What makes a secret society? Is it the codes and the handshakes, the physical language? Perhaps it’s accessibility—you might know an organization exists, but you’ll never be a member. Take this: I rushed a sorority—the same sorority!—three times, because I wanted to be able to walk into any room on my small college campus and see a welcoming face. I wanted the anonymity, the lettered sweatshirt, the history. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, something a little mysterious. Sure, I could study the colors and crest and memorize the majors and extracurriculars of every glossy-haired member, but that wasn’t the same as being in. I didn’t get in, obviously.
This urge to rush a sorority over and over (insanity, by Albert Einstein’s definition, I know) has manifested itself before. Middle-school me devoured books about the rich and privileged—Gossip Girl, The Clique, Private–because I knew there was a secret and I had to find out what it was. I had to, or I would be stuck reading the “How to Be Popular” WikiHow guide for the rest of my life. Kindergarten me yearned to sit next to the most popular girl in class during circle time, only to be snubbed by her henchmen. See a pattern? My identity crises have perfectly styled hair and would never wear last season’s Tory Burch flats. I continue to be fascinated—less pathetically, hopefully—by these exclusive subcultures. Luckily for you, I didn’t include any essays about the angst of privileged boarding school students. Instead, I’ve packed this list full of success stories, start-ups, witchcraft and comedy. Read more…
Inside 19th Century London’s sewers with “toshers,” who made a living by scouring for trash and waste to be resold:
They were mostly celebrated, nonetheless, for the living that the sewers gave them, which was enough to support a tribe of around 200 men–each of them known only by his nickname: Lanky Bill, Long Tom, One-eyed George, Short-armed Jack. The toshers earned a decent living; according to Mayhew’s informants, an average of six shillings a day–an amount equivalent to about $50 today. It was sufficient to rank them among the aristocracy of the working class–and, as the astonished writer noted, ‘at this rate, the property recovered from the sewers of London would have amounted to no less than £20,000 [today $3.3 million] per annum.’
On June 10, 1912, a family was brutally murdered in a small Iowa town. The murders remain unsolved:
The Moores were not discovered until several hours later, when a neighbor, worried by the absence of any sign of life in the normally boisterous household, telephoned Joe’s brother, Ross, and asked him to investigate. Ross found a key on his chain that opened the front door, but barely entered the house before he came rushing out again, calling for Villisca’s marshal, Hank Horton. That set in train a sequence of events that destroyed what little hope there may have been of gathering useful evidence from the crime scene. Horton brought along Drs. J. Clark Cooper and Edgar Hough and Wesley Ewing, the minister of the Moore’s Presbyterian congregation. They were followed by the county coroner, L.A. Linquist, a third doctor, F.S. Williams (who became the first to examine the bodies and estimate a time of death). When a shaken Dr Williams emerged, he cautioned members of the growing crowd outside: ‘Don’t go in there, boys; you’ll regret it until the last day of your life.’ Many ignored the advice; as many as 100 curious neighbors and townspeople tramped as they pleased through the house, scattering fingerprints, and in one case even removing fragments of Joe Moore’s skull as a macabre keepsake.
A brief history of the many attempts during the 19th Century to build a tunnel under the Thames River in London:
Another bridge was out of the question—it would deny sailing ships access to the Pool of London—and ambitious men turned their thoughts to driving a tunnel beneath the Thames instead. This was not such an obvious idea as it might appear. Although demand for coal was growing fast as the industrial revolution hit high gear, working methods remained primitive. Tunnels were dug by men wielding picks in sputtering candlelight.
No engineers had tunneled under a major river, and the Thames was an especially tricky river. To the north, London was built on a solid bed of clay, ideal tunneling material. To the south and east, however, lay deeper strata of water-bearing sand, gravel and oozing quicksand, all broken up by layers of gravel, silt, petrified trees and the debris of ancient oyster beds. The ground was semi-liquid, and at depth it became highly pressurized, threatening to burst into any construction site.
I’ve always been fascinated with religion, Russia, and missing persons stories so these five nonfiction pieces really captured my attention this year. The fallout from The New Yorker‘s Scientology piece turned out to be as compelling as the essay itself—and I had to put The New Yorker on here twice because the recent piece on Vladimir Putin is spectacular and continually evolving. Paul Collins’ piece on missing Barbara Follett was utterly haunting and Paul is a master of uncovering long-hidden mysteries. Everyone should check out all of his work, and I’m sure many have after reading that piece. And really, for the other two, who can turn away from secret cults and dead bodies found on beaches? Not me.
Say what you will of Ms. Love, but she’ll always have a fan in me.
I found myself endlessly quoting this piece on screen legend Lauren Bacall.
NY Times’ fascinating obituary of Loretta Young’s illegitimate daughter with Clark Gable, Judy Lewis.
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.
The Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale could not have been more timely, and therefore chilling. “In February, the book overtook George Orwell’s 1984 on the Amazon best-seller list. Texas is Gilead and Indiana is Gilead and now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead, too.”
In The New Republic, Sara Jones (a former fundamentalist Christian whose education prepared her for a life of tending home and making babies and obeying a husband) writes about The Handmaid’s Tale, how its world could not exist without conservative women — represented in the book by the character Serena Joy — and what it ultimately means for those women’s lives.
America is rich in Serena Joys. One need look no further for her contemporary counterparts than Michelle Duggar and her daughters; or Paula White, the televangelist who allegedly led Donald Trump to Christ; or his aide Kellyanne Conway, who defends him as a “great boss” to women. The character Atwood invented is an amalgam of Phyllis Schlafly and Tammy Faye Bakker with a dash of Aimee Semple McPherson. The spectacle of the female fundamentalist celebrity is not recent, and she is not an anomaly. Her existence is proof of American fundamentalism’s durability, and a reminder that it could not thrive without the enthusiastic backing of women.
The dilemma of Serena Joy feels deceptively easy to resolve. She’s in this for power, and understands that it’s hers if she says the right things to the right audiences. Schlafly achieved international fame, and Conway has the ear of the president. With Gilead, however, Atwood reminds such women that they might not like the results of their labor; that by the time they come to regret it, the culture they helped create will have developed far beyond their control. Serena Joy is a warning, not only to her feminist antagonists, but to conservatives, too.
Josh Roiland | Longreads | February 2017 | 14 minutes (3,710 words)
“Who’s sticking today?” the man asked.
He wore tan work boots and rough jeans. He told a friend in the waiting room that he had a couple hours off work and thought he’d stop in for some extra cash. The receptionist told him the names of that day’s phlebotomists. He paused. Sliding a 16-gauge needle into someone’s arm is tricky, and the man reconsidered. Instead of signing in, he announced to the room that he’d come back tomorrow and try his luck.
I’d driven 107 miles from my home in Bangor, Maine to the BPL Plasma Center in Lewiston to collect $50 for having my arm punctured and a liter of my plasma sucked out. The actual donation takes about 35 minutes, but the drive and its attendant wait makes for an eight-hour day. I clocked in for that trip five times this summer.
I’m a professor at the University of Maine. My salary is $52,000, and I am a year away from tenure. But like everyone else in that room, I was desperate for money. Read more…
We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in under-recognized stories.
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Michael J. Mooney
Dallas-based freelance writer, co-director of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.
You Are Not Going to Die Out Here: A Woman’s Terrifying Night in the Chesapeake (John Woodrow Cox, The Washington Post)
I saw this story posted and shared a few times when it first ran, but in the middle of an insane election cycle, it didn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. This is the tale of Lauren Connor, a woman who fell off a boat and disappeared amid the crashing waves of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s about the search to find her, by both authorities and her boyfriend, and about a woman whose life had prepared her perfectly for the kinds of challenges that would overwhelm most of us. This is a deadline narrative, but it’s crafted so well—weaving in background and character development at just the right moments, giving readers so many reasons to care—that you couldn’t stop reading if you wanted to.
A science reporter from Oakland, California, who teaches at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of We Have the Technology, a book about biohacking.
A clear-eyed, thought-provoking retelling of Michelle-Lael Norsworthy’s long legal battle in hope of becoming the first American to receive sex-reassignment surgery while in prison. Her lawyers argued that the surgery was medically necessary and withholding it violated the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But, they argued, rather than grant the surgery and set a legal precedent, the Department of Corrections instead ordered her parole. The piece is a nuanced take on what it’s like to transition in prison—at least 400 California inmates were taking hormone replacement therapy when the article was published in May—where trans women are vulnerable to sexual assault and survivors are placed in a kind of solitary confinement, stuck in limbo in a prison system where it’s unsafe for them to live with men, but they are generally not allowed to live with women. And it asks a bigger question: What kind of medical care must the state cover?
Investigative Reporter, New America Future of War Fellow.
At first, it may seem like a simple essay about cultural appropriation, but this opus on the nameplate necklace is so much more than that. It is a beautiful ode to black and brown fashion. It is a moving history of how unique names became a form of political resistance to white supremacy. And it is the biting reality check Carrie Bradshaw so desperately needed. Read more…
Rob Tannenbaum | Longreads | August 2016 | 63 minutes (15,868 words)
On the night she was murdered, Stella Walsh was in a great mood. The Cleveland resident spent much of December 4, 1980, thinking about her two passions: sports and Poland, the country she ran for when she won two Olympic medals. There was a women’s basketball match the next week between Kent State and the Polish national team, which Walsh helped arrange. Mayor George Voinovich asked her to be his proxy, and his office gave her a key to the city, which she planned to present at the game.
Walsh had planned to leave for Atlanta that day, on a trip with her co-workers at the recreation department, but two days earlier, she’d canceled her ticket, which she said was too expensive for her. She skipped work, slept late, went to the nearby Lansing Tavern in the early afternoon, then returned to the tiny home she shared with her bedridden 84-year-old mother Veronica. After dinner, without saying goodbye, she drove off to buy ribbons for the visiting Poles. She had a lot of money in her pocket, which rarely happened.
In Walsh’s brilliant career as a track and field star, she’d won 41 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles and set 20 world records in a range of events, from sprints to the discus throw. She was the first superstar of women’s track and field, a dominant performer who intimidated her competitors, and the only woman of her era whose box-office appeal matched a man’s. Walsh “is to women’s track what Babe Ruth is to baseball,” one journalist wrote.
In 1980, long after her last world record, Walsh was working for Cleveland’s recreation department at an annual salary of $10,400, which was the most she’d ever earned. She bought a bag of ribbons at the Broadway Avenue location of Uncle Bill’s, a chain of Ohio discount department stores, on the city’s southeast side. In the parking lot, men approached her, one of them holding a .38. Walsh, 69, was still remarkably strong. As she tried to grab the gun, a bullet scratched through her stomach and intestines, and severed an artery in her pelvis. The thieves ran off without checking the pants pocket where she had her money.
Walsh was unconscious when a policeman working security inside Uncle Bill’s found her face down in the parking lot. As the officer turned her over, a wig fell off, and he recognized it was Stella Walsh. He asked for an ambulance to be called, but the nearest one had a flat tire, which created a delay in her care. Instead, a police station wagon came for Walsh, and officers took her to St. Alexis Hospital, less than a mile away, where she died on the operating table. A hospital inventory of her personal property included $248.17 in cash, a 1932 Olympic ring, and a pair of falsies, as they were called, for padding her bra.
In the 25 years prior to her murder, little had been written about Walsh. Born as Stanislawa Walasiewiczowna—that’s the story she told reporters, though, like many aspects of her life, it turned out to not be true—in the rural Polish town of Wierzchownia, she’d had a groundbreaking athletic career. But she also had little charisma, made bad copy, and kept to herself. Although she’d lived in the U.S. since she was 15 months old and spoke almost without an accent, she’d won her Olympic medals for Poland. Even her nickname, “The Polish Flyer,” identified her as an alien. She didn’t experience any of the twilight glory that often comforts athletes late in life; there was no documentary about her, no Congressional Medal of Honor. While she was working for the city, handing out softball permits, her fellow pioneer and ’36 Olympic contestant Jesse Owens was making speeches and earning more than $100,000 a year.
“One of the great women of sport was murdered last night,” Walter Cronkite intoned on the CBS Evening News. “Stella Walsh, who was 69, was shot and killed in a Cleveland parking lot. No suspects have been arrested.” In Slavic Village, the Polish-American neighborhood where she spent most of her life, everyone knew and loved Walsh. She tended bar at a local tavern, coached young athletes, and was viewed as an example of Polonia’s greatest virtues. “Children were her life,” one friend said. “She loved to train them, and she always trained them to be winners.” She’d been “a Cleveland institution,” Mayor Voinovich told a reporter.
Because Walsh had been murdered, an autopsy was required. On the eve of her funeral, a Cleveland TV station went on the air with a news bulletin that rattled the city, then the country, then the world: Stella Walsh was a man.
The station’s claim about Walsh was incorrect. It was neither the first nor the last mistruth told about her. Because women athletes were carelessly documented in her era, and because she cultivated mystery, there are lots of conflicting statistics and incompatible stories about Walsh, ranging from when she arrived in the U.S. to how she died. As best as these tales can be sorted out or disproven, here’s the first full account of her incredible life. Read more…