Tag Archives: profile

The Third Life of Richard Miles

Richard Miles at home in Duncanville, Texas, on Sep. 16, 2017. (Laura Buckman)

Shawn Shinneman | Longreads | November 2017 | 23 minutes (5,753 words)

Richard Miles has no preternatural pull toward stuff, but after he received his compensation from the state of Texas for a wrongful conviction, he did make one purchase of minor extravagance: a majestic-looking chess set, which he had installed at the entryway to his Duncanville, Texas, home. This is what greets his guests: a wooden board checkered in alternating shades of stain, fit with a hand-chiseled animal kingdom (a few bishop-giraffes now missing ears), sitting in a floodlit display case. The base of the display is solid wood, painted a soft white and about the size of an oven. Atop that, the board rests on a circular platform, about six inches tall and fitted with a small motor. In theory, it rotates. In actuality, the function remains turned off. When it’s engaged, the board spins too swiftly, and kings and their men veer off and collapse.

To Miles, the game of chess is the game of life: You have to be on the move while thinking ahead. A chess player should be simultaneously offensive and defensive, productive while defending what’s theirs. Miles developed a taste for the game in prison. “It was either checkers, chess, dominoes — or you’re talking about somebody,” he says.

More than a dozen years into Miles’ sentence, he learned the prosecution had been playing cards with a trick deck. He was freed in 2009. Three years later, when he was fully exonerated of the murder and aggravated assault for which he’d been put away, the state of Texas’ apology came in the form of a $1.2 million check. Now come monthly annuity payments totaling $71,000 a year. As of this writing, the state has paid Miles about $1.5 million.

Those numbers, however, tell a slanted tale. Like most prisoners who do substantial time, exonerees depart life behind bars for an intimidating new world. Things like completing menial tasks and finding and keeping a job — not to mention the prospects of building a  fulfilling career and life — prove difficult. But unlike most prisoners who do substantial time, exonerees often don’t have access to the various re-entry resources that await convicts. That can make the process seem a bit like receiving a good luck slap on the back and a check to take home.

People who have been wrongfully imprisoned experience a unique type of mental fallout. A few years ago, when a dozen Dallas exonerees agreed to check in with a psychiatrist, all 12, including Miles, were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Not one was found mentally healthy, and not one has since received serious treatment. Various family members have expressed differing levels of concern about Miles’ state of mind, and his mother’s assessment has been painfully blunt: “A part of him is still dead,” she says one afternoon, “still incarcerated.”

For some of Miles’ exoneree brethren in other states, financial reparations and even the detached sense of regret that accompanies them remain a pipe dream. Texas — Red Texas — has one of the most progressive compensation laws in America, and yet it’s difficult to tell whether the money is spurring mental or emotional recovery. Even a king can topple from a spinning foundation. At different moments, in different lights, the compensation granted to Miles can seem either extraordinarily beneficial or, given the enduring impact of wrongful incarceration, remarkably futile. Read more…

Eileen Myles: There’s No Escaping History

Eileen Myles attends the annual Edinburgh International Book Festival at Charlotte Square Gardens on August 23, 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images)

At Rolling Stone, Helena Fitzgerald profiles punk poet and 1992 write-in Presidential candidate Eileen Myles. Myles’s new memoir, Afterglow, was released this week, and their first autobiographical novel, Cool for You, was recently re-released and included an introduction by I Love Dick author Chris Kraus.

Myles (who prefers gender-neutral pronouns) has been publishing since the 70s, but has lately experienced a new wave of popularity, gathering new young fans in part because of their Twitter presence and also the character inspired by them on Transparent.

Among other things, Myles talks with Fitzgerald about the importance right now of poetry and art as forms of resistance under the current U.S. presidential administration. Interestingly, though, Myles points out that what’s been happening really isn’t all that new.

In this current moment, the feeling that we’re facing an avalanche, that we might be destroyed, is hard to ignore. When prompted to speak about art in the current political moment, Myles says: “You know, there is nothing new about what’s happening now.” Myles goes on to call Trump’s assembled henchmen “a cabinet of cockblockers: an educational secretary who’s against education, an attorney general who’s a Klansman.” But they also stress that there’s precedent throughout our history for all of these, that none of these people came out of nowhere. As much of Myles’ work — such as the seminal “An American Poem” — has grappled with in the past, this is the America in which we have always lived. The James Comey testimony took place a few days before our meeting, and Myles was passionately skeptical of the liberal praise that has been showered on the former director of the FBI. “They’re like, ‘Oh, Comey’s the good guy!’ Are you kidding me? He’s talking about a Shining City on the Hill; he’s talking about the horror, and the outrage, of people interfering with our election — like that isn’t what we do in the Middle East and in South America. I’ve never been so driven to make the argument about the nature of our history.”

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Under Hubbard’s Eye

At Elle, author Emily Gould has a profile of “The Handmaid’s Tale” star and executive producer Elisabeth Moss. While Gould manages to draw Moss out a bit on topics the actress is famous for being tight-lipped about — like the feminist messages of Margaret Atwood’s book and its television adaptation — she finds it difficult to get Moss to address what appear to be parallels between the fictional theocracy of Gilead and the Church of Scientology, which she was raised in.

There’s just one last thing left to pester her about, and I’ve saved it for last because it’s the most likely to piss her off. She’s said repeatedly on this tour and in profiles circa the last few seasons of Mad Men that she’s said all she’s ever going to say about being raised in Scientology. But… well, in the words of a recent Jezebel headline, “Isn’t It Relevant That the Star of The Handmaid’s Tale Belongs to a Secretive, Allegedly Oppressive Religion?”

Unsurprisingly, I get nowhere. To her, the show isn’t about the danger of religious extremism, it’s about the importance of religious freedom. “Whatever anyone believes, I don’t believe that Church and State should get too close. And some of the things that have happened recently have really frightened me. For me, what the book and the show are so much about is that separation. It’s a theocracy! No government should be run by any religion!” I press on, saying that after watching the show I’ve been thinking about the Hasidic Jewish women who live in my neighborhood in a different light. Their uniforms and constant pregnancy can’t help but remind me of the Handmaids. “Except there’s a huge difference,” Moss says, “that they would be murdered in Gilead.” (On the Wall that Offred and her fellow Handmaids pass on their walks, bodies are often marked with religious symbols; practicing a faith other than Gilead’s ultra-Christianity is a capital offense.) For what it’s worth, Margaret Atwood also considers Moss’s religion to be a nonissue; to her, the alleged abuses that take place within Scientology are par for the course for any religion: “They all have their pluses and their minuses,” she tells me, after listing a few of the lesser-known gory horrors found in the Old Testament.

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What Alex Jones and Amanda Chantal Bacon Have in Common

(Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Girlboss)

I imagine it’s hard to interview Amanda Chantal Bacon. When Molly Young arrives at her house, the Moon Juice guru doesn’t answer her knock, but instead, politely, calmly, asks Young to remove her shoes. What follows is a feature for the New York Times Magazine that shows how easy it is to make fun of wellness and and how hard it is get to the heart of it. Read more…

‘I Thought, Well, We’ll See What Happens!’: Iconic Editor Nan Talese on Her Marriage and Career

For Vanity Fair, Evgenia Peretz profiles 83-year-old iconic editor Nan Talese, who rose through the ranks of one publishing house after another before being given her own eponymous imprint at Doubleday in 1990. Aside from being one of the most powerful women in publishing, Talese is also known as one-half of one of the most interesting and curious marriages in recent history. One of the underpinnings of her union with famously non-monogamous New Journalism pioneer Gay Talese is a pledge she made to him early on that she wouldn’t ever impinge on his “freedom”—an agreement that allowed him to have many affairs, some supposedly in the name of “research” for his book about the loosening of sexual mores in the free love era. The profile comes just as Gay plans to write a book about their marriage.

In 1981, when Thy Neighbor’s Wife came out, something discomfiting was starting to happen to Nan and Gay: their power in the world began to shift. Gay’s book was critically panned, not for the substance, which reviewers barely paid attention to, but for the salaciousness of its author. “What was alleged was I was doing frivolous research. Getting my jollies, hanging around massage parlors, getting laid, getting jerked off, all that,” says Gay, whose reputation dimmed. An active member of the writers group PEN, he’d been on the verge of becoming its next president. But in light of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, the women of PEN revolted, and he resigned. Nan’s career, meanwhile, was skyrocketing. In 1981 she was named the executive editor of Houghton Mifflin, the old-line publishing company based in Boston; she’d commute there while still running the New York office. Gay believes her rise was at least partially tied to his downfall. “She started getting a lot of publicity about Thy Neighbor’s Wife . . . . What about this guy’s wife? This guy’s wife is Nan Talese. She’s this terrific, revered editor, and she’s married to this disgusting guy.”

But, for Nan, who still saw herself first as Gay’s champion, the power shift hardly felt like comeuppance or victory. His bad reviews, and his fallen reputation, were as devastating to Nan as they were to Gay. She defended him publicly, as she does today. “I think most of the press told more about the reporters than it did about Gay,” she says. And so, for the next few years, life continued as it had before, in keeping with the pledge—only, now the pressure had intensified for Gay, as he was looking to recapture literary greatness. There continued his long periods of absence, notably in Rome, where he went to research Unto the Sons, about his ancestors in Italy. There continued romantic entanglements on the road. “I don’t want to degrade people by representing the whole all-star cast of women. I could, but I won’t,” says Gay.

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Rachel Cusk on Eschewing her ‘Cuskness’ For Her Alter-Ego in ‘Outline’ and ‘Transit’

Heidi Julavits profiles memoirist and novelist Rachel Cusk for New York Magazine’s The Cut. Julavits focuses on various aspects of Cusk’s writing, including the ways in which her approach to “autofiction” is somewhat different from that of some compatriots in the land of blurred lines between memoir and fiction. Those include Sheila Heti, Ben Learner and Karl Ove Knausgaard, all of whom tend to infuse their protagonists with recognizable strains of their personalities.

Both Outline, which came out in the U.S. in 2015, and Transit are narrated by a woman named Faye, who, like Cusk, is divorced, has two children, and is a writer. Faye describes, or really more accurately transcribes, her encounters with other people. In Outline, she travels to Greece and meets a man on a plane; she goes to a restaurant with a friend; she teaches a writing workshop. She is less an interlocutor than a recording device or a processing machine. She receives. Faye, in literary terms, is a cipher. She is a zero, a naught, a nothing.

In Transit, Faye becomes slightly more “visible” (and audible) via her involvement in a home-renovation project; she converses with contractors and pacifies angry neighbors. Nothing happens, really, but these books are nonetheless gripping self-portraits of multiple humans. They are like eavesdropping on strangers, or watching a secret video feed of strangers, if those strangers were also casual philosophers. The conversations vacillate between the mundane and the lofty, as if the characters — enabled by Faye’s ­presence — are always grasping at bigger life questions. Outline and Transit both are welcome breaches of privacy that emphasize the intensely shapeless loneliness of people. They are books about middles.

Faye, while she shares biographical data with Cusk and appears to present and process events from Cusk’s actual life, is quite different from the characters devised by other autofiction writers of late — Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgaard — with whom Cusk is frequently grouped. The books of these writers, though distinct from one another, more centrally feature an authorial self; about Heti, for example, Cusk says, “She uses herself, her Sheila-ness, much, much, much more than I do.” Cusk does not, in these novels, use her Cuskness. And yet she’s filtering through a narrator that does not by accident resemble her.

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Enormous Changes… Arrived at Slowly, Over a the Course of a Politically Engaged Lifetime

Author Grace Paley sits beside a pile of books in her home in Thetford, Vt., April 9, 2003. Paley, a critically acclaimed writer of poetry and short fiction, was named Vermont's state poet in March. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

For the April edition of The Atlantic, Nicholas Dames profiles late author and activist Grace Paley. In particular, Dames focuses on Paley’s persistence in the face of political obstacles, as an activist, and as a writer — often through a stalwart recurring character, Faith Darwin Asbury.

Through Faith, Paley discovered her great subject: the evolving political engagement of the generation of women who came of age in the shadow of World War II. The stories Paley wrote after The Little Disturbances are ever more plotless. They are snapshots of female community—in particular, the group of Greenwich Village women early to the postwar quest for feminist consciousness—or, in Faith’s own words, “a report on … the condition of our lifelong attachments.” Paley borrowed the method of linking characters across a story series from Isaac Babel, one of her lodestars. But unlike Babel’s Odessa stories—–or, for that matter, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—–Paley’s stories about Faith extend the timescale well into adulthood. Faith and her friends age, shedding lovers and children and parents, and finding new objects for their political passions. It turns out that rather than voice, Paley’s true subject was time.

Put another way, her theme was how the ethical aspirations of political life extend over time: how they survive inevitable disappointment; how they steel themselves into endurance.

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‘I Still Live in a Small Town That I Hate’: Roxane Gay’s Perspective on Her Success

This week, a number of people heard of Roxane Gay for the first time when Simon & Schuster canceled its plans to publish controversial alt-right author Milo Yiannopoulos’s book. (In the weeks prior, Gay had withdrawn her forthcoming book, How to be Heard, from the publisher because they were giving the former Breitbart editor a platform.) For most writers, there’s no such thing as a bad way to be discovered by new readers. But it can be annoying when those who’ve just become aware of your work perceive you as an overnight success, especially when your career has been building for years. In a profile for Brooklyn Magazine, Molly McArdle asks Gay for her perspective on her success.

“A lot of people think it’s been overnight,” Gay says of her success. “In many ways my life hasn’t changed. My friends are still my friends. I still live in a small town that I hate.” But some things have started to shift. “It’s easier to pay my bills, certainly,” she says. “There’s a lot more scrutiny and attention.” There’s also a new apartment in Los Angeles, where she lives when she’s not in Indiana teaching at Purdue. (“It’s a workable compromise.”) There’s new creative projects in new genres: comic books, screenplays, occasional radio. Gay is the first black woman to write for Marvel, and her series, World of Wakanda, spins off from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther, tackling romantic love between queer black women in a way that is both literally groundbreaking and utterly natural. Still, Gay sees herself first as a writer of short fiction. “I’m relatively new to nonfiction,” she says. (I have to respectfully disagree with the bestselling essayist, a phrase so rare it’s practically an oxymoron, on this point.) With only one novel, she adds, “I’m a beginning novelist.” But Gay also sees growth, accomplishment: “My writing is more confident,” she says. “I’ve always taken myself seriously as a writer. Now other people take me seriously.”

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The Business of Being “Jane Roe”

Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) and her lawyer Gloria Allred on the steps of the Supreme Court, 1989. Photo by Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, on February 18th, Norma McCorvey — aka “Jane Roe,” the plaintiff in the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court case that legalized abortion — passed away. Four years ago, in February, 2013, Vanity Fair published this fascinating profile of of her. McCorvey, who wasn’t able to actually have the abortion she fought for because of the timing of her pregnancy and the drawn-out case, famously had a change of heart many years later, becoming a pro-life activist. Through most of her adult life, regardless of whether she was fighting for or against women’s reproductive rights, McCorvey managed to monetize her position, not only publishing two memoirs, but forming one sketchy foundation after another, on either side of the argument. Author Joshua Prager had to write around the subject — whom he and all those interviewed portray as mercenary — because she refused to be interviewed without payment of her $1,000 speaking fee.

Young Norma McCorvey had not wanted to further a cause; she had simply wanted an abortion and could not get one in Texas. Even after she became a plaintiff, plucked from obscurity through little agency of her own, she never did get that abortion. McCorvey thus became, ironically, a symbol of the right to a procedure that she herself never underwent. And in the decades since the Roe decision divided the country, the issue of abortion divided McCorvey too. She started out staunchly pro-choice. She is now just as staunchly pro-life.

But in truth McCorvey has long been less pro-choice or pro-life than pro-Norma. And she has played Jane Roe every which way, venturing far from the original script to wring a living from the issue that has come to define her existence.

“I almost forgot i have a one thousand dollar fee,” she texted in August in response to a request for an interview. Told she could not be paid, she texted back: “Then we wont speak.”

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Behind the Scenes of Longform Storytelling: A Reading List

That’s me in the photo. June, 2011: my first time interning at a daily newspaper and the first time I read Joan Didion. She blew my mind, of course. Eventually, I started sharing my favorite longform pieces on my personal blog, which led to a variety of opportunities, including my gig here at Longreads. If you’re new around these parts, like I was just a few years ago, the stories below will give you an idea of the strength and skill that goes into creating engaging literary journalism.

Each of the four stories below has been featured on Longreads before, minus the annotations, of course. The interviews with the authors are just as fascinating as the essays they’ve written. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Adrian Chen, and Brian Kevin discuss their research methods, their writing style, and how they choose which details to include and which to let go. There are literally dozens of other Annotation Tuesday stories I could’ve featured — it was hard to pick just three! — so be sure to take a look for yourself on the Nieman Storyboard website.

1. “Annotation Tuesday! Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and ‘If He Hollers Let Him Go.’” (Elon Green, October 2014)

Part of successful longform storytelling is a seamless blend of the macro and micro. In recounting her journey to Yellow Springs, Ohio — where comic Dave Chappelle lives, where he grew up, in part — Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah does just that. She never interviews Chappelle himself; she interviews several of the people surrounding him, including his mother, scholar Yvonne Seon, and Neal Brannan, co-creator of “Chappelle’s Show.” Ghansah and Elon Green share a fascinating back-and-forth about the impossibility of objectivity, the n-word, and comedy as a weapon.

2. “Annotation Tuesday! Adrian Chen and ‘Unfollow.’” (Katia Savchuk, January 2017)

Tech reporter Adrian Chen — formerly of Gawker, now The New Yorker — wrote a marvelous profile of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was once a devoted member of the Westboro Baptist Church. When Phelps-Roper took over the church’s social media accounts, her life changed. In between hate speech and emojis, she engaged with people of different backgrounds and worldviews. Chen explains that it took a long time for Megan to feel comfortable opening up to him and sharing her story publicly. But when she did open up to Chen, she gave him access to her emails, her journals, even her private messages on the Words With Friends app. They spoke for hours, and the result is a nuanced portrait that demonstrates the nonlinear nature of healing.

3. “Michael Kruse and the Woman Who Disappeared in Her Own Home.” (Paige Williams, August 2012)

I remember reading this piece when it was first published in 2011. I was interning at a daily newspaper and learning about feature writing and reporting for the first time. Michael Kruse and the Tampa Bay Times (previously the St. Petersburg Times) came highly recommended to me, and this story, “A Brevard Woman Disappeared, but Never Left Home” — is a contemporary classic. Journalist and professor Paige Williams dissects the story on an educational basis; Kruse answers her questions and adds commentary.

4. “Annotation Tuesday! (Back to School Edition): Josh Roiland and His ‘Literary Journalism in America’ Syllabus.” (Josh Roiland, August 2015)

During my senior year of undergrad, I embarked on an independent study of longform journalism — reading hundreds of essays, interviewing Ben Montgomery, and analyzing what makes different stories tick. Ready to embark on an independent study of your own? There’s no better place to start than this syllabus — I wish it had been around when I was in school. Roiland, presently an assistant professor with the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine, goes into glorious detail about each of his reading selections.