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

‘What’s this guy doing loose in Malheur County?’

Image by Curtis Perry via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Anthony Montwheeler spent 20 years in an Oregon mental healthy facility after being found not guilty of kidnapping his ex-wife by reason of insanity. He was released after claiming that he’d been faking the whole time, then immediately kidnapped another ex-wife, eventually stabbing her and killing another person during an ensuing car chase, all in full view of witnesses. And yes, he’s going to plead insanity again. How did he get the “not guilty” verdict 20 years ago? How did he get out? Is he mentally ill; what even is “mental illness” in the criminal justice context? In Rolling Stone, Rob Fischer walks us through Montwheeler’s case and the many blurry lines and troubling policies around the insanity defense in the U.S.

The hearing lasted more than two hours, but Montwheeler testified for only eight and a half minutes. When a state official asked if he ever had trouble sleeping, Montwheeler said, “No. I’ve always been able to sleep at night.” Had he ever been depressed, or felt that life is not worth living? “I’ve always been happy,” Montwheeler said. “I mean, I’ve never been depressed.” So then, the official pressed, you’ve never had any trouble getting out of bed and going about your activities? “No,” Montwheeler replied. “I’ve always showed up for work. I’ve always been Johnny on the spot.”

After a brief recess, the review board found Montwheeler was “no longer affected by a qualifying mental disease or defect,” which meant the state was legally required to discharge him. Offenders who are discharged from the state hospital, even those, like Montwheeler, released before the completion of their full term, are not diverted into penitentiaries. They are set free without additional oversight or guaranteed access to state mental health care.

The board’s chair, Kate Lieber, a Portland-based attorney, was clearly upset. “I don’t even know where to start,” she said. While maintaining a lie for 20 years, she noted, Montwheeler had avoided prison, lived rent-free, and received expensive care from trained professionals. “I mean, that is troubling on all sorts of levels,” Lieber said. “I’m assuming somebody in the system might do a forensic look at this and figure out what the hell happened. But as of now, you’re discharged.” Before Montwheeler walked out the door, she added, “My hope is that you’ll do the right thing. I am sincerely worried that you won’t.”

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Don’t Pretend Like You Don’t Love Wikipedia

Wikipedia: it’s the best trash fire on the internet. It’s sexist. There’s rampant trolling. You can lose hours of your life falling down a rabbit hole looking for information on that one guy from that movie. And you can learn about anything at all in recorded history, and it’ll probably be mostly true. At Wired, Richard Cooke penned a loving paean to the playground for pedants that’s the closest thing the internet has to a public square.

The site’s innovations have always been cultural rather than computational. It was created using existing technology. This remains the single most underestimated and misunderstood aspect of the project: its emotional architecture. Wikipedia is built on the personal interests and idiosyncrasies of its contributors; in fact, without getting gooey, you could even say it is built on love. Editors’ passions can drive the site deep into inconsequential territory—exhaustive detailing of dozens of different kinds of embroidery software, lists dedicated to bespectacled baseball players, a brief but moving biographical sketch of Khanzir, the only pig in Afghanistan. No knowledge is truly useless, but at its best, Wikipedia weds this ranging interest to the kind of pertinence where Larry David’s “Pretty, pretty good!” is given as an example of rhetorical epizeuxis. At these moments, it can feel like one of the few parts of the internet that is improving.

And because I know it’s the thing you seized on while reading, here is Khanzir’s entry, and here is Khanzir:

In this photograph taken on July 12, 2016, an Afghan veterinarian administers an injection to a pig inside an enclosure at Kabul Zoo in Kabul. (WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

You’re welcome.

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The Misogyny Is the Point

Does this photo not make much sense? Neither does the actual Miss America Pageant in this post-#metoo year of our lord twenty and twenty. (Miss America 2019 Nia Franklin poses with Chewbacca on September 12, 2018 in New York City. Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Are you not already a fan of Lyz Lenz? MISTAKE. Exhibit A is this Tucker Carlson profile from 2018, but close on its heels is Exhibit B, her recent Jezebel essay about the flagging Miss America pageant. I’ve never wanted to attend Miss America in person, but I would gladly go if I got to do it in the company of Lyz Lenz. To wit:

The Miss America pageant wasn’t supposed at the Mohegan Sun Casino, but it makes sense that the pageant would end up at a place that’s both a triumph of capitalism and an absolute hellscape. The casino is divided into two main areas: earth and sky. But once inside, both real earth and real sky immediately recede. It is simultaneously soothing and disorienting. Everything anyone could possibly need is right here, especially if need consists of a Sephora and Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain.

(Here, we try not to think about how many people’s needs might actually be fully met by a Sephora and a Bobby Flay restaurant.)

After breakfast, I go to meet Miss Iowa, because that’s where I live and it’s like going to meet a state representative who you didn’t vote for, but somehow is supposed to embody something about your state that you cannot really define. I don’t end up meeting her—“pageant day,” of course. But her mother is there. Miss Iowa’s mom is confused about her daughter’s success. Not that she doesn’t think her daughter shouldn’t win, just that Emily Tinsman just started pageants in college and now here they are, in a casino in Connecticut right before Christmas. What a world.

(Here, we are all Miss Iowa’s mom.)

But whatever else they are, they are still defined by their bodies. Each contestant has to sign a contract saying they’ve never been pregnant and never had children. They can’t be older than 25 years old. They also have to be single. Translation: No abortions. Bodies: Pure. Even if they aren’t donning swimsuits and strutting on stage, their viability in the pageant is about the sanctity of their bodies. Just like Margaret Gorman, the childlike, innocent first winner, they must remain pure objects of desire—tight, poised, flesh vessels for our values.

(Ouch. Awful. And so America.)

If you’re not yet convinced, there’s also an Exhibit C: her name, which is cooler than my name and your name put together, and I say that with confidence despite not knowing what your name is. It’s a sharp name for a sharp writer.

Read this essay, is my point. It’s time well-spent.

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Sit Back, Relax, and Try Not To Think About the Hole We’re Making In Your Skull

Image by Hey Paul Studios via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Mary South’s New Yorker short story on rape trauma and recovery, “You Will Never Be Forgotten,” is being rightly praised, but her “Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy,” published in at The White Review, is equally gripping — a different kind of pain, a different kind of recovery, but the same clarity of voice and unsparing candor and dark wit. It starts with a bang and takes you along for the ride from there.

If you’re reading this page, chances are you’ve recently heard that you need to have a craniotomy. Try not to worry. Although, yes, this is brain surgery, you’re more likely to die from the underlying condition itself, such as a malignant tumour or subdural hematoma. Think of it this way: insomuch as being alive is safe, which it is not, having a craniotomy is safe. We fill our days with doing laundry, replacing our brake pads at the auto shop, or making a teeth-cleaning appointment with the dentist, in the expectation that everything will be fine. But it won’t. There will be a day that kills you or someone you love. Such a perspective is actually quite comforting. Taken in that light, a craniotomy can be a relaxing experience, rather than one of abject terror.

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Life After Pain

Photo by Riyan Nugraha from Pexels

Ge Gao’s beautiful essay at The Threepenny Review explores life after pain: chronic, inexplicable arm pain that rendered her right arm useless:

I did not jump off the Williamsburg Bridge or drown myself in the East River when I took my evening walks along the river parks in lower Manhattan. Every morning I woke up, flipped my body to the left side, and stretched the right arm long and hard, with a childish hope that the pain would suddenly ebb, just as it had arrived in my body, without any warning. Quickly, disappointment became a daily dose I had to swallow. Then anger. Then depression. Pain camped somewhere inside of my muscle, nerves, or bones and decided to take an extensive lavish vacation there. In order to sustain my daily life, I realized, I had to endure the pain the way other people manage their grief. You bargain, you retreat, you accept.

But it’s not just about coping with pain, because this is her right arm, her dominant arm — it’s also about the loss of all the potential that her right arm represents.

I had just turned twenty-seven years old. I had just run away from a disturbing relationship. But I still wanted things. Aristotle continues the discussion of a soul by pointing out that “within the soul the faculties of knowledge and sensation are potentially these objects, the one what is knowable, the other what is sensible.”

His words explained why my disability of a hand crushed me more than anything. My right hand was the tool for sensations, as well as for recording and clarifying thoughts. The cruelty of not being able to use my right hand was not just about the pain, but the trap of the pain. No release; no writing about it and shaping it into an episode for something larger or sadder than pain itself.

A hand, I concluded, was the soul.

She excavates her pain with a clear-eyed frankness that is itself a bit painful in its sharpness, and the result is a gripping read.

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Racism in Romance, or Why Is the Duke Always White

Photo by duluoz cats via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Alyssa Cole’s romance novel was widely recognized as being one of the best of the 2017, so why didn’t it get nominated for a Rita (aka the Academy Award of the romance industry, bestowed by the Romance Writers of America)? Surprise, the romance novel industry is just as racist as the rest of the world! In The Guardian, Lois Beckett takes a close, hard look at the history, ongoing struggles, and future of romance novelists of color — change seems imminent, but old (racist) habits die hard.

Last year, however, many observers felt that this was sure to change. One of the standout novels of 2017 had been Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union, an interracial romance set during the civil war. The book had already won a number of awards and made multiple best-of-the-year lists.

When the Rita awards finalists were announced in March 2018, An Extraordinary Union was nowhere to be seen. A novel rated exceptional by critics had been not even been deemed as noteworthy by an anonymous judging panel of Cole’s fellow romance writers. The books that had beat Cole as finalists in the best short historical romance category were all by white women, all but one set in 19th-century Britain, featuring white women who fall in love with aristocrats. The heroes were, respectively, one “rogue”, two dukes, two lords and an earl.

What followed, on Twitter, was an outpouring of grief and frustration from black authors and other authors of colour, describing the racism they had faced again and again in the romance industry. They talked about white editors assuming black writers were aspiring authors, even after they had published dozens of books; about white authors getting up from a table at the annual conference when a black author came to sit down; about constant questions from editors and agents about whether black or Asian or Spanish-speaking characters could really be “relatable” enough.

Then, of course, there were the readers. “People say: ‘Well, I can’t relate,’” Jenkins told NPR a few years ago, after watching white readers simply walk past her table at a book signing. “You can relate to shapeshifters, you can relate to vampires, you can relate to werewolves, but you can’t relate to a story written by and about black Americans?”

The answer, for some readers, is that it never occurred to them that they’d be able to relate.

A particularly infuriating comment, some black authors said, is when white women describe taking a chance on a romance with a black heroine, and then express surprise at how easily they were able to identify with the story. Shirley Hailstock, a black novelist and past president of RWA, told me about a fan letter she once received from a white romance author. She sent me a photograph of the letter, with the signature concealed.

“Dear Shirley,” the white author had written, in a neat cursive hand, “I’m writing to let you know how much I enjoyed Whispers of Love. It’s my first African American romance. I guess I might sound bigoted, but I never knew that black folks fall in love like white folks. I thought it was just all sex or jungle fever I think “they” call it. Silly of me. Love is love no matter what colour or religion or nationality, as sex is sex. I guess the media has a lot to do with it.”

The letter, dated 3 June 1999, was signed, “Sincerely, a fan”.

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This Is Why No One Answers the Phone Anymore

The hand set and computer control box of a phone bank system, Greenville, Ohio. (AP Photo/Skip Peterson)

Americans got 47.8 billion robocalls last year, many of them falsely claiming to be from well-known brands and sites like Marriott and Trip Advisor to get people to stay on the line. When Trip Advisor started getting complains about “their” sales tactics, they put internal investigator Fred Garvin on the case.

“This is TripAdvisor,” a chipper automated female voice said, and today was Garvin’s lucky day: He’d been awarded thousands of TripAdvisor credits for an exclusive vacation to the sunny Caribbean!

It was Garvin’s lucky day. He’d been collecting information for more than nine months, but everything he knew was secondhand. He had never heard the messages himself or been able to tie the Mexican resorts directly to the call centers and the fraudulent use of TripAdvisor’s name. Earlier in the summer, the complaints seemed to have stopped, and Garvin worried that the scammers had gone dark before he could pin them down. Now they were calling his cell phone.

Following the prompts, Garvin was transferred to a live agent, who asked his age range and if he made at least $60,000 a year. He passed the test and was quickly put on the line with a second live agent—the charmer. “You’ve won an all-inclusive trip to one of our fabulous resorts,” the agent said. “What do you like to do on vacation, Mr. Garvin?”

The calls were eventually traced to Adrian Abramovich, who the FCC identified as “the source of 96,758,223 illegal robocalls.” At Wired, Alex Palmer follows the VoIP trail, from the initial complaints against Trip Advisor to Abramovich’s downfall.

Abramovich arrived at the Russell Senate Office Building looking bewildered, as you might expect of someone compelled by congressional subpoena. In the past few years, there hadn’t been much that Democrats and Republicans in Congress could agree on. Health care, immigration, taxes, deficits—every debate, every topic and idea was us vs. them. Here, finally, was an issue that perfectly bridged the partisan divide: a burning hatred of robo­calls. As soon as the hearing began, the senators pounced, clearly relishing the chance to lay into the stout man at the witness table. Abramovich, wearing a suit and glasses and with his hair pulled back into a neat man bun, looked trapped. Senator Richard Blumenthal kicked things off. Abramovich, Blumenthal said, had assembled a “phenomenal record of consumer abuse.” Looking directly at him, he declared: “You have become the face of this problem.”

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Gone Today, Here Tomorrow

Actress Fan Bingbing poses for photographers upon arrival at the opening ceremony of the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Tuesday, May 8, 2018. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

Fan Bingbing is one of China’s biggest movie stars, if not the biggest, with her combo of high glamor and girl-next-door accessibility. Everyone knows her, everyone loves her. And so everyone was worried when, in August of last year, she just … disappeared. No public appearances. No social media activity. For almost six weeks.

Then, on October 3, Fan reappeared as suddenly as she had vanished. According to the South China Morning Post, she had been held under a form of detention known as “residential surveillance,” at a holiday resort in a suburb of Jiangsu. The system was instituted in 2012, under President Xi Jinping, making it legal for the Chinese secret police to detain anyone charged with endangering state security or committing corruption and hold them at an undisclosed location for up to six months without access to lawyers or family members. Sources close to Fan told me that she had been picked up by plainclothes police. While under detention, she was forbidden to make public statements or use her phone. She wasn’t given a pen or paper to write with, nor allowed any privacy, even when taking showers.

The problem? Making too much money, and not paying enough in taxes. As May Jeong explains in her Vanity Fair story about Bingbing’s brush with state security, her behavior was par for the course in the Chinese film industry and her notoriety made her the perfect target for a government that wanted to deliver a powerful message, fast: things aren’t going to be like this anymore, and no one’s too popular to get caught.

Under Xi’s crackdown, tens of thousands of people have disappeared into the maw of the police state. An eminent TV news anchor was taken away hours before going on air. A retired professor with views critical of the government was dragged away during a live interview on Voice of America. A billionaire was abducted from his private quarters in the Four Seasons in Hong Kong. Other high-profile disappearances include Interpol president Meng Hongwei in September, photojournalist Lu Guang in November, two Canadians who went missing in December, as well as the writer Yang Hengjun, who went missing in January. “The message being sent out is that nobody is too tall, too big, too famous, too pretty, too whatever,” said Steve Tsang, who runs the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Taken together, Xi’s moves represent a dramatic rollback of the economic reforms and relative freedom that enabled the film industry to flourish in the time before his reign. “Deng Xiaoping kept everyone together by promising to make them rich,” said Nicholas Bequelin, the East Asia director of Amnesty International. “What keeps things together under Xi is fear. Fear of the system, where no matter how high you are, from one day to the next you can disappear.”

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If Following McMillan Cottom and Gay on Twitter Isn’t Enough, Here You Go

Photo by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tressie McMillan Cottom is brilliant, funny, scathing, important. Roxane Gay is brilliant, funny, scathing, important. And the editors at Guernica are brilliant for commissioning the latter to interview the former.

Guernica: One of the things I noticed in all of these essays in Thick is that you take blackness, and black women in particular, very seriously, which is not something we see a lot of in academic writing—or in, essentially, any writing. How did you learn to take yourself seriously?

McMillan Cottom: Damn. That’s a good question. It is probably extremely revealing to try to answer, because I don’t know that anybody has ever modeled taking myself seriously for me. I suspect that’s true for a lot of black women. I don’t know how I did it. I think the moment I learned it was probably trauma-induced. I write a little bit about this, my major life trauma, in Thick, which I had never planned on doing, ever. But I think when you come out on the other side of trauma, one of two things can happen: You can be more of who you were before it happened, sometimes in the worst ways. You can double down on your fears and anxieties. Or you can come out different, and you’re never that same person. That’s what happened to me. For the first time, I was asking questions of myself rather than responding to how people wanted me to behave. For the first time, I was making affirmative decisions about what I wanted. In a real way, the trauma wiped the slate clean for me mentally. And that’s when I started the process of teaching myself to take myself seriously. By extension, I could start to take other black women seriously.

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How Do You Move a Warhol? Really, Really Carefully

Emalee Beddoes-Davis, museum curator, adjusts a Warhol at the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum, 2017. (Aaron Chown/PA Wire URN:33563052)

You don’t always have to fly to Paris to see the Mona Lisa; art, even priceless art, constantly moves around the world for specific exhibitions. And that means logistics! For The Guardian, Andrew Dickson goes deep into the world of fine art transportation, where the objects are precious and singular, the stakes are high, and a damaged shipment means a piece of art is forever lost to us.

None of this comes cheap, needless to say: getting a single object to the UK from Australia and back might cost £60,000, while trucking works from France might cost £25,000. Shippers request “must-ride” status for their artworks to avoid the risk of them hanging around in airports, but it can still be trumped by higher-priority cargo. The registrar told me: “Horses tend to win, because they have to travel same-day, and no one worries about the cost. I had a case recently where they’d lost the forms at the airport and were going to bump my shipment. I nearly lost out to some fresh fish.”

The registrar recalled one courier who watched his crate go on, signed the paperwork – and then missed the flight. “He called me from the departure lounge, saying that the work he was meant to be couriering had just taken off. I was like: ‘You had one fucking job … ’” (In 2010, a courier lost a portrait by the 19th-century French artist Corot worth some £850,000 while drunk in a New York hotel bar. It turned up a few weeks later.)

Assuming they have both made it to the destination, the courier watches the crate leave the plane, before joining it in another climate-controlled truck for transit to the host museum. If an overnight stop is required, either a secure, climate-controlled fine art warehouse must be booked en route – there is a network of these across Europe, owned by different shipping firms – or, more likely, someone stays in the truck at all times, to the extent of sleeping in it.

Even a medium-sized exhibition may contain 80 artefacts, each of which needs to reach its destination at exactly the right moment (installations for a major show are so tight that courier arrivals are booked on an hour-by-hour schedule). Multiply that by the number of touring exhibitions – the V&A currently has 12 on the road – and you can see why a registrar might be in need of a mindfulness poster or two.

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