What happened inside the Latitude Society? In September, we featured a Longreads Original by Rick Paulas, “‘We Value Experience,’” which told the story of artist/entrepreneur Jeff Hull and his group’s attempts to build a sustainable “secret society” in the Bay Area. Paulas has shared the following postscript on what happened after his story about the group went public.
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Five days after my article went up at Longreads (“’We Value Experience’: Can A Secret Society Become a Business?”, 9/24/15), visitors to The Latitude’s website were met with the following prompt:
My story, The Match Maker, was online at ESPN.com only a few hours on Aug. 25 when I heard from a California man who shrugged at the possibility that tennis champ and American hustler Bobby Riggs had thrown the famous September 1973 Battle of the Sexes match. The man’s name is Russell Boyd, and he claimed Bobby Riggs had talked openly and repeatedly with him, back in June 1973, about his intention to lose his upcoming match against Billie Jean King at the Houston Astrodome. “I didn’t realize at the time that it was such a serious matter of him playing Billie Jean King,” Boyd, 56, told me, “and that he was actually expected to make an effort to win.” Read more…
I often deal with interview subjects who tell variations of the truth. People don’t usually out-and-out lie, although that happens from time to time. But memory is a flimsy thing. Even a clear-eyed subject gets details wrong: The sequence of events is off, a sweater was blue and not green, that sort of thing. And then there are those people whose emotions or perspectives have put a filter on their recollections, skewing it this way or that.
The teenage twins Georgia and Patterson Inman, heirs to the Duke fortune, were like an exponential version of that latter category. Their memories had been so warped by trauma that they actually couldn’t separate fact from fiction. I’d never encountered anything like it: Two people with shared memories of events which, to them, felt authentic—and much of which did check out as true—but some of which was implausible, and a few which turned out to be false. It was as though their minds were designed less for record-keeping, and more for coping with their tremendous pain—flexible tools which were bending in all directions in an effort to make sense of their pasts.
When I realized the way the twins were interweaving fact and fiction, with no clue they were doing so, I panicked. Double-sourcing wasn’t going to be enough to report this story; I needed to rethink my reporting methods, as well as the way I approached the writing, relying heavily on documents and secondary sources, and opting to include bits of questionable material as evidence of the kids’ shaky states of mind. After the article was published, the twins were worried I’d portrayed them as “liars,” which couldn’t have been farther from my intention. I know they had told me nothing but the truth, as best they could.
I was completely unprepared for the response to “Jahar’s World,” which was published in mid-July as a Rolling Stone cover story. The piece tells the story of accused Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev, a hip-hop loving, hoodie-wearing, pot smoking 20-year-old from Cambridge, Mass., who is accused of committing the worst act of terrorism on US soil since 9/11. As a character, Jahar was hugely compelling: utterly likable, extremely “normal,” the kid who could have been your dorm mate, or your high school crush, or the stoner down the hall—which he was, to many people. He was also, apparently, capable of murder. I was fascinated by this dichotomy, the absolute normalcy and absolute monstrousness within a single human being, and spent several months exploring it. My editors also explored it in the choice of that issue’s cover image: an undoctored self-portrait of a gorgeous young man accused of committing an absolutely abhorrent crime. I think we all hoped the story would be read and talked about, which is what every magazine writer and editor wants.
What happened was this: Within minutes of my piece being published and posted online, Twitter exploded, followed by a deluge of hate mail sent to the magazine and to me, directly, by people who were furious we had given Tsarnaev that kind of attention. I was attacked for not caring about victims—even though I, myself, lived through the 9/11 attack on New York City, where I live and where a high school friend of mine died in one of those towers. I received hundreds of emails attacking not my journalism, but me, as a human being. On Twitter, one person said I deserved to be raped and killed because of this story, and someone else took it upon himself to hunt down and then post my cell phone number, which resulted in a few dozen scary texts and anonymous calls. I received death threats against myself, and even against my dog. One person wrote me several days in a row saying that he hoped that I, and my entire family, would be killed in a terrorist attack.
For the record, I believe that Rolling Stone did not, as we were accused, “glamorize” a terrorist. We did a very serious story about one, and by putting his face on the cover, we challenged our readers to look him in the face. This was not, as many believed, an air-brushed or otherwise touched up photograph. It was the raw selfie. The photo invited the reader to look at this kid, in all of his beauty, frankly, and when they did that, it made a lot of people extremely uncomfortable, and to be honest, I thought that was great. I thought our cover was fantastic and did exactly what great covers are supposed to do, which is to make people think, read, and discuss. But the outrage it caused was so over-the-top, it not only took me completely by surprise, but made me think very hard about what has happened to our country in the twelve years since 9/11.
Because of this story, Rolling Stone was actually banned—boycotted—by chain stores like Wal-Mart, across the country. They did this on “principle.” What principle? That “knowing our enemies” is somehow wrong? That one of the biggest stories of the year does not belong on a magazine cover simply because the subject, a so-called “bad guy,” is also handsome? Or is it that by covering him at all, giving his story some form of meaning, we were being un-American?
Since 2001, American journalism has been consumed with so-called “War on Terror” coverage, and yet, with a few notable exceptions, much of it hasn’t bothered to examine just who these supposed terrorists are. Why is that? Because we don’t really care? Or, because we might discover, as I did, that the terrorists are not what we expect? It really worries me that as a country we have not only “othered” the so-called terrorists, we’ve refused to grant them humanity. And I think what my story, and our cover, proved is that in some cases, these amorphous “bad guys” look and act, and in many cases are, just like the rest of us. That Jahar Tsanaraev was, by every single account, a very average boy who did a very terrible thing, is not something to reject or be afraid of. It’s something to learn from. That is why we write about the terrorists, it’s why these stories matter.
I did the reporting for ‘The Weeklies,’ about homeless families living in a suburban hotel outside of Denver, Colorado, a year ago. I lived with in the Ramada Inn alongside the weeklies during December 2012, and five of the families there shaped my story. Two of them are still living in hotels.
In May, the Ramada Inn was upgraded and converted into a Super 8 Motel. It became more expensive. Bonnie, Andy, and their son Drew, the main subjects of the story, moved into an Extended Stay closer to Drew’s school in Denver. Bonnie and Andy have been telling me since last spring that they’re doing renovation work on a rental property owned by a family friend, and that they will move in when it’s done. They don’t have a firm date, however.
After the story was published, I heard from a lot of people who said they saw school buses in their towns picking up school kids in hotel parking lots. Schools nationwide have reported a rise in student homelessness: some states have seen it double. The housing crash and the recession that followed had the odd effect of creating both vacant housing and a homelessness crisis, neither of which is likely to be solved soon.