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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 editorial director of TMI Project, a non-profit offering storytelling workshops, and has a column on The Rumpus. She tweets at http://twitter.com/saribotton

A (Tempered) Victory for the Silence-Breakers

Victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual abuse and their supporters protest during a #MeToo march in Hollywood, California on November 12, 2017. Several hundred women gathered in front of the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood before marching to the CNN building to hold a rally. / AFP PHOTO / Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

The good news: Time magazine has chosen as its Person of the Year, “The Silence Breakers,” recognizing the entire #MeToo movement. The cover story, by Stephanie Zarachek, Eliana Dockterman, and Haley Sweetland Edwards, is a round-up of the experiences of various women and a few men — in entertainment, media, hospitality, activism, and other fields — who had the courage to speak out about the sexual abuse, harassment, and discrimination they endured from men in power. As context, the piece also provides the backstory to the movement.

The bad news: unfortunately, the magazine undermined the impact of its cover story and Person of the Year choice by selecting sexual-predator-in-chief Donald Trump as runner-up.

Like the “problem that has no name,” the disquieting malaise of frustration and repression among postwar wives and homemakers identified by Betty Friedan more than 50 years ago, this moment is born of a very real and potent sense of unrest. Yet it doesn’t have a leader, or a single, unifying tenet. The hashtag #MeToo (swiftly adapted into #BalanceTonPorc, #YoTambien, #Ana_kaman and many others), which to date has provided an umbrella of solidarity for millions of people to come forward with their stories, is part of the picture, but not all of it.

This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight. But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries. Women have had it with bosses and co-workers who not only cross boundaries but don’t even seem to know that boundaries exist. They’ve had it with the fear of retaliation, of being blackballed, of being fired from a job they can’t afford to lose. They’ve had it with the code of going along to get along. They’ve had it with men who use their power to take what they want from women. These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day, and in the past two months alone, their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results: nearly every day, CEOs have been fired, moguls toppled, icons disgraced. In some cases, criminal charges have been brought.

Emboldened by Judd, Rose McGowan and a host of other prominent accusers, women everywhere have begun to speak out about the inappropriate, abusive and in some cases illegal behavior they’ve faced. When multiple harassment claims bring down a charmer like former Today show host Matt Lauer, women who thought they had no recourse see a new, wide-open door. When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who’s been quietly enduring for years.

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When to (Not) Have Kids

An employee of Planned Parenthood holds a sign about birth control to be displayed on New York City buses, 1967. (H. William Tetlow/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

For a variety of reasons, I don’t have kids. As a woman of a certain age, I’ve been conditioned to believe I must qualify that statement by assuring you it’s not that I’m some kid hater, or that I don’t think babies are cute. They are! (Okay, I also find them to be kind of disgusting.) But among my many reasons for not procreating is that kids grow up to be people, and life for most people on this overcrowded, overheated planet is hard, and getting harder.

Even before Donald Trump took office, I had often wondered: with terrorism, war, and genocide, with climate change rendering Earth increasingly less habitable, how do people feel optimistic enough about the future to bring new people into the world? Since the presidential election, the prospects for humanity seem only more dire. I’m hardly alone in this thinking; I can’t count how many times over the past year I’ve huddled among other non-breeders, wondering along with them in hushed tones, How on earth do people still want to have kids? I was surprised, at this bleak moment in American history, that I hadn’t seen any recent writing on the topic. Was it still too taboo to discuss not making babies, from any angle? Then this past week a few pieces caught my eye.

The one that spoke most directly to my doubts about perpetuating the human race, and its suffering, was “The Case for Not Being Born,” by Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker. Rothman interviews anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar, author of 2006’s Better Never to Have Been: the Harm of Coming Into Existence, and more recently, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions. Rothman notes that Benatar makes no bones about his pessimism as it relates to humanity.

People, in short, say that life is good. Benatar believes that they are mistaken. “The quality of human life is, contrary to what many people think, actually quite appalling,” he writes, in “The Human Predicament.” He provides an escalating list of woes, designed to prove that even the lives of happy people are worse than they think. We’re almost always hungry or thirsty, he writes; when we’re not, we must go to the bathroom. We often experience “thermal discomfort”—we are too hot or too cold—or are tired and unable to nap. We suffer from itches, allergies, and colds, menstrual pains or hot flashes. Life is a procession of “frustrations and irritations”—waiting in traffic, standing in line, filling out forms. Forced to work, we often find our jobs exhausting; even “those who enjoy their work may have professional aspirations that remain unfulfilled.” Many lonely people remain single, while those who marry fight and divorce. “People want to be, look, and feel younger, and yet they age relentlessly. They have high hopes for their children and these are often thwarted when, for example, the children prove to be a disappointment in some way or other. When those close to us suffer, we suffer at the sight of it. When they die, we are bereft.”

While this isn’t how I always look at life, I believe Benatar makes some good points. (Not to mention I’ve endured three of the above mentioned hot flashes while writing this, and one’s optimism does tend to dip in those estrogen-depleted moments.)

Rothman’s piece reminded me of an essay we published here on Longreads a couple of years ago,  “The Answer is Never,” by Sabine Heinlein. Like me, Heinlein often finds herself having to defend her preference for choosing to be childless: “One of the many differences between my husband and me is that he has never been forced to justify why he doesn’t want to have children. I, on the other hand, had to prepare my reasons from an early age.” She keeps a laundry list of reasons handy:

Over the years I tried out various, indisputable explanations: The world is bursting at the seams and there is little hope for the environment. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Earth has lost half of its fauna in the last 40 years alone. The atmosphere is heating up due to greenhouse gases, and we are running out of resources at an alarming speed. Considering these facts, you don’t need an excuse not to have children, you need an excuse to have children! When I mention these statistics to people, they just nod. It’s as if their urge to procreate overrides their knowledge.

Is there any knowledge forbidding enough that it could potentially override such a primordial urge? In a devastating essay at New York magazine, “Every Parent Wants to Protect Their Child. I Never Got the Chance,” Jen Gann attests that there is. Gann writes about raising a son who suffers from cystic fibrosis, an incurable disease that will likely lead to his early death. The midwife practice neglected to warn her that she and her husband were carriers, and Gann writes that she would have chosen to terminate the pregnancy if they had.

The summer after Dudley was born, my sister-in-law came to visit; we were talking in the kitchen while he slept in the other room. “But,” she said, trying to figure out what it would mean to sue over a disease that can’t be prevented or fixed, “if you had known — ” I interrupted her, wanting to rush ahead but promptly bursting into tears when I said it: “There would be no Dudley.” I remember the look that crossed her face, how she nodded slowly and said, twice, “That’s a lot.”

What does it mean to fight for someone when what you’re fighting for is a missed chance at that person’s not existing?

The more I discuss the abortion I didn’t have, the easier that part gets to say aloud: I would have ended the pregnancy. I would have terminated. I would have had an abortion. That’s firmly in the past, and it is how I would have rearranged my actions, given all the information. It’s moving a piece of furniture from one place to another before anything can go wrong, the way we got rid of our wobbly side tables once Dudley learned to walk.

Finally, an essay that took me by surprise was “To Give a Name to It,” by Navneet Alang, at Hazlitt. Alang writes about a name that lingers in his mind: Tasneen, a name he had come up with for a child when he was in a relationship years ago, before the relationship ended, childlessly. It reminded me of the names I long ago came up with for children I might have had — Max and Chloe, after my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother — during my first marriage, long before I learned I couldn’t have kids. This was actually good news, information that allowed me, finally, to feel permitted to override my conditioning and recognize my lack of desire for children, which was a tremendous relief.

Reading Alang’s essay, I realized that although I never brought those two people into the world, I had conceived of them in my mind. And somehow, in some small way, they still live there — two amorphous representatives of a thing called possibility.

A collection of baby names is like a taxonomy of hope, a kind of catechism for future lives scattered over the horizon. Yes, those lists are about the dream of a child to come, but for so many they are about repairing some wound, retrieving what has been lost to the years. All the same, there were certain conversations I could have with friends or the love of my life, and certain ones with family, and somehow they never quite met in the same way, or arrived at the same point. There is a difference between the impulse to name a child after a flapper from the Twenties, or search however futilely for some moniker that will repair historical trauma. Journeys were taken — across newly developed borders, off West in search of a better life, or to a new city for the next phase of a career — and some things have been rent that now cannot quite be stitched back together. One can only ever point one’s gaze toward the future, and project into that unfinished space a hope — that some future child will come and weave in words the thing that will, finally, suture the wound shut. One is forever left with ghosts: a yearning for a mythical wholeness that has slipped irretrievably behind the veil of history.

Yes, I know those ghosts, but not the yearning. I suppose I’m fortunate to not be bothered by either their absence in the physical realm, nor their vague presence somewhere deep in the recesses of my consciousness. Fortunate to no longer care what my lack of yearning might make people think of me.

Giving Thanks, Silently

Most years, my husband and I celebrate Thanksgiving twice: first on the actual holiday with my family on Long Island, then again that Saturday, in the Hudson Valley, with his. While there are nice aspects to both celebrations, it can also feel like an exhausting hustle.

This year it all seems particularly overwhelming. Maybe the non-stop onslaught of upsetting news is to blame — from our president’s efforts to dismantle our democracy, to the barrage of necessary but demoralizing reports about men in power sexually assaulting and harassing women and men — or the prospect of discussions about these horrors with people at different ranges of the political spectrum; but I feel as if I’m already experiencing the tryptophan effect, and I’m still a good 24 hours away from consuming any turkey.

Next year, I would like to do what Nina Coomes’ family used to do on Thanksgiving: take a silent retreat.

At Catapult, Coomes reflects in a personal essay on those times with her family at St. Mary’s of the Lake, a Catholic seminary in Illinois. There, Coomes and her Japanese-American family engaged in extreme unplugging — no reading, talking, using digital devices, and listening to music; they were allowed to write, draw and play the piano.

The retreat gave us all time away from the bewilderment we tended to experience around American holidays. By the time we first visited St. Mary’s, we had lived in the US for almost five years, but holidays and the surrounding sociocultural expectations were still a source of stress for us. Spending the weekend in silent contemplation and companionship proved a good way for my family to ease into the American holiday season; to take what we appreciated and understood—quality time together, to reflect and feel grateful—and leave what we didn’t, such as football, Black Friday shopping, and the white-meat portion of the turkey. Silence provided us with a touchstone to return to what we held dear as we continued to acclimate to a new country and culture.

While it was initially difficult for the family to acclimate to the silence, once they got used to it, they came to like it.

On our first Thanksgiving retreat, I was a seventh-grade bookworm of the highest order and had just received my own textbook-sized laptop. I was sure I would be bored to death with no one to keep me company but my little sister and newly uncool Mom and Dad. And at first the silent gesturing seemed infuriatingly slow; communication of the simplest ideas took minutes, minutes that slid by in what felt like an eternity. But after the initial frustration, the silence around us seemed to deepen and warm. Moments when one of us might have snapped at the other over a dropped piece of pie or a hand in an almost-slammed door were smoothed over more quickly, because the expression of frustration and anger had been relegated to facial expression.

To express affection or care without words, we sat close to each other, took long walks together, or fell asleep in overstuffed armchairs, side-by-side in puddles of late-afternoon sun. Silence made us more patient, more creaturely, somehow truer to ourselves. We did not have words to give thanks, but somehow gratitude remained, flourishing and becoming all the more tangible. On Sunday morning following that first retreat, even after we pulled away from the gates of St. Mary’s, our quietude persisted. It was with a lingering sadness that we slowly eased back into verbal communication, reluctant to return to the world of sound.

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The Memoirist’s Dilemma

(Schiffer-Fuchs/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

I’m an unrepentant memoir junkie. For some reason, I have always favored true personal stories over fiction, and this year I finally completed a proposal for one of my own.

I say finally because it has taken years — decades, actually. I’m terrified of the repercussions of exposing myself, my friends, and my family members who might prefer to stay off the page. I’ve spent many hours talking with memoirists about this, asking them how they found the courage to reveal so much, and what their personal philosophies are regarding other people’s privacy.

At The New York Review of Books — in an essay about the lingering effects of having written a memoir about the political hanging of her father in Sierra Leone — novelist Aminatta Forna writes about dealing with some of these fears herself.

The writer of a memoir must necessarily reveal a great deal about herself or himself, and often about other people, too. You sacrifice your own privacy, and you sacrifice the privacy of others to whom you may have given no choice. They may enjoy the attention or be enraged by it. “People either claim it or they sue you,” the head of press at my publisher told me in the weeks before my memoir was published. I knew who might sue or come after me—members of the regime that had killed my father. I comforted myself with the belief that they had for the most part been exiled or discredited, or had gone underground. The only person I allowed to read the unpublished manuscript was my stepmother, because I was concerned about her safety even more than my own. She still lived in the country, and the violence can ricochet for months after a civil war.

In the final draft, I changed one name only—of the man who had betrayed my father for the promise of money, agreeing to give false testimony at his treason trial on behalf of the regime. He admitted this to me during our interview. I despised him and I knew other readers of the book would despise him, too. He had a pitch selling Lotto tickets in Freetown, a small city. Anyone could find him just by asking around, as I had done. Already, one or two one or two suspected former rebel soldiers had been lynched in the city.

For this reason, I changed his name, and privately decided that I would change any other names that my stepmother wanted me to. But without saying this, I let her read the book. When she gave it back to me, she made no comment. On the final page, I found a checkmark and the words “Well done, darling!” Later, she elaborated: if we were going to do it, we would go all the way.

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Parsing Her Identity With A Long-Lost Folder, Plus the Internet

In time for National Adoption Awareness Month, Granta has a personal essay by novelist A.M. Homes, who ten years ago published The Mistress’s Daughter, a memoir about meeting her birth parents at 31, in 1992.

Now 55, Homes reports on the experience of recently being given her long-lost adoption file from 1961, and the effects of the information within it — plus what she can now find on the internet using clues from the file — on her understanding of herself and her origins.

She has mixed feelings about opening the file once she has it.

The envelope takes several days to arrive and when it does I put it in my office and let it rest. I leave the envelope for weeks, having already once had the terra firma of identity slip out from under me like sand followed by a long, slow climb back to safety – I am aware that once I expose whatever is inside I will have to deal with it. I am not in a hurry.

There is the fear that there might be something in the file, a surprise that changes the narrative as I know it.

She acknowledges, though, that many other adoptees don’t have that luxury.

Even now, in most states and countries, an adoptee doesn’t have the right to know who they are and how they came into the world. The laws vary from place to place, and were mostly designed to protect the privacy of the often-unwed mother, and the often-infertile adopting couple, rather than the needs of the child.

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The He’s-Got-to-Be-the-Help-Because-He’s-Brown Mistake

Lithub has a searing personal essay by poet Patrick Rosal — an excerpt of We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page. The piece is framed as a letter to a white woman who mistook him for a server at the black-tie National Book Awards gala, which he had attended in support of a friend who was being honored.

The experience prompts him to reconsider his choice of a $90 suit for the occasion, and also to reflect on the kinds of mistakes white people often make about people of color — in this case what he calls “the He’s-Got-to-Be-the-Help-Because-He’s-Brown Mistake.”

After the first round of drinks, after introductions and small talk with my tablemates, after the courses of salad and soup, I stand up, excuse myself, and walk across the swanky hall, winding my way through the other big round tables to find my way toward one of my dear friends, who is among tonight’s honorees. And you—sitting at a table not far from where my homeboy is sitting—stand up too. Surely, by the way you crane your neck forward and to the side, stepping slightly left into my path just enough to intercept me, I must know you from somewhere else, right? I lift my chin a little to see if I can link a name to your face. And surely you think you know me too, don’t you? I’ve traveled only from the other side of the room to walk toward you and for you to walk toward me. But doesn’t something break just then, when you and I approach? All the festive shimmering in the space. These eyes. This face. I think I’m even smiling now, when you point back at your seat to tell me you need a clean linen to dab the corner of your mouth. You need a knife for the beef cheeks. A refill of your cabernet. Maybe you need me to kneel down and shim one of the table legs to keep it from bobbing.

So this is how you and I have been walking toward each other maybe this entire time.

When at first I don’t respond, maybe you think it’s too loud for me to hear you clearly. Or maybe you think my English isn’t too good—for you ask me the same thing once more before you clip your request short and say: “You’re one of the servers, right? . . . You’re with the servers? . . .” And I stand there absolutely still so we might stare at each other for one long second exactly like that. “You’re not with them?” You are pointing at the line of workers in white jackets and bow ties, a tray hoisted over some of their shoulders. That’s when my face gets unfixed quick. I twist the whole thing—top right eyebrow to bottom left lip. I crinkle the bridge of my nose and suck my teeth once before I blow out a pffffh! You open your mouth and maybe if there were not the thousands around us chattering, pricking each other with their literary wit, the fine chime of restaurant china like a four-hour avalanche of muted porcelain, I think I might hear you whisper, “Oh . . .” You spin on one heel and dash back to your chair.

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An Unapologetic Plea for Your Help Funding More Personal Essays

I was going to begin this post by apologizing to anyone who follows me on Twitter for the way in which my feed has, for the past two weeks, read like a non-stop public radio fund drive.

Then I remembered that a) I am the person who added the Unapologetic Women story category here at Longreads, in part to help me check myself in this regard, and b) I have zero regrets for spreading the word about our current member drive, through which we’re trying to raise $25,000 not only for original journalism by great reporters like Alice Driver, but also for personal essays.

In some corners of the internet, personal essays are derided as frivolous and narcissistic, but I couldn’t disagree more. I find personal narratives to be deeply compelling and important. I believe they can be as effective as hard reporting in conveying important ideas, and sometimes even more so in terms of opening people’s minds by engendering empathy, first for the person telling the story.

I consider myself very fortunate to serve as Essays Editor for a publication that recognizes the value of personal essays, pays writers fairly for them, and makes room in its editorial calendar for at least two of them each week.

Member support — which WordPress.com is matching times three! — makes this possible. (All the money in Longreads’ story fund goes toward paying writers, illustrators, photographers, copyeditors and fact-checkers.)

While it’s difficult to single out particular essays as favorites, or most important, in the interest of possibly persuading some of 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 be part of the incredible Longreads team. Read more…

The Film Critic Turned Filmmaker

This week, T: The New York Times Style Magazine publishes “The Greats,” a package featuring masters in various artistic fields, profiled by great writers. There are seven profiles, and seven different covers to go with them.

Included is novelist Alexander Chee’s profile of Korean director Park Chan-wook, who has become the most celebrated filmmaker in Korea despite his informal training.

Park is an autodidact, a self-taught auteur. This wasn’t just by choice; the 1980s Korea in which he came of age had only a few film schools, and no serious cinematic culture for him to either engage with or ignore. He had only the American Forces Korea Network, a television channel famous for airing foreign movies, often without subtitles. (If there were subtitles, they were in English, not in Korean.) Park remembers watching these on his family’s black-and-white television. Later, he had his university’s cinema club, which showed bootleg VHS tapes of foreign films. “When you say you go to a film school in America or France, you would probably go to a lecture where they teach you about German Expressionism and show you what these German Expressionist films are,” he says. “But in Korea there was no systematic education I could be exposed to. It was sporadic, haphazard. And maybe that’s why my films have ended up in this strange form, where it feels like it’s a mishmash of everything.”

He recalls a James Bond film he saw in the theater as a boy — he doesn’t remember which one, but it excited him so much, he began imagining his own Bond films. But not just the stories: He saw them in his head, shot for shot, thinking of how lighting, angles and editing told stories, and he began formulating his own.

The six other profiles in The Greats series include: Roxane Gay on hip hop artist Nicki Minaj, Hanya Yanagihara on designer Dries Van Noten, Lin Manuel Miranda on lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Manohla Dargis on actor Amy Adams, Dave Eggers on writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Randy Kennedy on sculptor Claes Oldenburg.

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The Secret Women’s Organization Providing for Black Communities

Getty Images

At a moment when there’s so much distressing news about bad men, it’s a relief to read an article about some inspiring women.

At Lenny Letter, novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge writes about her weekend in Chesapeake, Virginia for the 150th anniversary of the United Order of Tents, a somewhat secret society of black women established just after the end of the Civil War, which has long provided financial and other kinds of support to black communities.

The organization was founded by two former slaves, Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor. Lane had been a nurse on the plantation where she was enslaved, and over the years, that has influenced the group’s makeup and mission.

Tents members are from all social classes — Lodis Gloston was a school principal before she retired; others work in government or real estate, and some are working class. In the past, Tents members were often nurses, another link to the organization’s founder, Annetta Lane. And even at this conference, there is a small but vocal group of health-care workers.

This connection to health care is central to the Tents’ mission.

But health care is merely one focus. For generations, those women have worked together to provide so much more.

Most astonishing about the Tents is the fact that about a generation out of slavery, in 1894, they established a rest home for the elderly that they ran continuously, with no outside financial help and with no bankruptcy, for over 100 years, until 2002. In addition, at a certain point in the mid-century, the Tents served as a mortgage house for black families and churches who would not have been able to apply for loans from white banks. The Tents, therefore, literally helped build the institutions and homes of their communities.

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The ‘Moderate Thoughfulness’ Hour with Preet Bharara

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

At New York Magazine, Andrew Rice has a profile of Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who earlier this year was fired by Donald Trump. Bharara, known as a crusader against corporate corruption, has a new career as a podcast host. On his weekly show — Stay Tuned with Preet, launched in September through his younger brother’s holding company, Some Spider Studios — he deciphers current legal matters, including but not limited to those having to do with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the president.

Bharara can discern, perhaps as well as anyone now speaking publicly, where the mystery plot may be headed. But listeners tuning into his show for dramatic revelations are likely to be disappointed; Bharara is stubbornly resistant to allowing the show to become, as he puts it, “too Trump.” His first few shows featured friendly retrospective interviews with Democrats in exile, like Leon Panetta, the former White House chief of staff and CIA director, and Vanita Gupta, the head of the Department of Justice’s civil-rights division under President Obama. Some of his initial interviews hardly touched on Trump at all. In September, I watched him tape an interview with the outspoken federal judge Jed Rakoff, with whom he discussed the moral calculus of punishment. “What is cosmic justice?” Bharara asked.

“I don’t aspire to be a talk-show host. This is a thing that I’m doing, and we’ll see how it goes,” Bharara told me. Then he added, “I don’t know how much of an audience there is for moderate thoughtfulness from someone who used to have power.”

“You just gave us a tagline,” Vinit said, grinning. “Moderate thoughtfulness: Preet!” Bharara tried it again, in his most solemn, radio-ready voice.

“Moderate thoughtfulness … from a guy who used to have power.”

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