Hazlitt Magazine

Free, or Something Like It

After their peak in the 1980s and 1990s, material premiums have become an increasingly rare advertising tactic.

Pride of Patchogue

My hometown is famous for a hate crime, and ten years after that murder, it’s not clear much progress has been made.

Psychopaths and the Rest of Us

Searching for empathy with those society deems unforgivable.

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Free, or Something Like It

After their peak in the 1980s and 1990s, material premiums have become an increasingly rare advertising tactic.

Mom always told us that our yellow dishes came from dog food. The plates were sturdy, easy to stack—perfect for grapes, cookies, pizza slices with the babysitter. We used proper plates for dinner, but still put our milk in the plastic tumblers, picking fights over who got the one with a handle. A few chipped or broke over the years. Three kids put dinnerware through a lot of spills. But that was the appeal of these dishes: even if they did break, they were free. Sort of. The school bus-colored dishware residing in my mother's cupboards to this day are free premiums: material items offered as incentives by retailers in exchange for making a purchase or completing another action. Sometimes these premiums are packed in with the item, like the cards of racist baseball legends, acrobatic toothpick-and-paper clowns, and plastic dogs and wolves found in Cracker Jack boxes of yesteryear that collectors will now pay hundreds for. But more often, consumers have to put in a little effort to get their reward: open an account, buy a certain amount of a product, sign up for a rewards program, or save up and send in packaging. These extras aren't actually free—you always have to buy something to get them — but they seem free, thus increasing the perceived value of the original purchase. Plus, the time you spend engaged in pursuit of the premium deepens your relationship to the company. Mom had to buy a lot of Purina dog food to get that dinnerware. The plates long outlasted the collies fed by the dog food, and when I got pets of my own, I started buying Purina cat food instinctively. But, after their peak in the 1980s and 1990s, material premiums have become an increasingly rare advertising tactic. Marlboro doesn't give out miles to be redeemed for cowboy hats and cargo pants anymore. Marketing is as motivated by trends as any other industry, and this tactic got tired around the turn of the century. The quality of manufactured goods has declined, so they don't seem as worth it; besides, with more and more sales taking place online, physical rewards seem less appealing than, say, free shipping. Discounts, coupons, and rebates abound, as do virtual rewards. Even Cracker Jacks have eschewed their iconic prizes. Instead of digging through caramel popcorn for a sticker, temporary tattoo, or other ephemeral piece of precious junk, kids will find a code for an augmented-reality mobile game. An app does seem like less of a treasure. But it's still an incentive, both for the bored customer at a baseball game, and for the advertiser who gets something perhaps more valuable than loyalty: their data. * Benjamin T. Babbitt and Phineas T. Barnum were good friends back in the 1850s, each the other's only peer in advertising. I like to imagine them as characters on a hangout sitcom, coming up with wacky half-hour schemes to lure the burgeoning class of American consumers into a renaissance of suckers. For as it was circus man Barnum who paved the path of relentless self-promotion that so many Kardashians follow today, it was Babbitt who figured out the power of a promise of something free (in this case, a lithograph) to get customers to buy soap from him and not someone else. Premiums—usually called gifts, presents, or prizes in the 19th century—caught on quick. By the 1860s, gift book enterprises11Not to be confused with gift books, an industry of coffee-table-esque books that thrived from the 1820s through the 1850s. were common fixtures in urban centers, a sort of lottery whereby the purchaser of a book would get a random gift, according to Dr. Wendy Woloson's "Wishful Thinking: Retail Premiums in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America." These stores were finely furnished, but the books were mostly unsold remainders, otherwise unsellable, and the gifts were usually very cheap—twenty-five cents at the low end. The tantalizing prospect of a $100 watch almost never materialized, but it was there, bringing customers back to the thimbles and toiletries they actually won again and again. It wasn't the prize that was really the appeal. It was the anticipation, the excitement of what might be, what might transform them into something new, better, shiny too. These early premiums schemes were largely composed of "marginal, slightly shady independent operators," said Dr. Woloson, who is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers. Gift book exchanges weren't exactly ethical, manipulating consumer emotions to get them to buy two things they wouldn't have wanted in the first place, but at least they didn't defraud war widows, as would other free premiums of the era. Prize packages were sealed envelopes filled with "writing notions," basically scraps of paper unsuitable for printing elsewhere, and a cheap pin like you might find today in a gumball machine capsule. They were sold around the country, a sort of premium cum lottery cum multi-level-marketing scheme wherein agents (often soldiers, and later, their widows) were led to believe that they could make $15 a week22$240 in today’s economy selling prize packages (they did not). Even more exploitative were gift distributions, a complicated scheme in which con men leveraged people's #FOMO to sell tickets to lotteries that never actually existed. They were still effective: as many as 2,000 of these schemes circulated in the 1860s, taking advantage of a consumer market that was both avid and naive. "[R]etail premium schemes played on people's deep-seated emotions—hope, anticipation, desire, fear, and anxiety—and in doing so, encouraged and shaped a new consuming audience on a mass scale," Dr. Woloson wrote in "Wishful Thinking." "Free is the most powerful word in the history of marketing," said Dr. Jason Chambers, Associate Professor of Advertising at the University of Illinois. The prospect of getting something for nothing made consumers "itchy with desire," to quote Dr. Woloson. Even after gift distributions collapsed as all cons do, premiums continued to evolve as a tactic. Adolph Busch was especially fond of giving loyal customers hat pins, watch fobs, and jack knives branded with his logo; one iconic Busch premium was a print of Custer's Last Stand, given away first to promote what was then the new "draught beer for connoisseurs," Michelob. If you're like me and you're lucky enough to still have your grandma around, she probably remembers the next big moment in free premiums: S&H Green Stamps. Though the practice of giving tokens for loyalty goes back to Condor coins of the late 18th century, it wasn't until the late 19th century that these programs really began in earnest. They took their cues from the success of programs in which women received rewards for selling soap to their friends (in practice, closer to Avon than Younique). "Trading stamps were first issued in 1892 by the Milwaukee-based Schuster's department store, and were originally called the blue trading stamp system. Shoppers received a certain number of stamps with each product purchase, which they then pasted into booklets designed for the purpose," writes Dr. Woloson in a chapter on premiums in her upcoming book, The History of Crap. "Each booklet [represented] $50 in retail purchases, and could be redeemed for one dollar in merchandise [for a] two percent discount." The measly discount wasn't the appeal: it was the enjoyment of collecting, and the attendant anticipation it built. These booklets recalled another popular pastime of the Victorian age: scrapbooking. It was a sentimental era, and people were already inclined to hold onto stuff; Sperry and Hutchinson just monetized that notion. The many consumers who were incentivized by the prospect of stamps but never actually redeemed them only increased the profit margin. And for those who did redeem their stamps, it was still a good way to get rid of merchandise that was not high quality. As the country entered the Depression, the word "free" was more powerful than ever—with a new focus on practicalities. In the booming economy of the jazz age, rewards were what Dr. Woloson called "petty luxuries, [such as] decorated china vases, or a gold-tipped writing pen, or something that you didn't need but something that you might want." But when budgets got tight, utility won out over shininess, and decoration took a backseat to durability. Depression glassware was everywhere in the 1930s retail landscape, packaged with cereal, handed out to moviegoers, and included with tanks of gas—increasing sales in the worst economy for a number of different industries.  "[It was] an opportunity for different manufacturers to support one another in different ways," said Dr. Chambers. And though they aren't top quality (air bubbles were common) the patterns and colors of the translucent bowls, plates, and other dinnerware are still sought after today. [[{"fid":"6704511","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":{"4":{"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":"4"}}]] Another Depression-era premium had a more substantive and even spiritual impact on our cultural fabric. Under ancient Kosher dietary regulations, coffee, considered a legume, had been forbidden during Passover since its emergence in the 10th century.  "Jewish grocery stores would put away coffee with the chametz under the incorrect assumption that coffee beans were kitniyot when in fact they are technically a fruit not a bean in that sense,” explained Elie Rosenfeld, CEO of Joseph Jacobs Advertising, in this Forward piece by Anne Cohen. But then, Joseph Jacobs entered the scene. In the 1920s, Jacobs convinced a Manhattan rabbi to spread the word that coffee beans were Kosher while talking Maxwell House into targeting this demographic. A decade later, Maxwell began printing a lovely blue and white haggadah (the text read at Passover seder services) to Jewish customers who bought a can of Maxwell House. Maxwell has printed 50 million copies of the Maxwell Haggadah, and it was even used by President Obama at White House seders. With the advent of World War II, America's advertising and manufacturing efforts were consumed with the fighting overseas. "A lot of the cheap giveaways were imported from other places, like Japan and Germany, and we're of course not getting those products from those places," said Dr. Chambers. "[American] manufacturers were contributing to the war effort. They're not making TV trays." Instead, they were making tanks. The attentions of the women, primary redeemers of premiums, were elsewhere too. "Women [were] thinking about stamps and coupons and things, but not to get free stuff, it's because that's what they needed to do to get their butter for the week," said Dr. Woloson. Whereas green stamps added value and an element of anticipation to the chore of grocery shopping, rationing elevated the collecting of coupons to a necessity. But once the war was over, America's consumer spirit was back and hungrier than ever before. The baby boom brought focus to children as a major market; unhardened by the difficulties of the Depression and war, these kids were ready to hoard cheap toys. This wasn't a new tactic, exactly: the first premium targeted at children were Kellogg's Jungleland moving picture books, included as a part of its packaging in 1908, and bubblegum came with baseball cards starting in the 1940s. But it was Sam Gold, of Gold Premiums of New York and Gold Manufacturing Corporation, who really believed that catching the attention of children was the best way to sell to their parents. His companies made toys, cutouts, gum, and other kid-friendly products for cereals, pioneering the Saturday morning cartoon tie-in; the first premium Gold sold was a Rin-Tin-Tin telegraph key with Nabisco cereal. In a plot twist straight out of Mad Men, Gold died during a 1965 premium presentation to Cracker Jack. While they were indoctrinating children through cereal box prizes, marketers were slowly realizing that another major market could be targeted through premiums. Advertisers had long misused images of black Americans as grotesque stereotypes to appeal to white consumers, and to be sure, this continued after WWII; one online collection of Sam Gold premiums includes Aunt Jemima paper dolls from the 1940s. But some advertisers were beginning to integrate, especially with the launch of major black magazines like Ebony and Jet as powerful vehicles to reach black consumers. "The main advertising manufacturers that were specifically interested in the African-American consumer market [were interested] in ways that were different from the general consumer market," said Dr. Chambers. "In those cases, you still would have seen the same kind of things that you'd see in the general market—they just had a different focus. Coke and Pepsi in particular [in the '40s through the '60s] utilized aspects of African-American history as a free premium or pack-in or send-away." Tobacco and beverage companies in particular launched premium programs focused on African-American history lasting for decades; for one example, Dr. Chambers recalled busts of black innovators by famed sculptor Ruth Inge Hardison in a series called "Ingenious Americans" as a premium for Old Taylor whiskey. Though the market was specializing to target different demographics, white women at home were still as much a target as ever. Housewares were a hot market in 1950s premiums. Boxes of detergent came with dish towels, knives, and flatware right in the carton. Decorated jars of jelly and peanut butter and decanters of maple syrup to be kept and reused after their contents were spent were often the premiums themselves, capitalizing on the Depression mentality of repurposing everything. While premiums were often right inside the packaging (or existed as the packaging itself), consumers were also willing to put in more effort and send away for their prizes. After all, housewives were expected to put their homes and children before themselves. They were used to giving away their own valuable time. Trading stamp programs, which required more effort, flourished among housewives until the gas crisis of the 1970s, when pinched gas stations stopped accepting stamps. * As trading stamps faded, premium programs grew. Cereal box premiums were so successful in targeting children that their advertisement on television was banned in 1974. Cigarette companies, reeling from similar restrictions in 1972, competed with each other to attract customers through rewards programs. Dr. Chambers remembered his father switching back and forth between different brands based on who had the gifts he wanted. This new wave of prizes were more likely to be branded, increasing the advertising value for corporations looking for a new foothold in the cultural consciousness. For some, the premiums were as habit-forming as nicotine. "[In] the 1980s and 1990s, I [was] addicted to getting free things," wrote Mary Potter Kenyon in her 2013 book Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America's Extreme Obsession. Kenyon acquired a wide variety of products from these giveaways—a fancy umbrella from Gloria Vanderbilt perfume boxes, a coffee maker from coffee lids for her mom, Christmas lights from M&M bags. And especially toys and branded T-shirts for her six children. Until her teenage daughter told her that she didn't want a denim jacket with the Energizer Bunny on it, the Kenyon kids were walking billboards. "Growing up poor, to give my kids this magic Christmas was an amazing thing for me, and it was all with company premiums," Kenyon said. Kenyon put a lot of her time and effort into getting premiums by sending in packaging, receipts, and proofs of purchase. When she ran low on her own meticulously organized store of flattened boxes and saved wrappers, she turned to her family, friends, and neighbors—and their trash. She rooted through just about every garbage can she came across at the public pool or park for Hershey's wrappers to redeem for T-shirts. "We went to the swimming pool just as much for the swimming as for the candy wrappers in the trash bin," she said. [[{"fid":"6704506","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":{"3":{"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":"3"}}]] Kenyon's deal-hunting mindset was typical of the refunders in the 1970s through 1990s; there were magazines and conventions devoted to this community of consumers who sought out coupons, premiums, and rebates from companies. But while Kenyon stayed inside the law, others did not. Some refunders were way beyond simply using a neighbor's legally purchased discards: they were buying cash registers to create fake receipts, pooling their resources at conventions, and renting PO Boxes under false names to avoid the one-per-household requirement. In one case, the town of Rock Valley, Iowa was reprimanded by the USPS investigators in 1992 for a cash-for-trash scheme that involved half of the town's 2540 residents, netting a local fundamentalist religious school half a million dollars over two decades. As savvy early advertisers exploited credulous 19th century consumers, coupon queens and rebate gamers exploited advertising executives who underestimated the savvy of dedicated deal-seekers. This contributed to a tightening of these programs in the late 1990s. Before long, premiums were becoming rarer and rarer; even boxes of cereal aren't packaged with toys anymore. Fraud wasn't the only factor that doomed the free premium frenzy. Pepsi and Coke and Marlboro and Camel and other retailers were constantly one-upping each other, escalating their goods to attract new customers. Pepsi found themselves in a costly lawsuit when they advertised a Harrier jump jet for seven million points and someone called their bluff.33It was also mocked in an B-plot on a seventh season episode of 30 Rock (the one with Liz Lemon's wedding), in which Jenna was herself a free premium in a 1990s Surge commercial. Pepsi won, but the case itself was representative of the arms race premium programs found themselves in in the late 1990s. Premiums could be a nuisance for corporations outside of the courtroom, too. "Manufacturers found the opportunity to transition to other things that had fewer logistical headaches," said Dr. Chambers, noting the possibility of breakage and all the other costs that come with transporting physical goods. Advertisers are always trying to trick you a little bit—you know this, even though they try to make you forget. And when you wise up, they change their tactics. Consumers were more and more used to these inducements, which no longer held the power they did 100 years before. The quality of cheap goods were not improving. Carcinogens like soda pop and cigarettes—two of the most premium-friendly industries—fell out of fashion as minimalism came back into style. A new generation of advertisers were similarly bored with the advertising tactics that had fascinated their mothers. Both sides of the equation were getting more sophisticated, outgrowing the tactic. Everyone was ready to move on to the next thing. The next thing was the Internet. The rise of the World Wide Web changed the landscape of retail and advertising as much as it did everything else. Premium programs were difficult to transact online; virtual rewards are way easier. Gasoline points aren't going to break in delivery. Discounts and free shipping are much more popular with online shoppers, as are rebates (which may explain why they survived while their cousin the premium grew frail). The premiums of yore didn't collect increasingly valuable customer data, and they're not as targeted as the ads you're probably blocking right now. * Premiums are not dead, exactly. The beauty industry still loves its gifts with purchase. Tote bags offered as inducements to donate to NPR or subscribe to The New Yorker are intellectual status symbols. When I bought some axe earrings from Etsy recently, I was pleased but not surprised to find a little axe pendant included as a freebie. Pepsi tries to restart PepsiStuff every so often, and Purina still advertises its rewards program on the back of the bags of food I buy for my cat, though I'm nowhere near organized enough to take advantage of it. A friend with young children recently received a number of tiny Marvel figurines for buying participating products at Kroger; she plans on making it into her own rewards program to encourage her young children to do summer reading. Children are still motivated by toys, and Happy Meals will always come with a pack-in premium. "McDonalds is different," said Dr. Chambers. "There's nobody that's done anything as effective as Happy Meals." It is their point of entry for future customers, and it offers its own opportunities to create revenue through advertising tie-ins. Because of their reach and their ubiquity, they become that wonderful partner for the Olympics or Disney." Though there have been some occasional hits from other fast food chains—Hardee's had the California Raisins in the 1980s, and a friend on Facebook recalled asking for Land Before Time puppets from Burger King for Christmas one year—no one else can consistently compete. "It is their continued point of difference, especially in that young person's space," Dr. Chambers said. Happy Meal toys are not going away until McDonald's goes away. Business gifts are also thriving, especially the arena of inducements to big events like baseball games. But there are signs of fatigue even there. While swag is still a major prong in marketing pharmaceuticals, even they have seen better days: OxyContin doesn't make pedometers anymore. Sometimes getting a reward isn't just about the item—it's about the feeling of getting a little control back from a capitalist structure we cannot opt out of. Not long after the 2008 recession, there was a brief craze for couponing, chronicled in the 2010-2012 TLC show Extreme Couponing. "We were screwed by the system, and we want to screw them back," Dr. Woloson said of the post-recession surge in couponing. "It's a form of empowerment." The idea of empowerment is one way to build loyalty, even if it feels like revenge. The political can build a personal connection to a brand, too. Last summer, Penzeys Spices gave away Mexican vanilla with purchase as a fuck-you to President Trump, a political, memorable, and effective free premium that caused sales to spike and transformed the company's brand, earning goodwill from liberals everywhere. "The old methods of marketing are coming to an end," Bill Penzey bragged of his giveaways in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "and this is the new marketing." But it really isn't that new. You won't see banks giving away toasters unless you're watching 1990s period piece Fresh Off The Boat, but banks do sometimes use premiums to induce new customers; I walked by a grill offered as an incentive by the Walmart bank while editing the second draft of this piece. My husband, a mailman, reported from his route one day to tell me about a display of dog accessories, wine corks, and backpacks advertised to new customers at Landmark Bank in Lawrence, Kansas. When I called Becky Tourtillott, Landmark's vice president of marketing, she confirmed that the days of "one-size-fits-all" rewards are long gone, and even among the rewards they do offer, premiums aren't the real draw. "Of our top ten most redeemed items, eight of them are gift cards," Tourtillott said. Even S&H Green Stamps have transitioned to virtual rewards in a bid for continued survival. When you can buy anything you want easily online, money is often more enticing than a hunk of plastic. But the thing about money is that it's cold and unfeeling; as on any big occasion, a gift is more fun to unwrap than a check. "They're trying to make an appeal on an emotional rather than an economic register," said Dr. Woloson. In "Wishful Thinking," she quoted early twentieth century writer Henry S. Bunting, noting that premiums worked because they appealed “not to reason, but to the heart, to the emotions, to sentiment, to good will on the basis of implied acquaintanceship.” But while they're fondly remembered, premiums are only sporadically relevant in the 2018 marketplace. Some of the tactics remain; Dr. Woloson pointed out that virtual rewards programs use the language of inclusion (e.g. clubs, membership) even though "you're just customer, you're just a data point." The retro appeal of free trinkets can't compete with corporate thirst for your personal information to better target you. "There's always the possibility of nostalgia marketing, if you want to utilize that," Dr. Chambers said, but he's skeptical that premiums will ever come back in a big way. But the sentimental residue they always sought to leave remains. We still have a relationship with these companies. My aunt attributes her lifelong love of swans to a soap-related free premium her older sisters ordered for her as a baby. My grandma recalls the bike she got my uncle Tom from green stamps. My dad's obsession with baseball was launched in part by baseball cards on the back of Post cereal. My mom got animated and nostalgic talking about a particular premium: a director’s chair emblazoned with my name, which I adored as a child. Mary Potter Kenyon once had a dedicated room with shelves and cabinets full of old receipts and flattened boxes and empty bags. When she moved in 1998, it prompted a realization: the era of free stuff was over, and she needed space for her six children more than she needed space for trash. "There was no point to saving all my garbage anymore," she said. She made a bonfire and burned all the scraps she'd spent so long collecting, incinerating her dreams of all the things she once hoped to get for free, or something like it.
Pride of Patchogue

My hometown is famous for a hate crime, and ten years after that murder, it’s not clear much progress has been made.

No one walks in Patchogue. To walk in this town on the south shore of Long Island is to draw unwanted attention. Why doesn’t that person have a car? a driver might think of a pedestrian as they pass. What has gone wrong in their life? Some sidewalks abruptly end, making it clear pedestrians are unwanted. Here, we walk only to the edges of our property. Those with dogs are granted special dispensation, of course. Conformity is key in this village and its surrounding town. Main Street is marked on its western and eastern edges by the massive new location of Blue Point Brewery and the long-standing post office, renamed in 2005 for Navy SEAL Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy who died at age twenty-nine in the War in Afghanistan. Not far away, there’s a military recruitment office. A few years ago, the library was the only destination. Now, restaurants, bars, and a theater line what was once a strip of shuttered storefronts, a jarring change for all of us who moved away in search of those things. Even the library has changed, with a seed catalogue and programming for queer teens. A few blocks to the south, you’ll find the Catholic parish, a middle school, the village hall, the train station that takes you to the city or to Montauk, a gentrifying beach destination. The bay is nearby; the ferry to Fire Island always accessible. Patchogue is a small, suburban area marked by its proximity to water. There’s a gift shop now where you can buy sweatshirts with the town’s name in a cute font, its latitude and longitude beneath; I have one and don’t know whether I wear it ironically, whether my hometown is a place I can proudly represent. Mayor Paul Pontieri, who’s presided over the village since 2004, tells me just how important conformity is when we meet at town hall on the day of the school district’s high school graduation. I’ll be there: My sister will be walking in a red cap and gown, class of 2018. “Once you move into a neighborhood, there are two things you do immediately,” he tells me. “The first thing you do is you look up and down the block. If everyone mows their lawn every week, you mow your lawn every week. If people painted their houses so they’re nice, paint your house. Whatever it is: Don’t stand out. Be part of the neighborhood. Don’t stand out,” he repeats. “The second thing you do, 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock at night, sit on your front steps and listen to the neighborhood. If it’s quiet, you’re quiet. If people are out and they’re playing volleyball—whatever they’re doing. Don’t stand out.” Don’t stand out, the suburban mantra. Certainly don’t ride a bike. Never walk. This is where I spent the first twenty-three years of my life, right on the outskirts of the village lines: picking up gallons of milk for my mother from the market, going to the library as a teenager to take out The Andy Warhol Diaries, being dragged to 7:30 mass on Sunday mornings, and going to my first yoga classes. The neighbourhood was never wealthy; Starbucks would never want to open a store there. While the county, Suffolk, regularly pops up on the list of the richest in the country, the median household income in Patchogue is about $70,000 a year. In Patchogue, the working class reigns. At my sister’s graduation, the kids are seated in the center of the school’s football field with the onlookers on metal bleachers in hot sun. The principal and superintendent give discouraging speeches masked as motivation; the principal defines adulthood as “working full-time and handing someone else your paycheck.” He repeats this again and again, the way the mayor did, thinking it wise, telling the audience we can feel free to quote him.   *  Marcelo Lucero didn’t have to walk. The thirty-seven-year-old had a car, one he used to get to his job at a dry cleaners in Riverhead, twenty-five miles away. Lucero grew up in Gualaceo, Ecuador, like many residents of Patchogue, and moved to the States in 1992 to work and send money back to his family. He had been building a house there, to share with his mother and siblings. The night of November 8, 2008, he and his friend Angel Loja decided to walk around the village. They went out drinking, like anyone might on a Friday, like I was doing that same night thirty miles away in Huntington, celebrating my 23rd birthday. Lucero’s nonconformity didn’t end with his occasionally walking. He was an Ecuadorian man, an undocumented resident in a downtrodden town filled with Irish and Italian Catholics. This man, Catholic but undocumented, with a car but walking, was surrounded that night on Railroad Avenue by seven teenagers; they were seniors at the same local high school from which my sister would eventually graduate. The boys attacked, and one, Kevin Shea, threw a punch. Lucero removed his belt and whipped one of them in the head; another, Jeffrey Conroy, retaliated by stabbing Lucero in the right collarbone. Lucero’s friend, Loja, had run to an alley for safety. When Lucero finally made it over to his friend, he left a trail of blood along the pavement and collapsed. He was pronounced dead an hour and a half later, the official cause listed as a four-inch-deep stab wound to the chest. “A Killing In a Town Where Latinos Sense Hate,” read a New York Times headline five days after Lucero’s murder. Between 1990 and 2000, the Latin population of Patchogue jumped from fourteen percent to twenty-four percent. While the population of the town changed, the demographics of its governing bodies did not. By effectively ignoring the existence of what was a quarter of the population, two Patchogues came to exist: One in the mainstream, with representation on the village council, the other simply trying to survive in an openly hostile environment. In her book about Lucero’s death, Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town, journalist Mirta Ojito suggests this area so seemingly close to New York City could be another country entirely. When Donald Trump decided to campaign in the village during the 2016 election, The Guardian called the venue where he rallied “lowbrow.” It’s a town famous for a hate crime—and while the last few years have led to cosmetic changes, ten years after Lucero’s murder, it’s not clear much other progress has been made. *  The village of Patchogue once had hotels; it was a destination for people looking for a reprieve from the city. It held onto some of its mom-and-pop-ness through the ’80s, despite the rise of malls (strip and otherwise) taking people away from Main Street. But by the ‘90s, “Patchogue was a little bit of a rough town,” says Jessica Valentin, now forty, who just opened a gallery called Muñeca Arthouse in the village. She grew up in the town to the north, Medford; the neighboring suburbs share a high school. She remembers Swezey’s, a family-owned department store that once served as the linchpin of local commerce. It closed in 2003 after over a century in business and a decade of village decline. I’m seven years younger than Valentin; the dilapidation and depression are all I can remember from my childhood. “My mom would say, ‘Just don’t get off Main Street.’ It stayed that way for a while.” She remembers hearing the rumor as a kid that Hitler’s grandson lived nearby. In reality, it was his nephew; a fitting myth for a town that would become famous in the future for the murder of an undocumented immigrant. After Swezey’s closed, some businesses held on: BrickHouse Brewery, Gino’s Pizza, Blum’s for bathing suits, the Colony Shop for Communion and baptism outfits. These were spread down the block, dotting the otherwise bleak landscape. But the aughts brought some renewal. What the growth in the Latin population in the early 2000s meant to me and many others was that there were businesses starting up again on Main Street, like Gallo, a Colombian restaurant that advertises Mojito Mondays and Tequila Tuesdays. Where once there was a party store there is now a supermarket where you can buy conchas and Goya’s entire product line. Twenty percent of economic output on Long Island is due to immigrants, said David Kallick, Director of the Immigration Research Initiative at the Fiscal Policy Institute, in 2017. But it seemed that then-County Executive Steve Levy saw, in those recent arrivals, a threat. During his time in office, his rhetoric was openly anti-immigrant; he was a more polished proto-Trump, throwing around the word illegal and accusing women of coming to the U.S. to have “anchor babies,” born-citizen children. County Legislator Jack Eddington gained notoriety for breaking up the volleyball games commonly played among immigrant communities in nearby Farmingville, where a common site of day laborer pickup had become a hotbed of controversy in the county.   In June of 2006, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s massive report of hate crime violence in Suffolk County, Levy mocked activists who were protesting what they saw as racist enforcement of zoning laws targeting Latin communities. The report, titled “Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y.,” went on to state that he referred to activists as “this one percent lunatic fringe” and said he was “not intimidated by their politically correct histrionics.” This local rhetoric was further emboldened by Fox News personalities like Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly, who featured Levy on his show. In the days following Lucero’s murder, Levy would tell Newsday that the slaying would be a “one day story” if not for the ongoing furor over his bombast. The town was changing in lots of ways. Not long after Pontieri took on the role of mayor, money began to move back into the village. Before him, the job was part-time. “I quickly realized that if you were going to get anything done, you had to commit to the job,” he tells me. In 2006, Bobbique, a barbecue restaurant, opened. New housing developments, the first named Copper Beach, began to pop up, thanks to an infusion of $3.7 million from Levy. The residents who were displaced, Pontieri says, were relocated and young professionals moved in, if they could afford a $156,000 apartment. He believes a teacher making $42,000 could, and perhaps he was right: The median age in the village is now thirty-four, he says. An arts council was established in 2008 with the addition of ArtSpace, a low-income residence and studio building, thanks to another infusion of money from Steve Levy—$3.5 million this time. Rapid changes to the village created restaurants and a sheen of culture. There’s now an independent record shop, a store selling goth and rockabilly tchotchkes, and Valentin’s gallery. Starbucks never moved in, but there are two local coffee shops.  Valentin, who, like my father, is Puerto Rican, now serves as the first Latin person on the arts council. The board of village trustees remains all white despite a third of the residents now being Latin.  As the town changed, old prejudices continued to flare. Attacks on immigrants in the area had been consistent and ongoing since the late ‘90s. A construction worker from Honduras had been assaulted by teenagers in October of 1999; a month later, a Mexican man was beaten by his employer and several fellow employees. There are thirtysomething incidents like this documented in the Southern Poverty Law Center report—severe and disgusting, focused and hateful—that occurred before Lucero’s murder. The growth of these crimes in Suffolk County and Patchogue mirrored that of the country: According to the report, FBI statistics showed a forty percent increase in anti-Latino hate crimes from 2003 to 2007 and a fifty percent increase in hate groups from 2000 to 2008. The violence was consistently escalating and many saw no repercussions, as the undocumented local community was too fearful of law enforcement. * In a short video series, reporter Ana P. Gutierrez tries to answer the question, “Who Was Marcelo Lucero?” From Ojito’s book, we know he took pride in his clothing and was a brother to not just his own siblings, but Loja. Gutierrez talked to a childhood friend who recounted their happy years in Gualaceo, noting that in the early ‘90s, most of their peers were moving to the U.S. for economic opportunity not available in Ecuador. She shows a grade-school class where almost every child has a parent in the States; a boy cries asking for his father to return. In the final installment, Marcelo’s mother, Rosario, talks about the poverty in which he and his siblings spent their youth. “I’m not missing the economic help, but the person,” she says. “Because thank God, I have my hands to continue to work.” There is a facelessness to the conversation around immigration from countries in Central and South America in the United States, a focus on economic impact and claims of violence. In Patchogue, and on Long Island more broadly, we have Marcelo; his memory itself a permanent monument to the effects of racist rhetoric. Yet Suffolk County is Trump country, according to Politico, the numbers, and the stickers I see on pickup trucks. In 2017, the county welcomed the president; he addressed a crowd of mostly uniformed police at Suffolk County Community College, where he told them not to be afraid to get “rough.” The sketch of Marcelo Lucero’s life has been drawn for us; his mother, sister, and brother have all wept in grief on the streets of our village. Yet de facto segregation remains, emboldened by openly anti-immigrant sentiment from the highest office in our land. What has changed in Patchogue in these ten years? There are places to go out. * It was Anthony Hartford’s idea to go “fuck up some Mexicans” that night in 2008, according to Ojito’s book. The group of friends did this often, apparently—went “beaner hopping.” They referred to all Latin people as Mexican, to them a slur, though one of the seven, José Pacheco, was Puerto Rican and black. While this was happening about a mile from the house where I grew up and still lived at the time, I was drunk on sangria with friends. A brother of one of the boys involved sat at my table at a pricey Mexican restaurant; he smiles in a Polaroid from that night. No one in that photo yet knows there are sirens blaring on the village streets, that high school boys are being interrogated on a corner, that the one who easily turns over the knife won’t know he’s killed someone for hours. The next morning, I woke up twenty-three, the resident of a town redefined forever by a trail of blood. In the wake of Lucero’s murder, Patchogue would change drastically. Ten years on, and the village streets where the seven boys were arrested are almost unrecognizable. But the wound opened by Lucero’s death is still wide open, and the pattern of harassment it drew attention to continues. In many ways, his blood—long ago wiped away—still stains the streets. * “I would never call Long Island ‘all-American,’” my partner from Houston, Texas, tells me, when I ask him for an outsider perspective on why the place where I grew up might be such a hotbed for anti-immigrant sentiment. And maybe he’s right. We didn’t go to Friday night football games. There were no casseroles being served. We ate pizza and bagels; we went to the Greek diner. Everything we could call a culture came from those who had once been marked as “non-white,” as “ethnic,” as “immigrant.” When we went to the city to catch a game or a show, we were “bridge and tunnel”—garbage, a disruption to the urban landscape with our mall-bought clothes. My mother told me recently that women at our church would comment negatively on the town’s growing Latin population. “My children are Puerto Rican,” she would tell them. My brother and I happily stopped going to mass when she stopped waking us up for it, never asking why. When I worked at a Starbucks off the highway, a man came in who couldn’t speak English, just asking for some water. The manager refused him. Here we were, generations descended from immigrants, greeting new arrivals with metaphorical pitchforks and literal knives, with the slur “illegal.” Not all-American, but playing at the characterization in all its violence.  Mayor Pontieri likes to bring people into his office to show them the image of his grandfather paving the roads that would create the village of Patchogue. He points to his tan skin and short stature, comparing that Italian man with the more recent arrivals from Gualaceo, Ecuador. * I’ve admired the brick Congregational Church on Patchogue’s Main Street from afar for my entire life, envying its ornate stained glass windows. (My Catholic parish nearby was made from wood and wasn’t as regal; the pastor when I was in school would refer to it as his “ark,” as though it was a capsized boat in which we were all stuck.) But I only stepped inside the Congregational Church for the first time this summer, to talk to Reverend Dwight Wolter, who presided over Lucero’s funeral. There are people on the lawn and on the stairs; people with nowhere else to be. I am visibly confused about how to get in. They tell me to ring the bell. “No, the other one.” They’re very familiar with the church; I find out later many of them call this lawn, these steps, home. Finally, Reverend Wolter opens up the door. He is on the phone but eager to show me his current project, a collection of donated toilet paper with which he hopes to build the world’s largest ever pyramid of bathroom tissue across the street in the plaza of the military recruitment office. It will bring attention to the fact that necessities like this, as well as women’s sanitary napkins, are taxed and not covered by grant funding. He has me take his photo with some of it before leading me on a tour and pointing out where Marcelo Lucero’s body lay in a coffin one day in 2008 and where, weeks later, the reverend hosted what the New York Times called a “hate-crime circus” in which immigrants were able to give private recorded testimony of their experiences living in Suffolk. The reverend had only been in Patchogue for about a year before the murder. Yet, Wolter tells me in his office, he knew it was coming. “And people who might read this, and some of the elected officials would say, ‘Here we go again.’ Marcelo Lucero was almost written into the script.” We are two people in an office and he’s preaching to me about the place where I grew up but there’s logic in what he’s saying. “When I came here, the first word that came to mind when I toured Patchogue was ‘blight,’” he says. “The second word was ‘promise.’”   Coverage of Lucero’s murder focused on that “blight” and what, to outsiders, seemed like a jarring disparity of cultures in the suburb shadowed by the world’s greatest metropolis. In Hunting Season, Ojito refers to the Medford train station where the seven teens spent an earlier portion of the night as belonging “to a world so different from the city that it almost seems located in another country.” Reporters working on the story saw us and our landscape as foreign, which was jarring yet telling at the time. The writers were trying to both distance themselves from and make sense of how something so heinous could happen: Clearly, this place must be evil. Believing it wasn’t, though, that this event was an anomaly, has allowed the town to forgive itself, to simply add restaurants and boutiques and call it change.   *  Jeffrey Conroy was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime for the slaying of Lucero, which he’s still serving now. He’s twenty-seven and has been incarcerated since the age of seventeen. The other attackers have all since been released.  At his sentencing, Conroy told the judge, “I’m really sorry for what happened to Mr. Lucero.” That passive voice. From jail in 2010, he told a reporter about not being able to look at Joselo, Marcelo’s brother. “I feel bad for him. I got a brother, too. I couldn’t imagine him dying.” There’s a child’s lack of understanding here, of his own culpability. The boy who threw the first punch is now a construction worker. Another posts anti-black memes publicly on Facebook. One seems particularly enamored of the American flag and another moved to Oakland, California. One of them seems to have disappeared, but a sixth was recently arrested for cocaine possession. I have Facebook friends in common with all of them. They are, for the most part, living the normal lives of twentysomethings from working-class Suffolk. The boys who were walked from the sixth precinct in white jumpsuits are now men. Nothing about them is as interesting or significant as the conversation they began with their cruelty, their rage, their boredom, their stupidity. Patchogue may forever be marked, but with the exception of Conroy, their involvement in Lucero’s murder is a footnote on their lives, seemingly regarded as a youthful mistake. I send one of them a message on Facebook, saying I’m a reporter working on a story about the ten-year anniversary of Lucero’s death. He writes back that he won’t talk about the event and I should never message him again. For days afterwards, I’m shaken, worried word will spread, that someone will find my family’s home and try to hurt them. *  Unlike my sister, I did not graduate from the local public high school but a private Catholic school about forty-five minutes away. I always felt like I had one foot in Patchogue and one foot out. When local emo was popular, I was listening to Radiohead, reading imported British music magazines, and watching French movies on Sundance Channel. It was only when I left the town that I discovered that, by urban standards, I was a dilettante. I thought I’d leave that place and slip easily into some artistic milieu. Instead, I found my own class-based resentment; it just focused upwards. But as a teenager I did seek, and find, local magic. When there was a massive blackout in the summer of 2003, we ran around in sprinklers in darkened backyards. We packed seven people into cars built for only five to go see shitty ska bands. There was always the water, the diner. There was minigolf, laser tag, Borders Books and Music. At a venue miles and miles away, my friends and I saw bands that I read about in those British magazines, like Starsailor. It was all so “Soco Amaretto Lime”—the song by Brand New, a band from Merrick, another town on Long Island: Young, in love, with the low fuel light on for days, and a foreboding sense that in this place you could get stuck pretending to be eighteen forever. Some, though, not content to play minigolf or without money, spent their Soco Amaretto Lime years hunting men with brown skin.   *  Patchogue, once empty, is now a place people tweet about hanging out. Restaurant opening after restaurant opening has created a new destination on Long Island. “Told myself when I turn twenty-one, this summer I was gonna go to Patchogue every chance I got,” a woman writes. “Purgatory is being in Patchogue, in between drunk and sober with no timeline as to when you'll be home,” writes a man. After all the growth that Pontieri’s policies have spurred, there’s now a focus on maintenance. “We’re beginning now to transition from a growth perspective,” he says. “Now we have to begin with the unintended consequences of the things you do.” That includes lack of parking, consistent public drunkenness, a new homeless population, and opiate addiction in a county that’s been one of the hardest hit by overdose deaths in New York State. There might be more truth to Ojito’s assertion than I want to admit, that out there, we are far enough from the city to be considered another country. Patchogue has focused on beer, on its summer festival Alive After Five, when Main Street shuts down on select Thursdays for a massive block party. But when, amid all the fun, does the drug use, the boredom, the homelessness get addressed? *  Despite or maybe because of the area’s newfound success, the town seems inclined to think of Lucero’s murder as just a sad moment in its history. It hosted Trump in 2016 as he ran for election to the nation’s highest office on a platform of anti-Mexican rhetoric, his desire to “build a wall.” Media coverage of the Lucero murder had long since quieted, but this got The New Yorker’s attention. They gave their story a blunt title, the now-president’s name metonymy for hate and our town a symbol of anti-immigrant violence: “Donald Trump in Patchogue.” “The chickens came home to roost when Donald Trump was coming to speak at the Emporium, which is about one thousand feet from the site of the murder of Marcelo Lucero,” Reverend Wolter says.  Wolter and other townspeople put up a fight, but Trump spoke anyway, and Wolter went to see the crowd there to hear him. “They were young—not all young, but younger than I thought—they were good-looking, they were prosperous, and they were pissed. Pissed,” he says. “I took out my phone and videotaped because the power was immense.”   At a different venue in town that day, Lucero’s brother Joselo was hosting a party called “Make America Love Again.” Wolter went there afterwards to find a small, quiet gathering of folks with “one fifth” the energy of the Trump rally. He worried then about how the election would turn out, having seen the stark contrast of both sides in one night within one mile of each other. If love doesn’t counter hate, what does? There will soon be two memorials to 9/11 in the village, but no permanent marker of the place where Lucero bled to death. “It’s easier to memorialize foreigners attacking our soil than when our children murdered someone,” a friend who grew up nearby says when I pass on this information over a drink. To mark the ten-year anniversary, there will be a memorial featuring Joselo, who’s become an activist. It will take place at Stony Brook University, twelve miles away from Patchogue’s center. * Angel Zahcay owns Express Amazonas, a small shop that handles shipping between Gualaceo and Patchogue, and sells various Ecuadorian candies and sodas. When I’ve stopped in lately to try to talk to him, he’s sweetly blown me off, and I thought he was trying to avoid me completely. Many others in town have. “I’m busy,” he told me, when I showed up with a reporter’s notebook. “It’s very hot.” That was true. Finally, though, he gives me a few minutes of his time, with someone in the background quietly translating many of my questions into Spanish; they sound like a child. Zahcay has lived in the town for almost thirty years now. He says many people have moved back to Ecuador. “When they killed him, our whole life changed.” They stopped playing volleyball and drinking beers. “That wasn’t an accident,” he says of Lucero’s death. What is it like now? “In the nighttime, it’s very busy here. Two weeks ago, a friend of mine comes to my place. He was working in the restaurant and walking through Main Street, and a couple of people stole his money and his phone. They kicked him.” No one walks in Patchogue. That remains the same. Bad things happen to those who stand out.
Psychopaths and the Rest of Us

Searching for empathy with those society deems unforgivable.

I lurked on the psychopath forum for three days before contacting anyone. It is, unsurprisingly, a scary place. People have usernames like CoiledSnake and PowerShark. The forum was hosted by a now-defunct social networking site called Experience Project which allowed people to communicate anonymously through forums or private messages on everything from divorce and depression to, in this case, psychopathy. Someone would post an “experience” in the relevant forum and members would comment underneath. One day, someone posted in one of the psychopath forums, “Who wants to play a game?” Someone else responded, “I do.” They private messaged each other and were never heard from again. Other people messaged back on the main thread: “So, what happened?” No response. Another day, a man posted a message that it was his dream to gut a woman with a fish hook while having sex. Someone naively replied, “Who would agree to that?” The response: “She wouldn’t have to agree.” Fish hooks and gutting women are probably what one expects from a psychopath. The television and movie industries have long promoted the idea that all psychopaths are blood-thirsty killers, but as Dr. Kent Kiehl, a leading psychopath researcher, told me, the Hollywood version of psychopathy bears little resemblance to reality. The DSM (the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) defines psychopathy as a personality disorder characterized by a total lack of remorse and empathy. Robert Hare, one of the most famous psychopath researchers and Kiehl’s mentor, describes them as people “without conscience” and developed a diagnostic tool, the Psychopathy Checklist, known as the PCL-R. An average American non-psychopathic male might score a four on the PCL-R, whereas someone scoring between thirty-seven and forty is considered an extreme case. Scientists are generally in agreement that there is no cure for psychopathy and that the condition is congenital. Other traits they’ve identified include “grandiose sense of self- worth,” “pathological lying,” “parasitic lifestyle” (think: someone who always takes money but never pays it back), “impulsivity,” “proneness to boredom” and “early behavioral problems.” Psychopaths can be very charming. They hide their psychopathy by studying people’s behaviors and learning to emulate them. Therapy appears to be ineffective because it teaches them to better conceal socially unacceptable behaviors. They are dangerous. The commonly accepted estimate is that just under one percent of the population is psychopathic. This means you probably know at least one. Robert Hare wrote in his book Without Conscience, “the best strategy [for protecting yourself] is to avoid becoming entangled with a psychopath in the first place.” *** At the beginning of Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick’s book about the fall of the Soviet Union, Remnick decides he wants to pay a visit to Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich, the man who “annihilated the peasantry and left the villages of Ukraine strewn with an endless field of human husks.” What did Remnick want from Kaganovich? “Mostly, I wanted just to sit in the same room with Kaganovich, to see what an evil man looked like, to know what he did, what books he kept around.” The question of what a mass murderer reads is a question of relatability, what part of you is like some part of me? The answer is complicated. In 2012, Dr. Kiehl made a startling discovery: people who scored high on the Psychopathy Checklist have reduced levels of gray matter in the paralimbic system of their brains, making their brains fundamentally different than the average person’s. “It’s very easy for me to pick out someone who scores in that clinical range,” Kiehl told me. “The eyes are very different, they have a very flat—I don’t like to say it, but—they almost have a reptilian effect to their eyes.” In one passage of his book, Hare calls them “human predators.” But to a non-scientific eye, all that separates us is something that could seem almost insubstantial. A little gray matter, like dust under the bed. And yet, many have declared psychopaths unworthy of explanation or probing. There is no higher truth to be gained—they just are this way. But what if this failure to understand comes from a failure to ask the right questions, a lack of imagination, or even a lack of empathy? In Hare’s famous book, Without Conscience, he writes: “A good psychopath can play a concerto on anyone’s heartstrings … Psychopaths often give the impression that it is they who are suffering … Don’t waste your sympathy on them.” He is adamant: “their problems are not in the same league as yours. Theirs stem primarily from not getting what they want.” The only safe course of action is avoidance. Detect the signs early, look for vagueness about family, friends, and employment, and get out while you can. There is no reforming. They are, Hare says, “human predators.” But that perspective seemed lacking in empathy. Psychopathy is, after all, considered a congenital mental health problem. “Their brains are different,” Kiehl told me, “the neuroscience confirms it.” Being a psychopath is not a choice, and I couldn’t imagine reacting with that much callousness to someone with a different congenital mental health problem like, for example, schizophrenia. It seemed the ultimate test of empathy—to inhabit the perspective of a supposedly unimaginable consciousness, one plagued by the darkest impulses, and to try to see the world through their eyes.  Empathizing with the grotesquely blameworthy—rapists, murderers of children—is challenging.  But the uncomfortable truth is that most of us fall somewhere between murderer and innocent child. In considering the two ends of the spectrum, I realized that this was not an investigation of psychopathy, but the negative space around psychopathy: the rest of us. *** I selected four self-proclaimed psychopaths to message on the forum based on the fact that they had said something interesting in one of the chatrooms. Three of the four responded. All of the people I spoke to described suffering from extreme boredom and told me that most of the things they did were attempts to alleviate boredom’s dull ache. One told me he thought psychopaths are the next stage in human development—people liberated from the burden of feeling. One of them was a woman, and she interested me above all the others. When I pictured the people I was chatting with, I saw Christian Bale, in American Psycho, wearing a tuxedo in a sleek, impersonal penthouse—not a woman. This woman was a suburban stay-at-home mother with three kids. She had taken great care to decorate her home with earth tones and dark wood because she wanted it to be “castle-like.” She told me she spends most of her days alone, trying to stimulate herself emotionally by finding men in internet chat rooms, saying alluring things to them, then verbally abusing them once they grew attached to her. “The hunt and seduction makes us FEEL excitement,” she told me. “Like a drug. The feeling soon wears off and we leave to find another fix. It has nothing to do with the targets, personally. They are just a tool. I can’t help it. But nothing is more victorious than having someone obsess over my absence.”  Her mother and grandmother were the same, she said. Family outings are excruciatingly boring to her, as are most things. She feels only “a void. The only pain I feel is when something is taken from me. Everything else is a flatline.” This woman, like everyone I spoke to on the forum, was a self-professed psychopath. This self-diagnosis meant that their beliefs about their mental health are not professional opinions. I called Kiehl on the phone one morning and told him about the forum. He didn’t think my psychopaths were necessarily psychopaths, especially not the woman, since psychopathy in women is extremely rare. These people could be imposters and the internet was a very impersonal way to communicate with them. I wanted to talk to someone who had been diagnosed by a doctor. I asked Dr. Kiehl for a recommendation. He suggested I get in touch with a man I will call Arnold. Arnold is a serial killer and a rapist, serving a life sentence for raping twelve women and raping and murdering another three. Two of his rape/murder victims were under ten years old. He had kidnapped one of the children while she was alone, home sick from school, after spotting her in her living room window. Several years ago, Dr. Kiehl testified in Arnold’s defense. Kiehl had found abnormally low gray matter in f-MRI scans of Arnold’s brain. He was on the extreme end of the psychopathy spectrum, scoring thirty-seven out of forty on the checklist. Kiehl argued that Arnold could not control his psychopathic impulses and that for this reason, he should not be given the death penalty. The jury was unmoved by Kiehl’s arguments, but the issue became a moot point when the state where Arnold was tried abolished the death penalty several years later. Ultimately, Kiehl’s defense of Arnold doesn’t really seem about Arnold at all, but is instead a challenge to the premise of the criminal justice system: what factors, biological and circumstantial, make certain behaviors beyond our control, and if they are beyond our control, should we be held accountable? I looked up Arnold’s information in the Department of Corrections inmate register. An image popped up—an aging man with slicked back gray hair and a Cheshire cat-like smirk. I wrote him a letter. Two weeks later, I got a response. It was just before the 2016 presidential election. “I hope like Hell Clinton wins. Women need empowerment,” he wrote. He proceeded on a tirade about income inequality, justice, and sexism. He told me he is an avid listener of Democracy Now, a progressive news program with a focus on human rights. “I don’t blame the voters for Trump. I blame the Democratic Party’s focus on coronating Clinton,” Arnold went on. He ended another letter, “Please send me the address for the national headquarters for the Democratic National Committee in Washington. I have a few suggestions for them.” I knew—more strikingly, he knew—that he did not care about the lived experience of income or gender inequity, or any of the things he had elected to champion. I imagine his interest in politics is much like the interest one might have in a Rubik’s cube. He is tinkering with a meaningless logic problem. “Science and reason drive my beliefs,” Arnold wrote. His most cherished books are a pocket Oxford American and Roget’s 21st Century thesaurus, the second edition. When he is in his cell, he works on legal briefs (he has three lawsuits against the Department of Corrections), studies theoretical physics, and does Sudoku puzzles (“hard and challenger”). Arnold told me that when he feels disappointed about the way his life turned out, he takes comfort in the story of Dr. James Fallon. Fallon is a neuroscientist. In 2006, he was working on a study of Alzheimer’s patients and used a scan of his own brain in the control group. When he was going through the scans, he noticed that one of the scans looked similar to a psychopath’s brain. It turned out to be his own. Fallon is a rare breed: a successful psychopath. He attributes this success and his impulse control to the fact that he was loved and supported as a child. Arnold claims his childhood wasn’t like that, saying of his family, “my experiences were more negative than positive.” When it comes to one’s own family, there are no reliable narrators. But what is known from trial records and Dr. Kiehl’s analysis is that Arnold’s father was an alcoholic. His mother, a slightly more functional alcoholic, abused him physically and emotionally. A chronic bed wetter, his mother forced him to sleep in his soiled sheets as punishment.  Early in his life, he may have sustained two brain injuries, which could relate to his later problems. Both accounts are unverifiable—the hospital records no longer exist. The first comes from Arnold’s sister. When his mother was pregnant with him she went into labor before a doctor was available. The nurse pushed his emerging head back into his mother and strapped her legs together, in theory damaging his brain. Arnold told me the other story, saying that his mother had told him: When he was an infant, a cat sat on his face, smothering him. When his mother found him, he was unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital and was fine, but he wondered if the lack of oxygen to his brain caused damage. Arnold argues that, had he grown up in a loving and supportive home, he may have been able to overcome whatever was wrong with his brain. “I could have been a productive member of society,” he wrote. “How do I know? I don’t. But it’s what I believe.” It is what Arnold wants to believe, and it was also what he wants journalists to believe. He could have been a good person. Arnold spends twenty-four hours a day locked in his cell except for Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays when he spends two and a half hours in a concrete enclosure playing basketball or “pushing iron with a few convicts.” He gets three fifteen-minute showers a week. In one of my letters, I suggested “scheduling a call.” He patiently explained to me that, “due to the vagaries of prison life—lockdowns, emergencies… etc. I might not be able to always meet a schedule.” It was cruel to remind him of his lack of freedom, especially since he had written of it to me so longingly. “If I were free, I’d love to be on a sparsely populated island in the Pacific” or “a farm with a stream running through it or with a pond/lake next to it.” I was, in spite of myself, beginning to feel a little bad for Arnold. Arnold told me a story about something that happened twenty years ago. He was in his cell watching another inmate deceive a man in the cell next to him. The “gallery troll,” as he called the man, disgusted him. But then—recognition: he was no different than this man. He was a gallery troll too. “What a low life piece of shit I turned out to be,” he said he thought. He was so stricken by this realization that his knees buckled and he had to grab onto the bars of his cell to keep himself upright.  Kiehl and Hare’s analysis often gave the impression that psychopaths were inhuman, alien, other. But that moment in Arnold’s cell was so human. If I believed his story, he was saying he wanted to be a better version of himself, to have a life that was a better version of his. Presumably his victims felt similarly about their lives, which is what makes their murder tragic. They had believed that if they went to school, worked hard at their jobs, cared for their friends and family and found ways to improve their less appealing traits, their lives should only get better and better. Arnold killed them before they had a real chance. ***  I arranged for a phone call with Arnold. He explained that when he called, there would be an automated voice asking if I would accept charges from “Cheeseburger.” Cheeseburger, he explained, was his prison name. One Sunday afternoon, a few weeks later, my phone rang. It was Cheeseburger.  His voice surprised me. I had expected it to be flat, but he was gregarious, even funny, and disarmingly frank. “I have to intellectualize the things that you guys feel,” he said. He comfortably referred to himself as a psychopath and seemed relieved to have the moniker. “I always wondered why I didn’t connect,” he said. In that phone conversation, he told me a story about how many years ago, before he was in prison, his father died. His siblings were gathered around their mother crying in the hospital. He sat on the couch across from them, watching them. He felt nothing, but had the sense that this was the wrong response. “I was looking at them wondering what was wrong with me.” Now he had his answer.  When I asked him if he thought he was capable of love, he said no, probably not. He said he has enjoyed the presence of other people before, but mostly it was because they were able to talk about the topics that interest him: law, politics, or science. He told me he spends a lot of time meditating or training himself to consider the implications of his actions and he thinks this “makes me a little more human I think than I used to be.” It was hard not to be seduced by his pageantry of introspection and proclaimed self-improvement schemes. But his suggestion that he is different now should be regarded dubiously, if you believe most contemporary scientific research. As Kiehl told me many times, there is no cure for psychopathy. “You can't TALK people INTO feeling and/or understanding what love is,” one self-proclaimed psychopath told me on the forum. But, while he couldn’t make himself feel, it seemed possible that he could train himself to behave as a feeling person would. When I called Kiehl on the phone, I had asked him if he ever felt sorry for the psychopaths he encountered. He paused, considering my question. “Yes,” he said finally. “I’m not a bleeding heart, but I do feel they are really missing something that the rest of us take for granted. The pure enjoyment that I get from listening to my daughter’s voice: it sets off something in my brain. It’s unbelievable. Psychopaths don’t get that.” I asked Arnold if it felt good to kill people. “No,” he said quickly. He explained that he wanted to rape people. He speculated that he was drawn to rape because he was young when he committed his crimes and feeling a lot of sexual desire, but since he exists in an “emotionless landscape” his sexual impulses manifested violently. He only killed his victims, he told me, so they wouldn’t be able to identify him later. After he said this, he let out a strange groan. I don’t know what it meant.  *** Arnold’s crimes were all disturbing, but there was a more mundane scene from his life that nagged at me. The sister of one of Arnold’s victims had requested to meet him in 1985. I looked up the details of the murder. Arnold had noticed his victim at a stoplight, rammed her car off the road, raped her, and then drowned her in a quarry. Why had her sister wanted to talk to Arnold after that? Perhaps she wanted relief from the unknowns, to understand how much her sister had suffered. Without specifics, all grisliness is possible. All manner of screaming, of crying, pleading, the wildest look of animal terror could have happened. Good horror film directors know this: don’t show the monster because the ever-mutating images in our minds are worse than any one thing you could show us. Perhaps the sister was asking to be released from her imagination. Arnold had refused. I asked him why. He said he remembered only vaguely. “I was a punk ass coward,” he added dismissively. I had the sense that there was a magic question I could ask Arnold that would unlock some barrier of understanding between us. He seemed eager to embark on this challenge too. He told me he hardly ever feels anything but that he did when one of his victim’s parents spoke at his sentencing. He said that they were in such obvious pain that when he got back to his cell, he burst into tears. I told him I thought that sounded like empathy to me, which was something I was under the impression he could not experience. He explained that he could feel sorrow and regret, but not empathy. I asked him what the difference was. He didn’t seem to know. What does sorrow feel like? I asked, realizing that I didn’t know how to describe it either. Instead of explaining the feeling, he described the process by which he brings himself to feel it. He said he has to sit down and think about something terrible, meditate on it, and imagine the ramifications.  If felt as though sorrow, to him was like a place he sometimes chooses to go—not something that happens to him. And then it dawned on me. His story didn’t add up. If he had to meditate on the ramification of his actions in order to “feel” them, then it seemed unlikely that he had burst into tears. Bursting into tears is something one does when suddenly overcome by an uncontrollable wave of emotion. I realized then that he was probably lying about his reaction to hearing his victims’ parents speak. If he had cried spontaneously, he had cried for himself because he realized that other people had been moved by the parents’ testimony and that he was royally fucked. *** When Remnick was writing about the fall of the Soviet Union, he went to the mass murderer’s apartment and knocked on his door. He went often. Some days, he could hear rustling inside. Kaganovich was right there on the other side of the door, as were his books and his entire life, waiting to be probed, if only he would let Remnick in. But no one ever answered. Remnick kept knocking. After speaking with Arnold, I realized Remnick’s knocking was hopeful. Asking why presumes there is an answer. Arnold sent me one last letter imploring me to send him books, lamenting his debt, and telling me how improved he is. Reading through the letter, I felt a spontaneous shudder. I didn’t even want to touch the paper, as though it was infected with some pathogen that might leech decency and wellbeing from my life. I folded it up and put it in a file that I keep in the back of my closet. I never responded. I never spoke to Arnold again.
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
My Grandmother’s Survival

Like so many German Jews, my Nana’s family was late to leave the country when Hitler came to power. They thought antisemitism was a relic of the past. 

My grandmother and I are in a small train car rattling towards the center of Brussels. It’s like something out of an Agatha Christie novel, but an unglamorous version set in the 1970s. Six booths line the walls, with an aisle just barely wide enough to pass in the middle. Everything in the car—the wallpaper, the ceiling, the worn upholstery on the seats—is yellow and brown. All but the door, which is silver, and marked with graffiti: “RIP N.” We’re leaving the Brussels airport. The people in our carriage are carrying big suitcases, appearing at once paranoid and vulnerable. Nana and I sit across the aisle from each other, too tired to talk after our twelve-hour trip from New York. The thin man facing her in the booth has a grey goatee and a downturned mouth. He seems to be ignoring us. My first grumpy European, I think. “How many stops until our station?” Nana asks me. “I don’t know,” I say. “I figure we’ll just get off when it comes.” The guy with the goatee speaks up. “He’s an easygoing fellow,” he says to my grandmother, gesturing at me. His accent is not European at all, but Midwestern. I immediately turn to inspect the graffiti on the door, then the passing cityscape of Brussels—short, tightly packed row houses with misshapen antennae on their roofs, the entire scene tinged grey by the overcast morning. Turning away is a reflex I’ve spent years honing. When I was nineteen, I chose to put up with an hour of “magic tricks” from a “magician” seated next to me on a flight to Las Vegas rather than disabuse him of the notion that I was a twelve-year-old boy. Now, when people misread me I try to avoid further contact, hoping—usually in vain—to avoid the moment when they realize their mistake and I have to coddle them through their embarrassment. “I’m so sorry, it’s just the short hair, and—” “It’s okay.” “You know, I normally wear glasses—” “It’s really okay.” I don’t think my grandmother notices the goatee man’s gender error. But she does seem to have picked up on something she doesn’t like, because she nods dismissively at him. “Are you from here?” he asks. He has heard her accent. “Yes,” she says. I watch him closely now, as though a glare from the fourteen-year-old grandson character I’m playing would intimidate a Midwestern busybody like this guy. Still. I focus on his goatee. In my head, I dare him to keep going. “So, do you think in English or in French?” he says. My grandmother shakes her head. I see him begin to repeat the question, and I can tell he thinks she hasn’t heard, or doesn’t understand. Of course, I know she understands. She’s just shaking her head because it’s a polite way to avoid a question she doesn’t like. “Do you think in English or in French?” he says again. She laughs, only enough to be polite, and says: “I don’t know. I guess it depends.” He begins to prattle on about the train, his trip, what he’s heard about each of the stations. He doesn’t know that neither English nor French was her first language. That I’m a twenty-seven-year-old queer adult, not a fourteen-year-old boy. I catch Nana staring out the window at Brussels as he talks. I wonder if she’s remembering how it looked when she left. * Ever since I was little, Nana has been my champion. When I was five years old and wanted to wear boys’ clothes, she bought me the coolest pair of BOSS black jeans that I had ever seen. When I was ten and battling the tandem loneliness of queerness and nerdiness, she whisked me off to her apartment every Wednesday afternoon. There, I made myself two-inch-thick peanut butter sandwiches and told her about the writer I wanted to be, and the world outside of her safe Brooklyn kitchen fell away. On the day I turned twenty-seven, I woke up to an email: “IT’S MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY.” The official occasion for our trip to Belgium is an art exhibit; Nana is writing a book about the art looted by the Nazis, and there’s a show in Liège she wants to see. For me, though, the exhibit is just an excuse. What I really want is to visit the place where she spent her teenage years—with her by my side. Nana wasn’t born in Belgium; she grew up in Hanover, Germany, the oldest child in a secular Jewish family. Like so many German Jews, they were late to leave the country when Hitler came to power. My great-grandfather and all of his brothers had served in World War I. They were German in every way, from the Christmas trees they decorated every December to their names, straight out of a German textbook: Otto, Ludwig, Hugo, Anton. They thought antisemitism was a relic of the past in their homeland; they thought they were safe. When they were eventually forced to flee, my grandmother, thirteen, settled in Brussels with her sister and their parents. Then the Nazis invaded Belgium. My great-grandfather was arrested and sent to a camp in southern France. They would not see him again for six years. When my great-grandmother finally got a letter ordering her and her two daughters to report to a camp, they went into hiding—separately. Nana’s story of hiding from the Nazis has always been a fact of my life; from the time I was little, I could recite it as easily as my family’s address, or my father’s middle name. Up until this point, though, the details have existed only in my imagination. The gymnasium where they took her father when he was arrested; the municipal building where she was given the yellow star to sew onto her clothes; the secret studio apartment where she visited her mother once a week—all were constructed in my mind based on a few blurry black and white photos and my best attempts at visualization. This trip would change that: it was an opportunity to walk through Brussels with my grandmother as my guide, to ride the streetcar with her along the same route she once took home. Implicit in the preciousness of this experience was a plain truth: Nana had survived. She managed to stay alive under the nose of a regime that hunted her, and on her twenty-first birthday, she sailed away across the ocean to the shores of New York City, where she built an entirely new life with a man, my grandfather, who had staged his own escape. Seventy years later, we were making that journey in reverse, returning to the place where her life had been saved. I went to Brussels because I wanted to stand with Nana on the same sidewalk from which she’d watched the defeated Nazis retreat in 1944. I wanted her to show me, with her own pointed finger, the houses where she’d hid. I wanted us to look at them together, both of us free, standing outside. * Another train, days after the first one: this one from Brussels to Bruges. My grandmother and I are seated in first class by accident. We discover this when the conductor arrives, looks at my ticket, and frowns at me. “——— ——— ———,” he declares. I don’t know what he’s saying, but I can tell he wants something from me. In my fluster, I revert to English. “I'm sorry, I don't understand…” Recognition passes across the conductor's face. Not in a nice way. He straightens his back and fixes me with an unequivocal scowl. “Ah. I see,” he says in clear, loud English. “This is a first-class carriage. You have second-class seats. Either pay, or move." "Oh, I'm so sorry—" "Pay. Or move.” I'm already gathering my notebook, my pen, the things I had spread out across the little first-class table before I realized it was a first-class table. “Well, how much is it?” my grandma asks. I turn to the conductor. He’s still scowling. “How much would it be to stay?” He bows his head, complete with ridiculous conductor cap, punches some buttons on his hand-held ticket machine and announces the price—almost thirty euros. Nana laughs. “Let’s go.” When we enter the second-class carriage, it looks identical to the first-class carriage—except it’s almost entirely full. I follow Nana as she slides into an empty seat next to a couple. I sit across from her. Our neighbors, also seated across from each other, look like they’re in their seventies. They're Flemish, a fact that is immediately apparent to me even though I can't figure out why. The woman is wearing a raincoat in a safe shade of pink; the man, a driving cap, with an umbrella across his lap. They don't say a word to each other, but the way their faces flatten and the woman leans ever so slightly away from my grandmother make it very clear: they’re not happy to have company. I shrink into my seat, stare at the farmland rushing by, try to send reassurances to the couple that I will sit in quiet contemplation for the rest of the trip. My grandmother chats to me about poplar trees (they’re very rare in America), what we’ll eat for lunch (mussels might be nice), that funny conductor (thirty euros!). I respond only minimally, but then feel guilty—caught between the desire to be a good grandchild and the desire to escape the obvious disdain of the Flemish couple. There is no shortage of irony here. My grandmother and I have both been punished for difference in our lives. She is skilled at blending in, at adapting to her environment. She’s critical of America but she sees herself unequivocally as an American. And though she recognizes the challenges of assimilation, she is ultimately a proponent of it as a necessary strategy for survival. I’m not. I don’t believe in the mandate of assimilation—in fact, I have a strong aversion to it. Most of my politics are built around this idea: that people shouldn’t have to compromise their identities in order to demand respect, agency, access. I can wax political for days about the dangers of asking people to erase themselves. But on the train, when a buttoned-up Flemish couple can’t hide their offense at our presence, I want to disappear. And when I’m feeling embarrassed for daring to take up an unoccupied seat, when I want to be silent, when I want to be less visible, it is my grandmother who chooses to be unapologetic; to feel no shame; to sit comfortably and take up no more than the width of her seat, but no less, either. It is always this way. For all of my radical politics, I am the one who is much more concerned about what people think. I admire Nana. She has grit. I begin to chat with her in my full indoor voice, and at length. I see the Flemish woman in the pink raincoat squirming. When she and her husband stand and depart the train at Ghent, my grandmother leans across to me. “Well, they weren’t very happy, were they?” I laugh and shake my head. They probably heard her. But who cares. * On our last night in Brussels, we go to Yume. Yume is a restaurant on the moneyed Avenue de Tervuren, Brussels’ equivalent of Park Avenue. Built in 1938, it was originally a house—an enormous, Bauhaus-style villa inhabited by a wealthy Belgian family named Grosfils. One day in 1944, seeking shelter from the Nazis occupying Belgium, my seventeen-year-old grandmother had come to work for the Grosfils as a nanny. Her oldest charge had been a little boy, Jean-Pierre. It is Jean-Pierre, now in his seventies, who drives us to Yume. He helps my grandmother out of his Mercedes and offers her his arm as we approach the restaurant. It is impossibly huge, a white modern behemoth rising at the corner of the block with smooth lines, wide curves, and endless terraces. The staff at Yume seems simultaneously unsurprised and delighted when my grandmother tells them that she was hidden in this house seventy years ago. They encourage us to walk around the whole restaurant—“even the kitchen, wherever you like,” the maitre d’ urges—and to take our time. The second floor of the restaurant is occupied by a dimly lit dining room, its walls lined from end to end with windows. Nana leads the way across the room and, pointing, draws an invisible rectangle on a portion of the floor. “This was my room. I shared it with one of the children,” she says. “And—this was my window!” I step next to her and find myself staring out at the enormous Parc de Woluwe. It’s an elegant mass of trees and lawns, almost entirely doused in darkness except for the glowing streetlamps. I try to commit the sight to memory. I’m twenty-seven years old, standing next to my eighty-nine-year-old grandmother, and looking out at the same park that she saw every night in 1944. “I used to go across the street sometimes after the kids were asleep and ride my bike in the park,” she says. “It was wonderful.” Just before they went into hiding, Nana’s mother spanked her for the last time. She had lost her false papers: the ones that identified her as a non-Jew, the ones that she was supposed to carry around at all times in case an S.S. officer boarded the streetcar and inspected everyone’s identification. At seventeen, she was too big to be laid across a knee, so her mother bent her over the umbrella stand and spanked her while her sister watched, laughing at the absurdity of the scene. Nana had to have known she was in danger. Was that what she thought about as she looked out this window? Did she think about every birthday party that had been taken from her; about her father, who she hadn’t seen in years? Or did she simply count the streetlamps, trace the paths with her eyes, watch for two lovers in the shadow of a tree, plan her next bike ride? Months later, I will ask her if she was scared. “No,” she’ll tell me. “You can’t be scared for four years.” For now, though, I am standing in front of the big window with Nana, staring out at the park. I reach out to touch her arm. We are both, I am sure, looking at those paths, imagining my seventeen-year-old grandmother riding in big, swooping figure-eights along the perfectly smooth pavement. Alone, outside, unafraid.
The First Time I Cried on the Q

The human body is a work of splendor and misery. 

In my family, you don’t cry in public. It’s an act devoid of grace. When I was a little girl, my parents told me that crying, while not necessarily for the weak, is most definitely for the categorically dramatic. Tears, they informed me, should be private. If you really had to cry, for God’s sake, take it to the bathroom and make sure that when you returned, you didn't look like a heap of histrionics. For me, this required mastering geometry and gravity. Geometrically speaking, I would clean my tears with the sharpest triangular point of a neatly folded tissue. The slightest daub of pressure would quickly remove any inkling of human emotion. Because tears, like all else on this damned earth, follow the law of gravitational force, it's impossible to make them run upward—which meant standing very still, head thrown back as if possessed, unblinking, making sure the tears retreated into my ducts. So you can imagine my conundrum when, after days of consecutive defeats, I needed to bawl, in the open, on a New York subway train. * Why is crying in public so bad? Why shame an act that makes people feel better after the elimination of stress-related hormones? Among other sociological developments, our 21st-century criticism of public crying has its anchor in the British “stiff upper lip” ideology. But even before that, public crying was a source of contention. In 1586, Timothie Bright's Treatise of Melancholie explained tears as "a kinde of excrement not much unlike" urine. Psychotherapist Susan Hepburn explains that crying in public communicates weakness and is perceived to be a site ripe for exploitation because it is assumed that the crying person has lost power and respect. In a deeply hierarchical society where vulnerability is understood as a lack of fortitude, it makes sense that something so human is rigorously criticized.  But on its own, sans social inspection, the lachrymal system is fascinating. It produces three kinds of tears: basal, reflexive and psychic. Basal tears are those that keep the eye lubricated and fix any irregularities in the cornea. Reflexive tears respond to external irritants like an eyelash swimming on your eyelid. And then there are psychic tears, the tears produced by the lachrymal system in response to states of heightened emotion—joy, fear, rage, sorrow. And orgasms. There are also disorders related to crying. There's baby colic, when a child just cries for no clear reason. There's cri du chat, when crying sounds like a yowling cat because of an irregularity with the nervous system and larynx. Then there's a side effect of Bell's Palsy in which the person cries while eating due to issues with the facial nerves. The human body is a work of splendor and misery. * Which brings us to that day on the train. I got into work at 9 a.m. By 11 a.m., I'd been laid off. The job was not spiritually fulfilling. (What job—apart from walking dogs—in our soul-depleting neoliberal society actually is?) It was in the tech world, where “rationale” is code for lack of empathy and everything you do or say can be commodified. It paid the bills, but it drained me. Still, getting laid off was frustrating, because a job search means having your morale crushed on a daily basis under the boulder-heavy weight of bureaucratic language, arbitrary criteria and constant rejection. If economic precarity is frustrating, despair born out of romance can uproot your sense of calm. My boyfriend and I had been arguing for a while. Our fights were petty, repetitive, exhausting and rooted somewhere in unresolved childhood melancholy. To make matters exponentially worse, Donald Trump had just won the election. Being a minority—Muslim, brown, woman and working-class—made his victory exceptionally offensive. I like to explain the viciousness of all those events colliding at once by drawing a parallel with Amanda Nunes and Ronda Rousey at the UFC 207. In front of 18,533 spectators, Rousey's night came to a grisly end when Nunes delivered twenty-seven godly strikes to her face in 48 seconds. In less than a minute, the queen of MMA had been dethroned. There's a photo of Nunes (whom I love) holding her arm out toward a thoroughly destroyed Rousey (whom I also love). "Look at her," Nunes’s body language demands, "look at what I've done to her." That day, life was Nunes. I was Rousey. It was a sunny autumn noon. Everything—the joblessness, the lovelessness and the rise of a demagogue—made it hard for me to breathe. I was standing on the yellow platform for the Q train on Canal Street. The train arrived and I stepped into a car with several people inside. I sat in the stark middle seat and cried, with my hands in my lap. I didn't care if anyone saw me. Like any story set in New York City, there was the inevitable stranger with a few gems of wisdom to throw my way. “You out here crying like ya lost ya damn baby,” he observed.  "Kinda did," I said. This softened him. "Damn. I got an old paper towel on me. You need it? I got a bagel too; I 'on't need it." I politely declined. A young girl came up to me and asked if I was lost or hurt. I was both, so I said neither. In New York City, kindness happens in glimpses.  * There was catharsis in abandoning the tradition of no-tears-in-public and just letting go. There was humor in sitting there in an ugly hoodie that shouted "IT'S LIT," sweatpants, dishevelled hair, smudged eyeliner, snot threatening to leave my nose, sniffling loud enough to wake a fellow commuter. There was pity, of course, over the loss of employment and not being understood in love and having a puffed-up egomaniac for a president. But there was something beautiful, too. Instead of folding into myself, I felt no shame for my weeping, but rather a kind of gratitude for the degree to which I felt everything that was happening. If I feel this much, I thought to myself, it means I am alive. If I am alive, I still have a chance. I thanked the Q for accommodating my heap of woes for $2.75. I thanked the stranger for his gestures of magnanimity. I thanked the girl for her gentle and thoughtful concern. Above all, I thanked the city for teaching me that sometimes the best catharsis comes from sitting on a train, hands in your lap, weeping like a child.
My First Baseball Game

Finding myself in a sport that always felt connected to my father’s rage and regret.

In 2013, I went to see a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game with my older sister, Meghan. We walked to the stadium, past people selling knock-off double-entendre T-shirts reading I Heart BJs next to the hot-dog carts for maximum effect, and people buying both with great intensity. Lines snaked around the thick, concrete building; a sea of electric blue and white with bold numbers and names I didn’t recognize. After getting in, as we walked up the sloped ramp to our seats, I remarked to Meghan about the enormity of the SkyDome—the stadium built at the end of the ’80s. Suddenly, I heard someone shout at me for calling it the SkyDome. “It’s the Rogers Centre,” they emphasized self-importantly, brandishing the corporate name adopted in 2005. Then, someone else bellowed back that it will always be the SkyDome. That small quarrel echoed around the expansive path to our seats. To me, back then, the stadium was just an enormous circle that existed in downtown Toronto, home to expensive beer and food, so call it whatever you like, I don’t care. But serious baseball fans (or corporate supporters) are prickly about that sort of thing. It was my first time watching the Jays face off against the New York Yankees. It was a late August day and the dome was wide open, so you could see the cotton candy pink clouds against sapphire blue. Jose Bautista was injured, I remember being disappointed about not being able to see him play. We sat in the lower section, close enough to shortstop Alex Rodriguez that I was convinced we made eye contact. I drank warm Alexander Keith’s beer, Meghan ate Twizzlers, delicately peeling them apart as we laughed and talked and I heckled. She tried to explain certain rules and plays to me, taking care and comfort in my curiosity about a game that had always existed around me but I was never really invested in. But this wasn’t the first major league game I’d ever been to. That one, I’ve spent years trying to forget. * There were two rules in my house growing up: never set the microwave on fire (a rule my sister broke twice) and never talk shit about the Toronto Blue Jays. Growing up in the 1990s in Kitchener in southwestern Ontario, my experience with the Jays resembled a lot of other kids’. The team’s World Series wins in 1992 and 1993 were monumental; they placed Canada on what we viewed as the world map. My memory of the 1992 win, when I was almost four years old, is hazy. But how much it meant to my father is what I carry most. I remember watching Joe Carter’s home run the year after but, more than that, I remember how often my father did an impression of it in our backyard. My father is the central figure here, revered in my house the way the Toronto Blue Jays were revered as gods. He is the reason baseball loomed over us. In our basement, he had a shrine to the Jays’ two World Series wins: their team photos placed on a wood mantle he had built; the pennants affixed to the wall next to it. It was the first thing you saw when you walked down there and the last thing on your way back up. He did this, I suppose, as a way to pay a religious sort of tribute to his team, to his sport, the way our Catholic relatives paid their respects to photos of Jesus on the way up and down their own stairs. Our religion was Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar. I don’t have a relationship with my father now. Even when I was a kid, he was always out of reach, always at a distance. We haven’t spoken in almost eleven years. I very much doubt that we’ll ever speak again. * Once, in a heated conversation with my mom, my father told her he wished he had two sons instead of two daughters. My father, once charismatic and witty, the traits I’ve identified I received from him, was, and maybe still is, a deeply angry alcoholic and an addict; a man who used to do lines of cocaine off the dresser in my room or the top of the refrigerator and smash empty bottles of Molson Canadian at my mom’s feet during their weekly fights. After decades of emotional and psychological abuse, my mom kicked him out when I was twelve. The day after their twenty-year anniversary, he was escorted from our house by police. They officially separated. He lingered in my life when I was a teenager, often to share his side of whatever story he wanted to tell, which mostly involved the reasons why my mom was wrong and he, a man who had gone through so much in his life, should not be portrayed as a villain. He was physically and sexually assaulted as a child, he told me, in great, descriptive detail. This was the reason, at least to him, he could “get away” with what he had done in his life, which, to put it succinctly, was a lot of bad shit. There are men up and down Highway 401 who have been subjected to his physical cruelty; his cavalier way of doling out drugs for profit to people he thought of as weak. My father believed he owed no one anything but was owed so much more by the world.  His legacy to me, though, is of never wanting my sister or me, of never loving us. He didn’t directly say “I don’t love you,” but his actions told us that in the absence of words. This was confusing for many years, particularly for me, because my father did attempt to be present in my life, taking me out on weekends for breakfast to a greasy diner near the gravel pit where he worked. The looks of fondness, of what I thought was pride, faded from his face as I got older, and eventually they were replaced with panic, a last-chance grasp to hold onto me as a way to hold onto my mother. An abuser like him will try every avenue to regain control. This warped sense of what loving looked like disintegrated our relationship. He tried to convince me of his own humanity, and I thought that, perhaps there, I would find peace. But he could never be the father I needed him to be. “The past is in the past,” he would say to me, frantic almost, as though he were selling something. “You have to forgive or it’ll kill you."  My father was an exhausting person. I have three photos of him. In the summer of 2014, my mom packed up every photo she had of my father into a worn-looking shoebox. It was her own personal purge of the man who had dictated the first half of her adult life. By then, it had been seven years since I’d seen him. I went through the photos, with a curiosity verging on masochism. I wasn’t drawn to the pictures of him holding a tinier version of me, his shaggy brown beard resting atop my blonde wisps. Rather, I pulled out the ones of him as a child: two of him, alone, as an infant in his baptism gown and his only grade school photo, where he smirks the same way I do now. I kept them, I think, to remember him not as the person who would yell at me in drunken rages but as someone who was once untouched by the world and hadn’t been treated badly by the people in it. It feels compassionate to remember him like that, whether or not he deserves it.  But the photograph I always recall is long since gone. When I think of him as an adult, as my father, I remember him when he got a baseball to the face when I was six years old. His eye became an incredible impression of an eggplant. The skin around his fused-shut eyelid was royal purple; piss yellow rimmed the edges, bleeding into the red that marked his cheekbones. Briefly incapacitated by the thing he loves most. He’s smiling at the camera because that’s the kind of person my father was: playfully smug in the midst of destruction. The love and dedication he gave to baseball is what I remember most about him—both how joyous it was to him, and what it represented, intrinsically, to attach his life to a sport. He spent weekends playing baseball with his friends, drinking beers in between innings. He played in a regional league. He tried to conceive of a way that baseball could function as a gang and identity for him—a way to puff out his chest, show off his success, that he wasn’t ordinary. He had dreams of being in the major leagues. My childhood is marked by the lengthy discussions we’d have about how good and perfect he’d be for the majors, even though he was thirty years old when I was born. He had a deluded belief that, one day, he could be placed on someone else’s baseball shrine, too, and become something more than what he was. * He took us to my first major league game when I was ten years old, in 1999. Meghan was sincerely excited; my mom and I tagged along because this is what a family is supposed to do. These outings always failed before, like when we went to the Royal Ontario Museum and my parents screamed at each other in front of the mummies. Toronto is an hour drive east from Kitchener and, even though it is a routine, boring journey to me now as an adult, it was special then: watching the stretch of grey concrete disappear below us as we went farther and farther from the sameness of my suburban neighbourhood toward the metropolitan horizon. There is an overwhelming pulse of electricity when you’re not a city kid but you get to be in the city. I grew up poor and the entire journey from doorstep to an iconic Toronto landmark was a privilege—an expectation of good, which was why disappointment could feel heavy. Everything had to be done on my father’s schedule. It was a grey day and I wore my blue and purple windbreaker. We circled the Rogers Centre, when it was still called the SkyDome, and I ate a hot dog from a cart outside because we were, as out-of-towners usually are, painfully early. I chased some pigeons off the steps, looked up at the CN Tower with awe, promising myself to never go up there. I remember my mom going through the motions of her designated role that day: collecting us, making sure my father had the tickets, trying to smile. I didn’t know yet how painful their relationship was. The Jays were playing the Seattle Mariners, and Meghan and I called out to a then young Alex Rodriguez on the field. She, a teenager, and I, a pre-teen idiot, found comfort in learning the language of desire and catapulting it onto the men who ran across the field, watching them stretch on the bright green grass. The stadium is an all-consuming space. I sat, not paying attention, staring at the sky and then down at the seats that marked the colossal rotunda. I felt small and then smaller still as I heard my father grumble that we were losing. It all seemed like fairly ordinary fun to me: men walked onto the field, they walked off during a strike-out, music played between the innings, people swept the dirt between the bases. I leaned on the bars in front of me, watching my sister watch the game, then looked to my mother with her hand on her face, and, lastly, to my father, who shifted around in his seat, sighing and groaning. It didn’t occur to me then that we weren’t having a good time, that we weren’t doing our duties of performing a family unit well. I ate some popcorn and cooed at my sister every time she saw Shawn Green. By the seventh inning, we were down 3-0. Suddenly, gruffly, my father pulled us up and out of our second deck seats, popcorn littered on the cement beneath us, and said there was no point in supporting losers. This day, he told us, was a waste of time. Watching my father yell at my mother and at us as we walked down the winding concrete slope toward the street level exit, I finally glimpsed the fracture of their relationship, of the family we tried to be but never were. He was disappointed in us more than the baseball team because we were right there, not in the dugout. We were targets he could thrust his anger on and I felt it; my face was hot, unsure then how he could be that angry. What had we done to him? All I could do was stare down at the grey cement while we walked away from the game. We weren’t one as a family unit. We never could be. Ultimately, when I think about my dad and baseball, the sport and my childhood experiences of it are a painful illumination of all the ways he failed as a father and person. My father believed he was meant for something more. More than my mom, more than my sister and me, more than the drugs and beer he consumed near-nightly to cope with being a regular man, not an extraordinary one. He did fail that day. He failed at being a responsible, caring parent, a person, and instead showed how deeply selfish and broken he was. He failed at loving us; at trying to fix himself for us. That day, I decided to shut baseball out of my life. The Blue Jays sucked for some time after that. I grew up and away from not only that moment but many moments involving my father and sports. It was one of the first steps in my eventual decision to completely remove my father from my life, too. I distanced myself, something I’m quite good at, from the sport—sports in general—adopting a persona that, on purpose, used the Internet slang of “sprots” to indicate how removed I was from athletics. I joked at the expense of myself about not knowing the rules or what the game meant at all, which, more than anything, chipped away at my own perception and worth in conversation with almost anyone. It was how I coped.  * Meghan, who hasn’t spoken to my father in almost twenty years, has a different relationship with the sport. She leaned into it. She kept up with the waning Blue Jays, dedicated almost, and always felt a sense of optimism on the horizon for them, and perhaps for us. Meghan’s relationship to my father is different from mine, too. When Meghan was eighteen months old, my father tried to kill my mother. He threw his baby daughter onto the bed and tried to strangle his wife. Later that night, he pointed a gun at our mother as she tried to escape him with my sister. For years, Meghan had fragmented dreams about the incident, not knowing what it meant. And now, my father simply does not exist to her because he can’t. To her, forgiveness is not an option. She’s able to compartmentalize her memories with remarkable precision; constantly moving forward. For me, any reminder of my father or what he liked stings me like a wasp. My father used me. He attempted to build a false relationship with me so he could get back together with my mom, whom he obsessively tried to control. The realization that he didn’t sincerely care about me or my life broke me. I engage with these memories as though they happened yesterday. Moving through spaces with this hyper-awareness is disastrous at times. It is uncomfortable to feel small, to make myself feel small, at the mere thought of my father, when he hasn’t earned the right to be part of my life at all—memory or real, fleshly form. I will, I believe, live so much of my life without him that those years at the beginning will eventually blur, won’t matter as much. Sometime in 2013, Meghan and I decided, finally, after years of stepping around the topic, to go to a baseball game on our own. When we were in the stadium, I could sense my father’s presence at first. But he’s never met me as a grown-up. My father’s figurative ghost drifted away before the seventh inning stretch, floating off toward the condos and the highway. What my sister and I found together in the Rogers Centre that day was joy, not pain; a new experience that wasn’t his and became entirely our own. The Blue Jays lost but, this time, that didn’t matter. There was no expectation of perfection; there were no expectations period. They didn’t have to look or perform a certain way; they just had to try. Which, perhaps, is what my father couldn’t do. Expectations will ruin you. Meghan and I walked out of the Dome elated, eager to do it again. Since then, we’ve stood countless times, in the 100s section, in front of the rows of plastic blue seats, leaning against the barricade to watch the game or talking about the particular good or bad parts of our lives. We stood side-by-side screaming as we watched Josh Donaldson hit one of the final home runs during a 2015 playoff game against Kansas City. We send each other baseball-specific memes on Instagram or updates about players. Somehow, the Rogers Centre became a safe space to decompress emotionally for the both of us. This season, we watched the team evaporate from what it used to be, looking at a future dedicated to rebuilding.  I still have the ticket from that Blue Jays/Yankees game in my wallet; I transfer it over with the same urgency as my credit cards when I get a new one. I’ve told people this is the first major league game I went to, not the one in 1999 with my father. Because then, we went on his terms, for his ego. And now, this sport is no longer his sport, his interest. My sister and I made it ours.
Understanding the Stars

On the shared origins of two seemingly incongruent disciplines and the language we use to explain our place in the universe.

High on a parapet, a Babylonian official stalks back and forth. He’s just heard the first thunder of spring. Inside, the official’s colleagues rush to carve the event into clay tablets, which they’ll file deep into their archives. They’ll compare this thunder with that of past seasons and their accompanying harvests, prognosticating the year to come.  No linear time exists without the furious work of these individuals, at once analysts, civil servants, and prophets. With no iPhone or universal clock, there’s no room for mistakes. Tasked with creating and maintaining a calendar, the regularity of commerce, state affairs, and religious holidays depend on their correct calculations. After all, without a set timetable, rent goes unpaid and holy days, ignored. Their accuracy ensures that all societal obligations, both practical and spiritual, are met. What do we, in the modern age, name these ancient calendar makers? Some might call them astronomers. Indeed, the majority of their work was centered on measurable, predictable astronomical events. Others, still, might call them astrologers. “Astrologer” is a loaded term in the twenty-first century. It conjures up images of television psychics, with crystal balls and toll-free lines, or your favorite hippie friend who won’t stop reading their horoscope. The gravity of the Babylonian calendar maker’s work is notably absent. To scientists, the stubborn fixation on a practice that can’t be empirically proven defies reason. To astrologers, science without a spiritual philosophy on which to hang it is empty. The collective ignorance of the common thread between astronomy and astrology has, at times, threatened to unravel the entire tapestry. Neither wishes to be associated with the other, and as such, the work of the Babylonian timekeeper is obscured by their feud. What the ancient timekeepers and today’s scientists share is that both forms of practice center on the study of what can be seen with the naked eye. Of course, what we can see now with the assistance of ever more complex technology is a far cry from what the Babylonian timekeepers were viewing. It’s natural, then, that as we’ve probed farther and farther into the vast reaches of our unknowable universe, our understanding of the stars would change. * The slow drift away from the philosophical side of astronomical study isn’t new. By the Hellenistic Roman era, people had expanded their worldview to include the advancement of astronomy. By the fourth century, Hellenistic cosmology had shifted from a three-tier hierarchy of the heavens, the earth, and the underworld, to Earth as a sphere suspended in space alongside the other seven visible planets. Traditional local deities shrank in comparison to the empire’s growing understanding of heavenly mechanics. So, people sought a more cosmopolitan explanation—or cure-all—for their problems.  Perhaps that’s where the debate really began. Some insisted on upholding the old way of stargazing—which included the interpretation of both stellar events, like eclipses, and meteorological phenomena, like storms, as omens—while others found it difficult to reconcile new scientific discoveries with their religious practices. Others still found a sense of comfort in using cosmic information to explain the banalities of day-to-day life. Someone’s looks, personality, marriage prospects, future wealth, and more could be explained by creating a horoskopos, or star chart, tailored to a specific individual’s needs.  The blending of astrology, science, and religion produced a sort of science fiction that was practiced by nearly everyone for centuries to follow, from the lowliest farmers to the highest-ranking officials. In particular, governments looked to astrologers to provide auspicious dates for important battles and inaugurations (hence “augur” in the spelling). Because astrology was believed to be such a prized weapon among society’s elites, over time common people were banned from its practice. The most obvious example of this trend is in the Catholic Church, where astrology was publicly condemned, but top clergy continued its practice. While a few outliers, such as Thomas Aquinas, permitted the observation of the stars in relation to harvests, rains, and “other things coming forth from the heavens,” a host of other saints decried its popular use as a divinatory tool as evil. Saint Augustine famously said that astrology “should be expelled from all Christian nations,” but popes still employed it behind sanctuary doors. Pope Julian used it to choose his coronation day, Pope John Paul II used it to form a council that would be favorable to his wishes, and Pope Leo founded a “chair of astrology” within the University of Rome. There seems to be no clear line of demarcation between when astrology was accepted and when it fell out of favor. What we know is that astrology was part of the academic canon in the early Renaissance, and by the end, it had been quietly banished to the realm of spiritual study. This could have happened for a multitude of reasons, but two are most likely: the advent of Protestant Christianity and the rapid advancement of scientific discovery. With the entry of these challengers onto the cosmic stage, astrology as harbinger of fate was pushed aside and, eventually, faded into an incense-heavy cloud of obscurity. Views on star study changed rapidly during the Protestant Reformation, since astrology was seen as a largely Catholic pursuit. Popes were known to be well versed in astrology and supposedly used it to influence international affairs, a practice viewed as deeply corrupt by the nascent movement—though Catholics in power at the time were also suspicious of astrology’s use in foreign affairs, and generally condemned the practice. In particular, Mary Queen of Scots was conveniently selective in her views on astrology. As a Catholic, her position would have been more lenient than those of the Protestants she opposed, but that didn’t stop her from imprisoning the famous statesman and navigator John Dee for casting a horoscope to discern the length her reign—one that would ultimately assist her sister Elizabeth I in ascending the English throne. The conflation of astrology with this kind of political double-dealing would eventually spell its demise as a publicly accepted practice. On the scientific front, Copernicus’s revelation that the sun, and not the Earth, was at the center of the known universe threw the existing view of the stars—and astrology—into sharp contrast. As telescopes and, later, satellites began to probe the infinite cosmos, the limits of prediction based only on our solar system cast doubt on belief in its metaphysical influence. If there are millions beyond millions of stars in the sky, why do we ascribe so much power to an arbitrary few? More recently, some proponents of astrology have tried to use Einstein’s general theory of relativity or the idea of quantum entanglement to grasp at a scientific explanation of its inner workings, but by empirical standards, they still come up short. Yet astrologers continue to innovate in their craft, developing new meanings for the latest discoveries and incorporating them into their work, crafting detailed interpretations for planets far beyond what early astrologers would have seen with the naked eye. Despite conflicts, what has persisted in both disciplines is a desire to distinguish between charlatans and those with a legitimate claim to practice. Even into the present day, there’s a sense that some astrologers engender more trust than others, though it’s difficult to place exactly why. The reason lies buried in ancient Greek mystery traditions, which required initiates to undergo various dramatic rituals before the secrets of the cult were fully revealed to them. The Greeks took these teachings seriously—so seriously, in fact, that the punishment for defecting could be death. The most well-known (and closely guarded) of the Greek mystery religions was that of Eleusis. While the teachings didn’t involve astrology per se, its central myth revolved around the harvest goddess, Demeter, and the passing of the seasons. Acceptance into the Eleusinian mysteries was desirable and respected, so much so that itinerant diviners who claimed to offer private initiation at a high price popped up throughout the Greek world. They were such a widespread nuisance that Plato (himself an initiate) addressed them in his Republic, complaining of their fraudulent tactics and “babble of books” in great detail.  Of course, the answer to this problem—like most things relating to star study—is a complicated one. In his book Mystery Cults of the Ancient World, Hugh Bowden explains that the more-than-occasionally unscrupulous private initiators “were at least as often serious thinkers who saw no difference combining an interest in religion with science.” It’s not too far off from modern astrologers, who find ways to reconcile scientific advancement with ancient belief systems.  *  At times, it seems illogical that astrology has continued to exist alongside centuries of scientific development. However, Roger Beck, author of A Brief History of Ancient Astrology and an Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto, posits that astrology’s greatest strength exists in it being a common language between cultures and throughout centuries. He calls the complex jargon of horoscopes “star-talk.” Hop into a Twitter conversation with twenty-first century witches and you’ll see it’s alive and well. “A natural language is a code," Beck explains, "but a public one, with rules and conventions familiar to all its users, in which meaning is expressed and communicated by signs which themselves have agreed and stable meanings.” This is the way astrology really works: as a coded language in which people who seek a higher purpose can communicate. If someone says, “My sun is in Scorpio,” some of us know, culturally, what that means. A single word evokes a laundry list of possible descriptors. The ancients understood astrology’s symbolic potential too. Consider the Mithraeum, the sanctuary of the cult of Mithras, another of the mystery traditions. It’s decorated from floor to ceiling in depictions of the zodiac signs. Historians believe this was to aid initiates’ understanding of the esoteric ritual in which they participated. Not all initiates would have understood the arcane elements of the ceremony, but the meaning of the decorations would have been evident to anyone who knew about astrology.  Even into the Middle Ages and Renaissance, alchemists used astrological symbols to code the privileged and potentially dangerous information contained in their grimoires. Approaching astrology as a language may be an easy to digest explanation for its persistence, but what of its continued use as a predictor of future events? With horoscopes so readily available, it’s hard to deny astrology’s tenacity. Still, the two threads of star study are more frayed than ever, as astronomy and astrology clash again over reports of a “new zodiac sign” from NASA. The explanation for the new zodiac sign is relatively simple, though hard to come by. NASA uses what’s called the “sidereal zodiac,” based on the exact position of the stars in the sky, while Western astrologers use the “tropical zodiac,” based on the Earth’s location in relation to those stars. The sidereal zodiac contains a host of different constellations, but because the tropical zodiac is based on Earth, we’ll always have the same twelve signs.  While it’s desirable to think our horoscopes descend from an enlightened time when people were more in touch with their spirituality, it’s not so. In reality, the mystical work of the astrologer was at times mind-numbing, and the mundane work of the astronomer has led to mind-altering discoveries. There was no golden age during which astrology was deeply held and accepted as truth. There have always been skeptics and believers. But despite our differences, we gaze at the same stars.
‘If It Was Fiction It Would Be a Little on the Nose’: An Interview with Nicole Chung

The author of All You Can Ever Know on family secrets, nature versus nurture, and Kristi Yamaguchi.

Early into her memoir, All You Can Ever Know (Catapult), Nicole Chung writes about the little ritual she has when she visits her hometown, a small city about five hours from Portland. The moment she gets off the plane and steps into the one-room airport, she begins counting the number of people of colour she sees. She’s usually the only one. I do this too. When I go back to my hometown, about an hour and a half north of Toronto, I have the same habit. It’s not uncommon for me to be one of the few non-white people in a restaurant, clothing store or bar. (Unless I’m with my mom and brother, who are also Japanese, in which case the number of Asian people suddenly triples.) Throughout Chung’s beautifully written memoir, I found myself nodding along as I recognized parts of myself in her story. Not that my life story is very similar to Chung’s. Adopted when she was a baby by a white family in Oregon, Chung didn’t know any other Korean-Americans or adoptees growing up. All You Can Ever Know begins in Chung’s childhood, where she endured racist bullying and cruel and tactless questioning by classmates (“Where did they get you?” and “How much did you cost?”) and continues to her eventual search for her birth family and the aftermath of unearthing a family secret.  Although Chung is quick to point out she wrote the book with the intention of telling just her own adoption story—it by no means represents all adoption stories—she also understands why all types of readers are finding it so relatable. She notes how multiracial readers, like myself, have told her they’ve identified with the idea of existing between two different cultures, and how nearly every family has secrets or unspoken truths that are never discussed. It’s these universal themes of family, belonging and identity that make All You Can Ever Know such a compelling read. All You Can Ever Know is Chung’s first book-length project, but she’s been writing and editing other adoption stories at The Toast, where she was the managing editor, as well as at Catapult magazine, where she’s currently the editor in chief. She’s also written for The New York Times, GQ, BuzzFeed and here at Hazlitt. I spoke with Chung about when she realized she wanted to turn her search for her birth family into a memoir, having an honest relationship with her own children, the nature vs. nurture debate, and our shared love for figure skater and Asian-American icon Kristi Yamaguchi. Samantha Edwards: When did you start thinking about turning your story about searching for your birth family into a memoir? Nicole Chung: I’ve always written about my life, in the sense that I’ve kept a journal since the age of five. I was writing pretty much daily journal entries when I was pregnant and searching for my birth family. I knew I wanted to have a record to refer back to. I pictured just pulling it out and talking to my kids about it, saying, “This is what was happening while I was pregnant with you.” I was thinking of it as a personal origin story that I’d share with just family. I certainly wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to turn this into a book one day.” I didn’t really start writing about it publically until five or six years after I searched for my birth family, after I had my first child. At a certain point, it just felt like there was much more to the story that wasn’t coming across in a piece here and a piece there. I realized a book-length project would allow me to tell the whole story with all of the detail and nuance. What kind of reactions did you get from readers when you first started writing about your adoption?  It was a range. I heard from a lot of people who were interested in adoption whether it’s because they were adopted, they knew someone who was or they were thinking about adopting a child. Many people had a lot of positive and encouraging things to say and were thanking me for sharing my perspective because the adoptee perspective is historically underrepresented. Most adoption narratives tend to focus on adoptive parents, adoption professionals or people in the industry. There are a lot of conversations about this happening among people who are adopted or people who have adopted, but I don’t think the adoptive perspective has really entered the mainstream. That’s when I realized there’s more here, maybe I have more to say, maybe I can contribute more to the conversation than I thought. It was really enlightening to learn about the adoption process, especially about the concept of “search angels,” the intermediaries that reach out to birth families on behalf of adoptees. I liked how you said the term “search angel” called to mind “search-and-rescue volunteers” or “the patron saint of lost items,” when really, they’re a business or a service like anything else. It was challenging finding someone and trusting them with this very intimate business that was so important to me. I remember feeling kind of glad there was this extra layer, like a buffer, between me and my birth family and if they wanted to, they could tell the intermediary no and they wouldn’t have to say it directly to me. And then when you did meet your father and sister, Cindy, you had a lot of anxieties. Growing up, I remember thinking, maybe it was something about me that lead to my adoption. This fear I had of being unlovable, or not important enough for people to really want. I think to some degree, that feeling and insecurity has never fully gone away, enough though many people in my life have given me daily proof that they do love and value me. Even for my birth family, it was much more complicated. It wasn’t like they looked at me and decided, we don’t want you. It was a very complicated decision. I think that fear of abandonment carried over when I re-connected with my family again as an adult. I thought, “Well, obviously I’ll be more interested in them than they will be in me.” I think that’s where some of that anxiety came from and it wasn’t unfounded. It was based on my history. How do you cope with those feelings now? I don’t necessarily think about it as much now. I’ve been married for fifteen years and I have two wonderful kids. In a lot of ways, having a family of my own has been very healing. That’s not why I got married and not why we had children, but I think in a lot of ways, having a family of my own has been huge in terms of me feeling secure. There were so many coincidental happenings during your life at that time. Like the timing of different things—receiving an email from your birth father when you were in labour, and then getting a phone call from your birth mother when you were with your newborn daughter. I always found it fascinating how my family expanded overnight. It’s like the search and the pregnancy were on these parallel tracks at the same time. I got the first letter from my birth father when I was in labour. It is really strange and kind of poetic. If it was fiction, people would probably say, that’s a little on the nose. But of course this is how it happened. And when my mother called for the first time, my daughter had just spit up, as babies do, all over me and all over the bed. And in middle of this, that’s when the phone rings. I remember when I answered it, my husband was like, really? Why are you answering the phone now? I still can’t believe the timing of it all. While I was reading, I was thinking a lot about nature vs. nurture. Is that something you thought about when you were meeting your birth family? I was thinking about how your birth father, Cindy and you all have the same habit of drawing out letters with your fingers subconsciously. It’s so eerily specific it feels like you must’ve been born with that habit ingrained in you.  Sometimes I ask myself, what’s more important, nature or nurture? I’m more like my birth family members than I am my adopted family, but it’s just the way it worked out. I could have been adopted by people who are much more like me, and even if they were white, we could have had much more in common. I’m not sure how much of it is because of adoption or just the particular family that adopted me. As a kid, I felt like there were things my parents didn’t get about me, and things my wider adoptive family didn’t get about me or didn’t value. That said, when I met my birth family, It’s not like I was like, ‘You’re just like me!’, because they’re not. We’re also very different people. Meeting them has given me a little more perspective on who I am and the things that I care about, but it definitely didn’t answer every question I have about myself or the nature of belonging. Do you identify more with other adoptees or Korean-Americans? Growing up, I didn’t identify with anyone. I didn’t know anybody like me. I wasn’t close to any other Korean-Americans and I didn’t really know many other adoptees. I do really identify strongly with other adoptees, which is not to say our experiences are the same, every adoptee has their own story, but I do feel like there is a certain guard I let down, a deeper honesty I get to when I’m talking with people who share aspects of this experience. I felt like adoption isolated me, even more than race in certain respects, because no one else really understood the feelings I had about it, and nobody else really understood the question that haunted me. When I meet other adoptees, there’s a level of comfort knowing they fundamentally understand this thing about my life. I do really identify with other Asian-Americans and more broadly, I feel a certain comfort speaking with people of colour. I think there are things in the story that a lot people identify with, even if they’re not adopted or aren’t Asian-American, because of the bigger questions about family and belonging and lies. Everyone has had those questions they’ve asked and their parents don’t answer. Or everyone knows there are family members that you don’t talk about and you don’t know why. Do you feel like you have a greater desire to be more open with your kids because there were so many secrets and unknowns growing up? I think so. Within my adoptive family, there was so much love and compassion, but there were things we didn’t talk about. Some of the hardest things I went through as a kid, we didn’t discuss it at all. I think about some of the racist bullying that happened to me at school and how I didn’t feel like I could tell my parents, partly because they’re white, partly because I felt like I had to protect them, and partly because we just never talked about race or racism. It breaks my heart thinking about my kids going through something similar and me not knowing, so I have tried in a lot of ways to have this culture of openness. We just don’t wait for them to bring topics up, we’ll bring it up too so they know the burden is not just on them to break the silence. I do think that’s really important and there is no part of my story that I intend to hide from my kids. OK, this question is a bit off topic, but we need to talk about our shared love for [American figure skater] Kristi Yamaguchi. I loved her so much growing up. I was actually a competitive figure skater and I had a Kristi Yamaguchi PC game. Oh my god, Sam! I need that game! It was amazing! You could make routines for her and design her costumes. A couple years ago you wrote this beautiful essay about Kristi Yamaguchi in The New York Times and how powerful it was to see an Asian-American woman in the limelight. When you saw her on the cover of Newsweek, you wrote, “it was the first time you had been encouraged to think of as an Asian-American woman as beautiful.” I wrote that essay because I was talking with a friend of mine and we were reminiscing about early '90s figure skating and how Kristi Yamaguchi was a touchstone for Asian-American women of our generation. It was the first time many of us saw an Asian American woman being glorified on the international stage. It was huge for me. I’m still shocked and pleased to see Asian women on the cover of magazines or getting attention for things that they’ve done. But at the time, I can’t even overstate how revolutionary it felt in my life growing up in this place where I didn’t know other Asian people and I was getting pretty serious racist bullying at school for being Asian. It really felt like a lifeline. That was one of those pivotal moments when my perception of who I was and what was possible started to shift, not because I thought I’d be an Olympian. But I had dreams too and they seemed a little more possible, which sounds incredibly cheesy and earnest. I imagine some people got that same feeling seeing Constance Wu on the cover of so many magazines this summer. I know that sometimes people get tired of talking about representation, but it really does feel amazing seeing people who even kind of look like you on covers. I also understand the fatigue because it puts a lot of pressure on artists when they’re one of the few that people are looking at. I imagine it’s a great deal of pressure for them to be asked about it over and over again, because they’re just trying to make art or do what they love. But I’ve found it incredibly encouraging and powerful to see. I remember interviewing Constance Wu for The New York Times when she was the breakout star from Fresh Off the Boat. It’s been so amazing to see her star rise and be inspired by how she’s become such a strong advocate for Asian American stories and our artists. It’s been wonderful seeing the attention she’s continued to get. I think it’ll be powerful as long as it’s a little bit rare. Hopefully one day we won’t notice or talk about it quite so much because it’ll be commonplace. For right now though, it’s still very exciting.
Out of the Dark

Despite decades of contributions to psychedelic science, women have long been marginalized in the field. That’s starting to change. 

The shepherd of psychedelic mushroom research was a woman. She wasn’t the first to harness their medicinal power or, in the word of the casual western psilocybin enthusiast, their “magic.” But she was the first to share their secrets with the west. Before hippies, before Tim Leary advised his disciples to turn on, tune in and drop out, and before a photo essay titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” appeared in 1957’s Life magazine, there was María Sabina.  A Mazatec curandera, a shaman, Sabina lived in a secluded mountain village in Oaxaca, and used the long-stemmed mushrooms that dotted her mountainside to heal the sick. Her work honored a centuries long relationship with psychedelic mushrooms that stretched back to the Aztecs and Mayas, as far as we know with certainty, and likely even further, based on interpretations from prehistoric cave paintings. Sabina had performed the velada mushroom ceremony for more than thirty years when an eccentric New York banking executive from JPMorgan named R. Gordon Wasson arrived at her mud hut’s door. It was 1955. Uneasy at first, the caretaker ultimately welcomed the peculiar foreigner: to watch, to partake, to seek the divine healing that her ancestors’ mushrooms could yield. Astonished by the mushroom’s power, Wasson returned to Mexico again, and again. Life published full page images of Sabina, her name changed to Eva Mendez in the magazine’s text, preparing the mushrooms, handing them to Wasson, and wrapping her arms around her son Aurelio, under the mushroom’s effect, as he lay on a mat on the floor. The article got the attention of Albert Hofmann. Wasson brought samples to Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first synthesized LSD in 1943. Hofmann isolated the active alkaloid, calling it psilocybin, for distribution by Sandoz Laboratories, and Tim Leary picked up the scent. The rest is psychedelic history. But Sabina’s name is often dropped from this narrative. “She is the reason we have psilocybin research right now,” says Katherine MacLean, a former research scientist who spent close to half a decade working with psilocybin. “But I don't hear many of the researchers paying appropriate respect and thanks to María Sabina. Every single time they speak, that name should be spoken.” Even now, as a renaissance of psychedelic research swells, she is all but forgotten. Forgotten too is the horrific fate she suffered for revealing the mushroom’s secrets to foreigners: Local government federales arrested and imprisoned her, burned her home to the ground, and murdered her son. She died destitute and alone.  *  Psychedelic science is a niche discipline with its origins in 1950s universities and 1960s counterculture. Above-ground psychedelic research re-opened in the early ‘90s, but the field remained small. Only the last fifteen years can be considered a true, burgeoning revival. Since 2002, the U.S. government has approved twenty-six clinical research studies exploring the physiological and therapeutic effects of psilocybin, MDMA, LSD and ayahuasca. Scientists in the field argue that psychedelics can be a boon for effective mental health treatment: for the critically ill and dying, for recovering alcoholics, for veterans suffering PTSD, for adults with autism hampered by social anxiety, and for many more. Read any article on psychedelic research published in recent years, and you’ll meet plenty of scientists triumphed as new revolutionaries. They are almost exclusively white and male. One of those men is my dad, Charles Grob, a child psychiatrist at Harbor-UCLA who has led and published studies on psilocybin, MDMA and ayahuasca since 1992. I grew up on the periphery of this semi-radical community, attending panels, lectures and seminars to support him. I’ve sat in venues—ballrooms inside sterile hotels, conference rooms inside fluorescent-lit hospitals, living rooms inside enterprising psychonauts’ bungalow-style homes, nestled into the hills of Laurel Canyon—and listened to white men speak about sacred plants and compounds for the better part of my thirty-one years. It wasn’t until I attended Psychedelic Science 2017, a massive meeting in Oakland that attracted over 2,500 psychedelic researchers and enthusiasts, that I had the opportunity to hear women in the field speak en masse. On the first day of the conference, I eagerly counted the number of women giving presentations: 48 of 119. This almost-parity shouldn’t be a shock: Women are not newcomers to the field. They’ve always been here, treating the same subjects as their male colleagues and co-authoring the same papers all along. Still, recognition and acclaim for their accomplishments has long been muted. Betty Eisner pioneered LSD treatment for alcoholism at UCLA in the 1950s alongside colleague Sidney Cohen. But The New York Times honored Cohen’s legacy with an obituary after his passing, while Eisner received no such honor after hers. Joan Halifax led research on LSD’s therapeutic role for the dying at famed retreat center Esalen in the 1970s alongside then-husband Stan Grof. Grof is considered a father of LSD research; Halifax’s involvement is something of a footnote. But something is changing. In 2017, women were not simply a growing faction within a growing movement—they were leading the charge, both increasingly as principal investigators on clinical studies, and as champions for social progress. And they’re refusing to be made invisible by their male colleagues, speaking out against inequity and lack of representation, and submitting study protocols in record numbers. * Many psychedelic studies today are conducted at university hospitals—Johns Hopkins, New York University, Purdue University, to name a few. “There's a strong component of sexism that's built into these conservative institutions,” says MacLean, who worked for four years as a lead researcher and session guide on The Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Research Project team. “You can imagine [the standards] might've been established by men who didn't have to take care of children.”   After watching a female colleague endure excessive bleeding triggered by returning to work one week after giving birth, MacLean chose to make a change. She left Hopkins and cofounded the Psychedelic Program at The Center for Optimal Living in New York. The program, which consists of a team of clinical psychologists and harm reduction specialists, focuses not on administering psychedelics in a research setting, but on integrating past psychedelic experiences in a therapeutic context.  “I was one of the only women researchers [in psychedelics],” she says of leaving the research world behind. “I felt like I was letting some of my female colleagues down.” Because the number of women in psychedelic research has been, until now, a minority, survival has hinged on mentorship and commiseration. “[They’ve] seen it all before,” says MacLean. Among her mentors, MacLean cites Mariavittoria Mangini, a nurse family practitioner and cofounder of the Women’s Visionary Congress. The WVC is a nonprofit open to all genders, but built as a platform for amplifying the voices of women in psychedelics. Its existence derived from necessity, says Mangini. She points to a 2006 psychedelics conference in Basel commemmorating the 100th birthday of Albert Hofmann, the chemist celebrated for first synthesizing LSD (and for identifying the active alkaloid in María Sabina’s magic mushrooms). Among 75 presenters, Mangini was one of five women invited to speak. WVC formed out of the ensuing outrage. “You have to take power,” says Mangini. “People don't give it to you.” Subtle sexism has long permeated not only academia, but also the psychedelic movement’s small corner of social history. “Women had a really subordinate place,” says Mangini of the ‘60s counterculture. She hung out at Millbrook during Tim Leary’s extended psychedelic residency, assisted psychedelic pioneers like Halifax and Grof at Esalen, and operated “freakout tents” at Grateful Dead shows, helping Deadheads come down from bad trips. Every step of the way, she says, she and women like her labored to make their voices heard. The standard makeup of cotherapy teams is another oft-articulated concern: Unofficial protocol from the ‘60s dictates that psychedelic research teams consist of a man and a woman. It’s no wonder, then, that counterculture sexism trickled into counterculture-inspired research, research conducted in conservative institutions like the one MacLean left. Mangini’s seen far too many women take a backseat to their male co-investigators when it comes to presentations and authorship order.  Despite the entrenched sexism that academia far too often embodies, and despite psychedelics’ lack of inoculation against it, Mangini is hopeful. “Women assume that they have a place at the table, and that their voices and their work are going to be regarded at par with the work of their male colleagues. So I feel like we've kind of won that battle.” * A historical lack of visible women is one part of what many in the field feel is the larger problem: Psychedelic research lacks diversity. One need only scan the lobby inside the Oakland Marriott during Psychedelic Science’s opening day buffet for proof of its overwhelming whiteness—not only of who’s running the show, but the vast majority of who’s watching it, too. This imbalance shouldn’t come as a surprise either. Psychedelic research bears a long history of whitewashing, reaching back to María Sabina’s erasure, if not further. “[White] women have been the first in the gate of inclusiveness,” says Janis Phelps, who’s worked to secure diversity scholarships to the psychedelic therapies and research program she oversees at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). “I feel a great charge from this particular kind of work to bear a pathway, and bring people of color, LGBTQ populations, gender fluid populations, indigenous peoples who need a voice at the table into the room.” Twice during the conference, LisaNa Macias Red Bear, a Native American mental health specialist and community educator, takes the microphone in the main ballroom. “What I want to say is that cultural appropriation [of plant medicines] is a form of re-traumatization to indigenous people,” she says during a Q&A, as reported by The New York Times (which did not include her name, describing her instead as “a woman with dark hair and dark sunglasses” who “identified herself as ‘an indigenous person’”). “I’m asking for everyone here to just be accountable for your own white privilege.” At a lunch with the nine-person clinical staff—of which eight are women—behind the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), perhaps the most public-facing psychedelic research nonprofit out there, clinical study associate Allison Wilens says,  “When we talk about progress, we should be talking about power…We should be talking about institutional access. [...] The more we can open the doorways for people of different backgrounds to be in the room, the stronger the work will be, and being able to maintain that is what will allow us to sustain progress.”  *  I met Katie Stone at WVC’s daylong workshop, led by Mangini, at the tail end of Psychedelic Science. By chance, we’re seated next to each other. And by observation, we’re among the younger women in the room, the audience for a small series of self-identified hippies telling the tales of their first trips. When I tell Stone that I’m writing a story on women in psychedelic research, her eyes widen. This, she says, I’ll want to hear.   A PhD candidate at CIIS and board member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Stone leapt to volunteer at the conference’s registration table. But when she spotted one of her research heroes and approached him to introduce herself, another man cut her off—then placed his hand on Stone’s stomach, and pushed her away. I talk to her again about the incident several months later. It’s stuck with her, but she’s gleaned a silver lining. “I thank him for that experience. I will never again step aside for a man.”
‘I’m Naturally Out of Sync with the World’: An Interview with Raziel Reid

The author of Kens on the power of satire, rituals of rejection, and imagining Christian Slater. 

In 2014, The Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language children’s literature was awarded to When Everything Feels Like The Movies, written by then relatively unknown author Raziel Reid. The book, narrated by gay teenager Jude Rothesay, was inspired by the life and murder of fifteen-year-old Larry Fobes King by a classmate in Oxnard, California, in 2008. Though the book received critical praise, its unflinching depictions of sexual exploration in the high school set led to immediate backlash from conservative pundits. “It is fair to say that Jude’s sexual yearnings [...] constitute the bulk of the narrative,” wrote Barbara Kay in the National Post under the headline “Wasted tax dollars on a values-void novel.” A similar column appeared in the Toronto Sun by Brian Lilley, who admitted to not having read the book, and Ottawa author Kathy Clark circulated a petition to strip the book of its award. The critics emphasized that such subject material was inappropriate in a children’s book, though Reid’s book was always marketed as young adult, meaning it is intended for teenagers. “These discussions never seem to extend to teen movies,” he tells me over the phone from Manitoba while visiting family (he lives in Vancouver). We had been talking about the adult books we read as teenagers, and how little would stop us from seeking out the stories we were interested in. High school movies, even (especially?) those that aren’t necessarily dealing with Big Serious Issues, have typically been allowed to be blasé in their depictions of sex. Reid had these movies in mind when writing his recent young adult novel, Kens (Penguin Teen). The influences are obvious; his book is to 1988’s Heathers what Clueless was to Jane Austen, taking loose inspiration from a classic story to recontextualize it for a new era. Willows High is ruled by leader Ken Hilton and his clique, Ken Roberts and Ken Carson, “created from the same mould, soul sold separately.” Shy Tommy Rawlins is offered what he believes is the shot of a lifetime when he is chosen to be given a makeover and made into the latest-edition Ken. While the sharp one-liners that made up When Everything Feels Like the Movies abound in his latest work, Reid trades in the gritty realism that Jude tried so desperately to escape in favour of a deeply artificial, deeply disturbing, deeply sparkly dream world. Kens is as frothy as it is heavy, and the already dark themes that underscored Heathers reaches a new gravitas in our current dystopia.   Anna Fitzpatrick: How long have you been living in Vancouver? Raziel Reid: I moved to Vancouver in 2011. I grew up in Manitoba, and then I took a Greyhound bus to New York City when I was eighteen, which inspired Jude's dream in When Everything Feels Like the Movies to get on a Greyhound and move to Hollywood. I still have that dream. I went to New York, I went to film school there, I lived in New York for almost three years and then headed to Vancouver. I wasn't going to stay in Vancouver, I was just going to visit a friend, but I picked up a copy of Xtra Vancouver, which is now defunct. It's still online but it's not in print. I opened it up and this columnist was advertising for his replacement. He was a social columnist. I thought, I can party, and I can be friends with drag queens. I submitted some writing and got the gig. It was my first time getting paid to write. I decided to stick around Vancouver for a while, and it ended up being five years. I went to Europe for a while, and now I've been back in Canada for a year. Where in Europe? I went to the UK first for the launch of When Everything Feels Like the Movies. Little, Brown published it there. I went to Germany for the German publication, and it was also published in Austria and Switzerland. I went to Hungary. I spent a year living in AirBnbs. What was the European response to When Everything Feels Like the Movies? It was interesting, the conversation around the work really centred around class in a way that it didn't in Canada. I think there was a lot of discussion about the content, and the type of youth I was depicting, but it wasn't exactly contextualized. In Europe, I think the class system is so much more defined, and of interest to people. I found that the reviews and the interviews I had there really centred around the class I was depicting, and touched a bit on my own background and how the story came from that place. It was really interesting to me because that was a conversation I hadn't had in Canada in the United States. And then you have Kens, which is a completely different setting. You set it in a fictional place, but it feels very Beverly Hills. It's funny you say that because my editor at Penguin, at first she didn't realize that I had created this Barbie World, that I was inspired by Willows, Wisconsin. She flagged Wisconsin and said, "Raziel, are you sure you want to set it here, it seems like Beverly Hills to me." I wanted it to be the original fictional hometown of the Barbie Doll, and when she first came out, she was set in Willows, Wisconsin. I had created a Barbie World, but it was inspired by this idea of superficial California. And obviously there's like, the Malibu Barbie influence. As I was visualizing the world, even though I was setting it in Wisconsin, I kept on thinking of that California coastal type of place. The book obviously isn't about Wisconsin, I don't know anything about Wisconsin, it's just about Barbie. What was your own high school experience like in Manitoba? High school wasn't that bad. I just hung out with artists and misfits. We had fun. It was really bohemian. I didn't go to school very often. I skipped class a lot. My school was right next to the Assiniboine River. I used to just go and sit by the river and do a lot of writing. I think I charmed my teachers. They liked me. They knew I was the outcast creative gay kid. I think they were really supportive, and helped me to graduate. I'm not sure I would have graduated if I didn't have teachers who had a soft spot for me. I was so turned off of school, just the ritual of it. I certainly found, when I was younger in elementary and junior high, I found the society we were building among the students to be absolutely terrifying. I was so put off by school I didn't go to university. I didn't want anything to do with education. What books were you reading? Luckily my mother was a voracious reader, so she had a lot of books for me to read. I read a lot of adult fiction. American Psycho was definitely my favourite. It remains my favourite book. I think after I read that I read all of Bret Easton Ellis's books. I'm obsessed with him. The Poisonwood Bible, I read that. Alice Munro, I used to read in high school. Tom Wolfe, I read a lot. F. Scott Fitzgerald. A lot of glamorous but depressed people. The beautiful and damned! Your book has been described as an homage to Heathers, but at times it's like a full-on remake. You've recreated some full scenes. How did you approach such iconic source material and make it your own? I didn't try to remake Heathers because I think that's impossible and I'm obviously obsessed with it as a cult classic. I so believe in it. I really just wanted to capture the energy, the satirical vibe, and the edgy attitude towards high school that Heathers represents. Ultimately I think it's a different story that turns into something really opposite and unique from Heathers. I'm constantly just taking information and inspiration from around me and manipulating it. I have a lot fun playing with some of the energy from Heathers. Aside from Heathers and Barbie, what were some other big inspirations for this? Well, my '90s childhood and all of the teen movies I was obsessed with, starting with Clueless, the first film I fell in love with as a kid. My older sister had a VHS of Clueless, and when I was five I used to watch it obsessively. Other movies like Sugar and Spice and She's All That, Mean Girls of course. Jawbreaker. I loved the iconic teen story with the clique of mean girls who rule the school. I always wanted to be the Regina George character because she was blonde and pretty and dating the hottest jock. Then I started to imagine what the highschool of the future might look like with that dynamic. Wouldn't it be interesting if that clique of mean girls was a clique of bitchy blond gay boys? In that way I removed the distance between me and the queen bee, or between people like me and this traditionally popular clique. In teen comedies, the gay male character is usually the sidekick. If they're front and centre it's usually a tragedy, so it was interesting seeing these characters leading a dark teen comedy. There are so many great lines in this book, but at one point you have this teenager Claude from Idaho who looks up to the Kens, and you write that they're his biggest inspiration because they're "so post-gay it's sickening." I think that encapsulates so much of the novel because they live in this world that's not aspirational, but still operates on this completely different dynamic than ours. I was in Berlin at a literary festival there, this homosexuality in literature festival, that had brought in queer authors from all over the world. It was so extraordinary. It was like the United Nations of Homosexuality, where every country was represented by a different author. We were all on panels together, and spoke, and I just spent a week doing this. I heard from queer authors from Russia, from Turkey, from Iran, so many authors were talking about queer persecution, about publishers being seized by the government because they published queer content. All these tragedies and all of this oppression, and then I started to talk about my experience in Canada with When Everything Feels Like the Movies and some of the censorship that I faced, and then I also talked about being more advanced than some of these other countries that are talking about gays literally getting bound and thrown off cliffs. We're certainly not perfect in Canada, but we have progressed quite far. We've achieved a level of equality that many other countries don't have. So I started to talk about how equality shouldn't mean homogenization. Acceptance and progress for gay people shouldn't mean that we have to be like heteronormative culture, or that queer culture has to blend with heteronormative culture. I wrote Kens really to show what a post-gay world looks like, but I filled it with language that is so identifiably queer and scenes and situations and characters that are really rooted in queer culture, because I think it's really important to strike the balance between progress and the rich and fabulous history of queerness. At times it felt—and I don't know if this is an intentional choice—LGBT identities can be treated as trendy, or commodified without necessarily progress happening. Right, like the gay accessory, or the gay best friend. I hear that all the time. With straight women who are allies who are like, "Oh, I'm hanging out with my gays," so homosexuals are like a product. I definitely have a bit of fun with that. Your book gets really dark. Heathers and a lot of your other inspirations were also really dark, but were you ever concerned with crossing a line? Yes. Believe it or not, I'm not a shock jock. I really don't like causing controversy. It's not something that I seek. I have found that I'm naturally out of sync with this world and what society considers right and wrong. I'm constantly doing a lot of self-censorship and trying to not dull my ideas or erase them, but to hone my ideas or craft them in a way that is accessible to people, because I don't really have a good gauge for how people are going to react. Ultimately I have something that I'm trying to say. I'm trying to bring attention to certain issues. I never want it to be superficial. I want the significance to come through. But the dark aspect, like the mass teen suicide trend that starts, I was inspired directly by this world. There's that Blue Whale Suicide Game, I'm not sure if you've heard of that. No. It's this social media phenomenon where it's like a game that you play, and you follow a series of tasks, and the last task culminates in your suicide. [N.B: the origins and impacts of this game are ambiguous and differ between news sources.] There are hundreds of deaths attributed to this phenomenon, and there's a huge rise in teen suicide in the age of social media. I definitely think that the pressure that kids are facing on the internet plays into this. And also we're in this competitive world on social media, and so we compete with everything, every aspect of our lives. So what if we were competing with our deaths? That was my way of taking it to the extreme, to make us have a look at our own insatiable need to be recognized for everything. I don't give away spoilers in this interview, but the fate of Brad was also hard to read in the context of the book. Yeah. [pauses] I put that scene in the way that I did because I think the reality of those situations are so shocking and so immediate. I remember watching the video [similar to the incident that appears in the book]. I saw the headline, I clicked the link, I watched the video, and it was like being hit by a truck. It just felt so surreal, and so intense, and so emotionally overwhelming, and so shocking. I was so jolted by it. I decided it was important I write this chapter in a way that is just so shocking and that no one is expecting because I fear that the more terror that we see, the more apathy we see from our government on these issues, the more desensitized we become. I don't think that we're any less horrified than we were before, but I do think we are less shocked. I think the power of satire is to serve as an electric shock from the page, to remind you that this not something that you should scroll past, or that should become common to you. You should never get used to this. It should always be a jolt to your system. So much has happened between the time between writing your last book and the writing with this one, specifically with your career, and the attention you've been getting. Having been the subject of think pieces and op-eds, did that affect your creative process at all? You know, it didn't change my creative process. I feel like I've always just gone back to writing and being alone and finding a space within myself and finding a space in this world to create and that's what I did with When Everything Feels Like the Movies and that's what I did with Kens. I thought it was going to be different because I thought I was different, and of course I'm always different, I'm a different person every day I think. But what I found is it was very similar. It took a while to get this book published. I wrote the first draft in 2015, and sent it to my agent, and then started sending it out to editors. Because it's such a unique book, there aren't many comparative titles in young adult publishing right now. There's more film references than book references. I think that was maybe a concern to some editors. I had a lot of editors that were interested in me, but they just didn't think they were the right person for it. I went through this whole ritual of rejection, of failure, of feeling like maybe this isn't my next book, and struggling to place it in the market. And then I got the yes. Which is the same thing that happened with When Everything Feels Like the Movies. You get a million nos, and then one person says yes and changes everything. Who do you hope reads this book? It's interesting, because obviously I write it for a young market. Teenagers. But I recently recorded the audiobook, and I'm the voice actor on the audiobook, and the sound technician in the studio with me was a straight man in his fifties. He was laughing his head off as I was performing the book, and he told me he was going to buy it for people for Christmas. He was like, "I know I'm not your target audience, but I really appreciate your work." I always hope to get that guy. To get the person you don't expect and you're surprised they're interested in the work, and it affects them in a special way. I know you said this isn't a direct Heathers remake, but there are times when Blaine is described as having Jack Nicholson eyebrows. Did you imagine Christian Slater when you were writing him? Oh, I always imagine Christian Slater, are you kidding me?
An Answer I Can’t Give My Daughters

I don’t want to test my children for genetic illness to subvert their autonomy, but to allow them to fully exert it. And though I have the means, I can’t quite find the will. 

In my right desk drawer, on top of old greeting cards and beneath my checkbook and a roll of stamps, sits a 23 and Me DNA testing kit. It is unopened, still in its shrink-wrapped plastic casing as it has been since it arrived, three days before Christmas last year. I had bought it during those cyber holiday deal days—got it half off, in fact. It’s one of those fancy ones, the ones that tell you not only your ancestral background but also some of your genetic makeup. One swab of your cheek, and you can tell if you are a carrier for hereditary diseases. Maybe you have a recessive gene for sickle cell anemia; it’s no big deal for you, but if your partner also has one, your future children are at risk. A bit of spit also tells you your own genetic risk. Perhaps you have variants of certain genes that come with an increased risk of Parkinson’s. A wealth of knowledge is right at my fingertips. And yet, it sits there, untouched.  Because it’s not for me. * I already know I have the BRCA I mutation. A broken link in my treacherous DNA gave me an eighty-seven percent chance of developing breast cancer and a sixty percent chance of ovarian cancer. I’ve already gone through months of monitoring, MRIs, biopsies. I’ve been poked and prodded for years. “Stay very still, miss, or the scan won’t work… Don’t mind the cold in your veins, ma’am, it’s just the contrast, it’s just the needle, it’s just the knife.” I got my breasts removed this past February, after a cancer scare that thankfully turned out to be just a scare. I have no feeling in my chest now, where my pectoral muscles sit atop two bags of saline, hard and unmoving even all these months later. I have to go to a special cancer gynecologist to make sure I don’t yet have ovarian cancer. In fact, I should get my ovaries removed entirely, but I just can’t bring myself to face menopause yet, at only thirty-five. So, I live with the knowledge that if I’m wrong, if I get cancer before I get the surgery, I will likely die. Unlike breast cancer, ovarian cancer is hard to detect until it’s too far along to be stopped. Those with a diagnosis are given an amount of time they have left, not a visionary plan for remission.  * I learned all of this about my body just a few years ago, when my mother called to tell me she had the mutation, as did all of her sisters. I got tested then, in my thirties, and I’ve had to make all my decisions in rapid succession with limited knowledge since.  I also have identical twin girls—nine years old. I cannot get them tested for the same mutation as me, even though they have a fifty-percent chance of inheriting it. I cannot know one way or the other if my children will be nearly destined to get cancer, or if they will be spared. I’m not allowed these years to prepare, research, keep that knowledge safe for them for when they will have a better understanding of what to do with it. I cannot decide to get this test for them, because only they can—when they are eighteen, nine years from now, able to choose as adults. Or maybe they’ll choose not to, which is why parents are not allowed to test their children, according to my doctors, whom I’ve asked several times. Because some people prefer to remain in the dark about their genetic illnesses.  On the one hand, it’s obvious, and it’s something I’m a huge proponent of. Their body, their choice. How dare I, a parent, someone who is not them, decide whether or not they know their genetic makeup? They deserve to make their own medical decisions about their own bodies. On the other hand, what makes this different from so many other conditions? Parents are allowed to test their children for multiple conditions and diseases. We worry over whether their weight is on track with all the other children; we fret if they can’t hold a cup by eight months; if they have a sore throat, we are allowed to take them to the doctor to find out if it is strep. We are their guardians. All of their medical information goes through us. And what is a BRCA mutation if not medical information? I don’t want to test my children to subvert their autonomy. I want to test them to allow them to fully exert it. Why should they have to deal with this sudden and heartbreaking knowledge all at once, like I did, when it can be parsed bit by bit as they grow? For me, I was pushing a grocery cart down the cereal aisle when my cell phone rang. My mother informed me right then, as I was picking out Frosted Flakes, that she came back positive for the mutation, and I needed to get tested. I had a fifty-percent chance of having it, too. As a work-at-home mother with four-year-old twins, I had to take the girls along with me to the lab to get the test done. They sat there, wide-eyed, squeezing my hands as my blood filled the little tubes. I hadn’t been allowed to eat all day, so afterwards I dragged the girls to a small sandwich shop, even though they were tired, cranky, scared and confused about what had just happened. I had hoped them sitting in the middle of the road in protest would be the worst this got. I was wrong.  Two weeks later, I was fixing them a snack in front of their favorite Disney show when my phone rang again. Without pleasantries, Florida Cancer Specialists put a doctor on the line to tell me I had a nearly ninety percent chance of cancer, and a life full of tests ahead of me, starting at that moment. Holding Teddy Grahams in my left hand, suddenly, this body that I thought I had known forever, this body I thought was my own, had turned into something else. And I had to deal with it all at once, while at the same time pretending nothing had happened. I smiled and handed out the crackers. What else could I do?  Having the information at my fingertips allowed me to do something, to take action. It hit me like a ton of bricks and I had to navigate my emotions and hide them from the girls, but it also gave me the power to change my future. It put me in control. If I had had more time in the driver’s seat, I could have planned my life differently. I could have been prepared. At least, even in my thirties, I could do something. Wouldn’t it perhaps have been more helpful if the pieces of this puzzle had been gently dropped for me by a loving parent figure over time, with periods to process and maintain, with a guiding hand showing me the ropes, taking me through the options, telling me it’s not so bad? To have never gotten so used to myself as I was before I had to rip myself apart would have been a gift. Or would it have been? I can never know. And as such, even though I have the means to test my children, I do not have the will. I could have this all wrong—what makes me an expert over doctors and genetic counselors? Nothing. So the kit waits there. Still, knowing sooner might give us time to line our ducks up to get my children the best treatment possible, and the treatment they are most comfortable with when they need it. My husband and I would live differently. Our savings plan would make room for the accumulated costs. All of us would have time to financially, mentally, and emotionally prepare.  Similarly, if the girls are negative, that’s nine years I don’t have to worry every day for them and their possible future. If they are positive, that’s fine. I know how to deal with that, and I will be able to calmly prepare them. Or will I? I knew how to deal with it within my own body, but even though they come from me, my children are very different from me. Perhaps my preparations would push them too hard in one way or another. Of course, I’d rather know now so we could start planning for the very same future that will await us whether we know about it or not. But I am not them. And they get to make that choice, not me. I’ll never use that kit. At least, I don’t think I will. I’m too much of a rule follower. But it sits there, in my desk drawer, day after day. Just in case. If ever I needed to, one day, I could swab one of their mouths and send it in. If ever I needed to, I could know. It seems so straightforward. It seems so easy. It can easily be construed as ethical, as beneficial. I just laid it all out for you here, in fact, in these thousand words. But maybe after all that rationalization, they are right. Because if it were so easy and straightforward, if it were so ethical, I would already know if my kids had my BRCA mutation. And I wouldn’t have an unused DNA kit taunting me from a drawer in my office.
‘I Want to Get There Before Things Disappear’: An Interview with Sarah Weinman

The author of The Real Lolita on doppelgangers, the responsibilities of true crime reporting and fictionalizing people’s pain. 

When Sarah Weinman first pitched a story to Hazlitt about Sally Horner, the real life kidnapping case that Vladimir gave a brief shoutout to in his 1955 masterpiece Lolita, she had a placeholder title in mind. "It was March 2014, and I was like, ‘So I have this piece, I think you can call it something akin to the real Lolita,’” she tells me. We’re sitting in the lobby of the Drake Hotel where she is staying in the middle of an extensive book tour; she just came from our shared hometown of Ottawa, where we compared notes on the effects a recent tornado had had on our family’s homes, and is on her way to Texas that afternoon. “So I had that title clearly from the get go. It took me a while to accept that that would be both the title of the piece and the book title.” “The Real Lolita,” was published on this website in November of 2014, where it has consistently remained one of Hazlitt’s top viewed stories. If you’re one of the few who has yet to read it, Sally was abducted in 1948 at the age of eleven by fifty-year-old Frank LaSalle and was kept in his captivity for two years, in a story that filled headlines. Though Nabokov and his wife Véra, would vehemently deny that Sally’s story had any real influence on Lolita, his own notes show that was patently aware of what had happened to her while writing his novel, and there are more than a few parallels between Sally’s fate and that of Dolores Haze. Weinman has spent the past four years meticulously conducting more research, including interviews with Sally’s surviving family members and deep dives into Nabokov’s papers, and has expanded this work into The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World (Knopf Canada). It’s as much a history of Sally Horner as it is a history of the writing and publishing of Lolita, and the widespread reactions to both stories. Though Weinman spins together a true crime narrative with literary theory, she writes with an acute sensitivity about her subject matter, never forgetting the real people at the center of the story. Anna Fitzpatrick: Can you tell me about your relationship to Lolita growing up? Sarah Weinman: I read it when I was sixteen, which in hindsight was perhaps not the greatest decision. I thought I was ready to handle it, the way that precocious sixteen year olds are. I was a sixteen-year-old who was getting ready to be a senior in high school. At that time you still had grade thirteen in Ontario, so I fast tracked. Senior class, we'd been studying all this CanLit. Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro. We did a Margaret Atwood story that somebody else picked, for whatever reason, I think sort of similarly to how I was attracted to Lolita. Some other student was like, "Let's do Atwood's story ‘Rape Fantasies.’"  And afterward we were all just like, "What did we just read?" There was a module where we were also looking at more contemporary Dissident writers. I think we had just had come off of reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and somehow that led me to thinking about Nabokov. "Oh, Lolita is controversial, I must figure this out and see what this is about." I start to read it, and it was really the first time I grocked this idea of an unreliable narrator. Humbert Humbert was essentially trying to sell us the reader's story about what happened and his own responsibility or lack thereof. And something didn't quite mesh. There was clearly something else going on underneath. It wasn't just about illicit desire. It was also about manipulation and just outright trying to say something that is at complete odds with what is actually happening. Here it is, he's trying to present this tortured love story, but really it's about the repeated rape and abuse of a child. I didn't get all the nuances there. You can't at sixteen. I just remember feeling kind of thrilled and disturbed that you can do that with literature. There were these greater ambitions that could be had with books. I think Lolita helped me open my eyes up as a reader at that particular point. I always feel books come along when you need them, and that one did at that particular point. And then I immediately went into a Philip Roth binge [laughs]. I read it at seventeen, and I remember so much of the experience was just decoding his language. So much went over my head too. I totally missed the anagrams [the character Vivian Darkbloom was an anagram of Vladamir Nabokov]. And not just being an anagram, but also female. He loved doppelgangers and doubles. And there's all this Edgar Allan Poe motif. All these different ties to crime and criminality. For whatever reason, whenever I reread it now I go back to the preface. I always think, "What was John Ray Jr. doing there? Also, who is Clarence Clark, and why did he represent Humbert?" There are all these little pieces that because Nabokov's language is so amazing and really demands your attention, it's really easy to read Lolita as a potboiler. It can be read that way! It has that pacing and it has that narrative drive with the cross country second half stuff. But there's so much else going on that you almost do need to take steps back, look up a dictionary, which is of course Nabokov's own preferred way of reading literature. There is just so much going on that it's really easy to miss things. To tie it back to the whole Sally Horner story, it's directly referenced in the text, and at every event that I do I ask people who read Lolita, did they notice it? At the time I wrote the book, the answer has been an unequivocal no. Since it's been in production and ready to go, I think I've now talked to two people who've encountered this pair of doubling. After Lolita was published, Véra Nabokov writes in her diary that she's distressed with the way it was being interpreted. Your book was reviewed in the New York Times, and whoever was running their social media tweeted the review saying some version of, "We read Lolita differently now than when it was first published," which got some blowback.But the Times piece quoted some reviews from when Lolita was first published showing how some people really did interpret it. It's funny, because for this interview, I was looking at I think the Wisconsin Journal in 1967, it had a special issue entirely devoted to Nabokov. They had an index in the back of every review published up until that date of Lolita in English, and every essay that was published in English. I'm going through this list and seeing the headlines and even that is such a telling example of how wild, how big the spectrum is that people read. Some people saw it as a tragedy, some people saw it as a love story, some people saw it as an erotic drama, some people saw it as a comedy. That's why, in my book, aside from wanting to retell Sally Horner's story, I thought it was really important to trace Lolita's publication path, and how complicated and rocky it was. But also this weird cultural afterlife that it had, where it's out in the world, it's a big bestseller, people have opinions whether they read it or not, eventually there'd be a movie that Stanley Kubrick directs, and even though Nabokov is credited on the script it's pretty clear Kubrick rewrote most of it. I read the first draft of Nabokov's script in his archives at the New York Public Library. It's 410 pages long. You could not film it. There's so many different ways in which this novel was misinterpreted, and yet because I'm always sort of playing, "On the one hand on the other hand," I don't necessarily think there needs to be one interpretation of Lolita. It's a story that couches repeated sexual abuse. I do take Nabokov's word and Véra's word that Dolores Haze is the true heroine. We only get to hear from her through Humbert's very skewed, very diseased perspective, but what emerges is someone with incredible resilience. She manages after her ordeal to escape him. She goes off with Quilty because he seems the best option that she had. When he turns out to be just as bad if not worse, she gets away. In that brief period she's married to Dick Schiller, she tries to build something of a happy life. In that regard too, it's interesting how that mirrors what happened to Sally Horner, where after she came back she only had another two years to live. [Horner died in a car accident in 1952, at the age of 15.] Poor Sally. Poor Sally! She already felt very tangible to me when I was working on the piece for Hazlitt, but then when I met with her niece and she gave me this trove of photos, some of which are reprinted in the book and some of which I was putting on Instagram as extra material, just to see what she looked like, in her formal garb going to junior prom with a boy, or one of my favourites, where she's wearing dungarees and a shirt and is wearing lipstick, which may be red but might be black, you don't know because the photo is in black and white, she's holding a newspaper with comics on it, she's coming out of a room and she's sort of startled. It's such a fourteen-year-old kid look. And just a year later, she already looks so grown up at fifteen, and had such little time left. Diana [Horner's niece] made that comment about, learning only decades later that Sally was mentioned in Lolita, the shock of realizing, "Oh, people are writing about my family." What is the responsibility, on both tracks, with artists inspired by real life and with true crime reporters? I think there's a tremendous responsibility that we all have. I never want to forget that even though my book is out in the world, and people are going to react the way they're going to react and it's sort of its own separate thing, and the Sally Horner that I wrote about is not necessarily the Sally Horner who lived because I can't recreate her one hundred percent. I don't know what she sounded like. Even as a nonfiction writer, I had to resort to speculation. It's something that goes against my nature, because I really try hard to be rooted in facts whenever possible, but there is one chapter, the Baltimore chapter, where I just didn't have enough facts to turn it into a really thorough narrative. It was at the prodding at my editors. They were like, "You have to establish your authority, not just in terms of what you know, but also in terms of what you don't know." That's why, I figured out if I clued the reader in on what I didn't know, but also make very specific and very informed guesses as to what I thought might happen, then I could at least get close to what I thought the truth was. Earlier this month I did an event in Philadelphia, which is just across the river from Camden, New Jersey. Sally did spend some time there , but Frank La Salle spent a lot of time in Philadelphia. He had an address there, he worked in a garage there, he just would keep coming back. I did my event, and Diana actually attended, as did other family members. I knew she was coming, but she was a very introverted person and didn't really want attention drawn to her, so I was trying to be really mindful of her privacy. But afterword she came up, and I asked her, "Was this tough for you?" She said, "Yeah, you might have heard a few sniffles in the back." It was just...[pauses]. Having her in the audience was just, wonderful, but it was also a reminder that there were real people involved. To represent people's pain, or fictionalize people's pain, you really have to set the bar so high. I feel like Lolita does clear that bar. What it should do is, I'm not asking people to castigate Nabokov for writing Lolita. He had his reasons. Some of them were rooted in a personal compulsion. Some of them were rooted in, what is the biggest literary game that I can play, what is the most audacious, imaginative thing I can do as an author? But when other people attempt to do something similar and they don't quite meet the mark, I think it does show. It's sort of like an uncanny valley where the border between reality and fiction collapses, and it doesn't always work. I noticed, in reading the aftermath section of the book, at least two key people you interviewed during your research passed away in the course of writing it. It's a reminder of how, especially before everything was so heavily documented, there's a real window in which these stories can be deeply researched. That's part of the attraction for why I seek out these stories. I want to get there before things disappear, before researchers lose touch with tangible memories. And yet, even with more contemporary things, the way stories disappear when they're digital only, we have to hold on to whatever we can. I think that's why I'm so into researching in archives when I can hold and feel papers and letters and documents and the like. But I also love doing late night digital newspaper searches, or ancestry.com, or looking at Reddit and Websleuths and Wikipedia, and seeing what rabbit holes they lead me down. Nabokov was so reticent to claim Sally Horner as an inspiration for his book. Why do think that was? I think people would have asked too many questions along the same lines. "What are you doing trying to fictionalize some girl's real pain?" And yet, even [writer for Nugget Magazine, which first publicly made the connection between Horner and Lolita in 1963] Peter Welding didn't go as far in making certain connections as [Nabokov scholar] Alexander Dolinin did in the Times Literary Supplement, which is what got me going in the first place. In that piece that he wrote, he didn't even mention that Sally died. It made me wonder, did he know? Did he not want to know? Was he not interested? Was it just about doing a simple binary connection between Sally's kidnapping and rescue and Lolita? It is interesting that this New York Post reporter picked it up and wrote the Nabokovs when they were in Montreux, and Véra of course wrote back on both behalves. That letter really is a marvel. I remember when I first read it, I thought, "Wow, this is some real audacity. On one hand you're denying it, but on the other hand you flatly say, 'Yes, [Sally] is in Lolita.'" So if it's in Lolita... put it this way, there aren't that many crimes that are explicitly referenced in Lolita. There's Sally Horner's kidnapping, and there's the George Edward Grammer case, which misspells the last name of because he thinks "grammar" the noun is much funnier. Why make a point of not only referencing those cases but subsequently, so little survives of the originating manuscript and notes for Lolita- Because he burned them all. Yes. He would write, Véra would type, they'd go away. But there are these ninety-four notecards [of Nabokov's] in the Library of Congress, and one of them is about Sally Horner's death and the other is about George Edward Grammer about to go to trial. I just feel like, even if it wasn't a conscious effort to preserve them, there's still that unconscious effort of why hang onto them if you could get rid of them at any point. One thing that I learned from the book is, I didn't realize so many of Nabokov's early works explored that relationship with an underage girl. There's speculation that there was an incident in his own childhood— I mean, there was an incident in his own childhood. The reason why I delayed talking about it until the very end, is because as much as there was an incident in his own childhood involving his uncle, who probably fondled him in some degree of molestation, I think Nabokov himself had a complicated relationship to that. He would not be someone who was like, "I was traumatized." That would just be anathema to his own thinking, especially when that uncle died young, left him his fortune, and then that fortune had to be abandoned when the Nabokov family fled Russia during the revolution for Europe. So I'm sure there was a whole host of complicated feelings coming about. I thought, it wouldn't be fair to him to trumpet this idea of, "This is the reason!" It was much more interesting to me to document in the text that he wrote, here are the incidents in which this particular compulsion repeats itself. In the "Lilith" poem, and certainly that paragraph in The Gift, and a little bit in Laughter in the Dark and definitely in the novella Volshebnik or The Enchanter, where he's really trying to figure out if he can make this idea work in a fictional form. Of course, it wasn't published in his lifetime, it was published in the 1980s when Dmitri, his son, decided that this should actually go ahead. I also wanted to include all that to show that Lolita didn't spring wholesale out of nowhere. That works of genius require effort and work, and sometimes you have to keep at a theme forever and ever and ever. I know in my own work I seem to have themes that I also explore and probably will explore for the rest of my professional career. I'm a crime writer, doesn't mean I've committed crimes. People write about serial killers, it doesn't mean that they are serial killers. That we know of. True. But I think exploring the worst that people can do is also a way of trying to understand, or possibly empathize, or certainly come to grips with. It's sort of like why so many people are attracted to true crime narratives as catharsis or as dealing with fear. The excerpts you have from his earlier works, the way he approached the subject matter was unrecognizable. Even the prose level just wasn't at the level. Part of it was, some of what I'm quoting is translated from Russian. The Enchanter may work better in the original Russian, which I regrettably do not speak or read. But I also trust that Dmitri would have translated as faithfully as possible as to what his father wanted, because he was one of the few translators that he actually trusted. It was very much like, let's not go outside the family. A personal frustration I have with Nabokov, is I am trying to learn how to speak and read Russian right now. So much studying, and I can say, "Hi, my name is Anna!" And then I see what he's able to do with his second language... Which in a way wasn't really his second language. It's also clear that he was learning all these languages at the same time. And so that also informed the way he spoke, it also informed the way he wrote, and also the way he interacted with interviewers. Just this idea that he wanted to create the appearance of spontaneity but everything was super scripted. It's because he didn't trust his English or his thinking on his feet in a spontaneous fashion. I think it was also, he didn't want to lose control. That is also why knowing about Sally Horner for him likely would have detracted, because that's not something he could control. But the creation of Lolita, the writing of it, the inception of it, the treatment, that he could control. I had known about the film adaptations growing up, and the casting decision to have Lolita played as an older teenaged seductress, and I didn't realize that Nabokov had signed off on those adaptations. But what really surprised me was that he signed off on a musical they made. I think in that instance, it was more trusting that these were the best in their field. He himself couldn't really abide music. I think he had some pathological allergy, which is ironic because Dmitri became a pretty well known opera singer. He sang bass. It wouldn't surprise me if Véra was musical. But he himself was not. It was like noise to him. It just didn't work in his brain. Whatever melody was, it was in language and not music. I'm sure when Alan Jay Lerner came calling to say, "I wanna adapt it into a musical," he was like, "Well, I've heard of My Fair Lady, I've heard of Camelot, I've heard of Brigadoon, sure I'll sign off." He wasn't above wanting to make money. Lolita was a bestseller! It enabled him and Véra to leave America and live in Montreux Palace.> It was a quick bestseller, but a long journey to getting published. That's the thing. There are all these years of wilderness where he despaired that it would ever see the light of day, he went off and wrote Pnin, he was working on the interminable translation of Yevgeniy Onegin which would get into such trouble critically and especially with his future frenemy Edmund Wilson. So the musical, which I wrote about, because I just could not get through this idea of, "Why did these people think this would work?" The irony is that John Barry's score, there are aspects of it I quite like. I think it's ultimately a good score. I just don't see how it can ever be revived. The reason being... reading Lolita, you have your own idea as to what is happening. You either trust Humbert Humbert's narrative, or you don't. You get seduced by it, or you're repelled by it, but you make that decision as a reader. Once you have a visual or theatrical representation, now you're seeing Humbert. You're hearing him. It doesn't match your conception. You're seeing Lolita, it doesn't match how you envisioned her. Suddenly you see the edifice and the artifice all the way. The horror just rises up as a result. Which is why I think the best adaptation of Lolita is the audiobook that Jeremy Irons read. Because he's reading Nabokov's language.