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Seyward Darby
Editor in Chief, The Atavist Magazine

‘Can You Imagine How That Felt?’: Blake Bailey’s Predations, As Told By His Students

Klaus Vedfelt

Blake Bailey’s 900-page biography of Philip Roth had been on shelves a matter of days when women began stepping forward to accuse Bailey of sexual assault, harassment, and grooming. Bailey, who has denied the allegations, was quickly dropped by his literary agency. His publisher, Norton, announced this week that it is permanently putting the Roth biography out of print and donating the equivalent of Bailey’s book advance to “organizations that fight against sexual assault or harassment and work to protect survivors.”

In the case of Bailey’s alleged predations, some of the survivors are his former students.

In a deeply reported piece, three authors at Slate Josh Levin, Susan Matthews, and Molly Olmstead — describe how, as a middle-school English teacher in New Orleans, Bailey encouraged kids to bear their souls to him in class journals, won their trust, and then exploited it:

The teacher’s massive stack of teenage diaries gave him a kind of classroom omniscience, which he didn’t hesitate to deploy. “If you mentioned a crush in your journal,” Sam says, “there was a chance that Bailey would think it was a good match and drop a note to her.” That worked for Sam. Nothing he could possibly say or do, he felt, carried nearly as much weight as an endorsement from Mr. Bailey.

Some students were not as keen to have their private information shared. “The journals were kind of like emotional blackmail,” says Amelia Ward, who was in eighth grade in 1996 and 1997. “He knew a lot about what was going on with the kids, socially.” Jessie Gelini, who took Mr. Bailey’s class in 1998 and 1999, remembers the teacher publicly airing a negative journal comment—something a male friend of Jessie’s had written about her boyfriend. “Here’s this adult, getting involved, and making it a class discussion,” Jessie says. She was humiliated.

While Mr. Bailey told Sam that he was just like him, Jessie remembers hearing the teacher say something very different to eighth grade girls: “I would have been your boyfriend in high school.” At the time, the casualness of that kind of remark felt thrilling, even though she knew it wasn’t quite right. “I was grossed out by him,” Jessie says now. “But at the same time, I was enamored.”

Bailey kept in touch with former students, and more than one has now alleged that, when they became adults, Bailey initiated sexual relationships with them, or raped them. One of them is Eve Crawford Peyton, whose personal essay accompanies the Slate article:

The one line I keep reading in different news accounts is a line that’s haunted me since the night he raped me in June 2003. As he dropped me off that night, while I was still shaking all over, he looked over at me, his eyes sad and sort of pleading, and said: “You really can’t blame me. I’ve wanted you since the day we met.”

At the time, that line almost broke my heart more than anything else. I couldn’t fathom that he could possibly have actually wanted me since the day we met—because I was 12 the day we met. Instead, I thought, he was just using the line on me that he used on all women.

“I’ve wanted you since the day we met,” I could imagine him slurring as a Tulane frat boy, pulling a young coed into his bedroom. I could hear him saying it to a colleague after weeks of courtship and flirtation. I figured it must be a habit, and the fact that he said it to me—someone he met when I was a child and he was in his 30s—made me feel like he didn’t even know who I was, like I was just some nameless, faceless woman.

That was hurtful. The truth was worse.

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Listen to the Sound of My Voice

Jiri Hera / EyeEm

Not long after journalist Minelle Mahtani began hosting her own radio show in Canada, her mother was diagnosed with tongue cancer. In a poignant essay for The Walrus, Mahtani explains how she was suddenly confronted with the painful reality that, just as she was finding her voice, her mother was losing hers:

I remembered the words of poet Rita Wong. “Habitual placement of the tongue changes the mouth. When the tongue is still, are you quiet enough to hear the dead? Quiet enough to hear the land stifled beneath massive concrete? Quiet enough to hear the beautiful, poisoned ancestors surfacing from your diaphragm?” All the stories of my ancestors, buried in my mother’s mouth, stories I would never hear again.

For years, I saw my mixed-race self as solid proof of the promise of mending. Now, my body felt torn apart: voice, sound, soul gone fugitive. My mother was a poised, sophisticated Iranian woman. Her skin was light and she was Muslim. My South Asian father was dark skinned and Hindu. These descriptions do nothing to fully capture their characters, of course. But this is what people wanted to know, always want to know. People knew I was something different, exotic—that awful word—they just weren’t sure what. My mother’s presence had always steadied me, provided me with the faith and sanctity to honour my family’s complex and colonial histories. What would I do without her voice?

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The Sickness That Stole the Trees

Portland Press Herald

There’s a pandemic you’ve probably never heard of, one that started in the Bronx and claimed some 4 billion lives over 35 years and 300,000 square miles. It was a blight—a fungus—that ravaged the American chestnut tree, a keystone species in the ecosystems of the eastern United States and a linchpin in the economy of Appalachia. “By almost any metric,” Kate Morgan details in “Once Upon a Tree,” her new feature in Sierra Magazine, “the American chestnut was a perfect tree.” Men came for the coal in the ground where the chestnuts had once stood, stripping black rock from soil already laid bare by sickness—an insult to environmental injury. A century later, it’s possible that Darling 58, an iteration of the chestnut birthed in a petri dish, could save the species if its seeds are sown in abandoned mines. That’s the hope of people like William Powell, a professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York, who has been on the frontlines of chestnut restoration since the 1990s:

Healthy chestnuts produce a large amount of seeds, but they don’t readily germinate on their own because they are often eaten. That’ll be true of the Darling 58 offspring too. “After 100 years, it might travel a mile,” Powell says. “It will spread, but it’s not a weed.”

Turn the coalfields into thriving, mature chestnut forests and the trees could do the rest, seeding themselves into adjacent forestlands. Slowly, from these debased landscapes, a new forest would expand outward. Imagine autumn in a sloping grove, broad, craggy trunks climbing the hillside, their long golden leaves wafting down to catch in the branches of rhododendrons and the needles of evergreens below. Black bears, fat on sweet chestnuts, drag their feet on the loamy ground and salamanders skitter through vernal pools in the forest that was and the forest that could be.

“We call this a century project,” Powell says. “To get it to look even somewhat like it did before the blight is going to take centuries. It’s for the next generation—it’s planting a tree you’ll never enjoy the shade of.”

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Dear Mom & Dad: We Need to Talk about QAnon

Andrew Lichtenstein

“A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.” That is the core tenet of the dangerous QAnon conspiracy theory—and nearly one-fifth of Americans think it’s true. A recent poll shows that just 47 percent of the country believe the notion is false. The rest don’t know what to think.

Also baffled: the children of QAnon followers. Jesselyn Cook of HuffPost spoke to nine such people about the confusion and pain that comes with losing a parent to a right-wing cult. “Some are desperately trying to deradicalize their moms and dads—an agonizing process that can feel maddening, heartbreaking, and futile,” Cook writes. “Others believe their parents are already too far gone and have given up trying to help them. A few have made the painful decision to cut off contact entirely, for the sake of their own mental health.”

One of the children, Daniel (a pseudonym), described how his mom, a two-time Obama voter, lost her grasp on reality. He tried to fact check her, but it didn’t work. He tried listening to her calmly, only to find she wouldn’t do the same when the tables were turned. He was stymied:

Daniel used to work in Democratic politics and, years ago, worked directly for one of the members of Congress who had to take shelter in the Capitol as rioters forced their way inside on Jan. 6. It was a difficult day for him on a personal level: He feared for his former boss’s safety and was so distressed by the insurrection as it unfolded live on television and social media that he took the afternoon off work.

When he spoke to his mom about it a couple of days later, she seemed unbothered by what had happened. Daniel couldn’t believe it. So he tried a new way to break through to her: telling her, candidly, exactly how her behavior was making him feel.

“I love you,” Daniel told his mother, “but with your inundation of fake news, you have created a reality for yourself that doesn’t exist, and by doing so, you are actively distancing yourself from your family. It is making it harder for us to connect with you because, unfortunately, we feel that you are just not living in the world that we live in, and it’s frightening for us.” 

His mom’s response laid bare the degree to which QAnon had warped her worldview: “Oh, honey,” she said. “That’s how I feel about you.”

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The Silencing of #MeToo Reporting in Germany

Ulf Wittrock / EyeEm

Two journalists documented 30 cases of alleged sexual abuse perpetrated by an HIV doctor in Germany; many of the testimonials came from vulnerable gay men who were working in the sex trade or who had only recently immigrated to the country when they sought medical care at the doctor’s clinic. A criminal investigation had been launched against the doctor, who had also pledged not to see patients alone for the time being. The journalists published their findings — only to be forced to take them down. They hadn’t made errors, nor had sources recanted. As Caitlin L. Chandler documents in a feature for Columbia Journalism Review, the reason events transpired as they did is because the doctor, Heiko Jessen, and his attorney, Jony Eisenberg, exploited German media law, which is notably different than America’s:

In criminal trials, German law presumes innocence unless a guilty verdict is handed down by a judge. This is similar to the US legal system; however, in Germany, the presumption of innocence is also applied to press coverage. While the media is allowed to report on criminal trials—which are considered to fall within the “social sphere”—the law protects suspects from media coverage deemed to stigmatize them unfairly before a verdict is reached. For example, the media is rarely allowed to publish photos of someone in custody, unlike the “perp walks” commonly publicized in the US.

Before publishing the Jessen story, BuzzFeed and Vice consulted a German legal doctrine on “suspicion reporting” that outlines four criteria journalists must comply with: the article must make the public aware the person could be innocent; the journalists must have substantial material evidence in addition to reporting that a trial is ongoing; the suspect must have ample time to respond to the allegations, and their response must be included so that the story is balanced; and a person’s name can only be printed if there is an overwhelming public interest.

Eisenberg, clad in a leather jacket, railed against the journalists in a court hearing, calling them liars and muckrackers, and he attacked the alleged victims, emphasizing that they were drug users and sex workers. He won over the judges, who made a ruling on the basis of the “suspicion reporting” doctrine:

The judges said that BuzzFeed had met three of the conditions: it had enough evidence to publish; Jessen had been given adequate time to respond to the allegations; and the case was in the public interest. But on the fourth criterion—the obligation to maintain presumption of innocence—the judges said the journalists had failed. Precisely because the articles had presented such a massive amount of detailed evidence against Jessen, the judges said, no reader could come to the conclusion that he was innocent. The reporting was “not balanced.” They dismissed the consistent inclusion of words like “alleged,” calling such phrasing cosmetic, even though it is widely used by journalists both within and outside of Germany. Finally, the judges took issue with the story’s style, calling the level of detail provided about the assaults “voyeuristic.”

As Chandler details, the legal saga took more turns after that ruling, but the question at the heart of it stayed the same: Was the German legal system doing more harm than good?

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Is the Cure for Cancer Locked in Shrunken Heads from the Amazon?

Simon Prades

There’s a photo from the 1960s, of a young boy in California holding two shrunken human heads. The boy is the stepfather of writer Steven Lance, and the heads came from a family friend named Wilburn Ferguson. He had gotten them from an Amazonian tribe called the Shuar, who shriveled the heads of their enemies using a fluid derived from jungle plants. Ferguson, a nurse, former religious missionary, and lifelong dreamer who had moved his family to South American in the 1930s to pursue medical research in the Amazon, believed that the fluid could do something else—something life-giving. In his Atavist Magazine* feature “The Secret Formula,” Lance explains the root of Ferguson’s theory, which was shared by his devoted wife, Ruth:

Soldiers who fought the Shuar, according to stories Ferguson heard, might wake up one morning to find a stack of [heads] in their camp, shriveled but still recognizable as those of fallen comrades. It was powerful propaganda, a warning to steer clear. Head shrinking was “the most effective national defense ever devised,” Ferguson wrote.

He suspected that it might be much more than that…. “The thought occurred to me,” Ferguson recalled, “that perhaps the active ingredients of this process could be in some way adapted to shrink, or at least check, the wild growth of cancer cells.”

By that time, as Siddhartha Mukherjee explains in his 2010 book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, scourges like smallpox and tuberculosis were yielding to medical advances. “But of all diseases,” Mukherjee writes, “cancer had refused to fall into step in this march of progress.” Cancer is out-of-control division and growth of abnormal cells that can destroy healthy tissue and spread through the body. As Americans escaped other ailments and lived longer, more of them developed the disease. By 1926, it had become the nation’s second leading cause of death.

Long stigmatized and little understood, cancer now drew widespread attention. One senator proposed a $5 million reward for “information leading to the arrest of human cancer.” Americans dreamed of finding what Fortune called a “new principle of treatment.” The Fergusons were caught up in the zeitgeist. The thought inspired by the shriveled head was simple enough: If cancer killed by growing, shrinking was a way to fight it. For the Fergusons to test their theory, they needed access to whatever the Shuar were using on their enemies’ heads.

What followed was a saga spanning several decades and countries, and more disappointments than successes. Ferguson tried to prove his hypothesis, mustering evidence from lab experiments and patients (some consenting, others not). The scientific establishment rejected him. Yet today, more than 20 years after his death, he still has acolytes—people who told Lance that they believe Ferguson discovered something world-changing:

Ferguson wasn’t a snake-oil salesman or a con artist. Outlandish though some of his stories still seem, the details contained within them were consistent. The people I spoke to who knew Ferguson were struck by his sincerity. He could be stubborn and impractical, but as my stepdad recalled, Ferguson was always careful to point out that he hadn’t discovered a silver bullet, merely a promising treatment that needed more study. What he wanted most of all was a real scientific shot.

Ferguson was an outsider his whole life. Like a modern-day Don Quixote, he chased an impossible dream based more on faith than evidence. He wandered the wilderness seeking a miracle. The doctors and scientists who doubted him had every reason to. But what if they missed a bark or root of medical importance? What if Ferguson saw something they couldn’t? What if he was right?

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*The author of this post is the editor in chief of The Atavist, which is Longreads’ sister publication.

Neighborhood Watch: The Strange Aftermath of a ‘Karen’ Encounter

Roc Canals

As racial justice protests swept across America this summer, a handful of “Karen” videos — footage of white women calling the police on Black people, usually men, for no justifiable reason — went viral. Among them was a video shot in Montclair, New Jersey, a community about 40 minutes outside New York City that prides itself on being diverse and progressive. The people who filmed the scene were a Black husband and wife, both lawyers, whose backyard neighbor, a white woman, claimed they’d “pushed” her off their property for asking questions about the installation of a patio. As Allison P. Davis documents in her nuanced, provocative feature for The Cut, other white neighbors stood in solidarity with the Black couple:

While on the phone, Schulz paced in a circle. She approached a neighbor on the sidewalk, perhaps looking for someone to corroborate her story, perhaps just looking for sympathy. “Did you just see him physically push me?” she yelled.

“Oh, he absolutely didn’t push her,” reported the neighbor who had walked by. “I think she was looking to me — honestly, it did feel like a look of incredulity. Can you believe what he’s saying to me? I understand she was upset, but that’s just an insane trope that goes back so many hundreds of years of white women saying that Black men are assaulting them. And it was just really unbelievable she thought she would get away with that with witnesses.”

Over the phone, Schulz told the police, “I need an officer … the gentleman who is taller than me pushed me off his property.”

Neighbors began to yell things like “Shame on you” and “In this climate, you’re doing this?” while Schulz continued her defense, sometimes to the neighbors, sometimes to Norrinda and Fareed. “He pushed me ten feet … I came over here alone. I should have brought my son … Are you gonna say you didn’t put your hands on me?”

“It was like, Yo, this woman really believes what she’s saying,” Fareed recounted. “I feel like, in her mind, she really did start believing that she was assaulted. Maybe she was affronted by being told no. But for her, that affront was synonymous with me physically assaulting her. There was no difference in her mind.”

But when it came to neighbors supporting neighbors, the fallout of the incident was — in a word — complicated. There was a youth-led protest in front of the woman’s house, demands for a new ordinance about racist 911 calls, and letters that strangers sent to the Black family, apologizing for racism. In these, Davis saw something familiar:

That same summer, every white person I knew offered to march alongside me at rallies. I got texts from “Maybe: Susanna,” a person I didn’t really remember, dredging up a racial transgression I definitely didn’t remember. Borrowing the newly learned language of anti-racism, she apologized for any micro-aggression she had committed and apologized for making it my responsibility to explain HBCUs to her. I wrote back and told her “no sweat.” (It later turned out she had confused me with another Black colleague.) She was one of many who reached out to ask how they could be a good ally and wondered if there were times they hadn’t been. My phone was constantly buzzing with texts from white friends apologizing, checking on my well-being, offering me Venmo reparations and sympathy and empathy. I was appreciative but wary. They said they wanted to know about my experiences, but mostly they wanted to feel they had acknowledged that I’d had experiences with racism that they might have ignored, without exposure to all the grisly details.

In talking to Fareed, I often felt he was holding two opposing thoughts in his mind: relief that he lives in this intentional community that discusses race, that embraces the 24 percent, and loneliness at being at the center of a conversation in which everyone sees you and no one does. There can be an oppressiveness to sympathy, a way in which a newly galvanized community doesn’t let in room for doubt — for wondering whether the community would have been quite so galvanized if it hadn’t been the peak of a summer of racial-justice protests, if you still had locs or a shitty car in your driveway, or didn’t have a law degree, or your wife wasn’t the president of the PTA. When everyone is working so hard, when everyone is so vocally on your side, so apologetic for your experience, it’s easier to accept “Kumbaya” Montclair than to wrestle with those questions and ask other people to wrestle with them too.

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Loving Molly, and Mourning Her: A Husband’s Extraordinary Essay

Chaichan Poradok / EyeEm

What does one say about a piece of writing as beautiful and devastating as Blake Butler‘s essay for The Volta about his late wife, poet Molly Brodak, who committed suicide in early 2020? Perhaps just this: Read it. Or as the writer himself has said, “Please read with care.”

By turns elegiac and funny, angry and warm, expansive and intimate, “Molly” is a feat:

Within the gardens of her darkness, Molly made up her own ways to believe—in art, in poetry, in nature, in creation. She did her best to surround herself with evidence that there might be any reason yet to try. God to her appeared as obvious folly, dressed up in desperate want for mindless relief against what she saw as the cold, dark universe. Even the thought of having children made her ill—how could anybody bring another life into this world where no one cares? Sometimes when I’d try to talk to her about her own childhood, slowly revealing itself, sometimes against her will, as of an irredeemable neglect, the walls in her would rise up, and she’d go blank.

–––

Molly hated long goodbyes. She preferred instead to turn away and not look back, not even waving. As she left my apartment, I would wait and watch to see if this time she would break her rule, as an exception—she never did. “The amount of fear / I am ok with / is insane,” Molly wrote in her poem titled “Molly Brodak.” “I love many people / who don’t love me. / I don’t actually know / if that is true.”

–––

“Love someone back,” she wrote in a poem that I read the first day I realized I already loved her and always would. “You just begin.” So I began.

 TW: suicide, self-harm, depression

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The Alarmist: Is One of the Pandemic’s Loudest Scientific Voices Helping or Hurting Public Health?

AlexSecret

How should scientists balance the need to raise the alarm about a health threat with the complexity and methodical pace of research required to understand that threat? How do you weigh potential harm done versus good achieved when deciding what to tell a frightened public? These aren’t new questions, but in 2020, they’ve come into sharp focus. No one embodies them more fully than scientist Eric Feigl-Ding, a Twitter sensation for his urgent threads about the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps you’ve read some of his viral tweets — the most famous ones begin with phrases like “BLOODY HELL” and “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD.” In less than a year, his following has grown from 2,000 to more than 250,000 Twitter users. Jane C. Hu profiles Feigl-Ding for Undark, asking whether he’s the town crier the internet needs or just another purveyor of disinformation:

Even when his public exclamations are technically accurate, Feigl-Ding’s critics suggest that they too often invite misinterpretations. In a thread about the first study of a COVID-19 outbreak on an airplane, for example, Feigl-Ding failed to mention the important caveat that researchers suspected all but one case occurred before people got on the airplane. In another, Feigl-Ding appeared to summarize a Washington Post piece on a coronavirus mutation, but omitted crucial phrases—including the fact that just one of the five mentioned studies was peer-reviewed. It wasn’t until the sixth tweet in the thread that Feigl-Ding mentioned the important detail that the “worrisome” mutation doesn’t appear to make people sicker, though it could make the virus more contagious.

To Angela Rasmussen, a Columbia University virologist, this represents a pattern. “[T]his is his MO,” she wrote in an email. “He tweets something sensational and out of context, buries any caveats further down-thread, and watches the clicks and [retweets] roll in.”

Such critiques of Feigl-Ding’s particular brand of COVID-19 commentary are by no means new, and previous articles—in The Atlantic as far back as January, for example, New York Magazine’s Intelligencer in March, the Chronicle of Higher Education in April, and in The Daily Beast in May — have explored questions about his expertise in epidemiology (his focus prior to COVID-19 was on nutrition) and whether his approach to public health communication is appropriate or alarmist. But as his influence has grown, and as the pandemic enters a much more worrying phase, critics have continued to debate whether Feigl-Ding, for all his enthusiasms, is doing more harm than good. Some complain that Feigl-Ding’s army of followers can be hateful when other scientists publicly disagree with his tweets. Others say that Feigl-Ding himself has been known to privately message his critics—a tack that some found unwelcome.

For his part, though, Feigl-Ding says many of his critics’ disagreements with him have come down to a difference in style. “Sometimes it’s a matter of a philosophical approach about tone: Should I say ‘whoa’ or ‘wow?’” he said

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Trapped in Limbo Down Under

Stadtratte

They came with what few possessions they could carry when they fled their homes: a watch, a copy of The Alchemist, a few pieces of clothing. Many were still children; others were barely adults; all of them were refugees. Yet the place where they were headed saw them, as journalist Lauren Martin writes, as little more than “cause for alarm.” In “Temporary,” a longform multimedia project published by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, Martin explains how a decade ago powerful politicians in Australia insisted on preventing asylum seekers from reaching their country’s shores. The initial result was the establishment of detention camps on poor South Pacific islands. When those filled up, some people were let into Australia, only to be told to keep waiting, indefinitely, for an answer about where they would be allowed to live their lives. Now some 30,000 people are in a state of legal limbo — “they have been mostly lost across one of the world’s wealthiest countries, notorious for its punitive treatment of people seeking its protection.”

In “Temporary,” Martin introduces audiences to several members of Australia’s “legacy caseload.” Among them is Zaki, a teenager when he fled Afghanistan on the heels of his brother’s beheading and his father’s disappearance, both at the hands of the Taliban. Zaki is now a marathon runner:

Forty, fifty kilometres, “it’s not an easy process,” he admits. He doesn’t say how it began, this running for hours a day. But he proudly recalls that crossing the finish line in his first race, raising thousands of dollars for children with cancer, “was a very rewarding moment.”

He also clearly recalls telling his mother, when he first arrived in Australia as a teenager, “I don’t have to run from anything anymore.”

He can still remember the place he left, his village where a mountain river flows, and playing as a happy child with a happy family who was “there for me no matter what.” He remembers the killings that made his mother run with her remaining children to Kabul. But the Taliban found them there, too, delivering warnings—on Taliban letterhead—about him, the oldest surviving son.

So Zaki started running. Onto his first airplane. Through jungles. Into small, dark rooms, where he was confined, hungry, thirsty and very frightened. As he ran from Afghanistan, he was beaten, threatened, he made friends and walked for days and nights on end. He made it to the sea, where he was tossed until he went into shock in a broken boat, and then, finally, he made it to an Australian outpost called Christmas Island. He was blistered by the sun and wind. Tired.

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