Tag Archives: The New Yorker

Putting Together the Pieces of Her Grandmother’s Mysterious Death

When she was 12 years old, Kate Daloz learned that her grandmother had died not from a household accident, as she had been told by her mother, but from a “criminal abortion,” which is how it was described on her death certificate. Now in her thirties, Daloz wanted to unravel the family secret that had left her mother without her mother. It was a story that could only be told after she found an essential archive of material—and it was also a story that could be told when her mother was ready for her to tell it.

“My Grandmother’s Desperate Choice” was published on the New Yorker‘s website on Mother’s Day, and for the next 48 hours it topped the magazine’s “Most Popular” list until it was unseated by breaking news about the president. I spoke with Kate about the response to the essay, and why it felt urgent to tell her grandmother’s story in the Trump era.

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In the beginning of the piece you describe the moment your mother finally revealed to you that your grandmother had died of a self-induced abortion. How did this family secret reveal itself over the years, and when did you know it was time to write about it?

That last question is the easiest to answer: November 8, 2016. Within a week or two of Donald Trump and Mike Pence gaining office—as soon as it became clear that access to safe, legal abortion was in serious jeopardy—I called my mom and asked her if it was time to go public with Win’s story. She said yes immediately.

As I was growing up, Win’s death wasn’t something we talked about often, though it was always somehow present. From the moment my mom first told me the story, it has always felt both personal and political. The facts of her death make the contours of the abortion debate so stark—if my grandmother had just been able to make an appointment at Planned Parenthood she would not have died the way she did, and her children would not have grown up without their mother. It’s really that simple. That’s why, after the election, my mom and I both felt strongly that Win’s story could be a way for others to understand the stakes as urgently as we do.

I realized that I knew almost nothing about Win except the circumstances of her death. Almost all the details that appear in the piece are things I learned only when I began researching—from the letters and documents my mother carefully collected as an adult, along with the others I found on my own.

Within my mom’s immediate family there was near-total silence on this subject. Decades after she died, any mention of Win was still incredibly fraught. My aunt put it really well: My grandfather’s refusal to talk about Win with their children turned her death into the only memorable event of her life. That kind of silence was a common response for someone of his generation, but it was a terrible disservice, both to his children and to Win herself.

What family material was available to you as you wrote the story?

I used letters, photographs, and conversations with older cousins and family friends. At a certain point in my research I realized the taboo that had kept everyone from sharing information with Win’s children might not be as strong for other branches of the family—and in fact I was right. My mother’s cousins knew details of the story I’d never heard, and I was able to fill in major gaps in my understanding.

A few years ago, when I was working on my book about communal life in 1970s Vermont, I noticed that as they age, people are often willing to share more intimate details about their lives and to admit to greater ambiguity and vulnerability than when they were younger. Shame, fear, and all the other things that stop us from feeling free to tell the whole truth can sometimes drop away over time. It’s one reason I think younger generations should always go back and keep asking and re-asking questions—even about subjects older generations might think of as firmly settled.

Was there a key piece of archival information that allowed you to finally tell your grandmother’s story?

Win’s mother, Nyesie, saved every single letter Win wrote from when she went to college until two weeks before she died at 31Her grandson, my mother’s cousin, transcribed and shared them with me. It was an incredible gift. Poring through those letters was one of the most amazing reading experiences I’ve ever had. Win went from a ghost, known only to me by the horrible way she died, and the hole she left in my mother’s life, to a full person. She was an amazing writer—funny, witty, observant—and her letters are so full of love and affection, first for her mother and later for her husband and children. When I finished reading them, I felt like I’d been hanging out with her for weeks.

The other extraordinary resource I had available were the near-daily letters written by Win’s friend and neighbor, Katrina, to her husband who was in London during the war. Katrina was the person my grandfather called when he came home and found Win dead; afterwards, she also arranged childcare and offered them a place to stay. She recorded all of this, including dialogue, in letters that her husband later brought home with him and which remain carefully preserved, 70 years later. It’s making me wonder if historians of the future will have access to our digital communications in the same way. For their sake, I hope so.

When did you let your mother read a draft of the piece? What were her thoughts?

I was always talking to my mother about the research—in a way it felt like a collaboration. By coincidence, she was visiting my home when I finished the first full draft. Instead of giving it to her to read, she asked me to read it aloud to her. It was intense, but by that point we were both really ready for the story to be in the world. I keep telling her she’s brave but it doesn’t feel that way to her.

You have to remember that the worst parts of this story—that her mother died, horribly and unnecessarily—was, for most of her life, the only thing she knew. The details that the piece uncovered were the commonplace details of a life lost—that Win was a wonderful writer, that her parents had been madly in love, that her mother had written about her as a baby with total joy and affection.

What has the response been to the piece, both from your family and from strangers?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive to a degree I would never have dared expect. For my family, I think they felt a lot like I did. There was a sense of relief at finally speaking openly about a long-held secret and joy at gaining a fuller picture of this woman we’ve all wondered about for so long.

What surprised me is how many people outside the family have also expressed a kind of gratitude for this story being told—in particular, women my mother’s age who still remember illegal abortions.

What do you understand about your grandmother after writing this piece? What do you think you’ll never understand?

I feel like I finally have a sense of her as a real person. I’m older now than she was when she died, which is an interesting perspective; having two children myself also helps me empathize with some of the pressures she might have felt when she found herself pregnant again and unequipped to raise three small children during wartime.

But I have to keep reminding myself that getting to know someone through letters is not the same thing as really getting to know her. Of course I wonder how my mom’s life would have been different if she hadn’t lost her mother so young. I also would love to know how Win would have changed over the course of her life. She seemed to enjoy some parts of being a housewife, and was impatient with others. How would she have responded to the 1950s? Would she have become a feminist in the ’70s? Would she have continued writing in any formal way?

I keep thinking about Win’s last hours. When she died, her children were asleep in the next room. The fact that she didn’t even arrange childcare for them as she attempted to self-abort to me says there’s no way she really comprehended the danger of what she was doing. I’m not sure anyone observing from the outside can truly understand what goes through another person’s mind when they make this kind of decision.

What I do feel like I understand, though, is how personal the choice to end a pregnancy is, and how urgent. I feel like this story has showed me a lot about the lengths to which a person can be driven by desperation.

A Reading List for Mother’s Day

There is no grand unified theory of motherhood. Within every paradigm–chosen families, queer families, nuclear families, adoptive and foster families, on and on– mothering may vary a million times over. In this Mother’s Day reading list, I’ve attempted a rough chronology, from pregnancy to mourning, concluding with information about the crucial, joyful National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day.

1. “Dear Daughter, Your Mom.” (Sarah Smarsh, The Morning News, June 2014)

This is an essay about your mom: her Hooters uniform, her Mensa card, her abstinence, and the potency of mother-love:

What would I want for my daughter?

The answer was always correct and its implementation reliably unpleasant. Human intimacy, so she suffered hugs until she became enthusiastic with affection. Honesty, so she said what she meant. Love, so she showed hers.

2. “First I Got Pregnant. Then I Decided to Kill the Mountain Lion.” (Kathleen Hale, Elle, February 2017)

In a haze of maternal-ish instincts, Kathleen Hale hikes obsessively in search of the puma of Griffith Park.

3. “The Price: The Queer Daughter of a Queer Mother.” (Melissa Moorer, Electric Lit, September 2016)

Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, and its film adaptation, Carol, are the rare queer stories with happy endings. Writer Melissa Moorer sees reflections of herself in the story’s cast of characters and analyzes how representation affects the possibilities we see and don’t see for ourselves and our parents.

4. “Mama.” (Jasmine Sanders, Catapult, March 2016)

Is Mama a title to be earned or a biological fact? If it is the latter, does the exaltation, the importance of blood require me to love my mother unquestioningly and unconditionally? Or, if there are conditions, who determines them?

My grandmother, my adoptive mom, raised me. She is the salt and marrow of who I am, and when I hear the word Mama, the hollow, red ache in my chest belongs to her. My mother, between her six children, would have spent almost five years of her life pregnant and swollen. Half a dozen times, she made room in her lovely body to house a person only to have it ripped apart when they left. She split open at the seam and I slid into the world, ribbons of her blood curled under my tongue. I am left wondering, now: Does that mean anything? Should it?

5. “The Perils of Writing About Your Own Family: The Rumpus Interview with George Hodgman.” (Danielle Trussoni, The Rumpus, May 2015)

It’s one thing to cloak your familial angst in the guise of fiction or wait for your relatives to die in order to air your grievances. George Hodgman did neither. Instead, he wrote the New York Times bestselling memoir Bettyville. It’s about his decision to leave New York City and its freedoms for small-town Paris, Missouri, to care for his 90-year-old mother, Betty. Hodgman talks craft, secrecy, and identity in this hilarious and honest interview.

6. “The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life.” (Christopher Frizzelle, Literary Hub, May 2015)

I watched Sally Potter’s Orlando for the first time last week, so I’m giving myself over to the throes of a Virginia Woolf obsession. It’s a long time coming–I’m a queer former English Lit major, for God’s sake. Anyway, Christopher Frizzelle has written a delightful piece of literary criticism, delving into To The Lighthouse’s Big Reveal and the textual variations spearheaded by Woolf herself.

7. “The Unmothered.” (Ruth Margalit, The New Yorker, May 2014)

Mother’s Day after mother-loss:

It’s true that the pain wears off, slightly, around the edge, like a knife in need of whetting. But here’s what they’re missing: It gets harder to explain to myself why I haven’t seen her. A month can make sense. (I took a trip; she was busy with work.) Even six months is excusable. (I moved; she’s on sabbatical.) But how to make sense of more than three years worth of distance?

8.  This Mother’s Day, Southerners on New Ground (S.O.N.G.) and other organizations are coordinating National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day.

It’s an initiative to free moms who can’t afford bail in time for this Mother’s Day:

The idea for Mama’s Bail Out Day is about “naming the massive impact cash bail is having on families and on black mamas,” says Mary Hooks, the Atlanta-based co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG). The idea came to her out of the haze of the election last November, she says, a way to enact “abolition in the now.”

It is also a campaign that’s deliberately expansive in its definition of motherhood, “queer and trans, old and young,” Hooks says, “all the many ways in which we are mothered, and have chosen family. We want to honor black mothers who have held us down in a myriad of ways, whether that’s SONG elders or the first lesbian you meet at the bar when you come out, who teach us things, mothered us along the way and helped raise us.”

You can read the rest of Melissa Gira Grant’s coverage of the Mama’s Bail Out at Pacific StandardWUNC interviewed mother-daughter activists Courtney and Serena Sebring about their work with S.O.N.G. Dani McClain covered the Bail Out at The Nation.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week we’re sharing stories by Evan Osnos, Ashley C. Ford, Michael Grabell, Chris Heath, and Becca Andrews.

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#Vanlife: Selling Their Staged World, One Social Media Post at A Time

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.

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Adventures in Solitude: A Reading List

In my adolescence, summer was a time of self-improvement. I planned my reinvention meticulously. Come the fresh school year, I’d breeze through the doors of my high school with perfect hair, new clothes, and a laser focus. Of course, I had a limited budget, hair that refused to straighten completely, and a tendency to get discouraged or distracted by the slightest obstacle. To be honest, the fun wasn’t in the result. It was the daydreaming, the dog-earing pages of Seventeen and the endless bookmarking of WikiHow articles in Internet Explorer that made everything seem possible.

This summer is my twenty-seventh. I’m looking forward to self-reflection, but I won’t be switching shampoos or going on a shopping spree. Instead, I’m going to live alone for the first time.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re featuring stories from Richard Beck, Rebecca Mead, Sarah Barker, Dylan Matthews, and Sarah Scoles.

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Curiosity, Unfettered: Margaret Atwood as the Prophet of Dystopia

At The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead profiles Margaret Atwood, Canada’s prolific queen of literature. Mead and Atwood cover the resonance of The Handmaid’s Tale in Donald Trump’s America, Atwood’s approach to feminism, and the purpose of fiction today. Beloved for her incisive mind along with her works, Atwood uses unlimited curiosity as her approach to a life well-lived—whether that’s tenting while birding in Panama, engaging with her 1.5 million Twitter followers, or writing as a septuagenarian. “I don’t think she judges anything in advance as being beneath her, or beyond her, or outside her realm of interest,” says her friend and collaborator, Naomi Alderman.

Atwood has long been Canada’s most famous writer, and current events have polished the oracular sheen of her reputation. With the election of an American President whose campaign trafficked openly in the deprecation of women—and who, on his first working day in office, signed an executive order withdrawing federal funds from overseas women’s-health organizations that offer abortion services—the novel that Atwood dedicated to Mary Webster has reappeared on best-seller lists. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is also about to be serialized on television, in an adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss, that will stream on Hulu. The timing could not be more fortuitous, though many people may wish that it were less so. In a photograph taken the day after the Inauguration, at the Women’s March on Washington, a protester held a sign bearing a slogan that spoke to the moment: “MAKE MARGARET ATWOOD FICTION AGAIN.”

Given that her works are a mainstay of women’s-studies curricula, and that she is clearly committed to women’s rights, Atwood’s resistance to a straightforward association with feminism can come as a surprise. But this wariness reflects her bent toward precision, and a scientific sensibility that was ingrained from childhood: Atwood wants the terms defined before she will state her position. Her feminism assumes women’s rights to be human rights, and is born of having been raised with a presumption of absolute equality between the sexes. “My problem was not that people wanted me to wear frilly pink dresses—it was that I wanted to wear frilly pink dresses, and my mother, being as she was, didn’t see any reason for that,” she said. Atwood’s early years in the forest endowed her with a sense of self-determination, and with a critical distance on codes of femininity—an ability to see those codes as cultural practices worthy of investigation, not as necessary conditions to be accepted unthinkingly. This capacity for quizzical scrutiny underlies much of her fiction: not accepting the world as it is permits Atwood to imagine the world as it might be.

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Who’s Been Seeding the Alt-Right? Follow the Money to Robert Mercer

stacks of united states $10 bills

Jane Mayer profiles hedge fund manager, alt-right supporter, and political funder Robert Mercer in the New Yorker. He’s the man who brought us Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, and eventually, Donald Trump, and his worldview may sound particularly familiar to anyone who’s been reading up on Bannon.

Magerman told the Wall Street Journal that Mercer’s political opinions “show contempt for the social safety net that he doesn’t need, but many Americans do.” He also said that Mercer wants the U.S. government to be “shrunk down to the size of a pinhead.” Several former colleagues of Mercer’s said that his views are akin to Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Magerman told me, “Bob believes that human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make. A cat has value, he’s said, because it provides pleasure to humans. But if someone is on welfare they have negative value. If he earns a thousand times more than a schoolteacher, then he’s a thousand times more valuable.” Magerman added, “He thinks society is upside down—that government helps the weak people get strong, and makes the strong people weak by taking their money away, through taxes.” He said that this mind-set was typical of “instant billionaires” in finance, who “have no stake in society,” unlike the industrialists of the past, who “built real things.”

Another former high-level Renaissance employee said, “Bob thinks the less government the better. He’s happy if people don’t trust the government. And if the President’s a bozo? He’s fine with that. He wants it to all fall down.”

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Why We Still Can’t Quit F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s been almost a century since a 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald penned “The I.O.U.,” a short story that pokes fun at the publishing industry’s obsession with sensation over substance. But until now, you couldn’t read it; it was among Fitzgerald’s still-unpublished papers. Last week, the long-lost story appeared in The New Yorker, another chapter in what the magazine calls its “imperfect romance” with the author. In 1925, Fitzgerald was “was a little too famous to appear often in its upstart pages,” though they were able to snag two poems and three “humorous short stories” before he died in 1940. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories by Sarah Menkedick, Adam Davidson, Ross Andersen, Victor Luckerson, and Tara Murtha.

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