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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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

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1. The Woman Who Killed Roe

Kerry Howley | New York Magazine | May 9th, 2022 | 7,800 words

When I was 13, sex education was part of religion class — this is what happens when you attend a Catholic middle school. We were given a lot of atrocious advice, such as, if you have gay feelings, you should talk to your priest about it. When we learned about abortion, a guest speaker — a classmate’s mom who worked at a “crisis pregnancy center” — told us the procedure was a sin and passed out silver pins supposedly the size and shape of a fetus’s feet at some number of weeks of gestation. I believe we were encouraged to wear them on the lapels of our uniforms. This experience has been top of mind since I read Kerry Howley’s chilling profile of Marjorie Dannenfelser, the most powerful anti-abortion activist in America. Dannenfelser is from my hometown, she went to the same university I did, and she was married in the Catholic church attached to my middle school. Reading Howley’s piece was like going through the looking glass. Dannenfelser is a terrifying, single-minded, vengeful extremist whose (anti-)life’s work relies on images of “murdered” embryos and fetuses, stripped of the physical bodies, the well-being, and the humanity of the people who carry them. Howley’s piece made me cry. It made me rage. I’ll never be able to shake it. —SD

2. Breakfast with the Panthers

Suzanne Cope | Aeon | May 10th, 2022 | 2,790 words

The Black Panther Party’s social and public health work across the U.S. after its founding in 1966 and into the early ’70s was far-reaching, even pioneering. I’d no idea that the Panthers paved the way for lead paint legislation and sickle cell anemia research, among other issues, so I appreciate Suzanne Cope’s glimpse into their community work. With as many as 45 local chapters, the Panthers developed safe housing and addiction treatment programs, door-to-door healthcare, and food justice initiatives like the Free Breakfast for Children Program which, at one point, fed more kids across the country each day than the state of California did. I also didn’t know that the majority of the party’s members by the end of the ’60s were women, and that they held many of its leadership roles. To this day, the more common image of a Black Panther is not of an activist mother but instead one that’s masculine and militant, complete with beret and gun — an “inaccurate and enduring perception” of the Panthers due to biased reporting, misinformation from the FBI, and “an all-out war” waged against them by J. Edgar Hoover. Thanks to Cope for this piece that acknowledges the Panthers’ community activism, which has always been “under-recognized” and “uncelebrated.” As she writes, “Imagine what they could have accomplished if their efforts were supported and not destroyed.” —CLR

3. Rematriating Our Lives: Indigeneity and What it Means to Climb

Micheli Oliver | The Alpinist | May 5th 2022 | 3,955 words

I am not a climber. The mere thought of precariously hanging from a rock face by my fingertips makes me feel faintly nauseous. I am, however, fascinated by people who choose to scale mountains, and I loved the climbing descriptions in Micheli Oliver’s essay for The Alpinist: “A glorious act of raising my bones up, of holding my own body, of celebrating my humanness in a dance of strength and breath.” Oliver, a person of Piikani Blackfeet heritage, muses not just on climbing but what it means to her as a Native adventurer. Indigenous people often do not have access to such activities, leaving adventure narratives to be dominated by tales of conquering the landscape and elements. Indigenous stories tend to depict “harmonious interactions with the land.” Reverence certainly fills Oliver’s words: “Snow shimmered gold across a blue, green and black sea of spruces, firs and pines. To my conscious mind, this was an unfamiliar vista, and yet my bones seemed to know the landscape intimately.” But there is also a darker story she wants to tell. Oliver climbs despite a fear of the outside world instilled in her by her parents, who taught her that “there are those who don’t see me as the human I am but as an object, exoticized for my looks.” When white people disappear in the mountains, news articles “proliferate across national media … When Native people vanish, however, their fates have frequently generated little response…” This is an adventure story that makes you think. —CW

4. In Search of Chad Hugo

Jeff Mao | GQ | May 12th, 2022 | 2,598 words

Pharrell Williams may be the household-name half of legendary production duo The Neptunes, but the upbeat sound that defined commercial hip-hop for more than a decade wouldn’t have existed without his Skateboard P’s partner, Chad Hugo. When Williams transitioned into a solo career, Hugo receded quite willingly into a relative obscurity of his own making. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t still live and breathe music, however, as Jeff Mao found while spending time with him in his native Virginia Beach. This isn’t a profile built on emotional reckonings or outlandish sound bites; it’s a quiet portrait of a quiet man who seems profoundly satisfied with what he’s accomplished, and freed from the expectation of what comes next. Mao’s byline doesn’t pop up too much in magazines these days — the ego trip cofounder and rap-mag stalwart has been doing more work on the exhibit-curation and liner-note side of things — and when it does, it’s worth your time. Especially this time. —PR

5. The Untold Story of the White House’s Weirdly Hip Record Collection

Rob Brunner | Washingtonian | May 3rd, 2022 | 2,022 words

Did you know that the White House has an official record collection? Can you imagine Ronald and Nancy Reagan doing the Electric Slide on music night? (Apparently that never happened as the records were put in storage not long after Reagan took office. Sorry for creating that image / nightmare in your mind.) Although the collection includes everything from Perry Como to the Clash, the vast majority of the albums have never been played and the last time it was expanded was in 1981. If you had the chance to update the collection with records from the previous 40 years, what would you choose? What would you want to put into the ears of the sitting president, their administration, and all the administrations to come? John Chuldenko, President Jimmy Carter’s grandson, once shot footage for a documentary about the White House’s record collection and is keen to add to it. “…it would be a blast to bring the collection into the 21st century. The White House record library ‘is a treasure, and people need to know about it,’ Chuldenko says. ‘We need to update this. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.’” “And there, finally, was the collection: record-filled boxes stacked up in front of the movie screen. The LPs had been kept in their original sleeves, which were inserted into color-coded binders (light blue for pop, yellow for classical, etc.). Each was adorned with the presidential seal and a foil stamp that read WHITE HOUSE RECORD LIBRARY. The whole thing reeked of gravitas and respectability—except that inside a binder, rather than some speech delivered by FDR in the ’40s, you might find a mint-condition copy of Macho Man by the Village People.” —KS

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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

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

1. Paper, Cut

Various Authors | Washington City Paper | May 5th, 2022 | 12,400 words

Another day, another beloved print publication calling it quits. Washington City Paper, which nurtured such writing luminaries as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Katherine Boo, Jason Cherkis, and the late David Carr, has printed its last-ever physical edition. In a special package, veteran staffers describe what working at the alt-weekly meant to them. The anecdotes are spectacular. Sex workers in the newsroom lobby, looking to buy ads. A reporter getting punched by a guy named Casino. Final proofs being shipped to the printer via Greyhound bus. Editors pouring their hearts and souls into young writers’ copy. WCP will continue to publish online (and you can support its work), but not everyone in the city it covers has access to the internet. This bittersweet collection of memories stands as a testament to the unconscionable harm that late-stage capitalism and its attendant greed have done to local news. (Speaking of unconscionable harm, consider also reading Rebecca Traister’s fiery essay about how feckless Democrats and their “anemic” rhetoric helped usher America to the precipice of Roe v. Wade‘s reversal.) —SD

2. Our Animals, Ourselves

Astra and Sunaura Taylor | Lux | January 6th, 2022 | 6,846 words

In this thought-provoking essay published in January, Astra and Sunaura Taylor make a socialist feminist case for veganism, which can open outward into other calls for liberation and help us understand and be part of the paradigm shift that needs to happen to create a more egalitarian and sustainable society. Capitalism is about controlling bodies, they write, not just of humans but of nonhuman animals like cows and pigs. “While the trauma inflicted on people and animals … isn’t the same, it is interconnected. We are all caught in the same racist, sexist, colonial, and ecologically catastrophic capitalist system.” This is a call for cross-species solidarity and to consider veganism alongside other social justice movements on the left. It’s a tough read — particularly for people who consider themselves socialists, feminists, or animal advocates and continue to consume meat and dairy products — but an important one. —CLR

3. Dreamers In Broad Daylight: Ten Conversations

Leslie Jamison | Astra Magazine | April 27th, 2022 | 7,261 words

What do you daydream of? Justice? Love? Wealth? Fame? Peace and quiet? Something else entirely? In this terrific essay at Astra Magazine, Leslie Jamison explores the pleasure and release she feels in daydreaming as well as the shame and regret she can experience when her thoughts drift from the present to the future perfect. “My shame about daydreaming is the shame of solipsism and self-centered fantasy, the shame of turning from the banality of daily life toward the hollow calories of wish fulfillment, the shame of preferring the hypothetical to the actual…Restraint. Indulgence. Punishment. This triptych of impulses has structured my relationship to desire for so long: with food, booze, men.” —KS

4. The Ministers of Cheese

Mark Pupo | Toronto Life | April 25th, 2022 | 5,296 words

Mark Pupo has a vested interest in his subject matter — the Cheese Boutique — in this essay for Toronto Life. He freely admits, “For me, more than most any store, the Cheese Boutique delivers a blissful, calming dose of retail therapy.” However, his bias does not get in the way of a lovely narrative. The owners, the Pristines, were originally immigrants from Kosovo who managed to make a home on a “once lonely, ungainly street” that now attracts hordes of Land Rovers on the weekend, their drivers desperate for a cheese fix. It’s a joyful success story of a business that thrived even during the pandemic — by starting virtual cheese-making classes and adding a food truck — yet kept its family roots. Even though the shop attracts fancy customers (Dustin Hoffman is a visitor) and fancy prices, two generations of Pristines are still there seven days a week to run it. Come for the family story and stay for the luscious cheese descriptions: “You let it come to room temp, slice off the top rind, and spoon out the gooey inside (called the “paste”). The odor is nauseating—reminiscent of rot and ancient back alleys—but to the tastebuds it’s awesome. Mellow and buttery.” Yes, please! —CW

5. In the Court of the Liver King

Madeleine Aggeler | GQ | May 5th, 2022 | 3,054 words

At the nexus of Influencer and Extreme Fitness Bro lies Brian Johnson, a man who drags unholy amounts of weight through the Texas woods. A man who does burpees on crowded New York subway cars. A man who, along with his family, sleeps without mattresses in order to better mimic the behavior of his primal ancestors. A man who eats a pound of raw liver a day — yes, a day. It’s hard for me to type these words without laughing, yet the joy is nothing compared to that derived from reading Madeleine Aggeler’s rollicking profile of the man known to millions only as The Liver King. Will you leave feeling sorry for his poor kids, sparring in their mansion’s living room and taking a fork to pigs’ heads in some Lord of the Flies fever dream of prepubescence? For sure. But if a magazine is going to give multiple pages to a bearded madman and his paleolithic worldview, you could do a lot worse than this vivid (but still humanizing) portrait. And a word of warning to my vegetarian friends: maybe look for a text-only version, lest the many photos of glistening organs and animal parts drive you to apoplexy. —PR

‘This Wasn’t His First Time’

Illustration by Juan Bernabeu / courtesy of The Atavist Magazine

Katia Savchuk |  The Atavist Magazine | April 2022 | 17 minutes (4,588 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 126, “A Crime Beyond Belief.”

1.

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

Just after seven in the morning on June 9, 2015, Misty Carausu joined a group of police officers lining up outside a dark green cabin with white trim. The blinds inside were drawn. Jeffrey pines cast thick shadows across the driveway. The air was still but for the scrape of boots on asphalt and the occasional call of a bird.

Carausu, 35, was at least a head shorter than the other officers, and the only woman. She wore iridescent eye shadow and pearl earrings along with a tactical vest. As she gripped her gun, she felt as if she’d stepped into one of the true-crime documentaries she binge-watched at night. It was Carausu’s first day as a detective.

En route to the scene, she’d been filled in on the case. Around 3:30 a.m. the previous Friday, a 52-year-old nurse named Lynn Yen, who lived at the edge of Dublin, the suburb east of San Francisco where Carausu worked, had called 911. Minutes earlier, Lynn and her 60-year-old husband, Chung, woke to a flashlight and a laser shining in their faces. A masked man dressed in black stood at the foot of their bed. “We have your daughter, and she’s safe,” the man said. Kelly, 22, had been in her bedroom across the hall.

Using what Lynn described as a “calm, soft voice,” the intruder told the couple to turn over and put their hands behind their backs. Then he announced that he would tie them up. When Chung felt the man touch him, he took a swing. Lynn grabbed her phone from the nightstand, locked herself in the bathroom, and called for help. She told the dispatcher that she heard fighting, then her husband yell, “Honey, go get the gun,” even though they didn’t own one. A few minutes later, the intruder fled downstairs and out the back door, which opened onto miles of rolling hills and open fields.

When officers arrived at the scene, Chung had bruises on his arms and face and was bleeding from a cut above his ear—he said the intruder had hit him with a metal flashlight. A window near the back door was open, and the screen had been removed. In the couple’s bedroom, police found a black wool glove and three plastic zip ties. On a gravel path behind the house, near a cluster of foxtails, officers recovered another zip tie and a six-inch shred of black duct tape. Kelly, who was unharmed, handed a sergeant something she’d found on a hallway cabinet near her room: a cell phone she didn’t recognize.

Police later traced the phone number to the cabin Carausu and her colleagues were now preparing to enter. It sat on a residential street in South Lake Tahoe, a ski resort town 130 miles from Dublin. As the raid began, Carausu heard the cabin’s front door splinter. Officers barked “Search warrant!” as they shoved through a barricade of chairs. Carausu maneuvered around clutter on the living room floor: a set of crutches, license plates, clothing, electronics, a massage table. Empty boxes were piled against a window; open bottles of wine and cans of spray paint littered the kitchen counters.

Carausu’s job was to process evidence. She snapped photos of a black ski mask, black duct tape, and mismatched black gloves. A stun gun sat on a rocking chair. In a banker’s box she found more duct tape and gloves, along with walkie-talkies, a radar detector, zip ties, rope, and a device for making keys. In a bathroom were makeup brushes and a partly empty bottle of NyQuil. An open tube of golden brunette hair dye lay on the sink, near a disposable glove stained with the dye’s residue. In one bedroom were three more gloves, yellow crime-scene tape, and, on the bed, a spiked dog-training collar; in another was a bottle of Vaseline lotion, used paper towels, and a penis pump. “This is creepy,” Carausu recalled thinking as she stuffed items into paper bags. “Something crazy happened in here.” The police also collected flashlights, cell phones, hard drives, and several computers, including an Asus laptop that had been stashed under a mattress.

Around noon, Carausu and her colleagues drove to a tow yard to search a stolen white Mustang recovered near the cabin. Inside, they found items they thought could be linked to the Dublin break-in: two gloves matching one from the crime scene, both covered in foxtails; receipts for a flashlight, a speaker, and zip ties purchased near Dublin the night of the home invasion; burglary tools; and a metal flashlight. The back seat of the Mustang had been removed. Carausu wondered if someone had made room for a large object, such as a body.

Strangely, other clues didn’t seem connected to the Dublin crime. Among the recent destinations on the car’s GPS was an address in Huntington Beach, 400 miles south of Lake Tahoe. In the trunk, Carausu saw a blood-pressure cuff, a camouflage tarp, and a mesh vest with a wireless speaker in one of the pockets. She also found a BB gun, a dart gun, and a Nerf Super Soaker that had been painted black, with a flashlight and a laser pointer taped to the barrel. Stuffed in a large duffel bag was a blow-up doll in black clothing, rigged with wiring so that it could be made to sit or stand. The bag also contained a military-style pistol belt, its pouches crammed with two pairs of Speedo swim goggles. Carausu pulled one of them out. Black duct tape covered the lenses. Caught in the tape was a long strand of blond hair.

None of the victims in the Dublin home invasion were blond. Neither was the suspect, which Carausu knew because she’d watched officers escort him out of the cabin in handcuffs. He didn’t put up a fight when they burst through the door. He wandered out of a bedroom and obeyed commands to lie on the ground. In his late thirties, tall and fit, the man wore a black athletic shirt and jeans. He resembled Charlie Sheen, with a chiseled jawline and tousled dark hair.

“Do you know why we’re here?” a detective asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

The suspect said nothing else as officers led him to a patrol car. Before they loaded him inside, Carausu told the man to look at her camera. He stared intensely into the lens, his mouth an indecipherable line. Carausu read his name on pill bottles and mail scattered around the stolen Mustang: Matthew Muller.

 

2.

Muller grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento, where homes flew American flags, wild turkeys roamed the streets, and fathers took their sons fishing for bass in Lake Natoma. His mother, Joyce, was a middle school English teacher, and his father, Monty, was a school administrator and wrestling coach. The family spent summers hiking in the Sierra Nevada, abalone diving in Bodega Bay, or relaxing at a lakeside cabin in Michigan. Each Christmas they hosted a party on their cul de sac, and Monty dressed up as Santa.

Muller was a strong-willed, introverted child. Despite his father’s best efforts, he didn’t take to wrestling or football, preferring to run or ski or walk the dog alone. He played trumpet in the school band and devoured dystopian novels by George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Yevgeny Zamyatin. His favorite short story, Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” was about two children who project their fantasies onto the walls of a virtual reality “nursery,” until make-believe lions come to life and eat the siblings’ parents.

Muller had a core group of friends at school, but bullies teased him about being overweight. Being picked on fueled his instinct to stick up for underdogs, an impulse he sometimes took to extremes. When his younger brother, Kent, was slow to talk, he appointed himself spokesperson to a degree that concerned their mom. “He’s never going to have a vocabulary if you keep speaking for him,” Joyce recalled thinking. Later, Muller stuffed gum in a girl’s trumpet after she taunted someone at a music competition.

During his senior year of high school, Muller learned that his father was having an affair. Monty moved in with the woman he was seeing, and he and Joyce divorced. Muller soon decided to enlist in the Marines, telling Joyce that he needed discipline and wanted to get in shape. In truth, he worried that paying for college would strain her finances.

Muller “was a round peg struggling to fit into a square hole” in the Marines, his roommate during boot camp later wrote. In the first 13 weeks, he lost more than 50 pounds. He didn’t join his platoon mates on weekend outings, instead squeezing in extra workouts. For a time he subsisted on Powerade and garlic rice. He earned the nickname Sergeant Mulder, after the FBI agent on The X-Files, because of his deadpan demeanor. Muller bristled at recruits who preyed on perceived weakness: When some bullied his roommate, Muller stood up for him.

Muller spent three years playing trumpet in the Marine Corps band at bases in California and Japan, where he also started a nonprofit to teach locals about the Internet. In 1999, he deployed to train soldiers in the Middle East. He earned several medals and a promotion before being honorably discharged.

Back home in California, Muller attended Pomona College, where he threw himself into volunteer work, which included helping homeless people secure government benefits and running an outdoors program. “More than anyone I had ever met, he strived to be noble, to be kind, to be generous,” his friend Eve Florin later wrote.

In the summer of 2001, Muller traveled to Prague for an academic program. There he met a driven young woman from Kyrgyzstan with a slight figure and long dark hair. They fell in love. (The woman declined to be interviewed. At her request, The Atavist is not using her name.) After Muller graduated from Pomona, they exchanged vows under an arch of white roses on the sun-dappled shores of Donner Lake, about 15 miles north of Lake Tahoe.

In 2003, the couple moved to Boston, where he started at Harvard Law School and she attended Boston College. Muller became involved with Harvard’s Legal Aid Bureau, where he represented low-income tenants and immigrants who were victims of domestic violence. On one occasion, a client’s husband found a business card that the bureau’s receptionist had given her and beat her so severely that her jaw had to be wired shut. Muller blamed himself. “Their crisis felt like it was part of my life too,” he said in an interview.

After earning his law degree, Muller stayed at Harvard to teach and work in the Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program. Dressing in suits for class, he came across as “very formal,” “intense,” and “guarded,” but also “extremely knowledgeable” and “someone who truly cared about the cause and the immigrant community,” a former student of his recalled. Muller earned near perfect ratings as a lecturer and worked with Deborah Anker, a leading scholar of immigration law, authoring papers and Supreme Court briefs. When Anker went on sabbatical, she tapped him to head the clinical program. “He was warm, caring, earnest, smart, enthusiastic, engaging, thoughtful,” Anker recalled. “He was a super good human being.”

Muller was unusually devoted to his clients, buying one a wedding gift and letting another stay at his apartment. Even when he won a case, he couldn’t shake the injustice he perceived in the world. “Part of me would be really sad, because it should not take all this effort just to make something the way it should’ve been,” he said. He likened the feeling to “going into a room and needing to straighten the picture, set it right.”

For the program’s anniversary one year, Muller tracked down dozens of alumni and framed their messages as a gift to Anker. His own note read: “Learning from you has been, and I think always will be, the highlight of my legal career.” This struck Anker as odd. “I thought he was going to be a leading immigration lawyer in America,” she said. “This is not the height of your career—this is the beginning.”

Muller scoured the room for anything out of place, anything that could be a bug. Over and over, he searched for answers among the snaking wires and blinking lights.

It came as a shock to Muller’s parents when, in the summer of 2008, he revealed that he had bipolar disorder. Mental illness ran in Monty’s family, though they didn’t speak of it much. Muller had never mentioned any mental health problems to his parents, beyond sometimes feeling blue during the winter months, and neither had his wife.

In fact, Muller had grappled with disturbing thoughts since his time in the Marines. After receiving a series of anthrax vaccines before his Middle East mission, he struggled to get out of bed for weeks, and his performance on fitness tests plummeted. (He later attributed his symptoms to Gulf War syndrome.) For the first time, bleak thoughts took up residence in his mind: You’re not good enough, you’re the worst person in the world. He’d been considering a long career in the military, but now he decided to request a discharge.

In college, Muller fell into a cycle: Every summer and fall, he was productive and slept little; every winter and spring, he labored to finish assignments and his mood darkened. As the winter chill set in during his second year of law school, negative thoughts cut particularly deep: You’re not doing enough to help, you’re horrible, the world is terrible. For the first time, he contemplated suicide.

Over the years, Muller saw several psychiatrists. One at Harvard diagnosed him with major depression, noting that he also showed signs of mania. Muller tried medication but stopped each time because he didn’t like the side effects. He took pains to hide his condition from his parents, from his colleagues, and, as much as possible, from his wife, who moved away in 2005 to attend law school. “It felt like a weakness, something I shouldn’t be troubling other people with,” Muller said.

He especially didn’t want anyone finding out about the time a delusion took hold of him. It happened while he was working at Harvard, in an office on the fourth floor of Pound Hall, a concrete building at the edge of campus. He began to suspect that the government was tapping his phone and hacking his computer. Officials were after him, he decided, because some of his clients had been accused of having links to terrorists. Nothing specific triggered his paranoia—it began as a feeling and his mind filled in the gaps.

Muller frantically inspected wall conduits that held bundles of telephone wires and followed their trail to a server room in the basement. Through a crack between two doors, he glimpsed a mess of equipment. He scoured the room for anything out of place, anything that could be a bug. Over and over, he searched for answers among the snaking wires and blinking lights.

***

Muller hoped that escaping New England’s winters and trading asylum law for the tamer world of patent litigation would improve his mood, so in 2009 he and his wife moved to Silicon Valley, where he started a job at a large law firm. But instead of feeling better, he again became suicidal. He agreed to get help, and a psychiatrist prescribed Wellbutrin. The antidepressant quieted Muller’s suicidal thoughts and kept him productive at his new job, but it also prevented him from sleeping.

One night, he was tossing and turning on the couch to avoid waking his wife when he heard a distant, muffled voice. Half asleep, he thought the TV had come on. He heard voices again on subsequent nights, closer and clearer this time. At first he told himself he was dreaming, but eventually he was forced to admit that the voices were there when he was awake. They were androgynous, almost robotic. They didn’t tell him what to do; instead, they kept up a running commentary, mostly about his faults.

Muller didn’t tell his family, concerned they’d think he was “dangerous crazy.” Nor did he inform his psychiatrist, fearing it would end up in his bar application. He had let his new employer assume that he wasn’t yet licensed to practice law because he needed to retake the bar exam; in fact, he had passed the exam but not yet registered with the California bar, agonizing over what to write about his mental health in the required “moral character” section of the paperwork.

In Muller’s telling, to quiet the voices and wear himself out enough to sleep, he went on long walks at night. Often he hiked to the Stanford Dish, a radio telescope along a popular trail near the Stanford University campus. Not long after midnight one Friday in late September 2009, he was returning to his car in College Terrace, a residential neighborhood in Palo Alto, when a police officer stopped him and asked to see his ID. According to Muller, when the officer inquired what he was doing there so late, he said that he was visiting a friend—he was reluctant to admit that he’d trespassed on a trail that was closed after dark. The officer reported that Muller claimed to be a visiting professor at Stanford, which police later determined was false.

Three weeks later, a Palo Alto police detective came to Muller’s apartment and left a business card with his wife. When Muller called the number, he learned that police wanted to question him about an attempted sexual assault in College Terrace. His name had come up in recent reports of suspicious persons in the area. He told the detective that he’d read about the incident in the local paper, and he agreed to meet.

According to Muller, before he could make it to the station, two detectives showed up at his law firm to question him. The encounter set him on edge. He wondered if the detectives had come to install spy equipment in his office. Recalling his recent asylum cases, he decided that they were conspiring with the Chinese government. (The Palo Alto Police Department declined to confirm that Muller was questioned at his office, citing an open investigation.)

Muller already had suspicions about a certain Honda Accord often parked near his apartment. He’d been placing pebbles behind the wheels to check whether it moved and varying his route to work to avoid being followed. Now he memorized exit routes in his office building and worked with the blinds shut. When he became convinced that his pursuers were using a laser microphone to pick up sound vibrations in his office, he decamped to the firm’s library. “It seemed like this was going to rapidly escalate. They were trying to destroy me, because they wanted to make me lose my job, isolate me, make me lose my credibility,” Muller recalled thinking. “At that point, I started getting afraid for my family.”

He felt he had no choice but to flee. Muller traded his car, which he assumed was bugged, for his mother’s SUV and stocked up on food and survival gear. A few days later, he disappeared.

 

3.

The day after the South Lake Tahoe raid, Misty Carausu arrived at her new office on the second floor of the Dublin Civic Center. At the time, the police department occupied half the building, which resembles a ring cut in half and the fragments slid apart. Carausu sat down in an empty gray cubicle in a room with drab carpeting. She hadn’t yet tacked up photos of her teenage son, whom she had at 16 and raised on her own.

Carausu didn’t plan on becoming a cop. Pretty and bubbly, with manicured nails and striking hazel eyes, she was in her mid-twenties and working as an assistant manager at a Safeway when a friend’s husband was convicted of sexually assaulting a mutual friend. She joined the force hoping to find justice for rape victims. After a decade as a deputy, Carausu, who fostered bunnies, sometimes compared herself to Judy Hopps, the idealistic rabbit who works as a cop in Disney’s Zootopia.

As she labeled evidence from the cabin, Carausu couldn’t get the blond strand of hair she’d found in the Mustang out of her mind. “This wasn’t his first time,” she told her colleagues. “We’re going to solve some crimes.” With her boss’s support, Carausu began to investigate whether they’d stumbled onto something larger than a single home invasion.

In police databases, Matthew Muller’s name yielded a hit for an unsolved 2009 break-in near Stanford. A 32-year-old woman was sleeping in her apartment in College Terrace when a strange man jumped on top of her. He appeared to be in his twenties and was white, tall, and lean. He wore a mask, black gloves, and black spandex-like clothing. The man tied her hands behind her back, bound her ankles with Velcro straps, and covered her eyes with tape. Then he gave her a choice: drink NyQuil, get shocked with a stun gun, or be injected with what he called “A-bomb.” When she opted for the NyQuil, the man confirmed with her that she wasn’t allergic to any of its ingredients before pouring the medicine down her throat.

The intruder gathered personal information and indicated he’d use it to steal her money. At times the victim heard the man whisper to someone, and she would later describe seeing a silhouette in the room, but she never heard a second voice. She reported that the man tried to rape her and she fought back. When she made up a story about having been raped in high school, he stopped, saying he didn’t want to victimize her again. Before leaving, he threatened to harm her family if she called 911, and mentioned that he had “planted evidence” to mislead authorities.

Three weeks before the attack, Carausu learned, a police officer had come across Muller walking late at night in the vicinity of the crime. Police later discovered that the College Terrace victim, a Stanford student, had attended an event that Muller organized at Harvard the previous year. Palo Alto detectives identified him as their primary suspect. But DNA recovered at the crime scene wasn’t a match. Ultimately, law enforcement didn’t find enough evidence to recommend charging Muller.

Carausu discovered that the home invasion had eerie parallels to two other unsolved crimes in Silicon Valley. Less than a month before the College Terrace incident, a 27-year-old woman in Mountain View woke around 5 a.m. to find a man on top of her. He appeared to be white and slim, about six feet tall, and wore tight black clothing and a ski mask. When she started screaming, he put his hand over her mouth and explained that he was part of a group of criminals that planned to steal her identity and wire money abroad. The man bound her hands and ankles, then placed blacked-out swim goggles over her eyes—she felt her hair catch in one of the straps. He made her drink what tasted like cough syrup before collecting personal information. At one point, he used her phone to send a message to her boss saying that she was sick. Periodically, the woman heard him talking to someone, but she never heard or saw anyone else.

Eventually, the man told her, “I have some bad news. I’m going to have to rape you.” According to an account the victim later shared with NBC’s Dateline, she begged him not to and he relented. “I can’t do this,” he muttered. “I’m sorry about this.” Throughout the encounter, the intruder was “polite,” the victim recalled. Before leaving, he advised her to get a dog for protection. The woman told Dateline that when she called the Mountain View police, they initially suggested she might have had a bad dream. Ultimately, authorities concluded that the person behind the attack had also likely committed the one in College Terrace. (In a statement for this story, the Mountain View police said, “We continue to keep this investigation open and have been and are treating it seriously.”)

The final case Carausu learned about happened three years after the other two, in November 2012. A 26-year-old woman who lived just north of the Stanford campus awoke at 2:20 a.m. to see a masked man in gloves and dark clothing at the foot of her bed. He held her down, but she screamed and fought back. Eventually, he fled. The woman later noticed that her computer had been moved and found two “bump keys,” which open any lock from a certain manufacturer, near the front door. In neither that case nor the one in Mountain View was Muller named as a suspect.

Carausu stumbled upon an additional clue when she called the owner of the stolen Mustang police had recovered in South Lake Tahoe. He turned out to be a medical student who lived on the edge of Mare Island, 40 miles northwest of Dublin. In early January 2015, he had returned from a trip to find that someone had taken his car keys from his home and driven his Mustang out of the garage. When Carausu told him that her department had arrested someone for a home invasion near where his car was found, he asked if she’d heard of the “Mare Island creeper,” a Peeping Tom.

Between August 2014 and January 2015, at least four women in the area had reported seeing a man peering through their windows or climbing on their roof. Two had just taken a shower when they spotted him. One saw him taking pictures, while another saw him descending a ladder. Two of the women lived on the same street: Kirkland Avenue.

Some of the women described the voyeur as a white man, 25 to 35, wearing a black jacket. In August 2014, according to a Facebook post later documented in a police report, a Mare Island resident who heard sounds on his roof late one night saw someone fitting a similar description flee with a ladder. The resident encountered a strange man on two other occasions: One night, the man was crouching under the resident’s window; he said he was searching for his puppy, a husky. Another night, the resident found the same man in his backyard, where he claimed to be looking for 531 Kirkland Ave.; the address didn’t exist. The student spotted the man a third time, walking a young husky and a golden retriever. According to a Facebook post, a woman who lived on Klein Avenue, a block from Kirkland, said that her neighbor had a husky and a golden retriever. The owner of the Mustang told Carausu that he’d heard the woman’s neighbor was a former lawyer who had been in the military.

Then, as suddenly as the Peeping Tom incidents started, they stopped. “It was about the same time that the Vallejo kidnapping happened,” the Mustang owner told Carausu. Why does that ring a bell? she thought.

After the Dublin home invasion and Muller’s arrest, a colleague of Carausu’s had put out an alert asking area police departments for information about similar crimes. Vallejo didn’t respond. Online, Carausu found news stories about the kidnapping, which occurred three months earlier. She noted that one of the victims had blond hair. Then she remembered why the case had caught her attention: The Vallejo police had deemed it a hoax.

Read the full story at The Atavist.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

VW Westfalia camped at Bully Creek Reservoir near Vale in eastern Oregon.
(Photo by: Greg Vaughn/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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

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1. Safer Than Childbirth

Tamara Dean | The American Scholar | March 4th, 2022 | 3,700 words

Anti-abortion advocates seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade would have you think that the practice of terminating pregnancies is a new phenomenon, brought on by the rise of feminism and the (imaginary) moral decay of America. As Tamara Dean lays bare in this essay, this is nothing short of a lie. Surveying historical literature and using Nancy Ann Harris, a woman who died in 1876 in a rural Wisconsin county, as a lens into the past, Dean shows how abortion was a legally and morally acceptable way for a woman to care for her health, until misogynistic, racist forces decided it shouldn’t be. “Every woman, including Nancy, would have known friends, sisters, or cousins who died or were debilitated while giving birth,” Dean writes. “They would have known those who took pains to avoid it.” This essay is a necessary corrective, and beautifully written to boot.  —SD

2. The Lost Jews of Nigeria

Samanth Subramanian | The Guardian | April 26, 2022 | 6,635 words

As a kid growing up Jewish in a very not-Jewish part of the country, I was always fascinated to hear about places where communities had taken root in seemingly very not-Jewish parts of the larger world. Ethiopia. India. China. Yet, before reading Samanth Subramanian’s deeply descriptive travelog in The Guardian, I was unaware of a much newer version of the phenomenon happening in Nigeria. Estimates vary, but thousands of native Nigerians have taken up the faith in the past few decades, drifting first to messianic Christianity and then to full Old-Testament sidelocks-and-prayer-shawl orthodoxy. There’s a sense of cultural commonality in there, for sure — most Nigerian Jews are of the Igbo people, and attribute the surprising amount of ritual overlap to a lineage descended from the tribe of Gad — but in their internet-enabled assimilation of “conventional” Judaism, adding the sanctioned to the syncretic, there’s also a thrumming pulse of mishpuchah. Family. Home is where you make it, and so is homeland.  —PR

3. A Cage by Another Name

Sasha Plotnikova | Failed Architecture | April 20, 2022 | 2,089 words

Can tiny homes get people off the streets safely and humanely? In this sharp, critical look into the tiny shed camps of Los Angeles, Sasha Plotnikova reports on the Arroyo Seco Tiny Home Village along the 110 freeway, which was built to help tenants transition out of houselessness. But the village’s dehumanizing rules and inhospitable conditions create anything but a safe and secure environment, and no amount of whimsy — in the form of colorful, cheery murals — can hide the carceral nature of the camp. “Tiny sheds must be understood not as homes or as housing,” Plotnikova writes, “but as an architecture of containment and banishment.” A member of Street Watch LA, an organization dedicated to protecting the poor and unhoused, said to her: It’s a housing solution not actually meant for unhoused people, but rather for the NIMBYs who prefer them to just disappear.  —CLR

4. When Are Men Dangerous? On Agency, Imagination, and What a Teacher Can Do

Steve Edwards | Lit Hub | April 15th, 2022 | 4,080 words

In this thoughtful essay at Lit Hub, Steve Edwards contemplates what it means to be considered dangerous, whether that danger is in the form of words, ideas, beliefs, or violence. As Edwards considers what danger means and the forms it can take, he looks at conscientious objectors, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, as well as his own creative writing students as they struggle to make a life for themselves and earn a living in America. “Nineteen is a liminal age. Absent a chance to define ourselves, other forces stand at the ready to do so for us—family members, cultural traditions, career trajectories…Essays are made things, I tell them, equal parts critical thinking and creative engagement. I suggest that if they can change words on a page, they might also change their lives. Had Tsarnaev been a student in my class, I might have encouraged him to write about his experiences as an immigrant or what drew him to want to study sea life…Those most likely to tell the truth about their lives are the ones with nothing left to lose…Unfortunately, you can’t escape an ideology by hoping it changes. You end up becoming it instead…In my classes a pen is a tool for expanding a student’s potential, not limiting it through fear.” —KS

5. I Lived the #VanLife. It Wasn’t Pretty.

Caity Weaver | The New York Times Magazine | April 20, 2022 | 4,410 words

Sometimes it is fun to read about someone having a terrible time. Before I am judged too harshly for this, I offer you Caity Weaver’s diverting and self-deprecating essay in defense. She spends nearly 5,000 words whinging about just how much she hated living #VanLife for a few days. (Her editor made her do it. I am glad he did.) There is something pure about such things as Weaver eating fistfuls of cheese-its in the dark when figuring out the camp stove is just too much. Her descriptions — coated in cheesy crumbs rather than sugar — are wholly relatable and throw two fingers up to the Instagram illusion. I am thankful for this, being guilty of falling into the thrall of the #VanLife tag myself, endlessly scrolling through pictures of beautiful people looking wistfully at beautiful things — all through flung-open-van-doors. I have even found myself on Craigslist looking for camper vans for sale (expensive as it turns out, I blame the tag). Fortunately, this van exposé has given me another reason to stick to my tent. —CW

Celebrating 13 Years of Longreads

Collage of four illustrations at the corners of a rectangular graphic, with a black square in the center that reads "Longreads Turns 13: Our Favorite Originals"
Illustrations going clockwise, starting from top left: Zoë van Dijk, Jonathan Bartlett, Louise Pomeroy, and Glenn Harvey

This past Sunday, Longreads celebrated its 13th anniversary, and we couldn’t be prouder. What originated in 2009 as a Twitter hashtag has grown into a space for readers and writers around the world. In the beginning, Longreads focused on curating the best longform storytelling on the internet — a tradition that today’s team has kept going strong with Weekly Top 5 lists and the annual Best Of series. In 2014, Longreads started to commission and publish its own original stories, which were originally called Longreads Exclusives. (Remember Meaghan O’Connell’s “A Birth Story“?)

With ongoing support from Longreads Members and readers, over the years we’ve been able to fund and publish award-winning essays and features, book excerpts and columns, and more in-depth investigative projects, including two notable podcasts. In this special reading list and Weekly Top 5 edition, we’ve selected our 10 favorite original stories published on Longreads over the past eight years. Whether you’re a relatively new reader or have been a longtime member, we guarantee that you’ll find something you love — or will want to revisit again.

After our calls for essays and reading lists at the start of the year, we’ve enjoyed diving into your submissions and working with more writers, especially our newest reading list contributors. We’re excited about the stories we’re publishing over the coming months, and look forward to working with more of you in 2022, and beyond.

CW, CLR, KS, and PR


Queens of Infamy: Anne Boleyn

Anne Thériault | May 2018 | 5,949 words (23 minutes)

Anne Thériault’s entire collection on the badass women of centuries past is brilliant: sharp, informative, and like nothing you’ve ever read, mixing history, humor, and Anne’s undeniably unique voice. Each installment is worth a read — and you can read them in any order — but here I’ll recommend the second in the series, on “king-seducing homewrecker extraordinaire” Anne Boleyn. —CLR

Bundyville

Leah Sottile  | May 2018–July 2019 | 69,699 words

Over the course of two podcast seasons, nine connected features, and nearly 70,000 words, Leah Sottile delves into Oregon’s infamous Bundy family — and more largely into the growing contingent of Americans who refuse to acknowledge the federal government. No easy answers here, just a nuanced exploration of how we arrived at what increasingly feels like a pivotal moment for the future of democracy. —PR

The Final Five Percent

Tim Requarth  | October 2019 | 6,723 words (27 minutes)

After his brother is hit by a drunk driver while riding a motorcycle, neuroscientist and writer Tim Requarth confronts how traumatic brain injury has irrevocably altered his family. —KS

Searching For Mackie

Annie Hylton  | February 2020 | 8,310 words (20 minutes)

In this harrowing reported story, Annie Hylton spends time with the Basil family, who are haunted by the disappearance of their sister, Immaculate “Mackie” Basil. Peering deep beneath the surface, Hylton sympathetically explores the darkness behind this tragedy and the intergenerational trauma of Canadian residential schools. —CW

How to Learn Everything: The MasterClass Diaries

Irina Dumitrescu | August 2020 | 5,406 words (21 minutes)

Ever harbored a desire to write, learn to cook or to act? MasterClass could, theoretically, teach you all these things and more. With wit, grace, and humor, Irina Dumitrescu took MasterClass sessions for six months and reported back, so you don’t have to. —KS

Running Dysmorphic

Devin Kelly  | December 2019 | 3,955 words (15 minutes)

Poet, writer, and competitive runner Devin Kelly contemplates his battle with body dysmorphia and searches for the permission he needs to extend grace to himself. —KS

Cat People

Rachel Nuwer  | March 2020 | 7,033 words (28 minutes)

When COVID-19 was still just a murmur and Netflix’s Tiger King had yet to become mandatory escapism, you could already learn about Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin on Longreads. In a four-part podcast and 7,000-word piece, Rachel Nuwer examines the bizarre fact that in some American states it is easier to buy a lion than a dog. Meticulously researched, her work remains laser-focused on the welfare of the animals — rather than the people — and portrays a complete picture of big cat ownership in the U.S. —CW

Home Is a Cup of Tea

Candace Rose Rardon  | July 2017 | 2,882 words (10 minutes)

Candace Rose Rardon’s travel writing stands out: She combines lovely musings on place with gorgeous watercolor sketches. In “Home Is a Cup of Tea,” she explores the world and searches for the meaning of home through the different teas she discovers while traveling. It’s a breezy read, and one of my favorite illustrated essays on the site. —CLR

Marmalade: A Very British Obsession

Olivia Potts  | July 2020 | 4,161 words (15 minutes)

This jolly exploration into the surprisingly complicated world of marmalade is a ray of sunshine, with Olivia Potts’ wonderful writing resonating with the joy that exploring this realm brings her. It is an entrancing essay, and I defy you not to enjoy imagining the “50 sheep dyed orange in readiness for this year’s (marmalade) festival.” —CW

Debt Demands a Body

Kristin Collier  | December 2021 | 6,596 words (21 minutes)

When Kristin Collier was 18, her mother began taking out private student loans in her name; over time, the debt compounded and compounded again, until it had soared to nearly $400,000. Why? Because it was designed to be unpayable. A wrenching personal story, overlaid on a historical arc that might just leave you quaking with rage. —PR


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The Emptying

Hole on red fabric fixed with metal safety pin, closeup
Getty Images

Marilyn Kriete | Longreads | April 2022 | 46 minutes (8,273 words)

I check the bathroom first. Tiles lie fallen in the tub. The paint has given up. Mildewed curtains shade the toilet, a nasty mess of orangey brown. The sink, a topographic map of hardened scum, threatens to collapse on an ancient hamper. The floor warps under threadbare mats, no longer rubberized: a tripping hazard that hasn’t killed anyone — yet.

Without tripping, I fall into a well of memories: oil refineries lurking beyond the curtains and the howling wind on winter nights when I cracked the window to vent steam. The medicine cabinet, crammed with baby aspirin, calamine lotion, and viscous bottles of rose-water-glycerine. My mother’s angry, reddened hands. My pale face staring back as I balanced on the sink to reach the mirror. My tight and anxious heart. The night I couldn’t stay another day. My great escape.

***

My father has summoned me. After a lifetime away, I’m back in Edmonton, this outpost long deserted by his children. The cold, industrial city was not for us.

Was it Edmonton we hated, or the nest that hatched us? No matter. We blamed our migration on the city’s endless winters and whisper-thin summers, and on the pull of Elsewhere. Only one brother stayed in Alberta, choosing a city beyond my mother’s reach.

My father has never connected the dots on our staggered exodus. He tags us by phone, taking pride in his artistic sons: the Painter, the Guitarist, the Cellist. Less boast-worthy is the Financial Planner, though he’s kept our parents solvent through a long retirement.

As for me, his only daughter, he’s never said much about my years as a missionary. To him, I’ve always been the Writer. Now I’m finally writing, but I don’t tell him, afraid my excavations will break his ancient heart.

***

We don’t know how he’s done it, 57 years in that house, but my mother’s dementia is the last straw on the bumpy back of wedlock, and he wants out. Not divorce, but a fresh start, where he can tread water until Alice — wife, great-grandmother, difficult person — goes into full-time care. He wants release, even if it means giving up the house.

“How much longer do you think she has?” he asks. He wants prophetic certainty.

“How much longer do you think she has?” he asks. He wants prophetic certainty.

But how should we know? Alzheimer’s is a tricky beast, encroaching without a schedule. The only sure thing is defeat. One of them has to crash, and my money’s on him — a nervous, fretful mess, undone by my mother’s break from reality. He’s always clung to logic like a nun clutching a rosary, and the scattered beads in my mother’s head are rolling in every direction but straight.

“I won’t be visiting her every day when she goes in,” he says. “She won’t even know if I come or what day it is. What’s the point?”

As always, my father’s reason overrides his sensitivity.

“But I will visit sometimes,” he adds, not wanting to appear heartless. “Of course, I’ll go. Maybe once a week — that should be fine.”

The irony is that Alzheimer’s has melted my mother’s quills; she’s less prickly than she’s ever been. But my father can’t deal with this new, softer Alice, floating in her noncombative dream state. She’s unfamiliar.

This saddens me. After five willful children and one emotional affair, they’ve been through the wringer together, the whole kit and caboodle, as my mother would say. But now he won’t get the pleasure of reminiscing with her, whitewashing the past. They can’t have a rational conversation anymore. She can’t keep track of whose house she’s in, let alone remember what happened in it. The beads are everywhere.

 

Dithering

My brother Phil (the Artist) suggests a quiet, green retirement park five minutes from his Vancouver Island home. My parents can sell the house and buy a prefab unit, five times smaller than the homestead. A nursing home slumbers nearby, where my mother can go after enough residents die.

My father, resisting change, says no for a year. But now he’s ready.

Anticipating Alice’s resistance, he gets power of attorney and concocts a ruse in case she asks about the realtors traipsing through the house.

“Most of the time she doesn’t even notice the visitors,” he says. “But when she does, I tell her these people are thinking of buying a different old house, and they’re looking at ours to get some decorating ideas.”

He figures this ploy will flatter my mother. To me, it confirms how fully delusional both have become. The house, never a paragon of style in its heyday and now wallowing in decrepitude, is hardly a site for inspiration, unless you need hellfire motivation to purge your house of overflow before it swallows you alive.

Decision made, my father leaps at the first buyer, less eager for top dollar than to close the deal and skedaddle. The house sells “As Is” — the only way it could be sold. Trying to fancy it up would be like reassembling a butchered hog and hoping to sell it back to the farm. The buyers want location, and have plans to gut the house. My father agrees to empty the house and skip the cleaning.

“I sold the house,” he crows in April. “We have till July 3 to empty it. Phil’s coming in June, and we’re going to finish in 10 days and drive back with him. He said you’d help. You can sleep in Brian’s room while you’re here. I really appreciate your offer!”

No one has actually asked me to help. My father simply morphs a suggestion into a plan as I lie sleeping elsewhere, blissfully unaware that the hardest job of my life has finally arrived.

As June approaches, I dither daily. The prospect of emptying the house in nine days overwhelms me. This job warrants months, if not years: time to sort and allocate a lifetime of objects. I’d imagined unearthing the house after my parents’ death, on a leisurely timeline. I’d imagined my brothers pitching in, light banter and debate as we sift for treasure and divide the loot, free of parental oversight.

While I dither, my father calls frequently to bemoan his plight and thank me for my service.

“You’re coming in June, right?” He never waits for an answer. “I really appreciate it.” His anxiety zings through the phone, and I know any hint of indecision might undo him.

“Sure,” I say. “First week of June. It’s on my calendar. “

But the prospect makes my heart race, and not in a good way.

***

My father insists on putting Alice on the phone for brief chats, and it’s clear things have changed; there’s a blank where my voice used to register. My own nuclear family has also been expunged, a relief after years of disapproval. Her grudges have evaporated. She no longer remembers whom she hates, or the cases she’s built against them. An unexpected, too-little-too-late miracle.

Alzheimer’s is a tricky beast, encroaching without a schedule. The only sure thing is defeat.

Even with the new Alice, I pray for a solid excuse to bow out: a June date for my pending knee surgery, new work clients, a possible airline strike. One by one, the excuses evaporate. I book my flight and check the Edmonton forecast: cloudy, stormy, and unseasonably cold — perfectly suited to the circumstances.

No matter how I dither, I am manifestly destined to go.

 

In Medias Res

On June 1, I fly from summery Kelowna and land in the city of my birth. A typical spring day in Edmonton: blustery, wet, and gray. In the sweep of an hour, I’ve watched the gorgeous Okanagan hills recede, glimpsed the Rockies through diaphanous clouds, and gazed in a mixture of dismay and nostalgia at the flat, almost featureless farmland around Edmonton. I’d forgotten the starkness of the prairies when the sun isn’t brightening things up. The soil is black, dotted with anorexic, barely dressed trees. And the city, spreading like spilled ink as we descend, neither sparkles nor shines.

I imagined the trip’s saving grace would be visiting friends after years away. But the nine-day emptying will demand every minute, precluding my fantasies. Instead, I’ve asked two friends to pick me up, delaying my parental reunion.

At 10:00 p.m. we drive to the house. It’s nearly solstice at the 45th parallel, light enough to survey the neighborhood. Sturdy trees have risen from saplings planted in the ’60s, when the community was a muddy field under construction. My childhood stomping grounds have aged into an elegant old lady, coiffed and respectable. In every yard, botanicals have been clipped into tidy conformity.

Everywhere but here.

My parents’ house is invisible, engulfed by overgrowth. An enormous birch devours the lawn, now a pocket of wilderness heaped with blackened branches. The hedge has tripled in height, and four enormous pines, once Arbor Day twiglets, sway above the roofline like drunken soldiers. This descent into jungledom was inevitable. Alice never believed in pulling weeds or removing dead branches: Nature always took precedence.

I wear no overcoat, but if I had, I’d have pulled up my collar and slunk up the buckling driveway like Dick Tracy on a murder investigation. I’d expect to find one or two wraiths in the house, hiding from the 21st century.


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And I do. My father, shuffling by cane, is slow, so Alice gets there first, opening the door with a friendly but questioning smile. Who is this stranger at her door?

I’m shocked by her white, unwashed hair, flowing past her bony shoulders. She’s never worn long hair and it softens her, making her childlike and vulnerable. These are the last words I’d use to describe my mother: She’s always been opinionated, ferocious, oppositional. But now she grins like a fairy-tale gnome, wearing a nubby pullover and floppy green sweatpants. I’m anonymous and she’s happy in her new, generic way, to see me. She’s always been kinder with strangers than familiars, and now that the realtors are gone, the doorbell’s been silent.

I’m welcome.

My father never says hello when he sees me, even if it’s been months or years apart. Instead, he jumps in medias res, launching frantic questions or updates on his latest obsessions. This time, he lobs a trifecta of worries: the timing of my brother’s arrival; when my nephew plans to pick up the pool table; and whether I plan to spend every night under their roof. We’ve already discussed these things by phone, multiple times. He’s reaching new heights of anxious obsession.

“Hi Dad,” I eventually say. “How was your trip?” He never gets the joke. Now he’s onto the next worry: the tail-wagging canine at my side.

“You brought someone’s dog with you?”

“No, Dad, it’s my dog, Casper. I told you I was bringing him, several times.”

“Your mother doesn’t like dogs,” he says. I know this. Alice always hated dogs, and this will be the first time a dog sleeps under her roof.

“I know, Dad. But she doesn’t even know where she IS, anymore. She can’t remember what she hates. She doesn’t even know ME anymore. She’ll be fine.”

My mother is instantly smitten. “A dog! What’s the doggie’s name?”

She’ll repeat these words endlessly over the next nine days, surprised each time she sees him. His provenance and name escape her. Sometimes, intriguingly, she calls him “Alice.”

“Does she know where her pups are? Does she remember where she put them?”

Bringing him is genius: Casper engages her inner child. She adores him more than she ever adored me.

Which is fine. I just wish Old Alice could see what New Alice is up to. She’d be absolutely livid.

***

She’s talking to invisibles, imagining strangers and children in the house. The children are younger versions of my brothers, currently missing; she’ll set extra places at the table and wonder when they’ll be back. She’s obsessed, yet never panicked. Her mother, dead for 25 years, also lurks nearby. This spooks my father.

The missing child is never me.

As the week progresses, I observe her monologues, recounting her life story — or rather, the first 20 years. She gets hazy once she hits motherhood, unsure what came next. Those weren’t the happy bits. But her early life is crystal clear, and she its radiant star. Her Ukrainian-Canadian childhood is now the Broadway version and comes with a rapt audience. The invisibles never interrupt.

My father also watches, wearing his new shock-and-dismay expression.

“Get used to it, Dad,” I say. “This is the new reality. At least we don’t have to listen to the same old stories. She’s found new friends, and they obviously love her.”

To me, her monologues are a godsend. We don’t need to eavesdrop; her stories don’t contain us. Instead, we can tackle our epic task: packing up her later, darker world, and closing its doors.

 

Stuck

Apart from countless phone calls, my father has done nothing to prepare for the emptying. Months earlier, when he fretted about what to keep, I’d suggested a simple method. “Go to the dollar store and buy some stickers to mark things: Keep. Donate. To be Decided. Put them on the back so Mom won’t peel them off.” If nothing else, I thought this could be an outlet for his escalating nervous energy.

He hasn’t marked a thing. Choosing means moving forward, and he’s stuck, waiting for his children to break the spell. He hasn’t tossed a single paper.

After my bathroom inspection, I ask a few questions. The dysfunctional tub is as lonely as it looks: My mother won’t bathe anymore. More alarming is my father’s blindness to the house-wide decay. The toilet, in particular, defies polite description. One morning he asks me to clean it for the new owners.

“Um, Dad, I don’t think there’s much point.”

“Why not? Can’t you scrub out the stains so it looks better?”

“Dad, those stains are permanent. The buyers will toss the toilet and gut the whole house. That’s why it’s selling “As Is.”

“Why would they do that? It’s a perfectly good toilet!”

His eyesight is sharp, even after decades of anxious spectating. Something else is wrong. Maybe 57 years of staring at the same walls renders you house-blind, though he’s taken good care of the family cabin. But the house is my mother’s domain. Dad paid the bills; she ruled the roost. His mind was usually elsewhere. And now that she’s mentally flown the coop, he’s lost his bearings.

Alice made his every meal and drink. But as her Alzheimer’s progressed, her kitchen skills disintegrated. She forgot how to turn on the stove and put plastics in the oven. Her inability to detect moldy food verged on manslaughter.

Faced with starvation, my father now makes coffee, eggs, toast, and passable suppers of fried meat with corn-on-the-cob. Lunch is a can of soup, divvied between them. He’s also mastered oatmeal, which my mother eats daily without complaint. After 65 years of producing three meals a day, she cast off her duties like slipping off an apron, displaying zero interest in the kitchen till it’s time to eat.

Another stunning change. She used to be the Kitchen Nazi; now she’s like royalty, visiting royalty, waiting to be served.

***

On the second morning, my mother shuffles into the kitchen.

“Have you eaten yet?” I ask. My father is still in bed.

“Oh, no. I don’t cook anymore. But I met this fella who likes to cook for me. He always makes breakfast.”

She sits down to wait for her “fella” — a word I’ve never heard her use. My parents have always shunned lazy speech and dutifully pronounce the “g” in “ing” words. My father predictably goes bananas whenever a witness on the news says “I seen.” This is a new Alice, alright; she isn’t even worried her fella might not show. Alzheimer’s has given her a refreshing dollop of equanimity. Breakfast whenever is fine.

“Oh, there’s a dog!” she says, catching sight of Casper. “What’s the doggie’s name?”

***

I sleep in the Cellist’s room, across from the room where my mother sleeps. My old bedroom was reconfigured into a small library within months of my running away, as my parents purged every trace of me. Nothing from my girlhood room remains, except the hated, too-small kitchen curtains my mother hung when I was 5. They’re mysteriously intact, the only curtains in the house to have dodged the ravages of time. I briefly consider taking them home, but change my mind: They won’t fit my current house, either, and in terms of nostalgia, they’ll always represent my mother’s perversity when it came to pleasing me. In every other room, the curtains she’d chosen at least covered the windows, and none of my brother’s rooms sported kitchen curtains, festooned with brassy pots and pans.

My bedroom-turned-library heaves under stacks of magazines and books, tomes dating back to the 1927 encyclopedias I used for school reports. More reference books have accumulated, including two piles of concordances from my grandfather’s house. My father has kept them, despite knowing he’ll never use them, given his aversion to Bible study and his father’s strict religion. Deep issues lay bound in these books, issues he’ll never explore. He’s also kept his father’s bookcases, now covered with decades of office paraphernalia. The overpacked motif extends to every room, crammed with duplicates from both grandparents’ homes.

I mutter the maxim: Keep only what is useful or beautiful. My folks obviously missed that memo, embracing the opposite: Everything might be useful someday. They’re Depression-era hoarders, not so much overshopping as using things past the point of death, then stashing them. Whatever came their way remained, except their children.

At the foot of the stairs hangs a large painting that confronts every trek to the main floor. After 57 years of daily viewing, my father makes a passing remark, prompted by the task of winnowing his artwork.

“I’ve never liked that painting,” he says. “Something about the angle on that mountain isn’t right. Can you see it? It’s always bothered me, that angle.”

“Then why on earth did you keep it?” I ask. “Why didn’t you replace it with a picture you actually enjoy looking at every day?”

My father looks blank. “It’s always been there.”

 

Excavation

In contrast to my former bedroom, my youngest brother’s room is a shrine, brimming with books, sheet music, and dusty childhood keepsakes, his bulletin board plastered with musical accolades. This one — the Cellist — won Alice’s favor. We siblings call him the Golden Child, astonished by the altered mother who raised him. Her favoritism always seemed unfair.

But it wasn’t his fault; he’d merely run with his talents, just as we had with ours. The difference was my mother’s affinity for classical music and her own thwarted dreams. He took center stage as the rest of us fled.

Now he’s studying to become a lawyer, to my mother’s dismay.

I settle into his narrow twin bed, trying not to picture the stuff in every room, squeezing my chest like a stack of concordances. Tomorrow, I decide, I’ll start in the basement, one cobwebbed corner at a time.

***

The basement. A rumpus room, filled with a pool table, a crokinole board, three card tables, a large TV, an ancient radio, one couch, five armchairs, six pairs of skis, a hamper stuffed with music books, and several large, useless pieces of wood. A mantle sagging with photos, art projects, souvenirs from Canada’s Centennial (1967), and 40 years of curling trophies. Dust to match. Two bookshelves with titles from every decade of the 1900s. A massive closet, groaning with board games and building sets from the last mid-century. The Toy Closet, we called it: what always springs to mind when I picture my childhood home.

Unearthing that room will be interesting. Less so will be the wine cellar, jammed with hundreds of empty wine bottles and canned food from the ’60s. I shake a blackened can of peaches and its contents bounce like Silly Putty. Above, more deep shelves, packed with hardware and camping gear, including the massive canvas tent we pitched and dismantled like army cadets: 18 feet long, nine feet high, and almost impossible to lift. It’s rotted beyond repair, but my parents have kept it, just in case.

A massive freezer, packed with freezer-burned casseroles and frost-bound bread. Someone’s willing to take it — emptied — and I hack at years of ice to release the contents, traveling decades as I dig. At bottom, waxy fruit cartons dated 1972: peaches and pears from the Okanagan, where I live, souvenirs from a family camping trip. I haul countless baskets of wasted food up the stairs and into the dumpster we’ve rented, one that seemed ridiculously large when it arrived, filling the driveway. Soon to be too small.

The laundry room: an ancient washing machine, flanked by mountains of empty containers, vats of desiccated winemaking supplies, and piles of dirty laundry. My mother is unable to decipher its dials anymore and my father is too overwhelmed with kitchen duties to learn another skill set.

I toss a load into the washer and tackle the recycling. By late afternoon, I’ve covered the back garden with stacks of stuffed bags, but there’s more, everywhere I look. Alice was obsessed with saving containers and cookie tins, some empty, some heavy with fossilized Christmas baking.

One splintering laundry basket.

No dryer: Alice refused. She believes in hanging laundry outside. Hordes of mosquitoes attack the instant I step outdoors, and I flee in search of repellent. Stored among fishing supplies in the basement are three ancient vials of repellent, and I wonder if 20-year-old ointment still works.

It does.

Most of the dried-up clothespins snap in half as I hang the load. I think of my mother slinging laundry in Edmonton winters, sometimes at 30 below. What misery! She claimed to enjoy herself, wrestling with bedsheets as magpies cawed in her backyard jungle. Fair enough. But bird-filled days are the exception, not the rule, in this subarctic city, and I’m struck again by the perversity of my mother’s choices.

After hanging laundry, I assess the Artist’s basement room. Phil inherited this cubby after the Cellist’s birth: no room for seven on the second floor. It’s a dank, claustrophobic space, permanently cold, with narrow windows and a low ceiling. No provision was made for heating, and Alice turned it into a cold cellar after Phil left. Every surface is stacked with her infernal containers: foil pans, plastic tubs, plastic and paper bags, and huge jars of pickled matter that defy identification. Beneath lie remnants of my brother’s hole-and-corner existence upon his basement banishment, but it takes a full day of dragging bags into the garden to make a dint.

When Phil arrives a day later, I show him the astonishing mounds of recycling outside, and then his room, the outlines of furniture still covered with containers and grime.

“I thought you’d like to finish the rest. Maybe there’s treasure in those drawers.”

My brother looks grim. “I doubt it. This room wasn’t a happy place for me.”

No kidding. I ask for details, a conversation we’ve never had.

“The only good thing about this room was sneaking out whenever I wanted. Mom and Dad would think I was downstairs, working on my art, but I couldn’t stand being home. I always took off. And it was always freezing. I used to huddle around a hairdryer with a blanket just to get warm.”

I’d hated my room upstairs, with its lack of style and scary view of the refineries (unblocked by the paltry curtains), but at least it was warm. Moored in my own despair, I’d had no idea of Phil’s unhappiness. Recent talks with my brothers are revealing a common truth: We’d all been lonely in this house, unbeknownst to each other.

“We could’ve helped each other out,” I said, “if only we’d known. But we were too miserable to see it in each other.”

My brother picks up a heavy jar of purplish pickles, and sighs. “What could we have done, even if we had? The only solution was escape. I envied you, being brave enough to do it. I wished I could’ve done the same.”

This is a late-stage revelation. I never imagined being envied, assuming my brothers resented the angry hole I’d left behind, the years my mother ranted at my getaway. I knew they’d never heard the end of it.

***

Casper, my 17-year-old mutt, follows me everywhere. Now he shadows me up and down two flights of stairs as I empty the house, maybe 60 climbs a day. I’m not counting, but the work is constant, the steps steep, his legs short, and a huge fatty lump on his chest rubs each step on every ascent. Several times a day, I accidentally whack him with bags I can barely lift. On we trudge, morning till night, for seven successive days. Between climbs he collapses into naps or circles round my mother, enjoying her childlike attention.

I’m not exempt from stair fatigue, even though I’ve been hiking mountains and my lungs and legs are strong. On the fifth night, I count 13 bruises on my calves and thighs and wonder if my legs will work when the sun returns.

My arms, dragging bundles, boxes, and furniture, are also bruised, and weary as salmon leaping the last ladder to their mountain home. My back is riddled with pain.

My head is aflame. On the second evening, I’m hit with a virus or allergy, felling me with pounding congestion, weeping eyes, and a death-rattle cough. But there’s no time for ailing. Like an injured pirate plundering a sinking ship, I press on. There’s a deadline to this work, fast approaching.

***

A year ago, this would’ve been impossible. Alice would’ve blocked every bag leaving the house, questioned our motives, railed at conspiracy. She would’ve chased us away.

Now she holds the door and watches the dumpster fill, oblivious to the mountain of thrift-store donations piling in her living room and the marathon runs to the recycling depot. She never ventures to the basement to see what we’re doing, or questions my rapid dissembling of her congested kitchen cupboards. (More ancient plastics! 40-year-old spices! Aluminum cups from 1955!) That’s because she no longer knows this is home. Instead, she watches me, her nameless hostess, as I pack and purge, never asking why. This house, she says, reminds her of her house in Edmonton, especially the clothesline and the kitchen window. But it’s not her house, and not her laundry whipping in the wind. She wants to go home, but first she needs to find her purse. Have I seen it anywhere?

Her latest obsession revolves around missing objects, usually a purse, suitcase, or piece of clothing. Thankfully, though her searches last days, her anxiety over lost items is low. I unearth at least 30 purses in closets and drawers, most with Kleenex and singers’ mints tucked inside, none with cash. (My father handled the money.) I show her several: Is this your missing purse? No, she tells me, none are hers, but she hopes their owners find them soon. Meanwhile, she’ll keep looking. I pack all but one for donation and set the remaining bag in her room, which she repeatedly brings back, insisting it’s not hers. Days later, she claims it. Now if she could just find her suitcase, she’d be ready to pack.

Eight duffle bags and suitcases cover the spare double bed in her room, surrounded by stacks of her clothing she doesn’t recognize. It’s her attempt at packing, says my father. She wants to pack and go home, but the surplus overwhelms her. I slip into her room when she’s downstairs and incrementally scale down the piles, setting usable garments and bags aside in case she asks for them. She doesn’t. When the pile is small and manageable, she calms down.

“Someone finally cleaned my room,” she says. “It’s much better now. I found my suitcase.”

But minutes later she starts again. “Have you seen my shoes?” she asks. I bring out her most recent shoes, at least 10 pairs, dust-balled in the front hall closet. None are hers.

Simplicity will be a blessing; 530 square feet sounds perfect. The less we send on their way, the better.

 

Ghosts

Howard, the Financial Planner, devotes hours to guiding my father through the monetary morass of buying, selling, and moving. He also drives up three times during our feverish purging spree to lend muscle and encouragement. If anyone’s been underappreciated in our family, it’s Howard, but instead of stewing, he’s grown a heart of gold. After running heaps of recycling to the depot and doing a lion’s share of heavy lifting, he drives home and spends seven hours sorting and shredding my father’s old documents. As the only in-province sibling, he’s been quietly serving our parents for years, without complaint. I make a point of commending him each time I see him: He’s our unsung hero. With unfortunate timing, he’s also in the midst of buying and selling his own homes right now, and he’s managing all this, plus his full-time business, and cracking jokes the whole time.

As Phil and I work, Brother Two, the Guitarist, floats between us. Three months ago, he died of cancer, the first in our family to go, and he keeps turning up as we tunnel through our childhood. Doug escaped the house the minute he graduated and moved west; three decades later, he and I ended up living 10 minutes apart. He ought to be here, sorting through board games and building sets, revisiting the Toy Closet and claiming his lost marbles. We find the bag — soft suede with a leather drawstring, labeled by his 8-year-old hand, still guarding his favorite cat’s eyes, aggies, and steelies. I see him catch the bag and run outside to play. Doug was always outdoors.

We find his trucks and microscopes, too. “Doug always knew how to get the best gifts,” Phil sighs. It’s true; as a child, he had an uncanny ability to get what he wanted. But life’s a stinker, and cancer eventually canceled his magic touch.

Other ghosts emerge. Working in the basement on Day Three, Phil runs upstairs with a small framed photo that’s fallen from a stack of papers: It’s me and Jack, the fiancé who died when I was 22, snapped when we were falling in love. It’s the only photo I have; the rest have gone missing over time. Two days later, I’m emptying an upstairs closet and another lost treasure falls out: Jack’s banjo. For years, I’ve chided myself for losing it, and here it is, safe and snug in the black case I remember, a beginner’s manual helpfully tucked inside. Happier memories hatch from these objects, and my heart soars with gratitude. Finding these objects is worth the trip.

The third ghost is feline. Bravely tackling the dusty, rusty, grimy, and mosquito-infested garage, my brother discovers a decrepit yet instantly recognizable bowl: Mousy’s cat dish. Mousy was born in 1957. She died in 1973. Her dish has sat in the garage, untouched, for almost half a century. Before turning it over, Phil remembers the bowl’s inscription: Bunny’s Playtime. It’s a Peter Rabbit dish, circa 1930, probably my father’s infant dish. After 50 years of rest, it’s getting a new lease. I dump some leftovers inside and give it to Casper.

 

Ruthless

The days blur. I move from floor to floor, stuffing bags for the landfill and donation. I discover the extent of my mother’s hoarding, from closets of clothes dating back to the ’50s, every shirt washed, ironed, and buttoned from neck to bottom; to dozens of almost-identical shoes still in boxes; to drawers of unopened charity-appeal letters; to boxes from every gift her children have sent over 40 years. The strangest of Alice’s compulsions are scores of sweaters she’s folded into individual shopping bags, then sealed tight with wire twisters, each twisted tightly to the end. Once packed, the sweaters are stashed into drawers and high shelves, invisible, inaccessible, and forgotten. The cardigans and pullovers share similar styles and colors, and perhaps some got limited exposure before joining their sisters in the catacombs.

I used to wonder what Alice did in her lonely house after we scattered. Now I know. She ironed, buttoned, folded, twist-tied, and stashed her life away. She baked and froze; she pickled and canned and stacked. She sent my father out to buy more of the same groceries she’d already squirreled into dark corners. She perpetually prepared for the next trip to the cabin, season after season, forgetting the prep she’d done the year before. She buried most of her grandchildren’s photos in deep drawers. She never donated.

***

On the seventh day I collapse, managing only a few hours’ work before crashing. My body says NO; my second wind fails to rise. I hobble to the Cellist’s room and fall asleep. When I awake, everyone’s eaten supper, and I share the leftovers with Casper before crawling back to bed.

At 3:00 a.m., I wake to a howling wind, slamming branches against windows and keening like a banshee. The wind never sounds like this where I live. Behind the howling, trains mourn in the distance, the night music of my childhood. There’s a weird energy in the room, as if layers we’ve lifted from the house have released captive spirits. The strange elation that’s powered me through the week — the simple joy of getting things done — deflates into a nameless dread. I pull the blankets tight and try to distract myself by mentally reciting scripture. It doesn’t work.

An hour later, I’m jolted by a loud, low-pitched siren, unlike any I’ve known. It sounds close —right outside my window — and fiercely insistent, and my first thought is the trumpet of God, but for its constant pitch: The trumpet of God will blow louder and louder, of course, like the blast at Mount Sinai before God spoke. No, this must be a human warning signal, and my next thought is Run!

Seconds later, I stumble downstairs to meet Phil, who in similar panic has grabbed his travel bag and fled the basement. The siren sounds like it’s inside our heads. We dash into the street, early-lit in the solstice sun and eerily still. No one’s around. We run past parked cars and silent windows, wondering what we’re fleeing. Now it feels like we’re unscripted actors in a bad-but-disturbing rapture movie.

Baffled, we run back to the house and turn on the radio; surely there’ll be news. My brother flicks the tuner to AM and flits through the stations, but the motor-mouthed hosts rant on without reference to a new, more urgent emergency. I run upstairs, grab my laptop, and Google “Edmonton siren emergency alert.” There’s a website, headed with a red-lettered caption: NO ACTIVE EMERGENCY SIGNALS. We discard the notion of an alien invasion and settle on the most likely explanation: Something’s happened at the refineries. But who’s being warned? Why isn’t anyone moving? Should we jump in our cars and escape? Where?

The unnerving calm in the neighborhood convinces us to stay. My parents haven’t roused, either, so maybe they’re all used to this, whatever this is.

A full hour later, the siren stops.

My father gets up at the usual time and shuffles downstairs to assume his Breakfast Fella duties. I ask him about the siren.

“Did you hear it this morning? What on earth was that?”

He’d slept through all but a minute of it. “It’s something at the refineries,” he said. “Something must’ve blown.”

“But so loud? Lasting an hour, at full blast?”

“It’s usually just a minute or two. I’ve never heard it go that long.”

“And the whole neighborhood just sleeps right through it?”

I’m amazed at our human capacity to adapt to the unbearable. Almost anything can seem normal if it’s inflicted on us long enough.

Pondering this, I’m glad I didn’t stick around, that I ran away early, before despair stopped feeling dangerous and started feeling normal.

***

Emptying the master bedroom takes two days. Besides the bags of cocooned sweaters and fully buttoned shirts, there are at least 18 overstuffed drawers, two groaning desks, and three large cedar chests, all jammed with papers, letters, wrapping paper, bows, socks, underwear, winter gear, or costume jewelry. I ask my father to pull out the clothes he wants to keep, but he passes the decision-making back to me. There’s a huge pool to choose from. I select an assortment of garments spanning decades; some of the older stuff is back in style, or could be, given a few more years. Besides, at 86 you can darn well wear what you please.

A hand-stitched silk shirt wrapped in a dry-cleaning bag catches my eye. Judging from the label, it’s been lolling in the closet since the ’60s. I have no memory of my father wearing it, and it’s classier than his school-principal wardrobe. Plus, it’s in immaculate shape. I put it on the Keep pile. A few days later, when we drive down to see my brother’s new house, my father wears it, along with a pair of cords from the ’80s. He looks pretty spiff.

My mother wears the same clothes for weeks on end: the same baggy green sweatpants and high-necked pullover she was wearing the night I arrived. Not surprisingly, she smells (and looks) like a homeless person. But every attempt to wash them is met with refusal. “They don’t need washing,” she tells me. “I just put them on a few days ago.”

Three old-fashioned nightgowns hang in her now-emptied closet, and each night she chooses the same grubby one. If we had a dryer, I could wash the lot overnight and have them ready by morning, but the cold, wet weather isn’t cooperating with the clothesline. I weigh my options, decide whether it’s more important to have her somewhat clean or somewhat happy. Despite her global confusion, she’s fiercely attached to her three-piece wardrobe.

I go with “somewhat happy” for the first week, but change my mind after she wets herself and still maintains her pants are fresh. Into the wash they go, and I lay a fresh set of garments on her bed for morning: baggy, elasticized pants in the same shade of green, and a fleecy button-up shirt. Purple. She shuffles down for breakfast looking fresher, despite her unwashed hair.

“Someone left this lovely shirt in my room,” she says. “I hope they don’t mind if I borrow it. Have you seen my green pullover anywhere?”

It’s hanging outside, in plain view from the kitchen window, but I know she won’t recognize it.

“I’m sure it’ll turn up,” I say. “Someone must’ve moved it.”

***

My mother wanders into her former bedroom while I’m stuffing bags and planning my father’s future fashion statements. Standing by the bed, she moves things around, undoing my piles and generally getting in the way. “Do you want to go downstairs and listen to some music?” I ask. Listening to classical music, the music of her life, is the one thing that centers her.

She doesn’t. She wants to stay here and look for her missing clothes and suitcases. I guide her to the opposite side of the bed and position her in front of a dust-covered desk, now stripped of clutter.

“You could wipe off this desk for me,” I say, handing her a damp rag. “It really needs cleaning.”

“Desk?” she says, looking straight at it. “I need to look for my suitcase.”

I put my hand over hers and move the rag over the desk. “Like this. See how dusty it is?”

She dabs at a corner for a few seconds before losing interest and wandering back to my side of the bed, where she starts jumbling through my piles again.

“Mom,” I say, “the desk. Can you please finish cleaning it?”

“Desk?” she says, looking blank. I walk her back to the corner and pick up the rag again. She dabs a bit more before shuffling back to me.

She’s like a 3-year-old, I think, except most 3-year-olds could finish this simple task. I give up trying.

“Let’s go downstairs and look for your shoes,” I suggest. “I think I know where someone might have moved them.” This interests her.

I’ll show her the same shoes for the fifth time and put on some music. Maybe she’ll finally recognize her 10-year-old shoes. Maybe she won’t. Either way, I’ll wait till she’s lost in Handel’s Water Music before sneaking back upstairs to tackle the rest in peace.

***

My brother keeps pace, working as long and as hard as I, while suffering with his own handicap. He’s had a migraine the whole week, and most of the time he wears a thick, homemade headpiece fashioned from old fabric and whatever he stuffed inside to make it five inches thick and able to trap cold. The day he got here, I found his contraption in the freezer and threw it in the trash; it looked like something the cat dragged in, and I assumed it was a useless mystery item from my parents’ past. Luckily he spotted it before the trash landed in the dumpster.

He and I are the hardest working people I know. We’ve tackled the impossible together. This delight in our tenacity, buttressed with visible mountains of staggering achievement, carries us through the week. We’re inspired by each other, bonded in our history and our rediscovery of it.

My father, watching us fill the massive dumpster with junk and the living room with a lifetime of donations, makes the same comment over and over.

“You’re being very ruthless,” he says.

“I AM ruthless,” I answer. “I HAVE to be ruthless. If I weren’t ruthless, we couldn’t get this baby done.”

My middle name is Ruth. Each time we have this exchange, I’m reminded of a silly verse my father used to recite when I was small:

Ruth and Johnny, side by side,

Went out for a motor ride.

They hit a bump, Ruth hit a tree,

And Johnny rode on – ruthlessly.

I love being ruthless with my parents’ stuff. It compensates for all the years they weren’t ruthless, materially speaking, in contrast to my thrift-store mentality. So much stuff could’ve been reused if they’d given it away before it disintegrated. So much could’ve been shared instead of hoarded. We’re keeping so little, a tiny sliver of the whole rotting pie. A few boxes of sentimental items, photo albums, and certificates, will travel with them to the island. Maybe, dislodged from their Edmonton cave and viewed in fresh light, they’ll warrant a closer look. Maybe, if my father chooses to look, they’ll speak a fresh truth.

But he’ll probably be too busy fretting.

 

Halo

Miraculously, impossibly, we meet our deadline. Three men from a thrift store spend several hours filling their truck with the furniture, lamps, rugs, hardware, and mountains of boxed and bagged items we’ve piled in the living room. For the first time in 57 years, the front room sits empty, its battered carpet and shredded curtains fully exposed, except for a handful of old chairs and a saggy couch the thrift store refused. Even with adroit stacking (my brother is a whiz at spatial calculations), the dumpster is loaded beyond capacity; when the pickup takes place, the drivers will insist on bringing a second dumpster to handle the overflow.* We’ve also maxed-out the jumbo-sized bins at several recycling depots.

Hooked to my father’s SUV, a compact U-Haul trailer, packed with all the earthly goods my parents are taking, sits ready for tomorrow’s departure day. My duties are over; Phil’s are just beginning. He’ll caravan with them over the Rockies and across British Columbia, 1,160 kilometers, before catching the ferry to his island town. Once there, our parents will stay in his busy house for a month — in his master bedroom — until their own place is ready.

Why the rush, you may wonder. Why do it all in nine days?

No one tells me. Perhaps it had to be like this, like pulling a clotted bandage off a crusty wound.

Halfway to the island, my father will drive his truck off the road, disconnecting the trailer and scattering the carefully packed contents across an open field. Several things will break. The trip will take many extra days, including a return trip for my brother to pick up his abandoned vehicle.

After the thrift-store pickup, there’s one last event in the house: a meeting with someone from the Alberta Alzheimer’s Society. She arrives at 2 p.m., a packet of general information in hand. My father insists we all attend the meeting, so we’re all on the same page. There’s not much to discuss, since my mother will no longer have access to Alberta services, and our liaison lady doesn’t know much about programs in British Columbia, except to suggest they’re probably much the same. Maddeningly, the two provinces operate like former East and West Germany when it comes to interprovincial transitions.

My mother joins us in the living room, and the Alzheimer’s lady opens the meeting by looking us each in the eye to make sure we understand the rules.

“We’re going to be speaking very generically here today,” she says, shooting a swift glance at Alice. “I trust you understand why.”

And so it begins, a meeting about the progression and outcomes of Alzheimer’s, without saying the banned words: Dementia. Alzheimer’s. Full-time care. Assisted living. It’s like a crazy game of Taboo, and I’m not sure why we’re playing since my mother’s clearly not on the same page or even on the same planet. We could be talking about murdering her and dispersing her cut-up remains across Canada, and she wouldn’t bat an eye.

“Alice, how do you feel about moving to Chemainus?” my father asks, midway through the generic discussion. He’s been asking the same question all week and getting a different, unrelated answer every time.

“Well, I was never happy about selling the house…” she begins, and we all turn to look at her. For a moment it seems like she’s back on board. Maybe she’s been messing with us all this time. “But I’ve always been a singer, and when Dodie came to the cabin, I knew it might be the last time I’d see her…” And she’s off, spinning fragments of her life and memories of her long-deceased sister into a tapestry of incoherence. Her rambling should be a major tip off to our facilitator — it doesn’t matter what words we use — but she’s heavily indoctrinated and persists in word-avoidance till the meeting ends.

My father wants just one thing from her. “How much longer do you think she has?” he asks for the umpteenth time, and the four of us practically sing out the disappointing answer: Nobody really knows. You’ll just have to play it by ear.

I’m forfeiting my return ticket to drive back in my father’s 17-year-old station wagon; he’s gifting it to replace my daughter’s old beater. Driving means room in the back for keepsakes I couldn’t bring on the plane. I’ve reclaimed my childhood desk (the one my mother hasn’t finished cleaning), and nabbed a cedar chest and an early painting by Phil, as well as two photo albums and Jack’s banjo. Phil helps me pack, leaving room for Casper and the cat dish. We’re ready for takeoff, but my father wants me to stay till morning so we can all leave together, even though I’ll be taking a different highway home.

My oldest best friend comes for a final visit. She hasn’t seen Phil since the early ’80s, when they used to go dancing on Friday nights. She hasn’t seen Howard since he was 10, the year she and I ran away together. She’s avoided seeing my mother for most of those years, even though her family continued to live in the house across the lane.

My mother never liked Laura.

But today it’s different. Today, Alice greets her with the fuzzy warmth she now lavishes on everyone. She hugs her. After the initial shock of seeing a childhood friend after nearly half a century, my brothers and Laura reconnect. I make a pot of peppermint tea, and my father joins us round the makeshift kitchen table for a spontaneous reunion.

Laura last stood in our kitchen 48 years ago (where she’d never be invited to sit, unless it was my birthday), and now she’s drinking tea with Alice, laughing with her former nemesis and looking perfectly at home. She’s always felt like my sister; today she almost is. A halo seems to hang above the room.

Outside, the wind is gathering force; it’s tornado season. The temperature is plunging. Sharp rain falls from a purplish, darkening sky, whipping against the house. The clock says 6:00 p.m., almost time for supper, if anyone cares to cobble together one last meal. The fridge is almost bare, but in this family, we’re good at making something out of fragments.

I stand with one hand on the fridge, beholding the moment. I could cook, but I’m not staying. I want to leave with this scene intact: For one sweet moment, a thrum of harmony fills the emptied house.

I say my goodbyes, slide behind the wheel, and let the wind blow me home.

It’s the perfect time to leave.

 

*When the dumpster load is tallied, it weighs 4.75 tons: almost 10,000 pounds of worthless junk. This doesn’t include any large appliances or electronics, but plenty of books and old sweaters.

***

After a colorful life spanning four continents and 16 cities, Marilyn Kriete now lives in Kelowna, B.C., Canada, with her husband and two cats. Her first memoir, Paradise Road, relates the bicycling adventures and romantic entanglements that led to the next chapters of her unconventional life. She enjoys hiking, deep talks, word games, documentaries, and hearing other people’s stories. You can follow her writing journey on MarilynKriete.com.

Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Penn State Nittany Lion fans hoist a flag up in the air during a game.
Penn State Nittany Lion fans hoist a flag up in the air during a game. (Photo by Rick Stewart / Stringer / Getty Images)

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

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1. Untold

Paula Lavigne and Tom Junod | ESPN | April 11th, 2022 | 31,519 words

Even those detached from the world of college sports remember how Penn State’s legendary football program crumbled (at least reputationally) under the weight of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s horrific sexual abuse of young boys. However, as Lavigne and Junod chronicle in this sprawling, compulsively readable investigation, it wasn’t the first time a monster found some measure of protection in the organization. After a young linebacker named Todd Hodne was arrested for rape in 1978, head coach Joe Paterno kicked him off the team; yet, Hodne would go on to strike again and again, enabled in part by the culture of deification that surrounded the Nittany Lions. The story of Hodne — indeed, the story of the women whose lives he disrupted and destroyed over multiple years in multiple states, some of whom broke decades-long silence — spills over the lines of “magazine story” into something altogether different. It’s a testament to survival. To living through atrocity and coming out the other side. And through its expert storytelling, it delivers something that the recent glut of true-crime documentaries and podcasts never could. You won’t forget this one anytime soon. —PR

2. The Hidden and Eternal Spirit of the Great Dismal Swamp

Lex Pryor | The Ringer | March 30th, 2022 | 8,700 words

I grew up two hours south of the Great Dismal Swamp, and I know virtually nothing about it except its name. There’s a reason for that: The Dismal, as it’s known, has long been dismissed by the gatekeepers of American history as a place where history simply doesn’t happen. As Lex Pryor reveals in this elegant, haunting essay, people with ancestral ties to the Dismal are working to change that — to memorialize the slaves who once toiled in the swamp, and the runaways who found refuge in it. “In a nation whose every territory is drenched in overlapping legacies of violence and erasure, the Dismal stands as a most American tangle,” Pryor writes. “It is scarred. And yet it is anointed.” Next time I drive home to see family, I’ll be stopping at the Dismal to pay my respects. —SD

3. The Nurse Imposter

Sarah Treleaven | Maclean’s | April 11th, 2022 | 4,344 words

Nurse, teacher, and hair stylist: At one time, Brigitte Cleroux earned a living at each of these professions without a single qualification to her name. Was it delusion, pure hubris, or something else entirely that forced Cleroux to become a remorseless fraud artist and serial imposter? How is it possible that no one was seriously injured or killed given that Cleroux posed as a nurse for 30 years without proper qualifications or a nursing license? At Maclean’s, Sarah Treleaven attempts to unravel the truth. “Somehow, Cleroux was able to slip past not one, not two, but at least three provincial nursing regulatory systems—and not just once but multiple times. In the aftermath of her arrests, Cleroux’s employers have remained largely silent.” —KS

4. Notes From the Underground

Zack Graham | Astra Magazine | April 6th, 2022 | 2,740 words

A door to a graffiti-covered warehouse in Queens. The relentless thump of techno, sounding like metal parts clanging inside an auto shop, pounding against your chest. Dancers in an indiscriminating darkness, moving their sweaty bodies in ways you never thought possible. These are a few of the sights, sounds, and sensations that Zack Graham recounts from his first descent into the rave underground: a “parallel reality” where people can be themselves, a world that’s subversive and inclusive, a scene that looks nothing like today’s massive, commercialized EDM festivals. I’ve read many versions of this journey — and have written my own — but I never tire of reading them. Those first moments of discovery, of wonder that at times borders on fear, of ecstasy in the wee hours, and then, after you’ve crawled out into the bright daylight, a transformative aftermath that, for some, doesn’t really end. I love writing that explores the mental-physical awareness that creeps up on people as they discover the power and swiftness of their own bodies when dancing, and how Graham describes how he eventually harnesses the otherworldly sounds at a party — “the track unleashed a creature inside me and time disappeared” — and becomes less afraid of this darkness over time. He later encounters the underground rave scene abroad, notably the Freetekno movement in Vienna, and meets partiers who’ve taken “the origins of raving to an extreme.” For these people, there is no underground from which to resurface, no normal world to rejoin after a long night. “This was another level. This was something entirely new,” he writes. For me, it’ll be 25 years this May since my first rave in one of Oakland’s infamous warehouses from the ’90s; though there are of course differences between this scene and the ones that Graham describes, the warm core of the experience is the same. His essay brings back that night for me so clearly, fuzzy edges and all, and those subsequent years of going to parties, finding myself, and being part of a freeing community that operated on a different plane. “Never in my life had I felt that powerful,” Graham writes, “and I haven’t felt that powerful since.” —CLR

5. Too Much Vino and Project Veritas: My Extremely Weird Evening with James O’Keefe

Laura Jedeed | Rolling Stone | February 1st, 2022 | 3,768 words

This story recounts one event — but what an event it was. Laura Jedeed details the launch of James O’Keefe’s latest book, American Muckraker, and her incredulity at what takes place oozes from her words. She describes “a 50-minute musical-theater production dedicated to telling O’Keefe’s story in song, dance, and strobe light.” Jedeed uses the visual prompts on stage (“A telephone repairman. Osama Bin Laden. A suit-and-tie journalist who interviews whistleblowers on YouTube”) to explain in detail the story they refer to, minus the reverence afforded the stage version. Jedeed admits to not thinking much of James O’Keefe’s work — his alt-right group, Project Veritas, attempts to discredit mainstream media and progressive groups — and, while still recognizing the problems with objective journalism, declares this “self-styled anti-elite crusader a lot like his musical theater: flashy, sometimes entertaining, and entirely pretend.” This essay aims to uncover O’Keefe’s end game — something I doubted would be revealed through a book launch — but in fact, the bizarre show O’Keefe dedicates to himself (and stars in) demonstrates a lot: “It isn’t about journalism. It isn’t even about fame. It’s about a boy who loves to dance and wanted to be part of a club that would not have him even as he railed against it.” —CW

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Detail of the cutaway on a Fender PM-3 Standard Triple-0 All-Mahogany NE acoustic guitar.
Detail of the cutaway on a Fender PM-3 Standard Triple-0 All-Mahogany NE acoustic guitar. (Photo by Neil Godwin/Guitarist Magazine/Future via Getty Images)

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

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

1. The DIY Duo Behind the Amazon Labor Union’s Guerrilla Bid to Make History

Josefa Velasquez | The City | March 24th, 2022 | 4,200 Words

Amazon workers in Staten Island made history last week by voting to establish the company’s first union. The grassroots effort was led by two men, Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, who faced all manner of racist and classist indignities, often as a matter of policy created by Amazon officials to derail unionization. On the eve of the vote, The City, a non-profit newsroom, published this fantastic behind-the-scenes look at what was going down on Staten Island. It’s essential reading at a pivotal moment in U.S. labor history, full of rich detail and blistering reminders of why Amazon unions are necessary. For example: “[Smalls] was fired for allegedly stealing two minutes of company time, which he attributes to ‘human error’ for punching in his work time incorrectly.” And: “Sun-faded prayer candles commemorate a 24-year-old [Amazon worker]…killed by a driver in November as she crossed the street during her near-midnight lunch break.” —SD

2. How a California Archive Reconnected a New Mexico Family with Its Chinese Roots

Wufei Yu | High Country News | April 1st, 2022 | 4,116 words

Aimee Towi Mae Tang, a fourth-generation Chinese New Mexican, felt disconnected from her Chinese roots. Amid a rise of anti-Asian hate crimes across the U.S., she wanted a better understanding of her own identity, which included learning how her family had settled in Albuquerque. Born in China and new to Albuquerque himself, journalist Wufei Yu decides to help Tang learn more about her family’s history, and in doing so, perhaps find his own place in a new city. Yu visits the National Archives in the San Francisco Bay Area to dig through documents: “For two days, those 400-plus colorful pages became my world — passenger arrival lists, immigration records, business filings and legal case files, dotted with Chinese characters.” The piece is sprinkled with such pages — lists, photographs, maps — along with gorgeous illustrations by Sally Deng. Yu pieces together the story of Tang’s great-grandfather, previously known to her as Edward Gaw; but deep in these archives, on paper, he is known as Ong Shew Ngoh: a young man from South China who made the journey to San Francisco and fought to stay in America during its anti-Chinese immigration crackdown. He went on to become a businessman in Albuquerque, owning for a time one of the best grocery stores in town until its Chinese community was pushed out. “If my great-grandpa were allowed to have land,” Tang says in the piece, “the Tang family and Chinese Americans could have owned downtown Albuquerque.” I enjoyed Yu’s tracing of the Tang family in these documents, and this glimpse into one of the early Chinatowns of the American West. —CLR

3. H-Town United: An Unlikely Soccer Power Rises in Texas

Tom Foster | Texas Monthly | April 6th, 2022 | 8,905 words

There’s nothing in sportswriting like an underdog story. But sometimes that underdog status persists regardless of the wins column, regardless of championships, regardless even of dynasties. That’s exactly the case with Houston’s Elsik High School soccer team, from its international stock (the school district, in southwest Houston, serves students who speak 90 different languages) to its tough-love head coach Vincenzo Cox, who found in his kids a long-overdue sense of belonging. After all, just being good at soccer doesn’t undo the reality of the world. “There are times when the hurdles life puts in front of his team just break Cox’s heart,” writes Tom Foster. “When a player has to leave town for a bit because his dad’s been drinking again and it’s not safe in the house. When a kid shows up for high school who doesn’t know his ABC’s. When Cox hears about rival coaches speculating that he has recruiting pipelines to Central America and Africa.” Foster is at his assured best here, taking the reader through multiple seasons in a single story that somehow feels like a 21st-century global-Texas version of Hoosiers — and as a Hoosier myself, I don’t use that comparison lightly.  —PR

4. The Kids Orphaned by COVID Won’t Return to ‘Normal’

Tim Requarth | The Atlantic | April 6th, 2022 | 1,776 words

As governments lift COVID restrictions and people attempt to navigate as the pandemic endures, we are only now entering what will be a lifelong phase of discovering COVID’s long-term repercussions on society. What shadow will COVID cast on people who were children when the virus first appeared? At The Atlantic, Tim Requarth* reports on one reality of the pandemic, “some 200,000 American children” who have been orphaned because of COVID. But what is the U.S. federal government doing to help these kids? Very little, as it turns out. “And while a memorandum issued by President Joe Biden yesterday promises that the administration will develop a plan for orphans, it’s poised to be too little, too late. ‘It really doesn’t outline any plan or commitment,’ Rachel Kidman, a social epidemiologist at Stony Brook University, told me. And the inaction goes deeper than that: With a few exceptions, even the parts of the country most inclined toward action don’t seem to be doing much to help these kids…The pandemic’s orphanhood crisis matters most for orphans, but it also matters for the rest of us. If America can’t do anything to help the children most profoundly affected by COVID, what hope is there to make any sort of long-lasting changes as we try to leave the pandemic behind?” —KS

* Tim Requarth’s Longreads essay, “The Final Five Percent” won the 2020 Science in Society Journalism Award in the Longform Narratives category and was included in the 2020 edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing.

5. The Legend of The Music Tree

Ellen Ruppel Shell | Smithsonian Magazine | April 4th, 2022 | 5282 words

I had never heard of “The Tree” until reading Ellen Ruppel Shell’s fascinating essay, but in certain circles, The Tree is not only famous, it is magical. A mahogany tree originating from the Chiquibul jungle in Belize, its beautiful wood is prized by carpenters and luthiers — with musicians claiming guitars made from The Tree produce an extraordinary sound. Shell wanted to discover more about this Tolkienesque-sounding entity and immerses herself in its story: from being cut down in 1965 to the hunt for any remaining stashes of the precious (and finite) material today. A cross between an adventure story and a collector’s tale, Shell throws in some psychology for good measure: Does this wood actually create a unique sound, or is its coveted nature influencing what people hear? This detailed exploration made me sit down and consider the use of rarity to define prestige. —CW

‘Raphael Couldn’t Have Painted Something More Beautiful’

Photograph courtesy of Janie Paul for The Atavist

Kelly Loudenberg | The Atavist Magazine | March 2022 | 10 minutes (3,016 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 125, “The Caregivers.”

 

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

—1 Corinthians 13:4–8

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

Danny Valentine sat alone in his threadbare single-wide trailer, staring out a window at green and red holiday lights flashing in the distance. It was 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve 2016, and the snow blanketing Rock, a rural area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, seemed to swallow every sound. In the heavy silence, Danny tried to fight off the dark thoughts that dogged him relentlessly. This was one of the hardest times of the year for the rangy 55-year-old with blue eyes. He didn’t have a tree to decorate or a family to eat a big turkey dinner with. Fresh off parole after a 23-year stint in prison, he didn’t have shit.

As Danny pushed cigarette butts around an ashtray on the windowsill, his phone rang. On the other end of the line was a woman. She sounded like she’d been crying.

“I just can’t do it alone anymore,” the woman said. “Can you please come?”

On Christmas morning, Danny got in his black GMC pickup truck and drove 12 hours through a wicked snowstorm to Ann Arbor. It was evening by the time he pulled to a stop in front of a large house, and Danny could see lights reflected in the windows. Even though he’d been invited, Danny was hesitant to approach the house. It glowed with a warmth that had been alien to him his whole life.

When he worked up the courage to go inside, he entered through the neatly organized garage, then walked down a hallway. The woman from the phone was waiting in the dining room. Her name was Janie Paul. She had dark hair, and she was bone-tired. When she saw Danny she smiled.

Sitting on the couch nearby was Janie’s husband. He was lanky, with gray hair. Danny sat down next to him and patted his arm. “Hey, Buzz,” Danny said gently. “How you doing?”

Buzz couldn’t answer, not really—but Danny knew that already. He was there to help Buzz. He’d do whatever his friend needed, and he’d stay for as long as it took.

Like Buzz, Janie believed in art as politics, art as liberation, art as a means of building bridges. By the end of the canoe trip, they were friends. By the end of the residency, they were in love.

 
Buzz Alexander wasn’t someone who had often needed help. He got his undergraduate degree in English literature from Harvard, continued on to Cambridge for his master’s, translated poetry in Italy while writing verse of his own, then went back to Harvard for a doctorate focused on the novel as an art form. With his wife, an art history student, he became a house parent in a dormitory, then a parent to two kids of his own. He moved his family to Ann Arbor in the early 1970s, when he accepted a teaching position at the University of Michigan. Buzz would remain there for the rest of his career.

Participating in the antiwar movement while U.S. forces were in Vietnam cemented Buzz’s commitment to social justice, and he approached activism through his first love: the arts. He wrote a book, Film on the Left, about radical documentary filmmaking of the 1930s and ’40s. He also traveled to Peru and participated in street theater performances about community empowerment, public health, and self-discovery.

Buzz was in his fifties and divorced by the time he met Janie Paul at an art residency in the Adirondacks in the summer of 1992. She was a painter and educator, with degrees from Hunter College and New York University. “The first day at breakfast,” Janie recalled, “we were sitting in a huge lodge overlooking a lake, and I asked, ‘Does anyone want to go canoeing?’ ” Buzz took her up on the offer. Janie was glad he did. “He looked like Henry Fonda,” she said. About a decade Janie’s senior, Buzz was tall and wiry, with a rugged, expressive face. He walked with a forward slant, as if eager to get where he was going, and carried an extra-large backpack full of books and yellow legal pads scrawled with notes.

As they paddled the canoe under canopies of trees, Janie told Buzz about her experience as a little girl landing on the shore of Lake Atitlán and being greeted by a swarm of people. Janie’s father was a prominent anthropologist, and in her childhood she traveled to Guatemala, where he conducted fieldwork studying the mysterious bonesetters, Mayan healers who treated injuries with powers they believed they derived through dreams. On the trip Janie described to Buzz, which occurred in the early 1950s, she remembered sharing a bag of art supplies with local children, a communal creative experience that would stay with her forever.

Like Buzz, Janie believed in art as politics, art as liberation, art as a means of building bridges. By the end of the canoe trip, they were friends. By the end of the residency, they were in love.

The following year, Buzz went on sabbatical and moved to Manhattan to be near Janie. They shuttled between his tiny sublet on West 74th Street and her spacious loft, which she shared with other women and their children. Janie confided in Buzz that she had spent time as a young adult in a controversial “therapy” cult, the Sullivanians; the members disavowed the nuclear family and lived—and slept—together in several apartments on the Upper West Side. He didn’t judge her. Janie and Buzz made love, discussed human rights, shared passages from Proust, and went to movies at Film Forum. Buzz was taken by Janie’s curiosity and passion for adventure. She loved that he was a scholar but also down-to-earth. “I could talk to him about a Henry James novel in the same conversation about his experience giving sheep baths in Peru,” Janie said.

After that idyllic year had passed Buzz went home, but he and Janie couldn’t stand being apart, so she looked for a job near Ann Arbor. She soon landed a coveted position teaching color theory in the University of Michigan’s art school. Janie moved into Buzz’s three-story Victorian, adjacent to campus. To colleagues and friends they seemed inseparable, a package deal: Janie and Buzz, Buzz and Janie. It would stay that way for more than twenty years.
 

Before meeting Janie, Buzz had led several poetry and theater workshops in Michigan’s prisons. He was part of a nationwide community of progressive activists, academics, and artists responding to the injustices of the carceral system through arts programming. By the 1990s, U.S. prisons were overflowing with people, many of them men and women of color swept up in the War on Drugs. Since Buzz’s arrival in Michigan, the state’s incarcerated population had leaped from under 10,000 to more than 30,000. He believed the arts would enable people trapped behind bars to express their creativity, tell their stories, and find healing.

Buzz’s workshops revolved around improvisation, including performances inspired by the inmates’ own life experiences. One play, staged inside a women’s prison, was titled Bodies on Slabs. It took place in a morgue where corpses came back to life and told the audience what had happened to them. They soon found that they couldn’t get out of the morgue, couldn’t escape their fate.

With Janie as a partner, Buzz expanded the work he was doing in prisons. They both thought academia was too conservative, a stodgy bubble where people indulged in niche pursuits. They preferred to invest their energy in civic engagement, and especially in making art more accessible. Together they formed the Prison Creative Arts Project, a University of Michigan program dedicated to promoting the arts behind bars.

Before long their lives revolved around PCAP. Janie and Buzz hosted Sister Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, and Jimmy Baca, a formerly incarcerated poet, memoirist, and screenwriter, at their home when they visited for PCAP events. University students came over for potluck dinners and to discuss the injustices of U.S. prisons.

In 1996, Janie and Buzz decided to put on an exhibition of painting, sculpture, and other visual work created by Michigan prisoners. They knew from experience that there were men and women in the state’s incarcerated population who were producing exceptional art that too often went overlooked. The PCAP show would be held at one of the university’s art galleries, where students and colleagues, as well as the family and friends of the participants, could see it. The works would be for sale, with proceeds going to the artists.

To get the project started, Janie and Buzz asked contacts at the prisons where PCAP worked to recommend incarcerated artists. Phil Klintworth, the activities director at a prison in the city of Jackson, suggested a guy who, in his words, “could do anything.” The man had volunteered to clean up after the prison’s clay workshops, even though he didn’t participate in them. Day after day, month after month, he filled a five-gallon bucket with scraps of clay from other prisoners’ work spaces. He used those leftovers to sculpt an array of figures, including mermaids and ballerinas. When he didn’t have clay, he used other items—toilet paper and soap, for instance—in his work. Anything he could get his hands on, Klintworth told Buzz, the man used to make something beautiful.

People at the prison had taken notice. When a guard was renovating his bar at home, he paid the artist a few hundred dollars for hand-sculpted figures, including a pair of dolphins. The inmate also drew family portraits for guards, and for other men doing time, for $100 a head—or, if he liked you, $50. He based them on photographs, and they were strikingly realistic. (The sales were aboveboard, made through official channels inside the prison.)

Buzz was impressed. He knew right away that he wanted the artist to be part of PCAP’s first exhibition. To find out if the man would be interested, Buzz wrote him a letter. He was prisoner number 156689. His name was Daniel Valentine.

When Danny was six his grandmother gave him a coloring book full of dinosaurs and spaceships. He added his own figures and shapes. He didn’t understand why he should color someone else’s drawing.

 
Danny grew up in a blue-collar family on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, the second of five kids. His mom, Mary, worked in an auto-parts factory and sometimes held other jobs to make ends meet. His dad, a mechanic, was “an abusive but good man,” Danny said. He once whipped Danny with a fan belt from one of the trucks he used for work. Sometimes he’d make Danny pay for the food he ate. Mary was afraid of her husband; he’d once threatened to hit her with a crowbar, she told me. But given the time she spent working, she didn’t witness much of the abuse he inflicted on their children. She did recall one occasion when she caught her husband on the verge of purposefully breaking Danny’s leg.

Amid the violence at home, Danny was able to teach himself to draw. According to Mary, when Danny was six his grandmother gave him a coloring book full of dinosaurs and spaceships. He added his own figures and shapes. He didn’t understand why he should color someone else’s drawing.

Danny ran away when he was 12; in response his dad called the cops. This kicked off Danny’s long career in the carceral system. He spent time in juvenile detention, ran away, and was locked up again for fleeing. It happened over and over. Danny was an escape artist, a regular juvie Houdini. He once faked a leg injury so that he could be sent for X-rays at a hospital; there, he went into a bathroom, climbed into the drop ceiling, and made his way out of the facility. Another time, Danny jumped on the desk in his cell until he loosened the iron fixture that secured it to the wall enough that he could remove it entirely. Danny waited for weeks for a thunderstorm to come; he knew that in bad weather the guards were required to turn off the motion sensors in the yard. Once the rain started, he used the iron fixture to break the window in his cell and pry the bars apart, until he could fit his head through the opening and wiggle his way out. He hid out for months in an empty cabin belonging to his uncle before the authorities found him.

While his home life was dangerous, Danny was no safer in detention centers. He was an attractive boy, with girlish features and curly blond hair. According to Danny, he was sexually assaulted many times. When he was 17, locked up in an adult prison for stealing a motorcycle, security came in the form of a boyfriend. “He was one of these guys who was feared among everybody in the prison,” Danny said. “He was a real gruesome-looking guy.” But with Danny the man was soft, sensitive. “He wouldn’t show this side to nobody else, but he would show it to me, and it was beautiful,” Danny said. The man bought Danny coats from guys on the yard and cookies and ice cream from the commissary.

As an adult, Danny continued to break the law. He said he never carried a gun or intentionally hurt anyone. He was mostly trying to survive, shoplifting food and once stealing a car, a Chevy Impala with a vinyl top, for shelter. He lived in the car for two months of a brutal Michigan winter.

During stints behind bars, Danny drew. At one point a friend gave him a tablet of paper and a set of Prismacolor pencils. “They were like magic,” Danny said. He liked to draw people doing everyday things. With the right pencils, he could mimic the chrome of a motorcycle or the fuzzy texture of a mother’s bathrobe. Sometimes he coated the tips of his pencils with wax to achieve interesting effects on the page.

During one period, Danny was free for about a year. He picked up odd jobs, pumping gas and working in hotels, before landing a position at an art gallery in downtown Ann Arbor. According to Danny, the gallerist was also an amateur photographer, a poor man’s Hugh Hefner who liked to photograph beautiful, scarcely clothed women, particularly university students. He paid his models ten dollars an hour and sometimes supplied them with booze and cocaine during shoots. An admirer and collector of old pinup drawings, the gallerist asked Danny to render the photographs he took as illustrations to sell.

One day the gallerist hung a few of Danny’s artworks in the gallery. Two of them sold: a colored-pencil drawing of a muscled woman sitting on a motorcycle, and a pen-and-ink drawing of a woman’s half-shadowed face. Danny made about $1,500. “It was a first for me, a big deal,” he said. “I thought I had arrived.”

He promptly went out to celebrate—and burn through the money he’d earned—at a biker bar and strip club called Leggs Lounge. It was the kind of place, Danny said, that had a room designated for blow jobs. He was having a blast, snorting coke while stuffing cash into the countless G-strings, when a pair of sex workers solicited Danny, promising him a night of erotic splendor.

Danny later claimed that he paid one of the women up front, and when she ran off with the money—plus some extra she’d taken from his pocket—he and the other woman agreed that he’d settle up with her when they were done. They went back to his place, where according to Danny the woman refused to do what they’d agreed upon, so he didn’t pay her. His landlord, who also happened to be his employer, the gallerist, later informed him that cops had come by looking for him. After evading the police for a few months, Danny was arrested for rape.

He denied the charge, but a jury found him guilty. Danny was given 20 to 30 years in prison, and he started his sentence at a correctional facility in Jackson. His only lifeline was his art—and in time his wife.

Danny had been dating a woman named Diane for a few months before he was locked up. She loved him, and she was loyal—she’d been there every day of his trial, sitting alone on his side of the courtroom. Danny’s family was nowhere to be found. Now Diane racked up hundreds of dollars a month in phone bills calling him in prison. She sent him clothes and helped him buy art supplies. She spent as much time as she could seated across from him in the prison’s hollow, sunless visiting room.

After Danny had served a year of his sentence, he and Diane decided to get married. Danny asked the prisoner in the cell next to him to be his best man. Diane wore a thrift-store blazer and dress. They kissed through a bulletproof window.

Together the newlyweds came up with a plan to get Danny back on his feet financially once he was out of prison: Danny would mail Diane the art he made in his cell, and she’d sell it in Ann Arbor. They assumed Diane could get more for Danny’s drawings and sculptures on the outside than he could hawking them to guards and other prisoners. But the plan didn’t work. Diane wasn’t an art dealer—she was a nurse supporting an adopted daughter. She wasn’t sure how to sell Danny’s work, or to whom.

The relationship eventually became tense; the couple’s calls and visits routinely ended in anger. Diane moved several hours away for a new job and began seeing a doctor from the practice where she worked. When divorce papers arrived at the prison. Danny signed them.

Without Diane, Danny had no one. “I had not one person to call,” he said, “and that’s a lonely, desolate, hopeless space to be in.” He figured that he’d be almost sixty by the time he got out, and without money or a family to support him, not much good could happen after that.

Danny spiraled into a deep depression. He saw no way out.

Read the full story at The Atavist.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

A female piping plover with a chick.
A female Piping Plover prepares to settle over her newly hatched chick and three unhatched eggs to brood them at her Nantucket nest. (Photo by Mark Wilson/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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

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1. The Price of Admission

Rachel Aviv | The New Yorker | March 28th, 2022 | 10,600 words

I’ve started writing this blurb, erased my attempt, and started again a few times now. The difficulty of summarizing Rachel Aviv’s latest feature is a testament to how good it is, and how complex. What starts as the story of a teenager escaping an abusive parent, navigating foster care, and making a life for herself in the form of a full ride to the University of Pennsylvania, a Rhodes scholarship, and even a new last name pivots at a certain point to something else entirely: an examination of the narrow frameworks that powerful institutions impose onto trauma and suffering, an indictment of the unforgiving expectations society has of abuse victims, and a study in human resilience. Just read it. Then talk about it. We need to talk about it. —SD

2. ‘In my 30 Years as a GP, the Profession has Been Horribly Eroded’

Clare Gerada | The Guardian | February 22nd, 2022 | 3,707 words

This essay tells the story of two days: one in 1991, the other in 2021. On both days, Clare Gerada was on-call as a General Practitioner in London, but 30 years have brought immense change to life as a community doctor. This comparison offers a simple yet incredibly effective story-telling technique. Gerada made three house calls on her first day on call in 1991. Each person’s story was very different — from an addict with pneumonia to a little girl with an earache — but the care and time Gerada was able to take with each of them remained the same. Fast forward to 2021, her very last day on-call, and Cohen finds herself juggling numerous visits arranged through a call center, part of a “gig economy, as impersonal as the driver delivering a pizza.” Her patients have also changed, and she explains that “with advances of medicines and technology, patients are living longer, often with three or even four serious long-term conditions.” It has stretched the system into something thin and fragile. Gerada used to see the same patients for decades but “each patient I saw that day was a stranger, and each contact an isolated encounter. We would never meet again.” This piece paints a concerning picture, but one that warrants discussion. Gerada offers a clear-eyed, first-person insight into the healthcare debate in the UK. —CW

3. Plovers Quarrel: A Tiny, Endangered Bird Returns to Sauble Beach to Find Sunbathers Dug Into the Sand

Fatima Syed | The Narwhal | March 26th, 2022 | 5,029 words

Sauble Beach, a lakeside community and tourist destination on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, is currently the backdrop of a lengthy, expensive legal battle. The Town of South Bruce Peninsula was fined $100,000 for destroying the habitat of the piping plover: a tiny endangered bird that had vanished from the Great Lakes region for 30 years, until a pair suddenly returned to the beach in 2007. The community has since actively protected these birds, calling themselves “plover lovers.” But some people, including the town’s mayor, want a pristine shoreline of smooth sand for sunbathers and vacationers — and have raked and bulldozed the beach, scraping away the natural dunes and vegetation that plovers need to nest, breed, and live. So, who is this beach for? Can humans and plovers share the sand? This is a well-reported story from Fatima Syed on the battle within this community — and what it means to “damage” a habitat — accompanied by gorgeous photographs. (You’ll love the unexpected plover puns, too.) —CLR

4. Bright Passage

Leslie Jamison | Orion Magazine | March 11th, 2022 | 5,501 words

At Orion Magazine, Leslie Jamison explores her experiences in hospital and the necessary indignities and frustrations of being vulnerable. She recounts the heightened and dulled sensory experiences of recovering from surgery, a place where pain and numbness merge, a place where the patient is struggling to make sense of the world around her and the boundaries of a body now irrevocably changed: “Each time, I felt part of a world—just briefly, in passing—that was structured by a series of contradictory intensities: the simultaneous exposure and anonymity of sharing cramped spaces with strangers; the vulnerability and disconnection of needing strangers so badly; the intimacy and tenderness of bodily care alongside the brisk assembly-line necessities of caring at scale…Private lives become public. The nurses know your business, the other patients know your business, the doctors know your insides. The surgeons see your insides. Extreme emotion—whether desperation or relief—becomes impossible to contain, visible for all to see.” —KS

5. My Friend Goo

Deb Olin Unferth | The Paris Review | March 28th, 2022 | 3,463 words

“In March 2020 the entire human world was out walking,” begins Deb Olin Unferth’s charming, tender essay. We all remember that time; in those earliest days of terrifying mystery, the only thing we could do was find whatever unoccupied bit of the planet we could, and move through it. While most of us did so to avoid anyone and everyone, however, the writer found connection — with a massive goose she names Goo. There’s more to this story, as she reminds us throughout: a long-dead older brother, a strained relationship, the hostile vagaries of the natural world. Above all, as she recounts her growing intimacy with Goo, the essay serves as a paean to the idea of difficult friendship. There’s less of a wallop here than a prolonged, low-grade emotional ache; Unferth draws you through her life and loss with an unerring sense of pace, and from the very beginning you sense that there’s only one place this path can end. It does, of course, at least in a way. But that doesn’t mean you won’t hold your breath waiting for the punch to the gut. —PR