Search Results for: knife ax

How I Became ‘Rich’

Illustration by Homestead

Stacy Torres | Longreads | June 2019 | 11 minutes (2,629 words)

On my first two trips to Hawai‘i I photographed things people who live there might consider mundane: red dirt along a paved road, sunlit hibiscus draped over a parking lot wall, blue-faced Zebra Doves so calm I almost tripped over them because they didn’t skitter away like the nervous pigeons back home in New York City. The only palm trees I’d ever seen before appeared on postcards, television, and luau-themed party decorations. In Hawai‘i I wasted no time filling my camera with pictures of real ones: swaying palms against a light-filled morning sky, baby palms trees in the midday sun, and full-grown trees wrapped in twinkling lights under an aspirin moon.

The first trip, in 2009, happened by accident. At least it felt that way. My then-boyfriend wanted to go somewhere tropical. I wanted to go somewhere interesting, though I had no inkling of the plan he was hatching when I mentioned Hawai‘i. I figured this discussion was just another of the fantasy trips we often took in our heads after watching the Travel Channel. Neither of us had passports or much money. But my boyfriend’s job as a New York City public high school special education teacher had wrecked him. For the past few years, half the teachers at his school left by year’s end. C. stood on the verge of quitting too. Instead, he started drinking on the train ride to work in the mornings. Then he took his tax refund and booked us a trip to paradise.

At first he refused to tell me where we were going. “Block off a week,” C. said. I’m going to need you not to be interrupted.” I pressed for details. After about age 12, I’d stopped liking surprises. By then I’d learned they could herald sudden bad news, such as when I awoke to find my mother applying antiseptic to a knife slice on my father’s temple after he got mugged coming home from work. Worry grew about some emergency lurking behind his request, a not unreasonable idea given the last few rocky years. Only after several days of persistent badgering, he divulged, “We’re going somewhere.” I grew more fearful. Where were we going? Why?

We didn’t go places, except the occasional day-trip to Philadelphia on a $10 round-trip Chinatown bus ticket. Sometimes we hopped an Atlantic City casino bus out of Port Authority. We got most of the bus fare back in a cash voucher to be redeemed at Harrah’s, but we dumped that and a few more bucks into the penny and nickel slots. Lucky Lemmings was our machine of choice. We always fooled ourselves into believing riches lay just one more pull away, and cheered when we hit a bonus game. The cute animated lemmings delighted us when they dived from the cliff, or trampolined off a lavender walrus’s back into caves marked with different credit amounts. If we got really lucky, the machine rewarded us with a lemming stampede, and they continued jumping in and out of the caves, green bills swirling and swooshing in their tracks, and manic jangly beeping ramped up as we racked up more credits. We never knew when to stop and usually returned home losers.
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School for Girls

Illustration by Xulin Wang

Jasmin Aviva Sandelson | Longreads | June 2019 | 28 minutes (7,121 words)

 

I loved being one of your girls. I wasn’t your favorite, but I didn’t need to be. What we had was different.

I found you on that hiking trip to the Spanish mountains. At first I was wary — at our all-girls’ secondary school you were never alone. But in the thin air we climbed together, lotioned each other’s backs, and hand-washed our socks side-by-side. By the end of the week we felt joined, invincible. Remember how we made those campsite boys pitch our tents? That’s not character-building, the male teachers sneered. We just laughed. We were girls: 13 and power-thrilled. While the others hauled their packs up the dusty hill, we lay together on sleeping bags. Your hazel eyes beamed noise and mischief, and I had found my place.

Back in London, I came to you each day, bounding to your classroom after lunch in the cafeteria. The others were with you, but that didn’t stop me. It made me want you more.

Before all the danger, we dashed about, frantic. We sprawled on desks or piled in a corner. You whispered about our classmates — plain girls, weird ones — and the four of us laughed in sly peals. It was both cruel and loving.

Five sounds like an unstable number, but it wasn’t. It was safe. Maybe because there was one of you, and four of us. We gathered at your house each Saturday, and I passed the journey — the bus, two tubes, and the uphill walk — listening to those songs you liked that I’d Limewired onto my iPod: Death Cab for Cutie, The Arctic Monkeys, Coldplay.

The others lived far away, too, some farther than me, but we all hauled our clothes and makeup across the city to get dressed in your bedroom for whatever we had planned: Smirnoff Ices in the park, a lax-bouncered bar, a house party with boys from our brother school.

We shook out our stuff on your big bed, which had space on either side like an adult’s bed, like my parents’ bed, not like my bed, pushed against a wall. We tried on each other’s things and crowded your full-length mirror as Jack Johnson sang through your iPod speaker.

“Pass the panox!” Ashley said, and you tossed the thumb-sized tube of medicated zit cream that you could only get in America, where your mom was from, and where you went every year. In the drawers that pulled out from under from your bed, you stored the things you brought back from New York: moisturizer with fake-tan, spray deodorant, and panoxyl.

We called it panox because we abbreviated everything.

“Emma, your skirt looks beaut,” I said, as you smoothed the white denim.

Oh em gee, totes,” Ashley said, dabbing her chin with the pad of her pinky.

We all spoke the same way, rhythms charged and exclusive like an electric fence.

Ashley was your best friend. She didn’t need panoxyl. Her skin was clear and framed by gold hair that reached the lean arcs of her waist. But even though she had all that I didn’t envy her. She didn’t crackle and sparkle like you did; she couldn’t combust into cackles like you and me.

As Ashley capped the cream, I sprayed the air around myself with your perfume and pulled on your leggings. I’d liked my legs covered since I was 6 or 7, back when my friends in gymnastics learned back handsprings while I was stuck with walkovers. In the cool gym, my thighs stayed pink when chill laced theirs with that wine-colored mottle. Mine touched all the way up. Theirs didn’t. To practice, I wore shorts over my leotard.

But you didn’t need leggings. Your legs were firm, cut with muscle down each thigh and behind the knees. I liked your legs. I also liked your straight white teeth — American teeth — and your full, flushed cheeks. I liked your honey-colored hair, the way the thick drape glinted in the light like amber. You were insecure about your stomach and hips — a little bigger than mine and the other girls’ — so I pretended not to notice when you tugged your shirt off your skin so it didn’t cling. To me, all parts of you, hard and soft, were lovely.

Once we were dressed, spritzed, and painted, the five of us — you, me, Ashley, Kat and Kay — trooped down three flights of stairs. In your kitchen, we piled around one corner of the wooden table that could seat 12, and ate whatever your mom cooked, something like pasta with tomato sauce, because she, like you, was a vegetarian. Your mom perched as we ate, not eating herself, but watching you chew with bird eyes, hard and blue. I was usually still hungry because she didn’t cook that much, so I’d buy a chocolate bar from the shop at the station. I always shared it around, but you never took any. Neither did Ashley. The two of you linked arms as Kat and Kay and I ate it up, square by square.

We also bought drinks at the station shop. Kat was 4’10 and looked even younger than 14, but she flashed her older sister’s passport and heaved our low-shelf vodka onto the counter. Glenns or Kirov tasted fine with enough Diet Coke. Kat and Kay bought regular Coke — “full fat Coke,” we called it. You glanced at them and clutched your own bottle closer.

At house parties, we’d flirt limply with whoever, but then you and I would run off. We peeked in bathrooms, jumped on boys’ beds, had swordfights with baguettes grabbed from bread bins, and gave each other hickeys. We looked each other in the eyes and laughed — laughter like a fist around our stomachs as we shook with devilish synchrony.

When we left one party for another, staggering down the sidewalk and dodging the cracks, I wanted to walk all night instead of going to some boy’s preened Hampstead house. I liked the in-between times best, and the befores and afters.

The afters looked like this: when we’d banked enough fun to last the school week, we all turned to you. We caught the last tube or you called a cab from Addison Lee, which we called Add Lee or just Add, and we lay our heads on each other’s shoulders as we waited to pull up at your front door. At the top of your house, in the “upstairs living room,” we flopped on those couches big enough to sleep four. The fifth, usually Kat, who was small and unfussy, lay on the carpet so thick she didn’t even need a sleeping bag. At home it took me hours to fall asleep. But beside you, my body unclenched and I slept deep and dreamless.

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Caught Between Borders

Illustration by Eric Chow

Malia Politzer | Annie Hylton | Longreads | June 2019 | 25 minutes (6,991 words)

 
The first time his father tried to kill him, Ismail* was 15 years old. By the time he turned 19, he had escaped four attempts on his life: Once, he was outside an asylum center in South Africa, where he’d hoped to find safety; other times he was in Somalia, the country from which he fled. His father was intent on killing him to protect the family’s “honor.” No matter where he went, it seemed, his father had enlisted Somali immigrants to mete out his execution. Ismail’s crime? He is gay.

Slender and tall, Ismail dresses sharply, favoring bright colors and tight cuts. He wears a signature mixture of ladies’ perfumes, and carries a silver-chain necklace and anklet in his backpack that he longs to wear but is too afraid to put on. From a young age, Ismail displayed traits that he said were “woman things” — his walk, the way he spoke, how he moved his hands — mannerisms that were not “normal” and provoked his father’s ire. His father forbade him from school and kept him under house arrest.

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Remembering Roky Erickson

Yui Mok/PA URN:11121344

Psychedelic and punk rock pioneer Roky Erickson has died. He was 71. Erickson sang about gods and monsters and kept the energetic simplicity of rock ‘n’ roll alive. Once, when asked where his melodies came from, he said that “the very best ones are sent from heaven by Buddy Holly. The rest take the better part of an afternoon to rip off.” His shriek was ferocious enough to make Janis Joplin briefly consider joining his band.

Roky, pronounced “Rocky,” was born Roger Kynard Erickson Jr. on July 15, 1947. His family soon moved from Dallas to Austin, Texas. Erickson’s cultural diet consisted of comic books and the Beatles, and by 1965 he was busking on the streets near the University of Texas. He grew his hair and started getting high, and either dropped out or was kicked out — depending on who you talk to — of high school a few weeks short of graduation. Erickson joined a group called the Spades, who recorded what became one of his most popular songs, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”

Soon Erickson was approached by Tommy Hall, a philosophy major, lyricist, and devotee of hallucinogens. “I told him I wanted to do what Dylan was doing, playing rock music but with serious lyrics,” Hall told an interviewer in 2004. ”I told him about what I was learning with LSD, and he really became interested. He agreed to join me in forming a new rock group.”

They called themselves the 13th Floor Elevators, and their 1966 version of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was better produced and more popular — ultimately peaking at 55 on the Billboard Hot 100. Hall, who started playing the electric jug, insisted the band trip before every show. This level of commitment, along with the group’s recent arrest record, impressed the Bay Area rockers in San Francisco when the group first performed there. The Elevators were already calling themselves “psychedelic,” and the counterculture followed suit.

In addition to LSD, weed, speed, and mescaline, Erickson began taking whatever drugs were offered him, regardless of whether or not he knew what they were. In November 1967 he hesitated before taking the stage in Houston because “he didn’t want people to see the third eye in the middle of his forehead.” That month the Elevators released their second album, Easter Everywhere, which opened with the acidic “Slip Inside This House.”

Easter Everywhere failed to chart, but the band remained a strong draw in Texas, even though their stage show was devolving into feedback-soaked jams. Erickson’s drug use continued unabated and became a strain on his mental health. He was prescribed antipsychotic drugs and hospitalized. He only sang a few songs on the last Elevators’ album, Bull of the Woods. One of them was the beguiling “Dr. Doom.”

 

“Dear Doctor Doom,” Erickson sings in a lyric penned by Hall, “read your recent letter.”

No, you can’t make heaven in the east nirvana

But you can make certain that the ghost is there

And the always presence you have found within you

Is the same in heaven fully made aware

Bull of the Woods was released in March 1969. That year, Erickson was arrested for marijuana possession and ultimately diagnosed with “schizophrenia acute, undifferentiated.” He was institutionalized, but after several breakouts from Austin State Hospital, he was transferred to the maximum security Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane and given shock treatments and Thorazine. “I was in there with people who’d chopped up people with a butcher knife,” he told a friend, “and they treated me worse because I had long hair.” He was 22.

Erickson later claimed to have faked insanity to beat the possession rap, which would have meant a sentence between two years and life.

In 1974, Erickson formed a group called Bleib Alien, a play on the German bleib allein, or “stay alone.” Their single “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” defies category. Its galvanic rhythm predates punk. Erickson conjures horror film images three years before the horror punk band Misfits formed.

A dozen years later, Erickson’s Gremlins Have Pictures contained “I’m a Demon,” a simple number with a dark heart. “I’m a demon, and I love rock ‘n’ roll,” Erickson sings, sounding a little like rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson. “I see a demon, and at the same time I see you.”

I present these songs, not just because they make for great listening, but because even as a writer I can’t conceive of a better way of remembering a musician than by listening to their music.

Moreover, Erickson’s output was so varied as to be uncontainable. Consider the two Buddy Holly–esque versions of “Starry Eyes” from All That May Do My Rhyme as compared to the wayward, anthemic “I Walked With a Zombie” from The Evil One.

We in the West have a propensity to mythologize artists, especially dead ones. We like to send them on what professor and author Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey, also known as the “monomyth,” because similar stories have permeated the history of human culture. According to Campbell, the hero must leave the Ordinary World, descend into the Special World, survive an Ordeal, and return with transformative knowledge. In popular culture, we’ve seen this narrative play out many times, from Star Wars to Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings.

Roky Erickson was in many ways an ideal candidate to become a monetized modern shaman. He was an outsider — regional long before regional was cool — and could therefore be allowed to lead and not follow. His prodigious intake of psychedelic drugs perhaps allowed him special insight — as his band mate Tommy Hall described in the liner notes to the Elevators’ first album.

“Recently, it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state,” Hall wrote, adding that hallucinogens can “restructure his thinking and change his language so that his thoughts bear more relation to his life and his problems, therefore approaching them more sanely.” Many jazz fans and musicians believed that having a heroin addiction, like Miles Davis or Charlie Parker did, could heighten creativity. Some still do.

Erickson’s mental health issues would also qualify him for artistic canonization, along with other musicians like Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Skip Spence, and Daniel Johnston. The outlandish Erickson stories are legion. Author Michael Hall recalled his first encounter with Erickson in 1984. “After we started our interview that afternoon,” Hall wrote, “he pulled the cellophane from a cigarette pack out of his shirt pocket to reveal a bee crawling around inside. He examined it briefly, returned it to his pocket, and continued, rambling on many subjects, making connections between things that weren’t the least bit connected.”

Even Erickson’s friends and family sometimes hindered him through good intentions. “Everybody treated him like a god,” Erickson’s friend Terry Moore told Michael Hall. “Nobody would say, ‘Roky, you need to straighten up.’” Warner Brothers record executive Bill Bentley “never saw the dark side” of Erickson’s mother and long-time caregiver Evelyn. “She tried to cure Roky in so many ways, according to her belief,” Bentley said. “She might have loved him too much. He was her oldest, the most talented. He was a star, a little god-like creature.”

It seems as if our culture confers a special status on people like Roky Erickson by making them heroes, but what we’re really doing is preserving them as the Other. We make them bring us new perspectives and expressions which, after some resistance, we will incorporate into the culture. Erickson’s gift to us was resonance — he internalized comic books, psychoactive drugs, James Brown, and Bob Dylan, and returned his own magical version. And for the most part we understood, even if that meant thinking about the world in a new way. He could ingest DMT, get hassled by the cops, be confined to an insane asylum, and live in near poverty — after all, many people still treat those as hallmarks of artistic authenticity. And we could walk through the doors he opened without risk.

Erickson survived long enough to enjoy legitimacy. In 2005, he performed at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival, and anchored a panel on the 13th Floor Elevators, who had been recently inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame. You’re Gonna Miss Me, a documentary about his life, came out that year, as well as an anthology, I Have Always Been Here Before. By then, according to writer Margaret Moser, Erickson had become “the very picture of Austin’s sly, laid-back, and plugged-in populace.” It’s a shame he had to suffer so much to get there.

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Sam Schuyler

Born to Be Eaten

Illustration by Glenn Harvey

Eva Holland | Longreads | May 30, 2019 | 26 minutes (7,122 words)

Calving

The caribou cow gives birth on her feet. She stands with legs wide apart, or turns on the spot, shuffling in slow circles, craning her long neck to watch as her calf emerges inch by inch from below her tail, between her hips. It’s oddly calm, this process — a strange thing to witness for us two-legged mammals, more accustomed to the stirrups and the struggle and the white-knuckled screaming of a Hollywood birth scene.

The calf, when he comes, emerges hooves first. He climbs into the world fully extended, like a diver stretching toward the water. Out come the front pair of hooves, capping spindly legs, then the long narrow head, the lean, wet-furred body, and finally, another set of bony legs and sharp little hooves. His divergence from his mother leaves behind nothing but some strings of sticky fluid and a small patch of bloody fur. He doesn’t know it, but the land he is born on is one of the most contentious stretches of wilderness in North America.

The calf, when he comes, emerges hooves first…He doesn’t know it, but the land he is born on is one of the most contentious stretches of wilderness in North America.

Still slick with mucus, the calf takes his first steps within minutes, stumbling awkwardly to his feet as his mother licks him clean. Within 24 hours, he is able to walk a mile or more. Soon, if he survives long enough, he will be capable of swimming white-water rivers, outrunning wolves, and trotting overland for miles upon miles every day. His life will offer myriad dangers and only the rarest respite; for the caribou, staying alive means staying on the move.

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At Transformation

Illustration by Brittany Molineux

Jane Demuth | Longreads | May 2019 | 23 minutes (5,756 words)

It’s March 13th 2017, the eve of a late season snow storm that will blanket the Northeast and shut down major cities, and I’m on the ninth floor of a high-rise hotel in downtown Philadelphia chugging bottles of laxatives on a tightly prescribed schedule and making regular trips to the toilet. I am alone. As I count down hours one by one, my mind is reluctant either to focus or to rest. I flip through the TV channels briefly, but none of the broadcasts catch my interest. I talk to my brother on the phone several times; he is also in the city, and wants to know if I need anything or would like his company. It is thoughtful and generous of him to offer, but solitude feels like the right choice for me in this moment. I do not know what moods will strike me in the coming hours, but in the past my fears have sometimes coalesced in a fiery blaze of anger, and I do not wish to subject my brother to this. For an hour or so, I listen to music on my headphones, but the songs toward which I thought I would gravitate on this day are not hitting the emotional sweet spots I’d hoped and expected they would. Mostly I nap, on and off, between bottles of laxatives, prophylactic antibiotics, and urgent visits to the washroom. This morning I awoke at home in the Hudson Valley, feeling calm and clear for the first time in months, but a lengthy run of restless nights and a mounting air of anticipation have taken their toll on me. Tomorrow I will be checking out of the hotel early, and although a pharmaceutically induced period of unconsciousness is on the agenda for later in the day, right now I am grateful for actual sleep in whatever increments it offers itself.
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Reimagining Harper Lee’s Lost True Crime Novel: An Interview with Casey Cep

Ben Martin / HarperCollins

Adam Morgan  | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,793 words)

 

Four years ago, when the news broke that a second Harper Lee novel had been discovered fifty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, the literary world was shocked. Some readers were thrilled by the prospect of returning to the world of Scout, Atticus Finch, and Boo Radley. Others were concerned the 88-year-old Lee might have been pressured to publish an unfinished draft. But Casey Cep, an investigative reporter for the New Yorker and the New York Times, drove down to Alabama to get to the bottom of it. And what she found wasn’t a publishing conspiracy, but another lost book Lee had attempted to write for more than a decade, but never finished.

The book was called The Reverend. It would have been a true-crime novel like In Cold Blood (a book Lee helped Truman Capote research, write, and edit, despite his failure to give her any credit). The Reverend would have told the story of Willie Maxwell, a black preacher who murdered five members of his own family in the 1970s in order to collect life insurance money. It would have touched on voodoo, racial politics in post-industrial Alabama, and a courtroom setpiece that rivaled To Kill a Mockingbird for drama. But Harper Lee never finished writing The Reverend, and now, thanks to Casey Cep, we know why.

Cep’s debut, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, is fascinating, addicting, and unbearably suspenseful. Cep actually tells three concentric stories: the crimes of Willie Maxwell, the trials of his lawyer Tom Radney, and Harper Lee’s failed attempt to write about them. When I called Cep from “a Southern phone number” on an unseasonably hot spring afternoon, she initially thought I was one of her sources calling with a “some bombshell thing they want to show me, far too late to help with the book.”

*

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Lengua Tacos

Getty, photo collage by Homestead

Feliz Moreno | Longreads | May 2019 | 24 minutes (6,008 words)

I am 26 and I haven’t been back to México to visit my dad’s extended family since I was 5 years old, and this isn’t because of financial or legal obstacles. When my youngest sister, Belén, finishes her undergraduate studies and announces that, in celebration, she wants to take a family trip to Michoacán, México, I am not enthusiastic about the idea. When plans for the trip solidify and I request time off from work, my boss asks me if I speak Spanish. “I understand more than I speak,” I tell her, as I fill out the time off request form.

I don’t remember much about the trip we made when I was 5, but I know that my language habits were already solidified at that point, that my understanding of the world had already been shaped by the hard ‘j’ consonant sound found in words like ‘juice’ and ‘jump rope.’ And it is tough for a 5-year-old to rationalize the inability to communicate with other children in a Spanish-speaking country. “Nobody here speaks English,” my 5-year-old self complained to my Dad. This, along with the fact that I got extremely sick from being exposed to México’s tap water, didn’t leave me with any desire to ever return.

The upcoming trip will be 10 days, with time split between the Jacona-Zamora region of Michoacán, where the majority of my dad’s family is based, and la Ciudad de México, México City. My two younger sisters, who took the time to study abroad in Central American countries during their undergraduate careers, are excited about the approaching trip. My dad calls me a few times in the weeks leading up to it to inform me that Michoacán has the highest murder rate in the country right now, and that we need to be vigilant and smart when we travel. I add this to the long list of anxieties I have about the trip, the primary one being my Spanish deficiency.

What is it Edward James Olmos — cast as Selena’s father — says to a young Jennifer Lopez in the 1997 film about the young singers’ life? “You speak it a little funny.” “It” being Spanish. The Quintanillas are in the car discussing the possibility of touring in México when Olmos launches into a frustrated rant.

“Being Mexican-American is tough. Anglos jump all over you if you don’t speak English perfectly, Mexicans jump all over you if don’t speak Spanish perfectly. We gotta be twice as perfect as anybody else…our family has been here for centuries, and yet they treat us as if we just swam across the Rio Grande. Anglo food is too bland, and yet when we go to México we get the runs. Now that to me is embarrassing… we gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans — it’s exhausting!”

In the scene, the Tejano singer laughs and brushes off her father’s frustration with humor. She reassures him that she’s been singing in Spanish for ten years. But the reality Olmos’ character identifies is real, and as we sit in the airport preparing to board the plane to Guadalajara, my anxiety is palpable.

In the states, when Spanish speakers ask me if I speak the language my response varies. I will say “más o menos,” when I am feeling more practiced in my ability to communicate. “Entiendo más que yo hablo” I will say, stumbling over the words, hoping to diffuse any expectations of my responding in Spanish. “Cuando era niña, hablo más Español,” which translates (roughly) to, “When I was a little girl, I spoke more Spanish.” My mother tells me that some of my first words as a baby were “agua” and “leche,” but even so, I’ve always felt apprehensive about my Spanish.

Derek Owusu, a writer and podcaster from Tottenham, London, speaks of the cultural limitations of not speaking Twi after his mother emigrated from Ghana to the United Kingdom. In his article “Mother Tongue: The Lost Inheritance of Diaspora” he writes:

“For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve been asked…whether I can speak Twi or not, my response has always been ‘I can understand it, but I can’t speak it.’ In that moment it’s hard not to feel only half Ghanaian…”

I can relate to this sentiment. In the U.S., I have made myself relatively comfortable with the fact that people see me as an outsider among the middle-class white communities I often find myself in. The discomfort that comes with being an ethnic minority in the U.S. is familiar to me now, even if it remains traumatic. At least I have some language — cold, academic words like “microagression” and “oppression,” — in which to communicate the trauma; I have a wealth of resources I can access that validate my experience in this country. In México, being an outsider hurts more for some reason. Being called a “pocha” by the people that are supposed to be your raza hurts more, or maybe it just hurts in a different way than I am used to.
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Orwell’s Last Neighborhood

Barnhill on the Isle of Jura, Scotland. (David Brown)

David Brown | The American Scholar | April 2019 | 23 minutes (5,796 words)

It’s hard to know what would be a good place from which to imagine a future of bad smells and no privacy, deceit and propaganda, poverty and torture. Does a writer need to live in misery and ugliness to conjure up a dystopia?

Apparently not.

We’d been walking more than an hour. The road was two tracks of pebbled dirt separated by a strip of grass. The land was treeless as prairie, with wildflowers and the seedless tops of last year’s grass smudging the new growth.

We rounded a curve and looked down a hillside to the sea. A half mile in the distance, far back from the water, was a white house with three dormer windows. Behind it, a stone wall cut a diagonal to the water like a seam stitching mismatched pieces of green velvet. Far to the right, a boat moved along the shore, its sail as bright as the house.

This was where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. The house, called Barnhill, sits near the northern end of Jura, an island off Scotland’s west coast in the Inner Hebrides. It was June 2, sunny, short-sleeve warm, with the midges barely out, and couldn’t have been more beautiful.

Orwell lived here for parts of the last three years of his life. He left periodically (mostly in the winter) to do journalism in London and, for seven months in 1947 and 1948, to undergo treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis. Although he rented Barnhill and didn’t own it, he put in fruit trees and a garden, built a chicken house, bought a truck and a boat, and invested numberless hours of labor in what he believed would be his permanent home. When he left it for the last time, in January 1949, he never again lived outside a sanatorium or hospital.

I came to Jura after a two-week backpacking trip across Scotland. My purpose was to drink single-malt on Islay, the island to the south, and enjoy two nights of indulgence at Ardlussa House, where Orwell’s landlord had lived. I was not on a literary pilgrimage. Barnhill is not open to the public, and no one among the island’s 235 residents remembers Orwell. Read more…

Queens of Infamy: Josephine Bonaparte, from Malmaison to More-Than-Monarch

Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | April 2019 | 23 minutes (5,836 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on badass world-historical women of centuries past.

* * *

When we left the future Empress, she was 32 and had just completed her third transformation — and name change — in as many decades. First she had been Yeyette, the coarse, uneducated girl from the colonies struggling to find her place in Paris society; then she had been Marie-Josèphe, the beautiful and popular estranged wife of a Revolutionary hero with a whiff of the courtesan about her; now she was a survivor of the Reign of Terror, a Merveilleuse famous for her revealing clothing, and a semi-professional mistress to the rich and powerful. It was in this latest incarnation that she was christened Josephine by her newest bedmate, a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte.

The young lovers had met through Paul Barras, who was both Napoleon’s boss and Josephine’s sugar daddy. After being aggressively pursued by the famously uncouth Corsican for months, Josephine had, for her own inscrutable reasons, decided to give in to his advances.

If she’d hoped that sleeping with him would somehow slake his obsession with her, she was wrong. Very wrong.

Napoleon’s fixation on Josephine only deepened once they became lovers, and often it tipped over into vicious fits of jealousy. In a letter to a friend, Josephine wrote, “I am afraid, I admit, of the empire he seems to want over all those who surround him.” She also wrote that the “force of [his] passion” made her uncomfortable, although she couldn’t quite articulate why; she knew that she should find his devotion to her attractive, but it creeped her out. Still, after weighing the pros and cons, she eventually gave in to his marriage proposal. She was getting older, and she wanted the security of a husband. Plus, he did seem to genuinely love her, even if his particular brand of love sometimes had a frightening edge.

The wedding was set for March 9, 1796. Since Catholicism was still banned in France, it was a civil service held at a small town hall. Napoleon arrived two hours late, a total asshole power move. The rest of the event was as messy as its beginning: the ages on the marriage certificate were wrong, one of the witnesses was too young to legally be a witness, and everyone was in a bad mood. It almost certainly wasn’t the wedding Josephine had expected, but she grimaced her way through it. When they got home, Josephine refused to move her beloved dog Fortuné off the bed to make room for Napoleon. When his mistress’ new husband tried to push him aside, the pug bit him. Sometimes dogs just know.

If Josephine found one bright spot on her second wedding day, it might have been the inscription on the wedding band Napoleon placed on her finger: “au destin,” to destiny. Both husband and wife believed that they were marked by fate, and nothing could have been a more fitting motto for them. Their shared faith that their marriage — and, indeed, their entire lives — had been predestined would shape many of their choices in the coming years.

* * *

Two days after the wedding, Napoleon left for a military campaign in Italy. His letters from this time are textbook examples of the cycle of abuse, heady declarations of love alternating with vicious scolding for not writing back often enough or with the right emotion. That being said, Josephine’s reasons for not replying in a timely fashion were less than virtuous: she’d begun an affair with a beautiful young soldier named Hippolyte Charles and, through him, had become involved with some shady backroom arms dealing. In Josephine’s defense, taking a lover or two on the side was a normal part of the world she lived in; after all, it hadn’t been that long since she’d been a fixture at Thérésa Tallien’s orgies. Still, she must have known that Napoleon expected monogamy. She must have known that she was playing a dangerous game.

While Josephine was ignoring her husband’s letters and living the high life in Paris, Napoleon was growing more and more anguished, and when he told Barras that he hated all women and was consumed with despair, the older man decided that he needed to step in. Napoleon had been racking up astonishing victories in Italy, and Barras couldn’t afford to have him distracted from his work. So one night, after a dinner given in her honor, he muscled Josephine into a carriage bound for Milan. She cried and begged him to let her stay, but Barras was adamant. He was going to give Napoleon whatever he wanted, including, once again, Josephine.

When they got home, Josephine refused to move her beloved dog Fortuné off the bed to make room for Napoleon. When his mistress’ new husband tried to push him aside, the pug bit him. Sometimes dogs just know.

Napoleon was overjoyed by his wife’s arrival. Their time apart had only heightened his obsession and when they met in Italy, he couldn’t stop fondling her, even in front of his staff. Josephine found his attentions overwhelming. “My husband doesn’t love me, he worships me,” she wrote to an acquaintance. Even though her life in Milan was lavish — she was staying in a literal palace — Josephine was miserable. She missed her life in Paris, she missed her children, she missed her freedom.

Napoleon had to return to the front lines soon after Josephine’s arrival, from whence he sent her letters about her vagina, calling it “the little black forest” and writing that “[t]o live within Josephine is to live in the Elysian fields.” Truly, this man missed his calling as a romance writer.

JOSEPHINE: on the whole, Italy was kind of a wash

JOSEPHINE: I mean, the plundering part was pretty fun

JOSEPHINE: the Italians make great art, I’ll give them that

JOSEPHINE: but then Napoleon’s family arrived from Marseilles

JOSEPHINE: I mean, they basically moved in with us!

JOSEPHINE: and there are not enough Correggio paintings in the world to make it worth putting up with them

Napoleon’s family had been less than enthused to learn about his marriage.  Josephine was infamous by this point, and her scandals well-known. Napoleon’s mother opposed the match from a moral standpoint as well as a financial one — her son had been supporting the family ever since his father’s death several years earlier, and she didn’t relish seeing that support drained away by a depraved slattern from the colonies. In spite of Josephine’s attempts to charm her new husband’s family, they would openly loathe her for the rest of her life. His 16-year-old sister Pauline was especially heinous to Josephine: she referred to her as “la vielle” (the old woman), stuck her tongue out at her behind her back, and did her best to outdress her sister-in-law on every occasion.

Josephine left Italy in November, ostensibly bound for Paris. Napoleon left at the same time, but headed to peace talks in Austria first. He was shocked when he returned to Paris in December and his wife still wasn’t there. Instead of going straight back, Josephine had met up with Hippolyte in Nevers, and the two were leisurely fucking their way across France. A ball dedicated to her was organized by Napoleon’s ally Talleyrand in Paris for December 25th, but when she still hadn’t arrived it was postponed until the 28th. Josephine didn’t show up until January 3rd, by which point organizers had been forced to throw out two rounds of food and flowers. The event went grimly ahead but Napoleon was furious, as Josephine must have known he’d be. Josephine and Napoleon reconciled with a Big Dramatic Scene, a completely healthy relationship dynamic they both seemed to relish. This was something that played out over and over again throughout their time together: Napoleon would stomp around and yell, while Josephine wept and begged for his forgiveness. Eventually he would play the part of Big Merciful Daddy and take her into his arms and comfort her; nothing made Napoleon feel more secure in his masculinity than reducing his wife to tears and then comforting her. Josephine, for her part, seemed to feel like she could get away with almost anything as long as she cried hard enough about it later.

In 1797, Napoleon began planning his next big military campaign.

NAPOLEON: babe, I’m going to conquer Egypt

JOSEPHINE: can I ask why?

NAPOLEON: for the empire

JOSEPHINE: sure, but, why Egypt specifically?

JOSEPHINE: I mean, isn’t it kind of … out of the way?

NAPOLEON: Alexander the Great conquered Egypt

JOSEPHINE: I don’t know if that’s really a reason

NAPOLEON: it’s an empire-building thing, you wouldn’t understand

If Josephine had been reluctant to join Napoleon in Italy, she was now desperate to accompany him to Egypt: her involvement in Hippolyte’s shady business had been revealed and the resulting scandal had been deeply unpleasant; she wanted to have Napoleon’s baby and solidify her position as his wife; she owed a lot of people a lot of money. But Napoleon refused to take her, so instead she headed to the spa town of Plombières, where she hoped to recover her fertility. Both she and Napoleon were desperate for a baby, but lingering physical trauma from her time in prison coupled with years of using what then passed for the morning-after pill (highly toxic douches, mostly) had left her unable to conceive. She hoped that “taking the waters” would improve her reproductive system. Instead, her time at Plombières made her chances of getting pregnant even more remote when a balcony she was standing on collapsed, leaving her with a broken pelvis and a severe spinal injury. Although she would go on to make an incredible recovery, the incident almost guaranteed that she would never have another child.

Meanwhile, things in Egypt weren’t going so great. The British were sinking Napoleon’s ships, and his friend Junot was sinking his hopes by telling him what everyone in Paris already knew — that Josephine was fucking Hippolyte. You would think Napoleon might have figured this fact out on his own, but denial is a powerful drug. Admitting that Josephine had betrayed him shook not only his relationship with her, but also his relationship with himself: maybe he wasn’t actually the most virile and powerful man in the world, but a cuckold and a laughingstock. He swore to divorce Josephine, and for once she wasn’t there to weep and rend her garments and beg forgiveness.

And then the unthinkable happened: the British seized a French mail ship containing a letter from Napoleon to his brother about Josephine’s unfaithfulness. Then, like an 18th-century WikiLeaks, the London Morning Chronicle published selections from the letter. If the French had been tittering behind their hands about the military genius and his cheating wife, the English were outright guffawing.

* * *

Now the entire world knew about Napoleon’s humiliation.

Josephine, ever practical, decided that this would be a great time to buy a house. Actually, not just a house — a proper country estate called Malmaison (a name that roughly translates to “bad house,” which is … a choice). Josephine’s reasons were twofold: she wanted somewhere to live if Napoleon divorced her, but she also hoped that a beautiful property like Malmaison might lure him back. Barras, who obviously had a vested interest in her marriage, loaned Josephine the money she needed. She moved in almost as soon as the sale was completed, and quickly realized Malmaison was a great place to carry on her relationship with Hippolyte away from prying Parisian eyes.

Napoleon didn’t return to France immediately after finding out about his wife’s relationship with Hippolyte, partly because he preferred to bury himself in his work, partly because the situation he’d started in Egypt was still unstable, and partly because he wanted to have his own revenge affair. Josephine spent the better part of a year on tenterhooks, waiting for her husband and praying that she could pull off the most audacious weep ‘n’ beg of her life. Finally, in October of 1799, while dining at a friend’s house, she received word that Napoleon was back in the country. She dashed from Paris to Lyon, hoping to get to him before anyone else could, but arrived to find that he had already left by a different road. When Napoleon arrived in Paris and found his house empty, he assumed Josephine was off with her lover. Furious, he ordered his staff to begin packing up her clothes.

When Josephine finally got back to Paris she went straight to Napoleon, but he had locked himself in his room and refused to see her. She sat on the floor outside of his door and cried all night, but her old tricks failed to move him. At 5 o’clock in the blessed morning, Josephine sensed she would need stronger ammunition, so she roused Eugène and Hortense. The two sleepy teenagers, still in their nightwear, joined their mother and begged their stepfather not to abandon them. Napoleon was genuinely fond of Josephine’s children, and it was their pleading that finally softened his heart. He allowed Josephine to come into the room and then, not long after, into his bed. Plus ça change!


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Napoleon did not live to regret this decision. Josephine’s ability to wield soft power — flattery, distraction, general diplomacy — soon came in very handy. While Napoleon was in Egypt, several of his sources informed him that the current government was deeply unpopular and France was in dire straits. The rumors were not an exaggeration. He plotted with Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, one of the five leaders of the Directory — the committee that had governed France since the end of the Revolution — to overthrow the other four. As soon as that was done, Napoleon immediately double-crossed Sieyès and declared himself First Consul of France, an authoritarian title that basically put him in complete control of the country. Like many two-bit despots, Napoleon claimed to be acting in the interests of liberty and democracy; like many two-bit despots, he felt that this was a personal victory that he had earned because he was destined to rule. But the truth was that Josephine had done much of the backroom work for him: hosting dinners, inflating egos, and diverting attention. Without her, it’s unlikely that the rough-mannered general would have succeeded.

Shortly after his coup, Napoleon decided that he needed a residence more befitting a ruler. First he and Josephine moved into the Luxembourg Palace, and a few months later into the Tuileries. The latter was a symbol of the ostentatious excesses of the French monarchy; built by Catherine de’ Medici in the 16th century, the Tuileries was where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were kept after their removal from Versailles. Napoleon’s choice to align himself with the kings of the Ancien Régime was obviously intentional, and he immediately installed his wife in Marie Antoinette’s old chambers. Josephine, though, was ill at ease. She hated the stiffness and formality of her new role, and complained to Hortense that she felt haunted by the dead queen’s ghost. Still, she did her best to fulfill her new role as consuless, even though her heart longed to return to Malmaison.

She soon had her chance, as Napoleon gave her permission to renovate Malmaison to use as a country estate for entertaining guests. Once that was completed, Josephine began working on the estate’s grounds. She discovered that she had a natural aptitude for horticulture, and began cultivating as many species of plants as she could. Tired of the formal gardens of Paris, Josephine hired an English gardener to achieve the jardin à l’anglaise look, much to Napoleon’s horror; she also used her husband’s connections to solicit seeds and plants from around the world, delighting especially in the rare and difficult to grow. Although she was entirely self-taught, Josephine’s botanical knowledge and ability impressed even the experts, and gardening was a passion she would keep up for the rest of her life. She even convinced Napoleon to let her import plants from England during the trade blockades that would mark the wars between Britain and the Napoleonic Empire.

JOSEPHINE: I also built a giant greenhouse and started importing exotic animals

JOSEPHINE: I had llamas and an orangutan that could eat with a knife and fork

JOSEPHINE: I know this all sounds ridiculously expensive

JOSEPHINE: but if life has taught me anything, it’s that you should spend money while you can

JOSEPHINE: because tomorrow you could go to jail

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: seriously, that’s your takeaway from the Revolution?

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: not that monarchy is oppressive, or that we should strive for freedom and equality

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: you’re as bad as any of those Bourbon kings

JOSEPHINE: stay away from my fucking llamas, Robespierre

* * *

Josephine succeeded in building an estate that both she and the First Consul could love. Napoleon began to use Malmaison to meet with all kinds of dignitaries and officials; in the early years of his rule, much of his government business was conducted at the country estate. They hosted days-long events that involved outdoor dinners and games, and even theatrical interludes starring Bonaparte family and friends. Josephine had transformed herself once again, from sexually adventurous good-times Merveilleuse into a consuless at the height of sophistication and good taste. Unfortunately for her, this state of affairs couldn’t and wouldn’t last long.

As Napoleon’s authority grew, so did his royal ambitions. He began to consider Malmaison beneath his station, preferring life at the Tuileries. Josephine was forced to spend more and more time in the city (and more and more time with her miserable in-laws). Napoleon, meanwhile, was sleeping with as many women as possible. These affairs — if you can call them that — took an odd form. The consul would have the women he chose wait for him, naked, in bed; he would be in and out (so to speak) in a matter of minutes. More than sex, he seemed to enjoy his ability to order his mistresses around, to control how they interacted with him. These liaisons also gave him another type of power, over Josephine: the ability to reduce her to tears, push her to the brink of despair, then soothe her like a fretful child.

Napoleon’s attitudes toward women oscillated between furious resentment and paternal infantilization. Both of these were reflected in his Napoleonic Code, which severely restricted the rights women had gained during the Revolution and even the few they’d held under the Ancien Régime. He also made chattel slavery legal again, in spite of his promises to uphold abolition, a decision many blamed on Josephine’s influence. Whether or not she advocated for the reinstatement of slavery, Josephine certainly didn’t seem to oppose it, writing to her mother that Napoleon was “very attached to Martinique and is counting on the support of the planters of that colony.” Josephine was uniquely positioned to understand both the brutality of chattel slavery — she had witnessed it firsthand, after all — as well as the Revolutionary arguments that had led to its abolition. Her entire personal brand was built on the indignities of losing her freedom during the Reign of Terror. She either knew on every level that slavery was a violation of basic human rights and didn’t care, or she found some way to rationalize it to herself, which is functionally the same as not caring.

To justify his regressive laws, Napoleon reinstated Catholicism as the state religion. He explained his rationale to the senator Pierre Louis Roederer succinctly: “Society cannot exist without inequality of wealth and inequality of wealth cannot exist without religion.” With the Catholic Church back in business, nearly every change wrought by the Revolution was undone.

* * *

As time went on, Napoleon became increasingly preoccupied with having a child. It was becoming clearer and clearer that Josephine was not going conceive, although she suggested that the problem lay with him — after all, hadn’t she already had two healthy pregnancies? Her fertility was, according to her, demonstrably fine. But still Josephine was terrified that her husband would leave her for a younger woman who might provide him with a baby. Eventually, she came up with an idea straight out of Aunt Edmée’s playbook: Hortense, now 18, could marry Napoleon’s brother Louis. The children of that union would bear both Napoleon and Josephine’s blood, and would make the perfect Bonaparte heir.

HORTENSE: but Louis is awful!

JOSEPHINE: well, we all have to do our duty

JOSEPHINE: to the empire, you know

HORTENSE: this feels more like me taking one for the team so that you can get what you want

JOSEPHINE: aren’t we all on the same team?

JOSEPHINE: really, you’re helping me to help yourself

Louis, like the rest of Napoleon’s extended family, hated Josephine and spent his wedding night reciting all the reasons why his new bride’s mother was a slut. In spite of this, Hortense gave birth to a son almost exactly nine months later, who she christened Napoleon Louis Charles. Her mother and stepfather were exultant.

Shortly before the birth of his heir, Napoleon was made “Consul for Life.” He officially moved his country seat from Malmaison to the Chateau de Saint-Cloud, one of Marie Antoinette’s former residences, where he did his utmost to recreate the court life of the Bourbon dynasty. He dressed his staff in red velvet and gilded everything in sight. He insisted that Josephine order extravagant new gowns for every occasion — including one covered with real rose petals — although he balked when her bills arrived. Few people remembered all the arcane rules and rituals of court, so Napoleon had Josephine consult with Henriette Campan, who had been Marie Antoinette’s First Lady of the Bedchamber, about things like who was supposed to bow when.

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: what was the point of even having a revolution??

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: did 40,000 people die in vain?? So that we could have another KING?

NAPOLEON: well, I didn’t start the Revolution, I just finished it

NAPOLEON: so that sounds like more of a you problem than a me problem

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: I’m dead, I don’t have any problems

NAPOLEON: with all due respect, Max, I would say that even in death you have a lot of unresolved issues

If Josephine had been overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Tuileries, Saint-Cloud was even worse. She missed the casual country vibes of Malmaison, not to mention the public affection her husband had showered her with there. His liaisons were becoming more and more public, and Josephine knew that pushing back against his infidelity would only put her position at risk; in spite of Hortense’s child, Josephine was still terrified that her husband would leave her. Napoleon wielded his new relationships like weapons — he loved to recount graphic details about his conquests to Josephine, demanding that she applaud his sexual prowess. If she got upset, he grew vicious, reminding her that she had been unfaithful first. By Napoleon’s logic, she deserved payback for humiliating him in front of the entire world.

In January of 1804, a plot to assassinate Napoleon was discovered. The Duc of Enghien, a nephew of Louis XVI, was arrested at his home in Baden (even though there was no evidence linking him to the plot), found guilty in a secret military trial, and summarily executed. The rest of Europe was appalled — Baden was a neutral territory, and the legal proceedings had hardly been fair. But in France, Napoleon successfully spun the story; he was the hero his country needed, protecting it from anarchy and the dregs of the Bourbon dynasty. Riding a wave of popularity, Napoleon launched a referendum and was elected Emperor of the French. “I am the man of the State,” he declared. “I am the French Revolution.”

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: I just want to say I totally called it that you would make yourself king

NAPOLEON: technically, an emperor is not a king

NAPOLEON: spiritually, it’s more in the tradition of the Roman Empire? Anyway, it polls well

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: I fail to see how the Roman emperors were less oppressive or corrupt than the French kings

NAPOLEON: Max, you know I always treasure your input

NAPOLEON: but don’t you have anyone else to haunt?

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: you know I don’t, I beheaded all of my enemies 10 years ago

Josephine was going to be “greater than a queen,” just as Euphémie had said — she was going to be an Empress. Or was she? Even though her husband was going to be Emperor, she didn’t have an official title. Napoleon himself didn’t seem to be too sure about which direction to jump. On the one hand, crowning Josephine as Empress would make it a lot harder to get rid of her if and when he wanted to take a new wife who would give him an heir. On the other hand, he was deeply superstitious and believed that his wife was his good luck charm; without her, he worried that his winning streak would break. Plus, every time he leaned toward not crowning Josephine his terrible family rejoiced, which infuriated him.

Josephine and Napoleon began playing a dangerous game of chicken. He told her that he was too loyal to leave her, and begged her to do the leaving for the sake of his dynasty. She retaliated by saying that she would separate from him as soon as he gave her a direct order to do so. Every time Napoleon was on the brink of breaking it off, something — his love for his stepchildren, his fear of a life without Josephine, her ability to lure him into the bedroom — stopped him. Finally, less than a month before his coronation, his family made up his mind for him. The Bonapartes, feeling triumphant, had spent weeks alternating between snubbing and teasing Josephine, sure that her downfall was imminent. Piqued by their disrespect, Napoleon publicly announced her coronation, then rubbed salt in the wound by telling his sisters that they’d be carrying Josephine’s train during the ceremony.

The night before the coronation, Josephine made the ultimate move to keep her husband at her side. The Pope was in town to do the coronating — although Napoleon actually ended up crowning himself, because despots will despot — and Josephine sought a private audience with him. She confessed that her wedding to the Emperor had been a civil service, which meant that they weren’t truly married in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Horrified, the Pope refused to participate in the coronation unless Napoleon and Josephine were married in a religious ceremony. Knowing that the Pope’s support was key to legitimizing his reign, Napoleon gave in. Josephine’s gamble had paid off.

* * *

On December 2, 1804, Josephine — heroine of the Reign of Terror, scantily clad Merveilleuse, former mistress of half a dozen men — was crowned Empress of France in front of the Pope himself.

All of this was, of course, set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s military career. He managed to spin even his defeats as successes, and used them to justify further expansion of his empire. In the summer of 1805, he turned his attention once more toward Austria, which was still salty about the whole Marie Antoinette thing and allied with Britain and Russia against France. Napoleon abandoned his plans to invade England in order to head east to quash the Austrian army, and he was hugely successful. The next year, he pressed even farther, into Prussia, and in early 1807, into Poland. He wrote to Josephine often, but even as he proclaimed his love, he was distracted by news out of France: one of his mistresses was pregnant. Josephine, who had traveled with Napoleon as far as Mainz, knew exactly what that pregnancy could mean for her marriage. She begged her husband to let her join him in Warsaw but he ordered her back to Paris, where she spent the winter white-faced and weeping, certain that orders for a divorce would come through any day.

Josephine had little reprieve from her unhappiness. In the spring of 1807, her grandson and heir Napoleon Louis Charles died. Hortense and the Empress were inconsolable; Napoleon, who thought they should be paying attention to his victories in the east, grew impatient with their grief. Less than a month later, Josephine’s mother died in Martinique. Napoleon refused to make the news of his mother-in-law’s death public, claiming that it would cast a shadow over his victories, and refused to name Hortense’s younger son his heir, which Josephine took as a further sign that he was about to leave her. When the Emperor returned to France after sealing an armistice with Tsar Alexander, his manner toward his wife was noticeably chilly.

Now that he was secure in his fertility, Napoleon began to consider a divorce in earnest. The idea of solidifying his new alliances with Austria and Poland with a marriage was deeply appealing and, he reasoned, the death of his heir was a good excuse to find and impregnate a new wife. Josephine, knowing she was about to be discarded, fell into an emotional spiral, dragging Napoleon with her: the more miserable she became, the more he resented her. But he still loved her, too, and couldn’t picture life without her gentling influence. Plus, he was sure that she brought him luck; his greatest victories had come after their wedding, and after all, what about “au destin”? Would his military winning streak continue without her? But in 1809, after learning that a Polish mistress was pregnant with another one of his children, he made up his mind: he had to divorce Josephine.

On November 30th, just two days before the 5th anniversary of their coronation, Napoleon and Josephine dined together. At the end of a nearly silent meal, the Emperor took his wife’s hand and told her that, while he would always adore her, he had to put the interests of France in front of his own wants. Josephine fell into hysterics, and Napoleon began to cry too, becoming even more upset when he realized that losing his wife meant losing his stepchildren. He had thought this through thousands of times, but faced with the reality of divorce, he blanched. In the end it was Eugène who insisted that the separation happen. He knew that a reconciliation would be brief and ultimately unhappy for everyone.

On December 14, 1809, Napoleon and Josephine convened a grand ceremony in the throne room to announce their divorce. The Emperor wept as he described what a wonderful wife the Empress had been. Josephine — whose face was a mess of tears and makeup — swore that Napoleon would always be her dearest love. Together, they signed the record of proceedings. That night they clung to each other in Napoleon’s bed, both sobbing, before Josephine retreated to her own chamber.

Josephine decamped to Malmaison, where Napoleon visited her. The pair continued to cry together over the dissolution of their grand love affair, more united in their separation than they had been over the last year of their marriage. But the Emperor’s grief didn’t stop him from marrying 18-year-old Marie Louise of Austria (who happened to be Marie Antoinette’s great-niece) on March 11th, 1810, just months after his divorce. He told Josephine that she would have to leave Paris before his new wife’s arrival, and at the end of March the deposed Empress set off for a chateau in Navarre.

Josephine did her best to rally her spirits, even though the lovely new home Napoleon had promised was a damp, drafty monstrosity, so hideous that people called it “la marmite” (the cooking pot). She began renovating its gardens, and occupied her evenings doing tarot readings for her ladies; years before, she had developed a close relationship with cartomancer Marie Anne Lenormand, and remained obsessed with Lenormand’s fortune-telling deck of cards for the rest of her life. Between her love of plants, her tarot fixation, and her (still ongoing) debt, Josephine was basically a prototype for the modern millennial lady.

* * *

In March of 1811, Marie Louise gave birth to a son. Napoleon was beyond exultant — he finally had a legitimate child and heir. In a fit of good temper, he allowed Josephine to return permanently to Malmaison (she had been there the year before, but was only allowed to stay briefly before traveling onward to Aix-en-Provence). She began to build a quiet life for herself — collecting art, hosting intimate soirées, and spoiling her grandchildren. She grew sugarcane in her greenhouse and let Hortense’s young sons suck on it just like she had as a child. Napoleon remained close to her, writing to her often and spending two hours visiting her before he left to conquer Russia; he even let her kiss and cuddle his son, although Marie Louise was furious when she found out.

I probably don’t have to tell you that things didn’t go well in Russia. Things never go well for invading armies in Russia. Over 500,000 French soldiers died; fewer than 100,000 came home. Napoleon was ousted from power in the spring of 1814, and Paris was soon overrun with triumphant Cossack forces. By the beginning of May, they would restore the Bourbon dynasty to the French throne. Napoleon, meanwhile, had been exiled.

Tsar Alexander, who was in Paris to ensure that Louis XVIII acceded peacefully, began visiting Josephine. He was fascinated by the legendary woman who had held his enemy in thrall for so long, and the former Empress, for her part, received him graciously. She understood that this man held her life — and the lives of her children and grandchildren — in the palm of his hand, and turned on the charm accordingly. Other conquering dignitaries began to visit her as well; she was, after all, one of the spoils of war. She belonged to them now.

Stay away from my fucking llamas, Robespierre.

In the middle of May, Josephine caught a chill while out walking around the grounds of Malmaison with the Tsar. By the end of the month, she was desperately ill with a high fever and a rash. On the morning of May 29th, delirious but still the same old Josephine, she insisted on being dressed in a pink satin gown and rubies in case the Tsar came. She was dead by the time the clock struck noon.

French public opinion had run hot and cold on Napoleon — mostly cold over the last years of his reign — but Josephine had been almost universally beloved. She represented so many things to so many people, from the wild hope of the early days of the Revolution to the desperation of the Reign of Terror to the grandeur of the French Empire. Perhaps above everything else, she represented pragmatism and tenacity; she’d never been ashamed to do what was necessary to survive. Thousands upon thousands attended her funeral, weeping for their Empress. Her legacy was complicated, but it was the legacy of their people.

And Napoleon? In his disgrace, he was abandoned by almost everyone, including Marie Louise; Eugène and Hortense were among the few that remained loyal to him. He died seven years later, exiled to the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. His last word was “Josephine.”

There is a statue of Josephine in Fort-de-France, Martinique. In 1991, it was beheaded, just as she would have been if not for Robespierre’s timely downfall. It was a fitting tribute to the heroine of the Terror who had watched the restoration of slavery with the same secretive Mona Lisa smile she wears in all of her portraits.

Long live the dissolution of oppressive monarchies. Long live freedom. Liberté, fraternité, égalité forever.


Previously:
Queens of Infamy: Josephine Bonaparte, from Martinique to Merveilleuse
Queens of Infamy: Zenobia
Queens of Infamy: The Rise of Catherine de’ Medici
Queens of Infamy: The Reign of Catherine de’ Medici
Queens of Infamy: Joanna of Naples
Queens of Infamy: Anne Boleyn
Queens of Infamy: Eleanor of Aquitaine

* * *

For further reading on Josephine:
Kate Williams, Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte
Andrea Stuart, The Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon’s Josephine

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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based feminist killjoy. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. If she has a looming deadline, you can find her procrastinating on Twitter @anne_theriault.

Editor: Michelle Weber
Copyeditor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Illustrator: Louise Pomeroy