The Longreads Blog

What Murderers Will Never Tell You About Their Childhood

Photo by Donald Tong
Photo by Donald Tong

Mitigation specialist Jennifer Wynn investigates the upbringings of defendants to humanize them enough to convince at least one juror to bypass the death penalty for a life in prison without parole. Wynn shares the stories of three of her clients — men charged with murder — whose lives are marked by poverty, substance abuse, untreated mental illness, and extreme child neglect. Read the full story by Elon Green at Mel Magazine.

Jennifer Wynn’s job is to make jurors feel sympathy for people who’ve committed unspeakable crimes

“We hear all about the victims,” Jennifer Wynn told me recently, “but we never hear about the defendant’s story.”

Wynn, cheerful and salty, is a mitigation specialist. She is engaged by defense attorneys, mostly in capital cases, to investigate and compile the life story of the defendant. The material Wynn gathers, often heartbreaking and brutal, is used to convince the jury to deliver a sentence other than death. (In non-capital cases the same person is called a sentencing advocate, and they similarly argue for a less-severe sentence.

She has now done mitigation work on 30 murder cases, 25 of which were death penalty-eligible, and won them all.

When people share with you their deepest, darkest secrets — the worst things they’ve done — they need validation. These are people who, for the most part, have been told their whole lives, You’re a piece of shit. They’re bullied, they’re picked on, they’re shot at. Then they act out, and society says, See, you are a monster. Then, people like me come in and say, No, you’re not a monster, and you still do deserve to be part of the human race. The system is fucked up, and I tell them that. It’s the first time they’ve ever heard that.

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‘Have You Ever Had Trashcan Nachos?’

guy fieri on stage
Photo by Elise Thompson (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Helen Hollyman spent a lot of time plumbing the depths of America’s leading purveyor of Donkey Sauce™ to produce this in-depth profile of the man behind the sunglasses, Guy Fieri. But what did she really learn? Is Guy Fieri the American dream with frosted tips?

Over these past few months, I’m not sure if I’ve ever met Guy Fieri, but I don’t think it matters. In his new book, Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen explains why he puts on his famous costume—American blue jeans and rolled up T-shirts—every night to perform on stage. “Those whose love we wanted but could not get, we emulate. So I—who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labor in my life—put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work.” Fieri’s rockabilly-meets-NorCal aesthetic may in fact, be his wardrobe of choice, but the moment the organic kale-eating millionaire entrepreneur rolls into your town in his ’68 red Camaro with his white spiky hair and that bowling shirt decked in flames, he’s suddenly transformed into your friendly, wacky neighbor. He’s here to eat some “off-the-hook” food with you, bump fists, and tune up the jams. He’s the kind of guy who makes you believe that you want to have a few beers together at the local dive, and if you stumble into a bar fight, you know he’s got your back. And when it’s all over, he’ll crank up a song from Van Halen’s 5150 album and make you a sashimi taco that is just awesome.

In an increasingly divided country, Fieri provides viewers with a distraction that promotes positivity and faintly displays a former America. Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives is a fuzzy moving image of the United States, where small towns with restaurants that celebrate the dishes forged by a long history of the blending of cultures happens. It visits the cities where the product of hard-working Americans is delicious, and when you take a bite, you can taste their version of the American dream. On these menus, this concept is still possible.

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On the Thin Line Separating Honesty from Rudeness

good-friday-1734261_1920

Just like beauty, rudeness is confusingly both in the eye of the beholder and a universal phenomenon, something we’re supposed to recognize in an instant. At The New York Times Magazine, Rachel Cusk explores the complicated question of politeness from various angles — from Brexit and the Trump presidency to airport security checks and in-store shopping etiquette. But she also dives deep into the fundamental difficulty of separating honesty from being plain rude.

Are people rude because they are unhappy? Is rudeness like nakedness, a state deserving the tact and mercy of the clothed? If we are polite to rude people, perhaps we give them back their dignity; yet the obsessiveness of the rude presents certain challenges to the proponents of civilized behavior. It is an act of disinhibition: Like a narcotic, it offers a sensation of glorious release from jailers no one else can see.

In the recollection of events, rudeness often has a role to play in the moral construction of a drama: It is the outward sign of an inward or unseen calamity. Rudeness itself is not the calamity. It is the harbinger, not the manifestation, of evil. In the Bible, Satan is not rude — he is usually rather charming — but the people who act in his service are. Jesus, on the other hand, often comes across as somewhat terse. Indeed, many of the people he encounters find him direct to the point of rudeness. The test, it is clear, is to tell rudeness from truth, and in the Bible that test is often failed. An unambiguous event — violence — is therefore required. The episode of the crucifixion is an orgy of rudeness whose villains are impossible to miss. The uncouth conduct of the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross, for instance, can be seen in no other light: Anyone thinking that Jesus could have done a bit more to avoid his fate is offered this lasting example of humanity’s incurable awfulness. They know not what they do, was Jesus’ comment on his tormentors. Forgive them.

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A ‘Constellation of Meaning’: The Rumpus Interviews George Saunders

Photo by David Shankbone

Last week, Maria Bustillos released a blockbuster Humanities Kit in which you can experience George Saunders teaching Anton Chekhov for yourself.

In Kate Harloe’s interview at The Rumpus, George Saunders reflects on the creative process for his new novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, bold compassion as the right course of resistance under a Trump presidency, and how his interviews, notes, and scenes coalesce into the “constellation of meaning” that inform his nonfiction work.

Rumpus: There are so many characters in this story. Did these characters flow out of you during the writing process or were they more of a conscious creation? Did you think, “I need a character that represents this or experiences this kind of suffering?”

Saunders: No, it was definitely the first thing. My general approach to writing fiction is that you try to have as few conceptual notions as possible and you just respond to the energy that the story is making rather than having a big over plan. I think if you have a big over plan, the danger is that you might just take your plan and then you bore everybody. I always joke that it’s like going on a date with index cards. You know, at 7:30 p.m. I should ask about her mother. You keep all the control to yourself but you are kind of insulting to the other person.

Rumpus: I don’t want to leave the topic of your book, but I love what you said about starting a piece with as few conceptual ideas as possible. Do you approach nonfiction the same way? For the New Yorker story you wrote about Trump, for example, did you begin with a similar kind of open-mindedness?

Saunders: It’s a different form of that. With nonfiction, I go in trying to be really honest about what my preconceptions are. In the Trump piece, I knew I didn’t like Trump and I confessed that to myself and also to my interviewees. I’d always say, “I’m a liberal and I’m left of Gandhi and I don’t like Trump and this article is me trying to understand why you do.”

My theory for nonfiction is that nobody can be free of some kind of conceptions about whatever story they’re writing. But if you can find a way to build those into the story, then the story becomes a process of deconstructing and heightening and sometimes changing those notions and that makes dramatic tension. The initial statement of your position, and then letting reality act on you to change it, is pretty good storytelling.

All I really know in nonfiction is that when I come home, I’ve got all these notes and I’m trying to figure out what actually happened to me. I usually kind of know what happened, but as you work through the notes, you find that certain scenes write well and some don’t even though they should. Those make a constellation of meaning that weirdly ends up telling you what you just went through. It’s a slightly different process, but still there’s mystery because when you’re bearing down on the scenes, sometimes you find out they mean something different than what you thought.

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Greetings from Alabama

Alabama State Capitol
Alabama State Capitol via Wikimedia.

Overwhelmed by pieces that tell you how little you understand voters from “the other side”? Yeah me, too.

Here’s a different perspective. “The Alabamafication of America” compares that state government’s history of populism, corruption, and Evangelical roots with the attributes of 45’s administration.

On the populist scandal side:

Back in the 1940s and 50s, Governor “Big Jim” Folsom was one of the most popular men ever to hold the position. To this day, many Alabamians say that if another Folsom ever runs for office, they’ll vote for him, because Big Jim famously paved rural roads to underserved places (including my grandparents’ childhood homes). Big Jim was also famous for his vices—in a televised debate with George Wallace, Folsom showed up drunk and failed to remember the names of his many children. His apocryphal line—“if they bait a hook with whiskey and women, they’ll catch Big Jim every time”—remains prominent in Alabama lore.

The lesson is simple: populism rises above all other concerns in Alabama. Demagoguery has a long track record of success in the South, and a politician who sufficiently channels that energy can say and do most anything—“grab them by the pussy,” for example—and still win by a landslide. George Wallace’s racism cost Alabama millions in economic development and outside investment, yet his populist appeal won elections. He served several nonconsecutive terms as governor, including one as late as the 1980s.

Trump won the election with the same flair as Folsom. With his cabinet picks and his agenda, it looks like Trump will govern like an Alabamian as well, with the classic strategies of a Montgomery politician.

And on how to keep your own safe when they might be up to no good:

Newt Gingrich has suggested that Trump pardon his family members in advance for any violation while he is in office.

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The Last Decent Person in Washington

Librarian of Congress
(Barbara Haddock Taylor/The Baltimore Sun via Associated Press)

There is a straight line from the worst person in the government to quite possibly the best: Every tweet that Donald Trump sends each morning, setting off news alerts for a groggy American public, pings across millions of timelines before settling in its final resting place, the Library of Congress. The keeper of those tweets—and of George Gershwin’s piano, Rosa Parks’s peanut-butter-pancake recipe, and Bob Hope’s joke collection—is Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, an Obama appointee who embodies the calm, measured wisdom of the 44th President and the forward-looking hope of that era.

The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson visited the library in the days after the Inauguration and she wanders through the collection like a person tasked with cataloging Noah’s Ark, the last great treasury of humanity tossed upon the seas of an angry God. At the helm is Hayden, a career librarian with a drawerful of butterscotch candy. Hayden replaces 87-year-old James Billington, a Bush-era appointee who had “been asleep at the switch” as the library struggled with the digital age. The library is still far behind where it should be technologically—Kyle Chayka at n+1 noted that the library did not have a Chief Information Officer from 2012 to late 2015, among other institutional failures—but Hayden’s cool competence is a light in the bureaucratic darkness.

Hayden met the Obamas when they all lived in Chicago. When I asked about her relationship with them, she was reticent—no anecdotes, no self-aggrandizement. (She also gently demurred from talking about Trump.) But if you watch footage of the Inauguration, you can see the affection there. Hayden, in a black coat and black gloves, is seated just to the right of the Capitol door. Michelle Obama, looking melancholy, smiles and waves in her direction. A minute later, someone yells, “maga!” Horns sound, and Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and President Obama emerge. Obama sees Hayden, waves, beams, approaches her, and leans in for a hug. “Sir!” she says, heartily, patting him on the back.

In her office, Hayden picked up the Jefferson candy bowl and offered me some butterscotch. “This is my secret sauce,” she said. I asked if there was anything in the library’s collections that people might love to explore but not know about. “Oh, yes! Oh, my goodness, yes!” she said. “Like the comic-book collection.” It’s the largest in the world. She described the depth of knowledge among the librarians: “You’ll say, ‘I’d like to see the original “Luke Cage,” ’ because of the TV show. And then they tell you, Luke Cage first appeared in this comic…’ And they just keep going.”

I later visited Georgia Higley, the head of the newspaper section of the serial division, who showed me an array of comics milestones (“All-Nego Comics” from 1947; Batman; Luke Cage), many so valuable they’re available only to scholars. I was struck that even “Archie” had notes of the country’s painful history and present: “The Mirth of a Nation,” the cover said, as ice-skating Archie flew over some barrels, toward a hole. “Wonder Woman,” Winter Issue No. 7, from 1943, was called “Wonder Woman for president.” There she was, with her boots and golden lasso, banging on a lectern covered in stars-and-stripes bunting. Below that, it said, “1000 years in the future!

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How David Bowie Came Out As Gay (And What He Meant By It)

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Simon Reynolds | Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century | Dey Street Books| October 2016 | 19 minutes (5,289 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Shock and Awe, by Simon Reynolds. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

People like Lou and I are probably predicting the end of an era … I mean that catastrophically.
Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost.

On Sunday afternoon, 16 July 1972, David Bowie held a tea-time press conference at the Dorchester, a deluxe five-star hotel on London’s Park Lane. Mostly for the benefit of American journalists flown in to watch him and his new backing band, The Spiders from Mars, in action, the event was also a chance to show off Bowie’s new ‘protégés’, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. They had – separately – made their UK live debuts on the two preceding nights, at the exact same venue, King’s Cross Cinema.

Glammed up in maroon-polished nails and rock-star shades, Reed sashayed across the second-floor suite and kissed Bowie full on the mouth. Sitting in the corner, Iggy also displayed a recent glitter makeover, with silver-dyed hair, eye make-up and T. Rex T- shirt. Reed, Iggy and Bowie would later pose for the only known photograph of the threesome together, Bowie looking resplendent in a flared-cuff Peter Pan tunic made from a crinkly, light-catching fabric. That was just one of three outfits he wore that afternoon – surely the first time in history a rock’n’roll press conference involved costume changes.

During a wide-ranging and somewhat grandiloquent audience with the assembled journalists, Bowie declared: ‘People like Lou and I are probably predicting the end of an era … I mean that catastrophically. Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost. We’re both pretty mixed-up, paranoid people, absolute walking messes. If we’re the spearhead of anything, we’re not necessarily the spearhead of anything good.’ What a strange thing to announce – that you’re the herald of Western civilisation’s terminal decline, the decadent symptom that precedes a collapse into barbarism or perhaps a fascist dictatorship. But would an ‘absolute walking mess’ really be capable of such a crisply articulated mission statement? There’s a curious unreality to Bowie’s claims, especially made in such swanky surroundings. Yet the reporters nodded and scribbled them down in their notepads. Suddenly Bowie seemed to have the power to make people take his make-believe seriously … to make them believe it too. Something that in the previous eight strenuous years of striving he’d never managed before, apart from a smatter of fanatical supporters within the UK entertainment industry.

Some eighteen months before the Dorchester summit, the singer had looked washed-up. Deserted by his primary collaborators Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, he put out the career-nadir single ‘Holy Holy’. (Can you hum it? Did you even know it existed?)

Yet a little over a year later, Bowie had everybody’s ears, everyone’s eyes. His fortunes had transformed absolutely: if not the biggest star in Britain, he was the buzziest, the focus of serious analysis in a way that far better-selling contemporaries like Marc Bolan and Slade never achieved. No longer a loser, he had somehow become the Midas man, a pop miracle-worker resurrecting the stalled careers of his heroes, from long-standing admirations like Lou Reed to recent infatuations like Iggy Pop and Mott the Hoople. Sprinkling them with his stardust, Bowie even got them to change their appearance in his image. There was talk of movies and stage musicals, the sort of diversification that’s tediously commonplace in today’s pop business, but back then was unusual and exciting.

‘People look to me to see what the spirit of the Seventies is,’ Bowie said to William S. Burroughs in a famous 1974 dialogue convened by Rolling Stone. This was not boasting, just the simple truth. How did Bowie manage to manoeuvre himself into place as weathervane of the zeitgeist? The battle was not won on the radio airwaves or at record-store cash registers. There are bands from the early seventies who sold millions more records than Bowie ever did, but they never came near to having the high profile he had at the time and are barely remembered today. Bowie’s theatre of war was the media, where victory is measured in think pieces and columns, controversy and the circulation of carefully chosen, eye-arresting photographs. Read more…

Resonant and Beautiful: The Meaning of ‘Allahu Akbar’

Photo by Omar Chatriwala (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo by Omar Chatriwala (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Hazlitt, Mehreen Kasana reveals the many true and beautiful meanings that you’ve never heard of behind “takbir” — the term for the expression of Muslim faith, “Allahu Akbar” — which translates literally as, “God is great.”

When you enter “the meaning of Allahu Akbar” in Google, the first search results take you to Jihad Watch, Breitbart and Urban Dictionary. Jihad Watch tells you that Allahu Akbar is “the ubiquitous battle cry of Islamic jihadists as they commit mass murder.” One of the definitions on Urban Dictionary, home to some of the internet’s most passive aggressive users, states Allahu Akbar is “what is said by people beheading hogtied victims ‘in the name of God.’” And Breitbart, the ominous prophet of doom and gloom for the average conservative, insists that Allahu Akbar means “Allah is greater than your God or Government.”

Takbir—that is, Allahu Akbar—is a strange thing. It is Arabic for “God is great.” But to the westerner who consumes the world through purposefully tailored headlines, deliberate SEO and sequential images meant to invoke fear, takbir is a terrifying thing. To the westerner, it’s something ISIS members scream before bloodshed and al Qaeda members chant before deploying an IED. It’s that scary announcement from the brown man with a beard that hides his mouth, obscuring his face, making it impossible for you to trust him. It’s code for “we’re implementing sharia here,” according to astute Republicans who can’t pronounce Iran or Iraq without butchering it (figuratively and literally) but are adamant on presenting a singular, restricted and unimaginative interpretation of an expression millions of Muslims use in millions of ways.

But to the average Muslim, takbir generously lends itself to numerous occasions and emotions.

Consciously, I heard takbir for the first time when I was four, maybe five, in northern Virginia when my mother prayed in front of me. I watched her kiss the earth with all the love in her being. Before she knelt in prostration, she whispered something. She came up once more, whispered it again, then gently knelt in humility. Her forehead touched the ground, the tip of her nose softly grazing the prayer rug, her eyes closed in unwavering thought. To a child, this graceful movement was spellbinding. I strained my ear to hear her again. “Allahu Akbar.”

But takbir is introduced to us before we can even attach meaning to spoken word. When we are born, the azaan—call to prayer—is performed to us at a pitch softer than cotton. The day I was born, I had already been introduced to this expression that would later on become my refuge in times of despair, my cry in times of joy and yes, my roar in moments of indignation. My father softly recited “Allahu Akbar” in my ear when I came into this world.

Born after eight miscarriages, I was my parents’ miracle.

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The Business of Being “Jane Roe”

Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) and her lawyer Gloria Allred on the steps of the Supreme Court, 1989. Photo by Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons.
Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) and her lawyer Gloria Allred on the steps of the Supreme Court, 1989. Photo by Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, on February 18th, Norma McCorvey — aka “Jane Roe,” the plaintiff in the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court case that legalized abortion — passed away. Four years ago, in February, 2013, Vanity Fair published this fascinating profile of of her. McCorvey, who wasn’t able to actually have the abortion she fought for because of the timing of her pregnancy and the drawn-out case, famously had a change of heart many years later, becoming a pro-life activist. Through most of her adult life, regardless of whether she was fighting for or against women’s reproductive rights, McCorvey managed to monetize her position, not only publishing two memoirs, but forming one sketchy foundation after another, on either side of the argument. Author Joshua Prager had to write around the subject — whom he and all those interviewed portray as mercenary — because she refused to be interviewed without payment of her $1,000 speaking fee.

Young Norma McCorvey had not wanted to further a cause; she had simply wanted an abortion and could not get one in Texas. Even after she became a plaintiff, plucked from obscurity through little agency of her own, she never did get that abortion. McCorvey thus became, ironically, a symbol of the right to a procedure that she herself never underwent. And in the decades since the Roe decision divided the country, the issue of abortion divided McCorvey too. She started out staunchly pro-choice. She is now just as staunchly pro-life.

But in truth McCorvey has long been less pro-choice or pro-life than pro-Norma. And she has played Jane Roe every which way, venturing far from the original script to wring a living from the issue that has come to define her existence.

“I almost forgot i have a one thousand dollar fee,” she texted in August in response to a request for an interview. Told she could not be paid, she texted back: “Then we wont speak.”

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The Telescope That Sees into the Heart of Hawaii

Alan L, Flickr

I asked Coleman, again, about the political nature of the TMT controversy. Was it not true that the United States instigated an illegal military coup and then later stole these islands near the turn of the nineteenth century? So weren’t these internecine politics sort of peripheral to the fact that Hawaii was a sovereign kingdom that was robbed from the Hawaiian people? And was that robbery not at gunpoint? And was it not true that the astronomers and groups supporting the TMT were just tacitly benefiting from a major geopolitical crime that was never rectified? Wasn’t the fundamental question of developing anything on Mauna Kea solely within the purview of the citizens of this hypothetical Hawaiian Kingdom? This was, to say the least, an uncomfortable question to ask, but it was important to know what one of maybe three Native Hawaiian astronomers on this planet thought about it.

He said, “There are very large numbers of Hawaiians who think statehood is a great thing. People who say, ‘We want to be Americans. We love it. We were born Americans, we served in Vietnam and Korea. We want to be seen as Americans.’ And then there are people who say, ‘No, we don’t want to be Americans. We hate the place.’” He speculated how these two groups could achieve consensus and the cold wind picked up and I grew impatient.

In Virginia Quarterly Review, Trevor Quirk reports from a mountain on the Big Island of Hawaii, where native Hawaiians protested the construction of a telescope on spiritual grounds — the presence of which cuts to the very question of who gets to decide what happens on Hawaiian soil — and who the soil belongs to.

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