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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Jessica Schulberg, Patrick Strickland, Shanna B. Tiayon, Sarah Berns, and Madeleine Aggeler.

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1. Kip Kinkel Is Ready to Talk

Jessica Schulberg | HuffPost | June 13, 2021 | 15,200 words

“At 15, he shot and killed his parents, two classmates at his school, and wounded 25 others. He’s been used as the reason to lock kids up for life ever since.”

2. ‘The Foot Soldiers’: A Neo-Nazi Skinhead Gang Terrorized Dallas in the Late 1980s

Patrick Strickland | Dallas Observer | June 9, 2021 | 6,624

“The racist white nationalist movement has deep roots. Some run directly back to Dallas and the violent Confederate Hammerskins.”

3. If We Can Soar: What Birmingham Roller Pigeons Offer the Men of South Central

Shanna B. Tiayon | Pipe Wrench | June 15, 2021 | 6,574 words

“But there’s a deeper story behind what the birds offered them then and still offer today, with men entering their fifth and sixth decade raising Birmingham Rollers. A why shaped by race, place, and gender. A why that traces the plight of Black men in the U.S., landing us squarely in the prevailing systems of inequality that still exist today.”

4. Love and the Burning West

Sarah Berns | Shondaland | June 9, 2021 | 1,667 words

“She nearly died while fighting a fire. All she could think about was the tragedy of dying while still a virgin.”

5. Benji Is One Down Dog

Madeleine Aggeler | Texas Monthly | June 2, 2021 | 1,900 words

The blue heeler “is one of the most famous canines in America, but he hasn’t let it go to his sweet, soft little head.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 06: Model Loulou Robert (L) and Roberto Eggs, President of Louis Vuitton North Europe, take part, along with Dumba (C), a female African elephant, in a ceremony to switch on and unveil the Christmas decorations by luxury brand Louis Vuitton for the Galeries Lafayette department store on November 6, 2012 in Paris, France. (Photo by Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jesse Eisinger, Jeff Ernsthausen, and Paul Kiel, Arno Kopecky, Isaac Würmann, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, and Laura Spinney.

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1. The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax

Jesse Eisinger, Jeff Ernsthausen, Paul Kiel | ProPublica | June 8, 2021 | 5,717 words

“ProPublica has obtained a vast cache of IRS information showing how billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Warren Buffett pay little in income tax compared to their massive wealth — sometimes, even nothing.”

2. Three Days in the Theater of Old-Growth Logging and Protest

Arno Kopecky | Hakai Magazine | June 1, 2021 | 6,100

“A drama 150 years in the making is playing out as logging companies and police clash with First Nations and protesters over one of British Columbia’s last remaining stands of unprotected old-growth forest.”

3. The Men in Apartment 4C

Isaac Würmann | Maisonneuve | May 11, 2021 | 5,738 words

“When Isaac Würmann’s relationship began to crumble, he started seeking out examples of queer love elsewhere. It turns out, he didn’t have to look far.”

4. La Cancion de la Nena

Vanessa Angélica Villarreal | Oxford American | June 1, 2021 | 6,937 words

“He sits on the edge of the bed to compose and work through songs, facing an amp, while I curl into his velvet-lined guitar case and listen…I have called up this memory so many times I feel the gauze of fiction starting to overlay its details. But it is a memory so dear, I reanimate it against the heaviness of the present—my father, full of promise and possibility, years before the shell he would become, now shut away in my childhood bedroom in the graying light of ever-closed blinds.”

5. The Elephant Vanishes: How a Circus Family Went on the Run

Laura Spinney | The Guardian | June 8, 2021 | 5,455 words

“Today, many circus elephants in Europe are reaching old age. Campaigners want them placed in specially built sanctuaries, where they can enjoy retirement with their own kind. But their owners insist that for the elephants, being separated from their human “families” would be traumatic.”

‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’

Illustratration by Zoë van Dijk

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 115, “The Snitch,” by Jordan Michael Smith.

Jordan Michael Smith | The Atavist | May 2021 | 5 minutes (1,356 words)

 

CHAPTER 1

Carle Schlaff wanted more out of his job. As an FBI agent, he’d spent more than ten years working low-level drug cases in the bureau’s Denver office. He eventually moved up to investigating organized crime—only to be transferred to the violent-crimes squad and made the liaison to a low-security prison called Englewood, in Littleton, Colorado. It was the sort of job that was good for a rookie, not a veteran. “I was kinda pissed,” Schlaff said.

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

Schlaff was 42, with two kids, an easy smile, and an unpretentious manner. He was the type of FBI agent who read crime novels in his spare time. He’d grown up watching Hawaii Five-0. He wanted to take down mob bosses, catch serial killers, expose international drug cartels.

In August 2002, Schlaff’s luck changed: He learned that a prisoner at Englewood named Scott Kimball knew about a murder plot. Schlaff and a colleague met with Kimball in a small interview room at the prison. Kimball was 36 at the time, a weathered, stocky man who wore a goatee and had a long scar in the center of his forehead. He shared a cell with Steve Ennis, a young drug dealer. Kimball claimed that Ennis had talked about recruiting someone to kill witnesses preparing to testify against him.

“I would be willing to do some undercover work for you guys,” Kimball told Schlaff and his colleague.

If the offer seemed blunt, it was because Kimball already knew how the FBI operated. After being arrested for check fraud in Alaska in 2001, he told authorities that his cellmate, Arnold Wesley Flowers, planned to order the murders of a federal judge and a prosecutor, along with a witness in the case against him. (Flowers was facing fraud charges of his own, according to court records.) The FBI worked with Kimball and an undercover agent to record Flowers organizing the hits with help from his girlfriend. In March 2002, the couple were charged with murder for hire, witness tampering, and attempting to murder federal officials.

There was more: Kimball told the FBI that another Alaska prisoner, Jeremiah Jones, had bragged about murdering Tom Wales, a prominent assistant U.S. attorney shot to death through a window of his Seattle home in October 2001. While it investigated the matter, out of concern for his safety, the FBI transferred Kimball to his native Colorado in April 2002. Now, at Englewood, it seemed that Kimball had yet more valuable intelligence to offer.

Before Schlaff went chasing Kimball’s story, though, he wanted to know what type of person he was dealing with. He didn’t mind so much if someone had committed nonviolent crimes, but he didn’t want to work with an informant who could be easily discredited. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Schlaff asked Kimball.

Kimball admitted that in addition to his crimes in Alaska, he’d committed fraud in Montana and served time there. He excelled at check forgery, Kimball said, but he wanted to go straight. It sounded plausible to Schlaff, who’d reviewed Kimball’s record—he didn’t have any convictions for violent crimes—and had checked for outstanding warrants.

Schlaff scribbled down on a notepad what Kimball told him. After leaving Englewood that day, he made contact with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which were both working the Ennis case. Kimball was soon reactivated as an informant, with Schlaff as his handler. Their goal was to foil the alleged murder plot, and charge Ennis for orchestrating it.

All the pieces were falling into place: This was exactly the kind of case Schlaff had been craving.

It takes a thief to catch a thief, as Schlaff likes to say—that’s the logic behind using jailhouse snitches. In the United States, the practice has a history as troubling as it is long. Incentivized by the promise of reduced sentences, better prison conditions, and financial compensation, criminal informants sometimes offer cops and prosecutors bad information, which can lead to wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice. And too often, authorities treat informants as if their lives matter less than the work of law enforcement.

In recent years, there have been efforts to reform the way authorities handle informants. But back when Kimball started working with the FBI, there was less communication among law enforcement agencies and relatively minimal scrutiny of an informant’s history. It was easy to miss the kind of facts from a person’s past that might have made authorities think twice before using them as an informant.

It takes a thief to catch a thief, as Schlaff likes to say—that’s the logic behind using jailhouse snitches. In the United States, the practice has a history as troubling as it is long

Born in Boulder in 1966, Kimball was ten when his parents divorced, after his mother came out as gay. Around that time, according to Kimball and his brother, a neighbor began molesting them. Kimball told me the abuse continued until he was in his teens. The neighbor was ultimately sentenced to seven years in prison for sexual abuse of a minor. According to people who knew him as a young man, Kimball seemed haunted by his past. He once tried to end his life but only managed to wound himself—the source of the scar on his forehead.

By early adulthood, Kimball had a long rap sheet. In 1988, he received his first felony conviction for passing bad checks. In another instance, he was charged with running an illegal outfitting business in Montana, helping out-of-staters hunt elk, bear, moose, and deer. Kimball continued to commit nonviolent offenses, the kind that Schlaff later saw on his criminal record. There were other allegations against Kimball, far more unsettling ones, but due to a series of decisions made by law enforcement, finding them would have required some digging.

In June 1993, Kimball married a woman named Larissa Mineer. They moved to Spokane, Washington, and had two sons. Though they divorced in 1997, they maintained a relationship until December 1999, when, Mineer alleged, Kimball raped her at gunpoint. Kimball claimed he hadn’t harmed or threatened Mineer—according to a police report, he said that his ex was trying to sway a custody dispute over their sons in her favor. After Mineer failed a polygraph, the police decided not to file charges. (Polygraphs have been deemed unreliable by the American Psychological Association and the National Academy of Sciences, but law enforcement still use them to quickly ascertain whether someone might be telling the truth.)

In 2000, Kimball landed in prison in Montana, convicted of violating probation, which he’d been serving for a fraud offense. After a year in lockup, Kimball was transferred to a halfway house, but a month later he went on the lam. Mineer alleged that he came back to Washington, broke into her home, and then kidnapped and raped her. This time the Spokane police issued a warrant for his arrest. But when Kimball was picked up for fraud in Alaska in 2001, and then became an FBI informant, the kidnapping and assault charges went away. (The FBI said it did not request that local law enforcement drop the charges.)

As a result, when Schlaff looked up Kimball’s record, none of Mineer’s accusations were on it. The escape from the halfway house was there, but Schlaff wasn’t too worried about that—Kimball had been near the end of his sentence when he’d slipped away. Schlaff spoke to Colton Seale, an FBI special agent in Alaska, who said that Kimball had been helpful in the case against Flowers and his girlfriend. Seale, who is now retired from the FBI, told me that he has no memory of whether he knew about Kimball’s kidnapping and assault charges at the time.

At worst, Schlaff thought, he was working with a petty con artist. “He was a typical wise guy,” Schlaff told me. “He had an answer for everything.” But Kimball wasn’t a child molester or a murderer. He seemed like the type of informant who might be good before a jury.

The truth was something else entirely.

 

Read the full story at The Atavist

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Photo shows the aftermath, at east corner of Greenwood Avenue and East Archer Street, of the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US, June 1921. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Victor Luckerson, Tristin Hopper, John Drescher, Steve Shorney, and Pamela Petro.

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1. The Women Who Preserved the Story of the Tulsa Race Massacre

Victor Luckerson | The New Yorker | May 28, 2021 | 2,882 words

“Today, the work done by Parrish in the nineteen-twenties and Gates in the nineteen-nineties forms the bedrock for books, documentaries, and a renewed reparations push that, a century after the massacre, is experiencing a groundswell of support.”

2. Why So Many Children Died at Indian Residential Schools

Tristin Hopper | The Vancouver Sun | May 29, 2021 | 1,700

“This week saw the discovery of something outside Kamloops, B.C., rarely seen in North America, much less in any corner of the developed world: Unmarked and previously forgotten graves, all belonging to children who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.”

3. Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Mega-Donor, and the Future of Journalism

John Drescher | The Assembly | May 30, 2021 | 3,00 words

“UNC-Chapel Hill’s largest journalism-school donor warned against Nikole Hannah-Jones’ hiring. Their divergent views represent a new front in the debate over objectivity and the future of the field.”

4. ‘I Took Part in the Psilocybin Trial and It Changed My Life’

Steve Shorney | The Independent | May 30, 2021 | 5,663 words

“I had seen an alternative reality, another way of being, and knew beyond anything I’d known before that day that life is extraordinary. And in that moment I felt happier, more alive, and more Me than I imagined was possible.”

5. Cooking Backwards

Pamela Petro | Guernica Magazine | May 24, 2021 | 4,044 words

“On becoming a kitchen archivist.”

Even the Steam Had a Shadow

Natasha Pulley | The Kingdoms | May 2021 | 1516 words (6 minutes)

***

1
Londres, 1898 (ninety-three years after Trafalgar)

Most people have trouble recalling their first memory, because they have to stretch for it, like trying to touch their toes; but Joe didn’t. This was because it was a memory formed a week after his forty-third birthday.

He stepped down off the train. That was it, the very first thing he remembered, but the second was something less straightforward. It was the slow, eerie feeling that everything was doing just what it should be, minding its own business, but that at the same time, it was all wrong.

It was early in the morning, and cursedly cold. Vapour hissed on the black engine right above him. Because the platform was only a couple of inches above the tracks, the double pistons of the wheels were level with his waist. He was so close he could hear the water boiling above the furnace. He stepped well away, feeling tight with the certainty it was about to lurch forward.

The train had just come in. The platform was full of people looking slow and stiff from the journey, all moving towards the concourse. The sweet carbon smell of coal smoke was everywhere. Because it was only just light outside, the round lamps of the station gave everything a pale glow, and cast long, hazy shadows; even the steam had a shadow, a shy devil trying to decide whether to be solid or not.

Joe had no idea what he was doing there.

He waited, because railway stations were internationally the same and they were a logical place to get confused, if there was ever a logical place. But nothing came. He couldn’t remember coming here, or going anywhere. He looked down at himself. With a writhe of horror, he found he couldn’t even remember getting dressed. His clothes were unfamiliar. A heavy coat lined with tartan. A plain waistcoat with interesting buttons, stamped with laurel patterns.

Most people have trouble recalling their first memory, because they have to stretch for it, like trying to touch their toes; but Joe didn’t. This was because it was a memory formed a week after his forty-third birthday.

A sign on the wall said that this was platform three. Behind him on the train, a conductor was going along the carriages, saying the same thing again and again, quiet and respectful, because he was having to wake people up in first class.

‘Londres Gare du Roi, all change please, Londres Gare du Roi …’

Joe wondered why the hell the train company was giving London station names in French, and then wondered helplessly why he’d wondered. All the London station names were French. Everyone knew that.

Someone touched his arm and asked in English if he was all right. It made him jump so badly that he twanged the nerve in the back of his skull. White pain shot down his neck.

‘Sorry – could you tell me where we are?’ he asked, and heard how ridiculous it sounded.

The man didn’t seem to think it was extraordinary to find an amnesiac at a railway station. ‘London,’ he said. ‘The Gare du Roi.’

Joe wasn’t sure why he’d been hoping for something other than what he’d heard the conductor say. He swallowed and looked away. The steam was clearing. There were signs everywhere; for the Colonial Library, the Musée Britannique, the Métro. There was a board not far away that said the Desmoulins line was closed because of the drilling below, and beyond that, elaborate iron gates that led out into the fog.

‘Definitely …

London in England?’ he asked eventually.

‘It is,’ the man said.

‘Oh,’ said Joe.

The train breathed steam again and made the man into a ghost. Through all the bubbling panic, Joe thought he must have been a doctor, because he still didn’t seem surprised. ‘What’s your name?’ the man asked. Either he had a young voice, or he looked older than he was.

‘Joe.’ He had to reach for it, but he did know; that was a thump of a relief. ‘Tournier.’

‘Do you know where you live?’

‘No,’ he said, feeling like he might collapse.

‘Let’s get you to a hospital then,’ the man said.

So the man paid for a cab. Joe expected him to leave it at that, but he came too and said there was no reason why not, since he wasn’t busy. A thousand times in the following months, Joe tried to remember what the man had looked like. He couldn’t, even though he spent the whole cab ride opposite him; all he remembered later was that the man had sat without leaning back, and that something about him seemed foreign, even though he spoke English in the hard straight way that old people did, the belligerent ones who’d always refused to learn French and scowled at you if you tried to call them monsieur.

It was maddening, that little but total failure of observation, because he took in everything else perfectly. The cab was a new one, all fresh leather and smelling of polish that was still waxy to touch. Later, he could even remember how steam had risen from the backs of the horses, and the creak of the wheel springs when they moved from the cobbles outside the station to the smoother-paved way down Rue Euston.

But not the man. It was as though the forgetfulness wasn’t so much an absence of memory, but a shroud that clung to him.

It was as though the forgetfulness wasn’t so much an absence of memory, but a shroud that clung to him.

The road looked familiar and not. Whenever they came to a corner Joe thought he knew, there was a different shop there to the one he’d expected, or no building at all. Other cabs clopped past. Brown fog pawed at the shop windows. The sky was grey. In the background, he wondered if the man wasn’t being kind at all but taking advantage of things somehow, but he couldn’t think what for.

Not far away, monster towers pumped fumes into that gun-metal sky. They were spidered about with gantries and chutes, and in the flues, tiny flames burned. On the side of an enormous silo, he could just make out BLAST FURNACE 5 stamped in white letters in French. Joe swallowed. He knew exactly what they were – steelworks – but at the same time, they filled him with the dream-sense of wrongness that the Métro signs at the station had done. He shut his eyes and tried to chase down what he knew. Steelworks; yes, London was famous for that, that was what London was for. Seven blast furnaces up around Farringdon and Clerkenwell, hauling steel out to the whole Republic. If you bought a postcard of London, it always looked amazing, because of that towering tangle of pipework and coal chutes and chimneys in the middle of it. It was a square mile that had turned everything black with soot: the ruin of St Paul’s, the leaning old buildings round Chancery Lane, everything. That was why London was the Black City.

But all that might as well have come from an encyclopaedia. He didn’t know how he knew it. He didn’t remember walking in those black streets or around the steelworks, or any of it.

‘Did you get off the same train as me?’ he asked the man, hoping that if he focused on one particular thing, he might feel less sick.

‘Yes. It came from Glasgow. We were in the same carriage.’

The man had a clipped way of talking, but his whole body was full of compassion. He looked like he was stopping himself leaning forward and taking Joe’s hands. Joe was glad about that. He would have burst into tears.

He couldn’t remember being on the train. The man tried to tell him things that had been memorable, like the funny snootiness of the conductor and the way the fold-down beds tried to eat you if you didn’t push them down properly, but none of it was there. He confirmed that Joe hadn’t fallen or bumped anything, just started to look disorientated early this morning. It was nine o’clock now.

Joe had to let his head bow. He’d never been scared like it. He opened the window, just to inhale properly. Everything smelled of soot. That was familiar, at least. On the pavements, droves of men in black coats and black hats poured from the iron gates of the Métro stations. They all looked the same. The cab stopped for a minute or so, waiting at a railway crossing. The train was a coal cargo, chuntering towards the steelworks. The whistle howled as the driver tried to scare off some kids on the line; there were ten or twelve, foraging for the bits of coal that fell off the carriages.

‘You’ll be all right,’ the man said quietly. It was the last thing he said; while Joe was seeing the doctor, he vanished. None of the nurses had seen him go, or seen him at all, and Joe started to think he had got himself to the hospital alone, and that the man had been a benign hallucination.

***

Excerpted from Natasha Pulley’s novel The Kingdoms, published by Bloomsbury.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Desiree Stennett and Caroline Glenn, Imani Perry, Bethany Marcel, Joshua Hunt, and David Alm.

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1. Locked Out

Desiree Stennett, Caroline Glenn | Orlando Sentinel | May 13, 2021 | 9,200 words

A three-part investigative series about how the pandemic exposed Florida’s eviction crisis.

2. Stop Hustling Black Death

Imani Perry | New York Magazine | May 24, 2021 | 4,300

“Samaria Rice is the mother of Tamir, not a ‘mother of the movement.'”

3. How to Tell a Trauma Story

Bethany Marcel | Midnight Breakfast | May 27, 2021 | 1,700 words

“For a decade I’ve been trying to write this story. This is always as far as I get.”

4. Did Paying a Ransom for a Stolen Magritte Painting Inadvertently Fund Terrorism?

Joshua Hunt | Vanity Fair | May 27, 2021 | 5,477 words

“Modern art crime, like the arms trade, still thrives in the shadow of global conflict, which gives rise to criminal networks that make from the detritus of war immensely profitable commodities.”

5. The Marathon Men Who Can’t Go Home

David Alm | GQ | May 21, 2021 | 4,800 words

“Each had come to America with the hope of making life-changing money that they could send back home to their families. What they found was an often desperate existence in their adopted homeland.”

Happy is a Relative State

Images courtesy of West Virginia University Press and the author

Renée K. Nicholson | Fierce and Delicate: Essays on Dance and Illness | May 2021
1,977 words (7 minutes)

***

Imagine, once you had performed splits in midair. Now, sitting in a doctor’s office chair, you’re shown an X-ray that confirms you no longer have any cartilage in your right knee. For years, you’ve hobbled around with the aid of a cane, but now even that’s not an option. You have two choices. You either have a total knee replacement or you figure out how to get around with a walker or wheelchair.

You are thirty-six years old.

One of the few times I’ve cried in public was that day in my rheumatologist’s office. I guess it wasn’t so public, but it wasn’t alone. I hate that I broke down like that, but finally I couldn’t keep my composure. My rheumatologist is a kind man, with a no-nonsense way about talking about RA. The choices were limited, and I had to accept that. I already had, of course. By this time, putting weight on my leg was more pain than I could hide, and relying on a cane was not enough. I could barely walk, but I did, perhaps by sheer willpower, to get from one place to another.

Instead of telling me not to cry, my rheumatologist let the sobs flow, until there was a break, and then he brought me into his business office and called the orthopedic surgeon he thought was the best in town. He took such a personal interest in making sure I was going to do this thing I didn’t want to do. I think he knew I’d already decided to have the knee replacement surgery, but both my rheumatologist and the orthopedist gave me the option of calling back with a decision. I slept on it, but I didn’t toss or turn a bit. I knew I had to get the surgery, so first thing in the morning, I called and asked for the next available appointment. Once I made the decision, I was determined to get it done as soon as possible. No waiting around or mulling it over. Once again, I moved on quickly.

Though I was able to get in for surgery within a couple of weeks, I still needed a way to get around in the meantime, and so I found myself in a medical supply store, shopping for a walker. I wanted something basic, because I was hoping that I wouldn’t need it all that much—just pre- and post-op. Strangely, this view betrayed optimism I hadn’t dared to feel in a long time.

There were two elderly ladies in the store with me. Onechecked out a high-end walker with wheels and hand brakes like a bike. The salesperson had tried talking me into a similar model, but I wanted the cheaper one, without wheels, without bells and whistles. Basic worked for me. It seemed weird to think of walkers as having bells and whistles, but they do. The other elderly lady in the store bought a walker organizer—a fabric caddy with various pockets—that fits over the bar across the front of the walker so you can keep things like keys and cell phones handy. The lady suggested I also get a walker organizer. She showed me the fancy ones made of zebra-, cheetah-, and leopard-print fabrics.

I decided right there I would just use a backpack or my pockets. It was too much for me to consider a cheetah-print walker organizer. It certainly didn’t seem fashion forward, and I’d only just accepted the need for the walker. I was not
ready to give in to accessorizing, making the apparatus into a statement, not even when the salesperson asked if I might also like the see the giraffe print.

Before my surgery, my mother came to stay with me to help with the day-to-day stuff around my house. She cooked, cleaned, and drove me to appointments. My father also came for regular visits, both to be with my mom, who he missed at home, and me, as I prepared for surgery. During one of these visits, Dad went to see the orthopedist with me. He always carried a small notebook and a maroon Montblanc pen, and he took notes on what I needed to do and what I could expect, all of the details that only partially sunk in as I sat in the white examination room trying to be brave, or at least to not look nervous. When my father asked the doctor what I would not ask—what were the chances of success?—the orthopedist told
him he would do his best, but certain things were for God to decide. He did say he thought I would be free of pain, but there had been a lot of damage. He explained that many patients could do much more after surgery than before, and in spite of all the hope that had quietly slipped away over the years, I felt like maybe things would get better. Maybe I had to feel this way so that I didn’t feel like a thirty-six year-old getting a surgery usually meant for a senior citizen. And so I could believe it was, in fact, the best choice.

Imagine, once you had performed splits in midair. Now, sitting in a doctor’s office chair, you’re shown an X-ray that confirms you no longer have any cartilage in your right knee.

At this point, perhaps you’re thinking, yes, the happy ending is coming. This might make you sigh with relief, or become disenchanted with the story, feeling the happy ending wasn’t earned. There’s some judgment at the prospect of happiness, just as this entire story opens me up for scrutiny. Even though the surgery would help with the pain I had in my right knee, even though it partially restored what had been destroyed, it did not, of course, cure my RA. I never thought it would, and you shouldn’t think that either. I still have swelling, fatigue, fever, aches, joint damage. I can also get around in a fairly normal way now.

Happy is a relative state.

The night after my surgery I got very little sleep because I had intense pain. The night nurse had already threatened to catheterize me if I didn’t urinate, and so I willed myself to pee, only to be left atop a full bedpan. So things didn’t start off great that evening, and once the meds wore off, I felt like my thigh muscle was being slowly shredded with a cheese grater. My dad stood vigil by my bedside, getting only sporadic sleep in an easy chair. Luckily, I didn’t have to share a room with another patient. My father tried desperately to get the nurse to give me something for the pain, and perhaps she did, but I honestly can’t remember. I remember him holding my hand so maybe I wouldn’t feel so alone, and I remember squeezing because it hurt that bad.

Dancers build muscle memory from the day-in, day-out study of technique. Over the years, my thigh muscle had learned a new muscle memory, trying to pull my kneecap
up from my deteriorating joint. My orthopedic surgeon told me that even under full anesthesia my thigh muscle would not relax at first—the only time he’d ever seen this. The muscle still tried to manipulate the kneecap to avoid painful grinding in the joint. The body’s ability to adapt to protect itself is quite remarkable in this way. Though my orthopedist finally did get it to relax, my muscles retained a dancer’s memory. What could have been a minor curiosity signified to me a small connection to my former self.

After the first night, things did get better, but it was slow going. My leg was strapped into a machine that helped stimulate the new joint by continually keeping it in motion, as if pedaling or walking. I could lie down as this happened or sit propped on pillows, and many times I’d get calls from friends, which were welcome distractions, as the machine churned my leg. I learned exercises I would have to perform daily and made arrangements for physical therapy. When I was released from the hospital, I was given strong pain pills, but within a few days, I stopped taking them because I wasn’t hurting so much, not compared to how much I’d hurt before the surgery, and I worried about becoming dependent on them. Pain, by then, was one thing I knew how to contend with.

Pain, by then, was one thing I knew how to contend with.

In the weeks immediately following my surgery, I still needed the walker. My wound needed to heal, and I had to learn to walk again. I’d limped for so long, accommodating a joint that continued to fall apart, that my legs literally needed retraining on how to correctly put one foot in front of the other.

Dance had taught me how to train. So even though it took three physical therapists and some unconventional approaches, like a Pilates reformer and manipulation of the joint under anesthesia by my orthopedic surgeon, I finally made progress. First, though, a remarkable thing happened. As the wound from the surgery healed, I stopped hurting for the first time in what felt like forever. I felt nothing, and it was bliss. My father said he watched my facial features loosen and soften, too. He said I looked younger because I no longer carried the pain on my face. I didn’t know it was so evident. Perhaps I’d never hidden my anguish at all, that it was there, on display, the whole time.

I’ve never regained full mobility with my prosthetic knee, but I’m able to do things now I thought I might never do again. Take the good with bad, the saying goes, or is it the other way around? The ending isn’t simply happy or sad. It isn’t really an ending.

This past June I had the opportunity to renew my handicap placard for my car. But as the date for this renewal came and slipped by, I’ve yet to have my doctor sign the papers I’d need to file at the DMV. I can walk from any space in the lot to where I need to go. I can walk without the aid of a cane. I can walk at a normal pace and move with relative ease.

Once a week I slip the needle of a prefilled syringe into the fleshier parts of me, dispensing medicinal liquid that helps to balance my whacked-out immune system. During the week, I spend several hours in a studio, in the presence of dancers as their teacher. Twice a day, anti-inflammatories. All this give and take, but I’ve found an uneasy peace. I’ve given you a version of my story, the best I have to give. I crafted it with words I chose and plucked so carefully, shaped through revision. I’ve given you this tale and you will decide what to make of it, what to make of me. I have no control over that. You may judge or feel or discount. Perhaps a concoction of all three. I accept that, once written, my story is no longer wholly mine. Still, I give it to you.

Today I am sick, and tomorrow I will be sick, as I will be every day until I die. I may not like it, but that’s how it is. The rest of my life will always be entwined with rheumatoid arthritis. But it’s my choice to also be something more, to not feel sick, to still find those shadows of a dancer, which is to say tiny flecks of magic, within me. Like anyone who is hopelessly in love, I will always be the keeper of a flame.

***

Excerpted from Renée K. Nicholson’s Fierce and Delicate: Essays on Dance and Illness, published by West Virginia University Press.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Nathan Thrall, H. Claire Brown, Alexander Chee, Jean Garnett, and Erica Lenti.

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1. A Day in the Life of Abed Salama

Nathan Thrall | New York Review of Books | March 19, 2021 | 20,500 words

“One man’s quest to find his son lays bare the reality of Palestinian life under Israeli rule.”

2. How Corporations Buy—and Sell—Food Made with Prison Labor

H. Claire Brown | The Counter | May 18, 2021 | 3,810

“The notion of work as punishment has enabled prison administrators to compel incarcerated people to work on farms and in dairies for low or no pay and without basic labor protections, sometimes in service of secretive billionaires they’ll never meet.”

3. What My Korean Father Taught Me About Defending Myself in America

Alexander Chee | GQ | May 14, 2021 | 3,680 words

“And he said something I would never forget. ‘The best fighter in tae kwon do never fights,’ he said. ‘He always finds another way.”

4. There I Almost Am

Jean Garnett | The Yale Review | May 19, 2021 | 4,933 words

“I can be a very generous sister—maternal, even—as long as I am winning.” Jean Garnett writes about envy and being a twin.

5. My Quest to Make My Dog Internet Famous

Erica Lenti | The Walrus | May 17, 2021 | 2,138 words

“When I spoke with several people behind some of Canada’s most influential dogs, agents and managers for pet influencers, and even researchers on canine-influencer culture, I began to understand. Whether they’re couch potatoes partnering with your favourite snack-food company or high-falutin divas posing beside expensive cars and decked out in the latest couture, pet celebrities have one thing in common: they are symbols of inspiration. Even if Belle was a dog, she needed to portray a life that could be. To be famous, she’d have to convince others she was already living the carefree millennial dream.”

Sentenced to Life At 16

Adolfo Davis (Photo by Akilah Townsend)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 114, “The Invisible Kid,” by writer Maddy Crowell. The year Adolfo Davis was arrested, he became one of 2,500 adolescents serving mandatory life sentences across the United States.

Maddy Crowell | The Atavist | April 2021 | 5 minutes (1,507 words)

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

Sometime after he had given up hope and then recovered it, Adolfo Davis began writing letters from his prison cell. Around 1999, he bought paper and pens from the commissary and wrote one letter after another, three times a week. He wrote on his bed, a squeaky metal frame with a lumpy loaf of a mattress, under the ugly glare of a fluorescent light bulb. There was nothing much to look at in his cell, just gray walls and a burnt-orange door made of steel, with tiny holes drilled through it. Muffled sounds from the hallway helped him figure out what time of day it was, when it was mealtime, which guards were working.

“My name is Adolfo Davis, and I’m trying to get home and regain my freedom,” he would write. “I didn’t shoot nobody. Please, help me get a second chance at life.” He sent a letter to nearly every law firm in Chicago, and after that, to every firm he could find in the state of Illinois. Most of the time, the letters went unanswered. Occasionally, he received a curt apology: “Sorry, we are at capacity.” Or simply: “We can’t, but good luck.”

Adolfo was in his early twenties when he started writing the letters. He had a boyish smile, a light mustache, and a disarming charisma that could fold into stillness when he felt like being alone. In 1993, at the age of 16, he’d been convicted as an accomplice to a double murder that took place when he was 14. He claimed that he was there when the killings happened, but that he didn’t pull the trigger. For that he was serving a mandatory life sentence, without the possibility of parole.

Prisons in Illinois were teeming with cases like his—Black men who’d been locked up as teenagers. Few would ever be freed. Over the years, Adolfo watched friends become optimistic and then have their hopes dashed by the courts, by politicians, by their own lawyers. He once saw someone make it to the front door of the prison after a ruling was issued in his favor, only to be sent back to his cell when a state’s attorney made a last-minute phone call to a judge.

Sometimes Adolfo felt like he was trapped at the bottom of an hourglass, the sand piling up around him: Every falling grain meant another day of his life lost. Except that he wasn’t sure exactly what he was missing. He’d been free in the world for only 14 years—about as long as it takes some woolly bear caterpillars to become moths. What he remembered best was the small slice of Chicago’s South Side where he grew up. He remembered selling drugs on street corners, and coming home to find no food in the house. He remembered being evicted 11 times in 12 years, and sleeping in apartments crammed with other kids, aunties and uncles, friends. He remembered doing wheelies on his bike, showing off to the other kids in his neighborhood. He remembered getting up early on Sundays to get a Super Transfer—a bus ticket good for an entire day—and riding downtown, where skyscrapers towered above him. He and his friends would spend the day shining shoes or breakdancing for money.

The letters continued into Adolfo’s thirties. At some point, he began to wonder if he’d be writing them for the rest of his life. He would if he had to, because despite the terms of his sentence, the only thing that sustained him was the thought that he might eventually be released. So he kept writing; the months bled together, and the years did, too.

One day in 2009, Adolfo got a letter from the officials at Illinois’s Stateville prison, where he was incarcerated, notifying him that a lawyer would visit him the next day. Her name was Patricia Soung, and she was from the Children and Family Justice Center, a legal clinic run by Northwestern University, in Evanston, just outside Chicago. Adolfo had no idea what her visit was about, but he felt a sudden buoyancy.

When he met Soung, he could tell right away that she was, as he later put it, “an alpha”—professional and direct. Yet she seemed to care about him as a person, too. She and her team were working on juvenile-justice cases in Illinois, she explained, and they’d come across his. She wanted to take it on pro bono. Was he interested?

In more than a decade of writing letters, Adolfo had never sent one to Soung or the Children and Family Justice Center. This offer of possible salvation came entirely out of the blue.

***

At the time when Adolfo met Soung, the United States was the only country in the world that sentenced children convicted of certain crimes to life in prison. In Illinois, as in many other states, adolescents as young as 14 could be transferred to an adult court, allowing prosecutors to circumvent a juvenile-court system that was considered more rehabilitative than punitive. If a child was convicted of a double murder in adult court, the mandatory sentence was life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—judges were barred from taking into account the circumstances surrounding the crime to lower the sentence. The year Adolfo was arrested, 2,500 other adolescents across the country were serving mandatory life sentences.

In more than a decade of writing letters, Adolfo had never sent one to Soung or the Children and Family Justice Center. This offer of possible salvation came entirely out of the blue.

Individuals convicted of certain crimes before they were 18 could also be sentenced to death, until a 2005 Supreme Court decision, Roper v. Simmons, abolished that option on the grounds that it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The decision was based in part on the idea that adolescents had an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility” and were “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure.”

A coalition of activists and lawyers decided to use Roper to try to bring an end to mandatory life sentences for minors. The group was led in large part by Bryan Stevenson, an Alabama lawyer who saw an opportunity in the ruling: If the Supreme Court agreed that adolescents’ brains were fundamentally different from adults’, he reasoned, then why should a child ever be sentenced as an adult? Stevenson began searching the country for test cases—people serving life sentences who’d been locked up as kids. He had nearly 2,000 to choose from.

Stevenson zeroed in on 35 cases, spread over 20 states. They mostly involved the youngest adolescents condemned to die in prison. Stevenson filed an appeal in each of the cases, and two of them eventually reached the Supreme Court. In the first, Miller v. Alabama, a man named Evan Miller was 14 when he beat his neighbor and then set fire to his trailer, killing him, after a night of drinking and drug use. In the second, Jackson v. Hobbs, Kuntrell Jackson, also 14, robbed an Arkansas video store with two older teenagers, one of whom killed the store’s clerk.

In 2012, the Supreme Court delivered a monumental five to four decision in favor of Miller. It ruled that it was unlawful to hand a child a mandatory life sentence that failed to take “into account the family and home environment … no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.” As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it during oral arguments, “You’re dealing with a 14-year-old being sentenced to life in prison, so he will die in prison without any hope. I mean, essentially, you’re making a 14-year-old a throwaway person.”

The ruling was groundbreaking in that it compelled judges to consider a child’s background in determining sentencing. But it also left open the question of whether the decision could apply to older cases, ones that had already been litigated. Soung’s team at Northwestern wanted to use Adolfo’s case to set a precedent, cementing that the Miller ruling could be applied retroactively. In 2014, they brought his case before the Illinois Supreme Court, and to Adolfo’s amazement the judges ruled in his favor: Based on Miller, he could appeal his life sentence. The decision didn’t set him free, but it cleared a path for that to happen.

Suddenly, Adolfo’s story garnered national attention. He found himself on the front page of The New York Times—a photo of him in an oversize brown prison uniform appeared above a story about his case. “A Murderer at 14, Then a Lifer, Now a Man Pondering a Future,” the headline read. Journalists from the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and WBEZ contacted him, asking him to share his story. “‘I’m just praying for a second chance,’” one headline declared, quoting Adolfo.

By then he was 38. He’d spent nearly a quarter-century—most of his life—behind bars. With every letter he sent and every prayer he whispered, he’d been waiting for this moment. The possibility of release softened the harsh edges of prison, made them tolerable. At the same time, he was wary of what might happen when his case went back to court. The system had always been against him. Why should anything change now?

 

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 Peter Beinart, Ko Bragg, Mathew Charles, Russell Worth Parker and Rachel Lance, and Egill Bjarnason.

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1. Teshuvah

Peter Beinart | Jewish Currents | May 11, 2021 | 6,500 words

“For Jews to tell Palestinians that peace requires them to forget the Nakba is grotesque. In our bones, Jews know that when you tell a people to forget its past you are not proposing peace. You are proposing extinction.”

2. Reporter’s Notebook: The Power of Proximity

Ko Bragg | Scalawag Magazine | May 12, 2021 | 3,894

“A behind-the-scenes look at a year-long investigation into Mississippi’s laws that automatically put some kids as young as 13 into adult prisons and jails.”

3. Narcos and necromancy: Turf wars and black magic in Colombia

Mathew Charles | The Telegraph | March 5, 2021 | 3,528 words

“The drug gangs that are waging war in the Latin American country rely on a surprising ritual to protect them from harm: a witch’s incantation.”

4. A Marine special operator’s fragmented legacy: Blast, impact, trauma, and everything that comes after

Russell Worth Parker, Rachel Lance | Task & Purpose | May 7, 2021 | 4,272 words

“Traumatic brain injury is an ‘invisible wound’ I’ve suffered 17 times.”

5. That Time Hitler’s Girlfriend Visited Iceland and the British Invaded

Egill Bjarnason | Hakai Magazine | May 11, 2021 | 4,500 words

“The location of this small island nation, along with its people and economy, played an unexpected and crucial role in the outcome of the Second World War.”