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And What of My Wrath?

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Sara Fredman | Longreads | May 2019 | 9 minutes (2,555 words)

 

What makes an antihero show work? In this Longreads series, It’s Not Easy Being Mean, Sara Fredman explores the fine-tuning that goes into writing a bad guy we can root for, and asks whether the same rules apply to women.

 
I didn’t want to write about Game of Thrones. Truly, I didn’t. In the first place, it is an ensemble show and therefore not technically an antihero vehicle. It is also generally the realm of the hot take and this series is usually a place for tepid, if not downright frigid, takes. It is Winterfell, not Dorne. But here we are in Dorne, talking about Game of Thrones, though probably a week or so after it would have been maximally festive. So maybe it’s more accurate to say that we’re in King’s Landing, which is perfect because we’re here to talk about how, on any other show, Cersei Lannister could have been the female antihero we’ve all been waiting for.

Cersei is the closest female analogue to the Golden Age antiheroes who turned the genre into a phenomenon. Those men — Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White — all do terrible things for a host of reasons: because they want to, because power feels good, because they’re doing what they need to do to survive in the world. Despite the fact that these men do terrible things, we root for them because of a careful calibration of their characters and the environment in which they operate. They are marked as special, or especially skilled; they are humanized by their difficult pasts and their dedication to their children; and, finally, they are surrounded by other, more terrible people. Cersei has, at one point or another in the show’s eight-season run, fallen into all of these categories. She is smart and cunning. I recently rewatched a scene I had forgotten, early in the first season in which she pokes holes in the plan her dumb and petulant son Joffrey comes up with to gain control of the North. The scene shows us that she understands the stakes of the titular game and how to play it successfully: “A good king knows when to save his strength and when to destroy his enemies.” The audience knows that Joffrey can never be that king and, despite Cersei’s keen grasp of her political landscape, neither can she. She may be depicted as a villain throughout most of the series but she is also clearly a talent born into the wrong body, and she knows it. As she says to King Robert Baratheon: “I should wear the armor and you the gown.”

This brings us to our next antihero criterion, which is the humanizing influence of interiority and family. It is axiomatic among the show’s characters and creators that Cersei’s most humanizing characteristic is the love and dedication she shows her children. In their final scene together, her brother Tyrion begs her to surrender with the only card he believes will matter: “You’ve always loved your children more than yourself. More than Jaime. More than anything. I beg you if not for yourself then for your child. Your reign is over, but that doesn’t mean your life has to end. It doesn’t mean your baby has to die.” In showrunner David Benioff’s view, Cersei’s children were the only thing that could humanize her: “I think the idea of Cersei without her children is a pretty terrifying prospect because it was the one thing that really humanized her, you know — her love for her kids. As much of a monster as she could sometimes be, she was a mother who truly did love her children.”

But the thing about an antihero show is that it can turn any monster into a hero.

It is of course true that Cersei loves her children, but it is hard to square Tyrion’s description of his sister with the Cersei of season two’s “Blackwater” who was prepared to kill herself and Tommen, her youngest son, rather than be taken alive by Stannis Baratheon and his army. Tyrion thinks that Cersei loves her children like a June Cleaver when she actually loves them like a Walter White. For the antihero, love of family is about self-advancement, not self-sacrifice. Invoking his children will not dissuade him from doing bad things because their existence is the very thing that motivates him to do them. This is why Walter White can yell “WE’RE A FAMILY” right before he takes his infant daughter away from her mother.

David Benioff’s assertion that Cersei’s love of her children is the only thing that humanizes her is possibly the best example of the way in which the Game of Thrones writers misunderstood their characters and their audience. It overlooks the other reasons the show gave us to root for Cersei and betrays an ignorance of the extent to which enduring patriarchy might itself be, for at least a portion of its audience, humanizing. It reveals an inability to grasp the possibility that the mother and the monster can be the same person. For a show dedicated to demonstrating just how thin the line is between good and evil, Game of Thrones was surprisingly blind to Cersei’s potential to become a compelling antihero, to be humanized by something other than her children. Or maybe the show realized it all too well.


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Seasons five and six in particular could have been a — forgive me — game changer for the audience’s relationship with Cersei. Their storyline has Cersei first trying to manipulate and then fighting off a band of homophobic and misogynist religious ascetics called the Sparrows. Initially, the audience appreciates the way the High Sparrow thwarts Cersei’s attempts to use religion to strengthen her own political position. She’s been a villain for four seasons and we relish seeing her hit a roadblock. But the High Sparrow and his sidekick Septa Unella take it too far and our allegiances begin to shift. Septa Unella tortures Cersei in prison and the High Sparrow declares that Cersei must take a walk of penance through the streets of King’s Landing. Her hair is shorn and she walks naked from the Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep as Septa Unella chants “shame” and rings a bell to draw onlookers. In that sequence, we don’t forget that Cersei’s done terrible things, but we feel sympathy for her because she is, in that moment, at the mercy of other, more sinister forces. We also feel sympathy for her because this showdown with the High Sparrow reminds us that her story is that of a woman living under patriarchy, that her autonomy has always been contingent and therefore largely an illusion. We remember that this is not the first time Cersei has been powerless, that in the first season we saw her husband hit her and then tell her to wear her bruise in silence or he would hit her again. We remember the way her father, Tywin Lannister, spoke to her (“Do you think you’ll be the first person dragged into the Sept to be married against her will?”), and we also remember that she was raped by the one man she loved next to the body of her murdered son.

In most of the ways that matter, Cersei’s relationship with Sansa Stark, betrothed to marry Cersei’s abusive son Joffrey, is evidence of her villainy but it is also a frank education in what becoming a wife and mother means under patriarchy. Looking back on some of their scenes together, one gets the sense that Cersei feels compelled to explain to Sansa what she’s in for, to disabuse her of any notions of happily ever after and replace them with the reality of life as a political pawn, a prisoner in expensive dresses. We see this as coldhearted and evil because we hold out hope that Sansa will be able to remain an innocent princess looking for true love, but that’s not an option for girls like her, and Cersei knows it. In a heart-to-heart after Sansa gets her period for the first time, Cersei assures her that while she will never love the king, she will love her children. Sansa has just become a woman, which makes her eligible to be a wife and mother. Cersei knows that this is an occasion for a political lesson rather than a domestic one: “Permit me to share some womanly wisdom with you on this very special day. The more people you love, the weaker you are. You do things for them that you know you shouldn’t do, you’ll act the fool to make them happy, to keep them safe. Love no one but your children. On that front, a mother has no choice.” When we hear it from her own mouth, Cersei’s love for her children sounds less like deliberate self-sacrifice than yet another matter in which she has no choice.

Tyrion thinks that Cersei loves her children like a June Cleaver when she actually loves them like a Walter White.

It’s probably worthwhile to remember that the “game” we have spent eight years watching is only being played in the first place because Robert Baratheon assumed that a woman who left him had to have been taken (“I only know she was the one thing I ever wanted and someone took her away from me”). Women are things to be taken and traded; they are the tools men use to cement alliances and consolidate power. Freedom of movement and freedom of self-determination are precious commodities to which only some people in Westeros have access, either by birth or cunning. None of those people are women. Cersei is hardly the only victim of patriarchy on the show, but she could have been its most symbolic. More than anything, Cersei wants to control her own body and her own destiny. She wants to be a player, rather than a pawn. When Ned Stark confronts her about her relationship with Jaime and the illegitimacy of their children, he warns, “Wherever you go, Robert’s wrath will follow you.” Cersei replies, “And what of my wrath, Lord Stark?” This question is, of course, rhetorical — everyone knows that a woman’s anger only earns 78 cents on the dollar. We side with Ned, but on another show, Cersei’s question could have been a rallying cry. We might have written it on signs taken to #resistance rallies and anti-abortion protests. Neither Cersei nor Robert has been faithful, but Robert’s anger matters more because he is the king and Cersei’s infidelity matters more because her body is for making him a bloodline.

The Sept of Baelor pyrotechnics in the season six finale could have easily been Cersei’s “Face Off” moment: a shocking triumph over her enemies showcasing her intelligence and tactical skill. The move was not only brilliantly efficient, killing off everyone who opposed her at once without leaving home, but also bursting with symbolism. She destroys the religious cult that stripped her of what little bodily and political autonomy she had and blows up the place where she married Robert and was raped by Jaime. Cersei watches from her window as the architectural incarnation of patriarchy goes up in green flames and then takes a sip of wine.

That masterfully shot suspenseful sequence is immediately followed by Cersei’s vengeful speech to her torturer, Septa Unella, before leaving her in the hands of Gregor Clegane:

“Confess, it felt good, beating me, starving me, frightening me, humiliating me. You didn’t do it because you cared about my atonement, you did it because it felt good. I understand. I do things because they feel good. I drink because it feels good. I killed my husband because it felt good to be rid of him. I fucked my brother, because it feels good to feel him inside of me. I lie about fucking my brother, because it feels good to keep our son safe from hateful hypocrites. I killed your High Sparrow, and all his little sparrows, all his septons and all his septas, all his filthy soldiers because it felt good to watch them burn. It felt good to imagine their shock and their pain. No thought has ever given me greater joy. Even confessing feels good under the right circumstances.”

Cersei is hardly the only victim of patriarchy on the show, but she could have been its most symbolic.

This is Cersei’s “I am the one who knocks” speech, the moment where the antihero lays bare her unsavory machinations, and we applaud because a formerly weak person now has some hard-won power. Walter White takes some time to understand that if he is to have any power, he must take it. Cersei has always understood that power is her only available means toward self-determination, a ballast against the whims and wishes of those who would try to use her to further their own storylines and try to capture a bigger piece of the Westeros pie. Power is, for her, a necessity rather than a perk. Thinking about Cersei as an antihero, however brief the time we spend cheering her on, makes clear the extent to which writing a successful antihero always involves portraying that character as but a small player in a much bigger game. This is Walter White up against Big Pharma, which cut him out of profits to which he feels entitled and is now forcing him to forfeit his family’s financial security to stay alive. It is Tony Soprano chafing against RICO and the possibility that anyone in his orbit could help the FBI lock him up. It is Don Draper trying to hold on to a life he was never supposed to have. And it is Philip and Elizabeth Jennings doing the job they were trained to do, while people we never see change the rules and determine its stakes. An antihero isn’t on top of the world but right there in the melee, jockeying for some small measure of self-determination. We realize, as they do, that no matter how much power or control they seem to have, they are only one step away from being literally or metaphorically paraded through the streets naked while someone rings a bell.

Cersei is the closest we’ve come to a female version of this kind of character. David Benioff is right: Cersei is a monster. But the thing about an antihero show is that it can turn any monster into a hero. It compels us to root for a monster by making us see the monstrosity lurking all around him and, in so doing, turns him into our monster. Monstrosity in Westeros is like wildfire under King’s Landing: There is more than enough of it to make Cersei a queen we root for while she sips her celebratory wine. Allowing Cersei to become a full-on antihero could have been incredible, giving the show an opportunity to explore the particular powerlessness of women under patriarchy. What difference does motherhood make? What particular vulnerabilities does it bestow, what kinds of unexpected powers or motivations? But this is the fantasy world we have, not the one we need, and Game of Thrones could never allow Cersei to fully become the antihero character they had temporarily conjured. Three weeks ago — on Mother’s Day no less — we saw her crushed by a building, dying in the arms of her rapist after begging him not to let her die. As bad as Game of Thrones was at writing women, it gave us one possible roadmap for creating a female antihero on par with the bad men we’ve seen win Emmys over the past two decades. But it also makes clear just how tough that road is to travel because it requires that we expand our idea of what kinds of people are allowed to do bad things in pursuit of their own self-determination, to become the one who knocks.

 
Next, we’ll dive into half-hour television for our first solo female antihero — single mom Sam Fox of Better Things — because there’s no audience more adept at pointing out a woman’s flaws than her children.

* * *

Previous installments in this series:
The Blaming of the Shrew
The Good Bad Wives of Ozark and House of Cards
Mother/Russia

* * *

Sara Fredman is a writer and editor living in St. Louis. Her work has been featured in Longreads, The Rumpus, Tablet, and Lilith.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk

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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No Surgery Can Fix a Self-Defeating World View

Close-up Of A Man's Face In Broken Mirror Over Wooden Desk

As Alice Hines reports at The Cut, ‘“incels” are going under the knife to reshape their faces, and their dating prospects.’ What they’re discovering after the swelling goes down is that the work they need to get done is on the inside: no plastic surgery can fix a poor self image or a skewed world view that dictates that life’s problems and roadblocks will magically evaporate with a surgically enhanced jawline.

After his first surgery with Eppley, he tells me, he returned to the Netherlands to wait for the swelling to go down. He was happy with his rhinoplasty revision but couldn’t figure out whether his new jaw was too big. Some days the results seemed perfect. Other days one side looked horrifically large. “Just realized my face is slightly too flat,” he wrote one morning. “Should I fly back to the U.S.?” Eppley pressed him to wait. To feel calmer, Truth4lie listened to long videos of rain sounds.

“My self-image fluctuates all the time,” he wrote on the forum as he waited. “I want to live in a plastic surgeon’s office. I just want to have a bed in one of his labs. Just a bed, a small kitchen, and an internet connection. I want to feel pure within my body and self-validate by looking in the mirror and seeing the flawless skull. When detecting a tiny deformity, I call the surgeon and he’ll be there immediately, along with his assistant and a knife in his hand to cut me open.”

He would come back to Indianapolis three more times that year, staying at the same Holiday Inn off the side of the interstate near Eppley’s office for weeks at a time. For the first revision, in January 2017, Eppley shaved off part of the original silicone implant that Truth4lie thought was too big.

The time in his life when Truth4lie remembers being happiest was that spring, after his second surgery. Before he began to notice new flaws, he spent a brief few months when he felt transformed into a new person. He contacted an old friend in a neighboring town and rebuilt his relationship with his parents. When he took pictures of himself or looked in the mirror, he felt calm. People’s reactions to him appeared to change. They seemed to make eye contact more and smile, though Truth4lie couldn’t be sure if it was all in his head.

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How Many Bones Would You Break to Get Laid?

Longreads Pick

‘“Incels” are going under the knife to reshape their faces, and their dating prospects.’ What they’re discovering after the swelling goes down is that the work they need to get done is on the inside: no plastic surgery can fix a poor self image or a skewed world view that dictates that life’s problems and roadblocks will magically evaporate with a surgically enhanced jawline.

Source: The Cut
Published: May 28, 2019
Length: 26 minutes (6,644 words)

Total Depravity: The Origins of the Drug Epidemic in Appalachia Laid Bare

Getty / Black Inc. Books

Richard Cooke | Excerpt from Tired of Winning: A Chronicle of American Decline | Black Inc. Books | May 2019 | 21 minutes (5,527 words)

They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Mark 16:18

One night John Stephen Toler dreamed that the Lord had placed him high on a cliff, overlooking a forest-filled valley. He had this vision while living in Man, West Virginia, where some of the townsfolk thought he was a hell-bound abomination; he countered that God works in different ways. The mountains were where he sought sanctuary, so he felt no fear; but as he watched, all the trees he could see were consumed by wildfire. It was incredible, he said, to see ‘how quick it was devoured’, and the meaning of the parable was clear. The forest was Man and the fire was drugs, and when the drugs came to Man, that was exactly how it happened – it was devoured ‘so fast, that you didn’t even see it coming’, he said. We were in Huntington, West Virginia, and by now John Stephen Toler was in recovery.

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Becoming Family

Illustration by Tom Peake

Jennifer Berney | Longreads | May 2019 | 16 minutes (4,486 words)

 
“He’s really cute,” my partner Kellie whispered to me, moments after our first son arrived. He had a head of black hair and a pug nose. His eyes were alarmingly bright. Kellie rested one hand on the top of his head as he lay across my chest. “So cute,” she said.

Her declaration meant something to me. Because the baby wasn’t of her body, because he was of my egg and my womb and a donor’s sperm, I’d been haunted by the worry that she’d struggle to claim him as hers — that he’d seem to her like a foreign entity, like someone else’s newborn, red-faced and squirming.

Hours later, in the middle of the night, a nurse came into our room, tapped Kellie on the shoulder, and asked her to bring our newborn to the lab for a routine test. Kellie cradled the baby as the nurse poked his heel with a needle and squeezed drops of his blood onto a test card. Our baby, who was still nameless, wailed and shook. In that moment, she tells me, she was overwhelmed by biology, by the physical need to protect a tiny life.

* * *

In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle proposed a theory of reproduction that would persist for thousands of years. It’s a theory that, while scientifically inaccurate, still informs our cultural thinking about parenthood.

According to Aristotle, the man, via intercourse, planted his seed in the woman’s womb. The woman’s menstrual blood nourished that seed and allowed it to grow. She provided the habitat, he supplied the content. The resulting child was the product of the father, nourished by the mother.

When it came to parenthood, the woman’s essential role was to nurture what the man had planted within her. To father was simply to provide the material — a momentary job. Fathering was ejaculating. But mothering was nurturing. This job was ongoing, never-ending. Her care began at the moment of conception and continued into adulthood and beyond.

* * *

When Kellie and I came home from the hospital with our newborn, our house felt strangely quiet and bare. In the days preceding delivery, Kellie had cleaned and organized as a way of getting ready for the baby, and our house was now unusually tidy. We sat on the couch with our sleeping baby and admired him. We smoothed his hair so that it crested at the center of his forehead, Napoleon style, then we smoothed it to the side. We said his name — West — over and over, trying to teach ourselves the word for this new being. Every so often he twitched. I had the sense that our world was about to transform, that the quiet of the first newborn days was temporary.

In the days that followed, I roamed the house in mismatched pajamas and snacked on casseroles that friends had brought over. I nursed the baby and rocked the baby and watched the baby while he slept. Meanwhile, Kellie, wearing her daily uniform of work pants and a worn-out T-shirt, built walls around our back porch to create a mudroom for our house. In the months leading up to our baby’s birth, we’d agreed that our dogs would need such a room, a place set away from a baby who would one day be crawling and drooling and grabbing, and so we called Jesse — a carpenter acquaintance whom we had once, long ago, asked to be our donor, and who had considered it for two months before turning us down. He wasn’t game to donate sperm, but he was game to bang out some walls. All day, I heard Kellie and Jesse’s hammering and muffled conversation.

In this way we entered parenthood. I was the full-time nurser and the guardian of sleep; Kellie was the builder, the house-maintainer. At night, the baby slept between us.

* * *

The idea that paternity is primarily a genetic contribution, that a father’s role is simply to provide the seed, is a very stubborn one. An absent father is still considered a father. When we use father as a verb, we usually mean the physical act of conception, while to mother more often describes the act of tending to. When a father takes on some of the active parenting, when he drives the kids to school or makes them breakfast, we often refer to these acts as “helping,” as if he were doing tasks assigned to someone else. “He’s a good father,” I’ve heard people say, bemoaning a wife’s lack of gratitude. “He helps.”

“Who’s the dad?” is a question friends of friends ask at parties when they learn that my children have two mothers. It’s a question that distant relatives ask, eager for the inside scoop.

The idea that my son doesn’t have a dad, that it is indeed possible to not have a father, is a hard thing for people to wrap their minds around. They may understand the process of donor insemination, but still, they think, because conception requires sperm, every child must have a father. Even for me, it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. When I say that my child has no father, I feel like I’m not telling the whole truth.

“Why doesn’t West have a father?” a wide-eyed boy asked me one day as he sat at a classroom table with West and three other first graders. I was helping them make illustrated pages, and somehow the topic of our family had come up. West looked at me anxiously.

“He has two moms,” I told the boy.

“But why?” he insisted.

Of the kids I knew in West’s class, one was being raised by grandparents and several more had stepparents or were being raised by a single mom. But I could see that our situation was the most confounding.

“That’s just the way our family works,” I said before rattling the crayon box and offering it around the table. The curious boy did not look satisfied, and West remained steady and silent.

* * *

* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

By the time our donor, Daniel*, met our baby, he and his wife Rebecca had a baby of their own and had resettled on the other side of the state. We met them at a pizza place on a weekday afternoon. It was spring in the Pacific Northwest and the sun glared on fresh puddles. They had come to town to visit family and meet with longtime friends who wanted to meet their new child. At the time, our relationships with one another were still undefined, and we counted more as friends than family.

I remember that meeting in fragments, like bits of color held up to the light: Trays of half-eaten pizza. Plastic cups filled with ice water. Rebecca holding her newborn, Wren, against her, a burp cloth draped over her shoulder. Wren’s bare baby feet and the creases in his chubby ankles. My own baby, old enough to crane his head, looking around with wide eyes and a two-tooth smile. All of us in constant motion — standing to rock the baby, sitting to feed the baby, slipping into the bathroom to change the baby’s wet diaper. We passed our babies from one parent to the other, then across the table. We lifted the babies, assessing their heft, then tried to meet their eyes so that we could bombard them with smiles.

I remember it this way: We were neither distant nor close, neither awkward nor easy. We’d all been remade by parenthood, and it was like we were meeting for the first time.

I had wondered before our meeting if West, at 6 months old, would connect to Daniel especially, if there really was some magic carried in their shared DNA, if our son would recognize him, cling to him, fall asleep against his chest. But he didn’t. West greeted Daniel with joyful curiosity, the same way he greeted any stranger, and then returned to my arms to nurse.

* * *

Several months later, Kellie and I drove six hours across the state — baby tucked in his infant car seat in the back — to meet Daniel and Rebecca again, in their new home.

The fog of new parenthood had lifted, and this time, the ease between us was instant. Rebecca and I each claimed a spot at her kitchen table, sat with coffee, and watched as our children chewed on toys and pulled themselves across the wood floors. Conversation between us was continuous. We found a rhythm of interrupting one thought with another, then picking up where we left off, all the while tending to our babies as needed — rising to lift and nurse them, to change a diaper on the floor, to pull a board book from a mouth. Time with Rebecca was a respite from the solitude and repetition of early motherhood, a dose of medicine I needed.

So I found something deeply healing in having an extended family that was at once chosen, but also truly family, tied by blood.

Kellie and Daniel found their places just as easily. They spent their time rewiring Daniel’s carpentry studio, or salvaging beams from a nearby teardown, or driving to the forest to cut up fallen trees for firewood. Each of them, I imagine, had experienced their own kind of solitude as they watched their partners devote themselves fully to another human, and they both, I imagine, felt relief in working side by side.

We became parallel, symbiotic. Two families on either side of the Cascade Mountains. Sometimes they traveled to us; other times we traveled to them. Our boys knew and remembered each other. They splashed each other in a steel trough in Daniel and Rebecca’s backyard, climbed trees that had grown sideways over the shore of Puget Sound, built forts together out of cardboard in our kitchen.

The beauty of our new extended family had little to do with anything we had asked for or planned. Two years earlier, a friend had suggested that Kellie and I ask Daniel to consider being our donor. We had met him only a handful of times, but we knew that we liked him. He was strong but soft-spoken, handsome but unassuming. We were nervous to ask him. We’d explored the prospect with several men already — with Jesse the carpenter, with a coworker, with other peripheral friends — but two ghosted, one said no, and another seemed to think that the resulting child would be his own. Daniel turned out to be different. When he and Rebecca showed up at our house to discuss the possibility, it seemed he was already clear. “What kind of involvement would you want?” he asked us. We had agreed only to stay in some kind of touch over the years, to not become strangers to one another.

And yet we wound up with something I’d never had and never would’ve thought to plan for. I grew up with cousins, but none my age. They were five years older, or 12 years older, or three years younger, or 20 years younger. They were also scattered far and wide across the country. My brother was seven years younger than me, and my half-siblings were so much older that they were almost like aunts and an uncle. So I found something deeply healing in having an extended family that was at once chosen, but also truly family, tied by blood.

Or was it even blood that tied us? In theory, we wanted to know Daniel forever because questions might arise about the DNA he’d shared with us. We might someday need to ask him about some rare disease or mental illness, to probe beyond the brief set of questions we’d asked over dinner that first night we talked. And then there was the way we’d been trained to see blood as a legitimizing factor, trained to understand that blood equals family. Like many queer families, Kellie and I, while challenging this notion, unconsciously embraced it. Daniel was blood-tied to our children and therefore he was kin.

But, even more than blood, it was fate that tied us. It was like that film cliché where one stranger saves another’s life and they are therefore bound to each other forever. Rebecca and Daniel had agreed to help us build a family, and their choice had a moral weight. Gratitude would forever bind me to them. The love that I felt for West contained a love for them. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

So it made sense to me when, four years after we’d first shared a meal and talked about becoming family, three years after our sons were born, Rebecca called us to ask if we’d considered having another baby. We had.

“Do you guys want to get pregnant again?” Rebecca asked me that day on the phone. “Because, you know, we are.”


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We went to visit them two weeks later and stayed in a motel two miles away. On our first morning, Kellie woke up before me and left in search of coffee. She came back with two paper cups filled with coffee, and also a small mason jar that held a quarter inch of semen. Later she showed me the text that Rebecca had sent: “Good morning! Donation is ready. Cum on over.”

Rebecca delivered a second son, Ryan, in November. I delivered a second son, Cedar, in January.

* * *

I am a gestational and biological parent. Kellie is an adoptive parent. We come to our roles differently.

That I gestated and breastfed my sons carries immediate, clear meaning for me. When they were babies, my smell, my voice, my touch meant sustenance. Kellie held them and bathed them and changed them, but she did not offer milk. In the middle of the night, it was my body they reached for. My role as gestational parent had immediate consequence: for the first three years, my children’s need for me was more urgent, more connected to their survival.

The other difference, the difference of biology, is far less clear. What does it mean to my family that Kellie shares no DNA with our children? Does it mean next to nothing? Or does it mean more than I want to admit?

In the 10 years that Kellie and I have raised children together, I’ve avoided asking her how she feels about being the adoptive parent. I’ve avoided it because I was afraid — afraid that she would confide that our children never fully felt like her own. I’ve been worried she might say that they felt more like small people she lived with and cared about, but that if our own relationship ended she wouldn’t know exactly where they fit.

In my own community of lesbians, there’s a legacy of loosely defined second parents. I know a number of women who conceived in the ’80s (back when artificial insemination was just beginning to be available to lesbians) and planned to be single parents. But then, during pregnancy or early in the child’s life, a partner entered the picture, stayed for a year or two, then left. The partner had no legal claim to the child, but in many cases continued to parent from a distance. I’ve spoken to some of their children — grown now — who have trouble defining their role with a single term. “She’s certainly my other parent,” one of them told me over beers, then went on to explain that the word Mom doesn’t feel right when her gestational mom “did every load of laundry, packed every lunch, and cooked every meal.”

“We had no blueprint,” she told me. “She was kind of like a weekend dad.”

Though Kellie is much more than a weekend dad, I’ve long worried about the ways in which her role as other-mother remain ambiguous and undefined.

“I feel like they’re mine” is the first thing Kellie told me when I finally summoned the nerve to ask her. But sometimes she worries that if I died, the world would not recognize her as a parent, and that our own kids might reject her. She feels secure in her own attachment, but the role the world assigns her is a tenuous one.

What does it mean to my family that Kellie shares no DNA with our children? Does it mean next to nothing? Or does it mean more than I want to admit?

In her book Recreating Motherhood, Barbara Katz Rothman writes that the value our society places on genetic relationships is inherently patriarchal, tied to our initial false belief — based in Aristotle’s “flowerpot theory” — that men were the sole genetic contributors. Because the child was of the man, he belonged to the man. Once we recognized that mothers contribute half of the genetic material, we began to see mother and father as having equal claim to their child. Rothman asserts that this is still an inherently patriarchal position, one in which blood ties indicate a kind of ownership, and one in which the work of nurturance is not accounted for.

In our own contemporary culture, we may sometimes act as though we value nurture over nature. These days I see the truism “love is love” everywhere I turn — on signs, in social media, spoken aloud by celebrities and friends. The statement suggests that love alone is the element that legitimizes a couple or a family. Still, we track our ancestry and meet new genetic relatives — strangers whom we’ve been told are family — through services like 23andMe, and we marvel at the overlapping traits and mannerisms of close relatives raised apart from one another.

We’ve learned to be careful, when speaking of adoptees, to use terms like “birth mother” instead of “real mother,” acknowledging that genes and gestation are not the only thing that make a parent real. And yet, when someone does say “real mother,” we know exactly what they mean.

“Kellie’s not your real mom,” a neighborhood kid once told Cedar, who stood there agape because he had not yet thought to wonder too hard about his origins. At the time, he already understood that his family was different. When other people asked about his father, he had learned to explain, “I have two moms.” But as far as I could tell, this was the first moment someone had invited him to wonder about the actual legitimacy of his family — its realness.

* * *

Rebecca and I are tied by blood tangentially, but not directly. Our children are blood-related. She and I are not. Still, she feels more like family than many of my actual blood relations. Rebecca’s sister and nieces feel like family too, though they are not tied to my family by heredity. We live in the same community, so when Rebecca and Daniel come to town we have large family get-togethers: picnics at parks and birthday celebrations at restaurants. Sometimes Rebecca’s mom joins us too. When we meet she always hugs me and says my first name sweetly. She knows about what ties us, and so she feels tied to me too.

Meanwhile, Daniel’s family of origin is a mystery to me, for reasons of geographical distance and family culture. I see pictures of his relatives on Facebook and have to remind myself that his kin are also my children’s blood kin. My children’s faces may grow to bear resemblance to the faces I see in these photos: the long jawline, the aquiline nose. Or, pieces of these relatives’ histories may give clues to my own children’s futures — special talents and obsessions, illnesses and struggles. Even when I remind myself of this, it feels distant, hard to reach.

Why do I look so hard to find my reflection in blood kin, as if seeing myself in my ancestors will somehow legitimize me?

Kin: Your mother who birthed and nursed you, your father who bore witness to your childhood. Your grandmother who let you sleep beside her in the bed when you came to visit. Your aunt who drove you to her home for long weekends, where you lay alongside her golden retriever and looked at the forest through her windows.

Kin: The grandfather you never met who was a ne’er-do-well, whose legacy is a stack of letters and a rainbow painted on a barn. The uncle who joked around with you in childhood, but became distant as you got older. Your second cousin who discovered you online and now sends you a Christmas card every year.

Kin: Your brother who you speak to only a few times a year, but who you carry in your heart. Your aunt by marriage (then lost through divorce) who delighted you with her easy brand of sarcasm.

Kin: The cousins you’ve only met once or twice in a lifetime. When you see photos of them, some of them look like people you might easily know. Others look like strangers, like someone you might pass in a grocery store and immediately forget.

* * *

Kellie told me once that she hesitates when telling our kids about her family’s history. It’s not quite clear to her: Is her history their history, or is it something else? Long before she spoke this aloud to me the same question hung in my mind. Does her history matter to our kids because it’s their mother’s history, or because it is, somehow, their own?

When I look at my own ancestral family photos, I seek clues to who I am, traces of a self that predate me. Are these connections real, I wonder, or are they lore? Why does ancestral connection hold a sense of magic? Why do I look so hard to find my reflection in blood kin, as if seeing myself in my ancestors will somehow legitimize me?

And yet it turns out that some of my ancestors are not related to me genetically any more than Kellie is genetically related to our sons. Over the course of generations, our genetic ties to individual ancestors dissolve. Geneticist Graham Coop writes that if you trace your genetic heritage, after seven generations “many of your ancestors make no major genetic contribution to you.” In other words, your cells carry no trace of their DNA. They are no longer your genetic relatives, and yet they are still, of course, your ancestors. “Genetics is not genealogy,” he writes.

What if, more than heredity, families are really a collection of stories, some of them spoken, some of them withheld? Kellie’s ancestors were pioneers. My boys spent the first years of their lives in a house that her grandfather and great-grandfather built together. Kellie spends most of her free time splitting wood, building fences and sheds, capturing bee swarms. Cedar can now spot a swarm from a great distance. West is learning to measure wood and use a chop saw. They may one day raise their own families on the same land they grew up on. They may add new walls, new buildings, new fixtures. They do not require Kellie’s genes to carry on her legacy.

* * *

Four years after West was born, he asked me where he came from. It was a bright summer day and his brother — a baby then — was on a walk with Kellie, strapped against her chest. We were staying at a ranch in Colorado and the land was expansive: trails that went over bare hills and into forests, rocks and brush under wide blue sky. That afternoon West and I were inside our dark cabin, with light streaming through the windows and making patches on the floor.

I asked if he wanted to know who his donor was. “Do you want to guess?” I asked him. I was curious to see if he already had a sense.

“JoAnn?” he said, referring to a close family friend.

“The person who helped us is a man,” I said.

“Oh right,” he said. He thought and guessed some more, until I finally told him.

“It’s Daniel,” I said. “Wren’s dad.”

I watched him closely to see how he’d respond, but I detected neither joy nor surprise nor disappointment.

“Did Daniel help make Cedar too?”

“Yes,” I said.

He smiled. It didn’t surprise me that this was the thing that mattered to him — that he and his brother had the same origin story, that he wasn’t alone in the world.

* * *

We tend to understand our DNA as a simple blueprint for who we are and what we might become. We see experience as the tool that can push a person toward or away from their full potential, yet we see the potential itself as innate and fixed.

But in truth DNA and experience interact with each other. The field of epigenetics tells us that genes are turned on and off by experience, that the food we consume, the air we breathe, and how we are nurtured help determine which genes are expressed and which ones are repressed. Our DNA coding isn’t static. For instance, drinking green tea may help regulate the genes that suppress tumors. A sudden loss may trigger depression. And the amount of nurturing and physical contact a child receives in the early years may help determine whether or not he’ll suffer from anxiety as an adult. Currently researchers are investigating to what degree trauma in one person’s experience can cause a change in DNA that is transmitted from one generation to the next. Experience might become a legacy carried in blood.

Frances Champagne, a psychologist and genetic researcher, writes that “tactile interaction,” physical contact between parent and child, “is so important for the developing brain.” Her research shows that “the quality of the early-life environment can change the activity of genes.”

When Kellie held our newborn sons against her chest, when she bounced them and rocked them until they slept, she was not simply soothing them in the moment. She was helping program their DNA, contributing to their genetic legacy. Parents, through the way they nurture, contribute to the child’s nature. There is no clear line between the two.

* * *

In her memoir on adoption, Nicole Chung discusses the concept of family lineage and writes that she has been “grafted” onto her adoptive parents’ family tree. The graft strikes me as an apt metaphor. The scion is not of the receiving tree, and yet it is nourished and sustained by the tree. In the process of grafting, the tree is changed. The scion is changed. Through a process called vascular connection, they become one body.

The rootstock does not automatically reject the scion. The human body does not automatically reject an embryo conceived with a donor egg and sperm. A baby is comforted by warm skin, a smell, a heartbeat. A body loves a body. The baby may care that the source is familiar, but not that the DNA matches his own.

When Kellie’s mother visits with us, she often compares our boys to other members of her family. “It’s funny how Cedar’s blonde just like Noah, and wild like him too,” she’ll say, or, “West’s eyes are that same shade of hazel your grandpa’s were.”

I used to think she was forgetting that our children are donor conceived, or maybe just being silly. Now I realize it’s the opposite. Kellie’s mother doesn’t forget. She knows. She’s claiming them: tying her family’s present, past, and future, like stringing lights around the branches of her family tree, affirming that we belong to one another.
 

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Offing, Tin House, and Brevity. She is currently working on a memoir that examines the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry, and the ways that queer families have both engaged with and avoided it.

* * *

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

The Fraught Culture of Online Mourning

Illustration by Homestead

Rachel Vorona Cote | Longreads | May 21, 2019 | 15 minutes (3,975 words)

 

My mother died shortly after 4 a.m. in the pitch black of a November morning. By roughly 8:30 a.m. that day, the 29th, I had alerted my Twitter and Instagram followers, as well as my Facebook friends. I copied and pasted a few lines across the three platforms, words hastily cobbled together in something akin to a fugue state, accompanied by stray photos of my mother that I had saved on my phone — I had posted about her frequently as her condition worsened, particularly after she arrived at that grim point at which death became imminent death.

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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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I’m Not Queer to Make Friends

Illustration by Eric Chow

Logan Scherer | Longreads | May 2019 | 12 minutes (3,274 words)

On a Sunday morning at a Chicago bowling alley, I soothed five strangers almost as desperate to manipulate people on TV as I was. Then I eviscerated them. After years of being too embarrassed to try out for Big Brother, I’d finally brought myself to attend an open-call audition. I was determined to play the social strategy game I’d followed religiously since 2005.

“I’ve only seen a few episodes here and there,” I said to the tall, gorgeous man and two normcore women standing next to me in line. “I saw an ad for this a few days ago and randomly decided to come. I have no idea what they’re going to ask us to do.”

I didn’t want them to know I had an encyclopedic knowledge of Big Brother and had done extensive research into how to manage reality TV casting call dynamics as an introvert, and that I’d been practicing this for six years. I wanted to seem harmless, to make them feel comfortable to tell me things about themselves.

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Technology Is as Biased as Its Makers

"Patty Ramge appears dejected as she looks at her Ford Pinto." Bettmann / Getty

Lizzie O’Shea | an excerpt adapted from Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Teach Us about Digital Technology | Verso | May 2019 | 30 minutes (8,211 words)

In the late spring of 1972, Lily Gray was driving her new Ford Pinto on a freeway in Los Angeles, and her thirteen-year-old neighbor, Richard Grimshaw, was in the passenger seat. The car stalled and was struck from behind at around 30 mph. The Pinto burst into flames, killing Gray and seriously injuring Grimshaw. He suffered permanent and disfiguring burns to his face and body, lost several fingers and required multiple surgeries.

Six years later, in Indiana, three teenaged girls died in a Ford Pinto that had been rammed from behind by a van. The body of the car reportedly collapsed “like an accordion,” trapping them inside. The fuel tank ruptured and ignited into a fireball.

Both incidents were the subject of legal proceedings, which now bookend the history of one of the greatest scandals in American consumer history. The claim, made in these cases and most famously in an exposé in Mother Jones by Mike Dowie in 1977, was that Ford had shown a callous recklessness for the lives of its customers. The weakness in the design of the Pinto — which made it susceptible to fuel leaks and hence fires — was known to the company. So too were the potential solutions to the problem. This included a number of possible design alterations, one of which was the insertion of a plastic buffer between the bumper and the fuel tank that would have cost around a dollar. For a variety of reasons, related to costs and the absence of rigorous safety regulations, Ford mass-produced the Pinto without the buffer.

Most galling, Dowie documented through internal memos how at one point the company prepared a cost-benefit analysis of the design process. Burn injuries and burn deaths were assigned a price ($67,000 and $200,000 respectively), and these prices were measured against the costs of implementing various options that could have improved the safety of the Pinto. It turned out to be a monumental miscalculation, but, that aside, the morality of this approach was what captured the public’s attention. “Ford knows the Pinto is a firetrap,” Dowie wrote, “yet it has paid out millions to settle damage suits out of court, and it is prepared to spend millions more lobbying against safety standards.” Read more…