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Michelle Legro

Longreads Best of 2017: Profile Writing

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in profile writing.

Seyward Darby
Executive editor, The Atavist

A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, GQ)

There was no piece of journalism in 2017 more honest or more raw than Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s profile of Dylann Roof for GQ. Its brilliance began with an enviable lede—”Sitting beside the church, drinking from a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, he thought he had to go in and shoot them” — and persisted for the duration of what proved to be an unlikely profile. Unlikely, because Kaadzi Ghansah didn’t set out to write it. She went to Charleston to cover Roof’s murder trial, planning to report on the families of his victims, but found herself drawn to the young man who sat, angry and silent and unfazed, day after day in the courtroom. She decided to profile a black hole, an absence, because she couldn’t not.

The story is unlikely, too, because of its style. Ghansah winds through Roof’s life like a criminal profiler. She collects evidence, data, interviews, and observations, then pieces them together for readers, showing where the connective tissue resides. She is an essential presence in the story, which is no easy feat to pull off, and the result is wholly organic. This is a story about race, class, anger, bewilderment, and division. It is also, as the headline “A Most American Terrorist” attests, a story about the current political moment. You come away from it knowing who Dylann Roof is, who Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is, and what America is—or, really, what it has always been.


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The Complicated Politics of Rescue and Recovery

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As traffic fled Houston before Hurricane Harvey, a line of trucks towing small, flat-bottomed boats made their way into the city. The Cajun Navy would save hundreds of lives from flooded neighborhoods, and instead of rejecting their help, the government embraced it, entrusting much of the evacuation to this rag-tag band of individuals, preferring them over the Red Cross, and in some cases, the National Guard.

Miriam Markowitz followed the Cajun Navy for GQ in the days after the hurricane, when it became clear that the resources needed simply weren’t adequate. The Navy itself is small but organized. Begun in the shadow of Hurricane Katrina, it’s helped residents of Louisiana with almost yearly flooding, and travels to nearby states for help during big storms or hurricanes. It’s the kind of help that comes in the moment, and the Navy uses a walkie-talkie app to dispatch boats to specific locations. Even local Louisiana politicians are on board with the independent rescue squad:

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The Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Ethical Enjoyment of Museums

Jacques-Louis David's 'Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, Crossing the Alps,' on loan from Versailles. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has over 300 pieces on loan from the Louvre. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

A great museum is a great catalog of plunder. Not just of objects stolen, bought, traded or loaned, but of entire civilizations, placed out of time and plundered of meaning. The Louvre itself was opened on August 10, 1793, a year after the arrest of Louis XIV. The royal collection became a national collection, and under Napoleon it became a symbol of empire, with entire new wings built just to house the plunder sent back during military campaigns.

Today, what can no longer be gotten through force can be rented. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a beautiful new building with a rented artwork and a borrowed name — the museum needs time to develop a collection of its own, preferably without several revolutions. But what will be the character of this new collection, the first of its kind in the Middle East? In his review of the Louvre Abu Dhabi for The New York Times, art critic Holland Cotter reflects on what the museum does — and what it should do.

In short, the Louvre Abu Dhabi fails where most, if not all, encyclopedic art museums do: in truth-telling. And the failure applies to the present as much as to the past. In news releases and public advertising, the institution promises to be “a museum for everyone”; to show “humanity in a new light”; to embody an “openness” and “harmony” reflecting the “tolerant and accepting environment” of Emirati society. But in the years since the building broke ground, international human rights groups have repeatedly criticized the Abu Dhabi government for mistreatment of immigrant laborers at work on Saadiyat Island projects.

During the museum’s inaugural week, two Swiss journalists, filming laborers as part of their coverage of the opening, were arrested by the police, grilled, forced to sign a “confession” and then expelled from the country. Over the past several years, people campaigning for workers’ rights have been barred from entering Abu Dhabi, or deported.

A walk through Mr. Nouvel’s domed museum complex, with its luminous shade and its breeze-channeling sea vistas, is an enchantment, almost enough to make you forget grim physical and social realities that went into creating it. And the manifold beauty of galleries filled with charismatic objects nearly persuades you not to remember that art is a record of crimes as well as of benign achievements. It takes an exercise in ethical balance to engage fully with our great museums, to walk the shaky bridge they construct between aesthetics and politics. A mindful visit to the Louvre Abu Dhabi requires this balance. That may be what is most universal about it.

Peter Thiel Makes Sure His Kids Are All Right

(Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for New York Times)

Some people never leave college behind; the philosophies they develop as an undergrad stay with them for a lifetime. For Peter Thiel, that means periodically revisiting his 30-year-old love child, The Stanford Review, to make sure the magazine he founded in 1987 still has the independent streak that disrupts the status quo on campus

The Review was where Thiel could test out his formative contrarian options, “generally reflecting on his vision for the paper as a vehicle for stirring the pot and breaking up politically correct platitudes,” writes Andrew Granato in his Stanford Politics profile of Thiel’s relationship with the student magazine.

Although Thiel hasn’t been the editor-in-chief of the magazine since 1989, he still keeps an eye on his baby. This means giving money to the Review — lots and lots of money — and checking in from time to time in person. “Thiel continues to meet with the publication’s editors,” writes Granato, “and he is substantially more open with them about his beliefs than he is with the general public, including on highly controversial issues like race and immigration.”

Highlighting both the intimacy and exclusivity of these gatherings, one email invitation to such an event in 2015, shared by a former editor, reads in part: “Hi, We will be having a Review dinner at Peter Thiel’s house next Wednesday…This is not an open invite; please do not talk about this opportunity with anyone else, especially at the [Review staff] meetings.”

Thiel’s influence on the autonomous Review’s on-campus activity should not be overstated: Students are always in control of the paper, and Thiel does not attempt to orchestrate their conduct. The great majority of The Review’s activity involves its independent writing and reporting on the issues of the day and its weekly meetings, which often feature boisterous political debates. (Amy Shen ’18, the current executive editor, says she enjoys the meetings as a place where “you are judged on the basis of your ideas and nothing else.”)

But Thiel does occasionally host dinners and reunions with Review editors at local restaurants as well as his home in San Francisco, give suggestions of issues to focus on, donate money, and de facto lead a burgeoning network of alumni concentrated in Silicon Valley, many of whom have worked with or for Thiel directly.

As one former editor put it, “[Thiel] sees The Review as his people.”

Speaking about Thiel, many Review and ex-Review affiliates insisted on anonymity. They clearly respect him. Mackenzie Yaryura ’17, a former editor-in-chief, says, “my only experience is that [Thiel’s] been really welcoming, really interesting, being willing to answer questions and share knowledge.”

To what degree does Thiel still care about The Review’s activities on campus?

One former editor believed “he obviously had zero interest in getting to know us as individuals. He was there to figure out what was going on on the campus.” Harry Elliott voiced that “to be honest the thing which most Review alums are really interested in, not just or specifically Peter, is: they want to know what the issues de jour are, what the average Stanford student is like, and what we are doing to try and ensure that viewpoints that are usually not heard as heard.”

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Meditations in an Emergency

(AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

If America’s storytellers “lost the narrative they had been creating for decades” the morning after the 2016 elections, as Esquire explains in its oral history of the national trauma that began one year ago today, we’ve been writing our way out ever since. We’ve been knocking on doors, asking people why they did what they did, and asking ourselves how to fix it. We’ve been writing out our feelings, making fun where we can and commiserating where we can’t. Storytelling has been a way of getting through this, and we’re still getting through this.

Perhaps you won’t want to read this piece. I understand. I had to let one more election night pass before I could even begin a history that starts with Steve Bannon’s triumphant proclamation, “You have a hundred-percent chance of winning.”

We’re not the only ones reliving this day: it was also the day the nightmare began for Donald Trump. It was his last good day and he won’t let us forget it. Instead, think about how much has changed, and how far we still have to go.

David Remnickeditor of The New Yorker: I thought about, and actually wrote, an essay about “the first woman president,” and the historical background of it all. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the suffragettes, the relationship with Frederick Douglass…a historical essay, clearly written in a mood of “at long last” and, yes, celebration. The idea was to press “post” on that piece, along with many other pieces by my colleagues at The New Yorker, the instant Clinton’s victory was declared on TV…

We agreed that night, and we agree today, that the Trump presidency is an emergency. And in an emergency, you’ve got a purpose, a job to do, and ours is to put pressure on power. That’s always the highest calling of journalism, but never more so than when power is a constant threat to the country and in radical opposition to its values and its highest sense of itself.

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Chasing Down a Child Genius in Montana

(Courtesy of Promethea Pythaitha / The Atavist)

Promethea Olympia Kyrene Pythaitha renamed herself at age 13, the year she graduated from Montana State University, with the belief that “her life, and its work, would have meaning.” A prodigy who had begun to read at nine months, Promethea grew up in poverty with her mother in Montana. She took on several courses of study, determined to earn degree after degree, but never wanted to leave the state for something bigger. Promethea was satisfied just to educate herself — a “rage to learn” as one psychologist described it — to expand her knowledge any way she could. News of her talents spread throughout the Greek diaspora and a mysterious benefactor became obsessed with paying for her education and controlling her life, eventually stalking Promethea and her mother in Montana and changing their lives forever.

Journalist Mike Mariani has been following Promethea’s story for years, and he finally catches up with her at age 26 in this feature for The Atavist. When he first meets her, he isn’t sure what to make of the prodigy.

Initially, when we were one-on-one, Promethea’s disposition disarmed me. Her mood was cheerful but her affect was flat, as though something had been stripped from it. I struggled to find my footing in conversation because the usual notches and grooves weren’t there. At one point she quoted Star Trek’s Spock, and I wondered if she drew inspiration from a character who balanced near perfect intellect with extreme stoicism. I also thought about how socially isolated she’d been all her life: homeless and homeschooled as a young child, taking college classes by age seven, earning two bachelor’s degrees with her mother by her side every day.

[I was told] that Promethea “never knew how to end conversations or begin conversations or ratchet herself back.” I experienced this while ferrying her through the Montana landscape. After small talk, which came in fits and starts, Promethea would shift into a high gear I wasn’t ready for. She would talk about her family, then Greek austerity politics, then science, with nary a breath in between. There was no conversational ebb and flow. I didn’t so much participate as try to steer her thoughts now and then with questions.

But while it was clear that I was in the presence of the smartest person I’d ever met, Promethea’s intellect wasn’t the most striking thing about her. She didn’t have the sarcasm, cynicism, or irony many young people use to construct their personalities and establish repartee. She wasn’t quotable in the droll or pithy way that makes a journalist’s job easy; she was earnest and expansive. Our conversations were airless because Promethea had no airs — no hint of attitude, vanity, or ego. Perhaps in missing out on opportunities to develop her social self, she’d eluded artifice altogether.

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The Intimacy of an Android: An Interview With Alex Mar

(Cait Opperman / Wired)

Alex Mar’s cover story for Wired‘s November issue, “Love in the Time of Robots” is an epic look at the life and work of Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, who has spent his life and career in pursuit of a more perfect android. He has made copies of his friends, family, and himself with his “Geminoid” project, and he delights in the moment when a human confronts its twin. What could have been a simple profile of Ishiguro goes much, much deeper — at nearly 12,000 words, it is one of the longest features that Wired has run in print — as Mar explores the origins of human nature and intimacy, and the desire to turn to a robot for comfort or companionship. “Most of us already allow technology to mediate what was once simple, direct human interaction,” Mar writes, “what really is the difference?” I spoke with Mar via email about her experience with Ishiguro and the freedom of writing at a length far beyond the typical magazine feature.

***

How many times did you meet with Hiroshi Ishiguro? How did your understanding of him and his work change with each meeting?

I’ve been in touch with Hiroshi for over two years and we spent about three weeks in each other’s constant company in Japan, between Osaka and Tokyo. He was immediately forthcoming with me, very open and direct. We had a great, natural rapport from our first Skype chat, and that was a big part of why I decided to pursue the story. Almost immediately he announced himself as less of a roboticist and more of an artist, which I could relate to more than an engineer’s perspective — he was turned on by big concepts and risk-taking.

Over time he did become more open about his family, a subject that’s pretty verboten for him, as he’s always been a firm believer in keeping his family life separate from his public, professional life. (Ironic, considering his first major experiment was an android copy of his then 5-year-old daughter.) He’s a charismatic figure, and he and his work have gotten plenty of press coverage internationally over the years. It took a moment for him to realize I was also interested in very minute details about his life — his childhood, his personal habits — things that he at first dismissed as too boring to discuss. It’s funny how often people assume that the kind of minutia that really makes a story, the intimate stuff, isn’t worth mentioning.

Ishiguro closely studies the small physical cues involved in human interaction in order to build a better android. (He notices, for example, that people never sit completely still.) But you seem to think his understanding of humanity is lacking. How did your understanding of his work change over time?

I don’t know if Hiroshi’s understanding of humanity is lacking any more than yours or mine. It’s more that his project is immense and requires a lot of hubris. He’s studying, measuring, and trying to replicate something that remains pretty intangible: the human presence, which the Japanese call sonzai-kan. The ineffable thing that signals to us that we’re sitting across from a living, breathing, thinking, feeling person. Plenty of people would call that a soul — something that, by definition, is impossible to replicate. So I think the bigger question here is: Do you think that human-ness is something that we can measure and weigh and build from scratch? Hiroshi’s answer to that, at least in public, is a resounding yes. But in private, I think that Hiroshi is conflicted. Personally, he seems to be struggling with his own deep desire for human connection — he spoke to me repeatedly of his feelings of loneliness — and I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to reconcile that with his work.

When did you suspect you would have to be a part of this story? How did you decide how much of yourself to put in?

I consider myself a “literary” non-fiction writer, but not a particularly confessional one. I believe in using the first person sparingly in journalism; in my longform stories I’ve tended to use it more as a light-handed framing device. But with my first book, Witches of America, about the present-day witchcraft movement around the country, I was surprised and a little bit horrified when I realized I needed to go all-in and insert myself as a character. I needed to be honest with myself and the reader about my curiosity about witchcraft, and to be frank about how subjective my experience of these Pagan rituals was — there’s no “objective” way to take part in a religious ceremony. My approach to the book became very personal and immersive, and any other approach would have felt dishonest.

When I returned from my first reporting trip to Japan, I had that feeling again: The subject of the story required a writer who was also a stand-in for the audience. I had to be able to describe in a very immediate way the experience of being around those androids, of being immersed in Hiroshi’s world and his way of thinking about humanity. When events in my personal life began to get all tangled up with the ideas I was absorbing in Hiroshi’s labs, I felt the only honest way to write this story was to weave that in.

Do you think that inventors who work at the edge of what is technically possible — with artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and so on — lose sight of what humans actually want, what we actually need? It seems like much of what Silicon Valley provides serves the interests of a narrow subset of people in the name of helping humanity.

It seems to me that the goal of a lot of research and development is to anticipate a need, or perhaps to create a desire where previously there was none. Android development is less about a concrete need — a robot doesn’t have to have a human face to perform surgery, or rescue someone from a war zone — but it does seem like an extension of the parts of our lives technology has already colonized. So many of our relationships are already virtual or text-based: entire friendships with people we almost never see in person, interactions with avatars people have created to stand in for themselves online. I’m willing to bet that internet porn, for those who are more or less addicted to it, is rewiring their sexual instincts and, to a degree, eliminating the need for actual human contact. And what about the constant need for affirmation that Instagram or Facebook satisfies? Are we really interacting with humans when we’re interacting on social media, or would that shot of cortisol to the brain be just as satisfying coming from a bot? If you go down this rabbit hole, it becomes possible to imagine a market for android companions, whether platonic or sexual, that goes beyond a “narrow subset” of people.

But putting that longer-term apocalyptic talk aside, here’s something else to consider: AI, android science, VR, etc. — these are clearly male-dominated fields, whether we’re talking about Japan or the U.S. Therefore the needs and desires research and development is addressing are, for the most part, the needs and desires of men — the fantasies of men projected onto the not-so-distant future. When I learned that Hiroshi had produced some two dozen attractive female androids, I thought, of course they were female, young-looking, and pretty. He may be a radical, independent thinker, but he’s ultimately following the dictates of an industry built by men.

This is one of the longest features Wired has ever run in print, over 12,000 words. Was having that kind of length helpful for this subject, or was it unwieldy at times to tell a story of that length?

My very first draft of the story was close to this length, and it felt natural. I’m very grateful that Wired was willing to give it that space, about twice their typical feature length. I think there was a consensus that this story needed that kind of room because of how it continues to evolve all the way to the last page. Hiroshi’s work has a breadth of scope that requires that much space if you’re going to push beyond “man who creates good-looking androids” terrain to get to something deeper. My editor Mark Robinson was a real believer in the piece and wanted to avoid any cuts that might subtract from what he thought made it different and strange and intimate.

There’s also the fact that, for whatever reason, 12,000 words is a sweet spot for me with magazine features. I like to hurl myself into the subject and write my way out of it, and it seems to land at that length nearly every time. But I believe that every story has a length that it naturally wants to land at, once you’re plugged into the writing process. That’s why it’s so valuable to have magazines that are willing to take this kind of risk and go long. This kind of freedom is the greatest gift an editor can give you.

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The Dream of a Perfect Android

A robot produced by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories on display at the Science Museum in London. (Ben Stansall /AFP/Getty Images)

Hiroshi Ishi­guro has spent a lifetime in pursuit of the perfect robot. He has modeled his creations on those closest to him — his wife, his child, himself — but he admits to feeling lonely while surrounded by his family, both human and inhuman. At Wired, Alex Mar unravels the depths of Ishi­guro’s passion for robots, and what he means when he tries to make them lifelike. However, Mar finds that after a lifetime of considering what it means to be human, Ishi­guro may not truly understand the basics of human interaction himself.

He has spent a lot of time talking to himself through his androids, testing them, imagining their effect on other ­people. Hiroshi (who by now has asked me to call him by his first name) tells me he’d like to record himself saying “I love you” and then program an android to repeat it back to him in a female voice. He is kidding when he says this—but maybe it’s another of his half-jokes. At the very least, he believes the need for such an exchange exists. It would be, he says, “a real conversation.” A conversation with himself.

“A conversation is a kind of illusion,” he says. “I don’t know what is going on in your brain. All I can know is what I’m thinking. Always I am asking questions to myself, but through conversations.” Over the years of operating his androids, communicating through them or with them, he has found that he isn’t really concerned about the other person’s thoughts. “Always I am thinking of myself. I need to understand your intention, but it is not a priority. Before that, I want to make clear something in my brain. Otherwise, what is the motivation to talk?”

In other words, he can only imagine using conversation with others as a means to better understand himself—and nothing is more pressing than that. He turns to the conversation the two of us are having. “We don’t know how much information we are sharing,” he tells me. “I am always guessing, and you are always guessing, and through our conversation patterns, we can believe that we exchange information. But I cannot access your brain directly.

“What is ‘connection’?” he asks. “Other person is just a mirror.”

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He Seemed Like the Real Thing, Until He Wasn’t

(The Los Angeles Times)

Journalist Christopher Goffard of The Los Angeles Times may be the bard of crime in Orange County, California. Last year, his six-part series “Framed” told the story of fear and loathing in an Irvine PTA. His 2017 opus is “Dirty John,” a seven-part series — and podcast — that unravels the life of a con man as he takes on his final victim.

When Debra Newell met John Meehan for a first date, she thought he was handsome and kind, but shabbily dressed and a little strange. He said he was a doctor, an anesthesiologist; he always wore medical scrubs but he never seemed to go to work. When they married in Las Vegas less than two months later, she kept her family in the dark. It was only after she learned about his past that she began to fear for her life, and the lives of her children.

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The Examination of a Playboy Bunny

The photographer Weegee sets up his equipment to photograph a Playboy Bunny in the 1950s (International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

Her nom de bunny was Marie Catherine Ochs, an old family name that Gloria Steinem thought sounded “much too square to be phony.” Marie went to high school and college, but “wasn’t a slave to academics,” dropping out after her first year of college to fly to Europe and work as a waitress in London and a hostess-dancer in Paris. After returning to New York to work as a secretary, she saw an ad in the newspaper looking for women who were “pretty and personable, between 21 and 24, married or single” who wanted to make between $200 and $300 a week — about the same salary as a Madison Avenue ad executive. When Steinem handed over Marie’s detailed personal history to the Sheralee, the Bunny Mother at Playboy’s New York Club, the hostess handed it back without looking at it.

“We don’t like our girls to have any background,” she told Steinem, who was going undercover as a Playboy Bunny for Show magazine, “we just want you to fit the Bunny image.” Steinem kept meticulous notes as she completed each stage of the interview, as well as the job itself, and she collected these notes in a day-to-day account that was published in May 1963 as a two-part series “A Bunny’s Tale” which was later collected in her 1985 book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

Part of Steinem’s training involved the fitting of a skin-tight uniform in two colors, the application of false eyelashes, and a physical examination with a doctor, which she recounted in detail.

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