The Longreads Blog

Best of 2021: Profiles

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All "Best of 2021" images by Kjell Reigstad.

Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads. All year long, we highlight our favorite stories in the weekly Longreads Top 5. At the end of the year, we love to reflect on and share the pieces that stayed with us, a tradition we’ve kept for 10 years! Now it is the turn of the profile — as we highlight the craft of writing about someone else. These five writers are masterful at providing insights into another’s world. 

The Girl in the Kent State Photo, Patricia McCormick, The Washington Post Magazine, April 19, 2021

On May 4, 1970, Kent State University students gathered on campus to peacefully rally against President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, which would expand U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Fourteen-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, a free-spirited teen who hitchhiked around the country to escape a volatile family life in Florida, found herself on the school’s Ohio grounds, drawn to the protests. National Guard troops shot four students dead that day, including a man, Jeffrey Miller, whom Vecchio had been talking to. She dropped to the ground and knelt beside his body — her arms raised, her face full of anguish and horror. McCormick documents her pleas: “‘Doesn’t anyone see what just happened here?’ she remembers crying. ‘Why is no one helping him?’”

Student photographer John Filo snapped a picture of her at that very moment, capturing what would become an iconic image, one that “fundamentally changed the way we see ourselves and the world around us,” writes Patricia McCormick. Through a dozen phone interviews with Vecchio, who is now 65 and living a quiet retired life, McCormick recounts that fateful day and how the image “hijacked” Vecchio’s life, haunting her even 50 years on. (Her reaction to the video of George Floyd’s last moments shook her to her core.) Affected from “opposite ends of the lens,” Vecchio and Filo are intimately connected to one another through the photo — Vecchio a “human flashpoint” and a symbol of the national conscience, and Filo full of grief and guilt over what the image did to her, despite his winning a Pulitzer for his work. Compassionate and superbly reported, McCormick’s profile hits a nerve, and especially resonates in our time of virality and smartphone-recorded moments of injustice. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

La Cancion de la Nena, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, Oxford American, June 1, 2021

In this beautiful piece, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal offers a haunting portrait of her father, Gilberto Villarreal, a virtuoso guitarist and musician, a man who was a “prodigy at the foot of this country, in a place no one ever expects to find someone extraordinary.“ Villarreal recalls the struggles her father endured as a Mexican immigrant trying to be discovered in a music business dominated by white interests and pernicious racism: “What I experienced as poetry came first through the song my father wrote for me when I was two years old, a song whose melody is a turning helix in my blood, another way of speaking my name. It is the rarest gift I have ever received.“ This is a piece steeped in love and admiration for a man and an artist who, despite his many musical skills and achievements, did not consider himself a success. “You might think from my tone that this is a sad story,“ Villarreal writes. “And maybe it is, but it is also a tribute to an unseen life, a long overdue recognition of ordinary genius worn down by circumstance.“ —Krista Stevens

Author Vanessa Angélica Villarreal on the story from 2021 that impacted her most:

Carina del Valle Schorske’s “Dancing Through New York in a Summer of Joy and Grief“ in The New York Times Magazine was an incredibly rich, historical snapshot of embodiment, grief, vitality, and rebellion in the shared ritual of social dance, specific to Black, Latin, queer, and immigrant communities. From Harlem to Brooklyn and everywhere in between, del Valle Schorske writes a history of social dance as a site of healing after mass tragedy that is part personal essay, part performance theory, part history lesson — an erotics of survival and joy at the end of the world.

What Mike Fanone Can’t Forget, Molly Ball, Time, August 5, 2021

Given the state of the celebrity-industrial complex, the vast majority of profiles you read in any given year are about people you already know. The truly special ones, though, tend to buck convention. And that’s exactly the case with Molly Ball’s riveting portrait of Mike Fanone, the Washington D.C. narcotics officer who drove to the Capitol on January 6 to help defend it against insurrectionists. Sure, you may have seen Fanone on cable news in the aftermath of the riots, may have thought he was a hero or a martyr or a turncoat or anything else — but you didn’t know what he’d gone through that day, let alone who he was. Ball’s scene work and deft reconstruction help bring together the splintered shards of a complicated, imperfect man, one who somehow both validates and punctures whatever assumptions you had. “He’s not asking to be called a hero — he just wants us to remember what his sacrifice was for,” she writes. “Fanone believes we can’t keep trying to outrun this thing; we’ve got to turn around and face it, defeat it once and for all. That if all we do is turn away and hope it fades, it will just keep getting stronger until it comes back to kill us all.” Once upon a time, that may have sounded overwrought. Today, it’s all too real. —Peter Rubin 

Stop Hustling Black Death, Imani Perry, New York, May 24, 2021

What happens when the worst day of your life animates a social movement over which you have no control? This question is the engine of Imani Perry’s profile of Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, killed by police in 2014. Samaria was anguished, and she wanted justice. But she didn’t want to be told how to act, or to see “leaders” she didn’t know speaking for her — much less making money off her son’s death. In Perry’s hands, Samaria’s story is a window into the growing pains of Black Lives Matter. If readers are uncomfortable with what they see, that’s the point: We can’t look away from the truth, Perry says, just because it’s messy. “We have lost a great deal of history by relying upon a neat consensus narrative,” she writes. “If we’re not careful, we run the risk of letting that become the story of today as well.” —Seyward Darby

The opening lines of another profile by Imani Perry, which author Becca Andrews chose as her favorite lede of the year:

“I knew from the beginning that I would not meet Gayl Jones.

Or see a recent photograph of her. Or ask her any questions. What does it feel like, 46 years after the first, to have a new novel coming out? Why did you step out of view? Did it make you a more honest writer? Did it serve your soul? I would not get answers. I would not be able to charm her into laughter. I know she is brilliant, obscure, irascible. I imagine her smile is still wry. But does she still wear her head wrapped in 2021? Is she still adept at putting a nosy questioner in her place?“

“She Changed Black Literature Forever. Then She Disappeared,“ The New York Times Magazine

Benji Is One Down Dog, Madeleine Aggeler, Texas Monthly, June 2, 2021

This piece brought a smile to my face and delight to my heart. For even in the age of the Instagram-famous pet, it’s not often we get a proper pooch profile. Benji the dog is a George Clooney lookalike who “prefers to greet the world au naturel whenever possible,” writes Madeleine Aggeler. He is “confident that wherever he goes, everyone will be thrilled to meet him,” and he is right — they are: Benji is “one of the most famous dogs in America right now.” A worthy profile subject, indeed. His is an interesting story: His owner, the YouTube yoga instructor Adriene Mishler, was the champion of COVID lockdowns, with her online exercise classes becoming incredibly popular. Benji was a part of this, making cameos on camera that brought joy to Adriene’s viewers. Written with great creativity and humor, Aggeler’s article shows us why Benji is such a scene-stealer. — Carolyn Wells

Explore our Best of 2021 collection

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Acclaimed author and feminist bell hooks.
bell hooks (Photo by: Karjean Levine — Getty Images

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

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1. Love as the Practice of Freedom

bell hooks | Catalyst Project | 1994 | 2,900 words

Acclaimed author and feminist bell hooks passed away this week at the age of 69. Tributes to her life and work have been published far and wide. To remember her, we look back at this moving essay from her book, Outlaw Culture, published in 1994. In “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” hooks maintains that the only way for humans to make progress toward equality — toward achieving the “beloved community” that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned — is by embracing love. Loving others, but almost more importantly, loving one’s self. This self love and acceptance means examining and acknowledging our own blind spots to racism, sexism, and classism so that we can begin to eradicate all forms of domination and oppression. “The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others. That action is the testimony of love as the practice of freedom.” —KS

2. Thoughts and Prayers in Cabot Square

Christopher Curtis | The Rover | November 30, 2021 | 3,399

In this heart-wrenching essay, reporter Christopher Curtis attends the Montreal street funeral of Elisapee, a homeless Inuit woman. As her friends gather on the street outside the unfinished condo block where her body was found, work on the building continues. Montreal does not spend long dwelling on such tragedies. Curtis’ haunting imagery highlights the city’s divisions: Above the spot where Elisapee was found, a poster for the new condo project features a glamorous woman and the slogan The exclusivity of life at the summit — a life, Curtis writes, “built on a haunted foundation.” This piece raises some important questions that I will keep thinking about: “Why do Indigenous people account for less than 1 percent of Montreal’s population but 10 percent of those living on the street? Why do women like Elisapee keep dying in unspeakable poverty? What has to happen for things to change?” —CW

3. Burying Leni Riefenstahl

Kate Connolly | The Guardian | December 9, 2021, | 6,500 words

It’s an ugly fact of history many Nazis were never punished for their complicity in Hitler’s regime. This was especially true for women who draped themselves in the myth that they had been oblivious bystanders. Leni Riefenstahl, a filmmaker and close friend of the Fuhrer, was one such woman. “Riefenstahl sought to distance herself from the regime she had served,” Kate Connolly writes, “portraying herself as an apolitical naif whose only motivation was making the most beautiful art possible.” Riefenstahl also mounted legal challenges “against those who had written or said anything about her that she disliked.” Many were successful, including her lawsuit against Nina Gladitz, a filmmaker who documented the forced labor of Romani extras in one of Riefenstahl’s projects — about 100 of whom are known or believed to have subsequently been killed at Auschwitz. The legal defeat transformed Gladitz’s life in remarkable, complicated ways. Connolly’s piece is a fascinating look at Gladitz’s four-decade, all-consuming obsession with Riefenstahl. “For most people, ‘pursuing the truth’ or ‘confronting the past’ are just platitudes or abstractions,” Connolly writes. “For Gladitz, nothing was more important.” —SD

4. Can’t You See That I’m Lonely?

David Ramsey | Oxford American | December 7, 2021 | 6,800 words

When you love a song, do you want to discover as much as you can about the person who brought you that bit of magic? David Ramsey does just this in his beautiful portrait of Fontella Bass, the woman behind the ’60s R&B hit, “Rescue Me.” More than simply a profile of a talented artist, Ramsey revels in the joy that comes from being together and hearing the music we love — a theme that persists for him. This essay reminds me of his thoughtful profile of Shovels & Rope from 2019, one where in loving detail, he describes the power music has to move the soul.

“Because when a song gets its hooks in you, it unfolds into stories, it latches onto memories, it colors in the margins of your life. And so our instinct is to seek to know the story of the singer, too. Her name was Fontella Bass…Some time soon you will hear it, you will hear her voice. It’s inevitable. You have heard it a thousand times, but then, you could say the same thing about thunder. I hope it’s at a party. I hope you see someone there who hasn’t been to a party in a very long time. I hope you start dancing. That, in any event, is my plan: I’ll be somewhere, dancing, too.” —KS

5. The American Addiction to Speeding

Henry Grabar | Slate | December 15, 2021 | 4,627 words

Having a lead foot myself, I may have been predisposed to enjoy a deep dive into the speed limit, but it’s hard not to think everyone would. As Grabar points out, speed-limit laws manage to invert the pyramid of risk, needlessly throttling speed on the nation’s relatively low-accident interstates while doing far too little to control fatally fast driving on smaller streets in densely populated areas. Meanwhile, the police use minimal speed-limit violations as a pretext for at-will traffic stops that disproportionately target Black drivers. Yet, in unspooling the history of the speed limit and discussing the options facing us, Grabar manages to resist a dry legislative review, instead finding the cultural resonances that put the issue in a more urgent (and relatable) context. “Enforcement is both inadequate and punitive,” he writes. “The cost is enormous. And the lack of political will to do something about it tracks with George Carlin’s famous observation that everybody going faster than you is a maniac and everybody going slower than you is an idiot. The consensus is: Enforce the speed limit. But not on me, please. Because while it would be nice to save 10,000 lives a year, it sure is fun to drive fast.” Read it as soon as you can — just not while you’re stuck in traffic. —PR

Best of 2021: Features

text "Longreads Best of 2021: Features" against an abstract backdrop of magazines
All "Best of 2021" images by Kjell Reigstad.

Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads. We highlight our favorite stories in our weekly Longreads Top 5, and at year’s end — in what is now a decade-long tradition — we revisit and reflect on the pieces we loved most. Today, we’re celebrating our favorite longform features: stories that blend deep reportage, inventive structure, and deft writing to leave an impact like few others do.

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, Nathan Thrall, New York Review of Books, March 19, 2021

This isn’t just the best feature I read this year. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read, period. Nathan Thrall situates one father’s desperate journey to find out what happened to his son after the boy’s school bus collided with a tractor trailer within the vast, ugly context of Israel’s decades-long effort to make Palestinian lives all but unlivable. In search of basic answers — is his son hurt? is he even alive? — Abed Salama must grapple with the devastatingly mundane consequences of “fragmentation,” Israel’s policy of keeping “Palestinian communities isolated from one another and surrounded by fences, walls, checkpoints, closed gates, roadblocks, trenches, and bypass roads.” Expertly researched and brilliantly told, Thrall’s feature is a masterpiece. —Seyward Darby

Author Nathan Thrall’s pick for the most impactful story of the year:

Carlos Lozada’s Washington Post omnibus review of 21 books, “9/11 was a test. The books of the last two decades show how America failed,” is a piece ​one hopes will stay with American voters and policymakers. “Washington fantasized about remaking the world in its image,” Lozada writes, “only to reveal an ugly image of itself to the world.”

Revolt of the Delivery Workers, Josh Dzieza, New York/The Verge, September 13, 2021

When the pandemic first hit, New York more than anywhere depended on its essential workers: the health care professionals who stood in the path of an epidemiological tsunami, but also the massive community of delivery cyclists who crisscrossed the boroughs to feed the folks privileged enough to shelter in place. The end of lockdown, however, meant a new era of troubles for Postmates and Seamless contractors. Bike thieves snatched away riders’ earning power; apps demanded ever-higher productivity for ever-lower reward; the very people tasked to protect the workers didn’t seem to care. “[They] call it the patrón fantasma, the phantom boss,” Josh Dzieza writes, “always watching and quick to punish you for being late but nowhere to be found when you need $10 to fix your bike or when you get doored and have to go to the hospital.” Something had to break. Something did. Dzieza’s remarkable feature rides along with the riders as they fight for protection and autonomy — lobbying legislators, pestering the NYPD, even running vigilante repo missions for stolen bikes. This isn’t a portrait of sleek, unified collective action; it’s a look at how a workers’ struggle can succeed even when it’s as shaggy and frayed as a winter-ravaged fleece jacket. —Peter Rubin

Author Josh Dzieza on the story he wishes he’d written this year:

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ New Yorker story “How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously” answered a question I’d wondered about and never really thought to answer: Why, seemingly all of a sudden a couple years ago, did government officials and serious journalists start talking about UFOs with a straight face? The answer runs through Cold War history, a straight-up CIA plot to make aliens a laughable idea, military contractors turned paranormal investigators, and an independent researcher attempting to bring rigor to a topic shrouded in kookiness and taboos. It’s a fascinating story about epistemology and the institutional forces that determine which ideas get treated as matters of serious inquiry and which do not.

The Other Afghan Women, Anand Gopal, The New Yorker, September 6, 2021

Over the summer, Anand Gopal traveled to Afghanistan to speak with dozens of women living in the countryside, where the endless killing of civilians by U.S. forces turned Afghans against the very people who claimed to be helping them. “On average, I found, each family lost ten to twelve civilians in what locals call the American War,” Gopal writes. This is an extraordinary piece on wartime life across Afghanistan’s dangerous rural terrain, seen through the eyes of women like Shakira, a woman in her 40s who grew up in the Sangin Valley. Gopal provides essential context for understanding what decades of violence and corruption have wrought, and he weaves an incredibly reported and beautifully told account of everyday life outside of Afghanistan’s cities. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Author Anand Gopal’s pick for best feature of the year: 

Rozina Ali’s “The ‘Herald Square Bomber’ Who Wasn’t,” for the New York Times Magazine, was a searing look at the men spending decades in prison under terrorism charges despite never having committed an act of violence. Reading Ali’s moving, nuanced profile of Matin Siraj, a bookstore employee who was entrapped by the NYPD, brings home the fact that the roots of the crisis in our democracy go back much further than Trump. It’s one of the most important works of longform storytelling I read this year.

The Lives of Others, Lindsay Jones, The Atavist, March 2021

“Warm” and “intimate” may seem strange adjectives to describe a feature about babies who are switched at birth — but Lindsay Jones paints her story’s Newfoundland setting with such affection that I couldn’t help but feel an affinity with it. Although two children grew up in the wrong families, they were both surrounded by love, living just a bay apart in a homely place where towns are called Heart’s Desire, Leading Tickles, and Dildo. It is this small community that made the story possible, with the children meeting as adults and eventually uncovering the truth about their births. “Such an encounter could only happen in a place like Newfoundland,” Jones writes, “where your neighbors and the wider community, precisely because it’s never that wide, are often intimately familiar; where it’s possible to look at someone and know who their kin are.” As two families navigate difficult times, Jones provides thoughtful insight into a unique, and beautiful, culture. —Carolyn Wells

Author Lindsay Jones’ picks for the most impactful stories of 2021:

I’ve been thinking about Elizabeth Weil’s ProPublica story “The Climate Crisis Is Worse Than You Can Imagine,” about the mental health of a climate scientist and his family, for months. It stretched the bounds of what I thought was possible in a climate narrative. It was deep documentary journalism written with so much empathy that I carry this family with me still, nearly a full year later. To me, that is impactful. Sarah Stillman’s New Yorker story “The Migrant Workers Who Follow Climate Disasters” also resonates. This story is a one-two punch: It reveals the exploitation and death that migrant workers face while cleaning up after the disasters caused by the ever-increasing effects of climate change.

The Marathon Men Who Can’t Go Home, David Alm, GQ, May 21, 2021

For an elite marathoner from Ethiopia like Tadesse Yae Dabi, the U.S. offered opportunities he’d never have in his home country: the chance to run races, to win life-changing prize money, and to support the loved ones he’d left behind. But with races canceled and the pandemic taking away his main source of income, his options have been limited, while returning (or being deported) to a homeland plagued by civil war and ethnic violence is not an option. David Alm spent six months reporting this story, profiling Tadesse and his three roommates, part of the West Side Runners club in the Bronx — a training group that has kept going mainly due to the kindness and support of Bill Staab, an 81-year-old former Peace Corps volunteer. This club is a lifeline and anchor for the athletes, and Alm’s piece is a moving portrait of hope and perseverance, community and camaraderie. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind, Jennifer Senior, The Atlantic, August 9, 2021

Do you know that feeling, that need to savor every word when you’re reading an exceptional piece of writing? I went into slow motion after the first line of Senior’s tour de force: “When Bobby McIlvaine died on September 11, 2001, his desk at home was a study in plate tectonics, coated in shifting piles of leather-bound diaries and yellow legal pads.” To write the piece, Senior met with McIlvaine’s mother, father, brother, and girlfriend at the time of his death. In speaking with those closest to McIlvaine, she witnesses very different modes of grief, and how that grief has evolved over time. Through the intensely personal price paid by a single family on and after 9/11, Senior underscores the day’s toll on America at large. —Krista Stevens

Author David Alm on What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind”:

Senior’s story is not just beautifully and deftly told, but is also an empathic, compassionate examination of the magnitude and vagaries of grief. I read this piece on a plane, and when I finished it, I just sat there for several minutes looking at the final sentence. I anticipated precisely such an ending early in the piece, when Senior very subtly intimated it, but its impact was even greater than I expected.

Explore our Best of 2021 collection

The Big, Bonkers, British, Christmas Pantomime

A man dressed as an ugly sister from the show Cinderella
Ugly Sister from a performance of Cinderella. Courtesy of Getty Images

Carolyn Wells | Longreads | December 2021 | 11 minutes (3,198 words)

Do you want to come to the Christmas pantomime? I am visiting family in England, and people keep earnestly asking me this question. It is not an invite I ever receive in Canada, where I now live, and upon questioning my American colleagues, I discover none of them are trotting off to see a pantomime this year either. It’s a uniquely British festive tradition. Jane Moody, Professor of Humanities Research at York University, has even proclaimed the pantomime “quintessentially British: as British as Earl Grey tea.” Yes — even on par with tea. 

It is hard to explain a pantomime: middle-aged men prancing about dressed as flamboyant washerwomen, humans playing animals, princesses, dastardly villains, and lots of bawdy jokes. Growing up, I would go and see a panto every Christmas, so this is all normal, but from an outside perspective, I can see it could raise the odd eyebrow. In the words of Sir Ian McKellen, “You can’t start to explain what a pantomime is — it’s like explaining the rules of cricket.” So I turned to a dictionary definition for help: Pantomimes are theatrical entertainment, mainly for children, involving music, topical jokes, and slapstick comedy, based on a fairy tale or nursery story. 

The range of fables is extensive, with productions at every town theater. This year, I was offered Dick Whittington (a real mayor of London who died in 1423), Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Puss in Boots, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. This is probably where I should admit I have never been a big fan of pantomimes, at least partially because they require a level of audience participation that makes my eyes twitch. When someone on stage shouts, “Oh, no he isn’t!” you are dutifully required to shout back, “Oh, yes he is!”— a frustrating back and forth that goes on for some time without satisfactory resolution. You are also encouraged to aid the hapless hero by shouting “He’s behind you!” when a villain sneaks onto the stage. Personally, my annoyance at the hero’s lack of spatial awareness has always made me reluctant to offer this assistance. 

And then there is the worst part: the constant fear of being brought onto the stage. This prospect makes my nieces and nephews squeal excitedly, while I slide further down into my seat, wishing for better camouflage than red velvet. One year my niece did receive this ultimate pantomime honor — chosen to go on stage to dance — and she still gleefully talks about it. I, on the other hand, cracked at my last panto, leaving halfway through and muttering to myself about the dreadful jokes as I walked home. Very Scrooge of me. However, this year I was determined to be jolly and embrace the Christmas tradition, bravely agreeing to a weekend of back-to-back pantomimes, with an evening performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and a matinee of Dick Whittington.

It is hard to explain a pantomime: middle-aged men prancing about dressed as flamboyant washerwomen, humans playing animals, princesses, dastardly villains, and lots of bawdy jokes.

Ahead of the performances, the auditoriums buzz with excitement. Tiny girls twirl in fairy costumes before turning to whack their brothers with their wands. Mothers bounce wide-eyed toddlers with one arm, clutching paper cups full of wine in the other, and elderly grandparents adorned with Christmas hats stand stoically in rings of lightsaber brandishing 10-year-olds. It is a reminder that pantomimes are an event for the whole family — and the whole community — with both shows opening with a nod to their local town. “Hello, Woking town!” Snow White yells from her castle as delighted kids scream greetings in return. And in a theater one town over, Dick Whittington greets his audience with, “Hello Guildford! Bet you’re glad you’re not in Woking!” 

Woking gets off comparatively lightly compared to Croydon: “I knew I’d reached Croydon because I saw a banner up saying, ‘Happy 30th Birthday Grandma!’” Nods like this to adult humor and sexual innuendo are a big part of the British panto — in Snow White, the Evil Queen invites two henchmen backstage with her, with a knowing wink to the audience, “I’m a cougar!” Meanwhile, her jester bemoans about the size of his privates when “It’s Cold Outside.” In Dick Whittington, his love interest proclaims, “I’m missing Dick!” to knowing chuckles from mothers now grasping their second wine. 

The British are more renowned for being prim and proper than guffawing loudly at the mention of a small penis. So how did these raucous shows become so beloved in this country? Jeff Thompson, a local theater critic and pantomime lover, informed me we can probably blame the Italians: “In the 16th century, Italy had a brand of entertainment known as Commedia dell’arte (comedy of the artists)…a cast of mischievous characters including the Harlequin, Columbine, and Pantaloon, occasionally masked, some with juggling and acrobatic skills, others as musicians…it was rehearsed chaos of knock-about humor, with the players appearing in colorful, outrageous costumes.” 

Different companies toured the Italian states and Principalities, appearing on street corners and market squares, and it is likely that they also came to London. Thompson explains that “an Italian influence was evident in London during the 1500s, hardly surprising because London was a major trading port, and Shakespeare himself…wasn’t slow to exploit this popularity when choosing Italian locations — The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, etc.”

By the 1700s, the Georgians — who loved to make things fancy — had adapted the Commedia dell’arte into the Harlequinade. According to Thompson, “the same characters were there — Harlequin, Columbine, and Pantaloon, but the Harlequinade productions could now be seen on stage with music…the storylines were classical tales and familiar fables. Progressively, domestic stories and political satire were also introduced, and the late 1700s and 1800s saw the introduction of elaborate state scenery and ‘phantasmagorical effects’, which echo into contemporary productions.”

The master of the Harlequinade was a man named John Rich, who managed Lincoln Fields theater in the 1720s. I was rather pleased to learn that Rich introduced the term slapstick into the English language — his harlequin used a wooden bat to knock things down — but he would probably rather be remembered for his incredible shows. His pantomimes fused comedy, music, ballet, and myth into tremendous spectacles, provoking us Brits to have a moan about the death of serious theater. 

Jane Moody notes that although actor/manager David Garrick initially joined in on the whining, he was sensible enough to realize there was money to be had in this tomfoolery — after all, by 1732, John Rich was able to build Covent Garden Theater with his profits. So, presumably after wrestling with his artistic conscience, Garrick decided that “If they won’t come to Lear and Hamlet, I must give them Harlequin.” He compromised by only producing his pantomimes for the Christmas season, associating pantos with the fun of Christmas rather than “proper” theater. The Christmas panto tradition survives to this day. 

Things developed further as Britain entered the Victorian era. The Industrial Revolution made life increasingly difficult for the working class, and the local Music Hall became a means of escape. As Thompson points out, “Beer and laughter went well together…in a time of malnutrition, epidemics, and a cruel penal code. Performers added to their living by moving away from the Harlequinades to the Music Halls and developing new acts, the pantomime as we might now recognize it was emerging.”

Although the issues have changed since the Industrial Revolution, the panto is still a place of release — somewhere to laugh at your problems — with both pantomimes I attended making fun of British politics and COVID-19. Dick Whittington adapted the song “12 Days of Christmas” into “12 Days of Lockdown”: “On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, six lateral flow tests, five toilet rolls, four booster jabs, three hand sanitizers…” Meanwhile, the villain, King Rat, said that he needed a wife “so she could spend inordinate amounts of tax-payer money on renovating his house,” a joke referencing a recent scandal involving Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s wife, Carrie Symonds. Jeff Bezos doesn’t escape either: King Rat’s Ratazon exploits its workers and destroys local businesses, and over in Snow White, her engagement to Harry provokes quips that “Prince Harry marrying an actress will never work.”

In Dick Whittington, his love interest proclaims, “I’m missing Dick!” to knowing chuckles from mothers now grasping their second wine.

The key to these jokes is being able to speak freely — not always a given in a traditional monarchy. However, the Theaters Act of 1843 indirectly boosted pantomime by lifting restrictions on the use of the spoken word in performances and limiting the powers of the Lord Chamberlain to only prohibiting plays when “fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace so to do.” Wordplay and audience participation were added to shows shortly thereafter, and the Victorians did not stop there: elaborate sets and live animals added to the theatrical gimmicks. 

And as explained by the Victoria and Albert Museum, if animals were not available, people would do; some actors made careers of dressing in elaborate animal costumes known as skins. One of the most famous Victorian animal impersonators was the actor and acrobat Charles Lauri Jr. He had quite the extensive range, from a poodle to a kangaroo, and a quote attributed to him demonstrates the true method actor he was: “I need hardly say that I am an entire believer in studying from life. When getting my poodle part, I had one always with me at home, and it was from that I learned nearly all my tricks.”

By the end of the century, productions had reached an epic level and could last up to five hours. FIVE HOURS. You could walk across the whole of London, and Lauri Jr would still be dressed as that poodle. The 1900 Drury Lane production of Sleeping Beauty and the Beast was a particularly long, lavish show, as, apparently unable to pick a story, it was a mash-up of both Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty. A critic for the newspaper The Star was not sure what to make of it, even after five hours of consideration: 

The Drury Lane pantomime…is a symbol of our nation. It is the biggest thing of its kind in the world, it is a prodigal of money, of invention, of splendor, of men and women, but it is without the sense of beauty or the restraining influence of taste. It is impossible to sit in the theater for five hours without being filled with weary admiration. Only a great nation could have done such a thing; only an undisciplined nation would have done it. The monstrous, glittering thing of pomp and humor is without order or design; it is a hotch-potch of everything that has been seen on any stage.

Hotch-potch is a good description of pantomime — a bizarre blend of continental and British traditions. Professor Jane Moody describes it as “The raw energy of Music Hall, the sauciness of Burlesque, the acrobatic power of John Rich, and the archetypal plots of Commedia…The story of pantomime is a story of transformation and endless adaptation.” It still is. The pantomimes I saw included singing, dancing, improvisation, impersonation, and acting. At one point, the Evil Queen in Snow White rode a pterodactyl over the audience — an impressive theatrical feat, but not a point I remember the Brothers Grimm dwelling on. A sense of joy radiates off the stage as the cast gets to showcase their talents and tricks, led by the star of the show, the Pantomime Dame. 

Men have played women throughout theater history, with female performers banned from the stage until after the Restoration in 1660. Pantomimes stuck with that convention, and one of the stars is still a man dressed as a careworn mother — the Dame. Dan Leno shaped the Dame in the 1880s, playing roles like the Queen in Humpty Dumpty or Widow Twankey in Aladdin. As Jane Moody tells it, “he began to domesticate the Dame, and to imagine her as a mother, facing problems which he and his audiences knew all too well: poverty, unemployment, and abandonment.” 

Nowadays, Moody considers the Dame to “embody the collective ties which bind us together as families, as neighbors, and as citizens of a particular town or city.” The Dame is often played by a big star: Sir Ian McKellen, Les Dawson, and Christopher Biggins have all taken a turn. In Snow White, the traditional Dame was replaced by Gok Wan as the Mirror, who at one point lost it and just started laughing: “I have an MBE! Two weeks ago I was at Windsor Palace and now I’m on my hands and knees in Woking! Leave it!”

After the performance of Dick Whittington, a Christmas miracle happened (with a little help from the press relations officer), and my sister, niece, and I got to meet both the Dame, Sally the Cook (Peter Gordon), and the baddie, King Rat (Kit Hesketh-Harvey). They arrived still in full makeup and sat with us in the stalls while cleaners vacuumed up the remnants of popcorn and tinsel around us. I felt a little starstruck, but nothing compared to my 14-year-old niece. She has been coming to this pantomime since she was 3 years old — when King Rat scared her so much she was carried out of the theater in floods of tears. Now they were sitting next to each other. 

“Oh, I have warped the minds of a whole generation,” Hesketh-Harvey said with relish. “My record is nine children screaming with fear in the first 45 minutes.” He has been in pantomime for 12 years, Gordon something similar. They are both local and even remember the theater being built. “The theater is a real community hub,” says Gordon, “and panto is its lifeblood. The regional theater would go under without panto — it’s so dependent on the income.” Hesketh-Harvey agrees, “Panto is just so important. It’s a huge tradition — huge. You get these baffled Canadians and Americans coming and they just don’t get it. But it’s the last great variety show… a time to come together and celebrate the joy of community and create family memories. Besides, if it wasn’t for panto we would just be two old farts sitting on a sofa.” 

It was a delight to sit and chat with these two gentlemen — the villain and the Dame — as they highlighted some of the things I had experienced for myself with the panto: the history, the sense of family, the community, and the joy in laughing at life. But after a two-year hiatus, I had forgotten how risqué pantomime jokes could be. The humor is reminiscent of the British Carry On films, but this was a series that ended in 1992. Is it still okay for Snow White to be, “Off cottaging with seven men? We’ve all been there!” Or to joke: “I’m dyslexic, but I’ve read ten out of two people are!” Hesketh-Harvey admits that “Pantomime and woke don’t sit well together. Pantomime gives the finger to the woke generation, but the joy of it outweighs everything else.”

But it does not outweigh everything. In 2017, Irene Ng expressed serious concerns in a panel event hosted by The Stage: “Pantomime makes the dominant culture, or color, feel better about themselves. All the humor was taking the mick out of people in a derogatory way, whether someone is blind, handicapped, ‘ugly’, or of a different race.” Dongshin Chang, an academic who has written on the portrayal of Chinese characters on the London stage, has criticized Aladdin, saying “the character names in Aladdin are rooted in dated attitudes towards Chinese people. Wishee Washee is a clear reference to Chinese business interests…Underneath the fun and entertainment, the association with laundry may also be considered a manifestation of prejudice.” In 2017, a mother named Natalie Wood made an official complaint about Dick Whittington at Manchester Opera House, saying it was too smutty for children. There were also several complaints after a pantomime advertised for a “Chow Mein Slave of the Ring” for a production of Aladdin

She has been coming to this pantomime since she was 3 years old — when King Rat scared her so much she was carried out of the theater in floods of tears. Now they were sitting next to each other.

Pantomime is in a bubble, but it still needs to adapt. Hesketh-Harvey may grumble that “It’s amazing what I can’t say this year,” but I was impressed with some of the changes I noticed. In Snow White, the Prince and Snow White share several kisses, instigated by her, before he finally wakes her from her slumber with an unsolicited kiss. Then, in the end, it is Snow White who proposes to him. (Spoiler: He says yes.) The dwarves have traditionally been played by little people, but in this production, they were a hybrid of puppets and people on their knees (which still felt a little uncomfortable). And in Dick Whittington, the Black female lead was a business owner, who at the end of the production wins Business Woman of the Year. 

These adaptations, although small, are signs that pantomime is changing. “The genre continues to evolve,” Jeff Thompson says. “‘Once Upon a Time’ pantomimes were based around fairy stories such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk, but increasingly novels and films are being adapted for the stage. There is also a hint of Disneyfication emerging … and I suspect panto will continue to adapt as opinion influences it.” To survive pantomime needs to keep transforming, but it will — it has been adapting for the last 500 years. 

In a few weeks, the Christmas pantomime season will be drawing to a close. But my season isn’t over just yet — newly invigorated by my experiences, I have now agreed to both a stage performance of Cinderella, as well as a radio show my sister is performing in (playing an Ugly Sister, much to her chagrin). But, rather than begrudge giving yet more time over to panto, I am delighted. For like many a good panto plot, there is a twist — this is a redemption story. In Snow White, when the Queen declares herself the fairest in the land, I shouted, “Oh, no you’re not!” at the top of my lungs, when Prince Harry has a ghost behind him, I lent further lung capacity to yelling “He’s behind you!” In Dick Whittington, I got on my feet with the rest of the audience and sang and danced to “Don’t Stop Believing.” And I enjoyed it. I was Scrooge no longer. 

I now understand the point of a pantomime: It brings people together. Not only does the history of pantomime go back hundreds of years, but it goes back through the history of my family. I came to these shows as a child, and now I go with my nieces and nephews. We have created family memories and continue creating them. Panto provides a sense of belonging — not just to each other, but your local theater and your local town. And after a difficult two years, it is so lovely to laugh. My niece told me she will still want to go to pantos when “she is really old, like 25” (cringe) and I will be right there along with her. I promise I will never walk out of a pantomime again. Oh, no I won’t! 

***

Copy Editors: Peter Rubin / Cheri Lucas Rowlands 

Best of 2021: Investigative Reporting

Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads. All year long, we highlight our favorite stories in the weekly Longreads Top 5. At the end of the year, we love to reflect on and share the pieces that stayed with us, a tradition we’ve kept for 10 years! Today, we’re highlighting the best investigations of 2021 — projects that went deep, sucked us in, and spoke truth to power.

Beyond Britney: Abuse, Exploitation, and Death Inside America’s Guardianship Industry, Heidi Blake and Katie J.M. Baker, BuzzFeed News, September 17, 2021

Britney Spears is now free of the conservatorship that dictated every part of her life for 13 years. The #FreeBritney movement, which drew international attention to her case, also raised awareness of the guardianship system at large. In this three-part investigation, Heidi Blake and Katie J.M. Baker expose a dangerously unregulated industry — one that is estimated to control more than a million people in the United States. Examining more than 200 guardianships across 30 states and an impressive number of court, mental health, and financial records, they uncovered a rigged system and a network of lawyers, judges, corporations, and professional guardians who abuse and exploit wards (the individuals who are locked into these arrangements). They found evidence of financial corruption in 130 cases, and abuse or neglect in 110. They detailed horrific instances of wards stripped of their rights, stolen from or drained of their money, pulled away from their families, or confined against their will. In some cases, wards have gone missing, or suffered wrongful deaths. Blake and Baker’s investigation is a disturbing but important look at the inner workings of this dark and dehumanizing industry, and one that can hopefully help drive reform nationwide. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Author Katie J.M. Baker on the story she wishes she’d written this year:

One of the biggest stories in the UK, where I live, has been political “sleaze,” and the Financial Times, my favorite newspaper, has delivered scoop after scoop that goes beyond the daily tabloid headlines. The FT has received a lot of well-deserved attention for its coverage of the Greensill scandal, but one of my favorite stories of the year was FT Magazine’s investigation into the secretive donor club that backs Boris Johnson’s government. Come for the juicy details about albino peacocks and airlifting elm tea bags to Madonna, and stay for … the egregious cronyism!?

They Went to Bible College to Deepen Their Faith. Then They Were Assaulted — and Blamed for It. Becca Andrews, Mother Jones, September 30, 2021

The Liberty Way, Hannah Dreyfus, ProPublica, October 24, 2021

These investigations into two prominent Christian colleges’ response to sexual abuse and harassment on their campuses are, in a word, damning. Both Liberty University and Moody Bible College routinely sidestep accountability in the name of God, and young women bear the consequences. As Becca Andrews writes, for students steeped in evangelicalism, “it can be hard to recognize harassment when it is at the hands of a brother or a sister in Christ.” It can also be hard to recognize harassment — or worse — when the institution where it occurs uses “purity culture” as an excuse to blame and punish victims. Hannah Dreyfus describes how, when Amanda Stevens reported a rape to Liberty officials, she wasn’t informed that she could make a statement to police, but she was told to sign a notice of her own potential infractions of the school’s honor code, including having premarital sex, being alone with a man, and drinking — though she wasn’t drinking when the assault occurred.

That thing you’re feeling reading this blurb? It’s rage.  —Seyward Darby

Author Becca Andrews on the story she wishes she’d written this year: 

Basically every time I see Sarah Jones’ byline in New York, I have that prickle of jealousy. She covers labor, the religious right, and gender in a way that deeply resonates with me. This essay about being an atheist from an evangelical family and reconsidering God in the coronavirus pandemic gave me chills, because I felt such a connection to her experience.

Highway to Hell: A Trip Down Afghanistan’s Deadliest Road, Jason Motlagh, Rolling Stone, January 22, 2021

This gripping story starts out with a local mayor commuting 30 miles to work in an armored vehicle, driven by a man with an AK-47 on National Highway 1 in  Afghanistan — a road that reporter Jason Motlagh describes as “a glaring symbol of America’s failures, scarred with bomb-blast craters that snarl traffic and under constant attack from a resurgent Taliban.” Motlagh reports on life in a war zone, a place where everyone has suffered loss. The United States withdrew troops at the end of August, nearly 20 years after invading a country where violent conflict continues. The U.S. and its NATO allies thought a paved road system would “lay the ground work for a functioning state,” one where people and goods could move freely. According to Motlagh, they could not have been more wrong: “Over the course of hundreds of miles — and in meetings with the Taliban, government forces, and civilians caught in the crossfire — a grim truth emerged: The backbone of the U.S.-led nation-building campaign is hopelessly broken, a life-or-death gauntlet where people drive in fear, commerce is stymied, and state forces are targeted with impunity. What was intended to ease the lives of Afghans and cement the U.S. legacy in Afghanistan is, instead, a story of colossal waste and squandered opportunity.” —Krista Stevens

The Spine Collector, Reeves Wiedeman with Lila Shapiro, New York, August 17, 2021

This is a smartly written piece about a thief who has turned the cozy world of books upside down. Hiding behind a computer, their game is to impersonate people in the literary scene via email, in an attempt to obtain unpublished manuscripts. The thief’s portrayals are very convincing: An assistant at WME only “realized her boss was being impersonated because she would never say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’,” and people in the publishing industry have become so twitchy that they are putting NDAs on a “70-page Dutch Novella.” Reeves Wiedeman decided reporting on the thief would be “a fun challenge,” and during lockdown, he attempted to identify the motivation for the crimes, as well as the shadowy figure behind them. It became a thing of obsession, with Wiedeman creating what he calls a “Homeland wall” over the course of a year — and having his very own interactions with the thief. This is both an investigation and a story about how an investigation can consume you. —Carolyn Wells

Author Reeves Wiedeman on the story he wishes he’d written this year:

I’ve written about companies in various states of duress, and it’s extremely rare to get the people in charge to have honest conversations with you about what went wrong. Courtney Rubin managed that with the founders of Ample Hills, Brooklyn’s once-hottest ice cream empire, in her piece for Marker. Come for the lessons in running a small business, and I promise you it will be worth it once you get to the “squints.”

Homegrown and Homeless in Oakland, Kevin Fagan, Sarah Ravani, Lauren Hepler, and J.K. Dineen, San Francisco Chronicle, November 3, 2021

After five years of covering the epidemic of the unhoused in San Francisco, the Chronicle sent a team of reporters across the Bay Bridge to examine homelessness in Oakland. What they found, unsurprisingly but no less sadly, was that there’s no such thing as a simple cause, let alone a clear solution. The four people profiled in the piece all grew up in Oakland, and had all owned their own home at one time; now they count themselves among the fastest-growing unhoused community in the Bay Area. The time and care invested is on stark display throughout the piece, the deep reporting paired with rich photography and data visualization. “As they long for a place of their own in a city with too many in need and too few resources,” the team writes of the article’s subjects, “they are the city’s reflection staring back at it.” Even if you’ve never set foot in the Golden State, you’ll come away with a grasp of the problem’s scope and scale — and hopefully a new understanding of the humanity that’s crushed when a city loses a battle against loss itself.  —Peter Rubin

Explore our Best of 2021 collection

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Greg Tate playing guitar for Burnt Sugar on May 7, 2016.
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 07: Greg Tate and Burnt Sugar performs at the Heart on Fire:Concert for Ivan Julian benefit show at City Winery on May 7, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images)

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

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1. Say It Loud

Greg Tate | The Wire | June 2017 | 1,904 words

After the news this week that legendary culture critic Greg Tate had died, the outpouring of grief on social media was one of this year’s least surprising phenomena: He is, in too many cases to count, your favorite writer’s favorite writer. When he began writing for The Village Voice in the ’80s, no one did more to treat hip-hop — the music and the culture — with the depth and care it deserved. (Flyboy in the Buttermilk, a 1992 collection of that work, lit up the brain of many a young writer, this one included.) The Wire has lifted its paywall for all of Tate’s work, and you can’t go wrong choosing one at random, but I’m highlighting this 2017 essay about the evolution of the avant-garde in Black music because it highlights so much of his genius: encyclopedic knowledge, a mind for synthesis, and a singular voice born of the very culture he chronicled. “Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid observed as far back as 1985 and LL Cool J’s ‘Rock The Bells’ that the rage one used to hear in jazz had migrated to hiphop,” wrote Tate. A similar sentiment led this astute painter of our acquaintance to declare that jazz fell into a death-spiral as soon as it became divorced from Radical Black Politics. No one could throw a bomb quite like Tate — let alone be armed with so damn many of them. —PR

2. The Day the War on Drugs Came to Chimayó

Alicia Inez Guzmán | Searchlight New Mexico | November 30, 2021 | 4,200 Words

On September 29, 1999, helicopters thundered in the sky as agents in SWAT gear descended on Chimayó, New Mexico. Chimayó (pop. 3,000) was the smallest target in a sweeping federal crackdown on drug trafficking — specifically, the flow of heroin from Mexico into the United States. The Chimayó raid, which netted dozens of dealers and their associates, was supposed to rid the village of addiction and the people who abetted it. But that didn’t happen. Writer Alicia Inez Guzmán, who grew up near Chimayó, details how the hammer of law enforcement only made things worse. “The arrests touched nearly every family,” she writes. “But one thing stayed remarkably the same after the bust…. Addiction in Chimayó is still so intergenerational that some residents can hardly envision a future without drugs and overdoses.” What also remains is the stigma, or “stamp of deviance,” ascribed to Chimayó and its environs by the media. Guzmán’s reporting offers a cautionary tale. As her own mother puts it, describing the day the feds came to Chimayó, “que lástima” — what a tragedy. —SD

3. It’s Hard Out Here — Way, Way, Way Out Here — for a Medic

Christian Wallace | Texas Monthly | December 6 2021 | 6,816 words

It’s mainly oil and gas workers posted to Loving County, Texas (pop. 64), however a handful of resilient medics also live in this “desolate frontier of sandstorms and creosote bush.” I had never considered the rawness of a life spent looking after oil-field workers and rodeo cowboys until spending time with this spellbinding essay, in which Christian Wallace details his stint embedded with the team at the Occupational Health and Safety International (OHSI) clinic. Wallace masterfully depicts the camaraderie of his team, the challenges of the work, and the characters of Loving County. Even though life is rough, there are some beautiful moments, and by the end of this essay I had a lump in my throat. —CW

4. Keep This to Yourself

Laura Hoffman | Kenyon Review | November 3, 2021 2021 | 4,749 words

“X-rays are my first form of portraiture, images of my bones bright against a background of light.” In this gorgeous essay by Laura Hoffman — her first published piece, and one that she’s worked on for eight years — she chronicles the discovery and awareness of her own body over time. Hoffman and her siblings — triplets — were born prematurely; this led to a misshapen body and a left side that was smaller than her right. She recounts a childhood full of hospital visits and medical procedures, and a body routinely monitored and studied. “Since birth I’ve been propped up like a sapling, supported with braces and splints, made to grow upright.” As a child, she knew no shame: “I am carried, cared for, not yet touched by our culture’s casting of my body as other, as divergent.” In adolescence, as her body changes, so does her self-perception, bringing embarrassment, emptiness, and silence. This is an intimate, affecting piece on body image, disability, and identity, and I love and appreciate how Hoffman has shared her experience with us. —CLR

5. Love In The Shape Of Cut Fruit

Connie Wang | Refinery 29 | May 1, 2020 | 950 words

At Refinery 29, Connie Wang remembers the pleasures of eating fruits carefully pared, cut, and peeled by her mother. “Cut fruit tastes like love,” she says. What starts out as a fond remembrance of culinary childhood delight becomes a metaphor for life. “But more importantly, cut fruit is a gift. Life is filled with bitter and hard things. When you extract pits, piths, and peels, fruit becomes an accessible and reliable source of pure sweetness, only softness.” Participating in the ritual of cutting fruit becomes a way for Wang to cope with the loss, isolation, and frustration of the pandemic. “Cut fruit, like love, doesn’t take much to serve but patience and practice. It’s the willingness to swallow some bitterness so someone else enjoys only sweetness. I needed the reminder.” —KS

Best of 2021: Reported Essays

A graphic that says "Longreads Best of 2021: Reported Essays" with a typewriter in the right-side background.
All "Best of 2021" images by Kjell Reigstad.

Staff curation is at the core of our work. All year long, we highlight the top longform stories on the web in our weekly Longreads Top 5, so our end-of-year series is always a busy yet delightful time to revisit and celebrate the pieces that resonated with us the most.

On Tuesday, we shared our favorite personal essays of the year; today, we continue with our picks for the best reported essays, featuring stories about love and loss in the age of AI, death and the environment, the George Floyd rebellion and a time of racial reckoning, and ecological disaster. Enjoy — and thanks so much for reading this year.

The Jessica Simulation, Jason Fagone, San Francisco Chronicle, July 23, 2021

Back in 2013, I watched a haunting episode of the Charlie Brooker series Black Mirror called “Be Right Back,” in which a computer chat program uses a deceased person’s digital footprint to imitate them, allowing their loved ones to communicate with them after they die. Eight years on, and, terrifyingly, this is no longer science fiction — as Jason Fagone masterfully reports in this essay, introducing us to the bot version of the late Jessica Pereira. When she tragically died at just 23, Jessica left behind her fiance Joshua, who, struggling to manage his grief, eventually sought comfort in an artificial intelligence system that did “something they weren’t designed to do: conduct chat-like conversations with humans.” Fagone cleverly interweaves Joshua’s real transcripts with the Jessica bot into the story, as he details their love, her death, and Joshua’s eight years of grief. While I found this essay disturbing — it provides a glimpse into a future that I find uncomfortable — it is still fascinating. Fagone’s storytelling method also demonstrated something powerful: I got far closer to knowing the real Jessica through his reporting of the memories of her friends and family, rather than from the Jessica bot. As Jessica’s mother says, “I know it’s not her.” —Carolyn Wells Read more…

Los Desaparecidos

A woman lying down and a bowl of food
Photographs by Zahara Gómez Lucini.

Story by Annelise Jolley, videos and photographs by Zahara Gómez Lucini | The Atavist Magazine | November 2021 | 10 minutes (2,364 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 121, “A Feast for Lost Souls,” written by Annelise Jolley and illustrated by Zahara Gómez Lucini.

 

The last time Blanca Soto saw her husband alive, he blew her a kiss.

The Atavist, our sister publication, publishes one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a member.

When they arrived around 9 a.m., something inside Blanca told her not to get out of Camilo’s truck. But she did anyway, stepping onto the ground and closing the door behind her. “I remember that he was looking at me,” Blanca said. “He didn’t leave right away—he kept looking at me.” Camilo pressed his lips to his fingers, then turned his palm toward his wife.

Blanca moved to get back in the truck, but Camilo already had his eyes on the road. “That was when he drove away,” she said.

When she returned home on foot later that morning, Blanca was overtaken by an inexplicable sickness. First came a pain in her chest, then green vomit that rose up again and again in her throat. Later she would call this a foreboding, a warning.

She went to bed. When she woke up a few hours later, Camilo hadn’t returned. Blanca called his cell phone, but it went straight to voice mail. She tried again; no answer. Next she called one of her sons—she and Camilo had three—then Camilo’s mother, father, brother, and nephew. No one knew where he was.

Blanca went to the public prosecutor’s office, where officials told her she had to wait 48 hours before filing a missing persons report. She gave them Camilo’s name; her husband was a police officer. They took down her statement as a favor. Blanca went home and waited for a call, but one never came—not from the authorities, and not from Camilo.

When people vanish in Sinaloa, they’re almost never seen again. Sometimes drug cartels are responsible; in other cases state security forces are. Often the two sides are colluding—Mexico’s police and military are notoriously corrupt. People are taken because they work for cartels or because they refuse to. Because they buy drugs, sell them, or get in the way of the business. Because they’re in criminal gangs or are believed to be. Because they might be worth a ransom. Because they’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Every morning, Blanca walked to the gate outside her house fearing that she would discover Camilo’s body dumped in the road. She considered leaving town, seeking political asylum in America. But the desire to find her husband kept her in San Blas. She tried to move forward in small ways. She bought a new bed, rearranged the furniture, donated Camilo’s clothes and shoes. She purchased new appliances for the kitchen, hoping that cooking would steady her hands and keep her mind busy.

Pork pozole, a dark, rich stew, was Camilo’s favorite meal. He liked it spicy, the hotter the better, especially when he’d had several beers the night before and was nursing a hangover. Blanca knew the ingredients by heart: pork ribs, beef, hominy, bouillon, oregano, garlic, onion. But Blanca never made pozole anymore. She missed Camilo’s presence in the kitchen, how he placed his hands on her hips and told her to add more chiles: pasilla, guajillo. How he lifted her hair to blow on her neck. She feared that cooking the dish with only Camilo’s ghost by her side would feel like opening a wound.

Camilo had become one of the more than 90,000 husbands, sons, and fathers, wives, daughters, and mothers haunting Mexico. They are los desaparecidos—the disappeared. Blanca didn’t know what circumstances had led to her husband being taken, what he’d done or not done. And like many of the loved ones of Mexico’s missing, she didn’t care. All Blanca wanted was to find Camilo so that she could grieve properly.

Nothing more and nothing less.

***

The countryside in northern Sinaloa is seared and blistered by heat. The landscape is dotted with low scrub brush and drooping palm trees, the green of their fronds muted by relentless sun. I would call the place dry, but the Spanish translation, seco, seems more appropriate—a word that siphons moisture from the back of the tongue when spoken.

As I drove toward Los Mochis on a July day, I watched Sinaloa’s scenery blur through the window. Men selling watermelons from truck beds. Roadside taco stands. Industrial complexes. Fallow fields. Soccer pitches. I wondered: Are bodies hidden there, or maybe there?

Enforced disappearances—the legal term for the abduction of individuals and the concealment of their whereabouts—have plagued Latin American countries for decades. The syntax of the problem is strained by necessity: People don’t disappear, which implies they have a choice in the matter. Rather, they are disappeared, by forces beyond their control. In Mexico, more than 90 percent of disappearances have occurred since 2006, the year then president Felipe Calderón enlisted the military to fight drug cartels. Today a maelstrom of gang and cartel conflict, as well as government and police corruption, continues to sweep up civilians, most of them poor and male. Impunity exacerbates the problem: According to national figures, there were roughly 7,000 disappearances in 2019, but only 351 legal cases were opened. Of those, two were prosecuted.

In contrast to Mexico’s highly visible violence—bodies strung up on bridges or left mutilated on roadsides as messages of intimidation—disappearances leave only questions in their wake. One day a person is there, and the next they are gone. Their loved ones are left to search for something, anything, tangible to mourn.

The impulse to bury the dead is ancient. It may even predate our species: In South Africa, paleo-archaeologists discovered fossilized bone fragments of Homo naledi in deep, nearly inaccessible cave chambers, hinting that pre-humans as far back as 300,000 years may have deliberately laid one another to rest. Early Homo sapiens made burial a rite. They interred bodies with shells, arrowheads, bird wings, and jewels. In Austria, the remains of babies some 27,000 years old were found buried with ivory-beaded animal skins under the shoulder blade of a mammoth, as if for protection.

Today burial is seen as the final physical act of tenderness the living can offer the dead. It provides a sense of completion, of having accompanied someone as far down the road of life as we can go with them. Funerary rites enshrine stories of faith, love, and sorrow, and graves offer the grieving a place they can return to again and again. “Just as the living need places to inhabit, so it is often in the nature of our memory-making to wish to be able to address our dead at particular sites of the Earth’s surface,” writes Robert Macfarlane in his book Underland: A Deep Time Journey. “The grief of those who have been unable to locate the bodies of their loved ones can be especially corrosive—acid and unhealing.”

This is the double cruelty of enforced disappearances: First comes the loss of a life, and then comes the denial of any chance to lay the body to rest.

I traveled to Sinaloa to meet a women-led collective determined to reclaim that chance. They call themselves Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte (The Trackers of El Fuerte), and they are part of a long legacy of civilian women leading campaigns to find Mexico’s disappeared. Rosario Ibarra was the pioneer. When her activist son vanished in 1975 from Monterrey, Nuevo León—he was allegedly abducted by state police—Rosario began searching for him. Along with other mothers and wives of missing persons, she formed Comité Eureka de Desaparecidos (Eureka Committee of the Disappeared), which demanded investigations and justice. Forty-six years after he vanished, Rosario’s son is still missing. Now more than 60 civilian groups across the country are searching for the disappeared.

Formed in 2014, Las Rastreadoras is one of these groups. It has some 200 members, most of them women from El Fuerte, a municipality in northern Sinaloa. They’ve all been touched in some way by enforced disappearances. Many have lost husbands or sons.

Criminal groups across Mexico dispose of bodies in distinctive ways—some burn them, others dissolve them in acid. In El Fuerte, the disappeared tend to be buried in shallow unmarked graves in the countryside. So Las Rastreadoras search the landscape with basic tools: shovels, machetes, spades, picks. The women dig in the dry earth, knowing that to properly bury their dead, they must unbury them first.

They don’t call what they’re looking for bodies, corpses, or remains. To Las Rastreadoras, the dead are tesoros—treasures.

***

Blanca Soto first heard about Las Rastreadoras before Camilo was disappeared. “I felt admiration for them, and at times sadness,” she said. But once her husband was gone, she was scared to join the women. She was paranoid that her own life might already be in danger, and she was wary of drawing attention to herself through public advocacy. Though Las Rastreadoras don’t seek to expose killers or put them behind bars—they only want to find and inter the dead—members of the group have received death threats. It wasn’t until April 2017, five months after Camilo was taken, that a cousin and a friend in Las Rastreadoras convinced Blanca to join a search.

Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, the group scours El Fuerte for human remains. Women who have yet to find their loved ones wear T-shirts printed with the slogan te buscaré hasta encontrarte (“I will search for you until I find you”). Women who have found their missing wear shirts that read promesa cumplida (“Promise fulfilled”).

Mirna Medina is the founder of Las Rastreadoras. A retired schoolteacher who talks fast and commands attention, Mirna has an uncanny memory for dates; her friends say that she remembers the day and year of every disappearance someone in her group is grieving. Mirna’s own date is July 10—the last time she saw her son Roberto alive. Three years to the day after he vanished, she found his remains: four vertebrae and a shard from an arm bone, identified by DNA analysis. Roberto’s was the 93rd body recovered by Las Rastreadoras. He’s now buried in a cemetery, where Mirna visits him. She lights candles, arranges flowers, and presses her fingertips to the photo on her son’s headstone.

Las Rastreadoras regularly receive tips about where bodies might be located. Sometimes the information is shared anonymously or by the police. In other cases a local resident spots something suspicious, such as a patch of turned soil. The women head out to these puntas (points), often accompanied by armed security. They trouble the earth with their tools, then plunge metal construction rods into the ground. When they pull the rods up, the tips are caked with soil. The women sniff the lingering dirt, hoping for a rotting odor—a tell-tale sign of human decomposition.

María Cleofas Lugo, whom everyone in the group calls Manqui, has searched for her son Juan Francisco since June 19, 2015. A photo of his face dangles in a silver frame from a chain around her neck. Manqui is the oldest woman in the group, and she is famed for her sense of smell. With the help of a rod, Manqui can discern what the earth beneath her holds. A clean musk means nothing is there. Sometimes a heavy funk of spoiled meat and sewage coats her nostrils and throat. When Manqui detects this, the smell of death, Las Rastreadoras dig.

Over the years, Manqui has learned the difference between the scent of a body and that of an animal carcass. “The smell of a human being is more penetrating,” she said. Many women can’t handle the odor. Manqui reminds them, “Yes, it smells bad, but it could be our children.”

When they uncover treasure, whether it’s a tooth or a torso, Las Rastreadoras pause over the site. They say a prayer, an Our Father or a Hail Mary. Then they alert the local government forensics team, which can test the DNA of the remains. The women hope for a match—that the treasure they’ve found belongs to someone on their list. Currently, Las Rastreadoras are looking for more than 1,500 missing persons; many are relatives or friends of the group’s members, but others are strangers whose names were supplied by people living in El Fuerte.

On her first dig, Blanca wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t know how to use the tools or watch out for snakes or steel herself against the odor of death. “I went in eagerly but weak,” she said. “I was not a person who went out a lot.” At home, Blanca wore dresses and kept her long hair loose. She was proud of her delicate, shapely feet, which Camilo had always admired. On the search with Las Rastreadoras, the other women teased her because she showed up wearing gloves and carrying an umbrella, hoping to avoid the scorching Sinaloa sun. When Mirna handed her a shovel, Blanca stabbed it into the dirt with so much force that it rebounded into her chest, bringing tears to her eyes.

Blanca’s first search was a negative, which is how the women describe digs that don’t turn up remains. Her second was a positive. The group uncovered a body lying in the fetal position, still mostly intact. “The impression was something horrible,” Blanca said. When she saw the corpse, the air left her lungs and she fell backward. Other women, more seasoned trackers, were there to catch her. One gave Blanca an inhaler. They stayed by her side until she could stand again.

Week in and week out, Blanca continued to search with Las Rastreadoras. “Little by little, I kept on learning,” she said. But she was honing more than her skills with a shovel. Like the other trackers, she was also learning how, in lieu of a body and the closure it provides, to live with loss.

Read the full story at The Atavist

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Best of 2021: Personal Essays

Longreads' picks for the best personal essays of 2021
All "Best of 2021" images by Kjell Reigstad.

Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads. All year long, we highlight our favorite stories in the weekly Longreads Top 5. At the end of the year, we love to reflect on and share the pieces that stayed with us, a tradition we’ve kept for 10 years! Today, we’re kicking off our annual curation celebration with five moving personal essays we loved in 2021. Watch for lists over the next couple of weeks that highlight reported essays, investigative reporting, features, and profiles.

The Gradual Extinction of Softness, Chantha Nguon and Kim Green, Hippocampus Magazine, November 8, 2021

For this category, I’m recommending a moving, lyrical personal essay from Kim Green and Chantha Nguon. Nguon is a co-founder of a women’s social enterprise in rural northeastern Cambodia. For 10 years, these two friends have been collaborating on Nguon’s life story, through interviews and cooking sessions, which will eventually culminate into Slow Noodles, a memoir on food, loss, and recovered family recipes. This excerpt from the memoir-in-progress is an evocative piece on surviving the Cambodian genocide, and remembering the flavors, the memories, and the past that the Khmer Rouge regime tried to erase. It’s also sprinkled with “recipes,” made up of ingredients that reveal details of Nguon’s life, particularly of her childhood in Battambang: “Take a well-fed nine-year-old with a big family and a fancy French-Catholic-school education. Fold in 2 revolutions, 2 civil wars, and 1 wholesale extermination. Separate her from home, country, and a reliable source of food.” I’ve read this gorgeous essay a number of times, and each time I pay attention to new details — aromas, tastes — which make me appreciate it even more. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Authors Chantha Nguon and Kim Green on the story they wish they’d written this year:

We both loved “Cambodian Americans Are Ready to Share Their Cuisine, On Their Terms” by Maryam Jillani in Condé Nast Traveler. It’s a great primer on Cambodian cuisine that acknowledges the diaspora’s collective trauma without dwelling on it. And we love how she highlights the artistry of chefs we follow and admire. We wish we had written it but are also thrilled that Jillani did it so well.

Aftermath, Briohny Doyle, Griffith Review, October 24, 2021

In her exquisite piece about the human condition in the age of COVID, climate change, and other calamities, Briohny Doyle challenges readers — and herself — to give up the ghost of renewal. “What is an ideal community, a good life,” Doyle asks, “if nothing is renewed, if we are working in and through catastrophe with only what we have now and in the face of what will be?” This question is more than essay fodder. It’s a mantra, an incantation — for us all. —Seyward Darby

Author Briohny Doyle‘s personal essay recommendation:

I’m a long-time admirer of Vanessa Berry’s writing, which is always marked by assiduous curiosity and intimate detail. Gentle and Fierce — the title of her new collection — describes her writing as much as her animal subjects. This essay, “Perec’s Cat” is a wonderful example of her enviably light touch at work.

Ghosts, Vauhini Vara, The Believer, August 9, 2021

Even as artificial intelligence creeps across science and technology, bulldozing computational problems, we comfort ourselves in the face of such power by thinking there are some things a program simply can’t do. A program can’t be funny, can’t be fraught, can’t be human. And maybe it can’t. But in Vauhini Vara’s gutpunch of an essay, we begin to see the glimmer of otherwise. Unable to write about her sister’s death of a rare cancer years earlier, Vara began feeding the linguistic engine GPT-3 prompts about her sister — and over the course of nine increasingly stirring attempts, their two voices meld in a way that wipes away any preconceptions you might have brought to the piece. This isn’t a warning klaxon about robot overlords; it’s a bracing exploration of what can happen when we finally hold the mirror at the perfect angle. —Peter Rubin

Author Vanessa Angélica Villarreal on “Ghosts”:

“My own writing is largely a practice of communion with the dead—recording forgotten lives, lost records, documenting collective memory. I personally use tarot to tap into my own unconscious and excavate the buried material there, and have noted the recent trend of astrology apps and tarot on TikTok and the uncanny specificity of its algorithms to ensure the right message finds you. It is brilliant to use AI as a divination tool, and to explore what mathematical fabric algorithms might be connected to beyond our understanding.”

Contraindications, Alison Criscitiello, The Alpinist, September 17, 2017

Alison Criscitiello’s essay about her climbing partner Anna Smith has stayed with me for a long time. It starts off as a rollicking adventure story: Two best friends embarking on a climbing expedition to the Indian Himalayas. The affection and admiration the women share spills out of her words, “opposites in almost every way imaginable, end members constantly bringing one another closer to an elusive center.” It is not just an exquisitely told quest: It is also about true friendship — and the joy found in sharing beautiful experiences.

Then it becomes something else. When Criscitiello describes Anna’s death, it is raw; I felt her pain. The essay turns into a survival story: Surviving not only the physical challenge of getting Anna off the mountain, but the grief, shock, and loneliness overwhelming Criscitiello now that she “no longer had Anna tethered to me.” For three days, she stays with Anna before a team arrives to help take her body down. Even then, Criscitiello remains, “guarding her” until Anna is finally cremated “along the shores of the Beas River in the heart of Manali” and her ashes taken home. It is time spent remembering Anna, whose “strength emanated from her core” and whose spark “set my aspirations afire.” —Carolyn Wells

The Grief Artist, Traci Brimhall, Guernica Magazine, January 6, 2021

Brimhall’s essay explores the influence that art, process, and ritual have on dealing with grief and loss as she mourns her mother’s death and the end of her marriage. So many essays deal with grief, but few consider the shape of it through so many disparate lenses. As Brimhall makes art out of the unexpected, she weaves a strand of persistent, insistent hope for the reader. “I love that nothing is wasted,” she writes. “Everything is ripe for transformation.” This essay reminds me that despite the fact that humans struggle with loss and change, maybe we can learn something about ourselves if we choose to lean on process and routine. Maybe too, we can get better at being more human as we deal with things that end, be it a life, a friendship, a marriage, or even just a time in our lives. —Krista Stevens

 

Explore our Best of 2021 collection

Holiday Gift Guide: 8 Books We Excerpted on Longreads in 2021

A graphic image of books wrapped in pink holiday paper, lined up against a yellow background. Each book is tied with red string and has a red decorative ball in the center.
Javier Zayas Photography / Getty Images

Looking for a gift for the reader in your life? Here are eight books we featured on Longreads this year: the memoir of a teen environmentalist, an essay collection on dance and illness, a refugee family’s story, and more.

* * *

Diary of a Young Naturalist | Dara McAnulty 

In this debut memoir, autistic climate activist Dara McAnulty writes about his immersive, intense connection to nature and wildlife with lyrical, evocative prose. The book’s entries, centered around McAnulty’s encounters around his home in Northern Ireland through the seasons, show a teenager’s deep appreciation for the natural world, science, and conservation.

Unfortunately, for me, I’m different. Different from everyone in my class. Different from most people in my school. But at breaktime today I watched the pied wagtails fly in and out of the nest. How could I feel lonely when there are such things? Wildlife is my refuge. When I’m sitting and watching, grown-ups usually ask if I’m okay. Like it’s not okay just to sit and process the world, to figure things out and watch other species go about their day.

Read an excerpt: ‘The Fledglings Are Out!’


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