. Williams on March 31, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Anand Gopal, Óscar Martínez, Erica Lenti, T.J. Quinn, and Matt Zoller Seitz.

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1. The Other Afghan Women

Anand Gopal | The New Yorker | September 6, 2021 | 9,900 words

“In the countryside, the endless killing of civilians turned women against the occupiers who claimed to be helping them.”

2. Mourning the Dead, and Fighting for the Living

Óscar Martínez | El Faro | August 27, 2021 | 7,800

“New York was one of the states hit hardest by the pandemic in the United States. The hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants who live there suffered both the virus and its ravages: mass graves, widespread contagion, hunger, debt, overcrowded housing, unemployment—just some of the legacies of 2020. After years of struggle, many must start all over again.”

3. Cases of Missing Trans People Are Rarely Solved. A Married Pair of Forensic Genealogists Is Hoping to Change That.

Erica Lenti | Xtra Magazine | September 1, 2021 | 3,645 words

“Resolving any Doe case is, at its core, about restoring dignity to the dead. But that is especially pertinent in cases of trans and gender nonconforming people, who are routinely harassed, sexualized, overpoliced and dehumanized. The TDTF’s work is also about restoration, righting the historical wrongs of institutions that have overlooked trans people. It is not easy work, but the Redgraves consider it necessary. If we want to begin the process of undoing decades of harm that systemic transphobia has caused, they say, this is one painful but crucial place to begin.”

4. “Is This My Life Now?” Justin Foster’s—and My—Struggle With Long-Haul COVID

T.J. Quinn | ESPN | August 16, 2021 | 6,670 words

“From our first conversation, we connected about what it was like to suddenly no longer be yourself, and the constant self-doubt that came with it. If we can’t do the things we used to do, then who are we?”

5. Death of a Storyteller

Matt Zoller Seitz | Vulture | September 7, 2021 | 3,450 words

“Rare is the actor who can locate the specific in the universal and vice versa. Michael K. Williams was that actor.”

A Sketch Artist, a Grieving Mother, and An Unsolved Mystery

Michael Marsicano for The Atavist Magazine

Nile Cappello | The Atavist Magazine | August 2021 | 7 minutes (1,994 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 118, “The Girl in the Picture,” written by Nile Cappello and illustrated by Michael Marsicano.

The Atavist Magazine is Longreads’ sister publication. For 10 years, it has been a digital pioneer in longform narrative journalism, publishing one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a member.



For most residents of Holland, Michigan, there was nothing remarkable about March 11, 1989, a Saturday. Frost on the ladders of the city’s water towers thawed in the sun—spring was just over a week away. Mothers poured milk over cereal for kids watching back-to-back episodes of their favorite cartoons. Fathers who worked weekends drove pickup trucks to industrial jobs at local automotive and concrete companies.

But all was not well in the house on the corner of Lincoln Road and 52nd Street. It belonged to Dennis and Brenda Bowman, a married couple with two children. For the Bowmans, March 11 marked the last time they saw their 14-year-old daughter, Aundria, alive.

Dennis was the one who contacted the police. He told them that he’d come home from his job as a wood machinist to find Aundria missing, along with some of her belongings and $100 from his dresser. Dennis described Aundria—whom he and Brenda had adopted when she was an infant—as a troubled teenager who frequently fought with her mother and had run away to a friend’s house once before.

Dennis agreed to call around to the homes of kids Aundria knew to find out if anyone had seen her. But his wife soon took over as the family’s point of contact. It was Brenda who called the police regularly, and Brenda who corrected the amount of cash missing from her husband’s dresser to $150. That was enough for police to issue a warrant for Aundria’s arrest for larceny; the warrant listed Dennis as the victim of his daughter’s alleged crime.

With no foul play suspected, the police labeled Aundria a runaway and passed her case along to the Youth Services Bureau. Few people who knew the Bowmans questioned the official narrative. Over the years, there had been whispers about the family. Once, when Aundria was in middle school, she boarded the school bus bleeding from her wrist. Some kids gossiped about a suicide attempt, but others said Aundria had cut herself trying to get back into her house after her parents locked her out. There were rumors that Dennis, a former Navy reservist with reddish-brown hair, a goatee, and wire-rimmed glasses, and Brenda, a portly woman with curled bangs who’d once worked at the jewelry counter at Meijer department store, abused Aundria. But back then, what happened behind closed doors was considered family business.

Fifteen months before Aundria disappeared, Brenda gave birth to a daughter, Vanessa. Aundria went from being an only child to more than a big sister—she was a third parent to the chubby, redheaded baby. While other kids her age went to afterschool clubs and Friday night football games, Aundria stayed home changing diapers and cleaning bottles. She kept a photo of her sister in a school folder, where other teens might stash a magazine cutout or a polaroid of their crush. When she wasn’t with Vanessa, Aundria was anxious about the baby’s well-being.

Many people in Holland assumed that Aundria had gotten so fed up with her home life that she finally split. Maybe she’d gone looking for her birth mother. People heard that she’d hitched a ride at a local truck stop, had left town with an older boy, or was pregnant.

Brenda reported a series of tips in the weeks and months following her daughter’s disappearance, all of which seemed to confirm that Aundria had run away. At the end of March, Brenda claimed Aundria had been spotted at a 7-Eleven. In mid-April, Brenda said she received an anonymous call from someone claiming that police were looking for the teenager in the right area, but on the wrong street—whatever that meant. In June, she reported a sighting at a local property, where Aundria had supposedly been hanging out with a group of young men. And in October, Brenda said a friend had seen Aundria, pregnant and with dyed hair, in a line at Meijer. Police investigated but found nothing.

Aundria’s classmates went to prom and graduated, then got jobs or headed to college. Eventually they married and had children of their own. But Aundria remained forever 14. A single photograph formed most people’s memory of her. It was given to police when she first vanished. In it, Aundria is sitting against a blue studio backdrop and looking just off camera, with her green eyes cast hopefully upward and pieces of her dark, shaggy hair hanging over her forehead. Her smile is charmingly off-balanced. She looks suspended between adolescence and adulthood.

Photos of missing children were often printed on the sides of milk cartons or on flyers taped to the top of pizza delivery boxes. Aundria’s picture wound up somewhere else. In 1993, the band Soul Asylum debuted a music video for its song “Runaway Train,” featuring the images and names of missing kids across America. The video was a huge hit, with several versions airing on MTV and VH1. In the one that played in Michigan, Aundria’s photo appears just after the two-minute mark.

Reflecting on the video 20 years after its release, director Tony Kaye claimed that more than two dozen missing children were found because of the video. Aundria Bowman wasn’t one of them.

Back then, what happened behind closed doors was considered family business.


Carl Koppelman never expected to solve mysteries. He worked as an accountant until 2009, when his mother’s health began to decline. At 46, Koppelman became a full-time caregiver, and his days, once filled with reviews of spreadsheets and financial statements, now revolved around driving to doctor’s appointments and administering medications. When he wasn’t tending to his mother, Koppelman was online, exploring message boards, news sites, and social media. At the time, the story dominating headlines, and bordering on popular obsession, was the return of Jaycee Dugard.

In 1991, Dugard had been kidnapped while walking to a bus stop near her home south of Lake Tahoe, California. The blond, freckled 11-year-old was the subject of a nationwide search, but eventually the case went cold. Then, on August 26, 2009, Dugard reappeared. For 18 years, convicted sex offender Philip Garrido and his wife, Nancy, had held her captive at their home in the town of Antioch, more than 150 miles from where they’d kidnapped her. Dugard had given birth to two of Garrido’s daughters, who were now 11 and 15. To the embarrassment of local authorities, parole officers had visited the Garridos’ home several times during the years Dugard was missing. They’d failed to check the backyard, where the young woman was kept in a network of tents, lean-tos, and sheds.

Koppelman’s interest in the Dugard case led him to Websleuths, a forum where crime hobbyists and armchair detectives connect and collaborate on unsolved cases. Koppelman gravitated to posts about cold cases, the ones least likely to ever be solved. Until recently, Dugard’s had been one of them. How many more would benefit from fresh eyes and a little persistence?

Koppelman spent countless hours scrolling through the national database of missing persons and unidentified bodies, known as NamUs. There’s overlap between the two main parts of the database, the disappeared and the deceased—the trick is finding it. During late nights at his computer, in a dimly lit corner of his mother’s suburban home in El Segundo, California, Koppelman would try to match the characteristics of people who had gone missing with those of the unidentified dead. Finding a likeness could be enough to generate a tip for law enforcement.

When Koppelman noticed that the age and condition of some bodies might make it difficult for loved ones to recognize them, it sparked an idea: Koppelman liked to draw portraits for fun, and he was pretty good at it. He also had a CD-ROM of the image-editing software CorelDRAW, which someone had given to him as a gift. One day, with his mother napping in the next room, Koppelman installed the program on his computer. It was his first step toward becoming a forensic sketch artist.

He started creating lifelike renderings of Jane and John Does based on photos taken postmortem. He used CorelDRAW to open eyes, fill in sunken cheeks, and give faces more dynamic expressions. In complicated cases, where bodies had decomposed, he re-created facial structure. The goal was to make the dead more recognizable—to loved ones searching for them, and to police trying to identify them. Once he finished a rendering Koppelman sent it to NamUs, and the database would sometimes publish it. He also posted his work on Websleuths so other armchair detectives could use it in their identification efforts.

Eventually, Koppelman began working with police departments and the DNA Doe Project, which identifies human remains through genetic testing and genealogical research. Glad to help law enforcement generate leads and, in some instances, put a name to a face, Koppelman was almost always an unpaid volunteer. His renderings were instrumental in solving several cold cases, including the identification of the Caledonia “Cali” Jane Doe (Tammy Jo Alexander) in 2015.

But before all that, in 2009, when he was just starting out as an amateur sleuth, Koppelman got interested in the case of the Racine County Jane Doe. When she was found near the edge of a Wisconsin cornfield in 1999, the young woman had only been dead about 12 hours, but rain had washed away any evidence that might have been useful to investigators. It seemed likely that the young woman had been murdered elsewhere and dumped. An autopsy determined that she may have been cognitively disabled, and that she had suffered long-term abuse and neglect: She had broken bones and a cauliflower ear, and her body showed signs of sexual assault. More than 50 people from the farming community where she was found attended her funeral. But no one knew her name or what had happened to her. Her gravestone read “Gone, But Not Forgotten”—a hope more than a description.

Koppelman read everything he could find about the Racine County Jane Doe, combing through news articles and social media. He learned that she had hazel-green eyes, two piercings in each ear, and short reddish-brown hair. She was five-foot-eight and 120 pounds, and estimated to be between 18 and 30 years old. She was found wearing a men’s gray and silver western-style shirt embroidered with red flowers—a design, the manufacturer told police, from the mid-1980s.

On NamUs, Koppelman plugged in some general search criteria—gender, age, location—and clicked through the results for missing persons. With each one, Koppelman asked himself, Could this be her? In most cases, the answer was a clear no. The age didn’t match, or the location made no sense. But one entry gave Koppelman pause: Aundria Bowman.

Aundria and the Racine County Jane Doe shared physical characteristics, and their ages aligned: Aundria would have been 25 in 1999, when the Jane Doe was killed. Holland, where Aundria disappeared, sits directly across Lake Michigan from where the Jane Doe was found—it’s just four hours by car from one location to the other, tracing the lake’s southern shoreline and passing through Chicago. To test the possible identification, Koppelman created a composite image, superimposing Aundria’s photo with ones from the Jane Doe’s autopsy. He marked the similarities in red.

Koppelman took his theory to law enforcement, who found it compelling enough to investigate. To determine whether the Jane Doe was Aundria, police would need to compare DNA from the body with that of someone in Aundria’s family. Because Aundria was adopted, authorities had to track down her birth mother. Koppelman knew that could take a while, or that it might never happen, forcing investigators to find other avenues for identification.

As the police did their part, Koppelman kept poking around online, learning what he could about Aundria. One day at the end of 2012, he came across a page for Aundria—the premium kind you have to pay to keep active, in order to connect directly with former school acquaintances. Was this Aundria, alive and well, and trying to find old friends? And if it wasn’t her, who was it?

Read the full story at The Atavist

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Robert Sanchez, Nicholas Hune-Brown, Emily Van Duyne, David Ferris, and Jaya Saxena.

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1. The Enduring Legacy of Elijah McClain’s Tragic Death

Robert Sanchez| 5280 Magazine | September 1, 2021 | 4,454 words

“In summer 2020, the nation’s attention turned to the killing of a 23-year-old Aurora man. His death prompted a flood of more than 8,500 letters from outside the state of Colorado—all begging Governor Jared Polis for justice. We read every one.”

2. The Shadowy Business of International Education

Nicholas Hune-Brown | The Walrus | August 18, 2021 | 7,330

“Foreign students are lied to and exploited on every front. They’re also propping up higher education as we know it.”

3. Grace: An Unfinished Draft, A Fire

Emily Van Duyne | Avidly | September 9, 2020 | 2,405 words

“In Texas—Georgia—in Alabama—all over this vast canvas of fear that we call America, women will die. They won’t have time to run away. They will be great-Aunts only in name, and in death. And their deaths will disappear into a language made and remade by men to cover their shitty sins.”

4. When the Toughest Trees Met the Hottest Fire

David Ferris | E&E News | August 16, 2021 | 6,670 words

“The other name of the coast redwood is Sequoia sempervirens. The second word in Latin means ‘evergreen.’ Its tactics are legendary. Knock over a redwood and it is not dead. A circle of new redwoods, called a fairy ring, will grow around its wide base. The tree has cloned itself, and Big Basin is full of redwoods formed in rings, starting life in the ruins of death.”

5. Margaritaville and the Myth of American Leisure

Jaya Saxena | Eater | August 30, 2021 | 4,200 words

“Margaritaville, as Parrotheads will tell you, is a state of mind. But it’s also—delightfully, sometimes inexplicably—a real place now open in Times Square.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Slime Mould (Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Matt Hamilton and Garrett Therolf, Lacy M. Johnson, Devin Kelly, Max Bell, and Rainesford Stauffer.

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1. How the State of California Failed Noah Cuatro

Matt Hamilton, Garrett Therolf | Los Angeles Times | August 19, 2021 | 5,000 words

“Before a 4-year-old boy’s killing, authorities wavered on rescuing him.”

2. What Slime Knows

Lacy M. Johnson | Orion Magazine | August 24, 2021 | 3,411

“There is no hierarchy in the web of life.”

3. From a Window

Devin Kelly | wildness | August 15, 2020 | 2,089 words

“Tonight, a dog holds a piece of cardboard in its mouth for an entire block. I don’t know what it finds in such a small, almost useless thing, but then again, I horde so much of what is small and useless, even to me, even to a dog. In most moments, there is something beautiful about trying, even if it’s impossible.”

4. The Bizarre and Tragic Ride of J Sw!ft

Max Bell | theLAnd Magazine | August 26, 2021 | 5,938 words

“What follows is the far more complicated story of how our country’s complex, disturbingly callous, and ever-shifting yet forever intractable immigration policies created years of hell and potentially permanent exile for one of hip-hop’s greatest producers.”

5. Her Name Is Not Honey Boo Boo

Rainesford Stauffer | Teen Vogue | August 25, 2021 | 2,300 words

She grew up on reality TV. Now she’d like you to call her Alana.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from David Rohde, Sarah Cox, Wyatt Williams, Joshua Hammer, and Kiana Fitzgerald, Paula Mejía, Matt Sonzala, Donnie Houston, Lance Scott Walker, Brandon Caldwell, Cat Cardenas, Jessi Pereira, and Sama’an Ashrawi.

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1. Trying—and Failing—to Save the Family of the Afghan Who Saved Me

David Rohde | The New Yorker | August 17, 2021 | 2,539 words

“We saw the city full of these strange armed men. With strange clothing and hair styles. We are back in the nineties, you can’t believe these people are back.” The last time the Taliban had seized power, in 1996, their reign had begun with relative calm, but they quickly started conducting house raids, making arrests, and inflicting other abuses.”

2. Inside the Pacheedaht Nation’s Stand on Fairy Creek Logging Blockades

Sarah Cox | The Narwhal | August 16, 2021 | 7,574

“The Pacheedaht Nation has close to 300 members. About 120 live in the Pacheedaht community, less than a 15-minute drive from the blockades. And the inconvenient truth for the protesters, however well-intentioned in their inventive and prolonged efforts to save old-growth, however well-versed in the parlance of acknowledging the territories of Indigenous peoples, is that only a few Pacheedaht members have joined them.”

3. Eating the Whale

Wyatt Williams | Harper’s Magazine | August 18, 2021 | 5,739 words

“A personal history of meat.”

4. The Sopranos of Berlin: A Brutal Crime Family and a Billion Dollar Jewel Heist

Joshua Hammer | GQ | August 18, 2021 | 6,208 words

“For such thieves, there is no more desirable prize than the crown jewels of the great monarchies of Europe. Putting aside whatever cultural significance these treasures may have later accrued—landing them in museums—the simple fact is that these pieces were made of materials that are still quite valuable today. The authorities feared that if they didn’t catch a quick break, pieces of the Green Vault collection would be lost forever.”

5. The 20 Essential Texas Rap Tracks

Kiana Fitzgerald, Paula Mejía, Matt Sonzala, Donnie Houston, Lance Scott Walker, Brandon Caldwell, Cat Cardenas, Jessi Pereira, and Sama’an Ashrawi | Texas Monthly | August 18, 2021 | 7,267 words

“Rap wasn’t meant for Texas. But it was only a matter of time before Texans started rapping, made the genre their own, and regifted it to the world.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

The North Tower reflecting pool of the National September 11 Memorial at night in New York City.

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jennifer Senior, Aaron Hutchins, Molly Ball, Diana Hubbell, and Vauhini Vara.

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1. What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind

Jennifer Senior | The Atlantic | August 9, 2021 | 13,254 words

“Grief, conspiracy theories, and one family’s search for meaning in the two decades since 9/11.”

2. Forgiving Jaskirat Sidhu

Aaron Hutchins | Maclean’s | August 4, 2021 | 5,045

“Who deserves absolution, and when, is one of humanity’s most vexing questions—one families devastated by the Humboldt Broncos tragedy can’t seem to avoid.”

3. What Mike Fanone Can’t Forget

Molly Ball | Time Magazine | August 5, 2021 | 5,745 words

“There is a thin blue line between order and chaos, and at that moment, Mike Fanone was it.”

4. There Has Been Blood

Diana Hubbell | Eater | August 3, 2021 | 6,471 words

“For more than five decades, the Thai palm oil industry has been marred by rampant exploitation, violence, and corporate greed. Thailand is the world’s No. 3 producer of palm oil.”

5. Ghosts

Vauhini Vara | The Believer | August 9, 2021 | 5,992 words

“I didn’t know how to write about my sister’s death—so I had AI do it for me.”

The Cult That Promises to Cure Addiction

Benjamin Rasmussen for The Atavist Magazine

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 115, “The Love Bomb,” by Daniel Kolitz.

Daniel Kolitz| The Atavist | July 2021 | 10 minutes (2,100 words)


On Super Bowl Sunday, three weeks into the 1980s, Dave Cherry had the house to himself. The 15-year-old was sprawled out on his parents’ gold bedspread watching the game, but on the list of things he cared about—Led Zeppelin, the possibility of alternate dimensions, acquiring and inhaling tremendous quantities of weed—football barely ranked. Inertia, a sense of having nothing better to do, was the only thing that kept him watching.

When the game ended, the network cut to Dan Rather, his posture as rigid as his hair. Rather introduced the subject of that week’s 60 Minutes episode: the Palmer Drug Abuse Program. “Few people outside of Texas had ever heard of PDAP,” Rather intoned, “until People magazine reported that Carrie Hamilton, the 15-year-old daughter of TV star Carol Burnett and producer Joe Hamilton, had become a drug addict, and that her parents had sent Carrie to PDAP, where she kicked her habit.”

Cherry, who lived in the suburbs of St. Louis, wasn’t familiar with PDAP, nor with Carrie Hamilton’s recovery, despite Burnett and her family making the daytime talk-show rounds—Dinah Shore, Phil Donahue—to praise the program and its founder, a recovering addict and alcoholic named Bob Meehan. “Some see Mr. Meehan as a miracle worker,” Rather said, “bringing God and clean living back into young people’s lives. Others say he gets those youngsters dependent on him and PDAP in place of their former dependence on drugs and alcohol.”

Meehan appeared on screen, looking like someone’s hazy misconception of 1970s cool: wide white sideburns, bushy blond goatee. Fury seemed to flash behind his orange-tinted aviators. Cherry, the son of strict Southern Baptists, was suddenly interested. Meehan was precisely the kind of guy his parents would despise.

“Now, I’m saying, this program works for a group of people. If it doesn’t work for you, try another one!” Meehan told 60 Minutes. “We’re not controlling you in any way, shape, or form. You don’t like it, leave!”

Meehan called his method of treating substance abuse Enthusiastic Sobriety, or ES. It was a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for teenagers; it emphasized community and spirituality, but also insisted that participants needed to have fun. Cherry watched footage of cozy group confessionals and larger meetings that looked like pep rallies. Kids traded shoulder squeezes and looks of fervent understanding. A pretty woman, maybe 20 years old, cradled a younger boy’s head as another woman thanked him for filling a void in her life. “I love you,” she said, prompting claps and cheers from the people gathered around her.

A lonely kid, Cherry felt a stir of longing.

Meehan was so animated that, beside him, Rather looked like an expensive wax statue. When Rather questioned him about his $100,000 annual income, a combination of his PDAP salary and payments from a company that ran hospitals where PDAP referred teenagers for inpatient treatment, Meehan grinned. “If I wasn’t making money, you wouldn’t be here today, partner!” he said. Pressed for evidence of the high success rates PDAP touted in its advertisements, Meehan delivered a wandering monologue on the perils of methadone and the definition of success before telling Rather that if 60 Minutes or its host would like to give him $75,000 to conduct a study, he’d be happy to take it.

“Are you saying to me that you don’t have any data to back up your claim that you’re 75 to 80 percent successful?” Rather asked.

“The data we have is quite different from data anybody else has,” Meehan said.

“But when you boil it down, what you’ve got is a guess,” Rather pressed.

“Oh definitely,” Meehan said, inscrutable. “Definitely a guess.”

Rather presented dissenting opinions, from sources who described an environment that seemed designed to keep PDAP participants in thrall to Meehan. A mustached man in a tan leather jacket said that people were being “led to believe that we can’t make it without the program,” prompting Rather to remark, astonished, that this would make participation “never-ending.” Confronted with the notion that PDAP was manipulative and opportunistic, Meehan became even more energetic. “I’ve been a con all my life,” he told Rather. “Just, now I’m using it in a good way, see?”

The segment was in no uncertain terms a takedown. It aired on the highest-rated news program in the country, directly after the biggest event on TV. It should have been Bob Meehan’s undoing. But it wasn’t.

Over the next 40 years, Meehan proved to be a skilled shapeshifter and profiteer. Enthusiastic Sobriety, which as it turned out was even more destructive than 60 Minutes revealed, spread well beyond PDAP. It evolved, taking various names and forms; when one door closed, Meehan found another to open. Recovery programs that he ran or wielded influence over enrolled thousands of young people across the United States. Today, ES outfits run by members of Meehan’s inner circle still exist in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and North Carolina.

ES also ensnared staff and some clients in what people who’ve abandoned it now call a cult. Meehan and his closest confidants—a group dubbed the Family—controlled every aspect of members’ lives. The story recounted here draws on interviews with 65 former clients, counselors, and loved ones of people involved with ES from its origins in the 1970s through to the present day. Their experiences echo those described in an active online community of former ES followers, who use Facebook and other social-media platforms to tell their stories. Some subjects spoke to The Atavist Magazine on condition of anonymity.

Flopped on his parents’ bed in 1980, Dave Cherry couldn’t have guessed the outsize role he’d one day play in ES, or the extent to which Meehan would come to dominate his life. Years would pass before the two even met. All Cherry knew on that Super Bowl Sunday was that he liked the guy. He thought Dan Rather had given Bob Meehan a raw deal.


Part One

Hard facts about Meehan’s life before PDAP are scarce, but he always told a compelling origin story—how he first shot heroin at 16; how the habit soon compelled him to pawn his parents’ furniture; how they committed him to a psychiatric ward; how he escaped and spent the next ten years on and off the streets, using not only heroin but also codeine, quaaludes, cocaine, speed, and alcohol. During this period, according to several people who knew Meehan, he claimed to have robbed several pharmacies, killed several men, and played drums in several small-time jazz ensembles.

In Meehan’s telling, his luck changed in 1971. Released from a Kentucky prison cell, he wound up in Houston, digging ditches for Rice University. At 27, he was mostly toothless—he wore dentures—and bald, save for a grimy curtain of hair running from the peak of his scalp down to his shoulders. A Fu Manchu mustache drooped past his chin. He’d mostly stopped using drugs but still wrestled with booze, and after another short stint in jail, this time for burglary and public drunkenness, he began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church.

The gatherings were presided over by Father Charles Wyatt-Brown, a soft-spoken priest beloved by his community. Wyatt-Brown took a liking to Meehan, who was outspoken in meetings. The two began having lunch together. Wyatt-Brown soon hired Meehan as his church’s janitor.

Teens made regular use of the church in those days, playing Frisbee on the grounds and popping inside to use the bathroom. Some of them were drug users, and Wyatt-Brown encouraged Meehan to befriend them, hoping he might set them on a better path. In fact, Wyatt-Brown said, Meehan’s attention was better spent helping children than vacuuming hallways.

Meehan was singularly charismatic, a perpetual motion machine with a comic’s timing and a gift for connecting with kids. It helped that he chain-smoked, cursed incessantly, and had a vast supply of dirty jokes and prison yarns to keep them entertained. Soon, with Wyatt-Brown’s permission, six young people began meeting regularly with Meehan in the church’s basement. They played cards, complained about teachers, talked about crushes. Sometimes Meehan took to the piano, leading sing-alongs. Within six months, the group’s ranks had expanded to 40, and Meehan was formally promoted to the role of youth counselor. Another six months later, attendance had reached 250, and Wyatt-Brown established the Palmer Drug Abuse Program as a nonprofit, with a board of directors to facilitate the program’s growth. Meehan was made director.

Meehan didn’t have formal qualifications to run a drug-treatment program. What he had was life experience and an eye for demand. White middle-class Americans shaped by the promise and comforts of the postwar era were terrified that substance abuse would steal their children’s future. The war on drugs began in 1971, with Richard Nixon declaring illegal substances “public enemy number one.” Within a few years, the so-called parent movement, which preached zero tolerance of marijuana, narcotics, and alcohol, would spread across the country. But Meehan recognized that a top-down approach wasn’t likely to appeal to kids. What rebellious teenager does what their parents or president tells them to do?

Meehan started developing Enthusiastic Sobriety, which was both a theory and a practice. In order to entice teens, he believed, clean living needed to be just as fun—and just as reckless—as the alternative. If teens wanted to grow their hair long, smoke cigarettes, stay out all night, or even drop out of school, parents should let them—whatever kept them off drugs and alcohol was a good thing. Thus liberated, kids could enter the alternate social world of PDAP, which had its own dances, campouts, and house parties, all of them substance-free.

Spirituality was part of PDAP’s deal; much like AA, the program was rooted in the possibility of redemption. If that didn’t seem cool to teenagers, Meehan would be the first to tell them they were wrong. He believed that peer pressure was what drove young people to experiment with drugs and alcohol, and he aimed to use the same tactic to keep them sober. As soon as they walked in the door of a meeting, PDAP newcomers were smothered in hugs and people saying “I love you.” The tactic, called “love bombing,” is now widely recognized as a method for luring people into cults. One PDAP participant recalled thinking, “These guys are like the Hare Krishna or something. They’re going to try to make me sell flowers at the airport next week.”

In the program’s early days, Meehan met and married Joy DeFord, a diminutive, dark-haired divorcée who ran Palmer Memorial’s Alateen program, for teenagers who had alcoholics in their families. Joy came across as a polished Southern belle, a calm counterpoint to her manic husband, though she had quirks of her own, including an interest in hypnotism and homeopathy. The Meehans had a daughter and informally adopted a PDAP participant named Susan Lowry. Joy began running PDAP’s parent group, which held meetings each week. Hers was an essential role—PDAP’s smooth functioning depended on parents buying into the developing ES methodology.

PDAP could be a tough sell for parents. Beyond the smoking and the late nights, there was the fact that PDAP’s counselors looked like they could have been former drug dealers. Some of them were former drug dealers. One young man showed up for his first PDAP meeting, struck up a conversation with a counselor, and quickly realized that he’d “bought dope from the guy before.” When the adults balked about who was supervising their kids, Joy calmed them down. A common refrain was “Would you rather they were dead?”

PDAP was free, funded entirely by community donations. Participants had to commit to 30 days of sobriety, during which they would attend frequent meetings. They could keep coming to PDAP after that—in fact, they were encouraged to make the program the permanent anchor of their existence. Meehan, a fervent follower of AA, implemented a version of the 12 steps in PDAP. Participants made moral inventories and direct amends to those they’d hurt, and they admitted that substances rendered their lives unmanageable. Meehan put his own spin on other steps. His second one was “We have found it necessary to ‘stick with winners’ in order to grow.” To keep old friends around—especially if they used drugs or alcohol, but often even if they were sober—was to court relapse or worse. Once someone had PDAP, they didn’t need anyone else. In the words of one former participant, PDAP was “a whole group of people who were just like me.”

Read the full story at The Atavist

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, resources are available from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, including a 24/7 national helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Additional information on rehab abuse is available via Breaking Code Silence.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 19: Theo Henderson from We The Unhoused podcast speaks from the steps of LA City Hall as members of Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing (UTACH), a newly formed tenant organization, held a news conference to demand humane treatment in Project Roomkey programs and request a meeting with city officials. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images).

This week, we’re sharing stories from Ciara O’Rourke, Haley Britzky, Alissa Walker, Julie Sedivy, and Arika Okrent.

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1. The Fugitive and the Chameleon

Ciara O’Rourke | Deseret News | August 2, 2021 | 6,154 words

“Mario’s father had gone by many names. Luis Archuleta. Lawrence Pusateri. The man the son knew as Ramon was just a fraction of his way into what may be one of the longest fugitive runs in U.S. history — a 50-year game of cat-and-mouse that played out across the West, from the streets of Colorado to the shores of California and many dusty, sun-bleached points in between.”

2. ‘We Are All Suffering in Silence’ — Inside the US Military’s Pervasive Culture of Eating Disorders

Haley Britzky | Task & Purpose | August 2, 2021 | 6,213

U.S. military service members develop harmful and unhealthy habits to maintain “body composition standards” that are outdated.

3. Theo Henderson’s Podcast Influences L.A. City Policy. For 7 Years, He’s Lived Mostly in the Park.

Alissa Walker| Curbed | October 14, 2020 | 2,505 words

“There are 60,000 unhoused people in L.A. County — (Theo) Henderson prefers ‘unhoused’ because he says ‘homeless’ has become a slur — as many as 40,000 of whom are considered, like him, to be ‘unsheltered,’ living outside the shelter system in tents, informal communities, and camps.”

4. The Strange Persistence of First Languages

Julie Sedivy | Nautilus | November 5, 2015 | 3,440 words

“Spurred by my father’s death, I returned to the Czech Republic hoping to reconnect to him. In doing so, I also reconnected with my native tongue, and with parts of my identity that I had long ignored.”

5. Typos, Tricks and Misprints

Arika Okrent | Aeon | July 26, 2021 | 3,401 words

“Why is English spelling so weird and unpredictable? Don’t blame the mix of languages; look to quirks of timing and technology.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jason Fagone, Stephanie Mencimer, Roberta Hill, Kaleb Horton, and Kelundra Smith.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

1. The Jessica Simulation: Love and Loss in the Age of A.I.

Jason Fagone | San Francisco Chronicle | July 23, 2021 | 10,801 words

“The death of the woman he loved was too much to bear. Could a mysterious website allow him to speak with her once more?”

2. Armed Standoffs With the Government, ‘Uber Militias,’ and Ammon Bundy’s Run to Be Idaho’s Next Governor

Stephanie Mencimer | Mother Jones | July 26, 2021 | 8,649

“Does running for office make him less dangerous—or more?”

3. Survivor

Roberta Hill | Toronto Life | July 27, 2021 | 3,917 words

“The discovery of hundreds of Indigenous children’s remains in the spring was particularly hard for me—because I knew I could have been one of them. How I made it through Canada’s residential school system.”

4. The Ballad of the Chowchilla Bus Kidnapping

Kaleb Horton | Vox | July 23, 2020 | 13,872 words

“If you told somebody 26 kids went missing, the most ever in America, that somebody would likely assume they were dead. But they’d survived! All of them! Many potlucks would ensue.”

5. On the Heels of Foot Soldiers

Kelundra Smith | The Bitter Southerner | July 27, 2021 | 1,912 words

“Fueled by the power of love, Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown wants the next generation of activists to learn from the music and wisdom of the past and to press on to protect voting rights in the rural South and beyond.”