The Longreads Blog

No Escape from Online Memories


In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a couple uses a medical procedure to erase each other from their memories after the relationship ends. It was a simpler time — that wouldn’t work now. Memories of relationships (and all life events), don’t just exist in our heads anymore, they are online, and online memories are very tricky to destroy

Social media memory prompts popping up over the past year have been challenging for everyone — photos showing our former, blissfully unaware selves, hugging family, having dinner with friends, going to a concert — constant reminders that thanks to the pandemic, we are now sitting at home in our pajamas binge-watching Netflix. But what if social media thinks even bigger life events are still happening? In 2019 Lauren Goode called off her wedding. The internet didn’t get the memo. In this fascinating article for Wired Goode explores what it means to be stalked by “a digital ghost, that is still getting married.”

Even if I could permanently delete my WeddingWire account, I had already shared uncountable bits of data with marketers during the time I used the website. “It’s one thing to say ‘I want to buy shoes’ and then have that ad follow you across the internet,” says Jeremy Tillman. “But there are specific life events that are these exclamation points for marketers. Like, I’m going to get married! Or, I’m going to have a kid! And the more valuable that data is, the more intrusive it seems.”

Tillman is the president of Ghostery, which offers an open source browser extension that shows you how many trackers are receiving data from the websites you visit—a mere glimpse at the network of data brokers that are creating shadow profiles of you. While I was on the phone with Tillman, I punched into a Chrome browser, navigated to a page for a wedding DJ, then clicked on the Ghostery extension. At least 16 trackers were identified—including Google Ads, DoubleClick, and Facebook Custom Audience. I had browsed web pages like this dozens of times in 2019. And then, suddenly, I had stopped.

“In your case, you have the life cycle of somebody that you’re not, following you throughout the web and beyond,” Tillman says. “It’s like a ghost life cycle that you never had the chance to live out.”

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Eli Murray, Rebecca Woolington, and Corey G. Johnson, Ava Kofman, Olly Nze, Dina Gachman, and Larissa Pham.

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1. Poisoned

Eli Murray, Rebecca Woolington, Corey G. Johnson | Tampa Bay Times | March 24, 2021 | 6,560 words

“Hundreds of workers at a Tampa lead smelter have been exposed to dangerous levels of the neurotoxin. The consequences have been profound.”

2. The Broken Front Line

Ava Kofman | ProPublica | April 7, 2021 | 5,890 words

“The wave of coronavirus cases that swept across the country late last year put even the most battle-hardened EMTs under unprecedented psychological strain.”

3. Haphephobia

Olly Nze | The Audacity | March 24, 2021 | 2,427 words

“The day I told her I was gay, the hugs changed. They became longer and tighter, like she was trying to hug the sin out of me.”

4. Feel Right at Home

Dina Gachman | Texas Highways | April 7, 2021 | 3,029 words

“Now I live near Brushy Creek instead of the Seine or the Pacific, and I’m not the first to make that sharp midlife turn from the city to the suburbs. ”

5. Crush

Larissa Pham | The Believer | April 1, 2021 | 4,100 words

“Can we fall in love completely without completely losing ourselves?”

Switch at Birth — But How?

From left: Rita and Ches Hynes; Mildred and Donald Avery / Jessie Brinkman Evans for The Atavist

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 113, “The Lives of Others,” by writer Lindsay Jones. In remote Newfoundland, a search for answers about a series of baby mix-ups leads to a woman known as “Nurse Tiger.”

Lindsay Jones | The Atavist | March 2021 | 5 minutes (1,556 words)

The Atavist is Longreads‘ sister publication. For 10 years, it has been a digital pioneer in long-form narrative journalism, publishing one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a magazine member.

Rita Hynes lugged her pregnant body up the rural hospital’s wooden steps. It was the night of December 7, 1962, and her rounded belly tightened with each contraction. At just 20, Rita knew what she was in for. She had given birth two years prior, to a girl. Rita wasn’t married then, so the priest from her Catholic fishing hamlet on the southern coast of Newfoundland had snatched the infant from her arms and slapped Rita across the face. The baby would be raised by an aunt and uncle.

Rita, a slip of a woman, with blond hair and a rollicking laugh, soon became pregnant again by the baby girl’s father, a burly, blue-eyed fisherman named Ches Hynes, who was 11 years her senior. The couple married in the summer of 1961, the same day their son Stephen was born. But their happiness was short-lived: Stephen died as an infant, in his sleep.

Now Rita was pregnant for a third time. At the hospital, she felt the intensifying crests of pain—at first bearable, and then searing as the night wore on. Just after midnight, she heard the cries of her eight-pound baby pierce the air. A boy! She named him Clarence Peter Hynes, after his godfather, who was a close friend of her husband’s, and her brother, who had died in a fishing accident. Clarence was deposited in the hospital’s nursery and tucked into a bassinet, while Rita dozed in the women’s ward. This time, she surely hoped, no one and nothing would take her baby.

Clarence, whom everyone calls Clar, grew up in a fishing town, St. Bernard’s, perched on the edge of Newfoundland’s Fortune Bay. He was the first in a steady stream of infants to arrive at the Hyneses’ home, a small taupe bungalow on a hill overlooking the quay, with its fish sheds painted the bright colors of jelly beans. As a youngster, Clar watched out the kitchen window for boats steaming into the crescent-shaped harbor and then furiously pedaled his bike down to the wharf. He earned $4 an hour unloading and weighing nets teeming with squid and silver cod.

Clar slept in a top bunk in a room he shared with his brothers. They were fairer than he was—Clar had a toasty complexion and a thick head of dark hair. When they wanted to torment him, his brothers called him Freddy Fender, after the Mexican-American musician. He grew to become a local heartthrob, with a chiseled brow and lean, muscular frame. Clar was a natural athlete who excelled at hockey and cross-country. Rita, a typical hockey mom, banged on the glass during his games and leaned over the railings to yell at the referees.

At 16, when Clar left home for Ontario to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway, Rita cried for days. She knelt on a chair at the kitchen window, clutching her rosary beads and praying to God to bring her son back. She kept all the letters he sent her in her closet. When Clar did return, driving his navy blue Chevy Camaro into the village after many months away, the teenage girls of St. Bernard’s swooned. “Oh, Clar is so handsome!” his sister, Dorothy, remembered hearing again and again—her friends were always talking about her big brother.

Clar was 24 when he met a woman named Cheryl at a motel bar in Marystown, farther down the boot-shaped peninsula from where he grew up. Clar had an on-and-off girlfriend at the time, but when he saw Cheryl he was smitten. With pretty, bow-shaped lips and curly blond hair, she was the belle of the bar. She’d recently moved back to Newfoundland from the Toronto area, where she’d worked as a hairstylist. Cheryl noticed Clar looking at her. She didn’t normally date guys from rural fishing communities, or “down over the road.” They were a hard bunch. But as she and Clar talked over beers and glasses of Screech rum and 7Up, Cheryl found him attentive and kind. They danced and chatted the night away. She didn’t want it to end.

They were married two years later in Marystown’s white, steepled Anglican church. The ceremony was packed to the gills with family. Rita wore a royal blue dress with puffed sleeves, and her husband Ches a dark gray suit. They were thrilled to see Clar tie the knot.

Rita was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer a few years later, at 50. Clar nursed her as a mother would a baby. He held her and rocked her in the Hyneses’ old bungalow on the hill, making sure to face a window on the ocean so she could see the waves. Rita stayed with Clar and Cheryl at their home “in town,” as everyone calls Newfoundland’s capital city, St. John’s, during the futile treatment she underwent. Clar spoon-fed his mother bowls of fish and potatoes. He spent day after day with her right up until the end, so she would never be alone.

Five years after that, lung cancer took Ches.

Clar and Cheryl built a life together in St. John’s, raising three children of their own. When the fishery that had sustained generations of islanders collapsed, Newfoundland’s economy reoriented itself around the offshore oil and gas business. By 2014, Clar had a job as a welding foreman at Bull Arm, one of the industry’s major fabrication sites, where employees were building an oil platform that would eventually be towed out to sea.

That December, 52 years to the day after Rita brought him into the world, Clar overheard a woman in the hallway just outside his office sing out to a coworker, “It’s Craig’s birthday!” The woman’s name was Tracey Avery, and she was a cleaner at Bull Arm. She was talking about her husband, who also worked at the site. How funny, Clar thought. “It’s my birthday, too,” he said with a laugh.

“Yes, b’y,” Tracey replied. (B’y is pronounced “bye”—the Newfoundland expression is one of surprise, like “oh really?”) “How old are you?”

When Clar told her his age, Tracey’s next words came tumbling out: “Where were you born?”

“Come By Chance Cottage Hospital,” Clar said.

Tracey stood stock still for a second, her mouth agape. Then she ran, leaving her mop and cart behind. Clar shivered.

In that moment, a secret began to worm its way into the light: Another child had been taken from Rita Hynes—and she wasn’t alone.

On ‘the rock,’ as Newfoundland is affectionately known, your bay and your bloodline still define who you are—they are the first things people ask about when they meet you.

Depending on how you look at it, the stirring of this long-buried truth was sheer coincidence—one of those wild things that just happens—or it was inevitable, born of the quiddity of place. Newfoundland, the island portion of the sprawling Canadian province known as Newfoundland and Labrador, is a massive triangular rock in the Atlantic Ocean, colonized centuries ago for its fishing grounds. It has a rugged coastline, with hundreds of communities nestled into crooks, crannies, and coves. Some towns have blush-inducing names such as Heart’s Desire, Leading Tickles, and Dildo, and each is its own remote kingdom, fortified by rolling bluffs. Extended families are vast and tightly bound. For a long time they had to be. In such an austere place, it was a matter of survival. Today on “the rock,” as Newfoundland is affectionately known, your bay and your bloodline still define who you are—they are the first things people ask about when they meet you.

Getting anywhere along Newfoundland’s 6,000 miles of mountainous coast has always been a challenge. In the early 20th century, people in many of the island’s approximately 1,300 outports—the local term for fishing towns—had limited access to health care. Cottage hospitals, strategically located to serve dozens of outports at once, were intended to eliminate unnecessary death and suffering. They were a place to have your appendix out, get stitched up after an accident, or give birth and recover under the care of qualified doctors and nurses. They heralded a new dawn for Newfoundland. According to Edward Lake, a nurse and health administrator who worked in cottage hospitals and later wrote the definitive account of their history, they were the start of the most advanced rural health care program North America had ever seen, forerunners to Canada’s publicly funded national system.

The first seven cottage hospitals opened in 1936. One was located in the village of Come By Chance, which had been given its curious name by English colonists. As the story goes, in 1612, white explorers came ashore in one bay, only to discover a well-worn path to another bay on another coastline. The path had been cut by the indigenous Beothuk people. (The Beothuk were wiped out in the 19th century by the encroachment of white settlers.) The route led to the mouth of a river flush with salmon. It was a fortuitous find, which perhaps explains why the colonists later christened the settlement they built there Come By Chance. More than three centuries on, the village would prove a prime spot for a cottage hospital, with more than 50 outports close by.

The cottage hospitals were cookie-cutter clapboard buildings designed to be inviting. From the outside they looked like quaint residences. Strangely, in Come By Chance, the hospital was built the wrong way round, with its back to the road. For those inclined to superstition, the error might seem like an omen—a foretelling of bigger mix-ups to come.


Read the full story at The Atavist

When Refugee Families are Separated, Women Carry the Burden

Author photo by Jill Filipovic, used courtesy of St Martin's Press.

Ty McCormick | Beyond the Sand and Sea, One Family’s Quest for Country to Call Home | April 2021 | 3,518 words (20 minutes)

A few weeks after Maryan gave birth to her first son, Mohamed, word came from Dadaab that her parents and younger siblings were going to America. The Ashraf had been given priority for resettlement by the UN, and thousands of people seemed to be were leaving at once. Believing her brief marriage to Yussuf had run its course, Maryan took the first bus back to Dadaab with little Mohamed in tow. She had yet to tell her parents about her husband, in part because there was part of her that always doubted their marriage would survive. Now there was no hiding the fact that she was married and a mother. Sharif and Kaltuma would never approve of her plan to leave without Yussuf. But if they were going to America, she was going too.

The sight of Maryan with an infant child was a shock to her parents. Her mother broke down in tears, and she and Sharif both begged her to reconcile with Yussuf. “Think of the damage you are doing to our reputation,” they said. But Maryan was adamant that she was done with him. A day or two before the family was scheduled to begin the vetting process for resettlement, though, Yussuf showed up in Dadaab demanding to know why Maryan had left with their son. He had heard from family back in Moyale that the UN was taking her to America. Suddenly, the wife he had abandoned was his ticket to a better life.

Initially, Maryan rejected the idea out of hand. But her parents pushed and cajoled her. Divorce was simply out of the question as far as they were concerned. It wasn’t just taboo; it was unspeakable, a religious and moral failing that she would take to the grave. Leaving Yussuf behind, she realized, would wound her parents in a way she could never repair. What’s more, she harbored her own feelings of guilt at having agreed to marry him. You picked this guy, she thought. You can’t just walk away.

Reluctantly, Maryan agreed to give her marriage a second chance. She and Yussuf hadn’t had a legal wedding in Moyale, so they organized a hasty one at a mosque in Ifo in order to obtain the marriage certificate they would need to be resettled as a family. A sheikh named Jawad Abdi presided over the ceremony, and his signature is affixed to the bottom of a handwritten document from that day, specifying a dowry of “a cow of three years.” Sharif’s signature appears as a witness, above a statement clarifying that the improvised certificate, written in English and in Arabic, “should serve as proof of said marriage because currently marriage certificates are out of stock.”

Once they were officially wed, Maryan and Yussuf were given their own resettlement case with baby Mohamed, instead of remaining attached to Sharif, Kaltuma, and the rest of their children. That fateful decision, made to accommodate Yussuf, would end up splitting the family in two for years to come.

* * *

Maryan came off the plane in Phoenix carrying one-year-old Mohamed and a white plastic bag stamped with the blue insignia of the International Organization for Migration. In addition to immigration and work authorization papers, the bag contained a four-by-six-inch card bearing the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Unlike the generation of Somalis that would follow her, including her three youngest siblings, Maryan hadn’t grown up dreaming of the United States. The words “land of the free and home of the brave” held no meaning for her. All she knew was that she wanted a better life for herself and for her family. That meant being more than a mother and a wife, more than a woman for whom a suitable dowry was a cow of three years.

Their journey had lasted more than forty-eight hours, taking them from Nairobi to New York to Houston and finally on to Phoenix. Neither she nor her husband had ever seen an airplane up close, let alone ridden on one. Now as they exited the terminal at Sky Harbor Airport, Maryan suddenly froze in terror. In front of her was a glass-encased stairway that appeared to be collapsing. The steps were grooved and sturdy-looking, but they fell away, one after the other, each time she went to step on them. It took a moment for Maryan to grasp what was happening. The concourse had been relatively empty when they arrived at the top of the escalator, but now a small line had formed behind them and people were anxious to move.

“It’s okay, you can walk on it,” came the gentle voice of a woman behind her. The woman must have guessed they had just arrived from somewhere far away—Maryan in her black hijab looking fearful and confused, and Yussuf at a loss as well.

The escalator wasn’t the only thing about their new life that seemed odd. When Maryan would ride the Number Eleven bus with baby Mohamed, people would fawn over them and say what a cute daughter she had. It wasn’t until she made friends with a few Americans that she figured out the source of the misunderstanding: children’s clothes were gendered here, and Mohamed’s light pink pajamas were throwing people off. The grocery store was another locus of confusion. For months after they arrived, Maryan kept buying things by mistake because the pictures on the labels were misleading. A packet of tea bags, for instance, showed huge cubes of sugar, which was what she had intended to buy. Nothing was packaged this way back in Kenya. You bought things loose, not in bags or plastic wrappers. But Maryan was curious and outgoing by nature, and she didn’t mind learning by trial and error. In fact, she bought lots of things on impulse, without even trying to guess what they were. A box of shiny red strawberries jumped out at her, so she bought them on a whim, only to recoil in disgust at what to her was their strange, sour taste.

Many new arrivals in Tucson who had come from Dadaab, including Yussuf, had never lived outside of a small rural village. Some of the children had never seen the outside of a refugee camp. Maryan was unique in that she had lived alone in Nairobi. She also spoke decent English, and was used to a level of independence that was unusual in conservative Somali communities. This was a source of constant friction in her marriage, but it was also a font of opportunity in America. Because she could read and translate, she was an invaluable resource to the dozens of refugee families living in the area, the person inevitably called on to resolve all manner of misunderstandings with landlords, employers, and the police. It wasn’t long before the International Rescue Committee started hiring her for little jobs assisting other new arrivals, translating at job interviews or helping decipher training videos. She liked helping other refugees, and she could make as much as $75 for a single day of work.

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With the help of the International Rescue Committee, Maryan soon got a full-time job at Jack in the Box, cutting tomatoes and iceberg lettuce for Caesar salads. The pay was only $5 per hour, but the work was more regular than the translating jobs and the restaurant was close enough to the apartment complex that she didn’t have to waste money riding the bus. There were a few mishaps in the beginning, like the time she called a colleague fat and caused her to break down in tears. In Somali culture, girth signifies wealth, so she hadn’t anticipated this reaction. But on the whole, things went smoothly on the food-prep line. She made friends with her manager, a young woman named Nancy Rodriguez who was also a new mother in a tempestuous relationship. The two women liked to gossip and often confided in each other when things weren’t going well at home. Sometimes, Nancy would knock quietly on Maryan’s window at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. Maryan would slip out of the house, careful not to wake Yussuf, and zoom off with Nancy in her silver Honda Civic. The two of them would drive for hours before the sun came up, talking and listening to music. Eventually, Nancy started letting Maryan drive, teaching her to maneuver along quiet back roads even though she didn’t have a license.

Yussuf was having a different experience in his new country. Much less comfortable than his wife in their new surroundings, he was even more determined to control her than he had been in Kenya. The International Rescue Committee had helped him get a job, too, first as a night-shift cleaner at the Hilton and later as a landscaper. But the work was hard and he was constantly confused and embarrassed. Unable to speak English and unwilling to learn, he took his frustrations out on Maryan. He disliked that she worked, and he hated that she thought it earned her a measure of autonomy. The way Maryan saw it, she brought in more than half of their income, so she should have at least half the say in how the household was run. Yussuf disagreed, often forcefully. Over time, their fights grew even more ferocious. She would yell and cry, and he would slam his fists against the tables and the walls. Sometimes, he would physically block her from storming out into the hall. More than once, the neighbors called the police. But there was part of Maryan that felt sorry for Yussuf, part of her that knew she couldn’t leave him in a place where he couldn’t survive on his own. Each time the cops came, she kept her mouth shut.

Yussuf seemed threatened by Maryan’s prominent position in the community. He grew incensed when people he didn’t know called the house asking for her, and more than once he ripped the phone out of the wall. He also tried to sabotage Maryan’s friendships by spreading rumors that she had neglected their son. Once, when he and Maryan were meeting with an employment counselor at the International Rescue Committee, he announced that he had forbidden her from working outside the home. The counselor calmly reached across the desk and lifted up baby Mohamed, who had been swaddled in Maryan’s arms, handed him to Yussuf and told him to take the bus home. “You can control your child,” she said flatly, “But in America, you can’t control your wife.” Enraged, Yussuf stormed out of the room with the baby, a torrent of insults pouring out of his mouth in Somali. “You just follow the cadaan,” he sneered at Maryan, using the Somali word for whites. “You just follow their rules, and you don’t respect our religion.”

* * *

Maryan began to dread being in the apartment. Whenever Yussuf was there, she would find an excuse to go somewhere else with the baby, whether it was to the Reid Park Zoo with Nancy, who had a yearlong entry pass, or to Chuck E. Cheese with other friends from work. But the bond between her and Yussuf wasn’t completely severed, and feeling lonely and isolated, she sometimes let herself be drawn back into his arms. A little more than a year after they arrived in Arizona, she realized she was pregnant again.

Ambia was born with jaundice, a common blood disorder that made her skin appear slightly yellow. “You have a cursed child,” Yussuf said, when he first laid eyes on her at the University of Arizona Medical Center. The doctors said she would be just fine, but that Ambia needed to stay overnight for special therapy under a halogen light. They discharged Maryan, though, and told her to go home with Yussuf, a notion that struck her as preposterous. She wasn’t about to leave her baby in the care of people she didn’t know to be treated with a light machine she didn’t trust. In Kenya, no mother would leave her newborn at the hospital, but here the impassive white robed physicians clearly expected her to. She broke down crying, and implored them to let her stay. Eventually, they relented, and Maryan and Ambia were given a room together for the next three nights.

The counselor calmly reached across the desk and lifted up baby Mohamed, who had been swaddled in Maryan’s arms, handed him to Yussuf and told him to take the bus home. “You can control your child,” she said flatly, “But in America, you can’t control your wife.”

A few weeks later, when they were back home at the apartment on North Alvernon Way, a bill arrived in the mail. When Maryan read it, she let out a gasp: $16,000, for the care she and her daughter had received. It was more than a year’s salary at Jack in the Box. A knot forming in her chest, she dialed the billing department, unsure of what exactly she would say. But after she gave her patient code and verified her date of birth, the woman on the other end of the phone sounded surprised Maryan had called. “I’m showing no balance owed,” she said. “It’s been paid in full.”

Maryan never found out who paid that bill. She wondered if maybe it was the employment counselor from the International Rescue Committee, a woman whose name she can’t recall but who was always kind to her. Two years later, after her second daughter, Najma, was born, Maryan got up the courage to ask the counselor if she had been the guardian angel who had wiped out her debt. The woman scoffed at the suggestion. “I don’t have that kind of money,” she said.

But the counselor did have ideas about how Maryan could earn more money of her own: by pursuing a GED. With a high school equivalency certificate, a whole range of new job opportunities would open up—ones that paid better than $5 per hour and wouldn’t leave her clothes smelling like fried food.

Soon, Maryan was spending several hours a day at Pima Community College while an elderly Somali woman in their apartment building looked after the children. Maryan liked being back in school, but in the beginning, she was bewildered by her classmates. They put their feet on their desks and ate food during class. Acting like that at Abdul Aziz Primary would have earned you a beating. Were these students not afraid of the teachers? Did the teachers have no self-respect?

One of her courses at Pima was English as a Second Language, or ESL. Most of the assignments were simple worksheets that involved identifying errors in grammar or spelling. But the worksheets were supposed to serve a secondary function as well: introducing foreigners to American traditions and customs. Tailgating at sporting events was the subject of one memorable ESL worksheet, which advised students that the boozy tradition was “a fun part of college life and for sports fans in Illinois.” Maryan often found herself giggling quietly over assignments like these, which struck her as random to the point of absurdity. They weren’t even in Illinois, she thought to herself. And why on earth would she ever need to know about drunken college football parties?

Six months later, Maryan had her GED. Not long after that she got a job at St. Joseph’s Hospital, mopping up the surgical theater after operations. The pay was better than at Jack in the Box, and she was able to afford a drivers’ education course and eventually a used car. She was also able to send more money home to her parents. There had been all manner of expenses to cover, including tuberculosis medication for her father, whose health had taken a turn for the worse. Lately, she had also noticed additional charges on her credit card statement for e-books that her brother Asad had downloaded from Dadaab. The books were expensive, certainly more money than she would have spent on small luxuries for herself. But remembering the monotony of life in Dadaab, she was glad her brother had become a passionate reader. She hated to think of him wiling away his days in the heat, waiting in humiliating food distribution lines, and cooking over a fire pit. Books seemed to light him up, and thinking of him that way made her happy.

The two of them corresponded more frequently as the years wore on and Asad matured into a reserved and sensitive young man. She would create email and social media accounts for him so they could communicate more easily, then give him the log-in credentials over the phone. Sometimes, she would get email alerts warning that someone was trying to access her accounts from abroad. Those emails always made her smile.

She had come to think of Asad not just as a little sibling in need of direction, but as a partner in caring for their parents—she as the breadwinner in Arizona and he as the caregiver and problem-solver at home. Now instead of talking to Sharif about difficulties with doctors or the UN, it was always Asad she coordinated with. His was a comforting voice on the other end of the phone, and as time passed she felt herself leaning on him as well. When he was young, she had tried not to burden him with her own struggles. But the worse things got with Yussuf, the less of her suffering she was able to hide. It was strange opening up to someone she remembered only as a small child, someone whom fate had taken away from her and whose life was now so different than hers. They existed in totally separate universes, and yet there were things that only he could understand.

* * *

Maryan had another phone besides the one she used to call home with her $20 calling cards. It was slim and black and its existence was a closely guarded secret. In the contacts, there was only a single number saved: 911.

The emergency phone had come from a domestic violence counselor. Because Maryan had high blood pressure and crippling anxiety, her doctor had come to suspect she was in danger at home and referred her to a shelter for battered women. Even before that Maryan had thought about running away with her children, but she didn’t know who she could trust or where to turn for help. Yussuf had succeeded in turning much of the refugee community against her, spreading vicious rumors about his wayward “Western” wife who thought she was better than other Somalis and didn’t value their traditions. Even the idea of domestic violence was viewed with suspicion by many of the refugees she had helped translate for over the years. “If you are married and your husband beats you up, you have nothing to say because he’s your husband,” was how she summed up their thinking.

She hated to think of him wiling away his days in the heat, waiting in humiliating food distribution lines, and cooking over a fire pit. Books seemed to light him up, and thinking of him that way made her happy.

Yussuf never hit Maryan, but his constant emotional and psychological abuse had slowly broken her down. She would wake up in the middle of the night, heart racing, unable to bear the thought of another day with him. Even so, she felt paralyzed. Faith had always been important to her, and while divorce was technically allowed in Islam, it would make you an outcast. There was part of her that felt she had a religious duty to stay in the marriage as long as her husband did. And nothing had changed her belief that leaving Yussuf would crush her parents and forever change the way they looked at her. Running away to avoid getting married had been one thing. Divorcing the father of her three children would be quite another. “It felt like there was something holding me down that was heavier than me,” she recalled. “Like I was in the ocean and the waves were just overpowering me.”

But the situation had become untenable. She had started breaking down in public, crying in front of coworkers and in the middle of shifts at the hospital. She had missed work after one particularly painful fight, and then she had missed another day and another. Eventually, her boss had let her go. Yussuf had finally gotten his wish: a wife without a job.

Not long after that Maryan found herself alone on a ledge, looking down at what seemed like her only avenue of escape. As Yussuf pounded angrily on the locked door of their apartment, threatening to break it down, she teetered on the edge of a sliding-glass window, the smooth pavement of the parking lot beckoning from twenty feet below. She had reached the limit of what she could take. But as she contemplated stepping out of her life, it occurred to her that Yussuf probably wouldn’t care if she died. The thought of his indifference filled her with rage, and she pulled back from the ledge. Suddenly, she knew what she would do, and it was something that would hurt Yussuf, too. The next day, she sold her car and bought four plane tickets to the farthest place from Arizona she could think of that was still in the United States. Then she picked up the phone to tell her parents she was leaving Yussuf and moving the kids to Seattle.

Excerpted from Beyond the Sand and Sea by Ty McCormick. Published by St.Martin’s Press.

Listen to the Sound of My Voice

Jiri Hera / EyeEm

Not long after journalist Minelle Mahtani began hosting her own radio show in Canada, her mother was diagnosed with tongue cancer. In a poignant essay for The Walrus, Mahtani explains how she was suddenly confronted with the painful reality that, just as she was finding her voice, her mother was losing hers:

I remembered the words of poet Rita Wong. “Habitual placement of the tongue changes the mouth. When the tongue is still, are you quiet enough to hear the dead? Quiet enough to hear the land stifled beneath massive concrete? Quiet enough to hear the beautiful, poisoned ancestors surfacing from your diaphragm?” All the stories of my ancestors, buried in my mother’s mouth, stories I would never hear again.

For years, I saw my mixed-race self as solid proof of the promise of mending. Now, my body felt torn apart: voice, sound, soul gone fugitive. My mother was a poised, sophisticated Iranian woman. Her skin was light and she was Muslim. My South Asian father was dark skinned and Hindu. These descriptions do nothing to fully capture their characters, of course. But this is what people wanted to know, always want to know. People knew I was something different, exotic—that awful word—they just weren’t sure what. My mother’s presence had always steadied me, provided me with the faith and sanctity to honour my family’s complex and colonial histories. What would I do without her voice?

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Megan Evershed, Mark Mann, Jaelani Turner-Williams, Minelle Mahtani, and Kim Cross.

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1. How an Upper West Side Hotel Came to Embody the City’s Failure on Homelessness

Megan Evershed | The New Republic | March 31, 2021 | 5,900 words

During the pandemic, men housed at the Lucerne hotel have seen the worst side of New York’s self-described liberals. They’ve also exposed a decades-long policy of neglect.

2. The Great Work

Mark Mann | Beside | March 29, 2021 | 2,102 words

“Overwhelmed in the classroom, Peter and David began taking long, slow walks around the neighbourhood together. In Peter’s unhurried pace and frequent pauses, they found a shared rhythm and a way of enjoying each other’s company.”

3. Hanif Abdurraquib’s Third Favorite A Tribe Called Quest Album Might Surprise You

Jaelani Turner-Williams | Okayplayer | March 31, 2021 | 2,509 words

“Author Hanif Abdurraquib on his new book, A Little Devil in America, how current Black music is shaping the racial justice movement, his favorite A Tribe Called Quest albums, and more.”

4. Finding My Voice as My Mother Lost Hers

Minelle Mahtani | The Walrus | March 24, 2021 | 3,100 words

“Not long after I started my job as a radio host, my mother told me she had tongue cancer.”

5. My Month of Doing 100 Wheelies a Day

Kim Cross | Outside | March 15, 2021 | 3,550 words

“In her quest to master a quintessential cool-kid trick, a writer found the sweet spot at the crossroads of work and play.”

The Silent Farm for Developmental Disabilities

Photo by Jesús Hellín/ Europa Press via Getty Images

This gentle essay by Mark Mann for Beside takes us into the understated world of David and Peter, who share a friendship spanning four decades, yet no words. Peter’s form of down syndrome means he is non-verbal, so ever since David first became his support worker they have been finding other ways to communicate — beginning with artmaking, to gardening, and ultimately, to farming. When David bought a 25-acre farm in 1998 he realized it was a place where he could “break the limitations imposed on people with developmental disabilities.” Abhorring the condescension he sometimes saw Peter face, on the farm David lets Peter take the lead in the quiet routines of  “preparing and sharing meals, tending to a few animals, and passing the time.”

This essay radiates with the peace that David has created for Peter in their silent sanctuary. It may not be a productive farm, but “rather than crops or yields, David and Peter’s harvest is each little detail noticed and celebrated: a trusting moment that passes between Peter and one of the horses, or the bright red sumac buds that David hangs above the kitchen table.”

Inspired by what David and Peter were doing at the Farm, others began joining them. David and Peter were connected to a larger network of families with members who were on the autism spectrum and used no spoken language, and some of these men became regulars. Neighbours started dropping in regularly, and friends and acquaintances from around Ontario began making the trip, to lend a hand and savour the atmosphere. (I was one of those, for several years.) The numbers have ebbed and flowed, but a small community has always coalesced around the Farm: loose, evolving, and delightfully unlikely. Today, it’s mainly just Peter and his close friend Kevin. Kevin doesn’t use spoken language either, but he, Peter, and David have found a rich and subtle terrain of conversation that goes beyond words: gestures, body language, touch, and eye contact.

… if everyone is feeling well, they make a trip to the barn. The 300-foot journey is as slow and deliberate as a religious procession, especially across the winter snow and ice. Once arrived, the atmosphere inside the barn is precisely like a cathedral, with its sombre light and air of stillness. One feels an instinct to whisper, and, like Peter and Kevin, to take careful, quiet steps.

The first order of business is to feed and water the sheep. On this particular day, we discover that one of the ewes has given birth. The little newborn is already skittering around on four legs while keeping close to its mother. Seeing the lamb, the quietness among the men intensifies. For several long minutes, they hover in the corner, taking in the scene. Kevin reaches out and removes some straw from Peter’s hat.

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Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Lost Album, Human Highway

CSNY, January 1, 1970. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

David Gambacorta | Longreads | March 2021 | 15 minutes (4,190 words)

They needed a song, but not just any song. It had to be a throat-clearing, lapel-grabbing, hey-what’s-that-sound number that could open what was shaping up to be one of the most anticipated albums of 1970: the debut of the super group to end all super groups, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. “We don’t have that song where you know that a listener will not take that needle off the record,” Graham Nash told Stephen Stills sometime in the fall of 1969, after they’d already labored for countless hours in a recording studio in San Francisco. “We need that song where we’ve got them from the very beginning.”

Nash, a skinny, shaggy former member of the British group The Hollies, and Stills, a soulful, straw-haired survivor of Buffalo Springfield, knew plenty about grabbing listeners by the ear. A year earlier, they’d discovered — at Joni Mitchell’s house in California, maybe, or Cass Elliot’s, no one’s quite sure — that they could create heavenly harmonies with David Crosby, the ex-Byrds singer who wore a droopy mustache, and the amused grin of a man who was in on some cosmic joke. They released an album, Crosby, Stills & Nash, that was filled with instant classics like the soaring “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Then, at the urging of Ahmet Ertegun, the owlish Atlantic Records honcho, the trio turned themselves into a quartet, adding — with some reluctance — Neil Young’s reedy voice, barbed-wire guitar playing, and unpredictability to the mix. After the four of them played in front of 400,000 swaying, stoned people at Woodstock, their own concerts started to take on the feel of what Rolling Stone described as “mini-Woodstocks” that unleashed “effortless good vibes.”

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Life and Love in the Utah Desert


In this immersive piece for Outside, Mark Sundeen writes about his last two decades spent living in a trailer in Moab, Utah. An English major from San Francisco, when he first arrives in the “sweltering hamlet” Sundeen finds himself in awe of the rugged characters he meets. Ashamed of his own bookishness, he seeks to hide it and emulate their qualities, to become “the sort of man who is competent with chains and repairs, rough roads and icy curves.” He also finds himself drawn to the new type of women he meets, none more so than Wendy. Sundeen develops an obsession for the former rancher that lasts for years, to the detriment of other relationships. Sundeen describes his romantic history with great self-awareness, painting a vivid picture of the women in his life, as well as the arid atmosphere of the Moab desert that forms a backdrop to his personal development.

The upshot of seeing Wendy was that when I moved back to Moab in that summer of 1999, age 28, she rented me the trailer for $300 a month. I wouldn’t trouble her with complaints but would do any repairs myself.

I woke each night at 3 A.M. with my lungs clenched and visions of Q in my head. She’d been seen in Moab with that snowboarder. Now and then I’d call and tell her how she betrayed me. I wallowed in the fantasy of my unrequited longing.

The story I told myself eventually unraveled. I replayed the memories. That night she offered herself to me: I hadn’t declined out of some sense of chivalry. It was because, even as every molecule burned to make a child with her, I couldn’t envision us raising the thing. All I could see us doing was smoking in bed and engineering increasingly innovative paroxysms. Which was what I thought love was.

Q already saw me more clearly than I did. I had shown her my heart, and she’d seen the cautious vanity I couldn’t hide. In the future I wouldn’t be so embarrassed to be a delicate writer, and I would treasure the exchange of ideas about literature and writing with a woman. But not yet. I still couldn’t see past my own delusion.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Max Blau, Venessa Wong, Hope Wabuke, David Dayen, and Mark Sundeen.

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1. The Coal Plant Next Door

Max Blau | ProPublica | March 22, 2021 | 9,852 words

“Near America’s largest coal-fired power plant, toxins are showing up in drinking water and people have fallen ill. Thousands of pages of internal documents show how one giant energy company plans to avoid the cleanup costs.”

2. This Is Where 150 Years Of Ignoring Anti-Asian Racism Got Us

Venessa Wong | BuzzFeed News | March 20, 2021 | 5,050 words

“For so long, we’ve thought keeping our heads down and being invisible in America might help us gain acceptance — but the recent wave of racist violence has shattered that myth.”

3. Disney’s Disembodied Black Characters

Hope Wabuke | LA Review of Books | March 23, 2021 | 5,395 words

“Green, blue — Disney has no problem with characters that are different colors, it seems, as long as that color is not brown. What does it say to Black kids watching when the world’s biggest children’s entertainment company cannot give them even one animated film that features a Black person that stays a Black person throughout? What does this say about Blackness to kids who are not Black? About whose life is being portrayed as mattering? And whose does not?”

4. Islands in the Stream

David Dayen | American Prospect | March 22, 2021 | 7,400 words

“Musicians are in peril, at the mercy of giant monopolies that profit off their work.”

5. Notes from a Moab Trailer

Mark Sundeen | Outside | March 23, 2021 | 8,655 words

“I didn’t hear from her. I had flings with other women, but nobody equaled her. Unable to maintain a relationship, I got a dog, a heeler mutt puppy I saw in a cardboard box at the supermarket. I named her Sadie. When Wendy returned a year or so later, she was with a new guy, a fisherman, long hair and a beard, engaged to marry.”