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Rothko at the Inauguration

A story of America in three scams.

 I  “Hereinafter, The Painting” I saw the fake one first, years ago, printed out in a report tacked on to a court filing out of New York City. There were two pictures on the first page, two sides of a painting, back and front. On the left, two rectangles, black over crimson on a background of lighter red. On the right, a wooden stretcher bisected by a crossbar. The edges of a canvas, folded over and stapled, were visible along the edge. There was a name on the back, too, and a date, written in fuzzy, impasto caps: “MARK ROTHKO/1956.”  It was the spring of 2013. I was thirty-one years old and had just moved in with the woman I would marry. I had come to Toronto two years earlier for a minimum wage magazine job at the tail end of a depression that had, for the fourth or fifth time in my twenties, scrambled my life and left me starting from what felt like scratch. Every story seemed like a last opportunity then, a last chance to prove something to myself, about who I could be and what I could do with my life. Looking at that report, I didn’t know that it would be a story, though I thought it might be. I certainly didn’t think I’d be puzzling over it for the next eight years. It was written by a kind of fine art scientist named James Martin. It described his analysis of a 50-inch by 40-inch oil painting, Untitled, 1956.  “Hereinafter” the report said, “the “Painting”.” It was ten pages long. It broke down primers and pigments and binders. It looked at crossbar marks and the history of paint. It came to a stark conclusion. The painting, which the oldest art gallery in New York had sold to a Gucci magnate for $8.3 million, was a fraud. It wasn’t a Rothko. He didn’t paint it. Not “in 1956 or any other date.” *** In November 2011, not long after he joined the New York Observer, a newspaper then owned by a thirty-year-old Jared Kushner, Michael H. Miller, an art reporter sitting on about $100,000 in student debt, received a short press release from the offices of M. Knoedler & Co., a 146-year-old art gallery on the Upper East Side. The note was barely three sentences long. It announced that, effective immediately, the gallery, which was older than the Metropolitan Museum of Art and had survived the Civil War and the Great Depression, would permanently close. The news, and the manner of its delivery, came as a shock in the New York art world and even inside the gallery itself. “It really seemed from the outside…like people just showed up that morning and had no idea that they were going to close,” Miller said. Knoedler wasn’t the largest or the wealthiest gallery in New York. It wasn’t Gagosian, or Pace. But it was a fixture, in the city and the scene. “It was absolutely top tier, but a little bit like a dowager lady,” said Pepe Karmel, an art historian at NYU. Knoedler had been the gallery of choice for the robber barons of the 1920s. It exhibited and sold works by the likes of Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet. “Everything they did was first rate and top drawer,” Karmel, said. “It was a key part of New York City history.” That’s what made the sudden closure so strange. The recession was over. The high-end art market was booming. The very rich, the only customers who really matter in art, were doing fine. And in the space of three sentences, with no forewarning, in the middle of an exhibition, the oldest, most storied gallery in the city was done. “A lot of galleries at that time were closing, but nothing of the stature of Knoedler. That seemed kind of impossible,” Miller said.  “It was clear that there was something fishy there.” *** What struck me first, when I finally saw the real thing, was the scale: a massive plane of orange and red that filled my field of vision, an empire of rectangles and colours on a Dallas wall. At the edges, in between the blocks, were whole border worlds of porous fades. Everything bled into everything else. Nothing was contained. I had always known art as something you approached, something you peered at and “hmm’d.” The Rothko wasn’t like that. It loomed. It leaned into me. It occupied space. “It’s not easy,” Rothko’s son, Christopher, told me years later. “He really asks a lot of you. And the more you’re willing to put in, the more you’re going to get out.” *** In the fall of 2004, Domenico De Sole, a fashion kingpin who ran Gucci for ten years and later co-founded Tom Ford, approached the Knoedler Gallery with his wife Eleanor. De Sole, who later became the chairman of Sotheby’s auction house, was, along with his wife, a noted collector of what might be considered the art of the regular rich—very expensive, first-class work that is a level below the most famous names. The De Soles went to Knoedler because they were interested in acquiring a work by Sean Scully, an Irish-American abstract artist known for his large, colourful images of bars and squares. Knoedler didn’t have any Scullys; the gallery wasn’t doing well with living artists. But Ann Freedman, Knoedler’s president, did offer to show the De Soles something better. In her office, she said, she had a newly discovered work by Mark Rothko, one of Scully’s forbearers and perhaps the most acclaimed American artist of the 20th century. By any rational measure, the De Soles were and are very rich. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily Mark Rothko rich. A single Rothko sold at auction in 2007 for $72.8 million. The record price paid for a Scully was about $1.7 million. The Rothko Freedman showed the De Soles that day wasn’t prime, exactly. It was on the smaller side, about 4 feet by 3.5 feet. But it was painted in 1956, in the middle of Rothko’s classic period. It was an arresting crimson, black and red. It was on canvas and it was in impeccable condition. Given all that, the multimillion dollar price Knoedler offered was something of a steal. *** The next time I saw a Rothko, a real Rothko, was in Detroit in 2015. It was a seven-and-a-half-foot canvas of floating colours, with blocks of brown and orange that seemed somehow superimposed on the background in 3D. The year before I saw it, Orange, Brown, 1963 was nearly sold off, along with the rest of Detroit’s municipal art collection, after the city declared bankruptcy. For a time, the people of Detroit faced a choice: keep their public art, including works by Van Gogh, Matisse and Diego Rivera, or salvage their municipal pension system. “Finally, I want to ask you a question that you were already asked—to give you another shot at it,” a judge asked Detroit’s lawyers in a bankruptcy hearing that summer: “Why not monetize the art?” *** Michael Miller, the art reporter who covered Knoedler’s sudden closure, graduated from New York University with two degrees in English Literature in 2010, two years into the financial crisis, and eighteen months after his parents—who had cosigned his student loans—lost their jobs and eventually their home. For Miller and his family, it was a savage time, as it was for many Americans. His parents struggled to find and keep work. His mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Every month, he strained to make loan payments, pay his rent and still have enough money left over for a carton of eggs and a can of beans—“my sustenance during the first lean year of this mess,” he wrote in 2018. At the same time, even as he wondered seriously if he wouldn’t be better off dead than this deeply in debt, Miller was climbing up in the small world of New York arts writers, dealing with the gallerists, brokers and billionaires fuelling the art market’s lunatic rise. The discord was never lost on him. “It was really during the recession, which was a terrible time for everyone. For me personally, it was terrible,” he said. “And there was a certain indignity to working for Jared Kushner for $30,000 a year.” *** It’s fair to say that when the De Soles left Knoedler that day, they did not expect to get conned. The art world may be full of exaggeration and sketchy deals. But the Knoedler name had an old-world heft. Its endurance alone spoke volumes. Nothing too shady could have survived that long.  Freedman’s official story was that the Rothko had come to the gallery by way of a mysterious Swiss-Mexican collector who had recently died and left his art to his children. She wouldn’t identify the collector—in internal Knoedler correspondence, he was known as “Mr. X,” “Secret Santa” and “the goose that laid the golden egg”—but she told the De Soles there was no question about the painting’s authenticity. It had been “viewed” by leading art experts, she said, and was set to be included in an updated version of Rothko’s catalogue raisonné, the definitive inventory of his works on canvas.  The De Soles agreed to buy the painting for $8.3 million. It was the most they had ever spent on a single work of art. After the purchase went through, they lent it to a Swiss museum. Then, once it was returned, they hung it on the wall, under glass, in their home on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. It remained there for the next six-and-a-half years. It was still there, hanging near two Twomblys and an Ellsworth Kelly, when the De Soles read about Knoedler’s closure in The New York Times.  ***  The townhouse that once housed the Knoedler Gallery, at 19 East 70th Street in Manhattan, is half a block in from Central Park and ten blocks south of the Met. In 2011, not long after the gallery closed, its long-time owner, Michael Hammer, the grandson of industrialist Armand Hammer, (and the father of the actor Armie Hammer) sold the building at the cut-rate price of $31 million. The building was flipped again in 2013 for $35 million. Then, in 2014, Leon Black, a private equity billionaire known in part for his ties to Jeffrey Epstein, bought the space for $51 million. When I stood outside the townhouse in the fall of 2019, a temporary construction wall blocked the exterior where the Knoedler façade had stood for almost forty years. Inside, construction lamps lit what was left of the ground floor. Black, who Bloomberg once called “the most feared man in the most aggressive realm of finance” was renovating it as a private home.  A leveraged buyout specialist, Black made much of his money acquiring companies, slashing costs and reaping fees. But he’s also a noted art collector. He was, until last year, the chairman of the Museum of Modern Art; in 2012, he bought Munch’s The Scream in a private sale for $119.9 million. Between the time Epstein was convicted—of soliciting a child for prostitution—in 2008 and the time he committed suicide in 2019, Black paid him more than $50 million, according to The New York Times. Among other tasks, Epstein helped Black manage his $1 billion art collection. *** A few blocks south of the old Knoedler townhouse, beneath an upscale Italian sandwich shop and just off Madison Avenue, a silver nameplate sits bolted on to a large, wooden door. There are two words etched on to the plate. Mashed together they form a stylized brand: FreedmanArt. Anne Freedman left Knoedler more than a year before the gallery’s sudden collapse. But for years she had managed Knoedler’s most important, and most lucrative, file: The mysterious masterworks of the late Mr. X. The so-called “golden goose” paintings had come to Knoedler through an unlikely broker. A long-time gallery employee and art world gadfly had introduced Freedman to an obscure Long Island art dealer named Glafira Rosales. Rosales told Freedman she represented the heirs of a European businessman who had made a fortune after relocating to Mexico before World War II. Because of his business interests—he was in banking and industry—he travelled frequently to the United States. And over a period of decades beginning in the 1940s, he had acquired a small museum’s worth of paintings directly from the some of the most acclaimed American artists of the day. The mystery millionaire—Freedman never learned his name—had died in the early 1990s. His heirs, a son and daughter, inherited his entire collection, which included works by Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman. The son now splits his time between Mexico City and Zurich. He was interested in selling off his share of the collection, quietly and privately. Could Freedman help?  Indeed, she could. She never met the heir. She never learned his name. But for fourteen years, she bent the entire business of the gallery around his collection. Between 1994 and 2008, at Freedman’s direction, Knoedler bought dozens of paintings from Rosales and sold them on to a who’s who of global capitalism. Goldman Sachs executive Jack Levy bought a Pollock for $2 million. UFC mogul Frank Fertitta paid $7.2 million for a Rothko. Real estate investor Jay Shidler, the richest man in Hawaii, spent more than $3 million combined for a Krasner and a Motherwell. Knoedler’s profits from the Golden Goose collection were massive. “[They] kept the gallery in business basically,” Miller said. In one case, Knoedler paid Rosales $80,000 for a Krasner then sold it on for $1 million. In another, Knoedler bought a Pollock for less than $1 million then sold it to a hedge fund manager for more than $15 million. All told, Knoedler pocketed over $60 million from the Rosales paintings before Freedman left the gallery in 2009. For Freedman, Rosales had been like a creature out of a fine art fairy tale. “She was effectively a stranger who had never really sold art through that gallery or any other gallery before,” Miller said. “And she suddenly had this treasure trove of unheard-of masterpieces by the great artists of the 20th century.” *** After I left Miller at The New York Times building in Manhattan, where he now works, I took the subway to Woodside, a neighbourhood in Queens. There, behind a small brick home, on a lot between two apartment buildings, I met the artist Zhang Hongtu in his studio. Zhang was born into a Muslim family in the Gansu province in 1943, six years before Mao founded Communist China. He studied art, survived the Cultural Revolution, and worked for years designing jewelry for export. “The funny thing was, at that time in China, nobody was allowed to wear jewellery,” he told me. “Jewellery [was] bourgeois.” In 1982, Zhang emigrated to New York and enrolled in the Art Students League, the same school where Rothko had spent eight formative months in 1925. He found New York incredibly liberating. At the League, there was no one standing over his shoulder telling him: “You cannot do that. You can only do that.” For the first time, he was able to follow his own instincts. He developed his own style. He became more political, more pop-y. In 1987, he drew a portrait of Mao on a Quaker Oats box. In 1989, after Tiananmen Square, he painted a parody of the Last Supper, with Mao’s head on every body, onto the ripped-out pages of Mao’s Little Red Book. Still, well into his fifties, Zhang was living a double life in New York. By day, he worked a jackhammer, cutting stone on construction sites. At night, after a brief nap at the kitchen table, he painted and sculpted and worked on his art. That only began to change in the mid-90s. In 1994, Zhang sold The Last Banquet—the Mao parody—for $50,000. The next year, he was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Soon his older pieces began to climb in value. A gallery in Taiwan took him on full-time. By the time I met him, Zhang had come to be considered one of the founders of China’s Political Pop art movement, the same one that made Ai Wei Wei famous. He wasn’t rich from his art. His work sold in the thousands, not millions. But he was comfortable. Sitting on folding chairs in his paint-flecked studio, he chatted happily about art and his career. I wanted to know how he kept going all those years, through exile in the countryside, and making cheap jewelry, and hammering stone. “I was always very confident,” he said. “I always thought I was going to be a great artist, like Picasso.” Even in the hard years, he was happy. “This world doesn’t need so many Picassos,” he said. “But if you are a good artist, if you do your best, people will open to you.” *** I had been in Dallas that day, the day I first saw a real Rothko, touring a fighter jet factory for a business magazine. The factory looked like a tipped-over skyscraper, long and low and drab on the outside. Inside, the jets, part of an overbudget trillion-dollar program, were arranged by construction stage. Every part of every one of them glowed a minty green. It was the strangest, most arresting shade. The jets all looked edible, or like toys. Later that summer, on a runway near Pensacola, Florida, one of them, valued at $232 million, burst into flames. *** In the early 1980s, while Zhang was studying at the Art Students League, he befriended an older Chinese artist named Pei-Shen Qian. Qian was a gifted technical painter with a solid following in China, but like Zhang he initially struggled in America. “He was kind of frustrated because of the language problem, the connection problem,” Zhang told The New York Times. “He was not that happy.” By the early ’90s, he had fallen out of touch with his friends. For a time, he sold his work on the street. But around the time Zhang’s own work began to sell, Qian’s career, too, took off. At some point in the late 1980s, he met a man named Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz in Manhattan. Over the next several decades, the Spaniard would buy dozens of paintings from Qian, for hundreds and eventually thousands of dollars each. By the mid-90s he was effectively Qian’s only customer. The money was decent. “He wasn’t making millions,” Miller said. But he was finally something close to middle class. He bought a home, in Queens. He began to work full-time on his art.  The only problem was, the art wasn’t his, not really. He was painting it. But it wasn’t being sold under his name.   When Bergantinos Diaz met Qian, he was in a relationship with Glafira Rosales. They opened an art business together. They had a daughter. Over a decade and a half, they made millions selling Qian’s art, mostly to the Knoedler Gallery. They bought him old canvases and old nails. They gave him old paints—though some weren’t quite old enough. They even took requests. When Freedman asked if the Golden Goose collection had any Pollocks, Qian painted two.   Together, Rosales and Bergantinos Diaz made $33 million off Qian’s work. For eight of the paintings, they paid Qian at total of $50,400. “I think he was a kind of patsy,” Miller said. “They just needed somebody to do it. And he did it.” ***  My intro into the Knoedler affair came in 2013, when I was working for a business magazine, the oldest business periodical in the country. (It stopped publishing print issues in 2016. For several years afterward it operated as little more than a Twitter account.) I’d read a story in The New York Times that mentioned the involvement of a Toronto theatre mogul named David Mirvish. Mirvish was and is a big name in Canadian business. In New York, his involvement was a curiosity. In Canada, it could be big news. (Such is the nature of Canadian reporting.) I spent most of that year on and off trying to figure out what Mirvish’s interest had been in the paintings. But the more time I spent with depositions and financial statements, with transcripts and expert reports and carefully lawyered statements about how one judges exactly whether one thing or another is real, the more I found myself drawn to the pictures themselves. It was a trying time, personally. I felt stuck in the story, dug in without any clear way out to something revelatory. But the more blew I deadlines and lay awake, feeling stress hives grow, the more I stared at the black-and-white copies of copies in those reports and wondered what they’d look like real. I spent days researching precise details about the art—details I knew I’d end up cutting from the final piece. I even went to the empty location of Mirvish’s own, long-closed, bookstore in Toronto to see if I could spy the fifty-foot Frank Stella he had once kept on the wall. The doors were locked. The windows were covered. I went right up to them but couldn’t see anything inside. *** The Knoedler affair began to unravel, as things often do in the art world, quietly and out of the spotlight. (There is nothing the wealthy deplore more than a scene). In 2002, Levy, the Goldman Sachs executive, submitted the Pollock he purchased from Knoedler—a small greenish canvas painted with oil and enamel—to the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) for review. The IFAR report, when it came back, was scathing. The experts who viewed the painting found it “limp” and “formulaic.” The story Knoedler told about the painting’s history was “inconceivable,” “improbable,” and “difficult to believe.” IFAR refused to certify the Pollock and Knoedler bought it back. The gallery then sold it on, in a complex deal, to Freedman, her husband and Mirvish. The brutal report didn’t stop Knoedler from selling more paintings from the collection. In fact, Freedman and Knoedler kept selling Golden Goose paintings—with a new backstory—for another seven years. They kept selling them after a second organization, the Dedalus Foundation, cast doubt on seven more paintings. (One Dedalus board member called them “laughable fakes”.) They wouldn’t stop selling them until a London money man’s untimely divorce threatened to push the whole thing into the public eye. ***  By the time I published my story on Mirvish, a complicated, business-heavy piece about art law, ownership and authentication, I was something close to obsessed with the art itself. I started hunting down real versions of all the fakes I’d seen—Motherwell’s Elegies, Newman’s shades of black on white, Rothko’s floating haze—in Dallas and Detroit, in Buffalo, Toronto and New York.  Working in Ottawa one day, I went to the Canadian National Gallery to see Rothko’s No. 16, 1957. I was months into a long feature about a far-right Canadian media figure at the time, part of a series of pieces I wrote in that period about the ugly wave of populist politics then sweeping the world. The Rothko outstripped anything I’d seen before: an almost 10-foot wall of colour and mood. I stood for so long in front of it that my legs began to twitch. Canada’s National Gallery bought No. 16, 1957 in 1993 for C$1.8 million. The purchase caused incredible controversy. “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with these jerks,” one member of Canadian parliament said at the time. If sold today, the painting would probably gross something close to $100 million. Financially, it’s one of the best investments the country has ever made.  *** In the end, it wasn’t a Rothko that brought Knoedler down. It was another Pollock. Pierre Lagrange, a Belgian hedge fund manager once called London’s “zaniest financier,” bought a Golden Goose Pollock from Knoedler in 2007. (At least, he thought he bought it from Knoedler. At the time of the sale, the gallery actually co-owned the painting with Mirvish.) He kept the Pollock in his London home until, at the age of forty-eight, he accepted that he was gay, left his wife and precipitated a costly divorce. As part of his settlement, Lagrange, who looks like an aging, well-groomed werewolf, had to sell his Pollock. But none of the major auction houses, not Christie’s, not Sotheby’s, would take it. There were too many questions about the origins of the work, questions that Knoedler refused to answer. Furious, Lagrange met with Knoedler’s new president, Frank Del Deo, in New York. He demanded the gallery take the painting back. He threated to sue. The gallery refused. That’s when Lagrange submitted the painting to James Martin, at Orion Analytical—the same scientist who would later study the De Soles’ Rothko. Martin examined the canvas. He tested the paints. He found the work contained at least two pigments that weren’t developed until well after Pollock’s death, in 1956. He concluded, as he later would with the Rothko, that the painting was fake. In November 2011, Lagrange sent the Orion report to Knoedler. The next day, the gallery shut its doors and announced, via press release, that it was closing forever. Lagrange sued. Other buyers followed. Soon, the Knoedler affair was the biggest story in the art world. “There was a period where you couldn’t go to a dinner party without there being a conversation about it,” Karmel said when I spoke to him for the Mirvish piece. (Divorce has long played a strong supporting role in the art market. In Sept. 2021, Sotheby’s won the right to auction off an estimated $600 million worth of art owned by divorcing real estate developer Harry Macklowe and his ex-wife Linda. Included in that collection was Rothko’s No. 7 (1951), which was eventually sold, in November 2021, for $82.5 million.)  *** In the summer of 2016, after covering Hillary Clinton’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, I drove across Pennsylvania to meet my girlfriend in Pittsburgh. It had been a long trip. I had turned thirty-five on the road, the night after Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president in a half empty arena in Cleveland. My girlfriend and I were spending two nights in Pittsburgh to celebrate. One afternoon, we went to the Carnegie Museum of Art.  They had a Rothko up, a gorgeous vertical rectangle of yellow on blue. But for whatever reason, I don’t remember much about it. I sought it out. It was there. I saw it. But it didn’t stick with me. A month after the trip, we found out my girlfriend was pregnant. Our daughter was born about nine months after I got home. *** Most of the lawsuits stemming from the Golden Goose frauds were settled out of court. Only the De Soles went all the way to trial. When the case finally came before a judge in 2016, Miller was there, in court, every day. “It’s rare for something like the De Soles trial to happen,” he said. “People just don't have the energy. They just want their money back or they want to move on to the next thing they can make a profit [from].” For the De Soles, Miller believed, the trial was as much personal as it was financial. “It was really more of a crusade for them,” he said. It seemed as if, unlike all the other collectors who had shelled out millions for a fake painted in a Queens garage, the De Soles wanted the story public. They wanted to show the world how Knoedler had ripped them off. They wanted Freedman to testify, to lay bare the high class grift of it all. During the trial, the painting—the fake Rothko with the rectangles of black over crimson on a background of red—stood behind a screen. Every once in a while, a lawyer would haul it out as “Exhibit A.” For Miller, sitting in the gallery, it was tough to separate the canvas from what he knew about its background. “With the knowledge that they're fake, it’s hard to look at a painting like that and be like, well, it’s still pretty good,” he said. Eventually, the De Soles settled, just before Michael Hammer, the “shadowy Oz-like rich guy” behind Knoedler, was scheduled to testify. (But not before Hammer’s embarrassing spending habits—fuelled by a Knoedler Black Card—were revealed.) That was no surprise. “It is exceedingly rare for forgery cases to go to trial,” Leila Amineddoleh, an art lawyer, wrote after the case. It is even rarer still for them to end with a jury verdict. In a fight between the very, very rich, after all, you can never be sure who the everyday people on a jury will believe. *** Glafira Rosales eventually gave up the fraud and cooperated with an FBI investigation. She spent three months in jail awaiting trial, pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay $81 million in restitution. “Last I heard Glafira Rosales was a waitress at a diner in Queens,” Miller said. “It says a lot.” Bergantinos Diaz, who she accused of years of physical and emotional abuse, fled to Spain, where he remains, free. Qian, the artist, went back to Shanghai. A documentary crew recently found him there, living and painting in a small apartment. As for Freedman, to this day, she presents herself as the central victim of the fraud. She’s back selling art, out of her own gallery. Miller likes art. He finds the business fascinating in a grotesque, mirror-on-society kind of way. But he also sees it as a reflection of a lot of what’s wrong in America today. “It’s easy to pin a lot of things on the art world, but it is a symptom, I think, in the way that student loan debt is a symptom,” he said. “It’s just a distillation of the free market and every horrible thing that it’s capable of doing.” It’s a world of the rich, by the rich, that’s divorced now from the comparatively normal. “You work in newspapers,” he said. “It’s similar to that, in the way that private equity has profited off of the media industry and left journalists and editors holding the bag. That’s the case in the art world. A small amount of people has gotten very, very rich off it and everyone else has suffered greatly. And there’s no turning back once you get there.” ***  By the time the De Sole trial ended, my involvement in the Knoedler case had been over for years. I left the magazine in 2014 and joined a newspaper in Toronto. I wrote about crime and life in the city. But mostly my beat was the right-wing political world. In January 2017, I was in Washington D.C. to cover the inauguration of Donald Trump. My girlfriend was five months pregnant with our daughter. We were getting married in a week. I had my flight home scheduled for the afternoon after the inauguration so I could get back on time for my bachelor party. It’s easy to recognize in retrospect, though I certainly didn’t at time: I wasn’t ready, for any of it. I was obsessed with the idea that having a child was an end, that I had to achieve everything I could before my daughter was born. I had a big feature planned to come out on our wedding day. I met with a book agent just before I left for Washington. When I explained everything that was happening in my life, she looked at me like I was delusional for wanting to write a book too; I probably was. By the time inauguration week came, I was also physically tired, from work and wedding planning and anxiety, and from sleeping on a friend’s small office floor in D.C. (The newspaper couldn’t afford a hotel.) Two days before the event, after filing a story from the coat room of the National Gallery of Art (there was a desk in there and the WiFi was free), I walked into the gallery itself. I knew the National had a large Motherwell—one of his Elegies, the series Qian had forged—and I wanted to see it. I found it hanging on the wall opposite a huge open staircase. It was large and striking, but distant somehow in the nearly empty gallery. I spent several hours drifting through the barren buildings—a linked set of two on the National Mall, a short walk from the Capitol where the inauguration would take place. In the East Building, in a tower above the third floor, I found myself in a newly opened gallery space split in two by a white wall that came up just short of the ceiling. From the entrance, I walked first past Newman’s Stations of the Cross—fifteen plays on a theme of black or white stripes on white canvas. Once past the dividing wall, I stepped into a riot of colour and shape. It was an entire room of Rothkos, more in one place than I had seen combined in two countries, four cities and three states. I sat down on a bench, placed right in the centre of the room, and stared. I was alone with ten paintings that, if sold at auction, would be worth more than half a billion dollars. There were purples and greens, blues, oranges, tans: all of them arranged in stacked blocks of colour with those tide pool edges—the spaces in-between where everything combines. I don’t know how long I sat there. I know I cried, although even now I’d have trouble breaking down the exact alchemy of why. Eventually, a woman walked in and I left. Outside, I scribbled a phrase in my notebook, diagonally, across most of a page: “Rothko at the Inauguration.” What I didn’t notice then, what I wouldn’t have understood if I had, were the name plates on the paintings. Two of them were typical. One was listed as a gift from Enid A. Haupt, a publisher and philanthropist, the other from the collection of Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, who married into the Mellon fortune and at one time owned as many as thirteen Rothkos. The other eight, though, were unusual.  They spoke of another scandal, as large and evocative in its own way as Knoedler’s. The paintings were all done in an eight-year period between 1949 and 1957. They differed greatly in colour, shade and tone. But they all listed identical provenance. They all came, in other words, from the same source, in the same year. Next to each painting, in the gallery’s records, was a single, mysterious, line: “Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. 1986.” II THE MOST SIGNIFICANT PIECE At some point in early middle age, having already pursued a career in clinical psychology, Christopher Rothko, Mark Rothko’s second child and only son, became, somewhat to his own surprise, the de facto overseer of his father’s legacy. The role was unexpected for Christopher in part because, for most of his childhood, he had had almost no relationship with his father’s art at all. “There really was a very significant portion of my young life where there not only weren’t any paintings in our home, but there was very little museum activity as well,” he said. He knew his father was an artist, obviously. Even in the 1970s and ’80s, “Mark Rothko” was a famous name. He remembered his father’s studio. He was aware, in a background kind of way, of the long and brutal fight going on over his work. But visual art wasn’t Christopher’s passion. In school, he went into the sciences. He long figured that if he inherited anything from his father, it was his love of Mozart. But as he grew older, Christopher began to take on more and more responsibility for what might be considered the Business of Rothko. He helped organize shows, spoke at openings, sat on boards, delivered lectures—including his first, in his father’s hometown in Latvia. He edited catalogues and even wrote a book, Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, that came out in 2015. That book was the reason I reached out to Christopher, and the reason he met me, in a café near his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I wanted to ask him about the impact the Rothko room had had on me. I was still, years later, trying to figure out how much of that full-body hush I felt was me and how much was the art. Rothko wasn’t surprised I asked. People have for years told him similar stories about his father’s work, and about that room in particular.  “Really the magic of his paintings is his ability to find that level of communication that is so elemental,” he said. “He’s able to essentially get under your skin.” Christopher Rothko’s own relationship to his father’s art has evolved over the years. He’s always been fond of the earlier, lesser known, work. His favourite Rothko might be Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, a big, surrealist canvas that hung in his living room when he was boy. (It now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.) But in recent years, he’s found himself drawn to the dark, almost monochromatic, paintings his father did in the last years of his life. He knows what most people think of that work, that it’s a reflection of how his father felt—depressed, sick and often drunk. But he doesn’t believe it’s that simple. Art isn’t always a reflection of biography, even when the pieces of that biography seem to line up so well. “And then of course,” he said, “the most significant piece of that biography is the fact that my father killed himself.” *** Once I knew to look for them, I started seeing them everywhere. They were up in the Met, in tiny print, beneath the details of a large canvas of white and red on yellow. They were there on the opposite wall, too, twice. Tiny words, next to two paintings of scuffy black and grey. In that exhibit alone, I saw them five times, the same words, again and again: “Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation.” Most of the Rothkos in that exhibit were clustered in a single, dimly lit room. While I looked at them, a class of school children walked in. They huddled around one painting of bold rectangles on yellow.  “This is the last painting that he painted that was very, very bright,” their guide said.  After the children left, I stood in front of the painting. As I stared, a third rectangle seemed to emerge, yellow on yellow, between the white and red — brighter and deeper and more insistently there. I walked around the room but kept coming back to that work. Up close, all the brightness seemed overlaid on something dark, a shadow beneath the yellows and the red. Eventually, I moved back to the opposite wall where two late works of brown and grey on paper were hung. There was a faintness to both of them; the paper bled through. *** On Wednesday February 25, 1970, Oliver Steindecker, a friend and assistant, found Mark Rothko lying face up on the kitchen floor in the studio where he had been living for the past eighteen months. Rothko’s face was pale, almost jaundiced. He wore black socks and blue long johns. His pants were folded neatly over a chair. On a nearby sink, Steindecker found a double-edged razor blade, one end wrapped in tissue paper. At some point, several hours before, Rothko had used the blade to cut holes, each more than a half inch deep, into the inside of his arms, just below his elbows. He was sixty-six years old. He left behind Christopher and his sister Kate, six and nineteen years old, and almost 2000 unsold works of art.  Rothko had been deeply depressed for more than a year before his death. In 1968, he suffered an aneurysm from which he never fully recovered. He was drinking heavily, had alienated friends, and left his wife, Mell. According to his biographer, James E. B. Breslin, he was also receiving a barrage of conflicting treatments for heart disease, hypertension and depression from a nest of squabbling doctors. And before nearly severing his brachial arteries, he took a potentially lethal dose of Sinequan, an early antidepressant.  *** Though he was born in New York, Christopher Rothko spent much of his childhood in Ohio, first with his aunt and uncle in Columbus, then later with his sister in Cleveland. In Manhattan, his father had been famous, a legend, even, in certain circles. But in Columbus, “nobody had heard of him,” Christopher said. “So that part of my identity kind of went underground for six or eight years.” In his twenties, he trained as a psychologist. He practiced for a time but as he grew older, he did less therapy as he took on more management of the art. Christopher Rothko thinks that background, in psychology, is part of the reason why he’s so skeptical about the correlations people often make in his father’s paintings, the links between colour and mood. “I’m always a little suspicious of that kind of socially mediated understanding of how colour, as well as a lot of other things, work,” he said. His father’s paintings are about reflection, he believes. “In the dark works, he’s slowing down the conversation. He’s really insisting that you stop and reflect. You can’t do a drive by and say, ‘Oh yeah, I saw a Rothko there. It was yellow and red and orange.’” Christopher might be fighting a losing battle on that front. At the Met that day, the guide asked the children what they thought about a painting in grey and black.  “He was in the darkness,” one girl, maybe eight or nine years old, said. “He was trying to tell his family he felt alone,” another added. “Well,” the guide replied, “after his dark period, he did commit suicide.” *** What is certainly true is that the sunnier works are now more valuable. A big, bright Rothko is a commodity as much as it is a masterpiece. It can be bundled into an art investment fund and sold as a security. It can live unseen for years and even decades, appreciating in a freeport warehouse, where it can’t be taxed or traced as its value grows. “I try not to think about it,” said Laili Nasr, the National Gallery’s leading expert in Rothko, “because I think that gasp that you hear when people come into the Rothko room, a little part of that gasp is: ‘This is worth so much money.’”  *** In 1958, after several decades of teaching and obscurity, Rothko accepted what was, at the time, the largest commission of his career: $35,000 for a series of murals in the new Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan’s Seagram Building. Rothko was by that point well established as a leading American artist. But he was far from rich. In 1949, at the dawn of his most active and artistically fruitful period, his net income had been less than $1,400. (That’s the equivalent of about $15,000 today). By the late 1950s, he was more comfortable, maybe even upper middle class, but he remained deeply ambivalent about money, the rich, and the commercial side of art. The Seagram’s commission was something of a surprise. Rothko was openly, publicly disdainful of the kind of people who would eat in the Four Seasons. He described the restaurant to his friend John Fisher in 1959 as a “place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off.” After eating in the restaurant himself, Rothko—having spent two years on the murals—cancelled the commission in a huff. “Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine,” he told another friend, according to Breslin. He returned the money and kept the murals himself. “As an anarchist, he disapproved of the wealthy and questioned their taste,” Fisher wrote in 1970, after Rothko’s suicide. But in the last decade of his life, only the very wealthy could afford his work. It was a conundrum that dogged him until his death. “When his work became a commodity he could no longer evaluate it,” his friend James Brooks told the journalist Lee Seldes. “He did not know whether people were buying his paintings because they were good or because they were Rothkos."  ***  Four metro stops from the National Gallery in Washington, an old bench sits in the darkness between four large paintings in muted shades of orange, green and red. In the early 1960s, Duncan Phillips, a Pittsburgh steel heir turned art collector, opened the world’s first Rothko Room in his family’s museum in northwest D.C. Rothko himself advised Phillips on the layout of the room. He wanted the lights dim and the paintings hung low. On a trip to D.C. for Kennedy’s inauguration, in 1961, he even suggested Phillips swap out the chairs in the room for a bench.  That same bench, with wooden slats, was still in the Phillips Collection Rothko Room when I visited. As I shifted to look at the different paintings, the slats moved beneath me. Unlike the wide, airy Rothko room at the National Gallery, the Phillips room has a gently claustrophobic air. If you spend much time inside, it begins to feel like the paintings are closing in—a soft smothering of paint and mood. On a wall just outside the Rothko Room hangs a painting that feels somewhere between Abstract and Gothic. It features a woman’s profile from the shoulders up, atop a cloudy background of stormy blue. Instead of a face, the painting has what looks like a waning yellow moon melted sideways onto a misshapen skull. The placard next to the painting identified the artist as Theodoros Stamos, a contemporary of and at one time a close friend of Rothko’s. (After his death, Rothko was initially buried in the Stamos family plot.) Stamos finished Moon Chalice in 1949, when he was twenty-six years old. Eleven years later, he would enter what would become the worst, most personal legal battle in the history of modern art. By the time it was over, Stamos would be in ruins. His career collapsed. His reputation never recovered. Christopher Rothko would end up, according to multiple accounts, with the title to his Manhattan home. *** The more money Rothko’s paintings earned, the more miserable the painter seemed to grow. “Rothko, I believe, deeply resented being forced into the role of a supplier of ‘material’ either for investment trusts or for aesthetic exercises,” Fisher wrote. And yet, in the last decade of his life, he kept agreeing to long, complicated and often unfavourable contracts with men he seemed to loathe. In the late 1950s, Rothko had fallen in with an accountant and art world hanger-on named Bernard Reis. At first, Reis just provided Rothko financial advice. But over the next decade, he grew to influence more and more aspects of the painter’s life. When Rothko suffered his aneurysm in 1968, it was Reis who checked him into the hospital, according to Seldes, pushing aside his wife and friends. It was Reis who steered Rothko to the doctor who prescribed him the Sinequan. And it was Reis who, fatefully, pushed Rothko into a financial arrangement with Marlborough gallery and its owner, Frank Lloyd. “Behind every major art gallery,” Miller told me, “there’s always some shadowy Oz-like rich guy who owns a holding company.” In Seldes’ book, The Legacy of Mark Rothko, Lloyd comes off as the shadowy rich guy of shadowy rich guys. “The degree of sadism” at his gallery, Motherwell told Seldes “was unbelievable, even for a big corporation.” (Motherwell eventually left Marlborough for Knoedler. & Co.) Rothko had a similarly toxic relationship with Lloyd. But until the day he died he continued to do business with the man. In fact, the morning his body was found, he had been scheduled to go to his warehouse with Donald McKinney, a representative from Lloyd’s gallery, to pick out more canvasses for sale. The prospect of that meeting haunted Rothko. “I think he felt…that he had sold his soul,” McKinney told Breslin. Seldes even believed it played a role in his suicide. “The final turn of the screw that night in February was the new deal Lloyd had proposed and the scheduled warehouse selection…the next day."  (Seldes may have been something of an unreliable narrator on that point. Later in the book, she entertained the possibility that Rothko, against all evidence, was murdered.) *** Rothko’s first ever high-profile show was held at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in New York in 1945. Decades later, in 1978, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—famous for its Frank Lloyd Wright spirals—would host the first major Rothko retrospective after his suicide. In 2019, I stood, midway up the central spire in the Guggenheim, looking at a large canvas of black over grey with a white border that Rothko painted in the last year of his life. I was in a dark place, myself, professionally. The paper where I worked, always conservative, had become both harder and less interesting under new management. I no longer covered the far right; at times I felt like I was participating in it by continuing to work there. All of that was in my mind as I looked at that Rothko at the Guggenheim. The hazy line between the colours on the canvas stood at about the forty-five yard marker on a football field. The grey washed up against the black and receded back again like surf. All around, at every corner, the edges popped out and bled gently into the border. No one lingered long before the Rothko. (The darker paintings really are Rothko’s deeper cuts.) Ten seconds. twenty seconds. A quick photo and they were gone. Many walked straight by. Like the works in the National Gallery and at the Met, Untitled (Black on Grey) was donated to the Guggenheim by the Mark Rothko Foundation in 1986. But Untitled had had another stop along the way. Before ending up at the Foundation, Untitled had been sold, cheaply, to the Marlborough Gallery, the spoils in a conflict The New York Times would later call “the betrayal the art world can’t forget.” *** According to Rothko’s final will—which Reis amended for him in the last year of his life—the bulk of his artistic estate was to be donated to a foundation set up in his name. Rothko wasn’t always clear what he wanted that foundation to do. He had always expressed a desire that his paintings be held together, in large groups, for public viewing. But he also spoke at times about wanting to set something up to help out mature artists in financial trouble. Before his death, he named Reis, his friend Morton Levine, and Stamos, the painter, as the executors of his estate. After his suicide, the three gathered to decide what should be done with the Mark Rothko Foundation. What they decided on was a liquidation sale. Despite two of the three having conflicts—Reis was on Marlborough’s payroll and Stamos was setting up a representation deal with the gallery—the executors agreed to consign or sell the entire Rothko collection to Lloyd and Marlborough at a below-market price. The executors’ goal was to quickly monetize the paintings—which Levine had photographed and catalogued before Rothko’s death—and dole out the cash that came back in grants. The deal left Rothko’s family with just forty-four paintings—the ones that were in the family home when he died. It also eliminated any chance of a significant public future for Rothko’s work. Instead, the paintings were to be parceled and sold off, for Lloyd’s benefit, to buyers Seldes called the “the modern Medicis.” *** About three years after my first visit, I returned to the National Gallery in Washington. Harry Cooper, the gallery’s senior curator, and Nasr, an art historian, met me in Cooper’s office. I told them that I wanted to understand what the Rothko room had done to me. (That’s one advantage of being a writer. You can cry in front of paintings and later get one of the world’s leading experts to tell you why.)  The Rothko room itself is one half of a tall, airy hexagon—part of a matching pair—divided in the middle by a white wall on either side and at the top. The so-called Tower Galleries opened in 2016, after a three-year renovation. The towers were always there, but in the original building, they had false floors. “It was a suspended ceiling sort of hanging over the galleries below,” said Cooper. Since the re-opening, the three new galleries have been dedicated to Alexander Calder, Barnett Newman, and Rothko. There’s no formal policy dictating that that’s how they’ll always be used. But the gallery isn’t likely to make a change any time soon. “We’ve been rotating them a little bit,” Hooper said of the Rothkos. “I thought I would rotate them a lot more, but ones I picked just—it seems so beautiful that I haven’t.” As for the impact the paintings have, Nasr believes there’s just something about Rothko’s work that lends itself to the “very intimate experience of being surrounded.” It’s not that other artists aren’t great, she said. “But you don’t necessarily need to be surrounded by Pollocks.” Rothko himself certainly wanted his works seen together. In his later years he repeatedly tried to find or design spaces where they could exist in groups. (One such location, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.) He was also somewhere between finnicky and fanatical about the conditions of their display—from the lighting, dim, to his preference that they all be hung at eye height. Regardless, there is something, not quite holy, but maybe hallowed, about the Rothko room. It feels like a war memorial, or a cathedral on an off day; it bears inside a hush that’s almost physical. “It’s become a space that you go, sit in and contemplate,” Nasr said. *** Just six months after Mark Rothko’s death, Mell Rothko, his widow and Christopher and Kate’s mother, died suddenly of heart failure at the age of forty-eight. When Mell was laid to rest, Kate was shocked by how few of her father’s friends showed up. “She’d known these people for twenty-five years…” Kate said in an interview years later. “It was disillusioning for me to see the superficiality of the art world, and that has never gone away.” By the time of the funeral, Kate had other reasons to be skeptical about the art world. The details of the estate’s deal with Marlborough were, after much prying, trickling out from the executors. With them came the realization that Rothko’s vast oeuvre was to be sold off, quickly, privately and cheaply, which was devastating to Kate. Under U.S. law at the time, Kate was too young to control her own legal affairs. Herbert Ferber, a friend of the family, became her legal guardian.  In 1971, through Ferber, she sued the executors and Marlborough in New York Surrogate Court, claiming they had entered into a conspiracy to defraud the estate. The executors counter-sued, seeking, among other remedies, the paintings that had been in the Rothko brownstone when Mell died. What followed was, in the words of The New York Times, “the biggest, most publicized and most protracted legal wrangle in art-world history”—at least until the Knoedler trial in 2014. For almost four years after filing suit, Kate Rothko Prizel watched as her bank accounts drained and the fight dragged on. She was paying her legal costs out of her own pocket while the executors billed the estate for theirs. She was in school, living with her husband in a Brooklyn apartment. The only “Rothkos” they had were posters from a museum. But just before Christmas, in 1975, more than four years after the initial suit, and almost six years after her father’s death, the surrogate court ruling came down, changing Kate’s life and rewriting the legacy of her father’s art.  After sifting through some five hundred exhibits and 20,000 pages of testimony, Judge Millard L. Midonick found for Kate and Christopher Rothko on almost every aspect of the case. He stripped Reis, Stamos and Levine of their roles with the estate. He cancelled the contracts with Marlborough and ordered the 658 paintings that remained unsold returned. He also found the executors personally liable for millions in damages, which is how Christopher Rothko ended up, many years later, as the owner of Theodoros Stamos’ home. *** The East Building of the National Gallery, home to the towers and the Rothko room, was opened to the public in 1978. I.M. Pei, a Chinese-born architect, designed the building’s twin triangle shape to fit an unusual trapezoid of land reserved for the expansion between the original gallery and the Capitol Building. Construction of the airy, skylit structure was funded with a gift from Paul Mellon, Bunny’s husband—and a noted horse racing enthusiast—and his sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, who was for a time considered the richest woman in the United States. (In her twenties, she almost married Otto von Bismarck’s grandson.) In 1979, not long after the East wing opened, Arthur Jafa, who would go on to become one of the leading American video artists of the twenty-first century, visited the building as part of an architecture class at Howard University. “There was an exhibition of Mark Rothko, eight brownish paintings that all looked the same to my untrained eye, and they infuriated me,” Jafa told The New Yorker more than forty years later. “I told the instructor it was bullshit. I was irate. I went back to that show ten times, kept going back, couldn’t get it out of my mind. I was obsessed. He’s still my favorite painter.” *** The Rothko case didn’t end with Midonick’s ruling. The executors appealed, lost, appealed the appeal and lost again, in November 1977. Lloyd, meanwhile, had already conspired to remove many of his assets, including at least sixty-eight Rothkos, from the court’s jurisdiction by the time the initial ruling came down.  For months before the judgement, Lloyd had been quietly shipping art from New York into Canada. His plan had been to send it from there to Switzerland, where he could lose it in a fog of quiet sales and secret freeports. But before Lloyd could get the works out of Toronto, a mystery caller tipped off a New York lawyer —Howard Eisenberg, who was otherwise unconnected to the case—to the plan. Eisenberg in turn informed the New York Attorney General who informed Edward Ross, Kate Rothko’s lawyer, who then confirmed that Lloyd’s man, Franz Plutschow, was on his way from Zurich to Toronto. That call set off a five day Christmas caper that saw one group of American lawyers and Canadian private detectives hunting for Plutschow while another set scoured local galleries and warehouses for any sign of the works. According to Seldes, they eventually cracked the case through a simple ruse. One of the lawyers called Lloyd’s Toronto gallery claiming to be a dealer with a client looking for somewhere to store his collection. “The answer,” Seldes wrote, “was almost automatic: Deakin Fine Art.” On December 23, 1975, the Rothko team, armed with a Canadian court order, raided the Deakin Fine Art Transportation warehouse near the Toronto waterfront. What they found inside was akin to the storeroom of a minor king. There were paintings by Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock and Paul Klee. Fifteen Henry Moores. A Kandinsky and dozens of others, including twenty-four Rothkos from the disputed estate. All told, Lloyd had about 1,750 artworks worth more than $12 million (or about $60 million today) in the warehouse. They were all seized and held as collateral in the New York case. The lawyers, meanwhile, cornered Plutschow in Lloyd’s Toronto gallery—a partnership with Mira Godard, the grand doyenne of Canadian gallerists. They presented the terrified Liechtenstein resident with a court order preventing him from taking any art back with him to Europe. But the young fixer was free to go. *** In the late winter of 2019, not long before the world shut down, I tried looking for the old Deakin warehouse, on the east side of Toronto, where I then lived. Deakin Fine Art Transportation went out of business sometime in the mid-1980s. The location of its once popular and briefly notorious warehouse wasn’t listed in the City of Toronto’s archival records. It had never been mentioned in the Toronto Star, the local newspaper of record, where I now work. The lawyers involved in the Toronto end of the caper were either unnamed in the coverage or long dead. After several weeks of looking, I did reach one former Deakin executive by phone. Chris Birt had been working at the Marlborough-Godard gallery in 1975, when the Rothko raid occurred. (He joined Deakin several years later.) He was actually in the Yorkville gallery itself when the lawyers found Plutschow inside. (Seldes’ book records him making a rather panicked call to Godard in Montreal.) Birt and I spoke very briefly. The events of 1975 still had him on edge, forty-five years later.  I asked Birt if he knew where the Deakin warehouse had been. He suggested an area on Parliament Street, in Cabbagetown, where the writer Michael Ondaatje lives. He then hustled me off the phone and asked that I call him back for more details. He ignored my future calls. Fourteen months later, having been waylaid by the pandemic, I started looking again. Seldes described the warehouse as having been “a large, low, cinderblock building” with huge, double-hung doors “near the docks of Lake Ontario.” There was a Deakin warehouse near the waterfront, on Lakeshore Boulevard, just metres north of the commercial pier. But according to records held by the National Gallery of Canada, and backed up by published references to a Deakin-linked, tequila-funded art contest, Deakin didn’t start sending invoices from that warehouse until December 1980, years after the Rothko raid. Those same records, however, did point to another building, a low, mostly brick warehouse at the bottom of Pape Avenue, slightly further from the water and the pier, that today holds a photo studio and the stockroom for an art supply chain. When I visited, on an unreasonably windy day in March, I could see stacked boxes of watercolour crayons, pastels and pan sets through the windows.  Between June 1975 and December 1980, Dominion Gallery, the oldest private gallery in Canada, paid shipping invoices to Deakin at that address. It still has doors that are double-hung, though I can’t say I’d describe them as huge.    I can’t be 100% sure. But I believe that is where the Rothko raid took place. A security guard was smoking near a dumpster. The bricks on the south-facing wall were painted black. I had solved the mystery. But like many small mysteries, the solution didn’t offer me much. It was just a commercial building across from a movie studio. I had dragged my friend Jake, another reporter, out with me that day. He gamely scoured the first location with me, circling the building again and again. At the second, he mostly stayed in the car. *** The Rothko estate eventually reclaimed more than six hundred paintings from Lloyd and Marlborough. Some, however, were lost for good, including Homage to Matisse, the only painting Rothko named in his mature period and the first painting Kate Rothko Prizel can ever remember seeing. “It’s so distinct among my father’s paintings that it stuck with me my entire life,” she said in an interview in 2016. “It’s the one painting I would really like to have; I grew up with it,” she said in another. Rothko himself never sold Homage to Matisse. He named it after his hero, who died in 1954. “At some point, unfortunately, it was hanging on a yacht somewhere off the coast of Miami,” Hooper said. Franz Plutschow is still alive and still active in the Lloyd family art business. His name appeared several times in the Panama Papers, as a director of a Bermuda-based holding company tied to Marlborough and Lloyd, who died in 1998. Max Levai, Lloyd’s grandnephew, sued Plutschow in fall of 2020, alleging, among other things, that the Marlborough Gallery, which still exists, and which Lloyd’s children still own, had stolen his Instagram account. As of March, Levai’s lawyers had not been able to track Plutschow down to serve him with the suit. ***  The Rothko Affair was the greatest scandal in the history of the New York art world, until a greater scandal came along, decades later in the form of the Knoedler forgery ring. The case was covered religiously at the time by the New York press, including in The Village Voice, by Seldes. She kept on the case for years after the original verdict and her book has come to be seen as the definitive text on the affair. But even at the time of publication, it was controversial. The art critic Hilton Kramer savaged Seldes in The New York Times, as did Robert Hughes—“the most famous art critic in the world”—in the New York Review of Books. “When functioning as a court reporter she does well,” Hughes wrote. “As a sociologue of the art world, she is quite inept.” In 2010, after a chance run-in at the Museum of Modern Art, the artist David Levine began his own research into the Rothko Affair. Levine is the son of Morton Levine, one of Rothko’s maligned executors. In the younger Levine’s view, Seldes’ account is entertaining, but “wildly irresponsible.” It doesn’t reflect the reality he found sifting through thirty boxes of files in the Surrogate’s court. It doesn’t fully tell the story of Rothko, the real villain in Levine’s eyes—a depressed, alcoholic, monomaniacal narcissist who, having alienated his family, left his paintings in the hands of his friends instead, only to see those paintings destroy his friends one by one. “I think it’s awful that Rothko,” Levine wrote in a piece published in 2011, “one of the purest exponents of pure abstraction, had to take everyone else down with him in such a messily concrete way.” *** After his initial ruling, Midonick banished Levine, Reis and Stamos and named Kate the new executor. He also found that the children were owed about half their father’s estate. But Rothko’s will had been clear. He wanted his art to go to a foundation. And even subtracting the children’s share, that still left almost a thousand works of art, including more than three hundred oil paintings, that had to go somewhere. That somewhere, eventually, became the new Mark Rothko Foundation.  In 1954, Donald Blinken, a young businessman who had recently returned to New York after several years in London, met Rothko at a cocktail party held by the art dealer André Emmerich. Blinken was a bit of an art dabbler at that point. “I had been collecting younger European artists,” he said. But he wasn’t a serious collector. Rothko, even then, was serious, and Blinken wanted in. Blinken bought five paintings from Rothko over the next five years. It worked the same way every time. The painter wouldn’t let him buy just anything. Instead, Blinken had to go to the studio and choose from a pre-selected group of four or five.  He did that about once a year until 1960, when he was priced out by Rothko’s growing fame. In the 1970s, Blinken watched the drama over Rothko’s estate play out from a distance. He knew Rothko and his work. But he had no serious ties to any of the major players in the affair. In the insular world of New York art that made him something of an outlier. Midonick ordered that a board be created for the new foundation. It included a member of the Phillips family (of the Phillips collection), the director of the Guggenheim, a retired MoMA curator, two artists, a Pulitzer (not a prize winner, an actual Pulitzer) and, as president, Donald Blinken. “[They] had to find people who were interested in Rothko or who had Rothkos but were not contaminated by the original Rothko case,” Blinken said decades later, when I spoke to him. That narrow group turned out to include him. On a midsummer day in 1979, in a conference room in the offices of Breed, Abbott & Morgan, a Manhattan law firm, five people, including Kate Rothko Prizel and Donald Blinken, gathered to divide up one the great American art collections of all time. Before them, on the table, sat slides and inventory sheets, as well as coffee and sandwiches. Blinken, along with two others, represented the Mark Rothko Foundation. Rothko Prizel was there for the estate. For an entire week, working in lots of nine, the two sides divvied up the 2000 unsold works that Rothko left behind, including many that had since been reclaimed from Marlborough.  The draw worked something like an abstract expressionist fantasy draft. Kate went first, then the foundation, then back and forth another 1,556 times. (The Foundation took five out of every nine paintings under the terms of the settlement, so there were only seven picks per lot.) “At the end of the week we had agreed on everything,” Blinken said. “The children knew which pictures they were receiving. The Foundation knew which we had to give away.” The Foundation directors had made a radical decision. Rather than sell the paintings to fund grants or set up a private Rothko museum, they planned to donate them, all of them, to galleries in the United States and around the world. “The big job we had was deciding which museums should get what,” Blinken said. Between 1979 and 1986, they canvassed galleries and museums, narrowing down the list of potential donees, then asking the finalists if they’d like a Rothko. “Most of them said yes,” Blinken said. “Oddly enough, the French didn’t seem to be interested.” Starting in 1986, they gave them all away. The Met, in New York, got thirteen paintings. The Guggenheim took four. The Foundation gave one to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo—it was in storage when I was there in 2019—and one to the Dallas Museum of Art. All told, the Foundation gave Rothkos to twenty-nine American and six international galleries. To this day it remains one of the largest, most widespread gifts of art in the history of the United States. But the bulk of the collection, about nine hundred works, including two-hundred-and-ninety-five oil paintings, went to a single gallery in Washington D.C. *** By the time I returned to the Rothko room at the National Gallery, Donald Trump had been president for almost three years. He was, at the time, in the middle of his first impeachment trial. My daughter, who hadn’t been born yet on my first visit, was now two-and-a-half. A few of the paintings had been switched out since the inauguration and the gallery was much more crowded than it had been on that day. But the impact of all those paintings, all together, in one place, hadn’t diminished with time. There were ten of them in the room—nine large canvasses and one smaller one hung just inside the exit. The colours ranged from yellow and black, to green, orange and purple. But all the tension, in every block, in every picture, was in the borders, in the places where the colours met. The Rothko Foundation chose the National Gallery in large part because it is a public institution. The paintings, which had come so close to being sold off in secret deals to private buyers, would instead belong to the public, forever. The gallery has a policy to never deaccession works. “Selling, or giving away, or destroying or whatever: we just don’t do it,” Hooper said.  Donald Blinken turned ninety-four the fall I spoke to him. He turned ninety-six this year. His son, Anthony, is now Joe Biden’s Secretary of State. I told him when we spoke that the story of the Mark Rothko Foundation struck me as highly unusual: a case where a wrong had been done—in secret, for the benefit of the rich—that was in turn righted. That doesn’t happen very often when money, or power, is at stake. “It’s a good observation and I think you’re absolutely right,” he replied. “I’m very proud of what we did.” *** I spent another two days in D.C. after that first visit to the Rothko room. I watched Three Doors Down warm up for a set at the Lincoln Memorial. I stood outside the DeploraBall as alt-right royalty slinked past protestors to get inside. On the eve of the inauguration, I saw a young man marching near the Capitol, holding a sign that read: “THIS IS FUCKED UP.” As he walked, a Trump supporter in colonial cosplay jogged after him, trying to block the sign with his tricorn hat. On the morning of the inauguration, I woke up before 5 a.m. I threw my shaving cream and toothpaste in the garbage to save time at the airport and left my little suitcase by my friend Julia’s front door. I spent the next several hours going through security—a series of long lines, through fences, into buildings and basements, then out again, through another fence and onto the Capitol steps. My flight back to Toronto was at 6:35 that night. Friends and family had flown in for the wedding and I had to be back in the city by nine. Maybe that’s why I missed so much of what was going on around me. Maybe I was distracted by the spectacle of it all. It was also all very cold and strange. (The core theme of the inaugural speech was American carnage.) But in any case, I missed it. It happened—the greatest scam in American history kicked off—and I didn’t have a clue. III ‘This Was a Bonanza'  Ilya Marritz, a former senior reporter at WNYC Radio, and co-host of the Trump Inc. podcast, looks, in person, a bit like an actor playing a reporter on TV. When I met him in the WNYC offices in late 2019, he wore dark jeans with big cuffs and a tight plaid shirt. His stubble was just starting to go grey. In the months after Trump’s election, Marritz, like a lot of reporters, was still trying to get his bearings back; he was trying to find his way into what had become the biggest story in the world. Marritz is a New York native. He’s been aware of Donald Trump his whole life. “I remember his divorce on the pages of the Post,” he said. But what surprised him, early on, was just how much he didn’t know about the new president’s world. “I realized and some of my colleagues realized, that there was so much about this man that we didn’t understand,” he said. About a year after the election, Marritz and the WYNC team were still looking for roadmaps. They wanted to figure out where to look, to understand where corruption might be, if it was there at all. “We were kind of spit balling at the beginning, looking at, well, ‘what are the stories that we can do?’” Marritz said. “And very early on, I got interested in the inauguration.” *** An hour into my conversation with art reporter Michael Miller, about Knoedler and the New York art world and his own life, we started talking about Donald Trump. In a way it was surprising it took us that long. It was November 2019. Trump was in the middle of his first impeachment. We were in midtown Manhattan, blocks from the Trump Tower, in the cafeteria at the headquarters of The New York Times, a paper that published one-hundred-and-eighty-one stories featuring Trump that month alone, or an average of more than six a day.   “There’s a lot of firsts there,” Miller said about the Trump presidency. “But it’s also, kind of, the first art collecting administration.”  Trump was no connoisseur; he favoured reproductions and paintings of himself. But his cabinet was full of them. His moneymen were big art buyers. So were his daughter and her husband. “The fucking treasury secretary is a major collector,” Miller said. “His father owns a revered Upper East Side gallery that’s around the corner.” *** Marritz and his colleagues soon figured out that there was something very strange about the Trump inauguration. By that point WNYC had teamed up with a guy named Robert Maguire, an expert on money in politics. What they noticed—and they weren’t alone in this—was that Trump’s inaugural committee had raised an enormous amount of money for what looked like a very small party. “People who are experienced in this area described it as very low key,” Marritz said. There were only three official balls. In 2009, Obama went to eleven. There were no A-list performers. Obama had Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder. Trump drew The Piano Guys and DJ Ravidrums. (Even a Springsteen cover group, The B-Street Band, refused to perform.) The budget for a such an event should have been modest. Instead, it was huge, like, historically huge. For the largest inauguration in American history, Obama raised about $53 million. Trump brought in more than double that, $107 million. “The two inaugural planners I had talked to, one Democratic, one Republican, were both flabbergasted and in agreement that it would not be possible to spend that amount of money, like actually impossible,” Marritz said. It wasn’t just how much money, either. It was who was giving it. Unlike previous inaugurations, the Trump committee put no cap on individual or corporate donations. The casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave $5 million. Coal miner Clifford Forrest gave $1 million. Billionaire Robert Mercer, the hedge fund tycoon who funded Cambridge Analytica, gave a million, too. “This was a bonanza,” Marritz said. “Anybody could give. All dollars were welcome. Just give, give, give, give, give.” *** After all the lawsuits were settled, Kate and Christopher Rothko owned a collection of their father’s art, from every period of his career, far too vast for the two of them to ever display. In the decades since, the Rothko heirs have loaned paintings out to exhibitions and retrospectives. They’ve hung some in their own homes, in Washington and New York. And in 2004, they sold a trove of paintings to J. Ezra Merkin, a Manhattan money manager who was then putting together one of the largest private collections of Rothkos in the world. Merkin’s new Rothkos included studies for the Seagram’s murals and for the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Merkin hung them in his ten-figure co-op at 740 Park Avenue in Manhattan, around the corner from the old Knoedler building and less than a mile from the luxury apartment tower where Harry Macklowe hung a forty-two foot picture of his new wife after finalizing his divorce from Linda. 740 Park has been called “The World’s Richest Apartment Building.” Potential owners need $100 million in liquid assets just to apply to live there. Stephen Schwarzman, a hedge fund billionaire and art collector who donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration, lived there. Steven Mnuchin, a long-time Goldman Sachs executive and the son of gallery owner Bob Mnuchin, did too. In the years after the financial crisis, Mnuchin served as the head of OneWest Bank. Under his leadership, in just six years, OneWest carried out 36,000 foreclosures in California alone. In 2017, Trump named him secretary of the treasury. As for Ezra Merkin, he lost his Rothkos, which he never really paid for, in 2009. For years, it turned out, he had been passing on his clients’ money to Bernie Madoff to invest. When Madoff’s Ponzi scheme collapsed, Merkin’s clients, which included several large charities, lost billions. Merkin never admitted any fault in the Madoff scheme. He kept his co-op at 740 Park (although it was badly damaged in a sauna fire in 2016.) But as part of the fallout, the New York Attorney General forced him to sell his entire art collection, for $310 million. A mystery bidder bought the Rothkos. For years, as far as the art world was concerned, they just disappeared. ***  Thirteen months after the inauguration, WNYC launched a podcast series dedicated to the business history and dealings of the new president. They called it: “Trump Inc.” In the early weeks, the show covered corruption at the Trump Taj Mahal, Jared Kushner’s real estate empire and the president’s financial ties to Russia. But Marritz remained focussed on the president’s first day: “I just started calling every name that I could find connected with the inauguration, every single one,” he said. “I got on LinkedIn. I reached out everywhere.” There were three big questions at that point: Where had all the money gone, who had given it, and why. The answer to the third question was in some ways the easiest to find. People went to the inauguration or gave money to the inaugural committee, or helped organize inaugural events because they wanted something from Donald Trump. “Just the on-the-books donors that we know about is a perfect guide to who has sought influence in the Trump presidency,” Marritz said. But it wasn’t just the donors. Elliott Broidy, the vice-chair of Trump’s inaugural committee, used the event to drum up business for his own companies. He offered inaugural tickets to two senior Angolan politicians in a letter that also included a contract he asked them to sign. He gave out invites to a Congolese strongman and a politician once dubbed the “Romanian Darth Vader,” all part of a plan to, according to The New York Times, solicit up to $266 million in foreign defence intelligence contracts.  “Those kinds of people were showing up because nobody was vetting them,” Marritz said. “There were no constraints put on this. It was an open for business inauguration.” *** In the summer of 2006, Steve Wynn, a casino owner and long-time friend of Donald Trump’s, agreed to sell Picasso’s Le Rêve, a famous painting of the artist’s young mistress, to the hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen for $139 million. A decade later, Wynn would help organize the Trump inauguration. He served on the fundraising committee. He had “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers”—his personal team of Vegas dancers—flown in to perform. He insisted, according to documents released by a special prosecutor, that “40 Hour Week,” by Alabama, be played at one party. Cohen, who donated $1 million to the inauguration, is himself one of the world’s leading collectors of art. His trove includes works by Pollock, de Kooning, and Andy Warhol. He owns Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a thirteen-foot preserved tiger shark swimming in a display case of formaldehyde. Cohen, who founded S.A.C. Capital, is worth an estimated $14 billion. The New Yorker once described him as “a symbol of Wall Street malfeasance.” In 2013, his former firm paid a $1.8 billion fine to settle charges of insider trading. One of his associates was sentenced to nine years in prison. Cohen now owns the New York Mets. In 2006, however, Cohen’s purchase of Le Rêve fell through. The night before the sale, Wynn put his elbow through the canvas while showing it to some friends.  *** For months, Marritz had little to show for his focus on the inauguration. He knew there was something there. That much was obvious. “There was like $40 million or so that was unaccounted for,” he said. But he couldn’t figure out what that something was or where all that money had gone. Still, Marritz didn’t give up. He felt like he was close to something big. “I just knew it,” he said. “I mean, I just fucking knew. I still know it. There is still more to be understood.” What happened, in the end, is what happens in almost every big breakthrough in journalism.  After endless calls and ignored emails, someone told Marritz something he didn’t know. “I can’t tell you very much about my reporting breakthrough except to say that eventually people started sharing documents with me,” he said. Those documents pointed him, and the WNYC reporting team, to at least two seismic facts about the inauguration. One was that the Trump International Hotel in Washington, a luxury property right between the White House and the National Gallery, got paid, a lot, from inaugural funds. The other, Marritz said, was that Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, had known about it. ***  In the late months of 2016, not long before the inauguration, Trump’s advisors and would-be members of his cabinet began compiling and submitting financial disclosure forms to the Office of Government Ethics. Disclosures are always newsworthy when they emerge. It’s important to know who owns what in any government. But the Trump disclosures were eye-popping on a different scale. In a way unmatched in American history, Trump’s cabinet members and close advisors were rich, phenomenally so. Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, needed fifty-seven pages to detail his assets. (A typical disclosure is twelve pages or less.) He listed about $700 million in stocks, trusts, and property. He cited an art collection, heavy on René Magritte, valued at between $50 and $150 million. Ross, in other words, was very wealthy. But it turned out he wasn’t quite as wealthy as he had often claimed. In 2017, disclosures in hand, Forbes pulled Ross from its annual billionaires list. Ross, the magazine concluded, had invented an extra $2 billion in net worth. “That money never existed,” senior editor Dan Alexander wrote. “It seems clear that Ross lied to us.” Mnuchin, Trump’s pick for the treasury, had the opposite problem. His disclosures revealed that he was about ten times wealthier than public projections had assumed. In total, Mnuchin disclosed about $400 million in assets, including a stake in a $14.7 million de Kooning. (Say what you will about Mnuchin, but it’s hard to argue with his taste in art. After he was installed in cabinet, he borrowed five Rothkos from the National Gallery to decorate his office.) Like Mnuchin, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner initially failed to disclose the extent of their art collection. It was only in the summer of 2017, on an amended form, that the couple revealed they owned between $5 and $25 million worth of contemporary art. That revelation, at least, came as no surprise to those in the New York art world. Ivanka Trump had been a mainstay in the gallery party circuit before her father became president. Her Instagram account often showed her in the family’s Manhattan apartment, posing before works by artists like Alex Israel, David Ostrowski and Alex Da Corte. “Dear @ivankatrump,” Da Corte wrote when saw the picture, “please get my work off your walls I am embarrassed to be seen with you.” *** There was one inconvenient fact that loomed over every part of the preparations for the 58th Presidential Inauguration: Donald Trump and his advisors had not expected to win the election. The Trump team hadn’t taken the job of preparing for the presidency seriously. And what work was done, under the direction of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, was all thrown out after the votes came in. “That’s really late in the game to start planning the transition,” said Marritz. “Similarly with the inauguration, it’s always a sprint, but it seemed to come together even more haphazardly than is normal.” Trump put real estate investor Thomas J. Barrack, who was later charged with conspiring to act as an agent of the United Arab Emirates while advising Trump,  in charge of the festivities. Wynn, who stepped down from his own company in 2018 after being accused of serial sexual abuse, played an active role in the planning, as did Rick Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign manager. (Gates later admitted it “was possible” he had stolen money from the planning fund; he was convicted of lying under oath and conspiring against the United States in 2019.) But the main job of actually pulling the party together went to Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a veteran New York event planner and long-time friend of Melania Trump’s.  Winston Wolkoff would later emerge as a key player in the inauguration drama. That was in part because she kept meticulous records, but it was also because she spoke about the event to Michael Cohen, Trump’s fixer, on the phone. Cohen, who was convicted of what a judge called “a veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct” in 2018, secretly recorded those calls. And when he was arrested, investigators seized the tapes and used them to launch an investigation into the inaugural committee. Winston Wolkoff had made the mistake of assuming that, for all its public dysfunction, the Trump world would still operate something like a credible, business-oriented operation. What she found instead was a kind of chaos of disorganized grift. “There was all of this money just pouring in everywhere,” Maguire said.   Gates, Winston Wolkoff told Cohen, had asked vendors if they’d take money directly from donors, apparently to hide how much was coming in and from whom. Another consultant later admitted to using so-called “straw donors” to hide illegal contributions, likely from overseas. But the most telling story to emerge from Winston Wolkoff’s records was the about the Trumps themselves and their business interests. At some point early in the process, it was made clear to the organizers that the Trump Hotel had to be a venue, Marritz said. And when it came time to plan official inaugural events, the Trump was the only hotel the committee considered.  That in itself was iffy enough. Trump still owned his company. When the Trump hotel made money, he made money. And everybody knew that. What was worse, though, was that the prices the hotel quoted were wildly out of touch with what other venues wanted. The Trump initially asked the committee for $3.6 million to reserve all event space in the hotel for eight days in and around the inauguration. That worked out to $450,000 a day, a number so inflated and so far beyond the hotel’s internal pricing scheme that even Gates balked. (Another non-profit booked a ballroom for $5000 that week. Other hotels were offering them up for free.) Gates wrote to Ivanka Trump and asked her to intervene. A Trump Hotel official got back to Gates, said he had “spoken to Ivanka about inauguration pricing,” and offered to negotiate. After going back and forth, the hotel presented the committee a new rate: Four days in the Presidential Ballroom for $175,000 a day plus an additional $200,000 on food, and a $300,000 inaugural party for the Trump kids.  To Winston Wolkoff all of this seemed not just outlandish, but potentially embarrassing. In an email first revealed by Marritz and a team at ProPublica, she warned the rest of the inaugural committee about her concerns. “These are events in PE’s [the President-elect] honor at his hotel and one of them is with and for family and close friends,” she wrote. “Please take into consideration that when this is audited it will become public knowledge.” The committee went ahead with the buy. ***  Trump Inc. and ProPublica first published excerpts from Winston’s Wolkoff’s emails on December 14, 2018. Above the ProPublica story, co-written by reporter Justin Elliott, editors placed a photo of Trump speaking on inauguration day. You can see me in that picture. I’m sitting in the front row beneath the dais, near the far end. Frank Spotorno, the elevator design king of Long Island, was next to me. His friend Darren Aquino, a personal chef, actor and advocate turned Republican candidate, sat one seat over to the right. (In 2020, Aquino demanded a recount after finishing eighth in a Florida primary.) In the weeks before and after the ceremony, the big story about the inauguration wasn’t who was there, it was about who wasn’t. The crowd was modest. Tickets weren’t exactly scarce. I applied for credentials a week before the event. They sat me in a VIP zone. Even Spotorno had no idea how he ended up in the front row. “The CFO, the CEO (of the Trump Organization), they were all at the back,” he told me when I met him for a drink, years later at the Trump Hotel in New York. “Newt Gingrich, he was standing up, maybe ten-to-twelve aisles back…but we were sitting down. It was an awesome day.”  But all of that, to Marritz—the crowd size, the speech, the D-list VIPs—was a distraction. It foreshadowed a pattern that would play out again and again in the Trump presidency. “Some controversy bubbles up, everybody runs there and checks it out,” Marritz said. And in the process, they miss what’s really going on: “How Trump does business. And the fact that Trump expects to be paid.” ***  In January 2020, the Attorney General for the District of Columbia sued the Trump inaugural committee, the Trump organization and the Trump International Hotel alleging that the three entities had conspired to waste the non-profit committee’s funds. In December 2020, as her father was ginning up the outrage that would lead to the Capitol riots, Ivanka Trump was deposed, behind closed doors, in the case. In New York, prosecutors launched a separate criminal investigation into the inauguration in late 2018.  In February 2021, Imaad Zuberi, a California venture capitalist and lobbyist, was sentenced to twelve years in prison as part of that probe. Zuberi had been working, secretly, for, among others, the Sri Lankan government. He promised to use political donations to influence American policy. He also donated almost a million dollars to the inaugural fund.   *** In a separate case, Broidy, Trump’s inaugural vice chair, pleaded guilty to illegal lobbying in late 2020. Like Zuberi, Broidy took millions to secretly press the Trump administration after helping Trump raise millions for his campaign. Broidy, who Rolling Stone once dubbed “Washington’s ultimate swamp creature,” was forced to forfeit more than $6 million. He was facing up to five years in prison. But in Trump’s last hours in office, four years to the day after the inauguration, he issued Broidy a full pardon. The conviction, though, only scratched the surface of Broidy’s strange dealings during the Trump years. He was also involved in a plan to tilt American foreign policy away from Qatar. Broidy would later accuse Qatari agents of leaking damaging emails to discredit him, including one that revealed he once agreed to pay a Playboy Playmate $1.6 million to cover up their affair. (Like Trump, Broidy used Cohen as a go-between to arrange his payoff). Broidy’s well-paid campaign against Qatar kicked off not long after the ruling family of the oil-rich gulf state emerged as perhaps the dominant force in the global art world. In 2007, the Al Thani family paid almost $73 million for David Rockefeller’s prized Rothko, an unusual canvas of yellow over pink. The sale almost quadrupled the existing auction record for a Rothko which had been set, in 2005, by Homage to Matisse. In 2011, The Art Newspaper revealed that the Al Thanis were also the buyers of the mystery Rothkos from J. Ezra Merkin’s collection. In 2020, ARTnews named two members of the Al Thani family to its annual list of the most important art collectors in the world. At least seven top inaugural donors also made that list. Steve Cohen, who gave $1 million and bought Wynn’s patched up Picasso, makes it every year. So does Wynn. Hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin owns a $300 million de Kooning. He gave $100,000 to the Trump inauguration party fund. Fund manager Bruce Berkowitz, who for years wanted to build his own private gallery in Miami, donated $125,000. Henry Kravis, the barbarian in the business classic Barbarians at the Gate, and the owner of a Monet and a Renoir, gave $1 million. So did Charles Schwab, who owns a Pollock and a Bacon. Frank Fertitta III, a casino magnate who helped build the Ultimate Fighting Championship with his brother Lorenzo, gave the committee $207,000. The Fertittas are serious art collectors. When they bought the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, they commissioned Damien Hirst to decorate the club. Among other works, Hirst built a divided triptych shark tank to stand above and behind the bar. He also designed a suite in the hotel that rented out for $100,000 a night. It came complete with two preserved sharks in a single tank. In 2008, Fertitta, still at that point the co-owner of the UFC, paid $7.2 million for an orange, red and blue Rothko. He bought the painting through an agent, on the advice of Swiss art historian Oliver Wick. It was only in 2013, after reading a story in The Art Newspaper, that Fertitta discovered the painting was a Knoedler fraud. *** For Marritz, the story of the Trump Hotel at the inauguration was the story of the Trump presidency. It wasn’t about policy, not really. Trump never really believed in anything, except money and himself. And he was never particularly concerned about where that money came from or who was funneling it to him.  “Really, the opening act in all of that,” Marritz said, “was the inauguration itself.” On the day I met Miller, in New York, Trump had just been ordered to pay a $2 million civil settlement stemming from a lawsuit that accused him of exploiting his own charity during the campaign. That suit was tied to a fundraising event in Des Moines, Iowa, in January 2016. I was there that night. It was the first time I ever saw Trump live. The experience was a bit like being drawn into a big top by a carnival barker, only to find the barker himself on stage, inside, yelling about the greatness of barking.  But the crowd, as they always did, loved it. I have a photo from that night saved on my phone. I took it from the side balcony, moments after Trump left the stage, as the audience swarmed toward him. In the centre balcony, you can see a man pitching over the railing, his body bent past ninety degrees. In the blur of movement below, there are red hats and upraised fists and in one corner the starburst glare of a professional flash. There are parallels, Miller believes, between the Knoedler case, the Rothko story, and the great, long scam of the Trump years. They all exposed things as they already were. “You very rarely in a luxury market like the art world, or high-end real estate—which is the world of the Trumps—see any kind of transparency,” he said. None of this was new, in other words. It wasn’t novel. It was just out there, briefly, for everyone to see.  *** It will sound like pathetic fallacy, but it’s true: When Trump spoke on inauguration day, the rain began to fall. Fat drops in cold air, they caused a collective sudden rustling of ponchos being unfurled. From below, where I sat, it sounded like a thousand pigeons fluttering their wings to shake off the rain. As Trump spoke, a photographer for CNN shot a massive, megapixel picture of the crowd. Zoom in and you can see me in the shot. My head’s down. I’m looking at my notes. I watched Trump walk out from the Capitol. I saw him pause behind the bulletproof glass, saw him clench his hands and do his odd little victory shake.  But when he reached the podium, when he finally took the oath, when his four years officially began, he slipped from view. From the front row, you couldn’t see him. That was fake, too. Coda: ‘Another Poem’ At the end of my conversation with Christopher Rothko in New York, as we were gathering our things, I asked him if there was anything we hadn’t talked about, anything more he wanted to say. Rothko paused and thought; he seemed ready to move on, then something struck him: “I want to talk,” he said, “about the painting at the AGO.” The Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, acquired a Rothko directly from the artist’s studio in 1962. The painting was a gift from the Women’s Committee Fund, a volunteer organization that raised money at the time to buy and give away work. “I think that is easily one of the twenty greatest Rothkos ever painted,” Christopher told me. “Maybe higher than that. And I’ve been to the AGO four times and it has never been on display.” When I came back to Toronto that fall, I wrote a newspaper story about the AGO Rothko, which had been in storage or on loan at that point for more than a decade. “I don’t get it,” Christopher told me. “It’s not like they have other Rothkos hanging. It’s not like they are hanging exclusively Canadian art…So this is a plea to get that painting out of storage—or if not, I’ll swap with them.” He laughed then. But he wasn’t joking. Not really. Even all these years after the Rothko Affair, Christopher still owns more Rothkos than he could ever hang. When I wrote my story, the gallery told me they planned to put the canvas up sometime in 2020. But then 2020 came and everything fell away. The AGO closed in March when the pandemic arrived in Toronto. It reopened that summer and then closed again as cases climbed before Christmas. In February 2021, I reached out to the gallery again. I needed an ending. But it was more than that. I wanted to see another painting. (“I wished for what I always wished for,” Louise Glück wrote. “I wished for another poem.”)   The good news was, the painting was up, finally. But the gallery wasn’t open, not yet. I tried again in March. And for a brief window I thought I might get in. Twenty minutes. No photos. Just me. But then another surge and another lockdown. I asked again in May. And then July. And then the email came. “It breaks my heart to tell you this,” the gallery’s publicist wrote to me. “But although the AGO is hoping to re-open on July 21 (and we’d be delighted to have you in), the Rothko is coming down to make way for the Matthew Wong exhibition.”  The AGO suffers from abundance; it owns far more paintings than it can ever display. And there are deals involved with wealthy donors that govern what can be moved and when.  The Rothko offers an additional issue: geometry. The canvas, almost eight feet by seven-and-a-half feet, is too large to share space. It can’t be crowded in. It needs a dedicated wall, and there aren’t that many walls in the AGO that are large enough. That the gallery finally found space for it, that it made room, that the Rothko hung there for a half a pandemic year only to come down again before anyone other than gallery staff could see it, felt like its own kind of art: a performance of absence in a year when so many things were lost.  Maybe that’s why I kept trying, why I couldn’t let the Rothko go. It felt like a string tied through a funhouse mirror to a previous world. In late October, with the anniversary of Trump’s defeat looming, I tried one last ploy. I asked Christopher Rothko to intercede, and he agreed. And that’s how, on a late October day, I came to be standing one more time before the real thing. I’m not allowed to say where I saw the Rothko, other than to say that it was in the Art Gallery of Ontario, a building next to a playground that my daughter, now four, loves to climb and slide and swing across. But it was a strange enough thing in the end. The light was off—too stark and uneven. And as I stared, a modern art curator jiggled a silver-sneakered foot, seemingly anxious to get on with his day. My younger friends will sometimes ask me what fatherhood feels like. I’m never quite sure how to put it into words. It’s an ache in places I never knew were there, a feeling with fuzzy edges and a scarlet core where the love for everything that is washes up against the fear and the mystery of what may be. I felt a refraction of all that as I looked at the Rothko. I stared for so long that when I finally left and closed my eyes, I could see the afterglow of the canvas against my eyelids: a white haze and a brown float, and everything anchored in red—perfect smear.
“We Have to be Brave Enough to Be Vulnerable”: An Interview with Laura Raicovich

The author of Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest on the myth of neutrality, collective culture, amd museums’ responsibility.

Two acts of protest have defined the art world in recent years: Nan Goldin’s activations and protests against the Sackler family’s involvement in the art world, and the open letter and outrage around Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The latter is still divisive, and the art world remains fractionated by debate over censorship and the everyday horrors of white supremacy. These conversations are nuanced, complicated, and at times heated—as is Laura Raicovich’s book, Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest (Verso Books).  Culture Strike is not a neutral book clinically recounting these tensions. To do so would go against Raicovich’s dismissal of museums’ claims to themselves be neutral. “The problem with neutrality as a claim for a museum is that it fundamentally neutralizes any criticism, dissent, or alternate history that it might present,” writes Raicovich. Raicovich practices the recommendations she makes in the book by displaying her lived experience, allowing the reader to understand how her position influences her views. In the introduction, Raicovich outlines her time as the director at the Queens Museum and her later departure. After a tense disagreement with the board about allowing the Mission of Israel to rent the museum for an event that included a speech by Mike Pence, Raicovich departed the museum. In Culture Strike, Raicovich asks: what if the board of directors and staff worked closer together? What if the board of directors was more diverse? What if museums slowed down? The result might be a cultural sensitivity and awareness that prevents painful missteps.  “Failures, particularly public ones, can be spaces of growth and learning for cultural institutions (indeed for all of us) as long as they are accompanied by an accountability which their publicness engenders,” writes Raicovich. “Plus, revealing these vulnerabilities through open discussions is far more interesting and illuminating to the public from a pedagogical standpoint, and further distripts uthe fiction of any neutral position,” she continues. Raicovich proposes a different status quo for cultural spaces, one slower and more considered, where museums reflect the community, and in doing so, influence society.  Tatum Dooley: I'm interested in how you structured the book. To me, it feels like an anthropological study of American museums, especially in the last decade. You lay out texts and open letter responses as if they were artefacts, and then you contextualise them. It felt like walking through a museum. I wonder if you were thinking about those things? Laura Raicovich: I wasn't thinking about those things, but I think that's funny that you say that. My biggest concern with this book was to convey this story in a way that would appeal to not only specialists. I felt like the storytelling was really important. So the structure of the book comes out of a desire to engage people who aren't museum people or work in the field. I thought it was really important to focus on the open letters, because I thought the language was so important. The language that people used in different positions to relay why they felt a certain way. To me, it was important to analyse that for what it said about this particular moment in time when this thing happened. It was really intense and there were a lot of big feelings. But also, to be a bit more analytic: the staff at the Whitney was saying this, the director of the Whitney was saying that, and this is where I saw friction, as somebody who had been both inside and outside [of museums]. I thought that was the place that I could provide something that was of value to readers.  I’m interested in the way you tackled the Dana Schutz controversy in the book. You framed the removal of art as a choice on behalf of the artist, made after reflecting on what the community was saying. I think the distinction [of it as a choice] is an important one.   I really like the way that Sam Durant and The Walker [Art Centre] dealt with “Scaffold.” I felt like there was a really beautiful generosity and acknowledgement of the harm that had been caused by that work. What I liked about what they did in that situation was they made the offering, it was part of making amends for causing harm. I think that with the Dana Schutz piece, it was up to the curators, The Whitney, and the artists to have that conversation and, just like the people at The Walker, come to their own conclusion. And clearly, they did. I do think that it is up to the artists to lead the conversation, because it's their work no matter how the institution has framed it. As a creator, you have a responsibility to think about how people receive that work. Of course, as a public institution, you also have a responsibility to contend with how people are going to receive that work.  I think my bias as a journalist is, when something is published in a newspaper or magazine, it can't be taken down. There can be an editor's note attached, or they can publish other things and responses. Once things start getting taken down or censored, there's the risk of people with political or financial power trying removing things they don't like. And then there's a threat to democracy. But I understand that journalism and art are different things. I wonder if the same risks might be present, though?  Absolutely. I think that there are ways that cultural spaces protect artistic speech. When I talked to Rebecca Solnit, she talked about the difference between objectivity and neutrality. You can be clear about your position, and as a journalist, you should be honest about that. But you're not neutral. You have a position, .You have all of your life experiences and where you come from. All of that is built into your lens, how you see the world and interpret it. Acknowledging that is really important. The Whitney did a brave thing on one level by showing [Triple-Chaser] by Forensic Architecture and Laura Poitras at the last Whitney Biennial, a research film that researched the tear gas made by Warren Kanders’s company. That was brave, because he's one of their major donors. And he still is, in the sense that the funds that he gave were pretty significant. But again, it's interesting, the way the guise of neutrality has played into that relationship, [the idea that a] museum is neutral and just presenting what the artist believes.  In the book you touch on the failures of institutional critique. How, when a museum separates itself from the politics of the art, then they can have work by Andrea Fraser up and still not be paying their staff properly. The work allows a disingenuous way out, a cover.  Exactly. It creates a strange cover that on one hand, [the museums can say], “That's the best we can do, because we're super dependent on [investors].” But at the same time, it amplifies this problem of wealthy people who are supporters of museums, who everyone thinks of as a piggy bank. There's this widening gap between staff and boards as the wealth gap in the United States gets even more dramatically enormous. There's a gap between the life experiences of somebody who might be on the board and somebody who might be on staff. There's a real gap in mutual experience. If [cultural spaces] can each take on their own biases and acknowledge them and think through what being a more equitable cultural space means for them, maybe there's some clues in that to how we deal with bigger societal questions, because those [cultural spaces] so closely mirror the vast inequities that we are dealing with. These institutions that are perceived as elite spaces can be useful to us in sorting out how we deal with the bigger problems, because they are actually a space that we hold in common, if we claim it. Specifically in the Philip Guston chapters in the book, where the decision to delay the show is [to take time to figure out] how to contextualise the work, part of me wondered, how much should the museum be involved in that? And how much is it the viewer's role to be able to make their own decisions when thinking and looking about art?  I'm very torn about this, because it goes back to our free speech conversation and the reality of historical harm being done to certain people. That decision [to delay the Guston show] happened at a very particular moment in U.S. history, with the reality of George Floyd's murder, Breonna Taylor's murder, and so many other Black people who were killed by police. Particularly in the cultural sector, where you're interpreting an image made by a white man of a white man in a Ku Klux Klan hood, you have to deal with the contemporary context. There is an educational role that museums need to play. The artist's relationship to social justice needs to be known. My point about the decision was that decisions overall get made too quickly. Sometimes you want a slow decision. Sometimes you want to be having multiple conversations that take hours and hours to really get into it, to figure out what the right thing to do is. The fact is that institutions are not blank buildings that make decisions, but are actually a collective endeavor of individual people who make work on a day-to-day [basis]. I think that's often lost. I think that’s also connected to your points about neoliberalism. How the speed and demands of museums, and the demands put on artists, is kind of disastrous. Both to the content, to our institutions and artists. I think that speed has exponentially increased over the last several decades in ways that are not only about communication, but are about accountability. We have to be accountable for the decisions that we're making. We can't really do that without taking the time to actually make a decision properly. Part of what I want to say about the book is that anyone who's trying to make things better is gonna fuck up. We have to be brave enough to be vulnerable. We have to learn how to apologise without demanding forgiveness. We have to make amends in ways that are constructive. There are all these ways that we need to adjust how we interact with one another. Sure, there are easy things that we can identify that we should be working on. But at the end of the day, this needs to be a collective effort. I'm only one person and these are collective decisions about our collective culture and how we want to live.
Sacrifice

An eccentric monk’s singular scrap cathedral reveals the chaos and genius of his mind.

One late spring evening in 2018, Justo Gallego Martínez said he would show me his grave. The old man was warming his hands by a stove in the dim back room of his cathedral. A dusty film coated the cement floor. The shelves and tables were full of relics, screws, chipped wood, crushed glass, and half-eaten loaves of bread. A bare hanging bulb cast the room in a jaundiced light. “I want to be buried here,” Justo said, signalling around him to the cathedral’s cavernous nave and the twenty trembling towers sprawled across thousands of square feet of his own land on the outskirts of Madrid. He wanted to die where he had spent all his life hiding from a world that had never quite understood him.  The cathedral’s crypt would be his burial place. And he’d be buried there because it was his cathedral. He’d designed it entirely in his head, without a single measurement or calculation on paper, without a record of any of the materials he’d used. And he had done it largely by himself. I sat near Justo in the gloom and watched as the fire threw shadows across his sunken eyes and recessed temples, as it flickered over his gummy smile, his gnarled hands, and his frail, angular body. He was nearly a century old, but energy still pulsed through him. “Come on, let me show you,” he squawked. Grabbing my arm, Justo winched himself up from his seat and led me out the door to the ambulatory. His baggy blue coat hung from his skeletal frame like wet clothes on a washing line, and his hunched old shoulders and limp hands made him seem grim reaper-like in the darkness. Outside, an uncovered dome, 120 feet high and 30 feet wide, loomed above us. The nave lurched some 150 feet to our left, covered by a half-barrel vault whose exposed beams curved upwards like a whale’s ribcage. The rest of the cathedral was an architectural Frankenstein propped up on mismatched bricks, tires, wheels, food cans, plastic, and excessive quantities of cement. Large chunks of the building were already in decay, invaded by moss and rising damp. The aisles burst with dusty cement bags piled as high as the first-floor gallery. Other rooms erupted with thousands of broken tiles, dismantled cement mixers, motorbikes, rotten wood, oxidized saws, festering ropes, chicken carcasses, and plastic bags fossilized in pigeon shit. Justo didn’t look up or down. He shuffled over the slippery marble tiles to the altar at the back of the apse, passing by a life-sized crucifix cast in white plaster. “Down there,” he pointed. Next to the shrine, the floor opened like a sinkhole to the darkness of the crypt below. This hole was where it had all begun, Justo said. Here, he had first started to dig and to formulate his vision. Here, too, at the back of the crypt, in the half-light of the lower courtyard, is where it would end. A six-foot-high wooden cross leant against the wall. In front of it lay a yawning pit, seven feet long and four feet wide, a pyramid of dirt heaped at its side. The bottom was too dark to see. But Justo wouldn’t look at it. He just stared out at the courtyard, at the crumbling cloisters and the glinting dooms, at the sprawl of his cathedral. *** I had lived in Spain for almost six years before I heard about Justo. In early 2018, I came across an article in a local paper about an ex-monk building a cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, a town on Madrid’s outskirts. For almost sixty years, with no help or architectural expertise, Justo Gallego Martínez had been constructing a cathedral near the size of the Sagrada Familia using waste and recycled materials. When the monk started his project, the locals had called him a madman. Since then, he had fought with family members, created enemies, and won an adoring international public. He had also never formalized the structure, which means that his cathedral was illegal. The Official College of Architects of Madrid confirmed that “not even the preliminary papers [for registration] have been submitted.” Representatives from the Catholic Church would later tell me that it is too expensive and complicated a project to take on. And the provincial government maintained it didn’t have the money to renovate it to standard. There was a real worry among the locals that the cathedral might be torn down. Several months after reading about Justo for the first time, I found myself standing next to this bewildering man, as he stood next to his own grave. On paper, there was little to unite the two of us. I was a twenty-seven-year-old agnostic baptized in a Presbyterian church, a writer who had always been rather obsessed with the meaning of his own work, which is a sententious way of saying I was harmfully ambitious. My desire to succeed, or whatever I thought that meant, kept me up at night, made me irritable and anxious, imbued me with a sense of superiority on some days, and crippled me with self-loathing on others. Justo, on the other hand, was an extremist Catholic. He had deferred the meaning of his creation to God and was seemingly obsessed, not with his ego (which was an anathema to him), but the purity of his devotion. [[{"fid":"6708341","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"}}]] While, during those early visits, I might have been tempted to see Justo’s dedication as some sort of existential mirror for my own roaming, distracted mind, as I got to know him better, I realized that, like his cathedral, everything was more complicated than I had perhaps wanted it to be. In reality, Justo was a mess of incongruities and non sequiturs. He could be open-minded and bigoted, forgiving and stubborn, kind and brusque, wise and simple. He was a flawed genius, who never sought to be named as such, a man who didn’t want to be discovered, but had done everything to make himself discoverable. His achievements had attracted people from all over the world, but his inability, or perhaps just an unwillingness, to articulate his own vision had allowed those people, including me, to write his story for him. *** Justo’s early life was marked by religious fervour, political upheavals, and health problems. As a boy, he was very close to his mother. “She was a saint,” he told me. “She was the one that taught me the words of the bible.” At an early age, he had to leave school due to the Spanish Civil War, which ravaged Madrid and its surroundings. His mother’s teachings were a vital part of the little education that Justo would receive. The young man had always fostered dreams of dedicating his life to God. When he would travel to Madrid to run errands, he would roam the capital’s streets searching for a woman more beautiful than the Virgin Mary. “But I couldn’t find her,” he sniggered. So, the boy chose to consecrate his life to the Virgin and remain a virgin himself—a man of God, not tempted by the flesh or carnal desires. “I want to be pure, not a slave to my body.” At the age of twenty-seven, he entered the monastery of Santa María de la Huerta in Soria, northern Spain. Many of his fellow monks found him strident and difficult; he would work longer hours than necessary and often pray into the night. Insisting on remaining teetotal, he even refused to drink the wine during communion. “They were very suspicious of me,” he once told local journalists. “They said I was breaking the rules.” Seven years after he first entered the monastery, Justo said he contracted tuberculosis. He travelled to Madrid to recuperate in the hospital that now houses the Queen Sofia National Museum Art Centre; how long he spent there is unclear, though he claimed it was a year. When he tried returning to the monastery, his brother monks did not allow him back in. I once asked Justo whether he thought this had to do with his extremism or his illness, but he was reticent on the details. Justo merely said that he returned to Mejorada del Campo and fell into a funk, a sort of depression. He no longer knew how to dedicate his life to God. “The brother monks have abandoned you,” his mother would tell him, and Justo indulged in her pity. He began to live like a hermit. He spoke to no one, not even his friends; he thought only of God and the Virgin Mary, in whom he sought solace and inspiration. Where would he channel his religious fervour? What could he possibly do with himself that would mean anything? It was in the midst of this incessant self-questioning, he said, that it came to him—the idea to build something for his Creator: a cathedral, which would demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice himself for God. In 1961, Justo started to dig, laying the foundations of what would become his life’s work. He came from a relatively well-off family with considerable land near Madrid. Over the years, he sold much of it to fund the construction of his church. He also relied heavily on charity; a factory in a nearby village supplied cement, while another offered broken tiles and discarded bricks. Working alone, he barrelled mountains of dirt, scaled scaffolding with no harness, and soldered with no mask. He worked feverishly, without rest and with little food and water. Sometimes he would have visions. Laying bricks, he would suddenly remember the Holy Trinity, drop to his knees and weep. “I don’t know if these visions were mystical,” Francisco Martinez, a local priest, told me, “but he definitely had many intense, visual experiences with God.” Justo hated angles and straight lines and tried to avoid them in his cathedral at all costs. He preferred curves and circles—vaulted ceilings, domes, arches, rounded chapels, annular altars, and spiral staircases. “God made all things round. He made the planets round. He made the earth round.” While God may have spurred Justo on, his lack of education held him back. He read little beyond religious texts and had no grasp of even elementary mathematics. He didn’t know about circumferences, radii, or diameters. So he found his own way to make circles: he’d bend metal rods around columns, draw around circular water drums or tins of paint. But Justo knew making curves was no easy task. They were expensive, had little tolerance for error, and were harder to build than straight lines. Everything had to be calculated to fit within centimetres of accuracy. A millimetre of imprecision in one step could culminate in a spiral staircase that didn’t quite reach its landing. [[{"fid":"6708321","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] The curve Justo loved most was the dome. Measuring 120 feet high and 30 feet across, it was modelled on the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Still, unlike its more famous inspiration, Justo’s dome was a quarter of the size and unfinished. With large blue metal girders curving up to a pressure ring at its centre, it looked like a mechanical spider atop the nave. The dome took him thirty years to imagine, and seven years to build. It is what he talked about the most and the only thing I ever heard him boast about. “You won’t find anything like this in Madrid,” he’d say. There were never any plans or drawings for the dome. Though he received help from ironworkers, Justo implied that he did the work alone. When I queried how that was possible, the answer was a mishmash of incomprehensible anecdotes. There were stories of spindly scaffolding 250 metres high, no harnesses, groaning metal bars, and strong winds. “I was always worried about the wind,” he told me. But when I pressed him further, when I asked him how he had actually built it, Justo merely said he had managed it through a combination of determination and prayer. There was no reflection or consultation unless it was with God. Nor was there much inspiration from architects, who Justo didn’t like being compared to. Besides religious texts, he only read books on medieval castles and gothic architecture. For him, Gaudi, the architect of the Sagrada Familia to whom he is often compared, was “garbage.” “His stuff is completely over the top! There are too many spires, too much of everything.” Justo made up for his technical shortcomings by finding strange solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. He piled empty paint cans on top of one another and filled them with cement to make columns. He bent corrugated iron rods and fed them through slinky-like springs to create the structure for arches. When the columns he built were too short, he filled the gaps with clumps of iron, piling them up like mismatched books to the height of the support beams. He’d then solder them together. To Justo, building was more an instinct than an acquired skill. He reacted rather than pondered, and he mustered things he wasn’t able to process or explain later. *** In the ’60s and ’70s, Spain was in the midst of a dictatorship predicated on deeply conservative Catholic values. This would have suited Justo, except that the dictatorship also brought with it an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion. People kept their politics to themselves for fear of repercussions. The age was permeated by a pernicious silence and a regression to the refuge of the norm. Over the decades, as the ex-monk continued to build, most of the villagers declared him an outcast. A madman. “He was the type of person dressed in a winter coat in the summer and summer clothing in the winter,” recalled Lucia Moncada, a local resident. He was the kind of man who didn’t fit in. To Justo, however, these types of criticisms had no effect. “It’s easy to overcome judgement,” he once told Spanish television. “They called me crazy. . . . So what?! I’ll get over it.” But Justo wasn’t crazy. He was just unwilling to submit to what most people considered normal. He wasn’t accommodating of others’ concerns. He didn’t need love or approbation because he had purpose. That was enough. That was his strength. His marginalization, his self-removal from the world, allowed him to work, to achieve what most distracted minds never could. And if Justo worked mostly alone on his cathedral, it is also partly because he had struggled to find anyone he consistently got on with. When he first started his project, he was helped by his nephews, and to compensate them, Justo built houses with the money he received from the sale of his lands. According to Justo, he also gave them access to funds to support themselves while they assisted with the construction. But the nephews soon began taking advantage of their uncle and drove him into debt. In the early ’80s, the bailiffs came knocking, and Justo said he had to move into the cathedral full time. He had no money to continue the construction and no hope of sustaining his commitment to God. “The biggest devils I have ever come across are in my own family,” he said of his nephews. That’s when Ángel López appeared. He started visiting Justo in the early ’90s. After living and working alongside the old man, Lopez—a squat, beefy labourer from Guadalajara—told me he had an epiphany and renounced his former life to move into the cathedral with Justo. He sold his apartment in Guadalajara and paid a large chunk of Justo’s debt. During the three years I spent in and around the cathedral, I found Ángel hard to place. Sometimes, he would speak to me like I was his accomplice, whispering to me his confidences in chummy conspiratorial tones; at other times, he treated me as if I were an incompetent foreigner who barely understood Spanish. Often, he seemed to be doing his own thing. He would be out hunting rabbits or at the bank for longer than seemed likely. He was always going somewhere, always surprisingly unavailable. He was not filled with Justo’s religious fervour, nor did he have his charisma. Though he always spoke fondly of Justo, calling him his “master” and a “genius,” he could also be spectacularly unenthusiastic about the cathedral’s future. “When Justo’s gone, there is no plan,” he said when I asked him about it. There was suspicion surrounding Ángel. One local believed that he was as bad as the nephews: “Ángel has Justo wrapped around his little finger. He is playing the long game, waiting for Justo to die so he can cash in.” But Ángel remained incredulous in the face of these rumours: “I paid Justo’s debts. I have been here for years and still they think I’m bad.” As Justo got older and sicker, Ángel’s influence had become more palpable. Though he was undoubtedly loyal, I often sensed that Justo had become his mouthpiece, wheeled in front of the public when it suited him to say what he himself couldn’t say. Ángel had been in the cathedral for twenty-four years and it brought him a sense of entitlement. Whether his intentions were sincere was never easy to divine, but I often found it hard to reconcile his presence there. Why had Justo rejected the help of so many other people for so long but ended up with Ángel? When they were together, the two men bickered like seagulls, squawking and squabbling their way into getting nothing done. “You’re getting worse,” Ángel would intone. “You don’t listen,” Justo would retort. In some ways, Ángel reflected Justo’s insecurity. Perhaps Justo feared that if he had taken on a more able helper, he would have lost control of his project. Perhaps Ángel’s ordinariness allowed Justo to stay in control longer. But I also had to check my cynicism with reality. While I was there, I saw that Ángel religiously made Justo’s lunch and dinner. In the mornings, he got him out of bed and dressed him. He would take him to the doctors and to mass every Sunday. “He cleans my poo, he feeds me and he carries me in his arms,” Justo confided in me. *** Throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, Justo’s feverish devotion—“his craziness”—emerged as something more than just eccentricity. The cathedral was becoming more significant than any of the locals could have imagined, and Justo passed from madman to genius. [[{"fid":"6708331","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] Soon, there was interest from local papers. Then, the national press came, followed by journalists from abroad. At the end of 2003, photographs of Justo’s cathedral appeared in an exhibition called “El real viaje Real / The Real Royal Trip” at MoMA in New York. However, Justo declined the invitation to travel to the United States because he had “too much work to do.” The cathedral became famous in 2005 when it appeared in an advertisement for the Coca-Cola brand’s Aquarius drink. “The advert became one of the most successful campaigns in Spanish marketing history,” Felix Muñoz, an executive working for Coca-Cola who commissioned the campaign, later told me. It might seem ironic that a man uninterested in himself and his legacy would agree to let a company like Aquarius in. But Justo only acquiesced to the commercial so that he could get funds to continue his construction. He didn’t see the cash, only more bricks. Indeed, when the commercial was shot, Justo had no idea of the consequences or repercussions of his decision. He seemed confused, in fact: “I didn’t know it was going to be on TV. I thought they were just going to print something on the side of the can.” The concept behind the commercial was the unpredictability and spontaneity of the ordinary man. “Heroes didn’t need tight latex and red capes,” Muñoz told me; they could be common men and women who came from nowhere and asked for nothing. In Justo, Aquarius found extraordinary ordinariness. “He wasn’t your typical handsome young actor,” Miguel Garcia Vizcaino, the commercial’s director, recalled. During my first trip to the cathedral, I, too, bought into the commercial’s branding of Justo. I had always been haunted by the ideal version of myself that I wanted to be. And in Justo, I found a decisiveness that censored my relentless self-doubt, muffled the self-questioning. Justo repeated the same routine every day, until one day, he ended up with something not even he could have imagined. But, like the commercial, I had misinterpreted Justo. He did have an unshakeable belief, that much was true. But it wasn’t in his own self-refinement; it was purely in God. If he hoped to inspire other people at all, it was by encouraging them to follow his lead and become closer to God. “What I have done with the cathedral is an apostleship,” he told me on many occasions. I would later come to see the cathedral as a carapace that protected Justo from temptation and vice, from the everyday of the outside world. The irony was, of course, that this fortress for his ego was so impressive that the world came to hear of it, to see it, and to venerate him for it. While Justo had tried to embody temperance and humility, one of the world’s largest brands had turned his abnegation of the ego into the exact opposite—a celebration of individual accomplishment. Aquarius had made his faith synonymous with ambition, his devotion with perseverance, and his sacrifice with self-interest. Over the years, tens of thousands of people have come to visit the cathedral. They all want to see Justo. To touch him. To hear him speak. To understand him, his inspiration, his genius, and his imagination. I saw old ladies kiss him, fervent pilgrims grab him, and people approach him with schemes to protect and reform the cathedral. People often talked about him in saintly terms. They marvelled that, during almost sixty years of construction, he had suffered no significant injury. Carlos Luis Martin, an architect who helped Justo at the cathedral, recounted witnessing an accident: “I was working in the crypt. Justo tripped over a stone and fell and smashed his head on the ground hard. . . . But [he] just got up. ‘God has healed me, and now all is fine,’ he said. And there was not a scratch on him.” Still, Justo often found all the attention difficult. He would get angry and clash with visitors. He would call them “idiots” and make them delete their photos. He would berate women who came in wearing short skirts. He put up signs saying he was not to be spoken to. Carlos Silvera, a Madrid-based artist who painted the cathedral’s murals, remembered when a young woman visited the cathedral and told Justo how impressed she was with him. “She said she had studied art. She told him how she had travelled. She told him how she understood religion. But as she was talking, Justo interrupted her: ‘You use the word I a lot, don’t you?’ The young woman went quiet and began to blush. ‘You know that your biggest enemy is I.’” Justo always had it within him to be tactless and unsympathetic. He could not see, or perhaps refused to see, what his building meant to others. He wanted to keep its significance tied to God, and failed to understand how it moved and inspired those who came to see it. Indeed, as the cathedral’s wobbly towers began to rise above the drab uniformity of Mejorada del Campo, capturing the world’s attention, Justo wasn’t able to fathom why he could no longer control his story. He even became resentful. When Felix Muñoz returned to the cathedral two years ago to visit Justo—having not seen him since the shoot in 2005—he found a man and an attitude he was not expecting. Justo told him that the advertisement had only brought him problems. “He told me he wished it hadn’t happened.” I bore witness to Justo’s frustrations on several occasions, no more so than one afternoon in late 2018, during my second weeklong visit to the cathedral. My friend Denis Dobrovoda, a Slovak film director, had turned up with a camera. Both of us had wanted to make a film about Justo and his work and had struck the same deal with him as at the beginning of the year: we would work, and he would let us film. However, when he saw the camera and drone—the “machine” and the “little plane,” as he called them—he decided we had been dishonest with him. He had assumed we’d bring a small “machine,” not a “giant one.” In what felt like a punishment, Denis and I were sent down to the lower cloisters to clean up the mess that had accumulated there over the years. We rifled through plastic bags, rotten insulation boards, and chipped marble and granite. Justo loitered in the courtyard, mumbling to himself. Suddenly, his gaze focused on an abandoned fish tank made of thick glass, congealed glue protruding from its joints. In the middle of the tank was an amorphous tower of dried clay. It was hard to figure out precisely what it was—perhaps an abstract rendering of the cathedral or maybe merely a lump of sand. To Justo, however, it was now a “monstrous vanity” gifted to him by “some rich person.” “It has to be destroyed!” he snapped. Justo barked at us to ram a heavy wooden plank that was lying nearby against the side of the tank to break the main structure. It was typical of him to use whatever was immediately available to solve a problem. Justo was frail, his skin thinner than rice paper, and neither of us wanted him to cut himself on the glass. We were also aware that he was allowing us to film him in return for our work. So, rather reluctantly, we bashed the plank against the fish tank, hoping that nothing would happen. The dull thud of hardwood hitting the thick glass confirmed our expectations. It wasn’t working, so I suggested we stop. Justo, however, was insistent: “Find me an axe! We need to destroy this—now.” The more we tried to convince Justo that this wasn’t a good idea, the more aggressive he became. We would be kicked out of the cathedral! We were devils! My first thought was to find Ángel, the only person who could talk Justo down. Ángel was nowhere to be found; an axe was. I was indecisive. Perhaps it would placate him, I thought. We would watch over him, and everything would be fine. After all, he’d been doing things like this for sixty years, and he’d never been seriously injured. So I handed Justo the axe. He snatched it from me and began bashing the glass of the fish tank. The first layer shattered, bursting like an old-fashioned camera bulb. Justo scrunched up his eyes and pursed his lips. He raised the trembling axe again. And again. Justo’s jacket sleeve slipped down his arm, and I saw that his veins ran like roadmaps down his arms. I saw the thick, sharp glass. I watched his rickety wrist, his eyes scrunched up like crumpled paper, the splinters of glass spurting up like hot steam with every swipe. I imagined the glass slicing through his skin, the blood gushing from his arms. I pictured Justo on the cathedral floor, dazed and white as marble. I imagined the ambulance arriving, and heard our feeble explanations. I had imagined enough. I ran up to him and snatched the axe from his hands. Justo balked, “You scoundrels! I’ll kick you out if you ever do that again. This is my cathedral.” *** By the end of 2019, Justo’s health began to deteriorate, and his undiagnosed dementia progressed more quickly. He laughed less and made less sense when he talked. He also seemed increasingly frustrated. Ill and weak, he was frequently in and out of the hospital. Disorientation had become the defining factor of his life, and Justo was shrinking inside his cathedral, even as his reputation outside it continued to grow. He spent most of his time sitting in an old office chair in his gloomy personal quarters. A puddle of murky, bloated lentils and a hollowed-out baguette often sat at his side. He was always cold: “I have no meat on me.” He stuffed scraps of cardboard, kindling, or anything that would burn into his rickety wood-burning stove. Occasionally, he rose from his chair, his bones creaking like warped wood. The scratchy shuffle of his scruffy black shoes on the cement floor presaged his arrival. Most of the time, Justo wandered aimlessly, taking things from here to there, picking up a piece of wood and inspecting it, dragging a pile of stones to nowhere in particular. He might then sit in another chair on the balcony that led to the cloisters, where he squinted at the sun, rosary beads twitching in his hands, muttering and murmuring to God. Despite his deterioration, Justo still had his infectious, boyish enthusiasm that transcended generations and our respective beliefs. In fact, during those visits throughout 2019, I felt that our relationship evolved beyond its initial awkwardness. That summer, as we sat in the ambulatory together, he asked me about my family’s faith. “Are your parents Christians?” “Yes,” I told him. It was a half-truth; they were baptized agnostics like me. “But have you studied the catechisms?” he asked again. “No.” “Well, I want you to have this,” he said, brandishing a book of catechisms. “It’s my gift to you.” Another time, I remember being in Justo’s dingy backroom, stoking his wood-burning stove. “You have to read The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis,” Justo told me excitedly. “It’s incredible!” (The book, one of the most important devotional Christian texts ever published, preaches that a good Christian should live an interior life by renouncing all that is vain and illusory. It was Justo’s second bible.) He retrieved a bashed-up copy from a nearby shelf littered with nuts, screws, and sandpaper, and handed it to me. “Read it aloud,” he ordered. Without overthinking, I began to read: “How undisturbed a conscience we would have if we never went searching after ephemeral joys nor concern ourselves with affairs of the world.” Justo stood back, a contented smile on his pencil-thin lips, his eyes closed as if in prayer. The book seemed to be giving him sustenance and greater joy than, as à Kempis writes, a “multi-course banquet.” But those moments were rare. Mostly, Justo just seemed lost in his cathedral and in his ailing head, which, he grumbled, “no longer worked.” *** At the beginning of 2020, the cathedral was in a precarious situation. Justo was weak and rarely left his room. His impending death threatened to leave behind an administrative mess. The cathedral was illegal, after all—it didn’t exist on any register. And over the years it had swollen into a sprawling mass of iron and cement, with its gangly cloisters and crooked towers encroaching on the surrounding buildings. No architect was willing to sign off on its structural stability and soundness. The building did not meet any of the required standards. Anyone who vouched for its stability would be liable for any damages incurred by visitors. The local government was afraid that it might fall and so would not formalize it. The church couldn’t be consecrated if it didn’t have the correct administrative approval. It was a Catch-22, and neither the town hall nor the local diocese appeared willing to invest a cent in breaking it. When I talked to the vicar in charge of all the diocese’s architectural projects, he was cagey about Justo’s cathedral. He said he wanted to set up a foundation to gather funds to save it. But, if the cathedral was saved, he couldn’t say “whether it would be used for religious purposes or not.” When I asked Ángel what he would do when Justo passed away, he looked at me blankly. “I don’t want to think about the day that Justo is no longer here.” But locals and people farther afield still recognized the importance of the cathedral. YouTube is filled with young vloggers waxing lyrical about its importance. There are regular articles in Spanish national papers providing updates on the building’s legal situation. UNESCO representatives even paid a visit in early 2020. Still, these attempts to legalize the sprawling structure had been slow and bureaucratic. It looked likely that Justo would not live to see his cathedral saved. Then, in May of 2021, Justo and Ángel donated the cathedral to an organization known as Mensajeros de la Paz, or “Messengers of Peace,” a Catholic NGO working in over fifty-five countries whose main goal is to help people living in poverty. Padre Ángel, the organization’s founder, had, like Justo, been deemed a visionary; a crazy man, he had started the organization by himself and had grown it into one of the biggest Catholic NGOs in the world. Desperate for a solution, Justo and Ángel had asked the organization to take care of the church. Padre Ángel, who knew of Justo’s story, was enticed. He decided to take on the church—no matter how much it would cost, no matter how difficult an undertaking it might be. And he wanted to do it quickly. Within a matter of days, the donation had been notarized. The organization swiftly moved into the cathedral, cleaning up the general mess, smoothing over cracks, reinforcing arches, putting up walls. They also sent in a company of the country’s best structural engineers, some of whom had worked with the most prestigious architects in the world. During their initial surveys, the engineers were surprised to find that the cathedral was more structurally sound than had otherwise been thought. It was proportional and had been built in mind of the elements. “With so little knowledge of construction, it’s as if he’s invented architecture in his head,” one of them marvelled to me. Though the engineers couldn’t be sure that the cathedral was completely stable, they were surprised by how carefully it had been built. It was worth saving, of that they had little doubt. [[{"fid":"6708336","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] But, at times, the organization’s involvement felt overbearing. Justo was disappearing from his own cathedral. He no longer came out of his room. He no longer shouted at volunteers. He was bound to a wheelchair or to his bed. As I walked around the cloisters, the nave, the crypt, his absence felt prescient; I sensed the cathedral’s future was out of his hands. It was being transformed in line with the Messengers’ own aesthetic. The nave was now decked out with their paraphernalia: huge posters depicting the pope hung on either side of the main altar, the Messenger’s maxims and motifs were written on the walls, and a makeshift food bank had been placed in the central nave. Justo’s name appeared on some of these new additions, but his presence felt largely posthumous. The Messengers also announced they wanted it to be an open religious space where Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Orthodox, and Catholics could congregate and discuss religion. I knew Justo. I knew how antiquated and conservative he could be. I knew that he had fought for many years for his cathedral to be consecrated as a Catholic place of worship. I wondered if he’d be horrified at the Messengers’ vision. *** The last time Denis and I saw Justo, he was on his deathbed, a colostomy bag hanging from his mattress, his bald head shining like a crystal orb. Ángel was by his side. Neither of us had seen Justo for months, and we were hearing rumours of negativity and tension among Justo’s family and friends regarding the takeover. We wanted to know what Justo thought of the cathedral’s new guardians. Propped up by a pillow on a hospital bed in his newly decorated bedroom, Justo’s voice was an octave higher than when I’d last seen him, his speech more accelerated, and his mind, as it always was, a swirl of thoughts and ideas. He was at times thankful, and other times angry, about what had happened. But more than anything, he just seemed confused. I didn’t know what to take from this interaction. In truth, I felt Justo was too far gone to answer our questions, and it was hard to know what he was saying for himself and what was being said for him. When Justo’s words became muddled, Ángel often finished or interpreted his thoughts. Over the following days, as I witnessed these meetings and saw how frail he had become, I felt sad that Justo had to be part of these discussions and tensions. After all, notions of legacy were in many ways anathema to him; legacy was vanity, and vanity was the devil. I was taken back to that late spring evening at the end of my first visit to the cathedral, Justo standing precariously close to his grave. He seemed nonchalant, as if it were normal to pre-empt one’s death. “I’m ready for the end,” he mumbled, still staring out at the courtyard. Justo told me he had been content with his efforts as far back as the late ’90s, even when the cathedral was half-finished and the central dome didn’t even exist. He said he’d tell those who asked him: “I’m already happy with it, I think I’ve done enough.” Justo didn’t believe in perfection. How could he? Perfection was God. Unattainable. Perfection was really only the mask of ambition, and Justo wasn’t driven by ambition. His cathedral was full of half-baked ideas, trial and error and moments of brilliance. It was the inside of Justo’s head rendered in iron and cement. “We are only in transit here on this earth,” he said, turning his head toward me. “In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we do here. It’s up there where it counts.” For Justo, the cathedral was the sacrifices it entailed: the long labouring days, sleepless nights, solitude, and alienation. His sacrifices were his devotion to God, and while his legacy and reputation might be written by outside institutions like MoMA or Aquarius, by me, only God would know his real reasons. “What happens to the cathedral is now no longer up to me,” he said, glimpsing his grave. “I’ve done everything I need to do.” Justo didn’t want to stand around any longer. He shuffled from the darkness of the crypt, through an arched doorway, out into the light of the lower courtyard, disappearing from view. Justo died on November 28th, 2021. 
Every Letter a Path

My name is someone’s past and my present and I’m not sure about the future. 

Should I introduce myself? Is that a nice way to begin? It would be good if it were simple like that. It would be good if I could say my name and not think of the dead. My life began in memoriam, my birth marked by formative loss. I am first-named for my grandmother, Sara: she died when my mother was sixteen. And I am middle-named for my uncle, Leslie: he died when my father was thirty-two. Two deaths. And in their wake, gaping craters. Black holes. A thick and endless abyss. Who does that make me? Was I born a conduit for my parents’ pain? Or am I a second chance?  I feel the weight of my name over my head like a hood—warm and comfortable but a little disorienting. I am constrained by the grief and by the love it represents. Ten letters so specific, I am unsure how to wear them. I am unsure where I fit in. I suppose that’s why I’m here. ~  In Neil Gaiman’s novella Coraline, the title character meets a cat, introduces herself, and asks its name. The cat replies that it does not have or need one: “Now you people have names,” it says to her. “That's because you don't know who you are.” ~ My name is someone’s past and my present and I’m not sure about the future. My name bends in the light and it gropes in the dark. My name is a blessing and it is a responsibility. In Judaism, it is common to name a baby for a deceased loved one (though never for someone living, the custom dictates, so that the angel of death does not take the wrong person). Often, it’s just a first initial that the dead and living share, but I inherited the exactness of my relatives’ names, every letter a stamp on my identity before I had begun to form it for myself. Every letter a path. “So much of what is transmitted between parents and families is not the obvious and the verbal and what’s said,” says Dr. Mavis Himes, clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, and author of The Power of Names: Uncovering the Mystery of What We Are Called. “It’s also the silences.” ~ “There is a Quichua riddle: ‘El que me nombra, me rompe.’ Whatever names me, breaks me. The solution, of course, is ‘silence.’ But the truth is, anyone who knows your name can break you in two.” —Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House  ~  There is a letter, sent from my grandmother to one of her sisters, announcing my mother’s birth. “She has black hair and a round little face and a nose all over it,” Sara writes in long, looping scrawl that my mother says she’d recognize anywhere. “We’re just not sure of her name yet—it might be something like Trudy Beth—how does that sound?” ~ Will you do one thing for me, if you don’t mind? Will you stop reading, for a moment, and say my name out loud? Sara  Leslie Harowitz How does it sound? Does it sound strong or soft as it comes off your tongue? Does it sound curious and graceful and good? Does it sound like the name of a woman you’d like to learn the intimacies of? Does it sound like the name of a woman who understands who she is? These are things I want to know. ~ S-a-r-a. Translated from Hebrew to mean “noblewoman” or “princess.” The wife of Abraham in the Old Testament; the cornerstone matriarch of the Jewish people. Her name is more traditionally spelled S-a-r-a-h, and people often add the h to my name when they don’t know me well. A silent, seemingly harmless fifth letter, and yet it startles me every time. Don’t they know who I’m trying my best to live up to? L-e-s-l-i-e. Gaelic, meaning “holly garden,” for whatever that’s worth. I ask my father if he knows why his parents named his brother that. He isn’t sure, but mentions that Leslie’s middle name, Errol, was chosen for his mother’s love of the actor Errol Flynn. I give Flynn a quick Google to make sure I have the spelling right; it turns out his middle name is Leslie. Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn. One of his films is called Escape Me Never. ~  “After years of my pleading, my mother finally gave me her yellow gold ‘D’ ring that was passed down to her from her mother. Daisy, Dulcie, Dolores, and now Durga. The ring’s band is thinning so I don’t wear it often but when I do, I feel the clout of family. Few things yield such command. I’m from somewhere! And these women had something to do with it!” —Durga Chew-Bose, “How I Learned to Stop Erasing Myself”  ~  I understand that naming a baby is not an easy or quick thing. It’s not like picking the paint colour for the nursery, which can be covered with a new hue in a single cumbersome weekend. A name is permanent. A name goes on paperwork. A name is how a child first finds their place in the world. It cannot be hidden with a roller brush. It took social justice professor Minelle Mahtani and her husband two weeks after the birth of their son to choose his name. “I see now that passing on a specific part of my family legacy matters to me, not just a vague gesture to my heritage,” she writes in her essay, “What’s in a Name?” for This Magazine. They eventually decided that, bucking Western tradition, their son would be given the last name Mahtani, honouring the lineage of Minelle’s father.  Whether we like it or not, our names do define us. On a superficial and stereotypical level, they tell people who we are—or at least, who they think we are. Name signalling is when a person’s moniker signifies their religion, race, or socioeconomic status; our names can also affect our ability to find a job or a romantic partner, thanks to what is referred to as name bias. There is even research suggesting that over time, our names can affect our physical appearances. A 2006 University of Michigan study found that a person’s satisfaction with their first name directly related to their sense of self-worth. “The link between first name and identity appears consistent,” co-authors Jean M. Twenge and Melvin Manis write. “What you think of your name has something to do with what you think of yourself.” I don’t mean to suggest that I dislike my name. Not at all. I love the simplicity and evenness of Sara. I love that Leslie is wispy and genderless. I love these names individually, but I love them especially when they’re together. Because that’s how they feel most like they’re mine. ~ Nomen est omen / name is destiny ~  I know that my name comes from sweetness and from tenderness. Still, in the quiet, these legends hover. I know I am lucky to have my name, but worthy of it I’m not so sure. Himes asks me a question that sticks: “What has been your relationship with your name?” What has been my relationship with my name? Maybe a better question is: what has been my relationship with my grandmother and with my uncle? Can I get to know them now? The mere fact that I am named for their memories means it’s too late. But I’m trying to find them in the stories. I’m trying to understand. So, I suppose, my relationship with my name makes me sad. Because my name means my parents’ grief. Call me Cheryl instead. Call me Michael. I don’t care. Call me anything else if it means Sara and Leslie didn’t die so soon. If it means I had the chance to meet them. If it means I can know the sounds of their voices and what it was like to make them laugh and how they walked into a room. If it means saving my mother and father from that pain. I’d do it. I’d give my name away for that.  ~ Sara Shirley Sheckter. Born in 1918 in Vegreville, Alberta, the fourth oldest of a now-unheard-of ten kids. Named in honour of her paternal grandmother, Sora. A devoted daughter who grew up working in her father’s bakery. Good with her hands. Meticulous. Sara had short but thick black hair, delicate lips, a warm smile that revealed a set of false teeth (the flour from the bakery, she claimed, rotted her real ones). When I look at photographs of her in her later years, I am ashamed to say I don’t recognize her. But when I look at images of her in her youth, I see traces of my mother. Same eyes, same nose. I wonder if they are my eyes and my nose, too. For most of my mother’s life growing up in St. Catherines, Ontario, Sara was sick. She contracted a virus in her heart muscle that caused the organ to fibrillate, which in turn led to cardiac arrests; her children lived in fear that one wrong move would trigger a fatal attack. Every day, my mother would rush home from school and yell for Sara. Was she still there? Was she still flesh and soul and bone? Sara was an avid and skilled sewer, often making my mother’s outfits—outfits for her Barbies, even. Frilly, detailed numbers with lace and sequins. She also sewed aprons for a local community organization and for my mom’s dance recitals; Sara loved to dance and put her two daughters in classes from when they were small. My own mother forced me to take dance lessons when I was little; I hated it at first, but after a few attempts, the aversion grew into adoration. Now I understand why it mattered to her so much. Sara collected stamps. Many weekends, she’d tote my mother—only seven or eight years old—to the Welland Canal in the Niagara Region and ask disembarking sailors if they had any stamps from faraway places that they’d be willing to part with. She would offer to take them to Niagara Falls in return. “I would be sitting,” my mother recalls, “in the backseat with a sailor.”  Sara baked. She’d make cheese rolls, sugar nothings, even delicate icing roses placed gingerly on top of cakes. My aunt Karen, a few years older than my mother, was usually tasked with standing at the stove and stirring the custard for Sara’s lemon meringue pie; despite her best tries, Karen burnt it every time. She can’t eat the dessert to this day. Sara also loved to be social and to entertain. “She was a one-woman welcome committee,” Karen says. As she got sicker, it became harder for her to live the life she wanted. It made her demand more of her family—to excel at the things she could not. Sara died of a heart attack at age fifty-two. At the time, my mother was visiting Karen, who was working at a Gulf Island summer camp. My dad happened to be working there that year, as well. He went to Sara’s shiva—the Jewish period of mourning after a funeral—out of support for his colleague. It wasn’t until years later that he met my mom; still, it comforts me to know that they were together that day. I cannot tell yet if Sara and I are alike in any significant ways. I don’t have a fondness for baking; I was never good at crafts. Perhaps our personalities do not converge. But in my name, on paper, I become her.  “If I see Sara without an h, I go, ‘That’s my mother’s name,’” my own mother says. “The spelling of your name always does that. Every time.” ~ Leslie Errol Harowitz. Born in 1942 in Vancouver, B.C. One of four kids. A romantic, a prankster; he would go to the ends of the earth for a joke. No punchline was too far-fetched. No party was too elaborate.  He had kind, squinty eyes; a round face; large, nerdy glasses that would probably be considered cool now; a happy, crooked smile. Looking at his picture, I see a hint of mischief that reminds me of my father.  Leslie was a klutz, not much of a sportsman, but great with words (just don’t try to decipher his printing). He liked to construct silly contraptions—one famously called Bite Da Mama was engineered with wind-up toy dentures to annoy his mother by nipping her in the arm—and had nicknames for everybody; my father’s was Baby Bowie. Leslie teased relentlessly, but as is the case with so many jesters, the more he ridiculed you, the more he liked you. Leslie was generous, in particular with his time. When he was a law student at the University of British Columbia, he took it upon himself to help my father—ten years his junior—improve his writing skills. “I’d have weekly assignments. He would give me a topic and I’d have to write two or three pages,” my father recalls. “And then he would edit it and mark it up, and we would sit down and discuss it. I’d take it back and have to do a second draft and then maybe a third draft, and then we’d move on to another assignment.” My dad’s grade eight English teacher went from being on his case about poor performance to reading his assignments aloud for the class. I’m warmed by this. The love of words that I share with my father: it came from Leslie. Leslie was fiercely loyal, led by his principles, and fancied himself a handyman—though the stories say otherwise. One day, when they were both adults living in their own homes in Vancouver, my father got a call from his brother. “You have to come over right away,” Leslie said calmly. “I’ve had a bit of an accident.” My father whipped over to his house to find Leslie with a board of wood nailed to his thumb. He had been taking down the family’s sukkah—a temporary hut built for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot—pulling apart wooden beams this way and that, and one of them, it seemed, bent but didn’t fully disconnect from the structure; when it swung back into place, its nail went right through his finger. Leslie opened his own law firm with two colleagues, but no matter how well they did, he never felt comfortable in his success. And according to his widow, my aunt Sharon, he was never really in love with his work: “He always said, ‘Nobody in law likes law.’” Leslie’s taste for elaborate schemes never faded, though, nor did his impressive ability to run late for absolutely everything. He had a yellow Chevy convertible that he loved, but as my father puts it, “it didn’t always love him back.” When he was feeling uncomfortable, his right eyebrow twitched.  Leslie was also a hypochondriac, and it made him fearful that he’d die young, leaving his wife and three daughters behind. He was forty-three when a heart attack killed him, caused by a condition savagely referred to as the widow-maker. Leslie would have loved me, my father says. I suppose it’s not hard to believe; we were family. But what would he think of my writing? And how would he feel knowing I carry part of his identity in mine? Would he think I’m doing a good job? I ask my father why I was given Leslie’s name. “I guess,” he says, “because he was just a hole in our life.” ~ There is another letter, this one written by one of Sara’s sisters to her kids, documenting various family milestones. In it, she mentions the birth of a cousin named Faigie—another prominent moniker in the family. “She will perpetuate the name of her two grandmothers,” she writes. “Life is eternal.” ~ I come back to the question: what has been my relationship with my name? It is one of honour and healing. I hold it tight, even when it hurts. “You lighten the burden of your past, but you can’t eliminate it,” Himes tells me. “You can’t erase your name.” I don’t want to erase it. I want to know it. I want to trace the lines of its curves, over and over again. ~ When I sit down with Sharon to learn about Leslie, I ask her: who was I named after? Do I live up to his memory? Do I live up to my own name?  Her face is a mixture of pleasure and surprise. “Your middle name is Leslie?” she asks. Surely she knew, but somewhere along the way, among the everyday muck, amidst the heartbreak and the joy and the mishugas, she forgot. “Yes,” I say. Yes.  “Sara. Leslie. Harowitz,” she announces, and hearing her say it makes me want to cry. Each syllable like a warm tear down my cheek; their streaks are invisible but I feel them just the same. “That’s me,” I say. At least, a version of me. A version of me I’m interested in becoming. A version of me who lives softly in the margins but also brightly in the open. A version of me who is proud of her name, even if she doesn’t fully understand its legacy yet. A version of me who carries her ancestors in blood and in documentation and maybe that’s enough. ~ Will you do one last thing for me? Will you say my name out loud again?  Sara Leslie  Harowitz How does it sound? I’m getting closer to answering that on my own. To feeling like this narrative is really mine.  ~ I think I should introduce myself. I think that is a nice way to end.
‘I Would Not Ever Give Anyone the Raw Experience’: An Interview with Donika Kelly

Talking to the author of The Renunciations about structuring a book of poetry, living with myths, and caring for yourself and others when writing about trauma. 

The Renunciations (Graywolf Press), poet and Iowa Writer’s Workshop professor Donika Kelly’s sophomore collection, opens with an explosion. In a nod to astrology, even the poem’s title, House of Air, Hours of Fire, evokes a blinding brightness that reduces to ash. And reading this collection is in many ways a flammable experience: the language simply glows, even when it appears as erasure or empty brackets. The content circles childhood sexual abuse, divorce, and glimmers of hope and home, the possibility of rootedness. Along with fire, other elements come into play: water, earth, air. Sediment that gets disrupted, shoots of new growth, foundations maybe, slowly, being built. Kelly’s almost otherworldly gift for composing words into something alive was clear in her 2016 debut, Bestiary; The Renunciations too embodies the animal, which is also the human. In “Hymn,” she writes: “...the closer I am/to my animal self the more human I am/the more I let myself break/like a wave. Ocean/in my arm. Stone in my arm./Iron and wood and brass in my arm.” And in one of the several poems titled “Dear–,”: “I hold my breath. My body hollows,/grows teeth: gathers bone, gathers root and nerve.” The visceral nature of this collection carries the reader to heights of poetic euphoria while simultaneously refusing to look away from pain. “I am neither land nor timber,” she writes, “nor are you/ocean or celestial body. Rather,/we are the small animals we’ve always been.” I spoke to Kelly on Zoom about myths and mythology, artifice, hope, and what it means to be a non-believer. Sarah Neilson: The epigraph of this book is from Anne Carson: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.” What is the myth you've lived past, if you have one? Are there any myths that are meaningful in your life? And how do they serve you or not serve you? Donika Kelly: The core myth that I would say I've lived past… Well, there are two. The one where my dad sort of occupies the center of the family. And a big part of [living past] that was teaching gender studies—just realizing I could put myself at the center of my life. A man doesn't have to be at the center of my life. And the other myth, which comes out of that, has to do with the formation of romantic relationships as I saw modeled in my family of origin: My parents are definitely a stay-together-forever, it-doesn't-matter-how-bad-it-is, this-is-better-than-anything-else model. That's not a great model. It was not a great model when I was a kid, I recognized that. But that was a hard one to let go—that being married, being partnered, meant that that person was also at the center and that I wasn't at the center of my own life. So those myths, if that's a way of thinking about them, those myths served to keep my attention on other people and what other people needed. And I think this book demonstrates the process of, how do I move those folks from the center? How do I move those ideas from the center? And how do I get closer to the center of my own life? I'm hoping that I'm not living with too many myths right now. Carl Phillips has this craft essay on the uses of myth and fable. And he says that—I'm paraphrasing, so, grain of salt—but the way I remember it is that a myth helps us explain something we don't understand. And I think I've come to understand some things now. I don't need the myth anymore. The first poem in the collection, House of Air, Hours of Fire, is such a powerful gut-punch of a poem. What made you decide to open the book that way? That poem is the clearest overture that I've written. It captures the two strands of the book: the removal of the father from the center of the speaker's life, and then the ending of the marriage. The title refers to the fact that my dad is an Aquarius, which is an air sign. My ex is a Leo, and I'm a Sagittarius [fire signs]. I don't necessarily believe in astrology, but it created one small lens for understanding, a kind of elemental interaction. The Aquarius is the water bearer, and so I started with that—what does my dad have to bear? What does this father have to bear? And then what does the speaker, the daughter, what does she have to bear? The poem also brings in a lot of the themes around landscape and time that feels like it foreshadows what's to come in the book, and it was one that I wrote towards the end of writing the poems that would go into the book. In an interview with The Creative Independent, you said: “...it’s not just like, ‘Here’s this trauma without the artifice.’ The artifice is nice. The artifice is like a little pillow around the trauma, and a reminder that I’m okay and my speaker is okay, and hopefully the reader feels safer in that space.” I think sometimes the word “artifice” has a negative connotation. Can you expand on the idea of finding safety and comfort in artifice? Artifice doesn't have a negative connotation to me, and I don't know how it could, since I'm a poet; so much of the genre relies on artifice. Like, Oh, here are some stanzas. Here's a rhyme. Which would not occur naturally, right? Here's a soundscape that's holding the poem together in some way. The artifice for me is actually really comforting. It's one of the things that I love about poetry—that there are ways to present material and process emotional material to make it available, or translate it for readers. That being said, the artifice for me as the writer is a way of processing the feeling, the thought, the act. The experience, the events. It suggests a measure of distance or control in relation to the material. As a person who has written about sexual violence and trauma, I often am read as “raw.” But I would not ever give anyone the raw experience. That would feel irresponsible to me. But I think what that means is it creates a feeling inside the reader of encountering something that is intense. There's a measure of intensity. And it was important for me to feel that I was exercising some control over the experience, over the work—that there was a reason that I was bringing myself to that event and remembering it, and a reason I'm asking the reader to come along with me to remember. For me, the artifice is the suggestion that there is a structure here, that design and thought has gone into this, that I've made something for someone. How do you take care of yourself when you're writing about trauma? I have some very basic strategies. So, when I decided… it didn't really feel like a decision, but when I felt compelled to write about childhood sexual abuse and the abuse that I experienced, I knew that I was going to need some help. I've been in therapy since I was 17 or 18, almost consistently. Therapy is a big tool that I use to help manage and navigate some of that traumatic stuff. So when I'm writing, if it feels too hard, I can take that to therapy and work out what's hard, what feels scary, why I feel compelled to write about this. So there's that aspect of it; therapy is super helpful. But when I'm actually writing and I've decided this is what I'm doing, writing about this traumatic stuff, I can get really anxious and scared. Part of my strategy is to remind myself that I'm safe, which has been true. For the last 10 years or so I’ve felt really safe. The other thing that I do is remind myself I can stop at any time, that I don't have to do it. No one's asking for the poems. It's not like someone's like, "We need your poems about trauma." It's not for anyone, and I think that has been really important to recognize—that the work that I'm doing, and writing the poems, is first for me. So if I am not being served by the process, I can stop. I've gotten pretty good at just checking in and attending to all the little parts that can get worked up. I am so drawn to your use of empty brackets and erasure, conveying this sense of missing, or stolen, or hidden information. Can you talk about the role of these tools in the book, what they mean to you? This is the reduction in erasure. Each section is headed by a redacted letter, and those letters are drawn from real letters that I wrote in a therapeutic practice, like writing a letter to somebody that you don’t send but you can say whatever you want in it. I did that, and it was helpful when I did it. But it was to someone; even though I wasn't ever going to share it, it was to that person. I got the idea in a workshop with Gabby Calvocoressi. They asked us to do either erasure or redaction as part of an exercise, and I was like, "Oh, I have these letters." I was drawn to those letters because I believe I thought—not consciously, not in the foreground of my brain, but somewhere deep—I thought, "I wrote something to myself in here. It wasn't really to this person. This is for me." And so the redactions in terms of what they do for me, and what they did for me in the process of writing them, it was a way of trying to find these messages to myself. This goes back to what we were talking about with artifice. They are a reminder to the reader that the reader does not have access to everything, even though the collection is very forthcoming, very plain-spoken, I think. I hope. It feels intimate, but there are things that people don't know and won't know who do not share that experience. The brackets do something similar, the sort of erased parts and withholding. But what they do for me is that I've taken out some things that I don't ever want to say. I don't want to have to complete the sentence. I don't want to have to save the thing that I'm recounting, that I'm remembering. Thinking about other strategies for taking care of myself and writing about trauma, that particular technique is perhaps one of the more protective ones. I don't ever have to say that thing out loud, and so I'm taking care of myself. My speaker doesn't have to say it out loud, so it's also a kindness to the speaker. I feel like it's an act of tenderness of care. It's like, "We don't have to say that." It's not necessary to say everything; we can say what feels possible to say right now. I’m curious about the structure of the collection and your thoughts about where you were positioning the different poems, and the different emotional tones of the poems, in relation to each other in the book. I feel so pleased with the structure, and in some ways the process of it coming [together] in terms of it existing in its final form. When I initially put the manuscript together, the sections alternated in the ways that they do now: the sections about the end of the marriage alternate with the sections about the father—the sections about the end of the marriage are moving forward in time, is how I think of it. It's like we're coming to the end. It's like a series of oh-no’s; I have to figure out how to be by myself. I think the first section is about, who is this person? Of course they're scared. I know that there's a way to flatten out abusers, people who are abusive, [by making them monsters]. And that's not interesting. So I thought I might do a little bit of internal investigation about how I understood my dad's life and his existence before he was my dad, like as a whole human being. But I don't know that much about him; as it turns out, I know very little. So putting the poems together in that first section is really like trying to understand something about the father as a person who had experiences. Then it sort of moves forward into the abuse. It felt important to me to not start with the father or begin with the abuse. That actually felt really important to me. But it felt like I needed to articulate my own progression towards being able to talk about and acknowledge what happened. And that's replicated in the book. Jeff Shotts, my editor, was like, "Can we have some page breaks, some section breaks?" And I was like, "No. Absolutely not." He was like, "Numbered sections." I was like, "Unthinkable. I couldn't possibly." But I listened to Jeff. I might not always agree with his direct suggestions, but I do trust his instincts. I think he really was asking for room to give the reader some kind of respite, like some little pitstops through the experiences. There's room to breathe in the book and the way that it exists now. Before it was like a waterfall, and now I think there are these steps between them that feel careful and caring, too. This is important to me, to the speaker. The speaker doesn't have to rush through all of that, and also the reader doesn't have to rush through all of it. We came back to air. Yes. I'm really interested in the way that you explore the tension between science and faith. It’s not a binary tension, but there’s a line from In the Chapel of St. Mary’s that reads, “I try to find comfort in the inevitability/of science, when what I lack is faith.” In Sanctuary, you write, “I call this the difficulty of the nonbeliever,/of waking, every morning, without a god.” Can you talk about exploring that faith and prayer aspect, and the word “non-believer” in your work? Greek mythology relies on gods in a particular kind of way. They're very fallible. I stopped believing, or maybe I never really believed in God, when I was in my twenties. And that was really disorienting because it felt wrong. But the Greek mythology still made sense, and part of what I was trying to work through in this book was like, "Why am I still relying on Greek mythology when I don't believe in anything?" I don't have a prayer practice. I don't have meditative practices. The primary practice in my life is writing and writing poetry. But I don't necessarily believe that I am right. There are so many things that I don't understand. I think that in some ways, the book is working through that. What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to trust that things will be okay? What does that mean to move through the world without a sense of something larger at the wheel? And where I've come to is, strangely, I believe in time. I believe in the experiences that I've had. I believe in trusting my instincts based on my experiences. I believe in relating to people based on the experiences that we have had together. That has been the thing that has made the most sense. And the writing of poems takes a certain kind of time. That time feels long and stretchy, even though it tends not to be on-the-clock long. There's just something about time that feels really comforting. So my sort of new interest, my new direction, I am thinking about time, also geologic time. Because it's so big, and we're so little. At the end of the book, with The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings., you so beautifully reclaim the land use imagery you started with, and turn it into building something rather than taking something. Can you talk about the process of arriving at that last poem? Was it actually the last poem you wrote for the book? I just thought that last poem feels appropriately hopeful, which is to say not very but a little bit. Like something could potentially happen that is positive. I wrote that poem, again, in a workshop with Gabby. Same workshop. It was a very productive time in Provincetown. And I wrote that before I wrote [the opening poem] House of Air, Hours of Fire, like a full year before. The thing I like about the last poem—aside from its tempered hopefulness which I do really like—it's very tempered, and that's reassuring to me. The speaker in that poem is trying to figure out what the future could look like and hasn't started to make anything. But it's like trying to imagine what the future could look like. Like to stand in a mud field and call it a pasture. I don't really know what a pasture is, and the speaker doesn't either. But it's like, "Okay, so I could make something here. Maybe a life." It feels in contrast with the beginning where that speaker's feature seemed more foreclosed. Here at the end, it does feel like a bit of an opening. And I've often struggled to think about the future. So I count The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings. as little gestures of hopefulness and possibility.
‘Part of Being Young is How Much You Notice’: An Interview with Scarlett Thomas

The author of Oligarchy on teenaged girls, hierarchies within hierarchies, and the great confidence tricks of capitalism. 

In The Lying Life of Adults, Elena Ferrante’s narrator Giovanna reflects on her adolescence: “I spent the days studying myself . . . as if I were a piece of good-quality material damaged by a clumsy worker. I was I—whatever I I was—and had to concern myself with that face, that body, those thoughts.” Giovanna’s seemingly boundless obsession with, and revulsion at, her own body (and the perceived disgust of others) seems excessive only until you inhabit the mind of a teenage girl. And then, all at once, it makes perfect sense. There is an absolute, infallible logic of heightened self-consciousness into which Ferrante writes, as does Scarlett Thomas. The British novelist’s newest book Oligarchy (Counterpoint Press) begins with Natasha, the daughter of a Russian oligarch, joining a private, all-girls English boarding school. Here, Tash (the “more English” variant of her name) finds herself in a rarefied world of money, angst, and the all-consuming desire to be thin. Tucked away in a turret, the most remote of the school’s dorms, it’s as if Tash and her friends (including Tiffanie, who “is too lazy, too French, and frankly too fucking cool to learn English pronunciation”) were “put here for a deliberate reason, to make them feel different from everyone else: to make them go bad.” Haunted by the ghost of Princess Augusta, whose portraits line the school’s gothic hallways, the “bad apples” (later, just “apples”) are consumed by what teenage girls are often singularly devoured by: themselves. Thomas’s novel is an account of the interior lives of adolescent girls; a text haunted by all of us who have walked those strange corridors before. Oligarchy is also every boarding school story you’ve ever read gone wrong; or rather, gone true. Thomas writes: “On Sunday night the girls break out of the attic dorms and it’s like an Enid Blyton book except it isn’t because in what Enid Blyton book do girls escape at midnight to weigh themselves on kitchen scales that they then break?”  Blyton’s Claudine at St Clare’s, who limited herself to tiny portions of cake, certainly couldn’t have conceived of it. But Ferrante’s Giovanna probably could have. And Tiffanie? Well, it was Tiffanie who broke the scales.    Richa Kaul Padte: You write of teenagers: “They raise their eyebrows and lower them again and experiment with the sort of make-up that male teachers can never detect but female ones always can. Not because they plan to lie . . . [but because] at fifteen you have to practice everything you do.” I’m always so grateful to have left that awkward age behind, but at various points Oligarchy made me go: “Wait, do I still . . . do that?” Do you ever still feel the extreme self-consciousness of being a teenage girl, or did you write it purely from memory (or research!)? Scarlett Thomas: Oh my God—totally! Most recently, it’s been about Zoom calls; first experimenting with all the normal filters, and then adding lighting and plants in the background. I now do my makeup with Zoom open, and as a result I think I look okay on screen but kinda weird IRL. Recently I had to have a meeting on Microsoft Teams, and I spent about half a day trying to get Snap Camera to work with it just because I couldn’t bear to appear unfiltered. There’s so much technology now to assist this sort of thing. I take pictures of outfits now too—although that does actually save time when deciding what to wear. I feel so comforted by this! Last year I read Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory, in which she talks about how our selfies feel truer and more like “us,” because it’s the same image we see in the mirror. On the other hand, candid pictures can feel quite alarming, because at some level we literally don’t recognize ourselves in them. She writes: “It’s the reflection that’s inaccurate, but to us, the unreversed face looks wrong.” Do you mirror your image on Zoom? (I definitely do!) Actually, no! I did at the start, but then I sort of became obsessed with this other, weirder self that I didn’t know at all. On the one hand I’m trying to make myself as fake as possible (all the filters, etc., as I said) but on the other hand I’m so obsessed with the image that’s seen that I want to work on the canvas as I know others are experiencing it. Also I like seeing my book jackets non-mirrored. Bodies loom large in your text—even when they’re practically disappearing. There’s this great paragraph I wish I could quote in full, but some of it goes: “Rachel, whose dark regimen of pubic hair has paraded shamelessly up to her belly button and down her thighs . . . Lissa, whose T-zone cannot be absorbed by all the cotton wool balls in the world . . . Donya, whose underarms smell of offal.” Are the keenest observers of teen girls’ bodies other teen girls? Where does this lead? I think part of being young is about just how much you notice. Kids drink everything in in a way that adults don’t. When I was young, I noticed everything, remembered everything. And I guess I was super-critical in a way I definitely didn’t understand. I sensed that I had this thing that adults wanted, but also that the thing was utterly without meaning or value. Having perfectly clear skin or visible collarbones is just random—or worse, it denotes being young and inexperienced. Who wants that? (Obviously I want it now I don’t have it any more, but back then I just wanted to be “experienced.”) There seems to be a sort of public acknowledgement thanks to the new Britney documentary that teenage girls—including queen Britney, herself—have so much less power than we imagine they do. And I wonder if that imaginary has to do with precisely this: that as adults, we want what they have (or what we once had), so much so that we forget how very little control teenage girls are actually afforded?   Yes, absolutely! It seems to be one of the cruel ironies of life that you want to be old when you’re young, and then young when you’re old. And the celebrity thing is fascinating. One of the great confidence tricks of capitalism is to make us believe that “stars” are powerful. Everyone grows up dreaming of becoming famous, but of course that means being exploited—literally becoming a branded item for sale. In that sense, Britney is less a human and more a product that broke down or malfunctioned. Why do we want that, rather than to become an exec with actual power? Growing up, I attended a very expensive boarding school where I was a day-student (my parents were teachers so I got to go for free). And something I really loved about Oligarchy was that it’s the only boarding school story I’ve ever read where a day-student doesn’t feel left out because they aren’t in dorm, but because they don’t have money. Which is exactly how I felt, surrounded by the many expensive things my friends so casually owned and used and lost. Was this a conscious choice, or have I just latched on to this detail given its personal resonance? It was conscious—I’m interested in hierarchies within hierarchies. Where other people might just see “wealth,” I always want to look for the nuance. It’s great, because we do start by thinking that everyone is just “rich,” but it’s all so relative. Even the context of an elite private girls boarding school is eventually revealed as “less-than” old English public schools (like Eton). Given that this is all still the one (or maybe . . . three?) percent, what do you see as the value in prying apart these distinctions and hierarchies within wealth? For me it’s less about the wealth and more about the hierarchies themselves. Hierarchies can be based on other things—attractiveness, daringness, or anything—but the key concept for me is always power. Who has it, how do you get it, how do you lose it?
‘No Villains, Only Messes’: An Interview with Lee Lai

Talking to the author of Stone Fruit on queer child care, the importance of breakups, and the peach-walnut dichotomy.

Our relationships are different now. They’re careful, scheduled, six feet apart, and nothing like the ones in the opening scene of Stone Fruit (Diamond Comic Distributors). Three monsters—two adults and a child—tear through dense forest, chasing a white dog with wild, dangerous glee. Nothing holds them back as they roar and sing, covered in mud and grinning. There is much to love in this graphic novel but—if for no other reason than that it reminds its readers of a time less troubled, less full of worry—these first moments of Stone Fruit are a gift. But the two adult monsters, Ray and Bron, are on the verge of breaking up. The only thing keeping them together is their biweekly play date with Ray’s niece Nessie. When the situation becomes untenable—not helped by Ray’s sister Amanda’s hostility—Bron leaves to reconnect with her family. Beautiful blue-gray tones give life to the relationships Ray and Bron hold dear, even as they change, or grow, or end. Immediate and melancholy, it’s those relationships that form the heart of the story. They are undoubtedly messy, but they are real and whole and—after many months of quarantine—they have been missed. What a joy, then, to get to meet with Lee in person, perched on a sun-warmed fire escape. Meeting someone new, talking and laughing in a moment of shared companionship: that, too, is a gift. Alyssa Favreau: A big part of the story is this idea of queer family, of chosen family, and how it plays out in Ray and Bron’s relationship. Why was this the story you wanted to tell? Lee Lai: Well, I am a homosexual in my twenties [laughs]. Something most of us tend to talk about a lot is the idea of chosen family: the idea that bio families tend to reject queer and trans people and so they go and find their own. But, at least in the stage of life that I’m in, people talk about it idealistically and with a lot of vigour and energy, and then end up struggling with what that actually looks like in practice. Ray particularly is very energized by the idea of hustling forth from what wasn’t satisfying about her biological family and creating that with Bron. I wanted to do [chosen family] in a way that doesn’t just shoot it to shit, because I don’t think it’s a useless idea, but I think it’s more complicated and difficult than me or my friends initially thought it was. The book focuses so perfectly on all the different relationships: Bron and Ray, each of their relationships with Nessie and with Amanda, Bron with her parents and with her sister Gracie. They’re all complicated, regardless of whether they’re biological or chosen, and I’m interested to know more about why you never privileged one type of relationship over another and refused the easy answers. I don’t think I’ve found easy answers yet. Maybe when I become an old person—if I’m so lucky—I’ll have some easy answers. Five or ten years ago I would have been more interested in the answer as a means of getting to where I want to be, but ultimately I make comics and I’m surrounded by homos and I’m so pleased with that. I’m essentially where I wanted to be. It’s more complicated than I ever could have imagined in terms of creating and maintaining healthy community and healthy relationships, and I imagine it only gets more complicated, but hopefully we get more skilled. I don’t know how you manage to be both bleak and hopeful. I feel very hopeful! I really believe in all these things, and the mess is part of what makes me believe in it. I have a rule for when I’m writing characters, which is “no villains, only messes.” No one can actually be a full villain and, if we’re willing to focus in enough, everyone’s bullshit and everyone’s mess is something that can be empathized with. It’s a bold move to have the central couple of your story spend most of the book apart. Is that always how you imagined it? Yes. I wanted to write a story about a breakup. Initially, it only followed Ray after that part, but I showed the first two chapters to Eli [Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch] and they were like, “What happens to Bron? I’m interested. It’s weird that you just drop this character off into the suburban WASP-y wilderness and we don’t see her until she comes back.” The structure that became this split, parallel situation didn’t happen until later. And it became much more satisfying when it did. For me to write, anyway. And to read. The way the two narratives work together is one of my favourite parts. It was a challenge [laughs]. I often find that, when I’m thrown into a couple’s story at a point where they’re having problems, there’s not enough there to make me invested. I end up thinking, “All I’ve seen is the problem. You should just break up.” But, with Bron and Ray, I immediately believed that they had been good for each other and that I should be rooting for them. I’m not sure how you did that, but maybe you can reveal some of your magician’s secrets. How did you decide how much of their relationship to show? I did, for my own purposes of what I wanted to figure out emotionally, want to show a breakup in which both people really care about each other—that’s not a question. They really love each other, and that’s not enough for them to figure out their problems and stay together. I’m also a big supporter of breakups. For the sake of growth and for the sake of people changing and thriving. Breakups can be really important. I wanted to show a breakup that isn’t about the relief of getting rid of someone. That people aren’t dispensable after the romance is gone but that sometimes, especially when people are bringing a lot of trauma to the table, things can’t work out in that way. But I feel like I’m rooting for those two. They both really care and I want them to both be okay. But that comes first before the relationship does.      Fine. I mean you’re right [laughs]. At one point it’s Ray’s sister Amanda who says that it’s “foolish to put all your belonging into any one person.” Who do you think is most guilty of that?    It depends what timeline you’re looking at. In my understanding, Amanda did it very intensely in her relationship with [her ex-husband] Dave, who’s not in the story but his presence is felt. It definitely comes through in the way she reacts to Ray and Bron’s relationship. Yeah, her prickliness, her assumptions about the other relationship. And she does it in a way that is less relatable to me: the very heteronormative, nuclear, two-parents-and-a-child vibe. But I think everyone has their own separate reasons for putting a lot of hopes into one other person. I think that’s also Nessie. She’s bearing some of that weight between Bron and Ray—the ways in which they’re kind of relying on those play dates to feel something, to feel some levity. I think they’re kind of all leaning on each other in different ways because they all have completely different needs for it. I don’t think they’re comparable. The intergenerational relationship with Nessie is a real highlight. She is such a beautiful presence in these characters’ lives and, because of that, it was so frustrating to see Amanda’s queerphobia manifest in such a “What about the children?” kind of way. How did that find its way into the story? Amanda, at the beginning of the story, when I started writing it, was more detestable than she became. I think I started liking her much more as I got into the later chapters and she and Ray started spending more time together. The fact that she’s somewhat jealous of the magic and the fun that Bron and Ray can have together was not what I wrote into the story initially. My friend Tommi [Parrish] gave that suggestion, [that] as a burnt-out single mom, it would be a kind of obvious step from there, and that that would be informing some of the ways in which she’s bitter and nasty. It felt very realistic. It helped to soften the character a bit and make her less of a villain. I was more interested in having her go from hateful and judgmental, and somewhat homophobic, to having more empathy and understanding for Bron. But I didn’t understand what her motivations were until they broke up. I don’t love showing homophobia and transphobia in stories. I don’t want that to be what it’s about, and I don’t plan on doing that much in the future, but I think I did want to show the softer side of what that can look like when it still is wearing someone down. There’s the more extreme version of Bron’s family, which I tried to show less even though it’s implied, but I think the ways it plays out in someone like Amanda is more familiar to my life, and harder to argue with. Or it’s got its claws more tangled up in interpersonal difficulty rather than it being about homophobia in a more flat way. And even though there’s a lot of concern about Nessie and how she’s dealing with the turmoil around her, she had a little cameo in a New Yorker comic that you drew, and she seems fine. Full of life and questions. That was the first version of those characters, actually. That was just when I wanted to write about aunties and a gay kid. Or a weird kid, I guess. Maybe she’s gay. I’m pretty sure she’s gay. She’s got good influences. But I wanted to write her because I wanted to show queers hanging out with kids more. Some serious wish fulfillment. I want to talk about the characters’ monster personas. They’re such a visceral, visual element of the story when Nessie, Bron, and Ray go to this “feral and screamy” place. Was that an element you had in mind from the beginning? Yeah, that was my effort to try and draw more freely and have a bit more fun while drawing. I found it really hard to draw the monsters and make it feel natural in my hand, but I didn’t know how to draw those play scenes without doing that, without creating monsters. It would have been so easy to have this couple bonding over a child in a way that’s nurturing in a settled, domestic way, but instead, you see Bron and Ray become wilder, access less controlled parts of themselves. Where does that come from? Why does Nessie in particular make them freer? I forget how to be a child. I think I was a very fun kid, but I grew into much more of a serious adult. And I miss that. Queers in general are really good at accessing play as a way of pushing out of the parts of their lives that are heavier. I think queers tend to make great carers for children, because they’re often able to interact with children in a way that isn’t condescending, by thinking about the ways they would want to be interacted with if they were a child, remembering what it was like to be a strange beast of a child. Children are fucking weird. [Laughs.] They’re so weird! I think it helps to have mindsets in which you’re not projecting assumptions onto children. And I think folks who don’t want to have assumptions projected onto them tend to be better at handling and encouraging the strangeness of children, and also enjoying that. Imaginative play is pretty consistently present throughout. You have it in the play dates but you also see it in Amanda and Ray adopting happier personas to help process grief. And queer family-making also is this act of radical imagination, a way of manifesting something that didn’t previously exist. It seems like that line between the real and the imagined is always in flux. Was that kind of magic realism something that particularly spoke to you? I tend towards wanting to make work in order to process feelings. I was just chewing on these heavy ideas of trauma and conflict in relationships. Those things are interesting and meaty and therapeutic to figure out in comics, but I want there to be some levity. I want the story to have energy and momentum, for there to be play. I think back on some of the heaviest points of my life and those were also times in which I was laughing so hard I was crying. I think there’s a point where, when someone’s under pressure, everything becomes hilarious and ridiculous. I want those two things to be blurry in stories because they are in real life.  I initially read this as a self-published first chapter. What was it like to see the project cross the finish line? I got really lucky because the first version was just a script. I’ve never done that before. I’ve mostly just written bursts of dialogue and pencilled them out in tandem. This was the first time I’d planned it quite laboriously beforehand. It still did not go to plan. It never does apparently. I wrote it in a scriptwriting class, and it was horrifying because it was the first time I’ve not had pictures to support the writing. There were a bunch of people workshopping the script, reading it, and telling me that all these characters sound the same, and they don’t know what’s actually happening, and maybe this bit is boring. Which is great! It’s so helpful getting edits. I need a lot of eyes on a project and so it was really great throughout the process to have people weighing in. Mostly I just want people to feel whatever they want to feel for this book. As long as they’re feeling something and they get from the first page to the last page, then it’s done its job. One thing that was kind of a breakthrough was seeing every single project as enabling the next. As a practice for the next thing. What allowed me to finish this was to not think about it as a product. It’s very cool that it’s being published and I’m very excited. Now I have an agent! But if I had known that from the beginning, I never would have finished it. It would have psyched me out intensely. It was a really good experiment and exercise in long-form, and it’s taught me enough to do it again. What more can you ask for? It’s very exciting. I don’t have a sister, so I’m curious to know why you chose to foreground that type of relationship. I have a sister; we’re very close. We shared a room our entire childhood and were completely at war the entire time, but grew into very close friends. I did not realize the book was going to be about the characters going off and connecting with their own siblings, but when it did it gained a lot of momentum, because it was something that I started realizing I could write a lot about and had a lot of feelings about. I know this isn’t everyone’s experience, but it’s been cool having this example of someone you haven’t chosen who is just automatically there and will always be there, regardless of how much shit you have between you. It’s an interesting way of thinking about indispensability. It seems like a type of relationship that can be so close but also so fraught. It’s interesting to see Ray rebuilding with her sibling whereas, with Bron, that relationship just isn’t quite there yet. But you do feel that there’s potential for it. I hope that the book ends in a place where there’s lots of potential for all the different kinds of relationships. I think [Ray and Bron] would be friends, and I think there’s an effort to try and project that a little bit in the conversation they have around whether Bron can still be an auntie at the end. Ray needs some time, but I’d be surprised if not. Bron and Gracie are the most ambiguous. They end on a bit of a sour point, but I just can’t see any of those relationships actually falling flat at that point. I want to show relationships in which people are having a messy time and just continuously trying, and picking up again, and trying it from a different angle. And not having a rosy time about it, the entire time. [Laughs.] I really appreciate effort. It’s hard when, for Ray and Bron, there is that concerted effort at communication, but it doesn’t work. Which is true to life: it doesn’t always work. Do you agree with Ray when she says that there’s “no amount of storytelling or sharing or talking that would close the gap”? I don’t know if it’s as simple as there being a gap to close. It’s maybe rethinking the gap. One of the things that I wanted to show in their relationship is this idea that Ray is a bit scared of Bron, or fears the things that might not serve the relationship. And then those things bubble over anyway. If there’s going to be any kind of sustainability, those short-term efforts to create compatibility just won’t work. You can’t cut it to make it fit. Maybe the gap needs to exist. Bron in particular really struggles with being not just looked at, but seen. Why is that kind of recognition so important to her? It’s painful and alienating to be just looked at. I don’t think people can get much done, in terms of thriving, from that place. But I also think that, if someone has not felt seen, it becomes hard to know how to get seen. If someone has always been othered, it becomes hard to create relationships where you can trust that you can open yourself up enough to feel something. That’s definitely and obviously a very real thing for trans folks, and there’s also the thing of growing up thinking you don’t exist. That is a very difficult way to become an adult. Being seen is just being in connection [in a way] that is real and whole, and I don’t think anyone has an easy time with that part, regardless of who they are. But it’s essential for survival. I think she’s just an example of how difficult it can be for someone. Final question: Why have the peach as a metaphor? Is it just go-to queer symbolism in a post-Call Me by Your Name world? I forgot about the fucking of the peach! Oh god, it probably is, yeah. Like most people, I just love a good metaphor. I don’t like binaries or categories but use them just as much as everybody else to play with ideas. We all seem to love horoscopes even though they are definitive in ways that are not particularly helpful. [Laughs] Agreed. I still love talking about them. I’m the most Taurus. I’m a Taurus moon! I’m a Scorpio moon, I feel a lot of feelings inside. I love that for you. One of the metaphors that I was enjoying talking about with friends while I was writing—as a way of nerding out about feelings and modes of connection—was this idea of the peach and the walnut as different ways of doing vulnerability. The idea that someone has this Cancer crab outer shell where they’re really spiky and impenetrable, but then they’re just this fucking ocean of soft feelings and vulnerability inside once someone has proven themselves to be trustworthy. And then there’s the peach person whose defences and coping mechanisms look like being really agreeable and friendly and soft on the outside, but then if someone actually starts connecting with them, they realize that there’s quite an inner wall. I think it can actually be kind of disastrous when two people connect without realizing that they’re different in that way. And so they’re bringing preconceived ideas around trust into that way of connecting. It can be hazardous. Well, I’m down for that being the next astrology, or the next love languages. [Laughs] The peach and the walnut! I’m definitely a peach.
‘The Body Feels Like a Journey Into Unknown Space’: An Interview with Alexandra Kleeman

Talking to the author of Something New Under the Sun about realist novels, writing as an archaeological excavation, and taking for granted fitting into the world.

Alexandra Kleeman published her first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, in 2015. It’s a strange, affecting, and exacting satire about food and beauty and contemporary culture. What especially set it apart, for me, was its depth of emotional resonance. Kleeman cares about the human results of the targets of her acute eye. Reading her debut gave me a sense that I was encountering a major writer at the beginning of her career. Her follow-up, the story collection Intimations, stoked those embers of promise by expanding her narrative scope. The stories vary wildly in tone and style, and yet the book as a whole is deliberately structured to mirror the arc of life. Kleeman, as an artist, can unify disparate material through her unique sensibility. She’s a literary wrangler. Something New Under the Sun (Hogarth), her long-awaited second novel, more than fulfills the potential of her first. It represents a leap forward for her as a writer. The language is exquisite and inventive and full of rhythmic poise. I found myself reading numerous sentences aloud, basking in their bracing eloquence. Here’s an example, from the opening chapter: [The city] resembles an old photograph, faded in color, with a swath of flat gray rooftops close to the highway, a sea of smaller homes and buildings with reddish, quirkily tiled roofs in the middle ground. Neighborhoods pool at the base of the brown hills in the distance; tiny modernist structures stud the slops and peaks, swaddled by smog. It looks like a diorama, three different strips of cardboard painted and stood upright to form a realistic landscape, each successive piece rendered a little hazier than the one before, articulating how vast the distance is between where they had been and where they are going. The novel is set in the near future, and it focuses on Patrick Hamlin, a writer whose autobiographical novel is being adapted into a film starring a scandalous young Hollywood actress named Cassidy Carter, the former child star of the popular show Kassi Keene: Kid Detective. As an East Coaster, Patrick’s completely out of his element in the Los Angeles of the future: the film production has little use for him; wildfires rage everywhere; the city’s water has been privatized in the form of a mega corporation called WAT-R, which manufactures endless variations of faux-water with names like WAT-R Basic, WAT-R Pure, and WAT-R Energy Surge Plus. Meanwhile, Patrick’s wife, Allison, has opted not to come to California, and has instead taken their daughter Nora to a new age nature retreat called Earthbridge in upstate New York. Isolated, away from his family, and in unfamiliar territory, Patrick finds himself enmeshed in a Pynchonian conspiracy that might involve the film’s inscrutable producers and a neurological disorder known as Random Onset Advanced Dementia (ROAD). It’s a wild, funny, and brilliantly observed satire. I spoke to Kleeman over Zoom, but as her social media seemed to show her in numerous locations, I began by asking… Jonathan Russell Clark: Where are you located now? Alexandra Kleeman: I am in Colorado right now. But my head’s sort of spinning because I came back last week from Italy, and I had to go to California immediately. And I came here—and every place has been very different, obviously—but they've all had their own particular kind of unusual heat that's going on. So the different feels of that on my body have me feeling very, like, fish out of water. On hot, hot ground. It was intense. The heat in the air felt like a wall, like you were concretely moving through. And even as it was dry, the sort of pressure from the heat was just a different sensation on my body and a different sensation even from previous times I've been in the desert in the summer. So maybe it's also that I'm reading, you know, about mussels cooking on the British Columbian coast at the same time. But it's definitely a weird time to have a body. Maybe as always. But right now does feel particularly dire. Yeah, it does. But also, we're so good at acclimatizing to the new particular form of dire. It's as though the world has to keep generating new versions of dire to make us feel that feeling. And it does, and we do. And then we go make a grilled cheese sandwich or something. I wanted to talk about your language in the book, which I just found so gorgeous. There’s a line where you refer to a grouping of trees as a “sarcastic smattering.” You employ such defamiliarizing usage. That means so much to me. I think as readers we all recognize it in a book, like when we find the description, and it's written in a way that feels both totally apt, and also doesn't feel like any of the things you'd reach for first. That's partly why my metaphor for writing, or what it feels like I'm doing when I'm writing, is often like I'm digging with a trowel, with a shovel, never with anything great like a backhoe or powerful equipment. But just digging past what's on the surface and digging until you find a thing that you can pull out. And in the extended metaphor—I think I have one of the characters using it, too—I think a lot about writing a novel as a sort of archaeological excavation. You know your site, sort of, and then you aren't sure exactly what you're going to find. You know where to dig, you start seeing pieces of it. And the pieces are a surprise at first, and then it becomes a game of arranging properly and arranging carefully, like, in the same way that you don't want to put, you know, the Apatosaurus head on the Tyrannosaurus skeleton and think you created your new species. You go from being the discoverer to being the analyst or something. So for you it’s about uncovering rather than building, revealing rather than building up and constructing. Yeah, I mean, for better or for worse, I've never been a person who's good at feeling entirely in control or good at operating in the mode of being in control. I always have to feel like I'm in a space where I know some things and I don't know other things—to have a pleasurable balance between having agency, being able to move around, being able to uncover and do things, and also beingable to be surprised, because if I weren't surprised, I would just be rehearsing what I already knew about this world or about the story. The novel is set in Los Angeles in the near future, and Patrick, the protagonist, a writer from the East Coast, feels out of sorts there, which I completely understand. Whenever I’m in LA, I feel like I’m unsure of how they do things. I really love that you had some of the same feelings moving around LA as me. I lived there for a while when I was a kid, and I've been back for longer and shorter periods of time. But there is often this interesting feeling that I think sometimes is rarer and rarer these days, but this feeling that like, Oh, I've suddenly stepped out of my element and out of sync. I don't know how this all works. This seems to be an ordinary thing, but I don't know what it is or how to use it—like, yeah, the surreal experience I had writing this was I had already decided on water and the name for it and things like that. And I went to Los Angeles on the trip, and as I was driving around Silver Lake, that neighborhood, I saw these water stores, which is exactly what I was working on building. They seemed to specialize more in a slightly alkaline water, because this is supposed to be good for your body—you could buy it in large amounts, refilling your own containers, or smaller amounts just come in a bottle. And I saw what it was—I understood the text, but I didn't understand who it was for or how to use it or how you asked for it or whether I needed it. Just these ordinary things that, you know, you couldn't find out about a place and you can’t preadjust yourself for unless you go there. It's disorienting when that happens, which is interesting, but it's also sort of a precious thing, because I think we live in a world where so, so much is expected to be standardized, so we can move around it smoothly. Like, when I drive—while around Colorado, where I'm from, or between Colorado and the West Coast or the East Coast—I sometimes feel like my path along the highway is smooth in this way that's supposed to make me feel like, Don't worry, you haven't really gone anywhere, you're still in the same place, it's just been stretched all across from the left to the right of this block of land. And you can pay in the same way. Every place takes your variety of credit card. And so to be reminded that there is such a thing as place, and that you're crossing distance, and as you're crossing habitat, and that different kinds of ecological systems actually work very differently… seems like a useful kind of jarring experience. Something New Under the Sun is futuristic, satirical, and even could be classified as postmodern, which is funny to me because I felt while reading it that it also felt almost old-fashioned—a novel with big political ideas and characters with names like Horseshoe and the Arm, who speak in depth about philosophical ideas. The realist novel, I think, was one of those things for me, because there were many I enjoyed reading, but there wasn't a lot of space where I could see myself operating in that mode. I felt like what characterizes a realist novel is: character-centered, maybe human-centered, maybe maintaining a proper and aesthetic proportion between, you know, what's relevant and what's in the background—like, a foreground/background relationship. Like, here's what's important, here's the stuff that reminds you there's a whole world, so don't worry about it. But recently, as I've gotten more interested in writing one—like, I think of this as roughly my realist novel, where that foreground/background distinction kind of collapses—I've been wondering about how the realist novel directs our attention to some parts of reality and not others. Reality is this vastly entangled thing with billions of people, technology, and climatic factors, nonhuman players that we never know, a million anthills that we never ever write about, all these different things, and we cut this path through it that makes the world seem on the whole more stable and more tidy than I think that it is, and that tightness helps us focus in on the characters and feel for them in this intense, interlocked, and involving fashion. But increasingly, I feel like the emotions that I have as a person supposedly living in reality have a lot to do with the outside and with the unexpectedness of things that I realize are going on that unsettled my idea of what I should be paying attention to, and what is going on in my life—it pushes into the frame. And my life, a lot of times in the past few years, has felt less like a thing that, well, how should I say, is less like a house that I live in [in] my life, and more like just a space that people are constantly walking through. I've never used that metaphor before. I'm not sure it works. But something like that. Your first novel focused a lot on the body and food, and this new one also concerns itself with the things we put in our bodies, here in the form of WAT-R, the fabricated, corporatized water. What is it about the body that interests you? To me, the body feels like a journey into unknown space as well. It's a journey into the external space that's inside us. Because there’s such an interesting and varied way in which we relate to our body. I think when you cast your eyes over your body, from the eye—I want to evoke a video game term, like the first-person-shooter perspective. You pass your eyes over your body and you feel a different level of recognition of acceptance of identification with each different part. Some part looks the same, some part looks a little different—you wonder if that's because you're getting older or because you've been spending more time in the sun or you've been doing exercise, whatever it is. It's a constant effort, I think, to sweep all these different parts into some sense of belonging and identity; there are times when it happens naturally, and then there are times when you're doing work to pull that body together. And on the inside, too, I feel like the feelings [of] identification get even more entangled, especially. We're at a point of high self-knowledge about the mechanics of the body and what's in it and how it works, and yet I think we still don't necessarily know that much more about how to care for our bodies—like, what's the right way to eat? Is it this paleo extreme diet? Or this raw food diet? Or this Mediterranean diet? Or this? You know? How do we not just know our body, but how do we, like, love it and care for it—and, in doing that, care for ourselves? There's something about the body that always remains for an evening, as we always try to make it our own. And the Earth is a body, too. And we certainly don’t know how to correctly take care of that. Your use of water in the book is pretty apt in that sense. It’s the connective tissue between all of life; it runs through everything. In writing this, I tried to think a lot about the different ways in which I was taught where water was. And I think one of the most common ways was in chemistry, when you learn water is a special substance—it's made up of these molecules, and some of the special properties it has, [the energy it takes] to heat one gram of water one degree, that it will freeze and will evaporate—and in the middle of those two extremes we live and we take advantage of its plasticity and its properties to make all of our life processes possible. But when you think of water, when you learn about water, as this list of features and abilities and qualities, it becomes possible to think, well, there could be something else that ticks off almost all those boxes, and some of those boxes are important. Some of them are ancillary. So we can create a substitute, you know, and when you atomize something, it becomes possible to think of recreating and replicating it, remaking it. But there are so many other ways to understand water, too, and to understand its social function, its ecological function—to understand the way that it in its specific volume and presence in an environment makes it possible for this type of life to exist around, it makes it possible for a certain number of animals or species to gather there. Our history of water management has been one of atomization. What were the first seeds of Something New Under the Sun? One of the first ideas was doing an exploration of water in a second book that would parallel an exploration of food [in the first book]. And food and water have some similarities, especially in the way that they enter the body and the connection that they have to survival. For some reason, I'm almost fixated on survival, and what elements of the survival relationship you can see in in the corners and crevices of a life that is comfortable and does not seem to be about survival. I feel like our lives are arranged so that we think about success, or progress, or perfecting ourselves, or maybe improving ourselves, healing ourselves, whatever it is. But beneath that, there's this heartbeat of survival, your basic material connection to the world. And so I was planning on doing the second book on another survival material, water, and then this third one that I'm working on is about money, which may or may not be a necessity of survival. So I wanted to do something about water. And I grew up in a state that has similar water issues as California. So in Colorado, we're currently in another big drought. We’re in a summer of record heat following another summer of record heat. And last summer, when I was in Colorado, they had three of the ten biggest wildfires in Colorado history, all within one year, and we had the first and second biggest two. So many records were broken. And it marked a sort of categorical shift in how I experienced the weather in Colorado, because I'd always heard of wildfires, or sometimes you could see a wildfire—growing up in California I saw wildfires semi-regularly, usually smaller ones that would be, you know, on the hill as you're driving past Fry's Electronics about to take another exit on to a different highway to go back home. It was just something in the background, and you could pay attention to it or you could not pay attention to it. But last summer, it was impossible not to notice all the time that there was a wildfire going on someplace, because it just changed the transparency of the air. It eliminated the mountains from view on a lot of days, it turned the sun red. Also, in a way that was more difficult to pin down, it changed the feeling of your body, of your lungs, how the air felt going in, the temperature it seemed to be, whether you felt well breathing outside—sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in very extreme ways. Most of the people I knew living in Colorado bought air filtration systems. Characters in the novel suffer from a neurological disorder called ROAD (Random Onset Acute Dementia), a result of drinking WAT-R. Where did that idea come from? I spent some years working in aphasia research. So I was in cognitive science in the language processing lab, and we spent time making language processing experiments for both college student types [with] unimpaired language function, and then also with aphasics in the New England area who would do the same language tasks. And in the delays that it took to do them, or in the breakdown in the ability to come up with a correct response to a question, you can identify sort of how the language system has been bruised or broken by damage in these in particular areas of the brain. The history of how people have treated people with aphasia, or with brain damage, language loss, or impairment otherwise, is a sad and dark one. Because, you know, humans often get talked about as the language animal—the thing that sets us apart from other animals. Obviously, animals have language systems of their own, to varying degrees, but it seems true throughout human history as a whole that when someone loses the ability to speak language, or when they go and speak language the way you want them to, if they're a foreigner, if they don't speak properly, it is an excuse to dehumanize them. In both dementia and in aphasia, it's this loss of fit with the world that I'm really interested in. And something that I feel we aren't grateful enough for most of the time—that most of us fit the world so well, which lets you do basic things like ordering food in a restaurant, talking on the phone, setting up a medical appointment. There are different obstacles in different places where you feel that lack of fit, like being uninsured, and being unable to take care of a simple thing with your body, you know? The world is made so that even if you feel like you move through fluidly a lot of the time, sometimes you get kicked into this zone of non-fit and you feel your vulnerability and your specificity there so intensely. So I think what I was interested in with Random Onset Acute Dementia (ROAD) is thinking about, like, we have a certain fit with reality, and it lets us have a consensus reality with other people and share—share our experiences, more or less, even argue about our experiences when I see them differently. But to lose that, and to no longer have access to a form of reality that lets you share space and time with people is a really scary idea to me. And, you know, not to be too dramatic about it, but I think that there have been sometimes recently where you can have a conversation with someone sitting next to you on a plane or with a family member and really feel like we do not share a consensus view of reality. It's this jarring feeling. And in it, you know, you think that you're probably the one with a better version of reality, but you know that you don't seem that way to the other person. And it feels sort of like you could slide right off the face of reality.
‘All My Antennae are Tuned to the Emotional Voltage of the Situation’: An Interview with Barrett Swanson

The author of Lost in Summerland on marriage, Virginia Woolf and the hermeneutics of suspicion. 

When I first encountered Barrett Swanson’s essay “Lost in Summerland”—a reported piece about a road trip to a Spiritualist convention taken in the wake of his older brother’s traumatic brain injury and its resultant (possible) psychic powers—I couldn’t stop sharing or talking about it. Credit to my friend Chelsea, who passed me the story in the first place. Or maybe she tweeted it out? I can’t remember. This was in the old world, at the end of 2019. I was still technically on Twitter then, though my attachment was frayed: I’d recently downgraded from a smart phone to something less interested in knowing me, and I’d put a block on my computer to prevent access to the site most of the week. I say all this so you’ll understand that it was a moment of real coincidence—not just an algorithmic belch passing as synchronicity—when Swanson, who is not on social media at all, came across an essay I’d written three years earlier and sent me an email just days after I’d appointed myself a proselytizer for his work. We struck up a sort of low-key pen pal-ship. Swanson’s debut collection of non-fiction, also Lost in Summerland (Counterpoint), is a blend of empathetic reporting and incisive thinking that takes the reader on a guided tour of America’s wild, imaginative, and sometimes dangerous myths. Follow him into a mouldering futurist’s Floridian swamp-palace; down the rabbit hole of true crime conspiracies haunting the economically fragile Midwest; into the literal rubble of a Disney-inflected FEMA disaster simulation training centre. In a book about the power and limitations of narrative, Swanson’s essays search out older, maybe kinder ways to say new things. Lost in Summerland reminds us that a good and well-told story can, sometimes quite literally, save a person’s life. In keeping with our pre-existing correspondence, Swanson answered my questions by email. Suzannah Showler: Is it cheating if I start by asking you about something we’ve talked about a little bit before? A number of the essays in Lost in Summerland are dispatched from communities and subcultures that you have some kind of affinity with or para-relationship to but are not all the way inside of (psychics; anti-war veterans-turned-farmers; a men’s group/corporatized toxic masculinity recovery retreat; West Wing cos-players, etc.). I was wondering if you could start by saying something about that insider-outsider thing, and how it works for you both when you’re immersing yourself in something in the first place and when you’re writing about your experience after the fact?  Barrett Swanson: Oh, god. Where to start. I suppose the insider-outsider thing begins for me with the very scenario of writing longform magazine pieces, in part because I'm trained as a fiction writer and so most of my instincts are utterly different than those of a quote-unquote real journalist. (I would gasp for want of breath if I mentioned all the times when my inexperience or lack of training made me look like an absolute lummox with editors; I remember very distinctly, for instance, having to look up the term “nut graf” after receiving an editorial note during my first time writing a magazine piece). Setting aside the clinical levels of shame and imposter syndrome I'm apt to feel in such moments, I’m inclined to think that my inexperience—my outsider status in the magazine world—has served me well, because I tend to come at a place or a subject with an infant-like blankness in terms of what I’m “supposed” to do with the topic. All my writerly antennae are instead tuned to the emotional voltage of the situation as opposed to whatever would supposedly make for a “good” piece of magazine journalism.  I guess this goes some way toward explaining my approach when it comes to entering into these subcultures. Basically, I'm trying to immerse myself as much as possible in the intellectual and emotional frequencies of the experience. My whole goal, at least for the first few hours (or days or weeks, depending upon the extent of the reporting), is to disappear. Joan Didion has this great thing about how her slightness physically causes people to forget that she’s in the room and makes them more likely to reveal themselves. I guess I try to do a similar thing, at least dispositionally. I want to be so open and receptive to the people I’m meeting that I’m basically a mirror, so that they take me as one of their own. Possibly that sounds Iago-ish, or something, particularly because so many of the groups I cover are zany or a little out-there, maybe, but as you mentioned, I almost always choose topics that intersect in some way with my own life. I wrote about anti-war veterans because I teach a lot of people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, which made me think about the debts I might owe them. I wrote about psychics and mediums because after my brother had a traumatic brain injury, he started having paranormal experiences. If there’s one thing I think I’m halfway decent at as a reporter, it’s my ability to chameleon myself onto the psychic ambiance of the situation. Sometimes this can be physically and spiritually exhausting—the men’s retreat piece, for instance, was a veritable Iliad of emotions—but I think there’s a deeper dimension to this, because this effort, at least for me, is born of the impulse to consider how I’m implicated in the topic I’m writing about.  One thing of things that I found really exhausting as a graduate student was that we were constantly encouraged to read texts “suspiciously”—or with what gets called “the hermeneutics of suspicion”—which assumes that the text contains biases and subterranean arguments that a reader must unearth and bring to light. One assumes that the author is the enemy and so we must constantly bloodhound around, looking for signs of contradiction or symptoms of bad faith. While this critical stance has much to recommend it, I can’t help noticing how this suspicion has infiltrated the larger culture and has become our default mode of interacting not only with texts, but also other people and the outside world. This seems particularly prevalent in a lot of non-fiction writing, where the whole aim and objective is to eviscerate one’s subject in ways that flatter social media algorithms and rack up a lot of retweets. I am sick to death of this kind of writing—the dunks and pile-ons, the takedowns and hot-takes. Such mercilessness seems so easy and is so utterly antithetical to what I take to be the artistic imagination. And so, I have turned to a different mode of critical reading to inform my headspace when reporting. One of my friends, the essayist Jon Baskin, has written about how the philosopher Stanley Cavell practices a type of interpretation where the hermeneutics of suspicion are trained not on the text but on the reader themself. Cavell wants us to ask, “How is the book implicating me? How is it exposing aspects of myself that I normally keep hidden?” For me, the act of reporting functions as a similar form of introspection. What does this subculture expose about me that I don’t want to confront? How am I culpable or complicit? Which is another way of saying: how is the reader complicit? If a piece isn’t asking this question, I’m not interested in reading it. It is laughably easy to point and sneer—far harder (and more artistically daring) to acknowledge one’s own place in all this.  I’m very much with you on all of this! And that’s more or less where your book starts, right? The opening essay is about a moment when you run up against the limits of that mode of suspicious interpretation and it provokes a kind of crisis of narrative. Or a life crisis within narrative. I read the rest of the book with that “end stages of suspicion” feeling in mind—I saw it as being as much about its subjects as it is about re-building a relationship to narrative.  Since you mention the kind of writing you’re sick of—what are you not sick of? What are you loving, or wish you saw more of? Also, kind of a left-field question, but what did you love reading as a kid, or before your brain was colonized by suspicion?  In terms of contemporary essayists, I really love the work of Elif Batuman, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and Elisa Gabbert. While I admire all of her work, Batuman’s recent essay about Zoom versions of Greek tragedies during the COVID pandemic was easily the best thing written in the past year, which is why I’ve become a diehard evangelist for that piece; so much so that my students have to tell me “enough about Elif Batuman already.” Ghansah and Gabbert I love for similar reasons—all three are committed to tunneling into their experiences alongside whatever subject they’re covering in a way that ensures that they almost always have skin in the game. They are almost always risking something either emotionally or intellectually. I’m also a diehard fan of Sheila Heti, whose last two books—How Should a Person Be and Motherhood—I have begun to interpret as a strain of spiritual writing, inasmuch as this is a writer who’s willing to take the moral decisions in her life seriously and without embarrassment. I aspire to that kind of unswerving candor, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. I also teach Virginia Woolf for school, and because she is my heart’s true friend, I never get sick of her stuff. My students make fun of me for it, but I get pretty worked up whenever I get to the Septimus section of Mrs. Dalloway, or when Clarissa finds a way to forgive Miss Kilman, the religious woman, who’s stealing the attention of her daughter. Here’s one of my favourite passages, where Clarissa’s thoughts swerve from hate to sympathy: “Odd it was, as Miss Kilman stood there (and stand she did, with the power and taciturnity of some prehistoric monster armoured for primeval warfare), how, second by second, the idea of her diminished, how hatred (which was for ideas, not people) crumbled, how she lost her malignity, her size, became second by second merely Miss Kilman, in a mackintosh, whom Heaven knows Clarissa would have liked to help.” How many of us suffer from a similar misapprehension, mistaking people for ideas—and ideas for people? Reading-wise, as a kid, I was pretty into Stephen King. I think the first truly “adult” book I read at age 11 or so was It, which for about thirteen different reasons—not least among them my innate sensitivity and anxiety—was a mistake. Even now as an adult, whenever I hear the pipe organ intermezzos of your standard carnival music, I’m apt to suffer PTSD-grade flashbacks from that early encounter with Pennywise. What else? I was a pretty committed athlete as a little guy, so I remember inhaling lots of sports biographies, alongside the journals of Kurt Cobain (was I ever so young?), and then whatever teachers got me into from school—Ethan Frome, The Red Badge of Courage, and Edgar Allan Poe. Pretty morbid stuff for a middle schooler, to be honest. When I was reading Lost in Summerland, I found myself repeatedly cross-referencing any mention of your age against historical time markers and trying to suss out if we’re born the same year. Even as I was doing this, though, I was like: why does this matter so much to me? Partly I am just an annoyingly self-interested reader, and I was looking to have the sense of generational recognition I felt coming through in these essays affirmed. But I wondered whether you might resist being read as a generational writer when so many of these essays are, in one way or another, about complicating grouping people according to type (which is maybe another way of mistaking people for ideas, ideas for people). Also, follow-up before you’ve even answered: if we are the same age or proximate, can I ask you my new favourite thing to ask people our age? Do you think of yourself more as an old young person, or a young middle-aged person? Or are both totally unappealing and/or not of interest? Maybe not everyone is quite as obsessed with parsing degrees of aging as I am.  It’s funny because as I was reading your (incredibly brilliant) poetry collection, Thing Is, I had a similar hunch that we were about the same age. As you rightly suspect, the generational thing is tricky for me, not least because I’m wary of being seen as a gold-star-earning millennial, but also because I’m interested in the way that so many of our social issues have been radically de-historicized. Many of the essays try to suggest that whatever we might see as our unique or “unprecedented” social problems (pandemics, cataclysms, the evaporation of truth and consensus) actually have both ancient and modern precursors that might be useful and instructive. (For instance, part of the reason I decided to teach Mrs. Dalloway again this semester is that it’s fundamentally a pandemic novel; that first line—about Clarissa “buying the flowers herself”—suggests this is the first errand she’s undertaken since being bedridden with the influenza virus). Possibly the most salient example of this in the collection is the note about how spiritualism—what with its seances and table-tipping—roughly coincided with the death of God and the birth of capitalism, two phenomena that torpedoed most of the reigning assumptions that Americans had about reality. I try to make the case that this mirrors our own present culture’s interest in astrology and New Ageism, which is an attempt to find order and meaning in the wake of Trump and post-truthism.   And about the aging thing. Oh, god, Suzannah. I don’t know. I teach four classes a semester at a Midwestern university, so mostly I just feel old. For a while, I used to pride myself on being the hip young professor, but this year especially I have fallen so behind on the argot and lingo that I essentially feel like a senior citizen. Because we are holding online classes for the pandemic, the students tend to use the chat feature a lot during our web conferences, and they might as well be typing Sanskrit. Plus, when you go bald in your early twenties, as I did, you’re forced to reckon with the questions of aging at a breakneck velocity. While your friends head to the liquor store to grab provisions for a party, you’re traipsing over to Walgreens for a fresh bottle of Rogaine. More seriously, though, if there’s an extent to which I feel “young,” it’s owing to the fact that I haven’t yet been able to afford some of the major assets we might otherwise associate with one’s entrance into middle-age. There was a great piece in n+1 maybe like ten years ago about how all the complaints regarding millennials’ arrested development ignored the extent to which student loan debt has skyrocketed across the last half century, and the idea of financial solvency before the age of 40 was either a matter of extreme class privilege or an out-and-out pipe dream. Speaking of the hallmarks of “adulthood” (scare quotes necessary), I want to ask you about the role marriage plays in the book. Your wife is in a lot of these essays, providing little glosses and tethers. And then marriage as a concept is more explicitly explored in the last essay, “A Church Not Made with Hands,” which I’m really trying not to spoil right now. I happen to really love being married a weird and identity-making amount, and I often feel like a huge square about it. But you seem to be arguing for coupling as a kind of ethical practice (in a way that reminded me of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, actually, which you bring up when describing Sheila Heti’s work). I was wondering if you could say more about what you’re up to here? (And can you tell me that it’s cool to like marriage?)   I’m roaring with laughter at this question because I, too, feel like a huge square about my love for being married. Kierkegaard was very much on my mind throughout “Church Not Made with Hands”—not only Either/Or but also Works of Love, particularly his stuff about how to treat one’s “neighbour.” As it happens, I’m currently writing a piece about marriage and the screwball comedies from the 1930s and ’40s (think: His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth; think: My Favorite Wife and Adam’s Rib), which my wife and I have been re-watching during this last phase of the pandemic. Not only do these movies make me revere, afresh, directors like Leo McCarey and George Cukor, but I am also just endlessly dazzled by Irene Dunne and Katherine Hepburn, whose wit and on-screen voltage is so pyrotechnically compelling. Anyways, Stanley Cavell (who is increasingly becoming a really important thinker for me) wrote about these films in an insufficiently celebrated book called Pursuits of Happiness, where he characterizes them as “comedies of remarriage,” in which the spouses divorce or separate at the beginning of the movie but, via a maze of side-splitting circumstances, come back together in the end. For Cavell, the salient feature of these films is how the spouses eschew new experiences for new ways of apprehending their experiences—i.e. rather than trading old lovers for new ones, they learn to reanimate their marriages through heroic leaps of perception, little dramas of “forgiveness,” which he describes as a forfeiture of revenge. He (somewhat provocatively) argues that the calisthenics of intellect and emotion that are necessary for marriage are the same ones required of us in the operations of a democratic society. More broadly, though, I think I find marriage intellectually compelling because it can function as the central narrative of our lives, one whose success depends upon our continual re-enchantment. In this way, its habits of mind resemble those of religion—elsewhere, I’ve described marriage as “the theology of us”—where the survival of the relationship depends on a shared interpretation of experience, a hermeneutics of affection. And I guess if we apply Cavell’s logic to this end, it would seem to suggest that sometimes failures of relationships can be the result of bad storytelling—bad interpretation. And maybe certain moments in my book suggest that the social contract—like that of marriage—can fail because of similar narrative deficits. Now that your book is entering the world, is there anything new you’re working on now that you can tell us about? And what, whether writing-wise or other, are you looking forward to this summer? I have a piece in Harper’s about a long weekend I spent inside a TikTok collab house, which was upsetting for about eleven different reasons. And I also have another essay that will run in Lit Hub about my experiences in a professional singing and dancing group when I was kid (long story). But apart from the aforementioned piece on the comedies of remarriage, I’m currently writing a long essay about forgiveness, and I’d like to do a reported piece on elephants, assuming anyone will let me write it. I’m also taking a stab at writing fiction again. Mainly, though, I’m trying to figure out how to preserve a sense of self that is not beholden to algorithms and to regard myself and the members of my community with imagination and patience.
‘I Want to Be in a Dance with the Reader’: An Interview with Megan Abbott

Talking to the author of The Turnout about why The Nutcracker is important for young girls, writing about the body, and the great noir trope of the insurance investigator.

“They were dancers,” begins Megan Abbott’s sure-footed new novel The Turnout (G.P. Putnam's Sons), describing adult siblings Dara and Marie Durant via their shared and lifelong vocation and obsession. Drilled as children by their maître de ballet mother, the sisters have long since taken over the family business, molding cycles of young girls as they had themselves been molded, exhorting their charges to literally follow in a lineage of bruised, bleeding, perilously equilibrious footsteps. Although it takes the outer shape of a thriller—a form of which Abbott remains a reigning adept some ten novels into her run—The Turnout is most compelling in its vision of dance as a kind of existential choreography. The narrative traces vicious circles like pirouettes around and through the wracked physiques and fragile psyches of its characters. Noir is in Abbott’s bones: there is, inevitably, a crime scene, a body, a bloody weapon, and a list of suspects. But these things are almost incidental to the effects that the writer is striving for this time out, and which she achieves. The central mystery here is primal: nothing more (or less) than the question of whether getting older and growing up are actually or at all the same thing. Childhood looms large in The Turnout. We learn early on in the story that the Durants’ main meal ticket is their academy’s annual and elaborate production of The Nutcracker, a ballet whose status as a wholesome holiday perennial belies its unsettling origins and subtext. E.T.A. Hoffman’s original 19th-century fable concerns a young girl in thrall to a handsome military doll and brainwashed in her dreams by an evil rat king—a plot given a considerably more whimsical (and sanitized) spin as the show was revamped and commercialized in the 1950s. The show’s protagonist is named Marie, and Abbott isn’t mincing metaphors (or messing around) by having her own Marie fall under the spell of a malevolent, nocturnal creature—Derek, the shady, middle-aged contractor contacted to repair the school’s interior after a devastating (and ostensibly accidental) flash fire. That the thick-waisted, heavy-booted Derek ends up doing his own sexual renovations on Marie—much to the horror of Dara and her crippled childhood-sweetheart (and ex-dancer) husband Charlie—is in keeping with The Nutcracker’s barely submerged themes of innocence initiated swiftly into experience, while the gaggle of younger, tutu-clad girls infesting the premises are like sugar plum fairies, imps recklessly rubbernecking at the scandals and messes of the adult world. At this point in her career, Abbott’s hard-boiled style has grown refined without becoming rarified; she writes precisely without making a fetish of precision (that kind of pathology is left to her characters). The Turnout unfolds in shapely clusters of subjectivity, informationally dense—i.e. everything we’ve ever wanted to know about the collateral damage of dancing ballet but were afraid to ask—yet emotionally transparent. The narrative is filtered through Dara, a watchful, controlling, but fundamentally passive woman whose horror at having her space—and the makeshift, quasi-incestuous three’s-company family unit she’s set up with Marie and Charlie—invaded by somebody whose business is remodelling is made palpable and contagious. The tension of Derek’s comings and goings evoke a sort of irrational B-movie horror (or maybe an episode of Property Brothers from Hell). The Turnout is never better than in these early, Derek-heavy, scene-setting passages, which bristle with anxiety, embarrassment, and an illicit eroticism that seems to come as much from Dara’s subconscious as her newly oversexed sister’s breathless, increasingly guilt-free reports from the field. Skepticism, speculation, protectiveness, competitiveness—Abbott conveys furtive, squirrelly sensations in a way that gets under our skin. She also manages the plot’s machinery like a pro, perhaps not to the point of fully disguising its grind—one big twist is telegraphed politely in advance—but so that there’s pleasure in the gears themselves (the aforementioned bloody murder weapon is worthy of inclusion in Clue). It’s rare to encounter a work of genre fiction that doesn’t throw its back out trying to pluck a few thorny ideas here and there, and rarer still that those ideas actually draw blood; by the end, the splayed, weary, marrow-deep ache evoked by Abbott’s prose gets transferred onto the reader. It hurts so good, and when it’s over, you’ll still feel it tomorrow. Adam Nayman: Do you remember the first time that you saw The Nutcracker? Megan Abbott: It was definitely a big part of my childhood. I mean, I was a terrible dancer. I did not last more than two years in ballet before I attempted tap instead, and you could imagine how successful that was. But every year we would go to see The Nutcracker in downtown Detroit, and it was just so magical. It's such a strange fairy-tale and so transfixing; as kids you like weird things, you like dark things, and you specially like it when it's supposed to be for you and it has all that dark stuff in it. It's also one of the two go-to titles you'd use if you were trying to convey an archetype of popular, enduring ballet. The other one is Swan Lake, which is more grown up, at least superficially. As you say, The Nutcracker seems innocuous, but one thing that The Turnout deals with is how kinky and sexualized it is under the surface, and the charge that it is. I looked a little into the history because apparently it was not a big deal until [George] Balanchine mounted a new version of it in the early 1950s and it became a Christmas special. He sort of turned it into this annual Christmas pageant for the whole family, and [did] not present it as a super-creepy story, but of course all the other things still get smuggled in. That's a phrase I love; Martin Scorsese uses it in his documentary My Personal Journey Through American Cinema, where he talks about B-movie directors smuggling things into their movies—subversive ideas, coded implications of sex, darker views of American institutions. Anyway, weirdly I feel like Swan Lake would actually be less damaging to give to young girls in childhood because it doesn't encourage you to become friends with your paedophilic uncle. (Can I add something here to indicate that I was kidding? E.g., “That’s a joke! I actually think The Nutcracker is important for young girls because they get to be the hero in that ballet, and also that children do like dark things. It’s a way of figuring out the world and its mysteries.”) Dara's understanding of The Nutcracker is very sophisticated: she understands it as narrative and as metaphor; she knows how to dance the parts and how to teach others to dance them; she directs the show and makes money from it. But she's still very much inside the story, unconsciously in her own life. Knowing how to do the magic trick doesn't mean you can't fall for it; it's like she's still the little girl watching The Nutcracker for the first time, still hypnotized by itall those years later. Yes! You kind of fall into these things when you're writing, whether it's conscious or not. It's true, though, for Dara that The Nutcracker became the template for her life without her knowing it, in that classic Freudian way where you have to keep repeating and repeating until you can break the cycle and release yourself. She's not able to do that, and so it becomes a trap. She's a very controlling person, and somewhat difficult, or at least that’s what some early readers told me. But I find her very moving because while all the characters in this book are trapped, she's the only one who doesn't know it, which seems like a greater tragedy. Ballet strikes me as a form where being trapped is part of the process, because there isn't necessarily freedom of expression. It's all very to the millimetre. It's restrictive, and whatever comes out isn't coming out of you. It's more about hitting your marks. The precision is so intense, and many dancers I read about have a lot of mental tricks of the trade to help them get past certain, very legitimate fears. I wrote a book about gymnasts, and it's a very similar discipline because they know you risk your life if you're a millimetre off. But I get why ballet dancers don't really like any cultural representations of their art form, because it tends to emphasize the pain of it above everything else. But it's also true that, historically, ballet requires you to transform your body in these very “unnatural” ways, and that torture is built into it. There’s been a strong push in recent years to move away from that, saying it doesn't have to be that way, and there's more talk now about different body types for male and female dancers, but that's not how it's been for most of the last century. Instead, the deal was you had to make your body do things it wasn't built to do: you have these children who aren't developed yet risking permanent changes to their body—things they can't undo. They're doing it for the art, and as lovers of art, this is what we love—to see people throw themselves into it like that, so fully. But, of course, we’re seeing it from a distance, bearing none of the risk ourselves. In both gymnastics and ballet, the masochism is inescapable but it also has to be disguised or denied, at least to the observer. I think about Swan Lake and the old metaphor of the swan who's beautiful and perfect above the surface but churning away furiously below. Nobody is supposed to see that part. As with anything that requires that kind of complete devotion, you have to believe that it's worth it. Because otherwise, what is it all for? With ballet, more than gymnastics, it's tied to notions of femininity and what we consider “female”—you know, girls aren't really supposed to sweat. Historically, the female ballet dancer is meant to be nearly doll-like, a performance of femininity. At times the book reads like an inventory of injuries; all these welts and cuts and bruises. It's like body horror. I tend to write about bodies a lot, maybe because I've never had the ability to be artful or successful with my body. And I'm fascinated by the toll, by injuries. Somebody told me I have scars in all my books, so I guess it's a fixation, and I'm drawn to subjects that let me pursue it. I'm writing something now about a pregnant woman, so more body horror to come. The Turnout observes Dara and Marie's ballet academy as a kind of ecosystem, with all these different levels and stratifications. There's a definite pecking order or food chain amongst the girls. All of the practice and preparation creates these obsessive relationships and rivalries, these needs to please and to be validated. It's a very pressurized environment. For me, it's at the ages of eleven and twelve that girls are at the most vicious, and that viciousness gets channelled in this space. For me and everybody I knew, [dance] was very cutthroat, and we all fed off that energy. Everybody wants to be Clara in The Nutcracker, and to be at the centre of the story, even though she doesn't actually do anything in the second half of the show; the Sugar Plum Fairy is the star, if there is any “star.” It's hard not to see these rituals as a metaphor for things that are yet to come in life. I feel like for Dara and Marie, there's something punitive about teaching ballet to these kids, almost like they're inflicting it on them. Or because they went through this grinder once upon a time now there's a catharsis in seeing others broken down. Like, “this is going to hurt, this is going to tear, this is going to bruise, and that's the way it is.” That experience of pain sets Marie up to embark on a pretty self-destructive relationship. She's used to being knocked around, in one way or another; that's been life for her and her sister from the beginning. Knocked around by ballet, knocked around by their mother; Marie is knocked around by a sister who bosses her around. And then that gets tied to her experience of sexuality and her notions of pleasure, and that's where it gets really complicated. There are a lot of dichotomies in The Turnabout. Pain and pleasure is one for sure, but it's also there in terms of character types. Dara's husband Charlie is this very beautiful, smooth, frail and fragile man-child—he's broken—and Derek, Marie's lover, is not only physically solid and powerful but, as described by Dara, he's this dripping, Rabelaisian figure. He's masculine in a slovenly, erotic way, totally undisciplined, this big, swinging-dick guy, and his appearances, especially at first, are totally startling. I was having a fun conversation with myself about this very thing a little while ago because I'm adapting the book for TV, and it's very true that on the page we're not supposed to know if Derek really is that disgusting, as disgusting as Dara describes him. He’s not, probably, but you still have to figure out how to do it in terms of point of view, which is a benefit that the novel has. For Dara, he represents everything that's chaotic, and so he has to be repulsive in every way, like a symphony of horror. She's restricted herself from wanting or getting anything outside of her small world, and here comes a guy who takes, takes, takes. That taking is why Marie is drawn to him, because he's so opposite to the life she's been leading. For Dara, that makes this guy the Devil. You're billed as a crime writer, and The Turnabout does have a crime in it, but it's buried pretty far into the narrative, and a lot of what's interesting in the themes and characters exists totally outside of a genre framework. I wonder how self-conscious those delay tactics are for you at this point. I want to be in a dance with the reader; that's the pleasure of it for me. I love those sorts of books, where you feel like you're being let in on something, like a whisper over the shoulder or peeking into the keyhole. But it's also a question of how long you can do that until it starts becoming annoying. In a crime novel, it can be frustrating where things are written like everybody is a suspect, and while there's certain value in those kinds of mysteries and they're really fun, they're not the kind I write. In my books, I want it to almost be like I'm talking with someone about two people we know and about what happened to them, and I want it to draw them closer and closer. But you didn't just want to write a novel about these strange people who do ballet for a living. You also wanted there to be violence and a crime scene. I can only really conceive of a story if it's around a crime! Sometimes they happen sooner, sometimes they happen later, but usually it's well into the story because I want you to care about everybody and understand them first. I've been asked if I'll ever write a novel without a crime in it—some people really want that—but I'm like, “it gives you your plot engine!” Everybody can relate to situations where your back is against the wall, or when your defences are down and your unconscious just spills forth. It's in the midst of sex and death that that stuff comes out. As a very lapsed Catholic, those are the only two things [I’m] interested in anyway, so it all fits with the presence of crime. I can't remember the last crime novel that's also partially about contracting and construction. It's so perfect because you have two sets of professionals in one space, big guys clomping in dirty boots through pristine spaces populated by delicate little girls in tutus, and everybody is getting on everybody else's nerves. Lots of moments where space is being invaded. I'm trying to think of a few movies that have played with that. There's Pacific Heights! Sure, there's Pacific Heights. It's a situation where you have a stranger coming into your space. If you're someone who's very controlling about those things—like if you're running a dance studio, which is already an arena focused on control, and which is the source of your economic survival—it creates a pressure cooker. The other appeal of making the intruder a contractor was it meant I could bring insurance issues into it all. It’s a great noir trope. One of the main reasons I first started writing crime fiction was because of Double Indemnity: I love any time there's an insurance angle within a story, and in the novel of Double Indemnity there's a great bit about insurance salesmen and this great big roulette wheel, and that they are the ones who know that when you gamble, the house [is] going to win, and you're going to lose. There's something I love about that. It's so noir. The insurance investigator is a great archetype because it's hard to make them into heroes. You can do it with cops, or even with crooks or sociopaths, but insurance adjusters are like the reality principle in noir. They're the ones asking the banal, boring, potentially destabilizing questions. You have a wonderful insurance agent character in The Turnout, who seems to have wandered in from some other novel, maybe the hardboiled novel in her head where she takes this old-school idea of what her job should be about. Absolutely. She's deeply committed to her job, just like Edward G. Robinson is in Double Indemnity. I wanted her to really care, to be a seeker of truth. My brother is a prosecutor, so I know about all the different realities that go into police investigation, and whether there will be the time or budget to prosecute. But an insurance agent doesn't need to prove anything to a jury. They just want to stop you from gaming the system. It’s about the payout, the money, and there's something unstoppable about the power of money in America. It always sort of pushes forward. The police may lose interest in a case and decide there's nothing to chase even if things look suspect, but if there's an insurance payout to be had... Speaking of the link between violence and money in America, I love the cheque stabber that Dara and Charlie use to spear their bills. It's so out of time, and so funny—each bill from the contractor gets impaled on this gleaming sharp edge. Yeah, it's definitely symbolic, but even if you know it's symbolic, you don't necessarily see that it's a bit of foreshadowing as well. I had a letter opener in another one of my books as well. That's where my noir side comes into play; these objects are sort of archaic. They don't really belong in our time. In my books I guess I try to avoid things like texting and social media use, not because I think people should avoid them in writing, but I want a timeless quality. And it works here because the sisters are in this old, falling-apart house and of course there are old things in it, things that somebody forgot to throw out, anything their mother touched, their whole family history told through forgotten objects. Recursiveness is a big thing in this book; you talked about Dara being trapped in The Nutcracker, and reliving all these old performances and productions while time moves forwards. Backstage dramas are all about this tension, about people trying to make each performance feel new for an audience even though the only way to do that is to know it all to the point of redundancy. It's exhausting. There is always a relentless quality when you say, “the show must go on.” It means, “this is going to happen.” It's sort of fatalistic, in a way. It's not going to stop, this is never going to stop. The other thing that feels eternal is the idea of children rubbernecking at the adult world, whether it's the students getting these little hints that untoward things are happening just out of sight in the studio space or the sisters' memories of seeing their parents fighting. There's other, even more intense flashback stuff that of course I won't spoil here, but I kept thinking of the line from Into the Woods, which plays with some of the same archetypes as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake in a different form: “children will listen.” There are moments where you see how complicated the adult world can be, how somebody can be crying but they're actually laughing and vice versa. The ability of kids to understand and access what's really going on is very real, and they're always getting lessons on how or how not to behave. Those first encounters with grown-up things, with ideas about masculinity and femininity, they never go away. And because Dara and Marie are in the same space as when they were kids, it keeps replaying, in this very Grey Gardens or Flowers in the Attic sort of way. With Marie, it's like she tries to fuck her way out of it, while Dara keeps doing the same things she did before. We're all stuck with ourselves, and again that's very noir. You can only change yourself so much.
Giving Up the Ghost

Life and death by misadventure.

“This Has to Suck for Me, So It Can Suck More for the Reader”: An Interview with Jess Zimmerman

The author of Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology on body horror, revisiting old LiveJournals and high school Latin teachers.

In the introduction of her new essay collection Women and Other Monsters (Beacon Press), Jess Zimmerman quotes a tweet that I find embarrassingly relatable: “ok horse girls definitely had an energy but lets talk about the real powerhouses of middle school weird girls: the ancient mythology stans.” I was a teenage ancient Greek mythology stan. In high school, I could rattle off the names of Zeus’ mistresses and their children, and knew the story of Odysseus as well as the love triangles on The OC. In my senior year of high school, I was part of a four-person team that competed in Certamen, a Jeopardy-style quiz competition that covered riveting subjects such as Latin derivatives, mythology, and Roman daily life. My team wore laurels in our hair and called ourselves the Vestal Virgins, the priestesses of the Roman goddess of the hearth, Vesta, who took a 30-year vow of celibacy and protected the sacred flame in the Temple of Vesta. (Even at the time, I knew this was a deeply uncool namesake.) All of this to say, I was very excited to read Women and Other Monsters.  In her essay collection, the Brooklyn-based writer applies personal stories and sharp cultural analysis to some of Greek mythology’s greatest female monsters, like the man-eating whirlpool, Charybdis; the seductive half-bird half-woman, Sirens; and the Furies, the three goddesses of vengeance who prowled earth to torture sinners. Zimmerman unpacks the lasting influence of these myths on western culture, dissecting monster-by-monster the way they’ve shaped our views around femininity, morality, hunger, sex, and motherhood. She rehabilitates these monsters, showing how their devious and grotesque traits are actually their greatest strengths—and also qualities that would be revered in male heroes. Although Zimmerman read the great Greek storytellers of Ovid, Homer, and Sophocles in college and post-grad, her entry point was as a pre-schooler reading the illustrated children’s book D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. But her essays will appeal to a much wider cross-section than mythology buffs. Zimmerman shows how these monsters have shaped tropes in pop culture, and expertly weaves in candid personal stories about fatness and beauty, her ex-husband, toxic old relationships, and female friendships. I don’t think I’ve ever read something that so breezily connects the Furies to Social Justice Warriors, or segues from an I spoke with Zimmerman over the phone—we both agreed that in Zoom calls we end up thinking too much about how we look—about the evolving transformation of Medusa, making readers feel pain, and why Greek mythology is popping up in home décor trends. Samantha Edwards: I'm excited to talk to you today because I was also a bit of a mythology stan back in the day. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths was your first entry point to Greek mythology, and, I’m wondering, what made you so captivated by this book?   Jess Zimmerman: It’s hard to answer that just because that was many decades ago at this point. I was literally in preschool when I got my copy. It still exists, but minus both covers and a bunch of pages, and it’s got my marker scribblings in it. It’s hard to get back into that mindset, but I was attracted to things that had a sort of epic, fantasy adventure quality, which is typical for little kids. You don't realize at that time who was allowed to have the epic adventures, who is waiting at home fighting off suitors or being the monster that's being hunted and defeated. I think until you get old enough to think about it, you don't realize what kind of messages are being Trojan Horsed, as it were, into those stories. You just get caught up in the adventure aspect of it. I got into Greek mythology later on in high school when I was taking Latin and classical civilization history classes, which I know sounds like I went to a really fancy private school. In reality, I grew up in a small town in Ontario and my high school was in the boonies. We just happened to have one teacher who was really into Latin, so I think they just let her teach these courses. I also took Latin in high school, and I went to a public school, and I think it was just because my teacher was like 100 years old and had just been there since Latin was a normal thing to teach in high school and they couldn't make him leave. Ok great, so we’re in the same boat where we went to public schools that for some reason had Latin. And it’s always pushed by some weirdo who just, like, can't be made to not have a Latin class. Our Latin teacher would actually send us older students to the Grade 9 classes when they were picking their courses for the next year and get us to try to recruit kids to sign up for Latin because the school needed enough students to justify a class. The Latin Agenda. Yes, totally! While studying Greek mythology, I never really thought about the monsters in the stories. I was always focused on the gods and goddesses. Why did you decide to focus on monsters, and why did you want to bring new cultural analysis to these stories? Was this a concept that you had been thinking about for a while? Before it was a book, I did some short versions of several of these essays on Catapult. I tried to sell it as a book and people weren't interested. So, I was like, “OK, well, maybe it's an essay series.” Then an agent reached out to me, and I was like, “See! One person agrees that this is a book.” Before I started writing the book proper, I had been thinking about these extended metaphors for a couple of years, and during that time, actually, is when Circe came out. There were a few other things too, like the Medusa with the Head of Perseus statue, that were going around during #MeToo. There were a few little things that made me think that we were ready to go back to these stories and think about what we had learned from them. Why do you think that people are more interested in these old stories now? You mentioned Circe by Madeline Miller coming out, which is super popular, but I’m also seeing mythology pop up in other ways too, whether it's a line drawing of Aphrodite on a throw pillow or, like, Greek column plant stands. Why do you think people seem to be more interested in Greek mythology? I think it's two related phenomena, one of which is that these stories have an extreme hold over Western culture, and Western culture has been like a wild cultural juggernaut that has just been steamrolling everybody else's culture for a very long time. So, part of it is just as simple as that: this is the culture that has declared itself to be the best and the most important and has at times violently enforced that. And so, of course, these are stories that we know and that still exist in our literature and our art, because it replicates itself like a little virus. Once those images are in the arts, then that becomes what art looks like. And then part of it is that we're continuing [to] roll back that over-influence of Western culture [to] try to make space for other ideas. We’re ready to analyze and question it, and find some other way to tell stories in a way that we haven't always been [doing]. I think that the reason those images persist and the reason that people are now interested in questioning these stories are basically the same reason, which is that it has been just this massive cultural boot on everyone's face. I think most people have a clear idea of what Medusa looks like, but for those reading this interview who aren’t mythology stans, can you give us the CliffsNotes version of her backstory—or rather the D’Aulaires’ Notes version—and how that story has progressed and been warped by pop culture? So, the backstory that's in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is that she used to be very, very beautiful, and, in particular, she had very beautiful hair. She caught the eye of Poseidon, who was the God of the sea. Throughout all the stories in Metamorphoses, it is never a good idea if you're a woman—or if you're coded female or feminine—to catch the eye of a God, because that almost invariably means that you're going to be assaulted. That's what happens in this story. He catches up with her in the Temple of Athena and rapes her. Athena takes that personally, because it's her temple, and takes it out on Medusa. Essentially, Medusa can turn you to stone if she looks at you, she has snakes for hair, and she has a hideous visage. All of is this is revenge that Athena takes on her for essentially being victimized in her temple. I really liked Athena when I was a kid, but she is not a sympathetic character in a lot of these stories. What's interesting about the way that Medusa’s image has shifted, is that culturally she has sort of snuck back into being very beautiful. The book opens with this little but perfect exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago, which was about Medusa and all these other female monsters, specifically focusing on the ways that these more monstrous forms have had their edges sanded off and become more and more approachable and more and more beautiful. What that does is give the impression that any woman could be a secret monster, because they all look normal until you see the one thing. In the very ancient images of Medusa, she's got tusks, she's got a beard, she's intended to have a very frightening visage, and people would put this image outside of their homes for protection. Over time she's become the image that I think we often think of, which is where she has a very beautiful, very feminine, and often white face—and also happens to have very beautiful snake hair. Another monster you write about is Scylla, a nymph who is turned into a sea monster by a jealous Circe. After she walks into a pond that Circe has cursed, her lower half turns into rabid dogs. The story of Scylla reminded me of the genre of body horror. During the pandemic, I watched the David Cronenberg film The Brood for the first time. Have you seen it? I've not seen that one. But I've seen a lot of other Cronenberg movies. So, in the movie, a woman transforms in these really grotesque ways after she undergoes a controversial therapy that makes you expel suppressed emotions through physiological changes. Apparently, the book was inspired by Cronenberg’s divorce, which makes you think like, wow, that must have been a very bad divorce. I wonder if Cronenberg is missing the trick there. Like, obviously, I am fairly unfazed by a lot of weird body stuff. I do like going to anatomical museums. I have a lot of animal skulls and some human teeth [laughs]. I have a deep creepy streak. What tips it over to horror for me is when you really think about the fact that it’s something that could exist within your personal body. The idea of othering the horrible things that are happening really makes it toothless. Not to say I’m unaffected by Cronenberg, but I would be more affected by a movie that specifically uses the uterus or things that I know I have. That’s part of why I look at that and say, “Oh, this guy's working through some shit,” because when somebody is creating horror that is specifically about someone else’s anatomy, that's not horror. That’s a kind of violence you're inflicting on someone else. Right, like how the story of Scylla is so scary because when she tries to flee from the dogs, she realizes they’re a part of her body and there's no escape. That’s a chilling moment to me. And it's something that I think all of us feel occasionally about our body. That’s where the true body horror comes from. It is a part of you. The story with Scylla is that she walks into enchanted water, and then she looks down and she sees, essentially, her lower half has turned into dogs. In the image we use on the book cover, she also has tentacles, because in Homer she has these horrible, dangling legs, and very long necks. But Ovid describes her standing on dogs gone mad. That makes the hair of my neck go up. I think that's probably why they say don’t look in a mirror if you’re on mushrooms or hallucinogens. Yeah, absolutely. You write pretty candidly about your body and relationships with exes. How do you approach writing about things that have caused you pain or trauma? At this point, I’ve been writing about body stuff for long enough that it lives in an intellectual space in my brain. We already have such a visceral attachment to the body, so being able to elevate that is actually pretty useful. And in terms of writing about relationships, I still have the instincts to intellectualize, but it doesn't necessarily serve the piece to stand outside the relationship and try to analyze it in a way where you don’t actually feel it again. And so that’s more of a struggle. There's one chapter in the book that I wrote the best I could—and then I read Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House. She is a real master of bringing her feelings into your body. You really experience them. That book is upsetting. It is nauseating. It is so beautiful. It's also very, very intellectual. It elevates everything. I think it's partly because she's a wonderful fiction writer, so she creates these scenes that you can really see. She's a very precise observer. So, I read that and I went back to this chapter and I was like, “This has to hurt more.” This has to suck more for me, so it can suck a little bit more for the reader in a way that feels real. I don't have her memory for details, so I ended up having to go back to like, my LiveJournal and old emails, and literally quote things that show what I was going through because I was searching for something that would convey that experience in a way that wasn't purely cerebral. Is the chapter you’re referring to the one with the professor? Because in that essay, I really felt it. I really felt your pain. And it made me think a lot about past relationships, and honestly, it was painful! So, good job? [Laughs] I credit Carmen for that. She doesn't know she did it, but I do credit her. Going back and re-reading LiveJournals, diaries, and old emails can be such a nauseating experience, especially if you’ve ever been in relationships where there’s been huge power imbalances. But it also brings about this weird secondhand embarrassment too. Oh, totally. It's mortifying. But I do try to replace the embarrassment with compassion for myself.