The Longreads Blog

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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We read a number of stories across the web this week, and you can always visit our editors’ picks or our Twitter feed to see what you may have missed. Among this week’s #longreads, here are five standout pieces that we recommend.

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1. A Plane of Monkeys, a Pandemic, and a Botched Deal: Inside the Science Crisis You’ve Never Heard Of

Jackie Flynn Mogensen | Mother Jones | June 23rd, 2022 | 6,566 words

In May 2020, a plane full of monkeys intended for COVID-19 research was supposed to depart Mauritius. But it never did. Who purchased the monkeys? Where were they supposed to go? When Jackie Flynn Mogensen looked into the failed flight, and began to investigate the secretive global trade of research monkeys, she found there was an even bigger story: The U.S. is experiencing a primate shortage, and there aren’t enough monkeys for research across many areas of medicine. Primate research has led to life-saving discoveries over the decades, but it remains controversial, with no guarantees, despite animal testing guidelines, that animals are treated properly. “But no matter how you or I feel about it,” Mogensen writes, “it’s clear the practice has saved—and is saving—human lives.” This is a fascinating dive into the monkey trade and the players within it, like Matthew Block, who’s been a target of animal rights groups for years and, as you’ll read, is the owner of the company who arranged the flight. Mogensen also reports on a few alternatives, like lab-grown organs, but we’re still a long way from a world without animal testing. —CLR

2. Jason Brassard Spent His Lifetime Collecting the Rarest Video Games. Until the Heist.

Justin Heckert | Vanity Fair | June 27th, 2022 | 5,900 words

I can count on my hands the number of video games I’ve played in my life, and the only way I ever won a round of Mario Kart in middle school was by shoving my friend off the couch in the den where she kept her console. But even as an uninitiated reader, it was impossible not to become invested in this story of a man who amassed an impressive collection of old and rare games, only to have them stolen in one fell swoop. A satisfying true crime tale, much more Knives Out than Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, this piece features quirky characters who work at game stores with names like Grumpy Bob’s Emporium. It’s also a poignant meditation on nostalgia and how we assign value to objects that speak to our past. I needed a distraction from the barrage of terrible news this week, and Justin Heckert delivered. —SD

3. One Woman’s Wholesome Mission to Get Naked Outside

Gloria Liu | Outside | June 13th, 2022 | 3,100 words

It may come with being British, but growing up I was very prudish about nudity. A communal changing room meant an elaborate wiggle dance under a towel, into a swimming costume that would have met with Queen Victoria’s approval. Upon moving to the Pacific Northwest, I found more liberal attitudes toward nudity, and I relate to Gloria Liu as she discusses her jealousy of “friends who were less inhibited, so comfortable in their own skin.” Liu takes us on a gentle journey as she attempts to emulate these friends, and go naked outside. Spoiler alert: She makes good progress and ends up describing a beautiful nude night hike, where “Taking my clothes off with others wasn’t the exercise in courage or cutting loose that I thought it would be. It was an exercise in faith. To be naked, I had to believe that the world could be good. And tonight it feels like it can be.” This essay starts by considering nakedness — but ends up reflecting on friendship and the importance of building memories. —CW

4. How the Yurok Tribe Is Bringing Back the California Condor

Sharon Levy | Undark | June 22nd, 2022 | 3,433 words

Condor 746, on loan from a captive breeding program in Idaho, traveled to California in spring 2022. He’s the first California condor in over a century to reach the ancestral land of the Yurok Tribe, and made the journey to mentor four young birds in a condor facility in Redwood National Park. Condors are very social, explains Sharon Levy, learning best and benefitting from being under the wing of an elder. In this piece, Levy beautifully traces the journey of the species, and the incredible efforts of the tribe to ensure the bird’s successful reintroduction to the wild. It’s an insightful look into what it takes for captive breeding programs to work over time: creative solutions, dedicated biologists, and — in the condor’s case — monitoring for lead poisoning. (And a bonus: there’s an amazing photo of a chick next to a hand puppet — the first condors reintroduced were reared by puppets!). —CLR

5. The Confessions of a Conscious Rap Fan

Mychal Denzel Smith  | Pitchfork | June 28th, 2022 | 2,287 words

Hip-hop has had subgenres nearly as long as it’s had the spine of a breakbeat, but at some point it was riven by a more seismic distinction: mainstream vs. underground, and specifically the rise of “conscious” rap. Mychal Denzel Smith was one of the many people who internalized that stance, who viewed hip-hop as a vessel of liberation and awakening to a degree that became an identity of its own. That was then, though. Now, with the 2022 return of Black Star and Kendrick Lamar — both avatars and resurrectors of conscious rap — Smith interrogates his onetime fandom, as well as the evolution (or lack thereof) of the music itself. “I was artificially limiting my perspective,” he writes, “in the name of some grand vision of consciousness that never cohered into anything other than my own sense of intellectual superiority.” This isn’t a discussion about art vs. artist. It’s a coming to grips with our own reductive tendencies, our willingness to flatten ourselves in the name of aesthetic belonging. If you’ve found that the backpack fits a little bit differently these days, this piece will help you notice where the straps are chafing. —PR

Happy Birthday Tom: A Tom Cruise Reading List

A photo of a young Tom Cruise and a recent photo of him
Photos courtesy of Getty Images.

By Chloe Walker

In the days of classic Hollywood, the private lives of movie actors were zealously guarded — and often downright fabricated — so the viewing public would believe their carefully calibrated onscreen personas. There was little faith that audiences could keep public and private in separate boxes, so the private box was deeply buried, often not seeing the light of day until after the stars’ deaths.

The things we know about Tom Cruise would have sent these Hollywood publicists to their own early graves. The innumerable strange, sinister stories from his very long, very public, embroilment with Scientology. The divorces and separations from his fellow A-list actors. The whole couch-jumping incident. Various other embarrassing viral videos. Anyone who spends four decades as one of the world’s biggest movie stars might rack up a few scandals along the way, but with Cruise, the baggage is on a different level. 

The whole time, however, he’s kept working, and we’ve kept going to see him. As he moved from the charming young hero of ’80s hits like Top Gun and Risky Business, through his “serious actor” period in the ’90s, to the action hero of today, his movies have continued to make impressive money at the box office; even his few disappointments — War of the Worlds, The Mummy — wouldn’t be disappointing by most actors’ standards. His longevity, especially in the face of all those negative headlines, is formidable. His megawatt smile remains undimmable. His energy just as dauntingly intense as when we first met him, as a teenager. Cruise turns 60 on July 3, and it seems eminently possible he’ll still be flinging himself onto moving airplanes and scaling skyscrapers in a decade’s time.

Is that why he’s never seemed to exist in the same realm as us mortals? Or does this constant need to impress prove such a relatable aching vulnerability that it hurts to acknowledge it? While there are infinitely more deserving recipients of sympathy — those who don’t have endless money and aren’t the figureheads of a decidedly dubious religion/cult — I still can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. The pressure of being “on” all the time. The knowledge that the whole world knows your most embarrassing eccentricities. All celebrities must have moments of feeling like animals in a zoo, but it’s hard to imagine when Cruise would ever be able to escape that feeling. The gilded fishbowl of his particular fame is a place many would drown. He keeps right on swimming. 

Some of the authors cited in this reading list are dazzled by Cruise’s grin or wowed by tales of his oft-lauded work ethic. Some find him a disconcerting figure, or a silly, pitiable one. Several of the pieces are solely concerned with his screen roles; others find patterns in those roles and draw conclusions about Cruise’s thinking and motivations, or even parallels between the trajectory of his career and America as a whole. Taken together, these 10 articles paint a kaleidoscopic picture of a complicated, fascinating, unique kind of stardom.

I don’t know if I’d really want to solve the riddle of Tom Cruise. Perhaps there’s no riddle to be solved; maybe he’s just an empty vessel behind a shiny surface, reflecting back at us our own ideas about the nature of celebrity, and what we require from our superstars. Maybe, despite all we’ve learned about him over the years, there are depths yet to be plumbed. We might never know for sure, but that’s okay —  the contemplating’s all part of the fun. 

Crossing the Line to Stardom (Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, June 1987)

Cruise is one of many ’80s actors profiled in Aljean Harmetz’s New York Times piece, which discusses the differences between stardom in classic and ’80s Hollywood. Harmetz asks which of the then-current crop of young talent has the best chance of making it big, and what exactly is a star anyway? Published the summer after Top Gun cemented Cruise’s A-list status, Harmetz questions him, and various Hollywood executives, as to what it is that put him over that titular line. Their answers underscore how consistent his persona has remained over the past four decades. 

”That guy has the most winning smile of anyone I have seen except Eddie Murphy,” says Mr. Katzenberg. ”His smile says, ‘We’re going to have fun.’ ” Adds Ellen Chenowitz, a casting director, ”He has that killer smile that Nicholson and Redford have.”

”I don’t worry about whether I’m making the right decision,” says Mr. Cruise. ”I’m one to believe that everything I do is right, that I can make it right.” That kind of confidence is part of Ms. Chenowitz’s recipe for stardom. “Actors can’t apologize for themselves,” she says. ”You can’t get the impression they feel, ‘I’m not really good. You don’t want to see me.’ ”

No More Mr Nice Guy (Neil Strauss, The Guardian, September 2004)

Though Neil Strauss’ interview is ostensibly concerned with Cruise’s transition from the heroic roles of his early career to his more complicated characters in Magnolia and Collateral, more words are spent just on the strange experience of being in the actor’s presence. Describing their time touring various Scientology hotspots and riding motorbikes in the Mojave Desert, Strauss presents Cruise warmly, yet as a total oddball: charming, sincere in his interest in other people, but as something akin to an alien wearing a human skin suit.

And now, here it comes: the famous Tom Cruise laugh. It comes on just fine, a regular laugh by any standards. You will be laughing too. But then, when the humour subsides, you will stop laughing. At this point, however, Cruise’s laugh will just be reaching a crescendo, and he will be making eye contact with you. Ha ha HA HA heh heh. And you will try to laugh again, to join him, because you know you’re supposed to. But it doesn’t come out right, because it’s not natural. He will squeeze out a couple of words sometimes between chuckles – in this case, ‘Wouldn’t that be awesome?’ – and then, as suddenly as he started, he will stop, and you will be relieved.

Tom Cruise: The Fixer (Cal Fussman, Esquire, June 2010)

Cal Fussman’s interview with Cruise is written as a first-person piece from the hand of the megastar and is perhaps the closest thing to an autobiography we might ever get from him. Although a sanitized account of his personal life — his relationship with his abusive father is mentioned in such a tangential way, it’s almost confusing — the attempt to present a relatable side and the self-mythologizing of his underdog story, from the bullied working-class kid of divorced parents to Hollywood luminary with a peerless work ethic, carry their own fascination. 

These small steps of personal awareness came with the work. You know what else I found out? The better I became at the job, the better I could do it. The better I got at delivering newspapers, the more clients I got. And if I missed delivering the paper to a certain house one day, it was: Wow. This guy’s pissed. Then it becomes: What do I do here? And I realized, Oh, I gotta talk to this guy. Handle it. Then you see: Oh, I can fix this. By taking responsibility, I can fix this.

What Katie Didn’t Know (Maureen Orth, Vanity Fair, October 2012)

Published a few months after Cruise’s divorce from his third wife, Katie Holmes, Maureen Orth’s bombshell Vanity Fair piece details the many ways his romantic life has become entwined with his status as Scientology’s Superman. This cover article — ardently refuted by the organization —  is packed with juicy tidbits that powered their own headlines for weeks, most prominently that Scientology held auditions to find Cruise an appropriate girlfriend following his split from Penelope Cruz. Orth’s piece describes in detail the brief, troubling relationship between Cruise and younger actress Nazanin Boniadi that sprang from these auditions.

Though the first month on the project was bliss, by the second month Boniadi was more and more often found wanting. Cruise’s hairstylist, Chris McMillan, was brought in to work on her hair; in addition, says the source, Cruise wanted Boniadi’s incisor teeth filed down. Finally, she was allowed to tell her mother that she was involved with Tom Cruise. Her mother, a hairdresser, did not like the fact she was now out of the picture, not even allowed to do her daughter’s hair, and she frowned upon the age difference between her daughter and the then 42-year-old actor. She reportedly also had to sign a confidentiality agreement, but she never reached the point where she qualified to meet Cruise.

A Grand, Unified Theory of Tom Cruise Movies (Ryan McCarthy and Jim Tankersley, The Washington Post, October 2014)

Ryan McCarthy and Jim Tankersley’s ambitious, amusing discussion attempts to discover a throughline between all of the leading roles that Cruise played up to 2014. While they don’t quite manage to find something all-encompassing, the different categories they assign his roles (“The Working-Class Guy Caught in the Middle of Bad Institutions,”’ “The Cool, Unemotional Specialist Who Saves The Public”) are instructive, as are the parallels between the types of men that Cruise plays and the concurrent state of American society.

[McCarthy:] One of the interesting things about my thesis of the three major Cruise movie categories is that it’s semi-chronological. He started as the devil-may-care Maverick of the 1980s, moved to a guy being held back by bad institutions and now is mostly the dry-cool specialist fighting aliens or disembodied stateless terror organizations.

Which is weird, right? In a time of relatively tame job creation, wage stagnation, income inequality and general economic negativity, shouldn’t we be seeing more of the guy getting held down by bad institutions? Why did the relatively happy ’90s featuring a leading man always being held down by society? Why are Cruise roles basically counter-cyclical?

Cruise’s Oscar Years: One Decade, Three Nominations, Myriad Lessons (Mark Harris, Grantland, July 2015)

Cruise has been in action hero mode for so long now it’s surprisingly easy to forget that for a while he was a serious actor who looked for challenges more emotional than spectacular. He worked with esteemed directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick and even garnered a few Oscar nominations along the way. Film critic and historian Mark Harris analyzes his three nominated performances — Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, and Magnolia — looking at a time when the irrepressible energy and manic charm that still personifies his acting was directed at characters with depth, and how those characters were a perfect fit for the actor. 

Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire is essentially an essay on Tom Cruise that Cruise coauthors by enacting it. Everything we feel about him — how can he be so unbelievably charming, why is he always selling, can we possibly trust someone who asks for our trust that nakedly, does his need make him more human or more scary, shouldn’t that irresistible surface count for something, why does it have to be quite so polished? — is embedded in this character, who is either trying to be a better person or trying to convince you he’s trying.

How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star (Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly, May 2014)

In her LA Weekly piece, Amy Nicholson argues that Cruise’s move away from his artistically interesting ’90s output toward his safer action-oriented work was precipitated by the ruinous reaction to his infamous 2005 hijinks on Oprah’s couch. Detailing the confluence of events that allowed an initially innocuous-seeming interview to become one of the internet’s earliest and most indelible viral moments — primarily the firing of his experienced publicist, and the recent creation of YouTube — Nicholson laments that such a trivial incident could have cost us many years of Cruise at his most interesting.

Post-2005, we’ve lost out on the audacious films that only Hollywood’s most powerful and consistent star could have convinced studios to greenlight. Cruise was in his mid-40s prime — the same years when Newman made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting — and here he was lying low, like the kid who’d run away to London. Imagine the daring roles that he hasn’t dared to pursue. Cruise’s talent and clout were responsible for an unparalleled string of critical and commercial hits. We gave that up for a gif.

Tom Cruise Vs. The World  (Nicholas Russell, Gawker, August 2021)

Responding to the leaked audio of Cruise screaming and swearing at the crew on the seventh Mission Impossible movie about their lax COVID safety protocols, Nicholas Russell contemplates the opaque nature of “our least relatable celebrity,” and how Cruise stands so very far apart from his fellow superstars, who still yearn for said relatability. Russell considers how Cruise’s longevity — the sheer volume of years he’s spent as Hollywood’s most successful weirdo — has given him a degree of impenetrability. The rules just don’t seem to apply to him.

It’s disturbing to think of Tom as a person because it gives way to the possibility that he has an inner life and emotions. What could he possibly, ever, be angry about? What does that mean for the people around him? Is it even possible to talk about the desires of someone like Tom Cruise? He has existed for so long in a state of having every need, every whim, met immediately and without effort. Can a person like that be said to know what it means to want anything anymore?

What Makes Tom Cruise’s Star Shine So Brightly? (Mike Fleming Jr., Deadline, May 2022)

For Deadline, Mike Fleming Jr. talks to directors whom Cruise has collaborated with throughout his career, gathering glowing tales about the various ways in which working with him was a pleasure. Whilst they discuss specifics of his craft, and the various kindnesses he has shown colleagues over the years, more than anything else the piece portrays a man whose love of movies and moviemaking is the driving force in his life. If there’s a singular answer to be found as to why he remains so widely adored despite all the baggage, perhaps it’s that. 

[Douglas Liman:] I mention to Tom, ‘Are you thinking of going away for your birthday?’ Tom says, ‘No. I was thinking since we have the day off on July 3, we can use that time to have the eight-hour aviation meeting that we’ve been having trouble scheduling.’ I am beyond tired and I’m like, ‘You want to have an eight-hour meeting on your birthday?’ He said, ‘Yes, that’s what I want for my birthday. I want to be making a movie. That’s the best birthday present.’ There was no blowing out candles, either.

Tom Cruise’s Last Stand (Bilge Ebiri, Vulture, May 2022)

Thirty-five years have passed between Cruise’s breakthrough turn in Top Gun and his appearance in the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick. In his review for Vulture, Bilge Ebiri finds the recent film awash with melancholy, and heavy with the weight of all that has happened to America and the leading man during the cavernous three-and-a-half decades that separates the two movies. He sees Cruise as the poignant manifestation of that earlier era, the shiny carapace of his stardom tarnished and dented by the heavy weight of time. Maybe he’s not immortal after all.

Even Cruise’s remarkably well-preserved face and physique add to his out-of-time and out-of-place aura. The actor has never seemed so vulnerable; Maverick might be the first time he has played a genuinely broken man, and there’s a poignant irony to the fact that he’s doing so while resurrecting his most iconic character. His tears, when they come, reach beyond the screen — they seem like a cathartic lament for everything that has changed since 1986.

***

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the U.K. She is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine and the BFI.

***

Editor: Carolyn Wells

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands 

The Women Who Built Grunge

Four women — members of rock band L7 — pose on a park bench wearing sunglasses.
L7 in 1992. Photo: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

 

Lisa Whittington-Hill | Longreads | June 2022 | 16 minutes (4,445 words)

Jennifer Finch is smiling, but she’s clearly frustrated. “Everywhere I go, everywhere I turn, I see this fucking face,” says the bassist for Los Angeles band L7. “Frankly, I’m sick of it.” Finch is holding a copy of the January 1992 issue of Spin, which happens to be Nirvana’s first national magazine cover; the face in question belongs to her ex-boyfriend, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. 

The scene appears in the 2016 documentary L7: Pretend We’re Dead, but the sentiment dates back much farther. When the magazine was published, Finch and her L7 bandmates were in the studio recording their third album, Bricks Are Heavy. L7 had formed in 1985, two years before Nirvana was in bloom, and the two bands had toured England together in 1990. Yet, with Nirvana’s breakthrough 1991 album, Nevermind, Grohl, bassist Krist Novoselic, and lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain had seemingly gone from obscurity to ubiquity overnight: Nevermind was selling upwards of 300,000 copies a week, and was about to knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of the Billboard charts. 

Nevermind was not the only seminal grunge album released in 1991. Pearl Jam’s Ten hit the record store at your local mall in August 1991 and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger in October. By the time L7’s Bricks Are Heavy was released in April 1992, grunge had exploded: You could buy Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell’s look at your local Walmart, rusty cage not included. But as Finch and her bandmates would find, not everyone in the grunge scene was granted the same success; despite glowing reviews, Bricks Are Heavy topped out at #160 on the Billboard 200.

From the return of jelly shoes to the pop culture nostalgia of Showtime’s Yellowjackets, the ’90s are back. Chuck Klosterman’s latest essay collection, The Nineties: A Book, chronicles what the author calls “the last decade with a fully formed and recognizable culture of its own”; Vice’s series The Dark Side of the 90s revisits the Gulf War, the Viper Room, and the dating history of Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz (a Gen X Pete Davidson if ever there was one). And with 30th anniversaries this summer of albums from Sonic Youth’s Dirty to Screaming Trees’ Sweet Oblivion — not to mention the Singles soundtrack, which 30 years ago this week packaged the “Seattle sound” for a mainstream audience — our desire to revisit and re-consume the decade that brought us Baywatch, Beavis and Butt-Head, and Beanie Babies shows no signs of slowing down. 

But not everything is cause for celebration. While the alternative and grunge scene of the early to mid-’90s celebrated opposition to the mainstream, it was also a very white, very male scene that downplayed the significant contributions of artists who didn’t fit that description. Female bands like 7 Year Bitch and Babes in Toyland sold significantly fewer records than their male counterparts, generated fewer bidding wars, and received less press. When not ignored, women were objectified by the media and marginalized by an industry that treated them like a fad, promoting only a handful of female musicians and only for a brief period. As we revisit the decade that gave us grunge, rather than be all apologies, it’s the perfect time to reexamine, reevaluate, and rewrite history — especially for the women who made up the scene. 

* * *

“If you look at any history of that time, you’d think almost no women were making music,” Gretta Harley told Seattle magazine in 2013 of Seattle’s early grunge music scene. Harley, a punk rock guitarist, had moved to Seattle in 1990 just as grunge was changing the city and putting it on the musical map; she formed the group Maxi Badd (which would become the Danger Gens) with drummer Dave Parnes and bassist Tess. Lotta. But when Nevermind’s 20th anniversary in 2011 prompted a rush of tributes to Nirvana and its influential album, she realized that none of them accurately reflected the Seattle scene — or women’s role in it. 

That inspired Harley, along with actress and writer Sarah Rudinoff and playwright Elizabeth Kenny, to write the 2013 play These Streets. “We started looking at the books that were written by different authors, and the women were absent, almost completely absent,” said Harley.

“[W]hen a 250-page history of Seattle’s rock heyday … only includes a page and a half on the women of the era — calling it ‘The Female Presence’ — something feels … wrong,” wrote Laura Dannen in a preview of the play for Seattle Met magazine. “Like a female guitarist was some kind of elusive Bengal tiger, caught only briefly on tape.” These Streets explored the experiences of women in grunge in the late ’80s and early ’90s, drawing on interviews with more than 40 women in the scene. From Carrie Akre of Hammerbox and Kim Warnick of The Fastbacks to Lazy Susan’s Kim Virant and 7 Year Bitch’s Valerie Agnew and Elizabeth Davis-Simpson, These Streets shined a light on the contributions that so many histories had ignored. 


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Even those who managed to break through to wider renown, though, found themselves consistently undervalued. Like Nirvana, L7 had released one of indie label Sub Pop’s Singles of the Month, 1990’s “Shove/Packin’ a Rod.” After its second studio album, 1990’s Smell the Magic, was also released on Sub Pop, the band signed to Warner Bros. subsidiary Slash Records — for what is described in the documentary Pretend We’re Dead as a “shit deal” — at a time when major labels were scrambling to sign any band with a guitar and proximity to the Space Needle. Even when L7 finally got its own Spin cover in 1993, the compliment was backhanded: Next to the band’s photo was the coverline “More Than Babes in Boyland.” 

The Spin coverline embodied everything L7 was against. It wasn’t just sexist; it also manufactured a rivalry between L7 and Babes in Toyland, another female band at the time, flattening both to a girl-group trope. L7 often avoided group interviews and refused to be part of “women in music” special issues because the band felt they deserved their own article and didn’t want to be classified by their gender. “When we were naming our band, we did not want a gender-specific name,” said singer and guitarist Donita Sparks in a 2012 Spin oral history. “I wanted people to listen to our music and go, ‘Who the fuck is this?’ I didn’t really want to be lumped in with anybody. Us being women wasn’t a political platform.”

The uneven treatment of women in the scene was even more pronounced if you were a woman of color making music. Tina Bell, a Black woman, formed Seattle band Bam Bam with her husband, guitarist Tommy Martin, in 1983; she was the frontwoman and principal songwriter. Bam Bam would perform with The Melvins, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, and were named KCMU/KEXP’s “Best NW Band.” Its 1984 EP Villains (Also Wear White) preceded Green River’s album Come on Down, often regarded as the first grunge album. Yet, while Bell is often referred to as the “Godmother of Grunge,” she’s also left out of most histories of the scene.

The Spin coverline embodied everything L7 was against. It wasn’t just sexist; it also manufactured a rivalry between L7 and Babes in Toyland, another female band at the time, flattening both to a girl-group trope.

“This modern genre’s sound was, in many ways, molded by a Black woman,” wrote Stephanie Siek in a 2021 Zora article about Bell’s legacy. “The reason she is mostly unknown has everything to do with racism and misogyny. Looking back at the beginnings of grunge, with the preconception that ‘everybody involved’ was White and/or male, means ignoring the Black woman who was standing at the front of the line.” 

For more: Lisa Whittington-Hill unpacked Courtney Love’s legacy in 2019. Read that piece here.

Bell eventually left the band and quit music; tragically, she died in 2012, shortly before a scheduled reunion of the band. However, when Bam Bam is referenced in accounts of the scene, it is sometimes referred to as a three-piece, removing Bell and her legacy completely. When she does receive a mention, it’s often in the context of Kurt Cobain being rumored to be a fan of Bell and the band. (Cobain had discovered them while he was a roadie for The Melvins.) 

Female musicians are often granted legitimacy based on their proximity to more successful, male musicians, and Bell is no exception. If you were a woman making music and Cobain name-checked you, you were automatically cool. (Sadly, Courtney Love remains one of the only exceptions to this rule.) “In general, in most histories, women’s participation has been disregarded from the get-go or cut from the narrative after-the-fact,” wrote Jen B. Larson in a tribute to Bell on the website Please Kill Me. “Though women have played key roles in musical innovations over time, we tend to notice them in hindsight, and only if dedicated crate-diggers are meticulous in excavating the past. The motif is especially apparent for Black women.” 

* * *

For a 2016 issue celebrating the 25th anniversary of grunge, British music magazine Q published a special package that included insiders and musicians talking about the scene. Not surprisingly, the piece features no women. Hole’s 1994 record Live Through This is the only entry from a band featuring women on a list of the 25 most influential grunge albums. Mojo’s “Early Grunge Classics” and Revolver’s “Flyin’ the Flannel” both feature no entries by women. There are also no women on Rolling Stone’s readers’ poll of the best grunge albums of all time. 

When the media covered women in the grunge and alternative scene, it treated them like a genre unto itself. This genre, though, received almost no in-depth profiles or features. Instead, women were given the listicle treatment: an easy way for an outlet to appear to cover female musicians, without the hard work of devoting actual words and thought to them. From “5 Female-Led Bands That Channelled the Fearless Ferocity of Grunge” to “10 Essential Alternative ’90s Bands Fronted by Women You Should Know,” the facile format signaled that a magazine didn’t deem their work or musical contribution worthy of serious consideration. 

If music and talent weren’t the subject of the listicle, you can probably guess what was: appearance and sex appeal. In 2011, SF Weekly somehow managed to use a listicle to objectify women and celebrate male bands at the same time: “As Nirvana’s Nevermind turns 20 this week, and Pearl Jam celebrates two decades of being a band, we think it’s time to look back on the top 10 hottest women in grunge,” reads the introduction to “The Top 11 Hottest Women in Grunge.”  

When the media covered women in the grunge and alternative scene, it treated them like a genre unto itself. This genre, though, received almost no in-depth profiles or features.

As for the lists themselves, they often highlighted artists who had little in common except their gender. Diffuser.fm’s “10 Best Female Rockers of the ’90s” includes L7’s Donita Sparks, Björk, and Juliana Hatfield — all women, yes, but all women making quite different music. (Garbage and Gwen Stefani on the same list? Why not! They both wrote songs with “Girl” in the title.) Not only do listicles reduce gender to a genre, but they also pit women against each other as they compete for the number one spot, or any spot at all. There are already too many competitive situations for women in music; we didn’t need a Spin top 10 to fuel yet another.

And then there were the “women in music” packages and special issues. These may have devoted more space to the acts in question, but they again flattened these women into a single monolithic group. “The all-women’s issue. The women in rock. This ghetto that they put us in. You get the one issue a year. People always compare us to bands with female singers. Not that we don’t love those bands, but it seems so narrow-minded to me,” said former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss in an interview with Broad City co-creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson.

“Women in music” issues reached their tragic peak in 1997. First came Spin’s “The Girl Issue,” the cover of which featured Fiona Apple alongside the headline, “She’s Been a Bad, Bad Girl.” Inside, the accompanying profile included the line, “Fiona Apple is a pop star trapped in the body of a pretty teenage girl.” (The profile seems unable to stop reminding readers of Apple’s gender, comparing her to other female musicians and repeatedly talking about her looks and “sexy and girlish” outfits.) Not to be outdone, Rolling Stone published its own “Girl Issue” later that year, with a cover featuring the random-seeming combination of Madonna, Courtney Love, and Tina Turner. Magazines thought they were celebrating women, without realizing that the very nature of the celebration accomplished exactly the opposite. Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger punctured the tradition perfectly with its satirical “men who rock” special issues in 2012 and 2015 — complete with sexy-pose photoshoots and inane interview questions.

Portrait of grunge band L7 sitting in a sauna, photographed in the early 1990's.

L7 (and a mystery woman) in a photoshoot typical of media coverage at the time. Photo: AJ Barratt/Avalon/Getty Images

When women in the ’90s received coverage, interview questions focused exclusively on the idea that a woman making music was a novelty. Women were repeatedly asked to recount tales of the sexism they experienced, feed into fake feuds with other female musicians, or talk about their looks, fashion choices, or who they were dating — all things that would rarely be asked of a man, except maybe in a parody issue of The Stranger. “When you’re a woman working in a man’s world, your gender is acknowledged constantly,” wrote Jillian Mapes in a Flavorwire piece on women rock musicians. “At times it can feel empowering, this sense of taking up richly deserved space in a man’s world. But at a certain point, gender-defined underdog status and tokenization grows old, even if it’s positioned as a necessary breath of fresh air in the press or among fans.”

When not objectifying them (“Spanks for the Memory,” reads the headline of a 1990 Melody Maker piece on Babes in Toyland), coverage focused on female musicians’ behavior over their music. Like L7’s Donita Sparks throwing her used tampon into the audience at 1992’s Reading Festival after the crowd hurled mud at the band. Or Alanis Morissette talking about going down on a Full House cast member in a theater. Or anything Courtney Love did. (“Love ripped through the grunge scene like a hurricane, marrying its prom king and becoming as notorious for her public antics as for her music,” reads the entry for Love on Diffuser.fm’s list of the “10 Best Female Rockers of the ’90s,” which echoed most of the pieces written about her in that decade.) 

* * *

In the early ’90s, grunge was often associated with riot grrrl, the name taken by Olympia, Washington’s underground feminist movement. On the surface, the two scenes took a similar form. Both originated in the Pacific Northwest, had their roots in punk, and shared a DIY ethic. Grunge and riot grrrl bands often played shows together, signed to the same record labels, and formed friendships. 

But not everyone agreed with the affiliation. “There was a sexist shock-value imagery with grunge,” said Allison Wolfe, a member of riot grrrl act Bratmobile, in a 2021 Guardian piece on the 30th anniversary of the record label Kill Rock Stars. “Especially from Sub Pop bands. It didn’t speak to us. I’m not that naked woman on the cover with blood dripping all over me [in Dwarves’ 1990 single “Drug Store”]. It was about forging a path to have a voice and knowing even if we didn’t have the musical skills that we had something to say that would be more interesting than half the shit these guys are saying.” 

Female musicians were often labeled by journalists as riot grrrls, regardless of whether they self-identified as such. Not only was it lazy and disrespectful, but it highlighted the limited vocabulary and reference points that existed when talking about women making music. “Riot grrrl” became a catch-all to easily categorize and compartmentalize women. 

Meanwhile, riot grrrl bands routinely met ridicule and dismissal from the media. Rarely, if ever, did journalists or critics engage with the substance of the music. Instead, articles focused on the physical appearances and fashion choices of the girls or wondered whether Chelsea Clinton would become a riot grrrl when she moved to Washington. A Melody Maker piece suggested that “the best thing any Riot Grrrl could do is to go away and do some reading and I don’t mean a grubby little fanzine,” and Newsweek called riot grrrl “feminism with a loud happy face dotting the ‘i.’” 

“I think it was deliberate that we were made to look like we were just ridiculous girls parading around in our underwear,” said Corin Tucker, of Sleater-Kinney and Heavens to Betsy, in an interview for Riot Grrrl Retrospectives, a 1999 video project by Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture. “They refused to do serious interviews with us, they misprinted what we had to say; they would take our articles and our fanzines and our essays and take them out of context. We wrote a lot about sexual abuse and sexual assault for teenagers and young women. I think those are really important concepts that the media never addressed.”

A black and white photo of an all-female band performing on stage.

Sleater-Kinney performs at the Riot Grrrl Convention in Los Angeles in 1995. (Photo: Lindsay Brice/Getty Images)

Nowhere was there any mention of the musicians who had influenced riot grrrl acts like Bratmobile and Bikini Kill. It was as though Kim Gordon had never co-founded Sonic Youth, as though The Slits had never existed. Women making music were treated like a novelty — each group of female musicians treated like the first, their history erased and their connection to the future denied. “There were a lot of very important ideas that I think the mainstream media couldn’t handle, so it was easier to focus on the fact that these were girls who were wearing barrettes in their hair or writing ‘slut’ on their stomach,” said Sharon Cheslow, who formed Chalk Circle, Washington D.C.’s first all-female punk band in 1981, in another Riot Grrrl Retrospectives interview. Riot grrrl eventually declared a media boycott in 1992 over growing concerns that their messages were being misinterpreted, diluted, and trivialized. 

And just as with “women in music” special issues, female artists were seen as disposable and automatically compared to each other. “PJ Harvey‘s record-breaking contributions to indie rock are redoubtable, but rock’s one-in one-out policy for women has made her an inescapable comparison for any rock woman standing alone with a six string and toe pressed to a distortion pedal,” wrote Charlotte Richardson Andrews in a 2012 Guardian piece

One-in and one-out also applied to radio airplay and concert bills. If there was already a woman on a festival lineup or in radio rotation in the ’90s, there was resistance to adding another. I remember attending Lollapalooza in 1992, disappointed there was only one band featuring women on the bill — British band Lush — especially because the festival prided itself on its diversity. (I also accidentally locked myself in a port-a-potty and missed all of Pearl Jam’s performance, which has led to a lifelong fear of both the band and portable toilets, but that’s a different piece.)

Lilith Fair launched in 1997 to counter the lack of women on festival lineups and offer support and exposure for female artists — not to mention all the Biore pore strips audiences wanted. The event grossed $16 million its first year, making it the top-grossing touring festival, but not everyone was happy. “The latest trend in rock and roll: women,” announced ABC News’s Elizabeth Vargas, opening a segment about Lilith Fair. Sleater-Kinney declined to join Lilith Fair; Garbage’s Shirley Manson, among others, criticized it for its lack of diversity. Lilith Fair also helped contribute to the misbelief that music made by women had to be personal, had to be polite, and had to include an acoustic guitar. It also reinforced the idea that women’s music is only for women audiences.

Lilith Fair represented a more mainstream, commercial approach to feminism than the political action and activism of the riot grrrls, but both contributed to the idea of the ’90s as an encouraging and supportive utopia for female-fronted acts which gave the illusion of gender equality in music. While women musicians achieved undeniable success during the decade, Revolution Girl Style was far from over.

* * *

Grunge benefitted from its connection to riot grrrrl because it made the male-dominated scene seem more feminist, more progressive, and less sexist than it was. When women took Sharpies to their skin, the media dismissed them; when Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder did it, it somehow became cool and subversive. During a performance of the band’s song “Porch” on their 1992 MTV Unplugged show, Vedder wrote “PRO-CHOICE!!!” on his arm with a black marker; later that year, he appeared on Saturday Night Live wearing a T-shirt with a wire hanger and a pro-choice slogan on it. He also penned a 1992 op-ed on abortion for Spin. The mainstream media could handle politics in its music — as long as it was men doing the talking.

Whereas riot grrrl’s anger had scared journalists, resulting in misrepresentation and mockery, Vedder was allowed to be angry. “All the Rage,” read the cover of Time’s 1993 issue about how this new breed of angry male rockers was expressing the “passions and fears of a generation.” Both Vedder and Kurt Cobain declined to be interviewed for the story, but Vedder ended up on the cover anyway. This trend continued through the ’90s: men being lauded for their anger while women like Alanis Morissette were policed for it, accused of manufacturing outrage as a marketing strategy. Female musicians like Morissette had to be just angry enough to sell records, but not angry enough to risk offending anyone.

But male grunge bands also promoted a progressive, feminist stance, and changed the tone from the machismo and sexism associated with Mötley Crüe and other ’80s bands. They helped to bring gender politics to the mainstream, and regularly challenged sexism in their song lyrics, interviews, and videos. They championed feminist organizations, causes, and musicians, helping to bring them to a larger, more mainstream audience. I’d grown up watching ’80s hair-metal bands on MTV; male musicians promoting the idea that women were something other than bangable flesh trophies blew me away more than a RATT video’s pyrotechnics ever could.

I’d grown up watching ’80s hair-metal bands on MTV; male musicians promoting the idea that women were something other than bangable flesh trophies blew me away more than a RATT video’s pyrotechnics ever could.

In interviews, Cobain regularly supported and name-checked female musicians, from Shonen Knife to The Breeders, expanding the audience for these artists. In some cases, as with L7, these bands had been making music for longer than Nirvana, but unfortunately, it took a man championing them to bring the girls to the (fore)front. Cobain and Vedder also supported female musicians by bringing them on tour or joining them on the bill for benefits in support of a variety of causes, including Rock for Choice and Rock Against Rape. I remember a male friend praising Vedder for organizing Rock for Choice. He assumed the singer was responsible for it after he saw a picture in a music magazine of Vedder sporting a shirt for the benefit concerts. (He didn’t; that was L7 and Sue Cummings, a senior editor for LA Weekly.) Bands from Rage Against the Machine to Mudhoney played Rock for Choice concerts during the ’90s and while Vedder wearing the shirt helped to raise the cause’s profile, it also overshadowed the important work L7, and other female musicians did. 

What’s often overlooked, and important to remember, is that female musicians influenced Cobain’s feminist message — notably Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail — as did the the formative time Nirvana spent in Olympia. Cobain’s activism didn’t come from nowhere; it came from his proximity to, and association, with riot grrrl. “From the very beginning, he was aware of the gender issue,” said NPR music critic Ann Powers in a Daily Beast story about Nirvana’s legacy. Cobain may have promoted Bikini Kill and riot grrrl in interviews, but he wouldn’t have had his feminism without them.

This year marks the 28th anniversary of Cobain’s death. Each year the music media commemorates the occasion with tribute articles, think pieces, and reminders of all the conspiracy theories that still surround Cobain’s death. “10 Years After His Tragic Death: Why The Man And His Music Still Matter” reads the cover of an April 2004 issue of Spin. The “special collector’s issue” includes a history of grunge, a list of 30 essential Nirvana recordings and other media, and musicians from The Strokes to Soundgarden sharing their memories of Cobain. Similar tributes mark the anniversary of the deaths of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who died by suicide in May 2017, and Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley, who died of a drug overdose in April 2002. 

Sadly, the deaths of female musicians don’t receive nearly the same level of media attention. The anniversary of the death of Mia Zapata, lead singer of The Gits, who was murdered and brutally raped in July 1993, deserves more tributes. The deaths of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, who died two months after Cobain, or 7 Year Bitch lead singer Stefanie Sargent, who died in 1992, should also not be overshadowed by the deaths of male musicians.     

Deaths are not the only occasions that are marked. When Nevermind turned 30 last year, the anniversary was marked by special commemorative issues of Uncut and Mojo. There was a 30th anniversary reissue box set, online tributes, social media shoutouts, and an endless-seeming parade of dudes telling you where they were the first time they heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Similar tributes happened with the album’s 10- and 20-year anniversaries. When we think about nostalgia, it’s important to notice whose legacy is remembered, who gets the anniversary covers, whose cultural significance is celebrated — and whose isn’t.

* * *

Grunge is far from the only musical scene to marginalize women’s contributions. In a 2014 Guardian article about the punk scene’s misogyny, writer Charlotte Richardson Andrews argued that women had to fight for visibility in a scene where men held all the power. Women were too often excluded from an industry that only promoted “the lucky few to whom industry gatekeepers deign to give a platform.” The piece could just have easily been describing grunge. 

Or hip-hop, for that matter. Starting in the late ’80s, female hip-hop artists like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte achieved undeniable success. In 1988, Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” was one of the first hip-hop singles to be nominated for a Grammy. Latifah’s most successful album, 1993’s Black Reign, was certified gold, and its Grammy-winning single “U.N.I.T.Y.” explicitly celebrated women’s rights. Their music defined the genre as they spoke out against assault, discrimination, and misogyny. But like women in grunge, this perspective didn’t receive as much attention as it should have: Songs like “Ladies First” existed within a male-dominated genre and culture where, as Jeff Chang wrote in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, “scantily-clad dancers seemed in endless supply, while women rappers were scarce.” At least in grunge, Eddie Vedder wasn’t pulling a 2 Live Crew and singing about someone blowing him, as much as he may have wanted Ticketmaster to.

In 1999, Billboard named pop singer Mariah Carey the artist of the decade. For those who had grown up with grunge, it seemed a fate worse than whatever Y2K had planned. By then, grunge bands were long gone, replaced by mass-produced boy bands and pop princesses, as well as the burning (literally) mess that was Woodstock ’99. Riot grrrl’s girl-power message had been co-opted and commercialized to sell pencil cases and baby tees. Smelling like Teen Spirit had been replaced by actual teen spirit as preteen girls flocked to The Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and The Spice Girls. 

But, thankfully, yesterday’s pioneers refuse to stay in the background. After six studio albums, L7 went on indefinite hiatus in 2001 — only to reform in 2014 and tour with its original lineup for the first time in 20 years. Later this year, they’ll tour again to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bricks Are Heavy. Sleater-Kinney, who released their 10th studio album Path of Wellness in 2021, also returns to the stage this summer. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon is back with This Women’s Work: Essays on Music, an anthology she edited with music journalist Sinead Gibson. “‘What’s it like to be a girl in a band?’ The often-repeated question throughout my career as a musician made me feel disrupted, a freak or that we are all the same,” wrote Gordon in an Instagram post promoting the book. “I once asked my boyfriend what it was like to have a penis? To me they are sort of equivalent questions. Hopefully, this book begins an unravelling of this myth that if you’re a female musician you are ready-made, easily digestible.”

It’s long overdue.

* * *

Lisa Whittington-Hill is the Publisher of This MagazineHer writing has appeared in LongreadsThe Walrus, Hazlitt, and more. She is currently writing a book for the 33 1/3 music series on Beauty and the Beat by The Go-Go’s to be published in 2023. Girls, Interrupted, her collection of essays on how pop culture is failing women, will be published by Montreal’s Vehicule Press in Fall 2023. You can find her on Twitter at @nerdygirly.

Editor: Peter Rubin

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Fact checker: Sky Patterson

 

Families Like Ours: A Reading List for the Children of Queer Parents

Rear view of a boy lying on the floor who is drawing a picture of his two moms
Photo by Siro Rodenas Cortes/Getty Images

By Melissa Hart

In the 1980s, kids and their queer parents in the U.S. marched together in pride parades in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. I, on the other hand, hid in my bedroom in my abusive father’s house and longed for my mother. She had lost custody of me and my siblings after she left Dad and came out as a lesbian, and a homophobic judge declared her unfit to parent.

Related Reading: Read Melissa Hart’s essay, “The Game Was Rigged All Along,” at DAME.

The first nine years of my life, Mom cooked, cleaned, and hosted Tupperware parties and children’s birthday parties — all the duties expected of a suburban housewife. My brother was born with Down syndrome, and she devoted herself to his well-being, enrolling him in physical therapy when he was still an infant and then in a therapeutic preschool. She led my Brownie troop. She drove the gymnastics carpool and baked cupcakes for school fundraisers. She took Spanish classes with me at the local library.

And then, she was gone. 

She’d fallen in love with my brother’s school bus driver, who saw her black eye one morning and invited us all to move in with her. Mom accepted, but my father showed up two weeks later with a police escort and a court order to reclaim us. It’s impossible to estimate how many parents found themselves torn from their kids after coming out in that tumultuous era. The DSM had, in 1973, removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, only to recategorize it under “Sexual Orientation Disturbance.” Some newly out parents retreated back into the closet, terrified to lose what limited child visitation they’d been granted. Others, like those featured in the 2014 documentary Mom’s Apple Pie: The Heart of the Lesbian Mothers’ Custody Movement, banded together to fight the system. 

My mom fell into the former category. The judge allowed her to see us every other weekend; she’d pick us up on our father’s porch in her VW bus at 5 p.m. on Friday, and we’d spend a glorious 48 hours together before she dropped us off again on Sunday at 5 p.m. sharp, lest Dad get upset and call his lawyer.

COLAGE originally stood for Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere; today, it goes by its abbreviation.

Growing up, I felt alone. I believed my siblings and I were the only kids in the world with a queer parent, a beloved mother unjustly persecuted for daring to fall in love with a woman. At 31, I finally discovered the demographic that called themselves “queerspawn” — activist peers who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s and started the support group COLAGE while joining their parents in public protests against homophobia. Some of them were writing memoirs or compiling essay anthologies to reflect their childhood experiences. Meema Spadola made a documentary. Alison Bechdel wrote a graphic memoir. All of them inspired me to begin sharing my story. 

As the U.S. has seen victories for queer folks and families over the years, our family’s saga began to feel anachronistic. The next generation of queerspawn, and their parents, have been able to enjoy, even thrive, in a more tolerant time than my mother’s generation. But then Donald Trump became president. The same year, the Proud Boys surfaced with their far-right, extremist agenda, and what happened in 1979 to my mother and her children — to us — felt like a cautionary tale worth noting: a reminder of the injustice that had occurred and could occur again if we don’t remain vigilant. 

These days, I worry that if librarians continue to find themselves under attack for shelving books with queer storylines, if teachers lose their jobs for including LGBTQIA+ content in their classrooms, and parents face government inquiry if they seek gender-affirming care for their kids, then families may find themselves right back where we were four decades ago, mired in fear and oppression. Fortunately, the digital age enables queerspawn to easily connect and mobilize. There’s also a wealth of resources available online as well — memoirs, novels, essays, and interviews with older queerspawn. In this spirit, I’ve curated this reading list — for children of queer parents of any age — so that, hopefully, they’ll never have to feel alone.   

There Were No Models’: Growing Up in the 70s with An Out Gay Dad (Hope Reese, The Atlantic, June 2013)

I love Hope Reese’s interview with queerspawn Alysia Abbott about her memoir Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father. San Francisco, where she grew up with her single gay dad, was always a special place for my mother and me; we rambled around North Beach and the Castro a couple of times a year. This is a fun read about the city in the ’70s and early ’80s, and I recognize parts of my mother’s journey in Alysia’s story about her father living out and proud among a community of queer friends and activists. Three years after my mom lost custody of me and my siblings, she met the love of her life, who introduced her to a group of buoyant, child-free 20- and 30-something lesbians. They had raucous pool parties and picnics. Sometimes, my mother took my brother, sister, and me to these gatherings, and I remember her friends treating us with kind indifference. I wonder how my mom felt in those moments. Did they see her as a “breeder,” a heterosexual woman tasked by her husband and society to bring children into the world? Was she embarrassed by our presence? 

But the gay parents of my father’s generation came into their parenthood very differently than gay parents today. Then, most children of gay parents were the children of straight unions, where one of the parents was closeted, or came out after the child was born and divorced, or stayed closeted. They were exploring their sexuality in the exciting, heady time before AIDS. Growing up believing all your impulses were sick, could get you arrested, and were sources of shame and secrecy and hiding—now suddenly you could be gay. And most of the people in that time and place did not have children. It was very unusual for a father to be fully responsible for a child like my father was. There were no models. There was very little in terms of how to make this work, or a community to compare notes with.

Did I Make My Mother Gay? (Meredith Fenton, The ArQuives, 2018) 

This piece explores how Meredith Fenton — the former program director at COLAGE — and her mother came out to each other as lesbians. I adore the witty anecdotes about how her mother sent her rainbow-themed care packages at camp and brought her best friend from high school — also a lesbian — to watch Fenton’s Harry Potter-inspired drag musical. And oh, how I relate to so many parts of this essay. When I finally discovered COLAGE and the queerspawn, I worried they’d regard me as a fraud. After all, my mother came out when I was 9, and I didn’t get to live with her again until I was 19. But the COLAGE community welcomed me and helped me find my footing.

When I first started becoming a leader among the queerspawn, as we affectionately called ourselves, I was worried I was kind of a fraud. I mean, my mom had only been out for a matter of years, and most COLAGErs had been dealing with divorces or donor insemination or custody battles or a lack of protections for decades. But what I learned is that every single person who has or had an LGBTQ parent, even though the details of our individual stories may be different, there is something essential we share.

I learned so much from my queerspawn peers—about resiliency and hope that was honed from surviving bullying and surviving HIV and homophobia in custody battles. I learned that there are as many different kinds of families as there are snowflakes, and that each of them is worthy of respect for the ways they take care of each other, overcome intolerance, create new traditions and define what it means to be a family.

What Could Gay Marriage Mean for the Kids? (Gabriela Herman, The New York Times, June 2015)

I sort of hate that I can totally relate to Gabriela Herman’s first sentence: “My mom is gay. But it took me a long time to say those words out loud.”

My mom came out in 1979. My classmates at my suburban schools throughout the ’80s hurled the words “fag” and “lesbo” at each other as insults, and I never, ever told anyone — not even my best friend — that my mother had a girlfriend. Later, in graduate school, I got to study with authors and activists Jacqueline Woodson and Sarah Schulman, who were instrumental in helping me see my story and confront the homophobia that had devastated my mother’s life — and my own — so that I could move on and celebrate our family’s dynamic while writing about the injustice that defined it.

The quotes that accompany some of Herman’s photos in this essay make me smile: They capture newly out parents’ awkward attempts to explain their sexuality to Generation X and millennial kids, raised in decades informed by homophobia and transphobia. Words like “partner” and “roommate” to describe same-sex lovers, or the idea of “coming out” about a parent … this all resonates with my experience in the ’80s and early ’90s.

As we talked, we recalled having to juggle silence and isolation. Needing to defend our families on the playground, at church and during holiday gatherings. Some aspect of each story resonated with my experience and helped chip away at my own sense of solitude.

We — the children of gay and lesbian parents — are not hypotheticals. While my experience was difficult, I am hopeful that won’t be the case for the next generation. This inequality will fade, and my future children will wonder what the fuss was about.

I Wanted to Like that NYT Photo Essay About Growing Up with Gay Parents (Christa Olson, The New York Times, June 2015)

This piece by Christa Olson is such a smart and thoughtful response to Gabriela Herman’s photo essay. Written from the perspective of a scholar in visual rhetoric — a lesbian raising a toddler with her wife — the commentary calls out the photographer’s decision to depict her portrait subjects as solitary, contemplative, even mournful. It’s not the wisest choice, Olson points out, when you’re trying to convince the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage. 

Still, two weeks after Herman’s photo essay appeared in print, and three days after Olson’s rebuttal, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. On that first day, June 26, 2015, my mother and I happened to be in San Francisco together, and we went to City Hall to watch the weddings. We stood in the rotunda and hugged each other and wept at the absolute joy on the faces around us. 

Taken one-by-one, the photographs capture strong, thoughtful young adults in moments of solitude. Cumulatively, though, the series takes on an inescapable sense of sorrow and isolation, and not just because of captions that frequently emphasize the subjects’ struggles with their parents’ identities. As a [gay] parent viewing the photo essay, I felt a rush of defensiveness and worry. As a scholar of visual rhetoric, I wanted to understand why. What was it about these photographs that so set me on edge?

After a hard look, it finally came clear to me: This photo essay explores the difficulty of having a gay parent in the 80s, 90s, and early 00s. As a reflection on what gay marriage means for today’s generation of kids, though, it is (I hope) rather out of date.

Surprise, My Gay Dad Is Sexist! (Elizabeth Collins, Narratively, January 2016)

I love this piece by Elizabeth Collins because it captures so many of the gender stereotypes and conflicts that my mother experienced, having grown up in the ’50s. Like Collins’ father, my mom spent her early years in a small town. Her father, a strict World War II veteran and a Mason, insisted she become a Job’s Daughter and attend cotillion. She married, as expected of her, at age 18, and didn’t come out as a lesbian until her early 30s. As a mother, she could be so much fun, but she could also be very prim and proper. A lady didn’t say “fart,” much less commit the act. A lady wore foundation and lipstick in public, even when she and I were heading out for a 50-mile bike ride. After my sister and I grew up and married, Mom cooked four-course meals for our husbands and sat at the dinner table lavishing her attention on the menfolk while we sat silent and ignored. It was both frustrating and hilarious, and Collins captures that dichotomy of emotion skillfully, especially when describing how her father would demand that she make him a cocktail. 

My father tried to do what his family and society expected of him. He played football, got married and had children. And while the irony is not lost on me that he was also putting unrealistic gender expectations on me, I had sympathy for him.

What Happened When My Dad Came Out as Transgender (Catriona Innes, Cosmopolitan, May 2017)

Though I knew no transgender people when I was growing up, I know a friend from high school who transitioned in their 20s, and my teenager has several trans friends at school. In this essay, I appreciate Catriona Innes’ candor when writing about her complicated emotions, particularly when she recalls looking at old family photos before her dad transitioned. This piece is full of insight on what adults who transition later in life may have sacrificed to protect spouses and children — and themselves. Ultimately, it’s a happy piece that can serve as a roadmap for people with a parent who’s transitioned. 

It’s because I want to break the rhetoric that surrounds being transgender. There’s a message out there that this is something that destroys families and I’ve always wanted to send out the positive side of the story. Especially since I’ve found that, unless you let it, there’s no need for a transition to affect a relationship at all – a lesson that most certainly emerged following my mum’s death.

Two Moms, One Heartbeat: Why CSU Rams Trey and Toby McBride Put Family First (Sean Keeler, The Denver Post, November 2019)

This profile of football players Trey and Toby McBride, who grew up with two moms, makes me smile every time I read it. It reminds me of all the wonderful weekends my siblings and I spent with our mom and her girlfriend in their sprawling house and yard in Oxnard, California. Safe inside their home, we could be exactly who we were with abandon. We built treehouses and ziplines and cooked huge meals and danced and belted along with the soundtracks from A Chorus Line and Victor/Victoria. We put on costumes from Mom’s dress-up box and went to IHOP late at night and made all the diners laugh. Always, there were cats and chickens and rabbits, and at least one dog trotting around dressed in toddler-sized clothing. I dressed my rabbit in doll clothes and pushed it down the sidewalk in a baby carriage. For two weekends a month, I was so happy, and so I love how Sean Keeler captures the joyful chaos that informs the McBride household in this piece.

Two moms, 12 adult dogs, a litter of new puppies and a pair of cats. Kate heads up the family business of breeding and raising Golden Retrievers. Jen works for the Morgan County Sheriff’s office.

Over the years, the McBride menagerie included ducks, geese, horses, emus and at least three llamas “to keep the coyotes away,” Kate explains. A loved one bought them twin goats once, and the duo used to have the run of the house.

So, yeah, traditional. If your idea of traditional is streaming on Animal Planet GO.

“That’s my normal,” said Trey, who went into last weekend third on the Rams in receptions (30) and receiving yards (381). “My parents are kind of like, ‘We’re just going to do our thing. We’re not going to worry about what anyone else thinks of us.’ I’m just very grateful that I grew up with them, that they took care of us and they did everything they could for us. It’s just normal for us.”

Other Recommendations

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Melissa Hart is a journalist, author, and public speaker from Eugene, Oregon. She teaches for the MFA program in creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, CNN, Smithsonian, Brevity, and numerous other publications. She’s the author, most recently, of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Esteem in Tweens and Teens, and of the forthcoming middle-grade novel Daisy Woodworm Changes the World with a queerspawn character and another who has Down syndrome.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Copy editor: Carolyn Wells

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Young Kid Learning To Ride a Bike without Support Stabilizer Wheels Left Behind
Young Kid Learning To Ride a Bike without Support Stabilizer Wheels Left Behind

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. A Texas Teen Wanted an Abortion. Now She Has Twins.

Caroline Kitchener | The Washington Post | June 20th, 2022 | 4,100 words

If I were a journalism teacher, I would assign this story to my class immediately. Not only because it is wrenching — and my god, it is — but also because it demonstrates the value of beat reporting, editorial foresight, and covering the ripple effects of major news stories. Caroline Kitchener writes about abortion for one of the biggest newspapers in the country. The so-called “heartbeat bill” in Texas went into effect nine months ago, which means the first women in the state who couldn’t get abortions because of the law are now having babies. Therein lies the seed of a story idea, in the form of a question: What happened to those women? Kitchener found one of them, a teenager who gave birth to twins several weeks ago, and crafted an intimate narrative that simmers with pathos yet lets the facts speak for themselves. I won’t soon forget the scene in which antiabortion activists hold up the subject of Kitchener’s piece as a political victory — even lighting a candle in her honor — without any knowledge of what their shameful advocacy has meant for her well-being, her sense of self, or her future. This is complex, award-worthy storytelling. —SD

2. How Three Sisters (and their Mom) Tried to Swindle the CRA out of Millions

Sarah Treleaven | Maclean’s | June 21st, 2022 | 4,359 words

Who doesn’t love a Canadian grift story? When Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) employee Carol Power was asked to audit the Saker sisters from Nova Scotia — deemed to “be the model of rural ingenuity” for their diverse portfolio of interests — she had no idea that she had stumbled on to a complicated web of serious tax fraud going back years. When the CRA prodded, the sisters doubled down on the fraud, inventing false paperwork to cover their crimes. When taken to court, they proclaimed themselves victims of a vast CRA conspiracy against them. “The CRA investigators were looking for books, records, documentation, and electronic hardware and storage devices. They subsequently spent nearly three years combing through the Saker family bank records, sales receipts and invoices and searching for T4 slips, trying to track the Sakers’ behaviour and establish their patterns. Boudreau learned that many of the businesses had been operating largely without bank accounts, and most appeared to have no employees, supplier contracts or even production expenses. When CRA investigators asked the Sakers to provide supporting documentation to prove they were entitled to the refund amounts they claimed, the Sakers produced a huge volume of vendor invoices and sales receipts…One of the many vendors listed by the Sakers was Vandalee Industries, a name nearly identical to that of George Costanza’s fake employer on Seinfeld. It was almost like the Sakers were having a good time.” —KS

3. Safety Town

Ilana Bean | Guernica | June 20th, 2022 | 3,839 words

My most vivid childhood memories are the ones where I’m on my bike, at 4 years old, just after I learned how to ride. Our family’s home has an unusually long driveway: We can fit over a dozen parked cars during parties. There was so much space: to play, to ride, to create my own little whimsical world. I thought of this formative time as I read Ilana Bean’s piece on traffic gardens, those small-scale street systems through which kids can learn about road safety. In the imaginary world I built in front of our house, cracks in the concrete became turns. Carefully laid sticks became dividers. Rocks I collected from the neighborhood became coins for the toll bridge. But this curiosity in the built physical space I moved in quickly faded, and cars — driven by adults — would take me wherever I needed to go. Bean’s mother, Fionnuala Quinn, is a traffic safety expert, focused on building more intuitive relationships between children and our streets; car culture in the U.S. means that many of us “don’t actively interact with transportation until we reach the magic age of sixteen,” and at that point, we’re then expected to master the art of driving after a minimal amount of training. This is a thoughtful read on road safety and design — which I admit I’ve spent very little time thinking about in my life, despite the amount of power and responsibility I have each time I get behind the wheel. Even more, it’s a lovely, unexpected essay on the dedication of a mother, and the potential for a world in which children are raised with the skills to navigate their environments independently and safely and people are empowered to ask for and help build better streets. —CLR

4. How OXO Conquered the American Kitchen

Dan Kois | Slate | June 20th, 2022 | 3,066 words

When the second season of the brilliant sketch series I Think You Should Leave dropped last year, one of its oddest moments was the trailer for Detective Crashmore, a hardboiled action movie starring Santa Claus as the titular cop. There’s much more I’d like to say about it, but for our purposes today the thing that matters is a single line Crashmore utters: “Everything has sucked lately.” You know why? Because he’s right! We’re all mad and sad and worried. And when we’re all mad and sad and worried, that’s exactly when you need to read something like Dan Kois’ cheerful dive into the inner workings of OXO. You probably have a salad spinner or garlic press or measuring cup from the obsessively utilitarian housewares company; maybe you’ve marveled at it, maybe you haven’t. But in a time when the clearest articulation of our global mood comes from an irascible Santa-Claus-portrayed maniac, it’s worth taking a few minutes to concentrate on something small and good. Even when that something small and good is a vegetable peeler. —PR

5. A Marriage Story

Alan Siegel | The Ringer | June 14th, 2022 | 2,330 words

“It is, without a doubt, one of the most moving film sequences of the past 20 years.” I saw Up a long time ago, in a part of my life I’d like to forget. I don’t remember much about that time in my life (thankfully!) or much about the movie itself, other than what it reduced me to: a sobbing heap on the couch. I don’t think the term “ugly cry” had been invented yet, but that’s an accurate description of my response. How could two animated film characters conjure such a powerful emotional response in a hapless viewer in a mere 10 minutes? At The Ringer, Up director Pete Docter and codirector Bob Peterson reflect on the care and craft that went into making Carl and Ellie, as well as the specifics of imprinting them and their shared history on the hearts of an unsuspecting audience in that seminal first part of the film. —KS

Queens of Infamy: Isabella of France

An illustration of Queen Isabella of France
Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | June 2022 | 29 minutes (8,006 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on world-historical women of centuries past.

If you love Queens of Infamy, consider becoming a Longreads member.

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In the late summer of 1326, a small mercenary army gathered in Dordrecht, Holland, preparing to cross the North Sea and invade England. This in and of itself wasn’t all that unusual — from the Romans to the Vikings to the Normans, it seems like all of the European historical heavyweights wanted a piece of that green and pleasant land. I mean, I get it! It’s a classic case of those itchy Julius Caesar fingers: A man sees an island, and he wants to take it. What set this case apart was that the person leading the army wasn’t a king or a prince or a red-headed upstart duke, but a woman who was already the queen of England — had been queen, in fact, for nearly two decades. And the king she wanted to depose wasn’t some usurper who had unjustly taken the throne, but rather Edward II, her husband and the father of her four children. As she stepped onto that boat, the 31-year-old queen would set into motion a sequence of events that would leave her forever remembered as Isabella the She-Wolf of France.

* * *

The French social scene of 1308 began with two glittering back-to-back events: the wedding of the future Charles IV of France to Blanche of Burgundy and, a week later, the wedding of his sister Isabella to Edward II of England. With Charles clocking in at 13 years old, and Isabella having just celebrated her 12th birthday, it was a double tween wedding extravaganza! Charles’ new wife, a veritable spinster at the ripe old age of 11, was young but at least age-appropriate. Edward, meanwhile, was nearly twice his child bride’s age — he would turn 24 three months later. Still, it wasn’t exactly an inauspicious start. By all accounts the union of the king and future queen of England was a sumptuous affair, attended by no fewer than eight European monarchs, as well as assorted princes, princesses, and other nobles. For Isabella, who was brightly turned out in robes of blue, gold, scarlet, and yellow and a crown dripping with precious stones, this was the moment she’d been preparing for since she was 4 years old.

With Charles clocking in at 13 years old, and Isabella having just celebrated her 12th birthday, it was a double tween wedding extravaganza!

Isabella of France was likely born in 1295 or early 1296, since most contemporary chroniclers agree that she was 12 years old at her wedding on January 25th, 1308. At the very least, we know that she wasn’t any younger than 12, since that was the minimum age at which someone could marry in the church. Her brothers all have recorded birth dates, naturally, but I guess when royal daughters were born someone just scrawled “fuck, looks like another girl,” in some forgotten journal somewhere.

Isabella was born into the illustrious Capetian dynasty, which had been ruling France since 987 A.D. Her father, Philippe IV, was also known as Philippe le Bel, because along with his many other sterling qualities he was also, apparently, extremely good-looking. It’s always good to have a hot king! Bolsters the national morale and all that. Philippe did a lot of stuff, including various wars, quashing the Knights Templar, and, at one point, arresting the pope. Dante Alighieri referred to him throughout the Divine Comedy as the Plague of France, but that’s just one Italian man’s opinion. Anyway, he certainly had an eventful life.

Isabella’s mother was Joan I of Navarre, a sovereign ruler in her own right, though she left the actual governing of Navarre to various appointees. She and Philippe had grown up together at the French court, and by all accounts they were mutually smitten with each other. One source I read described her as “plump and plain,” but, like, come on, by the time she was 25 she’d already given birth seven times. Let’s cut the woman some slack. Joan died in childbirth when Isabella was just 10 years old, already predeceased by two of her daughters. Only four of Philippe and Isabella’s children lived to adulthood; of those, Isabella was the youngest and the only daughter, and some sources say that her father doted on her especially.

Meanwhile, Isabella’s new husband had never really been close with his own father, Edward I of England, also known as Longshanks and the Hammer of the Scots. For one thing, there was a 45-year age difference between the two and Edward II was raised mostly by his nurse, and for another, Edward I’s legacy was just a lot to live up to. It probably didn’t help that Edward II was the fourth and only surviving son of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile — I feel like after you’ve seen three potential heirs die, it’s kind of hard to get invested in the last one. Like, oh, I guess you’re going to be king. Good luck! Try not to fuck it up too badly.

If Philippe IV was famous for being hot, then one of Edward I’s key personality traits was being so tall that you could climb him like a tree (and many women did). As his second nickname suggests, his other main thing was that he loved going to war with Scotland. Loved it! He’s the one who killed Braveheart! One historian even reported that his dying wish was to have all the flesh boiled off his body so that his bones could be mounted on a standard and brought onto Scottish battlefields. Now that’s commitment to a fault.

EDWARD II: I also did a lot of wars in Scotland

EDWARD II: you could say it was a sort of inheritance my dad left me, along with being really tall

EDWARD II: I didn’t get any fun nicknames, though

EDWARD II: actually, if people did have nicknames for me, I doubt they’d be flattering

EDWARD II: so it’s probably for the best if I don’t know about them

It must have been difficult to grow up in the shadow of a father who basically embodied the medieval ideal of kingship. It didn’t help that the younger Edward had some quirky hobbies: ditching, hedging, and thatching roofs. You know, peasant shit. Edward II’s dream vacation involved slumming it with a bunch of commoners, drinking beer with them and doing some manual labor, followed by a quick dip in the river (swimming just wasn’t a thing in England at the time, so Edward’s fondness for it was seen as further proof of his weirdness). But while all this stuff caused a fair amount of side-eye at court, the thing that people gossiped most about was Edward’s lifelong series of intense, emotionally charged relationships with men that made him behave in seemingly irrational ways.

Was Edward gay? That’s a tough question to answer, especially since medieval England didn’t have the same conception of sexuality as we do now. We do know that, along with his relationships with men, Edward also slept with at least one woman other than his wife, so maybe if he were alive in 21st-century Britain he’d identify as a chaotic bisexual. Or maybe not! This stuff is so tricky to unpack without assigning identities that may or may not be accurate. What is certain is that, whether or not the relationships Edward had with these men were sexual, he loved them and was infatuated with them to the point of self-destruction. What is also certain is that many of his contemporaries believed he was having sexual relationships with these men, and much of the ill-treatment he would receive at the hands of these contemporaries was rooted in homophobia.

Edward’s first favorite to cause a stir was Piers Gaveston, the son of a Gascon baron who had fought for Edward’s father in several campaigns. Actually, it was Edward I who had brought Piers into his son’s life, placing him as a squire in his household. Edward and Piers were both around 16 years old and soon became inseparable. At first, old Edward I was delighted, thinking that the charming, handsome boy was a good influence on his son. But then came an incident where the two teens went on some kind of hooligan tour around the Bishop of Chester’s property, drunkenly pulling down fences, scattering his deer and other game. Cheeky rapscallions!


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When the king tried to talk to his son about this little misadventure, the younger Edward “uttered coarse and harsh words to him.” The past is a foreign et cetera, but back-talking teenagers are forever. As part of his punishment, the prince was forbidden from seeing Piers, though it wouldn’t be long before the two were back in each other’s orbits. This was the beginning of a pattern that would last the rest of Piers’ life: He and Edward would get up to some shit, the pair would be forcibly separated, Edward would somehow finagle a reconciliation, and then after a brief period of quiet the two would once again get up to some shit.

EDWARD II: eventually my father just straight up exiled Piers to Gascony

EDWARD II: because of “undue intimacy” between us

EDWARD II: I’m sorry, is that a crime in this country now??

EDWARD II: he also forbade me from ever bestowing any titles or lands on Piers

EDWARD II: I wasn’t even allowed to go visit him

EDWARD II: anyway, when my dad died, the first thing I did was bring Piers back to England and make him the Earl of Cornwall

EDWARD II: like, literally, first thing

EDWARD II: less than a month after the old dude kicked it

Five months after his father’s death, Edward sailed to France for his wedding. When the happy couple returned to England on February 7th, 1308, Piers was there waiting for them at the docks. To say that Edward was thrilled to see him would be an understatement — one contemporary account describes the king falling into Piers’ arms and “giving kisses and repeated embraces.”

What did Isabella think of all this? It’s hard to know, since her reaction to meeting Piers went unrecorded. Actually, a lot of things about Isabella went unrecorded — we don’t know what color her hair or eyes were, how tall she was, or really anything about her appearance other than that she was routinely described as beautiful. Edward himself called her Isabeau the Fair (which is a pretty cute nickname, to be honest). And really, what else do you need to know about a woman other than whether she’s hot or not?

And really, what else do you need to know about a woman other than whether she’s hot or not?

Isabella might have found Edward’s behavior strange, but then again she was a 12-year-old arriving in a whole new country — she probably found a lot of things strange. Maybe she took her husband kissing and clinging to his favorite as yet another bit of culture shock. Or maybe she thought it was totally normal! This was, after all, a time when men were much more physically affectionate with each other, and kissing was a common greeting. That being said, the other noblemen gathered at Dover to greet the king and his new bride certainly knew that something was up — for one thing, even if kissing was culturally normalized, there was only one man among them getting kissed. And, of course, these men all knew that Piers had already been sent away from the young king twice. Even if the rumors about Piers had yet to reach Isabella, they would soon.

The coronation was a disaster. For some reason, Edward let Piers plan the whole thing, even though he had no background in event planning (and, after that day, no future in it either). First of all, Piers outdressed everyone in pearl-encrusted robes of imperial purple silk, even though that color was supposed to be reserved for royalty. Then he went ahead and assigned himself the best role in the procession, carrying England’s most sacred relic: the crown of St. Edward the Confessor. But fashion and religious slights aside, the whole thing was just a shitshow. Lack of crowd control led to a wall behind the altar collapsing and killing a knight. The food for the feast arrived hours late, and when it did come it was so badly cooked that it was inedible. Piers seated himself next to the king, a spot that should have belonged to the new queen. But the insult that truly put things over the top for Isabella’s family was the fact that the tapestries on the walls had Edward’s arms next to Piers’ arms, while Isabella’s were conspicuously absent.

PIERS: the whole thing was devastating, to put it mildly

PIERS: here I am, trying to plan this beautiful day for my king

PIERS: and anyone who knows me knows that my passion is pageant planning

PIERS: I was trying to look my best for him

PIERS: trying to publicly redeem myself after that humiliating banishment

PIERS: and some of the stuff that went wrong legitimately wasn’t my fault

PIERS: for one thing, a wall collapsing seems more like a structural issue

PIERS: and of course Edward wanted to sit next to me, his age-appropriate friend

PIERS: what is a grown man going to talk to a little girl about?

PIERS: which horsie in the parade had the prettiest braids in their hair?

PIERS: how to dress your poppet for the pretend ball??

PIERS: please!

PIERS: I’ll admit that the tapestry thing was a touch too far, though

What was Isabella’s reaction to all this? We don’t know, though several contemporary chroniclers noted that several close family members who were present — specifically, two uncles and a brother — were absolutely fuming over the insult. Some accounts even have them storming out of the feast, silk robes and velvet capes a-swirling. While that most likely didn’t happen, it’s still fun to imagine because medievals had the best flouncing clothes. Modernity has its upsides, but it’s hard to make a dramatic exit in jeans and a sweatshirt.

But even if we have no historical record of what Isabella was going through in the wake of her disastrous coronation, she must have felt incredibly hurt and alone. Not that anyone should be too sympathetic to the royals, who live lives of unbelievable wealth and comfort, but it is pretty unhinged to be born into this very public job and have to do that job until you die. Not to belabor this point, but Isabella was 12, an age where everything about life seems excruciatingly embarrassing. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to be sent off to a whole new life, with a new husband who can barely give you the time of day, to live in a new culture whose customs you don’t understand, and then be humiliated in front of everyone who’s anyone.

However, life goes on, and Isabella had little choice but to figure out how to live in a strange royal ménage à trois. At least one contemporary source says that Isabella hated Piers (at first, anyway), but even if she did, there wasn’t much she could do — a prepubescent, foreign-born queen doesn’t exactly wield much institutional power. Edward continued to see Piers frequently, whether his wife liked it or not. Piers continued to further alienate the rest of the English nobility by making up rude nicknames for them (“Sir Burst-Belly” and “The Whoreson” are representative of his sense of humor), while also limiting everyone’s access to the king. Basically, if you wanted a favor or any kind of patronage, you had to go through Piers, and you also had to be ready to pay him for the privilege. Unsurprisingly, the favorite remained extremely unpopular among everyone who wasn’t Edward.

The nobles started intriguing against Piers pretty much immediately after the coronation. When Parliament met in March, almost everyone present demanded another banishment. Edward told them he’d think about it, then granted a bunch of his stepmother’s lands to Piers. Parliament met again at the end of April and renewed their demands. Meanwhile, Isabella’s father, perhaps prompted by complaints from his daughter, sent some spies envoys to make sure that he had an accurate picture of the queen’s life at court.

Eventually, Edward caved and agreed to strip Piers of his title as earl of Cornwall and exile him. Considering that his “exile” involved a cushy appointment as the new lieutenant of Ireland (who, by the way, had viceregal powers), it doesn’t seem like much of a punishment. Isabella flourished while Piers was away, traveling across the country with her husband as he carried out his official duties. Edward, meanwhile, seemed to finally notice his wife, and began granting her lands and privileges. The queen must have hoped that she’d finally winnowed her marriage down to two people.

PIERS: PSYCH

PIERS: I left Ireland less than a year after arriving there

PIERS: then Edward immediately restored my titles

PIERS: Just picture me sailing to England while Eminem’s Without Me plays in the background

PIERS: CORNWALL’S BACK, TELL A FRIEND

The barons were extremely chill about this development and decided to just live and let live when it came to the king’s favorite. Kidding! Piers’ return pushed the country to the brink of civil war. A bunch of barons calling themselves the Lords Ordainers planned — with the backing of Parliament — to come up with a bunch of regulations curtailing the royal abuse of power. One of these barons was the earl of Lancaster, who happened to be Isabella’s uncle and Edward’s first cousin and would prove to be an enormous thorn in the king’s side. Edward was not thrilled about the regulations, called Ordinances, but Parliament basically told him that if he didn’t accept them, he’d be overthrown.

Backed into a corner, Edward decided that now was a great time to start a military campaign against Scotland. Everyone knows that wars are great for the economy, plus if you’re a guy that everyone is accusing of being gay and corrupt, it’s good branding to look like you’re following the footsteps of your strong, masculine, extremely heterosexual father. Oh also Piers was going to come too.

The campaign was a disaster, at least in part because most of the nobles who were pissed at Edward refused to join in. It’s cool to let your own commoners die in battle because of petty infighting! Meanwhile, Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland, was up there reaping the rewards of England’s inability to get their shit together. Thanks, Ordainers!

Things continued to not go well for Edward. That winter, the earl of Lincoln died, which was a problem for the king since the earl had been one of the few moderate voices in Parliament and had managed to somewhat control the Ordainers. After that, the shit really hit the fan. The Ordainers finally completed and presented their list of 41 Ordinances, and chief among them was that Piers would be exiled again. Edward, never one to properly read a room, said that he’d agree to the rest of the Ordinances as long as Piers could stay. The thing about bargaining, though, is that you have to offer something of equal value in order to get what you want. The king had nothing to offer and everyone knew it.

Piers left England on November 3rd, then snuck back in, possibly as soon as late November. Certainly by early 1312, Piers and Edward had been reunited. I’m not sure how these chuckleheads thought this was going to play out, but obviously it didn’t end well.

ROBERT THE BRUCE: Edward even asked me at one point if Piers could come stay with me in Scotland

ROBERT THE BRUCE: I’m sorry, but weren’t you trying to invade my country last year?

ROBERT THE BRUCE: and now you want a favor from me?

ROBERT THE BRUCE: ok, bud, good chat

Meanwhile, Isabella turned 16 and, just a few months later, found out she was pregnant.

What was the Queen up to during all these Piers shenanigans? Mostly just queen stuff, like, patronages and whatever, plus publicly supporting Edward and his doomed quest to keep one hot man in the country. But while Isabella might not have been able to speak out against her husband’s antics — assuming that was even something she wanted to do — she was in a better position than she’d been in a few years before. Not only was she older and more experienced but, most importantly, she was carrying what everyone hoped would be the heir to the English throne. Four years into her role as England’s queen, Isabella was finally ready to step into the spotlight.

Four years into her role as England’s queen, Isabella was finally ready to step into the spotlight.

But first there was the whole Piers issue to resolve, which Edward did by fleeing from the Ordainers with the queen and his favorite. Early in the journey they were all traveling together, but later the two men ditched the pregnant Isabella, either because they were worried about her safety or because her household was moving too slowly (this wasn’t exactly a high-speed chase, since everyone involved had an entire staff of servants plus carts and carts of supplies). Anyway, eventually there was a siege, Piers was (predictably) captured, then tossed in a dungeon until his jailers could decide what to do with him.

EDWARD: so they had a little mock trial

EDWARD: where Piers wasn’t even allowed to speak in his own defense

EDWARD: then they took him out into the road and ran him through with a sword

EDWARD: I’ve seen animals slaughtered with more dignity

EDWARD: they called it an execution, but for what crime?

EDWARD: me not wanting to follow their made-up rules?

EDWARD: rules that let them arbitrarily exile people they don’t like?

EDWARD: no wonder the rest of Europe thinks we’re a barbarian backwater

Edward was devastated, and would grieve the loss of his favorite for the rest of his life, but Piers’ death did have a stabilizing effect on the country. For one thing, the Ordainers had gotten what they wanted, more or less. For another, all the nobles who weren’t part of that core group of Lords Ordainers thought that what had happened was, frankly, super fucked up. As a result, the king enjoyed far more support than he’d had since he’d come to the throne.

His image also got a boost from Isabella’s pregnancy, since that helped dispel some of the rumors about his sexuality, plus a royal baby is always good for PR. Isabella delivered a healthy son on November 13th, and Edward was so overjoyed that he gave £20 cash plus £80 per annum for the rest of their lives to the couple that brought him the good news. At a time when an unskilled laborer was earning around £2 per year, that was a pretty hefty sum. Edward’s faults were many, but he was an unfailingly generous man. He also just seems to have been thrilled to be a dad — throughout his life he would take genuine delight in his children, creating a much different environment than the one he’d grown up in.

His image also got a boost from Isabella’s pregnancy, since that helped dispel some of the rumors about his sexuality, plus a royal baby is always good for PR.

By the end of 1312, Isabella was 17 and finally settling into some kind of normalcy. With Piers out of the picture, the queen seemed to come into her own, managing a large household, doing all her official queen stuff, and even occasionally advising her husband (to be fair, he needed all the advice he could get). Edward, to his credit, seemed to dote on his wife even as he mourned Piers’ death. Things weren’t perfect — one historian describes Edward’s court as a “disorderly hotbed of jealousies, intrigues and tensions,” which sounds like it would be fun for maybe a week and then get very old very fast — but they were stable. Which might be why he and Isabella decided to go to France in the spring of 1313.

Isabella and Edward’s trip to France went fine, except that a tent that they were sleeping in caught fire. Edward bravely scooped up his wife and carried her out, though she suffered burns on her arms which troubled her for several months. One contemporary chronicler noted that the king and queen of England were completely naked when they came out of the tent, which must have been a titillating sight. But other than being That Time When The Royal Couple Almost Burned To Death After Doing It, this trip to France is best known for allegedly being the time when Isabella sowed the seeds of the Tour de Nesle Affair, an event which would help speed the demise of her family’s entire dynasty. Whoops! Here are the facts of the situation: Isabella had three brothers, all of whom were married. At some point it was discovered that two of her sisters-in-law were cheating on their husbands with a pair of Norman knights, and the third sister-in-law knew about this and was somehow aiding and abetting. Isabella’s father found out and shit went very sideways for the wives and their boyfriends. The knights were castrated and then, according to various sources, either drawn and quartered, flayed alive, or broken on the wheel and then hanged. All three women went to horny jail, though one of them was eventually pardoned.

Facts aside, here is the rumor that dogged Isabella for the rest of her life: During her time in France, she allegedly gave some cute purses to her sisters-in-law after watching a “satirical puppet show” with them. Later that year, Isabella noticed a pair of knights holding those same purses at a dinner in London. She apparently came to several conclusions from this: Purses are both genderless and useful, and also her sisters-in-law had slept with these knights and then gave them these purses to remember them by. So the queen called up her father and told him that his daughters-in-law were giant sluts. Isabella’s alleged motive was to get rid of all these potential royal baby-making machines and clear the way to the French throne for her own children. This makes absolutely no sense, since a) Isabella’s children were not in line for the French throne and b) she had no way of knowing that all three of her brothers would die without any surviving male children. It was one of those stories that gained traction later, when there was a succession crisis in France and this narrative seemed to prove certain ugly things about the English queen’s character, but when looked at closely it doesn’t hold any water.

Meanwhile, things were chugging along in England. Edward cycled through a few new favorites, but none of them held his attention the way Piers had. In the summer of 1314, he decided to start yet another military campaign in Scotland, apparently forgetting that just two years earlier he’d been begging the Scottish king to give sanctuary to his favorite. Not sure if you’ve ever heard of a little battle called Bannockburn, but it was an absolute disaster for the English. Edward left home at the head of an enormous army and returned to England in a fishing boat. It was another public humiliation in a long line of public humiliations and reignited some of the tensions between him and the Lords Ordainers.

If Edward hoped that 1315 would be a better year, he was sadly mistaken. Heavy rains and flooding led to poor crops and drowned livestock, which in turn led to widespread famine. Obviously, this did nothing to bolster Edward’s popularity, though Isabella did help national morale by popping out another son in 1316, which she and Edward named John. Then in 1318 she gave birth to a daughter, which they named Eleanor after Edward’s mother.

Obviously, this did nothing to bolster Edward’s popularity, though Isabella did help national morale by popping out another son in 1316, which she and Edward named John.

Shortly after Eleanor’s birth, something truly bizarre happened: A man named John showed up claiming to be the real king of England. He said that he was the true son of Edward I, but his ear had been bitten off by a sow when he was an infant, which had led to a royal nurse switching him out with a commoner’s baby, who then grew up to be Edward II. The king thought the whole situation was pretty funny and suggested John be made into a court jester. Isabella was considerably less amused. The matter might have ended there, but John kept trying to convince Edward to fight him in single combat for the throne. In the end, John was put on trial for sedition and hanged. What a weird little interlude.

In late 1318, a man named Hugh Despenser became Edward’s new chamberlain and, shortly thereafter, became Edward’s new favorite. In many ways, their relationship would mirror the one Edward had had with Piers, but there was one crucial difference. While Piers had never seemed to have any goals besides exclusive access to the king (and making up rude nicknames for everyone else), Hugh was power-hungry. Isabella had always more or less graciously endured Piers’ presence, but she would soon come to absolutely loathe Hugh.

By the time 1320 rolled around, Edward was in deep smit, and Hugh was embroiled in some extensive land-grabs in Wales. This resulted in a new set of enemies for the king: the so-called Marcher Lords from the border between England and Wales. They showed up at Parliament to demand Hugh’s exile shortly after Isabella gave birth to her fourth and final child, a girl named Joan.

ISABELLA: Edward refused, of course

ISABELLA: I was terrified that this was going to spiral into another Piers situation

ISABELLA: except worse

ISABELLA: so I got down on my knees and begged Edward to exile Hugh

ISABELLA: on my knees

ISABELLA: in public

ISABELLA: while still recovering from childbirth

ISABELLA: he eventually gave in, but I’ll let you guess whether that exile stuck

Meanwhile, Edward came up with a plan to get rid of the Marcher Lords and, of course, bring Hugh back. He came up with a scheme that involved Isabella going on a “pilgrimage” to Canterbury, but then detouring along her way to stop at Leeds Castle, which belonged to one of the Marchers. The queen demanded that she and her retinue be accommodated at the castle for the night, which was her right. But with the lord of the castle away, his wife refused to admit Isabella since, you know, her husband was in a fight with the king. Isabella’s servants tried to enter the castle by force, and six of them were killed by the castle guards. That was all Edward needed to start an all-out war against the Marchers and end Hugh’s exile.

The war with the Marcher Lords ended in a decisive victory for Edward at the Battle of Boroughbridge. This resulted in the exile, imprisonment, or death of many of Edward’s enemies, including the old earl of Lancaster, whose execution mirrored Piers’ murder all those years before. Edward was finally able to get his revenge, but he didn’t stop at punishing those who had been directly involved in Piers’ death. Instead, he and Hugh went on a years-long campaign to destroy anyone and everyone related to Piers’ killers. Lands and titles were taken and redistributed to Edward’s supporters (especially Hugh), possessions were confiscated, widows and children were imprisoned.

EDWARD: I don’t know who it was that said that the best revenge is living well

EDWARD: but they were wrong

EDWARD: the best revenge is the kind that lines your pockets and makes children cry

EDWARD: THERE, I SAID IT

What did Isabella think of all this? She’d publicly supported Edward throughout his war with the Marcher Lords, as well as helping run the country while he was out on campaigns, giving up a few of her strategically placed castles to aid in the fighting, and, of course, taking part in the ruse that Edward had used to start the war in the first place. Some contemporary chroniclers paint her as being shocked and distressed by the death of her uncle, the earl of Lancaster, but there had been so much enmity between the two of them over the years that it seems equally possible that she was unmoved. What we do know is that around this time there began to be obvious cracks in Edward and Isabella’s relationship, and in just a few years Isabella would blame Hugh for destroying her marriage.

In 1322, Edward launched yet another disastrous military campaign in Scotland. You might be wondering why I’m bothering to mention it — are these failures even noteworthy at this point? This man has two hobbies: toxic relationships and fucking up in Scotland. But this particular failure involved an event that — for Isabella, at least — was a true crossroads. At some point during the conflict, while the queen was staying at Tynemouth Priory, she was in danger of being captured by the Scots and had to flee through pirate-infested waters. It was a calamitous and possibly even deadly escape; one chronicler alleges that a lady-in-waiting died and another went into preterm labor, though these claims can’t be verified. What is certain is that Isabella felt abandoned by her husband, and she said that Hugh had “falsely and treacherously” counseled Edward “to leave my lady the queen in peril of her person.”

After that, Isabella kind of disappeared from the public record for a while. In late 1322, Edward said that she was going on a pilgrimage to “diverse places within the realm,” but it’s not clear if that’s true. It’s equally possible that Edward sent her away to cool off, or that the queen had finally peaced out of her own accord. If I thought my husband had abandoned me to the Scots and/or a dangerous sea voyage, I would probably leave too!

Things continued to go badly for Edward, or, rather, Edward continued to cause things to go badly for himself. In 1323, Isabella’s brother Charles, now the king of France, insisted that Edward come and pay homage for lands that England held in France. Edward was pissed because the French had slowly been encroaching on these lands, so he politely told Charles to go fuck himself. Charles even more politely told Edward that he was free to go fuck his own self, and a small war ensued.

On September 18, 1324, Edward seized Isabella’s lands in Cornwall under the pretext that they were vulnerable to French invasion and thus he had to … protect them I guess? That was already his job as king of the whole country, but that’s fine. He also seized the rest of her lands and castles, even though the majority of them weren’t on the coast. In lieu of her income from these properties, which was what paid for all her household expenses, Edward granted her an allowance. He also removed all the French attendants from the queen’s household (except for her chaplain) and either imprisoned them or forced them to return to France. According to some chroniclers, Edward even appointed Hugh Despenser’s wife as some kind of guardian for Isabella, meant to surveil her communication with her family. All of this was intended to be cruel and humiliating to the queen, and she was sure that Hugh was behind it.

ISABELLA: but then in March of 1325, my husband sent me to France

ISABELLA: to work out some kind of peace with my brother

ISABELLA: kind of a weird move, considering

ISABELLA: I wish I could be pithy and say, “this was his first mistake”

ISABELLA: but, let’s be real, this was more like his one millionth mistake

Six months later, Edward made another enormous blunder: He sent his eldest son, the 12-year-old Edward of Windsor, to join Isabella in France. Although a tentative peace had been reached, England still had to pay those pesky homages for their French lands. Edward should have gone himself, but he knew how unpopular his little regime was and he was worried that someone would assassinate Hugh in his absence (he was especially anxious because a magician named John of Nottingham had recently tried to kill them with magic). The king might have brought his favorite along with him to France, except that Hugh had been banished from that country. So instead, Edward decided to throw his son into the snake pit and hope for the best.

By the end of 1325, it was clear to everyone that Isabella was not returning to England and neither was her son. She didn’t mince words about it either, declaring publicly that “… someone has come between my husband and myself […] and I will not return until this intruder is removed.” What’s less clear is whether or not she was already formulating a plan to invade England and get her husband off the throne.

At some point during Isabella’s time in France, a man named Roger Mortimer entered the picture. He was one of the Marcher Lords, and, though Edward had tried to imprison him, he had somehow managed to escape and flee to the continent. Much has been speculated about Mortimer’s relationship with Isabella, some of it based in fact, but most of it not. For example, the rumors that the two of them had been secretly in love for years, or that Isabella had somehow helped him escape from jail were highly improbable. Same with the popular narrative that Isabella found Edward too effeminate and thus sought gratification in Mortimer’s virile arms — not only is this wildly homophobic, there’s also just no evidence that Isabella was unhappy with her husband before Hugh came onto the scene. These bits of fabrication might provide people with satisfying story arcs — that Isabella and Mortimer had a secret years-long affair right under Edward’s nose, or that the queen was enacting some kind of revenge against her husband by taking her own lover — but real life is rarely that tidy. But whether or not Isabella and Mortimer were sleeping together (and there’s no conclusive evidence that they were), they formed a powerful political alliance.

Edward begged Isabella to come back. He begged her to send their son back. Eventually the pope got involved, writing separately to both Edward and Isabella to try to get them to reconcile. The pope even wrote to Hugh, telling him to back off. Isabella stuck to her guns and said she wouldn’t budge as long as Hugh was in England, adding that she feared he would kill her if she returned. But getting rid of Hugh was the one thing Edward couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do.

POPE JOHN XXII: have you ever watched someone absolutely run their life into the ground for a bad relationship?

POPE JOHN XXII: and you ask them why they’re doing it and they don’t have a real answer?

POPE JOHN XXII: they’ll be like, ‘I know it’s bad, but …’

POPE JOHN XXII: then they just keep doing it?

POPE JOHN XXII: anyway, this was like that, except he was running an entire country into the ground

POPE JOHN XXII: sometimes a person’s choices are just so astonishingly bad that you almost have to admire them

Mortimer wasn’t the only English lord hiding out in France, and soon enough the queen had amassed quite a following. Isabella began planning her invasion, but there was one very obvious sticking point: She was broke. Edward had, of course, cut her off long ago, and without her lands in England, she had no source of income. But the resourceful queen figured out a way around this: She brokered a betrothal between her son and Philippa of Hainault, the daughter of a wealthy Dutch count. Isabella was able to fund a mercenary army with the aid of Philippa’s substantial dowry. On September 7th, 1326, she set off to conquer her own country.

Isabella and her army landed in England just over two weeks later, and didn’t face much resistance as they began zigzagging across the country. Edward had made many enemies in high places, and even the general population was pretty sick of his shit by this time. The king, sensing that things would not go his way, fled London for Wales, at which point the capital descended into chaos. Isabella and Mortimer, meanwhile, were hell-bent on vengeance. When they caught Hugh’s father, another crony of Edward’s, they hanged the elder Despenser and then fed his body to a pack of dogs. Then, on November 16th, 1326, Edward and Hugh were captured in south Wales. The jig was up.

Isabella and her allies gave Hugh a mock trial during which a long, long list of his crimes was read out. He was found guilty on all charges, of course, and sentenced to a brutal execution that involved a dragging through the streets by four horses, being hauled up and down by a noose around his neck, having his penis and testicles cut off, and then being eviscerated. His head was taken to London, where it was displayed on London Bridge, and the rest of his body was dismembered and sent to the four quarters of the realm. That’s what we call hanging, drawing, and quartering, baby!

Edward, now a broken man, was moved to Kenilworth Castle under heavy guard. Isabella, meanwhile, installed herself in Wallingford for the Christmas season. The pope wrote to her several times encouraging her to reunite with her husband, but that wasn’t happening. Invading your spouse’s country and horribly murdering his favorite and a bunch of his friends seems like an obvious relationship deal-breaker.

When Parliament met in early January of 1327, they agreed to depose Edward and crown his 14-year-old son. Isabella would act as regent until Edward III came of age. A deputation was sent to Kenilworth, where a swooning Edward II, dressed all in black, agreed to abdicate the throne and begged his subjects’ forgiveness. What else was he going to do? He was smart (or defeated) enough to know that there was nothing to be gained from fighting back. His enemies had won. All he could do now was try to make sure his eldest son was given his proper inheritance.

Isabella kept up a friendly correspondence with her estranged husband, in spite of the fact that she had just destroyed his life. She wrote to him enquiring after his health, sent him little presents, and said that she wished she could visit him but the “community of the realm” wouldn’t permit it. In fact, Isabella would never see Edward again. On September 21st, 1327, Edward died under mysterious circumstances at Berkeley Castle, where he’d been sent after a foiled plot to free him from Kenilworth.

ISABELLA: people thought that I had him killed, of course

ISABELLA: you’ve probably heard some of the rumors

ISABELLA: like the one about him dying from a burning poker up his …

ISABELLA: you know what, I’m not going to repeat it

ISABELLA: suffice to say that it was as ridiculous as it was disgusting

But these weren’t the only rumors. There were others that said that Edward hadn’t died at all, but had, in fact, escaped, and the body that lay in state for a whole month at St. Peter’s Abbey in Gloucester belonged to someone else entirely. There continued to be sightings of the dead king for years. One man even wrote to Edward III in the late 1330s, saying that his father was living in a hermitage in Italy.

It would be nice if this story ended with Isabella competently running the country until Edward III came of age, a satisfying conclusion after all that she’d gone through to wrest the country out of Hugh Despenser’s grip. But, again, real-life narratives are rarely so convenient or tidy. What actually happened was that during her handful of years as regent, the queen emptied the country’s coffers and enriched Mortimer with lands and goods much in the same way her husband had with Hugh. Much like Edward’s relationship with Hugh, it’s hard to figure out what it was about Mortimer that led Isabella to neglect her country so badly. Did she love him? Was she in on the take? Was there some kind of extortion going on? Had she ever really wanted to save England from her husband and Hugh, or had it all just been petty revenge?

Speaking of revenge, by late 1329 or early 1330, the 17-year-old Edward III was already fomenting his own rebellion. He was tired of his mother’s controlling ways, and felt that she behaved badly toward Philippa, who was now his wife. As for Mortimer, he had started behaving as if he was king, and undermined Edward III at every turn. The final straw for the young king was when Mortimer ordered the execution of his father’s half brother Edmund. With Mortimer picking off everyone who stood between him and royal power, Edward III must have wondered if he was next.

On Friday, October 19th, Isabella was relaxing with Mortimer in her bedchamber at Nottingham Castle when Edward III and a small group of knights burst in. Mortimer was quickly taken prisoner, while Isabella was placed under guard (as her favorite was being dragged, bound and gagged, out of the room, Isabella allegedly cried out, “Fair son, have pity on the gentle Mortimer”). Just over a month later Mortimer (still bound and gagged) was convicted by Parliament of the murder of Edward II and sentenced to death. He was hanged on November 29th. Though his trial and death bore eerie parallels to that of Hugh Despenser, Mortimer was at least spared the whole castration/disembowelment/beheading thing.

Isabella, who was only 35 years old at the time of her downfall, was held under house arrest for two years and then retired to lead a country life. Once the restrictions on her freedom were lifted, she enjoyed traveling around the country, hosting visitors, and doting on her grandchildren. The wayward queen who had once rebelled against her husband and invaded her own country died a quiet death at the age of 63, an apparently contented woman.

In the years after Isabella’s death, popular depictions of her grew increasingly dire. She was portrayed as an unnatural woman, bloodthirsty, out to emasculate all the men around her. When an 18th-century poet combined Christopher Marlowe’s unflattering portrayal of Isabella with the term She-Wolf, which Shakespeare had used to refer to Margaret of Anjou in Henry VI, the nickname stuck. Her image became a two-dimensional caricature of sex-crazed bitch, instead of the complicated person she’d actually been.

It’s impossible now to know why, exactly, Edward and Isabella behaved the way they did. How could Edward not see how harmful his relationships with his favorites, particularly Hugh Despenser, were to the rest of his life? How could Isabella repeat a pattern of behavior that she had so loathed in her husband? How could two people who seemed so fond of each other for most of their marriage treat each other with such cruelty? And yet they did, and on a national stage to boot.

And while it’s tempting to slip into a WOW, WHAT A BADASS WARRIOR QUEEN, GET IT GIRL kind of rhetoric when talking about women like Isabella, what makes stories like hers endure is the fact that beneath all the superlatives is someone who’s profoundly human. Isabella was messy in her personal life. She made bad choices, choices that sometimes irrevocably harmed relationships with people she cared about. She could be selfish and capricious. She could be downright cruel. But she was also brave, resourceful, and, in her own strange way, loyal to a fault.

For all that there is to criticize about Isabella, there’s so much to admire as well. She strategized, launched, and completed a successful military campaign against all odds. With the backing of a relatively small band of soldiers, she managed to take an entire country. And maybe most impressive of all, she believed that she had worth in a world that mostly considered women to be worthless. A meeker queen would have been cowed by Hugh and stood helplessly by while her husband took away her lands and rights, but not the She-Wolf of France.

LONG LIVE THE FUCKING QUEEN!

For further reading:

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Previously:

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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer whose bylines can be found all over the internet, including at the Guardian, the London Review of Books and, obviously, Longreads. She truly believes that your favourite Tudor wife says more about you than your astrological sign. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. You can find her on Twitter @anne_theriault.

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Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Fact Checker: Lisa Whittington-Hill
Illustrator: Louise Pomeroy

The Thrill of the Perfect Ending: A Chat With the Writer and Editor Behind The Atavist‘s New Issue

A mugshot of an older man, superimposed behind a black-and-white photograph of a suburban house
Photoillustration: Ed Johnson

As host of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, Brendan O’Meara is no stranger to talking about the art and craft of storytelling. In this craft-focused excerpt, we’re digging into Episode 318, in which he interviewed Atavist editor Jonah Ogles and writer Greg Donahue about their work on the latest issue of The Atavist.

If you think about any great piece of writing — one you repeatedly turn to — I’ll wager that part of the appeal is the ending. Be it in a book, an essay, or a magazine feature, a great ending sinks into our senses, even prompting us to start reading the piece all over again.

Greg Donahue, the freelance journalist who wrote The Atavist’s latest issue, “The Fugitive Next Door,” pulled off an absolutely brilliant finale in his piece — something so lovely, so evocative of everything that came before it, that it only made sense to talk about endings in a recent episode of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast.

“I got some writing advice earlier on,” Donahue says, “and it was ‘always focus on the ending.’ Not just the ending of the story, though; it was the ending of paragraphs, the ending of sentences. Put the best stuff at the end of the sentence. And then, if you can, put the best stuff at the end of a section. End a section, end a paragraph with the goods. Then the end of the piece as well. Give it to them.”

Donahue’s story chronicles the life of Howard Farley, a man who hid in plain sight for more than 30 years before his past ultimately catches up to him. Not only does Donahue detail the twisting path that led to Farley’s discovery, he delves into the psychology of what it takes to disappear for that long. “There are certain writers who recognize good stories that have depth,” Ogles said — and this conversation gave us both.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and concision.

* * *

Brendan O’Meara: What have you noticed about Greg and his work that lends itself to the kind of storytelling The Atavist is so good at?

Jonah Ogles: A lot of writers are capable of recognizing, “oh, that’s a good story,” but they don’t always go through the process of finding out if there’s a lot of material to work with. Greg knows how to do that. I’d actually be curious if he spends a lot of time sort of spinning his wheels on a lot of different ideas, or if all of his ideas come to fruition. But when he showed up with his pitch, it was clear that he had the goods: He had the story, he had the reporting. And he’s also just a really easy guy to work with.

As an editor, do you have any blind spots, things that you tend to miss?

That’s a really great question. I guess if I were able to list a bunch of them, they probably wouldn’t be blind spots. In this story in particular, Greg really pushed on [main character] Howard Farley’s background. Right up to the last round, he wasn’t satisfied — he wanted readers to have this very specific idea, what he would probably describe it as a truthful sense, of who this guy was. And I had done some cutting; I’d taken some things out, I’d moved some things around, Seyward did the same thing when she read it. So it changed in really subtle ways, [reinstating] the guy’s biographical details, and the texture of his character changed in some good and interesting ways.

The beginning set up what I thought was going to be a more sinister figure. When the police finally catch up to him, it was like that episode of Seinfeld, where Newman is smoking a cigarette out his door: “What took you guys so long?” But over the course of the piece, he softens and becomes more likeable, and as you learn more about him, you’re like, Oh, this guy’s actually kind of a decent guy just trying to live a normal life after he had his soiree with the drug world.

We get a lot of a lot of pitches about fugitives, and in this case, that’s not the narrative. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t read the story, but if you read it, you’ll realize like this guy did something sort of remarkable.

Farley kind of goes in the opposite direction. Instead of trying to have a lavish lifestyle, he just wants to be the guy cutting his grass in a Florida suburb.

Right. It was almost like he’d been sort of a victim of opportunity in his drug dealing days: “Oh crap, I’d better shape up if I don’t want this to be my future.”

There’s a time for style and a time for just sheer story. And maybe there’s a time where they can overlap. As an editor, do you find yourself at times telling your writer to go for a little more, or dial it back a bit more so the story rises above?

When I was a young writer, I wanted my voice in every sentence — pure style, send the hot one downrange every single time. And it just doesn’t work if the story isn’t there. Even the people that we think of as having incredible voices, all that really means is that they use it judiciously, and they know when to do it. I was rereading Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy through the pandemic, and I’d forgotten just how clean so many of his paragraphs were. There’s one sentence that does all the stylistic work, but he’s still just concerned with like, presentation of information.

With some writers — and they tend to be younger — we’ll have to say, “don’t worry about the voice thing right now, we’ll get the story in order, and then we’ll find half a dozen places to drop in a great line, and we’ll just bowl people over.”

Then there are writers who you can tell are just trying to not mess it up. And sometimes they need to be told, like, “Hey, the story is there, let it rip — just go for it.” Those people still don’t overdo it, you know, but they’ll get just a little more oomph into the story, to really make it come alive.

Once you were done with this piece, putting the final polish on it, what were you most proud of in bringing this story to light with Greg?

Not that every story has to be about something, but I felt like this was a story about redemption. I think we’re in a bit of a reductive moment, culturally, and this story challenged me as a reader. This guy committed some things that we’re all going to agree are criminal acts. And then — and this story is about the “and then” — the question is, does he change? Does he deserve to be punished for those? What is justice in this situation? What is redemption in this situation? What does the guy deserve in the end? We run plenty of stories that are just pure explosions and gunfights and fun, but this is one that had that flavor and also challenged me in interesting ways.


Just to jump right in, Greg: How did you arrive at this story of Howard Farley, stolen identity, and drug trafficking?

Greg Donahue: One of the things I do when I’m poking around the internet looking for a new story is go to the DOJ website — they’ve got news briefs of all the indictments, PR releases about cases that are going on — and I happened to see it. He had been indicted as John Doe, they still didn’t know his name. So I thought that was sort of intriguing. I put it in my back pocket, then came back sometime later; they had figured out his name by then, and it started unraveling.

I had just finished another big story for Audible that had a fugitive as well — one who had faked his own death and gone abroad. I had fugitives on the mind, I guess. So I started pursuing it. Initially, the interesting thing about Farley’s story was that he had lived for so long without being caught; 35 years is a really long time to be a fugitive. There are examples, but it’s rare, [especially because] he had done so not in some foreign country, but was living a largely unremarkable life right under the noses of the people hunting him down. It seemed simple, almost, and human. Very approachable.

I was thinking about characters in fiction, whether it’s Don Draper assuming the identity of the fallen soldier so he could reinvent himself, or Jay Gatsby, who forged a new identity. Here, we have Howard Farley moonlighting as Tim Brown, who had died as a baby. As you said, he hid in plain sight, and just was just an everyday person. I found it almost kind of charming that that’s the life he chose, given where he came from.

And then the other aspect was the question of did he belong in prison at all. It’d be a lot easier if he had moved abroad and continued his alleged crimes — but in this case, I found myself thinking, well, this is an older guy who’s lived a very easygoing, non-criminal life for decades now. He was technically no longer a fugitive. Who does it serve to put him in prison or to pursue him as a criminal?


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So you stumble across the idea on the DOJ website. What happens next as you’re looking to put some meat on the bone to make this story attractive to an editor?

Well, I had to figure out if I could have access to Farley. At that point, he was obviously involved in a court case, which often means the answer’s no. I reached out to to his lawyers, who demurred, but through conversations with them and poking around a little bit reaching out to other people who had covered the story, I was told that yes, he would tell me his story, and that his wife was open to talking as well. So immediately, I started kind of looking up other parts of the history: Nebraska, the drug trafficking stuff, seeing what I could find, what was archived, what wasn’t. It’s in the middle of the pandemic that I’m doing this, so FOIA requests are taking forever, I can’t get documents fast enough, but piecing together what I could.

But the real difficulty with reporting the story was that much of the access disappeared at a certain point.

Whoa.

Yeah. He and his wife decided that they didn’t want to actually tell me their story. I think it was more than simply not wanting their story to be out there — it was more about a very particular personal element that they weren’t interested in sharing. But by that point, I had done a lot of research and a lot of work. And the question was: Can I still tell a compelling story as a ride-around?

The case that Farley was involved in 30 years ago was the largest drug case in Nebraska at the time. And so I reached out to a lot of those people who were involved in knew him: friends, neighbors. Despite him living a simple kind of life, the worlds that he had moved in meant that there were a lot of people there to talk to — and I ended up communicating with Farley via letters, so I did get some of that access back.

So how do you lean into the fact that you need to get more creative with how you source your information? 

I had already done quite a bit of that reaching out to other people in Farley’s orbit, so I had made a lot of inroads in terms of contacts and sources around him — and certainly in Nebraska, in his life growing up. I guess I didn’t see it so much as a creative constraint, it just forced me from the outset to play outside the story and give it the arc.

At what point did you realize the story had a structure that felt logical?

It was very chronological, which I think is usually the best way. People disagree with that, and it might not be the most wildly creative way, but for me, it’s the cleanest way of telling a story. When I’m sketching out how I might structure a piece, the first thing I do is create that timeline.

In this case, we had this great moment of the arrest, which I knew I wanted to open with, and stepping back from there and telling it chronologically was the most natural.

In some longform features, you effectively become friendly with central figures, and it’s a tough road to navigate.

I’ve been lucky that most of the sources who I have spent the most time with for stories are not particularly unsavory. You have to be careful — there’s a professionalism that is necessary to do the work objectively — but developing relationships hasn’t been too much of an issue with me. I think it’s very different if you’re talking about reporting breaking news, or stories that involve violent crimes; it can get very confusing and complicated quickly. I did a story recently in the fall in New York Magazine that involved murders and very violent crimes, and there was a little bit of that thing where I had to step back and say, “You know, I’m not here to advocate for your cause. I’m here to tell this story.”

I love the final paragraph about Farley fishing, and how it’s a symbol of what his life was. At what point in your work did that hit you that this anecdote is so symbolic of his life? 

I was so happy when that happened. I had a different ending in mind, which was a few paragraphs earlier; I was just going to cut it there. And it wasn’t perfect. I knew I needed to add something. Maybe three-quarters of the way through the reporting, I spoke to one of Farley’s friends, Pat, who told me that anecdote. As he was telling it — and this has never happened before — I just was like, “Oh, well, great. Perfect. I’ve got the ending. This is it.” I haven’t ended a longer story on an anecdote before, so I had to work a little bit to craft the transition. But as he was telling me that story on the phone, it was like the light bulbs going off. Pat was an editor and newspaper reporter, and I told him, “you know, you just handed me gift wrapping in the ending.” And he said, “I can see what you mean.” He understood how it encapsulated the bigger story.

It really underscores how important endings are. That hammer comes down and you just sit back in your chair, like, “damn, that was good.” 

It’s huge. I grew up playing music and went to school for music, and that old line — about how if you nail the last note of a song, you can kind of fake your way through a little bit — always struck me. The problem in asking someone to read a 9,000-word or 20,000-word piece, though, is you have to keep their attention the whole time. So you can’t gloss over things in the middle. But regardless of how you structure it, if you can plant that seed earlier on in the story, then when you get to that ending, people are already careening down the railroad track with you.

Also, though, I don’t like heavy-handed endings where everything is wrapped up in a little bow. Sometimes it’s nice and it can give you a little bit of that gut punch, but it has to be subtle. I got lucky with this one. Previous stories have not come as a flash of realization.

As a writer, what insecurities do you have?

Wow. Well, like many writers I know, I suffer from a very chronic case of imposter syndrome. I really like stories that are concise and direct and move quickly, and I’m always trying to do that — at, I think, the expense of style. I wish I had more style is the answer to your question.

I read some people who tell really tight stories, and sometimes very complicated stuff, but there’s also these flourishes where you can just tell they kind of let it go a little bit right there. I’m always jealous of that, I don’t do it very often — and when I do, I often edit it right out. I wish I had a little more confidence to leave it in and let an editor cut it out. But, see, maybe it would stay in? I don’t have the faith in myself to risk it.

It’s almost like you need to cast that reel 100 yards out, then when you pull it back in 25 yards it’s like “oh, that’s good. It’s got style and substance.”

I don’t do a lot of editing as I’m writing. I try not to. When I put on the editor hat, I find myself cutting a lot of stuff that ends up back in the story. What will happen is I’ll try and cut it down to get that concision and that tightness that I always want. And then I send something off and they go, “Well, there’s a little hole here, you didn’t quite flesh this part out.” And I realized, well, I had all that written and I cut all that stuff out because I didn’t think it was adding to it.

At this point in your career, you’ve got all these great stories that you’ve written for lots of other publications, Atavist included. What’s your relationship to ambition? Where do you see yourself going, what things do you still want to accomplish?

Well, it’s a tough racket. Being any kind of journalist, certainly a freelance journalist, the numbers can be grim. I don’t mean to be a naysayer, but that’s the reality of the situation. So for me, I’m happy to say that I am ambitious about what might be possible. Creative people in all fields should be happy to say that we’re ambitious. I have my eyes on writing a book. I’m having a kid any day now. I’ve had a couple of things optioned at this point for film and TV, and that’s a really interesting world. I haven’t written dialogue — I’ve done a little bit of toying around with things but never in a professional capacity — but it’s an intriguing possibility.

I always like to end these conversations by asking for a recommendation for the listeners. It can be brand new coffee, a pair of socks, or a kind of notebook or a pencil you really like, but what might you recommend?

You may have heard of Steve Padilla as an editor at the LA Times. I don’t know him, I have no connection to him, except that he did these writing workshops a couple decades ago, and he’s recreated them over the years. If you just Google “Steve Padilla” and “writing workshop” it comes up in the form of tweets, or you can find the podcast of this talk he gave, but it’s his rules for writing nonfiction — and these rules have totally changed my life in terms of writing.

The number one for me, the singular advice that really hit home for me, was — and I’m paraphrasing — if you’re having trouble writing a sentence, if you keep getting jammed up on a particular sentence, it’s not that sentence that’s the problem. It’s the one that came before it.

It’s like expecting a string of dominoes to fall without a domino before it. Why aren’t you falling? Oh, it’s that guy — gotta knock it over with another one. 

It’s taped to the wall next to my computer. I find myself looking at it all the time. When I’m rewriting a sentence for like the 20th time and wasting 30 minutes on some line that’s probably gonna get cut from the story anyway, I go, “Oh, shit, it’s not this line. It’s the one that came before it.” And immediately, it unlocks it.

Read “The Fugitive Next Door” at The Atavist now

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Diego Garcia Base as seen from the air
The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) or Chagos Islands (formerly the Oil Islands) is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom situated in the Indian Ocean, halfway between Africa and Indonesia. The territory comprises a group of seven atolls comprising more than 60 individual islands, situated some 500 kilometers (310 mi) due south of the Maldives archipelago. The largest island is Diego Garcia (area 44 km squared), the site of a joint military facility of the United Kingdom and the United States. Following the eviction of the native population (Chagossians) in the 1960s, the only inhabitants are US and British military personnel and associated contractors, who collectively number around 4,000 (2004 figures). (Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. White Parents Rallied to Chase a Black Educator Out of Town. Then, They Followed Her to the Next One.

Nicole Carr | Pro Publica | June 16th, 2022 | 7,200 words

This was the scariest story I read all week. Cecilia Lewis was hired in 2021 by the Cherokee County School District in Georgia to be its first-ever administrator focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. But she hadn’t started the job — indeed, she hadn’t even moved down South from her longtime home in Maryland — before a mob of white parents decided she had to go. They sent her racist messages, spread lies about her, and screamed at school board meetings to get their way. And when Lewis took a different job, one county over, they didn’t stop. Nicole Carr’s feature is a searing reminder of just how vicious the right-wing war on progressive education in America has become, and a revealing look at the kind of people — white parents, riding a wave of national bigotry — who are leading troops into battle. —SD

2. Back to Chagos

Cullen Murphy | The Atlantic | June 15th, 2022 | 7,416 words

For most in the Americas who have heard of the Chagos archipelago, it’s likely through Diego Garcia, a tiny atoll that serves as a U.S. military installation in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But ’twas not ever thus. Not by a long shot. For Diego Garcia to be “uninhabited” enough to fulfill its current purpose, it first needed to be emptied of its indigenous populace: the Black people that had lived on the atolls for centuries, enslaved, indentured, and underpaid. Flung across Africa and as far as the U.K., the expatriated Chagossians fought for years to return to the islands; finally, this year, they boarded a ship and sailed eastward from the Seychelles to the land now known as the British Indian Ocean Territories. Cullen Murphy — a longtime Atlantic staffer, now the outlet’s editor-at-large — accompanies the voyage, and tells a long, maddening tale of disenfranchisement and diaspora. “Accompanied by British military personnel, small groups of Chagossians have in recent years been allowed brief ‘heritage visits’ to some of the islands,” he writes. “On their visits, the Chagossians have used the limited time on each island — never overnight — to clear vegetation from the decaying churches and restore the crumbling graves of their loved ones. They have cleaned inscriptions. They have left flowers. And then they have had to depart.” It’s not quite home again, but it’s a step closer. —PR

3. Loans Got Me Into Journalism. Student Debt Pushed Me Out.

Carrington J. Tatum | MLK50: Justice Through Journalism | June 13th, 2022 | 2,370 words

Carrington J. Tatum’s mother held multiple jobs and worked hard to send Tatum to college — the first in his family. Becoming his school’s first Black editor-in-chief, Tatum also discovered a passion for journalism, and realized he could make a real difference in the marginalized communities he reported on. “I was on my way,” he writes, making an impact, winning awards, and doing everything one is supposed to do to “make it” in this world. But the burden of student debt, and rising rent, has meant that he can’t afford to stay in this line of work: “After graduating, I owed more than $90,000 in student loans, about $64,000 of which is private loans to Sallie Mae.” Any amount he has hoped to save has gone, instead, to paying off loans with excessive interest rates. “My journalism degree was more expensive than my wealthier classmates’ degrees because I couldn’t afford to pay in cash,” he writes. “But that’s a common theme with American systems. Poor people pay high prices. Rich people get discounts.” This is a gutting read on the financial hardships that are driving bright, hard-working Black storytellers out of the field, the systems that keep people in poverty, and, in turn, the communities who also lose out because their stories are not told. (Pair this with one of our Longreads essays, by Kristin Collier, on living with debt in America.) —CLR

4. Sacrifice

Matthew Bremner | Hazlitt | December 1st, 2021 | 6,423 words

I am currently doing some renovation work on my house, which entails spending my evenings clutching a paintbrush, grimly painting the walls a color that someone, in a fit of whimsy, called “Beautiful In My Eyes.” (Inadvertently implying it is beautiful to no one else.) I am looking forward to a time when I do not have paint in my hair, and I can go back to being blissfully ignorant of the many different types of door trim there are in the world. (It is a whole thing apparently, there are catalogs.) Justo Gallego Martínez, on the other hand, chose to immerse himself in a building project for 60 years — not because he procrastinated over trims — but because he was building a whole damn cathedral by himself. With no architectural expertise and using waste and recycled materials, Justo constructed something near the size of the Sagrada Familia. As I struggle to figure out how to stop a door handle from falling off, I have nothing but respect for this achievement. So does Matthew Bremner, who finds himself charmed by Justo as he attempts to understand a monk who chose to sacrifice himself to God in such a unique way: “He piled empty paint cans on top of one another and filled them with cement to make columns. He bent corrugated iron rods and fed them through slinky-like springs to create the structure of arches.” Bremner spends weeks with Justo at the site, over a period of years, and learns not just about Justo but about the people who visit and even himself. Have a read — the beautiful descriptions will pull you into a bizarre world, one that Justo built himself. —CW

5. The Google Engineer Who Thinks the Company’s AI Has Come to Life

Nitasha Tiku | The Washington Post | June 11th, 2022 | 2,621 words

Could it be? After conversations with Google’s artificially intelligent chatbot LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications), engineer Blake Lemoine maintains that the bot has achieved sentience. Google vice president Blaise Aguera y Arcas has dismissed Lemoine’s claims, despite the fact he has “argued that neural networks — a type of architecture that mimics the human brain — were striding toward consciousness.” Lemoine’s on administrative leave from Google and decided to go public. While the story sounds like it comes straight out of science fiction, Lemoine is not alone. “Lemoine is not the only engineer who claims to have seen a ghost in the machine recently. The chorus of technologists who believe AI models may not be far off from achieving consciousness is getting bolder.” Detractors, though, say that making sense is far from sentience: “Most academics and AI practitioners, however, say the words and images generated by artificial intelligence systems such as LaMDA produce responses based on what humans have already posted on Wikipedia, Reddit, message boards, and every other corner of the internet. And that doesn’t signify that the model understands meaning.” Stories like this, as well as “Ghosts,” Vauhini Vara’s incredible essay about feeding the linguistic engine GPT-3 prompts about her late sister (highlighted in Longreads’ Best of 2021), would make any skeptic think again. —KS

Love Song to Costco

A photo of Costco pinned on a fridge
Illustration by Carolyn Wells

Yuxi Lin | Longreads | June 2022 | 12 minutes (3,311 words)

It’s 2004 and my first year in America. I type the word “wholesale” into my digital translator. 

noun 

definition: the selling of goods in large quantities to be retailed by others. 

I’m 12 years old and all I want to be is whole and wholesome. The ability to buy it is even more appealing. 

In front of me, the glass display case contains all the luxury I’ve ever known. Watches, earrings, and necklaces, all sleeping under the fingerprints of strangers. At this point in my life, I can’t imagine anything costing more than a Costco diamond. During ESL class, my teacher asks how I would like to be proposed to one day. I tell her that I want my future husband to take me to Costco, where I would ask the salesperson to open the case and take out the $1999 ring. My future husband will have also made reservations at a nearby Pizza Hut, my favorite restaurant, and kneel down on its fake wooden tiles. 

While my parents and their friends peruse the enormous shelves, I prowl the sample stands. This is one of the only times I get to eat American food. My parents don’t patronize American restaurants out of a combination of fear and disdain. For a while at lunch I was dumping out the fried rice my mother cooked because the white kids said it looked funny, but I quickly ran out of allowance money to buy chicken nuggets. 

I make a beeline for the old ladies in hairnets doling out cut-up Hot Pockets or lone nachos with salsa. More than anything, I lust after the microwavable cheese-filled pierogies. “Trash food,” my mother calls them. I tell her that I aspire to be a trash can. 

Almost always, the samples come in grease-stained cupcake liners. I fold them into halves, then quarters, hide them in my palm, then wait a few minutes before circling back for another round. I don’t want to appear too greedy, too needy, the way immigrants feel starved for that unnamable thing, no matter how many years they live in their chosen country. I go back for thirds, sometimes even fourths, unable to stop myself. The aproned ladies occasionally look askance in my direction but never stop me, and to this day I am grateful for their silence.

My parents are self-satisfied at Costco in a way that I rarely see except when they return to China. Their coworker sometimes joins us on our trips, picking up a 15-pound sack of flour so he can make mantous and noodles for every meal, less expensive than rice. After we drop him at his house, my mother makes fun of the guy for being cheap. 

“These northerners don’t know how to enjoy seafood like we do,” she says smugly from the front seat. 

My father agrees. “Let’s invite them over next time and show them a proper feast.”

“They’ll talk about it for weeks after!” 

“How do you know he doesn’t just like lots of mantous and noodles?” I ask. 

My mother whips her head around and casts me a disdainful look. “Because that’s food for poor people. We are different.” 

***

2005 is the year Keira Knightley plays Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. It’s my favorite movie. I enjoy watching the Bennets complain about their poverty while being waited on by five servants. When my Korean American friend Stephanie mentions that she has the movie on DVD, I don’t believe her. I’ve seen the price tag for the movie at Costco, $25.99, and multiplied it by eight in my head, the approximate exchange rate between USD and RMB. In China, I could have eaten out for a whole week on that money. It seems impossibly luxurious for a 13-year-old to own such a thing. How could she afford it, even if her father is white? 


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“Do you want to borrow it?” She offers. 

“Sure, if you can bring it.” 

She hands it to me the next day. “You’re so funny. Why didn’t you believe that I had it?” Stephanie asks, puzzled at my look of surprise. 

I stroke the smooth plastic cover over Keira’s half-turned face and shrug, wishing I could disappear. 

***

Once a year, I look forward to the most special time. By the Costco entrance, there are pianos for sale. Just a few Kawai and Roland uprights so beautiful that I fear touching them, uprights that make me tear up with nostalgia for the piano I’d left in China, the bench on which I wept from fatigue as I practiced for recitals over and over again until my fingers would carry the music, even if my brain shut off. When I sit down at a Costco piano, my former self wakes up inside me. Awkwardly and slurring, my fingers get to speak a language that they’d almost forgotten. I know that I don’t have much time with them, just a song or two at most before the sales lady asks where my parents are. 

The pianos stay for a week, maybe two. Inevitably, the next time we go, they are gone. 

 ***

I am 14 when I buy my first American CD. Against a silver background, Britney glows in a black bra and leather shorts, her face haloed by a black fur hood. She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. My Prerogative, says the cover. I look up the word in my dictionary and understand that it’s something along the lines of “rights and privilege.” I rub the glossy cover against my cheek as my parents complain about how much it had cost. I’d snuck it into their Costco shopping cart and refused to put it back. We drive home blasting “Boys,” my parents awkwardly silent while Britney whispers “Okay nasty” against Pharell’s heavy breathing.

***

I learn in first grade that the greatest sin is leaving food on the table. This message is reinforced both publicly and privately in China. One of the first sentences I learn to read in my Chinese textbook is that every drop of a farmer’s sweat turns into a pellet of rice in my bowl. That is how my food comes to be, and it is a disgrace to the farmers who toil in the fields should I leave even a single pellet of rice uneaten. This discipline is drilled into everyone in my family. My mother would stay at the table until every speck of flesh is picked from the bone. Then she would break the bone to suck out the marrow. Then she’d simmer the bone fragments to make broth. 

I don’t want to appear too greedy, too needy, the way immigrants feel starved for that unnamable thing, no matter how many years they live in their chosen country.

Whenever I express distaste for any food, my father says, “You’re so lucky. Back when I was your age, I would have given anything for a bite of that.” 

I believe him. 

 ***

While researching nutrition in my adult life, I keep encountering the China Study conducted by the Campbells in the 1960s, where two American scientists conclude that Chinese people had fewer cases of heart disease because they didn’t eat meat and relied mostly on vegetables. I roll my eyes. Most of the lauded healthy Chinese eating habits back then were probably involuntary. 

Chinese people like to say that they are a culture obsessed with food, and it’s true. It never occurs to me until adulthood just how much of that obsession stems from intergenerational trauma. Once I see the privation on my parents’ faces while chewing on a piece of chicken, I cannot unsee it. Who are they eating for? Their former selves perhaps, which, like ghosts, could never be satiated. And then, is this what I look like, too, when I’m eating?

***

After graduating from college, I live alone in North Carolina, loathing my first job where I travel four days out of the week to corporate client sites in obscure cities. I make more money than my parents and spend it mostly on clothes and heels. Some days I drive to Costco and order a Coke and pizza. I eat it next to a family with small kids who cannot sit still. They climb down and over the benches, smearing their greasy, ketchupy hands everywhere. I call my parents on the phone so they can ask me what I’d bought, how much I’d paid, and I can tell them that I’d eaten the same thing that they’d eaten last week when they’d gone on their own Costco run. 

***

Two years later, I quit my corporate job and move to Texas to teach English. While unloading my bags from a weekend shopping trip, I realize that my wallet is missing. Where had I seen it last? 

I call the San Antonio Costco, and a calm Texan accent on the other end reassures me that my wallet has been found. I had dropped it while putting groceries into my car in the parking lot. When I pick it up, I want to hug the man in his silly-looking red vest. 

***

Sometimes I go to Costco in Texas just to see other Asians, where I project my past and future onto the families there. I watch sensible middle-aged Asian parents strolling through the aisles, scanning for Kirkland products for their relatives back home, gifts such as vitamins, salted walnuts, and anti-aging creams. Like my parents, they look for the cheapest thing with a Made in the USA sticker that would simultaneously convey their own success and justify their abandonment of a former home. I make up stories about them in my head. Do they, like my family, pull up with their Asian neighbors in a row of Toyotas each Sunday at the Costco parking lot? Do they buy in bulk the favorite food of their adult children and freeze it until they come home? Do they feel in some way that this is the safest place in America? 

My favorite people to watch are the young Asian couples pushing carts piled high with toilet paper and granola bars, doing mental arithmetic on cost-per-unit comparisons. They’re absorbed in the comfortable tasks of mundanity. In a stroller next to them, a baby sucks his thumb and gazes out at the mountains of things around him. 

***

My parents are born in 1962, the tail end of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Chinese Famine. The fields lie barren. All the shoots dug up. The trees stripped of bark. Caused partly by natural disasters, and partly by terrible agricultural policies, the famine left roughly 35 million people dead, but my parents don’t know that yet. Nobody knows the real body count. One only hears whispers of bodies lying in the streets of villages; some of them disappear and are never found. Nobody speaks of what happens to them. 

One of the first sentences I learn to read in my Chinese textbook is that every drop of a farmer’s sweat turns into a pellet of rice in my bowl.

Food shortages and poverty continue to haunt the country for decades. In a grainy photo taken at the beach, my young father and his college friends are so thin that I can easily count their ribs.     

My father grows up drinking rice porridge, and, being the younger son of six children, occasionally has a desiccated olive to suck on while my aunts watch with envy. This is what it means to be the favorite. This is what it means to be a son. He nurses that olive for an entire meal because it is the only dish. When guests visit, his parents boil an egg and serve it to the practical stranger or obnoxious neighbor while their own children watch from behind the door frame, imagining the burst of yolk amid the soft white crumble. 

The family, like almost all families in China at the time, couldn’t get enough food even if they’d had all the gold to sell, but my grandmother would still hoard gold for the rest of her life. Her last gift to me is a single gold earring, taken off her left earlobe at her 94th-birthday banquet. She mumbles something with her toothless mouth in the regional dialect I never learned. My aunt translates for us, “She says, for your dowry.” My grandmother nods fiercely, puts it in my palm, and closes my fingers over it. 

During the famine, unable to feed six children, my grandparents send my third aunt, my dad’s older sister, to the countryside to be raised by distant relatives. She will survive there somehow, they tell themselves. But the conditions outside the city are even worse. Along with other starved and desperate farmers, my aunt pulls wild grasses and weeds from the cracked soil and eats them boiled. Years later, when she finally returns to the family, no one thanks her. 

“Why is third aunt so fat?” I ask my father when I’m in elementary school. 

“She’s not really fat.”

“So does she eat a lot?” 

“It has nothing to do with eating.”

My aunt lives the rest of her life with a bloated face and a body turgid from the plant poisons she’d ingested. Every year she sews me pajama pants in the ugliest fabric with elastic waistbands, and each night I still go to sleep under the duvet covers she made for me. She works at a crematorium and uses her connections to help everyone in our family get a nice plot. In her early 60s, she is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We hide it from her so she can die in ignorance. Within six weeks, she does. 

 ***

Whenever I tell my parents that I want to write about them, they say, “Why? Our lives are so ordinary. There’s a billion of us and nothing worth telling.” Maybe they’re right on some level, that human suffering in its various forms is no great secret. Yet, when I sit down at a meal sometimes, I feel a void inside, like I’m merely a mouth for generations of mouths, and I’m eating for my parents, my aunts, my uncles, and ancestors; while other people, the ones who do not walk around being gnawed by ghosts, watch with horror at my insatiable glut. 

***

After a decade in the States, my parents move from the northeast to a town in Florida and begin cultivating the land behind their house. It’s swamp land, low in nutrients with loose sandy soil. Each month they make a one-hour drive to a horse farm to collect manure. They ask the local Asian grocery store to give them the Kikkoman soy sauce buckets to use as planters for radishes and carrots. My father nails together planks of wood and builds trellises to anchor the cucumber vines and snow peas, then winter squashes and bitter melons. Their efforts yield so much harvest that they buy a $3000 industrial freezer for storage. It still jars me to see their petite Asian figures standing next to a freezer twice the size of them combined. 

Despite their ability to buy or grow most vegetables, they still love going to Costco, out of habit rather than need, driving two hours to Orlando and back. It gives them satisfaction to walk the familiar aisles, to load and unload the car. My father always buys more than they need, and my mother spends days stressing over what’s going bad so she can determine the order in which to cook the meals. But sometimes, they come back with just a jug of milk and some fruits, things they could easily find in a grocery store down the road.  

On our way to a family trip to Miami that I had planned and booked, we drive past a Costco. My mother wants to go in. 

“Now? We’re trying to get to the hotel while there’s no traffic,” I explain, irritated. “Is there something you need to buy?”

“No, but I want to go,” my mother says, staring longingly at the warehouse. “Maybe pick up some groceries.”

“We’re staying at the Hyatt Regency, Mom. There’s nowhere for you to cook.” I’d forbidden my parents from bringing their electric stove, which they brought on road trips and plugged into the electric outlet at a Motel 8 to cook Chinese food. But this time, I am determined to vacation like an American. I hit the gas. 

“Well, maybe I’ll just look…” My mom’s voice trails off. The store shrinks from sight just as quickly as it had come into view. 

 ***

One night, I receive a video call from my father out of the blue. He wants to know how one goes about eating jamón.

“Where are you getting jamón in Florida?” I ask. 

“Costco.” He pans the camera to a whole bone-in jamón lying on the living room floor. 

“Are you having people over?”

“No. Just for your mom and me.”

My parents have never been to Spain or enjoyed Spanish food. In fact, the one time I’d taken them to a Spanish restaurant, they’d commented how much better the seafood paella would have tasted if only the chef had cooked it as Chinese fried rice. What they said about the flamenco dancers at the restaurant was even worse. 

Sometimes I go to Costco in Texas just to see other Asians, where I project my past and future onto the families there.

Staring at the giant leg of cured meat on my screen, I don’t know what to say. 

My father switches back the camera to face him. “I thought I’d ask you since you went to Spain.” 

“I’ve only had jamón when it’s been sliced at a restaurant.” 

“Well, what’s the point of going all the way to Spain when you can have perfectly good jamón right from Costco?” 

“Is this about my going to Spain a few months ago instead of visiting you and mom in Florida?”

“No. Don’t be immature.” 

We are quiet for a few beats. 

“Want us to save some jamón for you in the freezer?” He offers. “You can try it when you come back.” 

“Okay.” I hang up, not sure what defrosted jamón would taste like. 

 ***

Over the years and our continuous fights about my increasing Americanness, food has become the only safe subject between my parents and me. It is also the only language through which they can tell me that they love me. While my white friends receive care packages of cookies and candles from home, my parents offer to overnight me live lobsters that they bulk-order. 

Pushing a cart along the massive aisles in the Orlando Costco, my father loads up boxes of oranges and blueberries that he tries to force-feed me over the next few days. I do my best to act grateful because I know the people he’s trying to feed are no longer alive. 

“I never had this growing up,” he’d say and dump another 5-pound box of fruit in the cart, ignoring my mother’s scowl. It’s an act that they’ve perfected and carried out for years. 

I look up at the stadium lights shining down on us. In the great halls of Costco, two of our greatest fears are assuaged — that of not having enough, and that of not being enough. 

Ten miles away, children are lining up at Orlando’s Disney World to live their dreams. Here in Kirkland, my parents are lining up to checkout. Here is where I feel most American. Here is a home where I can touch everything that lives in yours. When we walk out the door, a white woman smiles and waves, “Please come back soon.”

***

Yuxi Lin is a poet and writer living and teaching in New York City.

Editor: Carolyn Wells

Copy Editor: Krista Stevens

Stranger Things: A Reading List of Unsolved Mysteries

Stairs set into a mountain trail, leading into the mist
Photo: Tim E. White/Getty Images

By Lisa Bubert

The first novel I ever wrote had a mystery at its heart: a disappearance. It was never explained. It didn’t involve any kind of crime. The disappeared never reappeared. The mystery just … was. It was a storyline I was deeply committed to — and one that, as you may imagine, did not lead to a publishing contract.

Unsolved mysteries manage to be as irresistible as they are frustrating, stoking our imagination even while they tease our need for resolution. Faced with a story that refuses to tie everything into a neat bow, we chew on potential explanations until we find the one we like best — the one that satisfies all our biases, the one that allows us to bask in the knowledge that we (and only we) know what actually happened. A lack of answers may be maddening, but it also allows us to rewrite stories to our satisfaction.

As it turns out, not everyone feels that way. People reading my book maintained that the mystery simply couldn’t go unresolved, that there must be a why to the strange thing that had occurred. Was suspending disbelief suddenly something our brains couldn’t handle? Was it so impossible to believe that in this year of our Lord 2022, a mystery could persist?

In their minds, yes. After all, we have science. We have constant surveillance. We leave a digital self-portrait everywhere we go now, a mosaic sketched from location pings and security cameras and the constant tracking of our personal data. Infidelity in your family is no longer just a whispered theory; a DNA test proves it. So, in fiction especially, writing a story with an unsolved mystery often depends on a contrivance, some convenient loss of modern technology. (A character’s laptop died! A power surge took out the router! Someone threw their phone in the ocean!) Cause and effect skew, leaving the reader with a sinking feeling that things are happening because the writer needed them to happen that way — and nothing leaches the enjoyment from reading like awareness of the deus lurking in the machina.

Thankfully, in real life, unsolved mysteries still abound. Whatever happened to Amelia Earhart? What’s up with spontaneous human combustion? Who the heck was D.B. Cooper? Will anyone ever publish my book? (The world may never know!) From paranormal thrillers to fog-shrouded disasters to pedestrian oddities, let the modern mysteries chronicled herein bedevil your otherwise logical mind.

What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane (William Langewiesche, The Atlantic, July 2019)

The question of what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has long been a source of fascination for me. Is it because I still have trauma from that one time we hit turbulence on a flight back from Las Vegas and I was convinced we were all headed for a certain death so I cried to my mother and told her I loved her and then decided that the boy I’d just started seeing would have ended up being my husband if I’ve only had a bit more time? Maybe. (Though I did have more time and he did end up being my husband.) But it’s also because of the same paradox that Langewiesche tugs at in this meticulously reported piece: In a time when it’s nearly impossible for even one person to completely disappear, how is it that a plane full of 239 people could blink off of air traffic radar unnoticed, never to be seen again? The answer — and Langewiesche does propose one, satisfying and unsatisfying in equal measure — is long, complicated, and involves a necessary amount of conspiracy.

The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation. The loss devastated families on four continents. The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish.

We Two Made One (Hilton Als, The New Yorker, November 2000)

When writing, we’re always challenged to consider external conflicts that are pushing up against internal conflicts and vice versa. But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction — and the call really is coming from inside the house. This story of identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons, who would only communicate with each other, hits all the high notes of the deeply weird. Known as “The Silent Twins,” the pair led a strange and reserved existence from the beginning, which was exacerbated by the racist trauma and ostracization they experienced from being the only Black children in their Welsh community. (Hello, external conflicts!) As time went on, the two began to have trouble discerning themselves from each other. “You are Jennifer, you are me,” Jennifer would tell June. June later said, “One day, she [Jennifer] would wake up and be me, and one day I would wake up and be her.” I’d always heard people talk about the phenomenon like it was almost paranormal; however, upon reading Als’ essay, I was surprised to find that the story was less one of mystery and more one of self-preservation under untenable circumstances. The real mystery (or perhaps not, if we choose to look) is why so many storytellers are more willing to see this as a story of the unexplained rather one of oppression.

For most of their lives together, they refused to speak to anyone but each other — a refusal that led to their emotional exile, their institutionalization, and, eventually, to the misguided appropriation of their story by activists and theorists who used it to pose questions about the nature of identity and the strange birthright that twins are forced to bear.

The Exorcisms of Latoya Ammons (Marisa Kwiatkowski, Indianapolis Star, January 2014)

Imagine The Exorcist, but set it in 2010s Gary, Indiana, and add the Department of Child Services. Latoya Ammons’ three children are fatigued, bruised, and frequently missing school. Child abuse? No. Demons? Perhaps. What sounds like a plot perfect for the silver screen unfolds in a daily issue of the Indianapolis Star — a ghost story that comes with receipts. Reported with over 800 pages of official records and interviews with case managers, police officers, psychologists, and a priest, this piece is so fantastical it can hardly be believed — and yet there is so much official documentation that even the strongest of skeptics would have a hard time dismissing it.

According to Washington’s original DCS report — an account corroborated by Walker, the nurse — the 9-year-old had a “weird grin” and walked backward up a wall to the ceiling. He then flipped over Campbell, landing on his feet. He never let go of his grandmother’s hand.

“He walked up the wall, flipped over her and stood there,” Walker told The Star. “There’s no way he could’ve done that.”

Later, police asked Washington whether the boy had run up the wall, as though performing an acrobatic trick.

No, Washington told them. She said the boy “glided backward on the floor, wall, and ceiling,” according to a police report.

Who Shot Walker Daugherty? (Wes Ferguson, Texas Monthly, October 2021)

A classic Texas whodunnit, set against the backdrop of West Texas canyon country: Big game hunters clash with a Mexican drug cartel. Or was it a practical joke? Or a hoax for political and financial gain? Who shot first depends on who you ask; as Wes Ferguson describes it, “the question of who shot Walker Daugherty still feels like a political Rorschach test.” Of all the things Texas Monthly does well, true crime might be its strongest suit. Much of that lineage is due to the legendary Skip Hollandsworth, who has turned out more excellent investigative pieces than I can count. But Ferguson is no slouch himself — and this piece, which brings true crime to his usual outdoor beat, proves the tradition is in good hands.

They were nodding off when they were awakened by a frightening noise. The locked side door of the RV was rattling loudly. It sounded as if someone wanted in. Tinker Bell barked. Edwin jumped out of bed and grabbed his gun. “Who is it?” he later recalled asking. “Hey! I got a gun in here. Go away.”

The door handle shook again. He heard a man’s voice outside the RV: “All we want is the motor home.” The demand, he noted, was delivered in clear, unaccented English. Tinker Bell was growling loudly in Carol’s arms, and she didn’t hear the voice. But to Edwin, the man sounded sinister, terrible. “It was just like the devil was on the other side of that door,” he said later. Then he heard the door rattling again. He shot a single round through it.

The Ghostly Radio Station That No One Claims to Run (Zaria Gorvett, BBC Future, July 2020)

If you’re into Cold War history, espionage thrillers, secret Russian conspiracies, or all three, this story is absolute catnip. Apparently, a shortwave radio station that can be heard around the world has been broadcasting since the 1980s, and nobody knows who is running it — nor does anyone claim to own it. The station mostly broadcasts a long drone interrupted occasionally by a foghorn sound; once or twice a week, voices read out random phrases in Russian. (Russia says it’s not theirs, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ .) There are many theories as to what’s behind the station, my favorite being the chilling “dead hand” theory, which states that the station is an automatic system scanning the airwaves for signs of life in the event of a nuclear detonation. If no signs of life are detected in the country of origin controlling the station, a retaliative attack is automatically triggered. Mutually assured destruction, shortwave style. Whatever it is, I’d love to read some spy fiction about it. Solved or not, the story practically writes itself.

Once or twice a week, a man or woman will read out some words in Russian, such as “dinghy” or “farming specialist”. And that’s it. Anyone, anywhere in the world can listen in, simply by tuning a radio to the frequency 4625 kHz.

It’s so enigmatic, it’s as if it was designed with conspiracy theorists in mind. Today the station has an online following numbering in the tens of thousands, who know it affectionately as “the Buzzer”. It joins two similar mystery stations, “the Pip” and the “Squeaky Wheel”. As their fans readily admit themselves, they have absolutely no idea what they are listening to.

***

Lisa Bubert is a writer and librarian based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Texas Highways, Washington Square Review, and more.

***

Editor: Peter Rubin

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands


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