I know as much about classical music as I do car mechanics, which is close to nothing, but I do know I like it. Not choruses. I’m not a fan of things like Bach’s choral works. And as much as I appreciate Mozart, his best work is too tempestuous for me. I prefer chillaxed baroque chamber music. I prefer Bach’s Orchestral Suites and Brandenburg Concertos. And Franz Schubert, Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, Handel’s Water Music, “Pachelbel’s Canon,” and the kind of sprightly, buttoned-up small group sound that fits quiet workday mornings and cups of tea. If there’s anything I’m not, it’s buttoned-up, so my particular love of chamber music still surprises me. Bad Brains’ fast songs and Dead Moon’s gritty guitars sound like my spirit feels, but I’m a Gemini, and my opposite side is contemplative, calm, and still, suited to reggae, jazz piano trios, and Schubert’s Octets. I find that kind of classical soothing. Maybe it counteracts the blaring amplified guitar part of me. Whatever it does, I like it.
I first discovered classical music’s charms as an undergrad, during a period when Fugazi and instrumental surf music dominated my stereo. Cruising the listening stations at those chain mega-bookstores that thrived in the ’90s, with their stuffed rows of books, CDs, and bustling cafes, I found a few classical CDs that were well-reviewed and gave them a try. Where rock ‘n’ roll normally provided the soundtrack to my innumerable college road trips, the Brandenburg Concertos played on a certain winter trip to the mountains of southern California. It did not fit. Speeding along San Bernardino freeways, the charged up cellos made me feel like I was preparing to storm a castle. Driving in the forested mountains to hike old-growth pine forests, Bach’s music made it sound more like study time than bushwhacking time, but I liked the mood it provided, and I liked that the mood felt new. By the late ’90s, I’d grown tired of boot-stomping guitar bands and needed a break. As Fugazi sang in their song “Target”: “It’s cold outside and my hands are dry / Skin is cracked and I realize / That I hate the sound of guitars.” After a break, I came back to loud guitars, but I returned with more varied tastes and a diversified music collection that put Tchaikovsky albums next to ones by T. Rex and jazz trumpeter Thad Jones.
Classical music can seem so staid. It’s easy to imagine the kind of people who perform and listen to it being repressed, teetotalling stiffs who haven’t had sex, let alone a good buzz, for years. Blair Tindall’s book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music proves that assumption wrong. Taking us inside this relatively insular subculture, which is lived backstage in concert halls, recitals, and academia, this insider’s portrait shows classical musicians who are as wild and deviant as rock ‘n’ rollers, and a subculture as dramatic as any other. As a young deviant myself, I was impressed. Her book, and the music, led me to read more about classical history and performance.
Here are a few interesting explorations of classical music history, practice, and performance that might help you hear the music, and think of its culture, differently, too.
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“Beethoven’s Kapow” (Justin Davidson, New York Magazine, March 17, 2010)
Classical music can seem so staid that you don’t associate it with shock or revolution, but Beethoven’s Third Symphony has continued to shock people since the composer first performed it in April of 1805. Writer Justin Davidson loves the piece, and keeps coming back to it.
If I could crash any cultural event in history, it would be the night in April 1805 when a short man with a Kirk Douglas chin and a wrestler’s build stomped onto the stage of the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Ludwig van Beethoven, 34 years old and already well along the way to deafness, swiveled to face a group of tense musicians and whipped them into playing a pair of fist-on-the-table E-flat major chords (blam! … blam!), followed by a quietly rocking cello melody. If I listen hard enough, I can almost transport myself into that stuffy, stuccoed room. I inhale the smells of damp wool and kerosene and feel the first, transformative shock of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” as it exploded into the world.
But Davidson also recognizes the way shocking, profound art or ideas — things that were once revolutionary — grow familiar enough to be tame over time. “Beethoven toyed with expectations we do not have and dismantled conventions that no longer guide us,” writes Davidson. “As a result, the ‘Eroica,’ which emerged with such blinding energy that some of its first listeners thought its composer must be insane, sounds like settled wisdom to us.”
Why do we reenact these rituals of revolution when revolution is no longer at stake? How can an act of artistic radicalism retain the power to disturb after two centuries? What’s left when surprise has been neutralized and influence absorbed?
“Strike With the Band” (Kate Wagner, The Baffler, September 3, 2019)
“The world of classical music is neither noble nor fair,” Wagner writes, “though its reputation says otherwise.” Wagner played violin since her parents first rented her one when she was 4. After accruing $44,000 of student loan debt and developing carpal tunnel in college, she quit music and switched careers. “Despite its reputation as being a pastime of the rich and cultured elite, classical musicianship is better understood as a job, a shitty job, and the people who do that job are workers just as exploited as any Teamster.” Her illuminating essay reveals the true story about low pay, limited job opportunities, and rented instruments, which is the story of “arts under capitalism, in a culture where the abandonment of government funding results in a void filled only by wealthy donors and bloodsucking companies.” In the process, her essay dismantles the fundamental American myth of meritocracy and access.
Classical music is cruel not because there are winners and losers, first chairs and second chairs, but because it lies about the fact that these winners and losers are chosen long before the first moment a young child picks up an instrument. It doesn’t matter if you study composition, devote years to an instrument, or simply have the desire to teach—either at the university level or in the public school system. If you come from a less-than-wealthy family, or from a place other than the wealthiest cities, the odds are stacked against you no matter how much you sacrifice, how hard you work, or, yes, how talented you are.
“Twinkle, Twinkle, Vogel Staar” (Elena Passarello, Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2016)
Unlike parrots, Starlings do not repeat back what you sing to them, but they transmute, scramble, and modify your singing enough to give you a new view of it. When the young Mozart whistled at a caged starling in a Vienna shop, the way the bird sang it back changed how Mozart heard his song, and how he wrote, and he immediately bought the bird.
There is no other live-animal purchase in Mozart’s expense book, and no more handwritten melodies; no additional transactions were praised as schön! This is one of the very few things we even know about his purchasing habits. He’d only begun tracking his spending that year, and by late summer, Mozart had abandoned the practice and only used that notebook to steal random phrases of English. So this note of sale is special among the extant scraps from his life.
The purchase of this bird, Mozart’s “Vogel Staar,” marks a critical point for the classical period. At the end the of eighteenth century, tunes were never more sparkling or more kept, their composers obsessive over the rhetoric of sonata form: first establishing a theme, then creating tension through a new theme and key, then stretching it into a dizzying search for resolution, and finally finding the resolve in a rollicking coda. The formal understanding of this four-part structure permeated classical symphony, sonata, and concerto. By 1784, sonata form had imprinted itself on the listening culture enough to feel like instinct; Vienna audiences could rest comfortably in the run of classical forms as familiar—and thus enjoyable—narratives. And nobody played this cagey game more giddily than Mozart.
“Darkness Invisible” (Wendy Lesser, The Threepenny Review, Winter 2011)
The Threepenny Penny review editor Wendy Lesser has written frequently about classical music. In 2010, she sat in a New York City concert hall in complete darkness for an hour, listening to a performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’ third string quartet. Listening was all the audience could do. “We were unable to see our hands before our faces, much less check our watches or glance at our companions,“ she wrote. It was an experiment: how did sensory deprivation change the listening experience? Would the experience have been different with music she’d previously heard?
Sitting in the dark at a concert is a way of being at once alone and in the company of others. As I explored my unusual and tourist feeling of privacy (stretching about in ways I would never do in a lit concert hall, yawning widely, tilting my head way back or lackadaisically from side to side, and repeatedly holding my hands in front of my face to see if they had become visible yet), I thought of D.W. Winecott’s notion about how the child learns to be alone in the presence of its mother – that is, the baby gets to test out being solitary and accompanied at the same time. I imagined I was enjoying this childish sensation immensely, and yet on some level I must have felt a bit of fear or anxiety too, as I realized during my wild head-tilts, when I discovered that the room was not actually completely dark. There were two rows very faint almost-lights barely visible in the ceiling, and another ghostly spot at the very back of the room – and this, strangely, filled me with the same kind of energetic hope that hostages and TV thrillers feel when they come up on a nail or some other sharp protrusion against which they can slowly fray away their binding ropes. But try as I might, I could not free myself from the darkness: I could never manage to see a thing, not even my pale hands waved directly in front of my face. Once, in a moment of casual listening such as one might do at a regular concert, I closed my eyes, and the shock when I opened them and perceived no difference at all with severe.
“Apparition in the Woods” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker, July 9, 2007)
The story’s subhead “Rescuing Sibelius from silence” is vague and cryptic, but this is the story of Finland’s greatest composer, arguably what Ross calls its ”chief celebrity in any field.”
Composing music may be the loneliest of artistic pursuits. It is a laborious traversal of an imaginary landscape. Emerging from the process is an artwork in code, which other musicians must be persuaded to unravel. Nameless terrors creep into the limbo between composition and performance, during which the score sits mutely on the desk. Hans Pfitzner dramatized that moment of panic and doubt in “Palestrina,” his 1917 “musical legend” about the life of the Italian Renaissance master. The character of Palestrina speaks for colleagues across the centuries when he stops his work to cry, “What is the point of all this? Ach, what is it for?”
The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius may have asked that question once too often. The crisis point of his career arrived in the late 1920s and the early 30s, when he was being lionized as a new Beethoven in England and America, and dismissed as a purveyor of kitsch in the tastemaking European music centers, where atonality and other modern languages dominated the scene. The contrasts in the reception of his music, with its extremes of splendor and strangeness, matched the manic depressive extremes of his personality—an alcoholic oscillation between grandiosity and self-loathing. Sometimes he believed that he was in direct communication with the Almighty (“For an instant God opens the door and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony,” he wrote in a letter) and sometimes he felt worthless. In 1927, when he was sixty-one, he wrote in his diary, “Isolation and loneliness are driving me to despair….In order to survive, I have to have alcohol….I’m abused, alone, and all my real friends are dead. My prestige here at present is rock bottom. Impossible to work. If only there were a way out.”
“Notes on Birdsong” (Olivia Giovetti, VAN Magazine, May 29, 2020)
Birds are among nature’s greatest musicians. “The 20th and 21st centuries teemed with birdsong quotations in music,“ Giovetti in an essay of surprising connections, “from Amy Beach’s “Hermit Thrush at Eve” to John Luther Adams’s “Canticles of the Holy Wind.” But the era has most closely been associated with Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). As a teenager in Aube, he began to notice the avian world.“ Humans have matched nature’s beauty with our own beautiful music and ugliness.
In the video of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper in Central Park, this same shift takes place in Amy Cooper’s voice when she calls the police. It’s so uncanny it may as well have been part of a score.
“I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she tells Christian as she dials. She repeats “African-American” twice with the dispatcher. When it seems like she needs to explain the situation a third time, her tone modulates from steady (although perhaps slightly heightened by adrenaline and stress) to screaming in shorter breaths: “I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble, please send the cops immediately!”
“Strategic White Womanhood is a spectacle that permits the actual issue at hand to take a back seat to the emotions of the white woman, with the convenient effect that the status quo continues,” writes Ruby Hamad in her forthcoming book, White Tears/Brown Scars. “White women’s tears are fundamental to the success of whiteness. Their distress is a weapon that prevents people of colour from being able to assert themselves or effectively challenge white racism and alter the fundamental inequalities built into the system. Consequently, we all stay in the same place while whiteness reigns supreme, often unacknowledged and unnamed.”
“The Prodigy Complex” (Hartmut Welscher, VAN Magazine, October 6, 2016)
“Prodigies exist in every field,” Welscher writes. “But since the time of Leopold Mozart, who dragged his son through the drawing rooms of Europe’s nobility like a trained monkey, the prodigal youngster has become a familiar, peculiar trope in classical music hagiography.” What is it about the idea of in-born genius, of the gifted child destined for greatness, that captivates so many cultures? America in particular fails to empathize for the talented childhood whose lives permanently suffer from the way their parents and society use them as commodities. Welscher exposes the ethical dimensions of the prodigy complex, what he beautifully calls “the darker side of prodigy reception,” focusing on coverage the 10-year old composer Alma Deutscher received.
In a profile of Deutscher for Die Zeit, the well-known journalist Uwe Jean Heuser asks, “Who is this child who, at the age of 10, is capable of amazing an ambitious, knowledgeable audience?” Isn’t the real question: Who is this audience that allows itself to be amazed by a child? Is “ambitious” or “knowledgeable” really the right way to describe an audience that is satisfied by “poise and skill,” when it should expect communicated life experience, storytelling, expression? Are these qualities really so much harder to judge in musicians? As Solomon writes, “Musical prodigies are sometimes compared to child actors, but child actors portray children; no one pays to watch a six-year-old playing Hamlet.”
“Symphony of Millions” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker, June 30, 2008)
So few people publish long stories about classical music that Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, appears in this list twice. Classical music, once such a provincial Western music, had taken up residence inside Communist China. “For the past fifteen or twenty years, classical music has been very à la mode in China,“ one accomplished composer told Ross. Ross visited Beijing to investigate if China was indeed the future of classical music. Ross found a classic music culture that reflected Communist China of that time: suppressed, well-polished and publicized in a self-serving propoganda-type way, and fraught with the tension between the freedom practitioners wanted and what little freedom they had.
For a musician on Long Yu’s level, politics is unavoidable. Since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the Party has discouraged dissent not just by clamping down on rebellious voices but by handsomely rewarding those who play it safe. Richard Kraus, in his book The Party and the Arty in China, writes, “By 1982, the Party had given up trying to purge all dissident voices and opted instead for the strategy of urging all arts organizations to strive to earn money. “Those who work within the system may be expected to reach the stage where they can win prizes, obtain sinecures, hold illustrious posts, and we will paid for teaching. Artists end up censoring themselves – a habit ingrained in Chinese history. Behind the industrious façade is a fair degree of political anxiety. Reviews often read like press releases; indeed, I was told that concert organizations routinely pay journalist to provide favorable coverage. Critics feel pressure to deliver positive judgments, and, if they don’t, they may be reprimanded or hounded by colleagues. One critic I talked to got fed up and quit writing about music all together.
“Crowd Control” (Wendy Lesser, The Threepenny Review, Spring 2008)
As with Ross, Lesser writes so well, and so distinctly, about classical music, that this list would be insincere not to include another piece. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t appear online for free in full, but it’s too unique not to include. Watching an orchestra, you can’t miss the conductor, but it takes effort to truly see them. After watching one conductor, Simon Rattle, lead the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 2008, Lesser trained her lens on him to examine the conductor’s larger triumphs, challenges, and contribution to orchestral performance.
Whenever a conductor lifts his arms, points his fingers, or gestures with his head, he is actually controlling thousands of body parts. These include (among others) the right arms and left fingers of the string players, the hands and lungs of the woodwinds, the lips of the brass section, the writes of the percussionists, and the eyes and ears of all the musicians performing under him. But the body parts also include the eyes, ears, lungs, and hands of those of us out there in the audience; we too are watching his characteristic movements, listening for the notes, catching our breaths, bringing our palms together in applause. The control can never be perfect, in regard to either the bodies onstage or those off it, and that is a good thing, because robots can neither play nor appreciate music. But to the extent a conductor’s control approaches perfection, in a Zeno’s Paradox-like fashion, without ever getting there, we in the audience stand to benefit. Listening to the Berlin Philharmonic perform under Simon Rattle, one has a sense of what that near-perfection might sound like.
First published in 1940, Caravan ceased operations in 1988 and was relaunched in 2010 by a new set of ambitious staffers as India’s only magazine dedicated to narrative journalism. For Virginia Quarterly Review, writer Maddy Crowell profiles the monthly magazine and its driven executive editor, Vinod Jose, who she describes as ”one of India’s more subversive journalists,” ”practically inseparable” from his journalism. She knows. She interned at Caravan six years ago. She explores the magazine’s unique identity, its history, and its inspiration.
For India’s young intellectuals, the magazine quickly became an essential venue, cutting an anomalous figure in a media environment rife with sensationalism and government flattery. “Caravan is this lonely but incredibly brave beacon in this unending toxic sewage, fake news, social media violence,” said Deb. “It has been going it alone as far as Delhi is concerned.” It was neither entirely a literary magazine nor a newsweekly nor just a book review, but a combination of all three in the form of a periodical that, as Mishra put it to me, “analyze[d] the news with adversarial politics.”
She also examines its future. Revisiting it in 2020, she finds a magazine facing dangerous challenges to its existence and freedom. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the powerful Hindu-nationalist organization, is building its New Dehli headquarters outside the magazine’s headquarters. Caravan and RSS have a tense adversarial relationship, partly due to the magazine’s frequent investigations into the organization, partly due to the magazine’s defense of Indian democracy. Threats of violence are taken seriously. ”Living under a constant, simmering threat is, for Jose, evidence that he’s doing something right as a journalist,” Crowell writes. The situation is worsening.
As tense as the atmosphere was for India’s free press following Modi’s first election, things have only worsened since. A number of editors claim to have been bullied by Modi loyalists seeking to remove online coverage that was critical of the BJP; newspapers that have published negative stories have been penalized financially, often through the loss of government-funded advertisements. At the same time, journalists at mainstream outlets have become ever more explicit, if not boastful, about their political connections. When Arun Jaitley, the BJP’s finance minister, died in August 2019, a reporter from one of India’s largest television channels, Times Now, tweeted: “I’ve lost my Guiding Light my mentor. Who will I call every morning now?”
Most sinister of all, the censorship of Modi’s critics has escalated into violence. Since he first came into office, twelve journalists have been killed because of their work, and at least nine have been imprisoned. In 2017, the prominent journalist and editor Gauri Lankesh was gunned down in the early evening in front of her estate in Bangalore. Lankesh, an outspoken feminist and human-rights activist famous for her left-wing tabloidesque attacks on Hindu-nationalist figures, was a close friend of Jose’s—the two had worked together covering contentious riots in Goa in 2005. Her death confirmed the seriousness of what Indian journalists were up against under the new regime. Not long after, a right-wing nationalist followed by Modi on Twitter posted: “One bitch dies a dog’s death all the puppies cry in the same tune.”
After Lankesh’s murder, Jose began implementing protocols for Caravan’s staff to follow: All communications are now handled on encrypted channels, such as ProtonMail or Signal (WhatsApp, he believes, is compromised in India), and reporters working on sensitive stories are instructed to be especially vigilant in protecting their sources. And yet, like almost everyone else I spoke with at Caravan, Jose wasn’t all that interested in talking about the government’s intimidation. “You can’t slow down your work just because something has happened. There are certain requirements of the job.” Rather, he was eager to know whether I’d been following their coverage of the mysterious death of Indian special-court judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya (twenty-eight stories and counting), or whether I’d read their cover story about how the RSS had been systematically infiltrating India’s intellectual spaces.
A late bloomer as far as relationships go, my first encounter with heartbreak came from the track. It was junior year. The district meet: all big Texas sky and girls next to me adjusting hair ties and heat waves shimmering ahead. At that point in my life, I had devoted myself entirely to running. I had skipped every pool party and social gathering for three years to chisel myself into a faster time, a college scholarship, or something I couldn’t quite put my finger on — something that would finally indicate to me I had succeeded. I had won handily the year before, and everyone in the stands anticipated I’d win again. But when the gun went off, and I eased into a pace that should have felt easy given the rigor of my training, my legs stiffened. With each of the eight laps, I grew slower. Girls passed and I watched their ponytails sway across their thin frames. No matter how much I cajoled myself forward, no matter how many times I reminded myself of the years of work I’d put in, my body didn’t respond. I came in close to last.
Usually, at the end of a season, I jumped right back into running, but that loss felt like an irreparable fissure between me and first love. Heartbreak tasted like Coca Cola and boxes of Sour Patch Kids, and sounded like Coldplay’s “Fix You” repeated for melodramatic effect on the bus ride home. Too sad to study splits at night, and having ignored all social situations for years, I found myself reaching for something to fill what felt like a hunger inside me, a gnawing that reminded me of the ways I’d failed, the potential I’d lost. Those nights, I began a ritual of reading in my closet. I devoured books until one or two in the morning. At first, there was an escapist tendency to my reading; I wanted to forget the world I was living in and enter another. But, after weeks and a stack of novels, I realized that the words were guiding me back to solid ground. In reading about the nuances of another’s life, I was far enough removed to engage with what felt like the losses in my own. Slowly, I began to heal. I returned to running and pursued longer distances and faster times, my muscle evolving through training cycles; I’m sure there’s a metaphor for love buried somewhere in there.
Recently, over a decade after that track race, I experienced heartbreak again, but this time with someone I thought I might spend a life with. Just as I had after my district race, I mourned the possibilities of what could have been. I reviewed my own shortcomings. I doubted in my capacity to feel that sweet burn of distance again, the ache of muscle that indicates you are moving through the world as well as the bounds of your body will allow. I wondered if I would ever be able to trust again, to love. In the weeks that followed, as if grooved into some map of memory, I found myself reading a book a day, disappearing from the world for a few hours before surfacing again. I read and I ran and I read and I ran until I sloughed away the dead parts of the past, and trusted that the beautiful parts of the relationship — the parts that taught me compassion and made deeper my vulnerability and nurtured me toward growth — remained with me, even if the person who had fostered them did not.
Here, in case you, too, are experiencing any variety of heartache, is a reading list of essays that have allowed me to grieve. They’ve been friends telling me exactly what I needed to hear, and ultimately, have given me hope that there are new and unexpected futures ahead, even if now I only have a glimpse.
1. On Nighttime (Hanif Abdurraqib, May 15, 2019, The Paris Review)
Hanif Abdurraqib ruminates on places he has spent a series of nights: watching over a hospital bed, working at a hotel, waiting up for a long-distance love. By holding his experiences of heartache up to the light and carefully considering Lucy Dacus’s song “Night Shift,” Abdurraqib explores the liminal space that exists between hearts that are whole and broken, and moments that bleed between darkness and light.
In those days, I imagined daylight hours as no time to build a graveyard for memory. I couldn’t do what I needed to among the waking, forcing myself to run errands or pulling the shades down against the sun.
2. The Perfect Man Who Wasn’t (Rachel Monroe, April 2018, The Atlantic)
Finding true love amid the slush of online dating profiles often feels like a fantasy, which is why, when about a dozen women connected romantically with a man who called himself “Richie,” they felt lucky beyond measure — but only at first. Rachel Monroe, in this riveting read, reveals how Derek Alldred deceived so many women, explores the history of the con man, and, in a most satisfying turn, explains how his victims banded together after heartbreak to ensure he would never have the chance to con again.
Even Derek’s victims, who understand better than anyone else how these things work, repeatedly questioned one another’s choices when speaking with me: How did she let it go on that long, why did she let him move in when she barely knew him, how did she not see through this or that obvious lie?
3. When I couldn’t tell the world I wanted to transition, I went to Dressbarn (Katelyn Burns, May 23, 2019, Vox)
But by March of the following year, my dysphoria became too much to bear. My wife did her best to come to terms with my coming out, but we broke up when I told her I was starting estrogen, and I moved out shortly afterward.
After divorce, Katelyn Burns reflects on her relationship with a “little black Calvin Klein dress with stripes” that reminds her both of past heartbreak and a new world of possibility that opened when she first tried it on.
4. Love Running (Joseph Holt, March 2019, The Sun)
Joseph Holt’s ex-girlfriend was the reason he began running, but after their breakup, he continues on his own. Solo, running becomes both a reminder of their past as well as a salve for heartbreak.
I think about her every time I run, and I run every day. I feel her loss like a phantom limb, yet somehow this, too, is beautiful. And I run now with deep, propulsive gratitude for her influence.
5. How to Be Heartbroken (Brittany K. Allen, March 20, 2018, Catapult)
How much is the way we grieve the end of relationships influenced by portrayals of breakups in popular culture? Is there comfort to be had in performing different stages of heartbreak? How do we know when we’re ready to move on? Brittany K. Allen addresses these questions and more in this gorgeous exploration of “halving” herself from a former partner.
Isn’t it funny how the language we reach for when describing the real, wretched thing itself smacks of commercial copy? Heartbreak, heartbreak. It’s a pop song. It’s something you buy at Claire’s, or in the candy aisle.
6. The Breakup Museum (Leslie Jamison, Spring 2018, Virginia Quarterly Review)
Married for two-and-a-half years, Leslie Jamison peruses the exhibits featured in The Museum of Broken Relationships, a place where people from around the world send otherwise banal objects — “a toaster, a child’s pedal car, a modem handmade in 1988” — that somehow represent love lost. Jamison ruminates on what it means to separate from a partner, what we carry with us after a relationship is over, and how objects can conjure memory.
Which is all to say: I grew up believing that relationships would probably end, but I also grew up with the firm belief that even after a relationship was over, it was still a part of you, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
7. Her Fiance’s Mountain Bike Crash Was a Tragedy. What She Did After Was a Miracle (Gloria Liu, February 14, 2019, Bicycling Magazine)
Just three weeks before Will Olson was supposed to move from Colorado to Vermont, where his longtime girlfriend, Bonnie McDonald lived, he perished in a freak trail biking accident. Gloria Liu tenderly chronicles McDonald’s grief in this deeply moving piece, but also notes how heartbreak, over time, can evolve into some kind of hope.
As Bonnie spoke more about the experience, she came to use the term “heart opening” instead of heartbreaking. ‘I never knew my heart could feel this much loss and this much love,’ she says. ‘I never knew my heart had this much capacity.’
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.
Under Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, drug dealers routinely get assassinated on Manila’s busy streets. Dead bodies get dumped in the bay and on city sidewalks, with signs reading, “I’m a pusher” hanging from the deceased’s necks. Those who resist, including clergy, have been shot in broad daylight. For Virginia Quarterly Review, Adam Willis examines the president’s brutal war on drugs, and how this Catholic nation seems torn between support and outrage. Many Filipinos applaud Duterte’s efforts to curtail the drug trade, while many Catholics have actively started resisting them and his violent, dictatorial rhetoric, risking their own lives in the process.
In the Philippines, the church has emerged as the most prominent voice of dissent against a drug war that has claimed, by some estimates, more than twenty thousand lives. It is also under perpetual assault from a president intent on contesting the very essence of Philippine Catholicism. Having framed his 2015 campaign as a referendum on the legitimacy of the church, Duterte has forced religious leaders to choose between coveted political capital and their moral mandates. It is a familiar dilemma, exacerbated by deep historical fissures between conservative and liberal clerics, and it has heightened pressure on the church’s most prominent prelates. In particular, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the country’s most influential church authority, who splits his time between duties on behalf of the Vatican and leading packed services in the cathedral of Intramuros—the Catholic heart of the Philippine capital—has been criticized by activists and clerics alike for his deferential approach to dealing with Duterte. Such soft-pedaling, they argue, seems blind to the country’s suffering and risks degrading the moral integrity of the church. Meanwhile, Jun and a small crop of the church opposition have reoriented their lives around a mission to document the drug war while helping to seek accountability for those responsible.
In a country where vigilante executions have become commonplace, this work is perilous at best; Catholic leaders who speak out are often inundated with death threats, sometimes from Duterte himself. In the last year and a half, three Filipino priests have been killed under mysterious circumstances. One was ambushed in his car after negotiating the release of a political prisoner; another, while saying blessings on a group of children, was shot dead by a motorcyclist; a third was murdered at the altar in front of parishioners just before Mass. In 2017 and 2018, such violence against clergymen prompted more than two hundred priests and religious leaders to petition for licenses to carry firearms.
“But for pain words are lacking. There should be cries, cracks, fissures, whiteness passing over chintz covers, interference with the sense of time, of space; the sense also of extreme fixity in passing objects; and sounds very remote and then very close; flesh being gashed and blood spurting, a joint suddenly twisted — beneath all of which appears something very important, yet remote, to be just held in solitude.”
–Virginia Woolf, The Waves
In a recent NPR piece, “Invisibilia: For Some Teens With Debilitating Pain, The Treatment Is More Pain,” readers are introduced to Devyn, a 14-year-old who develops intense bodily pain, seemingly out of nowhere. In search of the source of the pain or a cure, Devyn’s mother Sheila takes her to doctor after doctor. Each time, medical professionals tell Devyn, “‘You are healthy. Nothing is wrong,’” until, eight months later, when Sheila finds Dr. Sherry, a man responsible for a highly controversial treatment for pain: inflicting more pain.
As reported in the NPR piece, patients of Dr. Sherry’s “do physical workouts five to six hours a day.” All medicine, “even medication for apparently unrelated problems” is taken from patients. When Devyn experiences an asthma attack on the first day of practice, she is “directed…to simply walk around the gym” rather than take her inhaler.
At the end of the piece, Devyn claims to have been cured by Dr. Sherry’s program — she “even went back to dancing.” But for many readers, the essay was infuriating, unethical even. Maya Dusenbery, author of Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick, called the piece “irresponsible” and generated a list of 12 questions that journalists should have asked experts, including “An asthma attack and a nosebleed are not pain complaints. What possible justification was there to ignore these problems in Devyn?”
Abby Norman, author of Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain, tweeted that while she hadn’t been a patient of Dr. Sherry, she had tried swapping “one pain for another more intentional pain” and “just ended up with twice as much pain and a deep feeling of failure and shame that I couldn’t get ‘better’ and ‘beat it’ and ‘be normal.’” Norman is not alone in the ways she tried to ignore pain rather than accepting and learning to live with high levels of physical discomfort. Women’s symptoms — particularly pain, which is invisible — are often dismissed, disbelieved or diminished by doctors. Even when women do voice what’s happening with their bodies, they often do not receive treatment or even an acknowledgment of what’s ailing them.
Norman, in response to a series of questions I asked her about pain, wrote that she received pressure from “everywhere — doctors, friends and family, society” that “if you aren’t actively trying to get better, you’re wrong. If you aren’t making strides at getting well, you’re wrong. If you’re failing, if you stay sick, if your pain is still there, not only have you failed but you must want to be this way. Maybe you’re even faking it. Or making it worse than it really is.”
Women, in particular, are subject to this type of blame from doctors and others. As Norman notes, “on a sociocultural level, there are a lot of messages specifically undermining a woman’s interpretation of her own mind, body, and experiences. Not just in terms of physical pain, either. Where it becomes difficult (and in some cases life-threatening) is that the overarching patriarchal structures under which healthcare systems of the world operate, the very long history of misogyny in the medical profession and in our culture at large, vigorously and consistently reinforces these messages.”
Knowing this, how do we begin to change the narrative of how women’s pain is perceived, understood, and treated? How might we validate the experiences of women who have been repeatedly and systematically ignored, dismissed, and blamed by medical professionals and society at large? How do we treat pain without inflicting further physical and emotional harm?
I don’t think there are easy answers, but we can work to support initiatives dedicated to create lasting change to correct data that demonstrates the pain of women — affected even further by factors such as race, class, and weight — is routinely disbelieved by medical professionals. We can examine the language used to express and treat women’s pain, and work to find a vocabulary that allows us to rewrite the current narrative. We can listen carefully to women with histories of pain who write or speak about their experiences and heed their calls to action.
1. The Long History of Discrimination in Pain Medicine (Sarah Zhang, February 28, 2017, The Atlantic)
“The emergence of objectivity influenced the stigma around patients who suffered from pain without visible injury—and this stigma ends up overlapping with stigma that already exist along race, gender, and class lines.”
According to bioethicist Daniel Goldberg, author of a recent paper, “Pain, objectivity and history: understanding pain stigma,” the 19th century brought new instruments like the X-ray, which allowed for an “objective” means of understanding previously unseen pain, and these developments forced a reckoning with the way doctors had previously understood patients and the body. Sandra Zhang interviews Goldberg in order to learn more about how histories of racism, sexism, and classism have influenced the way doctors treat patients today.
2. I’m a fat Black femme searching for a doctor who believes my pain (Dominique Norman, January 24, 2019, Hello Giggles)
Histories of racist practices in medicine such as the Tuskegee experiment or cells taken from Henrietta Lacks without her consent have left lasting negative impacts on the way black women are treated by medical professionals today, as Dominique Norman explains in her personal essay about being disbelieved and dismissed by a variety of doctors for years on end.
3. Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain (Leslie Jamison, Spring 2014, Virginia Quarterly Review)
“The pain of women turns them into kittens and rabbits and sunsets and sordid red satin goddesses, pales them and bloodies them and starves them, delivers them to death camps and sends locks of their hair to the stars. Men put them on trains and under them. Violence turns them celestial. Age turns them old. We can’t look away. We can’t stop imagining new ways for them to hurt.”
How can we talk about women’s pain in a way that is true to their experience? What kind of pain is perceived as “real” and what kind is seen as a cry for attention? How can women write about their pain without adding to a history of narratives that have glamorized “wounded women”? By analyzing representations of women’s pain in art and literature, Leslie Jamison asks — and seeks to answer — these questions and more.
(Related: read “Writing Women’s Pain: Part Two of a Round Table, a conversation with Alethea Black, Abby Norman, Esme Weijun Wang, and more,” November 2018, 2018, Lit Hub)
4. Nothing Protects Black Women From Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth (Nina Martin, ProPublica, and Renee Montagne, December 7, 2017, ProPublica and NPR)
Shalon Irving, who earned a dual-subject Ph.D. and worked to “eradicate disparities in health access and outcomes,” passed away at the age of 36, just three weeks after giving birth to her first child. As Nina Martin and Renee Montagne report, Irving’s death is representative of a much larger issue: black women are “243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes.”
“Black expectant and new mothers frequently told us that doctors and nurses didn’t take their pain seriously — a phenomenon borne out by numerous studies that show pain is often undertreated in black patients for conditions from appendicitis to cancer.”
5. Pain bias: The health inequality rarely discussed (Jennifer Billock, May 22, 2018, BBC)
As happens to many women who have valid symptoms, Jennifer Billock was told by her doctor that she was “paying too much attention” to her body — he recommended she go home and relax.
“I still left his office thinking it was perhaps anxiety. And so, listening to the advice, I tried to ignore the pain.”
Billock explores the numerous ways in which women’s pain is dismissed and discredited throughout this piece, and also why.
6. It’s All In Your Head: The Dangers of Disbelieving Female Pain (Caroline Reilly, July 6, 2016, Bitch Magazine)
Caroline Reilly feels a sense of relief when she wakes from surgery and a medical professional tells her they “found a lot” of endometriosis within her. Her pain, previously disbelieved, was now validated by a name. Reilly, through research studies and personal experience, advocates for women’s pain to be legitimized.
“The disbelief of female pain is well documented. “The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain,” a 2001 study in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, documents how women are given less pain medications than men for the same procedures. On the other hand, the study notes that women are more likely to be given sedatives—as women are more often perceived as anxious than in pain. Women also wait longer than men in emergency rooms.”
7. Black Health Matters (Jenna Wortham, August 27, 2016, The New York Times)
“In April, a study by researchers at the University of Virginia found that African-American patients were routinely undertreated for their pain, compared with white patients. Ultimately, black patients were conditioned to underestimate their own pain.”
Plagued by a mysterious rash and other health concerns, Jenna Wortham visits several doctors and an emergency room before her acupuncturist asks if her condition might be related to stress. Upon reflecting on the overwhelming trauma she encounters daily in her newsfeed, Wortham discovers Simone Leigh, “a renowned artist with a history of examining social movements and black subjectivities, with a focus on women,” and works to “deal with the psychological toll of racism” through practices such as yoga and acupuncture.
8. Treating Migraines: How Women are Harmed by Gendered Medical Language (Rachel Mabe, February 6, 2018, Catapult)
“So the question is: Does the stigma of migraines as a women’s disease, and the stereotypically feminine language still used to talk about them, affect patient treatment? Does it affect how much time and money are spent on studying migraines?”
Rachel Mabe seeks to answer these questions by sharing the story of Patty, a woman who experiences “twenty-two headache days a month,” analyzing words such as “oversensitive” used to describe women’s migraines, writing about her own experience with incapacitating headaches, and examining how the gender biases present within the history of language related to migraines has contributed to the way migraines remain understudied.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.
Valentine’s Day always brings me back to the halls of my high school, which, on February 14th each year, teemed with roses by the dozen, glittery cards taped to lockers, oversized teddy bears, and prolonged goodbyes between couples before every class. As a shy high school student, I was more interested in the characters in the novels I read than pursuing my peers, but the holiday always brought an intense anxiety. Even when I told myself I didn’t want a cache of hot pink roses from the Kroger down the street, and even when I convinced myself that the holiday was a celebration of consumerism, I still felt like I was missing out in some way.
When I look back, I’m able to realize that my sense of loneliness didn’t come from any true sense of isolation, but rather the fact that I only recognized one type of relationship being celebrated, a kind I didn’t fully believe in, romances that relied on public gestures as proof. The essays I curated for this reading list are intended to be inclusive of all kinds of love. These writers explore what the landscape of relationships might look like in the age of robots, how one community of queer and trans women healed after Hurricane Harvey, and what pigeons might teach us about our own capacity for love, just for starters.
1. The Love Story That Upended the Texas Prison System (Ethan Watters, October 11, 2018, Texas Monthly)
Fred Cruz, imprisoned for 15 years for a robbery in Texas in the 1960s, was known for his calm manner, his study of law, and his practice of Buddhism. When Frances Jalet, a lawyer who moved to Texas because she was told it was a place where she could best fight for civil rights, met Cruz, the two hit it off. Jalet and Cruz, through years visitation and discussions of law in their letters to one another, fought for prisoners’ rights in Texas.
‘I know how deeply you love your son,’ Jalet wrote to Cruz’s mother that spring. ‘I have grown to love him also.’ Just what kind of love she was professing was unclear, perhaps even to her.
2. Love in the Time of Robots (Alex Mar, October 17, 2017, Wired)
What are the differences between humans and androids, and can the differences be “solved” through research? Can a relationship with an android stave off loneliness? What are the ethical considerations of trying to create an android so close to a human that the differences are difficult to perceive?
Alex Mar, in this riveting piece, addresses these questions, and also writes about the motives of Hiroshi Ishiguro, a man in Japan who regularly produces androids.
3. They Found Love, Then They Found Gender (Francesca Mari, October 21, 2015, Medium)
‘Gender identity typically develops between the ages of two and four, and sexuality emerges between ages eight and 10. ‘But if you’re not allowed to explore gender and sexuality and yours happens to be different than what’s culturally expected,’ Dr. Colt Keo-Meier, a trans man clinical psychologist practicing in Houston told me, ‘yours will be delayed, which is why you see people transitioning at 30, at 55.’ In Texas, he said, this is particularly true, thanks to the state’s stifling religious, cultural, and conservative forces.”
Settled into married life with her husband, with two children between them, Jeannot Jonte realized over time that she needed more. She asked her husband to open their marriage, and subsequently met Ashley Boucher at Sue Ellen’s, a famous lesbian bar in Dallas. The two connected. Their romance led to Jeannot divorcing her husband and allowed space for Jeannot — now Johnny — to explore gender identity in a safe space for the first time in their life.
4. After Divorce and Postpartum Depression, Work (and Bees) Brought Me Back to Life (Christine H. Lee, January 8, 2019, Catapult)
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee’s husband was allergic to bees but, after he left, Lee ordered her own nucleus and began tending to them. In this poignant essay — one that’s part of a series called Backyard Politics — Lee uses bees as a metaphor for the ways in which she learned to build the kind of life she wanted after postpartum depression and the dissolution of her marriage.
“It is no wonder that I am so in love with my bees. They live by structure and routine, but they are also resilient. They fight for their lives.”
5. India’s Golden Chance (Meera Subramanian, January 6, 2014, Virginia Quarterly Review)
Meera Subramanian visits Bihar, India to “find out what it means to be a girl turning into a woman in today’s India.” She is met with startling statistics.
“For every 100,000 mothers who give birth, 261 die—more than ten times the US figure. Though it is an illegal act, nearly 70 percent of Bihari girls are married before their eighteenth birthday, and well over half of newlyweds have their first child by nineteen. The average woman in Bihar bears 3.7 children over the course of her lifetime. Of those, nearly 5 percent die within the first year.”
Subramanian writes about the efforts of a woman named Pinki Kumari, who’s involved with a program called Pathfinder International, which seeks to educate people about reproductive health. The training also seeks to empower women to make choices that might lead to a brighter future, such as resisting arranged marriage, birth control options, achieving economic stability on their own, continuing education, and speaking out against pervasive issues such as sexual violence.
6. How Queer and Trans Women Are Healing Each Other After Hurricane Harvey (Yvonne S. Marquez, October 25, 2017, Autostraddle)
After Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, many LGBT and undocumented Houstonians struggled to heal, and were left without access to resources to do so. In this longform piece, one that is a testament to the power of love that exists within community, Yvonne S. Marquez shares the efforts of people like poet Tiffany Scales, who is part of the T.R.U.T.H. Project, a project that organizes uplifting and educational performance art events for LGBTQ communities and their allies; Ana Andrea Molina, founder of Organización Latina de Trans en Texas (OLTT), who used her resources and connections to open a nonprofit where undocumented queer and trans people receive support; and Jessica Alvarenga, a queer Salvadoran photographer who hopes to “capture a truer narrative of her community to counter anti-immigrant narratives spewed by conservative politicians who depict all Central American immigrants as members of the dangerous MS-13 gang.”
7. Politics as a Defense Against Heartbreak (Minda Honey, February 2018, Longreads)
A decade away from her last long-term relationship, Minda Honey arrives to a party celebrating her 33rd birthday without a date. After a friend gives her a tarot reading and suggests Honey will find a man, Honey reflects on the way she has evolved throughout various encounters with men, and discusses the way she now uses “politics as a barometer for the caliber of person” she dates.
“But I wish there were space in our culture for single women who are unhappy with their status to say so without being pitied, and without the pressure to break out into the Independent Woman song and dance. I can have a happy, fulfilling life and still long for romantic love. Two things can simultaneously be true.”
8. What Pigeons Teach Us About Love (Brandon Keim, February 11, 2016, Nautilus)
After observing a pair of pigeons for a spring — birds he names Harold and Maude — Brandon Keim ruminates on what we know about how animals conceive of love, and how their interactions as couples reflect on how we as humans engage in relationships.
“Part of the reluctance to talk of bird love, I suspect, is rooted in our misgivings about our own love’s biological underpinnings: Is it just chemicals? A set of hormonal and cognitive patterns shaped by evolution to reward behaviors that result in optimal mating strategies? Perhaps love is not what defines us as human but is something we happen to share with other species, including the humble pigeon.”
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.
American Andrew met his future husband, Elad, in Israel. They married in Canada, and had twin boys — Aidan, and Ethan, one fathered by each man — with a surrogate. When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Obergefell v. Hodges, they decided to move to California to be closer to Andrew’s family. It did not go as planned.
A few months after Ethan’s citizenship had been denied, the Dvash-Banks family landed in Los Angeles. Andrew and Aiden carried their US passports; Elad carried his Israeli passport and a green card. Ethan passed through US customs at LAX with a Canadian passport and a six-month tourist visa. What they would do next was anyone’s guess, but at the very least they were determined to live the life they had planned as an American family for as long as they could.
“Of all the hundreds and hundreds of things I worried about, this one never crossed my mind,” Andrew said of the ordeal. “How could it? They’re both my children. I’m on both birth certificates, Elad is on both birth certificates—exclusively. No one else appears on the birth certificates. I am the legal father. I am the father of both children. It never would have crossed my mind in a million years.”
Now, LGBTQ immigration rights organization Immigration Equality is bringing a lawsuit on their behalf, hoping to highlight the ways in which immigration law is not keeping up with reproductive technologies and changing definitions of family. Raj Telhan‘s story at VQR is a comprehensive, accessible dive into the history and future of U.S. immigration law, what makes a citizen, and what makes a family.
Immigration Equality also argues that the sections of the INA concerned with citizenship (as opposed to immigration), do not include specific definitions of the terms “parent,” “person,” “mother,” “father,” and “out of wedlock” that are being used by the State Department to impose a genetic threshold for parentage on married same-sex couples like Andrew and Elad. This last intriguing argument essentially amounts to a critique of the State Department’s reading of the statutory language of the INA. Tacitly, the complaint asks what we really mean by parent or mother or father. And more profoundly: What, precisely, is family? And this is where the precedent-setting power of the Dvash-Banks case stems from. Until recently, these definitions were taken for granted, their interpretations rooted in age-old understandings of hereditary bonds. With advances in assisted-reproductive technology, however, the supposedly reliable assumptions don’t always hold. The outcome of the Dvash-Banks family’s case will hinge, in part, on whether the courts acknowledge the biotechnological and social forces that have transfigured traditional definitions of family.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Tiffany Stanley, Raj Telhan, Alex Pareene, Nico Muhly, and Chris Heath.
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in crime reporting.
ProPublica senior reporter and New York Times Magazine writer-at-large.
The Disappeared (Hannah Dreier, ProPublica with Newsday)
When eleven high school students went missing in a single county on Long Island in just two years, law enforcement shrugged. Most of the teenagers who disappeared were recent transplants from Central America, and many of them were last seen heading into the woods, lured by the promise of weed. The Suffolk County police department responded with stomach-churning indifference, telling frantic parents that their children had simply run away.
Hannah Dreier chronicles an upside-down world in which one boy’s mother – an envelope factory employee who speaks no English – is left to piece together what happened to her son. Based on more than 100 interviews and voluminous public records, Hannah Dreier’s storytelling is as vivid as it is effortless. She builds upon an accumulation of damning details — like the fact that one Spanish-speaking mother, whose son was murdered, had to pay a taxi driver to interpret for her at the police station. (“He kept the clock running and charged her $70,” Dreier writes.) “The Disappeared,” which was turned into an episode of This American Life, is a devastating work of both relentless reporting and empathy.
Michael A. Gonzales
Contributor to Catapult, The Paris Review, and Longreads.
A Preacher, a Scam, and a Massacre in Brooklyn (Sarah Weinman, CrimeReads)
Fans of vintage New York crime stories will love Sarah Weinman’s brilliant Brooklyn-based tale, a sordid story that only gets worse the more you read. Weinman takes the reader into the mind and home of a con man named DeVernon LeGrand, a pretend preacher who kept a stable of women who dressed as nuns and begged on the streets. Of course, in true pimp fashion, LeGrand took most of their money. After moving his flock to 222 Brooklyn Avenue in 1966, things get worse for the crooked organization as it eventually becomes involved in kidnapping and murder. Although in the early 2000s I lived four blocks away from the scene of LeGrand’s various crimes for thirteen years, I had never heard of him or his house of pain and death until reading Weinman’s wonderfully written piece.
Contributor to The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, and The Daily Beast. Author of The Spy with No Name.
Jerry and Marge Go Large (Jason Fagone, Huffpost Highline)
I write about unusual heists from middle-America, so I was game for this Michigan lotto scam story from FOIA-bandit Jason Fagone. In crime writing it’s the characters who make for a good yarn, and I was all-in on this Mom and Pop who used brain-power to beat the system, and the odds.
The Man Who Captures Criminals for the DEA by Playing Them (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, The New Yorker)
Why actor Spyros Enotiades told his story to Yudhijit Bhattacharjee I don’t know (there must surely be a bounty on his head), but the storytelling was extraordinary. Undercover capers don’t get better than this.
Managing editor at The Investigative Fund.
The Trauma of Everyday Gun Violence in New Orleans (Jimmie Briggs and Andre Lambertson, VICE)
This photojournalistic investigation into how gun violence affects black communities explores how living with that violence can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just like experience with war can. But unlike with returning veterans, gun violence-plagued communities don’t get the funding or mental health resources to help them cope.
Executive Editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Author of five books including Squeezed, Branded, and the poetry book, Monetized. She writes The Guardian’s Outclassed column.
Could an Ex-Convict Become an Attorney? I Intended to Find Out (Reginald Dwayne Betts, The New York Times Magazine)
This is fantastic longform that embodies what I think social justice reportage should be today. It combines an under-heard, first-person voice with a gripping true story about one of the most crucial issues in America today, incarceration. Betts, who is a lawyer and a poet, also gives his tale an unexpected literary feel, with a comprehensive gloss on the sociology behind juvenile crime, prisons, jailhouse lawyers, and the limited social possibilities for ex-felons.
Omnipresence (Ann Neumann, Virginia Quarterly Review)
This multimedia criminal justice story is about how too-bright, all-night lighting in housing projects, and faulty design overall, contributes to a troubling level of surveillance in poorer communities under the guise of fighting crime. It makes something as basic as sleeping uncomfortable for thousands upon thousands of law-abiding citizens. I really like this story’s taxonomic, poetic style, as well as how architectural photographer Elizabeth Felicella gives the story a more formalist visual valence than your typical housing piece.
Blood Cries Out (Sean Patrick Cooper, The Atavist)
In the book Popular Crime by Bill James, the author writes that the phrase “something terrible has happened” is “the best title ever for a crime book…those words turn the ‘crime story’ inside out by exposing the human beings standing on what otherwise appears to be a vast and grisly stage.”
We’re hardly ten percent of the way into the story in “Blood Cries Out” before someone uses those words to tell her husband that the unthinkable has occurred: there’s been a murder right across the road. And the vast and grisly stage? Small-town Chillicothe, Missouri, where two men have amicably farmed the same land for years, until one of them wakes up in the middle of the night with a bullet in his face and his wife dead beside him. The wounded man initially suspects his daughter’s abusive boyfriend, but then changes his story and accuses his farming partner, and then his farming partner’s son, which results in the sort of twisty and utterly corrupt legal process worthy of Making a Murderer part three.
The piece is full of letters and depositions and secret meetings and a lot of paperwork, but on occasion, it vibrates with poignantly biblical/Americana-esque undertones, from the title (plucked from Genesis) to lines like, “[the victim’s] murder was an attack on a Christian matriarch, a cherished local archetype. Similarly, [the innocent man’s] conviction represented the denial of an eldest son’s right to live and work on his father’s land.”
Author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World.
The End of Evil (Sarah Marshall, The Believer)
I published a book and wrote a lot of my own pieces in 2018 — including one for this site — so, oddly, I didn’t keep as good track of longform reporting produced by others (podcasts, however, that’s a different story, but this is Longreads, not Longlistens). But I keep returning to Sarah Marshall’s “The End of Evil” because it makes fresh a story long consigned to easy tropes. Marshall, who also co-hosts the stellar podcast You’re Wrong About… and is one of my favorite true crime writers, gives voice to the myriad of women and girls Bundy murdered, shows him as something far less than an evil mastermind, and demonstrates why, with particular clarity, “the longer you spend inside this story, the less sense you can find.”
Audience editor, Longreads
Checkpoint Nation (Melissa del Bosque, Texas Observer)
When Americans think of “the border” as a narrow and specific line, we neglect the legal reality that the term actually applies to a border zone, a much larger halo covering up to 100 air miles from any U.S. land or coastal boundary. The zone touches parts of 38 states, covering 10 in their entirety — and within that wide rim, anyone can be subjected to a warrantless search at any time. In this signature longform reality check, Melissa del Bosque digs into the history of how Congress vested U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with alarming, far-reaching powers to search and detain even long-term residents who’ve never committed a crime at surprise, “suspicionless” checkpoints.
Japan’s Prisons Are a Haven for Elderly Women (Shiho Fukada, Bloomberg Businessweek)
In a series of sweet, anonymous snapshots, Shiho Fukada talks to and photographs a growing cohort of Japanese seniors: “otherwise law-abiding elderly women” who have found a solution to the loneliness of aging in the reliable comforts of prison. Almost 1 in 5 women in Japanese prisons is a senior, Fukada reports, and 90 percent of them are arrested for shoplifting. From the simple things they steal (rice, cold medicine, a frying pan) to the circumstances they’re trying to escape (bedridden or violent spouses, invisibility, loss, and financial strain), the details of this story make structural inadequacies to meet the unmet social and healthcare needs of an aging population all too clear.
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