“Am I a journalist?” I found myself asking Emma Copley Eisenberg. On a sunny day in mid-October, Eisenberg sat adjacent to me at the dining room table in her West Philadelphia home, a spread of sliced tomatoes, chicken, and perfectly steamed asparagus she prepared on a plate between us. I am certainly not a journalist in any meaningful sense of the word — outside of an MFA in creative nonfiction, during which I learned to conduct research, I have no formal schooling or training — but Emma and I are both infatuated with the boundaries between subject and writer, research and lived experience, and how we classify it all. How does who we are and our own lived experiences affect the types of research we reach for? Is there such a thing as objectivity, or do we land closer to the truth if we expose our own flaws and biases and complicated histories on the page? And what is truth, after all?
Eisenberg, in her debut book, The Third Rainbow Girl, wrestles meaningfully with these questions and many others. Though her book is marketed as true crime, and though a major thread within the narrative is the murder of Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero, two women on their way to a festival known as the Rainbow Gathering, Eisenberg undermines many features of the subgenre by centering place as a major subject. Her descriptions of Pocahontas County, both in memoir sections, in which Eisenberg relays her time living in Appalachia, and reported sections, in which Eisenberg offers insight into the ways in which the murders of Durian and Santomero brought to the surface harmful stereotypes perpetuated against the region, complicate perceptions rather than flatten them into any packageable or easy narrative. In prose that brims with empathy, and through research that illuminates narratives that have long been hidden by problematic representation, Eisenberg exposes the kinds of fictions we tell ourselves often enough that we believe them to be true.
During the course of our sprawling conversation, one punctuated only by friendly interruptions from a gray house cat named Gabriel, Eisenberg and I talked about what it means to seek truth in nonfiction, and how writing the personal can allow for more complicated realities to emerge; how undermining conventions of genre can impact the way a book is both marketed and read; and what it means to find clarity — or at least community — while writing into murky, and often traumatizing subject matter. Read more…
That’s me in the photo. June, 2011: my first time interning at a daily newspaper and the first time I read Joan Didion. She blew my mind, of course. Eventually, I started sharing my favorite longform pieces on my personal blog, which led to a variety of opportunities, including my gig here at Longreads. If you’re new around these parts, like I was just a few years ago, the stories below will give you an idea of the strength and skill that goes into creating engaging literary journalism.
Each of the four stories below has been featured on Longreads before, minus the annotations, of course. The interviews with the authors are just as fascinating as the essays they’ve written. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Adrian Chen, and Brian Kevin discuss their research methods, their writing style, and how they choose which details to include and which to let go. There are literally dozens of other Annotation Tuesday stories I could’ve featured — it was hard to pick just three! — so be sure to take a look for yourself on the Nieman Storyboard website.
Part of successful longform storytelling is a seamless blend of the macro and micro. In recounting her journey to Yellow Springs, Ohio — where comic Dave Chappelle lives, where he grew up, in part — Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah does just that. She never interviews Chappelle himself; she interviews several of the people surrounding him, including his mother, scholar Yvonne Seon, and Neal Brannan, co-creator of “Chappelle’s Show.” Ghansah and Elon Green share a fascinating back-and-forth about the impossibility of objectivity, the n-word, and comedy as a weapon.
Tech reporter Adrian Chen — formerly of Gawker, now The New Yorker — wrote a marvelous profile of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was once a devoted member of the Westboro Baptist Church. When Phelps-Roper took over the church’s social media accounts, her life changed. In between hate speech and emojis, she engaged with people of different backgrounds and worldviews. Chen explains that it took a long time for Megan to feel comfortable opening up to him and sharing her story publicly. But when she did open up to Chen, she gave him access to her emails, her journals, even her private messages on the Words With Friends app. They spoke for hours, and the result is a nuanced portrait that demonstrates the nonlinear nature of healing.
I remember reading this piece when it was first published in 2011. I was interning at a daily newspaper and learning about feature writing and reporting for the first time. Michael Kruse and the Tampa Bay Times (previously the St. Petersburg Times) came highly recommended to me, and this story, “A Brevard Woman Disappeared, but Never Left Home” — is a contemporary classic. Journalist and professor Paige Williams dissects the story on an educational basis; Kruse answers her questions and adds commentary.
During my senior year of undergrad, I embarked on an independent study of longform journalism — reading hundreds of essays, interviewing Ben Montgomery, and analyzing what makes different stories tick. Ready to embark on an independent study of your own? There’s no better place to start than this syllabus — I wish it had been around when I was in school. Roiland, presently an assistant professor with the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine, goes into glorious detail about each of his reading selections.
Gangrey.com is a site dedicated to the practice of great newspaper and magazine storytelling.
Some of these picks make it seem like we like each other. We do, most of the time. But we’re also intense critics. We get together in the woods in Georgia one weekend each year to tear one another apart. Physical combat is not rare. It’s in that spirit that you’ll find some cross pollination in the picks below. You’ll also see some good stuff that hasn’t shown up on the Top 5 lists so far. That’s on purpose. Hope you enjoy, and please know you’re welcome to come join us for last call over at gangrey.com. Drinks are on Wright.
Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, and he lives in Oxford, Mississippi.
It was another strong year for long-form content and journalism. There was no shortage of attention-grabbing longreads in traditional media, online-only outlets, alt-weeklies and literary journals—both in the U.S. and abroad, and written as profiles, personal essays, historical accounts and op-eds. And many take residence in Instapaper and Read It Later apps, including mine. My top five for the year:
A stirring and richly reported narrative of a Florida woman who vanished from her neighborhood and society.
“The neighbors said that they seldom saw her but that for more than a year they hadn’t seen her at all. One called her ‘a little strange.’ Another said she ‘just disappeared.’ The How could a woman die a block from the beach, surrounded by her neighbors, and not be found for almost 16 months? How could a woman go missing inside her own home?”
The overwhelming majority of terrorism in the United States has always been homegrown, even while fear is diverted elsewhere in the wake of 9/11. Pierce provides an engrossing narrative of a bomb that was planted along a parade route of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Spokane, Wash., this year. It didn’t go off. (Update: The man who planted the bomb was recently sentenced to the maximum 32 years in prison.)
“There’s a spot by the Spokane River where they would have built the memorial, and what would it have looked like, the memorial to the victims of the bag on the bench? Would it be lovely and muted, the way the grounds of what used to be the Murrah Building are today in Oklahoma City, with their bronze chairs and the water gently lapping at the sides of the reflecting pool? Maybe they’d buy one of the pawnshops downtown for the museum. Maybe there would be an exhibit of children’s shoes there, like the display case in the Oklahoma City museum that’s full of watches frozen at 9:02, the time at which the bomb they didn’t find went off.”
“Three SEALs shuttled past Khalid’s body and blew open another metal cage, which obstructed the staircase leading to the third floor. Bounding up the unlit stairs, they scanned the railed landing. On the top stair, the lead SEAL swivelled right; with his night-vision goggles, he discerned that a tall, rangy man with a fist-length beard was peeking out from behind a bedroom door, ten feet away…
“A second SEAL stepped into the room and trained the infrared laser of his M4 on bin Laden’s chest. The Al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed. “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him—it wasn’t a split-second decision. No one wanted detainees,” the special-operations officer told me. (The Administration maintains that had bin Laden immediately surrendered he could have been taken alive.) Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye. On his radio, he reported, ‘For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.’ After a pause, he added, ’Geronimo E.K.I.A.’—‘enemy killed in action.’
“Hearing this at the White House, Obama pursed his lips, and said solemnly, to no one in particular, ‘We got him.’ ”
Acclaimed writer Saunders discusses the writing process, storytelling technique (“Any monkey in a story had better be a dead monkey”) and whether a man can ever really experience true happiness without an icicle impaling him through the head. Former student Patrick Dacey effectively guides the multi-part Q&A.
“I vaguely remember seeing something, when I was very young (maybe 3 or 4), about Hemingway’s death on TV. My memory is: a photo of him in that safari jacket, and the announcer sort of intoning all the cool things he’d done (‘Africa! Cuba! Friends with movie stars!’). So I got this idea of a writer as someone who went out and did all these adventurous things, jotted down a few notes afterward, then got all this acclaim, world-wide attention etc., etc.—with the emphasis on the ‘adventuring’ and not so much on the ‘jotting down.’ ”
Waldmeir, the adoptive mother of two abandoned children, discovered an abandoned baby behind a Dunkin’ Donuts in Shanghai one winter night. In this personal essay she tracks the baby from hospital to police station to orphanage, with side trips into reflection on her daughters’ stories.
“This child’s mother had chosen the spot carefully: only steps from one of the best hotels in Shanghai, beside a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise patronised mostly by foreigners. I had been meeting my friend John there for a quick doughnut fix, and it was he who heard the baby’s cries as he chained his bicycle to the alleyway gate. ‘There’s a baby outside!’ John exclaimed as he slid into the seat beside me, still blustery from the cold. ‘What do you mean, there’s a baby outside?’ I asked in alarm, bolting out of the door to see what he was talking about.”
It’s difficult to stop at only five. A few bonus reads:
Andrea Pitzer (@andreapitzer) is the founder of Nieman Storyboard. She is also writing what she hopes will be a very surprising book about Vladimir Nabokov.
I’m contrary by nature. So when I sat down to pick my Longreads for 2011, I reviewed the lists that Mark had published to date and decided not to include a single story that had already been chosen. Which meant some obvious candidates were off the table from the beginning: no Lawrence Wright on Scientology, no Keith Gessen on Kazakhstan. No Allie Broshie. No John Jeremiah Sullivan. But see for yourself—the following pieces shine just as brightly.
Autopsies on the brains of hockey and football players have been making big news lately. But here, Laskas checks in on the life of a former NFL linebacker to see what it’s like for mentally-impaired players who are still alive. Welcome to Dementia—it’s a funny, terrifying place.
A vigilante murder launches this story, and the reporter’s investigation of it spirals into a tale of cowardice and cruelty. “He was a wayward teenager, a bad boy wanting to become a worse boy,” Bearak writes of one character, plunging into everything that follows. Race, xenophobia, money, and history make themselves felt in a way that never dulls the humanity—beautiful or horrifying—of the people Bearak portrays.
One of the biggest joys of running a music store in Washington, DC, during my college years was that my co-workers were gloriously unembarrassed. Want to groove to Pet Shop Boys and Black Flag? No problem. Asking for that promo copy of A Tribe Called Quest to take home with the k.d. lang you bought today? Go for it. I had a saying then: “You love what you love,” which is insipid. But this article is what I meant. So short it has to stand on tiptoe to be a Longreads, Dolnick’s piece contains perhaps the most honest sentence ever written by a critic: “Taste doesn’t work for reason; reason is a skinny underpaid clerk in the office of taste.”
Ronson motors along, encouraging you to snicker at a cavalcade of real-world wannabe superheroes headed up by Seattle’s Phoenix Jones. Then the story takes a hairpin turn, and you can’t imagine what happens next.
The heartbreaking, horrifying story of a chimp named Travis and the Connecticut couple that raised him like a son. Lee followed Travis’s path from local celebrity to fully grown (and violent) adult:
“Stamford’s animal-control officer was more concerned. After contacting primatologists, she spoke with Sandy, arguing that Travis was by now a fully sexualized adult (chimpanzees in the wild have sex, nonmonogamously, as often as 50 times a day); that he had the strength of at least five men; that adult chimpanzees are known to be unpredictable and potentially violent (which is why all chimp actors are prepubescent); and that maintaining Travis for the duration of his five- or six-decade lifetime was not viable. Sandy seemed to pay an open mind to the officer’s warning but ultimately concluded that Travis had never exhibited even the slightest capacity for violence.”
“Travis” was the first in a “tabloid-with-empathy” trilogy from Lee: He also brought humanity to the story of Anna Nicole Smith (“Paw Paw & Lady Love”) and wrote about Harold Camping, the elderly doomsayer who never quite got his apocalypse calendar right (“After the Rapture”).
A child-prodigy author mysteriously disappears. Barbara Follett was 13 when her first novel, The House Without Windows, was published in 1927:
“Through the door could be heard furious clacking and carriage returns: the sound, in fact, of an eight-year-old girl writing her first novel.
“In 1923, typewriters were hardly a child’s plaything, but to those following the family of critic and editor Wilson Follett, it was a grand educational experiment. He’d already written of his daughter Barbara in Harper’s, describing a girl who by the age of three was consumed with letters and words. ‘She was always seeing A’s in the gables of houses and H’s in football goalposts,’ he recalled. One day she’d wandered into Wilson’s office and discovered his typewriter.
“‘Tell me a story about it,’ she demanded.
“This was Barbara’s way of asking for any explanation, and after he demonstrated the wondrous machine, she took to it fiercely. A typewriter, her parents realized, could unleash a torrential flow of thoughts from a gifted child who still lacked the coordination to write in pencil.”
This was from December 2010, but it came out after last year’s best-of list was published. It’s also on The Awl editors’ best-of-2011 list. I still think about this story constantly.
“‘What If I Love Being The Only Girl In The Boys Club?’ Megan Fox Syndrome, aka Wendy from Peter Pan. It is the delusion that you can become an official part of the boys’ club if you are its strictest enforcer, its most useful prole. That if you follow the rules exactly you can become the Official Woman. If you refuse other women admission you are denying that other women are talented, which makes you just as bad as any boys’ club for thinking there would only be one talented girl at a time.
“You will never actually be part of the boys’ club, because you are a woman. You are Ray Liotta in ‘Goodfellas.’ You are not Italian, therefore you are never going to get made. And you don’t want to be a part of the boys’ club, because it is dedicated to preserving its own privilege at your expense. Why wouldn’t you want to know and endorse the work of other women who share your interests? How insecure are you?”
A political conspiracy in Guatemala and the murder of lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg, who created a video predicting his own killing in 2009:
“Rosenberg told friends that his apartment was under surveillance, and that he was being followed. ‘Whenever he got into the car, he was looking over his shoulder,’ his son Eduardo recalled. From his apartment window, Rosenberg could look across the street and see an office where Gustavo Alejos, President Colom’s private secretary, often worked. Rosenberg told Mendizábal that Alejos had called him and warned him to stop investigating the Musas’ murders, or else the same thing might happen to him. Speaking to Musa’s business manager, Rosenberg said of the powerful people he was investigating, ‘They are going to kill me.’ He had a will drawn up.”
A reporter retraces the last years of a woman who slipped away from society:
“Kathryn Norris moved to Florida in 1990. She was intelligent and driven, say those who knew her back in Ohio, but she could be difficult. She held grudges. She had been laid off from her civil service job, and her marriage of 14 years was over, and so she came looking for sunshine. She knew nobody. Using money from her small pension, she bought the Cherie Down townhouse, $84,900 new. It was a short walk to the sounds of the surf and just up A1A from souvenir stores selling trinkets with messages of PARADISE FOUND.
“She started a job making $32,000 a year as a buyer of space shuttle parts for a subcontractor for NASA. She went out on occasion with coworkers for cookouts or cocktails. She talked a lot about her ex-husband. She started having some trouble keeping up at the office and was diagnosed in December of 1990 as manic depressive.
“After the diagnosis, she made daily notes on index cards. She ate at Arby’s, Wendy’s, McDonald’s. Sometimes she did sit-ups and rode an exercise bike. She read the paper. She got the mail. She went to sleep at 8 p.m., 1:30 a.m., 6:30 a.m. Her heart raced.
A fatal human error, repeated over and over again, as the reader observes helplessly. Writer Jeff Wise uses pilot transcripts to deconstruct, conversation by conversation, wrong move by wrong move, how bad weather and miscommunication between the pilots in the cockpit doomed this Airbus 330, which plunged into the Atlantic in 2009, killing 228 people:
“02:11:21 (Robert) On a pourtant les moteurs! Qu’est-ce qui se passe bordel? Je ne comprends pas ce que se passe. (We still have the engines! What the hell is happening? I don’t understand what’s happening.)
“Unlike the control yokes of a Boeing jetliner, the side sticks on an Airbus are ‘asynchronous’—that is, they move independently. ‘If the person in the right seat is pulling back on the joystick, the person in the left seat doesn’t feel it,’ says Dr. David Esser, a professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. ‘Their stick doesn’t move just because the other one does, unlike the old-fashioned mechanical systems like you find in small planes, where if you turn one, the [other] one turns the same way.’ Robert has no idea that, despite their conversation about descending, Bonin has continued to pull back on the side stick.
“The men are utterly failing to engage in an important process known as crew resource management, or CRM. They are failing, essentially, to cooperate. It is not clear to either one of them who is responsible for what, and who is doing what. This is a natural result of having two co-pilots flying the plane. ‘When you have a captain and a first officer in the cockpit, it’s clear who’s in charge,’ Nutter explains. ‘The captain has command authority. He’s legally responsible for the safety of the flight. When you put two first officers up front, it changes things. You don’t have the sort of traditional discipline imposed on the flight deck when you have a captain.'”
A year in the life of an autistic teen moving into adulthood—a time when support systems can begin to fall away:
“Many autistic high school students are facing the adult world with elevated expectations of their own. Justin, who relied on a one-on-one aide in school, had by age 17 declared his intention to be a ‘famous animator-illustrator.’ He also dreamed of living in his own apartment, a goal he seemed especially devoted to when, say, his mother asked him to walk the dog.
“‘I prefer I move to the apartment,’ he would say, reluctantly setting aside the notebook he spent hours filling with tiny, precise replicas of every known animated character.
“‘I prefer I move to the apartment, too,’ his father, Briant, a pharmaceutical company executive, replied on hard days.
“Over the year that a New York Times reporter observed it, the transition program at Montclair High served as a kind of boot camp in community integration that might also be, for Justin, a last chance. Few such services are available after high school. And Justin was entitled to public education programs, by federal law, until only age 21.”
Revisiting the Texas gang-rape story, and a reminder about protecting our youngest victims. Dobie spends time with the girl’s family and attempts to understand how some members of the community could jump to the defense of the 19 men and boys accused:
“While the gag order did silence the defendants and the officials, it didn’t come close to quieting the rumors and accusations, the ill-informed but passionate opinions, the confusion and muddy thinking that obscured what should’ve been a clear-cut case of statutory rape: An 11-year-old child cannot consent to having sex. But a deep misunderstanding of the law persisted—of why it exists and the morality it is meant to express, as did an even deeper ignorance of children’s brains and the true nature of vulnerability.
“The most confused of all were the young people of Cleveland, the vast majority of whom sided with the boys and men and blamed Regina [not her real name]. The peer pressure to take sides—if you can even call it that, for at times it seemed like a mob versus one girl, all alone—was immense. Even the kind ones, the ones who called themselves her friends, had decided against her. In a Facebook conversation, a 13-year-old who was a cousin of one of the defendants said that Regina was ‘like my best friend n i love her’ but went on to write that ‘she ask for them to do that to her i do not care becuss thats just gross n i will never do that…. she like a slut type of girl.’ At 13, this girl could no more grasp the susceptibility of an 11-year-old than an anorexic can see herself clearly in a mirror.”
The final moments, and unforgettable last words, of a technology visionary’s life:
“He told me, when he was saying goodbye and telling me he was sorry, so sorry we wouldn’t be able to be old together as we’d always planned, that he was going to a better place.
“Dr. Fischer gave him a 50/50 chance of making it through the night.
“He made it through the night, Laurene next to him on the bed sometimes jerked up when there was a longer pause between his breaths. She and I looked at each other, then he would heave a deep breath and begin again.
“This had to be done. Even now, he had a stern, still handsome profile, the profile of an absolutist, a romantic. His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude.
“He seemed to be climbing.
“But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.
“Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times.”
The ultimate DFW fan goes on a road trip to see what was on his bookshelves and pore over the marginalia for clues about his life:
“One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.
“Much of Wallace’s work has to do with cutting himself back down to size, and in a larger sense, with the idea that cutting oneself back down to size is a good one, for anyone (q.v., the Kenyon College commencement speech, later published as This is Water). I left the Ransom Center wondering whether one of the most valuable parts of Wallace’s legacy might not be in persuading us to put John Bradshaw on the same level with Wittgenstein. And why not; both authors are human beings who set out to be of some use to their fellows. It can be argued, in fact, that getting rid of the whole idea of special gifts, of the exceptional, and of genius, is the most powerful current running through all of Wallace’s work.”
The story of her father’s death ran in newspapers from New York to Los Angeles, detailing how a small band of men killed him, and how a mob mutilated his corpse. They called it a spectacle lynching, and historians say it was perhaps the worst act of torture and execution in 20th century America. The killing became Florida’s shame. President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew her father’s name.
Kevin Rouse’s story reveals the difficulties of dealing with a population of men with adult sexual urges and often childlike thinking. The staff of the Human Development Center enacted a bold and unorthodox policy permitting sex between residents, but experts who deal with the developmentally disabled question whether the policy did more harm than good, creating a sexually charged atmosphere that may have encouraged sexual assaults.
Gangrey.com, btw, is the heart and soul of long-form journalism. Click for Top 5 lists from writers including Thomas Lake (Sports Illustrated), Ben Montgomery (St. Petersburg Times), Wright Thompson (ESPN), Michael Kruse (St. Petersburg Times), and Justin Heckert (ESPN).