Hazlitt Magazine

Living with Slenderman

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

Searching for the Self-Loathing Woman Writer

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

The Year in Apocalypses

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


Living with Slenderman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day-to-day, I, a queer Native person leaping around this deeply stolen and homophobic land, try to lessen the ambient tensions floating in my air. Now I had to do the opposite.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2017? Hazlitt's writers reflect on the issues, big and small. “I think the problem might be tension.” Dr. John, my therapist of approximately 69 million years, pushes his glasses up the brim of his nose. He’s satisfied and I’m messed up. I’d been casually explaining to Dr. John that I no longer receive pleasure from things like eating, fucking, or running (nbd lol smiley face), and it was freaking me out. Now listen, I have a world champion appetite; I co-host a podcast called Food 4 Thot with the tagline “Four gay sluts who love to read”—I come by my thottery honestly; and it’s a point of personal pride that I have, over the years, built up the stamina to run ~30 miles a week. Dr. John, what’s going on? I stared into him. Frankly it’s weird and eerie to stick a bite of macho nachos (no sour cream) in my craw and immediately want to spit it out. It’s weird and eerie to not even have the desire to be talking to some tall glass of water (or diet root beer if you will [bc I will]), to not even have the desire to pull some casual boners-in-sweatpants porn up to the bumper. It’s weeeeeeird and eeeeerie to hop on the treadmill, cue the Missy Elliott, and then lurch right off in a fit of nausea. Dr. John, I says, Dr. John am I going crazy? But to give you a little context I think I need to take us back. Waaaay back. Back into tiiiime: My Year in Tension. Oh! but first: The Year I Broke. 2016 was kind of a watershed moment for me and my “career,” inasmuch as poetry can be considered a career. Lmfao. My first book came out, I had this profile in The New Yorker, I signed a deal for my second book and even wrote a third one! I cannonballed my way through a grueling but overall whistle-wetting book tour that took me all over the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest (I don’t drive [because I fall asleep behind the wheel of a car I call it “carcolepsy”] so that somewhat limited my regional options slash topic of another conversation slash as far as I know I came up with the term “carcolepsy” but Urban Dictionary doesn’t seem to think so MOVING ON I’M FINE). Because of the tour I made a bunch of new friends, good friends, all over Amherst, Baltimore, Philly, Seattle, etc. In Portland at the Tin House Summer Writers retreat (where I was a scholar in poetry nbd humble brag except that’s not a humble brag at all is it? That’s more of a brag queen *bites fist*), I met the guys who would eventually become co-hosts of my podcast. Finally, I was approached with an unprecedented writing opportunity which I will detail later. However cloistered I’d felt toiling away in obscurity in New York for 13 years just trying to keep the lights on or whatever, making zines and occasionally love (yuk yuk), 2016 offered me something I never had before: Mobility. I was on the beach that summer offering to pee on my then-boyfriend when I got the call. He’d pointed out some jellyfishes in the surf and when I offered my services in case of a sting, he got way too bobble-head-on-a-bumpy-road enthusiastic, which led to an incident in the shower later that night, which? Okay, I’m not trying to shame anyone, and turning someone on with very little personal effort is hashtag my brand, but I don’t think watersports is my thing. And then he was like, gurgling it and I don’t… Actually let me not bring someone else’s business into this thing. What were we talking about again? Oh yes, the call. So: Beach. Jellyfishes. Pee. Ring, ring, ring. It was Cinereach Ltd. on the horn, a film production company in the city, inviting me to their offices in Flatiron to talk about an “opportunity” they wanted to offer. Maybe they needed an office assistant? Maybe they needed someone to, I don’t know, write copy? Errand boy? “We love your writing, we’ve been passing your stuff around the office, and we think there’s a movie in here somewhere.” Just imagine the open-mouthed gobsmackery that flooded my face when they offered to commission me to write a screenplay. A screenplay? Yup. A freaking screenplay. Keep in mind at this point I hadn’t even so much as read a screenplay before. Professional movie people were asking me what my favorite films were, and I’d answer (honestly), why—Wayne’s World and Sister Act 2 of course! I’m a bibliophile, not a cinephile. Why me, for this? I’d spent much of the past three years writing three book-length poems, and in poems elements like plot, characters, dialogue, narrative, etc. are incidental. They can happen, but they don’t have to. In dramatic writing, plot/characters/dialogue/narrative etc. are pretty much essential. I had no business writing for the screen. Then they slid me a number with some zeroes in it and I was like… HELLO. OKAY. YES. Let’s do this! I got you, and that shit will be on time. That’s what my face said, anyway. In the bubble of my belly, however, I was endless-scream-twitter screaming. All I could think of were all the ways I was unqualified for such an undertaking. * Inherent in the definition of tension is stretching. “Tension” derives from the Latin tensionem, “a stretching,” and its Proto-Indo-European root *ten, or “stretch.” Tension. Tenet. Tenure. It was spring 2017 when writing the beast started in earnest. All the plants and bears (the gay kind) bloomed out of hibernation, as I went into a fluorescent-lit co-working space in Bushwick (kill me) with nothing but my game face and abject fucking terror. When I expressed apprehension over the whole deal, my good friend and co-conspirator, the divine Morgan Parker, was like A straight white man wouldn’t think twice, so you can’t either. I was like fuck you! Too real! I had to be willing to stretch as far to my ends as I could get. I can’t tell you the details of the story (contract, natch) but I will tell you after teaching myself the basics (what is a plot? What are scenes supposed to do? What’s the wifi password?), figuring out a story I wanted to tell, and writing shitty rough draft after shitty rough draft like that gif of cats typing furiously, I kept getting the same note from Cinereach: Find ways of increasing the dramatic tension. I was writing characters who talked to each other, who were friends, who wanted the best for one another. They had a language for their pain. They didn’t always make the right decisions, but they tried. They tried and they learned. They learned and they did better. In other words, it was boring af. I took their notes and spent day after day in my office thinking of ways that people could be awful and manipulative. I had to give them secrets. They had to scream at each other. They had to blame someone else when they didn’t get what they wanted. They had to make the wrong decision on purpose. They had to break rules and record players and give each other ultimatums. The story got better, more dramatic, more high stakes, but I started to notice something in my daily life. A dry rub. The nbd absence of pleasure thing I was telling you about. * “I think the problem might be tension.” Dr. John noted that the activities I’d outlined were the result of tension. Hunger is a tension you relieve by eating. Horniness is a tension you relieve by fucking. Running is one giant tension-relief valve. Day-to-day, a queer Native person leaping around this deeply stolen and homophobic land, I generally try to lessen the ambient tensions floating in my air. The job, however, was now about increasing the dramatic tension of any given interaction. I was stuffed to the gills with tension. It was necessary. Relieving that tension subconsciously felt like erasing all the work I’d done to stockpile my little dramas. Dr. John that’s… whew that’s exactly why I pay you, I said while gathering my things at the end of our appointment, a little lighter but not totally off the hook. Most of the rest of the year I sat grinding in my hovel, working on my hunchback and facial tics (and ostensibly a screenplay). I remember the day I finished it (partly because it was monumental and partly because it was like last week lol). I hit “send” on my final draft. I sat in the dark in a room at my friend’s place in Portland and cried for two hours. All of that build-up and finally a release. I slept for 12 hours and in the morning got myself a sheet cake from the grocery store. I ate the vanilla chocolate swirl in my friend’s backyard. I texted my crush. It rained. It rained. It rained.
Remembering in Russian

Extraordinary as it may seem, Stalin’s 21st-century comeback is so ordinary it’s almost on time—and it reveals the complicated legacy of Russia’s relationship with history, authority, and the USSR.

“As individuals, we derive our sense of selfhood from shared values that are, in turn, embodied in public institutions. When those institutions change, those changes reverberate within us: they can seem to endanger the very meaning of our lives. It's partly for this reason that events in the political world can devastate us so intimately, striking us with the force of a breakup, or a death.”- From “How to Restore Your Faith In Democracy,” by Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker 1. In May 2015 during the Victory Day events that marked seventy years since the end of the Second World War, I watched Stalin's grainy portrait float above a crowd, marching out of sync along a central Moscow boulevard, suspended in the air by two hands. Military medals gleamed on his sepia chest, and similar regalia caught the still-weak spring sunlight from the Soviet-made overcoats of some of the marchers. They were mostly older: white-haired men in pork pie hats and women in thin kerchiefs and overcoats too warm for the weather. But younger Russians were there too, a T-shirt printed with a political slogan—“For the Fatherland, for Stalin”—peeking out from underneath an unzipped jacket here and there. The mood of the procession was like the sunny spring morning: happy and defiant. And Stalin's bushy moustache smiled down like a grandfather telling his favourite grandchildren a bedtime story. I had been away from Moscow for half a decade when I returned that spring, and Stalin was back in public life in such an ordinary way that I felt like a tourist if I gaped: at the portraits of him in the newspapers, on TV, in newly published biographies, and stenciled on T-shirts and graffiti. No one else seemed to notice or mind. Most people walked past without looking. Five years earlier, the sight of a fridge magnet with Stalin's face on it in my extended relatives' kitchen had made me miss the next thread in our conversation. As I sat there, at a kitchen table across from a cousin I had spent summers playing with, and his parents, I tried to connect the image to the rest of the room: the cozy lighting, the tulle curtains, the wooden bread box. Half a century had passed since the 1956 speech titled “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” knocked the great Generalissimo's statues from their plinths across the USSR. The speech, delivered by Khruschev, the man who would succeed Stalin in leading the USSR, established the Stalinist period in Russian memory as a time of abusive one-man rule. Sitting with my relatives at their kitchen table that winter evening, I didn’t ask about the portrait. We hadn't seen each other since spending our last summers together in my mother’s hometown, before my parents and I emigrated to the States in the mid-1990s, and I knew that the kitchen table separating us was an ocean. In the five years it took me to return to Russia, something there changed. In 2010, visitors would have been hard-pressed to find any references to Stalin in public. But by the spring of 2015 when I arrived to find out why that fridge magnet with Stalin's face on it in my relatives' kitchen would be far from the last one I would see, it was as if Stalin had never left. In a way, he hadn't. A famous Russian stand-up comedian likes to quip that Russia has an unpredictable past: one where a political leader can be God one year, tyrant the next, only to be revived years later as an “effective manager.” Extraordinary as it may seem, Stalin's 21st-century comeback is so ordinary that it's almost on time, like a train. It is a story about Russia's relationship with the Second World War, with authority, and the legacy of the Soviet Union. It is a story of how ordinary people react to loss—of identity, security, dignity—and to shame. How people interpret their past after their world has been smashed to pieces; how they put those pieces back together. 2. To tell the story of why Stalin is back as a positive historical character in Russia, I have to tell you about my family. If this was a different story, I would tell you about how the 20th century steamed back and forth across Russia like a runaway train. I would tell you how it came to be that the word demokratiya in Russian doesn't quite mean democracy in English, how svoboda doesn't quite mean freedom, how the words have developed shades of darkness and cynicism that their English translations fail to convey. I would tell you about how when my mother and I were waiting for our visas to join my father in the United States in 1994, I imagined him making a million dollars a day because America was so mythologized, so otherworldly, that it might as well have been a different planet. (One where different sections of grocery stores had their own climates and apartment buildings had their own pools.) I would tell you about how, after we moved, I fought with my mother all the time because our lives unfolded planets apart. I would tell you about my careless school days in Canada reading Kerouac, when I believed freedom to be something I had to win from my parents, how after one of our arguments, my mother told me that what I was looking for didn't exist. “Svoboda doesn't exist.” And when she followed that with, “you will always be responsible for somebody,” I wouldn't know for another decade that she was right. I didn't know then that no matter how Canadian we became, we would never leave behind Russia's 20th century hold over us. 3. My mother's side of the family comes from the fertile Russian southwest, from a stretch of land that was first occupied and then demolished by the cannonball tennis match of the moving front line during the Second World War. It is a small, provincial place of 40,000 people on the bank of a shallow river, near Kursk, where in 1943 the biggest tank battle the world has ever seen was fought. The town's main street, like almost every main street in every town across Russia, is named after Lenin. It is lined down the middle with birch trees and wooden benches, where young couples and elderly neighbours sit together after dinner. It ends at the drop to the riverbank, at the town's central square where the children's park meets the World War II memorial. After my mother's father returned to this town in 1945—after he had spent three years in a German concentration camp as a Soviet prisoner—he and my grandmother built their one-story wooden house a few streets away from the town centre. They built it down an avenue named after the founder of the Soviet secret police, Dzerzhinsky, on a street named after a 19th-century Russian poet, and painted it forest green. Like everyone else on the street, they built it the same way that people there still build their houses: with an allotment at the back for growing vegetables and raising chickens because the war had taught people to rely on themselves. That house is where my mother grew up in the 1960s and the 1970s, where she left when she went to Moscow to take her university entrance exams, and where I spent my summers chasing chickens and playing war games with my cousins while my parents were working on their PhDs at Moscow State University. Before my grandfather died, before my parents and I emigrated, I would pester him to tell me stories about the war. Most often, he’d avoid the subject. He had been taken prisoner that first winter, in late 1941 at the age of nineteen, fighting under Stalin’s Red Army banner. Pictures from before the war show a strikingly handsome man with an attractive wave in his black hair, full lips, and a wide smile. When I knew him almost half a century later, he was still handsome, with gleams of silver in his teeth and a quick, cheerful step; and he liked to joke. Like when he played hide-and-seek with me, he would always pretend to misunderstand the rules and instead of hiding, he would obscure his head behind a curtain like an upright ostrich, leaving the rest of his body for me to find. No one other than his wife knew about his unpredictable temper. When I did get a story out of him about his time in the camps, it was always one of three or four that he told and re-told: each of them about hunger. About how guards had given him and the other prisoners animal hides to sleep on and how the prisoners had gradually eaten them over a winter instead. How he had sewn a potato he'd stolen into the pocket of his trousers before giving them to the guards to be boiled as a way to kill lice. (“The human body can only absorb cooked potato starch,” he told me.) How a guard had caught him with the stolen, cooked potato, but instead of dispatching him into the next world then and there like my grandfather had expected, the guard had chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder, called him smart. These stories were enough for me to swap with the other kids on our street, all of whose grandparents had been through the war themselves. But not until after my grandfather's death did I realize how little I, or anyone else in my family, know about his life in the 1940s. He had told memories of the war like he played hide-and-seek, showing only the parts he wanted us to see. The Russian approach to history. On my father's side, my great-grandfather, who lived to see the sixtieth anniversary celebration of armistice and died in 2009, fought on the eastern front and lost hearing in his left ear after a shell exploded in a trench next to him. After he enlisted, his pregnant wife and toddler son boarded an evacuation train to eastern Siberia. Three weeks later, in December 1941, my great-grandmother went into labour. She was taken off the train in a remote railway outpost and gave birth to a daughter, outside, in -40C weather, in a horse-drawn cart on her way to the nearest village. The baby immediately caught pneumonia. Certain that she would die, the elderly woman who helped deliver the baby comforted my great-grandmother, saying she was still young and would have other children. But the baby, my grandmother, had entered the world still wrapped inside her amniotic sac—a Russian omen for luck. It tipped her into the world of the living. Stalin never figured in any of these stories. In the Russia of the 20th century, my family members knew instinctively that politics were dangerous. What a family member did before 1917, whether a relative had emigrated, whether they had ever had trouble with the Soviet authorities before the 1960s thaw: that information, in the wrong hands, could all cause trouble. So my family members kept to themselves, limiting political participation to walking in their schools’ and unions’ annual parades—for Victory Day, Labour Day, Women's Day—holding banners adorned with Stalin's name and image. That is, of course, before Khruschev's personality cult speech saw those images locked away and destroyed. We didn't talk about the past. So much so that when, over the past few years, I started asking which camp my grandfather had spent time in, everyone had a different answer. The truth is no one knew. The memories did, however, make themselves known in other ways. Like when, in moving from the green wooden house in her old age to the nearby city to live with her oldest daughter, my grandmother discovered a bundle of my mother's letters in the attic: old telegrams, postcards from childhood friends, love letters, bits of life lived. She burned them all in her wood stove without giving it another thought, carried by a decades-old instinct to destroy all links to the past. My mother was devastated. There was also that time in the 1970s, when on a visit to Moscow with his family, my grandfather stopped to give a lost East German tourist directions. Until that moment, no one knew that he spoke German. [[{"fid":"6702571","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] 4. If it was possible to put a date on when Stalin returned as a positive historical character in 21st-century Russia, it could be 2009, the year Stalin's grandson Evgeny Dzhugashvili sued the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta for libel after it called his grandfather “a bloodthirsty cannibal” in a story. The story referred to Stalin's role in an infamous historical massacre in 1940, when firing squads executed 20,000 Polish prisoners in the remote Katyn forest in southwestern Russia. The shootings took place at night, over severals days. And for fifty years, the Soviet leadership had blamed the massacre on Nazi soldiers. In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev accepted the Soviets' role in the killings, saying that the Soviet government—and Stalin himself—had given the execution orders. It was perestroika, and history was once again up for discussion, and what had previously been only guessed about could finally be investigated and discussed. Early-1990s TV programs, one after the other, seized upon the excavations at Katyn and other secrets involving Soviet rule, upon crimes of the Stalinist period. But by 2009, in a sign of things to come, Dzhugashvili was to be found arguing that when Novaya Gazeta published the story about Stalin's role at the Katyn massacre, it not only based its account on false evidence but was working against Russia “to make it weaker.” He was demanding a retraction, a public apology, and ₤180,000 in damages for defamation. The journalist who wrote the story, Anatoly Yablokov, said a suit like Dzhugashvili's would have been unthinkable in the past. “There is a change in society's view of Stalin,” he said at the trial's preliminary statements in 2009. “We hear much more now [than in the 1990s] about what an effective manager Stalin was and much less about the repressions.” That year, Moscow city authorities restored prominent Stalinist-era lettering the city had erased more than half a century earlier in the vestibule of one of Moscow's busiest metro stations. The lettering says, Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labour and heroism. By 2012, 45 percent of Russians seemed to agree, saying that they had a positive view of Stalin in response to a Levada Centre poll. By March 2016, 54 percent agreed. It was at the European Court of Human Rights—an ironic venue considering Stalin's human rights record—that Dzhugashvili lost his final appeal in early 2015. The court ruled against Dzhugashvili's libel suit and said that a historical figure such as Stalin would “inevitably remain open to public scrutiny and criticism.” And open he remained. In 2016, a string of museums opened to commemorate Stalin's contribution to Soviet and Russian history. A “Stalin cultural centre” opened in Penza as a direct response to a "cultural centre" celebrating Yeltsin opening in Ekaterinburg the year before. Another museum, near Tver, 200km west of Moscow, commemorates a night Stalin spent there in August 1943, near the site of some of the war’s most devastating battles. Its fourteen panels memorialize feats such as “Stalin's contribution to victory” in the Second World War, “Stalin's role in the restoration of the Russian Orthodox Church” (reopened during the war to lift morale) and “Stalin As the Symbol of Soviet Successes and Victories.” In Moscow, the only remaining statue of Stalin stands abandoned in the graveyard of former Soviet relics, its nose missing, amid dozens of busts of Lenin and a statue of the founder of the Soviet secret police. But across Russia, town councils have debated erecting new statues to him in their public squares. So far, only one has gone up—in Crimea in 2015. That monument shows Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in 1945, ten feet tall and seated together to decide Europe's future, months away from Germany's capitulation. Behind them are five years of destruction: cities destroyed and villages wiped off the earth, millions of refugees across five continents, populations decimated. In the Soviet Union alone, where the meeting took place, 20 million people were dead, out of the 40 million people killed across the world in the whole of the Second World War. In Belarus, a quarter of the population was missing, never to be seen again. But at Yalta, the troika sat victorious, Stalin the only one of the three wearing military epaulettes. 5. A few months after that conference in Yalta, my maternal grandfather returned home to a pile of rubble to meet his future wife and build their green wooden house that would be my mother's—and later my—home. He was the only one among the adult men in his family to survive the war. There is a reason why so many public memorials to Stalin, like the one in Crimea, in Tver, in Ekaterinburg, and Penza, connect Stalin's name with the Second World War. It was the most traumatic event in Russia's contemporary history and Stalin was its wartime leader. The numbers of people killed across the USSR suggest that, like my family and the families of my childhood friends, every Russian family was affected. The record is in the boxes of black and white fading photographs stored in closets across the country, underneath beds; in the letters wedged between them, breaking at their creases, along the folds of tell-tale triangles from a time when paper rationing forced people to improvise envelopes out of the letters themselves. People born outside of Russia might wonder: for all the devastation, how could Russians be willing to forgive so much of Stalin's wartime leadership? Because, the argument goes, had it not been for some of Stalin's most devastating policies—among them the forced industrialization drive in the 1920s and 1930s and the collectivization that drove millions to their deaths in the 1930s, especially in Ukraine—the formerly agrarian Soviet Union might not have been able to withstand the German army. And what then? the argument goes. Over the past decade, the Russian government has funded military parades and school programmes looking into wartime family history, built a World War II historical reenactment park for children near Moscow, funded hundreds of volunteer search crews that go out every spring and summer to search old battlefields for the remains of some the four million Soviet soldiers—four million people—who are still officially listed as missing in action in the Second World War. The crews look to reconnect their remains with their families, and almost every expedition is successful. The state has invested millions upon millions of rubles in ever-bigger Victory Day parades every year, on fanfares, salutes, concerts, and fireworks to remember the World War II victory. The Russian president says: “We must be proud of our history.” And so, amid all the dying, Russia's official history of the Second World War is a history of glory. The war stands on its own, absolved of what came before or after. It is not related, in textbooks or popular consciousness, to the show trials and summary executions that came before, nor to the mass incarceration in the gulags, nor the man-made famine in Ukraine. Victory in the Second World War is like a badge of honour, a foundational myth that Russians can unify around. The story lands exactly because no Russian family was spared, because every school child can connect it to family history. But when official history remembers the heroic visit by Stalin to the front near Tver in 1943, it forgets—among other things—that that visit was the closest Stalin came to visiting the front; that the visit came nine months after fighting in the area had ended. The Russian government exploits wartime memories to create a glorious national story: we were strong then, we are strong now. We need strong leaders to withstand our enemies. The stories the government tells might be in service of its own goals. But that doesn't erase the fact that the people in the black and white faded photographs are real. That until recently, some of them sat at our kitchen tables talking about relief planes dropping packages of bread from the sky; hoarded jars of food in the pantry. Just in case. In 2006, Russian activists created a new commemoration ceremony for May's Victory Day events. The Bessmertnyi Polk (The Immortal Regimen) ceremony immediately sparked similar yearly tributes across the country. At the closing of Victory Day events, millions of people now walk in a procession holding pictures of relatives who fought or died in World War II. For the seventieth anniversary of Victory Day, the Russian president Vladimir Putin joined the procession, walking through Red Square with a picture of his own father, a veteran. We can talk about exploiting memory for political gain, but it's hard to argue with that sacrifice of the people in the photographs, what they went through. Millions of old black and white portraits, held up in collective memory, across the country. It's a moving commemoration. And one at which Stalin's portrait appears often. 6. Another thing about understanding Stalin's comeback—and this will surprise many people who grew up in “the West”—is that the Soviet Union wasn't all bad. When my parents were students in the 1980s and early 1990s, we lived in a skyscraper that was, until 1988, Europe's tallest structure. It was completed in 1956 and designed on Stalin's orders as a monument to the glory of the Soviet state, in an architectural style now identified with High Stalinism. It was the Moscow State University Main Building. My parents had both travelled to study at MSU because it was the best educational institution in the USSR. They met, married, and like many of their friends had their first child while still living in residence. We lived in the north wing of the building, on a floor for families, where toys and tricycles lay scattered outside the elevators and small children roamed the hallways in packs. That Stalin's biggest architectural project was a university is not an accident. From the very beginning, education was a matter of survival for the Soviet state. [[{"fid":"6702566","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] One hundred years ago, almost all of my family members lived as peasants on estates that their grandparents had tilled as serfs, and were almost entirely dependent on their masters. A hundred years ago, almost everyone in my family was illiterate, because on the eve of the revolution in 1917, of all Russians, only 40 percent could read and write, including only 13 percent of women. How well can a country of farmers fight off an invasion? Lenin and Stalin's push to educate the masses began almost immediately. The state mandated universal primary education and funded everything: primary schools, universities, vocational colleges. It funded daycares so that women too would benefit. By the Second World War, the compulsory education programme had pushed the literacy rate to 90 percent. After my mother left her small town and defied all the odds in passing the entrance exams to the best institution in the country, there was nothing stopping her from pursuing any education she wanted (as long as she kept her grades up). In return for a free education, graduates agreed to work for three years in a placement, which could be a remote town anywhere in the USSR where there was need for their skills. But once accepted, few material problems could come between students and their ability to get an education. And when my mother left her hometown for MSU, no one forgot that her own grandmother, born in 1907 in Moscow, had never learned to read. My father grew up in a small northern town on the Volga, sharing an apartment with his single mother, a music teacher—the same woman who some thirty years earlier had been born in a horse-drawn cart in -40C weather—and his grandparents, also both from tiny northern villages. After getting interested in photography in high school, my father became desperate to get his hands on the solution necessary to develop colour photographs. But in the late-1970s USSR that was well-known for its shortages, he could not find a single store that carried the chemicals he needed. He checked out all the chemistry textbooks that might help him to find a way to mix the chemicals himself at a library. Soon, he was competing in regional and then country-wide chemistry Olympiads—all state-funded—and admitted to the best university in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, without the formality of mandatory exams. He was one of a handful of students for whom the university waived the requirement. This is what we know: my parents were among the best students in their districts. Neither would have gone to university had it not been state-funded. A seventy-five-year-old woman, Marina Viktorovna, who I met at the Moscow office of Memorial, the Russian human rights NGO that works to collect records on people who were politically persecuted during the Stalinist period, told me: “If we think about it, at its heart, the Soviet project was right.” This, coming from a woman who was at the office to consult her “file”: the documents she had collected over the last decade about what happened to some half a dozen members of her family, who had all either spent decades of their lives in the gulags or in exile, or been the children of those who did—all for the vague crime of “sabotage” to “restore the capitalist order.” Even half a century later, Marina Viktorovna would not tell me her last name. Viktorovna is her patronymic—Russia's version of the middle name. Having a family history in Russia, it seems, is still uncomfortable. The USSR had its problems. But after two decades of “economic shock therapy” in the new Russia, the USSR is looking better and better. When the Soviet Union collapsed, my mother had already defended her PhD and was working as a researcher and chemistry lecturer, while my father worked toward his own thesis defense. But all of a sudden, her academic's salary was barely enough to cover her metro fare and canteen lunches. Prices were floated on the new, open market, they flew away like balloons. Academics and other publicly funded employees had little hope of surviving in the new market economy. This was the time of picket lines outside schools, universities, and hospitals, employees at their wits' end over months of withheld pay because no one was really sure who owned and was responsible for what; and breathtaking crime. The programming job my father accepted instead of finishing his PhD meant that we were alright. But if my mother bought a bag of groceries over her lunch break—eggs, juice, cottage cheese—under her coworker's gaze the bag radiated like it was stolen. But with my father's income, we bought jeans. We visited the first Western grocery stores where shelves were so plentiful that the store offered customers a basket to carry their yogurt, hazelnut spread, tropical fruit juice, and European cheese; we chewed gum and bought Snickers, cutting the bars into a dozen pieces to share for dessert. (I was five when the chocolate bar ice cream commercials appeared and still can't walk past a Mars ice cream bar without getting sentimental about the miracle of consumer capitalism.) We watched Mexican telenovelas dubbed in Russian and lined up for hours outside of McDonald's, in a queue that zigzagged Pushkin Square in central Moscow, while entrepreneurial Muscovites stood queue-side, selling everything from pantyhose and used electronics to kittens and pet turtles. Around the same time, luxury SUVs began to appear on Moscow streets: leather seats, tinted windows, always the sleek black exterior. Commercials appeared on television and quickly took over more airtime than TV programming. The most frequent commercials seemed to be for the panoply of banks that spouted like mushrooms. There were so many new banks and so many commercials for banks and the banks opened and folded so frequently, swindling their customers so often in the process, that the tagline of one commercial simply said: “We won't cheat you.” It showed a woman taking money from a teller, beaming, and telling the camera: “They didn't cheat me.” In the first decade of post-Soviet Russia, it was common to hear people quip that if in the Soviet Union they had money but nothing to buy with it, now all they ever wanted was in a store around the corner, but they had no money.    “Economic shock therapy” came with a price, and in the “end of history” euphoria that swept North America in the 1990s, few realized that after the Soviet collapse, there have been 2.5 million “excess deaths” in eastern Europe: mostly as a result of poverty and its malaises, like alcoholism, which caused a drastic lowering of life expectancy in Russia—from 63.5 for men in 1991 to 58.6 ten years later. Whatever optimism people still had for liberalization plunged along with the ruble in the 1998 default. Millions of people—like my paternal grandparents—lost their savings overnight, years of work reduced to worthless bundles of paper. The overwhelming feelings of the 1990s were bewilderment and shame: at the crime, the poverty, at the luxury SUVs with their oblivious tinted windows. The drunken president making the country the laughing stock of the world. In 2001, economist Steve Keen wrote: “Russia's free market experiment and crash of economic liberalization may have done more to rehabilitate Karl Marx—and even Joseph Stalin—in the eyes of the average Russian, than anything positive done by Russia’s socialist camp.” It was around this time that words started to shift in meaning. We were promised a better life—why are we poorer and more insecure than ever? The words “market economics” and “liberalism” became tinged with resentment. Slowly, they grew to be associated with deception. The feeling of resentment infected other words too: democracy, freedom, human rights. “What's freedom?” people would say. “Is it the freedom to hit bottom? The new millennium brought in Vladimir Putin, who saw a Russia desperate for stability and positioned himself as a strong leader. By 2005, he was calling the Soviet collapse “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” He reminded us of how we won the biggest war the world had ever seen, and how we would not be cowed now. And people said, “well, at least it's not so shameful to be Russian now.” And they thought, the invisible hand didn't work for a lot of Russians—would a strong one? An iron one? 7. “I'm sick to death of the portraits of Stalin at public gatherings,” says Yan Rachinsky, one of the founders of Memorial. “But what's more dangerous is that the old [Soviet political] order is coming back. The idea that everywhere around us there are enemies. That's a persistent Stalinist idea. The 'fifth column' and 'foreign agents'—all of that is terminology from Stalinist times. Without the repressions, a large part of the context of that era is coming back.” When newspapers or neighbours talk about Stalin as a strong leader rather than an autocrat, a dictator, Marina Viktorovna doesn't respond. “The war touched every family,” she says. “And with repression, it's the same thing. But few know about that." She understands people who want a strong government—and that's what she hears when she hears people talking about Stalin as a strong leader. “I understand people want an iron hand to come and clean everything up. They never think that that hand can hurt them.” In 2016, an instructional manual for high school history teachers on how to teach the Stalinist period—how to talk about the scope of forced labour, the disappearances, the sentence of “ten years without right to correspondence” that people found out later was code for death—was banned. Authorities said that the manual's instructions were destructive for students, that it could weaken their “disposition for sacrifice.” The idea seems to be that some repressions are necessary. Don't question them: that in itself is a threat to the present order. Like the Dzhugashvili case showed, people perceive criticism of historical decisions as attempts to weaken Russia. A Western ploy, propaganda to make the country weaker, make it collapse like the Soviet Union. The president reminds us: we must be proud of our history. After I moved to North America as a child in the mid-1990s, I learned that I was less interested in the story and more interested in the way it was told, which parts were included. In Russia, history lessons taught me about: grandfather Lenin, Russia's vast boreal forests, Pushkin. After we moved to the States, Lenin became George Washington and the apple tree. Pushkin became pilgrims (and Indians, this being the mid-1990s) and Thanksgiving. And when my family moved to Canada at the end of 1996, history lessons were less about socialism and the Second World War than Sir John A. MacDonald, Louis Riel, and the Northwest Passage. I learned that when people talk about their past, they are talking about their future. When the Russian Ministry of Culture erects a statue of Ivan the Terrible in a town he conquered five hundred years ago to expand Russian land south, and the monument shows him on a horse holding the Orthodox cross aloft, that is a message that the Russian state considers it important to tell a story about defending the Orthodox faith on lands that it has claimed to be Russian. When Poland and Ukraine ban communist symbols from public view—Soviet statues, monuments, images, that shows that they want to leave behind that part of their history, to see it as an historical aberration, unlike the non-Soviet part of their history. The Rhodes Must Fall movement aims to show how much history dismissed the stories of the conquered. The same can be said about the move to depict Harriet Tubman, women, minorities on American currency, all of whom have been dismissed from the visual memory of public monuments. Canada's former prime minister Stephen Harper worked to refocus Ottawa's museum of civilization—that aims to tell a story about Canada's history—to Canadian military history. He commissioned a memorial to the victims of communist oppression near the justice buildings in Ottawa. Last year, Gabor Mate, a well-known Hungarian-Canadian doctor and public speaker who has earned the right to dislike communist rule—being born as he was in Soviet-occupied Budapest in the 1940s—wrote an op-ed against the Ottawa memorial. In it, he argued that the project uses the stories of people who suffered under Soviet rule to advance a political agenda. He writes: “What is the principle here in service to which public space is to be utilized and public money spent, if not to advance Tory ideology? Is it to honour humans destroyed by power-mongering, aggression, greed and cruelty? That would be inspiring. Let us then erect a monument to the victims of industrial civilization, Communist or not.” He goes on to list the people who would be memorialized: the millions who died in the Stalinist purges and gulags, in the Ukrainian famine, the Chinese who starved to death in wake of Mao's Great Leap Forward; the Magyars killed battling Soviet troops in Budapest; the millions of Congolese murdered by Belgian diamond hunger; and the three million Vietnamese slaughtered by the US in the name of anti-communist containment; the many tens of thousands hounded to death throughout Latin America by American-backed regimes over the decades, the many millions of martyrs to racism everywhere. The hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people killed in North America to facilitate colonial expansion, “victims of Christian mercy at the hands of nuns and priests and other ministers of Western culture.” Russia isn't alone in its “problematic” national myth. The slapstick speed with which Russian history can shape-shift, however, is striking. The oldest and biggest museum to Stalin's memory stands in the centre of Stalin's hometown, Gori, in Georgia. Its entrance is a two-room wooden hut with scuffed floors and some of its original furniture, where Stalin lived as a child with his mother and father, a cobbler. Inside, it shows Stalin's life—as a young seminary student, a revolutionary on the run, leader of the USSR, sitting next to Churchill and Roosevelt as Yalta—in objects: pipes, books, letters, gifts leaders of other countries gave him, his death mask. The hut is ensconced in a Soviet-style monument, a temple to the memory of Gori's most famous son. After the 2008 war in South Ossetia, the Georgian Minister of Culture announced that the Stalin Museum in Gori would be reopened as a Museum of Russian Aggression. An unusual banner was installed at the entrance saying: “This museum is a falsification of history. It is a typical example of Soviet propaganda and it attempts to legitimize the bloodiest regime in history.” The sign remained there for three years—amusing or aggravating visitors depending on their perspective—until 2012, when Gori's city council voted for the sign to be removed. The vote ended the showdown of historical narrative, and the memory of Gori's most elevated son stayed as it was. In 2012, the Russian government passed a law that allowed labelling NGOs that receive more that 25 percent of their funding from overseas as “foreign agents.” (MPs aligned with Putin's party saw democracy-promoting NGOs in Russia as tools of Western political power.) Memorial itself was among the organizations branded a “foreign agent.” Its offices are often ransacked and its employees intimidated. Last year, the entrance to Memorial's Moscow office was spray painted with the words, “USA out.” In 2015, Perm-36—a former forced labour camp that activists opened as a museum in 1994, the only one of its kind in the country—was forced shut. Newspapers and state-sponsored Russian TV had derided its portrayal of the repressions as “worse than they were” and called the museum's leadership “the fifth column” (a derogatory term for political opposition). In 2012, the government pulled its funding and by 2015, the museum was forced to close. 8. How do we tell both stories? It's like saying two opposite things at once. Last fall I attended an event commemorating the 35,000 people executed in Moscow alone during Stalin's Great Purges in 1937-8. Memorial organizes the event every year on the day before a day of remembrance for victims of Soviet repression on October 30th. At the “Returning of the Names,” volunteers read the names, ages, professions, and dates of arrest and execution of people from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Last year was the tenth anniversary of the event and organizers expected that by the end of that day, they would have read half the names on the list since the event began in 2007. By noon, the queue of volunteers waiting to read from the bits of paper bearing the names was over two hundred people long. It was snowing and windy, and the ground was wet with sleet. People queued up to two hours for less than a minute at the microphone, to read names, some of which were well-known and others that had not been spoken aloud for over eighty years. One man—in his eighties, short and thin, mistrust written into the deep lines of his face—took his turn at the microphone to speak his list of names. He read them and then began speaking about his father, who the police had taken away when the man was six years old. One of the officers who had come for his father had pulled him by the ear so hard that he thought it would come off, the man said, holding his hand to his ear. As he went on, breaking the rhythm of the procession, the crowd became uncomfortable. After a few minutes, one of the organizers walked over to stand next to the man. She gently touched him on the forearm, startling him. He pushed her off, gesturing to the crowd that she was interrupting, continuing to lay into Soviet history. The organizer let the man speak another few seconds, amusement and impatience written across the crowd, and patted him again on the arm, gestured toward the queue behind the man, said a few inaudible words. With the organizer now holding him by the arm and moving him off, the man swore at her but allowed himself to be led aside. Moved, I took a picture and posted it to Facebook. The next day, Skyping with my mother, she told me that the picture had shaken her. I braced. “It looks like about fifty people were there out of a city of 15 million. Why can't these people find something better to do, instead of throwing dirt on their history?” I said I didn't think anyone wanted to portray the Soviet Union as entirely bad. They were just remembering a side that they didn't want forgotten. That there had been plenty of stories of Soviet good, of Soviet glory, on TV. It was important to remember the people who had paid for it. “Victims of communism. More like victims of nothing better to do. Who's going to read the names of all the victims of capitalist repression? Of every slave ship prisoner, every victim of American 'democracy promotion,' everyone who died under American-backed dictatorships? How much labour do the millions of people incarcerated in the States produce for free? Who's going to fund the memorial centre for victims of capitalist repression? I'll tell you. No one. It's bad for business. So why does pouring shit over the Soviet Union always get all the Facebook likes?” “But isn't forgetting the dark side of Soviet rule just a way to be able to sell more Soviet rule?” “No one's buying Soviet rule.” She paused. “You,” she finally said, “are falling into the same exact stupid trap I fell into back then, when I was your age. We let people make us believe that the West was better than us. That we had nothing worth keeping. We were too stupid to know otherwise and we let it be broken.” I wanted to find something for us to agree on. “It would take a long time to read the names of the victims of capitalism. A long time. I'd help read those names,” I said lamely. “Yeah? So why don't you write a story about that?” Why didn't I? 9. Stalin is no longer a historical figure. He is an insurrection. He is what happens when words lose meaning, when my cousin mutters “American bullshit” after a woman hands him a flyer on the Red Square that says “human rights” on the cover, before he rips it to shreds. Stalin is simple because he is a lifeless statue, an object that people can imbue it with whatever meaning they wish. He is the truth when the truth becomes geopolitics. He is the “moral nihilism,” as Rachinsky puts it, “when people believe that what exists in politics is only what serves politicians' needs. The idea that people only act on material interests. And that all the conversations about human rights, international law, is all just a distraction in the game of geopolitics.” Whenever I'm in Moscow, I walk through the Red Square. A few weeks before one cobblestoned visit in 2015, a group of young activists had staged a protest there, against what they saw as the return of the Soviet spirit into Russian politics. They doused holy water on the steps of Lenin's tomb, reciting incantations of “Be gone! Be gone!” like Orthodox priests, until security guards intervened and escorted them away. That spring, at the metro outside the Red Square, I saw a man in a black parka browsing his phone behind a table of touristy kitsch. Soviet-era pins with space rockets on them, old military medals, T-shirts, magnets, and matryoshkas: with Putin's face on them, with Gorbachev's, with Stalin's. More recently—Donald Trump's. I asked why he's selling the Stalin knick-knacks. “People buy them,” he said, frowning. “So I sell them. What else am I going to do?” The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Yeltsin cultural centre as a Gorbachev cultural centre. Hazlitt regrets the error.
A Brief History of Supermarkets

“The supermarket is very crowded.”

This is something about supermar— This is something about depression, like all is when you are.  “I wasn’t born, so much as I fell out.”—The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket” In the stark silence of memory, I am young. Young enough to be riding inside the shopping cart at the Stater Brothers grocery store on Magnolia. I am old enough to know what my parents mean by “you spoil him” but not old enough to understand why my grandmother, pushing the cart, has darker skin than I do. She holds my amateur hand in hers, wood-brown and well-lotioned. I don’t understand her Spanglish. I am frightened by the brimstone imagery of her Catholicism. I don’t know what she’s trying to erase with a facelift. The market beeps, the turnstile squeaks as she guides us back out into the world. Corona, California is quiet. Bent October sun in the parking lot. There is a saturation of confusion, and it won’t ever leave. Sometimes I will remember this moment, caught in the spaces between shadows of leaves, casting a net over the sidewalk, during golden hour. “In the blizzard of ’77, the cars were just lumps on the snow. And then later, tripping at 7-Eleven, the shelves were stretching out of control.”—Nada Surf, “Blizzard of ‘77” I’m nineteen, standing in the Albertson’s on Yorba Linda Boulevard, while my college roommates purchase a Styrofoam cooler for a beach bonfire. We wear Hollister and our haircuts are shaggy on purpose. I wear Vans, my roommates wear Rainbows. I’ve just eaten mushrooms for the first time, the fluorescence all coated celluloid, watching the twenty-five-cent toy machines slowly sway. It’s all blue and blonde in there. I miss my family. I was fleeing. Later, at the beach, the dark surf crashes in the void, and oh how it frightens me, forever. “I took her to a supermarket. I don’t know why but I had to start it somewhere.”—Pulp, “Common People,” We are twenty-one, twenty-two, and walking past the Ralph’s grocery store that is halfway between my apartment and the Starbucks, our destination, where we are meeting to break up. I stop, I blurt it out, incapable of bearing the half block farther, the ordering of coffee. She’s angry, flushed in the face, Jean Seberg in red, her ski-jump nose cocked into a sneer. She says I’m too dramatic, I make everything a movie. I will tell this story many times in the years that follow, thinking it says something funny about my romanticism, but more honestly fearing that it says something about my disassociation with reality. Which it does. “It makes no difference. Night or day. Nobody teaches you how to live. Cups of tea are a clock. A clock, a clock, a clock.”—The Raincoats, “Fairytale in the Supermarket” I am twenty-five and spend no fewer than three nights a week aimlessly wandering the Vons Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. It’s 2AM and I’m stoned on the couch, no longer interested in the television, so I slink down to the street where I resurrect my 1992 Acura Legend and hump it to the 24-hour supermarket. No goal. No plan.  Tommy James and the Shondells play over the tinny radio while I pace the mostly empty aisles. The few other patrons look equally blank, awash in white light and cooler chill. [[{"fid":"6702551","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent. Things we all must do. Shopping for now. Wondering, scared, what happens when these bulbs stop humming. “So let it begin. Let her be dipped in the dazzling bounty/and raised and wrung out again and again.”—Tony Hoagland, “At the Galleria Shopping Mall” I shop when I’m sad, like well-designed packaging could re-skin my life. I couldn’t satisfy myself if I tried. “…the supermarket is very crowded…”—David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water” No shit. Countless graduates from a certain age, bathed in the dim cathode rays of this story, these American doldrums, something about living, something about wanting, eyes glassy, glazed, already gone. Yes, life is everywhere. Countless film characters staring to corners, bored with yearning, as the camera pushes slowly into their checkout counter, their aprons and pouts, the supermarket whirring behind them, even though life is everywhere. California spring is a taunt. We stop at the Vons on Figueroa. The parking lot is crushed in nightlight, all the moths in love have received an invite. Once inside, I buy a case of “throwback” Mountain Dew and you a case of La Croix. I can’t remember the flavor. I am almost thirty, we are falling out of love, you are moving back to New York. Every time I attempt to buy something there’s a problem with the register. That charged electric hum of the market, it seeps into all. Everything is so goddamn bright sometimes, I have to close my eyes. [[{"fid":"6702561","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] —Chris Iller, “2:30am at a 7-11 near Disney World – 1987” This is the year I am born. And oh god, what if life is everywhere?
‘Being Alone is Fundamental and Central to Being Human’: An Interview with Ayobami Adebayo

The author of Stay With Me on how stories find you, remembering both sides of a proverb, and discovering your characters. 

In Nigeria, a woman named Yejide and her husband want to have a child and find that they are unable to. In order to save her marriage, Yejide focuses on getting pregnant. This is the premise of Ayobami Adebayo’s debut, Stay With Me (Knopf)—a novel that is now known for being the subject of famed critic Michiko Kakutani’s last review for the New York Times. Originally out with a small press in Nigeria, Stay With Me has since been published internationally. Just under 30, Adebayo is already on her way to being a celebrated international author. Ayobami was spending her evening in Nigeria and I was spending my morning in Brooklyn when we spoke over Skype, discussing the instability of romantic love, shifting dynamics in familial relationships, and the importance of learning to be alone. Abigail Bereola: We start with Yejide and quickly learn that she’s a highly independent woman, a fighter both literally and figuratively, and very sure of herself. She is married to Akin and they married for love. But there are a lot of things that love doesn’t always bring, like happiness, or honesty, or children. For Yejide, in this context, the inability to produce children, means she will have to share her husband with another wife, since lineage and legacy are what matter above all else. In some ways, the story begins with the threat of the second wife. Why did you decide to start here? Ayobami Adebayo: Well, actually, when I was writing the book, it sort of started at the end. It started when everything had happened and then I had to work my way back to the beginning. And then I had to find a moment they could both look back to and point to as the moment when everything began to unravel, even though I feel that things were already sort of out of place before that time. I thought that in looking back at their lives—you know, I think that when we look back, sometimes we want to pick a particular moment or an image or something that we can hold onto as the beginning, and it felt that this was the moment that they would both acknowledge as the beginning of their end, how their marriage began to end as they’d previously known it. In the relationship between Yejide and Akin, they are both relatively equal, but they live in a place where, to the outside world, Akin’s manhood is supposed to take precedent. Much of their relationship in the novel consists of the inside/outside struggle of wanting what you want for your relationships, but not quite being able to ignore societal wants as well. Is this something you see often—the battle between what is traditional and personal desires? Yeah, I think that that is always a conflict. There is this overarching tradition and expectations about their marriage, but I also think that in different ways, it might just be your nuclear family and the expectations they have about your marriage and the way your life is supposed to go.  So it’s always an interesting tension, I think. And I think it’s complicated by the fact that these are the people that you assume love you and care about you, you know? It’s a tension that is probably pretty common, that you can easily observe, if you pay attention to many relationships. Could you speak more about what you said about the people who are supposed to love you and care about you still wanting specific things for you? Yeah. For this couple in particular, it’s the mother-in-law who is so certain that she knows what’s best for this couple. And if her son would just do what she wants, everyone would be happy. I think that one of the things that you do then notice is that sometimes people who love you have very different expectations about what your happiness would mean, and I think in a culture where age is given a lot of respect and experience means a lot, it’s difficult sometimes to convince them that they might be wrong. I think that it’s most difficult for people to see things from a different perspective when they’re so certain that they’re right, as the mother-in-law is here. She’s convinced that this is the only path to happiness for her son and his wife… Yejide, from the beginning of their relationship, is not interested in polygamy. But what does cheating mean in the context of a culture where taking on another wife is possible and normal? So when she’s living in the ’80s, it’s something that’s a possibility, but more and more, younger people were turning away from that model and embracing monogamous relationships. But it’s all so difficult because they’re also aware—and I think particularly for many women, there’s the awareness that this is an option that’s valid, that the man can choose to explore if he’s unsatisfied with their marriage in any way. And for which he will suffer, really, no consequences—at least no negative consequences from the society. So, as it plays out in the novel, it’s an agreement that they both have in the beginning, but when he goes back on it, she’s not going to have anybody feel—I mean, people will feel sorry for her, but people will also remind her that, well, his father did it. Her own father did it. So, well, it’s not such a terrible thing. But it’s obviously something that comes at a great personal cost for her and for the marriage. And even for the man himself. [Yejide] exists in this cusp between a time when it was sort of the norm and in a new beginning where more and more people were embracing monogamy, but there was also an awareness in many of these relationships that it was a door that could open either way. That there was really no sense of permanence or security in this monogamy that quite a number of people were starting to embrace.   The catch is that in their particular relationship, if Yejide can produce a child, a second wife would not be needed. And yet, Yejide recognizes that the path to motherhood is a potentially dangerous one, that she could have a successful pregnancy and give birth to a child, but die in the process. And in that case, in some ways, a second wife would still be needed. And this is something she considers and something she is okay with, or seems to be okay with, as long as a child is able to live. How, and why, did you settle on this depiction? What’s interesting for me particularly about the characters, at least two of them, is that of course there were definite decisions about structure and things, but they did feel like people who I discovered and then had to understand. So, it wasn’t so much a depiction as trying to understand who would make these decisions. This is someone who, herself, has grown up without a mother in a polygamous family. And the way polygamy works, your mother is… your refuge, in a sense. And when the mother is absent for whatever reason, whether the mother is late or the mother has left the marriage, many children feel particularly alone. And I think for her, it’s that she sort of idealized this image of family, of a man, a wife, and his child, and this unit that she desperately wants to be a part of in a way that is unchangeable. I think one of the things that she’s also very aware of is how precarious marital love can be. How precarious romantic relationships can be. And she feels, many times, that the real, permanent relationship—the one that is not mutable—would be the relationship that she has with her biological child. The kind of relationship that she’s had with her mother.   She’s come to a place where this is sort of something she aspires to—the connection that she wants—for several reasons. One of them being that it would provide a kind of security that she becomes aware of, I think in the second chapter where the second wife is introduced. She imagines initially that she’s come into a relationship with her husband that will provide that kind of security and then she becomes aware of the fact that that kind of security might never be possible in a relationship where someone can walk away and say, ‘You’re no longer my wife.’ But she thinks to herself that if I have a daughter, if I have a son, that relationship can never be severed the way that Akin has severed this monogamous union. So it’s a desire that’s intense for her and for which she’s willing to sacrifice and take risks because in some ways, it’s quite primal and linked to trauma that she’s experienced earlier on in her own life.  Often the relationship between a parent and child is actually severable and there are a lot of things that I think can come between them, but I do think that that’s often something that people think: if I can’t have this man, then I can have this child who will be mine. Yes, I mean, obviously it’s severable, as Yejide realizes in the novel. And not even always in such a final way as what happens with her. As you mention, quite a number of things can come between them and do come between them, and even in Akin’s relationship with his own mother, you see that it’s not a given, that any connection with another human being is not promised or to be taken as a given or for granted. That’s another dimension. It sounds a bit dark, I think, but ultimately, these characters—at least one of them does at some point—realize that she has to make peace with being alone in the world before she can have any meaningful connection with another human being. I mean, I wonder if that makes sense, that that state of being alone is so fundamental and central to being human. She just has to make peace with that, and the idea that for her, it’s complicated and more pronounced because of the family she comes from and how she feels lonely as a child, but the truth is that on the other side, Akin grows up with his family as intact as could be and still manages to carry a burden that makes him lonely for quite a while. So, as I said before, it’s kind of one of the things we have to deal with, being human. That being alone, having experiences that are sometimes so singular to us, is just part of this state of being human… I think that’s the other thing that underlies all that’s going on with these two people, that as important as connecting with other human beings is—it’s essential and we need it, we reach for it—we also need to make peace with being in our own selves. In Yoruba culture, there is a focus on legacy and oral history—who will be left behind to tell your story. And often, I think this focus is aimed toward children. There is so much wrapped up into the idea of children in general, the idea that if a woman can’t have a child, it doesn’t just say something about her physical ability, but about who she is morally as well. Why did you want to explore these things? Well, because I didn’t necessarily agree with all of it. And also because sometimes I feel that people focus on and reiterate certain maxims, proverbs, and conveniently forget other ones that temper the ones they’re reiterating. For instance, Akin’s mother keeps saying that it’s important to have children because they’ll be around to tell your story, they’ll be there to bury you and all of that. And this whole idea of a funeral and having children be there to perform certain rites, you know, it’s important. We go back and forth in the novel between Akin’s father’s funeral and Yejide coming back. So there’s that argument of, who’s going to bury you? And there’s this lovely Yoruba proverb, which basically goes, well, if you have children, children are going to bury you. If you don’t have children, children are going to bury you. So there’s also within the culture an acceptance of the reality that even for people who want to, some people will just not be able to, and when they do die, it doesn’t mean then that their bodies end up in the street or something like that. But you don’t often hear people say that when a couple is having trouble conceiving. I’ve sort of always wondered about the selective use of culture in support of a certain way of being or a certain idea. Those are things that I think about and I think it just all came together in wanting to look at what that means when you carry this to the extreme and what kind of effect it can have on people psychologically. It seems like there’s a lot of shame in it. Yeah, I think that the way it plays out sometimes, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for many women who find themselves in that situation not to feel inadequate and maybe even pointless. How a person’s existence and value can sometimes be narrowed down to this one function. Sometimes when you think about it, it’s a bit terrifying. I think it can be very reductive sometimes in the way it plays out. All of this is occurring against a backdrop of class tumult and government corruption—the characters see it and fear it and discuss it—it informs their lives, but it doesn’t overtake them. Class insulates Yejide and Akin in ways that it doesn’t necessarily for others, like the housemaid who is tasked with opening letters that may carry bombs, but it also makes them targets because they’re sent letters that may carry bombs. Can you talk about this? When I first begun working on the novel, I was reading a lot about the ’80s and all that happened and this tumult. It was a very interesting—probably morbidly interesting—time. And I wanted to put everything into the novel. And then at a point, I realized that these characters really didn’t care directly about all of these things that I knew. In paring back a lot of what was political, I feel that I not so much discovered it as realized something about many middle-class Nigerians, particularly at that time, was that what many people began to do in the face of dictatorship was to insulate themselves as much as possible from the failures of the state and all the tumult that was going on around. And it was something that you could only do if you were privileged. You could only afford to do this if you were earning above a certain pay grade. You could only afford to build your wall that was as high as a prison if you had money to do this, and there were many people who couldn’t afford to do this, obviously. And it’s something that I still find interesting because I think it’s something that even now, after we’ve returned to democracy, I think it’s an attitude that still carries over for many middle-class Nigerians. "You know, there’s no lights—just buy a generator…" There’s no water, you sink a borehole. You become a mini-government to yourself. And it’s easy to pretend that everything is fine because you’ve built this system. But things are fine only because you can afford to make them fine for yourself and your wife and your children and your little family. Right outside of your gate, things are falling apart. One of the things that I think about often is how no matter how much money you use to insulate yourself personally, if the state is failing, there’s going to be a rupture at some point and you’re going to feel that impact. You might build up a mini-paradise for yourself in a place where things are falling apart politically, but it could turn out to be a fool’s paradise because there’s going to be that moment when I think you might wish that you’d done more. You also do have a voice, you know? And I think more and more now, in a democracy, you do have a voice that you can use. But if you’ve chosen not to use it because you can sort things out for yourself and your family, there’s always a moment of rupture where you need the systems to work. Sometimes it’s between life and death. And if they don’t at that point, it can be catastrophic. I think it gestures toward that at the end of the book, but it’s something I’m thinking about more and more now.  I have very rarely, if ever, seen the depiction of sickle cell anemia in literature, despite the fact that it is a pretty common disease for black people—the National Institutes of Health say that 1 in every 365 black children in the United States are born with sickle cell disease and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 100,000 children are born in Nigeria with sickle cell disease every year. Why did you want to explore the disease in your work?  Like you mentioned, I can think of just one other book where it’s mentioned. It’s not something you see in fiction. And I feel that tangentially—not directly—it’s sort of been a part of my life in what has been a personal way. When I was in my late teens, early twenties, I lost a couple of friends to sickle cell anemia and it was devastating, obviously. But one of the things that it got me thinking about was how difficult it must be for their parents to continue. Because these are people I grew up with and our families were friends. I became aware shortly after they passed on that their mothers, their fathers would always be aware of the trajectory of my life, for instance, as they would be aware of the trajectory of the lives of other children that we’d gone to school together. My graduation, they would be invited. Things like that. And I just began to wonder, how do you even cope with this kind of event? And so I think that when I wanted to write this book, it just came naturally. It was just there at the back with all the things that were happening in this family, that this was also something they had to deal with. I guess, also, that it’s something that I think about often because I carry the sickle cell gene. I don’t have the disease, but I carry the gene. It means that I’m in that awkward position of finding a way to ask anybody I’m thinking about in that way if they’re also carrying the gene without sounding like you’re already thinking about having children with them, because that might not be on their mind. Yeah. It’s a lot of fun. It’s something that I had to think about early on as a young adult, about what kind of decision I was going to make. Because nobody’s going to stop you from marrying someone else who carries the gene, but I personally decided it wasn’t a risk I was going to take. But it’s something I thought about often because I still have friends who live with the disease and it’s just a little bit bizarre to not see something that’s a big part of many people’s lives, whether they live with the disease or they carry the gene and then it impacts so many of their romantic choices, just not seeing it represented. I wanted to write about it. There are a lot of ways that in the text, masculinity acts as a shield. In an interview with The Paris Review Daily, you said even if readers didn’t like Akin, you wanted them to understand him. Do you feel like Akin is unlikeable? And if so, how much of that, if any, comes from traits of his masculinity? I don’t know! I think I like him. I was very upset with him sometimes. I want to sit down and have a very long chat with him, but I think it’s just the character that I feel a little bit protective of because I’ve had people have very strong opinions about him. Those opinions have gone both ways. With Yejide, people have strong opinions about her, but it’s usually the same thing that I hear. But with him, someone says, "Oh my God, he’s such a devil." Or somebody comes and says, "My God, you were so unfair to him. How could you treat him like that?" Sometimes it’s amusing. I walked into a room once for an interview in Lagos, and the gentleman who had read this book so closely said to me, "I’m angry with you." That was the first thing he said to me. "I’m very upset about what you did to this man in this book." And then we had a chat about that. So I think that comes from hearing people have what seems to be very divergent opinions about this man. But I don’t know. I think that also people bring all sorts of things to the text themselves. But I like him and I say this with a bit of trepidation because I think somebody’s going to read this and meet me at a reading and say, "How can you like him?!" But I do. I wish he made different choices, but oh my goodness, I think he’s also at a difficult time, too.  What are the things that you normally hear about Yejide? I hear people say that they want to give her a hug, they want to tell her that everything will be fine, they admire her. I think people generally feel positively toward her. People are more willing to acknowledge her grief and her loss… And also to see how strong she is, how resilient she is. And I’m very aware of the fact that I do let her have more of a say in the book, and that’s deliberate. As much as I like Akin, I do hold him responsible for some things that happened, and she does get to have the last word. I think for me, that’s important. I think she’s someone that people seem to identify with in some ways, and admire in others, and feel a kind of sisterhood with. A feeling of, "I want to hold her hand through this." Why was it important to you that Yejide get the last word? I think one of the things I worry about where Akin’s concerned and sometimes when I was working on the final copyedits for the book, I did think about him and wonder if he’d made a journey in the book. I feel that Yejide did—she has several journeys in the book. She aspires to motherhood and then she realizes that this is not all there is, and she’s alone and she finds a way to make peace with that, and then she comes to the end of the book and things sort of come full-circle. I feel that of the two of them, she’s the one who’s best positioned to speak of the future that could be and might be… And there’s the fact that Akin never says the words. He just doesn’t do it. He never allows himself to be vulnerable in that sense, even when she confronts him. I wonder about that sometimes. And that might sound bizarre, because of course I did write this. But I do wonder. He’s someone I have complicated feelings about. Like, dude. Come on. Just say it. But, you know. He has certain ideas about who he’s supposed to be, and I’m not sure that he ever quite divorces who he is from who that ideal is. I’m not sure he ever does that. He’s always the responsible first son. Why did you want to write this story? You know, this is going to sound very kooky, but I think that you choose your stories to tell and sometimes they choose you. Of course I started writing the story—I didn’t even think that this would be my first novel. I had another idea that felt more like a novel and then this story comes. And then it just would not go away. I first wrote it as a short story and then for two years, I was sort of obsessed with these people. And then I sat down and I started writing this novel. It turned out to be a difficult book to write on many levels. Technically, I had to figure out what the structure would be and then emotionally, it was difficult. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I think that even looking back, I just felt a compulsion to tell this woman’s story. To just hold up this mirror, is sometimes how I think about it, and say, "Look. Just look at what we have the capacity of doing to people if we don’t rethink some ideas and the ways of thinking that the world should be…" I’m working on something else now that I’m starting to think, "Why am I doing this?" I get a lot of ideas, but there’s just that level of compulsion. That feeling that this is true and I have to get it out there. But of course it’s not—it didn’t happen. Yeah. But it is based on true things that could happen. Even if this particular thing didn’t happen. Yeah. So, I think for me, there’s a level of compulsion that gets it done. But I think part of it is also just curiosity about who are these people and why are they this way? Just that journey of getting to know people who are very different from you and have a different background and life story. That can be fun.  Who do you write for? At the risk of sounding very narcissistic, I’m going to say I write for myself ultimately. And maybe my sister. I think that when I’m working, it’s very difficult for me to think about an audience, perhaps because sometimes it gets a bit overwhelming. I’m trying to figure out so many things that I really don’t start thinking about the idea that other people might read this thing until, "Oh my God, it’s publication day" and I have a panic attack like "Oh my God, what have I done?" I think the awareness of an audience is something I’m just coming into because this is a first book. And when you’re working on the first book, there’s no guarantees. I think with any book. You don’t know if this will come together, you don’t know if anybody will care, you don’t know if any publisher will pick it up. So, it was mostly for myself and to have the satisfaction of having what I had put on the page match what I had imagined or come as close as I felt was possible. And I think that’s still mostly where I am. It’s been wonderful to have people read Stay With Me and respond to it. It’s been gratifying in many ways. But still, when I go back and work on something, I just can’t be thinking about that. There’s just no room when I’m working. Maybe in the moments in between, but when I’m actually doing the thing, no.
The First Time I Went to a Psychic

It’s a far sexier prospect to meet with a clairvoyant for fifty minutes than to sift through a year’s worth of all your broken-hearted mind-junk in therapy.

In the span of a conversation so short it could’ve been texted, I got dumped by the man I’d been dating for nearly a year. In just four staccato words spoken at my doorstop—“Our relationship isn’t developing!”—and the three to five seconds it took me to utter, "I'm not indulging this conversation, and I'm taking the cab across the street,” I was reduced to a mess of smeared mascara. I recognize that there’s an opportunity for emotional poise in the midst of this particular brand of misery, a quiet grace in enduring the dull ache of Sunday nights alone. But even so, I didn't embrace it: Instead, my heartbreak manifested in the form of a geriatric Jewish woman. I want a pastrami Reuben and a shvitz, I’d hear myself think, over the static of classic sitcoms I’d never fully appreciated for their artistic brilliance. I want to eat kreplach with Jerry Stiller in a velour tracksuit. I considered adopting an old cat with an endearing disability and taking up knitting, except I had neither the strength to drag myself to the Humane Society, nor to buy yarn. Instead, I desperately sought a quick fix; a way to jolt myself back to the emotional stasis I’d enjoyed before. Had I been able to procure the technology, I would’ve gladly Eternal Sunshine’d my memory or Back to the Future’d my past. But there were no memory-erasers or used Deloreans on the market, so instead I turned to mysticism. “I have to burn this dick-shaped candle before tomorrow’s full moon” was never a phrase I could have imagined myself saying. I read my horoscope with the sort of feigned amusement with which one might view a child’s drawing. I have no idea what planet my ninth house is in, nor do I have any pointers in the way of practical feng shui. What I do know is this: When you’ve been dropped like the forgotten bridge to a sitcom theme song, it’s a far sexier prospect to meet with a clairvoyant for fifty minutes than to sift through a year’s worth of all your broken-hearted mind-junk in therapy. * In a fit of what I now recognize as maternal panic, my mother invited me to join her and my father at an Arizona spa and “wellness retreat” I’d once deemed “fat camp for hippies.” In retrospect, it’s probably more akin to rehab for hippies; just replace group therapy with group fitness. In other words, neither are places where people specifically sit in a circle and sing “Kumbayah,” but they might if you asked them to. Although under normal circumstances, it was a place I might’ve deemed “too Eckhart Tolle-era Oprah” for me, these were not normal circumstances; I was a woman who’d spent the better part of that spring in a stained bathrobe, feeling alternately empowered and enraged by Beyoncé songs, and I was in no position to decline the invitation. Two weeks later, beneath the shade of two-story cactuses lush with yellow blooms, we were put on strict no-salt, no-sugar diets and shuffled around to trendy wellness-based activities. Along winding brick paths where baby javalinas roamed like buffalo, I followed my parents to yoga—and pilates, and cardiolates, and freeform mandala drawing, and crack-of-dawn desert hikes. To a degree, it helped—the endorphins and the fresh air, the regulated schedule punctuated by precise three-ounce servings of antibiotic-free chicken. I treasured being able to put my head on my mother’s shoulder and hold my father’s hand, but chided myself for being the most cloyingly out-of-touch millennial this side of the Mississippi: Here I was in the midst of this magical, all-expenses-paid, gluten-free desert oasis and all I could think of was this man—this one man—and how badly I wanted to either punch him or kiss him. What was wrong with me? No wonder I was dumped. Several days into the retreat, during one of my solitary afternoon walks where I pretended I wasn’t crying and swearing off romance, I stumbled upon a sign for the one aspect of healthy living to which I yet hadn’t yet been exposed: METAPHYSICS, it read in large print, beside an arrow pointing toward huts dotting the edge of the property. Upon returning to my room that evening, I flopped onto my southwestern-print comforter, rang the front desk, and asked to be transferred to the metaphysics department. A woman introduced herself as the spa’s resident clairvoyant. She had the gravelly phone voice of a cartoon witch, which I took to mean she was wise and probably very spiritual. That’s how a spiritual person sounded in my mind, anyway: Exactly like Elaine Stritch. I pictured a wrinkled desert woman with frizzy grey hair folding a handful of crystals into my closed palm and readjusting my chi—or chakra, or aura, or whatever was maligned. Maybe she’d chant with me. She listed off a menu of services: astrology, numerology, astrocartography, angel card readings, crystal alchemy, handwriting analyses. Unsure of where to start, I chose a forty-five-minute psychic reading. The following day, I retraced my steps back to the Metaphysics huts. “You’re Chloe,” Elaine Stritch called out from the distance, her assuredness a relief. So far: one for one. She waited at the lip of a grim stone enclosure on a slight incline, and ushered me into a room that barely accommodated two rigid chairs and a desk. I decided that this was probably a makeshift space used purely for energy-channeling purposes, and that pictures of her granddaughter in a field hockey uniform were hung in an office elsewhere. There were none of the fringed velvet curtains or crystal accoutrements I’d imagined of a clairvoyant’s space, but in truth I had no idea what a clairvoyant actually did or how. A clairvoyant, by definition, is simply a person able to gain insight through extrasensory perception; the means by which such insight is obtained don’t specifically require crystal balls or tarot cards or palm readings. Elaine Stritch closed the door, sat in a chair opposite me, and positioned a recording device between us, her eyes snapping shut the moment she pressed “record.” “It sounds a little funny,” she said. “But I want you to plant both feet on the ground, close your eyes and focus on bringing air through your entire body down to the floor. Breathe through your feet.” I closed my eyes and did as she asked. Breathing through my feet was a surprisingly effective metaphor. “Now picture an orb of light,” she instructed. I pictured the earth from space, smears of marbled land and ocean. “Was it blue and green?” she asked. “Yes,” I answered, and as she opened her eyes, I was startled by the way the slits of her pupils seemed to flicker back and forth, as if scanning passing cars on the freeway. “Good. We’re on the same page,” she said, gazing into the distance and scribbling on a piece of paper without looking at it. It was a practice, she explained, called automatic writing, wherein a clairvoyant manifests written information without conscious effort. After a moment, she stopped writing and returned my gaze hesitantly. “Okay, I’ll just say it because your spiritual guides are reassuring me you can handle it: People don’t always ‘get’ you, and right now, you don’t get you.” “Okay,” I said, as neutrally as I could muster. And it was true: I’ve never been a simple nut to crack. “And now that you’re no longer with the man you were with last year, you’re kind of at a crossroads,” she said, though I hadn’t told her about the break-up beforehand. “Okay...” I said, wanting to neither acknowledge the information’s accuracy nor impart any further nonverbal clues. She maintained her focus on the wall behind me, tracing lines of penciled text in delicate script. “Now, remind me of how recently he ended things again?” she asked, still gazing ahead and scribbling. I struggled to remember in silence. “Oh, that’s right, thanks,” she replied, as if I’d answered. What if she can hear my thoughts? I wondered in silence as I attempted to thought-police myself. If Elaine picked up on any of it, though, she didn’t tell me as much. Instead, she looked me square in the eye and said, “He was right: It wasn’t developing. Even if you’d stayed together, he had a life trajectory totally incompatible to yours.” The corners of my eyes teared up, and she paused, probably to listen in as I recalled the shininess of his hair each morning as he kissed me goodbye on the way to the office, leaving me to the five-minute morning routine I would execute hours later when I felt like waking up to write. “This is resonating with you?” she asked. I nodded, suddenly aware of my hands, one pinned to the arm of my chair and the other pulling at an unruly lock of hair. “Is there anything you’d like to ask me about specifically? You can give me anything that might register an emotional response: an address, a name, a combination of numbers…” I gave her the first thing that came to mind, a street name, stripped from its city and state: She correctly described my childhood home, its brick facade and manicured gardens, the white columns in the entranceway. I gave her the one-word name of my newly launched magazine venture: She gave me hyper-specific business advice on current and future collaborators, how I needed to continue delegating, how it “had legs.” I gave her my best friend’s first name: She described, with eerie accuracy, a fight we’d had the month before. I gave her the first name of a man I’d dated briefly during my early twenties: She detailed every personality trait that made us incompatible. And then I gave her another ex. And another. “The thing is, none of these men were right for you,” she said, cutting me off. “Then who is?” I asked feverishly. “When’s the right one coming along?” “You'll meet someone in October of next year,” she said, handing back the thin stack of papers, now covered in barely legible clusters of scribbles. Romance seemed an impossibility given that I’d already grown out all my body hair and sworn off the opposite sex, but she remained adamant, nodding her head resolutely. “Yes, you’ll meet in October. He’s ten years older than you, an intellectual peer, and you’ll travel the world together.” At the end of our forty-five minute session, I wasn’t entirely sure what happened; only that my nerves had diminished by nearly 100 percent and my spa credits by $120. Ungluing myself from the chair, I imagined clogs of anxiety I’d been carrying in my chest diluted by optimism. It wasn’t that her predictions needed to be accurate, necessarily; it’s that I’d been adamantly shown the contours of a future to which I could look forward. That’s not to suggest I wholeheartedly endorse clairvoyants now—there are more than enough charlatans on Yelp who’d happily exchange your cash for the generic suggestion that you might take a trip in the future. But I will say this: The following October, almost year and a half after my first psychic reading, I indeed met a man ten years older than me, though I’d long since forgotten about Elaine Stritch’s prophecy. Only when he and I left for our first shared trip outside of the country did I realize that she’d been correct in her predictions. Tomorrow, almost a year after our meeting to the day, he and I leave for our sixth trip.
To Give a Name To It

A collection of baby names is like a taxonomy of hope, a kind of catechism for future lives scattered over the horizon.

It seems absurd now that she and I ever talked about baby names. But maybe that is what you do when you are in love and aren’t willing to admit it. She was leaving soon, taking a job on the other side of the country, and since we weren’t exactly together and for another hundred, sorry reasons, I wasn’t going with her. So we instead lay there in her bedroom on a cloudy May morning—that pale not quite spring light filling the space, my brown hand draped across the barely pink skin of her back—and doing with our bodies what we (or at least I) was not willing to do with our lives, we talked about what we might name a child if we ever had one. I knew she would balk at it, but I told her what I had held buried in my chest for years: That, for a daughter, I liked the name Tasneen. Like so many Muslim girls’ names, it seemed elegant and dainty in its slipperiness. That first syllable that doesn’t quite exist in English, a softened “T” stopped mid-sound on its way to “th,” that then glides easily into “us,” and then the clean glinting sheen that accompanies words that end in “n.” I also liked Tasneen because it could easily be shortened to Taz. Tasneen might carefully pour brightly hued chemicals from test tube to beaker or have people realize half an hour too late she had been making fun of them. But Taz—she might wear Doc Martens and fight racists while taking care her many facial piercings stayed perfectly in place, and even as I type this I am aware that this is the kind of thing a sitcom husband says while his improbably hot wife rolls her eyes in exasperation. In fact, that was just her reaction. But in that fantasy we carry around that our children’s destinies are somehow in our hands, I liked how all this superficial incongruousness held together in that coupling of both formal and nickname—of differing ideas of the feminine, of East and West, and why I, as a Sikh man, wanted a Muslim name for a girl who would never be conceived. “No daughter of mine is ever going to be called Taz,” she said flatly, unware of this desire of mine to find in a pair of names a perfected split identity. But if it seems like I am trying to make her the unsympathetic pale-skinned villain it is only because her absence still lingers like a wound and not because it is actually true. I was trying to make things fit that simply wouldn’t—a child who would be two people at once, and two people who would inevitably part. Now, I don’t quite know what to call the feeling when you know something was beyond saving and had to end but you can’t seem to stop being haunted by the loss anyway. * My Punjabi parents were born in what is now Pakistan, before that country existed. That is how you say it. They are not quite from India, and not from Pakistan, because names connote specific things and there isn’t quite the right one for birthplaces whose valences have now shifted under the heaving tectonic plates of history. Punjab was split in two in the Partition of 1947, a once multi-faith state now cleaved cleanly into Muslim and Hindu/Sikh halves. Muslims in East Punjab had to migrate West, while Sikh and Hindu families like mine went the other way, generations-long systems upended. My father’s family was on holiday in Masoori as Nehru made his famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech that August, and they never went home. This was not unusual. Decades on, the trauma still lingers, and with it resentment, bitterness, division. Amidst one of the largest migrations in human history, over a million people died in the communal violence that erupted—mobs of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus murdering at will, sending trains full of corpses down the tracks across the border, carriages of death transformed into the most macabre of warnings. Despite the fact that Punjabis on both sides of the border still have much in common culturally, decades later, the tension between nuclear powers has ossified into something too big and complex to simply undo. Much of this history is invisible to my friends or partners, its subtlety and shading lost. But it is just this sort of invisibility that has given rise to my wish to don a mythical child, who will never arrive, with a Muslim name. It is my own futile gesture toward acknowledging something, putting in a name a desire for a reconciliation that won’t arrive in my lifetime. I am of course hardly alone in my desire to give a child a resonant name. Many people I know carry a list around with them, yearning contained in a crumpled note tucked away in some corner of one’s brain. As my social group slipped surreptitiously into its childrearing years, baby names were added to pop culture and politics as topics of conversations as, late into the night, feelings got more honest and slurred words spilled out over wine. My white friends would chatter excitedly about the surprising return of names like Ava or Martha, or comment on the obvious quirky celebrity monikers. But it would also often feel like a cone of cultural exclusion would descend around them as they listed off the names they had been holding on to for years. It is not that I didn’t understand the resonance of the entries on Most Popular lists hastily Googled on a phone. Having spent my whole life immersed in this culture, the return of Jackson and Dakota, Noah and Emma, or Isabella and Lucas all make sense to me. I understand the way these names resonate—evoking hippie parents who are deeply committed to yoga, or upwardly mobile professionals who vacation in Vietnam, or homebodies who have lived in the same town their whole lives. Rather, what felt and still feels alien is the way in which a nostalgic return to the past seemed so easily in reach—that what was once thought of as a grandmother’s name can now be heard around groups of strollers in Roncesvalles or Park Slope. It was the way in which those of the majority culture could trace a coherent line between past and present, remaking the meaning of something old into something new while still maintaining the link between the two. I might be able to explain to a friend the various echoes of my grandmothers’ names—how Iqbal’s use by Muslims and Sikhs evokes a kind of prelapsarian harmony; or that I was once able to tell my ninety-something grandmother Sundar that she was, as her name meant, beautiful, and have her erupt in joy at this rare moment of communication—but it isn’t quite the same. Culture isn’t about disconnected parts, put together—it’s about how small things fit into bigger things. The resonance of a name, the echoes of decades past carried in a few words or a knowing look, the sense of a household immersed in the bustle and smells and sounds of a music-filled meal preparation—these aren’t things that translate easily, because they will only ever be orphaned parts of an experience, incomplete and half-told. Like too much in my life, the significance of Tasneen would remain partially obscured, forever in need of some extra layer of explanation. I don’t always feel excluded from discussions about baby names, though. Last Christmas, we had our usual celebrations. On the evening of Christmas day, with the family with whom we always spend the holidays, we caught up on the year’s news over cheese and charcuterie in front of a fire. The languages switched at random as they always do, jumping from English to Hindi to Punjabi. The more the evening progressed, the lower the light fell until finally at ten or eleven, dinner arrived and the two bottles of good Italian red that had been deliberately set aside got splashed into a decanter, which we then proceeded to drain slowly over the next few hours. Whether a discovery or an invention, this, apparently, is how Sikhs celebrate Christmas, and it’s how it goes every year: sitting around an indulgent meal, talking loudly, continuing a practice that has existed for over three decades now, things only quieting down after we set a Christmas pudding alight after drowning it in brandy, another tradition that is now firmly ours. This past year, a young couple was there, typically Canadian: immigrants, upwardly mobile. They were expecting, and as their first child fiddled with the paper hat from a Christmas cracker (another well-worn tradition), the chatter turned, of course, to baby names. The names floated were all, like Tasneen, delicate and pretty, and, as it turned out, also Muslim. Saisha, the soft sibilance of the name seeming at once elegant and regal, was the favoured one, but the usual debates occurred, including the standard joke about Punjabi names that all start in Raj or Jas or Nav and end in -jeet, or -winder, or -pal. This at least made sense to me: a group of mostly Sikhs and a couple of Hindus talking Muslim baby names over Christmas dinner. Beyond the too obvious symbolism of it all, there were the threads of history spanning back across continents, connecting the generations in that dining room to the ones to come. In that sense, this was its own cone of exclusion, a clear, if circuitous sense of lineage present at that meal missing from other parts of my life. Yet, there was in that room what both experiences shared, too. A collection of baby names is like a taxonomy of hope, a kind of catechism for future lives scattered over the horizon. Yes, those lists are about the dream of a child to come, but for so many they are about repairing some wound, retrieving what has been lost to the years. All the same, there were certain conversations I could have with friends or the love of my life, and certain ones with family, and somehow they never quite met in the same way, or arrived at the same point. There is a difference between the impulse to name a child after a flapper from the Twenties, or search however futilely for some moniker that will repair historical trauma. Journeys were taken—across newly developed borders, off West in search of a better life, or to a new city for the next phase of a career—and some things have been rent that now cannot quite be stitched back together. One can only ever point one’s gaze toward the future, and project into that unfinished space a hope—that some future child will come and weave in words the thing that will, finally, suture the wound shut. One is forever left with ghosts: a yearning for a mythical wholeness that has slipped irretrievably behind the veil of history. I’m sure there’s a word for this, but I can’t quite bring it to my mind. * The ex with whom I once talked about baby names is now long since a world away. She came home for Christmas a couple of years ago and asked me to move to be with her. I refused. I had absurd, naïve ideas about the way my life was supposed to go, about who I was supposed to be before I dove into something real. We remained friendly for a while, but ultimately nothing good could emerge from such scorched earth. Eventually, simple friendship proved impossible too, in part because, never one to wallow, she moved on while, even after years, I simply couldn’t manage to. Sometimes our mistakes and flaws as humans build on one another, a tangled ball of poor decisions cascading down the uneven terrain of intimately knowing another person, until they calcify at the foot of the hill, concrete knots of a failed relationship impossible to undo. The shards of a lost thing were once a window onto a future that never came. Over a decade ago, we lived together in a small room in Western Ireland, working at a tourist spot in the country. We’d have days off together, and the night before them I would marvel at how excited I’d be that I’d get to spend the next day with her despite the fact that we were barely ever apart. We’d often pass them by walking the bleak Connemara countryside, only to return home to tea in front of the TV. Far from home, we used to like to sustain ourselves on visions of an imagined life together—those British property shows about elderly couples who retire into a straw bale house in the country, images of our declining years spent together, or, many years later, talk of what to name a baby. It was visions like that which maintained the fantasy while it lasted, a dream based on the hopes that I could be a better person, that circumstances were different, and that when things were fixed, a yet-unnamed child might be a sign of how they were. Yes, Tasneen was a naïve gesture to some mythical, complete identity, but it was also an abstract ideal of a compromise that I was unwilling to make here in real life. But then, I have always had a thing for too-on-the-nose metaphorical gestures. A lifetime ago, I started wearing a Sikh karha, a bangle that is part of the five symbols of the religion, along with an eyebrow ring. I called it my Two Pieces of Steel—the eastern and western meeting in some mythic harmony. Eventually, my body rejected the eyebrow ring. I still wear a karha. It is tempting to try to say something about how cultures cannot meet—that systems of understanding simply do not meld neatly, and will remain forever cleaved, unable to be put back together—but that’s the wrong lesson. Sometimes bodies simply are what they are, and you have to take them as they come. She also had name in mind for a girl, but it is not mine to tell. You can’t put the past back together or build a future only with metaphors or pretty words. Names, metal draped on the body, pieces of writing meant to make sense of a thing—like that of a baby who would never arrive, they are just gestures, scaffolding around a wordless feeling, now lost: of a lifetime spent waking up next to someone, the soft weight and warmth of their body against you, a reassuring pressure—and maybe a crib in the corner of the room. Perhaps that baby wouldn’t have the perfect name. You might be there, though, in that pregnant, grey light of the spring, whispering in hushed tones, careful not to wake her, trying to steal a few more moments of rest. It might be a cold day, and you might not want to leave bed. On such mornings, though, when you are immersed in something, there is reason to get up. You have the whole day ahead of you.