The utopian novel had become one of the most effective means of frightening people off it.
It is sometimes said that the twentieth century began with utopian dreaming and ended with nostalgia, as those alternative futures once envisioned seemed by then almost entirely discredited. However, it was never quite so straightforward. The challenge to envisage how to live differently, in ways that seem better than the present, never entirely disappears.
The most prominent American utopian studies scholar, Lyman Tower Sargent, notes that dystopian scenarios increasingly dominated the speculative literary form as the twentieth century progressed. In the UK, the equally eminent utopian studies scholar Ruth Levitas concurs, pointing out, for instance, that as sociology became institutionalized in the academy, it became ‘consistently hostile’ to any utopian content.
What stands out in speculative fantasies of the future arising towards the end of the twentieth century are their darkly dystopic leanings, whether in books, cinema, comics or elsewhere. The best known would include the mass surveillance depicted in the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s satirical novel We (1921).
Set in the future, it describes a scientifically managed totalitarian state, known as One State, governed by logic and reason, where people live in glass buildings, march in step, and are known by their numbers. England’s Aldous Huxley called his dystopic science fiction Brave New World (1932), where again all individuality has been conditioned out in the pursuit of happiness. Bleaker still was George Orwell’s terrifyingly totalitarian 1984 (1945): ‘If you want a picture of the future,’ Orwell wrote in 1984, ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’
These imaginings serve primarily as warnings against futures that are often read, as with Zamyatin and Orwell, as condemnations of Soviet society. The happiness expressed in Huxley’s ‘utopic’ universe depicts a deformed or sinister version of the route where all utopias end up, as totalitarian regimes, in which free will is crushed. As the Marxist political scientist Bertell Ollman later noted: ‘From a means of winning people over to the ideal of socialism, the utopian novel had become one of the most effective means of frightening people off it.’
Post-1945, public intellectuals for the most part broadcast the view that democracy and utopic thinking were opposed, the latter declared both impossible and dangerous. The influential émigré and British philosopher of science Karl Popper argued in his classic essay ‘Utopia and Violence’ (1947) that while ‘Utopia’ may look desirable, all too desirable, it was in practice a ‘dangerous and pernicious’ idea, one that is ‘self‐defeating’ and ‘leads to violence’. There is no way of deciding rationally between competing utopian ideals, he suggested, since we cannot (contra Marxism) scientifically predict the future, which means our statements are not open to falsification and hence fail his test for any sort of reliability.
Indeed, accusations of ‘totalitarian’ thinking were the chief weapon of the Cold War, used by Western propaganda to see off any talk of communism. In the USA it was employed to undermine any left or labour movement affiliations, as through the fear and financial ruin inflicted upon hundreds of Americans hauled before Senator McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s – over half of them Jewish Americans. Read more…
At The Millions, Steve Paulson interviews Teju Cole about why he left Twitter, his photographic inspirations, how he delights in the beauty of sentence fragments, and his meditative approach to combining text and photography in his book, Blind Spot.
SP: You also seem to be fascinated by memory.
TC: Memory is often a layer. A lot of my language can probably be located somewhere around 1915, between Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I have a lot of faith in what can be achieved with a well-polished English sentence. Not that I try to make the language old- fashioned, but I like a clean sentence. But a lot of the reading I do is fragmented. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje and he uses sentence fragments a great deal.
SP: Why do you like fragmentary sentences?
TC: Because they can evoke the present in a very powerful way.
SP: So you don’t want a narrative that’s too self-contained and wraps everything up?
TC: But sometimes I do. Look at James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Excellent sentences and they’re somewhat formal, even though the narrative is not formal. You get your epiphany at the end and you have these very powerful feelings. But if you read Running in the Family or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, it’s jazzier. Those sentences are all over the place. Or if you read Anne Carson, who is a modern master of the fragment. A fragment is very often about mastery as well. It’s about saying I need just this much to convey. That can just be a delight. For me it’s about recognizing that great art comes in all kinds of forms. In Blind Spot I actually use more fragments than I’ve tended to use you, though I also still use a lot of well-polished sentences.
On the first day of school—it was going to be a ninety-degree scorcher—Eddie Williams jogged up the four stone steps at the main entrance to South High School in Denver, Colorado, half an hour before the first bell rang, eager to meet his new students. The teacher was a tall man, six foot four inches in his socks. He was thirty-eight years old, but could have passed for twenty-eight, and he was wearing a short-sleeved purple South High polo shirt. All the teachers had put on purple shirts, that being the school color, so that the students could easily see whom they should turn to if they had a question about how to find a particular classroom, or how to read the confusing schedules they carried. Mr. Williams usually avoided short-sleeved shirts, because they revealed the dark blue tattoo that circled one of his biceps, and he feared his students might misinterpret the inked designs as macabre, given their backgrounds. He worked diligently to communicate in all sorts of ways that he was a person they could trust.
Mr. Williams had inherited his Anglo father’s rangy height and propensity to freckle, along with his Latina mother’s dark eyes and hair. Fluent in both Spanish and English, he was the sort of teacher who devoted an enormous portion of his kindness, vitality, and intellect to his students. Most of the classrooms in the school were crowded with noisy, chattering teenagers. That morning, however, as he looked around his room, Mr. Williams saw many empty chairs and only seven students. The teenagers assigned to him wore shut-door expressions on their faces. Nobody in the room was talking, not even to one another. The teacher had expected. His room always got off to a quiet start.
“Welcome to newcomer class!” he said, in a deliberately warm tone of voice. “My name is Mr. Williams. What is your name? Where are you from?” Read more…
The essay below originally appeared in The Avery Review, Issue 21 (January 2017) and was recently collected in a book called And Now: Architecture Against a Developer Presidency. This essay is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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Ego and social networks, more so than efficiency and expertise, are rewarded in the attention economy in which [real estate developers] operate.
Much has been made of having a corporate executive in the Oval Office. Donald Trump claims that, given his business experience, he will be able to be an effective negotiator, grow the economy, and make efficient allocation decisions with scarce resources. On the campaign trail, in tweets, and in televised debates, Trump has sold himself as a man of commerce, connected only to the material, productive economy and not the fictive, financialized one responsible for the Great Recession. He repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street ties, contrasting them to his own righteous independence, noting, “I don’t care about the Wall Street guys… I’m not taking any of their money.”
But real estate developers, particularly those in the high-stakes world of downtown commercial real estate, are not ordinary businessmen. Large-scale developers generally subscribe to a worldview that grants them considerable agency as strategic risk takers in an environment that is (according to them) largely of their own making. To see development potential that few others see, to take risks that few would want to shoulder, and to control the physical settings in which millions of people go about their daily lives—all this fosters a God complex to which few corporate CEOs would admit. Such sentiment is captured by Tom Wolfe in his novel A Man in Full, as the developer-protagonist admires the Atlanta skyline from his private plane. He mentally pats himself on the back: “I did that! That’s my handiwork! I’m one of the giants who built this city! I’m a star!” Ego and social networks, more so than efficiency and expertise, are rewarded in the attention economy in which they operate. Read more…
Another gaping wound for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a reeling community that hadn’t the chance to heal from Alton Sterling’s tragic death twelve days earlier. Three officers killed, another three wounded. The gunman a veteran named Gavin Long who celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday by targeting cops in the streets.
The cable networks breathlessly speculated in the fashion that’d become so commonplace in our era of panic. How many gunmen? Who’s responsible? We’re just getting video—what is this exactly? What type of weapon are we talking about? What’s the feeling out there? All the same whether it’s Baton Rouge or Dallas or France.
The only relief came when they would throw to their reporters stationed in Cleveland, preparing for the upcoming Republican National Convention and the possibility that the trend of violence could continue. Are people nervous? they asked. What type of security measures are being taken?
An hour or so later, Stephen Loomis, the president of Cleveland’s Patrolmen’s Association, begged Governor John Kasich to suspend open-carry regulations in the area outside the Quicken Loans Arena, a request Kasich said he couldn’t grant. Following his answer—a denial Loomis bemoaned on every available network—the media speculated again, this time what kind of tragedy Cleveland could see if tensions ran too hot.
“I think they’re gonna burn down the city,” a caller said on talk radio. “I really do.”
By Monday morning, the most sought-after picture in Cleveland was someone carrying a weapon in plain view of the entire world. The first I found was Jesse Gonzales, conspicuous because of the large halo of reporters surrounding him. Holding court in the heart of them, Gonzales stood with an AK-47 on his back.
By my count, there were at least four countries and three continents worth of cameras trained on him as he casually answered the most repeated question of why he would ever carry a weapon into a powder keg like this: “Because I can.”
Giving a similar answer was a group of Minutemen posting up on a corner outside Public Square. Decked out in body armor and combat boots, tactical communication sets snaking out of their ears, they pontificated on the police union’s “illegal request” and, when asked about the weapons, would only say three words: “It’s the Constitution.”
A few feet away were Ohio police officers in bulletproof vests. I asked one what he thought of the open-carriers and got a roll of the eyes. “No comment,” he said, “but it’s a pain in my ass.”
The scene was interrupted as a truck pulled slowly down the road with a digital screen in the back that sparked to life. Conspiracy mogul Alex Jones’s gruff voice avalanched out of the speakers and declared war on globalists and labeled Hillary Clinton a criminal who needed to be locked away.
Soon a black passerby invaded the space, leaving the Minutemen visibly uncomfortable. He carried a sign and ordered random members of the crowd to join him for a picture. “You,” he said to a passing girl. “I don’t know you from a sandwich, but come on over here.”
As the picture of the man and the Minutemen was snapped, the outfit’s leader shouted their two-minute warning. Not long after they were marching down the sidewalk, crossing the street, their rifles bouncing as they stepped out of rhythm. Read more…
This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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An alien way of life.
You could say the silence started in Calumet in 1913. Word spread that the doors opened inward, that no one was to blame. What followed was a great quiet, a hundred years of agreed-upon untruth.
Or you could say it began just afterward, during the patriotic rush of the First World War and the Palmer Raids that followed. The Wobblies were crushed, the call for a workers’ alternative stilled.
Or you could say it began after the Second World War. If you see the two global conflicts as a single long realignment of power, then after America emerged as a superpower, its century-long Red Scare kicked back in with a vengeance. That’s how Elizabeth Gurley Flynn saw it. She traced the “hysterical and fear laden” atmosphere of the late 1940s back to when she was a union maid visiting Joe Hill in prison. “Now,” she said, “it is part of the American tradition.” In other words, once the nation of immigrants had defined itself, had determined an American Way, it also established the opposite: an Un-American Way.
In 1918, it was the U.S. Senate’s Overman Committee investigating Bolsheviks. In 1930, the Fish Committee looked into William Z. Foster and other communist influences. Eight years later, it was the establishment of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which continued to operate through the fifties. “The real issue,” as HUAC’s first chairman, Martin Dies, put it, was “between Americanism on the one hand and alienism on the other.”
No one did more to define the Un-American than J. Edgar Hoover. His career began in 1917 jailing “disloyal aliens” as part of President Woodrow Wilson’s Justice Department. Soon Hoover was in charge of carrying out the Palmer Raids. By 1924, he was head of the nation’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. When he appeared before the Senate Internal Security Committee in 1948, he testified to “some thirty-five years of infiltration of an alien way of life in what we have been proud to call our constitutional republic.” That math put the beginning of the infiltration—and the silence—in 1913.
Hoover testified as the Popular Front was making one last national effort. Henry Wallace, former vice president under FDR, had mounted a third-party run for the presidency. Seeing little difference between Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Thomas Dewey, Wallace vowed to establish “the century of the common man.” That included expanded health care, the nationalization of the energy industry, and cooperation with Russia instead of Cold War. Attacking what he called the Red Scare “witch hunt,” Wallace proclaimed, “those who fear communism lack faith in democracy.”
What was left of the Popular Front rallied around him. Alan Lomax headed up a “musical desk” and brought in Guthrie, Seeger, Hays, and others. People’s Songs churned out tunes, including a fiddle-and-guitar blues by Guthrie: “The road is rocky, but it won’t be rocky long / Gonna vote for Wallace: he can righten all our wrongs.” Read more…
The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Photo: Getty Images.
Ashley Dawson | Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change | Verso | October 2017 | 17 minutes (4,461 words)
This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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An utter transformation of human habitation across the globe within one generation.
Milestones on the road toward climate chaos are all too frequent these days: in 2015, the Manua Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported that the daily mean concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere had surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time; each year Arctic sea ice levels grow lower and lower; permafrost in areas like Siberia and Alaska is melting, releasing dangerous quantities of methane into the atmosphere; and each year brings more violent storms and more severe droughts to different parts of the world. Indeed, news of apocalyptic climate-related events is so manifold that it can feel overwhelming, producing a kind of disaster fatigue. One recent announcement merits particular attention, however: in the summer of 2014, a team of NASA scientists announced conclusive evidence that the retreat of ice in the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica had become unstoppable. This melting alone, they concluded, will drive global sea levels up by over 1 meter (3 feet). As the Pine Island, Thwaites, and other glaciers of the Amundsen Sea sector collapse into the ocean, the effect is expected to be like a cork removed from a bottle of champagne: the ice the glaciers held back will rush rapidly into the sea, and the entire West Antarctic ice sheet will collapse. Sea levels will consequently rise 3 to 5 meters (10–16 feet). In addition, it was recently discovered that the same process that is driving this collapse, the intrusion of warmer ocean water beneath the glaciers in West Antarctica, is also eroding key glaciers in East Antarctica. The East Antarctic ice sheet contains even more ice than the western sheet: the Totten glacier alone would account for 7 meters (23 feet) of sea level rise. As if this weren’t bad enough news, a similar process of melting is also taking place in Greenland, where fjords that penetrate far inland are carrying warm water deep underneath the ice sheet.
These reports overturn long-held assumptions about the stability of Greenland’s glaciers: until recently, scientists had predicted that Greenland’s ice sheet would stabilize once the glaciers close to the warming ocean had melted. The discovery of ice-bound fjords reaching almost sixty-five miles inland has major implications since the glacier melt will be much more substantial than anticipated. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets combined contain over 99 percent of the Earth’s glacial ice. If they were to melt completely, they would raise global sea levels a virtually inconceivable 65 meters (200 feet). Although it remains unclear exactly how long the disintegration of these ice sheets will take, the implications of such melting for the world’s coastal cities are stark, and still almost totally unacknowledged by the general public. As Robert DeConto, co-author of a recent study that predicts significantly faster melt rates in the world’s largest glaciers, points out, we’re already struggling with 3 millimeters per year of sea level rise, but if the polar ice sheets collapse, “We’re talking about centimeters per year. That’s really tough. At that point your engineering can’t keep up; you’re down to demolition and rebuilding.”
Shockingly, few orthodox scientific predictions of sea level rise have taken the disintegration of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets into consideration. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, projects a high of three feet of sea level rise by 2100, but this prediction does not include a significant contribution from the West Antarctic ice sheet. Like the IPCC’s projection for Arctic sea ice collapse, which has moved up from 2100 to 2050 in the latest report, this prediction is clearly far too low. What explains such gross miscalculations? The protocols of scientific verifiability provide a partial explanation. The general public has urgently wanted to know, after city-wrecking hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy, whether the devastation was caused by climate change. But unfortunately scientists have until quite recently been unable to make direct links between particular extreme weather events and climate change in general. This, as environmental philosopher Dale Jamieson puts it in Reason in a Dark Time, would be like saying that a specific home run is “caused” by a baseball player’s batting average. If scientists are becoming less reticent to make these links, as the science of attribution grows more sophisticated and able to track the causes of weather extremes, the change is still occurring slowly.
Nevertheless, the IPCC’s failure to account for the destruction of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets can only add to skepticism toward their predictions, especially after they were widely attacked for their 2007 calculations about the speed of Himalayan glacial melting. Further fueled by the climate change denial industry, the IPCC’s own excessively rosy predictions for the future will only increase skepticism. In their 2000 report, for example, the body assumes that nearly 60 percent of hoped-for emissions reductions will occur independently of explicit mitigation measures. As the urban theorist Mike Davis has pointed out, the IPCC’s mitigation targets assume that profits from fossil capitalism will be recycled into green technology rather than penthouse suites in soaring skyscrapers. The IPCC projects a market-driven evolution toward a post-carbon economy, a set of assumptions that, as spiraling levels of greenhouse gas emissions since 2000 demonstrate all too clearly, are dead wrong. These projections concerning sea level rise and the vulnerability of coastal cities will have to be radically revised, especially after spectacular urban disasters hammer home the inadequacy of current projections. But these world-changing transformations will not take place in the distant future. Citing evidence drawn from the last major ice melt during the Eemian period, an interglacial phase about 120,000 years ago that was less than 1ºC warmer than it is today, climatologist James Hansen predicts that, absent a sharp and enduring reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, global sea levels are “likely to increase several meters over a timescale of 50 to 150 years.” Should they prove accurate, Hansen’s forecasts spell an utter transformation of human habitation across the globe within one generation. Read more…
In the Memory Game you’re expected to find two matching cards. My dad’s left eye and his right didn’t perfectly match. The i and the eye don’t perfectly match, but they sound the same. Jeanne and Jeannie sound the same, but we don’t perfectly match. I could write this story chronologically and divide it into three parts titled “eye,” “i,” and “I.”
But I worry that I lose authority as a storyteller if I recall memories from age four. I could preface some of those memories with “I remember.” Or, in memoir, is such subjectivity implied? Like “I see” and “I hear,” “I remember” is almost always an unnecessary filter. Maybe I can preface the more detailed memories with “I remember” — a defense against any reader who thinks, There’snowaysheremembersplayingthe MemoryGamewhenshewasfour, or It couldn’thavebeenthe MemoryGame — it’ssosymbolic. Itfeelsforced.
Do I need to be more selective with direct dialogue, or introduce hindsight perspective, or lean on my mom’s memories? I’ll keep some of her in the present tense. I’ll show how I often ask her questions, such as: “Did it happen this way?” “What was his illness called?” “Did Dad accept the loss of his eye?” But if I excerpt conversations with her that concern only him, then it looks like I care less about her life stories.
I’ll write another book after this, a book for her.
Not once did my dad say Jeanne’s name in my eighteen years with him. My mom did when I was eight.
I was dancing in my bedroom with an unlit candle when she called me downstairs. My teacher, Sister Paulina, had asked three second-grade girls to lead our First Communion ceremony with a dance. The dance required me to hold a candle above my head, and I was terrified of setting the church on fire. I practiced at home almost every day for a month.
When I walked into the living room, my dad was in his chair, holding a small white box. As my mom explained that he had a dead daughter named Jeanne (pronounced the same as my name) “without an i,” he opened the box and looked away. Inside was a medal Jeanne had received from a church “for being a good person,” my mom said. My dad said nothing. I said nothing. I stared at the medal.
Later that day, in the basement, my mom told me Jeanne had died in a car accident when she was sixteen. I sat on the steps as my mom folded clothes and confided what she knew.
Two other girls were in the car. The car could seat three people in front. Jeanne sat between the driver and the other passenger. The driver tried to pass a car, then hesitated and tried to pull back into her lane. She lost control and the car crashed. Jeanne was the only one who died.
“Your father blames himself,” my mom said. “He can’t talk about it.”
“Why?” I asked.
“He gave her permission to go out that night.”
Jeanne had asked him if she could see a movie with her friends. He asked what her mother had said. “She said to ask you.” He said it was fine, she could see the movie. He had no idea his first wife had already said no. He and his first wife weren’t speaking.
“Did you know his first wife?” I asked.
“No, he was divorced long before I met him. All this happened in New York.”
It happened near Newburgh, where he and his first family had lived. I knew only Ohio. In my mind, all of New York was made of skyscrapers, taxicabs, and car accidents.
“What did Jeanne look like?”
My mom said she’d never seen a photo.
I painted portraits of Jeanne in watercolor. I titled them Jeanne. My art teacher told me she was disappointed that “such a good student could misspell her name.” From then on, I included an i.
“I wanted to tell you about Jeanne before that,” my mom says after I ask why she told me when she did. “But your dad, he worried that you’d misinterpret his intentions. I told him, ‘She’s going to find out someday. Don’t you think it’s better she hears it from us?’”
“Did Dad have any photos of Jeanne?”
“No. He told me his ex-wife wouldn’t let him have any. But for some reason, she gave him the medal.”
Throughout my baby scrapbook, I’m referred to as “Barbara Jean,” “Jean,” “Jeanie,” and “Jeannie.” In one letter, my dad calls me “My Darling Daughter Barbara Jean.” In a letter to my mom, he calls me “Jeanie” and “Jeannie.” My parents had planned to name me Jeanne.
“That or Jean Marie, actually,” my mom says. “Her given name was Jean Marie. She went by Jeanne. Your father simply saw the name as a sign of respect. He even spoke with a priest about our naming you after her, and the priest encouraged him to do so, provided he never compare you. ‘I would never do that,’ your father said.”
But while my mom was asleep after having just given birth, he named me Barbara Jean, after my mom. When he told her what he’d done, she said, “That’s no name for a baby.” She thought Barbara was too old-fashioned. That, and two Barbaras in one house would be confusing.
“When I told him I wasn’t calling you Barbara, he got this sad look on his face. He meant to do something sweet,” she says. “He always had good intentions.”
Legally my name remained Barbara Jean, but my parents called me Jeannie. My dad added the i.
“Just said he was adding an i,” my mom says. “He never explained it.”
I remember the spring day that I stood alone in the corner of the school playground, thinking about Jeanne. Cars passed by with their windows open. I often wondered if my dad thought about Jeanne every time he drove our car. A classmate, another second-grade girl, asked what I was doing.
“My half-sister died,” I told her.
“I have a stepsister.”
I tried to explain the difference between a half-sibling and a stepsibling.
“We share the same dad,” I said.
“I didn’t know you had a half-sister.”
“Four of them,” I said, or maybe I said “three.” I didn’t know if Jeanne counted, or if she counted more because she was dead.
I have no clear memory of learning about Jeanne’s sisters — Carol, Arlene, and Debbie — but I know my parents told me about them before I learned about Jeanne. Arlene is the only one I knew throughout my childhood. She lived in New York. She visited us four times in Ohio — five if you count when our dad was dying.
“Arlene is beautiful,” I told my mom after Arlene’s first visit.
Arlene’s dark brown eyes matched her hair. Thick and wavy, it fell just past her shoulders. Later I’d show photographs of Arlene to boys I liked; I wanted them to think that I’d be beautiful someday, like her.
“She was a model once,” my mom said. “I think she modeled wedding dresses for a catalog.”
Arlene often called, wrote letters. She mailed me unusual presents: hangers with illustrated wooden cat heads, vials of sand from Jerusalem, a pair of earrings that looked like pale orange pearls. She even trained her cockatiel to say “Happy birthday, Jeannie.” She sent a video of it. I wrote thank-you letters; they went through several drafts. I wanted my cursive to look perfect.
Carol and Debbie I’d never seen, not even in photographs. Debbie was a hairdresser in New York, and Carol owned a candy shop in Rhode Island. Carol, the oldest, was my mom’s age. Beyond that, I knew nothing.
Once, while my dad was on the downstairs rotary, I listened through the upstairs rotary. I was in the second grade and often eavesdropped. I could hear one of his daughters — not Arlene, I’d have recognized her voice — yelling. My dad mentioned me, and she yelled more. I quietly set the phone on my bedroom carpet. I could still hear her. When no more sound came from the receiver, I looked through the grate in my bedroom floor. My dad was at the dining room table, his head in his hands.
“They were mad your father had his first marriage annulled,” my mom explains. “It was after your First Communion. You asked him why he couldn’t take Communion with you. He said it was because he was divorced. It’s a man-made rule — that you can’t take Communion if you’ve been divorced. If you annul the marriage, the church basically says the marriage never existed. His daughters took it personally. He didn’t mean anything against them. He wasn’t disowning them. He did it for you.”
Jeanne would come between me and almost everything I did. I studied harder. I researched the lives of the saints and how I might model their behavior. I sat before my bedroom mirror with a notebook and documented my appearance and what exactly I needed to fix. I needed to be a smart, kind, beautiful daughter.
I tried not to hear her name when he said my own.
I followed my parents to their graves. Rain made it difficult to find our way.
“Where do I walk?” I asked, afraid of disrespecting the dead.
My mom told me to follow her. We passed a smaller fenced-in area where fresh flowers and toys were at almost every grave.
“The children’s cemetery,” she explained.
My dad stood farther ahead of us, underneath a tree. He motioned us toward him.
I looked down at two headstones printed with my parents’ names and birth years: “Terry J Vanasco, 1922,” and “Barbara J Vanasco, 1942.”
“Where do I go?” I asked.
“You might have a husband someday,” my mom said. “You’ll want to be buried next to him.”
“But I want to be with you and Dad.”
I call my mom, ask if she remembers that day in the cemetery.
“We took you to see the graves?”
“That’s what I remember,” I say.
After Jeanne died, my dad bought burial plots for himself and his wife next to the plot for Jeanne. When he and his first wife divorced, she demanded that he forfeit his plot because she didn’t want him buried next to their daughter. He agreed. Soon after the divorce, he went to court again, this time for beating up “a bum” on the street.
“Why should you be alive?” my dad asked him. “You’re not working and my daughter’s dead.”
The judge remembered my dad and let him go.
My dad’s sister Anna told all this to my mom, who at some point shared it with me. I don’t know if I learned this story before or after seeing my parents’ headstones, but the two stories juxtaposed together make sense, writing-wise. Still, I call my mom, ask if she remembers when she told me about my dad losing his burial plot.
“I don’t,” she says, “but did I ever tell you: when I went with your dad to his father’s funeral — this was a couple years before you were born — the funeral director told me about your dad losing his cemetery plot. The director said, ‘In all the years I’ve worked here, I’ve never heard of anything like it — denying a man burial next to his daughter.’ Your dad’s ex-wife eventually did offer him the plot — this was when you were a little girl — but your dad refused it. He said, ‘I have a family here.’”
It was my parents’ twelfth wedding anniversary. I was ten. A snowstorm swept through Sandusky. We had plans to celebrate at home that night. We were in our car leaving the grocery parking lot when my mom abruptly told him to stop the car.
She left it, slammed her door, and opened mine.
“We’re walking home,” she told me.
My dad looked back at me.
“Come on,” she said. “I’m teaching you a lesson.”
“What did I do?” I asked.
“I’m teaching you you don’t need a man.”
I told her there was a snowstorm. It was too cold to walk home. Our house felt far away.
“Stay with him if you want,” she said and began to leave us.
I apologized to my dad and ran after her.
My dad slowly followed in the car with the front passenger window down.
“It’s a blizzard,” he said.
She ignored him.
I asked her why she was angry, and she ignored me.
He pleaded for us to get in the car. Home was at least two miles away.
She yelled at him to leave us alone. He looked at me, and I looked down at my boots. When I looked up, our car was disappearing into the falling snow.
“What if he dies in a car accident?” I asked.
“He’ll be fine.”
“But there’s ice.”
“He won’t die.”
I watched my breath chill before me and disappear.
We walked in silence along the shoulder of Milan Road. When I looked behind us, snow had already covered our tracks. Snow plows rumbled by. A few cars came and went. A man offered us a ride and my mom waved him off.
“We’re almost home,” she lied.
The man drove away.
“Your father doesn’t trust me,” she said.
The friendly man who worked in the checkout at the grocery store, my dad thought was too friendly, she explained.
My dad often told us to wait in the car while he checked out. I always thought he was being a gentleman, bringing the groceries to us.
“Your father doesn’t trust anyone,” she said.
“What about me?”
When we reached our house, he was at the kitchen table, his head in his hands.
“Dad,” I said.
I yanked off my boots and ran to him.
My mom walked past us and into the basement. He followed her, and I went into the bathroom and lifted the door to the laundry chute. I heard my dad apologize.
That evening at dinner, they smiled at one another and held hands.
“Sometimes he drove me nuts with his possessiveness,” my mom says when I ask about the snowstorm. “His father was the same way, apparently. Your dad’s mother would go to the grocery store, and your dad’s father would time her. Your dad thought it was horrible, but then he went and did the same sort of thing to me.” She pauses. “After you left for college, your dad and I were on the back porch — and he asked if I regretted our marriage. ‘Of course not,’ I told him. ‘Why would you ask me that?’ He said he knew how unreasonable he’d been. He said he was sorry. He said he was afraid of losing me. Your dad would have been happy, just the three of us, in a cabin out in the woods. He said you and I were all he needed.”
Below is an excerpt fromThe Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone’s riveting new book chronicling the work of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman, a pair of “know-nothings” who invented the science of codebreaking and became the greatest codebreakers of their era. Their contributions continue to influence the U.S. intelligence community to this day. Our thanks to Jason Fagone and Harper Collins for allowing us to share a portion of this book with the Longreads community.
* * *
Sixty years after she got her first job in codebreaking, when Elizebeth was an old woman, the National Security Agency sent a female representative to her apartment in Washington, D.C. The NSA woman had a tape recorder and a list of questions. Elizebeth suddenly craved a cigarette.
It had been several days since she smoked.
“Do you want a cigarette, by the way?” Elizebeth asked her guest, then realized she was all out.
“No, do you smoke?”
Elizebeth was embarrassed. “No, no!” Then she admitted that she did smoke and just didn’t want a cigarette badly enough to leave the apartment.
The woman offered to go get some.
Oh, don’t worry, Elizebeth said, the liquor store was two blocks away, it wasn’t worth the trouble.
They started. The date was November 11, 1976, nine days after the election of Jimmy Carter. The wheels of the tape recorder spun. The agency was documenting Elizebeth’s responses for its classified history files. The interviewer, an NSA linguist named Virginia Valaki, wanted to know about certain events in the development of American codebreaking and intelligence, particularly in the early days, before the NSA and the CIA existed, and the FBI was a mere embryo — these mighty empires that grew to shocking size from nothing at all, like planets from grains of dust, and not so long ago.
Elizebeth had never given an interview to the NSA. She had always been wary of the agency, for reasons the agency knew well — reasons woven into her story and into theirs. But the interviewer was kind and respectful, and Elizebeth was eighty-four years old, and what did anything matter anymore? So she got to talking.
Her recall was impressive. Only one or two questions gave her trouble. Other things she remembered perfectly but couldn’t explain because the events remained mysterious in her own mind. “Nobody would believe it unless you had been there,” she said, and laughed.
The interviewer returned again and again to the topic of Riverbank Laboratories, a bizarre institution now abandoned, a place that helped create the modern NSA but which the NSA knew little about. Elizebeth and her future husband, William Friedman, had lived there when they were young, between 1916 and 1920, when they discovered a series of techniques and patterns that changed cryptology forever. Valaki wanted to know: What in the world happened at Riverbank? And how did two know-nothings in their early twenties turn into the best codebreakers the United States had ever seen — seemingly overnight? “I’d be grateful for any information you can give on Riverbank,” Valaki said. “You see, I don’t know enough to . . . even to ask the first questions.”
Over the course of several hours, Valaki kept pushing Elizebeth to peel back the layers of various Riverbank discoveries, to describe how the solution to puzzle A became new method B that pointed to the dawn of C, but Elizebeth lingered instead on descriptions of people and places. History had smoothed out all the weird edges. She figured she was the last person alive who might remember the crags of things, the moments of uncertainty and luck, the wild accelerations. The analyst asked about one particular scientific leap six different times; the old woman gave six slightly different answers, some meandering, some brief, including one that is written in the NSA transcript as “Hah! ((Laughs.))”
Toward the end of the conversation, Elizebeth asked if she had thought to tell the story of how she ended up at Riverbank in the first place, working for the man who built it, a man named George Fabyan. It was a story she had told a few times over the years, a memory outlined in black. Valaki said no, Elizebeth hadn’t already told this part. “Well, I better give you that,” Elizebeth said. “It’s not only very, very amusing, but it’s actually true syllable by syllable.”
“You want me to do that now?” Elizebeth said.
* * *
She met George Fabyan at a library in Chicago one day in June 1916, when she was 23. She went to the library alone to look at a rare volume of Shakespeare from 1623, the “First Folio,” and to ask the librarians if they knew of any open positions in Chicago in the field of literature or research.
* * *
During the library’s first decades, the masters of the Newberry acquired books with the single-mindedness of hog merchants. They bought hundreds of incunabula, printed volumes from before 1501, written by monks. They bought fragile, faded books written by hand on unusual materials, on leather and wood and parchment and vellum. They bought mysterious books of disputed patrimony, books whose past lives they did not know and could not explain. One book on the Newberry’s shelves featured Arabic script and a supple, leathery binding. Inside were two inscriptions. The first said that the book had been found “in the palace of the king of Delhi, September 21st, 1857,” seven days after a mutiny. The second inscription said, “Bound in human skin.”
In one especially significant transaction, the library acquired six thousand books from a Cincinnati hardware merchandiser, a haul that included a Fourth Folio of Shakespeare from 1685, a Second Folio from 1632, and most exceptional of all, the First Folio of 1623, the original printing of Shakespeare’s plays.
This is the book that Elizebeth Smith was determined to see.
Opening the glass front door of the Newberry, she walked through a small vestibule into a magnificent Romanesque lobby. A librarian at a desk stopped her and sized her up. Normally Elizebeth would have been required to fill out the form with her research topic, but she had gotten lucky. The year 1916 happened to be the three hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and libraries around the country, including the Newberry, were mounting exhibitions in celebration.
Elizebeth said she was here to see the First Folio. The librarian said it was part of the exhibition and pointed to a room on the first floor, to the left. Elizebeth approached. The Folio was on display under glass.
The book was large and dense, about 13 inches tall and 8 inches wide, and almost dictionary-thick, running to nine hundred pages. The binding was red and made of highly polished goatskin, with a large grain. The pages had gilded edges. It was opened to a pair of pages in the front, the light gray paper tinged with yellow due to age. She saw an engraving of a man in an Elizabethan-era collar and jacket, his head mostly bald except for two neatly combed hanks of hair that ended at his ears. The text said:
MR. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARES COMEDIES,
Publifhed according to the True Originall Copies.
Printed by Ifaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount. 1623.
Elizebeth later wrote that seeing the Folio gave her the same feeling “that an archaeologist has, when he suddenly realizes that he has discovered a tomb of a great pharaoh.”
One of the librarians, a young woman, must have noticed the expression of entrancement on her face, because now she walked over to Elizebeth and asked if she was interested in Shakespeare. They got to talking and realized they had a lot in common. The librarian had grown up in Richmond, Indiana, not far from Elizebeth’s hometown, and they were both from Quaker families.
Elizebeth felt comfortable enough to mention that she was looking for a job in literature or research. “I would like something unusual,” she said.
The librarian thought for a second. Yes, that reminded her of Mr. Fabyan. She pronounced the name with a long a, like “Faybe-yin.”
Elizebeth had never heard the name, so the librarian explained. George Fabyan was a wealthy Chicago businessman who often visited the library to examine the First Folio. He said he believed the book contained secret messages written in cipher, and he had made it known that he wished to hire an assistant, preferably a “young, personable, attractive college graduate who knew English literature,” to further this research. Would Elizebeth be interested in a position like that?
Elizebeth was too startled to know what to say.
“Shall I call him up?” the librarian asked.
“Well, yes, I wish you would, please,” Elizebeth said.
The librarian went off for a few moments, then signaled to Elizebeth. Mr. Fabyan would be right over, she said. Elizebeth thought: What?
Yes, Mr. Fabyan happened to be in Chicago today. He would be here any minute.
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Sure enough, Fabyan soon arrived in his limousine. He burst into the library, asked Elizebeth the question that so bewildered and stunned her — “Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?” — and led her by the arm to the waiting vehicle.
“This is Bert,” he growled, nodding at his chauffeur, Bert Williams. Fabyan climbed in with Elizebeth in the back.
From the Newberry, the chauffeur drove them south and west for twenty blocks until they arrived at the soaring Roman columns of the Chicago & North Western Terminal, one of the busiest of the city’s five railway stations. Fabyan hurried her out of the limo, up the steps, between the columns, and into the nine-hundred-foot-long train shed, a vast, darkened shaft of platforms and train cars and people rushing every which way. She asked Fabyan if she could send a message to her family at the telegraph office in the station, letting them know her whereabouts. Fabyan said no, that wasn’t necessary, and there wasn’t any time.
She followed him toward a Union Pacific car. Fabyan and Elizebeth climbed aboard at the back end. Fabyan walked her all the way to the front of the car and told her to sit in the frontmost seat, by the window. Then he went galumphing back through the car saying hello to the other passengers, seeming to recognize several, gossiping with them about this and that, and joking with the conductor in a matey voice while Elizebeth waited in her window seat and the train did not move. It sat there, and sat there, and sat there, and a bubble of panic suddenly popped in her stomach, the hot acid rising to her throat.
“Where am I?” she thought to herself. “Who am I? Where am I going? I may be on the other side of the world tonight.” She wondered if she should get up, right that second, while Fabyan had his back turned, and run.
But she remained still until Fabyan had finished talking to the other passengers and came tramping back to the front of the car. He packed his big body into the seat opposite hers. She smiled at him, trying to be proper and polite, like she had been taught, and not wanting to offend a millionaire; she had grown up in modest enough circumstances to be wary of the rich and their power.
Then Fabyan did something she would remember all her life. He rocked forward, jabbed his reddened face to within inches of hers, fixed his blue eyes on her hazel ones, and thundered, loud enough for everyone in the car to hear, “Well, WHAT IN HELL DO YOU KNOW?”
Elizebeth leaned away from Fabyan and his question. It inflamed something stubborn in her. She turned her head away in a gesture of disrespect, resting her cheek against the window to create some distance. The pilgrim collar of her dress touched the cold glass. From that position she shot Fabyan a sphinxy, sidelong gaze.
“That remains, sir, for you to find out,” she said.
It occurred to her afterward that this was the most immoral remark she had ever made in her life. Fabyan loved it. He leaned way back, making the seat squeak with his weight, and unloosed a great roaring laugh that slammed through the train car and caromed off the thin steel walls.
Then his facial muscles slackened into an expression clearly meant to convey deep thought, and as the train lurched forward, finally leaving the station, he began to talk of Shakespeare, the reason he had sought her out.
Hamlet, he said. Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, the sonnets — the most famous written works in the world. Countless millions had read them, quoted them, memorized them, performed them, used pieces of them in everyday speech without even knowing. Yet all those readers had missed something. A hidden order, a secret of indescribable magnitude.
Out the train window, the grid of Chicago gave way to the silos and pale yellow vistas of the prairie. Each second she was getting pulled more deeply into the scheme of this stranger, destination unknown.
The First Folio, he continued. The Shakespeare book at the Newberry Library. It wasn’t what it seemed. The words on the page, which appeared to be describing the wounds and treacheries of lovers and kings, in fact told a completely different story, a secret story, using an ingenious system of secret writing. The messages revealed that the author of the plays was not William Shakespeare. The true author, and the man who had concealed the messages, was in fact Francis Bacon, the pioneering scientist and philosopher-king of Elizabethan England.
Elizebeth looked at the rich man. She could tell he believed what he was saying.
Fabyan went on. He said that a brilliant female scholar who worked for him, Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, had already succeeded in unweaving the plays and isolating Bacon’s hidden threads. But for reasons that would become clear, Mrs. Gallup needed an assistant with youthful energy and sharp eyes. This is why Fabyan wanted Elizebeth to join him and Mrs. Gallup at Riverbank — his private home, his 350-acre estate, but also so much more.
Ten men raided a house in Gordon, a north shore suburb of Sydney, at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 9, 2015. Some of the federal agents wore shirts that said “Computer Forensics”; one carried a search warrant issued under the Australian Crimes Act 1914. They were looking for a man named Craig Steven Wright, who lived with his wife, Ramona, at 43 St. Johns Avenue. The warrant was issued at the behest of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Wright, a computer scientist and businessman, headed a group of companies associated with cryptocurrency and online security. Wright and his wife were gone but the agents entered the house by force. As one set of agents scoured his kitchen cupboards and emptied out his garage, another entered his main company headquarters at 32 Delhi Road in North Ryde, another suburb of Sydney. They were looking for “originals or copies” of material held on hard drives and computers; they wanted bank statements, mobile-phone records, research papers, and photographs. The warrant listed dozens of companies whose papers were to be scrutinized, and thirty-two individuals, some with alternative names, or alternative spellings. The name Satoshi Nakamoto appeared sixth from the bottom of the list.
Some of the Wrights’ neighbors at St. Johns Avenue say they were a little distant. She was friendly but he was weird — to one neighbor he was “Cold-Shoulder Craig” — and their landlord wondered why they needed so much extra power: Wright had what appeared to be a whole room full of generators at the back of the property. This fed a rack of computers that he called his “toys,” but the real computer, on which he’d spent a lot of money, was nearly nine thousand miles away in Panama. He had already taken the computers away the day before the raid. A reporter had turned up at the house and Wright, alarmed, had phoned Stefan, the man advising them on what he and Ramona were calling “the deal.” Stefan immediately moved Wright and his wife into a luxury apartment at the Meriton World Tower in Sydney. They’d soon be moving to England anyway, and all parties agreed it was best to hide out for now.
At 32 Delhi Road, the palm trees were throwing summer shade onto the concrete walkways — “Tailor Made Office Solutions,” it said on a nearby billboard — and people were drinking coffee in Deli 32 on the ground floor. Wright’s office on level five was painted red, and looked down on the Macquarie Park Cemetery, known as a place of calm for the living as much as for the dead. No one was sure what to do when the police entered. The staff were gathered in the middle of the room and told by the officers not to go near their computers or use their phones. “I tried to intervene,” one senior staff member, a Dane called Allan Pedersen, remarked later, “and said we would have to call our lawyers.”
Holed up in the Meriton World Tower, Ramona wasn’t keen to tell her family what was happening. The reporters were sniffing at a strange story — a story too complicated for her to explain — so she just told everyone that damp in the Gordon house had forced them to move out. The place they moved into, a tall apartment building, was right in the city and Wright felt as if he was on holiday. On December 9, after their first night in the new apartment, he woke up to the news that two articles, one on the technology site Gizmodo, the other in the tech magazine Wired, had come out overnight fingering him as the person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, who in 2008 published a white paper describing a “peer-to-peer electronic cash system” — a technology Satoshi went on to develop as bitcoin. Reading the articles on his laptop, Wright knew his old life was over.
By this point, cameras and reporters were outside his former home and his office. They had long heard rumors, but the Gizmodo and Wired stories had sent the Australian media into a frenzy. It wasn’t clear why the police and the articles had appeared on the same day. At about five that same afternoon, a receptionist called from the lobby of Wright’s apartment building to say that the police had arrived. Ramona turned to Wright and told him to get the hell out. He looked at a desk in front of the window: there were two large laptop computers on it — they weighed a few kilos each, with 64 gigabytes of RAM — and he grabbed the one that wasn’t yet fully encrypted. He also took Ramona’s phone, which wasn’t encrypted either, and headed for the door. They were on the sixty-third floor. It occurred to him that the police might be coming up in the elevator, so he went down to the sixty-first floor, where there were office suites and a swimming pool. He stood frozen for a minute before he realized he’d rushed out without his passport.
Ramona left the apartment shortly after Wright. She went straight down to the basement car park and was relieved to find the police weren’t guarding the exits. She jumped into her car, a hire vehicle, and, in her panic, crashed into the exit barrier. But she didn’t stop, and was soon on the freeway heading to north Sydney. She just wanted to be somewhere familiar where she would have time to think. She felt vulnerable without her phone, and decided to drive to a friend’s and borrow his. She went to his workplace and took his phone, telling him she couldn’t explain because she didn’t want to get him involved.
Meanwhile, Wright was still standing beside the swimming pool in his suit, with a laptop in his arms. He heard people coming up the stairs, sped down the corridor, and ducked into the gents’. A bunch of teenagers were standing around but seemed not to notice him. He went to the farthest cubicle and deliberately kept the door unlocked. (He figured the police would just look for an engaged sign.) He was standing on top of the toilet when he heard the officers come in. They asked the youngsters what they were doing, but they said “nothing” and the police left. Wright stayed in the cubicle for a few minutes, then went out and used his apartment keycard to hide in the service stairwell. Eventually, a call came from Ramona on her friend’s phone. She was slightly horrified to discover he was still in the building and told him again to get out. He, too, had a rental car, and had the key in his pocket. He went down sixty flights of stairs to the parking lot in the basement, unlocked his car, and opened the trunk, where he lifted out the spare wheel and put his laptop in the wheel cavity. He drove toward the Harbour Bridge and got lost in the traffic.
As Ramona drove along she began texting the mysterious Stefan, who was at Sydney Airport, having already checked in for a flight to Manila, where he lived. Stefan had to make a fuss to get his bag removed from the plane. He then headed back into Sydney and he spoke en route to Ramona, telling her that Wright would have to get out of the country. She didn’t argue. She called the Flight Centre and asked what flights were leaving. “To where?” asked the saleswoman.
“Anywhere,” Ramona said. Within ten minutes she had booked her husband on a flight to Auckland.
In the early evening, Wright, scared and lost, made his way to the shopping district of Chatswood, an area he knew well and in which he felt comfortable. He texted Ramona to come and meet him, and she immediately texted back saying he should go straight to the airport; she’d booked him a flight. “But I don’t have my passport,” he said. Ramona was afraid she’d be arrested if she returned to their apartment, but her friend said he’d go into the building and get the passport. They waited until the police left the building, then he went upstairs. A few minutes later he came back with the passport, along with the other computer and a power supply.
They met Wright in the airport parking lot. Ramona had never seen him so worried. “I was shocked,” he later said. “I hadn’t expected to be outed like that in the media, and then to be chased down by the police. Normally, I’d be prepared. I’d have a bag packed.” As Ramona gave him the one-way ticket to Auckland, she was anxious about when she would see him again. Wright said New Zealand was a bit too close and wondered what to do about money. Ramona went to an ATM and gave him six hundred dollars. He bought a yellow bag from the airport shop in which to store his computers. He had no clothes. “It was awful saying goodbye to him,” Ramona said.
In the queue for security, he felt nervous about his computers. His flight was about to close when the security staff flagged him down. He was being taken to an interview room when an Indian man behind him started going berserk. It was just after the Paris bombings; the man’s wife was wearing a sari and the security staff wanted to pat her down. The man objected. All the security staff ran over to deal with the situation and Wright was told to go. He couldn’t believe his luck. He put his head down and scurried through the lounge.
Back at Wright’s office, Allan Pedersen was being interviewed by the police. He overheard one of them ask: “Have we got Wright yet?”
“He’s just hopped a flight to New Zealand,” his colleague said. Wright was soon 30,000 feet above the Tasman Sea watching the programmer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) being chased by unknowable agents in The Matrix. Wright found the story line strangely comforting; it was good to know he wasn’t alone.
At Auckland Airport, Wright kept his phone on flight mode but turned it on to Skype with Stefan using the airport’s Wi-Fi and a new account. They had a discussion about how to get him to Manila. There was a big rock concert that night in Auckland, and all the hotels were full, but he crossed town in a cab and managed to get a small room at the Hilton. He booked two nights, using cash. He knew how to get more cash out of ATMs than the daily limit, so he worked several machines near the hotel, withdrawing five thousand dollars. He ordered room service that night and the next morning went to the Billabong store in Queen Street to buy some clothes. He felt agitated, out of his element: normally he would wear a suit and tie — he enjoys the notion that he is too well-dressed to be a geek — but he bought a T-shirt, a pair of jeans, and some socks. On the way back to the hotel he got a bunch of SIM cards, so that his calls wouldn’t be monitored. Back at the Hilton he was packing up his computers when the dependable Stefan came on Skype. He told Wright to go to the airport and pick up a ticket he’d left him for a flight to Manila. His picture was all over the papers, along with the story that he was trying to escape.
Within hours of Wright’s name appearing in the press, anonymous messages threatened to reveal his “actual history.” Some said he had been on Ashley Madison, the website that sets up extramarital affairs, others that he’d been seen on Grindr, the gay hookup app. During a six-hour layover in Hong Kong, he killed his email accounts and tried to wipe his social media profile, which he knew would be heavy with information he wasn’t keen to publicize: “Mainly rants,” he said later. When he got to Manila airport, Stefan picked him up. They went to Stefan’s apartment and the maid washed Wright’s clothes while he set up his laptops on the dining room table. They spent the rest of Saturday wiping his remaining social media profile. Stefan didn’t want any contact to be possible: he wanted to cut Wright off from the world. The next day he put him on a plane to London.
Technology is constantly changing the lives of people who don’t really understand it — we drive our cars, and care nothing for internal combustion — but now and then a story will break that captures the imagination of the general public. I was one of the people who had never heard of Satoshi Nakamoto or the blockchain — the invention underlying bitcoin, which verifies transactions without the need for any central authority — or that it is the biggest thing in computer science. It was news to me that the banks were grabbing on to the blockchain as the foundation of a future “internet of value.” If it hadn’t been for my involvement with Assange, the story of this mythical computer scientist might never have come my way. I’m not much detained by thoughts of new computer paradigms. (I’m still getting the hang of the first one.) But to those who are much more invested in the world of tomorrow, the Satoshi story has the lineaments of a modern morality tale quite independent of stock realities. There are things, there are always things, that others assume are at the center of the universe but don’t make a scratch on your own sense of the everyday world. This story was like that for me, enclosing me in an enigma I couldn’t have named. A long-form report is a fashioned thing, of course, as fashioned as fiction in its own ways, but I had to overcome my own bafflement — as will you — to enter this world.
A few weeks before the raid on Craig Wright’s house, when his name still hadn’t ever been publicly associated with Satoshi Nakamoto, I got an email from a Los Angeles lawyer called Jimmy Nguyen, from the firm Davis Wright Tremaine (self-described as “a one-stop shop for companies in entertainment, technology, advertising, sports and other industries”). Nguyen told me that they were looking to contract me to write the life of Satoshi Nakamoto. “My client has acquired life story rights … from the true person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto — the creator of the bitcoin protocol,” the lawyer wrote. “The story will be [of ] great interest to the public and we expect the book project will generate significant publicity and media coverage once Satoshi’s true identity is revealed.”
Journalists, it turned out, had spent years looking for Nakamoto. His identity was one of the great mysteries of the internet, and a holy grail of investigative reporting, with writers who couldn’t dig up evidence simply growing their own. For The New Yorker’s Joshua Davis the need to find him seemed almost painful. “Nakamoto himself was a cipher,” he wrote in October 2011:
Before the debut of bitcoin, there was no record of any coder with that name. He used an email address and a Web site that were untraceable. In 2009 and 2010, he wrote hundreds of posts in flawless English, and though he invited other software developers to help him improve the code, and corresponded with them, he never revealed a personal detail. Then, in April, 2011, he sent a note to a developer saying that he had “moved on to other things.” He has not been heard from since.
Davis went on to examine Satoshi’s writing quite closely and concluded that he used British spelling and was fond of the word “bloody.” He then named a twenty-three-year-old Trinity College Dublin graduate student, Michael Clear, who quickly denied it. The story went nowhere and Clear went back to his studies. Then Leah McGrath Goodman wrote a piece for Newsweek claiming Satoshi was a math genius called Dorian Nakamoto, who lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Temple City and didn’t actually know, it turned out, how to pronounce “bitcoin.” When Goodman’s article ran on the magazine’s cover, reporters from all over the world arrived on Dorian’s doorstep. He said he would give an interview to the first person who would take him to lunch. It turned out that his hobby wasn’t alternative currencies but model trains. Someone calling himself Satoshi Nakamoto, and using Satoshi’s original email address, visited one of the forums Satoshi used to haunt and posted the message “I am not Dorian Nakamoto.” Other commentators, including Nathaniel Popper of The New York Times, named Nick Szabo, a cool cryptocurrency nut and the inventor of digital money called Bit Gold, but he denied it profusely. Forbes believed it was Hal Finney, who, the blockchain irrefutably showed, was the first person in the world to be sent bitcoins by Satoshi. Finney, a native Californian, was an expert cryptographer whose involvement in the development of bitcoin was vital. He was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 2009 and died in 2014. It came to seem that the holy grail would remain out of reach. “Many in the bitcoin community … in deference to the bitcoin creator’s clear desire for privacy … didn’t want to see the wizard unmasked,” Popper wrote in The NewYorkTimes. “But even among those who said this, few could resist debating the clues the founder left behind.”
A man walks past the home of 64-year-old physicist Dorian S. Nakamoto in suburban Los Angeles. In 2014, a Newsweek reporter suggested Nakamoto was the creator of bitcoin, a lead that turned out to be false. (Frederic J. Brown /AFP/Getty Images)
As with every story I’ve ever worked on, I checked the background and made a number of calls before I got back to the lawyers representing the mysterious client. The client’s idea, I then discovered from the lawyers, was that I would have full access to their man, Satoshi, to write a book and have it published as I saw fit. I listened carefully and I took some advice; I wanted to be careful. I had to find out exactly what these clients were looking for and why they’d come to me. This information came slowly, and I let the deal remain vague, I signed nothing, while I worked out who they were. The “Stefan” who was hovering during the raid on Craig Wright’s house and office is Stefan Matthews, an Australian IT expert whom Wright had known for ten years, since they both worked for the online gambling site Centrebet. In those days, around 2007, Wright was often hired as a security analyst by such firms, deploying his skills as a computer scientist (and his experience as a hacker) to make life difficult for fraudsters. Wright was an eccentric guy, Stefan Matthews remembered, but known to be a reliable freelancer. Matthews told me that Wright had given him a document to look at in 2008 written by someone called Satoshi Nakamoto, but Matthews had been busy at the time and didn’t read it for a while. He said that Wright was always trying to get him interested in this new venture called bitcoin. He tried to sell him 50,000 bitcoins for next to nothing, but Matthews wasn’t interested, he told me, because Wright was weird and the whole thing seemed a bit cranky. A few years later, however, Matthews realized that the document he had been shown was, in fact, an original draft of the now famous white paper by Satoshi Nakamoto. (Like the governments they despise, bitcoiners deal — when it comes to ideas — in “white papers,” as if they are issuing laws.)
In 2015, when Wright was in financial trouble — his companies were facing bankruptcy and he was at the end of his wits — he approached Matthews several times. By then, Matthews had become friendly with Robert MacGregor, the founder and CEO of a Canada-based money-transfer firm called nTrust. Matthews encouraged MacGregor to come to Australia and assess Wright’s value as an investment opportunity. Wright had founded a number of businesses that were failing and he was deeply embedded in a dispute with the ATO. Nevertheless, Matthews told MacGregor, Wright was almost certainly the man behind bitcoin.
Matthews argued that since Satoshi’s disappearance in 2011, Wright had been working on new applications of the blockchain technology he had invented as Satoshi. He was, in other words, using the technology underlying bitcoin to create new versions of the formula that could, at a stroke, replace the systems of bookkeeping and registration and centralized authority that banks and governments depend on. Wright and his people were preparing dozens of patents, and each invention, in a specific way, looked to rework financial, social, legal, or medical services, expanding on the basic idea of the “distributed public ledger” that constitutes the blockchain. The math behind the technology can be mind-boggling, but bitcoin is a form of digital money where the flow and the integrity of the currency are guaranteed by its appearance on a shared public ledger, updated and refreshed with every single transaction, a “public history” that cannot be corrupted by any single entity. It works by consensus, and is secured by a series of private and public encryption keys. It is like a Google document that can be used and updated by anyone linked into the “chain.” The blockchain can do many things, but the revolutionary aspect is that it takes authoritarianism and sharp practice out of the banking system, embedding all power over the currency within the self-cleansing software itself and the people who use it. Blockchain technology is a hot topic in computer science and banking at the moment, and hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in such ideas. Thus: Matthews’s proposal.
MacGregor came out to Australia in May 2015. After initial skepticism, and in spite of a slight aversion to Wright’s manner, he was persuaded, and struck a deal with Wright, signed on June 29, 2015. MacGregor says he felt sure that Wright was bitcoin’s legendary missing father, and he told me it was his idea, later in the drafting of the deal, to insist that Satoshi’s “life rights” be included as part of the agreement. Wright’s companies were so deep in debt that the deal appeared to him like a rescue plan, so he agreed to everything, without, it seems, really examining what he would have to do. Within a few months, according to evidence later given to me by Matthews and MacGregor, the deal would cost MacGregor’s company $15 million. “That’s right,” Matthews said to me in February 2016. “When we signed the deal, 1.5 million dollars was given to Wright’s lawyers. But my main job was to set up an engagement with the new lawyers … and transfer Wright’s intellectual property to nCrypt” — a newly formed subsidiary of nTrust. “The deal had the following components: clear the outstanding debts that were preventing Wright’s business from getting back on its feet, and work with the new lawyers on getting the agreements in place for the transfer of any noncorporate intellectual property, and work with the lawyers to get Craig’s story rights.” From that point on, the “Satoshi revelation” would be part of the deal. “It was the cornerstone of the commercialization plan,” Matthews said, “with about ten million sunk into the Australian debts and setting up in London.”
The plan was always clear to the men behind nCrypt. They would bring Wright to London and set up a research and development center for him, with around thirty staff working under him. They would complete the work on his inventions and patent applications — he appeared to have hundreds of them — and the whole lot would be sold as the work of Satoshi Nakamoto, who would be unmasked as part of the project. Once packaged, Matthews and MacGregor planned to sell the intellectual property for upward of a billion dollars. MacGregor later told me he was speaking to Google and Uber, as well as to a number of Swiss banks. “The plan was to package it all up and sell it,” Matthews told me. “The plan was never to operate it.”
Since the time I worked with Julian Assange, my computers have been hacked several times. It isn’t unusual for me to find that material has been wiped — at one point 30,000 emails — and I was careful to make sure the Los Angeles lawyers’ approach wasn’t part of a sting operation. Not long after their initial approach, the lawyers had mentioned that the company behind the deal was called nTrust. I did some research and the lawyers then confirmed that the “client” referred to in the initial email was Robert MacGregor. I was soon in correspondence with MacGregor himself. On Thursday, November 12, I turned up, by appointment, at his office near Oxford Circus, where I signed in under a pseudonym and made my way to a boardroom wallpapered with mathematical formulae. MacGregor came into the room wearing a tailored jacket and jeans, with a blue-edged pocket square in his breast pocket, a scarf, and brown brogue boots. He was forty-seven but looked about twenty-nine. There was something studied about him — the Alexander McQueen scarf, the lawyerly punctilio — and I’d never met anyone who spoke so easily about such large sums of money. When I asked him the point of the whole exercise, he said it was simple: “Buy in, sell out, make some zeroes.”
MacGregor described Wright to me as “the goose that lays the golden egg.” He said that if I agreed to take part I would have exclusive access to the whole story, and to everyone around Wright, and that it would all end with Wright proving he was Satoshi by using cryptographic keys that only Satoshi had access to, those associated with the very first blocks in the blockchain. MacGregor told me this might happen at a public TED talk. He said it would be “game over.” Wright’s patents would then be sold and Wright could get on with his life, out of the public eye. “All he wants is peace to get on with his work,” MacGregor told me at that first meeting. “And how this ends, for me, is with Craig working for, say, Google, with a research staff of four hundred.”
I told MacGregor that there would have to be a process of verification. We talked about money, and negotiated a little, but after several meetings I decided I wouldn’t accept any. I would write the story as I had every other story under my name, by observing and interviewing, taking notes and making recordings, and sifting the evidence. “It should be warts and all,” MacGregor said. He said it several times, but I was never sure he understood what it meant. This was a changing story, and I was the only one keeping account of the changes. MacGregor and his coworkers were already convinced Wright was Satoshi, and they behaved, to my mind, as if that claim was the end of the story, rather than the beginning.
I don’t mean to imply anything sinister. The company was excited by the project and so was I. Very quickly we were working hand in hand: I reserved judgment (and independence) but I was caught up in the thought of the story unfolding as planned. At this point, nobody knew who Craig Wright was, but he appeared, from the initial evidence, to have a better claim to being Satoshi Nakamoto than anyone else had. He seemed to have the technical ability. He also had the right social history, and the timeline worked. The big proof was up ahead, and how could it not be spectacular? I went slowly forward with the project, and said no to everything that would hamper my independence. This would become an issue later on with MacGregor and Matthews, or the men in black, as I’d taken to calling them, but for those first few months, nobody asked me to sign anything and nobody refused me access. Mysteries would open up, and some would remain, but there seemed no mystery about the fact that these people were confident that a supremely important thing was happening and that the entire process should be witnessed and recorded. My emails to MacGregor took it for granted that what would be good for my story, in terms of securing proof, would also be good for his deal, and that seemed perfectly true. Yet I feel bad that I didn’t warn him of the possibility that this might not be what happened, that my story wouldn’t die if the deal died, that human interest doesn’t stop at success.
It was at this point, four weeks after my first meeting with MacGregor, that Wired and Gizmodo reported that Wright might be Satoshi. The news unleashed a tsunami of responses from the cryptocurrency community, and most of it was bad for Wright’s credibility. Had he left artificial footprints to suggest his involvement with bitcoin had been earlier than it was? Had he exaggerated the number and nature of the degrees he’d accumulated from various universities? Why did the company that supplied the supercomputer he claimed to have bought with amassed bitcoin say it had never heard of him?
“The smell,” as one commentator said, “was a mile high.” The nCrypt people were unfazed by this mudslinging, believing that every one of the charges made against Wright could be easily disproved. Wright produced an impressive paper — for internal use only — showing that his “footprint” wasn’t faked and that the “cryptographic” evidence against him was bogus (people continue to argue on this point). The accusation of fraud didn’t seem to bother the nCrypt people. I was a bit confused by the mudslinging, but I kept listening. Wright produced a letter from the supercomputer supplier acknowledging the order. Charles Sturt University provided a photocopy of his staff card, proving he had lectured there, and Wright sent me a copy of the thesis he’d submitted for a doctorate his critics claim he doesn’t have.
I had arrived five minutes early at 28º–50º, a wine bar and restaurant in Mayfair. It was just before 1 p.m. on December 16 and the lunchtime crowd, men in blue suits and white shirts, were eating oysters and baby back ribs and drinking high-end wine by the glass. A jeroboam of Graham’s ten-year-old tawny port stood on the bar, and I was inspecting it when MacGregor arrived with Mr. and Mrs. Smith. That’s what he’d been calling them in his emails to me. Craig Wright, forty-five years old, wearing a white shirt under a black jacket, a pair of blue chinos, a belt with a large Armani buckle, and very green socks, wasn’t the kind of guy who seems comfortable in a swish restaurant. He sat across from me and lowered his head and at first he let MacGregor do the talking. Ramona was very friendly, chatting about their time in London as if they were a couple of holidaymakers who’d just blown into Mayfair. She wasn’t drinking, but the rest of us ordered a glass of Malbec each. When Wright lifted his head to laugh at something, I noticed he had a nice smile but uneven teeth, and a scar that climbed from the top of his nose to the area just above his left eyebrow. He hadn’t shaved for a week, since he’d left Sydney.
Wright told me he was rubbish at small talk. He, too, wanted what I wrote to be “warts and all”; he felt he was being misunderstood by everybody, and normally that wouldn’t bother him but he had to consider the respectability of his work, and his family’s rights. He appeared to ponder this for a moment, then he told me his old neighbors at the house in Gordon hadn’t been friendly.
“They barely even knew your name,” Ramona said. “They do now,” he replied.
I found him easier to talk to than I’d expected. He said his father had worked for the NSA (he could provide no further information), but that, to this day, his mother thinks he worked for NASA. “The few people I care about I care about a lot,” he said, “and I care about the state of the world. But there’s not much in between.” He said he was happy I was writing about him because he wanted “to step into history,” but mainly because he wanted to tell the story of the brilliant people he had collaborated with. He and Ramona were both jet-lagged and anxious about things back home. “We should have been having our company’s Christmas party today,” Ramona said.
MacGregor asked Wright if being a libertarian had influenced his work, or if the work had turned him into a libertarian. “I was always libertarian,” he replied, and then he told me his father had more or less kidnapped him after his parents got divorced. He hated being told what to do — that was one of his main motivations. He believed in freedom, and in what freedom would come to mean, and he said his work would guarantee a future in which privacy was protected. “Where we are,” he said, “is a place where people can be private and part of that privacy is to be someone other than who they were. Computing will allow you to start again, if you want to. And that is freedom.” In fact he never stopped imagining different lives for himself. That afternoon he seemed preoccupied by the case people were making against his being Satoshi. He shook his head a lot and said he wished he could just get on in silence with his work. “If you want to stay sane through this, ignore Reddit,” his wife told him.
The next day, December 17, we met again, in a private room in Claridge’s. You could see outside, over the rooftops, cranes garlanded in fairy lights. Ramona came in looking tired and totally fed up. From time to time, especially when exhausted, she would resent the hold these people had over them. “We have sold our souls,” she said to me in a quiet moment.
MacGregor said he would spend the evening preparing paperwork to be signed by Wright the following day. This would effectively be the final signing over to nCrypt of the intellectual property held by Wright’s companies. This was the main plank in the deal. MacGregor was confident the work was “world historical,” that it would change the way we lived. He regularly described the blockchain as the greatest invention since the internet. He said that what the internet had done for communication, the blockchain would do for value.
MacGregor explained that Wright’s Australian companies were being signed over to nCrypt and that he’d extended an “olive branch” to the ATO, which had responded quickly and positively. A lot of trouble with the ATO had to do with whether bitcoin was a commodity or a currency and how it should be taxed. It also had doubts about whether Wright’s companies had done as much research and development as they claimed, and whether they were therefore entitled to the tax rebates they had applied for. The ATO had said it couldn’t see where the spending was going. Some critics in the media claimed Wright’s companies had been set up only for the purpose of claiming rebates, though not even the ATO went that far.
Wright told me that thanks to the tax office they’d had to lay out all the research for their patents, which had been useful since the nCrypt team was in a hurry: the banks, now alert to crypto-currencies and the effectiveness of the blockchain, are rushing to create their own versions. At that moment, Bank of America was patenting ten ideas for which Craig and his team told me they had a claim to “prior art.” Governments spent a long time denying the value of bitcoin — seeing it as unstable, or the currency of criminals — but now they were celebrating the potential of the technology behind it.
“They’re behaving like children,” Wright said of the ATO.
MacGregor looked at his watch. He straightened his cuffs. “I see this as a pivotal moment in history … It’s like being able to go back in time and watch Bill Gates in the garage.” He turned to Wright. “You released this thing into the wild. Some people got it right and some people got it wrong. But you’ve got a vision of where it’s going next and next and next.”
“None of this would have worked without bitcoin,” Wright said, “but it’s a wheel and I want to build a car.”
Ramona looked depressed. She was worried that her husband, as the person claiming to have invented bitcoin, might be held liable for the actions of those who’d used the currency for nefarious purposes. “He didn’t issue a currency,” MacGregor assured her. “This is just technology — it is not money.” Ramona was still anxious. “We’re talking about legal risk … I’m giving you the legal answer,” MacGregor said. “I would stake my career on the fact that the creation of bitcoin is not a prosecutable event.”
Right to the end, the Wrights would express worries about things Craig did as a young computer forensics worker. Much of his professional past looked questionable, but in the meeting room at Claridge’s he simply batted the past away. “It’s what you’re doing now that matters. I’m not perfect. I never will be … All these different people arguing about what Satoshi should be at the moment, it’s crazy.”