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'I Feel Like Everything Shouldn't Exist': An Interview with Hannah Black

Talking to the artist and author of Dark Pool Party about celebrities as archetypal figures, shunning posterity, and whether we finally have the correct conditions for heterosexuality.

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‘I Feel Like Everything Shouldn’t Exist’: An Interview with Hannah Black

Talking to the artist and author of Dark Pool Party about celebrities as archetypal figures, shunning posterity, and whether we finally have the correct conditions for heterosexuality.

In her new book Dark Pool Party, the artist Hannah Black writes: “Accurate mimesis is a European obsession, which isn’t to say it’s bad but only that it could be dispensed with.” Like her video “My Bodies,” where black women sing that phrase over a montage of genericized white men, these texts read the world against itself, to dig out from the wreckage that capitalism and colonialism have made. “Celebrity Death Match” frames her journals as an issue of US Weekly: “Just before Rihanna came to collect me it occurred to me that I wanted to fall in love with her.” Elsewhere she describes the mental sorting that reduces each passerby to “M, F, unknown, or baby,” and asks: “Are we having a good time? Are we having the right kind of bad time?” The punchlines are all like that—funny, queasy. “She goes on to the next line and the next,” Hannah says of Hannah, “hoping every time to discover new material, to barricade, against hostile elements, the collective practice of living.”I met Hannah several years ago, outside a long tunnel of a bar in Chinatown. She was talking about Carla Lonzi’s anti-dialectical pamphlet Let’s Spit on Hegel, but I remember even more the rapid and circular way she spoke, returning her thoughts to the top of the log flume for another ride. In person or in print, she has a fluidly intuitive sense of timing. Right after she left, a man came by with a dead rat, carrying it like the mourners bearing a funeral bier. We didn’t meet any of those while discussing Dark Pool Party in the same neighbourhood recently, but at some point mid-conversation I looked up towards the trees framing the park and noticed a squirrel watching us curiously.*Hazlitt: I've been wondering, were you always a writer as well as an artist? Do they feel like disparate things to you, or...Hannah Black: I sometimes get defensive about there being a strong distinction between those two things, and in that position of defensiveness I might try to say there's been some collapse of distinctions, or a sense that everything's ended up in the trashcan of contemporary art. I think you can make an argument that lots of different forms of cultural practice have ended up being under the umbrella of contemporary art. Also, the Master's that I did at Goldsmiths [College]—it was called "Art Writing," but the intention was looking at writing as a mode of art practice, as if it were called Art Painting or Art Sculpture or something. But that meant that we spent most of the discussions just talking about what that would mean, which was a bit weird, because people are already doing that. There are artists who work in text or writing, or even produce novels. So I think just in terms of actually existing people, we do blur those distinctions quite a lot, but in practice people do seem to find it a little bit dissonant. I don't write many art reviews, because I don't really enjoy it that much, but that does feel like a weird conflict of interest. The idea that you're at the same time asserting yourself as someone who's in a position of knowledge, analyzing someone else's work, and then still trying to be open towards the uncertainties of making your own work. That does feel a bit weird sometimes.And then the third thing is just in terms of my character and how I am in the world, not to be too categorical about it, but I feel much more like I have all the neuroses and habits of mind that a writer has, and I don't know if I have the distinctive pattern of being that people associate with an artist. That is again a romantic and slightly outdated model, because there has been a change in art where now it's not so much about being this super-talented maker, there's now a lot of artists who aren't working with the hand or working through their own meticulous practices of image production or object production. You could say that idea is just an outmoded concept, but then I do relate more to writers. I read interviews with writers and I know what they're talking about. It doesn't mean to say that I'm not someone who can do that in an art context, but I think the thread through what I do is a struggle with writing.I have an almost superstitious idea that you only get really good at something when you're fully cognizant of the problems that it contains, and you're in touch with your failure, not in the sense of a deliberate failure or modernist grand failure or whatever, but just in the sense that at your utmost extension, with everything you can give to something, it will still somehow fail to be adequate to reality or experience. I find that problem really interesting. And also autobiographically, I've been writing since I was—I mean, I literally don't remember when I wasn't writing. I have early memories of looking at the scrolling copyright texts on some animated movie I was watching in the morning when my parents were still in bed, and being like, Oh, if you can read you can write, this revelation. I don't know if it's even true, but I was completely seized by this idea that I could do both, going into my parents' room like, "Guess what!" And them being like, "Whatever, we don't care." [both laugh]A story that I love to tell about myself—it's probably in a previous interview—you know that awful thing where you find yourself really charming, which is probably when you should be most suspicious of yourself? But my favourite toy as a child for several years was this magnetic alphabet set.Fridge letters.Fisher-Price fridge letters. I treated them like dolls, they all had different personalities and they would have arguments or date each other, they had this really intricate social life. And I was gratified recently, because there was a piece about people who report having synesthesia, and there's a strong correlation between people's letter-color associations and the Fisher-Price alphabet set. Which is weird, because—I think there was an early-2000s thing where people really liked to say they were synesthetic. It was a fashionable characteristic to have. And I'd always be like, "No, I have this strong association between letters and colours, but it's only because of the Fisher-Price magnetic alphabet."In a lot of ways, when I look back on my very long relationship with writing and I realize how much of it was almost like this cheesy idea that you have to do 10,000 hours of something to be a craftsperson, to be good at it ... I feel like, growing up, I had all the phases of trying to write like various different people, all the worst possible things you can think of. All the very bro-y phases, like my Kerouac phase, my Pynchon phase, all those phases. Then you get a certain sensitivity, and even glibness from that. It's possible one day that I'll have that suddenly with video or whatever, but—most of what I do has writing in it in some way, or is based on writing or has some relationship to writing. One of the things I like about art is that I'm writing with my left hand, or I'm doing something a little beyond my capabilities. I like that feeling.One of the problems I have with writing—a nice problem, but also kind of a problem—is that it comes really easily, so sometimes I have to find ways to challenge how easy it is. It wouldn't be easy for me to write a novel, but I can churn out a thousand words of whatever and it'll be nice sentences. And I'm very suspicious of nice sentences, so I'm always like,Oh no, I have to be less good on a sentence-by-sentence basis. That's like a John Updike thing, it's so annoying. No one cares that it's a nice sentence.I obsessively revise sometimes. And I liked what you said about failure, because I definitely know a bunch of writers, including myself, who will write something and then immediately think it's bad. That you wish you'd never written it, or that a lot of it should be taken out. Whereas I don't know a lot of artists who will make a sculpture or a video piece and then say, "Oh, this is garbage. It should not exist in the world."Really? Oh my God, I feel like that about everything I do. I feel like everything shouldn't exist. I think the way I manage is that I try to think of everything as disposable. I have no interest in posterity. I don't remember what context it was in, but I saw Eileen Myles saying that writing's a way for people to use you or be in relation to you after you're dead. And I was just like, What a disgusting idea. Firstly, you have no idea, thankfully. Let's at least leave that to the future. It could be that someone finds the email archive of some 52-year-old woman from wherever and that becomes the great text of 2350. You can write for whatever imaginary audience you want, and maybe there's some fantasy of audience that expresses, but I don't like the idea of posterity. I like the idea that everything will just go away. Someone was telling me recently—there was some issue with the New Inquiry website [where Hannah has published various pieces], and they were like, "maybe you should archive everything," but I kind of like the idea it will just disappear. That was for then, now it's gone [both laugh]. Why should I care?But that is different with art objects, and one of the reasons I find that quite a heavy process. I do occasionally make objects, but it's weird, because the idea of durability is so tied to that—everything's about value, and has to perform all of the functions that value does, one of which is just duration across time while remaining the same. So even if you're not doing that, you're somehow still in relation to this problem of the artwork and value. I'm interested in that problem in terms of analyzing capitalism, but in terms of the actual process of making things, it's not something I find massively activating. Fred Moten has a really nice thing about that, he contextualises the idea of commodification in the history of slavery. He says that as a Black person he's speaking as someone who has been marked with the commodity form, on the level of subjectivity.I don't particularly like my writing, it's not what I would've picked. The way I write has developed over time, it's not what I wanted. I wanted to be a novelist at one point. I'd love to be one of these more research-based writers who produces very lucid texts about some historical situation, but apparently I can't do that either. The only time I do anything good is when I'm very close to my own experience, and I'm not thrilled about that. I'd love to be cleaner. I envy the cleanliness of work that's either more ironic or more intellectual ... I think it's fine to have misgivings about what you do. I remember saying to a guy I was dating in college once, "I would never date myself." And he was like, "Well, you don't have to!" It was very relieving [both laugh]. You don't have to date yourself, you know?It was funny because I was really skeptical of self-love for a long time—I had a character say a line in this thing I wrote ages ago, something like, "love is supposed to be directed outwards, like envy." You can't have self-envy and you can't have self-love. But then because of recent experiences I have come to understand that most of what makes all relationships go well is some kind of foundational comfort with yourself, or okayness in yourself, that gives you more freedom of movement. And maybe there's lots of different ways to refer to that, and one of them could be self-love.I noticed that all of the pieces in Dark Pool Party were originally performed in front of an audience. How did that influence the way you composed them, as opposed to prose alone?I feel like they've all emerged from my social and living context; they weren't originally conceived as pieces of writing to be published and read. And yeah, the process is so different writing something for your voice. They did need some editing, because I know that I can read my own work well [out loud], I can cover up for problems more easily. One of the ways I manage my ambivalence is that I take almost any request for work as a pretext to write a new thing. And often it was in situations where no one wanted me to do that or thought that that would be a good idea [laughs]. The first place where I performed "Celebrity Death Match," which was at this reading in this bar next to Mathew Gallery in Berlin organized by Bianca Heuser—I was really late, I was trying to work on something all day, like, oh my God, I have nothing, and then I was like, maybe I'll use these parts of my diary, and obviously had to massively rewrite them and change them around. Then I turned up half an hour late and was like, "Sorry, I've just written a thing!" Which is also a bit swaggery and punk or whatever, and sometimes friends of mine who are much more methodical and take much longer to write things like that, I think they find it—maybe not annoying, but like, [sarcastically] "that's nice for you."I spend a lot of time doing nothing to have this frenzy of activity. I don't have a lot of issues around [writer's] block that some people seem to have, because I'm like, "Oh, apparently it'll take me three days of doing nothing to write this thing." And then the actual writing will be a few hours. That's how I do almost everything, I'm alright with that. But then I'm also not doing things which need a lot of planning or structure. None of those texts are very structured, so it's kind of alright to just write and then go back later and make sure they're not completely terrible.I was talking with somebody about how you have these really great punchlines in there—when you're like, "one small step for a wound, one giant leap for woundkind." Or, "I wanted to say that hating yourself for hating yourself was femme, but anyone can do it." [both laugh] How long have you kept a diary for?It's really on-and-off. I mainly write it on planes and trains and things, and/or in really intense emotional processing phases. I've kept it on-and-off since my teens, but it's just in a [Microsoft] Word document. I have one Word document that ran for several years that ends, when I first moved to New York, with: "I don't want to feel like this anymore." I was trying to do a fast, and I was like, "Oh, actually I'm sick of this," and then the diary ended. Because that was a phase in my life, and I'm just so embarrassed by that version of myself, I think I just wanted to lock it off in a separate document and then start again, which is a bit of a fantasy, obviously one carries on being just as much of a dick in different ways. It's definitely improved over time, but I remember years ago trying to work out from an old diary when I'd started a job, because I was putting together a CV, and couldn't find any references to any work I was doing. I had three jobs at that point, but if you read the diary you'd be like, "Oh, this is a woman of leisure who spends all her time contemplating her feelings."I really like that Anna Karenina thing where—I'm always thinking about my happiness and my unhappiness. I guess that's everybody, but I don't really have any other interests. When people are like, "here are my research interests," I'm like, "oh, that's amazing, you have research interests that aren't your feelings." I try to find solace in the idea that that's a consistent thing: You could be in the midst of a war and you'd probably still be sad if someone broke up with you. It's something that seems to be amazingly resistant to other life developments.Was there a logic or a system to how you assigned the names in "Celebrity Death Match"?Oh, someone else asked me that. It was really random. I was actually—I have a cute screenshot of this—I was talking to two friends, and they were both making suggestions. Because once I decided to replace the names with celebrity names then I couldn't think of any celebrities, my mind went blank. I was just like, "Tell me some celebrities!" And yeah, there's no relationship between them and the actual people. In fact, it's kind of ludicrous, if I could put the two people side-by-side you'd think that was really strange.I love how you refer to the actual Tom Cruise at the end, it's like a god suddenly appearing. And you describe a film set where nobody is allowed to look at him. Do you ever think of celebrities in that way? I sometimes find myself—not praying to them or thinking of them as a soap opera, like the Greek pantheon, but more like ... animism? Like they just represent certain things.I was queuing in Duane Reade, and there were three different celebrity gossip magazines, and they all had Gwen Stefani on the cover, and one said: "Gwen Stefani's tragic miscarriage, her husband might leave her, very sad." The other one said: "The secret of Hollywood's most romantic love story, Gwen and Blake will tell all!" There was another variation on what was going on with her. They all had that really amazing thing [celebrity magazines] do where people take pictures of [celebrities] all the time, and there's pictures of them with various kinds of facial expressions, which could be either "just sneezed" or "sad" or "thoughtful," this entire pantheon of facial expressions, like a stock-image database. You can just find one that's like Jennifer Aniston looking a bit sad, and then it's like "Jennifer Aniston's tragic life," and then in another one she looks like she might be really happy, and it's "Jennifer Aniston thrilled by whatever recent development." In that way celebrities perform so many functions.I think one of the primary things that celebrity and also TV does is this sense of pain-free gossip, or non-toxic gossip. It's a sort of semi-fictional social world you can share with someone but without it being hostile to anyone you actually know. One of my favourite tweets that I ever wrote is: "I often think to myself, 'What would Rihanna do?' And the answer is always 'be a totally different person.'" [both laugh] I find celebrities interesting as these archetypal figures, and they carry a lot of projections, they're in this really strange position. They carry a lot of emotional content on other people's behalf. A bit like the joke in Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher, where she's like, "I'm retaining water for Whitney Houston." Whitney Houston is retaining sadness for everyone. But I don't have this personal—I find that really interesting with someone like Hilton Als, I'm like, "Oh, you actually really like these celebrities, you would be excited to meet them."I do sometimes have this thought process like, Would I actually get on with Rihanna? Oh, I hope so, we'd get high together and maybe she would tolerate that I go on these weird rambling speeches and maybe she would find that charming. That's really hypothetical—I think actually if I met Rihanna I'd mainly be like, "Oh, cool, I can tell my friends."There's that line from the new Rihanna album where she's like, "Nobody texts me in a crisis," and a lot of people said, "Oh, this song is so vulnerable." But I feel like you could also read it another way, like, "Why am I not one of the gods for whom mortals leave their prayers in the temple?"Yeah. I work a lot with celebrities as figures in my videos, and I sometimes try to pass it off as a kind of fan relationship, but it's really not. An example of this is, I was really into The Pinkprint, like I listened to it non-stop for about six months, but I listened to it literally one song at a time. So at some point, I think I was three months in, this friend was like, "Oh, I really like this song," and I was like, "I'm not up to that yet!" I was really horrified [laughs]. And then I felt like I was just submitting myself to the album, so there was this point where I stopped skipping "Anaconda" when it would come on. I'm ready to accept "Anaconda" as part of the majesty of this album, because what that song means is “I can do whatever I like,” which is cool in what's basically a breakup album.I'm interested in the ways that [celebrities] are archetypes, but maybe differently from gods, they can change their significance. I did this video about Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie which just goes back and forth between their faces, Team Aniston and Team Jolie, and they almost switch positions, so there was the phase that maybe no one even remembers now, where Angelina Jolie was this crazy incest-loving blood-drinking——the vials of blood.Vials of blood, possibly having a sexual relationship with her brother [laughs]. "I have crazy sex with lizards!" That was her thing, and then she became this earth-mother figure and adopted everyone. And then previously Jennifer Aniston was this girl next door, this ordinary girl, unthreateningly pretty, whatever. And then she became this weird lonely-cougar kind of person, there were these strenuous attempts to cast her as being very unhappy, even though she seemed fine? Like, "JENNIFER ANISTON BARREN AT 42 YEARS OLD," and they have a picture of her with a very attractive young man, and you're like, she really seems okay, but she made a sad face once last week [laughs].I was really struck by the way you chopped up "I Will Always Love You" [in a video she made], because that song is famous or infamous for its colossal melisma, where she's drawing out each syllable. It made me think of—do you know Total Freedom, the DJ? I don't know if you've ever seen him DJ, but he'll often take, like, Aaliyah and put shattering glass or screams over it, really abrasive shit. But then he'll also do a beautiful remix of "Rock the Boat" or "Kiss from a Rose."I think the thing that's amazing in pop is—everyone says this, but it's ecstatic and sad at the same time. It somehow balances all possible feelings. It offers you this image where there's no contradiction. All your contradictory feelings are handed back to you as this beautiful bauble. Actually, they were all just facets of the same disco ball! It's fine! And every kind of messy, trashy, difficult experience can be remade as song, and dignified by that, which I think is, as we were discussing before you turned on the recorder, a bad way to navigate your actual emotional life. I have a long-term secret ambition that I probably will never do, which is to produce a flow chart or app that would tell you—because there's a pop song for every possible relationship condition, and it would be cool to have a thing that asks, "Have you recently broken up with someone, yes/no?" And then it would say "here's the song for your exact situation," but you'd have to check how people wanted to relate to that. Are you feeling like wallowing, do you want to move on from that, whatever.I actually had a really similar idea—well, a set of pop charts that wouldn't be based on sales but emotions. Like, how many people listened to this song when they were sad this week, or angry at somebody? I was also just listening to all of the songs that you used in "My Bodies," they're so good. I hadn't heard Mariah's "Touch My Body" in a year or two, probably. I love that part at the beginning where she goes oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah [both laugh]. But I kept thinking of "Body Party," because—it's the most prominent song in your video, but it's also poignant in a way that not all of them are. Even before or aside from the whole Ciara-and-Future thing that eventually happened. The way that she says "I'm doing this little dance for you"?[giggling] It's so cute, I can't even stand it! I'm just smiling thinking about that song. There's an amazing remix of it, I think it might be a Total Freedom remix.[singing] "I'm having so much fun with you." On a whim earlier today I actually searched for the phrase "body party" with "people you follow" on Twitter, just to see what happened, and there was a tweet by Total Freedom where he said: "Once I heard a DJ playing 'Body Party' at some kind of memorial celebration in a cemetery."Wow, that's amazing. I'd have to check this, but I think it's the only one in the video that's "your body" and not "my body."And a lot of those songs—men in pop music rarely talk about their own bodies like that.Yeah, that's so true! It's a man's body that's her party ... I feel like—there's a James Baldwin quote that I could find, but to paraphrase it, "The people I grew up with had orgasms all the time, and they still chopped each other up with razors on Saturday night." There seems to be some specific pathology—white, Protestant, I don't know which specific culture to attach it to—that's been generalized, and I don't think is general? Like, the idea that if you could just be more sexually free that could produce some kind of general liberation. I don't think that's necessarily the case, I think sex can offer moments or experiences of freedom and joy, but that's not the only condition that—I mean, sex does everything, it can also be boring or bad or painful.I did this podcast ages ago, it was supposed to be responding to I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, and I made a "funny joke," but now I'm very serious about this—it's not that we have to end or abolish heterosexuality but that we have to begin it. Its conditions have yet to occur [both laugh]. Up until now, we haven't really had the correct conditions for actual heterosexuality. And in a song like "Body Party" ... you're right, it is super interesting that it's such a weird thing for a woman to say to a man, in a way. Ciara's super normatively beautiful, very high-femme or whatever, and for her to be like "your body is my party" is kind of crazy. It's not the mainstream relation that you're supposed to have between a man and a woman, it's supposed to be the other way around. And it's just so full of pleasure, it's such a pleasure song. I love this slight little thing her voice does when she's like, "You've got me so excited." She actually sounds like she's sexually excited, which is kind of amazing, to convey that in a vocal performance without it being super cheesy or over-the-top. It's quite restrained as a song, as well.Yeah, the structure of it, it's like she's endlessly descending onto somebody, like the inverse of "I Feel Love,"where Donna Summer's rising into the heavens.Yeah, that's almost like she's beyond sex, like she's just become some amorphous being. I think "Body Party" is also much more accurate to my actual experience of things, because one of the funny lines in there is when she's like, "Baby put your phone down, you should turn it off." Ciara is trying to have sex with you and you are looking at your phone, what is wrong with you? But of course even very pretty and amazing people will still have people being annoying to them sometimes. Nothing's a free pass. I had this phase where I was like, "Oh my God, straight men don't like having sex." It's a fun one-liner, it's not entirely true, but there's definitely—as a young woman, you're told that you should beware of men's sexual enthusiasms, but I think so much of men's sexuality is funneled off into power-plays or upholding some weird social structures.I think I mentioned this in one of the texts in Dark Pool Party, in "Atlantis," something like, "my activity as an artist has almost as many credit operations on it as a straight man's sexual desire." Like, that a straight man's sexual desire is having to do quite a lot, socially. It's a pretext for so much horrible shit, or even just boring shit. "Look at this array of very similar-looking people, that is what straight men find sexy!" And you're like, "Really? That seems extraordinary, but okay, fine [laughs]." There is this way that straight men sometimes seem underwhelmed or less fascinated by sex than queer people, or even straight women.I noticed that Dark Pool Party has this running theme of disassociation—not even always necessarily in a bad way, it seems more ambivalent sometimes. Like, when you're talking about the self as a character. Or instead of saying, "I want to make this person love me," the standard romantic-obsession narrative, you're like, "How can I make myself love this person?" There's this other line about the feeling of not being able to read yourself. All of that seemed connected to me.Sometimes when I wake up from a nap or I've just woken up in the morning, I'll have this really weird feeling of, I don't understand why I'm any of the things that I am. And I don't understand how I'm placed in relation to them. I was brought up with a not-particularly-coherent sense that I had some sort of relation of duty or responsibility or at least memory, respect, for these long histories that I was in. On my mum's side of the family, her mum was a Holocaust survivor, there was the Jewish experience in Europe, and then my dad's family's from Jamaica, and there's the vast historical outrage of transatlantic slavery. Especially as a child, it's very hard to understand what that has to do with you. It would be constant references to both of those things as having this intense explanatory power, almost everything could be related back to these long histories ... Gender also has some traditional or historical aspects to its reproduction, in a way you're a woman or a man in relation to the histories of being a woman or a man. Even if you reject them, you have to reference them or deal with them somehow.It does feel like all these weird lines of code, and I don't know much about DNA, but I like the idea that it's like a randomly remixed alphabet set. The idea that when a baby is born, here's your material, what are you going to do with it? Not that I'm saying everyone should do this, but for me it's interesting to take myself as, like, here's the stuff I have. I have this flesh, and it's been organized in a particular way to do with social forms like race and gender and class. It's like having some kind of Geiger counter to measure radioactivity, but I have my being as an instrument to measure what's going on with all that stuff right now. That also means that I have this slightly abstracted relation to myself sometimes, and probably for reasons that are just about being a fuck-up or whatever, but I sometimes find it hard to take myself that seriously. It's not so much that I feel like I'm performing, but I feel like everything could've been different.I really like the idea in Walter Benjamin, this idea that things at any moment could become different, and things could've been different at any moment. And sometimes when I think about the grand historical narratives that I was talking about, it's just crazy. Like, I don't understand why any of that happened. Obviously there's a set of reasons you can pull out, oh, this was a requirement of capitalist accumulation at that point that meant that slavery happened, but it's also completely crazy. Maybe "crazy" is the wrong word. It feels so illogical and so random, and then has such intense effects. Like that bit in the Ta-Nehisi Coates book [Between the World and Me] where he says, in this letter to his son, "It's not like all the people who had a horrible time in slavery were building up to you now having a good life." They lived and died in that condition, nothing can be done for those people.So I think there's a weirdness about taking some position of responsibility towards history, which, I don't even know what it means, but it somehow opens you out to this particular kind of ... oversensitivity to the world? I have to carry the fact that things worked out very badly for people for reasons completely beyond their control ... I think sometimes I annoy friends or people I'm dating, because I'm always interested in these long histories. I love hearing about people's grandparents or great-grandparents, and it's incredible sometimes. You're like, "How are you here, now?"What you were saying before reminded me of how in Dark Pool Party you describe apocalypse as being the texture of civilization. There's this part in The Devil Finds Work where James Baldwin is talking about Lawrence of Arabia, speaking of the English with a withering form of pity: "It would seem this island people need endless corroboration of their worth, and their tragedy has been their compulsion to make the world their mirror."Baldwin's amazing, and sometimes when I think about him it's like—he does this incredible "I'm being very reasonable" tone, he makes these citadels of reasonable argument and excellent prose. If anything's going to emerge from reasonable argument and excellent prose, I feel like Baldwin would've already done it. It's a bit like looking at the early Soviet graphic design, you're like, if graphic design could've changed the world, this would've changed the world. That's a good thing to think about if you get too into your prose powers, to be like, "What about Baldwin?" Although I suppose he still—those conditions are still unfolding, and things are changing, maybe. There's an interesting gesture of re-specifying the colonial centre, which has been this empty place, and I guess it's also something that's happened with whiteness in general, this attention to how whiteness operates as a weird kind of veil, or nullifies anything that might have previously been specific within those identity positions.A lot of the hardcore Marxists would argue that it's kind of random that capitalism emerges in Western Europe, that there's no particular reason for that, it could've happened anywhere. But then you're just talking about a parallel universe. Given that it did emerge there, it's interesting to think about what the particularities of that place are. And what's interesting about England is that it has a really early process of proletarianization. Just schematically, you have the enclosures, this conversion of communally held agricultural land into sheep farming or other kinds of value-producing land, people get removed from what we now maybe think of as an indigenous relation to land. If you think of indigeneity as a specific relation to a specific place, that gets broken really early in English history, and then you get the Industrial Revolution, and this now-rootless proletarianized peasantry are now corralled into cities and factories. And those are the people who are actually enacting the colonial project, those are the people who turn up in Australia or Africa or wherever.There's also the bourgeois class of colonial administrators, but a lot of people who're doing the footwork of that violence, the daily work of that violence, are a group who themselves have been through an intensely violent process of proletarianization. I really like that about [Silvia] Federici's Caliban and the Witch, how convincingly she plaits together these multiple stories. And it might be a reason, but obviously it's not an excuse, it's not to exonerate that. And although there was a break with England there's still ways that America is manifesting that project, or at least the Western European colonial project continues in lots of different places to this day. I was just thinking, when we had this break—I had this very intense Marx-reading phase, because I'd had this crisis point with writing, like, "Oh, this is terrible, I don't want to do this," I didn't really know what I was doing. It was this era of intense student protests in London, and I'd just started studying again, I hadn't really been reading or studying for quite a while. And then it was like, Wow, there's this whole world of theory and there's stuff happening. It was really exciting. And I felt really full, like, now I have something to say, I have a position.At that point I was not that interested in discussing race and gender, and then had the inevitable disappointment that you have, especially as a woman of colour in those scenes. I'm being asked to subscribe to an analysis that is strangely blind to obvious everyday facts of my existence. The strangeness of a lot of theoretical positions that I still appreciate for the rigor of their analysis of capitalism is—they have an ambition to make a total social theory that doesn't include race and gender, or only includes them as peripheral effects.There is a kind of crass politics of identity, which is maybe what some of those guys mean when they talk about identity politics, this idea that if you just have diversity and inclusion then everything will be great. Obviously that's not true, but I think most people who are paying attention to race and gender and sexuality are doing it in a way that's actually interesting, like, they're fully aware that they're also talking about a system involving class and value and accumulation and all those things. You end up with these weird paper tigers: "These people don't even know that race and gender exist!" "Well, these people don't even understand what class is!"I do still have this guilt reflex, where I'm like, oh God, I've just ended up as this weird kind of memoirist. I just do strange deconstructed memoir. And this isn't exactly what I intended to happen, but somehow I feel like that's just the vantage point from which I feel able to do an analysis. I don't want to do a PhD and sit in a library for five years, or all the things you might have to do to get to a point where you can start from the intellect. But then I really like that Nietzsche idea of all philosophy is autobiography, that seems true.Yeah, that seems true to me. When those guys say things like that, I'm just like... You know that Angela Davis literally wrote a book called Women, Race & Class, right?Yeah. But it's funny, because often those people do know about Angela Davis, and they'll trot her out like, "Look, we do care about Black women!" But they don't seem very interested in the people who're explicitly continuing that work. And there are massive aesthetic differences. Definitely in terms of the London communist scene, there's this whole aesthetic which is like, everyone outdoes each other in how sensitive to suffering and misery they are. There's all these boys in their twenties who read Adorno and do this emo thing online: "I'm very sad about everything that's happening." You're like, wow, it really is incredible that you're apparently the most miserable [both laugh]. What I try to avoid is the idea that suffering is either a measure of authenticity or a measure of social domination or oppression. The ways that people are immiserated don't mean that every aspect of their life is constant trials and tribulations they never quite overcome.I am susceptible to a kind of emo position where there's some idea that I'm suffering in the correct way. Really, no one cares [laughs]. Broadly no one cares, obviously your friends care if they love you and they're sad that you're sad—I feel like there's this weird Christian model where suffering is on the side of suffering. "Christ died for your sins, you have to suffer because people have suffered." The way that you show solidarity is that you suffer ... The idea that joy can be on the side of suffering, that you can offer up your pleasure and joy as this defiant relation to some of the historical heaviness I was talking about earlier, it took me a while to get to that point. And I think when I'm talking about happiness, it's not in this self-help, classically American sense of—well, maybe it is the classically American sense of the pursuit of happiness, not so much the pursuit of happiness as being alive to its possibility? It's always fleeting, it takes you by surprise, I think that's part of why love is interesting to think about, because it has all these elements of chance.It's more like happiness pursues you.Right, yeah, yeah. And just try to be ready when you hear its footsteps behind you. Don't Mace it [both laugh]. Because sometimes you do! You're like, "Ahhhh, I'm too surprised, I've fucked it all up!"I love in the book how you don't make travel sound glamorous or quirky—it's more like this process that sweeps you up inside of it. Airport terminals or train stations, they remind me of playing Sonic the Hedgehog as a kid, these disorienting and astonishing environments that accelerate your body through them. And I noticed that, in photos of your first solo show that happened recently in London, there were pieces actually named after airports.Oh, they were named after airlines.Right, airlines, airlines. So I was wondering, do you have a fascination with those kinds of spaces?This is funny, actually, I think it's strongly marked in the book in a way I didn't realize, partly because, like I was saying earlier, I write a lot when I'm traveling. Because I get stressed out easily, I have ADHD and anxiety issues, I feel very overwhelmed, and one of the things that I like about traveling is that you tend to have several hours at a stretch where you don't have to be doing anything. You're automatically doing something, which is traveling, so then you can kind of do whatever you like inside that experience. Aria Dean, who—we did a Q&A at the LA Art Book Fair—she brought that up and asked if it was related to this idea of fugitivity from [Fred] Moten ... There is this feeling of, this constant attempt at escape that never really gets anywhere, but you need to keep trying. That's the only way you're gonna stay alive, is to keep grasping for this impossible thing. I think how I put it in "City Built at Night" is, there must be somewhere to install this escape.I have this desire to show the workings, and I was watching Donald Trump speaking the other day, and I think that's part of his appeal, he makes this gesture that I want to call Brechtian but that might be claiming too much for it [Chris laughs]. He tells you how much money he's spending, he tells you how they're planning the campaign, he tells you about the polls all the time. He's somehow reduced politics to just its mechanisms. He's divested it of its remaining content, apart from being super racist. Although he's about as racist as most of the other candidates, more verbally racist, perhaps. Just to compare myself to Donald Trump, which is really weird—I like this gesture of revealing the conditions and talking about the polls or whatever, and I think one of the weird things about [Dark Pool Party], and why I sometimes feel weird when people are like "congratulations, you've written a book," is because I feel like all my writing happens so interstitially and so weirdly, and it must be some way I manage the anxiety of writing.One of the things I say to friends who complain about writer's block is: "You're just scared of writing something bad." Why don't you give yourself the real problem, which is that you'll write something and it might not be that good [laughs]? Which is unfair, because there's lots of different ways to have the same problem—I write a lot of shit, and have to go back and change things, and have written some things I think are awful, but I think I manage that by doing everything as if it's not really happening? I have friends who are really into the idea of the artist as a worker, and I'm not into that. I feel like I can't work if I tell myself it's work. The way I work is, it has to be either after the deadline or I'm supposed to be doing something else, but I kind of cheat on my official task for the day by doing another thing that's also something I have to do.I feel like this weird traveling salesman, sometimes, the way I make money—often the reason I'm traveling is because someone's been like, "Oh, we'll pay you 400 euros if you come and do this here." Both the origin of the text and the journey on which I'm producing texts is something that I'm doing because I need to make money. Obviously there's much harder ways to make money, and I have to say I feel lucky, because I understand that I am lucky, statistically. But it's not always fun. I used to love airports, like when I was a kid, one of the family outings that my dad would take us on, we'd go to Manchester Airport and watch planes take off and land. I hadn't been on a plane many times, and it just seemed like this amazing world of people coming and going. This was pre-9/11, when you could actually go and look at that and not be accused of being a terrorist, and not have to go through security screening, so you'd be quite close to where they were taking off and landing, it was magical. The displays with all the cities on it, and this romance of all the different cities in the world, because there's this secret affinity between cities more than the countries they're in.Like some of them are secretly making out. I feel like one of the most depressing things about being a businessman, aside from all the other things that you do as a businessman, is that literally flying through the air becomes mundane for you.Yeah!It's not beautiful or terrifying anymore, it's just something you do every week for your job.Yeah, and that has been—"sad" is putting it strongly, obviously it's a luxury problem, but there was one point last year where I was going on two or three trips a month, and I was actually exhausted, I was very stressed-out and anxious. I sometimes have this moment where I feel like I've basically become, yeah, a traveling salesman, or some kind of solo entrepreneur, and that wasn't really what I meant to happen. I wanted to escape, I wanted to not have a proper job. I don't know what the various desires were that went into going to art school, but they definitely weren't to do with becoming some kind of weird businessperson. I'm glad it doesn't come across as totally romanticizing, but I do still think there's some magic power of evoking cities, and I think that's really present in American culture, American cities especially have this supercharged atmosphere around them. There's this litany of street names, they're in songs, there's movies named after them.Which is one of the places that history becomes concrete, often I say that one of the manifestations of colonial violence is London, what London looks like. Central London or Paris. That's what they did with the money. Heavy, solid stone. And the approach into London through Heathrow—normally I do the cheaper airline, and that's like, Stansted [Airport], but I flew into Heathrow the other day, and it's just this massive, solid city. This bendy river and heavy slabs of buildings set down next to it. And you're like, "Wow, this really looks like what it is, a super-violent imperial centre that's asserting itself over you."Like when they're flying into the Death Star in Star Wars.Yeah, totally! It's exactly like that. The past couple of years I've been traveling a lot, that's obviously come out in my work. And I get very sentimental when I'm traveling sometimes as well, when you're like, "I'm having all these feelings about where I've just been and where I'm going to." When I left London to go to New York for a year, I was really emotional on the plane, I was crying a lot, and then I watched this very moving documentary about dogs and cried a lot about the dogs and how much people love their dogs and how much the dogs love the people. Then I was telling people this story when I had just arrived in New York and was having a lot of small-talk conversations, because I didn't really know anyone here, and a lot of them were like, "Oh, I cry on planes all the time." And I like the idea that if you look up and see a plane going past it's just full of people crying, that's been a really sustaining idea. Everyone's crying in the sky, but often from happiness.I don't know if this kind of thing has been democratized enough that I don't just sound like the Weeknd, where I'm like, "Oh, I'm having sex with too many women in too many fabulous apartments, I'm very alienated." From a very small amount of being in public, you start to get glimpses of why people go completely fucking crazy when they're actually famous, when they're going on world tours or whatever. It's maddening. It's a totally unstable existence, and that's just having a 0.00001% experience of what it might be like to be Nicki Minaj. It probably is fun because you're like, "Oh, I have a yacht, but..." [both laugh]There's also the thing about people having sex on an airplane, which, I can't imagine—I know it does, but I can't picture it as something that actually happens.A friend of mine who's like a sexual hero has had sex several times on planes. She's just amazing, she's like a sex athlete ... I had a phase of, not masturbating in public but like, a "fun places to masturbate!" kind of thing. And you can definitely do that on planes, because they give you blankets, they dim the lights, the conditions are perfect [both laugh].
Best Sisters

The way we describe ability and care has changed over the centuries, but my relationship with Kiddo doesn’t need to be defined.

I was not prepared for the possibility of my sister. She was born in that in between time—the days before summer vacation has started and all the possibilities are still alive, waiting. I was jealous. After seven years, 11 months and one day, I had unwillingly ceased to be an only child. On the car ride to the hospital, I vowed not to hold her. That sentiment stuck. Maybe I would have changed my mind if she were soft and sweet, delicate as a ballet slipper, like the babies I’d seen in movies. But she was none of those things. She was a sound: squalling—with a tiny face wide at the mouth, bunched into wrinkles everywhere else. I watched her hiccup for breath, her wrinkled skin gone neon, bright as a Barbie shoe. There’s a picture of me from that day, standing over her, my head topped with a floppy mullet, soft stomach jutting out. The puzzled look on my face says, who are you? Or, rather: Who are you to me?It was a long time before anyone realized there was something not the same about her. She first had to grow old enough to compare. For us to see that she was still crawling, while the other toddlers on our sleepy suburban street had learned to walk. Unsteady, but upright. She said few words, rarely strung together. Outside, in the summer, she tried to keep up with the neighbourhood kids—giggling bundles of gawky angles, bruises and scraped shins—but couldn’t. Our family doctor ordered tests. There were assessments, a word I didn’t quite understand. It suggested a definition, but I didn’t know yet that you could define a person—that you could want to fix them, to decide different like her meant broken. After the results were delivered, she became affixed with the label “developmentally handicapped.” Like she was a jar, a shirt, boxes that you organize in a closet.A diagnosis is meant to give a reason. We can say, look, you have cancer. That is why you are feeling so unwell. You have depression. That is why you are so sad. You have this, so you are that. We expect a direct correlation, a cause, a salve to soothe us against all the things in the world that don’t make sense. The things that hurt us. A diagnosis tells us if A, then B. In this way, we define and we mend and we neatly slot the world into order. A diagnosis of disability tells the world where to fit a person, what they can and cannot do, how they will be loved and love in return. It designates relationships and builds hierarchies. From the moment my sister was diagnosed, people expected it would define us, too. Her and me. When they spoke they left so much room for the wrong words, such as caretaker and burden and problem, but too little for the right ones, such as sister and friend.They all answered the question I had at the hospital for me, wouldn’t listen when I told them they were wrong.*The word retarded is Latin in origin. Retardare means “to make slow, delay, keep back, or hinder.” The first time it was used in reference to intellectual disability was 1895. Not yet a pejorative, “mentally retarded” was considered a kinder, more precise term, meant to replace previous iterations—idiot, moron, and imbecile. Other terms, also meant to be neutral, were “subnormals” and “mentally defective.” Ability within that realm was divided into “high grade” and “low grade.” By the 1940s, those subclasses became three: educable, trainable and custodial. An educable person could be taught academic skills, like reading and writing. Trainable meant a person could learn—well, be trained in—life skills, such as how to tie their shoes and brush their teeth. Custodial meant a person needed care, institutionalization.Today’s accounts scrub these terms clean with clinical politeness, a doctor breaking bad news. Say things like, “A person who was custodial generally received very limited developmental opportunities.” Trust we won’t think of the word custodial and its split definitions: having the responsibility for taking care of a child and also involving punishment that requires a criminal to spend time in a prison. Trust we won’t know. I wonder if those authors are right. If that’s why I’m sometimes the only one in a room who hears the word “retard” and cringes, goes hot and cold inside, a flickering thermostat, body on the fritz. If it’s because I’m the only one who’s held their sobbing kid sister, tears mapping down her face, while she asked what it meant, that word those kids on the street and in the school hallways called her. Me, who couldn’t find a way to say it. To nod all those times she asked if it meant her.*I call my sister Kiddo. When I was in Grade 8, she started kindergarten at the same school as me.  The teacher didn’t think much of her—she worried at Kiddo’s diagnosis, was sure that she would never count past 10, that she couldn’t be taught anything. One day, she locked Kiddo in the kindergarten washroom and forgot about her for an hour. When they finally went to her, Kiddo’s face was pale like Styrofoam and even her shirt was damp with salty sweat and, I think, tears. At home, we would never, ever lock the bathroom door again. The next year, Kiddo transferred schools, then transferred again, finally enrolling in an expensive private school for “special children.” She learned to count to 100, then higher still.During this time, Kiddo and I formed the big-sister, little-sister relationship familiar to so many siblings. Meaning, I thought I knew everything and was delighted when Kiddo sometimes agreed. I complained loudly to my parents that she wouldn’t leave me alone, but secretly ached for her to look up to me. In the summer, we settled into the milieu of 1990s suburbia: every day we walked our dog, a black lab named Bruno; then played barefoot tag in circles; spent hours at the park behind our house; coloured landscapes of crescent birds and pointy suns; sang in a way that was more like shouting. We watched a lot of TV. Kiddo fast-forwarded to the parts she liked and skipped the rest.Of course, one day, the VCR broke. We found dozens of Kiddo’s tiny toys jammed into its geared depths. They were mostly melted. A wad of fluorescent plastic. Nobody saw her do it, and none of us could figure out how she didn’t get her hand stuck inside. It didn’t matter: the VCR was done, kaput. (This did not lead to my parents buying a DVD player, a new technology they mistrusted would catch on. Ditto computers. Ditto everything actually cool.) When they told Kiddo, who by then had switched to watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 on repeat, she mimicked Raphael’s most dramatic scene, yelling “Damnit!” at the top of her lungs. My parents were shocked, but I laughed and laughed and laughed.*In 1914, the U.S. formed the Committee on Provision for the Feeble-Minded. Headquartered in Philadelphia, PA., the committee placed satellites throughout the country, staffed with so-called intelligent men who I imagine steepled their fingers and said hmmm a lot, all banded under one objective: To disseminate knowledge concerning the extent and menace of feeble-mindedness and to suggest and initiate methods for its control and ultimate eradication of the American people. In New Jersey, the committee summarized “The Problem” of its “helpless, but dangerous class” as such: “They must be prevented from procreating, for their defects are known to be heritable and their numbers tend to multiply.” Like bunnies or mold.The solution was to create work colonies. In the committee’s words: “To clear the land for farming purposes means work of a character that does not appeal to the normal citizen, but for the feeble-minded boy-man it is a joy.” A joy. These stuffy self-proclaimed arbitrators of destiny and choice decreed work colonies a win-win. The “waste product of humanity” could be put to good use, they wrote, toiling without pay, rendering overgrown strips of land, brushed with oak and pine and pitted with swaps, into farmland. Readying it into a place with a sellable slogan: The Garden Spot of a Nation.Does this sound naïve to you? This expectation that you’ll understand my sister is my sister?Grainy, colourless photos of the colonies show men in high pants and suspenders clearing roads, laying cement blocks, hoeing fields of sweet potatoes. There is a swimming hole that’s supposed to be idyllic, looking-glass water hemmed in by low trees, but to me it feels eerie. It all does. These places of mandated paradise were prisons. These places where men go to have blank faces and others see and say, Oh, that expression must be happiness. Because that is what they’ve decided.When people ask me what developmentally handicapped means, I choose my words carefully, delicately. I am a dancer pirouetting over landmines. A seamstress threading sequins on a bomb. I tell people that it means that my sister’s developmental skills do not always reflect her age. That her reading, writing and motor skills can develop at a slower rate than others’—that some may not catch up. That it means she writes in block letters and reads, but not novels. Picture books. But I never linger. I try instead to tell them who she is: stories about growing up together, broken VCRs, that time she once told her teacher, with confidence, that all she knew about Jesus was that he was dead and it was probably cancer that killed him.Because not much time at all has passed from those work camps to now. We think yes, but a lifetime of conversations tells me no. We could accordion in yesterday to today. Smoosh inside an urge to define and fix, to sweep people under rugs like detritus. To decide for ourselves who they are and all they can be.*Kiddo and I do this thing where we press our thumbs together and declare, “best sisters.” It means that it is us against the world. In modern parlance, that she is my ride or die, though neither of us can drive or even ride our bikes very well. It means that I took the day off work to help her get ready for her prom, told her a thousand times that she looked beautiful. It means that when I moved to Yellowknife for a job, we talked on the phone almost every day for three years. It means that I taught her how to make cookies and bagels and pancakes and she taught me how to five-pin bowl and to not suck so much at Wii. It means that we have a pact to eat an inhuman amount of junk food and thrift ridiculous T-shirts at every sleepover. That I’ve coached sports I don’t play very well, attended dances and banquets, cheered from the sidelines.It means that one time, she invited her high school crush over when neither of them knew I was home, working in our basement office, and that when he tried to pressure her into watching porn and doing things, I scared him so much I thought he would shit his pants. Went toe-to-toe, became a mafia enforcer, taught him about RESPECT. That the next day at school, he told her I was terrifying and that he would never try to make her do those things again if she didn’t want. That when I asked her how she felt about that, she said, “Good.” That we talked about how those things are fun when you want to do them. When you’re ready. And that when she was, we went on double dates and talked about all the nice guys and the jerks and how sometimes you cannot tell who is who. That if I could I would protect her from all the awful things in the world, not because she needs it, but because she is the person I care about most.It means that I cannot describe to you what love is. That I could try with beautiful metaphors and similes and imagery, but it’s just what happens when you press your thumbs together and say, “best sisters.” And all the other moments in between.*In late 2015, The Mighty, a website with the tagline “we face disability, disease and mental illness together,” took down a story called “Introducing: Meltdown Bingo.” In a subsequent post on the article’s removal, the site’s editor acknowledged the post was meant to be funny—a lighthearted take on common consequences of an autism meltdown—but missed the mark. The site was called ableist, and called out for disability shaming: its focus on the mother’s distress, not the child’s—its portrayal of a person as a burden. It wasn’t the first time The Mighty was nailed for its tone and approach. Many writers and activists with disabilities have rightfully criticized the site for leaning toward stories written by parents of children with disabilities, with many of the articles falling into “inspiration porn” territory. As in: look at how we’ve overcome. As in: our story of resilience will brighten your day. As in: here’s your next Tumblr meme.The controversy spawned the hashtag #CrippingTheMighty and a set of resolutions for better coverage of disabilities, including promising to hire more writers and editors with disabilities. These are good, necessary conversations. There’s a tendency to treat disabilities like they’re one-size-fits-all shirts. It’s true there are many people who are unable to advocate for themselves, who need allies to help speak up for their rights. But I’m always surprised when I introduce Kiddo to friends and colleagues who’ve never met her and they fumble through the conversation, talking to me as if I’m her translator. I have to remember they didn’t grow up in these communities, that so many people only knew those with intellectual disabilities as the kids in the sequestered special classes or from movies like Rain Man or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? or, oh god, The Ringer—if they knew them at all. Is that even an excuse any more?The more we can break down those assumptions and stereotypes, the better. That a huge part of that is creating platforms for people with disabilities to voice their own lived experiences—to advocate for themselves—seems obvious to me. I do wonder, though, if these movements politicize the personal. If, on some level, they sacrifice the idea that relationships are complex, that we can express care without being caretakers.*The word caregiver has interesting origins. It started out as caretaker—a word that seems to accept the countless ways caring can take from a person. I know it’s more likely a nod to the idea of “taking care of,” but there’s something to be said for the way the word doesn’t hide. It was first included in the Oxford English Dictionary in the mid-19th century as “one who takes care of a thing, place, or person; one put in charge of anything.” The first recorded use was in 1858 to describe a mother who acted as a nurse to her daughter and a “servant” to her husband, allowing us to guess at the word’s knotted beginnings of self-sacrifice, duty and expectation. The word caregiver waited a century to make its way into the vernacular, arriving in the mid-1960s via the U.S. book The Meaning of Mental Illness to Caregivers and Mental Health Agents. The definition: “a person, typically either a professional or close relative, who looks after a child, elderly person, invalid, etc.” (Now the OED uses the word “disabled,” but not much else about the entry has shifted.)Even after “care” got its new, kinder appendage, the word caretaker persisted throughout the ’70s and ’80s. There are newspaper articles from the late ’80s that wonder over the new, presumably faddish P.C. adoption of “caregiver.” My Webster’s family dictionary, copyright 1977, for instance, is a red-canvas, gold-embossed dignified tome, a book whose weight and age have split its pages from the spine. It doesn’t include the word “caregiver,” only taker—physical evidence that past perceptions stick. Many of those who care for other people, family and professionals both, prefer the term caregiver. Probably because it lacks the gross connotation of physical objects, and people are not meant to be objects that burden us. Nor property to which we owe janitorial duty.Even “caregiver” is now ceding to carer. I like the word carer. Its simple and maybe a bit meaningless, but in a way that I think is good. A way that’s universal and also more truthful. A way that gets us closer to the word care, the pared down synonym for all our closest and best relationships.What people can never understand is that Kiddo takes care of me, too. When I say this, they expect stories of inspiration—the types of life lessons critics of The Mighty so loudly derided. I hear things like, She must have taught you to be a better person. Or, She must really put life in perspective, huh? She must show you how much you have to be grateful for every day. She must have taught you patience and tolerance and humility. I mean, sure, human relationships can teach us many things. And, I know these comments are meant to be kind, but they rankle. They’re not kind; they reinforce Chicken Soup for the Soul popular bullshit thinking that reduces her down to a person who can only exist as a cosmic life lesson—they rob her agency, her purpose, and give them to me. They’re just as bad as the ones I get when I tell people we spent the weekend together for a Girl’s Night. Like, It must be tough to take care of her and Sorry you had to spend your weekend doing that. Or, What do you even do together all that time? I’m tired of patiently explaining that we’re sisters, so that’s what we did: sister stuff.Does this sound naïve to you? This expectation that you’ll understand my sister is my sister? If I know the person—and often I do—I’ll take a deep breath and try to explain. I’ll tell them about how, when I broke my leg, she visited every other weekend with an armful of cheesy movies, made me popcorn and climbed into bed next to me, laughing at how dopey I was on painkillers. That every time I’ve had to move apartments, she’s there with a mop and packing tape. That we chat about boyfriends and how much our mom annoys us sometimes as we fill cardboard box after cardboard box. I’ll say that of course she was my maid of honour when I got married—even though so many people tried to dissuade me, wondered if I didn’t want someone more “capable.” That she walked down the aisle in a bad-ass suit covered in skulls, her hair four inches high in spikes. Her speech thanked me for coming to her hockey practices and praised my baking skills. I’ll tell them how I called her three years later, sobbing, when my husband left me and she gave me the best, sagest advice: “You know what Lauren? A cat is better than a husband.”*I stayed with my sister recently, at my parent’s house, where she still lives. My mom was out of town, visiting our dying grandfather. It was an epic 10-day Girls' Night. She made me dinner when I had to work late, made sure the tea was on when I had to work later still. Every few nights, we visited Shoppers Drug Mart, spritzed ourselves with expensive perfume, pretended we were rich before walking a few aisles over and buying Skittles. At the end of it, she drew me a picture of our new apartment. She gave me a large room, labeled “room,” and excellent hair, labeled “hair.”There was a time when I thought my sister and I would move in together. That I would, in fact, take custody of her. I couldn’t stand the thought of her moving out of my parents’ house and into a group home—the horror stories I’d heard about exploitation, violence, abuse. I wanted her there, with me, because she’s my best friend, but also because—let’s just cut past the red-cheeked shame and admit it—I was guilty of ableist thinking too. I assumed she needed me in a way that she doesn’t. I presumed that need was eternal, that it trumped her independence. That she’d want me there as much as I wanted to be there.During those 10 days, I learned that Kiddo had discovered the term “special needs.” I’d never heard her say it before—wasn’t aware that she knew the world had given her a label and expected her to abide by it. Well, I’m still not sure she thinks that. When I asked what she meant, she responded that’s what she was, special needs. That some people have autism and some people have Down Syndrome and some people have other things. That her friends were special needs too. Then she asked me what my disability was. And what my friends’ disabilities were. When I was unsure how to answer, reluctant to categorize myself as other than her, she told me it was okay, I probably had autism. Then she asked if I wanted to eat popcorn and watch a movie. She turned on The Sandlot, fast-forwarded to the good parts.
Featuring Cindy Li
Terrible Calvin Klein ads (12:23), building safer raves (32:07) and how to get into Berghain (40:41)
Yer Favourites

How an obnoxious subset of their fan base led me away from the Tragically Hip, and Gord Downie brought me back. 

The Tragically Hip played a show at Detroit’s Cobo Hall on November 23, 1996. The concert was captured in its entirety, and released the following year as Live Between Us to a throng of eager fans, most of them Canadian. I was one of them. That compact disc has more scratches on it than I can count, simply because of the overuse I subjected it to while driving around the suburbs in my mom’s Toyota Corolla.The first song that night was “Grace, Too,” which, over time, became the band’s most popular concert opener. As the drums kicked in and the bassline appeared, lead singer Gord Downie took time to acknowledge the night’s opening act. “This is for The Rheostatics. We’re all richer for having seen them tonight.” The crowd cheered. Throughout the evening, Downie, when not singing, seemed to be improvising. At the end of that first song, he ranted, “I was raised on TV/Like so many of you I see around me/Nothing to live or die for/No religion, too,” inspired either by Canadian author Hugh MacLennan, to whom one of the Hip’s most famous songs is formally dedicated, or John Lennon, or both. After that, Downie unleashed a few guttural screams.[[{"fid":"6696511","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"The Tragically Hip - Grace, Too","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The show was peppered with musical references: to David Bowie, to the Beach Boys, to the Rheostatics, and to Downie’s own work, both with the Hip and as a solo artist, both past and future. The show, like the band itself, provided a canvas for Downie’s antics, going off in musical tangents nowhere to be found on the album versions of the songs. Eventually Downie even started casting theoretical movies based on his own songs, sliding Peter O’Toole into the role of the curmudgeonly lighthouse keeper in the film inspired by “Nautical Disaster,” the Hip’s best song to my ears. (Jodie Foster, according to Downie, would play Susan.)I heard Live Between Us long before I ever saw the Hip in person. Downie was weird, funny and courteous. The band was bold and experimental. The fans ate everything up. I thought that Live Between Us was everything a rock show should be. I still think that. *Shad Kabango is a rapper who has been nominated three times for the Polaris Prize, holds a Master’s degree in liberal studies and is the former host of the CBC Radio One program q. Kabango is an authority on Canadian culture, but grew up with no particular attachment to the biggest Canadian musical group of his youth. Despite liking some of the band’s singles, he could not classify himself as a fan—he knew what that word meant when it came to the group’s faithful.“As far as their legacy,” Kabango said during a phone interview, “they are Canada’s band.”If you're over the age of twenty-five and grew up in Canada, you'd likely have a tough time arguing with Kabango’s assertion, whether they were for you or not. Their career has been marked by not just a sort of welcome ubiquity, but a rare consistency; the band's lineup—guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay—has remained constant, led by Downie, an engimatic man in the best, most entertaining manner possible.It felt like the Hip would be making subtly evolving albums forever. And then earlier this year, news came out that Downie had glioblastoma, an incurable form of brain cancer. The band would go on a Canadian tour this summer, culminating with a nationally broadcast finale in Kingston on August 20. It will almost certainly be the band’s final show.With its first two full-length albums, 1989’s Up To Here and 1991’s Road Apples, the Hip became major players on Canadian rock radio. The four-album run that followed, from 1992’s hit-laden Fully Completely to 1998’s Phantom Power, marked the band at its height, as the group pushed away from its blues-guitar-based beginnings to a sound that was more in line with, although still slightly askew from, the heights of alternative rock.While Downie and company have never supported the obnoxious behaviour that their songs and persona occasionally attract, they have certainly capitalized off of their inextricable link with a very white, very male, mainstream Canadian image. “In the beginning, they were sort of more of a rock band, a traditional rock band. They kind of grew into their strange, which was really kind of the great three-card monte when it comes to the Hip,” said Dave Bidini, of the Rheostatics. His book On A Cold Road is, among other things, an account of his band’s tour with the Hip. “At first blush, if you played someone their most famous songs … certainly ‘New Orleans is Sinking,’ you play them that song [and they sound traditional]. And you get a couple of songs down and you realize that this stuff is working on deceptive levels, levels that are … deeper and complicated.”[[{"fid":"6696516","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"The Tragically Hip - New Orleans Is Sinking","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The Hip became radio staples on classic rock, new rock and, because of the agreeability of songs like “Ahead By A Century" and “Bobcaygeon,” even adult-alternative stations. The band headlined huge outdoor shows in Canada and even started its own travelling outdoor show, Another Roadside Attraction. Starting with 2000’s Music @ Work, the Hip’s style and mainstream preference diverged from one another, but each new album yielded a notable single. Most importantly, those albums were devoured by the band’s still-growing fan base, which allowed the band to fill arenas across Canada. The Tragically Hip has been Canada’s biggest rock band for twenty-five years. However, unlike Rush, the previous title-holders, the Hip was (and is) distinctly Canadian in a way that is sometimes explicit and other times subtextual. Downie’s lyrics, equal parts profound, earnest and baffling, name-check small Canadian towns, hockey players, artists affiliated with the Group of Seven and more hockey players. Perhaps more importantly, the Hip never broke big in the United States. The five friends from Kingston could play decent-sized clubs and smaller arenas (shows often frequented by Canadian expats), and even performed on Saturday Night Live thanks to their relationship with Dan Aykroyd, a fellow eastern Ontarian. However, once they crossed the 49th parallel, they went from Wayne Gretzky to a third-line grinder. Which, undoubtedly, only increased Canada’s ownership of—and love for—the Hip. In a country both small (in population) and big (in area), the Tragically Hip could say the same, minus the parentheticals. * That inseparable link between band and country could expose a fan base—to be clear, a tiny but disproportionately loud portion of it—as nationalistic and closed-minded. Opening bands could get “Hipped” off the stage, with fans chanting “Hip, Hip, Hip” or even booing as they played. It's no surprise that the lyric “It’s not the band I hate/It’s their fans” from Sloan’s “Coax Me” was long rumoured to be about the Hip. (Chris Murphy later revealed it was actually about a single Kate Bush fan.) Between the length of their resumé, the fans and the perception of what the Hip represented, it could be daunting for anybody from outside of a certain demographic to fully access the band. I was a die-hard Hip fan when I was a teenager—I listened to bootleg concerts, parsed lyrics, checked setlists, belonged to a message board, etc. Yet, those fans started to get to me.For about the sixth time in a two-year span, I saw the Hip play live on June 24, 2006, at Historic Fort York in Toronto. That night, they played “38 Years Old,” off of their debut album, Up To Here. The song is about a very real prison break in the 1970s, with the added fictionalized element of Downie’s “brother” who escapes from jail, where he was sent for killing his sister’s rapist. It was the first time they had played the song in at least twelve years.[[{"fid":"6696521","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"The Tragically Hip - 38 Years Old","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The Sadies and the Weakerthans were the openers that night, the latter of whom had become my new favourite band. There were similarities between them and the Hip: both were Canadian bands from outside one of the country’s big three cities (the Hip are from Kingston, Ontario, a city about halfway between Toronto and Montreal, while the Weakerthans are from Winnipeg); they are both straight-ahead rock groups who dabble in outside-the-margins experimentation; in Downie and John K. Samson, they are both fronted by left-leaning, erudite singers who are not going to blow you away with the quality of their voices; and both routinely sing overtly about Canada.During the Weakerthans’ set, a friend of a friend started chanting “Hip, Hip, Hip.” It irritated me. When I told him so, he yelled that he did not particularly care what I thought, that he was there to have precisely his type of fun. The Weakerthans were clearly there by invitation from the Hip—the headliners thought it was a good idea for their fans to hear this band. The least this guy could have done, I thought, was shut up and tune out. He was not alone: A whole swath of Hip fans—you can picture them: shirtless white dudes, many waving Canadian flags or slathered in red-and-white facepaint, fairly drunk—was trying to drown out the openers, too. This was not the first time I had seen this behaviour, but it was the first time a band I admired was the victim. Hip fans had this reputation of being loud, nationalist louts, the types of people who never would have cared about any of Downie’s politics or cracked open a book of poetry. For reasons that have always eluded me, the Hip, like Pearl Jam, can attract fans who do not really care about any other musicians. Those fans were there to shout along with songs that they listened to after portaging ten years ago, to name check every hockey reference embedded in Downie’s lyrics, and to revel in The Definitive Canadian Experience. I was turned off for about a decade. As Bidini, a huge admirer of the Hip, wrote in On A Cold Road: “Of course, there are folks out there … who suggest that by parlaying their parochial image into superstardom, the Hip are merely enforcing Canadians’ fear of exotica, giving us what we know rather than what we need, perpetuating the CanRock trademark of stolid rock played in plaid jackets.” While Downie and company have never supported the obnoxious behaviour that their songs and persona occasionally attract—in a famous CanRock story, Downie sarcastically dedicated a song to fans who threw items at Daniel Lanois’s band at a Canada Day show in Barrie, Ontario in 1994—they have certainly capitalized off of their inextricable link with a very white, very male, mainstream Canadian image. Downie has vociferously defended his occasionally discourteous fan base, most notably with a poem upon induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2005. They had a cameo as a team in the Canadian curling flick Men With Brooms. Hell, they probably sell more hockey jerseys than the Florida Panthers. They are not running away from the image.All the while, it has been difficult to sum up what makes the Hip definitively Canadian beyond the obvious. Michelle McAdorey toured extensively with the Hip in the ‘90s when she was in the folk rock band Crash Vegas. For a few moments, she considered what made the Hip so Canadian, eventually giving up. “Two guys named Gord. I think that’s all I can come up with,” McAdorey said with a chuckle. “Gordie’s voice is Canadian-sounding—not just his name, his voice,” said Maya Miller, the drummer for Vancouver-based garage rockers The Pack A.D. “We don’t sound like Americans. And the Tragically Hip, they don’t sound, by any stretch, like an American band. … Maybe it’s because they’ve been around for so long and done this amazing job of sort of bringing everyone together on a basic level of what it feels like to be Canadian. They’ve just created this thing where they are Canadian. I don’t know if I could even begin to pinpoint it.” When you cannot explain nuance, it becomes easy for perception to become the accepted reality.* Yes, the Hip conjures up thoughts of cottages, hockey (who else but Downie would make reference to a “forget-yer-skates dream,” the quintessentially Canadian nightmare?) and obscure towns. They have never boiled Canada down to just that, though. Downie has been talking about First Nations Canadians since “Looking For A Place To Happen” off of Fully Completely, and his perspectives have let the listener follow everything from an inquiring bird to a depressed polar bear. Once you get away from the too-easy stereotypes, helped along by that small group of fans, the band and the way the media has covered the Hip, you can get at the curious mind and generous heart of an enduring group. Even when Downie is singing about hockey, it has not been a simple glorification of the sport. In “Fireworks,” off of Phantom Power, Downie sings of a young hockey-obsessed man who is positively affected by a girl who doesn’t “give a fuck” about the sport. “Heaven Is A Better Place Today,” the lead track from 2004’s In Between Evolution, was inspired by the death of NHLer Dan Snyder, killed in a car crash with his Atlanta Thrashers teammate Dany Heatley driving. Downie uses the incident to delve into the meaning of grief, the emptiness of funeral platitudes (“Don’t say, ‘People lose people all the time’ anymore”) and the power of simple human decency. There was never anything as perverse as Bruce Springsteen's “Born In The U.S.A.” being co-opted for use in political rallies and international sporting competitions. Nonetheless, the band has always painted a nuanced, conflicted, if ultimately positive, view of the country. For the Hip, Canada is never the point; it’s the jumping-off point. Still, there is something about their nature and style, not just their content, which is profoundly of this place. The easiest assumption is that, as Kabango and Bidini both said, they were exceedingly normal: five guys from just another Canadian city, in plaid shirts, jeans and T-shirts, playing rock music. But even there, Downie has gone out of his way to subvert expectations, dressing in gaudy sequined suits with comically oversized top hats on this tour. Max Kerman, the frontman of Hamilton’s Arkells, came to the Hip atypically: Instead of the band introducing him to new acts, it was those acts, bands that he loved as a student, that introduced him to the Hip through opening for them in the mid-2000s. Arkells opened for the the Hip when they were touring their 2012 album, Now For Plan A. “I think the reason why Canadians like the Hip, and this is just my own hodge-podge theory, is [they] sort of combine the intellectual side of Canadians—that we’re thoughtful, smart people — with that humble, meat-and-potatoes side, too. When you combine Gord’s lyricism and the band’s … rock-and-roll aesthetic, I think that’s why people connect with them. It’s not just a simple rock-and-roll song. There are a few layers to it. But it’s also really comforting, because it sounds like The Rolling Stones sometimes or R&B or whatever.” Kerman remembered trying to learn some of the Hip’s songs when he was in university, doing acoustic sets in anonymous bars. He said it taught him that there was “real shit happening there that you just don’t see very often in pop-rock.” That is a lesson many of the Hip’s peers and successors have learned. “As far as the lyrics and the structure, as far as the archetypical rock song, they don’t create the standard rock song,” Miller said. “The obvious point is with the lyrics. There are choruses. But they’re kind of odd choruses a lot of the time. They’re not following the traditional path of appealing to a certain mindset or teenagers or anything as far as rock goes. They’ve got this kind of straight-up rock-and-roll sound, to my hearing. But the lyrics, they’re a little art-rock. That in itself kind of sounds a little bit different from the norm to me. And maybe that sounds Canadian to me.” Yet, the Hip could never represent all of Canada, which would seem to be the point. To expect any rock band—especially now, at a time when the electric guitar is on the periphery of mainstream culture—to stand in for an entire country would be absurd. “We’ve lamented [Canada] can’t really be squeezed into one thing,” Bidini said. “That’s a beautiful thing. It’s like love or space: We’ll never really understand it because it’s complicated. I’d rather a place be complicated. … Gord is a tile in the mosaic. You need a lot of different colours to make an interesting mosaic—now more than ever, too.” McAdorey agreed with Bidini’s point, rhetorically asking, “Why should they try to do everything?” It is a fair question, and an unfair demand of a rock band—or anyone, for that matter. The Tragically Hip delved into this country’s history and culture more than any popular musical act that has come before or since. It's not the complete story of the country, and that's okay. Fully Completely is an album title, not a realistic request.*The first Hip concert I went to was at the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto on Canada Day in 2004, exactly ten years after Downie told the audience what to do with their disrespect about an hour north of there. I went with my friend Matt, who I’d known since I was six. (I had two drinks, and they hit me embarrassingly hard. Before the openers, the Joel Plaskett Emergency, had even hit the stage, I was screaming, for no reason in particular, that my shoulder hurt. To implicate myself further, I believe the drinks were hard lemonades. We are all immature idiots sometimes.) Before the opener’s set, Downie sang “O Canada” with Plaskett on guitar. “Happy Canada Day, folks,” he greeted the half-empty venue. The Hip never shied away from its base, or its image. The five men were fine with who they were, and they were fine if that, or anything else, kept people from seeing all of their layers.This past Sunday, more than twelve years later, Matt and I went to what will probably be our last Hip show, which also happened to be my first one in a decade. It was the final of three shows at the Air Canada Centre, and the fourth-last one of this tour. I was initially hesitant about going to a show this tour, fearing the concert would be a living wake as opposed to the type of Hip concert I remembered.Ultimately, I decided I had better go for the same reason, I’m guessing, that many did: This would be my last chance to see the Hip. I resumed my old habits, trying to find the details of the shows that led up to Toronto. The band had been treating the tour as an opportunity to play mini-sets from all of their albums; I joked to Matt that we would probably get a set from Now For Plan A, an album I barely listened to that was released well past the group’s peak of cultural relevance. I was right. After the first intermission, the Hip banged out four songs I barely recognized. There was something really nice about this—the five men, contracted together so that they left massive pockets of space on the flanks of the stage, playing whatever songs they damn well pleased, recognizing that every part of their body of work, not just their mid-'90s hot streak, mattered. Downie looked like he was having fun, and I smiled. It was perhaps imbued with more poignancy than usual, but this was still unmistakably a Hip concert.There were signs that something was not quite right. There were teleprompters all over the stage. There was less ranting and rambling storytelling from Downie. He has never remembered every lyric even when he was fully healthy, but watching Downie, in Toronto, seem to forget the “That night in Toronto” line in “Bobcaygeon” was harrowing. His wry smile afterward was vintage Downie, both heartening—he still has his sense of humour—and hard to watch. The band closed with “Grace, Too,” that quintessential Hip opener. Context could have mucked up this moment, and perhaps it did for some fans. However, watching Downie release those familiar guttural yelps, as he has done so many other times, was dark, sure, but also life-affirming. When life conspires against you, do not run away from who you are; you tap even further into who you are and what you do.To myself and to anybody paying attention, the Tragically Hip has been teaching us many crucial artistic lessons: that you can respect your fans, even love them, but not be beholden to them; that you can be ambitious and striving but also populist; that you can be serious but not insist on taking yourself seriously; that you can be frustrated by your country but not disown it; that you can be an intellectual and an everyman at the same time; that you can grow together with a group of people you love dearly while not sacrificing your individual vision.You can do all of that with intelligence, respect and dignity, never requiring any half-measures. You can sing to end all songs.
‘The More Time I Spend on Iran, The Less I Think This Is About Religion’: An Interview with Laura Secor

The author of Children of Paradise on a decade of reporting on Iran, history as a story of ideas, and the importance of understanding the events in foreign countries on their own terms.

In February 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini stepped off a chartered Air France flight, millions of ordinary people lined the streets of Tehran to celebrate the return of the man they called the father of the revolution. Iran’s new regime saw itself as a revolutionary response to the despotic five-decade rule of the Shah—an overthrow that brought an end to more than two thousand years of monarchic rule.Khomeini’s arrival marked the beginning of a theocracy and an era of convulsive politics. The new regime carried on with the use of repression and brutality, but the shift in the definition of patriot created targets out of those who had previously felt safe.The arrival of the ayatollahs and their never-before-seen form of government that married democratic structures with theocratic oversight created a kind of fixation in western countries that this new Iran was somehow unknowable. How did one read political and cultural cues at arm’s length in a country where nothing seemed familiar?This perceived inability to know about Iran also obscured the very robust conversations Iranian intellectuals and activists were engaging in: they debated the moral, philosophical, and political underpinnings of what the Iranian project was and what it could be.In Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, Laura Secor explores these debates and conversations as they unfolded over decades against the backdrop of political turmoil and repression. Her meticulous reporting, deep research, and lyrical writing have resulted in a gorgeous book thick with history and emotion. Secor tells the story of modern Iran through the lives of the people who have struggled for it: from students and writers to philosophers, clerics, and poets.As the west cautiously re-opens itself to Iran, Children of Paradise is a necessary contribution to understanding the dynamic and determined work of Iranians to create a modern nation on their own terms.[[{"fid":"6696471","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","link_text":"an-interview-with-laura-secor","attributes":{"class":"file media-element file-media-original"}}]]Naheed Mustafa: Your book is a lush and detailed story about a conversation Iranians have been having for generations, about what kind of society they want to live in. What was the starting point for you with wanting to tell this story? Laura Secor: I started travelling to Iran in 2004, and I have to admit that my first impulse to go there was in a sense perverse. It was a country that felt like it was forbidden. It was a place that most Americans didn’t go, and that we had received a lot of negative ideas about, and I wanted to know what was behind that curtain, and to understand the place on its own terms, and not as I felt like a lot of us did, as a foreign policy problem to be solved, or as a place that existed in relation to us. So, when I went in, I was curious to know about the life of the country, and what continued to strike me, as I talked to Iranians about the stories of their lives, was the compression of the history of the last thirty years, the sense that so much had happened in such a short time, and it was such a dramatic history, and it had penetrated the lives of individuals at every level. So I kept thinking about the people I met as, in a way, characters in an epic novel and I was captivated by that story, and the way that it threaded itself through those lives.And so, you’re thinking about Iran in a way that’s different from the kind of narrative that you’re getting from whatever media you’re consuming about Iran. How do you start to try and get past what you already know or think about that country? To begin with, by talking to people. And by listening to stories, trying to map them against historical events. One of the things that’s difficult about researching Iran is that there is a really vast literature on that country, a lot of it is scholarly, and it’s really rich, there’s a lot that we can and should know about Iran from that literature, but it’s not generally accessible to a broad readership. So one of the things that I tried to do was to do a lot of reading, and try to understand the intricacies of the political history. But then to lift up a little bit away from them, and create a map that I could then hold against the lives of the people I was talking to, so we could sort of say, you know, ‘Where were you when this happened?’ and ‘Where were you when that happened?’ and I started to see that there were common points of intersection with these narratives that made the history come out in more relief. But to me it was really important for the book to be able to tell people’s stories in intimate detail because I think that’s how we get close to a place. The history can feel vast and alienating, particularly when it’s of a place that’s really far away and whose history is in many ways very different from our own. So I tried to use that intimacy to bring readers into the lives of Iranians and into the life of Iran, but at the same time I really found that that frame of reference, because we’re missing it, had to be supplied.Children of Paradise is focused on the intellectual push and pull from which the modern Iranian state emerged. In the Western narrative of Iran, the modern state is understood as coming out of a series of mostly violent events. How do you reconcile those two realities, the intellectual tradition that you’ve been referring to, and then this way that we’ve understood it as being this convulsing of violence? I think both are true, and I was really interested in a story of ideas in this history, because in Iran ideas are taken seriously, in a way that they aren’t always here, in the West. And one of the things that I felt strongly was that this kind of language of abstraction is really a native one in Iran, the literary and intellectual forms that are most powerful in the culture are poetry and philosophy, so to see how closely those literatures tracked with people’s psyches, and with the psyche of the country, in a sense, was really fascinating to me and, I felt, an important part of Iran’s story that’s often missed. And that's not to say that ideas ever function in a vacuum. Ideas are connected in some ways to violent events, and they certainly are in Iran, so while I think it’s definitely true that, and I think the book also does document a lot of convulsive events, there is also this other architecture that I wanted readers to understand and to see in order to better know the country, and to better understand what was motivating those events.You referred earlier to this idea of the compression of history. I’m wondering given that we’re in this phase of the West trying to get to know Iran, or get to know again the new Iran, or a newer version of it, how do you think that compressed history is going to be understood outside of Iran? I don’t think that’s for me to say.Do you think it’s even possible to understand that? I think that if we pay attention it is. One of the things that it’s sometimes very difficult to persuade people of is that we really do need to understand the events inside foreign countries on their own terms. There is a sort of impatience, at least in my country, with that kind of reporting. We kind of want to know, well, what does this have to do with American foreign policy and with our next policy decision, and I haven’t written that book. I believe that we need to engage with the interior life of countries if we wish to understand them. And that doesn’t mean that we need to get involved in their internal politics, but to at least know what motivates them and where they come from and what the history is I think is significant for anyone who’s seeking engagement and broader understanding.Early in your book, you talk about the story of the little black fish. Can you tell us about that story?[Laughs.] It’s funny, the first time I heard about that story was from one of the reformists who had been a revolutionary, who said that the piece of literature that brought him to the revolution, that made him a revolutionary, was a children’s story called The Little Black Fish. So I went to the library and found that story. And when I had finished reading it, I wanted to throw the book across the room, because I could not understand at that point, very early in my research, what this story had to do with a revolution. [Laughs.] And it’s a story that was written by a secular leftist writer in the sixties, it’s a parable that’s told through animals, which is common in Iranian fiction and poetry.The main character is a little black fish, who lives in a very small stream, and decides that he believes that there is a world beyond this stream, and that he wants to explore it. And everyone tells him, you’re crazy, there is no world beyond this stream, this is where life begins and ends. But he insists on exploring it, and he goes through a number of trials and adventures on his way out to the open sea, where, in the open sea, there is a school of brave fish like himself who have made this quest, and they are so strong that they can drag the fisherman’s net to the bottom of the sea. But he gets there, finally, and reaches his freedom, and winds up sacrificing himself for the freedom of another fish, and at the end of the story he dies. So it’s not the kind of children’s story that would be typical in my country, it’s got a rather dark cast to it. But it contains themes that I later realized just resonated again and again with the history and the mentality in a way of revolutionary movements in Iran. It’s a story that is about refusing to be bounded by some received idea of one’s fate, or destiny.It’s a story about free will, and it’s a story about sacrifice, and at the time that it was published, which was I guess 1968, one of the things that’s also very haunting about the story is that the author of it drowned, he was on vacation, and he stepped into this river with very rapidly coursing currents, and he didn’t know how to swim, and there was for a while a rumour that he had been killed by the Shah’s secret police, nobody could really verify that, but the fact that he drowned became part of the myth of the story and the author. So to me, the story, at first, I didn’t understand it, and the more time I’ve spent on this book and on the lives of the people I’ve met, the more it seemed to resonate with everything that I found. And one of the things, you know, I bring it back again at the very end of the book because one of the themes of the book is this persistence of a very dynamic civic spirit in Iran, under very unpromising circumstances. Again and again you see people emerging who are willing to put themselves at risk in order to make a better life for their countrymen. It’s a source of wonder to me, in many ways, and really of awe.At the very end of the book, in the final section, I introduce a character who is also an avatar for the women’s movement in Iran. The women’s movement really takes wing at a time when so many other movements have been crushed, but these people come forward and take on some of the most obdurate parts of the establishment, the judiciary, and I really started to think about that woman who I introduced in that section, her name is Asieh Amini, as the little red fish, the one who picks up this journey at a time when others have abandoned it.Several years ago I was in Kabul, and I ended up at a conference basically on women and political participation, it was an international conference and the representatives were all from Muslim majority countries and the rep from Iran, she was an Islamic scholar. She was talking about Islamic law, and how women in Iran had used Islamic law as a way to move themselves forward but it was incremental, but if you saw the shift that had happened in the previous three decades, that there had been profound advances that women had been able to make by contesting and engaging with this particular aspect of the Iranian system which on the outside is perceived as monolithic and unchanging. How do you see that from inside Iran? What has that engagement been like and is it an engagement that people in Iran are generally well aware of? First of all, nothing is monolithic and unchanging in Iran, that’s one of the interesting things about the Islamic system in that country. It’s got a lot of different pressure points in places where you can tug on a string that makes something happen over here, and it’s a very dynamic place, which doesn't mean that there aren’t also some pretty hard and fast barriers to how much can be accomplished and how fast.The women’s movement is really variegated, it’s not easy to describe a single strategy or a single approach to taking on some of the issues, and there is part of it that is legalistic, there’s part of it that has concentrated on lobbying, in a sense, to get laws changed. There’s part of it that has focused on society. There’s the Million Signatures campaign, which involves women basically hand to hand, behind closed doors, distributing pamphlets that delineate discriminatory laws and educate other women and get their signatures on a petition with the aim of collecting one million signatures.The person I’ve profiled in the book is Asieh Amini, and her focus was on juvenile execution to begin with, and then eventually on stoning, and these issues don’t only affect women, but they do have a disproportionate affect on women. So there’s really all kinds of ways, I think, that the women’s movement has approached the systemic discrimination in Iran. I also think we have an idea in our minds of Iran as being a particularly repressive place for women, and while that is true, it’s also probably by regional standards a very dynamic place for women and you do see, if you travel to Iran, you see women in every kind of public role, and that’s something that may not be true in some of the other neighbouring countries.In talking about the state that emerged after the Islamic revolution of 1979, you write, “It emerged in impassioned, ambivalent dialogue among passionate, ambivalent people, and the state it produced is passionately ambivalent too.” What do you mean by passionately ambivalent? [Laughs.] I think of Iran as straddling a very profound fault line, both culturally and politically. It’s a country that is kind of defined by and driven by its divisions, and those divisions even run through individual people, at least that’s what I found in a lot of my research, and in the people that I profile in the book.At the very beginning, the revolutionary impulse is a really divided and interesting impulse. I think we think of it as, well, there was this revolution that produced an Islamic theocracy, therefore it was a revolution for Islamic theocracy. It was not. It was a really diverse movement that included people who were leftists and people who were liberals and nationalists. Even among the Islamists, the Islamism that drove it was a really dynamic and variegated force at that time. The thinker who I profile mainly from that period is Ali Shariati, who is interesting because what he does is he takes the language and the concerns and the commitments of the left, and he marries them to Islam, and that becomes a really potent force, because, in Iran, you had a really secular left that was largely urban and educated, and then you had, and this is complicated and it’s dealt with in the book, but the country had at that time a pretty serious urban/rural divide, and in the countryside you had a lot of traditional people who were at that time migrating into cities and finding themselves cheek-by-jowl with these urban secular elites who they didn't understand and who they felt looked down on them.What Shariati’s ideas did was, in a sense, they gave the revolutionary impulse back to the traditional people, and it gave Islam back to the urban elites, and in a sense unified the country for a moment, behind that idea, so suddenly if you were a traditional religious person, you were not some rube from the countryside to be looked down upon, you were the revolutionary vanguard, and according to Shariati it was not that Islam was compatible with revolutionary impulses, it was that leftist revolutionary ideology actually originated in Islam. So that was a really powerful way of thinking. But it was also, in a sense, it had its own in-built ambivalences, because he was reconciling a lot of things that did not spring from a single source and there was always, I think the cliché, which I hesitate to use but I can never get away from it, is that Iran is a country torn between tradition and modernity. I don’t really much like that, because I don’t think tradition is one thing and I don’t think modernity is one thing, and I don’t think that they’re necessarily pulling against each other, but in some sense, the intellectual and political project after the revolution was to create a uniquely Iranian vision of modernity that could enfold the traditions that were also indigenous to that country.And that's a conversation that’s still ongoing. Yeah.One of the things that’s difficult to disentangle is whether the politics have been Islamicized, or if Islam has been politicized. Is that even a conversation worth having when it comes to Iran? That’s a really interesting question. I feel that the more time I’ve spent on Iran, the less I think that any of this is about religion. I think that it’s really a story of politics, and in many ways the revolutionary state, although at first blush, the world looked at it and said, ‘My god, this is medieval fanaticism,’ actually it was a very modern state that the revolution produced and the kind of autocracy and repression that it produced is very familiar, that techniques of it and the shape of it. Over time one thing you see in the early revolutionary years is even Ayatollah Khomeini slowly becoming more and more pragmatic in his approach to politics and to the world, and this pragmatism is a very big piece of the Islamic republic’s outlook. So while it’s certainly not a secular state, and while it certainly is a state that has made a very special place for Islamic jurisprudence and for Islamic morality, it is a system that’s also actually more familiar than not, and that does not, I don’t think, need to be understood in religious terms.From the outside, Westerners tend to see Iran as a static state with an unchanging ideology. What kind of shift has there been in how Iran’s leaders and intellectuals see the project of the theocratic state? I think that from the very beginning, the theocratic state was never totally static, because it had contestation built into it, whether it meant to or not. The constitution of the Islamic Republic came out of compromise and conflict. There were on the one hand these Islamic nationalist liberals who were in the government at that time who presented a draft constitution that looked like the French Fifth Republic, and then you had clerics on the other hand who said, ‘No, this won’t do, we need to include a dimension of clerical rule.’ So these two dimensions were brought together from the very start into a kind of contradictory document, and that has produced a set of contradictions that make it impossible to eliminate dynamism from the system, as hard as they've tried. [Laughs.] Because the theocratic elements of the state, no question, are stronger than the republican elements. They ultimately control the security apparatus, the judiciary, the foreign policy, a lot of the most definitive levers of the state. But what they have not been able to do is eliminate dissention within their own ranks, or within the ranks of the larger bureaucratic government that includes the republican elements. So it’s been really interesting, over even the last ten years, when we’ve had a very open contest between the more autocratic elements of the regime, and the more republican elements, to see that even when the conservatives hold all the offices, they still wind up producing dissent. And you still wind up with factions that are critical of the system as a whole in some ways. I think that is in a way the fate that the country set itself when it adopted that constitution, and it’s something to be grateful for.A couple of years ago, I was assigned to review a couple of books, one that was a history of the revolution and of the late Shah period and the other that was a history of the Islamic Republic, and as I was reading these books I was thinking, there was a sense that we as Americans, we knew Iran under the Shah, because we were close to the Shah’s court, and so any history you read of that period has granular detail about the inner workings of government. But after the Islamic Revolution, I think we imagine that we don’t know Iran anymore, that it’s receded, it’s become an unknowable place. But if you look at any history of the Islamic Republic, it is actually so much richer, in terms of its connection to the society. So much more is visible, because the Islamic Republic, which is no less autocratic than the Shah’s regime, still has somehow created a space where the currents that actually move through the society can bubble up to the surface and be seen.And so in a lot of ways it’s in keeping with the tradition that you’ve already laid out, where there’s been this constant engagement with ideas. Yeah.So how do you explain that? When you’re out and about in your life as a journalist, and people are talking to you about Iran and you’re talking to people about Iran, is it a matter of convincing people that this is actually what’s happening there, and not this sense of static and immovable ideas? I suppose. I like to think that our ideas about Iran have changed in the last ten to twelve years, to some degree. There was this reformist period between 1997 and 2004, when President Mohammad Khatami was trying to open up the country, and at that point there was a lot of press about the dynamism of Iranian society, and then things kind of skewed to a different side, where the image of Iran was, well this is a place where there’s really a free press and people are very active and engaged and young people are yearning for connection with the world. And that too was a skewed impression, because that movement was up against some very hard forces of repression that were often not also brought into that frame. And then under Ahmedinejad I think we swung back the other way, and started to look at Iran again as a sort of hardline monolith, so when I talk to people about my work, I find a pretty wide variety of impressions that they’ve gleaned from the news and from other sources or maybe even their friends with Iranian backgrounds, because there are increasing numbers of Iranians in the United States, and as you know, even more in Canada, so I don’t want to overly generalize about what people think about a country they haven’t seen, but I do hope that my work is useful in bringing readers and ordinary people into contact with the sophistication and diversity and dynamism of that culture.Your book is a series of portraits of Iranians who engaged in various ways with the revolution, and then you go on to see what became of them. You talk about a man named Akbar Ganji who started out as a true believer but within a decade had lost his fervor. You summed up his views as, “in a religious state, religion became vulnerable to the vagaries, the antagonisms of politics. To criticize the state was to criticize Islam.” Iran has the same Islam it’s always had, well, not always had, but let’s say that Islam has always been part and parcel of that conversation since the revolution, but Iran has, as you’ve just alluded to, made a variety of political decisions, and taken a variety of political pathways. So how true do you think that that idea that Akbar Ganji put forward, how true is that still? Well I think what he was getting at with that idea was not then that you couldn’t criticize the state because it would be to criticize Islam, but that in order to make sense of this problem, you had to think about Islam in a different frame, and I think that he and some of the other reformists that were connected to a philosopher who’s featured in the book, Abdolkarim Suroush, a lot of their efforts were focused on removing religion from this kind of wordly interplay of conflict and politics, and saying, ‘Look, religion is not besmirched by these things, it’s not touched by them, religion the thing itself is ineffable, it is in a sense unknowable, and everything that we have built around it is only human, and therefore we can argue about it, and we can interpret it, and rediscover it, and disagree about it.’ This was a radical thing to do, philosophically, and Ganji was a follower of Suroosh’s and I think in the end, that was the view that he came to, that allowed him to be critical of the state without being critical of his religion. He’s a very religious man. So, that was the innovation in a sense of the intellectual reform movement, was to take this inner core of religion and try to protect it from the accretions of ideology and politics, which was in a sense the opposite of what Shariati did. Shariati took religion and tried to make of it an all-encompassing ideology. I think it was Suroush himself who put it this way: Shariati wanted to make religion corpulent and he wanted to make it small.When it comes to the state itself, does the state take dissent—I mean, we know how it treats dissent—but does it understand dissent against the state as being related to religion?What I’ve described for you is the reformist point of view, which has now fallen into the opposition, but the state itself does use religion in this way. The state itself does stipulate—the problem with dissenting in Iran is that you can always fall into the category of being accused of apostasy or of waging war against God, or of various formulations that turn dissent into an act of religious warfare, and that falls into a punitive category that can be quite severe. So yes, the state, part of its power, lies in its assumption of its own identity with religion and really divine right.How useful are terms like “reform,” “moderate,” “conservative?” How useful are these terms when you’re talking about Iran? They’re useful if you know what they mean, but the trouble is that they’ve been kind of evacuated of meaning in the foreign press in a lot of ways. Not intentionally, but I think that American readers certainly have a hard time distinguishing among them because the spectrum of political thought in Iran does not match ours one-to-one or really in any other ratio. It’s hard to talk about left and right, it’s hard to talk about moderate and conservative, without defining those terms. There are definitions for those terms, moderate less so. I have a problem with moderate, because it doesn’t really describe anything that can be fixed to a political category in Iran. But certainly there is a spectrum of political factions that you can look at and clearly delineate, but the trouble is that our terms, and our political vocabulary, doesn’t totally fit it, and it doesn’t automatically signify what we want it to signify when we talk about the Iranian spectrum.So when you are talking about the spectrum of political opinion, there are always going to be marginal voices on either end, but in general terms, even when you make reference to reformists in the current context, are the parameters still that Islam is to play into a role in politics, or are people able to talk about the idea of separating religion from politics and still be taken seriously in the Iranian political context? The Iranian political context is religious. And if you’re talking about electoral politics, and the kind of politics that can legally and substantially be a part of the political playing field, that has to fall under the provisions of the constitution, and the constitution includes clerical leadership, and it includes religious law. So to very directly criticize those things puts you in a kind of dangerous space.Now, the reformist movement, which emerged really in the nineties, came to fruition with the presidency of Mohammad Khatami and was essentially crushed in 2009 with the Green Movement, that movement always defined itself as an internal movement for incremental democratic reform. It did explicitly take on the religious structure of the state or its nature. But even that movement, which was incremental and internal and really an insider’s movement, even that movement after 2009, when it very directly clashed with Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and the revolutionary guards and so on, when it took those forces on, after that it was labeled the sedition, and placed outside the pale of allowable opinion. The reform movement still exists, that’s very clear in the behavior of the state. When you talk to ordinary people, I think the question of religion and the state runs more deeply through the society, and that there are a lot of people who—Iran is still a very religious country, a lot like the United States, and I think that there is rather broad constituency for a politics that is not theocratic, but even so, probably it would have a sort of—I don’t know how to put it, sort of like in the United States, religious people would be elected to a representative government.You so beautifully illustrate the contraction and expansion of the idea of modern Iran. It’s rigorously debated within the country. How challenging is it for Iranians to engage in that debate about the relationship between what the vision of the country was, and where they want it go? I think it’s gotten more challenging, not because that debate isn’t still alive and not because it doesn’t still resonate, but because the space for discussing it is not very open and under Khatami what we saw was this opening of the press which really allowed for a very deep and serious debate over the future of the country, and it also allowed for a surge of civic engagement, and you could see how much hunger there had been for that, for young people who wanted to be invested in the future of the country, and making things better, and they got involved in things, not just debating the role of mosque and state, which I don’t think many of them felt comfortable doing at that time, but they got involved in everything from supporting the rights of women and children and minorities and the provinces to laying poison for rats on blighted streets of Tehran to opening up hotlines for family counseling. They really got involved in improving life in the country. And that movement sadly got rather violently crushed, but I never believed that it went away, first of all because a lot of young people earned their chops in those days as journalists or as community organizers and so forth, there were a lot of people who entered the world of work and activism at that time and whose skills and commitments were shaped by it, and there’s also a sense that I think is ongoing, that Iranians want to be involved in shaping the future of their country, so I think it’s hard to totally assess, I haven’t been there myself since 2012, so that’s part of what is inhibiting me, but I think you can see almost always below the surface, this kind of rippling of, I don’t want to say dissent, because it’s not just dissent, it’s of engagement and a sense of wanting to be in charge of their own and their country’s future.Now that Iran is being cautiously welcomed back, what are the preoccupations internally about how Iran will hold its own internationally?Again I’m not there to assess that, but my sense is that this is a really delicate and important moment for the Islamic republic, and on the one hand, this opening presents a lot of opportunity. If you look at it from two sides, you have on the one hand the hardliners, and the deep state that Ayatollah Khamenei is at the head of, which does have a guiding ideological commitment to anti-Americanism and to maintaining Iran’s independence and its status as a bulwark against Imperialism, and then on the other hand you have the Rouhani team, which is much more pragmatic and sees Iran’s bread buttered perhaps on a different side. So these forces have not really come to a stable equilibrium, and one thing that we’re going to see is how they manage that, because I think there’s a sense that this opening, there’s no doubt about it, it’s perceived as positive inside Iran. And if that sanctions are lifted, and there is a period of economic recovery in Iran, because Iran has been through a lot economically in the past decade or so, so if you see a real positive economic benefit from reconciling in a sense with the Western powers over the nuclear deal, and if you see Iran being welcomed back at least to some extent into the community of nations and having a role that is less antagonistic in world bodies and so on, I think that’s going to be perceived very positively by the populous, which has really, for a long time—one of the words that you just always hear in Iran and I guess also elsewhere in the Middle East is dignity, and this is a great moment for the restoration of Iranian dignity on the world stage. So that’s something that probably everybody would like to take credit for, you would think.But there is some concern, I think too, for the hardliners, that they don't want to see Rouhani’s people taking all the credit for that, and they also don’t want to see Iran becoming overrun by Western influence, and I think that’s a very real concern to them. They have a lot of fear of what that would mean, and how that might weaken their hold on the levers of power. So I think there is right now a very real clash of internal forces in Iran, and we don’t know what the outcome of that is going to be, either for foreign policy or domestic.The idea of dignity, restoring dignity or maintaining dignity, there’s a real strong sense here, Canada’s just been through a truth and reconciliation process with its Aboriginal people, and that's part of the conversation around dignity, is reckoning with your past. I’m wondering, do you have any sense of that? You make reference in your book to the infamous summer of 1988, the two months where the state carried out thousands of executions and there are a variety of stories like that. Do you think that this restoration of dignity is going to be connected to that kind of reckoning in any way? Sadly I don’t. I think for that kind of reckoning to happen, and I do think that kind of reckoning is ultimately going to be very, very necessary to national healing, but I don’t think that this opening, the resolution of the nuclear file and the lifting of sanctions and this international picture, I don’t think that this is really going to have any impact on that. I think for that to happen that requires a much deeper and more dramatic shift, and I don’t really see that happening under Ayatollah Khamenei.Can you give us some sense of, what was that like the first time that you went to visit Iran, just in terms of your own experience there, what did you see, what was it like? I went to Iran in the fall of 2004, before I ever went as a journalist, I went as a tourist, and that was in some ways wonderful, because I got a much longer visa than I would ever get as a journalist, and I was able to travel, and to see a lot of the country and it was revelatory in a lot of ways, it was also frustrating, because even tourism in Iran, at that time at least, was very heavily managed, and there was a lot I couldn’t see and a lot of people I couldn’t talk to. But I went back, in the summer of 2005, on a reporting trip for the New Yorker, and that was to cover the election, the presidential election that brought us Ahmadinejad, and that trip was really the one that burst the whole place open for me, and in some ways it would never had happened that way if I hadn’t also gotten to see the country from a different perspective earlier, but in 2005, I really got to talk to a lot of people and to see the country in a moment of real political interest, and I wish I could say it’s the kind of place that you set foot in and you immediately fall in love and in some ways it really should be, because it has everything, and there’s no place more interesting in the world and it’s culturally rich, and it’s beautiful and the food is great and people are hospitable and all of that is true. It’s also a really difficult and in many ways unpleasant place to be. So I found it to be a really complex experience. I’d never really worked or travelled in a place that felt so repressive, and that had as much tension running through it, so that was something I wasn’t totally prepared for and that made a big impression on me. But that combination of there being so much of interest and beauty below the surface, and of the surface being so hard to crack, was kind of irresistible.The idea of living in a revolutionary society, is that still a sentiment that sits on the surface in Iran? Not exactly, in the sense that the revolution, yes, for a lot of people who were born after 1979 and that is now a lot of the population, the revolution belongs to their parents and not to them. But that’s still living history, it’s very much alive history, and I think that one thing the revolution did that has been very interesting for Iran is that it gave people a sense of ownership over the state, even though the state kind of slipped their grasp very quickly. So there’s a sense I think that might be special, of a state that ought to belong to its people, and that rightly belongs to its people, and that fuels some of the, at least among the opposition the anger that the state does not seem to be responsive to its people, so I think that that is one of the legacies of revolution, and that sense of agency, and of the rightfulness of agency, whether or not it plays out in reality.In terms of the revolutionary experiment itself, I think that one of the things that is worth emphasizing is just how unique the state is, that that revolution produced, that for Iranians to try to figure out how to navigate this system that they created after 1979, and how to leverage it to produce the kind of society and atmosphere that they want to live in, they don't have models, they don’t have other places to look to say ‘This is how it’s done,’ they are looking at their own structures and trying to understand them, and to penetrate them, and it creates a political discourse that is in some ways alienating for those of us on the outside, it seems like there’s a cottage industry of specialists who are telling us what to think about Iran and how to understand its politics, because we can’t look at a frame of reference that feels familiar and understand it as anything like a parliamentary democracy, but I think that uniqueness is a legacy of the revolution as well.
Straight to Hellmouth: When Punk and Magic Meet

There can be fantastic narrative dissonance when conflicting elements clash.

On a brutally hot day in the summer of 2014, I found myself in the cavernous basement of a New York restaurant fancy enough that me ever formally eating there would be inconceivable. The establishment in question was Del Posto, a high-end eatery located in the shadows of the High Line on the west side of Manhattan. I was there to talk with their dessert chef, one Brooks Headley, a guy who had won a James Beard Award for his work creating delectable pastries, was about to release his first cookbook, and would go on to open Superiority Burger, an establishment dedicated to some of the best veggie burgers you’re ever likely to eat. Headley’s résumé extended past the realm of food, though: over the years, he’d also played in fantastic cult punk bands such as Born Against, Skull Control, and Universal Order of Armageddon. It was a reminder that you can find people with a background in punk in the places you’d least expect: lauded chefs, acclaimed authors, and soccer coaches among them.That moment I’d had in the basement of Del Posto echoed through memory as I read the early pages of Jeremy P. Bushnell’s novel The Insides. After a brief prologue focusing on her in her youth, the novel’s protagonist Ollie is introduced as an adult working as a butcher in an upscale restaurant in Manhattan called Carnage. “[T]he Carnage basement is a huge length of semicircular tunnel, lined in clammy antique tile,” Bushnell writes. As Ollie gets to work, she cues up a playlist that starts with music from Swans11A reference that, given the recent accusation of rape directed at frontman Michael Gira, has bleaker connotations than simply “this is a character who likes punk.” and begins carving. Between this and the fact that, when we meet the teenage version of Ollie, she’s hanging out in Tompkins Square Park—a New York location synonymous with a certain strain of fast and loud music—the character is pretty recognizable as an aging punk in her thirties.More than that, she’s also an aging punk in her thirties with a long-running familiarity with magic. In the prologue, Ollie and her friend Victor encounter a warlock squatting in a building on the Lower East Side; in the present day, Ollie becomes involved in the search for a knife with mystical properties, including a connection to a portal to a dimension full of unpleasant worm creatures. All of which places The Insides in one of the weirder sub-genres readers can encounter: stories in which punks do magic.Your conservatory training will not get you far in the realm of basement punk shows, quasi-legal DIY spaces, and late nights at dive bars with dirt-cheap beer, whereas magic, on the other hand, is largely about the necessity of formal training. Why is this a thing? It comes down to archetypes. At its core, punk can be said to be about passion over virtuosity—a handful of chords and the right attitude are what matter. The Platonic ideal of a punk song is something fast and simple and direct. Your conservatory training will not get you far in the realm of basement shows, quasi-legal DIY spaces, and late nights at dive bars with dirt-cheap beer. (Again: archetypes.) Magic, on the other hand, is largely about the necessity of formal training. The Harry Potter series of books is, after all, structured to match its protagonist’s education in casting spells and understanding the operation of supernatural devices and concoctions. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians also emphasizes the need for some form of training for its characters to hone their occult abilities. (Though, to be fair, there is a subplot about more DIY ways of picking up magical skills—though that’s described as a more perilous direction.) In books, movies, and games, magic tends to be a practice where experience and patience are key.All of which is to say that throwing magic and punk into the same storyline is probably going to cause some sort of narrative dissonance, which can be used to a variety of ends. In the case of Bushnell’s book, Ollie’s background in punk is one of several ways in which she’s presented as opposed to traditional power structures—she’s a biracial woman with a chaotic childhood and no inclination to work a traditional nine-to-five job. This, in turn, puts her in both figurative and literal opposition to the novel’s villains, a father-and-son team of right-wing extremists seeking the knife that’s the McGuffin in this book’s plot. Magical devices are portrayed as having the ability to control and confer authority, with horrific consequences—but in placing its hero on the other side of that divide, it manages to be thematically consistent while still establishing a good sense of place along with some unsettling cosmology. It’s one more detail in the creation of a memorable central character, and it helps to shape the milieu around her.Arguably the best-known narrative to bridge punk and magic exists in a different medium entirely. The DC Comics character of John Constantine has shown up in more realistic settings as well as alongside said publisher’s superheroes and villains in the Hellblazer series. He was played by Keanu Reeves on film and by Matt Ryan on television; he’s also been hailed as one of the handful of high-profile bisexual characters in contemporary comics. And he, too, has a history in punk: during Brian Azzarello’s early ’00s run on the series, a flashback issue featured a young Constantine playing in a band as part of London’s late-’70s punk scene.22There’s another musical connection, albeit one that’s a bit less punk rock, especially viewed from 2016: When he was first created in the 1980s and appeared in the pages of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, Constantine’s look was inspired by none other than Sting.The manifestation of magic in Constantine’s series has varied over the decades from writer to writer: Garth Ennis and Jamie Delano brought demons and supernatural creatures to the forefront, while Azzarello and Warren Ellis’s runs played out more like crime fiction with a handful of surreal elements. The ways in which magic is put to use have also changed: in some arcs, you might see magical devices, such as a book that can predict the future, while in others, misdirection and illusion were the hallmarks of his trade. And while it’s difficult to come up with a definitive take on a character who has existed in multiple continuities and been written by numerous writers, it can be argued that Constantine’s subdued use of the supernatural later in life echoes his youthful anti-authoritarianism: a deepening of an existing impulse—the early issues of Hellblazer were set in Thatcher-era Great Britain—and its evolution into something stranger, as he found himself pitted everything from violent neo-Nazis to demons with a penchant for draining human life.It’s also interesting to compare Constantine to his fellow English punk-turned-magician, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Rupert Giles. When the series opens, he seems to be a fairly straight-laced agent of a literally patriarchal organization, the Watcher’s Council, whose members act as mentors to the young women bestowed with uncanny abilities in order to fight evil. As more information about his misspent youth trickles out, his buttoned-down nature is seen, more than anything, as a way of counterbalancing his earlier tendencies towards chaos. Over the course of the series, he ends up breaking with the organization that had employed him over their more controlling and authoritarian tendencies, including drugging the title character and leaving her in a possibly fatal situation in order to test her. The Watcher’s Council’s shifting role over the course of the series, from a positive one to a much more controlling one, prompts Giles to rekindle his rebellious tendencies decades after having suppressed them, to a much more beneficial end. It’s a fairly neat character arc over the course of the series, and illustrates the ways in which the dissonance between anarchic punk and formalized magic can play out in dramatically interesting ways.The dissonance that emerges from the collision of magic and punk can be as useful as a squall of feedback used judiciously in the middle of an already-intense band’s set.For some works, it’s the embrace of regional specificity that brings together magic and punk. In Martin Millar’s The Good Fairies of New York, a pair of New Yorkers are swept up in the affairs of a pair of drunk, vomit-prone, and diminutive magical creatures. The music of Johnny Thunders runs throughout: one of the novel’s major characters is introduced pondering the best way to play his solo from “Private Love.” Soon enough, the restless spirit of Thunders himself makes the first of a series of appearances, wandering through the East Village in search of his lost guitar. It feels very much like an encapsulation of a particular moment in that neighborhood’s history, turned ecstatic and strange. Here, too, Millar subverts expectations, making his supernatural characters even bawdier and harder-living than the humans that surround them.On the (geographic) flip side of that, Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books (collected as Dangerous Angels in 1998) blend magic, a stylized version of Los Angeles, and a fondness for rockabilly bands. Nearly everything in these books feels impressionistic: one major character is called My Secret Agent Lover Man; the plot of Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys involves enchanted articles of clothing, including pants made from a goat; and throughout, there’s a juxtaposition of tender emotional moments with an energy that seems of a piece with Chuck Jones cartoons or Richard Lester films. One chapter of Weetzie Bat ends by describing how the characters “lived happily ever after in their silly-sand-topped house in the land of skating hamburgers and flying toupees and Jah-Love blonde Indians.” The following chapter opens with the title character asking, “What does ‘happily ever after’ mean anyway.”The fact that the bands these characters watch and play in are on the aggressive side of the musical spectrum might seem to clash with the jaunty tone Block uses to tell these stories. But that can be somewhat deceiving: these are books that are also willing to go into some fairly dark places, with 1989’s Weetzie Bat, the first in the series, including upsetting glimpses of suicidal depression and terminal illness alongside the magic and visions that drive its plot forward. Call it an echo of the way certain punk bands can channel the cartoonish along with the searing: the Cramps, Sex Pistols, and even Fucked Up come to mind, making use of stylized imagery and conceptual devices along with the more gut-level pull of their music. And while Block invokes a larger-than-life sense of stylization, magic and art serve to both bring characters together and distance them from one another. There’s plenty of give-and-take here, and a running evocation of the very punk idea of collective structures. None of the families in these books are all that quote-unquote traditional, but the bonds that connect the people within them are clear and tangible.For writers who know how to use it, the dissonance that emerges from the collision of magic and punk can be as useful as a squall of feedback used judiciously in the middle of an already-intense band’s set. There are others that run up alongside that memorable energy: Sean Stewart’s Perfect Circle, about a man living in Texas who can see the spirits of the dead, is saturated with the presence of Gun Club frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce; Sarah McCarry’s33Full disclosure: McCarry is a friend. trilogy that begins with All Our Pretty Songs smashes together Greek mythology with Seattle punk history, pushing the concept of the iconic into uncharted territory. Washington, D.C., punk fixture Ian Svenonius’s 2012 book Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group used the device of a séance to critique decades of rock history. And whatever casting director thought to fill the role of wizard rock singer Myron Wagtail in the Harry Potter films with the indubitable presence of Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker pulled off a nicely subversive pop-cultural coup.44Though it has led to some awkward moments when talking about Pulp with friends unfamiliar with them: “Right, you know the guy who sings in the wizard rock band in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? Yeah, his band in real life was really good.”Someone stepping out of a basement show and waving a wand can feel like a wrong note or a righteous character beat depending on how a writer pulls it off. Magic, as a concept, has accrued certain narrative expectations over the years; so has punk. But in both forms, finding the right balance between tradition and something more personal is essential—and finding a new way to combine two ostensibly conflicting elements can lead to a more rewarding outcome than anyone might expect. It needn’t break the spell.
Tech Support

Building a network through the fog of depression can feel impossible. Now, more and more people are going online to fill gaps in our mental health care system. 

The first time she had a panic attack, Michelle Daniel-Newman thought it was the flu. She was in her early twenties and on her way to a downtown Toronto nightclub when the symptoms started. It was 2001; she makes a point of emphasizing that it was around the time of 9/11. Inside the club, it only got worse. She didn’t understand what was going on. “It was like an out of body experience,” she says. Crying, and scared, she drove back home to Thornhill, a suburb of the city, deeply unfamiliar with what she was experiencing. As her anxiety and panic continued over the days and weeks that followed, her reaction was to close off from the world. “I got to the point where I did not want to leave my house.”When she finally opened up to the idea of help, it was hard to find. “I remember one day I felt like I hit rock bottom,” she writes in an article for Pink and Blue Magazine. “I was desperate to talk to someone. I was ready.” She drove to a therapist’s office. “I told the receptionist that I needed to see the doctor right away. Her response was ‘I’m sorry, we can’t see you. Why don’t you go to the ER and be seen by the doctors there?” The experience of being turned away made an impression on her. “In emergency you’re being pushed and pushed. You’re not taken seriously. When you’re ready to accept the help, and you don’t get the help you need, you’re crushed.” She walked outside, sat in her car and cried for hours. “It was shit. Complete shit.”For years, she struggled to build her life, to interact with the outside world. Going to doctors and therapists eventually helped, but not as much as she would’ve liked. Nothing seemed to work. Then, two pieces of news, delivered in quick succession, changed her world. The first: in late 2007, a doctor told her that she had cervical cancer. The second, which she learned after waking up from surgery for the cancer: she was two-and-a-half months pregnant. “It was the most fucked up experience of my entire life.”And then a revelation came in, of all places, a karaoke bar.“Have you ever heard that song, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’?”Daniel-Newman first heard the Journey anthem in 2009, and it gave her something she was desperately lacking: hope. It didn’t cure her of her mental illness, nor did it aid her recovery from cancer, or make the prospect of an unexpected pregnancy any less daunting. What it did was spark something in her—something that told her that all those things could be beaten, and that she had the strength to do so. Though she is not particularly religious, she calls it a sign from God.*Anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness are hard to talk about. “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror,” wrote David Foster Wallace in his 1998 story, “The Depressed Person.” Empathy has its limits. Describing the precise way that your own brain tortures you in terms that someone can understand and process can be almost impossible—can words quite capture what it feels like when every cell in your body feels individually and uniquely nauseous?For most people, building a support network is a crapshoot, and often they only end up with a gallery of uneasy voyeurs who can look but when it comes down to it, do not (or cannot) truly understand what they see. Living with anxiety, depression, panic disorders—that’s hard. Personally, there have been times when I’ve wondered how long I was going to be able to handle my own anxiety and depression, whether I was ready to take on a whole life with a brain that feels mis-wired. Explaining it to people is hard. Asking for help, and articulating the kind of help you need, is hard. The darkly ironic challenge of mental illness is that the illness itself is an obstacle to seeking help: making the people you love most feel, at the moment you need them most, a whole lot like strangers.Misery might love company, but suffering demands understanding. By and large, the mental health system as it exists today fails to acknowledge the fact that many people struggle to build support networks, because building support networks is hard if nobody in your life understands what you are going through. Heretohelp, a government mental health initiative in British Columbia, notes on its website that “people living with depression tend to report fewer supportive friends, less contact with their friends, less satisfaction with their friends and relatives, lower marital satisfaction and confide less in their partners.” How can you effectively build a support network if you can barely leave the house?*In January 2015, Daniel-Newman teamed up with her therapist and close friend, Melanie Tinianov, to create a Facebook group called Anxiety & Panic Disorder Support, a forum for members—who span the globe, from North and South America to Europe and Asia—to open themselves and their illnesses up to strangers, seeking advice and guidance from people with first-hand experience. I joined in the spring; it grew quickly, gaining more than two thousand members by the end of 2015. Today, the group has grown to over three thousand.Often, the first person to respond is Daniel-Newman herself. During much of her day, which the 38-year-old mother of two spends at home working as an independent contractor for an at-home beauty products company, she keeps up with the group, offering advice to just about anybody who asks for it. That she’s not a licensed therapist or psychologist seems to be a technicality, rather than a major hurdle, to Daniel-Newman; she wants Anxiety & Panic Disorder Support to go big. Though she isn’t a professional, she seems to have an appetite for it—she wants to one day open up a brick and mortar 24/7 clinic where people can go for support. “I see so many suffering,” she says, “and they’re suffering alone […] What I needed [when my illness was at its worst] is what it [this group] today.”It’s a model meant to bring people together in a way that may improve upon the traditional in-person support network structure built primarily out of friends and immediate family. The philosophy is not dissimilar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous: that first-hand knowledge of suffering is, in some way, deeply valuable to the healing process.These online support groups seem to exist at the intersection of traditional group therapy, personal networks, and social media, an even newer extension of a new idea: that social care—treating mental illness partly through the power of social interaction—can possibly be as effective, if not more, than the traditional doctor-patient structure."Students are so lucky. The general public gets a ten-minute pill-push."The form they take can differ widely. While Anxiety & Panic Disorder Support lives on Facebook, there are various traditional Internet forum boards and forum-style sub-Reddits devoted to mental illness as well, such as r/depression, r/anxiety, and r/bipolar, or apps like 7Cups, which connects people suffering or in need of support with one of 140,000 trained listeners. The common thread that connects them is that they seek to build a community of suffering strangers.Those who have suffered—and continue to suffer—from mental illness often have a sharpened understanding of what others going through the same thing might need. Since many of them have experienced existing structures and traditional therapy already, they have a keen sense of where the gaps in mental health care exist and what the best way to fill those gaps might be. It isn’t that apps like 7Cups, or groups like Anxiety & Panic Disorder Support are meant to be improvements upon therapy—Daniel-Newman and Tinianov insist that traditional therapy is still a crucial part of mental health care—but rather that they provide an outlet within the existing therapy paradigm that emphasizes one-on-one care, but struggles to provide it at the scale required. “There’s nobody stopping us from doing a better job of caring for one another,” says Glen Moriarty, founder and CEO of 7Cups.Daniel-Newman echoes this sentiment; she guesses that her group’s success in helping is just as much about giving people the feeling of having helped as it is about the feeling of having received help. “This group changed my whole life,” she says. “It made me feel like there’s more of a purpose here on earth for me.”It’s a populist take on mental health care: The Internet as a tool to fight mental illness, rather than just a place of refuge.*The front lines of the health care system can often seem ill-equipped to handle mental health concerns. If you’re lucky enough to have a family doctor (which in 2010, five million Canadians over the age of twelve did not), and that doctor is able to see you in a timely fashion (which is the case for less than fifty percent of the Canadian population), there is a significant disparity between the availability of different types of treatment given to mental health patients. According to a 2012 Statistics Canada study, ninety-one percent of Canadians suffering from mental illness felt their needs for medication were met; only sixty-four percent said the same about therapy. Moreover, money can be an insurmountable hurdle: despite the country’s reverence for its health care system, not a single Canadian province provides coverage for anyone who seeks therapy outside of a doctor’s office.Angela Townend, a social worker with the London Family Health Team,11Who, full disclosure, has been involved in my own treatment. says colleges and universities have not been able to adequately deal with the number of students looking for care. “The waitlist for counseling at Western [University, located in London, Ontario] is horrendous,” says Townend, who places some blame on a lack of financial investment in mental health programs on campus, but concedes that there is a silver lining to the fact that Western has such a long waitlist: It means, at least, that kids are asking for help.In both Canada and the United States, the problem of mental illness on university campuses is striking. A 2002 study found that between thirteen and eighteen percent of Canadian students suffer from mental illness, and according to Statistics Canada, the country has the third-highest suicide rate among adolescents in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries. Maclean’s reported in 2012 that Ryerson University in Toronto saw a two-hundred-percent increase in demand for counseling, and that up to twenty-five percent of Canadian university students will experience a mental health problem. (And it is a plausible argument that students, who have direct access to counseling services, have a pretty good deal: “Students are so lucky,” says one Western University science student, noting that he gets appointments whenever he wants, while the “general public gets a ten-minute pill push.”)Broadly speaking, the conversation surrounding mental health has focused heavily on de-stigmatization, in hopes that those who need care won’t have to suffer in silence and will be able to ask for help when they need it, without fear of judgment. In effect, there has been a scale-up of the conversation—millions of text messages, tweets, and Facebook posts were shared in the name of Bell’s #LetsTalk campaign, for example—without the corollary scale-up of the actual resources required to provide help to those who most need it. The ongoing tragedy in Attawapiskat and other First Nations communities provides stark evidence that care is often concentrated in urban centres, inaccessible to those in more rural areas. But even in cities, it would be wrong to assume that care is easily available. For its 20,000 patients, for example, the London Family Health Team is able to provide 2.6 social workers—two full-time and one part-time practitioner. Across Canada, the numbers are dire, and getting worse. In 2010, the number of psychiatrists was 13.9 per 100,000; by 2030, the CMA estimates that number will fall to 11.9. Nationwide, non-urgent cases take an average of eleven weeks to be addressed by a psychiatrist.*Glen Moriarty of 7Cups invites a thought experiment: “Imagine we could delete the concept of therapy,” he asks. “Knowing what we know now, and what we have now—imagine creating a new mental health system.”In the past decade or so, this idea has gained traction. “Having social ties can promote feelings of attachment and companionship, enhancing one’s sense of purpose and self-esteem. For individuals experiencing stress, one’s social network can provide personal support and enhance coping,” writes the Canadian Mental Health Association, in “Mental Health Promotion in Ontario: A Call to Action,” published in 2008. “Social contacts also serve as resources for sharing information that can enhance one’s ability to deal with adversity, therefore moderating distress.” As social networks themselves exist increasingly online, so too must the social care.Social care is a broad term. Townend, Daniel-Newman, and others I spoke with all acknowledged that it is a crucial aspect of mental health care, but differed when it came to their own interpretations of it, as well as the ideal form for it to take. But the concept, at its base, is that a thriving social network can be highly beneficial to one’s mental health care. Increasingly, the health care field is turning away from archaic paradigms of mental health—such as the notion that it is a simple chemical misfiring—and towards trying to see mental health existing within a person’s broader social life. Along with freedom from discrimination and violence and access to economic resources, one of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s three most significant determinants of mental health is social inclusion.“We don’t let people say ‘Hey, it’s going to be okay.’”The most successful support groups on the Internet, however, do not, by and large, grow out of existing social networks, but rather out of groups of unfamiliar strangers.Anonymity (or in Facebook’s case, a lack of personal familiarity) is a positive force when discussing mental illness. “Anonymity kills stigma,” says Moriarty. Likewise, many of 7Cups’s listeners are “people who got help and wanted to give back,” he says. “People are afraid of being judged. If you don’t have someone in your immediate life who gets you, talking to someone who doesn’t judge you can be powerful.”This describes Daniel-Newman, too. She does her best to be the one person that members of her Facebook group can go to, no matter what. In an average day, there are anywhere between ten to twenty posts, and a great deal of Daniel-Newman’s time is taken up with monitoring discussions and, in many cases, personally responding: her phone is “constantly going,” she says. She understands how hard it can be to involve loved ones in your own recovery. “You don’t want to burden people. It’s a lot easier sometimes dealing with strangers. They’re strangers, but they connect,” she says, leaning into the word. “You connect instantly. You share that common feeling, and you have that bond.”The ability of friends and family to provide support is often limited by their own experiences of mental illness. Understanding mental illness is different from experiencing it, and given that for many people expressing how and why they are suffering is difficult, this distinction can feel excruciating. Many depressed people to whom I’ve spoken are (as, indeed, I am) prone to feeling like their pain is unique, as if nobody has ever felt so plainly awful in the specific way they do. Despite recognizing the idea as ridiculous, it can often make talking about it all the more difficult. Networks can ease the burden placed on one’s own social circle.Or, as Townend puts it, “Friends and family can’t always be the place where you go to deal with that stuff. You can burn them out. You need your friends and family for a lot of the fun, laid-back stuff.”For better or worse, online support groups attempt to help build a social support network by catering to the anti-social impulses of the mentally ill. “I like to say I have a theoretical support network. Which means that theoretically, I COULD call people,” wrote one poster on Reddit’s r/depression sub-Reddit last year. “Practically, I’m better off taking a couple Benadryl and a Xanax and passing the fuck out. It’s quicker, and cheaper and it means I don’t have to put the masks on first.”*Using the Internet as a vehicle poses obvious challenges. Mental health professionals such as Townend acknowledge that the web can often be a wild west or sorts—a fact which has to be considered when she directs patients online. “I’m always a bit wary, especially with younger patients,” she says, noting that sending someone online is essentially sending someone into a space that they can’t control. She, however, thinks moderation can mitigate that. “That’s a good side of the internet,” she says, “there are really good support networks that get monitored and moderated.”What it means to be monitored and moderated, though, can differ. Implicit in the act of moderating is creating a particular type of safe space, but there is little agreement about what that should actually look like. For many years, Erin (who does not want her last name published for privacy reasons) was a user on the r/depression sub-Reddit, and her frequent participation led her to become a moderator there four years ago. She understands that in an open forum, controlling the type of support that users receive is important. On r/depression, Erin tries to de-emphasize the positivity that Daniel-Newman tries hard to inculcate.“We don’t let people say ‘Hey, it’s going to be okay,’” Erin says. Her users find that far less helpful than those giving the advice tend to think it will be, and less helpful than someone simply understanding what they’re going through. There are some strict rules she and her fellow moderators follow—no religion, no discussion of suicide methods, and no personal information—but beyond that, they try to be “as lenient as possible when people need help,” she says, but “much less forgiving when people are trying to help.” She admits that over-moderation has its drawbacks: when people transgress group rules, they often do so without any malice. Those moments are great opportunities to help educate people on best practices when it comes to supporting those with mental illnesses.Daniel-Newman and Tinianov insist that their only rule is that nobody is allowed to give medical recommendations of any sort. In practice, though, their group seems laden with all sorts of invisible rules and ideas about what it ought to be. Arguments are discouraged—anything they don’t agree with is liable to be deleted. I was even kicked out of the group for reaching out to other members of the group to talk about what it means to them. It remains unclear why this was an offense worthy of exile—especially since I’d cleared it with Daniel-Newman before posting. Despite numerous conversations about ethical considerations, I have not been allowed back in, despite repeated assurances from the admins that this will happen. Daniel-Newman and Tinianov’s guardedness and skittishness underscores a point: the world is a scary place for people who are suffering from mental illness, and even well-meaning gestures can seem very much like an intrusion. It was a reminder of how easy it is—even for someone like me, someone with my experiences—to underestimate the difficulty of being open about your own pain.
Everybody Hurts: The Soundtrack of My So-Called Life

How the seminal series became a masterwork in scoring teen angst, one lawn-twirl at a time.

My So-Called Life’s ode to joy doesn’t arrive until its seventeenth episode, “Betrayal,” but it’s worth it. By then we have spent ninety percent of the ABC series watching fifteen-year-old Angela Chase (Claire Danes) emancipate herself from mousey suburbanite to scarlet-haired Jordan Catalano scholar—a premise I explore in In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life, my new book dedicated to the show’s feminism.In “Betrayal,” we awake with Angela, the camera trained on her face, her head on her pillow, her mien neutral. “I loved Jordan Catalano so much, and talked about him so much and thought about him so much, it was like he lived inside me. Like he had taken possession of my soul, or something...” *PREGNANT PAUSE* “...and then one day… I got over him!” The Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” electrifies a now-ecstatic Angela, turning her into a whirling, bopping, lip-syncing dust devil. “Let me go on,” she mouths, “like I blister in the sun/Let me go on... big hands, I know you’re the one.”This is not a song about masturbation. Violent Femmes frontman and writer Gordon Gano told the Village Voice as much in 2013. For him it’s about drug addiction; for Angela, guy addiction. “It was like he had been surgically removed from my heart and I was free,” she says of Jordan—and the tune presages their messy breakup. “While the familiar, catchy song perfectly captures Angela’s blissful awakening,” writes Kelly Maloy in “Their So-Called Scene,” an entry in the MSCL essay collection Dear Angela, “the song’s arrangement is unsettling, staccato, and in places unrhythmical and avoids an unrealistic suggestion that the Angela-Jordan relationship has been resolved.”Critics lauded the series back in 1994 for Angela’s unreliable narration, but when she isn’t speaking her mind, the show’s music does it for her. According to Maloy, MSCL’s soundtrack “often highlighted characters’ nuances or illustrated their inner turmoil.” Mixing up Beverly Hills 90210’s legacy, the show bypassed hokey mall acts like Color Me Badd to feature musicians more akin to Peach Pit headliners The Flaming Lips. Animal Bag, Buffalo Tom and Juliana Hatfield all appeared in various scenes within its single season. “Buffalo Tom itself typifies the music that characterizes the show,” Maloy writes, “a scrappy band (and one of several Boston-based groups featured in the show) formed by three college students whose lyrics focus on feelings of longing and emptiness.” But it was Hatfield, another Bostonian, who was granted the biggest storyline of all in the episode “So-Called Angels” as a street kid with angelic pipes. At the time, the singer-songwriter with the diminutive voice and the lofty lyrics was a teen girl idol:Everybody’s watching, everybody’s lookingShe’s such a sucker, he don’t want to fuck herHe is gonna kiss me, if he doesn’t miss meI am ready for it now, already on the ground11Hatfield’s “Spin the Bottle” plays over a scene in which Rayanne and her friends prepare her house for a party.Hatfield refused to lie down for the patriarchy, choosing instead to stand shoulder to shoulder with the third wave’s riot grrrls. Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna described this feminist contingent in the 1992 fanzine “Girl Power,” in a manifesto entitled “riot grrrl is,” which included the line, “BECAUSE we want and need to be encouraged and to encourage in the face of all our own insecurities, in the face of beergutboyrock that tells us we can’t play our instruments, in the face of ‘authorities’ who say our bands/zines/etc are the worst in the US and who attribute any validation or success of our work to girl bandwagon hype.” So when Angela is alone for the first time with Jordan, the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” music video soundlessly flickers across the scene in the foreground. We can’t hear it but we can see it, and we know what lead singer Christy Amphlett is saying—this is the paean to onanism we were looking for:I don’t want anybody elseWhen I think about you, I touch myselfOoh, I don’t want anybody elseOh no, oh no, oh noReleased in 1990, the lead single from the Aussie band’s fourth studio album, diVINYLS, became infamous for deigning to promote female masturbation. Four years later, a teen girl on primetime was giving solo sex a sweaty-palmed handshake.The riot grrrl was “grunge’s indie sister,” according to Dear Angela’s Michele Byers. Grunge, meanwhile, that offspring of punk and heavy metal paired with angsty lyrics about alienation, entered the mainstream in the early ‘90s on the backs of Nirvana,22Lead singer Kurt Cobain makes a brief appearance in MSCL on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine’s memorial issue from June 2, 1994 (he had died on April 5th). “I can’t look at him,” Rayanne says (along with the rest of us). Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots (a band Angela claims she listens to). “There’s a feeling of burnout in the culture at large,” Simon Reynolds, author of rock subculture chronicle Blissed Out, told The New York Times in 1992. “Kids are depressed about the future.”Composer W.G. Snuffy Walden attempted to musicalize that zeitgeist in MSCL’s theme song. He “stole” the words out of Angela’s new best friend Rayanne’s (A.J. Langer) mouth, the ones she initially uses to propel Angela towards freedom: “Go. Now. Go!” But Walden needed “more of an electrified teen angst,” so he threw in some guitar riffs as well. When that still wasn’t enough, he brought in his friend, singer Julian Raymond, to add the pièce de résistance. “Just soar,” he told him. The result, Walden believed, “spoke to that youth.”[[{"fid":"6696446","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"My So-Called Life Intro HQ","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]So did Claire Danes. Though she was only thirteen in the MSCL pilot, her instinct was already as much physical as it was intellectual. In one of the sweetest scenes in the series, after the second time Angela and Jordan kiss—in the show’s second episode, “Dancing in the Dark”—Danes performs an “impromptu ballet” on the empty lawn of her family’s glowing house, floating not along the music but the magic of the moment. “I had to find something that caught her emotion,” Walden said. So with the camera hovering above her, a glockenspiel drops notes down from the heavens like rain and Angela blooms into the tiny ballerina that twirled through our pubescence.If Walden offers one of the more joyful musical moments of the series, REM provides its most melancholy. At the end of the pilot, Angela returns home from a club late at night to find her dad, Graham (Tom Irwin), at the end of their block in a passionate argument with a woman who is not her mom. As she watches them, “Everybody Hurts” drifts in:When your day is longAnd the night, the night is yours aloneWhen you’re sure you’ve had enoughOf this life, well hang onMichael Stipe reportedly wrote the track after hearing about a suicidal fifteen-year-old girl at his sister’s school. Released on the band’s 1992 album Automatic for the People, “Everybody Hurts” appeared that year on the soundtrack for the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “I’ve never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” guitarist Peter Buck wrote in the liner notes of their best-of album, In Time, “but the idea that high school is a portal to hell seems pretty realistic to me.” The band chose simple lyrics precisely because they wanted to speak to those students. As Buck told MOJO magazine in 1994, “trying to reach a seventeen-year-old and say, ‘it’s OK—things are tough but they get better’ involved economy and directness.”Equally economical and direct, though slightly less critically acclaimed, is Enigma’s “Return to Innocence,” which provides the closing soundtrack for MSCL’s twelfth episode, “Self-Esteem.” The German new-age group’s 1993 single is an uplifting slice of electronica that samples—sans permission—an aboriginal chant, which it pairs with basic lyrics that trumpet self-acceptance. The song rises up as Angela, who recently battled a bad zit, watches her mother and sister perform in a fashion show and comes to realize the ubiquity of beauty:Don’t care what people sayJust follow your own wayDon’t give up and use the chanceTo return to innocenceA rather crude reminder of the recurring theme of Angela’s coveted (in various ways) innocence, MSCL’s soundtrack also serves to narrate her sexual awakening. Buffalo Tom’s shoegazing ballad “Late at Night” has such a presence in episode 12 that the Boston band actually materializes in a club scene, the trio serenading Angela’s public confrontation with Jordan (who is himself in a band, appropriately named Frozen Embryos), with whom she has been regularly making out in private in the boiler room. Here the song actually serves as Jordan’s voice:I, I close my door at nightBut she gets in all rightSo I turn on the lightThough he attempts to ignore Angela, at the end of the episode, as the song predicts, Jordan finally brings their relationship into the light by grabbing her hand in the school hallway in front of all their friends. Despite Angela’s 1000-watt grin, however, the lyrics imply Jordan is still fumbling:I, I held her hand too tightToo hard to make it rightSo I could sleep at nightIt’s Jordan’s own song, “Red,” that most powerfully highlights their dissonance when Angela mistakes it for a song about her (“Oh my god,” Rickie says, touching a piece of Angela’s hair, “‘Red,’ that’s you”):I was goin’ nowhere, goin’ nowhere fastDrownin’ in my memories, livin’ in the pastEverythin’ looked black ‘til I found herShe’s all I need, and that’s what I saidOh, oh, ohI call her ‘Red’Yeah, yeah, yeahI call her ‘Red’Yeah, yeah, yeahShe’s my shelter from the storm,She’s a place to rest my headLate at night, she keeps me safe and warmI call her ‘Red’Yeah, yeah, yeahI call her ‘Red’[[{"fid":"6696451","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"My So-Called Life : Jordan Catalano - Red [HD]","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The ballad is in fact about Jordan’s car—Angela, again, “makes everything too complicated” by assuming it’s a metaphor.33Of course, for the viewer, it is a metaphor for Jordan’s masculinity, which Angela is perpetually threatening to undermine. Writer Winnie Holzman says in In My Humble Opinion that she was partly inspired to write the scene because she knew Jared Leto could play the guitar and sing. “I wish now that I’d gone to Jared and said, ‘Let’s write a song,’” she says. “At the time the whole thing was just happening so fast. I think, honestly, I might have been too shy.” In retrospect, she wishes she and Walden had imbued the lyrics with more “violent or dark imagery” in the context of Jordan’s tough upbringing. As it is, the truth is not illuminated for Angela and she continues to believe the song is about her while every other tune riffs off her inability to make her and Jordan happen:All my lifeIs changing every dayIn every possible wayAnd all my dreamsIt’s never quite as it seemsBecause you’re a dream to me (a dream to me)- “Dreams,” The CranberriesTrust in dreams to begintry to keep it all in sightAnd try to work it all outtry if you will, try if they won’tYou’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t try- “Try,” Billy PilgrimBecause I’ve been dying And I’ve been trying For ways to get through Days to get through - “South Carolina,” Archers of LoafDawn can’t decide if there should be more of this porchShe’s sick of being inside, he reads the signsAnd now they’re making out in Lancaster, just to pass the time- “Dawn Can’t Decide,” The LemonheadsEven the show’s Halloween episode wears its detachment on its mohair sleeve. Angela drifts back in time to meet the Jordan-esque Nicky Driscoll (“Nicky Driscoll is going nowhere, and I’m not going there with him,” his girlfriend says, echoing the lyrics in “Red”). The strains of “Blue Moon” are heard in the distance as Nicky approaches his untimely death, leaving him stuck in the first verse of the 1934 ballad (sung here by Elvis):Blue Moon, you saw me standing aloneWithout a dream in my heartWithout a love of my ownIt’s a song that could very possibly be a staple of Angela’s CD collection. Billie Holiday released a version of “Blue Moon” in 1952 and Angela tells her dad that she is a fan of the jazz singer, in addition to The Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine and Porno for Pyros. “Her interest in Billie Holiday highlights the melancholy that is a fundamental characteristic of her personality,” writes Kelly Maloy in Dear Angela, “and her familiarity with other bands, which can be vaguely classified as ‘alternative,’ position her in a scene that is as foreign to Graham as [The Grateful Dead] scene is to her.” Music often betrays Graham Chase’s age.44At one point he mocks Angela by saying, “Wild parties, Axl Rose,” at another he asks Danielle why she isn’t going as Madonna for Halloween. “Dad, Madonna peaked,” his youngest daughter responds.As much as the Dead represents Angela’s alienation from her dad, the jam band godfathers are also an example of how music can bring individuals together. “The Grateful Dead is this thing we totally share,” Rayanne says of her mom, so it’s not that shocking that she is so excited about Angela’s dad giving her his Dead tickets. For Graham, it’s his way of sharing his life with his daughter. For Rayanne, it’s Graham sharing their life with her. And vice versa. Angela is introduced to Rayanne’s world through Animal Bag’s “Everybody,” which she hears in the pilot at the house party her new friend invites her to, while Sharon is invited back into Angela’s entourage through Buffalo Tom (“I am sick of being perfect,” she says, after agreeing to attend the band’s gig). When Angela rejects the Dead, she is not only rejecting her dad, she is rejecting Rayanne too.In contrast to the doleful indie rock to which Angela gravitates, Rayanne’s musical taste is more frenetic, like she is. Aside from the Dead, she and her mother also share The Ramones. Rayanne chooses to sing “I Wanna Be Sedated” from their 1978 album Road to Ruin—fittingly—for her first, disastrous, performance with Frozen Embryos. Before the gig she stands in front of the mirror with her mom, both of them singing the track which unites them in every way:Twenty twenty twenty four hours to goI wanna be sedatedNothing to do, no where to go,I wanna be sedatedJust get me to the airport, put me on a planeHurry hurry hurry, before I go insaneI can’t control my fingers, I can’t control my brainOh no oh oh oh oh55Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “Fall Down” delivers a similar message earlier on in the season in the episode (“Other People’s Mothers”) which leads to Rayanne’s almost-death: "When the good times never stay/And the cheap thrills always seem to fade away/When will we fall?/When will we fall down?"The music video, released in 1988, actually stars a young Courtney Love—pre-Grunge coronation—and shows The Ramones quietly eating breakfast while a busy array of sped-up excitement unravels around them. “We would be on the road 360 days a year, and we went over to England, and we were there at Christmas time, and in Christmas time, London shuts down. There’s nothing to do, nowhere to go,” singer Joey Ramone explained in a video interview. “Here we were in London for the first time in our lives, and me and Dee Dee Ramone were sharing a room in the hotel, and we were watching The Guns of Navarone.” It’s the same itch that leads Rayanne to drink, the same itch that leads to her relapse.66If The Ramones’ album title wasn’t clear enough, the use of Afghan Whigs’ “Fountain and Fairfax” in the background of the gig scene is: "Angel, I'm sober/I got off that stuff/Just like you asked me to/Angel, come closer/So the stink of your lies/Sinks into my memory." Right before, Rayanne slips into a jazzy77The genre itself is a nod to her freneticism—as J.J. Johnson put it in an interview, which appears in Downbeat: The Great Jazz Interviews, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will.” rendition of the “Sesame Street” theme tune. She claims she still watches the show every day and the 1969 song captures her inability to find her way to Xanadu:Sunny DaySweepin’ the clouds awayOn my way to where the air is sweetCan you tell me how to getHow to get to Sesame StreetMeanwhile, her friend Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) doesn’t need a utopia, he just needs a home. Juliana Hatfield thus composed “Make It Home” for MSCL’s Christmas episode, which is devoted to Rickie’s tetherless lot as a young gay man in the ’90s:Open a window, let in the snowCold is all I knowGo to the fire, stir it aroundThere’s a warmer place for you to goAccording to Cruz, the soft-footed dirge actually inverts the melody of the Christmas Carol “Silent Night.” And when Rickie runs into the arms of Angela’s mom, Patty (Bess Armstrong), at the end of the episode, it’s to the choral group Inner Voices singing “I Feel Like Going Home.” It’s a relief, then, two episodes later when Rickie carves out a space for himself. At their school’s World Happiness Dance, he and the girl who is crushing on him, Delia Fisher, are shuffling their feet on the sidelines to Haddaway’s “What is Love?” After wordlessly agreeing to hit the floor, the two of them begin to move with the crowd. Then World Happiness is actually achieved (if only briefly) as Rickie suddenly chucks all his inhibitions and explodes into his own personal ode to Paris Is Burning:Oh, I don’t know, what can I do?What else can I say, it’s up to youI know we’re one, just me and youI can’t go onWhat is love?In Dear Angela, Andrew Coomes calls it “possibly Rickie’s most powerful moment in the series.” He and Delia form their own gravitational pull, rearranging their peers into a circle around them, turning all eyes towards them. And at the end of the song, the claps of the crowd embrace Rickie and Delia as they embrace one another. This is love.[[{"fid":"6696456","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"My So-Called Life - Ricky & Delia Dancing","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]
The Greatest Thing Metallica Ever Did Was Start to Suck

On the 25th anniversary of the release of The Black Album, an appraisal of how Metallica’s Post-Good era helped secure its legacy as the greatest American band of all time.

The other day, my friend sent me the following text:What’s the greatest American band of all time?My friend and I ask each other these sorts of questions often—not necessarily in search of answers as much as in an effort to try to determine the lens through which one must view the problem in order to (hypothetically) solve it. So, before we get to my actual answer (which is Metallica), let’s take a look at the two ways in which we as a culture measure a band’s greatness.The first is reach—as in, how many people are aware of this band? The second is the sheer quality of that band’s music. These two measuring sticks of genius are, of course, by no means mutually exclusive—consider the Beatles, or Prince, or Stevie Wonder, or the Rolling Stones. As well, as the years pass, a band’s place on this spectrum can undergo massive change: Maybe the critics come around to the populist juggernaut, as they did with Led Zeppelin, or, as with Gary Wilson’s You Think You Really Know Me, some record everyone dismisses as amateurish and unlistenable gets discovered by a generation of weirdos who love how amateurish and unlistenable it is.But there is only one American band brave enough to defy these conventions so hard that they shatter them, and that band is Metallica. They treat this art/commerce continuum like James T. Kirk treated the Kobayashi Maru. They laugh in its face; they crap in a paper bag, light it on fire, and leave it flaming on the doorstep as they ride their metaphorical skateboards away, cackling with impish glee.Metallica began its career by making four records—Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and ...And Justice for All—that are the foundation upon which thrash metal was chaotically wrought. Much like the Beatles, Metallica showed up to the party, changed music forever, then suddenly left without so much as a goodbye. Not by imploding like the Beatles did, but by making the conscious decision to actively and enthusiastically sell out and make populist, semi-generic hard rock albums that sold like hotcakes.And because of this, their fans really, really fucking hate them.They initially tried to call their first record Metal Up Your Ass—the artwork, naturally, was to feature a disembodied, knife-wielding hand protruding from a toilet—before eventually settling on the more family-friendly title Kill ‘Em All.A little history, just to illustrate the sort of people we’re dealing with here: Metallica began when drummer Lars Ulrich met guitarist/singer/dirtbag James Hetfield in Los Angeles. Ulrich was a Danish rich kid who looked like an elf and was trying to follow in his famous father’s footsteps and make it as a professional tennis player; Hetfield was a fatherless loner who worked in a sticker factory and wrote in his high school yearbook that his life goal was, “Make music. Get rich.”11All of this information in this sentence about Hetfield is available in Mick Wall’s Metallica biography Enter Night, on pages 36 and 42, specifically. Once their lineup cohered with bassist Cliff Burton and guitarist Kirk Hammett, the band set about recording an album full of musically ambitious, virtuosically played songs brimming with speed, raw energy, and exuberance. Most of Hetfield’s lyrics were either about beating the shit out of wizards, how hard it ruled to be in or around Metallica, and in the case of “Phantom Lord” and “Metal Militia,” both of these things simultaneously. They initially tried to call the record Metal Up Your Ass—the artwork, naturally, was to feature a disembodied, knife-wielding hand protruding from a toilet—before eventually settling on the more family-friendly title Kill ‘Em All.In those early days, with every subsequent album, Metallica’s music became more punishing, more violent, more unthinkably complex than the record that came before it. They were insular, escapist fantasies for rageful losers for whom life was nothing but one long high school hallway, populated by an endless succession of jocks shoving you into one locker after another. These were the people that Metallica—Hetfield in particular—had once been, and in 1989, when the band’s music video for “One” hit MTV, Metallica fans must have felt the same mix of optimism all the Bernie Sanders people felt once it seemed like the decrepit Democratic Socialist from Vermont actually had a shot at beating Hillary Clinton.It has long been enshrined in the annals and/or dungeons of metal history that Good Metallica did not give a fuck about anything or anyone, including whichever members of Metallica Ulrich and Hetfield deemed nonessential. They mooched off their original bassist Ron McGovney while actively courting Burton as a replacement behind his back, then passive-aggressively convinced McGovney to quit by electrocuting his instrument with beer. They fired their original lead guitarist, a lunatic boozehound drug dealer named Dave Mustaine, after a rift that began when he punched Hetfield in the face for kicking his dog, and ended when he woke up the day after a show with the rest of the band standing in front of him holding a cross-country bus ticket in his face. They’d later use four of Mustaine’s compositions on Kill ‘Em All, while Mustaine would go on to form Megadeth, partially out of a desire for revenge.22For further reading on the Mustaine/Metallica rivalry, please refer to Mustaine’s breezy, egomaniacal, and aptly titled memoir Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir, in which he writes about these indignities the way a supervillain might write about getting kicked out of the Justice League. After Burton was killed in a tragic 1986 bus accident, Metallica spent the next two years drunkenly torturing their new bassist Jason Newsted by tossing his shit out of hotel windows and telling people he was gay behind his back. Such was their myopic dedication to hazing their new bassist simply for not being their old bassist that they ordered the engineer on 1988’s ...And Justice for All to turn Newsted’s playing all the way down in the mix. This was a bizarre, disrespectful decision that could have potentially undermined their own record, but they did it anyway, because as we have established, part of what made Good Metallica so great is that truly gave no fucks.But in July of 1991, Metallica wriggled out of their old selves like a pack of molting cicadas. They released “Enter Sandman,” an inescapable non-thrash smash and still a favorite among people in charge of picking the warm-up music for high school football games. Their diamond-selling self-titled album (often referred to as The Black Album) soon followed, officially ushering in the second era of Metallica, which can be referred to interchangeably as “Post-Good Metallica” and simply “Bad Metallica.” The Black Album was, well, extremely easy to listen to. It was hook-laden heavy-ish pop rock that seemed designed in a laboratory to appeal to as many people as possible, and couldn’t have been further from Justice’s insular and intricate thrash.In the decade or so after The Black Album, it began to seem like Metallica had moved on from hazing their new bassist—you could, after all, actually hear his instrument this time around—to directly hazing their fans.In metal, massive stylistic shifts are relatively common. The Black Sabbath of the ’70s sounds nothing like the Sabbath of the ’80s; KISS has sounded like at least four (all bad, all fun) bands; Pantera was originally a semi-generic glam metal band before they were PANTERA: HORSEMEN OF THE KICKASSOLYPSE, etc. So contextually, Metallica shooting for a new, stadium-sized sound was not completely unexpected. But in the decade or so after The Black Album, it began to seem like Metallica had moved on from hazing their new bassist—you could, after all, actually hear his instrument this time around—to directly hazing their fans.First, Metallica cut off their long hair, which a sizable portion of the band’s fan-base viewed as high treason. (If you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around why this is a big deal, think Sontag’s “The mask is the face,” except in this case, the hair is the guitar.) The haircuts precipitated Metallica’s 1996 record Load, the cover art for which featured a close-up on a mixture of cow blood and human semen, and which was a sonic mixture of Southern butt-rock and performative malaise that fans found even less appealing. Just for good measure, Metallica followed Load up with a sequel titled Reload just one year later, then in 1999 put lots of the songs their fans already hated onto S&M, a live album they recorded with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. In 2000, they toured with Kid Rock—who has always been Post-Good—and even had him fill in as their lead singer a few times. 2000 was also the year they sued their fans for illegally downloading their music on Napster.33In actuality, they sued Napster itself, but given all the crap they’d spent the past decade putting them through it felt like the lawsuit was yet another way to directly antagonize their fans. It didn’t help that this was also around the time that Lars Ulrich told Playboy, “If you stop being a Metallica fan because I won’t give you my music for free, then fuck you.” Shortly thereafter, they made a song with Ja Rule and Swizz Beatz which, instead of appealing to both a rap audience and a rock audience, appealed to absolutely no one. They capped off this historic run with St. Anger, their 2003 record that sounded like what would happen if Tony Robbins made a nu-metal album about sobriety which contained zero guitar solos and drums that sounded like trash cans.All of this adds up to one thing, and one thing only: the conclusion, among millions of people, that Metallica went from a band that rocked ass to a band that sucked ass. This is not, strictly speaking, about the actual quality of Post-Good Metallica’s output. Instead, it has more to do with the perception that Metallica started sucking, which at this point is so widely believed that it has basically become true.The funny thing is, though, I get the sense that Metallica fans wouldn’t view the band’s early material with such reverence if the band hadn’t started systematically alienating the people who got them to the top. When it comes to fandom at least, hate is a far stronger emotion than love, and it seems like the further Metallica has drifted from its roots, the more incredulous the world has become that this group of sell-outs and lame-os could have once made such perfect, untouchable music. This relationship works in reverse as well: If the first four Metallica albums hadn’t been so great, it wouldn’t be so fun to hate on every move the band has made since then.For an artist to truly succeed, they must either be uncompromising in their vision or uncompromising in how much they’re willing to compromise that vision.I have no doubt that history will one day be kind to Post-Good Metallica, for I have already begun the process. And besides: a fair portion of Post-Good Metallica’s material is… actually pretty good? St. Anger in particular is a fascinating album, especially when you listen to it directly after watching Some Kind of Monster, the documentary that ostensibly captured the record’s creation but is more accurately a portrait of the band as they slowly realize that even they think they suck, and the very strange therapy sessions that occur therein. And if you chop down Load and Reload into a single, sixty-minute disc, you’re left with one of the last genuinely great hard rock records of the ’90s,44For the record: “Ain’t My Bitch”; “Attitude”; “Hero of the Day”; “Mama Said”; “Until It Sleeps”; “The Unforgiven II”; “Fixxxer”; “Bleeding Me”; “Devil’s Dance”; and “The Outlaw Torn.” Call it Unload, then tack on “Fuel” as a bonus track for good measure. right before all the wimpy indie rockers, dance-punks, and wannabe Lou Reeds would go on to hog all the cred in the realm of guitar music. Speaking of Lou Reed, even Lulu, Metallica’s collaborative trainwreck with the real Lou Reed, is better than people think it is, if only for the sheer novelty of listening to Lou Reed recite sexually explicit slam poetry over thrash riffs (not to mention the genuinely great closer “Junior Dad” and the genuinely good “Cheat on Me”).We’ve already seen Good Metallica expand its audience beyond its original cult of longhairs and outcasts: each of those early records has since gone Platinum and become so culturally ubiquitous that you can buy a Ride the Lightning hoodie at Urban Outfitters. And as more and more lame-asses and false metal fans (including, I guess, me) start getting into Good Metallica, perhaps it is only inevitable that the devout will react by embracing Bad Metallica, and all the things so eminently hateable about that version of the band—the haircuts, the drum sounds, the Ja Rule—will cease to be fuel for the anti-Metallica fire, and instead tests of true loyalty to the cause.For an artist to truly succeed, they must either be uncompromising in their vision or uncompromising in how much they’re willing to compromise that vision. But as time passes and history separates us from context, it becomes the listener’s responsibility to decide what those compromises actually were, and what turned out to be the plan all along.[[{"fid":"6696426","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Metallica - For Whom The Bell Tolls with lyrics","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]
Banner for Straight Expectations part 1 for Hazlitt
Straight Expectations Pt. 1

We’ve escaped and we’re half-starved! Get us something!

Southern Golems

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it threatened to wash away a major part of the American South’s Jewish history—a tough notion to sustain and preserve even in the best of times.

I stand with my family in front of a mass grave of siddurim on Christmas Day. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the 3,000 prayer books belonging to Beth Israel synagogue, and, as per tradition, they’re buried in a Jewish cemetery, next to the headstones of former congregants who looked to G-d in their pages. My father read from those same siddurim after he converted in the summer of 2000.He’s a neuroscience professor, a man who prefers the Aristotelian logic of Maimonides to the mystical ephemera of Hasidic sages. After a few years’ consideration, Ian Arthur Paul, possessor of arguably the most Scots-Irish name ever strung together, wanted to become a Reform Jew. Despite the denomination’s leniency, he insisted we drive down from my hometown of Clinton, Mississippi, to New Orleans so he could properly bathe in an Orthodox temple’s mikvah. The ritual waters washed off any W.A.S.P. impurities—predilections for bacon no doubt replaced by a sudden, robust interest in gefilte fish and hot pastrami—and Ian emerged a full-fledged Member of the Tribe. He joined my mother, a woman raised in the faith, to impart on their two sons the same story inherently laden with struggle and questions. Entire nations tried to burn us away over the millennia, and now, staring at the memorial marker, it seems like nature had it in for us, too. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina drowned Beth Israel, the mikvah pool mixing with the sewer shit and tidal debris as it flooded the sanctuary with ten feet of water. The temple serving New Orleans’s Orthodox Jews for almost ninety years was completely destroyed.*There’s something about a lifetime in the South that can make a post-Shoah Jew feel both a freak and a fraud. As a kid in Clinton, Mississippi, I couldn’t explain theological differences to my third-grade classmates—I didn’t really know myself—so whenever they asked what being a Jew meant, I told them Judaism was “like Christianity, but without Jesus.” For the most part, they’d nod understandingly, a monolithic crucifix central and comprehensible in their lives. Once, a kid cocked his head to the side like a perplexed terrier. He’d never heard of Jews before.In high school, I learned to use this to my social advantage. Self-deprecation made me approachable, friendly, the sidekick to any clique, so I condoned my lampooning to help generate a social life. My Judaism was an unsightly, suspicious creature I’d graciously dehorned for others to play with, ogle, poke and prod without fear of repercussion.It never became outright anti-Semitism—thanks in no small part to my self-hate shtick—but Judaism was always getting in the way of things. I was the ninth-grade class president, but when I asked my principal why missing school for Rosh Hashanah counted as one of my six sick days, the spineless motherfucker told me the administration couldn’t be sure I would use the absence for religious purposes. I played tough in a shitty punk band, but you can only be so dangerous when drugs make you anxious and hot mics conduct electricity through your braces. I finally had sex before leaving for college, a feat I thought would be impossible for a Clintonian kike, but that relationship ended shortly after word got out to her Southern Baptist parents. I fell in love with another woman, and when we kissed I could taste the life G-d breathed into her at birth, but I still proceeded to ruin it within a year by fooling around with the first new beautiful woman who showed me the briefest flicker of interest.Now, eight years later, eleven since Katrina, I’ve almost made peace with my choices— with the relationships that broke more than they mended; with the fact that, had I not taken this or that particular emotional misstep, I might not now incessantly seek a faith in something beyond and better than me. I’ve almost made peace with all this, as I also need to make peace with the possibility of Jewish life as a whole being a tragicomedy.The entirety of Judaism now barely comprises about 0.2 percent of the world’s population. Of that, 40 percent live in America, 3.5 percent of which live in the South, meaning that only nine percent of American Jews call this region home. An estimated .028 percent of all world Jewry. About 392,000 souls, hardly two generations removed from the industrially efficient genocide that nearly ended us, tethered to a bastardized Israel forged in response to that same surgically precise, state-sponsored slaughter. I’m labeled the historically pernicious “Self-Hating Jew” for critiquing Promised Land policy. I’m decried as a zealot for anything less. If I can’t even find my place within the supposed homeland, then what chance do I have feeling truly at home here? I came to New Orleans to explore my faith and my past, both personal and historic; to come to terms with what, if anything, there is to being a Jew in the South. But by the time I might hope to unpack it all, will there be anything to say?[[{"fid":"6696356","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":"1750","width":"1750","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Maybe I was damned from the start. Damned by remaining natives if I did move here, damned by myself if I drank away my twenties back in Oxford, Mississippi—and if I was going to drink away my twenties, I should at least do it in a town with a shul where I could detox every few Fridays. But then I got here, and saw the new Jews were just like me, if only a few years older—young, hungry, lured by affordability. After the storm, the Jewish Federation of New Orleans offered incentive grants to commit a Crescent City Aliyah. It took, and although there are technically more Jews in the city now than pre-hurricane, it seems like we’re less interested in minyans than we are in mixers—a young, myopic horde sweeping the city of which I am now a part, contributing probably in no small way to this town’s rapid mutation into an artisanal Gomorrah, full of safe sin and craft cocktail happy hours. At the very least, there’s no denying I’m turning a blind eye to what is ostensibly the Sherman’s March of gentrification, poisoning the culture like salted earth in Savannah. We’re High Holy Day Heebs, showing up for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, then largely calling it quits until next year.When the next Katrina hits, perhaps this city will be better equipped to weather it. Maybe there won’t be quite as large an exodus, but at that point, who’d care? What, exactly, will be the culture of the children and grandchildren of High Holy Day Heebs? Will there even be a Jewish culture left to wash away? Two or three generations from now, if New Orleans isn’t underwater, will anyone at Beth Israel be able to tell you about the scent of the Canal Street sanctuary’s pews? I barely remember it myself.There’s guilt in even asking these questions, in recounting these stories, because I know I’ll never endure true persecution. I trump up my history because I know I’ll never possess an adequate backstory. I have no Warsaw Uprising. There are Jews who’ve been raped in the streets, chased by dogs, violated physically and spiritually. Some of them are still alive. They endured a darkness, not me. I respect them, and I respect the dead. I respect the names I’ll never know, because they, along with the bodies they represent, are buried, unmarked, under bloodied dirt. But in a landscape that’s increasingly devoid of its own past, what else is there to anchor me? Does that mean my life will be nothing but a walking kaddish, a prayer for the dead? How am I supposed to be anything else in the South, when my path is eclipsed by both a fog of human ash and the shadow of the Cross?*At eighty years old, Jackie Gothard can fit more words into one breath than I can at twenty-five. She speeds past any stereotype of slow-tongued Southerners, rattling off familial history, historical fact, as well as invitations to her house, the shul, and Beth Israel’s cemetery.“I know exactly where they’re buried,” she tells me over the phone, referring to the Torahs I couldn’t find on my first visit to the cemetery. “When we finish our conversation, I’ll tell you—no, I’ll meet you there! That’ll be better.”It’s taken about forty minutes for Jackie’s story to catch up to Hurricane Katrina. I initially reached out to learn about her synagogue’s seemingly impossible resuscitation from the near-death following the storm. Even a decade later, the months after the devastation are as tragic as they are unclear. The stories conflict as to just what happened and when—about who, if anyone, was responsible for the shul’s safety, as if even recent history is unreliable upon the faintest scrutiny.Until now, the preamble reached as far back as 1900, to her grandparents’ kosher butcher shop on Dryades Street. At that time, around 5,000 Jews lived in New Orleans, primarily in communities around that area. Not long before, in 1872, the first king of Mardi Gras, Lewis Salomon, was even a Jew. As global anti-Semitism rose, however, they began to be excluded from the more prominent historic krewes and clubs. Still, the Jewish merchant class catered to a racially diverse city, even though multiple shuls—Litvak, Polish, and Galitzianer among others—operated without access to a permanent location. In 1904, these small subsects combined to form the first Beth Israel Orthodox congregation. Jackie’s spent her entire life a Beth Israel congregant, and had watched its development until the storm hit in 2005.“After Katrina, it was a struggle. … We knew that, early on, there was no way we would be able to bring that building on Canal Boulevard back to life. Certainly, it was going to be too big for us even to maintain or try to salvage it.”Jackie and her husband, Sol, were in Washington, D.C., for a wedding when the storm made landfall. Her son, Eddie, let them know the city wasn’t safe, and, after securing their home, made his way to meet them in Dallas. There, like the rest of the congregants scattered across the States, they waited until it was possible to return to whatever home was left standing. Every night, Jackie would lay in bed thinking about the 17th Street canal levee breach, just blocks from her synagogue, and the waters that no doubt now filled the halls and sanctuary. It became a mathematical mantra, adding up the inches it would take to reach the Torahs in their ark.“But the thing is, when you went into the synagogue, the main sanctuary had a step down. The men’s section was below the women’s section. And the bimah area was at a higher level,” she says, referring to the pulpit. “I would try to think, even if we have six or seven feet of water, we have that recessed area in the synagogue. That’s about three feet below ground level, so that’ll take about three feet of water. The bimah itself is raised up, so that’s at least another two and a half, three feet. And then the Torah scrolls standing on their spindles—that’s another six inches.”[[{"fid":"6696361","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":"1750","width":"1750","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]She tallies the numbers again for me as if still trying to convince herself of the impossibility of ten feet of floodwater. A few days later, Jackie got a call from Zaka, a Jewish-run disaster relief organization; if a bus bomb detonates in Tel Aviv, they’re the ones called in to collect what’s left of victims’ remains. By Jewish law, a body is to be buried as complete as possible.Every day, Zaka members helicoptered in from Baton Rouge, using the New Orleans minor league baseball team’s stadium as a landing pad. Rescue teams patrolled neighborhoods for stranded families stuck in attics, abandoned pets, and anyone else who might need aid. Eventually, the group made it to the ruins of a still-flooded Beth Israel, where a Zaka volunteer offered to retrieve the scrolls. Jackie told him to wait until she arrived back in town.“I was worried about several things. If he found the scrolls, and they were okay, where was he going to put them? Also, I was concerned about insurance coverage, you know? If he took the scrolls out, is he going to jeopardize them, or what?”A single sefer Torah—one handmade by specialized rabbinic scribes—can easily cost upwards of $60,000 and take a year to finish. The next day, Mrs. Gothard got a call from a friend on the West Coast.“My friend says, ‘Isn't the name of your synagogue Beth Israel?’ I said, ‘Yes, it is. Why?’ He said, ‘Aren't you the ones that got flooded out?’ ‘Yes, we did.’ ‘Well there's a picture of your rabbis carrying out your Torah scrolls. It's on the front page of the LA Times.’”Jackie can’t help laughing.“I said, ‘What!’ I went to a computer, we pulled up the LA Times, and sure enough … there it is.”A second call came not long after, this time from Zaka.“He said, ‘I got your Torah scrolls.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know. I just got a phone call about that.’ And he said, ‘Where do you want me to put them?’ I said, ‘Oh my G-d, rabbi, I'm driving home from Dallas, and I don't know what to tell you, but I think I know a friend that can help.”The Gothards’ rush home only intensified after that. Jackie got in touch with Beth Israel’s longtime secretary, who agreed to look after the scrolls, thinking that would buy them enough time to figure out what to do next. If nothing else, the Torahs would be safe for the moment. Later in the day, however, another phone call—this time from the secretary.“She said, ‘Jackie, I took the covers off. He didn't unwrap them, he didn't even take the covers off … They’re rotting. They've been in the water for so long.’”Jackie’s nightly floodwater mathematics came up short.“The water had risen, like, a third of the way of the scrolls. She said all of the parchment is melting away,” Mrs. Gothard remembers. “She said, ‘It smells like rotten animal skin.’ Which it is.” (Torah scrolls are traditionally written on parchment made from kosher animal hide.) “She said, ‘It's probably biotoxic. I can't even bring them indoors. I've opened them all, I've unrolled them all, I've taken off all the covers, I have them on the back patio drying out.’”After speaking with Stuart Shiff, Beth Israel’s rabbi at the time, they decided to temporarily bury the scrolls in the secretary’s backyard until further preparations could be made.During this time, yet another blow befell the congregation. Meyer Lachoff, their longtime gabbai—the Jewish caretaker of a temple’s daily affairs—died while being evacuated by bus from a nursing home during the storm. In addition to his more than three decades serving at Beth Israel, Lachoff was also Jackie’s cousin.“Meyer lasted two days here in the hospital, and he died. He lasted two days after Katrina,” she remembers.Beth Israel couldn’t seem keep its congregants in New Orleans, either temporally or spiritually. Even Rabbi Shiff left, although the exact specifics of why appear lost on her.“We were ready to re-up his contract! He was so good a rabbi, so sweet, a fabulous pulpit rabbi,” Jackie says, as if remembering the dearly departed. “He could have stayed forever, it seemed. His wife was so spooked … of staying in New Orleans, and Rabbi Shiff moved on, and we really lost him. It's a shame. He keeps in touch with us, and …” Jackie trails off. “Well, anyway …”Clean-up efforts continued through March as a congregation reduced to a few relatives and close friends of the Gothards sorted through what remained of their synagogue. The bimah had been lifted by the floodwaters and deposited on the rotting wooden pews of the women’s section. Dishes and cutlery, meticulously separated and kept clean according to kosher law, had to be donated elsewhere or given away. Over 3,000 siddurim were collected. These would also need to be buried, along with the Torahs still lying in a nearby backyard. Jackie and others returned to Lachoff’s gravesite. The neighboring plot was unreserved.“No name was on it, and it was not being used. It was empty. We thought, ‘This is a perfect place to put the seven Torah scrolls.’ Because Meyer looked after the scrolls for most of his adult life,” Jackie tells me.Even with phone lines still down, the Gothards managed to spread the word, and over 100 people made it to the ritual burial of the Bibles and siddurim that month. Rabbi Shiff returned to lead the service.“Jewish families, and people who were volunteering all over the city, came out to the cemetery,” she says. “We had our burial, Shiff moved on, we were here. We just didn't know what to do.”*Temptations is a Bourbon Street strip joint and onetime home of a particular New Orleans Jew named Judah P. Benjamin, who just so happened to serve as the Confederate Secretary of War. I only learned of this by happenstance during a random late-night Internet search of New Orleans Judaic history. Few seem to know about Benjamin’s past residence or his role in one of the most formative and horrific institutions that molded the South, and even fewer are aware that a ten-foot oiled pole stretches from floor to ceiling of his private study. For weeks, I intend to make it out to Beth Israel’s Friday night Shabbat services—I haven’t been in years, and I should see the results of their recovery efforts—but my morbid curiosity about the nudie bar gets the better of me.Early one Friday, I opt to fortify myself at Siberia, a metal bar on St. Claude Avenue. There’s a Russian restaurant in the back, and I convince myself that, if I can’t make it to shul, the borscht and pierogis and potato vodka are a fitting tribute to my Eastern European Ashkenazi ancestors. My mother’s side of the family, the genealogically Jewish portion, hails from Lithuania. The Shoah made sure that’s the only information I have on them pre-1933. After a couple shots of Monopolowa, I stumble upon a Polish malt liquor called Lomza. It’s relatively cheap, relatively strong, something I like to imagine my great-great-grandparents drinking. L’chaim. To life.I blink, and find myself trudging down Bourbon Street toward Temptations at that peak heat stench magic hour soon after sunset, when the day’s humidity slumps lecherously around the early evening drunks, the street-corner chain-smokers, the carbon copy, thrill-slumming trust-fund punks dragging along fashionable pit bulls.Shabbat begins just before I make it into the strip joint. Inside, nursing an eight-dollar bottle of Bud Light, a dancer approaches and sits in the chair opposite me. I ask if she knows the history of the building.“No, but you know who might?” she says.“Who?”“Google.”She explains that dances cost forty dollars a song, and, if I want one, there are some interesting, historical rooms out back we could pass by. I take out my wallet, and she leads me to a cashier.“So, these are our private dance rooms. They used to be the slaves’ quarters. If you look through the window, you can see the fireplaces where they cooked their food.”I lean in, nose against the glass to cut through the neon light glare behind me, and see a pair of faux-regal couches facing a pole reaching up to the ceiling. An unused fire pit is set into the far wall.“Do a lot of customers ask about this building’s story?” I say, cupping my hands around my eyes.“No. Usually, they just ask to see my tits.”“Back after Katrina, I stayed up in the top floor until they opened the hotels back up. One night, I was walking around, and I felt something grab my ankle from under a table. Could have been a muscle spasm, I guess. But I got the fuck out of there anyway.”My guide leads me toward the larger room at the end of Temptations’ open-air back courtyard. We pass wrought iron patio furniture, the chairs occupied two to a seat—smiling dancers lounging in the laps of tired-eyed drunks.“This was the carriage house,” she explains, ushering me inside.I sink into a sagging couch opposite a swing anchored to the rafters and begin fumbling with my notepad, scribbling nonsense onto the page to look occupied.“Oh, do you want that dance?” she asks as if just remembering, positioning herself in front of me.“Oh, uh, no thanks,” I say.She shrugs and sits next to me, producing her phone out of thin air. I look around the room, imagining the Secretary of War climbing into his ride before leaving out the courtyard’s exit.“Do you know who this place used to belong to?” I ask.“Nope,” she answers, looking up from her phone and smiling.I tell her.“Hmm. Never heard of him. But my dad is half-Jewish and half-black,” she says. “Jews seem to be able to tell just by looking at me.”She’s reminded of something, and sets to work at her phone, typing away, and soon holds the glowing screen in front of my face to show a photo of crumbling cemetery headstones.“I pass this Jewish graveyard when I go running. Just the other day, after that big storm front came through, I noticed these headstones had blown over. Isn’t that crazy?”A woman with an Amazonian physique walks in and a short, beefy man trails behind her. They take a spot in the far corner of the room. Both begin to giggle. I write more lines of nothing in my notebook.“We should go back inside, time’s up here,” my guide tells me.The woman across from us is topless now, her legs bent improbably around her patron.“You know, people say this place is haunted, though,” she says. “Want me to show you around upstairs?”“Would that be alright?” I ask, already guilty about potentially wasting valuable time with far more eager clients.“Sure, not a problem.”The interior of Temptations still gives off an air of nineteenth-century bourgeois gentility. The high ceilings feature numerous crystal chandeliers, and the bar has a sturdy, dark wood finish. With New Orleans’s recent smoking ban, the air lacks its former cigarette haze, which, in this case, may not be a good thing. She leads me past a stone-faced bouncer, up the four flights of stairs to the VIP areas.“That chandelier right there,” she says, pointing to one in a room with a pool table, “one night, it just started raining on me, so I went upstairs to see if there was a plumbing leak, but everything was dry. All the bathrooms are on the other side of the building.”I peer up at the twinkling glass.“I hate how they rearranged the chairs in here, anyway,” she says, herding me into another room with a small, cheap portrait of an antebellum lady.“Her eyes follow you, swear to G-d.”I pace back and forth, trying to outrun the Southern belle’s glare. Behind me, I hear the click of stilettos. When I turn around, my guide is peering over the staircase railing. I stand beside her, looking down at the three-story drop as vertigo sets in. Against my better judgment, I feel that instinctual urge to jump.“A few years ago, this one girl tripped backwards and fell through the gap here.”“Now you’re fucking with me,” I say, laughing.“Nope. Swear to G-d. I was here when it happened. She broke her neck.”My grin drops.“Oh,” I say. “And she works here?”“Well, not anymore, obviously,” she says, holding onto the rails as she eases herself down the steps in her five-inch spike heels. “Eight years ago, a house mother killed herself, too. But I don’t think that actually happened in the club.”She introduces me to the front-of-house cashier. The woman is eating a bag of potato chips, and in between chews, I can see she has braces.“Do you know about,” my guide pauses, turns to me, “what was his name?”“Judah Benjamin.”“Nah, sorry,” she says, offering chips to her friend.“But you did have that thing with the ghost, right?” she follows up.“Oh, yeah. Back after Katrina, I stayed up in the top floor until they opened the hotels back up. One night, I was walking around, and I felt something grab my ankle from under a table.” Another handful of chips. “Could have been a muscle spasm, I guess. But I got the fuck out of there anyway.”I decide not to waste any more of their time, and, unsure of strip club rates, take out another forty dollars from my wallet.“Thanks for showing me around,” I say. “Really.”My guide kisses me on the cheek.“Of course. Don’t worry about it,” she says.As she pockets the money, a giant, round man lumbers by with a clipboard in his hand.“Oh, this is the owner of the place,” she tells me, stopping the behemoth. “Hey, what was this place before it was a strip club?” she asks him. He shakes his head.“Always been a strip club,” he tells us, and walks away.*If Temptations’ history is largely said and done for, regardless of its accuracy, then I begin to wonder about the memories of Beth Israel’s very recent tragedies; if in hindsight the hurricane’s thunder will serve as the congregation’s tolling bell, or the ringing in of their new era.Rabbi Shiff doesn’t want to talk about Katrina. It takes me a few days to convince him, and, now that he works with the Aish Center in New York City, a few more to align our schedules for an interview. I call him at 11 p.m. his time, per Shiff’s request, and catch him while he’s late-night grocery shopping.“Thank you,” I hear him tell a cashier, away from the phone’s speaker.There’s a tiredness in his voice that goes beyond a long day at the office—it’s the exhaustion born from difficult memories and the innumerable times he’s been asked to recall them. Every answer is preceded by a third trimester-sized pregnant pause, Shiff carefully navigating and ordering his thoughts before responding.He explains his beginnings in Las Vegas as an assistant rabbi with an Orthodox congregation there before taking the New Orleans position in the spring of 2000. He’s proud of the first four years working with the Jewish community here, preferring to focus on strengthening Jewish pride and education rather than simply bolstering numbers.“The concept of the synagogue being the only avenue to relate to one’s Judaism is not something that I really connect to,” he says. “To create the programming by which the community would be interested in, and connect with their Judaism … I think what we did was really, really amazing.”A car door closes on the other end of the line as the rabbi explains that he and his family were some of the last to leave before the storm. In the past, when hurricanes travelled their way, they occasionally stayed with family friends in Memphis, the closest active Orthodox community. Initially, he thought they were going to stay in town for Katrina; Shiff, his wife, and their five children were becoming accustomed to weathering the storms. And, besides, the last he checked before Shabbat, Katrina was expected to hit the Florida panhandle, with New Orleans only receiving relatively minor damage.“I got to shul on Shabbat morning, and one of the past presidents said, ‘So, rabbi, are you leaving?’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. … They were listening to the news on Friday night and Shabbat morning. I was not,” he says. “They came in and warned me that it had changed course and was heading to New Orleans.”Like many evacuees, the Shiff family packed enough for only a few days and left for Memphis; they ended up staying there for more than three months. A few days was all it took to scatter the century-old congregation, and in that small window of time, every tangible, holy thing in their temple was ruined.“I had no clue that what happened was actually possible. The whole concept of ten or twelve feet of water … I had no clue. That’s why I assumed the Torahs would be safe,” he says.[[{"fid":"6696366","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":"1750","width":"1750","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]I recount Jackie’s version of the rescue attempts, asking if he travelled back down to help as well. He explains that he wasn’t there personally, but that he arranged for the Torah rescue through Zaka volunteers. I hear a car door open and close again, and a woman’s muffled voice.“I admit to you, there was a real cognitive dissonance upon hearing that news. I really did not believe it, and I did not believe it for days,” he says.“Jackie told me that your wife didn’t feel safe after Katrina, and you wanted a better Jewish education for your children. That’s why you left,” I say.“That is not true.”I pause. Shiff seems to sense this, and describes a conference call between the shul’s board of directors and him a week after the hurricane. By his memory, they said that the shul was done for, and they would be dissolving his contract, even though three years remained on it.“Which is illegal,” he adds, not doubting their ability to pay at the time. “The shul didn’t go bankrupt, for goodness sake!”While situating himself in Memphis, he had begun working with national Jewish organizations to raise funds for both the rebuilding of Beth Israel, as well as relief aid for the entire city.“You know the story of Lot and his two daughters? The Bible story,” he asks.“Um, the one with the angels?” I stammer.“They had to leave Sodom and Gomorrah, and they escaped to the mountaintop, the father and the two daughters. The two daughters did very heinous and immoral things. You remember the story?” he asks again. “But you know why they did heinous and immoral things? Because they thought that it was the end of the world, and they made a knee-jerk decision not based in reality, but based on this ridiculous …” A pause. “They made this decision to dissolve the contract and to fire me based on an irrational fear.”According to Shiff, the panic that set in from the ruined community caused what remained of the powers-that-be to terminate their agreement.“Well, did you threaten any legal action?” I ask, almost as if I were a parent suggesting to their child how to deal with a problematic classmate.“There’s no such thing as a rabbi suing his synagogue,” he says. “You can’t do that.”Rabbi Shiff turned down the remaining congregants’ request that he come back shortly after the storm to lead Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, but he did return in time to lead the burial rites for the holy books.I ask him if he’s still angry about it, if it’s something he can move on from.“I don’t blame them, per se. It’s just very, very disappointing. I wouldn’t use the terms ‘moved on.’ I still think about them. I still care about them. But it’s true that I’m not in touch with them.”“Have they ever apologized?” I ask.“I don’t think that they believe that they did that. I think that, whoever it was that made the original decision, they’re living in an alternate reality where we left so that our children could have a better education, which is what they told everybody,” he explains.“Do you want an apology?”“No. It’s unnecessary.” There’s the rustle of unpacking groceries and the sounds of a family through the phone. “I don’t need an apology. Thank G-d we recovered, and are living our lives. I don’t hold anything against [them]. I really don’t. I really don’t.”*A few weeks later I’m waiting in the parking lot of a reconstructed Beth Israel synagogue, its new house of worship built on land bought from Congregation Gates of Prayer, a suburban Reform temple out in Metairie, the two sects at opposite ends of the Hebraic spectrum now sharing a playground for their children. I’m supposed to meet Gabe Greenberg—the temple’s newest rabbi—at 9 p.m., but he’s running late, having been called upon last minute to sit shiva, joining a mourning prayer circle for a recently deceased congregant. I pass the time by flipping through romantic prospects on JDate, but the app on my phone is glitching up. I keep getting the same four Nice Jewish Girls with nose rings and fashionable hamsa necklaces.Greenberg pulls up in his sedan, and is soon leading me inside the darkened shul towards his office. He flicks on the overhead fluorescents, revealing a room furnished with the traditional rabbinic Feng Shui: paintings of wizened, Old World rebbes; bookshelves filled with leather-bound spines; a desk covered with the detritus of Jewish counseling—bar mitzvah practice sheets, notes for future sermons, a calendar scribbled with innumerable obligations. He sits at a small table in the corner to take off his shoes. There’s no rabbinic cadence to his voice, no punctuating the ends of every sentence with a question mark. He speaks slowly, as if corralling disparate thoughts, interspersing West Coast pauses among his finalized ideas.“My grandfather was a very longtime Conservative rabbi. He’s, like, old-school.”“A Jew’s Jew?” I suggest.“Yeah, a real American Jew. I don’t feel like that myself, but, I mean, whatever. In my own way, I do it.”One gets that sense looking at him. The rabbi doesn’t resemble the men in the wall portraits—there’s not one stray gray hair in his short, trimmed beard, and, at 33, he looks to be in better shape than I am. He’s opted for a J. Crew button-up and chinos, not the suffocating spun-wool suits of his forefathers. With his shoes set off to one side, I notice Greenberg’s pair of bright, fashionably striped socks.“People had said, ‘You should be a rabbi.’ Which is something that I think, if you’re interested in Judaism and other people around you are less interested, then they say that.”Greenberg took their advice, and was ordained in 2012. It turns out he’s only lived in New Orleans a year longer than I have, after a short gig at the UC Berkeley Hillel in California, and is also trying to figure out this city and his new congregation.“There’s a lot of pride,” he reflects. “Like, in both New Orleans as a city, and in the Jewish community. In particular, people are very proud of the connection between Beth Israel and Gates of Prayer. People want to talk about that a lot.”It’s a nice Hallmark story for Southern Jews already splintered and scattered by both geography and theology—two vastly differing groups coming together to build something new and holy.“Which is interesting to me, because I don’t personally see it as a big deal.” He laughs. “I mean, of course, yeah, it’s a shame that it isn’t like that in other places. To me, I don’t see it as a big deal, personally. But, fine.”While relatively inconsequential to Rabbi Greenberg, the schism is often more pronounced in regions where the amount of inter-congregational partisanship doesn’t need to be rationed like freshwater at sea. Many traditional Orthodox and Hasidic communities don’t even acknowledge the Reform movement as Jewish, and the denomination is routinely marginalized in Israel. In places like the Deep South, disparate communities find common ground, or they perish alone.[[{"fid":"6696371","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":"1750","width":"1750","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Unfortunately, Greenberg has little to say about New Orleans, or Beth Israel’s rebirth. Like me, he’s still processing the glut of regional and cultural information, including the operatic history of this temple. Instead, I find myself steering the conversation towards an impromptu counseling session. What began as a discussion between two recent New Orleans transplants has turned into Rabbi Greenberg helping me navigate my cosmic crisis.“How do you think Jewish identity has changed post-Shoah?” I ask, firing the big guns first.“Dude … I could talk about this forever,” he says, smiling, as he adjusts his large yarmulke. “I think that this story really begins two hundred years ago, post-Enlightenment—that’s where the schism of modernity begins. And that trauma to Judaism was, like, still being worked out as another schism happened, which was America.”This isn’t simplifying things. My leg begins to twitch compulsively.“America is a whole new thing. America is unique—and I’m not an American exceptionalist—but America is unique in one way, and it’s the fact that there is no dominant ethnic group. So for Jews, that is such a weird, new place—we’re not defining ourselves in opposition to anything. There is no Unified Other.”Okay, so only a couple new things to take into consideration.“And then the Shoah happens. And then the State of Israel happens,” he says, referring to the number of modern cultural considerations necessary for us to consider, “… and, like, I think you’re adding a five or six with the South, and maybe New Orleans, within that.”Fuck.“So, mainstream, American Judaism—professional Jews—are trying to stay ahead of the curve and coming up to describe new ways of, like, ‘What are we?’” he says.Greenberg says he’s skeptical of any argument in favor United States Jewry sharing some vague sense of identity.“Frankly, I think, to me, we don’t, actually.”I understand where he’s coming from, but a compounded “us versus them” mentality is always factored into growing up Jewish in the South. Alienation squared. A sizable portion of Southerners still cling to the Rebel Glory Days of their shit-kicker great-grandpappies, all Stars and Bars and spite. It’s an ostracized community that wants little, if anything, to do with my own ostracized clan. Add in a healthy dose of 700 Club evangelism, Chick-fil-A-sponsored prayer breakfasts before school, chaste church sock-hops, and you get a Protestant white-flight suburb like my hometown of Clinton. All this less than an hour and a half from where they dumped Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner’s bodies by a dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi.How can a Jew—a mainstream, American Jew in the South—live with this history, along with millennia of additional hatred, and not be defined by it?“The sword of anti-Semitism hangs over all our necks. Thankfully, we’re in a generation where it hangs very far away,” Greenberg says.“It’s not hard to squint and see it,” I say, then force a laugh.“Yeah! And although I don’t live in constant fear, it’s true. It’s true. The thing that goes part and parcel to that is, like, when things are good for us, people stop being Jewish.”“So we need the opposition?” I ask.“We do need it! It’s what keeps us together.” He pauses, both of us staring at each other in a way that guiltily acknowledges the paradox.It’s late, and the rabbi has a newborn son to attend to. Leaving, he tells me I should check out some of what the larger community has to offer, maybe even swing by for Shabbat services this Friday.“I feel like my mission as a rabbi is to ensure that people have positive Jewish experiences that are meaningful,” he says, “to remember that this thing can be more than just Us against Them. More than, ‘They occasionally try to kill us,’ and then us in reaction to that.”*I arrange to meet Jackie one more time, hoping to straighten out the stories. Two weeks later, I drive again out to Metairie after my new day job. Parking, I can see Jackie through Beth Israel’s open doors, filling a water pitcher in a foyer sink used for ritual hand washing before prayers.“I noticed the plants outside were a little thirsty,” she says as I walk in.This is the first time I’ve seen the synagogue during the day, a clean and well-lit place in the setting summer sun glow. The building was dedicated in 2012, but it still smells new, a sinus-clearing scent of lumber mixed with gallons of carpet cleaner and thousands of pages’ worth of prayer books. After watering the patio ferns, Jackie sits with me in the temple’s small conference room for our final meeting, showing me a stack of photos taken by Zaka volunteers during their first forays after the storm into the old Beth Israel.“It was ninety-five-plus degrees, and for two months after Katrina, not a drop of rain. No rain. The heat was just letting the mold grow.”She points to the water line in each photo that delineates the flood swell’s height. Rot eats away anything below it. One picture shows a row of sanctuary pews covered in hues of grayish sickness, another features a pile of muddy tallitot, the woolen prayer shawls disintegrating in swamp heat. A third photo focuses on the rubber rafts used to float into the submerged synagogue.Once the waters receded, Beth Israel consisted of Jackie and a small portion of her immediate family in the initial recovery months. Some congregants slowly made their way back to the city, joining in the clean-up process, but it was clear early on that their building was a lost cause.“Our numbers were much smaller. We may have lost anywhere from a quarter to a third of the congregation. They moved off,” she says. “We couldn’t use that building. It was too big. We didn’t have anything, and we had to start from scratch.”While the city’s other four synagogues needed repair as well, they weren’t in nearly as bad shape as the Orthodox temple. Soon, they all opened their doors to Jackie and the returning flock. She eventually chose to partner with the Gates of Prayer in Metairie, borrowing their social hall and a side of their kitchen for kosher cooking as they worked towards raising funds for their own house of worship.“The thing is, it wasn’t long before we realized that Beth Israel was not just the building, it was the people. It was a hundred years of history. My grandson, who was about to make bar mitzvah, would have been the fifth generation in our family there. I don’t want to just let my history go down with the water,” she says, pausing on a pre-storm picture of the old sanctuary.“We had to prove that we still had a congregation that wanted to be Beth Israel. When we started having services over there, we started having them every three weeks or so. We didn’t know if we could make a minyan—it was that kind of challenge. And then it was working.”One year later, on the anniversary of the storm, a West Coast congregation donated Beth Israel’s first new Torah.“Church bells were ringing all over New Orleans. We were dancing in the streets. We met at the airport, they came in with the Torah. We had a klezmer band, and we were dancing the horah outside with the Torah in the middle,” she says. “That was our celebration for Katrina, getting our first Torah as a gift.”The new Beth Israel reopened in 2012. Now, they have five Torah scrolls in their own sanctuary ark. They’re housed in a smaller room, with about half as many seats as the former building could hold. Not that the old structure could house Shabbat services anymore. The community only managed to sell their old building within the last year, the space now housing an outpatient treatment medical clinic. A Star of David-shaped dome still tops the roof, filtering sunlight down on its new inhabitants.“One of these days I’m going to visit it,” she tells me. “I’m going to go knock on the door, and tell them, ‘I’m not a patient. I’m used to being here.’”As we gather our things to leave, I bring up Rabbi Shiff’s memory of events—the contract annulment, the disappointment, the sense of blame. Jackie looks confused and shakes her head resolutely.“We were ready to re-up his contract,” she repeats, echoing our last talk almost verbatim. “He is an amazing pulpit rabbi. He led a beautiful service, gave a great sermon. We were so happy with him. I’m sure not being a native New Orleanian, and to have a newborn baby just two weeks old—he wanted his family to safety.”“Is there any blame about the ruined Torahs?” I ask.Jackie shakes her head again sharply, a strong no. “He didn’t think about taking the Torahs out,” she says, but in a way that suggests no one did, and I remember what she said a few days earlier: No one was here to think about the Torah scrolls.[[{"fid":"6696376","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":"1750","width":"1750","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]After locking up the building, Jackie gives me a small tour of their back patio. Wooden picnic tables shine brightly from their lacquered finish in front of two party-sized grills. A large urn fountain sputters water over its brim in the middle of a manicured flower and herb garden. Like the rest of this Beth Israel, it all feels too new, giving off a sense of tense expectancy, as if waiting for a history to imprint upon it. Births to be celebrated, lives to be lived, deaths to be mourned. Storms to be weathered.Jackie points to a large shrub in a corner.“You cook?”“What?” I ask.“Rosemary, you want some for cooking?”“Oh, sure,” I say.Jackie snaps off a bushel’s worth of herbs for me.“I don’t know if I need this much,” I say, laughing.“Oh, please. Take it. I brought this thing here after it got too big for my house. Now it won’t stop growing.”We say our goodbyes. I offer to walk Jackie back to her car, but she says she’s going to stick around for a little while longer. She’s got new flowers to plant, and there are weeds that need pulling.*I visit Beth Israel’s cemetery alone that weekend, and, per Jackie’s directions, find the second grave, this one home to the decayed Torahs. It’s been six months since I last visited here with my father. It’s much hotter now. A man across the street is hunched over an open car hood, working on its engine as the stereo speakers blast New Orleans bounce music. Five minutes outside, and I’m schvitzing through my shirt. Meyer Lachoff’s headstone neighbors the Torahs he cared for—he and the scrolls died almost the same day.There’s the story of a rabbi from Prague, fearful of the European pogroms, who builds a protector out of clay, a golem, to save his people from persecution. To bring it to life, he inscribes the Hebrew word for truth, emet, on its forehead. There are variations of the tale, but it usually ends with the golem becoming as serious a threat to the persecuted as to the persecutors. An unbridled, thoughtless, destructive behemoth, the embodiment of Judaic prideful passion run wild. Realizing this, the rabbi lures the golem back to the town’s synagogue. He rubs away the letter aleph from the beginning of emet. Now, it simply reads met, death, and the golem falls to pieces, crying out for his abba, his father.Ian Arthur Paul, eager to impart Jewish culture on his firstborn, first told me this story before bed when I was ten years old. It kept me up all night. The pain of the golem, a creature who didn’t ask for its heritage, who only wanted safety and justice for its people, remains with me. Sometimes, when I’m alone and can’t sleep, I think about the rabbi’s golem, and I wonder what would happen if it were constructed from Southern soil. Would the Yazoo clay let it live a malleable life, to mold to its surroundings with ease? Could it give up its incessant need for self-righteous, violent opposition? Could it love this world thrust on it, or would it crumble away in the floodwaters, washing downstream, crying out for its Creator to reconsider?I say kaddish, and go home.
The Loneliest Job in Cinema: On Film’s Friendless Female Sex Workers

One doesn’t have to look hard to find disheartening and downright offensive portrayals of sex workers on screen, but the conspicuous absence of friends feels particularly cruel.

Last year, one could hardly shake a metallic gold G-string at the internet without hitting a story about the feminism at the heart of Magic Mike XXL. This rowdy comedy about male strippers and the women they entertain might have been fodder for ridicule and summarily dismissed for its raunchy dance segments and endless dick jokes. But the friendships at the core of the film and the emphasis on the service these men provide to women elevated it to a peculiar cultural moment in which erotic labor and the bonds developed between men while performing it were celebrated as social progress. It joined a beloved cohort of films representing friendship dynamics between male sex workers, from the Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy to the cult classic My Own Private Idaho. These are emotionally resonant films that pushed social and artistic boundaries by portraying the multiple dimensions of male sex workers’ lives and how their work informed their relationships with friends. These men do not require redemption narratives to earn our love. And these sex working men do not have to fall in love with anyone for these films to be love stories. They have earned their status as classics. But there’s a painful absence of similar films portraying friendship between female sex workers.Even when women sex workers are portrayed in more than one dimension in mainstream cinema, they are still usually reduced to cautionary tales or tools of redemption (and not always their own). Charlize Theron’s portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in Monster conveyed that prostitution will make a woman a serial killer. Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, in the film adaptation of Les Miserables, appears to spend only a single night doing sex work before dying of complications arising from prostitution. (But not before Jean Valjean can swoop in to have his moral compass righted by her plight.) Mira Sorvino’s escort and occasional porn performer Leslie in Mighty Aphrodite finds her way out of sex work into wedded bliss and motherhood. And that’s just a handful of the roles that have snagged actresses Academy Awards for playing deranged, destitute, and socially desolate sex workers. When women sex workers are permitted to love on-screen, their love is almost exclusively reserved for their male clients.One doesn’t have to look hard to find disheartening and downright offensive portrayals of sex workers on screen, but the conspicuous absence of friends feels particularly cruel, and inaccurate too. Not only are these characters destined to die in the cautionary tales and to endure marriages to self-congratulatory men in the redemptions tales, they don’t even have anyone to miss them when they succumb to these fates. And the cinematic trope of a woman sex worker waiting for rescue from pimps by a male client is a far-fetched fantasy, even in the realm of the romantic comedy. In reality, victims of trafficking are more likely to be guided out of the industry safely by fellow sex workers with whom they come in contact than by law enforcement, NGOs, or any benevolent clients. Friendships in an informal and criminalized economy are not just about companionship but about surviving without protections from the legal and social institutions that are actively hostile to sex workers.In legal sex work environments like strip clubs and dungeons, the shared goal of making money can naturally manifest in competition but that’s hardly the whole story. More often, this shared motivation results in information sharing about clientele, cursing the gods together for slow nights and poor tippers, and the same kind of water cooler gossip bonding that happens in office jobs (only the jokes about managers are usually funnier). I have spent all the money I earned working in strip clubs and an assortment of adult-oriented parties over the years and I have forgotten 99 percent of the misguided men who promised to “take me away from all this” as if snatching away my job and my friends was some great prize. But I have maintained and treasured the friendships that kept me whole in an industry society deems fit only for the profoundly broken.*“The thing about showing sex workers with no friends at all—it's again a kind of warning that you will pay a social price for this lifestyle,” says Juliana, a filmmaker who used to work in the sex industry. “A prostitute not only represents a ready supply of sex but also a ready supply of love to men.” Countless films feature this lonely, lovelorn hooker character but few portray the profoundly broken stereotype as egregiously as Leaving Las Vegas. Watching Leaving Las Vegas, given the size and scope of the sex industry in the city, makes it a two-hour exercise in suspended disbelief. Las Vegas is thick with tedious travelers who come in pursuit of transactional sex. Based on a novel of the same name by John O’Brien, the film follows one traveller in particular: Ben, an alcoholic screenwriter determined to drink himself to death in Sin City. Here, he meets Sera, a beautiful and seemingly rational sex worker who inexplicably falls desperately in love with him. She explores this love in one-sided conversations with a therapist who never appears on-screen, leaving audiences to guess their gender. With the exception of a few caustic interactions with a busybody landlady and a motel manager, Sera has no substantive interactions with other women. At the start of the film, she is beholden to and frightened of her Latvian pimp, Yuri, who is conveniently murdered at some point. It seems impossible that this capable woman who has the wherewithal and resources to practice enough self-care to seek therapy has not made a single friend. The presence of a friend in Sera’s life would have added a purpose besides the care and comfort of pathetic men.A woman with no friends is a woman with a surplus of personalized attention to lavish exclusively on men. Enter Ben. When Sera meets him, she becomes singularly fixated on him, despite the fact that he has few positive characteristics to speak of, and admits as much. His most sympathetic moments in the film are when he is warning Sera against getting too involved with him. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, wrote: “We see how she needed Ben because she desperately needed to do something good for somebody.” The assumption that Sera needed to do something good suggests that the entirety of her life is depraved on account of her profession. In the review, Ebert calls Ben Sera’s “redemption.” But why was the only option for this self-aware, beautiful woman to find redemption in a character so devoid of redeeming qualities? “In Leaving Las Vegas, the prostitute represents this unconditional love, almost like a mother for a child. So a man can think, ‘No matter how low I get there's a woman out there who will love me because she is so desperate and lonely and unlovable herself,’” says Juliana.*It is far less common for sex workers to fall for their clients than the other way around, but when it does happen, sex workers are treated as disposable in ways that only fellow workers can truly understand. Akynos is an artist who self-identifies with the term “whore,” is 38 and has been doing various forms of sex work for over a decade. When a client with whom she connected romantically suddenly and callously cut off ties, fellow sex workers were her most reliable source of empathy and care. “I was incredibly suicidal in the aftermath, it was other sex workers who literally helped me to maintain my sanity in that. It was their shoulders that I cried on week after week. Their expertise and trust. I don't know how I would still be here now if it weren't for them.” Sex workers don’t need a knight in shining armour to swoop down to their level and drag them up to a moral high ground, they need fellow sex workers to listen and guide them as equals: not as saviours but as true allies. “To have these [relationships] portrayed on screen is important. The audience needs to know that we are not completely alone and we can and do have sustainable healthy relationships with other people.”Perhaps the most iconic film that falls into the client-as-saviour trap is Pretty Woman, but a silver lining that renders it more bearable is in the limited screen time devoted to the friendship between the impossibly charming Vivian and her plucky and decidedly more fun friend Kit. We first meet the pair on Hollywood Boulevard. Kit is pondering the merits of connecting with a pimp which Vivian quickly reminds her will end poorly. “He’ll run our lives and take our money,” she says. Kit recants and they repeat their work motto, “We say when, we say who, we say how much.” Their mutual support of each other allows them to remain independent and control their own livelihoods, and they’re both unselfish in doing so. This is one of the most critical aspects of the portrayal: not that they keep each other company but that they help one another navigate the underground economy in which they conduct their business.Sex workers don’t need a knight in shining armour to swoop down to their level and drag them up to a moral high ground, they need fellow sex workers to listen and guide them as equals: not as saviours but as true allies.Kit’s character exists largely to show how pulled together and sweet Vivian in, but anyone who has worked in the sex industry knows that Kit is the one with enough principles to go to bat for her friends. It is difficult to watch the scenes between Vivian and Kit and not long for a buddy comedy about their exploits instead of the schlocky romantic comedy that Pretty Woman actually was.Though it was always Kit who offered Vivian truly useful and life-saving advice, it is Edward, with his money and insistence on taking her away from sex work, that redeems her. The closing scenes even vaguely imply that Kit is on her way out of the work, too. That cinematic narratives demand that sex workers stop the work if they want any hope for true redemption or love is yet another reason that portraying friendships is so vital. Sex worker friends love each other without caveats or exit strategies. But that kind of love is dangerous to social, and mostly male, fantasies about sex workers. “Because almost always these films are made by men there's something really appealing about this isolated, vulnerable woman to a male viewer or film maker—she's low fruit, she can be rescued, she is eternally grateful for the smallest kindness, she can be saved by the love of a good man,” says Juliana. In the case of Pretty Woman, even a good man is capable of defending himself by declaring “I never treated you like a prostitute” and the always condescending, “You’re so much more.”*“The audience needs to know that we are not completely alone an we can and do have sustainable healthy relationships with other people,” says Akynos. “It trains the audience in a way to see sex workers as regular human beings with friendships and other bonds like anyone else living in this world.” Standing in stark contrast to cinema’s typical insistence that sex working women are without friendships for their own sakes is the 2015 independent comedy, Tangerine. The film follows friends Sin-Dee and Alexandra around Los Angeles on the day that the former is released from jail and the two set out in search of her pimp, Chester, in a series of misadventures befitting a classic buddy comedy. That Sin-Dee and Alexandra are trans, black sex workers is not completely immaterial in the film but it is hardly the focus. These women are not plot devices or cautionary tales for external gazes, their lived realities are depicted for their own sake. There are no scenes of sexual degradation and in the few scenes that do depict despair, the other friend is always close by. Whereas portrayals of a sex worker suffering and without friends humiliate her further by making her only witness the audience, the presence of empathetic friends to sex workers on screen functions to ease pain by bearing witness to it and in so doing, bearing some of it herself.Tangerine director Sean Baker tells me that the film took the friendship-focused shape it did after he observed that friendships between sex workers in the community the film is based on were absolutely central to their lives. “The length to which they were willing to go for each other was the most profound and poignant aspect of the subject matter I was exploring,” says Baker of the bonds between sex working women with whom he collaborated on the film. “I don’t have those kinds of relationships. No one else I know does.” This reality was far more compelling than the work of sex work, and showing it made these characters far more complex than the scandalous job they do. By focusing on events surrounding interpersonal relationships instead of the work, there was an opportunity to show how the interior lives of these women are informed by the work but by no means defined by it. “We’ve seen the mechanics of the trade so many times. We all know what it is. So why harp on it even more?” says Baker. “I guess it’s still considered ‘sexy’, or at least some people think it is still sexy to audiences. I don’t think it is. I think audiences are interested in seeing the human side of this.”*In his review of My Own Private Idaho, Roger Ebert noted that it had “no contrived test for the heroes to pass; this is a movie about two particular young men, and how they pass their lives.” We need more on-screen portrayals of women in sex work simply trying to live their lives, with no moral compasses to realign or redemptive lights to reach at the end.In My Own Private Idaho, the two friends sit together in the dark discussing their work and boundaries, Mike more clearly desperate for love and care than Scott. “I love you though... You know that...I do love you,” Mike sputters to Scott. And though Scott does not reply with an expression of love in kind, he lets Mike’s pain occupy the space without judgment. Scott is not there to rescue his friend from loneliness but to bear witness to it, proving by his very presence that Mike’s interior life is worthy of an audience. If only Kit and Sera had been so lucky.