The Longreads Blog

Leave _____ Alone: Celebrity, Privacy, and Entitlement

Photo: Steve Rhodes via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

I read Alana Massey’s essay collection All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers, with a pencil in hand. I read it behind the counter at work, when it was quiet and customer-free. I read it in bed, long after my partner and cat had fallen asleep. I read it in Starbucks when I should’ve been writing but needed inspiration. Massey is a writer I’ve followed since I became interested in longform journalism. I admired her incisive blend of pop culture and cultural and literary criticism. I especially loved anytime she wrote about religion, like her time at Yale Divinity School, because I went to a conservative Christian college, and I was yearning to see how I could translate my weird vaguely traumatic religious background into beautiful sentences. So I bought her book as a reward for myself, for meeting a writing deadline.

This reading list was partially inspired by Massey’s excellent writing about her muses and the way our society honors and rejects celebrated women. Here, my list is about our society’s inclination, if not blatant desire, to know every little detail about our favorite celebrities and judge them according to our own arbitrary moral standards. (I’m not immune to this — I spent ten minutes in bed Googling potential paramours of one of my favorite YouTube stars, even though I know it’s none of my damn business.) Why do we feel like we own celebrities — not just their art or their products, but their images and their personal lives? What do celebrities owe us, if anything?

One of the many moments that struck me in All The Lives I Want was a quotation from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, which Massey employs in her own essay about the Lisbon sisters: “In the end, we had the pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn’t name.” We can know our celebrities’ favorite foods, their birthdays, and their thoughts on feminism, but we can’t know them, no matter how many Instagram Live videos they share, exercise classes they teach, or meet-and-greets they attend. Are we prepared to accept that?

1. What We Miss When We Miss Richard Simmons

On Thursday, People magazine released a teaser for their weekend issue, Richard Simmons’ smiling face on the cover. His presence coincides with his absence from the finale of “Missing Richard Simmons,” a super-popular six-part podcast debating the whereabouts of the exercise guru, who disappeared from public life several years ago. I listened to the first three episodes, which were beautifully produced, but eventually I felt weird about the whole conceit. I was sad for Simmons’ friends, sure — how would I feel if someone I loved dropped off the face of the earth and didn’t think to let me know? Then again, none of my friends are cultural icons who spent most of their adult lives in the public eye. “Missing Richard Simmons” demonstrates far more about the people who yearn for Richard’s public resurrection and our oblivious entitlement to the private lives of celebs.

At The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert wrote “The Ethical Minefield of Missing Richard Simmons” (March 2017) about the ethics of journalism and the ethics of friendship:

“[Podcast host Dan Taberski] rehashed questions about Simmons’s sexuality, his mental health, and the rumor that he was transitioning from male to female. He weighed his subject’s desire for privacy with his own desire for information and closure, and decided that the latter was more important.”

And Linda Holmes wrote “‘Missing Richard Simmons’ And The Nature Of Being Known” (March 2017) about the importance of boundaries professional and personal:

“The more the gratitude is for what has already been done, the more it is written on paper: I’m so grateful for the thing you made; it meant the world to me. That is weightless; it is wonderful. The closer it gets to expecting something from you in the future, something that must continue, the more it is written on stone: You’re the only one who understands me. You’re the only reason I can get out of bed every day. I have a feeling Richard Simmons received a lot of gratitude written on stones.”

2. Massey’s Corner

Let’s kick off Massey’s Corner with “Your Imaginary Relationship With a Celebrity” (Pacific Standard, April 2015). In the 1950s, Massey explains, researchers named a new kind of relationship: “parasocial interaction,” which described the bond fans felt with the burgeoning TV stars of their time. The intensity of parasocial interaction has only increased with time, creativity, and social media. There’s the illusion of egalitarianism, now, as Taylor Swift sends care packages and Christmas gifts to the laypeople and Selena Gomez reveals which CD she’d choose, if she were you.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include excerpts from All The Lives I Want:

3. The Excess of Access

  • When parasocial interactions go wrong, fans resort to harassment and stalking; reporter Claudia Rosenbaum spoke to detectives in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Threat Management Unit.
  • Remember when tabloids broke the news? Social media decimated the paparazzi industry.
  • One Direction fans are really, really intense re: virtual and physical proximity to their boys, whether they’re writing slash fic or trapping them inside a bakery.
  • We’d do well to remember Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the Queen of Tejano, murdered by the mentally ill president of her fan club and close friend.
  • And what kind of creep sells a celebrity’s naked photos on the internet?

4. Ferrante Fever

I want to conclude with a story about a different kind of celebrity — the literary celebrity. In October 2016, Claudio Gatti “unmasked” Elena Ferrante, the acclaimed, pseudonymous Italian author. The purported revelation of Ferrante’s true identity led to a flurry of thinkpieces, the majority lambasting Gatti’s misogyny and insensitivity. What Gatti declared investigative journalism seemed, instead, a pointless intrusion. What a world we live in now, where a desire for privacy is perceived by unimaginative men as a marketing gimmick. Now, Ferrante may never write for the public ever again.

At n+1, “Bluebeard” includes a lovely catalog of the physical and psychological spaces acclaimed writers have utilized. Dayna Tortorici makes clear just how much Ferrante has given to her readers and her critics, from interviews to interpretive aids, as well as a variety of perfectly valid reasons for remaining anonymous:

“More than Ferrante herself, her readers have benefited from her choice, spared so much extradiegetic noise. We are as invested in her anonymity—and her autonomy—as she is. It is a compact: she won’t tell us, we won’t ask, and she won’t change her mind and tell us anyway. In exchange, she’ll write books and we’ll read them…It’s difficult to read a man’s attempt to ‘out’ a writer who has said she would stop writing if she were ever identified as anything but an attempt to make her stop writing.”

Ann Friedman wrote a brief piece for New York Magazine, exploring the connection between Kim Kardashian’s terrifying burglary in Paris, France and Gatti’s invasion of Ferrante’s private life. The essay is pointedly tagged “choices“:

“In theory, each woman decides how exposed she’d like to be on social media. In reality, it’s not so simple….Don’t listen to Ferrante’s outers or Kardashian’s haters, who say that women who shy away from publicity are inviting exposure and women court publicity are inviting attack. Listen to women themselves when they declare how much privacy they want.”

Why Don’t You Just Get One of Those Creative Jobs?

Photo by ctj71081, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I never acted on my mother’s suggestion that I find a nice creative job, like in advertising, but then the job came to me anyway. An art-director friend called and said she was making a TV commercial for Barneys New York and she needed some words. Would I do it?

I didn’t hesitate for a second. Why not? What is the difference between art and advertising?

Quality? Clearly not. The only difference I could come up with for sure was the logo. I was an adman from that day forward, and somehow it gave me the resources to do what I thought was art—with a logo.

I had always been interested in the neutral zone, the DMZ of art and commerce, and now I was working there. It was a place where I could push the limits, mainly because I was so unfamiliar with the limits. Like Iggy, I didn’t feel like a sellout, I felt empowered. If you’re going to be a bad boy, be bad: like Bob Dylan talking to the computer in the IBM ad. Don’t tell me he wasn’t savoring the transgression of the whole thing.

At The Paris Review, writer and creative director Glenn O’Brien narrates the comic struggle of making a living in the arts, particularly the way many creative types struggle with whether or not to go into advertising. He doesn’t.

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‘Pretend I’m Dead’ Author Jen Beagin Wins 2017 Whiting Award for Fiction

The 2017 Whiting Awards honorees have been announced. Among the winners is Pretend I’m Dead, a novel by Jen Beagin, which has been among my favorite titles from Emily Books. Every time a friend or colleague seeks recommendations for a novel that has both humor and heart, I refer them to this book about Mona, a young woman cleaning houses for a living and volunteering at a needle exchange program.

The Paris Review has a brief excerpt from the beginning of the book, when Mona has become hung up on a needle exchange client she calls “Mr. Disgusting.”

For the next few weeks she mentally projected Mr. Disgusting’s face onto whatever surface she was cleaning, just for the pleasure of scrubbing it off. The procedure worked best on tiled bathroom walls. She lathered the tiles with Ajax, then, covering her mouth with the collar of her T-shirt to guard against bleach throat, she scrubbed out his left eye, obliterated his right with a furious scribbling motion, and then expanded her stroke to remove his mocking eyebrows and long black hair. She scrubbed vigorously, her hands sweating in rubber gloves, her breath moistening her T-shirt. When his face was gone at last, she doused the tiles with water from the tap. Her mind often seemed to clear itself of debris, and in its place, she felt the pleasant but slightly irritating sensation of having a word on the tip of her tongue.

A month later her anger suddenly dissipated and was replaced again by longing. So he’d almost killed her and then told her she looked like a fish — big deal, people made mistakes. She was getting over it. Besides, he’d apologize profusely via voicemail, and on her doorstep he’d left a Japanese dictionary in which he’d circled the words for contrite, shame, repentant, confession, apology, remorse, touch, please, help, and telephone. That certainly counted for something.

She dialed his number but his phone was disconnected. She stopped by the Hawthorne a few times, but he was never in his room. She checked his other haunts — the Owl Diner, the Lowell Public Library, and the Last Safe and Deposit, a bank turned dive bar — all without luck.

Other honorees for the prize, which recognizes “early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come,” include:

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‘I might have not wanted to think about my Jewishness, but now I had to.’

At Vice, Eve Peyser has an essay I strongly identify with about belatedly embracing her Jewish identity. Raised by atheist parents in New York City and attending Oberlin, Peyser more comfortably identified as a liberal, and was reluctant to be lumped in with certain kinds of Jews — rich, entitled, Zionist, anti-Palestinian. Recently, though, the rise in antisemitism ushered in by the new administration — plus personal attacks by racist online trolls — have prompted Peyser to analyze how she’s distanced herself from her heritage, re-evaluate what it means to be Jewish, and take pride in owning it.

A recent sunny afternoon, my best friend Beck (a fellow secular New York City Jew, and college classmate) and I went for a walk to a Jewish cemetery near my apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. The grid of tombstones and mausoleums engraved with Jewish names—the sort of place that has been vandalized recently—got us talking about why it took so long for us to feel OK with (or even proud of) our heritage.

Both of us had felt the same shame at times, heard the same things. Beck remembered a time in Oberlin when a leftist activist remarked on her big, Jewish nose—a shockingly casual bit of bigotry given how “woke” our little bubble was. We had both seen a Facebook post from a former classmate of ours who quoted a pamphlet called “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” a 32-page guide for leftist activists on how to incorporate fighting anti-Semitism within their movement. In explaining how anti-Semitism functions and differs from other forms of racism, the zine perfectly addressed the complicated identity of white Jews, like myself:

“Many oppressions rely on keeping a targeted group of people poor, uneducated, designated non-white, or otherwise ‘at the bottom.’ Anti-Jewish oppression doesn’t depend on that. Although at many times it has kept Jews in poverty or designated non-white, these have been ‘optional’ features. Because the point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front, so that Jews, instead of ruling classes, become the target of people’s rage.”

It also notes that part of the reason we’re so willing to dismiss anti-Semitism is because it moves in cycles—in the aftermath of oppression, Jews are often allowed to blend in again—and atrocities like the Holocaust seem like ancient history.

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‘Every Watch Geek Has an Origin Story’

watches and watch parts, on a black background
Photo by Kozuch, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Novelist and memoirist Gary Shteyngart has an essay in The New Yorker about his growing obsession with high-ticket mechanical wristwatches, a fixation that escalated throughout the 2016 Presidential race and peaked around the inauguration. Something about the reliability and precision of German and Swiss ticking timepieces helps quell Shteyngart’s growing anxiety; delving into his expensive new hobby, he’s able to divert his attention away from his growing fears and the residual unrest from his childhood as a Jewish refugee from Russia.

Along the way, he visits watch factories in Germany, the offices of the online publications Hodinkee and TimeZone, the Horological Society of New York, and other exclusive halls where his fellow watch enthusiasts gather.

As the election approached, I started going to meetings of the Horological Society of New York. On the streets of Manhattan, I never have any idea which celebrity is which—they all seem to be Matt Damon—but at the Horological Society I could identify all my new heroes, many with full, Portlandian beards, across the vast hall of the library of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, in midtown, while they waited in line for their free coffee and Royal Dansk butter cookies. There was the nattily dressed Kiran Shekar—yes, the Kiran Shekar, noted collector, author, and proprietor of the independent watch purveyor Contrapante. I ran over to introduce myself and a few moments later he gave me his watch to hold, and a few weeks later he arranged for me to attend the secret RedBar, a meeting of the watch elect, at a bar in Koreatown. You need a regular to invite you to a meeting, and the idea that I could be welcomed into this exclusive world kept me from sleeping. I lay in bed practicing what I might say about “perlage,” “three-quarter plates,” and the rare lapis-lazuli dials on some seventies Rolex Datejusts.

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Want To See a Polar Bear? Just Follow the Bones

a polar bear walks on the ice
A female polar bear near Kaktovik, Alaska (photo by rubyblossom via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In Kaktovik, Alaska, dozens of polar bears take advantage of the bone pile—the remains of this community’s yearly quota of bowhead whales, which locals butcher right on the shore—to supplement meager summertime hunting. The bone pile is also a bounty for locals like hunter and guide Robert Thompson, who’s booked solid through 2017 taking hopeful wildlife photographers on polar bear tours. Michael Englehard tells the story in Hakai magazine.

The juncture of lingering bears waiting for freeze-up, the windfall of a bone and blubber cache, and a nearby community eager for economic opportunities, has resulted in a burgeoning bear watching industry in Kaktovik. Thompson, one of seven coast guard-certified tour boat captains, makes a good living from the castaways at the bone pile between September and November. A popular captain who is already fully booked for 2017, he can get so busy that he rushes to work without breakfast, grabbing a fistful of coffee beans to chew on his way out the door. His boat Seanachaí, Irish for storyteller, is aptly named—the man who can see bears making a beeline to the bone pile from his living room chair and who once got charged by a marauding male right on his doorstep regales visitors with tidbits about life in the North. A favorite is the technique for how to prepare a polar bear skin. “You stuff it through a hole in the ice and let shrimp pick it clean,” he says, adding that he’s also seen bears steal from set fishing nets and once watched one pull a net to shore. Thompson’s porch is a still life of body parts and implements: a pot with chunks of unidentifiable meat chilling in the frigid air; a caribou leg for his dogs; snowmobile parts; a gas tank; and, like a cluster of fallen angels, a brace of unplucked, white-phase ptarmigans. On a driftwood stump near the shed grins a mossy polar bear skull; it’s not a scene for tender romantics.

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The Greatest Trick the Government Ever Pulled Was Convincing Us We Aren’t Already on Welfare

Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan. Photo: AP Images

With the prospect of 24 million Americans losing health care if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, the question of the year is shaping up to be: “Why did so many Trump supporters vote against their own self-interest?”

At Forbes,  self-described former Republican Chris Ladd comes up with a credible answer — and at the center of it lies race, class, and a flawed perception of who gets or deserves “government assistance.” For generations, white middle-class Americans were taught to believe they “earned” everything given to them — and that by having a job, they were entitled to it. Meanwhile behind the scenes, the government used tax credits at the individual and employer level to hand over billions in subsidies for their health care, their housing, their public education, and their infrastructure:

My family’s generous health insurance costs about $20,000 a year, of which we pay only $4,000 in premiums. The rest is subsidized by taxpayers. You read that right. Like virtually everyone else on my block who isn’t old enough for Medicare or employed by the government, my family is covered by private health insurance subsidized by taxpayers at a stupendous public cost. Well over 90% of white households earning over the white median income (about $75,000) carried health insurance even before the Affordable Care Act. White socialism is nice if you can get it.

Companies can deduct the cost of their employees’ health insurance while employees are not required to report that benefit as income. That results in roughly a $400 billion annual transfer of funds from state and federal treasuries to insurers to provide coverage for the Americans least in need of assistance. This is one of the defining features of white socialism, the most generous benefits go to those who are best suited to provide for themselves. Those benefits are not limited to health care.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories from Amy Wallace, Katherine Laidlaw, Lisa Miller, Porochista Khakpour, and Lauren Schwartzberg.

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The Rules For Being John Hinckley

John Hinckley, Jr. arrives at U.S. District Court in Washington in November 2003. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Thirty-four years after his commitment to Saint Elizabeths Hospital, after being found not guilty by reason of insanity for shooting Ronald Reagan to impress actor Jodie Foster, John Hinckley is free. Well, “free.” In a fascinating New York magazine profile that also digs into the limits of both psychiatry and juries, Lisa Miller details some of the conditions of his release into the custody of his 90-year-old mother.

Under the order of a federal judge, Hinckley has to live with his mother for at least a year. He must remain in treatment with mental-health professionals in Williamsburg, who have to be in regular touch with the doctors at St. Elizabeths and the court. He may not travel more than 50 miles from home, and he may not contact Foster or any of his other victims. He may not knowingly travel to places where “current or former Presidents” will be present, and if he finds himself in such locations he must leave. He may play his guitar in private, but in the interest of containing his narcissism, he may not play gigs. For now, he may browse the internet but not look at pornography or at information related to his crimes. He has to submit the make and model of his car to the Secret Service as well as his cell-phone number. He is encouraged to make friends in Williamsburg but may not invite a guest to sleep over at his house unless his mother (or one of his siblings, both of whom live in Dallas) is home. Violations of these terms could send him back to the hospital.

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Remembering Jerry Krause, Architect Behind the Greatest NBA Team Ever Assembled

Credit: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

There is dichotomy that naturally comes with any sort of memorialization for Jerry Krause, the general manager of the Chicago Bulls for nearly 20 years and who died earlier this week. Krause didn’t draft Michael Jordan, but it was primarily through his efforts that the Bulls won six NBA titles, dominating the 1990s with players like Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, Horace Grant, and Toni Kukoc, among others; Krause was the architect behind the signing and drafting of those players, and without his efforts, who knows if we would even consider Jordan the GOAT. Read more…