Tag Archives: excerpt

My Parents Said I Bruised Easily

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Jessica Berger Gross | Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home | Scribner | July 2017 | 13 minutes (3,194 words)

For a good 20 years now, I’ve been working on various versions of a memoir. Some of what’s been taking me so long is that I’m conflicted about sharing certain parts of my family’s story, and my own.

Last year I managed to write and perform a fairly vague monologue about my home life in my teen years, during six of which my mother was married to her second husband, an angry, miserable human being. In the monologue, I rattled off some behavior of his that would easily be categorized as domestic violence, but which we, in our suburban middle class Jewish home, filed under under the more tidy, less shameful euphemism, “He has a temper.”

That’s what we called it when he threw a glass serving bowl filled with spaghetti at his son’s head, leaving him with a concussion; when he threw a wine glass at my mother and it shattered on the floor after bouncing off the side of her face. That’s what we called it when he dragged my thirteen-year-old sister down the stairs by her hair, when he gripped his hands around her throat and violently shook her, leaving marks. That’s what we called it when we sought refuge at my mother’s friend’s house; when my mother went back, begging his forgiveness for having left; when someone — probably my mother’s friend — anonymously called Child Protective Services, and a social worker showed up at our house.

“He has a temper.” That’s what we called it when he threw my ceramic piggy bank at me one evening while I was sitting on my bed, doing my homework. He burst into my room waving a legal pad with numbers scratched in pencil, fuming that I wasn’t willing to call my father and ask him to pay more in child support. I ducked just in time. The piggy bank hit the wall, smashing to pieces.

I told the story aloud at a Domestic Violence Awareness Month event, in the context of a 2014 TMI Project writing workshop I had co-led for women living in a domestic violence shelter in Poughkeepsie. Hearing the women share their stories struck a nerve in me. It unearthed truths and shame I’d forgotten I’d long ago buried — my shame, my mother’s, my family’s. It was almost unbearable, and I nearly quit the workshop. Somehow, though, I found the fortitude to not only stick with it, but to also tell my story to the participants. And not just the story about my step-father, but also the one about the occasionally violent boyfriend I once had a bad habit of going back to, again and again.

Letting them know that I had witnessed and experienced some degree of what they had was an instant ground-leveler. I stopped being the nice, middle-class-writing-instructor-lady with no problems coming to help them, and became one of them. They comforted me as I had been comforting them, and I was reminded of why it’s so important to overcome shame and tell the hard truth — how telling the hard truth is an important antidote to our own shame, and more broadly to the stigma associated with the things we attach shame to. It occurred to me that it’s unfair to tuck these kinds of secrets behind facades of exceptionalism and superiority, and that maybe we have an obligation to others to be more forthcoming. It starts with the painful task of being honest with ourselves, when no one around us really wants us to be.

In certain communities, we’re raised to believe we’re immune to particular experiences and behaviors, that we’re above them. That domestic violence, for instance, is low-class. That it’s just not something us middle class suburban Jews on Long Island engage in. That he’s not an abuser — he has a temper.

But it’s not true, and author Jessica Berger Gross is here to back me up on that. In her moving, fearless memoir, Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home, she tells the story of growing up in a middle class suburban Jewish home on Long Island just about a 10-minute drive from my own — one where her father was violent, and her mother was his silent enabler. And she tells the story of bravely deciding, at 28, to preserve her wellbeing and sanity by cutting her parents and her brothers out of her life.

I so admire her courage in revealing all the ugly truth of her upbringing, while being fair, and not casting her parents as monsters. And I appreciate her standing up and dispelling the insidious myth that domestic violence doesn’t occur in the nice houses in the nice neighborhoods.

What follows is an excerpt. — Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor

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Read more…

Four Dead in Ohio

Today marks the 47th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, during which members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed unarmed college students who were protesting the Vietnam War, after they burned down the campus’ Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) building. To mark the occasion, NPR has an excerpt of 13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings , Philip Caputo’s 2005 book about covering the massacre as a 28-year-old reporter for The Chicago Tribune.

My first question was, “Where the hell is Kent State?” I had never heard of it. Informed of its location, I booked the next available flight to Cleveland, packed a bag, said goodbye to Jill and drove to O’Hare airport. During the hour-long flight, I read a wire-service story to bring myself up to date. Ohio’s governor, James A. Rhodes, had blamed the disturbances on “outside agitators.” I had learned to be skeptical about such claims, but was willing to set my skepticism aside. The burning of the ROTC building was right out of the Weather Underground’s handbook. Except for that – and it was no small exception – the protests appeared to be like those at Illinois. Maybe there was one other difference. Illinois Governor Ogilvie had taken pains to calm the situation at Champaign-Urbana. Gov. Rhodes adopted the combative approach. At a press conference on Sunday he’d compared the protestors to Nazi brown shirts, describing them as “the worst sort of people we harbor in America,” and promised to “use every weapon possible to eradicate the problem.” A bit of political grandstanding perhaps – Rhodes was then involved in a tough primary fight for the Republican Party’s senatorial nomination – but it struck me as an inflammatory statement.

My memory is patchy. I believe the shootings took place while I was flying to Cleveland and that the report I heard on my rented car’s radio was an update. My immediate reaction was the one you would expect: I was stunned.

Read the excerpt

Hidebound: The Grisly Invention of Parchment

Fresco of the Last Judgment, with animal skin. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Keith Houston | The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time | W. W. Norton & Company | August 2016 | 18 minutes (4,720 words)


Below is an excerpt from The Book, by Keith Houston. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

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Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

To an ancient Egyptian of the third century BCE, the rolls of papyrus on which the country recorded its history, art, and daily business would have been of all-consuming importance. Scrolls made from papyrus were the medium for hundreds of thousands of books lodged at Alexandria’s wondrous library, and blank papyrus sheets were one of the chief exports to Egypt’s friends, allies, and trading partners across the Mediterranean. But papyrus’s 3,000-year monopoly was about to come under threat. Invented by Egypt’s upstart Hellenic neighbors and made from animal hides at great cost in sweat and blood, parchment was smooth, springy, and resilient where papyrus was rough, brittle, and prone to fraying. Its rise at papyrus’s expense, however, had little to do with the ergonomics of its use or the economics of its manufacture and everything to do with ambitious pharaohs who ignored the cardinal rule of military leadership: never get involved in a land war in Asia. Read more…

A Story of Racial Cleansing in America

Detail from a map of Cherokee territory over time. The green line designates their territory at the point of their forced removal. Red towns were Cherokee towns. Via University of Texas Libraries.

Patrick Phillips | Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America| W. W. Norton & Company | September 2016 | 17 minutes (4,588 words)


Below is an excerpt from Blood at the Root, by the poet Patrick Phillips.  The story begins in September of 1912, in the days after two assaults on white women. Ellen Grice claimed she was attacked by two black men who left before she was hurt. The next day Mae Crow, a 19-year-old white woman, was discovered  injured and unconscious in the woods. She allegedly regained consciousness for long enough to accuse a 16-year-old black youth, Ernest Knox. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

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Journalists only started writing about the expulsions once the wagon trains of refugees grew too large and too numerous to ignore.

Though it would take weeks before reports reached Atlanta, in the days after the attack on Crow a nighttime ritual began to unfold, as each evening at dusk groups of white men gathered at the crossroads of the county. They came with satchels of brass bullets, shotgun shells, and stoppered glass bottles of kerosene, and sticks of “Red Cross” dynamite poked out through the tops of their saddlebags. When darkness fell, the night riders set out with one goal: to stoke the terror created by the lynching of Edwards and use it to drive black people out of Forsyth County for good.

In 1907, W. E. B. Du Bois had put into words what every “colored” person in Georgia knew from experience, which was that “the police system of the South was primarily designed to control slaves. . . . And tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police.” In the first decade of the twentieth century, the days when all white men had been legally empowered to pursue and arrest fugitive slaves were only fifty years in the past, and the fathers and grandfathers of many locals would have been part of such posses in the days of slavery.

So it must have seemed natural to many whites when, each night around sundown, a knock came at the door and the adult men of the family were summoned to join a group heading out toward the clusters of black cabins scattered around Forsyth—along the Chattahoochee out in Oscarville, in the shadow of Sawnee Mountain north of Cumming, and south, toward Shakerag and Big Creek. It would take months—and, in a handful of cases, years—before the in-town blacks of Cumming were finally forced out, since many lived under the protection of rich white men, in whose kitchens and dining rooms they served. Instead, it was to the homes of cotton pickers, sharecroppers, and small landowners that the night riders went first, and it was these most vulnerable families who fled in the first waves of the exodus. Read more…

The Moment Jon Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’ Changed Course

KAHANE CORN COOPERMAN(field producer, later co-executive producer, 1996-2015):

I produced a field piece, with Stacey Grenrock Woods as the correspondent, about a guy, Alexander P., who had been a rock star in Ukraine and came here and was now a waiter in a hotel restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This piece may well have been in the works before Jon arrived. But it airs, and after the show you have a postmortem. And Jon was not happy. He said, “Your targets are just wrong. They shouldn’t be people on the fringe. Our targets need to be the people who have a voice, and that’s politicians, and that’s the media.”

STACEY GRENROCK WOODS(correspondent, 1998-2003):

I heard Jon was very unhappy with that piece, and I don’t blame him at all. I didn’t like it, either, but it was given to me. I think it ended up being a policy-changing piece.

-From a new oral history of The Daily Show, by Chris Smith, excerpted in Vanity Fair.

A Reading List About Utopias

I recently finished an advance reader’s copy of Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson, which debuts in January 2017. Perfect Little World is the story of Isabelle Poole, a fierce but desperate single mom who applies, with success, to be a part of a utopian parenting project in which children will be raised communally by their parents and a team of educators and scientists in near seclusion. I was expecting Perfect Little World to transform from a utopia to a dystopia by its end—and there were certainly disturbing, sad moments throughout the novel—but Wilson resisted sensationalism and apocalyptic tropes. Instead, he’s written something quite genuine and powerful. Unexpectedly, I was moved. I realized my recent exposure to planned societies has been books like The Heart Goes Last and Children of the New World—stories devoted to satire, technology and dark prophesy. In other words, more dystopian than utopian.

Maybe that’s why Perfect Little World moved me. There’s so much evil in the world—racism meets unchecked authority meets gun, say, or a dangerous, dangerous man running for president of the United States—that any degree of optimism feels hard-won. At this point, hopelessness feels easy, logical, intelligent, but I am finding more and more power in a well-crafted happy ending, a redemptive final note. With that in mind, here are five stories about utopian societies. Read more…

My Dinner With Rasputin

Teffi | Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi | New York Review Books Classics | May 2016 | 39 minutes (10,692 words)


The essay below appears in the new collection Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi, released this month for New York Review Books Classics. Teffi, whose real name was Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was born in St. Petersburg in 1872 and went into exile in 1919, first in Istanbul, then in Paris. “Rasputin” was orginally published in Paris in 1924.  This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.


This isn’t simply because he was so very famous. In my life I’ve met many famous people.

There are people who are remarkable because of their talent, intelligence or public standing, people whom you often meet and whom you know well. You have an accurate sense of what these people are like, but all the same they pass through your life in a blur, as if your psychic lens can never quite focus on them, and your memory of them always remains vague. There’s nothing you can say about them that everyone doesn’t already know. They were tall or they were short; they were married; they were affable or arrogant, unassuming or ambitious; they lived in some place or other and they saw a lot of so-and-so. The blurred negatives of the amateur photographer. You can look all you like, but you still don’t know whether you’re looking at a little girl or a ram.

The person I want to talk about flashed by in a mere two brief encounters. But how firmly and vividly his character is etched into my memory, as if with a fine needle.

And this isn’t simply because he was so very famous. In my life I’ve met many famous people, people who have truly earned their renown. Nor is it because he played such a tragic role in the fate of Russia. No. This man was unique, one of a kind, like a character out of a novel; he lived in legend, he died in legend, and his memory is cloaked in legend.

A semi-literate peasant and a counsellor to the Tsar, a hardened sinner and a man of prayer, a shape-shifter with the name of God on his lips.

They called him cunning. Was there really nothing to him but cunning?

I shall tell you about my two brief encounters with him. Read more…

A Dead Superhero Is a Marvelous Corpse

Ramzi Fawaz | The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics | New York University Press| January 2016 | 25 minutes (6,662 words)


The excerpt below is adapted from The New Mutants, by Ramzi Fawaz, which examines “the relationship between comic book fantasy and radical politics in the modern United States.” This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

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We’ve changed! All of us! We’re more than just human!

—THE FANTASTIC FOUR #1 (November 1961)

We might try to claim that we must first know the fundamentals of the human in order to preserve and promote human life as we know it. But… have we ever yet known the human?

—JUDITH BUTLER, Undoing Gender (2004)


Who might legitimately represent the human race?

In November 1992 Superman died. The Man of Steel would fall at the hands of the alien villain Doomsday, a thorny-skinned colossus who single-mindedly destroys life throughout the cosmos. Arriving on Earth seeking his next conquest, Doomsday meets his match in the planet’s longtime guardian, known to few in his civilian garb as the meek journalist Clark Kent but beloved by all as the caped hero Superman. After an agonizing battle in the streets of Metropolis, Superman’s urban home, Superman and Doomsday each land a final fatal blow, their last moments of life caught on camera and broadcast to devastated viewers around the world. The fictional media firestorm surrounding Superman’s death mirrored real-world responses to DC Comics’ announcement of their decision to end the life of America’s first superhero earlier that year. Months before the story was even scripted, national print and television media hailed Superman’s death as an event of extraordinary cultural significance, propelling what initially appeared as an isolated creative decision into the realm of public debate.

Public opinion ranged widely, from those who interpreted Superman’s downfall as a righteous critique of America’s moral bankruptcy to those who recognized it as a marketing stunt to boost comic book sales. In an editorial for the Comics Buyer’s Guide years later, leading comic book retailer Chuck Rozanski claimed that upon hearing about the decision, he had called DC Comics editor Paul Levitz, pleading with him that “since Superman was such a recognized icon within America’s overall popular culture . . . DC had no more right to ‘kill’ him than Disney had the right to ‘kill’ Mickey Mouse.” According to Rozanski, by choosing to kill Superman for sensational purposes, DC would be breaking an implicit promise to the American people to preserve the hero’s legacy as a “trustee of a sacred national image.” Read more…

Bad News: Censorship, Fear & Genocide Memorials

Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Anjan Sundaram | Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship | Doubleday | January 2016 | 27 minutes (7,197 words)

Below is an excerpt from Bad News, by Anjan Sundaram, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.  Read more…

Kidnapping a Nazi General: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Perfect Heist

W. Stanley Moss's drawing of the Kreipe abduction. Via Wikimedia Commons .

Patrick Leigh Fermor | Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation in Crete | New York Review Books | November 2015 | 31 minutes (8,432 words)

Below is an excerpt from Abducting a General, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s recently published memoir of a remarkable military operation in Crete: the kidnapping of a Nazi general. It was the only such kidnapping to have been successfully undertaken by the Allies. During his lifetime Leigh Fermor was Britain’s greatest travel writer, best known for A Time of Gifts. As recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky Read more…