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Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, NY. She edited the award-winning “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY” and the NY Times Bestselling “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.” She is the essays editor for Longreads, and teaches at Catapult. She tweets at http://twitter.com/saribotton

Elizabeth Wurtzel Made it Okay to Write ‘Ouch’

NEW YORK - AUGUST 14: American writer Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of the memoir "Prozac Nation" holds up a locket with the word "Prozac" on it and poses for a portrait in front of a window display of a hand holding pills on August 14, 1991 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

I loved Peter Schjeldahl’s recent New Yorker essay in which he alerted readers to his battle with terminal lung cancer. But I took umbrage when an acquaintance on social media praised Schjeldahl for adhering to the long-reigning maxim that a writer must never say “ouch” — never let the reader see that the painful experience you’re writing about actually hurt you.

It occurred to me that this is another of several “rules” about writing — established by affluent, straight, white men — that need to be re-written. I mean, could there be a more stereotypically male directive, or one more informed by white gentility? As far as I’m concerned, false bravado has no place in memoir.

When I learned this week of memoirist and Gen X icon Elizabeth Wurtzel’s death, at 52, from metastatic breast cancer, I realized: she re-wrote that rule.

Wurtzel’s raw, absorbing memoirs, Prozac Nation, and More, Now, Again, were ground-breaking in this way. They made it okay — even fashionable — to write “ouch,” something many of us in the trenches of publishing memoir and personal essays now see as valid and valuable. This is how readers with similar experiences have their pain validated; this is how readers with different experiences develop empathy toward others. This is how we change the world.

Wurtzel died as she lived, baring her deep, existential pain and vulnerability until the very end. She was working on her final personal essay for Medium’s GEN vertical when she passed away on January 7th.

In the piece she reveals that as her health was declining, her marriage was unraveling, and she was also still wrestling with new information her mother finally uncovered a couple of years ago: that her biological father was not the same man as the father she grew up with. Of her waning marriage, she writes:

I am estranged and strange, strangled up in blue.

I do not want to feel this way. I am going through the five stages of grief all at once, which Reddit strings have no doubt turned into 523. They are a collision course, a Robert Moses plan, a metropolitan traffic system of figuring it out.
I feel bad and mad and sad.

Is this a festival of insight or a clusterfuck of stupid? I change my mind all the time about this and about everything else.

I got married because I was done with crazy. But here it is, back again, the revenant I cannot shake. I feel like it’s 1993, when my heart had a black eye all the time.

26 is a boxing match of the soul.

I did not expect bruises at 52.

Wurtzel was often derided for her candid “oversharing,” and that rankled me. I’ve been defending her and other brave writers like her forever. Although I didn’t know her very well, we were acquainted, first meeting in the 90s when I dated her cousin. She was the sort of bold, outspoken woman I both admired and feared — the kind who inspired me to start an unapologetic women tag at Longreads. (And I had been meaning to ask her to write a piece for the Fine Lines series I launched a couple of years ago. I am kicking myself for missing the opportunity to add her voice to that series.)

I’m sad she’s gone. I’ve been finding comfort in wonderful remembrances of her by Deborah Copaken at The Atlantic, Emily Gould at Vanity Fair, and Molly Oswaks at the New York Times. Jia Tolentino at The New Yorker, Kera Bolonik at NBC News, Mandy Stadtmiller at Medium, and Nancy Jo Sales at The Cut.

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A Beloved Art Critic Sings His Swan Song

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 30: Art critic Peter Schjeldahl attends The 2011 New Yorker Festival: In Conversation with Steve Martin on September 30, 2011 in New York, United States. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New Yorker)

Many in the literary and art worlds have been sharing this moving kitchen-sink essay by beloved, long-time New Yorker writer and art critic Peter Schjeldahl, in which he reveals that he is dying, at 77, of lung cancer.

In the piece, he poignantly looks back at his life and career, his history as a recovering alcoholic, his continued status as a smoker — and a not-so-wise medical choice he made a few years ago that might have contributed to shortening his life.

Between bulletins from my body that say this isn’t so, I still feel like a kid inside. Four and a half years ago, while rushing to catch a bus (“Don’t run for a bus” was a rule for longevity in Mel Brooks’s “2000 Year Old Man”), I tripped trying to leap, gazelle-like, over a chunk of broken asphalt and must have caught a toe. When I came to on the street, surrounded by strangers, I had no memory of falling or of much else (who I was, where I was). There was blood. My glasses were smashed. I said, “I’m O.K.” The strangers strenuously disagreed. An ambulance had arrived.

I was mostly conscious when wheeled on a gurney into an emergency room in Greenwich Village. A scrawny old-time Village-hipster type was driving the nurses crazy about something, likely trying to wheedle drugs. Strolling past and glancing down at me, he said tenderly, “Die, baby.” That didn’t seem like a terrible idea, right then, and it struck me in a remote sort of way as the funniest thing I’d ever heard.

A cat scan to check out a suspicion that my neck was broken (weird story short: my neck was found to have broken and healed sometime in the past, unbeknownst to me) incidentally discovered a spot in my left lung. This later led to hospital visits for scans and tests, including a needle biopsy (ouch), all of them inconclusive. Fed up with the rigmarole, I refused further investigation. Shouldn’t have? Live and learn.

He also turns over in his mind what it means to be dying, and to have six months’ warning that the end is nigh. “Take death for a walk in your minds, folks,” he suggests at the end. “Either you’ll be glad you did or, keeling over suddenly, you won’t be out anything.”

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Telling About Auschwitz, Before It’s Too Late

A general winter sunset view of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II Birkenau. On Friday, December 6, 2019, in Auschwitz Camp, Oswiecim, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Keren Blankfeld‘s New York Times story about Holocaust survivors David Wisnia and Helen Spitzer being reunited in Manhattan before her recent death at 100 is so heartwarming, it’s easy to overlook a foreboding reality: Wisnia is one of scant few survivors remaining to tell their stories, at a time when we need them more than ever.

On her death bed, “Zippi,” as she was known, confessed that five times she’d used her position as a privileged inmate and a graphic designer at Auschwitz to keep Wisnia from being shipped to a worse camp. Now he’s telling his Holocaust story to keep the memory of it alive — and hopefully help keep history from repeating itself.

Now, about once a month, he gives speeches where he tells war stories, usually to students and sometimes at libraries or congregations.

“There are few people left who know the details,” he said.

In January, Mr. Wisnia plans to fly with his family to Auschwitz, where he has been invited to sing at the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. He expects to recognize only one fellow survivor there. The last big anniversary, five years ago, which he attended, included about 300 Holocaust survivors. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany estimates that only 2,000 survivors of Auschwitz are alive today.

As the Holocaust fades from public memory and anti-Semitism is once again on the rise, Mr. Wisnia finds himself speaking about his past with more urgency. This is quite a turn for a man who spent most of his adult life trying not to look back. Mr. Wisnia’s oldest son learned only as a teenager that his father wasn’t born in America. (His father worked hard to lose his European accent.)

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Woman Writes Story Challenging Gender Dynamics; Is Thwarted by…Long-Standing Gender Dynamics

Irony of ironies: a piece of writing attempting to redefine sexiness in feminist terms is met with sexist derision and mockery.

At Gay Magazine, Longreads contributor Monica Drake recounts learning that a young, white, male intern at a literary magazine she’d submitted to had publicly humiliated her by taking her story to a party to read aloud and make fun of a sex scene she had included — a scene in which traditional gender dynamics are upended. The intern, she writes, “turned my writing into a party girl forced to jump out of a cake, or a stripper hired for the entitlement and entertainment of drunk men. Men in charge, women as object, these are the only stories he knew, apparently.”

Adding insult to injury, when she tells the story to an aunt, who knows the intern, the aunt is overcome with “himpathy,” cautioning Drake against speaking out lest she ruin a young man’s career.

At a family dinner, I mentioned what happened in front of my aunt, among others, my cousin’s mother. I mentioned that I planned to speak to the editor who worked overseeing the interns. It wasn’t right, to use a woman’s work or words in that way. It was exploitive. It created a space that wasn’t safe for literary submissions or ambition.

I’d trusted the magazine.

Part of the thrill in taking my written work to a party and giving an impromptu drunken, degrading reading seemed to include knowing exactly who I am: in other words, a young “writer,” who had published exactly nothing, as far as I can tell, had made an active choice to parade the work of an older woman author around by name at a party, specifically to lay her bare and take her down.

It was a move that reinstated male domination over female sexual expression, and a power trip. It was a forced engagement, an exercise in attempted humiliation.

The intern was close to half my age. My work was and is informed by life. He displayed the truth of his perceived privilege by thinking he had a right to be a gatekeeper at all.

I’d become an unwilling victim of the literary, written equivalent of sexual abuse. The intern had used and displayed my body of work, body of words, body in imagery and literature, for his own pleasure, ego and gain. He’d aimed to shame me for being unabashedly myself, in the public circle of his male friends.

When I mentioned the general, overriding concerns, my aunt burst out, “He’s a good kid! You’ll ruin his job!” She’d known him since he was a child. She’d handed him snacks, once upon a time. He was to be protected like a child, though he was now an adult.

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How to Stay Out of Your Editor’s ‘Jerks’ File

Blue retro typewriter with screwed up paper balls

As an editor receiving 50 to 100 essay submissions per week for roughly 125 slots per year, I pass on exponentially more pieces than I accept. This unfortunate math makes me anxious, not only because I’m an incorrigible people-pleaser who hates having so many humans unhappy with me, but also because I’m a writer myself, and I know how frustrating and heartbreaking it can be not to land your work where you want to see it published.

Most of the time writers are understanding and gracious, not only about my passing, but also about my only responding if I’m interested in their piece, as I explain in my submissions guidelines. But now and then, someone will fire off a mean email. Obviously (well, to me, anyway) this is not a good strategy for anyone who wants to eventually have their work accepted!

Mcsweeny’s Internet Tendency editor Chris Monks feels my pain. In an essay for Vulture, he writes about some of the jerky replies he receives when he passes on humor submissions, and provides screenshots as well (with names and other identifying details redacted).

I empathize with the frustration of not getting your work published, but it still sucks to receive these sorts of emails because, you know, I have feelings. By nature, I flee from any signs of interpersonal conflict, so I rarely engage and fire back an equally snarky response. Instead, I place these mean messages in a folder I’ve titled “Jerks” and occasionally share screenshots of them (with the names of the jerks redacted) to my followers on Twitter.

I know all about rejection. Sure, I dole it out frequently, but I’ve been on the other end a lot, too. I, too, am a veteran struggling humor writer. I know what it’s like to work forever on a piece, meticulously crafting a joke, until it feels just right and worthy of submitting. I am familiar with the adrenaline rush of clicking “send,” and the overwhelming wave of dread and second-guessing that follows. And I am no stranger to the interminable waiting for an answer back, a yes or no, please not a no, but, yes, it will probably be a no. It always feels like it’s going to be a no.

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David Letterman Is Truly Sorry

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 07: David Letterman speaks onstage during the 32nd Annual Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony at Barclays Center on April 7, 2017 in New York City. The broadcast will air on Saturday, April 29, 2017 at 8:00 PM ET/PT on HBO. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

The #metoo movement has yielded far too many cowardly, unsatisfying apologies from men in entertainment, but comedy writer Nell Scovell managed to get a pretty satisfying one from David Letterman, her one-time boss.

Ten years ago, Scovell — who quit her job on Late Night with David Letterman in 1990 after just five months because of sexism and “sexual favoritism” — called out Letterman in a Vanity Fair piece, published following the revelation that he was cheating on his wife with various women who worked for him. Recently, she sat down with the newly chastened late night host on the condition that he finally read her 2009 piece, which he said he avoided at the time because he was working on repairing his marriage and his family.

Scovell finds Letterman to be kind and genuinely contrite. She accepts his apology, but notices he still has blind spots and isn’t willing to easily let him off the hook. How else will things sufficiently change?

Dave using his family as an excuse for neglecting his professional duties is a luxury no high-level female could ever afford. He faced no corporate punishment after his on-air disclosure. The network continued to pay him an estimated $30–$35 million a year while then CBS chairman Leslie Moonves looked the other way. I publicly accused Dave of fostering a hostile work environment, yet no one from the show’s human resources department ever contacted me as part of an investigation.

Dave wasn’t just a product of our culture; he helped create our culture. In the generation and a half that Dave reigned on TV, comedy could have made a giant leap toward greater representation. Instead, he fronted an institution that systematically amplified the voices of guys who looked like him. On camera, the show favored male standups over females by an overwhelming margin. Only one female comic was booked in 2011. This denial of equal opportunity is part of Dave’s legacy. Self-reflection can save a marriage, but it can’t change history.

Whoa, you’re thinking. Dave apologized. Why are you still so angry, Nell?

Dave still carries around his guilt and I still carry around my anger. Despite this, we can have a productive and even pleasant talk. There’s a faction in the #MeToo movement that believes “it’s time for men to shut up and listen.” Some men, like Matt Damon, have echoed this attitude. I get it, but it worries me. Too many men are panicking over the miniscule possibility of being falsely accused, and this irrational fear is causing male managers to avoid mentoring and meeting with female coworkers.

We need more dialogue so men can understand the difference between criticism and condemnation. And we need more dialogue so women can voice discomfort without fear of retaliation.

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Airbrushing Out the Evidence of Her Son’s Differences

For Dame, Alysia Abbott writes a personal essay about the importance of presenting her autistic son on social media — fostering inclusiveness, normalizing his differences, connecting with other parents with similar children — but also confesses her tendency to only show him in the most flattering light.

I could select which photos I would share online. I would highlight those with his eyes open, his gaze steady, maybe the rare shot where he does look at me with a smile. At the right angle, and in the right light, Finn truly is beautiful. Friends and “friends” alike have commented on how much he resembles a young Paul McCartney. He has the full cheeks the cupid bow mouth the large brown eyes and soft mop of hair. Without fail, I will share those photos where that beauty is on display.

Here’s what you won’t see: images where he looks developmentally delayed, what we used to call “mentally retarded,” or just “retarded.”

I actually remember a turning point on trip to a local apple orchard when my son was maybe 3 years old. We say we go apple-picking in order to make fresh crumbles and apple sauce but we all know it’s really about the family photo op. Sipping cider on hayrides, small children sitting in a great big pumpkin patch–what could be more quintessentially wholesome and fall-like? On this particular visit, there was a beautiful late afternoon light and I was posing Finn inside a large apple crate, where he seemed happy to sit and play in the leaves. Later that night, scrolling through photos deciding which to share, I found one that captured an expression I’d never noticed on my son before, a slightly twisted open mouth grin that looked different, that looked more autistic. At the time I had a hard time seeing Finn’s diagnosis with any clarity. This photo helped me do this, but it wasn’t a photo I wanted to share.

With social media, I was able to create an idealized version of my son, writing posts that can accurately describe our days together, but accompanying these posts with photos that make him look like any other kid his age. In this online life, I could erase those aspects of his presentation, that peculiar autistic mien, that might make others uncomfortable.

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Memorializing a Glacier and Hoping for the Future

A monument is unveiled at site of Okjokull, Iceland's first glacier lost to climate change in the west of Iceland on August 18, 2019. (Photo by Jeremie RICHARD / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEREMIE RICHARD/AFP/Getty Images)

We hear every day about ways in which accelerating climate change threatens life on earth, but scientists struggle to communicate that if we don’t significantly reduce our carbon footprints, we’re history. In Iceland, glaciologists and public officials have resorted to a different approach: staging a funeral for a melted glacier, now demoted from that classification to “dead ice,” and marking the occasion by installing a plaque with a “letter to the future.”

At the New Yorker, essayist Lacy M. Johnson attends a funeral for “Okjökull” — once a glacier with a surface of 16 square kilometers, and now “only a small patch of slushy gray ice.” In personifying shrinking masses of ice — key geographical features of the area, and the planet — officials hope to impress upon people the dire extent of climate change, and the need for humans to stop living in ways that threaten themselves, and all life forms.

Among others, Johnson talks with Iceland’s leading glaciologist, Oddur Sigurðsson.

When I asked him directly if glaciers were living, he hesitated. Things that grow and move, we tend to consider animate, he said, even if we resist the idea that every animate thing has a soul. A healthy glacier grows each winter more than it melts each summer; moves on the ground under its own weight; and is at least partially covered with a thick, fur-like layer of snow. Glaciers also move on their insides, especially in Iceland, where the glaciers are made of temperate ice, which exists right at the melting point. This sets them apart from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which are frozen and older by hundreds of thousands of years.

In Iceland, Sigurðsson said, the oldest ice was born more than a thousand years ago, before the Little Ice Age, on the north side of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in the country. Vatnajökull is roughly the area of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and stands almost as tall as the Empire State Building. Okjökull, by comparison, was small and young when it died; ice covered the mountaintop for only a few centuries. Sigurðsson knows this because he had counted the glacier’s rings, which were formed by dust each year—not unlike the rings on a tree. The rings contained a sort of memory—a record of pollen clouds, volcanic eruptions, world wars, and nuclear meltdowns. When a glacier melts, Sigurðsson explained, its memory disappears.

Having “memory” is just one of the many ways scientists refer to glaciers in terms that make them seem alive. They also “crawl” and have “toes”; when they break off at the ablation edge, they are said to have “calved.” They are born and die—the latter at increasing rates, especially during “the great thaw” of the past twenty years. When Sigurðsson conducted a glacier inventory in the early two-thousands, he found more than three hundred glaciers in Iceland; a repeat inventory, in 2017, revealed that fifty-six had disappeared. Many of them were small glaciers in the highlands, which had spent their lives almost entirely unseen. “Most of them didn’t even have names,” he told me. “But we have been working with local people to name every glacier so that they will not go unbaptized.” Now, he intends to complete their death certificates and bring a stack of them to meetings.

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Same Sh*itty Media Men, Different Day

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 24: Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer attend Cocktail party to celebrate ASP - The World Surf League at Jimmy at the James Hotel on July 24, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Clint Spaulding/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

The more things don’t change, the more they remain the same. At The Cut, Rebecca Traister reads Ronan Farrow’s damning new book, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators (out today!), and realizes that those executives at NBC who colluded to obstruct Farrow’s ground-breaking reporting on Harvey Weinstein — and who protected Matt Lauer from sexual misconduct accusations — remain in charge today.

The reveal in Catch and Kill is not that there are corrupt people; it’s that corrupt people are in control of our media, politics, and entertainment and that, in fact, many of them remain in control — two years after the mass eruption of stories of harassment and assault that Farrow played a big part in precipitating. In his detailed laying out of systemic dread, Farrow does much to vividly describe the kind of horror story we still live in, when it comes to harassment and assault and, more broadly, to power imbalances and abuses.

Farrow, like his New York Times peers Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in their recent book She Said, has chosen to frame his narrative around his own journalistic project — how he came to publish the blockbuster story of movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual predation. But unlike Kantor and Twohey’s triumphal tale of working within a supportive news organization, much of Farrow’s story is about working against the news network, NBC, where he was employed as an on-air investigative journalist and where he did much of his reporting on Weinstein, though that reporting would never air. (He eventually published in The New Yorker).

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Losing the Plot

Illustration by Giselle Potter

Sari Botton | Longreads | December 2018 | 23 minutes (5,667 words)

When I graduate from college in May of 1987, I receive a call from the Sephardic Brotherhood, an organization of which my father is a lifelong member. After congratulating me on this milestone, the man on the phone suggests I begin planning for another bigger one down the road: Would I like to be buried in their section of a Jewish cemetery in New Jersey? If I sign up now, I can lock into their special rate of just $90 per year.

I’m only 22 at the time, but I’ve just put myself through four years of college by working and scrimping and saving and worrying, and damn if I don’t recognize a bargain when I hear it — not to mention an opportunity to gain a sense of control over something. I mail off a check and then go about the business of hunting for my first real job in journalism; beginning my adult life while responsibly covering my bases for the end of it.

~

Two years later I marry for the first time, and the Sephardic Brotherhood calls again. Would I like to have my husband — he’s 25 — buried beside me?

“Hang on,” I say to the man on the other end. “Honey?? Do you want to be buried with me in the Sephardic part of a Jewish cemetery in New Jersey? It’s $90 a year.”

“I don’t know,” my husband shouts from another room in our small apartment. “Can we think about it?”

“I’ll get back to you,” I tell the man.

That weekend, at dinner with my in-laws, we inform them of the wonderful opportunity before us. “What?!” my mother-in-law shrieks. “But we’re already paying for plots for you — and your children — with the Shpitzernitzer* Society!”

(*In America from the late 19th to the early 20th Century, European Jewish immigrants formed hundreds of groups like the Shpitzernitzer Society and the Sephardic Brotherhood. Originally these societies served multiple purposes — helping members find jobs, learn English, and navigate immigration issues and assorted other legal matters. Many also became discount burial plot brokers.)

It’s news to us that our corpses and those of our theoretical future children are already spoken for, but we aren’t about to argue over it. On Monday I call the Brotherhood and cancel my burial plan. They issue a full refund.

~

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