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Chief Semicolon Advocate at WordPress.com. Professional writer, editor, napper, and dog-snorgler. Knows you are, but what is she?

Observe the Bumbler’s One Weakness

“Harassment? That was just flirting! Indecent exposure? My dick just happened to fall out of my pants while she was walking by. I had no idea anyone was upset!” Lest anyone continue to think that predatory men really don’t know that what they’re doing is wrong, Lili Loofbourow’s essay in The Week puts a nail in the coffin of the myth of the male bumbler.

As the accusations of sexual misconduct roiling politics, publishing, and Hollywood continue to stack up, a few things are going to happen. The first stage of a phenomenon like this will always be to characterize the accused men as exceptions, as bad apples. #NotAllMen, the saying goes. But the second is that everyone is going to try to naturalize sexual harassment. If there are this many men doing these things, then surely this is just how men are! that argument will go. There’s a corollary lurking underneath there: They can’t help themselves. They’re bumblers.

That won’t wash. But the only way to guard against it is to shed our weird cultural blindness to manipulative male behavior. We must be smarter than our cultural defaults. We need to shed the exculpatory scripts that have mysteriously enabled all these incompetent bumblers to become rich, successful, and admired even as they maintain that they’re moral infants.

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Your Own Personal Jesus-Lite

Elizabeth Harper — writer, photographer, historian, lover of Catholic death rituals — traveled to the tiny town of Bonito, Italy, just outside Naples, to visit Zio Vincenzo. Long-lost relative? No, mummified corpse of a nameless Neapolitan, trapped in Purgatory and venerated by locals for his ability to grant miracles. If the patron saint of your particular issue is ignoring you, try a soul with a little more time on its hands — the how-to is in her Lapham’s Quarterly piece:

When a saint doesn’t respond at first, the petitioner may assume the saint is too busy. In that case, one option is to threaten the saint with replacement. (The citizens of Naples tried this in 1799 when they threw the bust of their formerly beloved patron, Saint Gennaro, into the sea after his dried blood miraculously liquefied in the presence of a French general and seemed to consent to the occupation of Naples. The citizens briefly replaced him with Saint Anthony, who proved ineffective against a volcanic eruption and was fired as well.) But if that doesn’t work, there’s another option that’s even more extraordinary. The petitioner may set her sights a little lower and direct her prayers to a soul in purgatory—a place where flawed souls on their way to heaven are purified in fire. The hope is that since the souls of these regular people are more plentiful and receive less attention than the saints, they will be happy to hear any prayer directed their way. They may respond even faster and be more likely to grant favors if the living also pray for a little refrisco for them—a temporary relief from the flames of purgatory that is supposed to feel like a cold drink on a hot day. It’s a perfectly logical solution: when the demand for Catholic souls in the afterlife is too high for heaven to accommodate, add to the supply by including souls in purgatory.

(If you’re thinking, “Ugh, there’s so much going on in the world, why do I need to spend ten minutes reading about a long-dead Italian,” I offer two responses: one, because it’s fascinating, and two, because Harper’s writing is full of lines like this: “Traffic lights dot the streets of Naples like rhinestones. I’m not being romantic—I mean they’re shiny and worthless.”)

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Wherever You Go, There You Are. Charles Manson is There, Too.

Manson Family members Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van go to court in 1970. (AP Photo)

In an essay at The Believer, Rachel Monroe lets us tag along as she hangs out with the Manson Bloggers — yes, there are people who blog about Charles Manson —  as they gossip about Manson-adjacent people and look for relics. There’s not much new going on with Manson and his followers, most have either died or are still in jail, so the bloggers look for updates on anyone who had any association with the Family.

These photographs would look banal to the uninitiated: a grandmotherly type on a bench, clutching a water bottle; a short woman standing on the beach, flanked by three young men—her sons? These people are infamous not because they’ve killed anyone—they haven’t—but because when they were fourteen or nineteen or twenty-three, they had the bad luck or bad taste to befriend some people who did.

In the intervening four decades, some of these ex–Manson Family members changed their names or became born-again—whatever it took to distance themselves from their turbulent, murder-adjacent youths. Sometimes these people write angry emails to the Manson Bloggers, asking for their photos to be taken down. It’s easy to imagine them looking back at their former selves, shaking their heads, and thinking, That person isn’t me anymore. But the Manson Family Blog is always there to remind them: yes, yes it is.

Monroe’s piece isn’t just about the Manson Family or those who still obsess about him; it’s about whether we ever truly escape ourselves. Do we carry pieces of our younger selves with us, even as we grow and change? Monroe thinks that maybe we do, and maybe that’s a little bit of a miracle — even when those pieces include teenage Manson fandom.

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When Life Imitates Country Music

CIRCA 1970: Photo of Gary Stewart Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

David Ramsey‘s essay in the fall issue of Oxford American is partly about honky-tonk singer Gary Stewart; partly about the loss of his wife’s father, Mr. Chuck; and entirely about the power of music to bridge cultural divides, to console, to memorialize, to provoke. As an essay, it’s thoroughly lovely, and thoroughly satisfying.

If you’re not familiar with Gary Stewart, it’s probably because he’s been dead since 2003, and had a patchy career for almost 20 years before that. He sang about hard living, and his life imitated his art:

Then, like a country song, all manner of things went wrong. Stewart had designs on a more anarchic Southern rock sound, and stodgy RCA didn’t quite know what to do with him (the head honchos kept complaining that he wasn’t enunciating). His consumption of uppers, Quaaludes, and prescription painkillers became even more prodigious, and bleaker. He was hospitalized for overdoses at least three times. After a few ill-conceived duds in the early 1980s, RCA dropped him in 1983.

By 1987, according to the writer Jimmy McDonough, who tracked him down and wrote the definitive profile of Stewart for the Village Voice, the singer was holed up in a small trailer with the windows painted black, rarely leaving unless it was to score drugs. “When not comatose, Stewart was living on 19-cent two-liter bottles of Dr. Chek Cola, ‘Ree-see’ Peanut Butter Cups, and amphetamine,” McDonough later recounted. Stewart agreed to be interviewed only if McDonough brought him an obscure 45 by Wild Bill Emerson. The demand was intended to be a wild goose chase, but McDonough managed to find it, earning an audience.

“I stay away when I can’t do anybody any good,” Stewart told McDonough. Then he threw a knife into the wall.

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Is This House Haunted, or Is That Just a Drunk Guy on the Lawn?

The Amityville Horror house (image in the public domain)

The Amityville Horror and the dozens of subsequent related books and movies are about a real house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island, where Ronald DeFeo, Jr. shot and killed his parents and four siblings. At Topic, Michelle Dean walks us through the whole story: the crime, the subsequent owners who claimed the house was haunted, and the more recent tenants who didn’t buy into the tale of terror.

Instead of spirits, the Cromartys complained, they were haunted by what could only be called paranormal tourists, who knocked on the door at all hours of the day and night. These people sometimes called themselves witches. Sometimes they cursed out the Cromartys and told them they would die. Sometimes they were drunk. And sometimes, as the family told Newsday in 1978, they were just odd: “I think one of the funniest things was when we woke up at three o’clock and heard this guy with a bugle playing ‘Taps’ on the front lawn. I opened the window and applauded and said, ‘Kid, you’ve got a real good sense of humor,’” said Jim Cromarty.

In case you were thinking of digging your bugle out of the attic and paying the current owners a visit, the address has since been changed to discourage tourism. Sorry!

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What We’re Not Talking About When We Talk About Tiny House Hunters

Image by JD Hancock via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In Curbed, the writer that we all love to love, Roxane Gay, turns her critical eye on the show we all love to hate, House Huntersspecifically, Tiny House Hunters.

The episode that really pushed me over the edge was one where a single father was looking to move into a tiny home with his tweenage daughter. Frankly, it was a bit repulsive and unseemly, but the father tried to make this bizarre choice palatable by sharing that he and his daughter wanted to use the money they would save traveling around the world. Having traveled a fair amount, I was, as I watched this episode unfold, quite certain there is no wonder, anywhere in the world, that would merit this kind of domestic sacrifice. Alas, the choice was not mine.

Tiny House Hunters isn’t just about judging strangers’ choices (although it is partly about that). It’s also a mechanism for papering over dismal American economic realities.

Often, though, couples and families want to downsize to save money. They say they need or want less space, but what goes unsaid is that they likely can no longer (if they ever could) afford the mortgage on their traditional home. Or they live in San Francisco or Los Angeles, cities where the median price of a home is more than a half-million dollars and well out of reach for a lot of folks.

There is no shame in any of this, none at all, but when we talk about the American dream, we never talk about what that dream costs. We never talk about how so many Americans are one financial crisis away from losing their savings or their homes. And we don’t talk about how the American dream should not be grounded in material things like large homes or fancy cars rather than, say, single-payer health care, subsidized child care, or a robust Social Security system.

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Burned Where They Stood: The First Nine Hours of the California Wildfires

The Historic Round Barn burns in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP)

A team of San Francisco Chronicle reporters reconstruct the first nine hours of the wildfires that levelled swathes of Northern California over the past two weeks. Talking to dozens of residents, first responders, and experts, they drive home the speed and scale of the disaster — and the impossibility of effective evacuation and firefighting when that happens.

Firefighters estimate that at times, the flames raced 230 feet per second and, inconceivably, threw embers a full mile ahead of the fire front. It moved so fast that chickens, cats and other animals were charred where they stood, left standing like blackened statues.

The fires awed Bill Stewart, a UC Berkeley forestry professor.

“These fires are off the charts,” he said. “There just aren’t enough firefighters in the West to fight that much fire. … Those trees, on fire, were pure ember machines that really kicked things into a new level. We’ll be studying this for years to come.”

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The Sacred Right of Universal Narcotic Entitlement

Julie Rinaldi, left, and Lynn Locascio, right, both of Tampa, Fla., react as names are read of people who have died from OxyContin abuse. Rinaldi's daughter, Sarah, died at 17 from taking OxyContin. (AP Photo//Bristol Herald Courier, David Crigger)

The Sackler family funds top-tier museums (the Met, the Tate, the Smithsonian), universities (Princeton, Cambridge), and scientific research institutes (the Mayo Clinic, the National Academy of Sciences). Where does their cash come from? Writing in Esquire, Christopher Glazek tells us: pharmaceuticals — these days, largely OxyContin, which generates over a billion dollars in sales each year on the back of a campaign built on misleading both doctors and the public about its addictive potential. Over 200,000 people have now died of OxyContin overdoses, and many more from heroin after first becoming addicted to opioids via Oxy.

The Sacklers have experience turning an addictive drug into a household name. In the 1960s, family patriarch Arthur Sackler did it with benzodiazepene:

In the 1960s, Arthur was contracted by Roche to develop an advertising strategy for a new antianxiety medication called Valium. This posed a challenge, because the effects of the medication were nearly indistinguishable from those of Librium, another Roche tranquilizer that was already on the market. Arthur differentiated Valium by audaciously inflating its range of indications. Whereas Librium was sold as a treatment for garden- variety anxiety, Valium was positioned as an elixir for a problem Arthur christened “psychic tension.” According to his ads, psychic tension, the forebear of today’s “stress,” was the secret culprit behind a host of somatic conditions, including heartburn, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, and restless-leg syndrome. The campaign was such a success that for a time Valium became America’s most widely prescribed medication—the first to reach more than $100 million in sales. Arthur, whose compensation depended on the volume of pills sold, was richly rewarded, and he later became one of the first inductees into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame.

Later, the company would do the something similar with OxyContin and pain, when it “rebranded pain relief as a sacred right: a universal narcotic entitlement available not only to the terminally ill but to every American.”

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The Prophet Will See You Now

Worship service at Bethel, photo by Jonathan Mallard (CC BY-SA 2.0).

For BuzzFeedMolly Hensley-Clancy spends time in Redding, California, home to the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, where you might end up with a crowd of faith healers rather than an ambulance after your car accident. Town-gown relations there are tense — the school donated half a million to save the jobs of four police officers, but students have also been banned from prophesying around one of the town’s largest tourist attractions. Hensley-Clancy’s piece is fascinating and well-balanced, and includes her personal foray into faith healing for her torn knee ligaments.

I can tell I’m a tough case, because a third healer comes over to us, and then a fourth. Soon I’m surrounded by people praying for me, one woman’s hand on my shoulder, another on her knees in front of me, and the force of their expectation — desperation, almost — is palpable. Unrelentingly, every few minutes, they ask me how I’m feeling, whether I’m better.

I try to deflect some of their questions, but it never works. When one healer asks me what I feel, I tell her I feel “your energy and prayers.” She jumps back, “But what about your knee?”

“Well, it’s a really serious injury,” I try. “So I think it might take some time.”

The woman seems almost offended. “Time?” she says. “Jesus doesn’t need time! Jesus can heal you right away.”

We start praying again, and I start feeling a little desperate, like I’ll never get out of here. The next time they ask me how my knee feels, almost automatically, without thinking, I lie.

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Another Year, Another Fraternity Hazing Death

Penn State's Beta Theta Pi fraternity house sits empty after being shut down after the death of a pledge. (Abby Drey /Centre Daily Times via AP)

When Tim Piazza fell down the stairs drunk during a fraternity hazing at Beta Theta Pi at Penn State, his frat brothers did nothing to help until it was far too late. Caitlin Flanagan traces the harrowing story of Piazza’s 12 hours between life and death in The Atlantic, from the incident itself to the attitudes and policies that create perverse incentives not to seek medical attention for injured pledges.

Four of the brothers carry Tim up the stairs. By now he has somehow lost his jacket and tie, and his white shirt has ridden up, revealing a strange, dark bruise on his torso. This is from his lacerated spleen, which has begun spilling blood into his abdomen. The brothers put him on a couch, and Rizzo performs a sternum rub—a test for consciousness used by EMTs—but Tim does not respond. Another brother throws beer in his face, but he does not respond. Someone throws his shoes at him, hard. Someone lifts his arm and it falls back, deadweight, to his chest.

At this point, the brothers have performed a series of tests to determine whether Tim is merely drunk or seriously injured. He has failed all their tests. The next day, Tim’s father will ask the surgeon who delivers the terrible news of Tim’s prognosis whether the outcome would have been different if Tim had gotten help earlier, and the surgeon will say—unequivocally—that yes, it would have been different. That “earlier” is right now, while Tim is lying here, unresponsive to the sternum rub, the beer poured on him, the dropped arm.

Of course, the blame isn’t just on university or fraternity policy — it’s on the brothers themselves and their disregard for the young men they haze.

Even a full day after Tim died, some members were, amazingly, still focused on the consequences that could befall them. “Between you and me,” a member texted Young, “what are the chances the house gets shut down?”

“I think very high,” Young replied. “I just hope none of us get into any lawsuits.”

“You think they are going to sue?” asked the brother, to which Young responded in a way that is chilling and that reveals a sophisticated knowledge of how such events play out: “It depends if they want to go through with it, or just distance themselves from us all together.”

They can maintain this disregard because they know what happens next:

The grieving parents will appear on television. In their anger and sorrow, they will hope to press criminal charges. Usually they will also sue the fraternity, at which point they will discover how thoroughly these organizations have indemnified themselves against culpability in such deaths. The parents will try to turn their grief into meaningful purpose, but they will discover how intractable a system they are up against, and how draining the process of chipping away at it is. They will be worn down by the endless civil case that forces them to relive their son’s passing over and over. The ritual will begin to slow down, but then a brand-new pair of parents—filled with the energy and outrage of early grief—will emerge, and the cycle will begin again.

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