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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

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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For Each Survivor of a Mass Shooting, a Different (Slow) Road to Recovery

At Esquire, Libby Copeland sits down with survivors of a mass shooting at a high school in Chardon, Ohio six years later, observing the various ways they live and cope with lasting trauma. All the people she speaks with — students, teachers, parents, school staff — continue to struggle with the memories and things like survivor guilt and PTSD, and no one can predict when or if they will ever fully recover. Some have made strides with the help of therapists, and treatment with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

For Jen Sprinzl — the principal’s secretary, who’d encountered the shooter in the hallway, mid-rampage — even more than therapy, it was her husband’s understanding that helped her recently get to a new place with her grief.

She said that, despite therapy, she continues to struggle. Recently, while standing in a restaurant buffet line, another diner started to choke; the commotion that ensued sent Jen’s whole body into a state of panic, her heart racing, her breath fast and shallow. Just the other day, a student pulled out what looked to be a pocket knife, and it terrified her, until he opened it up to reveal that it was just a comb. She said she knew that some of her colleagues thought she should be over this by now, six years later, but it wasn’t that easy.

Even so, things had improved over the last year. “I let him win for five years,” she said, referring to the shooter. Then one night, she’d had a kind of breakthrough. She and Joe went to dinner down the road, and she told him, “I’m sorry if I’ve been a burden. I can’t control this.”

“You’re not a burden,” he told her. He was there to help her, he said. However long it took.

And after that, she said, crying, “it was like I was free.” In that moment, Joe had taken a great weight from her. She realized she didn’t need to protect him from her pain; he could help her carry it.

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The Post on Anti-Semitism I Never Thought I’d Write

Businesses and properties owned by Jews were the target of vicious Nazi mobs during a night of vandalism that is known as "Kristallnacht". (Photo by © Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive)

Today begins the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a nation-wide pogrom against Jews that took place across Germany and in parts of Austria on November 9th and 10th, 1938. Over the course of those two days, Germans smashed the windows of Jewish businesses and homes, burned synagogues, and committed deadly violence against Jews in the streets. Many consider the mass destruction that took place then to have marked a shift from ongoing, rampant anti-semitism to the official beginning of the Holocaust.

As a kid, in the ’70s, although I was occasionally made fun of for being Jewish, I thought that level of hatred and violence toward Jews had been relegated permanently to the past. But now, 80 years after Kristallnacht, I’m seeing I was wrong. Anti-semitism is on the rise again — in Europe, South America, the United States, everywhere.

It’s in my city of Kingston, New York, too. In my neighborhood. On my street.
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A Confederacy of (Dangerous) Dunces

In her new column for The Guardian, Rebecca Solnit makes a solid argument that Donald Trump’s presidency, and his fervent support from white racists, mark an attempt of the American Confederacy to rise again.

We had an ardent Unionist president for eight years, and now we are 21 months into the reign of an openly Confederate president, one who has defended Confederate statues and Confederate values and Confederate goals, because Make America Great Again harks back to some antebellum fantasy of white male dominance. Last weekend might as well have been Make America Gentile Again. And then came the attack, last Tuesday, on one of the signal achievements after the end of all-out war between the states: the 14th Amendment, which extends equal right of citizenship to everyone born here or naturalized.

So much of what is at stake is the definition of “us”, “ours” and “we”. “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union,” says the preamble to the Constitution. It was murky about who “we” were, and who “the people” were. That document gives only some white men the vote and apportions each state’s representation according to “whole Number of free Persons, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons”. “All other persons” is a polite way of saying enslaved black people, who found the union pretty imperfect. “Who’s your ‘us’?” could be what we ask each other and our elected officials.

“You will not replace us,” shouted the mobs of white men marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 in a rally organized in response to the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee. When Dylann Roof murdered nine black people on 17 June 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, he declared: “Y’all are raping our white women. Y’all are taking over the world.” His “us” was white people, perhaps white men, since “our women” seems to regard white women as white men’s possessions.

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Help Us Fund More Original Essays (and Great Art to Go with Them)

It’s that time of year again, when for two weeks, my Twitter feed reads like a public radio fund-drive. That’s right, it’s Longreads’ annual member drive.

We’re working hard right now to raise $50,000 for our original story fund by Sunday, November 4th — a number that turns into $200,000 when you consider that matches every dollar contributed times three. We need your help to achieve this goal — to be able to fund more original stories.

At Longreads we pride ourselves on paying contributors fairly. The money we raise during our member drive is used to pay writers, editors, art directors, fact-checkers, copyeditors, illustrators, photographers, transcribers, translators and others who help us publish original pieces throughout the year.

It’s used to fund not only ground-breaking journalism — for instance Leah Sottile’s article and podcast series, Bundyville, a collaboration with Oregon Public Broadcasting — but also personal essays, which we’ve been publishing more of than ever before.

As Longreads’ Essays Editor — and a reader — I feel strongly that personal narratives have never been more important than they are now, when the world needs more awareness of, and empathy for, people’s different experiences. Publishing personal essays allows us to amplify diverse voices, and also to give chances to new writers who are just starting out. I believe personal essays can be as effective as hard reporting in conveying important ideas, and perhaps even more so in terms of opening people’s hearts and minds.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to get to work at a publication that recognizes the value of personal essays, pays writers fairly for them, and makes room in its editorial calendar for two or more of them each week.

Becoming a member — or making a one-time donation whether or not you already are a member — helps us to keep publishing a broad mix of essays from a wide variety of writers.

It’s impossible to choose my favorite particular essays that we’ve published, but in the interest of persuading you to contribute, I’d like to point to a few that have made me especially proud to have the opportunity to do this work, and to be part of the incredible Longreads team. Please notice, too, the art that accompanies these pieces — original illustrations by various artists, and collages by our art director, Katie Kosma. Member funding helps pay for these, too. Read more…

The Trans Parent Whose Journey Inspired a Television Show

The New Yorker has an excerpt of Jill Soloway’s forthcoming memoir, She Wants It: Desire, Power and Toppling the Patriarchy. In it, the “Transparent” creator recalls the incident that led to the Amazon Prime series: her father coming out to her as transgender. Soloway touches on the ways in which her father’s announcement was initially difficult for her — and other family members — to accept.

I wondered what I was supposed to think about the old version of my dad that I remembered. The big one with the beard that wasn’t actually dead, but was—where, exactly? When I told my friend Nicole about my dad, she said, “Oh, she must be so relieved, to get that big old monkey suit off.” But where was that monkey suit that used to contain my dad? Was it on the floor somewhere, deflated? The notion got me thinking about my own lifetime of bodily disconnect.

Not long after, I got word that Carrie’s sister, my aunt Ruth, was nearing the end of her life. My mom had also scheduled hip-replacement surgery and needed us for support. I decided to go to Chicago to say goodbye to Ruth, be there as my mom went into surgery, and finally meet Carrie.

Ruth was in her eighties. When I got to her apartment, her hospice attendant opened the door. She was sweet, and the space felt warm and quiet. I went to sit at Ruth’s bedside. She took sips of water. I told her how much I loved her and how good she looked. Her son David, my cousin, would be there soon. But, before he arrived, she wanted something from me. Could I give her my thoughts on a letter she wanted to write to my dad?

“What’s in the letter?” I asked.

“I don’t want him to come to my funeral in women’s clothing,” she said.

“O.K.,” I said.

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Of Politics and Prose

Should art — and more specifically, literature — be instructive? Adding her perspective to the never-ending debate, Roxane Gay has an essay at Lithub in which she reveals how she chose the short stories for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2018: with an eye toward writing that engaged with the political in thoughtful, engaging, diverse and inclusive ways.

Writers are divided on whether or not it is their responsibility to address the contretemps in their work. Some writers stubbornly cling to the idea that writing should not be sullied by politics. They labor under the impression that they can write fiction that isn’t political, or influenced in some way by politics, which is, whether they realize it or not, a political stance in and of itself. Other writers believe it is an inherent part of their craft to engage with the political. And then there are those writers, such as myself, who believe that the very act of writing from their subject position is political, regardless of what they write. I know, as a black, queer woman, that to write is a deeply political act, whether I am writing about the glory of the movie Magic Mike XXL, or a novel about a kidnapping in Haiti, or a short story about a woman eating expired yogurt while her husband suggests opening their marriage.

When I am reading fiction, I am not always looking for the political. First and foremost, I am looking for a good story. I am looking for beautifully crafted sentences. I am looking for a refreshing voice or perspective. I am looking for interesting, complex characters that I find myself thinking about even when I am done with the story. I am looking for the artful way any given story is conveyed, but I also love when a story has a powerful message, when a story teaches me something about the world, when a story shows me just how much I don’t know and need to know about the lives of others.

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The Art of the Pan

If you’re looking for a diversion from the never ending political sh*t show in America, I highly recommend English Patient Twitter, where just about everyone in media is talking about Sarah Miller’s Popula essay about her struggle in 1996 to get away with panning “The English Patient” for an alt weekly paper.

Even before seeing that “racist, boring, laughable, pseudo-intellectual movie,” she knew she’d pan it. Her perspective on popular movies often ran counter to the mainstream — more bluntly put, she didn’t like most movies. But it wasn’t just a pose; she came by her negative criticism honestly, and made salient, compelling arguments for it.

This was a movie about good looking mostly white people talking complete rubbish to each other, the end. But it was based on a LITERARY NOVEL with LONG SENTENCES using BIG WORDS. It had RESPECTED ACTORS. PEOPLE DIED in it. Also, WORLD WAR II WAS THERE. Everyone had agreed to care about this thing, to call it good, to give it nine Academy Awards. But it was just a piece of shit sprinkled with glitter that everyone, including me, agreed to call gold.

But Miller wasn’t the only person at the time to lampoon the drama — Seinfeld‘s ‘The English Patient’ episode, which drew more than 31 million viewers when it aired in 1997, centers on Elaine’s hatred of the film:

Still, Miller’s editor considered her opinion of the Anthony Minghella screen adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel to be scandalous.

My review of The English Patient was not really a review. I began by extensively praising Kristin Scott Thomas’s hair, and used this as a way to transition into discussing the other good things about the film. One was the chance to see Naveen Andrews, who I had liked so much in The Buddha of Suburbia, which I spent a paragraph praising, and which, I stressed, had a good story and was actually about something—unlike The English Patient, which was about British people fucking in their colonies, and not nearly often enough to be any fun. I recounted the moment when Fiennes stuck his livery tongue into the alabaster hollow of Scott Thomas’s throat, and Sam and I cried out in unison, “Ewwww.”

It was the best thing I’d ever written.

I pretended to read the paper as Jennifer read my review. I waited for her to start giggling and making appreciative sounds. But she was silent. When she finally turned to speak to me her face was white. She said, “Sarah, we cannot print this review.”

“But the movie was really, really, bad,” I said. “I mean seriously, it was the worst.”

“That is not the consensus from people I know who are smart,” she said. She was pretty mad.

“I swear to God that no one could possibly like this movie,” I said. “I mean, anyone who likes this movie is an idiot.”

Fearing it would threaten her future freelance work with the paper, Miller re-wrote the piece, dishonestly she says — in such a way that, “I didn’t go so far as to say that the movie was great, but I know that overall I ended up recommending it.”

Now, 22 years later, there are those on Twitter who view the essay as scandalous — calling it smug and flagrantly contrarian. But there seem to be more in favor of it, who appreciate Miller’s brutal honesty, and her irreverence toward the Serious Film establishment.

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It’s Time to Stop Painting Joyce Maynard as an ‘Oversharer’ Already

Recently on Facebook I was surprised to see a female acquaintance deriding author Joyce Maynard as an “opportunist” for writing a memoir and assorted essays about her time with J.D. Salinger when she was 18 and he was 53. I’d assumed that in the #metoo era, we’d now abandoned such sexist notions, and supported the idea of women speaking out — and writing about — their experiences with men who were in positions of much greater power than they were.

But as Maynard reported recently in the New York Times, at least as far as her public image is concerned, unfortunately not much has changed.

Last fall, when word of Harvey Weinstein’s abuses of women in the entertainment industry overtook the press, followed by near daily revelations about other prominent and respected men accused of similar violations, I supposed this was the moment when my own experience might be seen in a new light. I thought my phone would ring.

The call never came. And though I believe that if the book I wrote 20 years ago were published today it would be received differently, it does not appear that enlightenment concerning the abuses of men in power extends retroactively to women who chose to speak long ago, and were shamed and humiliated for doing so. As recently as last fall — on the occasion of my having published a memoir about the death of my second husband, a book in which Salinger never appears — I was referred to as “the queen of oversharing.”

Oversharing. What does it say about us that a woman who speaks the truth of her experience should be dismissed for telling more than the world feels comfortable hearing? (And it is always a woman who will be accused of this; when a male writer confesses intimate details of his life, he’s brave, fearless, even brilliant. Consider, just for starters, Norman Mailer. Or, more recently, Karl Ove Knausgaard.)

For me, Maynard is a hero in more ways that one: a woman writer unafraid to tell the uncomfortable truth about a beloved icon, even in the face of derision — and as of this fall semester when she returns to Yale as a 64-year-old sophomore, an older woman unconcerned with dictums about age-appropriateness, committed to reclaiming what she lost out on when Salinger interrupted her life all those years ago.

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Finding Time to Write Even During the Busiest of Times

At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Amy Carleton has an essay on #1000WordsofSummer, the public two-week-long writing accountability project novelist Jami Attenberg offered to writers for free, via Twitter, Instagram, and TinyLetter, from June 15th through June 29th of 2018.

Carleton writes about how Attenberg helped created a “supportive literary community” online, and I concur. In fact, I benefitted from it.

I love my work editing other people’s writing, but I have a hard time finding time for my own writing, and sometimes even forget I’m a writer. The #1000WordsofSummer project came at what seemed the worst time for me. I had lost my stepfather of 33 years less than a month before; I was in the middle of moving to a new house; and I was taking part in bringing to light a local #metoo story.

But it turned out to actually be a fortuitous time for me to commit to writing 1000 words a day; it forced me to create the time, to get up earlier, stay up later, do whatever I had to do to be accountable to myself and the others who were writing. I did it every single day for those two weeks, and proved to myself that even in the busiest and craziest of times, you can find time to write 1000 words. I also enjoyed a sense of accomplishment, and felt for the first time in a long time as if I wasn’t self-abandoning the writer in me.

Many writers, in fact, lament over the number of their words that are “wasted” responding to the latest Twitter-drama instead of focusing on their own creative projects. “If you took all the time and all the words you used on Twitter… you could have written a book by now. #sadfacts,” observes one user.

But instead of perpetuating this regret, Attenberg turned her attention to creative empowerment. Within days, there was a hashtag: #1000wordsofsummer, and within weeks, a newsletter with almost 3000 subscribers. Once June 15 arrived, the daily emails from Attenberg commenced — some featuring guest commentary from other writers like Meg WolitzerAlissa Nutting, and Ada Limón. I printed out the newsletters each day and highlighted the words that resonated most with me; from novelist Laura van den Berg: “Here is the bottom line: I think often of what a painter said to me at a residency: ‘work makes more work.’ Indeed it does. Let’s do what we can.

Attenberg had no idea her project would have such traction. She was pleasantly surprised, to say the least.

Eventually, what Attenberg began on a lark showed how positive and encouraging online communities can be.

“While it wasn’t necessarily my original intention,” she reflects, “it became clear quite quickly that the people participating in it had created their own corner of the internet. I hadn’t been part of something like that before…And I actually found myself looking forward to going on the internet each day, instead of being full of dread about the news. Because I could check in on how people were doing and seeing their progress and say supportive things to them. For two weeks, I was able to be positive in that space, and experience the joy of others as they made progress in their work.

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