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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Eli Murray, Rebecca Woolington, and Corey G. Johnson, Ava Kofman, Olly Nze, Dina Gachman, and Larissa Pham.

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1. Poisoned

Eli Murray, Rebecca Woolington, Corey G. Johnson | Tampa Bay Times | March 24, 2021 | 6,560 words

“Hundreds of workers at a Tampa lead smelter have been exposed to dangerous levels of the neurotoxin. The consequences have been profound.”

2. The Broken Front Line

Ava Kofman | ProPublica | April 7, 2021 | 5,890 words

“The wave of coronavirus cases that swept across the country late last year put even the most battle-hardened EMTs under unprecedented psychological strain.”

3. Haphephobia

Olly Nze | The Audacity | March 24, 2021 | 2,427 words

“The day I told her I was gay, the hugs changed. They became longer and tighter, like she was trying to hug the sin out of me.”

4. Feel Right at Home

Dina Gachman | Texas Highways | April 7, 2021 | 3,029 words

“Now I live near Brushy Creek instead of the Seine or the Pacific, and I’m not the first to make that sharp midlife turn from the city to the suburbs. ”

5. Crush

Larissa Pham | The Believer | April 1, 2021 | 4,100 words

“Can we fall in love completely without completely losing ourselves?”

Switch at Birth — But How?

From left: Rita and Ches Hynes; Mildred and Donald Avery / Jessie Brinkman Evans for The Atavist

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 113, “The Lives of Others,” by writer Lindsay Jones. In remote Newfoundland, a search for answers about a series of baby mix-ups leads to a woman known as “Nurse Tiger.”

Lindsay Jones | The Atavist | March 2021 | 5 minutes (1,556 words)

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

Rita Hynes lugged her pregnant body up the rural hospital’s wooden steps. It was the night of December 7, 1962, and her rounded belly tightened with each contraction. At just 20, Rita knew what she was in for. She had given birth two years prior, to a girl. Rita wasn’t married then, so the priest from her Catholic fishing hamlet on the southern coast of Newfoundland had snatched the infant from her arms and slapped Rita across the face. The baby would be raised by an aunt and uncle.

Rita, a slip of a woman, with blond hair and a rollicking laugh, soon became pregnant again by the baby girl’s father, a burly, blue-eyed fisherman named Ches Hynes, who was 11 years her senior. The couple married in the summer of 1961, the same day their son Stephen was born. But their happiness was short-lived: Stephen died as an infant, in his sleep.

Now Rita was pregnant for a third time. At the hospital, she felt the intensifying crests of pain—at first bearable, and then searing as the night wore on. Just after midnight, she heard the cries of her eight-pound baby pierce the air. A boy! She named him Clarence Peter Hynes, after his godfather, who was a close friend of her husband’s, and her brother, who had died in a fishing accident. Clarence was deposited in the hospital’s nursery and tucked into a bassinet, while Rita dozed in the women’s ward. This time, she surely hoped, no one and nothing would take her baby.

Clarence, whom everyone calls Clar, grew up in a fishing town, St. Bernard’s, perched on the edge of Newfoundland’s Fortune Bay. He was the first in a steady stream of infants to arrive at the Hyneses’ home, a small taupe bungalow on a hill overlooking the quay, with its fish sheds painted the bright colors of jelly beans. As a youngster, Clar watched out the kitchen window for boats steaming into the crescent-shaped harbor and then furiously pedaled his bike down to the wharf. He earned $4 an hour unloading and weighing nets teeming with squid and silver cod.

Clar slept in a top bunk in a room he shared with his brothers. They were fairer than he was—Clar had a toasty complexion and a thick head of dark hair. When they wanted to torment him, his brothers called him Freddy Fender, after the Mexican-American musician. He grew to become a local heartthrob, with a chiseled brow and lean, muscular frame. Clar was a natural athlete who excelled at hockey and cross-country. Rita, a typical hockey mom, banged on the glass during his games and leaned over the railings to yell at the referees.

At 16, when Clar left home for Ontario to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway, Rita cried for days. She knelt on a chair at the kitchen window, clutching her rosary beads and praying to God to bring her son back. She kept all the letters he sent her in her closet. When Clar did return, driving his navy blue Chevy Camaro into the village after many months away, the teenage girls of St. Bernard’s swooned. “Oh, Clar is so handsome!” his sister, Dorothy, remembered hearing again and again—her friends were always talking about her big brother.

Clar was 24 when he met a woman named Cheryl at a motel bar in Marystown, farther down the boot-shaped peninsula from where he grew up. Clar had an on-and-off girlfriend at the time, but when he saw Cheryl he was smitten. With pretty, bow-shaped lips and curly blond hair, she was the belle of the bar. She’d recently moved back to Newfoundland from the Toronto area, where she’d worked as a hairstylist. Cheryl noticed Clar looking at her. She didn’t normally date guys from rural fishing communities, or “down over the road.” They were a hard bunch. But as she and Clar talked over beers and glasses of Screech rum and 7Up, Cheryl found him attentive and kind. They danced and chatted the night away. She didn’t want it to end.

They were married two years later in Marystown’s white, steepled Anglican church. The ceremony was packed to the gills with family. Rita wore a royal blue dress with puffed sleeves, and her husband Ches a dark gray suit. They were thrilled to see Clar tie the knot.

Rita was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer a few years later, at 50. Clar nursed her as a mother would a baby. He held her and rocked her in the Hyneses’ old bungalow on the hill, making sure to face a window on the ocean so she could see the waves. Rita stayed with Clar and Cheryl at their home “in town,” as everyone calls Newfoundland’s capital city, St. John’s, during the futile treatment she underwent. Clar spoon-fed his mother bowls of fish and potatoes. He spent day after day with her right up until the end, so she would never be alone.

Five years after that, lung cancer took Ches.

Clar and Cheryl built a life together in St. John’s, raising three children of their own. When the fishery that had sustained generations of islanders collapsed, Newfoundland’s economy reoriented itself around the offshore oil and gas business. By 2014, Clar had a job as a welding foreman at Bull Arm, one of the industry’s major fabrication sites, where employees were building an oil platform that would eventually be towed out to sea.

That December, 52 years to the day after Rita brought him into the world, Clar overheard a woman in the hallway just outside his office sing out to a coworker, “It’s Craig’s birthday!” The woman’s name was Tracey Avery, and she was a cleaner at Bull Arm. She was talking about her husband, who also worked at the site. How funny, Clar thought. “It’s my birthday, too,” he said with a laugh.

“Yes, b’y,” Tracey replied. (B’y is pronounced “bye”—the Newfoundland expression is one of surprise, like “oh really?”) “How old are you?”

When Clar told her his age, Tracey’s next words came tumbling out: “Where were you born?”

“Come By Chance Cottage Hospital,” Clar said.

Tracey stood stock still for a second, her mouth agape. Then she ran, leaving her mop and cart behind. Clar shivered.

In that moment, a secret began to worm its way into the light: Another child had been taken from Rita Hynes—and she wasn’t alone.

On ‘the rock,’ as Newfoundland is affectionately known, your bay and your bloodline still define who you are—they are the first things people ask about when they meet you.

Depending on how you look at it, the stirring of this long-buried truth was sheer coincidence—one of those wild things that just happens—or it was inevitable, born of the quiddity of place. Newfoundland, the island portion of the sprawling Canadian province known as Newfoundland and Labrador, is a massive triangular rock in the Atlantic Ocean, colonized centuries ago for its fishing grounds. It has a rugged coastline, with hundreds of communities nestled into crooks, crannies, and coves. Some towns have blush-inducing names such as Heart’s Desire, Leading Tickles, and Dildo, and each is its own remote kingdom, fortified by rolling bluffs. Extended families are vast and tightly bound. For a long time they had to be. In such an austere place, it was a matter of survival. Today on “the rock,” as Newfoundland is affectionately known, your bay and your bloodline still define who you are—they are the first things people ask about when they meet you.

Getting anywhere along Newfoundland’s 6,000 miles of mountainous coast has always been a challenge. In the early 20th century, people in many of the island’s approximately 1,300 outports—the local term for fishing towns—had limited access to health care. Cottage hospitals, strategically located to serve dozens of outports at once, were intended to eliminate unnecessary death and suffering. They were a place to have your appendix out, get stitched up after an accident, or give birth and recover under the care of qualified doctors and nurses. They heralded a new dawn for Newfoundland. According to Edward Lake, a nurse and health administrator who worked in cottage hospitals and later wrote the definitive account of their history, they were the start of the most advanced rural health care program North America had ever seen, forerunners to Canada’s publicly funded national system.

The first seven cottage hospitals opened in 1936. One was located in the village of Come By Chance, which had been given its curious name by English colonists. As the story goes, in 1612, white explorers came ashore in one bay, only to discover a well-worn path to another bay on another coastline. The path had been cut by the indigenous Beothuk people. (The Beothuk were wiped out in the 19th century by the encroachment of white settlers.) The route led to the mouth of a river flush with salmon. It was a fortuitous find, which perhaps explains why the colonists later christened the settlement they built there Come By Chance. More than three centuries on, the village would prove a prime spot for a cottage hospital, with more than 50 outports close by.

The cottage hospitals were cookie-cutter clapboard buildings designed to be inviting. From the outside they looked like quaint residences. Strangely, in Come By Chance, the hospital was built the wrong way round, with its back to the road. For those inclined to superstition, the error might seem like an omen—a foretelling of bigger mix-ups to come.

 

Read the full story at The Atavist

When Refugee Families are Separated, Women Carry the Burden

Author photo by Jill Filipovic, used courtesy of St Martin's Press.

Ty McCormick | Beyond the Sand and Sea, One Family’s Quest for Country to Call Home | April 2021 | 3,518 words (20 minutes)

A few weeks after Maryan gave birth to her first son, Mohamed, word came from Dadaab that her parents and younger siblings were going to America. The Ashraf had been given priority for resettlement by the UN, and thousands of people seemed to be were leaving at once. Believing her brief marriage to Yussuf had run its course, Maryan took the first bus back to Dadaab with little Mohamed in tow. She had yet to tell her parents about her husband, in part because there was part of her that always doubted their marriage would survive. Now there was no hiding the fact that she was married and a mother. Sharif and Kaltuma would never approve of her plan to leave without Yussuf. But if they were going to America, she was going too.

The sight of Maryan with an infant child was a shock to her parents. Her mother broke down in tears, and she and Sharif both begged her to reconcile with Yussuf. “Think of the damage you are doing to our reputation,” they said. But Maryan was adamant that she was done with him. A day or two before the family was scheduled to begin the vetting process for resettlement, though, Yussuf showed up in Dadaab demanding to know why Maryan had left with their son. He had heard from family back in Moyale that the UN was taking her to America. Suddenly, the wife he had abandoned was his ticket to a better life.

Initially, Maryan rejected the idea out of hand. But her parents pushed and cajoled her. Divorce was simply out of the question as far as they were concerned. It wasn’t just taboo; it was unspeakable, a religious and moral failing that she would take to the grave. Leaving Yussuf behind, she realized, would wound her parents in a way she could never repair. What’s more, she harbored her own feelings of guilt at having agreed to marry him. You picked this guy, she thought. You can’t just walk away.

Reluctantly, Maryan agreed to give her marriage a second chance. She and Yussuf hadn’t had a legal wedding in Moyale, so they organized a hasty one at a mosque in Ifo in order to obtain the marriage certificate they would need to be resettled as a family. A sheikh named Jawad Abdi presided over the ceremony, and his signature is affixed to the bottom of a handwritten document from that day, specifying a dowry of “a cow of three years.” Sharif’s signature appears as a witness, above a statement clarifying that the improvised certificate, written in English and in Arabic, “should serve as proof of said marriage because currently marriage certificates are out of stock.”

Once they were officially wed, Maryan and Yussuf were given their own resettlement case with baby Mohamed, instead of remaining attached to Sharif, Kaltuma, and the rest of their children. That fateful decision, made to accommodate Yussuf, would end up splitting the family in two for years to come.

* * *

Maryan came off the plane in Phoenix carrying one-year-old Mohamed and a white plastic bag stamped with the blue insignia of the International Organization for Migration. In addition to immigration and work authorization papers, the bag contained a four-by-six-inch card bearing the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Unlike the generation of Somalis that would follow her, including her three youngest siblings, Maryan hadn’t grown up dreaming of the United States. The words “land of the free and home of the brave” held no meaning for her. All she knew was that she wanted a better life for herself and for her family. That meant being more than a mother and a wife, more than a woman for whom a suitable dowry was a cow of three years.

Their journey had lasted more than forty-eight hours, taking them from Nairobi to New York to Houston and finally on to Phoenix. Neither she nor her husband had ever seen an airplane up close, let alone ridden on one. Now as they exited the terminal at Sky Harbor Airport, Maryan suddenly froze in terror. In front of her was a glass-encased stairway that appeared to be collapsing. The steps were grooved and sturdy-looking, but they fell away, one after the other, each time she went to step on them. It took a moment for Maryan to grasp what was happening. The concourse had been relatively empty when they arrived at the top of the escalator, but now a small line had formed behind them and people were anxious to move.

“It’s okay, you can walk on it,” came the gentle voice of a woman behind her. The woman must have guessed they had just arrived from somewhere far away—Maryan in her black hijab looking fearful and confused, and Yussuf at a loss as well.

The escalator wasn’t the only thing about their new life that seemed odd. When Maryan would ride the Number Eleven bus with baby Mohamed, people would fawn over them and say what a cute daughter she had. It wasn’t until she made friends with a few Americans that she figured out the source of the misunderstanding: children’s clothes were gendered here, and Mohamed’s light pink pajamas were throwing people off. The grocery store was another locus of confusion. For months after they arrived, Maryan kept buying things by mistake because the pictures on the labels were misleading. A packet of tea bags, for instance, showed huge cubes of sugar, which was what she had intended to buy. Nothing was packaged this way back in Kenya. You bought things loose, not in bags or plastic wrappers. But Maryan was curious and outgoing by nature, and she didn’t mind learning by trial and error. In fact, she bought lots of things on impulse, without even trying to guess what they were. A box of shiny red strawberries jumped out at her, so she bought them on a whim, only to recoil in disgust at what to her was their strange, sour taste.

Many new arrivals in Tucson who had come from Dadaab, including Yussuf, had never lived outside of a small rural village. Some of the children had never seen the outside of a refugee camp. Maryan was unique in that she had lived alone in Nairobi. She also spoke decent English, and was used to a level of independence that was unusual in conservative Somali communities. This was a source of constant friction in her marriage, but it was also a font of opportunity in America. Because she could read and translate, she was an invaluable resource to the dozens of refugee families living in the area, the person inevitably called on to resolve all manner of misunderstandings with landlords, employers, and the police. It wasn’t long before the International Rescue Committee started hiring her for little jobs assisting other new arrivals, translating at job interviews or helping decipher training videos. She liked helping other refugees, and she could make as much as $75 for a single day of work.


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With the help of the International Rescue Committee, Maryan soon got a full-time job at Jack in the Box, cutting tomatoes and iceberg lettuce for Caesar salads. The pay was only $5 per hour, but the work was more regular than the translating jobs and the restaurant was close enough to the apartment complex that she didn’t have to waste money riding the bus. There were a few mishaps in the beginning, like the time she called a colleague fat and caused her to break down in tears. In Somali culture, girth signifies wealth, so she hadn’t anticipated this reaction. But on the whole, things went smoothly on the food-prep line. She made friends with her manager, a young woman named Nancy Rodriguez who was also a new mother in a tempestuous relationship. The two women liked to gossip and often confided in each other when things weren’t going well at home. Sometimes, Nancy would knock quietly on Maryan’s window at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. Maryan would slip out of the house, careful not to wake Yussuf, and zoom off with Nancy in her silver Honda Civic. The two of them would drive for hours before the sun came up, talking and listening to music. Eventually, Nancy started letting Maryan drive, teaching her to maneuver along quiet back roads even though she didn’t have a license.

Yussuf was having a different experience in his new country. Much less comfortable than his wife in their new surroundings, he was even more determined to control her than he had been in Kenya. The International Rescue Committee had helped him get a job, too, first as a night-shift cleaner at the Hilton and later as a landscaper. But the work was hard and he was constantly confused and embarrassed. Unable to speak English and unwilling to learn, he took his frustrations out on Maryan. He disliked that she worked, and he hated that she thought it earned her a measure of autonomy. The way Maryan saw it, she brought in more than half of their income, so she should have at least half the say in how the household was run. Yussuf disagreed, often forcefully. Over time, their fights grew even more ferocious. She would yell and cry, and he would slam his fists against the tables and the walls. Sometimes, he would physically block her from storming out into the hall. More than once, the neighbors called the police. But there was part of Maryan that felt sorry for Yussuf, part of her that knew she couldn’t leave him in a place where he couldn’t survive on his own. Each time the cops came, she kept her mouth shut.

Yussuf seemed threatened by Maryan’s prominent position in the community. He grew incensed when people he didn’t know called the house asking for her, and more than once he ripped the phone out of the wall. He also tried to sabotage Maryan’s friendships by spreading rumors that she had neglected their son. Once, when he and Maryan were meeting with an employment counselor at the International Rescue Committee, he announced that he had forbidden her from working outside the home. The counselor calmly reached across the desk and lifted up baby Mohamed, who had been swaddled in Maryan’s arms, handed him to Yussuf and told him to take the bus home. “You can control your child,” she said flatly, “But in America, you can’t control your wife.” Enraged, Yussuf stormed out of the room with the baby, a torrent of insults pouring out of his mouth in Somali. “You just follow the cadaan,” he sneered at Maryan, using the Somali word for whites. “You just follow their rules, and you don’t respect our religion.”

* * *

Maryan began to dread being in the apartment. Whenever Yussuf was there, she would find an excuse to go somewhere else with the baby, whether it was to the Reid Park Zoo with Nancy, who had a yearlong entry pass, or to Chuck E. Cheese with other friends from work. But the bond between her and Yussuf wasn’t completely severed, and feeling lonely and isolated, she sometimes let herself be drawn back into his arms. A little more than a year after they arrived in Arizona, she realized she was pregnant again.

Ambia was born with jaundice, a common blood disorder that made her skin appear slightly yellow. “You have a cursed child,” Yussuf said, when he first laid eyes on her at the University of Arizona Medical Center. The doctors said she would be just fine, but that Ambia needed to stay overnight for special therapy under a halogen light. They discharged Maryan, though, and told her to go home with Yussuf, a notion that struck her as preposterous. She wasn’t about to leave her baby in the care of people she didn’t know to be treated with a light machine she didn’t trust. In Kenya, no mother would leave her newborn at the hospital, but here the impassive white robed physicians clearly expected her to. She broke down crying, and implored them to let her stay. Eventually, they relented, and Maryan and Ambia were given a room together for the next three nights.

The counselor calmly reached across the desk and lifted up baby Mohamed, who had been swaddled in Maryan’s arms, handed him to Yussuf and told him to take the bus home. “You can control your child,” she said flatly, “But in America, you can’t control your wife.”

A few weeks later, when they were back home at the apartment on North Alvernon Way, a bill arrived in the mail. When Maryan read it, she let out a gasp: $16,000, for the care she and her daughter had received. It was more than a year’s salary at Jack in the Box. A knot forming in her chest, she dialed the billing department, unsure of what exactly she would say. But after she gave her patient code and verified her date of birth, the woman on the other end of the phone sounded surprised Maryan had called. “I’m showing no balance owed,” she said. “It’s been paid in full.”

Maryan never found out who paid that bill. She wondered if maybe it was the employment counselor from the International Rescue Committee, a woman whose name she can’t recall but who was always kind to her. Two years later, after her second daughter, Najma, was born, Maryan got up the courage to ask the counselor if she had been the guardian angel who had wiped out her debt. The woman scoffed at the suggestion. “I don’t have that kind of money,” she said.

But the counselor did have ideas about how Maryan could earn more money of her own: by pursuing a GED. With a high school equivalency certificate, a whole range of new job opportunities would open up—ones that paid better than $5 per hour and wouldn’t leave her clothes smelling like fried food.

Soon, Maryan was spending several hours a day at Pima Community College while an elderly Somali woman in their apartment building looked after the children. Maryan liked being back in school, but in the beginning, she was bewildered by her classmates. They put their feet on their desks and ate food during class. Acting like that at Abdul Aziz Primary would have earned you a beating. Were these students not afraid of the teachers? Did the teachers have no self-respect?

One of her courses at Pima was English as a Second Language, or ESL. Most of the assignments were simple worksheets that involved identifying errors in grammar or spelling. But the worksheets were supposed to serve a secondary function as well: introducing foreigners to American traditions and customs. Tailgating at sporting events was the subject of one memorable ESL worksheet, which advised students that the boozy tradition was “a fun part of college life and for sports fans in Illinois.” Maryan often found herself giggling quietly over assignments like these, which struck her as random to the point of absurdity. They weren’t even in Illinois, she thought to herself. And why on earth would she ever need to know about drunken college football parties?

Six months later, Maryan had her GED. Not long after that she got a job at St. Joseph’s Hospital, mopping up the surgical theater after operations. The pay was better than at Jack in the Box, and she was able to afford a drivers’ education course and eventually a used car. She was also able to send more money home to her parents. There had been all manner of expenses to cover, including tuberculosis medication for her father, whose health had taken a turn for the worse. Lately, she had also noticed additional charges on her credit card statement for e-books that her brother Asad had downloaded from Dadaab. The books were expensive, certainly more money than she would have spent on small luxuries for herself. But remembering the monotony of life in Dadaab, she was glad her brother had become a passionate reader. She hated to think of him wiling away his days in the heat, waiting in humiliating food distribution lines, and cooking over a fire pit. Books seemed to light him up, and thinking of him that way made her happy.

The two of them corresponded more frequently as the years wore on and Asad matured into a reserved and sensitive young man. She would create email and social media accounts for him so they could communicate more easily, then give him the log-in credentials over the phone. Sometimes, she would get email alerts warning that someone was trying to access her accounts from abroad. Those emails always made her smile.

She had come to think of Asad not just as a little sibling in need of direction, but as a partner in caring for their parents—she as the breadwinner in Arizona and he as the caregiver and problem-solver at home. Now instead of talking to Sharif about difficulties with doctors or the UN, it was always Asad she coordinated with. His was a comforting voice on the other end of the phone, and as time passed she felt herself leaning on him as well. When he was young, she had tried not to burden him with her own struggles. But the worse things got with Yussuf, the less of her suffering she was able to hide. It was strange opening up to someone she remembered only as a small child, someone whom fate had taken away from her and whose life was now so different than hers. They existed in totally separate universes, and yet there were things that only he could understand.

* * *

Maryan had another phone besides the one she used to call home with her $20 calling cards. It was slim and black and its existence was a closely guarded secret. In the contacts, there was only a single number saved: 911.

The emergency phone had come from a domestic violence counselor. Because Maryan had high blood pressure and crippling anxiety, her doctor had come to suspect she was in danger at home and referred her to a shelter for battered women. Even before that Maryan had thought about running away with her children, but she didn’t know who she could trust or where to turn for help. Yussuf had succeeded in turning much of the refugee community against her, spreading vicious rumors about his wayward “Western” wife who thought she was better than other Somalis and didn’t value their traditions. Even the idea of domestic violence was viewed with suspicion by many of the refugees she had helped translate for over the years. “If you are married and your husband beats you up, you have nothing to say because he’s your husband,” was how she summed up their thinking.

She hated to think of him wiling away his days in the heat, waiting in humiliating food distribution lines, and cooking over a fire pit. Books seemed to light him up, and thinking of him that way made her happy.

Yussuf never hit Maryan, but his constant emotional and psychological abuse had slowly broken her down. She would wake up in the middle of the night, heart racing, unable to bear the thought of another day with him. Even so, she felt paralyzed. Faith had always been important to her, and while divorce was technically allowed in Islam, it would make you an outcast. There was part of her that felt she had a religious duty to stay in the marriage as long as her husband did. And nothing had changed her belief that leaving Yussuf would crush her parents and forever change the way they looked at her. Running away to avoid getting married had been one thing. Divorcing the father of her three children would be quite another. “It felt like there was something holding me down that was heavier than me,” she recalled. “Like I was in the ocean and the waves were just overpowering me.”

But the situation had become untenable. She had started breaking down in public, crying in front of coworkers and in the middle of shifts at the hospital. She had missed work after one particularly painful fight, and then she had missed another day and another. Eventually, her boss had let her go. Yussuf had finally gotten his wish: a wife without a job.

Not long after that Maryan found herself alone on a ledge, looking down at what seemed like her only avenue of escape. As Yussuf pounded angrily on the locked door of their apartment, threatening to break it down, she teetered on the edge of a sliding-glass window, the smooth pavement of the parking lot beckoning from twenty feet below. She had reached the limit of what she could take. But as she contemplated stepping out of her life, it occurred to her that Yussuf probably wouldn’t care if she died. The thought of his indifference filled her with rage, and she pulled back from the ledge. Suddenly, she knew what she would do, and it was something that would hurt Yussuf, too. The next day, she sold her car and bought four plane tickets to the farthest place from Arizona she could think of that was still in the United States. Then she picked up the phone to tell her parents she was leaving Yussuf and moving the kids to Seattle.

Excerpted from Beyond the Sand and Sea by Ty McCormick. Published by St.Martin’s Press.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Megan Evershed, Mark Mann, Jaelani Turner-Williams, Minelle Mahtani, and Kim Cross.

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1. How an Upper West Side Hotel Came to Embody the City’s Failure on Homelessness

Megan Evershed | The New Republic | March 31, 2021 | 5,900 words

During the pandemic, men housed at the Lucerne hotel have seen the worst side of New York’s self-described liberals. They’ve also exposed a decades-long policy of neglect.

2. The Great Work

Mark Mann | Beside | March 29, 2021 | 2,102 words

“Overwhelmed in the classroom, Peter and David began taking long, slow walks around the neighbourhood together. In Peter’s unhurried pace and frequent pauses, they found a shared rhythm and a way of enjoying each other’s company.”

3. Hanif Abdurraquib’s Third Favorite A Tribe Called Quest Album Might Surprise You

Jaelani Turner-Williams | Okayplayer | March 31, 2021 | 2,509 words

“Author Hanif Abdurraquib on his new book, A Little Devil in America, how current Black music is shaping the racial justice movement, his favorite A Tribe Called Quest albums, and more.”

4. Finding My Voice as My Mother Lost Hers

Minelle Mahtani | The Walrus | March 24, 2021 | 3,100 words

“Not long after I started my job as a radio host, my mother told me she had tongue cancer.”

5. My Month of Doing 100 Wheelies a Day

Kim Cross | Outside | March 15, 2021 | 3,550 words

“In her quest to master a quintessential cool-kid trick, a writer found the sweet spot at the crossroads of work and play.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Max Blau, Venessa Wong, Hope Wabuke, David Dayen, and Mark Sundeen.

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1. The Coal Plant Next Door

Max Blau | ProPublica | March 22, 2021 | 9,852 words

“Near America’s largest coal-fired power plant, toxins are showing up in drinking water and people have fallen ill. Thousands of pages of internal documents show how one giant energy company plans to avoid the cleanup costs.”

2. This Is Where 150 Years Of Ignoring Anti-Asian Racism Got Us

Venessa Wong | BuzzFeed News | March 20, 2021 | 5,050 words

“For so long, we’ve thought keeping our heads down and being invisible in America might help us gain acceptance — but the recent wave of racist violence has shattered that myth.”

3. Disney’s Disembodied Black Characters

Hope Wabuke | LA Review of Books | March 23, 2021 | 5,395 words

“Green, blue — Disney has no problem with characters that are different colors, it seems, as long as that color is not brown. What does it say to Black kids watching when the world’s biggest children’s entertainment company cannot give them even one animated film that features a Black person that stays a Black person throughout? What does this say about Blackness to kids who are not Black? About whose life is being portrayed as mattering? And whose does not?”

4. Islands in the Stream

David Dayen | American Prospect | March 22, 2021 | 7,400 words

“Musicians are in peril, at the mercy of giant monopolies that profit off their work.”

5. Notes from a Moab Trailer

Mark Sundeen | Outside | March 23, 2021 | 8,655 words

“I didn’t hear from her. I had flings with other women, but nobody equaled her. Unable to maintain a relationship, I got a dog, a heeler mutt puppy I saw in a cardboard box at the supermarket. I named her Sadie. When Wendy returned a year or so later, she was with a new guy, a fisherman, long hair and a beard, engaged to marry.”

Why Bumblebees Love Cats and Other Beautiful Relationships

Author photo courtesy of Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence. Photo by Alessandro Moggi.

Stefano Mancuso | The Nation of Plants | March 2021 | 3,311 words (19 minutes)

I am sure that many of the erudite readers of this little book know On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin inside and out. If there is someone who still has this gap in their education, you are urged to fill it without any further delay. Darwin’s book is fundamental for understanding how life works. And it is surprising to think how this book, which literally changed the history of the world, is actually only a summary of the countless observations that Darwin gathered for decades throughout the scientific disciplines and throughout the world in support of his theory of the evolution of living species. His plan, in fact, was to write a colossal and minutely detailed work that was meant to report all the fruits of his decades of research. It would be a work invulnerable to any and all criticism.

As is well known, things did not work out that way. Alfred Russel Wallace’s announcement that he had arrived at Darwin’s same conclusions regarding evolution induced Darwin to change his plans and summarize in Origin his most brilliant and most evidentially supported deductions, leaving the rest of the material for subsequent elaboration. Nevertheless, the enormous corpus that he was working on did not go to waste. On the contrary, the first two chapters of his magnum opus, which was supposed to be entitled simply Natural Selection, became the two volumes of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, and much of the rest of the material was readapted in the elaboration of his later works. In any event,
in the third chapter of On the Origin of Species, dedicated to the famous “struggle for existence” that is the dominant motif of the whole book, Darwin tells a marvelous story of relationships. This story is essential for understanding both the bonds between living beings and how difficult it is to imagine the consequences of intervening in those relationships.

Darwin writes: what animals could you imagine to be more distant from one another than a cat and a bumblebee? Yet the ties that bind these two animals, though at first glance nonexistent, are on the contrary so strict that were they to be modified, the consequences would be so numerous and profound as to be unimaginable. Mice, argues Darwin, are among the principal enemies of bumblebees. They eat their larvae and destroy their nests. On the other hand, as everyone knows, mice are the favorite prey of cats. One consequence of this is that, in proximity to those villages with the most cats, one finds fewer mice and more bumblebees. So far so clear? Good, let’s go on.

Bumblebees are the primary pollinators of many vegetable species, and it is common knowledge that the greater the amount and the quality of pollination the greater the number of seeds produced by the plants. The number and the quality of seeds determines the greater or lesser presence of insects, which, as is well known, are the principal nutriment of numerous bird populations. We could go on like this, adding one group of living species to another, for hours on end: bacteria, fungi, cereals, reptiles, orchids, would succeed one another without pause, one by one, until we ran out of breath, like in those nursery rhymes that connect one event to another without interruption. The ecological relationships that Darwin brings to our attention tell us of a world of bonds much more complex and ungraspable than had ever previously been supposed. Relationships so complex as to connect everything to everything in a single network of the living.

There is a famous story along these lines told for the first time by the German biologists Ernst Haeckel and Carl Vogt. As the story goes, the fortunes of England would seem to depend on cats. By nourishing themselves on mice, cats increase the chances of survival of bumblebees, which, in turn, pollinate shamrocks, which then nourish the beef cows that provide the meat to nourish British sailors, thus permitting the British navy—which, as we all know, is the mainstay of the empire—to develop all of its power. T. H. Huxley, expanding on the joke, added that the true force of the empire was not cats but the perseverant love of English spinsters for cats, which kept the cat population so high. In any event, underlying the joke is the simple truth that all living species are connected to one another in some way or other by relationships, visible or hidden, and that acting directly on one species, or simply altering its environment, can have totally unexpected consequences. Darwin tells us that trying to imagine the final consequences of any alteration in these relationships would be as “hopeless” as throwing up a handful of sawdust on a windy day and trying to predict where each particle would land.9 History is full of such attempts, almost always gone wrong, to modify the presence or the activities of single species.

T. H. Huxley, expanding on the joke, added that the true force of the empire was not cats but the perseverant love of English spinsters for cats, which kept the cat population so high.

Let’s take as an example the affair of the color red. When Cortés and his conquistadores first entered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (present- day Mexico City), they found a very rich and very populous city (in Europe at the time only Naples, Paris, and Constantinople had larger populations). In the enormous market square, a quantity of goods never seen before, many of them of great value, were just waiting to be exported to European markets. Among them were bales of finely woven cotton and delicate yarns of an amazing carmine red. The dye used by the Aztecs to produce this incredible tone of red was obtained from a tiny insect, the cochineal, that lives on cactus plants (various species belonging to the genus Opuntia, the prickly pear). The color was so beautiful and precious that states under Aztec domination were required to furnish annually to the emperor a certain number of sacks full of cochineals as tribute. A fine brilliant carmine dye was, and still is, obtained from the dried bodies of these insects.

The production of this dye remained, for almost two and a half centuries, a monopoly of Spain, which guarded the secret jealously and made it into a widespread and highly profitable commerce in Europe. The Spanish sold their dye to whoever could afford it, but above all to the English, who soon became its most enthusiastic and passionate buyers. Enamored of Spanish carmine, which they used to color their military uniforms (their famous red coats), the English found a way to buy it at a high price even during their frequent wars against Spain, in which those very uniforms were used. As Italians say, the heart will not be ruled. That special hue of carmine provided by the Spanish dyes was essential for the British army. Any other red would have made their coats less red, demeaning the glorious nobility of the uniform. After all, what kind of image would they have projected in battle with faded uniforms? Their enemies would have died laughing; and that was no way to win a war.

Enamored of Spanish carmine, which they used to color their military uniforms (their famous red coats), the English found a way to buy it at a high price even during their frequent wars against Spain, in which those very uniforms were used.

For the next 250 years, despite the best efforts of the English to free themselves from this commercial yoke, the secret of that prodigious dye remained unknown to all but a select fortunate few of Spanish producers. But no production secret can stay that way forever, and so in the closing years of the eighteenth century, British spies succeeded in spiriting away the tightly kept formula: in order to obtain the longed-for carmine, you needed cochineals, and to get cochineals you had to have prickly pears. With the right information in hand, all that remained was to find the right place to begin production. There was no shortage of candidates; the empire was enormous and spread over all the continents. The choice fell on the fortunate Australia. Prickly pears had never grown there, but its climate was perfect for their rapid growth, so both prickly pears and cochineals were imported.

The results were not long in coming. The cochineals died immediately on arrival in Australia, while the prickly pears, useless at this point, were abandoned to their Australian destiny. A destiny of conquerors. Unlike the cochineals, the prickly pears found the Australian environment ideal for their dispersion. With no natural enemies or obstacles and with lots of birds to disperse their seeds, in just a few years the plant spread throughout a vast territory. Having arrived in Australia from Brazil in 1788, the prickly pear was dispersed over an estimated seventy-three million acres, and its expansion did not stop there. It went on conquering new territories at an astounding rate of 1.2 million acres per year. Thus, large amounts of cultivated land, farms, pasture, and agricultural areas of Queensland and New South Wales were invaded by prickly pears, driving away farmers and impeding any kind of productive activity. The problem soon became very serious, forcing the authorities, starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, to look for possible solutions.


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In 1901, the government of New South Wales offered £5,000 to anyone who came up with an idea to block the invasion. In 1907, even though the reward had been doubled, it seemed that no one was able to provide an adequate solution. Naturally, there was no shortage of far-fetched proposals. Many people came forward with stratagems that were, let’s say, radical. Among them: increase the number of rabbits as predators of the prickly pear, another interesting story of species introduction gone awry. Or, another gem, evacuate an enormous area of land and use airplanes to spray mustard gas (the gas widely used in World War I) to exterminate the animal population, which was responsible for the dispersal of prickly pear seeds. Fortunately, neither of these proposals was taken into consideration, and for decades the only weapon against the devastating advance of the species was to cut down and burn the plants.

Then, in 1926, a solution was finally found: an Argentine lepidopteran (moth) known as Cactoblastis cactorum, a parasite of various species of Opuntia. By nourishing themselves on cladodes (as the modified leaves of prickly pears are called) the moth larvae managed to debilitate the prickly peril in many parts of Australia. This stratagem enjoyed an extraordinary and unexpected success. In a short time, except in the cooler parts of Australia, where the moth spread less effectively, the prickly pear menace was eliminated.

So it all worked out? In part. Although the introduction of the Cactoblastis in Australia is often cited as a successful operation, so much so that the community of Boonarga, just east of the city of Chincilla in Queensland, even dedicated its Cactoblastis Memorial Hall to the moth. Nature always wants the last word. Over time, populations of prickly pears resistant to the parasite evolved in Australia, and this is a first, though not fatal, complication that will, however, require a more careful control of the cactus population in the future. But the second and more important difficulty is that the Australian success in the use of the lepidopteran induced many other nations with analogous prickly pear problems to go down the same road, with totally unexpected results. As Darwin advised us, trying to predict what will happen in a situation like this is like trying to predict where a piece of sawdust will land on a windy day.

In the 1960s the Cactoblastis was introduced to the Caribbean islands of Montserrat and Antigua as a control agent of the local cactus populations. In Australia, the sawdust fell in the right spot, but in Central America, it didn’t. The moth, in fact, using all kinds of carriers, spread quickly to Puerto Rico, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Through the importation of prickly pears from the Dominican Republic, it arrived for the first time in Florida in 1989, and from there it began to spread at a velocity of over a hundred miles per year along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. During its expansion, by now completely out of control, this parasite has endangered many cactus populations in the United States and the Caribbean, threatening entire ecosystems, some of them unique. A classic example is the attack on the prickly pear on the Bahamian island of San Salvador, one of the main sources of food for the only extant populations of Cyclura iguanas.

And as if all this were not enough, hurricanes, involuntary transport, and trade have recently transported the Cactoblastis to Mexico, where it has been sighted for the first time on the island of Mujeres, just off the Yucatan peninsula. In Mexico, unlike in Australia, the prickly pear is a vital plant. It even appears in the national emblem and on the flag. Its fruit and cladodes are a staple food for the population. Prickly pears are used to feed livestock in periods of drought, and some species of Opuntia are still used by the cochineal dye industry. If the Cactoblastis were to spread to the Mexico mainland, the damage would be enormous.

But no other natural disaster provoked by humans following rash decisions based on inadequate knowledge of natural relationships will ever be able to rival what Mao Tse-Tung accomplished in the late 1950s. Between 1958 and 1962, the Chinese Communist Party led an economic and social movement in the whole country that came to be known as the Great Leap Forward. This was an enormous collective endeavor meant to transform China in just a few years from an agricultural nation into a great industrial power. The movement’s results, unfortunately, fell dramatically short of what had been hoped. The reforms through which the party intended to effect this radical national change involved every area of Chinese life, and some of them had devastating effects for the country.

In 1958, Mao was rightly convinced that some of the scourges that had plagued the Chinese for centuries had to be eradicated immediately and in a radical fashion. Keep in mind that when the Communists took power in the autumn of 1949, they found themselves governing a nation gravely distressed by a soaring incidence of infectious diseases: plague, cholera, measles, tuberculosis, polio, and malaria were endemic in most of the country. Cholera epidemics were very frequent, and the infant mortality rate ran as high as 30 percent.10

The creation of a national health service and a massive vaccination campaign against plague and measles were the first, meritorious, actions undertaken to improve the situation. Water purification and sewage treatment infrastructure was installed throughout the country, and imitating what had been done previously in the Soviet Union, health care personnel were trained and sent into rural areas to serve as proper health care administrators, educating the population in basic health and hygiene practices and treating diseases with all available resources. But, obviously this wasn’t enough; the diffusion of carriers that spread disease had to be curtailed: mosquitoes, responsible for malaria; rats, spreaders of plague; and, finally, flies had to be exterminated. These three scourges from which China had to be liberated were soon joined by a fourth: sparrows, which by eating fruit and rice cultivated laboriously in the fields were one of the most terrible enemies of the people. Chinese scientists had calculated that each sparrow ate ten pounds of grain per year. So for every million sparrows killed, food for 60,000 people would be saved.

This information was the basis for the “Four Pests Campaign,” and sparrows were public enemy number one. Today, any proposal for ecosystem modification as radical as this call to eliminate four species from a territory as vast as China would, obviously, be considered ill-considered. But in 1958, lots of people thought it seemed like a good idea. So the party’s campaign to recruit the citizenry to combat these four pests was begun. Millions of posters were printed up illustrating the necessary eradication and the means to implement it.

Chinese scientists had calculated that each sparrow ate ten pounds of grain per year. So for every million sparrows killed, food for 60,000 people would be saved.

For the battle against sparrows, the people were told to give no quarter and to use all available means. One of the directives was to frighten the sparrows with noise, produced in any way possible, so they would be forced to fly constantly without ever coming to rest, until they fell to the ground exhausted. Pans, casseroles, gongs, rifles, trumpets, horns, plates, tambourines—any source of noise was put to use. Here is a description of what happened by a Russian observer, Mikhail A. Klochko,11 who was working as a consultant in Beijing when the four pests campaign was launched:

I was awakened early in the morning by the sound of a woman screaming. Rushing over to the window, I saw a young woman running back and forth on the roof of a nearby building, frenetically shaking a bamboo pole with a large sheet tied to it. Suddenly, the woman stopped yelling, apparently to catch her breath, but an instant later, down at the end of the street, a drum started beating, and the woman went back to her blood-curdling screams and the mad shaking of her peculiar banner. This went on for several minutes. Then the drums stopped beating and the woman fell silent. I then realized that, on all the upper floors of my hotel, women dressed in white were waving sheets and towels that were meant to prevent sparrows from landing on the building. This was the opening of the Great Sparrow campaign. All day long I heard drums, gunshots, and screams and saw fluttering sheets, but never at any time did I see a single sparrow. I cannot say whether the poor birds had perceived the mortal danger and flown off in advance to safer terrain, or if there had never been any sparrows in that place. But the battle went on without abatement until noon, with the entire staff of the hotel mobilized and participating: porters, front office managers, interpreters, chambermaids and all the rest.

Although Klochko’s account makes it seem that all this activity was not very effective, the actual results were, unfortunately, devastatingly successful. The government acclaimed the schools, working groups, and governmental agencies that achieved the best results in terms of number of pests killed. The estimates provided by the Chinese government, totally unreliable for their enormity, indicated a billion and a half rats and a billion sparrows killed. Even though they are enormously exaggerated, these figures nevertheless tell us of a massacre whose dramatic consequences would soon be evident. Sparrows, in fact, do not feed exclusively on hulled grains. On the contrary, their main food supply are insects.

In 1959, Mao, realizing his mistake, replaced the sparrows as a target pest with beetles, but the damage had already been done. The almost total lack in China not only of sparrows (which had to be reintroduced from the USSR) but of practically all other birds led to an immeasurable increase in the insect population. The number of locusts began to increase exponentially, and immense swarms of insects making their way through the fields of China destroyed most of the crops. From 1959 to 1961, a series of ill-starred events partially related to natural disasters and partly caused by the mistaken reforms of the Great Leap Forward (the idea to exterminate the sparrows being one of the worst), led to three years of famine so harsh that it caused the deaths of an estimated 20 to 40 million people.

Playing with something whose working mechanisms are not well known is clearly dangerous. The consequences can be completely unpredictable. The strength of ecological communities is one of the engines of life on Earth. At every level, from the microscopic to the macroscopic, it is these communities, understood
as relationships among the living, that allow life to persist.

***

Excerpted from The Nation of Plants by Stefano Mancuso, translated by Gregory Conti. Soon to be published by Other Press.

***

9. R. C. Stauffer, ed., Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection; being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).

10. David M. Lampton, “Public Health and Politics in China’s Past Two Decades,” Health Services Reports 87, no. 10 (Dec. 1972): 895–904.

11. Mikhail A. Klochko, Soviet Scientist in Red China (London: Hollis & Carter, 1964).

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Alexander Chee, Matt Gallagher, Delphine Minoui, Lauren Markham, and Jamie Figueroa.

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1. Anti-Asian Violence Must Be a Bigger Part of America’s Racial Discourse

Alexander Chee | GEN Magazine | March 15, 2021 | 12 minutes (3,194 words)

“White people still drive the narrative about Asian Americans. We have yet to have control over our own stories.”

2. In ‘Cherry,’ the Bank Robber Is the Victim. What About the Teller He Held Up?

Matt Gallagher | The Intercept | March 13, 2021 | 26 minutes (6,700 words)

“Erasure doesn’t have to be an act. It can be a process too.”

3. Hunting For Books in the Ruins: How Syria’s Rebel Librarians Found Hope

Delphine Minoui | The Guardian | March 16, 2021 | 17 minutes (4,310 words)

“Most of them had already lost everything – their homes, their friends, their parents. Amid the chaos, they clung to books as if to life, hoping for a better tomorrow, for a better political system.”

4. The Crow Whisperer

Lauren Markham | Harper’s Magazine | March 15, 2021 | 19 minutes (4,800 words)

“What happens when we talk to animals?”

5. The Stories I Haven’t Been Told

Jamie Figueroa | Emergence Magazine| March 11, 2021 | 22 minutes (5,690 words)

“Jamie Figueroa brings her pen to the blank pages of her family’s history, navigating generational trauma and lost ancestral stories in order to reveal and reclaim her cultural and familial inheritance.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Alec MacGillis, Karen Hao, Rebecca Solnit, Mary H.K. Choi, and Andrew Buss.

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1. The Lost Year: What the Pandemic Cost Teenagers

Alec MacGillis | ProPublica | March 8, 2021 | 38 minutes (9,654 words)

“In Hobbs, New Mexico, the high school closed and football was cancelled, while just across the state line in Texas, students seemed to be living nearly normal lives. Here’s how pandemic school closures exact their emotional toll on young people.”

2. How Facebook Got Addicted to Spreading Misinformation

Karen Hao | Technology Review | March 11, 2021 | 26 minutes (6,600 words)

“The company’s AI algorithms gave it an insatiable habit for lies and hate speech. Now the man who built them can’t fix the problem.”

3. John Muir in Native America

Rebecca Solnit | Sierra Magazine | March 2, 2021 | 16 minutes (4,210 words)

“Muir’s romantic vision obscured Indigenous ownership of the land—but a new generation is pulling away the veil.”

4. My Parents Got Sick. It Changed How I Thought About My Marriage

Mary H.K. Choi | GQ | March 2, 2021 | 12 minutes (3,068 words)

“All the pain of the past year taught me something: the true nature of intimacy.”

5. Bad Reputation: An Oral History of the Freaks and Geeks Soundtrack

Andrew Buss | Consequence of Sound | March 8, 2021 | 38 minutes (9,600 words)

“Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, Michael Andrews, and the cast and crew turn things up to 11.”

Don’t F**K With the Pet Detectives

Laura Breiling

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 112, “Cat and Mouse,” by writer Phil Hoad. With dozens of felines turning up dead around London, a pair of pet detectives set out to prove it was the work of a serial killer.

Phil Hoad | The Atavist | February 2021 | 5 minutes (1,558 words)

 

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

It was the body on the south London doorstep that got everyone’s attention. On the bright morning of September 23, 2015, a woman walked outside her home to find a cream-and-coffee-colored pelt, like a small furry Pierrot. It had dark forelegs, and its face was a smoky blot. It was a cat, slit throat to belly; its intestines were gone.

The woman rang the authorities, who came and disposed of the body. Three days later, she looked at a leaflet that had come through her mail slot, asking whether anyone had seen Ukiyo, a four-year-old ragdoll mix whose coat matched that of the dead cat. The woman broke the bad news to Ukiyo’s owner, Penny Beeson, who lived just down Dalmally Road, a nearly unbroken strip of poky, pebble-dashed row houses in the Addiscombe area of Croydon.

Beeson was inconsolable. “I shook for the whole day,” she later told The Independent.

“R.I.P ukiyo I feel devastated,” her son, Richard, posted on Facebook. “Hacked to death and left on someone’s doorstep. Some people are so sick!”

A few days later, Addiscombe’s letter boxes clacked again as another leaflet was delivered. This one warned that Ukiyo’s demise wasn’t an isolated incident—there had been a troubling spate of cat deaths in the area. The leaflet was printed by a local group called South Norwood Animal Rescue and Liberty, or SNARL.

Tony Jenkins, one of SNARL’s founders, had recently become his own master. At 51, with a reassuring, yeomanly face and a golden tinge at the very tip of his long, gray ponytail, Jenkins was laid off after 25 years working for a nearby government council. He hadn’t gotten along with his boss, so getting sacked came as something of a relief. With a year’s severance in his pocket, “I was enjoying my downtime,” Jenkins said. That included being with his girlfriend, a 44-year-old South African who went by the name Boudicca Rising, after the first-century Celtic warrior queen who fought the Romans to save the Britons. Among other things, Rising and Jenkins shared feelings of guardianship toward animals. Their homes at one point housed 34 cats, a dog, two gerbils, and a cockatoo between them. The couple had formed SNARL together.

Scanning Facebook one day in September 2015, about a week before Ukiyo was found dead, Jenkins stumbled upon a post from the nearby branch of the United Kingdom’s largest veterinarian chain, Vets4Pets, that described four gruesome local incidents in the past few weeks: a cat with its throat cut, one with a severed tail, another decapitated, and a fourth with a slashed stomach. Only the final cat had survived. Jenkins told Rising about the post. “That doesn’t sound right,” she said. “We need to do some digging.”

Digging was her forte. Always impeccably dressed, with an ornate gothic kick, and unfailingly in heels, Rising was a multitasking demon on a laptop. By day she worked for an office management company. By night she was part of the global alliance of animal rights activists. She was one of many people who used small details in online videos of a man torturing felines to identify the culprit, a Canadian man named Luka Magnotta. He was reported to police, who didn’t take the allegations seriously, and Magnotta went on to murder and chop up his lover in 2012—a crime recounted in the Netflix documentary Don’t F**k with Cats.

On the heels of Ukiyo’s death, Rising and Jenkins distributed SNARL’s leaflets throughout Addiscombe, warning of the threat to local felines. While to an uninterested eye some of the attacks might have appeared to be the indiscriminate cruelty of nature—the work of a hungry predator, say—SNARL believed they might be a series of linked and deliberate killings. Whether the crimes were perpetrated by an individual or a group SNARL wasn’t sure. It hoped the leaflets would help turn up more information.

SNARL soon had reports of more incidents in the area, for a total of seven: one cat missing, two with what SNARL subsequently described as “serious injuries,” and four dead. Rising said that vets who saw the deceased cats’ bodies told her the mutilations had been made with a knife. On September 29, SNARL sent out an alert on its Facebook page saying as much. The cats’ wounds, the group insisted, “could only have been inflicted by a human. Their bodies have been displayed in such a way as to cause maximum distress.”

That was SNARL’s official line. On Rising’s personal page she went further, emphasizing her belief that Addiscombe was dealing with a serial killer. “This is a psychopath,” she wrote.

While to an uninterested eye some of the attacks might have appeared to be the indiscriminate cruelty of nature, SNARL believed they might be a series of linked and deliberate killings.

On the afternoon of October 24, 2015, two miles southeast of Addiscombe, 47-year-old Wayne Bryant picked his way over the fallen leaves of Threehalfpenny Wood, named for a 19th-century murder victim found there with that sum of money in his pocket. The dry autumn air kept Bryant alert as his wide-spaced blue eyes scanned left and right and he listened to the wind hissing through the oak canopy. Bryant’s cat, Amber, like many domestic felines, kept regular hours with her comings and goings, but the previous day she hadn’t returned in the mid-afternoon as she usually did. When Amber didn’t show up the following morning, Bryant and his wife, Wendy, formed a search party.

A few years before, Bryant had suffered a serious spinal injury at work, causing a leak of cerebrospinal fluid and, eventually, several hematomas. Animals had always been a big part of his life—he and Wendy had a menagerie of rescue pets, from dogs to guinea pigs to lizards—but as he struggled with memory problems and long-term unemployment, the emotional support they provided became irreplaceable. Bryant had had Amber for eight years, since she was a six-week-old kitten. “A friendly little thing,” he told the website AnimalLogic. “A little curtain-climber.”

As they searched the woods, Bryant’s wife called to him. In a small clearing off a path, sheltered by a cluster of exposed tree roots, the ball of black and orange fur was unmistakable. But Amber was headless and tailless, except for that appendage’s very tip, which had been placed on her belly. The couple were sickened. They shrouded their beloved pet in a towel and took her home. Then Bryant remembered an article in the Croydon Advertiser about a group convinced that several recent cat killings were all connected.

A couple of hours later, Jenkins and Rising were at Bryant’s door. “I remember Wayne’s first words to me: ‘Ain’t no fox did that,’” Jenkins told me. “If I ever write a book about this, that’s what I’d call it.”

It was the first time either Jenkins or Rising had come face-to-face with a suspected cat killing. Neither of them had any forensics training. Unwrapping the towel that held Amber, they noted the clean severing of her head and tail, which seemed to corroborate Bryant’s view that no animal could be responsible. They asked the family to show them the crime scene. There was no blood on the ground, meaning that either her injuries were inflicted after death or Amber was killed elsewhere and moved to the spot in Threehalfpenny Wood where her owners found her. Rising and Jenkins took Amber’s body to a vet for further examination.

Bryant gave a statement to the police, and Rising went to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the UK’s main animal welfare charity. She later claimed that a representative brushed her off, saying that a fox probably killed Amber. Besides, the RSPCA dealt primarily with instances of cruelty in which the victims were still alive: It received more than 11,000 complaints a year in Greater London alone.

Jenkins was incredulous when he heard about the RSPCA’s response. “Although Croydon’s got a bad reputation, a lot of crime, I don’t think our foxes carry knives. And foxes certainly do not kill cats,” he said. At least, “it’s very, very rare.” He doubted that scavenging creatures would be interested in removing and eating feline heads and tails. Rather, they’d go for the nutritious internal organs, and SNARL hadn’t seen that kind of damage in any killing other than Ukiyo’s.

In October, there was another suspected cat killing in Croydon. Then SNARL began to get reports from farther afield, one in neighboring Mitcham and two in nearby West Norwood. Nick Jerome’s cat, Oscar, was found headless on his street. “None of us went to pieces over it, but it was obviously distressing at the time,” he said. In Coulsdon, on the southern edge of Croydon, David Emmerson discovered his cat, Missy, decapitated and tailless. His 18-year-old daughter, already struggling with the loss of her aunt the previous year, was devastated. Emmerson never told his autistic son the full story of what happened. The truth was too ugly. “I never grew up as a cat person,” he said, “but maybe because we got her as a kitten, she became one of us. Mine was the lap she chose to sit on when she sat down. I’m not sure why. I adored her.”

The RSPCA had its party line and wasn’t getting involved, but that didn’t stop the local press, which knew a good story when it heard one. By mid-November, reporters had made a lurid christening: The Croydon Cat Killer was on the prowl.

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 Leah Sottile, Elon Green, Lisa Whittington-Hill, Kate Morgan, and Virginia Morell.

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1. Did James Plymell Need to Die?

Leah Sottile | High Country News | March 1, 2021 | 26 minutes (6,500 words)

The toll of criminalizing homelessness in small cities and towns across the American West.

2. The Dissenter

Elon Green | The Appeal | March 2, 2021 | 37 minutes (9,288 words)

“Former Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson’s fiery dissents on mass incarceration and sentencing in America’s most carceral state garnered international attention. But the rise of the first Black woman on the court was characterized by one battle after another with the Deep South’s white power structure.”

3. OCD is Not a Joke

Lisa Whittington-Hill | The Walrus | March 1, 2021 | 12 minutes (3,114 words)

“People with obsessive-compulsive disorder are often depicted as Type A clean freaks. The reality is much worse.”

4. Once Upon a Tree

Kate Morgan | Sierra Magazine | Febuary 25, 2021 | 14 minutes (3,685 words)

“Before a disastrous blight, the American chestnut was a keystone species in eastern forests. Could genetic engineering help bring it back?”

5. The Dogs That Grew Wool and the People Who Love Them

Virginia Morell | Hakai Magazine | February 23, 2021 | 16 minutes (4,105 words)

“The dogs did more than provide fur. They were also part of village life: sometimes, a favorite wooly dog would keep a weaver company.”