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Harper's Magazine - November 2017

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u s a . j o s e p h t u r n e r. c o . u k / M U H A R 1
1 - 8 0 0 - 8 3 0 - 4 7 74
FOUNDED IN 1850 / VOL. 335, NO. 2010
Book Collective
Easy Chair
Preaching to the Choir
Harper’s Index
The Working Classroom
The Trial
Shaking with Fear
Chasing Waterfalls
And . . .
Will New York City finally tear down a statue?
Letter from Virginia
The race to rebuild the Democratic Party
What the U.S. Olympic Committee can—
and can’t—do about sexual abuse
Why America’s roads are in tatters
Three close encounters with Sons and Lovers
From the Archive
Two and Two
Jennifer Egan’s shallow depths
Feminist struggles are labor struggles
William Banks, Sarah Eggers
Rebecca Solnit
Malcolm Harris
Pussy Riot creates discord in the courtroom
A Muslim man tries to give his neighbor a hand
László Krasznahorkai
Olive Ayhens, Dapper Bruce Lafitte, Claire Sherman
and women take Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to clean in the workplace
J. C. Hallman
Lisa Rab
Alexandra Starr
Dale Maharidge
Vivian Gornick
Thomas Hardy
Rafil Kroll-Zaidi
Christine Smallwood
Lidija Haas
Dayna Tortorici
95 Richard E. Maltby Jr.
Cover: Illustration by Steve Brodner
John R. MacArthur, President and Publisher
James Marcus
Deputy Editor
Emily Cooke
Managing Editor
Hasan Altaf
Senior Editors
Katia Bachko, Giles Harvey,
Betsy Morais
Editor Emeritus
Lewis H. Lapham
Ellen Rosenbush
Washington Editor
Andrew Cockburn
Art Director
Stacey Clarkson James
Poetry Editor
Ben Lerner
Web Editor
Joe Kloc
Associate Editors
Camille Bromley, Rachel Poser,
Matthew Sherrill
Associate Art Director
Kathryn Humphries
Assistant Editors
Winston Choi-Schagrin, Matthew Hickey,
Ava Kofman, Stephanie McFeeters
Assistant to the Editor
Adrian Kneubuhl
Editorial Interns
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Christian Kreznar, Karl Williams
Contributing Editors
Andrew J. Bacevich, Kevin Baker, Dan Baum,
Tom Bissell, Joshua Cohen, John Crowley,
Rivka Galchen, William H. Gass,
Gary Greenberg, Jack Hitt, Edward Hoagland,
Scott Horton, Frederick Kaufman,
Garret Keizer, Mark Kingwell, Walter Kirn,
Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, Gideon Lewis-Kraus,
Clancy Martin, Duncan Murrell,
Vince Passaro, Francine Prose,
Christine Smallwood, Zadie Smith,
Rebecca Solnit, Matthew Stevenson,
John Edgar Wideman, Tom Wolfe
Contributing Artists
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Book Collective
Jonathan Dee’s reflections on the
status of the social novel are a welcome critique of contemporary writing, but his argument is compromised by an elision in his survey of
the form [“The Lives of Others,” Reviews, September]. He is right to
trace the evolution of narratorial
perspective from the “panoramic
godlike omniscience” of the early
novelists to the “radical subjectivity
of modernism,” but this chronology
by no means accounts for the entirety of literary production in the
early twentieth century. In particular, Dee omits the many authors
who, during the interwar years,
pushed back against the strictures of
the high modernist novel.
These writers—we would call
them collective novelists—came to
view the form’s traditional bias toward singular narrative subjectivity
as no longer capable of representing lived experience in the world of
Harper’s Magazine welcomes reader response.
Please address mail to Letters, Harper’s
Magazine, 666 Broadway, New York, N.Y.
10012, or email us at
Short letters are more likely to be published,
and all letters are subject to editing. Volume
precludes individual acknowledgment.
the mass society. In response, they
often dispensed with subjectivity
altogether, attempting to dramatize
not the vast depths of individual
interiority but the equally significant spaces between human beings.
Most of the collective novelists of
this period—among them Henri
Barbusse in France, Feodor Gladkov in the Soviet Union, and Hans
Kirk in Denmark—were deeply
committed to the social novel,
hoping it would build solidarity between ordinary people and further
the struggle for a better world.
Sadly for those of us who believe
that the contemporary world is less
in need of stronger individuals
than it is of stronger societies, novelists almost entirely abandoned
the collective form in the years following the Second World War, in
response to the catastrophes of fascism, Stalinism, and Maoism.
Dee is hardly the only writer to
omit the collective novelists from
his history. Dee’s account of the
novel’s development accords with
the consensus view of contemporary
literary historians—it just happens
to be incomplete.
William Banks
Bloomington, Ill.
I found Seyward Darby’s story on
the women of the “alt-right” greatly
unsettling, but perhaps not for the
expected reasons [“The Rise of the
Valkyries,” Report, September]. Don’t
misunderstand me: I was duly appalled and perplexed by Lana Lokteff
and the other women who are hoping to legitimize white nationalism—
a movement whose ethos is deeply
misogynistic. But what I found unexpectedly disturbing was the article’s
tone, which veers from journalistic
neutrality toward a strange fascination with these women.
The troubling tone of the piece
finds its visual counterpart in the
accompanying illustrations. Blond
Amazons in winged helmets and
tight-fitting pink dresses brandishing megaphones and spears—the
images look like Wonder Woman
meets Triumph of the Will. The cover depicts the women of the altright as strong and sexy, inadvertently glorifying them rather than
exposing the horrors behind the female side of fascism and white terror. Perhaps the visual references to
Leni Riefenstahl are deliberate, but
by portraying these women as heroic and attractive, Harper’s Magazine
may be creating propaganda for the
Sarah Eggers
Los Angeles
Reality Bites
As Naomi Klein rightly points out
in her essay [“W.W.E. the People,”
Readings, September], Donald
Trump’s background in reality TV
and professional wrestling provides
insight into his presidency. The primary reason that reality TV is popular is that it gives viewers a chance
to judge people. It’s fun to decide
that the Bachelor is a jerk, or that
this man or that woman should be
voted off the island. It’s okay to hate
people we don’t know, as long as
they’re on TV, right?
There’s a reason that Facebook has
become our most popular news
source. Here’s a video of someone
from a group you don’t like doing
something bad, and that proves that
they’re all like that. Here’s a politician
you don’t like being “destroyed” by
someone you do. You get your news
with a dose of reality TV–style judgment baked into every story, and
you’re only going to see stories that fit
your preferred worldview, no matter
how out of sync with actual reality
those stories are.
Packaged realities, fueled by the
pleasure of judging others, started on
TV, went viral on the internet, and
are now running the White House.
They are the reason that Trump was
elected—the reason his supporters
are impervious to rational criticism.
Until we can begin, as a society, to
let go of our judgments—to see their
real destructiveness and to choose
different pastimes—our situation
isn’t going to improve.
Scott Feuless
Farm to Table
As a corn and soybean farmer in
southern Wisconsin, I read Ted
Gen oways’s poignant story about
life on a family farm with great interest [“Bringing in the Beans,” Folio, September]. A tiny fraction of
the U.S. population operates and
controls all of the farmland in this
country. There are many family
farmers across the Corn Belt who
share Rick Hammond’s goals: to be
successful in spite of capricious markets and weather, and then someday
to pass what they’ve built down to
their children.
Agriculture is an important part
of the American economy, and family farmers count on the Department of Agriculture programs that
promote and subsidize our crop insu ra nce a nd crop pro duction.
America’s balance of payments with
foreign trading partners is dependent on its continuing to export
massive amounts of grain. The present administration needs to be sensitive to this, or our farm economy
will likely crash the way it did in
the early 1980s.
Model Citizens
Fri, Nov 3
Tue, Nov 7
Mon, Nov 13
Thu, Nov 16
Mon, Nov 20
Thu, Nov 30
Mike Peters
Sharon, Wis.
92nd Street Y | Unterberg Poetry Center
Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street, NYC
“This book invites readers to converse, comfort, and hold one another
accountable in the hope of igniting radical, intersectional change.”
—Booklist (starred review)
Preaching to the Choir
By Rebecca Solnit
nce, on a river-rafting trip
through the Grand Canyon,
I traveled with a charming,
good-humored man who happened to
run an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
He liked to rail against Nancy Pelosi,
who had recently become the Speaker of the House. One day I told him
that I, too, disliked Pelosi, because
she was well to my right on many issues. The man was staggered; he’d
imagined that she defined the leftmost rim of the universe, beyond
which nothing existed.
When the oilman was on land he
lived in Colorado Springs; I’m a San
Franciscan. Geography alone made
us exotic species to each other. And
the river trip came during a period
in 2009 when I frequently found
myself telling strangers, in frustration, that people in my hometown
could be as closed-minded as any
right-wing community. We were all
living in our respective bubbles,
preaching to our respective choirs; I
was looking for more substantive exchange. Yet what transpired in my
conversations on the raft was not, in
the end, especially illuminating. I
enjoyed the oilman’s Texas vernacular, and we found common ground in
our appreciation for buttermilk biscuits, but neither of us changed the
other’s mind about the fossil fuel industry, and neither tried to, which
may be why the encounter seems so
pleasant in recollection.
The phrase preaching to the choir
properly means hectoring your listeners with arguments they already agree
with, and it’s a common sin of radicals, the tendency to denounce others
as a way of announcing one’s own vir-
tue. But it can be applied too widely,
to malign conversation between people whose beliefs happen to coincide.
The phrase implies that political
work should be primarily evangelical,
even missionary, that the task is to go
out and convert the heathens, that
talking to those with whom we agree
achieves nothing. But only the most
patient and skillful among us can alter the views of those who disagree
profoundly. And is there no purpose
in getting preached to, in gathering
with your compatriots? Why else do
we go to church but to sing, to pray a
little, to ease our souls, to see our
friends, and to hear the sermon?
I asked Katya Lysander, who sings
ancient and modern Eastern European music with a Chicago choral
group, what she thought of the
phrase. She pointed out that there
are in fact four audiences in a church
service—the congregation, the choir,
the preacher, and God. A priest
preaching directly to the choir would
be facing the wrong way, away from
the congregation, as the choir is usually behind or on either side of the
pulpit. And, as Lysander might have
added, the preacher also listens to
the choir, to her bishops, her colleagues, her congregation. And then
everyone catches up on the church
steps after the service. The ecclesiastical conversation, that is to say, consists of a series of exchanges among
people in many different roles.
What’s more, to suggest that you
shouldn’t preach to the choir is to
misunderstand the nature of preaching. Conversion or the transmission
of new information is not the primary
aim; the preacher has other work to
do. Classically, the sermon is a kind
of literary criticism that regards the
key sacred texts and their meanings
as inexhaustible. Adults, like children, love hearing the great stories
more than once, and most religions
have prayers and narratives, hymns
and songs that are seen as wells of
meaning that never run dry. You can
go lay down your sword and shield by
the riverside one more time; there are
always more ways to say how once you
were blind and now can see.
Karen Haygood Stokes, a minister
in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who formerly belonged to the San Francisco
Symphony Choir, explained to me
that her aim is not so much to persuade people to believe as it is to encourage them to inquire into existing
beliefs. “My task as a preacher is to
find the places of agreement and
then move someplace from there.
Not to change anybody’s mind, but
to deepen an understanding.” The
common ground among her parishioners is not the destination; it’s the
starting point: “Have we thought
critically about why we agree?” It’s a
call to go deeper, to question yourself.
he primary assumption behind
the idea that we shouldn’t
preach to the choir is that
one’s proper audience is one’s enemies,
not one’s allies. This becomes especially true during election season, the
prevailing view being that elections
are won not by focusing on the base
but by flipping the opposition. By this
reasoning, all that I write and say
during those cycles should be pitched
at my adversaries, to recruit them. I
have often been admonished that my
statements should give no offense to
strangers with whom I have little in
common, that I should say things—I’m
not sure what these cottony words
would be, or whether I contain
them—that will not irritate or alienate. I should spend my efforts on
people who disagree passionately with
me, because why waste time on those
with whom I’ve already formed relationships and share interests?
One of the most excruciating rites
of recent presidential elections was the
debates in which “undecided” or swing
voters were brought in to ask questions of the candidates. The premise
behind the spectacle is that candidates win by competing for those not
sure of whether they are for or against
civil rights, tax cuts for the rich, and
so on. Yet much evidence suggests
that political organizations benefit
most from motivating those who already agree with them, and that the
Democrats in particular find the most
success by pursuing people who don’t
know whether they’ll vote, rather than
how they’ll vote. This means reaching
constituents who, historically, have
been less likely to go to the polling
booth: the poor, the young, the nonwhite. Republicans know this, which
is why they’ve worked hard to perfect
voter suppression tactics that target
those populations.
Nevertheless, centrist Democrats
often go wooing those who don’t
support them, thereby betraying
those who do. It’s as though you
ditched not only your congregation
but your credo in the hope of making inroads among believers of some
other faith. You think you’re recruiting; really, you’re losing your religion.
This has been true with welfare “reform,” with the war on terror, with
economic policy, with the fantasy of
winning over “the white working
class”: time and again, misguided attempts to bring in new voters have
offended existing constituencies.
This year, in an effort to appeal to
a more conservative demographic,
some Democrats went so far as to
slacken their commitment to reproductive rights, dismissing them as
“identity politics” and deeming them
less important than economic justice.
As many women have pointed out,
however, such a stance constitutes a
failure to understand that until and
unless this half of the population can
control their bodies and plan their
families, they cannot be economically
equal. The question is one of both
strategy and principle: Do you win by
chasing those who don’t share your
views, or by serving and respecting
those already with you? Is the purpose
of the choir to sing to the infidels or
inspire the faithful? What happens if
the faithful stop showing up, donating, doing the work?
ne reason we emphasize conversion is that we tend to believe that ideas matter more
than actions, that beliefs directly determine behavior, that a preponderance of agreement will result in political and social change. In years past,
I’ve often heard people obsess over
polls that revealed how many Americans think climate change is real.
They seemed convinced that if everyone could be made to believe, the crisis
would be solved. But if people who
believe climate change is real and pressing do nothing to address the problem,
nothing happens. Not only is it unlikely that everyone will agree, it
doesn’t matter whether they do, and it
isn’t worth waiting for. There are still
people who don’t believe that women
are endowed with the same inalienable rights as men, and this hasn’t
prevented us from creating policies
that are based on the principle of
equality between the sexes.
What matters is that some of us
act. In 2006, the political scientist
Erica Chenoweth set out to determine whether nonviolence was as effective for regime change as violence. She found, to her surprise,
that nonviolent strategies worked
better. Organizers were enthralled by
her conclusion that only around
3.5 percent of a population was
needed to successfully resist or even
topple a regime. In other words, to
create change, you don’t need everyone to agree with you, you just need
some people to agree so passionately
that they will donate, campaign,
march, risk arrest or injury.
The majority of Americans, according to Gallup polls from the early 1960s, did not support the tactics
of the civil rights movement, and less
than a quarter of the public approved
of the 1963 March on Washington.
Nevertheless, the march helped push
the federal government to pass the
1964 Civil Rights Act. It was at the
march that Martin Luther King Jr.
gave his “I Have a Dream” speech—
an example of preaching to the
choir at its best. King spoke to inspire his supporters rather than persuade his detractors. He disparaged
moderation and gradualism; he argued that his listeners’ dissatisfaction
was legitimate and necessary, that
they must demand drastic change.
White allies were needed, but black
activists didn’t need to wait for them.
Often, it’s an example of passionate
idealism that converts others. The
performance of integrity is more influential than that of compromise.
Rather than meet people where they
are, you can locate yourself someplace they will eventually want to be.
The choir is made up of the deeply
committed: those who show up every
Sunday, listen to every sermon, and
tithe like crazy. The time the choristers spend with one another, the sum
of their sympathy and shared experience, is part of what helps them sing
in unison and in tune. To win politically, you don’t need to win over
people who differ from you, you need
to motivate your own. There are a
thousand things beyond the fact of
blunt agreement that you might need
or want to discuss with your friends
and allies. There are strategy and
practical management, the finer
points of a theory, values and goals
both incremental and ultimate, reassessment as things change for better or worse. Effective speech in this
model isn’t alchemy; it doesn’t transform what people believe. It’s electricity: it galvanizes them to act.
orrespondence,” that beautiful
word, describes both an exchange of letters and the existence of affinities; we correspond because we correspond. As a young
woman, I had long, intense conversations with other young women about
difficult mothers, unreliable men,
about heartaches and ambitions and
anxieties. Sometimes these conversations were circular; sometimes they got
bogged down by our inability to accept
that we weren’t going to get what
seemed right or fair. But at their best,
they reinforced that our perceptions
and emotions were not baseless or illegitimate, that others were on our side
and shared our experiences, that we
had value and possibility. We were
strengthening ourselves and our ties
to one another.
In an intellectual exchange, disagreement doesn’t mean tearing
down a rival but testing and strengthening the structure of a proposal, an
analysis. It is what you do when you
agree with people in general but have
specifics to work out; and that work
can be a joy. It’s an arrangement in
which no one is the preacher or the
choir, in which everything is open to
question, in which ideas are beautiful
and precision is holy.
Though great political work and
useful debate about ideas and ethics
is happening over social media, much
of the time we spend together (or in
solitude) has been replaced by the
time we spend online, in arenas not
conducive to subtlety or complexity.
We have shifted to short declarative
statements, to thinking in headlines,
binaries, catch-all categories, to viewing words as pieces in a game of
checkers rather than, say, gestures in
a ballet. If you’re confident that everything not black is white, discussions about shades and hues seem beside the point. This absolutism
presumes that our only position on
those with whom we don’t have complete agreement is complete disapproval, and also that agreement is
simple, past which there is no nuance, strategy, possibility to explore.
Absolutism is obviously antithetical to practical politics, which, of
course, depend on understanding and
sometimes working alongside those
with whom you may not agree, or
with whom you agree on some things
and not on others (as I learned in antinuclear political gatherings in the
1980s, when downwinder Mormons,
punks, pagans, Japanese Buddhist
monks, Franciscan priests and nuns,
and Western Shoshone elders worked
together pretty well). Maybe it’s antithetical to the human condition,
where we must coexist with difference and make the most of our journeys in increments.
To dismiss the value of talking to
our own is to fail to see that the utility of conversation, like that of
preaching, goes far beyond persuasion or the transmission of information. At its best, conversation is a
means of accomplishing many subtle
and indirect things. The painter Rudolf Baranik, who died twenty years
ago, once told me a story about a ferry ride he took in New York City on
a bitter winter day in the late 1930s,
soon after he had arrived as a refugee
from Eastern Europe. “It is very cold,
is it not?” he said in his formal English to a black man standing next to
him on the deck. “Yeaaahh, man,”
his fellow passenger replied. “Why is
that man singing?” Baranik wondered. The moment remained with
him—the unfamiliar musicality of
the New Yorker’s intonation had
made memorable what was otherwise
an ordinary exchange. Why comment to a stranger about the weather,
when the conditions are obvious to
both of you? Because it’s an affirmation that you exist in the same place,
that no matter what else might separate you, you have this in common.
And because it’s an opening, if not
to understanding, then at least to the
place where it might begin.
Karen Stokes told me she thinks
of the choir as providing a space
that is the near opposite of the combative culture of the internet. “In so
many churches that I’ve served, the
choir is the primary support group.
They meet every week; they hang
out together, put in extra time on
Sunday, have made a commitment
to one another. You can’t just drop
in and say, ‘Let’s sing this or I’m
leaving.’ Everyone has submitted
themselves to something bigger: to
the creation of music and, in the
church setting, music for the worship of God.”
Within most examples of broad
consensus lie a host of questions
and unresolved differences. Agreement is only the foundation. Yet
from here we can build strong communities of love, spirited movements of resistance. “We cannot
walk alone,” Dr. King said that day
in 1963. Find people to walk with—
and talk with—and we find power
as well as pleasure.
The Diversity Bonus
How Great Teams Pay Off
in the Knowledge Economy
Scott E. Page
“Scott Page’s research is a breakthrough
in the business case for diversity and
inclusion. The Diversity Bonus should
be required reading for leaders who
want to unlock the full potential and
performance of their teams.”
—Matt Breitfelder,
Chief Talent Officer, BlackRock
Insomniac Dreams
Experiments with Time
by Vladimir Nabokov
Compiled, edited, and with commentaries
by Gennady Barabtarlo
“Nabokov’s amazing records of
his dreams are priceless, and their
publication will create a much-deserved
critical buzz. They show Nabokov at
his most vulnerable, raw, and genuine,
giving us rare glimpses into his past,
his feelings about his parents, his
relationship with his wife and son,
and his anxieties and hopes.”
—Galya Diment,
University of Washington
See our e-books at
Number of U.S. states in which legislation has been proposed this year to protect drivers who strike protesters : 6
Percentage of Americans who say they support “white nationalism” : 7
Who believe that white Americans are “currently under attack” : 39
Ratio of the number of statues of African Americans to those of Confederates in the U.S. Capitol : 4:11
Factor by which a children’s book is more likely to be about African Americans than written by an African American : 3
Number of questions readers of a Norwegian news site must answer correctly about an article before commenting : 3
Number of apartments the president of Azerbaijan gave to journalists on National Press Day : 255
Of Azerbaijani journalists who are imprisoned as a result of their work : 10
Ratio of Russian wealth held offshore in 2015 to the country’s national income : 1:1.35
Portion of Russians who have seen no economic growth since the fall of the Soviet Union : 1/2
Minimum percentage of inmates in local U.S. jails who have been homeless : 15
Daily wage a prisoner in Portland, Oregon, is paid to clear out homeless camps : $1
Factor by which a U.S. Christian is more likely than a nonreligious person to think poverty is a personal failure : 2
Percentage by which a middle-class American is more likely than a poor one to eat fast food in a given week : 6
Portion of animal-derived food products in the United States that are consumed by pets : 1/4
Number of countries that consume more animal-derived products than U.S. pets do : 4
Average number of people who report being bitten by squirrels in New York City annually : 55
Percentage change in the length of time someone can withstand pain if they use profanity : +34
Estimated percentage change since 1979 in the number of Capitol Hill police officers : +113
In the number of congressional staffers : –27
Percentage of staffers who say they have enough time to consider and debate policy matters : 6
Who say Congress’s technology infrastructure is adequate to perform their duties : 6
Number of congresspeople with a history of employment in the hard sciences : 3
Acres of U.S. land that have been contaminated by Department of Defense munitions disposal : 40,000,000
Estimated chance the world will meet the temperature-change goals of the Paris Agreement : 1 in 20
Minimum percentage of the earth’s land that was experiencing severe drought at any given time last year : 12
Minimum number of suicides in India since 1980 attributable to climate change : 59,300
Factor by which an American is more likely than a Cuban to be killed in a hurricane : 10
Estimated percentage of U.S. residential properties in 100-year flood zones that lack flood insurance : 69
Ratio of summer vacation cottages to permanent dwellings in Finland : 1:6
Percentage change between 1951 and 2014 in the population of Venice’s historic center : –68
In the number of annual tourists : +469
Percentage of Americans who spend more than 90 percent of their lives indoors or in vehicles : 92
Chances that an American doesn’t know that local television stations are available for free : 3 in 10
Estimated portion of internet users in China who have livestreamed themselves : 1/2
Number of teenagers who participated in the Microsoft Office Specialist World Championship this year : 560,000
Price that a California startup charges for a blood transfusion from a donor aged 16 to 25 : $8,000
Number of people who have been granted citizenship of Asgardia, a planned nation in outer space : 101,500
Percentage who are women : 16
Figures cited are the latest available as of September 2017. Sources are listed on page 71.
“Harper’s Index” is a registered trademark.
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Thinking Healthy: Weight and Nutrition
Behavioral Therapy for Chemical Addictions
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By Malcolm Harris, from Kids These Days, a book
about millennials that was published this month by
Little, Brown.
n April 2014, the Harley Avenue Primary
School in Elwood, New York, sent a letter to
the parents of its kindergartners, confirming
rumors that the school would not be going
ahead with its annual play.
Dear Kindergarten Parents and Guardians,
We hope this letter serves to help you better
understand how the demands of the twenty-first
century are changing schools.
The reason for eliminating the kindergarten
show is simple. We are responsible for preparing
children for college and careers with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by
having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers, and problem solvers. Please do not fault
us for making professional decisions that we know
will never please everyone. But know that we are
making these decisions with the interests of all
children in mind.
These kids, the letter implied, could not spare
two days from their regularly scheduled work.
What we teach and how we teach it is changing to meet the demands of a changing world,
wrote the administrators at Harley Avenue. But
what are the changes, exactly?
The main thing is that twenty-first-century
American kids are required to work more
than their predecessors. This generation is
raised on problem-solving to the exclusion of
play. Authorities from the Brookings Institution to Time magazine have called for an end
to summer vacation and the imposition of
year-round compulsory schooling. But the
possible downsides of this trade-off are almost never discussed.
Parents, teachers, policymakers, and employers are all so worried that children won’t “meet
the demands of a changing world” that they
don’t bother asking what kids are expected to
do to meet those demands, and what problems
they’re being equipped to solve. The anxious
frenzy that surrounds the future has come
to function as an excuse for the
choices adults make for kids.
n America, unlike in much of the world,
kids do not perform work. In this country,
“child labor” evokes British industrialism, coal,
and Dickens. And though some American
children have always worked—especially on
farms—the dominant U.S. view of childhood is
that it is a time free from labor.
But it takes a lot of work to prepare yourself
to compete for twenty-first-century employment. Adults are happy to remind kids of this,
telling them, “Put your nose to the grindstone,” “Stay on the right path,” “Treat school
like your job.” When it comes to the right to
organize, the dignity of labor, or minimumwage laws, however, students are forced to be
students rather than workers. It’s a precarious
position: America can no more afford to recognize children’s work than it can afford for
them not to do it. Meanwhile, disregarded and
unregulated, the intensity and duration of this
work have grown out of control.
Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, a
children’s book from 1958, illustrates how
learning is used to hide labor. Danny is a whiz
kid always seeking ways to cheat on his homework; he has a habit of dragging his friend Joe
into his half-baked schemes. Danny sets up
two pens linked by a board attached to pulleys and a weight so that he can do his and
Joe’s math homework at the same time. He
laments, “If only we could save even more
time. You’d think six hours of school would
be enough for them, without making us take
school home.”
Danny and his friends use a computer belonging to their absentminded science teacher
to do their homework quickly, leaving more
time for baseball and other hobbies. These kids
aren’t slackers; they just have better things to
do with their time than homework. When a
jealous classmate rats out the crew, Danny has
to explain to their teacher, Miss Arnold, what
they’ve been doing. Rather than concede that
he’s been cheating, Danny argues that all workers use tools to do tasks better and faster, and
that he and his fellow students should not be
prevented from doing the same.
Even though it’s a children’s book, Danny
Dunn depicts one of the major conflicts of the
second half of the twentieth century: whether
labor-saving technology benefits workers or owners. Will the computer lead to the kids working
less or working more? With the help of Danny’s
mother, Miss Arnold develops a plan—the same
plan, in essence, that would determine the character of American childhood half a century after the book appeared: she increases
Danny’s workload.
echnologies that make work faster function in one of two ways: by reducing the time
From a study presented last year at the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, in
New Zealand. Participants were asked their opinion
of various capabilities a sex robot might have. They
are listed in order of most to least desirable.
Moves by itself
Obeys orders
Responds to touch
Can talk
Can learn new behaviors
Can understand language
Can recognize objects
Can hear
Can remember past interactions
Can see
Can take initiative
Recognizes human emotions
Has feelings
spent on the work or by intensifying the nature of the work. It’s not hard to see which
way it has gone in America. The story of the
homework machine is a parable for how
schoolwork has followed the same trend toward intensification as other forms of labor.
The only compensation Danny gets for his
effort and accomplishment is a sticker—a
nontransferable award. On the micro level,
this looks like one educator’s clever effort to
trick a student into learning more than he
meant to. But Danny is not an outlier. American kids now find themselves in his situation: overworked, underengaged, gold-starred,
and tired, wondering where their time went.
When it comes to primary and secondary
schooling, American adults are able to hold a
few conflicting stereotypes in their minds at
the same time. On the one hand, it’s generally
acknowledged that students, facing stiffer
competition for college admissions, are doing
historically anomalous amounts of homework.
Between 1981 and 1997, elementary schoolers
between the ages of six and eight saw a
146 percent increase in time spent studying.
Kids aged nine to twelve sustained a nearly
30 percent increase in homework, while their
time in class increased by 14 percent.
On the other, students are depicted as slackers who are unable to pay attention, or entitled
brats who need to be congratulated for every
routine accomplishment, or devolved cretins
who can’t form a full sentence without lapsing
into textspeak.
The labor of classically employed workers is
measured in both total output and wages, but
we don’t measure a student’s educational product except in arbitrary and comparative ways,
such as grades, standardized tests, and school
awards. Nevertheless, I feel justified in saying
that American children’s educational output
has grown steeply over the past thirty years.
But what does educational output even mean,
and how might we try to measure
it? Where does the product go?
aged workers receive money to mark
their expended effort—even though it represents only a fraction of their total output.
The student equivalent is the grade: we say a
student has “worked for” or “earned” her
marks; the return of graded papers or report
cards resembles the distribution of paychecks.
The system aspires to train every student for
grade-A work, then calls it a crisis when the
distribution shifts in that direction.
The idea that underlies contemporary
schooling is that grades, eventually, turn into
money, or, if not money, then choice, or what
social scientists sometimes call better life out-
Walking Dumbo, a painting by Olive Ayhens, whose work is on view this month at Bookstein Projects, in New York City.
comes. In waged work we have the concept of
valorization, which is the process by which laborers produce value above and beyond their
wages and increase the mass of invested capital. But if no one is profiting off kids’ scholastic work—teachers definitely don’t—where
does their product go? The sociologist Jürgen
Zinnecker describes “the development of human capital” as a sink for students’ hidden labor. In the simplest terms, this is what the
kindergarten administrators at Harley Avenue
Primary School stated in their letter: when
students are working, what they’re working on
is their ability to work.
In 2013, an article appeared in The Atlantic
with the title, “My Daughter’s Homework Is Killing Me.” The writer, Karl Taro Greenfeld, had attempted to complete the homework of his daughter, an eighth grader at a selective New York
public school, to discover the exact nature of the
labor that was keeping her up every night. He
quickly found that he wasn’t prepared to keep up:
Imagine if after putting in a full day at the
office—and school is pretty much what our children do for a job—you had to come home and do
another four or so hours of office work. . . . If your
job required that kind of work after work, how
long would you last?
This sort of intensive training isn’t just for
the children of intellectuals; the theory behind the rhetoric advocating universal college attendance is that any and all kids
should aspire to this level of work. College
admissions have become the focus not only
of secondary schooling but of contemporary
American childhood writ large. The sad
truth, however, is that college admissions are
designed to funnel young adults onto different tracks, not to validate hard work. A jump
in the number of Harvard-caliber students
doesn’t have a corresponding effect on the
size of the school’s freshman class. Instead, it
allows the university to become even more
selective and to raise prices, to stock up on
geniuses and rich kids. This is the central
problem with an education system designed
to create the most human capital possible: an
increase in ability within a competitive system
doesn’t advantage all individuals.
In a world where every choice is an investment, growing up becomes a complex exercise in risk management. The more capital
new employees already have when they enter
the labor market, the less risky it is for their
employers. Over time, firms have an incentive, as the economist Gary Becker put it, to
“shift training costs to trainees.” If an employer pays to train workers, what’s to stop
another company from luring them away
once they’re skilled? The second firm could
offer a signing bonus that costs less than the
training and still benefit. Paying to train a
worker is risky, and risk costs money. As
American capitalism advanced, the training
burden fell to the state, and then to families
and kids themselves.
Childhood risk is less and less about death,
illness, or grievous bodily harm and more and
more about future prospects. But if it is every
parent’s task to raise at least one successful
American by America’s own standards, then the
system is rigged so that most of them will fail.
The ranks of the American elite are not infinitely expandable; in fact, they’re shrinking. Given
that reality, parents are told that their children’s
choices, actions, and accomplishments have
lasting consequences. The Harley Avenue letter
is merely one of the more dramatic examples of
this fearmongering. With parental love as a
guide, risk management has become
risk elimination.
y looking at children as investments, it’s
possible to see where the product of children’s
labor is stored: in their human capital. It’s a
kid’s job to stay eligible for the labor market
(and not in jail, insane, or dead). Any work
beyond that adds to their résumé. If more human capital automatically led to a higher
standard of living, this model could be the
foundation for an American meritocracy. But
millennials’ extra work hasn’t earned them
the promised higher standard of living. By
every metric, this generation is the most educated in American history, yet its members
are worse off economically than their pare nt s , g r a n d p a r e nt s , a n d eve n g r e a tgrandparents. Every authority from moms to
presidents told millennials to accumulate as
much human capital as they could; they did,
but the market hasn’t held up its end of the
bargain. What gives?
As it turns out, just because you can produce
an unprecedented amount of value doesn’t
necessarily mean you can feed yourself under
twenty-first-century American capitalism.
Kids spend their childhoods investing the
only thing they have: their effort, their attention, their days and nights, their labor
time. (And, sometimes, a large chunk of
whatever money their parents may have.) If
the purpose of all this labor, all the lost play,
all the hours doing unpleasant tasks, isn’t to
ensure a good life for the kids doing the
work, if it isn’t in the “interests of all children,” then what is it for?
When you ask most adults what any kid in
particular should do with the next part of her
life, the advice will generally include pursuing
higher education. As the only sanctioned path,
college admissions becomes a well-structured,
high-stakes simulation of a worker’s entry into
the labor market. Applicants inventory their
achievements, being careful not to underestimate them, and present them in the most attractive package possible.
Then, using the data carefully and anxiously prepared by millions of kids about the human capital they’ve accumulated over the previous eighteen years, higher education
institutions make decisions: collectively evaluating, accepting, and cutting hopeful children
in tranches like collateralized debt obligations
that are then sorted among the institutions
according to their own rankings (for which
they compete aggressively, of course). It is not
the first time children are weighed, but it is
the most comprehensive and often the most
directly consequential. College admissions offices are rating agencies. Once the kid-bond is
rated, it has four or so years until it’s expected
to produce a return.
By Maria Alyokhina, from Riot Days, a memoir.
Alyokhina is a member of the music group and art
collective Pussy Riot, along with Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. In February 2012, the band performed “Punk Prayer” at
Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the
three were arrested on charges of “hooliganism
motivated by religious hatred.” The memoir was
published in September by Metropolitan Books.
convoy escort with a dog leads the
way. Katya, Nadya, and I enter the cage one
“Vacation (Lunar Motel), Headless Horseman Haunted House, Ulster Park, New York,” a photograph by Misty Keasler,
whose work is on view this month at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, in Texas.
by one and put our hands through a small
opening. The convoy escort removes our
handcuffs, hangs them on his belt, and sits on
a chair by the cage. The dog sits next to him.
This is where we will be prosecuted.
Our cage is called the aquarium. It’s made of
bulletproof glass and stands in the middle of the
courtroom. There is no microphone in the cage.
We listen and speak through a narrow slit.
“The defendants pose a danger to society
and might disrupt the judicial investigation.
For this reason, they must be held in custody
during the trial.”
The dog vomits at the entrance to the courtroom; the judge steps over the puddle.
We hear the clicking of cameras. At first, the
hundreds of clicks seem to ring out like rifle shots.
The courtroom is full of familiar faces.
Friends I used to read poetry with, journalists I
admire. Activists who joined us at demonstrations. My parents, who haven’t seen each other
since their divorce, are sitting in the front row,
faces frozen in what looks like horror or some
strange rapture.
A bailiff announces, “All rise! This court is
in session!” Everyone stands up.
Prosecutor: “The defendants are being
charged with hooliganism, committed for reasons of religious hatred and enmity toward a
social group.” This prosecutor has brought artists to trial before, for an exhibition called
Warning! Religion.
The judge is wearing a black robe. She has a
neat square cap of brown hair and rectangular
glasses. She sits at her podium under our country’s
coat of arms, exuding a quiet haughtiness.
“Summon the plaintiff,” the judge says.
The first plaintiff is the candle-tender from
the cathedral. She is about forty years old and
has long hair that is covered with a kerchief.
She likes morality and the patriarch.
She says that when she began to wipe off the
candlesticks, she saw “some kind of activity.”
“What kind of activity?” the prosecutor
From a complaint filed by Elizabeth Scott against UploadVR in a California Superior Court in May.
UploadVR is a virtual reality company based in San
Francisco. Scott, who was hired as director of digital
and social media in 2016, was fired in March after
filing a complaint about sexual harassment and a
hostile work environment. William Mason and Taylor
Freeman are the founders of the startup.
efendants Mason and Freeman referred to
the company as a “boy’s club.” Male employees
discussed sex at the office on a daily basis. Greg
Gopman’s sex life was a frequent topic of discussion. Male employees would speak sexually about
women that worked in the office in front of
them. Male employees stated how they were sexually aroused by female employees and how it
was hard to concentrate and be productive when
all they could think about was having sex with
them. Avi Horowitz would talk about how he
“had a boner” and had to go to the bathroom to
“rub one out” so he could focus.
UploadVR set up a room to encourage sexual
intercourse at the workplace. The room was referred to as the “kink room” and contained a bed.
Defendants required female employees to do
what they believed were “womanly tasks.”
These tasks included cleaning the kitchen, organizing the refrigerator, and tidying up the
work space. The female employees were also required to clean up after parties. This included
condoms or underwear left behind. Female employees were called in on their days off to clean
up following parties to which they had not been
invited. Defendants emphasized that the women of the office should be like “mommies” to
the men and help them.
“Leaping and hopping around—clearly planned
leaping and hopping,” the candle-tender says. This
offended her greatly, as a result of which she has
suffered terribly and is still suffering even now.
“Have you seen a doctor?” says the lawyer for
the defense.
“The divine energy of the Holy Spirit is stronger than any doctor,” says the candle-tender.
“Why hasn’t the divine energy of the Holy
Spirit healed you?” asks the lawyer.
“Strike the question,” says the judge.
The next plaintiff is a worshipper who was
in the church when we performed. He’s a young
guy, my age, blond. He’s a nationalist. After the
performance, he was one of the men who
dragged me by my arms from the altar.
“I saw the girls jumping around the altar, and
I knew right away that I had to intervene. I
rushed over and grabbed one of them. She fell
on her knees; I grabbed another one, and she
wouldn’t give up, either.”
“Were you shocked?”
“Yes, I suffered moral injury and shock.”
The nationalist doesn’t face the judge; he looks
directly at me. I wink.
“The girls wouldn’t give themselves up to
you,” I say sympathetically.
“They wouldn’t,” the plaintiff says sadly.
The August sun is shining through the window. The afternoon is hot and the
air-conditioning isn’t working.
t’s impossible to sit on the bench, the bench of
the accused. My feet don’t reach the floor and
they go numb after half an hour. I can’t stand
up, either, because if I do, it means I want to
make a statement, and they immediately say,
“Sit down, Alyokhina,” or “What do you
want, Alyokhina?” The bench is not meant
for people; it’s meant for potted plants.
I say: “If the faithful were insulted that we
went up on the altar, taking it for a stage, I ask
their forgiveness.”
Plaintiff Istomin, a nationalist: “I don’t believe you.”
Plaintiff Zhelezov, an altar-keeper: “The
apology is not sufficiently sincere.”
Plaintiff Beloglazok, a security guard: “You
shouldn’t smile when you apologize.”
Plaintiff Vinogradov, an electrician: “Beat
yourself with chains or join a convent, that
would show true repentance.”
The lawyers representing the Orthodox victims of our crime wipe drops of sweat from their
plump foreheads. The prosecutor dries his glasses.
“Call the witness,” the judge says. A scrap of
white polka-dot dress peeks out from under her
black robe.
“ . . . That’s how the band’s name is translated into Russian,” the witness says. Our support-
ers in the courtroom try not to laugh. “But it’s
more than a band, it’s a whole movement.”
Ugrik, a real estate agent, saw “Punk Prayer”
on the internet and concluded that we worshipped Satan. He is now a witness in the trial.
He’s wearing a rumpled polyester shirt.
The judge tries to ascertain whether Ugrik
was present at the scene.
“Were you in the church on February
“No, but I saw the video. I was horrified. The
girls are heading straight to hell. I had the feeling they didn’t know what they were doing. For
a Christian, heaven and hell are as real and obvious as the Moscow Metro.”
The prosecutor walks to the center of the
courtroom and puts on disposable white gloves.
“We have material evidence,” he says, and
puts a cardboard box on the podium in front of
the judge. The prosecutor takes out two hats
with cut-outs for eyes and mouth, pulls them
over her hands, and holds them up to the court.
The judge reads from Nadya’s protest writings.
The prosecutor pulls a yellow dress from the box
and holds it by the shoulders.
“But where’s the video?” we say. “Where are
the song lyrics?”
Defense lawyer: “I summon the witnesses for
the defense.”
Prosecutor: “Objection. I request that the
summons be denied.”
Judge: “Every one of them?”
Prosecutor: “Every one of them.”
The judge bars the witnesses for the defense
from entering the courtroom and orders that
those who are already present be removed by
the Spetsnaz team. Our witnesses are led out.
One of them is shoved down the stairs, and
they beat him around his kidneys. The courtroom doors close.
The rottweiler strains at the leash, jumping
and barking.
Defense lawyer: “Remove the dog.”
Court bailiff: “He won’t bark if you speak
more softly.”
Defense lawyer: “It says no dogs allowed at
the entrance.”
Judge: “This is not a dog, it’s a means of
Defense lawyer: “This is fucked up.”
The secretary stops recording the proceedings.
The judge bows her head and starts doodling.
“Your Honor, please stop doodling!” the lawyer shouts.
“Don’t look at my desk!” the
judge shouts back.
elcome to hell,” the court secretary
says after a break. It has grown dark. The
stores and cafés have closed, and all the other
courtrooms and their judges have finished
work for the day, but our trial continues.
From a folktale collected in Virginia in 1974 that is
included in The Annotated African American
Folktales, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and
Maria Tatar. The anthology was published this
month by Liveright.
t was said that this large plantation owner had
many slaves, and for one reason or another the
Devil appeared to him one day and said that he was
going to take the man’s slave whose name was John.
And the plantation owner said, “Why John?”
He said, “Well, it’s just John’s time.”
He said, “Please don’t take John.”
And the Devil said, “Well, what’s so special
about John?”
He said, “Well, John is my record keeper.” Says,
“I don’t keep any records. I keep no books whatsoever. John has a memory that’s fantastic, and he just
doesn’t forget anything. I can ask him about my crops
and what I made last year, and all I have to do is tell
him and I call him back and ask him what I made
and how many bushels of corn and what have you,
and John has the answer just like that.”
So the Devil said, “That’s unbelievable. Are
you sure about that?”
He said, “I’m positive.”
So the Devil said, “Well, will you call John
up here? I want to talk to John—I want to test
him out now. If he doesn’t prove you’re right,
I’m going to have to take John.”
So the master called John up, and he said,
“Now, Mr. Devil, you can ask him anything
you want.”
So the Devil said to John, say, “John, do you
like eggs?”
And John said, “Yes, sir,” and immediately
the Devil disappeared.
Well, it was two years to the day and John was
in the cornfield plowing the corn, lying beside the
corn, and it was a hot day. John had stopped the
mule and sat under a tree. He had his old straw
hat just fanning himself, you know. The Devil
pops out of the ground, and he says one word to
John; he says, “How?”
John says, “Scrambled.”
“Glow Sticks No. 1, Greenpoint, New York, 2012,” a photograph by Thomas Jackson, whose work was on view in September at Jackson Fine Art,
in Atlanta.
The prosecution: “Not only are they not
sorry, they have the temerity to claim in
court that they were taking a moral stand,
that it’s part of their culture, in line with
their views.”
Defense lawyer: “There is more Christianity
in these girls than in all of you.”
Judge: “This is not a circus. Stop it.” The prosecutor asks for three years in prison for
each of us.
t’s August 17, 2012.
The ultra-right crowd chants, “Burn the
witches! Burn the witches at the stake!”
They hold up signs: they danced at the altar rail, now they will dance in jail!
The chanting is periodically interrupted
with shouts of “Kiss the bride!” City Hall is just
ten yards away.
People gather around the plexiglass cage in
small groups; their cameras click, they wave
their hands. Their eyes seek out the best angle for a picture, and then, the cameras hanging from their necks, they look at us with
sympathy. One stands before us and shrugs, as
if to say, Forgive us for not being able to set
you free. It’s as though the people coming up
to our cage—every single one—take our
hands in their thoughts. Dozens of hands are
holding mine, which are bound before me in
metal handcuffs.
“Let’s go! Go! Go!” a Spetsnaz officer barks.
“Move!” He shoves us into the autozak.
In the autozak, the Spetsnaz officers take
off their helmets and exhale. The road to the
detention center has been cleared of traffic, as
though we were a cortege of high officials. We
are crammed together. I feel the heat coming
from under the layers of the officers’ black
uniforms and armor.
“Girls, why did you have to go and force your
way into the church?” one of them says indignantly, making Katya smile.
“Do you really like what the Church is doing?”
she asks.
“And the authorities?” Nadya adds.
“Of course not!” The Spetsnaz officer bristles. “But you’re young women! So young! And
such a long sentence!”
“Well, that’s the one they gave us,” Nadya says.
Our autozak resembles a boat cutting through
the August heat.
“Listen, girls, don’t you feel bad about wasting
your youth?” the officer asks after a short pause.
“No,” I say. “I don’t regret it.”
“What is there to regret?” Katya asks.
“Would you have acted any differently?”
Nadya says.
“They’re revolutionaries,” the Spetsnaz chief
cuts in. “Enough talking.”
From a verbal report given by Harold Howard to
Kurt Castaldo, a deputy in the sheriff’s office in
Palm Beach County, Florida, in December 2015.
Howard alleged that Yousef Muslet had assaulted
him. Muslet maintained that he was shaking
Howard’s hand. Muslet was charged with burglary and battery on an elderly person; he was
acquitted last year.
harold howard: I was at my pastor’s house,
Eric Stevenson, with Pat Lucey, who is also
a preacher. We went and got in my truck
and started driving out. There was a bunch
of kids standing and playing, throwing the
ball back and forth, and one on a bicycle. I
blew my horn and they all just stand there
and gawk at me. I noticed a man walking
up to my truck so I rolled down my window, I thought maybe he had something
he needed to tell me.
deputy castaldo: Can you describe the male
howard: Probably about five ten. Weighed
about 170 pounds. Full-face beard.
castaldo: And what happened?
howard: Well, he says, What’s your name? So I
told him my name, and he said, What religion are you? I said, I’m Christian. He said,
What do you believe in? I said I believe in
God and Jesus Christ as my savior. And I
said, What about you? Because I thought
he was just joking with me, because I came
out of the pastor’s house. And he said, I
believe in Allah. And I said, That’s good,
you can have Allah, I don’t want him.
And he said, I’ve been thinking about
coming down to your church and showing
everybody why they should be a believer of
Allah. And I said, Well you’re welcome to
the church, but don’t bring Allah with
you, just leave him out.
castaldo: At this point, what were your feelings about the male subject?
howard: I knew he looked a little weird because I’m not used to a full-face-beard man.
Then it dawned on me: he’s gotta be a Muslim. Right then my fear just doubled. Then
I thought, well, he’s not gonna kill me because he doesn’t have a gun in his hand but
I didn’t know exactly what he wanted, so I
said, I gotta get out of here. Well, he stuck
his hand through my window, and I figured
he wanted to shake hands or apologize. So I
put my hand out, and as soon as I did, he
yanked it. My arm was across my body. I
was helpless.
castaldo: How far out the window?
howard: I got to the window because what I
wanted to do was turn his hand over and
bang it on the glass. Then I thought, well, I
better not do that, because this guy’s serious, he’ll kill me. Then finally he realized
the seriousness in my voice and he let go. I
was about to drive off. I told him, I said,
Get your kids out of the road. He looked at
the kids and hollered, Get out of the road,
he’s gonna kill ya. Before they got out of the
road, this little girl turned to me from the
middle of the road. And I tell you what, I’ve
never been scared of an eleven-year-old girl.
But this girl had evil in her eyes—you could
see it, the hate. The hair on the back of my
neck raised up.
castaldo: And when he had a hold of your
hand and you tried to take his hand off, how
was your fear?
howard: It was tops. It was number ten. I’m
seventy-five years old. And once I realized
who he was and what he was trying to do
about God, Jesus Christ, my fear really
came up.
castaldo: Do you think the fear for your life
and safety was paramount at that point?
howard: Yes, that’s why I kept watching his other hand, to see if it went under his shirt for a
gun. You never know. If he’s stupid enough to
do something like this, he’s stupid enough to
shoot me.
Leaves and Vines and Tree, paintings by Claire Sherman, whose work was on view in August at DC Moore Gallery, in New York City.
From a draft of a letter written in 1940 by Joan
Murray (1917–42) to W. H. Auden (1907–73). The
letter is included in Drafts, Fragments, and Poems,
a collection of Murray’s poetry that will be published
in January by New York Review Books. Auden selected Murray for the 1946 Yale Series of Younger
Poets prize.
ear Mr. Wystan Auden:
I was up to a rather off pursuit this last month
and a half. I remember trying to tell you about
it last season, and you said, Oh, Boy Scout
stuff! and left me slightly nonplussed. I shall
tell you now. I went out in dungarees and a
small pack on my back and covered a scattering
of New England states at a tangent. To me this
breaking away and arriving at land’s end is a
source of wide-eyed surprise. To be anywhere is
quite unbelievable. How hard I try to grasp the
Vermont hills or Cape Cod dunes. It is not that
I am one of your swooning nature worshippers.
God knows how often a hill or a clear night sky
and I have glared back at each other. I go out
quite like some small shabby Quixote to do bat-
tle. I will not admit nor yet deny the stretches of
and complications on every hand. Sometimes I
frighten the sea. This time, lead, and flattened
smooth as a dull sun, it frightened me intolerably. In my belt I carried a small but keen Finnish
knife with a reindeer-bone handle, my fetish
companion, I had a touch of pelt on the scabbard, which I smoothed down and put beside my
head wherever the evening and my journeyings
brought me. It gave me much more strength
than the various friends I would have to visit all
along the way. It is always a meeting and escaping. You see I never know what to say to people.
That is because I have been mentally asleep for
such an endless time. Thank heavens that’s over.
I’d breathe and get off to a six o’clock start. Here
and there I took mental notes of outlines such as
hill shape against the horizon so that someday
the portentous simplicity and space would slip
into writing. That I like to do. Translate broadly,
press down over and over again this is what you
must reach. These lines have the loveliness of
gulls’ wings spread, and that is not far from exact
word-phrase or subtly pointed thought. These
come much more vitally alive in writing to you.
The wall breaks down that always bars my direct
contact with the object.
I never am a part of the thing till this moment. It is a bit worrying that I so rarely feel even
a momentary belonging. I suppose I have to dwindle it down to the palm of my hand. I would
indeed rather spread myself out to its height
and length.
By László Krasznahorkai, from a story included in
The World Goes On, which will be published this
month by New Directions. Krasznahorkai is the
author of numerous novels and books of non-fiction.
Translated from the Hungarian by John Batki.
e had always planned that someday he
would travel to see Angel Falls, then he had
planned to visit Victoria Falls, and in the end
he had settled for at least Schaffhausen Falls,
one day he’d go and see them, he loved waterfalls, it’s not easy to explain, he would begin,
whenever he was asked what his thing was
about waterfalls, waterfalls, he would begin,
and he would get embarrassed right away, this
whole thing got on his nerves, to be asked
about it, and become embarrassed because of it,
just standing there like one smacked on the
head with a frying pan, so that his acquaintances chose instead to drop the matter, everyone around him knew that he liked waterfalls
and that he had always planned on traveling to
see at least one, as they say, at least once in his
life, first and foremost Angel Falls, or Victoria
Falls, but at the very least Schaffhausen Falls,
whereas things happened quite otherwise, in
fact utterly otherwise, for he had arrived at that
time of life when one no longer knows how
many years remain, possibly many, perhaps five
or ten or even as many as twenty, but it is also
possible that one might not live to see the day
after tomorrow. The sound of one of these falls,
by the way, was constantly in his ears, after
fantasizing about them all these years he had
started hearing one of them, but which one it
was he couldn’t know, of course, so that after a
while, around the time he turned sixty, he was
no longer sure why he had wanted to see the
first or the second or at least the third of these
waterfalls, was it so that he could at least decide which one it was he had heard all his life,
whenever he shut his eyes at night, or else because he had actually wanted to see one of
them. By a grotesque twist of fate he who in
the course of all those years had been sent to
just about every corner of the globe had never
been sent near a falls, and this is how it happened that he of all people, who had this thing
with waterfalls, found himself in Shanghai
again (the occasion was of no interest, he had
to interpret for one of the usual series of business
meetings), and that he, for whom all his life waterfalls possessed such a special role, now in an
utterly astounding manner precisely here in
Shanghai had to realize the reason why all his
life he had yearned to see the Angel, or the
Victoria, or at the very least the Schaffhausen
Falls, precisely here in Shanghai where it was
common knowledge that there were no waterfalls. He had been a simultaneous interpreter
ever since he could remember, and of all things
it was precisely simultaneous interpretation
that exhausted him the most, especially when
it happened to be for a business meeting in
Asia, as was the case now, and especially when
at the obligatory dinner afterward he was
obliged to drink as much as he did this evening, well, what’s done is done, in any case,
here he was by eveningtime, a wrung-out dishrag, as they say, drunk as a skunk, a used-up
dishrag, dead-drunk, here he stood in the middle of the city, on the riverbank, soused, speaking sotto voce and not being terribly witty; so
this is Shanghai, meaning here I am once
again in Shanghai, he had to admit that, alas,
he found the fresh air had not been all that
beneficial even though, as they say, he had
nourished great hopes for it, since he was
aware, if we may speak of awareness in his case
now, aware that he had drunk way too much,
he had drunk far more than what he could
handle, but he had been in no position to refuse, one glass followed another, too many of
them, and already in the room he had felt sick,
a vague notion churning inside him that he
needed fresh air, fresh air, but once he was outside in the fresh air the world began to spin
around him even more, true, it was still better
here outside than indoors, he no longer remembered if he had been dismissed or had simply
sneaked outside, it was alas no longer meaningful to speak of memory in his case at this moment as he stood in a peculiar posture near the
upper sector of the Bund’s ponderous arc of
buildings, he leaned against the railing and
eyed the celebrated Pudong on the other side of
the river, and by this time the almost disastrously fresh air had come to have enough of an
effect for his consciousness to clear up for a single moment and abruptly let him know that all
this did not interest him the least little bit, and
he was terribly bored in Shanghai, here, standing on the riverbank near the upper sector of
the Bund’s ponderous arc of buildings, this was
made evident by his posture, and what was he
supposed to do now? After all, he could not remain leaning on that railing till the end of
time in this increasingly calamitous condition.
I do simultaneous interpretation, he said aloud,
and paused, to see if someone had heard him,
but no one at all had heard him, oh well, of
course, how could he have imagined that his
announcement, in the Hungarian language,
and in Shanghai, would be of any help, yes,
that would be a tough one to explain, but to
explain anything in his situation would have
been a chore, I do simultaneous interpretation,
he repeated therefore, while to the best of his
ability he kept his head—that is the skull
where the pain originated—completely still as
he pronounced these words, his whole body
went completely rigid, that was how he managed to contain the pain up there, trying to
keep this pain from growing any more intense,
for this was an intense pain that was getting so
intense, so powerful, that it simply blinded
By George Oppen (1908–84), from 21 Poems, a collection of previously unpublished works that was released in August by New Directions. Oppen was the
author of seven volumes of poetry. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1969.
This room,
the circled wind
Straight air of dawn
low noon
The darkness. Not within
The mound of these
Is anything
To fit the prying of your lips,
Or feed their wide bright flowering.
And yet will movement so exactly fit
Your limbs—
As snow
Fills the vague intricacies of the day, unlit
Before; so will your arms
Fall in the space
Assigned to gesture
(In the momentless air,
The distant adventurous snow)
him, or, to put it more accurately, he was suddenly aware that here he sat, stone-cold sober,
here, somewhere, in a location for the time being impossible to identify, all around him the
roar, rumble, thunder of a traffic that was insane, everywhere, overhead, down below, on
the left and on the right, yes, that horrific din
simply everywhere, and here he was sitting
right in the middle of it, but where this here
was he had not the faintest idea, blinded, he
could not see, and for that matter he could not
hear, for the din he was hearing was just as
powerful, and was increasing at the same rate,
as the pain inside his skull. All of a sudden,
pow, it began to subside, and the moment arrived when he was able to open his eye, only a
slit, at first only a slit, but it was enough for him
to establish that he had never before sat in the
place where he was sitting, and perhaps no one
had ever sat there before, for he immediately realized that he was sitting in the middle of expressways curving every which way, or, to put it
more accurately, expressways arcing in various
directions, he was surrounded by expressways,
no mistaking it, the image seen through the slit
told him, expressways overhead, expressways
down below, expressways to the left, and finally
expressways to the right as well, naturally, his
first thought was that he was not well, and the
next thought was that not only he but this
whole thing around him, too, was not well, elevated expressways on many levels, who ever
heard of such a thing. As a simultaneous interpreter he possessed certain areas of specialization, one of these being traffic and transport
systems, and since he was a simultaneous interpreter with a specialty in traffic and transport
systems he had a good hunch by now about
where he found himself except that he refused
to believe it, no human being could possibly be
in the place where he now was, notwithstanding the fact that he could see the famous pillar
down below with the dragons winding around
it, oh no, he thought now, oh no, I am inside
Nine Dragon Crossing, or as the locals say, Jiulongzhu Jiaoji, it is not something a human being can be inside of, and the moment arrived
when that slit became a full view, because by
now he dared to open one eye, or one might
have said that the eye simply popped wide
open, for he was not hallucinating, he was indeed inside Nine Dragon Crossing, deep inside
it, with his back leaning against the railing of
some sort of pedestrian bridge, as if someone
had propped him up against it. Now his other
eye popped open most boldly, for this was the
moment when he realized that he was high up,
that this pedestrian bridge as its name indicated was a real bridge that rose in the air above
ground level and was not merely bridging over
something but in fact conducted the pedestrian
at various levels of elevation among the expressways that ran up above and down below,
running this way and that, was this a sane
thing to do?! he asked himself, no it was not, he
answered, so that after all, and here he lowered
his glance to look in front of his feet, then I
must be crazy, this is how it had to end, I got
royally drunk, perfectamente drunk, so drunk
that I ended up here, in this madness, I am imprisoned inside this madness. A person could
not climb inside such a metropolitan highway
whatchamacallit, especially not so that he ends
up with his back propped up against the plexiglass siding of a pedestrian footbridge, and he is
half toppled over and therefore leaning on his
left hand to keep from sliding any more, no,
not this way or any other way, this is absurd,
I’m probably not insane, he reassured himself, I
am a simultaneous interpreter, and I have perfect recall—he rose from his humiliating supine
position on the pedestrian bridge—everything
that needs to be known from a transportsystems point of view about an intersection like
this is in my head down to the last detail, and
he stood up, and although he had to grab
onto the handrail at first, after the first three
or four meters he let go of it and took some
unaided steps relishing the full dignity of his
balance, thus setting out on the pedestrian
bridge toward somewhere, but as the bridge
right away curved into a turn, leading toward
a future that was too uncertain for him, he
decided it was wiser to stop, and so he halted,
and by now all was well, his head was clear,
his head no longer ached, his head was capable of quite lucidly making inquiries into existence, namely his own, which he proceeded
to do, to wit, obviously there must be a reason that I have come to a point in my life
where I must now declare what I have
learned about the world in the course of sixty
years, nearly forty of which have been as a simultaneous interpreter, and if I don’t then I
will take it to the grave with me, but that,
and he continued his train of thought, that,
however, will not happen, and I am going to
make my declaration right here, indeed, he
would gladly declare himself here and now,
but the problem was that he had learned
nothing about the world, and so what was he
to say, what indeed, that he was a simultaneous interpreter who had lived close to forty
years devoted exclusively to his profession; he
was not claiming that, for instance when he
looked at, say, a deck of cards, he did not
have some unanswered questions, because
aside from his profession he also loved card
games, and his question was, well now, was
this a full deck of cards, or was it merely any
forty-eight individual cards, but there were only
those kinds of questions, the one particular
question regarding the world itself, which, he
was well aware, might be expected from an experienced simultaneous interpreter in his sixties, that one particular question, no, it had
never occurred to him, so that if fate had now
cast him here to make a declaration about that
then he was in a fine pickle, for he didn’t know
anything about anything, there was nothing he
could say about the world in general, nothing
he could put in the form of a philosophy of life,
no, nothing like that, here he gave a slight
shake of his head, what speaks to him is what
he sees here, from this pedestrian bridge, but
about life in general, alas, he can say nothing.
Once again his eyes swept over the horrific cavalcade of ponderous expressway ramps stretching and arcing above and below one another,
and he could only gape this way and gape that
way, he tried to follow individual stretches of
highway in order to find out which direction
they went in, but it proved impossible, at least
from here, from the inside, the entire thing had
ended up so bafflingly complex. He shoved
From a Craigslist ad posted in the San Francisco area
in August, preceding a total solar eclipse that passed
over Oregon and other parts of the United States.
am forty years of age, Caucasian male
from Europe. My heritage is strong and pure.
My looks, instincts, knowledge, and strength
are 100% lethal. I am looking for a worthy female with strong genes, beauty, and smarts to
experience the totality eclipse in Oregon. Exact
place not set. If we have chemistry, I would like
for us to make love while the eclipse is happening. When totality occurs, we will have simultaneous orgasms and conceive a child who will
be on the next level of human evolution. We
will make love with my penis directed toward
the sun. Our cosmic orgasmic energy will be
aligned with the planets. In a brief moment of
ecstasy, we will understand everything and together create a new universe full of love.
You must like cats. Drugs are okay.
himself away from the railing against which he
had been leaning for the past few minutes, and
taking the utmost care he nonetheless set out
in the dark on that pedestrian bridge curving
away into an uncertain future, until after taking exactly seventeen steps his form disappeared beyond the bend, and thus shortly
thereafter all human presence ceased within
the interior hell of Nine Dragon Crossing,
which is no place for a human being in any case.
our Perrier, sir, said the room-service
waiter outside the door, but then he had to
send him back for an additional bottle, and he
had to request that the first bottle be exchanged for a larger one, then he had two or
three fresh pitchers of ice brought up because
after he at last arrived in his room and toppled
onto the bed it was not so much that his head
began to ache immediately as all of a sudden
there was a large bowl of mush in place of a
head, he had entered the room, taken off his
clothes, kicked off his shoes, and thrown himself on the bed, arranging for everything from
there, the phone within reach; his room-service
order, the modification of the order, the repetition of the order, and so on, meanwhile lying
on his back and not moving, resting his head—
that bowl of mush—against the pillow, his eyes
closed; that’s how it was for a while, until the
horrendous stink he himself emanated began to
bother him, whereupon he crawled to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, turned on the shower, and scrubbed his body with soap and remained under the shower for as long as his
strength held out, then toweled himself dry,
sprayed frightful amounts of hotel deodorant
on himself, pulled on a clean T-shirt and underpants, and before lying back down he took
the soiled garments and his light summer
leather shoes, stuffed them in a plastic bag
that he tied with a tight knot before placing it
outside in front of the door, then stretched out
on the bed, and turned on the TV, merely listening to the sound without watching, for his
head continued to remain a bowl of mush, and
this was all right, things were all right now,
his eyes shut, the TV on, the sound not too
loud, the words, sentences, voice, speech morphing in slow gossamer-light increments into a
so-called eternal sound of running water, but
no, not really the sound of water splashing,
and he pulled the blanket over himself, for he
was starting to shiver because the airconditioning was set too high, no, this was
not water splashing, it was a roar, like the
ocean, but no, not the ocean really, reflected
that sizable load of mush inside his head, this
was something else, this . . . this sound, he now
recognized, before sleep swallowed him up,
was a waterfall.
He woke immediately, as if jolted by electric
shock, he looked at the TV set in disbelief, only
the waterfall sound could be heard, he leaped
from the bed, sat down on its edge, and leaning
forward stared at the TV set, oh my God, he
clenched his fists in his lap, it was exactly the
same as the sound of the waterfall that he had
never been able to identify among those three,
he watched the TV screen panic-stricken, the
image showed a cascading waterfall, and he
slowly grasped that this was not some nightmare, he leaned forward even closer and
watched the waterfall on the TV screen, he saw
no subtitles whatsoever that could have helped
to identify which one it was, the Angel, the
Victoria, or possibly the Schaffhausen, all they
showed was the waterfall itself, the sound was a
steady roar. He watched each and every drop of
the waterfall, feeling an unspeakable relief, and,
savoring the taste of a newfound freedom, he
understood that his life would be a full life, a
fullness that was not made of its parts, the empty fiascoes and empty pleasures of minutes and
hours and days, no, not at all, he shook his
head, while in front of him the TV set kept
roaring, this fullness of his life would be something completely different, he could not as
yet know in what way, and he never would
know, because the moment when this fullness of his life was born would be the moment
of his death—he shut his eyes, lay back on the
bed and remained awake until it was morning,
when he rapidly packed his things and checked
out at the reception desk with such a radiant
face that they contacted the staff on his floor to
check whether he had taken anything with him,
how could they have possibly understood what
had made him so happy, how could the cab driver or the people at the airport understand, when
they were not aware that such happiness existed,
he radiated it as he passed through the security
check, he glowed as he boarded the plane, his
eyes sparkled as he belted himself into his seat,
just like a kid who has at last received the gift he
dreamed of, because he was in fact happy, except
he could not speak about it, there was indeed
nothing to do but look out through the window
of the plane at the blindingly resplendent blue
sky, keeping a profound silence, and it no longer mattered which waterfall it was, it no longer
mattered if he didn’t see any of them, for it was
all the same, it had been enough to hear that
sound, and he streaked away at a speed of 900
kilometers per hour, at an altitude of approximately ten thousand meters in a north-bynorthwesterly direction, high above the clouds—
in the blindingly blue sky toward the hope that
he would die someday.
Bria Monet, a drawing by Dapper Bruce Lafitte, whose work was on view in September at Arthur Roger Gallery, in New Orleans.
Courtesy the artist and Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans
Leading From Within
Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces
A Brief History of Feminism
Conscious Social Change and
Mindfulness for Social Innovation
Diversity of Free Expression in Education
Patu and Antje Schrupp
John Palfrey
Gretchen Ki Steidle
How the essential democratic values
of diversity and free expression can
coexist on a campus.
An engaging illustrated history of
feminism from antiquity through thirdwave feminism, featuring Sappho,
Mary Magdalene, Mary Wollstonecraft,
Sojourner Truth, Simone de Beauvoir,
and many others.
A roadmap for integrating mindfulness
into every aspect of social change: how
to lead transformation with compassion for the needs and perspectives
of all people.
“Gretchen Steidle’s approach to applying
mindfulness and empathy to social entrepreneurship will help you lead, innovate,
and advance social change effectively
and happily.”
—Bill Drayton, Founder and CEO, Ashoka
“This is a sophisticated exploration of
two crucial values—diversity and free
expression—and a cogent, persuasive
argument that the two are inextricably
intertwined. Palfrey’s sketch of a society
in which citizens enjoy liberty and equality in equal measure is appealing and
even inspiring.”
—Jameel Jaffer, Executive Director,
Knight First Amendment Institute, Columbia University; former Deputy Legal
Director, ACLU
“Patu and Antje Schrupp’s A Brief History
of Feminism tells a story spanning some
2,300 years, as women from antiquity
through the present attempt to create a
more livable world. Laced with polemic,
it’s full of little-known facts about feminist
thinkers and activists who insist on the
universality of female experience. This
graphic novel is one of the best guides
to world history I’ve seen.”
—Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick and
After Kathy Acker
Explore and learn at
Will New York City finally tear down a statue?
By J. C. Hallman
n 1899, the art critic Layton
Crippen complained in the
New York Times that private
donors and committees had
been permitted to run amok,
erecting all across the city a large
number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues
had been dumped in Central
Park. “The sculptures go as far
toward spoiling the Park as it is
possible to spoil it,” he wrote.
Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that
was being done.
Crippen criticized more than
two dozen statues for their aesthetic failures, mocking Beethoven’s
frown and the epicene figure of
Bertel Thorvaldsen. Yet he took
pains to single out the bronze
monument to J. Marion Sims, the
so-called Father of Gynecology, for its
foolish “combination toga-overcoat.”
Would visitors really be so hurt, Crippen asked, if the Sims statue, then
situated in Manhattan’s Bryant Park,
was removed?
A little more than a century later—
after it had been refurbished and moved
J. C. Hallman is the author of six books. His
article “Getting to the End” appeared in the
December 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
Illustrations by Lincoln Agnew
to Central Park—the Sims statue has
once again prompted angry calls for its
removal. This time, the complaint is not
that it is ugly. Rather, East Harlem residents learned that their neighborhood
housed a monument to a doctor whose
renown stems almost exclusively from a
series of experimental surgeries that he
had performed, without the use of anesthesia, on a number of young slave
women between 1845 and 1849.
Sims was attempting to discover a cure for vesicovaginal
fistula (VVF), a common affliction that is caused by prolonged
obstructed labor. The timing,
nature, and purpose of his experiments make for an impossibly
tangled knot of ethical dilemmas. Most prominently, they
raise the issue of medical consent. Did Sims obtain consent
from his subjects, as he later
claimed—and if he did, could a
slave truly provide it? What
woman would agree to be operated on, without anesthesia, upwards of thirty times? On the
other hand, given the horrific
nature of VVF, wouldn’t most
women endure additional horrors
in pursuit of a cure? And without
a willing patient, would delicate
surgery on a wound barely visible
to the eye even be possible? What of the
fact that if Sims managed to cure the
women, they would be promptly returned to the plantations, where little
awaited them but backbreaking work,
use as breeders of additional slaves,
and state-sanctioned rape?
All these questions came to the
surface a couple of months ago, when
activists long opposed to the Sims
statue linked it to the Confederate
war memorials being torn down in
cities across America. They staged a
protest in front of the statue in August, and an image from the event—
four women of color in blood-soaked
gowns, representing Sims’s experimental subjects—went viral. Newspaper accounts across the country
soon followed. Would the monument
to Sims be the very first in New York
City to go to the chopping block?
That, too, is a more complicated
question than it seems. What Crippen noted in 1899 is still true today. Even minor alterations to
works of public art in New York
City are subject to an arcane system
of approval, and there is no formal
mechanism in place for citizens to
challenge the decisions of earlier
times. The governing assumption
is that if a memorial has realized
permanent form, it represents a
consensus that should be preserved. Not a single statue in the
history of New York City has ever
been permanently removed as a
result of official action.1
n 1845, Marion Sims was a thirtytwo-year-old doctor with ten
years of experience in the South’s
Black Belt. He served Alabama’s free
black population; he contracted to
care for the slaves of local plantation
owners; and his office and home in
downtown Montgomery included a
small backyard facility he called the
Negro Hospital. Tending to the medical needs of current and former
slaves was an economic necessity in
an area where two thirds of the population was black. Indeed, Sims was
a slaveholder himself: he had accepted an enslaved couple as a wedding present from his in-laws, and he
came to own as many as seventeen
slaves before he moved to New York
City in 1853. Letters to his wife
(“Negroes and children always ex-
Two partial exceptions to this rule are
Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, which was rem o v e d i n 19 8 9, a n d F r e d e r i c k
MacMonnies’s Civic Virtue Triumphant
over Unrighteousness, which was relocated to Green-Wood Cemetery in 2012.
In both cases, however, city officials insisted that the decision was practical: Tilted
Arc was removed because it was said to
block foot traffic, and Civic Virtue for
restoration purposes.
pect liberal presents on Christmas”)
betray a rank paternalism typical of
antebellum Southerners.
Medicine had been a default vocation rather than a calling. Sims’s
mother steered him toward the
cloth, his father toward the law, and
the latter complained, when his son
settled on medicine, that there was
no “honor” or “science” in it. Sims
attended medical schools in South
Carolina and Philadelphia, and soon
settled on surgical innovation as the
best path to a lucrative practice and
a permanent legacy. At the time,
this involved learning new procedures from medical journals, and
Sims made a name for himself by
treating clubfoot and crossed eyes.
More grandiosely, he announced
that he had devised a better method
for dislodging foreign objects from the
ear, and that he had discovered the
cure for infant lockjaw. He would
later apologize for the first claim, acknowledging that others had preceded him in syringing the ear. But he
went to his grave insisting that his
cure for lockjaw was his “first great
discovery in medicine.” He couldn’t
have been more wrong. Zealous in
his belief that most maladies were by
nature mechanical, Sims had attempted to cure a number of suffering slave babies by prying up their
skull plates with an awl. Shortly after
Sims died, in 1883, scientists identified lockjaw as a bacterial infection,
also known as tetanus.
By Sims’s account—as related in
The Story of My Life (1885), published posthumously and excerpted
in this magazine—his next great discovery came just two months after
the first. In the summer of 1845, he
was asked to treat three young female slaves with holes inside their
vaginas. A few days after delivery, fistula sufferers experience a sloughing
away of dead tissue, most often leav-
ing an opening between the vaginal
canal and the bladder. Once afflicted, women are cursed with a perpetual leak of urine from their vaginas,
frequently resulting in severe ulceration of the vulva and upper thighs.
These were the first cases of VVF
that Sims had encountered. It’s not
surprising, given his later confession
that he had initially “hated investigating the organs of the female pelvis.” A little research revealed that
doctors throughout history had been
stymied by the affliction. The basic
problem, surgically speaking, was
that you had little room to see the
wound you were attempting to close,
let alone to stitch sutures in the secreting tissue. Sims concluded that
all three of the women were untreatable, but the last, having
traveled from Macon County, was
permitted to spend the night in
his Negro Hospital, the idea being
that she would leave by train the
following afternoon.
There the story might have
ended—except that the next
morning, Sims was called to attend to an emergency. A white
seamstress had dislocated her uterus in a fall from her horse. Sims
grudgingly made his way to her
home and placed her facedown
with her buttocks awkwardly elevated in what doctors called the
knee-chest position. The idea was
to vigorously push her uterus back
into place. Sims was first surprised
when the woman’s entire womb
seemed to vanish, leaving his fingers flailing about in an apparent
void—yet somehow this worked,
her pain was immediately relieved.
He was surprised again when the
woman, lowering herself onto her
side, produced a blast of air from
her vagina.
The seamstress was mortified, but
Sims rejoiced. The accident explained what had happened—and
offered great promise besides. The
position of her body and the action
of his fingers against her perineum
and the rear of the vaginal wall
caused an inrush of air that inflated
her vagina. Sim s immediately
thought of the young woman still
waiting for a train in his backyard
clinic. Might not the ballooning ac-
tion of the vagina enable a doctor
to clearly observe a fistula, and
thereby cure a condition that had
baffled the world’s leading medical
minds for centuries?
Sims rushed home, stopping on the
way to purchase a large pewter spoon
that he believed would function more
efficiently than his fingers. Two medical
students assisted him with the woman—
her name was either Lucy or Betsey,
depending on how you read Sims’s
account—and as soon as they put her in
the knee-chest position and pulled open
her buttocks, her vagina began to dilate
with a puffing sound. Sims sat down
behind her, bent the spoon, and turned
it around to insert it handle first. He
elevated her perineum and looked inside. He could see the fistula as plainly
as a hole in a sheet of paper. Years later,
Sims described the moment as if he had
summited a mountain or landed on the
surface of the moon.
“I saw everything,” he wrote, “as
no man had ever seen before.”
his was the first of many
epiphanies in a life that would
come to be characterized, by
Sims himself and by others after him,
as having proceeded along the lines
of a fantastical romance. For the next
four years, the fairy tale goes, Sims
labored to cure those first three
suming he was gravely ill, and concerned that he “might die without the
world’s reaping the benefits of my labors,” Sims published “On the Treatment of Vesico-Vaginal Fistula” in
The American Journal of the Medical
Sciences in 1852. The paper was an
immediate success. Sims claimed that
slaves, along with a number of other
fistula sufferers whom he sought out
in neighboring communities. Progress
was incremental, levying a tax on the
young physician’s soul and wallet (he
paid the cost of room and board for
his enslaved subjects). Finally, in
1849, he managed to successfully
close a fistula—and soon thereafter,
he grandly claimed, he cured all the
slaves in his care. At least some portion of the fame he coveted now came
his way: the tool and the position he
used to cure fistulas have been known
ever since as the Sims speculum and
the Sims position.
What followed was a period of collapse, probably from dysentery. As-
his surgery was easier to perform and
produced more consistent results
than had any previous techniques.
Citing health reasons (Alabama colleagues thought him more ambitious
than ill), he moved to New York City
the next year, and soon proposed establishing Woman’s Hospital. This
would be one of the first institutions
in the world devoted to those conditions “of the female pelvis” that he
had once deplored.
A pattern emerged. As Sims saw it,
he would be presented with a series of
women suffering from mysterious
maladies—and, devising his own
cures or improving on the cures of
others, he would conquer each illness
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in tur n. In addition to being
crowned the Father of Gynecology,
Sims attached his name to dozens
of tools and procedures. His fame
became inter national when he
spent the Civil War years abroad,
spreading the gospel of his work
and tending to the medical needs of
empresses and countesses. For the
rest of his life, he remained a
continent-hopping cosmopolite, attending conferences and practicing
medicine in New York City, London,
Paris, Geneva, and Vienna.
he effort to erect a monument
to Sims began less than a
month after his death in 1883.
A Baltimore physician wrote a letter
to the Medical Record, the day’s leading organ for surgeons and doctors, to
suggest that a statue be commissioned
and erected in Central Park.
The editor agreed. The magazine announced that it would raise
the necessary funds from doctors—
and from the many women who
owed their health and happiness to
Sims’s “amelioration of their numerous and distressing ailments.”
Prominent surgeons offered pledges
and praise, and suggested that a
Sims Memorial Fund Committee,
made up “partly of gentleman and
partly of ladies,” be formed to take
charge of the effort.
It was perhaps inevitable that
Sims would wind up in bronze. The
rhetorical mold had first been cast
in 1857, by a woman named Caroline Thompson, who gave a speech
to the New York state legislature after being treated by Sims. Boasting
a fatality rate near zero, Woman’s
Hospital was attempting to expand
and become a state institution, and
Thompson told legislators that a
vote in favor would “build for [them]
a monument in the hearts of women
more durable than granite.”
The fund drive for the Central
Park monument began in 1884.
The Medical Record published the
n a me of each donor a nd t he
amount of each donation, most often $1, as they came in from across
the country. When sufficient funds
were raised, the committee hired
Ferdinand von Miller II, a German
sculptor who lived in an Italian
castle. He eagerly set to work, and
the Sims memorial arrived in the
United States in April 1892. At
once the committee approached
the Department of Public Parks
about the statue, kicking off a cursory period of municipal assessment. Consistent with the practice
at the time, no public comment
was invited.
A Central Park placement was
initially denied. Instead, the statue
was unveiled in Bryant Park in October 1894. A “goodly number of ladies” attended the ceremony, it was
reported, but in the end not a single
woman served on the Sims Memorial Fund Committee, and only a tiny
portion of the monument’s donations
had come from the surgeon’s former
patients—a tip-off, perhaps, that the
hearts of women were less receptive
to Sims’s legacy than they were supposed to be.
riticism of Sims began early
and never quite went away. His
assistant in Alabama, Nathan
Bozeman—who would himself become a gynecologist of international
renown—alleged that Sims’s fistula
cure had been successful only half the
time. Others noted that every aspect of
the cure, including both the Sims speculum and the Sims position, had been
anticipated by other practitioners.
No matter. In the wake of Sims’s
death and for many decades afterward, the voices questioning his
legacy were drowned out by a chorus of hagiographers, whose factfree defense of their idol amounts
to a study in mass delusion. In addition to the New York monument,
there were statues in South Carolina and Alabama, a Sims-branded
medical school and foundation (defunct and extant, respectively), and
comically laudatory profiles (“Savior of Women”) in dozens of publi-
cations. He was included on short
lists of civilizational greats alongside George Washington, and likened to the divine figures in Homer
and Virgil. He was dubbed the Architect of the Vagina. The apotheosis peaked in 1950 with a radiotheater adaptation of the only
book-length biography of Sims,
with the Oscar-winning actor Ray
Milland playing the title role in Sir
Galahad in Manhattan.
In recent decades, however, this
began to change. A series of scholarly
books—all of them brilliant but
problematic—steadily chiseled away
at the Sims edifice. In the late 1960s,
a young scholar named G. J. BarkerBenfield produced a dissertation on
how the “physiological minority” of
Wasp males had come to dominate
nineteenth-century America, later
published as The Horrors of the
Half-Known Life (1976). Smart and
copious, the book included several
chapters on Sims, viewing him
with refreshing skepticism. “Woman’s Hospital,” Barker-Benfield
wrote, “was founded very largely as
a demonstration ground for Sims’s
surgical skill. He needed food and
fame.” Yet Barker-Benfield flubbed
numerous details of the story, conflating, for example, the displaced uterus
of the seamstress with the damaged
vagina of the first enslaved patient.
And only the profoundly Freudian
predilection of so much midcentury
American scholarship can explain the
author’s claim that Sims harbored a
“hatred for women’s sexual organs”—
one that he overcame by “his use of
the knife.”
Twenty years later, in From Midwives to Medicine, Deborah Kuhn
McGregor recounted the history of
Woman’s Hospital as an emblem of
the male establishment’s hostile
takeover of obstetrics, a jurisdiction
traditionally overseen by women.
This exhaustive volume is often on
the mark: “Although J. Marion Sims
is pivotal in the history of gynecology, he did not create it by himself.”
But McGregor, too, commits casual
errors: she mistakenly describes the
VVF wound as a “tear” (a peeve of
clinical specialists), and creates confusion with equivocal language and
even imprecise grammar. Worse, a
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story that is fraught with horror
and drama is reduced to stale summary by the truth-destroying academic conviction that to be dull is
to be serious.
B o t h B a r k e r-B e n f i el d a n d
McGregor failed to penetrate the
membrane that separates the world of
academic squabbles from that of the
people who walk past the Sims statue
every day. They did inspire a new generation of scholarship, but a tendency
to fight fire with fire resulted in an inferno of questionable claims. Sims was
soon described by one detractor as
“Father Butcher,” a sadistic protoMengele. Even before the debate’s
most indignant voices chimed in,
Sims’s biography had become a kind
of post-truth zone. His defenders engaged in flagrant invention, creating a
saintly caricature that outstripped
even Sims’s own efforts to inflate his
reputation; his detractors introduced
inaccuracies and exaggerations that
morphed into outright falsehoods as
they ricocheted from source to source.
orty years after its dedication,
the Sims statue, along with a
statue of Washington Irving,
was removed from Bryant Park. The
year was 1932, and the nation was
about to observe the bicentennial of
George Washington’s birth. To commemorate the occasion, Sears, Roebuck and Company erected in the
park a temporary replica of Federal
Hall, from which Washington delivered his first inaugural. The statues,
which were in the way of this patriotic simulacrum, were dragged away.
Robert Moses was named the
commissioner of parks a short time
later. He disliked statues in general,
and almost immediately proposed a
dramatic overhaul of Bryant Park
that did not include the reinstallation of the Sims and Irving monuments. This was fortuitous, as the
statues had been misplaced—five
tons of granite and metal had somehow gone missing. The good luck
turned into headache, however,
when the Art Commission (which
was later renamed the Public Design
Commission, and today has final say
over all public-art decisions in New
York City) rejected his proposal.
The statues had to come back.
Reports differ on what came next.
Some say the statues turned up by accident in a Parks Department storage
yard. Moses told the New York Times
a different story: a protracted effort
led searchers to a storage area beneath the Williamsburg Bridge, where
they found the monuments wrapped
in tarpaulins. Moses reiterated his belief that the “city could get along very
well” without them. Still, to keep
Sims from mucking up his plans, he
consented to a request from the New
York Academy of Medicine that the
monument be installed across from its
Fifth Avenue location, in a niche on
the outer wall of Central Park.
Again, the public was afforded
no opportunity to comment. The
statue was rededicated on October
20, 1934. The speakers echoed
those who had first lobbied for a
Sims monument, hailing his supposed innovations without ever really addressing what such a memorial wa s for. In 1884, a not her
celebrated surgeon, Samuel Gross,
had argued in his letter of support
for a Sims statue that monuments
are not intended for the dead.
Rather, they should act as a stimulus for the living to “imitate the example” of the figure memorialized.
But what sort of inspiration would
the Sims statue provide? After all,
the man in the strange bronze
overcoat was, as the Medical Record
noted, distinguished mostly for his
readiness to employ “the one needful thing, the knife.”
ims would have yet another memorial before the roof fell in. In
the late 1950s, the pharmaceutical giant Parke-Davis commissioned
the artist Robert Thom to produce a
series of forty-five oil paintings illustrating the history of medicine. One
painting depicted Sims’s fistula experiments: clutching his trademark
speculum, the doctor stands in his
ramshackle clinic before two acolytes
and the three worried slave women
who would serve as his initial subjects.
Parke-Davis was sold in 1970 to
a nother phar maceutical gia nt,
Warner-Lambert, which appears to
have had no qualms about the painting: the company granted permission
for the image to be used on the cover
of McGregor’s From Midwives to
Medicine. In 2000, however, WarnerLambert was purchased by Pfizer—
and Pfizer did have qualms. Harriet
Washington’s Medical Apartheid, the
next scholarly book to take aim at
Sims, begins with an account of her
attempt to secure the rights to the
image. She, too, hoped to use
Thom’s painting on the jacket of her
book. Pfizer asked to review the
manuscript before making a decision,
and she refused to comply. Later, she
submitted a request to use a smaller
version of the image in the book’s interior and never got an answer.2
Medical Apartheid is a vast and
sweeping work, which ranges from
gynecology to eugenics, radiation,
and bioterrorism. It is notable for
having won the 2007 National Book
Critics Circle award in general nonfiction, among several other honors.
Yet even though only a small portion of Medical Apartheid is devoted
to Sims, a number of errors crop up:
for example, the author describes
the bronze statue of Sims as a “marble colossus,” misstates the original
location of Woman’s Hospital,
claims that only one of Sims’s slave
subjects was ever cured, and wrongly
suggests that Sims once etherized
wives to enable intercourse.
Nevertheless, Medical Apartheid
finally penetrated the scholar-public
divide, and efforts got under way to
have the statue removed. They began with a woman, fired up by
Washington, handing out flyers in
East Harlem. Viola Plummer, now
chief of staff to New York State Assemblyman Charles Barron, had
been working with several colleagues on health care disparities,
and who knows how they first came
to focus on the Sims statue? It was
back during the Bush Administration, Plummer recalled, when there
was torture and waterboarding going on, and maybe the details of
Sims’s experiments, as recounted in
Medical Apartheid, resonated with
In 2007, Pfizer donated all forty-five
paintings to the University of Michigan.
The painting of Sims is currently in storage.
A less prominent painting of Sims was
commissioned by the University of Alabama in 1982. It was removed from public
view in 2005 after a visiting lecturer from
Harvard complained about it.
all that. Or maybe it was because a
statue was a tangible thing, so perhaps you could actually do something about it.
Plummer’s pamphlets caught the eye
of a group called East Harlem Preservation, which put her petition online.
Eventually, it attracted enough media
attention that the New York City
Parks Department sent someone to explain to the members of Community
Board 11, also involved by that point,
that the city had a policy of not removing art for content. Removing a
statue, any statue, would amount to
expunging history.
Albeit on a lark rather than a mission, the department had been
thinking about its statuary for a
while. In 1996, Commissioner Henry Stern—a colorful character who
bestowed code names on Parks
staffers, his own being Starquest—
launched an effort to erect signs to
contextualize each of the statues,
busts, and monuments under Parks
supervision, of which there were
more than 800. A statue should be
more than a grave site, Stern’s thinking went. It should tell a story.
One of the people carrying out
this mission was the new art and
antiquities director, Jonathan Kuhn
(code name: Archive), who continues on in the same position today.
In 1996, the Sims statue was for
Kuhn little more than a punch
line—he proudly told the New York
Times that the city’s statues included
a “fifteenth-century martyr, a sled
dog, and two gynecologists.” The signage effort coincided with the digital
revolution, so only a few summaries
were ever installed in Central Park
as physical signs. The Sims summary
was one of the many that appeared
only online.
The original version of this summary, which has since been finessed
and corrected, was notable for vagueness and factual errors. First, it repeated the common but inaccurate claim
that Sims innovated the use of silver
wire as an antibacterial suture material. The text also asserted that the
statue had been funded by donations
from “thousands of Sims’s medical
peers and many of his own patients,”
and as late as 2016, the Parks website
specified 12,000 individual donors.
The actual numbers are much more
modest: 789 male doctors, forty-one
women, and twenty-eight medical societies. In any case, nobody at the department paid much attention to the
Sims summary. It was one headache
among many, and why quibble with a
memorial to a man whose “groundbreaking surgical methods,” as the
original summary read, “earned him
worldwide notoriety”?
n 2007, at roughly the same time
that Viola Plummer was handing
out letters in East Harlem, Mary
Bassett, then the deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene,
also read Medical Apartheid. Bassett
was uniquely positioned to appreciate
what is undeniably the most scruplestesting aspect of the Sims legacy. A
physician herself, she had spent nearly two decades in Zimbabwe, where
the epidemiological nightmare of
VVF rages on today. Largely eradicated in the West because of the
prevalence of caesarean section, the
condition still blankets the African
continent, with estimates of as many
as 100,000 new sufferers annually.
There has been a recent rise in clinics
dedicated to the disorder, whose victims often wind up divorced, ostracized, depressed, and suicidal. These
clinics all descend from a single
source: the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, in Ethiopia, which was founded
in 1974 by the Hamlins, an Australian couple, both gynecologists, who
planned their facility by carefully
studying Sims’s The Story of My Life.3
The advent of African fistula clinics
aside, Bassett believed that Sims’s surgical subjects must have perceived his initial experiments as a form of torture.
Rather than handing out flyers, Bassett
A brick from the original Woman’s Hospital was transported to Ethiopia and used in
the construction of the Hamlin fistula clinic.
invited Harriet Washington to give a
talk at a health department gathering. It
was Washington’s lecture on Sims and
the broader history of medical experimentation that got staffers brainstorming about what could be done about the
statue. They came up with the idea of a
contextualizing plaque to be added to
the statue itself, which would tell the
story of Sims’s initial procedures.
Kuhn dismissed the idea of a plaque.
Instead, he suggested, they should propose additions to the existing online
summary. That’s basically what happened. In 2008, the department added
nine lines to the text—which, true to
form, introduced more historical errors. For one thing, the revised summary claimed that Sims had been
on hand to tend to President Garfield’s gunshot wound: false. More
meaningfully, the new text noted
that during the period of Sims’s fistula experiments, he had “declined
or could not use anesthesia.”
This skirts one of the most contentious aspects of the Sims debate. During the mid-1840s, when he experimented on the enslaved women, ether
had just been introduced as a surgical
anesthetic; it was not approved for safe
use until 1849. As for chloroform, it
would make its debut in 1847 and become widely known for killing patients
in the hands of inexperienced physicians. Sims’s detractors have argued that
he reserved anesthesia for his white patients. This isn’t true, and for his part,
Sims claimed that the pain of fistula
surgery did not merit the risk of anesthesia in any patient.4
Beyond the error-speckled lines
added to the online text, nothing
happened. Adrian Benepe, who succeeded Henry Stern, was more concerned with health initiatives, such
as smoking in public parks. For that
Even after anesthesia came into common
use, Sims varied from his stance only in
VVF cases where the damage extended to
the urethra or the neck of the uterus. It is
critical to note, however, that Sims did
sometimes display a shockingly callous disregard for the suffering experienced by his
slave subjects. To further complicate matters, Sims’s detractors have also accused
him of believing that African women had a
special genetic endowment that made them
resistant to pain. In fact, it was his biographer, Seale Harris, who made this claim a
hundred years later in Woman’s Surgeon:
The Life Story of J. Marion Sims (1950).
matter, Benepe later recalled, it
wasn’t like there had ever been a
grand public chorus rising up to
complain about the Sims statue.
And when you’re the commissioner,
that’s what you do: you deal with
things that take up a lot of media
and public attention. The Sims controversy? It wasn’t even in the same
ballpark as what PETA did to Mayor Bill de Blasio over the Central
Park horses in 2014.
ince the 1990s, one of the most
prominent figures in the Sims
controversy has been L. Lewis
Wall. Wall’s résumé makes you feel
like you’ve wasted your life. He holds
two doctorates, is a professor of medicine, social anthropology, and bioethics, and founded the Worldwide Fistula Fund, which has launched clinical
programs to combat the scourge in
Niger, Ethiopia, and Uganda. Wall
has performed hundreds of fistula surgeries in Africa, and has seen firsthand the struggles of aid efforts—
including local corruption and
political exploitation. Just as onerous,
in his view, was “fistula tourism”: nonAfrican doctors making blitzkrieg
trips to Africa to rack up “good cases.”
Wall responded with two articles, “A
Bill of Rights for Patients with Obstetric Fistula” and “A Code of Ethics for
the Fistula Surgeon.”
The latter manifesto stands in
stark contrast to Sims’s lifelong
hostility toward medical ethics. He
always hated rules, and a petulant
inability to follow even those he
had agreed to has been viewed by
his champions as an element of his
puckish persona. Yet Sims did
sometimes pay for his rule-flouting
tendencies. In 1870 — t hir teen
years before assisting with the Sims
Memorial Fund Committee—the
New York Academy of Medicine
put him on trial for ethics violations. Sims had written publicly
about the condition of the theater
star Charlotte Cushman, whom he
had once seen in private practice.
In doing so, he violated his patient’s confidence and ignored an
ethical prohibition against doctors
seeking publicity—hardly a first for
Sims, who had a ringmaster’s flair
for self-promotion and had once so-
cialized with P. T. Barnum.5 Sims was
found guilty. He was given a formal
reprimand, which would subsequently
be characterized by his detractors as a
draconian penalty and by his supporters as a slap on the wrist.
Judging from this, one might suspect that Wall would have pitched his
tent in the camp of Sims’s critics. Instead, as the debate turned rabid, Wall
kicked back against Sims’s detractors.
No, he argued, Sims did not deliberately
addict his experimental subjects to opium. As to anesthesia, Wall calmly noted, the exterior of human genitals is
indeed sensitive, but that the inner
lining of the vagina is not nearly as innervated as one might expect.
Wall is not above reproach. For example, he decided on the basis of the
little information available that Sims’s
experiments were “performed explicitly for therapeutic purposes.” This conclusion overlooks the social and economic realities of the South, and the
less than altruistic reasons that a
plantation owner might send a woman suffering from a fistula in search of
a cure: the sexual exploitation of
slaves, and the financial benefits to be
reaped from breeding additional human chattel. In any event, in the
zero-sum game of journalism, Wall
found himself positioned as Sims’s
highest-profile defender, even though
he had been the first to suggest that
there should be a monument to Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy.
t is worth noting that while Sims
is remembered primarily for his
VVF surgeries, these account for
only a small fraction of his lengthy
practice. Indeed, after he moved to
New York City, he left the bulk of
fistula procedures to Thomas Addis
Emmet, who became his assistant in
1856 and further perfected the process, curing many patients that his
superior regarded as lost causes. Over
the next two decades, Sims would
dabble with a range of horrific procedures, including clitoridectomy
(performed at least once, in 1862)
and so-called female castration. In-
There is no evidence yet to suggest that pomposity and narcissism are hereditary conditions. Let’s recall, however, that our current
president’s tasteless retreat at Mar-a-Lago was
designed by the grandson of J. Marion Sims.
deed, Sims later became a fervent
champion of “normal ovariotomy,”
in which one or both healthy ovaries
were removed as specious cures for
dysmenorrhea, diarrhea, and epilepsy. He performed the operation a
dozen times himself, killing several
women and mutilating others.
Earlier in his career, however,
Sims turned his attention to procreation. He hoped to make advances
that would ensure the perpetuation
of honorable families and powerful
dynasties. His investigations into
sterility would result in his prescribing intercourse at particular times
of the day, and then swabbing his
patients’ vaginas (to count sperm
under a microscope) at such increasingly rapid postcoital intervals that
critics wondered exactly what kind
of bargain had been struck between
husband and physician.
Sims signed on to a simple anatomical tenet of the day: if the neck
of a woman’s uterus did not offer a
clear pathway, then the egress of
menstrual matter from the womb,
and the ingress of sperm into it,
could be impaired. In his view, this
could lead to sterility and painful
menses. His solution (and he was
not the first to suggest it) was to
surgically open the passage with
one of a variety of multibladed dilating tools, some of which were
activated with a spring mechanism
once inserted into the patient’s
womb: the blades popped open and
made multiple incisions as the device was drawn out again.
In 1878, he published a kind of
summa, “On the Surgical Treatment
of Stenosis of the Cervix Uteri,” reflecting at length on a procedure
that Sims estimated he had performed as many as a thousand
times. Like his early publications,
this one seemed designed to ensure
that nobody could snatch away
credit that was properly his. In this
case, Sims wished to cement his
claim to a particular incision made
to the cervical canal. “The anteroposterior incision belongs to Sims,”
he declared, “and not to Emmet, or
any one else.”
The paper was presented to the
American Gynecological Society
that same year, and while Sims was
not present, other doctors spoke up
to praise or critique his claims. The
most interesting response came from
Fordyce Barker, President Grant’s
personal physician, who had championed Sims from the moment of his
arrival in New York City, launching
the young doctor’s career (and canonization) with a public description
of his “brilliant” fistula operation.
Twenty-five years later, Barker
rose to offer a less enchanted view.
He began by noting that it was unclear whether a womb with a narrow neck was even pathological. In
recent years, many unnecessary operations had been performed, often
with injurious results. Worse, the
procedure had been adopted by untrained physicians or downright
charlata ns. In a ny event, how
could it be that Sims had performed these operations five times
as often as many other capable surgeons? His skills were undeniable,
Barker concluded, but it was for
precisely this reason that his arguments should be scrutinized, for it
had been the tendency of the profession to accept the dicta of such
men unquestioned.
Four years later, Barker accepted
the chairmanship of the Sims Memorial Fund Committee. He died before the statue was dedicated.
n March 2014, the Sims debate
reignited with another New York
Times article, which described
the limbo into which the controversy had fallen after 2011. Now the
Parks Department and Community
Board 11, which had been fighting
the Sims case for seven years, agreed
to meet and settle things once and
for all.
The city, still resistant to removing the statue, sought out experts
to make its case. They enlisted
Robert Baker, a professor of philosophy at Union College and the author of Before Bioethics (2013). Baker ack nowle d ge d Si m s to b e
precisely the kind of doctor that
had necessitated the bioethics revolution: bioethics holds that scienceminded physicians shouldn’t be
trusted to monitor their own ethical
behavior. Yet in Before Bioethics,
Baker takes Sims at more than his
word. For example, Baker claims
that Sims freed his slaves before he
moved to New York City in 1853.
This is patently untrue: he leased
his slaves before he left Alabama,
and during his difficult first year in
the city, they likely formed an important part of his income. Baker
even argues that The Story of My
Life should be forgiven for its use of
the word “nigger” because Sims
only uses it when quoting other
people. Actually, that’s not true—
but even if it were, who cares?
It was Baker who provided the
department with a three-page “deposition” on the controversy. This
document reads like a disheveled
Wikipedia entr y. Baker’s claim
about Sims’s own slaves is there,
along with an inaccurate assertion
that Sims repeatedly sought consent for surgery from his enslaved
patients. The document also notes
that Sims offered credit to his slave
subjects and that they came to
serve as his assistants. These assertions are true, yet all they do is add
another twist to the complicated
knot of consent. Slaves cannot provide consent for surgery—they do
not have true agency. Similarly,
should a slave be applauded for performing labor that she is in any
event compelled to perform? Regardless, Baker concluded that additional information about the
three slaves on or near the Sims
monument would be an appropriate
way to “follow Sims’s example [and
honor] the courage of these African American women.”
Parks also contacted the art historian (and former vice president of
the New York City Art Commission) Michele Bogart, whose position couldn’t have been clearer: she
was vehemently opposed to the removal of the Sims statue. Bogart
didn’t know a lot about Sims. In
her view, however, the details
didn’t matter: you simply didn’t remove art for content. Bogart didn’t
buy the claims that modern sensibilities had been injured. Get over
it, she thought. It boiled down to
expertise. What Bogart believed—
a nd she wa s u ndeniably a n
expert—was that the Sims statue
had stood in New York City for
more than 120 years, and that even
false history was of historic interest
if it managed to persevere.
The meeting was held in June
2014. Baker’s deposition was read
aloud to members of the Parks subcommittee, and Bogart briefly addressed the importance of using city
monuments as educational tools. A
deputy commissioner apologized for
the years it had taken to produce a
response, then reiterated that the
statue would not be removed. However, the department was ready to
consider a freestanding sign, and
the committee voted unanimously
that Parks, in a timely manner,
should return when a complete plan
had been formed. In other words, it
was back to bureaucratic limbo,
where the argument over the Sims
statue—which had long since become a symbol of how the fraudulent past becomes official history—
had resided for nearly a decade.
n May 1857, Sims was approached
in private practice by a forty-fiveyear-old woman possessed of irritability of the bladder and uterine
displacement. She was a curious
case, married at twenty but still a
virgin. Sims attempted an examination, only to find that the slightest
touch to her vagina caused her to
shriek, spasm, and cry. A second
examination, under the influence of
et her, revealed mi nor uter i ne
retroversion—but her vagina was
perfectly normal. Medical books
threw no light on the matter. The
only rational treatment, Sims concluded, would be to cut into the
muscles and the nerves of the vulval
opening. Alas, the woman’s “position in society” made her an unsuitable candidate for such an experimental procedure.
Fifteen months later, Sims was
sent a similar case from Detroit, a
young virgin with the same dread of
having her vagina touched. This
time, he decided, the risk was justified: her husband had threatened divorce. Cutting into the hymen offered the young woman no relief, but
incisions into the mucous membrane
and the sphincter muscle were slightly more effective. By that point, her
mother concluded that Sims was ex-
perimenting on her daughter—
which, of course, he was—and
yanked her from his care.
A few weeks later, another case
fell into his hands, followed by two
more. By now, Sims had a name for
the condition: vaginismus. He had
also devised a cure, aimed primarily
at permitting coitus between husband and wife: amputate the hymen
in full, then make several deep, twoinch-long incisions into the vaginal
tissue and the perineum. As with his
cervical stenosis surgery, this would
be followed by the insertion of glass
or metal dilating plugs as the wounds
healed. Several years later, in Clinical
Notes on Uterine Surgery (1866)—
sometimes characterized as modern
gynecology’s inaugural text—he
claimed to have encountered thirtynine instances of vaginismus and
achieved a perfect cure in every case.
Sims’s claims were challenged
even before he finished making
them. English doctors rejected the
notion that the condition had never
before been described, and London’s
Medical Times and Gazette noted
that British surgeons would no
sooner resort to excision for a mild
case of vaginismus than they would
cut off a patient’s eyelid because he
had a twitch. French doctors agreed.
They had been researching the condition since at least 1834. They regarded the “Sims operation” as too
bloody and dangerous, and one
French doctor dismissed it as too mechanical, “too American.”
American doctors eventually rejected the procedure as well, using it
for only the most severe cases. They
also came to dispute Sims’s claim to
thirty-nine perfect cures. Years later,
one Woman’s Hospital surgeon insisted that he was aware of only a
single cure, and vividly recalled two
patients who had been left in far
worse shape after the procedure. Another doctor remembered cases in
which failed Sims operations—
performed by surgeons other than
Sims—were followed by so many futile attempts at treatments that the
women’s vaginas looked as though
they had been splashed with nitric
acid. A year before the Sims statue
was erected, A.J.C. Skene—the other
gynecologist in New York City’s stat-
uary pantheon—claimed that he
had never seen a case of vaginismus
for which the Sims operation “would
have been of any value.”
The debate over the Sims monument has tended to focus on his
VVF experiments—but that’s only
the beginning of the story. After
Sims exploited a vulnerable population to achieve a minor victory that
he successfully parlayed into international fame, he claimed credit for
a series of bogus breakthroughs and
performed thousands of surgeries,
often at the behest of distressed
husbands, which left many women
mutilated or dead. 6 This does not
make Sims a Gilded Age Mengele.
Mengele killed his Jewish subjects
by degrees, extracting data along
the way, while Sims was always attempting to ameliorate something.
Good intentions, however, don’t
erase the enormous pain and injury
that he inflicted, nor the sense of
violation—one felt by women today
every time they pass the statue on
the sidewalk.7
he anti-Sims movement has
never had the fervor of a student uprising. And for more
than a decade, it lacked even the figurehead of a vigilante arrested for defacing the statue in a pique of righteous inspiration. That shouldn’t
matter. Not all scholars of public art
In 1877, three years after Sims was expelled from Woman’s Hospital for “gross
insubordination” (he refused to obey the
rules regarding cancer patients and observers in the surgical theater), he engaged in a bitter public debate with his
fellow surgeons about his fatality rate.
Sims claimed that his fatality rate had not
been unusually high; his colleagues argued that the statistics revealed Sims’s lethal recklessness. More striking than the
spat is the very fact that Woman’s Hospital, which had once prided itself on a fatality rate approaching zero, had become
a place where women believed to be socially or economically infer ior were
judged appropriate subjects for risky experimental procedures, and many of them
were dying.
During his one-year stint as president of
the American Medical Association in
1876, Sims opened the organization to both
women and African Americans. However,
this seems less an act of munificence than
an attempt to curry favor with the Board of
Lady Managers of the Woman’s Hospital,
with whom he had recently feuded.
agree that statues should remain in
place forever. Experts of a different
kidney, such as Erika Doss, a professor
of American studies at the University
of Notre Dame, are perfectly comfortable with monuments being “defaced,
despoiled, removed, resisted, dismantled, destroyed and/or forgotten” when
they represent “beliefs no longer considered viable.” These acts of symbolic
vandalism embody Emerson’s insistence that good men must not obey
laws too well.
Like history itself, activism seems
to move very slowly at times, then
abruptly accelerates. In June 2016,
the long-awaited language for what
had evolved into a freestandingsign-plus-plaque solution was presented to Community Board 11.
The expectation was that the board
would provide yet another rubber
stamp for yet another round of evasive action. Instead, a subcommittee
balked—and after another presentation, two weeks later, the full board
voted to remove the statue. Then
the Confederate flag came down
over the South Carolina statehouse,
and Confederate statues vanished
in New Orleans, Baltimore, Orlando, St. Louis—and in the wake of
Charlottesville came a growing
sense that the nation could no longer tolerate commemorations of its
most shameful moments. And finally, on August 19, protesters congregated around the Sims statue and demanded that the city remove it.
In the media storm that followed,
Mayor de Blasio instituted a ninetyday period of reevaluation for the
city’s sprawling statuary. After years
of telling activists that there was no
way to remove statues, the city invented one. Still, it wasn’t enough
for one protester, who at last seized
the initiative and spray-painted racist across the statue’s back and gave
it red, villainous eyes.
Surely this Emersonian good
man—if it was a man—had been
prodded into action by the activists,
one of whom condemned “imperialist slaveholders, murderers, and torturers like J. Marion Sims.” But truth
be told, that’s not quite right, either.
For all his crimes, Sims was not a
torturer or a murderer. Which means
that his detractors are on the right
side of history, but for the wrong, or
incomplete, reasons. And maybe
that doesn’t matter. For ten years,
the Parks Department and the city
itself resisted removing the statue
not because they cared about Sims
but because they feared a precedent
that would bring a cascade of other
statues down as well. That’s exactly
what should happen, in New York
and elsewhere. In an age defined by
changing values and an evolving
notion of what constitutes a fact,
the Sims statue stands as a monument to truth’s susceptibility to lies
and political indifference. Removing it represents an awareness that
history is fluid, but bronze is not. Q
| Selected by David Gates
Past praise for William Wall
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The race to rebuild the Democratic Party
By Lisa Rab
n December 3,
2016, less than a
month after
Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda
Litman sat alone on the
porch of a bungalow in
Costa Rica, thinking
about the future of the
Democratic Party. As
Hillary Clinton’s director
of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million
and recruited 500,000
volu nteer s over t he
course of the campaign.
She had arrived at the
Javits Center on Election
Night, arms full of cheap
beer for the campaign
staff, minutes before the
pu ndit s on T V a nnounced that Clinton
had lost Wisconsin. Later
that night, on her cab
ride home to Brooklyn,
Litman asked the driver to pull over so
she could throw up.
She had planned this postelection
trip several weeks earlier, around the
time of the first presidential debate.
There was a joke among her friends
in Washington that, win or lose, it
took five vacations to recover from a
campaign, and now Litman found
herself numb and grieving in a rainforest bordering the Caribbean. She
Lisa Rab lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Illustration by Taylor Callery
sat hunched over her phone on the
wooden deck of her Airbnb, composing an email to colleagues back home.
Clinton’s defeat was shocking, yet
Litman knew it was only the latest in
a series of losses. Since Barack
Obama’s election in 2008, Republicans had picked up twelve governorships, for a total of thirty-three, and
more than 900 seats in state legislatures, so that they controlled thirtytwo statehouses. In twenty-five states,
they held both the governor’s man-
sion and the legislature,
compared with only six
for Democrats. The pipeline to national politics
was growing narrow, Litman thought. It seemed
unlikely that the Democrats would be able to
field strong candidates in
the future. The leaders
who emerged from the
2016 campaign—Bernie
Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden—were
all in their late sixties
or seventies.
In Costa Rica, Litman
happened to be reading
When Women Win, by Ellen Malcolm. Malcolm
was the founder of Emily’s
List, a PAC that directs
money to pro-choice
women running for office.
When Malcolm started
the organization in 1985,
there were only two women in the Senate and twenty-two in the House. Her
idea was to give female candidates the
resources to run by funding their primary campaigns in the early stages.
(“Emily” is an acronym for “Early money is like yeast”—it makes the dough
rise.) Employees fanned out across the
country, meeting with potential recruits.
Since then, Emily’s List has become one
of the most powerful PACs in the country. In 2011, Stephanie Schriock, the
group’s president, traveled to Boston to
recruit Warren, a law professor at Haruniversal health care, immigration revard, to challenge the Republican
form, gun control, and abortion
Scott Brown for his Senate seat in
rights—candidates who believe that
Massachusetts. Warren later credited
climate change is man-made and
the group, and the $1.2 million it
want to reform the criminal justice
raised for her campaign, with making
system, protect voting and L.G.B.T.
her victory possible.
rights, and reduce income inequality.
As she sat on the porch, Litman,
Once through the screening process,
who is twenty-seven, wondered if she
they are coached by political veterans
could do something similar for milwho provide advice on topics such as
lennials. In her email, she laid out a
fund-raising and media relations. Run
way to fix the Democratic Party’s refor Something is currently mentoring
cruitment problem—to do “what the
more than two hundred candidates
state parties should be doing.” She
across the country. A smaller group—
proposed an advocacy group that
about eighty people so far—has been
would cultivate a new generation of
selected to receive an official endorseDemocratic talent by recruiting
ment and press attention.
young people to enter local races—
As of now, Run for Something is
for school boards, city councils, and
funding candidates only in Virginia,
state legislatures.
where all one hundred seats in the
A political organizer in New York
House of Delegates are up for grabs
read the email and urged Litman to talk
this month. Rocketto is in charge of
to her husband, Ross Morales Rocketto,
overseeing recruitment and deciding
a political consultant from Houston
who had been thinking along the
same lines. When Litman returned
from her trip, she and Rocketto beLOCAL RACES FOR TWO DECADES.
gan developing plans for a group they
would eventually call Run for SomeREPUBLICANS, ON THE OTHER HAND,
thing. Litman contacted prominent
members of the Democratic
establishment—including Charles
Olivier, the CFO of the Democratic
National Committee, and Jon Carson,
who should receive donations—up to
the executive director of Organizing
15 percent of the cost of the average
for Action, the pro-Obama nonprofit,
race for their position. “We’re looking
both of whom agreed to serve on the
for people who can articulate their
advisory board.
motivation for running,” he told me.
Run for Something launched on
“That type of self-reflection is really
Friday, January 20, the day Trump
difficult.” Before receiving funding,
was inaugurated. By the end of the
candidates must sign a contract promfirst week, more than a thousand
ising to include Run for Something
people had applied for support
“in major decisions like staffing, budthrough the website. Volunteers,
gets, public communications and
trained by Litman and Rocketto,
overall strategy.” Depending on the
began screening potential candicircumstances, the group may recomdates in thirty-minute phone intermend a campaign manager or send
views: Do you consider yourself provolunteers to knock on doors.
gressive? What does that word mean
In May, Hillary Clinton invited
where you are? The volunteers were
Litman to her office in Midtown
a l so t a sked wit h deter mi ni ng
Manhattan to discuss Run for Somewhether an applicant had a big
thing. It was the first time Litman had
enough support network to be viamet one-on-one with the woman
ble: Are you already involved in your
whose campaign she had worked on
community? How many followers do
for nearly two years. She told Clinton
you have on social media?
that she hoped to have at least 50,000
Run for Something doesn’t require
applicants by the 2018 elections.
candidates to adhere to a specific plat“What can I do to help?” Litman reform, but Litman is generally looking
called her asking. Clinton mentioned
for young people who are in favor of
that she had donors willing to give
money to the cause, and, later that
month, announced that her own
PAC, Onward Together, would endorse Litman’s project.
he potential of the Emily’s List
model first became clear in
1992, memorialized in campaign histories as the Year of the Woman. The previous October, the country
had been transfixed by Anita Hill’s
televised testimony before the Senate
Judiciary Committee, during which
she alleged that her former boss, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed
her for more than a year while she was
a lawyer at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the early
1980s. Hill said that Thomas talked
incessantly about sex, commented on
her appearance, and once made a
strange remark about finding a pubic
hair on his can of Coke. Four days
after her testimony, however, he
was confirmed to the Supreme
Court by a Senate that was 98 percent male. The resulting furor galvanized women across the country
to enter politics. In the next cycle,
Emily’s List helped elect a record
number of women, including four
senators—among them Dianne
Feinstein and Barbara Boxer—and
twenty representatives.
The election of Donald Trump
has been cast as a similarly catalyzing event. Resistance marches have
drawn hundreds of thousands of
Americans into the streets, but an
electoral wave won’t be as easy today,
in part because the Democrats’ recruitment machinery is broken.
Until the late twentieth century,
the Democratic Party depended on
unions and urban party machines to
turn out voters in local races. When
outsourcing and right-to-work laws
caused union membership to shrink,
however, the party didn’t adjust its
operating model to cope with the
change. The Democratic National
Committee, the party’s formal governing body, continued to see its role
as supporting presidential candidates,
and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works on
state-level races, directed its resources
toward incumbents rather than young
challengers. Responsibility for elec-
tions to school boards and city councils fell to the local parties, which
lacked the money to invest in new
candidates. Deep-pocketed benefactors, who can have a big impact in local races, preferred to give to highprofile campaigns that would buy
them access and influence in Washington. As a result, Democrats have
been ignoring local races for more
than two decades.
Republicans, on the other hand,
never able to rely on union organizers, have enthusiastically cultivated
young talent. In 1979, Morton
Blackwell, a member of the R.N.C.
in Virginia, founded the Leadership
Institute to “prepare conservatives
for success in politics, government,
and the news media.” Blackwell,
who went on to organize the youth
effort for Ronald Reagan, began by
offering a paid summer internship
that included private dinners with
right-wing leaders and job placement services. Since then, the institute has taught nearly 200,000
high school and college students
how to form conservative student
groups, organize grassroots activists, establish school papers, and,
most importantly, run successfully
for elected office. Its alumni include
Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, Mitch
McConnell, and Rand Paul. Jeff
Horwitz, who profiled the group for
Salon, described the Leadership Institute as “one of the best investments the conservative movement
has ever made.”
In 2005, when Howard Dean became the chairman of the D.N.C.,
he made it his mission to catch up
with the Republicans. His plan became known as the fifty-state strategy. Dean invested $150,000 a year in
each state party rather than focusing
exclusively on those in swing states.
He put their communications directors on the D.N.C.’s payroll and gave
local candidates access to a national
database of Democratic voters. “We
have to talk to everybody,” he explained recently, “not just the people
who are going to vote for us.” Dean
and other party leaders believe his
efforts helped lay the groundwork for
Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, especially in purple states such as Colorado and North Carolina.
But his success was short-lived. In
2010, after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, groups funded by Charles and David Koch
pledged to spend at least $45 million
on congressional races across the
country; Democrats lost sixty-three
seats in the House and six more in
the Senate as the Tea Party swept
conservatives into power. Dennis W.
Johnson, a historian of modern political campaigns at George Washington University, thinks that the 2010
election was crucial in setting the
Democratic strategy for the next several years. “I think it just frightened
the heck out of the party,” he told
me. As campaigns became exponentially more expensive, the Democrats
channeled their money to the places
where they were most in danger of
losing seats. In their view, “building
the party base at the state level was
just not feasible,” Johnson said.
The results have been devastating. Not since the 1920s has the
party held so few elected positions
around the country.
un for Something is not the
first or the only organization to
try to fix this problem from
outside the party. Since the election
last year, former staffers for Obama,
Sanders, and Clinton have formed a
variety of groups to harness the anger
at Trump’s win and build a viable political movement. Flippable, an organization founded by three Clinton staffers
who met in Ohio, wants to break the
Republican stranglehold on state
legislatures—starting by fund-raising
for five House of Delegates candidates
in Virginia, where Clinton won the
thirteen electoral votes but Republicans control both chambers of the legislature. Ravi Gupta, a former campaign aide for Obama, created a PAC
called the Arena, which holds training
sessions in the basics of running for
office, such as fund-raising and communication skills. And Our Revolution, a nonprofit calling itself the “next
step for Bernie Sanders’ movement,” is
endorsing progressive candidates in
local races.
Run for Something is focused on
millennials—the young people who,
in theory, will lead the party twenty,
thirty years from now. It supports
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candidates who are under thirty-five
and are not seeking state or federal
office. In addition, Litman wants at
least half of the candidates to be
women and people of color, to combat what she calls “a cyclical issue of
old white dudes recommending other old white dudes.”
What sets Run for Something
apart is that Litman has taken
Dean’s fifty-state strategy to the extreme: she plans to spend millions of
dollars to help young novices run for
office, regardless of their chances of
success. “I don’t really care if our
candidates win,” Litman told me. “I’d
like our candidates to win. But firsttime candidates don’t often win, so
to set that as a metric of success is to
set us up to fail. There are other
good things that come from a campaign besides winning.”
This is where Litman’s strategy
departs from that of Emily’s List,
according to Emily Cain, the group’s
executive director. Cain concedes
that encouraging more young people
to run is an important part of rebuilding the pipeline—“It’s a sheer
numbers game”—but Emily’s List
chooses its candidates only after
careful in-person vetting. They often
have political experience—for example, Barbara Mikulski, the first
woman the group helped elect to the
Senate, in 1986, had served in the
House of Representatives for nine
years, and even an “outsider” like
Elizabeth Warren had been a special
assistant to President Obama. “It’s not
just about making sure that they step
up and run,” Cain said. “Our definition of success is winning.”
Litman is betting that losing candidates are still a good use of Democratic dollars. As of July, Run for
Something had raised $400,000 and
was spending it to support many
candidates whose chances were
slim. Litman argues that she can’t
diversify the Democratic bench
without supporting some long shots.
Many losing candidates will run
again, she says, and a handful of
them will become the leaders of the
Democratic Party. “We don’t need a
hundred next Barack Obamas,” Litman told me. “We need a hundred
people, one of whom will be the
next Barack Obama.”
n a wet morning in May, Litman arrived at a coffee shop
near her apartment in Brooklyn wearing a hoodie over a blue-andwhite hillary T-shirt. Her hair was
damp from the rain, and the black
liner around her eyes was smudged.
She had the rumpled look of someone
who had been up all night. “I don’t
know how to be a real person,” she said
by way of explanation. She had been
working on campaigns for six years
straight and now measured her life in
election cycles. She ordered a breakfast
sandwich with avocado and slouched
into the chair opposite me, cradling her
coffee mug.
Litman is engaging and confident,
a short woman built like a softball
player. In interviews, she is relentlessly upbeat, reciting talking points
and steering the conversation away
from anything too personal. She has
a quip for every criticism and glosses
Litman on as a volunteer, and by
March 2015, she was running the
campaign’s email strategy.
Over the hiss of the milk steamer, I
asked Litman how she handled races
where a Run for Something candidate
was competing in a primary against a
Democrat backed by the local party. I
had been talking with Hannah
Risheq, a twenty-six-year-old social
worker in Virginia who had just
jumped into a delegate race with Run
for Something’s support, and she had
told me that members of the local
party were refusing to invest any time
or money in her campaign.
“The party has a crappy track record of picking winners,” Litman
responded. Part of her goal is to help
them find better candidates by creating more competitive races. This is
one of the reasons why she believes
Run for Something has to remain separate and independent from the D.N.C.
“If they have a race where the candidate they support is not representative of the community they’re runUN FOR SOMETHING CANDIDATES
ning in, we’re gonna hold them
accountable,” she said.
Yet Run for Something’s relationCRITICIZING THE DEMOCRATIC
ship with the party seems cozier
than Litman admits. Although she
refers to state party officials as her
“frenemies,” Run for Something
over contradictions with ease. Her
candidates are discouraged from critispeech is deadpan and rapid-fire, litcizing the party and its leadership. Lostered with obscenities and Beltway
ing candidates are expected to support
acronyms. “I try really hard not to
whoever wins the Democratic nominatalk like the establishment hack I
tion, even if they disagree with them.
am,” she told me.
This expectation of loyalty is among
Litman grew up in Fairfax, Virthe most controversial aspects of Run
ginia, a suburb of Washington. In
for Something’s strategy—along with
2007, when Obama held his first
its demographic requirements.
rally for students, a seventeen-yearTheda Skocpol, a professor of
old Litman was twenty feet from the
government at Harvard University
stage, having skipped school to hear
who is studying political activism
him speak. As a senior in college,
in four swing states that went for
she was hired to write emails for
Trump, has met dozens of people
Obama’s reelection campaign, and
rallying for progressive causes in
she stayed on after his victory as the
small, rural towns. Not all of these
deputy email director at Organizing
activists want to run for office, she
for Action. But soon she was thinktold me. Some are focused on reing about her next campaign. She
shaping their local party; others
contacted Teddy Goff, the digital
are skeptical of the party machindirector for Obama’s reelection bid,
ery. Many are not young. Skocpol
to ask about joining Clinton’s team.
thinks it would be more effective
“Hi, I’m bored,” Litman recalls writto support these emerging leaders
ing. “I’m done drinking a lot and
than to focus exclusively on young
I’m ready to learn something new.
people who fit Run for Something’s
Can you help me?” Goff brought
paradigm. “No advocacy group
based on the internet or based in
some liberal Northeast or Western
state can possibly do what needs to
be done,” she said. “What needs to be
done is organizing in these counties. It has to be based in the realities of these places.”
I mentioned to Litman that some
people might find it ironic that a
young Clinton staffer was running
“local” campaigns from her apartment in Brooklyn, given the common criticism of the campaign as
out of touch with Middle America.
“Cool, you do it then,” she responded. Like many Clinton insiders, she
blames external factors for the defeat last November—“I think we
unfortunately underestimated how
much p e ople h ate women i n
charge”—and is uninterested in
asking candidates to reexamine the
party’s platform. It is therefore not
surprising that Litman has secured
support from Clinton’s PAC. “The
establishment Democrats have been
really supportive of us,” Litman said.
As for former Bernie Sanders staffers, “They don’t answer my emails.
They don’t trust me.”
Finding new candidates in the race
to rebuild the Democratic Party has
become the latest phase in the ongoing conflict, exposed by the ClintonSanders primary, between its establishment a nd prog re s sive wi ngs.
Sanders-backed PACs and advocacy
groups were designed to support candidates who share his policy vision. At
Our Revolution, for example, candidates must sign on to a platform that
includes Medicare for All, a fifteendollar minimum wage, and free college
tuition for qualified students.
In contrast, Run for Something encourages candidates to tailor their
platforms to their communities. Kellen Squire, who is running for the
Virginia House in Charlottesville, describes himself as an “outdoorsman”
and an “unabashed supporter of the
Second Amendment.” I asked whether Litman was concerned about seeming too focused on personal stories
and identity politics over principled
stances on the issues, another criticism that has been leveled at Clinton’s team since the election. Some of
the candidates Litman mentions most
often are Matthew Calcara, who is
running to become the first openly
gay member of the Kansas legislature;
Chris Hurst, a would-be delegate in
Virginia whose girlfriend was shot onair while filming a local news segment; and Nadya Okamoto, a formerly homeless student at Harvard who is
running for city council in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Litman speaks
more often about their backgrounds
than their ideas for the future. But
she pointed out that the race, religion, gender, and life experiences of
Democratic candidates matter because, if elected, they will be charged
with representing vulnerable populations who are being targeted by
Trump’s policies. It helps to understand what it means to be vulnerable.
annah Risheq, the social
worker running for delegate
in Virginia, was one of the
candidates whose story appealed to Litman. Risheq is outspoken and blunt; she
has long, dark hair and a slight squint
when she smiles. She grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, a short drive from
the town where her mother, who is Jewish, and her father, a Palestinian immigrant, ran a seafood restaurant. When
she was a toddler, her parents found a
note taped to the front door of the restaurant that purported to be from the
North Carolina Ku Klux Klan. It carried
a warning: “Either get out now or we
burn the place down.” They returned
not long after to find the building in
flames. Risheq’s parents opened a new
restaurant—this time a Middle Eastern
café—but she says that after September
11, some of their most loyal customers
discovered that her dad was Muslim and
boycotted the business.
On the night of Trump’s victory,
Risheq was also at the Javits Center,
sitting a hundred feet from the podium
where Clinton was scheduled to appear. The loss devastated her for
months, until her fiancé told her:
“You’re crying all the time; you need to
channel this energy.” In March, after
Jim LeMunyon, a Republican member
of the Virginia House, helped prevent
the state from expanding Medicaid, she
decided to challenge him for his
seat, and applied to Run for Something.
Risheq passed her interview but came
to Litman’s attention only when she
posted a message on the organization’s
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Slack channel saying she was considering hiring a campaign consultant.
“Don’t do that, talk to me first,” Litman responded.
Risheq was selected for the second tier of Run for Something
candidates—those who can receive
funding and endorsements—and assigned a mentor named Brian
Zuzenak, who had directed Clinton’s
campaign in Virginia. Zuzenak walked
her through the process of verifying
signatures to get on the ballot and
stayed in touch with regular phone
calls. He also helped quell the controversy when a local congressional district chair questioned the veracity of
the signatures Risheq had collected.
Zuzenak says that one of the main
challenges facing millennial candidates is youth itself: they haven’t
spent decades in law or finance cultivating friends who are able to write
big checks. “Coming to the table
without a network of donors—that is
a huge problem,” he told me. But he
believed that Risheq “had the drive
to do it.” Run for Something gave
Risheq one of her first donations and
connected her to national reporters.
Litman’s public relations campaign
on her behalf was so successful that,
in April, the Huffington Post ran a
story with the headline the resistance gave birth to a girl and
her name is hannah risheq. There
were also stories in Teen Vogue and
The Forward.
In May, I went to visit Risheq in
Fairfax County, Virginia, where her
family had moved after she started
college. She invited me into the foyer of the house she shares with her
parents, dressed in hot-pink jeans
and a flowered cardigan. Risheq
sipped sparkling water while the
family’s dog barked and her mother
fried onions in the kitchen. “Where’s
the mail from California?” she called
out. She showed me a pale-blue postcard covered in handwritten messages from supporters in San Francisco.
“Our diversity is our strength,”
read one message. “We choose love
& we are with you.”
“My campaign has national momentum, but locally people don’t want
to vote for me,” Risheq said. She had
been quoted in Time, but few Fairfax
County voters knew her name.
As we sat in her living room,
Risheq told me that she had stopped
working with the campaign manager
Run for Something had recommended
because the woman was unmotivated.
She was also chafing against the
group’s reluctance to allow her to publicly criticize members of the local party who had fund-raised for one of her
opponents, Karrie Delaney, a thirtyeight-year-old mother who chaired her
local library board. Risheq felt voters
should know that Delaney had been a
registered Republican in Florida before moving to Virginia. Her Run for
Something handlers agreed, but they
had urged her to consider how negative comments about the party could
impact her political career. Risheq
was frustrated by what she saw as
their excess of caution. “Everybody—
everybody—is just so afraid of what it
could do to their future.”
n June, the morning after the primaries in Virginia, I met Litman
for breakfast at another Brooklyn
café, which had a rainbow flag flying
out front and the slogan immigrants
make america great printed on its
receipts. Litman was wearing an
obama T-shirt and had brought her
chief operating officer, Seisei TatebeGoddu, a thirty-four-year-old business
consultant whose dark hair was pulled
back in a bun.
As a first test of the group’s strategy, the summer primaries in seven
states had delivered mixed results.
Run for Something had endorsed
candidates in fourteen races; five had
won. Litman was eager to highlight
Danica Roem, a former journalist
who successfully focused her campaign on traffic problems on State
Route 28 rather than the fact that
she would be the first transgender
member of the Virginia House. “It
was an explicitly local argument,”
Litman said, exactly the kind of issue Run for Something urges its candidates to run on. She was also
proud of the turnout among Democratic primary voters, who had cast
550,000 ballots—the highest number the state had ever seen in a nonpresidential Democratic primary. Litman attributed the surge to increased competition in the House
races, encouraged by Run for Some-
thing and other groups. There had
been twenty contested Democratic
primaries in Virginia, more than
double the number from 2009, the
last time there was a contested gubernatorial primary in the state.
Litman was therefore unconcerned that most of the candidates
Run for Something initially endorsed in Virginia had lost their primaries, including Risheq, who received only 23 percent of the vote.
Another promising candidate, a civics teacher named Sara Townsend
who was running for the second
time, was beaten by a social worker
with the support of Our Revolution,
the Sanders group.
“If we can train people the first
time around to run a good campaign,
then the way you run your first campaign is the way you’ll run every subsequent race,” Litman said. Her rationale for Run for Something is
built on this idea—that losing candidates eventually turn into winning
candidates. However, research on congressional races by Jason Roberts, a
professor at the University of North
Carolina, indicates that fewer than
5 percent of candidates who have not
held prior office ever win a general
election. Repeat challengers are rare,
and those who do run again seldom
win. But Roberts thinks the success
rate of new candidates would be higher
in local elections, particularly those in
which there is no popular incumbent.
“Younger people are turned off by the
political process,” he said. “The idea of
getting them to take on something
like this is smart.” Theda Skocpol, the
Harvard researcher, believes candidates win when they become involved
in their communities and develop a
reputation. “People are credible candidates when they’ve got a network of
people that they’ve impressed,” she
said. And, the implication is, it’s not
possible to engineer that from afar.
Litman insists that Run for Something can help any young person run
a credible campaign. “If we teach the
puppy to sit and behave,” she said,
“we can send them off into the world
and they’ll be well-behaved puppies.”
I laughed, assuming this was a joke,
but I found it a troubling metaphor.
It was unclear what sort of candidate
Run for Something hoped to groom.
Would they be people who never
criticized the party? Who stuck to
their talking points and behaved?
It certainly seemed as though the
wall that Litman had initially sought
between Run for Something and the
Democratic Party was cracking. A
few weeks after my June meeting
with Litman, Rocketto told me that
Run for Something had begun collaborating with the party, offering to
work as a headhunter to find candidates for next year’s local races. In
Missouri, the state party had requested a list of Run for Something candidates, and then contacted every one
of them in order to match them to
open seats. Rocketto had made similar overtures to the state parties in
Pennsylvania, Kansas, and New
Hampshire. Finally, in September,
Run for Something announced an
of f icia l pa r t ner ship w it h t he
D.L.C.C. These developments raised
the possibility that, in the future,
more Run for Something candidates
would become party-backed candidates rather than their competition.
Back in the café, as we finished
breakfast, Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” played on the sound system.
Litman reminded me that Jon Ossoff,
a thirty-year-old Democrat, had recently raised more than $24 million
for his unsuccessful bid to fill Tom
Price’s congressional seat in Georgia.
This indicated to her that, in the
Trump era, the party’s financial resources were no longer finite. Democrats could afford to invest in young,
diverse candidates around the
country—even if they ultimately lost.
Litman and Tatebe-Goddu argue
that, when it comes to catching fish, a
net is better than a rod. Political candidates are no different. Even Emily’s List,
which has three decades of experience
vetting candidates, won barely half of its
gubernatorial and congressional races
last year. It was time, they said, to try a
brute force attack on the polls. The
party’s history proved it would be fruitless to try to pick winners. “It is peak
hubris to assume that I know what the
voters should want,” Litman said. “I
think that’s how we got into trouble.”
Tatebe-Goddu, who was sitting beside Litman, leaned forward to drive
home the point: “It’s a total myth
that we can control any of this.”
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What the U.S. Olympic Commitee can—and can’t—
do about sexual abuse
By Alexandra Starr
n the early Eighties,
Andy King, the coach of
the Seawolves, a swim
club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to
do doubles—to practice in
the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he
saw in her the potential to
receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall
swimmers have an advantage in the water, and
by the time Denithorne
turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She
dropped soccer and a religious group to spend
more time at the pool.
That commitment, and King’s relentless training, made her an exceptional swimmer. When
she was in eighth grade, college recruitment
letters began to fill her mailbox. Yet as Denithorne grew dependent on King—he’d offer her
rides home, travel with her to meets—he cultivated her for a predatory relationship, which led
to intercourse when she was fifteen.
Denithorne’s parents suspected nothing. King
had forged a connection with them too, “grooming” them, in psychiatric terms, to preempt ques-
tions about whether he
could be trusted. After
dropping Denithorne off,
he’d linger at the door; often, he stayed for dinner.
Denithorne’s father was a
U.S. Marine turned businessman; her mother was
a teacher. Occasionally,
she remembers, her parents wondered about the
intensity of the coach’s
interest, but for the most
part they were pleased by
his attention to their
daughter’s athletic career.
Parents of other swimmers, however, observed King’s behavior with
skepticism. Denithorne sometimes overheard
moms gossiping poolside that King showed her
favoritism because they were sleeping together. But
none of the conjecturing parents approached her
with concerns about an affair or inquired about
her well-being. Denithorne lacked the vocabulary
to identify the nature of the relationship she was
in—she was not King’s girlfriend, but she did not
view herself as a victim. As time went on, though,
she started to feel that he was putting too much
pressure on her. “He asked me to marry him,” she
told me. She wasn’t sure how to extract herself, so
she believed it would be best to quit the team.
Alexandra Starr reported this story as a 2016–17 visiting journalist fellow at the Russell Sage Foundation. Her most
recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “American Hustle,” which appeared in the April 2015 issue, was included in the
2016 edition of The Best American Sports Writing.
Illustrations by Shonagh Rae
One night in 1986, members of the swim club’s
board arrived at the Denithornes’ house to discuss their suspicions about King’s inappropriate
involvement with Debra. Her parents dismissed
the possibility and never spoke to her about the
confrontation. Nevertheless, the board decided
not to renew King’s contract. They didn’t report
him to law enforcement, however, or to
U.S.A. Swimming, the national governing body
for the sport. King went on to coach another
team nearby, and as a senior in high school, Denithorne joined him there. She made him promise not to ask her to sleep with him again.
In college, at Arizona State University, Denithorne stopped swimming and began seeing
a sports psychologist. At the age of twentyone, still unable to suppress her memories of
King, she went home to confront him in person. He told her that she hadn’t looked fourteen when he started pursuing her. Denithorne knew that it was a ridiculous defense,
third of America’s total from recent summer
games. “This matter should be kept confidential
by both you and us,” Wielgus wrote in an email
to members of his staff. Because Kelly had not
filed a formal complaint, there would be no inquiry; U.S.A. Swimming would open a file on
King, and if more reports ever surfaced, they
could decide to act at that point. Wielgus did
not mention that, a year before, a woman had
informed him that her daughter had been sexually abused by King. He had told her that something could be done “if there is evidence of
wrong doing and if there is someone willing to
file a formal complaint.” He said no such thing
to Kelly.
In the years that followed, a former teammate of Denithorne’s, now a detective, contacted her about King; they joined other victims in
reporting him to the police. In 2010, he was
convicted of molesting several girls, including a
fourteen-year-old he had impregnated. The
but she blamed herself, unable to acknowledge
that she had been repeatedly raped. “It carried
such horrible stigma,” she said. It was only in
the mid-2000s—after she’d finished college,
married, gone through years of counseling, and
had a baby—that she began to consider filing
charges. As the new mother of a daughter, she
was sickened by the possibility that King might
have raped other girls too.
By that time, stories about King had
reached the top levels of U.S.A. Swimming.
In 2003, Katie Kelly, who had been coached
by King in the East Bay when she was in her
early teens, sent the organization a letter in
which she described him as “terribly abusive.”
She was “shaking,” she wrote, as she composed an account of her time training with
him. “Over ten years later, I feel I need to say
what I wish I said then,” she went on. “I can’t
change what happened but maybe something
can be done to stop this from continuing.”
Her letter was meant to be informational; she
assumed that she would not be allowed to file
a formal complaint, because so much time
had passed.
Kelly’s letter was passed up to Chuck Wielgus,
the head of U.S.A. Swimming. No leader of an
Olympic organization has served as long a tenure
as Wielgus, who, over twenty years, oversaw
teams that won a cumulative 156 medals, about a
same year, Wielgus’s email about Kelly was
leaked, and the revelations set off an uproar.
U.S.A. Swimming responded by releasing a list
of banned coaches, with King’s name on it.
Wielgus also hired an athlete protection officer,
who was tasked with overseeing education and
guidelines on confronting sexual abuse. Officials at the United States Olympic Committee
commissioned a study to assess the scale of the
problem across sports.
U.S.A. Swimming’s banned list now has
nearly 150 names, including Everett Uchiyama,
the former director of the national team. But
sexual assault tends to be heavily underreported, which means that the actual number
of predatory coaches is probably higher. Under
Title IX, schools that receive federal funding
must investigate allegations of sexual assault,
but a local swim club is not subject to the same
requirements. Absent a national entity like a
ministry of sport, which other countries use to
oversee the training of young people, American athletic organizations have never had
much guidance in how to identify and remove
abusive coaches.
Under the U.S.O.C.’s purview, there are
for t y-eight nationa l gover ni ng b o dies
(N.G.B.’s), overseeing thousands of club teams
and gyms. The patterns that emerge within
this network resemble those of other private
institutions—the Catholic Church, the Boy
Scouts, boarding schools—that place children
and adults in close proximity. For years, standard procedure tended to shroud sexual assault,
not crusade against it. “They don’t deal with
the root of the problem,” Dani Bostick, a swimmer who was abused by her coach before she
turned twelve, told me. “Their approach has
been to ignore it, as if that’s how it will go
away.” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former swimmer who won an Olympic gold medal and is
now the head of Champion Women, an organization that advocates for female participation
in sports, said, “The U.S.O.C. doesn’t make
change until there is a media blowup.”
When the news about King broke, in 2010,
Wielgus appeared on TV to comment on how
his office was handling the situation. On
ABC’s 20/20, he seemed befuddled by the suggestion that he ought to have reached out to
victims. “You feel I need to apologize to them?”
he asked. In 2014, Wielgus was considered for
induction into the International Swimming
Hall of Fame, and Hogshead-Makar successfully led a petition to keep him out. The signatories included numerous athletes who had been
assaulted by their coaches; they accused Wielgus of a “lack of remorse or compassion towards
victims and survivors.”
Wielgus withdrew his candidacy, and, in a
post on the U.S.A. Swimming website, finally
adopted a contrite stance. “I wish my eyes had
been more open to the individual stories of
the horrors of sexual abuse,” he wrote. “I wish
I had known more so perhaps I could have
done more.” (Wielgus died in April.)
By then, the controversy had escalated
enough to demand action. The same month
that Wielgus took himself out of contention
for the hall of fame, and as King was beginning a for t y-year prison sentence, the
U.S.O.C. board approved plans for the establishment of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a
centralized authority that would take sexual
assault prevention and investigation out of the
hands of the national governing bodies. In
March, after several delays, SafeSport opened
its doors.
When I spoke with Scott Blackmun, the
head of the U.S.O.C., I asked what had ultimately brought about the change, after so many
years. “Evolution,” he said. “In 2010, when the
swimming scandals hit, people became aware
of the extent of some of the abuse that was
happening.” He went on, “Honestly, it was not
on my radar.”
By the fall, SafeSport was investigating
fifty-two cases from thirty-one sports. Blackmun told me that he believed the office would
“have a huge positive impact on the lives of
our young athletes.” Yet it remains to be seen
whether SafeSport can really transform how
victims are treated or end the protection of revered coaches.
here are a million easier jobs,” Shellie
Pfohl, the CEO of SafeSport, told me when I
met her at the organization’s headquarters, in
Denver. The office, which sits across from a
strip mall, is a few miles from the city’s downtown. One reason that SafeSport is based there,
rather than in Colorado Springs—the hometown of the U.S.O.C. and U.S.A. Swimming—
is to put seventy miles between it and the
organizations it polices. Pfohl explained that if
her post is seen as merely an extension of the
national governing bodies and the U.S.O.C., it
can’t be an effective watchdog. Of course, distance doesn’t guarantee independence.
SafeSport’s décor is spartan, a reflection of
its newness. Most of the main room is empty
space under the glare of fluorescent lights.
Down the hall, there are offices occupied by
three full-time investigators, four contract investigators, support staff, and a chief operating
officer who previously worked for the U.S.O.C.
Pfohl’s office is decorated with photographs of
her with the Obama family—mementos from
her previous position, as the executive director
of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports,
and Nutrition. Tall and lean, she has short
brown hair and a crushing handshake. On the
day I visited, even though the temperature hit
ninety-four degrees, she was dressed in a grayand-white suit. She had the diplomatic manner
of someone who had chaired quite a few interagency meetings in Washington.
Growing up in Iowa, Pfohl played basketball,
softball, and volleyball. Her volleyball team attracted crowds rivaling those at her high
school’s football games, she told me. “Playing
organized sports helped give me a sense of identity.” In her last job, she had aimed to boost
girls’ participation in athletics and prevent
them from dropping out of team sports after
they hit puberty; she sees protecting them from
sexual assault as a natural continuation of that
effort. “If individuals are harmed when they
dedicate themselves to a sport, that is completely unacceptable,” she said. On a whiteboard by her desk was SafeSport’s motto:
champion respect. end abuse.
That may be an unreachable goal. For one
thing, SafeSport can’t investigate all claims of
misconduct; its jurisdiction extends only to those
athletes within the U.S.O.C. system. Hundreds of
thousands of children play on teams that fall under the Amateur Athletic Union (A.A.U.) um-
brella, which operates independently, with its
own rules. Rick Butler, a coach who was suspended by U.S.A. Volleyball for allegedly having sex
with underage athletes, today coaches an A.A.U.
team of teenage girls. Through a lawyer, Butler
denied engaging in sexual conduct with minors;
U.S.A. Volleyball had not granted him due process, he said, and later reinstated him—though
that was on the condition that he no longer train
girls, and the chair of U.S.A. Volleyball’s board
later said that the decision to readmit him was
“flawed.” Sarah Powers-Barnhard, one of his professed victims, has been vocal about the distress
caused by encountering Butler at meets. “Nothing has changed,” she told me. Last year, she filed
a suit against the A.A.U., and is hoping to see
him kicked out. (The A.A.U. did not respond to
requests for comment.)
SafeSport also appears to be limited in its
ability to exert control over the programs it’s
been tasked with monitoring. Each governing
body works with hundreds of private clubs,
which historically have determined their own
ways of processing sexual assault.
Until recently, for example, U.S.A. Gymnastics
fielded queries only from victims or their parents.
The board’s headquarters is in Indianapolis; last
year, the Indianapolis Star revealed that at least
368 gymnasts had allegedly been abused over a
span of two decades. One of the most striking
pieces of evidence was a letter from Dan Dickey,
who operated a gym in Florida. He wrote to warn
U.S.A. Gymnastics about Bill McCabe, a coach
formerly in his employ. Dickey had fired McCabe
after hearing him boast about developing a relationship with a fifteen-year-old in his gym and
molesting girls at other training centers. Not long
after, McCabe surfaced at a gym nearby. Dickey
appealed to the national board to blacklist
McCabe, saying that he “should be locked in a
cage before someone is raped.” In response,
Dickey received a note thanking him for the
heads-up—and explaining that a ban was impossible without “an official letter of complaint from a parent or athlete.” Several years
later, McCabe was sentenced to thirty years in
prison for molesting female gymnasts, secretly
videotaping them changing out of their
clothes, and posting naked pictures of them
on the internet. (In response to the Star story,
U.S.A. Gymnastics launched a policy review,
which culminated in a hundred-page report on
assault prevention and response.)
SafeSport has introduced two measures that
intend to avoid a repeat of that fiasco. First,
anyone can report an allegation. “It can be
someone unrelated to the victim, someone who
witnessed something,” Pfohl explained. “It can
be anonymous. We will look into it.” Second,
SafeSport has pledged to be a mandatory
reporter—if someone comes forward about sexual abuse, a staff member will pass the information on to law enforcement.
Pfohl’s office produced a set of guidelines to be
adopted by each governing body; if SafeSport determines that someone has violated its code, the
offender’s name is added to a searchable database
of banned staff. That list identifies the date of suspension—sometimes “interim”—but provides no
details about the case. The rule book itself is filled
with jargon, and Hogshead-Makar told me that
she is troubled by what she sees as a lack of clarity
regarding relationships between coaches and
young athletes. “It should be as much a part of the
public consciousness as the ban on relationships
between a therapist and patient or a lawyer and
client,” she said. “Bright lines are important.”
Pfohl said that, as a model of what SafeSport
could be at its most effective, she looks to the
U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Like SafeSport, the
U.S.A.D.A. was created by the U.S.O.C. as an
sports that is free from abuse.” It’s a welcome
thought, though activists such as HogsheadMakar question whether merely inserting the provision without establishing punitive legal measures will make much difference.
The greatest obstacle for SafeSport, however,
may be the norms of elite sports, which have been
known to enable complicity in sexual violence.
Dia Rianda, a swim coach in Salinas, California,
told me, “I have gone to conventions and it is always the same thing. In the evenings, the coaches
go to strip bars and Hooters.” When I asked Pfohl
about confronting unsavory aspects of athletic
life, she replied, “Culture is a very hard thing to
change. We need to define what is acceptable and
what isn’t.”
Blackmun said that he hoped SafeSport will
put at ease those athletes who have been reluctant to report abuse to their national governing
bodies. “The N.G.B.’s are the ones making decisions about their futures and levels of support,”
independent organization; it built its reputation
prosecuting Lance Armstrong for doping and
has occasionally staked out positions in defiance
of U.S.O.C. leadership. But the U.S.A.D.A.
managed to establish its autonomy partly because it doesn’t depend on the U.S.O.C. for
money—most of its budget, nearly $20 million
per year, comes from Congress and outside organizations. In contrast, SafeSport has a five-year,
$25 million budget that is almost entirely derived from the U.S.O.C. and its governing bodies. Pfohl is soliciting donations from private
companies, individuals, and sports organizations,
with the modest aim of raising $1.5 million annually. She has had successes—the N.B.A. and
the W.N.B.A. have contributed $300,000—but
corporate America hasn’t been persuaded.
“There’s the issue of gaze aversion,” she said.
A small contribution may be coming from the
federal government: In June, two senators—John
Thune, a Republican of South Dakota, and Bill
Nelson, a Democrat of Florida—proposed legislation that would bestow $5 million on SafeSport
over five years. The bill would amend the Ted
Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which
created the U.S.O.C. almost four decades ago; the
original law contains no explicit language protecting underage athletes from molestation. To
remedy that oversight, the senators want to add a
new line about promoting a “safe environment in
he explained. And athletes “didn’t want to be in
a position where they were bringing issues to
N.G.B.’s that were controlling their athletic destinies.” He pleaded long-standing institutional
ignorance of the extent of this problem, but said
that he was now enlightened. “When I have had
those conversations, it makes you wonder why
we couldn’t have gotten it reported sooner.
That’s the great tragedy in these things, is that
we were kept unaware of it for so long.”
His comments were at odds with the ample
evidence revealing the scope of sexual assault
under the U.S.O.C.’s watch. It seemed that
Blackmun and his colleagues tended to overlook the darker implications of top-level
training, which, at its essence, tests what the
body can bear. Emphasis on pushing limits
has always made young athletes vulnerable,
in different ways, to the whims of their
coaches. When I raised this with Blackmun,
he conceded that sports culture encourages
athletes to follow their mentors, not to question them. In some cases, he said, “You don’t
push back against your coach, and you
don’t push back against your national governing body.”
here are some 8 million children participating in athletics through the national governing
bodies under the U.S.O.C. These institutions
devote most of their attention to athletes who
might become stars. Leadership has been upfront about setting priorities this way. In response to a question about allocating resources
to governing bodies, Blackmun has said, “For
us, it’s all about medals. How do we help
American athletes get medals put around
their necks?”
There’s an obvious economic incentive: The
U.S.O.C. reaps millions of dollars from television broadcast rights and sponsors of the International Olympics Committee, but the U.S.
government does not cut a check, as is the case
in most countries. Instead, the U.S.O.C. is left
to solicit donations and forge marketing partnerships with companies such as Coca-Cola and
Chobani. A medal—and the stories of sacrifice
and triumph behind it—makes for the most
compelling TV commercials. When athletes
dominate the medals platform, the U.S.O.C. rewards them with thousands of additional dollars,
per day on the mat. Gymnastics was not an activity; it was her identity. Coaches were the arbiters of her self-worth.
As an adult, Howard figured that the best
way to advocate for up-and-coming athletes
would be to serve as their representative on
the U.S.A. Gymnastics board. She held the
position from 2007 to 2013, hoping to help
change the coaching practices she found so
emotionally painful. But it didn’t prove to be a
perch from which to shake up gymnastics culture. Instead, Howard found the board to be a
bastion of yes-men. There were decadent dinners and V.I.P. seats at Indiana Pacers games.
Howard’s term coincided with the U.S. women’s gymnastics team dominating the podium
at the 2012 Olympics, and members of the
board received plaques of a Sports Illustrated
cover featuring the “Fierce Five.” Kids watching Team U.S.A. clamored for lessons, which
drove up membership.
and their national governing body stands to
gain—this is known as “money for medals.” Even
more lucrative are licensing agreements, since a
champion gymnast like Gabby Douglas wearing
a logo on her leotard makes for valuable publicity.
One afternoon, at a coffee shop on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I met Jessica Howard, a former top-ranked rhythmic gymnast.
Now thirty-three, she works as a personal
trainer for ballet dancers. She is striking, with
porcelain skin and big blue eyes. During her
athletic career, she garnered several impressive
achievements, becoming, at the age of fifteen,
America’s youngest national champion. Describing how poisonous the world of elite gymnastics can be, however, she slumped in her
chair, as if trying to make herself smaller.
“There was no positive reinforcement,” she recalled. Her principal coach was verbally tough,
and “had a way of finding what would hurt you
most and then just twisting the knife.”
Howard’s family had made sacrifices so that
she could pursue the Olympics. Her father was
a minister in Jacksonville, Florida; her mother
served as music director for the congregation
and raised four children. Paying for practice
equipment, coaching, and travel to meets was a
stretch financially. When Howard turned
twelve, her mother started homeschooling her
so that she could put in the requisite six hours
With all the success, Howard said, there was
no talk of revising coaching practices, to say
nothing of reviewing files with allegations of
sexual assault. U.S.A. Gymnastics contends
that it has always been engaged in athlete welfare, and during this period, the board updated
its process for submitting grievances. Yet Howard remembers the subject of abuse coming up
on exactly one occasion, when a staff member
briefed the board about a pending lawsuit. As
she recalls, the overriding point was that the liability was manageable. Hearing that, she excused herself from the table, ran to the bathroom, and threw up.
Last year, a fellow former gymnast reached out
to Howard about allegations against Larry Nassar, their team doctor. With that call, her sickness over the liability talk suddenly made sense.
After competing in the 1999 World Championships, Howard had suffered from a hip injury so
excruciating that at times she could barely walk.
Staffers at U.S.A. Gymnastics recommended
that she see Nassar, an osteopath who spent
time at a ranch owned by the coaches Béla and
Márta Károlyi, where elite gymnasts train. The
ranch is remote—it sits on more than 2,000
acres, sixty miles from Houston—and athletes
live under extreme pressure. They eat communally; some say that consuming a full meal is
verboten. Howard welcomed the chance to see
Nassar in part because “it meant I could get a
break from my coach.”
Before their first session, she said, Nassar told
her to wear loose shorts and no underwear. The
request seemed odd, but she complied. On the
exam table, Howard has alleged, he penetrated
her vaginally with an ungloved hand. She was
shocked but didn’t think to question what he
was doing; he was a doctor with a stellar reputation. In other cases, Nassar allegedly penetrated a girl anally, touched her clitoris, and
fondled her breasts; he also allegedly performed
acupuncture on and around girls’ genitals.
Howard now sees gymnastics culture—
including the atmosphere at the Károlyi
ranch—as especially suited to encouraging predatory behavior. The coaches were tough, and Nassar positioned himself as an athlete’s ally. In a
2013 interview with a podcast called GymCastic,
he said that he resisted revealing his patients’ ailments to their trainers. “If you do something
where you break their train of trust, you’re done,”
he explained. “Because they’ll never trust you
again. They’ll tell the other gymnasts.”
Nassar had access to hundreds of girls. “Honestly, the man had an evil kind of brilliance,”
Howard said. In 2015, he was fired by
U.S.A. Gymnastics, and today Howard is one of
more than a hundred of his former patients who
have joined lawsuits against him. Nassar has already pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography and will go on trial for criminal sexual
conduct in Michigan this December. One of
Nassar’s attorneys, Matt Newburg, declined to
comment because of a gag order on the case; he
has previously said that Nassar’s techniques are
“medically accepted and appropriate.”
Lawsuits have also been filed against Michigan
State University, which employed Nassar, and
U.S.A. Gymnastics, naming the Károlyis as
defendants. “The national training camps are
not a ‘mother’s day out’ program” a lawyer for
the Károlyis wrote in an email, adding that
“the Károlyis vehemently deny the existence of a
‘toxic’ environment.” The lawyer also stated that
the Károlyis had no knowledge of the medical
procedures described in the Nassar litigation. Recently, they left the ranch, and have tried—so far
unsuccessfully—to sell their gymnastics facilities.
There’s also been fallout within the national
governing body: Steve Penny, the CEO, was
forced to resign as a consequence of his hesitation in responding to the allegations. When
reached for comment, a spokesperson replied,
“U.S.A. Gymnastics is deeply sorry that anyone
has been harmed during his or her gymnastics
career.” Pfohl told me that because the case began before the creation of SafeSport, her office
would not get involved in the investigation or
demand sanctions.
Howard said that one reason she became
part of the lawsuit was that she saw the case
as a real opportunity to change the gymnastics organization. She used to love how rhythmic gymnastics combined grace and athleticism, as well as the discipline fostered by its
demands. Now she would never recommend
that a child participate at an elite level, and
she wonders what she could have made of her
life with a more formal education. “When I
reflected back with my mom on this, it was a
hard conversation,” she said. “Because I wish
more than anything that I had never stepped foot in a gym.”
ecades passed between the time Nassar
allegedly found his first victims and the dawning of any legal consequences. In March, after
speaking with some of his accusers, Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator from California, introduced legislation that would require coaches
and officials at the national governing bodies to
report instances of assault to the police. “It was
really disturbing,” she told me of the meeting.
“There has been denial among coaches and the
governing bodies about the responsibility to keep
young athletes safe.” Her bill, the Protecting
Young Victims from Sexual Abuse Act, would
also compel the governing bodies to better communicate with the clubs under their purview. As
of September, it had twenty-eight sponsors from
across the political spectrum—Elizabeth Warren
and Ted Cruz both signed on. I asked Feinstein
about her outlook for its passage, given the chaos
of the current political moment. Even in quieter
times, sexual assault often ranks as less urgent
than other concerns. “This isn’t a partisan issue,”
she replied. “No one in the U.S. Congress wants
young women to be abused.” She told me that it
would become law, but she couldn’t say when
there might be a vote.
Victims can already, of course, turn to the
legal system to try to hold attackers accountable. But according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, only about a third of sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement. A
preexisting relationship can make it all the
more difficult for those who have been violated
to identify the abuse for what it is, or to find
the will to turn their assailant in.
Among those who do go public, most tend
not to report until they are adults. Although
thirty-seven states do not have a statute of
limitations for child rape, much abuse falls
short of that act. And even where the statute
of limitations has been lifted, new laws are not
retroactive, which means that survivors in their
thirties or older cannot bring criminal cases.
In the past fifteen years, eight states have created “window provisions,” which allow people a
set period of time—generally between one
and four years, starting from the day the law is
enacted—to bring civil suits against their
abuser, the institution that created conditions
enabling the abuse, or both. These cases do not
result in jail time but do allow victims to reap
compensatory damages and, sometimes, to negotiate systemic changes to keep other children
safe. (For example, requiring that a recreation
center not allow swimmers and coaches to be
alone in a private place.) Payouts vary by state; a
survivor commonly receives around $500,000. In
2002, California passed a window provision bill
that forced the Catholic Church to hand over
more than $1 billion to plaintiffs. The diocese of
San Diego soon declared bankruptcy, and in
2013, when the state legislature passed another
yearlong window period, U.S.A. Swimming
joined with the church, successfully lobbying
Governor Jerry Brown to veto.
Marci Hamilton—the head of Child U.S.A.,
an organization that works to prevent child
abuse and neglect—travels the country drafting legislation and testifying in statehouses on
behalf of sexual assault survivors. She told me
that, beyond money for therapy, window provisions help provide victims with recognition
from the state that a wrong has occurred. “It is
validating,” she said. “It can quiet the voices in
their heads telling them they were somehow at
fault.” For others reticent to come forward,
watching people publicly hold their perpetrator
accountable is key.
Hamilton has observed that child abuse at
the Catholic Church has generated the most
attention, but she finds youth athletics to be
no less hazardous. “We have reports of abuse
in every possible sports organization—whether
peewee or little league or high school,” she
said. “The extreme power imbalance between
a coach and an athlete—not just an adult and
child but a coach and an athlete—creates conditions for keeping secrets. And so long as secrets are kept, the perpetrators are protected.”
Lawsuits, she added, “are the only way to force
these institutions to disclose what’s in their
files.” When SafeSport launched, she wrote
that “the U.S.O.C. has moved at a glacial
pace,” grappling with allegations of assault
over the past fifteen years; “its actions have
more often protected problematic coaches
than children.” She told me, “What always
comes out in the end is that the institution
knew more about abuse than just about anybody else. They are also the ones
most dedicated to silence.”
hus far, SafeSport’s highest-profile case
concerns two of the most prominent members
of the “first family of taekwondo,” the brothers
Jean and Steven Lopez. Jean served as an Olympic coach; Steven is a gold-medal winner twice
over. Two other siblings, Diana and Mark, also
practice taekwondo, and in 2008 three Lopezes
competed in the Olympic Games.
In recent years, however, women have begun
to report that they have suffered abuse by Jean
and Steven. Jean has been accused of assaulting
two taekwondo practitioners he coached. Steven has been accused of raping two teammates,
as well as another woman he dated. Early this
year, an attorney hired by U.S.A. Taekwondo
delivered the case to SafeSport.
Pfohl’s investigators have now been in
touch with at least three former athletes who
have testified to being assaulted by the Lopez
brothers. One of them is Heidi Gilbert, now
thirty-five, who was at one point the sixthbest heavyweight fighter in the world. She
trained with Jean in Sugar Land, Texas, in the
early 2000s. She told me that on two separate
occasions, he sexually assaulted her.
The first time, she alleged, was in Quito,
Ecuador, during the 2002 Pan American
Championships. Gilbert won a gold medal in
her weight division, as did Diana Lopez. The
two young women were ebullient and went to
Jean’s room to celebrate. (Diana said that
this, and what followed, never happened.)
According to Gilbert, Diana left, and Jean
shut the door. Gilbert wasn’t alarmed, even
after he threw her on the bed. “I thought at
first that we were play-wrestling,” she recalled.
But soon he was behind her, ejaculating into
his sweatpants.
Gilbert was shaken, and upon returning to
the United States she retreated to her mother’s home to consider her options. Like most
athletes, taekwondo practitioners tend to peak
in their twenties, and by that metric, the 2004
Olympics would be her moment. “I thought,
I’m getting older, and I have to put the pedal
to the metal.” She trained in Korea for a few
months, but in America the Lopezes’ gym was
the obvious choice. Some athletes she knew
there pleaded with her to come, and finally,
she relented.
At first, Jean did nothing out of the ordinary. But, Gilbert said, at a party after the
2003 World Championships in GarmischPartenkirchen, Germany, he offered her a
strange drink. Within an hour, she felt woozy.
By the time he hustled her into a cab, she was
only vaguely conscious. Back at the hotel, Gilbert told SafeSport, he penetrated her with
his finger, performed oral sex on her, and
rubbed his penis against her legs. Gilbert was
wearing tight jeans and tall boots; she told me
that she suspects the only reason he didn’t
rape her is that he couldn’t pull her pants off.
Gilbert left the Lopez gym permanently. She
didn’t put in a formal complaint with
U.S.A. Taekwondo because she believed that it
would mean the death of her career. “It was going to be either me or Jean,” she said. “And I
knew it would be Jean.” Gilbert did not qualify
for the Olympics, but she saw him once more,
at the 2005 Taekwondo Nationals; he stood on
the floor during her matches. “It was like he
was trying to intimidate me,” she recalled.
Shortly after, Gilbert left professional sports.
In the years since, other reports of sexual
assault began to emerge—about the Lopez
brothers and other taekwondo coaches. In
September, Keith Ferguson, the executive director of the national governing body, resigned as evidence mounted that he had mishandled allegations. Jean and Steven Lopez
both deny having acted inappropriately with
any athlete; Jean refuted Gilbert’s story. Neither man has been charged with a crime. “It’s
unfortunate that Heidi is politicizing the very
serious issue of people who have been victimized to push an agenda,” Jean said. “Our
hearts go out to the victims who have suffered
these things, and we want the protections to
be in place.”
It is in part to protect people from seeing
their abuser at meets that SafeSport has the
authority to ban an athlete or a coach accused
of assault. But in June, with the case still
pending, Steven Lopez competed in the Taekwondo World Championships; Jean was free
to attend. Pfohl declined to comment, citing
the ongoing investigation.
Ronda Sweet, a for mer di rector of
U.S.A. Taekwondo who has long advocated for
a tougher stance on sexual violence, told me
that she was frustrated—suspending Jean and
Steven during the investigation should have
been a no-brainer, she said, given that several
people have reported being assaulted by them.
“This isn’t a secret,” she explained. She also
questioned what SafeSport could do that would
effectively stop the Lopez brothers from abusing
anyone else—Pfohl can’t prevent them from
giving seminars to young athletes, establishing a
new taekwondo school, or representing a foreign
country in international competitions. “So even
if U.S. SafeSport decides the Lopez brothers
have been bad boys, what real consequences are
there?” Sweet wondered. SafeSport,
she said, is a “toothless tiger.”
ne afternoon, near her office in downtown Manhattan, I met a woman I’ll call Judy,
a former elite gymnast who now works in education. She is middle-aged, with a warm smile
and a rapid-fire way of talking. “I’m the kind of
person who finishes what she starts,” she said.
Judy told me a story from the beginning of her
gymnastics career, when she was six years old.
One day, she was on a high balance beam, in
her leotard and short socks, frozen in place.
Her coach had asked her to attempt a back
handspring, the first step a gymnast performs
before unleashing the tumbling moves that
stun Olympic spectators. The high balance
beam looms four feet off the ground and is just
four inches wide. Judy was frightened. Her feet
stuck to the beam.
Her panic became her punishment. The
coach declared that if she could not bring herself to jump, for the remainder of practice, she
would just have to stand there. “Don’t even
think of getting off,” he yelled as he supervised
the uneven bars on the other side of the room.
His severity sent a message. “You had better believe I did that handspring the next time I
walked into the gym,” Judy told me.
The heights of athletic performance are
achieved, a child learns, by tolerating pain, becoming hardened, developing mental toughness. Girls like Judy are conditioned to think
that their bodies belong not to themselves but
to the people who promise to lead them to ever
more impressive accomplishments. An older
man may be a supportive mentor who guides a
protégé to greatness, even as he abuses her after
practice. The line can be crossed with the
smallest step. That, ultimately, was what happened to Judy. When she was sixteen, she said, a
new coach at a different gym coerced her into a
sexual relationship.
Judy didn’t tell anyone about it until college, when she confided in a friend. Soon after, Judy brought the man to court. He was acquitted in the criminal case, so she brought a
civil suit; in a settlement, with no admission
of liability, he agreed to pay monetary damages, go to counseling, and never coach again.
U.S.A. Gymnastics, however, did not put him
on its banned list.
Judy still believes that gymnastics is a
meaningful activity for young people. She
credits her training with helping her learn to
confront fear: once, she was told to visualize
her fears being piped into a hot air balloon
that disappears into the sky. “I still use that
imagery if I’m feeling anxious about something,” she said. Yet Judy sees a direct connection between the way she was humiliated as a
child and sexually exploited a decade later, as
if she’d been preconditioned. “It’s hard not to
look back and think, ‘Is that the moment when
it all began?’ ” Perhaps her first coach thought
that he was teaching her a valuable lesson.
What she took away, though, was a mantra
that might make any child vulnerable: “I will
always do what my coach says.”
Why America’s roads are in tatters
By Dale Maharidge
ne sunny winter afternoon in
western Michigan, I took a ride
with Leon Slater, a slight sixtyfour-year-old man with a neatly trimmed
Dale Maharidge is the author of ten books,
most recently Bringing Mulligan Home.
“Snowden’s Box,” which he co-wrote with
Jessica Bruder, appeared in the May 2017
issue of Harper’s Magazine.
white beard and intense eyes behind his
spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball
cap, so formed to his head that it seemed
he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the
street in front of Slater’s home, was a
mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered
maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust
fumes choked the cab. He gripped the
The pavement on Brickyard Road. All tintype photographs from Michigan by David Emitt Adams
wheel with hands leathery not from age
but from decades moving earth with big
machines for a living. What followed
was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon
County’s rural roads, which looked
as though they’d been carpet-bombed.
Slater’s 1997 pickup has 200,000
miles on it and countless scars from the
obstacle course of Brickyard Road. “My
wife keeps yelling at me, ‘Buy another
truck!’ ” he told me. “I’d hate to drive a
new car on this road.”
Speaking over the rattling of the
truck, Slater pointed to the spot where
an Amish woman had been driving a
buggy when her horse stepped into a
deep pothole and injured its leg.
(Patches, age eleven, had to be put
down after the incident, she later told
me.) He showed me where he’d watched
a school bus tilt sideways as the driver
struggled to get out of a massive crater
in the middle of the road. After the
incident, Slater hauled in fifty cubic
yards of clay and sand with a dump
truck and filled the pit himself.
Like thousands of other secondary
roads in the country, Brickyard Road
is transforming into gravel and dirt.1
In most states, secondary roads are
maintained by counties, villages, or
townships. Funding comes from property
taxes and other revenues. The majority of
Americans live and work on secondary roads.
Before my visit, Nancy, Leon’s wife,
had emailed me pictures of the street.
If the photos had been black and
white, it would have been easy to
imagine they were from a hundred
years ago.
Things were even worse back then.
In the summer of 1919, the U.S. Army
wanted to see if it was possible to move
tanks and trucks from Washington,
D.C., to San Francisco, a distance of
3,251 miles. More than half the route
was dirt track. Slowed by sand and
“gumbo mud,” the convoy managed an
average speed of 6.07 miles per hour.
The journey took two months. A
young lieutenant colonel named
Dwight D. Eisenhower was on the mission; it made him a lifelong advocate
for good roads.
After Eisenhower became president,
he signed the Federal Aid Highway Act
of 1956, which established funding for
what became known as the National
System of Interstate and Defense High-
ways.2 Thus began decades of work on
the 42,000-mile system, which was declared finished only on October 14,
1992, with the completion of a section
of I-70 in the Colorado Rockies.
Long before Eisenhower, others
had pushed for change. In 1880, when
the bicycle was becoming popular,
roads were crude and even major
routes were often impassable. Cyclists
formed the League of American
Wheelmen to lobby for improvement
but saw little success. In the 1920s
and 1930s, the mantra became “Get
the farmer out of the mud,” and the
advent of the automobile brought
rural America to the cause.
Most people today refer to the “interstate
highway system,” forgetting that besides helping the economy, its creation was partly military in nature. In the 1950s, officials wanted
these roads to be used for the movement of
military equipment and personnel, as well as
for evacuation in the event of atomic war. In
the early years of construction, a small portion of funding came from the defense budget.
A damaged tire outside Leon Slater’s workshop
Brickyard was one of those muddy
roads. On a map from 1877, it appears
as an anonymous dirt route. It was
named after a brickmaking operation
on land owned by Slater’s great-greatgrandfather, John L. Slater, who emigrated from Prussia. The movement
didn’t spread out to Michigan until the
1950s. At that time, a hot liquid form
of petroleum called bitumen was
sprayed on the surface, and crushed
stone was spread to a depth of some
three quarters of an inch over the soil,
which was then compacted. This process is called chip sealing. Slater, born
in 1953, remembers the new paving
from when he was a child.
The blacktopping of Brickyard Road
was an unremarkable event in the history of the betterment of the 2.6 million miles of road that existed in America when Eisenhower made his journey.
Now, though, Brickyard is unremarkable for a different reason—it’s one of
countless failed roads, ranking at the
bottom of the 10-point Pavement Surface Evaluation and Rating scale used
by road engineers.
Some experts have concluded that it’s
better to “depave” and let failing asphalt
roads return to gravel. With budgets
tight, their reasoning goes, this
would at least provide motorists with
a better driving experience than
would a broken-down paved road.
Also, a gravel road is cheaper to
maintain than a paved road. Studies
by more than a dozen different agencies around the nation show the
range for gravel maintenance costs:
from $2,000 to more than $8,000 per
mile annually. And for pavement:
from $13,000 to $37,000.
Brickyard is among the roads that
the Muskegon County Road Commission has slated to be turned to
gravel, twenty-eight miles in all.
Brunswick Road, which intersects
Brickyard about a half-mile north of
the Slaters’ house, was the first to go,
Crumbling asphalt and rain-filled potholes in front of the Slater family’s dairy farm
in 2008. Residents complained bitterly about health issues and dust
after it was ground up, so the county
halted the depaving. But there’s no
money to refurbish all the damaged
roads that are paved in name only.
It would be comforting to think of
these roads as aberrations that plague
one isolated place in economically
depressed Michigan. But they’re not.
I’ve been road-tripping around the
country, shunning interstates, since
the Seventies, and I’ve noticed a sharp
decline in the quality of our secondary
roads—especially over the past ten
years. According to TRIP, a nonprofit
transportation-research group, more
than half of the nation’s major rural
routes are in “fair,” “mediocre,” or
“poor” condition. We as a nation are
on a journey down regression road.
Roads symbolize one of the fundamental contracts between a government
and its citizens. They are among the
most direct and regular relationships
people have with the state. If the
roads are failing, it means government is failing.
en Skorseth began his roadconstruction career in South
Dakota in the early Seventies,
as a private highway contractor. His
training embraced a dogma that
hadn’t changed in half a century:
roads went from dirt or gravel to asphalt. Period. “I got in on the latter
part of the interstate highway construction era,” he told me. “County
commissioners would tell you they had
a goal to make all county roads ‘black.’
In other words, asphalt.”
He became superintendent of the
Deuel County Highway Department in
1981. His focus was on maintaining lowvolume roads, those (paved or unpaved)
with few passenger miles—fewer than
250 vehicles a day. Soon enough, the
principles he had learned earlier in his
career were turned upside down: flat
budgets, rising costs,
and heavier farm
equipment meant that
keeping roads paved
was increasingly impossible. Desperate to
keep such routes passable, he quickly turned
his attention to gravel.
It wasn’t as if he had a
choice—if he wanted
to stay on budget, he
needed stone, not asphalt. He left the
county and took a job
as the manager of a
transportation program at South Dakota
State University, and
his reputation spread.
He began getting calls
from all over the world.
In 2000, he was the
lead author of the Federal Highway Administration’s Gravel Roads
Maintenance and Design Manual. He became known as the
“gravel-roads guru.”
Around the country, many roads were paved that
should have remained gravel. It
was an easy decision in the prosperous post–World War II years, when
the petroleum products used in asphalt were cheap and labor costs were
relatively low. But by the Nineties,
even as the economy boomed on the
coasts, the middle of the country was
entering a de facto depression. At the
same time, the cost of asphalt escalated. Skorseth was the man for the
moment. Techniques such as chip
sealing, as was done on Brickyard
Road, were doomed propositions.
There the local soil is clay, which
holds water. Without a more substantial foundation, paving over clay will
lead to potholes.
“I never dreamed that by the end of
my career we would be talking about
having to go back to gravel,” Skorseth
said. Road engineers and politicians
often sought him out for advice, but
when he urged depaving roads he encountered “extreme” resistance.
“Early on we were kind of the bad
guys,” he said. “We were telling people, ‘Look at the condition of your
changed, particularly after 2008.”
The recession that began that year
has theoretically ended, but many
local and state road budgets have not
recovered. Suddenly Skorseth went
from pariah to visionary.
The trend toward gravel caught
the attention of the Transportation
Research Board, part of the National Academy of Sciences, which commissioned a report. Converting Paved
Roads to Unpaved was released in
early 2016; Skorseth was among the
authors. The T.R.B. collected data
from 139 roads departments (a fraction of the thousands in the country) and found that agencies in
twenty-seven states had depaved
some roads, most in the past few
years. Agencies in other states were
in denial, Skorseth said, about the
need to move to gravel.
“It was an eye-opener even to me,”
Skorseth acknowledged. “Politicians
talk about ‘preserving their pavement.’
system, all the roads built in the Sixties and Seventies. How are you going
to rehabilitate those with current
budgets?’ It’s astounding how much it
I laugh at that term. The road is so
bad, there’s nothing here to preserve.”
He told me that gravel is often better
on a low-volume road because unlike
Tire tracks in a pothole filled with sand and clay
pavement, it can be maintained by one
operator with a single machine, a grader with a wide blade that makes it
smooth. “I call it upgrading to gravel,”
some of the gravel road at the base of
a nearby mountain in the Nineties.
But a few years ago officials reversed
course and returned that section to
he said, since “many failing pavements
are actually more dangerous to drive on
than untreated gravel surfaces.”
gravel. Oddly, a creek that once was
piped beneath the road was left to flow
over the top. Last winter, after a storm,
that “creek” became a raging river I
had to ford, and the car barely made it
through. For forty-five miles on the
remaining allegedly paved road, I often went no faster than fifteen miles
an hour because it was pocked with
craters. (Despite crawling along, I hit
the mother of all potholes.) It turned
out that on the trip, I had cracked a
tire rim that cost $108.50; part of the
axle system was damaged, too, which
set me back $518.40.
Each American driver pays about
$450 per year toward roads, according
to the Journal of Infrastructure Systems. Europeans fork over on average
2 to 3.5 times as much—the difference is largely in fuel taxes. Americans have always resisted giving such
financial support for infrastructure
projects. In the 1800s, farmers labored
for free on road crews in lieu of paying
ventually, however, if you drive
on gravel roads on a daily basis,
your windshield breaks, your
tires wear out, your front end goes out
of whack. A 2013 study by the Lyles
School of Civil Engineering at Purdue
University said,
The estimated cost for operating a vehicle on a gravel road is 14.33 cents
per mile higher than on a paved
road. . . . Although this cost is significant, it is borne by vehicle owners
and not the agency.
It’s another example of the death
of the commonweal in favor of
I’ve paid for bad roads. When I
used to travel to my house in rural
northern California, the trip was an
expensive ordeal. The county paved
A damaged muffler on Slater’s property
taxes, and in 1913, Missouri governor
Elliot Major led 50,000 citizens on a
volunteer effort to fix an “ocean of
mire” in the state. A gasoline tax was
not implemented until the 1920s, and
only then did roads
begin improving methodically. But, nearly a century later, a
gulf has opened up
between tax revenue
and the cost of materials and labor. The
federal gas tax, 18.4
cents per gallon, was
last raised in 1993 and
has since lost more
than one third of its
purchasing power.
Only three states currently index their gas
tax to inflation.
Despite the declining condition of our
roads, conservatives
have long wanted to
cut their funding,
terming this “devolution.” The American
Legislative Exchange
Council, a right-wing
think tank, offers a
ready-made bill called
the Devolution of
State Highway Systems Study Act,
which proposes turning over the
maintenance of state roads to local
agencies. In 2009, a state representative, Glenn Vaad, put forth such a
proposal in the Colorado legislature.
The movement reached the federal
level in 2013, when a Georgia Republican, Tom Graves, introduced a bill
in the House of Representatives that
would lower the federal tax to 3.7
cents per gallon and let the states control that diminished revenue.
That bill went nowhere, but our
infrastructure continues to crumble.
Bridges are part of the equation.
While a bad surface can merely damage your car, a failed bridge can be
fatal. In 2015, a bridge on I-10 near
Palm Springs, California, collapsed.
It had been deemed “functionally
obsolete” in the 2014 National
Bridge Inventory. And ten years ago
in Minneapolis, a bridge collapse on
I-35 killed thirteen and injured
scores. Some 63,000 bridges, about
10 percent of the U.S. total, are
“structurally deficient,” according to
the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
Candidate Donald Trump pointed
this out in one of the Republican
presidential debates in early 2016:
“We’ve spent four trillion dollars trying to topple various people,” he said.
“If we could’ve spent that four trillion
dollars in the United States to fix our
roads, our bridges . . . we would’ve
been a lot better off.” Yet as president
he has been vague about his infrastructure plans. All that can be
gleaned from his tweets is that he
wants to privatize the main highways.
This won’t help secondary roads.
Americans are in an anti-tax
mood these days, too. In early 2015,
Muskegon County voters, by a 2 to
1 margin, turned down a ballot measure to raise road taxes. It’s hard to
blame them. The county, which hugs
the shore of Lake Michigan, has lost
tens of thousands of well-paid manufacturing jobs in recent decades. That
drew me here in 2009 when I interviewed people at the Fifth Reform
Church, about a dozen miles from
Brickyard Road, where a Feeding
America network truck was giving
away food to 224 residents, most of
whom wore clothes that made them
appear to be comfortably middle
class. When I interviewed them,
however, I found that many were
desperate for food.
State law requires that townships
must pay about half the cost of road
improvements. Melvin Black, a road
commissioner in Muskegon County,
told me that Holton Township,
which contains Brickyard Road,
saves about $10,000 a year for its
road budget. “They’d need a hundred
thousand a year minimum to gradually bring the roads back,” he said.
Black blamed farmers’ heavy
equipment for damaging the roads—
that means Leon Slater’s relatives,
who are dairy farmers. But Slater
pointed out that the farms employ
some forty people in a place with few
jobs. Also, city residents drink the
milk that travels every day on local
roads in a huge tanker truck. I wondered aloud to Black: Doesn’t the
government have some responsibil-
Distributed by Midpoint Trade Books
ity? Good roads benefit all of society.
Local politics, however, will prevent
the most immediate fix: an upgrade
to gravel. Brunswick Road was pulverized before Black was appointed to
the board. “But let me tell you, I was
there to catch the heat. I said, ‘I will
never vote to grind up a road.’ ”
This idea elicited a sigh from Kenneth Hulka, the managing director of
the county road commission. “I’m not
sure that’s in the best interests of the
motorist, because a well-maintained
gravel road is much better than what
they’re driving now,” Hulka said.
As for Brickyard Road?
“It’s gone,” he said of its existence
as a paved road. “There’s nothing
you can do to patch it.” To create a
solid base and properly asphalt the
one-mile stretch in front of the Slaters’ home would, in Hulka’s estimate,
cost $300,000. When Hulka started
the job in 2003, asphalt cost between $24 and $27 a ton. “We’re
seeing sixty-four dollars and up right
now,” he said. “And our revenue is
almost the same.”
In late 2015, the Michigan legislature
passed a 7.3 cent gas-tax increase, and
some of that money has reached Hulka’s
department. But the fees don’t fully
phase in until 2021. Hulka said recently
that the funding helped with the upkeep
of the main roads and has thrown a
little bit of money at the secondary ones.
But he fears that contractors will likely
raise prices after years of being starved.
And some of the future increase will be
lost to inflation. None of the new money will go toward fixing township roads
such as Brickyard. It won’t be repaved.
Nor will it be ground up. It will continue to decompose, like so many of the
nation’s roads.
After Slater and I spent most of an
afternoon driving around, we hit an
especially bad pothole. The old
GMC suddenly erupted in an earshattering blast.
“I think I just lost my muffler,” Slater
announced. A minute later, the engine sputtered out. He fired it up again.
The truck took us a few hundred feet.
Then it died for good. I walked the
quarter-mile back to his house and got
my rental car. He chained the GMC to
the rental and I towed him in.
“Every day it’s like this,” Slater said.
“You can get really shook up.”
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A provocative history of literary censorship uncovers the limits of free speech in the
English speaking world from Fanny Hill to Arizona’s more recent attempt to shut down
Mexican American studies in Tucson schools.
Rich with illustrations that bring to life the personalities and the books that feature
in its stories, Censored takes readers behind the scenes into the courtroom battles,
legislative debates, public campaigns, and private exchanges that have shaped the
course of literature.
Censored: A Literary History of Subversion and Control
Matthew Fellion and Katherine Inglis
Cloth, 416pp, 26 b&w illustrations
M c G I L L - Q U E E N ’S
Follow us on and Twitter @Scholarmqup
Three close encounters with Sons and Lovers
By Vivian Gornick
formative experience of my
life occurred the day—I was
then twenty years old and a
student at the City College of New
York—that an English teacher put
into my hands D. H. Lawrence’s Sons
and Lovers. I was a working-class kid,
there were few female protagonists in
Vivian Gornick is the author of many books,
most recently The Odd Woman and the
City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
the books I read, and until then I’d
never heard the term “coming-of-age
novel.” But I knew one when I saw
one, and Paul Morel’s emotional
struggle to leave home put the matter so starkly and so dramatically
that, even at that tender age, I felt
myself communing with the primitive conflict at the heart of the tale.
I read the book in one gulp, came
back to class entranced, and from
“Three Loves,” by Lauren Semivan. Courtesy the artist and Benrubi Gallery, New York City
that day forward, Sons and Lovers
was biblical text. It was as though I
had undergone a conversion experience. From here on in, I knew, literature with a capital L was to be my
Book of Wisdom: it was to literature
that I would turn to understand
what I was living through, and what
I was to make of it.
I read Sons and Lovers three more
times within the next fifteen years,
and with each reading, I identified
with another of the characters.
The first time, it was Miriam, the
farmer’s daughter with whom Paul
loses his virginity. I got her immediately. She sleeps with him not because she wants to but because she
fears losing him. During intercourse, her terror is such that instead of yielding to the experience,
she lies beneath Paul and thinks,
Does he know it’s me, does he
know it’s me? Miriam’s primary
need is to know that she is desired,
and for herself alone. The dilemma
was devastating: I felt the heat, the
fear, the anxiety engulfing each of
these two, but most especially, I
felt it as though I were Miriam herself. I was twenty years old. I needed what she needed.
The next time I read the book, I
was Clara, the working-class woman who is sexually passionate,
wants to engage with erotic life,
but is still alive to the potential for
humiliation hidden in her need to
feel that it is she who is being desired for herself alone. The third
time I read the book, I was in my
ea rly t hir ties — t wice ma r r ied,
twice divorced, newly “liberated”—
and I identified with Paul. Now
preoccupied with desiring rather
than being desired, I gloried in giving myself up to the shocking pleasure of sexual experience: rich, full,
transporting. At long last, I was
the hero of my own life.
Only, of course, I wasn’t.
My point here is that for me, this
particular rite of passage—the
fraught discovery of the joy, the misery, the awe of making oneself vulnerable to passion—was permanently sea led i nto t he conti nued
rereading of a great novel that repeatedly seemed to mirror my own
gathering development, at the same
time that its influence as a work of
art broadened and deepened, filling
me with wonder again and again at
the intimate connection between life
and literature.
The illusion of self-mastery that
comes with ecstatic sex is just that,
an illusion. But for however long sex
outside of marriage was prohibited by
Western civilization, that illusion retained power of an almost mythical
order. When I was a girl, in the Fifties, the culture was still joined at
the hip to the restraints of bourgeois
life, which only fed the dream of
transcendence interwoven with the
promise of self-discovery wrapped
around the astonishment of sexual
passion. Except for one vital difference between then and now: then
we didn’t call it sex, we called it
love; and the whole world believed
in love. My mother, a communist
and a romantic, said to me, “You’re
smart, make something of yourself,
but always remember, love is the
most important thing in a woman’s
life.” Across the street, Grace
Levine’s mother, a woman who lit
candles on Friday night and was
afraid of everything that moved,
whispered to her daughter, “Don’t
do like I did. Marry a man you
love.” Around the corner, Elaine
Goldberg’s mother slipped her arms
into a Persia n lamb coat a nd
shrugged. “It’s just as easy to fall in
love with a rich man as a poor
man,” she said, but her voice was
bitter precisely because she, too, believed in love.
It was a working-class, immigrant
neighborhood in the Bronx. Our
lives might be small and frightened,
but in the ideal life—the educated
life, the brave life, the life out in the
larger world—we imagined that love
would not only be pursued, it would
be achieved; and once achieved, it
would transform existence; create a
rich, deep, textured prose out of the
inarticulate reports of inner life we
daily passed on to one another. The
promise of love alone gave us the
courage to dream of leaving those
caution-ridden precincts and turn our
faces outward toward genuine experience. In fact, it was only if we gave
ourselves over to romantic passion—
that is, to love—without stint and
without contractual assurance, that
we would have experience.
We knew this because we had
been reading Anna Karenina and
Madame Bovary and The Age of Innocence all our lives, as well as the
ten thousand middlebrow versions
of those books, and the dime-store
novels coming just behind them. In
literature, good and great writers as
well as mediocre popularizers had
made readers feel the life within
themselves in the presence of
words written to celebrate the powers of love.
There might, of course, be a
price to pay. One might be risking
the shelter of respectability, even
in the Fifties, if one fell in love with
the wrong person—and don’t forget,
A n na a nd Em ma d i d end up
suicides—but no matter. The only
truth for us was the depth of emotion these heroic figures generated
through their courage to risk all for
passion. It’s interesting to realize now
that while we thought we were contemplating passion as an instrument
of some higher plane of achieved life,
we were really seeking it as a goal in
itself. No one ever had a word to say
about what happened afterward.
That’s why, when the movie ended
with the lovers riding off into the
sunset, we walked out of the theater
feeling vindicated.
ach time I read Sons and Lovers, I found that I’d gotten
much in the novel wrong. For
me, this is a common experience: rereading this or that book that has
been important to me throughout the
years and repeatedly discovering that
a narrative I’d long thought memorized was being called into startling
question. I’d gotten this or that character or this or that plot turn wrong,
and I could never help marveling: if I
got so much wrong, how come the
book still has me in its grip?
When I came to read Sons and
Lovers recently—in, shall we say, my
advanced maturity—it wasn’t so
much that I’d gotten many of the details wrong (which I had), but rather
that my memory of the oedipal
theme of sexual passion as the central experience of life was wrong.
That, I now saw, wasn’t really what
the book was about, and I found it
all the greater and the more moving
that I had held it close to my heart
all these years for the wrong reasons.
The psychological complexity of the
novel, which had eluded me, now
seemed to have been waiting for me
to grow into the understanding it required of its readers.
Set at the turn of the twentieth
century in a mining village in the
English Midlands, Sons and Lovers
tells the story of the Morels and their
four children. Gertrude (a bookish
woman of romantic sensibility) and
Walter (a fun-loving miner) meet at
a dance; she is drawn to his good
looks, his gaiety, his talent for dancing, while he is attracted by her responsiveness to his sensuality. They
develop a passion for each other and
they marry. He promises her a house
of her own, a good enough income,
and tender fidelity. Soon enough, she
discovers that on none of these can
he deliver:
He had no grit, she said bitterly to
herself. What he felt just at the minute, that was all to him. He could not
abide by anything. There was nothing
at the back of all his show.
For his part, he is startled to find
that she cannot bear disappointment
well: it turns her bitter and austere.
In no time at all, bewildered by the
constant sense of accusation he now
feels at home, he escapes to the pub
every chance he gets.
Eight years down the road, when
the book begins, Gertrude Morel is
thirty-one years old, pregnant with
her third child, living in undreamedof poverty both material and emotional, and repelled by her husband,
whom she and her children now regard as a violent, hard-drinking lout.
Yet her romantic sensibility has not
deserted her. It is to her sons, then,
that she turns for the kind of companionship required to feed a starved
inner life. At first she hopes to make
a soul mate of William, the eldest.
But it is Paul, the second son and our
protagonist, who is destined for that
role. From the very beginning, Lawrence tells us, Gertrude “felt strangely toward the infant,” noticing the
“peculiar knitting of the baby’s
brows, and the peculiar heaviness
of its eyes, as if it were trying to
understand something that was
pain.” Her soul’s anxiety has entered into Paul—at the age of three
or four, he cries for no reason,
grows melancholy for no reason—
and from that moment on, we
know this is not exactly mother
love at work here.
Gertrude sees her spiritual salvation joined to that of her son, who
declares as a teenager that he will
never desert her. But as Paul grows
into young manhood, he comes to
realize that he must leave her behind. Where he is going, she cannot
follow, and not only because she is
his mother. The life she has lived—
the thoughts and feelings she has not
had—will not permit it.
At the heart of it all, of course,
lies erotic love. As Paul’s need for it
grows—and the two women, Miriam and Clara, become the instrument s o f h i s awa ken i n g a nd
initiation—he delves ever deeper
into its extraordinary force, until he
finds that passion has the ability to
mimic liberation but not to actually
deliver it. The struggle between
Paul and the illusion of liberating
sex, I now saw, was the spine of the
novel. It was this that I had repeatedly failed to register, along with
the complexity of the characters.
In the very first pages of the book,
for example, while she is pregnant
with Paul, Gertrude laments the
“poverty and ugliness and meanness”
of her life:
“What have I to do with it?” she said
to herself. “What have I to do with all
this? Even the child I am going to
have! It doesn’t seem as if I were taken into account.”
These words are part of a speech I
did not at all recall. I had thought
of Ger t r ude a s a rat her onedimensional person: a tight-lipped
woman whose obsessive involvement with her own betrayed dreams
of life has deprived her of perspective. But here she is sounding more
like a woman of 1970 than of 1910,
conscious of a self that, in the midst
of the endless quotidian, she knows
is missing.
Then there is Walter, the husband. I remembered him as a Caliban, but he is little more than a
childish man whose gift (his only
gift) for innocent sensuality has
been steadily eroded by the lack of
the very thing that could have
made him a better person: sympathetic partnership. In his youth, he
had been a great dancer, his love of
music embedded in a heart that
yearned to be light. And even now,
going off to work, he loves his
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early-mor ning walk across t he
fields, often arriving at the pit
“with a stalk from the hedge between his teeth, which he chewed
all day to keep his mouth moist,
down the mine, feeling quite as
happy as when he was in the field.”
Tr ue, he h a s “whole per io d s,
months, almost years, of friction
and nasty temper,” but his spirits
invariably recover.
Walter, too, has been left crying in
the wilderness. His head is filled
with chaos because he is a sentient
creature who, unlike his wife, cannot
say to himself, “Where am I in all
this?” It is precisely his inarticulateness that makes it hard for him to
come straight home after work,
which leaves his wife doubly trapped
in the misery of normalcy outraged:
Mrs. Morel sat alone. On the hob the
saucepan steamed; the dinner-plate
lay waiting on the table. All the room
was full of the sense of waiting, waiting for the man who was sitting in his
pit-dirt, dinnerless, some mile away
from home, across the darkness,
drinking himself drunk.
New York Revisited
First published in Harper’s Monthly
Magazine in 1906
With an introduction by
Lewis H. Lapham
“They loathed him,” Lawrence
later writes. Yes, they loathe him,
but they also are him. Paul would
rather scrape the skin off his body
than admit to any shared characteristic, but—and this I certainly
did not remember—he is actually
as moody and defensive as his father. At fourteen he is “the sort of
boy that becomes a clown and a
lout as soon as he is not understood, or feels himself held cheap;
and, again, is adorable at the fi rst
touch of war mt h.” Somewhere
within himself, Paul must know
that all sensuous feeling in him—
tender or murderous, ever ready to
burst the skin—comes from his father. But if he allows himself this
recognition, it would make him ill.
So Lawrence doesn’t make him
think about it, but allows the reader to do so.
And then there is William, whom
I had completely forgotten, and
whose fate is perhaps the most telling of all. William has the soul of an
accountant. Absorbed in his whitecollar job in London, which he expects will bring him money and a
Order online at
rise in social status, he cheerfully
comes home less and less, as children
bent on making their way in the city
do. But one Christmas, still in his
early twenties, he brings home Lily, a
secretary to whom he has become
engaged. She is beautiful and he is
besotted with her even as he seems
permanently irritated by her vanity
and stupidity—especially now that
he sees her through his mother’s
eyes. Torn apart by the conflict within himself, repeatedly William quarrels with Lily and instantly regrets
his bad behavior. “And in the evening,” we read, “after supper, he
stood on the hearth-rug whilst she
sat on the sofa, and he seemed to
hate her.”
Gertrude goes into shock at what
she sees happening to William:
that’s how it seems to her, it’s happening to him, as in a Greek tragedy. She herself had been lured into
marriage by sexual attraction, but his
desperation—the sort that comes
with desire being made conscious—
no one of her generation has ever
seen. She immediately recognizes it
as world-shattering.
As does William. His hunger for
Lily is hateful to him: it humiliates
him and drives him to act in ways
that he holds in contempt. He
knows that Lily is guilty of nothing
more than being herself, yet he cannot refrain from heaping blame on
her for his own wretchedness. In a
burst of despair he cannot control,
he cries out to his horrified mother
that should he die, Lily would forget
him in a couple of months: that’s
how shallow she is.
Just to read the words on the
page is to see the torment writ large
on William’s face. Passion, passion,
passion: hard, mean, wracking, neither sensual nor romantic, only
boiling. Passion that is more like
war than love: the rawness behind
the longing for sexual ecstasy, the
depth of its anguish, the fear of ruination, the consequence that can
never be undone.
t is a stark and unforgiving look at
the price sexual hunger exacted in
near-Victorian times. Inescapably, I found myself remembering all
those mediocre novels about mar-
riage written during the same era by
H. G. Wells, novels in which this
same conflict is often at the heart of
the narrative. Again and again,
there is a working-class boy who
longs to rise in the world but is perishing for want of a sexual life, and
talks himself into marrying the first
girl who seems willing to lie down
with him if only he will marry her.
Invariably, the protagonist dreads
committing him self to such a
marriage—he stands on the brink,
looking down into a void—but the
dread loses out to the killing need.
It’s a situation Wells knew intimately. His prose, however, was not up to
the task of making us feel his protagonist’s anguish. It is with Lawrence, whose few pages on William
and Lily are so penetrating, that the
situation comes to life. He makes us
shudder on William’s behalf, because
what he sees in him, he sees everywhere and in everyone, and that’s
how a novelist builds a world.
William dies not long after the benighted Christmas visit, and it will
be left to Paul—actually, to Paul and
Miriam—to sort it all out. It is
through them that Lawrence will investigate exactly how much devotion
to either the flesh or the spirit is required to address what I now saw as
the underlying concern of Sons and
Lovers: how to construct a self from
the inside out.
Miriam is nearly sixteen when she
and Paul meet. She is brown-eyed,
black-curled, beautiful, and inclined
toward religion, like millions of
women before and after—because it
is the only thing available that elevates her above the grubby claustrophobia of an existence whose horizons are right up against her face.
Lawrence sees her situation plainly
but cannot afford to give her the
sympathy allotted to a central character. So he gives her to us like so,
one of those women who
treasure religion inside them, breathe
it in their nostrils, and see the whole
of life in a mist thereof. So to Miriam,
Christ and God made one great figure, which she loved tremblingly and
passionately when a tremendous sunset burned out the western sky . . . or
sat in her bedroom aloft, alone, when
it snowed. That was life to her. For
the rest, she drudged in the house. . . .
She hated her position as swine-girl.
She wanted to be considered. She
wanted to learn. . . . Her beauty—that
of a shy, wild, quiveringly sensitive
thing—seemed nothing to her. Even
her soul, so strong for rhapsody, was
not enough. She must have something
to reinforce her pride, because she felt
different from other people.
This sense of difference in Miriam
is, for Paul, a double-sided coin. On
the one hand, he shrinks from the religiosity; on the other, seeing her in
church, he often views her as “something more wonderful, less human.”
It is interesting and somewhat
painful to see that this inchoateness in Miriam is treated with suspicion, while the same (actually,
much worse) inchoateness in her
brothers—these wild, hardworking
farmhands whom Miriam and her
mother are constantly trying to civilize through scripture—is analyzed
with equanimity. These boys bitterly
resent “this eternal appeal to their
deeper feelings.” Beneath their crude
scorn, however, is the
yearning for the soul-intimacy to
which they could not attain because
they were too dumb, and every approach to close connection was
blocked by their clumsy contempt of
other people. They wanted genuine
intimacy, but they could not get even
normally near to anyone, because
they scorned to take the first steps,
they scorned the triviality which
forms common human intercourse.
At last, Paul persuades Miriam to
lie down with him—possession, he
tells her, is a great moment in life,
all strong emotions are concentrated
there—and of course it is a disaster.
They fuck for a week, but after every
episode each is left feeling alone and
in despair. We don’t know what Miriam is going through, but for Paul
“there remained afterwards always
the sense of failure and of death. If
he were really with her, he had to
put aside himself and his desire. If
he would have her, he had to put
her aside.”
In a sense, Lawrence does for
Miriam what Thomas Hardy—with
infinitely more sympathy—does for
Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure:
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he brings her to complicated life,
then sacrifices her to a lover’s demand that makes her the instrument of his need, superficially fulfilled, essentially denied. “You don’t
want to love,” Paul raves at Miriam, “your eternal and abnormal
craving is to be loved. You absorb,
absorb, as if you must fill yourself
up with love, because you’ve got a
shortage somewhere.” Exactly what
Gertrude, for her own reasons,
thinks of Miriam: “She’s not like an
ordinary woman, who can leave me
my share in him. She wants to absorb him. . . . Suck him up.”
Yet our hearts don’t bleed for
Miriam as they do for Sue Bridehead, because Lawrence doesn’t
love her as Hardy loves Sue. In
fact, Lawrence doesn’t love anybody, I finally came to realize, and
I recalled that Auden once said of
him that he knew everything about
the “forces of hatred and aggression,” but of “human affection and
human charity, for example, he
knew absolutely nothing.”
ere I’d like to digress a bit,
with a few words about Sue
Bridehead, to make a point
about living and rereading. When we
first meet Sue, she is bent on becoming a “new woman” of the 1880s. She
and Jude—a country cousin come to
the big city—meet up, and very
quickly she becomes his mentor,
showing him how to live freely and
honestly, without bending to the
shibboleths of religion or social convention. He’s delighted by this and
has the inner strength to follow
through. Sue, however, turns out to
be intellectually brave but emotionally frail and sexually dysfunctional.
Over the course of four hundred of
the most agonizing pages in English
literature, wherein she undergoes
some of the worst experiences a woman (now as then) could have, Sue
reverts to religious mania, goes half
insane, and is convinced that she
must pay and pay and pay for having
outraged “the gods.”
The first time I encountered Sue,
I liked and admired her immensely,
but couldn’t fathom the sexual frigidity and was horrified by the manic regression into religiosity. The
second time, I was ten years older,
had just had an illegal abortion,
and, to my own dismay, was experiencing an apprehension I found
shocking. Somewhere deep inside,
in a place I could not put a name to,
I, secular to the bone, was experiencing something like fear of retribution. One day in the street, the
words formed themselves in my
head, For this you will be punished. I
went upstairs, took Jude the Obscure
off my bookshelf, and turned to the
pages on Sue’s religious mania. It
was then that, for the first time, I
began to see what a primitive issue
abortion is: an act capable of inducing existential dread in the most
unlikely of people.
All this I could see and feel
through Sue because Hardy’s sympathy for her puts the reader right
inside her. Lawrence’s Miriam, on
the other hand, never really becomes flesh and blood. Nevertheless, after this last reading, I realized I would never see Miriam the
same way again.
In any case, she is soon enough
displaced by Clara, a working-class
feminist possessed of a haughty reserve that makes her seem mysterious and exciting even though she is a
mass of enervating contradiction:
hungry for life, fearful and suspicious
of all who approach her. Clara falls
for Paul, and she sleeps with him.
With Clara, he finally knows the
rapture of sex; with Clara, he and his
partner are drowning together. It is
here in bed with Clara that his separation f rom adolescence —he’s
twenty-three!—is completed, and
the alarming complexity of life as it
is begins to take hold of him.
When at last Paul and Clara lie
down together, the love they make is
beyond rapturous:
If so great a magnificent power
could overwhelm them, identify
them altogether with itself, so that
they knew they were only grains in
the tremendous heave that lifted every grass-blade its little height, and
every tree, and living thing, then
why fret about themselves? They
could let themselves be carried by
life, and they felt a sort of peace
each in the other. There was a verification which they had had togeth-
er. Nothing could nullify it, nothing
could take it away.
Oh no?
A mere few months and ten pages later:
They did not often reach again the
height of that once when the peewits
had called. Gradually, some mechanical effort spoilt their loving, or, when
they had splendid moments, they had
them separately, and not so satisfactorily. So often he seemed merely to be
running on alone; often they realized
it had been a failure, not what they
had wanted. He left her, knowing
that evening had only made a little
split between them. Their loving
grew more mechanical, without the
marvelous glamour.
It is passages like these that mark
the modernity of the book. The age
was pushing all writers to put on the
page the entire truth of whatever
they found festering in the human
psyche: not only sorrow and disorder
but sadism, alienation, and the brevity of passion. I now think that Lawrence saw this last by the time Sons
and Lovers was published—he was
then twenty-seven. But the insight
couldn’t stack up against the pressure
of that other thing he saw, which was
to be his life’s obsession: that to be
deprived of experience of the senses,
as bourgeois society demanded we
be, was truly a sin against life.
Lawrence didn’t know any more
on this score than did Hardy, or
Wells, or George Meredith: grownup writers all. What set him apart
was simply the astonishing sense of
destiny with which he insisted on
outing what they all knew but could
not directly address. He was like an
abolitionist among liberals who say
yes, slavery is terrible, but in time, it
will die out, be patient—while the
abolitionist says fuck that, now or
never, and goes to war.
To feel badly but calmly about what
is spiritually deforming is the mediocre
norm; to rage against it is to become
an instrument of revolutionary
change. In literature, one does that by
naming the crime against nature without pity or caution or euphemism; renouncing in no uncertain terms, as
Auden (again) had it, “the laziness or
fear which makes people prefer second-
hand experience to the shock of looking and listening for themselves.”
he third time I read Sons and
Lovers—it was now the early
Seventies—I had just left my
second husband. All around me,
friends, relatives, even neighbors felt
free to cry at me, “Why are you doing
this? What is it you want?” The answers, even in my own ears, were lame.
Why had I left him? After all, I hadn’t
married a man I didn’t love, I wasn’t
being forced to choose between work
and marriage, our sex life was fine. But
the times were encouraging me to look
with clear eyes at what I was feeling
driven to do, and somehow, involving
myself once again in the harrowing life
of the Morels felt intimately related.
I had married—twice!—because
when I was young, a woman alone
was a woman stigmatized as unnatural, undesirable, un-everything. Yet
each time around, I discovered that
I shrank from being seen as one half
of a couple: I actually flinched when
addressed as “Mrs.” And while I
liked my in-laws well enough, I was
intensely bored by family life. Worst
of all, there were times when, during a cozy evening at home, alone
with my husband, I felt buried alive.
The heart of the matter was: I didn’t
want to be married. I turned the pages of Lawrence’s great novel as
though reading braille, hoping to
gain for myself the freedom from
emotional blindness the book was
urging on its readers.
Within seven years following the
publication of Sons and Lovers, Lawrence wrote his two acknowledged
masterpieces, The Rainbow and Women in Love. He said when he started
them that he would no longer write
the way he had of the Morels: graphically and with transparency. No, now
he would make what he felt dense
with meaning; wild and large and
mythical. And so he did. Nevertheless, both novels are hard to read
these days, so packed are they with a
violence of spirit that I find oppressive
as well as a shocking amount of the
polemic to which Lawrence became
ever more addicted. In these books,
he certainly got down brilliantly the
crime of suppressed feeling: this is
where his genius succeeds without
parallel. But the part that promises
surcease from human anxiety through
erotic freedom—there I now feel him
wringing his hands, the prose in a fever because he suspects that what he
insists is true may not be true.
Lawrence was writing at the beginning of the Freudian century, living in
a time that was just on the verge of
putting his obsessive concerns at center stage. In fact, his ruling metaphor—
liberation through eros—was to become the wedge that modernism used
to pry open the uncharted territory of
human consciousness. If Lawrence
were alive today, this metaphor would
be lost to him. By now, we all have
experienced the sexual freedom once
denied, and have discovered firsthand
that the making of a self from the
inside out is not to be achieved
through the senses alone. Indeed, it
would turn out that not only does
sexual ecstasy not deliver us to ourselves, but one must have a self already
in place to know what to do with it,
should it come.
November Index Sources
1 National Conference of State Legislatures
(Washington); 2,3 Ipsos (Washington); 4
Architect of the Capitol; 5 Cooperative
Children’s Book Center (Madison, Wis.);
6 NRKbeta (Oslo, Norway); 7 Office of the
President of Azerbaijan (Baku); 8 Committee
to Protect Journalists (N.Y.C.); 9,10 Gabriel
Zucman, University of California, Berkeley;
11 National Health Care for the Homeless
Council (Baltimore); 12 Multnomah County
Sheriff’s Office (Portland, Ore.); 13 Kaiser
Family Foundation (Washington); 14 Jay
Zagorsky, Ohio State University (Columbus);
15,16 Gregory Okin, University of California,
Los Angeles; 17 New York City Department
of Health and Mental Hygiene; 18 Richard
Stephens, Keele University (England);
19 U.S. Capitol Police (Washington); 20
Brookings Institution (Washington); 21,22
Congressional Management Foundation
(Washington); 23 Congressional Research
Service (Washington); 24 U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency; 25 Dargan M. W. Frierson,
University of Washington (Seattle); 26
American Meteorological Society (Norwich,
England); 27 Tamma Carleton, University
of California, Berkeley; 28 José Rubiera,
University of Havana; 29 Federal Emergency
Management Agency; 30 Statistics Finland
(Helsinki); 31 City of Venice (Italy);
32 Intercultural and Mobility Agency
(Venice, Italy); 33 Wayne R. Ott, Stanford
University (Stanford, Calif.); 34 Morning
Consult (Washington); 35 China Internet
Network Information Center (Beijing); 36
Certiport (Riverside, Calif.); 37 Ambrosia
(San Francisco); 38,39 Asgardia (Cologne,
Distributed by
Midpoint Trade Books
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1 8 9 1
By Thomas Hardy
mong the folk invited to Tony’s
wedding were the Hardcomes o’
Climmerston—Stephen and James—
first cousins, both of them small farmers.
With them were their intended wives,
two young women of the neighborhood,
both pretty and sprightly maidens.
Each pair was well-matched, and
unlike the other. James’s intended was
called Emily, and both she and James
were gentle, indoor people, fond of a
quiet life. Stephen and his chosen,
named Olive, were of a more bustling
nature, fond of racketing about. The
couples had arranged to get married
on the same day, not long thence.
They danced with such a will as only
young people in that stage of courtship
can dance; and it happened that as the
evening wore on James had for his
partner Stephen’s plighted one, Olive,
at the same time that Stephen was
dancing with James’s Emily. The later
it got, the more did each of the cousins
dance with the wrong girl, and the
tighter did he hold her as he whirled
her round; and, what was remarkable,
neither seemed to mind what the other was doing. After a particularly warming dance, the two young men looked
at each other.
“James,” says Stephen, “what were
you thinking of when you were dancing
with my Olive?”
“Well,” said James, “perhaps what you
were thinking of when you were dancing with my Emily.”
“I was thinking,” said Stephen, with
some hesitation, “that I wouldn’t mind
changing for good and all.”
When they parted that night the
exchange was decided on. Thus it happened that on Sunday morning, in
church, there was no small amazement
to hear them coupled the wrong way.
The two couples lived on for a year
or two ordinarily enough, till the time
came when these young people began
to grow a little less warm to their respective spouses, as is the role of married life; and the cousins wondered
more and more in their hearts what had
made ’em so mad at the last moment to
marry crosswise as they did. They said
very little about this mismating, though
sometimes Stephen would look at
James’s wife and sigh, and James would
look at Stephen’s wife and do the same.
o things remained till one summer day they went for their yearly
outing together. When they reached
Budmouth-Regis they walked two
and two along the velvet sands. They
looked at the ships in the harbor;
went up to the Lookout; had dinner
at an inn. As evening drew on they
sat on the esplanade, and listened to
the band; and then said, “What shall
we do next?”
“Of all things,” said Olive, “I should
like to row in the bay!”
“So should I,” says Stephen, his tastes
being always like hers.
Stephen’s wife hated the sea, and
couldn’t bear the thought of going into
a boat. James, too, disliked the water.
James and Emily agreed to remain
where they were sitting, and enjoy the
music, while they watched the other
two hire a boat just beneath.
The band played; people strolled up
and down; and Stephen and Olive
shrank smaller and smaller as they
shot straight out to sea.
Stephen’s wife and Olive’s husband waited, with more and more
anxiety. But no little yellow boat
returned. The night advanced. Emily was so worn out that James felt it
necessary to conduct her home;
there was, too, a chance that the
truants had landed in the harbor on
the other side of town, or elsewhere,
and hastened home in the belief that
their friends would not have waited
so long.
However, Stephen and Olive were
not at their homes. Emily and James
went to their respective dwellings, the
next morning returning to Budmouth.
In the course of a few hours some
young men testified to having seen a
man and woman rowing in a frail
outrigger straight to sea; they had sat
looking in each other’s faces as if in
a dream. In the evening the sea rose
somewhat, and a cry spread through
town that two bodies were cast ashore
several miles eastward. Inspection
revealed them to be the missing pair.
It was said that they had been found
locked in each other’s arms; their
features still wrapt in the same
dreamlike repose.
From “Wessex Folk,” which appeared in the March 1891 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete story—along with the magazine’s entire
167-year archive—is available online at
Kevin Young
“There Kevin Young goes
again, giving us books
disguised as books we merely
_IV\º—Marlon James
David Szalay
“A work of sublime literary
meditation on the sins and
—Rachel Cusk
Carmen Maria
—Karen Russell
John Haskell
Stephen Elliott
“[Haskell] writes deftly,
meaningfully, about the
—Kirkus Reviews
“Stephen Elliott has the
—Lidia Yuknavitch
Danez Smith
“This book is poetry as
—Roxane Gay
Mai Der Vang
Layli Long Soldier
“Among the most satisfying
—The New Yorker
“These poems are the
songs you need to make it
—Joy Harjo
By Rafil Kroll-Zaidi
bby was a breech birth but in
the thirty-one years since
then most everything has
been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a
lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack
and Stevie set a good
example, and she followed. Top grades, all
the way through. Got
on well with others but
took her sha re of
meanness here and
there, so she stayed
thoughtful and kind.
There were a few curfew or partying things
and some boys before
she was ready, and
there was one time on
a school trip to Chicago that she and some
other kids got caught
smoking crack cocaine, but that was so
weird it almost proved
the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that
lets her do half time
but keep benefits while
Rose is little.
Back when she and
Tim t hought t hey
wouldn’t have kids,
they adopted this dog from Tim’s
friend who was moving out to Boulder. Maybe the friend didn’t love it
enough to take it, but they did.
Mostly black Lab, with a golden retriever’s long fur and an inbred
golden’s stupidity. Fur that catches
Rafil Kroll-Zaidi is a contributing editor of
Harper’s Magazine.
Illustration by Katherine Streeter
burrs all over and stinks even if
they get him a summer trim. He
can’t be kenneled, got banned from
the kennel because, I guess, he was
too dumb to realize, Hey, we’re all
in this together, let’s just be calm
and make it work. On family vacations he’ll make a mess of things—
dig into the garbage, paddle desperately into the lake after anyone
swimming or canoeing or waterskiing until he needs to be saved,
and so on.
I’m telling you about this dog because I’m going to kill him.
athy’s brushing her teeth after
half a granola bar. She sometimes eats right before bed because otherwise, she says, she feels like
she’s going empty-handed to the underworld. Before retirement, she had insomnia from dealing with
stress down at the high
school and I slept a fast,
earned sleep. Now she
sleeps deeply a nd
doesn’t remember her
dreams, while for me,
often as not I’m up half
the night.
Sometimes there’s a
gentle creak from the
attic, but I still can’t
tell the difference between the bones of
t he hou se moving
and Stevie padding
around on his sizethirteen feet, though
it’s near on nine years
since he moved back
in. A night owl with
a minifridge full of
Diet Coke.
Three children separated by three years
apiece is as tidy as a
Chinese puzzle. Someone at the school, another parent
maybe, told me that once. But I
never looked up what type of puzzle
this meant.
athy is over watching Rose
during the day while Abby
and Tim are at work. The
dog is resting in front of the sofa.
Rose is playing with her toy kitchen.
Kathy is reading and gets up to make
tea. There is a yelp, a scream.
Rose is dazed and about to cry.
The dog is standing awkwardly like
he doesn’t know where to go. The
bleeding from Rose’s scalp is scarier
than the actual wound, but still it
takes seven stitches to close it properly. Kathy isn’t looking when the
bite happens, so it’s not clear what
precedes it, but the guess is that Rose
walked behind the dog and he startled, spun, and nipped her.
The second time, again nobody is
looking. The dog is eating his food,
and suddenly Rose is crying and has
a small cut on her left cheek. Again
it’s anybody’s guess what has just
happened. They’re careful to put
sunblock on the spot so the scar
will fade, fifty-fifty it’ll go away or
not, the pediatrician says.
She should be too young to remember anything that happens now,
though I don’t know how complete
this kind of amnesia is, for either fear
or loss. Rose, always smiling, keeps
stretching the cut as it heals. She
comes over with Abby and Tim late
one afternoon to chase the rabbits in
the yard, sprinting, pouncing, shrieking with joy. When she gives me a
big, wonderful three-part kiss goodbye the cut opens again.
’m guessing Abby and Tim’s
thinking about the situation is
sort of screwed up by the fact that
the first time needed stitches but the
second time didn’t. Less of a big deal.
They so badly want to let the dog off
the hook. I decide to talk to Tim, father to father. It’s not a move I make
without thinking, sidestepping Abby
like that, because she’s a girl—a
woman—and she’ll always be the
youngest and sensitive about other
people making choices over her.
I set things out very straight:
How will you feel if it happens
again? If you heard this about other
parents, what would you think?
How will it look if you have to explain three separate bites to the pediatrician? You can’t even use that
stupid “He’s never done this before”
line. If someone else’s dog had done
this to some other kid, would you
let Rose around it? Even if he did it
by accident, those accidents are now
a pattern. Sometimes you get a dog
that’s a lemon. Plus, he’s almost ten,
he’s had more good years than are
even natural, he’s easily agitated.
Nobody’s going to adopt him. Not
everything you do regarding the pet
is going to give you pleasure and
satisfaction. What is responsible pet
ownership? It is taking responsibility for the pet, and that includes getting rid of it when the time comes.
Tim doesn’t really have any good
reasoning, it’s all yeah wells and I
guesses, and most of them unsaid. In
any case, I’ve said my piece. I’ve said
what I’m going to say.
A few days later, when I’ve looped
in the boys by talking to Stevie at
home and Jack on the phone and
thought of some new points and refined others, I say my piece to Abby,
since it doesn’t completely duplicate
what already happened with Tim.
What if it’s her eye next time?
And so on.
bby and Tim hire a dog behaviorist.
This woman goes to their
house Friday afternoon. Abby, whose
idea this apparently is, gets Kathy to
drop by and watch Rose during the
visit, so she overhears a lot of what
the dog woman says. Kathy tries to
present it all very neutrally, like I am
the one with strong feelings, irrational even, and she just wants what’s
best for everyone and is letting me
know some extra facts, but the facts
speak for themselves.
I know in my mind what this woman looks like, and sounds like, and
also that she doesn’t have kids. I hope
I never know how much she charges.
The dog woman asks, Is his bowl
always facing into the corner like
this? It’s a very restricted space.
The dog woman says, Well, he
seems calm and not agitated to me.
This doesn’t seem like a big deal.
I can imagine her looking at the
dog and at Abby and then back at
the dog and giving them to understand
that everything is okay, raising her eyebrows as in, Hey, I was expecting a
problem dog, we can work with this!
The dog woman says something
along the lines of, It doesn’t sound
like he really meant it. Attacking
Rose, that is.
The dog woman listens to them
awhile and tells them that the dog
probably has an eating disorder that
makes him especially irritable. Super
picky, not no appetite. If you give him
the tastiest stuff he’ll eat that. But not
the regular old boring food that is
provided to him unfailingly, without
any cost or effort or expectations, in
an arrangement probably unheard of
in all but the past seventy or a hundred years of the however many thousands since dogs have been domesticated, when the rest of the time if
he’d behaved like this he would have
been beaten or starved or put out into
the wilderness.
The dog woman says he should be
given his food outside. And that is it.
They are going to separate him and
Rose at mealtimes, and generally
hope he’s not around her with too
little supervision.
For a dog therapist I guess the dog
has to be the real victim here. I’m
sure there’s no professional body
governing this. And this makebelieve expertise is somehow being
invited to push aside parenthood
and guardianship.
Kathy and Stevie and I are having
dinner when Kathy fills us in about
the dog woman. Stevie pipes up: But
did the lady talk to the dog about his
feelings? Stevie almost lands one
here but it’s a little too eager.
Abby is pregnant again.
or a long time after my sister
took to the bottle and whatever else she could get her
hands on, and until a few years before she finally used herself up and
died, every week or three years she’d
show up. This one time, when Abby
was really little, and even Jack
couldn’t have been past fourth grade,
before the kids had learned to go
inside if they saw her come by, Abby
sees this tanned, leathery woman
appear, doesn’t recognize her, and
asks, Who is that Indian? I remember getting caught off guard by that
and kind of choking on a laugh or
laughing into a sob at that moment
but not what I said to Abby as I sent
her inside, still blond then like Rose
is for now, and missing the front
teeth she’d knocked out chasing after her brothers.
Irma always came for money and to
make big promises and plans. Once, a
different time, Kathy heard a noise in
the garage and I went to check it out
and it turned out Irma had jimmied
her way in there to sleep and she
started up with, Oh, I was looking
around, it’s so messy in here, I was
thinking I’d help you clean it up.
The garage always was and is
spotless—I’d rather err on the side of
purging, and do it decisively, so the stuff
can’t just drift into limbo, and the satisfaction is complete and irreversible, and
when it comes to what remains, all the
things are always in their proper place,
the tools on the pegboard have left a
permanent shadow where the sun has
bleached the rest—but what really got
me was that Irma had her damn dog
with her, in the garage.
Same dog as she’d had earlier, the
time she pulled up and confused
Abby, noble Hiawatha with a wolf
companion. It was a German shepherd mix, and it didn’t look in the
best repair, though easily better than
she did. He actually looked a lot like
the dog we had when we were kids
until our parents left him in the car at
the grocery store with his leash tied
to the steering wheel and he jumped
out the window and hanged himself.
Her dog also made me think of that
ploy, maybe honest sometimes but
still a ploy, when a dog is used as a
panhandling prop by the homeless,
which Irma was always one step shy of
being and but for the grace of God or
maybe just my ignorance at some
point might actually have been.
Irma was family, but this dog, it was
just the family of some other dogs.
Who was this dog to insert itself in
the middle of things? The dog was
not helping her. I know you might
have an instinct otherwise, that it
gave her an anchor of some kind, even
a reason to live. But I knew my sister.
And my take is that it made things
worse. I think it made her feel more
like she was a normal person who
didn’t need to change. Like not only is
love unconditional but so is companionship, tolerance, acceptance.
very few days Bert Wittnauer,
around the corner on Hamilton with the lot adjoining
ours to the northwest, gets drunk and
shouts at his terrier. Today it doesn’t
make sense: sounds like she’s pooping
too much or not pooping enough or
pooping wrong. The wife left Bert
about eight years ago, and I think he
follows this ritual for the conversation. I don’t remember if it’s always
been the same dog.
Abby and Tim are taking Rose to
do a one-night camp. Since they’re
gone less than twenty-four hours,
they’ll leave the idiot with extra food
and he’ll be fine. They’ll reinstate his
lost doggy-door privileges.
From Our
to Yours!
y phone makes an
e m e r g e n c y-b r o a d c a s t
screech. Then I hear it
from the rest of the family plan,
Kathy’s phone in the kitchen and
Stevie’s in the attic. I know he’s opted
out of Amber Alerts, so this has to be
a flash-flood warning.
Outside, the sky has turned grayblue like the clouds are soaking up
ink spilled somewhere near the horizon. It’s colder. I can feel the low
pressure, making a space for something else, that empty windy hollowness pulling in other things. I smell
the ozone and the big-weathersystem wind picks up.
It’s one of those clobbering,
sheeting rainstorms, where if you
saw it in the movies you’d think,
That looks fake, water doesn’t fall
like that, they’ve just got some guys
out of frame tossing buckets. It goes
on for half an hour, the worst of it
about the middle, and winds up fast.
In the back yard, rabbits are
wandering out the blown-open
door of the bike-and-garden shed.
It’s fresh like the world has just
been created and destroyed at the
same time. Where the sun breaks
through the clouds it shines on
raindrops, pebbles, anything. Tall
stalks of sunf lowers are twisted
limp, the greenest they’ll ever be
but dying. The new sun umbrella
from the deck is halfway across the
yard, bent crazy and lying still like
a murder victim.
Across the street, a bolt-straight
paper birch has fallen like a stiff cartoon drunk onto the Sundersons’. It’s
too light a tree to do much damage
but the gutter and some shingles will
have to be replaced.
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n the garage I cut a twelve-foot
length of chain from a longer
piece. I take the mateless, rusty
forty-five-pound dumbbell probably last
used by one of the boys for bicep curls
in their late teens. And I take two old
combination locks. Plus some other
odds and ends. All this in a duffel bag
I can barely lift, plus my bike stuff.
And the bike. I got it through
Jack when he worked at the big bike
store near campus in college, and
since he was majoring in art, I let
him choose the color for me. It’s
blue—but when I say blue, it’s not
the kind of blue you think of when
you’re thinking about blue. It’s an
unexpected color.
Stevie comes out on the porch as I
load in the bike, he’s changed since
he got home from work and is wearing his old thick glasses even though
he’s going on a date later, which
must mean some particular allergens
are stirred up and his contacts are
bothering him.
He asks me: Going somewhere?
Stevie, always so gentle and cautious, always keeping tabs on everyone yet worried about prying, asks
these non-questions, or adds an extra
pre-question, so much of the time. I’m
sure when Kathy left fifteen minutes
ago for her singing group like she’s
done every Friday since who knows
when, he had to confirm it. You could
be sitting there reading the newspaper, or washing the dishes, the kind of
things that, if we were playing charades, he would guess immediately,
and still he’ll ask, Whatcha doing?
I’ve got a bike in the back of the
station wagon, I’m wearing cycling
shorts and tennis shoes and a windbreaker. Sometimes the way I feel is,
Goddamn it, just ask me where I’m
going. But not this time. Thank you,
Stevie, not this time.
I tell him, Yeah.
his isn’t about any antagonism
I have toward this dog or dogs
generally, and like I said, I had
a perfectly good dog as a kid. It’s a
safety issue.
stop at the Walmart at the edge
of town and buy a leash and a
walking harness. There’s a special
on cases of Diet Coke, but I hesitate
since I don’t remember whether it’s
Zero or One or None that Stevie prefers these days, and I don’t want to
actively encourage a bad tendency,
and then I think, He’s thirty-four, let
him buy his own.
hen I reach the city I leave
the car near Union Park
at an entrance to the
hike-and-bike loop and follow that
most of the way to Illinois Heights,
to the railroad crossing, which is as
far as I can go before I have to turn
off the last five or six blocks to Abby
and Tim’s.
The twilight now is actually lighter than the late-afternoon storm sky
was two hours earlier, but I’m pretty
sure no one sees me. I’ve left my
rear L.E.D. flasher off and the houses are glowing warm and private,
the day forgotten.
I punch the door code, leave the
lights off. The dog is lying there in
the enclosed breezeway between the
garage and the house and he looks
up at me, gives me a few silent tailswishes but doesn’t stand. When I
go through the back door and close
it, though, he follows me out through
the doggy door.
The land past the fence was ceded years ago to the Department of
Natural Resources, and they converted it back to native grassland.
Beyond this new-old prairie it’s just
scrub forest out to the interstate.
There’s still a steady breeze and the
tall grasses are hissing in a chorus
with the louder strains of the trees.
The big black oak has five or six
low spreading branches, two of
which reach out over the back
fence, and one of those is so long
and sagging that they keep it braced
with two-by-fours, but still it might
not be safe even for Rose’s weight.
I knock out the two-by-fours,
and the branch lurches downward
and bobs and shakes its crown. I
crouch on the branch at its base
and square my back against the
trunk. I wager two knee arthroscopies and five inches of hardwood
against three years of kettlebells
and 10Ks. I try to expand myself
out through my legs. No good. I
pull back. The crown bounces upward, shakes, and settles.
I turn around so I can use my
arms too and try again. This time
there is a sharp little crack. Then a
peeling crack, and the branch is
down and so am I.
I get up and check the fence. The
knotty pine is gray and rotted,
twenty or thirty years old. I pull
away two loose pickets and lay them
on the ground as they might have
landed if the falling branch had
knocked them aside, leaving a teninch gap.
The dog has been a little curious
through this, but not very. I open
the door back into the breezeway
and stand there until he follows me
in. I get out the harness and leash
and he comes over. It’s the wrong
time of day and I’m the wrong person, but he’s still willing to go. I
wonder briefly if this is all too complicated, if I could choke him out
right there on the cool polished concrete with the smell of spent rain
drifting in the window screen, his
pulse under my fingers and his flossy
ears in my face. But a plan is a plan.
We slip out and I ride slowly back
up the streets, then onto the trail,
him trotting alongside me. A couple
of times he forgets we’re a tandem
act and stops to go on a smell exploration. We pass a few joggers and it’s
so quiet over here, no wind at all,
that I can hear their headphones and
his sniffing.
Then he poops. The leash I bought
doesn’t have a bag dispenser. I’m waiting for him to finish, staring into a
spot just past him where the base of a
streetlamp is buried in the blackberry
bushes lining the trail, so when he
does finish and I pull him away I don’t
notice the woman who’s walked up
behind me. At the moment I see her
she sees us leaving and looks at the
poop and looks at me and I look at
the poop. I see it for the first time. It’s
big, terrible, unmissable: segmented
like the body of a prehistoric boneless
armored fish.
She tilts her head a little sideways
and narrows her eyes, both reflexes,
and gives me that look I know I’ve
You going to pick that up? she decides to ask.
“It’s not my dog” are the words
that form in my brain, but what
comes out is, “Mind your own fucking business.”
The dog and I keep moving.
As we reach the parking lot, a
city garbage truck cuts us off. We
wait while it reverse-beeps into
place to hoist the park’s dumpster
into its backside. The reversebeeping feels even more pointless
than usual. I wonder whether all
the human suffering caused by however many millions of hours this
beeping goes on every year is greater
than the amount the beeping prevents. But then how do you weigh
millions of hours of annoyance, lost
sleep, distraction against, say, the
death of one toddler? Is one finite
and the other infinite? I suppose I
mean in some kind of a moral or
spiritual way, not the actuarial tables I remember from a couple of
college accounting classes.
The hydraulics hiss and the truck
is gone.
here’s Leech Lake, Lake Winnie. There’s that giant pond
near Waltham whose name I
don’t know. Holy Name, down near
Medina. Keketinka. Slough 786. Lake
Bulova. The Spring South Mine Pit.
Can’t be more than forty minutes
Can’t be so deep that there’s a permanently cold bottom layer where
stuff gets preserved for years.
Can’t be a place where lots of
boaters anchor and might haul something up.
That leaves only Wagonsa. Last
in a chain of three successively
smaller lakes whose water picks up
more and more agricultural runoff
as it moves downstream. Not too
deep, but deep enough. And anyway, you couldn’t see your toes if
you were up to your neck: Secchi
depth won’t be better than four
feet this far into the summer. Filled
wit h algal bloom s a nd u nderutilized. Warm and fetid, no municipal water contribution, no kids
swimming, no houses.
I’ve been through this list plenty
of times when I’m up at night, the
practical questions. I don’t want to
make it look like this is all executed
cleanly on the fly, like I’m some kind
of Rain Man.
agonsa has a gravel launch
where some nearby homeowners and the university’s limnology center leave beat-up
wide-bottom canoes and rowboats
hauled up. I right a green aluminum
rowboat that has oars poking out
from underneath it.
Walking the dog and getting the
dog into the truck have followed
procedures and expectations, but
what comes now does not. I sit
down and encourage the dog to sit.
He sits. I shuffle over to him and
put my legs, knees bent, on either
side of him. I unspool duct tape
from the roll but that sudden sound
perturbs him and he goes and
stands a few feet away, blinking
past me.
I act casual and unhurried, then
repeat the first steps with the tape
open. I reach forward and firmly,
not so fast as to startle and not so
slow that he can start thinking,
wrap the tape five or six times
around his front legs.
The back legs are more difficult.
I have to pin him against the
ground with my right leg over his
shoulder. Again, quickly enough to
take control and count on the firm
projection of human authority but
not so quickly that it seems like aggression. I have to convey, This is
for your own good.
He pistons his front legs, trying to
loosen the tape, arches and hunches
his back experimentally, but mostly
just tries to keep his eyes on me. It’s
easier to bring the boat to the dog
than vice versa, so I drag it over and
load us in. I push off and hop in the
boat. This dog has tried to swim after some boat or other carrying a
family member countless times, but I
don’t remember him actually getting
into one.
The moon is bright and the sky
clear except for a few storybook
clouds, dark in the middle and lit up
on the edges, so I can see the whole
lake and the weeping willows over
where we launched drooping into
the water and making the whole
place feel more humid and hopeless.
It’s quiet except for the splash of the
oars and the now distant strumming
of green frogs and when the dog
says something.
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The squirming starts. Wildly
switching his front and rear bipods
together and apart, twisting all over,
trying to push himself up against
the side of the boat. He starts really
howling. I think we’re too far from
anyone who might hear, but it’s still
making me cringe.
There are too many not-normal
things happening for him to keep it
together. I thought maybe he would
be confused and placid but he’s understood that something very familiar has become dangerous.
One thing I should have done
earlier is thread an end of the
chain through the D ring on his
harness. Another would have been
to tape his muzzle. He’s trying to
get at me now as I try to do the
first thing, not quite to bite me. He
has a wild open mouth that it
seems he doesn’t mean to close, almost like he just wants to put a
scratch on me. As if the gesture of
showing that we’re enemies would
be enough to satisfy.
I lock the harness end of the
chain to itself. The dumbbell end
is already done: tight turns around
the handle, another padlock. But
the dumbbell is in the stern of the
boat for balance. If I try to stand
a nd reach over him, li f t t he
weight, we might capsize. So he
has to go first.
I get down low with him, wedge
my back where the seat meets the
hull, and roll him up the diagonal
opposite side with my bare feet,
pushing first into the loose skin of
his abdomen, then his ticklish ribs,
then the spiky summer-shaved fur
of his back.
He goes over. The boat rocks and
he’s splashing. I sit up and see he’s
making that one movement he still
can, faster than before, reaching his
leg pairs far apart and back together. He’s doing a decent job of keeping his nose and mouth above water. No vocalizations now, just
panicked breathing.
I scoot forward to the dumbbell,
grab it with both hands, and heave it
clear. A huge ploomp like the world’s
biggest pebble, the tik-tik-tik-tik-tik of
the rest of the chain running over
the gunwale, and then there’s no
more slack in the line.
haven’t been to church in years.
Don’t believe in God, if you’re
wondering. Used to go with the
family because Kathy had it from her
parents, but they were mostly educated dishwater Episcopalians, so it
never really took. About thirty years
ago I stopped going Sunday mornings, and pretty soon, after that one
time Abby quietly took off all her
clothes during services and suddenly
everyone noticed she was just sitting
there like a certain kind of angel
they didn’t know how to greet, Kathy
and the kids stopped, too. Everyone
was relieved.
As I drive back tonight I notice
the church I’ve noticed whenever I
pass through Gruen, on the way to
or from the picnic spot on the
granite mounds near Medina or
where I used to drop Jack for painting camp or pick up a turkey for
Thanksgiving or a whole hog for
the winter from the farms in Elgin
It’s low and unassuming but has
nice bones, correct proportions. It’s
Lutheran, antebellum. Now that I
have slowed to a stop I see that, yes,
if you trace from the low steeple
down the slope of the roof into the
transepts on either side, you have
mir rored Fibonacci spirals, an
upside-down heart.
They’ve left a light on and the
door open, just in case (in case of
what, I don’t know, but here we are).
The lines inside are studied and
true. The work was done with obvious pride but no fuss. The backs
and sides of the pews meet in tight
dovetail joints rather than mortise
and tenon. The floorboards, painted glossy white, span the width of
the building—even at the transepts, about forty feet across—
without a butt joint in sight. Every
plank had to have come out of
some primeval forest, back when
there was thousand-year old growth
stretching this far into the continent. The paint is tidy, though I
can’t tell if that’s from fresh coats
or a lack of traffic. There are little
flourishes of copper, small and simple and rectilinear: as caps on
posts, on the upper edges of the
pews, cladding the joists and the
original cross.
This is the God I would like to believe in, if I could make the effort at
this point. A sturdy unassuming God
of maple and copper, of brilliant
white linseed paint. This is where I
want to end up.
best. Maybe he’ll wake up on the
other side of a vortex and shake himself off and walk away into paradise.
Abby’s new baby is going to be a
The dog’s name was Rinehart.
bby and Tim put up signs
around their neighborhood,
offering rewards, even. I remember the woman who scolded me
and let it pass.
Tim brings in the contractor
who did their deck to replace the
whole fence, which needed doing
anyway. I come over to help him
trim some branches that are too
close to the house.
Not like him not to come back,
Tim says, looking out into the prairie
patch. He’s not a cat.
The grass out there is now nearly
as high as the new fence, and even
in the smallest wind it waves at us
up on the ladders. Now and again I
spot a more local disturbance,
could be a pheasant or some kind
of weasel. I think about how Stevie
has said it’s a good thing that the
dog went away, again him stating
the obvious but again I don’t mind,
I’m grateful.
Big storm like that, I say, maybe it
shook him up somehow. Gave him
some kind of idea.
Tim gives me what might be a
weird look, or I might just be on edge.
Funny thing happened, he says.
Neighbor knew we were away and
saw a bike parked out front, didn’t
think much of it but then wondered.
I know how it is, I say, neighbors,
tight-knit street, not a lot of traffic,
always shouldering their way into everyone’s business. Kind of nice that
you guys found that up here in the
city, though.
Tim nods.
Maybe he’s in a better place, I
say. And it’s such a dumb thing to
say, turning head-on into things
after steering around, that I think
it flushes from Tim’s mind whatever st r a nge t hought s he might
be having.
But I stick with the thought. I
think of the dog now ruling over a
gloomy kingdom of minnows and
milfoil weed. Maybe he will dream
forever about whatever it was he liked
sell the bike the next week, to a
college kid who drives down from
the city. Of course there’s the
timing, but I’ve been meaning to do
this for years, the frame is just too
ambitious for me at my age. I feel a
brief guilty feeling of betrayal, since
Jack picked it out for me, and then
Bill Olson calls up a few days later
and asks did someone steal your bike,
just saw it chained up in town near
the capitol, recognize it anywhere,
that blue color. I say no, all above
board, nothing to call the cops over.
The garden is overflowing with the
late-summer vegetables, we can’t pick
them all fast enough. Every year we
learn a new lesson in what we secretly hate or what you just can’t use or
give away that much of. Zucchini,
green beans, Swiss chard. The best
things, like peas and tomatoes, always fail or get picked off by birds
and chipmunks. The rabbits are already into their fourth or fifth litter
of the season, but they’re easy enough
to keep out. For now the biggest
problem is the deer, which Kathy
deals with by stringing bars of cheap
bath soap between posts around the
garden. The deer stay away because
the soap smells like people.
he wind is knocking around
the house tonight, but I
would be awake anyway. I’m
having this fantasy I used to have
when we were all away on vacation,
that someone would call and tell us
the house had burned down, all
gone, nothing left to worry about.
The wind is making the noise of a
million fallen leaves being blown
around but never going anywhere,
and I can tell it’s a high wind, going
up far into the night. Abby’s old
bedroom is now basically a walk-in
closet for us, with not nearly enough
clothes to fill it, and the eaves above
her bay window have that new copper edging I installed last week,
bouncing the moon right onto my
pillow, an effect I didn’t foresee.
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This collection of
essays from the
archives of Harper’s
Magazine features
such celebrated writers
as M.F.K. Fisher,
Upton Sinclair, Ford
Madox Ford, Tanya
Gold, Wendell Berry,
David Foster Wallace,
and Michael Pollan.
“This satisfying spread of essays, while an excellent tasting menu of the many-faceted
relations between Americans and their foodstuffs, serves as a clear journal of ways in which
we have done our eating right, and of course, how we have burnt the toast to a crisp.”
— Nick Offerman, actor, Parks and Recreation
By Christine Smallwood
hen last we heard from Isabel Archer, she was on her
way from London back to
Rome, where her husband, the cruel,
cosmopolitan aesthete Gilbert Osmond, was waiting. That’s how Henry
James wrote it, anyway. Recall, if you
will, the outline of The Portrait of a
Lady: a spirited young woman from Albany, New York, arrives in England,
inherits sixty thousand pounds, rejects
two suitors, and, catastrophically, marries a third. In short order, Isabel, who
had possessed “a certain nobleness of
imagination” and whose ideal had
been “the free exploration of life,” is
ground down in “the house of suffocation.” The big reveal comes when she
discovers that her stepdaughter is the
love child of her husband and the
blond Brooklynite Serena Merle, who
together concocted the scheme to
trick the wealthy naïf into matrimony.
In the final pages of the book, a shattered Isabel defies her husband’s command and journeys to England to attend the funeral of her beloved cousin.
On the eve of her return to Italy, she is
clear-eyed about the suffering that lies
in store. “It won’t be the scene of a moment,” she explains, “it will be a scene
of the rest of my life.”
“The obvious criticism of course will
be that it is not finished,” James wrote
in his notebook in 1881, “that I have
not seen the heroine to the end of her
situation—that I have left her en l’air.”
In fact, some reviewers of the first edition wrongly concluded that Isabel had
left Osmond for the passionate industrialist Caspar Goodwood, and accused
James of immorality and worse. “A
lamer conclusion to a brilliantly written
story could ill be concocted,” was The
Top: Cleopatra’s Needle and Charing Cross Bridge, by Claude Monet © Private
Collection/Photo © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images. Bottom: “Roman
Forum, Rome, Italy” © colaimages/Alamy Stock Photo
Dial’s verdict. James added a paragraph
to the 1908 New York Edition that
ought to have cleared up any lingering
doubts, but for those who can’t stop
wondering what if or keep themselves
from screaming, like some deranged
moviegoer, “Don’t go back inside the
house!” John Banville has written
MRS. OSMOND (Knopf, $27.95), a
sequel that picks up the day James’s
novel closes. Ours is a televisual age,
after all, when every good story gets
renewed for a second season.
After more than a dozen novels—he
won the Man Booker in 2005, for The
Sea—perhaps Banville is tired of coming
up with new characters. A few years ago,
in the crime-fiction guise of Benjamin
Black, he published a Philip Marlowe
mystery (with the blessing of the Chandler estate). Now he is doing his best
impression of James. Banville is an expert stylist, and his talent for ventriloquism comes as no surprise, least of all
to him. Mrs. Osmond is not “as intricate
as James,” he admitted in an interview,
“but if you were to look at it superficially, you could mistake it for James.”
This is true as far as it goes. Mrs. Osmond is stuffed with high-octane vocabulary, winding sentences, extended
metaphors, and calm, assured freeindirect passages. “Her aunt was looking
at Isabel now with an expression of large
surmise, in the fashion of one suddenly
seeing craft and cunning where before
there had seemed dullness only”: the use
of “large” is very Jamesian. There is even
a visit from the master himself, who
shows up in a pince-nez and a blue-andyellow waistcoat. (“Did he know her,
had they met at some time, somewhere?”) But Mrs. Osmond does not
expand our sense of the original. It is
highbrow fan fiction, and does at once
too much and too little with the
source material.
We learn, for example, that Osmond
did not just happen to benefit from the
first Mrs. Osmond’s convenient expiration; he put her in death’s way by taking
her, when she was already ill, to a plagueridden city. Such surplus villainy is
cartoonish—Osmond was bad enough
without being a wife murderer—but
helps justify Isabel’s decision to leave
him. Banville also has Isabel grapple
with the responsibility of her wealth,
though in a hammy way, by agonizing
over not having given money to a beggar
at Paddington station. I think he is trying to show that she has learned to be
more human, but as a moral awakening
it’s more Dickensian than Jamesian.
The overriding reason Mrs. Osmond
fails is that Banville sidesteps the questions that worry the readers of Portrait.
The problem of James’s ending is not
that we don’t know what Isabel does—
it’s that we must answer why. Why is
it that she, as James has it, “can’t escape unhappiness”? For what end, or
for whom, is she living? What meaning can she wring from her disillusionment? Banville waves a wand and
these questions vanish. His is a rescue
mission, not a literary one. (You might
as well show up in Jude the Obscure
and start passing out contraceptives.)
He has the sense not to marry Isabel
off to someone else, but doesn’t know
what to do with her. James gave Isabel’s life an arc and a destiny, however
tragic. Banville restores her to the
condition in which we first met her: a
single, uncommitted heiress who
wants to be free. But freedom, as Portrait shows, is hardly an end in itself.
Her next pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Then the dog died. Her husband,
Fred, had an affair; he broke it off, but
now she suspects he is taking up with
someone new. For the past three weeks,
she’s been getting messages from voices
on the radio that only she can hear.
They tell her that she’ll have another
baby, or report on unlikely subjects, such
as a violin-playing chicken (“the Heifetz
of the hen-coops”). On the day Mrs.
Caliban begins, Dorothy hears a program
about Aquarius the Monsterman, who
has escaped from the Jefferson Institute
for Oceanographic Research. Guess who
turns up, seeking refuge, in her kitchen?
The frog-man’s eyes are large and
dark. His hands and feet are webbed.
He stands six foot seven and has a
bulbous but not unappealing head. Call
me Larry, he says. (He speaks English
with a “bit of a foreign accent.”) Dorothy hides him in the spare room. Under
cover of darkness, she and Larry take
drives, explore the neighborhood, and
go to the beach. They talk about the
torture he suffered at the institute and
compare notes re: life on land versus
life in the ocean. Their mutual attraction is strong and immediate. They do
it on the living room floor, the dining
room sofa, the kitchen chairs, and in
the bathtub. Also on the beach. Also
on the bed. Dorothy’s husband doesn’t
understand why she is buying so many
avocados (Larry’s favorite).
Ingalls’s narrative is a miracle of
economy and grace. (Most of her books
are novellas, which might explain her
obscurity.) She writes straightforwardly,
without winking, dropping only occasional hints that Dorothy’s tether on
reality might be frayed. When Dorothy’s
aquatic paramour worries that any child
of theirs would be labeled a monster, for
example, she gives this head-scratching
response: “Born on American soil to an
American mother—such a child could
become President.” Larry’s connection
to Caliban is clear enough—he is a
frightening other to be feared, enslaved,
and, when that fails, exterminated. As
a romance, the book is tender; as a
portrait of depression, exquisite and
tragic. Dorothy can’t swim against the
tides of grief and melancholia. Does
Larry really exist? “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” is not a statement that Mrs. Caliban ever utters.
his was the noblest Roman of
them all,” declares Antony
over Brutus’ dead body in the
last scene of Julius Caesar:
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might
stand up
And say to all the world “This was a
As Kathryn Tempest reminds us in
BRUTUS: THE NOBLE CONSPIR ATOR (Yale University Press, $28.50),
the historical Antony is unlikely to
have made any such remarks; yet there
was, in Marcus Brutus’ lifetime and
among the ancient commentators, a
widespread belief that the liberator
rs. Osmond is not the only
novel to be published this
month about a woman who
couples up with a monster. O happy
day, the reissue of Rachel Ingalls’s
MR S. C A LIBA N (New Directions,
$13.95)! Thirty-five years old, it is
fresher than most things written yesterday. I wish I could say that I have
always known about it. Instead I confess to the zeal of a new convert. Every
one of its 128 pages is perfect, original, and arresting. Clear a Saturday,
please, and read it in a single sitting.
Dorothy is a housewife. Years ago her
son died during a routine appendectomy.
“Avocados, 1936,” from the monograph Paul Outerbridge, by Manfred Heiting
and Elaine Dines-Cox, published by TASCHEN. Photograph by Paul
Outerbridge Jr. © 2017 G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, Beverly Hills, California
was “an honorable man.” The most
famous assassin of the dictator perpetuo
was a student of philosophy who acted,
it was said, not out of personal greed
but out of concern for the republic. He
was the descendant on his father’s side
(or so he claimed) of Lucius Brutus,
who had driven the last king out of
Rome, and, on his mother’s side, of
Servilius Ahala, who in 439 b.c. killed
the would-be autocrat Spurius Maelius. It was this lineage that inspired
the graffitists of 44 b.c. Someone
inked utinam viveres (“If only you
were alive”) beneath the statue of Lucius Brutus. The praetorian tribunal
where Marcus Brutus worked was also
tagged. brutus, are you asleep,
you’re no brutus. Etc.
The people of Rome may have clamored for “another Brutus” and resented
Caesar’s monarchical aspirations, but
unlike the elites, who studied Greek
philosophy, they did not think the imperator was a tyrant and did not go in
for tyrannicide. It proved easy to kill
Caesar, and impossible to kill Caesarism. Life in Rome got worse after the
assassination (a bloody civil war culminated in the triumph of Augustus, né
Octavian, the first Roman emperor), but
did Brutus deserve the
punishment concocted
by D a nt e — t o b e
mashed in the teeth of
Lucifer alongside fellow
conspirator Cassius and
brother-in-treachery Judas Iscariot in the lowest circle of Hell? It depends on your source.
Shakespeare was influenced by Plutarch, who
held up Brutus as an
exemplar of virtue;
Dante read Lucan, Appian, and Virgil, who
hailed Octavian as “the
young champion” and
the rescuer of “a generation turned upside
down.” But it is Cicero
who had the greatest
influence on Brutus’
reputation, causing
generations to view
him as a brave idealist
who forgot to make a
plan for what would
happen on March 16.
“By all means, we must fly. But with
our hands, not our feet,” Brutus is reported to have said before committing
suicide after the second battle of Philippi. Death scenes were of special importance to the Romans. In Suetonius’ account of Caesar’s assassination, the
ruler dies with only a groan, emphasizing
the surprise nature of the attack. His
famous last words—Kai su, teknon
(“Even you, my child”)—may have been
concocted by Brutus’ detractors, who
started the rumor that Brutus was Caesar’s illegitimate child, and thus a patricide as well as a killer of the pater patriae.
(There is no historical evidence for this.
Brutus’ mother did have an affair with
Caesar, but it happened when Brutus
was an adult.) The versions of the legend
that have Caesar issuing final words
carry a different meaning than the
plaintive sorrow of the literal translation, or Shakespeare’s “Et tu Brute?” Kai
su, teknon is the first half of a Greek
proverb that suggested Brutus would get
his comeuppance—“Even you, my child,
will have a bite of my power.” It was less
a lament than a curse. “Back at you,
kid!” is how Tempest puts it. The scholar Jeffrey Tatum gives it a more contemporary gloss: “See you in hell, punk!” Q
“hands-down the funniest,
gut-punchingest book
I’ve read in years”
—Chris Schwarz, Lost Art Press
“chisel-sharp, damn-funny”
—Jonathan Binzen, Fine Woodworking
“These poignant, honest, sometimes
heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious
but always masterful stories are so much
more than woodworking anecdotes—they
are nakedly human moments, rendered
with the hard-won sagacity of the
purist. A necessary read for any aspiring
craftsperson, but just as requisite
for the clientele.”
—Nick Offerman
“This book is riveting, pulling the reader
into the author's transatlantic story,
including unrequited romances, conflicts
about hinges, occasional slapstick, and
sleepless nights spent worrying about
budget, hardware, and design.”
—Kathryn Lofton, Professor of
Religious Studies and American Studies,
Yale University
“by far the most honest look into
the reality of being a professional
cabinetmaker that I’ve ever read... I was
expecting another book parroting what
has already been said by a thousand
other writers and could be Googled in
a millisecond...[t]he kind of book that
romanticizes woodworking as a profession
but doesn’t deal with the reality of living
at the poverty line. This was not that.
I will treasure this book.”
—E.Key, via Instagram
Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar © British Library Board/Bridgeman Images
Jennifer Egan’s shallow depths
By Lidija Haas
Discussed in this essay:
Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan. Scribner. 448 pages. $28.
t’s always tempting, but almost
never fun, to try to see what one
looks like from the outside.
There’s a glimpse of an American future near the end of Jennifer Egan’s
fuguelike novel A Visit from the Goon
Squad (2010), and it’s looking pretty
bleak. We don’t know quite what
year it is, but time has passed, lives
have been lived, and disappointments have been swallowed. The air
is darkening as ever higher skyscrapers rise all around and surveillance
helicopters drone overhead. Communication, even between those in the
same room, now feels easier via device, in an increasingly truncated
textspeak that has begun to infect
thought as well. Entertainment must
be calibrated to appeal to the broadest spectrum possible, especially to
very small children, of whom there
are an inordinate number because, as
a parent thinks to himself, “if thr r
children, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?” None of
this would make perfect sense as a
prediction, but like many depressing
fantasies of the future, by turning up
the dial on some of the sadder, pettier, more undignified aspects of the
present, it does have a certain power
to make us uncomfortable.
Most of Goon Squad takes place
in the recentish past, yet gives the
same slightly unsettling sense of
peering in from elsewhere at what
should be people like yourself—the
effect is akin to seeing old photographs or rereading an ancient diary
and thinking, What happened? Did I
really feel that way about it? Time is
the “goon” of the title—or Egan
herself is, exploding a whole bunch
of imaginary lives into little scenes
Lidija Haas’s most recent review for Harper’s
Magazine, “Are You Kidding?,” appeared in
the October 2016 issue.
and fragments and then letting us
piece them back together haltingly
and imperfectly. Many characters
are only sketched in, and the narrative skips back and forth in time
and among people, full of abrupt
switches and lacunae. The years lost
to a drug addiction go by in a sentence or two; several marriages and
their acrimonious ends are dealt
with in a paragraph; and ambitious,
promiscuous young sellouts are suddenly gone-to-seed nostalgists struggling to regain the occasional hardon. The characters themselves
aren’t given much room to marvel
over these turns and transformations, but there are exceptions, as
when a down-on-his-luck janitor
visits an old friend, now a swanky
record exec, to ask, “What happened between A and B?” “A is
when we were both in the band,
chasing the same girl,” he reminds
the exec. “B is now.” (Silently, he
translates the question: “We were
both a couple of asswipes, and now
only I’m an asswipe: why?”)
The central brilliance of Goon
Squad is its cheeky ability to turn
what could have been weaknesses
into strengths. It’s a trick Egan
manages through her mastery of
rhythm, which is to say by echo and
repetition and by leaving out most
of what lies between A and B—and,
of course, Z. Set amid the music industry’s 1970s heyday and decline,
the book includes an analysis of the
uses of the pause in pop songs. Like
an album, the novel is structured by
its own artful pauses, which provide
leeway for the expressions of heightened feeling in between. What
might seem sentimental becomes an
insight into the workings of people’s
sentiment; figures who could be
mere stereotypes become real, selfconscious creatures striving to live
up to those stereotypes, or simply
souls whose more complicated interior worlds, like everyone’s, are hidden from those around them; what
might have been a lazy wrapping-up
of a plot strand becomes a vivid
evocation of how people affect us
and then vanish, the rest of their
stories permanently obscured. In
other words, what is cheap grows
resonant, what is absent becomes
something to savor. The gaps and
sudden metamor phoses ca n in
themselves produce a startling effect
of reality—the more paltry and cliché the frustrated hopes, the more
recognizable they seem. The book
offers a formal rendering of themes
Egan has been drawn to throughout
her career: the performance of the
self; a prenostalgic longing for some
more authentic experience; a chronological claustrophobia in which
the American promise of a wideopen vista of possible lives is always
already broken.
gan’s new book, Manhattan
Beach, plays things much
straighter, at least on the surface. A historical novel beginning
during the Depression, it soon becomes a wartime romance, albeit one
between a woman and the deep blue
sea. Anna Kerrigan, its restless IrishAmerican heroine, longs to join the
war effort as a diver repairing Navy
ships, a job that’s strictly reserved for
men. Growing up poor with her severely disabled sister, Lydia, Anna
was used to being taken along on her
father’s shady work assignments, but
before long, Eddie Kerrigan has vanished, perhaps killed, and Anna joins
a phalanx of young women measuring battleship parts in the Brooklyn
Navy Yard.
The story is narrated in a close
third person that inhabits a handful of characters: we mostly follow
Anna, but also look in on Eddie in
his younger days and on one of his
a s s o ci ate s, D ex ter St yle s, a n
Italian-American nightclub owner
who Anna suspects may k now
something about her father’s disappearance. For the most part, time
moves only in the expected direc-
tions: there’s the odd dreamy flashback or a journey into someone’s
childhood to fill in how he got
here, but unlike in Goon Squad,
there are no midsentence fastforwards into the future, no compressing of decades and lives into
paragraphs or skipping back to
catch a glimpse of the same people
from a surprising angle. As in a period film, events follow a graceful
track and, wherever the camera
turns, everybody looks just right.
Egan has always been intrigued by
how what we look like constrains
who we are—quite a few of her previous characters recall those Sopranos mafiosi eagerly taking tips from
The Godfather. The mobsters in
Manhattan Beach are full of motivations that, if not always appealing,
are reliably picturesque. The aptly
named Styles punishes an underling
to demonstrate his supremacy, but
also because the underling has insulted a woman. (Styles’s respect for
women is a bit of a theme.) His
father-in-law, a banker smilingly predicting a victory in the war followed
by the rise of American hegemony,
has made sure to insist, as a condition for his approval of their marriage, that Styles be impeccably
faithful to his daughter. The men
who run things, both the explicitly
criminal and the supposedly legitimate (who are, naturally, aware that
they’re symbiotic parts of a system),
operate according to a strict honor
code that we already understand—
their loyalties and sensibilities can be
precisely and elegantly traced. In the
third person, though, it’s not always
clear how unfiltered the thoughts we
hear are supposed to be, or whether
what we see is only the face these
men want to show one another.
Egan’s preoccupation with faces,
with seeing and being seen and the
intricate network of traps that both
involve, goes back a long way. Even
the two epigraphs to her first novel,
The Invisible Circus, embody what she
presents as a central American tension: Ludwig Feuerbach’s diagnosis of
the present as an age in which only illusion is sacred, Emily Dickinson’s image of bursting through the illusory
“Speed Graphic View Camera, circa 1940,” by Susan Dobson. Courtesy
the artist and Michael Gibson Gallery, London, Ontario
everyday (“Exultation is the going / Of
an inland soul to sea, / Past the
houses—past the headlands— / Into
deep eternity—”). In Egan’s short stories, people are always anxiously observing themselves and their lives at a
remove. “Someday I’ll know I was
lucky to be here,” a girl thinks; a
striving young man observes that
New York City is “a place that glittered from a distance even when you
reached it.” Egan is drawn to characters whose jobs and circumstances
make them emblematic of an age both
hypermaterialistic and bafflingly dematerialized. There are con men and
fashion models and stylists and P.R.
gurus and disgraced financiers and demographic consultants and a man who
photographs food for a living, using Elmer’s glue instead of milk to get the seductive whiter-than-white that will
spark viewers’ desire. (Foreigners note
with awe and resentment the whiteness of American milk and the orangeness of American oranges.)
Egan’s best book is perhaps Look
at Me (2001), though that novel
can’t quite sustain the intensity of
its convictions all the way to the
end. It offers the most explicit treatment of these problems, and shows
her satirical and humanistic impulses at their most finely balanced. The
novel follows a model, her career already in decline, whose face is radically altered in a car crash and who
is offered a series of compromised
redemptions (meaning: ways to regain the public’s attention). She is
joined by a college hero who becomes a lone crank railing against
the information age and a would-be
terrorist making his home amid the
McDonald’s and TV and other
comforts that once signaled defeat
to him. Egan’s work performs a historically specific balancing act: so
many of her people are either fakers or stuck in surroundings that
feel fake (or both), and still we
must believe in them and their
struggles enough to lend the story
its propulsion and emotional heft.
The interactions among her characters frequently offer the reader
the shock of the real, and yet this is
in part because they exist as if
trapped behind glass—a feeling we
recognize as drawn from life.
nna Kerrigan is an odd hybrid.
On the one hand, she is the
most recognizable kind of
period-piece heroine, combining oldfashioned virtues like pluck and
singlemindedness and loyalty with
those a more modern girl must display
lest she seem too much of a prig. On
the other hand, she’s an ambiguous
trickster, always subtly shifting and
lying her way out of trouble. There are
suggestions that the attraction to the
sea she shares with both her father
and Styles goes along with a slippery,
changeable quality: just as Eddie is
valued by his bosses for his ability to
move in and out of different spaces
and social contexts without being
noticed (especially useful when ferrying bribes between people who’d
rather remain apparently unconnected), she’s someone who can fit in
when necessary, deflect attention, talk
her way around any problem. “You
could be a spy or a detective,” Nell,
her Betty Grable–type girlfriend at
the Navy Yard, says. “No one would
know who you really are or who you
work for.” This skill extends to physical dexterity: we hear in several contexts about the feats Anna can perform with her hands, eyes closed.
It’s often in the moments when
she does this that the novel’s relationship with time begins to seem
more complicated—she feels it slip
and slow and speed around her.
There are passages in which the
mechanics of plot and even character appear to slide by in a familiar
lull while the real life of the book
goes on elsewhere, in little explosions of the sensual. (In this respect,
it’s not unlike Goon Squad, so much
of which takes place between the
lines.) Even as a child, Anna experiences lives within lives: moving between the worlds of home and her
father’s work, she feels she has
“shaken free of one life for a deeper
one,” forgetting each in turn “until
it seemed there was no place further
down she could go. . . . She had never reached the bottom.” In a way, it’s
the experience of someone who
doesn’t very often need to lie but
can simply navigate a situation according to its requirements, untroubled by the reality of the past year
or even the past five minutes.
Manhattan Beach is clearly lovingly researched, and Egan has folded in
pieces of real stories—for which several people are thanked in the acknowledgments. But despite the
sparing delicacy with which she uses
period detail, the heart of the novel
lies elsewhere. The book is most centrally concerned with a particular
feeling, one frequently evoked in
Goon Squad too: an almost erotic
yearning to transcend limits, to escape oneself.
The sea is the focus of much of
this yearning, but it also appears in
other places. A heightened and aestheticized physicality runs throughout the book, with some sharp beauty or swooning pleasure evoked on
every page. Borrowing a bicycle from
Nell on her lunch break, Anna finds
she can fly:
Motion performed alchemy on her
surroundings, transforming them
from the disjointed array of scenes
into a symphonic machine she could
soar through invisibly as a seagull.
She rode wildly, half laughing, the
sooty wind filling her mouth.
The first test Anna is given by the
divers, on the assumption that she’ll
fail and then can be easily fobbed off,
is to untie an elaborate knot while
weighted down by two hundred
pounds of equipment. The description of her finding a vulnerable point
is tinged with eroticism, which helps
make time go slow-quick-quick-slow:
She felt the knot’s weakness, like the
faint, incipient bruise on an apple, and
dug her fingers in. . . . The knot made a
last clutching effort to preserve itself,
its reluctance to yield making it seem
almost alive. Then it surrendered, the
cords loose in her hands.
Most striking of all is the languor
and gorgeousness associated with
Lydia, the sister who can’t stand or
talk, and whose murmurings also
seem to connect her to the sea:
“Anna danced holding Lydia until
her sister’s floppiness became part of
the dancing. All of them grew
flushed; their mother’s hair fell loose,
and her dress came unbuttoned at
the top.” The experience of bathing
Lydia has none of the sadness and
difficulty one might expect—it is
otherworldly. As they lift her out of
the water, there are “bubbles gleaming on the unexpected twists of her
body—beautiful in its strange way,
like the inside of an ear.”
For this elemental quality, it helps
that Egan has chosen World War II,
a period in which normal social rules
were more or less suspended: identities can be shed more easily, and
even nice girls can get away with far
more than they could before (or after). It’s also a period visually and aurally familiar to us, layered with previous versions of itself, which adds to
the undertow of sensuous unreality.
(At one point Anna watches some
young couples clutching each other
as “I’ve Heard That Song Before”
plays.) There’s a light, foamy gratification to be found in every detail.
By the same token, the stakes feel
oddly low. You sense that everything
will work out well, or at least neatly,
prettily. Even the pains and disadvantages of womanhood, though
they come up a good deal, don’t seem
to affect Anna—they become almost
part of a backdrop of comical oldworld charm. (The same is true of
race: the evocation of the experience
of Marle, a black diver, for instance,
is notable for its gentleness.) Rose, a
married friend at the yard, warns
Anna that the other girls are beginning to talk about the special treatment she is getting from their supervisor: “A reputation lasts. . . . It
follows you.” In the world of the novel, this kind of warning turns out to
be just true enough to spark a bit of
mild drama, and yet nothing and no
one really puts up much of a fight
against Anna. The dive boss comes
around so thoroughly that he forgets
he ever doubted her; in fact, she captivates most of the men she meets,
and she gets what she wants without
having to sleep with any of them.
The sex she does occasionally have
is, despite the prevailing cultural assumptions, charmingly egalitarian.
It’s not just Anna—at least one
other character escapes what seems
certain death not once but twice—
and yet she’s the figurehead, at
times more like a force than a person. “Loosening a knot,” she thinks
during her test, “always seemed impossible until it was inevitable,”
and that’s how most things go for
her. Anna longs to show her sister
the “strange, violent, beautiful sea”
that “touched every part of the
world, a glittering curtain drawn
across a mystery.” Egan expertly
evokes the longing for something
mysterious, and yet never quite
wants to make it happen. There’s
more beauty here than strangeness,
and the violence never bursts its
bounds. An unmistakable smoothness is given to what could have
been rougher and more frightening,
on or off land. The past is not so
much a foreign country as a movie
set. You slide into bright waters,
but there’s no danger of getting
hurt, no chance of drowning.
Together, we can
build a bright future.
hile all this could sound
like a failure of imagination
or ambition on the part of
the author, it strikes me, in the end, as
something rather eerier. Stripping
away a layer of anxious generational
irony, Manhattan Beach only hints at
the conflicts that animate Goon Squad
and are the explicit subject of Look at
Me. Egan’s powers of microscopic social and psychological observation
here occupy the foreground, and her
critique of postwar American culture
is turned down to a whisper—readers
who start with this book could be
forgiven for missing it altogether.
All her previous work has contended with recent society as shaped
by American power, which, both
crude and insidious, continually coopts and exhausts any creative energies in its path. By contrast, the
imagined world of the new novel
feels oddly frictionless. As an analyst
of the shallows, Egan must always
gesture toward depths that she imagines might have been reachable before. But it feels too late for her—or
for us—to escape into them. Both
Goon Squad and Look at Me end
with a quick leap forward in time, a
jump that forces the reader to look
back from a dystopian future that
feels naggingly like the moment we
now live in. In Manhattan Beach,
Egan doesn’t describe it again—she
doesn’t need to. That future is where
we’re reading from, and every aspect
of this novel (so well disguised as
retro-futuristic) is marked by it.
Note: * indicates an anagram.
group 1: underdog* (33A); crumpets* (1A); peerless, pun (9D); w-hoppers (15D).
group 2: slug, two mngs. (32A); [no]crag, rev. (28D); C.(IG)S., rev. (1D); perp[endicular] (7A).
group 3: I-ago (10A); OK-Ra (31A); O[liver]-pal (26D); Rhee, homophone (8D).
group 4: rain(homophone)-man[y] (30A); brio-Che (11A); ratchet* (2D); semipro* (20D).
group 5: co-MM-it (12A); orgasm, hidden (16D); stadia* (13D); amount* (29A).
group 6: posthypnotic* (25A); moon-lighting (3D); point of honor* (7D); scene painter* (14A).
group 7: whole, homophone (15A); sit-in[g] (6D); sham-[new]s (24A); Sham-U.(S.) (23D).
group 8: [a]t-all (18A); [ti]p-tah(rev.) (22A); [e]p(it)ome (4D); [u]n[b]u[n]d[l]e[d] (27D).
group 9: vilifies* (21A); her-it-age (19A); dair*-yman* (17D); triangle* (5D).
Feminist struggles are labor struggles
By Dayna Tortorici
Discussed in this essay:
Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success, by Ivanka Trump. Portfolio.
256 pages. $26.
No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, by Jane McAlevey.
Oxford University Press. 254 pages. $29.95.
arlier this year, the New York
Times ran a story that read
like a parable of twenty-firstcentury feminism. The subject was
Ivanka Trump, and the year was 2013.
Ms. Trump had started licensing her
name to a line of women’s shoes, jewelry, clothing, and handbags. The label had debuted on the luxury market, but luxury customers were not
buying. The future lay in mass retail.
Ms. Trump’s image presented a problem: she was “perceived as rich and
unrelatable,” an internal document
explained. So she gathered her husDayna Tortorici is a coeditor of n+1.
band and a few employees at her Upper East Side apartment to workshop
her brand. At the time, Lean In, by
Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg,
was number one on the bestseller list,
and Ms. Trump wanted a slogan of
her own. The brain trust settled on
“Women who work.”
Women Who Work: Rewriting the
Rules for Success, published in May, was
the capstone of the ensuing brand overhaul. A pseudofeminist business memoir laced with the kind of language that
gives away Ms. Trump as a woman for
whom work was optional (“You are a
woman who works,” she insists nine
times), the book captures the worst of
“lean-in feminism,” the Sandbergian
strain of business-friendly empowerment politics. For the past several years,
this ideology has offered middle-class
and upper-class women advice on how
to navigate a workplace that remains
hostile or indifferent to their needs. It
prompts women to confront the psychological barriers that hold them back—
low self-esteem, fear of failure, lack of
will to lead—and offers individual, doit-yourself solutions. Though not blind
to the structural hurdles that keep
women from success, lean-in feminism
regards them as secondary. What lies
within a woman’s control is her decision to
embrace power or reject it. If her obligation
is toward the former, it
is because change, according to Lean In, is
top-down. “More female leadership will
lead to fairer treatment
for all women,” Sandberg wrote in 2013.
Hence the theory’s
other name: “trickledown feminism.”
Four years and one
traumatic presidential
election later, it’s hard
not to see Women
Who Work as conclusive evidence of the
hollowness of this
philosophy. Hillary
Clinton overcame
enough psychological
barriers to pursue a
second bid for the
presidency, but she
still hit the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” in American politics. As for the
few women who hold power in Trump’s
administration, they show little concern for their less fortunate countrywomen. Secretary of Education Betsy
DeVos, a billionaire heiress with a
stake in the charter school movement,
has announced plans to cut billions of
dollars in funding to the country’s
public schools, which employ more
than 2 million women and serve more
than 50 million students. Ms. Trump,
who has assumed an advisory role to
her father, has advocated staying an
Obama-era equal-pay rule that requires large companies to collect data
Signs in a storeroom at the headquarters for the Chicago Teachers
Union strike in 2012 © AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong
on what they pay employees by gender
and race. (As for her treatment of
women elsewhere in the world, she
continues to outsource the fabrication
of her products to Asia, where labor
protections are lax.)
Ms. Trump was right to identify
working women as a powerful contingent. Her mistake—and it was a
mistake: the book flopped—was to
address them as a consumer demographic at a time of burgeoning political consciousness. On January 21,
three months before the book’s release
and just a day after her father’s inauguration, millions of women across the
country took to the streets in the first
major protest against the new administration. Though not not invited,
Ms. Trump was elsewhere. The march
was the largest single-day protest in
U.S. history, a sign that protesting
under the banner of women was a
promising strategy.
But the future of this coalition was
uncertain even before the event began.
The protesters’ demands were urgent—
climate justice, racial justice, economic
justice, gender justice—but too numerous to take on at once. Many of the
marchers were new to activism and
would need direction.
Political organizers often say that
social movements require institutions
to make lasting change. While movements create energy and build momentum, institutions—political parties,
nonprofits, or looser coalitions—
distill that energy into something
concrete and potentially enduring.
More important, they grant people a
seat at the table where contests for
power take place. Institutions recognize institutions more readily than
they do individuals. It is easier to
lobby for, demand, propose, and enforce political change under the aegis
of a nameable group.
Given the female leadership of
many of today’s progressive groups and
the pull of “woman” as a political identity, one might say that non-elite
women are best suited to lead the
movement against Trump. Still, the
question remains of what institutional
form their efforts will take. Some will
pursue the electoral route, seeking office and lending support to progressive
candidates. Others will mobilize
around causes. But there is a third site
of resistance, often overlooked by
middle- and upper-class feminists,
where women are already organizing
on a mass scale: the labor movement.
o Shortcuts: Organizing for
Power in the New Gilded Age,
by Jane McAlevey, argues
that all organizers have something
to learn from labor. A study of successful strike campaigns since 2000,
the book makes the case that mass
participation is the key to winning
broad democratic reform. Though
not a book about feminism, it has
implications for feminists and working women generally.
McAlevey, a longtime environmental activist, union-contract negotiator, and a former national deputy director for the S.E.I.U.’s health
care division, understands why
unions may not be the preferred
model for left-wing organizing today.
Not all unions are progressive—
many are oligarchic and rightleaning; 43 percent of union household s vo te d fo r Tr u m p — a n d
membership has been in decline
since the 1970s. Decades of unionbusting and corporate-funded messaging, including recent right-towork campaigns, have made many
Americans suspicious of organized
labor. The press has done little to
correct the record. (For all the sections devoted to business in American newspapers, there are few devoted to labor.) Meanwhile, in the
academy, McAlevey writes, there is
an “informal gestalt” that unions
“are not social movements at all.”
What unions call to mind in the
neoliberal imagination, however—
corruption, bureaucracy, narrow interests, white-male dominance—is not
representative of what the labor movement is or can be. Particularly in the
public sector and in the fast-growing
service economy, the face of labor is
the face of a woman, usually a woman
of color. At their best, McAlevey argues, today’s unions are social movements, democratically run grassroots
struggles that reach beyond the workplace and address intersecting needs.
It sometimes seems there is a forged,
collective resistance to seeing the best
of labor organizing today as being ev-
ery bit as moral, legitimate, and
strength producing as the sixty-yearold civil rights movement.
The civil rights movement itself
learned from labor. Some of its most
successful tactics—sit-ins, boycotts,
and pickets—were aimed at inflicting economic damage, a classic
union approach. To assume that
workplace struggles are simply about
wages is a mistake.
McAlevey offers the 2012 strike by
the Chicago Teachers Union (C.T.U.)
as an example of what social movement unionism can accomplish. In
1995, a fiscal crisis gave the Illinois
state legislature license to “fix” Chicago Public Schools. The legislature
authorized C.P.S. to subcontract certain functions, such as janitorial and
cafeteria services, to private companies. Teachers were stripped of their
right to collectively bargain over
working conditions (schedules, class
size, the length of the workday), and,
for the first time in the city’s history,
strikes were made illegal. C.P.S. was
reorganized as a business: the Board
of Education became the Reform
Board of Trustees, and the superintendent, a CEO.
The C.T.U. had once been a militant union. From 1969 to 1987, the
teachers went on strike nine times,
with one lasting a marathon twentyfive days. (Strikes are a measure of a
union’s strength because they cannot proceed without the support of
a majority of members.) In the mid1990s, McAlevey writes, a loose
alignment of union leaders across
the country that she calls New Labor
abandoned this tactic in hopes of
encouraging employer compliance;
if employers didn’t oppose the union,
New Labor leaders promised, the
worker s wou ld not st r i ke. I n
McAlevey’s account, this allowed for
union growth, but not much else.
Labor leaders increasingly turned to
business unionism, which made organizers, not workers, the key actors
in the bargaining process. Rank-andfile participation fell off, and organizers came to neglect the majoritybuilding tactics that had once made
unions powerful.
Tom Reece, the president of the
C.T.U. in the mid-Nineties, was a
leader in the New Labor style.
McAlevey describes him as “strike
and conflict averse.” In exchange
for contracts with reasonable raises
for teachers, he allowed Paul Vallas, the first CEO of C.P.S., to assume “monarchical powers” over
Chicago’s school system. Vallas
could disband local school councils, replace principals, and fire
teacher s en m a s se i n scho ol s
deemed to be “failing” (as measured by students’ performance on
standardized tests). By 1996, when
that designation had been replaced
by “educational crisis schools,” and
then by “on probation,” Vallas was
legally allowed to dismiss such a
school’s entire staff. That same
year, he put 109 schools, many in
poor or majority-black neighborhoods, on probation.
Throughout the early 2000s, as
No Child Left Behind made standardized testing the norm across the
United States, Chicago teachers rallied within the C.T.U. for new leadership. At the same time, community organizers, who were fighting
school closures, began to link the
closures to a broader pattern of gentrification. When more than a dozen
schools were shuttered in t he
2005–06 school year, a handful of
teachers formed a citywide study
group to better understand what was
happening to their school system.
Their first collective read, Naomi
Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, described
how big business used natural and
economic disasters as opportunities
to replace public services with private ones, including schools. “Before
Hurricane Katrina,” Klein wrote, the
New Orleans school board “had run
123 public schools”; by 2007, “it ran
just four.” Meanwhile the number of
charter schools increased fourfold.
The teachers saw that the Illinois
budget crisis of 1995 was for C.P.S.
what Katrina had been for New Orleans: a pretext to get rid of public
schools entirely.
nions are “structure-based”
organizations, McAlevey
writes: members are united
not by affinity or self-selection but by
the institution that employs them.
Many union members do not consider
themselves activists, and their
networks—book clubs, sports teams,
church groups—are not populated by
activists either. This, McAlevey argues, is a good thing. Engaging “ordinary people” in the struggle for equality and political power is “the point of
organizing,” otherwise activists merely organize themselves. While one
cannot build a mass movement of
activists alone, activists—like the
Chicago teachers who formed that
study group—can play a critical role
in getting structure-based efforts off
the ground.
Out of that group grew two key
organizations: CORE, the Caucus of
Rank-and-File Educators inside the
union, and GEM, the Grassroots Education Movement. In 2009, CORE
and GEM organized a community
forum on the school closures that,
despite a blizzard, attracted more
than five hundred people. C.P.S.
leaders took note, pruning their list
of proposed closures for the coming
year. “Expectations were suddenly
raised,” McAlevey writes. “Teacherand-community coalitions could
beat city hall.”
By 2010, CORE had the “most
extensive grassroots operation” of
any caucus inside the union, and
decided to run its own slate of candidates in the upcoming C.T.U. elections. At the top of CORE’s ticket
was Karen Lewis, a National Board–
certified teacher who’d taught high
school chemistry for twenty-two
years. Lewis and her husband both
worked in Chicago public schools, as
had both of her parents. She was,
McAlevey notes, “the only black
woman in her 1974 graduating class
at Dartmouth.” When CORE’s ticket
won, Lewis made their position clear.
“Corporate America sees K-throughtwelve public education as three hundred and eighty billion dollars that,
up until the last ten or fifteen years,
they didn’t have a sizable piece of,”
she said in her acceptance speech.
“This so-called reform is not an education plan. It’s a business plan.”
Under CORE’s leadership, the
C.T.U. poured its energy into organizing its own ranks. The C.T.U. is a
huge union, representing more than
26,000 teachers, but participation
had slumped since the Eighties. Or-
ganizers went from school to school
to talk with teachers, explaining that
their next contract negotiations
would not be about winning a
percentage-point raise but about securing the future of the schools.
In the fall of 2010, Rahm Emmanuel announced his plans to
leave the White House and run for
mayor of Chicago. The teachers
braced for a fight. Emmanuel had
b e en a prop onent o f ch a r ter
schools and saw unions as an obstacle to their success. With the
support of Stand for Children, an
anti-union advocacy group, he ran
a TV ad chiding the teachers for
not working enough. If elected, he
promised, he would extend the
school day.
Emmanuel was elected in February 2011. One of his first acts was to
appoint a new CEO and school
board, who announced that they
would repeal a scheduled 4 percent
raise in the teachers’ contract. This
breach of faith only galvanized the
union. When Emmanuel summoned
Lewis to his office to discuss the
length of the school day that September, he reportedly began the
meeting by asking, “Well, what the
fuck do you want?” Lewis fired back:
“More than you’ve fucking got.”
The exchange won the attention of
the press. “Karen was black, smart,
and bold,” one community organizer
told McAlevey, “and that alone
made her newspaper-worthy in a
city not known for straight talkers.”
Anticipating difficult contract negotiations in 2012, the C.T.U. ran
what is called a structure test: a lowstakes action that doubles as a measure of inter nal strength. The
C.T.U.’s structure test was a mock
strike vote. To prepare, a fortyperson team charted the teachers’
social networks. An essential step in
increasing participation would be to
identify who within each school was
most likely to bring other teachers
on board—the people who were
what McAlevey calls “organic leaders.” Organic leaders rarely selfidentify as leaders, she notes, but can
be picked out for their “natural influence with their peers.” They are “the
key to scale,” particularly within
structure-based organizations.
The results of the mock vote revealed where turnout was low, and
where more organic leaders would
be needed to pass a real strike vote.
A piece of legislation from the previous year stipulated that 75 percent of all teachers would need to
participate in a strike vote for it to
be valid—“a rather amazing criteria,” McAlevey writes, “given that
turnout in typical elections in the
United States hovers in the 20 to
30 percent range.”
eachers, like nurses, are what
McAlevey calls “missiondriven workers.” They “labor
for something deeply purposeful; they
are called to their labor.” Because
mission-driven workers understand
the direct impact of their absence on
the people they serve—people who
are not their bosses—the decision to
walk off the job can be agonizing.
Self-interest is rarely a sufficient motivation to strike. When there is sufficient cause, however, mission-driven
workers have all the more incentive
to win. In June 2012, the C.T.U.
called a real strike vote. Ninety percent of its members—roughly 24,000
teachers—turned out, and against
incredible odds, 76 percent voted to
authorize a strike.
The strike began on September 10,
2012. On its first day, an estimated
35,000 teachers, parents, and community members marched through
downtown Chicago, bringing traffic
to a halt. For the next nine days, the
teachers picketed their local schools
and then gathered downtown to
rally. C.P.S. scrambled to keep the
schools open, hoping it could stem
the tide of calls from parents demanding that they settle. Emmanuel’s
expensive media campaign to vilify
the teachers had failed: parents fed
the teachers on the picket lines, and
when they couldn’t bring their kids
to work, left them under the teachers’
watch. The C.T.U. had put in years of
legwork to include parents in the
planning process and developed a
clear analysis that linked children’s
quality of education to teachers’
working conditions; it paid off. In the
many interviews McAlevey conducted with teachers for No Shortcuts,
one of the most consistent themes
was their “disbelief, after twenty-five
years of never having been on strike,
that their students, and their students’ parents, would fervently lend
their support.”
The strike ended on September
18. Emmanuel got his extended
school day, but the C.T.U. won a
pay increase, defended tenure, and
managed to keep its long-standing
raise structure based on years of service and educational skills. More
impressively, the teachers had reformed a huge, concession-prone,
in-name-only union into a democratic, majority-run political force at
a time when most people thought
unions were dead. They had identified and trained a new generation of
leaders, from Karen Lewis on down
to the organic leaders of the rank
a nd file, who would keep the
C.T.U.’s power alive. And through
years of meetings, discussion groups,
and forums, they had given a political education to thousands of Chicago teachers, parents, and community members who would follow
them into the voting booth.
The story, of course, does not end
there. In 2013, Emmanuel announced his plan to close forty-seven
schools, the largest such closure in
U.S. history outside of post-Katrina
New Orleans. Lewis considered a run
for mayor, but was diagnosed with
advanced brain cancer. (She is, however, still serving as the president of
the C.T.U.) The issues that brought
the teachers and the community
together—racism, gentrification,
school closures, and charter school
expansion—were not solved overnight, but the strike had clarified
what future campaigns would need
to do to win, and how political resistance could be staged through workplace battles.
t is not incidental that McAlevey’s
examples of mission-driven workers do what feminists refer to as
“socially reproductive” work: the historically feminine labor of reproducing the labor force through care
work. Nor is it incidental that many
of the things that feminists want—
good jobs, fair wages, paid sick and
family leave, health care, and child
care—are currently under employers’
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control. For the time being, feminist
struggles are labor struggles, and labor struggles are feminist struggles.
The Trump Administration’s push to
eliminate public services, from Medicaid to schools, is a battle in which
women have a special stake, and not
only because millions of health-care
workers and educators are women.
Years of austerity politics in Europe
have shown that when the government ceases to pay for public services, women pick up the slack.
Grandmothers and neighbors dedicate more time to watching children;
daughters and sisters take on nursing, teaching, and elder care. It goes
without saying that most of this
work is unpaid.
Looking ahead, McAlevey writes,
“education and health care are the
strategic sectors” of the service
economy, which means nurses and
teachers will play a critical role in
labor’s future. Hospitals and schools
cannot be shipped offshore, and unlike manufacturing workers, health
care and education workers have direct, intimate relationships with the
people they serve. This raises the
bar for when to call strikes, but it
gives these workers a strategic advantage, as the C.T.U.’s strike shows.
Education and health care workers also have the experience and
insight that the Trump Administ r at ion s o d a n gero u sly l ack s.
Teachers are fighting what Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the
National Education Association,
calls DeVos’s “brand new shiny private school voucher program for
schools that are allowed to discrim-
inate and over-promise and underdeliver.” Nu r se-led ca nva ssi ng
helped kill the disastrous G.O.P.
health care bills. Some nurses’
unions, such as the New York State
Nurses Association and the Califor nia Nurses Association, are
leading the push for single-payer
health care in their states.
Today, few political organizations
on the left, unions included, practice the sor t of orga nizing
McAlevey believes builds the mass
involvement necessary to beat global corporate leviathans. Instead,
“mobilizing” has become the norm,
with “authentic messengers” from
the grassroots lending a public face
to efforts run by a handful of paid
staff. The Democrats’ electoral failures have shown that money and
top-down messaging are not enough
to win; the right will always outspend and outspin the left. As
McAlevey writes,
No number of pollster-perfected frames
will undo the 100 years of social conditioning that have taught Americans to
accept their economic and political
roles, and to think “collectivism bad”
and “individualism good.”
The way to change minds is to engage ordinary people in a struggle
that they must shape and lead themselves. “People participate to the degree they understand,” she observes,
“but they also understand to the degree they participate.” Rather than
looking upward for support—toward
the beneficent feminists of the corporate class—working women should
just look around.
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By Richard E. Maltby Jr.
he answer to each of the triplets
comprises three seven-letter words overlapping by three letters, e.g., MUSICALORICHEST. The clue to each is three definitions, in random order, not overlapping
or having any unnecessary connectives,
which will yield those three words. Solvers
are to determine where to enter the triplets in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Down or in 6, 19, 28, 37,
44 Across. Triplet answers include three
proper nouns and one hyphenated word.
The central word in 5D is uncommon.
The remaining clues are normal. Their
answers include five proper nouns and three
foreign words. 8D and 10D are uncommon,
and there is one British spelling. As always,
mental repunctuation of a clue is the key
to its solution. The solution to last month’s
puzzle appears on page 89.
Ultimately fed dwarf tiny things
Eternal make-believe—concentrate!
Stretchy tissue toning Carmen’s friend
Thankless one-night drawing room?
Bad actor sings “I’m A … Teapot”
Change intervals, biting Napoleon’s hat, e.g.
Set up offers to improvise
South Carolina college to make fat British notes
Dieter provided food dish
Slippery mover opening breakfast food
Scratch back—it’s a sign! (3)
Land meatier parts (7)
Sawbones cut the end off of … cut the end off of … (3)
Love to be in khaki (5)
Horn in on backwashing a still (4)
Ileac conditions for someone who had a major fall (5)
Lentil soup makes one beam (6)
Routine decapitation of what Voltaire did? (4)
Rouge in makeup can get one out of control (5)
Belt level headed person, a writer of the sea (4)
Poise, sine fine, can be itself Latin (4)
Teams producing computer keys (5)
Important part of being smart? (3)
She’ll get you laid up, and ’ere’s somethin’ for coverage (9)
Getting on board, initially facing this forward? (3)
Ground meats, so dried on the ends (3)
Trial’s ending up front gives you least direction (4)
Birthing denier? She bathes in mythology (6)
Teacher is seen in a new way (6)
Late bloomer? That’s a lie! (4)
Arsenate of copper with a bit of silver in it essentially (7)
Distinguished government leader has adenoids out,
outside (9)
Remarkably factual, a colorful swimmer (8)
Vegetaters—out of bounds, as the French state (4)
Dad ultimately revealing of age (5)
Half an Alabama city, a dangerous group (3)
English can help so teams together can get outs (9)
British animator is greener creatively (9)
I feel bad about a third of Kansas State (6)
Not remembering cinema’s out of sync (7)
Potato Head of D.C.—shipping company lifts it (4)
It’s suiting: one name leading to Rachmaninoff (6)
Guns for ministers? (4)
Focal point for upcoming English professor (4)
Contest Rules: Send completed diagram with name and address to “Triplets,” Harper’s Magazine, 666 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012. If you
already subscribe to Harper’s, please include a copy of your latest mailing label. Entries must be received by November 10. The sender of the first
correct solution opened at random will receive a one-year subscription to Harper’s Magazine (limit one winner per household per year). The winner’s name will be printed in the January issue. The winner of the September puzzle, “The Second Coming,” is Amy Hamilton, Indianapolis, Ind.
hysicists at the Linac Coherent Light Source created diamond rain. Researchers identified features that
make some women’s faces significantly more attractive
from the front than from the side. Software that analyzes the color and tonality of Instagram posts is nearly
twice as successful at detecting depression in patients
as are G.P.’s. People who hear voices but aren’t mentally ill have a superior ability to detect speechlike
sounds hidden in noise. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are strongly linked to a more acidic brain. Goldfish are able to survive for months without oxygen by
converting lactic acid into ethanol. Zebrafish will take
risks for hydrocodone. G.P.’s trained at the lowestranked medical schools prescribe opioids three times
as often as those trained at the highest-ranked school.
Blacks suffer from migraines more than whites do, and
exhibit a higher ventral posterior thalamic response to
high-sugar milkshakes, but both are overprescribed
opioids. In thinking racism is a major problem, the gap
between Democrats and Republicans is now wider
than that between blacks and whites. White Americans report experiencing more gender, age, height/
weight, disability, and “other” discrimination than
black Americans do. The crew of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley were killed by the shock wave of
their own torpedo.
esearchers found that applying testosterone gel to
men asked to trade stocks led to asset-price bubbles.
Middle managers in the Kansas parole system make
small office-policy decisions to feel less disempowered.
Tennis players’ grunts rise in pitch during the matches
they lose. Cambridge scientists concluded that predict-
ing breathing difficulties in pugs is too complex for the
average dog breeder. Delhi residents were abandoning
substandard pugs whose medical bills proved too expensive, Agra doctors reported a man’s persistent delusions of a mole run amok in his body, Bombay’s bright
blue dogs were found not to be blind, and a pig-nosed
purple frog was discovered in the Western Ghats and
named for a herpetologist who was killed there in 2014
by a bamboo stalk to the left eye. Turtle-headed sea
snakes are shedding their stripes to survive pollution,
and as oceans warm, fish are expected to shrink by 20
to 30 percent.
ectal temperature following exercise is not affected
by merino underwear. Melbourne men with male fuck
buddies tend to have more rectal chlamydia. Gay porn
sites tend to present bottoms as having penises half the
size of tops’. Men who remove the entirety of their pubic hair at least eleven times in their lives are particularly prone to genital grooming injuries. Hernia repair
outcomes are not affected by the surgeon’s choice of
hat. Brazilian nurses reported that a healing touch may
benefit rats. Dry climates produce languages with fewer
vowels. Monks in Egypt discovered a Hippocratic recipe. Lemons were once a fruit of the Mediterranean
elite. Croatian doctors reported a case of infertility due
to a husband with a small penis and a wife with a large
urethral orifice. A large-scale survey of medical records
for Capgras delusion uncovered three patients who believed that it was not other people but themselves who
had been replaced by impostors. Attractive plagiarists
are judged more harshly. People tend to believe they
will be vindicated by history.
Vaters Acker, 2016, a painting by Neo Rauch. © The artist; Artists Rights Society, New York City; Galerie Eigen + ART,
Berlin/Leipzig; and David Zwirner, New York City/London. Photograph by Uwe Walter
Sources: 2016 Survey, Pew Research Center; GfK MRI, Spring 2016.
Better. Believe It.
With fake news leaving most
Americans confused about even
the basic facts, magazine media
keeps it real. Whether in print,
online, on mobile or video, people
trust it to be expertly researched,
written and fact-checked. No
wonder magazine readers are
more engaged and more likely to
recommend advertised products.
Being real matters. That’s a fact.
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