Hazlitt Magazine

Living with Slenderman

Three little girls, an Internet boogeyman, and a stabbing in the woods on a sunny afternoon. Inside the trials of Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier.

Searching for the Self-Loathing Woman Writer

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The Year in Apocalypses

There comes a moment, and perhaps it has come in 2017, when I need to believe something better is coming.

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Living with Slenderman

Three little girls, an Internet boogeyman, and a stabbing in the woods on a sunny afternoon. Inside the trials of Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier.

1. According to court documents, the little girls had been planning the kill since Christmastime. The original idea was to do it at Morgan’s birthday sleepover. Twelve-year-old Anissa, a boyish brunette with long arms and a layered pageboy cut, had read online that it’s easier to murder people when they’re asleep. It was the perfect opportunity: all three of them would be sharing the same bedroom. Like most suburban middle schools around Wisconsin, Horning Middle School gave its students iPads for educational purposes. Anissa’s Internet history showcased your typical online fare (bunnies eating raspberries), as well as more unusual attractions. On her Google Plus page, she Liked videos such as one in which a cat slowly beats to death a live mouse, and reposted a tutorial on how to kill someone with the wrong end of a lollipop (jam it into their eyes, their neck, all the soft spots). She also posted multiple “psychopath tests,” which she had taken and, according to her captions, failed (meaning she scored positive for psychopathy). In December of 2013, Anissa fatefully introduced Morgan to Creepypasta Wiki, a fan fiction horror website, where users can read and contribute to each other’s ghost stories. One of the most popular crowdsourced monsters on Creepypasta was called Slenderman, a tall, looming, faceless figure in a black suit. Morgan, who wore glasses, long blonde hair, and child’s size 10-12 clothing had one other friend, Payton, nicknamed Bella to distinguish from another Payton in their class. Morgan and Bella had been best friends since fourth grade. But Slenderman stories scared her best friend, so Morgan turned increasingly to Anissa. The two lived in the same apartment complex, and grew close during bus rides to and from school. Together they pored over Slenderman fan art, doctored videos of Slenderman “sightings,” and the thousands of amateur ghost stories on Creepypasta. Gradually, they pieced together that Slenderman resided only three hundred miles away in a mansion located at the center of Wisconsin’s Nicolet National Forest. Worse, he intended to kill them, or their families, if they didn’t first sacrifice a human being in his name. Given their options, the girls decided to kill someone, and although each would later blame the other for choosing their specific target, they decided that it had to be someone Morgan loved. So Morgan invited Anissa and Bella to her slumber party, and made a list in her science notebook that was later introduced as evidence in court. SUPPLIES NECESSARY: PEPPER SPRAY MAP OF FOREST CAMERA SPRAY BOTTLE CHEESECAKE THE WILL TO LIVE WEAPONS (KITCHEN KNIFE…) Morgan’s twelfth birthday party kicked off at Skateland, where, according to interviews with Morgan’s parents Matt and Angie Geyser featured in the 2016 HBO documentary Beware the Slenderman, the three friends laced up roller skates and rushed around holding hands, like “little girls.” Angie told me that upon returning to the Geysers’ condo, Morgan, Anissa and Bella lounged in Morgan’s loft bed, playing on their iPads, and eating cheesepuffs that Angie would later find scattered in the sheets. Anissa and Morgan’s plan was to murder Bella in her sleep, stash her under the covers, and run. But when Bella fell asleep on the floor, Morgan changed her mind. As she told Anissa, and later told police, she wanted to give her best friend “one more morning.” The next morning at breakfast, Angie, a pretty woman with clear skin and dimples in her cheeks, set out donuts and strawberries. After eating them, Morgan snuck into the kitchen and slipped a five-inch blade into her jacket. Angie says that she and Morgan’s father, Matt, had only let Morgan go to the park without them once or twice. But it was Morgan’s birthday, so they gave permission. The sun was out and anyone knows girls are safer in a group, usually. Before she left, Morgan told her mum she loved her. Then she and Anissa and Bella proceeded to the park’s public restroom, a site prearranged by Anissa, who later explained to police that it had “a drain for blood to go down.” According to Anissa, the new plan was to stab Bella in the bathroom, prop her on the toilet, lock the door, and run away. Reverting to the notion that it’d be easier to kill Bella if Bella were unconscious, Anissa encouraged Bella to shut her eyes and go to sleep. When Bella didn’t cooperate, Anissa smacked Bella’s head against the bathroom wall, hoping to knock her out. When that didn’t work, Morgan and Anissa suggested to Bella that they go into the woods off Big Bend Road to play hide and seek. Bella didn’t want to do this either, but Morgan assured her that she could pick the next game. So Bella followed them into the trees. According to court documents, the three girls traipsed through the brambles, and under the shade of overhanging boughs Anissa petted Morgan, who sometimes liked to pretend she was a cat. The two girls passed the knife back and forth. Morgan told Anissa she didn’t want to “do it”—she wanted Anissa to “do it.” She said, “You know where all the soft spots are.” Anissa handed the knife back to Morgan, urging her to “go ballistic, go crazy.” Morgan hesitated. “I’m not doing it until you tell me to,” she said. So Anissa took a few steps away, and said, “Now.” Morgan tackled Bella, whispering in her best friend’s ear, “I’m so sorry.” “Then,” Bella would tell police from her hospital bed, “she started.” Anissa watched as Morgan stabbed Bella nineteen times in the legs and torso, missing a major artery by one millimeter. Morgan punctured Bella’s lungs, pancreas, and heart. Bella shouted at Morgan, “I trusted you! I hate you!” After a while, she said, “I can’t see.” Morgan dabbed Bella’s wounds with a leaf, and Anissa instructed Bella to lie down, reassuring her that she would lose blood slower that way, and promising Bella they’d go get help, though she had no such intention. She wanted Bella to calm down and be quiet. “I don’t like screaming,” Anissa said during her interrogation. “It’s the one thing I can’t handle.” Promising Bella they’d return with help, the two girls ran away, proceeding on foot to the Nicolet National Forest to live with Slenderman. As they walked alongside the highway, Anissa says she became disenchanted and homesick. Morgan reminded her that they couldn’t go back. This was their new life. They had brought along two water bottles and pictures of their families. Now that they’d sacrificed in his honor, they would go live with Slender in his mansion, forever. That’s when Anissa recalls she had a “nervous breakdown, and blamed Morgan for everything.”  Morgan began to pray: “Slender, if you’re listening, please help us.” Cars whizzed by. The girls waited for a sign that things would be okay. But as Anissa later told police, no help from Slenderman arrived. No sign appeared. “He didn’t do anything,” Anissa said. “Nothing happened.” [[{"fid":"6702816","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]]   2. Prior to that moment, violent crime in Waukesha was basically non-existent. Between 2003 and 2016, an average of less than one murder occurred per year (a total of eleven murders were committed over thirteen years). The police blotter records stuff like drunk dog walkers and bats found in desk drawers. When a passing bicyclist spotted Bella, lying there bloody, pleading for help, it must have felt like a horror movie come to life. The 911 operator who received the biker’s call was similarly shocked. In a thick, Midwestern accent, he sputtered, “She appears to be what?” “Stabbed,” the caller said. “Stabbed?” Paramedics rushed Bella to Waukesha Memorial Hospital, where she underwent emergency surgery. Dr. John Keleman, who operated on her, told ABC News, “If the knife had gone a width of a human hair further, she wouldn’t have lived.” Her parents, Joe and Stacie Leutner, planted themselves at their daughter’s bedside. Joe didn’t know what to say at the time, he told ABC News. He remembers reassuring Bella, over and over again, “The police have them.” Cops caught up with Morgan and Anissa on the shoulder of I-94. Their little legs had carried them around five miles into their intended three-hundred-mile hike. They were arrested, brought to the police station, swabbed for DNA, photographed, and locked in separate interrogation rooms.  Over the next few weeks, news helicopters circled the apartment complex where Anissa and Morgan’s families lived. Waukesha residents propped posterboards scrawled with well-wishing notes to Bella at the dead end where she’d been rescued. In August 2014, two months after Bella was attacked, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker issued a proclamation that August 13th would be “Purple Hearts for Healing Day,” a state holiday in honor of Bella’s favorite color. Media outlets ran photos of Bella holding the balloons and purple cards she’d received, cropping the pictures to protect her identity. Miraculously, Bella not only survived the May 31st attack but fully recovered over the course of that summer in time to attend her first day of seventh grade. But Leutner family spokesperson Stephen Lyons says focusing on her startling recovery, and measuring Bella’s trauma only in terms of bodily injury, overlooks the inevitable, longterm psychic wounds. “When you stab a knife that deep into someone’s body, you’re going to create some pain that may stay with you forever or for a very long time,” he told me over the phone, after we’d made small talk about the unusually warm weather, which had beckoned hummingbirds to his backyard. He was referring to the scar tissue that may tingle throughout Bella’s life. “But there’s the emotional and the mental part of this healing—and often we talk more about that.” Lyons would not talk in detail about Bella’s post-traumatic stress except to say the entire family is currently in therapy. Bella is now a freshman in high school, where Lyons says she is taking advanced placement classes and doing very well. When asked whether he thought the Leutners had forgiven their daughter’s attacker, Lyons said, “We don’t talk about forgiveness.” 3. When Morgan was a toddler, ghosts bit her and pulled her hair. Eventually they went away, and were replaced by characters from Morgan’s favorite books and movies. Fun colors dripped down the walls of her bedroom. The oldest voice in her head, Maggie, became a dear friend. Multiple doctors would later testify that Morgan had been hearing and seeing and feeling things that weren’t there since the age of three. Matt and Angie had no idea. Aside from one night, when Morgan says she went into their bedroom, announced that hers was haunted, and they told her to go back to sleep, that it was just a dream—a night that Angie and Matt say they don’t remember—Morgan kept the hallucinations to herself. Childhood schizophrenia expert and UCLA professor Rochelle Caplan says some children might hide their symptoms, worried parents will say it’s their imagination. Morgan’s schizophrenia remained invisible to those around her largely because, although she was quietly hallucinating and having paranoid delusions, she had not yet entered into a full-blown psychotic episode, which is much more difficult to mask. By and large, Morgan’s pretend world remained nonthreatening. But then a man started following her. When Morgan looked into the bathroom mirror, she could see him behind her—this towering, shadowy thing, shifting in and out of corners. She couldn’t see his face, only that he was skinny, looming, the color of smoke and ink. Morgan named him IT. She hadn’t read the Stephen King novel at the time, she just didn’t know what else to call the haunting figure. IT stayed for a while, sneaking up on her in mirrors but, like the ghosts, IT eventually went away on its own, though by the time she met Anissa years later, memories of IT still frightened her.  Anissa called Morgan “Child.” She was also the only one Morgan told about the voices in her head.  When Anissa introduced Morgan to Slenderman, a thin, faceless figure who eerily resembled IT, Morgan thought she’d uncovered IT’s true identity—and over time, Slenderman fan art and doctored photographs of the Internet boogeyman replaced IT in her mind’s eye.  Worried that IT would return, this time with tentacles, as depicted on Creepypasta Wiki, wearing Slenderman’s signature black suit and tie, she confided in Anissa about her fears. According to court documents, Morgan told Anissa she recognized Slender. As a young child, she had seen him with her own eyes. Anissa believed her. She told Morgan that she knew Slenderman personally. Together, they decided, they could stop him from killing their families. Morgan was not diagnosed with schizophrenia until after her arrest, and although Morgan’s parents were shocked and devastated by the news, they were also not surprised. Morgan’s father, Matt, has schizophrenia. Matt and Angie didn’t tell Morgan about Matt’s illness because she was so young, and early onset schizophrenia is so rare. They regret that decision now. They also find themselves compulsively mining the past for warning signs, an almost impossible task, since Morgan kept her symptoms to herself. A few subtle instances stand out, though. In the year leading up to the crime, Morgan and her parents would occasionally run into people who Morgan had known for most of her life, and Morgan would act as though she didn’t know them. Angie chided her daughter in these moments, thinking Morgan was simply being “a snotty preteen.” She didn’t realize that people’s features were shifting around in front of Morgan’s eyes, making them unrecognizable. Then there was the fact that Morgan had taken to wearing layers and layers of clothing, even in springtime. That was something Matt did, too, wearing clothes that didn’t suit the weather—he wore shorts year round, for instance, even during Wisconsin’s subzero winters. Angie would later wonder whether dressing unseasonably was some kind of undocumented symptom of schizophrenia. But on the warm spring day of Morgan’s crime, when she watched Morgan leave the house wearing a heavy coat and long gloves, Angie simply thought her daughter had grown insecure about her changing body. Morgan had gotten her first period only a few weeks prior. Although the specific mechanism of hormones in triggering schizophrenia onset remains unknown, the disease’s increased incidence post-puberty presents a possible epidemiological link between growing up and going crazy. After being arrested and interrogated, twelve-year-old Morgan proceeded to the Washington County Juvenile Detention Center, a windowless facility that offers no outdoor time and prohibits physical touching between children and parents. Washington County is officially authorized as a short-term stay facility—ten-day stints are not uncommon. Morgan would remain there for more than a year. As soon as the jail permitted Matt and Angie to see Morgan, they looked into her eyes and just knew. Morgan’s pupils were dilated, her gaze lost. “She just gave me this look,” Angie says. “‘What are you doing here, why did you come?’” “Given the family history,” Angie continued, “I don’t know how to explain it. But…obviously she was sick. Everybody at the jail acknowledged it. It’s well documented.” During that first visit, separated from Morgan by bars and forbidden to touch her, the Geysers watched helplessly as their daughter talked to herself, smiling at imaginary friends and laughing spontaneously, seemingly at nothing. She looked sick and disheveled. Her hair was not brushed, and she hadn’t showered for days. To her parents’ mutual astonishment, she didn’t even seem to recognize them. The symptoms she had hidden for so long were now consuming her in plain sight, and they could do nothing about it. She had been charged with attempted murder. She did not belong to them anymore. When Matt and Angie were finally permitted to hug their daughter nearly five months later, Morgan told them she no longer liked to be touched.  4. Criminologists have suggested that those who kill in pairs often cordon themselves into two roles: the mentally ill individual, and the psychopath. It’s a criminal profile that has been ascribed to famous cases such as the Columbine Massacre and Leopold and Loeb. In each case, those who knew the culprits would later paint one as insane, and obsessed with the other, who was sociopathic and manipulative. But in the nearly four years that passed between their arrests and their scheduled trials, it would be the online presence of Slenderman and not Morgan’s illness that received the brunt of media attention. Even Beware the Slenderman, which delves deeper into the personal lives of the assailants than any other narrative thus far, and was the first to shed light on Matt’s mental illness, focuses on the dangers of boogeymen created by Internet. Morgan’s schizophrenia is not mentioned until more than an hour into the almost two-hour film. At Anissa’s September 2017 criminal trial, her team would also focus on Morgan’s illness. Anissa may have called Morgan “Child” during their friendship, but in jail (where the two were kept separated, per judicial orders), Angie says that Anissa got the other girls to call Morgan “Psycho Bitch.” But when it counted, Anissa’s attorneys would successfully argue that it had been Morgan who manipulated and dominated Anissa. At Anissa’s trial, multiple psychologists testified that the girls’ collaborative Slenderman mythology ultimately refracted through the lens of Morgan’s then-undiagnosed schizophrenia to create what 19th-century French psychiatrists first referred to as “folie a deux”—or, The Madness of Two.  Dr. Gregory Van Rybroek compared Morgan’s effect on Anissa to the scientific forces that reshaped Wisconsin after Pangaea: glaciers. Anyone on the jury, regardless of higher education in geography, would have understood the reference. Kindergarten and elementary school aged children in Wisconsin spend a lot of time learning about the ice mountains that swept through the state, flattening the majority of land to the extent that hills for skiing in winter had to be built from towering piles of garbage. The glaciers also carved the famous nooks and crannies, and the rocks that resemble animals, which many families drive to see in the Wisconsin Dells, a local tourist trap built around its religiously themed main attraction, Noah’s Ark, “America’s largest water park.” "It wasn't immediate," Van Rybroek said of his perception of Morgan’s effect on Anissa, in a slight northern accent. "It was something that gradually got into her head and her friend's. They got confused about what was going on there, and morphed into the world of mental health.” Preteens wrapped together in the shared secret of Morgan’s illness, the two girls had drawn themselves into a corner—into a kill or be killed situation. “Somebody can have a paranoid delusion where they feel they’re under attack,” Dr. Stephanie Brandt, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and faculty member at New York’s Weill Cornell Medical College, explained over the phone. Brandt, who has had many years of experience working with schizophrenic children and adolescents, and as an expert evaluating children in the context of litigation, said, “…it might result in them doing something violent in what, for them, is self–defense.” With the significant news coverage of the case, the girls’ defense teams argued that local jurors might be biased, and petitioned the judge in the case, Judge Michael Bohren, to bring in an outside jury. But Bohren refused the motion. He said Waukesha County residents could be trusted to be fair. He scheduled Anissa’s trial first. She entered his courtroom in shackles on September 12th, 2017, and sat down beside her public defender, Maura McMahon, trembling. The chains around her wrists and ankles shook. Over the next three days, McMahon argued that although her client did not suffer from mental illness in the general sense, Anissa’s codependency with Morgan, who was mentally ill, and their shared delusion about Slenderman, nevertheless made Anissa insane by proxy “when it came time to do the deed in the woods along Big Bend road.” More often than not, McMahon spoke of her client in terms of Morgan, saying “they” instead of “she,” repeatedly highlighting Anissa’s role as an (inactive) accomplice, and implicitly underlining the argument for a shared disorder by referring to the girls in tandem. But toward the end, McMahon focused on only one of the girls, in particular, and with significant pathos—and it was Morgan, not Anissa, who provided the emotional linchpin. “We know Morgan Geyser is a schizophrenic—has schizophrenia,” she said, “one of the most terrible and difficult psychotic disorders known to our society, one that in middle ages would have labeled her a witch and [gotten her] burnt at the stake.” She gritted her teeth, and added, “But we are not in the middle-ages anymore. We do not treat sick children that way.” Against all odds, the jury agreed with McMahon. They came back with a verdict for Anissa of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. They recommended a hospital sentence of at least three years. The full length of her commitment remained in Judge Bohren’s hands. He would sentence her sometime over the winter holidays. McMahon’s unconventional defense of Anissa—the “folie a deux” argument—had been a longshot, and the NGI verdict represented a startling departure from widespread local conceptions of mental illness as an excuse for bad behavior. Mental illness is a controversial topic in Waukesha County. According to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Bruce Vielmetti, who has been actively covering the Slenderman Case since Morgan and Anissa were first arrested in 2014, people in Waukesha tend to think that “the whole insanity defense is just a joke—they don’t believe in it, even though it’s the law.” Underneath local ABC News affiliate WISN 12 Milwaukee’s Facebook livestream of Slenderman court proceedings, people commented, “It’s mental illness if the parents have money,” and, “Everyone has mental illness these days, didn’t you know?” Leutner family spokesperson Stephen Lyons has wholly rejected the NGI concept on behalf of his clients as being, at best, redundant, and at worst, dangerous. He says that anyone who tries to commit murder is by definition insane, and argues that it puts the community in an unsafe position to arbitrarily favor certain violent offenders by committing them to hospitals, where they can petition for release as early as six months into their sentence, while the rest remain where all of them belong: “behind bars.” It remained to be seen if Morgan, whose trial was scheduled two weeks after Anissa’s on October 9th, 2017, then pushed to October 16th, would receive the same verdict. On one hand, her schizophrenia made her a shoo-in for an NGI defense, but on the other, locals had taken to social media to express outrage at Anissa’s verdict, and that made Morgan Geyser’s team uneasy. Under pressure from its neighbors, another jury pooled from the same community might issue a reactionary verdict, and send Morgan to prison.  5.  Anthony Cotton had a good reputation for defending unseemly cases. His team handled felony charges ranging from child sex crimes to child homicide, and the firm’s website promised “aggressive criminal attorneys.” Within seconds of arriving on its landing page, a pop-up appeared of Cotton’s smiling face and slicked back hair, offering to live chat. Avvo, a company akin to Yelp that rates 97 percent of licensed US lawyers, gave him a five-star, 10 out of 10 “Superb” criminal defense rating, and his services were priced accordingly. The Geysers had never been rich. Angie worked on-call as an Advanced Neuro Diagnostics Specialist, traveling within one hundred miles of her home at odd hours to set up electrodes and machines and monitor people’s nervous systems during surgeries where there was a risk of “neurologic deficit.” She often assisted on Awake Brain operations, running the equipment and monitoring “a screen full of squiggly lines,” as she put it, while the patient lay on the table, skull open, alert and talking to surgeons. Matt was intelligent and stable, but his hard-earned mental health remained dependent on reducing external stressors, such as full-time employment, whenever possible. He worked as a stay-at-home dad, which he loved, and performed janitorial work several times a week in one of his father’s office buildings. Cotton was expensive, but his resumé inspired hope. According to his legal profile, he had personally secured not guilty verdicts even in cases where his clients had confessed, or when the evidence against them “seem[ed] utterly overwhelming.” By the time Angie and Matt considered hiring someone, Morgan had already provided detectives with hours of detailed, videotaped confessions.  Angie told me that when she and Matt first sat down in Cotton’s office, she felt dazed, and said to Cotton that at least Morgan was only twelve. Cotton told her that didn’t matter. He explained that in Wisconsin, children ages ten and older are automatically prosecuted as adults in attempted homicide cases.  Angie wasn’t sure she’d heard Cotton correctly. Certainly, she thought, if Wisconsin harbored a law that sentenced ten-year-olds to adult prison, people would be up in arms about it. She would have heard about it in the news. There would be marches in the streets. Children could not legally vote, or drive, or drink (or, at least, they could not drink without a parent present; in Wisconsin, children are legally permitted to drink at any age, even in public, so long as a parent gives the OK). Why, Angie asked, if the law otherwise acknowledged that children behaved impulsively and were therefore too dangerous to be licensed as adults in any other way, did it treat certain “serious” offenses as grown-up initiations? Cotton explained that unless they could secure something called a “reverse waiver”—a tricky process that, per Wisconsin law, required Cotton to convince a judge by “a preponderance of evidence” that re-adjudicating the case to juvenile court would “not depreciate the seriousness of the crime” in the eyes of the community—Morgan faced up to 65 years in prison. At that point in the conversation, Angie recalls, “There was a lot of crying about a lot of different things.” I spoke with Cotton a few weeks after he first briefed the Geysers on what Morgan was up against. It was June of 2014. “The Slenderman Case” was sweeping headlines, Morgan and Anissa were locked away in juvenile detention, where they were separated from their parents during visiting hours by bars, and Cotton expressed some shock that everyone seemed so totally obsessed with the crime’s salacious details—the number of stab wounds; the role of the Internet; Slenderman himself. In Cotton’s mind, the more pressing question—the angle nobody seemed interested in taking—was this: Why was a mentally ill child being tried as an adult to begin with? “I’ve been practicing law for nine years, and it’s pretty clear here that something’s not right,” he told me. When I asked if he ever felt frightened by Morgan, he laughed in disbelief. “I see a very young child,” he said finally, in a scripted tone. “I see somebody who’s very, very young.” According to University of Wisconsin Law Professor Eileen Hirsch, Wisconsin began prosecuting ten-year-olds as adults in homicide-related case in response to a mid-1990s phenomenon known as “The Super Predator.” The term was coined by then-prominent political scientist, John J. DiIulio Jr., whose theories led to sweeping legislative changes throughout the United States. In his treatise on the subject, “The Coming of the Super Predators,” DiIulio claimed to have conducted research that revealed how children raised in “moral poverty” (urban areas) were fast evolving into emotionless “wolf packs” of killing machines. DiIulio attributed the 1980s juvenile crime wave to the rise of Super Predators, and claimed that this new breed of “kiddie criminal” could only be stopped if America ceased treating them like children. He also encouraged states to “build churches,” and cited Jesus Christ as a child development expert. When DiIulio, who went on to work for the White House, promised that juvenile crime would rise significantly if America did not punish juveniles more harshly, almost every state in the nation rushed to convert its laws. “No one has been interested, really, in trying to change that back,” Professor Hirsch told me, “to come forward with what we now know, which is that…there were never any super predators.” Several years after DiIulio popularized the phrase, new research proved The Super Predator had been a figment of his imagination. Juvenile crime, which DiIulio claimed had been out of control, actually decreased during the mid-1990s by one third. After experiencing what he described to The New York Times as a revelation in church, DiIulio publicly apologized, but in Wisconsin, laws built in service of his debunked theory remain unchanged to this day. Professor Hirsch explained to me that dismantling such laws proves politically tricky, in part because doing so would ostensibly require any lawmaker to first explain to his electorate that they’d had been taught to fear an imaginary evil. No one wants to hear they’ve bought into “fake news,” and so The Super Predator has become the grown-up’s version of The Slenderman: a terrifying force that must be stopped at all costs; a terrifying force that does not actually exist. Overwhelming research published by The American Bar Association shows that children are far less likely to commit new crimes after being charged and sentenced in juvenile court, an arena that takes into consideration the child’s unique psychology, and provides rehabilitative resources customized for juvenile development. “We now operate with the understanding that a juvenile’s actions may not be the same as an adult’s—and, instead, that the juvenile might merit unique consideration under the law—and that punishment should perhaps be tailored to development and reform,” the American Bar Association states on its website. But in Wisconsin, a state that swung the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favor by 20,000 votes, many believe in the idea that a serious enough crime is an adult-up rite of passage—and they ridicule the alternative (i.e., being “soft on crime”). In Wisconsin, trial court judges are elected, making them beholden to the same pressures as politicians. Judge Michael Bohren catered to an extremely conservative voter base—one that firmly believed in the Super Predator-inspired rallying cry, “Adult Crime, Adult Time.” In the parking lot outside his courtroom, cars sat wearing bumper stickers that read “Police Lives Matter.” Outsiders who report on Morgan’s crime without venturing into Waukesha have described the area as “rust belt”—a “drab” little place. In reality, the town is pristine, resembling Salem more than Gary, Indiana, or Appalachia, and its culture is much more elitist. Angie Geyser grew up on a farm in Manitowoc County, where Making a Murderer was shot, and for her, and many others, moving somewhere like Waukesha represents socio-economic advancement. The people there are educated and upper middle class. Culturally it is neither industrial nor rural nor Southern, as “rust belt” or Southern Midwestern cities tend to be. It is mannered, indefatigably friendly, puritanical, and repressive. “Waukesha County is probably one of the two most conservative counties in what now is becoming a more and more conservative state,” Vielmetti says. Referring to Judge Bohren, he added, “I think that influences a lot of his thinking.” After Morgan and Anissa were charged as adults, their respective attorneys immediately petitioned Bohren to transfer their case into juvenile court. Despite having been officially diagnosed with schizophrenia after her arrest, Morgan had not yet received medication. Anthony Cotton knew that his client would receive better treatment within the juvenile system, but in order to get her there, he was tasked with proving to Judge Bohren all three of the following conclusions: That moving Morgan’s case to juvenile court would not depreciate the seriousness of her crime, that keeping her case in adult court was not the best way to deter others from committing a similar crime, and that Morgan could not receive necessary treatment within the adult system. Proving the third claim would have been a slam dunk if not for a strange legal loophole that prevented Cotton from using Morgan’s mental illness in her defense during the reverse waiver phase. In Wisconsin, attorneys can use mental illness as an argument for keeping their clients in the juvenile system, but cannot cite it as justification for moving them there. (Ironically, Morgan’s mental illness was actually leveraged as further justification for her adult status; at the reverse waiver hearing, the prosecution argued that Morgan would always be violent—an accusation that is strongly contested by experts on schizophrenia.) Cotton attempted to work around these legal strictures by presenting experts on adolescent brain development, psychiatrists and psychologists who had examined Morgan, as well as her jailers and former teachers, who described her as a good student with no history of violence or criminal activity. Cotton cited research that children prosecuted as adults have a much higher recidivism rate than children handled in juvenile or family courts. He pointed out that twelve-year-olds don’t usually consider the law before breaking it, and that scientific studies show that part of the brain tasked with processing deterrence does not even develop until early adulthood. Before issuing his ruling, Judge Bohren sipped from a Ronald Reagan mug. He acknowledged that Morgan had schizophrenia, but reminded the court that if her case were transferred into the juvenile system, she could be released by the time she turned eighteen. At that point, Morgan would have spent half her life behind bars, and without a felony on her record, she could ostensibly pursue higher education and gainful employment. This, Bohren decided, was unacceptable. “They were young when the offense occurred,” he said. “But they get older every day, frankly.” He called the crime, “frankly, vicious,” and ruled, “on that basis,” that the case remain in adult jurisdiction. Morgan would not receive medication or any kind of mental health treatment. Following the hearing, Nick Bohr of local ABC News affiliate WISN 12 reported live. “There were tears and some surprise here in court as a judge denied a motion by lawyers for both girls to have their cases handled in juvenile court,” he said. “The victim’s father here said they wouldn’t be commenting, though the family did appear to be upbeat following this decision.” Morgan’s father, Matt, was seen sobbing outside the Waukesha courthouse. When questioned by reporters, he said only that he wished Judge Bohren had “thought harder.” [[{"fid":"6702821","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":{"5":{"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":"5"}}]] 6. When asked how withholding treatment might affect an un-medicated schizophrenic’s mental state, child psychiatry expert Dr. Stephanie Brandt responded, “Oh my God.” Although Dr. Brandt did not examine Morgan, and was therefore unable to speculate about Morgan's specific psychiatric state during or after the attempted homicide, she nevertheless spoke with me about hypotheticals related to childhood schizophrenia in general. “We do not ever withhold medication from somebody in an acute psychotic state. It is not done,” she said. “To withhold medication is unacceptable, and it would potentiate any problems she was already having.” On the day of Morgan’s arrest, Matt and Angie drove to the police station debating whether to let Morgan to go to the Star Trek convention that weekend as planned. They had been told their daughter was in custody, but not why. They thought they were going to get her. In Wisconsin, police aren’t required to tell a child’s parents that the child is being questioned, or to honor a child’s request that a parent or other adult be present during questioning, unless the child specifically asks for a lawyer. Detective Thomas Casey later testified in court that he did not offer Morgan a phone call, and would not allow her parents into the interrogation room. Although she was not visibly hallucinating during her interrogation, multiple doctors would later state in court that, at the time of her arrest, Morgan had been in the grips of a psychotic episode. In Wisconsin, an entire case was once thrown out on the basis that the defendant had been going through alcohol withdrawal during his interrogation. His confession was later found to be coerced. But Morgan would not receive this leniency from Bohren. After being interrogated, Morgan proceeded to Washington County Juvenile Detention Center, where she was allowed to make one sixty-second phone call. When Angie answered, Morgan begged her mother not to post bail. In spite of herself, Angie laughed, assuring Morgan they didn’t have half a million dollars. They were disconnected, and Morgan couldn’t figure out the collect calling system, so she did not phone home again for several weeks. The jail only allowed outgoing calls, so Angie could not directly contact Morgan—she could only call the jail and they would tell Morgan to call her back.  Due to her illness and young age, Morgan had trouble understanding the charges being brought against her. But legally, Judge Bohren could not proceed until she was competent to stand trial. So after charging her in June 2014, he dispatched her to The Winnebago Mental Health Institute, one of two state psychiatric hospitals in Wisconsin equipped to deal with “forensic patients” (formerly known as “the criminally insane”) for a competency exam. However, her lawyer says that while there, she didn’t receive proper treatment. Their only job at that time was to restore her to competency. While conducting the months-long evaluation, doctors there officially diagnosed Morgan with the disease that many already suspected: early-onset schizophrenia. Morgan was also re-diagnosed with asthma. Doctors at Winnebago prescribed her an inhaler, but not psychiatric medication. Then they sent her back to jail. If left untreated, experts say a schizophrenic person’s mind will rapidly deteriorate, and over the next few months, Morgan became so confused that her parents noticed she was losing the ability to read and do basic math.  No one wanted to be Morgan’s roommate because she acted like an unmedicated schizophrenic person. In alternating fits of loneliness and confusion, Morgan increasingly relied on her hallucinations for company. Then, one day, another inmate suddenly offered to be Morgan’s roommate. Morgan’s family was relieved. They wanted Morgan to make real friends—that is, ones that were not imaginary. “Schizophrenics are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators,” Dr. Brandt told me, when I asked her what she wished more people knew about the disease. “Because of their limitations and judgment insight and ability to function, they get targeted.” In an adolescent jail of sexually starved, hormonal girls, Morgan represented easy prey. Shortly after moving in, Morgan’s new roommate allegedly began to proposition her sexually, and masturbated in front of her repeatedly. She warned that if Morgan told anyone, she would go to the press and spin the story her way. By the time Morgan told her parents, the roommate was gone. Unlike Morgan, she was released. Nevertheless, Morgan’s team brought the allegations to Judge Bohren’s attention during another hearing aimed at getting Morgan treatment. But the district attorney’s office said Morgan was lying, and Judge Bohren believed them. “He’s clearly been in favor of the prosecution on every single thing that has been raised by the defense,” said Vielmetti. Prior to Morgan’s official diagnosis, three separate psychologists hired by the state testified before Judge Bohren that Morgan was in the throes of psychosis and suffering hallucinations. One of these doctors stated he believed that Morgan’s apparent psychosis was her direct “entry into this particular crime,” and at least two staff members at Morgan’s jail corroborated to Bohren that Morgan was visibly hallucinating and mentally unwell. Adults would need to explain the law to Morgan for nearly half a year before she understood what was happening, and even then, her parents expressed doubts that she ever truly knew what was going on. “I still don’t understand how you can admit an untreated schizophrenic, and then four months later release an untreated schizophrenic, and call her competent,” Angie said. “She was still psychotic, she was still hallucinating and delusional, so I don’t know that I necessarily agreed that she was competent.” “But perhaps my idea of what it means for someone to be competent is not necessarily the legal definition,” she continued, “and that can be said about a lot of things in the justice system, I think.” Sounding tired, she added, “Things that I think are right”—she trailed off—“it’s not necessarily the way the criminal justice system looks at it.” After her arrest, Morgan remained untreated and was denied any medication for a total of eighteen months. Then, in December 2015, with Cotton’s help, Morgan’s parents discovered a Chapter 51 loophole, which allowed them to petition a judge other than Bohren, in civil court, for Morgan to be sent back to the maximum security state hospital, where she might receive treatment. This judge approved their petition, and Morgan was remanded back to Winnebago, where she was at last given antipsychotics. Upon reaching therapeutic dosages, Angie says Morgan understood, for the first time, what she had done to Bella. Memories of the stabbing dawned on her in vivid detail. She hated herself. Morgan, Morgan’s family, and Morgan’s doctors wanted her to stay at Winnebago. But administrators at the hospital said that the intricacies of Wisconsin legislature prevented them from keeping her. The juvenile detention center technically provided a lower security environment than the hospital, and by law Morgan had to spend her pre-incarceration there. Winnebago gave Morgan a bottle of her new pills, and sent her back to jail.  Conditions like the ones at Washington County Juvenile Detention Center have been shown to drive even healthy minds insane, and without sunlight, exercise, or physical contact, Morgan deteriorated rapidly upon her return. She’d been given antipsychotics but not antidepressants, and the self-loathing that had set in upon recognizing what she’d done to Bella gnawed away at her mind. Maggie, the friendly voice who had been with Morgan longest, began telling Morgan to hurt herself. So Morgan used a colored pencil to cut open her wrists. According to Angie, staff at Washington County responded by taking away Morgan’s glasses, emptying her cell, stripping her naked, and putting her into something called a “turtle suit,” a green, padded smock. Morgan spent the next week unable to see, trying to soothe herself by singing “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel, one of her mother’s old lullabies. After Morgan’s suicide attempt, Winnebago overlooked whatever rules had previously prevented them from keeping Morgan, and re-committed her. Angie hesitated to say anything that might be construed as negative about the institution that had, in many ways, saved Morgan’s life. But she acknowledged that if Morgan had managed to kill herself, Winnebago would have faced a public relations nightmare—and that by allowing her back, they guarded themselves against legal issues. Legally an adult, fifteen-year-old Morgan now spent her days in Winnebago’s maximum-security adult forensic unit, surrounded by patients twice her age, who were usually violent and in a state of acute psychosis. Angie says that one day in the hospital courtyard, a small, monitored enclave where prisoners get much-needed outdoor time, another patient jumped on Morgan's back and started biting her Fortunately Morgan was wearing her signature heavy coat, so the woman didn't break the skin. But the attack left bruises. Given Morgan’s relative youth, Angie says the other primary issue has been keeping an eye on older women who wish to foster a maternal relationship with Morgan. (Violent offenders can harbor twisted notions of maternity.) When I asked Angie if she thought Morgan and Anissa could become friends again when Anissa is back at Winnebago, she said she didn’t see that happening, given Anissa’s cruel treatment of Morgan at the jail. But she’s been told “that it’s going to be impossible to keep them 100 percent separated.” “I mean, it’s definitely a concern, I’m sure, for both parties,” she said. By “both parties,” Angie was referring to Morgan and Anissa’s families. But the Leutners have their own anxieties about the girls’ reunion at Winnebago. “Are they going to be able to sit next to each other and have lunch?” Stephen Lyons asked me rhetorically. “And plot again?” Morgan is now stable and lucid. The voices are mostly gone, even Maggie, who was hardest to get rid of, is only present intermittently. She wakes up at the same time, eats the same breakfast, and attends the same rotations of daily group therapy, which includes a health and hygiene class that Morgan likes because sometimes they get to put on makeup and give each other facials. “Do you remember that movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray?” Angie says. “That’s how life feels for Morgan right now.” Two weeks after Anissa’s NGI verdict, Angie sat down in Judge Bohren’s courtroom for Morgan’s last pre-trial hearing. As with a wedding, the factions in this case sat divided by an aisle according to their loyalties. The victim’s supporters filled two rows of pews by the window, and across the courtroom, marooned on a bench by herself, sat the defendant’s only supporter that day: her mother. Matt rarely came to these things anymore. The last time he’d attended one of Morgan’s hearings, he wept throughout the whole thing, and multiple media outlets published photos of him crying. As the courtroom waited for somebody to say, “All rise,” the Leutners and their guests behaved like animated parishoners in church, smiling and laughing about weekend plans, occasionally lowering their voices to talk seriously about last night’s Packers victory. On the other side of the railing, court officers were similarly casual, chuckling when the District Attorney couldn’t figure out how to turn on his laptop. Then the District Attorney started laughing, too. “As someone who works in the operating room, sometimes we do that,” Angie later told me. “Unconsciously, sometimes you do that, have casual conversation while a patient is lying there, probably terrified.”  Angie stared straight ahead. Soon her daughter would be brought out in chains. Finally, the swish and clank of shackles echoed in the hall, and fifteen-year-old Morgan entered the courtroom staring at the ground, lips parted, her hands and feet leashed to her waist by a belt, wearing shoes with white cat faces decaled on the toes. The room stood for Judge Bohren, who wore his signature bowtie—red this time, a pop of color peeking from his double chin. He glanced summarily at Morgan, who had grown six inches since her arrest. When she was twelve years old, he had sanctioned her prosecution as an adult. Now, just in time for her scheduled jury trial, she finally resembled one. The morning had been slotted for pre-trial housekeeping issues, but in a surprising turn, the district attorney’s team and Morgan’s attorneys announced to Bohren that they had reached a plea deal. There would be no trial. Both sides had agreed that if Morgan pleaded guilty to first-degree attempted homicide, the state would take away the “deadly weapon” charge, thus reducing her potential sentence by around five years. The state would also not dispute an NGI defense. The semantic compromise sentenced Morgan to a psychiatric facility instead of an adult prison. Morgan’s family was overjoyed. By the time Bohren read the plea, they had long ago stopped hoping the law would somehow turn out in her favor. Now, all they wanted was for Morgan to be safe. Angie told me that Morgan’s incarceration feels, in some ways, “like a death.” “We’re taught from a very young age in our society that justice and punishment are synonymous,” she said, “and they’re not.” But others feel Morgan received inadequate punishment. “There’s so much discussion on what’s best for those who committed the assault rather than what’s best for the victim and the community,” Lyons recently said to me. Over and over again, he has emphasized, “There is only one victim in this case."  [[{"fid":"6702826","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":{"6":{"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":"6"}}]] 7. When the Slenderman case made national news, The Daily Mail swiped photos from the Geyser family’s social media accounts, publishing various images out of context to fit a story that implied Morgan’s crime spoke to ancestral evil, including pictures of Halloween decorations, which they used to intimate the family was interested in satanic rituals.  “Something I have to keep reminding myself is that the eyes of everybody else out there, you know, we’re the bad guys. Morgan is the bad guy,” Angie told me. The plea deal had been presented to Bohren earlier that morning, and she had agreed to meet me for lunch at Taylors People’s Park, a building located in what the restaurant’s website describes as “the heart” of downtown Waukesha. Angie was in a celebratory mood, excited about eating on Taylor’s famous rooftop deck. As we climbed the stairs, she told me that despite Waukesha being relatively small, she “never really” ran into people related to the case—but then she spotted Detective Thomas Casey, the man who had interrogated her daughter, enjoying the sunshine, ten feet away. “No, we can’t sit here,” she whispered, squeezing my arm, and we retreated down the steps before he could notice her.  Forcing a smile, Angie resituated herself at a small metal folding table out on the sidewalk. “I can’t wait to not live here,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s a horrible place to live either.” Prior to her daughter’s arrest, the closest Angie had come to being in the public eye was as a teenager, when she played Consuela in West Side Story at the Community Theater in Manitowoc, a secluded, Northern town covered in lakes and green trees. Since May 31st, 2014, she had opened the door to find herself blinking against the blinding lights of local news crews. She and Matt received phone calls and hate mail, some of it generic (“that little bitch”), and some of it scary (“someone’s seriously gonna kill her”). Vielmetti told me that when the news broke, “law and order oriented” individuals in Waukesha thought the Geyser family, as a whole, should be punished, though the public view has evolved. Over salad at Taylors, Angie said she’s not surprised that people often blame her and Matt for what Morgan did. Speaking about school shootings, Angie says she always thought, “How did their parents not know that something was wrong?” “Well, you know,” she said now, quietly, “it turns out sometimes you just don’t know.” The media circus inspired by Morgan’s crime has died down over the past three and a half years. Aside from Bruce Vielmetti, few publish updates on the case, and when they do, they tend to source directly from Vielmetti’s work, creating a derivative news cycle. But Angie still finds herself compulsively scouring comments sections to see what people are saying about her daughter. Sometimes she’ll recognize a name or two: this or that woman she’s seen before in the school pick-up and drop-off circle. In many people’s opinions, the Internet had been as much of a culprit in Morgan’s crime as Morgan or Anissa was, and now, here was Angie, similarly using social media as a sort of self-destructive tool. Angie told me she visits Morgan at Winnebago Mental Health Institute several times a week. The roundtrip takes about four hours, for what amounts to forty-five minutes with her daughter, and she likes to get there extremely early, to avoid being even one minute late. “I don’t know what to say half the time,” she said in a small voice, smiling again, reflexively. “There’s no parenting manual for this.” Due to maximum-security protocols, Morgan meets with her mother in the hospital cafeteria, and Angie has never actually seen the ward where Morgan spends her days. “Typically, toward the end of the visit, she starts clock-watching.” Morgan will count down the minutes left in their visit, and then begin to cry. “She just wishes she could come with me,” Angie said. “She just wants to get in the car with me and drive home, and I want that, too, more than anything in the world.” The first time we spoke over the phone, Angie was lugging a cat carrier around a gas station nearby Winnebago, wiling away time until visiting hours began and she was able to go see her daughter. She was searching for a sick-looking feral kitten she’d seen the last time she was there. Angie grew up on a farm surrounded by animals. Her plan that day was to wrangle the kitten and take it to an emergency vet before going to see Morgan. The little cat had run away a few times, but Angie was determined that the naughty animal be treated well. “I can’t rescue who I want to rescue,” she acknowledged quietly. “So a kitten will have to do for now.” 8.   Before issuing a verdict on the plea deal, Bohren planned to address Morgan for the first time in open court. In the three and a half years that had passed since sanctioning her prosecution as an adult, Bohren had never spoken to her directly, and she was terrified at the prospect of conversing with him, particularly in front of so many people. She mentally spun through every imaginable scenario, anxiously attempting to forecast Bohren’s potential statements, questions, and her hypothetical responses. Winnebago limits its patients to ten minute phone calls every hour, and in the days leading up to that hearing, Angie heard from Morgan nearly a hundred times. She reassured her daughter endlessly, but it would turn out that Morgan was right to be afraid. Outside the courthouse that day, the American flag waved at half-mast to honor the victims of the recent Las Vegas massacre. The Leutners and their guests sat down wearing Harley Davidson jackets, and moments later, Bohren told Morgan to rise. He asked her to describe the moment, just prior to the stabbing, when she had tackled Bella. He specifically wanted to know how she had straddled Bella, and where her legs had been, and where Bella’s legs had been. Morgan hesitated, and Bohren seemed disgruntled. Cotton, appearing confused, jumped in to explain that Morgan’s medication and overall condition made it difficult for her to remember much of what had happened in the woods off Big Bend Road, much less such minute physical details. “Then tell me what happened,” Bohren said to Morgan. She responded quietly, in a soft, high-pitched voice. “I hurt Bella.” “We call her ‘PL,’” Bohren corrected her, referring to Bella’s—Payton Lautner’s—true initials. “I hurt…PL,” Morgan whispered. “Alright, so what did you do?” he asked impatiently. “I stabbed her,” Morgan said. Bohren pressed her for further information. Morgan blinked at the floor. Her wrists were handcuffed and leashed to her waist by chains, which made it physically awkward to wipe her own eyes. During Anissa’s 2014 interrogation, she had described Morgan as “not one to cry very often,” and when asked by the prosecution later that year whether Morgan had wept during her interrogation, Detective Thomas Casey had testified that “there was no emotion from [Morgan] at all.” But now, as Morgan struggled to tell Bohren what he wanted to hear, she sobbed through every word.  She asked Bohren to repeat his question.  “I’d like you to tell me in your own words what you did on May 31st, 2014. What happened between you and Payt”—he stopped himself, annoyed, and repeated the question, this time using Payton’s initials. Morgan told him that she and Anissa had taken “PL” into the forest. “And I said we were going to play hide and seek,” she continued. “And Anissa said she couldn’t do it, and that I had to.” She trailed off, breathing raggedly, overtaken by childish, quaking sobs. Bohren glanced at the clock on the wall. He offered Morgan a minute to catch her breath, and told her, smiling at his audience, that they had all afternoon to wait for her answer. After some heavy breathing, Morgan responded, “I tackled her and I stabbed her."  “Well, tell me about the tackling,” Bohren said. “How did you do that.”  Like so many of Morgan’s statements that day, what she said next came out in the form of a question: “I came up from behind her and I jumped on her?”  “And then what happened?” Bohren asked.  “And then I stabbed her?” Morgan wailed. Bohren continued to ask Morgan to confirm details of the case, and she responded in the affirmative, with that same questioning tone. He shook his head. “So then when she’s on her back, how did you stab her? How did you do that?” As he waited for Morgan to answer, someone’s phone dinged with a notification. The courtroom remained quiet for a long while, except for the sound of Morgan’s crying. Finally, Morgan said, “I stabbed her with the knife I had taken”— another person’s phone dinged—“from my house earlier that morning.” Bohren shifted in his seat, looking antsy. “Now, when you say you stabbed her, were you somewhat straddling her?” When Morgan didn’t answer to his satisfaction, Bohren suggested that maybe if Morgan read Bella’s account of what might have happened, she would be able to speak in greater detail about the event. “I haven’t read the complaint since I was twelve,” Morgan replied softly. But Bohren was unrelenting. “How did you do it?” “I…I stabbed her with a knife,” Morgan repeated. “And what part of her body did you stab her?” She paused before answering, “Everywhere.” Every time Morgan finished her description of the crime that afternoon, Bohren seemed to want her to start over at the beginning. Like her schedule at the maximum security hospital where she now lived, their conversation had veered into Groundhog Day territory. “She was in so much pain, and I just wanted to jump up and tell him to stop, to leave her alone,” Angie says. “Haven’t you heard enough?” After Bohren officially approved the plea that day in court, the Leutner family released a statement through Stephen Lyons that conveyed their grave disappointment over how this case had turned out. “The current legal system does not favor victims in this situation,” they wrote. Angie responded to the press release with stunned confusion. “From my perspective the justice system has failed my daughter,” she said. “My daughter is the one who’s been failed by the justice system. I mean, being tried as an adult for something that happened when she was twelve?” She laughed softly, trailing off. After a long pause she added, “I still can’t wrap my brain around it.” On behalf of himself and his clients, Lyons said firmly, “We want the max for Morgan.” He explained that the Leutners plan to continue attending every one of Morgan’s hearings, and that each time she petitions Judge Bohren for release from the hospital, Bella’s parents will sit watching from the front row. “They feel strongly that they have to go and say, ‘Please do not let this attempted murderer out on the streets,’” Lyons said. "Shopping for homecoming dresses leaves only a few options because far too many dresses will show off her scars,” Bella’s mother, Stacie Leutner, lamented in a victim’s impact statement reported by ABC. “Beach vacations are harsh reminders that swimsuits aren't made for young girls with 25 scars.” Angie thinks the Leutners, her former friends, might have reacted differently to the plea had they known what Morgan’s life was like in jail. “They never saw her in that psychotic state, so they don’t know what that looked like,” she said. Technically, once Morgan officially begins her sentencing at Winnebago, she can petition for release every six months. “Which means we’ll petition until she comes home,” Angie said, as we finished up our lunch at Taylors. She modestly rolled up her sleeve to reveal a lily of the valley, tattooed prettily on her upper arm—for Morgan. “It’s a flower from her birth month. And it supposedly symbolizes a return to happiness.” 9. America’s focus on Slenderman’s role in the stabbing recalls our eagerness to blame videogames for the Columbine Massacre, to blame detective stories for the Leopold and Loeb murder, to blame heavy metal music for the West Memphis Three’s alleged crime, and to blame historical romance novels for the Parker-Hulme killing in New Zealand, which Alex Mar recently linked to Morgan and Anissa's crime. Last week, Sony Pictures released an official trailer for its upcoming movie, Slenderman, a fictional horror film about the character that doesn’t touch on the Waukesha incident. Following local outcry, CBS reported that several Wisconsin theaters have pulled the film, concerned about what it might do to impressionable young minds. It’s convenient to blame Morgan and Anissa’s violence on our newest paranoia: “screen time,” and the effects of unmonitored Internet access. Every new generation’s chosen amusements inspire parental confusion, a self-conscious bewilderment that defensively transmutes into horror. Today, technology is that new horror, screens are that new horror. But looking to Slenderman, our newest version of the Pied Piper, for explanations about Morgan’s behavior is part of that same elderly notion that what confuses us must be evil, and our inclination to demonize technology rather than discuss mental illness represents a scab on a much deeper, necrotic wound, one that needs to be explored in order to be cleaned. Ultimately, the most striking difference between all the aforementioned murderers and Morgan is that unlike Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, or Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, Morgan Geyser did not kill anyone. The most striking similarity? All four cases involved a mentally ill child whose incomprehensible actions were ascribed to bewitchment, possession, some soulless evil that might be stopped if only the world around us stopped changing. 10. If Morgan had gone to trial, and had been found NGI, she probably would be looking forward to a much lighter sentence than she currently faces. But in order to secure an NGI, her attorneys would have had to prove in court that Morgan did not know at the time of her crime that it was wrong or she wasn’t able to conform to the law even if she did—a tall order, given that Morgan herself admitted, on tape, albeit in the throes of psychosis, to understanding she could “rot in jail” for what she’d done. Ultimately, Morgan’s family simply did not want to roll the dice and risk a guilty verdict, which could have sentenced Morgan to up to sixty-five years in an adult women’s prison, where she would not have received mental health care. So, they took the prosecution’s deal, one that Lyons said his clients warmed to because they “wanted to bet on the sure thing, and the sure thing is to keep [Morgan and Anissa] locked away.”  Several weeks ago, Judge Bohren sentenced Anissa Weier, as an accomplice in an attempted murder, to twenty-five years in a psychiatric facility, the maximum possible in this type of case. After three years, she can apply for supervised release. Morgan will have a sentencing hearing on February 1st to officially determine the length of her commitment to Winnebago. The state is asking for a maximum of forty years, a sentence that co-founder, deputy director, and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia Marsha Levick calls “absurdly long,” and “a ridiculous response.” How long Morgan actually serves, like so many aspects of her case, is up to Judge Bohren. As soon as she is officially commited to Winnebago, Judge Bohren could release her in six months, forty years, or if he feels like it, never. If he retires, or dies, another judge will take over—an elected official, beholden to the same community that currently believes Morgan has not been duly prosecuted. As one Wisconsin resident put it, “We think she got off scotch [sic] free.” “She was very sick and we didn’t know, and she wasn’t treated, and something terrible happened as a result of her illness, and now she’s better,” Angie said the first time we talked on the phone. “It wasn’t her, I mean, when it comes down to it, the person who did that, that wasn’t Morgan.” As we spoke that day, Angie spotted the kitten she’d come to save and cornered it. But then an adult cat emerged from the shadows and stepped protectively between them. The relationship between the two felines was clear. So, Angie returned to her car empty-handed. Sick or not, she thought, the kitten belonged with its mother.
Searching for the Self-Loathing Woman Writer

Did these women hate themselves, or did they write about a world that hated them?

I was once asked to write an essay that would answer a question: why do so many women writers hate themselves? Self-loathing, they called it, and she was the self-loathing women writer. I did not like this question, but I did recognize it. I could have given a simple answer in a straight line, cataloguing the many instances of women who wrote about their selves and their hate, and said that this approximated self-loathing. I could have written about women who write about mutually masochistic affairs with people they don’t love or can’t trust, or the posthumous collections of women who lived sad lives and died sad deaths, or I could have written about novels or poems or memoirs about addiction, depression, abusive childhoods, recollections of grief. I could have looked at honest admissions of guilt or regret or sadness or anger and used those emotions to say there, I found her, there’s the woman who hates herself. But did those women hate themselves, or did they write about their relationship to a world that hated them? Wasn’t self-loathing the symptom, rather than the condition? And anyway, why did we have to consider it in terms of a diagnosis? I thought the inquiry was a statement trying on a question for size, and said as much. I went looking for an answer that would improve the question, which either did not exist or I was not able to find. Couldn’t it be true that the question was incomplete? Weren’t there other questions—not necessarily better, just other—that could or should be asked before we decided that this determination was our question? The essay went nowhere, but I sometimes think about that woman writer who hates herself, in case she’s still out there, waiting to be found. * In 1971, Linda Nochlin published her canonical essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Also a bad question, she argued, one that baited and switched by redirecting our attention to the tip of an iceberg, so we wouldn’t consider its depths. The world as it existed, this question suggested, was good and right, and that women had not succeeded in it must be a mystery for them to solve. “[L]ike so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist ‘controversy,’” she wrote, “it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: “There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.’” The canon of art history as it stood then (and now) was almost exclusively white, male, and Western, or similar designations we use when talking about people who have personal and professional power over others. And so the standards of greatness were ones that, by design, excluded anyone not of those categories. Meanwhile, the conditions necessary to make art—as Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, the rooms of their own and the five hundred pounds a year—were not available to women, again by design. Men made women into wives because they needed their labour. Wives were the proofreaders, editors, cooks, babysitters, the names thanked in the acknowledgements of their husband’s books. If they were lucky they got to be muses, forever lying down on canvas. This is the foundation of culture, and also, of everything else: a subjugation based on definitions of gender, race, and class, so that one kind of man can succeed.  “Women,” whatever that means as an identifier or category, is not enough of a link between all the people who could be labelled as such. As Nochlin wrote, when considering the work of Artemesia Gentileschi, Mme. Vigée-Lebrun, Georgia O’Keefe, Helen Frankenthaler, Sappho, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, just to name a few of her examples, they “would seem to be closer to other artists and writers of their own period and outlook than they are to each other.” Similarities of subjugation are no substitute for solidarity; comparisons have a way of enforcing hierarchies. Still, somehow, we are asked to think of women as a unit, and whatever greatness they achieve is made the proof of an artistic equation. To consider yourself part of this canon has the effect of a constant psychic flinch. At what price acceptance; at what point will we find ourselves and our work denied or rejected, we wonder. But women have made art, and they still do, tracing the boundaries between their realities and their emotional interiors, their relationship to their world and the way they experience their world relating to them; the question is not where it is, but how it is rated, if it rates at all.  So if the question is the bait, the hook is the thinking which flatters what we believe we already know. “The problem lies not so much with some feminists’ concept of what femininity is, but rather with their misconception—shared with the public at large—of what art is: with the naive idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experiences, a translation of personal life into visual terms. Art is almost never that, great art never is,” Nochlin says, and more than that, she concludes, “the total situation of art making…are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast.” But if we are to agree that great art is never personal—and if that I like for its certainty, but hesitate to accept completely—what are we to make of the art that is so clearly the result of an artist’s relationship to their world? Think of how readily we accept what a women writer is, or should be. Think of how often we accept that women write memoir, while men write fact; that women are best at looking inward or to their immediate surroundings—the domestic—while men, accessing some kind of prized fugue state that lets them see with complete accuracy the hearts and minds of every person, everywhere, are given the title of truth-teller and sooth-sayer all at once. Women feel, men report. They guide us, as a culture, forward, and we are glad to follow.  *  There are only two places where I easily and freely give my attention: when I’m reading a book, or watching a movie. I am always studying pages and screens for instructions as much as for the story. And so I’m still watching and reading as so many familiar stories are being told—not new, but now verified by reporters and their institutions. The articles on Harvey Weinstein proved the way he used sex as a weapon, using it to control women’s access, status, wealth, all in comparison to his own. He spent so long living inside the mythology he made for himself, the one where he was a great defender of art, a champion of filmmakers and benefactor of cinema; actresses were required to thank him in their acceptance speeches for Academy Awards, so his name would forever be linked to whatever success they achieved. The reporting on the network of lawyers and investigators that he used to elude consequences show it for what it was: a conspiracy designed to protect his power. So many men are now being seen for what they did; so many of them always, in their own way, make art about their understanding of and relationship to the world. It is not that we know more about their work now. It is that now we must understand their work differently. Reading the first New York Times article on Harvey Weinstein, I remembered that almost exactly a year earlier I had been observing a conversation between a group of people. They were ecstatic over the release of the Access Hollywood tapes, when Donald Trump bragged about—well, you remember. He was never going to win, they said, but now he was definitely going to lose. No one would vote for him after hearing this, they said to and over each other. I was scared for many reasons then, but the most conscious fear at that moment was: how could we know the same thing and understand it so differently? After the election, I observed another conversation. They were devastated. Crushed. Their shock was just that, the surprise of realizing they would have to change their understandings of the world, which they did not want to do, not yet, not like this. And I thought: controlled innocence is no different from cynicism. They’re both calculations that allow you to believe you have already learnt everything you will ever know. And so now that we can’t say we didn’t know, the question has become: what do we do with these men and their art, now that we understand something about them that we didn’t before? What should become of their work? Do we watch the movies, buy the books, see the show? What if, these conversations ask, we don’t, and then we lose something we have all always considered to be of great value? That it is disingenuous to compare the dangers of being wrong with the threat of being right is not considered. The frequently invoked slippery slope is the threat of losing a flattened morality, as though the purest line of vision is one that looks to an agreed-upon horizon; as though hills and valleys of thought are too dangerous to contemplate. I am wondering: when did we decide what everything and everyone was worth?  I guess I spent a lot of time last year thinking about the unasked questions, and if the ones being asked could have better answers. And I still believe in the idea of a pattern or a trend that could be examined, or better yet, understood—as though knowing has ever been the same thing as understanding. The question of what to do with the art of abusers takes much for granted: first, that the art matters most, and second, that out of all kinds of artists, men deserve to be saved. We have determined their worth before we set the terms of value. Staring too closely at these questions has made me feel like I am looking at something that shouldn’t be examined from such a perspective. And anyway, thinking too much about patterns is what happens right before thinking too much about conspiracies, and then you’re the woman wearing the tinfoil hat, yelling about the connections that only you can see. *  In 1965, Harpers published an edited transcribed version of a talk given by Tillie Olsen, which she called “Silences in Literature.” Olsen was looking for what she considered hidden or unnatural silences—not the necessary fallow periods where writing has to be dormant so ideas can form, these are the silences of “creative suicides,” from censorship to perfectionism, an absence of time or support or other material conditions necessary to write.  “We must not speak of women writers in our century (as we cannot speak of woman in any area of recognized human achievement),” she wrote, “without speaking also of the invisible, the as-innately-capable: the born to the wrong circumstances—diminished, excluded, foundered, silenced.” This is an impossible catalogue, as it is only an archive of loss. The question has been asked for centuries: who are we missing? How could we know. In 1883, Olive Schreiner wrote From Man to Man, asking how many Shakespeares we had been denied because they were born the wrong race or class or gender. “What statesman, what leaders, what creative intelligence have been lost to humanity because there has been no free trade in the powers and gifts.” When Woolf gave her speech, asking, too, what if Shakespeare had been born a woman, she also offered an answer as to where to find the missing, a better version of the cliché that behind every great man is a great woman. When “one reads of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even a remarkable man who had a remarkable mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, or some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor, crazed with the torture her gift had put her to.” Is it time to add to this list: if we are looking for a lost artist, look for the men who hated women. Look for the men we always knew, but refused to understand.  Then: what do men say about the women who disappeared, if they consider them at all? She was crazy? There’s the tinfoil hat again. And the women who did make art, who tried to tell the truth about what had happened to them—well, maybe they hated themselves? When I was looking for the self-loathing woman writer, I thought it was necessary to separate the emotion from the experience: that while I knew there were many instances of women hating themselves, I believed that was different from being a self-hating women. If women make art about their relationship to the world—not the same as making art about themselves, but not wholly distinct, either—why would they not reflect a life lived in a world that hated them? I read Simone Weil, who, in Gravity and Grace, called this destructive drive for balance “analogous desires.” “It is impossible to forgive whoever has done us harm if the harm has lowered us,” she wrote. “We have to think that it has not lowered us, but has revealed our true level.” At thirty-four, Weil died of anorexia-induced heart failure. Her biographer, Richard Rees, said she died of love. “I should not love my suffering because it is useful,” she wrote, not willing to be the self-loathing woman writer. “I should love it because it is.” When Toni Morrison published The Bluest Eye in 1970, she was explicitly trying to write about the analogous effects self-loathing creates for families, communities, and in history. In the foreword for the 2007 edition, Morrison said that she is sure everyone knows what it feels like to be disliked or rejected or hated, “for things we have no control over and cannot change.” But she explains that this hatred comes with its own kind of grace: believing you deserve better. The Bluest Eye, she writes, was about the people who learn to hate themselves, “the far more tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident,” and became either much worse for it or “collapse, silently, anonymously, with no voice to express or acknowledge it.” Morrison had a friend in childhood who wanted blue eyes, like Eye’s Pecola Breedlove, the little girl who internalizes the hatred she experiences so intensely she prays to God that she might disappear. “Implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing,” Morrison says of her friend. “And twenty years later I was still wondering about how one learns that. Who told her?” Morrison asks us who told her friend to hate herself only to force us to consider who hadn’t told her friend that she should hate herself as much as the world hated her, if not more so. Who had, worse yet, told her she should love her suffering?  The “Sylvia Plath Effect” is the theory that poets are more likely to suffer from mental illness than other kinds of writers: Plath’s name is used to diagnose other women who look like her. In Negroland, Margo Jefferson’s 2015 memoir, Jefferson wrote about Anne Sexton, who some say suffered from her own version of the Sylvia Plath Effect. “I’d always derided Anne Sexton’s suicide competitions with Sylvia Plath,” Jefferson says. She quotes Sexton’s writing: “Thief! How did you crawl into/crawl down alone/into the death I wanted so badly and for so long?” In response, Jefferson says “Maybe because Plath had more nerve and wrote better poetry.” In her reminiscences, Jefferson writes of learning, over the course of her childhood, to recognize how and why she should hate herself. “I hated being caught unawares. It was so dangerous, so shameful not to know what I needed to know,” Jefferson tells us, explaining how she turned those external instances of loathing into herself. “There are so many ways to be ambushed by insult and humiliation.” But Jefferson could not, she writes, qualify as suffering from the Sylvia Plath Effect. As a black woman, she was “denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity. A privilege that was glorified in the literature of white female suffering and resistance.” In time, Jefferson grew to consider her self-loathing reason enough to die, and her anger at this learned response is carefully measured. “My people’s enemies have done this to me. But so have my own loved ones…Let me say with care that the blame is not symmetrical: my enemies forced my loved ones to ask too much of me.” The suggestion to learn to love your own suffering, as a way of achieving goodness or grace, was perhaps the best example of self-loathing I found. It is a literary convention that is also a boundary, drawing the woman deeper inside herself and denying the relationship between the artist and the world she lives in: if she doesn’t hate herself yet, maybe she should start. By stopping at the surface of what the art is, rather than asking what it does, or who the art is for, we avoid asking a question that might cost too much: who hates? What does that hate do? In “Silences,” Olsen says women have a responsibility to say what it is they hate, rather than turning it inwards. “Be critical. Women have the right to say: this is surface, this falsifies reality, this degrades.” Women also have the right to say: I’m not silent. I’m thinking. * I did find, in my readings, that some women writers share an openness and an acceptance of hatred. It is a style of protagonist seen recently in the very popular short story published by The New Yorker, “Cat Person,” which had the contours of an amorphous but present trend in contemporary literature. Readers can find it in the novels and short stories of women like Otessa Moshfegh, Danzy Senna, Natasha Stagg, Myriam Gurba, all of whom have very different styles and different ideas, but retain a similar perspective: a narrator with an internal monologue so minutely aware of their external environments that every thought and every observation takes on a quality of the perversely absurd. The sex they have with other people is frequently motivated more by momentum than desire; the work they do is negligible or undervalued. They do not hate themselves, but they are aware that they might be hated, and this is distressing but also a little silly, and sometimes funny. Previous generations of readers had Jean Rhys, Fanny Howe, and Mary Gaitskill, to name just a few; in the past year, Margaret Atwood’s narrators and style have moved from books to prestige television, with her unnervingly cathartic depictions of worlds realer than the one we were living in, or maybe a world that was more truthful: the motivations and machinations of men in power had been laid bare in the country she called Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, a dictatorship in which women are reduced to their bodies and their service, so that readers and watchers could consider  what it would be like if those feelings we knew men had were no longer kept in code. Maybe that’s why some women dressed like handmaids at marches or for costume parties—I found the visuals much worse than the imaginings, so I couldn’t understand the appeal. The shock for me was felt the hardest when I read Atwood’s explanation for how she wrote the story: her only rule was that she could only include what had already happened in the past—the many historical references for women losing the rights they had barely ever had—making it not the future but our past and present.   Meanwhile Alias Grace, the latest of her books to be adapted into a straight-to-streaming television show, is Canadian prestige of the highest order: written by Sarah Polley, directed by Mary Harron, and starring Sarah Gadon, the show and book inspired by the true story of Grace Marks, a woman convicted of murdering her employers in 19th century Toronto. They work well together: one composed of real situations experienced by a fictional woman, the other a real woman made into fiction as the best way to understand her mind. They are both written as letters, in their own way. Tale ends with a funny coda, saying that it was all a diary written by Offred and found, now, as an artifact to be studied by a presumably more stable society in the future. Alias Grace is mostly epistolary, formatted by the ongoing first-person account Grace Marks is giving to her new doctor, about the circumstances that led to the murder charge. Both characters want a record. More than that, both characters want a reader. Olsen said that to not have an audience is a kind of death. To characters who believe their death is not just certain but imminent, they write for another kind of mortality. They have learnt something they need us to know. Olsen quotes Whitman in "Silences" when she says that women are “hungry for equals.” She talks about the 1974 National Book Awards, when Audre Lorde, Adrianne Rich, and Alice Walker were placed in competition as nominees against each other. Rich won the poetry award and “refused the terms of patriarchal competition,” insisting on accepting the award on behalf of women, who deserve better than the assumption they will be grateful to be included at all. In a joint statement between all three, they wrote that they “accept this award in the name of all the woman whose voices have gone and still go unheard in this patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as the token women in this culture, often at great cost and in great pain…We dedicate this occasion to the struggle for self-determination of all woman, of every color, identification or deprived class…the woman who will understand what we are doing here and those who will not understand yet: the silent women whose voices have been denied us, the articulate women who have given us strength to do our work.” *  In the last year, I’ve watched so many people tell a truth they thought they knew, but now the reality seems different. We kept the memories to ourselves for so long that now when we need them it feels like remembering a dream. The cab he insisted we take; his hands around our wrists, which he removed, after we pulled away. Fights about his friend—why even invite him to the bar, when we know what he’ll do? The editor who asked if we were single, because stories about wealthy men who fucked did well for his publication. The editor who wanted us to know his marriage was over, really, he and his wife didn’t have to talk about it, they both knew. A filmmaker once told me he wrote a rape scene because he wanted to show the truth about what happens to women; the truth about power. Who needs to be shown that truth, I asked him. What audience is this for? The women in the audience will know what rape looks like, what power does. We’ve kept archives — not just memories, but the emails and texts — even if we never claimed them as our own, of men and their words. Still, we thought it was us, and that what happened could be true but must not be real. We were the ones still looking for better questions, and men were already answered. Men, it seems, believed in their own greatness, and would go to great lengths to keep it. In her essay for n+1, Dayna Tortorici asks if history must always have losers, and whether men are prepared to see a new understanding as anything but a loss. “The way they had learned to live in the world — to write novels, to make art, to teach, to argue about ideas, to conduct themselves in sexual and romantic relationships—no longer fit the time in which they were living. ...Their novels, art, teaching methods, ideas, and relationship paradigms were all being condemned as unenlightened or violent,” she writes. “Authors and artists whose work was celebrated as ‘thoughtful’ or ‘political’ not eight years ago were now being singled out as chauvinists and bigots. One might expect this in old age, but to be cast out as a political dinosaur by 52, by 40, by 36? They hadn’t even peaked! And with the political right—the actual right—getting away with murder, theft, and exploitation worldwide . . . ? That, at least, was how I gathered they felt. Sometimes I thought they were right. Sometimes I thought they needed to grow up.” For a long time, I studied the ways I thought I could be a woman more than I ever studied anything that could be considered a more practical education. I was relieved when I realized that there was so much literature on how to be a woman—which, to me, meant: how to make a man want you—and that if I followed the advice of magazines I could approximate the way a woman should look. I could read books and watch movies as though they were instruction manuals, which, if you think about it, they were. I recognized the guidelines for etiquette hidden in morality or fairy tales, and was grateful for their messages, even if I frequently missed the point or didn’t care to notice the contradictions. I would make myself uninterested like Anne with Gilbert, or Jo with Laurie, so that my affection would be a better prize; hold fast to my virtue like Jane Eyre, so that my eventual acquiescence was more deserved. I was much too old by the time it occurred to me that Mr. de Winter’s version of events was not to be trusted. I forced myself to read Anna Karenina at age ten, wanting to appear precocious, and flipped through everything that had to do with landowners and feudal systems, because she had a husband and a lover, so she really knew what she was doing. I thought deeply about what kind of Babysitter’s Club member I would be. At the movies, I considered: should I be more like Gaby Hoffman or Kirsten Dunst? Sometimes I worried that I would have never been able to figure out how to be a man as easily. It seemed like there was no parallel for them: Where were their magazines telling them how to look and dress? What books were they reading? What movies explained to them how to make someone love you, or at least want you for a time? It didn’t occur to me that they were less in need of instructions, living in a world made by fathers and mentors so that their paths would always be cleared, and it certainly did not occur to me to think about who decided which movies got made and which books got published. I fell in love with the virtues of reading before I understood what I was teaching myself to learn, which was: how to be wanted and how to be hated, for the same reasons. Isn’t that how it always happens? The moment when what you love comes before you know why you love; or even before you know if it’s worth loving at all. And then we work so hard to hold on to that first thought, as though it is our best thought, knowing and feeling not opposed but no matter how hard we try to make it so it is not the same. In her essay about the relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, Vivian Gornick says their love belongs to “the dramatists, not the critics. It is a tale of emotional connection made early, never fully grasped, then buried alive in feeling the protagonists kept hidden from themselves.…interesting, as the dramatists know, only when presented inside a larger mythology, one that provides an objective correlative to the uncontrollable need of the protagonist.” Arendt was eighteen when she became Heidegger’s student, still eighteen when they became lovers, and she spent her whole life (and his) knowing that love better than she would allow herself to know him. Even after their affair ended she refused to reject him: even after he publicly endorsed National Socialism in 1933, and even after he lived through the war as a Nazi, she always considered him a “political innocent.” They reconciled in 1950, corresponding and meeting periodically until they died, her in December 1975 and him in May 1976.  Gornick believes Arendt lived worshiping what she thought was Heidegger’s “transcendent mind,” a bond that had been eroticized in their affair and consequently fused into her being. The conflation of sex with understanding can ruin the best of us. “The impulse to rationalize its ‘contradictions’ replaces the impulse to act rationally, and looks,” Gornick reminds us, “to the one doing it, like the same thing.” What is the moral of this story? A bad question. What feels true about this story? It is the way we learn before we know. It is “the history of shared sensibility, the thing we all felt up until yesterday,” Gornick says. “How many women and men have I, in my short, obscure lifetime, watched subjugate themselves to The Great Man, the one who seemed to embody art with a capital A or revolution with a capital R? Our numbers are legion. We ourselves are intelligent, educated, talented, none of us moral monsters, just ordinary people hungry to live life at a symbolic level.  At the time, The Great Man seemed not only a good idea but a necessary one, irreplaceable and unforgettable."  Sometimes we’re asked to consider that no one really knows what happens between two people when one or both thinks that no one is looking. Most of us learned very young that even our perceptions are not to be trusted. And so we don’t consider the question of “he said/she said,” the way we’re sometimes presumed to, as being a struggle for accuracy. It is the way we work to explain whose words we trust to describe it. Spend enough time in a conversation where no one believes what you say, and all your words feel like fiction. These understandings are all so old. They are only new in relation to who is willing to know them, now. Art has the same barriers to knowledge that people have, which is that we frequently are pressed up against the limits of our own understanding, and that we are trying to make do with what we have, which is: not enough. The questions we choose to ask and answer are important. What are the material conditions necessary for a woman to make art, we wonder. What would art be if the canon no longer depended on the myth of the great man, or if the great man no longer centered our standard for greatness. What would our relationships be to ourselves, and to other people like us? Who have we lost by searching for ghosts? No longer the woman writer who hates herself, or the missing woman lucky to be found at all—who would we find if we knew who we were looking for? I have searched too closely and for too long in the work that already exists, as though it will supply the good answer. So many of my nights end with me, in bed, staring at another screen, asking myself another question, and I think: I should really be reading a book.
The Year in Apocalypses

There comes a moment, and perhaps it has come in 2017, when I need to believe something better is coming.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2017? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. One day, says the Gospel of Luke, the disciples approached their master while he was silent in prayer and made a request: “Lord, teach us how to pray” (11:1). As every day of 2017 seems to bring yet a lower place, I have learned to recognize the yearning in that question. Prayer has taken a great number of shapes this year—most recently, on December 8th in Pensacola, Florida, during a Trump rally meant to bolster support for nearby Alabama election candidate and pedophile Roy Moore. There, state senator Doug Broxson stood before the multitude and in a loud voice proclaimed cause for great jubilation: “Now I don’t know about you, but when I heard about Jerusalem! [crowd cheers] Where the King of Kings [cheers again] where our soon-coming king is coming back to Jerusalem, because President Trump declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel!” Broxson’s remarks, helter-skelter though they may be, echo a familiar sound in ears that know how to hear it. They refer to Trump’s sudden decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Ill-advised and baffling, this presidential order was not governed by any coherent mandate based on the facts on the ground in the Middle East, but to appease white evangelicals like Broxson, who form the most stable pylon of Trump’s political base. Alarmed theology scholar Diana Butler Bass has since explained in a series of tweets: “For decades, conservative evangelicals have been longing for this recognition. They believe it is necessary in order to regain control of the Temple mount […] That is important because rebuilding the Temple is the event that will spark the events of the Book of Revelation and the End Times. […] Of all the possible theological dog-whistles to his evangelical base, this is the biggest. Trump is reminding them that he is carrying out God's will to these Last Days. For certain evangelicals, this is the climax of history. And Trump is taking them there.” For evangelicals, a timetable has now been set in motion. “Short-fingered vulgarian” he may be, but Trump’s hands now vex to nightmare a rocking cradle. It is, it seems, the end of the world. Again. * In ages of amnesia and rewritten history, one of the most radical acts of political defiance is to remember, and to archive: shoring fragments against a ruin. “This is not normal” has become a way for us, in the midst of our powerlessness, to at least leave some spoken or written record of the indignities and injustices we have been forced to witness. It is another form of communal prayer: our way to mark as a group that we have moved in 2017 out of Ordinary Time, into a state of permanent emergency, into red letter days. But as nightmare begets nightmare, not-normal has become our normal; I worry even producing a list of this year’s horrors is to at once activate a twinned anxiety of failing to bear witness (what have I left out?), and to feel the guilt of re-traumatizing the already abjected fellow victim. Nevertheless, if we risk a rehearsal of our traumas: In 2017, scientists now say global warming is irreversible. As a consequence of its escalation, wildfires and hurricanes are now more frequent and devastating. Areas vulnerable to the progress of this climatological upheaval like the Arctic, Puerto Rico, and Yemen have been left to melt, drown, or bake and then to linger in ruin, their powerlessness made mockingly literal. To enrich a handful of billionaires profiting from fossil industries, every summer for the rest of our lives may well be hotter (and, thanks to moisture released from the frozen quarantine of the ice caps, muggier) and more lethal than the summer before. In 2017, Chechnya, Egypt, and Azerbaijan are conducting genocides of their gay populations, as their police disappear queer people from the street. Indigenous communities across North America are again under siege as continental oil reserves begin to deplete. Borders are closing in the faces of refugees internationally, as atavistic racist policies such as Brexit and America’s ethno-nationalist “Make America Great Again” movements aim to forestall influxes of immigrants seeking their fortunes in the countries that have heretofore colonized and exploited them. To house the unwanted masses rounded up in these pogroms by agencies such as ICE, America and Australia have revived a familiar 20th century technology: the concentration camp. In 2017, you can look out your window and see Nazism walking in the daylit street, see Klansmen no longer needing the disguise of their cowls, but profiled in publications that fawn at how “dapper” or “polite and low-key” they seem, even as their marches rain abuse and even kill their fellow citizens. In 2017, people in Canada and the US who warned that pipelines would burst, leak, and poison everything were beaten and arrested; in 2017 those same pipelines have now burst, leaked, and poisoned everything. In 2017, America has made several attempts, abortive and ongoing, to ban Muslims. In 2017, America has sought to alienate trans personnel from civil rights like military service, and escalated its erosions of gay marriage rights so recently won. In 2017, America has let hundreds die in mass slaughters authored by a plague of ungoverned firearms. In 2017, America has courted nuclear calamity with North Korea, bringing the International Doomsday Clock to hover at its utmost brink at 2.5 minutes to midnight. In 2017, Donald Trump became President of the United States. * What the poet Auden dubbed “the Age of Anxiety” began with the awareness that we had developed the technology to unmake the atom, and thereby acquired the means, for the first time in its history, to eradicate life on earth. A stopwatch then started ticking towards a day when someone callow, venal, and splenetic enough could achieve sufficient political mass, could find as many people as cruel and thoughtless as he, to put his finger on that button. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Donald Trump’s nomination to the most powerful position on earth has been a vertiginous experience—not because it is hard to believe so much malice exists against our fellows, but because it could manifest itself in a form so unbelievably stupid. Trump is only a symptom of a problem reaching critical mass, but he has also been a trumpet-blast unsealing all manner of horror. The fantasy of a “Deep State” has always been the paranoid wish that, even if very wicked, someone is in charge. But now we know: amid the smog, amid the hail of gunfire, amid the posturing imbecilic failsons waving nuclear armament at one another, if left unchecked, we will suffocate our own species to death. The future of the world now hinges on the caprice of an erratic racist, prone to sinking into a moth-eaten befuddlement that has only served to strip the wires of his bigotries and prejudices. That the hands on the tiller might be malevolent is an old political sensation—perhaps the oldest—but that they should be so oafish, so capable of carnage and so careless of any decency, has left many of us, who were not alive when last western fascism rose, reeling. So much of contemporary political discourse is now become a game of catch-up: decent people waking up to new horrors, trying (in vain) to make these obvious lies stick, to play footages back to back, to find “the tweet for everything,” to insist these contramands and contradictions matter. To no avail. Because the point is not the truth, but power. In her 1951 essay Eichmann in Jerusalem, which sought to ensure never again and has now become required reading in 2017, Hannah Arendt diagnosed that the totalitarianism that had led to the Holocaust was dependent on a strategy of lying, not as a desire to deceive, but as a desire to foster destabilization, uncertainty, and skepticism: One could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness. To make the suborned repeat a lie with their own tongue, a lie they know to be a lie, is not just to warp reality, but to warp a soul. In Arendt’s estimation, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thoughts) no longer exist.” This is the ultimate horror of 2017, worse than even the spectacle of some armageddon: an evacuation of any meaning at all. In this state, we feel life itself becoming cheapened, devalued, reduced to either a slumped, dead-eyed collusion (Kellyanne Conway’s delighted malignance, Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s clunking indolence, the enervated McCains, Cruzes, and Rubios living long enough to realize their principles, wrong-headed but perhaps honestly felt, have crumpled them into cowardly time-servers) or a mere anxious bareness—call your representatives, negotiate your own hostage release, in a raw apprehension whose panic is edging out a fading hope: that surely some revelation is at hand. At Jesus of Nazareth’s trial, a man who once had claimed to be “The Way, the Truth, and the Light” confronts a judge from the occupying regime who had suborned his homeland. He has, he says, sought only to testify to truth. He is met with an urbane sneer: “What is truth?” Pontius Pilate asks. The crucifixion was inevitable after that. * I do not know if I am religious, or what it might mean to be “religious.” I think that when I die I am dead, and to wish otherwise is a strange and distasteful selfishness. The matter I am made of has other work to do; I had my turn. I doubt most people who call themselves “Christian” would call me a “Christian,” and Christ himself said that if an eye or hand causes you to stumble, throw it away; I do not think he would have been wedded to labels. But if I am “religious,” I am so insofar as I believe a moment comes when the crushing weight of my responsibility, or guilt, or even sin, is exceeded. There comes a moment, and perhaps it has come in 2017, when I need to believe something better is coming. We crave apocalypses, in our darkest hearts, because when lies proliferate, they promise an instantiation of meaning, however dreadful. The yearning for armageddon is a desire to instantiate certainty in these moments of disorder; apokalypsis—an “unveiling”—promises, if nothing else, something is behind the curtain. They provide a sense of an ending: what William S. Burroughs called “the naked lunch, in which we at last see what is on the end of every fork.” These crisis points, in which it becomes impossible to imagine any truth or meaning to history, can then be understood as a recurrent phenomenon, as a part of the unfolding of history itself. There indeed came a moment for the early Christians themselves (living both under a conquering empire, and as an unwelcome new sect in a culture struggling to survive the destruction of its capital site) when they realized that their Messiah wasn't coming back as soon as they hoped. In growing numbers but dwindling faith, they saw that people who were waiting for the blessed day were growing old, were dying. Was this the promised end? The missionary Paul's letters to the burgeoning and anxious Thessalonian church wrestles with this problem: “But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night […] But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4). And so Christianity became a religion poised forever on the edge of apocalypse, writing texts like The Revelation to John about satisfyingly violent conflagrations and listening for tumblers in the lock of history to click. The wakefulness should sound familiar to us. But the Christ of the Gospels seems radically disinterested in a terrible final horror or dreadful cataclysm. Homeless, gleaning for food in the field like a sparrow and relying on the kindness of strangers to put him up, he instead seems to have been a man cheerfully resigned to powerlessness, addressing and working among the casualties and collateral damage of empires and kings: fishermen, potters, shepherds, housewives, and whores. He can imagine a day when the world turns upside-down, when the last are first and the widow and orphan are comforted, but timelines and details bore him. Instead he is insistent on being present: "You shall not say of the Kingdom of God, Here it is or there it is. It is here, now, among you" (Luke 17:21). “Lord,” they said, “teach us how to pray.” It is a question from a space that does not even know how to ask for what it wants, that barely finds the breath to hope for hope. An omnipotent and omniscient divine does not need us to vocalize the anxieties that plague us or the wishes that consume us. But sometimes we do. Christ’s answer, for all the incantatory and dogmatic significance it is made to bear, is a simple peasant's mantra for detoxing anxiety: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial (Luke 11:2-4). Not a “soon-coming king,” but a father. (At his moment of worst suffering, he calls God abba, which is rather closer to “dad,” and not in the intercultural Greek of his adulthood, but the Aramaic of home and childhood.) Not a them but an us—a community to whom we are indebted, whose indebtedness to us we must learn to let go, and with whom we are meant to pray with one voice. A kingdom always coming, and a trial we hope we are spared. The world is, in the grammar and the posture of his prayer, always about to end. Someday perhaps history's locks will click; someday the just may get their rewards and the world will split apart. Worrying about it is not ours to do. Tomorrow is not our problem. The end is not our problem. History is not our problem. Instead, when they asked him how to pray, he asked for the bread he needs today, and to help him forgive others and himself for yesterday. That's all. * In 2017, London’s National Theatre remounted Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The show, starring in this incarnation Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey, Nathan Lane, and Amanda Lawrence as its angel, is about the apocalyptic suffering endured by the gay community in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The text thus hovers in the uncomfortable space of being at once a period piece and deathly urgent; indeed, Tony Kushner has said in a recent interview that he wishes it was not so relevant. But AIDS is now, in 2017, a global pandemic; the disease is still spreading, and forces muster to deny treatment to the “guilty” and the poor (which, for US Republicans, amount to the same thing). Mike Pence, before he became Vice President and the architect of the White House’s current evangelical zeal, was also the direct cause of an HIV outbreak in his home state of Indiana. His aims apparently have not changed; Trump recently joked about Pence during a discussion of LGBTQ rights: “Don’t ask that guy—he wants to hang them all!” Nor is Pence alone; amid growing assaults on medicare, a Republican representative from Georgia has publicly floated the idea of an “AIDS quarantine.” Millennium approaches, but is not with us yet. In the play, simulcast to theatres around the globe, a delirious Prior Walter (played by Andrew Garfield) approaches the council of angels overseeing Earth in God’s absence. On the threshold of his own ugly death, covered in sores and shitting blood, he asks to be allowed to live. The angels cannot imagine why, and instead unfold to him the dreadful certainty of what is to come: “The slow dissolving of the Great Design, The spiraling apart of the Work of Eternity, The World and its beautiful particle logic All collapsed. All dead, forever. In starless, moonlorn onyx night.” Still, Prior insists: PRIOR: But still. Still. Bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do. I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much, much worse, but…You see them living anyway. […] Death usually has to take life away. I don’t know if that’s just the animal. I don’t know if it’s not braver to die. But I recognize the habit. The addiction to being alive. So we live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough. It’s so inadequate, but…Bless me anyway. I want more life. That was written 26 years ago, and the world has continued spinning forward. The play ends in the dead of winter in Central Park, imagining and hoping that someday the healing fountain of the angel Bethesda will once again flow—“though not literally in Jerusalem,” Kushner’s stand-in Louis says nervously, “I mean we don’t want this to have Zionist implications.” 2017 was a year of apocalypses, but we made it through. Or we will, I think. So, as the clocks all wind down: I forgive you, and hope you forgive me. If I am breadless I hope you’ll feed me; if you are breadless you can share mine. And we can get through our todays together. If there is a tomorrow is not for us to decide. But I hope so. I bless you: more life.
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
The Year in Collaboration

Being a woman in male spaces is a gradual, embedded process of disloyalty. When it makes you uncomfortable and sad, that, you are told, is the price of safety.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2017? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Last year, I had dinner with an old friend and told her about some book I had recently read and loved. She responded that she probably wouldn’t ever read it, because she wasn’t reading books by white men anymore. Although I believed in theory that my politics conformed with hers, I rushed to defend the book I was recommending: no, no, but this one is different—this one is so deeply human, so vulnerable, so beautifully constructed. I agreed with what she was doing, but how could she deny herself the experience of this particular book that I loved? I agreed with what she was doing, except for when it touched the things I liked, which surely I liked because they were innocent of what her stand critiqued. I should have thought more about what her insistence and my reluctance meant, but I didn’t, then. I thought I had squared away my reactions to things like this, made my beliefs clean and correct, but it wasn’t until this year when I really began to look at cultural choices like this and the weight they carry, to think about ethical consumption other than as a phrase in a meme. These issues no longer arose on occasion in uncomfortable conversations; they were here, every day, again and again, showing up in the morning exhausted but ready to go, repeating themselves, punching the wall until it dented. It wasn’t a good year for avoidance. Day by day, as this year howls to a close, the list of names of The Bad Men grows longer, from ones you loved to ones you never thought about. I wasn’t stunned when I read any of these stories. I knew what I was reading was, objectively, awful, but I was so numb to the idea that this is simply what reality is, that this is how the world works and what we put up with, that my main reaction was to be confused as to why we were all suddenly talking about it. I didn’t have much of a reaction at all, and I felt guilty about my lack of reaction, about how well this system had trained me to be accustomed to its bargains and to the collaboration it demands. * It’s been a difficult year if your view of humanity hinges, as mine does, on the idea that people are more than the worst thing they’ve done. Pain—like trauma, like violence, like loss—muddies the water. It blurs our vision, sets the car reeling off the road through lanes of traffic, clipping everyone it touches. This is the impossible thing about trauma and trying to measure it up to justice: no one is clean. We accumulate what people have done to us and carry it into the lives of others; we inflict and are inflicted upon. When, in the past, bad things happened to me, I learned to protect myself from them happening again. I grew defense mechanisms; I taught myself how to please men. This year has been about breaking down and holding in my hands how much of my existence, my very identity, has been targeted toward gaining the correct reaction from men in power, constructed and strung together toward the preferences of the kind of men who end up on secret spreadsheets—or, perhaps worse, who don’t, who keep their wrongs just beyond the existing lines and go on tilting the world toward a view where they are central and everyone is at the edges, where they are flesh-and-blood protagonists and everyone else is set dressing. Where they are bread, and everyone else is either trash or candy. These individuals—the men on spreadsheets, and the men with enough power and forethought to escape those lists—are, as we have also seen so often this year, the same men who give shape to our very means of understanding the world. For many years and until recently, I was that girl who was only friends with men. This wasn’t really true, of course—as it isn’t really true for almost any woman who makes this claim or the other, similar claim that “women just don’t like me”—but it was how I wanted to see myself. I was close with men, close enough with them that they complained to me about other women, which at the time felt like the highest honor, reaching up and ringing the bell. I have sat in on numerous conversations detailing the ways women are bad at sex when they think they’re good at sex, the brutal calculus of who is and isn’t attractive, and the litany of unfair ways in which women get upset about nothing, or expect things that were not explicitly promised to them. I have laughed at all of the jokes in these conversations, agreed with all of the assertions. Bitches, man. Sometimes I felt sick and guilty, but I assumed the whole world ran on bargains like this one. In those years, I was the two most important things—hot and chill—and if my feelings were hurt most of the time and I felt disposable, that was both unavoidable and beside the point. Being a woman in male spaces—which is most spaces—is a gradual, embedded process of disloyalty, in which it becomes harder and harder to shrug in and out of skins incompatible with one another. If I was uncomfortable and sad much of the time, that was the price of safety. If a doorway into the warm house was opened, even if entry came at a price, why would I leave myself out in the cold? I haven’t been that person in a while. I haven’t been chill in years. 2017 wasn’t the beginning of this change; my friendships with groups of men were always essentially unsustainable because they were about aligning with a club rather than connecting with people, and they predictably withered. I got thrown under the bus a few times before I walked away; those wrecks made space for people who would point out culpability and context, who would call me on the stories I wrote about myself. What got me through 2017, more than anything else, were friendships with other angry women. This year was marked by group DMs, group texts, long emails, and conversations in the corners of parties, by the angry, guilty confessions that this year has driven us to and that have drawn many of us closer. Spaces like these are often perceived as echo chambers in which women enable one another to cast themselves as victims. Although one of the many functions of these conversations and confessional spaces has been to give legitimacy to the pain we each experience, they have been just as much an opportunity—because the spaces are safe, and because they are gentle—to call each other on our bad bargains, and help each other toward an awareness of our own complicity and of what we might do—daily, and actively, on the smallest levels—to begin to counteract it. * My idea of literature is one absolutely circumscribed by the concerns of white male gatekeepers, both the dead and the living. From as early as I can remember, I have always sought out maximalism in art and literature. I love things that take up enormous space, that break rules, that put their feet on the furniture. I love art that has bad manners, art that’s too big, too loud, too much. Most of this art—at least what is made readily available to a very young person, what is easiest to find when you’ve only just started looking—is by old white men, because that’s who’s allowed to be too big and too loud and too much. They are the only ones not hideously punished for bigness of any kind. Growing up as a woman I was made acutely aware that I was not allowed to be big or loud. I am naturally both those things, but my life has been an attempt to shrink myself, because smallness is rewarded above all else in women. I longed for writing that broke out away from confined spaces because I was at every juncture shepherded into them. It is important to see ourselves in art, but it is important to see an alternative to ourselves as well, to dream something beyond the strictures by which we are confined and the obligations to which we are indebted. I always ended up at men first, work men made on the subject of being men. It was a failure of my own imagination and circumstances, and it was also quite simply that this was so much the majority of what was available, and what I was taught was good. I ran toward further embracing these gatekeepers instead of seeing that their primacy and the system that made them primary was the same one that punished me for bigness, was the reason there was so much from which to run. The thing that’s been hard to confront this year is I that still love all this stuff. I love big swaggering books written by people who have never been afraid to walk into a room, who have never been worried about overreacting. I love stories about dads. I love books about affair-having professors who can’t finish their second novels. I love midcentury plays about alcoholism. I love Moby-Dick, I love James Joyce, I love Friday Night Lights and Bruce Springsteen and stories about how badly Bob Dylan treated his girlfriends. I love Robert Caro’s books about relentlessly boring, horribly flawed powerful men. I even love the goddamn West Wing. I love stories about men leaving their homes and their families to go on pointlessly heroic journeys, I love The Odyssey and I love the whole stupid list of boats in The Iliad. People, myself included, complain about the trend of books—they’re almost always by men, these books—considered important simply because they are literally large, the stupid idea of The Big Book, in which a novel’s literal heft equals its cultural significance. What a dumb, male convention—who actually wants to read a 900-page novel? But it’s me, I do, I want to read a 900-page novel and I want feel important because I’m reading a 900-page novel. The stories full of shitty adulterous male heroes, stories in which I myself cannot be the shitty hero, are invested in making sure I love them best, just as they are invested in making sure I cannot see myself in them. The things we first love are the foundation; it’s only from here that we develop the skills that allow us to question those things, to see in partial daylight their rot and their terror. Most of the stories I really love require me to rewrite myself, as either male or simply bodiless, in order to include myself in them. The culture that constructs the system where women must be perfect collaborators—hot and chill, small and polite—in order to succeed is the same one that produced the majority of the works of art I truly love. Whether a particular artist is a bad man is in fact beside the point. The tide has raised all white straight male boats. The good ones and the bad ones are all part of the same club, a club to which membership is involuntary. Even the good men benefit passively. It is much the same way that capitalism—utterly entwined with these same offenses and allowances—lets no one, whether victim or abuser, exist with clean hands. The very way of living, of art-making, of storytelling, that I have so long aspired to is one based on abuse, one that thrives on the blood of the vulnerable. All the art I love is essentially large-hearted, but maybe its heart is so large because it has eaten the hearts of others. It is too easy to say “I never liked their work anyway,” or, “I’ll never watch their work again,” the second of which is really the same cop-out as the first. It doesn’t matter if you don’t ever actually sit down and watch Manhattan again; we carry the things we love and even the things we once loved, even if we do not love them anymore, around in our hearts and our bile-soaked linings. Never watching a particular movie again does nothing to change this; complicity is already baked into our emotions and our concept of good taste, our very assumptions about the shape and reactivity of the human world. The work, then, is to pull out the caught threads, to stutteringly and awkwardly interrogate what lessons we carried away from a world shaped by people essentially hostile to us. The thing is not—as Lorin Stein’s recent resignation from The Paris Review demonstrates—simply that these men have power they can leverage over the people they work with, some of whom may inevitably be young women. Men like Stein, by occupying the positions they are likely to occupy, have enormous power over culture itself, and over our understandings of what comprises good taste. I will never know how much my conception of contemporary literature, how much the work of which I even became aware, was determined by what kind of female bodies one man preferred to have in a room, and how much those judgements soaked into an accepted cultural consciousness. This is not individual to Stein, but rather pervasive; it is the whole skeleton of what we understand as good taste, as culture. When these power structures are unquestioned, much of my ability to succeed, even now, remains to some degree based on whether I can present myself as both hot and chill, willing both to be decorative and to turn a blind eye. It becomes difficult to engage with many areas of culture and not find oneself obligated to subscribe to these men’s agendas. It’s not even necessarily a conscious choice, and perhaps the most insidious effect of all this is how these agendas sink into unconsciousness, and calcify as assumptions. As Jess Zimmerman dissects in a recent essay for Electric Literature, “knows what’s good” more often than not actually means “knows what old white men want.” Things are changing, but change works on a time delay. Right now there’s a lot of noisy anger, but whether anything truly permanent will result is as yet unclear. So far, a handful of people who could afford to lose their jobs have lost their jobs. These are surface changes, aesthetic ones. It is depressingly likely that these men will be replaced with nearly identical men who have simply covered their tracks better, who have only thought but not acted on the same things as the “bad” men they replace, and it is equally depressingly likely that most if not all of these men will return in a year if not less, with a story of how they’ve changed and what lessons they learned, and that they will be not just forgiven but—and this is the only part that matters—reinstated into positions of power. But even if by some grace none of this occurs, if the people in power begin to be legitimately replaced with something more than a cleaner copy of themselves, if a true scourging and rewrite happens, still nothing will yet be fixed, because the things we are left to fix are ourselves. We still have to live in the world that these men made for us. Those of us who have been living and working within this culture, seeking praise, reward, recognition, and careers from the people who control such things have had these men’s agendas baked right into our ideas of taste, of elegance, of what is impressive, what is good, what works and what doesn’t. If we ever get to rebuild the world, we must be careful we do not rebuild it in their image. The work begins there. The work is small, and internal, a day-to-day correction, scratching out word by word, letter by letter, trying to hold the space before it refills with another version of the same, digging way down to the bottom of our identity, scraping out what’s crusted onto the foundations. We don’t get our heads out above it; there isn’t some level of achievement where I reach up and ring the bell and despite my myriad privileges and inclusion in systems that raise up abusers and abuse, I get to be pure and clean-handed, reborn into sinlessness. Like any large thing I have done wrong, like any long and poisonous love, I will carry it forever. I’ll live within it even after I walk away. My influences will always be my influences. What matters, perhaps, is to live in suspicion of them and therefore in suspicion of myself, to stop before assumptions, to be difficult, less polite, less accommodating, less easy in the world, to refuse the well-lubricated tracks of collaboration despite their safety.
The Year in Your Future Self

Radical self-care in a randomized order to match all the curveballs coming at us in this new Thunderdome where we are all trapped.

As the fire that illuminated the darkest parts of 2017 burns to a guttering close, it’s a safe guess to make that you’re exhausted, right? Each day in the last 365 brought with it a mid-to-high-level crisis, outdone only by what was inevitably coming the day after. Staying bodily alert enough to remain vigilant, or at the very least conscious, to absorb by osmosis the psychic terror of friends, coworkers, and the people you just know online felt like being put through the ringer anew with every blow to the world as we know (knew?) it. There was one positive, however, and that was the rampant scourge of the overblown mantras extoling self-care taking a backseat. It didn’t make much sense to put face masks front and centre when it seemed possible we would have an atmosphere that did the work of a chemical peel all on its own in fifty years. And it’s not like the New Year is looking any better. If chaos reigned in 2017 then it’s going to be torrential in 2018. That’s why I’m taking guesswork out of what it is you should resolve to do, change, or be in the coming year. I’m offering up ready-made personas to adopt, outfits to wear, and modes of thought to embrace that can be shed and swapped like so much clothing from Zara with every new week, depending on what the projected social, political and economic situation calls for. Here they are, radical self-care in a randomized order to match all the curveballs coming at us in this new Thunderdome where we are all trapped. - A club-footed, slightly right of centre leftist with a bad case of vertigo dressed as the new, hot cast of Star Wars lost on a remote desert planet (rags, layered), dressed as someone getting right into precious gems dressed as a surefire way to get work in the gig economy, so, a giant USB stick. - An octopus dressed like an octogenarian dressed like a becalmed Georges St-Pierre reading The Hunt For Red October in the octagon grappling with the concept that even someone as prolific as Tom Clancy will have their legacy eventually fade from memory, but still extremely tough and bleeding freely from the head. - A Proud Boy dressed as dat boi dressed as Adam Sandler in The Waterboy dressed as Cthulhu made out of Chihuly glass emerging from a giant tub of Kozy Shack Rice Pudding as the grand finale of your own show on the old pirate ship outside the Señor Frog’s on the Las Vegas strip. - A head-to-toe toe shoe taking a casual stroll down the promenade. - Your most sincere hopes and dreams in exchange for Ben Affleck’s under-eye bags and Matt Damon’s remorse stuffed in an astronaut suit and launched into space on a rocket with MR. ME TOO scrawled on the side in bubblegum pink bubble letters as the final proof of centrifugal force and the necessity of investing more in our space program. - All the hair you’re going to lose untangling the knots made by scarves from now through to March woven into wreaths and laid upon the caskets of remorse and regret because we don’t have time for that shit in 2018. - A giant, enamel pin of yourself worn on the back of a jacket made of fabric befitting of this spring’s assured trend—florals—so that everyone can find you when the brimstone begins to rain down. - A flirtier version of you dressed as an even flirtier roughneck serving a 10-tiered-terrine meant to replicate the layers of earth, chilled, as we watch our nations' leaders tear the planet apart in what has to be some kind of phallic, over-compensatory gesture but wait, is there gluten in this? - A bust of Brendan Fraser made out of the imagined likeness of bitcoin carved entirely from rare, exotic softwoods (camphor, massaranduba, pau marfim, etc.) and you just keep it in your bathtub where it repeatedly swells and dries and molds and rots as a reminder that time comes for us all. - What you would normally wear to brunch but if brunch was an Ironman race through the Bornrieth Moor bog in northern Germany and feral boars were about to overcome you unless you were prepared to turn on them and take the largest down so it could be cooked as the side of bacon you insisted on even though you aren’t really that hungry. - Simon Cowell wearing an enormous cowl reading all your muted words on Twitter back to you as you stand onstage under blistering spotlights as a thing you picture to get yourself fired-up enough to make a single phone call. - How good you are going to feel when the NBA overthrows the American presidency dressed as an Avatar (a scuba suit is fine in a pinch), a little sullen but encouraged that those now leading the free world at least know what it feels like to dunk on someone as you are dunked into the rising seawater overtaking all coasts. - The ultimate in day-to-night dressing: a bodysuit that can be worn when all the things that don’t impress Shania Twain much are offered to you spilling from a golden cornucopia at the end of an 100-foot-long Crocodile Mile slide, but the slide is covered in creamed corn and even if they don’t impress you much, either, there’s a Babadook that might just be Jack White stumbling toward you. - Drones??? - The intense regret you’ll feel when American Apparel gold lamé becomes a currency and Uniqlo comes out with HEATTECH human skin puffer jackets that you can’t afford. You scour through your cached MySpace profile, dreading the laughingstock you’ll be at the apocalypse ball when you’re struck with a make-it-work moment so strong that you pull off a fascinator made of human teeth to compliment your suit/gown of Clif Bar wrappers—the only uncontaminated food left. The world ends and you look fantastic.
Late Nights Online

The end of AOL Instant Messenger might be a blip, but it’s still a loss for a certain micro-generation—for people who, like me, got their period and their first screen name the same year.

My first experience of romantic love was catfishing someone on the internet. I was 11. Fifth grade was a particularly bad year, and I very much wanted to be someone else. Puberty had made me suddenly and all at once un-beautiful, and the way other kids shunned me had become decidedly more cruel as we all began to discover that everybody else had bodies. It was spring of 1995, and AOL had just begun to invade suburban homes by way of friendly, accessible floppy disks that arrived in the mail in plastic-wrapped bundles. My parents had installed a large desktop computer in the upstairs alcove, and each day there were a few precious hours before they got home from work but after I got home from school when I could go online. I would listen for the siren noise of start-up whirr and ping and click, the sound that meant the world was getting larger. In YA novels about fantasy adventures, stories in which lonely teenagers escape their dull lives into magical realms only they can access, there is always a ritual to getting through the known world back to the unknown—the Pevensie children have to find a wardrobe to get to Narnia, student wizards have to run at a particular piece of brick wall in King's Cross Station, Will and Lyra have to cut a doorway in the air with a magical knife. The AOL modem start-up noise was, for me and for many people of my generation, the ritual that permitted the crossing from the mundane realm to the fantastical one. The long static of the dial-up modem resolved into a friendly chime, and I was online. The screen filled up with red and blue screen names. I knew nothing about the people behind these names, and so I could imagine them into infinite possibility. I don’t really remember what chat rooms I frequented, although it would be safe to guess they were probably about The X-Files. It didn’t mean anything when someone chose to chat privately with me, as I had put no identifying details online, yet it provided the ping of attention that was missing in every other part of my life, and I hit the button for that random and pure gratification again and again, presaging the entirety of the rest of my relationship with the internet. This was before AOL Instant Messenger launched as a stand-alone application, but the Buddy List and chat functions were already built into AOL, and I was able to accumulate a list of people out of chat rooms who had chosen me to talk with privately, collecting rectangular windows of alternating text. I don’t remember his screen name or his real name. He chatted me one day and then every day. My fantastical world now had a recurring character. We moved from private chats to long emails about our days (still, to this day, the primary form of intimacy I understand with another human being). The thing I liked most about him was how much he liked me. Whenever that friendly, generation-defining voice said, “You’ve got mail!,” it was from him. All of my chats with him and emails to him, every piece of information, anecdote, fact, and story I told him, were entirely fictional. I understood with perfect clarity that the person I actually was was neither attractive nor interesting, and moreover I had been warned by parents, teachers, other people’s parents, and pretty much any adult within a fifty mile radius that the entire internet was made up of malevolent perverts, and to tell anyone your real name was tantamount to already having been sexmurdered. So I invented a different person to be. And I loved being her. (I still remember her name, but I’ll never tell anyone because it is perhaps the single most private fact about myself.) She was beautiful, funny, popular, and accomplished, involved in many extra-curriculars and had an abundance of friends. She experienced the normal ups and downs that a high school student (she was a few years older than I was—my parents both worked at a high school so I had some background knowledge) might experience. Her problems were interesting, and easily solved. She lived in the optimistic, lovable pitch of a Babysitter’s Club novel or a half-hour sitcom. And she talked to her online friend on AOL every day. Older people you heard stories about, teenagers or even adults, actually met people from online, but I had no idea why anyone would want to do that—didn’t that defeat the whole purpose? Whatever we said about our feelings for each other, I distinctly remember that one day my internet buddy sent one of our long emails, and in it he said, “I love you.” I stared at it for a long time, and then I never emailed him again. I never again answered any of his chats. I had no idea what to do when someone’s real feelings appeared to be involved. It was my first sense about the internet that if I died in the game, I might also die in real life. I ghosted. Soon after that, things got somewhat better. I changed schools and started to develop real in-person friends, and to talk to them on AIM at least as much as I talked to strangers. Most of fifth grade was submerged into the general memory of a bad time. On occasion his name would appear on my buddy list and I would feel vaguely guilty and vaguely curious. But mostly I would feel nothing, because he wasn’t real. * Today, when people on the internet say the word “online” it’s a joke, and part of the joke is that the phrase once had a great deal of meaning and now has none. Everyone is already online, and is always online. No one goes or comes back. Relationships online are the same relationships as in person, extended into another convenient replicative medium. The official self is here; online is the town as much as the town itself is. In our real lives, the ones with rental agreements and tax forms, the ones that the banks and the government know about, our fixed identities act as a tether. We plod through our days continually yanked back into the truths of our character, our circumstances, our actions and our pasts. But before the internet was just the place where we all lived, the point was not to be yourself. In the early days of AIM, online was a place free from the tether of identity, where we could be someone invented, or where we could be no one at all. All of the ways in which it allowed a particular kind of human connection spring from that anonymity, that permission to fictionalize oneself. Canonical literature contains countless stories of people getting to elsewhere, leaving the known delineations—going to sea, going west in wagons, building towns out of nothing, wandering the desert, getting lost. These stories return again and again to the idea of who we are when we’re not at home, what can emerge when a person is free of the known-ness that binds them. In these unmarked spaces, it becomes possible to imagine how we might exist with each other without laws and obligation, inheritance and surveillance, money and family. Briefly, the internet was such an uncharted territory, as full of potential as Melville’s whaling ship or the Old Testament’s desert. We could be whomever we decided to be. We could discover what people looked like free from both society and reality, as pure as lying. On December 15th, when AOL Instant Messenger disappears, wiping all chat logs and buddy lists from the internet for good, my daily life will not change at all, and neither will the daily lives of the vast majority of people whose adolescence was defined by an icon of a yellow genderless figure in motion—the internet, this place where we all live now, has far outgrown this one application. But for some of us, people uncomfortably situated right at the seam of a wholly online world and a time before the internet, something will be lost to history. AIM represents both how we first understood the internet’s presence and potential in our lives, and just how irreparably this presence has changed. This was where we grew up, and the loss is a little like finding out a childhood home where neither you nor anyone you know has lived in many years is being torn down. * The announcement of the impending shutdown has brought on a lot of nostalgia. Occasionally Twitter, or even in-person conversation, erupts in people sharing their screen names, half-proud and half-embarrassed, and offering recollections of being very young on a very young internet. Over the last few months, I’ve talked with a number of friends and acquaintances about their experiences with and time on AIM. As is only right, all of them are quoted here solely by their screen names, as a gesture toward a time when that was all that identified us. We often get to our real selves from inhabiting false selves first, lying our way into a legitimate identity. People’s screen names are hilarious now because they are fence-swinging gestures at identities before any of us actually had identities, like throwing darts, blindfolded, at a list of qualities that might meaningfully define a person. Often, these attempts went hand-in-hand with romantic aspirations; defining ourselves online, through this particular chat service, was the first time many of came face to face with how the desire to be known and the desire to be loved are intertwined. One friend demonstrates this identity-grasping in the story of how his screen name developed: “I think that my early screen names were a real case study in toxic male development. I had some generic screen name until I realized I could create a new account to flatter a middle-school paramour. This is how I became erikloveslindsay which quickly became eriklovesashley which quickly became manmuststrive which quickly became swissarmyromancer. I mean that really sums it all up: two romantic rejections plunged me immediately into flirtations with voluntarism, naturally leading to emo. Rough out there.” Another friend, talking about his screen name, MeInsane1, and how embarrassing he finds it now, recalled that, “I thought that was badass, edgy. I was listening to Ozzy Osbourne and Metallica a lot. I do not think I felt insane. I just think I wanted an image of some kind. Any kind.” G2Bcenterstage chose her screen name because “I had decided to become a theater kid, and wanted to try being an extrovert.” The resolution for the identity came first, as though these were decisions wholly within our control. Sometimes this dogged fixation on one aspect of a chosen identity had hilarious consequences, as with SwingDeVL, who explains, “I was really into swing music and to some extent swing dancing. My parents urged me to change it because who wants their fifteen-year-old online with a handle that basically says ‘I’m a kinky swinger,’ but I remained firmly and willfully naive about it, claiming that of course everyone would understand it was about swing music.” Most young people are seeking both a way to be recognized and to recognize themselves. AIM allowed us to explore and test-drive identities, by offering a new space free of the detritus of our lives beyond it, a simulation model for the real work of becoming a person in the world. Adolescence is a time when we are first confronted with these questions of self-definition, and AIM is rooted in adolescence for me because it gained popularity and a sense (if not a reality) of ubiquity at the exact moment I hit puberty. My coming of age runs perfectly parallel with the social internet’s. There is a micro-generation—people who today are mostly in their thirties, or close to it on either side, people who were anywhere between the ages of 5 and 17 in 1995—who are not quite digital natives, and whose first understanding of “online” was as a place distinct from the real world. People who, like me, got their period and their first screen name the same year. I remember a time before I knew about the internet; I remember learning what an email was in a third-grade classroom. My transition from childhood to adulthood was marked by watching that change happen, as online seeped beyond the borders of a single screen and became synonymous with everyday living. We did not create the internet, but the internet happened to us, a parallel reflective adolescence. I used AIM—first in its early unofficial form, baked into AOL’s service, and then as the separate application—from fifth grade until my first year of college, but my feelings about it will always be hooked to pre-teen sleepovers. When I think of AIM, or see its buddy icon, I am twelve years old and my best friends’ parents let her go on the internet as much as she wants, so we are at her house. I’m crowded along with a bunch of other twelve year olds around a computer screen, waiting for something to happen. It’s late enough at night that the darkness reflects from the glass doors behind us, and the computer screen stares into the doors, multiplying out against the night. We’re sitting, limbs folded up in chairs too big for us, in front of a hulking desktop computer and the internet spreads out before us like a road. My friend’s parents had long since gone to bed. We were up late and we were going to go on the internet, an activity that could only be done late at night. This was mainly because that was when people’s parents were asleep and wouldn’t look over our shoulders asking, “who is SnuggleMulder42069? Do you know him from school?” But even now when we are all online at every moment of every day, at its heart the internet is still a late-night thing, because the middle of the night is when you’re most alone, and the internet is a place where you’re always alone. Online may purport to combat loneliness, but it also requires it as a pre-condition. We had just begun to care about what other people were doing after they left the room, just begun to want to know if someone was thinking of us when we weren’t there. Discovering adult emotions is in great part a process of learning to be lonely. We were newly desperate for a means of emotional surveillance, newly longing to be lonely and un-lonely all at once. The windows glazed the yard to black ice behind us, and we haunted chat rooms where we hoped the strangers our parents had only just recently learned to warn us about lay in wait. Adults may have told us that there were weird men on the internet who wanted to have cybersex and meant it as a warning, but we took it as a promise. This was my first internet: the secret, late-night one, a group of nervous friends gathered around a slow-connecting magic box full of strangers who might talk to us about all the sex none of us had yet had. The whole internet had something sexual about it in its early days, and that was much of what got us on there—it was the place where we were allowed to talk about things we would never say out loud. AbbyTheTabby (“after my cat. I must have been in fourth or fifth grade at the time, and my mom wouldn't allow me to use any part of my real name or other identifying information”) talks about using AIM as a testing ground, a way to work out developing desires. “I remember feeling so limited by my world at the time, in that weird transitional phase as a young woman where you've gotten your period and your body is developing and you're having all of these feelings, but you can't yet do anything independently or grownup-like (and, deep down, you probably don't actually want to just yet). AIM was a kind of a pathway to a bigger, more grownup-feeling life. I do remember having what probably amounted to cybersex with guys from school; we'd see each other in the hallways the next day and be too embarrassed to talk to each other, let alone act on the things we'd discussed. In retrospect, it was a pretty safe, empowering way to work out my sexuality and experiment with being a sexual person—I don't think there's an equivalent for young people today.” This sense of invisibility allowed us to explore what sex was, what people did, what we wanted and what we didn’t and how to say so, a process that would have been far more fraught and far more dangerous had we had to do it in person, without these mediating fictions as a barrier. In so many ways, I was—and many of us sheltered teens online in those days were—the very thing my parents warned me about: I was the man in the white van, the sun-starved gamer covered in Cheeto dust, the sad fake online vampire in a chat room. We all were, us almost-teenagers gathered around a screen making up lies about sex to strangers. My real sexual education was keyed to the phrase “A/S/L wanna cyber?” and facilitated by people about whom I will never know a single fact. The internet even in its earliest public iteration made everyone on it creepy, made everyone suspect just because they were there. Being creepy is a part of human nature, and learning to recognize and put boundaries on our own creepiness is something curricular Sex Ed should teach us, but never will. MeInsane1 says it was through conversations he had on AIM that he realized women actually experienced sexual desire. “One girl told me in graphic detail about how an older girl seduced her, and how desperately she was attracted to this violin-playing boy. What's important here is that I was having no sexual activity. But I loved being talked to about this stuff, even by girls I was into. I could say that AIM was where I discovered that women had sexual urges. Because I can't overstate how much of a shock that was to me. The way boys were and are taught about girls—this is not news—is about acquisition and manipulation. You had to ‘get’ girls. The idea that they could want was...insane.” AIM, too, could be a life raft for people outside of heterosexual and binary norms. While these identities were to one degree or another often too dangerous or frightening to speak in person, and are by default never covered by any kind of traditional sexual education, the unrecorded morass of possibility in AOL’s chat rooms opened avenues of exploration for teens trying to figure out their sexuality. Krispix444 (“My parents are extremely conservative and religious, so when they found out I was going to use an ‘online account’ they vetted whatever name I chose. I ended up with Krispix444 because it was innocuous and also I thought it was funny because it was breakfast cereal; I am an idiot”) recalls how, “with the people I met off chat rooms, a lot of the time I was exploring queer stuff... so there'd be times I talked about sex things, or talked with other 'young women' who were also interested in discussing being gay. I realize now that I was very likely talking with people (older men, specifically) who were pretending to be young women—but at the time, this was very important to me, something I really craved, because I had no one to talk to about any of it and it scared me. It also felt very anonymous, like I would never meet or see these people and they would never know who I was, so it felt very safe.” The fact that, as Krispix444 points out, these people were likely lying were didn’t matter because the interactions existed outside verified reality. Most of us have little power over our situations, looks, or circumstances, but here each one could be a choice. For me, this was less about sexual identity and more about freedom from what I looked like and from how what I looked like determined other people’s reactions. Online, I didn’t have to be beautiful in order to get someone to have a conversation with me; I didn’t even have to be beautiful in order to be beautiful. I could simply tell strangers I was, and they would believe me, and I could experience the reactions and treatment that beautiful people experienced. Slightly younger friends said they rarely chatted with strangers on AIM. The later you got online, the fewer strangers were there—it is nearly inconceivable right now to imagine talking to someone on the internet whom I would legitimately consider a stranger. But on AIM, even when talking to people we already knew, we invented ourselves, freed by the seeming anonymity of a screen, able to be with someone else and simultaneously alone. It became possible to know people independent of how we felt about their physical bodies when they stood in front of us. Being a bunch of text is much easier than being a body, and makes possibilities seem infinite. “I didn't know what to say to girls,” recalls MeInsane1, “but on AIM I could sound like I wanted to sound, or at least how I thought I wanted to sound: smooth, witty, erudite. All the stuff I couldn't be in person.” G2BCenterstage talks about remembering “the dissonance of baring your heart to someone in the middle of the night, and then feeling awkward around them the next day. There were definitely some confessions of love or crushes or desire via AIM that went completely un-discussed in real life, which made it feel like a liminal and particular space. I remember explaining to my dad that I liked that about it, the fact that you could open up your soul to someone on the internet but never have to speak face to face with that person at all—maybe you'd nod at each other in the hallways, and you'd recognize each other in this coded, barely acknowledged way.” Many friends and people around my same age recall similar experiences, whole relationships that took place in one cadence on AIM and entirely in another in person. SwingDeVL recounts losing a long-distance friend to suicide and how “one of the things that spun through my mind was that there would be no more late-night conversations between SwingDeVL and Inky204.” She adds that “it’s zero surprise to me that I still remember his screen name after eleven years.” Through these late-night chats—because, like the internet itself, this kind of intimacy is a late-night thing—I began to learn to relate to flesh and blood people the way I had once related to online buddies, to make the kinds of connections in recorded, breathing reality that I had once made while lying about everything to a stranger in an X-Files chat room. By using the people who lurked behind screen names as practice, I built the skills for riskier and fuller humanity. It was, for a few brief, quiet years, a place to test how one might speak about things like depression, tenderness, uncertainty, and desire. AIM lived at the seams between public and private selves, and it made clear to me how the struggle to resolve the two is near to the center of what it is we’re doing when we love one another. It was the first place where I found a way into the guarded, un-recorded space that exists between two people who have decided to turn and face one another and shut out the rest of the world. * AIM’s final message to its users said “thanks to our buddies for making chat history with us!” and showed its yellow genderless icon wearing a silly hat and waving goodbye, like someone gamely attending a party to celebrate their own execution. “Chat history” is a pun, but also telling. AIM is a place that made history instead of profit. By all measurements but sentimental memory, both AIM and AOL were failures, making disastrous business and marketing decisions, never looking far ahead, and never predicting the future correctly. But nevertheless, for a handful of people in their thirties or nearby to it and living on the internet today, AIM was where we learned to invent ourselves, and by inventing ourselves how to be human. It was our Narnia, and our coming of age story, the place where, by means of the imaginary, we gained the skills and understandings necessary to grow up back in the real world where growing up happens. I don’t remember AIM much after college, partly because I switched over to iChat and from there to Gchat, but more because I switched over from the kind of stumbling, cradled, adolescent life where a passive-aggressive song lyric in an away message could matter deeply. I had gotten what I needed from it, learning to connect with people, to pull at the threads of late-night intimacy, to seek out connections that feel like the whisper and ping of a rudimentary chat-box on a screen. G2BCenterstage remembers that she stopped using AIM freshman year of college, when “someone asked me out via AIM and that was the exact moment when I realized that I didn't want to use it anymore. College at its best felt like all the best parts of AIM—the late-night conversations, the passionate arguing about religion, love, the meaning of life, etc. I could finally have that in real life anytime I wanted.” But also by the time I got to college, everything had become AIM. There was a whole world of typing right alongside the physical world. Most communication happened through messaging forms based to some degree or another on AIM. “I miss that there was a very specific place that I chatted with people,” says SwissArmyRomancer, “delimited by the temporal constraints of the dial-up and the spatial constraints of a LAN line. I had my AIM chair and I had my bedtime and I had to cram an entire universe of sad, lustful adolescence into two hours of night and four square feet of IKEA furniture and flop sweat.” The fantastical world wasn’t fantastical anymore; there was no sense of entering through a wardrobe or cutting a door in the sky. This was just what everything felt like.
‘Conversations Are the Only Things That Will Dissolve Difference’: An Interview with Aanchal Malhotra

The author of Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory, on  remembering a past “lodged in between the cracks of memory.”

I first met Aanchal Malhotra at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, where she was talking about the possibility that objects, the ones that survived the India-Pakistan partition in particular, have the ability to observe pain. For her, these objects, the only things that remained of home for many people, allowed them to remember.  Malhotra showed a slideshow, featuring pictures of things that people had taken with them when one country was divided into two by a single line: jewellery passed down from generation to generation, a portrait of a Punjabi National poet, a rusted pair of scissors. As she spoke you could tell that her work was not only an attempt to understand a past, an event, it was an attempt to enlighten the future of that region. In a world constantly struggling between the need to remember and the need to forget, her work was inspired by a need to reclaim pieces of reality that exist beneath the surface. Aanchal was ending her day in Delhi and I was starting mine here in Toronto when we spoke about her bestselling book, Remnants of a Separation, A History of the Partition through Material Memory (HarperCollins India), her recently released digital repository, Museum of Material Memory, and what it means to be an oral historian. She slipped between English and Urdu, between her role as a storyteller and her role as a young person trying to unpack a past that has come to define a subcontinent. She sat in front of a bookshelf lined with books and a single lota (a round brass water-pot). For two people who were born on either side of the border, this conversation was as much about our own stories of migration, our own pasts, as it was about the ones she had collected. Aeman Ansari: Tell me about where this project started. What does the process of bringing a visual history alive on paper look like? Aanchal Malhotra: When I started this project, I was doing my MFA thesis. When you do a thesis in fine art you have to show it in a gallery. It started as a photographic project where I would take pictures of these objects and include small captions. My thesis was exhibited in a gallery that was 120 feet long and ten feet wide so that when you walked along side it, it seemed like you were walking alongside a border. One side of the gallery was glass and the other side was wall and when you were inside that very weird alley of the gallery it also had the feeling of being surveilled. Conceptually it goes back to how people felt walking along these lines during the Partition. When I was putting up that show in Montreal at Concordia, I had this strange feeling that people needed to know more about the stories associated with these things. After I defended my thesis in 2015, I spent the next two years going through all of the interviews I had conducted about these objects and started writing about them. The book evolved out of the idea that these objects can be our portal to the Partition. In writing a book that traces migration, you must have come face-to-face with a kind of migration of your own. How did you maneuver all of the borders and boundaries? Often I was sitting in someone’s house and I couldn't understand a word because of the language barrier. One of my favourite chapters in the book is about a Bengali family in which I virtually understood nothing. They spoke for five minutes and the translator only translated for one minute. And I thought: surely I missed something. The Partition happened to so many people, it is challenging to cross so many borders, not only physical borders, you are also treading on emotional borders. You are treading on borders of age, asking a generation their close-most thoughts. In the place between that side and this side there is stuff that has remained in this no man’s land. These conversations bring up that stuff and these conversations are the only things that will ever dissolve difference. I think these insignificant conversations, between these separate but connected places, will remove difference and distance. At least on a personal level, even though nothing may ever change on a political level, because you need the government to hate each other as much as you need them to work together. The other thing I realized when I was crossing all these lines is that I have the ability to bring about comfort and solace in someone. As a young person interested in old things, you must never take advantage of that. Why did you create The Museum of Material Memory? People got to know, from word of mouth, that I was writing the book. There are only ten Partition scholars in the whole world and they are all above the age of fifty.  People started writing to me from everywhere and told me about the objects they had. I couldn't always go to these places so I thought people could write stories about their own objects. The purpose of what I’m doing is to empower people with their own histories. What is the one way that people from all over the world can contribute stories about objects that they are close to from a certain time in history, not only about Partition but even before or after it, objects of age? It’s a very minute thing in the larger scheme of things, but if we don't recall our own history, we will have regrets. So, I started a digital archive.                              What was your introduction to the Partition? School history text books, it was a very general introduction and I'm not embarrassed to say that I didn’t have much interest in it at the time. If you go to high school in India or Pakistan the history of Independence and Partition is obviously biased, but it’s also glazed over very quickly. It’s also rare for us to have learnt about oral history. When you grow up in the subcontinent you can very easily ignore the word Partition, less in Pakistan, but even then. So, when I came across these objects that my family had brought with them, I started repeatedly asking about them, but they didn't want to discuss it. They only wanted to talk about life before Partition and life after Partition. They didn't want to remember the time period during. How does your own family history of migration affect your writing? The first thing we have to understand is why they were so adamant on not sharing that experience. You will be empowered by your history only if you know the whole of it. Otherwise at some point it becomes fabrication. The work is as strong as reality allows it to be. So yes, my work was very affected by their stories, but more so by the perseverance of post-partition. My grandfather came with nothing and he built a book empire, we have owned a bookshop since 1953 in Delhi. He started with about 200 rupees for that shop. It wasn’t just my family’s story, it was the stories of that generation. When I started conducting these interviews I realized there were so many things that people of my generation need to hear. In India, we are a hugely intolerant generation, we are reactionary. We don't think, we say what’s on our mind because of the immediacy of social media. The things people from this generation were telling me about friendship, about courage, about values, I thought people needed to know. You come from a family of booksellers, how has that experience informed your approach to storytelling?                   I am of the firm belief that the more you read, the more you write. The irony is that my grandfather never read a book, he only read newspapers. Nobody forced anyone to read, but you have cultural legacy that you're a part of and you want to give to the literary society in some way, though I never thought that I would ever write anything, to be honest.                                        I started as an artist and I guess now I’m a writer, so when I read a book or even when I write it’s with the texture of creating something visual. It’s with the intention of making someone able to view a landscape in front of them. What is the purpose of art: the purpose of art is to make your viewer have something moved within them and I hope the purpose of literature is the same. When you make a piece of art you hope that someone will see it and remember it and feel like they are immersed in it. When you write a piece of fiction or nonfiction you hope that the reader is being transported to that landscape. I always look for that kind of writing that gives me the feeling of living inside something. What are a few of your favourite books? A Very Easy Death (Simone De Beauvoir), The Beauty of the Husband (Anne Carson), IQ84 (Murakami) and The Museum of Innocence (Orhan Pamuk). There are a few Partition books as well: The Other Side of Silence and Borders and Boundaries, both talk about the experiences of women during the Partition. Yasmin Khan’s The Great Partition. Writers often study the weight of the past and try to explore how the things that have happened to us change us, change the world around us. What inspired you to document this history of the past through objects? Material anthropology is an academic study so people will mostly study it for archaeological purposes, or there are books about wars, and things that were found in the trenches. But that’s a very academic way to look at it. Considering that Partition is not dinner table conversation, how do you access it? What about people that have no tangible connection to it? What about people that have inherited only memories of it but have no way to actually find a way to get there? How do you connect to something that you've been disconnected to for so long? The youth of India and Pakistan are progressing really fast and not realizing the things that we are leaving behind. It becomes very difficult to access the past if we are not constantly involved in it and if it’s not constantly alive in our households through traditions and customs. These objects then become catalysts to enter the word Partition and also become a way to bridge the generational gap. The object becomes a catalyst removed from them, it is not about them anymore, it’s about this thing.     How did put together a piece of nonfiction that works to reconcile the division?  What I don’t like about Partition is that whenever you talk about it you talk about the violence, you talk about the hate. You can’t ignore that, but there are also instances of friendship, of courage, of sacrifice, of Muslims harbouring Hindus in their house, of a Sikh man adopting a child of another religion. I can’t say that everybody helped each other, of course not, but aren't these the narratives that we should be listening to? It is not about blaming anyone, because you can’t blame anyone, it wasn't the English, it wasn't the Muslims, it wasn't the Hindus, it wasn't the Sikhs; it was halaat, circumstance.                    The narrative that a third-generation individual inherits from their ancestors is one of distance. You have the luxury of distance and education to view the event objectively, should you choose to view it like that. And even when you view something objectively, you cannot view it completely objectively because you have your biases and those biases are ingrained. What you can do is hope to portray a realistic narrative so that your subsequent generations can have something to think about. This Muslim man that I talked to in Delhi, he told me that his father used to work for Viceroy house and he chose not to go to Pakistan.  He said, “Hindus are born in India, they live here and when they die you cremate them and you submerge their ashes in the Ganga. Then their ashes go to International waters. A Muslim person is born in India, they live here and when they die, their body eventually decomposes and becomes the soil. It might be the land you are walking on right now. How can you say that that person does not belong on this land? They have become the soil.” Other people of my generation don't understand the repercussions of the reactionary measures they are taking against one religion or another. They need to hear these stories. How is your work different from the work on Partition before it? I’m using new age tools like digital media, and social media. It has the kind of reach that nothing else does. People are talking about objects from one part of the subcontinent to the other. A person from Asam can look at a plate and say, “how interesting, I have the same plate in my house.” A person from Karachi can say, “I have that same plate in my house.” The two people are talking over comments in my blog and not saying you are a Hindu, you are a Muslim, etc. None of this matters because they are just talking about that plate. How will you ever get to witness something so beautiful anywhere else?                                                     You are a self-proclaimed oral historian. With oral history, you have to understand that memory is unreliable, and that memory deteriorates with time. How did you get past this fact? You don’t. People think that oral history is not a viable source of information, unfortunately it remains the closest to authentic experience. But oral history cannot and must never be seen in isolation from academic history. They must always go together, I saw this in my own research. I cannot trust memory because memory will always change depending on your age, your experience, depending on what you’ve seen. It will change. In this case, another interesting thing happened, collective memory becomes personal memory very fast. When you have lived through a traumatic experience, even if you have not seen someone getting killed you will say, “yes I saw that because everyone saw it.” The only thing you can hope to do is supplement oral history with academic history. I did a lot of crosschecking, almost on every single point, it supplements fact with memory. I spent months with secondary sources, because I’m trying to write a history for young people. They deserve some form of truth, that is the only holistic way to talk about the Partition. There is this reoccurring theme of cultural identity in your book and in any conversation about the Partition. In the stories you've encountered, have people come to terms with the fact that they may never really belong to one place, one culture, one identity? Most people from that generation have resigned to the fact that they will never see their home again. The interesting thing is that if you talk to people from India, they will never say they are from Pakistan, they will just mention the name of the city. The cultural investment is more in the city you are from. My grandmother will still say that D.I Khan is home, we live in Delhi, but D.I Khan is still home. On the other side in Pakistan, if you were a Muslim that went to Pakistan you made that choice, sometimes that choice didn't work out in your favour and sometimes it was a new country and people didn't know what to expect. Once I did this interview in Lahore and this man was telling me that there is a big difference between Indians and Pakistanis. Just when I pegged him as a religious bigot, he said, “how can someone ever really separate you from the soil of your land?” That’s when I thought: how complex is this notion of belonging? For how many years have you buried this very statement inside you? How many years has it taken for it to come out? Even if he wanted to say it, who would he say it to? No one asked them about this lost home in years. War reporters often suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. In a way, you went back to look closely at a highly violent and tumultuous period in time. On a personal level, what did hearing these stories do to you?   Don’t you think I’m a little unusual? I have become heavy. It’s very difficult to hold onto little segments of people’s lives. My head is full of data, languages, names, houses and unfortunately in the last few years I have lived my material. I don't need to refer to my book to have this conversation because the material is in my head. The problem in that is you hallucinate sometimes, it is upsetting to see what a stifling generation we have become and what an incredible generation we come from. How little of that we have retained. I remember two years ago I woke up from a nightmare and I didn’t even remember where I was. I did so many interviews that week that I dreamed about all of them and they were all in front of me and I had to locate myself for a minute. I have recorded it, but history doesn't belong to me, it doesn't belong to anyone. You have to share it. How would you describe your brand of storytelling? Oh, bestseller. I’m joking! Though I have been on the bestseller list for weeks. To be serious, my work is an amalgamation of senses, whether it be through art or writing, it is to find a way to get closer to one’s senses. And memory is also a sense, it is an intangible sense, it’s an invisible sense. For me, this work is about connecting, getting closer to one’s senses, as all art should. Why did you choose to write this book as a series of conversations with people? I wrote the book as a series of conversations for the simple reason that I wanted to be in it. There is no point in talking about the past if you don't talk about the relevance of that past. If I don’t put myself in the book and also archive my reaction then what is the point? Then it’s just like any other book of stories. I am also making a comment on the things they are telling me because I have my own opinions being from a completely different generation so removed from it. You’re looking at the objects that people took with them during the partition, but in a way you are also looking at everything that was left behind. What about the objects that people left behind and still ache for today? I asked this Sindhi woman this question specifically because you couldn't take much from Sindh, you were searched on the boat. I asked her if there was something she wanted to bring along that she couldn’t, she told me about a swing in her house that she wished she brought along. [Those who left as] children would talk about toys. Then there were things people had to let go of along the way. There was a woman who was from a very rich family, she was coming from Dalhousie to Murree and was bringing along these collections of carpets and silverware. On the way she saw all of these Muslims that had no way to get across the border so she took out all of things and asked the people to come along instead. I also started thinking closely about what people considered precious or valuable. Through my conversations a lot of objects gained their rightful importance if they were of incredibly mundane nature. They were not appreciated for their survival or their virtuosity, it was just this old thing that they still had with them. I was trying to explain the value of a shawl passed down for three generations to a woman who was focused only on her jewellery when she noticed a stain on it. She started panicking about the stain and that’s when I realized that this incredible object that was just a footnote in your history has become so important because she found a stain on it. What about the stain that you left behind? What about the violence you left behind? It stands for that. In a way, this book is a study of the word “home,” of what it is, how we feel when we lose it and the value of the things that serve as reminders of it. How has your idea of home evolved? Let’s just break up this word home. The idea of home is from the physical home. The home of one’s past or dreams or imagination is often a glorified home, it is not really a real home. Maybe that is the narrative that will be passed onto the subsequent generation, which is fine, but the physical home is the home you live in, it is reality. My notion of home is Delhi, there is something centering about the city. My grandmother always says that no matter how far you go, the soil of where you are from will never leave you. I lived abroad for ten years, at first I thought it was very easy to change your personality and become from somewhere else because you have this fresh clean slate. There is something magnetic about the place that you are from, there is also  something very humbling to succumb to it. Delhi is like that for me. You explore the idea of intangible remnants. Discuss the idea of emotions as heirlooms. The man who was telling me about the Hindu-Muslim thing in Delhi, he did not bring anything with him. Throughout our conversation I kept wishing that he had an object, it was very selfish of me. He had this very ghostly presence about him, he was trying to make me understand that he was holding onto a value of secularism that might not exist today, but in my jaded mind I kept thinking about an object. It was very scary to be confronted with nothing or something larger than what I expected. I didn't have the ability to hold that weight. I had just come to look at things, now I was leaving with responsibility. In that moment, I looked at my hands and thought, they are too small, they can’t hold this weight. Intangible values are the heaviest because they ensure that you need to do something about them and not just listen. To be privy to a value or a tradition or a custom is somehow to sign an invisible binding contract that you will do something with it. A woman told me about all the women she had to send back at the camps and that was the only moment when I broke down. It truly felt like someone took this really heavy weight off their shoulders and put it onto mine. How do you carry that weight if you have no tangible connection to that event? How have you come to terms with the fact that you are an intruder in the lives of these people who may be trying to forget this event that happened years ago? We are very voyeuristic, but how do you make a story from nothing? No story is created from nothing. All fiction is some form of nonfiction. You might not borrow from the things you see immediately but it might be from something you experienced at some point or something you overheard. The human mind absorbs environments and regurgitates them in the process of writing or painting. Yes, I was shadowing many people’s lives. In this case, it is for a social purpose, in the case of other works it might not be. There is something very self-fulfilling and almost selfish in the act of writing. You have been given the ability to mold, more in fiction and less in nonfiction, but still you exemplify certain things in certain ways. You are shadowing people’s lives, you are tiptoeing around the edges of their memories. One of the stories that has stayed with me is the one about the Punjabi poetess who fell in love with the army man. How did you come to find this story? This was at the beginning of my research. Finding people who have lived through the Partition is not difficult, but finding objects is very difficult because people don't remember the things that they have now.  I told everyone [in my family's bookshop] to ask customers if they still have something from before the Partition. This woman came in whose husband was the chief of army staff and was a very close friend of my father’s. My mother asked his wife if they had a Partition related story in their family. And she said yes, her mother had some utensils and jewellery. So I went to this poetess’s house with the intention of looking at jewellery and utensils and then she told me this story from 1942. She was in Lahore writing nationalistic poetry for this magazine that used to be circulated to all of the Indian soldiers fighting for the British army in World War II. There was this particular soldier in Mesopotamia who got a copy of this magazine with a poem by this woman inside it. This man read the poem and decided he wanted to marry the woman who wrote it. He came to Lahore, to the address that was listed on the back of the magazine, and asked this woman to marry him. They got to know one another and eventually got engaged. Then he got posted in Baghdad and she got a copy of this same magazine with his name posted under a poem. He had not told her that he was also a writer. She read the poem and thought it was incomplete, in the next issue she continued the poem by writing a passage. He then read that passage and wrote another one. This went on for six verses, it was ultimately published as a book called Rohini and Veer Singh. What is a story that has stayed with you? Some stories are odder than others and they stay with you. In this Bangla story, the last chapter of the book, this man had lost his memory because of a brain hemorrhage. Over the years before his memory left him he had been telling his wife all sorts of stories. So, what he didn't remember she remembered. As a third-generation person in this subcontinent I remember things for other people because they can’t. I asked her very categorically: why do you remember these things? And she said, “if I don't who will? Who will tell our daughters and who will tell their daughters?” Someone needs to be the carrier of history. There are other snippets like this family rolling up all their jewels and tucking them into the floor, a mother putting a handkerchief in a child’s mouth in the train so the child doesn't scream. A man appears at a well-known family’s house Pre-Partition and everyone says he's fallen from the sky. They take him in because they believe that he has come from god and then create a room in the garden for him with a roof that is made of glass so that he can look at the sky. There is a village in Pakistani Punjab where an entire population of Sikhs converted to Islam because they don't want to leave. These things will always stay with me. What’s next for you? I’m working on a novel about an Indian soldier who fights on the Western Front in World War I. How much do we know about Indian soldiers who fought in World War I? We know nothing, that’s worth exploring. There is this inherently bitter-sweet quality to all of the objects and stories in your book. The idea that these people have reminders of this life, this home, parts of their identity, they will never get back. Is this something you thought about before you started writing the book?  It’s simply: how has no one worked on this? I must work on this. I haven't read my book, by the way. I just can’t read it, I feel like there is another kind of energy that wrote it. When I was writing this book I was in a place where I was ready to absorb all of these things that were forgotten, that were lodged in between the cracks of memory. At the time I realized that it’s not that this generation of people who lived through the Partition don't know how to remember, they don't know how to forget.
The Year in a Twin Bed

By twenty-seven I was supposed to be well on my way to stability, or at least the illusion of such. Instead, my life had increasingly taken on a scrappy plainness.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2017? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. My adult bedroom resembles a dorm room. This isn’t helped by the fact that my bed is, quite literally, a dorm bed. When my brother left for college, his six-foot-five frame didn’t fit onto any of the mattresses supplied by the residence hall, and so he was required to buy his own. He moved back home the same summer that I moved into my first real apartment. The appeal of a free mattress overruled the thought of whatever it is brothers do in college beds, and so I took it with me, mounting it on an IKEA frame. “It’s a temporary solution,” I told myself nearly a decade ago, though that mattress has now followed me to four apartments and sits pushed against the side of my bedroom wall, making room for the ever growing stacks of books I receive in the mail for review purposes, many of them for children. My small bed has allowed for some adolescent impulses, allowing me to treat my room as a private sanctuary. “I’d invite you to stay the night, but…” I’d say to a Tinder date while gesturing to my bed’s impractical size, and they would get the hint and leave. 2017 was the year I turned twenty-seven, an age I had once decided on, years ago, as the age at which I’d become unequivocally adult. One’s early twenties were designed for screw-ups and experimentation. By twenty-seven I was supposed to be well on my way to stability, or at least the illusion of such. Instead, my life had increasingly taken on a scrappy plainness. Though alone I was content with the state of things, I started to become increasingly self-conscious about how my living arrangements and lifestyle choices appeared from the outside, the state of arrested development reflected in my twin bed. Now when guests came over, I would apologize. “I’m in a transition period,” I would tell them, which wasn’t exactly untrue (I mean, isn’t life just one big transition period?). “I just came back from months of travelling.” Eventually my guests would leave, and I could stop feeling the need to explain myself. * As a full-time freelance writer, I frequently work from bed, setting up shop here when the cafes and libraries have closed for the night, and my desk (also from IKEA) is too cluttered with laundry that still needs to be folded. It’s the same way I worked when doing my homework in high school or writing essays in university. Like being a student, writing is also wildly inconsistent work. One is constantly at the mercy of pitches being picked up by editors. I would alternate weeks of slacking with all night cram sessions. Midway through the year, I decided it was time to get a second job—something to get me out of the house and provide a regular paycheque. Something that would ideally not involve staring at a screen. A friend recommended me to a bakery that she knew was hiring, and they brought me on to work the counter on weekends. Though I had grown weary of the customer service jobs I worked nonstop throughout my teens and early-to-mid-twenties, I reasoned that a bakery that specializes in elaborate wedding cakes would be more romantic and whimsical than my years spent bussing tables or measuring restless children for their shoe sizes. Customers are customers, however, and I had forgotten how humbling it can be to be yelled at over the phone by a woman who couldn’t understand why we couldn’t make her a custom birthday cake by this Thursday and why are our prices so high and also could I put my manager on. The voice I used with her was identical to the one I used with angry customers when I was fifteen and working in fast food: apologetic, meek, silent in the face of abuse. After two months, the owners of the bakery told me business would be slowing down with nearby construction projects and it didn’t make sense to keep me. I took the news with relief. My writing work was picking up anyway. I called my mother that afternoon and said, “I have two things to tell you. I got laid off from the bakery and I have a piece in the New York Times Magazine this weekend.” There was a beat of silence on the other end, before she answered. “How the hell do you get fired from a bakery.” It had been a busy summer for me. After finishing shifts at the bakery I would begin my long commute to the north of the city, to see the person I was dating. A physicist getting his PhD at the university, he lived in student housing, and so quite literally we were in a dorm room together. We heated up frozen pizzas in his oven and ate on his bed while watching documentaries. His mattress was somehow narrower than mine, and the commute was long enough that we frequently spent the night at each other’s places. Maybe it’s time for me to get a bigger bed, I thought for the first time in years. One day I visited his lab, and he introduced me to his labmates as his girlfriend. I teased him about it after, and he said, “It’s kind of accurate though, isn’t it?” He wasn’t wrong. But in my nearly three decades on this earth, I had never been somebody’s girlfriend; it was a word that middle schoolers used with abandon to describe their chaste romance, that my own friends had long since abandoned for terms like “partner” or “husband.” I tried to get used to it. I made references to my boyfriend in casual conversation with others. I told my parents about him. I began to panic. About two weeks later, sitting on the floor of my sweet, brilliant, handsome boyfriend’s dorm room floor, I ended things. “I just don’t think I can be someone’s girlfriend,” I said apologetically, before leaving. 2017 was a year of giant life changes for many of my closest friends. I went to what was supposed to be a surprise birthday party but actually turned into surprise wedding (surprise!) and learned that yes, I am the type of person to cry at weddings. Another friend eschewed receiving birthday presents this year, instead sending out a link to an online wish list of practical gifts for their upcoming baby. I purchased bags to store breast milk and wrote “TITTIES!” on the card. Other friends moved in with their long term partners, or got exciting new jobs, and I was—am—genuinely happy for them. There was no jealousy. Instead, the choices that made sense for them felt completely foreign to me, akin to the excitement I would feel on their behalf if they won front row tickets to see a favourite band that I had no interest in. I liked not having to share my personal living space with a partner, that my bedroom looked how I wanted it to look at any given moment, that my bed could double as a desk whenever I had work to do for the only job I am currently qualified to have. It wasn’t exactly where I had thought I’d be at this age, but I couldn’t imagine an alternative.  Late in the summer, my whole family journeyed to a small town an hour outside the city to witness my cousin get married. It was my first time being at a traditional wedding. I watched as the woman who, fifteen years ago, explained to me what the movie American Pie was about walked down the aisle in a poufy white dress. Later, I danced to “Spirit in the Sky” with her friends from college and relatives I hadn’t seen in years, in between giving non-answers to questions they had about my relationship and employment statuses. An aunt had brought cigars from her native Cuba, and I smoked one with my dad, brother, and uncle, the four of us grownups celebrating the choices of two other grownups. My parents drove me home the next morning, dropping me off at my place in the city before continuing their own long drive back to Ottawa. My mom asked if I wanted to come home with them for a visit, but I shook my head. I had a lot of writing due, I explained. We said goodbye to each other, then I let myself into my apartment, into my bedroom that belonged to me alone, into my small bed, and fell asleep.
‘The Memoirist Enacts an Evolution of Perception’: An Interview with Melissa Febos

The author of Abandon Me on queer world-building IRL and on the page, writerly toolkits and the freedom of abandoning all sense of chill in romantic relationships.

Melissa Febos’s debut memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin's Griffin), chronicled her double life as a successful university student and heroin-addicted dominatrix. Nuanced and highly perceptive, it’s a queer, feminist book on BDSM. Peel back the layers of the seven interconnected essays in her latest work of non-fiction, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury), and you’ll find many of the thematic concerns that compelled Febos in her first book: reconciling multiple identities, exploring the complexities and contradictions of human sexuality and romantic love, recognizing the continuity and connection between our bodily and intellectual selves. While the primary plot of Abandon Me follows the author’s obsessive love affair with a married woman, Febos also gets intertextual with Winnicott and Freud, meditates on her brother’s bipolar disorder diagnosis, and mounts an enthusiastic defense of hickeys. Abandon Me is also a tale of two fathers: one, her adoptive sea captain father, the other her birth father, whose re-emergence in her life as an adult connects her to her own Indigenous heritage. Febos’s latest memoir is a non-linear adventure in healing, a text that recognizes personal stories have the ability to influence collective memory, build worldviews and shape what we perceive as history. Laura Clarke: One of the many things I loved about Abandon Me was how this fully realized queer universe exists without explanation or instruction to a straight audience. You discussed your sexuality openly in your last book, but by virtue of exploring a job that caters to the desires and gaze of predominantly straight men, it had a different texture and approach. Three quarters of the way into Abandon Me, you mention offhandedly that your mother is also bisexual. The text seems like an exercise in queer world-building to me, which is an inherently political act. Melissa Febos: Thank you so much! That makes me feel really good. I mean, on one hand, it saddens me that taking my queer life for granted as something that doesn’t require explanation or need to be the subject of any story in which it exists is radical or political. I also recognize that it is. On the other hand, I am so happy that I’m able to embody that for myself and subsequently model it for my readers. I do take the queerness of myself and life for granted, in the sense that I don’t question it and I don’t feel a need to justify or explain it. Representation of that perspective in my writing is an exercise (in a straight world, that is), but in my life it’s not, and that’s both a gift and a reward. It’s a reward for having spent a lot of time and energy building a life in which I’m surrounded by people who share and/or accept queerness, and a reward for building an acceptance and knowledge of self that feels very safe on the interior. It’s a gift in that it’s a result of having been raised by people who always accepted me as I am, and encouraged and reinforced my expression and acceptance of self. My mother gave me a lot of the tools that have helped me build this life for myself. It’s also a gift to live in a time where I have the resources and freedom to cultivate all of that. In another interview, you describe Abandon Me as queer in both content and form. Can you expand on that? In a sense, my creative process is similar to my living process. I enjoy a freedom on the page to be curious and explore my own ideas and questions and experience, to experiment with form and content without feeling overly constrained by convention or the expectations of other people or my culture. That wasn’t always so. As a younger writer, I felt more obligation to adhere to structures given to me—both in terms of narrative and poetics—and I needed to acquire a better familiarity with those structures and more confidence in my own instincts and the art I wanted to make, in order to subvert them. I could not have written this book a moment sooner than I did. I hope I get to say that about everything I ever write. Whip Smart is primarily a book about understanding the desires of other people, and the confidence and sense of power that comes from that position. Abandon Me is the opposite in many ways: it’s about personal desire and the resulting vulnerability. There are so many more scenes of intimacy in Abandon Me (sexual, romantic, familial) than in Whip Smart, despite the fact that there are probably more sexual scenes in the latter. Did one book begin from a place of more certainty, direction, a clearer sense of narrative arc, or did they simply arrive at different destinations from a similar writing approach? Did writing while in the middle of your experiences as you did in Abandon Me have something to do with the sense of rawness and intimacy you conjured? Yes to all. The best questions are sometimes embedded with their answers, as this one is. Whip Smart was a more shocking book, but far less intimate. Again, I think with both of these books, I was working at the limit of my ability—in terms of craft, confidence, and intimacy—and my capacity was so much greater with Abandon Me. It was an enormous task, with the first book, to be honest with myself about my own experiences and motivations. I don’t think I could have managed much aesthetic experimentation along with it. I was only twenty-six when I started it and still a graduate student. But I needed to write that book. Which is to say, I needed to understand what had happened and why. So much of finding our best work is finding the work that asks more of us than we have ever given, more even than we are capable of. I wrote much of Abandon Me in the eye of the story, and you’re right that I could not have done that as a younger writer. At thirty-five, I had more tools, was able to experiment formally, and also to derive insight more quickly after “leaving” the story, in the second half of the book. I could enter into my own experiences more than I had been able to in Whip Smart, and so could bring the reader with me, however terrifying that might be (and it was). In the end, I think that for all its experimentation, the narrative arc of Abandon Me is pretty straightforward, but I didn’t know that at the outset. I believe that on some level I knew exactly how it would end, but I couldn’t bear to look at that truth before I arrived there in the work. And writing toward an end you cannot see—which is analogous to so much of living—requires a lot of faith. Reoccurring images of the stars and the sea are woven into the seven essays in this collection, which you partially attribute to being the daughter of a sea captain raised in a port town. The imagery seemed like an interesting artistic mirror to the book’s many childhood development psychology references (Winnicott, Freud, Jung. etc.), demonstrating how the past and history is not static, but rather actively shaping our perceptions at all times. Did the retracing of childhood and the past turn up this imagery for you, or is it just a part of your universe, your writerly toolkit? Both. When I was younger, I had this idea that the quality of a writer was contingent on her imaginative invention, or a limited concept of invention. My work changed a lot when I began to trust my own instincts, which so often led me back to the images and environments of my own becoming. I see my students suffer from this same belief in the paucity of their own symbols, too. They read other writers, are impressed by the achievement of books, and mistakenly think, oh, that was so successful, and in order to write a successful book it has to be like that. Sometimes, they think, well, I should just quit because I’ll never write that book, I’ll never be good enough. It’s a common logical fallacy for young, insecure artists. When I decided that I didn’t need to write like any favorite writer, or anyone but myself, I was so liberated. Ironically, I felt that my creative options multiplied. I believe every individual’s life is rife with organic symbols. How could it not be? We wade through an infinity of images and symbols in a single day, and yet we remember only a miniscule number of these. In my late twenties, I began to think of every memory and image as symbolic, metaphorical in some way, and that immediately released me from the onerous pressure of finding or choosing the “right” ones. It reframed my work as a writer—rather than “inventing” my networks of images, which was at once a hubristic and impossible task, my job became that of uncovering or listening to the images that I already had. Perhaps this is especially relevant for the memoirist or personal essayist. When the subject of your work is your own life, why wouldn’t the images accumulated and made symbolic by that life be the most effective? In Abandon Me, so much of the book takes my early life for its subject, so this dynamic was further intensified. I actually had to go through the book in later revisions and prune out a lot of sea images because having yielded to those instincts yielded such a bounty that it was drowning out the story (see? I’m doing it even here!). I think every writer reading this just breathed a sigh of relief for you validating our strange, reoccurring images. When you connect with a writer’s own index of specific, weird imagery, it’s an amazing feeling. My friend and I exchanged new poems recently, and though they were short, they both contained an image of socializing with spiders. I felt creatively connected to her and happy in my own weirdness! I love that! And I think that’s a realization, a reorganization of value that every writer has to go through. We are all socialized in conformity, to believe that weird is bad. At one time (and sometimes still) our survival depended on our ability to not be weird. But weirdness and the specificity of our own unique selves is what makes for good writing. This is one of the myriad ways that writing has grown me as a person—it has taught me how to recognize, acknowledge, and ultimately value my own eccentricities. My girlfriend often stares at me in wonder and says, You’re so weird! You’re one of the weirdest people I’ve ever met, and it’s fully an endearment. I think good art has so much in common with good love: an ability to recognize and appreciate the unique specificities of an object, a person, a perspective. You return to an image from Whip Smart in Abandon Me with a slightly different perspective—a woman is suspended in the air from meat hooks in her back at a fetish party. You describe how at the time, you attributed a fantasy of showing your younger self this vision as a desire to “annihilate her innocence.”  But in this new imagining, you see your impulse as a tender one, something to do with catharsis and personal choice. What changed your perception of this memory? I love the idea of living texts, that in writing we can return again and again to certain images and memories and re-evaluate them. Oh, I’m so glad that scene stood out for you! It was such an important one for me. I fought it for a while before I let it into the book. After writing Whip Smart, I had this idea that I had said so much about addiction and innocence and power dynamics and my experiences as a pro-domme that I wasn’t allowed to write about them again. I was sick of being the dominatrix writer, a label I’d never identified with and that frustrated me. That rigidity was also an expression of my own wish to be completely finished with it. But I wasn’t done, and maybe I’ll never be done, and also thank goodness. If our perceptions of our own lives and beliefs and interpretations weren’t allowed to evolve, where would we be? In many respects, I consider it a job of the writer (particularly the essayist and memoirist) to enact this evolution of perception for their readers. My relationship to myself and my choices was so much more rigid, fearful, and punishing when I was younger. That’s what shame will do. It made sense to me when I was writing Whip Smart that this urge to expose myself to extremity was an impulse to shock myself, to teach myself to withstand anything as a defensive measure. In the intervening years, I came to understand that I was also looking for alternate solutions, for methods of healing and transformation outside of those taught me by my patriarchal, heteronormative culture. One of the many gifts of writing these books is the way they’ve taught me how to love myself, to step back and look with a gaze at once more generous and more brave than I was before. I like what you said about methods of healing and transformation outside of patriarchal, heteronormative culture. There are a lot of “healing” narratives that are marketed to readers in easily digestible forms. The healing in your book is non-linear and individual, and it’s not always about following some traditional narrative arc from darkness to light. For some people, it might look something like hanging from meat hooks at the fetish party. Right, and that’s both a fact and a priority of my work. Fact, in that the typical narrative arc, from darkness to light, has never worked for me. My narratives are more: light to darkness to darker darkness to darkest darkness to darkness as a kind of light. I think we get into a lot of trouble when we get attached to these binary ways of thinking about healing, transformation, and narrative. My happy ending is not about emerging from darkness into some perpetual light—that’s a religious greeting card, not a memoir. My happy ending is the discovery of a transformation that can happen in the dark. About figuring out how to be a light in the dark, or simply be in the dark, to love what is there and stop running from it. Carl Jung has a lot to say about darkness, and the shadow self, and I reread some of it while I was writing this book. He wrote that, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness visible.” We can miss our own chances for healing if we don’t look outside the models we are given for what healing should look like. It can happen in swimming pools with dolphins, in therapists’ offices, in dungeons, in love, under tattoo guns, in gyms, in any number of places. Our psyches are so much smarter than we give them credit for, and we are taught to overlook our own instincts in favor of a social or cultural wisdom that is more often based on commerce than compassion. I do think that the cultural wisdom about healing and transformation reflects patriarchal and heteronormative influences, but I don’t think it’s good for men or straight folks, either. You begin researching the history of the Wampanoag tribe, and you meet with your literary agent, eager to write a book about the history of the violence of colonialism in the area. Your agent says readers “aren’t into Native Americans” and suggests you write something “more urban, more edgy...more you.” But you wrote all these things at once. And his very words are exactly what the book stakes its claim against – reducing anyone’s multiple identities into a singular consumable version, as well as erasure on a personal and historical level. Did the way this anecdote reflected on the greater work come to you later, or was it always on your mind while writing? In some ways, that anecdote was unfair to my (then) agent. He was expressing the track record of a market that had been exposed to so few examples of integrative representations of marginalized experiences, and it wasn’t an incorrect expression. The publishing industry is not a creative one—it relies primarily on what has already been done and proven successful. And it is a reflection of the dominant narratives and power structures of our culture, and so overwhelmingly white, straight, and conventionally structured. In order to change that landscape, we have to write the things we have not yet seen on bestseller lists, we have to trust our own instincts and imaginations. I can also see now that my impulse to write that book (which was an historical novel) was driven by my own desire to integrate all those seemingly disparate parts of my own identity. I was too scared to face it directly. I needed more time. In the years since, I have changed. And the publishing landscape has also begun to change in an important way. I don’t think an agent would say that, today. Or many wouldn’t. The brave writers who have trusted their instincts, their need to see their own stories represented in all their complexity and seeming contradiction, have created proof that there is a hunger for such stories, and so they are proliferating. Not, perhaps, at the rate that we’d like, but at a greater rate than we’ve seen in the past. The expression of vulnerability in love we see in Abandon Me is important and refreshing to me, especially in a culture that places pressure on women to act chill and not “crazy.” God, it didn’t feel refreshing when I was living it, but I’m so glad it felt refreshing to read. Vulnerability is the absolute worst! Of course, it’s also the best, but sometimes we have to trick ourselves into it, don’t we? Or sometimes our psyche has to go rogue and get us into a situation that we can only escape by becoming more vulnerable. I’m using a plural pronoun here, but obviously I’m talking about myself. I was so good at being chill and not crazy, for so long. Like, 32 years. And that imposed a pretty low ceiling on certain kinds of intimacy in love. Then, it was like I decided to get all my crazy vulnerability over with at once. Or make up for all those years of being chill in one short burst of agonized time. It really blew the doors off things, including my self-conception, and my belief that I couldn’t survive such a feeling of disempowerment. It did feel like I was dying, just as I had feared, but I didn’t die. And it felt important to tell that story, to demonstrate that resilience for readers who might relate to my fear and need for control, however limiting. When I think of historical courtly love, the wooer/pursuer behaves as though they’re at the mercy of their beloved, when they arguably possess greater power. There’s a curious kind of power in a) fully abandoning yourself to the beloved and b) making art or a public record about it. Devotion can be an empowering act. That’s such a smart observation about courtship and power dynamics in romantic love. Whip Smart was very much about looking at the superficial appearance of power dynamics in sex work, in commercial BDSM interactions, and between men and women, and then peeling them back to see how they so often reversed, and then sometimes reversed again. And I would say that much of Abandon Me conducts a similar examination of the power dynamics in a romantic relationship between two women. In consensual relationships, I doubt it’s ever simple. While one person often appears to have more power, that’s rarely as deep as it goes. Were you thinking about these delicate balances of power when you wrote it, and did your perception of them shift during the act of writing, editing, publishing and so on? In many ways, writing is my only effective thinking process. I do very poorly at thinking about things in my head. It’s only by writing, and to a lesser degree talking with other people, that I arrive at more nuanced understandings and new ideas about things. I suspect that the power dynamics of intimate relationships is a preoccupation of mine that I won’t be finished with anytime soon, and I’m fine with that. I’ve made peace with the fact that I am an obsessive person, and I’ll likely be chewing on these ideas for my whole life and career: power, sex, desire, gender, vulnerability, deviance, secrecy, and so forth. In a review of The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, you describe a sense of being granted permission through the act of reading. A reviewer in The Rumpus used the same language of permission when talking about your book. Does this sense of permission have something to do with the mingling of public and private, the bodily and the intellectual, of personal story and history? And isn’t it cool to think you are capable of giving that gift to your reader? I do think it has something to do with that combination of things—with an expansiveness within the text, but also an expansiveness in…spirit? In intention? Maggie’s work is complex and rigorous and intimate, but I also feel invited into it, and I can sense her own curiosity and willingness to go where the process of inquiry takes her. There is room for her in the text, and room for me as a reader, bringing my own set of contexts and interpretations and biases. And it is that flexibility that gives me permission to interact with her content however I do. It’s an important reminder that I can move through my work as though it is an expansive space, and so it becomes one. My favorite texts (and maybe all kinds of art) share this quality. So, yes, it is the coolest ever that my work is being read the same way. I mean, it should be so, right? I aspire to create the sort of art that I love most, that has moved me most. Not necessarily in form or content, but in that intentionality, in the spirit of it, the geist.
The Year in Reconciliation

Canadians want to focus on Gord Downie, on anniversaries, on the prime minister’s photo-ops, on giant rubber ducks—on anything, it seems, but Indigenous people.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2017? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. The first time I saw the rubber duck on Toronto’s waterfront I felt like I was living in a year-long episode of MTV’s My Sweet Sixteen. It was six stories tall and cost the country $200,000—which, realistically, was a drop in the half-a-billion-dollar bucket Canada set aside to celebrate its 150th birthday. As an Indigenous woman, I must admit the whole thing was surreal. Not six months before, less than a month before Canada 150 started, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave an impassioned speech to the Assembly of First Nations about the tenuous relationship between Indigenous people and the Canadian government. He used the word “reconciliation” fourteen times. As I watched the rubber duck bob on the edge of Lake Ontario, I couldn’t help but think of a young Indigenous girl in Alberta who needed $6,000 worth of braces to correct her painful malfunctioning jaw. Her request was denied by Health Canada, the federal department tasked with determining dental care for Status Indians. Apparently, the girl’s jaw condition was so unusual it did not fall into the four categories of dental issues they fund. The girl’s mother, Stacey Shiner, filed a lawsuit against the government in 2016, calling Health Canada’s decision “unreasonable.” The government had spent over $32,832 fighting Shiner by January. By September, that number had jumped to $110,000—enough to cover the cost for eighteen Indigenous kids’ braces. Or, I guess, enough for a little more than half of that giant rubber duck. Was this the “reconciliation” Trudeau had in mind? Fighting children in court while his government bankrolled massive reproductions of their bathtub toys? I didn’t bother trying to hide my disgust. Throughout the year, the (mis)use of the word “reconciliation” got increasingly worse, making my teeth clench and my stomach twist. For example, the Canadian government appointed non-Indigenous musician Gord Downie to the Order of Canada for leadership in Indigenous issues. His citation said that he was being honoured for “promoting dialogue, raising awareness of the history of residential schools and moving the country along the path to reconciliation.” At the same ceremony, Meritorious Service Crosses were given to J. Wilton Littlechild, the Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair and Marie Wilson, who all served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—and who had for six years done the difficult work of gaining the trust of residential school survivors, gathering their stories and making them feel safe and heard, all before writing a 544-page report and making 94 thoughtful recommendations on how Canada should move forward as a country. They, however, went unmentioned by nearly every media outlet who reported on the story—as did the actual residential school survivors who were brave enough to come forward and tell their stories. Two Ontario teachers were so inspired by Downie they even came up with a viral hashtag celebrating him: #teachlikeGord. These teachers mentioned Chanie Wenjack, the boy who died running away from residential school and inspired Downie’s Secret Path project. But they didn’t mention the Chanie Wenjacks of today—kids like Tina Fontaine, who got taken into child and family services’ custody, ran away and was found dead in the Red River when it was too late. No, Canadians don’t want to focus on Indigenous people. They want to focus on Gord Downie. He taught them about residential schools—two years after the TRC Report was released. He showed them what reconciliation was—twenty years after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People laid out a 1,000-plus-page map. For these Canadians, Indigenous history and Indigenous pain only mattered because a famous white man suddenly told them it should. My eyes just kept rolling. I couldn’t stop sighing. I must have looked like I was possessed. And now, the year drawing to a close, I’ve heard the term bandied about in so many ridiculous contexts, for so many ridiculous reasons, from so many ridiculous people, I’m not sure it means anything at all anymore—I’m lucky if my eyes even glaze over at this point. Leon James, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, calls this phenomenon “semantic satiation.” He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject while at Montreal’s McGill University. “When a brain cell fires, it takes more energy to fire the second time, and still more the third time, and finally the fourth time it won’t even respond unless you wait a few seconds,” James told Mental Floss in 2015. “[If] you repeat a word, the meaning in the word keeps being repeated, and then it becomes refractory, or more resistant to being elicited again and again.” Sometimes I wonder if that’s why so many non-Indigenous Canadians have failed to acknowledge our peoples’ pain until recently. Have they just heard that we’re “dying savages,” believed that we’re “dying savages” and repeated that we’re “dying savages” so many times that true, painful tales of our struggles cannot elicit an emotional response? Does semantic satiation explain why members of the Canadian government can regularly throw around the word “reconciliation” while simultaneously refusing to end gender discrimination in the Indian Act, which penalizes Indigenous women for marrying non-Indigenous men by taking away their Indian status? While running a failing inquiry into the reasons why over 1,200 Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or gone missing in Canada—an inquiry that has somehow driven away numerous families, leaders, experts and activists that have devoted their lives to this cause? While using poverty and poor housing as an excuse to steal our children and place them in child welfare at numbers that now exceed the amount of children in residential schools when they were at their height? It is important to acknowledge the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s original definition of the term: “To the Commission, ‘reconciliation’ is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour” (emphasis added). What the current Liberal government of Canada has been offering as “reconciliation,” some of which I’ve outlined above, has not been mutually respectful. It has not indicated any change in the pattern of colonial, paternalistic behaviour. Instead, it’s been photo-op reconciliation: highly staged moments that look good on camera and, most importantly, make non-Indigenous Canadians feel better about horrors that have been committed against Indigenous peoples in the past, while rarely acknowledging how those horrors continue in the present. It’s this ahistorical positioning that allows people to rationalize the status quo, saying things like, “I didn’t do that, so I’m not going to apologize for it,” or, “It happened years ago. You need to get over it already.” Attitudes of the past directly inform the attitudes of the present. Sometimes acknowledging the mistakes of the past causes real change, and sometimes it doesn’t cause real change at all, instead just encouraging the same problematic attitudes to morph into a more covert, easily digestible version suitable for modern-day tastes. While Stephen Harper was prime minister, for example, there was a public apology for residential schools. However, little has been done to address their modern-day equivalent: child and family services using systemic poverty as an excuse to abduct Indigenous children, who now make up almost 50 percent of the kids in foster care. There have been emotional press conferences announcing the long-overdue, aforementioned Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry, but still no acknowledgement by the federal government that, as of 2015, Winnipeg police said four out of five missing persons reports they received each month involved kids in the care of Manitoba Child and Family Services—71 percent of them being girls. What’s more, the current Liberal government of Canada has actively encouraged the problem by refusing to adequately fund and provide First Nations child-welfare on reserves, denying them the same funding and access to public services offered to non-Indigenous children off-reserve. In 2007, Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, along with the Assembly of First Nations, filed a human rights complaint against the Canadian government, arguing Canada’s purposeful, insufficient funding and lack of family support caused more Indigenous kids to be put into the child welfare system. In January this year, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal agreed: Canada was intentionally discriminating against Indigenous children. They even compared modern on-reserve child welfare to the residential school system. So far, despite emotional declarations for “reconciliation,” and despite three non-compliance orders by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, the Liberal government has made no motion to change this. Considering how little the federal government cares for Indigenous children, it should be no surprise that they care even less for Indigenous adults. Once our kids age out of the child welfare system, they have the criminal justice system to look forward to, which incarcerates Indigenous offenders at a rate that astounds: Indigenous inmates account for 22.8 percent of the federally-incarcerated population despite making up 4.3 percent of the Canadian population, and are ten times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people. The rates spike in different parts of the country: As of 1999, if you were Indigenous and lived in Saskatoon, you would be 33 times more likely to be imprisoned. Once inside prison, the experiences of Indigenous inmates like Adam Capay, a 24-year-old Anishinaabe man, paint a grim picture. Capay faced solitary confinement for 1,636 consecutive days, the longest in Ontario’s history, and, as of April this year, had not received a trial in the five years he’d been imprisoned. And, of course, there’s the way that land defenders are criminalized and jailed under Canadian laws. In May, Beatrice Hunter, an Inuk grandmother, was arrested for protesting Nalcor’s Megadam Muskrat Falls project, which Inuit say is poisoning their food webs and threatening their way of life, as well as potentially putting Newfoundland and Labrador into deep debt. When she refused a court order to stay one kilometer away from the site, essentially prohibiting her from protesting anymore, she was sent to a men’s prison for ten days; the women’s prison was too crowded to admit her. A month later, nine Bawaating Water Protectors were arrested for attempting to put up a teepee on Parliament Hill “without a permit.” Mounties initially erected a barricade and physically prevented the teepee from being erected, which the protectors intended to use to fast and pray in. The next day, to the delight of the media, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the assembled reoccupation teepee—decked out in a Canada 150 jean jacket, no less. Afterwards, he tweeted, “Our government is committed & dedicated to moving forward on reconciliation - myself & everyone in cabinet.” And this is to say nothing of Senator Lynn Beyak’s series of racist, offensive comments gaslighting residential school survivors and calling the disgusting, destructive White Paper “ahead of its time,” the “Appropriation Prize” scandal, or the recent Supreme Court decision to allow a ski resort to be built on land the Ktunaxa Nation has argued would affect a grizzly bear habitat and drive away the Great Bear Spirit. I won’t get into the horrific murder of Barbara Kentner, at whom a young, white man in Thunder Bay threw a trailer hitch from a passing truck, or the numerous other Indigenous people in that city who have been found dead in its waterways. I won’t detail the photo-op reconciliation of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund’s Legacy Room project, which, for an annual donation, creates “a space within an organization dedicated to reconciliation [which] showcases an organization’s commitment to our reconciliation journey.” I won’t enumerate all the times Indigenous people who have questioned the way this activity helps establish mutual respect and encourages colonial behaviour to change, or stood against cultural appropriation, or pointed out the racism that targets ethical Inuit seal hunting while remaining silent on factory-farmed chicken or beef, have been targeted and harassed by non-Indigenous Canadians. At this point, it’s clear that “reconciliation” is designed to help Canadians feel better about their past, not help Indigenous peoples set a healthy course for our future. Anishinaabe mother and professor Andrea Landry put it best when she wrote, “This reconciliation is for the colonizer.” An unfortunate casualty of photo op co-opting and semantic satiation, "reconciliation" needs to be put aside and replaced with what really matters: restoration. Restoration of Indigenous languages, cultures, nations, land. That would make a real difference. That would embody mutual respect and a change in behaviour.
The Year in Falling Apart

This year, this prolonged unraveling, is what survival looks like.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2017? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I spent most mornings this year failing to construct new ways to tell Americans it shouldn’t be this easy for white men to kill them. Not that the evidence is lacking. Not that this evidence was ever past. But a nod at the scope of the daily onslaught, its relentless attack from all sides—by legislators, lobbyists, and racists—that, even when unsuccessful, kept us in dual states of stagnation and perpetual exhaustion. Cumulatively, the months since the inauguration haven’t moved us forward; they’ve kept us, as a country, from sinking lower than we might have in the absence of resistance. Fatigue and depression, from actions against and threats upon, have been the cost of keeping those with power from dismantling countless policies inched toward over decades in pursuit of parity. This year, this prolonged unraveling, is what survival looks like. Semi-survival. Partial, because it is important to remember that not everyone made it. Many, at best, now exist in some form of limbo; many others are simply dead. Because there seems to be no way to make the NRA understand their organization is killing us. Because our current administration doesn’t care about Puerto Rico. Or climate change. Or public lands. Because they feel threatened by women’s rights and immigrants and transgender soldiers. Because conservative white men would rather spend the rest of their lives fucking their fear, many of us are gone. I, for one, haven’t been sleeping. That is, I haven’t managed to stay asleep. An hour here and there, and then up again to the wincing world. The latest scandal, affront, assault, political appointment, mass shooting, white supremacist rally, on and on. The swiftness with which Twitter became a daily show-and-tell of self-medication is its own indicator of collective mourning. The television we binge-watched. The sugar, drugs, and people we consumed. Endless takeout. Endless beers, wine, and whiskey in the evenings to cope with the events of the prior twelve hours. Your four cups of coffee in the morning to feel anything resembling alive. I have seen it, and I have seen you writhing to the beat of the day. And the thing I’ve lamented most, over three hundred insomnia-fueled nights, is how the election made the enormity of the events taking place outside our country—those independent of it—all but disappear. A vanishing act propelled by domestic panic and burnout. Because the other cost of survival is limited bandwidth with which to process the trauma of others. The global refugee crisis. Cholera epidemics. Famines. Stolen elections. Floods, fires, and air pollution thick enough to choke you through the safety of your screen. Now, at the end of 2017, sustained empathy for black and brown bodies outside of America is something we have time for only on a slow news day. To date, 45 has not succeeded in making America great—not that he was ever going to—but he has made America first in the eyes of newsrooms and, naturally, those directly affected by his and his cabinet’s actions. If you’re a woman, child, undocumented immigrant, refugee, individual of color, recipient of subsidized healthcare, LGBTQ+ person, or anyone for some reason incapable of surviving a provoked nuclear attack, that means you. And it’s made it harder than ever for those lacking the energy to look outward to see the world as something they’re a part of, not apart from. This is what happens when entire continents, for decades, are reduced to the sum of their losses. When our troubles are at their peak, those outside of America and Europe can only scream into a vacuum. As a friend recently reiterated, “Patriarchy makes us weak.” And she’s right. It’s no wonder people have turned to fitness and strength routines as much as any vice. All the dog owners who are grateful their pup gets them out of the house, away from their phones, and walking a few times a day. I, like many writers, found myself trapped in sedentary wallowing. In part because my profession requires ample screen time, but mostly because depression and anxiety are awful that way. I want to stop feeling so angry about all the terrible, powerful white men whose faces I’ve had to see on my computer every day in 2017. An endless stream of predatory mediocrity that’s failed upward all its life, because it’s never successfully been held accountable for its actions. I want a new home for this rage. Somewhere in my sightline so I never forget it. In a book. A pair of hiking boots. In this essay about forgiving ourselves for whatever we’ve become. At the end of 2017, I’m mourning the year they stole from us, all the art that wasn’t made amid this constant devastation, all the books that were published and read by too few, all the elevated heart rates, all the suicides, the forgotten desperate crossings by undocumented Africans into Canada, every plan with friends and therapy appointment that fell by the wayside. A year when waking up and treading water was the best many could do. I plan to find my body again in 2018, to put the parts back together that have become strangers to each other as well as to me after a year of unmitigated terror. I plan to write with courage and support others in doing the same. Because I believe we will move toward progress. We will find a way. But for now, resist. Call out. Fight back. Protest. Uplift. Encourage. Lean on one another. Fill your worlds with the love of those closest to you. And assemble yourselves into something indestructible.
Against Signatures

If a signature scent represents the delineations of a person fully fleshed, perfume samples offer the liberty of a protean form.

There’s a mathematical beauty to constants that is universally appealing. Beneath the undulations of our days, constants form the rare, unbroken terrain on which we can set our experience, and distill from it some form of understanding. We make homes in places and people and traditions, and erect them around us like the architecture of a meaningful life: a framework to fasten the “I” together—or, and perhaps more accurately, to keep everything from falling apart. As the daughter of peripatetic immigrants who never quite found their footing, I have always felt alarmingly fluid, lacking not only anchorage, but a sense of constitution. Without a clear notion of provenance or the reassurance of belonging, that constant, solidified “I” became the horizon of my ambition. It was a myopia that blinded me to other pursuits and interests. All I sought was a place to be still in my own image, and learn the confines of myself. Most symptomatic of this obsession was my longing for signatures: elegant, recognizable penmanship, a bar where they knew me by name, a uniform to whittle my feral anxieties down to an unthinking sense of self. That’s how identity works, right? Anything rehearsed over time can approximate instinct. When I discovered the world of perfume, I latched onto the notion of a “signature scent” as the quickest means to my end: the shortest of shortcuts to a sense of self. The signature scent, or so the cultural myth goes, is an expression of one’s individuality. I bought into that thinking with zeal, convinced that a beloved fragrance would become a leitmotif in the vital chapters of my life, inextricable from my memories and the memory of me. For strangers, it would announce my presence in any room, even upon leaving it; for loved ones, it would be a physical reminder in my absence, found lingering on a scarf or the neck of a sweater. Most importantly, a signature fragrance was a way to present an idealized version of myself everywhere I went—something that embodied my essence and projected it outward, speaking for me so that I did not have to. I’ve never liked talking about myself, anyway. Maybe because I don’t know where to begin. * The fragrance industry has long been predicated on the idea that the relationship between a person and their scent is a perfected monogamy. Of course, this manufactured exclusivity comes at a price, but that’s a cost most are willing to eat—after all, what perfume really traffics is immortality. A chosen perfume is an unspoken promise that you can outlive yourself through memory; a token to leave behind in your wake. We see its power at work in the sweatshirts we keep near when our partners are away, the vintage lipsticks and dusty compacts from our mothers that become keepsakes. For every formative person in our lives, there is a scent we can retrace back to them; some of these become indelible in our minds. There are days still when I am arrested in my tracks by the faint waft from a passerby, the same fruity-chemical aroma of fresh shampoo that used to emanate from a boy I loved as a teenager. And for a second, I am shrouded by that feeling again—a poignant yearning and ache in the heart, an emotion so pure and wild you could swear it was infinite. That’s the sorcery of scent, and its wonder: it can summon anything. Even, on occasion, a person you used to be. Conversely, having a signature scent is like suspending a version of yourself in amber. This was her scent, they’d say, followed by a list of qualities that the scent might represent, a few key points that would summarize you as a person. It seems romantic in theory, but comes with its own complications. What if the impression you make isn’t the one you want to last? What if the scent that speaks for you ends up saying the wrong things? The idea of a signature smell is alluring because we never expect to outgrow ourselves. And when we do, it unearths a specific kind of sadness, like returning to a formative place only to find it unrecognizable. Maybe it's worse, because we're doomed to witness a terminal incompatibility—a falling out of love with a version of yourself you were sure was going to be it. “[The woman] is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself,” John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing. “Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.” It’s one thing to want to be seen; it’s another to reduce yourself in service of that desire, and in doing so, become the one guilty of overlooking. * I started buying perfume long before I could afford it. Each purchase was an attempt at bottling a sense of self; the expense, I rationalized to myself over and over again, could be justified by the self-assuredness it would grant me. Can you really put a price on existential ease? I was, or so I thought at the time, investing in myself. Now, in my twenty-eighth year, it occurs to me that I have spent more than a decade trying to acquire an identity through perfume—a manufactured sense of femininity, elegance, class privilege, you name it—only to find it rigid and ill-fitting. Not the promised essence of immortality, but a trap. Freedom came in the form of plastic vials I hoard in boxes, hundreds of small samples inherited from perfume shops, beauty counters, trips abroad. Unlike a bottle of perfume, which requires a certain level of fiscal privilege and irresponsibility, samples come free with purchase, gentle persistence, or, if all else fails, the price of a small latte. In an industry premised on exclusivity, choosing a handful of disposable samples over a unique and personal bottle feels treacherous—but also defiantly democratic, like beating capitalism at its own game. The immigrant in me loves this. Faced with my samples, I am a pirate, giddy before her spoils. Each little vial is a portal onto an alternate reality, a place that you might glimpse in a dream, or a painting. Like windows that open right onto the sea. And within those dreams, I am not confined to the limits of myself, but am instead ushered into a world of infinite costumes and personas to try on for size—all the lives I have ever wanted, and some I have never imagined. Culturally, we’ve over-romanticized scent’s relationship to the past; more impressive yet is its power to rewrite the present, and become a locus of possibility. With the right scent on, I feel like a European heiress swathed in furs, never without lipstick, always moisturized. Or an architect dwelling in a remote cedar cottage of his own making, cigar smoke permanently in his hair. Sometimes I’m a wild creature perched in the crevices of a damp, metallic cave, feasting on insects; others, something insentient, like the silvery dust that coats the moon of my imagination. I am trying to say is that I never smell like me; and for the first time in my life, I don’t want to. Sarah Manguso articulated it best in 300 Arguments: “The trouble with setting goals is that you’re constantly working toward what you used to want.” * If a signature scent represents the delineations of a person fully fleshed, perfume samples offer the liberty of a protean form—the same lack of definition that I used to lament. Today, it brings me a renewed sense of agency, a purposeful expansiveness. It’s the same species of joy as playing with makeup, or trying on other people’s clothes; extending ourselves beyond the decaying sacks of flesh we inhabit. Last year with it beloved misfits and iconoclasts who showed us the freedom of resisting definition, but it did leave a lingering sweetness: the celebration of a mercurial life. Who says a sense of self has to exist in the singular? That the “I” in our self-imposed narratives has to come from a place of continuity? What I used to blame on weakness of character—a proclivity for inconsistencies and a magpie attention span—I am finally seeing as strength. With no hard or fast definitions, we are free to be: to absorb, to experiment, to turn towards our own suns. To be ourselves by not holding ourselves to it. It feels like an untapped superpower. Like having a person you can call at any hour of the day, or the languid ease of never needing to know what time it is, collecting scent samples makes me feel like the beneficiary of a rare kind of luck. It feels luxurious to wake up and be able to pick the kind of person I want to project into the world: austere or effusive, elegant or shamelessly saccharine, romantic or repulsive. To be noticed for the right reasons—which is to say, those of my own choosing. I don’t fall in love with smells anymore. What I cherish now is the process of trial and error, because through it I have learned the virtues of living deliberately. Since smell is our most primitive sensory faculty, every new scent forces me to pay attention: to engage, to process, to react. I measure my sense of self against these new realities. Does this feel right? Could this be me? It’s a little like trying to open a door with a handful of keys in the dark, but that is how I choose to learn about myself. It takes more effort, of course, than the unthinking signature—but the reward is in the exercise. Maybe what binds the fragments of our existence together aren’t the constants and routines, but the sharp irregularities that catch our attention. When I smell something new, I am present and grounded and alive, channeling the entirety of my awareness into that moment. What better call to attention—what better reminder of this evanescent experience we call life—than the redolence made possible by our own warmth? The scent we exude is an experience so singular, so contingent on our chemistry, emotions, and the yet unnamed workings of our bodies, that it can never truly be replicated. Each instance is a testament to the inevitable ways in which we grow and evolve, the possibility of “I” in the plural. It’s how we find our way back along a path that is ever changing: a signal we leave ourselves in the dark. Something that says, Don’t forget. You are here.