This week, we’re sharing stories from C.J. Chivers, Sheelah Kolhatkar, Libby Copeland, Amanda Petrusich, and Bryan Menegus.
To find belonging, teen girls sometimes form obsessive friendships to fend off the isolation that puberty brings at the twilight of their childhood. In this exceptionally well-researched piece at VQR, Alex Mar recalls two real-life events in which teen-girl duos became murderous and why these obsessive friendships devolved into a pact to do evil.
What is occult is synonymous with what is hidden, orphic, veiled—but girls are familiar with that realm. We have the instinct. Girls create their own occult language; it may be one of the first signs of adolescence. This is a language of fantasy, of the desire for things we can’t yet have (we’re too young), of forces we can’t control (loneliness, an unrequited crush, the actions of our family). This invention of a private language, both visual and verbal, shared with only a chosen few, gives shape to our first allegiances; it grants entry into a universe with its own rationale—the warped rationale of fairy tales. Its rules do not bleed over into the realm of the mundane, of parents and teachers and adult consequences.
But in May 2014, the occult universe of two young girls did spill over into the real. And within days of her twelfth birthday, all of Morgan Geyser’s drawings and scribblings—evidence of the world she had built with her new best friend—were confiscated. More than three years later, they are counted among the state’s exhibits in a case of first-degree intentional homicide.
After some time on the swings, Anissa suggests they play hide-and-seek in the suburban woods at the park’s edge. There, just a few feet beyond the tree line, Morgan, on Anissa’s cue, stabs Bella in the chest.
Then she stabs her again, and again, and again—in her arms, in her leg, near her heart. By the time Morgan stops, she has stabbed her nineteen times.
Though they were both a very young, Midwestern twelve, they had been chosen for a dark and unique destiny which none of their junior-high classmates could possibly understand, drawn into the forest in the service of a force much greater and more mysterious than anything in their suburban-American lives. What drew them out there has a name: Slender Man, faceless and pale and impossibly tall. His symbol is the letter X.
In this essay about her brother at Virginia Quarterly Review, Sarah Smarsh writes about how rich drug companies buy plasma from the poor and working poor, literally feeding their wealth with one of the few renewable resources the poor have to sell — their blood.
Your brother has a hole on the inside of each arm that never quite closes. A blood tap, really, like an oil well for drilling. He is a tall, strong man in his early thirties—an ideal source for plasma.
A woman calls his name. She takes his temperature and blood pressure. He gets to skip the full-blown health screening since he’s been coming here twice a week, off and on, for almost ten years. She pricks his finger to make sure his blood is okay today.
When your brother finally graduated, the economy was in the tank. As a first-generation college student he had no connections in the professional world, and no one to tell him that communications and history degrees were bad bets to begin with. A good job never turned up. For years he has worked at call centers, leasing agencies, shipping companies. Those paychecks don’t cover basic living costs, though. Thus, his face has aged a decade going in and out of this place by necessity.
The materials around the place tout the life-saving service he’s providing others; the plasma stripped from his blood will be turned into pharmaceuticals. Very expensive pharmaceuticals, ones he could never afford were he diagnosed with hemophilia or an immune disorder. He doesn’t have health insurance and could use a trip to the doctor himself. The promotional pamphlets and websites call what he’s doing a donation, but it’s really a sale.
The buyers are corporations with names like BioLife, Biotest, Octapharma. Plasma brings thirty, fifty bucks a pop depending on how often you go and how much you weigh. Your brother is in the highest weight class, which means he gets twenty dollars for the first donation of the week, forty-five dollars for the second.
For two years I’ve been walking into the tall grass to take snapshots of this field at the top of the “crooked mile,” a winding hill that leads into the shallow valley of swamp and stream in which my house stands, just past the sign that reads pavement ends. I use my phone. I want the rough eye. The note. The diary. The record. The document. This time, this moment, unplanned.
This moment: stopped on the drive home from another trip to the hospital. One of many during the past two weeks, after two heart attacks, or maybe it was only one, rising and falling like a tide, across thirty hours. It began as night fell, as I wrote what I thought were the last words of a book I had begun two years before, following my father’s heart attack. Mine, like his, was “mild.” I’m told the pain can be instantly alarming. Not for me. I had been hitting snooze on this pain for months. Maybe years. Doing so was easy. It was only an ache, or sometimes a ripple, weak as chamomile, never sharper than nettles. That is, I did not know it was a heart attack. Then, after midnight, my chest began to fill as if with heavy water. My breath was cut into small and ragged pieces. I was being pressed, as if by a hard hand, back into the rocking chair in which I sat until dawn.
Waiting for the words to return. I’ve always had words, sentences that knitted themselves, paragraphs that fell into place. Always there was language, easy as air. I used to love a line by Catullus: “Calling all syllables!” They’d come. Now they don’t. I’m not sure I need them to. Even a snapshot of the dark-that-isn’t-dark-at-all might be more than I want to set down. Never before in my life has just being here—with the fox and the doe and the owl, with my pulse and my fears and the frozen air hot in my throat—felt so close to enough.
In the summer issue of VQR, Will Boast has a fascinating piece on kokpar, a traditional Kazakh sport in which in two teams of men on horseback “compete over a headless, freshly slaughtered goat, wrestling control back and forth in an attempt to score by flinging it into the opponent’s goal.” At the end of the game, the goat is dinner.
While many young Kazakhs would rather watch soccer than kokpar, the state is committed to promoting all things Kazakh after years of Soviet control that saw ethnic Kazakhs become a minority in their own country.
Despite these gestures toward a more global profile, Kazakhstan remains, for many, a huge blank on the map somewhere between Russia and China, essentially a hinterland. (During my visit, one young Kazakh educated in the US briskly summarized the typical Western conception of his country as, “Oil, dictator, Borat.”) In part to remedy its global anonymity, Kazakhstan is in the middle of a quixotic identity-building project, an attempt not only to define itself to the world but to reclaim and remake the past, and thus reckon with the realities of self-determination. After coming dangerously close to disappearing into history, ethnic Kazakhs are once again a majority, today making up about 65 percent of the nation’s population, with ethnic Russians at about 25 percent (the total population is just under 18 million, in a country larger than all of western Europe). A nationwide program of Kazakhification has gradually taken hold—replacing Russian with Kazakh as the language of business and politics, rewriting Soviet-era schoolbooks to include an honest account of Stalin’s brutal policies, and emphasizing the pre-tsarist history of the khanates.
The pre-Russian period has also been employed to provide the foundation of Kazakh cultural identity in the new century. The signifiers of a nomadic past are everywhere, often commodified and romanticized: placards in Almaty’s airport that showcase eagle hunting; documentaries on yurt living on state-run Kazakh TV; yurt-themed restaurants; and, of course, countless totems of the beloved horse—in snacks made of dried mare’s milk, in horse-themed techno on the radio, and in miniature riding crops given away as party favors, to name just a few examples.
The 2010 earthquake leveled Haitian cities, displacing 1.5 million people. Thousands have now relocated to an area north of Port-au-Prince, Canaan, which was declared to be public domain land in an effort to find more space for shelters. The communities of Canaan are organizing, engaging in urban planning, and building infrastructure. all without the imprimatur (or tax money) of being an officially-recognized city. Jacob Kushner reports from Haiti for the Virginia Quarterly Review.
After four years of waiting, Cherestal and other residents of Canaan 1 decided to build an electrical grid of their own. They collected money from neighbors to buy the materials, then organized a konbit to mix cement, water, and sand to form the concrete poles, which they then raised using a network of ropes. Once the poles were in place, the plan was to pay an off-duty state electrician 15,000 gourdes ($220) to connect people to the grid by siphoning power from a customer who lived down the hill. Every month, the customer would collect money from neighbors to pay his unusually high electric bill. The entire project was estimated to have cost 100,000 gourdes (about $1,500), with families chipping in around 4,000 gourdes (about $60) or donating such supplies as cement or rebar. By the spring of 2015, they’d raised nearly two dozen poles, but needed at least ten more to reach the power grid. Short of funds, the project stalled. “People are saving up,” Cherestal told me last May. “The future we don’t know. Only God knows.”
Seven years in, Canaan 1 still has no electricity. But just a stone’s throw east, in Canaan 5, the houses are powered between dusk and midnight with electricity diverted illegally from the public grid. This, too, was an improvised community’s electrification project, led by a man named Smith Merzeus, who, like Simeus, was someone people turned to with problems or grievances. People referred to Merzeus as “a man of responsibility” and “a big tree in our community.” One woman discretely referred to him as a bit of an opportunist. “He was a tough personality,” she told me. “He said whatever needed to be said, and then did what he wanted.” Merzeus had no qualms about stepping in whenever the government failed to act. As one man who worked with him on the electricity project said, “It was the state that should have done it. But it was us who sat together to make it happen. We broke the law because this was important to us.”
Lois Parshley’s wide-ranging, fascinating story on mapping the unmapped — from black holes, to the bottom of the sea, to the populations of the Congo and Haiti — looks at not just the science of map-making, but the morality.
“I like maps,” Gayton says. “But really what I care about is equitable distribution of health care. As long as 1 billion people don’t have it, sooner or later it’ll come bite people in rich countries.” He scoffs at the idea that there are no blank spaces left on Earth. “Anyone who says the world is mapped, ask them to show you where the population of Congo are living. Ask them where the villages are. If they can do it, please let me know.”
To Gayton, it’s not an idle distinction. “When you have a place like South Sudan, where millions of people live and die without ever figuring in a database anywhere, their names will never be written down. There’s not a lot of dignity in that—to not be on the map is quite a powerful statement of uncaring.” That’s what Missing Maps is about. “We still don’t know who they are, but at least we know where their house is. At least the map actually contains them, rather than a blank wash of green,” Gayton says. “I tell people at mapathons sometimes, ‘That house you’re tracing right now, that hut—that’s the first time in the history of humanity someone cared enough about them to take note.’” Things don’t exist because we name them, but giving them a name engenders new meaning. At its most basic, to exist on a map is to have value.
In the early twentieth century, a booming Los Angeles was separated from the river in three decisive steps. First, an aqueduct was built more than 200 miles north to water to the city from the Sierra Nevada—a move mythologized in the movie Chinatown. Then, the city took control of all water rights on the river. Finally, the river was encased in concrete after rampaging floods in the 1930s; it became a drainage ditch, shunting water as quickly and efficiently as possible to the ocean.
—Jon Christensen, writing about artist Lauren Bon for the Virginia Quarterly Review. Bon plans to “bend the river back into the city” with La Noria, a large-scale project involving an enormous water wheel powered by the river.
As someone who’s twice been diagnosed with Lyme Disease, I’ve read an awful lot about it. The more I read, the more confused I am; for every long, boring article about antibiotic treatments, there are two or three about widely varying alternative cures.
The Last Illusion author Porochista Khakpour has been living with Lyme for years. In the summer edition of Virginia Quarterly Review, she catalogs her quest for relief, from one holistic healer and quack to another, while shunning Western medical approaches most of the way.
(When you’re done reading, go check yourself for ticks.)
…It began with my mother’s friend, who had just started an acupuncture business in Los Angeles. She tested my pulses and heard me and laid me out and, as usual, the needles felt good to me. One day I burst into tears, frustrated at my slow progress. “My darling,” she said, “the progress is all in your mind—you know you don’t have an illness, right?” She told me to focus on breath and prayer daily and sent me a few dried exotic Asian fruits that would calm the psyche…
…Then I called a company that got people off Western meds—a front for Scientology, I later discovered—which convinced me during a phone consult that I was a benzodiazepine addict who had ruined my own life but said, “Don’t worry we deal with many VIPs like yourself who have taken a bad turn.” They sold me very expensive bottles of sour-cherry juice (insomnia treatment) and whey powder (glutathione nutrient builder) to start taking as I reduced my Western meds…
…I talked to a psychic who said there were dead people around me jealous of me and I had to burn sage and say a mantra and eat only red things if I could from now on.
I talked to a hypnotist who said my father was the problem and who did exercises to erase him from my consciousness. “But I live with him,” I argued, “I’ve moved back home.” He’d shut his eyes and say, “He is gone he is gone he is gone.”
…I went with a few friends, a young aspiring writer and her cancer-survivor mom, to their beachside “church”—“a spiritual center and community” that had been established in the 1980s—a group I’d heard of but never knew anything about, and watched their handsome charismatic dreadlocked leader sermon about “New Thought” spirituality as his wife played on the piano, and how over and over they’d healed the ill through prayer—reversed cancers even—and how the duty of each person was to be as wealthy as they could. They did many songs and everyone swayed and sang and clapped, and at one point they made first-timers stand and they all welcomed me with glazed eyes. It bothered me that even though I always sought multiracial atmospheres, here all I could think of was footage of Jonestown as I struggled to sing along. I never went back, of course.
Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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