This week, we’re sharing stories from Ronan Farrow, Diana Nyad, Rachel Monroe, Ross Andersen, and Teresa Mathew.
In an essay at The Believer, Rachel Monroe lets us tag along as she hangs out with the Manson Bloggers — yes, there are people who blog about Charles Manson — as they gossip about Manson-adjacent people and look for relics. There’s not much new going on with Manson and his followers, most have either died or are still in jail, so the bloggers look for updates on anyone who had any association with the Family.
These photographs would look banal to the uninitiated: a grandmotherly type on a bench, clutching a water bottle; a short woman standing on the beach, flanked by three young men—her sons? These people are infamous not because they’ve killed anyone—they haven’t—but because when they were fourteen or nineteen or twenty-three, they had the bad luck or bad taste to befriend some people who did.
In the intervening four decades, some of these ex–Manson Family members changed their names or became born-again—whatever it took to distance themselves from their turbulent, murder-adjacent youths. Sometimes these people write angry emails to the Manson Bloggers, asking for their photos to be taken down. It’s easy to imagine them looking back at their former selves, shaking their heads, and thinking, That person isn’t me anymore. But the Manson Family Blog is always there to remind them: yes, yes it is.
Monroe’s piece isn’t just about the Manson Family or those who still obsess about him; it’s about whether we ever truly escape ourselves. Do we carry pieces of our younger selves with us, even as we grow and change? Monroe thinks that maybe we do, and maybe that’s a little bit of a miracle — even when those pieces include teenage Manson fandom.
Rub a little lavender oil on your pulse points for sounder sleep, one magazine suggests, while another recommends using a frankincense-oil blend in your skincare routine. In The New Yorker, Rachel Monroe dives deep into the world of essential oils, examining how the product has risen to prominence in an age where wellness and holistic healthy-living practices have been embraced by consumers.
In the U.S., the majority of this oil is sold by two companies, Young Living and doTerra, which follow a multilevel-marketing model with independent distributors, many of whom are stay-at-home mothers looking for social connections and a way to earn an income. Both Young Living and doTerra have had problems with preventing their independent distributors from making unfounded claims when selling their oils:
The Food and Drug Administration is charged with preventing sellers of alternative-health products from making unfounded medical claims. Without ample independent testing, companies can’t assert that their products prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure disease. They get around this by relying on abstract words like “vitality” and “balance,” and by talking in vague terms about general body systems or mild issues that don’t rise to the level of disease. Young Living and doTerra have attorneys on staff to insure that product descriptions are within legal bounds.
It’s much harder to police the millions of independent distributors. In September, 2014, the F.D.A. sent a sternly worded letter to doTerra, scolding the company for distributors’ claims about oils and conditions including cancer, brain injury, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and A.D.H.D. The agency cited a tweet by a doTerra consultant using the handle Mrs. Skinny Medic that listed “oils that could help prevent your contracting the Ebola virus,” and a Pinterest post by Wellness Empress that recommended peppermint oil for asthma, autism, bacterial infections, and brain injury. (Young Living received a similar letter.)
How did a movement toward simple, nomadic life in Volkswagen vans become commercialized sponsor-fodder, in which “vanlifers” trade social media currency for subsidized van repairs and discounts? Is #vanlife really freedom, or just another way to sell your soul, one social media post at a time? Read Rachel Monroe’s story at The New Yorker.
Scroll through the images tagged #vanlife on Instagram and you’ll see plenty of photos that don’t have much to do with vehicles: starry skies, campfires, women in leggings doing yoga by the ocean. Like the best marketing terms, “vanlife” is both highly specific and expansive. It’s a one-word life-style signifier that has come to evoke a number of contemporary trends: a renewed interest in the American road trip, a culture of hippie-inflected outdoorsiness, and a life free from the tyranny of a nine-to-five office job.
Vanlifers have a tendency to call their journeys “projects,” and to describe them in the elevator-pitch terms that make sense to potential sponsors. While still in Central America, King and Smith came up with a name for their project: Where’s My Office Now, a reference to their goal of fusing travel and work. “We wanted to see if it was possible to combine this nomadic hippie life with a nine-to-five job,” Smith explained. After the couple returned from Central America but before they bought a van, King registered a Web site and set up social-media accounts. “The business part of me knew there was potential,” she said. Smith, who was still using a flip phone, was suspicious of his girlfriend’s preoccupation with social media, worrying that it would detract from the experience.
King and Smith were now professional vanlifers. They began working more product placement into their Instagram posts. Since then, their sponsorships—which King prefers to call “alliances”—have included Kettle Brand potato chips, Clif Bars, and Synergy Organic Clothing. Last summer, the tourism board of Saskatchewan paid the couple seven thousand dollars to drive around the grasslands of central Canada with other popular vanlifers, documenting their (subsidized) kayaking trips and horseback rides.