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'Despair is a Second Contagion': An Interview with Elisa Gabbert

Talking to the author of The Unreality of Memory about predicting disaster, criticism of self-contemplation, and a post-truth world.

Rulo

I knew we were only going to Rulo to make up for his getting so drunk he slept in. Rulo was an apology.

'When Humans Get Involved in Anything, it Can Lead to Mistakes': An Interview with Sarah Weinman

The editor of Unspeakable Acts on the problems inherent in true crime reporting, the human desire for narrative, and the failings of the criminal justice system. 

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‘Despair is a Second Contagion’: An Interview with Elisa Gabbert

Talking to the author of The Unreality of Memory about predicting disaster, criticism of self-contemplation, and a post-truth world.

When the pandemic first hit, I checked every hour or so monitoring the increase of cases in the United States. “Ten cases in Colorado,” I’d tell my husband. “And a new one in New Mexico.” Then our family got sick at the beginning of February, and in my Theraflu-induced haze I scrolled through dozens of news pages reporting on COVID symptoms, my heart beating faster as I read each list. I do this: obsess, especially over disaster, or storms, or any element of life I can’t control, as though infusing as much information about it as I can into my brain will somehow allay the fear. The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert (FSG) felt like this: perfectly synthesized research about facets of human fear in twelve essays. When Gabbert mentioned something about megastructures, or herbs like asafoetida, I went into an internet rabbit hole, scrolling through dozens and dozens of Reddit posts of objects of unimaginable size, or reviewing studies on Pubmed of herbs reportedly used to “cure” hysteria. Most of all, The Unreality of Memory caused me to question myself and my place in the world. Not in an existential way; Gabbert’s essays provided context for the role of humanity in a world of chaotic disaster. Those events which are uncontrollable, unavoidable. In “Doomsday Pattern,” Gabbert relays stories from Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, a collection of testimonies from survivors. One particular story gripped me, in which Alexievich spoke of meeting an old man in a dead village. “Aren’t you afraid?” she asked. He answered: “Of what? You can’t be afraid the whole time, a person can’t do that; some time goes by, and ordinary life starts up again.” I take this thought with me when I put my mask on to buy groceries, or when I see people eating out at restaurants, walking through malls with their masks slung beneath their chins, sucking on sodas from the food court. When pandemic restrictions were first put in place, the grocery stores were either deserted or had people lined up around the building, waiting to get in. The aisles were half-empty; no toilet paper, bags of flour. Even cheese. And if you went at night, just before closing, it felt a bit like a ghost town, complete with an eerie cast to the empty parking lot and a slight sense of guilt for getting tortillas for dinner or a last-minute snack. The Unreality of Memory breaks apart the most looming threat to human existence—disaster—and examines it through facets: how our news reports it and how we digest that news; how we view ourselves and how that, itself, may be unreliable; our unstable sense of happiness; our historical understanding of disaster; how our society has treated those we deem “dangerous” or “untrustworthy,” which is its own kind of disaster. How does a person handle what can’t be controlled? Mask orders are still in place where I live, and were just extended for thirty days. But it seems as though many people have resumed with ordinary life. The parking lots are full; no one is waiting in lines anymore. A few people slip into Walmart mask-free. The old man in the dead village might be right: a person can’t be afraid all the time, even if they need to be. Ordinary life pulses on. Over email, I talked to Gabbert about the nature of self, the desire for normalcy, and whether or not a stable reality truly exists. Elle Nash: So much of your work right now feels extremely timely (and I bet you're tired of thinking about that). Perhaps that is what it is like carrying around thoughts of disaster—on a long enough timeline, a disaster will be inevitable, confirming all our fears. While I was reading your essay on pandemics, I wondered, is it surreal for you, having written “The Great Mortality” in 2018, even quoting Dr. Anthony Fauci, to now live through this? Elisa Gabbert: That’s the thing, so many disasters are inevitable that if you just keep predicting them, at some point you’re going to be right (and in an infinite multiverse, every disaster is inevitable and doomed to repeat infinitely!). One of my reviews was given the headline, “She predicted a pandemic”—of course, I didn’t predict anything, I just read some books by people who study this stuff. What did seem clear to me was that the election of Donald Trump was going to make us uniquely vulnerable to disaster as a country, even more so than we already were. But the fact that the book was released during a pandemic was just dumb luck (dumb bad luck, to be clear), and I don’t think I was really any more psychologically prepared for this than anyone.  You quote Barbara Tuchman: “What was the human condition after the plague? Exhausted by deaths and sorrows and the morbid excesses of fear and hate, it ought to have shown some profound effects, but no radical change was immediately visible. The persistence of the normal is strong.” You're in the process of promoting your book right now; anyone who has had a book come out in the last six months has really had to switch it up. Do you think there is a strong desire at things like virtual literary events to continue what is normal, even though it very much isn't normal? I think there’s a strong desire to act normal everywhere. People get very self-righteous about it, but apart from the flashes of terrified awareness, or the truly unbearable days or weeks, really, what is the alternative? Should we all just run around screaming all the time? Part of me wants to do that! Part of me absolutely wants to check myself into an institution for an old-fashioned rest cure. But most of us have responsibilities to other people. I mean even if you don’t have kids or a family, you kind of have responsibility if you live in a society. If you don’t normalize this hell life a little, you just spiral into useless despair, and you can drag everyone around you down with you—despair is a second contagion. But you asked about book promotion. So I guess I’ll say that one of the few remaining things I’m truly grateful for is literature—when so much of life has been stripped away, books are still a reliable source of something like happiness, the life of the mind. So I don’t feel particularly guilty or conflicted about promoting my book, within reason. (This is my life! My one wild and precious life!!) The essay in your book which struck me the most was about vanity. I couldn’t stop thinking about it—how obsessed we are with our reflections, the implications of preferring it over something unfiltered and undoctored—and by that I also mean unreflected. For years I’d thought of my mirror self as the more accurate version, rather than the photo being true, and now I just feel a little fucked up about it all. Yet, it somehow feels important for me to obsess over this; like contemplation on the nature of selfhood. I wonder what you make of the term “navel-gazing” in relation to self-contemplation—is it valid to criticize this kind of contemplation as “excessive,” or is it a way to dismiss those of us who do get something out of it? A few people have told me that this was their favorite essay, and I wonder if it’s not that it’s also rather uncannily timely—we are all seeing ourselves on video much more than usual lately, and that much self-seeing seems to trigger an unexpected crisis of the self, an othering of the self (that can’t be me!). Anyway—I think selfishness and self-contemplation are very different. Philosophers and monks and saints have been doing the latter since before there were mirrors. The term “navel-gazing” strikes me as deeply anti-intellectual. Consciousness is one of the great mysteries! It’s more interesting than lint, and I don’t even find lint uninteresting (why is it always the same blue-gray color?).  Why do you think the self (as a concept) is drawn so much to… well, thinking about itself? Because it’s inescapable, I guess. When you’re lying alone and awake in the dark, your self is still there. More terrifying were your descriptions of illnesses in which patients could no longer recognize their own reflection. It's harrowing to think of—that this loss of recognition can occur. This isn't a question, just a realization that selfhood seems rather fragile when faced with the countless actors against brain health, or even overall health and safety. The essay felt like a fulcrum of the whole book: the fragility of self seems hinged on whether we can keep our environment inhabitable, keep ourselves safe from disaster, or viruses, or threats, which as a collective species, is unfathomable. When you were assembling the manuscript, how did you decide the order you would present each piece? I’ve always found sections very helpful when ordering a manuscript, because it reduces the number of possible combinations, or at least makes it feel like there are fewer combinations. Once I’d organized the essays into three sections, the order of the sections felt obvious, so it was just a matter of determining the order within each section. One thing I definitely didn’t want to do was front-load the best stuff, because I hate when you’re reading a collection and it starts to lose your interest instead of building momentum. I decided to start with the crowd-pleaser stuff, the big explosions, etc.—when I was shopping the book proposal, a couple of editors told me they wished the whole book was just a longer version of the first section. But the middle section is my favorite. Also, sometimes I hint at something in one essay that is later explored at more length in another, and that helped me order the collection as well—the question of whether I wanted those parts to serve as call or echo. The echoes made the work feel cohesive, inter-relating all of these elements (I felt like "Witches and Whiplash" and "Sleep No More" were so intertwined). In "Witches and Whiplash" you yoke concepts of classical hysteria, conversion disorder, #metoo, and the tangential experience of pain together, along with an analysis of crowd catharsis and the contagious possibility of suicide and violence; you also state you took fifty pages of notes for this particular essay alone, and that it led to a kind of frustration in the many threads you wanted to follow. Can you tell me about your process in forming and completing this essay? Those were the last two pieces I wrote (not counting the epilogue, which I decided to add later, at the suggestion of my editor); my deadline to turn in the manuscript was approaching and I was kind of unraveling. Originally, these two essays were supposed to be three. My book proposal had them as “A philosophical/personal essay on pain, both psychic and physical”; “An essay on sleep and awareness and states in between”; and, “An essay on ‘mania’: fandom, panics, hysteria, delusions, and witch hunts.” My entry into the sleep essay (I’m a sometimes insomniac) was an experience I had with anesthesia, so it just made sense to combine the consciousness essay with the pain essay—they were so intimately related. I ended up deciding that piece is really about suffering, and the meaning of happiness. But formally it’s pretty similar to the other essays in the collection. “Witches and Whiplash” is an outlier—it’s the longest piece in the book and the only one that’s divided into titled sections. I actually stole that structure from Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti, an amazing book that I used as a source for the essay. As you mention, there’s that meta moment at the end where I confess that I over-researched the essay; there was just so much material and it all felt so painfully relevant to what we were, and are, living through. It could have been a whole book! I took so many notes that I couldn’t see my way into writing the piece in my typical structure—if I’m writing a four- or five-thousand-word essay, I usually break it into three or four sections or “movements.” I needed some more granular organizing principle. Crowds and Power is organized into lots of short, titled sections, shorter than chapters, with names like “The Discharge,” “The Eruption,” and, “Slowness, or the Remoteness of the Goal.” So that’s how I ended up structuring the essay, and it gave me a way to talk about all these different but similar concepts, which are basically all exterior physical and social manifestations of confusing and traumatic interior states. That’s the connection between witch hunts and whiplash. In “True Crime” you explore the evolution of news and the nature in which journalists’ biases—conscious or not—lead them to pursue work that fits the current narrative. It’s self-fulfilling: the 24-hour news cycle exists, so news companies feel pressure to fill the space, yet they created the cycle in the first place. And like that, people who read the news begin to expect it. “This is how it becomes parasitic: We need the drugs, and they need us to buy them,” you state. You also bring up the responsibility of the news consumer, equally important, in our current climate. OpenAI is creating algorithms that mimic the sound and texture of human-written text; I see friends online routinely engage with Twitterbots without realizing they are, in fact, not real; I’ve run across AI-created articles in major magazines, some egregiously bad, but others almost undetectable; and deepfakes, that beautiful buzzword, become more and more convincing with terrifying awe. All of this essentially constructs chambers around our individual paradigms, making it more difficult to parse, for the uneducated news consumer, what is real and what isn’t. But like the drug it is, people want to believe their selected narratives—and they’ll find and seek the information out there to confirm it. Do you think we’re moving into a post-truth world? What does that world look like, to you? I think the internet, social media, and technology in general accelerate and make more terrifying what was probably always already true, that “reality,” as we perceive it in the present and preserve it in memory, is highly unstable. The equipment we use to process the world is fallible at every level—the news media is fallible because our minds are fallible. The errors keep compounding. History books are fallible too, of course—when I was a kid there were still high school textbooks in the south that called the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression.” This isn’t to say there aren’t any truths, that there aren’t any facts—slavery was real, the Holocaust was real. The migrant camps are real. But we seem incapable of propagating these facts across time and space in such a way as to produce agreement, on the one hand, that genocide and white supremacy are wrong, are evil, and on the other hand, that these things are even happening. And so, they continue to happen. Holocaust denial predates the internet, but I do think it makes denial easier, by providing unmediated sources that people can convince themselves are reliable. (I don’t know the solution.) What got you interested in writing about doom and disaster in the first place? Broadly, it was some combination of the direst election year of my lifetime so far (this one has proven to be direr) and the pervasive sense of—not even climate anxiety, really, but climate grief?—among people my age and younger, especially. When Trump was elected I felt some sense of urgency to write about apocalyptic feelings. But as you intimated in your first question, I’m pretty sick of it all now, of peering over the precipice. I’m glad there are people who still want to read about earthquakes and plagues though. Somebody has to! When I look at the cover... I think I see a floating iceberg. With a hole beneath, or perhaps its shadow. Because of the title and its relation to the ethereal and personal experience of one’s mind, it’s like a Rorschach test. I ask myself: Is the blue the sky, and the red the sunset? Is it surrealist, like a floating boulder? What is the story behind this image—were you involved in the process of developing it, did you get to choose or throw out concepts early on when creating it? When I filled out my cover questionnaire, a brief survey about what I did or didn’t want the book to look like (I remember one of the questions was “What is your least favorite color”!), I sent along one image for inspiration: a paperback edition of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which has Magritte’s The Glass Key on the cover, a boulder floating among mountains. I love the look of mid-century philosophy texts, and they influenced my title choice too (all those X-of-Y-type titles—The Poetics of Space, The Jargon of Authenticity). The designer, Thomas Colligan, did something I loved on the first try. It recalls the Magritte almost subliminally, and is even more ambiguous: Is it a presence or a void? A hyperobject, a black hole, a blind spot, an asteroid? I find it to be wonderfully ominous.
‘When Humans Get Involved in Anything, it Can Lead to Mistakes’: An Interview with Sarah Weinman

The editor of Unspeakable Acts on the problems inherent in true crime reporting, the human desire for narrative, and the failings of the criminal justice system. 

Halfway through Unspeakable Acts (HarperCollins), the new anthology of true crime writing edited by Sarah Weinman, I saw myself as clearly as if I were looking in a mirror. In Alice Bolin’s essay “The Ethical Dilemma of True Crime,” the Dead Girls author identifies a dichotomy in true crime lovers: “There are people who consume all murder content indiscriminately, and another subset who only allow themselves to enjoy the ‘smart’ kind. [...] The prestige true-crime subgenre has developed its own shorthand, a language to tell its audience they’re consuming something thoughtful, college-educated, public-radio influenced.”  I’ve never thought of myself as a lover of true crime. I would not even list it in my top five favourite genres. Yet I know exactly what Bolin is talking about, because I have watched and listened to nearly all the programs and podcasts she means: Criminal, OJ: Made In America, Wild Wild Country, The Jinx, Making a Murderer, the list goes on and on. I love these types of programs. I’ve downloaded and binged them and lost hours googling their details. But I’ve never really thought of them as “true crime” stories—or myself as a “true crime enthusiast.” Instead, I just think of them as stories, and myself as a viewer, neutral. This is no accident. In this kind of “highbrow” true crime, Bolin says, “the stance of the voyeur, the dispassionate observer, is thrilling without being emotionally taxing for the viewer, who watches from a safe remove.” As a white middle-class person who has never really experienced the direct interference of law enforcement in my life, these types of stories provoke my curiosity without ever forcing me to wrestle with the moral implications of my interest, or their addictiveness. They encourage my natural inclination, which is not to ask too many questions—of them, or of myself. In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis explains that media images of prison have “become so much a part of our lives that it requires a great feat of the imagination to envision life” without the carceral system. The ubiquity of the prison allows us to imagine it as a natural feature of the world like any other, something that cannot be changed or gotten rid of. It is this kind of imagined neutrality that allows many of us to accept and uphold oppressive systems without questioning them. As a genre that frequently relies on and repeats the same kinds of themes and structures (beginning/middle/end, good/evil, success/failure, victim/perpetrator, good cop/bad cop), true crime has historically played a major part in solidifying and entrenching our cultural conceptions of crime and punishment. No matter how much I understand about corruption or misconduct, the foundational elements in the true crime stories I consume often feel fixed, unquestionable: cops, jail, the legal system, all parts of a conveyor belt the real human “characters” in these stories travel along from beginning to end. But true crime is also a genre uniquely positioned to complicate and ultimately dismantle these perceptions. The pieces in Unspeakable Acts explore this potential; they examine the ways in which carelessness, bias or built-in systemic discrimination in the criminal justice system fail victims and perpetrators alike. They talk about what bullets do to bodies, what border agents do to immigrants, what police do to people, what parents do to children, what children do to each other. The book is tonally, stylistically, and thematically diverse. There is also not a single Black author in it. Only one of the contributors, Karen K. Ho, is not white. In a country whose prison system is a direct lineal descendent of the slave trade, in an era where Black writers like Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and Wesley Lowery win Pulitzer Prizes for crime reporting—and in the midst of a fresh and roiling pop-cultural awareness of the inherent white supremacy of law enforcement—it seems like a glaring oversight for a book that wants to demonstrate the expansive potential of true crime writing. Weinman is aware of this problem. She wrote a piece in BuzzFeed that came out just before Unspeakable Acts was released; she also tipped me off to Elon Green’s recent published piece about “The Enduring, Pernicious Whiteness of True Crime.” Throughout our conversation, she was eager to talk about her anthology’s shortcomings as well as its successes. She sees the book, she told me, as a kind of link between true crime’s past and what she hopes will be its future. Emma Healey: I really appreciated this book for the way that it worked to expand my understanding of what true crime can do. Sarah Weinman: I feel like you can’t—or I can’t—put together a collection or a book if I don’t have some kind of underlying argument, or reason for people caring. There had been earlier true crime anthologies; there had been a series called Best American Crime Reporting, which collected the year’s best in true crime. What I concentrated on was mostly that it was, like so many genres, male-centric and very white. True crime is an inherently white genre, which I’m hoping will change. It hasn’t gone far enough. Looking back to how popular Serial was, and how it opened the door to people who, perhaps like yourself, didn’t think of themselves as consumers of true crime... they weren’t aware that true crime is a really elastic, even nebulous genre. Which is generally what I think of all genres, that they’re very porous and they’re in conversation with other genres and that everything is sort of this big soup. That’s better, because it allows for all sorts of different ways of telling stories, or shifting focus and perspective. I remember reading Alice [Bolin]’s piece right around the time it came out, and almost cackling. I just thought, Yeah. We need somebody to interrogate this really close to the bone. I also gravitate more toward “highbrow” true crime, but I think it’s also important to recognize that there are traps in those types of programs and books and podcasts and documentaries. Just because it has a sheen of “respectability” or broadening narratives doesn’t mean that it’s not falling into all the same traps that traditional true crime is falling into. It seems to me as though true crime can be very much used to either pick apart some of these oppressive systems, definitions of “crime and punishment,” the carceral system, all that stuff. But, also, it can be used to reinforce those structures. It can absolutely be used to reinforce those things. And I think that certainly in the last few months, with protests and the various calls to defund police, [there’s a need] to figure out, “Well, who’s the carceral system for? And who is actually benefiting from the way that the criminal justice system is working or mostly failing to work? And who is not just not benefitting but is being absolutely failed by the way that the criminal justice system works?” Obviously in Canada there’s been so much talk about how to address proper reparations to First Nations. That’s gone to some degree, but clearly it cannot go far enough, because the harm that was done was just orders of magnitude more than we’re able to comprehend. It’s the same thing in the States, with respect to Black and brown and other persons of colour. But especially Black people. We have 400 years of slavery that has to be reckoned with. The way that police were set up, which was essentially to enforce white supremacy… you can’t just snap your fingers and undo it. These are gigantic questions, and the structure of true crime storytelling has often not been well-equipped for addressing those gigantic-picture ideas. But in order to properly reflect what is happening in the world, we have to at least try.  There are those more explicit ways that the genre can be set up to elide or ignore the complexity of a lot of these issues. As you mention in the book, people are attracted to a narrative that has a beginning and a middle and an end, certain tropes or types of characters. That is a thing the genre can be drawn towards repeating, that makes it sort of binge-able. But, also, there are less explicit ways that true crime can reinforce those structures, like how a story often has to go through certain channels before you can write about it. There have to be official documents, or transcripts, or people who have gone through the criminal justice system before you can report on what has happened to them. There are some very successful examples in this book of people critiquing those systems as they report on them, but to be writing about these systems and to be working inside of them and also to be actively working to deconstruct them at the same time… it seems like a difficult transition for the genre to make.  When you take real-life trauma and pain and transform it into a story, what gets left out? Often, it’s the messiness. Let’s say you are a victim of sexual assault, or your family member was murdered. That is an abrupt thing that occurs, that act of violence, but the ramifications last often for the rest of that person’s life. And yet they still live, and they still have to function in the world, and sometimes they function quite well, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they do both at the same time. It’s this nonlinear way of living that I don’t think is necessarily reflected in a lot of true crime storytelling. I think it’s a little bit more reflected now, especially in modes of story that aren’t necessarily wedded to a neat and tidy ending, or they might live in the uncertainty a little bit more, or that focus more on the person to whom the worst thing has happened as opposed to the narrative put forward by law enforcement. Because as we continue to see over and over again, the inherent structure of law enforcement and the criminal justice system doesn’t really do a lot for people who are victims of crime. If anything, it can retraumatize them. The nature of interrogations can lead to the wrong person being arrested and spending many years in prison for a crime they may or may not have committed. I also think there hasn’t been enough focus on judges and how they’re frankly not necessarily equipped to deal with humans in administering the law. True crime is this conflict between what the law is supposed to do and isn’t doing, and humans and their understandable emotional needs, and damage. It’s this collision course, and sometimes worse things emerge from that as opposed to better ones.  There was a conversation, I think it was the event that I did at Calgary Wordfest with Karen K. Ho, who was one of the contributors. She had brought up that while she was working on the story that became “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge,” having never reported out true crime, she didn’t really know what the tropes were. But it also meant that she didn’t necessarily get the access to court and to the cops that more traditional crime beat reporters might have. I think that was for the better, because the focus was more on the family and people around the family, and her own experiences in the community. And frankly, those are stories that haven’t been told enough. We need more of that. What do you think needs to happen for true crime to become an expansive and flexible genre that works to critique these systems and center the stories of victims and the people who are oppressed by them? And do you think that will happen? Given the way things are now, the “true crime boom” that’s been building over the past few years, and the [ways] people are currently rethinking their relationships to these systems, do you think things will change, or go back to the status quo?  The true crime industrial complex is really stubborn and hardy. That’s why [in the book’s introduction] I say that true crime has basically been in a moment for centuries, because humans have always been fascinated by blood and gore and extreme behaviour, and people doing the worst possible things that they can imagine. Like, I love what Dateline does, and what 20/20 does, but they have a certain genre formula and I don’t see that changing. They’re not suddenly going to become much more enlightened. But I think representation everywhere is a constant source of conversation and hopefully change, and that has to happen in true crime as well. That was why I wrote the BuzzFeed piece. Because in the wake of the recent protests, I was looking at Unspeakable Acts and just really being brought home that there’s one nonwhite writer and no Black writers. When Black creators get a chance to tell crime stories, what kind of stories are they telling? The more that we have crime stories that reflect the communities who are most impacted, written and produced and created by the people who are most impacted, I think that it will just lead to [the kinds of] stories that are missing right now. If I, a white lady, want to pursue a story involving Black victims, it means that I have to gain the trust of this community. Not that it’s impossible, but they have no reason to trust me, the interloper, in a way that they might be more forthcoming with someone who is part of that community, and understands things that outsiders can’t. In that BuzzFeed piece you mentioned Serial specifically—how it handled its subject very differently than other things like it had done in the past, but also how it was really missing a key understanding of the communities and the cultural nuances at the heart of the story. That’s an interesting thing about the genre as a whole. You can be critiquing the system, seeing part of it for what it is, and missing this whole other crucial aspect of it at the same time. As a journalist I really try hard to be as morally culpable as possible, because, as I’ve said on more than one occasion, I’m essentially contacting someone or cold-calling them or trying to get in touch with them to spill their guts about the worst thing that ever happened to them. And in order to do so I can’t just go in like some callous, parachuting whatever, because they’re gonna clam up. And frankly, why should they tell me anything? I’m not entitled to their story, and no one is [required] to share anything. It’s really important that I keep that in mind, and also just try to be as open and transparent and clear about what may happen if they talk to me, and what could happen if the piece publishes. You can never predict everything and anticipate everything, but we live in an age where everything is even more under scrutiny the moment it’s published, and to not walk sources through that is, I think, a real problem. You talk in the book about the ethically thorny proposition of consuming true crime. Do you feel like writing it is also an ethically thorny proposition? I think they’re connected. I mean, I don’t think you can necessarily divorce the writing or the creating of true crime from the consumption of it. I’ve been fascinated by crime since I was a little girl. I would read up on unsolved murders of sex workers in my hometown, or the murders of girls in and around eastern Ontario that we now know were committed by Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo. To know that Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, among others, were very close to my own age… there’s this identification with the victim. That’s something you do. But what does that actually mean, to “identify with the victim?” Is it real identification, or are you just creating some artificial link between yourself and these girls?  These are just important things to come into. To be mindful that, yes, you’re trying to be as ethically sound as possible, but journalism itself is an ethically thorny enterprise. Anytime that you turn real life into a story and it becomes closer to entertainment, there are always going to be these pitfalls. You might not be able to avoid them, but I think that awareness is always the first good step. What’s it been like for you, as someone who has been interested in true crime from a young age, to watch the evolution that’s been happening over the past five or six years as it’s moved into the mainstream? Like with everything I’ve become fascinated by that at first seemed like only a secret to me or a handful of people, once it becomes more “mainstream,” you become a lot pickier about what you consume. So, yes, I’ve probably listened at least in part to most every true crime podcast, but most of the true crime podcasts out there are not necessarily all that good. But that’s also a function of, I’m a journalist, so I’m going to gravitate more towards those that are reported with rigor and care and empathy, and that have real investigative chops behind them, as opposed to the podcasts where, you know, just a couple of people are talking. That said, one of the contributors to the anthology, Sarah Marshall, co-hosts this amazing podcast with Michael Hobbes called You’re Wrong About, where, yes, it’s two people talking, but the level of research and understanding and flipping scripts is so key. If someone wanted to describe Unspeakable Acts as You’re Wrong About: The Anthology, I wouldn’t put it past them. It’s part of the same overall conversation: rethinking things we thought we knew and seeing them in a different light. My hope is that if there ever is a follow-up anthology or some kind of collection, it would reflect the moment that we’re currently in and all of the conversations that we’re having and continue to need to have, and that the representation is a lot more accurate. I suppose that the collection that I put together is a bridge between how we saw true crime before and how we have to see true crime in the future. [Marshall’s piece, “The End of Evil”] felt like an excellent example of that. It really took something that I thought I knew the story of, and then dug deep to figure out what was actually going on inside of it. I thought it worked really well as a bridge inside the book from one side of it to the other, from the more narrative pieces to the bigger, broader ones. Structuring an anthology is always tricky in terms of what pieces should go where, but I felt like, with this one, I always knew that it had to have that three-part structure. It’s like, “Here are the traditional, excellent longform narrative stories. Then here’s the section where we talk about what true crime is supposed to be doing and how we narrate it and how it should make us uncomfortable.” And then it really opens up in the last section, just rethinking how we even see true crime, and what additional stories we might not necessarily fold into the genre, but we should be folding in.  To go back to Sarah’s piece, until I read it I was massively disinterested in anything to do with Ted Bundy. Just because there was already so much that had been written or televised, and there were podcasts…. that [piece] was a trapdoor into seeing what happened in an entirely different way. Looking at the stories of the people who were harmed and decentralizing the myth of the serial killer. I wanted a story where we were talking about the American fascination with serial killers, but in a way where the script, again, was flipped.  Something I kept seeing in the book was that anytime a person in any of these stories thinks of themselves as purely an observer or a bystander, they’re actually directly implicated. Like the people in that piece who come out to watch Ted Bundy’s execution. Or in [Rachel Monroe’s piece about a romantic scammer, “The Perfect Man Who Wasn’t”], where she gets tricked by the same man who scammed the victims she’s been reporting on. It seemed directly related to the way that I, as a white woman, have often thought about stories about crime and punishment. I think of myself as an observer when I’m actually directly involved in these systems. There’s so much magical thinking related to how we’re supposed to take in true crime. This idea of, I need to consume this story so that if something like that happens to me I’ll react differently. That’s a real problem because it assumes that somehow, whether you realize it or not, there’s some kind of inherent moral superiority in your reaction versus the person who an awful crime was committed against. Like, they’re suddenly worse on the behaviour scale than you are? No. So much of it is dumb random luck. I never think that I’m better than someone just because I haven’t been violently attacked. And frankly, all you have to do is look around, when one in three women have been victims of some kind of sexual assault. Everyone is in the same boat, there’s no moral superiority at all.  So many of the most famous stories about serial killers often involve white women victims who are attacked out of nowhere, when actually the reality of crime is that many of the victims and also many of the people who are disproportionately arrested and charged with crimes are not white. As a white woman who has consumed those narratives, I’ve noticed there’s a weird tendency to center yourself as both someone who that could never happen to and someone who is constantly in danger. When really my life has not been touched by the vagaries of the criminal justice system in the same way many other people’s lives have been. It’s not just luck that these things haven’t happened to me. It’s a tremendous amount of privilege. Absolutely. I’m 41, so that means I was a child in the ‘80s, and the ‘80s was a time when there was this idea of, “Don’t talk to strangers, terrible things may happen.” The Satanic Panic was going on, and there was this real disproportionate idea that terrible things can happen to young, impressionable white children. What is the damage that has been done from that idea? We still need to unpack what that actually means. There’s just so much more work that needs to be done on that scale, in terms of undoing it.  I was thinking of one of the more recent series of CBC’s Uncovered, which I generally like a lot. There was one season on Martinsville, and the Satanic Panic that happened there. Even now, it seems like they’re not really quite sure what happened, not fully cognizant of this series of terrible procedural mistakes and the warping of this idea that you always have to believe the children. We’re still dealing with this conflict between wanting to indulge in believing in extreme behaviour, which I think leads to conspiracy thinking, versus just the everyday horror of what can happen inside a home. That also goes to things like intimate partner violence and violence within communities; somehow they’re just not deemed “worthy” enough for big true-crime storytelling. Or, one of my own pet peeves, which is just revisiting the same famous cases over and over again. I don’t need the 25th version of Ted Bundy unless it’s telling me something absolutely new and fresh. Can we find a new case, or a different case, that tells me something I don’t know?  I think one of the reasons I gravitated a lot towards mid-20th century and more historical stuff was so I didn’t necessarily have to deal head-on with a lot of these things. I could just be like, “I’m dealing with history, so that’s a way for me to think about bigger pictures and try to retroactively apply them to now.” But at the same time, in doing that, it’s like, well, if I’m avoiding the present, what am I actually avoiding here? I think that’s worth interrogating for any journalist, but certainly for me. You’re working on a book now. Do you find that those questions are informing the work that you’re doing currently? I’ll definitely be taking that into account. The story is about the time when William F. Buckley, who founded the National Review and was an architect of the neoconservative movement, helped get this man named Edgar Smith off death row in New Jersey for the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl in the late 1950s. [The book] is about an instance where a major public figure believed in the innocence of a man on death row, and that led to real catastrophic results, because of flawed thinking. What does that do, and who gets damaged as a result? Who got lost? I’m hoping once the book is done and ready for publication, a lot of these questions will be fully explored. It definitely made me see the criminal justice system a little bit differently. I already was, I think, primed to do that, but I think it made me a little more radical about the mistakes that have happened in the pursuit of criminal justice, and how those mistakes keep getting made over and over. That reminds me of Leora Smith’s piece in the anthology [“How a Dubious Forensic Science Spread,” about the history of blood spatter analysis], which absolutely blew my mind. It was such a specific story but also it felt so applicable to so much of what we’ve all been thinking about the criminal justice system lately. It’s so easy to manipulate these systems, but it’s so much harder to unravel and undo the damage that can be done once someone has figured out how to do that. I have a master’s in forensic science, so I’m especially interested in stories about junk science. Forensic science is and should be a scientific discipline, with all of the usual built-in checkpoints that scientific inquiry has. But the problem is that in the courtroom, accepting a technique as valid, it has to go through various hearings, and they’re not necessarily done by people who have a lot of scientific expertise, so it can be really gamed. That’s how junk science can get entrenched. But it’s also about magical thinking. I think a lot about lie detector tests. You can never get that through a courtroom, and yet government organizations like the FBI and the CIA still rely on them for interviewing employees. It’s ridiculous to me! This is not a technique that should ever be anywhere, and yet people are still believing that it has some value. It’s like chasing a white whale. Like, “Well, maybe we can find the lie-detector test that is scientifically accurate.” You might as well be a psychic. But ultimately, the techniques aren’t the issue, it’s human interpretation. Humans get involved in anything, it can lead to mistakes, it can lead to biases, it can lead to all sorts of problems. I think that’s what Leora’s piece brilliantly illustrates. Forensic science is in the middle of its own reckoning, and I think that’s going to continue. That binge-able idea of a straight narrative with a beginning and a middle and an end where there’s a good person and a bad person... that’s the sort of magical thinking you’re talking about. It’s embedded in the ways so many crimes are actually treated and prosecuted. Humans crave narrative, and that’s absolutely true in the criminal justice system. We have an adversarial system, it’s, “Whose story is better, whose story is more believable, who is more credible?” And that creates a lot of problems, especially when the wrong person is deemed “credible.” If we can get away from that and accept the nonlinearity of what actually happens with crimes, especially violent ones, and construct narratives that better reflect that, we are ultimately going to be better off.
Rulo

I knew we were only going to Rulo to make up for his getting so drunk he slept in. Rulo was an apology.

Phil and Dale were too drunk to pick me up when they said they would that morning. I didn’t know Dale was coming so I was only mad at Phil. I texted him, “Dude, not cool” from the conference center in Nebraska City where I was a visiting lecturer. They showed up three hours late. I’d already checked out of my room, briefly having an altercation at the front desk. They’d tried to bill me extra because they thought Phil was my spouse, which he most certainly was not. I met Phil on a volcano thirteen years ago. The volunteer trip was packed with sing-songy optimistic youth from across upper-middle-class North America. He was the only other teenager struggling with the no smoking rule. I was seventeen and sitting at a long wooden table reading Charles Bukowski’s The Pleasures of the Damned when he introduced himself. Looking back now, I can see why Phil pegged me as someone he’d get along with. He told me he was from Nebraska and that his dad was a real-life poet. He pointed at my Bright Eyes shirt and said he personally knew Conor Oberst. He was trying to impress me. It worked. Until then I’d never lived anywhere outside of Fonthill, Ontario—a conservative small town predominantly known for electing a home-schooled 19-year-old as a member of provincial parliament. I didn’t know there were poets who weren’t dead or that you could just know Conor Oberst the same way you know the mail carrier or the cashier at the corner store. As an extension of knowing Phil, I came to imbue Nebraska with an esteem similar to what someone more cultivated would’ve attributed to 1920s Paris. He was beautiful. Thinnish. Curly wheat-blonde hair. A romantic drawl. Well-dressed but ungroomed so his good looks seemed totally accidental. There was never any romance between us. We’d joked about having a sham wedding so I could get American citizenship and he could throw a party but his girlfriend asked us not to. Our friendship was simple but close. We made each other laugh. We had the same spirit. Something in both of us resisted containment. I saw my childhood in his Omaha. He saw himself in my stories of Fonthill. We both listened to Saddle Creek. He was my brother. I still wonder how my life would be if I’d stayed in Omaha last year, a place where, for a month, I’d easily, temporarily fashioned a happy life for myself, instead of returning to Toronto where I’d always felt stuck and unhappy. ***  When the boys finally appeared in the parking lot in a rusty pickup, they had Sushi with them. Sushi was the name given to the three-legged pug by the Insta-ho she was rescued from. It was the only name she’d answer to when she arrived at Phil’s house, extremely traumatized. She was the most amicable creature I’d ever met; cuddly, quick witted, unfalteringly loyal with an astounding memory for each person she encountered. When I opened Phil’s front door after a year away, she greeted me with a stuffed beaver like a little diplomat. “I’m sorry. I fucked up and lost my phone. But we’re going to Rulo.” Phil had bags under his eyes and smelled like my father, a functional alcoholic who died when I was twelve. I couldn’t contain my smile when he said Rulo. Even if everything in his body language—his slumped posture, his faded expression and the way he anxiously ran his hands through his hair—indicated he didn’t share my eagerness. I knew we were only going to Rulo to make up for his getting so drunk he slept in. Rulo was an apology. He didn’t want to go to Rulo. I did.  Dale also smelled like my father but ten times more father-y. “Hey girl, wassuuuuppp…” He was wearing his uniform of camo but had switched from a tie-dye tee to a plaid button-up. Dale had soft dark eyes and gorgeous black hair that fell beneath his toque in loose curls. He was always covered in dirt and paint. He looked like redneck Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He frequently showed up to Phil’s house unannounced to nap on the couch and then leave.  A year ago, during my first trip to Nebraska, Dale had held my hand right before he leaned over the bar and guzzled booze from the tap while the bartender had her back turned. The staff at O’Leaver’s Pub made him take out the garbage and as they laughed at him, he laughed at himself. Outside, he’d asked me about why I was in Omaha and, mistaking his midwestern niceness for earnest curiosity, I started blabbering on about sexual assault.  “C’mon man, that’s not what you fuckin’ lay on a person.”  When the three of us went back to Phil’s, I sat on the cold stairs in the front yard until Dale was gone and didn’t talk to him for the rest of my trip. Phil didn’t invite him over. Without further conversation, he knew not to invite himself in or nap on the couch until I’d left the country. As I’d unloaded my suitcase in Phil’s kitchen after arriving for this trip three weeks ago, I heard a knock on the backdoor. “Hey girl, wassuppp...” I recognized Dale’s drawl. He was shaking a jar of weed in the window. I turned the knob and he pulled me into his chest in a long hug. He smelled like melted plastic and cheeseburgers. When he used the bathroom the scent of cheeseburgers permeated the modest bungalow. He pulled out two minuscule bottles of Jameson from a pocket inside his jacket and we took shots in the living room at ten in the morning before he collapsed into his nap. I wanted to remember him as he appeared in that moment, only a nose and a mouth wrapped in a perfect cocoon of camo. He heard the camera on my phone because I’d foolishly left the sound on. “Are you saving that for the spank bank?” He grinned. Later, on the way to Baker’s Supermarket where I needed to buy shampoo and conditioner, Phil made the decision to instead turn into O’Leaver’s for a quick drink and I instinctually knew there’d be no supermarket and I wouldn’t be showering that night. The bar wrapped around the bartender, Jodeen, like a rectangular C. Old records had been stapled to the wall but Dale’s eyes were narrowly focused on the tap and its proximity to Jodeen. I confessed to Dale, “I didn’t expect to see you again after the way things left off.”  “You couldn’t get enough of that hot Nebraska ass, wassuppp…”  “Like you’re not into me.” Under the counter, he folded his hand into mine like I was an instrument he used to play and just decided to pick up again. “You’re making me hard.” “Oh yeah, you want to know how I’d suck your dick?” He did, so I told him. A quiet fell between us. “Do you want to see my rabbits?” he asked. I did. He let go of my hand to retrieve his phone from his pocket and show me photos of the rabbits he’d killed. They were lined up in a neat row in the back of the pickup.   *** In the conference center parking lot, Dale eyeballed my blazer and nametag as he loaded my suitcase into the back. The blazer is a thing I wear to signify that I’m no longer the farmer’s daughter from Fonthill, Ontario. Instead, I am a serious academic. Except my hair was braided in pigtails like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, one braid obscuring my name and the words Visiting Faculty. Nebraska City disappeared behind us as we pummeled down a highway between field after field. Sushi nestled into Dale in the backseat. I passed him a can of Coors from the half-finished six-pack at my feet before opening one for myself. Phil already had his beer tucked between his legs beneath the steering wheel. The corn harvest had passed. All around us the land lay flat and golden in the sunshine. “It’s warm,” Phil observed as Sushi made her way from the backseat to my lap and then to his. She looked like she was trying to drive the pickup.  “Global Warming,” I remarked. Dale piped up, “I’m all for it! 2020! Say stuff just to piss people off! Wassuppp…” “We need to stop by St. Deroin so Dale can renew his hunting license,” said Phil. “It’s a ghost town with a nature reserve. You’ll like it. Then we can head to Rulo.”  I was troubled by gnawing guilt. The boys had told me there was an abandoned cult compound out in Rulo. I think to impress me with their knowledge of Nebraskan secrets. And I’d been impressed, slipping back into my embarrassing writerly impulse to follow stories, and nagged them to take me.  It wasn’t extraordinary for them to propose long drives in the abstract. I don’t think they often played host. Omaha didn’t attract many Canadian tourists. Phil and Dale were listing places we could go: Kansas City because Phil had never been, Chicago to surprise Phil’s ex-girlfriend, the ranch in Iowa where we’d flipped a truck the year before. Sometimes when Phil was excited he made promises that were hard to deliver on: last year he’d said we’d drive to Arkansas, Texas, New Orleans. The boys grew quiet on the subject, their expressions increasingly repulsed by my blossoming curiosity. It was apparent to me that something had been left unsaid. Whatever had happened in those farmlands all those years ago was so unspeakable that the boys didn’t even bother to try and explain. Instead, they returned to their beers, signaling to me to stop asking so many questions.   *** There was no one in the permit office so Dale slid his application for his hunting license into a lonely black mailbox. We split a pack of Marlboros between us as Phil swerved between the trees. Dale expressed his anguish at lost trees—maybe they’d been eaten by deer but he suspected they’d been burned down by the rangers.  “You sound really upset about missing trees for someone who loves global warming,” I noted as he lit a joint. He exhaled and responded, “Wassuppp…” “Why didn’t you talk to me over Christmas?” *** A week earlier, over the Christmas break, I’d messaged Dale. Phil had flown to New Jersey to visit his sister for the holiday, leaving me alone in Omaha. On Facebook chat the message to Dale had gone seen, but unacknowledged. I partly wanted to see Dale for love of all-things-Dale but, more pressingly, I was scared. An English literature graduate student, with whom I’d had one conversation about modernist poetry, sent me a song he wrote about me. Then a poem he wrote about me. Then, finally, a message about how knowing someone as lovely as me had made it easier for him to kill himself. He knew I was staying at Phil’s house. My phone only connected to 9-1-1 in Toronto. Everyone in my Nebraska-circle was on vacation. It wasn’t that Dale was particularly noble or chivalrous, but that he was the only person left in Omaha. I resented that one person had the power to redefine an entire city for me, an entire state even. My paranoia fueled my imagination about what this grad student, with his embarrassing tweed jacket and his ugly thick glasses and his bullshit love for bullshit T.S. Eliot, could be capable of. I didn’t message Dale more than once because I didn’t want to come across as needy even if I was in need. The house seemed larger without people in it. I kept checking the front window to see if the grad student’s car was parked outside. None of the guns on the wall were loaded. At night, I slept with Sushi cradled to my chest like a newborn. She was a good dog. She was a bad guard dog. I was frightened and alone. Dale had a way of speaking slow and fast at the same time, drawing out his vowels but leaving no spaces between words, “Oh damn, I gotta get better at that thing. I don’t say nothin’ to nobody, wassuppp…” I turned to face him in the backseat. “I think it’s because you’re scared of girls.” To this Dale offered only a grimace. “I bet you like my pigtails,” I added, slow and deliberate, “and that scares the shit out of you.” The cold of his fingers slid from my left shoulder, across the back of my braid, neck, other braid, to my right shoulder. We stopped along the shore of the Missouri River. Phil filled a paper cup with water for Sushi as Dale pointed out the best fishing spots for this fish or that fish. A group of tourists from some eastward city huddled around him. He named what had changed and what had stayed the same, where the embankment had swelled and where it’d retreated.  I pulled out my phone to take a video, “Tell me what river this is, Dale.” His mood shifted. “I don’t know.” “Oh, leave him alone,” hollered Phil. “You know he’s afraid of girls.” “There ain’t no river,” Dale asserted as navy waves paddled southward behind him. *** On the outskirts of Rulo, we stopped at a Runza drive-through to get burgers, Sushi charming the cashiers in the window, before pulling into a liquor store beside a hardware store. Phil tossed the butt of his smoke out the window. “There’s a good reason they put the liquor store beside the hardware store.” “To murder women?” “No,” Dale shot back, a little offended. “To make it fun to build houses!”  As we drove on, the land stretched outward like a glorious yellow cape. We turned onto a dirt road. I gripped the seat beneath me, remembering last year when Phil and I’d accidentally flipped a truck in a farmer’s field, hiking three hours back to camp. “Dale slept in your bed last night, so when we get back we’ll have to change the sheets,” said Phil as the truck bent into a sharp turn on the muddy path. “I jerked off all over it,” added Dale, the fields growing into bushels of great dead crop that caressed the sides of the truck. They reminded me of my grandparents’ orchard in autumn, the fertile hills of Niagara. I’m not from here, I had to remind myself, as I saw familiar memories in this new place to which I pledged no allegiance and where I had no previous history. We parked in front of a sign that read No Trespassing. It was tied in the middle of a chain that hung between two wooden posts on either side of the dirt road. Dale hopped the chain with ease but Phil seemed reticent to go inside. “Are there people there?” asked Phil, trying to not sound afraid.  I was more brash. “Are there people still living there? Do they have guns? What if they call the cops on us? I’m not American.”  “Naw,” said Dale lighting another joint, “Sign’s just so insiders can keep outsiders outside but ain’t nobody goin’ to get ya, little girly. Nobody’s here.” Sushi scurried beneath the chain while Phil stepped over one foot at a time. I opted to duck beneath the chain like the dog while Phil and Dale lifted it over my head to honor my humanity. “Just don’t tell anyone we were here,” Dale added. “The locals aren’t big on folks comin’ here and gettin’ into their itty gritty.” Dale comfortably navigated the path lined with thick woods, pointing to the talon tracks and proclaiming there’d been a parade of wild turkeys, pointing at spots of shit and saying “deer” or “coyote.” Phil and I followed, but Sushi lingered at the sign, whimpering like a toddler who’d just tumbled on the floor and was more startled by the sudden jolt of gravity than actual pain or injury. “Soosh,” Phil called and hit his thigh. “Come here Sushi!” She ran to him but her skip was a beat slower than normal. She seemed nervous as she circled around Phil, sniffing fallen branches. She barked at empty air. “Sushi, stop barking,” said Phil. “Something’s got her spooked.” Phil had a habit of expressing his feelings by attributing them to Sushi.  Along the path to what was once a compound, I envisioned my aunt. She hasn’t interacted with news outside her church in over three decades. I pictured her modest skirt, her hair fashioned into a pragmatic bun of grey ringlets, carrying a bag of grains to my uncle whose beliefs are so extreme he’s only allowed to preach to those with late-stage Alzheimer’s in the Christian Fundamentalist retirement homes. Yet, I wasn’t from there. I had to keep reminding myself, this was my first time in Rulo. We passed a silver silo with a faded sign mfs Stor-Age The World’s Grainkeeper before arriving at a grey aluminum building with a rusted-over baby blue door that was freckled by bullet holes. There was a fork in the dirt trail with one route going around the building and into the woods. Phil followed the other path, which stopped at the three cement stairs leading to the baby blue door. The wheat crept up the grey metal siding. An industrial sign reading FARM STEEL had halfway fallen and hung on a crooked angle near the middle of the roof. Phil haphazardly climbed the three steps and opened the door. A burst of light. Sushi pummeled forward but was startled to find there was no floor on the other end. She squealed and Phil caught her before she could fall in. He held her close, pressing her heart to his and kissing her brow but she was inconsolable, wriggling and gasping in his arms, so he slowly lowered her feet to the ground. She retreated backward, screeching as if she’d been burned. “This is fucked,” said Phil, again picking up Sushi and backing away.  My stomach hurt. I’d never seen her behave like that. As I moved toward the building, Dale stepped backward and turned away, as if the sun setting over the hills were more interesting to him than these relics of some forgotten sham-religion. I reached out my hand. The door was cold as I opened it. Another burst of light.  Inside, the floor had entirely given way to the floorboards beneath. Half of the posterior wall was missing so the framework—wooden rectangles adorned with dangling electrical wires—had a shadowy overlay that shifted into new eerie shapes as each cloud changed the angle at which sunlight entered the building. Perhaps it could be guessed there’d been a flood but, truly, no natural disaster could account for the pattern of destruction inside. It was as though something not of this earth caused the structure to implode. Sushi was still crying.  This place, this breathtaking expanse of country, what some had called Heartland and others’ God’s Land, was not responsible for the maleficent possession that I’d sensed, the wind blowing pebbles in peculiarly precise circles around my boots. Something deeply unnatural and evil had transpired here. I could feel it.  “Dale, how long did the cult live here?” He’d been singing Willie Nelson with his back turned to me.  “I’m uh not sure uh maybe fifteen years. Maybe longer. I don’t know.”  “How long ago was that?”  “Eighty-five. It’s been a while.”  I think if I’d known then what I know now I would have behaved differently. I don’t think I would have pushed to go in the first place, nor accepted the trip as an apology. I wouldn’t have been so presumptuous as to believe the reason Dale wasn’t looking at me was that he was afraid of girls. *** In the early 1980s, Michael Ryan, a white supremacist with a distrust of all earthly authority, especially the government, founded the YHVH cult on Rick Stice’s farm in Rulo, Nebraska. Rick’s support of Michael Ryan, who’d honed his views by studying the Christian Identity Movement, was strongly informed by the financial hardship that hit his family as the American economy was becoming less dependent on the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Rick’s wife had received a terminal cancer diagnoses and he was at a loss for how to support his three children. As many do in times of desperation, Rick turned to God. Rather quickly, Michael Ryan attracted a following of 21 members. They stole farming equipment from neighboring communities to support themselves and stockpiled weapons—30 semi-automatic rifles, 15 machine guns, 150,000 rounds of ammunition, $250,000 worth of stolen farm machinery, several hundred bags of charcoal for making bombs—to fight the Battle of Armageddon which they believed would take place in Nebraska.  As Rick’s wife died, Michael secured four wives of his own. The leader became increasingly agitated and paranoid. Each day, he’d read from the list of names of children on the compound and pick one to reprimand for whatever he could argue had angered Yahweh: generally small, accidental infractions like speaking out of turn or breaking the band of a watch. He’d lash out at women who looked at him the wrong way and eventually separated them from the men entirely, forbidding communication between genders. The women were barred from using the communal telephone and made to wear dresses, while the men were promoted to privates, princes and high priests.  Finally, Rick approached Michael to say that he was uneasy about the messages he claimed to be receiving from Yahweh. The leader, who’d grown jealous of Rick’s ownership of the farm, eagerly demoted him to the status of slave and chained him outside. Michael then insisted Rick’s five-year-old son, Luke, was a child of Satan because he’d cried too much over the death of his mother. In a photograph published in the Falls City Journal, Luke Stice has thin light hair, sweet downturned eyes, and oversized ears that protruded from either side of his pudgy cheeks.   Michael wrote “666” on the boy’s forehead in bright red. He declared Luke was not a boy but a dog. He called him “doggy” as he took off his clothes, forced him to roll around in a snowbank and antagonized him with a bullwhip. He called him “mongrel” when he shot him in the arm with his .30-06. He wrote “DOG” on Luke’s back before repeatedly submerging his head in the warm bathtub. He ordered his parishioners to abuse both Rick and Luke, going so far as to force father and son to fellate each other while other members watched.  Not long after, Michael found himself fighting with one of his followers who he believed to be jealous of his archangel spirit. As he stormed out of the trailer, he casually grabbed five-year-old Luke and threw him into a book shelf, breaking his neck. His father was again chained to the front porch to ensure he wouldn’t hold him or comfort him or take him to a hospital. Luke died alone that night. The following morning, Rick swaddled his son’s body in a yellow blanket. He buried him where Michael said Yahweh had instructed: in a shallow grave in front of the hog barn.  The ideology that Michael Ryan used to justify his abuse of Luke also manifested in the doctrines he instilled in his own son, Dennis. Dennis cried when his father prophesized they’d have to kill for Yahweh in the Battle of Armageddon. He said he was afraid. To this, Michael shouted “Dammit, you’ve gotta be willing to kill for God if that’s what God wants.” He passed his gun to him and added, “Son, one day when all this is over, when Armageddon is over and I’m dead and gone, then you can sit under an oak tree and cry over having to kill so many people. Until then, I don’t ever want you to cry again.” Shortly thereafter, Dennis shot James Thimm, a loyal follower, in the face. James survived the gunshot wound but was tortured by Michael and Dennis for days—they broke his bones, raped him, forced others to rape him, repeatedly sodomized him with a shovel, chained him in the hog barn and forced him to have sex with a goat before stomping on his chest until he was dead. If I’d known the baby blue door was not the door to the home where the women slept peacefully in long romantic white garments, as I’d naively imagined, but was in fact the door to the hog barn where a young man and a child had been tortured to death, I do not think I would have opened it, stuck my head inside, taken a photo and giddily posted it on Instagram while flattering myself that Dale’s cold shoulder was a reflection of his weakness in character and not mine. If I’d known this little boy had been called a dog and treated as one should never treat a dog, I would have trusted Sushi’s instincts and not opened the door. Certain experiences stay with you like a bad infection. I couldn’t sleep last night: visions of a child screaming in a field. Some doors we cannot close. *** I followed Phil who followed Dale along the path to the water. We only had an hour left of day. Raptors flew near the earth, the patterns on their brown and white feathers visible to the naked eye. Phil cautioned Sushi not to get eaten. Dale named each bird specifically and explained how he’d shot and killed this one or that one. He told me how to follow prints, which direction he’d be heading if he’d not forgotten his gun. In that moment, he seemed to me totally unafraid, the closest I’d ever come to believing invincibility a plausible trait in a person. In a place that had been ruled by fantasies of apocalypse, I was entirely certain if he didn’t succumb to alcoholism or drug addiction, Dale could easily survive anything.  We picked up our pace as we returned to the hog barn. The bullet-marked door was still half open. Day was fading. None of us wanted to be in the compound after sundown, especially Sushi, who charged forward with the tenacity of a horse.  The truck appeared as a beacon at the top of the hill. This time we all walked around the chain instead of over or under. Dale hijacked the front seat, so I settled in the back as Phil sped the car in reverse and Dale whined that he was driving too fast for him to roll another joint. “Dude, how many of those have you been smoking?” asked Phil, part-concerned but mostly just impressed.  “Oh, just a couple here or there. Wassuppp…” It occurred to me then that Dale hadn’t said wassuppp the entire time we were on the compound. I was certain the only reason he said it so much was that he was actually shy and insecure and used wassuppp to fill the void between what he was sure of and what he wasn’t sure of, to turn whatever he said into a joke. The box of beer cans that had been purchased in the place beside the hardware store was now nearly empty. Dale was trying to enter into a profound state of delirium where he’d feel more at peace with his thoughts and at home in his body. He insisted we stop at a small bar in a shack beside the Rulo Bridge, near the border with Kansas and Missouri, the nape of Nebraska. We left Sushi in the truck where she was snoozing. Phil insisted we only stay for one drink. My flight was leaving in a few hours. Dale wanted me to miss my flight and freefall with him into a pervasive fog of vivid intoxication. He reminded us not to talk about the cult grounds with locals. I was already drunk from all the beer we’d had in the truck but not so drunk I was capable of anything fantastical or outlandish.  The bar was small and square and full of gun-carrying men except for the two women working. The women looked as if there’d been something to survive and they’d survived it. “I’m going to need I.D.s from all y’all,” the larger of the women said while turning her palm upwards and beckoning to us with her swollen fingers. First, she checked Phil’s. Then Dale’s. When she got to mine, her eyes flickered between my blazer and my name tag. “Mine’s from Toronto,” I said, handing over my driver’s license but keeping my purse open. “She’s Canadian,” announced Phil. “Stuff looks a bit different there.” “Let me know if you need to see my passport,” I added, a little too eager to be helpful.  A sign on the wall read NOTICE, THIS PLACE IS POLITICALLY INCORRECT. The “in” of the “correct” had been Sharpied into a black square, WE SAY MERRY CHRISTMAS, ONE NATION UNDER GOD, WE SALUTE OUR FLAG & GIVE THANKS TO OUR TROOPS, IF THIS OFFENDS YOU LEAVE. The LEAVE was in larger font than the rest and pointedly stoplight red. “What brings you to Rulo from Canada?” asked the woman. Remembering what Dale had told me about locals not liking trespassers on the compound, I responded, “I’m a visiting professor at the University. I was just lecturing over in Nebraska City.” “Hmmm,” she hummed as if she was trying to decide if she liked or hated me based on these few facts alone. Dale was folded into himself, a bundle of camo in a room with nothing to camouflage into. “Naw, she took us to poke around ‘em cult grounds up there. Wassuppp…”  Luckily, the woman was more entertained by Dale’s flagrant drunkenness than anything. She cackled, pouring our shots and serving our beers before sauntering to the far corner to watch the football game with the other woman and the old drunk men.  We all took a shot of Jameson, tapping the bar with the bottoms of our glasses before emptying them into our mouths.  “What’s that?” I asked Phil, pointing to a smaller TV showcasing what looked like a bingo-themed video game: a series of balls and squares, some red and some blue, that were numbered between one and eighty. “Keno. Worst odds in America. Wanna play?” “Sure.” I bet two of my seven remaining American dollars and lost. Phil bet two as well. He also lost. Dale bet one hundred American dollars. “This is foolish,” Phil commented, and Dale promptly sneezed mucus that ran across his lips and straggled in long lines dripping down his filthy jacket. “Jesus Christ man, get it together,” said Phil, handing him our only napkin. It was not enough napkin for all of the snot on his face. The woman behind the bar noticed and did not react at first but, after he carelessly placed the soiled tissue on the bar and sneezed two more times, she understood what a pathetic specimen he was and handed over a stack of fresh napkins while snickering into the back of her arm.  “You’re gross, dude,” said Phil. “Also, you lost.” He pointed at the Keno screen. “Wassuppp…” sang Dale, wiping the last of the mucus from his face but allowing the rest to settle into dim stains on his clothing. “I gotta piss.” Phil disappeared behind the corner near the ATM machine.  For the first time since Omaha, Dale and I were alone. An uneasy quiet fell between us. Was Dale wondering why I’d begged to go to the cult grounds? Was he relieved we’d gone? Did he regret losing his money to the Keno? Perhaps he had no thoughts at all but held the simple admirable desire to get fucked up.  “Wassuppp…” he sang at my face. I looked back at him: he was so silly, so dumb, so redneck. I smirked and leaned into his jovial round cheeks, half-whispered in his ear, “I scare you more than any wild bird.” The room seemed darker. It was as if the music had stopped but I don’t think it did. He didn’t laugh. He was still, maybe stunned, shell-shocked even.  Then his soft brown eyes intensified. I’d tickled some part of him. He put his hand in mine under the bar as was our way. We gently traced the rounds of each other’s grasp with our thumbs. He could be so soft. His softness was compelling to me because it had to be earned.  He moved closer, and instead of kissing me, something he’d never had the courage to do, he began to knead the back of my neck with his fingers. He pressed hard, only narrowly avoiding the boundary between hard and too hard. It felt so comfortable I didn’t care if there were others around or if they were watching. He’d handled animals. He knew where to skin, how to cut a body. He understood how to break a bone so it wouldn’t bleed out and where to make an incision to avoid wasting the flesh. So too he understood where to push on my neck so I did not strangle but still felt the relief that came with pressure on this muscle or that. My breathing slowed. Now he only smelled like earth and weed and drink. I wanted to wrap myself in him. I pictured us in a little tent on the cult grounds, him unbuttoning his camo pants and slipping into me through my professional brown dress, his hand leaving traces of paint and dirt on my blazer. His warm eyes. His long dark hair. The trees. The grass. We’d be closer to nature where I’d always felt closer to God and, for however much I’ve been educated, I still believe in God. He’d keep me safe and we could live off what we picked or killed and be truly self-sufficient, working the land the same way my father’d tried, as my grandparents and great grandparents had done. I could quit my jobs. We could hide from both our governments. I could run from my student loans. I could write remotely or, better yet, never write again. I’d never have to talk to another writer again. No more poetry readings. I’d have quiet. Beautiful black night with no people or neon or internet or cars. Quiet.  I leaned into the bar as he touched me. I was very wet. I wouldn’t have to move back to Toronto where the flashing lights of Bloor Street invade my room at all hours. Toronto, where the bar downstairs drums into my ears until dawn and people have so many opinions and phones ring and buzz and everything is swept into the alarming pace of constant movement. Maybe I wanted to return to a home that no longer exists, Fonthill gentrified and suburbanized by the urban sprawl. I could make love to Dale in fields as I had with the boys of my youth, before the world warmed and the ticks came and brought Lyme disease with them. Nobody mentioned ticks in Nebraska. It could be sweet and golden. What if I didn’t catch my flight? What if I curled into Dale who seemed to me, in that moment, an extension of a world I’d believed lost? We could live off the land. We could opt out of society. A country song transitioned into another country song. The dark behind my closed eyelids seemed sepia. I could wake up every morning with the sun and the wheat and be peacefully swallowed into the marigold hills of Rulo. It could be that easy, I thought. It could be comfortable, I thought. So comfortable. Comfortable was the last thought I had before my neck snapped backward, the skin of my forehead yanked toward my hairline, my back arched in a deep curve, my balance lost, arms waving like a bird in flight, a twist, the flickering light, the camo chest, the camo wrist, both my pigtails entwined within the screw-tight grip of Dale’s hard fist.
‘What Do You Do With a Continent You Decided Belongs to You?’: An Interview with Pete Beatty

Talking to the author of Cuyahoga about geographic feuds, stories as coffins, and LeBron James.

You surely know the names of Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed, but do you know Big Son? Big Son, it is rumored, “rastled” a dozen bears, “drank a barrel of whiskey and belched fire,” brawled with Lake Erie for a fortnight and won. These are just a few of Big Son’s feats as chronicled in “Big Son’s Almanac,” a fictitious collection of tales embedded within Pete Beatty’s riot of a debut novel, Cuyahoga (Scribner). Narrated by Medium Son, Big’s little brother and the bard to his feats, Cuyahoga offers a snapshot portrait of frontier Ohio in 1837, when America was just a tadpole with twenty-two states. Set on the eve of an uneasy union between the sister townships of Ohio City and Cleveland, this novel features a motley cast of characters—enterprising storekeepers barking like carnival hounds, a whiskey-soaked Revolutionary War veteran named Dog, two gasbag mayors, and “spirits” like Big. Separated by the Cuyahoga river, the two townships collide over the question of a bridge and who ought to control it, which leads to such animosity the citizenry of Ohio City take up the slogan, “Two Bridges or None,” as a call to arms. This squabble over bridges actually happened and is just one of the ways Beatty masterfully blends the elasticity of tall tales with historical fact. This is most poignant in the case of Big, a local hero who is belittled into looking for a waged job because impressive feats, like rescuing maidens from a fire, don’t pay the bills. Told against the backdrop of the financial Panic of 1837, this novel is steeped in stubborn economic realities and unchecked speculative jubilation over seemingly endless real estate prospects and rising industry. I spoke to Pete Beatty about how he honed the narrator’s distinct, folksy voice, what LeBron James means to Ohio and this novel, why Medium Son is both a merchant of tales and a merchant of death, and what that says about writing. Connor Goodwin: What most stood out to me was the narrative voice of Medium Son, which is a kind of folksy frontier vernacular with odd grammar. How did you arrive at this voice and what all went into sculpting it just so? Pete Beatty: The voice is sort of the motor to the book. When I’m unsure where to go next as a writer, I always lean back on the voice and let that be the driver. The voice of Medium Son is a combination of early 19th-century Southwestern humor, not necessarily what you think of the American Southwest, but the same voice you hear in Artemus Ward, Sut Lovingood’s Yarns, and, of course, Mark Twain. It’s also cut pretty heavily with the Bible; I listened to the New Testament as recorded by Johnny Cash a lot while writing this book. Without realizing it, I think some of that diction, that circumlocutory way of talking, bled into my brain. There's a class of people in this book called "spirits." How would you describe them and the place they occupy in this fictional world? The idea of the “spirits” is very deliberately a precursor to a costumed superhero, but also a kind of stand-in for a celebrity. The German word “zeitgeist,” depending on how you want to translate it, literally means “spirit of the times” or “time ghost.” So, it’s someone who, in the case of Ohio in the 1830s, exemplifies or articulates something the people need to summon into existence. The same way Superman reflects the aspirations and imaginations of two young Jewish guys growing up on the far east side of Cleveland in the 1930s. Also, a big part of this book was—and this sounds a little weird, but—when I started writing it, LeBron James had just come back to Cleveland. Obviously there’s no basketball in the book, but what he represents and how he became this psychological rescuer of a whole region from their self-imposed self-esteem problem was on my mind. He didn’t fix it, but the Cavs won the title and it was a really big deal. It meant a lot and it was all possible because of LeBron. I love that you brought LeBron James into this. I want to talk more about Ohio in a second, but before I get to that I’d like to ask why you chose to mix the elastic aspects of a tall tale with the more stubborn economic realities of frontier life. The best example of this is Big searching for a job because heroic feats don't pay. You write, “The only income Big had ever known was wonder won by feats." What about this tension interested you? Did you set out to explore that dynamic or was it incidental? Have you ever heard of the expression “parking by braille”? Where you just bump into the other cars until there’s room for your car? I found novel-writing kind of like this. It was very much a process of guess and check. I realized I wanted to write this kind of superhero story and at the same time (I was living in Cleveland then) I looked at some history book and saw this (justifiably) forgotten event where two sides of the city got into a fight in the 1830s. That led to me asking what was it about 1837 that made people so uptight? Well, there’s this financial crisis caused by reckless banking and financial reforms made back in Washington, and I started to read everything I could get my hands on about the Panic of 1837. In the 1830s, what was then the frontier, banks were constantly collapsing, so storekeepers would often have a crib sheet and say, based on these banks, these notes are worth this much. The very idea of money was impressionistic. I’m intentionally kind of squiggly on this point—it is a historical novel, [but] I’m not doing history. I did not set out to try and sublimate the fiscal crisis of 1837 into my fiction, but it wound up happening. Is there any way you can parse for me what historical elements you wanted to remain intact and what aspects you were okay taking imaginative liberties with? What I wanted to capture with some of the more granular historical stuff was the sense of the permanent unfinished nature of American settler mindset. This sense of moving across this vast continent you’re in the process of expropriating for your own purposes and never really finishing anything. A sort of falling-down-the-stairs cadence of American history, where you’re inventing an economy as you go, you’re selling land in these crazy places, [and] every once in a while, the economic system just implodes and everyone’s broke. It’s really hard not to write historical fiction that does not point to some kind of order. To me, history is more like, look at all this stuff going wrong [laughs]. Could you briefly tell me what historical resources you used? Personal diaries? Newspapers? My dad used to work at the Western Reserve Historical Society and he let me in the newspaper room. I’m not entirely sure I was supposed to be there. Basically I read every newspaper in the mid-1830s they had in the historical society. Most of the newspapers were just ads, but there is a fair amount of news too. I read a fair amount of historical primary sources of letters and correspondence. A lot of it tends to be people trying to convince their friends and family to move to Ohio. So it has this boosterish feel to it. This is a novel about Big, but it's also about the city of Cleveland. Set on the eve of a union between two cities separated by the Cuyahoga, Cleveland and Ohio City, the two sister towns squabble over bridges and the possibility of a union. Can you briefly summarize the history behind the city of Cleveland as it appears in the book? I’d be curious to hear if that uneasy union can be detected in the Cleveland that exists today—like, is there beef between the East side and West side of Cleveland? Like a lot of post-industrial cities—Detroit, Toledo, Buffalo—Cleveland’s rationale for existence is location. It’s at the mouth of this big navigable river that connects to the Erie Canal system, so it’s a reasonable place to bring the ore from Lake Superior to Cleveland to use as steel. Turns out it’s not that sexy or cool to be on the Erie Canal in 2020 as opposed to 1820. But the city can’t move. Speaking of that falling-down-the-stairs energy, Cleveland has been downhill since the Great Depression. Government spending after the Great Depression and mobilization after World War II were the only things that juked Cleveland back into growth. Once that spending went away, Cleveland has been losing industry, good jobs, and a tax base pretty much nonstop for seventy years. When I think of Cleveland, I think of an unfinished place. I think of some place that got so big, so fast, and then, before it could even reckon with its bigness, the ground started to shift underneath its feet. Cleveland is not unique in that crisis, but to me it’s pretty poignant. As far as the East side-West side thing goes, I think it’s a much gentler rivalry now. In the distant past, when this book is set, people were swinging axes and trying to blow up a bridge. You present a complex relationship between storytelling and life and death. This is best embodied by Meed, the narrator, who is a merchant of tales, but also of death, because he sells coffins. Tall tales enhance their subjects, making them larger than life. But then you have this line where you say Meed, in writing this almanac of Big’s feats, is also making a coffin for Big. Can you elaborate on this dynamic of writing as a force of life and vitality and of writing as a kind of grave marker? You’re the first person to mention that line to me—I remember getting that line down and thinking, “Yeah, stories are coffins.” When we tell a story about someone, in a way, we kill them and put up a memorial. There’s a moment in the book I had a lot of fun writing, which is when the almanac about Big is being assembled and people are bringing in all these different versions that Big died. He’s not actually dead. I wanted to have that cartoonish energy of Wile E. Coyote falls off a cliff, explodes, crashes into a wall, and bounces right back. Each one of those little deaths has its own poetry. One of my favorite pieces of literature is The Iliad. Thirty-three percent of The Iliad is just descriptions of people dying: “gripped by the hateful dark,” “craved far more by vultures than by wives,” things like that. I wanted to stay with that vision in the book, to have death and destruction always sitting in the room. Slogans of bounty and profiteering are littered throughout the book, evoking a worldview animated by ideas of manifest destiny and a Protestant work ethic. You suggest that writing, too, can be a form of plunder. In what way do you see writing and storytelling as extractive or exploitative? I’m a white cis dude and I’m presenting a story of settling America. A major part of that story—what happened to the native inhabitants of Northeastern Ohio, and the entire continent, the entire hemisphere—is not mine to tell. In the 1830s in Ohio, there were still populations of Native Americans, and they were actively resisting the government’s attempts to relocate them, and experiencing hate and aggressive racial violence from white settlers. I recently read Claudio Saunt’s Unworthy Republic, which was a revelation for me in showing how closely tied the project of Indian removal was, in the North as well as the South, with slavery and white supremacy. In a way I feel like if I am going to write about Ohio in 1837, I have a moral obligation to highlight or center what was happening to Native Americans in that time and place. And I feel like I chickened out on that score. If I had to self-psychologize, I’d say I projected a bit of that guilt into that exploitative element of Meed’s storytelling. I tried to avoid that third rail of racial trauma because it’s not really what the book is about. It’s asking different questions. What do you do with a marvelous possession, to paraphrase Stephen Greenblatt? What do you do with the miraculous, the uncanny, with a brother who can leap a skyscraper in a single bound? What do you do with some weird preacher who can raise people from the dead? What do you do with this giant continent that you decided belongs to you?
The Thief

Ebbing had perfect fetal recall.

What grown man can say that he married his own mother, and that although heartbreak was involved, no-one disapproved? At least not for the obvious reasons. Science, as well as anecdotal evidence, tells us we can’t recall our time in the womb let alone form memories before the age of two or three. But Ebbing could. Ebbing experienced things; some of which would have been better left mired in the swamps of infantile amnesia, swallowed whole by the alligators that patrol those brackish shallows. Ebbing had perfect fetal recall.   In the beginning and at the end it’s all about the heartbeat. In between there is this temporal thing we cling to we call life. At three weeks Ebbing, as large as a poppy seed, experienced his own heartbeat. A vivid tapping against his microbe-sized chest wall—exhilarating, but also frightening. Was this him? Or something trying to escape? And close by, too close, another. A faint pinprick that was his first encounter with pain, followed immediately by yet another sensation, one that smoothed over the hurt. He felt it as a cat’s tongue, as warm wax.   At eighteen weeks, two days, seven minutes and thirty-three seconds, Ebbing could hear. There wasn’t anything gradual about it. One moment nothing but physical sensations—the tapping, pricking, licking, floating—the next moment the sharp clack of castanets. Ebbing had an instant recollection of nights redolent with paprika fried potatoes and grilled sardines, an earthy-smelling woman leaning close, someone dancing, always someone dancing and singing off-key in the dark. A heartbeat besides his own joined in, a weak but distinct chiming, and over it all, an immodest banging, like the kettle drum in an orchestra. A celebratory boom boom boom boom that could be heard as well as felt throughout his blood stream. Maternal love as a victory march. And after that, the invasion of the world: One hundred and one trombones and a clarinet, a thousand scorching guitar licks of “Smoke on the Water” in numbing 4/4 time, the horrors of the pipe organ in the haunted mansions of God, frenzied banjos, dueling ouds and gamelans, the tinny pa rum pa pump um of toy snares, the itchy buzz of tissue on comb, the whistle of air through a blade of grass, the sonic-boom crack of a bullwhip splitting the air. With the collaborative effort of dawning hair follicles in his embryonic cochlea Ebbing learned to filter out the cacophony. His mother’s heartbeat, sometimes a harpsichord, which plucked pleasantly at his own, sometimes a dobro, causing him to tap his incipient toes, could now be heard above the din. But Ebbing could not mute that close-by insistent drone of the omnipresent bladder pipe.   At twenty weeks in the womb they were both still blind, Ebbing and the girl who would have been called Bente. Together but apart, each in an amniotic sac like a goldfish in a plastic bag—a precarious position for both fetus and pet fish, depending on who’s doing the carrying. Each in its own placenta, a cosmonaut and an astronaut hurtling towards a Cold-War earth, their prematurely ejected landing pods on a collision course with each other. Houston, uh, Houston? Bente was the very definition of a bad roommate. Petulant and noisy, eating food clearly marked “Ebbing,” never cleaning up after herself, sprawling madly out in all directions, taking up more that her designated share of a finite space. Her heartbeat competed with Ebbing's. Rather than the mellow groove he now preferred, she insisted on a wild syncopation, causing their mother to rush to the doctor's office on more than one occasion.                                                                  At twenty-two weeks, the one who would have been called Bente sounded like teeth on glass, the sharp grinding of a garbage truck down a war-ravaged roadway, that zany aunt—the life of the party—who loves to sing but is utterly tone deaf. Amidst this racket Ebbing could barely feel his own heartbeat, let alone hear it. The beloved mother was muffled by the atonal regurgitations of his twin who endlessly flailed and pressed too close. Ebbing, bereft, enraged, could see for the first and last time in his life. He actually saw red, or rather, witnessed it as a wild, hot flaring of crimson and carmine in front of which twisted and writhed ancient Pyrrhic dancers primed for battle, swords in hand. Their lust for victory infectious. He tugged at his own fleshy lifeline with spindly fingers, testing the resilience of the blood-ripe cord. Wrapping it taut around the one who would never be Bente, he played her like a old-time fiddle. She was his first instrument. The sounds of his sister’s weakening heartbeat were almost pleasant, a flutter-tongued flute. Their one and only duet. Ebbing would never include a flute in any of his compositions. She did not go without a fight. Her own alien fingers with their tiny, serrated nails scrabbled at Ebbing, clawing and shredding wherever she managed to make purchase. The only music in the hours that followed besides his own was his mother’s heart, a juddering klaxon.   When he was a small boy, Ebbing loved sitting in his mother’s lap as she told the story of when she first heard his heartbeat. Better than even The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin or Horton Hears a Who. “You sounded like a panting dog, panting so fast and hard it scared me to death. ‘What’s wrong?!’ I asked Dr. Heppner. ‘What is wrong with my dear boy?!’ She told me nothing, nothing at all was wrong. That it was perfectly normal, and as the baby gets bigger the heartbeat would slow...” “Show me, show me!” Ebbing would chitter. And his mother panted and panted like a dog until they both melted into laughter. She never mentioned the one who would have been called Bente. Both his mother and father thought it better if Ebbing didn’t know. But sometimes in her heartbeat he could detect the profound melancholy of someone singing fado, the saddest music in the world.   The specialists had never seen a pre-natal injury like it—both corneas so scarred that under a magnifying glass they looked like the surface of an ice rink after a play-off game. And no Zamboni in the world could repair this damage. Other than the blindness, the boy was perfectly healthy, perfectly normal.   A few days after his fifth birthday Ebbing, a boy the other Kindergarteners called Froggy, was plopped on the bench in front of an upright grand in the downstairs den of the middle-aged widow across the street from his family home. The piano teacher played “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” with alarming conviction and then said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to learn how to do that?” Eyelids closed against his protruding orbs, Ebbing tapped at the keyboard with one finger, then spread his hands wide and played the notes he had begun composing before he’d even been born. In the corner of the room, on the shabby loveseat that had been banished to the basement years ago, sat his mother, heart swelling as the music burst through the confines of the room.   At twelve, as a thin, red-headed kid in black tie and tails, Ebbing made his professional debut. Playing at first as an innocent floating inside the womb, lulling the audience into submission, creating a sense of false security with a pleasing Satie-like minimalism before releasing the hounds. A few of the older patrons stumbled towards the exits, mad dogs baying at their heels. In the front row of the Orpheum sat his proud but bewildered parents, his mother’s hands clutched her chest, no idea she was his living metronome. The word genius was bandied about. Five years later The Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt performed his first full orchestral composition, placental declarations in the dark. The orchestra had collaborated with György Ligeti, Steve Reich, Frank Zappa, and now the seventeen-year-old New Music wunderkind from Vancouver, Canada. But Ebbing wasn’t in attendance. He haunted his mother’s bedside at St. Paul’s Hospital. Her heartbeat was as strong as ever but her white blood cells were fleeing like villagers escaping a Viking raid, their shrieks tearing holes in the air, their hair alight.               Ebbing tried to follow his mother’s heart, packed in ice inside a picnic cooler, as it was transported by helicopter from St. Paul’s to Surrey Memorial Hospital. Maybe it was the chop of the propellers, the screams of the gulls, the guttural coughing from the adjoining hospital room, his father’s gulping sobs, the sentimental Tin Pan Alley AABA refrain issuing from his own chest, but Ebbing couldn’t make out a single maternal note. The woman in the bed had disappeared as if she’d never been. This is where the music dies, he thought.   At Mountain View Cemetery, Ebbing didn’t listen as an old family friend recited a bowdlerized version of Auden’s “Stop all the Clocks.” He was tuned to a distant frequency—he could hear it across the miles, a stately hum like a Theremin. It had started seven hours, 36 minutes and 8 seconds after his mother was declared brain dead. During those leaden hours Ebbing had been transported back to the womb, before he could hear, before he could even feel. He was less than three weeks old again; he might as well have been a poppy seed caught in someone’s teeth.        Ebbing experienced the sound first as a vibration in his chest and he was born again. Patience was never the strongest of Ebbing’s qualities. But he waited until the steady, quiet hum began to oscillate, transforming into a more complex beckoning. At its highest registers he heard Jessye Norman performing the twin Sieglinde in The Valkyrie. He waited two years, never once approaching a piano during that entire time.   Her name was Sanjeeta and she’d been born with a congenital anomaly that didn’t announce itself until she was twenty-two and soon to be married to a man from Haridwar whom she had never met. Her parents thought it a satisfactory match. His parents, learning about her defective heart, did not. Three years later her heart was traded for another and she spent two years and a half a morning recovering from the shame she had brought onto her family. Defect was not a word they with which they liked to associate. Sanjeeta was sitting in the garden when the back gate scraped open and a young man came in and bit by bit stole her borrowed heart. Her father called him The Blind Beggar. But it was he who was the beggar and could not afford to be a chooser. Sanjeeta’s mother found something too familiar about Ebbing’s music, as if she had heard it before but could not recall where. And that blind rhesus monkey by the river in Ayodhya when she was only twelve had looked at her the same way before baring its teeth. But her husband had decided.                         Ebbing’s father said she was lovely, but – (Meaning too old). His aunt said she was too old for him, and – (Meaning too brown). But what is old, to someone who has only ever experienced age as sound? What is skin tone, to someone who has only experienced colour through music?   At age twenty, Ebbing lay in a hotel room with his new wife and ran his fingers along the thin, puckered seam between her breasts. She caught his hand and said, “My shame.” But all the virgin bridegroom could hear was a celebratory boom boom boom as he went tunneling into a place from which he would never emerge. Excerpted from The Beguiling by Zsuzsi Gartner, Hamish Hamilton 2020
‘To Be Human is to Be Unruly’: An interview with Raven Leilani

The author of Luster on surveillance in the suburbs, writing the id, and the joy of Comic-Cons.

According to Sigmund Freud, the human psyche is divided into three elements: the id, super-ego, and ego. The id represents our uncontrolled and instinctual desires, the super-ego our moral conscience, and the ego mediates those two pulling forces. In her debut novel Luster (Bond Street Books), Brooklyn-based writer Raven Leilani plunges the reader inside the mind of a 23-year-old Black woman whose life is controlled by her id. Edie’s an aspiring painter who avoids painting, instead working in a low-level position at an editorial publishing house in New York City. She falls into a relationship with Eric, a white man twice her age who is an open-ish marriage. After Edie can no longer afford the rent of her mice-infested apartment, she moves to suburban New Jersey to live with Eric, his wife Rebecca, and their Black preteen adopted daughter, Akila. Luster, as the title suggests, is lush with vivid references to sex. At the publishing house, Edie calls herself, matter-of-factly, the “office slut” and describes hooking up with various colleagues across departments: “Jerry who is acquiring all the cancer-centric YA, making bank and soft love to me in the conference room,” or, “Michelle from legal sitting on the copier, nylons slung around her neck as fluorescents flicker overhead.” With sex as the backdrop, the book brilliantly explores Black womanhood, suburban surveillance, millennial capitalism, micro-aggressions, and the complicated nature of interracial relationships. Leilani is careful when she speaks, frequently stopping mid-sentence to pause and regroup before proceeding. When we chat, she’s outside of her apartment in Brooklyn, where the high-pitched beeps of reversing trucks, the static of wind and other city sounds leak into our phone call. Samantha Edwards: Edie has such a singular voice that’s incredibly funny and observant, but can also be really self-deprecating and dark. How did you develop her character? Raven Leilani: The building blocks of Edie was, “How do I depict a young Black woman who yearns?” She’s a woman who is led through the world by her id. I don't really move through the world like that. There's a freedom and almost an element of wish fulfillment in depicting a Black woman who is guided by her own id. It was important for me to write a Black girl who was free. It's weird to say free because on the page, you can see the constraints, one being the fact that a lot of the action is happening in Edie’s mind. But at least in the sanctuary of her mind, I wanted to be candid about how she feels and what she wants. The observational aspect of the book comes from two things: the fact that Edie is a Black woman and the certain kind of studiousness that you need to survive. The other part is that she's an aspiring artist, and I think a fundamental part of art is data collection. And that sounds extremely unsexy, right? But a lot of art, especially the art I gravitate to, is in the business of trying to accurately reflect a specific reality. Edie yearns for sex and touch. Why was it important to make that such a core part of her person? I felt like to do anything less would be to not allow her the space to be human. There's a temptation in writing and in life to be self-protective, to be aloof, and to be stoic. I know those people exist and that kind of writing exists, but I wanted to write towards vulnerability. I think it’s always a vulnerable thing to be overt in how much you care.  A lot of Black women are called upon to bear their pain well. And that feels inhumane. I wanted to write a Black woman who is not only not bearing what she's going through well, but who responds in a human way. She gets hurt, and she also wants comeuppance. Let me try and articulate this. We talk a lot about unlikable women, and I think what we're really talking about is fallible women. I wanted to show what it looks like when you care deeply, and the way that that manifests isn't just as a virtuous person who lives by their feelings. There's an element of caring so deeply that you are paralyzed. I think to be human is to be unruly, to be a person who yearns and can be hurt. And that was important for me, to show a Black woman who was not stoic in how she bears her loss. I found the differences between how Edie and her Black coworker Aria navigated their very white workplace so interesting. Aria says she’s willing to "shuck and jive until the room I’m in is at the top” and to conform to her white coworkers' expectations, while Edie has no interest in performing in that way. She seems to revel in being a slacker. What did you want to show in their relationship? I wanted to show that both of these Black women in this professional space are attempting to survive. They just have very, very different tactics around that survival. Aria has opted for perfectionism and hyper-curation. Edie's response is one of refusal. I think both are human responses. There's one way to read this that’s a judgment on how Aria has chosen to present herself. I was trying to point out how when you are trying to advance and survive as a Black woman, you understand that your margin for error is thin.  I also wanted to talk about how this environment absolutely impedes a camaraderie that perhaps should exist between these women. When their environment indulges tokenism, it naturally pits these two women against each other. They're two different women, absolutely, but even Edie's response to seeing Aria is that she felt relief. She also finds that relief with Akila later on in the book too. I really loved how the relationship between Edie and Akila progressed throughout the book. At first Akila feels kind of uneasy around Edie’s presence, basically saying, “Don’t mess this up for me,” but eventually they do build that camaraderie. This book is very much about isolation and solitude, and loneliness that is exacerbated when you're in the business of projecting an image and managing the perceptions of other people around you. Akila lives in an environment which cannot adequately witness her. She lives in the suburbs and is being surveilled, and that surveillance can quickly become violent. Akila is searching for belonging and not truly finding it. She's not doing well socially. She has been bounced around, she's been through a couple of homes and her primary mission is to preserve the stability she finally has and Edie is a threat to that. But Edie herself is also grappling with a kind of instability. So you have two Black women who are fighting for stability and fighting for a place where they will be seen. I thought it was important to show two Black women taking comfort in each other and witnessing each other.  As they get closer, we get to see more layers of Akila, like that she's really into writing fan fiction, comic books, and video games. Edie helps her make a Comic-Con costume and I thought that was so endearing. And the Comic-Con scenes were so lucid. Have you ever been to a Comic-Con? The reason Comic-Con is in the book is because I love it. I feel like the very first way I knew how to interact with anything was as a fan. I feel like fandom for me is an earnest act. There are moments throughout the book where I got to show a Black woman engaged in a thing that she earnestly loves. For Edie it’s disco, and with Akila it's Comic-Con. All of this sort of geek ephemera is close to me. I've been to a handful of Comic-Cons, but never to San Diego, which is a bummer and I need to fix that. There’s nothing really like attending a con and feeling that enthusiasm and communal energy, and also seeing other fans who dare enough to be earnest in their overt appreciation for these imagined worlds. That is so beautiful to me. I wanted to specifically talk about that on the page with a Black woman because I wanted there to be joy in this book. There’s a lot of sexual joy in the book, but obviously that’s different than the joy from fandom. Akila’s fandom is like pure joy, and there’s no weird power dynamics behind it. What kind of stuff are you a fan of? Oh man, I'm a fan of so many things. My brother gave me his comics before he moved out and I still have them. They're in a trunk under my bed. I don't even indulge the kind of rivalry between DC and Marvel. I love them both. I grew up watching anime and playing JRPGs, which are Japanese role-playing games. When I was younger, I loved getting locked into those intricately built worlds. It’s interesting you say that, because when Edie and Akila get closer and start playing video games together, Akila kind of disses Edie for not getting as involved with some of the side characters or just missing parts of the story. That's right. I'm so glad you noticed that. There are so many different kinds of gamers. There are the gamers who want Call of Duty, where you can go in and get your rounds off. But then there are those who want a game where you have to talk to villagers like three times to get the thing that you need, games where you have to exhaust the environment in order to advance. I gravitate more towards the games that have a story. I do think there's something to be said about two Black women finding comfort in each other through the imagined worlds in which they have to inhabit these avatars. It's my fandom manifesting for sure. Perhaps it’s also me as a 29-year-old and how a lot of us have grown to relate to people through a digital medium, whether it’s online dating or your headset in Call of Duty. How does it feel to release this book in this current “moment”? I’m putting air quotes around moment because racism has been around forever, but I think reading this book now, there are certain themes the book touches on, like police violence or acknowledging micro-aggressions, that feel so urgent right now.   Like you were saying, racism isn’t new and what we’re seeing now is perhaps not new. What’s new is that we have the technology to see it in a totally different way. I have talked to older people in my family because there’s this feeling of reckoning, that something feels different. I’ve said to them, “Before I get my hopes up, can you let me know, does this feel unprecedented in terms of the response to it?” Even older people in my family do feel that something is different, especially around police brutality. The thing is, as a Black writer I was not necessarily writing towards any particular grand statement around racism. I wrote this book as a Black woman who is writing about Black women. In particular, with Edie, I was just reporting on what I saw in my own life, the way I feel my own body is in peril and the way Edie’s body is in peril. You don’t necessarily want your book to be relevant in the way that it is. You would hope that you could point to what you’ve written and it would be history. It would be a moment that is distant and illegible. But I do think that the canon of Black writers who have written about what it is like to live and try and survive while Black is a large and excellent canon. In writing about these issues, I just did my best to tell a specific story. The story just happens to be one that takes place in the consciousness of a Black woman, and that consciousness is informed by an environment that is racist, sexist, and capitalist. You and Edie share some life experiences—you are both painters, you’ve both worked in publishing and at Postmates. And because this is your debut, were you ever nervous or concerned that people would conflate you with Edie? I feel like that is a concern that a lot of writers of colour have. I don’t imagine that you get as many autofictive questions when you’re a white author. Truly though, I wasn’t particularly concerned. There is a lot of me in the book, but it’s absolutely not autofiction. There are a lot of direct lines you could draw from my life, but I couldn’t think about that reflection while I was writing. I think that would have limited me and would have put fear in the writing.  As you might have gathered on this call, I truly struggle in real time to articulate precisely what I mean. That is a major frustration for me. On the page, I feel like I have more control than I do in any area of my life. Because of that, I have the freedom to write towards the dark and the dirty. I have a friend who says that the book is my id and I am the ego. I think that is correct. In some ways, I’m writing a letter to my own self, like, “Oh my god, don’t do that.” But there’s a part of me that tried to imbue a freedom in this character that I absolutely as a real person don’t think I have. I’m actually quite subdued. I’m severely introverted. The things I write versus who I am as a person are actually quite opposed. It’s interesting to release a thing into the world and then have people feel like they know who you are. But ultimately, I just think it’s really fucking cool that people are reading deeply enough where they care about that.
The Kiss

“Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.”

Brigid could see the stoop of her former writing professor’s shoulders—she’d once remarked to her husband that his posture was like a heavy coat on a wire hanger, he looked so dragged down. Her novel was in his hands. He was fifth in line at her book signing and now she couldn’t focus on what the woman in the red coat was saying. She narrowed in on the woman’s equally red lips—“I really hated your book at first”—but her former writing professor’s stare was as concentrated as a lover’s. He was old when he had been her professor and he was older now, his skin as grey, lined, and tough looking as elephant hide. The elephant man, she thought, even though he was still handsome, a certain sophisticated elegance, an old-fashioned movie-star quality, Sean Connery-like. He even had the soft, marbled voice of a Scotsman. “Could you also,” the woman in red said, leaning in so that her perfume wafted like a gust of wind, “write the first line of the book, too?” Why? That would take forever. She thought of how her former professor’s aching hips must feel on this snowy night in Manhattan, his knees; how awful it must be to wait in line to speak to her, his former student. All this hoopla about her debut novel, all this bubbling about. The introduction that had made her sound as if she’d conquered the world. Her former professor had written six books. They had done moderately well. A writer’s writer is what a person would call him. What was she? A woman’s writer. Someone scheduled to appear on morning television. God, shut up, she wanted to say to the woman in red. You’re turning this into a spectacle. Stop laughing! Stop looking so fucking unhinged! She did as she was told: she signed the book, then wrote the book’s first line: All the women of Barra are dead in their beds. * * * “Brigid. Hi.” Her former writing professor held out her novel, and she took it. She knew whatever she wrote needed to be full of gratitude: it was what the moment called for. Was she grateful? What had he done for her? Given her an A. Pointed out her country way of speaking—youse guys—but in a sweet, flirtatious way, so it hadn’t stung. She liked this man. She liked him enough. With love and indebtedness, she wrote, then drew an absurdly large B, which managed to look lewd, like a teenage boy’s rendition of giant breasts, or, worse, a ball sack. * * * When she returned from the reading, her husband, Jack, was outstretched on the hotel bed, his legs crossed at the ankles. Even in this New York hotel room, he looked like the Oregon poet that he was—dirty-blond hair falling into his face, wire-rimmed circular glasses, a navy-blue sweater with a hole in the elbow over a white button-down shirt, the collar askew. Like Kurt Cobain, she thought, if he hadn’t shot himself in the face. Her husband had removed his pants, and the hair on his legs stood at attention. He had on his elf boxers, a gag Christmas gift from her. Christmas had been three months ago. “Jack?” she said. Her husband had his faraway look, his face angled downward, his eyes elsewhere, not seeing the white duvet cover but something else, either from his past or in his future. She sat on the bed and twisted his leg hair. She could make it stand up in coils. “Ouch,” he said and moved away. “So, did he show up?” “Who?” “You know who.” She brought her knees to her chest. Jack was suspicious of all men but especially her former writing professor. “Yes,” she said. “And why would he do that?” he asked. She was suddenly exhausted. “Because he was my professor.” “He lives in Ithaca.” She wormed out of her clothing and burrowed under the white duvet, wishing it were a porthole to another world. She waited for Jack to interrogate her further but instead his hand found hers. “Listen,” he said. “I got a phone call while you were out.” Out. At the book signing. Not just at a coffee shop or buying pantyhose. “And?” It came out a little shrill. “I got the fellowship,” he said. The fellowship. A year in Glasgow to research his third book of poems. Her book had taken place in Scotland, too, but she hadn’t gone, had only done a significant number of Google searches. The faraway look—she recognized it now—was about whether he wanted her to go with him. * * * In August, they arrived. From the airplane, Scotland looked like the Grand Canyon, only smaller and covered in grass. Little white things, which looked like lint, littered the hills. She squinted—sheep. All the razzle-dazzle about her book was over. It had sold two thousand copies—a failure, although no one would tell her that until she tried to sell the next one. The publisher wanted to change the jacket art for the paperback. “To appeal to the book club crowd.” Who were they? They were somewhere in the wilds of America, dipping their hands into bags of potato chips. She and Jack were above it all, their plane about to touch down. “It’s Glas-go,” Jack said. The wheels hit the pavement, and the engine roared. “What’s that?” she said. “You keep saying Glas-gow.” “Oh,” she said. “Sorry.” They rented a flat beside a church with the skinniest spire in Europe. To turn on the hot water, she had to push a button that looked like it would set off an explosion in a distant land. No air conditioning. A fridge the size of a hotel-room minibar. No freezer. Their neighbor, Alastair McCullough, told them people bought things fresh. When she asked, “what about ice cream?” he said people went out to eat it. All details that should have been in her debut novel. It hadn’t come out in the UK. To her knowledge, no Scotsperson had read it or would read it. Jack’s first book had chronicled the death of his infant son—an event that had broken up his first marriage but also skyrocketed his career. The world was discovering that men could have a tender side, and Jack’s book was part of that discovery. His second book had sold well (for poetry), earning him a modest advance and this fellowship for what he was doing now: mining the Kelvin River, which was full of garbage. What he found in the river would be the subject of the poems. Every morning, he put on waders, tied his hair into a topknot and walked the length of the river in the August heat, trawling for trash. It was supposed to be a portrait of Glasgow, as told from the river’s garbage. But also a meditation on humanity. And also something else. She wasn’t trying to be glib when describing it to Alastair. She believed in Jack’s work, particularly his first two books, which were stunning. Still, she and Alastair were eying each other, lips quivering, on the verge of something—possibly dangerous, explosive laughter. * * * The first week behind them, she and Jack sat in the kitchen in their underwear, the bay window open, hoping for a breeze. She could hear Alastair’s voice through the thin walls. An argument. A lot of stomping. Then silence. “They’re fighting,” she said. “Who?” “Alastair,” she said, “and Ezra.” “Who?” He was utterly uninterested in their neighbors. She, however, couldn’t get enough of them. Well, of Alastair. Alastair’s boyfriend, Ezra, was an artist. He made sculptures that resembled large pieces of beef jerky in a studio around the corner, and Alastair worked twelve-hour shifts at Scottish Meats. Each must take some inspiration from the other, Brigid said to Jack, then waited for laughter, but he was busy cataloging what he’d found in the Kelvin that day: a toothbrush; a pacifier; a retainer. “Mouth things,” she said. “Hm?” said Jack, holding the pacifier, not looking up. “You know, he used to be a model,” she said, thinking of Alastair’s chiseled jaw, his eyes as blue as a Siberian husky’s, salt-and-pepper hair with an undercut so she could see the dark mole behind his left ear. “Huh?” “Alastair. He still does it sometimes. Modeling.” “Oh.” “He’s not just a meat guy.” * * * A double date. First to the “chippy,” then to a movie. They walked down Great Western Road, Alastair holding Ezra’s hand and Jack holding hers. The evening was cool. Two childless couples in their late thirties out on the town, Brigid thought. She was a veteran of two miscarriages. She had earned the right not to have a child. She was even wearing lipstick. It didn’t matter, though: Alastair eclipsed them all in skinny jeans, a tuxedo shirt, jean jacket, and cowboy boots. She thought he’d been joking when he told her Glasgow had a thriving cowboy scene, but indeed it did, and Alastair and Ezra were a big part of it. On Saturday nights they went to a club called the Grande Ole Opry. She and Jack had yet to join them. You had to be in the right mood to play cowboy, and that mood never seemed to strike. “This one,” said Ezra, pointing to a bleak-looking takeaway joint. “They have the best cheese.” He was shorter than Alastair, with a round, milky face and dark curly hair. He was a research fellow at the Glasgow School of Art, an exhibition in the Scottish Pavilion of the Venice Biennale already under his belt. But Alastair was the masterpiece, Brigid thought. She looked at Jack, waiting to feel an ignition of the heart. His hair had grown shaggy and he’d slicked it back with water. Fresh from mining the Kelvin River, he wore cargo shorts and a t-shirt, New Balance running shoes. Stripped from the pretence of his “rising star of Portland poetry” clothes, he looked like a guy who was exactly where he was from: the wilds of Eastern Oregon. They walked inside the takeaway shop and ordered two “chips ‘n cheese” to share. A drunk man in the back was eating deep-fried pizza. They sat at a grubby table, her facing Alastair, Jack facing Ezra. She felt Alastair’s eyes on her. She was wearing a black-and-white striped blouse, black mini skirt, and black pointed flats. “You look like a French porn star,” Jack had said before they left the flat. “And you look like,” she replied, “an American.” “You should see more of Scotland,” said Alastair, his Glaswegian accent repressed by a decade of modeling in London. “Edinburgh. Skye.” “Skye,” said Brigid. “The Isle of Skye?” “That’s the one,” he said. The drunk man rose to his feet, abandoning his pizza. He walked to the counter and leaned against it. “Deep-froyed dog fer takeaway,” he said. “Oh jeez,” Brigid whispered to Alastair. “Oh jeez what?” he whispered back. “I thought he was ordering a deep-fried dog!” “He did.” “No, a dog dog. Dog dog. Dog dog.” It was happening again. She felt something like carbonation rising inside her. Alastair’s eyes locked with hers. They laughed soundlessly, secretly. She glanced at Jack, who was peeling the cheese off his chips. “Should have gotten the pizza,” he said. If given the gift of time travel, she thought, her husband would use it only to order different things from restaurants. She imagined herself stopping some awful Amtrak accident—Don’t get on the train!—while Jack wandered back into the chippy, saying, "the chips have too much cheese." “Get the pizza next time,” she said, trying to recover. The drunk man pivoted on one foot, barely able to stand. * * * And then to the movie theater. They sat in the lobby and each drank a beer. The only thing to eat was something resembling sponge cake, so Brigid bought one. Jack was in the bathroom; Ezra buying the tickets. “What is it,” Alastair said, putting his hand over hers, “that you write about?” “Men,” she said. “Men who kill women.” “Right, then,” he said. She launched into her spiel about The Women of Barra. A virus kills every woman in Barra. Six hundred women. “The book tells the story of who invented the virus,” she said, “and how the island copes afterwards.” “A man did it, yeah?” Alastair said. She moved her hair from one shoulder to the other. “You’ll have to read it if you want to know more.” Too bleak, a reviewer had said. She had no new ideas. Her brain was a hollow vessel where nothing grew. “I will.” Ezra returned with the tickets, and Jack emerged from the bathroom. He’d lost sight of where they were sitting, and Brigid watched him scan the lobby—hands on hips, looking miserable—before he spotted her. They were here to see The Saddest Music in the World with Isabella Rossellini, then Guy Maddin was giving a talk. Alastair and Ezra were big Guy Maddin fans. Neither Jack nor Brigid had heard of him. “Can’t take that in with you,” Alastair said, gesturing at Brigid’s sponge cake, and then he and Ezra were hurrying into the theater, Alastair’s hand firmly on Ezra’s butt cheek. She offered the sponge cake to Jack, but he was glaring at her. “What?” she asked. “Tell me what man drives four hours—when it’s fucking snowing—to see his former student read.” “Please don’t start this right now,” she said. It was the beer. It made Jack paranoid. “Brigid,” he said. “Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.” Something waiting. She shook her head. No. Not this. She could feel Jack’s jealously like a fog, wrapping around her neck, around her wrists and ankles. “Why are you penalizing me for something he did? I didn’t ask him to come.” He paused to work the sponge cake out of his teeth. “You’ve done nothing but humiliate me tonight,” he said. “What are you talking about?” “You’re practically humping Alastair’s leg.” “Jesus, Jack.” Her cheeks flushed. “He’s gay.” “What difference,” said Jack, walking into the dark of the theater, “does that make?” * * * She woke to a horrible sound, like a bomb. She rushed to the kitchen’s bay window and scanned the Kelvin River, Jack somewhere within, trawling for inspiration, then over the bridge and past the subway station. The buildings were dirty and soot-encrusted, Dickensian. The bombing sound had stopped. All she could hear was the distant whine of bagpipes. “The sound of Scotland,” Jack had said when they first arrived. More like the sound of a thousand mosquitoes, she thought now. She looked the other way, over to the Mackintosh cathedral and the other flats that looked just like the one she was standing in. No bomb. Her hands were shaking. The sound had been so loud. The smell of meat. She could smell it under the door. Alastair usually didn’t get home until midnight—a day off? She checked her reflection in the mirror, shook out her hair with her hands. He answered the door in a bathrobe and white cowboy boots with spurs. “Hold on,” he said and disappeared. She heard the click of the stove being turned off. Loretta Lynn was playing in the background. The meat sizzled and popped. Her mouth watered. Her nipples grew against the fabric of her shirt. “You didn’t hear it?” she said when he reappeared. “Hear what?” “The big boom.” He went to the window, and she followed him. “I don’t see anything,” he said. He opened the window and leaned out. She could hear sirens now. “Oh,” he said. “Oh no.” He left her in the hall and returned fully dressed, his face red with either anger or shame. “I have to go.” “Go?” she said, but he was already headed down the red-carpeted stairs, then opening the huge front door. The bright light of day shot into the foyer, and then he was running down the street and around the corner, toward, what she could see now, was a scene of absolute chaos: ambulances, fire trucks, police cars—all surrounding a building, much like the one her flat was in. “Wait,” she called, but she found herself in a swarm of people, soot on their faces, fire fighters snaking white hoses through the crowd. She looked up and saw helicopters hovering like bees. The heat was unbearable, and she brought her hands to her face, as if to save the skin from peeling off. Above her, smoke poured into the sky. It wasn’t like in the movies—no one had blocked off the scene with yellow tape. No one seemed to be in charge. In front of her was a mountain of burnt rubble. No one stopped Alastair from climbing over it. “Alastair,” she cried. “What are you doing?” He disappeared into the darkness. In an instant she knew she was standing in front of the building where Ezra’s studio was. She remembered now—Ezra had been rambling about his latest art project after the Guy Maddin movie. Something about making a cube out of durable material, with a hole where Ezra would pipe gas into, then another tiny hole, big enough for a match head. It was supposed to make a big boom but then fizzle out. She couldn’t remember what it was supposed to symbolize or how it was related to the beef jerky. People hurried by, wearing masks, headlamps, carrying big red medical bags. She thought she heard someone yell at her to move, but the accent was still difficult for her, like everyone’s mouths were full of rocks. She turned to a woman who was leaning against an ambulance. She felt as if she didn’t speak to someone she would start weeping. And it would never stop. “My friends,” Brigid said, “they’re in there.” The woman shook her head and pointed to her ears. She was deaf from the blast. * * * She stood in the hallway with Alastair, listening to him tell her about Ezra with a raspy voice. Jack was in the shower, washing off the muck of the Kelvin. It was almost midnight. Ezra was alive. In hospital, as Alastair put it, on a respirator. His lungs full of soot and blood. He told the doctors he thought he was dead until Alastair touched his hand. “He fell,” Alastair said, gesturing upward. “He fell three stories.” She looked up. She imagined a ragged hole in the ceiling, revealing the smoke-filled sky. The floor disappearing underneath her feet. Falling. Her hair streaming out above her. A gas leak. It would have happened eventually. Ezra’s art hadn’t caused the explosion—he was just the first to light a match. In a gesture so bold she gasped, Alastair took her hands. He brought her so close their noses were touching. His whole body was shaking. “Alastair,” she said. She let his body rest against hers. Through the flat’s thin walls, she heard Jack turn off the water, then the slosh of his wet footsteps approaching. “He’s going to be okay,” she said and placed her hand on Alastair’s heart. * * * That night, Brigid lay in bed with Jack, the moon illuminating the room. White fitted sheet, white comforter. No one used top sheets here. Or dryers. She’d hung the fitted sheet out the window to dry, and it smelled of beer and vomit, of Alastair’s sizzling steaks. She turned to Jack. Her attraction to Alastair had reduced her self esteem to that of a crushed soda can. She kissed Jack’s lips, hoping to reanimate herself. They had fallen in love during their MFA. Back then Jack was a handsome, slightly broken-seeming guy from Oregon, his debut book of poems “making waves,” it being about the death of an infant, but from the perspective of a man. The father. It was hard not to fall under his aloof, west-coast spell. The life they would create together, the baby they would raise—here, in this Glaswegian flat, she replayed what he’d said the night he proposed. How lucky she’d felt. Now what she felt was nervousness. She took a lock of Jack’s hair between her fingers. “Time for a cut?” she said. He turned away. “Did you sleep with him?” Jack asked. “What? No.” She sat up and gathered her hair in her hands. Just as she had pulled away from Alastair, Jack had come into the hallway, a towel around his waist. “He’s a meat guy.” “I don’t mean Alastair,” he said. “I mean him.” “No,” she said. “Goddamn you, no.” “I’m allowed to like people,” she said to her husband. “And they’re allowed to like me. I’m allowed to like people—even as much as I like you.” He turned to her. “But not more than me.” “If that’s the rule,” she said, pausing to breathe in the beery sheets, “I haven’t broken it.” “Haven’t you, though?” “It’s our anniversary,” she said, lying down again. “This weekend.” “I know,” he said. He took off his glasses and moved toward her. Without his glasses, his eyes were darker, bigger, like someone else’s eyes. They had been married for five years and she still felt uncomfortable when he took off his glasses. “You hate me,” he said. “I don’t.” “You hate all men.” “That doesn’t include you.” “So many footnotes,” he said. “What?” “Everything with you has a footnote. You hate men. But, footnote, not me.” Two miscarriages, she wanted to say. I’ve had two miscarriages because of you. “Please don’t do that thing,” she said instead, “where you confuse what I’ve written with who I am.” “As if you don’t go looking for yourself in my poems.” “There’s nothing to look for,” she said. “You don’t write about me.” An old argument. Nothing more to say. He rolled onto his back and she put her head on his shoulder. She felt his muscles relax, the familiar letting-go as he started to fall asleep. “Let’s go to Skye,” she whispered. “What’s there?” he whispered back. His fingers came alive on her skin. He lifted her leg over his. * * * To her left lay a barren and craggy landscape, flat. Behind her and to the right sprawled a field overgrown with bluebells. In front of her: the Atlantic and the islands Rum, Muck, and Eigg, or the Hebrides—where Barra was—or Canna, she didn’t know, one of them anyway. The sky was perfect, big white clouds above their heads. She took a picture. All the houses on Skye were white. They walked with their heads down to avoid sunstroke. After two hours, they were nowhere near anyone or anything. Defeated and thirsty, they ended up in a little cove. White sand, turquoise water—as though they were in the Caribbean. She was sunburnt. Jack took off his shirt and tied it around his head. She’d slipped an hour ago and her jeans were ripped at the knee. Her former writing professor had told her that if she attended a few private tutorials with him, her writing—particularly on the sentence level—would improve vastly. He had an apartment that was as shabby as she’d imagined: teetering bookshelves, a faded Persian rug, an ancient gas stove. He offered her a cigarette, lighting it with the blue flame of the stove, and she took it, not knowing yet that she was pregnant for the first time. Now, he said, gesturing to the kitchen table, where an early, terrible draft of her novel sat. Let’s attend to these adverbs. She got an agent after he’d heavily edited her manuscript, then a book contract. Nothing. Not a kiss between them. Not a hand placed on a leg. Still, the night of her reading in Manhattan, after she’d given him back the signed copy of her book, the B of her name made lascivious by her own hand, he had lingered a moment. Then he passed her what at first looked like a credit card but was, upon closer examination, the key to a hotel room. “Hope to see you,” he said in his gentle voice. He gestured to the next woman in line. “She’s all yours.” How she wanted to tell Jack about what her former writing professor had done. How she wanted to share with him how swiftly it had ruined everything—her book, her writing, her sense of agency in the world. Instead she’d thrown the room key in a trashcan. She hadn’t told Jack a thing. He’d have lorded it over her. Told her he’d been right about the guy all along. Tell me what man drives four hours . . . Perhaps the marriage had ended for her that night in New York City. The moment she realized she would have to keep secrets. Secrets worse than infidelity. Secrets about pain. There was litter on the beach. Anchors, chains, that sort of thing. She picked up a chunk of green sea glass and handed it to Jack. “For your book?” she said. “I’m only interested in the Kelvin,” he said. A different sort of man would leave her. Would have left her a long time ago. She hadn’t provided what had been expected. Her belly, as flat as the day she met him. And she had desires. Desires that spanned beyond him. Miles to go before I sleep, she said in her head. And many more men to sleep with. A different man would beat her with the sea glass, until it was embedded into her brain. A different man would throw her into the sea, hands bound behind her back. “Should we keep going?” he said. He took a swig of water and passed her the canteen. To the lighthouse or in general? She couldn’t bear to ask. Her phone buzzed. “He’s okay,” she said to Jack, waving the phone at him. “Ezra’s out of surgery and he’s okay.” “Sure,” said Jack. “You’re not happy?” “It’s not that,” he said. He put the sea glass in his pocket. “It’s just a crush,” she said. “It’s not the thing with Alastair that bothers me,” he said. He looked at his feet, kicked some pebbles around with his shoe. “I understand crushes. I get them, too, Brigid.” She scanned her mind for all the people he could have crushes on. His agent, yes. His editor. His publicist. All the women of publishing. “What is it, then?” she asked. But he was walking toward the ocean, his cargo shorts billowing in the wind. “What is it, then, that bothers you?” she called out. “Tell me, please.” “I have given myself over to you,” he said, turning to her. He folded his arms. “But you. You have always kept a part of yourself separate.” But that’s right, she thought. You can’t have all of me. You don’t get to have all of me. Before she and Jack had left for Skye, Alastair told them that if they looked across to Mallaig, they would see a shaft of light at the entrance of Loch Nevis. The light was nearly always there. Nevis in Gaelic meant “heaven.” She walked to where her husband was standing, and she took his hand, and together they squinted for a long time. * * * When they returned to their little flat, Jack fell asleep, exhausted by the journey. She lay on her back and thought of when they’d visited the Necropolis by Glasgow Cathedral. A boys’ choir had been there, singing among the tombstones. One tombstone was so big she’d thought it was a smokestack. Jack talked about him sometimes—the baby. His baby. Until she’d met Jack, she thought that men didn’t care very much about babies, or children in general. The baby’s name had been Mercury. Jack had come up with it. The perfect, celestial name for a poet’s son who hadn’t lived even one day. It surprised her—the way, every now and then, Jack wept. That was another thing she didn’t think men did. She thought crying was to women what masturbation was to men. Every day, each bent to their respective tasks. She looked at her sleeping husband. His eyelids were twitching. She felt his familiar warmth beside her. Something happened, Jack, and it undid me. Something happened, Jack, and I feel like I can’t tell you. But let me tell you anyway. Her first miscarriage was nothing more than a giant period. Nothing gory. No embryo held in the hand. And hardly pregnant at all—she’d even gotten out a magnifying glass to see the faint, second pink line. Maybe that one didn’t count. The second happened a few weeks before Christmas. The day she’d bought Jack the elf boxers—not just elf boxers. She’d also gotten him a five-hundred-dollar Movado watch, taken out of her advance from The Women of Barra. She bought the gifts, then decided to walk home instead of taking a cab—she felt good. She felt alive with life. A little bean within her, nine weeks along. It was a two-mile walk, no hills or rocky terrain, just straightforward Portland sidewalks. Overcast and in the 40s—an unremarkable day. In her head, she went over what she would write in Jack’s Christmas card. She didn’t want him to make fun of her. He was against sentimentality of any kind, in life and in art. When she opened the door to their apartment, Jack’s cheeks were rosy from wine, and the smell of rosemary and tomato sauce was in the air. Some other poets were over, and he said he hoped she didn’t mind. She did and didn’t. She hid the gifts in her dresser, then walked into the kitchen. She told everyone she was pregnant. They cheered and clinked glasses. She held her belly even though there was nothing to hold. In the morning they had breakfast, and Jack hurried off to teach his last class of the semester. She worked on a story, then a Q&A for a magazine to help promote The Women of Barra. When she saw blood on the toilet paper, she texted Jack. Are you sure? he texted back, which seemed ridiculous, then and now. I’m sure. I have office hours, he texted next. When she thinks of it now, the memory slides in and out of focus. The feeling of something tearing, something moving in her that wasn’t supposed to be moved. The sense she didn’t have anymore—the sense of feeling alive with life. That’s the part she wished she could tell Jack. She wanted to tell him how strongly she’d felt the little bean’s spirit inside of her. But he would laugh it off. Accuse her of magical thinking. He might even invoke Mercury—how he had been the one to know a child’s spirit, if there was such a thing. But, no, Jack. She had felt him. She had felt him as strongly as if she’d once known him—like someone you remember, from a lifetime ago, suddenly and without warning, brought to you by a scent, someone’s perfume maybe, or the taste of something sweet in your mouth. * * * u up? It was Alastair. She looked at Jack, snoring beside her. Yeah. Why? She texted back. the moon, he wrote. She looked out the window. The moon was twice its usual size and blood red. lunar eclipse, he texted. She thought about waking Jack. He would like to see this big red moon. Instead, she found herself knocking softly on Alastair’s door. Alastair and Ezra’s flat had a little balcony. She wanted to watch the eclipse outside, in the cool night air. “Hi,” Alastair said, and stepped back to make room for her. He led her through his apartment, then onto the balcony. They stood together, eyeing the moon. She’d read somewhere that a blood moon was supposed to signify the end of the world. “Did you see it?” he asked her. “The light. The light at Loch Nevis.” “No,” she said. “We didn’t see heaven this time.” “Ah well,” he said. He sat on a folding chair and stretched out his legs. He was taller than Jack, model tall. “Jack’s been to Greece several times,” she said. “He said the light there is better.” “Oh,” said Alastair, laughing. “Sorry to disappoint him.” Across the street, a drunk couple stumbled by, arm in arm, oblivious to the moon. “I missed you,” said Alastair, his voice soft. “Did you miss me?” * * * Once the fellowship was over, they returned to Oregon. Jack finished his book and sold it, and the day it came out his publisher organized a big book launch at Powell’s. The book had generated enormous advance praise—blurbs, profiles, puff pieces—stuff normally reserved for the idiotic fiction that she wrote. The book was called Blood Moon over Glasgow. There was a poem for every day he’d trawled the Kelvin River—listing every item he found. A portrait of our city, a Glaswegian reviewer wrote, Jack Geoffrey has done for Glasgow what Joyce did for Dublin. At the end was a coda. A long poem—some reviewers would refer to it as an epic—about the love between Ezra and Alastair. And how a woman had come between them at the end. How Ezra, returning home from the hospital a day early to surprise Alastair, had seen the kiss between Brigid and Alastair from the window of his taxi, the night of the blood moon. A kiss so sudden it almost hadn’t happened at all. The question was, how did Jack know about it. Had Alastair told him. Had Ezra. Jack was walking to the mic now, after a long introduction by a local poet. He’d cut his hair. A sort of neo-Nazi look, she thought, the hair shaved on the sides but long on top. His signature round glasses and threadbare sweater. Rumpled pants. He reminded her of Woody Allen—or some quote about some person like him—it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. No, that was Dolly Parton. Well whatever, she thought. Same idea. “Thank you,” he said. “After that kind of an introduction, I can only disappoint you.” The crowd laughed, as they always did. “This is a poem about heartbreak,” he said. “I won’t read the whole thing. We’d be here for hours.” Again, laughter, although hers was nervous sounding. “The real trouble,” he began, “when you are married to another writer,” and at this he paused; he was good at suspense, “is you never know what they’re seeing and what you’re missing.” She scanned the crowd for someone she knew. But Jack’s newfound fame had brought with it only strangers. Their friends were at home, not wanting to stand in a line that looped around the block. She had started a new novel in Glasgow, but it was in its nonsense stage—plot-less, self-indulgent. She supposed this was the way life would go now. Her in the audience, Jack on stage. Marital secrets and transgressions mined for material. Infidelity immortalized on the page. He’d changed everyone’s names to ones from Greco-Roman mythology. Alastair had become Aeneas. Ezra was Dido. He’d changed everyone’s name but hers. I am sorry, she said after she’d read the poem for the first time—the proofs on the kitchen table, due back to Jack’s publisher in two weeks. I’m really sorry. It was so quick. Alastair was in shock—I mean, he was still so shaken up from what had happened to Ezra. I think he wanted to feel something, you know? Or be comforted. Maybe that. Maybe it was more of a comfort kiss. Jack stood and poured himself a cup of coffee. It was eight a.m. Too early for an argument. Too early to say the things that needed to be said. He sat across from her, slid the coffee cup her way. She took a sip and slid it back. The page proofs sat to her left. “Well, good,” he said. “Hm?” she asked. “I mean, I don’t regret putting it in the poem anymore.” “The kiss?” “Yeah,” he said. “It was a big risk.” She took the cup but her hands were trembling too much for her to take a sip. “We can recover from this,” she said. “Okay,” he said. He had his faraway look again, as though he were looking not at the floor but into another dimension. “Nothing happened between my professor and me,” she said. “And the thing with Alastair—you said that you get crushes, too.” “Well, that’s the thing,” Jack said, his eyes focusing now on her. “I made it up.” She looked at him as intently as he was looking at her. “I made up the kiss,” he said. “It seemed like a thing that would happen, but I didn’t know that it had.” She took the page proofs and flipped to the poem that contained the kiss between her and Aeneas, as he was referred to in the text. This part would be written about extensively by critics, it being so explicitly in the style of Robert Frost—even lifting some of his exact phraseology: And I saw them, or thought I saw them, Aeneas and Brigid,She wasn’t moving away from the kissHe asked with his eyes, not his lips But it hadn’t really gone like that. The night of the blood moon, she had stood on Alastair’s balcony, looking up at the alien sky. She was wearing a gauzy nightgown, and she could feel Alastair’s eyes running over the length of her body. “Yes,” she said. “I missed you.” That part was true. “Come here,” he said. He reached for her from his spot on the folding chair. “What?” “You heard me.” His voice was a whisper. She felt a ripple through her body. It was happening. She took his hand, felt the weight of it, the hair on his knuckles. His unmistakable smell—both desirable and repulsive—of meat. His undercut. That mole behind his ear. And yet. “No,” she said and drew back her hand. “I’m sorry. I can’t.” He frowned. She took a step backward. He reached for her again but this time with purpose. In one fluid motion, he had a firm grip on her arm. “You know you want to,” he said, and brought her down onto his lap. “No,” she said. She sprung to her feet but he had her by both arms now. He pulled her toward him, and she lost her balance. “You want to,” he said and again pulled her down onto his lap. She could smell the mint stink of his toothpaste. “No,” she said. She let the full weight of her body rest on him a second, then sprung up once more. Below her, she saw a taxi idling at the curb, the milky face of Ezra in the backseat, staring up at them. You know you want to. Did she? Sort of. But also no. And did she kiss him? No. * * * But it was more powerful to let Jack think that she had. “His tongue was like an eel,” she said to Jack after his reading at Powell’s. They stood in their kitchen in their socks. There was an after party in an hour and they were home to get changed. She thought about what she had worn in Glasgow—her black-and-white blouse and mini skirt—but this time with boots. “I can still feel it in my mouth, twitching, slimy, serpentine.” She opened her mouth and let her tongue hang out. “Like this,” she said and wiggled it back and forth. “Alastair’s tongue. It was really awful.” “Not like an eel,” Jack said. “A snake.” She slid her tongue back inside the safety of her mouth. “What’s the difference?” “Snakes are loaded with symbolism,” he said. “You can do something with the simile. But an eel—an eel is just an eel.” “An eel is just an eel,” she repeated. Their kitchen was small, with white subway tiles and white countertops, white appliances, and a white tile floor. He looked at her expectantly. She stood up. He looked at her longingly. Seven weeks now. She’d gotten out the magnifying glass. Not far enough along to tell anyone except Jack. Jack’s phone buzzed. His agent. She was at the party already. “We should get ready,” he said. Her husband was the nicest man she knew. So much had been written about the ends of marriages—the poignant domestic scenes; the moments of bitterness and cruelty and tenderness; the sweeping final paragraphs. So much had been written about violence and love. She thought, suddenly, of Othello smothering Desdemona. “You go,” she said to Jack. “I’m going to stay home.” “You’re not coming to my party?” he asked. He began to walk toward her. She thought of her former writing professor in his Manhattan hotel room, eyeing the door. All the hours that must have gone by. The snow falling in clumps outside. “No,” she said. “I’m not coming.” You’re not? And why? I’m trying to save my life.
‘I Want to Argue with Everything I’ve Ever Thought’: An interview with Catherine Lacey

The author of Pew on confession and original brokenness. 

If there’s one thing that rivals the discomfort of small talk, it’s an awkward pause. It’s a lull that either leads to conversational filler or oversharing. People really risk it all instead of being quiet, which is why that uncomfortable silence is exploited by HR people, priests, and journalists alike. In Catherine Lacey’s third novel, Pew (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the titular character and novel’s namesake already complicates conversations because they have no identity: their ethnicity and gender are described as indeterminate and confusing. They have no memory or backstory. But it’s Pew’s silence that seems to rattle others most; instead of fixating on Pew’s origins, they project onto Pew, and confess their secrets and their sins.  Pew could be post-body, beyond human even, but in a conservative and religious town in the American South, they are interpreted as an uncooperative patient, stranger danger, an archangel, and more ominously, a sacrifice. These communities are founded on conformity, where the right answers to a line of inquiry lead to acceptance and assimilation. It takes only a week for Pew’s muteness to rattle their foundation and saviour complex. Over email, I talked to Lacey about the origins of Pew and, more importantly, if a novel and its characters can originate in a body or somewhere else.  Sara Black McCulloch: You had a very religious upbringing in Mississippi, and I wanted to know how that influenced writing Pew, especially when it comes to shedding identities? Did this start with a voice or something else? Catherine Lacey: The person at the center of Pew is an impossibility—a person without qualities, a person whose appearance is changeable, impossible to define. I think to some degree the desire to inhabit the sort of simultaneous visibility and invisibility that such a body would give a person would appeal to most people, regardless of their background. As a child, I took to religion with a kind of seriousness that made childhood strange, or rather it revealed that American hypocrisy of being a country founded on Christian systems of morality while also claiming to be secular. As a kid who took the Bible very seriously, I was understandably frustrated that moral goodness had no currency at school, in fact it was a hazard. But eventually the Bible came to feel inadequate, full of its own paradoxes and cruelties, so perhaps the book was an attempt to create a kind of annihilated space in my hometown, my home-area-of-the-country.  Pew is also not someone who is shifting between identities because they don’t have one, which frustrates people to the point that there is a breakdown in communication. I read in your interview with the Paris Review that you think a lot about the body and posture—how they influence the rhythm and voice in sentences when you’re writing. To Pew, the body is where so much dysfunction and other bad things start. Did that approach to writing change when you were writing the character? On a purely creative, personal level, the book was an attempt to argue with myself over that point. Does the book have to be in the body? Does the voice necessarily come from a body? I truly am not interested in setting parameters or concerns for myself that remain fixed. I want to argue with everything I’ve ever thought.  The only time Pew really does speak to someone, it’s with Nelson, who warns Pew not to say anything because the community will only hear what they want to hear and twist their words. There’s a pressure for Pew to assimilate as Nelson did, but there needs to be a trauma narrative first. I wanted to know what you thought about trauma narratives and the ideal victim. Does Pew’s silence threaten this community because it challenges their saviour complex?  This phrase, “ideal victim,” is scarily apt. In the last several years, partially from the way the internet provides such an easy confession chamber, the act of sharing a traumatic story has become so common that doing so—personal, public exposure—has, at times, felt requisite. Of course, some people don’t have the option to expose or not expose a personal story, so I’m not talking about that. But I feel strongly that one shouldn’t be required to expose personal trauma to be seen as worthy of equal treatment, or justified in their anger over an injustice. In some ways, this is the way American society has instinctively responded to the increased opportunity for telling trauma narratives. Essentially, trauma is treated like capital, and you must spend it in order to increase the value of your position. I felt this particularly around the time #MeToo first became a thing. I did not want to describe personal experiences in order to participate, but at certain times it felt like that was the price of admission—even when some tried to say it wasn’t required. It seems to me that many BIPOC Americans may often feel this way, that there’s a heightened value being placed on sharing the details of times that your life has been denigrated and if you’re not willing to share that then you have less of a right to complain, to have a voice. Of course, there’s no centralized authority in society that is setting that pattern—it’s emerging from us collectively, which makes it the kind of problem that fiction is best suited to deal with.  I was not directly thinking of any of this as I wrote Pew, but looking back I can see how this concern slips in. They’re not willing or not able or simply not sharing what has happened to them, so the system is breaking down. Nelson didn’t have the option to suffer privately and he resents it. He resents the community around him relishing in their personal experiences of “doing the right thing,” because he recognizes it as the same kind of noxious righteousness that leads people to commit violence in the name of their government or religion or hate group or whatever. Righteousness is so dangerous. It erases nuance. Many people fill in for Pew’s silence and start revealing more about themselves. What they confess to Pew is, at times, much darker and honest than what comes up at the Forgiveness Festival [in the novel]. This made me think about performative public apologies. In a way, when someone asks for forgiveness like that, they seem to be asking people to forget about their harmful actions rather than asking for help or learning from them. Even at the Forgiveness Festival, everyone’s eyes are closed, so the apology never reaches the person it’s intended for. What does forgiveness mean or look like to you? Is it about being good or bad, a fear of God, or just someone understanding how to be in the world? There’s this Protestant concept of being wiped clean, of being redeemed through private confession to God. As a child I was so interested in Catholic confession, in the booth with the priest—we did all of our confession silently, alone. Maybe Protestants repress their shame and guilt more than Catholics do? I would absolutely read that psychological study. I do think there is an increased societal preoccupation with forgiveness right now in the culture and maybe that’s part of the reason I wrote this book now rather than years ago. Perhaps the most useful thing I learned from Christianity—but perhaps even more from my mom than from church—was that there is no point in holding a grudge, that you’re usually better off forgiving someone rather than carrying around anger for them. But it’s also odd to me that I find it easier to forgive individuals than collectives. I remain pissed off about Mississippi’s general hypocritical disregard for the poor and the suffering while they all claim to be Christian but I’m fully ready to forgive individuals for individual things. I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to be, but that’s what I’m working with these days. The epigraph is from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and while I know the reviews of Pew have focused on the unnamed narrator and the summer festival at the end, it also centers on the idea of the scapegoat. I wanted to talk about Pew’s role in the Forgiveness Festival because while they won’t identify themselves, the community abandons them at the end, rendering Pew an outcast full of the town’s confessions and sins. Pew is the scapegoat. I hadn’t thought about the story that way but I think it's a valid and interesting take. There’s this idea in Christianity that all people are born broken and sinful, that faith in Jesus makes a person whole. So, in a sense, by sending Pew to this festival, the question is being raised of, what would Pew have to confess to if they were human, but without history? What is the nature of that original brokenness? The question of innate sinfulness is fascinating to me. What does it really mean to be born incomplete and what is this state of completion people supposedly are striving to reach? While Pew is a narrator with no identity, they do ask us, in a way, to make a choice: do we go along with conventions, or do we abandon them so we can change and grow? This question is especially prescient right now, at a time when we’re being forced to reconsider our relationships to power, money, and each other. Have you been reevaluating your own relationship to and participation in any of these now? Oh, absolutely. I think it’s difficult to accurately or honestly describe how “the now” is changing me, but I think the process of writing Pew helped me defamiliarize myself with my own body and by doing that I see other people’s bodies differently and I suppose that’s all I want reading the book to do. I hope it made me a slightly less shitty, slightly more kind person in the world. I think there are many ways to read the book, to be frustrated by it, enjoy it, to not enjoy it, but the only stance in the reader that I am willing to say is a failure on their part is wanting to know “what” the person at the centre of Pew is. It wasn’t a secret I wanted to keep; it’s the problem I’m asking the reader to approach. And there’s no answer to the problem, or at least I don’t claim to have it.
‘There’s Still Time to Save It’: An Interview with Charlotte McConaghy

The author of Migrations on connecting to the natural world, activist privilege, and creatureliness. 

Birds are having a real moment right now—bird-identification apps, newly converted birders, repurposed Instagram accounts. And even if it’s brought on by all that birdsong we can finally hear, this moment is well overdue. But it’s also terribly fragile. In the last three decades, over a third of North America’s birds have vanished—that’s three billion birds. In India, where I live, the first nationwide study found that 80 percent of observed species were declining. In the UK, where I used to live, nearly a quarter of bird populations face extinction or steep decline.  In Migrations (Flatiron Books), the moment of the birds has passed. Along with that of the bears, deer, wolves, fish, bees, and trees. Set against a landscape of immense loss, Charlotte McConaghy’s evocative new novel charts the story of Franny, who attempts to follow the last flock of Arctic terns as they fly from one end of the earth to the other. Together with the wary crew of a fishing boat, Franny finds herself immersed in terrain that’s as unstable and precarious as her interior world. As McConaghy writes: “There is hardly anything wild left, and this is a fate we are, all of us, intimately aware of.” And if we have any hope of salvaging the natural world, Migrations suggests that we may have to uncover our own wildness first. Richa Kaul Padte: There’s a moment when your narrator Franny is explaining the immense journey of the Arctic terns—from the North to the South Pole and back again, all in a single year. She says, “I think of the courage of this and I could cry.” What, in turn, is the sort of courage required by humans to face the world of Migrations—one in which practically all the animals, birds, and insects that once populated the earth have died? Charlotte McConaghy: Great question! I like to think of the courage of the terns’ journey as a metaphor for the courage that Franny—and all humans—need in facing the looming animal extinctions. It’s so hard not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of this crisis, and to feel hopeless or apathetic in the face of it. It seems too big for any one of us to be able to stop, but I wanted the book to be a battle cry of sorts. To say no, we can make a difference, we can take up this fight, and in fact we have an individual responsibility to do so. Franny’s journey (without giving too much away) is one of hopelessness to a reclaiming of hope, and it requires a lot of courage from her to reach that point; this is what we will need in order to reclaim our own hope—and not only hope, but the energy required to take on a journey as vast as the flight of the terns.  Do you think this hope and energy partly comes from noticing—and in the case of Migrations, remembering—the remaining wildness in the world? There’s this moment when Franny sees the terns and thinks: “Easy to forget how many there once were, how common they seemed. Easy to forget how lovely they are.” Is paying attention a way to energize ourselves in the face of despair? Absolutely! The more we notice these beautiful creatures the more we will value them. And we don’t have to look far. Go for a walk and really look at the trees you see, study their leaves and try to spot the birds that hide among them. Find some water and sit beside it, it won’t take long for water birds to come and sit on its surface or dive below for fish. Sit quietly and listen to the sound of the wind. Spot the little bugs that find their way into your home and instead of squishing them, help them on their way. Everything has an important role to play. Take pleasure from all of these living creatures; every one of them is a wonder. We have the capacity to take such joy from the natural world, and I think you’re absolutely right that this helps to stave off the despair we feel when we think it’s all gone. It hasn’t gone yet. There’s still time to save it. Woven through your book is a “nameless sadness, the fading away of the birds...of the animals.” Franny remarks: “How lonely it will be here, when it’s just us.” This reminds me of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s concept of “species loneliness”—a “deep, unnamed sadness” arising from human estrangement with other species. Both Franny and Kimmerer describe this loss as unnamed; what, if anything, shifts when we try to name it? Perhaps the attempt to name it is what separates us from other species—the need for language to define and understand how we feel and what we yearn for. For animals there is only instinct. One of the things I wanted Franny to be, while thoughtful and contemplative, was more instinctive than most people, wilder, maybe, or more in touch with her wildness. This allows her to connect more deeply with the natural world, but also means she feels the loss of it keenly. I think we all must strive to connect more deeply with the world if we have any wish to salvage it and perhaps lessen some of that unnamed sadness. Whether we have the ability to identify it or not, it’s something that lives in us as deeply as instinct does, and maybe it’s a sign of our creatureliness, and hints that reconnection has the potential to nourish us all. Oh, now that makes me wonder if it’s actually reductive to try and name this sadness! In the sense that maybe our constant need to name, classify and categorize everything—including our feelings—prevents us from forming the sorts of connections we need the most? Yeah, I sometimes think that might be the case too. Overanalyzing and overthinking can feel like the occupation of a writer, which is why it was such a bone-deep relief to write about a character who doesn’t try to analyze what things mean, but instead tries to experience each moment, to really feel them. Franny is guided by emotion and I tried to let the writing process be that way. It’s a difficult thing when your job is to put language to emotion, because you must also know when language has its limitations and try to allow something deeper to shine through on the page.   Something you resist a lot in your text is the idea of human centrality—for example conservation efforts being focused on what benefits us the most. In Migrations, the work to save bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators is well underway, while “no-hopers” are allowed to “fade into extinction.” But, as Franny asks, “wasn’t this attitude the problem to begin with?” Yes, it really upsets me to think about the extinction crisis only in terms of how it will affect us humans. Sometimes it seems like the only argument that ever gets through to people is how damaged our food supply will be when there are no more pollinators to help us grow that food, or the thought of our homes being destroyed by flood or drought or fires or rising sea levels. It distresses me because we are not the only living creatures on this planet, nor the only ones with a right to safety. We are sharing this world; if anything, we are its caretakers. So I didn’t want this book to become a dystopian look at how our lives will be affected, I wanted it to be an existential exploration of how it will feel to be the only living things left here. I think it will be devastating. The thought of a world with only humans is a horrifying thought. The animals deserve to be here as much as we do, and not to serve any purpose, but to exist in their own right. There is a growing tension in your book between climate activists and fishing communities, with the latter often positioned as enemies of the sea. Franny, for example, is shocked when the captain of the The Saghani—the only fishing vessel that agrees to take her aboard—releases a large catch to free a sea turtle caught in its net. I think the only thing that shocked me, though, was her shock. I’ve lived near fishing communities for a long time, and in fact just last month, fishermen in my home state of Goa, India, freed several Olive Ridley turtles.   Is there a truth in the terrible way some conservationists view fishing communities—a truth other than activists’ own privilege?  I think there is huge division between people on this subject, and unfortunately a lot of that stems from a lack of understanding of the other party. I’m a vegetarian, while my father is a beef and lamb farmer. There could be division between us but instead we have enough knowledge to understand each other. For Franny, in the world of Migrations, the seas have been even further ravaged than they are now (although we are headed that way swiftly), so she is aware only of a certain greed on the part of those who continue to fish despite the terrible state of the oceans. She just doesn’t understand why they carry on. For Ennis and his crew, there is even more desperation than there is for fishermen today—fish are so scarce they aren’t really able to make a living from it anymore, and this journey is a kind of last chance for them all, which is perhaps why Franny assumes that their need will outweigh their compassion. What she must learn is that there are complexities to us all; it is the systems that have been put in place that need to change. I’m really interested in how knowledge operates in your book. Franny says of her scientist husband: “Niall has always wanted me to study the things I love, to learn them...in facts. But I’ve always been content to know them in other ways….the touch and feel of them.” This makes me think of the biologist who refuses to believe that a flock of crows befriended Franny in her childhood. At the same time, we see that Franny’s instinctive love of birds and the sea is deepened by Niall’s research, too. Are these two ways of knowing contradictory, or can they compliment each other—even when what we are trying to know is wildness itself? I think part of Franny’s journey is to understand that they can complement each other. There is certainly a sense of contradiction to her—she is hungry for knowledge of birds, sitting in on classes she’s not enrolled in just to learn more about them, while at the same time resisting the thought of making this learning official by committing to any kind of study. She’s frightened, I think, that the science of things might tarnish the magic she sees and feels in the wild. It’s her creatureliness that makes her disinterested in normal societal values—career ambition, wealth, etc.—but she comes to slowly understand that committing to learning about her passion doesn’t have to take the magic from it, and I think this is one of the gifts she gets from her husband. Just as he learns a kind of optimism from her about our potential impact on the natural world—and as we are all inevitably enriched in some way by our partners’ views.   “Creatureliness” is a word you’ve mentioned a couple times now, and it makes me think of Franny “reach[ing]…for poetry, for Mary Oliver and her wild geese and her animal bodies loving what they love.” What is creatureliness, and is it linked to how “we don’t always have to be a poison, a plague on the world…[how] we can nurture it too?” Yes, I think so. I’ve always taken a great deal of inspiration from Mary Oliver’s poetry and her extraordinary ability to recognize how our connection to the natural world can feed and sustain us. I read recently that it’s our separation from nature that makes us harmful to it. That as we advanced technologically, we lost our ability to be harmonious with the rest of the world. I think there are those with a more natural ability to connect with animals and wild spaces, and maybe it’s because they are able to remember their own animal natures. The quiet we are capable of. Perhaps it’s only by reconnecting with our animal sides, or our “creatureliness,” that we will remember what it means not just to exist for our own sakes, but as part of a greater, vibrant, interconnected whole. Our place here can be nurturing and gentle, instead of destructive. This is a very important theme in the book and in Franny’s life. The realization that she, and all of us, can help instead of hinder, gives meaning and purpose to her life, and I hope readers can take a little of this from the novel.
Pregnant During the Pandemic: Three Stories

A COVID pregnancy is riddled with small, subtle losses.

I. Maria—Pregnancy Monday was a bad day. Four patients in the ICU ward where Maria worked died of COVID. The patients had all been in the ICU for two to three weeks. Maria, a licensed clinical social worker, hadn’t seen or spoken with them directly; they had been on respirators, tubes in their mouths, unable to communicate, but she wasn’t allowed in the rooms with COVID patients anyway. She provided support to their families, facilitating end-of-life discussions in Spanish and preparing them for difficult news. When she’d met with the families, they had been more concerned for Maria than themselves: “They saw my belly and were shocked.” No one expects to see a six-month-pregnant woman working full-time in the ICU ward of a busy urban hospital during a global pandemic. “They say, ‘We were worried to come into the hospital, and here you are working here.’ It’s a weird position to be in, ‘cause here I am, trying to provide support and help them process the information being told to them by the medical staff, and trying to help them through the grief process. And they’re worried about me.” This happens more and more with Maria’s patients. Worry over her developing baby serves as a temporary distraction from the loss of their loved ones—a chance to worry about new life in the face of a painful death. “A lot of the families tell me, ‘We’ll pray for you.’ And it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be here to help you.’” Maria has become accustomed to being the object of such anxiety. Her patients regularly fret over her. Other hospital staff express concern. Her friends and family send well-meaning texts with unsolicited advice and links to articles. “‘You’re putting yourself and your baby in danger,’ they tell me.” Such interference is normal during pregnancy; just ask any woman who’s tried to order coffee when she’s showing. America’s culture of pregnancy-related fear-mongering and body policing can cause prenatal anxiety under normal circumstances. COVID has served to magnify this. Many pregnant women are experiencing an increase in depression and anxiety under the pandemic as a result. Maria hasn’t been particularly worried about working in the ICU, though. Her years of work in hospitals have left her feeling prepared for a situation like COVID. “I’ve been trained to look at the research, and all of it says there’s just not enough evidence. So really, I just have to protect myself like I would with the regular flu or any other contagious condition, like TB.” She washes her hands, wears her mask, keeps her distance. She also feels supported by her supervisor, who doesn’t require her to enter patients’ rooms or do anything that makes her feel unsafe. She found out she was pregnant in January. It wasn’t planned and the father wasn’t in the picture, but she decided to go through with it anyway. Her doctor began talking to her about COVID at her first prenatal appointment, even though there had been no documented cases in the US yet. He urged her to stop going in to work at the hospital. Working from home wasn’t an option for her position, though. Because she’s preparing to become a single mother, quitting wasn’t financially feasible either. Maria also had that particularly American quandary of wanting to save her sick days until the baby came. “If I use all my time off now, what will I do when the baby’s here?” Maria likes her job—she likes working face-to-face with families not different from her own, likes being a source of calm and support during a crisis, likes the distraction for the disappointment and loneliness of a COVID pregnancy. “What would I be doing otherwise? Just sitting at home.” A COVID pregnancy is riddled with small, subtle losses. For Maria, there’s no prenatal yoga classes to go to. No big baby shower. No birthing classes and making friends with other moms-to-be. No friends touching her belly and remarking on how big it’s gotten. There are instead quiet mornings with her dog. There’s a bag packed with snacks to fuel her through the long shifts at work. There are texts with other pregnant friends sharing resources. There are plans for a drive-thru baby shower. There are evenings watching movies with her parents with the subtitles on. There’s a stillness and a waiting. Her biggest fear is being separated from her baby at birth. Her hospital’s policy is to quarantine any mother who tests positive for COVID for 14 days—and that includes being quarantined from her own baby. “I worked in the Labor & Delivery ward for a year and a half, and I saw the strain on moms whose babies would go to the NICU. So, it’s a real fear. I get really emotional thinking about it.” There are other labor fears. She is planning for her mother to be her one allowed support person. “But my mom is in her sixties. I worry about exposing her while she’s in the hospital.” She also worries she won’t be prepared for labor. In-person birthing classes have been canceled and the online ones don’t have the interactive element. “I wonder, am I gonna be ready for the delivery? I haven’t been able to prepare the way a mom normally would.” She’s largely alone with these feelings. She lives by herself, so she makes a point to see her parents almost every day. “My pregnancy was a surprise, you know, and it’s just me. As much as I wanna say I don’t need those things—having people around, having a big baby shower—I do. I’ve felt very isolated. Friends who would normally come around haven’t. It’s out of concern for my safety, but I still wish I had that support. I wish I had all the pictures to show my daughter, ‘This is what we were doing to prepare. This is how excited we were for you.’” Instead there is Maria, in her mask. Work serves as a welcome distraction, a place where she can be useful to people in a time of need. “There’s a lot of grief at the hospital right now. A lot of suffering goes on with COVID, and it’s a very stressful situation.” Her hospital serves largely immigrant populations, who’ve been deeply affected by both the pandemic and ensuing economic shutdown. “They come to this country with big hopes and dreams. And then COVID happens to them, and it all ends.” Maria’s been crying more about her patients during this time, though it’s hard to know whether it’s the stress, grief, or pregnancy hormones. “Probably all three.” She tends not to be an emotional person. Her role requires her to stay level-headed, and usually she’s able to hold it all back. But after that Monday with four deaths, she couldn’t take it—she went back to her co-worker’s desk and broke down in tears. “There’s just so much pain right now.” She talks to a therapist once a week. And she talks to her baby, telling her how strong she’s going to be, how excited she is to meet her, how strange the world is right now. “I keep telling myself, ‘At the end of all this, I’m gonna have a beautiful baby girl.’” It’s a strange triangulation: work distracts from her pregnancy disappointments; pregnancy distracts from her work stress; and her pregnancy distracts her patients from the loss of their family members. It’s a COVID-carved shape, with a sleeping fetus at its center. That Friday, there’s finally some good news. Two people with COVID leave the ICU. “Not many people get to leave. And even though I’ll never see them again, it made me so happy. There’s not much good news these days, so I try to focus on that.”  [[{"fid":"6707271","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]]   II. Kate—Labor Kate first thought of going to Canada when they were in line at Costco. It was early March and the line snaked the length of the airplane-hangar-sized store. Kate stood next to her husband Steven, her eight-month bump bulging. She looked at the line, the mountains of toilet paper in everyone’s carts, and felt an anxiety rise up her spine. She turned to Steven and asked, “Would it be crazy to go to Canada to give birth?” “Yes,” he answered. After all, they had a birth plan: a hospital they liked, an OBGYN they trusted, a doula they’d paid for. They had a baby-proofed apartment and friends who’d promised to deliver lasagnas. Could they uproot everything to return to Kate’s native country, where she hadn’t lived in since high school, because of a fearful hunch? A crazy premonition about a pandemic sweeping New York City? “I had to admit, it sounded crazy.” But she couldn’t ignore the mounting sense of dread. Kate had started to worry about COVID in December. Her job required her to follow the news closely. At first, it was a low-level, analytical worry. She read articles, amassed information, figured out what they needed to buy online. “It was like, ‘Do diapers get made in China? Let’s order 300 diapers, just in case.’” She felt like she was playing the stock market. “My mentality was, ‘Let’s just play it safe.’” She started buying living supplies as well, canned foods and toilet paper. Steven went along with it, indulging the pregnant lady. By mid-February, the worry became a constant buzz. She began reading reports of people in the US who were displaying symptoms but were unable to get tested. “I realized it was here and no one knew.” Soon, she was only reading COVID stories.  The buzz got louder. “In early March, I realized, ‘Oh, I can’t leave the apartment anymore.’” She sent an email asking her boss to work from home. His initial response was dismissive; four hours later, he wrote back saying that the higher-ups wanted her to remain working from home. By the next week, the entire office was working from home. Next was the run on toilet paper. “I felt like I kept being proven right.” All the hunches she had, everything she kept doing “just in case”—it all was turning true. “That’s when I said, ‘We need to go to Costco today.’” In line, the idea of driving home to Canada occurred to her. Later that night, their apartment crammed with stockpiled baby supplies and canned food, Kate went online and ordered facemasks. Steven watched her from the doorway. “Kate, I’m worried about you,” he said. “I’ve never seen you like this.” “I had to ask myself, ‘Am I going crazy? Is this all in my head?’” She wasn’t an anxious person; her pregnancy prior to that point had been worry-free, relaxed, “like sitting in a warm bath.” But this new anxiety kept getting louder. It was worse at night. She’d wake up to use the bathroom, check the news, then lie in bed in terror. Outside her window, she watched her block change, the restaurants shutter, the soup kitchen close down, the sidewalks empty. She heard sirens all hours of the night; countless ambulances kept returning to the halfway house across the street to take away sick residents. Soon she couldn’t even get groceries delivered. Then at 37 weeks pregnant, she got her first symptoms. First it was a sore throat. Then the chest pains began. When she called her doctor, she asked her to come in. Kate walked the 45 minutes across the deserted city, no one but the homeless on the streets. “It was eerie.” The doctor ran a slew of tests that all came back negative. The office didn’t have any COVID tests so, based on the color of her phlegm, Kate was diagnosed with bronchitis. She was relieved, but couldn’t shake the anxious feeling that stalked her. “I knew that we wouldn’t be able to get care, even if we needed it. And we had insurance.” Later that week, she found out her husband wouldn’t be able to accompany her in the hospital. She was devastated, livid. “I was doing everything I could to stay safe, and I just felt so powerless. New York is an amazing city, but New Yorkers don’t listen to their government. America is a country founded on ‘fuck this tyranny,’ and that’s not where you want to be during a pandemic.” Then, Cuomo held a press conference in which he shared the projected date of infection peak in New York City: April 8. The day after Kate’s due date. The fear was screaming now. She couldn’t shake it, couldn’t convince herself she was being crazy or paranoid. She kept thinking about the story of the frog that got boiled alive, the temperature of the water increasing so slowly, he never thought to jump out. And all of a sudden, she knew. Steven was taking a shower. She walked into the steaming bathroom. “We need to go to Canada now.” It didn’t feel like her speaking the words, but some other force. Steven looked at her from the shower stall. “Okay,” he said. “You’ve been right about everything else so far, so I trust you.” Everything fell into place. A co-worker lent them a car for several months. Her uncle found them a place to rent. Her cousin in New York took their cats. They left at noon the next day, their car packed with all the baby supplies and canned goods Kate had amassed over the previous weeks. They made sandwiches and stopped only to use the bathroom. “We wore facemasks and everyone looked at us like we were crazy. But we were just a week ahead of everyone else.” It was a ten-hour drive to the border, and the whole time, well-meaning family members kept sending texts. The border was going to close at midnight. No, the border would be open, but the provincial border would close. Steven, who wasn’t a Canadian citizen, wouldn’t be able to get in. “We were driving through the countryside and didn’t have internet, so I couldn’t look any of it up.” All they could do was drive and hope, while fear drummed in her veins. They arrived at the border at 11 p.m. The officer didn’t know what to do with them. “I have to call my supervisor and see if we can let you in.” Kate sat on a hard wooden bench inside the border control office, 38 weeks pregnant, and surrendered to the fear. What if they didn’t get let in? When the officer told them they could enter the country, she started bawling. All the terror and anxiety of the previous weeks sloughed off her. “I realized how scared I’d been. In New York, death felt closer than it ever had.” Labor and delivery is already a time when one walks with death. Despite relatively recent modern advancements in maternal and newborn care, when labor approaches, one still feels the dark edges of mortality closing around themselves, and their baby. COVID and the American response only magnifies that primitive fear. Driving through the Canadian night, Kate felt a weight lifting, death’s shadow receding. Out of the window, she saw grass and trees, instead of abandoned city streets. It was a sharp contrast. Everything felt safer, the intersections and stoplights wrapped in the knowledge that she would be able to get the care she needed. “I was just so grateful we weren’t going to die.” It turned out to be a good thing they’d brought so much canned food—they were required to quarantine for 14 days. They shut themselves inside the apartment her uncle had found and subsisted on tins of tuna fish and beans. Given their exposure and her unconfirmed bronchitis, Kate’s new OBGYN wanted to get her tested for COVID. “I was just so glad to be able to get tested.” It was another stark contrast. In New York, the hospital where Kate had been scheduled to deliver had released photos showing nurses wearing garbage bags and bandanas. “I couldn’t believe how much better the health care in Canada was. I always thought, ‘Oh, I’m in New York, I have great insurance,' but it turned out it didn’t matter.” The results came back the next day. Both Kate and her husband tested positive for COVID. “I didn’t have time to freak out.” Kate was due in two weeks.The town she was in hadn’t had a single case of COVID, let alone an infected pregnant woman about to give birth. As her husband’s symptoms worsened, she began talking with the doctors every day, trying to figure out a plan. She felt like an imposition, an entitled New Yorker bringing the world’s problems back to her hometown. One day while Facetiming, the doctor started crying. “We’re just so happy you’re here. We know the journey you’ve been through, and we just want to help you and your baby.” “I feel like such an asshole for bringing COVID here and putting everyone through this,” Kate said. “You’re doing what’s best for your child,” the doctor said, “and that’s what every mother does.” Steven’s case worsened as her due date drew near. Throughout all her fear, he had been her rock; now it was her turn. “We’re so much safer here,” she told him as his breathing became labored. “We can get care here, and the doctors know us.” Their marriage had never felt stronger. She was hoping that her baby would stay inside until after the 14-day quarantine elapsed and they were no longer contagious. The contractions began several days early, however. Kate would have to deliver without Steven. “I was devastated. It was so hard saying goodbye and going into the hospital without him.” They tell you not to get too attached to any birthing plan, because labor is unpredictable. Kate had lots of ideas of how she wanted her birth to go: she had a doula booked, had taken hypnobirthing classes, wanted to go natural. Just a month prior, Steven’s presence at the birth had been assumed, so much of a given she hadn’t included it in her birth plan. Kate didn’t have any of those supports when she went into active labor. All she had was her notebook from the hypnobirthing class and the peanut ball she’d managed to bring. She directed the masked nurses, who’d never heard of hypnobirthing, on how to adjust the peanut ball, unsure if she was doing the positions correctly. “I just kept thinking, ‘I have a husband at home with COVID who can’t walk; I can’t have a C-section.’” She didn’t have to. Her daughter was born at a healthy eight pounds, eight ounces, COVID-free. Being reunited with her husband upon discharge, several days later, was one of the happiest moments of her life. The first time he held their daughter, she felt a mix of deep joy and profound terror—was he still contagious? He wasn’t. They had to struggle through the first weeks alone, as her husband painstakingly recovered. They couldn’t have relatives come help, lactation consultants visit, grandmothers and grandfathers hold the baby. But they were safe and had each other. And a month’s supply of canned tuna fish.  [[{"fid":"6707276","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] III. Lauren—Postpartum Five weeks after our daughter was born, the world shut down. Very little in my life changed. Lockdown was exactly the same as having a newborn, I told friends, only better. I was already terrified of the outside world, already living in my sweatpants, already worried about money and washing my hands like a hypochondriac. The only difference was that now my partner was home with me. So actually, lockdown improved my life. Our daughter was born in early February, three weeks early and barely five pounds, her skin covered in a rash of pustular blisters. Nothing to worry about, the team of pediatricians told us. A bad case of a fairly common response to the hormones in the womb. Everything was normal then. My doula coached me through the pushing, my partner stayed with me the entire four-day hospital stay. Our parents visited. An incessant cast of nurses, social workers, lactation consultants and doctors rotated through our hospital room, until we finally hung a Do Not Disturb sign. There were signs, in the elevators and hallways, warning to get care if you had a fever and had been overseas, but they got lost in the clutter of all the other notices for breastfeeding groups and domestic violence call lines. We fell into the newborn haze: all-night feeding marathons, diaper changing, rocking and hushing, wondering who this stunned, howling stranger who barely opened her eyes was, and how she could fit into such a small body. With an early-term, underweight infant, the outside world suddenly became terrifying. I refused guests, and made the few family members who visited wash their hands. I didn’t even want to leave the apartment to go sit in the garden. She was so small, I wanted to shove her back inside. She should still be inside me, I’d think whenever I looked at her. Her rash made her seem even more fragile. The waiting room at her two-week check-up was filled with sniffling children and crying babies. Each one seemed like a contagion threat. We stood in a far corner, pushed the elevator buttons with our elbows, and squeezed sanitizer on to our hands at every interaction. She was gaining weight, looked healthy, but the pediatrician was concerned about her skin. “The rash should be resolving by now,” she said. “She shouldn’t be getting new blisters.” We were referred to a dermatologist, who told us the rash was likely the symptom of a rare genetic disorder. I cried. My partner took charge, refusing the skin graft and the herd of young residents who wanted to take a look. The dermatologist gave us a printed-out PDF and told us to watch for seizures. There was a blur of next steps—geneticists and neurologists and ophthalmologists—and a series of appointments, each one brutal and wrenching in its own particular way. The ophthalmologist needed to dilate her eyes for an exam; they swaddled and held her down while the doctor inserted Clockwork Orange goggles to keep her lids open. Our daughter screamed louder and harder than anything that tiny ever should. The geneticist ordered a blood sample to confirm the diagnosis. I used my arms and hair to create a wall around her and shhh’ed while the lab technician pricked her foot and squeezed out blood. She writhed and howled, her mouth a tiny cave of pain. I tried not to cry. In the background of each of these appointments, there was a succession of increasing safety precautions, a time lapse of COVID preventatives. Hand sanitizer appeared at the reception counters. Screenings questions were asked. Masks were worn. Temperature checks administered, plexiglass barriers installed, waiting rooms emptied. The world around us spun out, but we were able to maintain a singular focus on our little girl. It was almost a blessing. The week before the world shut down, my partner’s office sent him to work from home. It was a welcome change after his too-short paternity leave. We’d been joyous, gleeful. He whistled while he set up the computer monitor on the dining table. When shelter-in-place began, my single friends grappled with loneliness and isolation, and I felt like I'd won some secret prize. I was relieved to not have to leave the house, relieved to not have guests, relieved to not be alone all day. My boyfriend cooked breakfast every morning. I wore milk-stained nursing tanks and rarely took showers. We binged new TV series and rubbed $60 medicated ointment on our daughter’s skin. We told no one about her pending diagnosis. The outside world sank away and it was just the three of us. It might have been one of the happiest times of my life. Most times I could ignore the lingering disasters waiting in the background, but they found ways of creeping in. I checked the news on my phone while I fed her late at night, watched the death toll in Italy rise and the images of overcrowded New York hospitals. I Googled images of other children with her same condition, examined the discoloration of their skin and conical abnormalities of their teeth, and cried. I watched my boyfriend suit up in quasi-hazmat gear to go stand in long supermarket lines at 7 a.m. I studied charts of developmental milestones and anxiously watched for her to smile and track objects. COVID was in full swing by the time she was scheduled for a laser eye surgery at seven weeks old. Only one parent was allowed to accompany her, and she was required to take a COVID test. I caught the technicians in white hazmat gear exchanging nervous glances when they saw how small my daughter was. “We have to keep the swab in for 15 seconds,” they told me. “You’ll need to hold her arms down.” The swabbing woke her up. She thrashed her head, let out a cry deeper and more pained than I had heard yet. Her small body wracked with sobs. I couldn’t comfort her—I didn’t want to take her out of the stroller in the middle of the COVID testing lab, and I didn’t want to pat her with my gloved hands. She cried all the way back to the car, until I could squeeze out hand sanitizer, take her out of the stroller, hold her to my chest, and cry with her. When had the world become so painful and terrifying? The surgery ended up being easy. The surgeon showed me images of her eyes, where they lasered the problem areas: “We were able to save her vision.” I chatted with the nurses about furloughed shifts and weak unions. They told me how pretty she was. The effects of the anesthesia were worse than the surgery. She fussed and cried for two days. On the second day, I overheard my partner in a Zoom meeting. “Can I ask what the criteria was?” “I understand.” “If there’s ever an opportunity to return.” He came and stood in the doorway. “I’m sorry,” he said. His company had lost a series of large accounts. It was nothing personal; they hoped to hire him back when this was all over. He sat down on the bed next to me. I felt our world tremble, start to crack. I put my arms around him, cradling our daughter between us, and we made a little cave like that—an island in an unraveling world. Ten minutes later, the geneticist called with the results of our daughter’s blood work. She was officially diagnosed with incontinentia pigmenti. Up until that point, COVID and the effects of the shelter-in-place existed outside of us. People died, lost livelihoods, couldn’t see loved ones, and I too exhausted and consumed to feel any of it. I’d been waiting for life to go back to normal, living a kind of denial. I realized then that life wouldn’t be going back to normal, not for us or the world. COVID, motherhood, and our daughter’s condition were altering us irrevocably, in ways I knew I didn’t even understand yet. I cut my maternity leave short and returned to my job as a high school teacher—cue the Google classrooms and Zoom live classes while breast pumping below the screen line. It wasn’t the vision of early motherhood I’d had. There were no Mommy and Me yoga classes, no smiling strangers congratulating us, no pushing a stroller to cafes on weekday mornings. All the ideas and sense of security I'd had had evaporated, and I was left with what was. Sometime in May, the newborn fog began to break. We started getting more sleep. My partner picked up freelance jobs. Our daughter began laughing when we kissed her, smiling at us first thing in the morning, putting everything in her mouth. Her rash faded into swirls of marbled discoloration. One day I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror—same stained nursing tank, eyebrows grown out and hair undyed for a year, bags under my eyes and wrinkles in my forehead—and wondered what the hell happened. Where was the person I knew, and would she ever be coming back? No, I realized. Life wouldn't always be like this, but it would never be the same as it was. The lockdown that at first felt like a blessing has become stifling. Our daughter has gotten older, sturdier, smilier, and I want to share her with the world. My parents haven't seen her in months, and most of my friends haven't met her. She rarely leaves the apartment or sees faces other than ours. How will that impact her social development? There’s so much uncertainty. How will the rest of her symptoms present—tooth abnormalities, alopecia, learning delays? What will happen when the extra $600 per week of unemployment runs out? Will I even be returning to teach in a classroom this fall? Will our daughter be teased for her discolored skin? When COVID finally ends, what kind of world will we awaken to? Sometimes it feels like standing on the top of a very high mountain; if I start running down, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop. So I have to stay in today, in the present moment. She laughs and babbles and fusses. Right now, we have health insurance and enough money for food and rent. We have each other. “Daddy invented COVID so we could all stay home and cuddle,” my partner tells her. And sometimes, it feels true.
Outside, People Were Crying, Or They Weren’t

Is that bizarre? he asked. That such a brief experience of love was too much?

It was autumn in Michael’s apartment, but August everywhere else. Noise from the neighboring units jutted through the walls like slow-motion fists. I was seated on a chair in an otherwise bare corner, facing Michael; behind him was a tiny world, none of the items in which caught my eye. Light pooled between us on the carpet. It looked like a stain. Outside, people were crying, or they weren’t.   * I wanted to begin with an explanation, as if the body before Michael, in the shape of a bent exclamation point, were a kind of riddle. I told him I would be conducting interviews with a handful of folks from the area for a novel I intended to write: relatives, acquaintances, people of interest like him, and I hoped it would amount to an autobiography of a town, of rural Alberta. At this point Michael angled his head away from his shoulders, such that they weren’t flush anymore, then squinted. He asked how I would manage to write both an autobiography and a novel. Confidently, I said I was interested in how the emotional rhythm of a singular voice, when heard from a sociological distance, implicates a larger population, however wondrous or devastating or simultaneously wondrous and devastating. I did my best to clarify that I was suspicious of the notion that the autobiographical is an individualistic mode, that I believed every person is made up of a community’s memories. I wanted to make use of the form of the novel because it would allow me to sculpt a reality instead of photographing or duplicating one. It also guaranteed a degree of privacy and anonymity, modes through which the rawest kinds of language can surface. I wouldn’t be using voice recorders nor would I take notes, I told him, as either could introduce an aura of formality that might inhibit relatability. Veracity wasn’t the project’s primary artistic concern anyway, I had decided days ago. I was far more interested in the inestimable ways place governs the moods, atmospheres, and climates of confession and self-fabrication. Under certain conditions, I hypothesized, everyone participates in a genre of anthropological speech that breaches the fog of unknowing that, as it turns out, is also what it feels like to sputter out in the ruts of everyday life. The affective slip between stuckness and becoming alert to the force of history against one’s back was what I wanted to attune to. I winked upon describing this framework, in fewer words, to Michael, to suggest I assumed he was following along, that he thought my logic was sound, though it occurred to me immediately thereafter that such body language could be misconstrued to my detriment. So as to disavow a tiny jolt of shame, I rushed to add that writers generally agree one must suspend belief in the factual in order to get at whatever comprises the textures and tones of selfhood, which some remain ignorant to their entire lives. I spoke by way of generalizations without fear he would cross-examine them and therefore me. Sometimes a gesture toward truth, I said, could be more powerful than a simple description of it. Inside a moment of something like but not definitively suspense I analyzed Michael’s lips, which looked like a red smudge in the middle of a dark grey beard. It was as if someone had rubbed a wet thumb under his nose in one swift motion. His mouth seemed to be the work of a careless artist. All faces are still-drying paintings, I thought, when glimpsed from both ends of a long decade. I tried to picture Michael thirty, forty years ago. I wanted him to be beautiful, which meant I was okay making the present into something of a tragedy. Michael had heard some of the project’s premises before, when I rang him up at work last week (he is a newspaper publisher), so I was puzzled by a vacant expression that indicated not boredom but unease. I noticed then that the sleeves of his shirt were rolled up asymmetrically, one to his elbow, the other just above his wrist. I scanned the rest of him; his hair, slicked back with water, extended from his head unevenly. His clothes hung loosely from his thin frame, as if they had just come out of the washing machine. The total effect of his appearance was that he seemed struck by a gust of wind, like someone had plucked him from the air, mid-fall, and sat him down in front of me.  Michael said there wasn’t much he could tell me that wasn’t already in print in the archives back at the office. This town isn’t a literary spectacle, he explained, though I hadn’t believed otherwise. Michael has reported on what matters to the region for most of his adult life, and what matters has often had to do with mundanities and clichés. The stories he runs repeat every year. He suspected it was buried scandals and gossip I was after, he admitted, and that if this was the case the meeting should end sooner rather than later. He said this less accusingly than decisively, crossing one leg over the other. I was, however, of the opinion that a cliché could be an anchor, that it could bind us to the world, to one another. A group of clichés is a reason to live, I said to Michael with an enthusiasm I hoped wouldn’t embarrass him. Michael stared at me searchingly, likely turning over the sentiment in his head, investigating it for its plausibility. Was it intellectual nonsense masquerading as sympathy? Was there something more sinister beneath my performance of eagerness? Or was it something that could knot us together, if only briefly? As if deciding against the latter, Michael said irately that if I wanted him to rehash the last half century of store openings and closings, of council elections and athletic achievements, of industrial developments and petty crime, that he could have sent a digital file of his newspapers and saved me the drive up from the city. Caught off guard by the absence of generosity in Michael’s voice I resorted to a different register, one more exacting and emotional. I told him that I was the interviewer, which made him the interviewee, a position I knew he was unfamiliar with. I didn’t see him as the place where local history was stored and nothing else. I wasn’t driven to distinguish the sayable from the unsayable so as to be controversial. I wanted to illuminate how deeply entangled the two can become. I reminded him I too called the little town home, that it tailgates me like a shadow, despite my having left a number of years ago. I could feel my language flickering, aching. For a long time it made a racket inside me as if someone were striking a rock against my ribcage, I said. I worried it would consume me, but I left when I had the chance. My voice shook as the words leapt from my mouth. I imagined I’d have to sweep up the words later. If this were the case, I continued to imagine, what if anything would a twentysomething find important enough to say to warrant making a mess? I left so I could be as brief as any town, I added. I left so I could be as interminable too.  Silence befell us, but it was interrupted, or intensified, by the faint sound of a pop song from a car stopped at an adjacent intersection. I watched Michael watch me. It was like I had suddenly become un-blurry to him, as if the weather between us had taken a turn. For the worst? I couldn’t yet tell. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded with unblinking, serious eyes, which I took to signify fellow-feeling, empathy, and permission to proceed, however much ambiguity had filled up the room. I want to talk to you about regret, I said. *  Suppose a body were trapped between two parentheses, made out to be an aside, a distraction, a trace of another narrative possibility. Would you set it free, set it loose on the world?  * I admitted to Michael that as a teenager the sight of him had felt like a second chance. Nothing about him was conventionally gay, but he pivoted away from the codes of normative masculinity in quiet ways I embellished in my mind to represent a grace and liberty I might inherit. Where most men were a kind of noise pollution, something akin to TV static, Michael was reserved, thoughtful, calculated. Additionally, surrounded by those for whom joy was a vocation, a task yielding material consequences they felt they were owed, I was fascinated by the elegiac, non-arrogant register in which Michael inhabited the world. This is what constituted sociality for our species, I reasoned. Even his grief was a lighthouse to a boy whose future had no shape to it. Maybe early on I determined I didn’t have to live, Michael said, in a plangent tone, I just had to be alive. It was a difference so precise I had to close my eyes to hear it. What drives a person to make that sort of compromise? he asked. A question I inferred was rhetorical, a question he had to hear himself pose, had to know was inside him all along. Michael explained that for him there are days where all that matters is that he made it from the middle of one century to the start of another. This is because sometimes it feels like yesterday is still ahead of him. It was like someone had taken a photograph of him before he was an autonomous, thinking-feeling subject with an instant camera, the kind that immediately spits out a photograph, but it was taking years and years to develop. Not enough light had hit the surface, so he lived like negative space. By the time he caught a peak of himself, he had already faded. What this meant is that I was a gay man listening to a gay man who hadn’t been listened to. Why have you never formally come out? I asked. During the summer of 1980, Michael said, I fell in love with a boy, a classmate. It happened unthinkingly, against common sense. They had put themselves in danger. Perhaps having a “we,” however fragile, to endanger empowered them to rationalize the irrational in the first place, I thought. They would lay in his bed and hold hands until dawn, nothing else. Michael would squeeze his hand so hard it went numb, but he never protested. They seldom spoke in his bedroom, he clarified. It was as if there were things the dark made it impossible to utter. All sensory faculties fell away except touch, the language-ness of it. In the absence of speech, he told the boy everything. I knew what he meant. What is inside a letter if not light?  They were boys who knew only how to fail at boyhood. It sounded to me like an ethnographic spectacle. They were as afraid of being found out by one another’s parents as they were of the encroaching season. There was a summerness to their little love. The sweat of June and July and August glistened in the small of their backs, is what I heard Michael saying. Did he want to put his tongue to the boy? Was he afraid it was forbidden, that it was a sheet of icy metal? Did the passage of time feel like a personal affront? Did they crane their heads toward the sky so as to believe they had transported to another world? Without warning, Michael said, the boy disappeared. Rumour had it his parents sent him to a conversion therapy camp a few hours away. People didn’t say “gay,” Michael added, afraid it was contagious, that it would sit in the air. Michael waited for him. Michael waited as if he was put on earth to wait. When the boy finally came back, weeks later, he was no longer a person but an outline of one, no longer flush with humanity. Michael would knock at his door and no one would answer. One evening he pounded on the door until he heard sirens in the distance, until all of him turned red and blue. Days later the boy enrolled in a high school on the other end of town, so Michael moved on. It was all he knew how to do, he said. He was still someone’s child and children didn’t get to plunge into their solitude. Unless they did. The boy killed himself that winter; he used his father’s belt. That’s what Michael heard. At the funeral Michael wept and wept in the church bathroom because the truth of the death was lost in a place outside admission. He wept until he was no longer human. Like an animal, he wanted his mourning to be an enormous display. Michael began to cry, softly—to mention a history of tears often had the effect of bringing someone to tears. I held my gaze. The thesis behind my project was that people turned into musical instruments when encouraged to testify about the conditions of their lives. My success hinged on my ability to endure whatever song was sung, so I listened with both eyes, with my hands clasped tightly in front of me. People didn’t kill themselves, not around here, Michael continued. No one forgot. They remembered and remembered. It triggered something powerful in him, a survival instinct. Back then, he wanted to live. He wanted to live because it was the only thing expected of him, of everyone. My god, I didn’t want to die, Michael said with a grimace, as if the thought was a new one, as if its newness disturbed him, challenged the bedrock of his worldview. Perhaps he wasn’t ready to live differently in the wake of that sort of revelation. You know, he went on, that dead boy is more proof of my continued existence than anything else. Do we make ourselves into tragedians trying to accrue proof of our aliveness in retrospect? I thought. Somewhere between love and loss we pitch a tent from which we only look backward.   Was it then that you decided to sublimate whatever longings you had, to live a kind of repressed life? I asked. Yes and no, Michael answered. It was accretive, he explained, a slow build-up of small decisions made in haste. I didn’t shun the gay parts of myself for good, if that is even possible, he said. He always deferred the day he would get the fuck out. With age, immobility turned out to be something he didn’t have to resist anymore, it gave him context, which he thought he had irreversibly forfeited. The future stopped feeling like something solid thrashing against him. The generations that preceded his were socialized to believe homosexuality was a crime. It was only removed from Albertan criminal law two years after he was born, in fact. The sentiment didn’t magically vanquish when reform happened. Heterosexuality was where identity began and ended. So much so that when the AIDS epidemic ravaged gay communities all over the world, the town only caught bits and pieces of the circumstances. What made its way out here, north of the last major city, north of anyone at risk, was enough to piece together an intoxicating myth of gay impurity. To be gay was to be dead, dying. Worse, to harbor the ability to kill. It became easier to clock in and out of Michael’s body than confront the heaviness of his desires. He was unsure what devastation they might wrought. At some point, I thought, he convinced himself he was a stray bullet that silence had clenched between its teeth. Perhaps he was thankful for his captor. Michael’s oral history reminded me of Judith Butler’s observation that we sometimes choose to stay attached to what injures us rather than gamble with what it might feel like to be in the world without the attachment. The psychological investment is so large it seems counterintuitive to relinquish it, irrespective of its consequences. I was also reminded, perhaps un-usefully, of the story of Yellowknife’s arsenic. Let me explain. There are currently 237,000 tonnes of arsenic in the mines near the city. For decades, men hunted gold and, by extension, happiness, another world. Left unchecked, the arsenic production skyrocketed and seeped into the snow, into the surrounding environment, so it had to be locked away. Were the chemicals to escape the chambers in which they have been frozen, biological life would cease to exist. Don’t we all tell ourselves that what’s inside us, our wanting, is annihilative to this degree? Don’t we all suspect our most volatile yearnings, when freed from the pits of our stomachs, could upend a world? What if desire is one of the few forces that troubles the idea of continuums, meaning we are either entirely absorbed or wrecked by it? Don’t we all have it in us to destroy ourselves? In response to the Butler note, Michael produced his own analogy. He mentioned the method of disembodied writing, which is when the writer is made invisible. It’s an approach he trusts, because it doesn’t paint a target on himself or his staff. It occurred to him the other day that we sometimes practice a kind of disembodied living. Like a ghost trying to accentuate its ghostliness, he said, chuckling. It appears I have mastered the art! To remain, I thought, to settle down, to stay put meant that the act of being inhibited, of being forestalled, became the larger ebb and flow of life writ large. Isn’t geographical fate, then, nothing but an obstacle one has to surpass? If a home was a monument to what you lost or were losing out on, wouldn’t you run away?  I felt compelled to reel Michael back into the room. To keep us both from wandering too long in the abstract. Did you ever fall in love again? I asked. At the abruptness of the question Michael turned his head away from me and toward a wall adorned with a degree and nothing else.  I reminded Michael he could pass on any question that discomfited. He smiled. Not exactly, no, he said. Throughout the nineties he had the habit of driving down to Edmonton for weekends at a time to try to breach the prison of indecision and regret he made of himself. He would linger at the gay bar, terrified he would run into someone he knew—which never happened, he clarified— until one or two in the morning. All he wanted was to be seen in a place where exposure was a kind of currency rather than a death wish. Men made advances, most of which he rebuffed. He accepted a blowjob here and there in bathroom stalls but no one had names, including him. He thought about staying in Edmonton, but in the end he had lost the power to be anything but complacent, self-sacrificial. Most importantly, though, even in his thirties and forties, he felt haunted by his first, and only, love, and the thing about memory is you can’t extinguish it. It is as automatic as the spinning earth. He decided it would be wrong to not be as close to that history as possible, as if it were a dying language only he could speak. His love for the boy was so contested and fraught and tragic he is still awash in it. The emotional intensity was enough to last a lifetime. Is that bizarre? Michael asked. That such a brief experience of love was too much? For a second or two I thought Michael expected an answer from me. His eyes were pleading, but whose wouldn’t be? Who wouldn’t bruise themselves in the drama of self-documentation? How could anyone hold such a jagged memory up to the light and not wince? I decided against letting the interview naturally dissipate and asked Michael if he had ever felt empty, like something vital was missing, to which he said emptiness wasn’t something to run from. We all begin with emptiness, he argued: an empty name, an empty house, an empty life. Mine is a life of beginnings, he said. Every morning I start over. I explained to Michael that I experienced emptiness in two ways: either it was an echo from the past boomeranging around a room or it was the sound of air plummeting to the ground upon being sliced through. In both cases, around me it rained emptiness. I would be drenched in it. Perhaps that is a good way to understand our generational differences, Michael said, with an air of self-satisfaction. Michael, without prompt, said he doesn’t nauseate on what his life could have been. It’s his small act of refusal, his silent rebellion. Maybe when he looks in the mirror, he see who he is, which is someone who’s running out of time. All those years of evading death were preparatory. Without knowing it, he was practicing death, a ritual unto itself. Just then he closed his eyes, not in an effort to abate tears but as if succumbing to exhaustion. So I did too. For a short while we were alone in a shared world where nothing needed to be said to grasp one another’s emotional possibility. * Michael walked me to the elevator and then to the front entrance. I thanked him for his time, for his candor and vulnerability, to which he said it was nice to get things off his chest, that I could follow-up if need be, that I knew where to find him. At the edge of the parking lot, I turned back to get one last look at him. Because it was five o’clock and the sun gave him a new face, or because I was twenty-four and lonely in a town that made me feel like a shipwreck, I wanted to kiss him. Instead, I said goodbye for a second time. Now, alone in a hotel room, it’s as if I can still hear desire clamouring inside Michael. It’s like a bird’s wings rattling against a cage. It’s a beautiful and terrible melody I suspect he will die to.
‘America is Always in Therapy and Not Getting Much Out of It’: An Interview with Jason Diamond

Talking to the author of The Sprawl about teen rage, community disconnection, and building better suburbs.

When pressed via Instagram poll to describe what an America with defunded police would look like, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded, “It looks like a suburb.” Initially, the manicured montage of a bland, probably white family living in a spacious house behind a white picket fence with 2.5 kids and a station wagon in the driveway seems like an odd characterization for a non-carceral state. But on further examination, the comparison makes sense. In this imaginary suburb, crime is relatively nonexistent because the community’s affluence is funneled towards resources and social services such as education, libraries, and public pools, instead of the overpolicing of its citizens. Between Ocasio-Cortez’s reclamatory metaphor and Jason Diamond’s defense of the urban fringe, The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs (Coffee House Press), the suburbs are undergoing a bit of an image overhaul as of late. From their inception post-WWII, the suburbs have formed the bedrock for a rich American mythology based on secrets and lies, normalcy and conformity. The first modern suburb, Levittown in Long Island, New York, was initially conceived of as a place where every young soldier returning home from the war could afford to own a home. The result was a tract of 17,000 near-identical homes built on top of fields that once yielded potatoes and onions that fed the very soldiers they now housed. Yet part of the planner’s desire to create an idyllic residential paradise involved consciously excluding Black and brown people; even today, Levittown remains 88 percent white. Diamond acknowledges the suburb’s exclusionary history and argues they can be redeemed. To him, the suburbs are not “a great big boring monolith of conformity”; rather they’re like Anakin Skywalker, a “flawed, imperfect but ultimately good person.” The Sprawl is part melancholic meditation on the meaning of the suburbs, part encyclopedic survey of the suburbs in pop culture references, and part futurist reimagining of the possibilities of suburbia. At its core, it’s both a paean to the place that formed Diamond and a wistful epitaph to where that childhood was discarded. But an underlying spirit of optimism prevails. If Diamond can overcome the trauma of his past, then perhaps there’s hope—a future that looks like a suburb might not be such a bad thing after all. Isabel Slone: The book is heavily rooted in place, yet it’s arriving at a time when most people have been suffocating inside for months. Has shelter-in-place affected the way you perceive the suburbs at all? Jason Diamond: It’s been really strange to see this sudden wave of people start thinking about moving back to the suburbs. There’s this acceptance, on the part of a lot of people my age, that they’re going to move back to the suburbs because they can no longer afford to live in the city or they just feel it’s safer outside, virus-wise. I have mixed emotions about it because I’ve been researching the suburbs for so long, but I didn’t hope for something so tragic as a pandemic to come up and make the book seem timely… You could almost argue that the entire theme of the book was mixed emotions. It’s clear you have a deep appreciation for the suburbs even though your experience growing up there wasn’t wholly positive. Did you feel like you were grappling with the idea of loving something you don’t really like? One of my favourite quotes, and I’m paraphrasing it so I guess it isn’t actually one of my favourite quotes, but Aaron Cometbus said that the two most nostalgic types of people are old punks and Jews. I’m both an old punk and a Jew. I’m a nostalgic person who tries to take a critical approach to things. It’s like with anything you write, you have to be as honest and careful as possible. My childhood in the suburbs wasn’t the greatest, but I do appreciate the idea of the suburbs, so I’m not going to come at them with my knives out either. I’m interested in your use of the term “reconsidering.” Why were you drawn to reconsidering the suburbs in the first place? For me, early on, I was like, “The suburbs suck. I don’t want to be here.” Then I started getting a little older and found myself in the suburbs more often and became really interested in the things I had previously overlooked. When I wrote my first book, Searching for John Hughes, I found myself going back to the Chicagoland area I grew up in, and was really stunned by how beautiful it is and how much interesting stuff there is going on. I didn’t realize the Steppenwolf theatre, this famous American theatre company of the last 50 years, was founded in the suburb right next to mine. Then I started unwinding every little thing that I like and realized that 90 percent of it comes from the suburbs. Lou Reed might be associated with New York City, but he’s from Long Island, you know? Steve Albini moved from Montana to Evanston, Illinois. It’s the same thing with Danzig. I visited his hometown, Lodi, New Jersey, and was like, “This is where Danzig is from?” It wasn’t some weird, creepy bat cave; it was suburban New Jersey. I really just started reconsidering the suburbs for myself. I got to this point where I decided that nothing is 100 percent bad. It's really easy to think otherwise, but I just wanted to expand on what makes the suburbs good and what could make them better. Do you think part of the desire to reconsider is getting older, slowing down? When you’re a teen, suburbs provide this context of something to rebel against. If teens have to move away to find their identity, are the suburbs where parents go to be themselves? I think it's less that they’re trying to find themselves, and more that it's just easier to live there. I can’t speak to suburbs outside the US, but here, there’s definitely this idea that the suburbs are safer and easier to manage. You just get in your car, you don’t have to walk, or deal with any of the spontaneous happenings on the street you experience—for better or for worse—in a city. But it’s important to consider who this ease is built for. Suburbs have not been a friendly place since the get-go. Levittown in Long Island, the first modern American suburb, was built on a foundation of racial exclusion. Suburbs have a long history of excluding Black and brown people. Even my own family: My nana kept these letters she received from the country club saying, “Thank you for applying, but we don’t let your race into our club.” Anything built on a foundation of keeping people out isn’t going to be able to hide that forever. The suburban story is a very American story because we keep sweeping stuff under the rug and haven’t been able to reconcile with it yet. When I visited Celebration, Florida, a suburb originally owned by the Walt Disney Company, it felt like everyone who lived there was doing PR for the place. It’s a very weird, tight situation. For a place that promises space and happiness. It's usually the opposite. Despite all the pop culture references devoted to them, I got the sense that suburbs actually aren’t that much more interesting than any other place. Are we wrong to imbue so much imagination and symbolism on them? I don’t think that impulse is wrong, necessarily. You can take anything and mold it into a book, or an album. Geographically, the suburbs dominate so much of America that it's only natural they dominate much of the conversation. Not to get too off track, but I’ve always found Moby-Dick to be this fascinating book because it’s a about a whale, it’s about a guy chasing a whale, it’s about obsession, but at the heart of it, it's about America coming to grips with being this new, young country. So much of our art is concentrated on trying to make sense of this really bizarre country. I could point to so many different works of art and demonstrate how it explains America at a specific point and time. Basically, America is always in therapy and it's not getting much out of it. It needs to change its therapist, I think. Damn. I didn’t grow up in the suburbs—I’m from a rural area—but sometimes I feel like I did because so much of my favourite music from my teen years was centred around the desire to escape them. That always makes me wonder, why does teen rage feel almost endemic to the suburbs? I would never go out to the suburbs and be like, “Hey, 15-year-old jaded punk kid, you should really like your hometown a little bit more.” When you’re that age, you’re never going to like your hometown. Maybe if you grew up in New York City—I read the Beastie Boys Book and hearing them talking about growing up in NY, it sounds like it was a wonderland. When you’re a teen there’s so much pressure, and if you keep squeezing, that pressure is going to make them explode, either through creativity or through violence. I got lucky that I was more drawn to the creative side. I remember the summer I turned 15, I had a friend whose dad passed away. He and his mom were away for a month to take care of family business and I remember, with his mom’s permission, my friends and I built a skate ramp in the back of his house. How did we learn to build a skate ramp? None of us were carpenters. My one friend just had this skateboard zine that had directions on how to build a ramp. We just kind of used what we had as cobbled it together. It took us maybe a month to build it. It made my friend’s entire life. We spent the whole summer hanging out skating on it. I wish I would have thought of that before I wrote this book because I would have gone back and reconstructed that entire summer. That’s incredible. I was surprised to learn that Gen Z is apparently obsessed with suburban shopping malls. It got me thinking, now that kids grow up with the internet and are able to ease the sense of isolation by finding friends there, does that suburban ennui that feels like a feature not a bug of the suburbs now cease to exist? I don’t think that will ever cease to exist. What has changed, I think, is the concept of regionalism. Growing up in the mid-’90s, I caught the last dying days of any sense of regionalism. Back in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, there were certain garage rock or hardcore scenes that sounded a little different—Chicago had the ska-punk scene, stuff like that. Now that we have the internet gluing everything together across the world, I don’t think that sense of regionalism will remain. I don’t think there will ever be another Dischord Records that only puts out DC bands. But I do think the ennui you speak of is always going to be there. If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching TikTok, or just paying attention to stuff I’ve seen on the internet, teens are more in touch with their emotions these days. But teens are always going to be sad. They’re going to have that kind of energy I am thankful I will never have to experience again unless I have my own kids. Speaking of Dischord, some of the best punk rock records hail from suburbia. Why do you think that is? And what do you make of the criticism that punk’s suburban roots somehow invalidate it, as if privilege and punk rock don’t go together? If we strip away the semantics, we can now safely say that Black Flag was a great American rock band. With every singer they had, they took the rage and anger they were feeling and distilled into something super brilliant. And they were 16- or 17-year-old kids at the time. It's fine to say punk rock comes from a place of privilege, but would people really prefer these kids to sit around on their butts and be boring? To conform and become like the people they didn’t like? I’m glad they didn’t become middle management. In a way, they were using their privilege in a positive way by saying, “Hey, I’m a middle-class white kid and I want to speak out against the things I see.” That’s what a lot of hardcore is. Politically, everything we’re seeing now, I feel pretty prepared for it because I grew up listening to ’80s hardcore. Everyone is just discovering ACAB and I’m like, “You’ve never listened to MDC?” They’re literally called Millions of Dead Cops. I had an MDC pin on my jacket when I was a kid. That’s why I’m not shocked by the current moment. Sure, everything sucks right now, but this has always been the way it is. Black Lives Matter is really galvanizing support and demonstrating how Black people are treated unfairly and white Americans are like, “This is a thing?” That to me is weird. But I’m glad early on I had people say to me, “Listen to Public Enemy. Read Howard Zinn.” There were maybe five people in my suburb that would have told me that and I’m really lucky that either I found them or they found me. I don’t know if I would have had that same luck if I’d grown up anywhere else. There's a quote in the book that goes, “The sprawl has consumed so much of this country with its ugly houses, chain stores upon chain stores, forgotten shopping plazas, and endless stretches of road. But it wasn’t supposed to be this way, and in that fact I see a chance, an opportunity.” Opportunity for what? Sustainability and community. I think these things are severely lacking in many suburban places. I don't like the idea of a place just being built and that's it. There's no nurturing or building that actually helps people that live in these places. We don't need more car dealerships or big box stores; we need libraries and gathering places, for when that sort of thing is acceptable again. We need natural grasses, not turf lawns. We need places to walk and cut our dependence on cars. If suburban places can embrace change like that, I think it would have a huge impact in countless ways, from environmental to quality of life. Community seems like a crucial part of the equation that is currently lacking in suburbs. So how do we go about creating one? There's a chapter in my book where I go to Avon, Connecticut, and talk to locals who organized against a developer. What fascinated me was the two of them had lived two houses down from each other for well over a decade and had never met their neighbors. The more people I talked to in suburban places, the more I found that was the case. So, the simple answer would be, "Talk to people more!" But obviously it needs to be more than that. It's important to note that as the suburbs rose throughout the second half of the 20th century we saw a decline in our social structures, whether that be churches or PTA, we were disconnecting from other people long before we all had smartphones to blame for our lack of attention span. Now, I'm not saying church or the PTA is what's needed to cure what ails suburbia, but getting people together is. It would take a grassroots effort, finding ways to engage people in the suburbs, getting them out of their homes, going out and getting to know other people. How, exactly, we do that with all the things currently taking up our focus is hard to say, especially in the age of social distancing, but I think one of the big things we can do is start by looking backwards, to the ideas of planners like Victor Gruen, who designed the American mall to be something more like the kind of spaces he knew in Austria at the start of the 20th century. It would be nice if our government would start to realize how important the suburbs are to America and work to make them more sustainable, healthier places, but I don't have much faith that will happen anytime soon. We need to rethink the suburbs we already have and figure out how to make them more than just places.