Below is an excerpt from The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone’s riveting new book chronicling the work of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman, a pair of “know-nothings” who invented the science of codebreaking and became the greatest codebreakers of their era. Their contributions continue to influence the U.S. intelligence community to this day. Our thanks to Jason Fagone and Harper Collins for allowing us to share a portion of this book with the Longreads community.
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Sixty years after she got her first job in codebreaking, when Elizebeth was an old woman, the National Security Agency sent a female representative to her apartment in Washington, D.C. The NSA woman had a tape recorder and a list of questions. Elizebeth suddenly craved a cigarette.
It had been several days since she smoked.
“Do you want a cigarette, by the way?” Elizebeth asked her guest, then realized she was all out.
“No, do you smoke?”
Elizebeth was embarrassed. “No, no!” Then she admitted that she did smoke and just didn’t want a cigarette badly enough to leave the apartment.
The woman offered to go get some.
Oh, don’t worry, Elizebeth said, the liquor store was two blocks away, it wasn’t worth the trouble.
They started. The date was November 11, 1976, nine days after the election of Jimmy Carter. The wheels of the tape recorder spun. The agency was documenting Elizebeth’s responses for its classified history files. The interviewer, an NSA linguist named Virginia Valaki, wanted to know about certain events in the development of American codebreaking and intelligence, particularly in the early days, before the NSA and the CIA existed, and the FBI was a mere embryo — these mighty empires that grew to shocking size from nothing at all, like planets from grains of dust, and not so long ago.
Elizebeth had never given an interview to the NSA. She had always been wary of the agency, for reasons the agency knew well — reasons woven into her story and into theirs. But the interviewer was kind and respectful, and Elizebeth was eighty-four years old, and what did anything matter anymore? So she got to talking.
Her recall was impressive. Only one or two questions gave her trouble. Other things she remembered perfectly but couldn’t explain because the events remained mysterious in her own mind. “Nobody would believe it unless you had been there,” she said, and laughed.
The interviewer returned again and again to the topic of Riverbank Laboratories, a bizarre institution now abandoned, a place that helped create the modern NSA but which the NSA knew little about. Elizebeth and her future husband, William Friedman, had lived there when they were young, between 1916 and 1920, when they discovered a series of techniques and patterns that changed cryptology forever. Valaki wanted to know: What in the world happened at Riverbank? And how did two know-nothings in their early twenties turn into the best codebreakers the United States had ever seen — seemingly overnight? “I’d be grateful for any information you can give on Riverbank,” Valaki said. “You see, I don’t know enough to . . . even to ask the first questions.”
Over the course of several hours, Valaki kept pushing Elizebeth to peel back the layers of various Riverbank discoveries, to describe how the solution to puzzle A became new method B that pointed to the dawn of C, but Elizebeth lingered instead on descriptions of people and places. History had smoothed out all the weird edges. She figured she was the last person alive who might remember the crags of things, the moments of uncertainty and luck, the wild accelerations. The analyst asked about one particular scientific leap six different times; the old woman gave six slightly different answers, some meandering, some brief, including one that is written in the NSA transcript as “Hah! ((Laughs.))”
Toward the end of the conversation, Elizebeth asked if she had thought to tell the story of how she ended up at Riverbank in the first place, working for the man who built it, a man named George Fabyan. It was a story she had told a few times over the years, a memory outlined in black. Valaki said no, Elizebeth hadn’t already told this part. “Well, I better give you that,” Elizebeth said. “It’s not only very, very amusing, but it’s actually true syllable by syllable.”
“You want me to do that now?” Elizebeth said.
* * *
She met George Fabyan at a library in Chicago one day in June 1916, when she was 23. She went to the library alone to look at a rare volume of Shakespeare from 1623, the “First Folio,” and to ask the librarians if they knew of any open positions in Chicago in the field of literature or research.
* * *
During the library’s first decades, the masters of the Newberry acquired books with the single-mindedness of hog merchants. They bought hundreds of incunabula, printed volumes from before 1501, written by monks. They bought fragile, faded books written by hand on unusual materials, on leather and wood and parchment and vellum. They bought mysterious books of disputed patrimony, books whose past lives they did not know and could not explain. One book on the Newberry’s shelves featured Arabic script and a supple, leathery binding. Inside were two inscriptions. The first said that the book had been found “in the palace of the king of Delhi, September 21st, 1857,” seven days after a mutiny. The second inscription said, “Bound in human skin.”
In one especially significant transaction, the library acquired six thousand books from a Cincinnati hardware merchandiser, a haul that included a Fourth Folio of Shakespeare from 1685, a Second Folio from 1632, and most exceptional of all, the First Folio of 1623, the original printing of Shakespeare’s plays.
This is the book that Elizebeth Smith was determined to see.
Opening the glass front door of the Newberry, she walked through a small vestibule into a magnificent Romanesque lobby. A librarian at a desk stopped her and sized her up. Normally Elizebeth would have been required to fill out the form with her research topic, but she had gotten lucky. The year 1916 happened to be the three hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and libraries around the country, including the Newberry, were mounting exhibitions in celebration.
Elizebeth said she was here to see the First Folio. The librarian said it was part of the exhibition and pointed to a room on the first floor, to the left. Elizebeth approached. The Folio was on display under glass.
The book was large and dense, about 13 inches tall and 8 inches wide, and almost dictionary-thick, running to nine hundred pages. The binding was red and made of highly polished goatskin, with a large grain. The pages had gilded edges. It was opened to a pair of pages in the front, the light gray paper tinged with yellow due to age. She saw an engraving of a man in an Elizabethan-era collar and jacket, his head mostly bald except for two neatly combed hanks of hair that ended at his ears. The text said:
MR. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARES COMEDIES,
Publifhed according to the True Originall Copies.
Printed by Ifaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount. 1623.
Elizebeth later wrote that seeing the Folio gave her the same feeling “that an archaeologist has, when he suddenly realizes that he has discovered a tomb of a great pharaoh.”
One of the librarians, a young woman, must have noticed the expression of entrancement on her face, because now she walked over to Elizebeth and asked if she was interested in Shakespeare. They got to talking and realized they had a lot in common. The librarian had grown up in Richmond, Indiana, not far from Elizebeth’s hometown, and they were both from Quaker families.
Elizebeth felt comfortable enough to mention that she was looking for a job in literature or research. “I would like something unusual,” she said.
The librarian thought for a second. Yes, that reminded her of Mr. Fabyan. She pronounced the name with a long a, like “Faybe-yin.”
Elizebeth had never heard the name, so the librarian explained. George Fabyan was a wealthy Chicago businessman who often visited the library to examine the First Folio. He said he believed the book contained secret messages written in cipher, and he had made it known that he wished to hire an assistant, preferably a “young, personable, attractive college graduate who knew English literature,” to further this research. Would Elizebeth be interested in a position like that?
Elizebeth was too startled to know what to say.
“Shall I call him up?” the librarian asked.
“Well, yes, I wish you would, please,” Elizebeth said.
The librarian went off for a few moments, then signaled to Elizebeth. Mr. Fabyan would be right over, she said. Elizebeth thought: What?
Yes, Mr. Fabyan happened to be in Chicago today. He would be here any minute.
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Sure enough, Fabyan soon arrived in his limousine. He burst into the library, asked Elizebeth the question that so bewildered and stunned her — “Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?” — and led her by the arm to the waiting vehicle.
“This is Bert,” he growled, nodding at his chauffeur, Bert Williams. Fabyan climbed in with Elizebeth in the back.
From the Newberry, the chauffeur drove them south and west for twenty blocks until they arrived at the soaring Roman columns of the Chicago & North Western Terminal, one of the busiest of the city’s five railway stations. Fabyan hurried her out of the limo, up the steps, between the columns, and into the nine-hundred-foot-long train shed, a vast, darkened shaft of platforms and train cars and people rushing every which way. She asked Fabyan if she could send a message to her family at the telegraph office in the station, letting them know her whereabouts. Fabyan said no, that wasn’t necessary, and there wasn’t any time.
She followed him toward a Union Pacific car. Fabyan and Elizebeth climbed aboard at the back end. Fabyan walked her all the way to the front of the car and told her to sit in the frontmost seat, by the window. Then he went galumphing back through the car saying hello to the other passengers, seeming to recognize several, gossiping with them about this and that, and joking with the conductor in a matey voice while Elizebeth waited in her window seat and the train did not move. It sat there, and sat there, and sat there, and a bubble of panic suddenly popped in her stomach, the hot acid rising to her throat.
“Where am I?” she thought to herself. “Who am I? Where am I going? I may be on the other side of the world tonight.” She wondered if she should get up, right that second, while Fabyan had his back turned, and run.
But she remained still until Fabyan had finished talking to the other passengers and came tramping back to the front of the car. He packed his big body into the seat opposite hers. She smiled at him, trying to be proper and polite, like she had been taught, and not wanting to offend a millionaire; she had grown up in modest enough circumstances to be wary of the rich and their power.
Then Fabyan did something she would remember all her life. He rocked forward, jabbed his reddened face to within inches of hers, fixed his blue eyes on her hazel ones, and thundered, loud enough for everyone in the car to hear, “Well, WHAT IN HELL DO YOU KNOW?”
Elizebeth leaned away from Fabyan and his question. It inflamed something stubborn in her. She turned her head away in a gesture of disrespect, resting her cheek against the window to create some distance. The pilgrim collar of her dress touched the cold glass. From that position she shot Fabyan a sphinxy, sidelong gaze.
“That remains, sir, for you to find out,” she said.
It occurred to her afterward that this was the most immoral remark she had ever made in her life. Fabyan loved it. He leaned way back, making the seat squeak with his weight, and unloosed a great roaring laugh that slammed through the train car and caromed off the thin steel walls.
Then his facial muscles slackened into an expression clearly meant to convey deep thought, and as the train lurched forward, finally leaving the station, he began to talk of Shakespeare, the reason he had sought her out.
Hamlet, he said. Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, the sonnets — the most famous written works in the world. Countless millions had read them, quoted them, memorized them, performed them, used pieces of them in everyday speech without even knowing. Yet all those readers had missed something. A hidden order, a secret of indescribable magnitude.
Out the train window, the grid of Chicago gave way to the silos and pale yellow vistas of the prairie. Each second she was getting pulled more deeply into the scheme of this stranger, destination unknown.
The First Folio, he continued. The Shakespeare book at the Newberry Library. It wasn’t what it seemed. The words on the page, which appeared to be describing the wounds and treacheries of lovers and kings, in fact told a completely different story, a secret story, using an ingenious system of secret writing. The messages revealed that the author of the plays was not William Shakespeare. The true author, and the man who had concealed the messages, was in fact Francis Bacon, the pioneering scientist and philosopher-king of Elizabethan England.
Elizebeth looked at the rich man. She could tell he believed what he was saying.
Fabyan went on. He said that a brilliant female scholar who worked for him, Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, had already succeeded in unweaving the plays and isolating Bacon’s hidden threads. But for reasons that would become clear, Mrs. Gallup needed an assistant with youthful energy and sharp eyes. This is why Fabyan wanted Elizebeth to join him and Mrs. Gallup at Riverbank — his private home, his 350-acre estate, but also so much more.
* * *
From The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Harper Collins.
First published in 1923, Cane is a series of lyrical vignettes about life in rural Georgia told from the point of view of an ambivalently black teacher from the north. Cane’s protagonist is loosely based off of the author, Jean Toomer, a black man descended from mixed-race former slaves. Throughout his life, Toomer traveled across the color line, insisting that he wanted his work to be known beyond the confines of black literature.
Andrew Mitchell Davenport looks at the creation of Cane alongside his own personal history as a black man with racially ambiguous features in an essay for Lapham’s Quarterly, where he beautifully muses on the difficulty of forming a solid black identity in the wake of violent white supremacy, past and present.
I took the train north to New Haven one evening this spring. I had just read Cane for the first time as an adult, no longer in college. I am now twenty-seven, the age Toomer was when he wrote his masterpiece. I thought of how Toomer drafted Cane on trains returning to Washington from Georgia—did he sit in the black car or the white car?—and how he might have timed the rhythms of his words to the ringing of the rails, striking downhome talk and folksong into modernist poetry. I caught the reflection of my white-looking features in the train window and wondered at how my appearance eases me through time. How so many of my people have lit out for whiteness, never to return. My “white” Mormon cousins out West. Would there come a time, even worse weather, when I too might deny my past? I remembered my enslaved ancestors, their courage, the land they purchased when freed by the Union forces. At the Yale library, reading through papers Toomer kept during his time in Sparta and in his later time of exile, I witnessed how pain and fear—of the world, of one’s self—could be twisted into a terrible, haunting beauty.
Jessica Gross | Longreads | April 2015 | 18 minutes (4,597 words)
Lizzie Skurnick is a voracious writer, critic and, now, head of a young adult publishing imprint. She began her career as a poet, then wrote young adult novels, a longstanding litblog called “The Old Hag,” and a Jezebel column about YA books that became the memoir Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint of Ig Publishing that launched in 2013, republishes those very books: YA classics from the 1930s through the ‘80s, by writers including Sydney Taylor (my own childhood beacon), Norma Klein, and Lois Duncan.
I met Skurnick at her apartment in Jersey City, where she served me tea and sat across from me in an armchair. The occasion for our conversation was the publication of her new book, That Should Be a Word, a compendium of imaginative neologisms—like “smearch: Google someone in hopes of finding bad news”—drawn from her New York Times Magazine column of the same name. (Disclaimer: the column was published on the Times’ now-defunct “One-Page Magazine,” for which I also wrote.) We spoke for several hours, during which Skurnick jumped up repeatedly to show me family photographs or books she’d written or reprinted (or, at one point, to grab a water bottle that approximated the size of her son, Javier, when he was born). Our conversation ranged from how she goes about creating such inventive new words to what the current backlash against YA literature is all about.
How did your New York Times Magazine column come about?
It was actually a very happy circumstance and coincidence. They asked Maud Newton, who I’ve known since 2003, from our blogging days, “Would you like to do a column on word play?” She said no, but Lizzie Skurnick can do it! [Laughs] It was good, I could really do them—I think because I’m a rhyming poet and I’m always doing loser puns. They came very naturally. It’s not like I was sitting there and being like, “How do I write these words?”
What do you mean, they came naturally? Like a new word will pop into your head as you’re walking down the street?
Yes, I do what my mother always calls “submit the query,” which means I submit the query to my brain. And then in the meantime, it’s like warm-up stuff. I’ll look at rhymes for the word. I’ll look at related words and I’ll go through the thesaurus and I’ll do those rhyming things online. But that’s never the word. It’s never usually even related to the word, but it gets my brain juiced up. And then I take a walk and it usually comes on the walk or in the shower.
I remember when the first word, “smearch,” came to me. And it was in the shower after I’d been grumping around on words that didn’t work. Because there is always the obvious word. And then there’s always the Urban Dictionary word, like “hangry.” They must be the harmonics of our language; they’re the words that everybody comes up with, but in a good way—some natural pairing that we all can find. My words never intersected with Urban Dictionary’s. Read more…
The infamous 3% statistic points to the percentage of publications each year in the U.S. that are translated into English. But even that number is inflated, as it includes technical material — manuals, guides, instructions — and new editions of canonized authors like Leo Tolstoy and Plato. American readers interested in the full-throated energy of contemporary world literature, of global book culture beyond their particular location and language, have limited options. Publishers suggest that literature in translation doesn’t sell — excepting a certain Swedish novelist called Stieg, of course — but my thinking is that readers like good things to read, wherever they come from. Readers are a curious sort.
I am ignited by literature of the world. I am fascinated by the stories and styles that come from different places. My Top 5 Longreads shouldn’t be considered a *best* list; rather, a cultivated selection of the year’s most interesting reading on international literature, translation, and storytelling. But this conversation isn’t finished; there is more to be said.
1. The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami by Sam Anderson — New York Times
I prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, almost entirely by immersing myself in the work of Haruki Murakami. This turned out to be a horrible idea.
2. The Joyful Side of Translation by Adam Thirlwell — The New York Times
The theory of translation is very rarely — how to put this? — comical.
3. Who Owns Kafka? by Judith Butler — London Review of Books
An ongoing trial in Tel Aviv is set to determine who will have stewardship of several boxes of Kafka’s original writings, including primary drafts of his published works, currently stored in Zurich and Tel Aviv.
4. Arabic and Hebrew: The Politics of Literary Translation by Olivia Snaije — Publishing Perspectives
Today, the 60-plus year conflict between Israel and Arab countries has impacted heavily on translations between the two Semitic languages, which are now viewed by many with mutual suspicion and distrust.
5. These Infantile Times by Jessa Crispin — Kirkus Reviews
Crispin interviews Dubravka Ugresic about her new essay collection, Karaoke Culture. Discussed: the author’s relationship to pop culture and how a Hemingway lookalike contest fits into the same essay as the war criminal Radovan Karadžic.
When I was 15, a teacher I was very close with killed himself over winter break. I found out about it in an AOL chatroom the night before school resumed. My friends were talking about how the elementary school science teacher had died. “The one from when we were kids?” I typed into the chatroom, sitting on the couch between my parents, as the Jennifer Garner show Alias played on our television. “Shit,” one of my classmates typed. “We weren’t supposed to tell her,” another wrote.
John Wake was my little brothers’ science teacher, and my after-school photography teacher. I leapt from the couch and called my homeroom teacher at his home. In a quiet, heavy voice, he confirmed what my friends had let slip. I screamed. My parents hovered around me, trying to understand what was happening. Eventually one of them took the phone. I was sobbing, incoherent, and couldn’t breathe. I needed air. I ran to the elevator and my father followed me. He walked me down and back up our Manhattan block in pouring January rain, his arm tight around me as I sobbed, tucked into his armpit. The next day in school I was crying at my locker and the guidance counselor walked by. He stopped and turned around after passing me, and asked if I was okay. I looked at him and said with all the raw teenage emotion in my body, “No. My favorite teacher killed himself.” The guidance counselor looked back at me, said he hoped I’d feel better, and walked away.
My own mental illness had made itself known a few years earlier. Mr. Wake and I had a special bond, maybe because something in each of us recognized itself in the other person. I had always been a Good Kid — didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, had never kissed a boy. But when Mr. Wake died, I became angry at the adults in my school. I needed them to talk about this monster that lived inside some of us, sometimes quiet for years at a time, occasionally rousing to try to kill us. When they wouldn’t, I punished them the only way my teenage self knew how: I became Bad. I smoked cigarettes in school, cut class to get stoned, threw tantrums at teachers and stormed out, showed up drunk to a school dance with the valedictorian. The adults in charge ignored my acting out, for the most part. I transferred to a new school at the end of the year, in large part because the adults who interviewed me there didn’t look away when I confronted them with my sad, ugly, unwieldy pain.
I try now, as an adult, to be sympathetic to those adults at my old school, who shied away from the conversation I so badly wanted to have. They were probably ill-equipped for it. They were probably dealing with their own pain. They probably worried that I wanted answers they didn’t have, that simply didn’t exist.
Talking about mental illness is possibly the most vital necessity for the health of those of us who have it. But doing so is terrifying. Some of the kindest and most progressive people I know have tried to tell me I don’t need medication. They don’t know how damaging it is when they say that, so I don’t hold it against them. A lot of people don’t know that resistance to medication is one of the main things that kills people like me. That depressives are prone to blaming themselves for everything, that I already have this monster inside me telling me everyday, “You just don’t try hard enough. You’re just lazy. You’re just selfish.” Mental illness is hard to understand because it’s invisible and complicated. We know so little about the science of it, and are conditioned to talk even less about the experience of it.
Talking about is terrifying because it could possibly tank your career. Who wants to hire someone who has a chronic illness that is impossible to cure and difficult to treat? Especially when that illness can make you nonfunctional? Sometimes it seems like you can’t talk about it without being defined by it. Now that I’ve told you I have depression, will you think of me as a writer or a reporter or an occasionally funny person you know online? Or will I be that woman who used to report and write until she wrote about her depression? Will editors think better of assigning me stories, worried that I can’t handle the work? As psychologist Nev Jones notes in David Dobbs’ recent piece for Pacific Standard, “The Touch of Madness,” we often tell people with mental illness to be less ambitious — “settle for jobs shelving books,” in Jones’ words. I have been a freelance journalist for six months and there has not been a single day when I haven’t thought about a therapist I saw when I was 18 who told me that my illness meant I could never freelance.
David Dobbs writes well about the “othering” of the mentally ill in his piece:
Reading philosophy helped Jones think. It helped order the disorderly. Yet later, in college, she lit up when she discovered the writers who laid the philosophical foundation for late 20-century critical psychiatry and madness studies: Michel Foucault, for instance, who wrote about how Western culture, by medicalizing madness, brands the mad as strangers to human nature. Foucault described both the process and the alienating effect of this exclusion-by-definition, or “othering,” as it soon came to be known, and how the mad were cut out and cast away, flung into pits of despair and confusion, leaving ghosts of their presence behind.
Dobbs’ piece, and Jones’ work, are specifically about “madness” — psychosis and schizophrenia — which is a different beast than depression (though depression is sometimes experienced by those with psychosis or schizophrenia). Those who experience schizophrenia — typically a more obvious, less invisible madness than depression — suffer the opposite problem: rather than being told they could just try harder, be healthier, sleep more or less, eat better, exercise more, “Western culture today continues to view schizophrenia as something essentially biologically fixed, invariably progressive, and, with rare exception, permanent,” per Dobbs. But the fundamental point — that “othering” those whose minds sometimes cause them hardship only intensifies that hardship — holds true for both experiences, especially in the West. As Dobbs writes:
When the director of the World Health Organization’s mental-health unit, Shekhar Saxena, was asked last year where he’d prefer to be if he were diagnosed with schizophrenia, he said for big cities he’d prefer a city in Ethiopia or Sri Lanka, like Colombo or Addis Ababa, rather than New York or London, because in the former he could expect to be seen as a productive if eccentric citizen rather than a reject and an outcast.
Dobbs’ piece includes fascinating historical research about the differences in psychosis experienced in different cultures and the fascinating field of “psychiatric anthropology” or “biocultural anthropology.” These fields see culture as a series of concentric circles, with the outermost containing the institutions (“government, universities, clinics”) and norms (laws and medical standards, as well as those defined by literature or history) and the innermost containing our personal social world — friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, peers. Our interactions with the denizens of these circles create culture — which is precisely why “othering” the “mad” is harmful, as Dobbs explains:
When people in mental distress are shunned and relegated to a class of others needing care away from the rest of us, they are pushed outside of culture precisely when they need it most. They may seem utterly detached from reality. But they will keenly comprehend their exile.
Part of Dobbs’ story recounts Jones’ own experience with madness. I’m particularly grateful for the inclusion of what happened when Jones, conscious that something in her had changed, sought help from a psychologist who said she couldn’t help her. Jones stopped going to therapy. This is, to me, part of why not shunning the mentally ill from culture is so important. Psychologists and psychiatrists are humans just like us, flawed and weird and wrestling with a field that sometimes seems unknowable. Everyone I know who has interacted with therapy has struggled to find treatment, felt stymied by the trial-and-error of seeking someone with whom they can connect and also trust. Isolation makes that struggle so much harder.
Even when a friend helps Jones seek treatment, Dobbs notes it was “a fraught venture”:
…because, in much of the Western world, an initial medical visit often accelerates a first episode. A 2013 review, for instance, found that a first hospitalization often caused psychotic patients distress rivaling that caused by the symptoms that drove them to the hospital. The care could wreak as much havoc as the ailment.
Emergency rooms are by nature horrible places for someone in trauma, and inpatient psychiatric facilities are often not much better. It is common to treat the mentally ill as though they cannot understand their own illness. That is very often not the case, especially in the beginning of an episode. Jones always knew her hallucinations and certain perceptions were not real to other people. Her education might have helped with that, but it didn’t help her to be treated with any more respect by the healthcare system. When a friend took her to a facility for an intake appointment, the nurse ignored Jones and told her friend, “I think she’s a schizo” right in front of her.
Public violence in America is often perpetrated by people with mental illness. This results in a perception that is contrary to fact: the vast majority of us, the mentally ill, are non-violent. But when these public acts of violence happen, our culture demands an explanation. American society is disinclined to regulate weapons that can mete out violence, so the explanation becomes “The mentally ill are dangerous.” Guns don’t kill people, mental illness does.
This perception proved extremely damaging to Jones when people in her Ph.D program who she had shared her illness with became afraid that she would go the way of the rare but high-profile violent mentally ill. She was banned from campus temporarily, returned only to feel alienated, then was kicked out of her program by professors who said some of the most damaging things you can say to a mentally sick person:
“The decision strikes the committee as simple — you clearly do not have your act together and we have no reason to believe you ever will.” Another professor: “you are a burden on the instructors.”
Dobbs aptly describes mental illness as “a horror experienced in solitude.” But he and Jones also highlight how that solitude needn’t be compounded by the concentric circles of culture in which the mentally ill person exists. It is a painful Catch-22 that the sicker a person is, the more she needs to talk about her sickness, and the scarier that talk is to the people around her. Dobbs quotes Erving Goffman, author of a classic 1963 study, “Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity”:
The more there is about the individual that deviates in an undesirable direction from what might have been expected to be true of him, the more he is obliged to volunteer information about himself, even though the cost to him of candor may have increased proportionally.
Being honest about her sickness derailed Jones’ life and sunk her frighteningly deeper into madness. But years later, after getting the opportunity to join a different Ph.D program, she blogged about her sickness, and it brought her in touch with a cohort with whom she could discuss her experience. She also notes, compellingly, that the defining characteristic of many of the violent mentally ill is isolation. More often than not, the backstory of these perpetrators involves stymied attempts at obtaining help. In Jones’ own story, she was aware her psychosis was not reality until she experienced cultural banishment. In isolation, her psychosis became her only reality.
Here are a few other good reads regarding mental illness.
1. “FSU Shooter’s Friends Tried To Get Help For Him Months Before The Shooting” (Michael LaForgia, Tampa Bay Times, November 2014)
I think about this piece constantly and have shared it with every mental health professional I’ve ever met. It’s an excruciating and invaluable ticktock of how a mass shooter tried desperately not to become a mass shooter.
2. “How to Talk About Suicide on Father’s Day” (Ashley Feinberg, Gawker, June 2015)
Feinberg writes compellingly not only about her experience as the daughter of a suicide victim, but the discomfort around talking about suicide and mental illness:
Suicide is uncomfortable, it’s a downer. It makes people cast their eyes away, to the left, to the right—anywhere but at you. “Oh… I, wow. That’s really—jeez. I’m sorry.” They apologize. Their eyes dart back to you, pleading. Shit. Were those the right words? Did it go away? Are you broken?
Whether or not this is actually what they’re thinking doesn’t matter. Because as soon as the word “suicide” falls from my lips, the air becomes heavy, conversations strained, and all the negative space in my head fills with one, sinking thought: “They look so uncomfortable. Are they wondering what’s wrong with me?”
3. “Should a Mental Illness Mean You Lose Your Kid?” (Seth Freed Wessler, ProPublica in partnership with The Daily Beast, May 2014)
Wessler investigates “predictive neglect,” a justification used by authorities in more than two dozen states to take children away from parents with mental illness.
4. “Homeless and Mentally Ill, a Former College Lineman Dies on the Street” (Juliet Macur, The New York Times, December 2015)
Macur chronicles the mental decline and eventual death of Ryan Hoffman, once a promising college football player.
5. “Where Psychiatric Care Is Scarce, Religious Institutions Are Stepping In” (Lindsay Holmes and Beth Shelburne, The Huffington Post in partnership with WBRC, September 2017)
Holmes and Shelburne look at an interesting antidote to the cultural or social isolation of the mentally ill, especially in cases where medical treatment is hard to come by: support from faith-based organizations.
6. “Knitting Myself Back Together” (Alanna Okun, BuzzFeed Reader, October 2014)
Okun’s essay about treating her anxiety with knitting spawned a forthcoming book of essays about crafting.
7. “The Concussion Diaries: One High School Football Player’s Secret Struggle with CTE” (Reid Forgrave, GQ Magazine, January 2017)
Forgrave tells the heartbreaking story of a high school football player who realized the sport he loved had wreaked havoc on his young brain.
8. “The ‘Madman’ Is Back in the Building” (Zack McDermott, The New York Times, September 2017)
McDermott was a public defender when he had a psychotic break. He ultimately left that job, deciding the “pressure cooker” environment couldn’t work with his illness. In this piece, he writes about that experience, and how his mother helped him through it.
Cashawn Thompson created the hashtag #BlackGirlsAreMagic on Twitter in 2013 to draw attention to the accomplishments and resilience of black women in the public eye like Michelle Obama. With T-shirts, tote bags, videos, and news headlines, #BlackGirlMagic soon went viral. Like “(To Be) Young, Gifted, and Black,” a song written by Nina Simone, and “Black Lives Matter,” the affirmation “Black Girls Are Magic” creates positive associations with blackness and reconstitutes its possibilities. “Say it loud!” James Brown sang in his 1968 song “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” In other words, let us not cower — let us like ourselves.
Affirmations like #BlackGirlMagic are important corrective tools, especially now, with a president in office who weaponizes language to stir up policies that are hurtful for communities of color. Still, I worry that a focus on black women’s extraordinariness obscures the unfairness of what we overcome. I wonder if, along with a litany of archetypes that have lingered in the public imagination, #BlackGirlMagic fortifies an idea that black women can endure anything, that we don’t need protecting.
Adrian Daub | Longreads | August 2017 | 20 minutes (5,033 words)
“The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars […].”
— Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”
I spent my adolescence around maps of places that didn’t exist. An older cousin read The Lord of the Rings over the course of a hot summer when I was nine, and I watched in fascination as he traced the Fellowship’s progress across the foldout map that came with the book in those days. This, I decided, had to be what grown-up reading looked like.
Maps were my entrée into geek life, and they remained the medium through which geekdom moved: beat-up paperbacks handed around between school friends, boxed sets at the local game store — we probably spent about as much time poring over maps as we did reading or dreaming up the stories that took place within the worlds they represented. The science fiction we read did without them, but any cover featuring a dragon, a many-turreted castle, or a woman in a leather bra suggested you’d find a map the moment you peeked inside the book.
First you should know: I was born with a blue butt.
So was my mother.
Thirty-two years and many thousands of miles of land, sky, and sea separated her creation from mine, yet we emerged the same: wailing, mad for first breaths, 10-fingered, 10-toed, chick-like tufts of black hair nested atop our soft skulls, and, incredibly, a wavy-bordered blue spot not unlike that of Rorschach’s inkblots, blooming across our tiny bums—blue like ice-cold lips, blue like the ocean at midnight, Picasso’s most melancholic bluest of blues.
By the time I learned about my blue butt, it was gone. Like a spy’s secret message written in vanishing ink, the spot disappeared sometime after my fourth birthday. The timing seems strange—to think that as soon as I could form my earliest memories, my blueness had already left me. In one such memory, I recall taking a shower with my mother. The water beat down on my shoulders thunderously. I’d misbehaved (perhaps, refused to wash my hair), and as I slid open the mottled glass door to escape, my mother smacked my bottom. Because this is my earliest butt-related memory, I mined it recently, hoping to uncover any clues of my former blue self. I remember wailing in the showy way children do when they’re old enough to know better, then peering behind me for proof: the fierce, fiery outline of my mother’s hand. But I can recall nothing but plain tush. I was neither red nor blue. We stood as nude as newborns, un-shy in our nakedness, water cascading across my mother’s towering body as she fumed and I wept in her shadow. Read more…
Jeremiah Moss | Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul | Dey Street Books | July 2017 | 28 minutes (6,876 words)
As someone who was evicted from her East Village apartment in 2005 — and who now finds herself worried about losing her place in gentrifying Kingston, New York — I was excited to see that Vanishing New York blogger “Jeremiah Moss” (the pseudonym for psychoanalyst Griffin Hansbury) had a book coming out.
Since 2007, Moss’s blog has catalogued the shuttering of one New York City institution after another, and staged demonstrations (which he himself didn’t attend, for fear of outing himself) to try and save them. Where his blog has tended to focus mainly on the East Village and lower Manhattan, his book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul, is more comprehensive, looking at the city as a whole, one borough and neighborhood at a time. It traces what he’s labeled today’s “hyper-gentrification” to the Koch era, and explores the problem in historical, economic, sociological, psychological, and personal terms.
Although Moss has been making his living for years as a shrink, he came to the city more than twenty years ago with the hope of becoming a writer. Having garnered glowing endorsements from veteran New York chroniclers like Luc Sante — not to mention the rare earnest blurb from Gary Shteyngart — it seems he’s now truly arrived.
Below, the first chapter, “The East Village.” — Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor
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