The Longreads Blog

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Pneumonia coronavirus

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jessica Lustig, Ed Yong, Leslie Jamison, Rosa Lyster, and Geoff Edgers.

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1. What I Learned When My Husband Got Sick with Coronavirus

Jessica Lustig | The New York Times Magazine | March 24, 2020 | 12 minutes (3,227 words)

“You shouldn’t stay here,” he says, but he gets more frightened as night comes, dreading the long hours of fever and soaking sweats and shivering and terrible aches. “This thing grinds you like a mortar,” he says.

2. How the Pandemic Will End

Ed Yong | The Atlantic | March 25, 2020 | 22 minutes (5,549 words)

“The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.”

3. Since I Became Symptomatic

Leslie Jamison | New York Review of Books | March 26, 2020 | 6 minutes (1500 words)

A month after filing for divorce, single mom Leslie Jamison contracted COVID-19. She wrote this meditation on single parenthood, loneliness, longing, and frustration while sheltering in place — and sweating out the virus — with her 2-year-old daughter.

4. Where Water Used to Be

Rosa Lyster | London Review of Books | March 25, 2020 | 11 minutes (2,810 words)

A look at another crisis the world is facing: water scarcity. Rosa Lyster examines the water-stressed cities of Cape Town and Mexico City — cities grappling with issues related to climate change, infrastructure, and inequality.

5. Sinéad O’Connor is Still in One Piece

Geoff Edgers | The Washington Post | March 18, 2020 | 15 minutes (3,857 words)

“She tore up a picture of the pope. Then her life came apart. These days, she just wants to make music.”

Can Sinéad O’Connor Find Peace?

Sinéad O'Connor (Photo by Don Arnold/WireImage)

Sinéad O’Connor maintains her proudest day is the one in 1992 when she tore up the pope’s photo on Saturday Night Live. Some suggest she’s been struggling ever since, but it seems the problems started much earlier, with an abusive childhood at the hands of a deeply religious mother. Nearly 30 years later, at age 53, after four marriages, four children, and a series of physical and mental health issues, she’s transposed her anger and anguish into music — headlining a series of sold-out shows on the east coast of the US (now postponed due to Coronavirus). Read Geoff Edgersexcellent profile at The Washington Post.

There are still moments when O’Connor will break down, either in fury, tears or a kind of self-loathing. But during her most recent hospital stay, which ended last May, she learned an important concept, which has become her mantra: radical acceptance. As a girl, she suffered abuse from her deeply religious mother that remains with her decades after her mother’s death. In the past, she’s tried to fight and deflect it, sometimes by lashing out at others. She’s learned that this doesn’t help.

“Because that kind of pain doesn’t go away,” O’Connor says. “You only learn to live with it. Music is where I can manage it.”

She sat there quietly. Even as O’Connor finishes a memoir aimed for the spring of 2021, starts work on her first album in years and awaits the second leg of a tour — a string of sold-out East Coast shows, including at the Birchmere, which have been postponed due to coronavirus concerns — there is a bigger project underway. How to live.

O’Connor doesn’t have a home studio or notebooks lying around filled with song drafts. She writes, she says, largely in her head. A melody will strike, the words will come and she’ll repeat the whole thing until it’s ready to be laid down as a demo.

Reynolds, her longtime producer, remembers O’Connor composing virtually all of 1994’s “Universal Mother” in a single night, simply singing into a tape recorder. She isn’t afraid to share her inspirations, whether the therapy time in “Milestones” or “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance,” about her relationship with former manager and onetime partner Fachtna O’Ceallaigh.

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“The Leaky Vessel”: On Lewis Carroll and the Perils of Being Female

Rachel Vorona Cote (Author photo credit: Sylvie Rosokoff)

Rachel Vorona Cote | Longreads | March 2020 | 10 minutes (2,706 words)

We’re delighted to bring you a brief excerpt from “Chatterbox” — chapter 2 of Rachel Vorona Cote’s excellent book, Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today.

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We’ve been fortunate to publish Rachel Vorona Cote in the past. Check out The Fraught Culture of Online Mourning, and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Exhilarating, Emotionally Intelligent Pop Music.

The strictures of twenty-first-century little girlhood might, at a glance, seem inconsequential when set alongside the demands laid before Victorian children—including the Brontës—and yet, present-day expectations are enduringly rigid. It is true that the last few years have yielded a modest offering of feminine fictional icons modeling less constrained behavior—both Brave’s Merida and Moana’s titular heroine are standout examples. The latter’s release was nothing short of sensational: here, finally, is a nonwhite female character who is reduced to neither racial nor gender stereotype. Accordingly, she’s positioned neither as a damsel in distress nor as an object of desire—Moana’s romantic life receives no narrative attention, and her chutzpah saves her island, however much it unsettles her father, the film’s benevolent patriarch. But our excitement over these young heroines belies their enduring paucity. And if we’re delighted over the representation of sassy, brave girls—if we’re still registering them as novelties and dazzling exceptions—it emphasizes the extent to which American popular culture continues to proffer an idealized version of young femininity as white, docile, and amiably stifled (Moana, after all, is one of the only nonwhite heroines Disney offers its viewers).
Read more…

Finding Signs of Hope in Surprise Sugar Maples

Susan Krawitz | Longreads | March 2020 | 4 minutes (915 words)

It wasn’t the threat of a maple syrup shortage that got me into the woods with a power drill, hammer, makeshift buckets, and spiles, but my daughter’s request to tap some trees. The sun was out but the sky was cloudy, and the blue behind them looked bruised. And though the woods were quiet, the road I live on was far less so. There were dog walkers, joggers, and some people on bikes; a classic midsummer scene, but a very unusual one for an end-of-winter Monday. Local residents are very resident now, and so are the usually weekender ones. Alone together, we are hunkered down on this rural Catskill hillside, and in that suburb, in those cities, all across the world. We are buckling in for who knows how long, and finding ourselves with too much to think about, and all the time in the world to do it. So we walk, we bike, we tree-tap.

I should have tapped far earlier, as the sap run is nearly done. But I have a challenged history with maple sugaring. This property holds lots of red maple trees, but only one lone, sad specimen of the sugar kind, and the difference in sweetness between the two means far more effort, more boiling time, and less product at the end of it all. I ask myself every year if it’s really worth it, and many years that answer is oh heck, no.

It was a fairly warm day, so after setting a few taps, we trekked a bit further into the woods, exploring. There are huge thriving oaks there, and large pines as well, and also lots of ash tree skeletons, because the emerald green ash borer has recently decimated this tree tribe. But on the stone wall that divides my property from the next, I found the surprising sight of an ash waving live buds at the ends of its branches instead of dead knuckles.

Two months ago, I’d say finding this tree was like stumbling onto a trunkful of gold. A very recently updated metaphor would be spotting two 12-packs of toilet paper on a supermarket shelf.
Read more…

‘This Thing Grinds You Like a Mortar’: How Jessica Lustig is Fighting Coronavirus

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In this intimate and moving piece for The New York Times Magazine, Jessica Lustig writes about the dystopian horror story she’s living as she cares for her husband, who has been battling Coronavirus for the past two weeks.

CK and I had settled in to watch “Chernobyl,” the HBO series about the 1986 nuclear accident and its aftermath, when T first felt sick and went to lie down in the bedroom. We stopped after three episodes. That time, when we would sit on the couch watching something together, is behind us. Now there is too much rushing back and forth, making sure T has a little dinner — just a tiny bowl of soup, just an appetizer, really, that he is unable to smell, that he fights nausea to choke down — taking his temperature, monitoring his oxygen-saturation levels with the fingertip pulse oximeter brought by a friend from the drugstore on the doctor’s advice, taking him tea, dispensing his meds, washing my hands over and over, texting the doctor to say T is worse again, standing next to him while he coughs into the covers, rubbing his knees through the blankets.

I am texting the doctor. I am texting T’s five siblings on a group chat, texting my parents and my brother, texting T’s business partner and employees and his dearest friends and mine, in loops and loops, with hearts and thankful prayer-hands emoji. He is too exhausted, too weak, to answer all the missives winging to him at all hours. “Don’t sugarcoat it for my family,” he tells me. He has asked for the gray sweater that was his father’s, that his father wore when he was alive. He will not take it off.

I run through possibilities. I’m not so worried about CK getting sick. I can nurse her too. It’s if I get sick. I show her how to do more things, where things go, what to remember, what to do if — What if T is hospitalized? What if I am? Could a 16-year-old be left to fend for herself at home, alone? How would she get what she needed? Could she do it? For how long?

The one thing I know is that I could not send her to my parents, 78 years old and nearby on Long Island. They would want her to come, but she could kill them, their dear grandchild coming forward to their embrace, radioactive, glowing with invisible incubating virus cells. No. Not them. Someone else would have to take her, someone who has a bedroom and a bathroom where she could isolate and be cared for. Someone would. I lie awake at 4 a.m., on the floor, listening, thinking, wide awake with adrenaline.

Read the story

Will the Real Dwight Yoakam Please Speak Up

(Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

Dwight Yoakam is 63 years old. For GQ, Alex Pappademas attempts to have a conversation with him, but seems to end up as the audience to a man whose frenetic and continuous musical connection-making acts as the perfect defense against meaningful human connection.

You ask a question, then he’s off, parkouring from subject to subject, and before you know it Dwight Yoakam is saying things like “I would even point to the Spanish-American War” or “And that begins, to my way of thinking, with Northern and Western Europe throwing off the yoke of theocracy, and the writings of John Calvin, and Martin Luther, going back centuries earlier, and that’s what leads us…” in response to a question along the lines of “So how long have you had this office space?”

At one point our conversation spirals from Merle Haggard to the Maddox Brothers and Rose to a particular shot from the Amazon Prime series Patriot to the underdiscussed formal impact of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio on the modern novel to David Bowie. Dwight met Bowie in the ’90s and asked him about Elvis Presley, because Bowie and Elvis share a birthday—which is the kind of thing Dwight knows—and Bowie told him that six months before Elvis’s death, the King had called Bowie and asked him to produce his next record, because apparently Elvis loved “Golden Years.” Bowie said he’d do it; then every time he tried to call Elvis after that, some Memphis Mafia guy would pick up and say, “He can’t come to the phone right now, man.” Dwight’s never forgotten anything and everything reminds him of something, is the point. Sometimes it’s like talking to Doctor Manhattan.

Whether this is intentional or not, it’s a good way of avoiding giving too much away.

Read the story

The Coastal Shelf

Illustration by Homestead Studio

June Amelia Rose | Longreads | March 2020 | 17 minutes (4,495 words)

Writing the Mother Wound, a series co-published with Writing our Lives and Longreads, examines the complexities of mother love. 

* * *

I was getting ready for a kinky leather social mixer when I slipped my mother’s engagement ring onto my finger for the first time. I pulled on a flowing, gothic dress, then did my makeup, glancing at her most prized possession in the mirror as I penciled in my eyeliner. I don’t remember how, in the tumult after her death, I came into possession of the ring, but apparently I did. 

Out of morbid nostalgia, I decided to wear the ring out in the sticky Brooklyn summer air, to see if anyone noticed. 

I never want to get married. At that moment, I was playing matrimonial drag. 

On the bus, the diamond dug into my rugged pink Kathy Acker paperback. The ring fit loosely, a reminder of how much my mom told me she envied my slender fingers and healthy nails growing up. While seeing a secret gender therapist in high school, he told me that my small hands would help me pass as female, if I ever transitioned.

At the party, no one commented on the ring. My girlfriend didn’t seem to notice, and if she did, she didn’t ask. The dominatrixes were too busy relaxing as I cleaned their boots. Black shoe polish smeared across my long, red nails, eclipsing the shine of the chunky diamond like oil on a coastal shelf.

 

* * *

“When I was a little girl, the only thing I wanted in the entire world was a baby boy to call my own. Your father and I love your sister, but a baby boy was my dream.”

 So began my mother’s self-important recounting of my origin story, a tale she told me repeatedly as a child.

“Before you, we had three miscarriages. I was worried you wouldn’t survive too, but one night I dreamed an angel came down and touched my belly. That was when I knew you were going to be a perfectly healthy baby boy, a gift from God himself.”

These words swirled in my head, haunting me with guilt, as my hand trembled writing the letter. I was 15 years old. The year was 2007, the year I finally accepted that everything felt wrong, and that I needed to speak the new truth I’d found. I started with my girlfriend and therapist, then moved on to my family.

“Mom, Dad. I’m a girl. I feel like a girl. I’ve always been like a girl. I’m a transsexual. I think you know what they are, but please google it. It’s a thing. This is who I am. This is who I will always be.”


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I stressed over the note for days, composing it in a fit of nervousness, trashing multiple copies. I was too young then to appreciate the humor of the situation, before the bitter salt had soaked into my pores. My mother was the woman who invented an immaculate conception story to give her life meaning, and in so doing, she implanted a mystical origin story in me that I never consented to, and that caused me so much harm.

* * *

Near the first anniversary of her death, I got her name tattooed on my back. I harbored so much resentment, but it felt right. Grief makes us do the strangest things. We had a troubled relationship, but her loss deeply affected my worldview and sense of self. 

I always wonder what my lovers think about it. 

Many years and hundreds of dollars later, I got my last name legally changed. A vivisection of the family. Still, her name on my back is a haunting of who I’ve been. The memory seeps into my veins like bitter tar, the same tar she smoked until the cancer took root in her lungs — dark, blooming petals underground. 

* * *

So much of my childhood is fantastical that the line between truth and fiction has become meaningless. Which are the myths and which are the repressed memories? Is it even possible to get an objective answer at this point? Though one of my parents is still living, I cannot trust his version of events. He was barely present, either an oblivious  fly on the wall or overflowing with a tense, fearful rage that shamed my emotions and needs. Because of this, I must doubt my memories while simultaneously going through the motions of acting out their consequences.

‘Mom, Dad. I’m a girl. I feel like a girl. I’ve always been like a girl. I’m a transsexual. I think you know what they are, but please google it. It’s a thing. This is who I am. This is who I will always be.’

My father worked nights, so I rarely saw him as a kid. Most of my parental time was spent with my mother. Since my parents were working-class, they worked two, sometimes three jobs to make ends meet and keep a roof over our heads as property taxes in our town continued to inflate. This meant that most of my time growing up was spent alone. My hyperactivity was so pronounced, my parents couldn’t keep a babysitter for more than a few weeks at a time. They all quit, driving my parents nuts. As time passes, I’m inclined to believe my acting out was compounded by a clear case of not enough attention, of a need not being met. I didn’t have the framework to articulate these early storms, until I found out years later that my disconnect was a symptom of my coercively gendered body. 

Recently, I read that this kind of behavior is a premonition of the bipolar disorder I would later be diagnosed with. I wonder what my life would’ve looked like if my family had taken this behavior seriously and not just as a permanent character flaw. Would I have been treated? Would specialists have noticed? Who would I be today?

My family has never asked how to love me. Later in life, the first time a friend asked, “What can I do for you right now?” when I was in emotional distress, it iced me to the core. I didn’t know how to ask for, give, or receive love. I was at a loss. How does this happen to a person? Where does this come from?

Shame and trauma, that’s where. I was pushed to fulfill the role of a person I never wanted to be, then shunned when I voiced my own path. Many years later, when the dust had settled and I had merged with my new womanly body and self, the damage had already been done. Nobody wanted to admit the wounds were inflicted in the first place. 

* * *

Looking at the symphony of jagged scars on my forearm in the present day, my therapist says, “You are acting out the pain that was inflicted on you in the past. It’s all you know, it’s what makes you feel comfortable. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You and your body are worthy of love.” 

Many years later, when the dust had settled and I had merged with my new womanly body and self, the damage had already been done.

I cry, rocking myself back and forth, wringing my palms on my thighs, because she’s right. 

* * *

School was a blessing and a curse. I wasn’t liked and didn’t fit in. Every movement and word came out with sandpaper sounds, scratching kids away from me. In my formative years my parents pushed me into sports I hated, where I was targeted and beaten by cruel children. So many hands harming my body, telling me it wasn’t mine. Poring over these memories with my therapist, I’ve found this is where my deeply ingrained self-hatred stems from. I left every time crying. My parents didn’t listen, they said it was simply what boys went through and that I’d have to toughen up. 

I loved learning but to do it I had to be tortured daily. I put up with the rejection and isolation because somehow I knew the things I was obsessively learning would be my exit from my labyrinth of a home life. Incredibly, that drive was how I began to develop the literary skills I’d utilize later in life. 

I taught myself to read when I got frustrated that I was being instructed too slow. I picked up books and video games on my own and glued myself to them, silently withdrawing from the rest of the world. I was ravenous, I had to know anything and everything. I would tape random facts around my desk at school so I could memorize them in my spare time. It was a lonely life, but it taught me everything I know today. I have spent the better part of my life alone, retreating away from personhood like an invisible mantra.

I developed suicidal tendencies at age 8. I would come home from school and tell my mother how much I wanted to die. One time, I tried to stop breathing, frustrated that my body wouldn’t allow it. Another time, I jumped off the highest thing I could find, a towering wooden deck in our backyard. Thankfully, I didn’t break any bones.

I have a firm, but probably fake memory of buzzing and electricity in a “dentist’s” office as a kid, screaming and leaving in tears. The story I’ve succumbed to is that my parents, to deal with my own onset of overdramatic paranoid delusions and exhausting hyperactivity, had me attend shock therapy to calm me down. It worked, pulverizing my memory and sapping me of dopamine for decades, implanting depression in me like a Faustian virus. But this may be fiction, like everything else. 

* * *

I am seated at an after-school program that babysits me until my mom gets off of work; a place where fun is outlawed, ruled over by a lady whose resting voice is a low, menacing yell of disapproval. One wrong move, one stray word, and she will punish you, taking away everything for the entire day, making you sit there and stare at the clock.

I am doing just that, sitting on a bench in the corner when my mother arrives. She sees that I am sitting with my legs crossed, slaps my leg, and leans in. “Don’t ever sit like that. That’s not what boys do.”

It was almost a decade before I sat cross-legged again.

* * *

My mother had an addiction to shopping at the mall. I have to admit, despite a disgust toward the monolithic, leeching nature of the capitalist edifice, going to the mall gives me strange feelings of home to this very day.

After a fast food dinner — we ate a lot of fast food in those days — we would head to the Bay Shore Mall, a colossal parking lot field wedged between highways. Her favorite store was Express. She would sit me down on a waiting bench in one of the stores and spend hours trying on different outfits. Shoes, pants, tops, skirts, anything she could get her hands on. She would come out of the dressing room and model it, ask for my opinion, shrug at herself in the mirror, then go and try on the next thing, then double back to the first one. Rinse and repeat. My poor mother swiped her credit card endlessly, and I could see her eyes glisten with regret as we headed home. Sometimes, she left me in the car and went back to return what she’d just bought, a walk of shame as she cried her way through the parking lot. Every month, the credit card bills piled up and the crying at the kitchen table got worse. These personal fashion shows are an obscured image in my mind, but they gave me hours of looking at women’s clothes. I would sometimes wander away and try on hats and bracelets, knowing that what I was doing was a forbidden act. Curiosity had piqued my interest.

I still fondly look back on these seeds of womanhood sewn in me. During the long hours when my parents weren’t home, I began to dig through her walk-in closet and try on those same clothes that had ruined her credit score. Each dress, each pair of high heels, each pair of her skinny jeans only further proved to me this thing I was starting to realize about myself, that I was a woman too. 

* * *

I was born with a dark brown birthmark on my left cheek, approximately the size of a United States quarter. Perhaps I am embellishing its size, but its impact was a mountain in the scars of traumatic memory. At school, children told me I should kill myself because I was so ugly and that the world would be better off without me.

When I told my mother I wanted to get the birthmark removed, she said, “The scar will be ugly, it will be too noticeable. God made you just the way you are, perfect in every way.”

“You don’t want to alter your body like that forever.”

“The removal will hurt a lot.”

“It’s a decision you can’t go back on.”

I can’t help but laugh as I recall these words, spoken to me out of love, but stifling me, padlocking my pain.

Each dress, each pair of high heels, each pair of her skinny jeans only further proved to me this thing I was starting to realize about myself, that I was a woman too.

I have been taking estrogen for more than three years now, three heavenly years. It is a chemical my body does not regularly produce in large quantities. First it was four blue pills a day, then it was a needle stuck into my leg every two weeks. Spironolactone, my testosterone blocker, makes my head foggy, gives me aches and pains, induces a constant state of dehydration, and causes me to constantly piss, not to mention poses the very real threat of hyperkalemia and osteoporosis. By agreeing to these bodily processes I have made myself infertile, negating any chance of conceiving a child from my genetics, as if I had ever wanted one. I have grown tits that will not go away if I stop medicating. They would have to be surgically removed.

I did this all on my own. I stomached my fear and rolled the dice on a decision I had been told would be social as well as personal suicide. I survived the alteration of my body with glamorous resilience. 

After my mother died, I finally had the birthmark removed my senior year of high school. The procedure was less than an hour of prodding on the numb skin of my face. For two days I walked around with black stitches going down the side of my face, drawing a line from my eyes to my mouth. I looked like a horror movie heroine, sewed up after a chance battle with death. I couldn’t stop running my fingers over the fresh scar tissue on my face, vainly gazing in the mirror.

* * *

I can handle anything, I have cut slabs of flesh off of my body to feel whole. BDSM has become the framework where I have learned to love my body, to connect with the bodies of others. I have engaged in the pleasure of sadomasochism with my lovers. I’ve been kicked, stepped on, slapped, whipped, and caned, all with a beautiful love. 

Has my mother seen how much pain I have gone on to choose and how much I love myself for it? Does she know the sense of finality her early death brought? She did not believe I could handle the pain or permanence of an altered body. At the end, she knew very little about me, and that is where the true, unintended pain creeps in.

* * *

Fifteen again, post-letter. I am the tranny freak of the family, frequently courting silence and darting whispers. I am the shameful family secret, though some of our relatives know. None of them steps in, none of them does anything to help.

My mother asks me into her room and locks the door, a simmering rage on her tongue.

“You’ve been drinking! You and your friends have fake IDs and that’s what you’re doing all the time, aren’t you?” My mother was accusing her straight-edge child of drinking. “Admit it!”

“No, I didn’t do that! I don’t drink!”

“LIAR! How dare you lie to me,” she screamed.

“You’re being fucking crazy.”

My ears rang from the slap, my eyes watered then grew heavy.

I couldn’t tell if my mother actually believed the bullshit she was saying, if the cancer had really burrowed that far into her brain, or if this was some manipulative abuse tactic to keep me under her control. I was a good kid. I wanted freedom but I behaved, I got good grades, I just wanted to live my life and not be interrogated for it.

I am the shameful family secret, though some of our relatives know.

Besides the point, is drinking a beer in your teens the worst thing a child can possibly do? Is that worse than slapping your child in the face in an accusatory outburst as you refuse to listen? Alcoholism is undoubtedly a stain on my legacy spreading out across my family through multiple generations and rotting the extended branches of my family tree. It nearly ruined my life much later, when I was drinking to cope with my mental illness and my failed repressed gender, but it didn’t then. I didn’t know what alcohol tasted like. A slap in the face for something I didn’t do certainly didn’t scare me out of it. In fact, it made me want it more. If I was going to be hated when not drinking, I might as well do it. And a few months after my mother’s death, I sure as hell started drinking, beginning a bender that didn’t stop for almost a decade, nearly killing me several times.

* * *

It was a year after I had confessed to my family that I was a woman. My grandfather’s funeral was the next day, yet nobody could understand why I dissociated the whole time as they forced me to be fitted for a suit. I refused to say I liked any of them, my silent protest drove my mother and father absolutely mad.

“Is this because you want to wear a dress?” my mother accused. “You know we can’t let you do that. Why do you always have to be so difficult?”

I cried in the backseat of the car, a box containing a suit sitting on my lap, as I listened to my mother tell me how the life I wanted wasn’t possible.

* * *

On Halloween that year, I dressed up as a girl. I looked so comfortable and natural in my role that I even convinced a few partygoers that I was a completely different person. My friends were talking about it and my mother overheard. After they left, she came up to me.

“Can I see the pictures? Please, can I see?”

“No,” I said, closed-off.

“Why? Why do you want to become this person I can’t even see? Why can’t you show me?”

The unspoken answer: Because I know you will not like what you see, and it very well may break your heart, and I can’t handle one more rejection from you.

* * *

Will I ever hear the words “My beautiful daughter?” At the point they do come, if ever, will I still care for the person who speaks them?

* * *

I remember taking the train into Manhattan with my mother, happy because I got to skip school for the day to gawk at the skyscrapers. For obscene pleasure, I was reading The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s novel where her hero, Howard Roark, designs buildings for a living, apart from being a crypto-fascist ubermensch in his spare time as he gushes emotionlessly about capitalism. As if capital has ever been the sole arbiter of good art and not a physical limitation of the medium.

I thought these excursions were nice. I got to listen to my iPod the whole time, staring out the train windows, riding in taxis for the first time in my life. I felt so special.

What I didn’t realize was that we were using taxis not because my working-class parents had suddenly become rich, but because my mother was beginning to lose mobility — she didn’t have the strength to stand up straight on the subway, to be on her feet all day, or to walk and still have breath to spare.

My mom didn’t take me along on these trips because she thought it would be fun to let me skip school. At this point, we were barely on speaking terms, and most conversations ended in screamed accusations and thrown dishes. The woman was dying. She pushed me away with anger and paranoia. As an introverted secretive teen, I was more than happy to push myself away. 

I still feel guilt for blaming her for these things, even though I know in my heart of hearts that it’s never an excuse. I’m the one who had to live with these mistakes after she was gone. She made sure she’d never be forgotten.

My mother took me along because she knew she was terminally ill, past the point of no return, and after these doctors gave her terrible news, she wanted to spend the day with her kid, perhaps knowing these were the last few chances she’d have an extended time to do so. She wanted to come out of each tragic death sentence meeting to her child in the waiting room, the baby boy she’d longed for all those years.

I couldn’t be that for her, and in front of her eyes, as my hair grew down to my waist and my outfits grew more feminine, I was living proof of the death of her greatest dream.

* * *

The NYU hospital overlooked the Manhattan skyline and the glistening water of the East River.

It was the middle of January. Even though it was the dead of winter, that day was particularly warm and sunny. The windows of the buildings reflected the light down into my overstimulated eyes, incubating me.

I held my mother’s hand and looked out the window as she took her last breaths. In all those years of sickness, it was the first time I actually realized she was dying, and I cried with embarrassment. 

In the room was her brother, the one I’d barely heard of until I came out. He too was a shameful secret. He was gay, and he knew my story, but we never got to talk about that. In a few years, he’d be dead too, cancer all the same. A decade later, I’d find out he created his own faction of the Gay Liberation Front in 1970. An erased legacy, kept obscured by my family’s shame.

When I think about death, I am usually thinking about the ocean. A body of water is like living proof of eternal return, the slick spinning of an ouroboros signifying truth.

When I die, I know my ashes will be scattered, as per my explicit requests, along Riis Beach, so I can be among every gay person we’ve lost. I will be scattered across the length of the sands I grew up on, bringing fertilizer to the beachgrass, little atoms of me carried across the planet to places unknown — every country I never had the time to visit. I’ll be trading a biological family that never understood me for the people who understood me more than anyone else: the drag queens, the black trans girls murdered before their time, the powerful femme dykes, the gay leatherdaddies who succumbed to AIDS before we even had a good grasp at what it was. We all will be together, forever.

* * *

Aside from at the funeral, I have never been to my mother’s grave.

Perhaps the final eternal hurt is that, because of my mother’s death, none of this can be resolved. I am condemned to overanalyze the past, as she rests in our family plot in a cemetery on Long Island. This lack of closure leaves me unsure, nursing the wounds of a bitter love that spoiled. My family life has eroded my trust, causing turmoil in my interpersonal relationships with friends and lovers. To this day, I’m not sure I understand what affection means, how much is too much and how little is too little. It seems like a distant language to me. I work on these things in therapy every week. I read books about transformative healing, about boundaries and resilience, about trauma and self-love and community. 

I will be scattered across the length of the sands I grew up on, bringing fertilizer to the beachgrass, little atoms of me carried across the planet to places unknown — every country I never had the time to visit.

I have to catch myself. I pull away from people, hard. I take too much power from the falsehood of self-reliance. The irony in my self-reliance is that I have become my own best friend, and yet we have both hated each other for so long, a hatred made worse by the abandonment I felt as a teen. I have lived the majority of my life in an abusive relationship with myself. 

In baring my truest self to my family, I was rejected. What that experience showed me was that I could never be honest about my emotions or desires, and that doing so would bring me and others around me pain. I lost any semblance of trust for anyone. I have carried these feelings into my relationships, and have spent the second half of my life unlearning what I was taught. It is only in the past few years that I have begun to feel any sort of progress, but the water runs deep. 

* * *

Philip Larkin has a famous poem, titled “This Be the Verse,” so beautiful I want it tattooed on my body.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

It is a tongue-in-cheek poetical dig at the way all parents fuck their children up by the sheer proliferation of legacy. I come back to it often, a reminder of the absurdity of family. Larkin doesn’t want us to get out of life as early as we can by killing ourselves, but instead to do everything we can to unlearn the crashing waves of the harm committed against us. As a trans woman, a femme lesbian, a leatherdyke, I know that my own legacy is whatever I choose it to be. 

My legacy is my body, my writing, my chosen family, the energy I put out into the world. My legacy will end with my transsexual body, a woman’s body with a Venus symbol tattooed onto her left arm, burned and scattered across Riis Beach, the gay coastal shelf where I will finally be free from pain, at home with my gay and trans siblings. My chosen family will honor and remember my writing, and in that way, lapping at the coastal shelf of my mother wound, I will live forever.

* * *

Also in the Writing the Mother Wound Series:

‘A World Where Mothers are Seen’: Series Introduction by Vanessa Mártir
I Had To Leave My Mother So I Could Survive, by Elisabet Velasquez
Frenzied Woman, by Cinelle Barnes
Tar Bubbles, by Melissa Matthewson
‘To Be Well’: An Unmothered Daughter’s Search for Love, by Vanessa Mártir
Witness Mami Roar, by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez
Leadership Academy, by Victor Yang
All Mom’s Friends, by Svetlana Kitto

* * *

June Amelia Rose is an anarchist leatherdyke fiction writer and proud transsexual living in Brooklyn. Her short story, “My Sweet Femme Nightmare,” was recently published in Best Lesbian Erotica Volume 4. She has a short novel awaiting publication, and is currently at work on another one.

Editor: Vanessa Mártir

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross

This Week In Books: A ‘Melancholia’ or ‘Take Shelter’ Situation

Aaron Foster / Getty

Dear Reader,

A thing about me is that I’ve been depressed for awhile. Staying inside a lot. And now, Melancholia-like, real life has begun to mirror my mental state: my outer and inner worlds are on a collision course, and it’s not as clear as I’d like it to be which is drawing in the other.

Last week I told my boyfriend I sometimes have this vertiginous feeling that I caused the pandemic by becoming too socially isolated. I was joking, but not really joking. Yesterday when we were looking out the window at the absolutely nobody going by, I said, “What if we imagined this? What if there is no pandemic, and we’ve just convinced ourselves we have to stay inside?” He responded that he does sometimes worry that we are in a Take Shelter situation. That I, like Michael Shannon in the 2011 thriller directed by Jeff Nichols, convinced myself a storm was coming and prepped our shelter for no reason (I was worrying about corona weeks ahead of the curve), but because I turned out to be right (a total fluke), I will become power-mad and lock my boyfriend inside forever!

Honestly, reader, it’s not out of the question. I told him so, and he said that’s fair because it really does seem like a bad idea to go outside, like, ever again. I hear that brave people are out there doing things like gathering PPE donations for frontline healthcare workers or taking groceries to the isolated elderly or just working their regular jobs at the grocery store, which it turns out are wildly dangerous. I keep trying to psych myself up to do something useful like that, but then another formless day peels off its skin, and I find I have achieved nothing. The best I can say for myself is that I am not one of those people at the park making things worse.

Most of this week’s book roundup is about the virus. The whole world is about the virus. I am so sorry.

1. “America Infected: The Social (Distance) Catastrophe” by J. Hoberman, The Paris Review

Film critic J. Hoberman points to political differences between Camus’ The Plague and Elia Kazan’s unacknowledged film adaptation Panic in the Streets as a demonstration of how pandemic response can inspire solidarity or descend into authoritarianism.

2. “‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’: A Story of the 1918 Flu Pandemic” by Katherine Anne Porter, The New York Review of Books

NYRB has printed an excerpt from Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel (originally published in 1939) set during the influenza pandemic of 1918 and based on Porter’s own experience with the disease. It is an unsettling read for anyone contemplating dying in the Javits Center next month.

3. “The Anger of the Sick” by Davey Davis, The New Inquiry

Davey Davis reviews Blackfishing the IUD, a weaponized memoir which its author Caren Beilin hopes will destroy the IUD the way the documentary Blackfish destroyed Sea World; Beilin seeks vengeance against the IUD because her use of the device left her with an autoimmune disorder. Davis writes that what separates Beilin’s memoir from others in the ‘sick woman’ genre is her explicit call to action; to defeat the IUD, we must first overturn a medical system that doubts women’s pain. This review was published last month, but it seems prescient now, written at the cusp of the moment before the political anger of the unwell becomes everyone’s anger.

4. “What China’s Literary Community is Reading During the Coronavirus Pandemic” by Na Zhong, Lit Hub

One of the strangest consequences of the pandemic is that at any given time, you can have the uncanny realization that you know exactly what most of the people you know (and billions of others you don’t) are doing right now: sitting around at home, trying to figure out how to think about (or not think about) the coronavirus. Na Zhong has put together a list of books that a few members of China’s literary community are anxiety-reading right now. It’s weird to think that their motivations to anxiety-read about a) other plagues or b) World War II dovetail so perfectly with my household’s anxiety-reading compulsions this past week; I’ve been covering the plague angle while my boyfriend has World War II cornered for now.


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5. “The Dystopian Novel for the Social Distancing Era” by Joshua Keating, Slate

Joshua Keating writes that Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is the book that’s been on his mind these days, because so far his experience of the pandemic has not been sickness but rather (reminiscent of Ogawa’s surreal novel) the erasure of items from everyday life. “The losses start small and insignificant. At the local coffee shop, the first thing that disappeared was the table holding the lids and the self-serve milk. Then half the tables vanished. Then all the tables. Then the whole shop closed. Then you hear that the employees were laid off … Perhaps you, like me, thought last Saturday that it would be OK to have a couple of friends over to the house as long as you were reasonably cautious … By Sunday, that was off limits. Today, the idea is unthinkable.”

6. “An Attentive Memoir of Life in Parma” by Patricia Hampl, The Paris Review

Patricia Hampl writes that a book she loved 25 years ago, Wallis Wilde-Menozzi’s memoir Mother Tongue about expatriate life in Italy, has taken on new meaning during the pandemic. “I’ve been in conversation with this book for many years. And now, yet again, with the undertow of the pandemic clutching Italy in its fierce grip, the book speaks.”

7. “Gimme Shelter” by Helena de Bres, The Point

Helena de Bres writes about the books that she turned to for comfort during a period of personal isolation she faced as a child, and how books (generally pessimistic, sad) aren’t really comforting her at all during this period of universal isolation. Instead it’s the unbridled optimism of those crazy people who keep going outside that she’s been motivated by, because she realizes how precious those ridiculous optimists are. We must preserve them.

8. “English PEN Calls for Release of Ahdaf Soueif After Coronavirus Protest Arrest” by Mark Chandler, The Bookseller

A brief note and harbinger: “English PEN has called for the release of Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif, who was arrested during a protest about the treatment of prisoners during the coronavirus outbreak.”

9. “Capitalism’s Favorite Drug” by Michael Pollan, The Atlantic

This one is about coffee — the illustrious Michael Pollan reviewing Augustine Sedgewick’s Coffeeland — and honestly it isn’t supposed to be about coronavirus at all, but I read this line and I can’t stop thinking about the rich people who would rather send us back out to die than pay our bills for a little while: “The essential question facing any would-be capitalist, as Sedgewick reminds us, has always and ever been ‘What makes people work?’” On Salvadoran coffee plantations, the answer to that question was: a hunger crisis engineered by the upper class.

10. “Anna Kavan and the Rise of Autospec” by Gregory Ariail, The Los Angeles Review of Books

This one isn’t about corona either. It’s Gregory Ariail’s review of the Anna Kavan short story collection published by NYRB this month, and how Kavan’s style (she lived in the first half of the twentieth century) defined a genre Ariail calls “auto speculative fiction” (as opposed to “autofiction”), which he describes as “a truly combustive marriage of opposites: the searing confessions of the inner life on the one hand, and speculative narratives that systematically violate natural laws and reject normative discourses on the other.” I won’t tell you which lines of this review remind me of corona; you can pick those out for yourself.

Take care of yourself,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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Albatross People

Arthur Morris / Getty, Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Colin Daileda | Longreads | March 2020 | 7 minutes (2,000 words)

My wife told me she had at last booked a flight back to Bengaluru and so I should relax that evening at our apartment. There I opened a book I was reading about birds, called The Thing With Feathers, by Noah Strycker. I was toward the end, on a chapter about albatrosses.

The wandering albatross looks not much different from a seagull, except it’s enormous. Its wings span 12 feet, twice my height. Wanderers need wings like this because they spend a huge part of their lives floating over the open ocean, plucking fish and squid from the water. They do this away from their mates, because keeping track of each other would cost precious energy needed to stay aloft. Each partner goes about their own life until, once every two years, they flutter back home to the little bits of land in the Southern oceans on which they nest. They greet each other with a dance and quickly go about building that year’s home. Though it takes nine months for an albatross chick to leave its nest, the parents won’t see each other much during that time, either. The baby needs food, and so they fly out in search of it over different parts of the sea. All that time away, and yet albatrosses almost always remain faithful for life.

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COVID-19: Dispatches from Sing Sing

Sing Sing Prison (AFP/AFP via Getty Images)

John J. Lennon is a contributing editor for Esquire and a contributing writer for The Marshall Project. He is serving a sentence of 28-years-to-life in Sing Sing prison. For Esquire, he reports on how Sing Sing has been preparing the prison facility for the virus from among a population for whom social distancing isn’t possible.

Sing Sing is on the east bank of the Hudson River, in Westchester County. Behind a thirty-foot wall, 1600 of us live in close quarters on open-tier cellblocks stacked four or five floors high. In here, there is no such thing as “social distancing.”

Look down the phone line at any prison in America, and you’ll see prisoners holding socks. When it’s you’re your turn, you pull the sock over the handset. Lately, some guys have brought nasal-spray bottles filled with bleach and water, which they use to wipe everything down. A primitive form of preventative health.

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