At the request of a high school friend, Lacy M. Johnson began investigating an area north of St. Louis where toxic waste from the Manhattan Project was illegally dumped in 1974. The resulting piece for Guernica finds Johnson diving into the human costs of America’s decision to end the war on Japan with expedient nuclear force.
The years of experimentation leading up to the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the years dealing with the nuclear fallout, have taken a lasting toll on the home front. Areas in St. Louis county near the Westlake Landfill Superfund site have higher incidence of lupus, rare cancers, neuropathy, and congenital defects than the general population. Although the EPA has maintained that the site is minimally hazardous, some residents have formed advocacy groups to raise awareness and demand immediate removal of the waste.
When Karen and her husband bought a house in North County for their own growing family, they chose one not far from the neighborhood where she’d splashed through the creek as a girl. But in the summer of 1999 she ran across a parking lot in the rain and then couldn’t get out of bed for days. Maybe she had come down with the flu, she thought. She visited her doctor, who didn’t know what to make of her symptoms. Karen’s blood work showed signs that antibodies were attacking the proteins in the nuclei of her cells. “Lupus,” the doctor told her, years later. He prescribed steroids to manage the symptoms of the disease, and mostly it did manage them. She felt healthy more often than ill. But in July 2012 she collapsed at her daughter’s softball game and didn’t bounce back, didn’t return to work, or to feeling healthy. Her doctor said this might be the new normal.
Karen went to a new doctor, who told her that there’s increasing consensus that lupus can be brought on by environmental triggers, including exposure to contaminants and chemicals, like cigarette smoke, silica, and mercury. In particular, he said, recent studies have shown a link between lupus and uranium exposure. That night over dinner Karen’s husband asked if she remembered a story on the news from a few months before about the creek that ran through her neighborhood. She remembered only vaguely. “Well, it was something about uranium contamination,” he said, looking up from his plate.
In a sprawling essay at Guernica, writer and journalist Katherina Grace Thomas turns a lens on the three years Nina Simone spent in Liberia in the mid-1970s. Thomas paints a portrait of the nation before its Civil War, teeming with opulence and possibility. Black Americans like Simone, as well was artists and political leaders from newly independent countries in Africa, flocked to Liberia to exchange ideas and enjoy the high life at late-night discotheques.
Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a beautiful black boy coming of age in a dreadfully under-resourced section of Miami. As with any great work of art, it’s the tiniest details that reveal the most — the inflection of a phrase, the subtlety of a glance, the seconds of silence. Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, with cinematography so lush, the balmy humidity of south Florida oozes off the screen, Moonlight is filled with moments like this. It happens when young Chiron avoids eye contact with a drug dealer during their first encounter, and again when Chiron welcomes an unexpected friendship on the soccer field with clear hesitation. You can see it every time Chiron flinches at his mother, and in the need that remains in the shadows of his eyes when he does. It happens when his mother makes Chiron read books instead of watching TV. “Find something for you to read,” she says.
The first time I saw Moonlight, these small revelations of humanity disarmed me. I felt exposed, and had to turn away from the screen. How did the filmmakers know, I wondered, that growing up black could be so contoured with dark peril, so layered with pure, sweet joy? That yes, absolutely, a drug dealer could be a respite, a much needed stand-in for a father? I realized its novelty is due in large part to the sheer, sad fact that it is rare to see black characters coming of age on screen. Two thirds of the movie is dedicated to Chiron’s childhood and adolescence; we see his intelligence and sensitivity unfurl, retreat, and finally unfurl again.
My mother is both child and madwoman, all the time. She doesn’t know what day it is, or what she did one minute ago, or even the names of the few friends who still call or stop by to visit. She gets angry at the trees for dropping their leaves in autumn and can no longer understand why it’s a bad idea to share her chocolate bar with the dog. Dementia has wiped out most of her past, leaving behind a shell of personality that exists in a perpetual, baffling present.
The loss of memory is so awful a prospect, yet memory is, at best, a mixed blessing. It’s a source of torment as often as pleasure, the place where pain and loss reside. Grudges live there, and so do shame and regret. My mother, as far as I can see, is relieved of all those things. The deprivations of her childhood, her difficult marriage, the baby she lost, her thwarted dream of a singing career—all gone now. No memory means no grieving. And yet, there is still that disquiet behind her smile. There remains some unbeautiful mystery in the place she now dwells, something bad that is unknowable to me, unnameable to her.
I keep running up against that something whenever I try to find comfort in my mother’s liberation from her past. It’s so tempting to deny the darkness I see in her, to choose to believe she’s entirely happy, and I’m not sure whether that’s for her sake or mine. Even when I was a little girl battling with her over the dolls, I desperately wanted her to be happy. I realize now that I thought her happiness would make mine possible. My fate was all bound up with hers, and that still feels true. What haunts her haunts me. The darkness is something shared between us, as real as our blood and just as elemental.
Guernica has an essay by novelist Ayana Mathis about owning one’s writing ambitions, despite never really having felt entitled to them. In this excerpt from Double Bind: Women on Ambition, an anthology edited by Robin Romm, Mathis’s opens with an experience beyond her wildest dreams: A phone call from Oprah Winfrey, who tells Mathis her debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, is a pick for Oprah’s Book Club. From there Mathis delves into the things that had held her back from reaching for great achievement, and sometimes still do: Her mother and grandparents stressing the importance of being reserved and never seeming hungry. The messages she received as a young black girl about not being deserving were often the opposite of what was promised to the much more privileged “lean-in crowd.”
Now we have arrived at the heart of the matter: the legitimization of desires. In order to write the novel, I’d had to first acknowledge that I wanted to write it, that I could and would write it. Why had it taken nearly forty years for me to understand that I had the right to my ambitions? This is not a question for the lean-in crowd. That conception, of leaning in, useful though it may be to some, is the province of the entitled classes. Women who come to the big boy’s table with education and privilege; perhaps just not quite enough to make more money, to have more power, to be more successful. This is an inadequate model that implies that the old hierarchies, the old systems of inclusion and exclusion, the old distribution of power and wealth are perfectly acceptable, it’s just that the ladies should be sitting at the big table too. I and mine are not lean-in women. Mine is a long and illustrious heritage of elegant survivalists and creative realists. We made our way without a road map, or even a road, as is the case for those of us who were, by virtue of race and class and gender, barred from the paths to success. We have dreams aplenty, some realized and some not, but the manifestation of our ambitions is not a given. It isn’t even a given that we will recognize our right to have them.
Sixto testified that he had lived in the US since 1986. He owned a home and paid a mortgage of $812 a month. He owned a 2003 Chevy and a 2008 Dodge super-duty truck. He had a 401(k) plan worth about eight thousand dollars. He had about six hundred dollars in savings. He paid child support. He had studied English for eight months at a community college.
When asked by the court if he could find work in Mexico, Sixto testified that the roofing systems he installed and the building materials he used would not be available there. He did not think he could support his family. Sixto argued that the court should not underestimate the importance of a father to the lives of his children.
The court found that Sixto and his daughters provided credible testimony. It did not, however, conclude that his children would suffer “unconscionable” hardship should he be deported. The court denied Sixto’s application.
In March 2014, the Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed the court’s decision and gave Sixto sixty days to voluntarily leave the US.
Carmen Maria Machado’s stunning essay in Guernica on the power of women who take up space is an important read for people of any size. Midway through the piece, she describes what happens to self-perception when you live in a world where there’s little representation of your physical self, and what representation there is is mocking or shaming.
Every day, I look for myself in other women’s bodies. This is what happens when you never see yourself in television shows or catalogues or movies—you get hungry. In passersby, I seek out a faithful replica of my own full chest: my plastic-bag stomach pooched over jeans, my milk-carton hips, and my face with its peach-pit cheekbones set in coffee grounds. In this way, I see myself in pieces, mostly, and have to assemble my body in my mind.
It isn’t like my mother and the woman buying the peppers; I’m not disgusted or afraid. I just want to know what I look like to other people. And every so often, I get to see all of those pieces together, and it feels like the reverberations after an orgasm—a low, deep satisfaction.
The beautiful fat woman is across from me on the subway platform, chewing on her nail. She’s trying on really nice shoes in the same store where I am trying on really nice shoes. She’s catching her reflection in a window in the hatched streets of our shared city, and I can’t stop looking at her. Does she resemble me, or do I just hope that because she’s so beautiful? Does that make me vain, or stupid? Why does seeing a woman who might actually look like me make me want to sit down on the pavement and cry?
Advances in assisted reproductive technology (ART) mean that uterus transplants may one day be an option for cis women. Belle Boggs writes in Guernica, exploring what this possibility — no matter how remote or unaccessible — means for trans women who want to be mothers.
For some trans women, like Blessing, this technology—however nascent—is tantalizing, a medical innovation they believe could one day help them achieve their own dreams of pregnancy. Kimball Sargent, a North Carolina-based therapist who specializes in gender identity, says this is a common interest among her trans patients. Many of her trans women patients feel as Blessing does—they long not only for children but also the bodily experience of pregnancy. “If you have a female brain, and estrogen, a female hormone, that probably influences your desire for pregnancy,” Sargent says. “Some of my clients have been surprised by how powerful the feeling of loss was, when they realized they can’t carry a baby. That’s exactly the feeling infertile women go through.”
She notes that many of her patients experience jealousy when their partners become pregnant, as well as deep frustration with the limits of their transition. “Some think, ‘I’m not a real woman because I can’t carry a pregnancy,’” Sargent says. She remembers seeing a gender-variant four-year-old, genetically male, pretend to give birth to a doll. “She put the doll under her shirt and said, ‘Look, I’m pregnant. I have a baby in my belly.’ She took the baby out, wiped it, and rocked it back and forth. It’s very instinctive.”
Do you remember me? you type. I have some questions. I would be grateful if you might be willing to answer them.
Why did you hurt me? is your question, the only one, but you do not write this.
Of course I remember you! he replies, almost immediately. I will give it my best to answer any questions you have. I hope you are doing good.
You ask if he might be willing to share his memory of that day at the mall. Your point of view would be helpful for my own closure, you say, no matter what that may be. You ask if he has ever thought of it again, if the experience ever held any weight for him. You tell him there are no right answers, because you believe this is true.
Gil responds from a different email address. His personal one.
Let me really think about it, he says, so I can give you my best recollection.
I want to help you, he says, in any way that I can.