Miki Agrawal, co-founder and “She-EO” of menstrual underwear phenom Thinx, raised eyebrows when she stepped down from her role in the company in early March. Agrawal had long been infamous for her company’s boundary-pushing ads and her well-publicized hesitance to use the word “feminist.” Within days of Agrawal’s announcement, Racked published a gripping article examining corporate dysfunction and alleged sexism at Thinx, and Agrawal struck back with a lengthy post on Medium that detailed her “incredible ride” with the company. “I didn’t put HR practices in place because I was on the road speaking, doing press, brand partnerships, editing all of the creative and shouting from the rooftops about Thinx,” she wrote. Less than a week later, Agrawal was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee.
Such is the power of the corporate hit piece: Fueled by eyewitness accounts, scorned ex-employees, and juicy tidbits about a CEO’s bad behavior, a corporate identity that took years to build can unravel in days. These piquant stories might smack of a slow-motion trainwreck, but they satisfy more than our inner gossips and gawkers. Today, the myth of a CEO is often of their own making—once minted by years of climbing the corporate ladder, now CEOs are made in weeks or months. CEO, we are told, is less a work status than a state of mind.
A review of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, and a different perspective on the dark side of Steve:
Sometimes the repetition serves a purpose: The drug LSD, referred to 33 times, is clearly important to Jobs. (The FBI thought the same, according to documents released this month.) “How many of you have taken LSD?” Jobs taunts an audience of Stanford business school students. “Are you a virgin? How many times have you taken LSD?’ he demands of an Apple interviewee. Bill Gates would ‘be a broader guy if he had dropped acid.” Tripping was “one of the two or three most important things he’d done in his life.” People who had never dropped acid ‘would never fully understand him.’ The generations that followed his own were more ‘materialistic’ and less ‘idealistic’ for not having tripped; also, they all looked like ‘virgins.’ In the binary world within Steve’s reality, having consumed LSD was the key determinant of whether a colleague or employee was deemed “enlightened” or “an asshole.”
To iSummarize: Steve Jobs had a litmus test for evaluating workers: It was a lot like a literal litmus test.
I didn’t follow the great Charlie Sheen meltdown of spring 2011. But I read every word of Roseanne Barr’s Sheen-inspired treatise on sitcom fame, in which she opens a window onto the warped and warping world of celebrity. It was a brilliant assignment, sharply executed and highly entertaining.
This is about the most exhilarating piece of business writing I have ever read, mostly thanks to Lewis’s summary of the trope of shit in German culture and its relation to the European financial crisis, which I found both hilarious and totally plausible. It was like stumbling into a graduate seminar on formalist readings of macroeconomics textbooks. I mean that in a really good way.
There’s nothing flashy or attention-seeking about Ken Auletta’s profile of Jill Abramson; it makes my top five because I found it fascinating to watch a picture of her emerge from the figure she cuts in the workplace. It emerges slowly—you have to wade through a lot of meetings—but Auletta was smart to go for inspirational at the outset: as a woman in publishing, I felt invested in Abramson’s rise and in the way she’s cultivated authority, intelligence and ambition.
We all read a ton about Steve Jobs in the days after his death. Then Mona Simpson’s eulogy came along, reinvented the Jobs memoriam and blew the competition away. It was elegant, personal and lovingly attentive to detail—a tribute perfectly fitted to the man it honored. He was very lucky to have a writer for a sister.
I grew up in Cincinnati, back when WKRP was on the air and Jerry Springer was the mayor. It’s a city of in-betweens, and James Pogue’s rambling, evocative essay in n+1 captures its contradictions perfectly. I love the idea of a piece whose main goal is to take you somewhere else—in geography, in history and in memory.
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:
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.”