Hazlitt Magazine

Good Faith

How queer BDSM and sex work helped me to refuse an inheritance of indoctrination.

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Every sixteen minutes the couple in the film gets married. Every sixteen minutes they kiss like they wish they could take it back.

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Good Faith

How queer BDSM and sex work helped me to refuse an inheritance of indoctrination.

In the mid-1970s, the man who would later become my father joined the Unification Church. He had moved to a commune in Northern California after finishing college and wanted to share his newfound devotion with his parents back in Brooklyn. So, he took them to see his guru, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, at a Madison Square Garden rally. That night, Moon spoke through a translator to a crowd of 20,000. He proselytized that all of human history was on the brink of culmination, that the third world war was going to happen within the next three years. He preached his sexual philosophy, which has since been quoted as, “Woman was born to connect in love with man's sexual organ. Man and woman's sexual organs are the place of the true love palace.” And then Moon declared that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. An enraged word pierced the hush of the reverent crowd. In front of thousands of my father’s fellow acolytes, my grandmother stood up and screamed at the top of her lungs: “LIAR!” Her son was humiliated. But this moment of shameless dissent would become an iconic one for me. I keep the story close to my heart the way other people wear heirloom lockets. Still, if I met you while tipping red wine into mugs at a house party and the subject of cults came up, as I find the subject tends to in our anxious times, this isn’t the story I would tell you. Here’s the one I would: Unification Church members like my father were to remain celibate before they were deemed worthy of participating in mass weddings officiated by Moon. After these weddings, they would become the True Children of Moon and his second wife Hak Ja Han, known as the True Father and True Mother. My dad, a communications major, was known even then for his persuasive charisma, and so he was sent on road trips to collect acolytes. On one such trip, the church sent as his companion a schoolteacher in her late twenties who had moved west following a Lutheran upbringing in Iowa. She was not persuasively charismatic, was in fact skeptical of Moon’s teachings. During that road trip, they spread the good word all right, but they apparently didn’t take their vow of abstinence very seriously. On one drive, a group leader noticed my mom leaning over to put a stick of gum in my dad’s mouth. Subsequently, yours truly was born in sexual rebellion. That’s the tale I would tell you, and some of it is even true. My parents were definitely Moonies, but we never talked about it growing up. In fact, my younger sister and I weren’t raised with any faith whatsoever. I might occasionally fudge the years to construct a salacious punchline about my conception being the reason they left the church. This makes great bar talk, a very sensational origin story for a long-time dominatrix and queer pornographer. If every artist’s work centers on a single obsession, mine is sexual power. * From a young age, my attraction to power exchange and pain play was as innate as my multivalent gender orientation. It was more than a single fetish that held my fascination. I was aggressive and restless in my early conventional relationships, like a perverted lab animal that was growing too big for its cage. Unlike many religious people whose proclivities develop from a need for new rituals, I had an organically agnostic approach to my erotic life. I was curious about everything and subscribed to nothing. Which gave me a very good disposition for sex work. It wasn’t until my twenties, when I discovered forums for experimenting with sex professionally, that BDSM (bondage, domination, sado-masochism, and so on) became a proud part of my identity. I discovered an informal commercial dungeon in the Bay Area where I worked collectively with other dominatrixes. We had monthly staff meetings, negotiated the rules of engagement for our paid sessions, and cleaned up our own lube-y dildos. To clients, we were goddesses in thigh-high leather boots; in the basement locker room changing back into street clothes, we were colleagues and friends. We called one another “Mistress” (as in “Mistress, your bicycle almost fell on the latex-drying rack so I moved it!”) with a confirmed ironic wink. The owner of the business was our boss, and there were shift managers, but the Master/slave element of BDSM stayed strictly in the session room. After a few years of exchanging cash for working with men on their illicit desires, I more aggressively pursued my own. I enmeshed myself in Leather subcultures centered around values like exchanging comprehensive education, fighting social oppression, and creating mutual care. And sex. Lots of weird hot cathartic sex!   Leather was never fundamentalist: it was open source, which made it the ideal erotic philosophy for my adult life. Power was to be played with in order to be understood, and that required rituals of communication performed in good faith. Pleasure was not to be pursued at the expense of someone’s agency. Intimacy and ecstasy happened when everyone opted in. Vulnerability was a gift we exchanged with those who deserved it. The more I opened my body and heart freely to my friends, the easier it was to see non-consensual power trips coming a mile away. Where my queerness led me to rip up inherited family recipes and create new tastes from scratch, my parents re-inscribed old values onto a new cult with the same rotten problems as ancient religions. The queer Leather community has offered me a middle path between pleasure and pain, healing and suffering, structure and anarchy. I feel very clear about the appeal of BDSM: for me, it has always provided a space to confront and undermine authority, including the emotional control my parents try to hold over me.  * I had always been content not knowing much about my parents’ lives before I was born; they rarely offered and I rarely asked. When I was thirteen, they separated, and they are both still single and discontented. I actually didn’t know anything about my celibacy-breaking conception story until I was twenty-five and in therapy with my dad. We were attempting to reconcile after our first period of estrangement. I told him I was working happily as a pro-domme. He told me that he and my mom met in a cult. In the years since, when I’ve asked my dad, typically a notorious over-explainer, what drew him to Unification, he can never give me a satisfying answer. He usually just shrugs, saying, “Well, honey, it was the Age of Aquarius.” The best reasoning I’ve been able to come up with is that my Judeo-Christian-disillusioned parents were both looking for fresh, definitive meaning. They thought they found it in Unification but didn’t actually want to follow the rules of their new authority. In the forty years since leaving that group, my dad has continued to explode outward seeking purpose, while my mom continues to apathetically implode, seeking only oblivion. In the decade or so since I learned the truth about my parents’ past, I’ve grown apart from both of them. The more they make me feel obligated to take care of their emotional needs, the more boundaries I feel I have to erect in order to care for my own. I wonder how their early adulthood attempts to find a True Family together led them to very distinct but equally lonely twilight years.   I am now the age my mom was when she gave birth to my younger sister. Like many grown children, I do not want to repeat my parents’ mistakes. Since my love, my friendships, and my work all center around explorations of intimate power through the cultures of kink and the politics of sex work, I find myself considering the questions: what is the meaningful difference between identifying as a Leather queer and participating in a cult? How do you know whether you’re in a kinky polyamorous family or part of an abusive scam? And has settling into a comfortable role within Leather communities helped me to heal from generational trauma that my parents never seemed to have resolved for themselves? Plenty of my polyamorous kinky friends have intimate lives which, frankly, might appear to outsiders to be indistinguishable from a cult; chosen Leather families in which adult queers instate consensual hierarchies dictating anything from domestic chores to erotic play. I’m constantly surrounded by limbs bearing whipping bruises, murmured boot cleaning protocols, echoes of “Yes Ma’am” and “Please Sir” and “I’ll just send my sub out to grab us more coffee.” It has become urgently important to me that I’m able to differentiate consensual domination/submission from the exploitation I associate with cults—not only to separate my own tastes and impulses from those of my parents, but also to be able to tell if a BDSM relationship has gone from being consensual to coercive. Especially since, as I would learn, the Unification church was not exactly known for its asceticism. * Since my father wouldn’t tell me much about his time as a Moonie, I went looking for answers elsewhere. I reached Dr. Janja Lalich on the phone from her house in Butte County, California, not far from where I grew up. Lalich is a professor of sociology at Chico State, and the author of several books on charismatic relationships, political and social movements, ideology, social control, and issues of gender and sexuality, including, with Margaret Singer, Cults in Our Midst. Around the same time that my parents met, Lalich was part of a radical Marxist-Leninist group called the Democratic Workers Party. She told me that, like my father, she earned leadership roles within her cult that gave her a sense of purpose and belonging. Since leaving the group during its dissolution in the late 1980s, she has devoted her career to writing and teaching on the topic of extreme beliefs.  Dr. Lalich asked me where my parents had lived when they were involved in the Unification church. I found myself embarrassed that I didn’t actually know. Berkeley? No, somewhere north, on some land I think? Mendocino? “They might have been at the camp in Boonville,” said Lalich. An uncanny shiver ran through me. Years ago, chatting with my mom about having stopped on a road trip at a Boonville brewery, I watched her get opaquely nostalgic. Lalich described Moonies waiting in bus stations for hippie travelers to arrive in Northern California. They would offer them a hot meal, driving them to the Boonville camp in buses with all the lights on so no one could see where they were going. “By the end of the week, they’d be devotees,” she said. The more I learn about my parents’ lives before me, the more I wonder why I had accepted origin stories with so many plot holes. But guardians can raise you with more than faith: they can also discourage curiosity. Maybe I had been raised with a familial version of “bounded choice,” the term for the internal logic of cult followers which Lalich prefers to “brainwashed.” This logic is often inscrutable to those outside the belief system. When you’re on the inside, you find it normal, since someone else is shaping your world. I guess my parents raised me to be inquisitive about everything in the world besides their past lives, to think it was perfectly normal that I didn’t really know anything about them. I guess a lot of authority figures do that. Lalich spoke about the experience of being in a cult, filling in some of the blanks left by my parents. One particular detail made my blood run cold. She explained that most cults assign a “buddy” to new members.   “That person is supposedly guiding you,” Lalich continued. “What they’re really doing is monitoring your growth and reporting back to leadership.” Of course, this false pretense was the basis of my parents’ relationship. My dad, though six years younger than my mom, was her “discipler” in Unification. As Lalich described the “closed reality” that disciplers create on behalf of the leader, I wondered for the first time if my parents ever restored their compromised capacity for listening to their own intuitions. And I thought about how much more I trust my own gut since playing with erotic power alongside my adult friends and partners. Cult leaders don’t assign you a partner to assuage concerns; their job is to manipulate your shame, to use “humiliation and belittlement” to push you further along the path of devotion. “Questions are turned back on you rather than answered,” says Lalich. Those who join a cult often think they’re gaining a new family, but Lalich warns that if members criticize or try to leave the group, “these people who were once supposedly your family no longer want to have anything to do with you.”   Like many gurus, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon seemed to have had erotic domination on the mind even as he preached for world peace. “Moon was a pervert,” Lalich told me. I asked her to clarify, since "pervert" is a reclaimed word in my friend groups, a source of communal pride like slut or dyke or whore. “He would tell [his followers] what sex positions to take,” she said. Mariah Blake offers more context in a piece for The New Republic:   “Moon told his followers that they could join his sin-free bloodline by marrying a spouse of his choosing and engaging in a series of rituals. First, the newlyweds would beat each other with a bat, and then they would perform a​ ​three-day sex ceremony​ involving prescribed positions in front of Moon’s portrait. After the final sexual interlude—in missionary position—the bride would bow down to the groom, a confirmation that they had restored the ‘lost ideal of goodness.’” Most people would agree this is perverted behavior. It’s not the acts that I find disturbing, though. Personally, I enjoy beating and being beaten with large wooden implements, and one person telling others exactly how to fuck sounds like a hot enough scene to me! But the dictating leader seems to be the one being gratified by these rituals, rather than either of the people performing them. In a BDSM relationship, a sub might prostrate themselves before their dominant, but the idea is for both people to enthusiastically consent from a place of mutual desire and equal volition.   My own need for assurance that I’m not being indoctrinated borders on the neurotic. BDSM soothes that neurosis with a sometimes-comical amount of built-in processing. Scene negotiation and safe words and consent check-ins can feel invigorating even if they’re also tedious at times. Ultimately, they offer an infrastructure of individual agency and subcultural accountability: the opposite of discipling. Speaking with Dr. Lalich reassured me that my sexual experimentations have given me the tools to resist abuse rather than make me more vulnerable to seduction. My parents and their cult background gave me a counter-model, a way not to be. My ass has been beaten black and blue while I've been adrift on waves of euphoria. I’ve given and taken orders, administered and yielded to deserved punishment. My leather pants have been shined with saliva in view of hundreds of casual observers. I’ve fisted men in the leather slings I helped install into warehouse ceilings. I’ve guzzled the piss of strangers in bathroom stalls. I’ve called female partners “Daddy” with a tone that in no way invokes my male genetic predecessor. I’ve done it for cash and I’ve done it for fun and I’ve done it for love; no one has ever persuaded me to pledge my allegiance to anyone or anything. And in all of my years of experience with sexual countercultures, I’ve only met one group that set off all my internal silent alarms, and that I now feel meets Dr. Lalich’s criteria of a cult.  * “Hello, Mistress,” says the tall, tense white man at the bus stop. He looks to be about fifty, someone who has seen little excitement. “I’m slave brain. That’s brain, not Brian. Most people ask me that so I figure I should clarify.” I hoist up my black rolling suitcase. slave brain reaches out to grab it, then hesitates, confused. I’ve seen this look on slaves before. He is wondering how this little woman in Chaco sandals, black jeans, and a tank top could be a Mistress. This is how I always give myself away. I’ve known plenty of femme supremacist dominas who expect male submissives to literally throw their coats down in puddles for them. But my domination style has always had a camp wink and piggish urge to rut around in filth. For me, being a sex worker doesn’t mean I’m a formal dominatrix 24/7. I’m all for patriarchal restitution, but dominating someone I’ve just met, who isn’t paying for the privilege, actually feels to me like extra emotional labor. A slap in the face is still attention. I’m headed to a rural East Coast town, on the recommendation of a new friend, Michelle, who I’ve met through mutual colleagues in the feminist porn scene. Michelle is a captivatingly stern pale goth queen, busty and heavily tattooed, the kind of pro-domme who capitalizes Me and My in her emails. In one such recent email, Michelle has invited me to take sessions at the “kinky inn” she’s involved with. I’ll call it The Space. I’ve recently moved to New York from the Bay Area, and I’m still getting used to the different cultures of BDSM and sex work on opposite coasts. My expectation is that The Space is like the dungeon I’ve worked for in Oakland, or some of the other professional studios I’ve rented in my travels to Toronto and LA. Apparently, The Space hosts play parties and couples retreats, and also welcomes guest professionals to take sessions. According to Michelle, they have enough of an existing clientele that I don’t even have to take out an ad online. The website of The Space boasts about its own kinky reputation in self-aggrandizing terms. I have to admit, I’ve totally fallen for this marketing, probably because I want to believe such subcultural places are real. Their social media presence is vague enough to inspire me to fill in my own fantasy, and I’m expecting something old and grand like the house in the Bette Davis movie Watcher in the Woods—or, more to the point, the deviant isolated manors of Story of O or Laura Antoniou’s The Marketplace. I follow slave brain across the parking lot, a vast sprawl of mostly deserted asphalt. I get into the Jeep Cherokee of this strange man because that’s what I came here to do. I trust him because Michelle told me a slave was coming to get me. I trust Michelle because she’s a fellow kinky punk sex worker, a reckless principle that has nevertheless gotten me in surprisingly little hot water so far. I guess I’m in it for the curiosity almost as much as the money. “So, what’s The Space like?” I ask brain as he drives us into the woods. “Oh, Master M changed my life,” he says, his eyes on the road but suddenly dreamy. “You’re so lucky. And the new headmistress is wonderful, too.” I ask what her name is. “Quinn.” He blinks. “Mistress Quinn.” “So, why do they call you brain?” I ask. “Well, Master M gives everyone a slave name. My name is Brian.” “So, your name is Brian!” “Yes, but Master M says I think too much. So, my slave name is brain to remind me not to think.” A contented grin spreads across his face, as if he is reflecting on a great blessing. The Jeep pulls onto a rural road, bouncing down a sloped gravel driveway, where my provincial mansion fantasies are given a rude awakening. The Space is actually just a squat grey one-story house. It’s not the modesty that catches me off guard, but the dissonance between the grand fantasy it’s selling and the reality I’m now seeing. I let slave brain take my bags this time. After holding open the screen door, he moves aside for me to meet Master M and Mistress Quinn, who are standing expectantly in a small country living room. Master M looks like he is pushing 70, sinewy and rough-skinned, with a stringy grey ponytail and black beady eyes. Quinn can’t be older than 25. Her considerable breasts pour over a leather corset, which she wears casually under black cotton leggings and a hoodie. She has a round, open, girl-next-door face and long shiny brown hair. She does not shake my hand. Michelle is there, too. She seems irritated with M and Quinn for reasons no one bothers to explain to me. The three of them seem distracted and stand-offish, neither friendly nor particularly professional. They show me to a comfortable bedroom with its own bathroom and inform me that dinner is in an hour. slave brain is dismissed and Michelle follows him up the road in her car. I’m alone at The Space with Master M and Mistress Quinn. They inform me that I have a client booked for tonight. The thought of cash soothes my discomfort as we sit down to homemade dinner at a large wooden table. Master M serves venison stew and congee. They offer me red wine and a joint, asking questions about my experience “in the scene.” Trying to find some common ground, I explain that my professional BDSM practice has a different dynamic than it does in my personal life, but that I really love my work and exploring power and… “She takes a long time to answer, doesn’t she?” M says to Quinn, and they both laugh at some joke I’m apparently not going to be let in on. The way they touch each other makes it pretty clear to me that they fuck. I’m unnerved by the creeping sense that I’m being appraised. I’ve met eccentric dungeon owners before, but the worst they’ve been is impersonal while giving me an orientation: Here’s how you buzz your client in, here’s the madacide, here’s the binder of dusty old Portishead CD-Rs, I’ll be in the other room smoking menthols. The Space is making me feel disoriented. I ask my host some reasonable questions: “So how do you screen clients?” and “Where do we negotiate our scenes?” and “Should I collect my money before or after session?” All my queries are met dismissively. “We’ll discuss it later,” or, “You don’t need to worry about that.” So far, I’m not able to discern a concrete reason to feel in danger; but they aren’t giving me any cause to trust them either. After dinner, I change into a sheer pink and black polka-dot teddy and robe, pulling on opaque black stockings and a garter belt because I’m still not sure how East coast clients will react to hairy legs. I’m instructed to wait in the guest bedroom listening as my client, Steve, arrives. M calls me out to the living room. I’m surprised to discover that Quinn has already led Steve downstairs to show him the basement dungeon. Every place I’ve worked has had its own particular style of theatrics. But I’m used to a clear differentiation between the role you play in session and the person you are, the person being hired. Back in Oakland, the worker always greeted the client at the door fully dressed and negotiated the scene for herself. Here, M instructs me to kneel in front of him on the thick musty carpet. Getting on my knees in an ordinary living room, next to couches and a coffee table and an acoustic guitar, feels much less comfortable than crawling around on a dungeon floor. It’s dawning on me that M and Quinn see me as the same class as slave brain. Several voices, deep inside my body, wage a war that lasts an instant. My female-socialized subconscious coos, You probably just missed something. It’ll be over faster if you just go along with what he wants. My insolent self-preservation screams: Call the whole thing off! Don’t kneel to this man! Michelle will come pick you up!  And some punkass part of my nature, the part that always prevails, wants to see what M thinks he can do to me, and how much I can resist while placating him at the same time. So, I do as he says. “Our slaves always stand with their eyes down, to show humility, and their chins up, to show pride in subservience,” M explains as he begins to stalk slowly around me. Does he want me to feel beneath him because he’s hiring me? I think to myself. It’s also possible that he believes the money that Steve is paying me and the cut I’ll owe The Space is beside the point. If part of the fantasy of this place is for clients to interact with “trained house slaves,” I might have agreed ahead of time to play that part. But the client is downstairs, and Master M is not my master. So, who is meant to benefit from this pageantry? M leans forward and begins to stroke my ear. “This is your clit,” he whispers, as if saying it would transubstantiate one collection of nerve endings to another. I don’t feel anything in my clit. But drops of sweat pour down my side from my underarms. I stay still and quiet. M pulls his fingers back and continues to stalk around me. I sense a wave of smugness. That unwelcome appraisal feeling again. Does he think I am enchanted by this? “It’s time for you to go to the dungeon,” M intones. I stand shakily and walk to the basement door, avoiding eye contact. As my eyes adjust to the dim light, I see Quinn and Steve in the far corner, standing expectantly next to a leather sling. Quinn has removed the casual part of her outfit, and now cuts an impressive figure of a tightly corseted girly dominatrix. Steve is a very conventional-looking middle aged white client, bursting out of his skin with anticipation at the sight of me wobbling on kitten heels down the wooden stairs. The dungeon is fully and uniquely stocked with horn-handled crops, matching alligator skin floggers, and hand-built bondage furniture, but the walls are covered in trash bags. It feels like I’m in the haunted garage a family makes every year for Halloween. “Steve likes to tickle!” Quinn explains. I’m comfortable with tickling fetishism: the top is looking for an involuntary and unstaged response. But I don’t understand why Quinn is telling me this instead of Steve. I’m used to having my own negotiation with a client, especially one who will be dominating me. Together, they guide me into the sling, wrapping leather cuffs around my wrists and ankles so I’m laying back, spread-eagle and fully restrained. Any moment now I am expecting Quinn to leave me alone with my client. It’s unsettling to have her there observing me. I would have understood if she or M had explained they would stand by for safety reasons or because I’m new to the house, but that’s not what’s happening. My dynamic with my client is completely thrown by her deliberate presence—imagine a psychologist being non-consensually monitored by the person whose office she is renting. Steve approaches me slowly. Then he dives in. He doesn’t caress or stroke. He just goes directly for my ribs and jabs mercilessly. This kind of fetish torture usually makes me feel euphoric and strong. But I’m also used to clients with finesse, who work with me in real time to build a sort of movement narrative incorporating ebb and flow. Steve is just relentlessly attacking. His face is shocked and delighted. Ordinarily, I would “top from the bottom,” teaching a new client how I like to be teased, but Quinn’s creepy presence has me all out of whack. I laugh. I shriek. I curse excessively and loudly—ohholyfuckingjesuschristshitaaafuckingaaaauuuufhh! If I’m going to be in this weird isolated dungeon in the woods, I figure the least I can get out of it is the catharsis of screaming vulgar bloody murder, something I can rarely justify in a thin-walled city building. My squirming and giggling and chain-rattling is amplified by the tension of this entire situation. Ordinarily, even if I’m enduring something challenging, I can ground myself to the presence of the other workers in the house. They know who I really am when I’m out of character. Here, there is no anchor. I’m learning they expect me to be the character. Every so often Quinn approaches and joins in on the tickling. I could use a safe word, or call the scene off, or tell her to fuck off, but I’m worried that this will be seen as insolence or a reason not to pay me. I choose to let Quinn touch my body, but the choice is bound to the disorientation of my situation. Finally, Quinn tells Steve his allotted hour is up. They unlatch me, and I’m quite shaky getting up the stairs, where M is waiting for us. Quinn, Steve, and I stand in front of an expectant M, who again instructs me to kneel in “slave position.” “I’m very disappointed in you that you would use such language in my house,” he says, referring to my litany of cursing screams. I have no idea what to say. I’m embarrassed and furiously insulted being spoken to like this in front of my client. I thought I had done a professional job making this tickling fetishist very happy. No one has ever questioned the way I process pain and sensation. Cursing is my style, and my style is the experience a client is paying for. Steve genuinely didn’t seem to mind my language, so why should M? The Space seems more concerned about maintaining manipulative hierarchies than doing good business, which is antithetical to everything BDSM means to me. After Steve is sent on his way, I collect my cash with relief, retreating wordlessly to my room. I draw a scalding bath, pouring excessive milks and salts into the tub, seething with indignity and confusion. I realize the boundaries between personal and professional are very blurred here, in a way I’m not used to, in a way that disturbs me. I open the linen closet in my room and notice the labels: maroon towels are for slaves, black towels are for guests. So which towel is for me? In the morning, I leave the house in my exercise clothes without seeing anyone. I run up the gravel driveway and turn left on the dirt road. I don’t encounter any cars or people or other houses. Just trees and birds and clean mountain air for miles. This is a rare treat, to be able to run and let my mind go, even close my eyes, with no surprises and no traffic. I try to breathe the fresh air as deeply as I can. As I run, it occurs to me that if I had to leave, this would be how I would have to do it. I stay at that house for two more days. During that time, I see a different client, a regular to The Space, who singletail whips me mercilessly with no warm up. He makes me walk naked through the surrounding forest carrying a wooden cross, explaining that I’m “a goddess taking on the suffering of the world.” As an atheist I find this extremely ridiculous, but I do take some pride in enduring outrageous scenarios for the satisfaction of paying customers. I hit my limit, though, when he attaches me to the cross by suspension cuffs and raises it, by hydraulics, up the side of a tree. I look down at M, Quinn, and the client, all visibly amused. For the very first time in ten years of stomping and spitting and cursing and cumming for money, I instinctively imagine my best friend—who has been unconditionally supportive through some truly weird sexual shit I’ve done—feeling concerned about the position I’m in. So, I use my safe word. M clucks in disapproval, and I live through an excruciating pause. A safe word is supposed to be a ripcord; you’re not supposed to have to negotiate with the parachute once you’ve pulled it. All of the times I’d used yellow for slow down or red for stop everything, the client has checked in and dropped whatever roles we were playing. No one has ever seriously shamed me for invoking these consent tools. No one has ever questioned my professionalism or devotion to my craft or value as a sadomasochist as a result. Until now. But they do let me down off the cross. And the session is over. And I do get paid. And I do decide it’s time to call Michelle. As I roll my suitcase out the door, Master M tells me scornfully, “It would be good for you to come back. We would love to have you, since you can barely take the pace of one of our kindest Masters.” Staring out the window of Michelle’s station wagon, I feel the dread of a horror movie third act. We head back to her place and spend a few days together. I don’t really tell her about my experience. I roll my money into a sock and zip it into a compartment of my bag. We take her dogs for a walk and swim under a waterfall. We cook vegan dinner with her best friend, a short dark-haired guy with huge ear gauges who owns a tattoo parlor. He makes fun of my $10 pink smoke shop belly button ring, just visible under my loose tie dye shirt, and I snap at him that not everyone can afford fancy things. The next day, he walks into Michelle’s apartment and drops to his knees in front of me. Pulling latex gloves from the pouch of his red and black hoodie, he starts unscrewing my belly button ring. He produces a new piece with aquamarine gemstones that sparkles so much brighter than the cheap one I’ve worn for ages. Slipping the new silver through my piercing hole, he threads the shining ball in place, muttering, “I just don’t like to see good people with bad jewelry.” Michelle takes me to an enormous warehouse owned by her friend. On one floor, the friend makes string for lacrosse sticks, hundreds of white lines whirring and shifting away in somehow whisper-quiet industrial machines. We smoke a joint and she shows me the floor where she wants to shoot porn, giant beams from floor to ceiling, dust catching light from filthy windows. I start to fantasize about raw and dirty kidnapping scenes, how it would feel to run across this enormous space as if you were really trying to escape from someone alluringly sinister. We head to a dive bar where she introduces me to the local motorcycle gang, not just guys in leather jackets, but a real gang, with initiations and hierarchies and birthrights. There is karaoke. I sing “Sympathy for the Devil,” slithering flamboyantly as my beer foams out of its bottle. Broad men with scratchy-looking beards buy me drinks because they claim they have never seen a woman sing like that before, which, as always, I find difficult to believe. Michelle takes me to the parking lot to catch the bus back to Manhattan. I never ask her about her relationship to The Space and frankly I can’t explain that choice. Maybe I was ashamed that there was some expectation I had misunderstood. Or maybe I was just happy to have survived with several bills stuffed in my boot, on my way home to the city, and didn’t want to push my luck.  Every so often, I meet someone who has trained at The Space, even close friends whose approach to sex work I respect and BDSM lifestyle I trust. Though I’m typically notoriously over-inquisitive, I find myself biting my tongue instead of asking them to explain the Masters and Mistresses and slaves and clients out there in the woods. I realize now that I don’t really want to understand. All I care about is staying as far away from that house as possible.   My personal philosophies of kink and sex work did become clearer to me after that weekend. I’m not looking for new authority figures. I’m not looking to recycle the suffering of old gods. I’m looking to make something new. Sometimes, when I look down at the shimmering blue of my belly button ring, it reminds me of that moment of kindness, of a man willingly getting on his knees in front of me to give me a gift, expecting nothing in return. It reminds me of pulling out of that gravel driveway, and of everything women everywhere have endured to make their rent. When I meet the Master Ms of this world, the people who try to take advantage of their perceived power over me, I try to invoke the spirit of my grandmother, screaming “LIAR” at the top of her lungs in front of hundreds of acolytes at Madison Square Garden.  * My family, like most families, has exchanged moments of selfless care and moments of critical resistance.   My dad and I did reconcile after those revelatory therapy sessions, and it took another ten years before I would cut off communication with him again: for unapologetically slapping my ass in a bar, for ignoring my boundaries about when he was welcome to crash on my couch, and most of all for warping every conflict between us to make himself the hero. People usually think of cults in terms of groupthink, or a collection of people brainwashed by a single guru. The more I learn about them, the more I’m struck by how the psychic manipulations of cults echo the dynamics of abusive intimate relationships. Sometimes those abuses look like slaps, and sometimes they’re felt in the form of a man’s entitlement to dismiss a woman’s boundary because he likes it better when it seems like she has none.   “You should be allowed to say no,” Dr. Lalich said when I asked her how to tell if you’re in a healthy group relationship. “To question anyone in the hierarchy including the dominant. You should be allowed to leave when you want, without any rebuke or shunning. You shouldn’t be made to believe that this is the only way to live. You should be able to untie the bonds!” If a family is a cult, then I’m in a perpetual state of trying to walk away from the influence of my own. Even though the healthy consensual BDSM situations I’ve been in have put me in many positions of literal subservience—down on my knees, withstanding torture—nothing has made me feel freer. Because when you surrender from a place of recognized strength, you learn to see false prophets for what they are: people who expect filial piety when they haven’t earned the privilege.    
‘We Can’t Change History, But We Are Complicit in Perpetuating It’: An Interview with Lisa Taddeo

The author of Three Women on desire, community, and the male gaze. 

When Lisa Taddeo set out to write her new nonfiction book about desire, three women she met stood out. It took eight years for her to map out the inner workings of Maggie, a high school student in North Dakota who develops a relationship with her English teacher; Lina, a housewife in Indiana who works tirelessly to please a husband who refuses to kiss her; and Sloane, a poised restaurant owner in Rhode Island whose husband enjoys watching her have sex with other couples.   Throughout each account, we watch as the women unwind. As the coils holding them together give way, they experience a kind of renewal, face condemnation, and wrestle with their newfound freedom. And Taddeo is there not only to bear witness, but to observe and unpack the reactions of the women and communities surrounding Maggie, Lina, and Sloane. Three Women (Avid Reader Press) is not just a book about desire, but the consequences for acting on it. Sara Black McCulloch: What led you to write about desire from this perspective? I read that what partly prompted this book was that you were reading Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, and that you were put off by it—that it was written from a very particular and male perspective. Lisa Taddeo: The main thing with Mr. Talese’s book was that, and you know I met him and he was an unofficial mentor for a certain part of the process, but you know, I found that there was just not a lot of emotion behind the acts he had been describing, and his book was different. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it—I enjoyed it very much. But at the same time, I just wanted to know more about... you know, there was a lot of swinging in it. And what I found with a lot of swingers is that they kind of go, “Oh you know, it’s fine.” And maybe for you it is fine and you don’t feel sad, but I just wanted to know about more of my own biases. I don’t judge them, I’m just so fascinated by it, but I couldn’t do it, so I wanted to know why these people could, in a sense, do it. I just feel like there wasn’t much talk about why—the whys about everything—and that was where I wanted to have a departure. I think Talese was interested in different things, but I was also so fascinated by swingers that I went looking for swingers. I spoke to a lot of different groups of swingers and I could not find someone who gave me the sort of complexity I was looking for until I found Sloane and that was game-changing for me because she was the person I always looked for. I don’t think she’s necessarily representative of swingers, but what she is for me is representative of the complexity I wanted to know more about.   How did you find the women? I know, for instance, that you met Lina in a discussion group you were running.  I posted signs across the country, literally in bars and casinos. I posted them on windows of cars too, just everywhere: churches, bus stops, truck stops, everywhere. I went to the Four Seasons, seedy motels... I was just trying to find people. I moved to Indiana because of the Kinsey Institute [which researches sex and gender] and because I met a doctor who was administering these hormone treatments to women and he was telling me about them. I found Lina really early. I think I spoke to her on the phone before I moved because the doctor had given me a number of his patients who were interested in talking to me. I didn’t know how fascinating she was going to be until she walked into that room and started telling her story.  I had read about Maggie when I was in North Dakota researching a different story. It was about women who were working as waitresses during the day at this coffee shop and by night, they were being trucked into the local oil fields to have sex with the men who worked there. So, I was reading about Maggie in a coffee shop and I read about the trial, which had just ended. I called her mother’s house and introduced myself, asked if I could come and tell them more about what I was doing, and then drove to North Dakota the next day.   I found Sloane by moving into her town to speak to several other people and at that point I was hearing rumours about not just a woman who was swinging, but a woman whose husband wanted to have sex with her every day and that not only did she allow it, she wanted to do it too. And that was the rumour. What was shocking to me about that, and indeed every woman and person that I spoke to, was the ways in which they were reviled by their communities for doing things like that. I just don’t think you should judge other people for their lives. So, I was interested in that. That was how I found those three, but I spoke to hundreds of other people, at least 20-25 at length. I also noticed a shift in voice and POV throughout the book, from diary entries to third-person accounts. What was the reasoning behind these particular choices? They were all different choices, but I wanted the voices to be reflective of the women. For Maggie, one of the reasons why I started with the second-person was because she had been so reviled in the local press that I had in mind the most staunch disbeliever and I wanted that person to be able to instantly get inside her head in such a way that it would be impossible for them to not at least try to understand her. I wanted the literal experience. I did the trial and the other stuff more in the third-person to keep it factual. With Lena, she found herself in the sexual moments—I would say more than anyone else did—and so I wanted her section to reflect that. I mean she told me everything so openly. It was just so infinitely interesting to me that I wanted to show how present she was in those moments.   With Sloane, who was the most reticent to talk and also the most eloquent but detached, I tried to tell her story in her rote voice. You explored some really small communities that judged and condemned others for living their lives, and I wanted to know if you believe that there is such a thing as community anymore? You moved to these towns where these women lived—do you feel like a community is there to essentially police and surveil people now? I do. You know, it’s funny, because my daughter is four years old and we live in a rather rural part of Connecticut, and a lot of people have said to me, "You should move here and here because there are a lot of moms and kids." But I moved to so many places and I’ve seen so many moms and dads, and no! There’s a lot more competition than there is community or a sense of community. You know how people say a child is raised by a community? I just don’t see that anymore in any way. Even with social media, it’s really become so much about who’s got what, and whose kid is doing this, and whose partner has a better career, and a nicer house—all of that! That’s what I found in almost every place. There were some places that were kinder than others, but for the most part, it was not a loving situation.  You don’t just discuss how women condemn each other but how they compete with each other, too. There was something really striking that your mom told you: “Never let them see you happy,” and by “them,” she meant other women. Were you noticing this in your discussion groups and even how these women were communicating with you? One of the reasons I was most drawn to these women was because they were the victims of these things. They were less judgmental about the things that happened in their lives. They were victims of men, to an extent, but also the victims of other women. They were not so much the aggressors, and I found that really warm about them—that they didn’t want other women to necessarily suffer, whereas I found other women who wanted other women to suffer. All the women that I observed for the final cut of the book were all, in some way, jealous or just condemning of Maggie, Sloane, and Lina. A lot of this is frankly biological, as men are not necessarily competing against each other, at least not the same way. The women are competing to be the thing that is chosen and that’s sociological and biological. The idea that men spread their seed—not be clinical—across a large group of women in order to perpetuate the species, whereas women are meant to stay back with the child and bear the whole situation. I find that really informs the way we move about. The sociological implications are that we also, at the same time, want equality. We’re very sentient, wise beings, but our biology and our sociology either mix or they don’t, depending on the day. I really think it’s other women because we’re fighting against each other for men or whatever—at least in heterosexual relationships. (It’s different things across different orientations and sexual predilections.)  The male gaze really fuels that too, but it many ways it also fuels the desires of these three women too. We’re still rooted in it. We can’t change our history, but we are complicit in perpetuating it in the present. We’ve been living under it for centuries, and we can’t just wake up one day and change. We first have to admit that it’s there before we can figure out how to combat the negatives in our lives. When you’re immersing yourself in someone else’s life, especially as a journalist, there is always talk of objectivity. Did you ever find yourself slipping, in a way, and judging these women, or would their stories force you to confront something within yourself? Or trigger the memory of a personal situation? Did you find yourself connecting with them on a deeper level? It’s funny because there were countless things, but the thing that I think about the most is that when I was a kid, like 10 or 11, I was going to Puerto Rico with my parents. I had helicopter parents before the term was coined, and they wouldn’t let me out of their sight. And I just wanted to take a walk down the beach. They finally said yes and I was so happy. That day, I packed baby oil because I wanted to get super-tan. I was wearing a black bikini with little neon butterflies and I loved it. I was so happy. I took Stephen King’s The Stand with me because I was a depressive kid. I laid down in the sand and fell asleep. I woke up with two things: one was a second degree burn across my body that was insane. The other thing that woke me up, in fact, was a man, I don’t know if he was 30 or 40, but I knew that he was a man and I was a kid. He was licking my arm. The first thing I thought—I remember the feeling very well, and not just the tongue, but the feeling I felt in my head, which was, “I don’t want this man to think I don’t... like him?” I don’t know, it’s weird, but I still have that feeling today and I’m nearly 40 years old. It was shocking.  I went back to my parents and I did not tell them about the situation for two reasons: one, that I didn’t think they would ever let me out of their sight again, and two, that they would think I was a slut. And that’s what I thought. I was an 11-year-old girl. I didn’t do anything. I shouldn’t have put baby oil on my body, but other than that, I didn’t do anything. It’s super interesting, and multiple things like that came up. And mainly, it’s about how the formative years shape the way that we are, and we desire, and in other ways that are more obvious in the present. And a lot of people weren’t aware of it. Neither was I! We internalize those experiences and feelings of shame, and that plays out in very different ways: you have to be careful with how you’re perceived by other people. You need to be constantly vigilant. I noticed, too, that even the women you talked to couldn’t fully let go of this vigilance either. It’s a weird kind of invisible service in their public and personal lives. They’re always making sure that everyone else’s needs are being met. And just the performative aspect too—just being aware of yourself and your attractiveness and I found that so much in everyone that I talked to—women and men. But men have this goal, which is an orgasm, no matter how sloppy and smelly they are. With women, some of them can, and I’m inspired by the women who can, but I myself have never personally found that. I will not do anything if my teeth aren’t brushed.   I wanted to talk about parents and what we inherit from them. In the introduction, you talk about your mother and the secrets she hid, and how that creates a barrier to communication—or not telling your parents what happened to you.  Yes, but also, it’s not that I didn’t think I could talk to my parents, it was more that I was ashamed. I thought it was my fault, too. I didn’t want them to stop letting me be alone. I didn’t know that I needed to go to them—I don’t think what they would have said would have been helpful. With Maggie, we see that too—that she didn’t really confide in anyone because she couldn’t. The women you spoke to had these fractured relationships with their parents and people in their lives and they really had to compartmentalize aspects of their lives and themselves. I think that a byproduct of growing up years ago—although this has less to do with Maggie, because with her, it’s more of a byproduct of where she’s from in the country—but with Lina and Sloane, they both had parents that they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable going to with the things they experienced. With that said, I think it’s the time, and that now there are a lot more studies about how to be with children. I don’t think people were really looking at that back then. Are any of the women planning on reading the book? Two of the women have read it. I’m in touch with all three of them pretty frequently, so they’re very much aware of the book’s publication date. I’m not supposed to reveal which two have read it. Some are a little more nervous than others about it.  Are you planning on keeping in touch with them and seeing how their lives turn out?   Yes! I am so interested. I’m close to them. I would call all of them friends, but the nature of our relationship is very much—it was mostly one-sided because I was asking the questions. With that said, there were many intimate moments that we shared about their men and about my own stories whenever I thought it was something they would want to hear or that would help them or make them feel comfortable because they were giving so much of themselves. It was organic. One of the things that allowed women to explore their sexuality and desires was the advent of birth control, and in terms of what’s happening now in the U.S., this is going to have an impact on everything, but what impact will this have on desire? I think that to make any heaving step forward, there’s going to be a thousand steps back. It’s always shifting and what’s going on now is awful, but I also hope that it won’t last very long and that eventually those people in power are going to die off and when then do, hopefully there will be less people taking their place that will deal with it the same way. It’s definitely going to change the way women talk about it, but I also think that it’s making voices louder because there’s a lot of rage. Also men—in general and in the book—are threatened by their desire and tend to use it against these women in many ways. Men get nervous when women have desires that go above and beyond their desires. I think that’s why there’s such a rise of this incel community coming out of the woodwork, because they’re hearing about what women want and they’re translating it into, “Women want to have sex with good-looking guys.” For centuries, men have wanted to have sex with good-looking women, but the fact that we’re hearing from women now is making a lot of men who are not confident—and this is sad and they should be heard—but the way that they’re trying to be heard is despicable and that’s a perfect example of what happens when men feel nervous about female desire.
Epcot World Showcase

Every sixteen minutes the couple in the film gets married. Every sixteen minutes they kiss like they wish they could take it back.

Visiting the World Showcase at Epcot when you've had three red wines and a Canadian beer in the outdoor pavilion so you drunkenly ask the attendant at the movie theater in France what Paris is really like: The attendant smiles and says, “come watch the movie.” She says: If you lay on the floor before the lights dim they make you get up, but if you wait until it's dark they don't care what you do. From opening to close, the same film plays every sixteen minutes. In rural, rustic France, wooden carts bustle past soaring, fairytale castles. The fields are dotted with pristine white sheep. Female attendants who work at Epcot, France wear long, russet skirts and peasant tops that tie delicately at the throat. The attendant asks the audience to enjoy this introduction to her home. She says "home" like you might mouth a packet of Splenda. The panoramic screen reveals a view of rocky ocean cliffs and even more soaring castles and cyclists and more sheep and women carrying oversized baskets of bread. Every sixteen minutes the same country road winds along valleys sprinkled with tiny yellow wildflowers. Places people like to fuck at Disney: The Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, and the sixteen-minute movie in Epcot, France. Stains dot the theater seats, the curtains, and the floor where you can lay if you wait until the lights dim. Only after the lights dim, the attendant says. Not a second earlier. "The music is from Beauty and the Beast," she whispers in my ear. "Like from the Disney version." If you lay on the floor after the lights dim you see people's feet and bagged merchandise from every country in Epcot. Around the world in less than an hour if you don't stop to watch the sixteen-minute movie in France. A woman feeds her partner a chocolate-covered strawberry bought from the pavilion and he licks the residue from her fingers. You're not supposed to eat in the theater, but according to the attendant, nobody cares what happens after the lights dim. These people eat chocolate-covered strawberries and wear sport sandals. They’re climbing each other like real sports enthusiasts, I tell the attendant. One of them kicks a bag and it rustles. Ocean waves crash against the rocky shore. Sheep bleat beside a moated castle. The attendant says she’s heard it a thousand times before: the movie soundtrack and the fucking. The lights have dimmed so we’re on the floor and she's untying the delicate knot at her throat. I knew this would happen just like I knew it would happen the last time like I know it will happen again. Next weekend. A month from now. Tomorrow. Every sixteen minutes the attendant introduces a film about her home in a peasant top that ties delicately at the throat. The cyclists speed down the road past a cart full of bread. Sheep saunter up the hill, guided by a man in blue slacks. People in the back of the theater wear sport sandals and feed each other chocolate-covered strawberries and fuck next to a rustling bag of Epcot merchandise. Tiny, yellow wildflowers. During her introductory speech, the attendant says you can leave at any time by exiting the theater to your left. No one gets up. There’s only rustling bags, chocolate-covered strawberries, sport sandals, fucking. When I ask the attendant if she ever stays to watch the movie with special guests, she takes my hand. Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: will you lie on the floor with me? Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: will you untie the delicate knot at your throat? Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: I will not take you to dinner after this, we won’t go home together, I did that in another life with a woman like you but that tenderness is gone now, sixteen minutes is all I can offer, please, I’ve already given the other parts of myself away, do you understand? Pan over a snow-capped mountain. A line of people ski down its frozen side like a trail of ants. I tell the attendant the frosted mountain looks like mint chocolate chip ice cream and she laughs. “I haven't heard that one before,” she says, but I’m positive she has. Villagers sell pink and white flowers from a wooden cart. The attendant pulls up her skirt, loosens the knot at her throat. A woman on screen carries too much bread. The man herds sheep in his blue slacks. "Three red wines and a Canadian beer," I tell the attendant when she asks what I had for dinner. She's asking what I had for dinner because she’d like us to get dinner. There’s no dinner in our future, but we will lay on the floor of the movie theater. I know this the way I know the movie repeats every sixteen minutes. The attendant touches the delicate knot at her throat and undoes it using only two fingers. Wooden cart, castle. Pink and white flowers. Bleating sheep. Midway through the film a couple exchanges marriage vows inside a crumbling chapel. The music piped over the ceremony is familiar. “It’s what they use in Beauty and the Beast, the Disney film,” says the attendant. The bride wears a white dress and a shimmering veil. When the couple kisses, it looks like they’d rather die than let their lips touch. When my wife kissed me on our wedding day, she was so nervous her lips trembled. We did not listen to Disney music and there were no castles. Her hands left damp marks on the paper she carried so she could remember the order of the vows. We lit a white candle and the wind blew it out. Every sixteen minutes the couple in the film gets married. Every sixteen minutes they kiss like they wish they could take it back. In the movie theater, the lights dim and the attendant hikes up her skirt to reveal socks that buckle over the knee. “They’re regulation,” she whispers, when I slip a finger beneath the elastic band. Behind us, plastic bags rustle and people's legs move back and forth as they fuck and the attendant wants to know why I'd have three red wines and a Canadian beer for dinner, but what she's really asking is why won't I have dinner with her. Dinner isn’t on the table. We served chicken at our wedding so stringy I picked the gristle from my teeth and my wife kissed me with a mouth full of regrets. Why’d you drink dinner, asks the attendant, and I’m answering her question by ignoring it completely. This is a repeat of the conversation I had last week, two days ago, tonight, tomorrow, three weeks from now. The movie replays every sixteen minutes. On screen a girl in a yellow dress delivers flowers to a market full of smiling, happy people. She hands out flowers until her cart is empty. In sixteen minutes, she'll do it again. Flowers, the wooden cart, cyclists, skiers racing down the mint chocolate chip mountain, a lone woman carrying too much bread. The attendant rolls down her regulation socks and undoes the delicate knot at her throat. My hand slides up her thigh. Sheep dot the landscape like someone ripped open a pillow. There are castles everywhere. I ask the attendant what Paris is like and she says "it's exactly like this," but her eyes get wide when she says it and I know “exactly like this” means she’s willing to be whatever I want. Why did you drink dinner, she asks, and it's an echo in the valley between the ice cream mountains as the bags rustle and the people eat chocolate-covered strawberries and fuck in their sport sandals and we lie on the floor, once the lights are dim. The couple gets married in the crumbling chapel every sixteen minutes and they kiss like strangers. We lit the candle at our wedding and the flame blew out while I laughed, but my wife’s lips trembled and her hands sweat all over our vows and there were no castles anywhere. Why did you drink dinner? The attendant asks, and up come the lights. People pick up their bags and move out of the stained seats so other people can sit in the stained seats and set down their bags on the floor beside bits of popcorn and discarded gummy candies. In a few minutes, the attendant will loosen the knot at her throat. Roll down the regulation socks. Three red wines and a Canadian beer slosh in my stomach in lieu of dinner. There will never be dinner with this woman. There will never be dinner with any of them; there will never be. The movie replays every sixteen minutes. The attendant says: “Please enjoy this introduction to my home,” and we begin again. Sheep. Crumbling chapel. The couple kisses in the church and their mouths are trembling. Every wedding kiss is an earthquake. Pink and white flowers. Castles. We can slip down to the floor, the attendant whispers, once the lights dim.
In Search of Absence in Antarctica

It’s not that I divide my life into the periods before and after I went, exactly. It’s more that the trip accelerated a gradual change that has been happening all my life.

Antarctica is cold, but it’s not the coldest I’ve ever been. The worst cold befell me shortly after I moved across the country, from New York City to Seattle, Washington, nearly a decade ago, just as the year turned over. It wasn’t the northwest winter, which barely earns the right to call itself brisk. That February, I came down with a fever, red-hot and unremitting, some nameless virus announcing itself to my immune system. I threw up. I hallucinated my tattoos dancing off my skin. Only installing myself inches from a gas fireplace under no fewer than four blankets and adhering to a religious regimen of antipyretics could pause the shivering that transformed my body into one long groan. Eventually, the fever broke, and I surfaced to lucidity. But I think it left a psychic mark. That kind of cold is less a sensation than a discrete emotion, a shouting need to feel any way else. Feeling that bad leaves a residue of fear for the feeling’s return. For years after, I dressed warmer than the weather required, accumulated blankets in my home, suspicious of an unheralded, invading chill. Still, in January of 2017, I spent about 30 hours in air transit and nine days on a small cruise ship, the MS Hebridean Sky, in pursuit of seeing what was to be seen at the bottom of the world, where the coldest temperature on Earth was recorded (minus 94.7 degrees Celsius, in 2010). The second coldest I’ve ever been was while trying to run, but in fact stumbling, into the waters of an Antarctic caldera wrapped in the arms of Deception Island, in the South Shetlands. The volcano last erupted in the 1970s, damaging nearby science stations. Long before that, the area was a whaling village. Rust-colored oil tanks dot the island’s edges like a Richard Serra installation, flanked by decrepit houses, piles of shattered wood barrels, traces of primitive graveyards, and the remains of a whaling vessel. In the other direction: whale skeletons, biblical and anatomic, great vertebral chains, left over from a time before whalers discovered bones were oil-rich, too. It’s a grimmer setting than I had pictured for our vaunted “polar plunge.” I had imagined slipping off a little platform on the stern of the ship, the winter version of a Caribbean snorkel, propelled by only a split-second will to jump, gravity picking up the rest of the tab. Instead, we strip down to bathing clothes on a rocky beach—beach is a generous word—and propel ourselves, step by step, into the water, determined to have done with it.     We wade through a layer of sulfurous steam along the coastline, warmed by subterranean hot springs. Then: the slap of frigid water, brutal, the kind of cold that makes you believe you will never be warm again. On this, the single overcast day of our voyage, the cool air offers no relief. I swim a few strokes, hoping to encourage circulation. On shore, wiser, drier travelers wave encouragement. I have to put my head down, I think, get my hair wet, or I won’t feel I’ve really done it, haven’t committed. I have to submerge all the parts of me into this gesture. For a moment, I duck under the surface and the world goes numb and quiet. Everything external fades into irrelevance. Just for a moment. *    *    * Here are some facts. Antarctica remains the only continent on Earth not permanently inhabited by humans. In 1911, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to reach the South Pole. In 1959, after many more incursions, the establishment of the Antarctic Treaty System preserved the continent as a neutral and peaceful area of scientific discovery. Today 30 countries have research stations there, the only place in this world far from the madding crowd, unowned and unguarded. Here is another fact: the Antarctic is impossible to describe and pictures cannot do it justice. It takes two days’ sail to reach Antarctica. We leave the port town of Ushuaia, traverse the Beagle Channel, named for Darwin’s ship, and then we are in open water. An albatross tails us all the way from Argentina to the peninsula, an enormous, white-winged blur, diving ostentatiously around the ship, a benediction straight out of Coleridge. A Tristan's albatross, not a wandering albatross, says one of the guides, an Australian ornithologist. I am unable to remember which one blessed (then cursed) the ancient mariner. Seasickness eclipses the anticipation of arrival for me. I spend most of the first full day in bed, at first too nauseated, then too blitzed on Dramamine to do anything else. The boat pitches back and forth like a drunk. So much for the state-of-the-art balancers with which the Hebridean Sky has supposedly been retrofitted. Tiny for a cruise ship, the HS can accommodate 120 passengers in 59 cabins. Larger ships are not allowed in Antarctica. IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, delimits the volume and spread of visitors to the continent, so as not to hasten the anthropogenic destruction already guaranteed by global warming. Somewhere around 40,000 tourists visit each year. I’m not sure there are many more trying to break down the door. It is far away, and it is expensive.  By day two, the Drake Passage has settled, and I venture outside the cabin to take in the edgeless, white capped waters. It is the first time in my life I have been unable to spot land on any horizon. *    *    * It’s not that I divide my life into the periods before and after I went to Antarctica, exactly. It’s more that the trip occurred during and in some ways accelerated a gradual change that has been happening all my life. I was, in a few words, moving inward, away from the world and toward myself. Perhaps this shift is universal, the logical conclusion of self-object differentiation. Maybe it’s the result of a life lived in too many thin-walled apartments. Maybe it’s just what happens after a certain amount of heartbreak. I don’t mean to suggest that something calamitous happened which impelled me to seek out the kind of extremity Antarctica embodies. It didn’t. I went because my mother, an inveterate explorer, asked me if I would like to go with her.  It’s hard to describe going in search of an absence. But, in a way, that’s what I was doing: trying to find that innermost part of me impermeable to loneliness and loss, what T. S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” where everything pauses and gives way to a perfect inertia. I didn't expect to find it—but then, it’s the sort of thing that’s found incidentally in the pursuit. I sensed I might find that salutary emptiness within by seeking emptiness without. It is hard to imagine a place more bereft than the polar South. During this time, in this faraway mood, I read a host of books about vast spaces, person-less places, the cold. Places of absence. Strangely, post-Soviet literature seemed right: Snow in May, a lovely collection of short stories by Kseniya Melnik, who immigrated from northeast Russia to Alaska, and whose stories are all set in her hometown of Magadan which used to be the way station for prisoners en route to Stalin’s camps; Vladimir Sorokin’s bizarre and eerie Ice Trilogy; The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya, Lev Tolstoy’s granddaughter, a harsh, satirical novel about a post-apocalyptic landscape clearly meant to comment on the absurdity of human society. In these books, meaning ceases to have meaning. Cause does not lead to effect. Life is arbitrary, surreal, and casually cruel, just as it was after the fall of communism in Russia. If communism demanded sacrifice, at least it made a certain austere sense. It was for the good of the country, the good of its collective people. But after 1992: splintering, hardship, chaos. The organizing principle of a massive state upended, just like that. Only the long, hard winter reminded you where you were. [[{"fid":"6705371","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":{"height":"3000","width":"4000","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] This is also the period when the work of the writer Gretel Ehrlich came into my life. In 1978, California native Ehrlich precipitously moved to rural Wyoming and became a cattle rancher, enduring social and geographic isolation, and a brutal climate. Here she wrote her first and best book of essays, The Solace of Open Spaces, rendering life among the animals, and her turns of mind and heart. Prone to choosing hardship over comfort, Ehrlich went on to spend many seasons in Greenland, of all places, embracing the winter desolation and darkness of the far North. About this time she wrote This Cold Heaven, a hybrid chronicle of her experiences and early history of the land. Erlich’s voluntary privation obsessed me. I felt a kinship with her desire to break away from the balms and gratifications of quotidian existence, to, as Thoreau put it, “front only the essential facts of life.” But she had actually pulled the escape hatch. I knew I never would. I tend to idolize the monastic lifestyle Ehrlich found—the unerring commitment and seriousness of it, the way no time is wasted in frivolities—but I lack the discipline and impulse control. The best I could do was live it in words, a vicarious stoicism. *    *    * Early in the third morning aboard the HS, expedition leader Hailey’s New Zealand lilt, bright as the polar sun, cuts through our cradle-rocked sleep. Go outside, she says, with urgency. I will try to tell you what we saw that morning, and each day for the next week, but I will fail. All I can hope for is an asymptotic kind of evocation. The most common description of Antarctica is that it looks like an alien planet, and that is true. It is true not only because of Antarctica’s distance from the known world, but because of its unfathomable scale. One’s puny human systems of measure and value fall by the wayside. Scales geologic and planetary reign. Its ingredients are familiar and elemental—ice, sea, air, cloud—but they conspire to form an exotic whole, utterly foreign to the incidental visitor. Over the course of the week, we learn the aesthetic pendulum swings of the place. In the days, a blinding brightness overlays shimmering bands of water in every direction. It is summer—you can only visit Antarctica in summer—and a cloudless blue canopy lords over the landscape. The sea is a great silvery glass of ice water, celebratory like a cocktail, poised in the moment before it is slung back and drunk. It splashes unhurried onto calm peninsular shores. The land cuts a sliver between sea and sky, a seam stitching the world together. Its snow drifts sail and swoop across the horizon. Smooth surfaces belie the violent storms that made them. The scene makes for an almost lurid vista, highlighting an excess of cool tones, neon reflections necessitating the use of sunglasses. A painter would be accused of exaggeration. [[{"fid":"6705391","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"}}]] Before leaving and upon returning to the ship, we rinse our boots in a cleaning solution, which feels symbolic. We drive from the HS to shore in small motorized rafts called Zodiacs and walk from the shallows to dry land. There we see penguins for the first time, and countless times after, great, teeming colonies of black and white and gray-brown chicks. We note the absence of moisture in the air, its ubiquity on the ground. A surprise: Antarctic summer feels like a balmy week of Northeast winter, low to mid-thirties Fahrenheit each day, the sun beating down unhindered. Our first expedition off the ship teaches me I have worn too many layers: a thermal skin, insulated snow pants, a stretchy shell, a fleece, and a ski jacket. Five minutes on land sees the coat tied around my waist, leggings stuck to the insides of my knees. At night, the sky is a watercolor wash. Sunset tries to push in but day resists, never giving over to real darkness, instead smudging the blue over the glaciers peach and mauve. Waterfalls of glacial rock glow rose and coral in the perma-dusk. Clouds roll in just to catch the pinkish light. Distant peaks are scoops of sorbet. Everything seems impossibly far apart, held together precariously in any moment by the eye, always about to drift even farther. In Antarctica, the calendar year, quartered into seasons like a twice-sliced pie, looks like the artifact of a strange civilization. The continent follows the logic not of four but of two: of light (October to February) and dark (March to September). Light and dark, mirror to the human psyche, and like the human psyche, slightly favoring dark over light. Not multiplicity but dichotomy. The Midnight Sun prevails yet I feel sleepy all the time. I tumble into bed each night unreasonably wiped, fall into sleep like a meteor hitting the Earth. Maybe it's the constant soft rocking of the ship, like being in utero. At night I lie in bed, back on the HS after a day of trekking the continent, listening to the ship's joints complain of the thrashing waves. It sounds like the water has grown fingers and is trying to punch through the hull. Foam scrabbles at our porthole. At times the HS lifts me bodily from my repose, a gentle reminder of who is in charge here. *    *    * Searching for a salutary alienation in Antarctica has the whiff of the absurd about it, when you consider the kind of mass-scale, coordinated human enterprise it takes to get you there, not to mention that you can pretty much only go with a bunch of other people. A tour company coordinates the logistics, then delivers you an itinerary like a school chaperone, demanding obeisance to parliamentary procedure and time table.     You also can’t go very far in, at least not as a casual visitor. Steep glacial cliffs thwart maritime access to most of the Antarctic, so tours confine themselves to the peninsula, a tail curling off the continent toward South America. Once we arrive on Antarctic soil, there can be no doubt: we are an invasive species, a flock of flailing, red-jacketed warblers whom the natives sanction with benign neglect (having no reason to fear us, penguins amble past at knee-height, indifferent to our comings and goings). Camera shutters open and close like bird beaks. Antarctica is a photographer’s paradise, all shapes and shadows playing across the firmament. Some of my fellow travelers walk the ice with small fortunes of photography equipment in tow. [[{"fid":"6705396","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"}}]] Even the crunching of my own boots grates. Quiet must be stalked like prey. Wishing everyone else away at all times, I adopt strategies on expedition for tuning them out: focus on the three-foot radius around me; lock eyes with a tern perched a little ways away; find a quiet outcropping to rest, preferably over a hill from the main action. I like to sink a foot or two into a soft snow bank, coming to rest with my eyes almost at ground height. Disappearing myself into the land like this, I notice more. Slick penguin feathers pierce the surface of the shallow water near shore. A massive rock reveals the taupe hide of a hulking, smug-faced elephant seal who drowses in the heat of the day. Often, I pass an hour or two in this way. Other tourists mostly respect the wishes of those wanting solitude, so I am left to my own thoughts, and leave others to theirs, regrouping now and then to marvel as a gang at our extraordinary good fortune. I am never bored, only idling at a slightly quieter level of consciousness than usual, which lends a certain plainness and clarity to my thinking, stripped of what Ehrlich called the “ornamental” in us.  At times, the openness of my surroundings leaves me feeling small and lightheaded, like I might hot-air-balloon into the ether. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard equates snug, confined spaces with personal history. For him the fundamental unit of selfhood is the house, the first place we occupy, and therefore possess forever, because it holds our memories, which we return to over and over like a protective shell that reminds us who we are. “If one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to re-open,” he writes, “one would have to tell the story of one's entire life.” In other words, the story of one’s self. What, then, of a place without any doors or rooms for hundreds of miles? A space like that might vanquish the self, lift the weight of our memories from our shoulders. *    *    * But this land, wide and strange though it be, is far from empty. In fact, entertainments abound for those who would take notice. Observation—sincere, prolonged observation—is a form of meditation, the oldest trick in the book for mastering the whims and vagaries of the ego. Paying close attention means leaving the self behind, inhabiting Emerson’s transparent eyeball. Eliot considers this the ideal practice of the artist, who engages in a “continual surrender” of the self to the tradition which flows through it. We are each, after all, the artist of our own life. Ehrlich puts it another way. “Keenly observed,” she says, “the world is transformed. The landscape is engorged with detail, every movement on it chillingly sharp. The air between people is charged. Days unfold, bathed in their own music. Nights become hallucinatory; dreams, prescient.” A circus of animal life surrounds our staid human party, putting on a nonstop show of labor and play. There are, of course, the penguins: the saffron-beaked gentoo, the bleating Adélie, the chinstrap, so named for the black-colored line under its head. Penguins trill to their mates, clown-honk, squeak, occasionally purr. Overhead, winged critters—albatross, petrels, skuas, cormorants, sheathbills—mock their land-bound rivals. We see Antarctic and Arctic terns. Arctic terns spend summers here and in the Arctic, at opposite times of year, perpetually circumnavigating the globe. They see more daylight than any other creature on Earth. [[{"fid":"6705401","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"}}]] Seals loaf on beaches and accompany our Zodiac voyages, swimming circles around the rafts, poking their heads up for a teasing glimpse. There are elephant seals, fur seals, leopard seals, golden-hued crab-eater seals, Weddell seals, whose eponymous discoverer, James Weddell, in 1823 sailed further south than any explorer before him, and of whom Wikipedia helpfully notes, “He is one of the very few human beings to have a sea named after him.” But the creatures that draw us in crowds out of our heated cabins and dining rooms and libraries onto the frosty outer decks are the whales: humpbacks, sei whales, minkes. On the HS, the captain keeps watch from the bridge, alerting passengers to sights of interest as we pass. One evening, he advises whales are nearby, and the crew decides to open a front area of the ship not normally accessible to passengers. We huddle together against the wind, squinting into the horizon, and minutes later an orca erupts from the water mere feet from the prow. A collective gasp goes through our makeshift audience. The white-bellied giant seems to pause, mid-breach, before crashing back into the rough seas. The staff start jumping and hugging, which we take as a sign we’ve seen something special and rare. We imagine, startled into silence, that we can still hear our showy friend under the water. But perhaps it’s just the ever-present birds, diving and squawking, chittering into the wind. *    *    *  Any place is loud if you quiet down enough. Even the ice here declares itself. Bergs can be heard grumbling in the deep, air bubbles burbling to the surface from within. Glaciers calve like a long, low cannon shot, or a warning. Bit by bit, we absorb the complex taxonomy of ice. We learn to speak and read it, coached by the expansive knowledge of our expedition guides. Fast ice is sea ice still attached to land. Glacial ice is like the human psyche: many-layered, difficult to penetrate, at times under great pressure; the pressure is what turns it blue. Every hole in the glacial ice means something. A more circular one is probably a meltwater channel (where water flows through in summer); some are just crevasses that have come to the front of the glacial sheet. Black ice is very old, the result of compressed air. Its perfect clarity reflects water, which makes it invisible to boats, and therefore dangerous. Its surface looks like scales, or the outside of a golf ball, apparently formed by eddies that occur when salt and fresh water mingle. When we run into black ice, we heave a great, gleaming hunk into the floor of the boat to break up for our drinks later. [[{"fid":"6705406","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"5":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"5"}}]] Ice is elementary, the atom of the polar south, constantly shifting and reshaping, breaking apart and combining with bonds weak and strong, birthing and sinking and crumbling. The ice declares that we are all also formed from the same stuff made and remade into different shapes. What appears to be stasis reveals itself as continual motion. The stars of the show, of course, are the icebergs. The pressure of snow on the glaciers causes icebergs to break off and land in the water. Some cluster in groups, shimmering like pennies dropped into a fountain. Others hulk on their lonesome, like a cathedral in the desert. Icebergs feature whorls, scratch-like marks, pinholes straight through. Jagged edges facing up means they probably fell that way; smooth edges up means they have probably flipped at some point (the submerged side was worn down by the water). Vertical lines through the ice are caused by air bubbles escaping. Icebergs range in color from starkest white to eggshell blue to icy teal. They look like pillows, coral, tables, piano keys, a dog howling, a wave curling up out of the sea, a row of ill-formed teeth. I could happily cruise around the Antarctic iceberg-spotting for a week. Cloud watching will never hold interest again. Late in the week, we take a Zodiac cruise to Spert Island, across a turquoise bay then through a spectacular narrow channel flanked by sheer rock cliffs made of igneous rock that has been smoothed down by glaciers. Caves at the bottom of the cliffs, just above the water’s surface, invite speculation. How deep do they go? What lives inside them? On the other side of the channel, swells from the Drake Passage make the water violent, threatening to throw us from our craft. Being the kind of person who loves airplane turbulence, I enjoy this brush with real danger. I prefer to be at sea-level, on our knees before the sublime, even if we make a more direct target for wind off the water. That day, the harsh, chill air scrabbles at our noses and cheeks, any piece of exposed skin it can sink its claws into. We don scarves and ski gloves, which make picture-taking an elaborate dance. The mild discomfort feels appropriate to the occasion; I lean into the cold. “Part of the ache we feel is also a softness growing,” writes Ehrlich. *    *    * It’s a curious fact that I seem to experience Antarctica more now than when I was there. The remove of time and space has somehow brought me closer to my days on the ice. I recall pleasant superficialities. The zero-percent humidity polar desert blessed me with a tan and perfect hair. My chronic migraines mysteriously quiesced. Here I sit, in my warm home, with a dull ache for this strange, inhospitable place, whose allure has only been enhanced by distance. Antarctica seems like it has a secret or is a secret, and I am still trying to figure out what it is. I am what the essayist André Aciman calls a “psychological temporizer–who defers, denies, disperses the present, who accesses time (life, if you wish) so obliquely and in such roundabout ways and gives the present so provisional and tenuous a status that the present, insofar as such a thing is conceivable, ceases to exist, or, to be more accurate, does not count.” I did not know what Antarctica would mean to me until long after I left, and knowing this, I gave myself up to whatever I felt in her presence. “To be conscious is not to be in time,” writes Eliot. On one cruise, we pass an old shipwreck sticking up out of the water like a finger-wagging mariner. It leaves me wondering what would happen if I died down there, days’ sail from human civilization. Even on our luxury watercraft, survival in the Antarctic is always just barely, kind of like the rest of life. We happened to be well-prepared. Other species seem to court death. Penguin parents bring back food from the sea and stand a ways from their two chicks. Whichever reaches them first gets to eat. The other, well. On a trek, we stop dead in our tracks to watch a skua savage a wayward fluff-ball not two feet in front of us. Blood and tiny innards are everywhere. But the bird has to eat too, we reason. “There is nothing in nature that can’t be taken as a sign of both mortality and invigoration,” says Ehrlich. [[{"fid":"6705411","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"6":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"6"}}]] There’s an argument to be made that death is the most salient feature of the Antarctic, present and past, inside and outside human activity. Visiting is an exercise in devising plans for averting your own demise by exposure (or partaking of someone else’s plans). In 1914, the explorer Ernest Shackleton famously attempted the first land crossing of the continent, and famously led his crew to the brink of death (and three over the edge) by way of inadequate preparation and supplies. Arrogance is no good in this hostile clime unless you are tired of living.  Changes in the Antarctic landscape and temperature suggest, too, that humans as a group are tired of living. As the weather heats up, glaciers are calving in miles-long chunks; species are dying off; emperor penguins are retreating southward into the continent. That Antarctica reads like winter even in summer fools us into believing in a perpetual summer for humankind. The largely invisible pace of change anesthetizes us until it is too late (it is already too late).  In Melnik’s stories, the inhabitants of Magadan curry favor with Communist party leaders, securing their status until the precipitous fall of the USSR, when they lose their jobs. They indulge in witch medicine, oblivious or averse to the modernization of their country. The world has already changed and even those aware of the change fail to realize its extent, its power to alter every aspect of life as they know it. *    *    * Returning to Tierra del Fuego, we smell land before we see it. Greenery appears in our scent before our sight, the earthy, bodily musk of it. Six days of icy desert have sharpened our noses to plant life. The Beagle Channel stinks of vegetal fertility. Behind it lurks a sweet sadness. Above decks, we exchange wistful glances. We are almost home, or almost on the way to the way home. Home we came, and life proceeded as it always does, though not exactly as usual. 2018, the year after Antarctica, was a hard year for me, and all the other people on the planet. I hardly wrote at all. Bad things happened, to me and to the world, and I felt bad about them. Good things happened too, but they felt like exceptions. In the periphery of every cheerful sight, powerful men waved their hands and sang horrors. Out of options, I dove deep into the self-sprung well of solace inside me, bathed in its waters, and in the words of those who sustained my capacity for joy and connection, and who sustain me still. I recalled the pleasures of silence in my own company. I went, in other words, back to the Antarctica in my mind. “True solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere,” writes Ehrlich. The poem “Ash-Wednesday” was my favorite of Eliot’s before my trip to Antarctica. Since the trip, its imagery, its cadences are bound up inextricably with the memories of that endless seascape, its looming ice giants, the clear, glacial air that christened our passage.             Because these wings are no longer wings to fly             But merely vans to beat the air             The air which is now thoroughly small and dry             Smaller and dryer than the will             Teach us to care and not to care             Teach us to sit still.  It would be too pat to say that what amounted to a two-week vacation saved my life. My life didn’t need saving, and anyway, Antarctica isn’t interested in saving anyone, not even herself. She simply doesn’t have anything to do with any of us, and that, in Ehrlich’s words, absolute indifference is a balm.  The Antarctic isn’t still, but it allows for the possibility of stillness. Its aridity is not empty, but new, fresh, no weight, all possibility. A loosening of the tether between the inner and outer worlds. The promise of infinite renewal, seas frozen and dissolved each year. The asked-for mercy of forgetting. A chilly embrace. It has become a far-off friend who welcomes my visitations, a touchpoint for my mental wanderings. Now and then, in gray moments, the elixir of that cold place, Ehrlich’s nervy courage, and Eliot’s prosody make it possible for me to go on. Ehrlich is beauty, Eliot is salvation, and Antarctica is…what? More an idea, these days, than a memory. A lovely hallucination. Anchor to a sphere spinning at baffling speeds, or else its crown, a glistening adornment. All of these and none of these.
‘Migration Necessitates Narration’: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon

The author of My Parents/This Does Not Belong To You on the collaborative nature of non-fiction, evolving family dynamics, and surviving the catastrophic plot twist. 

Before reading Aleksandar Hemon, I had a theory that the best way to write about the Balkans was through fiction. The region’s head-spinning politics and hard edge of suffering were elements too raw for the inflexible mode of non-fiction writing. Hemon’s work is one of the few exceptions. His writing—perhaps because his theories of fiction and non-fiction are more complex, or perhaps simply because he’s a master of the form—manages to wrangle the truth, taming it, making it comprehensible again. Hemon’s most recent book, My Parents/This Does Not Belong To You (Hamish Hamilton), is actually two books in one, presented dos-à-dos, with a series of family photos separating them (or maybe connecting them) in the middle. On one side, the story of his parents' lives and their journey from Bosnia to Canada, and on the other, an impressionistic series of short chapters from Hemon’s childhood.  For anyone who has experienced displacement, Hemon’s writing is remarkable for its ability to describe the unbridgeable gap between homes past and present. Trauma, migration, and memory are approached with an expert’s hand and the garbled, terrifying voice of the past is made clear and lucid.  Hemon, who came to the United States from Yugoslavia in his twenties, and who still speaks with a deep-voiced Slavic lilt, has been compared to Nabokov for his sharp prose and his decision to adopt his second language as the language he writes in. But his work contains shades of Proust, too. He's able to capture the particular fine-grained texture of memory, its vivid moments and fuzzy edges. One of the first memories he describes in an early chapter of This Does Not Belong to You is the feeling of cold water being poured over his face after falling into a deep ditch filled with cow excrement. At a reading in Toronto, the day before our interview, Hemon had small containers of honey available for attendees, produced in his father's backyard apiary in Hamilton. The day after the reading, we met at a cafe in Toronto. Seila Rizvic: What is the process of actually translating a memory into a written work? How does that work? When you're writing My Parents, a more traditional memoir, do you have to be in a different mindset than when you're writing the fragments found in This Does Not Belong to You? Aleksandar Hemon: I mean, I guess it's a memoir, but I don't think of it as a memoir because it's about my parents. But either way, whatever it is, it's about a shared past. There are shared points, shared references. That is, we remember certain things in our family life that my parents also remember, and that my sister also remembers. And there might be people outside of the books who remember. And then it's part of this history of the country and the place. Everyone remembers the war, except everyone has experienced it differently. But it's a referential event. And so, there's this field of shared experience and memory of my family and our life and then the vaster field. Whereas the fragments, some of those things, I'm the only who would remember them. My mom remembers us coming back home after vacation. She says, “Yes, that's exactly how it was.” But no one remembers when I was drowning in shit. Anyway, the point is, there's a certain creative aspect in retrieving memory, you have to complete blanks, and so the imagination kicks in. And that's my territory as a writer. But it also means that often, what you remember is the story of the memory. The memory is behind the screen of narrativization. You don't have direct access to it. The experience is contained in the narrative. However small.   So, the actual process of compiling the parents’ portion would have been more collaborative and actually talking it out with others, whereas the other ones would have been more instinctual?  I think non-fiction in general is kind of inherently collaborative. Because you have to verify reality, whatever it is. From journalism to memoir, because who can remember one's life without remembering other people? The moment you're remembering other people you have a responsibility toward other people and what they remember. My previous work of nonfiction, I had to run a lot of those things by my parents, by my sister, by my friends. "Do you remember this? Well what was that like?" Whereas, This Doesn't Belong To You and fiction, it's more closely in the domain of pure imagination, storytelling that cannot be verified. It liberates you in some ways from the need for verification, because other people are not involved.  Another way to put it is that everyone, including writers, everyone invents the story of their life. Not invents, rather, constructs a story of their life. Many real parts, some missing parts—you add to it. But you are the main character in the story of your life, which is both true and constructed. It's both authentic and artificial. It's both fictional and non-fictional. But the non-fictional part is verified by the others, they check you. However, there are parts—your interiority, or your sort of narrative of yourself—that you want to sustain. “I'm a decent person.” Which might not be true. But if I think that of myself, then I will construct a narrative of my life to support that proposition. Eliminate all the little stories where I was not a decent person. There's a portion where you talk about the idea of truth and memory. You describe “a story I heard in Sarajevo from someone who had heard it from someone else, who, in turn, knew the person who knew the person to whom all this happened. In short, the story is as true as can be, even if I fact-checked none of it, because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people.” I liked this description because it describes how, like in a work of fiction, something can be true without being necessarily based in facts or reality. It seems to me that memory can function in a similar way, where, even though a memory may be imperfect in terms of accuracy, the way that it accumulates value in transmission between people still holds an important meaning.  That would be closer to oral literature, right?  So, if you are passing a story from one person to another, it passes through bodies and minds and passes through these narrative machines that each person is. Because we do narrativize our interiority, our lives, our selves. It's incomprehensible without narrativization. One doesn't have a sense of selfhood and continuity in one's life unless it is somehow [narrativized], unless I can conceptualize the story of my life. So, to tell a story from one person to another to another, this is how, well, this is how the Iliad was assembled and all masterpieces of oral literature. But also, it aggregates, each time it passes from one person to another, it is vetted against the experience of the storyteller, and they adjust it—it stands to reason—they adjust it and reshape so as to make it fit into the experience of their life. So as to make it, as it were, enough about them so they can tell the story. I think in some ways this is basically how literature works. What do I have to do with the 19th-century Russian novel? It's an object that expands to me from other people, and I know that there are other people involved, and the field of literature that we share and these things pass. And so that's a kind of truth that is not factual, what is and what isn't. Narrative or narration is an important tool for assembling reality and imagination. That is, we have to imagine something as real before it can be real. I think there's an interesting paradox in storytelling and conversation. If you're telling a story it’s already artificial, right? So, it already blocks, to some extent, the access to the absolute truth, the actuality of it. Which is why memory is always both true and not entirely true. It can become true if it is fact-checked against other people. Were we sitting in Toronto on this day you and I, talking? If we never see each other again we might remember this entirely differently. I'm sure you experienced that. Remembering the same thing differently. "I never said that." "you were never there," "I didn't drink coffee, you drank a latte," you know, and all these things may differ. And if you remember individually, that can only be contained in a narrative that we tell ourselves and others. To make it real we have to compare our notes and come to a consensual set of facts. However, the truth of this conversation could be passed in that artificial narrative and transformed.  It's interesting that you mention fact-checking. As an actual journalistic process, it follows a defined set of rules. When I've worked as a fact checker for magazines, I've actually fact-checked fiction pieces, like short stories, as well. I imagine you've gone through this as well as a writer.  Yes, the New Yorker does that as well. Yes, it's an interesting clash of "fact" and fiction. I get the sense that the fact-checking process, asking questions piecemeal, question by question, makes it very hard for sources to get a sense of the whole article. The piecemeal approach to fact-checking can't get across the same information as reading the final piece in its entirety would. If you declare it as fiction, you agree to a different set of rules. A witness in the Hague, you want them to be as specific as possible and it then has to be checked against a number of other sources. So, there’s a legal value to the truthfulness of it. But the value of the factuality of fiction is very, very low comparatively speaking. It's never nil, but it’s very low. And it also depends on what the facts pertain to. The facts of genocide in Bosnia or the Holocaust—I'm not making this shit up, it's not within the domain of the freedom of the writer. So, I don't have an absolute answer or methodology to resolve this conflict. I think it's inherent in the very establishment of the difference between fact and fiction. In Bosnian, in Slavic languages and a number of other languages for instance, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction in literature is non-existent. Or it's more complex. In translating my previous book of non-fiction into Bosnian with my translator, the only place where I used the words—"fiction," "non-fiction"—was in the acknowledgements. And she asked, “How do we translate it into Bosnian?” It was a huge problem. We were bending backwards and adding a paragraph, which you don't want to do in an acknowledgement. There are general differences between lies and truth, but not fiction and non-fiction as modes of narration in literary text. So, I cut out the acknowledgements, rather than explaining it. But in Anglo-Saxon literature it’s taken to be self-evident, the difference and the concept. And then you run in to all these paradoxes and intentions that no one can quite resolve. For my work, what I care about, the overarching term that covers both fiction and non-fiction and sort of at least relieves the tension, is storytelling or narration.  Narrative as a container for both of those aspects. The closest translation to non-fiction in Bosnian and other southern Slavic languages is "true stories," istinite priče, because that includes that narrative aspect. I think, by way of imagination and narration, we create structures that contain truth, general truth, and create a situation in which truth unfolds in narration. It does not preexist in the narrative project, but it unfolds. Or, if you wish—one discovers it. You were talking a bit about oral history and also the shared experiences between you and your family and that shared memory component. Obviously, most families don't have someone who is a writer who will write a book that will be read by others about their family history. I'm wondering how those family stories change once they're actually written down and made available publicly. Does that change you and your family's relationship to the stories? Yes, it does. I mean, for oral histories you have to have oral activities. People have to sit around and tell each other these stories. My parents' generation, particularly on my father's side, they still do it, they sit around and tell stories: "Do you remember? It was 1941..." The story on my father's side was the narrative of my migration. Where we came from, who's there. One of my cousins also lives in Hamilton, he drew a family tree that reaches four generations. Beyond that, no one knows, because there are no documents, there are no written stories, there is only what has passed through us through all this. Every generation after mine and my cousins, my children's generation or maybe their children's generation, where will they get those stories? I could tell them, but the situation in which the whole family, or much of the family, sits around and tells those stories, is less and less available because of dispersement. If we all lived in the same place and saw each other frequently, because we live close enough, we could just sit around and tell stories, and we'd pass it down the line. But migration necessitates narration, and it also necessitates things being written down. So, it can be transacted. My mother said, with a finger raised, which is an important point, she said, "This is a monument to us." I like that she said it, it's lovely. But monuments don't change. They don't adjust. It's a solid, unchanging thing that stands in time. Which is inescapable, but it's also sad. A monument is what you raise when people are no longer around. It's an object symbolizing the present. Was there any hesitation on the part of your family when you first decided you wanted to write about them and your shared history? No. For one thing, I've been writing about them for a long time, my parents, and they're always complicit. There's also nothing embarrassing or shameful or secret in our family history. It's all complicated, complex, adult life. I remember when I was in my twenties, just before the war, I realized now we could be friends. When I was a child they were all over my ass, you know, to wear warm clothes, and study and all this, and then, somehow, I got out of that, and then we could sit around and talk about things. And then it was broken up because I moved there and they moved here, and we didn’t see each other for two years. But then once we were close enough again it was restored. We'd sit around and argue as adults. And what I also did, which is something that children don't do with their parents, I listened to them. There are times, even as a grown up, where you argue with them. In the interview situation, I would ask them, and then I would listen. I would not try to correct them, I would not try to say, "No, you're wrong about that." "Tito was this" while they think Tito was that, I'd just say, “What do you think,” and they'd tell me what they thought. And it was nothing new, what they revealed to me, but it was a different dynamic. That's sort of more of a journalistic process, of just letting them respond rather than debating. Yeah, and it's also a more generous process. More forgiving. I mean we always loved each other, there was never any scandalous situation where we had to make up. But there's a certain amount of unforgiveness that comes with being close, knowing each other, remembering everything that we said to each other, ten, fifteen years ago, from a week ago. And all these, not quite grudges, but ongoing arguments, "See I told you, remember I told you seven years ago this was going to happen." Listening to them, I mean it's necessary for journalistic interviews. It's not for me to prove that I'm right and they're wrong. You just listen. And that was great, it was liberating. That in itself was worth working on the book. You also discuss "catastrophe," or "katastrofa" as a theme in the book and as a literary term, synonymous with denouement. Catastrophe, you write, “allows for narrative escape. If you were lucky enough to have survived the catastrophic plot twist, you get to tell the story—you must tell the story.”  Is this a factor for you when it comes to why you write? It is. I was never under direct duress, my life was never in danger [during the war], so surviving is kind of conceptual. And then that transformation that comes from overcoming the obstacle, you can think of it as a narrative operation, right? To get from point A to point B, and between point A and point B is a significant obstacle, whatever it is. Getting a passport, citizenship, learning the language, whatever. When I teach creative writing I always encourage my students to think of the transformative possibilities in the storytelling. I want them to have something change. So, this transformative event, you can think of it as a catastrophe. The initial set of conditions is undone and something changes. It's kind of theoretical, but the point is that, whatever it is—you live in Bosnia, war, and then you live in the United States or Canada— and life is different. Language is different, everything is different, door knobs are different. So how do you tell the story of the transformation? Or rather, it's the other way around. If you go through this transformation, you have to tell the story. One feels, I feel, the need to tell the story. And so that means that catastrophe is the engine of transformation. And transformation, you can think of conceptually as migration, and that it's literally migration for people like us. To get from point A and point B and something happens in between. When you get to point B there may be people there who will listen to your story about what happened between point A and point B. Narration is migration squared. Migration necessitates narration.  In one chapter you describe singing “Sarajevo, My Love” on the bus during a school field trip. The lyrics you write in the book are translated from Bosnian to English. You write, “The memory of what happened on that bus is deposited behind the stained-glass pane of a foreign language. I will restore these verses into the original Bosnian, where it will be more present, but you will not be able to read it. This does not belong to you." I'm interested in whether writing in English, about events that took place in Bosnian, changes those memories somehow?  It's an interesting question. You can think of writing literature as documenting as closely to facts, whatever the facts are, as possible. And for that you have to believe that you can reduce or even avoid mediation and transformation that comes from it, that you can tell an absolutely true story. Whereas my position is that literature is a transformative aspect of that. The authentic memory is no longer available, in any language, it's always already transformed by the act of narration. There's an additional transformation in all of it existing in English.  Now one can think of it as the loss of authenticity and the loss of truth, an existential void, because nothing is real and true anymore, but to me, it is the transformative possibility of art and narration and language. That's what's great about literature. To read and to write is to engage in the processes of transformation which removes you from the original event, the original experience, but at the same time, it was never available. One might as well accept that fact. But would you agree that there's something different in telling the same story in English versus in Bosnian? Yeah, absolutely. I like this Robert Frost quote, "Poetry is what is lost in translation." A conservative, excellent, American poet who lived in the same fucking place his entire life. Only knew one language, only knew people who spoke that language. It was Brodsky who said, "Poetry is what is gained in translation." Brodsky was displaced, a Jewish person from Russia, who translated from Greek and English, and was not only a poet but a translator. And the thing is, both of them are right. You lose some, you gain some. But to think that you could exactly translate from one language to another—if one were able to translate a poem from one language to another exactly, it would be the same language! If all the connotations of all the words, and all the implications, and all the contexts, were available in two languages, those languages would be the same languages. It cannot be that. The beautiful, enormous variety of human beings, is in fact contained in those transactions. There's no literature without translation. Every time something is translated, something is lost and something is gained. And so, because the original experience is never available, there's no choice but to enter a transformative process. The question is, are you going to think it's a sort of existential, ontological defeat of selfhood, that you can never have access to the original event? Or do you think about it as a transformative operation that makes human civilization and literature possible? If we had ways to convey our original experiences, there would be no literature, there would be no need for literature. Something that sort of struck me as I was reading, in many of your books actually, is it's possible to see how the story would have been written if it had been written in Bosnian. There's a certain cadence that's familiar to me in the form of Bosnian, oral, storytelling but then, translated into a written English form, it's still noticeable. That's good. I think those are rhythms and cadences that I was acculturated to. People ask me often—you asked the same thing but more intelligently and more complicatedly—am I the same person in Bosnian and in English? Or do I change? And I am, and also I'm not. I am because, even if you only speak one language, you use different registers, different modes, you speak differently to your parents versus your friends. In Bosnian, my range is from speaking like a Sarajevo thug, to speaking like a seemingly intelligent person who uses complex words and incorporates Croatian and Serbian idiom. And so, to be bilingual is to enjoy various aspects of yourself and your personality. Everyone is more than one person and more than one thing. But if you're bilingual or multilingual than you have various languages for those personalities, but all of them are yours. To me, I don't think of myself as different in different languages at all. I have the same sensibility. Of course, who am I to say. But I don't think I become someone else, or less Bosnian, if I speak English to you. And what if you had never learned English? I've thought about this, if I had stayed in Bosnia and possibly never learned English, if I would be different somehow. And, of course, now my Bosnian has withered away somewhat, but I like the person that I'm able to be when I speak English. The analogy that I like to use is that, in a two-dimensional system of representation, three-dimensional objects are reduced to two dimensions. And so, to a monolingual person, a multilingual mind is incomprehensible—it looks like a monolingual mind. People who speak one language, they cannot understand what it's like. Even if you don't speak it fluently, it's in there, it's the culture, your parents' voices, the whole thing, it's all there. The mind is shaped. And there's neurological studies that show that bilingual children's brains function differently in many ways. So that's a great advantage. But people who are monolingual, they ask me, because they cannot understand how that's possible, “Are you the same person?” Yes, I'm the same person, with an extra dimension. But the same mind. The more languages you speak, the more dimensions you have. It activates parts of you that may not be activated otherwise, and it forces you into modes of thinking in which you have to make multiple choices. I always know that there's another way to say the same thing.
‘My Only Real Loyalty is to the Truth’: An Interview with Patrick Radden Keefe

The author of Say Nothing on the Troubles, the difference between narrative non-fiction and history, and reporting until you solve a murder. 

The eight masked men and women who took Jean McConville from her West Belfast housing complex flat in December, 1972, had to contend with her ten children. Jean, panicked, asked the kids to help her—they clung to her, wouldn’t let her go until they were reassured that Jean would return in a few hours, and that eldest son Archie could accompany her. Before Jean was pushed into a Volkswagen van, Archie was told at gunpoint to “Fuck off.” Having little choice, the 16-year-old did just that. Jean McConville was never seen alive again.  New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe found his way to this story through the obituary of Dolours Price, a former I.R.A. terrorist, who claimed that Jean McConville was an informer for the British army, and was executed by the Unknowns, a paramilitary unit of the I.R.A. Price claimed that the order came from Gerry Adams, who was later to become the leader of Sinn Fein, and a crucial force behind the Good Friday Agreement. Adams has not only avoided claiming responsibility for this crime, he’s denied ever being an I.R.A. member.    In Say Nothing (Doubleday), Keefe has expanded his 2015 article exploring the McConville vanishing into a book that explores the Troubles without making a perhaps-inevitably doomed attempt at being definitive. Keefe’s focus on the McConville crime, and on the journey of sisters Dolours and Marian Price through politics, terrorism, prison, hunger strikes, and decades of consequence, makes for a painful, character-centred story with a truly unexpected ending. Many of the survivors of the recent history that Say Nothing describes seem to want leave it unspoken and unremembered, but they dwell in its aftermath, every day.  Naben Ruthnum: The title—Say Nothing—suggests one of your themes: collective denial. How does this story, and the effects not just of the McConville vanishing, but the entire unresolved trauma of the Troubles—how does denial come into it?  Patrick Radden Keefe: Maybe as a journalist and a writer, I have a bias. My bias is for openness and for truth. I tend to think that you can ignore the past, but that’s not going to make it go away.  That was something that kept coming home for me. This sense of really profound irresolution. In the absence of some process—not even for accountability or justice, but just some truth process. Not even necessarily reconciliation, but just a truth process. To talk about what happened. I do think that everyone ends up in this strange purgatory where they’re unable to move on, and they’re trapped in the past. The image I always come back to is that moment where [Jean McConville’s son] Michael McConville, as an adult, gets into a taxi and realizes that it’s being driven by a guy who took his mother away. And he doesn’t say anything. And the guy doesn’t say anything. Neither of them say anything, and the guy drops him off.  There’s a metaphor in there, and it’s a metaphor of paralysis.  Addressing this paralysis—in a sense, just getting anyone to talk to you, especially in the wake of many people involved with this story having been compromised by supposedly locked, archival interviews they conducted with Boston College being given over to the authorities—just having people speak to you about the McConville case must have been difficult. It was different [from the Boston tapes] in the sense that people knew that this was going to be public. Initially I was writing a magazine article, then the book. It was a slow process. Some people never did talk to me. Some people started talking and then changed their minds. And others, slowly, I persuaded them I was responsible and wanted to tell the story as truthfully as I could.  It’s funny. I’d written this 15,000-word magazine article, and with some people, that hurt me, but with others, it helped. I had a calling card, I could say to people, “Look, this is my approach, the book is going to look something like this.” Most people, when they read that, thought, “Okay, he’s serious, he’s thorough, he doesn’t necessarily have a particular ax to grind.” But not everyone. Gerry Adams was not more likely to talk to me after reading that piece. The people who did begin to speak to you and then took it back—how did you treat those interviews, ethically? And practically, if these people had given you information that you could act on? If we’re on the record, I’m very big on ground rules up front. Part of the reason I do that is to avoid any ambiguity on the other side. You and I are talking on the record right now. Tonight, I might suddenly have some crisis about something I said and call you up and try to take it back. But it’s my view that it’s totally your prerogative, whether or not you’re going to do that. You don’t owe that to me. We had a deal. The tricky thing with a story like this, is that some of the people you’re dealing with are pretty sophisticated about the press, and others are not. In my general career, there are people I deal with who have publicists and are old hands at this, and others who are real civilians who, in some instances, have never dealt with a reporter before. What I try to do is always be very clear with everyone about what I’m doing. In some instances, there are people who start talking to you and then kind of dry up, or say they’d prefer not to be in the book. If the deal we had in the beginning is we’re on the record, then I’m disinclined to make changes. The way I think of it is my only real loyalty is to the truth. We can make a deal, a contract, and I have to honour that. But at the point where I start pulling punches, because I like you and think you’re a nice guy? I’m really not doing my job. You talk about that New Yorker article, “Where the Bodies are Buried,” being an ambiguous calling card—how it worked in your favour with some people, with others, no. What about being Boston Irish, and having the name you do? I love the brief section in the book where you discuss coming up in ‘80s Boston but not having a particular stake in the Troubles.    Originally, I wasn’t going to be in the book at all. Then I sort of had to be in it, because of the revelation in the last chapter. But the reason [that section you mentioned] is in there is because my English publisher said to me, “You have to talk about your name. People are going to wonder.” What I wanted to do is to raise it up and then swat it aside. I had thought that it would be more of a thing when I went over there. That unionists would hear my name and think that I came from a Catholic background, think that I had certain loyalties. That didn’t happen at all.  I think there’s a lot of Irish Americans, Irish Canadians too, who feel very connected to the old country. But then you go over there, and... I’m American. Inescapably. I think there was a sense that, when they saw me, I may have this Irish name, but I was clearly an outsider. I was very much an outsider, which actually ended up helping. It neither counted for me nor against me that my name is Patrick Keefe. Weirdly enough, the fact that I immediately registered as American, not a partisan who fit into the grid there, that actually helped. In your “Note On Sources” in the back of the book, you write about how so many of the books about the Troubles are partisan. But your interviewees would get a sense from you that partisanship wasn’t part of your book. Yes. People were more likely to just assume that I would tell the story as I found it.  The identity thing is a weird one. For The New Yorker, I go to Ecuador and write a story in Ecuador, I go to West Africa and write a story in Guinea, I go Amsterdam and write a story on Astrid Holleeder—and honestly, I thought of Northern Ireland the same way. It was no different in my mind. I was a foreign correspondent parachuting in to try to understand the place. You’re really definitive, in the book, that what you’re writing and what we’re reading is narrative non-fiction. It’s not history. But then you immediately follow that statement by explaining that if you see somebody’s thoughts in the narrative of Say Nothing, it’s because that person told you that’s what they were thinking. You’re emphatic about the lack of speculation in the book. What is the real crucial difference between narrative non-fiction and history, when you’re writing narrative non-fiction about the past?   I don’t really have any one answer. Part of what I was trying to do with that passage you’re referring to was to defend the book against a certain kind of reading. It could be read as a history book, but: I was very adamant that I was telling the story that I want to tell. I’ve picked a handful of people, I’m going to follow them, tell you about their life experience. This is not a full-spectrum history of the Troubles. Don’t foist expectations on this book that were not my ambitions in writing it. If I sound defensive, it’s because so much of what gets written, so much of the discourse about the Troubles is so vexed. There’s a tendency, often, for people to really have the knives out when books come out. So, part of it for me was that. Yes, I don’t talk about Loyalists much in this book. If you want to read about Loyalists, there are plenty of good books for that. Please approach this on its own terms. That was the genre question. But that flows right into these questions about narrative non-fiction. In some narrative non-fiction, there’s an imperative to try to make everything as vivid as possible and to try to be as close as possible to your characters. And I think sometimes people get a little too conjectural for my tastes. In terms of talking about what people may have been thinking, this kind of thing. So, I wanted to be clear that, if the genre here is narrative non-fiction, I personally don’t want anything on the page that you can’t go to an endnote and see: “here’s where he got that.” The book was fact-checked by the New Yorker fact-checker. If there were things (and there were a few places where I was a little out over my skis in terms of assuming certain things), he would say—is that really in the source? He would go back to the source note. And I dialed back a bunch of stuff, because it was important to me that everything be grounded in fact. Were you approaching the true crime element of this as a way to unlock the Troubles, or was it the reverse—that you needed to explain the Troubles to make the crime story resonate? There was never any intention—the book started and the magazine piece started with me wanting to write about this story. It wasn’t that I wanted to write about the Troubles and then I found the story as a way in. It was always about the story, and if I could get some part of the Troubles—but it wasn’t the primary impetus. I like writing about crime. I’ve written a fair amount about crime, and it can be useful as a way of looking at communities, and families. It’s almost like little seismic shocks. You have something like a murder, it affects a lot of people in different ways, and you can trace those effects. The idea for the book was: what if you looked at one murder, and you looked at both the victims and the perpetrators, saw the ripples of this one act, but tracked that in time, down the decades.  I’m a little bit uncomfortable with the moniker "true crime." But it’s certainly the case that there are conventions of that genre that are here, and it’s a story about a murder. A lot of the reviews of the book have said, "it’s a whodunit, we find out who did it at the end!" But the truth is, if I hadn’t figured out who did it, people wouldn’t describe it as a whodunit. That was something that was interesting to me—structurally, it works so perfectly that you did, improbably, find out who killed Jean McConville. But it was an accident. I was wondering, in the construction of the book, were you always going to centralize the characters that you did? Or did discovering the killer cause you to go back over the draft, to shift priorities?  This was the weirdest thing: it was never my intention to find out who the killer would be. My big north star writing this book was to approach it like a novel, where there’s half a dozen characters, and if they saw or experienced something, we’d see it in the book. If they didn’t, no. I didn’t want to give you a history of the Troubles where you get obligatory asides. My feeling was that [Jean McConville’s] shooter was probably Anonymous IRA Gunman #3, and that my reader, by that point in the book, wouldn’t care if I wrote, “And then there’s this guy Joe, who we’ve heard nothing about in the last 300 pages, and it was him!!!” The weirdest thing was discovering that it was somebody who was already a character. I had this moment where—now that I know that it’s X—I should really go back and build in some foreshadowing. I started going back in the book, and the strangest thing is that all the foreshadowing was already there. Not being immersed in the history of the Troubles, part of what struck me in reading this, particularly as you’re assiduous about tracking the consequences of these acts, these times, to the current day, is the immense fallout in terms of trauma, of fractured mental health. To isolate just one thing, that the Price sisters emerged from their prison hunger strike with eating disorders. On the eating disorders thing. Some of what I was trying to do—it wasn’t the impetus for the project—but women have often been written out of the Troubles in a way. Part of what was appealing to me was that Say Nothing was the story of two women, Jean McConville and Dolours Price. When we think of the hunger strikes, we think of Bobby Sands and these ten men and Long Kesh. The idea of looking at this earlier hunger strike that we’ve heard less about, and seeing the long-term physiological and psychological damage—it was a rich vein. In terms of the toll? I think there’s a huge amount of trauma. You still feel it there today. Substance abuse has been a big part of that. Alcohol, various types of prescription drug abuse, going right back to the ‘70s, when it was tranquilizers, minor tranquilizers that people were taking in crazy numbers. There are studies that have been done about trauma passing down through generations. The weirdest thing is that even within these families—in part because of this say-nothing culture where stuff doesn’t get aired out—you have kids who’ve grown up after the Troubles who have residual trauma because they’re surrounded by all these people who are so traumatized.  Asking you that, I felt embarrassed about how little I knew about the Troubles, going into this book—I thought I knew quite a bit about the social context, the outlines of the conflict, but quickly learned I didn’t. How did you balance telling the story you were interested in and affording readers the context they needed for it to coalesce?  That is one of the biggest things I wrestled with. I didn’t want to write something that would read like an encyclopedia. There are a lot of those books out there. The trick of context was: how little context can I give you? That was a process. Some of it happened in editing, just sort of paring back and focusing on the story. Some of it was that thing I mentioned earlier—my rule was that if it didn’t happen to these people, then you don’t need to know about it at great length.  To take just one instance, Bloody Sunday, which is the seminal event of the Troubles, about which whole books are written, films have been made? It’s a paragraph in my book. [The reader]’s not even really there, because Dolours Price was in Dundalk [Gaol] when she hears about it. She’s hearing about this thing that’s happening offscreen.  Fortunately, Northern Ireland is a small place, where everyone knows everyone. So, if you’re just going to follow a few people and see history as they saw it, you can see a lot of history.
I Could Live Without Speaking

A Self-Portrait, Experiment, and Homage.

‘I Read Books As If They Are Places’: An Interview with Helen Oyeyemi

The author of Gingerbread on K-Dramas, travelling, and coded stories. 

Helen Oyeyemi’s work always holds an element of discovery. She describes books as places she visits, and her writing invites readers to do the same. Whether that place is a locked garden, an ancestral home (or several), or an imagined country, the reader is left with the feeling that they’re being guided through by a hand they can’t see, persistently tugging them left or right or sideways. There are many places it feels like Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Gingerbread (Hamish Hamilton), could take you, if you were so inclined. Some of those places are physical: the characters in the book cross borders in trunks, live in houses where the rooms occasionally move or the stairs keep out all but the most determined visitors, and sleep in beds watched over by flowering dolls. But the spaces are also internal: There’s the space created by the suspension of reality that comes with a dramatic health incident and the subsequent, if you’re lucky, healing. Or the cavern carved when someone we love disappoints us entirely and we probably should have seen it coming. Or the space between childhood and adulthood, where we begin to understand the bargains we strike to afford growing up. In each of these places, our reality skews just a little. Gingerbread’s narrative suspends us in Harriet’s tale of her childhood and adolescence while her daughter Perdita recovers from a hospitalization. The reader is allowed into this sojourn from reality, and then, when Perdita is again well, the world tumbles back like Harriet’s signature gingerbread to the floor. First, a few crumbs, and then the whole damn box: family, friends (who Harriet’s not sure about yet—she’s waiting for a sign), meetings and exams and essays and candles that won’t stay lit and houses that might not let you enter. The world keeps going when you remove yourself from it, but like Harriet’s oft-disappearing oldest friend Gretel, your absence is noted.   Haley Cullingham: I wanted to start by talking about place, because I find the way that you write about place so fascinating and, especially in this book, it was such a dominant theme to me. I know you’ve lived in a bunch of different cities, and you travel a fair bit, too. If you’re going somewhere, do you read stories of the place? Helen Oyeyemi: No. I was so interested that you even said that place came through strongly, because I don’t think about place too much. Place is very abstract. So, I guess my approach to place is, I read books as if they are places. It’s more like going into a book. And so, there isn’t that geographic sense, it’s more abstract and interior. There are details that you can pick out and leave the rest quite vague in certain ways. Which I guess is how I travel, just looking at the things that I’m interested in and the rest is sort of a blur. What are some of the places that have left the strongest impression on you? I love Seoul, I try to be there every year, and not just for a few days but weeks. Budapest, I was there for a year and I still think about it a lot. I think about the two cities, and the bridges that connect them, and also the walls that have cannonball marks on them and just the way that the city wears everything that’s happened to it, similar to how you see a shroud and an evening gown, there’s this strange mix of pride in having survived so many things and also this great sadness and melancholy. Where else? Istanbul. I’ve only been there once but I think about that trip a lot.  Do you think you’ll go back?   I think I liked Istanbul so much that I’m worried if I go back it would be disappointing in some way. I say that with most cities, going back, but I’ve started to really love returning. Maybe that’s the thing with Seoul, there’s just more and more city. Or maybe it’s just the way that cities turn over and change so quickly. There’s always something more to see or find out.  When you go back to Seoul, do you revisit a lot, or do you tend to explore new things? I find new corners. With Seoul, there haven’t been places that I feel I need to go back to, but I have been back to Jeju Island, which kind of makes a bit of a cameo toward the end of Gingerbread, but it was two completely different experiences. The first time I went on my own, and I was completely overwhelmed and absorbed in the best way by how lush Jeju is. It was a tumbling into the sea of impressions. And the second time, I went with a friend. We rode this bike, it was so scary. It was a two-person kind of a bike, kind of a wagon, and my friend was like, “I can do this, I can get us around,” but we were on these coastal paths and I just pictured, like, we were going to fall directly into the water. So, it was precarious and fun and different. [laughs] Were you both pedaling? I was just the passenger. I was just wearing this helmet and screaming, which I think she didn’t appreciate. So, the second time was more rambunctious. When you start thinking about a book, does it start with a character, does it start with a story, does it just start with a feeling of wanting to go somewhere? How does that begin for you? It’s been different with every book. So, with Boy, Snow, Bird, I was doing the wicked stepmother story, but I was also doing ‘50s America, and so I had to place myself within that, which was actually a delight because I love the films of that era—Hollywood from the ‘30s to the ‘50s is entirely my space. So, it was kind of fun to write in that register and to think in that register. And then for What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours I just had keys, and then I wrote stories about the keys. With Gingerbread, it was much more abstract, because I had this substance that I wanted to interrogate, and place at the centre of a story without making the meaning of it too clear, because that would be boring. I wanted to allude to various things and suggest various things around this concept of gingerbread, and so it was a lot more slippery to write, and also it felt like more of an adventure, which came from not knowing what sort of book it was going to be. I was wondering if, the way you’ve talked about the keys, if the gingerbread was a similar feeling. I thought it was going to be but the keys, it was straightforward. Nine keys, nine stories. Gingerbread was… [laughs] Touching on the food stuff, for you, is there kinship between cooking and creating a story? Are those things that feel connected? Yes, and the same with consuming the cooking and reading, so I suppose it was all quite densely layered in there. Since I’ve been going around with Gingerbread, hearing people talk about it, and reading the things people write about it, of all of my books, I think this is the one I most want to say: there are lots of things in here. There are lots of ingredients. I’ve become slightly worried when one element is pulled out, and it’s said that the book is about one thing. It’s about all of the things—I’m not saying it’s not about that, but there are so many other things that it is equally about. So many that, in fact, you can’t mention them, which makes it very difficult for anyone who hasn’t read it who’s trying to decide whether to read it. One of the moments when that struck me the most is that little part where you’re talking about Simon, and the way that he would emotionally manipulate his way into getting more gingerbread. To me at least, I was like, this is such a perfect and wonderfully succinct description of addiction. But the books are always so layered that you just have this moment where it’s perfectly clear, and then it’s like, new thing. Yeah, so gingerbread is a way to talk about many things, and then, like, if someone says [gasps] you just say, “Oh, it’s just about gingerbread, I’m only talking about gingerbread.” In some way I feel like it’s a female way of telling stories, I feel like feminine stories have always been quite coded in that way, just in case anyone tries to, like, burn me at the stake or something, you can be like, “No, I was just talking about gingerbread.”  It’s just a recipe, it’s fine. Yeah. So, the codedness, I’m in two minds about the way that it persists into the 21st century. But I don’t think I did it because I was afraid. I think it’s converted into being more on the fun side. Can you talk a bit more about what you mean when you say you’re not sure how you feel about how it persists in the 21st century? Yeah, I mean, a way of writing or speaking elusively that, in some ways it’s about fear of being punished for what you have to say or what you think, that persisting, it makes me sad, and it’s maybe part of the reason why I don’t tweet or do things like that, just because I kind of see people having an opinion, and everyone being like [mimes a pile on]. It’s sad that it may still be necessary to use it for those original purposes, but I don’t think that that was what I was doing with Gingerbread. [laughs]  The book made me think a lot about how there’s always that close connection between things we wield as nourishment, and things we wield as weaponry. Was that something you were thinking about?   I don’t know if I can put it properly into words, but the power that you have over someone by feeding them, or not feeding them, as the case may be. But along with getting to eat and offering something to eat, I was also thinking about children earning their keep and not necessarily eating for free, because they have a role that they have to play, and I guess that line of thought turned into the strange interlude with the Gingerbread Girls and having to perform being children for money. It was the ways in which food can become currency. I give you food, you give me affection, and other forms of that same transaction. I was reading a Bookforum interview you did in 2016, and one of the things you talked about was the idea of being drawn to things that have a certain “faith in storytelling.” And you also used the description of something having “an engine of meaning.” I was wondering if there were any recent stories, whether they’re films or books, that fulfill that for you. One of my favourite films ever is Celine and Julie Go Boating. It has so much imaginative force that it becomes sort of madcap and misshapen around the edges, and the two characters start forgetting when they first met each other, and it’s as if they have always in fact known each other, since before before the story. A snake eating its own tail. But also, there’s this, not exactly a subplot, but counter-plot, where they themselves enter another story and try to hijack the meaning of that story. It’s that engagement that I recognize as a reader or a film watcher where you participate in a story but you’re not subject to its rules. Like being under a spell, but also casting one yourself at the same time, spell and counterspell. So, anything like that that just becomes very magic and reckless and starts pushing the frames of its own existence out further and further. Are there any stories that have been created recently that are starting to take on the significance that fairytales have had? That are starting to bleed into consciousness in that same way?   It might be more of a visual thing, even a televisual thing, than a written words thing. Maybe my obsession with Korean drama is part of this, because there’s a certain tone that they take, which I also recognize from the golden age of Hollywood, especially the screwball comedies and the film noir. I think those, fairytales and K-Drama have something in common. They’re stories that don’t really need you to believe them, they’re just saying. But the things that they’re just saying are resonant on all kinds of levels, like, you laugh, and you sort of wince, and you cry, you just have these responses to what seems like an elaborate, or a vocabulary of, it almost seems like psychology archetypes that they’ve arranged for you and circulated so that you see them in a completely new way. Do you miss some characters from the book more than others?   I miss Perdita. She’s in the story, but she’s like, “Oh well.” I feel like a lot of people become aware that they’re in stories and they’re like, “No, I want out of the story!” or they try to figure out how to game the story so that they can be the main character of the story. You’ve spoken before about how the Czech version of “Once upon a time” is “There was and there wasn’t.” That, to me, feels like a perfect way to talk about Druhástrana. This may be negated by what you said above about the influence of place, but I was wondering if Prague, where you currently live, had crept in in that way. I think it has, yeah. I have not tried to keep it out. Like you said, I will say that I’m someone who’s indifferent to place so I’m quite interested in the fact that there’s bits of Czech in there, and I don’t know what’s going to happen with future books. We’ll see. And there’s Druhástrana, which means “other side” but can also mean “other page” in Czech. And so of course, if you had this country that only Czechs know about, it would make sense for it to have a bookish aspect. Druhástrana as an unknown quantity, it’s a little bit like Czechia. I didn’t know anything about it before I moved there. Prague, it’s just so glorious and strange and wonderful, like, “you’ve been here all my life?” It was very strange. It felt hidden, like I said a magic word and there was Prague. Did you go there knowing you were going to move there? No, I went for a few days and hated it. It was not a good time to go. It was peak tourist season, the weather was terrible, the food was terrible. But I was with a friend that I love very much, and we would have phone conversations being like, “remember when we went to Prague and it was terrible?” And then a year later I just moved and it was completely different. Or I was completely different. You’ve talked a bit about watching K-Dramas while you were writing. Was there anything else that you were listening to, or reading while you were working on this that stands out? There was a lot of the Bill Evans Trio, a little bit of Coltrane as well. And then there was some K-Pop, there was some rap, there’s one song by Big Sean, which I can probably rap off by heart, but I won’t. In the book, Perdita’s grandmother, Margot, talks about houses that look sensible until you get inside, which made me think of your novel White is for Witching as well. I was wondering why you’re drawn to those spaces?  I don’t know that I’m drawn to them. I mean, part of the house thing was maybe a little bit of a joke, because everyone’s always saying to me, “You’re so interested in houses.” And I’m like, “Am I?” “Haunted houses especially!” and I’m like, “Am I?” [laughs] and so it was kind of fun to have these haunted houses that weren’t haunted.  Do you have a favourite haunted house story? No. Oh wait, can I go back in time? Obviously The Haunting of Hill House! The thing about The Haunting of Hill House is that because the house is positioned as sentient, you forget that it’s a haunted house story, so that’s why it slipped my mind. When you’re writing about the gingerbread recipe in the book, you write about the difference between “choking down risk and swallowing it gladly,” and I just thought that was such a lovely way to describe it. I was wondering what inspired that idea? Honestly, I just ate a lot of gingerbread. I just would eat it, and then write down what I thought whilst eating it. And so, it was just something that came to me. Because I guess I was like, what if this gingerbread was poisonous? Would I continue eating it? Probably.
There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This

Bob Fosse’s current revival makes sense, but the wave of appreciation will also be a reckoning: moral immunity has been rescinded for geniuses.

In 1974, Bob Fosse—the director-choreographer best known then for his smash Broadway musicals and his film Cabaret—set out to adapt a literary novel, Ending by Hilma Wolitzer, about a man dying quietly from cancer. Fosse’s style was associated with sequins and pelvic thrusts, deliberate excess that pleased immediately, while speaking to like-minded cynics through its undertones. By contrast, this project would be somber and austere: a drama about existential confrontation. Fosse went to great lengths to avoid that confrontation; susceptible to depression the moment he slowed down, he lived to die on his feet. He took amphetamines in the morning and afternoon; smoked more than five packs of Camels a day; slept around recklessly, sabotaging his most loving relationships; and took on more work than his system could handle. At the time, he was already editing a biopic about Lenny Bruce, and staging a musical, Chicago, to star his estranged wife, Gwen Verdon. Before Ending could get underway, he was hospitalized with severe chest pains and told he was about to have a heart attack.  When he emerged from the hospital a month later—after bypass surgery followed by another heart attack—the project took on a different significance. “The closer we got to shooting the more depressed I became,” he told the New York Times. “I thought, there must be some way of making death lighter, more interesting, and sharing it in terms I could handle. I didn’t know if I could live with that kind of pain for a year and a half.” He realized that his death movie would have to be a musical, and that the material had to be his own.  Fosse, along with Robert Alan Aurthur, whom he’d hired to write the script, began interviewing friends, family and colleagues, people who’d been around during Fosse’s health crisis. Partly for research, and partly because the project would fail if it didn’t include their perspective; he couldn’t redeem his character without their sympathy. Fosse had put his loved ones through a lot, particularly the women, and he wanted the film to be “honest”—at least in terms he could handle. Interviewees were instructed to be unsparing, although most knew him well enough to guess what he could stand to hear. “You list your crimes at the slightest provocation,” said his friend Herb Gardner, quoted by Martin Gottfried in his 1990 Fosse biography. “I think you do it to absolve yourself. You go on record with your sins. It’s the final play, the biggest con of all.” * One of Fosse’s greatest gifts was drawing the universal out of his own negativity: Cabaret, for instance, a show-business love story set against the rise of the Nazis, worked because it used every sensorial resource to establish a mood of dread and inevitability at the corners of pleasure. This mood was Fosse’s default, and he could extrapolate from it. His work was always personal, but All That Jazz was the first piece to make that self-involvement explicit. The film tells the story of Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), a womanizing director-choreographer who is staging a musical starring his estranged wife as he edits a film about a standup comedian. He takes uppers every morning, smokes in the shower, cheats on his girlfriend—played by Ann Reinking, Fosse’s former partner—with dancers in his employ, while insisting she remain faithful to him; he breaks promises to his daughter and receives glares from his ex (Leland Palmer). In quiet moments he retreats to a room in his mind, where he reflects on his many indiscretions to a beautiful Angel of Death (Jessica Lange). In the end, as he succumbs to a heart attack, he directs his own finale: a multipart spectacle replete with fan dancers, glowing-eyed mannequin heads, and an audience of everyone he’s ever known. All That Jazz was a great success. It won four out of its nine Oscar nominations, tied for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and grossed more than anyone expected at the box office. The reviews were ambivalent, but clear on the film’s importance: Critics fixated on Fosse’s narcissism, and noted the character’s chauvinism, but many were doubly impressed that he’d pulled off a premise so obnoxious. The film works because it’s not about Bob Fosse—it’s about death, remorse, and moral failure, grim but mundane emotional realities familiar to anyone, disturbing to everyone, and somehow rendered entertaining. The film’s great generosity was to make terrible feelings bearable, doing for dread what the musical comedy normally does for romance: blow it up like a fireworks display and give it movement. As Fosse told an interviewer, “I made All That Jazz because I thought it would be a good show.” It was hard to know what to do next. Not only had Fosse directed his own life and death—blown his load, thematically—he was feeling exposed: while he might have judged himself relentlessly, in publicizing his flaws he’d invited outside moral scrutiny. The film had set up a self-reckoning he wasn’t prepared to complete: He’d made a public admission of his failures while, in staging his own execution, declining the possibility of atoning for them. Fosse toyed with various projects, but nothing really stuck until his best friend, Paddy Chayefsky, passed along a true crime feature from the Village Voice. It was an awful, brutal story, much grislier than anything Fosse had adapted in the past. But it resonated with him immediately. “Death of a Playmate,” by Teresa Carpenter, told the story of 20-year-old Dorothy Stratten, who’d been “discovered” at a Vancouver Dairy Queen by a former pimp and self-described talent manager named Paul Snider. He romanced her, convinced her to pose nude, and sent the pictures to Playboy; then he followed her to Los Angeles to cash in on her sudden success. Snider’s desperate, controlling manner alienated the Playboy crowd, and created a huge strain on Dorothy, who agreed to marry him out of a sense of obligation. She began an affair with the director Peter Bogdanovich, who had cast her in his film They All Laughed, and Snider hired a private detective to follow them around. When Dorothy came by Snider's apartment on August 14, 1980, to discuss the financials of their separation, he violently raped her, shot her in the face, desecrated her corpse, then shot himself. To adapt the story at all was ethically suspect. But it contained all the themes Fosse had wrestled with his entire career—sex, show business, failure, death—and harked back to the personal trauma that had spawned them to begin with. While All That Jazz had swapped out the worst for a decoy, the events of Stratten’s murder were too recent for aesthetic distance; adapting them would require the kind of painful, exacting honesty he’d been avoiding. Each character in the narrative spoke to some part of his own psyche and personal history, and together they formed a case study in the pathologies of attention, exploitation, and male entitlement. But Fosse, raw and defensive, saw himself in Paul Snider; and set out, disastrously, to tell his story. * At another stage of his life, Fosse might have identified most with Stratten, with whom he shared certain formative experiences. She was only 17 when she met Snider, and her dreams were adapted to her circumstances: raised by a single mother who cleaned houses for a living and later studied nursing at night, she was used to helping out with family finances, and figured she’d go to work as a secretary after graduating high school. Her experiences with men were limited, and painful: her father had left the family when she was four; her only boyfriend had been emotionally abusive, and she’d never enjoyed sleeping with him. “I dreaded the end of the night when I had to give myself up to him,” she said in her private writings, excerpted by Bogdanovich in The Killing of the Unicorn, which he wrote in the aftermath of her murder. “It was sort of like a game I kept losing and that was how I lost.” Snider was sweet at first, Carpenter writes, and his life was much flashier than anything she was used to. He drove her around in his Corvette, bought her jewelry, took her to prom, and made her feel beautiful. With his prodding, she took naturally to the camera, and handled herself with poise at the Playboy Mansion, although nothing in her life had prepared her for glamor, or condescension, at such scale. She was lavished with attention she’d never dreamed she might command, while expected to perform for strangers who treated her like a dish at a free buffet. Fosse’s own sensibilities were forged under similar circumstances. Born in Chicago in 1927, Fosse was the youngest son of six kids in a middle-class Methodist family. His father sold insurance, and later worked on the road as a salesman for Hershey. They lived modestly and weathered the Depression relatively well. Bob had an early knack for performance, though he became a dancer almost by accident: his mother had asked him to accompany his sister to dance class; she was too shy to participate, so he took her place. The school, stationed in a former apartment above a drugstore, was a show business academy, meant to teach kids the art of entertaining and groom the most promising ones for professional management. The school’s overseer, a mustachioed vaudeville enthusiast named Frederic Weaver, paired Fosse with a boy named Charles Grass, and booked them for gigs around Chicago and on the road. The duo took what they could get—and what they got, often, were slots in down-and-out burlesque clubs, where the two barely teenage boys were tasked with dancing for drunken patrons between strip acts. In their downtime they’d finish their homework backstage or in Charles’s mom’s car. Fosse’s life until then had been sheltered: he’d been a religious kid, and this new nighttime existence instilled excitement, terror, and shame. “I can romanticize it, but it was an awful life,” he told the San Francisco Examiner in 1979. “I was very lonely, very scared. You know, hotel rooms in strange towns, and I was all alone, thirteen or fourteen, too shy to talk to anyone, not really knowing what it was all about, and among—not the best people.”  Fosse received a lot of attention from the dancers. They rubbed up against him and may have coerced him into acts he wasn’t ready for; they also humiliated him, waiting until he was about to go onstage and then fondling him to give him an erection. The adults he trusted weren’t concerned: His mother, who doted on him, figured he just wouldn’t look at the naked ladies. Weaver, a mentor, had booked the gigs in the first place. Fosse was making money. In high school, Fosse was a star student, and popular—athlete, Latin club and prom committee member, senior class president. “I could go back to school and tell the guys stories that were at least 75 percent true,” he told Rolling Stone. “It gave me an edge. I had mixed feelings about it, though. I was very excited, but I wasn’t ready for sex.” He didn’t tell anyone what he got up to at night and struggled internally with the shame. “I think it’s done me a lot of harm, being exposed to things that early that I shouldn’t have been exposed to… It left some scar that I have not quite been able to figure out,” he told the Examiner. “He coded it as an early sexual initiation,” Sam Wasson said in a Vanity Fair interview about his 2013 Fosse biography, on which the FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon is based, “so it hasn’t really been spoken of as abuse until this book.” The strip clubs were where Fosse learned to give pleasure, both intimately and publicly, and where the two would fuse; also, where pleasure connected with dread. As a choreographer he would adapt much of his physical vocabulary from burlesque, but the sex in his work is striking less for its erotic power than its grotesqueness—his dancers seem menacing, disassociated; they telegraph glee, but not pleasure. Cognitive dissonance would become the de facto mood of his work, down to the grain of his gestures. (“Every movement is against itself,” one dancer, quoted by Gottfried, said of a seemingly breezy dance in the musical Pippin. “Your body is moving one way, and you’re pulling it the other way… the audience will feel it, this tension working against this appearance of great ease, and that will draw them in.”) The people he met in those strip clubs would become, in Wasson’s words, his “dramatis personae,” and his characters were often drawn from his self-image as it formed within that environment: sweet people stuck in demoralizing situations, longing for some version of wholesomeness they feel life has barred them from, an archetype neither male nor female. Sally Bowles, of Cabaret, performs in a cheap nightclub, but dreams of stardom and flirts with domesticity. Lenny Bruce and his wife, Honey Harlow, meet on the nightclub circuit, where he does standup and she dances; they fall in love, start a family, and self-immolate together. Like Stratten, and at least half his audience, Fosse knew what it felt like to understand sex as a cruel joke at one’s own expense. But his foundational pain had long twisted away from the root, and taking her experience seriously would have required a self-interrogation that he was not, or was no longer, prepared to do. * Fosse had less in common with Snider, whose attitude toward sex was much less complicated, and who measured prestige in cash, though, as Carpenter writes, he wasn’t particularly good at making it. He made an income organizing automotive shows and sometimes wet t-shirt contests, but his hustles fell short of making him rich, and he was once hung by his ankles off a hotel balcony by loan sharks to whom he was in debt. Like Fosse, he was consumed by ambitions so intense that their frustration felt like suffering, but Fosse’s frustrations were largely illusory, as real as they felt. Success had come relatively easy to Fosse, an overachiever by nature; he landed his second audition after moving to New York in 1946, and by the late 1970s exercised near total control on his sets, receiving more leeway than most directors could expect. He also commandeered troops of young women, whose bodies were his material. But early experiences with doubting producers and Hollywood casting directors had given him a chip on his shoulder, and he liked to think of himself as an underdog. Fosse kept a low overhead on his ego. In some ways this was a style—he wore basic black, kept his number listed in the phone book, and took his lunches at the Carnegie Deli—and in some ways an ethos; he was known for his helpfulness and compassion toward the hopefuls who auditioned for his shows. Work coming above all, it was a motivator: Success depressed him nearly as much as failure—it promised more failure ahead, and unsettled his self-image—and he did his best when he imagined himself up against a goliath. (When Cabaret won big at the Oscars, the same year he won Emmys and Tonys for Liza with a Z and Pippin, he fell into a serious depression and briefly checked himself into a mental health facility.) In all, it was a bulwark against guilt. As long as Fosse felt persecuted, he could ignore the ways he abused his own power. Snider was a pathetic character—a true failure, professionally and morally. In him, Fosse saw his own malignant emotions manifest, decades’ worth of bitterness and resentment that festered without a material corollary. What they actually had in common was less sympathetic, but Fosse was looking to show that Snider’s pain—and his own—had a basis. “I somehow identified with him because he was trying to get in,” Fosse told Rolling Stone. “It’s not that I’ve been excluded that much, but I know that sense of them all knowing something I don’t know. And that makes me very angry. I’d like to be offered all of Hollywood’s perks, just so I could refuse them.” Ignoring the obvious—the fact that Snider used and manipulated women for his own gain, and turned violent when his claim to other people was frustrated—Fosse attributed Snider’s crime to rejection by the Hollywood elite, which aligned better with his own self-mythology. “If they would have accepted him into that group,” Gottfried quotes him, “then the tragedy would not have happened.” The only way to justify this approach was to diminish Dorothy to a variable—to think of her, as Paul did, as a means to an end. * Fosse, in earlier years, had shown a rare empathy with women; this affinity, in fact, gave rise to his gifts as choreographer and director. He could relate to his dancers and actresses; he could also render their experiences with care and attention. Fosse’s first self-conceived Broadway show, Sweet Charity, had transposed Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria—about a woman who works as a prostitute in Rome, hopes for true love, but who is defrauded by the men in whom she trusts—to a Times Square dance hall. The protagonist is drawn with real identification, as well as real cynicism: It’s not her line of work, dancing with men by the song, that sources the pathos—Fosse, refreshingly, mostly avoided “fallen women” tropes—but the fact that she’s stuck in a dead-end gig she hates, with no prospects. She was partly inspired, as Fosse biographer Kevin Winkler notes, by the female dancers Fosse worked with, who made great physical and emotional sacrifices for their craft, only to see their opportunities steeply limited with age. From his earliest years as a performer, women were Fosse’s mentors, closest collaborators, eminences grise, and fodder for his vision. As a capability and a resource, his empathy was double-edged: It made his work powerful and humane, and allowed him to direct star-making performances by talents such as Liza Minnelli; but, like Snider, he learned very early how to use it to his advantage. The women who did the most for Bob Fosse were, as with Snider, the ones to whom he was married. He met his first wife, Marion (later Mary Ann, or Mary-Ann) Niles, on his first show, a revue called Call Me Mister. She was a little older—24 to his 20 at the time they got hitched—and a beautiful tap dancer, who had performed in more exclusive venues than he had; they formed a duo, and started gigging around the US and Canada. Eventually they landed jobs on a revue called Dance Me a Song, starring Joan McCracken, a comedic actress beloved by Broadway audiences and producers alike. Fosse fell for her, and, in Wasson’s words, “snapped Mary-Ann from his life like training wheels.” “Joan was the biggest influence in my life,” Fosse would tell American Film magazine in 1979. “She was the one who changed it and gave it direction.” McCracken, who was ten years his senior, was worldly, bohemian and eccentric—she read widely, painted, and attended parties with people like Truman Capote, the partner of her ex-husband, Jack Dunphy. She wrote stories and essays—including a 1946 essay for Dance Magazine in which she proposed new methods of capturing movement in cinema—and shared her inner riches with her younger boyfriend. McCracken told him he was too good to be dancing in nightclubs, and encouraged him to study movement, acting and music, as well as to undergo psychoanalysis. She also pushed him to try his hand at choreography. [[{"fid":"6705071","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"}}]] Fosse was reluctant at first. He’d signed a contract with MGM in 1951, and though he wasn’t getting much work in the movies, he still dreamed of being a performer. But McCracken lobbied on his behalf to the Broadway powerhouse George Abbott who, at her insistence, hired him to choreograph an adaptation of the Book-of-the-Month Club novel 7 ½ Cents. Abbott was skeptical of hiring someone so inexperienced, but the musical, retitled The Pajama Game, would go on to win Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actress, and—for 27-year-old Fosse—Best Choreography. Abbott quickly offered him another job: another book adaptation, to be titled Damn Yankees, featuring the rising star Gwen Verdon, who had recently won a Tony for her show-stopping performance in Cole Porter’s Can-Can. The two were nervous to work together; at their first meeting, they smoked in tandem as he showed her the dance that would become one of her signatures: “Whatever Lola Wants.” By day’s end they had melted each other’s reserve. “She was hot when I met her,” Fosse told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “That alabaster skin, those eyes, that bantam-rooster walk. Her in the leotard I will never forget.” They quickly began an affair, which was no secret on the set of Damn Yankees, or to Joan McCracken. It would mark the beginning of a great romance and a career-making collaboration; also the start of a lifelong cycle of betrayal and self-recrimination that would source the worst of Fosse’s anguish, and power some of his best work. *  Having optioned Carpenter’s article with his own money, Fosse sought a backer for his new project, which would be called Star 80, after the vanity license plate Snider obtained for the Mercedes he bought following Stratten’s success. Dan Melnick, who’d produced All That Jazz, declined—he found the material too depressing—but Fosse found a patron in Alan Ladd Jr., who offered him, as Winkler writes in his 2018 biography, “the biggest salary of his career,” along with minimal oversight. Ironically, the biggest pushback on Star 80 would come from the bereaved.  Fosse set about writing the script himself, a goal he’d been working toward, Wasson notes, since the start of his career. This project, he hoped, would be totally his own. There was the matter of Stratten’s loved ones, of course—the people to whom this had happened—who weren’t happy with the film, and expressed these concerns through their lawyers. In a 1982 memo to his attorney, retrieved by Winkler, Bogdanovich decried Fosse’s flat characterization of Stratten and called Fosse’s script “an apologia for a murderer.” (In a recent New York magazine interview, Bogdanovich remembers calling Fosse directly to ask why he was making the film in the first place: “He said, ‘Well, we think it’s a good story.’”) Fosse wanted Star 80 to look and feel as “real” as possible. He had always been attentive to detail: On Cabaret, Wasson reports, he spent weeks “auditioning” shades of red for a scene in which blood is shown on pavement; for Lenny, Wasson writes elsewhere, he hired real servers to act as extras in bar scenes, because they knew the right way to place a glass down on a table. Charity Hope Valentine’s physicality, notes Winkler, was “suggested to [Verdon and Fosse] by the women behind the make-up counter at Bloomingdale’s, whose feet burned from standing all day. To relieve the pressure, they cocked the hip of one leg while sharply flexing the heel of the other, pushing down into the floor.” These touches deepened the work, creating its mood subliminally.  Fosse retraced Carpenter’s research, poring over police reports and interviewing people who’d known and worked with the couple. He sent Wolfgang Glattes, his first assistant director, out to Vancouver ahead of him to scout locations from Stratten’s life. Glattes found the Dairy Queen where she'd worked; they’d secure a permit to shoot there. Dorothy’s mother’s house was off-limits, so Glattes, according to Gottfried, drove up and down the street in order to recreate the setting at a nearby location. Back in Los Angeles, at Fosse’s request, he snuck around the house where Dorothy had really been murdered. “You could still see the bullet holes in the walls,” Glattes told Fosse biographer Kevin Boyd Grubb. “That blood was still on the ceiling; someone had tried to paint over it, but it came through.” He told Wasson that Fosse insisted on using Snider's actual carpet. Glattes argued that blood wouldn’t show up on brown, but this didn’t dissuade the director. It wasn’t clear what this commitment to “accuracy” was meant to arouse in an audience. It might have fostered an uncanniness that feels appropriately sickening, but it seems in retrospect more like a failure of abstract thinking. The ultra-literal, materialist approach did little to establish verisimilitude; instead, it seemed to preclude broader moral and contextual considerations that might have doubled back on the project. (No one watching the film would have known the carpet’s provenance but thinking through what sort of carpet a person like Snider would own might have yielded a more evocative detail.) It was also unnecessarily invasive, with the effect of reducing the lives of his subjects to a set of artifacts—as if by collecting details, Fosse could reassemble the events himself, without thinking too hard about how it had felt to live them.  *  As Fosse’s affair with Verdon quickened, McCracken’s health began to decline. In the past she’d been relatively tolerant of Fosse’s extramarital flings, but this one, she could tell, was serious. Her heart was already strained by diabetes, but “the problems with Fosse added immeasurably to her distress,” her doctor told her biographer, Lisa Jo Sagolla. “She grew seriously depressed.” In spring of 1955, McCracken received an offer to perform the leading role in a touring production of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, but on the road, the physical demands grew beyond her management. She quit the tour, and, back in New York, had a heart attack, followed by a likely second, followed by a bout of pneumonia.  Fosse, newly in love with Verdon, didn’t come around much to visit her in the hospital. Instead, Wasson writes, he saw his psychiatrist up to five times a week, to wring out his guilt for abandoning her. When he did visit McCracken, he arrived “only at odd hours,” and pitied himself for his own negligence, shifting the burden of his remorse to her—McCracken might have forgiven him, but he wouldn’t let it go. Upon her release, she was told that, for health reasons, her dancing career was over. Verdon had already made the cover of Time magazine for her role as Lola in Damn Yankees. [[{"fid":"6705076","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"}}]] For months and years afterward, Fosse would call up McCracken when he needed someone to talk to, often in the middle of the night, Sagolla writes; at least once, he trailed her in the shadows down the street. The night of April 2, 1960, he called to ask if she’d ever consider getting back together; long since moved on, she told him no. The next day, he quietly married Verdon. In 1961, McCracken died suddenly of a heart attack, at the age of 43. Fosse couldn’t bring himself to attend her funeral. Instead, he stood and watched from across West 72nd Street. “Do you know what the only thing Bob can retain is? Sorrow,” Verdon would tell American Film magazine. “He can have half a million in the bank, all the Tonys, Oscars, and Emmys one human being can amass in a lifetime, and all he lives with is the fact that Joan McCracken died so young on him.” Fosse never earned the right to forgive himself; even if the damage was never again so monumental, he would repeat the pattern. * Fosse had liked Melanie Griffith for the part of Dorothy—“she understands girl,” he wrote in his notes, cited by Winkler—but Mariel Hemingway, who shared an agent with Fosse, was dead set on the part. In recent years she’d received an Oscar nomination for her role as Woody Allen’s teenage girlfriend in Manhattan, and she’d starred as an aspiring Olympic track runner in Robert Towne’s Personal Best. Fosse thought she might be too boyish for the part, but Hemingway was persistent. “Dorothy was a classic victim,” he told her at a meeting. “She let Paul control her, right up until the end. I don’t see you that way.” Hemingway, recalling this in her memoir Out Came the Sun, explained that while she’d never had a Snider in her life, she knew about the pressure to be agreeable and put her needs aside in order to please other people. “One other thing,” Fosse added. “You’re not a voluptuous person.” Hemingway had been considering breast implants for a while, she writes. Fosse’s assistant gave her the name of a cosmetic surgeon, and after the procedure, she got the part. Casting for Snider was a more involved process. Sam Shepard and Mandy Patinkin read for the role. Fosse pursued Robert De Niro, to no avail. Richard Gere, who’d recently starred in American Gigolo, was the frontrunner; but Eric Roberts, though a less established name, had, in Wasson’s words, “a star’s good looks and charm but a character actor’s fearlessness.” After six grueling auditions, he convinced Fosse of his talent and versatility, as well as his willingness to be a good acolyte. Like Roy Scheider, who trailed Fosse for weeks in order to inhabit his mindset and mannerisms, Roberts was to play a version of Fosse. Fosse closely managed Hemingway’s character research. “He gave me everything,” she told Wasson. “He’d give me tapes to watch, he’d talk about being damaged goods, he taught me how to walk in high heels. He put on my high heels and showed me. Once he said, ‘You’re so innocent and all-American but you’re not. You come from this sick family.’” Conversely, Wasson notes, he encouraged Roberts to take a more experiential approach. “I got a real sense of what it was like to be an outcast,” Roberts told Kevin Boyd Grubb. “I started dressing like Paul, talking like him, thinking like him. I hung out in the same nightclubs he did, and got to know these so-called real people who went there. They gave me a horrible time, made me feel like shit. I’d bring my little reports back to Fosse. He’d wallow in them.” Amid all this, Roberts and Fosse took time to bond—road-tripping together to Vancouver, touring strip clubs in LA. “Even though he cut himself off from being paternal with me,” the actor told Gottfried, “he reminded me of my dad.” * Verdon and Fosse, despite the origins of their relationship, would be canonized as a pair. Theirs was not a muse-visionary relationship, but a symbiotic one: Verdon animated Fosse’s ideas, and Fosse built showcases for Verdon’s particular talents. He developed Sweet Charity with her, partly as a “gift” to welcome her back to Broadway after the birth of their daughter, Nicole Providence, the apple of his eye—“there was this point of great happiness,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “and I wanted to give Gwen something wonderful. I wanted to give her the best show she ever had.” Years later he would develop Chicago partly to give her one last star turn before she retired, and out of guilt for what he’d put her through. Verdon would also serve indispensably behind the scenes. When Shirley MacLaine was picked to star in the film adaptation of Charity, she selflessly flew to LA to help train her replacement. She accompanied Fosse to Germany for Cabaret, working for free on whatever task needed filling. When the German costume crew proved worse than unhelpful (given the instruction, “before the war,” they replied, according to Minnelli, “What war?”), she thrifted some of Liza’s most iconic ensembles. She even flew back to New York to pick out just the right gorilla suit for “If You Could See Her.” Shortly after her return, Wasson reports, she walked in on her husband—who was already involved with a translator on set—with a “couple of German girls,” and walked out. Verdon would never fully leave Fosse. A few years later, when he was in hospital for heart surgery, she’d play den mother to his much-younger girlfriends. She’d serve as his dance assistant long after she had retired from performing, and, along with Ann Reinking, Fosse’s next great love, work to preserve his choreographic legacy after he died. She put up with him because she loved him, and because she had to—his work was hers, too; and while she embodied and co-developed his vision, and at one time received the applause, he was the author and executor. Since he had no intention of changing his behavior, Verdon accepted the unfair conditions, and by necessity demonstrated the emotional discipline he lacked. Fosse wouldn’t change, but he would feel guilty; that guilt would provide thematic kindling. In All That Jazz, Gideon’s ex-wife, rehearsing for their show together, listens as he whines about his creative frustrations. “You want to quit the show? Quit the show,” she says. “You don’t have to do anything for me. But just don’t kid yourself that you’re doing the show for any other reason except guilt about me.” Chicago’s premise—two murderous showgirls attempt to game the justice system by turning their trials into media spectacle—was a transposition of Fosse’s MO, and foreshadowed what All That Jazz would do in earnest: convert his moral failings into theater. As Fosse accrued more psychic weight, and more power, his girlfriends got younger and younger—from peers and mentors to girls in their early 20s, without established careers of their own. “I like to take these young girls and mold them,” he told American Film. “I guess it’s a Pygmalion complex.” Younger women were easier to take lightly, and to discard. Wasson relays an anecdote: sitting in a van scouting locations for Star 80, the film’s director of photography, Sven Nykvist, asked the director why he preferred girls so green. “Their stories are shorter,” he replied.  * Just before Star 80’s rehearsals started, Fosse met with Hemingway in the bar of her hotel for a drink. After a while he suggested they head up to her suite for a nightcap. “The elevator let us off at my floor. I let us into my room,” she wrote, “And then, for the next fifteen minutes, I ran rings around the couch while Bob Fosse chased me for the purposes of sex.” She told him she had a boyfriend—Robert Towne, her previous director—but this only prompted a barrage of insults about his work. Finally, she told him she wasn’t interested, which seemed to catch him off guard. “I have never not fucked my leading lady,” he said. “No, wait. Once,” meaning Shirley MacLaine, “and it was a disaster.” Hemingway replied, “Meet the first.” On Star 80, Fosse was setting up a work dynamic to recreate the powerlessness that Stratten—and, long ago, Fosse himself—had experienced in her personal and professional life. His directorial style had, in the past, verged on callous—or instance when, Wasson reports, he’d told the teenage boy playing his teenage self in All That Jazz that it would be “great if you could really get hard” for the scene where strippers molest him before a performance. But with Hemingway handed such a limited emotional palate—the character was, as he’d said, merely a “classic victim”—his demands on her seemed specifically intended to draw out her pain and vulnerability. “Bob wasn’t just a taskmaster when it came to physical aspects of the film,” Hemingway wrote. “He was an emotional tyrant, too. There were days when he was kind and supportive, and other days when he would look at me icily and say, ‘You’re such a manipulative little cunt.’ He was provoking me, not entirely seriously, but he was also feeding into what he felt the film needed.” During a difficult sex scene, Fosse told Roberts to remove the dance belt covering his genitals, claiming the camera was catching the outline. Roberts was embarrassed—“I didn’t understand why he couldn’t just rearrange the sheets or something so that you couldn’t see the goddamn belt underneath,” he told Grubb—but he complied. Roberts had been a “dream” during rehearsals, Hemingway wrote, but once shooting began, and he settled deeper into the character, he became a “a monster. He wouldn’t look at me until cameras started, or he would stomp down on my toes before a close-up,” she wrote. “He even spit in my face once, and I let it happen because I knew that his character was all about freakish possessiveness and moments of petulance.” Fosse meant to reprimand him, but decided against it. “I realized what he was doing,” he said in an interview, cited by Wasson. “He was trying to feel what it’s like to say the wrong things and have people reject you and what that does to you and how it sours you.” During one scene, after Roberts flubbed a line once too often, Fosse summoned him behind the camera. “Look at me,” he said in Gottfried's account. “Look at me! If I weren’t successfu;—look at me—that’s Paul Snider… now show me me.” * Fosse had always been sexually compulsive, never bothering much to respect professional boundaries—Debbie Reynolds recalled being poked in the back by his erection on set at MGM—and he got away with it, mostly, because most men did. “You can assume he’s going to try to make you,” an anonymous dancer told a reporter for People in 1980. “He tries with every girl and gets a fair percentage. He’s so casual. He doesn’t give you much respect.” Another dancer added, “He’s not easily discouraged. If you tell him you’re engaged, he keeps asking if the wedding hasn’t been called off.” Fosse would claim that this was integral to his creative process. “I have to know we’re in perfect sync,” he told an acquaintance, interviewed by Wasson, “and she has to know exactly where I’m coming from.” By Wasson’s account, Fosse comes across as something of a sexual dynamo, whose talent for giving pleasure, and pain, was holistic and productive. “Sex was a medium for Fosse,” he writes. “It was as much a physical act as it was an opportunity to learn about and merge with his female collaborators, a way of giving to them so they could give back more and better—that is, if they didn’t break under the pressure or retreat in anger.” Wasson glosses over a story that Fosse’s previous biographer, Martin Gottfried, reports in considerably more detail. Jennifer Nairn-Smith, a Balanchine-trained ballerina, first danced for Fosse in Pippin, and had to kick him in the groin when he first advanced on her after a friendly outing. During rehearsals he bullied her to the point of tears, all the while calling her regularly to harass her for sex. “It made me so nervous,” she told Gottfried. “I’m a ballet dancer, and you do what a choreographer says. You could drag me around the floor. I had no self-esteem.” (Balanchine was known for his own line-crossing and abuse of power.) Finally, Fosse wore her down. [[{"fid":"6705081","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"}}]] Nairn-Smith continued to see Fosse while he started his relationship with Ann Reinking, but left eventually, Gottfried reports, with a note on the mirror in lipstick: “To whom it may concern/A threeway to nowhere/I’m out!” Fosse called her the next day and “was so abusive that years later she was still suppressing the memory of his rage and unwilling even to repeat what he had said.  Nairn-Smith would inspire two different characters in All That Jazz: a dippy, not especially talented dancer who gladly hops into bed with Gideon after her audition and receives some tough love from him during rehearsals; and an ex-girlfriend in a flashback sequence who abandons their menage-a-trois on a much treaclier note: “I’m sorry. I cannot share you anymore. I want you all to myself, or not at all.” Nairn-Smith appears in the film as a dancer, observing her representation from the sidelines. Fosse was beloved, if conflictedly, by many of the performers who worked with him; he cared about their careers and appreciated their talents, and he had the personal and structural power to compel forgiveness when he hurt them. In turn, this allowed him to think of himself as forgivable, and removed the pressure to reform. When his guilt mounted a depression, he had plenty of sympathetic women to call in the middle of the night for consolation. Even his first wife, Mary Ann Niles, received his cries for support—“though reluctant,” Lisa Jo Sagolla writes, “she always invited him in.”   Joe Gideon is shown as a womanizer, not a rake—a powerful and attractive man who simply takes what’s offered. His self-awareness is proposed as a saving grace. (“Oh fuck him, he never picks me,” one dancer says after an audition. “Honey, I did fuck him, and he never picks me either,” another replies. This plays as a roundabout testament to the character’s integrity.) Gideon’s take on his own odiousness feels like deliberate overstatement, a public relations trick—the character was a cad; he did things that 1970s-era critics might have called misogynistic; but he never went over the lip of what was allowed to men like him. * As production on Star 80 wore on, dread mounted on set. One day, Fosse received a letter from Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise, “handwritten in her tenth-grade cursive,” Wasson writes, “telling him he didn’t know the truth, that he was hurting her and her family.” Fosse “professed to be overcome with guilt. He did not want to hurt her. He did not want to hurt anyone.” The moral questions Fosse had avoided during pre-production were barging forth in flashes of doubting panic—doubting panic was normal, but this time it had a basis. The project was collapsing the neurotic cycle that sourced his best work: Fosse would behave badly, reflect on himself, and reproduce the churnings of his conscience. Star 80 was the violation itself, and these moments of clarity might have felt like waking during surgery. Fosse performed his remorse in strange and maudlin ways, Wasson continues—muttering to the actor Cliff Robertson, playing Hefner, about the necessity of saving Dorothy Stratten from her inevitable fate; placing bouquets of roses on the craft services table, with a note addressed “To Dorothy.” Nevertheless, the production ran unabated toward the inevitable murder scene. Fosse had secured a permit to film it in the room where Snider had really raped, tortured and murdered Stratten fewer than two years earlier.  Fosse had choreographed every last movement “like a dance,” Wasson reports, which he directed in soft, appeasing tones to Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. In the film, Stratten’s murder is appropriately horrible to watch, with no shock or thrill attached, nothing to stoke adrenaline—the feeling it most evokes is nausea. This seems almost respectful, until one considers the more unsettling question: if not for reasons of smut, or pathos—if not to make a point, or provoke a bodily response—why film it at all? Fosse may have grappled with, or suppressed, this question as he sat with editor Alan Heim in post-production, reviewing all the rage and gore and misery he had coerced and captured over the past four months. All the ethical quandaries he had blocked out or deferred during the film’s development might have surged up in the moment of its climax; he may have been penitent and uneasy, as he better understood what he’d done, and the reaction it would invite. But the impact of these doubts was negligible. Before the film’s premiere, he leaked photographs of Hemingway in character as Dorothy to Playboy, for their “Sex in Cinema” issue, without her consent. It was a strange decision—there’s little eroticism in the film itself; Hemingway’s sexuality is viscerally awkward and ill-fitting, just as Fosse intended it to be. The stunt might have been purely promotional, or a favor to Hefner, who had let him use Playboy’s logo in the film. But whatever his rationale, Fosse’s decision to exploit Hemingway was in keeping with his appraisal of her character’s autonomy, her status as a cipher in the story of her own death. Ultimately, he did it because he could. “I may have complained to my agent or cried to my friends,” Hemingway wrote. “I may have felt private rage and public shame. But in the end, after I ground my teeth, after I cursed out Bob Fosse’s name in my head, after I worried and wondered how it would all affect my career, I realized there was nothing I could do, and I just let it happen.” *  Early screenings of Star 80 provoked uncomfortable reactions. At one showing, Alan Heim recalled to Gottfried, as the film neared the murder scene an entire row walked out in a huddle. At a screening for cast and crew and friends, the room was bloated with unease; Roberts’s performance was the only thing anyone felt comfortable praising. If All That Jazz had invited moral in addition to aesthetic judgment, Star 80 demanded it. There was no way to look at the film without some disturbing question as to its maker’s intentions; the reviews weren’t all bad, but the negative ones were damning. David Denby called the film “a small pool of dark, ill-smelling bile.” Andrew Sarris, arriving late to the film class he taught at Columbia after a screening, called it “the most disgusting, misogynistic movie I think I’ve ever seen,” a former student remembered in the Village Voice, and said he thought he was going to be sick; his review called it “the biggest treat for women-haters this side of the underground circuit.” Pauline Kael, who had praised Cabaret as one of the most significant movie musicals ever made, wrote a more tempered and perhaps devastating response: “Fosse must believe that he can make art out of anything.”  The film was garish and profane, they wrote, empty glitz; it failed to develop its protagonists, parading them out as tropes from the start; it dehumanized Dorothy Stratten and made a spectacle of her death for no reason. “Three days after it had opened,” Glattes told Gottfried, “Bob knew it for a flop.”  “Bob Fosse’s movie is all rhythm without notes—fancy footwork and weak surmise, based on insufficient research and knowledge, along with a built-in early decision to create an apologia for the killer,” Bogdanovich wrote in The Killing of the Unicorn, published the following year. The book is a difficult read, not only for its content but because of the eerie, idealizing tone Bogdanovich, then in his mid-40s, takes toward his deceased 20-year-old girlfriend, and the level of intimate detail he divulges about her and their private life. (He’d go on to marry Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise, the year she turned 20.) Nevertheless, it’s the only document of Stratten’s life from the time that does much to establish her personhood. From Bogdanovich’s rendering, one gets the impression of a kind and thoughtful person, whose politeness, though it scanned as pliability, was a way of looking after herself. Despite the book’s sanctimoniousness it devotes an appropriate amount of time and consideration to Star 80’s most obvious omission: the dehumanization of women, a line from Snider through Playboy’s working culture to the director who adapted it. “The film’s showy mediocrity and repressed misogyny define none of us as much as it does its director and his Playboy collaborators,” Bogdanovich writes. More than the violence, it’s Stratten’s absence that makes the film most unnerving: the character’s underdevelopment and absolute passivity, against all the scrupulous attention to the raw materials of her life. Fosse told Kevin Kelly of the Boston Globe that he’d conceived Star 80 “as a neon conceit ‘for all the terrible mental confusion that rejection can stimulate.’” The film does get at a jarring emotional reality: the illusory, abject and violent states one can be submerged by when the ego is frustrated; how painful and debasing and ruinous they can be, to the individual as well as their targets. Fosse, having lived out both sides of harm, and shown a rare capacity to sit in his own shame, was uniquely qualified to direct that film. But Star 80, unlike the best of his work, was not an attempt to stage his own cognitive dissonance—the tension between his feelings and his beliefs, or his behavior and his conscience—but, instead, to resolve it, by doubling down on the worst in himself, by nullifying his targets. The film did exactly what he meant it to, though not in the way he’d hoped. *  All That Jazz and Star 80 are outcomes of the same creative process; they represent Fosse at his best and his worst. Looked at now, All That Jazz might seem like an egregious example of an obsolete genre: a nasty protagonist reflecting with self-deprecation on the harm he has done. But what sets it apart is the fact that it tries not to exclude any portion of its audience. A film like Woody Allen’s Manhattan adopts its protagonist’s worldview; to sympathize with Isaac, you have to suspend your empathy for Tracy. Joe Gideon’s humanity is arbitrated by the women around him, and you don’t have to like him to enjoy his death. The film works relentlessly to earn your attention, and it demonstrates Fosse’s grudging commitment to never entirely forgiving himself. Gideon’s original sin, in Fosse’s conception, is allowing show business to completely consume his personal responsibilities, such that even death is a show. This is also his redemption: he turns his mistakes into a brilliant spectacle. And the film works, against the odds, because it is. Part of Fosse’s genius was the seeming paradoxicality of his talents: both a showman and a neurotic, he married Broadway imperatives—attentiveness to an audience that must be entertained—to art-house themes, and the basic pains of living. Neurosis is stasis, a knowing that makes no difference; through some miracle of vision and technique, Fosse was able to give it motion. This required him to subjugate his worst impulses: to give pleasure without denying the worst, he needed to understand himself in relation to other people. Star 80’s creative failures were moral ones: the film represents the only instance in which Fosse served himself ahead of his audience. It was the vanity project All That Jazz never was, and the last film he would ever make. Fosse received other film offers but declined them. It seemed as though cinema had moved on to sex comedies and action flicks, while Broadway had moved on to blockbuster musicals less focused on dance than big voices and pyrotechnics; his final Broadway show, 1986’s Big Deal, closed after two months. Fosse contented himself by helping other people on their projects, and retreated to his house in Quogue, where he took up birdwatching, and began a serious relationship with a gentle 23-year-old named Phoebe Ungerer. In 1986, along with Gwen Verdon, he oversaw a successful Broadway revival of Sweet Charity starring Debbie Allen; he and Verdon accompanied the show on its national tour the following year. On September 23, in Washington D.C., Fosse delivered a speech to the company, and went home to change for the show’s opening at the National Theater. He suffered a massive heart attack, and collapsed at a crosswalk into Gwen Verdon’s arms. By the time the show began an hour later, he was gone. Today, Fosse’s influence lives in the ether: as a choreographer, his style passed through that of Michael Jackson into basic conversational movement. Beyoncé’s video for “Single Ladies” was based on a Fosse routine; even Freddy Krueger was modeled in part on his look. His iconography is ubiquitous and seems, out of context, both classy and kitsch, like the signature stamp on a line of collectible antiques. This makes his work continually discoverable: there’s always a new crop of filmgoers, or theater nerds in the making, surprised to learn that Fosse was an auteur.  His current revival makes sense: Fosse was interested in the psychology of living to please an audience, the merging of life and material, and—above all—the impossibility of pure pleasure. Though not always explicitly, his work was concerned with the social, historical, and personal traumas coiled at the heart of our joys and escapes. Rather than banishing difficult truths for the sake of entertainment, Fosse staged their emergence from below, or encroachment from the margins. This wave of appreciation will also be a reckoning. Fosse’s behavior was never a secret, and not much will be revealed that wasn’t known, or inferable, decades ago; but moral immunity has been rescinded for geniuses, and the humanity of those harmed is not so easy to discount, at least in criticism, when it complicates the legacy of someone beloved. The liminal, disturbing emotions that come with this process—the restive coexistence of pleasure and disgust, the disappointment and self-suspicion—form the mood of Fosse’s work; this mood feels appropriate for its consumption.
When Mountains Were Ugly

Over the centuries, the mountains moved. Our inner landscapes shifted to accommodate new forms of beauty, old forms of worship.

Four years ago, I experienced a moment that froze time. I was hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire when a fog descended. In the trees, it didn’t seem so bad. I could still make out a few bright orange markers, and the trail was wide and clear, easy enough to follow. I was headed down the mountain, back on the same trail I had taken earlier that day to the summit. I knew my way—or I thought I did. Far ahead of me, my then-boyfriend, Garrett, walked swiftly and purposefully over roots and stone, more sure-footed than I, and in better shape, too. Suddenly, the trees parted and I stepped onto an open expanse of bare granite. I could see no farther than a few feet in front of my face. Garrett was gone, and in his place, a white nothingness. At first, I was struck by the mercurial beauty of the cold, silencing fog. It enveloped me completely, a damp silver-white embrace. But soon, I realized my predicament. Somewhere to my right was a sharp cliff. Somewhere to my left was a slow, sloping embankment. In between was a path, marked only by a few scattered flat patches of faded spray-paint. I took a few tentative steps, my body moving molasses-slow through the vapor. I called for my boyfriend, but I heard no response. He had vanished. I was alone. I have a lifelong fear of heights, but never had I faced a fall so blindly. I knew that should I veer the wrong way by a few feet, I would fall. I would hit rock, and then trees, and perhaps if I was lucky, a pine would slow my descent, but, if I were to fall, my soft body would certainly hit against the hard bones of nature. I could imagine exactly how I would break, how my skin would split and my organs would compress. Afraid and disoriented and haunted by these imaginary pains, I got down on my hands and feet and began to crawl, like a child, like an animal, until I again reached the relative safety of the forested path. I called for Garrett again and again, until, finally, I gave up and waited, crying against a pine tree, sticky, cold and exhausted, for him to return. For my sight to return. For the world to remember me.  This isn’t the first time I’ve gone astray in the mountains, and yet even though nature keeps reminding me of its raw indifference and hard edges, I keep coming back for more. I have moved several times in the past decade. Finally, I moved into the woods, where I live in a cabin surrounded by tall white pines and sugar maples. I can be hiking in the White Mountains in under an hour, and from my favorite lake, I can see their blue and purple peaks rising on the western horizon, a permanent streak of twilight. Each move has brought me farther north, and closer to mountains. Sometimes, it’s not enough to live nearby. At various times in my life, I’ve gone on pilgrimages to frosty mountains, Icelandic peaks and Canadian forests. I don’t vacation on beaches—I spend my money flying north, driving north, getting ever higher on the thin, cold air. One arctic winter, I was shivering in my parka, wrapped tightly in layers of scarves, my face surrounded by a halo of coyote fur. The deck was slick with layers of ice, and the snow came down wet and hard. It was past midnight and there was no one else on the deck of the ship, but soon they would come, ready to disembark. I wasn’t getting off at Lofoten. I would ride Hurtigurten ferry (which also doubled as a cruise ship for elderly Europeans and a mail boat for residents of the arctic islands) up to Hammerfest, a city located at 68 degrees north. But I chose this slow means of travel for one reason: I wanted to see Lofoten. I had planned my journey north around this archipelago, even though I could have flown from Oslo to Hammerfest in a matter of hours. I spent a week making my way up the coast, from ferry to train to bus back to ferry again. I ate nothing but bread and cheese; I slept in the tiniest budget cabin available. But I was determined to see these mountains. And I did see them, though it was dark and the world around me was washed in shades of indigo and gray, deep purples interrupted by a chain of yellow lights shining out of house windows and from street lamps. I could still see the mountains, which jutted from the ocean like broken teeth, ragged and sharp. In pictures, this landscape looked like something from a fantasy novel or a Magic: the Gathering playing card. In person, it was even colder, even more raw and sharp and brutal. It was beautiful; it was sublime.  [[{"fid":"6704906","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"}}]] Fra Lofoten, by Theodor Severin Kittelsen. Photo via Wikiart.   We tend to think about beauty as though it were an immutable quality. Evolutionary psychologists have spent years trying to convince the general public that we are drawn to certain traits for good reason. Some of this is utter nonsense—particularly when it comes to standards of feminine beauty—but some of it sounds plausible. We like symmetry because asymmetry can be a sign of illness or disease. We like flowers because they can help us figure out what part of a plant will be edible. Supposedly, we like glittery gemstones because the gleam of their crystalline structure reminds us of how light scatters on water. Water is needed for life to exist, ergo we find crystals beautiful because they remind us of quenching our thirst, of survival. And yet, beauty doesn’t always work that way. We want beauty to follow logic, partially because we find comfort in patterns, in organization, in replication. We want to think an appreciation for certain scenery or certain items is innate, built into our brains and bodies from birth. But history tells a different story. Ugly and beautiful are two categories that mutate and overlap. The Lofoten Islands are now considered beautiful, a natural wonder, a place to go and take pretty pictures of rosy dawns and rustic fishing shacks. Yet once, they were ugly. Once, all mountains were ugly. *** Edgar Allan Poe never visited Lofoten, but he chose it as the setting for his 1841 story “A Descent Into the Maelstrom.” In this short tale, the narrator climbs into the cliffs of Lofoten, led by a white-haired fisherman, where he is regaled with tales of the Moskoe-ström (the Viking version of Charybdis). “A panorama more deplorably desolate no human imagination can conceive,” writes Poe. “To the right and left, as far as the eye could reach, there lay outstretched, like ramparts of the world, lines of horridly black and beetling cliff.” The deadly whirlpool swirls and churns below the two men as they talk, discussing the deadly nature of this wildly gyrating abyss, the waves of which echo the mountains in their stark, sinister gray violence. In the distance, he spies still more islands, “hideously craggy and barren.” The land is “gloomy” and “ghastly” and the ocean is a frigid hellscape. The entire scene, cursed. Poe’s description of these peaks is about as fantastical and morbid as one would expect from that death-dwelling writer. But horror has always served as a mirror for society and its discontents. Poe’s writing was extreme and exaggerated, but it wasn’t entirely out of step with how early Americans settlers generally viewed mountains, nor how their European predecessors understood the heights of the globe. Stephen Bayley, author of Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, argues that although we’re now practically “required by custom” to admire Alpine vistas, “mountains were once thought disgusting: they were dangerous, frightening and home to nasty demons and bandits.”  Examples of this tradition can be found all over Europe, reflected even in the place names of various mountains and heights. In Northern Germany, high in the Harz Mountains, there is plateau called the Hexentanzplatz (or the “Witches’ Dance Floor”). Surrounded by strange rock formations, it was believed that this was where pagans came to worship. (In the same mountains, there is also a place called the Teufelsmauer or “Devil’s Wall”.) From the 1500s to the 1700s, it was common belief in Sweden that witches roamed the mountains, and that they flew to the highest peaks to have their check-ins with the devil. The 1600s saw a spate of witch trials and executions, the largest of which happened in the mountainous region of Gästrikland in 1675. The townsfolk of Torsåker were gripped by hysteria, driven mad by fear and religious fervor. Nearly one hundred people were accused, and seventy-one were put to death in a spot known as “The Mountain of the Snake.” The so-called witches were beheaded, drained of blood, and burned. These days, the town is perhaps best known for its annual bluegrass festival. “In the afternoons, the mountains get a bluish hue—its own Blue Ridge Mountain,” claims the festival organizers. The Swiss, too, believed that evil dwelled in the heights. In the early 18th century, Swiss physician and philosopher Johann Jakob Scheuchzer published a natural history of the Alps, in which he described in great detail the hideous dragons that populated the mountains. Near the alpine town of Glarus lived an animal “with the head of a cat, with large eyes.” It was “long a foot, with a thick body, four limbs, and something like breasts pending from the belly… it was soft and full of poisoned blood.” Other eyewitnesses claimed to Scheuchzer that they had seen snake-like creatures with human faces slithering amongst the rocks. One man even said he saw a flying serpent breathing fire. The prints that accompanied Scheuchzer’s treatise are incredible, filled with sinewy, furry monsters with cats’ heads or baby faces. Their mountainous playground is shown in vivid detail. It’s a landscape of steep peaks and sharp edges, small figures lost in a world of heavy diagonals and dark shadows. These images are interesting, but they are not beautiful. They emphasize the deadliness of the mountains and the hideousness of its creatures. Before the technological taming of the world, mountains and forests were places where bad things happened—trolls lurked, wolves prowled, and witches tended to their strange gardens and chicken-legged houses. Fairytales and folktales were filled with warnings, particularly for young girls. Don’t go out at night, don’t venture into the wilderness alone, don’t get raped, don’t get captured, don’t let yourself be ruined. In fairytales, fear and ugliness have always been deeply intertwined. Villains have scars on their faces and witches have warts. The landscape followed the same sort of circular logic. If it was bad, it was ugly, and if it was ugly, well, then it was probably bad. This only began to change in the 18th century, and even then, mountains were appreciated for the emotions that they could induce: the awareness of human smallness and frailty, the sense of wonder and fear, the reminder of mortality. Some artists were able to see the beauty of the mountains from an earlier date, argues Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. “This is one area of the imagination where artists seem to have been ahead of the curve,” he writes, citing Leonardo da Vinci and Titian as examples. These Renaissance artists (both of whom hailed from mountain towns) painted glorious scenes of the high life, but, adds Johnson, “a lot of the time, in Renaissance art, a mountain is just a sharp jagged dry rock.” Mountains were “ugly raw wildernesses of stone, murderous enemies of cultivated life.”   Perhaps the largest factor in the widespread rewriting of the peaks came from Natural theology. This doctrine, which spread across Europe in the early 1700s, argued that “the world in all its aspects was an image given by God to man,” writes Robert MacFarlane in Mountains of the Mind. “To scrutinize nature, to discern its patterns and its idiosyncrasies, was thus a form of worship… Therefore, to visit the upper world and contemplate its marvels was to be elevated spiritually as well as physically.” MacFarlane argues that the advent of Natural theology was “crucial in revoking the reputation of mountains as aesthetically displeasing.” If such majestic and towering creations were the work of God, a majestic and towering force in His own right, then how dare we think of them as anything but beautiful? While some early naturalists believed peaks harbored treacherous beasts and unnatural women, a few also considered them a more neutral source of magic. Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner lived during the 15th century and his writing showed him to be a “lover of the mountain world in a century when such love was considered lunatic,” writes MacFarlane. Gesner proposed that mountains were a place unlike any other, where the normal laws of physics need not apply. Even the brightest sunlight couldn’t melt ice, and normally transparent winds became startlingly visible. “Up there,” Gesner wrote, waterfalls could flow upwards. Like Gesner, MacFarlane feels the presence of some “other-place” when he’s high in the mountains. I imagine this is what deep-water divers feel like when they’re descending into deep blue caverns, or what astronauts feel when they leave earth’s gravitational pull. “Going into the mountains—into what one nineteenth-century poet called ‘that weird white realm’—is like pushing through the fur coats into Narnia,” writes MacFarlane. “In the mountainous world things behave in odd and unexpected ways. Time, too, bends and alters… And if something goes wrong in the mountains, then time shivers and refigures in the moment, that incident.” Between the 1700s to the 1900s, the cultural messaging around mountains underwent a series of transformations. Slowly but surely, mountains went from being viewed as “ugly and fearsome” to “terrible but godly” to “beautiful and vital” (to, finally, with the late 20th century embrace of ski culture, “fun and fancy”). Once modernity took hold, many previously negative (and previously dangerous) things began to seem less threatening. Fears changed, and aesthetics naturally followed. In Winter: Five Windows on the Season, Adam Gopnik classifies the “mind for winter” (named after a line in Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Snow Man”) as a thoroughly “modern taste.” “A taste for winter, a love for winter vistas—a belief that they are as beautiful and seductive in their own way, and as essential to the human spirit and the human souls as any summer sense—is part of the modern condition,” Gopnik writes. Likewise, he identifies the cultural appreciation for the “mysterious, the strange, the sublime” as a modern taste. Although Gopnik is writing about a season, he could also be talking about the landscape itself. Having a mind for mountains is a modern construction, like being able to enjoy abstract art or ride through the landscape at 70 miles per hour without fainting from dizziness. Just as the word “awesome” changed meanings over the centuries, shifting from fearsome and terrible to radical and excellent, so too have the mountains moved. Our inner landscapes have shifted to accommodate new forms of beauty, old forms of worship. *** I’m drawn to the jagged heights, pulled as though my heart was a magnet and they were aching heaps of lodestone. Like other residents of Maine, I call the long purple sprawl of Katahdin “beautiful” and extol the aesthetic virtues of Tumbledown. And I suppose they are lovely, particularly Tumbledown Mountain. With a clear blue glacial pool at the summit, ringed by evergreens, it makes for pretty pictures. My local mountains are just as good—Mount Douglas looks down upon a landscape of evergreens and lakes that shine silver in the cloudy light and Mount Pleasant is strewn with boulders and covered in lichen, sage green and granite gray. But I don’t really go into the mountains to take pictures, nor do I go on hikes to see natural beauty. I chase something else. I enjoy feeling displaced, untethered, unstrung from the ties of my life. I go into the mountains for the same reason people once believed they were ugly, for the same reason I watch horror movies and for the same reason I enjoy standing on the frozen beach in the middle of winter. It’s the frisson of excitement, the sense that is just one wrong step away. I’m drawn to the feeling of vertigo. I like wondering whether I will jump. There is a tinge of magic in danger, and there is beauty to be found in the sublime. Instagram may be the greatest enemy of real life wonderment, but still, I use it to document these moments. I take pictures, small flat squares to hold the memory of these grand encounters. On every hike, I find myself stocking my pockets with round pebbles and Lilliputian pinecones. The same impulse leads me to fill my digital storage with miniature versions of nature. These are fragmentary souvenirs, shards of the thing, but I keep collecting them anyway, hoping that a photo will stand in for the palliative pain of seeing my smallness, feeling my insignificance. I didn’t always upload the image to Instagram, and I certainly don’t paint them or print them out. I mostly keep the beauty to myself. But I still might, on a day when I feel too small. But for now, these frail images serve as a visual synechdoches, like the pebbles I collect, like my beach stones. It’s something I use to mark my movement through the world. A trail of breadcrumbs leading from my mundane, boring digital life to the weird, fantastical beauty beyond. 
‘People Live Before and After Violence’: An Interview with Marlon James

The author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf on the intellectual responsibilities of the reader, Die Hard and Vin Diesel, and gay action heroes.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Bond Street Books), Marlon James’s fourth novel and his follow-up to his Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, is a Molotov cocktail through the window of the literary status quo: it’s a fantasy novel, the first in a trilogy, about a group of outsiders who go on a quest, crossing mythical African kingdoms to find a missing boy. There’s Tracker, a runaway who seeks his lost people, only to reject them when he learns their truth; there’s the shape-shifting leopard who is his best friend; there’s a giant who is not a giant; a compass that is a human infected with lightning and kept in a cage; and a feminist separatist witch, whose line “Thank the gods for this man to tell us what we already know” is coming soon to a tote bag near you. Their reasons for seeking the boy are as varied as who they are: for money, to restore a royal lineage, or just for something to do. This book leaves the reader breathless. Stories act as portals to other stories, and then become other stories still. People turn into animals, a god-butcher spies on the heroes in their dreams, white scientists grow flowers out of hair, and all of this is mixed with true horror, like the scenes that take place at a slave auction. The novel criss-crosses genres, from the classic trickster tropes, to repeated scenes of teleportation, to an empire in the sky with a grim dystopian core. Through it all, blistering fight sequences jostle with moments of tender friendship, and families are found and lost. And this is only Book One. In all this wildness, the novel repeatedly leads its reader to ask, what makes a story, a story? And what are stories good for, if we cannot trust them to answer our questions about what really happened, or to give us the meaning we crave? I interviewed Marlon on stage at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, for Sheridan Reads. In front of an audience of two hundred, who packed into the campus bar just to see him, we talked about the intellectual responsibilities of the reader, how violence can be ethical, Die Hard and Vin Diesel, and gay action heroes. Thea Lim: Much has been made of the fact that you’ve described Black Leopard, Red Wolf as an African Game of Thrones. Sometimes, when diasporic writers present an experience that has been as yet underrepresented in Western fiction, they’re interpreted as offering a guide to their world, for outsiders to their world. Yet more often, diasporic writers are just trying to write about their own experience, so that readers of colour like them can see themselves on the page. Does your work fulfil one of those functions—a guide or a mirror—or is it something else entirely? Marlon James: I do like the idea of fiction communicating something that hasn't been communicated before. But I didn't really write this for the white gaze. Or anybody's gaze, really. For me, first and foremost, it was a duty to story. I mean, I committed to writing the hard way. I could have easily written more accessible novels. I quite know how to write them. I tell people I've been trying to sell out for years. It's just that my idea of a sell-out is my novel about, you know, nine black women who have an all-female slave insurrection. That says commercial pay dirt to me. I think, ultimately, I still believe that the book that's in your head should be the book that comes out on your page. And I think that, if you have too many considerations happening between here and there, then you kind of end up with a novel that was written by a committee, despite your really, really best intentions. I also think, one of the things that writing this book reinforced for me, is that in a lot of the oral tradition, the reader—well, in this case, the listener—has a lot of work to do. So, for me, it's not necessarily that I'm writing a bridge, so much as, "Here are the ingredients, build a bridge and come over here." In all the great books that I've read, you know, Beloved isn't trying to reach me, I have to reach Beloved. Dogeaters isn’t trying to reach me, I have to reach Dogeaters. Master and Margarita isn't trying to reach me, I have to reach over. I think people forget what an active activity—that's redundant, but you get what I'm saying—what an active activity reading is. It's more than just opening a book and expecting the book to, you know, here we are, now entertain us. There's a lot of work that the reader has to do, and I think that's what I was thinking of more than anything else. Ultimately you’re saying, it’s the needs of the story that come first, more than anybody else’s. And speaking of the reader having to reach over, discussions of your work often touch on violence; you were recently called a “virtuoso of violence” by author Victor LaValle. But in order to write violence well, a writer has to know how much is too much. Something my creative writing students and I often grapple with is how to ethically represent violence, specifically sexual violence. Do you have personal guidelines that determine how you employ or represent rape in your work, or does that also come down to the needs of the story? I always find it interesting that people say that my novels are filled with violence, or violence-drenched, because they're really not. You know, the average type of action films we watched in the ‘80s and ‘90s are Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger films. They're killing anywhere between 48 and 70 people. I did not kill 48 to 70 people in my book. But if one of those killings in those movies was, say, a shot to the stomach—and I say a shot to the stomach because that’s very painful and very slow—can you imagine if one of those hundreds of people [Bruce Willis] shot was a father or had three kids and was forced to be in this job, or was just going through the suffering of dying…it would be a completely different film. We would say, "Oh my god, Die Hard is so disturbing!" instead of, "Die Hard is a Christmas movie!" It’s one of my favourite Christmas movies. Listen, I adore that movie, I adore it, but I know I recognize how, what is happening is that these movies are selling violence without suffering. And I think the reason why I get tagged with violence is because I don't separate those. Because you let the reader see the suffering. Because violence comes with suffering and violence comes with aftermath. How can you be non-explicit about violence? Violence is an explicit act. You're sometimes literally breaking a body open. I think for me the most difficult scenes in my book, I have to turn myself into a reporter, so my overall advice is take a journalism class. Because you have to go in and get a story, but you have to be respectful. You have to be respectful but explicit. Or instead of explicit, clear. When you shirk on it, it's kind of an insult to people who suffer it. Like, people say to me they can't read my novel [The Book of Night Women] because it’s about slavery. I’m going to guess that reading about slavery is slightly better than being a slave. How you know when you’ve slid into a kind pornography of violence is when we become numb. If it's still visceral, if it's still disturbing, it's doing a good thing. If it's like, "Oh, Lord, another one," then you’ve slid into pornography. People live before and after violence. And I think that's also important, that yes, there’s suffering, but there is also survival. And there’s also living with the consequences and living with pain and living with dismemberment. And I think because for me, I don't shirk from any of those things, so people think it's violent. Violence should be violent. Sex should be sexy. So be simple and be clear and don't blink. So if a character does experience violence, then there have to be repercussions. And is that true even for secondary or smaller characters in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, of which there are many—were you able to find space in the narrative to show how they experience violence as well? Well, what I’m about to say almost sounds like it contradicts what I just said before, but then there’s also the off-stage event. There’s also the thing we don’t see, that people are reeling from. And certainly for the supporting characters and characters walking around those scenes, that also becomes important. It sounds like I’m contradicting what I just said about being explicit, but it’s still explicit. There are stages and there is aftermath and if the story is true to that, then we'll get the full range. But I think it's also important to know that people who experience these things are surviving, and survival is also important, and how you write survival is important. And the flip side of violence is intimacy and tenderness, of which there’s also a lot in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, especially between the men in the novel, and specifically queer men. Recently, there was a thread on social media asking people to list popular narratives that showed “healthy men's relationships,” where that was defined as men supporting each other through emotional growth. At that time, all I could think of was the Fast and Furious movies. But I would now add Black Leopard, Red Wolf to that list.  I’ve always wanted to be nearer to Vin Diesel. [Laughs] Because there are so many points when Mossi and Leopard really try to encourage Tracker, your protagonist, to have more of an emotional fluency and self-awareness. Did you model those relationships after anything in particular, or was there something you wanted to say about bonds between men? The first thing I wanted to do is separate masculinity from sexuality, which I think doesn’t happen enough. It's been interesting, for example, watching people wrap in their head around such a go-getter action hero being all about the boys. Well, both Black Leopard and Red Wolf are gay, spoiler alert. So that was the first thing to separate. But also to explore tenderness. I actually think Tracker's most tender relationship is with the Ogo, and he has this absolute affection for this guy. And a huge part of that affection comes from [Tracker] giving the Ogo space to confront his own demons. He understands that the best thing he can give the Ogo is his ears and he sits down and listens to him all through the night. And that to me is intimacy too. And the Ogo is one of the members of Tracker's entourage in the story’s main quest to find a lost boy, and it’s interesting because Tracker does not come across as, particularly, someone whose empathy is his driving force. But something in the Ogo spurs him to decide he wants to listen to him. What is it in the Ogo that sparks that? You know, I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. There is a kind of innocence there. I really resisted doing the gentle giants. He's not gentle, which is a huge part of his story.  He is not gentle at all. And also he can't shut up, when most giants are like "wooo" and that's like an entire sentence. But with the Ogo, they make the mistake of telling him something and he goes on talking for almost up to two hours and won't shut up. But I still think he's kind of adorable, in his way. Did you have a model for your gay male action hero? I can think of Omar from The Wire, but I can't think of anybody else. Omar would be a great person to mirror off, if I had actually watched The Wire. It’s one of the grievous sins against Western Civilization that I’ve only seen Season 1 of The Wire, I did not watch the rest. Who did I model Tracker after? I'm not sure. I came across so many different kinds of characters in my research of African mythology and a lot of African epics, and I've always liked the kind of, not necessarily anti-hero, but the kind of trickster, hustler kind of character, and African storytelling abounds with them. One thing is, in an Anansi story, to listen to an Anansi story, you have to come to terms with the fact that whoever is telling the story might be tricking you. So what is it to know that the narrator is unreliable, that a trickster is setting the story? That shifting is not just shifting truth, it's shifting shape, it's shifting identity, it's shifting sexual preference. I love the whole idea that nothing is fixed in this universe. As it should be, I don't think anything should be. And I think that in a lot of ways, that influenced Tracker. But also, you know, Tracker goes from being a brat to a full on asshole and then he learns some really, really good lessons, the hard way. I don't know, maybe he is a different version of myself—I tend not to put myself in my stories. But you slipped in through Tracker? Tracker's stance on religion may be like mine. Because when people say, I don't believe in God, I say, I don’t believe in belief.  Which we hear Tracker saying, it’s one of his catchphrases. He says that quite a bit. So like you say, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a story about stories. Sometimes, especially in the parts with the Ogo, it's a story within a story within a story. And much of the novel is fun and epic and fantastical, but then there’s a real vein of sorrow that runs through it. And I began to think that part of what the book is exploring is how we turn to stories to try to cope with or manage the traumas of life, and yet what Tracker really struggles with near the end of the book, actually on the second last page—which was my favourite part—is how sometimes stories can’t really help us make meaning. So what are stories to you? What do you hope they can do, whether it’s the stories you read, or the stories you write?  I'm not as hopeless about story as Tracker is, because I actually do think stories heal, or at least stories make a space for it. And the thing with stories, particularly in the oral tradition, is they played so many roles, and that's why it amazes me how convoluted and how tricky oral story could be. Because we're reading novels and we complain about their difficulty. "It's too labyrinthine, I don't understand it, and it keeps going around." But in the oral tradition, when a story might deliberately be tricking you, you have to listen to the story and also figure out what really is going on. The oral tradition places a way greater trust in the intellectual capabilities of the listener than we sometimes place in the reader. That, to me, was super interesting, and I definitely wanted to carry it over. Which is why [in my novel] there are stories on top of stories and there are parts you've got to figure out, and there are parts where you're left adrift. And hopefully the current will come and grab you, and pull you back in. Because I think the bond between listener and storyteller is different. I mean, to use a Joan Didion line, which I stole in this book, we do tell stories in order to live. And we tell stories in order to live on. And we tell stories in order to persevere. And we tell stories to bring glory to people who don't necessarily have glory, or get glory. So ultimately, storytelling is a healing act. It's a community-building act. And almost every culture has it serve that purpose. So I knew I wanted to write a novel that, in some way, at least tries to capture that. Do you think that active listening to a story—having to listen and to put the pieces together yourself and do the work—is that also healing? Or is it just the act of telling your story that heals? Oh, definitely the act of listening [is healing]. And really for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes just to hear a story. Or to hear ourselves in the story. Or to be told the subtext. “The story's this but what you are really telling me is this.” That's why we have fables. That's why we have allegory. Stories are also detective work and stories reveal, sometimes not in the space you expect it to reveal, something about us. For me when I'm writing, I'm very conscious that a novel should have volume. That it should sound like it should be read aloud. That's why the audio book is really good. I did listen to parts of it. The reader, Dion Graham, is amazing.  I kind of wrote it for him. Specifically with him in mind?   Not for Dion Graham in particular, although he is amazing. But I wrote it to be read aloud.  [[{"fid":"6704971","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] I wanted to ask you a question about working with editors. Especially because you say that this is a book that you wanted to be labyrinthine and voluminous, and I was wondering if your editors ever pushed back against that, if they ever wanted you to be more obvious. Or were they just along for the ride? My main editor is Jake Morrissey, but I also had my Canadian editors read it, and then after that, I don’t know if my Canadian or my American editors knew this, but I had a British editor read it too. Because at a certain point we've all read the book so much, and this completely fresh eye comes in and goes, "Wow, this first section is maybe too long." One, a good editor doesn’t tell you what to write. Which is why I think people like Gordon Lish are not good editors. But a good editor will keep at you until you've written it. Like, Jake would say, "I don't think you got it." And then I'd go back, and he’d say, "I still don't think you have it." Did you ever say no, you’re wrong, or did you accept that? No, I'm pretty good at listening to editors. They don't tell me what to write, I don't tell them what to edit. And I also trust my editors. That's the thing—I think you have to trust your editor. That an editor's eye is not a reader's eye. And there's a certain point in your manuscript where you just don't have the eyes for it. You just don't. I know you've been living with it for ten years, and you look at it, but I'm an editor as well and, for example, when I teach my students, the way I read their work is not the way they read their work. I do think intimacy with the work sometimes really turns a certain blindness to your work, that's natural. Sometimes you can shift that by, well, if you really want to torture yourself, have your friend read it to you. Like, out loud? Yes, read it out loud. There are things your ears will hear that your eyes won't see. But to come back to the editor relationship, I remember my second novel, this is one of the things that I wouldn’t have picked up, but an editor picked it up. [In The Book of Night Women] my character just left the house burning to the ground with everybody in it. It's a family novel. [Laughs.] And she goes back to her old plantation, to the old people she always knew, and I just went on with the plot and moved on. And my editor said to me, if I go back to people I've known all my life, but I'm under the suspicion of having done a terrible thing, wouldn't that change the dynamic of how everybody relates to me? It never occurred to me. But it would. My editor was right. Because people who didn't like me might respect me now, people who thought I was nice probably think I'm evil, some people will fear me when they didn't before, some people might finally think I'm cool—you know, you burn down master’s house, of course you're cool—but it never occurred to me. And I think sometimes those things, sort of the deeper nuance, and the deeper relationship between characters, is something a really good editor can bring out in a manuscript. They're not trying to re-write your book. If your book needs to be rewritten, trust me, you won't get as far as them, I'm sorry. It's interesting you say that it didn't occur to you, because it sounds like what your editor was talking about was the very thing you said earlier, about how violence should resonate. The problem with the scene, the way you’d written it, is that there wasn’t impact. Well, I learn, so. I wonder if what a good editor does is they sort of read as your highest self. Like, they read as you would read, but on your best, most fabulous day.  Yes, but I also think an editor sometimes has to get tough on a manuscript, and that's where, from the beginning, writers start to really sort of flinch because your book is your baby. I always go, just think of your book as your fourth baby. It's like, "Take it please." It’s like, “I’m tired.” So I have to ask you a question about music, because you always talk a lot about music in your interviews. I saw you interviewed with David Chariandy last year in Toronto, and you said you’d been listening to a lot of Björk. But if you were to make a playlist for this book, are there any songs that would absolutely have to be on there? Do Leopard and Tracker have a walk-up song?  Oh my God. Maybe I’d just put “Soul Makossa” on repeat. What was I listening to? I was actually listening to a lot of Miles Davis with this, and Herbie Hancock. [[{"fid":"6704976","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] I wouldn’t have expected Tracker’s walk-up song to be Miles Davis.  Well, you know, “Spanish Key” is really propulsive and Herbie Hancock has Mwandishi which I was listening to. Just a lot of ‘70s jazz fusion, I was listening to a lot of ‘70s funk. So it's weird, it’s set in Africa, but it’s a total blaxploitation soundtrack. [Laughs.] Lots of Isaac Hayes and so on. But also lots of Fela. Especially when I'm writing the parts that are long and almost like stream of consciousness, because a Fela song will go on for 60 minutes. But also I'm really attracted to rhythm, I really latch on to rhythm when I'm writing a story. The poets can’t have all the fun. But I do think prose should have a meter. And prose should definitely have a beat. Do you always listen to music while you’re writing? Does that help you with the meter?  It does. But I don't think about [the meter], not consciously. But I also just can't write in silence. I'm like, kudos to people who do it. My friend goes off to his log cabin that looks like an outhouse, and he goes and just writes. And I'm like, I just couldn't do that. To me silence feels like deafness, I just couldn't do it.
The Disneyland of Death

Described as a theme park necropolis, Forest Lawn Cemetery created a new template for posthumous culture in North America.

I took the bus to Forest Lawn Memorial Park after waking up on a blow-up mattress in my friend’s tiny Koreatown apartment. I had fallen asleep to the sound of a pastor preaching in Spanish at the storefront church across the street, my first Los Angeles lullaby. His voice was distorted by a loudspeaker and had a soothing evangelical lilt. I drank tea, which I wished was coffee. I wrote down the directions via public transit to the cemetery on a piece of paper, in case my phone died. I didn’t want to get lost in the chaotic outskirts. Forest Lawn is a cemetery in Glendale just north of LA. It has been described as a Disneyland of Death and a theme-park necropolis. It has been satirized by Evelyn Waugh, depicted by Aldous Huxley. Stars and moguls from Hollywood’s golden era are buried in its hilltop terraces. It created a new template for death culture in North America, and a business model for other cemeteries to follow. From the bus window, I watched hairy palms rise in lonely spikes along the street. Morning smog gave the city a haunted look. The exotic cut leaves and absurd shag of the palms appeared from the mist like an idea of a place. We passed through Chinatown where a group of old men and women, bent over trundle-buggies, stood waiting in line. When the bus stopped, they slowly filed on, helping one another up the steps, around the corner, into a seat. A woman with silver hair tied in a French-roll sat next to me and asked where I was going. Glendale, I said. She said she had made the trek downtown to get food for the week, but it was difficult to carry anything, let alone the six bags she was struggling with. I asked why she didn’t use a buggy like the others. Her daughter wouldn’t let her, she said, because it made her look old. What do cemeteries say about the living, those left to grieve a future that had once included the dead? What do these placeless places say about the cultures that create them? In the introduction to The Work of the Dead, Thomas Laqueur asks why the dead matter. Why does a culture of care for the dead extend across time, across landscapes, across different systems of belief, even to those who don’t believe? There is evidence of Neanderthal burials in French caves, and Laqueur describes atheists leaving mementos on graves with wonder. It is interesting, he notes, that without a system of ritual, without belief in an afterlife, uncared-for remains are still somehow culturally unbearable. The idea that a body would be left to rot, bones exposed, seems like an act of violence. But why does it matter? “It matters,” he writes, “because the living need the dead far more than the dead need the living. It matters because we cannot bear to live at the borders of our mortality.” * The founding myth of Forest Lawn has Hubert Eaton standing on a hilltop in 1912 looking down at brown fields of devil grass, wild oat sprouting at random between broken tombstones, maybe a tumbleweed blowing past his feet, and there and then he decides to take on a job as manager of the desolate graveyard. In his mind’s eye he can already see the pastoral garden he will build, “Filled with Towering Trees, Sweeping Lawns, Splashing Fountains, Singing Birds.” In the same way that middle class desire dreamed up suburbia, a place where everyone has their own patch of lawn to fortify their bungalows against real wilderness, carpets of sod would be unrolled and laid across the hills, smothering the chaparral in an act of botanical colonialism. That night, so the myth goes, Eaton stayed awake writing the “Builder’s Creed” in a hotel room where he detailed his vision for a new way of dealing with death. This manifesto is carved into a stone tablet and displayed on the grounds. Two alabaster sculptures of children holding hands, a puppy curled beside them, look up at it. Copies are available at the gift shop. “I BELIEVE IN A HAPPY ETERNAL LIFE,” it starts. It isn’t only immortality that serves as a constitutional concept here but unchecked joy. This sentiment is key to understanding the modern American memorial park. Happiness is built into every aspect of the design. When Eaton vows to create a cemetery “As Unlike Other Cemeteries as Sunshine is to Darkness, As Eternal Life is Unlike Death…” he creates a cemetery in denial, a place that banishes any sign of decay, where grief is forbidden, where pain is repressed, where no one dies. Tombstones were removed, because Eaton felt they were too morose, and replaced with brass plaques. No new deciduous trees would be planted, because their leafless branches in winter reminded him of death. The evergreens, alternatively, were symbols of everlasting life, and planted in swaths across the property.  Forest Lawn is 300 acres of emerald green hills enclosed by a wrought iron fence. Walls and fences are a classic feature of historical European cemeteries. They have practical applications, like keeping animals in or out, but symbolically, they define the boundaries between opposing worlds. When you step into a cemetery, leaving everyday life, strip malls and highways, taco stands and nail salons, you enter a different territory, an unstable one, a supernatural one. Somehow the cemetery is a permeable place, shared by the dead and the living, where ghosts might glimmer at night like electric filaments on the hills. Forest Lawn doesn’t feel spooky. It looks like a well manicured park, with fields and fields of brass plaques that disappear into the endless grass depending on your vantage point. It is a place where someone might go for a morning run with a dalmatian at their heels. I walked ten minutes from the bus stop to the gate. The road in leads past a fountain and duck pond, to an empty parking lot. Canadian geese linger near the water. The entire place has a monumental scale meant to impress and dwarf the visitor. When I finally got to the crest of the hill, after walking for 45 minutes through football field after football field, past curbs with the names of burial plots stamped into the concrete, Slumberland, Lullaby Land, Dawn of Tomorrow, Vesperland, I drank some water and found myself on a bench in a courtyard fatuously named the Garden of the Mystery of Life. The bench was in a niche, surrounded by boxwood hedges. Azaleas were in bloom nearby. From that height I could see Babyland, a plot reserved for children, at the bottom of the hill, circled by a heart shaped road. I could see Glendale past the cemetery walls, buildings pale under the stark sun, spilling into the valley below. Looking at aerial photos of fault lines in the desert is a strange and beautiful thing. From above they resemble sutures, or healed scars. As if the ground itself is trying to close over an old wound. Glendale is where the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys meet. Subterranean fault lines crisscross underneath the city. Not too far north, the San Andreas fault readies for the next imminent tectonic shift, estimated to happen anytime between tomorrow and the next decade. The politics of water in the desert are always fierce. LA drained Owens Valley by 1926 in order to quench its thirst. During the last drought, some Californian landscapers started painting their client’s dormant grass green in order not to be shamed. To make a paradise grow in a semi arid state, massive amounts of water are needed. In 1985 the Los Angeles Times reported that Forest Lawn’s then 125 acres of grass, 10,000 trees and 100,000 shrubs required an estimated 195 million gallons of water a year. The city of Glendale negotiated a deal where the cemetery would use recycled water rather than potable water, promising to supply 200 million gallons per year for 20 years, and help in the construction of a pipeline to deliver the water from a treatment plant to the cemetery. It takes a lot of water to create an oasis in a desert. Glendale is in a chaparral ecosystem. It should be a landscape of coastal sage, drought tolerant yucca with pillars of dead flowers, silvery artemisia, Oak savannas, thickets of heathland, wildflowers. The cycle of the chaparral requires regular forest fires. Some plants need heat, smoke, or changes to the chemical composition of the soil to germinate. Some plants, called fire followers, like Phacelia, need the extra light after a canopy is burnt to grow. If you have seen Phacelia it would be hard to argue it isn’t magical. Iridescent blue whiskers poke out from clusters of bell-shaped flowers on a spiral stem. I have only seen photos. But these plants don’t fit into the nostalgic image of an imagined garden, a hegemonic Eden. California does not have the same climate as Cambridge or Milan. What did Eaton know about the ecology of the land he was building on? And where did he get his version of paradise? * I like to visit cemeteries when I travel. In Guadalajara, loved ones’ initials are scratched into the flesh of the cactus that define the boundaries of the grounds. In Salem, every tombstone has hand-carved Puritan poetry under a winged skull. Erosion has almost erased the words, and to read the verse, you trace your fingers across the stone, pretending it’s braille. In some areas of Istanbul marble tombstones spill between buildings, or in courtyards of homes. In Montreal tiny mausoleums in the center of Mount Royal house artifacts of past lives like baseball bats, and daguerreotypes are permanently affixed to granite tombstones, so visitors can look directly into the past. Cemeteries are like love letters to the dead. They say so much about the culture that cares for and creates them. It was difficult for me to understand what created this place, sitting on a bench next to delicately pruned topiary, a replica of Michelangelo’s David looming larger than life from the next courtyard. His marble face eyed the hills as though x-ray vision allowed him to see skeletons under the surface of sod. But that is David before he fought Goliath, tense. A vein bulges in his neck. He readies for the fight, slingshot over his shoulder. During the earthquake in 1971 he fell off his stand and smashed to pieces. He was quickly replaced, that time without a fig leaf, then taken down after a group of concerned citizens complained about the full frontal. Now he guards the graves of Mary Pickford and Humphrey Bogart without shame. The architecture and sculpture scattered across the grounds is a mishmash of classical European histories. There is a Tudor mortuary. Three churches on the grounds are copied from originals in Scotland and Ireland. The Great Mausoleum is based on Campo Santo in Genoa. There is a stained-glass recreation of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and a cast of Michelangelo’s version of La Pieta. The sculpture where Mary cradles Jesus in her arms after the crucifixion. Something feels absent in these bleached recreations. The patina of age is missing. I can imagine Eaton and his team picking and choosing status symbols to fluff up the place, without any consideration of the original meaning behind the art. They seem gaudy in their perfection, insincere, out of place. This paradise is a transplant from someone else’s past. * Forest Lawn has been an important part of American death culture since it opened, influencing and changing how we mourn. Jessica Mitford dedicates an entire chapter to the cemetery and its management in her book The American Way of Death. Originally published in 1962, reprinted with an update in 1998, Mitford investigates how the funeral industry is embedded in entrepreneurial capitalism, detailing some of its sleazy money-making tactics. She describes how embalming is explained as a hygiene issue to grieving families, expensive and nearly non-negotiable. The World Health Organization does not agree that embalming plays any role in decreasing the spread of disease, though Mitford was led to believe by various funeral directors at the time of her reporting that it was legally required. Similarly, expensive cement vaults were said to be legally necessary so that the ground didn’t cave in, though that was also untrue. Mitford describes Eaton as a sort of megalomaniac, and the loudspeakers that used to dot the property, reminding visitors to visit the gift shop between musical interludes, as another dark money grab. Forest Lawn management set a precedent with sales tactics and strategies to exploit the bereaved. Euphemism becomes key to sales, cloaking meaning. If you avoid calling up context or images and instead use words that are so general, so vague, they mean almost nothing, whatever you are describing remains unreal. An entire language was codified, a language that is still used. Funeral directors are instructed not to say hearse but casket-coach. They don’t say grave, they say interment space. They don’t say dirt, they say earth. They don’t say cemetery, they say memorial park. They don’t say dead body, they say mortal remains. They don’t say died, they say passed on. It is easier to up-sell a casket than a coffin. The entire cemetery relies on this distance from the facts, ushering in a new era of mourning. One where every American family should employ a cosmetician to paint lifeless faces so they might look alive again. Prices are inflated. Unusual costs stack up. And Forest Lawn is a gleaming example of cemetery as business. * As I was walking along a winding road towards the Great Mausoleum, thinking of celebrity, a memory came to me. When Patrick Swayze died in 2009, I visited someone in the intensive care unit at a psych ward. My friend in the hospital described her psychosis to me while we sat in plastic chairs around a wooden table. She said she was seeing faces in her food. As she spoke, she flipped between euphoria and terror. Tears rolled down her face. She told me she had been chosen. In my memory she stood up as she said this, put her open palms down, and looked across the table with such a profound longing, I will never forget it. On my way out, I crossed the path of one skeletal patient walking up and down the hallway, repeating the same rigid gestures of kneeling and opening his mouth to take eucharist. Down on his knees an invisible priest would place the wafer on his tongue. He would get up and start again, locked in a perpetual cycle of atonement. Another patient bounced on the balls of his feet and promised to skin a squirrel next time I visited. It was easy, he said, you just have to catch one. A doctor once described brains in trauma or psychosis to me as crushed rubber balls that need time to return to their original form. The more often they are crushed the more difficult it is for them to get back to the previous shape. I wonder if this is an appropriate metaphor for someone who isn’t a clinician. What I am left with is the simpler understanding that psychosis or mania are traumatic and require healing. After I left the hospital that day, I stopped for tea at a friend’s house in Point Saint Charles. We were talking about this idea of healing when a downstairs neighbour pounded up the stairs and stormed into the room, shouting that Patrick Swayze had died. We put down our tea. The neighbour was crying. What was there to say? We went silent. It wasn’t an ideal moment for us to offer comfort. I thought about the actor, as the neighbour continued screaming, and felt nothing. I couldn’t understand where her pain was coming from. “What the fuck do I care?” I said, “Everyone dies.” Anger inhabited my body. I saw the hospital room in my mind, the colour of the walls. But she cared. “What about the people you actually know?” I said. It wasn’t that I disliked Patrick Swayze. But why was she weeping for him? Why did she care more for him? She had funneled all her emotion onto a stranger, an idea of a person, when people we knew were in the hospital. I couldn’t understand. Mourning the death of the famous is not a new cultural phenomenon. When Victor Hugo died two million people joined his funeral procession. Even more showed up to mourn Ayatollah Khomeini. His is in the running for largest funeral in history. The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, and Evita Peron, had millions pass by their dead bodies to show respect. When Prince died the internet collectively mourned and celebrated him. “Purple Rain” played all summer in bars and coffee shops. I was in El Salvador when Shafik Handal, the leader of the FMLN party and former guerilla, died in 2006. I was in a small inland village, though nothing is very far from the ocean in El Salvador. The woman I was staying with, Fidelina, carted me and her entire family of nine onto a bus to go view the body in San Salvador. We waited in line for hours to have our turn to look at his open casket. The crowd was a sea of FMLN-red baseball caps and shirts, moving slowly, mournfully. Fidelina wiped her eyes with a handkerchief she kept in her bra. I had never seen a dead body before. I wasn’t sure what to expect after an embalmer and cosmetician had been at work. When our turn came, we were each given a private moment to look at the body, a confirmation, a recognition, 30 seconds. The casket was on stage in an auditorium that reminded me of the wooden stage of my high school. Shafik’s face in my memory was blue, strained, doll-like. He was dressed in military regalia, epaulettes, medals glimmering. I was surprised that I wanted to linger, to be close to him. I barely knew who he was. The feeling of collective grief was powerful. When my 30 seconds were up, I was directed off stage by soldiers flanking the coffin, holding AK47s, and I wanted more time. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. It is difficult not to ask questions about private and public grief when walking around Forest Lawn. Who has a right to mourn whom? What is the relationship between a celebrity and their fans? Or a public who has never met the person they adore? How does capital factor? Do celebrities owe nothing to their audience? What if they have transformed someone’s life? Michael Jackson is interred in a sarcophagus in the Great Mausoleum. The door is locked. You cannot visit him, unless you are a family member or on a list of ten who have their own sets of keys. None of the graves are easy to find. The cemetery management dissuades tomb tourists, or death hags, or pilgrims hunting idols. They frown on the idea that non-family members want to visit a grave, but people are resilient. You can find blogs that give vague directions, but it isn’t easy to find them once you are there. What is the point if only a few can mourn? The only celebrity grave I saw at Forest Lawn was Larry’s, the curly haired third Stooge. A wilted rose and comic book had been left as a token, leaning against his granite plaque.  There are important people buried at Forest Lawn: Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Clark Gable, Walt Disney, Sam Cooke, Jean Harlow, Clara Bow, Nat King Cole. I try to imagine who would be compelled by these lives, and what a visit in-memoriam might mean to them. Religious impresarios of early Los Angeles spiritualism are also buried in Forest Lawn. Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian guru who was integral in spreading yoga and meditation to the US, and wrote the cult classic Autobiography of a Yogi, is in the Great Mausoleum. The evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who died in 1944, is buried on the grounds. She had one of the largest congregations in the city. They would watch in rapture as she mixed Hollywood style theatrics with Pentecostal revival. She faked her own kidnapping on Venice Beach so she could hide out with a lover, was credited with countless faith healings, and was known for her abilities to translate for people speaking in tongues. She once rode down the aisle of a church on a motorbike, dressed as a cop, screeched to a stop at the Pulpit and said “Stop, you’re speeding towards hell.” Are her followers entitled to pay homage by leaving flowers or visiting her tomb? Or was she always meant to remain separate, cloistered and elite? Her grave is easier to find than others, but the point still stands. Maybe a piece of the mourner’s identity dies with the dead. Movies, literature, music all factor into how we build our identities. We learn how to love, what to expect from love, what love is. This is a problem when we look at who is writing these stories, what is included and what is omitted. We may spend our lives undoing that damage, but we remain affected by different iterations of our past selves. My friend’s neighbour, in her sadness over Patrick Swayze’s death, may have been grieving not Swayze, but her twelve-year-old self, sitting on the carpeted floor of her parents living room, watching movies on late night TV in flannel pyjamas, safe before her mother died, stuffing handfuls of popcorn drenched in butter into her mouth, mesmerized. The future still possible.  * In Eastern Orthodox graveyards, unbaptised babies are buried at the forest’s edge, not quite in consecrated ground, not quite on the unholy other side, but the limbo between. The Belfast city cemetery has a six-foot underground wall to separate Protestants from Catholics. Paupers’ graves are shared by whoever can’t pay and are left unmarked, whereas graves nearest to a church are reserved for well paying clients or the clergy. This is a factor in understanding the landscape Eaton created. Forest Lawn was segregated for decades. I messaged the cemetery’s livestream, a service offered on their website where a technician responds immediately to any questions, to ask details. What years was the Memorial Park segregated for? I wrote. The technician slowly typed out, that’s a good question, but didn’t know the answer, and referred me to an email address. No one responded to any of my several emails. Officially the Supreme court ruled in 1948 that racially restrictive land deeds violated the 14th amendment in Shelley v Kramer, which would eventually be applied to burial plots.  Despite not getting any concrete dates from the technician, I do know that for decades Forest Lawn refused to bury anyone who was Black, Jewish, Chinese. The idea that a body can infect another body is a dark holdover from living society. Cities of the dead are bound by the same laws of hate and exploitation as cities of the living. This is what I walk through as I trudge naively up hills with my notebook in hand, histories of power. Paradise is defined by who is allowed in and who isn’t. It is a site of exclusion, and the cemetery is its worldly counterpart. The gated courtyards on the hilltops are mostly locked. Several times, when I neared a locked gate, I was approached by security, who were everywhere, and asked if I needed help. Decorum is strictly regulated and carefully policed. There is a code of conduct for mourners that they agree to when they buy a plot. No balloons, spinners, ornamentation, planters, statues, or stones are permitted on the graves. Potted flowers can be no larger than eight inches in diameter. Cut flowers will be removed in three days. No one can lie down on the grass or have a picnic. I did see a family having a meal at a graveside, a Californian ritual. They were sitting in camping chairs, eating sandwiches, and sharing a bottle of soda water among the fields and fields of brass plaques, but I imagine they were told off eventually. Signs near the road warn “flower theft is a crime punishable by imprisonment.” Security guards ride around on golf carts watching you carefully, noting you as you walk, even more so at the crests of the hills, like an economic reflection of LA itself. I thought maybe I could convince someone to let me inside one of the locked courtyards, but they worked in pairs, so I didn’t try. I joked about the weather to make them smile, hoping they didn’t kick me out. When I finally got back to the wrought iron gates, I wasn’t sure where I had been. I felt unmoved, exhausted. Forest Lawn’s marketing claims the gates are the biggest of their kind in the world, 10,000 pounds, 25 feet high, 80 feet wide, larger than the gates at Buckingham Palace, or Topkapi. Laqueur suggests that the dead inhabit two distinct cultural landscapes. The graveyard, where their physical bodies or ashes are interred, and an imagined world, a shadowland without maps or clear geography, heaven, hell, purgatory, the void on the other side of the River Styx, potential and emptiness all at the same time. The graveyard offers a dangerous window into the other side. It is important to know when you have entered and when you have left. One superstition says that when leaving a cemetery, you should touch the iron gate, so any clinging ghosts are stopped from following you. I reach up to feel the metal as I pass. It is cold under my palm.