Hazlitt Magazine

An Incomplete List of My Failures

After writing a novel that explored disordered eating, I needed to confirm the private truth I thought I’d discovered. Then I spoke to someone whose truth was far different from my own.

The State of Black Mourning

For the past five centuries being black has meant collectively experiencing grief in ways that the rest of society does not understand and cannot fully comprehend.

Lead Me On

Both holy and wholly her own, Amy Grant was the soundtrack to my rebellion. When my church rejected her, what I heard was, “You can’t be a believer and a woman who wants more.” 

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An Incomplete List of My Failures

After writing a novel that explored disordered eating, I needed to confirm the private truth I thought I’d discovered. Then I spoke to someone whose truth was far different from my own.

[[{"fid":"6700206","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":"1000","width":"815","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Mouthful is a monthly column about the author’s relationship with food, ten years into recovery from anorexia and bulimia.I’ve been thinking about my failures, especially the ways I’ve failed other people. A year before my novel Binary Star came out, I began interviewing people for a nonfiction book about eating disorders. The protagonist of Binary Star is an anorexic college student and I had drawn heavily from my own history with anorexia to write her. I felt in my writing I was finally able to translate into language what I had been carrying around as a shapeless trauma. But once I was finished, once I’d satisfied myself with a psychological portrayal of the disease, I began to crave a more scholarly understanding.In retrospect, what I truly wanted was some authority outside of myself to validate what had happened to me. Having relived the trauma of anorexia in my writing, I wanted to verifiably attribute it to some cause other than an inborn deficiency—point to a reason that was larger than me. Give my pain context and meaning.I framed my project as a search for the biological and cultural roots of disordered eating because it seemed to lend the endeavor credibility. I began to aggregate research online and in books. Then I sought out interviewees.Over the next several months, I interviewed probably fifteen people who were struggling or had struggled with food. Some spoke on condition of anonymity, others wanted to take credit for their stories. Unsure at first whether the project would in fact be a book as I had planned—perhaps it would be a gallery show?—and feeling that, because of the subject matter, I should pay close attention to body language, I recorded the interviews with a Canon 7-D camera mounted on a tripod. I shot video. Most of the people I interviewed were friends, or friends of friends, but one of them wasn’t: M. She responded to a call I placed on Craigslist.*M. lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment near Hunter College. She was twenty-two and dreamt of studying marriage and family counseling, but was waiting until she was sufficiently along in her recovery from self-harm and binge eating disorder to apply for grad school. She began sneaking food when she was ten or eleven years old as a way to cope with her parents’ arguing. By then, she had already been told she had high cholesterol like her father and needed to change her diet. But her reliance on food escalated when her father killed himself that year. When I asked her why she turned to food during that time as opposed to some other outlet, she told me, “It’s just the one thing that I had.”For a few reasons, I was uncomfortable talking to M. I had scheduled the interview in the evening and then arrived late, which I feared made me look unprofessional. On top of that, my camera quickly ran out of memory. I made several attempts to fix it, and then called my husband, who told me that I had erased the previous interview files incorrectly after exporting them, and that they were still taking up space on my memory card. There was nothing I could do, so I recorded the remainder of the interview with my audio recorder.But also, I was uncomfortable because M. was the first person I had interviewed about overeating; all of the others before her had been anorexic, bulimic, or crash dieters. I felt that those interviews had gone well, even if I hadn’t decided yet how I was going to use them. I’d instinctively known how to steer the conversations. I recognized the stories I was hearing in my own.On the surface, anorexia is the opposite of binge eating. M. told me about the difficulty she’d had trying to replace ice cream with smoothies. That going to the supermarket was always a disaster, whether or not she went in with a plan to buy more nutritious food or a plan to buy junk. She told me that, in middle school, she’d hide in her locker the lunches her mom had packed her and eat junk food instead—and that, after a period of doing this, all of her school guidance counselors, along with her mother, had had to force her to clean out her locker because it was infested with bugs.At a glance, M.’s behavior was everything I would never do as an anorexic person. Alongside pity, a feeling of revulsion came from the part of my brain that reacts emotionally to food, that dissociates from painful feelings via hunger and is destabilized when the hunger is satiated and emotions come flooding back. It’s cunning and automatic; I’m not always aware that it’s been activated.The curiosity I’d felt in past interviews with individuals who’d struggled with restrictive eating disorders seemed grotesque, even cruel, in the context of M.’s story. Though her coping mechanisms were motivated by many of the same objectives as mine—at one point, she referred to her binge eating as a “slow suicide”—the questions I’d asked in previous interviews about goal weights and advertising and amenorrhea seemed unrelated to what she had been through. I had based my research on my personal theories about the origins of disordered eating, which pertained to my own experience, and though I performed objectivity, in actuality it was impossible. I needed something specific from M. I needed her to confirm the private truth I thought I’d discovered writing Binary Star. But her truth didn’t sound like my truth. Over the hour I spent interviewing her, I was often at a loss for what to say.*Near the end of our conversation, I asked M. if she had experienced any health consequences as a result of her eating disorder. “No,” she told me. “But I live in fear of them. I freak out every time my heart starts racing, that I’m having a heart attack, or my head starts hurting, that I’m having a stroke. Because I know that if I keep going like this, it’s a definite possibility.”I then asked her if she minded me asking how much she weighed.“Yeah,” she said. “I guess.”I paused, noticing that her tone was slightly defensive. This was not a question I’d asked other interviewees. “You don’t have to say,” I said. “How do you feel, I guess, about where you are today as compared to where you have been? Heavier or lighter?”“I’m heavier than I have been,” she said.“Is this the heaviest you’ve ever been?” I said.“Yeah.”“OK. Is there anything else that you wanted to convey?”“No.”“Thank you so much,” I said.That was the end of our conversation. I have no excuse for why I asked these questions at the end. I offer this story as an example of earning someone’s trust and then breaking it because I failed to acknowledge my own limitations. I had assumed the role of an expert but in fact would have needed to spend years researching in order to write the book I wanted to write. I gave M. the impression that it was safe to open up to me, and my last questions for her were exploitative and dehumanizing—I could see it in her face; she shut down. Her story had thrown me into a state of mind where old survival techniques took over: my anorexia needed a number to explain what it was hearing, to make it safe again. I was weak and unprepared. I fell back on bad patterns.I felt overwhelming guilt as she walked me to the door. I searched for anything to say that could undo the damage I had done, but there was nothing. I didn’t contact M. again. I abandoned the project soon after.*Recently, I went looking for these interview files in my old hard drive. I do this every so often: revisit failed projects to see if there are any coals still glowing in them. I searched through the contents of two former computers but could only find one interview file: M.’s. I searched through my email and was able to excavate a few more.Then I remembered that my husband had offered to store the interviews. The camera was his and he knew how to operate it better than I could, so he offloaded the files. He had more space on his hard drives than I had on mine, so he kept them for me. I texted him asking if he could send them to me but he hasn’t responded. My husband and I broke up three months ago. He now lives in California. We’re not speaking.We aren’t speaking because, in inexcusable ways, we have failed each other and ourselves. We’ve broken each other’s trust.We aren’t legally divorced, yet, because the paperwork is overwhelming to me and I can’t afford a lawyer. I’m also busy. The relationship is painful to think about, and yet lately it’s all I can think about. I want the split to be over and done with but the process is too much for me to handle on my own right now.I started seeing a counselor two weeks ago. For a day or two after seeing her, I find myself in a dissociated yet emotionally fragile state, given to weeping and drinking heavily. I’m familiarizing myself with the symptoms of PTSD. I can’t focus on a book or my writing, so I’ve fallen behind in my work. Today, I completely missed one appointment. I can’t sleep.In my everyday life, in small ways, I’m failing.I can’t speak for my husband, but I can say that I gave up too much of myself in our marriage. I know this because, now that I’m alone in the world for the first time—I haven’t been single for more than a few weeks since I was in high school—I’m finding it difficult to articulate what I want and need. Certain aspects of who I am are suddenly in flux. I’m finding that I haven’t known myself like I thought I did. I’m facing my shortcomings, and taking steps to change the less admirable parts of my personality. It’s daunting. It’s exciting.*In the midst of this, I started seeing someone new. She’s beautiful, kind, intelligent, and funny. We have great sex. We go on marathon dates to museums and the movies, eat oysters, drink Scotch, give each other much-needed massages, cook healthy meals, lie in bed for hours, make banana bread, and make coffee first thing in the morning after staying over. Last night, we parted ways, at least for now.We agree it’s for the best. I recognize my limitations, she recognizes hers. I need a lot of space and I’m enjoying being alone. I’m having a difficult time trusting new people. I’m interested in seeing people other than her. I’m not interested in traditional forms of commitment. This doesn’t align with what she wants and needs, and that’s okay. Letting go for now, disappointing as it is, is the most loving thing we can do for each other.*As a culture, we’re addicted to love stories that end at the zenith: the moment of the most intense connection, when pleasure hormones flood the brain and life is a constant orgasm. Love is offered up as a solution to every problem. We’ll never be alone. True love will never hurt us. Inside love, we’re safe, because love can save us. It can even save the world.Marriage is presumed to be forever. After we married, my husband and I drove to Malibu and sealed our vows inside a bottle, and tossed them out to sea. In our minds, they were promises made like offerings to the universe. Our marriage was a sacred bond between us, so pure, the purest form of love we’d ever felt. We thought it would last for eternity.In these stories, we never see what happens after the zenith, how we sustain this verve. We look to our cultural standards: love is a single-family home, love is having eyes only for each other, weathering every storm together, leaning on each other whenever we need support, raising a healthy family, never losing interest, finding each other perpetually fascinating. In true love, two people are everything, always, only for each other. If they can’t be, it isn’t love.In our stories, every moment before this sustained zenith diminishes in importance if it isn’t leading to the zenith. Eternal love is the goal. If you don’t find it, then you’ve failed. If you’re not even looking for it, then you’re missing out on life. Relationships that aren’t pointed toward the zenith aren’t significant. We shouldn’t take them as seriously.I want to propose an alternative story in which we can find love anywhere we want to find it, in any form. Right now in my life, I’m letting go of the zenith. The love I have in my life now is beautiful even if it doesn’t look the way I thought it would. Love is never going to act the way I tell it to act, anyway. That doesn’t make me a failure.I can let go of patterns that hurt me. I can let go of unrealistic standards. Now that I recognize these standards, I can choose to set my own. I can make new patterns that are healthy for me. I can be honest about how I feel. I can ask for what I need. I can let go when I need to let go. I will still be here. Love will still be here.*Before asking the questions that I regret, I asked M. about her earlier statement that she was waiting until she was sufficiently into her recovery to apply for graduate school. She had told me about the day when she hit rock bottom. She was struggling with self-harm at the time, along with her binge eating. “I’d gotten to a point where I ended up self-harming really badly,” she told me. “Not badly enough that I needed to go to the hospital, but enough that I felt like I’d reached a new limit that I never wanted to return to.”She emailed her therapist and told her that she was ready to try something new. Since then, she’d been taking antidepressants and working on identifying her emotions, and learning new ways to cope with them. I wanted to know whether she thought there would be a point when she could say, “Okay, now I’m recovered.” “I don’t think there’s going to be an ‘a-ha!’ moment,” she said, “but I think that there’s going to be a point where you have more good days than bad. And where you can get up in the morning and hopefully you’re not thinking about food, or you can say, oh I’m thinking about this but I’m not going to anymore, I’m going to move on.“I want to be able to say that I can fully handle this,” she said, “and feel confident in my abilities to cope effectively. That’s my goal.”Collage by Sarah Gerard.
Lead Me On

Both holy and wholly her own, Amy Grant was the soundtrack to my rebellion. When my church rejected her, what I heard was, “You can’t be a believer and a woman who wants more.” 

My older sister Jessie and I loved to dance in the living room to Amy Grant’s 1991 hit single “Baby, Baby.” Hopping around on the salmon-colored carpet as the hot Texas sun streamed in through the bay windows, we’d coo, “Baby, baby, I’m taken with the notion, to love you with the sweetest of devotion.” We synchronized our actions. Swinging our arms like they were cradling a baby and thumping our hands over our hearts. “Baby, baby, the stars are shining over you and just like me I’m sure that they adore you.” We spun and held our hands over our heads, wiggling our fingers, like twinkling stars in the sky.Homeschooled and raised Evangelical, we were sequestered from the world. We had no way of knowing it, but that year, every young girl was dancing to “Baby, Baby.” The song was a hit on both Christian and pop music charts, making Grant one of the first successful crossover artists. But I didn’t listen to pop radio. My siblings and I weren’t allowed to. It wasn’t considered godly. Instead, we danced alone on salmon-colored carpet, feeling like we were the only girls in the world—just us, Amy Grant and the thumping of our hands over our hearts.“Baby, Baby” was the first hit single from Grant’s Heart in Motion album, which was released when I was just nine years old. I idolized her, crimping my stick-straight hair every Sunday to mimic her moussed up curls. Grant rose to Christian stardom in the 1980s as a girl with a guitar from Tennessee, singing simple songs about Jesus. But by the early ‘90s, she was dressing in leopard print and singing about love, and not just the kind one had for their Lord and Savior. She was both holy and wholly her own. Grasping at success, reaching for something more than what she’d been given—Amy Grant was the soundtrack to my rebellion.[[{"fid":"6700196","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Amy Grant - Baby, Baby","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]*During our morning Bible reading, I sat with my siblings at the kitchen table, our seven little faces popping up over the oak surface that was crusty with the remains of breakfast. Devotionals happened right before we began our day of homeschool. There, our mom read to us from the Bible, lingering over lessons she thought we needed. “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.” And: “Do not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but give a blessing instead.” (We fought a lot.)Another common lesson was from Philippians 4:8. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”There were many things not covered in this category of “excellent or praiseworthy”: the word “butt,” for example, or the covers of magazines that our mother flipped over in the checkout aisle of grocery stores, huffing to the shrugging teen clerk. “How can this be appropriate for children?” Before she hid them we saw patches of flesh, sultry lips, although other times there were soldiers without arms or legs. The Gulf War was happening, but we didn’t know—the news was not one of those “such things.”It also applied to the books on ghosts and witches I frequently snuck out of the library and hid behind the potted plants. “These are not good things,” my mother said, whisking a Goosebumps book from under my pillow. “These are things that will let the devil play with your mind.”Most importantly, this verse was applied to music. There was little music that met the Philippians standard held fast by the adults in our life—my parents, my Sunday school teachers and the parents of our friends. The music that was allowed was mostly classical, though there were also contemporary Christian artists such as Petra, Twila Paris and Michael W. Smith, and a few secular exceptions—The Eagles, The Beach Boys, Carole King and James Taylor. These were holdovers from my parent’s pre-Christian years. Little pieces that they couldn’t let go of.“You don’t have to sing the name of Jesus to be a holy song,” my mom told us as we danced, polishing mirrors and dusting lamps, to “Little Deuce Coup” on cleaning day. “But you do have to sing about good things.”My mom was a musician. She gave music lessons to other Evangelical kids from our church. As we sat in a circle around my mom and her guitar, we learned “I’ll Fly Away,” “The Old Rugged Cross” and “This Land Is Your Land.” The parents of the other children must have been blissfully unaware of Woody Guthrie’s socialist agenda, but my mom knew. I know she knew. I asked her about it years later and she laughed and winked. “Socialism? It was just a song about America, just a lovely song.”And so, even after the leopard outfits, after Grant’s divorce and her complete embrace of pop music, after she was banned from Christian book stores and all the other God-fearing homes around us, we still listened to her music. My mother knew about the controversy, but the music remained, slipping through the dissonance between the world she wanted to create and the world that was.*Six years before Heart in Motion, when she was only twenty-five, Amy Grant released Lead Me On, an aggressively mainstream album. The album was her first crossover success, due in part to the spunky rhythms and the soft pop melodies. The cover of the album shows Grant with big hair, jamming out in jeans, a modest blouse and a cougar print jacket. It’s so aggressively normal, the pictures could be photos from your ‘80s-themed nostalgia party.It was a deviation from her earlier albums, with their quiet songs about Christ and praises to the Lord. By contrast, the lyrics in Lead Me On rarely mention the name of God. For many Evangelicals, this fact alone was akin to Peter denying the Lord all three times. Add in her sultry eyes and a shoulder peeking out from an ‘80s-styled sweatshirt, and the album caused ripples across the jean-jumper, Bible thumper crowd.That year, in Rolling Stone, Grant recounted nude bathing on the beach and confessed that she wanted to be more than just a Christian singer. “I mean, everyone’s got something to say,” she said, “but I feel like I have something really good to say. It makes me want a lot of people to hear.” And it was this, her simple desire to be heard, that made them ultimately kick her out. “How could she be a Christian?” Adults and my older sister’s friends would say in church. And what I heard was, “You can’t be holy if you are a woman who hungers for more.”For a pop star in the 1980s, this was all tame. Madonna was burning crosses and singing about being “like a virgin.” Pat Benatar was calling love a battlefield, and it’s safe to assume that her idea of a battle was not a fight to keep herself pure for marriage. And of course, Annie Lennox was strutting about, looking like a man (grab your pearls). For the rest of the world, Amy Grant was the patriarchy—her soft pop tunes were what other women rebelled against. But for a girl home-schooled and raised in a conservative Evangelical community, Amy Grant might as well have been Andrea Dworkin—radical, aberrant, and frustratingly idiosyncratic.*After we had polished off the post-church lunch of brisket and rolls and the kids had gone off to play kickball, while the mothers cleaned up the dishes, I often lingered to hear the fathers talk. They discussed theology, what was happening a few miles away in Waco, which Clinton was the anti-Christ and the dangers of Amy Grant.“She’s compromised her Christian witness,” our pastor said, wiping brisket grease from his lips. “She is dressing immodestly and she is putting fame before Christ.”I was insulted and immediately felt defensive, but I knew better than to say anything. The last time I had asked this pastor a question about the nature of God, he laughed, patted my head and said that the job of a woman was to “just believe and submit.”I understood in that moment that by wanting to defend Grant, I had failed, but that perhaps I wanted to fail. I wanted to be good, but I also wanted to be heard. I wanted more than to just believe and submit. When you aren’t allowed to speak, you try on the words of others. For so many years, Amy Grant’s songs were my voice.From then on, when I found myself sent to my room for mouthing off, for questioning, for reading Goosebumps, I’d shove my face in my pillow and cry, dramatically sobbing out the words to “Father’s Eyes.”I may not be every mother’s dream for her little girl.Grant goes on to sing that despite her failings, she has the eyes of her Father, God—eyes that find the good in things, eyes that find the source of help, eyes for love, compassion. It’s a sentimental song. But that sentiment gave me the hope that perhaps I wasn’t all bad. Perhaps, I too could be redeemable.*That summer I was nine, my older sister had her friend Esther over to play. Esther’s parents were followers of Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles, now made famous by the Duggars. Esther always wore skirts and her hair was long. She’d once told me that my short bob was a sin. When my sister went to put on “Heart in Motion” so we could teach her our choreography, Esther left the room crying. Our mom came back with Esther and explained that her parents didn’t want her listening to Amy Grant. Amy Grant was a sinner. She was compromising herself for her ambition and she was too “worldly.”I remember rolling my eyes at Esther and her tears. “Does everything have to say the word God to have God in it?” I said. Esther cried harder and my mom called Esther’s mom and had her picked up.Esther’s parents and our pastor weren’t the only ones criticizing Amy Grant’s worldly appearance. In Christian circles, “worldly” is shorthand for being of the world. In Romans 12:2 the apostle Paul encourages Christians not to “conform to the patterns of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Many Christians interpret this invective as a call to eschew popular culture. When Cabbage Patch dolls were popular, many of my friends weren’t allowed to have them. Same with Teddy Ruxpin and listening to New Kids on the Block. Engaging in popular culture, we were told, was like shaking hands with someone who has a cold—just by being near them, you risk exposure. And for the faithful, it’s not your immune system at risk, it’s your mortal soul.Only I wonder, thinking of us little girls dancing between the sunbeams on the salmon-colored carpet, if our bodies aren’t more complicated than just a simple input-output system dueling between good and bad. There on the carpet I see us—our bodies both awkward and full of grace. We’d leap and then fall, little bruises we never even noticed forming and healing all on their own. Tiny little scars, rug burns and scrapes, we’d wash in the bath that night and wonder how we got them. We were always bumping into things—bruises and freckles colliding on our bodies, evidence of days lost in sunshine and forts built out of sheets. Hours spent spinning and dancing to music we barely even understood. Those seven layers of epidermis holding in the entire universe of ourselves as we danced, thumped and fell in a little room that was both our whole world and only the very beginning of it all. So how can it be that just one thing corrupts or one thing saves? Perhaps our wounds and our healing are the result of many things seen and unseen, the ordinary miracles of falling and leaping up happening without us even noticing. Music at that moment was just an accessory of our joy. We couldn’t understand the backlash.Grant didn’t either. In an interview with People, Grant noted dismissively, “Christians can be sexy. What I’m doing is a good thing.” In response to the backlash over her flirting with a handsome man in her “Baby, Baby” video, Grant told Woman’s Day, “The whole thing just seemed very boring to me. Besides, shooting the video was a blast. It is fun to flirt if you’re a happily-married woman.”The video is very boring. In it, Grant wears modest clothes: a pair of shorts that fall mid-thigh, a dress that looks like it was plucked from a catalog for Fundamentalist Mormons. She laughs and does the chicken dance with a man. At one point they lie on the floor and roll a ball to one another. If that is a metaphor for something awful, even now as an adult, I’m not picking up on it.Grant’s 1998 song “What About the Love” feels like a partial response to the criticism. She sings of a meeting a preacher who tells her to deny sin, pray for forgiveness and tithe. In response, she wonders if that is the answer, “just the letter of the law?” The song is fast-paced and earnestly plaintive. “What about the love?” she asks in the chorus, a line that is repeated over and over.*That same year, in response to the uproar over Amy Grant’s worldliness, the Dove Awards—the Grammys for the born-again—redefined eligibility by defining what it meant to be Christian music. The songs had to be based on the scripture, Christian testimony, clearly influenced by a Christian world view and/or an expression of praise to God.Amy Grant’s best songs didn’t qualify by those standards—when it comes to Christians, even songs about heterosexual and monogamous relationships aren’t holy enough. I imagine stern-looking men sitting in a room, trying to decide how many times a song has to mention Jesus before it is holy enough. Five times? Six? What if they only mention God and not Jesus? Does that mean they are not born again? Does that make them Catholics? What if they’re Unitarian? What then? They open the Bible, parsing out scripture to find the answers they hope they are hidden in there. They use the Old Testament laws of sacrament like a secret code for translating the foreign world they find themselves in.What was behind the desire to take a girl with an unruly mop of curly hair and a jubilant enthusiasm for music and faith and make her into public enemy number one? What makes any of us into enemies? In my more petulant moments I believe only that it was because she was the bearer of a vagina and dared to be human. But in my better moments, I know that it is the grasping fear of someone holding onto the pieces of the things they understand, afraid to have to let them go and have nothing left, only that deep blackness that faith tells us to face but the laws of religion seek to control.I know this because I too hold onto my tiny pieces of knowledge, constructing small unstable worlds until they are toppled. What fragile worlds we create that they can be destroyed by smiling girls and their curly hair. How powerful those girls must be to destroy our worlds. Both things are true. The worlds we create crack, bleed, and contradict, and in those fissures, somehow women live. But dissonance is not an easy place to live and so, in 1988, the rules were changed. Old lines reinforced. Territory marked. This is what it means to sing about God, they said, and quantified it for us all.1998 was also the year Grant got a divorce. For many Christians that was it. In their eyes, Amy Grant was not a Christian anymore and she never could be. A girl in my youth group, whose parents let her listen to Amy Grant, told us that perhaps Grant’s husband had been abusing her. There is little evidence to support that accusation. But I understand where her parents were coming from. That was, after all, the only “good Christian” reason for divorce. Maybe they wanted to exonerate her. Maybe they wanted to protect us. But few Christians in our circle tried to defend her.There was speculation that she had been having an affair for years with Vince Gill, the man who would become her second husband. This rumor still circulates. Often-cited evidence for this theory are the lyrics of the Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant song, “Faithless Heart,” which talks about temptation and adultery. I often wonder why Michael W. Smith never faced this same scrutiny. Why is this song not evidence of an affair he had? The answer is obvious—he was a man, his job was a worship leader.Like Grant, Smith also tried to become a crossover artist, releasing “Go West, Young Man” and working with Jim Brickman on “I Will Be Here for You.” But he wasn’t as successful. Maybe that’s it: Amy Grant was a beautiful woman, she was successful, she didn’t hide her ambition, and she didn’t apologize for making a modest dress look sexy. She did more just believe and submit.*Like Grant’s, my revolutions were as equally bland as they were radical. I went to a college that was Lutheran, not Baptist. I watched the Vagina Monologues, I skipped school to play tennis and read The Communist Manifesto. I smoked cigars when I was eighteen, I said the word “fuck” a lot. I know, I know. I kissed a boy I barely knew at a concert. But most revolutions happen in inches. They might appear small but they are no less fundamental. Amy Grant became the vehicle through which I was able to see myself as something more than the lines of orthodoxy that had been drawn around me. Grant was a woman with ambition, true, but she was also a girl who just wanted to sing about her faith and her God, and somehow wound up inside a revolution. I felt that way too. I was just a girl who wanted to read books, and somehow that forced me into a fight I hadn’t bargained for. What we both learned was that finding joy always seems to be a political act for the women pursuing it.Today, both Grant and I have a home, we have husbands and children. It is so conventional and boring. Sometimes, as a married woman, I flirt with waiters. And yet, last year, I tried to reach out to some of my friends who were in the same homeschool group as me back in the early ‘90s. Almost all of my outreach went unanswered. Finally, a girl responded. It was Esther, the girl whose parents refused to let her listen to Amy Grant at our house.“I’m concerned,” she wrote, “about your life and the choices you’ve made. They seem so far from God.” I didn’t really know how to respond, so I didn’t. What could she have meant? The blue streaks in my hair? The profanities I dropped on the internet? Sharing links that advocated for universal health care? Or maybe the fact that I wear skinny jeans and lipstick and drink whiskey and still say “fuck” a lot. I’m sure there is a reason. But I am also sure that, again, I’ve stumbled upon the lines of someone’s orthodoxy. The pieces of the known that they are holding onto, afraid of letting go. I know because these things are my little convictions—these profanities my dogma, my hair a tenet of my belief. And life is full of colliding creed.I am not the first girl who has lost and then found herself in the lyrics of a song. And I won’t be the last. Everywhere, even now, little girls are dancing on living room rugs, twirling and thumping their chests to music. Who knows what those songs mean to them? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. Maybe the words will help them synthesize the disparate pieces of the world that they hold in their wiggling, dancing fingers. Maybe each chest thump will kick-start a small revolution in their hearts.
‘This Brave New World Has Some of the Worst Aspects of the Old Way of Doing Things’: An Interview with Doree Shafrir

The author of Startup on gender inequality, tech culture and the shifting world of journalism. 

In the fall of 2006, Doree Shafrir started writing for the now-defunct Gawker, a media site that came to life at the dawn of online journalism—shifting standards for how stories were produced and ushering in a new age of media consumption. Shafrir, now a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed, lived in New York for almost a decade, where she "worked for startups, wrote about startups, had a lot of friends who worked for startups."In her debut novel, Startup, Shafrir draws on her experiences from both the online journalism industry and the startup scene in New York to illustrate the current state of tech startups and the strange symbiosis between app-developers, venture capitalists, and tech reporters. The novel, a satire, is eerily on-point in its illustration of this universe—especially when it comes to gender dynamics.Hope Reese: Your novel illustrates the frantic pace of online journalism today. Can you talk about your own experience of this? And is there something specific to tech journalism that separates it from the media industry as a whole?Doree Shafrir: The first time I really experienced this was when I started working for Gawker. We had quotas for how many posts we had to do a day—I think I had to do six posts a day. Some of my colleagues had to do like ten or twelve posts a day. It was a lot more aggregation at the time, but still, that's a lot. It was just this sort of constant frantic-ness. Once you'd finished something, it was, "What are you going to post next? When is it going to go up? Are we late on this?" There was a lot of pressure to have stuff up quickly.Is it worse in tech journalism, specifically? I mean, I don't think it's better. It's something that is endemic to online journalism, certainly. One thing about tech journalism is that it is a pretty insular world, in the same way that a lot of other areas of journalism, like music journalism or political reporting, are. You know all the people in your world, and I think there's just a lot competition within each circle.If you had to give advice to someone entering a career in journalism, like the character in your novel, Katya, do you say, "Okay, go compete, and you have to be fast”? How do you navigate that world if you're twenty-four years old today?One thing that we're seeing now is the industry is changing really fast. When I started at Gawker, the shift from print to online was still not complete. Obviously, Gawker was always just digital, but there was still this question: How long will Internet journalism be around? How much do we have to invest in it? So it wasn't taken very seriously by a lot of companies. A lot of websites were considered second-tier, and for people graduating, there was still this idea that going into print journalism was more prestigious.Of course, that all changed pretty quickly, and you're seeing a similar thing now with video. There was a lot of skepticism about video. People thought it wasn't serious, or that online video wasn't ever going to be invested in as much as TV was. All things that remind me a lot of what people were saying about online journalism ten years ago.Companies are laying off people who are only writers, saying that they're going to concentrate on video. That's something that's been set in motion. It's just really important for young journalists to learn as many skills as they can, whether it's audio or video. The days when you can get away with just writing are going to be over pretty soon.And as someone who is just a writer, I see a world where I could be writing my own demise, but that's just reality right now.What made you set the story in New York? What's unique to that city's startup scene versus Silicon Valley?So, for one, I lived in New York for about nine years and worked for startups, wrote about startups, had a lot of friends who worked for startups. When I wasn't working for startups, I definitely considered myself startup-adjacent, and so pretty well versed in that world.I also thought it was a fascinating world that no one had really captured in fiction. So much of the pop culture around tech is centered on Silicon Valley, which makes sense because it is the epicenter––but Silicon Valley is also a place where tech is the only game in town. New York has this burgeoning tech scene, but there are so many other well-established industries in New York. Startups don't quite yet have the same social capital that, say, Wall Street or fashion or even media do. So I wanted to explore that tension a little bit.Do you watch the HBO show Silicon Valley? I've heard people in the tech industry say they can't watch it because of how on-point it is. Your novel is similar—it really captures the startup scene so well.I really enjoy Silicon Valley—I think it's so smart and funny. But it started as a very incisive satire, and now it's kind of hard to tell who they're satirizing. So much of the tech world in San Francisco and Silicon Valley loves the show—they even have cameos on it. It's like, what is the relationship between the "real world," and the show? And who is the show targeting?So, who is your book targeting, would you say?My book is targeting the startup world as a whole. And, particularly, men in the startup world. It's also targeting hypocrisy overall, whether it's coming from a man or a woman.People in Silicon Valley like to say that they "move fast and break things," and I want to show how that maybe isn’t the best way to conduct yourself. And there's this idea that what they're doing is just for the good of humanity, which can mask some not-so-great behavior. And that this supposedly "brave new world" has nonetheless taken on some of the worst aspects of the old way of doing things.You describe this "team spirit" workplace culture that demands coworkers engage in things like sunrise workout raves and pole dancing classes. How does this compare to what work was like when you were in your twenties?It seems like my younger coworkers are all friends, and they're always meeting up. There are always emails going around of like, "I need a new roomie." I know that some of them live together, some of them date each other. It just does really seem like their personal and professional lives are just completely one.That's not the way that I need to spend my time. But now there are more people at BuzzFeed who are in their thirties, even in their forties—and there's not the expectation that I need to participate in that kind of stuff. But if I were on another team where people were a lot younger, and the participation in these, let's call them "extracurriculars," was expected, I might feel alienated.Do you think this is a generational thing, or does technology have an impact on it? Tech enables it, no question. Instagram feels very aspirational to me. Tumblr is the place where you might go to be sad, but Instagram is the place where you go to show off all the great things in your life. I think that it's definitely exaggerated by social media.I think people do age out. A big reason the character of Sabrina in the novel feels so alienated is because she has two kids and a husband who's not particularly helpful, so she has to be home at six o'clock every night to relieve the nanny. So not only does she have to leave work earlier than all of her colleagues, but she can't go out with her colleagues after work. So there's a difference in lifestyle that has made it so that she really can't participate on this level with her younger co-workers, even if she really wanted to.Even though in New York, like you were saying, there is this extended adolescence, eventually a lot of people do get married and do have kids, and their lifestyles do change. So I think getting older does mean that you're probably not participating in these events as much as you used to.In Startup, everyone is constantly using apps, like a Tinder for apartment rentals, many I'd never heard of. Did you make them up? If so, some of the ideas are brilliant!Any that are not immediately familiar to you are ones I made up. That being said, several times, what has happened since I finished the book is I've seen stuff about apps that sound very similar to apps I made up. So it just kind of says to me that A, there are no original ideas and B, I wasn't that far off in my making up of these apps.You explore socio-economic status in the startup world. Can you talk about that?New York is really expensive to live, and yet a lot of young people want to live there. So it can be confusing as a young person to look around and to see your friends, who you know probably don't make more than $40,000, maybe $50,000 a year, and think, "Huh, that's weird—they have a one bedroom apartment in Williamsburg. How do they afford that?"There are these moments when you realize that your friend is an heiress, or has well-off parents who are paying their rent. It gives people this leg up, and they feel they're just entitled to it, but it makes it so much harder for everyone else. If you're paying student loans and you're not getting help from your parents and you are making $40,000 a year, how are you living? How does that affect your quality of life? How does that affect your mental health? How does that affect the kind of jobs you can get? How do you feel when your friend whose parents who are paying their rent invite you out to dinner and they choose a really expensive restaurant because they can just put their share on a credit card, and you don't have a credit card?Also: you always are jealous of the people who have more than you. From the outside, Sabrina is doing fine. She and her husband own an apartment in Park Slope. She has a job, her husband has a good job. They have all the trappings of a typical upper-middle class life in New York City. But all she can think about is her very successful friend from college who has a brownstone, and gets obsessed with her friend from grad school who wrote a best-selling series of books and is also super rich. There are always going to be people who have more than you, so one thing that I finally learned when I was in New York is that it actually will bring you down and impede your own success if you are just constantly letting that stuff get to you. It can really get to you. But if you're just always focused on other people you're not going to work on yourself.Same with the Katya character. Katya definitely sees herself as this scrappy outsider who went to public school, got a scholarship to NYU, lived at home. And certainly she is from a middle-class, even working class background—but she also has privilege that she doesn't always want to acknowledge.People are often blind to their own privilege, no matter where they land on the spectrum.In the novel, you illustrate two workplace relationships that turn romantic or sexual. What makes this kind of thing different in the digital age?I wanted to show how intertwined the personal and professional lives of people, especially people in their twenties, are now, and how a lot of those boundaries get blurred. And I wanted to show how there is a lot of this confusion, I think, especially in these companies that don't have HR departments. HR is often the last department hired, so you can have a 50- or 100- even 200-person company with no HR department—and stuff's gonna happen when there's no one there to say, "Hey, this is not supposed to be happening." I think that leads to a lot of confusion.I've certainly witnessed enough situations where an older editor is behaving inappropriately with a younger writer, and there's a power imbalance that, sometimes, the younger writer isn't fully aware of, or thinks she's in control of—and she's really not. I wanted to explore that.There's a scene in the novel, in a meeting full of men, where one guy says they're living in a "male-hostile moment." It’s a hilarious term—did you make it up?I did. Certainly, if men are having those conversations among themselves, I have not been privy to them—that's kind of what I wanted to get at, that this is just a conversation amongst men, and they feel very free to say things that you and I would be horrified by, and challenge. But everyone in that room is like, "Oh yeah, totally, totally, nail her."You see sentiments like that expressed on Twitter or Reddit—you know, men re-conceiving themselves as victims. I wanted that to be an aspect of the story, too. How the men in this story know that Mack's behavior reflects badly on the company, but they're not really saying that what he did was so terrible. They're just like, "The optics of it are bad, this is a bad moment for a white guy to be accused of sexual harassment, so you gotta kind of chill." But the actual actions are not really condemned.In light of recent allegations about discrimination against women at companies such as Uber and Google, the story feels especially timely.When I started it, the two big sexual harassment in tech things that were going on were the Whitney Wolfe Tinder lawsuit and the Ellen Pao Kleiner Perkins trial regarding a gender discrimination suit she filed against her then employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. I was kind of like, well, these situations are a bit at the forefront of my mind, but there was a part of me that was like, "Hmm, this book might feel dated by the time it comes out."So on the one hand, it's great to feel like the book is very of the moment and exploring new themes and issues that people are really talking about right now. On the other hand, it is really fucking depressing that this book is so of the moment. Why is this stuff still going on? This is crazy to me.I obviously had no idea that these sexual harassment allegations at Uber or any of these other places would come out and that people would really be talking about gender discrimination and sexual harassment in check and that it would still be such a hot-button topic. But when are we going to figure this out? Come on.
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)
The State of Black Mourning

For the past five centuries being black has meant collectively experiencing grief in ways that the rest of society does not understand and cannot fully comprehend.

On March 15, 2014, my cousin Masud Khalif was murdered at a restaurant two blocks away from the building at the Scarborough intersection of Markham and Lawrence we both once called home. His killer later used Masud’s height, weight, and black skin as reasons he believed my cousin was a threat to him. This is how he justified killing him.Masud was my first cousin, but he felt more like an older brother to me. We grew up together. We went to the University of Toronto together. We spent endless nights together bullshitting our way through essays only a few hours before their deadlines. We shared friends, and countless memories. I actually almost always hated referring to him as my cousin, because he was so much more than that to me. When he would threaten ex-partners of mine or give me money whenever I was broke (which was almost always), he was like my protective brother. When we spent nearly every weekend together out and about downtown, trying to forget the stresses of our studies, jobs, or home lives, he was like my friend. He was always great for a guaranteed laugh.The last night I spent with Masud, we spoke about our futures. He told me that despite all odds, he was going to become a lawyer. He said this with a tone that was so matter-of-fact: you knew it would happen because he wanted it to happen. I always envied how bold and courageous he was, and how adamant he was about not letting anyone in this life tell him who or what he could be. There he was, a black man who didn’t let imposter syndrome dictate his destiny.In that same conversation he also spoke very matter-of-factly about my future: I was going to be a writer, and a good one at that. I was twenty-four years old at the time, with one degree under my belt, working as a personal assistant, and confused about who I was or where I was headed. I always dreamed of being a writer but didn’t know how that could happen, and it meant everything to me that he had hope for something I had completely given up on. There I was, a black woman who let imposter syndrome dictate her destiny.That night we ended a five-hour evening together with a grand hug. He told me why I was his favourite cousin. We exchanged some laughs and said “I love you” a few times before I watched him walk down the pathway of my house and onto the street.I felt uneasy.Two years later, in March of 2016, I walked up to a small podium in a York University lecture hall in Toronto with anxiety swimming through my body. I was there to give a keynote speech for the Black Futures Now conference. I had decided earlier that day that before I presented my speech I would ask everyone to take part in a breathing exercise. The room was dead silent, but the audience gave me warm smiles when I asked them to join me and breathe.Collectively, we inhaled in for ten seconds, telling ourselves that we were “breathing in the new.” Before releasing our breath, we told ourselves that we were “getting rid of the old.” We did this twice, and then I began my speech.I learned this breathing exercise during therapy in 2014 while I was in the process of mourning Masud. After the brutal murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both black men shot by police officers last year, I wanted us to practice this exercise together. I believe all black folks—today and for the past five centuries—are in a state of mourning.*A week after Masud’s death, I leaned on the hood of my car and watched a group of men place his body into a grave. I don’t remember what I was thinking at that exact moment, nor do I remember what went through my head when I touched his dead body for the last time at a Scarborough masjid, a few blocks north of the building where we grew up.For three months after Masud’s death, I had no real control over my thoughts or emotions. I would find myself crying at the grocery store while searching for ripe avocados because a Lorde song reminded me of that time we had dinner in my living room, arguing about what to play next. I found myself outside movie theatres frantically following tall black men, thinking they were him.I found myself doing things to my body and health I never would have imagined doing before. I thought things I had never considered thinking before. I flew on planes a lot for work that year, and for the first time, I felt no fear each time the plane would push off the ground—because I wasn’t afraid to die. “If it happens, I’ll see him again,” I would tell myself in every moment when a healthy, normal person would feel concern for their life. But “health” is a normative term, and I did not feel “normal.”After two months I found a therapist, and on a week-to-week basis, he taught me how to breathe again. I never felt like I was doing it right. I began writing, actively, for the first time in my life. After two months of breathing exercises, I quit my job, canceled my lease, and used my minimal savings to book a trip to Somalia. I had never been to Somalia, and didn’t know how to speak my mother’s tongue, yet I was convinced that it was a practical idea to move there. Months of depression had consumed me. I desperately needed to get away.*A janazah is a three-day period of mourning Muslims observe before we bury a loved one’s body. The first day of Masud’s janazah, my friends sat with me in a staircase in the building where Masud and I grew up. They were there for me—like black women always are for their kin and community—but they were also there for themselves: they too had lost a friend. One told me it would take a year of mourning before the pain would stop: one year for anniversaries, birthdays, and memories to pass. She said that by the one-year anniversary of his passing it would begin to become easier.So I counted for 365 days.Each day I searched through social media, calendars, text messages, and emails to remind myself of that particular date one year prior, and figure out where Masud had been. Did I hear from him that day? Did we hang out? Did I wake up to his loud steps in my downtown apartment?I would actively take a walk down memory lane each day. I would smile or laugh at our memories together before I would spend the night crying myself to sleep.By March 15, 2015—one year after Masud’s passing—I realized my friend was only partially right. When you are mourning, the pain doesn’t go away. It never does. But after some time, it eases: you learn how to live with it, but never fully escape from it. The only significant change I had noticed after one year of mourning was my breathing: the anxiety attacks began to decrease, and I found myself controlling them better than I was able to before.So here I am now, three years after Masud was killed. I’ve slowly figured out how to peel myself off the ground and continue to live life. But every so often I find myself back there again. Glued to it. Because mourning never ends. You learn to wear it everywhere you go.*Jermaine Carby. Dionte Green. Mark Carson. Dontre Hamilton. Eric Garner. John Crawford III. Michael Brown Jr. Tanisha Anderson. Tamir Rice. Jerame Reid. Tony Robinson. Phillip White. Eric Harris. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Jonathan Sanders. Sandra Bland. India Kager. Andrew Loku. Alex Wettlaufer. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Too many more.When we see the faces of these men and women on our screens and their names in headlines around the world, behind each of them is a community of people—mothers, sisters, fathers, grandparents, friends, and loved ones—only beginning this process of mourning. They are experiencing a change in their breathing patterns. They will spend the next few days, weeks, months, or years learning how to breathe again.I asked that group at York to do the same breathing exercise I have done since Masud was killed because, in the wake of these unjust slayings, I believe these families are not alone in their loss. And I don’t believe you need to know a black person who was murdered intimately in order to mourn their loss. I believe you just have to be black. And I believe that outside of "improvisation, transcendence and resilience," the DNA of black people for the past five centuries has involved an intimate relationship with death and mourning. It’s an invasion of our collective spirits and ancestry.During the Jim Crow era, on average, thirty-nine black people were lynched per year in America, and during the worst year of that period, that number rose to 161. In 2015 alone, 258 black people were killed by United States police officers. The threat to black existence and black life has never ended, thus black mourning hasn’t ended; and so long as the conditions remain that ensure black people will die for or because of their blackness, so too will black suffering. Hundreds of black women across the Americas, in this moment, are suffering: they are reflecting on how they birthed, raised, loved, and then buried their children. Hundreds of black women are trying their best to learn how to breathe again.In the words of James Baldwin: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”When we as black people turn on our television sets and see a police officer chokehold a father to death for selling “loosies,” or shoot and kill a young black boy for playing with a toy gun in a park, we collectively experience a pain that the rest of society does not understand and cannot fully comprehend. They feel saddened while we mourn our humanity. We watch these visuals that are broadcasted endlessly and everywhere, constant reminders that we live in a society that believes our humanity does not matter. We carry the pain of those dehumanizing visuals and cries of “I can’t breathe” with us through our workdays and into our beds before we sleep. And the pain of every video or story of these inhumane slayings piles up. It piles up until we forget how to breathe.These statistics do not take into account the black trans women, queer, non-binary and non-gender conforming folks who are murdered at alarming rates, whose deaths are never publicly recognized or collectively mourned, whose names rarely penetrate the public consciousness. Even the “data” aren’t available for those who demand statistics: there are no existing accurate public resources that provide the numbers of how many queer and trans black people go missing or are murdered in both Canada and the USA.*The reality of being a black person in the Americas is to live with a consciousness of being a black subject in a world of white power. I am so hyper-aware of perceptions of my blackness that when I consider demanding better service at a restaurant, I know that to the outside world I am embodying the “angry black woman,” so instead I choose to keep my mouth shut. I am aware when I walk into stores that I am under surveillance, that my black skin summons it, and so I police my own actions before someone else does. I am aware that my skin is enough for me to face employment and housing discrimination, just as I am aware that my black skin can lead to economic racism, higher charges of interest rates and fees. I am aware that as a black woman in Toronto, I am three times more likely to be carded by police than anyone else. I am aware that my black skin not only criminalizes me, it dehumanizes my life.I am aware that because my black skin is enough to get me killed, people will spend more time deliberating why I deserved death than they will mourning my life.I am hyper-aware that my blackness is a social uniform that functions to alienate me. My blackness is the object of images, language and ideologies that are pre-determined and constructed because of my social uniform. In the words of Frantz Fanon, “I am over-determined from without.” It is the fact of blackness.*But, for as long as black people have existed here, we have known improvisation, transcendence, and resilience. We continuously mobilize and strategize to challenge the system that works against us in efforts of finding black liberation. For as long as we have existed here, we have formulated black liberation movements: The Black Liberation Army, The Black Arts Movement, The Black Panthers, The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, The Nation of Islam, and now Black Lives Matter. But we must be honest with ourselves about what black liberation has often looked like in the past and today: patriarchal, heteronormative, classist, cis-gendered, with a destructive focus on the humanization of black masculinity. We teach each other that black identity is singular, thus not inclusive. Our discussions of the dehumanization and invisibility of black life do not include the alarming realities of transphobia, homophobia, poverty, patriarchy, or mental health.A fight for black liberation will not succeed without love, support, compassion and, most importantly, understanding and (re)learning. Our black liberation movements will never fully succeed so long as we maintain heteronormative, cis-gendered, ableist, classist, and patriarchal agendas. The validity of black life is not just about black men. We must be actively aware of our own privileges as we continue to combat the ongoing oppression against black people everywhere.Black men must learn to actively understand how they contribute to a culture of patriarchy.Black cis-men and cis-women must learn to actively understand how we contribute to transphobia.Black heterosexually identified folks must learn to actively understand how we contribute to a culture of homophobia.We must stop allowing our collective definition of blackness to be understood as singular, because it is not. There are no binaries in blackness. There is a multiplicity. There is infinity. And we must honour that. Learning to breathe again means learning to breathe together.For as long as we continue to live under a state that actively chooses to disavow our humanity and believe that we do not matter, black death and black mourning will remain an agonizing reality. It will continue to chip away at our sanity, our livelihood, our families. This is how you slowly die here—if you are not killed first. With every new name that we learn of, every face that becomes painfully imprinted into our memories, we must remind ourselves that we matter—all while remembering how to breathe.Portions of this essay were originally delivered in the speech at York University that is mentioned in the piece.
‘Trump Has Allowed a Different Public Face to America’s Morality’: An Interview with Eden Collinsworth

Speaking with the author of Behaving Badly about the spread of misinformation and what drone strikes and clever robots have to teach us about the future of ethics.

Last month, I spent a week in Cuba, much of it based in Havana, the first time in a long time I’d travelled completely untethered from the Internet. Toward the end of our trip, outside the Museum of the Revolution, we struck up a conversation with a man from Atlanta, who wore an army-green field hat and a Che Guevara t-shirt and was clearly very excited about being in the city. He said he’d wanted to visit while visas were still available; he didn’t think Donald Trump would keep diplomatic relations open for long. I made a passing joke about all the possible things the president could’ve done since I last checked the news—five days seemed like plenty for a full-blown autocracy to settle in. “Well, Trump tore up the White House,” the man offered. “He said Obama bugged the White House and then he tore it up trying to find the bugs.”Okay, so: not quite. But there was precisely nothing about this scenario—not Trump thinking it, not Trump saying it, not Trump turning over chairs and ripping down golden curtains with his own tiny hands—that struck me as implausible. I’ve lost my capacity for astonishment. And I can’t begin to blame that on Trump alone: Though he may be a spectacular model of egregious behaviour, he’s hardly the only guy dispensing with decorum. Expecting a standard of conduct from politicians, businesspeople, celebrities, judges, athletes, academics, or rush-hour subway commuters now seems ludicrously quaint.It’s tempting to be sullen, or to throw up your hands, or to ask, as author Eden Collinsworth does, “where does one find solid moral ground on what is proving to be the porous bedrock of our 21st century?” but to mean that just as a rhetorical question, punctuated by more throwing up of hands. Give Collinsworth credit, then, for striving instead to find a meaningful response. In Behaving Badly: The New Morality in Politics, Sex, and Business, she canvasses a whistleblower, an army general, a Holocaust survivor, a prime minister, a video-game designer, a murderer, and Margaret Atwood—among others—to better understand how we can make moral choices in what she terms an ethically flexible age. Danielle Groen: When Barack Obama would address bigotry or nationalism or limitations on speech, he had a habit of saying, “That’s not who we are.” There’s an implication that citizens share a sense of morality. I thought we could begin with where that morality comes from.Eden Collinsworth: That’s exactly where I started. My sense is that morality is an inner voice, and it’s basically what tells you not to do something, even though it’s not illegal, or you won’t be caught. I grew up with a certain sense of morality instilled by my parents. I’m perhaps one of the last generations where that occurred. My son is now a young man. I’m confident he’s utterly decent, but that’s not so much the moral values I instilled in him as it is what’s shaped his life in his twenty-seven years. There have been these profound changes, in technology especially, which have given a younger demographic more of a 360-degree view of morality. We’ve never been so connected. Here you are in a different time zone. Here I am, in London, where it’s raining outside. I can walk down the street and call someone in China. That said, we are still grappling with this instinct to retreat into what we know. In all of my travels writing this book, it seemed increasingly clear to me that we operate in cultural, socio-economic, and sexual silos. No matter how sophisticated we think we are, we fall back on that as a control panel.But that panel isn’t necessarily fixed—fifty years ago, homosexuality was a criminal act in Canada; last year, our prime minister marched in pride parades across the country. Are moral shifts inevitable?I think the most dramatic change in my lifetime has been the moral attitude toward sexuality. There’s definitely been a paradigm shift. I don’t think that’ll retreat. I believe it started in the courts but very quickly wove into the cultural fabric. There’s no doubt in my mind that—at the risk of sounding condescending as heterosexual—it’s been normalized. What I grapple with as a woman is why there hasn’t been an equivalent momentum with women’s rights. That’s so beyond me. I can’t quite figure that out.Well, a man who bragged on tape about committing sexual assault now sits in the Oval Office. What happens when there don’t appear to be consequences for behaving badly?I’ve been based in New York a great deal of my life. Virtually everyone from New York is from some other place. That’s the deal. I’ve heard obscenities and vulgarities, but I’ve never heard a racial attack. Recently, I got on the subway for an appointment uptown. I was seated, because I got on downtown; all I saw were legs and disembodied voices. Somebody inadvertently shoved somebody else, who confronted the person. The exchange turned racial almost immediately. What the man said was, “Go back to Africa.” I’d never heard that before. Maybe he’s always felt that, but now he’s allowed to express it—it’s been normalized because of the atmosphere propagated by Trump. It weaves into the fabric. It becomes acceptable. That said, with the tape, I think something mattered more than that. The fact is that people have lost jobs. Those jobs will not come back. I don’t care how many walls you build or what you promise. But if somebody promises you employment and a salary cheque, who cares what he says on a bus?But those jobs won’t come back. And we’ve seen a bunch of major developments in the past year that hinged on misinformation. The Brexit campaign lied about how much money the UK gives the EU. Trump lied about pretty much everything, whether it’s crime rates or immigration vetting or not cutting Medicaid. Does morality rely on a shared set of facts?That’s a fascinating question that speaks to a deeper question that is almost rhetorical: What do you want to believe? If you want to believe something, you’re determined to believe something, then there is a different method of receiving and generating news that can feed that now. I think the only thing that will change that attitude, frankly, are results. He’ll either get the results or he won’t.How much do you imagine you’ll have to talk about Trump while promoting this book? And did his victory challenge any of the ideas you had about moral behaviour?Truth be told, the book was scheduled for June and moved forward. The publishers asked me, “Would you please revisit the sections where you’ve written about politics and Trump in particular?” The situation has absolutely allowed a different public face to America’s morality. For whatever reason, he was a change agent. I think technology—24-hour news stations and social media—had a great deal to do with it. It enabled it. The fact is that, until Trump appeared on the scene, there was always pushback. Whether it was the church saying, “You shouldn’t say those things. You shouldn’t even think them, but you most certainly shouldn’t say them.” Or academics saying, “That’s incorrect. That’s not right.” Whether it was society in general or your parents—it doesn’t matter anymore. Those things were said and as a result it’s now acceptable to say them publicly. And social media invites participation where everyone feels, right or wrong, that they have a say.But in collapsing that distance between the powerful and not-so-powerful, social media creates an opportunity for people to call out questionable or unethical actions. It also informs the way we communicate and our ability to be empathetic. Even when you and I are speaking, I’m sensitive to and aware of the tone of your voice. Sometimes there’s hesitation, sometimes there’s enthusiasm. I don’t think we’re born empathetic; the only way that comes to be is by interacting with people in real time, usually in front of you. Those abilities and aptitudes are like a muscle. The more abstracted you become, the more you fall back on your own prejudices. It all moves forward so quickly. You become angrier more quickly. There’s no subtlety or way of measuring a reaction.Any discussion of whether advances in technology encourage us to behave in ways we otherwise wouldn’t makes me think immediately of Anthony Weiner, a man who seems constitutionally incapable of not sending women pictures of his penis. Without the technological tools, though, wouldn’t his need for approval, or his propensity for risky behaviour—pick your explanation—just find another outlet?I suspect he would have found a different outlet and it probably wouldn’t have had the same audience. He would’ve done something. He sounds frankly pathological. On a slightly less dramatic or repulsive level, I do think one behaves differently given the technological resources. Men tweet things to women they wouldn’t necessarily say to their face. People accuse people of things they wouldn’t necessarily say in person. I think there’s no doubt about it.You mentioned problems of abstraction. What about in combat? If we take humans further and further from the battlefield and let drones do the killing for us, do we create a moral distance from our actions? That’s the question that many people have. Are you making killing too easy? I spoke with Eric Zimmerman, who is a game designer. He talked about the magic circle. It’s where the game takes place, and you understand that the way you operate within this magic circle is not the way you operate in real life. What happens when warfare becomes the magic circle? From what I understand, the young people who are operating the drone equipment on the launch end come with a history of using these video games. They literally have the eye and agility for it. It does abstract you. But from the research I did, I promise you the people who are launching these drones don’t get a free lunch. In other words, they have problems and guilt. It’s not as if they walk away feeling like it’s easy.Or like it doesn’t carry consequences.I think they’re very much aware if they’ve killed people.I’ve suddenly been hearing people cite climate change, resource scarcity, or overpopulation as reasons they’re hesitating to have a child. Is there a moral responsibility to think about where the world is heading before having a baby?I don’t know. I’ve reproduced once and that was enough. It’s very expensive and exhausting. I don’t regret it for a moment. I think that if there’s a moral obligation, it’s to stick around and try your best to sort it out. It comes down to decency and indecency. I’ve traveled all over the world and lived everywhere under very different circumstances. I don’t need an interpreter or a priest to recognize what kindness is.Can that kindness be programmed into robots? Can morality be standardized? One has to put it in perspective. While we’re arguing the pros and cons, technology is moving forward. It’s the same with making babies. We can put a moratorium on altering genes, but guess what? In China, they’re going to do what they’re going to do. We might be thinking one way about robots, but in another country they’ll be programming robots in a different way. That said, it’s going to be quite a while before robots get to the point where they’re operating in ways that aren’t programmed by human beings.But some of the technology that’s being discussed, whether it’s five or fifty years from fruition, is bananas. It stretches belief and comprehension. Is there a danger that the conversations around the ethics of that technology will be limited to the people who happen to get it?I agree with you entirely in terms of that concern. The people who are inventing the future of technology, and as a result have so much impact on our lives, are very removed from the people who will take full advantage of the technology. All this technology is coming from publicly traded businesses. The first obligation of the CEO of a company, especially if it’s publicly traded and owned, is to its shareholders to increase value of the stock. It’s not altruism.That’s scary. I find myself scared a lot.Me too!I’m scared about what strikes me as a moral failure in response to the refugee crisis. I’m scared about robots stealing my job. I’m scared that it doesn’t matter if robots steal my job, because we’ll soon have made the earth too hot for anyone to live. How do I get through that fear?You keep thinking, this can’t get any worse, and then actually it does, or it gets worse in a different way. What I can say is that if you look for something where you feel as though you’re making a difference, that changes things. For me, it was to join the board of Relief International. You take a step back. I don’t know about the rest. I know one has to believe in the best, otherwise you just crawl under a rock. Come out from under the rock. It’s very bad for your complexion.
Free the Roses

On the bloom of spectacular decline.

“I mean, there’s no work involvedin being a rose, it seems.As soon as God looks out the window,he creates the house.”— Rainer Maria Rilke, Les Roses“Can we complete ourselves like roses do?”—Rainer Maria Rilke, Les RosesA guide to making roses bloom on a specific date, for a special occasion, is divided into four elements: timing, technique, hedging your bets, and considerations. Addressed to home gardeners in San Francisco, the guide minus context is one of the two most applicable advice columns I’ve read this year, the other being an op-ed in the Washington Post encouraging Chelsea Clinton, for the sake of her “political future,” to “disappear.” For me a garden seems unlikelier to have than a political future. Still, I am interested in how roses live. I find out, for instance, that the first auroral blooms in the International Test Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon arrived by the end of March, as they did last year and the year before and as they did not in the years before that, when the seasons had order. Gardeners talking to newspapers are sometimes concerned, knowing that a backlash to the early warmth, a frost in mid-April, can blight a rose before it fully lives. By summer the bloom cycles are easier to control, and begin when the gardener “deadheads” the roses, inducing new life; when it is warmer the blooming season is longer, which sounds ideal. Not so, explains an Australian rose grower, saying that a shorter hibernation means “the roses are being put under more stress.”This delicate internal clock is one thing that makes the rose a dread metaphor for romantic love, and for years, in fact for the first decade of my sexual life, I refused to accept a single stem from a single new lover. Timing was at the heart of my superstition, which I expressed as a resistance to clichés. Yet the week I got engaged to a man I had known for a month, I paid a studio visit to the artist Scott Campbell, whose main medium is tattooing, and who demonstrated a homemade, prison-style tattoo gun by inking, on my ankle, a classic long-stemmed rose from his repertoire. Things that were sudden also felt right to me at the time, and forgetting that I had not planned to get a tattoo, or that I would not have a picked a rose for myself, I stipulated only that Campbell draw it with thorns (no trope is more personally irritating than that of a woman who, in love, becomes defenseless). Four years later, the petals retain the impression of a velvety rubescence, despite being inked in plain black.I feel like, what’s the point of a rose? Does the rose need a point?* * *Maybe my tattoo has fostered a frequency illusion, but I swear that the traditional flowerage, in traditional red, is a trend gone strong. Over a dozen or so seasons, the rose has cropped up as a motif or ingredient in runway and off-runway fashion, organic and “natural” beauty products, fragrances for people under the age of 34, and certain romanticizing strains of reluctantly contemporary art. A beloved museum show of 2016, held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, was Alex Da Corte’s “Free Roses,” named for a dream of buying all the roses from a roadside flower-seller and giving them away. One of my favourite people is a painter, Sam McKinniss, who mixes carmine and white over silver to make livid roses reminiscent of Fantin-Latour, and if I could have any new sculpture, it would be the one by Jesse Darling involving an artificial bloom at the neck of a plastic one-litre bottle, an IV bag filled with anti-freeze, hooked on a bungee cord, and a homemade, ersatz gun, all wired together to look like a dish from an anarchofeminist cookbook. On social media, whether the feed is primarily aesthetic (Instagram), socialist and literary (Twitter), or aesthetic and literary (Tumblr), I see bright or dark red roses “everywhere,” where they used to be shunned: they are your grandmother’s and your mother’s roses, now embroidered on satin bombers or black leather winklepickers or handbags, enamel-pinned on totes and blue denim jackets, printed on slipdresses, plucked from the nearby bodega and posed in a “selfie” or still life (to me a still life of one’s posessions is also a kind of “selfie,” my least favourite word) that is taken on a rose-gold iPhone 6, the lens smeared a little with face oil for an ad hoc soft-focus glow, a picture that seems to say, “Funny. Red roses for me.”Those are the words said to have been thought by Jacqueline Kennedy on the Love Field in Dallas, Texas around noon on November 22, 1963, when she and John F. landed and she was handed a bouquet. The state’s official flower is a yellow rose, so yellow are the roses given to visiting dignitaries, but on the second day of the President’s visit there was a city-wide shortage. Red was the next-best colour. A field called love. A wool bouclé suit in Mattel Barbie pink, originally designed by Chanel but reproduced by a Seventh Avenue tailor, a Polish Jew who immigrated to New York City in 1952, so that the First Lady could say it was “made in America.” The script by Noah Oppenheim for the Pablo Larraín film Jackie contains, in place of her thought, “a beat, as she eyes the crimson blossoms,” before she is dazed into smiling by the noise of the crowd. (Henry Green, in his 1946 novel Back, shows a soldier coming home with one leg, having lost the other “for not seeing the gun beneath a rose,” a worst-case definition of sub rosa that the dead Jackie might have appreciated. Darling’s afore-described sculpture, Gun I (2014, remixed 2016), puts it similarly.) Hours later she will begin to be grateful for the crowds, the photographed evidence for her refusal to see “Jack” as a casualty, which he is in a strict sense. Nothing’s heroic about dying in a convertible. Yet the rain had gone, the sky was clean and bright, the weather in essence was prepped for a celebration to which the witnesses had invited themselves, and so as a symbol or catalyst for the loss of “our freedoms,” few events are so endless as Kennedy’s death. Red on a sunny day remains unreal.[[{"fid":"6700106","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":"800","width":"1200","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]JackieJackie, as played by Natalie Portman, appears like we’ve never quite seen her, a figment inferred from two startling, frangible images on historical record: the wife holding a man’s head together in a seat “full of blood and red roses,” as she’d later recall; and the widow coming home still stubbornly dressed in red-splattered pink, as if declaring her consanguinity with the man who hadn’t lately shared her bed. “Let them see what they’ve done,” said Jackie in life as in the film, though she did not know who “they” were. Everything she wanted was borrowed, even her flair for a tragedy. She was sure in her misapprehensions. She may not have remembered that it was Mamie Elizabeth Till who declared, eight years and three months earlier, that the funeral of her teenage son would be open-casket and open to press, saying, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” Today at the Whitney Museum there is a painting by Dana Schutz of Emmett Till in repose, ripping the sight from its time and making it more awful and fresh than any black-and-white photograph. I found it impossible to look closely at the face of the boy as seen by Schutz, and kept refocusing on a big vermillion rose she affixed to the casket, a rose, not found in the photographs, that begs the interpretation: here is a Catholic ex voto, as ornate and fetishistic and tacky as anything Catholic, for a martyr who deserves to be made canonical, to be hung in museums. Considering the trendiness of roses, I felt the gesture gave credence to another reading: here is a white artist who has noticed black death for the first time as a trend in the news. I wondered, irrelevantly, how the early Christians would have reacted had the daughter of a Roman centurion learned to make woodcuts, and done the cover of Foxe’s.By coincidence or not, the year Jackie dodged a bullet and tried to make John F. a martyr was also the year Jessica Mitford, the English aristocrat turned socialist and journalist stateside, published what remains our best dissection of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. Mitford describes a vast coalition of florists whose profits depend heavily on people dying for others to grieve, and whose spokespeople refer to funeral announcements that say please omit flowers or in lieu of flowers, please donate to charity as being “derogatory to flowers.” She finds the President of the Society of American Florists expressing the gravest fear, that “funeral directors, as well as florists, are in danger of being swept away along with sentiment and tradition.” A little swept away himself, he wasn’t remiss: sentiment at large could be seen as embattled by common sense and matters of survival, as when Lynn Anderson sang, “I beg your pardon / I never promised you a rose garden,” and also by something strange to common sense, which we call the contemporary. A 1966 profile of Cy Twombly in Vogue, showing the artist at his Roman palazzo, noted that in “certain quarters, where it is assumed that avant-garde American artists should live in avant-garde American discomfort,” he was “suspected of having fallen for ‘grandeur,’ and somehow betrayed the cause.” Two years earlier, Twombly had shown “Nine Discourses on Commodus,” an immediate response to Kennedy’s death in which gored and dripping roses, paired up like entrance and exit wounds, figure huge; and had been dismissed as a messy, reactionary, basically irredeemable classicist by those in favour of material austerity. His detractors, like the artist-critic Donald Judd, believed they saw the future in the spirit of minimalism, but Twombly saw through the future to the spectacular decline, and turned out to be right.[[{"fid":"6700116","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":"688","width":"1350","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Cy TwomblyIn the fall of 1986, the President, who was Ronald Reagan, proclaimed the rose to be the “national floral emblem” of the United States of America. After that the bloom came pretty quickly off the symbol. “I hate roses,” Twombly told Vogue in a second profile, this one at a Gaetan villa, in 1994. “Don’t you? It’s all right if you can hide them in a cutting garden, but I think a rose garden is the height of ick.” Vogue must have concurred, because by the time of my white suburban prom in Southern Ontario, a chronotope not rife with sophistication, everyone knew a corsage or spray of roses was embarrassingly formal, too dressy, overdetermined. A chill girl wanted a silver heart necklace from Tiffany, and later in the 2000s, living under the shared aesthetic of Marc Jacobs and Sofia Coppola, she wanted hand picked bunches of daisies and a white iPod loaded with post-punk. Long-stemmed red roses were about as welcome a gift as an Andrea Bocelli CD, and were used to signal melodramatic irony (see: American Beauty, a movie that can only be rated relative to nighttime soap operas) and to make, depending on the audience, a fun game or borderline mockery (or both) of heteromantic ideation (see: the central schtick of The Bachelor).“We both know it’s not fashionable to love me,” sings Lana Del Rey, proudly, on her 2015 album Honeymoon. Were Lana’s brand of Americana to have its own flag, it would be a print on satin, not silk, of the opening shot in Blue Velvet. A film by David Lynch, released the year Reagan issued the proclamation about the rose. A white picket fence against the sky with the red double blooms, a visual on the phrase “newly patriotic.” Newly hip, too. Lana and I both know it’s trendier now to be a bit unfashionable. What she calls “my mother’s suburban glamour” and I call the “lil’ bourgeois aesthetic” entails a somewhat wishful, somewhat wry interest in signifying the deluxe, in looking like the return of the middle class to cul-de-sacs on golf courses, to white-cloth restaurants and daytime gin in midtown. Roses by other names include: rhinestone clip-on earrings, long nude nails, marabou mules, blouses buttoned all the way up or black lace bodysuits. Wristwatches with gold faces and leather bands to match slim gold-tipped cigarettes. Eyeshadow to match light blue jeans, high-waisted and cropped to make ankles sexy. I personally know five women under the age of 34 who own wool bouclé skirt-suits, and none of them live in the White House. These are women who have never been called “young ladies,” who have uneasy permalance relationships with corporate employers, who have breakfast at Duane Reade instead of Tiffany’s, and who, if they get married, do not then expect to be happier.These are not all white women, I should say, but I should also say that my ideas of “suburban” and “middle class” were formed in whiteness and by trying to fit in. Ditto my sense of what’s fancy. To my friend Durga, whose family moved to Canada from India before she was born, roses smell neither rich nor sweet but neutral. To my friend Tara, who moved with her mother to Canada from Iran in her teens, rosewater is an ingredient slightly less common than sugar. I recently got entranced with a video in which Princess Nokia, a Nuyorican recording artist in the Bronx, makes her own rosewater facial mist with fresh petals, agua de Florida, and water to steam, poured into a dollar-store spray bottle. (“Most flowers have a gender identity,” she explains, unscientifically. “Roses are like the most female.”) Her tender, easy process gave me the meaning of “self-care,” a concept that hadn’t previously appealed to me, as it sounded like phoning and ordering flowers to your own bedside; when I saw it in practice, not exactly as preached by Audre Lorde, it looked akin to the kinds of (in)activity our mothers called “relaxing” and “mindless,” the face masks in front of the television and the forty-minute bubble baths. Self-care seems better when it means something like “tending your own garden.”* * *There has been, for like a hundred years, a heady socialist overtone to the subgenus Rosa. “Bread and roses,” the titular line in a 1911 ode by James Oppenheim to the American women’s movement, became a famous demand at worker’s strikes and a trade union’s motto (histories differ as to whether the union organizer Rose Schneiderman, who demanded bread and roses in a speech the same year, inspired or was inspired by Oppenheim). In the winter of 1912, women led a massive two-month textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, chanting, “Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too.” Those who are needy are also, and equally, desirous. This is a message so basic it should never have gone out of style.The thinker and writer Jacqueline Rose, in her recent book Women in Dark Times and elsewhere, argues that the Polish, Jewish, and Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was a moral and sensual force and a changeable spirit who thought “passion—like politics—was a question of freedom.” Nicknamed “Red Rosa” as she climbed to prominence in Germany’s Social Democratic Party and “Bloody Rosa” after she broke ranks and was imprisoned for radical actions, she was described by comrades as “tiny, fragile” and “selfless” and by the prosecutors who imprisoned her as “rootless.” The image stemming from these descriptions is of a gift rose in crimson, her leaves and thorns lightly intact, living her shortened life in a vase on a pedestal. Obviously this is more romantic than accurate: Luxemburg, who has also been described as one of the twentieth century’s best thinkers, believed in spontaneity and permanent change and identified mostly with birds. Her view on the Russian Revolution was romantic and accurate at once, as like a Brontë heroine rushing to love, she could see it was doomed but believed in it anyway (or meted her belief according to the measure of its doom, depending on your reading of her mind). Rose sees the conflict between Lenin and Luxemburg in psychoanalytic terms, saying that while Lenin fixated on the size of a problem, Luxemburg laid fingers on the deeper cause, or the inner meaning, and so was “offering a counter-erotics of revolution.” Assuming she cared for her namesake flower, this revolutionary, this determined internationalist, would have been disturbed to find the rose a symbol of state and national pride, or of a woman’s welcome possession by a lover.Luxemburg wrote in a 1911 article, “Peace Utopias,” that the war-and-peace dialectic in capitalism, responsible for an expensive international arms race that was supposed to end and be ended with “world peace,” was proof that “the roses of capitalist profit-making and class domination also have thorns for the bourgeoisie, which it prefers to wear as long as possible round its suffering head, in spite of all pain and woe, rather than get rid of it along with the head on the advice of the Social Democrats.” (Eventually it would be the Social Democrats who, two months after the end of World War One, had Luxemburg executed for her Communism. Remember the Queen of Hearts? “For painting my roses red / Someone will lose his head.”) From prison, where she spent time with prostitutes, Luxemburg wrote a sweeping piece of literary criticism in which she cast the crown of roses a little differently, fashioning an answer to Tennyson’s old “rose of womanhood” in a passage on prostitution in Russian literature. Unlike his English and French counterparts, says Luxemburg,“the Russian artist … dignifies the prostitute and rehabilitates her for the crime that society has committed on her by letting her compete with the purest and loveliest types of womanhood for the heart of the man. He crowns her head with roses and elevates her, as does Mahado his Bajadere [in Goethe’s poem ‘Der Gott und die Bajadere’] from the purgatory of corruption and her own agony to the heights of moral purity and womanly heroism.”It’s funny how many contradictions elicited by the rose, bred by its infamous symmetry, can be addressed by saying that the rose both has and is currency. Used as legal tender by seventeenth-century royals in Western Europe, today roses are used by sex workers online to euphemize pay, as in “300 roses per hour.” Roses in emoji form are also used, on Twitter, to signal membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a left-wing populist organization whose ranks have nearly tripled in the last six months, and whose agenda is more or less set against global capital. Because some of the Democratic Socialists are also members of a partly fictitious, partly metafictitious group known as “Bernie Bros,” there are liberals who think the rose emoji is to the left or the sometimes-called “alt left” what the frog emoji is to the Breitbartians (a longer word for barbarians) of the “alt right.” The idea here, if there is one, is that the rose is a cover for the stench of rank masculinity, but to think that any one group, even if it were male-dominated, could usurp a symbol so classic and storied is ridiculous. Before, during, and after Pepe, a green frog signifies little beyond the princely delusions of laughable men. A frog does not speak to human dignity. A rose still does. When a friend texts me a rose, she is saying not to worry about my worth.As for what it says about my political or more personal nature that I prefer the newer rose emoji, thorny and dissolute and darker, visibly dying, I don’t feel like explaining it. Frankenstein said it best in The Bride of Frankenstein, iterating to his creator that yes, he understands his fate, knows which side he’s seen to be on: “I love dead,” he says. “Hate living.” I love cemeteries for being and for remaining the only solid grounds, whereas everything else solid, as you may have heard, melts into air. I love the way Twombly painted dead heads of empire in the Sixties, and the way Nobuyushi Araki, the Japanese photographer, answered an interviewer who asked how he made old-fashioned flowers look hot: “Why do they come across as erotic? Because I shot them.” I love when Lana wishes she were already dead. I know what Jacqueline Rose means when she says “capitalism cannot hide its ugliness from the world (periodically revealing that ugliness is simply the obverse of its inhuman powers of endurance).” Ugliness may be human, and more original than beauty; beauty lapses easily into cliché, but then suggests that clichés, the good ones at least, begin as efforts to describe the irreducible. I would love to buy roses to watch them die. I don’t buy them. I would never be able to throw them out.
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. Her illness began shortly after 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.”
Whatever Happened to Virginia Van Upp?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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