I knew we were only going to Rulo to make up for his getting so drunk he slept in. Rulo was an apology.
The editor of Unspeakable Acts on the problems inherent in true crime reporting, the human desire for narrative, and the failings of the criminal justice system.
Talking to the author of The Unreality of Memory about predicting disaster, criticism of self-contemplation, and a post-truth world.
When the pandemic first hit, I checked every hour or so monitoring the increase of cases in the United States. “Ten cases in Colorado,” I’d tell my husband. “And a new one in New Mexico.” Then our family got sick at the beginning of February, and in my Theraflu-induced haze I scrolled through dozens of news pages reporting on COVID symptoms, my heart beating faster as I read each list. I do this: obsess, especially over disaster, or storms, or any element of life I can’t control, as though infusing as much information about it as I can into my brain will somehow allay the fear. The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert (FSG) felt like this: perfectly synthesized research about facets of human fear in twelve essays. When Gabbert mentioned something about megastructures, or herbs like asafoetida, I went into an internet rabbit hole, scrolling through dozens and dozens of Reddit posts of objects of unimaginable size, or reviewing studies on Pubmed of herbs reportedly used to “cure” hysteria. Most of all, The Unreality of Memory caused me to question myself and my place in the world. Not in an existential way; Gabbert’s essays provided context for the role of humanity in a world of chaotic disaster. Those events which are uncontrollable, unavoidable. In “Doomsday Pattern,” Gabbert relays stories from Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, a collection of testimonies from survivors. One particular story gripped me, in which Alexievich spoke of meeting an old man in a dead village. “Aren’t you afraid?” she asked. He answered: “Of what? You can’t be afraid the whole time, a person can’t do that; some time goes by, and ordinary life starts up again.” I take this thought with me when I put my mask on to buy groceries, or when I see people eating out at restaurants, walking through malls with their masks slung beneath their chins, sucking on sodas from the food court. When pandemic restrictions were first put in place, the grocery stores were either deserted or had people lined up around the building, waiting to get in. The aisles were half-empty; no toilet paper, bags of flour. Even cheese. And if you went at night, just before closing, it felt a bit like a ghost town, complete with an eerie cast to the empty parking lot and a slight sense of guilt for getting tortillas for dinner or a last-minute snack. The Unreality of Memory breaks apart the most looming threat to human existence—disaster—and examines it through facets: how our news reports it and how we digest that news; how we view ourselves and how that, itself, may be unreliable; our unstable sense of happiness; our historical understanding of disaster; how our society has treated those we deem “dangerous” or “untrustworthy,” which is its own kind of disaster. How does a person handle what can’t be controlled? Mask orders are still in place where I live, and were just extended for thirty days. But it seems as though many people have resumed with ordinary life. The parking lots are full; no one is waiting in lines anymore. A few people slip into Walmart mask-free. The old man in the dead village might be right: a person can’t be afraid all the time, even if they need to be. Ordinary life pulses on. Over email, I talked to Gabbert about the nature of self, the desire for normalcy, and whether or not a stable reality truly exists. Elle Nash: So much of your work right now feels extremely timely (and I bet you're tired of thinking about that). Perhaps that is what it is like carrying around thoughts of disaster—on a long enough timeline, a disaster will be inevitable, confirming all our fears. While I was reading your essay on pandemics, I wondered, is it surreal for you, having written “The Great Mortality” in 2018, even quoting Dr. Anthony Fauci, to now live through this? Elisa Gabbert: That’s the thing, so many disasters are inevitable that if you just keep predicting them, at some point you’re going to be right (and in an infinite multiverse, every disaster is inevitable and doomed to repeat infinitely!). One of my reviews was given the headline, “She predicted a pandemic”—of course, I didn’t predict anything, I just read some books by people who study this stuff. What did seem clear to me was that the election of Donald Trump was going to make us uniquely vulnerable to disaster as a country, even more so than we already were. But the fact that the book was released during a pandemic was just dumb luck (dumb bad luck, to be clear), and I don’t think I was really any more psychologically prepared for this than anyone. You quote Barbara Tuchman: “What was the human condition after the plague? Exhausted by deaths and sorrows and the morbid excesses of fear and hate, it ought to have shown some profound effects, but no radical change was immediately visible. The persistence of the normal is strong.” You're in the process of promoting your book right now; anyone who has had a book come out in the last six months has really had to switch it up. Do you think there is a strong desire at things like virtual literary events to continue what is normal, even though it very much isn't normal? I think there’s a strong desire to act normal everywhere. People get very self-righteous about it, but apart from the flashes of terrified awareness, or the truly unbearable days or weeks, really, what is the alternative? Should we all just run around screaming all the time? Part of me wants to do that! Part of me absolutely wants to check myself into an institution for an old-fashioned rest cure. But most of us have responsibilities to other people. I mean even if you don’t have kids or a family, you kind of have responsibility if you live in a society. If you don’t normalize this hell life a little, you just spiral into useless despair, and you can drag everyone around you down with you—despair is a second contagion. But you asked about book promotion. So I guess I’ll say that one of the few remaining things I’m truly grateful for is literature—when so much of life has been stripped away, books are still a reliable source of something like happiness, the life of the mind. So I don’t feel particularly guilty or conflicted about promoting my book, within reason. (This is my life! My one wild and precious life!!) The essay in your book which struck me the most was about vanity. I couldn’t stop thinking about it—how obsessed we are with our reflections, the implications of preferring it over something unfiltered and undoctored—and by that I also mean unreflected. For years I’d thought of my mirror self as the more accurate version, rather than the photo being true, and now I just feel a little fucked up about it all. Yet, it somehow feels important for me to obsess over this; like contemplation on the nature of selfhood. I wonder what you make of the term “navel-gazing” in relation to self-contemplation—is it valid to criticize this kind of contemplation as “excessive,” or is it a way to dismiss those of us who do get something out of it? A few people have told me that this was their favorite essay, and I wonder if it’s not that it’s also rather uncannily timely—we are all seeing ourselves on video much more than usual lately, and that much self-seeing seems to trigger an unexpected crisis of the self, an othering of the self (that can’t be me!). Anyway—I think selfishness and self-contemplation are very different. Philosophers and monks and saints have been doing the latter since before there were mirrors. The term “navel-gazing” strikes me as deeply anti-intellectual. Consciousness is one of the great mysteries! It’s more interesting than lint, and I don’t even find lint uninteresting (why is it always the same blue-gray color?). Why do you think the self (as a concept) is drawn so much to… well, thinking about itself? Because it’s inescapable, I guess. When you’re lying alone and awake in the dark, your self is still there. More terrifying were your descriptions of illnesses in which patients could no longer recognize their own reflection. It's harrowing to think of—that this loss of recognition can occur. This isn't a question, just a realization that selfhood seems rather fragile when faced with the countless actors against brain health, or even overall health and safety. The essay felt like a fulcrum of the whole book: the fragility of self seems hinged on whether we can keep our environment inhabitable, keep ourselves safe from disaster, or viruses, or threats, which as a collective species, is unfathomable. When you were assembling the manuscript, how did you decide the order you would present each piece? I’ve always found sections very helpful when ordering a manuscript, because it reduces the number of possible combinations, or at least makes it feel like there are fewer combinations. Once I’d organized the essays into three sections, the order of the sections felt obvious, so it was just a matter of determining the order within each section. One thing I definitely didn’t want to do was front-load the best stuff, because I hate when you’re reading a collection and it starts to lose your interest instead of building momentum. I decided to start with the crowd-pleaser stuff, the big explosions, etc.—when I was shopping the book proposal, a couple of editors told me they wished the whole book was just a longer version of the first section. But the middle section is my favorite. Also, sometimes I hint at something in one essay that is later explored at more length in another, and that helped me order the collection as well—the question of whether I wanted those parts to serve as call or echo. The echoes made the work feel cohesive, inter-relating all of these elements (I felt like "Witches and Whiplash" and "Sleep No More" were so intertwined). In "Witches and Whiplash" you yoke concepts of classical hysteria, conversion disorder, #metoo, and the tangential experience of pain together, along with an analysis of crowd catharsis and the contagious possibility of suicide and violence; you also state you took fifty pages of notes for this particular essay alone, and that it led to a kind of frustration in the many threads you wanted to follow. Can you tell me about your process in forming and completing this essay? Those were the last two pieces I wrote (not counting the epilogue, which I decided to add later, at the suggestion of my editor); my deadline to turn in the manuscript was approaching and I was kind of unraveling. Originally, these two essays were supposed to be three. My book proposal had them as “A philosophical/personal essay on pain, both psychic and physical”; “An essay on sleep and awareness and states in between”; and, “An essay on ‘mania’: fandom, panics, hysteria, delusions, and witch hunts.” My entry into the sleep essay (I’m a sometimes insomniac) was an experience I had with anesthesia, so it just made sense to combine the consciousness essay with the pain essay—they were so intimately related. I ended up deciding that piece is really about suffering, and the meaning of happiness. But formally it’s pretty similar to the other essays in the collection. “Witches and Whiplash” is an outlier—it’s the longest piece in the book and the only one that’s divided into titled sections. I actually stole that structure from Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti, an amazing book that I used as a source for the essay. As you mention, there’s that meta moment at the end where I confess that I over-researched the essay; there was just so much material and it all felt so painfully relevant to what we were, and are, living through. It could have been a whole book! I took so many notes that I couldn’t see my way into writing the piece in my typical structure—if I’m writing a four- or five-thousand-word essay, I usually break it into three or four sections or “movements.” I needed some more granular organizing principle. Crowds and Power is organized into lots of short, titled sections, shorter than chapters, with names like “The Discharge,” “The Eruption,” and, “Slowness, or the Remoteness of the Goal.” So that’s how I ended up structuring the essay, and it gave me a way to talk about all these different but similar concepts, which are basically all exterior physical and social manifestations of confusing and traumatic interior states. That’s the connection between witch hunts and whiplash. In “True Crime” you explore the evolution of news and the nature in which journalists’ biases—conscious or not—lead them to pursue work that fits the current narrative. It’s self-fulfilling: the 24-hour news cycle exists, so news companies feel pressure to fill the space, yet they created the cycle in the first place. And like that, people who read the news begin to expect it. “This is how it becomes parasitic: We need the drugs, and they need us to buy them,” you state. You also bring up the responsibility of the news consumer, equally important, in our current climate. OpenAI is creating algorithms that mimic the sound and texture of human-written text; I see friends online routinely engage with Twitterbots without realizing they are, in fact, not real; I’ve run across AI-created articles in major magazines, some egregiously bad, but others almost undetectable; and deepfakes, that beautiful buzzword, become more and more convincing with terrifying awe. All of this essentially constructs chambers around our individual paradigms, making it more difficult to parse, for the uneducated news consumer, what is real and what isn’t. But like the drug it is, people want to believe their selected narratives—and they’ll find and seek the information out there to confirm it. Do you think we’re moving into a post-truth world? What does that world look like, to you? I think the internet, social media, and technology in general accelerate and make more terrifying what was probably always already true, that “reality,” as we perceive it in the present and preserve it in memory, is highly unstable. The equipment we use to process the world is fallible at every level—the news media is fallible because our minds are fallible. The errors keep compounding. History books are fallible too, of course—when I was a kid there were still high school textbooks in the south that called the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression.” This isn’t to say there aren’t any truths, that there aren’t any facts—slavery was real, the Holocaust was real. The migrant camps are real. But we seem incapable of propagating these facts across time and space in such a way as to produce agreement, on the one hand, that genocide and white supremacy are wrong, are evil, and on the other hand, that these things are even happening. And so, they continue to happen. Holocaust denial predates the internet, but I do think it makes denial easier, by providing unmediated sources that people can convince themselves are reliable. (I don’t know the solution.) What got you interested in writing about doom and disaster in the first place? Broadly, it was some combination of the direst election year of my lifetime so far (this one has proven to be direr) and the pervasive sense of—not even climate anxiety, really, but climate grief?—among people my age and younger, especially. When Trump was elected I felt some sense of urgency to write about apocalyptic feelings. But as you intimated in your first question, I’m pretty sick of it all now, of peering over the precipice. I’m glad there are people who still want to read about earthquakes and plagues though. Somebody has to! When I look at the cover... I think I see a floating iceberg. With a hole beneath, or perhaps its shadow. Because of the title and its relation to the ethereal and personal experience of one’s mind, it’s like a Rorschach test. I ask myself: Is the blue the sky, and the red the sunset? Is it surrealist, like a floating boulder? What is the story behind this image—were you involved in the process of developing it, did you get to choose or throw out concepts early on when creating it? When I filled out my cover questionnaire, a brief survey about what I did or didn’t want the book to look like (I remember one of the questions was “What is your least favorite color”!), I sent along one image for inspiration: a paperback edition of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which has Magritte’s The Glass Key on the cover, a boulder floating among mountains. I love the look of mid-century philosophy texts, and they influenced my title choice too (all those X-of-Y-type titles—The Poetics of Space, The Jargon of Authenticity). The designer, Thomas Colligan, did something I loved on the first try. It recalls the Magritte almost subliminally, and is even more ambiguous: Is it a presence or a void? A hyperobject, a black hole, a blind spot, an asteroid? I find it to be wonderfully ominous.
The editor of Unspeakable Acts on the problems inherent in true crime reporting, the human desire for narrative, and the failings of the criminal justice system.
Halfway through Unspeakable Acts (HarperCollins), the new anthology of true crime writing edited by Sarah Weinman, I saw myself as clearly as if I were looking in a mirror. In Alice Bolin’s essay “The Ethical Dilemma of True Crime,” the Dead Girls author identifies a dichotomy in true crime lovers: “There are people who consume all murder content indiscriminately, and another subset who only allow themselves to enjoy the ‘smart’ kind. [...] The prestige true-crime subgenre has developed its own shorthand, a language to tell its audience they’re consuming something thoughtful, college-educated, public-radio influenced.” I’ve never thought of myself as a lover of true crime. I would not even list it in my top five favourite genres. Yet I know exactly what Bolin is talking about, because I have watched and listened to nearly all the programs and podcasts she means: Criminal, OJ: Made In America, Wild Wild Country, The Jinx, Making a Murderer, the list goes on and on. I love these types of programs. I’ve downloaded and binged them and lost hours googling their details. But I’ve never really thought of them as “true crime” stories—or myself as a “true crime enthusiast.” Instead, I just think of them as stories, and myself as a viewer, neutral. This is no accident. In this kind of “highbrow” true crime, Bolin says, “the stance of the voyeur, the dispassionate observer, is thrilling without being emotionally taxing for the viewer, who watches from a safe remove.” As a white middle-class person who has never really experienced the direct interference of law enforcement in my life, these types of stories provoke my curiosity without ever forcing me to wrestle with the moral implications of my interest, or their addictiveness. They encourage my natural inclination, which is not to ask too many questions—of them, or of myself. In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis explains that media images of prison have “become so much a part of our lives that it requires a great feat of the imagination to envision life” without the carceral system. The ubiquity of the prison allows us to imagine it as a natural feature of the world like any other, something that cannot be changed or gotten rid of. It is this kind of imagined neutrality that allows many of us to accept and uphold oppressive systems without questioning them. As a genre that frequently relies on and repeats the same kinds of themes and structures (beginning/middle/end, good/evil, success/failure, victim/perpetrator, good cop/bad cop), true crime has historically played a major part in solidifying and entrenching our cultural conceptions of crime and punishment. No matter how much I understand about corruption or misconduct, the foundational elements in the true crime stories I consume often feel fixed, unquestionable: cops, jail, the legal system, all parts of a conveyor belt the real human “characters” in these stories travel along from beginning to end. But true crime is also a genre uniquely positioned to complicate and ultimately dismantle these perceptions. The pieces in Unspeakable Acts explore this potential; they examine the ways in which carelessness, bias or built-in systemic discrimination in the criminal justice system fail victims and perpetrators alike. They talk about what bullets do to bodies, what border agents do to immigrants, what police do to people, what parents do to children, what children do to each other. The book is tonally, stylistically, and thematically diverse. There is also not a single Black author in it. Only one of the contributors, Karen K. Ho, is not white. In a country whose prison system is a direct lineal descendent of the slave trade, in an era where Black writers like Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and Wesley Lowery win Pulitzer Prizes for crime reporting—and in the midst of a fresh and roiling pop-cultural awareness of the inherent white supremacy of law enforcement—it seems like a glaring oversight for a book that wants to demonstrate the expansive potential of true crime writing. Weinman is aware of this problem. She wrote a piece in BuzzFeed that came out just before Unspeakable Acts was released; she also tipped me off to Elon Green’s recent published piece about “The Enduring, Pernicious Whiteness of True Crime.” Throughout our conversation, she was eager to talk about her anthology’s shortcomings as well as its successes. She sees the book, she told me, as a kind of link between true crime’s past and what she hopes will be its future. Emma Healey: I really appreciated this book for the way that it worked to expand my understanding of what true crime can do. Sarah Weinman: I feel like you can’t—or I can’t—put together a collection or a book if I don’t have some kind of underlying argument, or reason for people caring. There had been earlier true crime anthologies; there had been a series called Best American Crime Reporting, which collected the year’s best in true crime. What I concentrated on was mostly that it was, like so many genres, male-centric and very white. True crime is an inherently white genre, which I’m hoping will change. It hasn’t gone far enough. Looking back to how popular Serial was, and how it opened the door to people who, perhaps like yourself, didn’t think of themselves as consumers of true crime... they weren’t aware that true crime is a really elastic, even nebulous genre. Which is generally what I think of all genres, that they’re very porous and they’re in conversation with other genres and that everything is sort of this big soup. That’s better, because it allows for all sorts of different ways of telling stories, or shifting focus and perspective. I remember reading Alice [Bolin]’s piece right around the time it came out, and almost cackling. I just thought, Yeah. We need somebody to interrogate this really close to the bone. I also gravitate more toward “highbrow” true crime, but I think it’s also important to recognize that there are traps in those types of programs and books and podcasts and documentaries. Just because it has a sheen of “respectability” or broadening narratives doesn’t mean that it’s not falling into all the same traps that traditional true crime is falling into. It seems to me as though true crime can be very much used to either pick apart some of these oppressive systems, definitions of “crime and punishment,” the carceral system, all that stuff. But, also, it can be used to reinforce those structures. It can absolutely be used to reinforce those things. And I think that certainly in the last few months, with protests and the various calls to defund police, [there’s a need] to figure out, “Well, who’s the carceral system for? And who is actually benefiting from the way that the criminal justice system is working or mostly failing to work? And who is not just not benefitting but is being absolutely failed by the way that the criminal justice system works?” Obviously in Canada there’s been so much talk about how to address proper reparations to First Nations. That’s gone to some degree, but clearly it cannot go far enough, because the harm that was done was just orders of magnitude more than we’re able to comprehend. It’s the same thing in the States, with respect to Black and brown and other persons of colour. But especially Black people. We have 400 years of slavery that has to be reckoned with. The way that police were set up, which was essentially to enforce white supremacy… you can’t just snap your fingers and undo it. These are gigantic questions, and the structure of true crime storytelling has often not been well-equipped for addressing those gigantic-picture ideas. But in order to properly reflect what is happening in the world, we have to at least try. There are those more explicit ways that the genre can be set up to elide or ignore the complexity of a lot of these issues. As you mention in the book, people are attracted to a narrative that has a beginning and a middle and an end, certain tropes or types of characters. That is a thing the genre can be drawn towards repeating, that makes it sort of binge-able. But, also, there are less explicit ways that true crime can reinforce those structures, like how a story often has to go through certain channels before you can write about it. There have to be official documents, or transcripts, or people who have gone through the criminal justice system before you can report on what has happened to them. There are some very successful examples in this book of people critiquing those systems as they report on them, but to be writing about these systems and to be working inside of them and also to be actively working to deconstruct them at the same time… it seems like a difficult transition for the genre to make. When you take real-life trauma and pain and transform it into a story, what gets left out? Often, it’s the messiness. Let’s say you are a victim of sexual assault, or your family member was murdered. That is an abrupt thing that occurs, that act of violence, but the ramifications last often for the rest of that person’s life. And yet they still live, and they still have to function in the world, and sometimes they function quite well, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they do both at the same time. It’s this nonlinear way of living that I don’t think is necessarily reflected in a lot of true crime storytelling. I think it’s a little bit more reflected now, especially in modes of story that aren’t necessarily wedded to a neat and tidy ending, or they might live in the uncertainty a little bit more, or that focus more on the person to whom the worst thing has happened as opposed to the narrative put forward by law enforcement. Because as we continue to see over and over again, the inherent structure of law enforcement and the criminal justice system doesn’t really do a lot for people who are victims of crime. If anything, it can retraumatize them. The nature of interrogations can lead to the wrong person being arrested and spending many years in prison for a crime they may or may not have committed. I also think there hasn’t been enough focus on judges and how they’re frankly not necessarily equipped to deal with humans in administering the law. True crime is this conflict between what the law is supposed to do and isn’t doing, and humans and their understandable emotional needs, and damage. It’s this collision course, and sometimes worse things emerge from that as opposed to better ones. There was a conversation, I think it was the event that I did at Calgary Wordfest with Karen K. Ho, who was one of the contributors. She had brought up that while she was working on the story that became “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge,” having never reported out true crime, she didn’t really know what the tropes were. But it also meant that she didn’t necessarily get the access to court and to the cops that more traditional crime beat reporters might have. I think that was for the better, because the focus was more on the family and people around the family, and her own experiences in the community. And frankly, those are stories that haven’t been told enough. We need more of that. What do you think needs to happen for true crime to become an expansive and flexible genre that works to critique these systems and center the stories of victims and the people who are oppressed by them? And do you think that will happen? Given the way things are now, the “true crime boom” that’s been building over the past few years, and the [ways] people are currently rethinking their relationships to these systems, do you think things will change, or go back to the status quo? The true crime industrial complex is really stubborn and hardy. That’s why [in the book’s introduction] I say that true crime has basically been in a moment for centuries, because humans have always been fascinated by blood and gore and extreme behaviour, and people doing the worst possible things that they can imagine. Like, I love what Dateline does, and what 20/20 does, but they have a certain genre formula and I don’t see that changing. They’re not suddenly going to become much more enlightened. But I think representation everywhere is a constant source of conversation and hopefully change, and that has to happen in true crime as well. That was why I wrote the BuzzFeed piece. Because in the wake of the recent protests, I was looking at Unspeakable Acts and just really being brought home that there’s one nonwhite writer and no Black writers. When Black creators get a chance to tell crime stories, what kind of stories are they telling? The more that we have crime stories that reflect the communities who are most impacted, written and produced and created by the people who are most impacted, I think that it will just lead to [the kinds of] stories that are missing right now. If I, a white lady, want to pursue a story involving Black victims, it means that I have to gain the trust of this community. Not that it’s impossible, but they have no reason to trust me, the interloper, in a way that they might be more forthcoming with someone who is part of that community, and understands things that outsiders can’t. In that BuzzFeed piece you mentioned Serial specifically—how it handled its subject very differently than other things like it had done in the past, but also how it was really missing a key understanding of the communities and the cultural nuances at the heart of the story. That’s an interesting thing about the genre as a whole. You can be critiquing the system, seeing part of it for what it is, and missing this whole other crucial aspect of it at the same time. As a journalist I really try hard to be as morally culpable as possible, because, as I’ve said on more than one occasion, I’m essentially contacting someone or cold-calling them or trying to get in touch with them to spill their guts about the worst thing that ever happened to them. And in order to do so I can’t just go in like some callous, parachuting whatever, because they’re gonna clam up. And frankly, why should they tell me anything? I’m not entitled to their story, and no one is [required] to share anything. It’s really important that I keep that in mind, and also just try to be as open and transparent and clear about what may happen if they talk to me, and what could happen if the piece publishes. You can never predict everything and anticipate everything, but we live in an age where everything is even more under scrutiny the moment it’s published, and to not walk sources through that is, I think, a real problem. You talk in the book about the ethically thorny proposition of consuming true crime. Do you feel like writing it is also an ethically thorny proposition? I think they’re connected. I mean, I don’t think you can necessarily divorce the writing or the creating of true crime from the consumption of it. I’ve been fascinated by crime since I was a little girl. I would read up on unsolved murders of sex workers in my hometown, or the murders of girls in and around eastern Ontario that we now know were committed by Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo. To know that Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, among others, were very close to my own age… there’s this identification with the victim. That’s something you do. But what does that actually mean, to “identify with the victim?” Is it real identification, or are you just creating some artificial link between yourself and these girls? These are just important things to come into. To be mindful that, yes, you’re trying to be as ethically sound as possible, but journalism itself is an ethically thorny enterprise. Anytime that you turn real life into a story and it becomes closer to entertainment, there are always going to be these pitfalls. You might not be able to avoid them, but I think that awareness is always the first good step. What’s it been like for you, as someone who has been interested in true crime from a young age, to watch the evolution that’s been happening over the past five or six years as it’s moved into the mainstream? Like with everything I’ve become fascinated by that at first seemed like only a secret to me or a handful of people, once it becomes more “mainstream,” you become a lot pickier about what you consume. So, yes, I’ve probably listened at least in part to most every true crime podcast, but most of the true crime podcasts out there are not necessarily all that good. But that’s also a function of, I’m a journalist, so I’m going to gravitate more towards those that are reported with rigor and care and empathy, and that have real investigative chops behind them, as opposed to the podcasts where, you know, just a couple of people are talking. That said, one of the contributors to the anthology, Sarah Marshall, co-hosts this amazing podcast with Michael Hobbes called You’re Wrong About, where, yes, it’s two people talking, but the level of research and understanding and flipping scripts is so key. If someone wanted to describe Unspeakable Acts as You’re Wrong About: The Anthology, I wouldn’t put it past them. It’s part of the same overall conversation: rethinking things we thought we knew and seeing them in a different light. My hope is that if there ever is a follow-up anthology or some kind of collection, it would reflect the moment that we’re currently in and all of the conversations that we’re having and continue to need to have, and that the representation is a lot more accurate. I suppose that the collection that I put together is a bridge between how we saw true crime before and how we have to see true crime in the future. [Marshall’s piece, “The End of Evil”] felt like an excellent example of that. It really took something that I thought I knew the story of, and then dug deep to figure out what was actually going on inside of it. I thought it worked really well as a bridge inside the book from one side of it to the other, from the more narrative pieces to the bigger, broader ones. Structuring an anthology is always tricky in terms of what pieces should go where, but I felt like, with this one, I always knew that it had to have that three-part structure. It’s like, “Here are the traditional, excellent longform narrative stories. Then here’s the section where we talk about what true crime is supposed to be doing and how we narrate it and how it should make us uncomfortable.” And then it really opens up in the last section, just rethinking how we even see true crime, and what additional stories we might not necessarily fold into the genre, but we should be folding in. To go back to Sarah’s piece, until I read it I was massively disinterested in anything to do with Ted Bundy. Just because there was already so much that had been written or televised, and there were podcasts…. that [piece] was a trapdoor into seeing what happened in an entirely different way. Looking at the stories of the people who were harmed and decentralizing the myth of the serial killer. I wanted a story where we were talking about the American fascination with serial killers, but in a way where the script, again, was flipped. Something I kept seeing in the book was that anytime a person in any of these stories thinks of themselves as purely an observer or a bystander, they’re actually directly implicated. Like the people in that piece who come out to watch Ted Bundy’s execution. Or in [Rachel Monroe’s piece about a romantic scammer, “The Perfect Man Who Wasn’t”], where she gets tricked by the same man who scammed the victims she’s been reporting on. It seemed directly related to the way that I, as a white woman, have often thought about stories about crime and punishment. I think of myself as an observer when I’m actually directly involved in these systems. There’s so much magical thinking related to how we’re supposed to take in true crime. This idea of, I need to consume this story so that if something like that happens to me I’ll react differently. That’s a real problem because it assumes that somehow, whether you realize it or not, there’s some kind of inherent moral superiority in your reaction versus the person who an awful crime was committed against. Like, they’re suddenly worse on the behaviour scale than you are? No. So much of it is dumb random luck. I never think that I’m better than someone just because I haven’t been violently attacked. And frankly, all you have to do is look around, when one in three women have been victims of some kind of sexual assault. Everyone is in the same boat, there’s no moral superiority at all. So many of the most famous stories about serial killers often involve white women victims who are attacked out of nowhere, when actually the reality of crime is that many of the victims and also many of the people who are disproportionately arrested and charged with crimes are not white. As a white woman who has consumed those narratives, I’ve noticed there’s a weird tendency to center yourself as both someone who that could never happen to and someone who is constantly in danger. When really my life has not been touched by the vagaries of the criminal justice system in the same way many other people’s lives have been. It’s not just luck that these things haven’t happened to me. It’s a tremendous amount of privilege. Absolutely. I’m 41, so that means I was a child in the ‘80s, and the ‘80s was a time when there was this idea of, “Don’t talk to strangers, terrible things may happen.” The Satanic Panic was going on, and there was this real disproportionate idea that terrible things can happen to young, impressionable white children. What is the damage that has been done from that idea? We still need to unpack what that actually means. There’s just so much more work that needs to be done on that scale, in terms of undoing it. I was thinking of one of the more recent series of CBC’s Uncovered, which I generally like a lot. There was one season on Martinsville, and the Satanic Panic that happened there. Even now, it seems like they’re not really quite sure what happened, not fully cognizant of this series of terrible procedural mistakes and the warping of this idea that you always have to believe the children. We’re still dealing with this conflict between wanting to indulge in believing in extreme behaviour, which I think leads to conspiracy thinking, versus just the everyday horror of what can happen inside a home. That also goes to things like intimate partner violence and violence within communities; somehow they’re just not deemed “worthy” enough for big true-crime storytelling. Or, one of my own pet peeves, which is just revisiting the same famous cases over and over again. I don’t need the 25th version of Ted Bundy unless it’s telling me something absolutely new and fresh. Can we find a new case, or a different case, that tells me something I don’t know? I think one of the reasons I gravitated a lot towards mid-20th century and more historical stuff was so I didn’t necessarily have to deal head-on with a lot of these things. I could just be like, “I’m dealing with history, so that’s a way for me to think about bigger pictures and try to retroactively apply them to now.” But at the same time, in doing that, it’s like, well, if I’m avoiding the present, what am I actually avoiding here? I think that’s worth interrogating for any journalist, but certainly for me. You’re working on a book now. Do you find that those questions are informing the work that you’re doing currently? I’ll definitely be taking that into account. The story is about the time when William F. Buckley, who founded the National Review and was an architect of the neoconservative movement, helped get this man named Edgar Smith off death row in New Jersey for the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl in the late 1950s. [The book] is about an instance where a major public figure believed in the innocence of a man on death row, and that led to real catastrophic results, because of flawed thinking. What does that do, and who gets damaged as a result? Who got lost? I’m hoping once the book is done and ready for publication, a lot of these questions will be fully explored. It definitely made me see the criminal justice system a little bit differently. I already was, I think, primed to do that, but I think it made me a little more radical about the mistakes that have happened in the pursuit of criminal justice, and how those mistakes keep getting made over and over. That reminds me of Leora Smith’s piece in the anthology [“How a Dubious Forensic Science Spread,” about the history of blood spatter analysis], which absolutely blew my mind. It was such a specific story but also it felt so applicable to so much of what we’ve all been thinking about the criminal justice system lately. It’s so easy to manipulate these systems, but it’s so much harder to unravel and undo the damage that can be done once someone has figured out how to do that. I have a master’s in forensic science, so I’m especially interested in stories about junk science. Forensic science is and should be a scientific discipline, with all of the usual built-in checkpoints that scientific inquiry has. But the problem is that in the courtroom, accepting a technique as valid, it has to go through various hearings, and they’re not necessarily done by people who have a lot of scientific expertise, so it can be really gamed. That’s how junk science can get entrenched. But it’s also about magical thinking. I think a lot about lie detector tests. You can never get that through a courtroom, and yet government organizations like the FBI and the CIA still rely on them for interviewing employees. It’s ridiculous to me! This is not a technique that should ever be anywhere, and yet people are still believing that it has some value. It’s like chasing a white whale. Like, “Well, maybe we can find the lie-detector test that is scientifically accurate.” You might as well be a psychic. But ultimately, the techniques aren’t the issue, it’s human interpretation. Humans get involved in anything, it can lead to mistakes, it can lead to biases, it can lead to all sorts of problems. I think that’s what Leora’s piece brilliantly illustrates. Forensic science is in the middle of its own reckoning, and I think that’s going to continue. That binge-able idea of a straight narrative with a beginning and a middle and an end where there’s a good person and a bad person... that’s the sort of magical thinking you’re talking about. It’s embedded in the ways so many crimes are actually treated and prosecuted. Humans crave narrative, and that’s absolutely true in the criminal justice system. We have an adversarial system, it’s, “Whose story is better, whose story is more believable, who is more credible?” And that creates a lot of problems, especially when the wrong person is deemed “credible.” If we can get away from that and accept the nonlinearity of what actually happens with crimes, especially violent ones, and construct narratives that better reflect that, we are ultimately going to be better off.
I knew we were only going to Rulo to make up for his getting so drunk he slept in. Rulo was an apology.
Phil and Dale were too drunk to pick me up when they said they would that morning. I didn’t know Dale was coming so I was only mad at Phil. I texted him, “Dude, not cool” from the conference center in Nebraska City where I was a visiting lecturer. They showed up three hours late. I’d already checked out of my room, briefly having an altercation at the front desk. They’d tried to bill me extra because they thought Phil was my spouse, which he most certainly was not. I met Phil on a volcano thirteen years ago. The volunteer trip was packed with sing-songy optimistic youth from across upper-middle-class North America. He was the only other teenager struggling with the no smoking rule. I was seventeen and sitting at a long wooden table reading Charles Bukowski’s The Pleasures of the Damned when he introduced himself. Looking back now, I can see why Phil pegged me as someone he’d get along with. He told me he was from Nebraska and that his dad was a real-life poet. He pointed at my Bright Eyes shirt and said he personally knew Conor Oberst. He was trying to impress me. It worked. Until then I’d never lived anywhere outside of Fonthill, Ontario—a conservative small town predominantly known for electing a home-schooled 19-year-old as a member of provincial parliament. I didn’t know there were poets who weren’t dead or that you could just know Conor Oberst the same way you know the mail carrier or the cashier at the corner store. As an extension of knowing Phil, I came to imbue Nebraska with an esteem similar to what someone more cultivated would’ve attributed to 1920s Paris. He was beautiful. Thinnish. Curly wheat-blonde hair. A romantic drawl. Well-dressed but ungroomed so his good looks seemed totally accidental. There was never any romance between us. We’d joked about having a sham wedding so I could get American citizenship and he could throw a party but his girlfriend asked us not to. Our friendship was simple but close. We made each other laugh. We had the same spirit. Something in both of us resisted containment. I saw my childhood in his Omaha. He saw himself in my stories of Fonthill. We both listened to Saddle Creek. He was my brother. I still wonder how my life would be if I’d stayed in Omaha last year, a place where, for a month, I’d easily, temporarily fashioned a happy life for myself, instead of returning to Toronto where I’d always felt stuck and unhappy. *** When the boys finally appeared in the parking lot in a rusty pickup, they had Sushi with them. Sushi was the name given to the three-legged pug by the Insta-ho she was rescued from. It was the only name she’d answer to when she arrived at Phil’s house, extremely traumatized. She was the most amicable creature I’d ever met; cuddly, quick witted, unfalteringly loyal with an astounding memory for each person she encountered. When I opened Phil’s front door after a year away, she greeted me with a stuffed beaver like a little diplomat. “I’m sorry. I fucked up and lost my phone. But we’re going to Rulo.” Phil had bags under his eyes and smelled like my father, a functional alcoholic who died when I was twelve. I couldn’t contain my smile when he said Rulo. Even if everything in his body language—his slumped posture, his faded expression and the way he anxiously ran his hands through his hair—indicated he didn’t share my eagerness. I knew we were only going to Rulo to make up for his getting so drunk he slept in. Rulo was an apology. He didn’t want to go to Rulo. I did. Dale also smelled like my father but ten times more father-y. “Hey girl, wassuuuuppp…” He was wearing his uniform of camo but had switched from a tie-dye tee to a plaid button-up. Dale had soft dark eyes and gorgeous black hair that fell beneath his toque in loose curls. He was always covered in dirt and paint. He looked like redneck Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He frequently showed up to Phil’s house unannounced to nap on the couch and then leave. A year ago, during my first trip to Nebraska, Dale had held my hand right before he leaned over the bar and guzzled booze from the tap while the bartender had her back turned. The staff at O’Leaver’s Pub made him take out the garbage and as they laughed at him, he laughed at himself. Outside, he’d asked me about why I was in Omaha and, mistaking his midwestern niceness for earnest curiosity, I started blabbering on about sexual assault. “C’mon man, that’s not what you fuckin’ lay on a person.” When the three of us went back to Phil’s, I sat on the cold stairs in the front yard until Dale was gone and didn’t talk to him for the rest of my trip. Phil didn’t invite him over. Without further conversation, he knew not to invite himself in or nap on the couch until I’d left the country. As I’d unloaded my suitcase in Phil’s kitchen after arriving for this trip three weeks ago, I heard a knock on the backdoor. “Hey girl, wassuppp...” I recognized Dale’s drawl. He was shaking a jar of weed in the window. I turned the knob and he pulled me into his chest in a long hug. He smelled like melted plastic and cheeseburgers. When he used the bathroom the scent of cheeseburgers permeated the modest bungalow. He pulled out two minuscule bottles of Jameson from a pocket inside his jacket and we took shots in the living room at ten in the morning before he collapsed into his nap. I wanted to remember him as he appeared in that moment, only a nose and a mouth wrapped in a perfect cocoon of camo. He heard the camera on my phone because I’d foolishly left the sound on. “Are you saving that for the spank bank?” He grinned. Later, on the way to Baker’s Supermarket where I needed to buy shampoo and conditioner, Phil made the decision to instead turn into O’Leaver’s for a quick drink and I instinctually knew there’d be no supermarket and I wouldn’t be showering that night. The bar wrapped around the bartender, Jodeen, like a rectangular C. Old records had been stapled to the wall but Dale’s eyes were narrowly focused on the tap and its proximity to Jodeen. I confessed to Dale, “I didn’t expect to see you again after the way things left off.” “You couldn’t get enough of that hot Nebraska ass, wassuppp…” “Like you’re not into me.” Under the counter, he folded his hand into mine like I was an instrument he used to play and just decided to pick up again. “You’re making me hard.” “Oh yeah, you want to know how I’d suck your dick?” He did, so I told him. A quiet fell between us. “Do you want to see my rabbits?” he asked. I did. He let go of my hand to retrieve his phone from his pocket and show me photos of the rabbits he’d killed. They were lined up in a neat row in the back of the pickup. *** In the conference center parking lot, Dale eyeballed my blazer and nametag as he loaded my suitcase into the back. The blazer is a thing I wear to signify that I’m no longer the farmer’s daughter from Fonthill, Ontario. Instead, I am a serious academic. Except my hair was braided in pigtails like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, one braid obscuring my name and the words Visiting Faculty. Nebraska City disappeared behind us as we pummeled down a highway between field after field. Sushi nestled into Dale in the backseat. I passed him a can of Coors from the half-finished six-pack at my feet before opening one for myself. Phil already had his beer tucked between his legs beneath the steering wheel. The corn harvest had passed. All around us the land lay flat and golden in the sunshine. “It’s warm,” Phil observed as Sushi made her way from the backseat to my lap and then to his. She looked like she was trying to drive the pickup. “Global Warming,” I remarked. Dale piped up, “I’m all for it! 2020! Say stuff just to piss people off! Wassuppp…” “We need to stop by St. Deroin so Dale can renew his hunting license,” said Phil. “It’s a ghost town with a nature reserve. You’ll like it. Then we can head to Rulo.” I was troubled by gnawing guilt. The boys had told me there was an abandoned cult compound out in Rulo. I think to impress me with their knowledge of Nebraskan secrets. And I’d been impressed, slipping back into my embarrassing writerly impulse to follow stories, and nagged them to take me. It wasn’t extraordinary for them to propose long drives in the abstract. I don’t think they often played host. Omaha didn’t attract many Canadian tourists. Phil and Dale were listing places we could go: Kansas City because Phil had never been, Chicago to surprise Phil’s ex-girlfriend, the ranch in Iowa where we’d flipped a truck the year before. Sometimes when Phil was excited he made promises that were hard to deliver on: last year he’d said we’d drive to Arkansas, Texas, New Orleans. The boys grew quiet on the subject, their expressions increasingly repulsed by my blossoming curiosity. It was apparent to me that something had been left unsaid. Whatever had happened in those farmlands all those years ago was so unspeakable that the boys didn’t even bother to try and explain. Instead, they returned to their beers, signaling to me to stop asking so many questions. *** There was no one in the permit office so Dale slid his application for his hunting license into a lonely black mailbox. We split a pack of Marlboros between us as Phil swerved between the trees. Dale expressed his anguish at lost trees—maybe they’d been eaten by deer but he suspected they’d been burned down by the rangers. “You sound really upset about missing trees for someone who loves global warming,” I noted as he lit a joint. He exhaled and responded, “Wassuppp…” “Why didn’t you talk to me over Christmas?” *** A week earlier, over the Christmas break, I’d messaged Dale. Phil had flown to New Jersey to visit his sister for the holiday, leaving me alone in Omaha. On Facebook chat the message to Dale had gone seen, but unacknowledged. I partly wanted to see Dale for love of all-things-Dale but, more pressingly, I was scared. An English literature graduate student, with whom I’d had one conversation about modernist poetry, sent me a song he wrote about me. Then a poem he wrote about me. Then, finally, a message about how knowing someone as lovely as me had made it easier for him to kill himself. He knew I was staying at Phil’s house. My phone only connected to 9-1-1 in Toronto. Everyone in my Nebraska-circle was on vacation. It wasn’t that Dale was particularly noble or chivalrous, but that he was the only person left in Omaha. I resented that one person had the power to redefine an entire city for me, an entire state even. My paranoia fueled my imagination about what this grad student, with his embarrassing tweed jacket and his ugly thick glasses and his bullshit love for bullshit T.S. Eliot, could be capable of. I didn’t message Dale more than once because I didn’t want to come across as needy even if I was in need. The house seemed larger without people in it. I kept checking the front window to see if the grad student’s car was parked outside. None of the guns on the wall were loaded. At night, I slept with Sushi cradled to my chest like a newborn. She was a good dog. She was a bad guard dog. I was frightened and alone. Dale had a way of speaking slow and fast at the same time, drawing out his vowels but leaving no spaces between words, “Oh damn, I gotta get better at that thing. I don’t say nothin’ to nobody, wassuppp…” I turned to face him in the backseat. “I think it’s because you’re scared of girls.” To this Dale offered only a grimace. “I bet you like my pigtails,” I added, slow and deliberate, “and that scares the shit out of you.” The cold of his fingers slid from my left shoulder, across the back of my braid, neck, other braid, to my right shoulder. We stopped along the shore of the Missouri River. Phil filled a paper cup with water for Sushi as Dale pointed out the best fishing spots for this fish or that fish. A group of tourists from some eastward city huddled around him. He named what had changed and what had stayed the same, where the embankment had swelled and where it’d retreated. I pulled out my phone to take a video, “Tell me what river this is, Dale.” His mood shifted. “I don’t know.” “Oh, leave him alone,” hollered Phil. “You know he’s afraid of girls.” “There ain’t no river,” Dale asserted as navy waves paddled southward behind him. *** On the outskirts of Rulo, we stopped at a Runza drive-through to get burgers, Sushi charming the cashiers in the window, before pulling into a liquor store beside a hardware store. Phil tossed the butt of his smoke out the window. “There’s a good reason they put the liquor store beside the hardware store.” “To murder women?” “No,” Dale shot back, a little offended. “To make it fun to build houses!” As we drove on, the land stretched outward like a glorious yellow cape. We turned onto a dirt road. I gripped the seat beneath me, remembering last year when Phil and I’d accidentally flipped a truck in a farmer’s field, hiking three hours back to camp. “Dale slept in your bed last night, so when we get back we’ll have to change the sheets,” said Phil as the truck bent into a sharp turn on the muddy path. “I jerked off all over it,” added Dale, the fields growing into bushels of great dead crop that caressed the sides of the truck. They reminded me of my grandparents’ orchard in autumn, the fertile hills of Niagara. I’m not from here, I had to remind myself, as I saw familiar memories in this new place to which I pledged no allegiance and where I had no previous history. We parked in front of a sign that read No Trespassing. It was tied in the middle of a chain that hung between two wooden posts on either side of the dirt road. Dale hopped the chain with ease but Phil seemed reticent to go inside. “Are there people there?” asked Phil, trying to not sound afraid. I was more brash. “Are there people still living there? Do they have guns? What if they call the cops on us? I’m not American.” “Naw,” said Dale lighting another joint, “Sign’s just so insiders can keep outsiders outside but ain’t nobody goin’ to get ya, little girly. Nobody’s here.” Sushi scurried beneath the chain while Phil stepped over one foot at a time. I opted to duck beneath the chain like the dog while Phil and Dale lifted it over my head to honor my humanity. “Just don’t tell anyone we were here,” Dale added. “The locals aren’t big on folks comin’ here and gettin’ into their itty gritty.” Dale comfortably navigated the path lined with thick woods, pointing to the talon tracks and proclaiming there’d been a parade of wild turkeys, pointing at spots of shit and saying “deer” or “coyote.” Phil and I followed, but Sushi lingered at the sign, whimpering like a toddler who’d just tumbled on the floor and was more startled by the sudden jolt of gravity than actual pain or injury. “Soosh,” Phil called and hit his thigh. “Come here Sushi!” She ran to him but her skip was a beat slower than normal. She seemed nervous as she circled around Phil, sniffing fallen branches. She barked at empty air. “Sushi, stop barking,” said Phil. “Something’s got her spooked.” Phil had a habit of expressing his feelings by attributing them to Sushi. Along the path to what was once a compound, I envisioned my aunt. She hasn’t interacted with news outside her church in over three decades. I pictured her modest skirt, her hair fashioned into a pragmatic bun of grey ringlets, carrying a bag of grains to my uncle whose beliefs are so extreme he’s only allowed to preach to those with late-stage Alzheimer’s in the Christian Fundamentalist retirement homes. Yet, I wasn’t from there. I had to keep reminding myself, this was my first time in Rulo. We passed a silver silo with a faded sign mfs Stor-Age The World’s Grainkeeper before arriving at a grey aluminum building with a rusted-over baby blue door that was freckled by bullet holes. There was a fork in the dirt trail with one route going around the building and into the woods. Phil followed the other path, which stopped at the three cement stairs leading to the baby blue door. The wheat crept up the grey metal siding. An industrial sign reading FARM STEEL had halfway fallen and hung on a crooked angle near the middle of the roof. Phil haphazardly climbed the three steps and opened the door. A burst of light. Sushi pummeled forward but was startled to find there was no floor on the other end. She squealed and Phil caught her before she could fall in. He held her close, pressing her heart to his and kissing her brow but she was inconsolable, wriggling and gasping in his arms, so he slowly lowered her feet to the ground. She retreated backward, screeching as if she’d been burned. “This is fucked,” said Phil, again picking up Sushi and backing away. My stomach hurt. I’d never seen her behave like that. As I moved toward the building, Dale stepped backward and turned away, as if the sun setting over the hills were more interesting to him than these relics of some forgotten sham-religion. I reached out my hand. The door was cold as I opened it. Another burst of light. Inside, the floor had entirely given way to the floorboards beneath. Half of the posterior wall was missing so the framework—wooden rectangles adorned with dangling electrical wires—had a shadowy overlay that shifted into new eerie shapes as each cloud changed the angle at which sunlight entered the building. Perhaps it could be guessed there’d been a flood but, truly, no natural disaster could account for the pattern of destruction inside. It was as though something not of this earth caused the structure to implode. Sushi was still crying. This place, this breathtaking expanse of country, what some had called Heartland and others’ God’s Land, was not responsible for the maleficent possession that I’d sensed, the wind blowing pebbles in peculiarly precise circles around my boots. Something deeply unnatural and evil had transpired here. I could feel it. “Dale, how long did the cult live here?” He’d been singing Willie Nelson with his back turned to me. “I’m uh not sure uh maybe fifteen years. Maybe longer. I don’t know.” “How long ago was that?” “Eighty-five. It’s been a while.” I think if I’d known then what I know now I would have behaved differently. I don’t think I would have pushed to go in the first place, nor accepted the trip as an apology. I wouldn’t have been so presumptuous as to believe the reason Dale wasn’t looking at me was that he was afraid of girls. *** In the early 1980s, Michael Ryan, a white supremacist with a distrust of all earthly authority, especially the government, founded the YHVH cult on Rick Stice’s farm in Rulo, Nebraska. Rick’s support of Michael Ryan, who’d honed his views by studying the Christian Identity Movement, was strongly informed by the financial hardship that hit his family as the American economy was becoming less dependent on the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Rick’s wife had received a terminal cancer diagnoses and he was at a loss for how to support his three children. As many do in times of desperation, Rick turned to God. Rather quickly, Michael Ryan attracted a following of 21 members. They stole farming equipment from neighboring communities to support themselves and stockpiled weapons—30 semi-automatic rifles, 15 machine guns, 150,000 rounds of ammunition, $250,000 worth of stolen farm machinery, several hundred bags of charcoal for making bombs—to fight the Battle of Armageddon which they believed would take place in Nebraska. As Rick’s wife died, Michael secured four wives of his own. The leader became increasingly agitated and paranoid. Each day, he’d read from the list of names of children on the compound and pick one to reprimand for whatever he could argue had angered Yahweh: generally small, accidental infractions like speaking out of turn or breaking the band of a watch. He’d lash out at women who looked at him the wrong way and eventually separated them from the men entirely, forbidding communication between genders. The women were barred from using the communal telephone and made to wear dresses, while the men were promoted to privates, princes and high priests. Finally, Rick approached Michael to say that he was uneasy about the messages he claimed to be receiving from Yahweh. The leader, who’d grown jealous of Rick’s ownership of the farm, eagerly demoted him to the status of slave and chained him outside. Michael then insisted Rick’s five-year-old son, Luke, was a child of Satan because he’d cried too much over the death of his mother. In a photograph published in the Falls City Journal, Luke Stice has thin light hair, sweet downturned eyes, and oversized ears that protruded from either side of his pudgy cheeks. Michael wrote “666” on the boy’s forehead in bright red. He declared Luke was not a boy but a dog. He called him “doggy” as he took off his clothes, forced him to roll around in a snowbank and antagonized him with a bullwhip. He called him “mongrel” when he shot him in the arm with his .30-06. He wrote “DOG” on Luke’s back before repeatedly submerging his head in the warm bathtub. He ordered his parishioners to abuse both Rick and Luke, going so far as to force father and son to fellate each other while other members watched. Not long after, Michael found himself fighting with one of his followers who he believed to be jealous of his archangel spirit. As he stormed out of the trailer, he casually grabbed five-year-old Luke and threw him into a book shelf, breaking his neck. His father was again chained to the front porch to ensure he wouldn’t hold him or comfort him or take him to a hospital. Luke died alone that night. The following morning, Rick swaddled his son’s body in a yellow blanket. He buried him where Michael said Yahweh had instructed: in a shallow grave in front of the hog barn. The ideology that Michael Ryan used to justify his abuse of Luke also manifested in the doctrines he instilled in his own son, Dennis. Dennis cried when his father prophesized they’d have to kill for Yahweh in the Battle of Armageddon. He said he was afraid. To this, Michael shouted “Dammit, you’ve gotta be willing to kill for God if that’s what God wants.” He passed his gun to him and added, “Son, one day when all this is over, when Armageddon is over and I’m dead and gone, then you can sit under an oak tree and cry over having to kill so many people. Until then, I don’t ever want you to cry again.” Shortly thereafter, Dennis shot James Thimm, a loyal follower, in the face. James survived the gunshot wound but was tortured by Michael and Dennis for days—they broke his bones, raped him, forced others to rape him, repeatedly sodomized him with a shovel, chained him in the hog barn and forced him to have sex with a goat before stomping on his chest until he was dead. If I’d known the baby blue door was not the door to the home where the women slept peacefully in long romantic white garments, as I’d naively imagined, but was in fact the door to the hog barn where a young man and a child had been tortured to death, I do not think I would have opened it, stuck my head inside, taken a photo and giddily posted it on Instagram while flattering myself that Dale’s cold shoulder was a reflection of his weakness in character and not mine. If I’d known this little boy had been called a dog and treated as one should never treat a dog, I would have trusted Sushi’s instincts and not opened the door. Certain experiences stay with you like a bad infection. I couldn’t sleep last night: visions of a child screaming in a field. Some doors we cannot close. *** I followed Phil who followed Dale along the path to the water. We only had an hour left of day. Raptors flew near the earth, the patterns on their brown and white feathers visible to the naked eye. Phil cautioned Sushi not to get eaten. Dale named each bird specifically and explained how he’d shot and killed this one or that one. He told me how to follow prints, which direction he’d be heading if he’d not forgotten his gun. In that moment, he seemed to me totally unafraid, the closest I’d ever come to believing invincibility a plausible trait in a person. In a place that had been ruled by fantasies of apocalypse, I was entirely certain if he didn’t succumb to alcoholism or drug addiction, Dale could easily survive anything. We picked up our pace as we returned to the hog barn. The bullet-marked door was still half open. Day was fading. None of us wanted to be in the compound after sundown, especially Sushi, who charged forward with the tenacity of a horse. The truck appeared as a beacon at the top of the hill. This time we all walked around the chain instead of over or under. Dale hijacked the front seat, so I settled in the back as Phil sped the car in reverse and Dale whined that he was driving too fast for him to roll another joint. “Dude, how many of those have you been smoking?” asked Phil, part-concerned but mostly just impressed. “Oh, just a couple here or there. Wassuppp…” It occurred to me then that Dale hadn’t said wassuppp the entire time we were on the compound. I was certain the only reason he said it so much was that he was actually shy and insecure and used wassuppp to fill the void between what he was sure of and what he wasn’t sure of, to turn whatever he said into a joke. The box of beer cans that had been purchased in the place beside the hardware store was now nearly empty. Dale was trying to enter into a profound state of delirium where he’d feel more at peace with his thoughts and at home in his body. He insisted we stop at a small bar in a shack beside the Rulo Bridge, near the border with Kansas and Missouri, the nape of Nebraska. We left Sushi in the truck where she was snoozing. Phil insisted we only stay for one drink. My flight was leaving in a few hours. Dale wanted me to miss my flight and freefall with him into a pervasive fog of vivid intoxication. He reminded us not to talk about the cult grounds with locals. I was already drunk from all the beer we’d had in the truck but not so drunk I was capable of anything fantastical or outlandish. The bar was small and square and full of gun-carrying men except for the two women working. The women looked as if there’d been something to survive and they’d survived it. “I’m going to need I.D.s from all y’all,” the larger of the women said while turning her palm upwards and beckoning to us with her swollen fingers. First, she checked Phil’s. Then Dale’s. When she got to mine, her eyes flickered between my blazer and my name tag. “Mine’s from Toronto,” I said, handing over my driver’s license but keeping my purse open. “She’s Canadian,” announced Phil. “Stuff looks a bit different there.” “Let me know if you need to see my passport,” I added, a little too eager to be helpful. A sign on the wall read NOTICE, THIS PLACE IS POLITICALLY INCORRECT. The “in” of the “correct” had been Sharpied into a black square, WE SAY MERRY CHRISTMAS, ONE NATION UNDER GOD, WE SALUTE OUR FLAG & GIVE THANKS TO OUR TROOPS, IF THIS OFFENDS YOU LEAVE. The LEAVE was in larger font than the rest and pointedly stoplight red. “What brings you to Rulo from Canada?” asked the woman. Remembering what Dale had told me about locals not liking trespassers on the compound, I responded, “I’m a visiting professor at the University. I was just lecturing over in Nebraska City.” “Hmmm,” she hummed as if she was trying to decide if she liked or hated me based on these few facts alone. Dale was folded into himself, a bundle of camo in a room with nothing to camouflage into. “Naw, she took us to poke around ‘em cult grounds up there. Wassuppp…” Luckily, the woman was more entertained by Dale’s flagrant drunkenness than anything. She cackled, pouring our shots and serving our beers before sauntering to the far corner to watch the football game with the other woman and the old drunk men. We all took a shot of Jameson, tapping the bar with the bottoms of our glasses before emptying them into our mouths. “What’s that?” I asked Phil, pointing to a smaller TV showcasing what looked like a bingo-themed video game: a series of balls and squares, some red and some blue, that were numbered between one and eighty. “Keno. Worst odds in America. Wanna play?” “Sure.” I bet two of my seven remaining American dollars and lost. Phil bet two as well. He also lost. Dale bet one hundred American dollars. “This is foolish,” Phil commented, and Dale promptly sneezed mucus that ran across his lips and straggled in long lines dripping down his filthy jacket. “Jesus Christ man, get it together,” said Phil, handing him our only napkin. It was not enough napkin for all of the snot on his face. The woman behind the bar noticed and did not react at first but, after he carelessly placed the soiled tissue on the bar and sneezed two more times, she understood what a pathetic specimen he was and handed over a stack of fresh napkins while snickering into the back of her arm. “You’re gross, dude,” said Phil. “Also, you lost.” He pointed at the Keno screen. “Wassuppp…” sang Dale, wiping the last of the mucus from his face but allowing the rest to settle into dim stains on his clothing. “I gotta piss.” Phil disappeared behind the corner near the ATM machine. For the first time since Omaha, Dale and I were alone. An uneasy quiet fell between us. Was Dale wondering why I’d begged to go to the cult grounds? Was he relieved we’d gone? Did he regret losing his money to the Keno? Perhaps he had no thoughts at all but held the simple admirable desire to get fucked up. “Wassuppp…” he sang at my face. I looked back at him: he was so silly, so dumb, so redneck. I smirked and leaned into his jovial round cheeks, half-whispered in his ear, “I scare you more than any wild bird.” The room seemed darker. It was as if the music had stopped but I don’t think it did. He didn’t laugh. He was still, maybe stunned, shell-shocked even. Then his soft brown eyes intensified. I’d tickled some part of him. He put his hand in mine under the bar as was our way. We gently traced the rounds of each other’s grasp with our thumbs. He could be so soft. His softness was compelling to me because it had to be earned. He moved closer, and instead of kissing me, something he’d never had the courage to do, he began to knead the back of my neck with his fingers. He pressed hard, only narrowly avoiding the boundary between hard and too hard. It felt so comfortable I didn’t care if there were others around or if they were watching. He’d handled animals. He knew where to skin, how to cut a body. He understood how to break a bone so it wouldn’t bleed out and where to make an incision to avoid wasting the flesh. So too he understood where to push on my neck so I did not strangle but still felt the relief that came with pressure on this muscle or that. My breathing slowed. Now he only smelled like earth and weed and drink. I wanted to wrap myself in him. I pictured us in a little tent on the cult grounds, him unbuttoning his camo pants and slipping into me through my professional brown dress, his hand leaving traces of paint and dirt on my blazer. His warm eyes. His long dark hair. The trees. The grass. We’d be closer to nature where I’d always felt closer to God and, for however much I’ve been educated, I still believe in God. He’d keep me safe and we could live off what we picked or killed and be truly self-sufficient, working the land the same way my father’d tried, as my grandparents and great grandparents had done. I could quit my jobs. We could hide from both our governments. I could run from my student loans. I could write remotely or, better yet, never write again. I’d never have to talk to another writer again. No more poetry readings. I’d have quiet. Beautiful black night with no people or neon or internet or cars. Quiet. I leaned into the bar as he touched me. I was very wet. I wouldn’t have to move back to Toronto where the flashing lights of Bloor Street invade my room at all hours. Toronto, where the bar downstairs drums into my ears until dawn and people have so many opinions and phones ring and buzz and everything is swept into the alarming pace of constant movement. Maybe I wanted to return to a home that no longer exists, Fonthill gentrified and suburbanized by the urban sprawl. I could make love to Dale in fields as I had with the boys of my youth, before the world warmed and the ticks came and brought Lyme disease with them. Nobody mentioned ticks in Nebraska. It could be sweet and golden. What if I didn’t catch my flight? What if I curled into Dale who seemed to me, in that moment, an extension of a world I’d believed lost? We could live off the land. We could opt out of society. A country song transitioned into another country song. The dark behind my closed eyelids seemed sepia. I could wake up every morning with the sun and the wheat and be peacefully swallowed into the marigold hills of Rulo. It could be that easy, I thought. It could be comfortable, I thought. So comfortable. Comfortable was the last thought I had before my neck snapped backward, the skin of my forehead yanked toward my hairline, my back arched in a deep curve, my balance lost, arms waving like a bird in flight, a twist, the flickering light, the camo chest, the camo wrist, both my pigtails entwined within the screw-tight grip of Dale’s hard fist.
Talking to the author of Cuyahoga about geographic feuds, stories as coffins, and LeBron James.
You surely know the names of Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed, but do you know Big Son? Big Son, it is rumored, “rastled” a dozen bears, “drank a barrel of whiskey and belched fire,” brawled with Lake Erie for a fortnight and won. These are just a few of Big Son’s feats as chronicled in “Big Son’s Almanac,” a fictitious collection of tales embedded within Pete Beatty’s riot of a debut novel, Cuyahoga (Scribner). Narrated by Medium Son, Big’s little brother and the bard to his feats, Cuyahoga offers a snapshot portrait of frontier Ohio in 1837, when America was just a tadpole with twenty-two states. Set on the eve of an uneasy union between the sister townships of Ohio City and Cleveland, this novel features a motley cast of characters—enterprising storekeepers barking like carnival hounds, a whiskey-soaked Revolutionary War veteran named Dog, two gasbag mayors, and “spirits” like Big. Separated by the Cuyahoga river, the two townships collide over the question of a bridge and who ought to control it, which leads to such animosity the citizenry of Ohio City take up the slogan, “Two Bridges or None,” as a call to arms. This squabble over bridges actually happened and is just one of the ways Beatty masterfully blends the elasticity of tall tales with historical fact. This is most poignant in the case of Big, a local hero who is belittled into looking for a waged job because impressive feats, like rescuing maidens from a fire, don’t pay the bills. Told against the backdrop of the financial Panic of 1837, this novel is steeped in stubborn economic realities and unchecked speculative jubilation over seemingly endless real estate prospects and rising industry. I spoke to Pete Beatty about how he honed the narrator’s distinct, folksy voice, what LeBron James means to Ohio and this novel, why Medium Son is both a merchant of tales and a merchant of death, and what that says about writing. Connor Goodwin: What most stood out to me was the narrative voice of Medium Son, which is a kind of folksy frontier vernacular with odd grammar. How did you arrive at this voice and what all went into sculpting it just so? Pete Beatty: The voice is sort of the motor to the book. When I’m unsure where to go next as a writer, I always lean back on the voice and let that be the driver. The voice of Medium Son is a combination of early 19th-century Southwestern humor, not necessarily what you think of the American Southwest, but the same voice you hear in Artemus Ward, Sut Lovingood’s Yarns, and, of course, Mark Twain. It’s also cut pretty heavily with the Bible; I listened to the New Testament as recorded by Johnny Cash a lot while writing this book. Without realizing it, I think some of that diction, that circumlocutory way of talking, bled into my brain. There's a class of people in this book called "spirits." How would you describe them and the place they occupy in this fictional world? The idea of the “spirits” is very deliberately a precursor to a costumed superhero, but also a kind of stand-in for a celebrity. The German word “zeitgeist,” depending on how you want to translate it, literally means “spirit of the times” or “time ghost.” So, it’s someone who, in the case of Ohio in the 1830s, exemplifies or articulates something the people need to summon into existence. The same way Superman reflects the aspirations and imaginations of two young Jewish guys growing up on the far east side of Cleveland in the 1930s. Also, a big part of this book was—and this sounds a little weird, but—when I started writing it, LeBron James had just come back to Cleveland. Obviously there’s no basketball in the book, but what he represents and how he became this psychological rescuer of a whole region from their self-imposed self-esteem problem was on my mind. He didn’t fix it, but the Cavs won the title and it was a really big deal. It meant a lot and it was all possible because of LeBron. I love that you brought LeBron James into this. I want to talk more about Ohio in a second, but before I get to that I’d like to ask why you chose to mix the elastic aspects of a tall tale with the more stubborn economic realities of frontier life. The best example of this is Big searching for a job because heroic feats don't pay. You write, “The only income Big had ever known was wonder won by feats." What about this tension interested you? Did you set out to explore that dynamic or was it incidental? Have you ever heard of the expression “parking by braille”? Where you just bump into the other cars until there’s room for your car? I found novel-writing kind of like this. It was very much a process of guess and check. I realized I wanted to write this kind of superhero story and at the same time (I was living in Cleveland then) I looked at some history book and saw this (justifiably) forgotten event where two sides of the city got into a fight in the 1830s. That led to me asking what was it about 1837 that made people so uptight? Well, there’s this financial crisis caused by reckless banking and financial reforms made back in Washington, and I started to read everything I could get my hands on about the Panic of 1837. In the 1830s, what was then the frontier, banks were constantly collapsing, so storekeepers would often have a crib sheet and say, based on these banks, these notes are worth this much. The very idea of money was impressionistic. I’m intentionally kind of squiggly on this point—it is a historical novel, [but] I’m not doing history. I did not set out to try and sublimate the fiscal crisis of 1837 into my fiction, but it wound up happening. Is there any way you can parse for me what historical elements you wanted to remain intact and what aspects you were okay taking imaginative liberties with? What I wanted to capture with some of the more granular historical stuff was the sense of the permanent unfinished nature of American settler mindset. This sense of moving across this vast continent you’re in the process of expropriating for your own purposes and never really finishing anything. A sort of falling-down-the-stairs cadence of American history, where you’re inventing an economy as you go, you’re selling land in these crazy places, [and] every once in a while, the economic system just implodes and everyone’s broke. It’s really hard not to write historical fiction that does not point to some kind of order. To me, history is more like, look at all this stuff going wrong [laughs]. Could you briefly tell me what historical resources you used? Personal diaries? Newspapers? My dad used to work at the Western Reserve Historical Society and he let me in the newspaper room. I’m not entirely sure I was supposed to be there. Basically I read every newspaper in the mid-1830s they had in the historical society. Most of the newspapers were just ads, but there is a fair amount of news too. I read a fair amount of historical primary sources of letters and correspondence. A lot of it tends to be people trying to convince their friends and family to move to Ohio. So it has this boosterish feel to it. This is a novel about Big, but it's also about the city of Cleveland. Set on the eve of a union between two cities separated by the Cuyahoga, Cleveland and Ohio City, the two sister towns squabble over bridges and the possibility of a union. Can you briefly summarize the history behind the city of Cleveland as it appears in the book? I’d be curious to hear if that uneasy union can be detected in the Cleveland that exists today—like, is there beef between the East side and West side of Cleveland? Like a lot of post-industrial cities—Detroit, Toledo, Buffalo—Cleveland’s rationale for existence is location. It’s at the mouth of this big navigable river that connects to the Erie Canal system, so it’s a reasonable place to bring the ore from Lake Superior to Cleveland to use as steel. Turns out it’s not that sexy or cool to be on the Erie Canal in 2020 as opposed to 1820. But the city can’t move. Speaking of that falling-down-the-stairs energy, Cleveland has been downhill since the Great Depression. Government spending after the Great Depression and mobilization after World War II were the only things that juked Cleveland back into growth. Once that spending went away, Cleveland has been losing industry, good jobs, and a tax base pretty much nonstop for seventy years. When I think of Cleveland, I think of an unfinished place. I think of some place that got so big, so fast, and then, before it could even reckon with its bigness, the ground started to shift underneath its feet. Cleveland is not unique in that crisis, but to me it’s pretty poignant. As far as the East side-West side thing goes, I think it’s a much gentler rivalry now. In the distant past, when this book is set, people were swinging axes and trying to blow up a bridge. You present a complex relationship between storytelling and life and death. This is best embodied by Meed, the narrator, who is a merchant of tales, but also of death, because he sells coffins. Tall tales enhance their subjects, making them larger than life. But then you have this line where you say Meed, in writing this almanac of Big’s feats, is also making a coffin for Big. Can you elaborate on this dynamic of writing as a force of life and vitality and of writing as a kind of grave marker? You’re the first person to mention that line to me—I remember getting that line down and thinking, “Yeah, stories are coffins.” When we tell a story about someone, in a way, we kill them and put up a memorial. There’s a moment in the book I had a lot of fun writing, which is when the almanac about Big is being assembled and people are bringing in all these different versions that Big died. He’s not actually dead. I wanted to have that cartoonish energy of Wile E. Coyote falls off a cliff, explodes, crashes into a wall, and bounces right back. Each one of those little deaths has its own poetry. One of my favorite pieces of literature is The Iliad. Thirty-three percent of The Iliad is just descriptions of people dying: “gripped by the hateful dark,” “craved far more by vultures than by wives,” things like that. I wanted to stay with that vision in the book, to have death and destruction always sitting in the room. Slogans of bounty and profiteering are littered throughout the book, evoking a worldview animated by ideas of manifest destiny and a Protestant work ethic. You suggest that writing, too, can be a form of plunder. In what way do you see writing and storytelling as extractive or exploitative? I’m a white cis dude and I’m presenting a story of settling America. A major part of that story—what happened to the native inhabitants of Northeastern Ohio, and the entire continent, the entire hemisphere—is not mine to tell. In the 1830s in Ohio, there were still populations of Native Americans, and they were actively resisting the government’s attempts to relocate them, and experiencing hate and aggressive racial violence from white settlers. I recently read Claudio Saunt’s Unworthy Republic, which was a revelation for me in showing how closely tied the project of Indian removal was, in the North as well as the South, with slavery and white supremacy. In a way I feel like if I am going to write about Ohio in 1837, I have a moral obligation to highlight or center what was happening to Native Americans in that time and place. And I feel like I chickened out on that score. If I had to self-psychologize, I’d say I projected a bit of that guilt into that exploitative element of Meed’s storytelling. I tried to avoid that third rail of racial trauma because it’s not really what the book is about. It’s asking different questions. What do you do with a marvelous possession, to paraphrase Stephen Greenblatt? What do you do with the miraculous, the uncanny, with a brother who can leap a skyscraper in a single bound? What do you do with some weird preacher who can raise people from the dead? What do you do with this giant continent that you decided belongs to you?
Ebbing had perfect fetal recall.
What grown man can say that he married his own mother, and that although heartbreak was involved, no-one disapproved? At least not for the obvious reasons. Science, as well as anecdotal evidence, tells us we can’t recall our time in the womb let alone form memories before the age of two or three. But Ebbing could. Ebbing experienced things; some of which would have been better left mired in the swamps of infantile amnesia, swallowed whole by the alligators that patrol those brackish shallows. Ebbing had perfect fetal recall. In the beginning and at the end it’s all about the heartbeat. In between there is this temporal thing we cling to we call life. At three weeks Ebbing, as large as a poppy seed, experienced his own heartbeat. A vivid tapping against his microbe-sized chest wall—exhilarating, but also frightening. Was this him? Or something trying to escape? And close by, too close, another. A faint pinprick that was his first encounter with pain, followed immediately by yet another sensation, one that smoothed over the hurt. He felt it as a cat’s tongue, as warm wax. At eighteen weeks, two days, seven minutes and thirty-three seconds, Ebbing could hear. There wasn’t anything gradual about it. One moment nothing but physical sensations—the tapping, pricking, licking, floating—the next moment the sharp clack of castanets. Ebbing had an instant recollection of nights redolent with paprika fried potatoes and grilled sardines, an earthy-smelling woman leaning close, someone dancing, always someone dancing and singing off-key in the dark. A heartbeat besides his own joined in, a weak but distinct chiming, and over it all, an immodest banging, like the kettle drum in an orchestra. A celebratory boom boom boom boom that could be heard as well as felt throughout his blood stream. Maternal love as a victory march. And after that, the invasion of the world: One hundred and one trombones and a clarinet, a thousand scorching guitar licks of “Smoke on the Water” in numbing 4/4 time, the horrors of the pipe organ in the haunted mansions of God, frenzied banjos, dueling ouds and gamelans, the tinny pa rum pa pump um of toy snares, the itchy buzz of tissue on comb, the whistle of air through a blade of grass, the sonic-boom crack of a bullwhip splitting the air. With the collaborative effort of dawning hair follicles in his embryonic cochlea Ebbing learned to filter out the cacophony. His mother’s heartbeat, sometimes a harpsichord, which plucked pleasantly at his own, sometimes a dobro, causing him to tap his incipient toes, could now be heard above the din. But Ebbing could not mute that close-by insistent drone of the omnipresent bladder pipe. At twenty weeks in the womb they were both still blind, Ebbing and the girl who would have been called Bente. Together but apart, each in an amniotic sac like a goldfish in a plastic bag—a precarious position for both fetus and pet fish, depending on who’s doing the carrying. Each in its own placenta, a cosmonaut and an astronaut hurtling towards a Cold-War earth, their prematurely ejected landing pods on a collision course with each other. Houston, uh, Houston? Bente was the very definition of a bad roommate. Petulant and noisy, eating food clearly marked “Ebbing,” never cleaning up after herself, sprawling madly out in all directions, taking up more that her designated share of a finite space. Her heartbeat competed with Ebbing's. Rather than the mellow groove he now preferred, she insisted on a wild syncopation, causing their mother to rush to the doctor's office on more than one occasion. At twenty-two weeks, the one who would have been called Bente sounded like teeth on glass, the sharp grinding of a garbage truck down a war-ravaged roadway, that zany aunt—the life of the party—who loves to sing but is utterly tone deaf. Amidst this racket Ebbing could barely feel his own heartbeat, let alone hear it. The beloved mother was muffled by the atonal regurgitations of his twin who endlessly flailed and pressed too close. Ebbing, bereft, enraged, could see for the first and last time in his life. He actually saw red, or rather, witnessed it as a wild, hot flaring of crimson and carmine in front of which twisted and writhed ancient Pyrrhic dancers primed for battle, swords in hand. Their lust for victory infectious. He tugged at his own fleshy lifeline with spindly fingers, testing the resilience of the blood-ripe cord. Wrapping it taut around the one who would never be Bente, he played her like a old-time fiddle. She was his first instrument. The sounds of his sister’s weakening heartbeat were almost pleasant, a flutter-tongued flute. Their one and only duet. Ebbing would never include a flute in any of his compositions. She did not go without a fight. Her own alien fingers with their tiny, serrated nails scrabbled at Ebbing, clawing and shredding wherever she managed to make purchase. The only music in the hours that followed besides his own was his mother’s heart, a juddering klaxon. When he was a small boy, Ebbing loved sitting in his mother’s lap as she told the story of when she first heard his heartbeat. Better than even The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin or Horton Hears a Who. “You sounded like a panting dog, panting so fast and hard it scared me to death. ‘What’s wrong?!’ I asked Dr. Heppner. ‘What is wrong with my dear boy?!’ She told me nothing, nothing at all was wrong. That it was perfectly normal, and as the baby gets bigger the heartbeat would slow...” “Show me, show me!” Ebbing would chitter. And his mother panted and panted like a dog until they both melted into laughter. She never mentioned the one who would have been called Bente. Both his mother and father thought it better if Ebbing didn’t know. But sometimes in her heartbeat he could detect the profound melancholy of someone singing fado, the saddest music in the world. The specialists had never seen a pre-natal injury like it—both corneas so scarred that under a magnifying glass they looked like the surface of an ice rink after a play-off game. And no Zamboni in the world could repair this damage. Other than the blindness, the boy was perfectly healthy, perfectly normal. A few days after his fifth birthday Ebbing, a boy the other Kindergarteners called Froggy, was plopped on the bench in front of an upright grand in the downstairs den of the middle-aged widow across the street from his family home. The piano teacher played “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” with alarming conviction and then said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to learn how to do that?” Eyelids closed against his protruding orbs, Ebbing tapped at the keyboard with one finger, then spread his hands wide and played the notes he had begun composing before he’d even been born. In the corner of the room, on the shabby loveseat that had been banished to the basement years ago, sat his mother, heart swelling as the music burst through the confines of the room. At twelve, as a thin, red-headed kid in black tie and tails, Ebbing made his professional debut. Playing at first as an innocent floating inside the womb, lulling the audience into submission, creating a sense of false security with a pleasing Satie-like minimalism before releasing the hounds. A few of the older patrons stumbled towards the exits, mad dogs baying at their heels. In the front row of the Orpheum sat his proud but bewildered parents, his mother’s hands clutched her chest, no idea she was his living metronome. The word genius was bandied about. Five years later The Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt performed his first full orchestral composition, placental declarations in the dark. The orchestra had collaborated with György Ligeti, Steve Reich, Frank Zappa, and now the seventeen-year-old New Music wunderkind from Vancouver, Canada. But Ebbing wasn’t in attendance. He haunted his mother’s bedside at St. Paul’s Hospital. Her heartbeat was as strong as ever but her white blood cells were fleeing like villagers escaping a Viking raid, their shrieks tearing holes in the air, their hair alight. Ebbing tried to follow his mother’s heart, packed in ice inside a picnic cooler, as it was transported by helicopter from St. Paul’s to Surrey Memorial Hospital. Maybe it was the chop of the propellers, the screams of the gulls, the guttural coughing from the adjoining hospital room, his father’s gulping sobs, the sentimental Tin Pan Alley AABA refrain issuing from his own chest, but Ebbing couldn’t make out a single maternal note. The woman in the bed had disappeared as if she’d never been. This is where the music dies, he thought. At Mountain View Cemetery, Ebbing didn’t listen as an old family friend recited a bowdlerized version of Auden’s “Stop all the Clocks.” He was tuned to a distant frequency—he could hear it across the miles, a stately hum like a Theremin. It had started seven hours, 36 minutes and 8 seconds after his mother was declared brain dead. During those leaden hours Ebbing had been transported back to the womb, before he could hear, before he could even feel. He was less than three weeks old again; he might as well have been a poppy seed caught in someone’s teeth. Ebbing experienced the sound first as a vibration in his chest and he was born again. Patience was never the strongest of Ebbing’s qualities. But he waited until the steady, quiet hum began to oscillate, transforming into a more complex beckoning. At its highest registers he heard Jessye Norman performing the twin Sieglinde in The Valkyrie. He waited two years, never once approaching a piano during that entire time. Her name was Sanjeeta and she’d been born with a congenital anomaly that didn’t announce itself until she was twenty-two and soon to be married to a man from Haridwar whom she had never met. Her parents thought it a satisfactory match. His parents, learning about her defective heart, did not. Three years later her heart was traded for another and she spent two years and a half a morning recovering from the shame she had brought onto her family. Defect was not a word they with which they liked to associate. Sanjeeta was sitting in the garden when the back gate scraped open and a young man came in and bit by bit stole her borrowed heart. Her father called him The Blind Beggar. But it was he who was the beggar and could not afford to be a chooser. Sanjeeta’s mother found something too familiar about Ebbing’s music, as if she had heard it before but could not recall where. And that blind rhesus monkey by the river in Ayodhya when she was only twelve had looked at her the same way before baring its teeth. But her husband had decided. Ebbing’s father said she was lovely, but – (Meaning too old). His aunt said she was too old for him, and – (Meaning too brown). But what is old, to someone who has only ever experienced age as sound? What is skin tone, to someone who has only experienced colour through music? At age twenty, Ebbing lay in a hotel room with his new wife and ran his fingers along the thin, puckered seam between her breasts. She caught his hand and said, “My shame.” But all the virgin bridegroom could hear was a celebratory boom boom boom as he went tunneling into a place from which he would never emerge. Excerpted from The Beguiling by Zsuzsi Gartner, Hamish Hamilton 2020
The author of Luster on surveillance in the suburbs, writing the id, and the joy of Comic-Cons.
According to Sigmund Freud, the human psyche is divided into three elements: the id, super-ego, and ego. The id represents our uncontrolled and instinctual desires, the super-ego our moral conscience, and the ego mediates those two pulling forces. In her debut novel Luster (Bond Street Books), Brooklyn-based writer Raven Leilani plunges the reader inside the mind of a 23-year-old Black woman whose life is controlled by her id. Edie’s an aspiring painter who avoids painting, instead working in a low-level position at an editorial publishing house in New York City. She falls into a relationship with Eric, a white man twice her age who is an open-ish marriage. After Edie can no longer afford the rent of her mice-infested apartment, she moves to suburban New Jersey to live with Eric, his wife Rebecca, and their Black preteen adopted daughter, Akila. Luster, as the title suggests, is lush with vivid references to sex. At the publishing house, Edie calls herself, matter-of-factly, the “office slut” and describes hooking up with various colleagues across departments: “Jerry who is acquiring all the cancer-centric YA, making bank and soft love to me in the conference room,” or, “Michelle from legal sitting on the copier, nylons slung around her neck as fluorescents flicker overhead.” With sex as the backdrop, the book brilliantly explores Black womanhood, suburban surveillance, millennial capitalism, micro-aggressions, and the complicated nature of interracial relationships. Leilani is careful when she speaks, frequently stopping mid-sentence to pause and regroup before proceeding. When we chat, she’s outside of her apartment in Brooklyn, where the high-pitched beeps of reversing trucks, the static of wind and other city sounds leak into our phone call. Samantha Edwards: Edie has such a singular voice that’s incredibly funny and observant, but can also be really self-deprecating and dark. How did you develop her character? Raven Leilani: The building blocks of Edie was, “How do I depict a young Black woman who yearns?” She’s a woman who is led through the world by her id. I don't really move through the world like that. There's a freedom and almost an element of wish fulfillment in depicting a Black woman who is guided by her own id. It was important for me to write a Black girl who was free. It's weird to say free because on the page, you can see the constraints, one being the fact that a lot of the action is happening in Edie’s mind. But at least in the sanctuary of her mind, I wanted to be candid about how she feels and what she wants. The observational aspect of the book comes from two things: the fact that Edie is a Black woman and the certain kind of studiousness that you need to survive. The other part is that she's an aspiring artist, and I think a fundamental part of art is data collection. And that sounds extremely unsexy, right? But a lot of art, especially the art I gravitate to, is in the business of trying to accurately reflect a specific reality. Edie yearns for sex and touch. Why was it important to make that such a core part of her person? I felt like to do anything less would be to not allow her the space to be human. There's a temptation in writing and in life to be self-protective, to be aloof, and to be stoic. I know those people exist and that kind of writing exists, but I wanted to write towards vulnerability. I think it’s always a vulnerable thing to be overt in how much you care. A lot of Black women are called upon to bear their pain well. And that feels inhumane. I wanted to write a Black woman who is not only not bearing what she's going through well, but who responds in a human way. She gets hurt, and she also wants comeuppance. Let me try and articulate this. We talk a lot about unlikable women, and I think what we're really talking about is fallible women. I wanted to show what it looks like when you care deeply, and the way that that manifests isn't just as a virtuous person who lives by their feelings. There's an element of caring so deeply that you are paralyzed. I think to be human is to be unruly, to be a person who yearns and can be hurt. And that was important for me, to show a Black woman who was not stoic in how she bears her loss. I found the differences between how Edie and her Black coworker Aria navigated their very white workplace so interesting. Aria says she’s willing to "shuck and jive until the room I’m in is at the top” and to conform to her white coworkers' expectations, while Edie has no interest in performing in that way. She seems to revel in being a slacker. What did you want to show in their relationship? I wanted to show that both of these Black women in this professional space are attempting to survive. They just have very, very different tactics around that survival. Aria has opted for perfectionism and hyper-curation. Edie's response is one of refusal. I think both are human responses. There's one way to read this that’s a judgment on how Aria has chosen to present herself. I was trying to point out how when you are trying to advance and survive as a Black woman, you understand that your margin for error is thin. I also wanted to talk about how this environment absolutely impedes a camaraderie that perhaps should exist between these women. When their environment indulges tokenism, it naturally pits these two women against each other. They're two different women, absolutely, but even Edie's response to seeing Aria is that she felt relief. She also finds that relief with Akila later on in the book too. I really loved how the relationship between Edie and Akila progressed throughout the book. At first Akila feels kind of uneasy around Edie’s presence, basically saying, “Don’t mess this up for me,” but eventually they do build that camaraderie. This book is very much about isolation and solitude, and loneliness that is exacerbated when you're in the business of projecting an image and managing the perceptions of other people around you. Akila lives in an environment which cannot adequately witness her. She lives in the suburbs and is being surveilled, and that surveillance can quickly become violent. Akila is searching for belonging and not truly finding it. She's not doing well socially. She has been bounced around, she's been through a couple of homes and her primary mission is to preserve the stability she finally has and Edie is a threat to that. But Edie herself is also grappling with a kind of instability. So you have two Black women who are fighting for stability and fighting for a place where they will be seen. I thought it was important to show two Black women taking comfort in each other and witnessing each other. As they get closer, we get to see more layers of Akila, like that she's really into writing fan fiction, comic books, and video games. Edie helps her make a Comic-Con costume and I thought that was so endearing. And the Comic-Con scenes were so lucid. Have you ever been to a Comic-Con? The reason Comic-Con is in the book is because I love it. I feel like the very first way I knew how to interact with anything was as a fan. I feel like fandom for me is an earnest act. There are moments throughout the book where I got to show a Black woman engaged in a thing that she earnestly loves. For Edie it’s disco, and with Akila it's Comic-Con. All of this sort of geek ephemera is close to me. I've been to a handful of Comic-Cons, but never to San Diego, which is a bummer and I need to fix that. There’s nothing really like attending a con and feeling that enthusiasm and communal energy, and also seeing other fans who dare enough to be earnest in their overt appreciation for these imagined worlds. That is so beautiful to me. I wanted to specifically talk about that on the page with a Black woman because I wanted there to be joy in this book. There’s a lot of sexual joy in the book, but obviously that’s different than the joy from fandom. Akila’s fandom is like pure joy, and there’s no weird power dynamics behind it. What kind of stuff are you a fan of? Oh man, I'm a fan of so many things. My brother gave me his comics before he moved out and I still have them. They're in a trunk under my bed. I don't even indulge the kind of rivalry between DC and Marvel. I love them both. I grew up watching anime and playing JRPGs, which are Japanese role-playing games. When I was younger, I loved getting locked into those intricately built worlds. It’s interesting you say that, because when Edie and Akila get closer and start playing video games together, Akila kind of disses Edie for not getting as involved with some of the side characters or just missing parts of the story. That's right. I'm so glad you noticed that. There are so many different kinds of gamers. There are the gamers who want Call of Duty, where you can go in and get your rounds off. But then there are those who want a game where you have to talk to villagers like three times to get the thing that you need, games where you have to exhaust the environment in order to advance. I gravitate more towards the games that have a story. I do think there's something to be said about two Black women finding comfort in each other through the imagined worlds in which they have to inhabit these avatars. It's my fandom manifesting for sure. Perhaps it’s also me as a 29-year-old and how a lot of us have grown to relate to people through a digital medium, whether it’s online dating or your headset in Call of Duty. How does it feel to release this book in this current “moment”? I’m putting air quotes around moment because racism has been around forever, but I think reading this book now, there are certain themes the book touches on, like police violence or acknowledging micro-aggressions, that feel so urgent right now. Like you were saying, racism isn’t new and what we’re seeing now is perhaps not new. What’s new is that we have the technology to see it in a totally different way. I have talked to older people in my family because there’s this feeling of reckoning, that something feels different. I’ve said to them, “Before I get my hopes up, can you let me know, does this feel unprecedented in terms of the response to it?” Even older people in my family do feel that something is different, especially around police brutality. The thing is, as a Black writer I was not necessarily writing towards any particular grand statement around racism. I wrote this book as a Black woman who is writing about Black women. In particular, with Edie, I was just reporting on what I saw in my own life, the way I feel my own body is in peril and the way Edie’s body is in peril. You don’t necessarily want your book to be relevant in the way that it is. You would hope that you could point to what you’ve written and it would be history. It would be a moment that is distant and illegible. But I do think that the canon of Black writers who have written about what it is like to live and try and survive while Black is a large and excellent canon. In writing about these issues, I just did my best to tell a specific story. The story just happens to be one that takes place in the consciousness of a Black woman, and that consciousness is informed by an environment that is racist, sexist, and capitalist. You and Edie share some life experiences—you are both painters, you’ve both worked in publishing and at Postmates. And because this is your debut, were you ever nervous or concerned that people would conflate you with Edie? I feel like that is a concern that a lot of writers of colour have. I don’t imagine that you get as many autofictive questions when you’re a white author. Truly though, I wasn’t particularly concerned. There is a lot of me in the book, but it’s absolutely not autofiction. There are a lot of direct lines you could draw from my life, but I couldn’t think about that reflection while I was writing. I think that would have limited me and would have put fear in the writing. As you might have gathered on this call, I truly struggle in real time to articulate precisely what I mean. That is a major frustration for me. On the page, I feel like I have more control than I do in any area of my life. Because of that, I have the freedom to write towards the dark and the dirty. I have a friend who says that the book is my id and I am the ego. I think that is correct. In some ways, I’m writing a letter to my own self, like, “Oh my god, don’t do that.” But there’s a part of me that tried to imbue a freedom in this character that I absolutely as a real person don’t think I have. I’m actually quite subdued. I’m severely introverted. The things I write versus who I am as a person are actually quite opposed. It’s interesting to release a thing into the world and then have people feel like they know who you are. But ultimately, I just think it’s really fucking cool that people are reading deeply enough where they care about that.
The author of little scratch on rape narratives and the brutality and permanence of language.
I wanted to talk to Rebecca Watson about something other than sexual assault, I really did. The author, editor, and journalist, whose debut novel little scratch (Strange Light), was published earlier this month, clearly has a lot to say about many things: the novel form, modern office life, the anxiety of young creatives in the capitalist economy, those little cups of wine you get at poetry readings that are technically free but don’t feel free, because you are paying for them in minutes—hours—of your life spent listening to someone speak in short bursts about their anxiety as though no one has ever had it before, and also it is bad wine, relationships, transit, taking up space in public, women, men, social media, the death of the newspaper… little scratch engages deftly with all of these. But we mostly talked about sexual assault. It can often feel like the only thing to talk about. Michaela Coel’s multi-part rape epic I May Destroy You recently took over the mediascape, reigniting a strain of cultural commentary, first-person essays, and bad-faith “debate” that has burned, at varying degrees but uninterrupted, since the #MeToo movement kicked off in earnest in October 2017. At a socially distanced gathering a few weeks ago, conversation turned, three drinks in, to what a friend called “the inevitable sexual assault chat,” as temporarily out of work comedians, artists, and theatre performers discussed what life would look like after COVID, and whether the New Normal might involve being asked to work with fewer rapists. On a personal level, I’ve been experimenting with calling something a sort-of boyfriend did to me several years ago “rape,” after seeing Michaela Coel’s character Arabella experience the same thing onscreen. I had written it off for years as a not-great evening with a not-great guy, but watching Arabella passionately call out the man—a fellow writer—who did it to her, it seemed so clear. “He is a rapist,” she says, to a room of his peers. “Not rape-adjacent, or a bit rapey. He’s a rapist.” Later she double-checks with two policewomen, who confirm. The unnamed narrator of Watson’s novel lays it out in similarly unequivocal terms: “rape = no consent.” Still, rape is far from the only subject of little scratch, an experimental work chronicling every action (hungover commute, a mediocre soup lunch), feeling (disgust at “the dreaded desk,” the “WHOSE EYES ARE THESE” experience of coffee), and thought (“maybe tweet it?”) an unnamed female narrator experiences in a single day. That her boss sexually assaulted her is just one more thing to worry about, something to mull between WhatsApp messages, coworkers’ tedious demands, the question of her untended literary aspirations, and an increasingly urgent need to pick and scrape at the skin behind her knees. little scratch’s narrator is distracted, bored, horny, funny, traumatized, clever, tired, overworked, and absolutely seething with rage—at her boring job, at the inadequacy of language, at bad men and “good” ones too, and all the ways, overt and subtle, they make women feel small or endangered or disposable. (You can see how we ended up back at rape.) This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Monica Heisey: The book started as a short story, one that won the White Review Short Story prize. Did you always have plans to expand it into a novel, or did that come later? Rebecca Watson: When I first started writing I didn't know what it was at all. It was just like, it kind of happened off the back of… something happened, and I just had this challenge in my head of wanting to write immediacy, so I started by writing a moment. And as I was writing, hyper-focused on the present, it started to feel like part of something bigger. So, I just kept extending it and extending it. And within a few thousand words I was quite clear that it was a book rather than just a passage or a thought exercise. You definitely conveyed the immediacy that you were going for. There’s an aggressive simultaneity I found almost stressful to read. I don't know if you remember that Horse E-books tweet, "Everything happens so much," but little scratch kind of felt like that. What was the process of writing something where the plan is to include everything? It was stressful for me as well! I began writing this book because I was at work on my lunch break, trying to write. And someone came up to me and did ask me what book I was reading at the moment. And I did have that moment of being like, "Fuck's sake, what are books? Have I ever read a book in my life?" So that kernel in the book is based on a real moment, one in which I became aware of so many different things that were going on, and how despite everything I was unable to think of anything. And it just clicked into my head, the desire of a writer to guide the reader from the beginning of the paragraph to the end, and wanting to be able to tell them so many different things at the same time and that being impossible. So that first thought as I was writing that moment up was just “How do I show the reader all these different things without having to make them wait?” I wanted to write everything that was going on at the same time in one moment. And I wrote that, then quite quickly after I was like, “Okay, I can do a moment of immediacy. Is it possible to write a full day of immediacy?” And I found that I could, it started to become a book quite quickly, but there was part of me that didn't want to carry on, because if you keep going, there are points as a writer where you start wanting to skip—like, okay well, I now want to take it to this place but they actually walked to the places after, so can I skip this part, but [with the formal constraints of the book] I couldn't. And I started to run into more and more of those challenges where it was just like, Jesus Christ, how do I do this? But that was kind of the fun of it, the question of like, how do you write the stuff that generally you don't want to write? Or that you want to avoid, because it's always not easy to write? I say the fun of it, but it was really stressful, and I felt as I was writing that the reader was going to have to work. There were points where I felt like I was creating a game for the reader, because they have to kind of become the protagonist and inhabit the book themselves, and for some readers that's fun, and for some readers that will be maybe not what they want to do at all. It was definitely a very active experience. Did it… I will always find it interesting, to ask the reader... was there a set way that you read it? Did you read across? Did you kind of mix it up? There were times where I had to sort of pick which part of the page I was going to devote my attention to first, then loop back to make sure that I had understood the order in which things were happening. The fact that there wasn't really an order and these things were just all happening at once was… disorienting! I kind of tackled the biggest chunks on each page first. I love the word "tackle." [laughs] I think my dumb little brain resisted at first, kept trying to squeeze what you’d written into a more conventionally novelistic reading experience. But once I relaxed into the form, I was reading a lot more freely, letting everything kind of wash over me. All that activity! It was a very different experience from what I've been up to in lockdown. Yeah, I bet it was. [laughs] While you were writing it, did you read other books set in—I'm thinking maybe of Mrs. Dalloway—set in that kind of relentless present? Not really. I mean, Virginia Woolf is someone I was obsessed with—she was the person that first ignited, for me, some kind of excitement about how to play with words and ideas of prose and where it can go. I started reading her when I was sixteen, seventeen, at that moment when everything is so profound anyway, so she's someone who's definitely stayed with me, but I think when I was starting to write little scratch, I'd been reading about Javier Marías. He's a Spanish novelist, and he has this just insane grasp of sentences. The dialogue… there'll be a couple in a cafe, and a man talking to someone, and that bit of dialogue will take him across pages of digression until he takes you right back to where you started and you'll be back at that conversation. He really set me off when I was writing, because he is just in crazy control of the reader, and has this ability to mentally take you so far, but still reel you back in. I thought about him a lot, just for that control. But also, for the ability to travel like that, to take the reader ten pages away, and then snap them right back where he wants them. The book’s setting and form were really striking choices for a sexual assault story. Because we hear literally everything that happens to the narrator that day, every thought in her head, the aftermath of her assault is just one other thing to deal with. Often, in TV or literature or Greek tragedy, rape is this turning point in women's lives—they’re ruined or kill themselves or go mad—but assault is a really commonplace experience that a lot of women just survive. That was quite important to me. There wasn't a specific thing that I read or watched that frustrated me, it was just this recurring sense that rape was the climax of anything that you read or watch. Or the explanation, sometimes—if a woman was acting oddly then the answer was always rape, and I just found that not only boring, but inaccurate. I think I was really trying to talk about trauma and rape, but have it be totally incidental. I mean obviously, it ends up, in some ways, being the climax to this book as well, but I like the idea of it not following the same kind of linear structure you're usually taught to follow. And also, I don’t know, I don't often, like, hear about people in books and TV who've been raped who also have sex… it seems like something that’s hard for people to imagine. I found that so interesting, the narrator’s insistence on her right to a continued, active sexuality, the time she spends delineating the difference between consensual, erotic sex, and what happened to her at the hands of her boss. I feel like depictions of rape, it's always like, “Okay, well, they've been raped so therefore like they can't use their body in any other way now. That's the end of that.” And already sex and rape are confused so much. It was important for me that they existed in two different realms. The book really avoids setting up one “bad” character, or presenting an angelic support source who understands everything. Really, every character in the narrator’s life lets her down in different ways. In particular she goes in on: “not just the bad men but the good ones, the slowing down, the opening WhatsApp to explain consent to men who I thought would get it, at least them, How! How are they not with me here! They don't even know, and they're already not with me.” Yeah. Oh god. I kind of forget that that's in there, but hearing it again I relate instantly, I feel that feeling every day. It was important to me that [the narrator] was also, not complacent, but that she recognized that viewpoint even in herself. The whole book, this whole day with her is really her following a formula that she's expected to follow... of pushing down what's happened, ignoring it, thinking about what outfit it may have been, you know, exactly how those people would have reacted. And she's sort of going through those modes of argument herself, asking if she’d said something or done something or if it was her clothes, her ambitions, her way of being in the world. I didn't really want anyone to be particularly shiny or particularly awful, just everyone participating in the same structure and systems that repeat and repeat and repeat. There are a number of scenes in your book where your narrator struggles to name what actually happened to her, even though she knows, really. I think that’s a very common situation, to call an assault “a bad date” or an abuser “a bit rapey.” I get the impulse to downgrade the experience, in a way—confronting how many things “rape” encompasses means confronting how incredibly common an experience rape is. What do you think about the language we have for describing assault? My protagonist's struggle is being able to match her experience and the brutality of language, and the permanence of language. Like, you're making a decision when you’re using these words. There can be a sense of comfort in being hazy or ambiguous, compared to using the word "rape" or even describing the man as a "rapist" rather than "the man who raped me," which has this real brutality. I think it's important. The way we edge around language enables those experiences to remain ambiguous and for us to see them ambiguously and discuss them ambiguously. There's this thing called "rape," that’s this big, dramatic, “man on a dark street” thing on one hand and then everyday experiences that women and other people have had on the other. So you have rape and you have these experiences that are rape but that we don't call rape. And the term becomes grander and more theatrical as you continue to not categorize any of these things as rape. I've been raped, and I think I didn't know that I'd been raped for a while, because I was just kind of like, this doesn't fit into a mold that I've been taught. It was very helpful for me to actually realize that it was rape. And all of these foggy and unclear feelings were able to actually sit in something that I did understand and could call something. With little scratch it was important that she said she'd been raped, but it was also important that it wasn't said as a climax... I think when she finally says she has been raped, she says, "I have been raped. Yes I know." And for her it’s—rather than something that is upsetting to her—it’s kind of acceptance. Using that language is a way of actually being able to say, yes, it fits into this category, and I can start taking it seriously, and sometimes you need that seriousness to accept it. I sort of wanted to avoid the “how much of this is based on your own life” line of questioning, but I read an essay of yours in Elle UK where you wrote about an experience similar to the narrator’s, and I'd wondered how it felt to write something so immediate—so intimate, about a fictional situation you could, unfortunately, relate to quite closely. Yeah, it was kind of a stupid thing to do in a way. Writing it was a very invasive experience. Not because I felt like I was writing my own life, but because I felt like I had someone else's life very close to me, and a lot of the writing felt like, this is someone’s life, it really was like her voice appearing and talking to me. I felt like I was really just listening to her and writing that down. So that was a very, very personal thing for me, and a very unique and intimate experience to have someone's head so close to mine, and sometimes I kind of feel like, is that me, just because she spent so much time in my head, you know, so to a degree she is me. As a writer creating something, it's like, where else does it come from apart from somewhere inside me? As a female writer, particularly a young debut novelist, this book will be confused with me and will always be confused with me, regardless. Particularly writing first person immediacy, it's a work where the character feels very close to the reader, and you just connect that to the author. Which is something I was aware of even when I was writing—there are kind of like riffs on it in the book where, like, I'd write something and then be so aware that that would be read as me, I couldn't help but say something sly, or rebut within the text. I loved the group chat going in on autofiction. I can understand the instinct—you know, like the reading and writing experience is very intense. There's almost the confusion of reading something that feels real, and instantly there’s the urge to connect that to someone real. Which is not necessarily a bad thing to do, but it does happen to mostly women writers, which can be so patronizing. It’s just the reader being unable to believe that you actually have the capacity to create. There are parallels in this book to my life, but I haven't lived any of this experience—the narrator’s experience of rape is very different to mine, and her experience of the working day is very different to mine, her relationship with her boyfriend is very different to mine. But I have, you know, worked a 9-to-5 job, I have been raped, I have a boyfriend, so sure, you can connect these facts to me. What are you working on now? Oh god. I'm writing my second novel. And it is quite a stressful process! I feel like I learned a lot about who I was as a writer from little scratch. But the problem is that I'm not about to write a second little scratch. Basically, I need to shove away everything that I've learned from writing this. Everything that I've assumed about what I want to be doing, because that was all just about that project. And what I'm trying to write now is quite different—formally, topically. little scratch started as an experiment and wanting to achieve something in terms of writing the present tense. And so, I kind of feel now, you know, as if I've kind of achieved what I wanted to achieve from that, which is a really good feeling. But it makes anything else very stressful. Have you been able to read during the pandemic? A lot of people have been saying their attention spans are just shot, that there's—maybe ironically, for your novel—too much going on all at once for them to focus on reading. Maybe little scratch gave me some practice. I’ve been reading, although what I've been reading has been very different to what I'd usually read. I've been reading a lot of Sarah Waters, people that are very plot-heavy and very quick-moving plot as well. I think I’ve essentially been looking for people that move at a quicker pace than I’ve been able to move these last few months, which was really effective, and I've been very grateful to be able to escape into those books. I definitely feel like I've needed reading more than ever at the moment. I’ve been reading a lot of pop history stuff. Thinking a lot about the past. A bad place, but a better place too. It's just been nice to imagine times other than this one, to remember that people got through them and things moved forward. This moment feels so suspended in amber or something... the idea that progress is possible is a comfort. I definitely feel that. Just remembering that moments are part of a pattern, right? Like they've happened before and they'll happen again. Which means we're going to get out of this one. Hopefully soon... although probably not.
He had Alex now, he thought. He wouldn’t feel those old pangs. But the loneliness greeted him like a—well, not so much like an old friend. But. You know. Like loneliness.
At the signing of the lease, neither Leo nor Alex found Nikoloz immediately impressive. He was of average build, trending to paunchy; wore his gray, stringy hair in a kind of a shag, loose tufts surrounding a bald stretch on the crown of his head; and sat in a big couch-chair and smoked constantly—Kents, which he happily sucked down to the filter. They were indoors, in an estate agent’s office, but for some reason no one made him stop. “Whatever you need, Nikoloz will take care of it,” Joseph, the landlord, said. “Nikoloz is always around the flat. Nikoloz will always be there for you.” “You alright,” Nikoloz said. Leo and Alex were new to London. They didn’t yet know that “you alright” was a thing people said without expecting any kind of answer. “Sorry?” Leo said. “You don’t hear good?” Nikoloz said. “No, I hear OK.” Leo paused, looking around, wondering how, in a room full of people, he’d gotten himself into this one-on-one exchange. “Although I do worry about tinnitus.” Pause. “From, uh, going to hardcore shows when I was in high school.” Alex looked at him and raised an eyebrow and smiled, and Leo realized he was divulging unnecessary information again. Nikoloz smiled too. “Yeah, you’re alright,” he said. “So like Joseph said, I’ll be there for you. I’m reliable and that. I’m solid and that. I’m always around.” He took a drag. “Always around.” At a cozy pub after with a couple of pints, Leo made Alex laugh imagining just how “around” Nikoloz would be. They were actually both supposed to get back to work, but the euphoria of having finally found a place to live was too much to ignore. So they emailed off their respective excuses and hit The Wellington Arms, and Leo immediately launched into an honestly not too bad Nikoloz impersonation: “Yeah mate, do you have the kettle on, is the kettle on, can I go ahead and pop the kettle on?” It was a small flat but, everyone agreed, really lovely. There was exposed brick, a chandelier in the bedroom, and tall windows in the kitchen that overlooked the backyard of the flat below. The strange bit: those kitchen windows also overlooked the living room of the flat below, which was encased in glass and had been constructed to jut forward past Leo and Alex’s place. Due to that combination of curious design and architectural choices, Leo and Alex could effectively stand in their kitchen and peer directly at the goings-on of their downstairs neighbor. Two things revealed themselves in quick succession. First: The reason Nikoloz was always around wasn’t just a dedication to his craft, but because he was the downstairs neighbor who lived in the flat with the strange glass protrusion. Second: There were quite a few things Leo and Alex would need Nikoloz for. Because while their apartment was, and remained, lovely, it was also very much falling apart. No one thing was unbearable, but the list was long. The chandelier in the bedroom regularly went into rapid-fire horror-movie flickerings. The blinds in the living room were old and hopelessly twisted. A tiny combination washer/dryer worked wellish-enough on its wash setting but when switched over to dry was less than useless. And the bathroom’s air filter shrieked. You’d turn it on and the noise would be alright for a second or two, then violently pitch upwards into an unbelievably piercing, almost melancholic, whistle. Because Alex’s work schedule was more rigid than Leo’s, they agreed it would be Leo’s job to communicate with Nikoloz and oversee these maintenance visits. So Leo would message Nikoloz for help, and Nikoloz would text back elliptically, confusingly, mysteriously: “I blinds not her” “Joseph said it and yeah” “fix want” “are you are” “are in now” “is there one in” “can reaper the boiler?” “It be OK” “no Joseph’s mum out I will see at 2 there” “cant be done well m8 mayb it can be done” … always saying he’d come up at very specific times, 9:50, 3:07, always showing up hours later instead. One time, Leo texted Nikoloz about some minor fix and Nikoloz responded in a manner suggesting that it was in fact he who was interested in hiring Leo’s services for a bit of work: “how much would it cost to clean the roof glass” But even though it would take forever, would take loads of back and forths, Nikoloz would usually come and fix the thing, and fix it well. And then, invariably, he’d look around in awe, as if he’d built the place years ago, under duress and against all odds, and had never before thought to come back and see how it had held up. “This boiler was where Joseph’s dad’s gun safe used to be,” Nikoloz said one late afternoon, excitedly jabbing his fingers toward the gray boxy thing, as if that would make the guns come back. “You had to have it special lock and hidden then, like camouflaged, like a hidden compartment. There were 12 bore shotguns. For hunting. Two Rigbys and a Holland & Holland.” Leo smiled and thought maybe it was time to share an anecdote himself. “I went skeet shooting once. With my dad and my cousin Petey. We were all absolutely, uh”—Leo briefly considered using what felt like a more appropriately English word, “rubbish,” but chickened out—“we were all terrible at it!” Nikoloz looked at him blankly, then kept on telling his story. “Them guns were worth a lot of money back then. I should have taken them and sold them! I’m the one took the secret compartment out!” Then Nikoloz guffawed and Leo guffawed too. Nikoloz liked to tell these very mild origin stories again and again. Leo would come to know them well. He didn’t mind it, the repetition. It was nice, actually, these strange interactions with what Leo understood was this very London type of dude. When else would Leo get to hang out with a real person? Leo had been excited to move to London, although the bulk of the motivating energy, he’d readily admit, had come from Alex. She’d gotten sick of New York, formulated a plan and, true to form, carried it through it with remarkable efficacy and speed. Her new job was at a more prestigious architecture firm than the one she’d previously worked at, where her designs would be more consciously and environmentally executed. She’d effectively willed herself into a transatlantic promotion. After settling in London, Leo had quickly found a permalance gig editing on Love Island. The pay was good and the work was demanding: there was so much raw content coming in and such an appetite for a finished product. It was his edits that he saw become conversation topics nationwide the next day. But it wasn’t exactly… progressive. There was a serious, troubling baseline of disreputability. It was totally compelling and totally fucked up. When he told people at parties or at pubs, they always had a thousand questions. They’d manage a few polite ones to Alex about architecture, then pivot back to Love Island. “They do wanna hear about countervailing beams!” he’d crack to Alex after. “They don’t know I protect them from structural collapse,” she’d answer, deadpan. “They don’t know how close they come to death if not from me.” Alex worked long hours, but they’d always make a point of cooking and eating together. Simple meals, Leo doing the shopping at a Turkish green grocer that hated small talk but had the best tomatoes Leo had ever tasted, and Alex doing the washing up. She would get back from work, and as he was chopping Leo would run her through that day’s insane Nikoloz interactions. It was a bummer that it was so hard for anything to get fixed, Leo thought, it was definitely a bummer, but at least it led to some good material. From the beginning, he’d felt good about the move. He’d moved around with his academic parents when he was a kid and had cherished memories of bland-sounding mid-major European cities. They left Ann Arbor when Leo was six and bounced around some less-heralded bits of the continent. Antwerp, Dusseldorf, and Arnhem, then Riga and Tallinn. He was an only child, not naturally gifted at making friends, but there was this academia-parent circuit, with equally unmoored kids, and so Leo would end up with pals for one or two years at a time. There was loneliness, for Leo and for his parents—every move came with pangs of loneliness; that would have been impossible to avoid—but the pattern itself, of getting up and then settling again, became its own comfort. And, secretly, he prided himself on his heartiness and adaptability. To Leo, at least privately, it came to define him. He didn’t go back to Michigan until his freshman year of high school. After graduating, he did a semester at Central Michigan before dropping out. He thought his parents would be upset, but they actually seemed impressed with him for realizing higher education was very much never going to be his bag. On his own, he would read books about communism and economics. Well, about communists and economists. He’d never had a head for theory; he read a Keynes biography once and his only takeaway was that Keynes was extremely horny. He didn’t feel bad about it, though; he’d long known his appreciation of history’s grand movements came down to the people involved. He moved to New York, but he could have well moved anywhere he’d seen in movies. He took classes and learned video editing—a practical self-sustaining move, but he found that he liked it, and he got good jobs in TV and documentaries. He even worked on some slasher flicks, which he loved. He met all kinds of people, and he fell in love with New York, and then he fell in love with Alex. Looking back later, after the move to London, he realized New York was the first place he’d ever felt totally at peace. Nearly his entire twenties had been New York—ten initially rowdy, increasingly comfortable years. First Chinatown, then Prospect Heights, and, most recently, Astoria, a less-hip neighborhood that, to Leo’s surprise, he found himself loving most of all. And even if some friends had left for Chicago and San Francisco and, God forbid, Montclair, New Jersey, enough were staying around, even post-childrearing. He wanted everything in New York to remain in stasis, waiting for his inevitable return. He missed the city every day. But he was ready for something else. Really, he was. And—and this again he realized only after the move—he’d never fully let go of the possibility that he would keep being moved. Not so much against his will. Just, without his participation in the decision-making process. He’d always thought, somehow, that inevitably a decision would be made, by other people, and that he would have to get up and go. Before the move to London he thought back to the European days, how it felt initially to exist in a new place. He had Alex now, he thought. He wouldn’t feel those old pangs. But the loneliness greeted him like a—well, not so much like an old friend. But. You know. Like loneliness. Alex was a highly motivated person. Leo felt he was too, to a degree—that degree was just a significant few ticks south of Alex. He’d articulated to her, a few times, and she’d always denied it, that she reacted with an almost physical aversion to mental weakness. A few months into London, Alex left for a work trip to Paris and Leo tried messaging a few loose acquaintances to see about pints but no one was around and he tried calling his cousin Petey but his cousin Petey didn’t call him back and so Leo found himself having a bit of an anxiety attack. That whole weekend he found himself Googling “time in nyc” over and over, in part because it made him feel more connected to home, in part because he preferred it to doing the math on the time difference. When Alex came back from Paris, they sat in the kitchen and analyzed his mini-meltdown. “I think you should talk to someone,” Alex said. “I am trying to talk to someone!” Leo said, his voice rising, despite his best efforts to not let it. “I am trying to talk to you!” “Yeah, well. I think you should talk to someone who’s not me.” Leo knew exactly what not to do. Leo knew not to make this about the move. Leo failed. “It was your fucking idea to come here! I was happy in New York!” “Oh my god. You’re an adult. You were offered an opportunity. You made a decision.” “I know that. I know that. I fucking—know that! I just want.” Leo could feel that he was screaming. He was able to catch himself, most of the time. It was incredibly awkward though, incredibly obvious—a reckless scream brought down to a forced whisper. Lowering the volume was, on its own, a capitulation. Still, he forced himself to do it. “I just want,” he said quietly, way too quietly. “A little. Empathy.” “You want sympathy. Empathy would be me feeling what you were feeling. Sympathy is me acknowledging that your feelings of sorrow are valid.” “Yes. Jesus fucking Christ.” He was screaming again. “Do I have to actually say it out loud? Acknowledge that my feelings of sorrow are valid!” It was such a ridiculous thing to say. Even worse to scream. Leo had lost the upper hand. Alex’s lips turned up at the edge. “Your feelings of sorrow are valid.” Leo wasn’t making eye contact. If he did, he wouldn’t be able to stay stone-faced, he knew. He’d either cackle or cry. Alex came up and hugged him, and whispered in his ear. “So many feelings of sorrow. Each and every last one of them valid.” It didn’t fix anything. But it was nice to end on a positive note. *** When Leo had first started contacting Nikoloz about the home fixes, he’d rotate through calling and emailing and texting until he heard back. That became its own running joke for Alex: “Which form of communication is Nikoloz best using to avoid you?” Eventually Nikoloz admitted to him that he only ever checked WhatsApp. That he loved WhatsApp. Then one day, thumbing through their inefficient exchanges, Leo realized Nikoloz had added a picture to his WhatsApp profile. It was Nikoloz as a young man, and, frankly, it was arresting. Time, it turned out, had not been kind to Nikoloz. That same wry smile was there, as was that manic, almost forbidden energy, but the stringy hair, the saggy cheeks, were nowhere to be seen. Leo showed it to Alex. “Holy shit,” she said. “Yeah.” Leo stared at the screen. “He looks.” There was no other way to put it. Nikoloz in a short-sleeve dress shirt open to the sub-chest area, multiple gold amulets on chains around his neck, looking directly at the camera, holding a glass of white wine. “He looks hot.” Alex looked again. “Hot Nikoloz. For sure. Hot Nikoloz.” After that, she always only called him Hot Nikoloz. Alex didn’t care too much about most of the little fixes, but the dryer drove her insane. “How is it getting the clothes more wet?” she shouted one Saturday afternoon, after another failed cycle. “Is this a psychological torture experiment?” “He’s coming Monday!” Leo answered automatically. “He said he’s pretty sure he knows what to do this time!” That’s how it was at first, Leo defending Nikoloz out of habit. He didn’t see him as a kindred spirit, not really, but he did feel a knee-jerk desire to defend his fellow well-intentioned fuck-up from Alex’s ready gaze. It wasn’t until Leo and Nikoloz started spending more time together that Leo began to feel differently about Nikoloz. Leo never smoked, and didn’t even really like people smoking around him. But when Nikoloz came around he found himself cracking a window and, indeed, putting the kettle on and sitting for hours, letting Nikoloz go through a pack. At their hang sessions, which were always at Leo’s flat, Leo found himself staring at Nikoloz’s hands. They were thick, rough, capable hands. The skin was weathered. Most of the time, Nikoloz wouldn’t actually do anything with them. But when he put them into motion, there would have been no doubt to anyone that they were capable hands. “These radiators, they come out of a railway waiting room,” Nikoloz said one afternoon. “You know, the, architecture of old railways, that where they come out of—the guy sold me ’em, yeah, the guy, every time I seen him, he says”—Nikoloz paused—“he says, I wish I didn’t sell you those radiators! I wish I didn’t sell you those radiators! I should never have sold you those radiators!” Leo could tell Nikoloz liked him, but not how he liked him. Did he hold him in any particular regard? Did he find him to be an interesting person? Or did he just find him good enough amusement? Leo often felt like people were dangerously close to laughing at him, not with him, but he mostly didn’t mind. Leo knew exactly who he was. With Nikoloz, though, he realized, he did care. With other people, he wanted attention, warmth, love, their fleeting recognition. With Nikoloz, he wanted respect. One morning, in the kitchen, idly glancing down at the flat below, Leo saw Nikoloz preparing a simple meal of sausage, mash, and buttered brown bread. He hadn’t meant to watch, but there was something magnetic about the brute way Nikoloz went about the process. Alex was in the bedroom on her phone. Leo kept waiting for her to come in and catch him in the act and ask him what the fuck he was doing, but she never did. As the weeks went on, Leo caught himself doing it more and more. It was usually in the mornings, as Alex was getting dressed. Leo would go over to the coffee machine and fiddle with it loudly and stare down at Nikoloz below. It was just little glances at first, here and there. Then it was every morning. Nikoloz was always down there, making his tea, toasting his bread, doing something laboriously, meditatively slow. Leo told Alex he liked making the coffee for the two of them. Which wasn’t not true. But it wasn’t the whole truth. Staring down from his kitchen one morning, into Nikoloz’s apartment, Leo saw what he believed to be a small, framed rendering of the logo of the 1970s Graxis movement, the high point of Moldovan communism. The timing, he’d worked out, made sense. Nikoloz would have been 18 or 19 at the peak of it, and the mass movement which swept the nation presumably would have hit the small village of Petresti, where Nikoloz had told Leo he’d grown up. The Graxis symbol looked like a plus sign on top of a triangle. He’d read about Graxis somewhere, but he couldn’t remember where. He started reading up more. Leo became slightly obsessed with the vision, a history he’d previously known little about. He learned that the movement had been built on a network of student leaders, cells bonded together as a unified organism moving in lockstep. He felt suddenly like he had a dog in the fight, even though that fight had been crushed in the early ’80s and had led to the authoritarian right-wing government that had summarily and violently crushed the student-led network. What Leo kept coming back to, what kept tripping him up, was that Nikoloz had mentioned he’d been in London since 1983, the exact year a coven of the most stringent Graxis leaders had been expelled. The UK Home Office had allowed in Moldovan exiles on the condition they not interfere in politics. Many of the exiles famously flouted the rule, but still, it made sense why Nikoloz wasn’t being forthcoming about his possible radical past. Leo would ask him what his friends were like back in Petresti, and Nikoloz would just smile and say, “They were crazy. They were the craziest ones.” In Queens, Leo had attended a few meetings of the PFA, the fledgling socialist-leaning organization that had pushed the twentysomething former schoolteacher Laura Schvishivli to an unexpected congressional seat (from the district that included Leo’s Queens neighborhood) and had made her a national celebrity. He hadn’t grown up in a politically minded household. His parents’ default philosophy was basically be nice to people. They were professors. They just wanted to think about lectures and research. His friends in New York were worldly, technically—they’d traveled, met strangers, had experiences that suggested life could be many different things. But when he sat around drinking with them at one of the three bars they liked to rotate through, depending on which was least crowded, their rolling conversations would go for hours without finding any friction. Graxis felt so much realer than all the PFA noise. Yes, one was happening now, right now, which he could theoretically belong to, believe in, support in some material way. But it all felt so silly by comparison. PFA was a social media movement. In Moldova, there had been blood in the streets. *** “He had power!” Nikoloz was saying one afternoon. “He had real—you know—power.” They were talking about an old friend of his, a movie journalist from Glasgow who would come to London to interview all the top stars and would always take Nikoloz for a good meal out. “He looked smart, too. Sharp, sharp suits. And he could go into his little book and find the telephone numbers, you know—Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Clint Eastwood. James Garner!” Leo couldn’t quite figure out how they’d gotten on the topic, or why. The conversation had started with Leo telling Nikoloz about his job. Love Island, and its loose ties to the celebrity circuit, was apparently enough to trigger this reverie into old Hollywood. “The first time Angelina came, yeah, no one could be bothered but he went, yeah, and that’s why the studios liked him,” Nikoloz said. “And then after that Angelina would come and she’d always ask for him, and he’d go over and do the interviews. And they could trust him, the studios, yeah? And that’s why he had power.” Nikoloz stopped to drink his tea. “With him I met former president Gerald Ford. You know former president Gerald Ford?” “Your buddy would write for newspapers?” Leo asked. “No, not newspapers. Magazines. Or he used to do private work, like if Paramount Studios wanted him to do something about something.” Nikoloz paused again. In the course of a regular conversation, this might be Leo’s turn to talk. But Leo had a half a year of reps with Nikoloz by now; he knew it was best to let Nikoloz control the flow of the banter. “It’s all to do with the studios,” Nikoloz said. “They are the main, the main people. They are the ones who call the shots. They say, look, go and see this person—you can’t say no. And if you go to them, they say, ‘Ahhhhh. Right. Here’s what you’ll be doing.’ D’jou understand?” Actually, for once, Leo felt like he did understand. Was Nikoloz not—carefully, delicately—lodging a complaint against the class system? Control from above? Was this not the closest he’d come to revealing his revolutionary politics? Leo was desperate to make this subtext into text. But he didn’t want to break the spell of the moment. He imagined the rest of the conversation, the winking, conspiratorial turn it could take, Nikoloz bringing him back into the old hothouses of Moldovan ideological warfare. Forming him into a person who could think in that way. The Graxis way. Maybe it seemed ridiculous, so far removed from that moment in time. But Lenin had lived in London. Marx had died in London. And right here, where Leo and Nikoloz sat and talked, they were barely five minutes’ walk from Three Johns, the actual pub where the Menshevik/Bolshevik split had taken place! That bitter infighting in the back room of that pub between those mad Russian expats had ended in nothing less than the October Revolution. The night before the Bolsheviks took power, Lenin sat in Zelensky’s kitchen, plotting maneuverings on the back of Zelensky’s kid’s drawing books! (A few weekends back, while Alex was away again, Leo had sought to avoid another mini-meltdown by actively filling up his spare time. He did so by taking a “Dead Communists of East London” walking tour.) But it wasn’t just this one example. Every revolution had started, if you thought about it, at some point, with some form of humans sharing words in a kitchen. Leo realized he’d lost the thread. He clicked back in to hear Nikoloz saying, “Years ago you had Laurence Olivier, a real actor. Once you do stage, yeah, you’re good. You know. And not like—Rocky! Rocky, he can only play Rocky! He’s always playing Rocky. He can’t do the overall thing.” Leo had to admit: he was at a loss to figure out how this bit related back to the subterfuge-like class consciousness stuff. But that was Nikoloz’s enigmatic way. *** One evening, while simultaneously Googling and going off about Graxis, Leo found a Frontline documentary about it from the ’90s on YouTube and Alex said she was game to watch. Alex entertained his pet obsessions; she’d be happy to come home after a day of work and listen to him rattle off book summaries. Leo was an amateur, but he was an impassioned amateur, and even if it was all so scattershot and stop-and-start, it was nice, Alex repeatedly told Leo, to feel the heat of his passions. This support had an edge to it, Leo knew. He would bet that in her heart of hearts Alex would say that freelance video editing didn’t represent the complete and total fulfillment of Leo’s potential. She had never said as much, but there had been hints. The thought didn’t offend him: Alex was the kind of person who surely thought a lot of people—herself included, most likely—hadn’t accomplished the complete and total fulfillment of their potential. The thing was, Leo worried that the obsessions, to Alex, represented something beyond—they represented Leo reaching out beyond his station in life. There was a clear logic to it: why would someone take six months to read every book they could find on American labor history if they didn’t, maybe, want to become an American labor historian? That particular obsession fizzled out. Eventually, they all did. But Leo really didn’t secretly want to become a professor, like his parents. He liked what he did, truly, and was actually impressed he’d found a calling. Alex’s version of his best life wasn’t his version of his best life. Still, his perceived feelings about her unspoken feelings lingered. If he ever followed an obsession out to its end, he thought sometimes, Alex would have no choice but to respect it. The narration of the Graxis doc was stiff and the editing predictable, but the images were undeniable. There was power to them. The protesters were so young and sun-kissed and so, so beautiful. The men and the women alike. They wore all white and they knew nothing of the destruction that was to come. Leo and Alex were in bed, watching the documentary on Leo’s laptop. Then suddenly Leo seized. Almost certainly—that dark, long-haired young man appeared on the left of their screen, holding up a massive banner that read “All Power Now” in Moldovan, in front of the marchers—that could not have been anyone but Hot Nikoloz. It had been a joke, that phrase. But Leo couldn’t get it out of his mind. It opened up a world. The WhatsApp photo in his mind’s eye, the young radical. It was a blip, but he was certain. He didn’t say a word to Alex. They finished the documentary and shut the lights and Alex gave Leo a kiss on the lips and rolled over and, as always, passed out within seconds. The next day Alex went off to work and Leo stayed home. He told her they didn’t need him at the editing suite, which wasn’t totally true: the supervisor had said they could survive without him, as that night’s Love Island was a previously-cut best-of catch-up montage. But she had also told Leo that if he wanted to come and get started on the next day’s chop she would gladly throw him the work. Without really thinking why, Leo had turned down the offer, and again without really thinking why, he had told Alex the half-truth. For the most part he did hate seeming less committed to his work than she did. But even if he did always want to project his commitment, he realized now, he had never gone so far as to lie about it before. Leo walked Alex to her bus stop and got the paper and walked back home. When he sat down at the table he realized, with an unsettling clarity, why he’d called out of work. Still in sweatshorts and a T-shirt, Leo WhatsApp’d Nikoloz. “Wanna come by?” Leo put the phone down and picked up his book. It was David Harvey’s A Companion To Marx’s Capital. It was supposed to be on the more readable side of the Marxist theory spectrum, but Leo was struggling. With today open, though, he thought, he’d try to really crack it. He knew Nikoloz sometimes texted back right away and sometimes not for days. But as soon as Leo got through one laborious page, the phone buzzed. “what for” It should have pissed Leo off, getting that message. When they first moved into the place, it surely would have. The dryer was still out; Leo had been chasing Nikoloz to fix it for weeks now. But instead of screenshotting it and texting it to Alex as he would have done once—“NIKOLOZ YOU FUCK”—Leo picked up the phone and stared at it. His heart, he had to admit, was beating fast. He took a beat then wrote— “dryer still broken” —then again— “will make you tea, haha” He cursed himself for the haha. It was a Young Millennial affectation that he’d accidentally picked up from Alex, punctuating everything with one form or another of lmao for no real good reason. He was an Old Millennial and it was unbecoming. He was usually pretty good at catching himself from doing it to his elders. But he’d slipped up and suddenly hated himself for it. Still, two seconds later, the phone buzzed again. “oh yeh right” Leo stared, started to answer, then stopped, and stared some more. Another buzz, another message from Nikoloz. “wanna come down here” Why would he come down there? How would Nikoloz fix anything from inside his own apartment? But there wasn’t even time for the confusion to register. All he knew was that he did want to go down there. He wanted to very badly. He hadn’t realized just how badly he wanted to go down there. To the flat downstairs, the one he’d stared at, the one he’d—there wasn’t really another way of saying—the one he’d fantasized about. The air of righteousness that it held. The cigarette smoke seeped into the wood, the rough brick walls, the austerity that it screamed. The Graxis icon hanging with power. Nikoloz’s place. At that moment, there was nothing he wanted more. He messaged— “Cool … be right down” Leo waited, one palm flat on the book, eyes open staring into the middle distance. He felt his heavy breaths. “yeah cool mate” Leo shut the book and then blinked his eyes shut, hard, for a few beats. He was buzzing, he had to admit it. He tried to shake himself out of it but it was still there, and so it was on shaky legs that he got up and walked out the door. Walked out to go see Nikoloz.
The author of This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart on Partition, science, and perspective.
On August 15, 1947, when India achieved independence from British Colonial rule, a series of divisions occurred. The most famous of these was Partition: the division of India and Pakistan, of Hindus and Muslims, of former friends and neighbours, of new lives from the old. Depending on how you read it, Madhur Anand’s This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart (Strange Light) opens on Partition, alternating chapters to tell the stories of two strangers, future spouses, forced to leave their childhood homes, later emigrating to Canada in the hopes of starting a family. There, they must experience harsh Ontario winters, culture shock, language barriers, and nostalgia for a home that doesn’t quite exist anymore. Midway through, the book hits a partition of its own. Stop, flip it over, and you have the memoir of Madhur Anand, daughter of the narrators of the book’s first half. A professor of ecology and sustainability at the University of Guelph, Anand is trained to look for patterns in the physical world around her, turning to poetry, science, and the theories of both to explain her present and her family’s past. This Red Line is a book about divisions, between generations, languages, geographies, and academic disciplines—divisions that are almost never neatly symmetrical, despite our intentions to read symmetry into them. I call Madhur Anand at her home in Guelph from my family’s home in Ottawa, where we’ve both learned to adapt to the new realities of working from home. We’re interrupted a few times during the conversation, she by her children and I by my brother’s dog. Anna Fitzpatrick: There's one portion you have in your half of the memoir, you're reading Allan Hume's The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds, and you describe it as being outdated but you're reading it for the purpose of finding poems in it. Can you speak to that act of looking for poetry in other forms? Madhur Anand: Basically, I'm newer to creative writing in a sense, to this whole thing of art. Having discovered that I'm an artist is, I don't know. I don't know when that point happens in a person's mind. Certainly, after publishing one book of poetry, I knew that I was going to continue doing it. The problem of course is you don't know how you're going to keep doing it. One can reach and fail and reach and fail, and certainly that happened before my first book as well. It’s an ongoing process. So you look anywhere, honestly. As you can probably tell from my book, I look everywhere for poetry. In the end, it's potentially present everywhere. You gotta keep looking. You gotta keep your eye on things. Everything in life, not everything is going to realize its full potential, including the poetry. I came across that text almost by accident, while looking for something on the internet. I honestly don't remember initially what I was looking for. I can't always remember the order of things. You know how there are those print on demand services, and they reprint really old texts for you? They all have the same generic cover. All to say that the cover intrigued me at first, because it's a textbook looking cover. Several months later I realized it was the generic looking cover they used for all the old reprints regardless of the subject matter. I judged the book by the cover, but it got me to the book. So, the book itself, I don't know if I described it, but it's a really esoteric text. It is a 19th century description of birds but not birds. There are no bird descriptions; only descriptions of nests and eggs. To me, the idea of a scientific treatise focusing solely on descriptions of eggs and nests and not the birds was just intriguing. I thought, Oh god, if that's not all the metaphor potential I could ever want from my next poetry book, I don't know what is. Not to mention that they're Indian birds, which, I don't know, and generally I feel like people in the West don't know about, because there's tons of scientific work that's very much Western hemisphere focused. US and Europe. But also, tons and tons of literary treatments of birds is also Western focused, robins and swallows and whatever. So I thought, OK, in addition to that metaphor, eggs and nests, there was going to be a lot of language and learning of these other species. They would be literally exotic to me and the readers. Anyway, I started to read it, and when you go into the text, it's like reading the Bible, if you've ever attempted to do that, which I have in my life. As a post-doc, I once just said, "Hey, I'm going to read this from start to finish and see what it's like." Because you hear so much about the Bible. I'm not religious at all, of any type, but I was like, let me just see what this actual text is, the original text. And once I started reading it, it was clear that no poems were coming. And then I sort of just got into the litany of it. The repetition, the pattern, the practice of it. Every day I just read a few pages religiously of this book, and I started to read it, and ultimately I did write some poems, and I do have poems. You mentioned that it was hard to figure out a point where it was hard to call yourself an artist. Were there clearer milestones to calling yourself a scientist? Those are such good questions that I toy with a lot. I always keep flipping in terms of what I think about that. On one hand, I hate the professionalization of either of those terms. They're not really professions per se. They can be, but to me they're both ways of being in the world, and ways of knowing the world. They're different. They can overlap, but they can also be complementary. I haven't quite figured it all out yet, of how they both figure into my life. I feel that one can and should always go through the world thinking that you're artistically or scientifically inclined, and if you want to call yourself that, go for it, if you wish others to call you that, ask them to. I don't feel any problem with any of that. On the other hand, because I am a practicing scientist in the sense of, I have a PhD, I have been a professor, I’ve been doing research for twenty years now, and I know what it means to actually go through the scientific method towards scientific progress, and everything around it. I do feel there's a rigour and training and experience and ethic and community and all those things required to really call yourself a scientist. I think the difference maybe comes to what it is you're trying to achieve with these labels. There's an area of expertise that one develops as a scientist. I am a theoretical ecologist, but I am not a virologist, for example. I think there is validity to those types of labels and there's an ethic of making sure that you are speaking from a place of knowledge and experience. On the artistic side, I think the same thing probably holds true, but I think one of the differences between science and art, and I could be wrong about this and certainly I don't think that artists think this, but I think it's the case in society that there's an expectation. Society in general doesn't feel like there's as much at stake with what artists do. I feel that maybe people don't care as much about that. But artists themselves, as you probably know, care very much. I think they're often questioning what it is to be an artist. Probably it is because of that problem of society not knowing what is at stake. And also not knowing for yourself what's at stake. One always has to question that with art. With science it's a little bit easier to know. So when did it happen for me? I didn't feel it or think it, but if you look back on my actual practice and how I treated the appearance of art in my life—I wrote my first poem in the final year of writing my PhD thesis—and it was at that moment that I think that I became an artist, not because what I was writing was good, not because I was conscious of it, but because of how I engaged with poetry after that point. I took it seriously. I continued to work on it, and I continued to question it, and I continued to do it. I increasingly accumulated ambition for that art like we all do. I wanted to publish, I wanted to share it, I wanted it to be good. In hindsight, I would say it was that very moment only because of how I responded to it. That's it. Of course, as time went on and my first book came out, every little thing that happened after that reinforces it. You can always totally lose your way as an artist, which is I think harder to do as a scientist. In some ways I think because of that there is so much more at stake to remain an artist. Because you could lose it completely. Because it is mysterious, ultimately, how art is made. You have a quote by Feynman that it's hard to get the history right when you are trying to explain something. Going into it, knowing it is a memoir, I still read your book like a novel with the amount of attention to detail, and shifting of perspectives. In your half of the book, you admit the gaps of knowledge in your own history, but with your parents the text seems more sure of itself, even though you're writing through the barrier of someone else's memories. How did you go about researching their stories and getting that voice down? I'm glad you highlight the gaps and the questions, and yet I think generally speaking I was actually very reluctant to actually write any story from the first person of myself at all. I don't think I fully understand myself, right? I'm still only in midlife. My intent was not to write memoir. The function of my side was to give the reader some insight into who is the narrator of my parents' stories. Not who is Madhur Anand, you know? I'm not quite ready to write my full story. There are incredibly large pieces of my life missing on that side. Huge things. When I think back to the little stories that I included, I'm like, "How is it possible that the two most jerkiest guys are the stories that I write about." But I realized they had a function, and it wasn't really about them. It was about a time and a place. It's all to say that yes, there's a gap in memories and questioning and a lot of my side is still unwritten because it's not really about me, and I would like to pursue those perhaps one day, who knows. But there are major gaps there. Whereas on my parents' side, certainly, again, the goal was not to write a complete biography of these individuals. I always struggled with the idea of the word "biography" because I know it's being called that and I know it's being called memoir, but I actually don't feel very comfortable with those terms. I've accepted them, but I wish there was another word that we could use to describe this book. Indeed, I wrote it in a way in which I felt I wanted it to be read as a novel, because of the big gaps that I knew would remain, gaps both deliberate and unintentional. I can't know what I don't know. In terms of how I achieved it for their side, I started with whatever it is that they wanted to tell me, stories they had been telling me their entire lives, parts of their life I hadn't heard about, and I just tried to get a few more details down. I tried to get as much knowledge as possible. I really just listened. Listening is essential for a writer, like observing is, when you're writing about others. Listening is about being present and allowing the other person to be. There were only a couple of reasons I would interject into their long monologues that I recorded. One would be if I really wanted to get a few more details, because I knew I had to elevate—I think that's the right word—I wanted to elevate these stories to literature and art. Not that stories themselves don't have value, but because that was what I wanted to do. I'm an artist. I wanted to make this into art. I just needed more on my palette, if you will. I needed some details on things. I would interject to get details of things, like colours of things or species or sounds or tastes. Things like that. But that's what we do. That's what writers do. I would also interject if the stories were so difficult for them to talk about, not that I was learning anything new, frankly. It was just finding a way to get it down in a different way. Some of it did end up coming out verbatim. Little bits. But if it was getting really difficult or painful to talk about something, I would kind of shift it. Often, I was asking the same questions but for a different function. I would ask the brand name of my mom's bike, or the colour of it. I wanted to know those things, but I was also asking her so it would take her mind away from the trauma of a particular story for a little way, to just carry us a little bit forward or to try to perhaps recall some of the more present aspects of life. That's kind of how I approached getting down their stories. Because I am me and because I am narrating, even though it's in the first person, I absolutely wanted to enrich, I wanted to bring in a second generation, a second partition, and bring all of the richness that I have gained—I don't want to sound melodramatic—but all of the sacrifices they made, everything they did, most of which was for their children and for the betterment of their children, I wanted to use all of the powers I had gained in my life, which are so different from my mother's life, or my father's life in that I've realized many of the things he's wanted to do. I wanted to bring all that wealth and richness that I have in my life to bear on their stories, and that's where both the poetry and the science, I think that was the function of both of those things in the retelling of their stories. I wanted to talk about narratives around Partition. You talk about how nothing you learned from your parents was new information for you. My grandfather's also a Punjabi Hindu, and his family had to leave their home during Partition, and they just did not talk about it when I was growing up. The writings I could find about it when I started to look were mostly just history books. It seems in the last few years, since the 70th anniversary in 2017, I've seen more things like your book, this concerted effort to get stories down as the generation who lived through Partition is aging. So first I was wondering how open your parents were to talking about Partition when you were growing up, and have you found in your research—or just as a person growing up after this generation—have you seen a shift? Like your family members, they didn't talk about it very much at all. Most of my knowledge of Partition does come from films and books. One of the first ones, there's probably a couple out there, but they're like Gandhi, the movie, I remember watching that with my parents in the ‘80s. But it just kinda happens at the end of that movie, right? You don't actually see that much. It's not actually about it. There were a few iconic things. Certainly, above all, Deepa Mehta's film Earth, but it was in 1999 it came out. I do remember when that came out, it had a particularly big impact on me, but again I watched it on my own. I didn't talk about it with my parents. I really am thankful for those artistic treatments because they do allow people like us to have a window into partition, and I think that's one of the wonderful functions, if I may say, of art. They do allow us windows into things that people don't want to talk about, or you're unable to talk about. If anything, art is so wonderful and books are so wonderful for that purpose. That's what they're for, for learning about the lives of others. If my book serves as that function, that's wonderful. I think it will. I've encountered some second generation Indian kids who all kind of say the same thing, that their parents never talked about it, they don't really know anything about it, and how are we, as second-generation immigrant kids, this is not taught in the history books, how are we going to find out about it if not through literature and books and things like that? This is the way I feel like art can actually, you know, have an impact on society. Anyway. So, Earth, there was an opening scene there are these young people in their twenties sitting on a blanket and having a picnic in Lahore, just as independence is being declared. It did allow me, first, not only to understand the time and place of Partition, but also the time and place of my parents' youth, which is also something difficult for us immigrants to imagine. My parents came from a totally different time and totally different place. It sounds so simple to say such a thing, but it took me writing this book to fully understand how different it is. And I knew it was different. That was the thing that propelled this project forward for me. I wanted to know. I wanted to be there. I wanted to go there, desperately. It's not the same as going to India today. It's not just place. I've been to India several times. I've been to where my mom grew up, but it's not as simple as doing that. It's time and place. When those two variables interact, it can be totally wild. It's really hard to imagine. You asked if there's been a shift in the literature. I too very much noticed the media attention around the 70th anniversary of Partition. I'm grateful for that, for the media, all the Guardian articles, a few other things that came out. Hazlitt actually published a really lovely essay by Rudrapriya Rathore, and she mentions a few books in there that I already had come across. Has there been since then? I haven't noticed much, to be honest. There've been a couple of nonfiction books that have come out. There was a reissue of the collected works of Manto, and there's a film made about his life. He lived through Partition and wrote incredibly potent stories in Urdu that have been translated into English now, from the points of view of prostitutes and criminals and people in insane asylums. It was just an incredible window into Partition. There are still lots of books out there, if people want to read them.
Speaking to the author of Caste about the insufficiencies of the term “racism,” objectivity versus balance, and the opportunities America’s coming demographic shift presents.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, is a landmark study of the Great Migration, the period between WWI and the 1970s when millions of African-Americans fled the Jim Crow South. It was an epic subject and an epic task. Told through the lives of three individuals, Wilkerson spent fifteen years exhaustively reporting and conducting interviews. Curiously, despite the subject matter, the word “racism” does not appear once in The Warmth of Other Suns. In the course of reporting The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson realized the term was insufficient for describing the elaborate framework that organizes U.S. society. What she was writing about was actually a caste system, and this became the subject of her second book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Caste is no less ambitious than Wilkerson’s first book. By comparing the racialized system in the U.S. with the millennium-old one of India and that of Nazi Germany, Wilkerson distills what she calls the “eight pillars of caste.” She describes caste as a hierarchical system that assigns roles to members of society at each rung of the social ladder. In a caste system, consciously or subconsciously, everyone knows their place and the place of others simply by looking at them. In a caste system, it is dangerous to act out of place, to break from the script. I spoke to Wilkerson about how the U.S. caste system was born from slavery and how it has mutated throughout history, her choice to include personal experiences, and why the 2042 census projection, which predicts white people will become a minority, could be a turning point for the U.S. caste system. Connor Goodwin: I'll begin with the obvious. The U.S. is not usually viewed as a caste system. What convinced you that caste was the best way to frame how U.S. society organizes itself? And what insight does this caste fretwork provide that, say, race or class alone, does not? Isabel Wilkerson: That’s a great question. It started with my previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which was about the exodus of six million African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to all points North, Midwest, and West. In other words, it was the out-migration of people who had been born to and trapped in a caste system known as Jim Crow. I was describing the world anyone [in the Jim Crow South] was living in, whether the people were in the dominating caste or the subordinated caste—and what life was like in that world. A lot of people who’ve read the book in intervening years have often described it as a book about how they were fleeing racism in the South. But I do not use the word “racism” in the book. Racism did not feel sufficient to describe the organized, multi-layered, fixed repression of the people in that world. That repression was bigger and deeper and more far-reaching than [racism]. So the word I used was “caste.” [“Caste”] was a word that had actually been used by anthropologists and social scientists who went to the South during the Great Migration, primarily in the 1930s—the word they come up with time and time again was “caste.” So when sociologists and anthropologists went to the South and studied it when the caste system was in full force, in its most formal and brutal iteration, they used the word “caste.” In writing about the experiences of people in the twentieth century who were fleeing that caste system, only to arrive in the big cities outside of the South and to discover a different kind of hierarchy that they then had to navigate, additional restrictions that they might not have anticipated, that actually arose because of their arrival. In other words, fleeing the caste system did not free them from the caste system as it existed in other parts of the country. It shadowed them wherever they went. As a result, the language I have come to use is “caste” because it speaks to the structure, that often hidden and unrecognized hierarchy, and the boundaries that the structure imposes to keep the parts separate and ranked. That is why I use the word “caste.” What I found most convincing was that a caste system ascribes roles to people at each tier and everyone subconsciously knows these roles. Can you speak to this idea of scripted roles and what happens when someone steps outside their role? Well, there’s so many examples. Perhaps that is why the word “caste” is so appropriate, because it reminds of just what you said—the roles that we’ve been assigned. We did not choose these roles, they were assigned and affixed to us. In many respects, they hold everyone back because we often don’t get choices as to how we’re viewed, how we’re seen, what our potential is viewed to be. One of the metaphors I use is that of being in a play. If you have a long-running play, everybody knows who’s in what role, and people have been in the roles for so long they know where someone is supposed to be on the stage before they even step on the stage, because that’s what happens in a play. It’s interesting that the word “cast” is applied to a play; “cast” is what’s put on an arm when there’s a fracture to hold the bones in place. So the idea of holding someone or something in place is a hallmark of what caste means. The origins of the American hierarchy of caste began with enslavement. Literally what you looked like determined the kind of work that you would do in the country for 246 years of enslavement and then for 100 years after that in the Jim Crow caste system, [which] did not end legally until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. For most of the country’s history, it was very clear who was doing what based on what they looked like, which signaled where they stand in the caste system. The dirtiest, most dangerous, most dreaded jobs were assigned to people who were enslaved, who had no choices in what they might do, had no choice over their bodies, and this went on for over twelve generations. Even with Covid-19, studies have found that Black and brown people were getting sicker at a higher rate and dying at higher rates. Much of that had to do with the occupational caste hierarchy that became evident during the crisis, especially in the early going, when there was limited protections, limited masks for anyone. These were the people who were on the front lines: the ones stacking shelves at the grocery store, the ones who were driving the busses and public transportation, the ones making deliveries. They were on the front lines, exposed to the public without the protections we now know were necessary and advisable, and allow[ed] others to shelter-in-place and be safer from the virus. Every other week there seems to be another example of someone, generally from what would be viewed as the dominating caste inserting themselves or intruding as an African-American is going about their life and calling the police on them for something that would be seen as perhaps benign by someone else. Someone called the police on two African-American men waiting for a friend at a Starbucks. Someone called the [campus] police on a student at Yale University who was studying and resting her head on her books. There’s police being called on people who are at a pool. These are the current-day manifestations of policing the boundaries and the instant recognition of or belief that certain people belong in certain places and others do not. Is there a way in which the ongoing protests as part of the Movement for Black Lives is challenging the caste script? I think that all the liberation movements that have occurred throughout American history have been an effort to challenge the pre-existing caste system. This is part of a continuum. History unaddressed recurs. American history is one that can be characterized by the underlying structure that we live with, but then these advances that have occurred over time that were often swiftly followed by retrenchment and backlash and a long period of plateauing. It’s this cycle that seems to be recurring and this is a continuing manifestation of the efforts to bring light to, and to somehow transcend, the hierarchies that have been the basis of so much injustice and inequality in the country. You speak of caste as a rigid organizing system that seeks to keep the dominant members on top and the subordinate ones on the bottom. While this organizing system is rigid, what constitutes someone as a member of the dominant caste has changed over time. In what ways has the U.S. caste system reconstituted itself throughout history? The essential hierarchy—the structure—remains the same. But who qualifies to be in the dominant group, who can be permitted, admitted, into the dominant group is one of the focuses of any caste system. The people who qualify to be in the dominant group have changed over time to meet the needs of changing demographics and infusion of people into the country. In 1790, the people who would’ve qualified to be in the dominant group, the people who qualified as white, would be completely different from who would’ve qualified in 1890 or 1924 when a major immigration bill passed that actually restricted people who were coming in from Southern and Eastern Europe and other parts of the world outside of Western Europe. The fact of a dominant group has been ever-present. The fact of a bottom rail has been ever-present and has been more static in its membership—descendants of the enslaved have always been consigned to the subordinated bottom of the caste system. The changes have occurred in the top. This is the reason why [we talk about] the idea of race as a social construct. But we have been so acclimated and so socialized to believe in [race] as [a] law of nature that it has come to be seen as the way things have always been. But it turns out race is not actually that old of an idea, only four or five hundred years old. It arose as a concept with the populating of the Americas which brought together people from different parts of the world who otherwise would not have been identified on the basis solely of their color. They would have been identified as Ethiopian or as Polish or as Hungarian and suddenly they get to the United States and they are put in a queue based on what they look like, based on where they fit in the hierarchy that was created as a result of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. People who had not needed to think of themselves as white, not needed to think of themselves as Black, are suddenly assigned to racial categories that did not exist before, that did not need to exist before. This is how relatively new [race] is, but it has been around long enough, become so much a part of how we think of ourselves, we don’t question it anymore. The language of caste is this new language for understanding ourselves, for understanding our history, understanding how we interact with one another, how we relate to one another, and how we have inherited this framework. No one alive is responsible for creating [and] it’s not anyone’s fault they were born to a particular place in the caste system. This is what we inherited. But once we become aware of it, it is our responsibility to see how it affects us, how it hurts all of us and what we can do to work together to transcend it. In Caste, you reluctantly introduce some personal experiences. Why did you choose to include these, and did that choice in some way resonate with the recent discourse around “objectivity” in journalism? The idea of objectivity was not an issue for me. There’s a whole long conversation that could be had about objectivity. We are a species known for our capacity for emotion, for empathy, for taking in information and inputs from many different sources in order to survive. By definition, it means that we are not machines that can be seen as objective. We are, by definition, taking in inputs and sensory information that we then encode subconsciously and consciously that affect how we see a particular thing. Objectivity is not the same as authority. Objectivity is not the same as doing the research. Objectivity is not the same as doing the hard work to create a document that reflects the research one has done. The goal should be balance. The goal is not to pretend we are machines. We fool ourselves if we think any one person, or any one group, has a lock on objectivity. My work has always been about telling a bigger story through the lives of other people and not making it personal so that someone would think this is singular to her. I’m more accustomed to and feel very at home with focusing in on the stories of others in order to tell a larger story through narrative nonfiction. That’s what I do, that’s who I am, and that’s what I prefer to do. In the process of doing the work that I have felt called to do, I have also run into the very phenomena I am writing about, so that’s the reason why it seemed necessary, reluctantly for me, to include examples from my own experiences. Your last book, The Warmth of Other Suns, told the history of the Great Migration through the lived experiences of three individuals. Whereas that book was very biographical and consisted of extensive in-person interviews, your new book relies more heavily on archives and academic studies. How did this affect your reporting for Caste and did it present any unique challenges (like you couldn’t go back for more interviews)? That’s a really good point. There was a mix of all those things. I did do extensive interviewing and interaction and conversation with people who were dealing with caste in their own ways. The difference is that this is not the same kind of focus on just three people like The Warmth of Other Suns was. This is a chorus of people testifying to the experiences that they might have had of caste. In addition to that work of listening to, hearing, searching out, and being attuned to the stories of people that I was meeting or talking to, I also was looking to the other disciplines that touch upon caste in order to understand it as fully as I possibly could. Anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, economics—all of these various disciplines. I was awash in books. Books, books, books. Books that were written about caste from, say, the nineteenth century. British scholars writing about caste. Indian scholars writing about caste. There was a point where I was having to read a book a day because there was so much coming in, so much that needed to be done. The work was massive to study, absorb, and then distill these disparate cultures, different disciplines, [and] try to condense this into something that would be readable, absorbable, and perhaps illuminating to people. Throughout the book, you bring up the 2042 census projection, which predicts white people will become a minority in the U.S. In what ways might the 2042 census upset the current caste system and, since it is based on race, how might the caste system reconstitute itself if whites, the dominant caste, become a minority? The country will be facing a turning point in its identity and it has a choice to make as to how it will move forward, how it will perceive itself, how it will reconcile a demographic combination that it’s never seen before. If projections hold, this will be a new experience for everyone wherever they might be in what I call a caste system. What I’m trying to say is it will affect everyone and the choice is whether to embrace this change and become stronger for it or to further retrench and reconstitute the caste system as has happened in the past. When you look at the 1924 immigration bill, the response was to shut down additional immigration to keep the country constituted the way it had been. The country is facing an existential question about what it will be, how will it constitute itself, will it embrace a demographic that’s different than what it’s done before. The caste system has been in place from the beginning and has shown itself to be incredibly resilient and enduring and, unless there’s an awareness and enlightenment about that, the possibility is that, without enlightenment and awareness, it will just reconstitute itself as it has in the past.
The author of Life Events on grieving, exit guides, and the way we think about death.
In 1967, British psychiatrist John Mark Hinton tried to outline dying in just 144 pages. Brief as it was, Dying didn’t discuss finality with euphemisms, but centred the experiences of terminally ill patients. And while the book guided the implementation of palliative care in hospices, it did little to acknowledge how those institutions conceal death and illness. Over fifty years later, and in the midst of a pandemic, deaths are not only abstracted in statistics, but we’re being forced to move on without grieving that loss. In her third novel, Life Events (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Karolina Waclawiak considers the pre-grieving stage of loss. Her narrator, Evelyn, is at a crossroads: her marriage is ending and her father is dying, so she becomes an exit guide. It’s in meetings with death doulas and afterlife conventions that she learns how to provide companionship to three terminally ill “clients,” and helps them die. Exit guides help restore dignity to the dying by letting them dictate it or, as her boss proselytizes, “[d]eath isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you do.” While Evelyn struggles with her avoidant relationship to pain and grief, she ultimately makes peace with her failures and choices—something Waclawiak’s characters have evaded at all costs. In her two previous novels How to Get into the Twin Palms and The Invaders, they are outsiders, constantly faced with the pressures to pass as much as they can in order to be accepted. Life Events ends on a more hopeful note, with Evelyn playing back old voicemails from her parents, wondering what will happen when they can no longer ramble on. Sara Black McCulloch: How is everything in LA right now? Karloina Waclawiak: When I went to get my dad out of Texas, because the numbers were going up there, California was fine. And then we drove to Connecticut to bring my dad to my brother, and in the time it took for me to do that... I returned to California and it’s now a disaster. Life Events deals with grief and death and with everything going on with COVID, has this changed your views on grief or shifted the way that you were thinking about a lot of this before the pandemic? In the early weeks of the pandemic, I saw a lot of young people and people my age start talking about health directives, feeling like anything could happen. They started to think about, what would happen if they died? And it really felt like a mass movement that I've never seen before. I think in general, Americans certainly have an uncomfortable relationship with death, if they have a relationship to it at all. And to me, in American culture, it feels like death is really hidden away. Aging is really hidden away. And aging is seen as a threat and something to fix if possible. And so, it was really interesting to me to see the pandemic as this sort of great leveler—where everyone had this acute threat of, what happens if I die or my loved one dies? To me, that's been really the striking moment of the pandemic. And it felt like, wow, everything I wrote about in the book, just their energy, has come to the fore. But with that, you know, I had anxiety. Everyone is already feeling terrible. A book about grief? Do people really want to confront grief? But it is an inevitability. Recently, I saw tweets where people were talking about writing wills just in case, and few people, especially young people, have had to consider that until now. Because of COVID, hospitals have instituted a no-visitor policy, and now a lot of people have been dying in hospitals alone. Their families can’t properly mourn or even hold a funeral. Even during this pandemic and this monumental loss, a lot of us are still not seeing it. It’s so heart wrenching having someone you love die. I lost my mother in September, and talked to my family about this. It was awful, but the idea of... just, what so many families are now facing, like you said: if she were in the hospital and we could not be with her, that would just have added a whole other layer of grief. I can't even comprehend what families are going through, especially if it's somebody who was not previously ill, that sort of dramatic turn, and then having them go to the hospital, not knowing what's happening and really being cut off. And then, you know, being told they're gone. It's just so shocking, and I think, with the pandemic in general, we're all suffering from a collective grief as a society. I truly don't believe it will ever go back to the way It was and a lot of people are grappling with losing the kind of life that they had before. I certainly heard from people who said, “I'm okay right now,” and who are expressing gratitude. I feel the same way—that my life has changed significantly—but I also feel grateful for the life that I have. That collective grief of not going back to the way it was and having to sit with an uncomfortable feeling of not knowing when and then the added layer of grief that comes from watching so many people die. Even if you're not intimately connected with someone who has passed away, just seeing the numbers climb is really debilitating. All of this is to say that I think it is unreal to me to not be able to be with your loved one as they're dying. That was an experience [losing someone] that I had with my mother and my grandfather who passed away over a decade ago. It's such a profound experience. It's really terrifying, and it changes you, but for people to not have the opportunity to mourn feels like another kind of grief. The way we talk about death is through so many euphemisms. We have this urge to compartmentalize it. And the language for death distances us from it. Did you ever struggle to give a language to grief and to that kind of mourning when you were writing the book? I tried to be clear-eyed about it. During the editing process, my mother passed away and even though I had lost my grandfather, like, the level of grief when it comes to losing a parent is not something you really understand until you go through it. So, the purpose of the book was to try to capture that anxiety of pre-grieving and knowing something is coming. And so, it is a book about grief, but it's a specific time: it's not the aftermath. It's the wave that's coming to crash down on you and what that anticipation feels like. I just didn't think that hiding behind euphemism or being particularly flowery about it was going to serve the purpose that I wanted the book to serve. I read Joan Didion's work on grief, and to me that also was so plainly written and so direct. And so, I really wanted to do something similar in capturing the time before and just create work that people could find and just be straight with them about what that grappling looks like. Did you speak to any death doulas while researching the book? The origination of this whole project actually came from randomly listening to the Criminal podcast and there was an episode about an exit guide, and I was so shaken by the episode because I had never heard of volunteers who work as exit guides. The only understanding I had around assisted suicide was Dr. Kevorkian in the ’90s. And so, this woman’s testimonial of why she was providing this service, why there's a whole network of people providing a service, gave a nuanced understanding of that work. I'm certainly a writer who does research. I want to, hopefully, sound like I know what I’m talking about so I did take courses with a death doula and it's interesting because there's certainly a break between people who are okay with assisted suicide and the larger death doula community, so I certainly don't want to conflate the two because death doulas really sit with people as they're dying. They're really going through the whole process of helping someone die naturally. And that was an interesting tension too. I tried to nod to that in the book. I had a bit in there about people’s comfortability with assisted suicide. It is a transgressive act, and it's not even legal in most states in the US. It’s obviously legal in Switzerland, but I really was thinking about the idea of control in death, and how long we allow ourselves to suffer. And taking back that sense of control—not even putting a value judgment on it—just thinking about, how long do I want to live? How long if I know I'm terminal? Do I want to suffer? Is that suffering needless? Is there another way out? And so, I did immerse myself in death communities. I really went deep into the people who attend afterlife conventions. I even attended one myself and wanted to understand what level of grief drives people to even seek out psychics—to really believe in people who say they can give you access to the afterlife. I wanted to provide an empathetic picture of the world of death without necessarily taxing value judgments. In the book, there are discussions among the exit guides—where they assess their own quality of life in percentages, and what “weaknesses” they could live with. For instance, one person says they want to go at 20 percent, which means that they would be fully reliant on an IV, a feeding tube and intubated. It made me think about how in many narratives about death, especially in illness narratives, there’s an honour in suffering and here, people are determining at what point their quality of life is severely compromised and not worth living. We don’t really talk about this or even assess it for ourselves and even now, we’re hearing about people being intubated and how painful that is even though it’s supposed to keep you alive. We don't examine these procedures because they’re tied to a cure, and to medicine and hospitals. They do good, they keep you alive, but not necessarily in the best way possible. And that’s a controversial opinion. I’m okay with people not agreeing with me on that, that at a certain point, if your loved one is dying, and it's terminal, a lot of times people are kept alive, because the family can't let go. I've had friends whose parents have died. It's really hard to make that choice, to say: okay, pull the plug (so to speak). But you really do have to start thinking about quality of life, which is what's really interesting about making a health directive saying, I don't want to be intubated. This is the quality of life that I'm willing to say, like, past this point, I'm not interested in living. The fact that more and more people are thinking about this and actually making those decisions, especially if they have children... that's something that I put in there, too. You don't ask someone who is really close to you to make that decision because they're going to be thinking about their wants and needs over yours. It’s human nature and it’s complicated. But when do you say enough is enough? And when do you really give up? It's almost like you're giving up hope on the person, which feels so loaded, but when it’s clear they're suffering and there's no “what's next?” I remember thinking about that, like where are they going to go from here? There’s no up! I remember reading an excerpt of Life Events back in 2015—“Late-Night Bloomers”? I remember it being written in the third person. I wanted to know why you chose to write it from Evelyn’s perspective instead or what had prompted that change? I worked on that with Paul Reyes, who is a brilliant editor, and that was sort of a selection from the book that I was writing at the time. And it was all in the third person. I wrote to the end and I actually showed it to Paul and asked what he thought of it. The main thought was that perhaps it shouldn't be in third person. And writing that whole draft... I felt so distant from the why—why would Evelyn do this? What was going on in her life that she would make the choices that she made? And it was a totally different book. I just didn't feel like I had access to the characters in the way that I wanted. I threw that whole draft away and I kept Evelyn’s name, what she did, and I kept maybe like a dozen pages, and I totally started over. And it was terrifying! I was under contract for the book. They were really pushing me to publish it within the year. And I felt such a sense of anxiety. Basically, I didn't want to put out a book that I didn't want to write, so I got out of my book contract. And it took getting out of my book contact to feel the freedom of, like, “Okay, I'm gonna take the time I need. I'm going to write the book that I want to write. And who knows, maybe it'll take me ten years. I just don't want to feel like I'm being rushed.” I aged Evelyn down—in “Late-Night Bloomers,” she's in her fifties, I think, and I really thought about, what age is someone at a crossroads? I felt like since this was such a big life event—to want to be around people who are dying, like, what else is going on in her life? I started thinking about the big life events like marriage, children and the markers of progress and stuff. I started thinking about a woman who felt like she had gotten all of those things wrong and really felt stagnant in her own life and was using this as a catalyst in a way to selfishly wake up, along with trying to desensitize herself of her parents dying. I had her going through a divorce and edging towards forty, which is a pivotal year for women because there are a couple of years left when you can actually have children. But what happens when your whole life blows up later in life? And thinking about the sort of life you're supposed to have by the time you're nearing forty, and stripping that from Evelyn, and really thinking about somebody who even in her career hasn't had those highs and what that looks like and then giving her something that really becomes her obsession. It took me six years, but I'm really proud of this iteration. It really took me having to throw the first draft and getting out of the contract to get here. You empathize with your characters, especially the women like Evelyn. Do you always extend that kind of understanding to them, or do you have to come around? I love my characters. I feel like I have to, warts and all, especially if I’m spending so much time with them. It always bugs me when critics are like, “Karolina always writes unlikable female narrators,” and I’m like, “I write them all!” It's hard because in all of my books, I've always written complicated women who make choices that are often transgressive, that are going against the grain of what you're supposed to do as a woman. And so that does rub people the wrong way. I personally find complex women really interesting and I wouldn't want to write about women who aren't making mistakes. But I also never want to torture my narrator. I want to take them as far as they can go and make them uncomfortable. And I definitely know that in making them uncomfortable sometimes it's uncomfortable for readers. I never do it just for the hell of it. They learn something about themselves, but not in a corny way. So much of the book became a question of how you avoid pain and seeing the way Evelyn dissected the ways she avoided pain her whole life, and part of that was getting married and seeing how much more pain that caused her. I think this is probably the first book where my narrator has been able to face herself. I was going to say! [Laughs] I mean, I have women who avoid themselves, or trying to figure themselves out but the willingness to really face yourself, I don't think has been there as much as it has in this book and that felt even scarier! In your two previous novels, I was especially thinking about Cheryl (from The Invaders) who stayed in her marriage because she didn't want to start all over again. But Evelyn ends her marriage and deals with the uncomfortable realities of starting from scratch at thirty-seven. And I think in the past, your characters have dealt with passing in communities—they’re outsiders dealing with their identity but not fully confronting it so they try to assimilate instead. Usually the endings are so explosive because the women are self-destructive. But Evelyn forgives herself. It feels like a natural progression to have your narrator confront herself and forgive herself so she can move forward. I was like, “maybe I'll end this book with a hopeful ending”—a totally new challenge for myself. I really do feel like this book is this journey of self-discovery for her, and the end of that self-discovery is just forgiveness. I think that forgiving yourself is the hardest thing you can do. Giving up resentments against other people is really difficult to do. Seeing the part you played in your issues impacting other people in your life and then saying, “I own that, and I forgive myself for it.” It's growth! And I really wanted Evelyn to start in one place and change. It's not this explosive change, but it felt important to me to end somewhere in forgiveness because she really blamed so much of the way her life turned out on herself. And that fear of making choices, but through being around people who are dying and trying to leave without resentments and leave without unfinished business, for lack of a better term...I think she really wants to learn how to live consciously and take ownership over her actions and ownership over her life instead of being evasive. In The Invaders, Cheryl certainly felt like an evasive character. With Evelyn, while saying that vulnerability was the hardest thing for her to ever do, she was being so vulnerable with the reader, which was something that I felt could also provide nuance to her. It didn't seem reasonable for me to withhold from the reader and, I think in other books, I certainly have withheld in how much you got to know about each woman. And I really love those kinds of books. I love Rachel Cusk’s trilogy because you learn virtually nothing about her character, but I wanted to almost do the opposite of that, where you’re watching the machination of Evelyn try to confront herself. I do feel that in those moments of forgiveness, she is setting herself free and that to me feels like a beautiful endpoint that feels less tragic than the other books I’ve written. At the end of Life Events, Evelyn listens to old voicemails from her parents and it’s a gesture of pre-grieving—of revisiting someone’s voice when and if you lose them. It’s weird because a lot of us dread voicemails, but they can also be a connection to someone we’ve lost. Their voice can have so much more impact on you than, say, a photo. Totally. My phone right now probably has twenty unlistened-to voicemails… Right? Have you saved any voicemails that really matter to you? Especially now that you’ve been grieving? I think you either have denial about what's going to happen, especially if your parents are aging and you don't think about building an archive of what you’ll miss. For me, I certainly wasn't thinking in that way, but I now wish I was because I don't even have any videos of my mom. I remember we would go on trips together and I was always documenting everything because I had my phone. But I was deleting stuff because I needed more memory and so I don't have videos of my mom on my phone. I have some “Live Photos,” which I’ll watch sometimes where I'll see some movement. I deleted so many of her voicemails for the same reason, like where is this message going? And I cleaned up in my inbox, but rarely did I transfer files. Who has a “Mom” file in anticipation of her passing? I certainly wish I had, but I do have a few voicemails that I've listened to when I want to feel really emotional, but it made me think about how memory functions and what we collect of the people that we love. Of course, there was an era of home videos and everybody had a camcorder and stuff but we really only have our phones now and there's a finite amount of memory there. So even thinking about what has value and what doesn't—I have so many stupid photos that I could have deleted to save videos, but I didn't and it's impossible to prepare. Who the hell wants to prepare? I’ve been thinking, with static photographs, that memory is faulty. It’s also a question of access: if you’re looking at photos, it could be you when you were younger with your parents and you have a perception of what was happening but you don’t have that other person’s input and maybe you remembered incorrectly—maybe you’re blocking out things that were painful about that memory. Having a video or voicemail of it feels like a more potent archive than just a photo because you can overlay whatever you want over that photo, but it isn’t necessarily the truth. I think that after someone dies, you’re looking for the truth, but the access to the truth is cut off. There are so many things I wished I had asked my mother that I’ll never know the answer to and I’ll never get that truth. I can ask my dad, but he has his own truth of whatever that was. You’re losing access to someone’s inner life, even if they didn’t give you a lot. With Evelyn and her clients, it’s all about access and access to those intimate moments, in a way. She takes something from a client’s house—it’s such a random object, but in a way, it’s her wanting to preserve a memory of that happening or that the event existed, that the person existed. Even in the training session, there’s a moment where people are asked to give things up and I think a lot about inheritance and which objects have meaning. I used to go to vintage shops all the time and even swap meets, and just looked at family photos and items that have been passed down. You don’t know the journey of that object, but it was always weird to me to go through boxes of people’s photos. How does this stuff end up here? These are all someone else’s memories. We lack that context. It’s interesting because as much as Evelyn clings to objects, when she is helping her clients clear up their spaces, it’s in an effort to help out the people they leave behind—so they don’t have to deal with someone else’s stuff, so to speak. Things can mean something to us, but with enough distance from those objects, they’re simply clutter to someone else. So many things provide painful memories and part of that empathetic gesture of helping people exit their lives is trying to take the pain away from the loved ones who have to live with this choice and live with the death of their loved ones. It’s easing their pain and suffering too. For Evelyn in her divorce, she really doesn’t take that much from the home even though her husband is trying to give her things. That transference of wanting someone to remember a relationship—a relationship that Evelyn is trying to forget—that’s a pain-avoidant thing, too. Sometimes people do it for us or we do it for ourselves; we self-select what we surround ourselves with and often having objects without context is taking a layer of pain and understanding away on purpose. Were Evelyn’s three clients—Daphne, Lawrence and Daniel—inspired by any experiences or people you met in these meetings or the afterlife convention? Daphne was someone who was going to spur the most feelings about her mom and that was the most painful experience for her—looking at the frailty of an older woman. Evelyn was trying to impose a relationship on Daphne. They didn’t know each other, and yet, she really wanted to create memories with her and deviate from what you’re supposed to do based on the training. I was thinking about what it means to be a person alone, having to reckon with the end of your life, so someone like Lawrence, who was at once on top of the world and now at the end of his life, he’s this old, anonymous man in an apartment building where, who knows? You burned bridges. It was about what it means to be no one, in a sense, after you’ve been someone. With Daniel, she was really confronting the type of men that she had fallen for. I think Evelyn is trying to reckon with what it means to try to save people, putting herself in situations knowing that it’s impossible. In a way, that’s a selfish act for her, too, to try to put herself through these trials in an attempt to force herself to learn something. The people that I met travelling in these worlds certainly were trying to prepare for their own parents’ deaths and feeling anxiety about what to do, as if there’s some textbook that you follow of how to be the perfect kid as your parent is dying. There’s only so much preparation you can do. Also, you have to give somebody the dignity of their own experience. You could be trying to have your loved one accept death and be okay with what’s happening and they could be absolutely not okay with what’s going on, not wanting to have some big conversation towards the end of their life or wrap anything up tidily. There is a sense of agency there, that we don’t get to choose how someone dies or what their experience is like, and that goes for either end of it, whether you’re taking care of somebody or you’re the person dying. A lot of this book, for me, was about letting go of that control, of what you think your life should look like. And what the end of it should like. Exactly. The end of life experience and all those expectations. I think that in popular culture, we’ve seen so much of this internal reckoning, where everybody gets to say goodbye. I talked to people who were completely crushed. I mean, we were talking about this earlier, what’s at the fore of COVID right now—their loved one died and they never got to say goodbye. They have no closure. They’re never going to get closure. And you have to find a way to move on anyway. Death is really messy. Death doesn’t necessitate enlightenment either. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but sometimes you get sick, and there’s no narrative you can attach to it to ease that pain or even understand it. And some people don’t want to assign a greater meaning to it. We’re all accepting some profound experience at the end of life—and it is a profound experience, I don’t want to take anything away from that—but you can’t plan for what’s going to happen! It’s such a complicated relationship. I was born in Poland but grew up in America, in American culture. I know what the Polish relationship is with death, just from going back to Poland and having Polish parents. When we visited, we went to the cemetery to see our relatives and pay our respects. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that’s something that happens here. It’s a cultural thing and I’ve always been, in a way, death-obsessed and just thinking culturally about how we navigate death. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings and we all have different needs and wants. We just can’t say what these things are going to look like. We put a lot more effort into hitting targets and milestones instead. There’s no energy or time devoted to death or those health directives. It’s even crazy to me how quickly you even have to go back to work! The bereavement leave? Yeah! The fact that we have very little space for mourning or it’s such a prescribed amount of time: you get x amount for bereavement unless you decide to take more. Grief is such an out of control process and it goes on for a long time. Even just trying to put parameters around something like that. Personally, grief has been physical, emotional and it comes in waves. I can be fine for months and then feel like I’m back at square one. I really wanted to investigate our relationship with mourning and death and why we haven’t made a space for thinking about these things more readily and not figure out the best way to do it. To me, there is no “best way.” I want to raise those questions: what do you want your relationship with death to look like? I don’t really believe in that kind of closure, either—that a formula for grief will help you get there. I don’t think of it in terms of goal-setting either—that’s so strange to me. And what is closure, anyway? That you don’t get to feel this anymore? That speaks to how we as culture don’t want to sit with our uncomfortable feelings, we want to know what the end is and we’re really being tested now because we’re in a situation where there is no end in sight. It’s ultimately about acceptance. You don’t get closure. You don’t know when something is going to end. The way someone you love dies doesn’t look the way you want it to and most of us just don’t get closure and we have to be ok with that. It doesn’t mean we’re happy about it. Acceptance doesn’t mean, “I love it.” Have you been feeling any pressure to be productive or work on anything else? I feel like that’s how a lot of people have been grappling with that uncertainty lately. I wrote one essay since I finished my book. I have not started writing a new book. I’ve been thinking about a new book, but I’ve been absolutely unproductive during this time. I really had to give myself a break about it. I only just started reading again. I haven’t really watched TV. I was telling a friend the other day that I can barely bring myself to watch reality TV. I’m trying to spend a lot of time outside because being in your house all the time is so hard and having to tell yourself things are okay all the time to just get through the day is so exhausting that I don’t have time to be productive.
He was a hero, a man who broke a barrier, but everything that’s happened since he died has way more to do with us than him.
Dozens and dozens of college football stadiums are named after people, and there’s a story behind each. Those backstories are often pretty simple: Some guy gave a lot of money to a university, or a lot of people died in a war. Not much room for mystery there. Well, most of them are pretty simple. Jack Trice was the grandson of enslaved people and the son of a Buffalo Soldier. In 1864, Tennesseans named George Wallace and Phyllis Trice gave birth to Green Trice, the man who would become Jack’s father. Two years later, the federal Army Reorganization Act called for the formation of regiments composed “of colored men.” These calvarymen, who would be given the nickname Buffalo Soldiers by Native American tribes, became part of America’s bloody conquest of the West. Green joined the United States Army in 1882 at Fort Davis in Texas—a fort named after a former U.S. Secretary of War who’d since been the president of the Confederacy. Davis’ Confederacy had then lost a war against that same U.S. Army during Green's lifetime.11Green Trice death certificate We do not know where Green served, only that he helped win the white man’s war against Indigenous people. Green would eventually leave the military and return east. He would marry a woman named Anna, and they would reside in a small town about 30 miles outside of Cleveland. In 1902, their son Jack was born. Green died when Jack was just a young boy, leaving his mother to raise him alone for most of his life. Anna was fearful for him. She wanted her son to know what he would be up against and worried that Hiram, Ohio, a town with very few Black families, would isolate him from racial realities. When Jack was ready for high school, his mother sent him to live with an uncle in Cleveland. She wanted “to get him among people of his own kind, to meet the problems that a Negro boy would have to face sometime, and to give him an opportunity to make social contacts with people of his own race,”22Steven Jones, Football’s Fallen Hero according to a childhood friend. That friend said Trice “was always a part of our school parties in various homes, with never a thought of any difference of color of skin.” But it’s folly to assume any Black child in America didn’t feel racism’s sting, as those in predominantly white upbringings often feel isolation they do not or cannot show. In Cleveland, Trice attended East Tech High School and became a multisport star. The football coach was former Ohio State player Sam Willaman, and the team was nearly unbeatable throughout Trice’s career. One of their few losses was a de facto high school national championship in 1920, when the team rode a train to play in Washington state. Trice played tackle, making him a lineman on offense and something like a modern DE on defense. He was all-state. In 1921, he was one of East Tech’s two Black football players.33Joshua Kagavi, The Jack Trice Story “No better tackle ever played high school ball in Cleveland. He had speed, strength and smartness,”44Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 1979 said Johnny Behm, a high school teammate. Another teammate, Harry Schmidt, said Trice was skilled enough to become all-conference at the college level, even All-American. His barrier against playing football in college was skin, not skill. Deep South powers didn’t integrate until the ’60s and ’70s. Some Black players starred closer to his home, but were usually exceptions. As Jack was completing high school, Iowa’s Duke Slater was an All-American. Near Jack’s hometown, Fritz Pollard was becoming the NFL’s first Black player-coach—but the league wouldn’t hire another Black head coach for 68 more years. After Trice graduated in 1922, Willaman got the head coaching job at Iowa State. Two of Trice’s teammates at East Tech, brothers Norton and Johnny Behm, turned down Notre Dame to join their former coach. A few other standout Cleveland players also became Cyclones. Trice was working road construction when Willaman came to invite him to join the team. Football looked to be Trice’s ticket to a better life. His dad, a farmer, doesn’t appear to have started the first grade until after turning 20. Trice was poised to become the first Black athlete in Iowa State history. The school’s first Black student and first Black faculty member had been George Washington Carver, who’d received a master’s degree in 1896 and gone on to deliver agricultural innovations to Southern farmers.55Kansas City Star, August 2004 Jack enrolled in Iowa State’s animal husbandry program with the goal of earning a degree and using it to help Black farmers in the South. The Des Moines Register called Trice one of the best linemen on Iowa State’s freshman team (until 1972, most college football governing bodies banned freshmen from varsity games). He also won a shot-put event in a Missouri Valley Conference track meet. By 1923, his sophomore year, he was a varsity football starter, which was especially noteworthy. Per that era’s rules, if a player subbed out in the first half he couldn’t come back in until halftime. If he subbed out in the second half, his day was done. After what amounted to a tune-up against Simpson College, Iowa State’s student newspaper recapped his varsity debut: The big colored boy, Jack Trice, is by far the most outstanding performer and gave evidence of being one of the best tackles in the Missouri Valley this year in the last weekend’s play against Simpson. Trice is fast, strong and a heady player. You can find accounts that describe Trice as damn near a Black Paul Bunyan, listing him as 6’2 and 200 pounds, quite big for the era. A program from his first varsity game had him at 182 pounds,66Joshua Kagavi, The Jack Trice Story already the third-heaviest Cyclone. When Jack returned to Ames for his sophomore year in 1923, he’d brought along Cora Mae, his wife. The two had married the year prior. Black people weren't allowed to live on Iowa State's campus, so the Trices lived upstairs in an off-campus Masonic Temple that still stands today. They did the things young lovers do. Jack worked a side job as a janitor, so he had keys to the campus pool, and the two would sneak in to go skinny-dipping, according to the family’s telling. In a letter Cora Mae later wrote to Iowa State, she recalled a conversation they had just before he left for Minnesota, the site of his first major-level college football game. “He came to tell me good bye,” Cora Mae wrote. “We kissed and hugged and he told me that he would come back to me as soon as he could.” Now picture Trice in his Minneapolis hotel room, the night before the game. He sat down on Friday night and wrote a letter on hotel stationery. There’s no telling whom he intended to mail it to or if he intended to mail it at all. The emphasis is his: To whom it may concern, My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life. The honor of my race, family, & self are at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will! My whole body & soul are to be thrown recklessly about on the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped, I will be trying to do more than my part. On all defensive plays I must break thru the opponents line at stop the play in their territory. Beware of mass interference & fight low with your eyes open and toward the play. Roll block the interference. Watch out for cross bucks and reverse end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good. Jack It is a poignant note. It’s also the only thing I could find written about Trice by Trice. It looks like something a Hollywood screenwriter would dream up and in your head you can hear soft strings building toward crescendo. Maybe some drums as the scene cuts to the pregame locker room. Trice knew he was about to be the only Black man on the field, probably the whole stadium. He knew Minnesota was especially imposing. The Gophers already had a national title in their history, and this year’s team would finish 5-1-1 with two All-Americans. And Trice surely knew the risks of football. For decades, football had been killing people on the field. During the 1905 season, President Teddy Roosevelt had met with college leaders and told them to clean the game up. That season, at least 19 high school and college players died, and another 135 were injured, according to the Chicago Tribune, too much even for the ol’ Rough Rider: I have no sympathy whatever with the overwrought sentimentality that would keep a young man in cotton wool, and I have a hearty contempt for him if he counts a broken arm or collarbone as a serious consequence when balanced against the chance of showing that he possesses hardihood, physical address, and courage. But when these injuries are inflicted by others, either wantonly or of set design, we are confronted by the question, not of damage to one man’s body but of damage to the other man’s character.77The Washington Post, October 1905 The next year, admins overhauled football’s rules, which had only evolved so much since the game’s origin as a brawl with a ball. The biggest change was to allow the forward pass—even though incompletions were penalized, which discouraged one of football’s few tactics that didn’t resemble trench warfare. Along the way, college football got rid of some dangerous mass plays like the flying wedge, which meant slamming together tight packs of bodies at full speed. Yet as of 1923, other mass plays remained. Helmets were still leather, and shoulder pads were still insignificant. In 1923, over a decade after the partial implementation of the forward pass, the toll remained similar; at least 18 college football players died that year from injuries suffered on the field. Most accounts of Iowa State’s 1923 trip to Minnesota agree on a few things. Trice was injured on one of the first few plays: a broken collarbone and dislocated shoulder. He stayed in the game. According to the rules, if he left, he couldn't have returned until the second half. At some point in the third quarter, Trice got hurt again. This time it was his abdomen, and this time he was unable to continue. Later, some reports would say doctors found lung hemorrhages and internal bleeding. Trice likely downplayed what was happening inside his body. Multiple accounts say he protested to keep playing but was helped off the field by two teammates and taken immediately to a Minneapolis hospital. A doctor there said his condition was serious, but allowed him to go back to Ames. The injuries were not professionally diagnosed until after Trice rode home on a straw mattress in a train. Perhaps that doctor failed Trice. But note this: We have no way of knowing whether anyone investigated it. Trice arrived at Iowa State’s campus hospital. Sunday night, a specialist determined there was nothing they could do for his internal bleeding, not even emergency operation. Cora Mae was in the campus cafeteria Monday afternoon when one of Trice’s fraternity brothers summoned her to the hospital. “When I saw him, I said Hello Darling," she later wrote. “He looked at me, but never spoke. I remember hearing the Campanile chime 3 o'clock. That was Oct 8th, 1923, and he was gone.” If that first doctor missed Trice’s injuries, what else might be missing? What do we know? The answer depends on which account you’re reading, and when the account was written. Sunday, October 7, 1923 Three stories from reporters who’d attended the previous day’s game reference Jack’s injury directly: Minnesota’s student paper, the St. Paul Daily News, and the Des Moines Register. As part of play-by-play details, each reported Trice was on offense as Iowa State got to the 45-yard line on a reception by a Behm brother, though they differed on which one—two said Johnny. Each described Trice getting injured during that play, then leaving because of it. The Minnesota Tribune’s Sunday edition only has a reference to Trice being substituted out in the third quarter in its box score, but its play-by-play is generally less comprehensive. Monday, October 8 The Ames Daily Tribune said, “Jack Trice, colored tackle, was forced out of the game in the third period with internal injuries and it will probably be four weeks before he will be in condition to scrimmage again.” By mid-afternoon, Trice was dead, as a late edition of Iowa State’s student newspaper reported. He had been trampled in “an off-tackle play.” Tuesday, October 9 In reporting his death, the Minnesota Tribune added to the list of outlets referencing Trice playing offense at the time of the injury, also describing him as one-on-one blocking downfield: “Late in the third period another play was directed at his position and Trice broke through to block the Gopher’s secondary defense. He blocked his man but he failed to get up.” But in other outlets, the particulars of the play that killed him remained vague. “The Minnesota team piled on top of him in an off-tackle play,” the Des Moines Register said. “Trice was crushed in a play through his position,” the Associated Press said. “Crushed in an off tackle play,” per the Cedar Rapids Gazette. And the Minnesota Star differed significantly from the initial reports by attendees. It moved Trice to defense and described him engaging in a dangerous action: “Trice playing a defensive tackle position dived into the interference of an off tackle Minnesota play and was crushed under the weight of several members of the Minnesota team.” Wednesday, October 10 An AP story held up Trice as a sort of martyr. The headline in bold letters: “DEAD FOOTBALL STAR’S LETTER, WRITTEN BEFORE GAME, PLANS SACRIFICE” with a subheading: “Jack Trice intended to use his body and soul recklessly for honor of his family and Negro race.” At this point, the narrative had shifted to fuse not only vague and opposite recollections of what Trice had been doing during the play, but also a grand interpretation of his letter, found in his jacket pocket after he’d died. Recollections of Trice’s death have gotten more confusing over the years, evolving into nothing like those initial reports. Even former teammates ended up saying Trice had been on defense. In 1973, former linemate Schmidt, then in his 70s, recalled the play: Well, [Minnesota] had a powerful offensive drive with good interference, and they had three blockers ahead of this runner. Jack had said in [his] letter that he would throw himself before an interference. He did a roll block. And someone just happened to step on his stomach.88Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice He maintained that any stomping wasn’t intentional. Johnny Behm—one of two brothers described by press box reports as catching the ball on offense during Trice’s injury—remembered it like this in 1979: In the third quarter they tried a power play over him. I was in the defensive backfield so I can’t tell you for certain what happened. But I’d swear the Minnesota end who had to block Trice tackled him instead. Jack landed on his back and the Minnesota fullback ran right over him. Maybe the interference did, too, I’m not positive. Around this time, Trice’s freshman coach William Thompson added to the foggy recollection: Jack used a block against the Minnesota backfield. It was a dangerous block to use in my opinion and it was safe enough if you had the good fortune and the strength to end up on all fours. This was called a roll block. You had to roll under the backfield and that had a devastating effect on the runner, you see. It trips him right at the ankles. The interchangeable nature of football terms and positions from that era can also lead to confusion. What did Trice, Schmidt, and Behm mean by “interference?” John Wilce, who’d coached Ohio State when Willaman played there, wrote this in 1923: Many people do not seem to understand the term ‘interference.’ Interference simply means blocking by players immediately in front of the runner. […] The man with the ball is usually close behind his interference. [...] The roll block by one player followed by a similar block by another, the break block, the combination hard-shoulder block, and the running side-body block are most commonly used by interferers.99John Wilce, Football: How To Play It And Understand It By that definition, which comes from a coach who taught Trice’s coach, interference and the roll block are strictly offensive terms, similar to lead blocking by a modern fullback. But Trice’s letter leads you to believe he considered the roll block a two-way term or perhaps a defensive one, since he mentioned it right after describing his need to be vigilant “on all defensive plays.” So were the initial reports right? Or were the later recollections right? Are Jack’s letter and these football terms helpful in reconstructing the scene? Does Jack’s letter even need to be injected into what happened against Minnesota? And since the most popular version of the story is at odds with reports written by witnesses, what else don’t we know about the play that killed Trice? One would think all these differing accounts, even within the week after the game, would help warrant an investigation. But the day after his death, his school declined a request to investigate. That request came from the head of Minnesota’s conference. John L. Griffith, Commissioner of Athletics for the Intercollegiate Conference, sent a message to [ISU] officials: ‘Associated Press Dispatch from Ames states that your boy died from injuries received when most of the Minnesota line piled on top of him in an off tackle play. Would you care to issue as to whether or not injuries were result of unfair plays?’ An [ISU] official replied to Griffith the same day, stating, ‘Willaman and the men under him advised me that they did not discern any special massing on Jack Trice. He was an exceptional player and of course made trouble for the Minnesota team.’1010Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice That response arrived in a letter with no name or signature. Two weeks later, October 24, Iowa State dean S.W. Beyer sent Griffith a curious note. Inasmuch as Mr. Trice was a colored man it is easy for people to assume that his opponents must have deliberately attempted to injure him. In my experience where colored boys had participated in athletic contests I have seen very little to indicate that their white opponents had any disposition to foul them.1111Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football The lack of official investigation is why we will never know exactly what happened on the play that cost Trice’s life. In general, everyone has since gotten the benefit of the doubt. Ten days after Trice’s death, Minnesota’s president Lotus Coffman sent a letter to Iowa State’s president, offering condolences and saying the play happened directly in front of him. “It seemed to me that he threw himself in front of the play on the opposite side of the line,” Coffman wrote. “There was no piling up." It’s also worth noting Coffman would later ardently defend segregation in campus living at Minnesota, writing Black people desired it: The good sense and sound judgment of the colored students and their parents with regard to this matter has been a source of constant gratification. The races have never lived together nor have they ever sought to live together.1212Minnesota Star-Tribune, September 2017 It is not hard to suppose Coffman wanted to just move on. And any school would have motivation to avoid dwelling on it. Who knows what else an inquiry might have dredged up? Many players died in those days, but if conclusive evidence emerged that a player had been killed with intent, it could have started a second great referendum on the sport, 18 years after Roosevelt put his foot down. The theory of Trice’s self-prophesied roll block leads to a confident conclusion that the whole thing was just an accident. This is the result of a century-long game of telephone. If he screwed up a maneuver and got stepped on, then oh shucks, it’s just a darn shame. It also boosts the poignancy of his letter, creating an eerie prescience. And it could have been an accident. But it also could have been murder. It is not far-fetched to believe the only Black player on a field in 1923 was targeted. According to many reports, Minnesota players deliberately injured Iowa’s Ozzie Simmons 11 years later. They knocked him unconscious as many as three times, forcing him to leave the game by halftime.1313Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football "[Simmons] took quite a lot of physical abuse around the Big Ten because he was Black," said former Iowa sports information director George Wine.1414Chicago Tribune, October 2001 In 1935, Iowa governor Clyde Herring told reporters that the rematch might get out of hand.1515SB Nation, October 2017 “Those Minnesotans will find 10 other top-notch football players besides ‘Oze’ Simmons against them this year. Moreover, if the officials stand for any rough tactics like Minnesota used last year, I'm sure the crowd won't," Herring said.1616Minneapolis Tribune, November 1935; Minnesota’s governor would respond by attempting to cool tensions (and missing the point). He bet Iowa a prize hog. This would later evolve into the bronze Floyd of Rosedale trophy, which the two teams still play for. Simmons would tell a Minnesota newspaper in 1988: “I really had the feeling they were after me because I was good. Oh, I think me being Black added a little oomph to it.” Simmons, like Trice, was a talented player, naturally a focal point for any opponent. So the lines of guilt blur when you try to discern whether the Gophers targeted Simmons because he was talented, because he was Black, or both. At least Simmons lived to tell his side of the story. Wanna know what I think? Forget about the damn letter for a second. Laud it as a beautiful note about what he felt he was up against, but set it aside instead of grafting it onto the facts. We know four of the earliest reports have a consistent version of events, three of them published the day after the game. We don’t know whether Trice was attempting an especially dangerous technique or not, although if you want to theorize he tried a roll block, then perhaps he was engaged with a defensive player and realized the play was particularly screwed, so he chose to “roll block the interference,” which might have played out like a modern-day cut block. And we don’t know why or how key details of the narrative shifted to a certain consensus. The attempt to figure out what happened to Trice is not about trying to find whitey guilty. A probe would have likely reached an inconclusive end, according to a former Iowa State professor who spent years lobbying the school to name the stadium after Trice. "Well, if I were prosecuting the case," Charles Sohn told the Kansas City Star in 2004, "I suppose the best I could get out of it was manslaughter. I don't think there was an attempt to murder. I think there was an attempt to injure." But the clearest failure is this: Trice’s institution didn’t attempt to dig for answers. Members of the Minnesota team were reportedly “grief-stricken” by Trice’s death. And their head coach said, “I don’t know hardly what to say. He was a wonderful player. It doesn’t seem possible. It is something I wouldn’t have had happen for anything.”1717Minnesota Journal, October 1923 Without details, we can neither hold Minnesota culpable nor exonerate anyone. If Minnesota’s players were innocent, then they deserved an investigation that could’ve made that clear. The fact foul play apparently wasn’t evident to Williaman or Coffman doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. After Trice died, Iowa State immediately canceled football practice and took a half day to allow mourning. Four thousand students attended the funeral. The Behm brothers and Schmidt were among his pallbearers. The school president read Trice’s pregame letter aloud. Cora Mae and Anna accompanied Jack’s body home to be buried next to Green. Anna later wrote to Iowa State’s then-president that Jack “was all I had and I am old and alone. The future is dreary and lonesome.”1818Anna Trice letter In some ways, Iowa State publicly did right by Trice. The school collected money to pay for funeral expenses and help Trice’s mother pay off her mortgage. In private, however, Iowa State reminded us of Jack’s place in the world, whether dead or alive. Two days after Trice died, Beyer, considered the godfather of athletics at Iowa State, received a telegram from Missouri athletic director C.L. Brewer, an old friend, about the upcoming Saturday’s game in Columbia: We understand from newspaper reports that you have a colored man playing with your football squad this Fall. I am quite sure, Professor Beyer, you know conditions here, and know it is impossible for a colored man to play or even appear on the field with any team. This has been discussed in the Missouri Valley for a good many years and I know that you understand the tradition that a colored man cannot come here. This whole question is bigger than our athletics and there is no alternative for us other than to say that we cannot permit a colored man on any team that we play. The Iowa State admin responded: We had no intention of using Jack Trice in the game with you. However that is all settled because Jack's injury resulted in his death Monday afternoon. I am handing you herewith copy of letter Jack wrote the day before the game. From the letter one would not help feel that Jack must have had premonition of what actually happened. A year later, Iowa State put a plaque on its gym, an abridged version of Trice’s letter. And then Jack Trice began to fade from memory. Until 1957, when sophomore Tom Emmerson came across the plaque while working on a project for class credit. He might have been the first in a while who was moved enough to research why it was there. He’d been wandering around the gym while waiting for a meeting with a school employee. “Then I went into Harry Schmidt’s office and said ‘Harry, what about that?’” Emmerson told me. “And he said, ‘You don’t know about Jack Trice?’ And it turned out that Harry was on the team in 1923, and he told me the story from personal memory. I then went directly to the library to look it up, and to tell you the truth, I just copied a lot of stuff from articles in the library.” He ended up writing a school magazine article. When asked what happened next, Emmerson said flatly: “nothing” … until Iowa State began building a new football stadium in the 1970s. By that time, student activism was en vogue amid the Vietnam War. Professor Sohn was having a small group discussion with some English students. He shared Trice’s story. The class took up some research projects about Trice’s life, and Emmerson’s story re-surfaced in their findings. Someone suggested naming the stadium for Trice. Even after the class ended in 1974, the stadium idea had taken hold. It’s impressive how hard Iowa State’s students worked to keep it alive. There were over two dozen related stories, editorials, or cartoons in Iowa State’s student paper from ’74 onward, which doesn’t include stories in other papers like the Des Moines Register. Students petitioned. Iowa State’s student government was unanimous in favor. Students would graduate, and others would take up the cause. But Iowa State was still holding out for a big-money donor to essentially buy the stadium’s name. The money never came, and the students never shut up, not even after Iowa State tried to “cut the baby in half,” as a Newsweek article put it, by naming it “Cyclone Stadium/Jack Trice Field” in 1983. Students argued people would default to just calling it Cyclone Stadium. Students also pushed to get a Trice statue on campus. Multiple organizations said no, including the alumni association, because “people thought it was too political,” according to a former ISU student body president.1919Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice Iowa State’s student government unanimously allocated $22,000 of student fees and commissioned the statue, which featured Trice reading his famous letter. It went up in 1988 outside a building named in 1966 for George Washington Carver. What gave the stadium movement its final win was, indirectly, Iowa State naming a building for alumna Carrie Chapman Catt in 1995. She’d been important to the woman’s suffrage movement, but once wrote white supremacy "will be strengthened, not weakened” by that movement. Her backers argued it was taken out of context, but she also spoke of Indigenous people as savages and said uneducated immigrants shouldn’t have the right to vote. Honoring her caused protests on campus, including one student going on a hunger strike in 1996. While all of this was going on, an ISU advisory committee for the naming of buildings recommended in late 1996 the change to the football stadium’s name. In February 1997, Trice became the sole namesake. Administrators objected to speculation that the renaming was a strategic maneuver [to counter Catt Hall protests] as opposed to their acquiescence to student requests or an abiding desire to honor Trice. ‘The name change recommendation was based on its own merits,’ protested university spokesman John Anderson. ‘It’s an idea that’s been around a long time.’2020Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football But it had only been around for a long time because Iowa State’s leadership hadn’t acted. The school’s president Martin Jischke had been around since 1991. “If Jischke had responded earlier, in a more positive way to Jack Trice, he would have had a great win,” Emmerson said. “He would have had ammunition when it came around to Carrie Chapman Catt. He could have said ‘wait a minute, we named the stadium after Jack Trice; we’re not racist.’” For buttoned-up administrators, the unchallenged narrative of Trice’s life was free of anything likely to make overly sensitive white people too uneasy, and still they delayed for decades. For mobilized college students, his short story had a tragic hero and cause for genuine concern, so they fought for him. “I was really surprised actually, when it kept being an issue after it was named Cyclone Stadium/Jack Trice Field,” Alma Gaul, an editor of the student newspaper in the 1970s, told me. “I just figured that was the end of it. We’d got something here. We got the Jack Trice Field. And the fact that, in 1997, they reversed their decision and made it Jack Trice Stadium—even today when I read the sports section and I read ‘Jack Trice Stadium,’ I just shake my head and smile. I can’t believe it actually happened.” Jack Trice Stadium remains the only FBS stadium named after a Black man. Part of his legacy is this: More than a century after he died, activists across the country are fighting the same fight Iowa State’s students did. The naming of streets, buildings, and statues is about what we wish to glorify as a society. It is a front-facing display of our values. That weight demands constantly measuring those values. But change is never easy, particularly when racism is built so firmly into the foundation of the United States and its declared heroes. Trice is a hero, a man who broke a barrier, but everything that’s happened since he died has way more to do with us than him. Those who knew him describe him as shy and quiet. One teammate said, “Jack appreciated his status. Generally, he spoke only when spoken to,” and another said, “He kept his place.”2121Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice He’s inoffensive and two-dimensional because we don’t know all that much about him. In many ways, Trice was an easy Black man for white people to rally around. For white audiences, a docile Black man is a palatable Black man. The Jack Trice of 1923 is forever preserved in that state. We’ll never know exactly what led to Trice’s death two days after the first real game of his college football career. When facts are scarce, all we have are versions of a legend. ___ Excerpted from The Sinful Seven: Sci-fi Western Legends of the NCAA, an ebook about how college sports came to look the way they do today, with non-fiction stories and fiction tales that <shh> tell their own truths about how the NCAA operates, by Spencer Hall, Richard Johnson, Jason Kirk, Alex Kirshner, and Tyson Whiting. You can preorder the ebook here for a minimum of 99 cents (or whatever you want to pay), with 20 percent of those profits going to Feeding America, the nationwide food bank network. It comes out August 1.