Hazlitt Magazine

'It's About Making a Person More Herself': Translating Elena Ferrante

For over a decade, outgoing New Yorker copy head Ann Goldstein has made Elena Ferrante’s work come alive in English. We spoke with her about translation, Italian lessons and Dante.

A Place of Absorption

How naive I was, to have thought that when someone hurts you, the polite response is to ask him to stop.

The Cost of Shame

Money was tight, so I started taking on more questionable modeling gigs. I had to eat.

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Smurfette’s Roots

In her original incarnation, the only female Smurf reminds me of all the assumptions I’ve had to navigate about my sexuality and sense of self as a Jewish woman.

When we were kids, my brother collected plastic Smurf figurines. While they were all fundamentally the same (blue body, white pants and white hat, except for Papa Smurf, who sported a red hat and white beard), each had different accessories based on their archetypal traits. Vanity Smurf held a mirror and had a flower in his cap; Handy had a hammer; Brainy had little glasses and a book tucked under his arm.And then there was Smurfette. Different figurines depicted her engaged in a variety of activities, but it was always her: Blonde hair and a flowing white dress. Long eyelashes painted on. The only female of the clan. Fought over, lusted after. Chaste. Perfect. Pure.Critics have noted the many social problems with Smurfette as a character: how she perpetuates a virgin/whore paradox; how, as the only female in a society of men, she tokenizes women’s identities and sets them up necessarily in relation to the dominant patriarchy. There’s even a fan theory that argues Smurfette was created to assuage homophobic fears among consumers of the comic and confirm for them the heterosexuality of the Smurfs (well, maybe not Vanity). In short, Smurfette is, as the saying now goes, problematic.God, how I wanted to be her.But Smurfette didn’t begin her life as a pure fantasy object. Initially, she was conjured through the magic of the evil wizard Gargamel, forged out of clay in an attempt to incite chaos and destroy the all-male Smurf population, a golem sent to infiltrate a peaceful community rather than protect it. And according to the official blurb that appears on almost every site hawking Smurf collectibles, she was originally a brunette with “a big nose and wild hair.” Smurfette, it turned out, at least at first, looked a lot like me. That is to say: Jewish. No wonder she spelled such trouble for the men of Smurf Village.*The “evil brunette” is a well-worn archetype, if not always articulated as such: Snow White’s Evil Queen, Maleficent, Catwoman. Even when Snow White is herself portrayed as brunette, there’s something more severe about her nemesis’s locks—hooded, widow’s peaked, framing a sharp face full of hate. And while these women are wicked and dangerous, it’s not lost on us, even at a young age, that they carry a deep sexual power: the Evil Queen seducing the Huntsman to kill for her, Catwoman afflicting her enemies with a crippling desire that fogs their mind before she destroys them.But if the evil brunette is ubiquitous in children’s stories and comic books, Smurfette, introduced in 1966 by the Belgian artist Peyo who created the Smurfs eight years earlier, seemed to piggyback not only on age-old anxieties about female sexuality, but specific stereotypes of Jewish female sexuality at a time when the world (and particularly Europe) was still reeling from a confrontation with its own dark demons of prejudice and hate against that particular community.I didn’t grow up in mid-century Europe, but I was still hyper-aware of Smurfette’s origins, perhaps because, from a very young age, I could sense that the world saw my sexuality as a dark-haired, Jewish woman in a way I couldn’t control. As early as middle school I was made aware that my wild hair, big nose and big ass were signals to men that I must be a particular kind of sexual being. While my more culturally ideal-looking peers (blonde, thin) collected the most ardent admirers, I got the lion’s share of lewd comments, the bulk of off-color jokes, a higher-than-average number of ass-grabs in the hallway. Not that any young girl is immune to inappropriate behavior from young men, but it seemed as though, by looking the way I did, I was tacitly signaling complicity in this sort of aggressive sexuality.That perception has persisted into adulthood. I’ve been called “feral” by strangers on multiple occasions, been told by more than one man that I “couldn’t control myself” sexually when I was doing nothing more than sitting next to them. One man not otherwise prone to conspiracy theories or ghost stories once told me—scout’s honor—that evil spirits were casting a spell on him, forcing him to be sexually aroused by me, while I sat fully clothed in a chair across the room. It’s enough to make a girl wonder if she doesn’t actually possess some occult power no one told her about after all.That popular description of Smurfette goes on, after mentioning her “big nose and wild hair,” to say that she “didn’t originally look like much.” It’s a strange addendum to such a specific description—implying, of course, that she wasn’t particularly attractive to men, the “much” toward which women are expected to strive. The sentence contains the entire paradox of the stereotypical-looking Jewish woman’s sexual identity: we’re told at every turn—by the media, by our peers, both men and women, by art—that our femininity is “less than” while simultaneously hearing that we are heightened sexual beings. It’s as though to keep the rest of their women pure, they must keep a subset of them dirty, a place to put their angry desire.*Our “whiteness” cannot be discounted in this calculation. Not all Jews are white, of course, but the predominant western notion of the Jew as a “white other” is the primary one underlying Smurfette’s identity (she was dark-haired, yes, but still blue, like the other Smurfs). It’s a complicated identity shared by millions of Jewish women since the Diaspora scattered us throughout Europe; we integrated into the local populations, had babies, and became “white,” but never quite. The Atlantic addressed this complicated question last November in an article teasing out the historical and cultural assumptions and challenges to Jewish whiteness. The article was met with much anxiety by people on all sides of the question, from Klansmen such as David Duke, offended that the question was even up for debate (“NO—JEWS ARE NOT WHITE!” he tweeted), to Jews and others who feared that simply asking would lead down the familiar slippery slope of dehumanization. But it would be disingenuous for a Jew not to acknowledge the tension between our undeniable white privilege at this point in history and the tenuous and provisional basis upon which this privilege has been granted. As Jewish women, our “whiteness” and “otherness” are part and parcel, conjoined sources of both titillation and trickery. Our beauty, even when palpable, is at root a deception—a spell cast by a sorcerer, a poison perfume, a hoax, a con, a lie.Schindler’s List is a difficult movie to watch at almost every turn, but as a Jewish woman who has grown up with that unnamed sensation that our bodies are a battleground for men’s darkest desires, the brutal sexual assault of Helen Hirsch in the film is both validating of something we’ve known and felt our whole lives and chilling in its stark representation of the very real danger of that hunger. The Nazi Amon Goeth in one moment expresses his desire to “reach out and touch” the object of his desire and, in the very next, denies her personhood. “Is this the face of a rat?” he asks as he tenderly pulls her hair away from that face. And then, as he is about to kiss her—to violate her, but with such tenderness—he stops. “You Jewish witch. You nearly talked me into it.” Not with her words, for she has been silent, but with her mere existence, with her seductively slight “otherness” that made him wonder, what would it be like? What dark power might I unleash in her? In myself? And then, for nearly causing him to succumb to that power, he beats her.The ironic truth of Helen Hirsch (a composite of two different maids who served in Amon Goeth’s home), of those evil queens and comic book villains, of Smurfette, is that they are all fictions created by men, either within a story itself or through its telling. They are created out of the fears and desires of men, and in their creation become a justification for imposing those fears and desires on real flesh and blood women. I’m not criticizing Spielberg for reinforcing this belief by showing it on screen—holding a mirror to this dark reality is an unavoidable part of making art about it—but it’s telling how many YouTube videos you can find of montages of Amon Goeth’s and Helen Hirsch’s scenes from the movie set lovingly to music. They all contain his abuse, yes, but they linger, too, as Goeth himself does, his hand on her breast, his mouth close to hers. As though what we are watching is a kind of unconventional romance rather than sexual violence.*As Gargamel prepares the magical potion from which he will conjure Smurfette, his incantation begins:Sugar and spice but nothing niceA dram of crocodile tearsThe tip of an adder’s tongueHalf a pack of lies (white of course)That she is made of the same primary ingredients (sugar and spice) as a “natural” woman, but is somehow devoid of the all-encompassing “niceness” that such ingredients would otherwise engender, is the cornerstone of the deep anti-Semitic allure of the Jewish woman. She looks like a woman. She feels like a woman. But her tears are fake and her words are lies (but white, of course, to mask their deception). She is no true woman, and for that she must be punished.But Gargamel overshot in his calculations for that original big nosed, wild haired Smurfette. She messed with the Smurfs’ stuff, was sexually aggressive, yelled—the Smurfs found her more annoying and repellant than alluring. This, too, is an outcome Jewish women recognize: on the other side of the coin of the overt sexualization we face is the anxiety we provoke for being too strong, too confident, too loud, too bold. Often, whether or not men will let us get away with this brashness has to do with how easily they can sexualize it, so the Nanny gets a pass while Roseanne doesn’t, despite the fact that both exhibit those stereotypically Jewish woman’s traits: the sarcastic humor, the bossiness, the obnoxious laugh. Perhaps if Gargamel had just made Smurfette a touch more zaftig, his plan would have worked.But Papa Smurf saw through Gargamel’s scheme and, with his own powerful magic, transformed Smurfette into the coy, beautiful, button-nosed blonde we all know and love today. Gargamel might have preyed directly on the Smurfs’ fears of the other, but Papa Smurf, in transforming that other into something inert, innocuous, something “same,” told them they were right to have been afraid in the first place.
Once More With Feeling

On the afterlife of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, what makes a show resonate for two decades, and why we re-watch television. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a prime-time teen soap about feelings and vampires, premiered twenty years ago this month, and we're still talking about it. We brought together a group of long-time fans to discuss why the show, despite its problems, still resonates two decades later. Haley Cullingham: Why don’t we start by sharing our favourite episode of Buffy and explaining why we love it.Morgan M Page: My favourite episode of BTVS has got to be “The Body.” I didn’t think too much of this episode, in which Buffy’s mother dies suddenly of a brain aneurysm, beyond being emotionally moved when I originally watched it, but a few years after it aired my own mother died of a brain aneurysm. Re-watching that episode over the years has been cathartic to say the least. It’s also one of the episodes in which the writers were pushing at the limits of the supernatural/action formula Buffy was built on. Joyce, Buffy’s mother, doesn’t die because of a vampire, she dies from natural causes. There’s no music. It’s tense, wrenching, and you can’t look away. For all her strength, Buffy is left powerless in the face of overwhelming loss.Josie Torres Barth: Yeah, that’s where the series really starts to get dark, when it seems like Buffy’s superhero powers aren’t really going to be able to solve every problem. I think in contrast, my favorite (sorry, I’m American) episode probably has to be the finale (“Chosen”), especially in our current political context. I re-watched it recently, and Buffy’s speech at the end, where she explains that her power is going to be split amongst all of the potential slayers of the world and asks the girls if they’re ready to be strong, had me ugly crying. All throughout the series, Buffy’s power has been a burden to her, and incredibly isolating. She’s a superhero, but she’s incredibly alone in that. So, the metaphor at the very end of the series, where every girl with the potential to become a slayer is one, is maybe the best kind of ending for a feminist superhero story.Lauren McKeon: I think that “Chosen” has to be a close second for me, for all the reasons you stated—it’s uplifting in its own way, and also in a way that most of Season 7 wasn’t. But, my ultimate favourite episode is “Once More With Feeling.” I remember not knowing what to make of the musical episode when I first saw it. This was pre-Internet days (for my house, anyway) and my best friend and I used to call each other during every commercial (like the nerds we still are). We were so confused: Like, are they really going to sing the whole episode? But, as I grew up, this was the episode I kept re-watching. I think there’s something beautiful—well, beautiful and sad—about the idea that some experiences are difficult to express. You have to feel them, sing them, dance them out.Sarah Hagi: I wish I could have a more original answer to this, but “Hush” is my favourite episode by far. I think this mostly has to do with how I watched it at a very young age when it originally aired. It was the scariest thing in the world to me for years, and it wasn’t even just the monsters, The Gentlemen, but just thinking about how awful it would be to not be able to speak like Tara in that one scene. Watching it again as an older person upon my first full viewing of Buffy, I was blown away by its ambition as an episode. I mean, the message is obviously a heavy handed one about communication, etc. but I think it’s for sure the most scary episode of television I’ve ever seen.JTB: I was really hoping someone would say “Once More With Feeling.” It’s definitely my favorite stand-alone episode.MMP: There’s so much to be said about “Once More With Feeling.” Lesbian orgasm songs! The mustard and fire hydrant micro-songs! The fact that it manages to bring in every single theme from the preceding five seasons.[[{"fid":"6699906","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"221","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]JTB: And it turns out Giles can sing. That made me a little uncomfortable.LM: I had the most ridiculous crush on Giles after that episode. It still makes me uncomfortable, ha.MMP: Giles and Tara were the only ones who could really sing, and I guess Spike, too. But didn’t we know Giles could sing already—he’d done the whole musician backstory, coffee house singer thing before, no?JTB: Yeah, I just didn’t know I’d find it so attractive.SH: I hated “Once More With Feeling” so much. SO MUCH.MMP: Oh my God, tell me more.SH: The songs were stupid and did not age well. None of them could really sing that well… I hate musicals. It was just embarrassing.JTB: That’s what I was going to ask—if you liked musicals. They’re very much the kind of thing you’re either a fan of or not (as I think we saw with some of the people who got a lot of enjoyment out of hating on La La Land recently), but if you’re not a musical person, I don’t think it’s going to work for you!SH: I’m not a huge fan of musicals... But I know it’s so dear to everyone’s hearts so I’m not actively a hater, usually.JTB: I respect you for coming out publicly with such an unpopular opinion.MMP: Going back to Sarah’s point about “Hush,” though—that is such a stunning episode. The extremely limited dialogue was again one of those attempts by the writers to push against formula. It’s these stand-out episodes that take Buffy out of being just a teen supernatural comedy and situate it as one of the progenitors of the current “diamond age” of television.JTB: It’s interesting that silence in “Hush” seems to serve a similar purpose to singing in “Once More With Feeling”—it forces the subtext into text. These kinds of genre-bending experimentation aren’t just for their own sake, but they really develop the plot and the characters’ relationships.LM: Plus, “Hush” was one of the only episodes that genuinely terrified me when I first watched it.SH: I’ll never forget watching it for the first time with my brother and us being like, “holy shit, these things will kill us one day!” I think they were one of the best demons (they were demons right?). My second favourite scary was the one that only Willow was able to see in Season 7.[[{"fid":"6699911","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"140","width":"245","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]JTB: Ooh, that thing that peeled off people’s skin and ate it while singing a sing-song rhyme about peeling off people’s skin and eating it?SH: YES! I still think about it and my skin crawls. How it slices up Willow’s skin and eats it. So good.MMP: Everything about Season 7 is my fave. I think it’s the best season of the series, as a whole, and also some of the most thoughtful TV writing of that time period. But yeah, the skin-eating—yikes!JTB: I’ve really appreciated S7 recently. I’ve started to see the whole battle at the end of the world as a very relevant contemporary metaphor for American politics. I’ve had something of a hair-trigger cry reflex recently, but there’s another speech Buffy gives that had me sobbing at my sink washing dishes. I keep this on my computer desktop and look at it when I’m feeling especially shitty.[[{"fid":"6699901","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"844","width":"844","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]LM: I rewatched this episode recently, too. After I got back from the Women’s March on Washington. Chills. It’s also especially eff yes when you consider the context of this part of the season—Buffy is still dealing with Joyce’s death, and Spike’s attempted rape (about which I still have many feelings). It’s really where the show starts to push at what it means to be a superhero, to feel alone, to be vulnerable. And, also, strong.HC: The attempted rape from that season brings up something I wanted to ask all of you about. A few of you have mentioned elements of the show that kind of aged with you, almost—episodes you didn’t appreciate as much originally and then ended up loving. But I feel like any re-watch of an old TV show reminds you that there are some things that were handled really badly. I think Buffy was always thought of as progressive, but there are a lot of moments that today read as extremely problematic when you re-watch…JTB: It’s SUPER Orientalist. All of the mystical bad things come from “dark” foreign places, especially in the early seasons.SH: I think yes, it was so Orientalist. Another thing that bothered me was how WHITE it was. It is so, so white.MMP: Yeah, I think that’s one of the biggest critiques of the show. I mean, we had Kendra—the only major Black character in the beginning, but she was quickly killed off in order to serve the storyline of the white protagonist. And she was also written in a very “exotic” sort of way—she speaks with a Jamaican accent, but if I remember correctly they don’t specify where she’s from.SH: I don’t necessarily think they would have changed that if it had come out now. TV is still pretty white—I guess it’s just disappointing from a show that was progressive in so many ways. As a Black woman (lol, I knew I’d say this at some point) it made it almost hard to feel as empowered as I see my white friends.JTB: They got a little diversity in the final season with the potentials, because there were just so many of them, but I don’t see why Sunnydale High wouldn’t have students of color. (It’s in California!) Was this how all TV looked in the ‘90s?MMP: It’s how all TV looks today, too, though.LM: Another terrible Buffy episode: Does anybody remember when they did the Thanksgiving episode? It was even lauded at the time for dealing with Indigenous issues, but I couldn’t even make it through re-watching (all the many times I have re-watched the series). I think by “dealing” TV critics maybe meant ... extremely racist?MMP: That episode is definitely hard to watch with today’s eyes. I think the writers thought they were trying to be subversive, but that just meant cracking jokes about genocide. Uncomfortable to say the least.LM: Yes, it definitely feels like they caricaturized an entire culture.MMP: On another topic—I don’t know about all of you, but it seems impossible to avoid talking about how powerful Buffy was to watch growing up as a young queer/trans person. Do any of you have feelings about this, or just me?HC: I think Buffy must have been the first show to introduce me to the concept that sexuality could be fluid, and it was definitely the first show I saw deal with sexuality in a way that wasn’t black and white, if that makes sense. But then ... when you re-watch, there are a lot of not-great gay jokes. I don’t know.MMP: Yeah, I feel like Andrew especially was essentially a running gay joke.JTB: It’s interesting that you say “fluid” in terms of the show’s portrayal of sexuality, Haley, because the last time I watched it, one of the things that struck me was how Willow emphasized that she was “gay now” so many times, where it almost became a running gag. It almost seems to devalue her relationship with Oz, which felt pretty real to me. Combined with the show’s discomfort with the implication of Faith’s bisexuality—like it was part of what made her bad and mysterious—it’s interesting that they didn’t offer that as a possibility for Willow.HC: Morgan, can you expand a little on what about it felt powerful to you?MMP: Well, when Buffy originally aired, it coincided with my whole “coming out” / “transition” process. And then suddenly one of my favourite TV shows had a gay main character, Willow, who was not immediately killed off or written off the show. I remember when Ellen came out on her show so vividly and how it was almost immediately off the air afterwards. But here comes Buffy, where a character can come out, have a relationship, and also be a bad-ass witch and brainiac who is integral to the show. That was a game-changer in terms of TV representations of LGBT people—even if it was done somewhat clumsily with the “gay now” thing as Josie mentioned.JTB: Although that also seems like a realistic representation of teenage identity formation. She wants people to know! I loved the way that the show used discovery of her magical powers as a metaphor for discovery of her sexuality ... which is why it got kind of weird when the metaphor switched, and suddenly magic is ... an addictive drug, I guess?LM: It also felt important at the time that the show really explored how much in love Willow and Tara were, and showed (as much as they could, anyway) what that love looked like. At the time, that was so, so groundbreaking—even if it doesn’t always seem that way when we watch it many years later. It validated teenage me.JTB: I feel like I should mention at this point that I didn’t watch the show when it was first on the air. I wasn’t allowed to (religious parents), and I’m not sure that I would have ... it seemed kind of scary. But I think it wasn’t just the witches and vampires, but also the way that the metaphor allows them to show things like burgeoning queer teenage sexuality that may have scared parents like mine.MMP: It seems like a lot of people have come to Buffy after the fact, which I guess shows how enduring its metaphors are for many women and LGBT people (the primary demographics of its fandom).HC: It was really interesting, around the twenty-year anniversary on March 10, to see SO MANY people talking about it. This probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did, but growing up, my sister and I were the only people I knew who watched it. It was definitely more loved than I realized.LM: The anniversary also took me by surprise. Like, I couldn’t believe that it was already time for it to have an anniversary. I think that’s because I did watch it when it first aired, and I return to it during every crisis moment in my life. Even though it’s so tone deaf in certain episodes now, it sort of parachutes me to a safe mental space. Buffy deals with shit; I deal with shit watching her be bad-ass.[[{"fid":"6699926","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"150","width":"250","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]MMP: Maybe we could all talk a bit about Buffy’s legacy—both personally for us, and perhaps also for TV and writing as a whole?HC: I think, for me, the personal element has a lot to do with metabolizing feelings. Buffy was a show that was really good at depicting the idea that even identifying what you were feeling and expressing it could be challenging, that sometimes (like in the skin-peeling episode) you could feel like you were in a different place than the people around you, not seeing the same thing. I think that’s a big part of why I also return to it during moments of crisis. In terms of the wider legacy, even though the show’s feminism was exclusionary and limited in a lot of ways, it did have an impact in terms of feminist representation, I think. Albeit a narrow one.JTB: I think what you’re talking about is the way that the show used metaphors so brilliantly. High school feels like being at war! Sometimes when you sleep with someone, he turns into a monster! It could be ridiculous (and I guess at times it was) if it wasn’t so well handled. In terms of the show’s effect overall...I’m in TV studies, and Buffy was one of the shows that really introduced a generation of scholars to taking television seriously. (I heard New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum talk recently, and she said that Buffy got her interested in TV criticism.) And I think it’s pretty under-valued for its contribution to the development of modern TV narrative (what we in the biz call “complex TV”). Buffy was one of the first shows to really get the balance between deep mythology and small character-building storylines right. The X-Files tries this, but usually you get either a monster of the week or plot development in an episode. In Buffy, it’s all happening at the same time.SH: Yes, speaking of metaphors and Buffy. I just recently found out that "Beer Bad" (which I think we can all agree is the worst episode) was actually written to be funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy which explains a lot.[[{"fid":"6699916","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"256","width":"499","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]JTB: That’s hilarious. I’m not surprised that Joss couldn’t find it in him to produce a convincing after-school special about the dangers of drinking.MMP: Wow, I had no idea.HC: Feds to studio: you can show three more stabs and an evil department of government officials if you remind the teens that drinking could mean you die in a fire.JTB: Or else just really, really embarrass yourself with a truly terrible hour of television.LM: It was such a heavy-handed approach, too, to what the show actually did really well—and what makes me return to it again and again. Which is writing about failure, and particularly women’s failure, well. We see Buffy (and Willow, Cordelia, Anya, etc.) all make truly devastating mistakes, but the show never strayed from showing us that’s what made them (and makes us) human (even when they were actually demons!). It always feels so refreshing to me that Buffy can be strong, but also vulnerable and sometimes so, so wrong. And that the show lets us see her fail and then find her way back to herself again.JTB: That’s a great point.HC: I also think Anya is one of the most underappreciated television characters of all time.JTB: So ridiculous, and so great. Her love of capitalism is my favorite Anya detail.LM: Bunnies!JTB: She has some really perceptive thoughts about humanity, though. She’s not just comic relief, Anya really gets us.LM: She does. And it always breaks my heart a little when they show her trying to connect with the rest of the Scooby gang and they always seem to brush her off.SH: Anya was underused in a lot of ways and definitely the best addition to the show. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like her at first but I cried so hard at the end.HC: Between the left-at-the-altar storyline and her death at the end there was definitely a lot of terrible things happening to Anya that didn’t maybe feel totally necessary?JTB: I was so mad at Xander for leaving her at the altar. Getting married was his effing idea! And then thinking that they could just go back to how things were before he LEFT HER AT THE ALTAR? Grow up, Xander.MMP: In a way, though, Anya being left at the altar was the only thing that could have happened. She became a vengeance demon after being betrayed by men, spent a thousand years punishing men who betrayed women, and then when she tried to give another man a chance, of course she was betrayed. We don’t want her to be. We root for her. But in the end, this betrayal is the central point of her character. It would’ve been too easy and expected for the writers to give her a happy ending, one in which finally there is a man who treats her well—the lesson here is that women are always betrayed by patriarchy, I guess, and the only way forward is to overthrow it as Buffy does by giving the power of the slayer to all the slayerettes in the world at the end of “Chosen.” Anya has become more and more one of my favourites over the years, especially because of her deep longing to be loved and find a place in the world, and now I tear up when I watch the series finale (I mean, for a lot of reasons, but I truly bawl over Anya).[[{"fid":"6699931","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"160","width":"160","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]HC: This is going back to something we talked about at the very beginning, but I wonder if it’s true of all shows that people continue to love like this that a group of people talking about it would each have a different favourite episode? That’s interesting to me, that there’s no consensus with Buffy re: a best episode, best season, best character etc.JTB: Yeah, that is interesting, because it seems like there are similar shows (Veronica Mars, maybe) where there is One Best Season and everyone agrees what it is. I think it speaks to the way that Buffy is many things to many people.LM: Yes, I don’t think we all experience it the same way. I think it also goes back a little bit to when we watched it, and how/what we were dealing with at the time. So much of my Buffy watching experience is so connected to my teenage years, and how I was discovering and experiencing a lot of the same self-doubts and stumbling self-growth. Minus literal demons.JTB: I know that I have experienced the same season differently at different points in my life—as my obsession with S7 here would seem to indicate. I think if you’d asked me what my favorite episode was six months earlier, Haley, I probably would have picked something else. Maybe that’s what gives it such lasting appeal? It’s very much about growing into adulthood, and so each season has a different stage of that growth.LM: Totally. And, like you, I’ve come to be more and more obsessed with S7 the older I am. There are things I couldn’t connect with when it first aired—the themes of being alone and being connected that the show played with a lot—that now consume more of my thoughts about the political climate, yes, and also my personal feminism.JTB: Season 7 is about the responsibility of the individual against all the horrible forces in the world. Maybe it’s just about adulthood?SH: I would love to know if your favourite things about Buffy have changed over the years. I love knowing how the show has evolved with people.HC: One thing that’s definitely changed for me over the years is that, when I watched as a teen, I was unsurprisingly obsessed with the romantic relationships, and now it’s the non-romantic relationships on the show that I care about most: Buffy and Giles, Buffy and Dawn, Buffy and Joyce, Willow and Xander, Giles and Willow and Anya, both of which were such interesting contrasts to his relationship with Buffy. For me, the most beautiful moments of the Buffy-Joyce dynamic are when Joyce is in the hospital. I thought they did a good job of factoring Dawn in, but also really reminding us about how Joyce and Buffy were a unit of two for so long. And Joyce and Giles’s dynamic is always really great—how they kind of dance around that closeness, resent each other sometimes, have that one episode where they have sex on the hood of a car. They made it exactly as awkward and complicated as it should be, instead of being like “here we are, Team Adult unconventionally united in the raising of Troublesome Teen.” I think the fact that every dynamic on the show is given an element of complexity (I think they lost that a little in later seasons) is really great.It also always strikes me on re-watch how absolutist my teen sense of right and wrong was. Now, I like that the show has shades of grey. Except for when Dawn agrees to kick Buffy out of the house in Season 7. I think that remains a huge writing mistake that seemed to happen just so Spike and Buffy could have a platonic pull out couch sleepover? Everyone else would totally turn on her but Dawn wouldn’t.MMP: I actually think Dawn turning on Buffy made a lot of sense—Dawn is a teenager, sibling relationships are always complicated, and if Dawn hadn’t turned on her they never would’ve gotten Buffy out of the house and given her her Dark Night of the Soul.JTB: I think what has really changed for me is my own level of emotional involvement in the show! As I said before, I didn’t watch Buffy when it aired, and it took me a while even after I first saw it to really get it. I had a boyfriend in university who was a real Whedonite, and he sat me down and basically wrote a syllabus for how we were going to watch Buffy. I think I was kind of resistant to it at the time because it was both really popular but also sort of nerdy, and I wasn’t totally comfortable with that part of myself yet. (I’d just come out of being a real nerd in high school, and I was living in New York and writing a thesis on avant-garde film and trying very hard to be cool and about Serious Art.) It wasn’t until after I started to study popular culture and confront some of my own assumptions about what it meant for a show to be popular, or to have an obsessive fan base (and how those assumptions rely on gendered stereotypes) that Buffy really started to mean something to me. And now I’m writing a dissertation about horror and gender and television. So, David, if you’re out there—you were right.LM: Definitely in high school I was more invested in the romantic relationships, which don’t hold my interest as much now. (Though I definitely would love to see a modern Buffy shut down a Tinder bro.) Or at least, they’re not why I keep returning to BTVS. Now I connect more to the way the women in the show rise up from falling face first—often literally, but emotionally, personally, too—and just keep fighting. For each other. For the world. For themselves. We could use more of that now, I think. (And definitely less of Buffy’s white girl feminism—because, as we’ve discussed, the show is unforgivably white. I recently re-watched the season with Faith and Buffy and the mayor’s sidekick vampire, Mr. Trick, who’s Black, even makes a joke about it when he arrives in Sunnydale.)My feelings about Spike seeking (and getting) a soul after he tries to rape Buffy have also changed. Talk about metaphors! I like how they show Buffy working through flashbacks and being unable to truly confront what happened with Spike, whom she trusted. So true to the complex and complicated reaction of a real post-assault experience—there are so many feelings, mental and visceral, to wade through and digest. I like that the show lets us see that, and see that these flashbacks can shatter even the physically strongest of us. I like less that Spike’s redemption becomes a bigger part of the storyline in S7. And that we’re supposed to accept it’s somehow better that he only tried to rape Buffy. (And what about the creepy stuff with him and the Buffy Bot?!) It’s not that I don’t believe redemption is possible. I just don’t think it’s that easy, and that it’s dangerous to tell young women and men that it can be. Now that I’m older, and less invested in ‘shipping Buffy and Spike, I’ll always be uncomfortable with how the show not only kept him as Buffy’s love interest, but positions him as the only one who truly understands her—because he suffered and was alone in that suffering. But he also came back and forced Buffy to basically work with him, the dude who tried to rape her, every day so he could do penance and feel better about himself or whatever. Like, that wouldn’t be a distraction when you’re trying to save the world. So, y’know, why don’t we talk about that?MMP: Buffy has definitely evolved with me over time—I think in high school I was mostly, like Haley, interested in the romantic relationships, and in the supernatural elements. But as I’ve gotten older, I feel like I get a lot more from Buffy about what it means to have power and what it means to live through and overcome trauma. Buffy and the Scoobies are constantly dealing with extreme trauma, whether from supernatural things like monsters or from all-too-real issues like sexual violence. And the show let you see how painful that is, the ways it impacts your behaviour, and the long term ramifications. And then it showed how you can get through it. Like Lauren said earlier, it’s a show about women failing, but it’s also a show about women clawing their way back to life—even from the literal grave. Moving through my twenties, which were full of traumatic events, I think I revisited Buffy a lot because I needed someone to show me that there was a way through even in the most apocalyptic circumstances. Buffy saved the world a lot—but she also saved a lot of us, as individuals.[[{"fid":"6699921","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"576","width":"1024","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]
In Search of a New Way to Grieve

From public testimonies of grief to video game dispatches from the funeral industry, the way we think about death is changing. 

On July 9, 2016, thirty-five-year-old cartoonist and musician Geneviève Castrée died. She had lived with pancreatic cancer for a year; in that same year she and her husband Phil Elverum had a daughter. Before 2016 was over, Elverum, who records as Mount Eerie, would write A Crow Looked at Me, an album about his wife’s death.In the record’s liner notes, dated December 11, 2016, Elverum discusses his motivation for writing the album: “I am open now ... I make these songs and put them out into the world just to multiply my voice saying that I love her.” A Crow Looked at Me was written and recorded in the room where Castrée died and feels like a private, sacred ritual, at once a celebration and a cleansing. It is almost too painful to listen to and it must have been far more painful to create.The arrangements are skeletal: the two constants are Elverum’s steady, low voice and his yearning chord changes, played on Castrée’s acoustic guitar. It feels like Elverum limiting himself to black-and-white after the kaleidoscopic syncretism of the past few Mount Eerie records, finding beauty in diffuse gray and inky black.Elverum’s lyrics are uniquely brutal. He has always been an idiosyncratic writer: chasing poetry as he sings, his words often straining against the song’s meter, circling images and ideas as if we are meant to see exactly what he sees, to think as he thinks. On A Crow Looked at Me, his plainspoken expressions of grief, of love, loss, joy, and loneliness are all the more potent for their lack of artifice. The songs are impressionistic rushes of images and places and things, flickering by like strips of 8mm film. Castrée is the center and Elverum twists and churns around her.“Emptiness pt. 2” finds Elverum revisiting the sentiment of the organ-driven “Emptiness,” from 2014’s Sauna, and judging it harshly: “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about/Back before I knew my way around these hospitals,” he sings. And: “There is nothing to learn/Her absence is a scream.” Everything is painfully raw, a bright fresh wound. At the end of “My Chasm,” Elverum’s voice gives out, only for a second, as he sings the record’s mantra, “Death is real.”Each person’s loss is their own, a private bundle of memories—the last time you and your partner kissed; your mother, sitting by a window in the early dawn light; your daughter’s first word—that we carry with us until it is our turn to die. If we are lucky enough to live long, healthy lives, the bundles pile up. Elverum intends this record as a remembrance, a document of his wife and their love and the end she had to face. It feels almost taboo to intrude upon, like sitting in on a stranger’s funeral. But that anxiety melts away; the record is not voyeuristic but openhearted. It holds nothing back. It invites you in, and asks you merely to bear witness. It can strike the listener as an uncommonly intimate look at someone else’s grief—though, as the way we talk about death changes, perhaps not as uncommon as it once might have been.*Mortician Caitlin Doughty is the figurehead of The Order of the Good Death, a collective of likeminded artists, academics, and fellow death industry professionals founded in 2011 to change the way American culture thinks about death. The ideas behind the Order were furthered in Doughty’s 2014 memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Her upcoming book, From Here to Eternity, is a travelogue and compendium of death rituals around the world.The tenets of the Order follow on Doughty’s assertion that the funeral industry cheats people out of a “relationship with death” by feeding death anxiety and intentionally obfuscating the journey a corpse undergoes from death to burial. To the Order, the idea of a “good death” means that when it is our time to die, we should be as prepared as possible in every way. In a 2011 post about home death care, Doughty says, “Grief is not easy. Facing your own mortality is not easy. But it is right.” The “good death” does not whitewash the pain of loss; it equips you to find closure in your own way.A healthy attitude toward death, Doughty acknowledges, is not new so much as it is new to American culture. In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, she writes, “There has never been a time in the history of the world when a culture has broken so completely with traditional methods of body disposition and beliefs surrounding mortality.” There is no denying that America desperately fears death and decomposition: go look up the words “anti-aging.” Silicon Valley is hard at work chasing immortality; a 2016 article in Nautilus quotes physician and hedge-fund manager Joon Yun slinging the typical rhetoric. “I essentially made a wager to myself that aging is a code. If aging is a code, that code could be cracked and hacked.”In her book, Doughty ascribes this phenomenon to “men who have lived lives of systematic privilege, and believe that privilege should extend indefinitely.” Indeed, Yun’s distance from the typical American is perhaps best summed up in his inane assessment of “the healthcare system” as “doing a good job of helping people live longer and stronger lives.” Most people, Doughty says, who “linger into extreme old age” are in tremendous pain, living in overcrowded, underequipped nursing homes. Trying to outrun death will not end this epidemic; we have to alter how we think about death while we’re still alive.The Order of the Good Death is not the only organization empowering people to approach death on their terms. Practically minded startups such as Willing, an estate planning service, Parting, a funeral home shopping service, and Grace, which turns the period before and after a death into a series of discrete tasks, were profiled in a recent New York Times piece. Taking these traditionally walled-off aspects of death planning and putting them into the hands of individuals is invaluable for shifting cultural attitudes around death. Having more options when planning funerals means we can choose what feels most right to us. The planning process can be part of the grieving process; it can suit the particular person whom we have lost. We can mourn and heal on our own terms.I attended my grandmother’s funeral early last year. She spent over a decade lost in the depths of Alzheimer’s and by the end was reduced to a shade of who she once was. What has stuck with me more than anything is the rabbi at her funeral. He was wearing an Apple Watch; his hair was dyed jet-black. How much money did he make, to take my grandmother’s name and fill it into the blank spaces on his boilerplate eulogy? Perversely, he knew her about as well as she did by the end. It felt cloistered and stiff. We were acting out a script of grief; we knew it was supposed to be sad and so it was.Public mourning, like Phil Elverum’s intimate eulogy for his wife, can help others navigate grief. But as grief becomes more public, so does death itself. In May 2016, a French woman named Océane livestreamed her suicide on Periscope, stating before she jumped in front of a train, “The video I am doing right now is not made to create buzz, but rather to make people react, to open minds, and that’s it.” She was not the first to use the internet in this way. Little about death, and the traditional death industry, remains a mystery for those determined to look, not since Jessica Mitford’s 1963 consumer-minded expose The American Way of Death, which shed light on all the dirty tricks funeral homes would use to milk their customers. Mitford revised the book prior to her death in 1996, cataloging the ways in which the death industry, by then consolidating under massive international conglomerates, had revised its tactics.Yet actually being a mortician remains tantalizingly transgressive; Caitlin Doughty’s tongue-in-cheek “Ask a Mortician” videos play with this allure, as did HBO’s arch, blackly comic series Six Feet Under. The upcoming videogame A Mortician’s Tale, from Laundry Bear Games, aims to educate players about what it is that morticians actually do with as little fanfare as possible. When I spoke with the game’s designer and artist Gabby DaRienzo, she credited Doughty and the Order of the Good Death with putting a name to the way she had always conceived of death. “Being okay with talking about death and accepting my own mortality got me over that death anxiety I had, and now it really allows me to truly appreciate life and the people in it,” DaRienzo said.The game is rendered in lavender hues and stylized low-poly art; it strikes a balance between specificity (DaRienzo mentioned the sound designer nailing the “bone-crunching noises of the cremulator”) and tastefulness. Writer Kaitlin Tremblay told me that it was important to her to show “how dynamic the mourning process is;” the game’s protagonist is silent, so she does not talk with mourners when she attends funerals. Instead, she listens. Witnessing the spectrum of grief is as core to the game—and mortuary work—as the details of preparing bodies. “It's always struck me how differently people feel and deal with grief,” Tremblay said. “No matter how overwhelming the sadness is, we still feel other things along the way.”*In Joan Didion’s 2005 The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir of the year following her husband’s fatal heart attack, she writes, “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” The death of a loved one will always be a devastating experience: to form some kind of relationship with death is not to desensitize yourself to the pain of grief. It strips away the baggage, the fear, the anxiety until you are left with the simple hard core of it all. Someone you love is no longer alive. Art that reckons directly with death assures us that we are not alone. It can’t offer the definitive route through grief; nothing can. It can only show you that there is a way through.Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me is a document of grief in progress. It doesn’t progress in neat chronological order; it retraces its own steps, reels in pain, grasps at tiny moments of beauty. At the end of the record’s second song, “Seaweed,” Phil Elverum pours his wife’s ashes atop a hill next to a chair and watches the sunset. “The truth is I don’t think of that dust as you,” he says, and then, as the music resolves into a warm, blooming major chord: “You are the sunset.”
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
Whatever Happened to Virginia Van Upp?

No other producer did for Columbia Pictures what Virginia Van Upp, one of Hollywood’s first female executives, did in the 1940s. So why did her influence slowly fade away? 

In 1944, more than half of all Americans went to the movies every week, hungry for the glittering mirage of Hollywood. With so many men at war, the majority of audiences—factory girls and housewives, barmaids and nurses—were women. They eagerly consumed Bing Crosby musicals, Joan Crawford melodramas, and Tyrone Power swashbucklers. While the country survived on rations, the popularity of the film industry soared.Keen to appeal to female moviegoers of the era, Harry Cohn, the notoriously brutish head of Columbia Studios, decided to hire an experienced screenwriter of “women’s pictures.” Her name was Virginia Van Upp, a tiny redhead who had unexpectedly ascended to the role of associate producer. Her male colleagues were aghast but Virginia had spent her entire life chasing a prominent creative role in the shark tank of the Hollywood system. She had worked as a child actress, a script girl, a film cutter, and finally as a writer for a decade-long stint at Paramount Studios. Her move to Columbia would prove to be a lucrative career choice.Her first screenplay Cover Girl was released that year, transposing a fairy tale onto the life of a Brooklyn showgirl, and it was a box office smash. The two leads—Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly—were on the cusp of bona fide movie stardom thanks to the film’s success. Kelly, not yet the legendary hoofer he would become, was understandably grateful to Columbia Studios for the role. He intended to congratulate the screenwriter of Cover Girl on a job well done. The actor likely thought he was paying Virginia Van Upp a compliment when he told her, “You write just like a man!”Van Upp was unlikely to be flattered by such a statement. “Writers of either sex are writers. They have to know people,” was her reported reply. It was she who had written Kelly’s role as Danny McGuire, insisting the actor be taken out on loan from MGM to play the male lead. In fact, at the behest of Harry Cohn, she had tacitly overseen the entire picture. It would not be the last time a movie star had Virginia’s sharp instincts to thank for their success.In fact, Van Upp had been lured from the employment of the much-larger Paramount Studios to work on Cover Girl. Columbia’s prized starlet, Rita Hayworth, needed a carefully tailored vehicle to endear her to the public. Van Upp already had a proven track record for giving screenplays a “feminine touch,” and she and Hayworth became fast friends.Virginia’s terrain at Paramount had mostly been romantic comedies, but an independent, authorial voice shone through much of her work. “I know of more women taking care of no-good husbands and loafing brothers…” one of her characters spouts irritably. She wrote her career women with boyish names and serious professions; they were psychiatrists (She Wouldn’t Say Yes, 1945) entrepreneurs (Honeymoon in Bali, 1939), and even politicians (Together Again, 1944). As a writer, her greatest talent was for putting clever quips in the mouths of actresses such as Madeleine Carroll, Rosalind Russell, and Carole Lombard, who owed her some of their best moments.This placed her in the perfect position to do work on Cover Girl. She made key costume decisions, collaborated with the star, and perhaps most importantly, mediated the always-tenuous relationship between Hayworth and Cohn. In fact, she so carefully supervised the details of the film that, according to a 1946 Screenland article, “it gave Mr. Cohn the idea that perhaps she could do a whole picture from start to finish.”When Virginia was told her skill was commensurate to a man’s, it’s no wonder she found it laughable. No man in the same role did for Columbia what Van Upp had. Between 1942 and 1944, the studio’s gross receipts leapt by millions of dollars. For the first time in Columbia’s history, their profit exceeded $2 million. With Cover Girl, Virginia had personally delivered Columbia Studios—long known as a “poverty row” outfit—one of their biggest hits of the decade.*The working life of an executive producer at Columbia Studios was often an embattled one. The studio was forever small fry by comparison to the other majors, and film production lived and died under the watchful eye of one man: studio founder and head Harry Cohn. Nicknamed the meanest man in Hollywood, Cohn was notoriously foul-mouthed, dictatorial, and incredibly quick to dispense with anyone who dared cross him. He had clawed his way out of grinding, filthy poverty in turn-of-the-century New York, and unlike some of his upwardly mobile colleagues, he had no time for niceties. People seemed either to despise him or to be fiercely loyal to him; rarely did anyone sit on the fence where Harry Cohn was concerned.Periodically, the mogul would promote one of his producers to the role of executive—essentially making them his second-in-command. It was a highly prized role, and a busy one—it meant overseeing all of the studio’s output, from the lower-budget serial fare to the more lovingly crafted “A” pictures. Cohn was a gambler by nature, both personally and professionally. But it fell to producers to actually manage that risk-taking when it came to motion picture production. This was never an easy task, and with an office next door to the abrasive Cohn, even the most hardened of producers did not last more than a few years in the post.When Cohn decided he was going to promote someone in late 1944, the studio’s staff members were on their toes. According to biographer Bob Thomas, Cohn took sadistic delight in announcing his choice to a lunch table full of shocked, sullen male producers; Columbia’s new executive producer would be Virginia Van Upp. With the success of Cover Girl likely fresh in his mind, Cohn was thrilled to surprise the (apparently reluctant) Van Upp with the news. Others were less than thrilled. As Bob Thomas writes, “No one had conceived the possibility that the post would go to a woman.”On announcement of the decision, one scathing article in the Sydney Morning Herald (amusingly titled “Threat to Male Supremacy: Hollywood Appoints Women Producers”) made a point of noting that a “middle-aged woman” would now be in charge of a large group of “male experts” at the studio. It added that the upward limit of her filmmaking budget would be a then-high 1 million dollars.Cohn seemed typically unfazed by the whispers. Wartime audiences skewed female, and his biggest star, Rita Hayworth, wanted to entrust her next film to Van Upp as writer-producer. He had never been the type to worry about public opinion. An apocryphal story from the biography King Cohn tells how any grumbling male producer who didn’t call Van Upp to congratulate her on the promotion was fired. We’ll never know if it’s true, but it’s just the sort of dramatic display of power that would have been typical of the mogul.For her part, Virginia seemed bemused by the decision, but up for the challenge. At forty three, she had been employed in a litany of industry roles. In her previous decade-long tenure as a writer at Paramount, she had long wished for more control over her finished screenplays, but no one could accuse her of lacking experience.At the start of 1945, Van Upp would become one of the only female executives in Hollywood. It was a position that no other woman would occupy for more than thirty years. Soon, she would begin work on her friend Rita Hayworth’s career-defining film noir: Gilda.*When Humphrey Bogart read the screenplay for a lead role in Gilda, he almost immediately turned it down. He felt that the part—eventually taken on by Glenn Ford—would be insubstantial in comparison to Hayworth’s. In so doing, he unwittingly opened the door for Marion Parsonett and Virginia Van Upp to retool the script, focusing even more on the female protagonist. Parsonett and Van Upp worked on a version of the film which would be entirely Rita Hayworth’s picture, and go on to cement her status as a bombshell. They created a portrait of a complex, sexually liberated, and (as the PCA movie censorship board scathingly noted) “independently minded” woman. When Gilda was released in early spring of 1946, it was a breakout hit. As both writer and executive producer, much of the credit was due to Van Upp. It pulled in upwards of $3 million at the box office, making it a record-breaker for Columbia and in the top ten highest-grossers of the year. By the middle of the decade, it was clear that nearly everything Virginia Van Upp put her name on earned her studio a profit. And in the press, it seemed that the lucrative bottom line had subsumed any rumblings about gender. She had become a figure of respect. When maverick director Orson Welles struggled to piece together his film The Lady from Shanghai, it was Van Upp who sat on the floor with him and rearranged the script’s pages until the wee hours of the morning. She went uncredited.Journalists who interviewed Van Upp—men and women alike—still seemed keen to note that one of Hollywood’s only female executives had retained her femininity. The petite, bespectacled Virginia was regularly referred to in terms of those very qualities, with headlines such as “small girl makes good in large job” and “dainty dynamite!” printed alongside photographs of the producer.“She is a lovely looking person with the very prettiest shade of red hair, and is charming, vivacious, and natural,” went one fawning article in The Pittsburgh Press in 1947. “Miss. Van Upp is not a ‘career girl’ in the usual sense. She has found time for a happy marriage and has reared a charming daughter.”Various profiles of her took care to inform readers that she stood a delicate five-foot-three, with flame red hair and green eyes. Reporters also took a special interest in her domestic life, routinely mentioning her husband, writer Ralph Nelson. He was often featured alongside his (markedly more successful) wife, with whom he worked as an un-credited associate producer. Other articles discussed how Virginia had studied shorthand while she stayed home with her infant daughter Gay, working nearly around the clock as a secretary, script girl, and casting agent as she climbed the industry ladder. “It meant working nights as well as days. It meant very little home life,” Virginia told a reporter in 1946, speaking about her early years. By that point, Gay Nelson—an only child—had grown into a pretty, pert aspiring actress, and had appeared in a handful of films.“Having it all” was not a phrase readily applied in the pre-feminist era. But Virginia’s high-powered job in the public eye put her in precisely that position. By 1947, trade papers reported that Van Upp was making an annual salary of $117,000 a year; adjusted for inflation, the modern equivalent would be about $1.3 million. Yet it was rarely Virginia’s enormous salary or vast managerial power that took up column space.After several years of seemingly happy marriage, Virginia’s family idyll was broken in late October of 1949. Papers announced that she was establishing residence in Carson City, Nevada, to obtain a divorce. The working relationship with Ralph Nelson, however, would continue. “He’s the best in the business,” she offered by way of explanation. When asked if a conflict of careers was the source of the split, you can almost hear the sigh in Van Upp’s voice. “I suppose so. How can you ever explain these things?”By 1949, the divorce was not the only portion of Virginia’s life that was difficult to explain.*Trouble was afoot on the long production of The Guilt of Janet Ames. Since the close of the war years, Virginia had taken an interest in the psychological fallout among young war brides and widows. She undertook a screenplay on the subject, with a starring role for Rosalind Russell. The story focused on a bitter, grieving widow who searches for answers from the group of men her husband died to save.Although the film featured many of Van Upp’s familiar collaborators, including director Charles Vidor, there were continued battles over the script. The working relationship between Vidor and Van Upp seemed to rapidly deteriorate, with frequent breaks in the filming. By August 1946, trade papers were reporting that the producer had taken “suddenly ill” on set. Others reported that she had walked off in a rage and refused to return.Conflicting reports abounded as to the source of the argument, but Virginia did not stick around to pass comment. Instead, she took a six-month sojourn across Latin America to develop other projects, which hardly sounds like the behaviour of a woman in poor health.Some said that the trouble stemmed from the fact that Van Upp hadn’t had time to finish the script before filming began. Others assumed that she was never sick at all, but simply weary of fighting the arrogant Vidor tooth and nail on her own production.A contracted associate producer, and one of the handful of other women in the industry, Helen Deutsch, was asked to step in. But she struggled; Vidor reportedly refused to take any instruction from her. The end result was a disjointed film—and no credit whatsoever for Van Upp, Deutsch, or Vidor, who was removed and replaced.Things were smoothed over somewhat when Van Upp returned to the studio the following year, and her contract was renewed. As one news piece wrote, “Virginia has apparently made her final peace with the studio [...] and has signed a new deal for a 7-year contract which still has 2 years to go. Obviously, Mr. Cohn wanted the lady.”But it would only take another twelve months for Virginia to part ways with Columbia for good.When Virginia had left Paramount roughly a decade before, she had said: “An association like that is much closer and more exhausting than a marriage. You get so you just can’t stand it any longer. [...] I left in mutual agreement. Believe me, there’s nothing more useless than an unhappy writer.” Whether this offers any insight into the situation at Columbia is uncertain, but it’s compelling that Virginia’s point of comparison was marriage, given that her relationships to both the studio and to her husband seemed to be worsening simultaneously.Cohn’s biographer, Bob Thomas, assumes that she wanted to spend more time with her family, though given the fact that her daughter was grown and her divorce was imminent, this seems suspect. And neither illness nor a sudden urge for domesticity explain Virginia’s attachment to some half-dozen other independent productions over the next few years. For a while, she was slated to write The Life of Valentino with director Edward Small, then a musical biopic at 20th Century Fox. In the early fifties, there was even a plan to write, produce, and direct a feature called The Big Whisper, a film about the Allied underground movement, to be shot in West Berlin. Most ambitious of all of these, perhaps, was a screenplay called Christ the Man and renamed The Trial. It was to be filmed by Frank Capra, and would reimagine the life of Jesus Christ in a small American town. Paramount ultimately cancelled production on the film, feeling it was both too costly and too controversial in subject matter. It’s striking that not a single one of these projects were made. It seems that Van Upp’s reserves of creativity and ambition never truly ran out, which begs the question: what happened?*One major passion project appeared most frequently in the papers with Van Upp’s name attached. It was an independent endeavour called Tolvanera, to be filmed partially in Spain and partially in Mexico. Tolvanera would be an adaptation of a best-selling Spanish novel of the same name, epic in scope, with a cosmopolitan international cast. Little is known about the plot, except that it was to be based around the “good neighbour” policy between Mexico and the United States.Over the course of three years, reports flooded in of Van Upp’s production developments. Potential cast members were to include the great Italian actress Anna Magnani, Moira Shearer, John Garfield, and Rome Open City actor Aldo Fabrizi. It was almost as though Virginia had David O. Selznick-style ambitions for the film; a sort of Latin American Gone with the Wind.But money was tight in Hollywood at the start of the ‘50s. Around 1951, all mention of the project seems to disappear. In the end, the last feature with a credit bearing Virginia Van Upp’s name arrived in 1952, on her old friend Rita Hayworth’s comeback, Affair in Trinidad. It may be that the demands of working twice as hard as her male cohorts got the better of Virginia. She was an indefatigable workaholic, known to stay on set all day and write all night. Certainly, everyone agreed that battling the pugnacious Harry Cohn would tire anybody out. But it’s strange that her fade-out from Hollywood has been explained away with talk of phantom illness and a desire for family time. Van Upp passed away in 1970, aged sixty-eight, with little fanfare and hardly any column space. So much of the time in between is a mystery.One thing that seems clear is that Virginia did not gently retire at the end of her time with Columbia Pictures. Her myriad attempts at independent production reveal a woman striving for creative control and large-scale artistic achievement; her unmade projects speak of aspiration and daring. It’s compelling and frustrating that, for now, we can only guess at why none of these films came to fruition.As for Tolvanera, the novel is out of print these days and unavailable in English. Curious about its title, I looked it up in the Oxford Spanish Dictionary. The word means dust storm, but that doesn’t quite do it justice; a tolvanera is a dangerous cyclone of wind and desert sand, notorious for damaging Mexican cities. As with all words in Spanish, it’s also gendered. Tolvanera is feminine—so its real definition may as well be: a female whirlwind.
Meticulous Gloom

 The Victorian supernatural was a transparent manifestation of the period’s constant dialogue with death and dying.

Charles Dickens used to spend Sunday afternoons at the Paris morgue, staring at dead bodies. In The Uncommercial Traveler, he describes the "invisible force" that "drags" him to the morgue whenever he passes through the city. In his diaries he recounts visiting on Christmas and New Year's Day, studying newly arrived corpses as water dripped from the ceiling onto their bloated visages, delaying decomposition. On one visit, he observes custodians bringing in a newly arrived corpse, surrounded by a throng of curious onlookers. As the men roll up their sleeves to prepare the body for display, the eager gaggle speculates possible causes of death, favoring the grisliest possibilities: "Was it river, pistol, knife, love, gambling, robbery, hatred, how many stabs, how many bullets, fresh or decomposed, suicide or murder?"The scene might sound like something out of a Tim Burton fever dream—shameless mobs ogling a gallery of waterlogged grotesques—if it weren't a perfectly realistic account of the kind of tableau that formed around the Paris Morgue for a good portion of the 19th century. Originally built on one of the islands in the Seine in 1804, the morgue reopened in 1864 behind Notre Dame, in part to make it more accessible to a public all too keen to visit "the only free theatre in Paris." The ostensible purpose was for citizens to help authorities identify bodies, many of which drowned in the nearby river or committed suicide, lending the morgue the illicit air so crucial to its appeal.Parisians, though, were only a part of the morgue's audience. At the height of its popularity, it could draw 40,000 visitors in a single day, and countless guidebooks included the morgue as a main attraction for tourists visiting the city. Dickens himself was fascinated by both the bodies, which he described in fastidious detail in his journals, and the public's hankering for a kind of mortality narrative, the way people dreamt up macabre stories and scenarios to accompany the bodies laid out on the black marble slabs. More than just a fringe curiosity perched over a river that fed its exhibition halls, the city morgue was bound up not just in Parisian leisure society, but Victorian culture more broadly. It was one of the ways an era best remembered for its fussy decorum and suffocating moral climate satisfied its obsession with death.Today, that fascination is almost exclusively relegated to cinema, in particular horror movies. Young couples grapple with hauntings and follow demonology leads in the Paranormal Activity franchise; in The Conjuring, a married team of New England mediums travels the country (and in the sequel, working-class England), talking to the dead and collecting keepsakes from the netherworlds they visit. The way we thrill to cinematic ghosts and hauntings and jump-scares is a descendent of Spiritualism and the séances that were its stock in trade, but it's not quite the same. Victorians clasping hands around a table, listening for the intimate messages of the dead, were explicit about their fascinations. Horror films succeed to the extent that they do because they allow those same proclivities to thrive on the sly. Modern spectres such as Freddy and Regan and Samara and Annabelle are not extensions of a cultural institution (death and the afterlife), but the institution itself. They’ve superseded the true roots of their primal appeal, and we’ve forgotten why it is we’re drawn to them. The Victorian supernatural was a transparent manifestation of the period's constant dialogue with death and dying.*The way we often think of the Victorian period—as a kind of upper class diorama, with corseted women in lavishly embroidered dresses being courted by male dandies in pocket watch chains and bespoke canes—belies the seriousness with which they accepted their moral duties, especially as they pertained to the dead. To Westerners today, the Victorian attitude toward death would probably appear obsessive, cultish, deranged—a fetish run amok. But Victorians had a different relationship with death and dying because their historical context demanded it. In the second half of the 19th century, England experienced explosive population growth, expanding from around 14 million people in 1830 to 32.5 million by 1901, and a capital city, London, that was arguably the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. While mortality rates were improving, life expectancy in many cities was still less than 30 years, and more than half of lower-class children died before their fifth birthday. As birth rates shot up, the population burgeoned, and life proliferated, from London to Leeds, so, too, did death.Rather than avoid the subject or disguise it in euphemism, as we may be accused of doing today, Victorians put death front and center. They aestheticized death, indulged in subcultures devoted to it, and wove the art of dying into the social fabric of domestic life. For them, the threshold between the living and the dead was not an object of terror and revulsion but one of relentless fascination, a space to be explored, adorned, and commemorated. In Victorian England, death thrived in the same way as music or food or any worthy cultural institution thrives: by being appreciated and consumed in all different registers, from regional traditions to modish trends to alternative scenes. It was both culture and counterculture, classical, punk, and blues.The elaborate mourning rituals associated with Victorian England are inextricable from the queen who gave the era its name. When Prince Albert died suddenly of typhoid fever in 1861, Queen Victoria was devastated. She became reclusive, only very rarely making public appearances, and dressed in mourning for the final forty years of her life. She insisted that servants in Windsor Castle maintain Prince Albert's quarters precisely as they had been when he was alive, right down to the hot water they carried to his room each morning for a shave.This meticulous gloom gradually spread to the Queen’s subjects. Fashion, as was so often the case in this period, served important symbolic functions. As codes grew stricter and more intricate during Victoria's reign, and especially after Albert's death, widows were expected to follow mourning prescriptions for dress for anywhere from two to four years (some, like their queen, dressed for death for the rest of their lives). During this period they would move through various phases of sartorial grief: black immediately after death, followed by the "half-mourning" colors, grey, mauve, and lilac. Socializing during mourning was strictly forbidden, leaving widows extremely isolated. Like willowy wraiths, they brooded on the borders of the living and the dead.While the queen's public dirge may have veered into the fanatical, these responsibilities were also central to Victorian society. Grief was literally ritualized, allowing the bereaved an established platform and outlet for their overwhelming anguish. The dress codes and social expectations for husbands, wives, children, and cousins were so draconian that to follow them was to have your grief sublimated into moral responsibility. The dead, the dying, and their consorts were all participating in the reverential spectacle of death. While it may not have been in the same garish vein as the Paris Morgue, there was a similar insistence on spotlighting and centralizing it, emphasizing its cultural primacy. The Victorians' instinctual response to death seemed to be to accommodate it, ensconce it in the way they lived and socialized, rather than pretend it isn’t there until a doctor gives the final declaration.*This openness to death also allowed spookier subcultures to flourish. In 1848, Kate and Margaret Fox, two sisters living with their parents in Hydesville, New York, claimed they were communicating with a spirit haunting their house. Calling the ghost "Mr. Splitfoot" (a sobriquet for the devil), the sisters developed a code to communicate with the ghost by counting the supernatural rapping they heard banging against the walls and floorboards.The Foxes' alleged ability to contact the dead would become a watershed moment for the Spiritualism movement, a religious counterculture that claimed its roots in the Swedenborgian intellectual circles of New England and New York, but quickly jumped the Atlantic, becoming all the rage in England. Séances, in particular, became a phenomenon in the Victorian era. Mediums such as Maria B. Hayden and Daniel Dunglas Home captivated upper-class patrons, who would congregate in drawing rooms as spirits revealed themselves through table-rapping, automatic writing and, in some cases, temporary possession. The most talented mediums, like Hayden, were able to convincingly answer questions posed by visitors that only deceased loved ones could know.In the more absurd instances, mediums imparted messages from the dead about the afterlife, discussing the nuances of its politics and social milieu. The place they described became known as Summerland. The Spiritualism scene was, perhaps inevitably, rife with showmanship and legerdemain. Brazen charlatans put on flashy phantasmagorias in darkened rooms, employing levitating objects, shaking furniture, and musical instruments that played themselves.London's séances were one part occult arts and one part theatricality. For Victorians, toying with the borderlands between the living and the dead was a form of entertainment. For every grief-stricken Queen Victoria, who employed a prodigal thirteen-year-old medium, Robert James Lees, to help her talk to her beloved Prince Albert, there was another drawn to Spiritualism and séances simply because of its spine-tingling allure.*Victorians aestheticized death in a way almost completely absent today. In The Hour of Our Death, Philippe Aries declared the 19th century "the age of the beautiful death." A large part of this aestheticization lies in the Victorian era's passionate revival of memento mori. The ways in which Victorians remembered the dead ranged from death masks to early photography to mourning jewelry, including the ornate mourning lockets that held swatches of hair and miniature portraits and remain such iconic emblems of the era. The memento might have been ghoulish, but they were also completely free of stigma. For them, clinging to the dead was natural.One of the more unsettling examples of this was death portraiture. In the 1850s, as photographers started developing cheaper ways to make daguerreotypes, photography became increasingly accessible to the middle classes. In death portraiture, families would dress up the corpses of dead loved ones in fashionable attire and pose alongside them for photographs. Infant mortality rates remained high, and fearful parents often saved money so that they could have photographs of their children taken after they passed. Death portraiture photos, eerie and poignant, became cherished family relics. They're also further evidence of Victorians' comfort with occupying the liminal space between the living and the dead. The photos camouflage the usual contours of mortality, presenting images that hardly acknowledge a difference between the stern countenances of brothers, mothers, and fathers, and the frozen faces of the dead. Today, death portraiture, given the more clinical name “post-mortem photography,” is almost entirely limited to the work of police and forensic pathologists investigating causes of death. The art of death photography has, quite literally, been pathologized.But the era's aestheticization of death was about more than just turning the deceased into objets d'art. It also pointed to the way that people understood death as a responsibility of the domestic sphere. Family photos with dead brothers and sisters, rings emblazoned with urns and weeping willows, even death masks, which come across as ghastly totems today, were all ways of bringing death into the home.With mortality rates as high as they were, and life expectancy still mostly in the twenties and thirties, depending on one's class, everyone reconciled themselves to family members dying at any time. They didn't have the luxury, as some of us do, of waiting until old age, so that the moribund can be sequestered to hospitals and hospice facilities. The majority of people died in the home. All sorts of domestic superstitions arose as a consequence of this. Clocks were stopped at the exact time of death. Mirrors in the house were covered, to prevent the deceased's soul from getting trapped inside a looking glass. A wreath covered in black crepe was put on the front door. Superstition was part of how the Victorians ritualized the act of death and dying, how they absorbed it into their domestic spaces.Perhaps the finest demonstration of this was the deathbed. Far more than the figure of speech it is today, the deathbed in 19th century England was a highly literal domestic fulcrum by which family members stood vigil. It was there that they waited, with bated breath, for the dying's last words. This scene was so common, so recognizable among Victorians, that it was immortalized over and over in 19th century British literature, from Dickens's Little Nell to Helen Burns in Jane Eyre and Cathy Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights. Novelists may have seen in the deathbed and dying words an opportunity for maximum melodrama, but such dramatization extended to reality: a person's last words were treated as a final testament to her life, and signaled the transition from one world to the next.*Our attitude today toward death and dying is different. We brandish a repertoire of military metaphors—fighters, wars, battlefields—while hiding behind a medical-industrial complex all too eager to indulge our delusions and stubbornness to "hope against hope" and "fight the good fight." When death doesn't strike close to home, it fascinates us just as it did 150 years ago—so long as we’ve sufficiently deceived ourselves. Social media erupts in a rapture of grief whenever an artist or celebrity passes away, creating a cyber-space of mourning and posthumous worship that can sometimes seem disproportionate to the celebrity's popularity during his lifetime. Are people just grieving on Twitter, Facebook, and in obit think pieces, or are they also indulging their repressed infatuation with death?The popularity of series such as Making a Murderer, Serial, and O.J.: Made in America purport to spring from the audience’s interest in the convolutions of justice and the specter of doubt, but they would go nowhere without murder and death as their molten cores. How popular would Netflix's true crime sensation have been if Steven Avery had been sent to prison for, say, selling heroin? The scintillation is in the dead body; it's the center of these stories' lurid labyrinths. As Stassa Edwards put it in The Awl in 2015, "the distance between the spectacle of the morgue and a Saturday evening marathon of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is slimmer than most would admit."That distance is really just one of self-denial. Victorian culture explicitly accepted death and our captivation with it as part of its social fabric, unabashedly tied to customs, rituals, religious practices, even the succor of the home. Today, we smuggle it through the back door: a blood-spattered horror movie, a true crime binge, an insatiable curiosity for the sordid circumstances of a celebrity death. The cognitive dissonance between our collective attitude toward death and dying (renunciation, denial), and the way we privately satisfy primal compulsions we never bother to interrogate might strike the Victorians as even stranger than a morgue that doubles as a museum.In the 1918 paper "Science as a Vocation," the social theorist Max Weber introduced the idea of the "disenchantment of the world." Weber believed that modern society, characterized by secularization, science, and rationalism, had moved beyond the spiritual and religious ideas that once anchored it. Belief in the sacred and supernatural was rapidly waning, he argued, and where once the world stood as a "great enchanted garden," now it could be fully construed through science and subjugated through rational goals. The price of modernization and its cohort—the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, secularized governments, bureaucratic states—was the dissipation of mystery. Victorian spiritualism, from séances to superstitions to exquisite death relics, might have been the last gasp of mysticism before Weber's disenchantment permanently solidified over the Western world. But if we want to engage death with the same whimsical brio as that period, enchantment is exactly what we need. If we want to escape the bleak onslaught of hospice centers, nursing homes, and futile medical war-waging, we'd do well to remember that the Stygian threshold we regard with such fear and repudiation can also inspire strange, brilliant worlds of curiosity and wonder.
The Essential Mundanity of Grief

I don’t know where or when I learned that I needed to curb any narcissistic tendency I might feel, even in grieving, but I most certainly caught on quick.

The October 29th entry in Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary—a journal he kept to document the elliptical sentences that came to him after his mom’s death,  published after his own—reads: "In taking these notes, I’m trusting myself to the banality that is in me." What Barthes understands is that grief is boring. He also understands that it is worth trusting the banality of grief because something honest lies in its wrinkles and creases—what I think of, to borrow one of his lines, as "the lineaments of truth." Mourning holds very little entertainment value. It repeats the same story over and over (and over and over). Barthes writes, "One day, leaving one of my classes, someone said to me with disdain: 'You talk about Death very flatly.'– As if the horror of Death were not precisely its platitude!" The terror of death is just how boring it is, how positively certain and flat it is sure to be.At the same time as Barthes was keeping a private diary—with entries like "An onset of grief. I cry."—he was also at work on a polished, publication-oriented work, 1980’s Camera Lucida, where he undertook to theorize photography. He ruminates on what still images are, and what they do, and asks a central question: "does photography exist?" In the midst of this theorization, Barthes mourns his mother, Henriette, by describing the countless photographs of her he sifted through during her illness, and which he clung to after her death. Camera Lucida is an extended eulogy for his mother, insofar as it is an offering—some reflections on photography, yes, but also on time and extended sorrow. (That Barthes himself died shortly after its publication lends it elements of the self-penned eulogy, too, not unlike David Bowie’s Blackstar album.)The pinnacle of Barthes’s theory of photography (it does exist, after all) is formalized—or really, not formalized at all but felt as a wound—in what Barthes calls the Winter Garden photo, which depicts his mom as a young child. A master of the parenthetical aside, Barthes tells his reader that "(I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the 'ordinary' … in it, for you, no wound)." In his elegant way Barthes tells us that we just wouldn’t get it, and he’s right. We might look at the Winter Garden photograph and see a young girl, a mere stranger, where Barthes sees the origin of his world. Death really is the manifestation of the ordinary to everyone except the griever. Barthes’s experience of looking at the Winter Garden image cannot be reproduced because his loss cannot be reproduced. If by merely looking at Henriette as a child we could feel what Barthes feels, grief would be translatable in a way that anyone who has grieved knows it is certainly not. Barthes describes looking through the many photographs of his mother as a "Sisyphean labour" whereby he finds himself "straining toward the essence" of her. He draws an analogy between this straining and having dreams of his mother— she is always there, but never quite. He dreams of her, but he does not dream her. The distinction might seem arbitrary, but it is not. He always falls short with this straining until he comes upon the Winter Garden image. The labour of mourning is much like this way of looking. We push the heft of our grief interminably upward and just when we think there might be some respite, or a pause in our loss, it rolls all the way back down and our mourning becomes as fresh as ever.Grief is boring to those who peer at it from a distance. In grief we turn unapologetically inward, toward what we have lost and with little regard for who and what is still left, we indulge some narcissism and keep everyone else at bay, relegating them to the purlieu just beyond our private hurt. Narcissism has always been a slippery fish—flopping between a "personality disorder" and a mere character trait, depending on who is doing the diagnosing. For our purposes, let’s trace its two predominant meanings: narcissism is considered to be either excessive self-love and self-centredness or, it is, qua the Oxford English Dictionary, a "condition of gaining emotional or erotic gratification from self-contemplation." We might think of the first meaning in its emphasis on excess as akin to the prospecting for social cachet we find online when users grieve-post in thoughtless abundance, hoping to hit upon a viral nugget. The latter definition links narcissism to "self-contemplation," which is nearer to the work of private mourning.This version of narcissism is also closer to Freud’s original distinction, in "Mourning and Melancholia," between the healthy mourner who gets over his loss before too long and the mopey, narcissistic melancholic who doesn’t. Narcissism, then, is derided as faulty because its inward gaze brings pleasure—even when that pleasure can be painful, as it is with grief. For Freud, and generations of practitioners after him, narcissism is a "normal" part of development in childhood, but morphs into a psychological disturbance when it persists in adulthood. Yet there is a narcissistic pleasure to be taken in our grief, a self-centredness that can come as a relief. It can feel good to plug up your ears to the din of the outside world that continues to spin despite your loss. But this psychic sabbatical of self-indulgence too quickly gets chalked up to an "unhealthy" egotism and the sojourn is cut short.In A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes describes what it is like to try to be normal when you’re stumbling in the ruins of your loss. "Sometimes I have no difficulty enduring absence," he writes. "Then I am 'normal': I fall in with the way 'everyone' endures the departure of a 'beloved person.'" Being "normal" can feel like an endurance test, and it can often feel like the only socially viable option.I don’t know where or when I learned that I needed to curb any narcissistic tendency I might feel, even in grieving, but I most certainly caught on quick. I recently found a diary I had sporadically written in the year following my mom’s death. It makes my nerves itch to read it, not because of what it says, but because of what it so actively and assertively avoids saying. Even in the privacy of my own pages, I didn’t let myself wallow in my loss. I wrote about everything except it. I wrote about the boy I was fixated on, about reading Melville, and—this is as close as I got to the truth—about how I was feeling a general sense of malaise.It’s no sin to be obsessed with dating and crushes at nineteen. I should give sad nineteen-year-old me a break. But then there is also a repeated refrain throughout the journal that seems impossible to believe at face value, and if I hadn’t been the author of it myself I would be tempted to call it fake. In these pages, my younger self keeps wondering why I can’t just be "happy." I keep wondering if art will be my path toward this elusive happiness, or if continuing to study literature will deliver the clap of inspiration I felt my life was missing. I wrote entry after entry confused about my sadness, as though the reason weren’t right in front of me: I’d lost my mom and was trying to live on as if it was not so big a deal. I was pledging a clueless allegiance to a happiness script even in the gloaming of my grief.There’s only one entry where I allow myself some pity. On November 6, 2005, exactly one year after the death of my mom, I wrote:One year today. I sat in that room alone with mom until her sun-freckled chest stopped raising with the intake of air. We sat in the green hall on the cold floor in shock and relief and disbelief.One year today and I feel hard. I’m cold and not able to grieve the way I want to. I want my grief to manifest itself outwardly so that I would have no choice but to tell the world. I’m sad, I’m lonely. I miss her.I finally permitted myself some glum inwardness, some much-deserved narcissism that now I wish I’d allowed myself so, so much more of. I was wishing for a materialization of my grief—a permanent broken-heart-shaped bruise, an immovable mourning band laid taut against my puny arm, my brown hair turned white overnight—to signal my sadness to others. At the time I just couldn’t find the words to articulate the grief that was engulfing me, and besides, I would have been too scared to utter them even if I’d found them.To be overcome with grief is to have given a damn about someone else. To be narcissistic in your grief is to take the time you need to flounder in the new absence. In the wide expanse of newly discovered loss, we become situational narcissists, paddling in circles around ourselves, looking helplessly for what has already sunk. Narcissism is considered superficial and inauthentic, but that’s only because we keep insisting it is. The insistence that narcissism and self-reflection are always already in excess of what is "normal" is faulty—there is not enough introspection in modern life, especially when it comes to reflecting on death. In my own avoidance of processing the loss of my mom, I was, in a less obvious way, obsessed with it all the same. The energy I spent occluding my sadness was just as much work, I think, as it would have been to reckon with it. All I really wish is that I had been less concerned with my grief (and its attendant narcissism) impinging on the comfort of others.* Sifting through photographs, and theories of the photograph, Barthes wonders where death has gone and if it bears "some historical relation with what Edgar Morin calls the 'crisis ofdeath' beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century… For Death must be somewhere in society," Barthes muses, "if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere." He suggests that with the "withdrawal of rites" and the wearing out of religious illusion, there is now an "asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual," that has taken its place. Which is to say, death is no longer a site of meaning—of faith, of comfort, of value—but an abruptly literal thing. Since we no longer sit with death for very long anymore and since it does not get the same prolonged attention it once did, death becomes purely (and terrifyingly) literal, and a binary is entrenched between life and death, as though they weren’t intrinsic to each other. For Barthes, death returns in the photograph: "Life/Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print."This return of death in the final print of the photograph sounds a lot like Freud’s theory of the return of the repressed, which was later taken up and further theorized by Barthes’s contemporary Jacques Lacan. Freud and Lacan write about how what we unconsciously repress (refuse to acknowledge, resolutely deny) comes back in other ways, against our will. In other words, we can’t hide from what we don’t want to see or feel. According to Freud, no taboo desire or traumatizing experience or nebulous fear is forgotten. Quite the opposite: these wishes and feelings and fears are almost immortalized in our unconscious minds and they are just biding their time until they surface again. We have come to repress death so assiduously and so often that it is bound to rear its head in ways we can’t anticipate. So we can buy all the self-help books we want, we can continue to drape our illnesses in aggressive and death-denying language, and we can give clichéd eulogies instead of grappling with last words ourselves, but death isn’t going anywhere. The repressed returns. Conventionally, the return of the repressed manifests in slips of the tongue, mistakes in memory, fantasies, and the like, but what Barthes’s Camera Lucida suggests is that this return can take shape in our cultural productions, too–like the photograph.*In the spirit of Barthes and of his mother, Henriette, I went looking through some photographs of my mom. I haven’t looked much at photos of her since she died, and when I started my small archival dig I realized that most of them I had never seen at all. There is one photo in particular that, while I can’t claim it as my Winter Garden equivalent, I found arresting. Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, "Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy." In my instance, this photograph came as a welcomed, even overdue, invitation to fantasy. The picture is slightly larger than your standard four by six inches, and it has become browned and crinkled with age. Tape that has long since lost its stickiness hangs off the corners, with bits of paper still clinging to it from a scrapbook where the photograph once was kept. In the picture, my mom’s body forms an arc as her right arm cuts vertically through the air with a tennis racket in hand while the left reaches out horizontally to help her balance. Only one of her feet has left the ground, but even then, just a little bit. She wears a full tennis getup: tube socks and white sneakers, a pleated skirt and V neck cable-knit sweater with a button collar poking out from underneath (also all white).I’m describing to you some of the details, and there are more I could give. I could give you some context, like the fact that my mom was the city tennis champ of Hamilton, Ontario, back in her day, or that she played varsity for her university. But, if I’m really to be in the spirit of Barthes’s way of looking, his way of "straining toward the essence," then I’ll admit that the astonishment of this image does not lie in the facts. What captures me is the blur of the racket as it swoops through thin air. The fuzziness of this part of the image shows a motion that was over the very next instant, and that reminds me just how long-over that instant is now.I want to be able to strain toward an essence like Barthes does, but instead I look for my own likeness. I notice that her eyebrows thin out at the ends just like mine, which make them fade into nothingness when photographed. I see that her legs aren’t quite my legs, but then I look at her hair, her eyes, her chin, and think about how I’ve been told my whole life that I am her spitting image. I can see it here. The part of the photograph that holds my attention the most and that my eyes keep returning to—what Barthes would call the punctum (the point in the image that pricks me)—is my mom’s left hand. It is the only uncontrolled movement she makes: the fingers hold no pose, but are gently splayed in a blurry motion like the swoosh of the tennis racket. I never saw this picture when she was alive, and so the image holds meaning for me only in the fact of her death. I look at this glamour shot of my mom playing tennis sometime in the mid-1960s in Dundas, Ontario, and what I see is my own wish for her to fleetingly return to me. Swoosh.But perhaps my Winter Garden photograph is not a photograph at all but a grocery list. For nearly twelve years I’ve kept a grocery list, twenty items long, that my mom had written out. She probably wrote it a few months before her death, and I found it in the pocket of a pink sweater I had bought her the previous Christmas. I’ve kept the list because I don’t want to forget what her handwriting looked like. The small white square of paper now folds easily into its worn creases, made supple from years of repeated foldings and unfoldings. I like to look at the list because in her cursive hand my mom comes back to me. It’s not just her handwriting I’m reminded of, but her trill little voice, singsong when she teased you, commanding when it needed to be.The items on her grocery list (soy milk, tile cleaner, tuna) help me remember the routine things she liked—small preferences, the constellation of tiny decisions that made up her life. There is nothing remarkable about it, as far as grocery lists go. Why this scrap of paper holds what feels like a universe for me is because with her death I lost all the trivial things that made my mother a multi-dimensional person, that made her alive instead of dead.Excerpted from The Last Word: Reviving The Dying Art of the Eulogy by Julia Cooper
A Place of Absorption

How naive I was, to have thought that when someone hurts you, the polite response is to ask him to stop.

Survival Skills is a monthly column about nature and feelings.“You should limit the number of times you act against your nature, like sleeping with people you hate. It’s interesting to test your capabilities for a while but too much will cause damage.”- Jenny HolzerIt's hard to know what to do when someone says, “this is the knife I was going to use to kill you.” On a cold day in January, he holds a box cutter up to my face, runs it in front of my neck, his expression placid as flat water, and then walks calmly back over to a cardboard box that sits on the other side of the room waiting to be sliced open.It’s hard to know what to do when that same person, later, says he loves you.It wasn’t the first time I’d felt scared. It started when we began to watch Luther, a British crime show about a dashing detective. Once, late at night, after an episode, he turned to me in bed and asked if I’d ever thought about killing someone. I hadn’t. Had he? He had. He’d want to know if he could get away with it, he said. We turned out the light, and I couldn’t sleep.Soon after, he decided to purchase The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. He wanted to know if he met the criteria. Then the conversations shifted from killing someone to killing me. I can’t recall the jokes exactly now—it’s been too long—but he made jokes about it. I know there were three, because I told myself that one or two jokes about him killing me might be okay. But there were three, and so I told him I was uncomfortable with this running joke of his, expecting something like a rational response.He got angry. The problem, he said, was that I wasn’t funny enough. I didn’t get it.Somehow, we talked around it until I felt less perturbed. Later that evening, back at my own apartment, I called a friend and asked out loud the question I’d been wondering for the last little while: “How do you know if you’re being abused?” Abuse is a fraught word, heavy and dangerous, and it’s a charge that, these days, you'd better be ready to defend. I knew once I’d said it to another human, I wouldn’t be able to take it back. I knew if I had to ask I already knew the answer.And then he was holding a box cutter up to my face. My brain was pounding like a fist was curling around it and squeezing tight. I had one job: to get us down the stairs and outside. I held my breath as though if I exhaled even slightly, the carbon dioxide might send the situation in an entirely different direction. Five minutes later, we were walking down the street. Nobody who passed us would have noticed anything wrong.For women who are raised to believe they are strong, agency is complex. Privilege makes you reckless. I remember the moment I chose to buy into the interesting situation I could sense unfolding. It happened one morning, maybe around 4 a.m., when I couldn’t sleep—I usually couldn’t sleep when I slept over. We almost always went to bed angry and I almost never knew why. There is something insidious about love built by two brittle hearts. I made a choice and chose wrong. How naive I was, to have thought that when someone hurts you, the polite response is to ask him to stop.*"I'm just here to see the desert."The cab driver had eyed me curiously as I slid across the back seat, and asked if I was walking across the country. "I once picked up a guy with a backpack like yours—he was walking from California all the way to Canada."Honestly, I didn't really know where I was going. I'd come for the heat, the sand, the air so dry and thick it wraps it around you like a blanket. I'd grown up around mountains; mountains are where you go to fight. But the desert was where you went to surrender.The driver dropped me off at a cheap motel and, standing on the balcony across from a Waffle House, I was struck by how velvety blue the sky looked against the white stucco walls, how most of the buildings were some faded shade of orange, humming with fire in the quiet night. Inside, I ran a bath. I stepped into in the water, so hot I could feel my skin burning, shoots of pain crackling up my ankles and calves. It felt good to get hurt.*At the beginning, we were tender and careful. He was handsome, with a crooked smile that erupted onto his face, a dry wit that made him charming. (Even now, after everything, I think of that smile and feel a little bit slayed.) One night, he recited John Donne to me as we walked home. I didn’t laugh often but, when I did, I laughed hard. To call it a relationship would be wildly inaccurate, but our entanglement lasted for a handful of months. We went on two dates. I remember distinctly when the tone turned. I stood in front of his bathroom mirror, teasingly threatening to splash water on the side of the sink he kept meticulously clean. “You whore!” he screamed.As time went on, on any given day, I was a bitch, a fucking asshole, or not conventionally attractive. I had a fat ass; I was unkind, not supportive enough, cruel, lacking a backbone. I looked like shit, my vagina smelled bad—so bad that he could smell it through a pair of running tights I owned. Once, there was a joke that someone, somewhere, someday would be desperate enough to marry me—that one stung.I developed an anxiety disorder. I couldn't eat or sleep. I lost fifteen pounds and didn't notice until my coworkers told me I was looking fit; my body literally eating itself to keep warm. I shook when I tried to sleep. I began to cry at things that weren't sad. I kept a knife under my pillow. One night he came over and found it, pulled it out of its sheath, switched open the blade and stared at it. You know, he said, that statistically it’s far more likely that a perpetrator will use your own weapon against you. You know that, right? He didn’t come over again.After the incident with the box cutter, he called me one night in what I can only describe as distress. I was concerned. I did not know what to do. I went to his house. (I should not have gone to his house.) I found him on the bathroom floor, bleeding, crying. I stayed until he calmed, grabbing his wrists, hugging his knees, watching him break. He asked if I would come to his funeral. I said yes. I slept over. I did not know until the next morning that it was physically possible to wake up in tears. I’d slept alone in an apartment with someone who had threatened to kill me.Soon after we ended things, in a bewildering public conversation in which he cried, pleaded, professed love, I became obsessed with watching shows about serial killers, as many as I could find, my new nighttime routine. Sleep would find me around 4 a.m. as the killer quartered yet another female victim. I didn’t turn the lights off anymore—I always ended up flicking them back on. My natural state of mild excitement was replaced by an electric unease. I was still picking up the phone when he called, indulging the part of me that liked being needed. A month after what I’d taken to calling the incident, that morning in the apartment with the cardboard box and me, I was admitted to the psych ward after an uncontrollable panic attack brought on by another nonsensical argument between us. They took away my phone, my ID, my keys. They told me to stop speaking to him. That if he was self-harming, I call the police. That if he harmed me, I call the police. That month is the closest I have ever come to losing my mind.*Stay. I flip the word around in my head, listen to it fall off my tongue. To cease going forward, to come to a halt. To support, prop, or brace. To remain in place. Alexandra Molotkow writes in New York magazine,“cruelty is intimate, and can feel, perversely, like a form of care: You have to know someone to know how to hurt them, and to want to hurt someone demonstrates interest.” Why does anyone stay? Why did I? I have been playing with this question for months, like it’s some kind of Rubik’s Cube from hell I can’t solve and I can’t put down.And still, I know I am lucky: I am the best-case scenario. He never hit me, never raped me; just once, when we were in our pajamas roughhousing, he held me down on his bed, pinned my wrists, and it wasn't playful anymore, his face changed and I saw it change and he knew I saw and, after a little too long, he let go. That hardening in someone's eyes is not something you can quantify. Their hands leave red rings around your wrists that fade before you can use them as proof. I see a therapist who says, "you care so much about being a good person" like it's a bad thing. But I realize that it's here where romantic hope gets twisted into something more sinister. That burst of excitement in your chest that rises like soft fireworks and sounds a little like someone whispering “maybe you can save me, maybe it’s you,” is something that, if you're not careful, will detonate. When friends ask why it's been so long since I've been in touch, I shrug. There's been a lot going on. Someone tells me that maybe I should pray about it. Someone else says, but he never hurt you, right?Asking why I stayed means learning things about myself, about loneliness and desperation and how I fit or don’t fit into the world. There are times in my life I’ve felt so passive, so apathetic, like nothing more than a mouldy leaf floundering in a parking lot in front of a 7-Eleven at night, tossed around by whatever breeze comes along. And this was one of those.*The desert is a place of absorption. No water is wasted here, sucked into the cracks that run like spindly veins through the bleached rock. It’s alien, the landscape in New Mexico. One minute I’m driving along the interstate in my silver Hyundai rental, brown sand pockmarked with black cacti as far as I can see, and the next everything turns to blindingly bright white gypsum hills. I pull up to the White Sands National Monument and ask for a backcountry campsite and the blonde woman behind the desk charges me $3. Good deal. She’s mildly distracted, and asks me if I have a cell phone I can use to call 911 if I need to and I say yes. (I don’t.) But I've dealt with bear scares and have camped in 20-below and there aren't even any animals here, what could I possibly have to fear? I've got tons of water. Besides, I think to myself, I’ve never cared less about whether I survive. Then she hands me the pamphlet with the pictures of the bombs.White Sands borders a missile range of the same name and, I quickly learn, is a hundred feet from the testing ground where they set off the first atomic bomb. Because it’s still a live test site, detritus can get blown too far and, even years later, turn up somewhere in the dunes still ready to explode. Camping with bombs is new even for me but I’m not deterred. I take my permit, drive up the dune road, and hike the two miles out to my site. I see a couple of people far in the distance but otherwise it feels like I’m alone in space—exactly what I came for. Here, white dunes roll in every direction, emitting a blue glow that rises, fuzzy, like an old TV screen left on downstairs. I’ve been walking for half an hour and I can feel my skin burning from the sun.I pitch my tent. When it starts to get dark, the wind picks up. Out here on the dunes, there’s no shelter. Even if you’re tucked in to one of the valleys in between, which I am, you’re totally exposed. It’s just me and the little black beetles that find my tent fascinating and my presence nothing more than an irritating obstacle between them and refuge. Suddenly, the wind begins to whip the nylon so violently that even the weight of my backpack can’t keep it pinned to the sand. I climb in as thunder rips across the flat sky.I count to five or six—or was it seven?—between the lightning strikes and the thunder. And, suddenly, I remember the warden telling me that there’s one real danger out on the sand, aside from the bombs, and it’s lightning storms. I don’t know anything about lightning safety—I don’t climb high-altitude mountains or live in a place where such knowledge would be useful. When the thunder crashes again, I can feel panic pricking around my spine. I’m not the highest thing out here, but I am carrying the most metal. I look around at my tent poles (metal), my stove (metal), and my fuel canister (metal and explosive). In the brochure I stuffed in my backpack, it says that if there’s lighting, head back to your car. But I’m too far out to make it back before pitch-dark sets in and I know if I try I’ll lose the trail. I decide to try anyway, frantically packing up my things, amazed my tent hasn’t been shredded. The lighting strikes continue, the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen, roasting these pure white dunes. I throw my arms up, wrapping them around my head as though that will offer some kind of reprieve, and I think it is actually conceivable that I could die in the middle of the New Mexico desert.I begin to walk in the rain, and about half a mile back to my car I see a hooded figure struggling to pull a fly over a tent. I realize I have lost the trail but also that, thankfully, I am not alone. When I get closer I see that it is a lanky man around my age. Truthfully, he looks a bit like he's been electrocuted already, wide eyes and wild curly hair. I explain that I am freaked out by the lightning and he nods. We both know it is bad to be out here. Back to the car would mean walking half an hour on top of the dunes. Staying would mean hoping I was protected enough to be lucky, or lucky enough to be protected. It starts to pour and the lightning keeps filling the cracks between the clouds.A man I can fight. Against lightning, I am nothing. He offers me a corner of his four-person tent to sleep in, which is nice. His presence out here is comforting. I don’t know how long it rained for—it is still raining when I fall asleep, which feels like hours.I wake up to see the sunrise at 6 a.m., and it is like the wild night hasn’t happened at all. The dunes are still glowing, rippling, pristine. Beads of sweat pool on my legs as I stuff my sleeping bag into my backpack and the man comes over with a towel, starts to rub me down. I recoil. I hadn’t wanted this. I hadn’t invited it, or said yes. Even out here, even when all I need is help.Later, a friend tells me that tent poles don’t conduct electricity. And I’m reminded that, so often, the worst monsters are the ones that live in our heads.*A few days later, I’m in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The downtown strip is dotted with spas, hot springs, shops hawking healing crystals and therapies that will infuse your life with the zen you know it deserves. The small, burnt-out town is the spa capital of the United States, on the banks of the Rio Grande River. I am in one of its bathhouses, submerging myself in kitsch and crumpled dreams. I survey the crumbling tiles, the placid water, the salt-and-pepper pebbles covering the pool's floor. I undress and step in carefully. I wonder how many other butts have sat on this very stone hoping for some kind of revelation. I stop being able to breathe and climb out for relief. And then I get back in.I wonder if I will always approach the men I date with a feeling deeper than apprehension now, a feeling closer to fear. Love is something to be guarded. No one tells you that the most complicated part isn’t moving on, it’s starting over. I didn’t know until I found myself in the what-happens-next that I would question everything with a ferocity that surprised even the most anxious parts of me, that suspicion would swallow my innards with frightening totality. I think, on average, once every minute, about whether I am smart or pretty or skinny or compelling or captivating or charming enough—1,440 times a day. I am infected. Who is the arbiter of enough, anyway?I meet someone else, eventually, and the first time he says he loves me, I flinch. I didn't believe much before and I sure don't believe anything now. The first time I have sex again and it feels good, I go to the bathroom and sob. One thing my therapist never told me to expect is that I’d forget when I know how much is too much to give; I can no longer tell when the equilibrium is off. Everything now—a flicker of tone, a sideways glance, a distant voice on the end of the phone—is a sign, a flag, a warning.Back in a rundown bathhouse on the banks of a river deep in the desert, I sink my face into the pool and lie back, hoping I'll float and I do, for a time. My hour is up. The water is calm, and I am calmer too, soothed by the white walls and whisper-pale blue window slats, the terra-cotta floor cold on my feet. I walk up the stone stairs and pause to look into the small mirror at the top, skin flushed red from the heat. I notice an eyelash on my cheek and lift it off. I imagine my new boyfriend here, wanting him to be, cautiously, so we can play the eyelash game, press our thumbs together, spread them apart, and make a wish. Maybe, I think, our wishes would be the same.
‘It’s About Making a Person More Herself’: Translating Elena Ferrante

For over a decade, outgoing New Yorker copy head Ann Goldstein has made Elena Ferrante’s work come alive in English. We spoke with her about translation, Italian lessons and Dante.

In April of 2003, two editors from the Italian magazine Indice forwarded five interview questions to Elena Ferrante by way of her publisher with a request that she participate in a section of the magazine they’d titled “Unsuccessful Writing.” Two months later, Ferrante sent back what amounted to 70 pages of text and the polite but unyielding statement that she “had no desire to make a shorter, publishable version.” Ferrante’s response to the magazine’s interview request is now the sixteenth chapter of her latest book, Frantumaglia.Ann Goldstein, who announced her retirement as head of The New Yorker copy department this week, began translating Ferrante’s work in 2004 with The Days of Abandonment. Since then, Goldstein has translated all of Ferrante’s books, including Frantumaglia, an incidental memoir comprising letters, interviews, and ephemera from the past 25 years of her life.In that sixteenth chapter, Ferrante teases out the meaning of the word that gives the book its name. “My mother left me a word in her dialect that she used to describe how she felt when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments.”Goldstein, too, deals with a kind of linguistic frantumaglia, reconciling the meanings and sensations of one language within the form of another. Instead of tearing her apart, translation tends to bring the jumble of fragments together. Language is the fabric of Ferrante’s uncompromising genius, through which she shows her intellectual and emotional endurance.As head of the copy department at The New Yorker, Goldstein’s daily work was about maintaining the integrity of the magazine’s sentences. Translations of Ferrante’s Italian are a reorganization of that editing instinct, solidifying something that’s already there and making it legible to the English-speaking world.The temptation is to ask Goldstein to speak for Ferrante, whose anonymity creates a portrait by omission. Instead, I asked about her work both in partnership with, and lateral to, the specter of her brilliant friend.Naomi Skwarna: You mentioned in a recent interview with Melinda Harvey that you’re “only the creator of [Ferrante’s] world in language.” I wonder if you could tell me what your goals are; what defines your ear and hand as a translator?Ann Goldstein: Philosophically, I would say that my goal is to make the best English version, that is to say, to render the voice of the Italian writer as well as I can. At The New Yorker we talk about how people always complain that everything sounds the same—“They make everything sound the same,” which is really not true! I think that our goal is always to make every writer sound as good as he or she can sound. There's a similar goal in translation. It's about making a person more herself. Or as much him or herself as possible in the other language.Is there a process of adaptation at all?I don't know if I would call it adaptation, but you're always making a choice that might night be the one somebody else would make. You're choosing from a range of meanings. When Ferrante uses a word in Italian, it has a certain resonance in that language. You're probably not going to find a word in English that has the same resonance, but you have to find the one that you think is the most important.I don't know if this is a fair analogy, but it brings to mind the interpretation of a piece of music—different instruments, different players.It is. There's an essay by an Italian writer called Cesare Garboli where he talks about the translator as an actor, a performer, and no one's ever going to perform the same way.Early in Frantumaglia, Ferrante writes “…when one makes a creative work, one is inhabited by others—in some measure becomes another.” Does translation follow this rule as well? You’ve mentioned previously that you don't embody Ferrante in the process of translation, but is it absorbing?Totally. Ferrante especially, partly because there was so much of it! 1,800 pages, years of my life. I was living with those characters. I remember when I finished the third [Neapolitan] book, I felt that something was wrong, something was missing from my life. And I realized it was the voices of these characters that had been in my head for so long. You're reading word-for-word, sentence-by-sentence.In the Neapolitan Quartet, there are numerous mentions of the dialect spoken in the neighborhood. How did you approach those references to dialect, even if the dialect itself wasn’t present in Ferrante’s writing? I didn't consciously do anything, but as a translator following the lead of the author, I think it might've come out a certain way. I've heard Italians say that the language is slightly different, that you can hear echoes of the dialect in the language when Ferrante says it. Not of the words, but the sound or the feeling of it.What drew you to Italian translation?It was accidental. We had been having Italian classes at The New Yorker office when the artist Saul Steinberg sent the then-editor Robert Gottlieb a book by Aldo Buzzi in Italian. [Gottlieb] said "what am I supposed to do with this?" He gave the book to me and said "can you read this and tell me something nice I can say to Saul?" So I started reading the book and I was very taken with it, and I just decided to try and translate it. So I did, and then it got published. It was really completely serendipitous. I thought translating would be a way of studying the Italian language in a much more intimate way.What was it about Italian that caught your imagination? Dante. I wanted to read Dante in Italian. I'd had this ambition for many years and finally it came true. I had read it in translation, the Latin. That old Italian has many similarities. It wasn't a question of understanding it differently—although probably I did. I don't think I saw it or understood it differently, but I did understand the language differently, because I was reading it just in Italian with Italian notes.Was there a different emotional experience?You read a book at a different age, it's a different experience. Dante in college—in certain ways expresses all the seeking and yearning, the emotional turmoil of college. But, Dante has a lot to say when you're older, too.Does The New Yorker still offer language lessons to their staff? No company has anything like that anymore. It was amazing! They would pay for any kind of class that theoretically improved your work. Language classes are obvious, but anything that made you a better reader or a better worker, in a way. Those were the days.You're known for your translations of Elena Ferrante, but you've also translated Primo Levi's collected works, Jhumpa Lahiri, and others. Within the different texts you've translated, did you find any particularly challenging?I recently translated a Pasolini novel called Street Kids and that was really hard and really illuminating. It does have dialect in it, Roman dialect, which is maybe not as different a language as Neapolitan from Italian, but it was difficult and different. I don't think there's a good way to translate dialect, I don't think there's a good way to find an equivalent. Some people suggested using a Brooklyn accent, but it would just sound silly, because you know you're not in Brooklyn—you're in Rome. I ended up making the dialect parts more slang-y, or less grammatical than the other parts.Frantumaglia features a lot of professional, but still intimate, correspondence. Did you find that different than translating Ferrante's fiction? Well, there's no dialogue, so yes. Her fiction isn't easy to interpret, but in some of the interviews—the correspondence not so much—sometimes she's saying really complicated things, and it's not always easy to tell what she means. It was difficult in a different way. Not in terms of the sentences, but in terms of the concepts, and therefore being able to translate them correctly. There were a couple of interviews that were particularly difficult. One place that I think was hard, in a different way from the novels, is the discussion of transcendence [in Chapter 17 with Nicola Lagoia]. Granted, I think the question was not easy to translate either.Did you get a different sense of her as a person?I would say that I got a more specific sense of the author that I feel I'm familiar with through the novels. I had a sense of the person writing those novels, and the Frantumaglia pieces seemed like another aspect of the same person. A person you know is very intelligent, very sharp, sometimes sort of crusty and impatient. Not necessarily nice. But also: incredibly generous, taking seriously all these questions and answering them with great gravity and thoughtfulness.Generosity is something I thought of as well—her willingness to engage so fully with people who were more-or-less strangers. I particularly loved anytime I saw that a long and carefully composed letter hadn't been sent.Yes! (Laughing.)Has your work as a translator of Italian affected you as a copy editor, or as reader of English work? Studying any language, understanding the structure of another language is extremely helpful in understanding how English works. I had already studied Latin and French, so I had a sense of structure and the way other languages work. But Italian is different. I think it refines your sense of English.
‘You’ll Only Change When the Status Quo is Ripped Away From You’: An Interview with Elan Mastai

Talking with the author of All Our Wrong Todays about the unintended consequences of innovation, the seductive powers of nihilism, and writing movie scripts about skateboarding chimpanzees.

Technically speaking, all novelists evolved from apes; Elan Mastai, however, may be the first to have evolved from writing about them. Though he has since acquired some serious acclaim for his modern rom-com The F Word, and now his debut novel, All Our Wrong Todays, his first gig was something a little less, uh, auspicious. Specifically, it was MVP 2: Most Vertical Primate, Air Bud Entertainment’s follow-up to its hit hockey-playing-chimp flick, Most Valuable Primate.It was a chance, Mastai explains, that he got right out of film school: a friend had happened to get a job with the production company, and figured she could land the still heavy-on-the-aspiring writer a meeting with a producer, just so he could get some experience.“I don’t know if she explained to him that I had never done this before,” Mastai recalls now. “But he was treating it like a real meeting, so I decided to treat it like a real meeting. He told me what he thought the sequel should be, and because I was literally told by my friend I wasn’t going to get hired, I pitched him an entirely different idea, that I was making up as I was sitting there. And he liked it.“I didn’t even know what a screenplay looked like,” he continues. “I went out and bought the screenplay for Pulp Fiction, so I could just look up what I was supposed to do. It went so far that I made my script 134 pages long, because Pulp Fiction was 134 pages long. That turns out to be crazy long for a children’s movie. The producer described it as War and Peace with Chimps.”A few drafts later he had winnowed it down to Tony Hawk with Chimps, and was now in possession of a green-lit movie with his name in the credits. If stumbling into an extreme sports monkey flick was not a suitably bizarre debut, though, life had a considerably darker curveball: just as MVP 2 was set to go into production, Mastai’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He finished his last touch-ups on the script in between hospital visits.“She was diagnosed very late; she got sick very quickly, she died very quickly,” he says. “At that point it was just this other thing that was going on.“But I was able to sit with my mom, and talk about my experience, and how I was going to have a movie made. And even though it was this silly kids movie, it wasn’t really my thing, it made me feel like I had some idea of how to do this. I wasn’t deluded, I know it’s not how it normally works, but I could tell my mom I was a screenwriter. The gift of that movie was that I could tell my mom that I had figured out what I wanted to do,” he explains. “When I look back on it now, in some ways the last gift that she gave me was that I stuck to that plan. Because I don’t know if I would have. It’s a long path. But we got to have that conversation, where I told her I was going to be okay, and then I actually did it, because I said that to her.”All Our Wrong Todays is the culmination of that conversation in more ways than one. It follows Tom, a denizen of the future we were supposed to have: flying cars, limitless energy, the whole Jetson-caboodle. When his mother is killed by one of those cars, though—not even utopias are perfect—it sets off a chain of events that sends him to our present, a dystopian hellscape of fossil fuels and iPhones. As he struggles to get back to his world, Tom is forced to reckon with the man he hasn’t quite yet become, and figure out how to get by with things that can be fixed: however far humanity has come or will go, we are still pretty dumb animals after all.Hazlitt: So, I guess I want to start with the character of Tom, who strikes me as a bit of left-turn. He comes from this wonderful, utopian place, but he’s basically as close as that world gets to a fuck-up. He’s not the silver-suited genius who invented this stuff—he doesn’t even know how most of it works.Elan Mastai: No, he’s the son of that guy. The son who knows who’ll never top his father, so why try? Part of it is I like the idea of someone who’s aggressively ordinary in an extraordinary world: if you lived in that world, you wouldn’t be amazed by everything—it would just be the technology of your world. We don’t all walk around staring at cellphones, gazing at how incredible they are. We walk around staring at them because we’re texting people and trying to get Wi-Fi signals. I wanted it to have a very nonchalant, skeptical, slightly bemused tone. But I also wanted someone who would go on a journey, somebody who would be self-effacing, very aware of his own foibles, making bad decisions. And part of that is because he comes from a world where, fundamentally, you don’t take responsibility for the consequences of your actions. Literally, robot maids will clean up your messes. So he’s almost immediately overwhelmed by the complexity of the problems that face him. As much as it is a story about time machines and alternate realities and flying cars, it’s really a story about somebody who has to get his shit together and grow up. The consequences of his bad decisions are cataclysmic, and nobody can fix them except for him. That story in this fantastical world, the contrast between that and the mundane, is really interesting to me.There is more to his mundanity, though, in the sense that he’s not just a man-child: he’s also someone who’s dealing with pretty profound grief, in the sense that he lost his mother. For all the flying cars and stuff, the novel really is shot through with a lot of grief, and how people deal with it.I lost my mom when I had just turned twenty-six. And it happened quite suddenly. At the time, I don’t know that I perceived it as a hinge moment in my life, but it turned out that way. And I think I just finally felt ready to write about it. Based on my personality, I’m not going to write, like, a very sad memoir about losing my mother. But the idea of being able to take big, fun ideas—an alternative, pop, futuristic version of the present, and the mordant idea of having someone arriving here and receiving our world to be a dystopia, and then grafting that on: a character who loses a parent earlier in the story, and then goes through terrible decisions and makes things even worse.The utopia/dystopia thing is a really stark metaphor of what life feels like before you lose a parent and what it feels like after. On the one hand, there’s something a little bit perverse about writing a book about the loss of a mother through time machines and alternate realities, but hopefully it’s also a much funner way of talking this stuff. That’s what I like about science fiction: you can use wild metaphors to explore very human things.I’m sort of glad your … I just realized that I’m going to say that I’m glad we can talk about your dead mother.[Laughs] It was a while ago. I can talk about it now.There’s a really great passage where Tom is talking about how grief isn’t an emptiness, it’s a weight. And I think generally in the book there’s this sense that grief kind of crushes your sense of self-identity, or maybe just your ability to think critically about yourself. Not that we generally have a lot of that anyway.No, but that emotion, that profound emotion does have a way of dismantling whatever feeble rational structures you’ve wrapped around yourself. Whether it was truly steady, or it was an illusion, it’s all thrown out. Even if you thought if you were fine—or maybe I would have said I thought I was compartmentalizing things—you’re really not. As humans, we like to believe we’re in control. Inevitably, whatever we think we’re in control of is a total delusion. Inevitably, things are much more complicated than we can really accept. One of my favourite quotes—from someone who you would never think to quote—is from Mario Andretti: If everything seems like it’s under control, you’re just not going fast enough.That idea of control is pretty central to the novel as well, the ways in which these unintended consequences keep coming back to bite us. Obviously that’s literal in Tom’s case, but even generally, there’s that great line, “Optimism is the pyre we’ve set ourselves afire on.”Aflame. I remember changing that, because of the weird pyre/fire rhyme.Right. Probably a good idea to avoid rhyming where possible. I am kind of curious about that, though, because the book is ultimately reasonably optimistic, from Tom’s perspective. He does seem to change, to learn, to exercise some measure of control over himself. Is that your way of saying maybe optimism isn’t so unfounded?When I was younger, a film student, I thought the cheesiest Hollywood thing was them saying that people could change. Every Hollywood movie was about the same thing, about people changing—for the better. And I thought that was ridiculous, because nobody ever changes. As I’ve gotten older, now I feel like the only honest and realistic thing about those Hollywood movies is that people only change if forced to. It’s only through crisis, through catastrophe, through profound challenge that anybody changes. And even when that happens, you do everything you can for as long as possible to avoid changing until you can’t go back. You’ll only change when the status quo is ripped away from you, gone forever. That’s when you’ll have to change. I’m an optimistic guy, but I’m an optimistic realist. I don’t believe in any black and whites, I believe in a lot of gradients of grey, and I very much believe we don’t solve anything until we embrace that. It’s only when you embrace how messy real life is, the complexity of everything, that you have the opportunity to fix anything. To me, whether it’s political rhetoric, self-help, your personal or professional life, you have to embrace the complexity of the challenge, otherwise you’re just deluding yourself, and whatever fix you’re applying is going to be haphazard and paltry.That kind of speaks to another thread in the book, very much related to the lack of control: that idea of the accident of something. That is, when you create something, you also create its accident. It’s control sort of shrunk down to its most basic form: you think you’re creating something wonderful like the car, but you’re also going to kill people with the car accident. We’re always fundamentally underestimating the situation.I find that concept fascinating. The unintended consequences, what happens when your invention actually hits the real world. It’s great to be optimistic about how technology will transform the world. But technology is a tool, and tools are used by people, and if you don’t factor in human nature and the chaos and complexity of the real world, you don’t know what you’re in for. Think of the internet, the incredible effect it’s had on our culture. All of human knowledge at our fingertips. But at the same time it’s had this effect of making all information equal: fact and fiction become option, reality is a subjective choice, and the you can use the internet to live in whatever bubble you feel like. That’s the accident of this incredible technology.That idea strikes me as pretty fundamental to the idea of utopia and dystopia in fiction, too. Traditionally, I think maybe you could argue that dystopias are something like warning signs, the things flagging the accident: socialism seems great, but watch out for Big Brother, something like that. Maybe it’s just because we are almost living in someone’s idea of a dystopia now, but a lot of our contemporary dystopian stuff—The Walking Dead and things like that—seems less like a warning than a kind of nihilistic revelry in the idea that everything might be going to shit.Literature and pop culture often have a different relationship with the unintended consequences of change. Literature has a long history of grappling with the implications of things, where we’re going—inevitably, visions of the future are anxieties of the present. But pop culture tends to be more pulp—it tends to reflect the sensibility of the time in a less self-conscious way. So as our visions of the future have become more fraught, more full of dread, I think nihilism has become more seductive, because it removes responsibility from the individual to effect any change. If everything is this inevitable slide into decay and chaos, then you don’t have to do anything. There’s no personal responsibility in a zombie apocalypse. Your only responsibility is survival, your personal survival. I think anything that lets individuals off the hook for taking any responsibility for the state of the world—that’s wrong. I wanted to write a book that started off as a very black and white utopia and dystopia, and got increasingly complex as it goes along. What do you mean when we talk about the future we want to have?Well, a lot of those ’40s, ’50s, ’60s techno-utopian pieces of culture all happen in the shadow of the atom bomb—the knowledge that we could cause the whole world to blink out in an instant. And there was a lot of worry about that, but there was still this pervading sense of the grandiose world of the future, this incredible Disney-ish Tomorrowland kind of thing. I don’t think we believe in that future anymore, as a culture. Why the change in tone, do you think? What was it that was more dampening to our spirit than the atom bomb?So, Expo 86 was a really big thing for me. I grew up in Vancouver, and it was a classic World’s Fair experience. I spent a lot of time that summer on the grounds, and there were monorails and robots and this vision of the future. It was only recently I discovered that was the last one done in North America. We haven’t hosted it since. We have kind of stopped dreaming of that future. What happened, in the most essentialist way, was we became increasingly aware that there were consequences to our behaviour for the planet—that the planet couldn’t just absorb whatever we did to it indefinitely. People didn’t want to believe that. They still don’t want to believe that. But that is becoming increasingly difficult to believe. Doesn’t mean a lot of people don’t still believe it, but the contradictions are so stark now.That fundamental idea has polluted everything. It’s polluted our political culture, our popular culture, our imagination of the future. The idea that our behaviour is not consequence-free, not just in our everyday lives, but towards our earth, our only home. I feel like big ideas like that take a long time to percolate through the culture. It takes generations. We are the generation now that has grown up only knowing the contradiction between our belief that human ingenuity can solve anything and the knowledge that we’re making a mess of things. And it’s getting harder and harder to believe we can clean the mess up. I think that’s at the root of the curdling of our belief in the future. And it’s huge. The problems are very big and complicated. People don’t like being told they have to give up things. Even if there’s a potential for a better future. And I mean, I’m telling you very blatantly what I think about this stuff, but as a storyteller my job isn’t to harangue—it’s to write a hopefully interesting, page-turning story that, by the end of it, hopefully makes the reader ask personal questions about the consequences of their choices and figure out how they can get to the future they want to be living in.
The Cost of Shame

Money was tight, so I started taking on more questionable modeling gigs. I had to eat.

[[{"fid":"6699801","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"813","width":"1000","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Mouthful is a monthly column about the author’s relationship with food, ten years into recovery from anorexia and bulimia.I’m going to tell you a story that brings me shame. In 2013, I started modeling for artists to make ends meet. At first, I posed for drawing classes, which I enjoyed. I loved the smell of wood and paper, the skritch-skritch of pastels, the silence. I loved forgetting that I was nude. I loved how my mind wandered and returned to the present moment, then wandered again. I felt safe in drawing classes because there were procedures: I did short poses, then longer poses, with breaks between sets; I changed poses when the timer beeped; only the moderator was allowed to speak to me directly. I loved how the classes clapped at the end of my last pose to show me they appreciated my work. I was paid in cash, in a white envelope, which I put directly into my pocket. There was dignity in the envelope. It wasn’t a lot of money but I didn’t care because I liked what I had done to earn it.Soon after I began modeling for drawing classes, I was told that I could make five times as much modeling for photographers. The owner of the drawing studio warned me not to do it, that it could get sketchy, but I was poor, and this was a chance to make a lot of money. I made an account on Model Mayhem, “the #1 portfolio website for professional models and photographers.” I found two or three people that I knew on there, and reached out to the people who had taken their best pictures. The first people I posed for were friends, and friends of friends. Some of them paid me; some of them didn’t, but I liked them, trusted them, and respected their work. I felt it was earnestly art-focused.Once I had a portfolio, I started booking gigs with people I didn’t know. I reached out to some; some reached out to me. For a while, I was able to book a paid shoot two or three times a week. I met photographers in studios and in their apartments and houses. I met a man in a hotel room in Jersey City. I met another at a bus stop in Bed-Stuy at six in the morning.I had a vetting system that consisted of me emailing back and forth a few times with these men. They were always men. I asked the men what kinds of photographs they wanted and what they would use them for. Most of them simply posted them on Tumblr. Some of them showed their work in galleries. Some were fashion photographers who just felt like shooting that day. If I liked the work we did together, I would wait a few weeks and then try to book them again. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.It didn’t take me long to run through every worthwhile photographer in New York City with a portfolio on Model Mayhem. Money was tight, so I started taking on more questionable gigs. I had to eat.*One day, I received an email from a man whose Model Mayhem name included the word “Crucial.” He said he found me breathtakingly beautiful. He described himself as “an amateur/hobbyist,” “not very good but trying.” The few pictures he had on his profile were already a couple of years old, so I asked him if I could see his more current work somewhere else. I couldn’t. He liked taking pictures, but really only for his personal collection, he said, and a “future endeavor” he had regarding placing photographs throughout his home as conversation pieces.My husband at the time and I were sharing a studio apartment that we struggled to afford. He had recently lost his job at a photography studio and my only other work aside from modeling was a part-time job at a bookstore paying just above minimum wage. One perk of the job was that I got to take home unsold pastries from the in-house coffee shop at the end of the night, which saved me from having to spend money on breakfast foods.Crucial was asking to shoot nudes and erotica. I had done plenty of nude shoots and I figured I knew what he meant by erotica. When he asked me what my rate was, he used the words “hourly compensation.” I asked him for his legal name and for the names of three other models he’d worked with. I emailed one of them, who recommended him. His house was two subway stops away from mine. He said he would buy me breakfast or lunch. No other photographer I’d worked with had ever made this offer.*I went to his house on a Sunday morning. It was a three-story brownstone with a courtyard on a tree-lined street. I would soon learn that this was his childhood home and that his wife and son had moved out of it and gone to France.He was stocky, with an Italian complexion, short, thinning black hair, and a light beard and mustache. As promised, he ordered me breakfast. I can’t remember what I ordered, but I recall that I only ate half of it. What I remember most clearly is that after I ate whatever I ate, I had to take a shit—and that I couldn’t shit, because Crucial’s only bathroom was connected to the kitchen, and to the dining room, where he sat while I sat on the toilet. And because the door of his bathroom was made of unfrosted glass.I watched the back of his head through the door. He wasn’t looking at me, but I felt that he knew what I was doing.I emerged from the bathroom still having to shit. We proceeded with the photo shoot. First, he turned on his TV and surfed to a music channel that was playing something like Journey, and turned the volume up. He used a silver plastic point-and-shoot camera similar to the one that we brought on family vacations when I was a child. All of the other photographers I’d shot with had used professional cameras.I posed on his white leather sofas, on the floor, on the dining room table, on the half-wall bordering his stairs, on the stairs.While I was posing on the stairs, he told me a story about another model he’d hired off of Model Mayhem, who turned out to be a sex worker. Her pimp had come with her and was supposedly waiting outside while they shot, but in reality had stolen all of the electronics from the basement apartment.“Do you smoke?” he asked me abruptly.“Sometimes,” I said.“I want to get you smoking on the stairs.”I said that I didn’t have cigarettes.“Do you want me to buy you a pack?” he said, phrasing it as if I’d complained of not having one already. I didn’t know what to say to this.So I said, “Really?”I think this gave him the idea that I considered his offer generous. He told me to stay where I was and he exited the house, leaving me on the stairs. By this time, I no longer had to shit, so I waited, naked, on his stairs, as instructed.He returned ten minutes later with a pack of Marlborough Blues, one of which I removed and smoked seductively while he took my picture from random angles. At one point, he tilted a standing lamp toward my face with his free hand, attempting to catch the smoke in the light.“Let’s go to the bedroom,” he said.*There was a sculpture of a lion on the mantle above his bed, which he explained was identical to the one that had been in this house while he was growing up in it. It was his father’s, he said. He considered it a spirit animal.There were tall, narrow windows with deep sills lining one wall. The walls were white or grey. His comforter was deep red or burgundy with gold detail.He left the door open, which I realized with relief. I stood on a windowsill and he complimented my ass. He joked that the people across the way could probably see me, as if I would also find this funny. He complimented my ass again.Then he told me to get on the bed, so I did. I knew that this was coming and had dreaded it somewhere in the back of my mind, a feeling that came to the forefront. On the bed, I posed in ways that flattered my ass because he seemed to like it and I wanted to speed things along. I turned over and around a few times, which he liked. He said other complimentary things to me as he circled around the perimeter of the mattress, testing angles. Then he told me to spread my legs.“I’m not going to do that,” I said.I felt the buzz go out of the room. This clearly disappointed him. “That’s what you agreed to do,” he argued. By the time he reached the end of the sentence, he was mad. I realized all at once that I was naked. He repeated what he said. The implication was that I was useless. That I had wasted his time. That the rest of the shoot was all leading up to this, and that I had blown it.“I’m not going to do that,” I said again.We looked at each other. I stayed lying where I was, unsure of what would happen if I tried to leave. I thought about the concept of cash up front.*Crucial ended the shoot soon after and we walked outside together. He handed me money, placing the bills directly in my hand and watching as I shoved them into my pocket. I asked him where the nearest café was, hoping that I could finally take a shit, and he insisted on buying me lunch. I didn’t want to share a meal with him but the rest of the shoot after the “incident” had gone as smoothly as could be expected, and we were now acting friendly. He had revealed many personal details of his life to me over the last three hours—about his job, his parents, his divorce, his new girlfriend and her adult son—and I surmised that he believed a degree of intimacy had been established, or expected, for his willingness to be vulnerable. Besides, he had already bought me breakfast—not everyone does that—not to mention a pack of cigarettes. Saying no to lunch would have hurt Crucial’s feelings.Before we departed, he checked on his cats, which he’d locked on the ground floor with the TV on so they wouldn’t be lonely.The café was on the way to the train station. We sat across from each other at a two-person table in the middle of the floor, which was blue. I ordered carrot soup. I was newly vegan. While we ate, he told me where he was going to go next: A third model he’d hired from Model Mayhem had become a good friend of his and she had recently moved into a storefront apartment with large front windows. She felt exposed to passers-by on the sidewalk, and he was driving her to IKEA to buy curtains. “If you ever need anything like that, you can just call me,” he said, back out on the street, looking me in the eye. “I love to help.”*Modeling stopped being fun when I had to do it. Financial desperation put me in a position that forced me to bargain with my body, but with no bargaining power. If I couldn’t book a shoot one week, I’d go hungry. I was forced to say yes routinely to projects that didn’t interest me, or people who made me feel unsafe, or who produced subpar images that I found embarrassing. I walked into each of these shoots knowing what I was doing and that I hated it, but needing to go through with it for the money. I had to feed myself and my partner.I said that I’d tell you a story about shame. What I actually want to do is take this story beyond the point of shame. I’m a struggling artist in New York City. These are the lengths I’ve had to go to in order to feed myself.Shame in this story comes along with the compensation I received for the socioeconomic demotion of my body when it wasn’t wearing clothes; when I wasn’t working on my own terms because I was desperate; I needed Crucial. Compensation for this demotion appeared not in the cash he paid me, but in the form of food, and other things to be consumed: breakfast, lunch, a pack of cigarettes. Carrot soup. Not money. It came as food to be consumed, with all of its compromises, its complications and conflicts. To stay alive, I ate it.This is not about modeling, but about the unpaid work that women do, and the sacrifices we make for others even though they don’t deserve them; the favors; the cost of saving someone’s feelings in spite of our own; the way we swallow what we feel.Food used as a weapon: an apology intended for the peace of mind of the apologizer rather than that of the victim; a way to make him feel better about traversing the line of female dignity; for looking down on her, down on me, and feeling guilty for looking down. It proves that he was aware. A gift may seem harmless, but it comes with heavy expectations. What I really feel isn’t only shame, but also fear. I allowed myself to be compensated for the fear that I felt on that man’s bed with another meal I didn’t want, which he forced upon me, which I agreed to eat even though I wasn’t hungry—had made enough sacrifices already on his behalf—but which I nonetheless consumed to save his pride. There’s the shame.*I recently started modeling again. So far, I have worked with one photographer, a good friend, without any money changing hands. Mostly, I’m modeling for drawing classes one or two times a week. I hadn’t done it since the end of 2013, when I started my last full-time job. I’m doing it now because it gets me out of the house and is immediate, untaxed cash in my pocket. It lends variety to my routine. It resonates with my writing practice in interesting ways. For instance, the lesson of yesterday’s class was that our eyes are the last tools we use to see; we see first with our mind, our training, and our prior planning.The other day, I modeled for a three-hour, one-pose class. When I met the moderator, I got the sense that he was anxious about the fact that I would be nude. The factors contributing to my assessment are mingled with everyday misogyny, so it’s hard to explain why I thought this, but I’ll try: He wore a mild look of panic when our eyes met. He first asked me whether I’d posed before, and then, when I said that I had, proceeded to nervously explain to me how it’s done. When I assumed my pose, he asked me whether I was certain I could hold it for three hours. When he taped around my pose so that I could return to it after the five-minute breaks, he narrated what he was doing, as if unable to bear the silence. At the fifteen-minute break, he offered to buy me a cup of coffee.After the class, I walked to a nearby café. I had a few hours to kill before another class I’d booked that afternoon and I wanted to do some writing. I sat at the bar and I spent a third of the money I’d just made on a fancy breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee, which I allowed the bartender to refill continuously because I got the feeling that he liked taking care of me, and I wanted to be taken care of. I wrote in my journal about how a resistance meeting I’d attended the night before had had the reverse effect of leaving me feeling useless, and how much I just wanted someone that day to tell me I was valued. I thought about the concept of value, and how often and by what means I’ve had to seek it outside of myself. I meditated on the consequences of the compromises I’d made. I reminded myself that, although the cup of coffee the moderator had bought me had been a form of backhanded apology, the students in the class needed me.*I don’t have to be in the drawing studio now if I don’t want to be. I go because I like to be near people making art.A few days after the drawing class with the male moderator, I modeled for another class moderated by the owner of the studio, who’d warned me years earlier about posing for photographers. She’s a nearly eighty-year-old woman who has been around the art world for decades and for whom I feel a special tenderness. She’s seen thousands of models come through her door and has appreciated each of them uniquely.She operated the timer for the first half of the class, but at the end of the fifteen-minute break, she handed it to a student sitting near her and announced that she was going out for coffee. I had already assumed my next pose, but before exiting the room, she asked me if I wanted one, too. Unsure at first if I should breach my facade of immobility, I finally managed, “Sure, thanks.”I was posing when she returned, so she left the coffee beside me, along with a banana. The class had begun early in the morning and I’d neglected to eat breakfast before I left my apartment, so I was starving, though I hadn’t told her that. She had just guessed. When the timer beeped, I put on my robe and sat on a wooden stool. I drank my coffee. I ate my banana. I smiled at the class, and the class smiled at me.Collage by Sarah Gerard.
‘The System Can Fix Its Mistakes But It Can’t Fix Them Completely’: An Interview with John Chipman

Speaking with the author of Death in the Family about Dr. Charles Smith, the paediatric pathologist whose mishandling of child death cases caused untold pain for already devastated families.

John Chipman, a producer for CBC Radio’s As It Happens, spent years researching Dr. Charles Smith’s career. Smith was a star in the paediatric pathology world, the head of paediatric forensic pathology at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto for more than twenty years, studying and identifying the myriad ways that children die. It is grisly work. In 2007, an inquiry into his autopsies was ordered and the judge found problems with twenty cases, some of which resulted in parents being convicted for crimes they didn’t commit, having their children seized and given away, and spending more than ten years in prison. There were people who were wrongfully accused, at immense time and personal cost. There were people who maintained their innocence in spite of being accused and convicted. And there are wrongful plea cases, where parents pleaded guilty to lesser charges (child abuse, etc.) to avoid murder charges for crimes against their own children that they did not commit.Smith’s current whereabouts are unknown—Chipman tried for four years to track him down—but the journalist instead immersed himself fully in his subjects’ lives, tracking the human consequences of such analytical flaws. Chipman spent many nights surrounded by stacks of papers at his kitchen table, punching away on his laptop until 4 a.m. The result is the new book Death in the Family, a dense, detailed examination of four cases mishandled by Smith and the criminal- and family-court systems.Katherine Laidlaw: How did the book come about?John Chipman: I’d followed the Smith story as it was unfolding for my work at CBC. I was driving home from work in the fall of 2007, and a man named William Mullins-Johnson was in court. He was charged, convicted and served eleven years in prison for the murder and molestation of his four-year-old niece. And he knew that he didn’t do it, but knew that someone did. He came to believe that if he didn’t do it, given the circumstances of the evening of her death, it would have had to be the child’s father, Paul. These were two really close brothers. Paul initially thought, there’s just no way Bill could have done this. But the weight of the police investigation, all the evidence, all these pathologists, including Charles Smith, who said yes, he molested and murdered this little girl. Ten years later, they come to realize that actually no one did it, that there wasn’t a crime. That story of two brothers turned against each other, it was almost biblical. That’s what really drew me in.There was one sentence in the book that really stood out to me, about a mother, Louise Reynolds, who’d been charged. By the time the prosecution had dropped the charges, her child was adopted out to new parents and there was nothing she could do. It encapsulated what was at risk so well, reading that was a gut-punch. Because you realize that the implications of what Smith was doing were so far-reaching. He was destroying families, in some cases.Yeah, that case fell apart because of Smith’s work, and other people’s work in that case was not up to par. In the meantime, she lost a child.You can’t put your family back together.No, you can’t. The thing that really struck me about Tammy Marquardt, the wrongful conviction case in the book, is that she went through this whole experience: she spent fourteen years in prison, had to do time with Karla Homolka, she endured piles of misery. Eventually they find out that this shouldn’t have happened to her. They let her out on bail, they set aside the conviction, they say, “We’re sorry, this never should have happened to you.” This is the day that they’re finally going to make things right. She walks out of the courthouse and she doesn’t have her children. So much of Tammy’s life has been about trying to make herself whole again. And that really struck me as well, that notion that the system can fix its mistakes but it can’t fix them completely.One thing that surprised me when I was reading the book was how imprecise the job of a pathologist can be. I didn’t realize death science was as inexact as it is.It’s not a science, it’s an art. It’s all opinion.Are the pathologists that you talked to aware that the chance for mistakes is really high, and that the stakes are also really high?I think good pathologists qualify their opinions. Smith simply didn’t do that. He overstated. And then would not characterize it as, this is my best guess. He would often characterize it as, this is what happened.Do you trust these systems after doing all of this research, and watching how some of these parents’ lives have turned out?I think ultimately the system is only as good as the people in it. You can put in place systems of accountability and oversight to correct against this type of problem, but you’ll never be able to make it perfect, because you’re dealing with individuals who have all kinds of conflicting motivations for what they’re doing. What’s so damning and dangerous about Smith is that I think he stopped acting in good faith. He was lionized for the first three quarters of his career—he was lauded by his peers. He was featured in glowing newspaper articles. He saw himself as the last line of defence for defenceless children. There are lots of caregivers and parents out there who beat and kill their children. We need people who help those kids. But you have to know where the lines are. Smith didn’t understand what his role was, that he was supposed to be objective. He really felt that he was part of the prosecution’s team, building a case against parents.In the book, Smith is painted as this elusive, on-high, almost god-like character, until you arrive at the end and his backstory is filled in a little bit, which redeems him slightly. His humble beginnings, his medical-school background, his noble intentions, to be a protector of children. And then at the end, he also issues an apology in court. But did he ever offer an explanation? Do you have a sense of what motivated him, toward the end of his career?I think he would say his motivations were that he was trying to find answers for children who died under suspicious circumstances. And I know he maintains he didn’t do anything intentional, that he wasn’t out to get anyone. If Brenda Wauby [a mother of three, who plead guilty under duress to child abuse in the death of her daughter Jenna but was later cleared] was sitting here, I think she’d have a very different opinion of that. And there are instances in the specific cases, things he did, where you think, that does not sound like someone who does not have a vendetta against this person. If he was sitting here, I’d ask him that same question. But I think he felt like he was doing the best he could. And had good intentions.
Jesus Take the Reins

In the fast-growing cowboy church movement, the trappings of traditional worship are eschewed to entice people through the door, dung-covered boots and all.

The first thing you should know about Bryn Thiessen is that he's the type of person your hip barber is trying to be.Thiessen wears a wool vest and black felt hat whose brim is wide but still narrower than the waxed, twirled moustache that protrudes at least 12 inches past his cheeks. He has a leather satchel and brown leather boots and a collection of brightly coloured silk scarves, and is usually wearing suspenders. He goes into Calgary once a week, for a chiropractor appointment, but the rest of the time he lives and works on his property, the Helmer Creek Ranch, which is about an hour and a half outside the city amongst the province’s rolling foothills at the base of the Rocky Mountains.Years ago, Thiessen took me on a ride in the cab of his work truck to check on the pens that he installs to capture wild horses on his pasture. It was a longer ride than I expected and it soon became apparent that Bryn is a talker. Thiessen speaks in a drawl with a slight twang even though Texan inflection is not a native tongue of Alberta—it is both affectation and aspiration. He writes poetry and has a weekly service where he preaches to locals.His is the Cowboy Trail Church. He is full of catchy phrases and during a sermon in May he recites a poem about a horse named Termite that likes to eat wood and spins it into a parable about stubbornness and the banishing of evil. You know stubbornness, he says, if you've owned a Dodge. After addressing part of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah he takes a deep breath and looks at the crowd: “Now, how’s that for wordin’?” he asks.Thiessen’s cowboy church is one of dozens across the country, according to the Evangelical Fellowship for Canada, where a mixture of Christian faith and rural lifestyle meet. “The church is either a barn or a round corral,” he says. “A barn is where you’re fed and sheltered and someone cleans up after you. A round corral is where you’re exercising and growing. In either case, it’s a long building.” A cowboy church is a “seeker-sensitive” gathering, where the trappings of traditional worship are eschewed in order to entice people through the door. Often, cowboy churches meet on a weekday evening, because weekends are busy for farm families. There is no dress code: “When you go to a church with deep pile carpet, you’re not welcome if you’ve got dung on your boots,” is a common refrain. Services are held in settings from a barn to the side of a lake to a community centre. A handbook to starting your own cowboy church says “church words” are to be avoided, even in praying: “You need to launch your first service stirring up all the dust you can.” There has been an explosion of growth in the cowboy church movement over the past fifteen years. In a Texas Monthly article, one cowboy church pastor said cowboy churches were spreading like a grassfire.*Glenn Smith figured he had been bucked off a horse one too many times for there to be no God.A former cowboy and rodeo clown, Smith is considered the father of the modern cowboy church movement—he called himself a “cowboy apostle,” which leads nicely into the name of his memoir: Apostle Cowboy Style. On Sunday mornings during rodeo competitions in Texas in the 1970s, Smith would preach from a corral to spectators and competitors. He was known to baptize people in tin troughs.But cowboy churches were more of a nostalgic callback than new religion: the style of sermon is meant to replicate the oral storytelling that took place at campgrounds during the expansion of the West. The cowboys we had then (freelance prospectors and ranch hands) are not the competitive sport cowboys we have now, but if there’s a group that needs some saving it would probably be both – cowboy life is transient, which makes sinning an easy option. By profession, cowboys are disenfranchised from a regular community because their career takes them from rodeo to rodeo on a weekly basis. Most cowboys are single men with little personal responsibility and so there is little accountability involved in heavy drinking and promiscuous sex.The largest cowboy church in North America, in Ellis County, Texas, is a “megachurch” that draws close to 1700 people to three weekly sermons to sit on folding chairs in a barn (the state’s Baptist General Convention says that 40,000 people attend cowboy churches weekly). The American Fellowship of Christian Cowboys counts more than 200 member churches in North America and Australia. In Canada, there are churches in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, as well as Alberta. For a while, there was a church operating through Shady Lane Hereford Farms in North Gower, Ontario. "We farm here, but you guys call it ranching," says Karl Allen, who ran the province’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys through his business, Rugged Cross Stables. At one point, his congregation of one hundred people would put on pancake breakfasts and hay rides. "But in fairness, it's been a bit of a flop," he says. "Rodeo in Ontario is really slim."In Alberta, one of the first cowboy churches took place during the Calgary Stampede: "It was a real Western atmosphere, guys wore their hats," says Phil Doan, who started the service in an empty room at Ranchman's bar (later, he would conduct baptisms in the hotel pool across the street). "We started telling people that Jesus loves everyone, even cowboys... it worked real well in the bar. Anyway, when the frontier opened up, those were the only places they had. That's one of the ways the west was won.”*While far from traditional, cowboy churches are not revolutionary in social acceptances. Marriages are to be between heterosexual couples only. I see fewer than a handful of visible minorities when I visit Cowboy Trail in Cochrane, Alberta. The churches are not known for a giving spirit—“We’re not need-meeters,” says Thiessen. “It’s western thinking. You have to pack your own load.”What draws a community to these churches is not the talk of cattle branding or the prayers for rain or the request for a healthy calving season. It's that, as Thiessen says, "People want to find a place where they can live the life they think they remember.” There is very little progressive change acknowledged within the walls of a cowboy church sermon—it may not be overtly religious, but it’s definitely conservative. It’s a place where you can wear the bedazzled western garb you might normally save for weddings. The Cowboy Trail Church’s congregation is smattered with young families (“I call them the ‘younger-than-my-moustache crowd,'” says Thiessen) and new immigrants.The first time I attended Cowboy Trail, I was an hour early and already late—trucks and horse trailers filled the parking lot of the Cochrane RancheHouse and, inside, just over a hundred people had gathered to worship. All of Alberta’s denim was in this room, with the big bay windows that overlook the coulee the building was nestled in. I was greeted at the door by two cowboy-hatted men in perfect jeans and brown boots, who informed me that “We don’t say hello, we say howdy,” and pointed me in the direction of two men, dressed the same, who could tell me what was going on. “Would you really call it a church? It’s more of a meeting,” said Allan Wiley, a member of the congregation and a former police officer. “I have worn cowboy boots and jeans for decades. I take my hat off for prayer, but only because it gives me a headache.” There were tables set up with photo albums and a boot at the door for donations, though none were solicited. On the stage, an upturned barrel and wooden cross wrapped in burlap surrounded the band (known as Some Assembly Required), a remarkably full ensemble with a lead singer who dresses in blue fringe.So, here’s the good news: a cowboy church service is really short. It usually starts with a story rooted in agricultural wisdom and leads into your predictable preaching about trusting in the plan of the Lord. There is more singing than talking—at Cowboy Trail they were six songs in before anyone said a word. “Do you like to sing? Man, I love to sing,” whispers the man sitting next to me.The music is a key player in a cowboy church service—there is a separate red duotang folder at Cowboy Trail that’s full of songs that tie together the land and the lord, as well as a heavy hymnal for traditional songs. There is no modern hymnal here, no effort to attract youth through “rock.” But while the music is old and repentant (“God watches o’er all righteous men/But all the wicked will not stand/Their way will perish from the land/Like chaff in wind,” goes one song called “Put Your Hand in the Hand”), everything else can seem lackadaisical.There's a section where part of the Bible is recited, certain words emphasized repeatedly and members of the crowd will nod and mumble in agreement and the importance of fellowship will be agreed upon while squares are laid on a plastic tablecloth. If you don't want to stay behind, no one will bug you as you leave.A week after I attend the service, Thiessen receives a prayer request via text message from a local rancher: "Please pray for my strength," it says. "Otherwise I'll need strength and bail money."*Thiessen’s father helped establish a series of Christian summer camps, where Bryn spent most of his time riding horses. “In the evening, you sat and told stories and sang songs. It was just the natural flow.” He conducted his first funeral sermon for a salamander, at the age of five or six at his grandmother's house. Years later, he met a group called the Christian Cowboys at a rodeo and heard the rhythm of their words—it was a kind of patter of worship, where every story sounded like it might end in a dirty joke, and the descriptions were all examples from everyday life.It’s one thing to hear about the grace of God and another to experience it after being trampled on by a horse and surviving. The latter happens in competitions, but also during a regular day’s work: a post at the back of Cowboy Trail’s hall has an update on a congregation member who, after a horse riding accident, had found a way to ride with her wheelchair. “We find the culture and meet them where they’re at,” he says.Of course, each church is different. For instance, the crowd at James River Cowboy Church congregation, that I visit on a Thursday night when they’ve got a bonfire going, is a bit older and a bit smaller. Tom King, their pastor, is a real estate agent and, as he explains to me, the only guy in a wheelchair in the lot. King has MS and came to religion through Thiessen after his wife died years ago. Now he’s remarried and has a weekly gig that has him being introduced as a voice that "puts true-life experiences to the word in the book, in this church under the great blue skies and the slopes of the eastern Rockies." He was once a pastor at the nearby Clearwater Cowboy Church, but split off to start his own.King's sermon style is subdued compared to that of Thiessen's, who can take on an earthy, fire-and-brimstone force when the mood strikes and who, the week before, took it upon himself to read the Book of Revelations while a wildfire raged in Fort McMurray ("They can talk about climate change but they can't even put out a fire.") There is little religion in King's talk—we are compared, in our darkest and most confusing times, to a gopher panicking while trying to cross the road. King, whose friends and family have prayed for him to walk again, says he is not unfamiliar with the "heaviness of church.” He follows the cowboy church guidelines, so that’s not what he peddles.“People just miss the hymns, the music is a big part of it,” he says. “We tell them the truth and give them good coffee."