The Longreads Blog

‘We Are All Responsible’: How #MeToo Rejects the Bystander Effect

CSA Archive / Getty, Collage by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 8 minutes (2,357 words)

Halfway through Dirty John, the Bravo series based on the life of sociopathic con artist John Meehan, the titular character’s first wife, having discovered her husband of several years has been cheating and shooting up, meets one of his friends in a diner. Sitting stone-faced across from her husband’s grinning college buddy, she learns how “Dirty John” got his nickname through an ever-expanding laundry list of scams his classmates witnessed: being a “dog” with women, conning old people, credit card fraud, insurance fraud. She says nothing, but it’s clear from her face that she is getting progressively more enraged at this man for having repeatedly stood by and watched as the father of her children mistreated a succession of people. At one point, it seems to kind of dawn on the guy that the fruits of his failure to act might in fact be sitting right in front of him, so he issues a half-assed mea culpa: “I lived with him that year and we had good times, or whatever, but he never talked about things and I never asked.” Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Ijeoma Oluo, Patricia Lockwood, Michael Shaw, Mairead Small Staid, and Adriana Gallardo.

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On Asylums

Jens Büttner/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Lisa Chen | Brick | Winter 2019 | 11 minutes (2,209 words)


Around this time her neighbor sent an email.

The email said her cat had entered his home several times that week. The cat had sprayed his closet, clothes, shoes, rugs, and furniture. He had also sprayed the exterior door in the back of his house, the patio area, plants, etcetera.

It’s getting really bad, the neighbor wrote.

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Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me

Associated Press / Unsplash / Virgin Records / Vertigo Records

Kimberly Mack | Longreads | February 2019 | 28 minutes (7,118 words)


“Will you sing to me?”

My mom’s pain had subsided for the moment, and her voice was strangely perky. Happy even. The morphine had kicked in. She was strapped in tight, on a stretcher, at the back of the ambulette. An assortment of pillows and towels cushioned her body to protect her from the impact as the wheels slowly rolled over each pothole, each bump, each uneven patch of street.

I had been warned that the ride from Midtown Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital to the Lincoln Tunnel would be the worst of it — a minefield for my 68-year-old mother, whose stage-four uterine cancer had metastasized to her liver and lungs and, as her palliative care doctor characterized it, “filled her entire abdominal cavity.” It was the pain that finally got my mom to visit the doctor seven weeks earlier. There had been other signs, but she had refused to go to the doctor before that, only repeating to me what I’d heard her say when I was growing up: “Doctors look for problems…they make you sick.”

It was August 2015. We were now headed by an ambulette service to my new home in Toledo, Ohio, ten hours away, where I was a college professor. The plan was for her to first spend a few weeks at a skilled nursing facility, so she could relearn how to walk after her recent long hospital stay. That would give us time to order a hospital bed and other medical supplies before bringing her to our house for in-home hospice care. I had been looking forward to showing my mom our new home ever since I texted a picture of it to her after we found it in June.

“Look, Mom!” I wrote. “I can’t believe the house comes with such colorful flowers. There are dark pink rose bushes in the backyard.”

“Oh Kim, it’s so beautiful,” she texted back.

“I can’t wait for you to see it,” I replied. And that was true. Neither one of us had lived in a house before.

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A Moral Center In a Decayed Ethical Universe

Former Abu Ghraib interrogator turned playwright Joshua Casteel, left, interviews an unidentified prisoner, played by David Blum, during a dress rehearsal of his production, "Returns," in 2007. (AP Photo/The Daily Iowan, Ben Roberts)

Joshua Casteel had to decide between attending seminary and deploying to Iraq as an army interrogator. He chose Iraq, where he hoped to bring morality and humanity to interrogations. But army interrogators already had their own version of “moral order”:

For the first week Casteel sat in on interrogations. There were six booths on each side of a long hallway; down the center was a two-way mirror that didn’t always work well, and when it didn’t, the prisoners watched you watch them. The rooms held little beyond plastic chairs, cheap tables, maybe zip ties on the chair legs. Sometimes a steel hook was attached to the floor. Every now and then prisoners were led to a more comfortable room, to confuse them, make them relax. The goal was to make them slip up. Sometimes Casteel saw men kept naked. Sometimes they were handcuffed to chairs.

During lessons, Casteel’s supervisors explained how to use fabricated stories and charges of homosexuality to shame the prisoners and manipulate them. The commanders were clear about who they were dealing with, Casteel remembered.

“These men,” they said, “are the agents of Satan, gentlemen.”

Casteel kept his own moral compass in the interrogation room, where it turned out that treating people like people was more effective than treating people like animals to be broken.

It turned out he couldn’t help but feel bad for the prisoners. It didn’t matter if the prisoner was a wrongly accused farmer or a jihadist bent on Casteel’s destruction. His orders commanded that he approach prisoners as assets to manipulate, but when Casteel walked into the interrogation room and saw the prisoner, he thought, This is a man in need of redemption. “From my very first interrogation,” he wrote later, “I have simply lacked the ability to look at the person I interrogate in a way that does not demand I also think about what is best for him.” Soon Casteel was attending confession with an Army chaplain after each interrogation, because “of an overwhelming burden to atone for what I considered the sin of reducing individuals to strategic ‘objects of exploitation.’” Once, he told a prisoner “You are not a criminal, you are not a terrorist,” and the prisoner wept, because no American had ever called him anything but evil.

At the same time, Casteel was extracting more information from the prisoners than other interrogators. During interrogations, Casteel smiled a lot and tapped his foot or smoked a cigarette to give the prisoner time to think, or sometimes because he didn’t quite know what to do next. He tried to show respect. He listened more than he spoke. He paid attention to a prisoner’s words, tone of voice, body language. “Some good news came in today,” he wrote to his parents after a month in Iraq. “I was just notified that the results of my past three interrogations received special recognition from ‘higher up.’ I guess my cigarettes and smiles with the ruthless man I spoke briefly of earlier did something profitable for the commanders in the field. That was a big boost of confidence, being as the best thing I did was simply respect him.”

Casteel eventually left the military as a conscientious objector after one particularly transformative encounter with a detainee. On his return to the U.S., he struggled both with the aftermath of his experience and with his health — his time monitoring burning waste pits in Iraq left him with Iraq/Afghanistan War-Lung Injury, and the ensuing cancer killed him. For Smithsonian and Epic magazines, Jennifer Percy tells the story of his life, work, and death.

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‘The Most Versatile Criminal In History’

Getty / Penguin Random House

Jonny Auping | Longreads | February 2019 | 16 minutes (4,367 words)


Paul Le Roux is unequivocally a criminal mastermind, and if you’ve never heard his name, that only proves the point. After all, a criminal mastermind isn’t just defined by the audacity of his crimes, but the extent to which he gets away with them, and by that measure Le Roux is nothing short of brilliant.

Journalist Evan Ratliff has spent years piecing together who Le Roux is and the unbelievable nature of his crimes. In his recently released book, The Mastermind, Ratliff paints a picture of a man considered by one source to be the “most versatile criminal in history.” Throughout the mid-aughts, Le Roux, a South African computer programmer, ran an illegal online pharmaceutical scam that sold addictive painkillers to Americans at astonishing rates. Real doctors signed off on the scam. Real pharmacists sold the drugs. But it was Le Roux, usually operating from a computer in Manila, who was pulling all the strings. The painkiller scheme grossed him hundreds of millions of dollars.

That money would go on to fund a global criminal enterprise that included literal boatloads of cocaine, shipments of methamphetamine from North Korea, weapons deals with Iran, and a team of ex-military mercenaries who were ordered to kill anyone who threatened Le Roux’s bottom line.

The Mastermind is an incredible feat of reporting that takes the reader step by step into the journeys of Le Roux’s employees, accomplices and hired killers, as well as the law enforcement teams trying to take him down. Most of these parties were largely unaware of the scope of Le Roux’s enterprise. The shocking details and twists that Ratliff reveals are unrelenting; they tell a story that would be impossible to believe if Ratliff didn’t bring the reader along on the reporting upon which it all rests. Read more…

Parenting in the New Age of Anxiety

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

By shadowing our children and using technology to keep tabs on their movements, their digital communication, and their time, are parents eliminating kids’ ability to take necessary risks or have an inner life? At The New Yorker, novelist and essayist Jess Row explores what he calls the “culture of constant supervision,” which is another phrase for about anxious, overprotective parenting. Drugs, abductions, vape, driving while texting — the world is full of dangers, sure, but when children rarely get to be truly alone, our protections carry hidden costs. Row isn’t suggesting parents quit monitoring their kids’ whereabouts or online lives. He’s conflicted and trying to work through the pros and cons of intensely attentive parenting, because he wants to find the best way to parent his own children.

As my children get older, I’m realizing how profoundly my instincts have been shaped by this culture of constant supervision, which wants to believe that it’s the same thing as intimacy. I still prefer it, over all, to the enormous distance that I sometimes felt as a teen-ager toward my parents. But I want to ask: Who is speaking up, today, for a young person’s right to a private life, to secrets, unshared thoughts, unmonitored conversations and relationships? Phrasing it this way sounds dangerous, and also counterintuitive: Don’t teen-agers and young adults today accept that technology is embedded in every aspect of their lives, that just being alive means being present (at least to some degree) online? My daughter, just coming into her own digital domain, certainly does: she has her own phone and laptop, ostensibly for homework, is allowed to text and chat with her friends, and desperately wants her own social-media accounts. Kids her age seem to accept, reluctantly, that the price of having a social life is having their parents one step away from everything they do, sharing the same accounts, playlists, search histories. We’re the ones who regulate her time online (and use the indispensable plug-in Freedom to keep her offline while she’s studying, just as we use it ourselves). When we notice an item that warrants a conversation—a questionable YouTube search, for example—we talk about it. At length. We’ve already had more family conversations on issues related to sex—sometimes in the form of extremely contemporary tangents, related to Cardi B’s taste in shoes or Stormy Daniels’s career choices—than I ever had with my parents.

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There’s a Fine Line Between “Discovering” and “Interloping”

In this Nov. 14, 2005 file photo, clouds hang over the North Sentinel Island, in India's southeastern Andaman and Nicobar Islands. (AP Photo/Gautam Singh, File)

John Allen Chau was killed by the famously isolationist residents of North Sentinel Island when he attempted to bring them Jesus. Whatever you think about his religious motives, he also represents a trend in “authentic” tourism — an entitled, colonialist trend — that evinces a profound disrespect for the humanity of other people. At The Walrus, adventurer Kate Harris digs into the essential egotism of travel to encourage us all to find a more respectful way of exploring our world.

Survival International, a non-­profit that works for tribal peoples’ rights, has documented a troubling rise in the popularity of “human safaris,” in which tourists seek out fleeting, zoo-like glimpses of uncontacted Indigenous peoples. In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, part of the same archipelago as North Sentinel, you could, until recently (and possibly still), peer out of a tour bus at the Jarawa, a group of hunter-gatherers through whose traditional forest territory the Andaman Trunk Road was built. Similar sightings of Peruvian and Brazilian Indigenous tribes are available if you quietly ask the right guide. And, if these experiences aren’t ­thrilling enough, several organizations offer “first contact” treks, including ones in Papua New ­Guinea to visit “undiscovered tribes” who have “never seen a white man.”

Done well, tourism focus­ed on local peoples can give them more control over their destiny and widen the hearts and minds of travellers to the wonders and complexities of the world. Done poorly, tribal tourism denies people the dignity of being left alone—denies them, even, recognition as people. Either way, travel has a tendency to bring out the Chau in all of us. We want what we want when we go abroad, which often is the untouched, the authentic—even as our arrival, by definition, undermines those very qualities in a place or of a culture and contributes to the slow, involuntary conversion of one way of life into another.

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Notes on a Shipwreck

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Davide Enia | translated by Antony Shuggar | an excerpt adapted from Notes on a Shipwreck: A Story of Refugees, Borders, and Hope | Other Press | February 2019 | 16 minutes (4,334 words)

On Lampedusa, a fisherman once asked me: “You know what fish has come back? Sea bass.”

Then he’d lit a cigarette and smoked the whole thing down to the butt in silence.

“And you know why sea bass have come back to this stretch of sea? You know what they eat? That’s right.”

And he’d stubbed out his cigarette and turned to go.

There was nothing more, truly, to be said.

What had stuck with me about Lampedusa were the calluses on the hands of the fishermen; the stories they told of constantly finding dead bodies when they hauled in their nets (“What do you mean, ‘constantly’?” and they’d say, “Do you know what ‘constantly’ means? Constantly”); scattered refugee boats rusting in the sunlight, perhaps nowadays the only honest form of testimony left to us — corrosion, grime, rust — of what’s happening in this period of history; the islanders’ doubts about the meaning of it all; the word “landing,” misused for years, because by now these were all genuine rescues, with the refugee boats escorted into port and the poor devils led off to the Temporary Settlement Center; and the Lampedusans who dressed them with their own clothing in a merciful response that sought neither spotlights nor publicity, but just because it was cold out and those were bodies in need of warmth. Read more…

Remembering Ken Nordine

Album art from Next!, from Dot Records

Language is music. A conversational voice has its own cadence and mode. Laughter can be melodic. Poems, when sung, become lyrics. Of course we all know the difference between singing and talking, but when you think of the basic definition of music as organized sound, it increasingly becomes a distinction without a difference. Ken Nordine, who died at age 98, blurred those boundaries. He invented something he termed “word jazz” and made it a lifelong expression. He wrote, performed, and produced albums and radio shows, all featuring his extraordinarily resonant voice. “He also had such a special mind,” his son Ken Jr. remembered, “that enabled him to deconstruct the world and put it back together in the most compelling ways.”

Nordine was born in Cherokee, Iowa on April 23, 1920. He started working at WBEZ radio in 1938 before leaving Chicago to pick up radio announcing gigs in other states, eventually returning to make ads. He had a comfortable career ahead of him even then, possessing the rich, sonorous bass preferred for mid-century voiceovers—but Nordine was altogether more subversive, chafing at what he called the “banal, happy, didn’t bother anybody” commercial gigs that made up his day job.

Word jazz was a happy accident. In 1956, Nordine was appearing at a club called the Lei Aloha on the North Side of Chicago, reciting the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and T.S. Eliot while being backed up by two jazz musicians. “The same crowd came every Monday,” Nordine remembered, “so I couldn’t do the same poems over and over, so I started to ad lib.” This is something any improvisational musician would do.

I always liked music, particularly jazz,” Nordine told an interviewer, “and it became more interesting to me when they forgot the theme and they would go flying off in their imaginary and wonderful choruses, making variations on that theme, and within the structure of its harmony and the changes. So I tried to do the same thing with words.”

Much of what followed in Nordine’s career was deeply musical, with his voice as principal soloist in a room full of instrumental improvisors. “So if I’m doing something, as I was the other day, about the arachnid family, I’ll say to the musician, ‘You can be the web, and you can play the attitude of the spider waiting for some food to come by,’” Nordine told Tape Op in 2000.

So each musician brings to the fantasy whatever they feel is appropriate. Or, in another way, I’ll say, “Hey, let’s get a good groove going.” And then I’ll do something that fits with that groove metrically. Because I work with metrics pretty much. For example, the spider thing I was working on is a 6/5 rhythm. So I knew that would work with some of the things the percussionist was doing. He did a wonderful thing that sounded like the light coming off of the web. I’d say, “It’s a good year for spiders,” and he’d go, tchi-tchi-tchi … “Or so it seems. Incessantly weaving such gossamer schemes.” … ur-ah-ur “It should make one wonder what blueprint within instinctively causes the spider to spin.” … phew-shew-phew. That sort of thing. It’s really an empathic relationship between the musicians’ hearing and my hearing, so there’s room for them and there’s room for what I do. One of the beautiful things about jazz music is that when it really works each of the players allows room for the others.

His first solo album, Word Jazz, was released in 1957. It was without precedent. Other successful versions followed: Son of Word Jazz, Love Words, Next!. Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase danced to Nordine’s song “My Baby” on television. Nordine hung out with Bop trumpet player Clifford Brown and vanguard comedian Lenny Bruce. When his record label dropped him in 1960, he doubled down on the hip. He said his 1967 album Colors “was written in one day and recorded the same day. I wrote them as we were doing it…With a small group of musicians, you don’t have to have extensive charts and arrangements.” The album was inspired by a line Nordine ad-libbed for a commercial:  “The Fuller Paint Company invites you to stare with your ears at yellow.”

A few years later, Nordine was flown to Hollywood to teach 13-year-old actress Linda Blair how to speak backwards for The Exorcist. (He later sued because he said he wasn’t paid properly for his work on the movie, and then received a settlement.) “‘Bullshit’ backwards,” he noted, “is ‘tea-sloob’.” In 1971 he made a surreal television commercial for Levi’s Jeans—a kind of apocalyptic animated fable which featured plaid bell bottom pants—and did it again in 1983, this time with primitive computer animation.

Nordine was the perfect transitional figure between rapidly changing cultural norms: the buttoned-down 1950s authoritative announcer intoning counter culture free association.

The ensuing years saw collaborations with other musicians: Nordine worked with The Grateful Dead (they’re his backing band on 1991s Devout Catalyst) and Tom Waits—who described Nordine’s voice as a cross between “the guy with the pitchfork in your head saying go ahead and jump, and the ambulance driver who tells you you’re going to pull through”—as well as doing several hundred voiceover gigs a year and broadcasting his syndicated radio show.

When asked at the age of 90 what kept him going, Nordine said, “I have no stress, my ego is under control, I know there’s so much to prove I’ll never be able to prove any of it.”

Ken Nordine lives on. You can hear his inventive soundscape editing carried forward with Radiolab—strange, almost subconscious sounds playing under cut-up, conversational outtakes—and his wordy “wonder wandering” in Laurie Anderson’s works like “Language Is a Virus (From Outer Space).” Anderson first heard Nordine when she was 15. “It changed my life,” she said. “I just thought…that’s the greatest way to tell stories.”


Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel