Hazlitt Magazine

Whatever Happened to Virginia Van Upp?

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

The Essential Mundanity of Grief

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

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

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

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Smurfette’s Roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around the happy moments with my autistic daughter lurks the anxiety, even worse under the new administration, that she will lose her right to be educated at her neighbourhood school.

The day Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education, a friend whose child is also on the spectrum texted me to say that, while absolutely everything had felt like a nightmare since November 8th, this was the defeat that had, so far, cut deepest. That night, I dreamed about shouting at my Trump-supporting relatives: “If they destroy special education in this country, you’ll never see my kid again.” (I would like to be able to tell you I am coping better now, but this has become a recurring nightmare.)My younger daughter, who is in kindergarten, was diagnosed with autism a little over two years ago. I’m never sure how to write about this, or if I should even try at all. In our deeply ableist society, my experiences, feelings, and fears as a neurotypical parent are not the ones that need to be elevated. But it is also true that concern for our child is always there without me having to summon it, circling my mind in an unbroken loop—and, far more than anything I actually do write about with any regularity, the effort to meet her needs fills my thoughts, governs what I do and the things I commit to and how I approach each day.There are plenty of victories to ponder, of course—positive reports from teachers and happy little moments from her day I hold close, talismans against the fear that sometimes keeps me awake. When I worry, I worry not so much because of who she is—a smart, funny, affectionate, delightful kid—but because of who we are, collectively, as a society. I worry that this world designed for neurotypical people won’t truly see or understand her. I worry because I have seen this happen, over and over, with strangers and teachers, among our friends, within our own families. If something requires just a little bit of extra work, the slightest shift in perspective, many won’t even attempt it. It is always easier to see, to work for, to care about only that which you can easily understand.*Often, my last conscious thought before I fall asleep at night is something to do with my daughter’s schooling—some area where I wish she had more support; some request I want to make of one of her teachers; or (worst of all) some regret over something I should have done to better advocate for her that day. There have been so many nights over the past few years when these thoughts have kept me from sleeping at all. Nowadays, when I can’t sleep for worrying about her and her education, sometimes it’s because I am thinking about Donald Trump and his cabinet.Trump’s mocking of a disabled journalist and his vaccine scaremongering are now infamous, if also sometimes forgotten alongside so many other vicious rants and alarming positions. After he nominated Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, comments resurfaced from Sessions’s 2000 speech regarding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its protections for disabled students, which he called “the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today.” According to our new Attorney General, IDEA helped fuel “the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America.” The scapegoating of disabled children led the Autistic Self Advocacy Network to issue a statement condemning his nomination: “We have grave concerns that under Sessions, the Department of Justice would not protect the rights of disabled people and other marginalized populations.”I am in the midst of a weeks long, meandering and often emotional conversation with my friend Emily Brooks, an autistic person and disability rights advocate whose work relates to educational support for children with disabilities. Emily and I began venting to one another about these issues over email around the time Sessions was nominated, and have since exchanged thousands of words about our fears for disabled children living under this administration. When Betsy DeVos suggested during her January 17 Senate confirmation hearing that the educational rights of students with disabilities was “a matter best left to the states,” Emily told me that for the first time in her life, she found herself seriously considering what it would mean if the federal government no longer guaranteed and protected disabled kids’ right to a free and appropriate education. “I immediately thought of all the kids I know and care about who are accessing education and supports within their schools now—including your daughter,” she wrote. “Then I thought of all the disabled people who came before us, barred from learning alongside neighborhood children in their local schools, sometimes imprisoned in cruel and abusive institutions that were ‘schools’ in name only.”Senator Maggie Hassan, whose son has cerebral palsy, pressed DeVos on enforcing IDEA and voiced her concerns over DeVos’s support for vouchers and school choice. “I would advocate for all parents to be able to have that opportunity [you’ve had] to choose the right school for their child,” DeVos tried to tell Hassan—who, of course, wasn’t having it. “I actually had the opportunity to send him to the same public school that my daughter went to,” Hassan informed DeVos, “because the law required that that school provide him resources that were never provided before that law was passed.”DeVos did try to backtrack on IDEA, saying she “may have confused it.” “I have so much compassion for families who have to avail themselves of that law,” she told Axios in an interview last month—an interview in which she also said she couldn’t think of any issues in education that required federal intervention. I still can’t help but wonder if DeVos is clear on how IDEA works now that she’s been told it is, in fact, established federal law. What did she mean by “families who have to avail themselves” of it? Was she perhaps referring to those who have been forced into legal action, in suits like those decried by Sessions, to ensure their child’s access to an appropriate education? Does Secretary DeVos understand that all families sending their children with disabilities to school are, to varying degrees and with varying plans and programs in place, relying on the law and its protections?My husband and I have sued no one, spoken with no lawyers, but we “avail ourselves of that law” every single day of the academic year. That law is on my mind during every conversation we have with our child’s teachers. Its promises and guarantees lurk between the lines of our every email exchange with the school. It is knowledge to which I have clung since we walked into our first meeting with the school district, months before we even had a diagnosis. With it, we still spend hours discussing, prodding, pushing, cajoling her educators, week in and week out, to ensure that she is well supported. Without it, we might have been told, Sorry, there’s no place for her here. You’ll have to find another school to take her. It is the reason our school district must educate her in the least restrictive environment possible and give her what she needs to thrive. Though I cannot recall if we’ve ever explicitly alluded to that fact, those of us who meet around a conference table in a poorly ventilated staff room every spring to plan for the following school year, we all know: The law is the reason we’re here.*Every year, my husband and I meet with our daughter’s school to review the progress she has made over the course of the year and plan her Individualized Education Program (IEP) for the following year—including her classroom setting, the academic goals for which her team will be responsible, and the support she will receive. Where my husband and I live, more often than not the big IEP meeting is on a beautiful, sunny day in early spring. It starts at nine, earlier than the school day begins; one of us attends from the start, while the other drops the girls off at school and then joins in. We both take the entire day off work if we can, because we know we’ll be useless to anyone after three-plus hours of discussion with half a dozen people about levels and goals and plans under too-bright fluorescent lights. We’re always greeted with handshakes and smiles by the teachers, special educators, therapists, and administrators in attendance, but even those who know and frequently use our given names revert to Mr. and Ms., speaking a little more formally and from a clear professional distance.Though we’ve been in touch with the committee all year long, I still feel the need to issue a brief prayer for please, no surprises. Someone will take copious notes on a laptop throughout the meeting. Someone else will tell us how “articulate” we are about our child’s strengths and abilities, as if this were some great or unusual feat. There’s always a box of tissues on the table, a nod to the fact that while the meeting can feel like an all-out sprint through a series of bureaucratic checkpoints, real emotions are involved. We will be reminded that we are the ones with the power, with decisions to make, but sometimes it’s hard not to feel as though we are merely swept up by the current, unable to seize control and steer.Once the plans and goals are hammered out and the IEP is signed, the work of following and holding others accountable to it begins. Every year, new teachers and administrators will need our help to understand who our daughter is and how she learns. My husband and I will spend some number of hours every week discussing how best to advocate for our child and communicating with the school. While her team certainly makes a good-faith effort to keep her individual plan in mind, sometimes we will still encounter “This is what we do for children with [x] needs” as opposed to “This is what we think your child needs.”As of 2014, thirteen percent of children attending public schools had been provided with an IEP. In truth, every kid would benefit from an education plan tailored to their unique strengths and needs, but that will never be in anyone’s budget. Even the best public schools are often overcrowded, the best teachers overworked. Even in a good school district, there is endless pressure to do things as quickly and as cheaply as possible. We go into every meeting, not just the big, high-stakes ones, aware that our daughter’s access to a high-quality education, her ability to attend and thrive in our local schools at all, is to a large degree dependent on how much work individual people can and want and are able to do. As the parent of a child with an IEP, you quickly learn that it is always faster, always cheaper, for the school system to do the minimum—a particular concern when your child needs everyone’s maximum effort.*Kindergarten has changed a lot. At six, our daughter is frequently asked to do things my husband and I were never tasked with in our mid-’80s slacker half-day kindergarten classes. Every moment of her six-and-a-half-hour school day is scheduled and structured. We continually walk a fine line between urging her team to keep their expectations for her high, and wishing everyone would relax a little.While we do know and understand her rights, we are never more careful than we are in our communication with school staff. We do not have an adversarial relationship, thankfully, but we’ve still learned to run through every point we want to make prior to meeting with them. We take pains to make it clear we appreciate our team’s efforts and their expertise. My husband and I switch off raising thorny issues, making suggestions, and submitting requests so they know we are a united front, and so neither of us gets a reputation for being the easy one or the difficult one. We run email drafts by one another to ensure that we’ve phrased everything correctly, struck the right tone. Because of course there is a wrong tone—while everyone urges you to be the squeaky wheel, there are risks if you sound too demanding or too needy.We are constantly, anxiously aware that the school system’s outlook on our daughter’s education might not always align with ours. We know they could one day recommend a non-integrated placement half an hour from where we live. We know that we could challenge an inadequate level of support or a future placement we don’t want, perhaps successfully, only to face similar battles in years to come and find ourselves with no recourse other than official complaints and the threat of legal action—a course that always seems impossible to choose right up until you are forced to choose it. We recognize that we are not so many years removed from a time when few disabled children were educated in their local schools; when many schools and districts took steps to explicitly exclude them. Despite the law, despite all the progress she’s made, despite the knowledge and compassion of her teachers, our child’s right to stay and learn and succeed in her own neighborhood school may never—under this administration in particular—feel one hundred percent secure.*I remember reading Hillary Clinton’s platform on disabilities and autism around this time last year, discussing it with family and friends and educators, thinking it might represent a clear and much-needed step forward for people like my daughter and other autistic people. Now, when it comes to education, healthcare, disability rights and so many other important issues, it seems the mission of our new President and his cabinet is to unravel decades of hard-fought if still inadequate progress. “I’m trying to channel my anger into action, but sometimes the fear and sadness are too great,” my friend Emily told me the other night. “I find myself worrying nonstop about losing rights, about the safety and wellbeing of people I love.”When it comes to the day-to-day advocacy for our child, the worry I no longer remember living without, the neverending dialogue and negotiation at the school and classroom level, what gets me through is my faith in her and the hope that, eventually, she will be an active participant in this ongoing discussion, not just the subject of it. I imagine turning to her at a future meeting and asking what she thinks about her classroom, her teachers. I imagine her telling us what she needs from her school, stating her own goals, asserting her own rights. When it comes to the education that is her right and the foundation of her future, I cannot imagine anything I want more than for her to feel and truly be empowered in this all-important setting—her own neighborhood school. In the meantime, I go into every meeting ready to remind everyone of her rights—rights which I desperately hope she and all kids will retain—and fight for her, as long and as hard as I have to.
Uncommon Ancestry

Imagine finding out your father wasn’t the man you thought he was. Imagine finding out he was your mother’s fertility doctor.

Kat Palmer learned in grade nine biology that two blue-eyed parents can’t have a brown-eyed child. She thought that was curious, because she had brown eyes and both her parents had blue. But when she joked about it at home, she got a shock: her mother told her she’d been conceived at a fertility clinic, using sperm from an anonymous donor. The man she knew and loved as her dad was not her biological father.The clinic had told her parents never to tell their daughter, and now her mom asked Palmer never to discuss it with her dad. For five years, she didn’t. But just before she left for university, her dad took her out for a shawarma and said he had something important to tell her. “He came to me almost in tears,” she recalls. She preempted him, telling him she already knew and she didn’t care. “It brought us closer together.”She had never been much interested in the donor, but, as an only child, she had begun to wonder if she had any half-siblings out in the world. In 2013, at age twenty-two, she decided to call her mother’s fertility doctor, Bernard Norman Barwin. He was a well-known and well-loved fixture in the infertility world. He had received the Order of Canada for his services to women, helped found an infertility support group, and advocated for abortion rights.On the phone, Palmer asked him if he had any medical records about her conception. He told her he didn’t. (A doctor in Ontario is only required to keep such records for ten years.) She asked where the sperm might have come from, and he gave her the names of a few sperm banks he’d worked with. She checked with all of them, but each confirmed that they had not been shipping sperm to his clinic around the time she was conceived.Frustrated, she signed up with The Donor Sibling Registry, a site where offspring can connect with half-siblings, mostly through shared donor numbers. But Palmer didn’t have her donor’s number, and although a few other people from the same clinic were listed there, and they made contact, she found no matches.After a year of fruitless searching, she made an appointment to speak with Barwin in person. He was charming, she recalls, but he suggested her search might be obsessive. She was young, he pointed out, in a healthy relationship, successful, talented—why wasn’t that enough for her? “When I walked away, I started thinking about the things he said, and I realized how kind of cruel they were,” she says.She already knew that something was amiss. She had collected a sample of her own DNA, by rubbing a special swab along the inside of her cheek, and had sent it off to Family Tree DNA, an online genealogy database that tells you about your ancestry. Her parents had told her that they had selected a donor who was German Irish, but the site’s analysis suggested her paternal progenitor was probably an Ashkenazi Jew.The website also uses the DNA sample to connect you to disparate family members. In the summer of 2015, a man in New York popped up on her profile and the DNA analysis indicated he was a third cousin. She had hundreds of more distant matches, but the third cousin got in touch. She told him that she’d been conceived with donor sperm at the Broadview Fertility Clinic in Ottawa, run by Norman Barwin, and that she was looking for siblings. When the cousin mentioned the doctor’s name to his mother, it rang a bell for her. They had a look at the family tree, and, bingo, there he was: Norman Barwin. Barwin’s dad and her dad were first cousins. From where the test results placed Palmer on their family tree, it appeared at least plausible that Barwin himself was her sperm donor.Palmer knew she sort of looked like him, but she felt she looked like a lot of the Jewish men she knew, including her dad. The cousin helped her draft an email to Barwin, in which she used both genetics and genealogy to raise the possibility that he might be her biological father. She expected the doctor to ignore her, but he emailed back within the hour, with a phone number.When she called him, about a week later, he was apologetic and baffled. He just couldn’t fathom how this had happened, he told her. The only thing he could think of was that he’d bought a new sperm counting machine that same year, and perhaps he had contaminated it when he was testing it with his own semen.Palmer asked for a paternity test and, to her surprise, Barwin agreed. In autumn of 2015, they both swabbed their cheeks and sent the samples off to a lab. Not long after, Barwin emailed her with the confirmation. He was, he said, her biological father.*By the time Norman Barwin had confirmed his paternity in an email, Palmer already knew quite a bit about him. He’d been in the news over the years. In 1995, a couple sued him for, allegedly, using the wrong sperm donor. Two more patients sued, one in 2009 and one in 2010, claiming sperm mix-ups. In 2000 and 2001 he’d also been called out for cheating in two separate marathons—the Boston Marathon and the National Capital Marathon in Ottawa—and in both cases he first denied the charges, then tried to explain them away as misunderstandings.The patient who sued him back in 2009 was Trudy Moore. She had asked her sister to carry a child for her and her husband, Matthew Guest, using Guest’s sperm. The family learned that their child was not genetically related to Guest when it turned out the baby had Rh-positive blood but neither Guest nor Moore’s sister did.Moore wanted to know whose sperm was used. At first the doctor suggested it might be from a specific donor, perhaps number 3168 from the ReproMed sperm bank. But when Moore tested her daughter against other recipients of that donor, whom she met on The Donor Sibling Registry, the little girl was not a genetic match. It was during that testing that another of Barwin’s patients, Jacqueline Slinn, discovered that her child was also not conceived from donor 3168, although she’d intended for her to be. (The two children did not match with each other, either, and Moore’s child did not match to a vial of Donor 3168 sperm provided by ReproMed.)In 2013, Barwin was disciplined by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario for a total of four sperm mix-ups—there had been yet another in the 1980s. He lost his licence for two months as punishment. Soon after that, he was stripped of his Order of Canada. In 2014, he resigned as a doctor and agreed to never practice again.The scandal had come as a surprise to his many admirers. For years he had offered artificial insemination to couples struggling with infertility and was among the first to help lesbian women who wanted to be mothers and needed donor insemination. Many patients revered him. He was known as an especially gentle, respectful, warm and accommodating doctor.As prominent members of both Ottawa’s Jewish community and its arts community, Barwin and his family had occasionally crossed paths with Kat Palmer and hers. Palmer had met his wife, for instance, and had at one point taught his granddaughter, who she now knew was her own niece, in an after-school class at a drama school. Palmer now followed some of his—her—extended family members on Instagram, and couldn’t help noticing how they shared little physical quirks, like the “exact same silly face” that she makes.Emails between the two show that, from the start, Palmer encouraged Barwin to tell his kids about her. At times, he seemed committed to doing it, and promised that he was just waiting for a moment when the family would all be together. But he could not bring himself to break the news to them, he later told her, and he pressured her not to go public.All along she’d been searching for half-siblings, and now she had found some—Barwin’s own children—only to be asked to keep that fact a secret. “This is what, over everything else, is breaking my heart,” the then-twenty-four-year-old Palmer wrote to Barwin. “...[W]ho is to say that my existence would cause them pain? I don’t think I should feel ashamed of my existence. I committed no wrongs by being born.”Palmer struggled with what to do. She did not want to hurt Barwin or his children, but she found the deceit increasingly debilitating. In May 2016, for instance, while visiting Ottawa from her home in Vancouver, she was asked to sing with a friend in a Friday night service. But because it was Barwin’s family’s synagogue, she declined: she worried that if she saw a member of his family, she would start crying, she told me later that month. “It’s an awkward situation to be in.”Toward the end of that summer, Palmer was contemplating approaching one of Barwin’s sons directly, but she was struggling with how best to do that. She shared her frustration with Trudy Moore, who’d been a Facebook friend since June 2016. Moore’s advice was that she should probably talk to a lawyer, and she gave her the name of her own.*Moore’s lawyers, Nelligan O’Brien and Payne LLP, had recently been contacted by a young woman named Rebecca Dixon. Dixon was about Palmer’s age and had also been conceived in Barwin’s clinic with the incorrect sperm.Dixon’s story was a little different. Until only a few months earlier, she had been secure in the knowledge that the parents who had raised her were her biological parents. Dan and Davina Dixon had had trouble conceiving, and they had asked Barwin to artificially inseminate Davina with Dan’s sperm. Until February of 2016, that’s what they believed had happened. It’s true that Rebecca had never looked much like either of them—she was darker in complexion and eye colour, she was petite while they were both stout—and that people had even occasionally asked where they had adopted her from. But they never seriously doubted that she was their full biological child.In early 2016, however, Rebecca was diagnosed with celiac disease, a disorder that can be hereditary, and neither parent had a history of it. Not long after, Davina saw a post on Facebook, saying that two blue-eyed parents could not have a brown-eyed child. Suddenly, all the doubts began to coalesce—the eyes, the skin tone, the adoption questions—and Davina began to wonder seriously for the first time if Rebecca really was related to them.She mentioned it to Dan. He had a degree in genetics, and had years earlier considered and dismissed his daughter’s eye colour as some kind of anomaly. But to allay their concerns, they spoke to their family doctor. They asked him if they were crazy. He assured them, especially given what was known about Barwin’s record, that they were not.The timing could not have been worse. Dan had just been diagnosed with a brain tumour. They invited Rebecca and her husband over one Saturday for tea, and told her they had good news and bad news. The good news was that Dan’s tumour was operable and he would soon undergo surgery. The bad news was that they were no longer sure that she was his biological child. “I remember feeling a wave of shock,” she says. “It wasn’t what I was expecting that day—or ever.”Once the question was there, they all wanted to know the answer. They decided to start with a simple test of their blood types. Her dad’s blood type was AB, which meant that a child of his could have type A, type B or type AB blood, but not type O. When Rebecca’s test came back as O-positive, it showed what the family had feared: her dad could not be her biological dad. “I just went to bed and cried,” says Dan. A genetic paternity test a few weeks later confirmed it.At their first meeting with the lawyers, Dan raised the possibility that Barwin himself could be the biological father. “At that point, I couldn’t handle that discussion and I couldn’t handle it there in that context,” says Rebecca. “I just said I didn’t want to consider that, didn’t want to deal with it right now.”Once raised, though, it lingered in the back of her mind. She knew that, for her, it was better to find out and deal with the truth than worry about something that may or may not be true. The Dixons’ lawyer contacted Barwin’s lawyer and requested a DNA sample from the doctor, but he did not provide it. Without that, there was no easy way to find out for sure—until the lawyer heard from Palmer, who was claiming to have done a paternity test with the man.Just after Labour Day, Rebecca Dixon and Kat Palmer exchanged their first cautious emails. Although they had both done genetic testing, Palmer had used one company, Family Tree DNA, and Dixon had used another, 23andMe, so they had not been on each other’s radars. Palmer knew of another site, GEDmatch, where they could compare those results. It declared them half-siblings.Palmer lived in Vancouver and Dixon in Ottawa, but they began communicating with each other every day. They had similarities—they were giggly, demonstrative, outgoing. They had the same skin tone, eyebrows, wide smiles. They discovered they had briefly attended the same specialty arts high school—when Palmer was in grade 9 and Dixon in grade 10—and although they had never met, they had a few friends in common.“I’ve been raised as an only child,” says Dixon. “It’s something I couldn’t even contemplate—having siblings. Suddenly there is this other person who will be part of my life forever. It’s been incredible.”The lawyer arranged for a legal-quality genetic test between the two women. The test, which examined their genes after subtracting out the genetic contribution from each of their mothers, concluded there was a 99.4 percent likelihood that they were half-sisters through their paternal line. On November 1, Dixon’s family launched a lawsuit alleging that Barwin had used his own sperm rather than Dan's, and they invited any other concerned parties to come forward and join in a class-action suit with them. When contacted about this story, Barwin indicated by email that he had no comment.*This is not the first time a doctor has been accused of inseminating a patient with his own sperm. Possibly the most notorious case came to light in 1992, when Cecil Jacobson, who ran a fertility clinic in Virginia, was found to have used his own semen to impregnate numerous patients. Fifteen children matched in DNA tests as his offspring, and he may have fathered as many as seventy-five. Jacobson confessed that he had occasionally used his own sperm, but only when anonymous donors failed to show up. However, four former clinic employees testified that as far as they knew, there had never been an anonymous sperm donation program at his clinic.Jacobson was sentenced to five years in prison, but not because he used his own sperm. According to a New York Times story at the time, there were no laws prohibiting a doctor from donating his sperm to a patient or using his sperm covertly. Jacobson was charged with mail and wire fraud, travel fraud and perjury relating to the way he ran his practice.There was a lot of clamor at the time for greater oversight of the fertility industry. The Los Angeles Times wrote that the case had drawn international attention and raised questions about doctor-patient relationships and about oversight of sperm banks and fertility clinics.In Canada, a federal law, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, was passed in 2004. But it was largely preoccupied with outlawing payment for sperm, eggs, embryos and wombs—which, incidentally, it has failed to do—with much less emphasis on accountability.It has largely been forgotten that the original Canadian law did call for the creation of a national personal health information registry. It was supposed to help identify health and safety risks that might arise through assisted reproduction, and keep tabs on ethical and human rights abuses. There was even the explicit promise that if two individuals who were created through assisted reproduction in this country wanted to know if they were genetically related, they could make a request and find out.But none of that ever happened. No registry was ever established. And, given that there was no requirement to tell children born through assisted reproduction that they had been conceived that way, no requirement that accurate records be kept, maintained or made available to offspring, and no requirement that donors be anything but anonymous, it was little more than a pipe dream from the beginning. (The United Kingdom, which banned donor anonymity in 2005, and does have a central registry, is able to keep those types of promises, and does.) In 2012, buried in the mammoth Bill C-38,the call for a Canadian registry was quietly crossed out.Also eliminated in that bill was the government agency that was supposed to administer and enforce the 2004 law. The agency, called Assisted Human Reproduction Canada, had been set up in December 2006, but it never did much of anything, let alone uphold the law. Part of its problem was that it never had any specific regulations to enforce—the government claims to be working on them now, thirteen years in—but another part appeared to be lack of political will.Much of the oversight of individual medical practices falls to provinces, especially the nitty-gritty of what is and is not required of a practitioner. Some patients have been stunned to learn that in the province where Barwin worked, Ontario, there’s no requirement that a doctor be able to account for what happens to a given sperm sample. A man who provides his semen to a doctor so that his female partner can be inseminated cannot expect to be told how much semen he has banked, or exactly how much is used in each insemination attempt or how much remains. It is not required that that information be noted in his medical record. (Men such as Dixon and Guest, as well as not being the biological fathers of their intended children, cannot be certain that they don’t have genetically related children who have been born to other families.)Similarly, a woman who purchases a particular vial of sperm simply has to trust that the doctor used that, and not some other sperm. Nor is there any information required to be noted in her chart of where her chosen sperm has gone—how much of it was used up and what has happened to the remainder. Fertility patients in Ontario have simply had to trust that their doctors are doing things right. (This is common practice across North American jurisdictions.)Ontario lawmakers are in the process of trying to address some of this—recommending that two people be required to verify that the sperm is the correct sperm and that the verification happens first before entering the procedure room and again once inside it. What’s still missing is the teeth, says Art Leader, a fertility doctor at the Ottawa Fertility Centre who has spent years trying to improve guidelines and standards in reproductive care. He points out that there’s no word yet on what the penalty will be for rogue doctors. “The question is, if there’s non-compliance, what will happen?”There’s also a question about who will be doing the inspecting. Notably, Barwin’s facility was inspected by an “expert review” which was “unable to identify any evident errors in the conduct of the artificial inseminations or in Dr. Barwin's office policies and procedures...,” according to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, who carried out the inspection. (The College won’t reveal anything more about it, including who was on the review panel, what they inspected for, or even the year the inspection took place.)Kat Palmer’s father, Lyon, told me that his suspicions were aroused when the doctor told his daughter there were no records about her conception. But even when records are available, offspring like Kat Palmer have no right to see them, since they belong only to the patient, her mother.Olivia Pratten, a donor-conceived woman who grew up in British Columbia, argued a few years back that people like her had the right to know about their origins the way adopted people in her province did. (Adoptees in B.C., and a few other provinces, such as Ontario, have the right to know the identity of their birth parents.) Pratten won that case in court, then lost when it was appealed. She has never found her sperm donor.Palmer is cynical. “They don’t want people finding out they didn’t use the right donor,” she says. She thinks people created through donation should have the right to know both the fact that they were donor-conceived and who the donor is. “It messes with people’s identity,” she says. On finding out that hers was actually the doctor, she says: “I’m not happy it’s him, but I’m happy I have some sort of answer.”*A couple of months before the Dixons filed their lawsuit against Barwin, in November 2016, a similar case was unfolding in the U.S. According to an affidavit, filed by the prosecuting attorney of Marion County, Indiana, a retired Indianapolis fertility doctor, Donald Cline, had tested positive on a paternity test with two women conceived in his clinic. Despite his official claims to the contrary, he was, the affidavit alleged, their biological father. The allegations have not been proven in court.This saga, like so many, began with a person conceived through donor insemination searching to find half-siblings. In 2014, Jacoba Ballard, a woman in her thirties, signed up on AmFOR.net, a site that fights for open records. Through that site, she made contact with three other people, who all knew they’d been conceived through artificial insemination at Cline’s clinic, Reproductive Endocrinology Associates.They decided to enter their DNA into 23andMe. It confirmed for them that they were siblings—half-siblings and, in the case of two from the same family, full-siblings. To their surprise, though, the site also connected them to four other half-siblings.They reached out. None of the additional four people knew anything about having been donor-conceived. One had just tested for fun; another had gone to the site to explore health issues. The new four pressed their parents on this. “It was horrible for their families,” says Ballard. The parents at first denied it, then admitted that they’d sought help from Cline.“This is what people don’t understand,” says Ballard. “They think, ‘I want a baby.’ But they don’t think that baby will grow up.”All of their mothers had been told that the anonymous sperm donors were medical residents, and that no single donor would be used for more than three pregnancies. But now they were a sibling group of eight, with ages ranging from twenty-eight to thirty-five. “It was fishy to us,” says Ballard.Also suspicious was the fact that the DNA testing linked the sibling group with seventy of Cline’s own relatives, the closest match being Cline’s first cousin. Ballard and three half-siblings filed consumer complaints with the state attorney general’s office. They wanted to know, among other things, how many offspring actually came from a single donor, why the records had been destroyed and whether the doctor was in fact their biological father. They asked for an investigation into Cline and his medical practices.The attorney general contacted Cline about the questions and allegations. As part of his sworn reply, Cline wrote: “I can emphatically say that at no time did I ever use my own sample for insemination.” He accused the women of slander and libel.Ballard and two other siblings also approached a local Fox News reporter, Angela Ganote. In May 2015, a television story aired, using pseudonyms, raising questions about the large size of the sibling group.For months, nothing seemed to be happening and it felt like the attorney general’s investigation had stalled. The siblings grew frustrated. In 2016, four of them decided to confront the doctor about their concerns, so they sent a Facebook message to several members of his family. “We basically said, ‘We want some answers,’” says Ballard. “‘Something’s not adding up.’” All but one member of the family immediately blocked the siblings, but the doctor’s son, Doug, about a week later, replied directly to Ballard. “I’m not sure why me,” says Ballard. “Maybe because we’re both Catholic.” The two spoke on the phone. He said he’d talked with his father and he’d admitted that he’d occasionally used his own sperm. Doug offered to meet with the group to answer any questions.Not long after, Doug and his sister Donna sat down with Ballard and one other half-sibling. According to Ballard, Doug told them that his father said he’d only used his own sperm a few times, through a sperm bank, but that the sample may have been split. Ballard told him she found that hard to believe, and she asked if they could meet with the doctor himself.A few weeks later, in March 2016, six of the eight offspring met with Cline in a local restaurant. “He was distant and cold,” recalls Ballard. “He used a lot of Bible verses.” According to the affidavit, he admitted to them that he had used his own sperm fifty or so times, and not through a sperm bank. He always put an asterisk beside the names of those patients, he told them, so he’d know whether to use his own sperm again if the parents came back for another child.Ballard went back to the reporter with the information, and Ganote contacted the doctor for an interview. He declined. Then he phoned Ballard, to ask her to keep it all quiet. He told her he was worried about the effect on his marriage—his wife felt that what he’d done was adulterous—and that he’d only ever wanted to help his patients. Ballard recorded the call, and eventually turned the tape over to the county prosecutor.In June, an investigator with the prosecutor’s office interviewed Ballard and one half-sibling and took DNA samples from the women. The following month, a search warrant was executed and they collected a sample from the doctor as well. On September 9, Ballard heard from Ganote that the tests had come back positive—Cline was her biological father—and that the story would air on local news that day. She’d asked Fox to shield her identity, and they had, but her name was in the court documents, and when CNN picked up the story later that day they used Ballard’s full name.After Ballard saw that the doctor was only being charged with two counts of “obstruction of justice”—for lying in his response to the attorney general’s investigation—and that he’d pleaded not guilty, she decided to make herself available to any media outlets that would tell her story. “I want to see doctors held accountable,” she says. “I want laws.”She’d been told by the prosecutors that there was little they could do. She asked if inserting a tube into a woman’s body and placing unrequested sperm inside her might constitute rape. She was told it wouldn’t. She knew that if a prison guard had sex with a prisoner that the guard would be charged with rape because of the power imbalance, so she asked if anything about the doctor-patient relationship would make the act—a doctor fathering a child with a patient without that patient’s knowledge or consent—a criminal offense. She was told no. She asked about battery, but again, no. She began to think that only massive public outrage would bring the kind of change she wanted to see.But her half-siblings felt differently. Shortly after the CNN story, the original four exchanged heated text messages, with Ballard arguing the pros of publicity while the other three underscored the cons. They feared that their story would just be sensationalized. They also felt that it was too painful and private, and that putting it out there would force them to relive that pain over and over again. They asked Ballard not to do any more interviews.In the two years since finding her half-siblings, Ballard had become extremely close to some of them, texting with them everyday. In 2015, they got together at Christmastime. “You share this bond. You share this journey,” she says. “You love them.” But now they gave her an ultimatum: go public and they’d never speak with her again.Ballard did the interviews. They have not spoken since.Among Ballard’s worries is consanguinity—that people in her small, not-very-mobile community will inadvertently marry close relatives. Six members of her sibling group live within a ten-minute drive of one another. Ballard has two teenage sons. “Any woman they marry will have to be DNA-tested,” she says. It’s not good enough to simply ask about whether a potential spouse was donor-conceived, she argues, because so many families never tell their children the truth. Her sons could accidentally marry an aunt, she points out, or a niece. The doctor’s own children have to worry about this too, she says. “People don’t realize the ramifications of what he has done.”In the months since going public, several more half-siblings have come forward. Two, Matthew White and Julie Harmon (née Manes), have decided to go public alongside Ballard. She expects that new half-siblings will keep popping up, and she can’t quite explain how you can feel so close to someone you have only just met. “They’re like a part of you—they literally are a part of you,” she says. “My regret is that we were cheated of our childhoods together.” As for the doctor’s own children—her half-siblings—she is open to knowing them, too. “If they were to want a relationship with me, I’m all for it,” she says. “It’s not their fault.”*Not all cases make headlines or even go public. Bill Cordray, who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, chooses not to name the man—his mother’s gynecologist—who was his biological father.Cordray had known from the time he was a teenager that something wasn’t right. He was blond and skinny, whereas his dad was dark and well built. Cordray’s eldest brother had been adopted, so he asked his mom if he had been too; she said no. The only explanation he could think of was that she’d had an affair.It wasn’t until he was thirty-seven years old, and his dad had already died, that he found out the truth. His dad had been infertile and the three younger sons had all been conceived with anonymous donor sperm.Cordray wanted to know who his biological father was. He’d been conceived in 1944, long before the days of donor profiles. All he had was the name of his mother’s gynecologist, the man who had performed the artificial insemination. Cordray started spying on the elderly doctor in his garden, and three times managed to strike up a conversation with him, first about his raspberry bushes, then about his mother. He mentioned to the doctor that he’d been conceived in his clinic, but it quickly became apparent that the man had dementia.The doctor died in 1995, and Cordray went to the funeral, sitting at the back and not identifying himself to anyone. He didn’t think he resembled the doctor much but he wanted to take a look at his children—three sons and two daughters. Cordray felt that the second son, about his age, did look like him. “His facial features were so much like mine,” he says. When he stood on the altar recalling episodes from his father’s life, Cordray became even more convinced: “He told jokes almost exactly the way I’d tell a joke—laughing before he got to the end.” The face, the arm waving, the singing voice, were all uncannily familiar.The youngest son was a dermatologist in town, and a couple of years later, Cordray decided to book an appointment to see him as a patient. “He looked shocked when I first came in,” says Cordray. “I told him his dad was my mother’s gynecologist.”As with Palmer and Dixon and Ballard, however, it was online genetic testing that helped clinch it. In 2011, well into his sixties, Cordray finally decided to try Family Tree DNA. That led him to a sixth cousin living in Norway, whose wife happened to be a professional statistician in genetics. She worked out that Cordray shared a great-grandfather with another cousin in Idaho. That great-grandfather was identified with an un-Anglicized surname—one that was eventually shortened into the surname of his mother’s gynecologist.It turned out that the Norwegian and Idaho cousins had done extensive genealogy and had detailed family trees. (The American branch of the family, including the doctor, was Mormon, a group renowned for genealogy research.) Cordray could see from those family trees that the common great-grandfather had had two successive wives. Cordray was descended from the first wife, who died young, and the Idaho man from the second. The great-grandfather had several male descendants and Cordray couldn’t be sure which was his genetic father. “But since my mother’s gynecologist was actually at my conception,” he says drily, “I concluded it was probably him.”Cordray signed up on other sites too. Through 23andMe, he connected with his first four half-siblings. On Ancestry.com, he was matched to close family of the doctor. About eighteen months ago, he and a donor-conceived half-sister met in person with three of the doctor’s grandchildren—Cordray’s genetic nieces—and one of his daughters—Cordray’s genetic half-sister—who was sadly in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. The doctor’s family has been “friendly,” says Cordray, but not particularly helpful. They have been unwilling, he says, to share medical information. Four of the doctor’s own five children have now passed away.Cordray, seventy-one, has found fifteen confirmed half-siblings created by the doctor through his clinic, and he’s found them all within the last three and a half years. He was worried at first whether they’d be open to knowing each other, but it’s been “wonderful,” he says, all of them accepting each other as family. Several of them have met for family picnics. Ten of them are “close” and they communicate regularly—and they have the good sense, he says, to steer clear of religion or politics.*“It’s the accountability that’s missing,” says Cordray, who spent many years of his life searching for answers about where he came from. For a long time he thought that accountability would only come when bodies such as the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which sets guidelines and standards for the industry, recognized how important it was to donor offspring to know their origins and called for change. That has not happened. Instead, though, accountability has come from the curious offspring themselves.When Cordray’s biological father counseled his patients to keep their medical treatments secret, as was standard at the time, and then used his own semen to get them pregnant, he had good reason to believe that no one would ever find out the truth. No one could have guessed that genetic testing would become so commonplace, and so cheap. It was impossible to imagine even twenty-five years ago, when Palmer was born, that we’d ever have $99 home spit tests that could connect us with our far-flung genetic relatives anywhere in the world.Yet here we are. People told they are their own parents’ genetic children can easily verify or refute that. People told they can’t know who their “anonymous” gamete donors are—even when those donors are their mothers’ doctors—very often can know. People told they are not really related to each other, because they are “only” related through donated sperm or eggs, can find out and decide that they are related to each other, and can, if they want, treat each other like family.*Over the Family Day weekend, Kat Palmer met up with her newly discovered brother, James. He’d recently learned through genetic testing that he had Jewish ancestry, which surprised him, so he asked his parents about it. “They shrugged their shoulders,” he says. But a few days later, they showed him the newspaper articles about Barwin and the latest lawsuit. He was supposed to have been conceived with his father’s sperm, but now they had doubts.That night, James messaged Palmer on Facebook, and told her he might be her brother. They spoke on the phone. After comparing their DNA online, Palmer called him back and said, “Hi, bro!” It all happened within about five hours, he says.Meeting in person made everything real, says James. They looked alike. They were comfortable with each other. His two-year-old daughter reached up and took Palmer’s hand. “You know your own,” he says. “I hope she’ll end up being a part of my life.”To date, there are ten people in the sibling group conceived through Barwin’s clinics, ranging in age from their twenties to their forties. Palmer has met three of them in person, Skyped with one, and exchanged emails with some of the others. “I’m so lucky,” she says. “I’ve found all these people.”That was what she had wanted from the start—to find more family. After her meeting with James, Palmer posted a picture of the two of them on Instagram, with the comment: “On top of hanging out with my fantastic brother and lovely sister-in-law today, my heart definitely melted hearing my new niece say ‘Goodbye Auntie Kat.’” In the comments, Palmer’s dad, the Dixons, the cousin from New York, members of her new brother’s clan—people from across the whole, ever-expanding extended family—all chimed in.
‘At the Speed of Light’: On Cat Marnell and Addiction Memoirs

Discussing the amphetamine logic of How to Murder Your Life.

Magazine girls are magpies, covering walls, notebooks and now Tumblr pages with disparate parts configured to make a whole that feels like home. Growing up, former beauty editor Cat Marnell pieced together her own print editions. In the throes of addiction, she papered the walls of her room with an obsessiveness that bordered on hoarding. There’s an instinct for manipulation here, a desire to craft something better out of broken parts.The magpie instinct inevitably informs memoir writing, especially memoir writing done by those who, by virtue of substance abuse, remember rather less of their history than they might otherwise. As David Carr writes in his book about recovery from crack use, The Night of the Gun, “We all remember the parts of the past that allow us to meet the future.” Carr mitigated that effect by reporting out his own memoir, gathering interviews and research about his darkest moments. Without that reporting, the effect of hindsight is a kind of personal power-washing: you look better in the rearview mirror, especially if you were driving drunk, because once sober, as Carr discovered, even the most honest brain finds ways of coping through self-delusion.In Marnell’s case, though, the cobbled together history serves as a different kind of self-preservation.Marnell’s memoir, How to Murder Your Life, collages together years spent in the thrall of amphetamine addiction. Full of print mag fangirling (and an admiration for the women who craft those magazines, such as her old Conde Nast boss Jean Godfrey-June), ’00s pop culture history and New York nostalgia, the world Marnell paints around the darkest corners of herself is a bright and compelling one. But she’s not dressing up her own failures—she is, in fact, making it clear that her continued addiction prevented her from succeeding in even the best of circumstances.Offered a few dream jobs, she used her way out of every one, though she managed to keep failing up before she faceplanted. The magpie instinct, unfortunately, doesn’t always work as effectively when you’re trying to art direct your own brain.  We’re all trying to cobble together a self we can live with from the pieces we’re offered, but sometimes, we’re handed a piece so powerful it overwhelms everything around it. Like pills. Nothing strikes you more reading the memoir than Marnell’s loneliness—a sister who’s sent away to reform school, a childhood spent in a cold basement isolated from her cold parents. Marnell is in her late twenties before she refers to anyone in the book as a real friend. But far from alienating, Marnell's writing is compelling, as evidenced by the cultish devotion to her beauty columns for xoJane, and she’s as amazed by that fact as anybody. Her book is a window into a time when the internet was nascent, oblivious narcissism was fashionable and a strung-out beauty editor could twist her pill-popping party-girl hair mats into a topknot and get away with quietly destroying herself as long as her speed addiction kept the office organized.Haley Cullingham: One of the first things I wanted to ask all of you about is the idea of capturing relationships in addiction memoirs. Even though Cat’s isolated in her addiction, the way she talks about the people around her, and her admiration for them, was one of my favourite parts of the book, especially in a genre that’s usually more insular/isolated.Safy Hallan-Farah: Haley—I was also struck by the way she admired and pedestaled people in this really genuine way. (To be honest, the book could have been titled How to Murder Your Life and Why Jean Godfrey-June’s A Total Babe!) But at the same time, her friends and mentors were always in the periphery. “I kept myself out in space, instead of down on earth with the humans,” she writes. I found her isolation almost endearing because it meant the few friends she had weren’t her supply.Larissa Pham: Two things coming up for me here: her relationship to mentors and her relationships with men. I think it’s hard to figure out whether to call someone a friend whether you’re addicted to anything or not, but these two modes of relating to people are useful ways of looking at the world, especially Cat’s particular world. Her writing about JGJ is so sweet. Her writing about men makes me curious about how much she actually wants to write about men.Sarah Nicole Prickett: Cat’s adoration of women, mostly the women she works with, is striking especially because it’s almost not politicized. Cat is a Camille Paglia stan. That’s her feminism, plus some social media awareness. She tries not to offend is my feeling, my other feeling being that she identifies somewhere between “apolitical” and “Ann Coulter is hot” on a very mid-2000s millennial spectrum. Also, by her own account, her career in magazines is finit. Which is to say she’s not being strategic, she is instead, inasmuch as this is possible in a commercial memoir, being sincere.She doesn’t seek out what I would call sisterhood, and wishes she could have friends more than she feels she can have them. (Another reason she is bubbliciously nice in the book is probably to atone for past behaviour, and to implement the lessons of a very expensive Thai rehab.) It’s a mother figure she gets in Jean Godfrey-June and again in xoJane's Jane Pratt, and with a mother figure, you get many more chances, many more forgivenesses, than without. LP: Sarah, that last part—maybe it’s because I read the book all in one day while kind of wired and on deadline, but I was totally agog at how many chances she gets. It doesn’t feel like today’s media environment at all, or at least, not an environment I’m familiar with. I wonder how much of these anecdotes and these protections were retroactively glossed over or given a more palatable sheen in post. Even the book itself, as she says in the afterword, is another chance.SHF: Marnell, to her credit, is aware of the privileges she’s been afforded in life and is accountable for her personal and professional problems. Not politicizing her friendships with other women, I think, is her eschewing the victimhood implicitly embedded in other dominant feminisms. Cat’s feminism reminds me of a scene in Six Feet Under where Brenda Chenoweth, a postfeminist (which is basically a Paglia feminist), is chatting with an ex’s current girlfriend who is a capital-F Feminist. The woman talks Brenda’s ear off about the number of women who’ve been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder versus the number of men who have, so Brenda starts to actively disengage, going into full Mr. Krab meme mode. To me, the scene reveals more (because I am projecting a bunch): Brenda’s feminism is an extension of her narcissism, like everything else in her life. The only ostensible goal of Paglia feminism/postfeminism is putting white women on an equal playing field with white men.By virtue of Marnell’s background, there’s so much built-in preservation. It almost makes up for her own lack of self-preservation. That’s partly why I wanted to write the book off in the beginning, why I went in reading it in the juvenile white girl cadence I reserve for YA books. I appreciated the great care Marnell took in making people look good. Save for her abusive ex-best-friend, Marco, everyone kind of shines in her prose. I don’t think this is post-production glossing, but rather, a facet of her personality. Her numbness, that I view as partially fueled by the drugs and partially fueled by the absence of an emotional connection with her mother, made her anecdotes and overall perception seem a bit more surface-level, shiny, even a tad glib.SNP: The book is certainly… Photoshopped. Safy, you’re right, and Photoshopped has bad connotations! Though not for Cat and not for me. I believe in Photoshop for all.Anyway, it is a bit like reading a yearbook or looking into someone’s high school locker, all notes in glittery gel pen and grape-scented stickers. Cat wrote a book not for Cat but for Kitties who are going to scam their moms and dads into buying it.Larissa, the sheer number of chances, let alone the escalating risk for her employer, does read as situationally impossible. Nothing accounts for it, not even the obvious, the usual, i.e. white privilege, family wealth, talent, beauty. Maybe the combination accounts. But a lot of young, professional women in media are also white and rich in New York City. I think it has to do with the question, the way that Cat relates to these women, loves them so that they love her too, feel responsible for her.LP: There is this particular… it’s not vulnerability. There’s this sense that Cat’s just throwing everything at you, whether you like it or not, and “loves them so that they love her too” feels apt—it captures the sense that she isn’t alone, but she feels lonely; her way of loving is one-sided, in a sense, it’s like a force that opens a cavity that must be filled with something. But her descriptions of loneliness feel really apt, that “I should be having fun but” feeling.SNP: Imagine how many people would hate her if she were having fun. I find it easy to love her. Not love her, but l-u-v. This is easy to do because I’m the oldest of three sisters, and even though she's older than me, and worldlier, wiser, she does elicit, after all of two or three meetings in person, at parties, a nearly unthinking protectiveness in me. She seems like she’d be a Bratz doll but she’s Bambi.HC: There’s a line in The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: “Why do you put yourself in unsafe places? Because something in you feels fundamentally devoid of worth.” I think the gap between the opportunities she’s afforded and the scary things her brain is telling her about herself is a space that exists in between everything in the book, even though I feel like she holds it at arm’s length at certain moments. (Re: sisters, this book made me want to call mine immediately after I finished it. She does have such a little sister element to her.)LP: Thank you for that line, Haley, because you’ve summarized a feeling I had while reading—that she is holding this gap, this loss and this discomfort at arm’s length, sort of like circling it as one might circle a mouse in her apartment, and I was reading and was like, why not go closer, why not spend some more time with this feeling, it’s going to be okay, but she never really does. The lines that really gutted me were the ones where I felt her look into this darkness (I’m thinking of a line where she’s describing some binge and she writes, "The pill was caught in my throat; I kept swallowing and swallowing but I couldn't get it down.") but she never looks for very long.SNP: Have any of you seen Ciao Manhattan!? The Warhol movie with Edie? Cat’s narrative is a lot like Edie’s speedy monologues in it. Edie says something like, I think drugs are like strawberries, but they’re also like nightmares. Everything I owned got stolen by these Queen Bee speedfreaks and all my jewellery was stolen and all my Balenciaga whatever. I was just so frightened, but I was dancing. (This is not a direct quote. But close!)LP: I haven’t seen it! But I have run into people from Twitter at raves at 6 a.m., so I feel like I understand.SNP: Running into people from Twitter is actually… illegal.My sense with regard to the gap is that one, jacket copy aside, she is not really a memoirist, she certainly didn’t go to like the Iowa Writing Workshop to learn how to tug at the heartstrings, and she had never written anything longer than a long blog post or a short magazine article. Her editor(s) must have been desperate to get the thing finished—she started it the day it was due—and so wouldn’t have pushed her to dwell where she didn’t want to dwell. It’s bad enough from her point of view, as indicated by the several times she’s like “I tried to take this chapter out!!!” or “they made me put this in so FINE,” that she has to talk about her childhood and her traumas at all.Two, she has been out of body for some time. I don't want to psychologize where she doesn't, but I will say that it's problematic (as in "interesting") to me that reviewers or interviewers have referred to her father as a "Republican with a temper" instead of as "abusive," as they would almost certainly do had Cat Marnell been poor and not a poor little rich girl.Three, I bet she wanted to sell it to teens, and I bet it was easier to write it like “a teen novel that happens to be about me” than to write it like “my literary debut.” It’s kinda like a post-millennial remake of The Bell Jar on the CW Network. What are the first lines of The Bell Jar? “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Then something about being burned alive. “I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.”The fourth, and to me most excruciating, chapter of HTMYL starts, “It was the summer that JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy’s plane went down. God, that was the worst.”LP: You know she knows or definitely her editor knows that we’d all read those lines and nod in recognition.Can we talk about Cat’s taste? I loved reading about what she was reading or what she was looking at and it disappointed me that this book didn’t reflect what was clearly a really deep, even obsessive knowledge of pop culture—at least, not stylistically; everything was a reference point, not a source of identity formation. Though of course that’s probably because she was writing a memoir at the speed of light and not essays where she got to connect the dots a little more and flex what she’s good at.SNP: Cat’s tastes and fascinations and particular brand of blonde ambition are all, and not even suddenly, dated. She’s a born groupie but we don’t have rock bands. She may be Edie but we don’t have a Warhol. (I don’t, personally, want a Warhol, but for the sake of a… point.)All I want is to see the Alterna-Teen zine she made for seven months that her mom threw out, or the magazine she made before that, Beauty Queen Magazine. I do know what you mean, though. She reads poetry, likes John Berryman (I almost said Chuck Berry) and Frederick Seidel and presumably the Beats. She loves Diana Vreeland. She would have made a great Diana Vreeland Jr. in the Reagan years, even the Bill Clinton years.Somewhere I have an email she forwarded to me after sending it to her publicist about how she wanted her book cover to be a photo of her dressed as Sharon Stone in the movie Basic Instinct. My friend Dayna (Tortorici) always jokes about wanting to do an anthology, like, The Best American Emails 2017, and I would put Cat's at the end. It's that good. I really do adore her!Beyond being dated from birth, she’s especially wrong for the present moment. This is a nuts analogy—all my analogies are nuts—but How To Murder Your Life coming out in the first month of the Trump administration is like Mariah Carey’s Glitter coming to theatres ten days after 9/11. The kind of hysterical asynchronism no one could plan for, or would. Though it is funny and apt that Marnell, who was born in a suburb of D.C., looks like a bizarro hotter version of Trump’s other daughter, Tiffany.HC: You’re right, she really does feel like she was made for another time, and that feels kind of electric and tragic at once? Larissa, what you said about reference point versus identity formation really captures for me this sense that she’s a spectator in her own life a lot of the time—like everything is a wall collage, she’s just collecting and collecting but she’s not really there.Stylistically the book felt very nostalgic, to me, for the time she’s writing about, and I kind of loved that. I wonder if that magazine/what-the-fuck-is-the-internet-going-to-be hybrid language that was so of that time is something that resonates now if you weren’t observing it/reading it then?Is the style and language here doing deliberate work, or is it just a natural extension of who she is? I’m not quite sure how to phrase this, but I’m curious about how often we’re just right inside her head versus how often she’s strategically using her experiences/language/online persona to dramatic effect?SHF: Yes, Haley! I specifically felt nostalgic for Guest of a Guest blog posts about Tinsley Mortimer and Cory Kennedy. What a simpler time…I think the language is deliberate and a natural extension of who she is. The conversational tone is accessible but also stagey, like she’s still in acting school.To speak to what Larissa said about identity formation: “I loved my new alterna-Groupie identity, but my father was not feeling me” is a curious sentence in the book. In the next sentence, she calls him an ultraconservative. She’s at once laying claim to and asserting her identity while defining herself in contrast to her father. I get the sense that while we’re getting the real her, I don’t feel she’s unmasked herself in HTMYL.LP: While reading HTMYL I kept thinking of a line from So Sad Today: “Once a cucumber turns into a pickle, you can’t turn it back into a cucumber.” It’s about spending too much time on the internet, in Melissa Broder’s case, but it felt apt regarding Cat’s style. I think there’s absolutely a tactical component to the style, the chattiness and the all-caps and the slang… because it’s a book for teens, as Sarah has suggested, but also because it is a good way of creating dramatic effect. When you write about your life for a long time, especially online, you gain a sort of meta-knowledge of how language can so easily affect the perception and therefore the creation of… you! (I say this as someone who comes out of that ~confessional writing~ school too. Actually, I once answered a Tumblr ask that attacked me for my sluttiness/drug use by being like, “But at least I don’t write about it like Cat Marnell!” I am sorry, Cat. I was nineteen.)Anyway, it’s a tactical thing, it feels also like a particularly feminine thing, knowing how to wield one’s story, knowing how to be Bambi, knowing how to present yourself as a particular kind of person using a very specific style. The medium is the message! Once you learn how to do it, you can’t stop doing it. But she has a meta-textual awareness throughout the memoir. She knows she’s writing it in a specific way; she knows she’s writing it for specific reasons.SNP: Cat, in this book, doesn’t write like Cat Marnell either. (It’s like the Cindy Crawford quote: “Even I don’t look like Cindy Crawford!”) She overcompensates for not being a person in a productive, societal sense. She’s so chatty, italicized. Like non-alcoholic champagne. I don’t know how much of this is her and how much is her editors; I do think she would write it basically however she had to write it to sell.There’s a part in HTMYL where she talks about the VICE columns and how dark and inaccessible they were, and I went back and read them, and it’s funny. I remembered not liking them as much as I liked the xoJane posts, because the xoJane posts were, obviously, something new in beauty, and because the co-dependencies on display were so perfect a commentary on, like, The Theme of Consumption, whereas the VICE posts were not so different for VICE and weren’t about drugs plus anything, just drugs. Maybe I felt reflexively bored or embarrassed at the time, and it is tacky to write about drugs qua drugs, just as it’s tacky to hate your parents. But now I wish she were able to write more in the quicksilver vein of those pointless, productless, almost-rhyming prose pieces, which is what I would call them. A lot of those almost-couplets stuck in my head. “A burned-out brain sinks like a stone / girl drug addicts sleep alone” is the big one. It’s bad, that kind of writing, but it’s bad to the limit.I think I’m talking about Cat’s writing because of how I feel about my own writing in my twenties, almost all of which I regret, less because I revealed too much, I didn’t, I don’t think, I never re-read it, but because it was all done to please all over the place. My first internship was at a Canadian fashion magazine and I loved it, I loved my boss, but I could have stood to learn something besides “don’t write anything that Susie in Saskatoon can’t understand!” Any time I wrote a sentence with an idea in it, I felt I had to immediately follow it up with a silliness, some quip, an instantly lame slang expression, just so I wouldn’t make anyone think I thought I was too smart for fashion.SHF: There’s this ongoing thread of self-neglect and self-indulgence, and how both play off each other. It feels right to say self-neglect is passed down on the mother’s side but it also sounds gender essentialist. What I will say: for myself, and for a lot women in my life, the hedonism of our twenties is in part a response to having our needs ignored by others. But I don’t think we ever truly let go of our neglectful selves, we just learn to prioritize differently, which is what I think happens to Marnell, too.You don’t have to be a proper addict to understand what it means to spend $100 on something you don’t need. By the same token, we’ve all had glass stuck in our foot before and have done nothing about it! There’s humor in that sort of messiness, which is something that a naturally humorous person like Marnell recognizes. “Humor in beauty writing was definitely a little edgy at that time,” Marnell writes in HTMYL. When I read this, I thought, “And now applying a critical/feminist lens to everything—beauty writing included—is edgy.” I’m so glad Cat Marnell’s edginess is the kind of edginess you can laugh at.My first laugh came when the VP of Marketing for a brand she does not name confronts her, and she delivers the line: “I may have been a drug addict, but I had my dignity.” Certain turns of phrase, too, made me chortle, like how she says “white girl privilege” in this way that seems to say hey, no disrespect to this jargon I just learned.At one point, I scribbled the question, “Does Cat’s ambition get knocked down/stifled by her addiction or accelerated by it?” I wonder how much of her manic passion (for her interests at least, not life itself) that’s been there her whole life, before the onset of addiction, is still intact and how much of it has taken this new, crazier form because of the pills. There’s this addiction versus ambition dichotomy set-up: “I thought my ambition—to be a beauty editor, a creative director, an editor in chief—would always be stronger than my illness.” Both things seem to work together as much as they work against each other, though.SNP: One hundred per cent. “Performance-enhancing drug” is the term Cat uses in lieu of “productivity drug,” which I think is correct. Amphetamines have long been handed out like condoms in hyper-male, hyper-competitive environments, like … the German army. Or Wall Street. Or rich boy’s schools, boys being diagnosed with ADHD earlier (in the 1960s) and more often than girls. Part of the reason that women don’t talk about being on speed is that it feels like copping to an unhealthy, untraditionally female desire for an edge (even though every woman I know who’s on it is prescribed it legitimately). We’re not supposed to compete the same way. I know this is broad and I dislike being basic re: gender roles but this is America!What’s dangerous about amphetamines, which, by the way, I’m prescribed, is that at a too-high dosage they can make you feel incredibly productive while not helping you get a single thing done. So, you are, in this very tiring way, performing your non-existent productivity. On the other hand, this performance works to a point. Everybody sees you in work mode, so when the work doesn’t get done, they assume not that you’re not doing it but perhaps that you have too much of it to do.Amphetamines do burn out your brain. Between the spring of 2014 and the winter of 2016 I was on an increasing dose of Vyvanse that was too high in the first place, so that it never really worked the way it was supposed to. I thought for almost a year that I couldn’t write. (I did write but not, I thought, well.) If I wasn’t abusing the drug, according to my doctor, I want to say the drug was abusing me…. only I can’t say it because I did sort of like it. SHF: Sarah, you feeling like Vyvanse was abusing you and not the other way around is such a provocative idea. I think there’s a bit of that idea in HTMYL but I’m mostly interested in the ways Cat abuses herself. A lot of addicted women like her are pathologized as these exploitative people who manipulate everyone around them—and Cat even says this about herself—but I saw a vulnerable person attacking inward. And that self-directed harm, that almost vampiric masochism, doesn’t fit neatly in her characterization of addiction as a progressive disease. Calling it that almost feels like a disservice to herself because progressive connotes linear, as in happening in stages, but for all intents and purposes Cat’s addiction manifests in intermittent and inconsistent ways. Sometimes she’s not getting worse, she’s just not getting better. The only aspect of her life I can really distill into progressive stages are the periods of her life that facilitated her monomaniacal “tastes and fascinations,” as Sarah aptly put it. She was a teenybopper turned zine-loving alterna-Groupie, and then she was all of those things in the body of a grown invalid who works in media. I hate to call her an invalid because it makes me think of the main character in A Woman Under the Influence, but Cat cops to it, admitting—and I’m paraphrasing here—some folks aren’t meant for the grind.Her state of unwell is varied throughout, yet in the afterword she contends that she’s a “totally different person,” citing the fact that now she’s only on speed and she tidies up her space and gets eight hours of sleep at night! In reality, she’s the same person—she just finally has some coping mechanisms in place.I gasped in the end when she absolves her father of almost all his blame because of her mother’s lack of nurturing. Her father was an angry man with deep pockets. When he wasn’t bailing her out of problems with his money, he was ignoring her for as long as possible and yelling at her. The ignoring part hurt the most to read because, as a psychiatrist, you’d think he’d know better? Ignoring your child’s needs and weaponizing silent treatment against them seems more harmful than being an anorexic space cadet. The first time I cried reading the book was during the part about when her sister was in boarding school and her father instituted the ninety-day no contact rule (the second time: the sad, scary Marco saga). I feel guilty passing this judgement because I know he was just trying to control her so she wouldn’t hurt herself but it was still cruel, and, not to mention, ineffective.HC: That tipping point Sarah mentions is something Cat talks about often in the book—veering between her prescriptions making her unstoppable and her prescriptions completely arresting her ability to do anything. But altered versions of yourself can be so weirdly intoxicating.LP: Yes, to Safy’s point, it really seems like the addiction and the ambition are working in tandem. It’s telling that it’s a book about work and drugs; they’re bound up in each other.HC: Especially for someone who’s been medicated for as much of their life as Cat has.LP: Thinking about it now—as a current party girl partying maybe the hardest I have in my life, except for maybe last summer, which was entirely too hard, I went into the book thinking, “Oh god, this won’t be anything new,” and… it’s not, really. But it’s a different narrative than the one I was expecting. I find that Cat seems to write, at least in this memoir, across all events with more or less the same brush, but that treatment gives her highs and her lows the same resonance, making the lows and the weird, dark parts feel… normal, in a way that I found touching. I don’t find party scenes interesting most of the time, unless they’re written by Mary Gaitskill or Eve Babitz (whom I love, I wonder if Cat’s read her, I hope she has), but the parts that aren’t about being high, the parts that are about dealing with what your high self did—those, even as they are repetitive, were interesting.SNP: There is a literary notion of what “Adderall writing” or “amphetamine logic” sounds like but the notion is not borne out by any special stylistic consistencies among the works of those many writers, from Sartre to Sontag to Tao Lin, who were or are said to use a lotttt of speed. (Though if you ever try to read some of Sartre’s unfinished works, written at the height of his corydane usage, you will rue the day you Googled “existentialism.”)LP: I’ve… never… written on amphetamines, this feels like a weird disclosure. This is going back to the ambition/addiction narrative setup, but it is interesting to me that because the work is bound up in the drugs, she’s using while she’s working—it’s different, say, than having a great time and then writing about it because it was great, in the VICE style of things. The style or flow of the work is also bound up in the drugs, and the narrative almost feels… secondary.SNP: I’ve… never… published on amphetamines. Actually, that’s maybe not true. There was a time during which I stopped remembering, not because I was that fucked up, just because memory seemed inessential. But I do think that if any writers more aspiring??? than I am are listening, I should tell them to take the old advice and write however they want, but edit sober.HC: I feel like the underlying tension behind so many addiction memoirs is, basically, does this substance make you a better or a shittier writer? (I do think there’s a thread of memory being inessential that runs through Cat’s book, especially in the editor call-outs, and that’s interesting.)LP: Haley, I did avoid it in college because I heard rumors that it made your writing soulless and bloodless and I was trying to be a poet(?). But does the book feel revisionist to you?HC: To me, honestly, it didn’t, or at least (because obviously any time you write about yourself it’s revisionist to some extent) it didn’t feel revisionist in a manipulative way, and I liked that.SNP: After speed you feel not only slower than ever before, but disoriented, mostly without bearings. It’s very hard to see what in your own work is worthwhile. This is a common experience. Friends of mine got totally burned out on it in grad school or in the first years of a start-up. So Cat must have zeeeero idea whether she can write off speed. I don’t know whether she tries. (Even after getting the cleanest she had been in years, she still took a little bit of Vyvanse or something every day to write.) Obviously, I also don’t know whether she would be better off drugs entirely, and I don’t want to say that her writing was better when she was blotto, so what I will say, which is very dumb and saccharine and whatever, is that her writing would be best if she did it to please herself.Writing is always more embarrassing when a writer who does not fundamentally relate to most people is trying to relate to most people. Every attempt I have ever made to be relatable is worthless. It’s not that I’m a… what is the word everyone uses… snowflake. I don't even like snow. It’s just I didn’t grow up in a usual way and I didn’t get over being estranged and neither do many people. Joan Didion still sits at the acme of the paradox here: "California Notes," which she published last year, has the line "I was doomed to unconventionality." How many people read that and think, me too? What else makes Didion so popular among young women, each and every one of whom is equally "misunderstood" or "different" from everyone else? I don’t know anyone in this most solitary of pursuits who doesn’t constantly compromise or over-relate to get published and it’s making some of us more mediocre than we should be. Imitating Didion's style isn't as good an idea as imitating her extreme lack of compromise, but the latter is harder to execute.LP: I never had the glory days of print journalism to learn from; all magazines felt totally fantastical, like fully-formed objects from some exclusive world I’d never be part of. I was writing for the Internet from the start, where you have very little filter and quality control and everyone is looking at you all the time.HTMYL feels very Internet but Cat has a print pedigree, so I’m wondering if by “Internet” I just mean incredibly sensitive to social networks and machinations and perceptions, which is what being totally submerged in the Internet will also do to you. The book feels hypervisible to me; it’s something that’s made to be seen. It’s not for her. It’s not really for us either. And that’s why it reads the way it does; it’s like dressing for the job you want. I’m not totally convinced of Cat’s talents, which in the book she refers to; which her family and friends also refer to, but it’s clear there’s something else going on beneath the surface of the text. It’s just the case that thanks to markets and drugs and whatever other cocktail of circumstance, this is the book that we’re being handed—holding in our “chic little hands.” I’d be curious to see what she does next.
Radical Acts of Gratitude

Growing up with my lout of a father, my fear-shocked brain demanded that I remain thankful for every moment I remained safe or alive. But I rarely said thanks—until the one day I did.

Back in December, I read a long article published by The Undefeated about veteran boxer Shannon Briggs’s bid to remain relevant at age forty-five. The essay was thoughtful and engaging; I shared it on Twitter, followed its author, Brin-Jonathan Butler, and reached out to thank him for writing it. He wrote a nice note in return and followed me back. It was as simple and pure as such interactions can get: I had appreciated a story and was able to immediately share that appreciation with the story’s creator.But it’s also not that simple. I’ve rarely bothered to do this, even though I always could. All the tools for such communication have been at my disposal; I wasn’t even six seconds of typing removed from Butler or anyone else. Yet the possibilities afforded by instantaneous contact were akin to the millions of streaming media options now at my fingertips. Sure, those songs and movies were there, which was nice, but they would always be—I could focus on other things, much as I did fifteen years earlier when I’d stare at a stack of Criterion Collection DVDs, certain that I’d watch them one day and they’d be so great. I was forever a few minutes away from being grateful, secure that I could and should say these things if I desperately needed to, if it came down to it. You know, if I wasn’t too busy with everything else.And I was busy. Hercules didn’t have labors as weighty as mine. Mere moments after contacting Butler, I dived right back into the social media nastiness. I hate-read op-eds by out-of-touch New York Times columnists. I “liked” vicious 140-character attacks on political opponents and retweeted crude jokes about stupid celebrities. Such antisocial behaviors, performed in conjunction with my virtual friends, were as comfortable as an old pair of tennis shoes. I shared the worst garbage, not caring about giving the offending publication cheap clicks or reading so much as a sentence beneath the headline. Milo Yiannopolous and Debbie Wasserman Schultz were no different than St. Francis and Cesare Borgia to me. Online justice had to be served, an all-you-can-eat buffet of virtual frontier beefs I would never squash because, my goodness, how easy it was to hate! The notifications of one’s wit and probity accumulating with each new slam, snap, and smash—a quick electronic fix for all of us junkies. Gratitude took work and forethought, and thus could be forestalled indefinitely while I binged on nostalgia de la boue, ressentiment, schadenfreude, and any number of other imported terms that described this sort of slumming.At least in my case, and perhaps in yours, such behavior didn’t originate on social media. I was born and raised to hate, even amidst the enforced morality of mass and Catechism and in spite of my mother’s incessant self-abnegation. My lout of a father would come home from work, on those rare days he happened to be working, and he’d bring the world to a screeching halt with a killer line like, “You ought to be thanking that big man in the sky that I’m not strangling you,” or, “I’m gonna murder every single one of you, and then I’m gonna blow my own brains out.” He was, I suppose, trying to enforce his own twisted view of what constituted gratitude, and when divorced from their context, such remarks could be considered humorous in a Ralph Kramden, “why I oughtta…” way. But there was nothing funny about the abuse that followed.And, man, were they ever effective. One “I ought to rip your heart out and feed it to the dog” from the old man had a much greater impact than twelve or fifteen hours of domestic bliss. A single relapse into the drunkenness of his youth and middle age could mar a month’s worth of summer vacation in Key West. Hate was fast and punchy, and those fast, hateful punches could overwrite the pleasures of a day spent fishing on the Ocracoke Sound. Perhaps I could be grateful for that outing, but why? And to which parent would I express that sentiment?As a little boy, helpless and almost entirely alone, I tried not to hate, or at least to not think about hating. I was pulled out of second grade and would go on to be homeschooled for most of my elementary and middle school years, a rigorous curriculum that consisted of being left to complete written assignments while my mother was teaching fourth grade at the public school. We needed the insurance, she reasoned, and I needed the space. “Be grateful that you have some privacy,” she would sometimes tell me, although I had no idea what I meant.I was nine years old. I’d sit by myself on the leather couch in our living room, surrounded by books: my father’s pocket book-sized science fiction collection from college, my half-brother’s schlocky Clive Barker and Stephen King tomes, and my mother’s OED-thick horoscope manuals from the mood-rocking 1970s. I did have real schoolwork to do, mathematics handouts and such, but I’d hurry to complete those so I could delve into that vast garbage heap of lowbrow literature, loving every precious second I spent learning about “the Taurus man and the Pisces woman” (I was a Taurus and my mother was a Pisces, you see) or following the pseudo-profound adventures of Milo and Tock the watchdog in the world of The Phantom Tollbooth. I was grateful to have these books, in the sense that I prized my access to them, but I never talked to anyone about that. This was my secret life, such as it was, and this literature placed an impermeable barrier between me and the outside world.We lived then in a small town in an impoverished part of coastal North Carolina. My parents, who had never actually married, were in the middle stages of a long and bitter separation. My half-brother had to run my father’s car dealership. No one was home; no one was present; no one cared. I had a key to the house and shelves stocked with Cheetos. And, to be perfectly candid, I had no desire to see my family or anyone else. I assumed all families were like mine, domestic gulags the interiors of which were clouded by the miasmal exhalations from a thousand futile screams—why would I want any more of that?Supposedly “normal” stages of human existence—birth, friendship, dating, intimacy—seemed like the stuff of fiction. Marriage was the kind of thing that happened in the lives of English public school children waylaid in Narnia or quaint, eccentric hobbits holed up in Middle-Earth, not here in this crummy world, among the flawed and fallen. But part of me was grateful they transpired somewhere, even if those somewheres existed only in the stories that helped me escape from reality.These books, like the television shows and music videos I watched, bore so little resemblance to life in rural North Carolina that they may as well have fallen from the heavens or materialized out of thin air. The notion that such artifacts might have had creators, living humans who wrote or performed them, never occurred to me. I knew full well that major sporting events were real, since my father, a retired professional athlete, had dragged me to plenty of them, but that was the extent of it. Art, by contrast, had as much substance as air, and served a precisely similar purpose: unwitting, unseen sustenance, lest I shuffle off this mortal coil.Who was Madeleine L’Engle? Just a name on a product cover, no different than Louis Sachar or Ursula K. Le Guin. In the 1980s and early 1990s, we Gen-X children had no electronic lifeline that tied us to the rest of the world. The culture we scraped together—a single copy of Pro Wrestling Illustrated here, a packet of Upper Deck baseball cards there—was often all the information we had. I owned a VHS tape of Starrcade ‘86: The Sky Walkers, but the wrestling matches and the storylines that had precipitated them remained a mystery to me.While I devoured this material, I survived entirely in the now, from parsec to parsec, and was thankful for every passing moment. Since hate would be my undoing, I understood I needed to be grateful for the time I still had. “Time is a gift, given to you, given to give you the time you need, the time you need to have the time of your life,” Norton Juster had written in The Phantom Tollbooth, and I obsessively underlined and circled that quote. Like one of those paradoxical anecdotes used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning, the line meant nothing, so in due course it became my little bit, my only bit, of everything. I just assumed each impending tomorrow would be my last and acted accordingly.As it happened, I came to terms with the inevitability of death shortly after I was pulled out of second grade and left to my own devices. I didn’t want to die, and I’ve always felt bad for those individuals, like my mother, who attempted to take their own lives, but I steeled myself for the bitter end. If my father decided to kill me—and by then I assumed he would, having already seen what he was capable of—I would accept it. I would accept it in the near term; I would accept it in the far term; I would accept it as it came and do nothing to challenge it. Death wouldn’t change who I was, much less alter the basic fact of my having existed. No, it would just happen and I would die wondering what it had meant. “No regrets except all of them,” as dad often said. He never spoke explicitly about gratitude, so this particular koan was probably as close as he ever got, a phrase not far removed from the “I hope you enjoy reading this paper as much as I enjoyed writing it” message with which I had prefaced emails to professors.Now flash-forward to 2017: I’m still sucking wind, in my father’s parlance; still painfully mired in the time of the now. I had spent the past decade becoming a historian, in principal part so I could learn to swim in that shit pit of memory most people preferred to fill with hopes and dreams. And while I could perform all of those memory-strokes with ease, I remained unable to contemplate the future. In spite of that, the future kept passing me by, inaugurating an age of wonders. A veritable Library of Alexandria was now accessible through the WiFi router and the ethernet jack, all the stories and songs and pictures I could possibly desire and far more than I could ever actually experience, along with a chance to virtually meet and applaud their creators. Humankind’s highest achievements were at my fingertips, but I mostly used those fingertips to type snarky, lifestyle brand-building tweets about how rotten everything had become.And it was rotten, of course. But I was a historian, and those books I had read in preparation for my PhD examinations reminded me that it was always rotten, always a dystopia, always terrible for someone, always much worse for that someone than it ever was for you or me. The past wasn’t so much an alien country as a charnel mound; everyone wound up dead, few of them willingly. I tweeted snark yet was still the same traumatized person I had been, the same man whose fear-shocked brain demanded that he remain thankful for every moment. But I rarely said thanks—until that one day I did.But after interacting with Brin-Jonathan Butler, I paused to marvel at the smallness of the post-industrialized world. I could say thank you to anyone I could find, anyone I wanted to thank, and, should they feel inclined, they could respond. Thanking someone was challenging because it required an affirmation, a conscious effort on my part, but I needed to muster that energy. Although this was a small world, it was entirely unlike the small world I had once occupied—the difference between a windowless isolation cell and a self-propelled Mercury capsule, traversing time and space.If my childhood isolation cell had come equipped with social media, would I have used it to contact those named creators, those anonymous somebodies, whose best efforts kept me entertained? And if, say, Maurice Sendak had responded, what then? Maybe that place from which his correspondence came, one of those mysterious big cities where adults made things besides money and touchdowns, would have become fixed in my mind as a literal refuge as well as a figurative one.To give thanks is to give everything that’s left of yourself, albeit at the highest cost: time from your life. To receive that thanks is to affirm the possibility of communion, connection, and forgiveness. My father never apologized or thanked anyone; what, pray tell, did he have to feel sorry about or be thankful for, in this doomed and soul-deadening country? His hate, which fueled my own, was as cheap and potent as his Stetson cologne. Transferred first to chatrooms in the late 1990s and then to other, more public forums in the 2000s, that hate let me punch through figurative walls the way he once punched through literal ones.The thinkpieces about our relationship to information technology go like this: social media is fundamentally antisocial media, because hateful content drives out nice content and we’re all nasty pieces of work at heart. We long for the day when robots will replace our friends and lovers, when our information feeds will consist only of our own bons mots and mots justes—not so much messy troughs at which to feed as spotless mirrors reflecting us in all our solipsistic glory.It’s understandable to occasionally think this way, given humanity’s sorry track record. We’re batting well below the Mendoza Line in that regard, with no likelihood of improvement during the upcoming season. Yet now we have these amazing tools at our disposal: cybernetic mechanisms that are employed most easily to convey dismissiveness and loathing, but that can also allow us to say to billions of other people, “You matter, your work matters, your life matters. I know you exist, and for however many characters this social media application gives me to tell you the truth: you made me feel something that wasn’t hate, that in fact was hate’s opposite, that was almost a little love, or just.”In such a callous world, expressing gratitude constitutes guerrilla warfare against the status quo.
Cher’s Era

During her brief ’80s reign as one of film’s biggest stars, Cher didn’t disappear into roles—she brought her indelible presence to bear on women thought to be invisible and cast them into the light.

In August of 1983, director Mike Nichols called Cher to tell her that the trailer for Silkwood, the movie they’d just worked on together, would be playing in theatres before the latest Tom Cruise film, Risky Business. Cher was thrilled. She rallied the people closest to her, her sister Georganne and assistant Deb Paul, to come to a packed cinema in Westwood, California. Cher would try her best to blend in with the crowd. As the names of the film’s familiar stars, Meryl Streep and Kurt Russell, flashed across the screen, the audience did not bat an eye. But when Cher’s name appeared, they began howling with laughter.This laughter, Cher would later confess, broke her “into a million pieces, like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons.” Georganne and Deb Paul were both choking back tears, perplexed at the callousness of the audience’s reaction. But the American public was predisposed to viewing her as one half of Sonny & Cher, the groovy pop-singing duo who had risen sensationally to fame nearly two decades prior with such hits as 1965’s “I Got You Babe,”believing she was more at home on a gaudy Vegas stage than on celluloid.The laughter was an echo of what she’d heard more than a decade earlier with the release of Chastity in 1969, a failed star vehicle helmed by her then-husband Sonny Bono. In that film, Cher played the titular Chastity—a gangly, morose, beatnik teen who, disaffected and angst-ridden, embarks on a cross-country road trip, dabbling in lesbianism and sex work as a means of suppressing memories of sexual abuse she suffered in her childhood. The film displays a kindergarten understanding of this trauma, deploying it as a cheap narrative device. The couple had drained their bank accounts to finance that film in the hopes it would make Cher a movie star. Their plan backfired spectacularly: it was viciously panned and plunged them into bankruptcy.The experience of filming Chastity had stultified Cher’s acting career and sullied her reputation. But she had wanted to be a movie star for as long as she could remember. In the same decade that she released the hit singles “Half Breed” and “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” she quietly pursued film roles, auditioning unsuccessfully for parts such as the one that would go to Stockard Channing in The Fortune (1975). In 1981, she moved to New York and enrolled in acting classes at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, eventually taking lessons with Strasberg himself.It paid off. In the 1980s, Cher staged a dazzling coup, leaping successfully from the world of music to cinema, inspiring both professional reverence and audience affection. She made six films that decade, working with a cabal of cool kid male auteurs, from Robert Altman to Peter Bogdonavich to Mike Nichols, and amassed a coterie of awards for them: an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and a Cannes Best Actress award, perhaps the most coveted award an actress could receive.You might think that, after such a run, Cher would be spoken of in the same breath as that era’s heavyweights—Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep. Time has muddied the waters, though. There is a new generation of moviegoers who know Cher as more of a daft personality, she of the bewitchingly unintelligible Twitter presence, an institution at once revered and simplified. But cultural consecration involves a great deal of forgetting, and it bears remembering why, for a brief but vital period three decades ago, Cher was a movie star.*Cher was lucky that her mother Georgia personally knew Kathryn Reed Altman, wife of director Robert Altman. He was then casting for his 1982 Broadway production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a 1976 Ed Graczyk play concerning a cadre of James Dean fans who reunite in their deserted West Texas town of McCarthy on the twentieth anniversary of his death.Cher’s music career had, at that point, reached a standstill. She was finding that work unfulfilling and hated the outcomes. Her 1982 album I Paralyze was released with little fanfare. Instead, she tended to the more difficult dream of being an actress, even if that avenue was less profitable. Georgia told Kathryn that Cher, then 35, was in town and actively looking for work. Cher would play Sissy, a spunky, brittle counter girl who wears a boastful facade. Her enormous breasts inspire awe. “I’d kill for them boobs,” one character quips to her early on.Altman cast Cher on the strength of her celebrity appeal. He had already assembled a cast of actresses with distinct personas: Sandy Dennis (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) brought a porcelain, tremulous quality to all her roles; Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces) was off-kilter and disoriented. Altman knew that Cher’s name recognition would bring people to this little-known play in droves. He got what he wished for. The crowds were fervent—costar Kathy Bates even griped that Cher's fans brought flashbulb cameras to the show, defying Broadway protocol.Reviews weren’t terribly kind, though Cher drew better-than-expected notices. “Next to the rest of this dreary amateur night, Cher's cheery, ingratiating nonperformance is almost a tonic,” Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote in a particularly backhanded review, arguing that her non-acting constituted its own accidental style. But Andrew Sarris called her a “revelation.”Jimmy Dean’s Broadway run lasted just fifty-two performances, but the film adaptation that followed fared better. Shot in seventeen days on a shoestring budget of $800,000, it unfolds as an elliptical fever dream, Altman’s restless camera blurring the line between past and present. And it was on screen in this role that Cher’s performance augured the arrival of a major talent. In the last thirty minutes of the film, she tearfully mourns the loss of her natural breasts, her pride and joy, to breast cancer, which forced her to get a mastectomy. The scars repulsed her husband. “Sissy’s got them rubber tits!” her character screams at one point as she confesses that she no longer has breasts to the rest of the cast. Cher turns her back to the camera in this moment. There is no close-up, that cinematic device that begs for sympathy, just Cher’s wavering contralto voice unspooling years of pain that this woman has tried, and failed, to suppress.She found an early champion in The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. "Cher is simple and direct in her effect, as if it were the easiest thing in the world to slip into the character of an aging small-town belle with a Texas accent,” Kael wrote. David Denby echoed Kael’s praise in New York Magazine: "With her smoky voice and cartoon smoldering eyes, Cher is the flagrant soul of cheap-waitress commonness; ungovernable, self-mocking, intensely likable, she's perfect for the role.” For Jimmy Dean, Cher found herself nominated in the supporting actress category at the Golden Globes and in the thick of an Oscar conversation, unsure of whether to campaign as a lead or supporting actress. She lost the Golden Globe to eventual Oscar winner Jessica Lange for Tootsie, and, with both lead and supporting races unusually crowded that year at the Oscars, she wasn’t nominated in either category.*In March of 1982, following a Wednesday matinee of one Broadway performance of Jimmy Dean, Mike Nichols approached Cher backstage. He was dazzled by her performance, and asked her to play a supporting role in his upcoming film. Without seeing the script, she said yes.It would be a biopic of Karen Silkwood, the Oklahoma plutonium processing plant worker who died under suspect circumstances after exposing unsafe practices by her employers. Meryl Streep, the rising star of American cinema who had already won an Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980 (she would win her second in April of 1983 for Sophie’s Choice), would play Karen. Cher would be Dolly Pelliker, Karen's drab and dour lesbian roommate. Dolly exists at the periphery of Silkwood, quietly smitten with our doomed heroine.The real-life Karen was a huge fan of Cher, but Cher didn’t even know who Karen Silkwood was. She was, however, overwhelmed by the chance to work with Streep, whom she idolized. She would later learn the fear was mutual. Streep said she “felt intimidated at the very thought of meeting Cher. I mean, in photos she always looks so wonderfully thin, and so beautiful and stylish.” Over the course of filming, though, the two developed a warm working relationship. Nichols, whom Cher called Dad, nurtured Cher’s talents.Cher had been instructed not to wash her hair or wear any makeup in the mornings on set. Nichols would even conduct a towel test on her face to check for makeup every morning before they began shooting. Upon seeing Cher in this state, co-star Kurt Russell said, “What are you supposed to be?” Cher ran to the bathroom and cried.Casting Cher in the role of Dolly may seem to fit in the timeworn tradition of beautiful women decoupling themselves from their glamour to convince audiences that they are serious about their craft. Elizabeth Taylor gained weight to play Martha, the embittered and childless wife to Richard Burton’s walking crisis of masculinity in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966); in Monster (2003), Charlize Theron roughed herself up to “become” serial killer Aileen Wournos, pockmarked and disheveled. This is one of the constants of the American awards system, heralding a woman’s cosmetic bravery as an achievement of its own. Cher did receive a Golden Globe for her performance, and went on to receive her first Oscar nomination for the role.Praise for Cher in Silkwood was couched in the language of disappearance, as a woman’s deglamorization on screen often is. Duane Byrge of The Hollywood Reporter was amazed with Cher’s work as the “dingy, puppylike roommate,” who, like her co-stars, “crystallize[d] our admiration and sympathy for people trying simply to earn a living and live their lives.” There was a touch of apprehension in the acclaim from The New York Times’s Vincent Canby: “Whether or not Cher is a great actress, I'm still not sure, but when you take away those wild wigs she wears on television, and substitute something a little less riveting for her crazy Bob Mackie gowns, there's an honest, complex screen presence underneath.”This idea, that Cher, in de-glamorizing, had uncovered an essence of actorly truth, remains the dominant critical read of her performance. Even David Thomson, a harsh critic of Cher’s acting abilities (“Face, it, Cher is a celebrity, and making her a wallflower is addled,” he wrote in the sixth edition of his New Biographical Dictionary of Film), would later concede when it came to her work in Silkwood. “Dowdy, louche, working class, bitter, and reckless,” he said in 2014, “it is a performance that so far exceeds Moonstruck as to make Oscar melt with embarrassment.”There is a tinge of condescension in this critical position—the idea that an actress, when she is at her best, becomes a character in a role so taxing it renders her invisible. It’s especially true for this particular performance: The sentiment reads like an expression of shock that a woman like Cher, seen by the world as a sentient Barbie doll, could cross over to film and have the result be anything but a blazing, easily mockable failure.The decades-old suggestion that Cher disappeared into this role seems like a glaring misread of her work, especially when considered in the wider context of her filmography. She doesn’t disappear in this role; that’s the point. Cher’s persona is hard to stifle. The element of conscious self-restraint evident in the performance creates the impression that Cher is working hard to find this woman in herself. There’s a tension between Dolly’s outer and inner worlds that seem fundamentally irreconcilable, and this is the essence of the character.Cher, by her own admission, didn’t want to play glamorous women. Her “heroes in film, for the most part,” she explained, “are usually people that you wouldn’t know about unless someone like me brought them to the screen, like everyday kinds of people.” These women—like Dolly, like Sissy—would typically recede in any other tableau, but Cher, through her forceful presence, would make these invisible women visible.*In December of 1983, Cher received the script for Peter Bogdanovich's Mask, the film that would see her transition from character actress to leading lady. Bogdanovich was once respected for his directorial work on The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973), but hadn’t made a comparable film in years. Mask, intended to be his comeback, told the story of real-life Rocky Dennis, a teenage boy in Southern California with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, a condition that made his face look as big as a grown lion’s. It guaranteed his death at 16.Cher plays Rusty Dennis, Rocky’s mother, a woman who wears studded leather jackets and thigh-highs and owns a Harley-Davidson. The role was written with Cher in mind. Screenwriter Anna Hamilton kept an 8x10 glossy of Cher beside her desk as she penned the script. Bogdanovich, too, was drawn to Cher after he wrote a story on Sonny and Cher for the Sunday Evening Post two decades earlier. “Cher has an element of danger,” the real-life Rusty, working as a consultant on the movie, said. “You never know what she’s going to say or do next. We share that element of danger.”Early on, Cher liked Bogdanovich's style of directing—he “tells you exactly what to do and you listen to it and then you do what you want to do.” Over the course of filming, though, tensions between the two flared. Bogdanovich frequently ignored Cher’s suggestions. The production company decided to cut two scenes that Bogdanovich had deemed crucial to the film’s continuity and stamped out Bruce Springsteen songs, the real-life Rocky’s favorite, for Bob Seger melodies due to licensing issues. Cher sided with the production company and endorsed the final product. To Bogdanovich, this registered as a betrayal.Actor Val Kilmer, with whom Cher was in a relationship at the time, walked out on her during the filming process. “That was very painful,” she said of the breakup, “and it took me a long time to get over it, but it helped my acting a lot. I was also being beaten up daily by Peter. That helped too.” This fed a performance that was blunt and clear-eyed. Cher gets many scenes in which to flex her fast-talking muscles, facing a world that views her son through the prism of his facial disfigurement and nothing else.The film screened at the Cannes Film Festival under the dark cloud of Bogdanovich and Cher’s conflict. The two, like divorcing parents feuding over a child, held separate press conferences for the film and bad-mouthed one another on the red carpet. Cher still won the good graces of the Cannes jury, headed by Czech director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) that year. She shared the Best Actress trophy with Argentine actress Norma Aleandro. “What’s happening to me now reminds me of those old movies where the secretary trips and her glasses fall off and her boss exclaims, Why Miss Jones, you’re beautiful,” Cher said of her Cannes win. “It’s like finally people can see that I’m just like everyone else. I have many different sides.”Released stateside in March of 1985, the film earned Cher breathless press and another Golden Globe nomination. “It was obvious from her work for Robert Altman in Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean that Cher had a lovely range as an actress,” Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times wrote. “It might have been evident in Silkwood, except that we never got a chance to see Cher's character in close-up. She still works with something of a mask of her own, but the depths underneath it are powerful.” Mask was a confirmation of the promise she displayed in Jimmy Dean and Silkwood, now in a film that gave her a more full-bodied lead role.But both Bogdanovich and Cher’s willingness to thrust this ill-will into the public arena, some biographers suspect, left a sour taste in the mouths of Academy Award voters that year. She was ultimately left off the list of Best Actress nominees at that year’s Oscars, a snub that routinely appears on lists of the more shocking omissions of the Academy Award nominations.Cher took it as a slight against her quest to be taken seriously. As a form of retaliation, she devised a plan to get the Academy to sit up and pay attention to her, resulting in one of the more indelible moments in the history of the awards. Presenting the Oscar to Cocoon’s Don Ameche for Best Supporting Actor, she waltzed on stage in a feather headdress and violently bejeweled, skin-exposing costume.“As you can see, I did receive my Academy booklet on how to dress like a serious actress,” she joked. It was as much a fuck you to the governing body who chose to overlook her performance as it was a statement of purpose. A “serious actress”? Cher would be one on her own terms. If there were rules for how to be a serious actress, she would rewrite them.*1987 would turn out to be a banner year for Cher in cinema.The press Cher received for Mask afforded her the luxury of becoming picky with her roles. She turned down Diane Keaton’s role in Baby Boom and Debra Winger’s in Black Widow.Just months after the Oscars, in May of 1986, she got an offer from George Miller, the Australian director then best known for the Mad Max movies. He was mounting a movie adaptation of The Witches of Eastwick, a book by John Updike about three female friends in New England who, one by one, fall prey to the whims of loutish man. This would give her the opportunity to work with the era’s greatest stars, Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon.Though Cher was cast at the behest of Warner Bros., the studio backing the film, due to her cachet, Miller was hesitant. He knew her only as half of Sonny & Cher, and figured she was better off in an Atlantic City showroom than in one of his movies. Shortly after Cher accepted the role, Miller backtracked on his original offer. He lied to her that Nicholson, who would play the film’s satanic male romantic lead, didn’t find her pretty enough to convincingly play one of his love interests. The production team stood by Cher and fought for her inclusion. By that point, she was a bankable star.On set, Cher found Miller inattentive. (“I’m telling you, we didn’t get a thing out of the director. It was a bitch,” she said of her experience working with him.) She didn’t like the script much, either.But the role of Alex, a sculptress, was one that came naturally to her. Eastwick gives Cher one particular set piece speech, similar to the many she had in Mask, in which she lists the manifold repulsive attributes of Nicholson’s boorish Daryl before ending with the admission that he isn’t “even interesting enough to make me sick.”After Eastwick wrapped, Cher began work on Moonstruck, directed by Canadian director Norman Jewison of In the Heat of the Night (1967) fame. Moonstruck was filmed between November 1986 and February 1987. Cher compared it to “getting paid lots of money to have a good time with a bunch of people you wouldn’t have minded spending time with anyway.” She would play Loretta Castorini, the Italian-American widow who works as a bookkeeper and dresses in earth-toned cardigans. She’s due to be married to a man she doesn’t love (Danny Aiello), and ends up falling for his brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage). The role was a summation of Cher’s talents an actress. It gave her a chance to work in her natural register—tough, funny, and no-nonsense—with shades of her earlier dramatic work playing guarded, evasive wallflowers.In the midst of working on Moonstruck, Cher got another offer for a movie by English director Peter Yates (Breaking Away, Bullitt). She had a week in between the two films. "I had seen her in Silkwood and in Mask and was impressed by a reality that I think she has,” Yates would say. “What she brings is an observation of life. She's inclined to let her intuition take over.” In Suspect, Cher plays a defense attorney in Washington, D.C., who is asked to go to bat for a mute, deaf homeless man (Liam Neeson) implicated in a murder. In the process, she steps into a forbidden affair with one of the jurors, played by Dennis Quaid. Though the film unfolds with plodding procedural stiffness, Cher buoys it with an agile performance. The role requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but the fundamental ridiculousness of having Cher play a lawyer is negated by the fact that we are in the presence of a movie star.When Eastwick came out in June of that year, few reviews singled Cher out for praise, instead commenting that she ingratiated herself well enough into the film’s broad, slapstick milieu. But she surprised critics, and gained momentum for awards, when Suspect opened in October; having been cast against type, it presented a welcome change of pace for her. “There has probably been no piece of casting this year more ineffably Hollywood than Cher as a busy, weary public defender in Peter Yates’s Suspect—Cher as a dedicated drudge,” Kael cheekily observed. “As the coming attractions might put it, Suspect brings you Cher as you've never seen her before. It brings Cher as a smart, tough, no-nonsense Washington public defender who lives entirely for her work,” Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote. “And she turns out to be surprisingly credible in this role, certainly a lot likelier than anything else about Peter Yates's new courtroom thriller, a genre that's a lot less novel than it sounds.” If the film’s efficient, procedural structure was staid, Cher infused some life into those proceedings.Moonstruck opened on Christmas Day of that year and was an unexpected runaway success, earning Cher the best reviews of her career. The film offered further proof of her versatility; her film career, Eastwick notwithstanding, had thus far confined her to dramatic heavy lifting. In Moonstruck, she had a tartly comic, front-and-center leading part. “As a young widow whose life suddenly shifts 180 degrees under the spell of an extraordinary full moon, Cher finally has a role that lets her comic sensibilities out for a romp,” Benson said. “[She] drops, with a Brooklyn-Italian lilt, into a juicy romantic comedy character as though she'd been brought up in the neighborhood.”Kael saw this as a realization of Cher’s potential, a consummation of all she could offer as an actress. “Cher is right at home in the screwball ethnic comedy Moonstruck,” she argued. “She doesn’t stare at the camera and act the goddess. She moves around, she shouts, and when she lets her hair down, a huge dark mass of crinkly tendrils floats about her tiny face. (What a prop!) Cher isn’t afraid to be a little crazy here, and she’s devastatingly funny and sinuous and beautiful.” Cher had reached a point in her career wherein her brilliance on film was a given: “Cher, as expected, is excellent,” Denby wrote.These critical hosannas were accompanied by an onslaught of awards, from the Golden Globe to the Oscar. The nominations alone were seen almost as a fait accompli: when veteran actress Lillian Gish, then 94, was snubbed for The Whales of August that year, she reportedly said, "Now I won't have to go and lose to Cher.”The audience was ebullient at Cher’s win. Meryl Streep, one of her earliest cheerleaders, was herself nominated against Cher for her work in Ironweed,and rose to her feet within moments of Paul Newman announcing Cher’s name as the winner. The crowd at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles followed suit. “In the early eighties,” film historian Douglas Brode wrote in The Films of the Eighties, “Cher’s personal style and off-camera antics may have been too much to accept, despite the star’s box office allure and the quality of her work. But by the decade’s end, the old guard has passed and the hip new Hollywood perceived in Cher—see-through, bare-nearly-all outfits, frizzed hair, frankly stated and unbelted opinions—a person quite appropriate to them.” The Oscar was a fitting completion to the artistic passage she had successfully undergone in that decade, and the goodwill she’d accrued in a remarkably short span of time.*There was an expectation following her Academy Award win that Cher would continue to be a dominant force in American cinema. But her next move was a musical one. In November of 1987, Cher released her self-titled rock album. It was a hit, unlike her album earlier that decade. Another album in 1989, Heart of Stone, would see the release of one of her biggest singles, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” coupled with a music video in which she prances around on a navy ship and straddles cannons.She laid low until her next movie, 1990’s Mermaids. “I couldn’t find anything that I wanted to do,” she said of this dry spell. “I was desperately looking. There are not a lot of great scripts and there are so many women in my area … Because of my age and because I’m a woman, I’m not going to get the best script out of thirty scripts. I’m going to hope that I get the best script out of two or four scripts and I’m going to wait a long time for them.”Mermaids went through two directors, Lasse Hallström and Frank Oz, before Cher eventually got her way and settled on Richard Benjamin (My Favorite Year, The Money Pit). She modeled her character, a single mother raising two daughters (Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci), after her own mother, Georgia, always itinerant as she moved her daughters from one home to another across the country. It was a role in which she could easily excel, but one that barely stretched her. “The flamboyant Mrs. Flax is too much, which means that she's just about right for Cher,” Vincent Canby wrote. Winona Ryder, then Hollywood’s ascendant ingénue, got most notices for the film, including a National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress and a Golden Globe nomination in the same category. This gave more ammunition to Cher’s skeptics, as if she had reached the apex of her craft with Moonstruck, and there was nowhere to go but down. “What were we waiting for?” David Thomson, hardly a fan, asked of Cher’s three-year withdrawal from films. “Her Hedda Gabler? Her Elektra? Her Lady MacBeth?”The gap between Cher’s movies got bigger. Movie sets began to make Cher grow bored and restless. Before long, she became disenchanted with the world of cinema altogether, not helped by frequent bouts of exhaustion brought on by Epstein-Barr virus. More profitable routes, infomercials and music, beckoned, prompting some to suspect that her dalliance with film was a detour on her way to becoming a superstar.*If there is an insistence that actresses must destroy parts of themselves to create anew and appease audiences, Cher eschewed this dictum entirely. One gets the sense, watching Cher on screen, that she is working within her natural register—mettled, tough, and a little sarcastic—to create these characters rather than strenuously trying to reinvent herself as someone she isn’t. Her finest performances were subtle inflections of her widely known persona fused with actorly intuition.“Look, I have a very narrow range,” she told Frank Bruni, the man who once questioned whether she could act all the way back in 1981, seven years ago. “I’ve never tried anything more than playing who I am. If you look at my characters, they’re all me.”Cher was speaking to Bruni on the occasion of the release of Burlesque, her most recent live action film. (She lent her voice to animated film Zookeeper in 2011.) Burlesque barely exists as cinema, too genteel to be the trashy fun it postures as. Despite the promise of having the same screenwriter who wrote her Oscar-winning role, John Patrick Shanley, do touch-ups on the script, the film does not know what to do with Cher. It gives her two numbers to belt, including the movie’s bravado-tinged battle cry, “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” but little in the way of dramatic heft. The film treats her as less of an actress and more of a monument. Wesley Morris, writing for The Boston Globe, was especially shrewd when he wrote that Cher’s face “remains a peerless instrument,” the kind that “belongs to a wise woman with a performer’s heavy soul.” His conclusion? “A movie called Burlesque is probably not the place to bare it.” As a comeback vehicle, the film was inadequate.Though it’s somewhat odd to think of Cher in the context of any era other than the one she defined, perhaps her talents would be more widely appreciated today had she risen to prominence in the time of the old Hollywood star system. Her presence in cinema recalls those of screwball comediennes like Carole Lombard and Irene Dunne, who possessed a basic consistency of persona. Nowadays, though, actresses like Meryl Streep have set a new goalpost for American acting, resulting in a conflation of “best” and chameleonic, and a prizing of versatility as it has now come to be measured. Versatility is no longer simply defined as the agility between, say, dramatic and comedic styles, a skill Cher proved herself to possess. Versatility, as it stands today, is now judged through the ability to deftly handle an accent, a willingness to undergo laborious physical transformation, or to go method. The Streep school of acting dominates critical rhetoric surrounding acting at the expense of work like Cher’s, less technical and more spontaneous.Charisma can’t be reduced to a calculus. Cher’s very being on film provokes fascination and, above all else, identification. In her films, she engages the innocent fantasy that brings so many of us to the movies in the first place: That we can come to know these stars, who look as imposing and untouchable as giants in the public eye, as intimately as we know ourselves.
Look Outside Pt. 1

“No matter how far we drove, I looked back and I could still see them.”