For The New Yorker, Alexis Okeowo profiles Nigerian fashion designer Amaka Osakwe, whose delicate yet adventurous creations from the line Maki Oh have been worn by Michelle Obama, Solange, and Lupita Nyong’o. Nigeria, a massive country with bustling metropolises, an expanding middle class, and a fashion-forward cadre of cosmopolitan “repats,” is still conservative about sexuality and female agency. Osakwe’s work pushes hard against those old mores while still embracing some of the country’s traditions in textiles and dressmaking.
Her first collection, that same year, was inspired by a coming-of-age ceremony called dipo, undertaken by girls of the Krobo ethnic group in Ghana. In the ceremony, girls are sent to the house of a chief priest, where they undress, have their heads shaved, and are given cloths to wear around their waists; strips of raffia are tied around their necks. During the next few days, older women teach them the skills of seduction, housekeeping, and child rearing. The girls wade into the river with sponges and calabashes for a communal bath, and sit on a sacred stone that affirms their virginity. At the culmination of the rite, they dress in bright kente cloth, adorn their bodies with beads, and dance before the community.
Osakwe, beginning her adult life in Lagos, was drawn to the ritual. “I thought it was fitting at the time,” she said. She broke calabashes into pieces, burned them in an oven to various shades of brown to match Nigerian skin tones, and drilled holes in them so that she could sew them onto blouses. “It was exhausting and exciting,” she said. She made gauzy tops with circles painted on them to accentuate the wearers’ breasts, a reference to the bare-chested girls of the rite. On a low-cut silk jumpsuit, she used an adire motif of a shekere, a dried-gourd instrument covered with beads, which conveys a wish for good times.
Ronan Farrow’s recent piece in The New Yorker, the culmination of a 10-month investigation, tells the stories of 13 women — some named, others not — accusing movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault, including three who charge he raped them. Their accounts are supported by interviews with 16 current and former executives and assistants at Weinstein’s companies, showing how Weinstein’s abuse of women was systematic, facilitated with the cooperation of a team of producers and assistants who knowingly deposited young women into the hotel room of a despicable predator. As Farrow notes, the allegations “corroborate and overlap with” those published by the New York Times last week.
Like most serial predators, Weinstein had a pattern that the recent exposés have made clear. He or a producer or assistant lured women to his hotel room, where Weinstein would either be in or change into a bathrobe and then attempt to make the woman massage him or watch him shower. In some instances, as with actress Asia Argento, he would forcibly perform oral sex on them, force them to perform it on him, or force himself inside them.
The fact that Weinstein was addicted to power, not sex, is evident, particularly in listening to an audio recording Farrow obtained, in which Weinstein panics when model Ambra Battilana Guttierez balks at entering his hotel room. He wheedles, cajoles, pleads and threatens. “Don’t embarrass me,” he whines. “I’m a famous guy.” Then: “Don’t ruin your friendship with me.” It’s a conversation uncomfortably familiar to any woman who has ever rejected a man only to be met with a shocking display of entitled anger mixed with self-loathing. It’s possible, though it seems physically impossible, that Weinstein hates himself more than we hate him. How could he not?
Weinstein also preyed on the insecurities of young women, creating them if they weren’t already there, making overt comments about their weight. Generally, I don’t believe in attacking the appearances of bad people — their actions and words should be fodder enough — but there’s something galling about someone who resembles Jabba the Hutt as much as Weinstein does telling women who rebuff him that they need to lose weight to succeed in Hollywood. He was proof enough they’d do fine with mountains of money and a penis.
Men addicted to power who secretly hate themselves often see themselves as victims when anything doesn’t go their way. Weinstein displays this in his comments after his outing. “In the past I used to compliment people, and some took it as me being sexual, I won’t do that again,” he said petulantly. “I will go anywhere I can learn more about myself,” he said, self-absorbed as ever. He boasted of organizing a foundation for women directors at the University of Southern California. “It will be named after my mom and I won’t disappoint her.” Harvey, I promise you: You already have.
It’s hard not to feel anger towards the employees who helped Weinstein abuse women, especially when Farrow describes how they would give women a false sense of safety by showing up to meetings at the start before trapping them alone with Weinstein. The employees told Farrow they feared retaliation by Weinstein as much as the women did.
Lisa Bloom, an attorney who is Gloria Allred’s daughter, has already abandoned Weinstein, after previously agreeing to take his money to help him better his image. His current spokesperson, identified in Farrow’s piece, is also a woman, which is undoubtedly strategic. Sallie Hofmeister, former business editor at the New York Times and assistant managing editor at the Los Angeles Times, is now accepting Weinstein’s money and letting her name be used with such statements as “with respect to any women who have made allegations on the record, Mr. Weinstein believes that all of these relationships were consensual,” which is essentially an insanity defense. Weinstein wants “a second chance,” Hofmeister tells us, which would have been relevant information sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s.
For the record, public relations is not like law. People are entitled to a legal defense. No one is entitled to a spokesperson.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking and enraging part of Farrow’s story is the consistency with which women blamed themselves for what he did. From Lucia Evans, a former aspiring actress who was scared off from pursuing that as a career because of her encounter with Weinstein:
“He forced me to perform oral sex on him.” As she objected, Weinstein took his penis out of his pants and pulled her head down onto it. “I said, over and over, ‘I don’t want to do this, stop, don’t,’ ” she said. “I tried to get away, but maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t want to kick him or fight him.” In the end, she said, “He’s a big guy. He overpowered me.” At a certain point, she said, “I just sort of gave up. That’s the most horrible part of it, and that’s why he’s been able to do this for so long to so many women: people give up, and then they feel like it’s their fault.”
And Asia Argento:
When he returned, he was wearing a bathrobe and holding a bottle of lotion. “He asks me to give a massage. I was, like, ‘Look, man, I am no fucking fool,’ ” Argento said. “But, looking back, I am a fucking fool.”
Argento, who insisted that she wanted to tell her story in all its complexity, said that she didn’t physically fight him off, something that has prompted years of guilt.
“If I were a strong woman, I would have kicked him in the balls and run away.”
She said that she told Weinstein, “I am not a whore,” and that he began laughing. He said he’d put the phrase on a T-shirt.
At a moment when there’s so much distressing news about bad men, it’s a relief to read an article about some inspiring women.
At Lenny Letter, novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge writes about her weekend in Chesapeake, Virginia for the 150th anniversary of the United Order of Tents, a somewhat secret society of black women established just after the end of the Civil War, which has long provided financial and other kinds of support to black communities.
The organization was founded by two former slaves, Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor. Lane had been a nurse on the plantation where she was enslaved, and over the years, that has influenced the group’s makeup and mission.
Tents members are from all social classes — Lodis Gloston was a school principal before she retired; others work in government or real estate, and some are working class. In the past, Tents members were often nurses, another link to the organization’s founder, Annetta Lane. And even at this conference, there is a small but vocal group of health-care workers.
This connection to health care is central to the Tents’ mission.
But health care is merely one focus. For generations, those women have worked together to provide so much more.
Most astonishing about the Tents is the fact that about a generation out of slavery, in 1894, they established a rest home for the elderly that they ran continuously, with no outside financial help and with no bankruptcy, for over 100 years, until 2002. In addition, at a certain point in the mid-century, the Tents served as a mortgage house for black families and churches who would not have been able to apply for loans from white banks. The Tents, therefore, literally helped build the institutions and homes of their communities.
The first thing you need to understand about consent is that consent is not, strictly speaking, a thing. Not in the same way that teleportation isn’t a thing. Consent is not a thing because it is not an item, nor a possession. Consent is not an object you can hold in your hand. It is not a gift that can be given and then rudely requisitioned. Consent is a state of being. Giving someone your consent — sexually, politically, socially — is a little like giving them your attention. It’s a continuous process. It’s an interaction between two human creatures. I believe that a great many men and boys don’t understand this. I believe that lack of understanding is causing unspeakable trauma for women, men, and everyone else who is sick of how much human sexuality still hurts.
We need to talk about what consent really means, and why it matters more, not less, at a time when women’s fundamental rights to bodily autonomy are under attack across the planet, and the Hog-Emperor of Rape Culture is squatting in the White House making your neighborhood pervert look placid. We still get consent all wrong, and we have to try to get it a bit less wrong, for all our sakes.
To explain all this, I’m going to have to tell you some stories. They’re true stories, and some of them are rude stories, and I’m telling you now because the rest of this ride might get uncomfortable and I want you to have something to look forward to.
Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them. To know what it was like to have one place where we belonged. Where we fit.
My mother is hard to know. Or rather, I know her and don’t know her at the same time. I can imagine her long, grayish-brown hair that she refuses to chop off, the vodka and ice in her hand. But if I try to conjure her face, I’m met instead by her laugh, a fake laugh, the kind of laugh that is trying to prove something, a forced happiness.
Several times a week, she posts tempting photos of food on her Facebook page. Achiote pork tacos with pickled red onions, strips of beef jerky just out of the smoker, slabs of steak that she serves with steamed vegetables. These are the meals of my childhood; sometimes ambitious and sometimes practical. But these meals, for me, call to mind my stepfather; the red of his face, the red of the blood pooled on the plate. He uses a dishtowel to wipe the sweat from his cheeks; his work boots are coated in sawdust. His words puncture me; tines of a fork stuck in a half-deflated balloon.
You are the one causing problems in my marriage, he says. You fucking bitch, he says. I’ll slam you, he says. And I’m afraid he will, I’m afraid he’ll press himself on top of me on my bed until the mattress opens up and swallows me whole. Now, my mother saves all of her cooking skills for her husband. Now, she serves him food at their farmhouse in the country and their condo in the city. Now, my mother no longer cooks for me.
When I was 15, a teacher I was very close with killed himself over winter break. I found out about it in an AOL chatroom the night before school resumed. My friends were talking about how the elementary school science teacher had died. “The one from when we were kids?” I typed into the chatroom, sitting on the couch between my parents, as the Jennifer Garner show Alias played on our television. “Shit,” one of my classmates typed. “We weren’t supposed to tell her,” another wrote.
John Wake was my little brothers’ science teacher, and my after-school photography teacher. I leapt from the couch and called my homeroom teacher at his home. In a quiet, heavy voice, he confirmed what my friends had let slip. I screamed. My parents hovered around me, trying to understand what was happening. Eventually one of them took the phone. I was sobbing, incoherent, and couldn’t breathe. I needed air. I ran to the elevator and my father followed me. He walked me down and back up our Manhattan block in pouring January rain, his arm tight around me as I sobbed, tucked into his armpit. The next day in school I was crying at my locker and the guidance counselor walked by. He stopped and turned around after passing me, and asked if I was okay. I looked at him and said with all the raw teenage emotion in my body, “No. My favorite teacher killed himself.” The guidance counselor looked back at me, said he hoped I’d feel better, and walked away.
My own mental illness had made itself known a few years earlier. Mr. Wake and I had a special bond, maybe because something in each of us recognized itself in the other person. I had always been a Good Kid — didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, had never kissed a boy. But when Mr. Wake died, I became angry at the adults in my school. I needed them to talk about this monster that lived inside some of us, sometimes quiet for years at a time, occasionally rousing to try to kill us. When they wouldn’t, I punished them the only way my teenage self knew how: I became Bad. I smoked cigarettes in school, cut class to get stoned, threw tantrums at teachers and stormed out, showed up drunk to a school dance with the valedictorian. The adults in charge ignored my acting out, for the most part. I transferred to a new school at the end of the year, in large part because the adults who interviewed me there didn’t look away when I confronted them with my sad, ugly, unwieldy pain.
I try now, as an adult, to be sympathetic to those adults at my old school, who shied away from the conversation I so badly wanted to have. They were probably ill-equipped for it. They were probably dealing with their own pain. They probably worried that I wanted answers they didn’t have, that simply didn’t exist.
Talking about mental illness is possibly the most vital necessity for the health of those of us who have it. But doing so is terrifying. Some of the kindest and most progressive people I know have tried to tell me I don’t need medication. They don’t know how damaging it is when they say that, so I don’t hold it against them. A lot of people don’t know that resistance to medication is one of the main things that kills people like me. That depressives are prone to blaming themselves for everything, that I already have this monster inside me telling me everyday, “You just don’t try hard enough. You’re just lazy. You’re just selfish.” Mental illness is hard to understand because it’s invisible and complicated. We know so little about the science of it, and are conditioned to talk even less about the experience of it.
Talking about is terrifying because it could possibly tank your career. Who wants to hire someone who has a chronic illness that is impossible to cure and difficult to treat? Especially when that illness can make you nonfunctional? Sometimes it seems like you can’t talk about it without being defined by it. Now that I’ve told you I have depression, will you think of me as a writer or a reporter or an occasionally funny person you know online? Or will I be that woman who used to report and write until she wrote about her depression? Will editors think better of assigning me stories, worried that I can’t handle the work? As psychologist Nev Jones notes in David Dobbs’ recent piece for Pacific Standard, “The Touch of Madness,” we often tell people with mental illness to be less ambitious — “settle for jobs shelving books,” in Jones’ words. I have been a freelance journalist for six months and there has not been a single day when I haven’t thought about a therapist I saw when I was 18 who told me that my illness meant I could never freelance.
David Dobbs writes well about the “othering” of the mentally ill in his piece:
Reading philosophy helped Jones think. It helped order the disorderly. Yet later, in college, she lit up when she discovered the writers who laid the philosophical foundation for late 20-century critical psychiatry and madness studies: Michel Foucault, for instance, who wrote about how Western culture, by medicalizing madness, brands the mad as strangers to human nature. Foucault described both the process and the alienating effect of this exclusion-by-definition, or “othering,” as it soon came to be known, and how the mad were cut out and cast away, flung into pits of despair and confusion, leaving ghosts of their presence behind.
Dobbs’ piece, and Jones’ work, are specifically about “madness” — psychosis and schizophrenia — which is a different beast than depression (though depression is sometimes experienced by those with psychosis or schizophrenia). Those who experience schizophrenia — typically a more obvious, less invisible madness than depression — suffer the opposite problem: rather than being told they could just try harder, be healthier, sleep more or less, eat better, exercise more, “Western culture today continues to view schizophrenia as something essentially biologically fixed, invariably progressive, and, with rare exception, permanent,” per Dobbs. But the fundamental point — that “othering” those whose minds sometimes cause them hardship only intensifies that hardship — holds true for both experiences, especially in the West. As Dobbs writes:
When the director of the World Health Organization’s mental-health unit, Shekhar Saxena, was asked last year where he’d prefer to be if he were diagnosed with schizophrenia, he said for big cities he’d prefer a city in Ethiopia or Sri Lanka, like Colombo or Addis Ababa, rather than New York or London, because in the former he could expect to be seen as a productive if eccentric citizen rather than a reject and an outcast.
Dobbs’ piece includes fascinating historical research about the differences in psychosis experienced in different cultures and the fascinating field of “psychiatric anthropology” or “biocultural anthropology.” These fields see culture as a series of concentric circles, with the outermost containing the institutions (“government, universities, clinics”) and norms (laws and medical standards, as well as those defined by literature or history) and the innermost containing our personal social world — friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, peers. Our interactions with the denizens of these circles create culture — which is precisely why “othering” the “mad” is harmful, as Dobbs explains:
When people in mental distress are shunned and relegated to a class of others needing care away from the rest of us, they are pushed outside of culture precisely when they need it most. They may seem utterly detached from reality. But they will keenly comprehend their exile.
Part of Dobbs’ story recounts Jones’ own experience with madness. I’m particularly grateful for the inclusion of what happened when Jones, conscious that something in her had changed, sought help from a psychologist who said she couldn’t help her. Jones stopped going to therapy. This is, to me, part of why not shunning the mentally ill from culture is so important. Psychologists and psychiatrists are humans just like us, flawed and weird and wrestling with a field that sometimes seems unknowable. Everyone I know who has interacted with therapy has struggled to find treatment, felt stymied by the trial-and-error of seeking someone with whom they can connect and also trust. Isolation makes that struggle so much harder.
Even when a friend helps Jones seek treatment, Dobbs notes it was “a fraught venture”:
…because, in much of the Western world, an initial medical visit often accelerates a first episode. A 2013 review, for instance, found that a first hospitalization often caused psychotic patients distress rivaling that caused by the symptoms that drove them to the hospital. The care could wreak as much havoc as the ailment.
Emergency rooms are by nature horrible places for someone in trauma, and inpatient psychiatric facilities are often not much better. It is common to treat the mentally ill as though they cannot understand their own illness. That is very often not the case, especially in the beginning of an episode. Jones always knew her hallucinations and certain perceptions were not real to other people. Her education might have helped with that, but it didn’t help her to be treated with any more respect by the healthcare system. When a friend took her to a facility for an intake appointment, the nurse ignored Jones and told her friend, “I think she’s a schizo” right in front of her.
Public violence in America is often perpetrated by people with mental illness. This results in a perception that is contrary to fact: the vast majority of us, the mentally ill, are non-violent. But when these public acts of violence happen, our culture demands an explanation. American society is disinclined to regulate weapons that can mete out violence, so the explanation becomes “The mentally ill are dangerous.” Guns don’t kill people, mental illness does.
This perception proved extremely damaging to Jones when people in her Ph.D program who she had shared her illness with became afraid that she would go the way of the rare but high-profile violent mentally ill. She was banned from campus temporarily, returned only to feel alienated, then was kicked out of her program by professors who said some of the most damaging things you can say to a mentally sick person:
“The decision strikes the committee as simple — you clearly do not have your act together and we have no reason to believe you ever will.” Another professor: “you are a burden on the instructors.”
Dobbs aptly describes mental illness as “a horror experienced in solitude.” But he and Jones also highlight how that solitude needn’t be compounded by the concentric circles of culture in which the mentally ill person exists. It is a painful Catch-22 that the sicker a person is, the more she needs to talk about her sickness, and the scarier that talk is to the people around her. Dobbs quotes Erving Goffman, author of a classic 1963 study, “Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity”:
The more there is about the individual that deviates in an undesirable direction from what might have been expected to be true of him, the more he is obliged to volunteer information about himself, even though the cost to him of candor may have increased proportionally.
Being honest about her sickness derailed Jones’ life and sunk her frighteningly deeper into madness. But years later, after getting the opportunity to join a different Ph.D program, she blogged about her sickness, and it brought her in touch with a cohort with whom she could discuss her experience. She also notes, compellingly, that the defining characteristic of many of the violent mentally ill is isolation. More often than not, the backstory of these perpetrators involves stymied attempts at obtaining help. In Jones’ own story, she was aware her psychosis was not reality until she experienced cultural banishment. In isolation, her psychosis became her only reality.
Here are a few other good reads regarding mental illness.
I think about this piece constantly and have shared it with every mental health professional I’ve ever met. It’s an excruciating and invaluable ticktock of how a mass shooter tried desperately not to become a mass shooter.
Feinberg writes compellingly not only about her experience as the daughter of a suicide victim, but the discomfort around talking about suicide and mental illness:
Suicide is uncomfortable, it’s a downer. It makes people cast their eyes away, to the left, to the right—anywhere but at you. “Oh… I, wow. That’s really—jeez. I’m sorry.” They apologize. Their eyes dart back to you, pleading. Shit. Were those the right words? Did it go away? Are you broken?
Whether or not this is actually what they’re thinking doesn’t matter. Because as soon as the word “suicide” falls from my lips, the air becomes heavy, conversations strained, and all the negative space in my head fills with one, sinking thought: “They look so uncomfortable. Are they wondering what’s wrong with me?”
Holmes and Shelburne look at an interesting antidote to the cultural or social isolation of the mentally ill, especially in cases where medical treatment is hard to come by: support from faith-based organizations.
McDermott was a public defender when he had a psychotic break. He ultimately left that job, deciding the “pressure cooker” environment couldn’t work with his illness. In this piece, he writes about that experience, and how his mother helped him through it.
Her nom de bunny was Marie Catherine Ochs, an old family name that Gloria Steinem thought sounded “much too square to be phony.” Marie went to high school and college, but “wasn’t a slave to academics,” dropping out after her first year of college to fly to Europe and work as a waitress in London and a hostess-dancer in Paris. After returning to New York to work as a secretary, she saw an ad in the newspaper looking for women who were “pretty and personable, between 21 and 24, married or single” who wanted to make between $200 and $300 a week — about the same salary as a Madison Avenue ad executive. When Steinem handed over Marie’s detailed personal history to the Sheralee, the Bunny Mother at Playboy’s New York Club, the hostess handed it back without looking at it.
“We don’t like our girls to have any background,” she told Steinem, who was going undercover as a Playboy Bunny for Show magazine, “we just want you to fit the Bunny image.” Steinem kept meticulous notes as she completed each stage of the interview, as well as the job itself, and she collected these notes in a day-to-day account that was published in May 1963 as a two-part series “A Bunny’s Tale” which was later collected in her 1985 book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.
Part of Steinem’s training involved the fitting of a skin-tight uniform in two colors, the application of false eyelashes, and a physical examination with a doctor, which she recounted in detail.
There were so many disturbing moments in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election that it’s difficult to identify any particular one as the worst. Up there at the top of the list: Donald Trump narrowing his eyes and shaking his head as he called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman,” during the final debate. He probably didn’t count on feminists laying claim to the words he’d used to level an insult. At the post-Inauguration Women’s March on Washington, many women bore signs proudly emblazoned with those words. And on October 3rd, Picador will release Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, an essay anthology edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding, featuring essays by 23 women including Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Solnit, Jessica Valenti, Katha Pollitt, and Samantha Irby, among others. The following essay from the collection, by writer and Catapult editor Nicole Chung, captures the frustrations of dealing with Trump supporters, including one’s own family members.
When I made an appointment to get my hair cut two weeks after the election, it was with a new stylist, a white woman in her 30s with a streak of purple in her hair. She commented on the loose, rumpled waves that show up whenever my hair gets damp, and I explained that the slight curl appeared only after I had children. She welcomed the avenue for small talk: How many kids did I have; how old were they; did I have a photo? I pulled out my phone and showed her the picture on my home screen, my two girls at the beach.
“Oh,” she said, visibly surprised. “Is their dad American?” Yes, I told her. So am I. She went on to ask “what” my children were, and whether I thought their coloring was “more olive, or more yellowish like yours?” Later, as she snipped away, she revealed that she and her father and her boyfriend had all voted for Donald Trump.
Though her comments about my kids were the most offensive, it’s her assumption about my nationality that has stuck with me in the weeks since. She identified my husband as “American” when what she meant was “white,” isolating and othering me in the process. There is nothing out of the ordinary about being taken for a foreigner when you’re Asian American; by itself, without years of similar accumulated remarks, her slip might not have bothered me. But in the same month that Donald Trump was elected to our nation’s highest office, this white woman’s unthinking words served as a stinging reminder of just how many people in this country look at me and see not an American, not someone like them, but an outsider, intrinsically different.
In her first print feature for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino profiles iconic anti-discrimination lawyer Gloria Allred, who is currently litigating major cases against Bill Cosby and President Donald Trump and has played a key role in changing attitudes and legislation regarding rape and sexual assault. Allred came by her conviction for that work very personally, after being raped in the early 1970s.
During her first year in California, she went to Acapulco for a vacation. One night, a local physician asked her out to dinner. He had to make a few house calls first, he said, and they stopped by a motel. He took her to an empty room, pulled out a gun, and raped her. She didn’t report the crime to the police, fearing that she wouldn’t be believed. Soon after returning home, she discovered that she was pregnant.
It was seven years before Roe v. Wade, and abortion was illegal in California. She made an appointment for one and went alone, as instructed. She began hemorrhaging after she got home, and the man who had performed the procedure declined to offer guidance. Allred was afraid to go to the hospital. She sat at home, feverish and bleeding; eventually, her roommate called an ambulance, which took her to a hospital ward filled with other women who had had illegal abortions. She didn’t realize until later that patients around her had died. A nurse told her, as she was recovering, “This will teach you a lesson.”
South Boston, my first world, extends out on the Boston Harbor like an oversized jetty. Winds that whip off the brisk, slate-colored ocean often make the neighborhood feel 10 degrees colder than the weather report, a great advantage in the summer. The grid of streets mapped onto its slopes — lettered verticals and enumerated laterals — offers relieving certainty in a haphazardly planned city known for its confusing road designations. The three-decker, a multi-family home with three individual apartments stacked on top of one another, reigns supreme here. Before gentrification swept across the peninsula and housing prices skyrocketed, entire extended families could live together in the blissful discord of tight quarters. South Boston was, and still is to some extent, the kind of place where residents nod to the people they pass on the street, because if they don’t know the passerby personally, he’s likely the best friend of one of their uncle’s drinking buddies. It is a small town in an urban metropolis. For all these reasons, and many others, some residents insist it’s the best place in the world.
My parents spent the first years of their marriage in South Boston — commonly called “Southie” by residents — living in a waterfront multi-family on Columbia Road. It was there I learned how to crawl and to push buttons on the television remote, and, when presented with my first birthday cake, to smear chocolate frosting all over my face. But a few months before my sister was born, my nuclear family moved to Milton, a “white flight” suburb south of Boston. But the house stayed in the family, and the rest of my mother’s family — my grandparents, uncles, cousins — stayed in South Boston. So it was in South Boston that I celebrated holidays. It was in South Boston that I spent my childhood summer vacations, sitting in front of the air conditioner in my grandparents’ tiny three-room apartment on East Eighth Street.
And Columbia Road once again became my home, after my parents’ divorce seven years ago and the subsequent selling of the house in the suburbs. (It’s as if the suburban experiment was just some dream gone awry.) So Columbia Road was the place I sought refuge when I left my first post-graduate job at a magazine in New York. I lived with my Aunt Jola and Uncle Jack in the first-floor apartment. They tended to me well. They offered me coffee in the morning and wine in the evening. My aunt learned my favorite foods — avocados, blue corn tortilla chips, kale — and made sure to buy them when she went to the market. She saved the Sunday Globe for me. From my bedroom window I could see the small waves of the Boston Harbor splash against the beach across the street.
But after a few months I realized I had to leave Southie. After you’ve lived in a place so different from your home and become ofthat place, you can never really go home again.