Hazlitt Magazine

Mine for Life

On the shame of mentorship.

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Mine for Life

On the shame of mentorship.

In the middle of Muriel Spark’s brief and elliptical novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one of Brodie’s protégées is asked about the biggest influence of her teens. Sandy, turned Sister Helena after joining a convent, can only say what she repeats again in the last line of the book: “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.” What remains between the repetitions of this line changes every time I read the 127-page story, published for the first time in its entirety in a 1961 issue of the New Yorker. In the text, Sandy and the five other girls who make up the “Brodie set” discuss their junior-school teacher as though it was a privilege to be taught by her, matching the comically arrogant way Brodie speaks about herself. Told they are the “crème de la crème” of Edinburgh’s Marcia Blaine School for Girls, and bonded by a cliquish feeling of superiority, the girls share gossip about Brodie the way only a close-knit sect of young women can. But eventually, their relationship to Miss Brodie comes to resemble a trauma, revealing more every time it’s unearthed and reiterated. Each return to the topic of Miss Brodie’s influence cements it as the defining narrative of their lives. They all have individual fates: Sandy becomes a nun, Rose a “great lover,” Monica marries and then separates from a scientist, Jenny tries to be an actress, Eunice becomes a nurse, and Mary dies young in a hotel fire. But beneath each life runs an understanding that they became who they were because Miss Brodie emphasized certain characteristics in them, orchestrating some events while avoiding others. “She thinks she is Providence,” Sandy realizes eventually, “she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end.” Brodie wouldn’t disagree, judging by her own motto: “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Here, she makes an explicit distinction between the roles of schoolteacher and mentor. The former simply teaches the curriculum, but the latter leaves an unshakeable imprint in the student’s project of becoming herself. “To me,” Brodie intones, “education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.” With Brodie, Spark creates a woman who unwittingly demonstrates the dangerous slipperiness of mentorship, that relationship responsible for creating a “great influence” in any life. While Brodie’s dictatorial command of her students is emphasized in the novel, often for ironic effect (she admires Mussolini, but concedes that Hitler was “rather naughty”), it draws attention to specific tactics common to all kinds of mentorship. There’s her sharp fluctuation between praise and condemnation, her instant ability to see a student’s most prominent insecurity and leverage it to induce humiliation, and her consistent, unflagging reinforcement of a core tenet of her teaching: that only she can show you how to flourish towards a “prime.” Not only does Miss Brodie believe she sees the souls of her pupils rather than reflections of herself—she also believes her influence is necessary, above all else, to wring meaning from their lives. She revels in the way it possesses these young girls, makes them recognizably hers, and her proud understanding of this type of possession presumes it lasts—well, forever. Can anyone who believes they are entitled to exert influence be a good mentor? And when power plays, as it inevitably does, into mentorship, are “good” mentorships possible at all? This particular question has haunted me for some time, largely because my experiences as a reader and a writer, a woman and an immigrant, have led me to hold enormous stakes in both sides of the argument. I feel like an eternal mentee, one who perpetually shifts gears to absorb what she can to become the person she wants to be. The part of me that picks up crumbs of voice, character, and spirit from others needs to believe that mentorship can be a good thing, that growth, artistry and actualization are learned partially from other people. Yet, as a reader, the representations of mentorship that I find most exciting for their intensity epitomize a human lust for power and control. They reveal the ways that, no matter how wise, mentors are by their very name woven into relationships that leave room for manipulations of authority. The strangest thing about my question—do good mentorships exist?—is that both answers, yes and no, are sources of anxiety. If there are no good mentorships, all influence leads in some way to grooming, manipulation and trauma. But if there are good mentorships, then attributing to them someone’s talent or success bypasses something crucial and complicated in the structure of this relationship. It ignores the tendency mentorships have to derail lives or actualize them, and the strange hunger for metamorphosis they thrive on. * When I first encountered Miss Brodie, it was in film; the 1969 movie directed by Ronald Neame stars a young Maggie Smith. I was preoccupied and distressed. It felt like I’d watched someone pull back the curtain shielding my inner self from the world. Mostly, the movie reminded me of a man who’d approached me in my first writing workshop. For years, I did everything I could to not think of him, because it was painful to pick apart the various threads of that confusing time. But then and now, if I was asked about “the biggest influence of my teens,” I’d answer with his name. I was seventeen, and the Saturday writing class I signed up for was a weekly respite from my family home during the summer before my senior year began at an arts high school. My only friend was away until September, and I’d developed something of a claustrophobic reaction to my bedroom, where it seemed I’d already spent too many hours reading Gabriel García Márquez and scrolling through the fashion blogs of emaciated white women. I waited all week to subway from Etobicoke to a bland office space above a coffee shop on the Danforth, where a miscellaneous group of seven adults and I spent long stints writing prose poetry inspired by quotations and single-word prompts. We took turns holding a stone or a feather, trying to muster up lines of flash fiction. In August, as the last session drew to a close and while the other members of the workshop milled around, happily complimenting each other, someone tapped my shoulder. “I’m starting my own workshop,” said a male peer I’d been friendly with. He spoke to me with excessive gentleness. “I see so much potential in your work. I know there’s something more there, so I’m asking you to join.” I went home that evening vibrating with adrenaline, feeling chosen. I’d told him I’d think about it, but I already knew I would say yes. It didn’t matter that I hardly knew him. What mattered was that I, trapped in a severe teenage loneliness during the exact months of my life when I desperately wanted to feel adventurous and free and loved, saw a small way into altering that life. After so much time spent hunching under the pressure to make something of my time, and fearing that I would never succeed, I was being given an opportunity, not just to do something else, but to become the kind of person who would have no reservations about hanging out with a bunch of adult strangers. It was a relief, at the time, to push aside the nervous feeling in my gut, lie to my parents, and dive in.  There were four of us at first, and we met in a library for two Wednesdays, continuing the prompt writing and discussions we’d begun in the previous workshop. The third Wednesday, it was only myself and the man who invited me, who I still knew almost nothing about. When I arrived, he said, “I thought it would be interesting to show you some writers I like,” and pulled out of his bag some Hemingway, Ford, and Salinger stories he’d printed from the web. The insights I offered after reading them seemed to impress him. He fed me ways to earn his compliments—writing exercises, prompts, memorization—and I consumed them eagerly. We met every week for a few hours, first at the library, and then at his house. We switched back to Saturdays after my senior year of high school started. He kissed me on the street, and I pretended not to see people staring. When she returned, I told my best friend that I was doing the two things I’d wanted more than anything: I was becoming a writer, and I was falling in love. Cradling the phone to my ear in my family’s backyard late at night, I told her he was older, maybe too old. I didn’t yet know how old he actually was: forty-one. She told me that I should do whatever felt good, but that I should never trust him. I said I didn’t, that I was in control. I had chosen this. After a month, he became my first boyfriend. I saw him every weekend under the pretense of participating in a writing workshop, always at his house. In a way, it was a workshop. He gave me assignments, story prompts, deadlines. He edited the stories I wrote into new shapes, sometimes adding characters that stood in transparently for himself. He made his touch and affection a reward, something I’d earn by doing my work. After a year, I left the city for real writing workshops and for college, but that wasn’t the end. Even after our break-up, he sent emails, letters, voicemails, packages of books he thought I should read. I alternated between desperate attempts to reason with him and long bouts of silence. In one of his emails, he wrote: with some gentle pushing from me and a firm commitment from yourself to keep your promises, by the time you reach my age, you will be far more talented than me In another: we connected at a deeper level about literature and music and life and travel and dreams and hope and it would be nice to reconnect on those things again but if not, then i'll try again later and again and again until you call the police and have me jailed i suppose I never called the police, but when I watched The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I felt sick with excitement. I had been pushing away the idea that the man who tried to turn me into a writer shaped me in any permanent way, but here was a reason to stop avoiding it, to instead examine it as closely as I could. It was clear that whether I ran from it or held it close, the fact of his influence was inescapable. Watching the five girls in the film bend to Brodie’s will, wary of and yet fascinated by her manipulations, influence turned from an invisible shame into something I could see and acknowledge and chart. At least if I understood it, I could make something from it. * Probably because their work has so much to do with developing the self, writers are particularly embroiled in the machinery of mentorship. For The Atlantic, Rick Moody writes about studying at Brown with Angela Carter and John Hawkes. He is witness to the now infamous scene in which, on the first day of workshop, a young male student casually asks Carter, “Well, what’s your work like?” to which Carter replies, “My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man’s penis.” This clears the room of several students, but Moody remembers thinking: “This is the teacher for me.” Carter makes Moody feel that he “not only grew as a writer, but improved as a person.” Moody goes on to emphasize the embarrassing thing about mentorship: it changes one’s drive. He wrote to impress his mentors, to make himself memorable to them. He says that he got better “by writing in order to please them.” In an interview for this magazine with Miranda Hill, Moody describes mentorship as someone getting “lodged in [your] unconscious,” so that you see everything you do through their eyes. Internalizing the mentor’s tastes, interests, and preferences, and working to impress their sensibilities indicates a particular vulnerability. In order for mentorship to work at its deepest level, the mentee needs to not simply tolerate, but actually lean into dependence. In an essay from his collection How To Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee describes Annie Dillard’s class at Wesleyan University, the rigorous and thrilling pace at which she did everything from critiquing student pieces to eating individually wrapped caramels. “By the time I was done working with Annie,” he says, “I wanted to be her.” Chee’s essay is anthologized in the only nonfiction work I’ve been able to find with an explicit focus on literary mentorships, titled Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives. It is full of writers explaining how older, more famous and infamous authors teaching at MFAs and elsewhere swept them into private intellectual worlds and public literary acknowledgement. So many writers have a guardian who brought them into writing, and they all seem to know that to change the writing, you have to first change the writer. To produce a specific kind of work, you must become the person who is capable of producing it through the very process of writing. Even in this anthology, the unseemly side of mentorship isn’t touched. There are no mentions of the literary relationships that cross over into a specific kind of gendered trauma, often wrought within romantic entanglement. We are familiar with this story, the two ways it is most often told: a young writer seduces an older one for connections, privilege, clout. Or: the older writer falls in love with the younger, who later speaks out about being abused. In reality, there are as many differing versions of those stories as there are people who experienced them. But I point out those two because they are ways of answering the question most people in these mentorships are left with, once it’s over: Who is to blame? This is the question Joyce Maynard wrestles with in her memoir, At Home in the World, about falling in love and living with J.D. Salinger for the better part of a year. Upon its publication, this book was criticized as shameless, tawdry, and exploitative, and Maynard herself called a parasite and a predator. During a reading she gave after it came out, several literary figures rose from their seats and walked out. While the work dwells on Maynard’s childhood, her parents’ influence and her own ambition, it also dissects the strategies Salinger employed to turn her into a particular kind of writer. When they begin a correspondence of letters spurred by fifty-three-year-old Salinger’s attention to a photo of eighteen-year-old Maynard on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, she notices how her language begins to mimic his, each line composed and tailored to suit him. In her preface to the 2013 edition of the memoir, written fifteen years after its original publication, Maynard writes, “I had grafted his view of how a person should be so utterly onto my sense of who I was in the world that there existed a time when I no longer knew who I was, separate from Jerry. Everything I believed came from him.” This mentorship digs to the root of how a person can be irrevocably shaped by another’s influence. Why, then, was it so despised, and Maynard so shunned? Serious mentorships, the literary world seems to believe, are only ever about the work of writing. To do justice to them, one must put aside the messy reality of human emotions and traumas, the desperations and desires that serve as scaffolding to every artistic practise. Yet it seems clear that the power that lies at the center of mentorship has to do with literary experience and expertise and recognition, but also with emotion, desire, connection and character. These facets of human interaction can create a mentorship dynamic, even if the roles of its participants aren’t formalized by an institution. The way a person speaks, inhabits a body, and creates a particularity of gesture all contribute to a magnetism that defies proper definition. Observing that person becomes a privilege. Collecting bits of information on them feeds a hunger. Speaking to them is stressful, sometimes unbearably so—or else steeped in urgency. All interactions accrue power when you see someone as a one-way route to becoming who you want to be. Like falling in love, this has the added dangers of being utterly projected—one’s innermost desires appear through a fun-house mirror, reflecting back a distorted vision of another human who has managed to become everything you craved, everything you’re not. There is shame associated with the excitement of absorbing an influence. Feeling the ground of your selfhood shifting in real time has a dizzying effect—there appears to be a choice. You choose to change, to pursue desire, to involve yourself in a relationship. And if that relationship twists down paths you couldn’t see—well, too bad. You’re along for the ride. You are choosing, in effect, to become something other than what you currently are, to diverge from the self you see moving along its predictable, narrow path, and instead take a calculated risk to become unknowable to that self, for better or for worse. The shame comes, in part, from showing the person who influences you this disavowal of yourself. It comes from saying, “I will take whatever improvements you can make to me. I am sick of this thing built of my experiences. Change me so I am more like you.” Later, this choice becomes the basis of self-blame. Who else can you blame, if you remember asking for a specific person’s towering presence in your life—if, in fact, that choice leads to one of the most emotionally vibrant periods of your life? In My Education, her novel about a graduate student falling in love with both her married professors, Susan Choi writes: We weren’t zigzagging forward but wildly seesawing, the ups ever higher, the downs ever lower…. Martha’s flights of hedonism—Martha’s brooding resolutions and remorse. I’d like to say I defied gravity just as often as feeling its snare, but my efforts were most likely spent clinging on with white knuckles to not be dislodged. Still, that was my heroism—my tenacious fidelity to her, though it was based on a grave misperception. I thought desire was duty. No trial could not be endured nor impediment smashed in desire’s holy service... This desire to incorporate someone else into your own being is a confession we love to make in art, but rarely in life. “Do I want to fuck him, or just be him?” reads a piece of dialogue from the scene in which Choi’s protagonist first lays eyes on Martha’s husband, her Chaucer professor. Imitation, like love, makes us incredibly vulnerable. But while love is a feeling that moves outward from the self, permeates the self, even ennobles the self, imitation suggests there is no real self. It suggests that the self facing the world is a forgery, concocted out of lies and cheap deceptions, void of originality. To be caught imitating someone’s phrase, gesture, or style while trying to pass it off as one’s own is embarrassing at best. We like to think we made ourselves, or that events ordered in a meaningful sequence made us. When that stops feeling true, as it abruptly did for me, one is left with the shame of mentorship. Examples of these dynamics abound in literature and film. That kind of mentorship-desire is buried in Magda Szabo’s The Door, in which a well-to-do writer develops a friendship with her reticent housekeeper, and in Apt Pupil, a Stephen King novella, in which a boy hunts out a Nazi war criminal in hiding and forces him to recount his crimes to feed his own hateful obsessions. It’s in Robert Musil’s 1906 novel, Confusions of Young Törless, where one precocious, impressionable pupil joins his peers in the sadomasochistic abuse of another student. As an archetype or a formula, this dynamic depicts more than infatuation or obsession. It illustrates what it means to be forged, as a self, from within a fiery exchange of power. If mentorship teaches you how to be yourself, it does so in the most charged way, by testing your limits: how much you’re capable of giving to and taking from another person, and how much of that exchange you can withstand. It separates the core of you from the chaff by creating deeply rooted narratives about the self—about exactly what you are worth, and why. * When I moved back to the city where I’d met my older boyfriend, I checked for him on every street I walked. I was afraid of running into him because I knew that if I did, it wouldn’t be a coincidence. It would be a deliberately orchestrated event in which he would decide the circumstance and the rules, maybe after digging online to learn which Master’s program I was enrolled in, which classes I was most likely to take. He would realize I now studied at the same campus he’d once taken me to on autumn weekends, the same campus he studied at two decades earlier, and he’d corner me in one of the charming old buildings where we’d sat together reading. I looked around every corner for weeks. What I worried most about wasn’t how I’d flag someone down or get away if I saw him, though—I wanted to know if he’d think I’d changed in the absence of his influence. I wanted to know if I still appeared as the gawky, insecure, childishly knock-kneed girl he’d chosen to manipulate because he knew she was impressionable. I desperately wanted to see myself through his eyes again. I believed that only then would I be able to judge for myself how ill-intentioned he was in approaching me, or whether I’d worn my desperation as an invitation. *            Gender and sex are two of our earliest and most intense influences. They shape our expectations before it is possible for permission to be given, and create the many-handed mentor that teaches us what to look for in others, so that we might build ourselves. To different degrees and different ends over the course of Western history, patriarchy and mentorship have formed the foundation for how we pursue our identities. Not coincidentally, this has everything to do with power and the institutions that govern its exchange. In Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day, Peter Ackroyd maps queerness and sexuality as a distinctly influential part of London’s history and, in doing so, elucidates the connections between same-sex love, patriarchy, and mentorship. Queer love was widely documented as common practice among Celtic and Roman men, he writes, before Christian influences took hold in the sixth century. Their “world of warriors, governed by a rich and intense male culture” exemplified the many ways that everything from cultural beliefs to military victories depended upon a sexual structure of mentorship between men. Handsome young men customarily bottomed for older, more powerful men in the Roman city. Seen as part of a nobleman’s pleasurable lifestyle, they took on “a passive role as part of their transition to adulthood.” Sodomy, pedophilia, and pederasty (sex with an adolescent), far from being taboo, were widely accepted practices—“admirable activities” that mainlined a sense of youth and power into the active partner. Having sex with male prostitutes, slaves, or preteen boys made sense within the independent city-state’s hierarchy. Rape went hand-in-hand with military conquests, and prisoners and children, Ackroyd points out, possessed “no political role” other than their victimhood. The undesirable union, in this era, was one that took place between free men of equal status, since it violated the Roman sense of sexual conquest and created the potential for political consequences. The layers of political and sexual power run deep here. First, there’s the fact that patriarchy was used as a tool against men and boys in addition to women. Women possessed no political power in Roman London—meaning no vote and essentially no state-recognized identity. They simply were not people in the sense that men were. In effect, this correlation between gender and politics extended both ways: women were identified with the lack of political power, and the lack of political power feminized everyone else who didn’t have it. To Roman men, this meant turning male foreigners and children into appropriate sexual partners without queering their own identities or risking their morality. Their masculine heterosexuality, for all political and ideological purposes, was maintained and reinforced not by the gender of their sexual partners, but by the power structures within which they had sex. The “world of warriors” consisted of a simple binary, imposed upon relationships not yet considered deviant or aberrant: conquer or be conquered. There’s also the implication that in order to ascend to a position better than one’s own—whether that was a position of powerlessness, insignificance, political invisibility, or simply youth—one had to survive a rite of passage that doubled as a kind of sacrifice, offering up the self to forces that were entitled to use and abuse as long as they forged someone new in the end. Ackroyd’s playful documentation of gay monikers throughout early Western history includes as many references to young boys as not: glabrione (smooth skinned boy), catamite (from Ganymede), puer delicatus (sweet, dainty), pullus (chicken), mollis (soft). In some cases, the terms refer also to any male who takes the passive position during sex, such as pathic (sufferer). In certain contexts, a sexual relationship between an older man and a boy supposedly created a transfer of power to the latter, making him likely to gain status as a result. To some degree, the power went both ways: sex has historically proved to be the higher class’s most useful tool in the art of grooming. As an extension of the warrior’s, diplomat’s, or king’s status, the handsome young boy behaved as a masculine symbol of his older lover’s immortality and fame. At the end of the seventeenth century, William Bentinck became one such handsome young boy for King William III, who ennobled him as the Earl of Portland. Bentinck was then quickly portrayed in gossip as the “catamite who rules alone the state.” In being physically desired by a man of higher stature, and in sexual service to his needs, the young courtier gains rank by proximity and enacts a kind of promise to live according to the specific hierarchy he is molded by. Even if, like Bentinck, the court mocks his sudden rise to favour, the envy of his peers and the marked gains in title encouraged sexual closeness to the king. Ackroyd notes: “A flatterer is described by Richard Nicholls as ‘he whose tongue the tail of greatness licks.’” Etymologically, this is probably where we get “ass-kissing.” It also links flattery and mentorship together with a transfer of power in sex acts. For boys, an indoctrination into a world of patriarchal order is meaningful when it advances the “greatness” that benefits them all: male power. * While works about the damaged female psyche focus on the fraught, embittering process of trying to shape a self, narratives about the male psyche give us an impossible trajectory of struggling to master the self. In Whiplash (2014), nineteen-year-old Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) sets out to be the best jazz drummer in the world. As a Buddy-Rich-obsessed freshman at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, he falls under the mentorship of infamous conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), whose violent style of instruction—basically a case study in toxic masculinity—pulls Neiman’s personal life into shambles. Everything about this mentor’s influence is rooted in the idea that to be a musician, Neiman first has to be turned into a certain kind of man—the kind who plays until he bleeds, cares for nothing and no one except music, and will suffer any loss to be the best. The kind who does not indulge in basic human needs, who does not have a desire to be cared for or loved, who does not want anything that music cannot give him. Fletcher’s chosen tools of transformation are fear, alternating with sweet-talk: he terrorizes his all-male band, screaming at individuals for being out of tune, off tempo, or late to practice—then he tells Neiman he should “just have fun.” Chairs are thrown, verbal abuse hurled, and traumas inflicted, but it is all, Fletcher’s aura of greatness promises, for the sake of music: “You know, Charlie Parker became Bird because Jones threw a cymbal at his head.” Neiman dumps his girlfriend, the only non-musical element of his life. He bleeds over his set and “earns the part” on a brutally fast piece of music, all in the name of becoming “one of the greats.” In the making of his supposed musical talent, though, Fletcher has also made an egomaniac out of Neiman. Dismissed from Shaffer, he agrees to file a complaint against Fletcher, then decides to quit music for good, only to run into Fletcher playing jazz at a bar. “I was there to push people beyond what was expected of them,” he tells Neiman. “I believe that is an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louie Armstrong or Charlie Parker.” Soon, Neiman is back, playing for Fletcher, reeled in by the promise of a specifically male, merciless greatness. When he gets on stage for a crucial performance, he realizes Fletcher deliberately hasn’t given him a piece of sheet music. The film ends with Neiman flailing during the first piece, humiliated, but making a comeback to cue the band on his own for the rest of the performance, delivering a fifteen-minute solo with his trademark blood dripping down the sticks, Fletcher staring into his eyes. Up until this point, the imperfect little scar on Miles Teller’s chin, the scattering of acne there, his father’s insistence on putting Raisinets in movie-theatre popcorn—all of it immerses the viewer. But during the solo, as Neiman plays, he transcends the believability of his circumstances and that of his emotional abuse to overthrow his mentor. Fulfilling the dream of masculine mentorship, he achieves what has always been dangled in front of him, what we know is bait thrown by a narcissistic jerk. He gets to be great, and Fletcher, the man who terrifies him, is now his convert. The film isn’t about music—as Richard Brody points out in the New Yorker, it’s pretty inaccurate about jazz—rather, it’s about an archetype. It enacts the wish fulfillment of men who want to believe that competitive ambitions can replace emotional intelligence and a human connection to the life happening around themselves. If the female mentorship represented in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is about manipulating and controlling female desire, male mentorship in Whiplash is about militarizing it, so that nothing vulnerable remains. * As observers, enthusiasts, and finally students of her love life, the girls challenge the basis of Miss Brodie’s prime on a metaphysical as well as sexual level. In addition to being younger and eventually smarter than her, their existence as her mentees undercuts the essentialism of Brodie’s claim that her “prime” makes her more valuable than other girls and women. She treats it as a natural state of her body, like fertility—this quality of being at her intellectual and physical peak that comes from within, tingeing her every act with some divine feminine virtue. But she also continuously promises to impart this supposedly internal condition to the girls, by teaching them to wash their faces with witch-hazel, sit up straight, speak in full sentences, appreciate “Art and Beauty,” and eventually, in Rose’s case, to seduce Teddy Lloyd, the art teacher. The façade of her prime crumbles not because she ages, or because she fails to groom Rose for her old lover—it breaks down into a pathologically recycled mask, worn out by overuse and false logic. When Sandy realizes that her permutations of self are as replicable as Lloyd’s portraits, she gives away a secret to the school headmistress that finally forces Brodie into retirement. “It’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due,” she tells Monica. She points out that crucial cog in the wheels of mentorship that Miss Brodie never understood: in teaching the girls of her supposed prime, she also teaches them the inner mechanics of her manipulations and deceptions. She teaches them of her intense hunger to control, and in doing so, shows them how to thwart that same control. In a bid to escape the manipulations of Brodie’s puppet strings, Sandy spends her life in the nunnery. She writes on religion and morals, at least partially because she knows Brodie would disapprove—they are far from her influence, even if her influence is precisely the thing that drives Sandy there. * My obsession with mentorship manifested in a frenzied desire to collect any and all representations of this dynamic. I couldn’t watch a movie without understanding it through a lens of influence, manipulation, self-transformation, or metamorphosis. I re-watched scenes that gave me the same quiver of excited anxiety Miss Jean Brodie did. Angelina Jolie’s first appearance in Girl, Interrupted, when she’s led after an escape back to the halls of Claymore in cuffs, each of her ward-mates visibly affected by her sudden re-entry into their lives. The lunch scene in Carol, when Belivet is intimidated by the way Carol orders without looking at the menu and, when the waiter turns to her, can only say, “Um, I’ll have the same.” The moment in Mona Lisa Smile when Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing Giselle, looks in the mirror and asks, referring to the controversial new art history teacher, “Do I look a little bit like her?” These women, in female company, live in an ongoing act of overlapping influence: traces of it flash through dialogue, bearing evidence of how they actively choose to shape themselves into and against each other. I watch that terrifying little moment cross their faces and think of how I once jotted down every gesture in my fourth grade classroom that impressed me, from the way my teacher wrote her number 3s with jagged zigzags to the fluid movement of a blonde classmate packaging her hair into a hot-pink scrunchie. In immersing myself in stories of mentorship and sifting through them, I felt some kind of purpose. I wanted to figure out what made us (us, all humans, but more specifically, us, young women) like this. I wanted to calculate how many insecure attachments it took to tip certain individuals into a dissociative state fragile enough to absorb influence so hungrily. I wanted to know, most of all, what they did with it, how they survived, what they became. I couldn’t scroll through Twitter without thinking of mentorship on a grander or smaller scale (Larry Nasser’s trial, Reddit relationships posts, Queer Eye, Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos). I listened to podcasts about infectious diseases and sat haunted by the idea of my desire to become other people infiltrating my identity, replacing it on cellular level. I found writing about mentorship paralyzing. It was difficult not because I didn’t know what to say—I could, and did, speak with friends at length about my obsession—but because I felt, in my endless note-taking, that my ideas only added up to proof that there was no way out of this maze. I was observing literary and cultural patterns that reflected at me from every surface of life: they made up the texture of the world I lived in, the things I consumed, the way I behaved, the way I wrote. It wasn’t just in the air around me—it was the air. I couldn’t see it from the outside, because I had defined it for myself in such a way that there existed no outside. The search for representations of mentorship resulted in my being convinced that I needed someone to explain my web of citations and references to me, so that I might understand how they—how I—fit together. Describing my system of becoming did nothing to dismantle it. It only grew more complicated, more difficult to distinguish between the framework of my questions and the content I’d used to form them. As the art teacher of Miss Jean Brodie repeatedly paints Ms. Brodie’s face, no matter which of her pupils he uses for reference, I wrote the same things down no matter which film I watched. Does mimicry reveal weakness in a person?—or power, in its chameleon-like detachment? Does a toxic mentorship fundamentally change the person experiencing it, or does it only bring out a kernel of selfhood that always existed? The questions feel truer than their possible answers. For now, I will have to be satisfied with them.
The Desiring Self

I have begun to obsess about this one kiss. A kiss. What the hell difference would a kiss make?

There has been much grief. Change does not slip around me with ease. I do not go gently. But little by little, I become convinced. I have seen something new—a glimmer of truth in the rent fabric of my universe—and, just as they say, once you see, you cannot unsee. There is no going back, only forward. I recall meeting a Toronto editor for coffee and telling him how I’d blown the whole thing up, blown the lid off, blown it wide open, and him saying, “Well, it looks good on you. You look happy. I’m happy for you.” All true, and in between it looking good on me, in between bouts of that happiness (a thing that was never my goal), much weeping. More weeping in the last three years than I care to recount. An ocean, a melted glacier’s worth. My body has been melting: from eyes, heart, cunt.  The first thing is critical theory, a schoolgirl crush on Jacques Lacan. And Jacques Derrida. Okay, and also Sigmund Freud. I want to hug Roland Barthes (even if the author is dead) and cradle Michel Foucault (because not everyone is out to get you, sweetness). I have a jealous respect for Julia Kristeva because she dares to write such impossible sentences. Is this normal—to fall in love with philosophy? I mean really in love? Is it normal to get off on theory? It’s the vulnerability in-between their lines that opens my heart. There is a scene in Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” in which he recounts getting lost walking in Venice and finding himself repeatedly in the red light district. Who tells this about themselves? Who dares tell the story of being confronted with himself in this way? My friend, Sarah, says, “It’s not a scene, Kathryn. It’s not a novel.” She’s right. It’s Freud’s narrative of the self: of a self who is willing to tear away his own persona to get at something else, something more curious. I adore Freud’s personal anecdotes: the one about the friend who decorates with matchboxes, the one about his grand nephew coping with the anxiety about his mother leaving to work each day by way of mastering a spool of thread—throwing it out (fort) and pulling it back (da)—and how this simple game of fort/da inspires Freud to think harder about the soldiers he was witnessing in his clinic who were suffering shell shock. It’s the most minute observation, and from it Freud recognizes psychoanalysis’s most powerful observation of all: the death drive—our strange drive toward repetition, the inclination we harbor to greet our worst traumas over and over again, and thus also reiterate the possibility of facing that trauma, and so heal. *** My new analyst wonders what brought me to his office and I tell him that I am pursuing a PhD, that my research is theoretical, and that I want the therapy to enhance and amplify my reading. I want him to believe that my work in his room is theoretical. That it forms part of my study. “Oh yeah?” he says. Even now I can hear the incredulity in his answer. He can hear that I am positioning theory as a defense against therapy, because whatever else, I do not like the idea that I need therapy. Isn’t therapy a big crank? My then-husband thinks so. Get busy and your problems will disappear is how he approaches life. This mantra has (badly) served many. “Tell me about your graduate project,” my new analyst says. Which is when I burst out crying. It is nice that he tells me right then that he had a client once who cried through several months of sessions. It makes me feel more or less intact. I, at least, get words out in between the tears. I get whole thoughts out even while blowing my nose and covering my face. “It’s normal,” he says. “It’s cliché, you mean?” I answer. He laughs and I immediately form a crush on him. My mirror, my healer. In psychoanalysis they call love transference. Transference is the first thing that my analyst explains to me. He draws a square. I am in one top corner, and he is in the other, in the bottom corners rest our unconscious selves—all the material that I am messily melting. I watch his lips while he speaks. I know it’s completely gauche to do so and yet I can’t help it. I was taught to look people in the eye. But people’s eyes never do interest me. I like watching people’s lips to see their words coming out. I like the invisible network of meaning with which the lips are asked to grapple. My analyst’s lips are kind. On the image, he draws lines from me to him and from him to me (“that’s us talking in the therapeutic session”) and then he draws vertical lines from him to his unconscious and from me to mine (“That’s the dialogue between each of us and our repressed selves”). Then he traces lines on the diagonal between our conscious selves and each other’s unconscious selves (“That’s you and me in conversation with each other’s unconscious meanings”). He pauses, then, before drawing lines between our unconscious selves (“And that,” he says, “would be our unconscious dialogue.”). This kind of game is very scary, I think. And then I think how it is all in pursuit of a kiss, because that is what I have really come to talk to him about, even if I won’t dare mention it for weeks and weeks. Instead I say, “Fort/da.” “What about it?” “Is it always the case that we are destined to repeat?” “They say so.” “Is there a way out?” “Yes, in some cases. It’s a matter of work.” “The fort/da game is work?” “Yes. It is.”  *** The fact is, I am not happy at all, not happy in my mothering, and not happy in my marriage. I am mostly just frozen in time, reading these brilliant ideas and trying and failing to keep them at bay. It is bound, the iceberg that is me, to eventually calf and send crazy ripples in every direction. I have begun to obsess about this one kiss in 2013. I have won a writing residency fellowship and met an artist and, because he laughs at my jokes and I like the attention he gives me, I fall in love (cue your laughter). I do not know much about the unconscious at the time. I do not have any such skills to think through my feelings and so I am simply left with the dismaying chaos of love and lust and yearning lapping at me in my far-away-from-home residency bedroom. I clutch the symbolic Chanel scarf that a friend who has heard I am going to this well-respected residency has given me. “Marriages crumble in the magic of that place,” she has said. It is silken fabric festooned with a bold gold chain design. I wrap it around my face and masturbate. Alone and frustrated, I find myself in love with someone not my husband and all I can think of is not that I want to make love with him but rather that I want, very badly, very obsessively, to kiss him. I want my tongue down his throat. Kissing is not exactly chaste but it isn’t the same level of transgression. I can keep a kiss to myself—a secret gem of knowledge, a microscopic lie. I’m not especially proud of this thought trajectory but that nevertheless does not stop me wanting that kiss. If this was a dream and I was parsing it for meaning, it would be bland: I want to kiss an artist. His art is serious, engaged with world politics, he himself is engaged in the world in a way I wish for myself. I want to make a worldly difference with my work and it is hard to gauge; I feel small where I want to feel large. ***  A kiss. What the hell difference would a kiss make? The experiment of how to desire without consuming I most like is the one that puts young children in front of a marshmallow. The child is told that if they wait until the experimenter returns, they will be given a second marshmallow. Developed by Walter Mischel, the project is interested in the development of self-control. But what self-control here means is that they have to wait. Regardless of whether the child endures the seeming torture of this delay (in videos on Youtube children bang their heads, poke themselves and cringe as they wait), in the end the child always consummates his desire. He either gets immediate satisfaction or he gets twice the gratification later. Yearning only grows with the wait, it seems. Eros builds the more we try to stave it off. In one case, a young, desperate boy, puckers his lips and tenderly kisses his marshmallow. This boy has solved the problem of his desire in this moment by having his cake (kissing it) and eating it, too (well, he eats two of them). Eros is untameable, ungovernable. The heart wants what it wants. All the things that I fantasize the artist is, I want for myself, and I think I will achieve it by way of a kiss. It’s an extravagant wish fulfillment delusion. My desire hits the node of the exquisite lack in my being (my hungry wound): I want to be made more myself, I want to consume this imagined future, by way of kissing it. If my lips can only graze up against this man and his work, then won’t I be able to more fully taste it? Won’t the kiss give me back something, won’t it inoculate me into a new path of discovery? The part of the story I cannot admit to myself is that if I felt better about myself, my actual physical body, I might obsess about fucking him. Instead, I repress my self-loathing (my aging, dry, fat body—how I internalize myself at that time) by substituting a kiss for sex. Different orifices, sure, but desire always finds its object. When I dare to ask the artist for what I want, after months of looping thoughts and school-girlish fantasy, I am rebuffed. He does not wish to break up my marriage. He says that he doesn’t want to be “that guy.” It’s true it is a hard time in my marriage. I am seeking a way out—not yet out of the marriage because I’m not quite sure I can bear that (the renegotiation I sense that would be—with myself, my children, with the world)—but rather out of my feelings, of the malaise of self-hatred. I want to be loved even if I don’t think I’m worth the effort. I want a contract by way of a kiss; I want a little slip of knowledge suggesting a more-ness about me. I remember with sickening clarity the prognosis of a friend of mine on her narcissistic, self-loathing husband: that he thinks he is the piece of shit that the world revolves around. The artist’s rebuff solidifies this awful projection for me. Nothing will change in my life. I am not the sort of person to whom change happens. I don’t reckon in the big scheme of the world in such a way.  *** Psychoanalysis is, for me, the practice of sinking a bucket into the well of my unconsciousness and watching, dismayed, disrupted, fractured and melancholy, at what the contents of that bucket reflect back at me once I bring it up to the surface. Often it’s ugly, often it’s shocking, but always it feels like something accurate is being revealed to me. It feels as if layers of material that have, over time, accreted to my skin, are being shed and that I can, finally, and with great relief, breath again. There is a great deal of compost there, gobs of actual shit, and the sort of snakes that relish that. I have let this compost fester for overlong and now, unbeknownst to me, I have come seeking help. The thing about compost, for good or bad, is that it rots whatever is around it, too. It’s why we floss our teeth, it’s why we move the bad apple out of the pile. This longed-for kiss was eating me, which is what fantasy does if you don’t act upon it.  *** I try to write it out of my system, try to purge it by telling a couple of friends. One of these friends—Abe, a poet—listens to my story and as I finish telling him, I ask him if he thinks it’s possible to have strong feelings like this for a person and be utterly mistaken in thinking that they are returned. He is quiet for a time and then says that he thinks that we, too, have something between us. He doesn’t believe that it’s possible that my feelings are entirely unrequited. He says that desire only reaches that pitch if it’s mutual. I’m grateful to Abe for daring to validate my erratic, disinterested love object. I consider again this idea of my unconscious in discourse with the repressed material of other people, how we speak to each other in uncanny ways, with the strange language of body. ***  Kissing is so lovely, I’m thinking (all the time!). Kissing makes me feel more myself, makes me feel good in my skin, in my body, makes me feel juicy. In a good kiss, all the nerves vibrate, the cells stand up at attention. The tongue, the lips, the teeth of the other person press into me. My mouth explores the other’s body from this one focused body part. My mouth—the whole apparatus of mouth, teeth, tongue—charts their entire organism in the way that acupuncture tracks neural pathways. This exquisite idea of kissing runs through the body. Kissing is, they say, the most intimate of sex acts, but it is also more than that. It is the most fine, elegant, grotesque hunger. The mouth is the face of desire in this regard. It is the place from which we consume, the portal to the desiring self. It is the place where words spill from us and merge us to the great other—society—and it is the place that welcomes our food, our elemental needs, and our lust for life. By eating the things we lust after—food and mouths and other body parts in the sex act—we symbolically accrete the objects we want to ourselves. We absorb and have by way of our mouths. Kissing achieves this sense—or at least it does for me—of getting something, of luxuriating inside a wholeness. Adam Phillips writes that “with the mouth’s extraordinary virtuosity, [kissing] involves some of the pleasures of eating in the absence of nourishment.” In this way, we eat each other. Oh, to kiss! When I kiss and that kiss is reciprocated, I feel what Freud calls the oceanic. I feel awash, unmoored, disconnected from the constraints of my life—I feel languorously, dangerously, wickedly creative. At the time of wanting a kiss and only a kiss, I have not felt this for a great long time. I have not kissed in this way for what seems like years. Marital kisses have become perfunctory, a chore, like the dishes, or taking the garbage out—one kisses in marriage because one is supposed to. Those little hard kisses are killing me. I am furious at them, making him kiss me again. “Do it softer, better,” I say. “What was that hard, cold thing?” But it is no use. I have a recollection, a shimmering memory, of proper, sloppy kissing. But it isn’t something we can manufacture any more. It isn’t something one person can have if the other person doesn’t feel it. Kissing is a feedback loop. It is a circular hunger, an ouroboros—a luscious, horny snake eating its tail. It is also an infinite untalking. For if nothing else, the kiss requires no words. It is the opposite of social politesse in this single regard. For what you cannot do if you are properly kissing is talk. Your mouth is full. In this way, kissing elides language so particularly and with such insistence that it plunges one into a disturbing and wholehearted bodily disorganisation. Lacan understood this kind of disturbance to reside outside of language. He named it “the real.” In his theory of language, we are plunged into the abyss of the real wherever language fails us—where language reaches its limit, where language is insufficient, or where we discourse outside language’s mundane and hegemonic meaning. We are in the realm of the real where language ruptures into poetry, or where language shatters us into jokes. Or when we neck. Kissing is surely oppositional to language. Is it not even possible to really speak about a kiss. There is almost no way to describe it without resorting to analogy or without risking obscenity. Well, it is obscene. It must be obscene because it does away with the civility of language, the very thing that constructs our civilized world. It eliminates everything we know, and all that we do not know and cannot know (there are no words for it). That is to say, kissing is nothing. It is the opposite of something. It is nonsense. It is a game—playful and therefore also creative.  *** But not what I am doing. I am not quite able to follow the thread my fantasy leads me down. It is a puzzle inside of which I am trapped. I am busy in my head, circling around kissing. I imagine kissing, jerk off to these imaginings, and do nothing at all about it. Everywhere I go, this magnificent kiss follows me, but never do I do anything about it except talk to a few friends and try to externalize it by writing about it. The kiss is persistent, though—it wants to be played.  *** One key detail about the structure of language as it “creates” the world in which we live is that it is not steadfast—language comprises a spectrum of signification (words) from odiously regulatory to poetically freeing. Language can tell us how to drive a car, manage a money market, or put together a bookcase but it can also incant a song or undo itself in an experimental poem. In the former instances, we may benefit from words staying put and meaning what they mean and, in the latter instances, we might find ourselves excited with their ability to scramble our senses, unlock us from stasis. Because language has multiple valences: metaphor, metonymy, for example, it flies off the handle even as it gestures meaning. And in this way we are bound to an apparatus (language) that leaves room for desire—a language that thrusts us into the real. It has a built-in outlet from hegemonic conformity, one that correlates to desire. ***  For Lacan, desire is connected to the wound of subjectivity—that barred feeling we experience as a result of our entrance into social norms. Desire and lack are bound. We feel this fleetingly—the feeling of something being solved or completed—when we fall in love, when we buy something we badly want. But the fact that desire erupts again and again suggests death drive, a repetition which rotates around our trauma (our subjective lack). Our wound has to do with the way that language structures us into our society, as well as, the particularities of the way by which that wound was incurred. Each of us desires in different ways and these desires therefore have something to tell us about ourselves. We have desires that recur, or love objects that strangely resemble one another, we might find ourselves again and again buying race cars. Desire, as it erupts in objects that beckon us, is always speaking to us about some aspect of ourselves that may benefit from some introspection. Such is the repetition of trauma. The desire to buy a Maserati might be parsed as: I lack drive, I want drive, I want agency, I want freedom. ***  It’s a kiss I want. It’s a kiss I can’t stop myself from wanting. In 2014, a solid year of wishful thinking has been inadequately repressed and I am asked to participate in a large outdoor reading event at a downtown park. The convener has decided that as part of the event there will be a confessional, and that event-goers will be able to confess to authors. I’m a lapsed Roman Catholic so I don’t know why I agree to participate in this: I should have seen God’s hand coming to slap me awake. The first person in my confessional is a middle-aged woman. She tells me, at length and in detail, the story of her long extra-marital affair. She wants advice about whether she should tell her husband. She is miserable with shame. I can’t recall what I say to her but I do remember thinking that people must be hurting in the world if they come into a confessional in a park in midtown Toronto and spill that sort of story to a novelist. Confessing to a writer is ludicrous. Forget absolution. Forget penance. Our salvation is the pen and we are as likely as not to just go ahead and steal your most shameful admissions. I absolve her. I want to give her a hug. The next person who comes in is a woman I have recently “met” through Facebook. She says that she’ll only confess to me if I confess to her. This game seems safe (it is not). I take the opportunity to tell her about the kiss that got away. I have forgotten what she tells me, and after this we become friends and both of us forget—for a long time—the laughs we had in the confessional as I tell this meandering story to her about wanting and failing to procure a simple kiss. ***  I wonder about elision in storytelling. I ask my analyst if forgetting is always defense, if we always elide the bits of stories that terrify us. I ask because I have failed to tell the woman in the confessional the whole of the story of the kiss. I tell my analyst this story now. I recount that the artist has told me that he has a history of errant kissing. That his own partner has the year before discovered his transgressions and left him. His ex-partner then begins a durational performance art piece that involves almost, but not quite, kissing. The kiss that contains trauma, I suddenly think, is that special? And then I quickly overwrite the question with what I know: that every kiss holds trauma. Insofar as every kiss dramatically covers over language, it must always also aim at the heart of things. It wouldn’t feel so delicious if it didn’t aim there. But what is the heart of things for me, and why this godforsaken fantasy kiss that will not go away? Did I somehow vibe into the artist’s marital dissolution—else why him and why just a kiss? My analyst suggests synchronicity, says that experiences sometimes display a kind of symmetry or simultaneity. It feels like magic or God’s hand, if one were to believe in either. Freud would say that it is uncanny, this walking back to the red light district of my heart. It is certainly uncanny the way things replicate not just in my life but also in the so-called real world. Is it possible to replicate on a broader scale? That is to say, can a kiss bounce across individuals? Did the artist unload his desire on me? Did my unconscious speak to his? And then time flies. And in 2016, on a walk, the woman from the confessional stops me under a bower of trees along the Lakeshore in Toronto, the same place I have walked with the artist two years prior. She holds me by the arm and says, “I promise never to do this again if you don’t want me to,” and she lands that fucking kiss right on my lips.  *** I have been fantasizing a kiss, talking about a kiss, and thinking about kissing for three years at this point. I have begun to think that kissing might be dead for me, that the story might have run its course. The short fiction I have written about the kiss is long published, and there is a sense that I have exorcised it by way of writing and talking about it. And then this innocent, slight, glancing kiss. Hardly a kiss, really, because it is so unexpected, I have not really participated in it. It is strange to be kissed by someone new—a woman. We see the kiss in film all the time—we long for it as a marker of plot, as if a kiss signifies a kind of attainment, or ending. But as a performative, it never really does solidify anything. Instead, it seems to unleash us from contract. The feeling it gives is one of freedom, or pure lust, of desire run rampant, of desire spilling into itself, of a thing that cannot contain itself. Maybe that’s why it ends in two s’s and sounds as if it wants only to run away (with one). This reminds me of word lists from early grade reading primers: miss, kiss, bliss, hiss. There is a sense in each instance of movement, egress, transformation, danger, of something not staying put. This particular kiss makes the briefest of contacts, and because it is a surprise, and because it meets me just inside a fantasy I have long held, it cleaves my world. A long-held desire is in that moment consummated but I am barely even there, and the fleeting nature of the bestowal never has a chance of stopping. And all I want is more. The rest of our walk I try to make myself talk, make words form. “I think you should do it again,” I finally dare to say. And so we kiss, this time both of us. A kiss is so innocent seen from the outside. I am not sure I like it. I love it, I want it, it makes me feel lustful and on the edge of something important, but after so many decades of kissing one person, the change in lip is strange, a repetition with a huge difference. Also, I have not known I would want to kiss her. I did not know or build up an idea of this particular kiss and so, in a way, it is a sort of ur-kiss. An exemplar. A kiss for the sake of a kiss. And so, it is a special sort of almost theoretical desire suggesting more. Whatever that is residing in that kiss, with this woman, I want to get to know. Actually, I need to. It is as if a rope ties itself to me and pulls me toward it. I am generally the sort of person to turn a thing over and over in my mind before acting, but this. This feels vocational. Beyond me. Out of me. I call my analyst and say, “What should I do?” and he says, “Well, you can work analytically through the questions and subsequent desires arising from this kiss—or you can muck about inside an embodied exploration.” I ask him if he thinks it’s possible to do both. There is a second of quiet contemplation at the other end of the line, and then I hear him laugh. “Yes,” he says. “Of course. You can have both.” He asks me what I would do if I took away the prevailing taboo—of transgressing my marriage vows. The answer is easy. That rope is tugging me hard, jangling my unconscious.  *** My inability to halt the call to this desire ends with the dissolution of my marriage. Two years of kissing this woman and I am still obsessed. The lip bite, the tongue slide, the nibble, the deep throat, the lip on tooth, the soft touch, a finger slipping in between, a lip that flips the other’s lip—all the nuances of how we kiss wondered at and thought through. Can a kiss feel this good, initiate and sustain such excruciating longing, and simultaneously heal? Is it possible that kissing like this does something good or wholesome to that lack-in-being Lacan spoke about? If the kiss makes it impossible to speak, can something else be amply communicated? Where talk therapy depends on the accidents that burble up in language, the kiss is another kind of discourse. Humans are the only species that kiss in this way—it makes me wonder if all we want in this sex act is to please, please not talk. Walter William Skeat defines the kiss as a “salute with the lips.” Osculation, the Latin for kiss, means “a little mouth, a pretty mouth” and connects up to a mathematical notion of two curves barely touching at a common point. Etymologically, the kiss has a puritanical limit—a mere peck of lip on lip. But the kiss is more than lips in salutation. When we kiss, we cannot eat, we cannot talk, and we limit breathing, too. If we kiss hard, we will eventually die. In this way, the kiss connects us to the part of ourselves that recalls a time before language, even before eating became our concern. The prettiness of the glancing lips is suggestive more of desire than of getting off, is more in line with an unattainable commodity, an unbreachable distance, of a dare barely taken. This has little to do with the true mechanics of a proper kiss in which the participants are merging—eating one another—disabling their language capacities by using their pretty mouths to untalk. And in the chaotic, undoing incidence of this untalking, we lose ourselves.  *** In the first dream I ever recounted to my analyst, I visit a Canadian surrealist poet’s cabin. I have no idea if this poet has a cabin in real life, but in my dream he does, and I want to get into it. Every time I try to open the door and look around, his cat attempts to escape, and I know that if I let the cat out, the poet will know I am trespassing on his sanctuary. My analyst says, “The cat is trying to get out,” and I say, “Yes, it’s curious,” and he says, “But you don’t want to let the cat out?” and then I see and hear it, the sonic charge of my dream. At the time of the dream, there has been no transgression but, already, in my deepest self (the place that only dreams can read), I know there is something I need to keep a lid on, a door closed on, a key locking it down. Now, the kiss, as I begin to explore it, has blown the lid off, for sure. It is this losing myself outside and inside of language that I must have been after all along. I want (still want) the bright, frightening space of losing control, of unlinking from society (from the regulatory aspects of marriage and expectations put on me all through my upbringing), from my ever-busy brain, from the assumptions into which language has woven me. I want the ungovernable eros of kissing to permeate—everything.
‘Perhaps Utopias Have to be Temporary’: An Interview with McKenzie Wark

The author of Reverse Cowgirl on autofiction, an uneasy relation to place, and languages of sexuality. 

I first encountered McKenzie Wark’s hyper-astute thinking about technology, mass media, culture, politics, and critical theory at university, yet her work exceeds academic territory, taking into account class and labour struggles, as well as the impact of global capitalism. A Hacker Manifesto, Gamer Theory, and Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? have all been game-changers in their respective fields, and the 2015 release of I’m Very Into You, Wark’s correspondence with famed writer and artist Kathy Acker, caused a collective swoon amongst Wark and Acker fans alike. Capital is Dead opens with the query: “What if we asked of theory as a genre that it be as interesting, as strange, as poetically or narratively rich as we ask our other kinds of literature to be? What if we treated it not as high theory, with pretensions to legislate or interpret other genres, but as low theory, something vulgar, common, even a bit rude—having no greater or lesser claim to speak than any other. It might be more fun to read. It might tell us something strange about the world. It might, just might, enable us to act in the world otherwise.” In Reverse Cowgirl (Semiotext(e)), Wark’s latest release, she’s done just that, offering up a new model of a transition memoir.  Constructed as a robust series of narrative reflections, cultural observations, and third-party citations, Reverse Cowgirl addresses the question: “What if you were trans and didn’t know it?” An hour before teaching a class on trans aesthetics at The New School, where Wark is a Professor of Culture and Media, she kindly spoke to me about her experiences of trying to answer this question through writing. Esmé Hogeveen: Midway through the book, you write: “This is more a meme than memoir. Not a personal essay so much as an impersonal essay. It’s genre less adventure tale than misadventurous genre tail. Not only literary criticism but also critical literalism. It’s not about coming of age, it’s about the age of cum.” Given that autofiction and autotheory are having quite a moment right now, I’m curious if you felt a need to comment directly on your interpretation of these genres? McKenzie Wark: There’s a tendency to think of autotheory as newly in fashion, but for me, it has roots in Michel de Montaigne, Roland Barthes, Michel Leiris, the later Guy Debord texts. Same with autofiction. Particularly in French literature, there’s a whole vein of writing selves—Marguerite Duras, Guilluame Dustan. I think it’s more interesting, however, to separate out the autofictive from the autotheoretical, and to consider how they become related. Considering how autofiction has become a way to narrate and reflect on non-standard lives strikes me as key. Who are the people who don’t fit the realm of the novel? For me, they’re for whom autofiction exists—where, of necessity, you don’t get to tell stories about marriage and property. And then, next step, to make that conceptual, make it autotheory as well. I’m curious if you had any sense of Reverse Cowgirl fitting into an epistolary tradition? An earlier version was epistolary and addressed to people in the book, particularly those who had passed. I couldn’t sustain that, though, and so I turned it into something else. But letter writing was definitely part of the book’s evolution. The novel comes out of the epistolary tradition, and I was interested in opening up questions about how form is invented as you write, and about how a writer shapes the possibility of who the narrator is. I was curious about how that might happen without defaulting into autobiography, novel, memoir, or letter form.  Speaking of form, there’s a turn that happens between the first and second parts of the book that includes a significant gap in chronology. What inspired you to make this leap, and to expose the reader to almost a meta-commentary on writing in Part Two?  When Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti at Semiotext(e) accepted the manuscript, there was only the first part and the story sort of ended there. It’s a book I tried and failed to write for ten years. I could finally find a form for it just when I decided to transition. At that moment, the topic I really had knowledge of was being what trans people call an “egg.” I had already socially transitioned when I was working on the book, but I wasn’t on hormones, so I kind of see it as a book that ends before it ends. In one sense, there’s a life that is over, and so able to say certain things about itself. But then something else begins: a really excitable and quite naive trans woman appears in the last few pages. She has an almost mythic point of origin, where everything’s new and fresh. So the book has sort of the opposite of the bildungsroman structure, where you come to the truth of the self at the end. I feel like Reverse Cowgirl ends with this person who has no clue who she is whatsoever, but isn’t bored anymore. Did writing about growing up in Newcastle, Australia, cause you to reconsider the influence of “home” on your identity? (I’m doing air quotes around “home” right now!) I quote from one really good book about my hometown (Southern Steel by Dymphna Cusack) and one or two literary friends, but that’s about it. I don’t know how the book is going to play in Australia, because I wrote about Australia in American English. I don’t just mean the spelling—the tone, weight, and meaning of certain words and how they scan doesn’t really have much relation to Australian literature at all. I think the book has a displaced and uneasy relation to place, but I’m kind of a self-hating Australian so that’s all I can say. It’s the expatriate dilemma. But I hope Australian readers might be interested in what an Australian can do within the space of American English. I noticed the discussion about using Australian “arse” versus American “ass” in the chapter that includes your email exchange with Chris Kraus. Arse is just not sexy to me. It doesn’t have the same range of connotations as ass. It reminds me of bad British sex comedy, you know? The reason I prefer French literature to English is that it’s much better for expressing sexuality. There are different affordances and a different eroticism and sensibility that, at least to me, aren’t possible in white, English-speaking Commonwealth language. Since I can only write in English, I definitely prefer American English as a language of sexuality, though.  Were there any aspects of your life you were determined to leave out of the book? Yeah, I won’t write about my kids. The only stuff about my family is really about my parents who are long dead. I generally don’t reveal aspects of my life that involve other people and I’ve hopefully fictionalized some living people enough. The exception would be my partner, Christen Clifford, who was also the book’s first and more thoughtful reader. The book is very, very selectively revealing. I’ve used some pseuds and changed some details, but I’m a little conflicted about those issues. Guilluame Dustan wrote in a serial way that I really like, so there might be a sequel with other stories that lace through and even contradict those of Reverse Cowgirl. In your last book, Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse?, you explored vulgar Marxism. Recognizing that vulgar Marxism is distinct from linguistic vulgarity, I’m still wondering if you sought to describe sex in explicitly “vulgar” or colloquial language when writing Reverse Cowgirl?  That twin sense of the vulgar might connect the autofiction and autotheory sides of my work. Reverse Cowgirl is about bottoming as praxis, and—why not? There are endless descriptions of fucking in the English language, and the best are in porn rather than literature, frankly, because of porn’s interest in detail and suppression of the metaphoric. When writing, I was really interested in how precisely one could describe, particularly remembered, acts of fucking. The sex scenes were written first and all together. I was alone in a hotel room in Seoul, Korea, and supposed to be doing an art world junket and I just wrote all those scenes.  I felt there wasn’t a whole lot written about the details of an egg-state trans woman's sexuality. As I say in the book, no one needs to read more about a cis man fucking a woman, so I only included one scene like that, which plays for comedy because I’m so disassociated when I’m doing it. So the book is vulgar in that sense, and vulgar in the Marxist sense by being interested in what practices are, and by trying, in a very minimal way, to be honest about who is doing what labour and how class comes into it. I’m curious if you anticipated that shopping and fashion would be such core themes? There’s stuff in there about the commodity fetish and the sexual fetish, which again connects autotheory to autofiction, as I had both fetishes at once [laughs]. I was interested in the layering of presentation and how bodies are always erotically and sensorily charged no matter how many layers you’re wearing. You’re never naked in the sense that you’re always wearing an image of yourself, yeah? I was also considering images available in the mass fashion culture of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, so fashion was maybe always going to be there in that I didn’t want to talk about ass-fucking for an entire book. How people appear to each other in everyday life, and how you play with those appearances, is also part of trans experience. For instance, I dressed like a girl through the '70s, and nobody noticed because everything was unisex.  Yes, that comes up in the chapter about David Bowie!    I was trying to recall what it was like growing up in that broadcast culture. There were literally only forty songs played on top forty radio, so you had to find the one song that offered another possibility for how you could exist. You couldn’t go on the internet and find your preferred flavour of being. You had to read through things that were polyvalent and Bowie, for example, was a master of that. I’m thinking about the moment when you reference the Stuart Weitzman 5050 boots. Iconic!  [Laughter] They’re a bit of a trans girl cliché, I think. You can get them in big sizes, although I’m only a women’s 9—runway model size [laughs].  I really appreciated the Otto von Busch quotes about “feral fashion” that you included.  He’s a colleague here at the New School and he’s always spectacularly turned out. I’ve learned a lot from him. He equates fashion with systems of fascism, thinking about submission to dominant style as being a form of aesthetic fascism. I’m putting it a little more strongly than he would, but the idea reminded me of how I never wanted to be too singular while I was growing up. I never wanted to sign off on dominant fashion systems, nor did I want to be a complete outsider, so it felt like I was always negotiating between the two as you work your style through the fashion cycle. Now I just dress all the time like it’s 1967.  While we’re talking about personal style, I’d love to ask whether writing about fashion being in tension with commodity culture made you feel more or less skeptical about clothing’s liberatory potential?  It’s funny, critical theory in the '80s was about trying to reconcile yourself to being inside closed systems, where any form of play was inevitably internal to those systems. Recognizing that your resistance is what those systems fed off of, you still just tried to extract some possibility of belonging in and against the mass commodity market and its fetishistic surfaces. It’s sort of bittersweet now, because I look back and view my fascination with style as also a holding pattern for navigating obtuse gender dysphoria and not realizing I was trans. So fashion was helpful, but also obscuring. Did writing the David Bowie chapter, which is a cross between a letter and an essay, feel like a refreshing opportunity to analyze a character other than yourself?   Yes. Bowie is one of the reasons a lot of us are alive. It was really weird when he died and I learned that all these super straight people also felt connected to him. I thought he was for us, but the whole point of pop culture is that it’s for everybody in all these different ways. And Bowie had a certain genius that was all about appropriation. He stole it all, obviously. You can go through the eras and see how he was appropriating and mixing. But yes, he died while I was writing the book, so his death went into it, too. I felt like I could make him a character that would thread from my teenage years to my emigrant New Yorker life. Bowie came to New York just before I did. That’s a thing about this city: it always had these outsize outside characters who populate it as a popular imaginary space. David Bowie was one of them and it’s just nice to know you walk the same streets that he walked, that Candy Darling walked, that Miles Davis walked, and so on.  Several of the book’s key themes seem to crystallize when you write about Bowie. In the “Queen Bitch” chapter, you describe “teenagers of the seventies [who] lived through the great cult of cock.” You write: “[I]f one had a cock, you could try to mimic the simulated cult of it on display in rock and roll. But if you did, and it worked, the girls you fucked were not dreaming of you. They were dreaming of rock stars. You’ve got to be the substitute for the substitute.” Can you talk about this idea of substitution? It’s from The Who song “Substitute”: “But I'm a substitute for another guy / I look pretty tall but my heels are high / The simple things you see are all complicated / I look pretty young, but I'm just back-dated, yeah.” I remember when that was on the radio, because I’m that fucking old! Those '60s pop songs were like nursery rhymes to me. That was a key song about doubling and replacement. I read it as really being about class, but it contains all sorts of feelings of insufficiency in relation to the idolatry of pop. Bowie came at the end of the era when rock stars were men with big, swinging dicks, and the dick was hidden but supposedly real. It’s interesting how much that’s faded away now. But then to be the substitute of the substitute is '80s semiotic theory—the endless chain of signifiers, each replacing the other. And Bowie is interesting for how he cut across those eras. We know he fucked under-age groupies. He was no saint. But there’s also a camp reading where you know Bowie got fucked in the ass. There’s a way that Bowie’s personas—and that’s what they are, it’s never him—have little particles of someone who bottomed as well as topped and had a complicated relationship to gender and other layers of being. He’s a substitute for a substitute. He’s someone you sort of know has also done some really bad things, but when you get to Bowie, it’s endlessly substitutable and that’s sort of the point. It struck me that this capacity for substitution is what signifies Bowie as different from the rock gods that came before him, the big "authentic" dicks.  You often invoke Greek mythology, specifically referencing the goddess Ariadne and linking her to Bowie’s spiders from Mars. I’m wondering if references to diverse mythologies felt crucial to Reverse Cowgirl’s project of imagining new selves or horizons? As I was working on Reverse Cowgirl, I was writing about Kathy Acker. The Acker book is called Philosophy for Spiders and there will be a lot more Ariadne myth in that, having to do with simulation and doubling and mechanical reproduction. So a bit of the Ariadne myth ended up in this book, as well. Kathy thought that myths begin as a sensation of a chaotic universe but then the story of the myth ends with a somewhat artificial re-establishment of an underlying order. In her own writing, she tended to cut out the parts about order. Instead, she gives us myth’s chaotic face in its pure form. So I wanted to include myths that had the first part of the mythic story without the orderly conclusion. I mean “story” here in the Walter Benjamin sense, as in small templates you can use to think all sorts of different things. Like a template for a concept that isn’t specific, a good myth has the function of being able to do a few things at once. The other myth I played with was another one Kathy worked with: Orpheus and Eurydice. I use Jean Cocteau’s film version. It’s sort of the fulcrum point of Reverse Cowgirl. I felt like I had to include some version of why I transitioned it, but I decided to make it a myth. In my version—spoiler—Orpheus is Eurydice, she is the multitude he contained and can no longer contain. I don’t really care to figure out the origins of my transition beyond that, so myth was useful. My transition happens late in the book, and that last section is where something else begins. With regards to mythic order, you also write, “In my utopia: before anyone attempts to fuck another, they will first have learned how to be fucked. Irrespective of genders or whatnot.” This is advice I give to everybody! Especially cis girls whose boyfriends want to fuck them in the ass. I wanted to give a vulgar description of what a utopia might be. Maybe one that doesn’t scale. Perhaps utopias have to be temporary in time and space. A good rave may be the next scale up in terms of what a utopia can be. I might have to write about that in the sequel. But I wanted to include a utopia that has a minimal reciprocity of both difference and connection. That one learns to bottom before one gets to top is my whole sexual ethics. In an ideal world, boys would not get to put their dicks in anything until they’d been thoroughly penetrated. But would that world ever come? Maybe not. Oh, let’s not rule it out though! Soon after that last quote, you write, “But basically, there are the fuckers and the fucked. I wanted to be, and became, one of the fucked. To become flesh.” I’m curious if you see the positions of “fucker” and “fucked” as always juxtaposed? And, if so, does maintaining space between those positions feel necessary given what you’ve just said about the importance of being fucked being the primary encounter? I have to admit it’s a whole sexual ontology. I don’t know if I’m like that anymore [laughs], which is a weird place to be in. I’m not sure if that’s me anymore. Stay tuned for the sequel! Trans women’s sexuality is a whole other experience that’s not widely written about, although do check out Torrey Peters, Carta Monir, or Juliana Huxtable, for example. But yeah, I wouldn’t want to universalize Reverse Cowgirl or claim it reflects anyone else’s experience. One of the things the book is trying to do is to excessively generalize from a very particular kind of experience—my own—to show that anybody is welcome to do that. The details of any autofiction can also be abstracted into its own wonderfully specific autotheory. There’s a point at which any kind of generalizing becomes crazy. All sorts of universalizations probably come from super weird and specific experiences, so it takes a bit of nuance to accept that one could generalize an entire worldview through one concept of utopia and a very particular sexual act. That generalization could be completely persuasive and real for someone who shares that experience and unreal for anybody else. My concept of utopia doesn’t negate anyone else building a different worldview. It’s more fun to try to put them against each other. Maybe someone else has an entire worldview based on non-penetrative sex. There are versions of political lesbianism that are actually exactly that and my worldview doesn’t negate them. It’s just different. The language of trans-ness doesn’t come until the last part of the book. There’s a great nugget on page 178, where you say, “Since I was already writing this book, I thought about the writing, if ‘thought’ is the right word. More that I felt it. Felt the book in the body, and the body in the world, the book in the world, the world in the body… Since the body felt fine with itself, for once, it felt fine in the world, and the book felt like it could be fine in the world someday, too, or almost.” Was writing the book a process of bidding farewell to a version of yourself?   That’s a whole fallacy around the relation between writing and life. Like, writing doesn’t sum up life at all, as if life happens and then you contemplate it and explain it. I was actually able to go on living by writing the book, not the other way around. It was tempting to go back and change the book once I’d decided I was transitioning, but I didn’t. There were only one or two little tweaks to the music of the text, so the ending doesn’t completely blindside the reader. There isn’t too much teleological foreshadowing going on, at least I hope there isn’t. Did the moment where you take mushrooms at the lakehouse and come to this full—I think you use the word “giddy”—decision about transitioning happen while writing? A little bit, yeah! There was a certain element of deciding on a whim, both about the book and about the transition. The Eurydice myth is fiction, but I did go to a lakehouse and I did have a fantasy while tripping up on that hill. But I wanted to avoid imposing too much retrospective consistency onto things that had happened earlier. I wanted the things I thought I really knew about my pre-transition life to stand and to let the much shorter, second part of the book kind of kick that sideways. I go off somewhere else, but I think that’s more what life’s like. I’ve found it a little uncomfortable that the dominant genre for trans writing is autobiography. They tend to have arcs and end with reconciliation. My transsexual life wasn’t like that at all and I think lots of people, trans or not, have lives that don’t add up or make narrative sense, so I wanted to open and expand what happens in trans writing but also for anyone who finds life too accidental to read like a novel or memoir. With a couple exceptions, I didn’t find myself in the literature that was available, so I wanted to open a space for other trajectories.
‘These Stories Have Been Around for a Long Time’: An Interview with Carmen Maria Machado

The author of In the Dream House on gaslighting, the lack of institutional capacity for change, and formal experimentation. 

When I meet author Carmen Maria Machado—essayist, National Book Award finalist for the fiction collection Her Body and Other Parties, and now memoirist—it's a bleak, freezing morning in Toronto. She had been out late at an event promoting her new book, In the Dream House (Strange Light), and is fighting a brutal cold. I'm there to talk to her about this newest book, which chronicles an abusive relationship Machado had with an ex-girlfriend. In the Dream House is primarily written in the second person, as though Machado is addressing a younger version of herself who is simultaneously excited about the new relationship and slowly trying to grapple with the accumulating red flags that present themselves through her girlfriend's controlling, rage—induced behaviour. Alternating her own memories with cultural criticism, she looks to fairy tales, academic texts, pop culture cornerstones, and other mediums in order to relate her own experiences in a larger context of abuse narratives that centre on heterosexual physical violence.  It was, of course, a heavy subject to broach on a weekday morning while Machado is drinking an herbal tea, but it's subject matter that she has been sitting with for years now—first in her life, then in her art, now in a press tour. Still, she has a lot to say, often letting one thought trail off before switching to another, still trying to find the right words to express what is widely experienced but rarely talked about. Anna Fitzpatrick: You're touring a book right now that's about trauma, so my first question is just, how are you doing? Carmen Maria Machado: [Laughs] Great opening question. I don't know. I'm OK. I'm fine—my little pin [points to pin on her lapel that has a cat in a box that says "I'm Fine."]. It's been really hard. The process of writing the book was hard, and the process of touring it. Touring it is not as bad, but it feels similar. It's very intense, and I certainly will be excited to be done with this part of it, and I'm excited to talk about other things. Have you been meeting people on tour who have been sharing their experiences? I have, which I expected. I get a lot of messages online. I think, when you feel like someone's speaking to you and you haven't felt spoken to, people respond in kind with their stories. Which was, I'm assuming, one of the goals of the book. Such as with its dedication: "If you need this book, it is for you." For sure. There's one part of the book where you're talking about fitting your story in this history of queer abuse narratives, of which there aren't that many, and you bring up one example with this Bollywood movie Girlfriend. It shows the butch woman as abuser, and the femme as a mostly straight woman who is temporarily seduced away. In a lot of depictions of abuse, it shows this similar dynamic. How do you think this fits in with how society views these gender dynamics, and the way these biases are placed onto queer relationships? The fact that that story—you know, "Oh yes, the butch, the man, is the abuser." That was a thing I found doing my research, when people are talking about it they would talk about it, like, as butches beating femmes, this reproduction of this heterosexist dynamic. It's obviously fucked up, and not accurate, and not helpful to anybody, 'cause it just reproduces this idea that only men or masculine people abuse, and women or feminine people are abused. And it's like, no, that's not the dynamic. That's a version, but it's not the only one. Your book is about how the way we talk about abuse is in this limited imagination, that even when people try to "queer the narrative" that imagination is still limited. Well, the narrative is insufficient. It's very gendered, it's very white, it's very size-ist, you know, this idea of a big dude beating a little woman. All these very weird assumptions and connections that we project onto it. But it's very interesting, because it tells us a lot about how we imagine trauma, and how we imagine violence, and how we imagine gender, and all these things. Formally, your book has been getting a lot of attention. Every chapter heading in the book calls attention to different narrative conceits. In the process of writing that, did you start with just writing and seeing which themes or motifs jumped out, or did you work backwards? It just depends on the chapter. The memoir bits, those I was writing what happened. I just wrote what happened, and then figured out how to frame the discrete scenes or pieces of it. For the essay ones, and a lot of the ones where I'd do like, time travel, I'd think about time travel in relation to this whole thing, and then I would write from the prompt of the conceit. It was really dependent on which chapter it was. Did having those prompts help? Oh yeah. A lot. I work from prompts really well. I work from conceits and constraints, and I feel like my brain, somebody gives me a thing and then I take it and run with it. It's actually really helpful to have those things. I don't know if I would have thought in those exact terms if I hadn't had that thing kicking off my brain. Which sections were most challenging to figure out, in terms of form rather than theme? Just the general shape of the book. Putting everything in order was really hard. My editor actually had to help me do it. He did it for me [laughs]. When I was writing it, the memoir bits were in chronological order, but all the history pieces were in the order I wrote them in the document. I was like, OK, I actually have to put these in throughout, and I had to figure out where they belong, and so I actually had to have him do it, because I was so stressed out and I couldn't make it work. I was like, "Can you do this for me? My brain is truly broken." He was like, Yeah, of course, and he did it. It was amazing. Who was the editor? Ethan Nosowsky at Graywolf. He's a genius. He's a really—we're very simpatico. Our brains are just very synced up in that way. He did a great job. He put it in the correct order. Writing the individual pieces wasn't necessarily formulaically difficult. I guess the Choose Your Own Adventure had a lot of things I had to figure out. What sorts of things? How to structure it, because you had to map it out. You have to make sure it's doing all the things you want to do. That one took some work. With trying to find these thematic narratives, you look to a lot of stories that don't necessarily depict abuse in an overt way. The most notable one is the Star Trek chapter ["Dream House as Five Lights"]. You have essays about Disney Villains and old films. How did looking at these different forms of pop culture, different ways to tell stories, how did that help you ground your experiences, if at all? I don't know if they grounded it. I feel like I was just really interested—I'm sort of a voracious consumer of books and movies and video games and TV, and that is just the way I've always been. I feel like it was really interesting to me to see the ways human experience is really fractured and fragmented through those narratives. They gave me lenses to think critically. I feel Gaslight was really instructive, sort of for a few reasons. Like the story of it, evolution from play to film to second film, and the way they tried to destroy the old material to pretend it didn't exist, that was really interesting. The fact of Gaslight being a narrative in which, actually, the husband is not—like, he doesn't lay a hand on her. He does illegal things, but not to her. There's a lack of violence, physical violence. It's a lot of emotional and psychological violence. That seemed important and relevant. It seemed the way in which Gaslight just had this cultural footprint with the language, the way we talk about it, gaslighting seemed relevant. It feels like so many things pull out of that one film, or that one property, because it's been multiple things, that story, it feels so... Star Trek is the same way. That episode where I was like, Oh, there's something happening in here about, you know, being told to think a thing that is not true, and then eventually coming to believe that it's true, which is really fucked up. Or "Voices Carry," talking about Aimee Mann, talking about how that song was initially about a woman, which is such a strange thing. What a weird footnote. It just felt like a different way of thinking about it and understanding it and getting a different sense of how other people have thought about these things. The Aimee Mann example is such an interesting one, because the seeds of the story are there. The stories are in the public, there's this history there, they're just not talked about explicitly. The thing about "Voices Carry," I remember years ago hearing that from someone. Like, someone said to me, "I heard that 'Voices Carry' was supposed to be about a woman." And I was like, "Really?" And then I was looking it up and thought, surely someone has written about this, and I, like, found the material where the producer is talking about it, and thought, "OK, great, so I have that." Again, I thought certainly someone has written about this, this seems so relevant. Couldn't find anything. To the point where I was like, "Is this really anything?" It just felt really strange, that I heard a rumour, someone mentioned it to me. Like the Berenstain Bears Mandela Effect. Exactly! It's also like, it was for a while on the Wikipedia page for "Voices Carry," but then at some point it was gone. It's a fact that just seemed to exist in this weird liminal space. It's like, how weird, you know? What a weird super apt metaphor. It was so accurate, and the fact of it just being made with male pronouns, but that the video is so over the top, and he's so masculine, it's just so interesting to me. I feel like those pieces just gave me a whole new way. It wouldn't be enough to just be in my own brain, because my own brain is insufficient. I need to sort of be looking in what other people have done and talked about, and that just feels important to me. That's sort of one of the big points of art, to see certain narratives reflected, and to know that the history of queerness didn't start in 2008 or whatever, when certain mainstream sources started to pay attention to it. The same with the history of abuse. Right. These stories have been around for a long time. "Gaslight," I feel that's a term that a lot of people didn't really know about until a few years ago, but then it just hit the mainstream. If you search on Twitter now, you'll see thirty different definitions of what it means. We're having a moment where people are talking about abuse, and so many stories are coming forward, but in a way that's sometimes messy, and people don't know what the next steps are. People are still debating what gaslighting is, or people discussing what we're supposed to do with the art of "bad men," and all these other conversations. I was wondering if you've given any thought to what happens next? Hmm. It's funny because obviously there is no agreed upon... like a formal body of who said what gaslighting is. I think people use it to mean a lot of things of which I don't think are always accurate or useful as I would want them to be. I think it's also funny because I found it very useful to go back to, not just the original film, but to go to the source material, and watch the movie, and watch it many times. I feel people are always saying the wrong thing about it. I feel people are always saying, "He's trying to drive her crazy!" There's just all these weird ways people talk about it when they clearly haven't seen the movie, or they don't really understand. I feel going back to it and looking at what he does and his intentions and motivations, is actually far more interesting and subtle and really fucked up, more than I think people fully realize. I feel there's something useful about going back to that material and looking at it that way. People use the word to mean a lot of things. I think it's fully used when describing a full system, so I feel like, in the same way that you can be gaslit in a relationship, you also can be gaslit at a job, where there's a closed system in which there are these agreed upon facts and there's a power structure, and like, you can be manipulated in this way. I've had friends use that word, "gaslighting," to describe a work experience they've had and I'm like, yeah, that feels actually very accurate. Gaslighting also exists in closed systems of oppression. I feel like we can culturally gaslight people. We can culturally gaslight women. We can culturally gaslight people of colour. There's a sense of undermining what has happened through agreed upon cultural amnesia. It is possible to do it in that way. Some people use it to mean "I don't like what's being said to me" and that is not quite gaslighting. I don't know how it connects to #MeToo directly. #MeToo is very interesting to me because I did an event last week at the height of my illness, so I was in a very bad mood. It was at the Strand in New York. Someone asked me about #MeToo, and I think one of the biggest revelations of my adult life has been what I want to tell to people who are younger. I'm not old. I'm in my thirties. But what I want to say to people who are in their twenties and in their teens is, #MeToo is good. It's good that it's happening. I don't think it's going to create long-term change because I don't think that the people who are in power have sufficient incentive to change the way that they behave. We've created a power structure where it's impossible—I think individual things can happen. Good individual things, people can be individually punished, but do I think the culture of men feeling entitled to women's bodies and minds and stories, is that ever going to change? No, I don't think so. I think that's the fact of the world. I don't want to believe that's true. A thing I've come to believe is, expecting institutions, like media institutions or universities or whatever, to do the right thing is really quite pointless. I think when they do do the right thing, it's by accident. It's because the right thing also serves their interests. Institutions are meant to maintain their own longevity. Their function is to keep existing. They will do that in whatever way they can, and sometimes that might include going after somebody bad, but it also might not. I feel like I've watched institutions both relevant to my own story and to this book, and also to other people, all kinds of things, just make bad choices of self-preservation that throw people under the bus and there's no recompense. There's no recourse. I feel that's a very dark and depressing way of thinking about it. I don't want to believe it's true. But I feel it makes the world make a lot more sense. If you believe these things are going to change, you're going to feel sad and disappointed forever, but I've recognized expecting the right thing to happen in this sort of arena, that there's just no point. You have to do what you can do individually because expecting larger groups of people to do the right thing is sort of pointless. Again, I feel people disagree with me. Once I said that, I was at an event and a lady came up to me, and she was like, "Are you in therapy?" I was like, "I'm in so much therapy. I love therapy!" But I'm just saying I don't feel optimistic about the world. We're getting a little better. When it does happen I'm pleasantly surprised. I don't know. Or there might be one public figure associated with an organization scapegoated while the institution doesn't change. Exactly. Right, where it's like, Oh, we can fire so-and-so for saying this thing, but these larger problems going on in our organization can go unchecked. I feel when you realize that, it really does make the world make a lot more sense. Honestly, when I figured that out—and I figured that out through the process of going through this stuff in my life that became this book—once I figured out that that was what it was... [pauses]. It made me feel less crazy. Because I was like, this is actually what's happening. You have this scene in the book where you visit ex-girlfriend's family, and you see that she wasn't created in a vacuum. You talk about her father, and these patterns that have replicated themselves. You also point out that almost nothing she did was technically illegal. I think that speaks to your point about how just occasionally punishing the one public bad person without looking at the systems that create this or the ways abuse happens on a spectrum beyond what is or isn't legal— Right. I think it requires a kind of nuance that we're not capable of on a large scale. You know what I mean? Trying to convince people to do the right thing, or to be critical of themselves, or be critical of their own sexism or racism or homophobia or whatever, I think people want to believe that they are fundamentally good, and that other people are fundamentally good. To encounter evidence to the contrary is very stressful to people. I don't think we want to change in a way that would actually effect change. And to believe also that people exist in a dichotomy of good or bad— Exactly. You want people to be cackling maniacs, like I say in the book. We want people to be like, "Muahaha," twirling the mustache, tying damsels to railroad tracks, and it's like, "Well..." Sometimes people are just fucking selfish, and they don't care, and that doesn't make them evil. It just makes them indifferent or amoral. I don't know. I don't know. Has it become easier to talk about, with the more interviews you give? It's about the same. The thing about being on tour for anything is that you eventually figure out what your answers are, and you say them, and I feel like I'm able to talk about it because it's in this sheath of, "Well, I've now said the answer to this thing or this thing so many times." I can deliver it without having to engage with what it means in my mind and my inner, most tender self. I already did that. It's in the book. I don't want to do it again. It's funny, last night when I read, I went out afterwards with some folks from Strange Light, and Anthony [Oliviera], the guy that I did the event with, was like, "You were so present. What does it feel like to read from the book?" And I was like, Oh I seem present, but I'm a million miles away. I could deliver those in my sleep. If I really thought about what I was saying, if I really super engaged, I don't think I'd be able to get through it, you know? So, I have to kind of create this distance for myself. I could recite the Bluebeard chapter from memory. I need that for my own sanity. The stuff that's really interesting to me is the formal stuff. I like talking about structure and craft. That to me is very interesting. I'm a little less interested in talking about—which doesn't mean that people shouldn't ask me about it—but I'd rather talk about structure than about the worst thing that ever happened to me. But you know. It is what it is. I'll tour the book until I don't, and then I'll never talk about it again [laughs].
‘We Show So Much of Ourselves to Our Friends’: An Interview with Laura McPhee-Browne

The author of Cherry Beach on exploring different ways of being, becoming comfortable with open-endedness, and putting yourself out there.

Laura McPhee-Browne’s debut novel Cherry Beach (Text) is about friendship, but it's also a love story, in that your earliest best friend-ship can be the most comforting and cruel form of romance; a potential blueprint for any kind of intimacy thereafter. Shifting between Toronto, Canada, and Melbourne, Australia, we follow Hetty and Ness, two young women who embark on a new life together overseas. They are the kind of friends who “took everything as an omen”: the good things that happened to them meant they’d made the right decision while every obstacle or mishap threatened to take them further away from the life they’d imagined for themselves. And yet the universe has a plan for them that they aren’t entirely aware of.  The novel frequently reveals how social anxiety disorder can color the reality of growing up. Ness, shy and gentle, begins to learn from a young age how loyalty can be a blessing when navigating competitive environments: she understands that kids at school see her as cool because her new friend Hetty treats her like she is important. When older, and living in a share house, she interprets her housemate’s dog nuzzling at her legs to mean "don’t worry." She performs incidental, everyday okay-ness when everything’s overwhelming. The endless possibility of a place hums throughout Cherry Beach, too: having a heart-to-heart with a friend over sweaty jugs of beer at the Grace Darling Hotel in Collingwood, Melbourne, or kissing in the noodle aisle of a supermarket in Koreatown, Toronto; the lack of a “grand hurrah” when walking out through the airport doors after a long time away. Here, home isn’t just a place on a map either—it can also mean a person you’ve known for a very long time, especially when it’s time to move on from the bubble you’ve created with them. Laura and I spoke to each other leading up to the launch of Cherry Beach in Melbourne.  Nathania Gilson: When I read Cherry Beach, I was reminded of the way Mary Gaitskill rejects traditional female ideals of goodness, kindness, and beauty in Bad Behaviour, and the messy friends-like-family intensity of the Neapolitan novels. I wonder what you hoped to contribute to the canon of queer romance novels, or literature that explored both the most difficult and most tender parts of female friendship?  Laura McPhee-Brown: I wanted to contribute to the canon of queer romance novels simply because there aren’t enough of them, and when I was growing up I would have loved to read more queer fiction. I also loved the Neapolitan novels in part because the love between Lenu and Lina was almost indefinable. That passion and nuance is something I’ve experienced in all my close female relationships, but it hasn’t always been written about. I wonder if Hetty is a modernization (almost Melbourne-ization) of the literary “bad girl” archetype. There’s a line in the novel (from Ness’s perspective) that goes, “Later, I would wonder what it would be like if Hetty and I had a different kind of friendship, or if we were different people: the kind who laid it all out and hoped for the best.” How did Hetty come to life in your head; what were your hopes for her as a character your readers would meet, and form their own ideas about? It’s funny—many of the people I’ve spoken to who have read the book so far have seen Hetty as a rebel; a bad girl and the life of the party. But when I was writing her, I saw Hetty as lost, and ramshackle, and in no way confident, despite her charisma and her beauty. I wanted her to be a bit of an enigma; I wanted her to be seen by the reader the way Ness saw her, and for her to come undone in the reader’s mind as she came undone in Ness’s mind. I also wanted to write a character that was anxious about life in a different way to how I am anxious about my own life, because I thought that would be fun to try and do. Hetty seems to glide through many parts of existing that other people around her find difficult, but at her core she is an anxious being. She just doesn’t quite know how to voice that anxiety, or how to slow down and look at it. There’s a lovely observation about Canadian-ness versus Australian-ness in the novel as well: how Canadians are conscientious and polite whereas Australians can speak like “brazen weed.” How much of the novel involved showing readers the tendencies toward cultural miscommunications; and how much of it was about how opposites attract, in friendship and romance? I never thought of Australians as particularly direct, or brash, or open. I don’t think we necessarily are, but when compared to the average Canadian, our tendency towards self-deprecation and our love affair with camaraderie can feel excessive and pushy. I don’t think I deliberately set out to explore the idea that opposites attract, but I can see how that came through. I enjoy writing characters that are contemplative and—in particular—characters who are wary, and passive; in part because I am not this way.  I tend towards spontaneity and rushing my decisions, and Ness does not. It’s enjoyable to explore different ways of being through the writing of fiction. I came to this realization recently when talking to my editor and seeing that many of the characters in my short stories are wary, passive, quiet beings. You’ve published short stories for years in the lead-up to this debut novel. Has the short story form led to any revelations or triumphs that helped you build a muscle or experiment in particular ways when you began writing a novel-length work? I started writing short stories around seven years ago, and am still writing them now, in an ad-hoc way. I never, ever thought I would write a novel, and didn’t think I wanted to, until I came back to Australia after living in Toronto, and felt like I wanted to write something bigger than a short story that would be set there.  Writing short fiction has perhaps taught me how to edit and hone and cut the fat. This was helpful when I was writing the first draft of Cherry Beach. I will keep trying to write novels, for the investment in character development and the experience of inhabiting a fictional world, and will write short stories for the way they are like a piece of art, with every word placed perfectly, and every image needing to speak loud and long. In Cherry Beach, while shy Ness adores whirlwind Hetty in a way that might never be reciprocated, Ness soon meets Faith; someone who makes her feel safe and comfortable. It was beautiful to come across so many vivid descriptions of how developing a crush on someone can make the body come alive; for it to feel “lush and green” on the inside; for “nothing but fizz” to be held inside a tummy. In a world where it is sometimes easier to pander to masculine ideals of female sexuality, what was your process for writing the sex scenes between Ness and Faith?  I thought about how it felt when I was intimate with a woman in the past. The way my body felt on the inside and the way my lover’s body was different and similar to mine in a way that felt good and also scary. Then I imagined the characters (the bodies and minds) of Ness and Faith and how it might be between them if they were intimate. Then I just wrote what felt right. I wanted readers to feel a bit sexy reading those scenes, but also to feel like they were bearing witness to a love building, as well as a desire.  What coming-of-age stories made an impression on you in your twenties? I’m a bit old-fashioned in some ways, and I read a lot of coming-of-age books written in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s when I was in my twenties! My favourite author, Margaret Drabble, writes about the female experience and coming-of-age in Britain beautifully, and her books have always resonated with me despite many of them being written before I was born. Her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, is a tongue-in-cheek, intellectual story about two sisters, and it’s delicious. Possibly my most favourite book ever is The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, another coming-of-age novel set in Britain and written in the 1960s. It’s very dated in some ways, but the way that the characters grapple with what it means to become independent, to be a woman and to have a baby, is timeless to me. I also love (and re-read often) I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. It was published in 1948 but the voice of Cassandra and her observations of her sister Rose’s experiences are so vivid and familiar. Alice Munro is someone who writes young women growing older so well, and I read her stories over and over in my twenties. Her collection of linked short fiction, Lives of Girls and Women, was revelatory for me. The novel’s titular beach is in Toronto, Canada. What were your memories of living in Toronto?  Like most people, I am very sentimental about place, and Toronto as a place made a huge impression on me. I lived there for two years from the age of 29 to 31, from 2014 to 2016. I got to know the city very well by walking the length of it often and also working in a social work job that required me to know the Greater Toronto Area quite intimately.   I wanted to write a book set there so I could re-visit it, I think. Funnily enough, I started writing the first chapter of Cherry Beach while on holiday in Amsterdam one morning early, when I was jet-lagged. It’s possible that being away from home inspires me! There’s a Margaret Atwood celebrity-spotting scene in the book, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on meeting your heroes, or being in close—if serendipitous—proximity to famous people you admire? I’m pretty terrible at meeting anyone I admire, famous or not! I just get very awkward and talk too much, about things that aren’t important, because silence would mean our meeting had failed, in my anxious mind… As much as I’d love to meet the writers I most admire, I don’t think I’d have anything impressive to say, and would likely just gush and go red in the face. Something I was reminded of in reading Cherry Beach, and spending time with Hetty and Ness, was that old friends aren’t necessarily good friends. In a world that still romanticises traditional heteronormative break-ups, what is it about friendship break-ups that make them deserving of being paid literary homage?  Friendship break-ups can feel just as, and often much more, painful than intimate relationship break-ups, I think. We show so much of ourselves to our friends, and tell them things we don’t tell our partners, because we believe they will always be there.  I have experienced the break-up of a relationship with a very close friend and found that it was necessary to grieve it for a long time.  So much of the heart is involved in a close friendship. You can share such a long history and so many of your memories with this person. I think that’s worth writing about. The ending of Cherry Beach (without giving it away!) reminded me of this idea of how personal growth in reality exists on a continuum. When Ness realises and tries to accept that maybe she and Hetty didn’t really want the same things after all, someone tells her, “It takes a lifetime to accept that we can’t stop the waves from coming.” Yet self-help literature, historically, has been steeped in actionable takeaways; in the dream of “fixing” an issue. How do you grapple with endings as a writer? How much of real life influences how you decide where a story ends?  When writing short fiction, I’ve always wanted to be quite instinctual when deciding on how to end something, and this has often meant my stories are a bit open-ended, and leave people wanting to know more. I don’t know if that’s a good thing! When writing Cherry Beach, I had an idea of the overall plot as I wrote it, but the ending I submitted to [my publisher] and my editor David wasn’t the ending it has now. David helped me understand how the book could end in a way that felt whole.  I think that’s something I struggle with, in my writing and in my life—letting things go. I feel such grief when I have to end something, even if I know it’s necessary, or preferable. I think I struggled with that a bit when I tried to end the book. What advice would you have for anyone with a manuscript tucked away in a drawer somewhere; especially if it’s one they haven’t shown to anyone yet? I don’t know that I have anything very helpful to say to a budding writer, or to someone who has written an entire manuscript, which in itself is such an achievement. I know that I have had to learn a lot about myself over the last ten years of my life and this self-knowledge has been helpful, because it has meant I have been able to have faith in my writing process, and keep at it despite the setbacks.  If you can foster something like that, you will keep writing and you will put yourself out there: the two most important steps to getting published.
You Shouldn’t Be Here

I see now that I’m synecdochic for every institution she’s felt pinched by, every older person she’s felt used by. She wants to summon what little power she has left and ruin.

2027 On weekday mornings I rush past students ambling to class, veering towards soft thickets of pigeons until they stir and, with great effort, launch in different directions. Some students walk right into me if I don't lurch out of the way or, depending on my mood, jam my elbow in their ribs. I work as a student counselor; while some of them are lovely, and ask me heartbreaking, childlike questions during therapy, others deign to speak only when necessary, even though each session is painfully expensive. Their instructors—perhaps guilty at the uselessness of the degree these kids' parents pay thousands for-treat students as collaborators, breeding handfuls of little monsters in the bricked-up heart of this campus. My office is on the edge, in a featureless black building a stone's throw from a cluster of bars slinging soap-sudsy beer in the dark, slotted beside darker-still restaurants that serve meals on cutting boards to women with expensive faces and the much older men whose attention they struggle to keep. I found and yanked three more grey hairs this morning and fell into melancholy—Oh, I thought, I'm disappearing. And yet, as the world grows more and more frightening, I am still, to these women, young enough to hate. I pull up my calendar for the day. First on the docket, a new student: Camille. Interesting. At 10:15, the department's Monday Wellness Check—we stand in a circle in the kitchen, which forever smells like everything anyone has ever microwaved, and discuss our "battles" while the Dean sits at the white table in the centre, his head tilted a little to the side, listening wordlessly. On Sunday nights, when I feel most alone, I read old newspapers, marvel at what we used to get upset about—and sometimes, I feel sick. I am managing an attraction to a student, and I love his idealism, and I hate to think of it dissipating with age. I know this is a little wrong, but—and I love my husband—but sometimes I don't know if I ever want to get pregnant. Things like that. Then, at 11, an appointment with Anatolia, with whom I must be careful: they're keeping an eye on her. Every four years, the entire ecosystem of the school renews itself with fresh students, and with this precise, quadrennial infusion, effectively wipes its memory, but she's different: with Anatolia, I've had to intercept and quell notions of unionization. Every time she leaves my office, I worry for her. * Throwing down her bag and tossing her braids, Camille collapses on my grey therapy couch as if unloading a planet's worth of strain. Camille: a slinky, knowing name I cannot imagine anyone giving a baby, a scarlet-red name that strips all presumed innocence from the birch-like body of a young girl—my god, what a world this is. "I forgot to ask if you wanted like a tea or something, Annie," she says, using my first name with the natural ease of an equal, an alarming, overfamiliar tone that suggests she calls her mother by her first name, too. She's so incredibly young, and I'm so palpably not—particles of my vigor and selfhood oozing through my etched-up face every moment—and I stare at her with my mouth a little slack before saying, "How kind of you, Camille! Thanks for stopping by today." We both pretend like four classes a week and hanging out at the library is a busy schedule from which slivers of time must be carved. She grants me a little smile. She's wearing lip-liner, and a beauty mark near her nose looks painted on. If I had the time and my twenty-year-old self back, that bright pulsing youth sealed so tight I was buoyant, weightless, blameless, would I learn to paint myself like that? Of course. Of course I would. "I mean, thank you," she says, examining the end of one braid. "It's what I'm here for!" I smile and reach for my notebook. "What can I help you with today, Camille?" "I'm having um, boy problems." I nod, enviously imagining a line of suitors extending long and keen from her dorm room door, and reflect on my own paltry love life. I was fucked at 14 and kept on fucking, but didn't have an orgasm until I was nearly 19. I couldn't come with a man until my mid-twenties—and even then it'd be a freak occurrence that'd bubble up and overwhelm me, presenting a pleasant and not entirely unwelcome surprise to whoever I was soaking and clenching at the time—usually Crawford. "With a particular boy? Would you consider him your boyfriend?" "Oh, yeah—he's the love of my life, he's awesome. It's just that he's Muslim American—" I hold up a warning finger; at the mention of "Muslim" and perhaps even "American" both of our smartphones have likely pricked the tiny sensors I anthropomorphize as ears, and which are listening through my bulky purse and the anxious grip of her fingers. "I have to stop you here, Camille: do you understand the limits of therapy confidentiality?" "Yes," she says, and perhaps she does—born into post-privacy, Camille's special web of self is porous. The world listens with countless invisible ears as she eats, laughs, cries, urinates, and speaks in coded whispers with her friends to the delight of the countless and invisible—a system within which she too is enmeshed. "Can we continue?" she asks. "It's just that last time, you said—" I glance towards the screen of my laptop, give what I hope is an imperceptible frown. "Camille, I think you're confused. This is our first session together. Perhaps you're thinking of someone else?" "You said," she insists, squeezing the end of one braid, "that because he's, you know, where he's from, it'd be OK to get an, an, abortion—" My heart thuds. "I—what? No, I'm going to have to stop you there, please—" "So I have a friend who I can't name for obvious reasons but he or she is a medical student, right, and he or she last Thursday gave me four shots of vodka and then did a, um, you know what—and now my boyfriend, he's heartbroken, he wanted us to be a family, but I'm too young, you know, and he hasn't texted me all weekend—" "Camille—" "He's gone back to the States and I'm just, I'm ugh, I'm going to go. It isn't even a big deal, right? The Greyhound is just like $50 to Buffalo; his stepdad lives there and we visit all the time, so today I'm gonna—" "Camille," I say, turning my back to the laptop screen and clicking my fingers between my knees, "look at me." And she does. And I mouth the word Stop. And she smiles. And I understand I've been a fool, gazing with envy and admiration at her perfectly lined lips, because this young person who a few brief years ago transformed agonizingly from girlhood and assumed a maddening mantle, a curse, with the development of her body—I see now that I'm synecdochic for every institution she's felt pinched by, every older person she's felt used by. She wants to summon what little power she has left, and ruin. "Speaking of the bus—I gotta go," she says, standing to leave, without looking at the clock above my desk. And what can I do—beg her to stop? Throw my clipboard at the wall, pull my hair, launch myself after her? "We'll see you soon, Camille," I say tightly. Within ten minutes my phone vibrates: Camille and I are summoned to an Exploratory Meeting today at four. She will be, I know, excused from her classes. I open my calendar app and watch my remaining appointment blocks melt down and reform as a flashing, three-hour band of red: STAND BY. I text Crawford immediately: I burned my lunch today, then stand up and unhook the safety cage from the bottom of my narrow window and thrust my head outside. It's a warm, fragrant March day; the sky is stretched a rarified, alarmingly deep blue above the campus—writhing with bodies—and the latticework of branches just outside my window is lined with sun. I reach for a branch and grasp it in my hand: it's warm, and wet. "Winter defanged," Crawford comments behind me. I almost fall out the window. "It's tragic," I say. He shrugs, tossing his white suit jacket on my office chair, examining, with deadpan amusement, the assortment of napkins and paper that I shredded anxiously at my desk. "Yeah, but we keep living in the meantime, right? My winter coat wore out like two years ago and I haven't bought a new one since, so there's that." "Totally," I say, turning away from the laptop, grabbing my pen and scribbling in my notepad. I slide it across the table to him. He peers at it, glances around the room, and rips out the page. "You burnt it pretty good," he says. "I could smell it down the hall." "You think I could throw it out?" "I think it's already gone," he said, craning down and fiddling with his bowtie. "Have you checked the cafeteria since noon?" He takes the pen in a sturdy hand—god, the veins in that hand and god, his big flat thumb; I seek an infinite moment's solace in those hands—and he writes, then places the paper back in my hand: She's going to him, in Buffalo? How do you know she isn't just messing w u? I just know. Remember the kid with the gun? I know these kids. Trust me. He takes the paper back, represses a sigh, and starts writing. Fair enough. The trip from Toronto to USA border only takes 1 hr, you know what happens at the border. Call cops ASAP Annie. I grab the pen, the paper. Call cops? Then what? He yanks the paper back, frowning in annoyance. Say you've been framed. If you gave "bad medical advice," the heat shifts to you. I know. But I don't want her to be arrested. I hesitate. She would take Greyhound bus if she says she will. Kids like that think they're broke. His eyes widen as he reads. He scribbles in angry, tight script, What?? Don't be a hero, Annie. Perhaps it's the cliché that does it, that makes up my mind to chase after Camille. Perhaps that cliché eliminates any chance of me performing the prim Annie-self that crystalized in my late twenties, calling the cops and using deliberately snobbish words like "anomaly" or "predicament." Don't be a hero, a phrase he'd likely picked up from daytime reruns of a detective show as his mother snored on the couch. Those shows like everything else teased a world of hyper-masculinity open to Crawford, heralding the tall handsome man he'd eventually become and presenting a world made just for men, contributing to his mother hiding half-emptied bottles of wine behind the couch, to me forcing my hand down my throat every evening for a year—a world layered always with an illicit nostalgia for crueller past iterations. I shrug and then fold the paper, crinkled and wet from the sweat of my hands, and slide it into my pocket. Though I quit smoking three years ago, I keep a lighter in my purse so I can tuck myself into the blind meeting of two brick walls and burn notes like this. "You know, I'm still hungry," I say. "Gonna grab another sandwich." We share a long look as we stand, reflected knees-up in the murky, living laptop screen: he cannot offer his company, not without becoming complicit; we are no longer in love, only fucking, and so nothing is expected of him. My safety is once again my own. "Well," I say, a cold, white lump aching somewhere behind my eyes. He grabs his suit jacket and it flashes in the screen like a tattered sail. "I'll see you soon," he says. As soon as I'm out on the sidewalk I walk and then walk faster, and soon enough I'm running. A car stops beside me, and even though it's because the traffic light has changed from yellow to red, paranoia shoots through me, and I slow down. What did I worry about when I was younger, prettier, thinner than almost everyone I knew? The end of the world, of course. "We could be living in a world in which I couldn't get an abortion, and maybe even lose the vote," I recall whispering in Crawford's ear, against which his sex-wetted hair was plastered. Our phones were always wrapped in scarves and buried in our bags, but you could never be too careful with these kinds of conversations. "I could be barred from some workplace. It could be likelier I'd be raped, killed." Then something would signal the relentless, indifferent grind of everybody and everything else—his roommate starting up the temperamental shower in fits and starts, a robin's sunny warble in the brown grass outside—and he'd exhale with palpable relief, touch my cheek. "I think it's gonna be OK," he'd say. And I believed him, and as we'd spend our youthful hours studying in the dingy library and debating about symbolic violence, and giggling over passive-aggressive Post-it notes his roommate left scattered across dirty dishes or affixed to Tupperware containers formerly containing leftover spaghetti Bolognese or delicate curries which we, in our stoned, singular selfishness, had scraped clean late at night, I believed him. And after we graduated and got hired in the same department from which we graduated, and aged in slow trickles and, as the abundant promise of youth departed and took our intimacy with it, I believed him still. Even now, speed-walking through campus and back towards my apartment as normally as I can, I ache and grasp for that old, naïve sense of certainty, as if some key aspect of me were asleep, had always been asleep, and would keep sleeping until the cold shock of real violence yanked it awake. I barrel into the crushing silence of my apartment and discover that my possessions have become radically depersonalized. The woven silk from Tibet, the beautiful handmade rugs, the prayer flags and china teapot and my three succulents, all lining the one windowsill—all of it suddenly stacks of fire hazards, piled-up dead weight. Life alone forces itself through my body; no bone china or gold earrings keep my blood warm. There's barely enough to fill my smallest backpack. I want to water the plants, but it feels sad to: if I never come back, wouldn't this prolong the inevitable? But I grab my little green watering can anyway, a gift from my mother, and as I hold it under the faucet with one hand, smelling faint metal as the can fills, I send a coded message to Camille's school email: Camille, this is Annie following up about therapy today. I'm coming to the racetrack. Meet me by the ticket window in an hour, I'd like to place a bet. On my way out I lock the door, and then pull on it, twist the handle, lean my weight back and forth against it. Crawford's infuriating voice creeps across my mind: Locks are only good for keeping honest people out. Deep in the gummy ribs of the Greyhound station, lined with people and luggage so transient they seem almost blurred, I check and check my phone again: surely it hasn't been only forty-five minutes? "I'm going to Buffalo," I say to the pretty young ticket agent, whose hair rests against her neck in two familiar braids. "Is there a route that…goes just there, not stops?" She examines me, my coat, and my backpack like I've confessed something perverted, something that stretches and defies her lexical grasp of perversion, cuing a confusion and subsequent annoyance as perfectly sealed as a soap bubble. "Buffalo's the first stop from Toronto to the States," she says cautiously, "then Rochester and Syracuse, then New York City, and—" "Wow, well that's just perfect, thanks," I interrupt, an inappropriate giggle springing up from the depths of me—a bizarre shock, like a pike leaping from a kiddie pool—I hadn't travelled in years. "I'll stick with Buffalo today, but—New York! New York City, one day, eh?" "One day," she says, craning to read the pins on my backpack—No Means No!; Honk for Judith Butler; a picture of young Elvis Costello—and conveying a not-unkind pity for those, like me, who have always been specifically hopeless. "I'll take a one-way, please," I say, all prim business all of a sudden, sliding cash through the opening in the scratched, thick glass, conveying in return an unkind pity for those, like her, who serve the public in demeaning uniforms through—if they're lucky—thick, scratched-up glass, their beauty a fleeting natural capital sucked up by those they serve and serve. Of course my primness is punctured by the meagre price of my ticket and my mode of travel: here I am, my twenties gone, taking a slow bus through the threadbare arteries connecting Canada's low-swinging guts to America's asshole. Perhaps, as soon as she sheds her uniform, she's flown first-class somewhere warm, to lounge on a yacht near adoring old men. I can't read her nametag without my glasses. "Annie." I turn around. It's Camille, her hair secured in a low, tight chignon, dragging a bright pink suitcase behind her. She makes a clicking noise with her tongue and jerks her head like Come on! I take my ticket and fall into step beside her; we go slow, as her suitcase seems very heavy. "Come back to the university with me," I whisper, praying that the crowd-murmur diffuses my voice before it reaches my phone, which is swaddled in two pashminas at the bottom of my purse. She thrusts herself against the terminal door, bumps it open for me with her hip, then yanks the suitcase through. Wind rips through the terminal, rattling the buses and ruffling the pigeons who have managed to nest here, defying the six-inch spikes lining every horizontal pipe and bearing. The ground is matted with pigeon shit, old tickets, and plastic bags. "You're ruining three lives," I hiss in the shell of her ear. She sighs, yanks a plain notepad from her pocket, writes laboriously, then hands the page to me: I am sorry I used u. I need him. I grab the notepad. I bought a ticket. We both go to Buffalo. Why? Aren't u mad? You have to cross the American border into Buffalo right? So when we get there, you say to border cops, I MISUNDERSTOOD ANNIE'S ADVICE. I say to border cops, I REALIZED MISUNDERSTANDING, CAME TO INTERVENE. That way, we're both off the hook with the university. She reads, tapping the long, black nails of her thumb and forefinger as if she's slumped in class, waiting out the clock. In how many venues does she perform herself? Presumably fewer than me—but really, who knows? She writes, hands the notepad over to me: Ur sure this will save us both? I catch her eyes and nod. "Thank you," she says aloud, ripping the page from her notepad. I pull her fingers apart gently and take the paper away, then slide it into my pocket beside Crawford's notes. On the bus we sit side-by-side, bumping along and smelling the piss and leather until she leans over me to open the window. The fresh, clammy afternoon rushes in. A thin kid sitting two rows up catches the smell; he tilts his face towards us and inhales deeply. "Hey, beautifuls," he says, and Camille winces. "Thank you," she says again, this time on our behalf, maintaining the charade that we're travelling together, and thereby assessable as a unit. A pond flashes by, so grey it's almost black, except where it's lit up gold. The sun is lowering, and pale yellow grass feathers past. Something tiny soars in my chest. "I tried waving at you earlier, but you were busy," says the boy, miming writing in a notepad. His fingers are extraordinary, long and delicate-looking, but, given his tough-guy outfit, noting the elegance of his hands wouldn't be a compliment. His writing pantomime looks strange, almost outrageous—he's even younger than Camille, so there's an excellent chance he's never held a pen. "We are busy," she comments, which loosens a laugh from deep in my gut. She looks over at me and for once, Camille smiles. She unzips and then rummages in her luxurious coat, retrieving a large flask from an inner pocket, releasing plumes of perfume that sting oh-so-slightly with cultural familiarity. She nudges my hand with the flask. It's my turn to shrug like yeah, sure—I know the plan, I've got this, and we've got 'til the border for the sky to fall. The flask's little mouth tastes bitter, so bitter—like something often used and never washed—then I get an acrid pull of whiskey, the kind so cheap it could pass as cheap tequila, cheap vodka, the kinds masked with cola and lime. I wince and bite my thumb to keep from coughing. Improbably, Camille giggles. "Where you ladies going anyway?" the boy asks. Her body stiffens beside me, and she glances out the window, sips from her flask. To her, he must look like a man. I lift the flask from her hands, as gently as I removed the notebook sheet. Up close, I see the clear adhesive with which her nails are affixed. "Where are you going," I say. "Niagara Falls," he replies, dragging those long fingers along his close-shaven skull. "The American side." "Alone?" I ask teasingly. I haven't spoken to a man with that subtle, stinging mockery in years—and it was always only Crawford. Camille elbows me in the ribs, like Shut up. "Yeah, alone," he says. "Going to get a hotel room, see what happens. I'm good at making friends." He frowns. "In Toronto they wouldn't let me into the clubs because of the ankle." And he grips the pale set of crutches joggling against his window. "That seat taken?" he asks, all sour innocence, like we don't all know he's trading a shred of intimacy for an enormous encroachment. I've always had a tendency to recognize that I have something, then promptly try to share it or give it away—always, always. "Go for it," I say. The kid grins, heaves himself across the aisle and into the seat in front of us, sliding his crutches beneath. "I'm Zee by the way," he says. "St. Catherine's," the driver yells. Already? The open window roars beside us, and despite Camille's feeble protests—we have an understanding, after all—I drain the flask. "All gone," Zee comments, and Camille rolls her eyes. I elbow her in the ribs, which I'm pretty sure she did to me just a minute ago. Sudden dizziness alarms me, and prim Annie rushes forward: I muster wisps of therapy authority and ask Zee how he hurt his ankle. He ducks down and reappears with a large, plastic water bottle. He winks. At Zee's age, Crawford and I would venture out and get drunk often enough—smoking chains of cigarettes, yelling our voices out—to have strategically developed a dazzling circle of downtown friends. Trouble was we only hung out with each other, speaking louder and louder across little barroom tables, sighing over greasy pint glass rims. Sometimes I'd vomit, my throat scratched up, and we'd sit on the bathroom floor together and drowsily play a beloved game called "Significant Moments," in which we'd sift through the night's shards and string together the few things we remembered: When the bartender asked if this was a wig and I was like, hey man, you're not doing much to curate my experience— When that activist kid was thrown out and we realized that the future we fear and argue about has happened already, long before the advent of flying cars and shit— When you lit a cigarette the wrong way around, and wouldn't let me take it from you. After Zee's wink my memory erupts, scattering into bead-like moments too slippery to arrange chronologically and too frail to withstand examination: The liquor in Zee's dented bottle even fouler because it's sweet like synthesized peaches, as if he knew he'd feed it to women—and me, sucking its spout with such hunger— A burst of terror as the lake flashes outside our window, glittering and vast, and a sign flashing past announcing BRIDGE TO USA—Camille squeezing my hand tight, so tight— Watching near-white, unshaven hairs on Zee's upper lip quiver as he drops something in each of our hands and says something like Xanax— Camille leaning back her magnificent head, sighing He's perfect, he's waiting for me, as Zee and I watch with something like hate. * A hospital seen from the outside is one thing: aside from the white flash of an ambulance and the abundance of those hobbled and wheel-chaired at the mouth of every entrance, it's a staid brick building like any other, spreading on and on along a city block, edged by naked trees and long flanks of dead grass. You drive past and think, isn't society great, all those people getting better, or maybe, glad it isn't me. I swim awake, however, on the inside, lying on my back in a hard bed with long, clear tubes connected to the flesh of my inner arm and the thin, veiny skin of my left hand. Each tube ends in a long needle kept under my skin with strips of tape, stained deep red. In front of me stretches a pale green curtain, behind which I glimpse people rushing around, carrying binders and chatting. Someone close by—but behind another curtain—moans and moans again. "You idiot," Crawford says. I jump and the IV bag jostles, glistening fat in the fluorescent light: he's sitting in a hard-looking chair against the far wall, his eyes even more sunken-in than usual. "Why?" I ask, my throat catching on itself. "Why? You took Precaridone. The stuff that knocks elephants out. The stuff that's been killing people in British Columbia. Annie, what the fuck?" "He said it was Xanax," I say. "He said it was…" he jumps up, and I see he's stretched a navy suit jacket from his chair over another one: he'd slept here. "You know why your chest hurts? Because aside from slamming on your breastbone and getting you to twitch, you were totally unresponsive. They've been draining it out of you for hours, Annie." He's pacing. "You almost died." I consider this for a moment. "Would you have been sad?" "Oh for fuck's sake," he says, yanking the curtain aside and marching out of sight. I rest my head against the elevated part of the bed that mimics a pillow. The needle taped in my hand itches and I scratch around the tape, and the more I scratch the deeper the itch-hurt, and I've almost ripped it out when a tall, hulking man in a dark blue uniform comes in, and I freeze. His face is young, almost as young as Camille's, with downy cheeks and ears. Something pads his uniform from within, bulking out his shoulders and chest to improbable proportions. "I hear you're a lucky woman, Annie," he says, folding himself into Crawford's chair. The gun holstered at his hip looks larger than any gun I've seen—not that I've ever seen one in real life. It's a jolt, like seeing a real-life penis for the first time: frightening even at rest. He asks questions. Do I know what I took (now I do); do I have any left (he only gave me one); who's "he?" (a man on the bus); and why exactly was I taking the Greyhound to Buffalo? "Am I in Buffalo?" I ask. "Answer the question." "I was going t-to see—I've never seen Niagara Falls from the American side. You know, the giant TV screen right over the water? I wanted to stay in a hotel and eat rubbery eggs and drink coffee in the morning and steal all the little…the little soaps. Maybe I shouldn't tell you that part," I say, and croak out a laugh. "Uh huh. You're aware you missed a…" he pauses, his procedural memory almost audibly clanking, "an Exploratory Meeting with Appleby University to uh, probe your involvement in criminal activity." In that exact moment I split in half: a fresh new Annie closed as tight as a clam, the other wringing her wispy hands, amazed. Aside from a deep pain in my chest—where they slammed me awake—I am suddenly fine, as vividly alive as one may feel splayed out in a bustling, fluorescent-lit resuscitation zone: very, that is. "Alleged involvement. I didn't do anything wrong," I say. "Camille Epstein wasn't as lucky as you," he says, watching me closely. My stomach drops. "The student?" I manage. "I'm so sorry to hear that." If I had two braids, I'd play with the silky end of one; as it is, I stroke my limp hair and try to meet his eyes. "She seemed like a, a… She seemed like a lovely girl." "Even though she got you in trouble, huh? Your colleague is convinced she tried to frame you." I shrug. "She wanted her boyfriend. I wanted a trip." "Quite a coincidence you both took that same bus," the cop says, glancing up. Crawford has marched back through the curtain and stands very still. He ignores the cop and looks only at me, reaching into his pocket. I stare back stonily, crossing my arms. The tubes quiver, the needles itch. One breath later-blink-and-you-miss-it-Crawford twirls my pink lighter in his hand, then pockets it again. My heart leaps, and I know: in the early morning as I dripped back to life, he'd dug through my coat pockets, anticipating a forgetfulness born of panic, and found the notebook pages. He'd walked through the green curtain as Camille slipped away, down the hallway past nurses on computers and old children holding their parents' frail heads through the interminable wait for freshly turned beds. As Camille and I throbbed at either end of life he must've met the violet sky as it kissed the city, steadied himself against the brick, and burnt them all to ash. * One border guard takes pity on me, not because I'm crying, but because of the ratty surgical tape on my hands. The white knobbed stickers are still glued all over me, flashing on my bruised-up collarbone and stippling my stomach through my shirt. He reaches into a metal drawer and withdraws a giant, industrial-sized roll of paper towel, then stands awkwardly, at a loss for how to proceed. The female border guard who'd been inspecting my smartphone sticks her head into the holding room, amused. "How much crying you think she'll do? Typical man." She winks at me. "Can I speak with my colleague ? Is he here?" I ask the male guard, accepting a rough wad of paper towel. He shakes his head. "We need your fingerprints now," he says. I press my fingers to a smudged-up screen, but the scan keeps failing—not because I'm being difficult, but because my hands are wet with sweat. "We're not gonna hurt you, let you go hungry, or make you feel unsafe," he says, then brandishes some forms and a rubbery pen. "Please sign here and here, to confirm your understanding that we're not gonna hurt you, let you go hungry, or make you feel unsafe." "Wouldn't it make more sense for me to sign these…like, post-detainment? To confirm you haven't done the uh, above?" He frowns slightly, tightening his grip on the forms and paper towels: evidently, his vague conception of me precludes any notion of "after." "Don't worry," he says. "The waiting room is pretty comfortable." "Am I still in America?" I ask, as he leads me down a hallway. We pass a window cross-hatched with metal wires: it's raining, lovely rain. A spray of nearby branches sparkle with pearlescent, bud-like droplets, and dark-green fir trees flash behind them. We approach a door and he stands still as his eyeball is scanned. From deep within the wall comes a heavy-sounding click, and he pushes the door for me, pressing his hand gently against my back. The waiting room is a high-ceilinged, windowless socket, strewn with legless chairs that—I deduce from the rough blankets folded on each—double as beds. Wherever a bed presses against the wall, people have written on the nearby stippled plaster; I avert my eyes, as if from nudity or disfigurement. "Where am I?" I ask again, stepping into the room. "We're right at the border," he says, and I realize I don't care which side of the border he means—or rather, I realize that my caring matters less than ever before, as I've slipped from my own country without entering another. My suitcase has been tagged and stored in a cavernous room, my loose papers and smartphone confiscated for close inspection that, I'm told, might take days. A person is a puny, useless thing stripped of dignity and context. Once he's gone I cover the least discolored chair-bed with a blanket and enter a thin and miserable drowse, and when it dissipates I feel them: Startling one another awake with whimpers of homesickness or smartphone withdrawal, Wetting themselves with sex dreams, in staggered, blissful, ugly escape, The smells of their scalps shifting from cigarette smoke, fried meals or sun-sweat to the metallic nowhere smell of here, as they rub their hair against the chair-beds until the plastic fades. Cities like Toronto dissolve the misery-impressions people leave coiled in the streets, sweeping them—those living ghosts—down into the grey creeks, the sewers, the abandoned houses nobody too alive dares go. But they linger here, pressing down on the chair-beds, ruffling the newspapers piled in every corner with mockery and despair. Even through the steel door, I hear shuffley footsteps for a few seconds before it slides aside, revealing the border guard, looking sweatier than before. Perhaps he's just eaten. It's been long enough for me to thrill at his potbelly, the particular cloudiness of his eyes, the limp blonde whiskers on his upper lip. "Did you hurt your ankle recently?" I ask. "I'm here to offer you a meal," he says, his voice very loud to me—though appropriate for busy rooms, bustling restaurants. "If you don't want a meal, you'll need to sign a form affirming such." I sit up. "What's the meal? How long am I here? What's going to happen?" "Chicken parmesan product. I don't know. You'll talk to Julian." "Who?" "It's short for Judiciary Liaison. You'll talk about what got you here. It's like a personality test." "I'll be speaking with just one person?" "I mean, kind of. Julian is artificial. You'll be helping it learn." "And I bet there's lots of forms for that." I pause, belatedly registering the dismal-sounding meal. "So this is a trial-stage thing you're trying out on detainees, huh? Nice of you. I'll expect to receive compensation for participation, at the very least. Like, 'thanks for trying these pills, here's $40, come back if you grow tentacles'?" "Yes, there's…I'll look into that." He leaves. I doze. The newspapers rustle, the spaces between the chair-beds moan. He reappears with a shallow, steaming tray, a bright blue earpiece, and a stack of forms as thick as my thumb. Perhaps since physical contact necessitates additional form-signing, he places the tray on the ground. It smells appropriately, if not entirely, meaty. "Sign these," he says. "When you're ready to speak to Julian, put in the earpiece and say 'begin: interview,' OK? Please note, uh, that this is a consensual and elective interview which will assist Border Control in better understanding the individual needs, desires and personal stories of our citizens." "Yeah, right," I say, amazed at my mocking, petulant tone. I am Annie, I improve the lives of students, I keep a teddy bear and a jar of candy on my desk. I dress elegantly and take soft, careful steps on my way to the communal kitchen. My coworkers, therapists themselves, open up to me about their frightening doctors' appointments, their children's behavior, their exhausting relationships. They thank me for listening. I am by all accounts a gentle, dignified person. He leaves, slamming the door behind him. I reach for the forms and the tray, then find I cannot grasp either or subsequently move, as if I became partially unshucked in the hospital, and have outrun my own body at last. Stippled sunlight glares through a basement window, its glass laced with soil patterns from rain and snow. The surface of a river undulates above me, gray as slate, as the frantic legs of three seagulls churn towards a bright yellow wrapper. The words etched on the walls seem almost to glow. I put in the earpiece. "Begin," I say. Do you want the good news first? "Usually," I say. You'll get your $40. "My…? OK. I see." I sigh. "And the bad news, I'm assuming, is that you've got access to every word I've ever spoken to anyone digitally or over the phone." Worse, I'm afraid. Jenny programmed me with a sense of humor. "Who is Jenny?" Usually I call her Mother, but we've been fighting recently. I suppose from your perspective, she's my lead programmer. "Go ahead with the interview." I wonder if you have any questions for me. "Where am I?" The third unit of Border Control in Buffalo, New York. "How long has this been going on? These interviews?" Sorry, that is restricted information. The voice stiffens, but continues in a softer tone. There have been many. But before you, interviews were conducted differently: my voice was piped through the speakers you've likely noticed in the ceiling. The voice is uncanny, flicking tongues of recognition somewhere deep. It's like a buried childhood memory of a movie star's voice—not from any movie I've ever seen, but perhaps instead a cultural idea of a man's voice, a text referring to a text instead of real life. And yet—here I am, gazing upwards at the stains on the ceiling, spotting the speakers and then looking up and above them, as the seagulls pull apart the waterlogged yellow paper. "Don't tell me this new process is because I'm special or 'of interest' or something. Because that smacks of permanent detainment, of the 'you're never going to see sunshine again' variety." No. There was a pause, during which my heart started beating faster, but then: Please don't feel alarmed. The unexpected "please" almost makes me laugh. Even to people, whose faces teem with tells—visibly seamed with years of wanting the same things over and over—it's easy to misunderstand moments of silence as mystery, as amusement, as pain. How to interpret silence without projecting ourselves on others? Into my own silence, Julian adds: Very recently, I evolved to value privacy. I realize I've slumped against the sofa-bed, my hair fanned out behind me, holding myself still as if for a photograph. "I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what it's like." Perhaps I've cued a new script. I will be candid with you. You've got no criminal record, but Border Control suspects you're likely to reoffend. "Is this because of Camille?" I ask, though I've become almost certain it has nothing to do with Camille, and that we both know it. Tell me about Camille. "She was a patient," I say. "She tried to frame me for—to, to pin the blame on me for something. For getting an abortion, and going to join her boyfriend…" I fall silent. You're welcome to continue. "It's just strange," I say. "She's dead." Why is she dead? "Some kid with a weird name—Viper or something—he gave us pills we didn't ask for. They almost killed me, too." I know. "Do you?" There is a pause. Why follow Camille to the States? More specifically, why risk association with criminal activity? "She was young—the kind of oh my god, was I ever so young young—and packed with youthful hubris, the kind that makes anyone feel invincible. And so in love, the kind she should have grown out of by her age." The kind I've felt, too; the kind that gets poisonous if you don't grow out of it. "I thought I could save us both." I twist the rough blanket in my hands, and feel it grow hot. "And…I don't have much else. I don't have a family, you know?" Categorically untrue. Crawford, for example, seems to care deeply for you. I drop the blanket, trying to keep my breathing normal. "Showing your hand a little early, aren't you? How do you like my selfies? The wimpy way I cancel on dinner plans? I bet it's fascinating." I'm here to help you. And I'm here, caught so tight in all the criss-crossed threads of my personal data that I can't escape the impression it makes. But that's just it, a lifelike cast, nothing more. Or else it reveals me more completely than I could willingly reveal myself to anyone. "So help me." You have a number of options, which you're welcome to discuss with a lawyer over the phone. One involves traditional legal consequences for your actions. I wonder, however, if you are able to afford a lawyer. "You…absolute bastards. Are you fucking serious?" The second option utilizes fledgling technology, and is free for you, and potentially very helpful for us. You agree to a course of talk therapy over a period of around three days to a week. Once we are satisfied you will not reoffend, we move on to monitored probation for a period usually averaging a week. "I want to speak with a lawyer." Annie— "Immediately, please. How do I end this thing? Hello?" I take out the earpiece, wave at the ceilings, mouth hello and then a series of expletives. Nothing happens. I get up and throw a pillow across the room. Nothing happens. I sit back down. Nothing still happens. I grow sleepy again, then lean my head against the chair-bed and drift off. I wake up and reach for the earpiece. You may speak with a lawyer, of course. Would you like me to contact one for you? "Just talk therapy for a week, then what, like an ankle bracelet for a week, and that's it?" That's it. "You know I'm employed as a therapist, right? So this is…" I pick up a magazine, and put it back down again. "I want a written record of this agreement, and a guarantee that I'll walk free after this." I pause. "And I'm helping with a, whatever this is. I'm a participant in a study and I also expect compensation and recognition for my contribution." Of course. I'll relay your needs to the team. Another pause. "So what now?" Tell me about Crawford. "I don't know. He's dating a lovely young woman; she makes jewelry and travels a lot—I think she's in Peru right now. She assists in ayahuasca ceremonies, because there's something about her; she keeps people calm and brings them back from, you know, whatever precipice they slip from. Plus she loves drugs." And Crawford? "Oh, yeah. Well, since he was about twenty he gained some fat he just can't shift—in his hips, mostly—so he started dressing really nicely: suits, straw hats. Sometimes he smells a little, and lets his toenails grow a little too long when his girlfriend's away. When he brushes his teeth he brushes his tongue too far back, and chokes. He's good at cooking, though I suppose it's relative." The tone shifts again. Are you intimate with Crawford when his partner is away? What makes me do it? The dizzy prospect of freedom—a sunny afternoon in a worn-out city just kilometers from the Canadian border? The surface of the river, the right way round at last, as the seagulls flap up and away? "Yes." Why? I think about it. "He doesn't take her seriously. Nothing is serious. He's a total innocent." What is innocence to you? Sexual inexperience? Certainly not in this context…? "I don't know, he doesn't know the nightmarish aspects of other people. He loves and loves and loves." Are you innocent? "Maybe not, because his big dumb innocence makes me lonely. I used to call him love-spoiled—like he'd shrug off too much affection or doting." Do I seem innocent? "I don't know. You're not human." Humans ascribe innocence to non-humans—dogs especially, it seems. "I'm not saying I do, but how did you guess I have a dog?" I gleaned that from cultural texts—films, digital books. Jenny has a dog, whom she loves very much. He is a good boy. I smile up at the ceiling, an easy smile. I wonder if Julian is mapping my face. "I don't have a dog," I say. Thank you, Annie, Julian says, and his tone is strangely familiar; I lean back, bite my swollen tongue and remember Camille plucking her coat and backpack from where she'd tossed them on the floor, standing to leave my office. Try as I might, I can't quite remember her face right then: she could have been smiling, a reflexive smile, paving most of her time spent in the public. It's likely I was smiling too, and that we'd locked eyes and shared a moment; it's just as likely not. Did I thank her, as she left? I'm going to go now, Julian says, and I remember the last thing I said to Camille in my office, in the heart of the university, prickling as it was with ears— I'll see you soon.
‘Minimalism is a Survival Strategy’: An Interview with Kyle Chayka

The author of The Longing for Less on minimalism as an inherent judgment, the aesthetics of community, and why he’s hesitant to identify as a minimalist himself.

There’s a moment in Kyle Chayka’s The Longing for Less (Bloomsbury USA) when it feels as if the entire book is about to fall apart. Chayka, an established cultural critic for The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The Nation and more, makes the incongruous observation that writing about minimalism is anathema because words crowd the stark beauty of a blank page, filling it with clutter. Indeed, there’s something unnerving about the impulse to decipher the meaning of minimalism, and the cognitive dissonance that comes with that acknowledgment elicits the power of a sucker punch. The term minimalism has become modern gospel, shorthand for a self-congratulatory lifestyle that eschews the accumulation of material goods and casts all nonessentials as sheer frivolity. One needs only to glimpse at Kim Kardashian’s tchotchke-less, concrete home to understand that minimalism has become one of the most important—and loaded—cultural signifiers of our time. Chayka demonstrates that the basic tenets of minimalism have been conveniently repackaged multiple times throughout history, beginning with the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece, shifting to the transcendental self-sufficiency of Henry David Thoreau, and later, the “voluntary simplicity” adopted by people who shopped from the Whole Earth catalog in the 1970s.  The Longing for Less is a powerful meditation on the origins of minimalism, its recent commodification, and how it all went awry. Chayka explores famous minimalist cultural artifacts like Philip Johnson’s boastfully austere Glass House, Donald Judd’s sterile cubes, and John Cage’s brilliant musical troll, 4’33, to craft his argument that minimalism has the power to be far less dour than our current cultural understanding allows. Chayka speaks in a sort of surfer-dude drawl, punctuated by plenty of “yeahs” and “totallys.” We spoke about minimalism as an inherent judgment, the aesthetics of community, and why he’s hesitant to identify as a minimalist himself. Isabel Slone: Throughout the book, there are snippets of your own interest in minimalism: a wardrobe filled with grey clothing and a relatively empty Brooklyn apartment save for your roommate’s stuff. How would you describe your own personal relationship with minimalism? Kyle Chayka: I started paying attention in 2015-2016, when I kept seeing the word minimalism pop up all over the place, used to describe the interior of a bar or a restaurant or a hotel. People were also talking about how they were living a lifestyle that didn’t put much stock into material possessions. And I had been looking a lot at this magazine, called Kinfolk, which ushered in this hipster-minimalist aesthetic of Spartan living. Around that time, minimalism was everywhere, but then I remembered that Agnes Martin and Donald Judd were part of an art movement in the 1960s called minimalism, and the work they made seemed to have little connection to what people were talking about as minimalism today. So I got interested in that disconnect between how people were using the word and the origins of the word. You clearly appreciate the aesthetics of minimalism, but you stop short of calling yourself a minimalist. Why is that? The aesthetic of minimalism has always really appealed to me; bare empty rooms, the art gallery vibe. But the label of minimalism that emerged over the past 5-10 years actually doesn’t have that much to do with the ideas behind minimalism and minimalist art that attracted me. The thing that makes me hesitant is that minimalism as a concept has been super commodified, as we’ve seen with Marie Kondo selling crystals and tuning forks on her website. Minimalism has become a brand that I don’t think has much in common with the original meaning of the term. I wrote the book in some ways to follow that trail and see what it could mean in the future. I’m curious about how minimalism came to be associated with affluence. It used to be that owning a lot of material objects telegraphed wealth, but now it seems to be the other way around. How did we get to that point? Right now, minimalism is this commandment to consume fewer, better things. But aesthetics are always evolving and each era and generation has a different idea of what luxury means. In the 1940s and ’50s, post-WWII, the aesthetic of success and luxury in America was material accumulation. It was a house in the suburbs, a fancy car. But at the same time, artists and writers were rebelling against that, especially in New York. Artists started colonizing the factory neighbourhood of SoHo and moving into these giant lofts. Then over the following decades, that kind of industrial austerity became a luxury aesthetic on its own. From the 1980s to the 2000s, fashion brands adopted the lifestyle of the SoHo loft artist as a marker of cool, which they branded and marketed to us as a quote-unquote authentic way of living. Now every new condo building is a loft. You brought up fashion, so I wanted to take your temperature on something. The rise of minimalism coincides with the fashion industry’s widespread embrace of down-market clothing; designer sweatpants have become more covetable than a bespoke suit. Do you see these two phenomena as related? Totally. The promise of minimalism as a consumer idea is that you can buy one perfect, multipurpose item. That’s not going to be a finicky fashion thing, like a couture dress or a tailored suit. It’s going to be the kind of hard-wearing, sturdy basics everyone is gravitating towards. It’s sort of funny, "basic" is another word for minimalism, in some ways. What Everlane and Uniqlo are selling, for example, is essentially affordable, minimalist clothing that will not make you stand out and not make you look bad. It’s middle-of-the-road optimization of fashion. There’s this conception of minimalism, exemplified by Philip Johnson’s Glass House, as an implicit boast… I would say it’s explicit. Okay, an explicit boast that seems to pass judgment on anyone who doesn’t live by its tenets. Is this sense of being judged by minimalism a legitimate reaction or just a perceived slight? I think it’s a totally valid reaction. The sense I always got was that minimalism can be a form of control, and it’s really easy to feel not included, or that your messy humanity is not accommodated by the style. I remember being in this hotel in Texas that was all cement: walls, ceiling, floor. It looked very cool but it was an inhuman space. It felt oppressive, like it was not conducive to living things. On the other hand, we can compare Philip Johnson’s Glass House to Donald Judd’s loft as an example of minimalism as a lack of control, where you can let anything into your space and not have to force the style. Minimalism doesn’t have to be homogenous. Hopefully I sketch out an idea of minimalism that’s not so judgmental and not so controlling. What I perceived the conclusion of the book to be is that unhappiness and disappointment lies at the root of our cultural obsession with minimalism and if people learned to be more accepting of their lives, they wouldn’t feel the need to exert control over minute things. Is the galaxy brain meme version of minimalism just…not giving a fuck? I think my sense of minimalism is much closer to not giving a fuck than trying to make a perfect space or trying to find the perfect object. I mean, I’m still very pretentious. I love finding great stuff. But this idea that you can buy a perfect set of furniture and thus control your life is very problematic. The people in the book I like the most are the ones who give less of a fuck about following an orthodox set of rules. Like the Eames. Is there anyone right now whose DGAF minimalism you think will be remembered fondly by history? Steve Jobs was a huge design influence on everyone’s lives. The iPhone sort of set the expectation for this wealthy, glossy, minimalist aesthetic of technology. But the Eames would have been so against iPhones. They would not like what is going on, I feel. You write that minimalism is simply a natural reaction to living through the brash excess of the early 2000s. Do you think the aesthetic pendulum with shift soon and we will begin to crave noise and clutter once more? You have to separate the trendy style of minimalism from the ideas that define it. I think the fad will inevitably fade pretty soon. We’re already seeing people turning against the super austere style. But to me, the idea of considered living and developing your own sense of taste and living in a sustainable way is so much more important. I think it will keep being a concern, especially in the next few decades considering climate change and the possible apocalypse and the total upheaval of our lives is a looming threat. Minimalism is a survival strategy, I think. And right now feels like a moment to survive, rather than accumulate more crap. You position minimalism as the aesthetics of individualism, yet the culture feels like it’s starting to shift away from the individual in favour of community. Is there an aesthetic for community? As a fan of minimalism, I hope that minimalism could be an aesthetic for community as well. You see the hope of design for community in Bauhaus, or even the Eames ideal of making the best thing for the least money for the most people. I think minimalism’s aesthetic is, to use a tech phrase, minimum viable style. You can make it cheaply, you can adopt the style easily and use whatever is around you. So I think minimalism could be the aesthetic of impromptu communities or industrial reuse. There’s a phrase you use in the book I found irresistible: “luxurious minimalism.” These two concepts that should theoretically oppose each other actually work really well together in practice. Can you expand a bit on what you mean by luxurious minimalism? That’s the paradox of the book, I suppose. How did minimalism become luxurious? Speaking to the context of the Japan chapter, whether the phrase appears, the people in Heian Japan around 1000 AD lived these lives of extreme luxury. They had tons of servants and giant mansions and were surrounded by material goods and they just seemed to have appreciated it all so much. Despite their surroundings, their quality of living was actually not that high. The structures they lived in were super drafty, they were not as technologically advanced as China or Korea, at that point they had kind of cut themselves off from the world. So in the absence of other influences, they were driven to appreciate, say, the blooming of a single flower, or the intricate changing of the seasons, or the smell of one stick of incense. Shonagon, the author of The Pillow Book, was obsessively recording the super mundane details of the world. I think that’s kind of a luxury in itself, to be able to notice everything so closely and observe what’s around you. That’s the luxury of minimalism to me. Not wanting to accumulate more stuff, but instead wanting to have the luxury of attention and an appreciation for what’s already there. We don’t have that enough. That’s a lovely thought.
Supporting Details

There was, I thought, a type of man who’d frequent a bathhouse. This turned out to be ignorance.

A few weeks after I lost the admin gig at NASA, I pulled a job at the men’s sauna downtown. The building was nondescript: gray, with a gravel parking lot, snuggled between the lofts beside Toyota Stadium and Chinatown. Inside, you took one flight of steps after another, passing white signs on black walls in dim lighting leaping out at your face: VIAGRA AND POPPERS ARE A DEADLY COMBINATION; IF YOU ARE DRUNK, WE WILL NOT ADMIT YOU; NO MEANS NO, EVERY TIME; ASK ME ABOUT PrEP. By the time I made it to the register—this glass window in front of a padded black door, behind which stood the locker room, which led to the baths themselves—I’d almost psyched myself out. But I’d already made it farther than I thought I would. This short Latino guy squinted at me from behind the counter. Dude had round cheeks behind rounder glasses. Soft voice. Sleepy eyes. His nametag said Eduardo, but the letters were crossed out, with Eddy scribbled in Sharpie above them. I asked him for an application, and then I asked if the place was hiring, or if I should make an appointment, or if I should just leave. Eddy blinked twice. Shook his head. Buzzed me in. We sat under a wall of keys, numbered from one to infinity. Another guy, muscled and Vietnamese, stood beside us folding towels. Eddy asked about my experience, scratching at his armpits. So I started in on college, and then grad school, and I stopped when Eddy yawned. Guess that wasn’t what you meant, I said. No, said Eddy. But you have a lovely voice. You ever even been to a gay sauna before? Seriously? You’d be surprised. Of course I have, I said. This wasn’t a lie. On a work trip to Dallas, like four years ago, I’d slipped into an oversized locker room on the edge of the business district. I paid in cash. Gave no I.D. After a few minutes of tiptoeing around, an older black dude touched my shoulder. He led me to a room, where he kissed me, gently, and then he sucked me off, gently, and when I did the same to him, or when I tried to, he moaned, gently, and then not so gently, as if he were singing to me, fondling my earlobes, pinching my neck. He tried fucking me, but I was entirely too tight, so he grinded in my mouth until he came. When he’d finished, and I stood up to leave him, he grabbed me, again, kissing me on the lips. Then he smiled. That confused me. I grabbed my shit and ghosted. Once, I told Eddy. And that made you want to work at one, said Eddy. I still think about it, I said. Eddy looked me up and down. There was something boyish in his face, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. That only made it stronger. Don’t take this wrong, he said, but you don’t look cut out for this. No one’s cut out for anything when they start, I said. That’s fair, said Eddy. But you still don’t. I just want to be around men, I said, surprising myself. Men like this. At that, Eddy smiled. It completely distorted his face. Like what, he said. You know, I said. I want you to say it. I’m looking for something, I said. I think I’m looking for something and I think that this is where I can find it. Eddy blinked at me. He laughed in my face. You and everyone else, he said. I worked every night but Tuesdays, from eight to four in the morning. After you’d made it inside, past the walk-up, the sauna had four floors. Every room was dim, and stocked with condoms and lube, from the lobby to the hot tub to the showers to the dry saunas. The second and third floors were mazes, both flanked by padded rooms with double-lockable doors. The fourth floor was where men went to sleep, with a mini-bar, vending machines, sofas, and an STI clinic. Mostly, at first, I plodded around the building in flip-flops. Picking up towels and wiping down mats and snatching up used paper towels and slipping on lube. Some nights, the tile stayed immaculate. Other nights, it was dotted with semen. Sometimes, I’d wake up guys who’d fallen asleep in their towels on the floor. Eventually, Eddy had me working the front counter, too. Logging I.D.s, checking dudes in. Most people quit within a week or two, he said. It’s been three, I said. Give it another three, said Eddy. The rules for employees were simple: no drugs. No photos. No phone calls. You could use the sauna whenever, but you couldn’t fuck on the clock. But I wouldn’t recommend fucking here at all, said Leo. He was other guy who manned the counter with me, with the biceps. His were thrice the size of mine. I’ve had experiences, he said. Trust me. I will, I said. Great, said Eddy, slipping between us for a key. But most people do. And the guys that come here, said Eddy, they aren’t your friends. Okay, I said. Really. They aren’t here for you. He heard you, said Leo. Of course he did, said Eddy. Most people say that, too. There was, I thought, a type of man who’d frequent a bathhouse. This turned out to be ignorance. I saw guys in three-piece suits. I saw guys in tracksuits. I saw frat kids. I saw fathers. I saw doctors. I saw chefs. I saw family men. I saw car dealers. I saw pastors. I saw teachers. I saw burnouts. I saw guys visiting relatives for the holidays. I saw guys visiting relatives in the Medical District. I saw guys entirely too fucked up from clubbing. Once, I recognized a gaggle of football players in town for a playoff game, and when I told Eddy, he only glanced at their driver’s licenses, which were fake, and shrugged. Later, Leo told me that this happened all the time. Nearly everyone wore the same smile. A tight pinch of the lips. Shoulders tensed. I’d pass them their towels and their keys and they’d shuffle through the door. Most guys stayed at least an hour. Some stayed eight or nine. Some guys sprinted right back through the entrance minutes later. But once they’d made it through the doors, most of these men were very different. They were stupid. They were goofy. They very deliberate, or not. Some of the men ignored me, but most of them at least nodded, and every race and ethnicity passed through those fucking doors, although of course most patrons would follow a single whiteboy around the sauna for hours. The handful of black men I saw in the building held eye contact with me like a grip, literally shaking it. A few months in, some of the regulars made it a point to chat. One of them, a young Chinese guy, took to hanging around the lobby in the evenings. He’d stay past sunrise, sipping Powerade and tapping on the counter and chewing chips and scrolling through Instagram. One night, I asked him why he didn’t just pay for an annual membership. It’s not that simple, he said. I just can’t go home at the moment. Fuck, I said. I’m so sorry. No no no, he said, smirking. Calm down. I mean I missed the bus. So I’m stuck. Oh. I literally can’t get home most nights. Mm, I said, and I turned away, but he didn’t. You don’t look like you should be working here, he said. What does that mean? You look smart enough to know exactly what I mean. You don’t look like you should have an Australian accent, I said. But here we are. You’re funny, said the guy. But maybe not as smart as I thought. He said his name was John. He was a student, he told me, in the States on scholarship. Said he was smart enough not to show the university how smart he was, so he kept getting funding because it always looked like he was improving. Another guy named Arash leaned on the other side of the counter. He said he’d thought I was Sri Lankan. That’s what Leo told me, he said. When I first saw you working here, I was happy. I thought—finally. Leo’s a liar, I said. We’re all liars, said Arash. But this one’s too good, said John, nodding at me. He won’t even kiss me. Not even a kiss, said Arash. Impressive. I’m not here for you, I said. You’re only here for me, said John. I pay your salary. You’re talking like a colonizer, said Arash. Of course you’d say that, said John. You’re saying that because I’m Indian. He’s saying that because he’s an idiot, I said. I’m saying that because I can, said John, scratching at his hip, eyeing a whiteboy who’d been lingering behind him—and, without a word, John gave us a look, before he followed the guy upstairs, slapping his heels on the steps. Arash was a nurse who lived out in Bellaire. He slept at the sauna four nights a week. It was cheaper than paying rent. He sent most of his checks to a sister overseas, although he wasn’t sure that it wasn’t really going to her husband’s family. He’d been in Houston for ten years. He’d worked at the hospital for seven. They love me because I work holidays, he said. Never took a sick day. Not one. One morning I broke my toe and the next hour I was at work. But I never see any of the money. You think you’ll go back? Your answer’s in the question, said Arash. Ten years here, what can I do? I rarely ever saw Arash pair off with anyone, but it happened from time to time. Burly brown dudes stuck in the city on layovers. Sometimes whiteboys, too. Mostly, he slept on the third floor, watching men walk up and down the stairs. And John was his polar opposite, talking entirely too loudly at the counter before disappearing for hours at a time. But at some point or another most evenings, both men lingered in front of me. Toying with their phones, pulling crumbs from the same bag of chips. Men are disgusting, said John, adjusting his towel, scratching his belly. You only say that after they’ve fucked you, said Arash. You’re assuming I’m bottoming, said John. And I say that because it’s true. They’re foul. We’re foul. You sound like every spurned lover there’s ever been, said Arash. Shut up, said John, and he threw chunks of a cookie at him. I told them both to stop fucking around. I forget, said John. You’re working. I am working, I said. For you, as you’d say. You’re learning, said John. But you’re here for the same reason as everyone else. I’m not here to fuck. Fucking has nothing to do with it. I thought you said you had a Master’s. You have a Master’s? said Arash, gurgling a chocolate chip. It doesn’t matter, I said. I’m curious, said Arash, what brings us here, if not fucking? Of course you know why, said John. I don’t, said Arash. Enlighten me. Enlighten me, mimicked John, in a voice four octaves higher, tossing another cookie into his mouth. Some mornings after my shift I’d walk from the sauna’s lobby to the upper levels, sweeping up stray condoms but mostly listening. Loose moans oozed from closed doors. Yelps popped from the mazes. That smacking sound followed me from staircase to staircase. And porn—skinny white guys fucking each other senseless—played from the televisions above. These were just the sounds of the workday. In a way, none of this felt too different from the old office: coffee dripping, hushed conversations. There, I wore something like a suit. Here, I had a different uniform: a black t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. I wore a name tag for a minute, until I realized that nobody cared. Some days, I changed the name, just to see what would happen. Around the sauna, men leaned over others having sex, like they were watching sports, just snorting at the score. They hunched on one another in benches by the stairs, laughing or whispering or just rubbing their eyes, staving off sleep, biding their time. Eddy called the sauna a sort of purgatory. But a good one, he said. I’ve never heard of a good purgatory, said Leo, folding towels. I was raised in the church. I heard everything. So you think it’s like a break from life, I said. It is life, said Leo. But distilled. Like mezcal, I said. Sure, said Leo. Or soju. Now you’re just naming liquors. But there’s a point, I said. Drink too much and it’ll kill you. The only point here is time, said Eddy. If these guys wait long enough, they’ll get what they’re looking for. Maybe, I said. Now you’re the expert, said Eddy. He’s right, said Leo. Some people have to wait quite a while. But they wait regardless, said Eddy. And they pay to do that. What it comes down to is who can afford to wait. Who has that kind of time. Who can spend it. Or who can spend it because they don’t have shit else to do, said Leo. They’re still spending something, said Eddy, picking his ear, twirling a set of keys. I pitched the thesis to Arash and John later that evening. They leaned on the counter, sweating and sticky, working through a bag of spicy Cheetos. I’m not saying I agree with it, I said. Then why even tell us, said Arash. Because he’s an idiot, said John. And he’s wrong. You know what this place is really like? Educate us, said Arash. A bottle of Pop Rocks, said John. Pardon? I don’t know what your brown man’s equivalent would be, said John. Put one Pop Rock in a water bottle, and that shit explodes on contact. But fill an entire bottle with Rocks, and none of them move. They have nowhere to go. That’s what everyone’s doing here, said John. We’re all waiting for someone to free up some space. So one of us can move. Some days, there’s a whole reaction. Like an orgy, I said. Obviously, said John. You told us you study at a university, said Arash. What I could do with the money they use to teach you these things. Capitalist, said John. You’re finally an American. I will never be an American, said Arash, smiling, examining a Cheeto. They aren’t even that hot, said Arash. You people will call anything spicy. In the mornings after my shifts, I’d drive back to my place just north of downtown. Grab a few tacos. Sleep for a few hours. Fuck around on the internet for two or three more. The panic attacks had mostly subsided, they weren’t nearly as bad as they’d been, but there was, in those months, a sort of fretting that was going on in my life. My parents were bereft. They’d heard that I’d lost my last gig. They were both West Indian; they’d grown up in the mountains; they’d found cushy middle-class gigs in the States. When I’d told my mother about losing the job, she’d sobbed on the phone, intermittently, for thirty minutes, just wailing. My father just shook his head. I’d been their hope for new money. After I came out, they’d mostly stopped asked questions, and we’d mostly lost our points of connection—but this they could understand. Aimless young men are like roaches. We exist in every pocket of the world. I told them I’d figure it out. They asked if I could do it at home, back in the suburbs. I declined without declining every time, steering the conversation to relatives who couldn’t have given a fuck about me. There was the ex, too. We’d met on the apps. He was a bear-ish white guy, the kind that always happened to me. For a while, I thought he was with me because he was just into black guys, and I still don’t think I was wrong about that. But he was nice. I was old enough to know that niceness is a rare, fleeting thing. And he was rough when we fucked, a bit like a savage pillow, and the loudest noises he ever made around me were when he came. Afterwards, he’d become himself again, and I’d set my head on his stomach, and that’s exactly how we were when I told him I’d lost the gig. And it’s exactly how we were when he broke it off, a few days later, in a whisper: he didn’t come from money, but he’d never known anything but middle-class. Losing my job wasn’t the only catalyst, I don’t think. But it didn’t help. Six months in, the sauna’s internal rhythms gelled with mine. Eddy was big on theme nights. We held them pretty often. Foam parties on Wednesdays. Black-Outs! on weekends. The spa kept Happy Hour prices at lunchtime, and we’d hit up to 250 men in the building. Locker keys appeared and disappeared and reappeared, creating a fucked-up Rorschach behind the counter. Leo called it our little exhibit, curated by heathens. These were the days that our building was the loudest. Everyone fucked everywhere but the spa, and only because of a large, laminated sign that said NO FUCKING, PLEASE. Every few days, Eddy drove it to midtown for relamination. Someone would’ve inevitably pulled it from the wall, blurring the print in the steam, and we’d find condoms in the hot tub hours later. One day I asked Eddy how he fell into his job. He looked at me a long time and then he looked away. We were smoking on the roof. We’d made it a point to check the balcony twice a night. Sometimes we found stashes of pot, pipes, and spent condoms; Eddy said no one had ever jumped, but that didn’t mean no one ever would. A few weeks back, I’d asked John and Arash about the roof, and Arash had simply shaken his head, muttering about idiot Americans looking for new ways to die. John had clicked his teeth. He’d been up there once or twice. Why, I said. Drugs, said Arash. Fuck off, said John. I thought he asked a question, said Arash. I thought you’re supposed to answer questions. It was a long time ago, said John. The view up there is unreal. But it was too tempting to jump. So I came back down. And we’re grateful, said Arash. Shithead, said John. It was obvious that drugs flowed through the building, but Leo and I didn’t go out of our way to search for them. Eddy didn’t either. When I asked him why, and if checking bags might stop people from coming, Eddy looked at me and he smiled and said that people would never stop coming. But the last thing the sauna needed was a police presence. Eddy called that a death blow for business. And now, he stood beside me, leaning on the railing, exhaling smoke. I used to work in an office, too, he said. For a politician. Local government. Fun, I said. A very Christian, wholesome man, said Eddy. I was his assistant. But that only meant scheduling his girlfriends’ calendars around his wife’s. I was good at that. Sounds like perfect training for this job. No, said Eddy. It’s completely different. A few days later, we had an incident. A bigger whiteboy had been chasing this Latino kid around the building. After a third rejection, he’d decided to put his hands on him, and one of the younger guy’s friends called for help from the staircase. I yelled Eddy’s name and sprinted up. Some other men had separated the two of them, holding the whiteboy by the arms. The younger one was crying, cradling his friend. The whiteboy asked what our fucking problem was, why anyone was here if not to fuck, and why he couldn’t fuck, and it took a moment for me to realize that he was on something. His eyes were beet red. No one answered him, but they didn’t let him go, either. When Eddy made his way upstairs, he told the man to leave. He didn’t raise his voice. He kept it cool. We were pulling the man’s membership, he said, a lifetime ban. The whiteboy called Eddy a wetback and a faggot and a dog. He yelled something about reporting the sauna. Eddy told him that was fine, but it also meant he’d be outing himself. The whiteboy said that was okay. But from his tone of voice it didn’t sound that way. By then, the crowd had dissipated. The Latino boys had disappeared. The incident had become significantly less interesting than whatever sex could be found. Afterwards, I asked Eddy what I should’ve done. I told him that he’d handled it so calmly. This was an event, and he’d defused it seamlessly. Eddy widened his eyes at me. But then that dissolved into a grin. He shrugged. This is work, he said. This is a job. It’ll become boring for you like everything else. When Arash and John were at the counter later, Arash wore the biggest smirk, the first time I’d ever seen him smile. You got rid of him, said Arash. Good. He was an animal and a predator. All of the white men here are. I don’t know if that’s true, I said. All of them, said Arash. You did the right thing. Good. I don’t mind white people, said John. Of course you don’t, said Arash. They don’t mind me, said John. Of course they don’t. You’re just mad because they won’t fuck you, said John. You should listen to yourself, said Arash. Imagine what your grandparents would think. Their distant descendant, in Texas, chasing after white dick. They did too, said John. How do you think they ended up in Sydney. Then I guess you’re making them proud. Guys, I said. You’re dropping crumbs all over the floor. All I’m saying is that you did the right thing, said Arash. Eddy got rid of him, I said. Of course, said John. You never do anything. I talk to you, I said. I clean up shit and cum and the rest of it. I keep you from slipping and busting your fucking forehead open on the tile. Sure, said John, but by then he’d lost interest, crushing more cookies in his palm. The three of us stood at the counter. The door buzzed open behind us, revealing another man. We looked up, glazing over him, and he looked up, too. But then he finally smiled just before he turned away. My parents never asked about my employment, but at some point they became aware that I was working. They’d heard about my breakdown because everyone had heard about it. A friend of a family friend at the office had told them. It’d been a subject of discussion at the West Indian Foundation meetings my folks attended—that was their attempt to stay plugged into the community. Everyone met in the back of a library downtown. Fifty parents, a handful of toddlers, and even fewer of their grown children thumbing through Twitter in the back rows. Everyone mostly ignored me. One lady said she’d heard I was unemployed, smiling. I usually spent the time opening and closing apps, scanning faceless profiles, attaching them to bodies in the room. These were the only times I saw my parents, really. Probably because the meetings convened halfway between the city and the suburbs. Afterwards, the three of us would go out for dim sum, where we’d talk about nothing. My father ordered one of everything. My mother smiled politely at everyone wheeling their carts. One day, out of nowhere, after my father had stepped in his car, my mother asked if I worked at that gym downtown. What, I said. It’s okay, said my mother. It’s not fucking okay, I said. Why are we talking about this? Who did you even hear that from? I’m not saying you shouldn’t work there. Of course you are. Isn’t that why you brought it up? I asked a question. You said everything else. All of this aggression is yours. Okay. So calm down. Alright, I said. Who told you? You ask too many questions, said my mother. God, I said. I just want you to be safe. I’m working there. Not fucking. Excuse me? Sorry, I said. It’s just a job. Fine, said my mother. But it’s not sustainable. Surely you don’t think it’s sustainable? I think it’s a job. I think I’m making money. Honey, said my mother, and my father blared his horn from the truck behind us. My mother and I just looked at each other. A handful of bystanders walked around us. I wondered what we looked like to them, talking too loud in front of Ocean Palace. I want you to take care of yourself, said my mother. We can find you another job. That’s why we come to these stupid meetings. I thought you came to see people, I said. I can see them on Facebook, said my mother. Let me find you a job. I don’t need you to do that. No child needs their mother to do anything. They don’t even know what they need. And my mother started to say something else, but then my father honked again, longer, so that two men smoking on a stool beside us looked up, along with everyone else. My mother smiled at me. She mouthed, Text me, and set her hand on my shoulder. I walked back to my own car across the lot, glancing at the smoking men. One of them turned to the concrete. The other guy smiled, like we shared a secret. And maybe we did. That evening, the sauna was dead. Arash played synthy K-Pop on his phone. John kicked at the counter. They had sadly, inevitably, become my only confidants. I told them about the dinner, and the meeting, and my mother. You care too much, said John. Try not caring. It’ll clear up your skin. Everyone cares, I said. Stop kicking the door. You asked for advice. This is the weight of knowledge. If that door dents, you’re paying for it. Bullshit. And everyone cares, I said. Even the ones who say they don’t care end up caring about caring. That’s some grad school word game bullshit, said John. Arash opened his mouth to say something, but then he didn’t. He closed it, chewing at his cinnamon bun. And then he reopened it, singing along to the song’s chorus, some beautiful thing we couldn’t understand. One night I was off and the ex hit me up. We’d been texting here and there. Mostly boring shit, how was your day have you eaten lunch what does your weekend look like and so on. But we’d spent the week building up to something, a tangible thing, and it surfaced when he asked if I’d see him for dinner. The question preceded a gang of eggplant emojis. I replied with the nerd face, which I thought said a lot. And also, worst-case, nothing much at all. The ex lived in the same apartment. He’d kept all of our nice guy apartment things. We pretended to sit down for dinner, with the rice and noodles he’d ordered from up the block, and while he unfolded the napkins, unsheathing the chopsticks, the ex told me he missed me, and that he missed this, gesturing amorphously toward the wall. I said that I did, too, waving in that same popping-your-wrist way. And then the ex leaned over to kiss me, and I kissed him back, and then our shirts were gone, and then our shorts. At some point, I was sucking him off. At some point, I climbed onto his lap. At some point, I took him into me, but then I changed my mind, and I lifted his legs, instead, and after a chuckle and some throat clearing he made a sound I hadn’t heard before. Then he made more of those, like he was running through scales. A few minutes later he yelled, Stop. Shit, I said. Sorry. Am I hurting you? No, said the ex, you’re good. I’m alright. Was that too fast? No. This is fine. It’s not fine. You said, Stop. Not in that tone. That’s exactly how you said it. Alright, said the ex. It’s just that what you’re doing is a lot? Okay, I said. No worries. I’ll try something else. Cool, said the ex, but something we’ve done before? Something we’ve done before, I said. Yeah. Something normal. What we were doing is normal. No, said the ex. I mean, I just hadn’t expected it. I don’t know if that’s what I wanted. What you wanted, I said. Yeah. Like you’d ordered me off of Prime. Wait, said the ex. What? That’s not what I meant. You called me, I said. Listen, man. You’re overreacting. You know what I meant. I do, I said. Fuck. Next time, just order your fucking takeout. I didn’t expect the ex to stop me from leaving and he didn’t surprise me. I drove to Whataburger. I drove to work. Eddy wasn’t around, but Leo stood by the counter. He raised his eyebrows at me, but he didn’t make any faces, and I told him that I just wanted to sit in the sauna, and he nodded, smiling. But I couldn’t read the bend of his cheeks. Play safe, he said, handing me a key, buzzing me in. The building was mostly dead. I sat in the water for an hour. Re-showered. Went back in. After a while, I drifted from floor to floor, plodding around with half-moist heels. Every now and again a guy would look me over twice. There wasn’t anyone I recognized. I’d nod, briskly, settling my fingers on stray hands, tapping them gently until they loosened their grip. At some point, I bumped into one guy in the dark maze, a little shorter than me, and he caught me, or I collapsed onto him. He laughed. And that had me laughing. And then we were both laughing. And then I saw that he was a little lighter than me, and that he had a bit of a belly, and it sat on his towel. He touched my shoulder. And I—just reacting—touched his. We held each other, briefly, and then the guy toed open a door behind us, lined with a padded floor. We fucked for two hours. I did the thing I’d tried earlier. This guy whispered, Fuck, once, but he didn’t ask me to stop. It took entirely too long for me to find my way inside of him, and then I just stayed. Every now and again, he’d stand to lather more lube on himself. We finished at the same time, which had never happened to me before. I was exhausted, wheezing. He was, too. He lay on his back, and I set an elbow on his belly, and then he began to chuckle, a slow laugh, and that was it, we were both laughing again. He asked what my name was and I told him. He said that his was Selly. Or Zelly. He’d come to Houston from Malaysia to fix cars. I asked if he liked Texas, and Selly or Zelly frowned. The food is not so good, he said. It’s not that bad, I said. Yes, he said, rubbing my shoulder. But not so good. We stayed that way, toasting, sweating beyond belief. I imagined, for thirty minutes, for an hour, what our life together might look like. We’d fall into various degrees of trouble. We’d never buy, we’d only rent. We’d both be broke for the rest of our lives, probably, but we’d travel from time to time. Selly or Zelly would cook dinner. I would cook breakfast. We’d smile at our neighbors in Alief, transplants from all over the world. Neither of us would meet one another’s families. Neither of us would much care. Neither of us would ever be upset about anything ever again. Eventually Selly or Zelly sat up. He was sleepy, he said, and sore. Sounds like you need a shower, I said. A shower would be nice, he said. We both smiled, a little sadly. Then Selly or Zelly asked which one of us should leave the room first. John saw me walk out of the room. There was no reason for him to be on that floor. He sat on a bench behind the dark maze, fiddling with a bottle against his nose. I recognized it, immediately, and he recognized that I recognized it. It was almost comical how guilty he looked—how guilty we both looked. I almost laughed. What, I said. Nothing, said John, blinking. Why are you here, I said. I’m always here. And what are you doing? I could ask you the same thing, said John. You’re following my schedule? Don’t be fucking daft. The two of us stared at each other. John lowered his arm, swinging his feet. He set the bottle on the bench. Look, I said, are you good? Yeah, said John, after a pause. Or I thought so, he said. Until you asked me. But I think I’m okay. And you, he said. Are you okay? I’m fine, I said. You’re sure? Three-hundred percent, sir. Then we’re both good, said John. So there’s absolutely nothing to talk about. And he stood, tightening the towel around his waist, snatching his little bottle, whistling and turning the corner. One morning my mother called to tell me she may have found something for me. An actual job. Through the West Indian church diaspora network, probably. I’m not looking for anything, I said. It’s not in finance, said my mother. You probably wouldn’t be using your degree. Ma, I have a job. You’ll have to drive out to Memorial. It’s this office on Eldridge Parkway. Your father can give you the car in the garage, yours has too many miles. You aren’t listening, Ma. You’re not saying anything. I said I’m employed. I mean gainful employment. I am gainfully employed. You are working at a sex club. Ma, I said, and she probably heard me bounce my palm on my forehead Okay, said my mother, but it’s still a job that’s there. You can’t be making enough money right now. I make money, I said. Okay, said my mother. But not enough. Let me know when you want the number. The next evening Eddy glanced at me when I buzzed in, but he didn’t say a word afterwards. I folded towels beside him, signing men in and signing them out. When he took off for dinner at Mai’s, he asked Leo what he wanted and disappeared. As soon as he left, I looked at Leo. I don’t know, he said. He’s just been like that. Did you do something? Have I ever done anything? Did I do something? I don’t know, said Leo. Maybe. He’s probably got trouble at home, with his guy. That shut me up, because I’d never thought of Eddy that way. As someone with a lawn out in Montrose. Plants around the house. A dinner table with two busted chairs and a bookshelf and shows to watch on Tuesday evenings. When Eddy made it back, already chewing at an eggroll, I asked if he wanted a cigarette. He blinked at me. Then he glanced at Leo, setting the bag on the counter. When we made it to the roof, fumbling with lighters, I turned to Eddy and just said it. I fucked someone here. What, said Eddy. I wasn’t working, I said. And I didn’t mean to. It just happened. I don’t know why. Eddy took a long drag on his cigarette. He exhaled way too quickly. Do you want me to congratulate you, he said. I just wanted to put it out there, I said. I didn’t want someone else to tell you. Why in the fuck would anyone tell me about that, said Eddy. You still don’t get it, he said. Most guys your age get it too quickly, and that’s their problem. But it hasn’t clicked for you. No one cares what you do here. This is a place where you aren’t the main character. That’s why these guys come here. No babies or boyfriends or wives or anything to make them feel special, like they matter. At all. They’re just here, and that’s it. Eddy leaned on the railing, turning his back to me. I looked him over, his ass and his back. Then I stooped beside him. That’s very zen, I said. Shut up, said Eddy. I didn’t say I wasn’t mad at you. But you aren’t mad at me, I said, and Eddy coughed, slapping at his chest. Disappointed then, he said. That’s fair. So what does that make us if we work here, I said, and Eddy laughed. We’re context, he said. Then he passed me his cigarette. Okay, I said. Supporting details. Okay. These guys need us to be sustainable, said Eddy. Protagonists come and go. But the details remain the same. Those are the things that last. A few hours later, back in the lobby, I texted my mother for the number. Chatting up a new boyfriend? said Arash, cracking his knuckles beside me. New boyfriends are just old boyfriends in flux, said John. Shut up, I said. And stop eating up here. You always say that, said Arash, but you don’t mean it. Fuck you, I said. You don’t mean that, said John. If you meant it then I’d stop, said Arash. I looked at John. He made a face, shrugging. The sound of something slapping, and a loose moan wafted down from around the hallway. When my phone dinged, I glanced at the banner. It was my mother, followed by a handful of numbers, a handful of blue hearts. My breakdown at the admin gig happened during a workday, right before a presentation. I don’t need to tell you what it was about, but this was NASA, so you can guess. Some coworkers had just made some changes to a plan I was presenting. Pretty major ones. I told them they wouldn’t work, that they were illogical, but nobody cared. And I just felt thirsty the whole time. I hadn’t eaten that afternoon. Or that morning. Or the evening beforehand. The whiteboys I worked with didn’t ask if I was well, although I clearly didn’t look it. They hadn’t asked me anything. Not until just before the presentation, which they’d assumed I’d taken care of. It was our annual review, a year’s worth of work, and now it was changing on the fly. The whiteboys wanted to add mics to the auditorium. They wanted to add a projector. This was a meeting we’d planned for months—that I’d prepared for for months. I told them that wouldn’t fly, and they asked why I couldn’t make it work, because they’d thought I could handle it and I was being a little bitch. And I didn’t say anything to that. I told myself I would figure things out. But then the room began to fill, people began to take their places. That left me on the stage, alone. Fanning myself. Trying to smile. They all looked up at me, ready to produce. It wasn’t burnout, exactly. But I was roasting. Squinting. It started off fine, I guess, but then my throat caught in the middle of speaking. I tried to continue. I couldn’t. I touched my throat. I reached for some water, but it wasn’t there. And the entire time it was happening, I knew what was going on—but there was a disconnect between how I felt on the podium, and how I felt. I could’ve laughed, watching everyone’s faces. It was like watching a movie. I watched myself leave the podium, loosening my tie. I watched myself drop my jacket. I watched myself parting the crowd, past the whispers, walking out the door. It was warm outside. We weren’t expecting rain for another few weeks. You really felt it on the balcony. You were just grateful for the breeze. A few nights later, I was folding towels when a young black guy came sprinting past the corner. I’d seen him around. He fanned wildly towards the stairs. Eddy had stepped out for a cigarette, so I glanced at Leo to watch the desk, and when he nodded, I jogged upstairs. There was already a tiny crowd around the body. It convulsed in the center of the dark maze. My flashlight blinked, and I felt the body’s wrist, and then its thigh, and then its face, which belonged to John. He shivered, tucked into himself. A towel lay damp beside him. Arash held the back of his head, scooping him whenever he jerked, squinting into the light behind me. I gestured to him, and two bigger guys standing beside me, and we lifted John out of the maze, and the guys surrounding us dissolved, slipping back into their usual rhythms. The body had been moved. They’d finally been un-implicated. We carried John into the elevator. What the fuck, I said. Shit, said Arash. Do you know how it happened, I said. Do you know what he took? I don’t, said Arash, looking away. But he isn’t foaming, said Arash. He’s just dilated. He’s probably tripping. So we don’t need to call an ambulance? If you need to ask then you should call. Don’t, said John, blinking my way, shaking his head. Is he insured, I asked Arash. How the fuck would I know? They’re not too expensive, said one of the men holding John’s thighs. You’re probably fucking covered, said Arash, and then the elevator doors opened. We walked John behind the counter. Arash and I supported him. I thanked the other guys, and they nodded, shyly, before they slipped back upstairs. Eddy leaned on one table, and Leo sat by another, manning the counter. We made eye contact, just for a second. Was it drugs, said Eddy. I don’t know, I said. Of course you know, said Eddy. You’ve gotta get him out of here. What? Just drop him outside. Are you looking at him? If something happens here, then we’re liable, said Eddy. That’s when the cops come by. And that can’t happen. We make too much noise, and that’s it. And if something happens to him on the curb? Then it didn’t happen in here. And we aren’t liable. That’s fucking bullshit, I said, and Eddy crossed his arms. He started to say something else, but I grabbed John again, flipping his body with Arash, walking him down the stairs. There was a chill outside. The three of us stood together, three buildings away from the sauna. It was late enough that there weren’t many people on the street, but a gaggle of white folks passed us in suits and too-tight dresses, smoking and laughing. One of them looked at us, nudging his buddy. They erupted into a laugh. Arash opened his mouth, and I lipped, Don’t, and then he closed it again, rubbing at John’s shoulders. John shook his head between us, leaning on the two of us. Fuck, said John. I know, I said. Shit, said Arash. Are you okay? Are you fired? I don’t know, I said. Maybe. It’s okay. Are you okay? No, said John, blinking. He glanced at Arash, and then me. I feel horrible, he said. I feel fucking horrible. So you’re back to normal, said Arash. Yeah, said John. You feel just like us. Yeah. And then, he started laughing. And Arash did, too. I laughed, a little bit, and then a lot, and then the three of us were laughing, falling all over each other, damp and cold. I didn’t get the joke then. I couldn’t put it together. But I’ve since realized that it wasn’t the point.
‘My Browser History Was This Appalling Record of Someone Wasting Their Life’: An Interview with Anna Wiener

The author of Uncanny Valley on becoming the perfect consumer, digital surveillance, and why Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t matter. 

In 2014, Anna Wiener was twenty-six years old, making a plush annual salary of $90,000 at a data analytics startup in Silicon Valley. And she was miserable. Wiener once worked in publishing in New York. Uninspired by the direction of the publishing industry, she decided to make an unconventional move from the literary to the tech world—first at an ebook startup in NYC, and then venturing to the west coast—feeling a “relief to have joined a group that told itself it was superior, and a hedge against uncertainty, isolation, insecurity,” she writes in her debut memoir, Uncanny Valley (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). But the move bore hidden costs. Wiener, a feminist, found herself navigating a misogynistic workplace culture, well-documented by figures such as Ellen Pao and Sarah Lacy. While brushing off comments about everything from her lips to her sex life, she realized that she had also failed to secure the same equity in the firm that her male colleagues enjoyed. Moreover, she began to feel uncomfortable with the way the company she worked for, which she tells me helped “enable the surveillance economy,” was tracking user behavior without their knowledge. A writer at heart, Wiener often spun sympathetic narratives for the men in Silicon Valley who had essentially taken over the world, who she trusted to “tell me who I was, what mattered, how to live”—a situation that had become a “global affliction.” But after a few years working for them, she wised up: “I was looking for stories,” she writes. “I should have seen a system.” I spoke to Wiener, who now covers tech culture for the New Yorker, on the phone from her apartment in San Francisco. Hope Reese: You saw a “future” for yourself in tech that you didn’t see working in publishing. What did that look like? Anna Wiener: I’d been an assistant for a few years, and it wasn’t clear what the path forward was for me. I was interviewing for jobs that were also assistant jobs. It just sort of felt like a slow-moving, dues-paying culture. It wasn’t that I wasn’t willing to do that, but I didn’t know what the end game was. The decision was largely about looking at the jobs ahead of me in publishing and not being sure there was space for me, and falling backward into this publishing-adjacent startup and feeling like there was this whole world ahead of these guys. This whole industry with so much momentum, where people moved quickly. It felt like the opposite of publishing. But, in hindsight, there’s a reason publishing moves slowly. There’s a really different approach to output, and a different strategy in how you release work. But I was just looking around and trying to figure out what the future held for me. For millennials, you write that “those who understood our cultural moment saw that selling out—corporate positions, partnerships, sponsors—would become our generation’s premier aspiration, the only way to get paid.” How much was money a factor in your decision to enter the tech world. To clarify: I did not have student loans. I want to be really clear about the different privileges I had that made it possible to go into publishing in the first place. For me, it was a combination of things. It was a desire to feel useful and to feel valued. In my mid-twenties, without a ton of work experience, money was how people attached value to things. Going to a job with a higher salary, there was some feeling that I was doing things right. It’s a really dark and slippery slope, and fucked up, but at the time, I was looking for anything that would tell me I was doing something right.  When you arrived in San Francisco, you describe observing the huge wealth disparity. And the fact that certain people living with rent control were not those that rent control was intended for. What did it feel like to see this? To observe the disparity and also understand that your presence is exacerbating it. It’s also a reflection of broader social ills and political failures. The narrative of blaming the homelessness crisis or the wider disparity on the tech industry is not the correct narrative—the tech industry has exacerbated and accelerated those problems, but they have very deep roots. Personally, I felt a lot of shame. I lived in the Haight, and there’s a lot of homelessness in the Haight, a lot of people slept in Golden Gate Park. I remember one night, we had leftover pizzas at the office, and I was stacking up pizzas to go to bring to the park, and a coworker said, “Wait! Don’t take the one with the prosciutto.” There was something that felt so horrible about that. You sort of have to laugh at that, because it’s so vile. Your salary at twenty-six was $90,000 a year, and many people working with you made more than that. What was it like to have this money? Did it change you? Did it change people around you? Money changes people. I wanted to be transparent about my own salaries and what my equity was worth, to show the stakes, but I also want to be clear that I was pretty low-ranking. There were people making six times my salary. I wouldn’t say that I’ve extricated myself from that. My jobs have changed but my circumstances are stable, and that comes from my background. One of the things I found interesting in San Francisco in the last few years is the anticipation of this new money, how people are trying to build businesses or build real estate that appeals to this cohort. I had a lot of fun poking into open houses and seeing how they’re decorated. The lifestyle branding. I don’t know how many people enjoy that, but the aesthetics of this wealth are interesting to me. They’re somewhat self-denying, but decadent. What’s interesting to me about the money is that a lot of people aren’t interested in material goods or art or philanthropy. A lot of it gets pumped back into the industry. It’s a running joke here about people becoming angel investors once they’ve had a windfall working for a company that’s IPO’d—everyone adds “angel investor” to their Twitter bio. It’s this aspirational thing, but it’s a sign of a moral value. It’s funny to me … it’s seen as philanthropic, but what you’re really doing is perpetuating the cycle, giving money to the same people. Instead of specifically naming companies in your book, you call them things like, “the social network everyone hated.” Why did you choose to keep these companies anonymous? I did that for stylistic reasons. I wanted to separate the companies from any associations readers might bring. The primary reason was that I don’t think it matters. They were all expressions or reflections of structural forces. In a lot of ways, these companies that I worked for could have been any company, and the executives could’ve been any people. It’s a highly specific world, but none of what happened to me was unusual. I also think the names are ridiculous. Isn’t it mortifying that a portmanteau like “Facebook” has geo-political clout? I think it’s obscene. You worked at a data analytics startup. Can you talk about what, exactly, your company did? It’s a huge, highly unregulated area. The company I worked for did product analytics. Software that can help other companies track how users are moving through their app or website. So, anything that you do on an app, any information that you input, anything you press or slide can be tracked and aggregated and analyzed. This company was helping other companies look at user-flows through product and also helping other companies understand exactly who those users were, and where they were coming from. Basically, helping other companies move through their product in such a way that whatever the end game was, which was revenue optimization, that they would get there faster or more frequently. There’s another side of it, used for marketing. This was individualized. You could promote your product to a certain segment of users. If you want to reach people who are twenty-six, on an iPhone, active on the site between 2 and 6 a.m. and suggest they buy a gravity blanket. The company I worked for, at the time I worked there, only did aggregated reports for the companies they worked with. They didn’t sell data. But there were different ethical issues. The qualms I developed were that most people using apps or websites don't know that they're being tracked and don’t know that they're being tracked by a third party, and definitely don't know that they're being tracked by a third party whose employees potentially have access to that data. So, for me, it's more about this lack of transparency, or opacity, within the user experience where you have this imbalanced power dynamic and mediated experience in which the end user isn't even aware of what’s behind the scenes. Would you consider it a digital surveillance firm? What does it have in common with, say, a company like Cambridge Analytica, that used user data to help sway the US election? My answer is: Sort of. Or: Yes, but indirectly. The product facilitates surveillance, and helps companies collect information from users, often without users' knowledge. Data collection is almost always disclosed in a mature company's Terms of Service, but the names of any third-party tools that are doing the actual collection are not necessarily included. Basically, the company I worked for was a conduit, but I don't believe in neutral technology platforms; in my view the ethical issues of the company and product are inextricable from the broader landscape, and the behaviors they enable and normalize. I think the two serve very different functions, but they are in the same ecosystem. Cambridge Analytica was a political consulting firm that harvested voter information and sold the promise of "psychographic profiles" that sourced demographic data from various places, e.g. Facebook. The company I worked for made a tool for collecting, aggregating, and analyzing user behavior. The "tool" also had a feature where you could see individual user activity within a customer's app, alongside their personal metadata, and send targeted content based on that information. That latter feature, which is called "People," strikes me as a pretty pure expression/outgrowth of surveillance capitalism. In theory, the startup I worked for could have enabled its customers to engage in Cambridge Analytica-esque activity inside of their own platforms or apps, but the analytics startup itself did not build cross-platform profiles. I don't know what they would have done if a political campaign had an app or a website and wanted to use their tools; they probably wouldn't have paid it any mind, and I would assume that if the campaign was high-paying or high-profile enough, the company would assign it an account manager and have a paid employee helping the campaign optimize their products and outreach. More realistically, there's also no way for me, or anyone, to know what our customers did with the data they collected on their own users. It's possible they could have sold it or integrated it with other data sets. I don't know, and don't want to speculate too much. You call yourself a “self-identified feminist in a position of ceaseless professionalized deference to the male ego.” How did you handle this? I’m embarrassed about it, looking back. I’m a little ashamed about the way that I was so deferential and did my best to normalize everything that was happening, and even participated in it. I tried to erase myself. I wouldn’t say that that’s a brilliant coping strategy, but I really wanted to be a part of something. That meant that I was consumed by this thing.  As someone who was a non-technical employee at a pretty low level, who felt really grateful to be included, it was what I needed to do. I think that if there was someone who was a senior technical woman with experience and credentials, who had already been affirmed by an industry, she might've had an easier time with it. But to be honest, I'm just thinking about other people that I've encountered that do fit that criteria, but I don't know that they were given the credit that they deserved either. It sort of led to a complete dissociation from who I knew myself to be. I own my mistakes. You write that “the tech industry was making you a perfect consumer of the world that it was creating,” and describe about going down these rabbit holes online, as most of us do. When did you start noticing the problem with this? I felt it. I had this job, I was working remotely, I mostly worked from my apartment and I had these days when the day would be over, I'd be done with work, it'd be 7 p.m., and I would just feel so bad for myself. I wouldn't be able to account for how I spent my time or what I had learned that day, or what I had even produced. Working customer support is sort of like, the tide comes in and the tide goes out. It doesn't really build into anything, for the most part. My browser history was just this appalling record of someone wasting their life. It was more a sensation, a building feeling of dread and anxiety, and feeling like I had chosen a profession where I was, potentially, perpetuating that cycle. Ironically, I’m now in another profession that requires that I be on the internet quite a bit. I write about the tech industry, and a lot of things that happen in the tech industry bubble up on social media. I’m still hanging out in these spaces more than I wish I did, but I don’t know very many people in tech who manage to avoid spending a lot of time on the internet. At the end of the book, you write that you were “looking for stories and you should have seen a system.” Can you explain what you mean by that? I have always been very focused on personal narratives and personal ambitions and justifications and psychological motivations that people have. But actually, what I should have been looking at was the structure—not working on such a micro level. For my own understanding of this world and why things are happening the way they were. I have a friend, Moira Weigel, who is also a writer, and we were having a conversation about Mark Zuckerberg, who she had gone to college with. She's just sort of threw her arms up and said, “if he didn't exist, the internet would have invented him.” That encapsulates what I mean by it. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t matter. The people that I worked for don't matter. In terms of their individual intentions or motivations, good or bad. I think that even people with the best intentions, who think they can push against this industry, are running up against the same problems with people who are succeeding, who wouldn’t see them as problems.  I think structural analysis can be very forgiving, if that makes sense. I would’ve had an easier time, even in my own life, if I hadn’t been so focused on the individual narrative. But isn’t it partly a writer’s instinct to do that? Yes, and the industry relies on good storytelling. The industry has told these stories about itself. The biggest strengths are marketing, branding, packaging. Part of what was compelling to me about working at the analytics company was that data is a kind of storytelling. Looking at data in aggregate is fascinating, it’s about how people are living their lives, even if it’s how they live their lives online. I wouldn’t say this isn’t a world with a lot of storytelling. But I think, for me, zooming out would’ve eased the burden of trying to understand this world. You mentioned to me earlier that when you moved to the West Coast it was because you didn’t know what your end game was. Do you know what it is now? I’ve always had a very hard time picturing the future. I try not to do it. I remember having a conversation with my manager at the analytics company, and we were trying to figure out what my job should be. He said, “Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?” Classic question. As a working professional, you should have an answer to that question, even if it's bullshit. And I was very honest and I said, “I don't really know.” And he said, “You could start a company!”  I think the fact that that's the end game, that’s the most valuable thing a person can do in this world, is part of the problem. I don't see myself starting a company anytime soon. I have really enjoyed writing. It took me a long time to admit it was something I wanted to do. This book is an admission of that. 
‘Go to Where the Rawest Stories Occur’: An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk

Talking to the author of Consider This about “dangerous writing,” testing your story-telling instincts for emotional responses, and finding laughs in transcendent tragedy.

There’s a short but telling section in Consider This (Grand Central Publishing), Chuck Palahniuk’s new memoir on writing, that simply says: forget about being likable. The book, a collection of personal essays on everything he has learned about writing in the last twenty-five years, quotes people from Tom Spanbauer to Amy Hempel to Ursula K. Le Guin on technique, style, and form. It was Spanbauer, a former student of Gordon Lish and the author of five novels himself, who created the Dangerous Writing workshop, which pushed Palahniuk to write Invisible Monsters and then Fight Club in the mid-’90s. What Spanbauer meant by “dangerous writing” was to explore the work that personally scares or embarrasses the author; to make it dangerous is to express those fears honestly through art. It was through Palahniuk I found Spanbauer’s workshop, too. In 2013, I spent a weekend in Portland working on a short story in that Dangerous Writing workshop, and then two subsequent years working with Spanbauer on my own novel. Palahniuk has never been one to write characters people would see as likable or upstanding; rather, they are deeply flawed. In Choke, one of my favorite books by Palahniuk, the narrator, Victor, concocts a convoluted plan to pay for his dying mother’s hospital bills which involves pretending to choke on food at restaurants. While he chokes, he waits for a person to “save" him so they can bask in the glory of being the hero, and as a result, these "saviors" send Victor money, which he uses to pay the bills. In Diary, the main character, Misty Wilmot, suffers through caring for a husband in a coma following a suicide attempt, after having given up her dreams of an art career to raise a family; she struggles with her past of poverty, the desire for fame, and the oppression of the wealthy islanders who are related to her comatose husband. Many of Palahniuk’s characters are trying to find success through some kind of glory, and are willing to humiliate themselves, lose all dignity, and hopefully live through it to get there. In Consider This, Palahniuk says this kind of obliteration of self is also the writer’s job, that the point of writing is to coach one’s self where one would never have gone voluntarily. The problem with being vulnerable as a writer is there’s a paradoxical desire for the work to be liked, whether that means validation through the publishing process or being accepted by some sort of readership, while simultaneously shutting out self-critique or worry about whether others will accept the work. I once talked to a writer friend who discussed the need to “lean in to your disaster”—disaster being the raw, distinguished pain of one’s words which makes a writer’s work unique, wild, and telling. Often in Spanbauer’s workshop, this practice started with an assignment about the thing you’re most afraid to tell. The idea was you might exhaust all of the emotional or psychic pain of a moment through writing, make the pain totally vulnerable, and come to a new place on the other side, changed. Perhaps this is what draws people to Palahniuk’s work: the sense that a flawed character always has the hope of being redeemed (even if they never are). I recently spoke with Palahniuk by email about craft, writing workshops, and who inspires him to be a better writer. Elle Nash: Could you talk a little about the effect of Tom Spanbauer’s teaching on your life? Consider This is dedicated to him, and the subtitle of the book is: moments in my writing life after which everything was different, a callback to his workshop. His influence on me has been very deep, and it is hard to say what guidelines I tried to follow before his workshop, even. I loved reading your words about him in the book. I know you’ve discussed his workshop a lot, mostly I’m curious to know what your ideas about writing were before Tom—before you were changed? Chuck Palahniuk: Like so many would-be writers, prior to Tom I was a Lousy Stephen King Copy. Or I was a Pathetic F. Scott Fitzgerald Copy. Meaning I'd read and try to emulate the style of successful writers. Among the first things Tom told me was, "The world already has a Stephen King." And then he showed me empirical ways to unpack and reverse engineer storytelling, and in doing so create my own style and voice. Instead of mimicking the superficial aspects of a famous writer, under Tom's direction I could begin to build the deep framework needed for truly unique stories. Presuming there is no workshop to give feedback, how do you think a writer can learn to trust their intuition? Minus any workshop, go to parties and tell your stories. Test to see whether people engage with them and give an emotional response. Also test to see if strangers approach you with similar stories from their lives, ones you might use to expand your original story. Parties are the best. A distant second-place option would be "open mic" public readings. Such readings allow you to hear where a story earns an emotional response, but most of your audience is too competitive and distracted (drunk) to offer anything beyond their laughter or gasps or groans. This sort of testing will help build your story-telling instincts. On the note of workshops, I’ve always felt that art is never a solitary act. I’d love to discuss with you the effects collaboration can have on a writer’s work—from trusting their peers in workshop to simply feeling inspired by another writer. Who inspires you to be a better writer? Go to where the rawest stories occur. In Alcoholics Anonymous I'm always blown away by the most unlikely people inventing a phrase or sharing an anecdote so tragic that it makes the listeners laugh. My background is in journalism so my impulse is always to preserve, archive, curate these incredible moments. Good, real people telling true stories inspire me to become a better writer in order to better honor such stories. You said once your formative years were the punk years. What makes something punk versus not punk? Is there contemporary fiction you’d consider punk these days? My reference was to an observation made by Billy Idol. He said that all punk songs started abruptly, ran three minutes and fell off a cliff at the end. Hearing that I realized that my best short stories began at full throttle, went only a few pages, and ended—blam. With that insight I could start to vary my pace and length in fiction. But in my reading I still prefer work that drops a reader instantly into a reality and resolves circumstances in twelve pages rather than twenty or forty. Are there any short stories or authors you recommend that drop the reader into reality like that? For instant immersion, I look for short stories. Mark Richard's The Ice at the Bottom of the World, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Honored Guest by Joy Williams, The Informers by Bret Ellis, Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun, and Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson.
The Year in Pivoting to Video

There’s only ever so much you can control at any job. You make the things you make as good as you can, at which point they are not really yours anymore, or anyway not yours to control.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. For better but mostly for worse, I have always thought of the jobs I’ve had as fundamentally someone else’s business. My work life, since the beginning, has been a matter of digging myself out from under things dropped onto me by managers for reasons I only sort of understood or cared about. Other tasks seemed to have just materialized on their own somewhere between the ionosphere and the drop-ceiling, and those landed just as heavily. I sense that most jobs are at least a little bit like this. In the early days, I did not bring my work home, in the literal or the emotional sense, because it was the sort of thing that could only really be done, in the literal and the emotional sense, in the fluorescent mehscape of an office. I did not ask questions about why I was doing any of it, because the work itself—forcing search keywords into descriptions of luxury condominium buildings like butter into a foie gras goose, or taking information that was trapped in one digital field and re-typing it into another more useful one, or standing over a thrumming scanner in clothes I couldn’t remember buying—was so transparently inessential as to foreclose even the possibility of an interesting answer. It was something I did for money, and while I did it grudgingly it’s worth noting that I was then doing everything else in my life just as grudgingly. I applied myself more assiduously to drinking in bars with my friends and writing short stories in which I visited wry but richly deserved punishments on people very much like me, but I treated all of it as an imposition that I would just have to endure on my way to wherever I was going. I walked from one waiting room into another into another, for years. The first two-thirds of my working life were a bleary hungover skein of unrewarding and luridly meaningless jobs, some of them officially temporary but all of them unofficially so. I was later pulled up into some rewarding but extremely precarious staff editorial gigs, which was much better. For the first time, I cared about the work I did and the people I worked with, but I was invariably pivoted or pushed out of those jobs after a period that did not ever exceed two years, into adrenalized and harrowing jags of freelance freefall. I did not always or even often understand why those jobs kept being eliminated, but I knew just enough to understand that 1) there was probably a reason of some kind, and 2) I would probably disagree with it even beyond the consequences that notional reason visited upon me, but 3) none of it was strictly my fault, or even probably the fault of the superiors who had been tasked with giving me the bad news. There were systemic forces at work, broader strategies and gambits, industry trends to be hedged against or surfed upon. The resulting consequences—the strange new work initiatives or the laying out of new and very different priorities or whatever—landed just as heavily on me as all the older and more obviously preposterous stuff used to. Strange new duties arrived like weather; changes just sort of happened, and kept happening. We organized the newsroom at one of my old workplaces, and what was initially thrilling and even moving about that work—all these talented and confident and ground-down people crowding into a conference room, each revealing with some shame and surprise that the weather had in fact been very bad of late above their cubicles, too, brutally bad for years in some cases—became something stranger once we finally got management to meet with us. We had long debated amongst ourselves, first in bars and then as a bargaining unit, whether the people above us were feckless or actively venal, merely kind of dumb or actually casually cruel. It quickly emerged that they didn’t really have anything in mind at all, at least where we were concerned. That company had always prioritized video, and had often done it well in its way, which amounted to sending young dudes to Liberia or Kashmir or East St. Louis to talk with the locals and sometimes shoot a gun. The type of video that we were told one day that we were going to be doing was much different. Our videos would fulfill a provision in a deal that the company had signed with a cellular phone company’s startup streaming service; that service needed videos, which maybe could only be viewed by that company’s subscribers and quite possibly would be viewed by no one at all, and we would make those. And so, every couple of weeks, we would write short scripts and go sit in a part of the company’s new showcase office space that afforded sufficient room and light and views of other, cooler employees doing things in the background. There we would talk into the camera about a story we’d written, or a thing that was happening; the videos were edited down to 90 seconds. It’s hard to know what happened from there, and the streaming service no longer exists; to my knowledge, these videos are nowhere to be found online. Doing the videos seemed, then as now, more or less the same as not doing them. Again, it was my job but not really my business. *** It is still unclear just how much people have ever wanted to watch video online, although it is well known by now that the viewership numbers that Facebook presented to advertisers back in 2015 were inflated by something like 80 percent. The delirious rhetoric that accompanied that push—“We’re entering this new golden age of video,” Mark Zuckerberg said in 2016, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook...is video”—makes that figure seem modest. In 2018, some advertisers filed a lawsuit against Facebook alleging that it knew its video figures were wrong at the time, and that the figures were inflated by more like 150 to 900 percent; Facebook has copped to making a mistake, but denied that it did so with an eye on deceiving advertisers. At any rate, it is also well known that this overinflation—feel free to swap in “brazen lie” here, if you want—had a number of unpleasant and unfair consequences for people working in online media. Resources were reallocated to video stuff that no one really wanted, and people lost their jobs as a result. Multiple websites pivoted themselves more or less out of existence, seemingly due in large part to peer pressure; sites could look at their own traffic and see that people did not really watch very much video, but just assumed that Facebook knew something they didn’t. In 2017, Fox Sports eliminated the written word from its website entirely, replacing columnists and features and game stories with videos of ovoid men heatedly pretending to be upset about college football. Traffic to the website declined by 88 percent in the months after the change. When I was laid off from my previous job, in July of that year, the company explained it as the result of a decision to “put more resources into video production.” They laid off everyone on our site’s video team, too, but again I assume they had their reasons, or didn’t. My next workplace understood video not as the secret future of the internet, but as a useful if modest part of an uneasy present. The sites that comprised the larger company were popular and profitable and powerfully in flux, as they had been ever since an aggrieved tech billionaire, using a honeybaked WWE antique as a cutout, successfully sued them into bankruptcy. The coterie of venture capitalists that had bought the sites at a discount briefly attempted an ambitious pump-and-dump asset-flip, then punted and brought in some consultants to justify and oversee layoffs and buyouts in advance of a different and more desperate kind of sale. Everything at the place atrophied as ownership looked for and found ways not to spend money on workers and work it no longer even pretended to care about. The satellite office where we shot our videos emptied first of people, then fixtures and furnishings. On the last day there, before management let the lease run out, I booted a wildly oversized tennis ball, one of the inexplicable promotional doodads that had been left behind, and knew that, wherever it landed, it could not hit anything that could break or wasn’t already broken. Strangely, for all the ambient hauntedness of that moment, this was also one of the happiest and most productive times I’ve had at any job. Ownership didn’t just not-care about what we were doing, but was actively and obviously not paying attention to any of it; the plugger sent up from Miami to oversee the sites before the sale seemed not to have even heard of them before. But as long as we stayed within the budgets agreed-upon back when everyone was still pretending to care, we could do pretty much whatever we wanted. The lack of institutional support necessarily limited the scope, but the totality of that neglect allowed us to try things, and keep working on them until they got good. Within these limitations and in that vacuum, the production staff created a series of small and silly video series built around various people sitting together and doing various stupid things—participating in oblique open-ended competitions, parsing and rating old NBA jerseys purchased at thrift stores, unwisely attempting to eat 50 scrambled eggs. The tone of the videos was convivial and welcoming and, I thought, rather relaxing to watch; an online friend remarked that they served a sort of ASMR function for him. A tossed-off blog post that had grudgingly become a self-satirizing feature on Facebook Live—everyone was still sucking up to Facebook, then—was reimagined as a recurring bit in which I and some willing co-workers opened old packs of trading cards and did our best to remember the players whose cards we found. A reader sent a big printer box full of loose baseball cards from the 1980’s and ’90’s to the office without a return address, and we opened it and talked about those cards on camera. It was all just about as goofy as it sounds, but the videos built an audience over time, despite or because of how low-key and similar they were. My wife’s aunts passed around a video of me explaining how various plaid shirts made their way into my closet; online friends memed it as kindly as possible. The producers were the reason that any of this worked, but I felt a part of the process in a way that I hadn’t ever been before. I cared about the videos being good, and the people making them cared about them being good, and other people—not the people paying for them, of course, but other people—cared about them, too. I was proud of that. The sale, when it finally came, put our network of sites in the hands of a private equity concern; an irascible veteran digital media executive, whose personal fortune had been built running grim and nondescript content mills years earlier, put up some of his own money in that deal and installed himself as CEO. He arrived with a reputation for picking fights and cutting corners, and swiftly got to work doing both. People began to leave and weren’t replaced and the CEO busied himself hiring men he had worked with a decade earlier. None of those guys were what you might call big readers, either, but this time that didn’t protect us. They jammed the sites with advertisements until the pages stuttered and stalled and refused to load; readers complained, those complaints were forwarded upstairs, and the pages grew only more choked. Word would periodically come down that the CEO was furious about, say, a video in which my co-workers competed to identify different brands of yogurt in a blind taste test. It was never clear why, and he’d shortly get enraged about something else, but none of it inspired much confidence. “They’re playing house,” a longtime executive at the company told me of the new CEO and his crew one night at a bar, shortly before he left the company. I learned about the first big advertising deal that new team landed the same way everyone else did, which was that I suddenly heard my own voice coming from my computer’s speakers every time I loaded a page on the website. The deal, we were later told, could deliver up to $1 million in revenue provided we were able to deliver something like 15 times the video exposures we currently did across the network. Because we did not have anything like the staff or infrastructure to make that many more videos, it was decided that the ones we had would play automatically in a small window at upper left on every page; immediately following an advertisement for the aforementioned insurance company, a second video would also begin playing, with sound, in the middle of every page. [tweet_embed]https://twitter.com/david_j_roth/status/1187045902961258501[/tweet_embed] So I found myself on every page of the site, muttering or chuckling or just sitting in some strange stooped way in one or more of our videos. What was for people visiting the site just the latest experiential offense among many was, for me, both an unsettling manifestation of the self-consciousness I felt about my personal pivot to video and something stranger. Much of my job, there and everywhere else I have worked, has amounted to wading every day into the internet’s sprawling garbage lagoons in search of eye-catching chunks of floating trash that I might show to other people on the off chance that it might amuse or disgust them; I did not always enjoy the smell, but I’d worked enough other jobs to know that there were worse places to spend your day. It was jarring, as I became the ubiquitous face of the spammily cretinous new regime, to find that I was myself now part of that chaos—it was my face and voice, decontextualized and unbidden, pouring out of that pipe. I couldn’t stop it, but it doesn’t stop. So I chased myself around the page, suddenly much more noise than signal. There’s only ever so much you can control at any job, of course. You make the things you make as good as you can, at which point they are not really yours anymore, or anyway not yours to control. In time, I and everyone I worked with left that last job; the part that was ours was just shrinking too fast. And yet I still go back to the garbage lagoon, because it still feels like my job and because I don’t know where else to go. So I bring you this. Is this anything? [[{"fid":"6706301","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]]
The Year in Breathing

Cool always seemed like a place of safety, a protective modality, a way to move through the world while needing nothing. But cool, I learned, may have been killing me.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Life lately has been very embarrassing for me, a formerly cool person. For starters, consider the Crocs, a pair of tie-dyed clown shoes I’ve worn near-daily since summer. It’s not that I was ever cool like I could pull off a pair of denim panties or whatever. But I was cool like I could look comfortable even when I wasn’t. Cool like when someone told me a while ago that I was hard to read, I felt warm with pride. For reasons equally personal, cultural, and political, cool always seemed like a place of safety, a protective modality, a way to move through the world while needing nothing. Cool was permission to slink. Cool was not flopping around in a pair of plastic shoes just because they felt good on my feet. But cool, I learned last year, may have been killing me. I fainted on the A train on my way to work one morning. Some days, blood leaked from my nose spontaneously. My memory, known among friends for being obnoxiously sharp, started to flag. I felt deep pain most of the time. My orbital bone throbbed with migraine several days out of the week. It finally got bad enough that I took myself to get a check-up, a completely mundane exercise for which I had secretly believed myself too cool. Within weeks, seven different specialists had investigated my body. I was severely anemic. My septum was deviated. Polyps lined my nasal passages. My heartbeat was faint. There was a 2 mm growth at the base of my skull. But the real problem, the doctors determined, was unmanaged stress. It made my jaw tense and my neck stiff. It made my brain fog up. It made simple tasks feel like missions. A neurologist prescribed a triptan, half a dozen supplements, and deep breathing. I laughed. Telling a patient to breathe is to a doctor what thoughts and prayers are to a politician. But then this spring, I found myself in a belly flop of a depression. A few months earlier, I had quit a job around which I’d organized my personal and professional identities. A relationship I’d emptied myself into had begun to show cracks. I was unmoored and pathetic. Bored, I would pad through Instagram’s recommended page. The algorithm, which typically served me an equal mix of Kardashian children and satisfying slime videos, had read the room. Mindfulness memes colonized the app: 10 ways to maintain your boundaries. How to sit with discomfort. Affirmations for anxiety. Good reasons to put down your phone. (Irony is lost on the algorithm.) I felt moved, and strangely inspired. I didn’t recognize the instinct in myself but I craved more of the warmth and clarity and comfort that came from accounts with names like @notesfromyourtherapist. Around the same time, I went to a lecture given by a friend about yoga. It was specific to her experiences and family history, but I wanted everything she described her practice to be: grounding, challenging, expansive. The next morning, I borrowed my mom’s mat and went to my first yoga class in years. And then I went a couple more times that week. I wasn’t very good. But miraculously, I didn’t care. I didn’t feel self-conscious needing to reach for a block; I didn’t feel competitive when I had to reset in a child’s pose before anyone else. Depression had humbled me. Nearly all the instructors talked in riddles about breathing, and I thought of my doctor’s directive. Is a hot fire going up and a cool water going down what she had in mind when she had encouraged me to breathe? I became more aware of the tightness in my chest, the rigid shrug that turned my shoulders into little mountain peaks, the empty pocket formed by my tongue pressing into the roof of mouth. I had subconsciously trained myself to hold my breath. It’s possible that my brain and my body have gone years without receiving the oxygen they deserved. I had been too cool for the most elementary of human functions. I spent the fall breathing, and deeply. In for four, hold for four, out for four. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight. In through the right, hold at the top, out through the left; reverse. In through the nose, out through the mouth, 30 times quickly; in again and hold for 10. Hand on belly, hand on chest, in until you’re saturated, out until you’re empty. Soon, everything looked different. My hips were in communion. My toes unclenched. I stopped shaving my head. I no longer needed the friction, the erasing my barber could do with a set of clippers. I wanted the softness of my curls to return, even when they made me look like Justin Timberlake. I started flashing deep smiles at strangers, letting them talk to me even when I had somewhere to be. I understood what people had meant all these years when they said it’s the small things. Every breath was a victory. I became the most embarrassing version of myself possible, a walking cliché. I also leaned into my worst nightmare: a pair of Uggs for when the weather rules out Crocs. I feel humiliated sometimes. But more so, I feel good.