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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

A long line of people stand near the Tower Bridge in London
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Here are five standout pieces we read this week. You can visit our editors’ picks or our Twitter feed to see what other recommendations you may have missed.

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

Eric Borsuk | The Marshall Project | September 22, 2022 | 8,775 words

When Eric Borsuk was incarcerated in federal prison with two accomplices, the three friends used self-education to pass the time. They studied on a demanding schedule and evaluated assignments for one another. When an injustice within the so-called justice system separated them, Eric lost not only their companionship but his primary coping mechanism, forcing him to find a new way to protect his mental and physical health during the final five years of his sentence. In this incisive piece at The Marshall Project (published in partnership with VQR), Borsuk recounts how the justice system’s willful blindness and casual cruelty helped inspire him to write. , the memoir Borsuk wrote from his cell, became a major motion picture in 2018. —KS

Aaron Gell | Los Angeles Magazine | September 22, 2022 | 6,235 words

Bestselling novelist Jarett Kobek believes he’s uncovered the true identity of the Zodiac Killer. His research into the cultural references in the killer’s cryptic letters led him down a rabbit hole and, ultimately, to an eccentric man named Paul Doerr, who died in 2007. But Doerr’s daughter, Gloria, isn’t so sure — until Aaron Gell suggests that the two of them come together to meet. I’m in no way immersed in the subculture of cold-case websleuths, but Gell’s story hooked me from the start, and it was impossible not to picture the movie version of this piece in my head as I was reading. As Gell shows, the evidence against Doerr might be the strongest yet, especially after chilling conversations with Gloria about her father, her childhood, and their relationship. Even if Kobek is just another amateur detective making this claim, Gell’s piece demonstrates how easy it is to become obsessed with unsolved cases like these. —CLR

Laurie Penny | British GQ | September 18, 2022 | 3,415 words

I was 13 when Princess Diana died. For weeks, her death was the dominant force in England — on every channel, every paper, every face. A soap opera stuck on a tragic loop. My mum took me to London to lay flowers at Buckingham Palace. I remember the plastic cellophane suffocating the dying blooms, glinting in the sun in an expanse that seemed to stretch forever. I remember it being silent. I had picked flowers from our garden, which were now a sad, wilted offering. I was embarrassed putting them down — partly by the flowers, partly by even being there. Looking back, I am still a little embarrassed; it was strange to be driven by this huge, incomprehensible, national grief. So I appreciated Laurie Penny’s awkwardness in joining “the Queue” to walk past Queen Elizabeth’s coffin, quick to explain she is “not here for the Queen; I’m here for the Queue” (and that she is being paid). People have quipped Brits have been practicing for this queue their whole lives, and Penny encounters great stoicism as people settle into “groups of around seven or 10, and we take turns keeping each other’s place.” Her group is the focus of this essay: An array of characters brought together simply by turning up at the same time, they bond over the 14-hour ordeal with true blitz spirit. I was particularly rooting for 84-year-old John and his wife, feeling horrified when, after 13 hours, an official tried to remove them for being too frail. Reading, I went from chuckling at Penny’s wit to feeling tearful. Not for the Queen — I would not have joined the queue without being paid either — but, as a British expat of 10 years, for missing being part of a nation of people who would willingly share such a bizarre experience. A beautiful essay that, for a brief moment, made me miserably, gut-wrenchingly homesick. —CW

Hanif AbdurraqibESPN | September 28, 2022 | 8,314 words

If you’ve only read Hanif Abdurraqib’s peerless arts criticism and , you may not be aware how deeply he loves the game of basketball. (Or how stoically he shoulders his own pathos-filled Minnesota Timberwolves fandom.) But that love suffuses every word of his journey into the world of summer hoops leagues — those offseason battlegrounds where promising young draftees go up against hometown legends and NBA icons alike, in tiny jam-packed gyms that amplify the game’s visceral swells beyond imagination. This is more than a travelogue. It’s a paean to the forge of competitive pro-am basketball, a tradition that sharpens games and shapes folklore. “The court is home,” he writes of Columbus’ Kingdom Summer League. “It transcends the places you live, or have lived. If you were made in this city, you can come back and play in this city, and there will be people who remember you when you first made a name for yourself. In a city like Columbus, if you were great once on these courts, you can always exist in a space beyond fading memories.” —PR

5. I Do Not Keep a Diary

Will Rees | Astra Magazine | September 15, 2022 | 3,051 words

Will Rees doesn’t yet keep a diary, but he aspires to. Maybe. He carries a notebook and pen, ready for the precise set of planting conditions that would allow him to sow his thoughts and ideas. The notebook is well traveled. The cover is worn, yet the inside remains blank as he struggles with how to portray himself on the page, asking “How would I like to appear when it is only myself who is looking?” I loved this piece because I find it wholly relatable. Have you ever felt those sweet yet rare moments when you’re infused with possibility, that desire to make sense of your life and your experiences, to uncover meaning in how you spend your days? Have you ever aspired to get thoughts down before they evaporate, before that drop of inspiration or insight is gone forever? To take pride in yourself as a thinking person who makes reflection a habit? Don’t we all? —KS

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Photo by shaunl/Getty Images

Here are five standout pieces we read this week. You can visit our editors’ picks or our Twitter feed to see what other recommendations you may have missed.

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

1. ‘These Kids Are Dying’ — Inside the Overdose Crisis Sweeping Fort Bragg

Seth Harp | Rolling Stone | September 4, 2022 | 5,798 words

One hundred and nine. That’s the shocking number of soldiers who died in 2020 and 2021 while assigned to Fort Bragg, the U.S. Army’s largest base. In this important investigation, Seth Harp reports on the unprecedented wave of deaths at the military facility: homicides and suicides, and an alarming number of accidental overdoses on fentanyl, with soldiers dying in similarly “quiet” ways — slumped over in their bunks or in parked vehicles. But the Army continues to downplay this crisis, sweeping fatalities under the rug: the deaths of soldiers not even made public, their families left wondering what happened. “Military leaders will deny it and say that morale is high,” writes Harp, “but there is a palpable sense of purposelessness and disillusionment hanging over bases like Fort Bragg,” especially among men who’ve experienced combat and have been deployed to Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq multiple times. A heartbreaking and infuriating read about the military justice system, and the lack of support for soldiers. —CLR

2. Bioacoustics: What Nature’s Sounds Can Tell Us About The Health of Our World

Alanna Mitchell | Canadian Geographic | August 12, 2022 | 3,792 words

This essay hooks you from its opening lines, with descriptions so adept you can hear “the chirps, warbles, tweedles, whistles and clicks of the dawn chorus.” The auditory feast continues, and I defy you not to imagine twirling his baton at his marine orchestra when Alanna Mitchell explains that “coral reefs are underwater symphonies with shrimp snapping out the beat.” After making you appreciate the sounds of the earth, Mitchell switches to her stark message: We are silencing nature’s voice. In our ecosystem’s choir, not only are humans destroying the harmony by singing the loudest, we are throwing everyone else out of tune by loading so much carbon into the atmosphere that it is changing the air, altering sounds. Water is not faring any better and Mitchell explains that, in the oceans, there is no respite from the constant hum of ships, nudging me to imagine what it would be like to be plagued by the buzz of a construction drill wherever I went. A particularly heartbreaking example comes from a study of St. Lawrence Estuary, where young beluga whales are getting lost, unable to hear their mothers above their highly industrialized world. Mixing vivid descriptions with scientific reports is a powerful blend, and I came away from this essay feeling disturbed. However, Mitchell does give us one positive note — things could still recover. Studies have shown that playing healthy soundscapes in degraded marine ecosystems can help restore them: “The phantom sounds of lost habitats, piped from speakers onto the seabed, are cues for oyster larvae, encouraging them to fasten to the abandoned shells of adult oysters and rebuild.” —

3. Human Trafficking’s Newest Abuse: Forcing Victims Into Cyberscamming

Cezary Podkul with Cindy Liu | ProPublica | September 13, 2022 | 7,559 words

“Hello! I’m Jonah, who are you?” says one text. “Hi, I’m back in San Francisco, how’s it going?” says another. I receive WhatsApp messages like these regularly, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who may be behind them as I read this harrowing story by Cezary Podkul about so-called pig butchering scams. As the phrase suggests, fraudsters plump up their targets, forming online relationships with them and gaining their trust before manipulating them into depositing money into an investment platform. But the scammers themselves, tens of thousands of people from across Asia, have been coerced into participating in these schemes. Podkul’s investigation takes us deep into both sides of the operation: He follows Fan, a young man from China who was lured by a phony ad, held captive in a Cambodian scam compound in Sihanoukville, and forced to engage in cybercrime. He also shares the devastating story of Yuen, a man living near San Francisco, who ultimately lost $1 million in a scam that began with a seemingly harmless WhatsApp text from a stranger named Jessica. This is a gripping, excellently reported piece that clearly shows how no one wins in these schemes — except the crime syndicates behind them. —CLR

4. The Disappearing Art of Maintenance

Alex Vuocolo | Noema | September 22, 2022 | 4,173 words

“Repair is when you fix something that’s already broken,” Alex Vuocolo writes near the beginning of his reported essay. “Maintenance is about making something last.” Tension needn’t exist between those two sentences; yet, as he ably illustrates, too many nations have ensured that it does. Starting with the New York City transit system’s most ancient subway cars, Vuocolo unpacks how maintenance may in fact be our most direct line to environmental salvation — or at least mitigation. For decades, sustainability efforts have focused on repair rather than renewal; at the same time, technological progress has plundered natural resources with increasing rapacity, and labor costs have outpaced material costs. The result, he posits, is a broken system in which the most efficient practices are somehow the most wasteful ones. And until something undoes this brokenness, we’re left to take that responsibility on ourselves. Hope you’ve got your screwdriver at the ready.  —PR

5. Rocketland

Loren Grush | The Verge | September 13, 2022 | 7,100 words

I dislike Elon Musk. Like, a lot. I know I’m not alone in this. So it was admittedly with horrified curiosity that I embarked on reading Loren Grush’s feature about people who’ve uprooted their lives, moved to middle-of-nowhere Texas, and dedicated their time, energy, even money to waiting for Musk’s SpaceX to bring humankind closer to setting foot on Mars. Grush quickly set me straight: The horror that colored my curiosity was wrong. She encounters a community of seekers, believers, dreamers. There’s nothing else like it on earth, and in that there’s poignancy, even hope. “Maybe inhabiting Mars will happen in our lifetimes. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it will never happen at all,” Grush writes. “In the end, you just have to have a little faith. And in this dry, flat patch of Texas, you’ll find no shortage of that.” —SD

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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Here are five standout pieces we read this week. You can always visit our editors’ picks or our Twitter feed to see what other recommendations you may have missed.

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

1. The Mystery Behind the Crime Wave at 312 Riverside Drive

Michael Wilson The New York Times | September 14, 2022 | 3,229 words

I don’t know what your usual media diet looks like, but there’s a little upstart out of Gotham that’s been serving up some riveting stories lately — and at the front of the pack is this empathetic profile from Michael Wilson. Every month, 911 dispatchers in New York City field dozens of calls about crimes in progress at an Upper West Side apartment building. Robberies. Stabbings. Self-harm. Elder abuse. All those calls are from a single man named Walter Reed. The thing is, the hellish edifice he’s calling about doesn’t exist. There is no 312 Riverside Drive. Wilson doesn’t string you along to learn that truth as a twist, though. Instead, he gets it out there immediately, so that he can spend the rest of the feature explaining what’s driving Walter Reed’s inescapable compulsion, and how the city’s social safety net is unable to get him the lasting help he so clearly needs. It’s not a mystery at all; it’s a frustrating tragedy. But it’s also a perfect example of the mind-changing, emotionally affecting journalism a newspaper feature can deliver. —PR

2. Roll With It

Joseph Bien-Kahn | Sports Illustrated | September 14, 2022 | 5,410 words

Ian Mackay was paralyzed 14 years ago in a bike accident, leaving the active 26-year-old with the physical abilities of an infant. The unconditional support from his mother Teena, an incredible friend network, and years of emotional healing have all helped Mackay rediscover his love for the outdoors. He first began to explore trails around his family’s home, testing his wheelchair’s limits. Eventually, he tackled weeks-long routes: 335 miles from B.C. to Portland, 476 miles from Coeur d’Alene to Port Angeles. But these rides, Joseph Bien-Kahn explains, are dangerous: Aside from the exhaustion of such challenging trails, Mackay can no longer regulate his body heat, and there’s also the risk of spasms, infections, and sores from sitting for long journeys. Still, he’s up for the adventure. “This wheelchair is my bike,” says Mackay. “I am of the firm belief that more people, not just the mobility-challenged, should get outside and pursue a passion.” Bien-Kahn goes to Sauvie Island to watch Mackay break a world record: the greatest distance covered in 24 hours by a motorized wheelchair. Through beautiful and tender writing, he tells an inspiring story about rediscovering oneself and finding new ways to do what you love. —

Jason Anthony | Wired | September 1, 2022 | 6,974 words

I have never tried LARPing (live-action role-playing), but I always thought it sounded pretty jolly. Adorn a suit of armor and vanquish someone else dressed as a dragon, that sort of thing. I was naive, for I had never heard of Nordic Larp. Jason Anthony enlightens me in his riveting essay describing these underground games — often played in northern Europe — that take players on dark “thinky head trips.” Anthony attends “The Future is Straight,” where players pretend to be at a gay conversion therapy camp. Reality switches at the end of a James Blake ballad, and things rapidly become bizarre. Reading, I found it hard to fathom why people would choose to put themselves through what ultimately seems a very miserable, disturbing experience. Anthony, too, grabbles with this question: “I try out a new theory on some of the players—that Nordic Larp is black licorice for the soul. By some neurological alchemy, all that sadness feels good.” Somehow, in choosing to re-create the worst possible version of his adolescence, Anthony finds catharsis, but I came away from this essay feeling unsettled. It is in itself a “thinky head trip” — one you won’t be able to stop reading. —CW

4. They Call Her Lamb Mom

AC Shelton | Outside | September 13, 2022 | 3,364 words

Growing up, I had a pet magpie. After the great storm of 1987 destroyed his nest, we found him in our garden — a tiny bedraggled thing with a beak spread astonishingly wide, blindly chirping for food. I proudly gave him the unoriginal name Chirpy, and my mum fed him cat food off the back of a teaspoon. He lived with us for years until, according to my parents, he “moved in with a girlfriend.” (Nowadays, doubts around Chirpy finding domestic bliss creep in.) The magpie turned out to be just the start of a parade of animals to pass through our doors, as people began bringing my mum — a renowned animal lover — creatures to nurse back to health. I remember a hedgehog family in the laundry, robins in the kitchen, pheasants in the downstairs loo, and my dad huffing. These memories flooded back while reading AC Shilton’s beautiful essay about caring for two sick lambs. It’s a simple tale, but one filled with emotion — both for the plight of the lambs and the sense of loss caring for them brings to the surface, as Shilton grabbles with not being able to have children. The prose is magnificent, and the scene of Sebastian the lamb getting to run with a mobility cart is particularly vivid. So too, however, is his passing, and I defy you not to shed a tear. Shilton explains it took a year before she felt she could write about Sebastian. I understand. One day, my mum added a duckling who couldn’t walk to our menagerie. Percy the duckling didn’t make it either: I cried for a week. —CW

5. The Number Ones: Crazy Town’s “Butterfly”

Tom Breihan | Stereogum | September 14, 2022 | 3,306 words

There was some stellar longform journalism published this week —  of Hasidic yeshivas, for instance, and Casey Cep’s damning look at how Johnson & Johnson is eschewing responsibility for consumer protection — but for this newsletter, I’m going to recommend a deep dive into one of the worst pop songs ever composed. I was 15 when “Butterfly” hit the airwaves. You probably know it; you might even be able to hum the hook or “rap” along to the chorus. It is not a good song. It might be a crime against art. But as part of his effort to review every #1 single in the history of the Billboard‘s Hot 100, Tom Breihan traces how “Butterfly” came to be, illuminating the currents of rap, rock, pop, and fan culture that led to the utterance of the lyrics, “Hey sugar mama, come and dance with me / The smartest thing you ever did was take a chance with me.” There are moments of deadpan humor and cameos by Paul Ryan and Nancy Meyers. Breihan makes the case that “Butterfly” manages to tip from bad into something else — “the kind of silly bullshit hit song that makes the world just slightly more fun.” I buy it. —SD

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Serena WIlliams, wearing a black tennis minidress, tosses a ball high in the air before serving at the US Open.
Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Here are five standout pieces we read this week. You can always visit our editors’ picks or our Twitter feed to see what other recommendations you may have missed.

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

Carla Ciccone | Harper’s Bazaar | September 5th, 2022 | 3,231 words

“Getting diagnosed with ADHD on the cusp of 40 brought my personal history into sharp focus,” writes Carla Ciccone in this personal piece for Harper’s Bazaar. There’s been a spike in the number of ADHD diagnoses among adult women, especially in the last several years, and Ciccone was one of them. “But women aren’t suddenly waking up with a neurological disorder,” she writes. “It’s likely been there all along, masquerading as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, ‘she’s difficult,’ ‘she’s an airhead,’ ‘she’s unlucky,’ ‘she’s lazy,’ and other labels that tend to mark a girl as she moves through her life.” Ciccone describes her own struggles growing up — in school, in relationships, in processing traumatic events — and how her diagnosis at 39 has helped her reframe the way she sees herself, her family, and her past. It’s an honest and illuminating read, especially for those who may see their own experiences reflected in hers. —CLR

Lex Pryor | The Ringer | September 8th, 2022 | 2,554 words

There’s been no shortage of encomia written since Serena Williams exited the U.S. Open a week ago, but none of them have felt quite so lived-in as Lex Pryor’s remarkable paean. It details her many distinctions, obviously, but more importantly it properly situates her as the watershed player she is — a subverter of the head-down gentility that Black tennis pioneers like Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe embodied, and the mother of an entirely new lineage of champions. “Is there anything more alpha,” Pryor asks, “more Tiger, more Michael, more wonderfully and ridiculously competitive, than Williams, in the midst of yet another Grand Slam victory, reacting to a bad shot by throwing her arms back, arching her spine, and screaming ‘Fuck are you doing’ into the sky?” If you’ve been lucky enough to watch Serena over the years, you already know that she’s a one of one. This piece not only articulates that with insight and brio, but it drives home the miracle of what she accomplished: remaking American tennis like few have done before, and fewer still might do after. —PR

Bhavya Dore | Fifty Two | September 2nd, 2022 | 5,241 words

“Wouter Dijkstra always knew he had two mothers: his Dutch adoptive mother and his Sri Lankan birth mother. In September 2020, he found out he had three.” With a lede like that, you know a story is going to be excellent. Bhavya Dore’s reporting on the long-term consequences of a fraught adoption pipeline between Sri Lanka and Western Europe is tender, eloquent, and nuanced. There are surprises and disappointments, bright glimpses of beauty and quiet moments of profound grief. The subjects of Dore’s story leap off the page, and I found myself wishing for happy endings I knew could never be. Of all the pieces I’ve read recently, this one felt the most alive — it crackles with humanity. —SD

Michelle Cyca | Maclean’s | September 6th, 2022 | 7,624 words

How far would you go to secure a job? In the case of Gina Adams, the answer seems too far. Far too far. In this riveting piece, Michelle Cyca explores Adams’ claims of Midewiwin descent from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. She used this claim to further her university career — but has not been able to prove her heritage in the face of allegations these ties are false. Cyca’s narrative races along, exploring other people’s doubts about Adams until, with Adams remaining in her position, Cyca feels compelled to investigate herself. As a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and having worked at Emily Carr University at the same time as Adams, Cyca has a unique perspective to give to this story, and she tells it exceptionally well. While delving into Adams’ case, Cyca opens the Pandora’s box of university hiring practice: In the rush to add First Nations to faculties, no one was checking backstories, and now, invented Indigenous heritage is emerging at several universities. This story will grip you — and frustrate you — to the last word. —CW

Casey Lyons | Orion Magazine | Sep 6th, 2022 | 2,869 words

I confess, it was the headline that drew me in. I wasn’t a Beverly Hills, 90210 fan, never got suckered by Luke Perry’s squint-smirk combo. But I couldn’t resist that monster-movie construction, so I read it — and I’d urge the same of you, regardless of your feelings about Aaron Spelling primetime soaps. This piece starts with Perry’s death, but Casey Lyons uses the actor’s green burial as a springboard to trace the remarkable arc of his life as well, and in doing so to explore what we seek from our corporeal end. “Luke Perry knew about desire, having been buried in a laundry hamper to escape it,” Lyons writes. “He also knew it as the holder of a notion about physical erasure from the planet, that our bodies don’t have to harm the earth when we die. We all know desire. Death is a muse, but desire is a blunter sort of thing.” Regardless of whether the mushrooms feasted the way they were supposed to (spoiler: they didn’t!), you’ll walk away with a fuller sense of the man inside the suit, and maybe even of your own plans for that inescapable day. —PR

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Group of robots look at human figure frozen inside glass cube
Photo by Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images

Here are five standout pieces we read this week. You can always visit our editors’ picks or our Twitter feed to see what other recommendations you may have missed.

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

1. Dust and Bones

Yessenia Funes | Atmos | August 31st, 2022 | 3,884 words

“The border crisis is bad now, but climate change will make it exponentially worse,” writes Yessenia Funes in this compassionate piece for Atmos. Extreme heat plays a major role in migrant deaths along the southern border of the U.S. In 2021, the bodies of 225 migrants were recovered from the Arizona desert, and this year, 126 have already been found. One third of these deaths are due to the harsh, dangerous environment. Funes joins a migrant rescue group that combs the desert for people who’ve gotten lost during their journeys. Mostly, though, they search for remains: “bodies, bones, and belongings.” While researchers have studied how climate change will influence migration patterns, they haven’t really measured how it will physically and mentally affect an individual — until now. Funes weaves this data into a very personal and reflective account. The photographs by Carlos Jaramillo, especially images of found items like black water jugs and camouflage backpacks scattered across the desert, are haunting. —CLR

Carl Elliott | The American Scholar | September 1st, 2022 | 5,463 words

It’s hard not to think of Oliver Sacks when you start reading this piece, thanks to its opening tale of a woman’s alarming reaction to the drug pramipexole. But Carl Elliott quickly delves beyond case-study voyeurism to plumb a litany of fascinating philosophical questions. When an impulse-control disorder changes a person’s personality dramatically, and seemingly irrevocably, how do we evaluate the resulting behavior? Are they responsible for their transgressions? Is it even them who’s transgressing? “The issues involved in these judgments raise profound questions about what exactly makes us who we are,” Elliott writes. “And those questions remain morally contentious even without identity-altering drugs.” Come for the “wait, they what?” moments, stay for the constellation of Wittgenstein thought experiments and Philip K. Dick references.  —PR

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3. The Death Cheaters

Courtney Shea | Toronto Life | August 29th, 2022 | 4,711 words

Michael Nguyen, once a tailor to the stars, is the founder of Longevity House, a club where the ultra-wealthy are dipping into high-tech ways to prolong their lives. There’s the BioCharger, which is a fancy device that fights chronic disease and brain fog; experimental fecal transplants; and access to specialists, from a chakra guy to a person who can read your stool samples like “physiological tea leaves.” For these biohackers, the goal is optimization and autonomy over one’s own health care. (Says the starry-eyed founder: “The patient is the doctor of the future.”) But does biohacking work, or is Nguyen just a wellness snake-oil salesman for the 1%? In this entertaining read, Courtney Shea, both with wide eyes and a necessary skepticism, gives us a glimpse into this subculture — think “Goop but for tech bros,” a wellness community where “cryotherapy is the new CrossFit,” and a world in which the body and mind are merely first-generation devices, primed for upgrades. Here, 90 is the new 50.  —CLR

4. Can the American Mall Survive?

Jillian Steinhauer | The New Republic | August 22nd, 2022 | 3,974 words

I grew up in a small place where there wasn’t much to do except go to the mall. I can still navigate its corridors in my brain: Bath & Body Works was around the corner from Victoria’s Secret and just down the way from the GAP. When a new, bigger, splashier mall opened a two-hour drive from my town, a high school friend and I made a pilgrimage to shop there. After all, it boasted an Abercrombie. Needless to say, I ate up Jillian Steinhauer’s excellent essay about the history and future of the American mall, which doubles as a review of a new book about the topic, by architecture critic Alexandra Lange. Steinhauer considers why malls hold such an oversize place in the American cultural imagination. “Malls are not necessarily the communal spaces we would design for ourselves, but in a country short on alternatives, they’re the ones we’ve been given,” she writes. “Is it any surprise that we want them to be so much more?” —SD

5. How Many Errorrs Are in This Essay?

Ed Simon | The Millions | August 24th, 2022 | 6,525 words

I spend a lot of time deliberating over words, so reading Ed Simon’s delightful essay on “when copy goes wrong” was a guilty pleasure. When Simon points out “Theodor Dreiser’s An American Tragedy describes a pair of lovers as being ‘like two small chips being tossed about on a rough but friendly sea,’” I was rooting for those star-crossed potatoes. A fan of a well-set table, I concurred “Blessed are the placemakers,” rather than “peacemakers” — as suggested in a 1562 printing of the Geneva Bible — and I chuckled that a few decades later, the “Wicked Bible” urged that you “shalt commit adultery.” There is a particularly joyful flaw in a 15th-century Croatian manuscript, where “splayed across the pages are the inky pawprints of the scribe’s cat” — the modern-day equivalent of your pet presenting its rear end in a Zoom meeting. After having his fun, Simon deftly moves on to the darker side of copy mistakes: In the U.S. Constitution, “commas are placed between nouns and verbs, errant commas in the Second Amendment make it unclear as to whether the right to bear arms is reserved for individuals or only ‘well regulated militias.’” Simon likes to make you think, and after dwelling on the potential damage of a wayward comma, he moves on to our very existence: Why did the Big Bang happen? It was probably just a mistake as well. —

‘Stay Away From Miller’

Newspaper collage-like illustration with the silhouette of a head, with legal text included inside.
Illustration by Hellovon, courtesy of The Atavist Magazine

Seyward Darby  |  The Atavist Magazine  |  August 2022 | 10 minutes (2,937 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 130, “Fault Lines.

 

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

The earthquake hit at 4:31 a.m. For the next 20 seconds the ground shook, rippled, and roared. Cracks tore up the sides of buildings, and higher floors pancaked onto lower ones. Steel-reinforced concrete beams buckled as sections of elevated roadway collapsed. Transformers exploded, and burst water mains flooded residential streets.

People were jolted awake by what felt like a freight train barreling through their homes. When it stopped, before the aftershocks began rolling in, survivors saw stars. “They were so close to me and very bright,” one man remembered. The earthquake had killed electrical power in the San Fernando Valley, plunging it into darkness. For the first time many Valley residents could remember, they saw the night sky in luminous detail.

The earthquake of January 17, 1994, which measured 6.7 on the Richter scale, left 72 people dead, thousands injured, and tens of thousands homeless across the greater Los Angeles area. Damage was estimated in the billions of dollars. The event was dubbed the Northridge earthquake, named for a hard-hit part of the Valley, but the epicenter was actually farther south in Reseda, a diverse working-class neighborhood.

Some 11 miles beneath Reseda lay a blind thrust fault, so called because it can’t be seen on the earth’s surface. Unlike visible fissures such as the San Andreas Fault, blind thrust faults are difficult to detect and map. But where there’s one, there are likely to be many: By the early 1990s, according to the urban theorist Mike Davis in his book Ecology of Fear, scientists believed there was a “dense thicket” of hidden faults underneath Los Angeles, threatening to convulse the city.

* * *

Grover Cleveland High School sat a few blocks from the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake. The school’s low-slung buildings suffered so much damage that students couldn’t attend classes for several weeks afterward. When they returned, they couldn’t eat lunch in the cafeteria because the facility had been condemned. Instead they ate in whatever nooks and crannies they could find—in hallway corners, on concrete quads, or in classrooms, sometimes with their teachers.

In E Hall, part of the northernmost section of campus, eating lunch in a teacher’s room was a badge of honor. The faculty of E Hall were celebrity educators, rock stars of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). They ran Cleveland’s renowned humanities magnet, an interdisciplinary program combining instruction in history, literature, art, and philosophy. “We were like a little Sarah Lawrence in the middle of a Title I school,” an alum told me, referring to the federal program that provides financial assistance for schools with a large population of low-income students. Since its founding in 1981, the magnet had been the subject of glowing news stories, and schools across Los Angeles had replicated its curriculum. The program, which called itself Core, produced so many graduates bound for top-notch colleges that some alumni referred to the University of California at Berkeley as “Core north.”

Core teachers prided themselves on being radicals. They encouraged students to eschew taboos, expand their horizons, and question conventional wisdom. They lectured on systemic racism and postmodernism, and they treated the teenagers they were tasked with educating as “young men and women,” a phrase the program’s founder, Neil Anstead, was fond of using. In turn, the students worshipped them.

Chris Miller was an object of particularly intense adoration. Miller, who taught American history and social studies to juniors, had been with Core since its founding. His students read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. They discussed the imperative of dismantling white supremacy and the patriarchy. A white man approaching fifty, Miller wore Birkenstocks and jewelry, and had a long ponytail that he adorned with a threaded hair wrap, the kind popular among aging hippies and teenage girls. He hugged students and urged them to talk about their feelings; crying wasn’t unusual in his classes.

* Asterisks denote pseudonyms The Atavist is using for women who requested that they not be identified in this story.

The fall semester after the Northridge earthquake, Jackie* began eating lunch in Miller’s room. Jackie was petite, with dark hair and a wide, winning smile. But, entering the 11th grade, she felt insecure. “I basically advertised within those first few weeks that I was an incredibly vulnerable 16-year-old girl,” Jackie told me. She assumed that her friends were smarter than she was, and her parents’ rocky marriage was taking an emotional toll. Meanwhile, she struggled to navigate the sexual attention that men and boys had begun showing her.

Miller made Jackie feel comfortable in his class right away. “He was teaching us things other people were afraid to teach us,” she said. “He was brave, he was a pioneer.” When they talked one on one, she felt that he treated her like an adult, asking her about her life and listening when she spoke. He gave her The Celestine Prophecy, a popular novel about a man’s spiritual awakening, to read and discuss with him. Barely a month into school, Jackie wrote in her diary that Miller was “so fucking cool”—and also a “big flirt” and “very sexual.”

One day, Miller asked Jackie if he was right in sensing an attraction between them. Jackie felt like she had to say yes or he would be disappointed. Besides, maybe she did like him, or should. When Miller asked if she’d ever had sex, Jackie told him she had, which was true. In response, Miller drove her to get an HIV test. Jackie felt like he was taking care of her.

They started seeing each other off campus—teachers and students in Core often interacted outside school, so Jackie didn’t think twice about it. But then, according to Jackie, Miller began sexually abusing her. Once, while giving her a ride to a friend’s house, he pulled over and lunged across the console between them. As Miller kissed Jackie, he placed her hand on his erection. On another occasion, he took her to the beach with two of her friends, both male Core students. The group sat on the sand, with Jackie leaning against Miller’s legs, his arms wrapped around her, and his hands on her breasts. That night, as Miller drove Jackie home, he told her that she could “use” him to work through the problems in her life. He suggested that they write letters to each other and leave them in a filing cabinet in his classroom. He told her to call him “Journey” in the correspondence.

Miller said he loved her. Jackie wanted to believe him. It would be more than two decades before she learned that she wasn’t the only student Miller pursued—and that Miller wasn’t the only Core teacher who allegedly targeted students for abuse.

‘They put the magnet program’s reputation over a student’s well-being,’ Kate said. ‘That hurts, you know?’

In 2021, Jackie and three other Jane Does filed lawsuits claiming they were groomed and sexually abused while they were students in Core. Four former teachers, including Miller, are named in the suits as perpetrators. The alleged abuse happened between 1994 and 2009; during that same time frame, according to public records, two additional Core teachers were convicted of crimes involving students, including statutory rape, and a third Cleveland teacher whose classes were popular with magnet students was convicted of possession of child pornography.

Read the legal complaints filed by the four Jane Does and an open letter written by the first woman to come forward to report abuse.

An estimated 10 percent of U.S. students suffer sexual misconduct at the hands of a school employee before they leave high school. Over the past decade, LAUSD has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in response to abuse and harassment claims. What makes Core unique is the number of teachers accused of misconduct over a prolonged period, and the apparent use of the magnet’s curriculum itself to groom students. There is also evidence that some of the teachers’ colleagues and school officials were aware of what was happening but did little or nothing to stop it. “They put the magnet program’s reputation over a student’s well-being. That hurts, you know?” said Kate*, a classmate of Jackie’s and another plaintiff in the lawsuits. “At the end of the day, it was almost like they didn’t care.”

Like the blind thrust faults beneath Los Angeles, the network of suspected wrongdoing at Core is dense, and its capacity for devastation is enormous. This story is based on extensive interviews with the four Jane Does, dozens of other Core alumni, and multiple educators with knowledge of the program. It draws from hundreds of pages of depositions and other legal documents, as well as personal correspondence, yearbooks, journals, and social media postings shared by Core graduates. Two of the accused teachers, including Miller, are deceased; the others either declined to comment for this story or did not respond to interview requests. A spokesperson for LAUSD, which is named as a defendant in the lawsuits, said in a statement that the district “does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.”

In 2021, Core celebrated its 40th anniversary. The program remains a crown jewel of LA’s public education system. The women who have come forward understand why: Core taught them to disrupt the status quo, expose injustice, and demand accountability for harm. Now they are doing just that.


Magnet programs were created to right wrongs. In the late 1960s, U.S. cities responded to persistent racial segregation by launching specialized courses of study—science and math, for instance, or language immersion—in public schools. Students throughout a district were invited to apply; acceptance was contingent on factors such as racial background and socioeconomic status. The programs were called magnets because they were intended to attract students from all walks of life.

In 1981, Cleveland’s principal asked Neil Anstead to develop a magnet program inside the high school. A Renaissance man, Anstead had been teaching social studies, economics, and art history at Cleveland for more than twenty years; he loved opera so much, he eventually offered a class in that, too. Anstead designed a program predicated on the idea that the humanities were for everyone—not just, in his words, “upper- and middle-class students,” or those of “higher ability.” Magnet students were bused in from across the Valley and other parts of Los Angeles.

The magnet’s curriculum was organized thematically: 9th grade focused on world cultures, 10th on Western civilization, 11th on American studies, and 12th on philosophy and modern thought. “Core” became shorthand for the program because magnet pupils took a nucleus of humanities courses together and attended classes in other subjects alongside the rest of the Cleveland student body. Magnet courses focused on writing—lots of essays, few tests—and were rooted in discussions of what Anstead described as questions “important to living more meaningful lives.” Among them: Is there free will? What is art? Should people be guided more by reason or by emotion? “In the hands of flexible and sensitive teachers,” Anstead wrote in a paper for the Getty Center for Education in the Arts, these questions “keep students hooked from bell to bell.”

Technically, Core was subject to the authority of Cleveland’s main office. In practice, however, it was a school within a school. Anstead served as the de facto administrator, making hiring decisions, managing budgets, and overseeing curriculum development. But magnet faculty enjoyed a great deal of autonomy—Anstead, who developed a reputation among Core students for being gentle and brilliant, if a bit absentminded, gave teachers free rein over their classes. Each grade had a faculty team led by a coordinator; the team co-taught some class sessions and graded students’ essays together. “Teachers must be workaholics,” Anstead once told the Los Angeles Times. “They must be prepared to spend evenings, weekends, and part of their summers together.” Magnet faculty tended to be charismatic: Some teachers were personable in class, forging friendships with students, while others engaged in argumentative dialogue or maintained the cool detachment of an august college professor.

The program was an instant hit. One early alum wrote in a testimonial for the magnet that graduate school “began where … Core classes left off.” Another alum told me that when she got to UCLA, her essays were of such high quality that her professors thought she was plagiarizing. Core became so beloved that before long there was a robust pipeline of alumni who, after finishing college, came back to teach in the program.

In 1986, the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a nonprofit organization, decided to build on Core’s success by installing similar programs at public schools throughout the city. LAEP called the initiative Humanitas, and participating teachers shadowed Core faculty to learn how to craft and implement a humanities curriculum. Within five years, Humanitas had chapters in 29 schools, involving some 3,500 students and 180 teachers. “In most high schools, you just pass from class to class. If you’re lucky, you might have a teacher who understands you and tries to help you with stuff. But that was not the case here,” Judith Johnson, a former LAEP administrator, told me. “By bringing people into teams, the teachers had a community, and the kids had a community.”

‘Stay away from Miller,’ an older female student told Kappes at lunch one day. ‘He tries to sleep with students.’

When Kasia Kappes entered Core as a freshman in 1991, she was nervous. Bright and artistic, Kappes had attended a Catholic middle school, where she wore a uniform and the teachers ran a tight ship. Public school seemed chaotic by comparison. But in E Hall, in the bubble of Core, Kappes felt at home. The teachers were engaging, the classes were inspiring, and the students were enthusiastic. “I just thought sending me there was the best thing my parents ever did for me,” Kappes told me.

Like any high school, however, Cleveland had a rumor mill, and teachers were often the subject of gossip. There were stories about Core instructors who smoked with students. Two longtime faculty members were said to be having an affair. Students talked about an art teacher who was “creepy” with male students. Girls whispered about a math instructor who looked up their skirts in class.

One rumor gave Kappes pause, because it was accompanied by a warning. “Stay away from Miller,” an older female student told her at lunch one day. “He tries to sleep with students.”

Kappes decided to do what the student said, just in case she was right. That worked well enough until 11th grade, when she was in Miller’s class. One day he pulled Kappes aside and asked why she wouldn’t talk to him. “I wasn’t going to accuse a teacher of sleeping with a student,” Kappes said. “So I made something up.” He was friendly, and Kappes felt like he was being genuine. She decided to give him a chance.

Soon she was spending a lot of time in Miller’s classroom, a standalone building on a corner of campus facing an adjoining street. Miller was known to let students ditch school by climbing out his window. The room had Malcolm X and Bob Marley posters. When teenagers hung out there between classes, at lunch, or after school, Miller asked about their friendships and their crushes.

In class, Miller did more than ask questions: He encouraged students to talk about their personal lives in relation to the Core curriculum. Miller was the 11th-grade coordinator, overseeing units on classism, racism, and gender and sexuality, and when it came to sharing about those topics, nothing seemed off limits. Kids described trauma, anxiety, and problems at home. Students of color talked about encountering bias, a topic that was the subject of an annual class exercise called the power pyramid. Core juniors were corralled into a room and instructed to organize themselves according to race: Black and Latino students were on the floor, Asian students were on chairs, and white students stood over everyone. This, the kids were told, was how society saw them.

Miller also showed students provocative movies, including Oleanna, a David Mamet film based on his play of the same name, which depicts a female college student who accuses a male professor of sexual harassment. According to Kappes, Miller wanted to know what the class thought of the plot: “Was there inappropriateness going on between the two? Where do you draw the line on that kind of stuff?”

Kappes trusted Miller and confided in him. Once, after she got in a fight with her parents, he picked her up at home and drove her to a friend’s place. It wasn’t unusual for Core teachers to go above and beyond for a student. Kappes said that one teacher, Rene Shufelt, helped pay for her art school applications. Kappes also considered Richard Coleman, Core’s 10th-grade coordinator, a “legit friend.” She took care of his cats when he was out of town, and Coleman joined Kappes and her friends at movies, concerts, and Disneyland. Over Thanksgiving break in 1994, Kappes’s senior year, she and a few other girls went on a camping trip to Arizona led by Coleman, an avid hiker. According to depositions from Kappes and other students on the trip, the only other chaperone was Coleman’s friend David DeMetz, a paramedic in his mid-twenties.

Kappes and her friends weren’t sneaking around. “We’d come back to school and be like, ‘Oh yeah, we went hiking with Coleman.’ No one batted an eyelash at any of this,” Kappes said. “As weird as things seemed at times, it was also just kind of normal.”

Normal is a word many Core alumni use to talk about things that were anything but. A better word, perhaps, is pervasive. The blurring of lines between students and teachers was everywhere. So was speculation about lines being crossed outright. But a rumor is just a rumor, until the moment it isn’t.

Read the full story at The Atavist.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Yellowstone wolf staring at camers
Wolf in Yellowstone National Park. Getty Images

Here are five standout pieces we read this week. You can always visit our editors’ picks or our Twitter feed to see what other recommendations you may have missed.

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

1. Rocky Mountain Massacre

Ryan Devereaux |The Intercept |July 20th, 2022 | 10,268 words

This story opens with a single gunshot, blood pooling on the snowy ground, and a missing body. The victim: a wolf. The shooter: a member of Montana’s backcountry law enforcement. Some people call what happened a ruthless kill; others say it was part of a sanctioned harvest. Therein lies the central tension of Ryan Devereaux’s deeply reported feature about the wolves of Yellowstone, and how their fate has become tangled with the politics of Montana’s ascendant right wing. This is the (exceedingly) rare environmental policy investigation that reads like a crime thriller. —SD

Tess McNulty | Harper’s Magazine | August 10th, 2022 | 5,086 words

As far as I was aware, my high school didn’t even have a debate team; if it had, I doubt I would have joined. But now, after reading this compelling and deeply disturbing essay from Tess McNulty, I’m glad that it never even entered the picture. McNulty was a self-possessed and fearsome competitor during her early teen years, but it didn’t take long for the debate circuit’s deeply ingrained toxicity — gendered expectations, sexually inappropriate coaches — to rob her of her confidence. “The circuit made us all complicit in sustaining its stratifications,” she tries, “if only by stoically accepting our place within them. This undermined its more lofty intellectual pretensions. Every rule could be bent in the pursuit of power. To protest was to show weakness. This made it difficult for teenage minds to recognize when lines were crossed.” The writing alone lets you know she would have absolutely mopped you if you were unlucky enough to go against her; now, with a clarity of both hindsight and purpose, she reclaims the very power she unknowingly relinquished. —PR

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3. To Live in the Ending

Alyssa Harad | Kenyon Review | July 29th, 2022 | 6,113 words

“I am not sure I know how to unbraid the language of the apocalypse from all this and still have a voice left to speak to you,” writes Alyssa Harad, early on in her Kenyon Review essay about climate change and the end of the world. But the deeper you get into this intense, sprawling piece, the clearer it becomes: Harad indeed has a voice, and as she flows from vignette to vignette, you realize she knows exactly what she’s doing. I love the way Harad threads her trans-apocalyptic observations about the world with personal musings that trace her own thinking since she was a child, and also describes how she’s come to make sense of the precarious times in which we live. Instead of relying on catastrophe narratives or thinking of the end as a singular event, she contemplates life as a series of “nested crises,” and explains that “worlds end all the time.” There’s some comfort in knowing that there are endings happening every day, everywhere, to everyone and everything. The piece covers bleak ground, but Harad’s gorgeous words and artful weaving make for a quietly uplifting, inspiring read. —CLR

4. How a Tourette’s Diagnosis Helped Me Understand Who I Am

Leland Cecco | The Walrus | July 5th, 2022 | 4,058 words

Leland Cecco was only diagnosed with Tourette’s at the age of 31. Growing up, his parents put his tics down to nervous tremors that would pass. As an adult, he deliberately resisted looking inward: “not knowing their cause meant not pathologizing them into an incurable condition, not knowing what limits might exist with them.” Here, he grapples with what it means to have finally been diagnosed with this disorder — one still widely misunderstood. Does the label help? In considering this question, Cecco goes back to the very beginning, finding the first possible account of Tourette’s in “The Hammer of Witches, a fifteenth-century book that describes, among its anthology of witchcraft and demonic possessions, a priest whose abnormal tongue movements, vocal tics, and coprolalia, or calling out inappropriate words and sounds, were believed to be the work of the devil.” It’s a fascinating, but confusing, background. Even Gilles de la Tourette himself contributed little other than his name to the condition, writing only one paper on the subject, in which he “bore a grim warning: there was no cure for the syndrome … because ‘once a ticcer, always a ticcer.'” This essay may be light on science, but the interweaving of a personal story with the history of Tourette’s provides an enlightening cultural perspective. —CW

5. I Loved Bike Touring—Until I Got Paid to Do It

Caitlin Giddings| Outside | December 30th, 2019 | 2,997 words

Full disclosure, this is an older story, from the age before COVID, no less — that distant year of 2019. I came across it this month when Outside made it into a podcast, a wise decision: It’s a fun, witty tale that bounces along at pace. Grabbing you from the start, it places you in the middle of a bike chase with “a middle-aged psychopath in high-vis spandex.” The psychopath in question is a disgruntled client kicked off one of the bike tours led by the writer, Caitlin Giddings. Giddings relays her time as a tour guide with candor, and with just a few words manages to paint a visceral picture of dirty, sweaty trail life, and leave you giggling at the characters sharing it. It’s a snapshot of the broad spectrum of humanity, from how we deal with tragedy to how we allocate who washes the group spatula. Luckily Giddings stuck out this grueling profession long enough to gather these stories, although sadly left before discovering the identity of the mysterious tent urinator. —CW

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

A plane taking off from Kabul, silhoutted against a dusty evening sky
A plane takes off from Hamid Karzai International airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 4, 2022. Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

Here are five standout pieces we read this week. You can always visit our editors’ picks or our Twitter feed to see what other recommendations you may have missed.

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

Bushra Seddique | The Atlantic | August 15th, 2022 | 4,429 words

A year ago this week, Kabul fell to the Taliban. A year ago this week, Bushra Seddique tried to leave. At 20 years old, Seddique had never lived under a Taliban government, but as a journalist and a woman, she realized she could not stay. It was an agonizing decision; while a friend helped her and her youngest sister get a place on a flight, her mother and middle sister had to stay behind. This essay focuses on a seemingly small thing — the journey to the airport — but conveys so much. In an instant, Seddique’s prose pulls you closely into this tight-knit family, leaving you pulsating with the sisters’ turmoil as they reel between emotions. The joy: when after three days of waiting in fear near the airport, they are sent home and see their family. The grief: when the airport briefly opens again, forcing them to flee before saying goodbye. The excitement: when they are finally on a plane to a new country. The constant underneath it all is a deep sadness for a home that is disappearing, a place where just a few weeks ago “[p]eople were going out to sing and dance; music played in restaurants and taxis.” I vividly remember the scenes at Kabul airport playing out on the news last year: people clinging to planes, the bomb, the chaos, the filth. This essay takes you back — and removes any detachment you may have felt along the way. —CW

Simon van Zuylen-Wood | Vulture | August 17th, 2022 | 4,430 words

Each decade seems to bring with it a new version of social panic around hip-hop, generally rooted in sex or violence. In the ’20s, that mantle so far has been laid on drill rap, and especially New York City’s version of the scene. But while the moralizing around drill had already ramped up, the February 2022 murder of Bronx teenager Jayquan McKenley brought a simmer to a boil. And as Simon van Zuylen-Wood captures in this affecting look at the McKenley tragedy, it gave NYC mayor Eric Adams and many other people the perfect symbol for a crackdown. This is more than a profile of a sweethearted teen, though. It’s a sober, neutral-minded tour through the fallout of the drill scene’s uniquely inflammatory recipe, from the artists who engage in hyper-personal social-media baiting to the NYPD detectives whose investigations often collide with the music. It’s not a fun read, but it’s a necessary one. —PR

3. Care Tactics

Laura Mauldin | The Baffler | July 26th, 2022 | 3,204 words

I read a few tweet threads recently about Pottery Barn’s new line of accessible furnishings. While many people praised the upscale furniture company for this ADA-compliant collection, others noted it was yet another example of inclusive design led by abled people. This discussion came to mind as I read Laura Mauldin’s enlightening piece on disability hacks. We live in a world in which health care systems and tech innovators are more invested in shiny objects that don’t consider disabled people’s actual, basic needs. As Mauldin explains, disabled folks and caregivers often rely on their own simple but ingenious hacks, and lean on shared knowledge “to MacGyver their way through daily life.” Perhaps surprisingly, Amazon has emerged as an indispensable service for disabled people to get affordable and essential health care equipment quickly. Mauldin offers us an insightful look at how disability and caregiving communities use creativity and collaboration to make their worlds more accessible in a time when businesses and larger systems continue to fail them. —CLR

4. How Three Amateurs Solved the Zodiac Killer’s ‘340’ Cipher*

Kathryn Miles Popular Mechanics | August 9th, 2022 | 3,776 words

I’m not a true-crime aficionado. I’m not one of the people who’s watched David Fincher’s Zodiac a zillion times. But I like weird shit, and I like puzzles, and this Kathryn Miles tick-tock unpacking one of modern culture’s enduring cryptographic mysteries serves up both. For more than 50 years, an encoded note from the Zodiac Killer went unsolved, until a trio of sleuthing obsessives connected online and brought all their combined power to bear on the problem. (To be fair, they had a supercomputer too.) The solution process itself would likely be more at home in a slide deck than in a blockbuster narrative — essentially waiting for a computer to brute-force various combinations of solving paradigms — but Miles manages to squeeze some real glee from the proceedings. Or, hey, maybe that’s just me. —PR

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5. An Essay About Watching Brad Pitt Eat That Is Really About My Own Shit

Lucas Mann Hobart | Aug 16th, 2022 | 8,227 words

Meet Joe Black is a bad movie. It’s long, and slow, and pretentious. But it has one thing going for it, and that is Brad Pitt eating. Specifically, Brad Pitt licking peanut butter off a spoon, considering it with his tongue, and then asking for more. Watching this scene in the theater in middle school was a seminal moment in my sexual awakening. Needless to say, I clicked fast when I saw the headline of this essay. And I wasn’t disappointed: Lucas Mann uses Brad Pitt eating — in a number of films, but starting, rightly, with MJB — as a lens through which to consider his relationship to his own body and to the bodies of others, some of which he knows intimately, others of which he knows only from watching them on screen. It’s a lovely, surprising piece that makes me crave peanut butter, straight out of the jar. —SD

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Photo by Peathegee Inc/Getty Images

Here are five standout pieces we read this week. You can always visit our editors’ picks or our Twitter feed to see what other recommendations you may have missed.

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

Caitlin Dickerson | The Atlantic | August 8th, 2022 | 28,600 words

Go ahead and give Caitlin Dickerson a Pulitzer. Her examination of the Trump administration’s family separation policy is a reporting tour de force and an American horror story that should be read and studied as long as the republic stands. I could only read it in pieces. One go was too much — my heart couldn’t take it. Dickerson shows that some elected officials and bureaucrats acted out of a toxic combination of malice and ambition, while even more did nothing because they were too cowardly or navel-gazing. She holds them all to account, particularly those with children of their own. “‘Can you hold on? My daughter is about to get in her car to leave and I need to kiss her goodbye,’ one government official said as she was in the middle of describing a spreadsheet of hundreds of complaints from parents searching for their children,” Dickerson writes. A single phrase came to mind when I finished reading: “.” —SD

2. Seven Stowaways and a Hijacked Oil Tanker: The Strange Case of The Nave Andromeda

Samira Shackle | The Guardian | June 9th, 2022 | 5,925 words

Samira Shackle’s investigation is a gripping lesson in not taking things at face value. Exploring the story of “a heroic mission to defeat a hijacking in the Channel,” instead of finding “marauding Nigerian pirates,” she discovers scared and lonely men, still coming to terms with what happened to them after being brought ashore in the U.K. Any threat is dubious at best. The crew of the Nave Andromeda was likely just desperate to find a way to dock — perhaps even through a feigned distress call — having been turned away from Spain and France for having seven stowaways aboard. Shackle offers tremendous reporting on both this one event and the broader immigration issue of which it is part — while managing to keep humanity at the forefront. Her words paint an all too vivid picture of the rudder stock — the space around a pole that links the rudder to the steering room inside the ship — where the seven men clung on for nine days before being discovered, too scared to fall asleep in case they fell into the swirling sea below. Shackle focuses on Michael, fleeing from a gang in Lagos that killed his mother, and his bewilderment at being put into detention is heartbreaking. It is Shackle who helps clarify what has happened: “[H]e handed me a crumpled bail notice from the police and asked me to explain it. When I said that the case had been dropped, pulling up a BBC report from the previous January on my phone, he began to cry. ‘I didn’t know that,’ he said.” —CW

3. Looking for Clarence Thomas

Mitchell S. Jackson | Esquire | August 8th, 2022 | 6,500 words

“My god, dude, what the hell happened to you?” That’s the central question of Pulitzer Prize winner Mitchell S. Jackson’s new profile of Clarence Thomas. Except it’s not a profile in the traditional sense. It’s a rumination, a scream, a plea. Jackson, whose writing always seems to pour from his veins as much as it unspools from his brain, visits Thomas’ boyhood home in low country Georgia, where he was nicknamed “Boy” and grew up speaking Gullah, and his current home in Fairfax, Virginia, where Thomas “retires to on days he and his colleagues announce the usurping of more rights.” Jackson is seeking clues for how a Black man could come to make his life’s work the subjugation of his own people, among many other long-marginalized groups. I was moved by the honest desperation of this piece. Jackson’s work shimmers with pain. —SD

4. ‘She Made Us Happy’: The All-Star Dreams of Uvalde’s Biggest José Altuve Fan

Roberto José Andrade Franco | ESPN | July 27th, 2022 | 7,314 words

Two weeks ago, I read Roberto José Andrade Franco’s piece on the devastating loss of one Uvalde family, and I’m still thinking about it. Franco traces a history of Texas shaped by guns, violence, and segregation, but also comes in close to share the story of 10-year-old Tess Mata, one of the children murdered in the Robb Elementary School shooting, who loved softball and dancing — and had her entire life ahead of her. The photographs by Verónica G. Cárdenas are haunting — snapshots of Tess, her family, her bedroom and belongings — but so are the scenes from Tess’ life conjured from Franco’s words. I can’t stop imagining, for instance, a determined Tess throwing a softball in her family’s backyard, aiming practice pitches at a sugar maple tree in the Texas heat. A heartbreaking but necessary read. —CLR

Ian Dille | Texas Monthly | August 10th, 2022 | 3,938 words

Recent years have seen an explosion of discussion around racial gaps in outdoor recreation — finally. Despite rapidly proliferating groups like Outdoor Afro and the Major Taylor Cycling Club, retail brands and shops seemed almost inertially resistant to reaching beyond their assumed audience. (“I love Patagonia products, but their marketing materials make the luxury of intentionally living in your van seem admirable, even altruistic,” Nicholas Russell wrote in 2020. “The activities that outdoor companies present, whether climbing or running or snowboarding, isn’t correlated to what’s possible; it’s more about who fits the concept of that activity, who is likely to afford to buy into it.”) It’s that pattern that Jahmichah Dawes has sought to disrupt, opening an outdoors shop in small-town Texas. As such, Dawes has found himself a poster child of sorts, a symbol of something far bigger than just a man and his dream — whether he wanted to be or not. But as Ian Dille’s Texas Monthly profile makes clear, it’s a challenge he’s met with perseverance and mission clarity. And outdoor enthusiasts everywhere are better for it. —PR

Galloping Into the Abyss

Three men and their house in silhouette
Photo by Tailyr Irvine


Jana MeisenholderThe Atavist Magazine | August 2022 | 7 minutes (2,197 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 129, “King of the Hill.” 

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Before the arrival of European colonizers, the Columbia Plateau, which forms swaths of present-day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, was home to several Native tribes, including the Nez Perce, Wenatchi, Palus, and Colville. Foreigners brought with them disease and destruction. They also brought horses. “It was probably the best gift the white man ever gave us,” the late Stampede organizer and horse trainer Eddie Timentwa told author Carol Austin, who wrote a book about the Suicide Race in 1993,

By the 1700s, horsemanship had become an integral part of Native culture. The animals assisted in transportation and territorial expansion. “Mounted war parties could strike enemies at greater distances and with greater force than ever before,” writes anthropologist Deward Walker. Horses also led to larger traditional gatherings, allowing more people from a wider geographical range to come together. During salmon-spawning season, plateau tribes would meet at the confluence of the Sanpoil and Columbia Rivers to harvest and dry the coming winter’s supply of fish. Horses served as entertainment and objects of sporting competition. Riders paraded horses adorned with tribal regalia and beaded stirrups and bridles before running perilous mountain races.

After the plateau tribes were forced onto the Colville Reservation, the tradition of horse racing continued, and people wagered on riders. Stories of these events were most often passed down through oral tradition, but in 1879, Erskine Wood, a U.S. military officer, wrote of one horse race, “It did not take long for the excitement to grow and soon the bets were showering down and the pile swelling visibly with such great rapidity that it was marvelous how account could be kept. Blankets, furs, saddles, knives, traps, tobacco, beads, whips, and a hundred other things were staked.” (Wood wrote positively of many of his encounters with Native tribes, but also participated in the violent removal of the Nez Perce from their ancestral land.)

In the 1920s, Hugh McShane, a white man married to a Colville woman, introduced a mountain race at the rodeo in Keller, Washington. The race, described by Austin as “a half mile, pell-mell down a nearly vertical, boulder-strewn chasm in the face of a mountain,” quickly became a crowd favorite. But it wouldn’t last: The construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s flooded Keller, forcing residents to relocate. In Omak, about 60 miles northwest, Claire Pentz, a furniture salesman in charge of publicity for the town’s rodeo, heard about McShane’s event and decided to stage one of his own. Locals brainstormed what to call the starting location, a precipitous incline on the Okanogan’s southern bank. Murder Hill was floated, but organizers settled on Suicide Hill. “The suicide race draws only the most nervy riders,” The Omak Chronicle declared.

In 1942, a jockey named Bev Conners drowned in the river during the race. Since then, according to various sources, no other jockeys have died. But injuries are common, including grievous ones. Larry Peasley, who taught Andres how to ride a mechanical bull, has two adult children who were nearly killed in the race. In 2002, his daughter Naomie—one of only a few women to ever run the race—suffered a skull fracture and flatlined on the way to the hospital. Doctors were able to revive her. A few years later, Peasley’s son Tyler went somersaulting off his horse and was trampled by oncoming riders. He fractured his ribs and suffered a broken pelvis and hip.

It’s not hard to see what makes the race so dangerous. There’s the hill itself, more than 200 feet of earth pitched at a harrowing angle—according to one race organizer’s measurement, it’s steeper than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Riders charge down the slope at full gallop, reaching speeds up to 30 miles per hour by the time they hit the river. Then there’s the lack of any hard-and-fast rules about how the race should be run. Horses aren’t lined up in an orderly fashion at the starting line. What happens on Suicide Hill is a free-for-all, with mounted jockeys jostling each other, fighting for a competitive spot. The aggression only escalates during the race. Riders violently whipping other jockeys in the face with their crops, attempting to throw them off balance or slow them down, is a common tactic, and often a successful one.

The best Suicide Race jockeys are adrenaline junkies, as athletic as they are knowledgeable of the event’s 1,260-foot-long course. They’ve meticulously mapped out the quarter-mile and know what to do when: Lean back before this point, lock your knees here, sit forward just after that section, pull back the reins there. Riders have incredible core and leg strength to help them stay in the saddle, and they know how far their bodies can tilt sideways if need be, to avoid injury or inflict it on a competitor.

In 2002, the race’s all-time reigning champ, Alex Dick, passed away at the age of 83. He had 16 King of the Hill titles to his name; his obituary in a local newspaper noted that Dick, who was Native, “set a record that will probably never be broken.” So far it hasn’t been. Yet if there’s a first family of the Suicide Race today, it’s the Marchands. Three brothers—Loren, Francis, and Edward—have followed in the footsteps of their grandfather, Jim, an endurance racer who died after a horse fell on him in 1990, and an uncle, George, who holds three Suicide Race titles. Loren, now 34, has been crowned King of the Hill seven times, most recently in 2015. Francis and Edward have never won the overall title, but they’ve come close.

As the dominant force in the Suicide Race, the Marchand brothers have a wealth of tips and tricks, and they know all the best places around Omak to practice. But the race is a tradition most often shared among kin, and the Marchands are notoriously wary of letting people who aren’t blood, or at least Native, into their inner circle. They also reject weekend warriors and wannabe jockeys who are in it purely for the exhilaration. “The Marchands don’t fuck with anybody,” said Conner Picking, a Suicide Race jockey and a great-grandson of one of the founders of the Omak Stampede.

That didn’t stop Andres from trying to get their attention.

***

By the summer of 2018, Andres, now 26, had cleaned up his life and was working construction and picking up jobs as a handyman. He was also holding fast to his desire to learn from Suicide Race royalty, looking for a way in to their good graces. One day he accompanied a welder to a small ranch in Eastside owned by Preston Boyd, a Colville elder renowned for breeding and training thoroughbreds for flat-track racing. Boyd needed the men to fix his broken horse walker, a motorized machine that leads horses in a circle. While Andres worked, Boyd took a good look at him. He noticed Andres’s height—just five feet six inches. He probed the young man about his weight.

Boyd was searching for a new rider to exercise his racehorses, because his usual guys were getting too busy. Among them was his great-nephew, Francis Marchand. Francis was helping Boyd break some new horses that summer, but his schedule was increasingly packed with rodeos—a formidable horseman, Francis regularly competed in saddle bronc and bareback riding. Andres’s specs were promising for the kind of rider Boyd needed. Sure, he couldn’t gallop a horse yet, but he could learn. Boyd told Andres he might fit the bill.

Andres knew he was being given a rare opportunity—a chance to get to know Boyd and one of the Marchands, and to show that he had what it took to run the Suicide Race. But months went by and nothing happened. Boyd never followed up with Andres about exercising his horses.

Omak is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody, and sometimes Andres bumped into Francis at social gatherings. He would bring up Boyd’s suggestion that he was rider material as casually as he could, to see if Francis knew anything about his great-uncle’s plans. Andres also asked about going off the hill—what it felt like, what it took to win. Francis recognized Andres’s ambition, and in early 2019 he told him to stop dithering and get to the point: If he wanted to become a rider, he should go to Boyd and say so. “You want to do this? Look him in the eyes,” Francis said. “In any culture, you grab a guy, shake his hand, and tell him you want this.”

Andres took the advice to heart, but he didn’t want to seem desperate. He waited until he ran into Boyd at a gas station one day, then asked if he could help exercise his horses. Boyd said sure, and Andres showed up at 7:30 the next morning to start learning.

Unlike bull riding, which Andres took to easily as a boy, riding racehorses was challenging. Though short, he was stocky and muscular; working construction had made him strong, but he wasn’t nimble or quick to respond to a horse’s stride. Montana Pakootas, a seasoned jockey who helped out on the ranch, had to constantly remind Andres not to yank the reins, but to pull them gently, if he wanted to slow a horse down. “Use your wrist, not your whole arm,” Pakootas said. Otherwise, when a horse was going full speed, Andres risked throwing it off balance.

Andres’s riding improved, and by the summer of 2019 he was exercising Boyd’s newest racehorses for several hours most days of the week. Boyd expected his riders to stick to a routine, for the horses’ sake. “I take Wednesdays and Sundays off to let their muscles, if they get sore, to give them a little rest,” he said. On training days, it was Andres’s job to guide horses to a trot around a local track for a quarter of a mile, getting their blood pumping and helping them build stamina. Eventually he would get them up to a gallop. As a horse became more aerobic, Andres learned to increase its speed against its pulse, maintaining a low heart rate even while the horse worked hard over varying distances. After weeks or months of training, when a horse was comfortable running at top speed around the track in Omak, Andres took the horse to Emerald Downs, a race facility in Seattle, not to compete but to get acquainted with crowds and the whirring sound the starting gates make when they open.

Andres exercised Boyd’s horses for free, and he and Renteria, who was selling Amway products at the time, sometimes struggled to cover the bills. Andres picked up odd jobs where he could, but not anything that took away from his time with Boyd’s horses. The Suicide Race was never far from his mind. He watched videos of past races over and over, studying them. “He’d always say, ‘I hope I go down the hill one day,’ but I never thought he would actually be in it,” Renteria said. Sometimes Andres was surprised he still had a girlfriend at all. “He told me that he thought I’d break up with him since all he did was ride,” Renteria said, smiling.

One day, when Andres had been working with Montana Pakootas for a while, he decided to tell him about his ultimate goal. Pakootas, who had run many Suicide Races and was crowned King of the Hill in 2004, was hosing down a horse at the time. In response to what Andres said, he turned and sprayed him in the face. That’s how the hazing began. Another time Pakootas dumped a boot full of water on Andres’s head. “You scared of getting wet? Because that water fucking feels like it just whips you in the face,” he said, referring to the dive into the Okanogan River. Andres was humiliated, but he kept showing up, kept taking shit.

When Boyd asked him to come along to Emerald Downs for an official racing event, Andres jumped at the chance. At the Downs, Andres awoke every morning at 4:45 to feed the racehorses, then got them ready for the day’s competitions. Francis Marchand and his brother Edward were there, helping care for Boyd’s horses, and they picked up Andres’s hazing where Pakootas had left off. “Edward wasn’t easy on me, that’s for sure,” Andres said. The eldest Marchand brother, known for his success in the extreme sport of Indian relay racing, in which a rider changes his mount mid-competition, seemed to notice every mistake Andres made while warming up the horses. “It’s almost like he waited for me to fuck up,” Andres said, “just so he could go off on me and drive me away.”

Andres persevered, and over margaritas at an Applebee’s one day, he felt bold enough to say it to Edward straight—what he wanted, what he was sure he was capable of. What did he need to do to go off the hill? Edward, who had placed second overall in the 2018 Suicide Race, shook his head in response.

“You don’t have what it takes,” he said.

“What’s it take?” Andres asked.

“It doesn’t matter. You don’t got it.”

Read the full story at The Atavist.