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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Ronald McDonald Balloon in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York City, New York (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. A Peer-Reviewed Portrait of Suffering

Daniel Engber | The Atlantic | October 6, 2021 | 7,200 words

The best science stories are human stories, ones that show the impact of lab experiments, clinical investigations, and complicated data on people’s lives. Daniel Engber’s poignant profile of the Sulzer family falls squarely in this camp. When three-year-old Liviana suffered a traumatic brain injury in the Sulzers’ backyard, her mother and father — a bioengineer who specializes in regenerative medicine and a professor of rehabilitative robotics, respectively — were forced to bring their work home. They mustered their expertise to help Livie, but quickly met the limits of the technology they’d spent their careers developing and championing. How, then, could they heal her, and themselves? The answers are surprising. I was moved by Engber’s portrayal of scientific minds challenged to reconsider the lens through which they analyze the world; of a family navigating protracted trauma; and of the love, patience, and curiosity that keep the Sulzers’ hope alive. —SD

2. The Great Beyond

Sara Reinis | Real Life | October 7, 2021 | 2,299 words

I’ve been contemplating how social media has changed the way we grieve for a while now, ever since my best friend died 10 years ago. I’d experienced mourning in a new, distributed way: collectively and on screen, as his friends across the U.S. and his relatives from Nairobi I’d never met all gathered on his Facebook profile over weeks, months, years. Some people left quick comments, as if they passed by a cemetery to leave flowers; others lingered, typing as if they were communicating with him in real time. How was social media changing the way we experience loss? For Sara Reinis, it’s also been a decade since a loved one — her brother — passed away. In her recent essay for Real Life, she stirs up many questions for me again, plus new ones. What does it mean when we interact with the Facebook and Instagram profiles of deceased loved ones and celebrities as pilgrimage sites — digital shrines and tombstones we (re)visit, deliberately or not, across an algorithm-powered internet? And what about someone like me, who has since deleted Facebook and Instagram? Am I missing out on novel, ever-evolving ways to mourn? (Should I be intermingling with the avatars of the dead?) After all, as Reinis writes, “the dead will outnumber the living” on Facebook by 2100. She asks thoughtful questions, and I’m now thinking about the idea she poses that the Western approach to grief — a mostly private and “ceremoniously finite” event like a funeral — may evolve into something very public, social, and continuous. And the biggest question she asks looms over me: Can we even trust tech giants with our digital remains? —CLR

3. My Father, The Hitman

James Dolan | D Magazine | October 11, 2021 | 5,021 words

Sometimes all it takes is a single sentence to draw you fully and completely into a story and James Dolan does just that with the opening to “My Father, the Hitman.” “My dad had gotten out of prison, and, for the first time in years, we were sitting down to dinner. It turned out to be the last time I ever saw him alive.” This fantastic portrait is filthy with detail, the kind that makes you want to slow down and savor every word. —KS

4. Tongue Stuck

Irina Dumitrescu | The Rumpus | October 12, 2021 | 2,662 words

Irina Dumitrescu considers the beauty of her Romanian heritage and her decision to teach the language to her son Maxi, so that he can more deeply understand and appreciate his extended family. “I wanted him to know his grandparents in Romanian. I wanted him to know how funny and smart they are, to sense that spirit that is so often lost in a second language.” This is more than just a beautiful essay on identity. Dumitrescu looks critically at her Romanian skills but her words become poetry to me as a reader — despite not knowing the language — when she uses them with such deep intimacy: “I spoke to him in the way that felt most natural, and that meant the language I’d heard when I was small. This was the language in which I was cuddled and pampered, caressed, and sometimes scolded. I suddenly understood how wonderful Romanian is for talking to children. How many darling diminutives I had ready for each part of his body. He had tiny fingers, degețele; a wee belly, burtic; a sweet little nose, năsuc; and dear little feet, picioruțe. Romanian has a treasure of endings to make each noun Lilliputian: -uțuri, -eluri, -ioruri. English seemed then a bulky, hulking way to speak, and for the first time I could not believe that there were people who used the same heavy word for the coarse fist of a grown man and the delicate hand of a newborn.” —KS

5. The Death of Ronald McDonald

Amelia Tait | Vice | October 4, 2021 | 1,600 words

Within the first 15 minutes of a family road trip, I would start the chant: “Can we stop at McDonald’s?” Every British motorway service station seemed to have one, and they were always adorned with Ronald McDonald — Ronald climbing frames, Ronald slides, or just plain old Ronald statues. So it was with great interest that I read Amelia Tait’s fun piece about the demise of this iconic clown in British advertising. (He clings on in the United States with a few in-person appearances according to his U.S.-based Instagram account.) Despite a last-ditch effort, with “a new look, swapping his jumpsuit for a red blazer and a bowtie” he quietly slipped out of the U.K. in 2014 and, as Tait finds out, everyone seems to be rather cagey as to why, cryptically claiming they “are not allowed to talk” as if Ronald is part of the underground clown mafia. Despite these obstacles, Tait jumps wholeheartedly into this mystery and discovers that Ronald’s decline is due to a combination of the ethics of advertising fast food to children, and the realization that a clown with a red wig is just plain creepy. I really enjoyed Tait’s enthusiasm and humor as she explores why Ronald McDonald, along with his sidekick the Hamburglar, are out of a job. —CW

Nine Longreads Stories Recognized Across This Year’s ‘Best American’ and ‘Year’s Best’ Series

Cover art by HMH Books and Triumph Books

Our team is thrilled to announce four anthology inclusions and five notable mentions across the 2021 Best American and Year’s Best series. Congratulations to the following Longreads contributors — and to all the writers featured in these editions — for their exceptional, memorable work.

The Best American Essays 2021

Notable mentions:

On Solitude (and Isolation and Loneliness [and Brackets])” by Sarah Fay

Sarah Fay reflects on four years spent in solitude (and isolation [and loneliness]), viewing it through the lens of punctuation. An adapted version of Sarah’s essay will be included in her forthcoming memoir, Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses.

How to Learn Everything: The MasterClass Diaries” by Irina Dumitrescu

Irina Dumitrescu, an essayist and professor of medieval English literature, binged for six months on online courses led by celebrities like RuPaul, Anna Wintour, and Gordon Ramsay. Her piece on MasterClass is a delightful take on discovery, the power of celebrity, and learning new things.

Through a Glass, Tearfully” by Maureen Stanton

This heartfelt and illuminating essay by Maureen Stanton recounts her history of crying in inappropriate moments while also considering tears from gender-based and political perspectives. Read it and weep.

(Who Gets to) Just Up and Move” by Nicole Walker

In a poignant personal piece on climate change and the erasure of the Ute and Shoshone Tribes from Utah’s Salt Lake Valley, Nicole Walker beautifully contemplates the nature of migration. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

US Ricardo Pepi celebrates after scoring a goal during their Qatar 2022 FIFA Word Cup Concacaf qualifier match against Honduras at Olimpico Metropolitano stadium, in San Pedro Sula, on September 8, 2021. - (Photo by Orlando SIERRA / AFP) (Photo by ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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

1. White Riot

Laura Nahmias | New York Magazine | October 5, 2021 | 4,250 words

Did you know that in 1992, thousands of New York City cops rioted outside their own City Hall, shouting racist chants about the metropolis’ first-ever Black mayor, David Dinkins? Neither did I. This article refers to the riot as “forgotten” for good reason. But why did it slip from public memory? You could ask the same question about any number of events that have shaped the history of race and power in the United States, and find the same answers Laura Nahmias does in this fascinating story: entrenched power structures that bitterly resist change; a media apparatus that’s often complicit in maintaining the status quo; and a widespread inability among white Americans to view white violence as a real threat. “Somehow, police only identified 87 of the estimated 10,000 officers and their supporters who participated. Just 42 faced disciplinary charges. And only two officers were suspended,” Nahmias writes. In short, it’s easy to understand why today, “only some of what ailed the NYPD 30 years ago has been mended.” It’s also easy to understand why the same can be said about America. —SD

2. Weighing Big Tech’s Promise to Black America

Victor Luckerson | Wired | October 5, 2021 | 6,014 words

From the headline alone, you might expect a standard postmortem analyzing the various promises giant tech companies made to Black Americans last year. What you’ll find instead is a look into the hopeful, Herculean mission of Black-owned banks, as told through Mississippi-based Hope Credit Union. For more than a quarter-century, through hurricanes, pandemics, and recessions, Hope has been a lifeline for Black entrepreneurs and families alike. Yet, when Netflix last year pledged to invest 2% of its cash holdings in Black-owned institutions, its $10 million deposit in Hope represented the largest infusion of capital the institution had ever seen. The question: is it enough? As Luckerson points out, we’ve been here before, only to see corporate proclamations crumble into nothing. This is a story of numbers and finance, yes, but it’s also a story of unmet need — of underserved communities, of unvetted promises, of unimaginable resources that could so easily address an unjustifiable pattern of disparity. Credit to Luckerson for making it, above all, a human story. —PR

3. ‘Iran Was Our Hogwarts’: My Childhood Between Tehran and Essex

Arianne Shahvisi | The Guardian | September 23, 2021 | 4,310 words

I loved this piece by Arianne Shahvisi. Even though I have never been to Iran, as she describes her childhood holidays visiting her Iranian family, nostalgic images popped into my head like grainy photographs from a family album. Her writing is that expressive. I could picture her uncle’s villa in the dusty countryside beyond Tehran and feel the heat as a young Shahvisi stretched “against the rough, baking stucco of the back wall of the villa, the sun refracting through the droplets on my squinted lashes.” She views these family holidays through a lens of magic and light. They are, after all, an escape from growing up in dull, rainy England — a country painted in a monochrone that vividly contrasts with Iran. And there is another element to this piece: Harry Potter. To Shahvisi, Iran is Hogwarts, an escape from her normal world filled with “Dursleys,” who don’t understand her Iranian heritage and “to whom difference was always deficiency.” This metaphor could have been jarring, but it is threaded gracefully and adds to your understanding of what it was like to grow up in a world full of muggles, and only occasionally get to visit the place where you feel special. —CW

4. The Unstoppable Dreams of Ricardo Pepi

Roberto José Andrade Franco | ESPN | October 6, 2021 | 4,800 words

Ricardo Pepi is a promising young Mexican American soccer player who made his debut last month on the U.S. men’s national team, scoring a key goal in their match against Honduras. This ESPN story by Roberto José Andrade Franco is more than just a profile of a rising athlete from a poor, mostly Mexican town in El Paso County, Texas; Franco weaves a heartfelt and beautiful piece on belonging, identity, and the sacrifices and struggles of an immigrant family. He also explores the complex emotions felt by those, him included, who call the El Paso-Juárez borderland their home: “It sometimes feels like the most beautiful place in the world. Other times, it feels like living in the middle of the desert was always going to end with an escape. That same rugged beauty can inspire the wildest of dreams: a young boy playing soccer in Europe’s biggest leagues, a former construction worker writing this. But it’s also the type of place that can suffocate you.” —CLR

5. Ordinary People

Apoorva Tadepalli | Guernica Magazine | October 5, 2021 | 2,536 words

At Guernica, Apoorva Tadepalli contemplates the beauty of ordinary experiences in her response to Lauren Elkin’s book, “No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus.” (Elkin used her phone’s Notes app “to record observations and encounters from her daily commute on the 91 and 92 buses” to “observe the world through the screen of my phone, rather than to use my phone to distract myself from the world.”) Elkin’s book is a response to the questions posed by Georges Perec’s book “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris,” in which he asks, “How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious?” Tadepalli’s thoughtful essay reminds me of the small pleasures that quiet observation can bring when we come to a moment in time with our full attention. —KS

The Mysterious Case of Mr. X

Ben Jones for The Atavist Magazine

Laura Todd Carns| The Atavist Magazine | September 2021 | 7 minutes (1,935 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 119, “Searching for Mr. X,” written by Laura Todd Carns and illustrated by Ben Jones.


On a summer day in 1931, a man was found wandering South State Street in Jackson, Mississippi. He appeared to be lost. He was white, with gray hair and a thin, angular face. His clothes were worn and rumpled, but on his feet were a pair of tan Borden low-quarter dress shoes, the kind that sold for more than ten dollars at S. P. McRae’s department store on West Capitol Street. He had shell-rimmed eyeglasses and a belt buckle with the letter L on it. In his pocket was a cheap watch and a single penny.

The Atavist, our sister publication, publishes one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a member.

When police questioned him, the man seemed dazed. He was unable to supply his name, his address, or an explanation for why he was in Jackson. He was arrested for vagrancy. After a few days, he was placed in the custody of Dr. C. D. Mitchell, superintendent of the Mississippi State Hospital. Upon his arrival at the facility, the man, who was estimated to be about sixty, was entered into the patient ledger as “Mr. X.”

Who was he? Where had he come from? How did he wind up alone on a street in the Deep South, at the beginning of the Great Depression, without his memory? Months passed, then years. Mr. X remained at the hospital, and the mystery of his identity lingered. For reasons no one could discern, his past was beyond his reach.

Formerly known as the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, in 1931 the hospital was a warren of overcrowded barracks so decrepit that patients kept getting injured by pieces of plaster that fell from crumbling ceilings. Worse yet, the hospital was a firetrap—its buildings were full of mattresses, linens, and other combustible material. One blaze after another destroyed parts of the facility, necessitating reconstruction.

In 1935, four years after Mr. X’s arrival, the institution moved to a brand-new campus about 15 miles outside Jackson. It was built on the site of a former penal farm and dubbed Whitfield, in honor of the governor—Henry L. Whitfield—who approved the construction. Over the course of several days, patients in Jackson were loaded onto buses in groups. They traveled along Highway 80 before turning onto a long gravel drive lined with young trees and freshly planted flower beds. Some 70 redbrick buildings with white columns were nestled on Whitfield’s green lawns and connected by paved walking paths. A visitor, taking in the manmade lake and the wide porches on the buildings, might have thought the place a summer camp or a university.

Over the previous century, patients in mental hospitals were often written off as subhuman and kept in barbaric conditions; by the 1940s, mental health care began shifting toward new treatment models, some with real potential to help people (psychiatric pharmacology), and some that could only do harm (lobotomy). Mr. X’s time in state care fell between these two eras, at an institution flush with the spirit in which it was built. Whitfield’s superintendent, Dr. Mitchell, designed the campus in line with the latest scientific understanding of psychiatry. The physical environs were intended to be peaceful and pleasing to the eye. Patients attended weekly dances and movie nights. On Sundays, patients and staff alike worshipped in the campus chapel. Orchards, fields, and a dairy farm provided Whitfield’s food. Able-bodied patients sewed overalls in the occupational therapy workshop; others milked cows or repaired fences. Mitchell believed in giving residents the opportunity to contribute to their community, because the dignity of honest work could be a salve to a troubled spirit. It also helped stretch the institution’s meager budget.

For some patients weathering a temporary crisis, the restful environment was all the treatment they needed, and they left after a short stay. For those suffering from more severe or chronic disorders, the hospital offered comfort and stability. The focus of treatment was on easing symptoms and providing structures that kept patients safe.

By all accounts, Mr. X thrived at Whitfield. He worked in the hospital’s greenhouse, tending to plants and flowers, and he revealed a surprising store of botanical knowledge. In his downtime he played cards with other patients and with staff. He had a knack for complicated games like bridge.

Knowing the names of things is semantic knowledge; knowing how to do things is procedural knowledge. These parts of Mr. X’s mental functioning were intact. What was missing were his autobiographical memories. And without them, who was he? A skilled bridge player who couldn’t remember how or when he’d learned the game; a gardener with no recollection of who’d taught him the names of flowers or which varieties grew in his mother’s yard.

Mr. X spent hours in the hospital’s library, reading every newspaper and magazine he could get his hands on. He told his doctors that he was looking for something that might jog his memory, something that felt familiar. Nothing ever did. He spoke with a genteel Southern accent, which suggested that he’d had some education in his life, or at least had grown up among educated people. Those people—his people—could tell Mr. X who he was. But no one came to Whitfield to claim him.


We’re not the only ones who carry our memories. The people around us, who share in our experiences, have their own version of events saved away. And when we tell a story to a loved one, we’re giving them a piece of our lives. We scatter memories like seeds, letting them take root in the people who care enough to listen.

One day in the late 1990s, I sat cross-legged on the cool tile floor of my grandmother’s sunroom in Florida, listening. I had a cheap spiral notebook in my lap where I scribbled down the scraps of memory she shared. My grandmother had always been reticent to talk about her upbringing in Mississippi, but as she spoke, her initial hesitance burned away like a fog dissolving in sunshine.

As she described her childhood, she dwelled for a while on a woman named Ligon Smith Forbes, her aunt on her mother’s side. Ligon—pronounced with a short i and a hard g—died well before I was born, but as my grandmother spoke, a lively, unconventional woman took shape in my mind. “She was a feminist divorcée suffragette journalist alcoholic lesbian rabble-rouser,” my grandmother said, tapping a manicured finger against her ultra-slim cigarette. “You would have loved her!”

Ligon was a tall, striking woman, and by the time she was in her fifties, her lined face had a rosy glow—the complexion of a heavy drinker. She was married briefly, retaining nothing from the union but the title “Mrs.” and a new last name. Ligon worked all her life, and she held a wide variety of jobs. She tried teaching, then managed a stationery and newspaper shop. She dabbled in real estate and in the insurance business. She got into journalism and road-tripped with Eleanor Roosevelt to report on conditions in the rural South for the Emergency Relief Administration. She also started the first advertising agency in Mississippi. Her cofounder was her longtime “companion,” a woman named Earlene White.

“When I was turning 13, Mama let me take the train to visit Aunt Ligon in the city, to celebrate my birthday,” my grandmother told me, her eyes shining at the glamour of it all. The year was 1931, and the city was Jackson—for a girl from a small, dusty town, the state capital was the height of sophistication. She stayed with Ligon and Earlene in their suite at the Robert E. Lee Hotel.

“Of course, they were lovers,” my grandmother said in a casual aside, “but we didn’t talk about things like that back then.”

Her mother—my great-grandmother, Ligon’s sister—had given her five dollars to buy a dress. “Five dollars was a lot of money,” my grandmother said solemnly, as if she could still feel the weight of it in her patent-leather purse. “Ligon took me shopping, and well….” My grandmother shrugged. “Instead of a dress, I came home with my first pair of high heels.” She grinned with the mischief of a rebellious teenager.

“She worked for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans for a while,” my grandmother said of Ligon, narrowing her eyes in concentration. “Wrote for a bunch of newspapers. Sometimes she sent me cuttings, but I don’t think I saved them. Maybe you could look”—at this my grandmother gestured vaguely toward the sky, indicating technology and its mysteries—“find out something about her work.”

I tried, but searching through old newspapers on library microfiche was a formidable task, and the earliest databases for genealogy research, such as, were just coming online. The notebook where I’d scribbled my grandmother’s memories soon slid to the bottom of a box. It sat there, unopened, and moved as I did, to new homes, half a dozen times over the years.

When I discovered the notebook again, my grandmother had been dead for a decade. But there were her words on the page, transcribed in my ballpoint-scrawled hand. Outlandish stories of feuds with her older brothers, of the small-town telephone operator who eavesdropped on everyone’s conversations, of the house her lumberman father built, hand-picking every board. And memories of her beloved Aunt Ligon.

I took the fragments my grandmother had given me—the Robert E. Lee Hotel, the Times-Picayune, Earlene—and fed them into search engines. There she was: Ligon Smith Forbes. I discovered facts about my aunt’s life that my grandmother hadn’t shared, perhaps hadn’t even known. Ligon filed a patent in 1920. She worked with Near East Relief, famously the first charity to let donors “adopt” a child by supporting them financially from afar. And at the time of the 1940 census, her residence was listed as the Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield.

At first I thought Ligon had been a patient. Perhaps she was being treated for alcoholism. But no—I soon learned that Whitfield was another career shift. Ligon was hired in July 1938 as the institution’s public relations director. Previously, administrators or the occasional contractor had handled publicity. But someone convinced the hospital that it could use a dedicated staff member to liaise with the press. In all likelihood that someone was Ligon herself. Creating jobs out of whole cloth was one of her specialties.

Ligon moved into the female staff dorm at Whitfield. Her commute to work was a stroll down landscaped paths, first to the dining hall for breakfast at communal tables, then to the cupola-topped administration building. She had a Rolodex full of contacts at regional newspapers and magazines. She had experience writing copy she knew papers would run. Now all she had to do was scour the hospital for story ideas.

Ligon reached out to the Commercial Appeal, a newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee, that had wide circulation in the South. It was always seeking content for its weekly photo supplement, referred to in the newspaper business as rotogravure. Ligon suggested that the paper do a two-page spread on the state-of-the-art mental hospital where she’d recently started working. She said she would travel to Memphis herself and hand-deliver the photographs. The newspaper, presumably eager for an easy way to fill a couple of pages, agreed.

On the day she would board the train for Memphis, Ligon came across a patient file that roused her journalistic instincts. As topics went, it was far meatier than images of Whitfield, however lovely the campus was. It was the sort of thing the public was hungry for. The stuff of radio melodrama and matinee movies. The kind of story a writer stumbles upon only a handful of times, if ever.

She had discovered Mr. X.

Read the full story at The Atavist

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

The Spokane, Washington skyline. (Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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

1. They Went to Bible College to Deepen Their Faith. Then They Were Assaulted—and Blamed for It.

Becca Andrews | Mother Jones | September 30, 2021 | 8,500 words

“But you drank the alcohol, right?” he asked. “What did you do to deserve to be hit?” That’s what Dean Timothy Arens of Moody Bible Institute asked student Anna Heyward when she described abuse, including rape, perpetrated by her boyfriend, who was also a student. That’s just the tip of the iceberg: Becca Andrews’ investigation into the impact of “purity culture” on MBI’s response to reports of sexual abuse and harassment on campus is deep and far-reaching. It’s enough to make your blood boil. Andrews exposes a robust culture of blaming victims and side-stepping accountability, all in the name of God. She describes the weakening of Title IX protections at religious institutions under Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, which makes future Anna Heywards more vulnerable to judgment, humiliation, or worse at MBI, Liberty University, and other evangelical colleges. “All the women I spoke to who were survivors of sexual violence at Moody say they experienced … difficulty in finding the language to express what had happened, because it was impossible to see beyond the constraints imposed by Moody’s specific interpretation of Christianity,” Andrews writes. “It can be hard to recognize harassment when it is at the hands of a brother or a sister in Christ.” —SD

2. Reporter’s Diary: Finding Forgiveness in Burundi’s Mass Graves

Désiré Nimubona | The New Humanitarian | September 14, 2021 | 3,921

I live in Canada, and Thursday September 30th marked our first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a new statutory holiday introduced to reflect on Canada’s history of abuse against Indigenous people — made particularly poignant by the recent discoveries of mass grave sites at former residential schools. Sadly, Canada’s troubled history is far from unique and this piece is about a small and often overlooked African country called Burundi — a place only just starting to peer down dark roads with its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Désiré Nimubona, a new writer to Longreads, spent 2020 following this Commission as they explored atrocities which started in the 19th century, when Burundi was first colonized by a European power, to 2008. It’s not comfortable reading. Nimubona literally watches mass graves being uncovered, with search teams holding up “belts, shoes, clothes, and other items pulled from the ground in the hope that residents would recognize who they belonged to.” In 1972, somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Hutus were killed in Burundi. Nimubona was born six years after this bloodshed, but his life was shaped by it, displayed in the matter-of-fact way he tells us that in 1996, Tutsi soldiers made him and some friends lie in front of an armored truck: his friends were crushed to death. Still, amazingly, Nimubona does not seek pity in this essay, nor retribution. Rather, he finds hope in seeing Hutus and Tutsis uniting to inform the Commission. Where possible truth and reconciliation is, after all, about healing. —CW

3. I Had a Chance to Travel Anywhere. Why Did I Pick Spokane?

Jon Mooallem | The New York Times Magazine | September 21, 2021 | 5,138 words

I’ve never been to (or have any interest in visiting) Spokane, Washington. I’m not into minor-league baseball, either. So I read Seattle writer Jon Mooallem’s essay with no expectations, yet was surprised to come out the other side with a slight ache in my heart. On his first real trip after 17 months inside a pandemic bubble with his wife and two young daughters, Mooallem visits and experiences Spokane — a place he’d been genuinely curious about for years — at a baseball game of the city’s minor-league team, the Spokane Indians. With the Delta variant causing a surge in cases in the city, the idea of sitting in an open-air stadium seemed like “a manageable, belated step into the mid-pandemic lifestyle that people were calling post-pandemic life.” Mooallem’s piece explores the unique history of the team, and its special partnership with the Spokane Tribe of Indians (“we are not their mascot,” says the Spokane Tribal Business Council’s chairwoman). But, even more, it’s an unexpectedly lovely meditation on reentering the world: an anxious parent navigating life with an unvaccinated child; dealing with everyday stressors like wildfire smoke, COVID spikes, and survivor’s guilt; and pushing through pandemic lockdown inertia — which I’m personally trying to overcome. —CLR

4. Crash

Jesse Lee Kercheval | New England Review | June 21, 2021 | 1,925 words

This essay from Jesse Lee Kercheval at New England Review is a piece of writing that does not allow you to look away. Imagine you’re a child, eating deliciously salty, forbidden French fries after a swim at the beach on an idyllic summer day. Suddenly, you’re witnessing a horrific split-second car accident when someone fails to stop at a stop sign. Decades later, as Kercheval recounts this experience, she is unable to recall the most horrifying visual details from the scene, yet she cannot escape the sound. “I remember this. I can close my eyes and feel that metal on metal in my body,” Kercheval writes. The words she chose are simple, but their power teleported me to a car accident I was in in my late teens. The crunch of metal on metal is something I’ll never forget. This piece reminds me that writing has the power to connect us all across time and culture when it comes to what the body remembers from extraordinary experiences. —KS

5. An Interview With Chuck Palahniuk

Kathryn Borel | The Believer | September 27, 2021 | 5,659 words

I may not be a Chuck Palahniuk superfan, but I am 100% a smart-conversation-with-smart-people superfan, so this Believer Q&A had me from moment one. The last few years have been tough on the Choke novelist (and newly minted Substack writer), as they have been on so many of us; in addition to the usual psychic burdens, he went bankrupt after losing millions to an embezzling accountant. But prompted by knowing, empathic questions from Borel, he delves into his own regrets and coping mechanisms — both pre- and post-sobriety — and adds to our ever-accreting sense of a writer who’s as protective as he is prolific. “You know, I will stand on my head and whistle Dixie and do all these crazy things,” he says at once point, “because to me, being a genuine writer means that you’re able to shed all human dignity in a moment. People depend on you to express something that they can’t express. But I don’t want to betray people I love.” The first rule of a great interview is you share that great interview. —PR

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.

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

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.

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

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.