The crowd is its own character in Julius Caesar; they are there to be angered, to forgive, to protest, and most importantly, to be persuaded. In Oskar Eustis’s controversial production, the ensemble sat among the audience for most of the play, standing up to protest only midway through the show. This became confusing during one of the final performances, when a 24-year-old, right-wing activist named Laura Loomer rushed the stage after the assassination scene in the Senate, shouting “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!” (“We’re not promoting it,” an actress onstage said to Loomer in the moment. “This is Julius Caesar.”)
When she was 12 years old, Kate Daloz learned that her grandmother had died not from a household accident, as she had been told by her mother, but from a “criminal abortion,” which is how it was described on her death certificate. Now in her thirties, Daloz wanted to unravel the family secret that had left her mother without her mother. It was a story that could only be told after she found an essential archive of material—and it was also a story that could be told when her mother was ready for her to tell it.
“My Grandmother’s Desperate Choice” was published on the New Yorker‘s website on Mother’s Day, and for the next 48 hours it topped the magazine’s “Most Popular” list until it was unseated by breaking news about the president. I spoke with Kate about the response to the essay, and why it felt urgent to tell her grandmother’s story in the Trump era.
In the beginning of the piece you describe the moment your mother finally revealed to you that your grandmother had died of a self-induced abortion. How did this family secret reveal itself over the years, and when did you know it was time to write about it?
That last question is the easiest to answer: November 8, 2016. Within a week or two of Donald Trump and Mike Pence gaining office—as soon as it became clear that access to safe, legal abortion was in serious jeopardy—I called my mom and asked her if it was time to go public with Win’s story. She said yes immediately.
As I was growing up, Win’s death wasn’t something we talked about often, though it was always somehow present. From the moment my mom first told me the story, it has always felt both personal and political. The facts of her death make the contours of the abortion debate so stark—if my grandmother had just been able to make an appointment at Planned Parenthood she would not have died the way she did, and her children would not have grown up without their mother. It’s really that simple. That’s why, after the election, my mom and I both felt strongly that Win’s story could be a way for others to understand the stakes as urgently as we do.
I realized that I knew almost nothing about Win except the circumstances of her death. Almost all the details that appear in the piece are things I learned only when I began researching—from the letters and documents my mother carefully collected as an adult, along with the others I found on my own.
Within my mom’s immediate family there was near-total silence on this subject. Decades after she died, any mention of Win was still incredibly fraught. My aunt put it really well: My grandfather’s refusal to talk about Win with their children turned her death into the only memorable event of her life. That kind of silence was a common response for someone of his generation, but it was a terrible disservice, both to his children and to Win herself.
What family material was available to you as you wrote the story?
I used letters, photographs, and conversations with older cousins and family friends. At a certain point in my research I realized the taboo that had kept everyone from sharing information with Win’s children might not be as strong for other branches of the family—and in fact I was right. My mother’s cousins knew details of the story I’d never heard, and I was able to fill in major gaps in my understanding.
A few years ago, when I was working on my book about communal life in 1970s Vermont, I noticed that as they age, people are often willing to share more intimate details about their lives and to admit to greater ambiguity and vulnerability than when they were younger. Shame, fear, and all the other things that stop us from feeling free to tell the whole truth can sometimes drop away over time. It’s one reason I think younger generations should always go back and keep asking and re-asking questions—even about subjects older generations might think of as firmly settled.
Was there a key piece of archival information that allowed you to finally tell your grandmother’s story?
Win’s mother, Nyesie, saved every single letter Win wrote from when she went to college until two weeks before she died at 31. Her grandson, my mother’s cousin, transcribed and shared them with me. It was an incredible gift. Poring through those letters was one of the most amazing reading experiences I’ve ever had. Win went from a ghost, known only to me by the horrible way she died, and the hole she left in my mother’s life, to a full person. She was an amazing writer—funny, witty, observant—and her letters are so full of love and affection, first for her mother and later for her husband and children. When I finished reading them, I felt like I’d been hanging out with her for weeks.
The other extraordinary resource I had available were the near-daily letters written by Win’s friend and neighbor, Katrina, to her husband who was in London during the war. Katrina was the person my grandfather called when he came home and found Win dead; afterwards, she also arranged childcare and offered them a place to stay. She recorded all of this, including dialogue, in letters that her husband later brought home with him and which remain carefully preserved, 70 years later. It’s making me wonder if historians of the future will have access to our digital communications in the same way. For their sake, I hope so.
When did you let your mother read a draft of the piece? What were her thoughts?
I was always talking to my mother about the research—in a way it felt like a collaboration. By coincidence, she was visiting my home when I finished the first full draft. Instead of giving it to her to read, she asked me to read it aloud to her. It was intense, but by that point we were both really ready for the story to be in the world. I keep telling her she’s brave but it doesn’t feel that way to her.
You have to remember that the worst parts of this story—that her mother died, horribly and unnecessarily—was, for most of her life, the only thing she knew. The details that the piece uncovered were the commonplace details of a life lost—that Win was a wonderful writer, that her parents had been madly in love, that her mother had written about her as a baby with total joy and affection.
What has the response been to the piece, both from your family and from strangers?
It’s been overwhelmingly positive to a degree I would never have dared expect. For my family, I think they felt a lot like I did. There was a sense of relief at finally speaking openly about a long-held secret and joy at gaining a fuller picture of this woman we’ve all wondered about for so long.
What surprised me is how many people outside the family have also expressed a kind of gratitude for this story being told—in particular, women my mother’s age who still remember illegal abortions.
What do you understand about your grandmother after writing this piece? What do you think you’ll never understand?
I feel like I finally have a sense of her as a real person. I’m older now than she was when she died, which is an interesting perspective; having two children myself also helps me empathize with some of the pressures she might have felt when she found herself pregnant again and unequipped to raise three small children during wartime.
But I have to keep reminding myself that getting to know someone through letters is not the same thing as really getting to know her. Of course I wonder how my mom’s life would have been different if she hadn’t lost her mother so young. I also would love to know how Win would have changed over the course of her life. She seemed to enjoy some parts of being a housewife, and was impatient with others. How would she have responded to the 1950s? Would she have become a feminist in the ’70s? Would she have continued writing in any formal way?
I keep thinking about Win’s last hours. When she died, her children were asleep in the next room. The fact that she didn’t even arrange childcare for them as she attempted to self-abort to me says there’s no way she really comprehended the danger of what she was doing. I’m not sure anyone observing from the outside can truly understand what goes through another person’s mind when they make this kind of decision.
What I do feel like I understand, though, is how personal the choice to end a pregnancy is, and how urgent. I feel like this story has showed me a lot about the lengths to which a person can be driven by desperation.
Seventeen years ago, Nina Martin’s sister almost died in childbirth. “I remember the trauma of that experience really, really, really well,” recalled Martin. “The disorientation of it and then also, the silencing of it afterwards.”
Martin is ProPublica’s sexuality and gender reporter, and Martin and NPR special correspondent Renee Montagne recently co-authored the first of several stories on maternal care in America. The first part of the series aired on NPR last week, and the other was published on ProPublica as “The Last Person You’d Expect to Die in Childbirth.”
Over the next several months, Martin and Montagne will release more stories about maternal care in America which will focus on a host of issues surrounding maternal mortality, including racial disparity in care and women with near misses. Every mother has her own story of birth, and all too often these stories go unnoticed, or are buried under platitudes that focus on the health of the baby. Together, Martin and Montagne want to move the conversation back to the mother, and ask why America is the only developed nation where maternal death rates are rising.
Longreads spoke to both journalists about the process of reporting the story, their passion behind the project, and the impact they hope it will have.
Meet the man behind the ratings: Matt Nelson, college sophomore and creator of WeRateDogs. In Esquire, Megan Greenwell traces the evolution of WeRateDogs from spur-of-the-moment joke to data-driven fav-machine and profiles its creator, who’s always been driven to win — whether at golf, Easter egg hunts, or Twitter.
Stories about social-media fame are generally told as stories about happy accidents—an unknown user posts something intended for a few friends, but through some act of providence or alchemy it “goes viral” and turns its creator into a star overnight. That is not the story of WeRateDogs. To Matt Nelson, Twitter has always been a game to be won.
Of course, to Nelson, everything has always been a game to be won. His sister, Amanda, now twenty-two, was the academic star; she graduated this year from the University of Michigan. His brother, Mitchell, now seventeen, was the laid-back one; he just finished his junior year in Charleston, West Virginia, where the Nelsons moved when Matt was eight. Matt, his mother Barbra said, was “the intense one.”
“As a kid, he was very competitive no matter what was going on,” she said. “It could be as simple as Easter-egg hunting, and he wanted to win at all costs. Not every event in your family can be a competition; it doesn’t always go over well with your siblings.”
“If breathing was a competitive sport, it would be his goal to out-breathe everyone,” his dad, Mark, added.
At Lenny, Kaitlyn Greenidge interviews Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard out of Carolina, on growing up poor, finding her voice, overcoming the stigma of poverty, and being a lesbian in Donald Trump’s America.
And then define, what is your own unique story? It’s a struggle for every writer. And to value your story is a struggle for every writer. The problem is, of course, that if you live in a culture that inherently devalues the poor, the working class, the darks, the queer, the other, and you are all those categories, then you are fighting the voice of your culture at the same time that you are fighting all of the other difficulties of developing a voice and telling a story.
It’s a miracle that we ever manage, but my conviction — and I’m old enough to have evidence to support my convictions — is that the best American literature is working-class literature. The strongest voices are those voices, those people who have come out of the poor and the disadvantaged circumstances to claim their right to tell a story. And they tell stories with such passion and brilliance. You don’t have to read far to realize the power of those outlaw voices and how they dominate American literature.
Born of a piece of performance art, Sleepover is a podcast by Sook-Yin Lee. In the show, now starting its second season, three strangers spend a night together, sharing their stories in a bid to solve one another’s problems. At Bello Collective, Galen Beebe interviews Lee about the show. Equal parts documentary and social experiment, Sleepover is transformative as a listening experience, creating true human connection in world of constant online communication, where emojis and stickers rule and 130 character limits leave us skimming the surface of important issues.
Galen: I’m not surprised people might be reluctant to participate — they have to vulnerable to a huge audience, not to mention the three strangers in the room. How do you get your guests to be vulnerable?
Sook-Yin: Most interviews happen within ten minutes. They’re focused on sound bites; people enter and they mostly present their presentational self. Being in Sleepover, it may begin that way and we’re all pulled to put our presentational self forward, but just the sheer fact of being in there for so long, you can only fake that for so long. Everybody is together in this experience, and a challenging one at that! We’re co-creators together. We’re all under the same stresses and in the same shared, intense undertaking. It’s almost like we’re in a marathon together. So I think that vulnerability comes from that. And I think the vulnerability comes from actually expressing and sharing that which is meaningful or disconcerting or scary with one another, and when you see somebody and hear them open up in that way, you’re more inclined to do that.
I have noticed that people will come to a sleepover with what they think is the problem, but invariably there is a deeper level to their problem. So on the surface it might be like, I am lonely and I would like a friend. But when you get beyond that elusive friend, what is underneath that, you know, why are you wearing armor? What’s happening? What is it that’s disabling you from letting people in? And then probably when you figure out the sublevel of that problem, the sub problem of the problem and the more meaningful problem, there’s likely another one underneath there, so really problems are just another word for life.
Cody Delistraty | Longreads | May 2017 | 12 minutes (3,333 words)
There are few subjects in contemporary history who deserve a 1,400-page biography, but Barack Obama’s ascendance to the presidency merits every word. Deeply researched over nine years — with over a thousand interviews and many never-before-seen documents — David J. Garrow’s Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama covers 44’s life to date: his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia, community organizing in Illinois, his impressive work as a Harvard Law student, and his pursuit of politics as a profession in Chicago. All the while, Garrow shows, Obama was both being shaped and thoughtfully crafting himself, turning himself from the bright, jocular kid at Punahou School in Hawaii into one of the most revolutionary, exciting presidents of the modern era.
Garrow is a Professor of Law and History, and a Distinguished Faculty Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Ph.D. from Duke University, and has written several nonfiction books, including Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for Bearing the Cross.
His latest book has already been compared to Robert Caro’s history of Lyndon Johnson, but Garrow’s Obama biography seems to go even further: two hundred pages of footnotes, conversations with seemingly every vital person in Obama’s life, and a nonpartisan perspective that will no doubt open the floodgates of interpretation.
I spoke with Garrow recently, and it’s clear he’s a born interviewer; he began asking me questions about my own life, until, finally, I steered us toward a wide-ranging, exceptionally in-depth conversation in which we discussed Obama’s coming-of-age, influences, formative experiences, shifting personality, the significance of friends and family, and how he eventually understood his own legacy and the arc of his grand personality.
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Cody Delistraty | Longreads | May 2017 | 8 minutes (2,228 words)
Born in Zimbabwe on August 28, 1972, Paula Hawkins’ family moved to London when she was a teenager. Although writing fiction interested her in her younger years, her stories generally remained unfinished. After graduating from Keble College, Oxford, she took the practical route and entered the newsroom at The Times of London, where she became a well-respected financial journalist.
In her thirties, she wrote romantic comedy novels with titles like Confessions of a Reluctant Recessionista, All I Want for Christmas, One Minute to Midnight, and The Reunion under the pseudonym Amy Silver, but this never proved a perfect match for her talents. Increasingly tight on money and disenchanted with writing lighter fare, she sent a partial draft of a new novel to her agent. It was unlike anything she had ever published: dark, twisted, and page-turning. Her agent went gaga. The rest is literary history.
The Girl on the Train has sold about twenty million copies worldwide since January 2015, according to her publisher, and last year’s film adaptation grossed $173 million. Into the Water (out from Riverhead on May 2, 2017), is already destined to be a bestseller and DreamWorks recently purchased the film rights.
Like The Girl on the Train, Into the Water also concerns memory, unreliable narrators, and an obsession with the dark and macabre, but the novel is more complex, with interweaving narratives, narrative perspective shifts, and a cast of characters so complicated it surely deserves a front-of-book family tree for clarity.
I recently spoke with Hawkins about faulty memory, her rise to fame, her desire to be more literary, and the way her novels reflect the contemporary political climate.
At the Bitter Southerner Sara Estes profiles the man behind her state’s strangest sporting event: Lazarus Lake, also known as Gary Cantrell, the creator of the punishing Barkley Marathons. Estes’ piece is a fascinating profile of both the man, the land — “trees like steel bars, thickets like razor wire” —and the community where the Barkley takes place.
When I arrive at Hardee’s, the sun still hasn’t risen, and the air is chilled and dew-damp. Inside, a group of white-haired men — retired, church-going, grandpa types — are seated around a large table in the middle of the restaurant. They’ve been eating breakfast here, every morning, at this very table, since the dawn of fucking time. They can remember all the various phases of branding and décor Hardee’s has cycled through over the decades; they can recount what year the restaurant got new booths, new light fixtures, new flooring. They know the Barkley well, and can always tell its arrival by all the strange new people who flood into the small town around April Fool’s Day, the day on which Laz purposefully chose to host the race, or as near to it as possible.
When Laz arrives, he orders sausage and eggs and joins the men at their roost. Media crews from France and New York are slowly trickling in. They look like aliens from a distant land with their hi-tech AV equipment and tight-fitting athletic wear. Laz ignores them. His particular brand of grungy, mountain-man fame is generally underwhelming to locals, yet ceaselessly exhilarating to clean-cut city dwellers near and far.
“In France, I’m a star,” he tells me. “In America, I’m thought of more as a homeless person.”
A Tribe Called Quest’s sixth album, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, is a reminder of how much time has passed. As Noisey editor Kyle Kramer notes, it brings Phife Dawg’s voice back from the dead, uses familiar samples, and has that unmistakable Tribe groove. But the hip-hop group’s final studio album also marks now, and for many fans is very much relevant and political, especially given its release the day after the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
Kramer talks with Q-Tip about being egoless and instinctive — and staying true to himself and to Tribe while evolving with the sound of hip-hop.
I think you have to always look ahead, in anything. We sometimes become creatures of habit, and we want to continue to do things that we maybe have enjoyed or that strike a particular chord that we’ve experienced a long, long time ago. But as time moves on and humanity moves on and man moves on and art moves on and philosophy moves on and so on and so forth, you find yourself either faced with a choice of adjusting and moving on with it or staying put. Now, there’s also some good things about what you may have experienced in the past or whatever, and therein lies the challenge. Of: Man, how do I keep to my ethos and keep to my philosophy but adjust it and update it and still have a fresh kind of attitude about it? And that’s tricky. To be able to do that, again, you have to just be egoless to a degree and you have to allow yourself to be challenged and allow yourself to be uncomfortable. And turn off your brain in a way and just trust instinct. And then fall into that, and I think you may end up on a good side.