AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
6 GOINGS ON ABOUT TOWN 19 THE TALK OF THE TOWN
Jeﬀrey Toobin on the taunting of Jeﬀ Sessions; Jeﬀrey Tambor; a basement museum; war tales; Sheelah Kolhatkar on cable companies’ monopoly. PERSONAL HISTORY
Identity Crisis Naming a son.
Future Austen Adaptations
World of Interiors Rachel Cusk’s ﬁction of the self.
“ Subway Substitutes”
SHOUTS & MURMURS
THE POLITICAL SCENE
The Dream Deferred Bernie Sanders plays the long game. A REPORTER AT LARGE
The Separation A mother goes to family court. PROFILES
THE CRITICS THE CURRENT CINEMA
Laura Miller Dan Chiasson
72 75 77
Brieﬂy Noted Tom Perrotta’s “Mrs. Fletcher.” Susan Howe’s patchwork poetry.
Michael Hofmann Anne Carson
“In Western Mass” “Clive Song”
“Detroit,” “Whose Streets?” A CRITIC AT LARGE
Should Buddhism be secular? BOOKS
DRAWINGS Joe Dator, Charlie Hankin, William Haefeli, Frank Cotham, Liana Finck, Christopher Weyant, Edward Steed, P. C. Vey, Kendra Allenby, Will McPhail, Roz Chast, Tom Chitty, Ellis Rosen, Maddie Dai, Barbara Smaller, George Booth, David Sipress SPOTS Nishant Choksi
CONTRIBUTORS Larissa MacFarquhar (“The Separation,”
Benjamin Wallace-Wells (“The Dream
p. 36) is the author of “Strangers Drowning,” which is now out in paperback.
Deferred,” p. 30) has contributed to the magazine since 2006, and became a staﬀ writer in 2015.
Don DeLillo (Fiction, p. 58) is the author of the story collection “The Angel Esmeralda,” among other works of ﬁction. “Zero K” is his most recent novel. Judith Thurman (“World of Interiors,” p. 48) began writing for the magazine in 1987 and became a staﬀ writer in 2000. She is the author of “Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire,” a collection of her New Yorker essays. Bob Staake (Cover) has created twenty-
one covers for the magazine. His “Book of Gold” will be published next year. Laura Miller (Books, p. 75), the author of “The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia,” is a books-andculture columnist at Slate.
Lauren Collins (“Identity Crisis,” p. 24) is the author of “When in French: Love in a Second Language,” which came out in 2016. Adam Gopnik (A Critic at Large, p. 69),
a staﬀ writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1986. His most recent book is “The Table Comes First.” Luci Gutiérrez (Sketchbook, p. 53), an illustrator based in Barcelona, contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine. She is currently working on a new book. Dan Chiasson (Books, p. 77), who teaches at Wellesley College, has written reviews for the magazine since 2007. “Bicentennial” is his latest book of poems.
Michael Hofmann (Poem, p. 27) is a poet
and translator. His latest collection, “One Lark, One Horse,” will be published in September, 2018.
Blythe Roberson (Shouts & Murmurs, p. 29) is a contributor to the Onion, ClickHole, and newyorker.com.
PHOTO BOOTH Alexandra Schwartz on Meryl Meisler’s photographs of Fire Island as a gay haven in the nineteen-seventies.
PODCAST Ryan Lizza discusses Anthony Scaramucci’s strange phone call to him about White House leaks.
SUBSCRIBERS: Get access to our magazine app for tablets and smartphones at the
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THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
LEFT: MERYL MEISLER
NEWYORKER.COM Everything in the magazine, and more.
THE MAIL FROM TRUMP’S COLORADO
Peter Hessler’s recent article on how Donald Trump is transforming rural America offers a picture of Colorado’s Western Slope that is essentially unchanged from the one he painted in his preëlection report for newyorker.com (“Follow the Leader,” July 24th). Both pieces, dominated by interviews with a handful of characters, show the people of a downtrodden desert region following Trump on a path to nowhere. Hessler captures a quirkiness with which any Grand Junction resident will be familiar, but he makes no mention of the tangible transformations taking place in our community, many of which have gathered steam since the election. These include thousands of citizens flooding Main Street for our local Women’s March, exciting and unconventional approaches to diversifying our economy, nonpartisan efforts to increase funding for public schools and for suicide-prevention programs, and passionate advocacy to protect our stunning and diverse public lands. This increase in progressive energy and momentum is the real change that is happening in western Colorado. It’s unfortunate that Hessler focussed instead on a tired caricature that clouds many people’s perception of rural America. Mykan White Grand Junction, Colo. Reading Hessler’s impressionistic story about Trump supporters in Grand Junction gave me a sense of déjà vu. How many more paeans to the white workingclass voter will we have to read before the Democratic Party realizes that it must change its strategy in order to regain power? Although rural Colorado and suburban Atlanta are worlds apart, the recent special election in Georgia, between Jon Ossoff and Karen Handel, exemplifies the Democrats’ obsession with the W.W.C. Ossoff was a weak, boring candidate who ran a safe, boring campaign, and he refused to talk about any issues that might alienate
white swing voters. I would like to stop reading about this disaffected sliver of the electorate and instead read about attempts to mobilize progressives and people of color around a platform that might even resonate with W.W.C. voters, wherever they live. John Taht Washington, D.C.
1 INSIDE A BROKEN SYSTEM
Danielle Allen’s heart-achingly beautiful history of her cousin—who became a convicted felon at the age of fifteen, was incarcerated for eleven years, and was killed soon after his release— searches for explanations (“American Inferno,” July 24th). If we want to find ways to save the lives of young black men, we must scrutinize the failures of our criminal-justice system, the lack of rehabilitation services during and after incarceration, and the role of systemic racism. If the system was harsh and unforgiving to Michael, it must have been unimaginably more so to Bree, the trans woman whom Michael fell in love with in prison, and who ultimately killed him. Trans women face some of the highest risks of partner violence, of homicide, and of incarceration—and the risks for trans women of color, like Bree, are even greater. We don’t know what violence Bree may have endured in her life and in her relationships, or what she had to do in order to defend herself. In a broken system that penalizes and criminalizes our most vulnerable citizens, it is always difficult to distinguish between victimhood and self-determination, between forced choices and bad choices. Michael deserves an examination of his complex life. We owe the same to Bree. Ann Whidden Oakland, Calif.
• Letters should be sent with the writer’s name, address, and daytime phone number via e-mail to email@example.com. Letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium. We regret that owing to the volume of correspondence we cannot reply to every letter. THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
AUGUST 2 – 15, 2017
The double feature used to be a staple of New York repertory houses, and Film Forum is bringing it back. The “Summer Double Features” series, from Aug. 11 to Sept. 5, includes twenty-eight pairings, ranging from silents to independents, from European political fantasies to Hollywood extravaganzas. The Aug. 22 program oﬀers two ﬁlm-noir classics, both from 1949, about lovers on the run—Nicholas Ray’s ﬁrst feature, “They Live by Night,” and Joseph H. Lewis’s “Gun Crazy,” a key inspiration for “Bonnie and Clyde.” ILLUSTRATION BY MIKE MCQUADE
COURTESY FILM FORUM/PHOTOFEST
GOINGS ON ABOUT TOWN
1 ROCK AND POP
Musicians and night-club proprietors lead complicated lives; it’s advisable to check in advance to confirm engagements.
Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie The members of Fleetwood Mac have endured many emotional chapters in their five decades together: breaking up, making up, and everything in between. John and Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, and Stevie Nicks have all gone on to solo careers dotted with occasional reunions. There have been odd one-off combinations as well: Buckingham and Nicks collaborated on an album in 1973, and, just last month, Christine McVie and Buckingham released an LP of duets. “We’re, to some degree, celebrating life—the fact that we’re still alive,” McVie said in a recent interview about the record, which treads familiar territory with the gift of hindsight. (Beacon Theatre, Broadway at 74th St. 212-465-6500. Aug. 10.) Chic “Le Freak,” Chic’s effervescent clap-along from 1978, is one of the most memorable singles of the disco era. The guitarist Nile Rodgers and the bass player Bernard Edwards urged listeners to indulge in the timeless allure of cutting loose and getting a little weird: “Like the days of stomping at the Savoy / Now we freak, oh what a joy / Just come on down, to 54 / Find a spot, out on the floor.” (Ironically, Rodgers and Edwards wrote the anthem after they were denied admission to the storied Studio 54.) Rodgers leads Chic at this reunion concert, joined by the surviving members of the fusion-funk institution Earth, Wind & Fire. (Madison Square Garden, Seventh Ave. at 33rd St. 800-745-3000. Aug. 7.) DâM-FunK This Pasadena producer and vocalist, born Damon Garrett Riddick, has been active since the midnineties, the West Coast’s formative G-funk era. Already a trained drummer, he quickly jumped into an apprenticeship with the legendary songwriter Leon Silvers III, and was soon collaborating with L.A. rappers like Mack 10 and MC Eiht. His full-length releases with the record label Stones Throw and his production work for Snoop Dogg, Ariel Pink, and others have established the enigmatic artist as a central figure in his city’s dense beat scene. Riddick recently began hosting a monthly Web radio show, “Glydezone,” described as “a mythical space for modern funk, boogie, cosmic, soul, and beyond.” He’ll bring these disparate sounds to a live d.j. set, after tunes from Jacques Renault, Sophia Saze, and Kyle & Griff. (Good Room, 98 Meserole Ave., Brooklyn. goodroombk.com. Aug. 4.) Todd Rundgren At sixty-nine, the classic rocker Rundgren is showing no signs of slowing down, or losing his relevance, as the music industry shifts toward more electronic sounds. He started his career in the baroque-pop realm, in the late sixties; then his experimentation with various mindaltering substances contributed to the expansion of his sonic palette into more psychedelic territory, yielding a slew of early-seventies hits, including “I Saw the Light.” These days, Rundgren is embracing dance music; he still per
forms with a live band and occasionally logs time with Ringo Starr’s act. (Ford Amphitheatre at Coney Island, 3052 W. 21st St., Brooklyn. Aug. 11.)
The Selecter Jamaican ska music, the predecessor to reggae and an offshoot of American rhythm and blues, is about having fun. But in the early days of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, when class and racial tensions heightened and then escalated into riots, the U.K. revival of the genre became an unlikely rallying point for antiracist youth across the torn nation. The scene was anchored in Coventry, England, where Jerry Dammers, of the Specials, founded 2 Tone Records. One of the label’s prime exports was the Selecter, a New Wave-inflected ska septet known for peppy hits like “Too Much Pressure” and “On My Radio.” Recent legal disputes between the group’s members have left it overshadowed by peers like the English Beat and the Specials, but the live show, led by the charismatic rude girl Pauline Black, still packs a punch after nearly forty years. (Knitting Factory, 361 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn. 347-529-6696. Aug. 9.) Sister Nancy On “Bam Bam,” the 1982 single that made this Jamaican dancehall singer recognizable to bashment regulars worldwide, the analog and the digital meet in perfect harmony: soft bursts of horn give way to Nancy’s childlike voice, drenched with reverb as if it were bouncing through dusk at an open-air festival. The song is a prophetic boast that became a summer staple, recently sampled by Kanye West for “Famous,” then by Jay-Z for “Bam.” Nancy appears in the free Lincoln Center Out of Doors concert series, at Damrosch Park, alongside Timaya, who straddles dancehall and Afrobeat, and the London-based band the Compozers. (Broadway at 64th St. 212-721-6500. Aug. 10.) Total Freedom When the unruly menswear label Hood by Air staged its 2014 fall runway show, it tapped this subversive d.j. to create the score. The resulting twenty-four-minute composition, “10,000 Screaming Faggots,” wove together soaring Beyoncé samples and poetry by Juliana Huxtable, all laid under silver-bullet drums and synths that clawed at warehouse walls. Ashland Mines, who goes by the name Total Freedom, plays club sets that are just as gripping. He once hosted a series of parties in Los Angeles where attendees were strictly forbidden to dance—if anyone broke form, he’d stop playing until the entire room froze again. He takes the Warm Up stage after Cardi B, a scrappy young Dominican-Trini woman from the Bronx who became known as a social-media personality with sharp-tongued observations on gender, culture, and fashion; she recently adopted music as her medium, to entrancing effect. (MOMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Ave., Long Island City. moma.org/warmup. Aug. 12.) Whitney The guitarist Max Kakacek, formerly of the Smith Westerns, and Julien Ehrlich, the onetime drummer for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, came together to form this soft-psychedelic outfit. Honeyed timbres support their back-road folk songs about heartache and home towns. The group’s ambitious arrangements include warm strings and horns, pastel bridges, and swelling, shout-along choruses. “Golden Days,” an excellent calling-card single, crams in guitar and brass solos, but Ehrlich’s soft-whine vocals
keep it delicate and compact. The duo’s first album, “Light Upon the Lake,” was released last summer, by the Indiana label Secretly Canadian, home to soul stirrers like Anohni and the War on Drugs. They are joined this week at Celebrate Brooklyn! by Moses Sumney and Weyes Blood. (Prospect Park Bandshell, Prospect Park W. at 9th St. bricartsmedia.org. Aug. 11.)
1 JAZZ AND STANDARDS
Brooklyn Jazz Underground Festival A borough may bring them together, but the various forward-thinking instrumentalists and bandleaders who make up this intrepid collective go their own way when it comes to shrewd aesthetic choices and proclivities. Among the skillful participants are the saxophonist Adam Kolker, the vocalist Tammy Scheffer, the drummer Owen Howard, and the trumpeter David Smith. (Shapeshifter Lab, 18 Whitwell Pl., Brooklyn. Aug. 6. Smalls, 183 W. 10th St. 212-252-5091. Aug. 7.) Tony Malaby Festival Brawny-toned and tough-minded, yet reflective and lyrical when the music calls for it, the saxophonist Malaby has been a significant presence on the jazz scene for the past twenty-plus years. This trim gala finds him collaborating with such noteworthy peers as the bassist William Parker, the guitarist Ben Monder, and the drummer Tom Rainey in a variety of ensembles. (Cornelia Street Café, 29 Cornelia St. 212-989-9319. Aug. 3-5.) An Evening with Nellie McKay A compact listening room such as this West Village offshoot of Smalls may be the ideal spot to absorb the multilayered brilliance of this singersongwriter-pianist, whose whimsy is laced with a dollop of political venom. Her most recent album, “My Weekly Reader,” concentrated on a clever perusal of pop and rock classics from the nineteensixties, but who knows what’s now on the mind of this delightfully subversive artist. (Mezzrow, 163 W. 10th St. mezzrow.com. Aug. 15.) Roberta Piket An exceptional modern-jazz pianist hovering just outside the radar, Piket looks beyond the tradition while tipping her hat to its verities. She’s joined by two players who prize invention and subtlety as much as she does, the bassist Harvie S and her husband, the crafty drummer Billy Mintz. (Mezzrow, 163 W. 10th St. mezzrow.com. Aug. 9.) John Pizzarelli In early 1967, two musical geniuses met to collaborate on an album; half a century later, “Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim” has lost none of its seductive sheen. The guitarist and singer Pizzarelli reveres both the Chairman of the Board and the master bossa-nova composer. With his vocalist wife, Jessica Molaskey, and Antônio’s grandson Daniel Jobim in tow, Pizzarelli presents an elegant and heartfelt tribute to the achievements of these international cultural heroes. (Birdland, 315 W. 44th St. 212-581-3080. Aug. 8-12.) A Tribute to Geri Allen The recent death of the extravagantly gifted pianist and composer Geri Allen at the age of sixty continues to hover over the jazz community like a dark cloud. An attempt to honor this great musician and to dispel the gloom finds the bassist Esperanza Spalding and the drummer Terri Lyne Carrington welcoming distinguished guests throughout the week, including Joe Lovano, Nicholas Payton, Cassandra Wilson, and Ravi Coltrane. (Village Vanguard, 178 Seventh Ave. S., at 11th St. 212-255-4037. Aug. 8-13.) THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
1 MUSEUMS AND LIBRARIES
Metropolitan Museum “Talking Pictures: Camera Phone Conversations Between Artists” Late last year, the curator Mia Fineman invited twelve artists to play a new form of phone tag: each one traded a series of cellphone pictures with another artist of his or her choice. The results chart a broad range of possibilities for the nascent medium. Nina Katchadourian and Lenka Clayton matched wits in a game of free association: a pink eraser segues to a wad of gum and then to a closeup of a tongue. The exchange between the painter Nicole Eisenman and the photographer A. L. Steiner was political, with images ranging from General Michael Flynn’s insidious recent tweet “Fear of Muslims is rational” to ACT UP’s famous 1987 poster, which reads “Silence=Death.” Manjari Sharma and Irina Rozovsky both happened to be pregnant when the project started, and their hundred and twenty-two quiet color prints of their daily lives, in Brooklyn and Boston, respectively, culminate in a pair of selfies with minutes-old newborns. Through Dec. 17.
Museum of Modern Art “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” While creating the universe, did God have in mind that, at a certain point, a stuffed goat with a car tire around its middle would materialize to round out the scheme? It came to pass, in New York, with Rauschenberg’s “Monogram” (1955-59)—goat, tire, and also paint, paper, fabric, printed matter, metal, wood, shoe heel, and tennis ball—now on view in an immense retrospective of the protean artist, who died in 2008, at the age of eighty-two. Rauschenberg’s work, in mediums that range from painting and photography to a big vat of bubbling gray mud (“Mud Muse,” 1968-71), is uneven, and it lost point and drama in his later decades. For a great artist, he made remarkably little good art. But the example of his nimble intelligence and zestful audacity has affected the thoughts and motives, doubts and dreams of subsequent generations, to this day. The show’s lead curator, Leah Dickerman, has incorporated firstrate works by other artists—collaboration was a regular elixir for Rauschenberg. He was a performance artist, first and last. You respond to his works not with an absorption in their quality but with a vicarious share in his brainstorming excitement while making them. For a time, momentously, what he did caught a wave of
Photo-realist paintings are best known for their echt-American subjects—cars, diners, neon signs— and their deft use of reflection. Audrey Flack injected a note of vanitas into the genre with her 1977-78 still-life “Wheel of Fortune” (above). It’s on view in “From Lens to Hand to Eye: Photorealism, 1969 to Today,” which opens on Aug. 6 at the Parrish Art Museum, in Water Mill, N.Y. 8
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
MOMA PS1 “Ian Cheng: Emissaries” What if a work of art were so smart that it could free itself from the artist who made it? The digital whiz Cheng takes on that question in a trio of color projections, which he describes as “video games that play themselves.” These simulations are set millennia apart in the same landscape, which evolves from volcano to lake to atoll. (Politically minded viewers might grok a cautionary climate-change tale.) The characters start out shamanic and end up sci-fi. They include, by time line, a prophetic owl and the plucky daughter of a village elder (a prehistoric Arya Stark), a pack of Shiba Inus and an undead celebrity (a skeleton with sunglasses intact), and a meerkat-like race of futurist ranchers. Activity unfolds in real time according to rules programmed by Cheng and his collaborators, but, as in life, rules do not control outcome. The compassion of Cheng’s transhumanist vision aligns him with a cohort of other young artists working in New York, staying awake as they dream of the future. Through Sept. 25. Guggenheim Museum “Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim” This exhilarating tour of the six great collections that became the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is so judiciously laid out that the complex germs of early abstraction, the dry but secretly seething state of late-nineteenth-century painting, and the canon-defining tastes and interests of the businessman Solomon, his niece Peggy, the artist Hilla Rebay (who acquired her own work for the collection and also introduced the elder Guggenheim to the nonobjective art of Kandinsky), and three other major collectors all become enticingly transparent. Jewels of J. K. Thannhauser’s collection—on display, fittingly enough, in one of the building’s Thannhauser Galleries—include van Gogh’s magnificently eccentric ink drawing “The Zouave” and Cézanne’s “Man with Crossed Arms.” A bravura sequence running up the museum’s central ramp, from Picasso’s 1911 “Accordionist” through pieces by Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Marc Chagall, and Franz Marc, captures, in just a dozen canvases, the emergence of Cubism, its overlap with Expressionism, and its far-reaching echoes. Through Sept. 6. Whitney Museum “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium” This retrospective of the sorely under-known Brazilian artist is a revelation. Oiticica died in 1980, of a stroke, at the age of forty-two, after early success in Rio de Janeiro, a brush with fame in London, obscurity during seven years in New York, and a return to Rio that, at one opening, occasioned a riot. Along the way, he turned from superb abstract painting to innovative work in sculpture, film, writing, political action, and participatory installation, much of which remains as fresh as this morning. The sand, huts, potted plants, caged parrots, and inscribed poetry of his sprawling “Tropicália” (1968) await your barefoot delectation, should you choose to park your shoes in the rack provided. So do the multifarious love nests (mattresses, straw, chopped-up foam rubber, water) of a more austere faux beach, “Eden” (1969). Works that he made in New York (and, at the time, showed only privately) exalt sex, drugs, and rock and roll—delirium aplenty, yet managed
COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PARRISH ART MUSEUM
history and drove it farther inland than could otherwise have been the case. Through Sept. 4.
ART with acute aesthetic intelligence. Oiticica was a great one for planning. His buoyant writings in English, displayed in vitrines and seductively recited through earphones, hatch intricate utopian schemes, often architectural in character. In 1971, he proposed one that involved labyrinthine spaces, for construction in Central Park, called “Subterranean Tropicália Projects.” Had he lived longer, we would likely be blessed with a number of landmark achievements in public art. Through Oct. 1.
Jewish Museum “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry” It’s a good time to take Stettheimer seriously. The occasion is a retrospective of the New York artist, poet, designer, and Jazz Age saloniste. It’s not that Stettheimer, who died in 1944, at the age of seventy-three, needs rediscovering. She is securely esteemed—or adored, more like it—for her ebulliently faux-naïve paintings of party scenes and of her famous friends and for her four satirical allegories of Manhattan, which she called “Cathedrals”: symbol-packed phantasmagorias of Fifth Avenue, Broadway, Wall Street, and Art, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. She painted in blazing primary colors, plus white and some accenting black, with the odd insinuating purple. Even her blues smolder. Greens are less frequent; zealously urbane, Stettheimer wasn’t much for nature, except, surreally, for the glories of the outsized cut flowers that barge in on her indoor scenes. She painted grass yellow. She seemed an eccentric outlier to American modernism, and appreciations of her often run to the camp—it was likely in that spirit that Andy Warhol called her his favorite artist. But what happens if, clearing our minds and looking afresh, we recast the leading men she pictured, notably Marcel Duchamp, in supporting roles? What’s the drama when Stettheimer stars? Through Sept. 24.
comes through in her command of space and absurdist theatricality. Through Feb. 18, 2018.
1 GALLERIES—CHELSEA Nari Ward In his new show, titled “Till, Lit,” the Jamaicanborn, Harlem-based artist presents formally striking and politically charged sculptures made from surprising materials. The “till” of the title evokes both field labor and the reserves of a cash register. Compartments from the latter figure in a number of works here, as do delicate paper rectangles that are made from the excised edges of dollar bills. These shapes overlap in abstract compositions, such as the austere “Royal Alpha” and the shimmering “Providence Spirits (Silver),” which also incorporates cowrie shells (once valued as money). The legacy of slavery and its barbaric transactions suffuses the works on view. The powerful installation “Lit” uses buzzing floodlights and a concrete-submerged ladder to conflate antebellum slave patrolling with present-day police surveillance. The mixed-media work “Hanging Study” proposes a form of redress—it spells out the word “reparations.” Through Aug. 25. (Lehmann Maupin, 536 W. 22nd St. 212-255-2923.)
1 GALLERIES—DOWNTOWN LoVid A long-standing collaboration between the artists Tali Hinkis and Kyle Lapidus, LoVid bridges
the digital and the handmade with rare ebullience. Lumpy stuffed sculptures—they resemble both psychedelic sea creatures and unhinged quilting projects—hang from the walls, trailing thread from their uneven seams. They’re in happy dialogue with “Ruby Rendering,” a five-channel video from 2015, of undulating colorful patterns. LoVid also performs; at the opening, Hinkis and Lapidus played synth music in costume to launch their new online work, “Young Antiquities,” a collection of intricate immaterial sculptures, spinning in virtual space. Through Aug. 6. (Von Nichtssagend, 54 Ludlow St. 212-777-7756.)
“Makers Catalogue” Art about art—also art about craft—is a labor of love in this wonderful three-person show. The Oregon-based Ellen Lesperance’s intricate, colorful gouache-on-paper grids were inspired by the sweaters worn by the Welsh antinuclear protest group the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, in the nineteen-eighties. Dan Fischer makes exacting graphite drawings of recent art history; his reproduction here of one of Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries”—in which the French artist used nude models as human paintbrushes—involves at least five shades of black. Cynthia Daignault, who splits her time between New York and Baltimore, shows small paintings of the ephemera and printed matter lying around her studio—album covers, Postits, books—a charming self-portrait in footnotes. Through Aug. 11. (Eller, 300 Broome St. 212-206-6411.)
New-York Historical Society “Eloise at the Museum” The actor, author, and Plaza resident Kay Thompson may have created New York’s most famous little lady of leisure. But it was Hilary Knight who brought her to life in his illustrations for Thompson’s book “Eloise,” from 1955, and its three sequels. His drawings are the undisputed hit of this pink-and-black nostalgia trip. In one preliminary portrait, Knight’s line varies from vanishingly thin, in Eloise’s feathery hair, to thick and wavering, for her falling-down socks. In an unpublished watercolor of the Plaza’s lobby, our heroine appears slouched in the corner of a vibrant scene of palm fronds, orange marble columns, and grownup ladies in their fur coats. Through Oct. 9. Queens Museum “Anna K.E.: Profound Approach and Easy Outcome” The highlight of this five-part installation by the cheeky Tbilisi-born, Queens-based artist, which sprawls across a hundred and forty-five feet in the museum’s atrium, is a pair of billboard-size photographs, part of an ongoing series in which she photographs herself in front of famous figurative paintings (in this case, two works owned by the Met). Standing before Otto Dix’s 1922 portrait “The Businessman Max Roesberg, Dresden,” she wears an anxious expression, as if oppressed by the original picture’s art-historical weight. An awkward pose with Balthus’s “Girl at a Window” underscores the inevitable self-consciousness of a young woman inserting herself into a history dominated by men. The artist studied dance before shifting her focus to visual art, training that
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
Three shoplifters display their wiles and their loot in Jon Alpert’s film “One Year in a Life of Crime.”
Caught in the Act A documentary about young thieves reveals their intimate oﬀenses, too.
Many of the great movie dramas are crime stories. A remarkable new one, “Good Time,” by the brothers Josh and Benny Safdie (opening Aug. 11), is partly inspired by an equally excep tional 1989 documentary, “One Year in a Life of Crime,” by Jon Alpert, playing Aug. 7 at Metrograph, in a series pro grammed by the Safdie brothers. Al pert’s ﬁlm, which was made for HBO, is a close look at three young criminals, as well as a revelatory display of the allure of crime itself, both in life and in movies. In “One Year in a Life of Crime,” Alpert ﬁlms three professional shop lifters, Rob, Fred, and Mike, young men from Newark who have long criminal records and persist in their illicit activities. Alpert’s rapport with them is as frank and uninhibited as his ﬁlming of them, both in public and in their homes. Alpert uses a hidden cam era to show their brazen thefts, which they pull oﬀ with little more than shopping bags and suitcases and sly getaways on foot and by car. Alpert becomes a virtual member of the three men’s households and captures their ﬂashy exuberance as they ﬂaunt their outlaw audacity. (The movie is also a record of his relationship with them.) He ﬁlms them acting monstrously to 10
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
ward their partners—in particular, Mike, who physically abuses his girl friend and boasts about it. (Alpert questions Mike about his violence; Rob, who’s far from tender with his own girlfriend, urges Mike to stop.) Fred, a heroin addict who shoots up on camera, risks his marriage by lying about his drug use. Rob contrasts his own fast and easy money with his fa ther’s lowwage job, and also discusses his father’s alcoholfuelled abuse of him when he was a child. The closest thing to an onscreen conscience is a local auto mechanic named Sid, who exhorts Rob to straighten himself out and reminds him that he was much happier when he had a regular job. Rob agrees. Mike and Fred also freely express their own dissatisfaction with their lives, but, as Alpert shows, happiness is beside the point. What these men get from a life of crime, and what they put into this ﬁlm, is drama—albeit miserable drama, of which they are the antihe roes, even the villains—which lifts them out of ordinariness only to plunge them into degradation. They’re hated, feared, marked, pursued. They're wanted men in another sense, too, as the subjects of this movie—vampirical stars who suck the life out of the peo ple around them. “One Year in a Life of Crime,” like most crime ﬁlms, is also a horror story. —Richard Brody
Columbus Reviewed in Now Playing. Opening Aug. 4. (In limited release.) • Detroit Reviewed this week
in The Current Cinema. Opening Aug. 4. (In wide release.) • The Glass Castle An adaptation of the memoir by Jeannette Walls, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, about children who are raised by unconventional parents. Starring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, and Sarah Snook. Opening Aug. 11. (In wide release.) • Good Time Robert Pattinson stars in this drama, directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, about a young criminal who lures his developmentally disabled brother (Benny Safdie) into a bank robbery. Opening Aug. 11. (In lim ited release.) • Ingrid Goes West Reviewed in Now Playing. Opening Aug. 11. (In limited release.) • Nocturama Bertrand Bonello directed this political fantasy, about a revolutionary group that commits a terrorist attack in Paris. In French. Opening Aug. 11. (In limited release.) • Whose Streets? Reviewed this week in The Current Cinema. Opening Aug. 11. (In limited release.)
1 NOW PLAYING
Atomic Blonde This standard-issue, spy-by-the-pound yarn—set during the last days of the Berlin Wall—is both enlivened and deadened by its unusually realistic and numbingly plentiful violence. Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, an M.I.6 agent sent to the still divided city to locate—with the help of a British colleague (James McAvoy)—a wristwatch containing a list of Western spies, and to rescue a Stasi turncoat (Eddie Marsan), who has the list memorized. This action is seen in flashbacks, intercut with scenes of the bloodied, bruised, and embittered Lorraine’s chilly debriefing by her handlers (Toby Jones and John Goodman). The deceptive twists and cynical moods of espionage take place in nostalgically bleak Cold War cityscapes, but the fine points of spy craft are either reduced to mere winks or amplified to bone-thwacking and gore-spraying martial artistry. Theron keeps her cool throughout the pummelling gyrations, but the film strains to achieve a breathless panache and a lurid swagger for which David Leitch’s direction is too heavy-footed and literal; a deft, metal-bashing automotive ballet comes too late to help. With Sofia Boutella, as a French agent with an artistic streak.—Richard Brody (In wide release.) Columbus The title of the visual artist and video-essayist Kogonada’s intellectually passionate first feature refers to the Indiana city that’s home to a surprising abundance of modern architectural masterworks. Those buildings fire the imagination of his protagonist, a twentyish woman named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who’s stuck in place. Spurning college to care for her mother (Michelle Forbes), who’s a recovering drug addict, Casey works in the local library. When Jin (John Cho), an architectural historian’s son, comes to town, he abets her outpouring of pent-up ideas and enthusiasms about architecture and tries to help change her life. Richardson infuses her hyperalert performance with a rare dialectical ardor; her avid gaze at the city’s landmarks is matched by Kogonada’s own images, which capture the virtual libido of aesthetic sensibility. Filming Casey and Jin on location in the presence of the buildings that inspire them, he revels in the power of contemplative companionship—of looking, talking, thinking together—and unfolds the wonder of an artistic coming of age. With Rory
ILLUSTRATION BY GAURAB THAKALI
MOVIES Culkin, as Casey’s ironic grad-student colleague, and Parker Posey, as Jin’s longtime friend.—R.B. (In limited release.)
Dunkirk The new Christopher Nolan movie is set in 1940, during the mass evacuation of British and French troops from northern France to the relative safety of England. The saga, an essential chapter in the British wartime narrative, is not widely known elsewhere, and what Nolan delivers is neither a history lesson nor even much of a war film. A good deal of it strikes the senses, not to mention the nerves, as an exercise in high tension and nearabstraction, as men (there are almost no women to be seen) are perilously poised between land and water, water and air, darkness and light. Mark Rylance, dourly determined, plays the skipper of the Moonstone, one of the innumerable “Little Ships” that went to the aid of those who were trapped on the beaches. Overhead, Tom Hardy is in typically phlegmatic form as a Spitfire pilot who must protect the naval vessels from German bombers. The movie feels old-fashioned whenever it seeks to stir up British pride; as a fable of survival, though, with its quicksilver editing and an anxious score by Hans Zimmer, it amazes and exhausts in equal measure. With Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, and Harry Styles.—Anthony Lane (Reviewed in our issue of 7/31/17.) (In wide release.) Girls Trip This warmhearted, occasionally uproarious comedy doesn’t quite sustain the heights of its performers’ inspirations. Ryan (Regina Hall), a best-selling author, is chosen to deliver the keynote address at the Essence Festival, in New Orleans, and she invites her three longtime best friends to join her for a sentimental and hard-partying reunion. Sasha (Queen Latifah), a journalist who’s now on the celebrity beat, has money trouble; Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), a nurse and divorced mother of two young children, is lonely; and Dina (Tiffany Haddish), an outrageously brazen pleasureseeker, seems oblivious of the consequences of her actions. Meanwhile, Ryan learns that Stewart (Mike Colter), her husband and business partner, is having an affair with a younger woman (Deborah Ayorinde). These women’s problems have substance even though their characters are thinly written, and the film’s comedic flourishes offer a refreshing frankness about sex from women’s perspectives. The view of middle-class AfricanAmerican women’s lives behind closed doors, despite its antic exaggeration, has a lived-in specificity. Malcolm D. Lee’s direction doesn’t offer much style or vigor, but Haddish delivers a wild yet precise performance of verbal and gestural fury that puts her at the forefront of contemporary comedy.—R.B. (In wide release.)
disaster and determined not to crash alone. Yet Spicer’s empathetic view of Ingrid’s tangle of misery is outweighed by his satirical critique of online stardom, Hollywood hustling, and conspicuous consumption; he presents Ingrid’s maladies as the results of the social ills of the times. The action devolves into wan op-ed commentary. With Billy Magnussen, as Taylor’s dissolute yet deeply loyal brother, and Wyatt Russell, as her trophy boyfriend.—R.B. (In limited release.)
Lady Macbeth A striking début feature from William Oldroyd, based—with many alterations—on a novella by Nikolai Leskov, which also spawned an opera by Shostakovich. The setting has moved from Russia to the North of England, in 1865, and to the unlovely castlelike home of Alexander (Paul Hilton) and his new wife, Katherine (Florence Pugh). He is a boor, often absent; she is weary and resentful, desperate to crack the tedium of her days and nights. Opportunity presents itself in the person of Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a groom from the stables, who ends up sharing not merely her bed but, to his great discomfort, her dinner table. The wrongs of the situation—pitiless crimes as well as social outrages—acquire their own momentum, and, if our initial sympathies lie with the oppressed heroine, we soon grow alarmed, and then appalled, by the lengths to which she will go in her reckonings. Oldroyd’s film is constructed and framed with unstinting care; sometimes, indeed, you want it to cut loose, although Pugh lends a definite dash of madness to her impassioned role. With Naomi Ackie, as the lady’s maid, and Chris-
topher Fairbank, as the husband’s horrible father, who deserves everything he gets.—A.L. (7/24/17) (In wide release.)
The Man Who Loved Women François Truffaut’s bittersweet 1977 comedy, about the pleasure and the pathos of sexual pursuit, is also an ode to the art of writing. The film’s title is that of a memoir written by the protagonist, Bertrand Morane (Charles Denner), an engineer in Montpellier who spends his free time chasing women (sometimes literally), until, after an unexpected rejection, he decides to type out his erotic reminiscences. Despite being played by fine actors (including Brigitte Fossey, Leslie Caron, and Nelly Borgeaud), the women Bertrand “loved” remain ciphers, collections of attributes surrounding elusive personae and bodies— seemingly by design. The egotist is writing about himself and relying on women to reveal different facets of his own identity. Like Bertrand, Truffaut pays homage to old-school formalities, constraints, and styles, both social and sartorial (the film dwells obsessively on elaborate lingerie, formal skirts and dresses, and the rustle of silk stockings). His reticence about sex mirrors Bertrand’s; both the director and the character come off as rear-guard warriors against the sexual revolution—against the banalization of their epicurean delights. In French.—R.B. (Film Society of Lincoln Center, Aug. 9, and streaming.) Person to Person Dustin Guy Defa assembles a vigorous and whimsical cast for the many comedic and dramatic strands of this sweet-and-sour New York street poem, inspired by his 2014 short film of the same title. The new film,
Ingrid Goes West Aubrey Plaza’s fiercely committed performance nearly rescues this dubious contrivance from absurdity. The drama, directed by Matt Spicer, is the latest entry in the picturesque-mental-illness genre. Plaza plays the title character, a young woman whose violent outbursts lead to a spell in an institution. When Ingrid gets out, instead of receiving therapy and taking medication, she moves to Los Angeles in order to stalk an Instagram celebrity named Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) and insinuate herself into Taylor’s private life and social-media feeds. Ingrid manipulates Dan (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), her new neighbor and quasilandlord, for help with her schemes; indifferent to the pain she causes, Ingrid is speeding toward
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
MOVIES like the short, begins with the adventures of a record dealer named Bene (Bene Coopersmith); he’s on the trail of a rare Charlie Parker LP that comes with an odd backstory. Ray (George Sample III) has caused real trouble and knows it; he’s in hiding after posting nude photos of his ex-girlfriend online. A high-school student (Tavi Gevinson) with more attitude than experience seeks adventure and romance; two reporters, a veteran (Michael Cera) and a rookie (Abbi Jacobson), forge a bond on a stakeout while investigating a crime in which a clock-shop owner (Philip Baker Hall) is involved. The crisscrossing action looks lovingly at the self-made dramas of city life, despite its intimate cruelty and looming violence, and the lyrical riffs of dialogue come bubbling off the screen, but the drama feels frictionless—an ideal of urban grit that, for all its geographical specificity, never touches the ground. With Isiah Whitlock, Jr., Marvin Gurewitz, and Dakota O’Hara, with her signature behind-thebeat diction.—R.B. (In limited release.)
The Silence Before Bach The Spanish director Pere Portabella’s 2007 film brings Bach’s music to life with a dazzling blend of drama, documentary, and quasi-surrealist whimsy. Beginning with a scene of a player piano rattling off the Goldberg Variations while rolling through a bright, bare loft, Portabella tickles the senses with a series of skits: a truck driver who plays Bach on the harmonica; Bach himself (the harpsichordist/ organist Christian Brembeck) teaching one of his sons music via the “Well-Tempered Clavier”; a Bach impersonator hosting tourists in Leipzig; an orchestra of cellists playing a suite while speeding along in a sleek new subway car; a boat trip through Dresden, where the Goldberg Variations were commis-
sioned, as a guide recounts the 1945 firebombing; a bookseller who discusses the horrific abuses of great music in Auschwitz; and Felix Mendelssohn (Daniel Ligorio) discovering the “St. Matthew Passion” on a piece of sheet music in which his butcher has wrapped meat. From puckish humor and borderline kitsch, a great notion emerges: modern Europe was built on the foundation of classical music, which, as a result, endures tenaciously there. In Spanish and German.—R.B. (Socrates Sculpture Park, Aug. 9.)
War for the Planet of the Apes If only Darwin were alive to see this film. Caesar, incarnated by Andy Serkis, is living proof that the highest human virtues—valor, compassion, a keen intelligence, and a gift for leadership—are most credibly combined in a monkey. In this latest chapter of the simian saga, Caesar plans to lead his freedom-loving comrades to a promised land; first, however, there is a military lunatic (Woody Harrelson) to contend with, and murders to be avenged. What follows is often cruel, and hard to classify as entertainment; we see a labor camp in full spate, and—surely a cinematic first—some form of ape crucifixion. Matt Reeves’s film takes itself extremely seriously, and, without a glimmer of irony, adds a touch of religious allegory to both the dialogue and the highfalutin images with which the story concludes. Still, the technical achievement marches on, and there appears to be no challenge that cannot be met and overcome by the magi of the digital craft. (Do orangutans really cry?) The most affable character, new to the franchise, is a chimp who, after a long spell in a zoo, speaks English—voiced by Steve Zahn—rather better than he gibbers or howls.—A.L. (7/24/17) (In wide release.)
1 OPENINGS AND PREVIEWS
ner. (Samuel J. Friedman, 261 W. 47th St. 212-2396200. Previews begin Aug. 3.)
Corkscrew Theatre Festival While the New York International Fringe Festival takes a one-year hiatus to reassess its goals, this new showcase highlights emerging artists who are using innovative forms of collaboration. (Paradise Factory, 64 E. 4th St. 347-954-9125. Opens Aug. 7.)
Really Rosie Encores! Off-Center concludes its summer season with a concert version of the Carole King and Maurice Sendak musical, directed by Leigh Silverman and featuring Taylor Caldwell (“School of Rock”). (City Center, 131 W. 55th St. 212-581-1212. Aug. 2-5.)
Curvy Widow Bobby Goldman and Drew Brody wrote this musical comedy, about a fiftysomething woman (Nancy Opel) who jumps back into the dating scene. (Westside, 407 W. 43rd St. 212-239-6200. In previews. Opens Aug. 3.)
The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Martha Stewart Ryan Raftery, who has played Anna Wintour and Andy Cohen in previous parody musicals, completes his “Titans of Media” trilogy as the life-style guru, entrepreneur, and ex-con. (Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette St. 212-967-7555. Opens Aug. 7.)
A Parallelogram Michael Greif directs a dark comedy by Bruce Norris (“Clybourne Park”), about a woman (Celia Keenan-Bolger) who can use a remote control to travel to any moment in her life. (Second Stage, 305 W. 43rd St. 212-246-4422. Opens Aug. 2.) Prince of Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club stages a musical celebration of the Broadway director-producer Harold Prince, whose six-decade career includes “Cabaret,” “Company,” “Evita,” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” Prince directs, with co-direction and choreography by Susan Stroman; the cast features Karen Ziemba, Chuck Cooper, and Emily Skin12
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
The Terms of My Surrender Michael Moore makes his theatrical début in this one-man rebuke to the Trump Administration, directed by Michael Mayer. (Belasco, 111 W. 44th St. 212-239-6200. In previews. Opens Aug. 10.)
1 NOW PLAYING Amerike—The Golden Land Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek’s revue “The Golden Land” has morphed slightly since its première, in 1984. The addition of “Amerike” to the title of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s
THE THEATRE revival suggests that the show isn’t just about Jewish immigrants and Yiddish music (though those are worthy subjects, of course)—it’s about the very making of the United States. Bryna Wasserman’s production moves at full speed, from eighteeneighties Ellis Island to the end of the Second World War in ninety minutes, as it ricochets through decades of popular tunes. It’s delicious to (re)discover titans of Yiddish theatre, such as the composer Joseph Rumshinsky and the songwriting team Arnold Perlmutter and Herman Wohl, and the mix of humor and unabashed pathos is neatly encapsulated in Daniel Kahn’s rousing rendition of “Roumania, Roumania.” (Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Pl. 866-811-4111.)
The Government Inspector In this adaptation of Gogol’s 1836 play, set in a provincial Russian town where the corruption runs as deep as the mud in the street, Jeffrey Hatcher retains the original framework but gives the jokes a zingy modern spin. Jesse Berger, who directs the raucous Red Bull Theatre production, freely mixes in bits from the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and Woody Allen. Leading a cast of characters in whom virtue is universally absent, Michael Urie is charming as hell as the lucky and manipulative object of mistaken identity (his drunk scene is a comic masterpiece), while Arnie Burton does superlative double duty as a cynical servant and a postmaster who reads all the mail. As the mayor, Michael McGrath bluffs and blusters to the hilt, and Mary Testa, as his wife, earns big laughs just by changing the pitch of her voice. (New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St. 212-239-6200.)
ILLUSTRATION BY LORIS LORA
1984 In a number of ways, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, who adapted George Orwell’s 1949 novel (they also direct, and obviously have a passion for the material), have made a successful film, which indirectly emphasizes how constricting the stage can be. Airstrip One, formerly known as Great Britain, is ruled by the Inner Party, a political regime in which having your own opinion is considered a “thoughtcrime.” At the Ministry of Truth, Winston (Tom Sturridge) works with Julia (Olivia Wilde), as Inner Party members walk by, including O’Brien (Reed Birney). Later, during a series of excruciating exchanges, O’Brien physically tor-
tures Winston. Icke and Macmillan intensify the horror by turning up the lights and amping up the sound on the teeth-grindingly effective music. Ultimately, the torture comes off as imagined and theatricalized; it’s more about what Icke and Macmillan want us to see than what Winston might feel. (Reviewed in our issue of 7/10 & 17/17.) (Hudson, 139-141 W. 44th St. 855-801-5876.)
Pipeline In Dominique Morisseau’s play, Nya (Karen Pittman) is a black teacher at an economically disadvantaged urban high school. Her son, Omari (Namir Smallwood), attends a boarding school upstate. But he may have blown his future, by shoving a white teacher who was condescending to him. What must it be like to anticipate your child’s slow annihilation, the construction of his tomb, brick by brick, even as he lives? As played by Pittman—an actress of real wit—Nya is a woman who feels while trying not to feel. The director, Lileana Blain-Cruz, has Pittman behave as if the world were closing in on her, because it is: she wants to throw herself into the grave that is being dug for her son. Blain-Cruz can’t quite overcome the curse of a flawed script, by a talented writer who is too taken with the cliché of the black mother as a symbol of oppression and then redemption. (7/24/17) (Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 W. 65th St. 212-239-6200.)
1 ALSO NOTABLE Anastasia Broadhurst. • Arcadia / Pity in History Atlantic Stage 2. Through Aug. 6. • Bandstand Jacobs. • Come from Away Schoenfeld. • Dear Evan Hansen Music Box. • A Doll’s House, Part 2 Golden. • Ghost Light Claire Tow. Through Aug. 6. • Groundhog Day August Wilson. • Hamlet Public. • Hello, Dolly! Shubert. • In & of Itself Daryl Roth. • Indecent Cort. Through Aug. 6. • Marvin’s Room American Airlines Theatre. • A Midsummer Night’s Dream Delacorte. Through Aug. 13. • Na poli, Brooklyn Laura Pels. • Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 Imperial. • The Play That Goes Wrong Lyceum. • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Bar ber of Fleet Street Barrow Street Theatre. • War Paint Nederlander. • Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie Irish Repertory.
Encores! Off-Center revives “Really Rosie,” Carole King and Maurice Sendak’s 1980 children’s musical, starring Taylor Caldwell and featuring songs like “Pierre” and “Chicken Soup with Rice.”
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
1 CONCERTS IN TOWN
The tenor Ian Bostridge stars in an ambitious reconception of Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise.”
Deep Freeze Explorations of the richness, and the relevance, of Schubert.
In the past several years, the music of Franz Schubert has captivated classicalmusic programmers in New York and elsewhere. His appeal to audiences has never been in doubt, as his song cycles, piano sonatas, and string quartets parade across our stages at a constant clip. But he seems to walk among us now, as Mozart did in the nineteen-eighties and early nineties, and as Shostakovich did for some years after that. Schubert’s unprecedented lyrical sensitivity, his revelatory harmonic wanderings, and even his insecure craftsmanship seem especially apt for a moment in which classical music is becoming more of an “indie” venture. This summer, specialized programming intensiﬁes the Schubert trend. “Schubert’s Summer Journey,” a miniseries of six concerts curated by the eminent pianist Emanuel Ax, is under way at Tanglewood; upcoming events include two Thursday evenings (Aug. 3 and Aug. 17) in which Ax and Yo-Yo Ma are joined by such artists as the violinist Colin Jacobsen and the mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton. Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart eﬀorts are more wide-ranging. Trio Solisti makes its festival début in a late-night concert at the Kaplan Penthouse centered on the sublime Piano Trio No. 1 in B-Flat Major (Aug. 15); at the David Rubenstein Atrium, the cool kids of the International 14
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
Contemporary Ensemble oﬀer a free “Schubertiade Remix” (Aug. 7), a tribute to “one of history’s greatest composers and partyers” that features “radical responses” to Schubert’s songs. Art songs—lieder—remain at the core of Schubert’s identity. Consider “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”), his second cycle for voice and piano, which Mostly Mozart presents by way of a staged production, “The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise” (Aug. 12-13 at the Rose Theatre): Netia Jones’s staging puts the tenor Ian Bostridge in Weimar cabaret costume while the International Contemporary Ensemble performs Hans Zender’s gripping orchestral transformation of the work, in which Schubert’s sound world collides with those of Mahler and Boulez. (Bostridge’s powerful Decca recording of Schubert’s original version is as representative of our time as the renditions of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau were of the Cold War era. ) This will be the third time in eight years that Lincoln Center has oﬀered a dramatized version of Schubert’s cycle, but previous eﬀorts drew criticism as well as cheers. Ultimately, this is Schubert’s story, and we cannot own it. As the composer David Lang, who has thought deeply about Schubert, points out, the ﬁnal number, “The HurdyGurdy Man,” shows that the desperation of the narrator arises not only from his situation as spurned lover but also from his profession—“he writes songs.” —Russell Platt
Mostly Mozart: “A Little Night Music” With its uncommon intimacy and frequently offbeat repertoire, this nightcap series in Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse has proved to be one of the festival’s more popular innovations. So Percussion starts the eight-concert run with an offering of music by Cage, Caroline Shaw, and Viet Cuong. A program featuring Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis, and Ana-Maria Vera in Romantic piano trios presumably will be a hard ticket to secure, but don’t overlook solo-piano recitals by Víkingur Ólafsson, a refined Icelandic artist making his festival début with music by Bach and Philip Glass, and by Kirill Gerstein, who concludes the series with an intense pairing of Brahms and Clara Schumann. Aug. 2, Aug. 5, Aug. 9-12, and Aug. 15-16 at 10. (Rose Bldg., Lincoln Center. For complete listings, see mostlymozart.org.) Adam Tendler Tendler, a proficient and thoughtful pianist with a penchant for the music of John Cage, investigates that composer’s turn toward Eastern philosophy and chance operations, juxtaposing two of his final works for prepared piano, from 1954, with an unreleased recording of Cage reciting his “45′ for a Speaker,” from the same year. Two later piano works, from 1962 and 1987, provide contrast, and a post-concert discussion with Cage experts lends context. Aug. 4 at 7. (Rubin Museum of Art, 150 W. 17th St. rubinmuseum.org.) Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra Louis Langrée, Mostly Mozart’s music director, leads the first of the orchestra’s programs of the next two weeks, partnering with the pianist Beatrice Rana in an all-Beethoven evening that offers the “Egmont” Overture, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, and the vibrant Seventh Symphony. Then Andrew Manze, a renowned British period-performance violinist who has also become a fine conductor, takes over. After an all-star collaboration with the violinist Joshua Bell and the cellist Stephen Isserlis featuring Brahms’s Double Concerto and Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony, he moves on to an even more populist program, conducting Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (with the distinguished soloist Thomas Zehetmair) and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. Aug. 4-5, Aug. 8-9, and Aug. 11-12 at 7:30. (David Geffen Hall. 212-721-6500.) Bargemusic The barge’s programs range far and wide these days, but in early August the series gets down to brass tacks, touring through the catalogues of major masters. Mark Peskanov, the series’ director, sets the tone, partnering with the noted pianist Jeffrey Swann in the third of several concerts that pair Handel’s sonatas for violin and keyboard with those of Beethoven. On the next day, Philip Edward Fisher continues his journey through the piano sonatas of Beethoven (including No. 24 in F-Sharp Major). Aug. 5 at 6 and 8 and Aug. 6 at 2 and 4. (Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn. For tickets and full schedule, see bargemusic.org.)
1 OUT OF TOWN
Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival Popularly known as “Banglewood,” this appealing institute meaningfully embraces its setting— the recently expanded Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art—with music meant to resonate with the visual art works all around. Among
ILLUSTRATION BY JEE-OOK CHOI
CLASSICAL MUSIC this year’s highlights are a program featuring two Philip Glass works, his dramatic Symphony No. 3 and intensely concentrated “Music in Similar Motion,” and a six-hour closing marathon including works by, among others, Louis Andriessen (this year’s resident guest), Steve Reich, and the Bang on a Can founders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. Aug. 2 at 4:30 and Aug. 5 at 4. (North Adams, Mass. massmoca.org.)
Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival This longtime East End festival, directed by the flutist Marya Martin, has flourished by offering concerts both effervescent and distinguished. The first one of August is an al-fresco affair on the grounds of Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, which is the home base for most of the series’ programs: it’s an evening of gems from Baroque-era Italy, featuring concertos and other works by Vivaldi, Gallo, and Albinoni. Aug. 2 at 6:30. (For tickets and full schedule, visit bcmf.org.) Glimmerglass Festival This season’s schedule mixes classic Americana and stories that echo today’s headlines. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!,” a complex but idyllic slice of frontier life, features the young opera singers Jarrett Ott and Vanessa Becerra as Curly and Laurey in a staging by Molly Smith; James Lowe conducts. Aug. 3 and Aug. 11 at 7:30 and Aug. 5, Aug. 8, and Aug. 14 at 1:30. • With its muted colors and sympathetic narrative, Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais” dramatizes the struggle of the French port city during the Hundred Years’ War, when it was under sustained attack by Edward III. The spectre of the so-called Calais Jungle—the migrant camps that were dismantled by the French government in 2016—lingers over the production by Francesca Zambello (the festival’s artistic and general director), the work’s American première. Joseph Colaneri conducts a cast that includes Aleks Romano, Leah Crocetto, Adrian Timpau, and Chaz’men Williams-Ali. Aug. 4 and Aug. 10 at 7:30 and Aug. 12 and Aug. 15 at 1:30. • This summer’s flagship work is George Gershwin’s beloved “Porgy and Bess,” a jazz-and-blues-inflected piece that depicts the lives of an African-American enclave bedevilled by drugs and poverty, in Charleston. Zambello, the director, and the conductor, John DeMain, have restored the work’s original recitatives and orchestrations; Musa Ngqungwana and Talise Trevigne take the title roles. Aug. 5 at 8 and Aug. 7 and Aug. 13 at 1:30. • John Holiday, an up-and-coming countertenor with an appealing, sopranolike timbre, sings the title role of Handel’s “Xerxes,” giving audiences the chance to hear his rendition of one of the most exquisite arias the composer ever wrote, “Ombra mai fu.” Nicole Paiement conducts; Tazewell Thompson directs. Aug. 6 at 1:30 and Aug. 12 at 8. (Cooperstown, N.Y. glimmerglass.org.) Tanglewood: Boston Symphony Orchestra The magnificent ensemble that is Tanglewood’s raison d’être holds concerts on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. One of the earlyAugust highlights is a Saturday evening (with Hans Graf conducting) devoted to two early-Romantic masterworks, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor (with Garrick Ohlsson) and Mendelssohn’s magical incidental music to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” complete (featuring the soprano Kiera Duffy, the mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer, and a host of actors and choristers); on Sunday afternoon, Yo-Yo Ma comes by to perform Schumann’s brooding Cello Concerto in a concert (conducted by David Zinman) that also features Mozart’s “Little G Minor” Symphony
(No. 25) and Schumann’s Second Symphony. On the following Friday night, Giancarlo Guerrero takes the podium to lead music by Dvořák, Brahms (the Double Concerto, with the violinist Gil Shaham and the cellist Alisa Weilerstein), and Stravinsky (“The Rite of Spring”). Aug. 5 and Aug. 11 at 8 and Aug. 6 at 2:30. (Lenox, Mass. For a complete schedule, visit bso.org.)
Marlboro Music Another summer of glorious music wraps up at the legendary festival, where a conclave of the world’s leading classical virtuosos (and their exceptionally talented protégés) gather to intensely rehearse a range of chamber-music masterpieces, and the occasional novelty. Brett Dean is this year’s composerin-residence, with the conductor Leon Fleisher as guest artist. Programs are announced one week in advance on the festival’s Web site. Aug. 5 and Aug. 11-12 at 8 and Aug. 6 and Aug. 13 at 2:30. (Marlboro, Vt. marlboromusic.org.) Maverick Concerts The next two Sundays at the Maverick’s serene woodland music chapel feature, first, the Dover Quartet, which commands the heights in standard repertory: its concert offers quartets by Schumann and Tchaikovsky (the radiant First, in D Major) as well as the Quartet No. 3 (1945) by Szymon Laks, a survivor of the Holocaust. Then it’s the turn of the Harlem Quartet, renowned for its broad embrace of repertory from the Old and New Worlds: its concert features Hispanicoriented works by Turina, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Guido López Gavilán before wrapping up with Borodin’s lyrical String Quartet No. 2 (with the “Nocturne”). Aug. 6 and Aug. 13 at 4. (Woodstock, N.Y. maverickconcerts.org.) Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music Entrusted in years past to the supervision of an eminent composer, this annual showcase is helmed this season by three noteworthy Tanglewood Music Center alumni: the cellist Kathryn Bates, the pianist Jacob Greenberg, and the violist Nadia Sirota. Each of the strikingly varied chamber-music programs includes a commissioned world première (by Anthony Cheung, Kui Dong, and Nico Muhly, respectively); in the final concert, Stefan Asbury conducts the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in a hearty program (also featuring the Lorelei Ensemble, a marvellous women’s vocal group from Boston) that includes works by Ligeti, Dutilleux, Dai Fujikura, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, and Huang Ruo. Aug. 10-14. (Lenox, Mass. For details, see bso.org.) Bard Music Festival: “Chopin and His World” For its twenty-eighth iteration, Leon Botstein gathers the musical and academic forces of Bard College to devote two weekends, bursting with concerts and talks, to the musical and cultural universe of a single major composer. Frédéric Chopin is the lodestar this summer, an artist whose influence on keyboard music was beyond measure and whose career transcended not only national boundaries—France and Poland—but the whole idea of musical nationalism. Botstein conducts the American Symphony Orchestra in a typical program, which uses Chopin’s “Fantasy on Polish Airs” as a springboard into a selection of pieces for the concert hall and the opera house by such important contemporaries as Weber, Meyerbeer, Bellini (the Oboe Concerto, with Alexandra Knoll), and Rossini (Act III of “Otello,” featuring the soprano Nicole Cabell, among other singers). Aug. 12 at 8. (Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. fishercenter.bard.edu. Through Aug. 20.) THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
1 OUT OF TOWN
DANCE Lincoln Center Out of Doors The free festival offers a bit of everything. On Aug. 3, at Damrosch Park Bandshell, there will be a celebration of Bollywood, with a collage of dance, music, and projections, evoking the larger-than-life, loopy world of Hindi cinema. (The performers, all local, underscore the vitality of the South Asian diaspora.) On Aug. 4 at Hearst Plaza, the tap duo Chloe & Maud—YouTube sensations—offer an evening of their witty and sexy covers of popular tunes by Beyoncé and Rihanna, danced by their New York-based troupe, Apartment 33. On Aug. 6, various groups specializing in Eastern European and Central Asian dances, like the Cossack hopak—squat walks and split jumps galore—and the khorumi and other traditional Georgian dances, will take over Hearst Plaza. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Georgian dancer spin like a top, propel himself into the air, and land on his knees. On Aug. 10, at Damrosch Park Bandshell, the festival holds a showcase of African and Carib-
bean music: Afro-pop, funk, and dancehall. (Lincoln Center, Broadway at 64th St. 212-7216500. Aug. 3-10.)
Battery Dance Festival Every August, this free festival, sponsored by the Battery Dance Company, enlivens summer evenings with a series of open-air performances in Battery Park. One full program, on Aug. 15, is devoted to Indian classical dance, under the auspices of the “Erasing Borders” festival. That program is always a highlight; this year’s participants include a young couple specializing in bharata natyam; Dimple Saikia performing the less-known sattriya, a dance practiced in the monasteries of Assam; and the Bethesdabased kuchipudi ensemble Kalanidhi Dance. But the entire weeklong series, which includes performances by international companies like Mophato Dance (from Botswana) and Compañía Elías Aguirre (from Spain), is worth exploring. (Robert F. Wagner, Jr., Park, 20 Battery Park Pl. 212-219-3910. Aug. 13-15. Through Aug. 19.)
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Doug Varone & Dancers commemorates its thirtieth anniversary (at the Ted Shawn, Aug. 2-6) with a lookhow-far-we’ve-come pair of solos for the choreographer: one that he set to a Chopin nocturne in 1987 and a première also set to Chopin. “ReComposed,” a 2015 ensemble work that captures the swirl of Joan Mitchell pastels, completes the program, along with “Boats Leaving,” an affecting evocation of refugee suffering. • Kyle Abraham’s latest work, “Dearest Home” (at the Doris Duke, Aug. 2-6), is a stripped-down look at the pain of intimacy, too bare in its exposure, despite some wounded beauty. Music is optional (through headphones); the weeping of the dancers isn’t. • Camille A. Brown’s “Black Girl: Linguistic Play” (at the Ted Shawn, Aug. 9-13) winningly draws upon playground games to express the rivalrous and supportive sides of female friendship; there’s humor, live music, and an abundance of springy rhythm. • Audio of Donald Rumsfeld describing his meeting with Elvis Presley in Las Vegas is the seed of Mark Dendy’s “Elvis Everywhere,” performed by Dendy/Donovan Projects (at the Doris Duke, Aug. 9-13). The lively show mines the metaphor of Elvis as America, with swivelling pelvises and ideas touching on cultural appropriation, celebrity worship, and patriotism. (Becket, Mass. 413243-0745. Aug. 2-6 and Aug. 9-13. Through Aug. 27.)
ABOVE & BEYOND
“Bollywood Boulevard: A Journey Through Hindi Cinema” Lincoln Center Out of Doors presents an evening devoted to the rich history of the Bollywood musical. In the nineteen-twenties, the A.T. & T. subsidiary Western Electric set out to “soundify” silent theatres across the globe, exporting American musicals (and, by extension, the American way) to places like Shanghai, Fiji, and India. But it wasn’t long before filmmakers in those locales began to make films of their own—nowhere more conspicuously than in 16
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
India, which became the world’s largest producer of movies. At this event, musicians play live as dancers perform choreography rooted in Hindi film scenes, flanked by projections of black-and-white classics and present-day box-office smashes, as well as original animations. (Damrosch Park Bandshell, Lincoln Center. lincolncenter.org. Aug. 3 at 7:30.)
1 READINGS AND TALKS
Albertine Those revelling in the current Emily Dickinson revival, spiked by the biographical film “A Quiet Passion” and the unseasonable chill of our political moment, will find much to mine in the work of the essayist, poet, and scholar Susan Howe, a Dickinson devotee. “My Emily Dickinson” is her recent book of close readings and historical asides surrounding the poet’s “My Life Had Stood―A Loaded Gun”; on the occasion of its publication in French, she discusses her work with the translator Antoine Cazé and the publishers Barbara Epler and Isabella Checcaglini. (972 Fifth Ave. albertine.com. Aug. 2 at 7.) New York Public Library The roots of American skepticism about Hollywood films, coastal media, and other pop-
culture pillars trace back, in part, to the Cold War-era Red Scare, when a battle of ideologies left countless actors, writers, and directors defending themselves against accusations of Communism. At this lecture, the film historian Max Alvarez unearths the legacy of blacklisting, presenting extensive research and rare archival clips. (St. Agnes Library, 444 Amsterdam Ave. 212-621-0619. Aug. 5 at 2.)
Strand Bookstore Last year, Jarett Kobek self-published “I Hate the Internet,” a dig at Silicon Valley culture, the digital-clout economy, and the changes to society both forces have wrought. The book found a wide audience, including Bret Easton Ellis and several Pitchfork columnists. Kobek has followed it up with “The Future Won’t Be Long,” a novel that throws its two protagonists into the WiFi-less New York art world of the nineteen-eighties, where their friendship is tested by the ebb and flow of the city’s night-life scenes. If the Internet has eroded our sense of closeness, the author seems to wonder, how close were we to begin with? He appears in conversation with Ivy Pochoda, a Brooklyn native and the author of “Visitation Street.” (828 Broadway. 212-473-1452. Aug. 15 at 7.)
ILLUSTRATION BY PABLO AMARGO
Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival This decorated-boat race and cultural festival returns to Flushing, for its twenty-seventh year. The tradition is said to commemorate the ancient poet Qu Yuan, who spent years in exile and then jumped to his death, in the Miluo River, after learning that his home state had been invaded. (Fishermen sped onto the river but could not save him.) Today, teams in more than thirty dragon boats race along Meadow Lake after two days of food, folk art, and crafts as well as performances from bands and troupes across cultures, including the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York, the CASYM Steel Orchestra, the Echo Music Jam Band, and the Kafele Bandele Group. (Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, 11101 Corona Ave., Queens. hkdbf-ny.org. Aug. 12-13.)
F§D & DRINK
TABLES FOR TWO
PHOTOGRAPH BY ZACHARY ZAVISLAK FOR THE NEW YORKER; ILLUSTRATION BY JOOST SWARTE
Madame Vo, 212 E. 10th St. (917-2612115); Hanoi House, 119 St. Marks Pl. (212-995-5010) The great wave of Vietnamese restaurants that washed across the East Village late last year left casualties in its wake. Witness, for example, the high-water mark around the bleached bones of Chao Chao—known brieﬂy for its slick cocktails and its live d.j.— stranded on the shores of Avenue A, with a “For Rent” sign in the window. Thankfully, like seeds scattered by the storm, others have survived, thriving in what Eater has called a “great new era for Vietnamese food.” Each of the new restaurants makes an appeal to New York’s cravings for authenticity, oﬀering variously “traditional” or “quintessential” dishes, albeit in obligatorily hip settings. Madame Vo, on East Tenth Street, is loud and searingly bright, and bristles with life. The ﬂavors are as brazen as the lighting, and many dishes burn with chili—after a while, you don’t know what to do with the piles of peppers garnishing the softshell crab. Not that this bothers the trendy couples crouching over marble tables laden with bowls of pho and garlic noodles, recording every moment of their meal for their friends. A bit farther south, Hanoi House
also aims to transport diners to a simulacrum of Vietnam. On a recent evening, a waiter informed a couple that the establishment had run out of trout. Luckily, they were about to be ediﬁed: “Seafood in Vietnam is traditionally served with scallion oil and peanuts,” a waiter explained, recommending, instead, a dish of clams and congee, which also came with the oil-and-peanut seasoning, yet managed to taste sprightly and oceanic. In fact, most of the food here is light and carefully ﬂavored. Take, for example, a summer roll, in which pieces of cucumber ﬂoat on an impossibly aerated slate of pork sausage. Where Madame Vo is bright, Hanoi House revels in shadows. With the right Insta-ﬁlter, you can just about capture the Vietnam of Catherine Deneuve in “Indochine,” the dark wood and slatted shutters calling to mind an opium den in the early twentieth century, though with a strictly reggae soundtrack, and sans the colonial violence. At this restaurant, however, sixteen-hour-stewed pho is the drug of choice. The steaming, perfectly balanced broth is remarkably light and simply trance-inducing. Follow the waiter’s advice, add a few slabs of oxtail on top, or a marrow bone, and feel yourself dissolve into the evening. (Entrées at Madame Vo, $14-$24; Hanoi House, $13-$28.) —Nicolas Niarchos
1 BAR TAB
The Wooly Public 9 Barclay St. (212-571-2930) Since 2009, soirées for the young and well-heeled have taken place in a hidden lounge known as the Wooly, situated at the base of Woolworth Building, now a hundred and four years old. Last winter, the proprietors, David Tobias and Eric Adolfsen, opened a companion bar next door called the Wooly Public. A bar for the people was refreshing news in inequitable times, particularly after the upper half of the great building, a neo-Gothic landmark built by the founder of the five-and-dime chain, was recently turned into luxury condominiums. While the condo owners may be unlikely to mingle with the masses downstairs over burgers, ’nduja, and devilled eggs, perhaps—if, say, they’re Russian oil tycoons keen to take secret meetings with American kleptocrats—they’ll appreciate the establishment’s shadowy corners and deafening acoustics. The aesthetic is an epochal medley lacking harmony—purple neon, vintage radios, fake flowers, a pay phone. Maybe the designers were nodding to the building’s variety-store history. The craft cocktails, including “Old Souls” (classics with modern twists) and “New Editions,” are tasty and tiki-forward. One rainy Friday night, two friends tried drinks with embarrassing names: Fountain of Youth, Gem Heist at the Plaza. A woman with a glittery backpack ordered a Woolynesia, tropical punch with gin, lime, chili, cinnamon, and puréed stone fruits, served in a woollymammoth-shaped mug. Paintings, prints, and statuary of the extinct beast, a lugubrious mascot, lurk everywhere you look. The woman took a sip, smiled at her man-bunned companion, and said, as far as an amateur lip-reader could tell, either “I love you” or “Elephant juice.”—Carolyn Kormann
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
THE TALK OF THE TOWN COMMENT THIS TIME, IT’S PERSONAL
ILLUSTRATIONS BY TOM BACHTELL
he Attorney General of the United T States supervises all federal prosecutors, and one of the rituals of the job involves visiting the U.S. Attorneys’ oﬃces across the nation. When Jeﬀ Sessions, who is now (that is, at this precise moment) the Attorney General, stopped in at the Philadelphia oﬃce the other day, President Trump had already made the ﬁrst of what would be several public critiques of the nation’s chief lawenforcement oﬃcer. On this occasion, Sessions did not respond directly, but seemed to make an almost poignant attempt to reingratiate himself with his boss. Departing from his prepared remarks, he said, “I do my best every day to be faithful to the laws of the Constitution of this United States and to fulﬁll the goals of the President that I share.” The President, apparently, was unappeased, because during the next several days he continued his stream of spoken and tweeted insults, calling Sessions “beleaguered” and “very weak,” and declaring himself “very disappointed” with his Attorney General. On one level, this exchange resembled a reality-show version of a reality show, in which Sessions, a long-in-thetooth apprentice, sought to avoid hearing Trump tell him, “You’re ﬁred.” But this black comedy of manners obscured a clearer tragedy of state. Trump wasn’t taunting Sessions because of any policy diﬀerences between them but, rather, as usually seems to be the case with this President, for personal reasons. The core
of the President’s grievance is that the Attorney General recused himself from the investigation into possible Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election, thereby setting in motion the process that led to the appointment of Robert Mueller, the special counsel. Sessions did the right thing; according to prosecutorial ethics, he cannot supervise a review of a campaign in which he played a prominent role. Trump’s willful misunderstanding of the obligations of an Attorney General reﬂects a larger ﬂaw in his Presidency and in his character— his apparent belief that his appointees owe their loyalty to him personally, rather than to the nation’s Constitution and its laws, and, more broadly, to the American people. Every President has wide latitude in directing his appointees to imple-
ment the policy goals on which he campaigned, and no member of the Cabinet has worked more assiduously to advance Trump’s agenda than Sessions. He has reversed the Obama Administration’s commitment to voting rights, which had been reﬂected in Justice Department lawsuits against votersuppression laws in North Carolina and Texas. He has changed an Obamaera directive to federal prosecutors to seek reasonable, as opposed to maximum, prison sentences for nonviolent drug oﬀenders. Similarly, he has revived a discredited approach to civil forfeiture, which will subject innocent people to the loss of their property. He has also backed away from the eﬀort, championed by his predecessors Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, to rein in and reform police departments, like the one in Ferguson, Missouri, that have discriminated against African-Americans. Although candidate Trump promised to protect L.G.B.T. rights, President Trump last week vowed to remove transgender service members from the armed forces, and Sessions’s Justice Department, along the same lines, took the position in court that Title VII, the nation’s premier anti-discrimination law, does not protect gay people from bias. Most of all, Sessions has embraced the issue that ﬁrst brought him and Trump together: the crackdown on immigration. Sessions’s subordinates have defended the President’s travel ban on refugees and people from six majorityMuslim countries, and Sessions has stepped up enforcement of the laws THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
that prevent undocumented immigrants from settling in the United States. All these initiatives are unwise, unjust, and counterproductive, but they nevertheless represent the kind of change that tends to occur when an Administration of one political party takes over from the other. Elections, it is often noted, have consequences. President Trump’s behavior, however, represents a diﬀerent kind of change— one that threatens the basic norms underlying our system of government. No President in recent history has treated his Attorney General solely as a political, or even as a personal, functionary. When Alberto Gonzales, who served as the Attorney General under George W. Bush, ﬁred U.S. Attorneys for failing to do the bidding of the Republican Party, Gonzales, quite properly, lost his job, too. He had violated a principle that, until now, seemed inviolate: that the Attorney General serves
the public, not the political interests of the President who appoints him. Trump’s ﬁxation on the personal allegiance of members of his Administration also led to his decision to ﬁre James Comey as the F.B.I. director. As Comey recounted in his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Trump repeatedly pressed him for his loyalty—demands that Comey tried to ﬁnesse, until the President abruptly ended his tenure. Congress set the term of F.B.I. directors at ten years, in order to establish a standard of political independence for them; no President had heretofore violated that tradition out of personal or political pique. But, as bad as the decision to ﬁre Comey was, and as lamentable as Trump’s attempted defenestration of Sessions is, the President may be heading toward even more dramatic departures from American norms in the near future. Trump now seems set on terminating
Mueller’s investigation, which he could attempt to do by directing the head of the Justice Department (whoever that winds up being) to ﬁre him.This, of course, would be reminiscent of President Nixon’s determination, in October, 1973, to ﬁre Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor. But a dismissal of Mueller would be worse. Nixon clashed with Cox over what was at least an arguable matter of principle—speciﬁcally, whether the prosecutor had the right to subpoena the White House tapes. Trump wants Mueller gone simply because he doesn’t want to be investigated. An order to ﬁre Mueller would be an abuse of power, but one in keeping with the way that Trump has conducted his Presidency. On the Saturday night that Cox was ﬁred, he said, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people” to decide. So it remains today. —Jeﬀrey Toobin
THE PICTURES BARGAIN BASEMENT
guy walking around with his hands in his pockets, whistling,” he said. While he waited for the elevator, a customer—a middle-aged woman— asked if she could take a photo of the two of them. “You’re very red,” Tambor said, in a soft voice. She looked as if she’d been out in the sun. “I was in Times Square this morning, watching people die,” she explained. Earlier that day, a man had driven for three and a half blocks along the sidewalk of Seventh Avenue. He’d injured twenty-two pedestrians, and killed one young woman. “You were there?” Tambor asked. “How close were you?” “I saw him barrelling at me and I ran as fast as I could.” “Oh, my.” She smiled. “Seeing you is conﬁrmation that I’m going to be O.K.” There was a pause. “Well, you’re the ﬁrst person who ever said that,” Tambor said. He pointed out a stack of his new memoir, “Are You Anybody?” Delighted, she asked him to sign a copy for her. As he wrote, she said, “It was a red car. I saw it coming really, really fast.” Tambor wandered, slowly. He enthused about Murakami, Vonnegut, and
J. M. Coetzee. In the basement, he happily observed that the ceiling was lower, and the air-conditioning weaker. He opened “The Oxford Book of Aging,” and “Mean Dads for a Better America.” He asked an employee if the Strand still sold bound galleys; he used to love them, he said, for the glimpse they oﬀered behind the curtain of book publishing. He was directed down a corridor cul-de-sac, and, when he found the galleys, noted that they were disappointingly glossy; he recalled drab,
Tambor, the actor, ﬁrst moved J eﬀrey to New York in 1979, when he was
thirty-ﬁve. He lived on Dean Street, in Brooklyn, and made television commercials, playing what he recently called “the young, balding-father type.” At the end of most weeks, he’d stop at a bookstore—often the Strand, on Broadway—to buy a paperback, “just to mark the fact that I’d got through the week.” When Tambor returned to the Strand not long ago, on a hot afternoon, during a break between shooting the third season of “Transparent” and the ﬁfth season of “Arrested Development,” he was for a moment puzzled: the ground ﬂoor was bright and orderly, and “Für Elise” was playing on the sound system. “Didn’t it used to be a bit seedy?” he asked. Tambor lives in Westchester County, but for a few years has co-owned a bookstore in Los Feliz, Los Angeles, where he has no managerial duties. “I’m the 20
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
matte Soviet volumes. “We don’t get too many of those now,”the employee said. Tambor asked him how long he’d worked at the store. “Well, in the basement, four or ﬁve years.” “Have you been relegated to the basement?” A few minutes later, Tambor was sitting on a bench in Union Square Park. A man was selling bottled water, wearing a homemade hat on which was written a message about epilepsy awareness. “You did Jimmy Fallon the other night,” the man said to Tambor. “I did.” “My man.” “How’s business?” Tambor asked. “It’s going great,” the water-seller replied. “I wish you all the best. Hug.” They hugged. “Call me up if you need a standin—a black-belt epileptic.” The man walked oﬀ, and Tambor remarked on his apparent optimism. “He made it to the other side,” he said. “He was sick, he was an epileptic, and now he’s made it to the other side. This guy’s probably got more gratitude than anybody walking in the park.” When he passed again, Tambor asked him how he kept in such good shape. “I work out!” the man said. “I’ve got to stay in shape. I’m black. I’ve got to survive. I’ve got to run from the police, I’ve got to run from stickup kids. I’ve got to run all my fucking life. I’ve got no choice but to stay in shape.” “Stay well,” Tambor said. He looked at the opposite bench, where there was an elderly man wearing a melon-colored T-shirt, white pants, and loafers with no socks. “Would you have said no socks on this guy?” Tambor said. “And his top is absolutely wrong. If a costumer gave you that outﬁt and said, ‘Look, it’s an old man sitting on the bench,’ you’d say, ‘What are you talking about? No, go get another costume.’ ” A man asked to take a photograph—a portrait, not a selﬁe. “I used to be an editor at People,” he said. “But now I’m just a retired old guy with a big mustache.” Tambor asked his name. “Ira Berger,” he said. “My wife’s going to be very happy that I met you.” “Mrs. Berger?” “Yes, Mrs. Berger.” —Ian Parker
1 ISLANDERS EXTRA CREDIT
Wijesinghe has spent all eighJ ulia teen years of her life on two islands: Staten Island and Sri Lanka. Her parents, both Sri Lanka-born, met on the Staten Island Ferry. They started a Sri Lankan restaurant called Lakruwana (which is also her father’s ﬁrst name), on Forty-fourth Street, in Manhattan, and moved it to Bay Street, on Staten Island, thirteen years ago. It seats forty, received a good review in the Times, in 2013, and sometimes has a line waiting in front. Julia, an only child, has helped in the restaurant since she was little. At ﬁfteen, she had an idea: start a Sri Lankan museum in the restaurant’s basement. Her parents said she could do that when she was eighteen, and, a few months ago, she did. Hers, she claims, is the only Sri Lankan museum in the world outside Sri Lanka. Not long ago, as she gave a tour of the museum to a wanderer of Staten Island, she wore her school uniform: lightbrown shoes, blue pleated skirt, gray hoodie with “Notre Dame” on it, and a black button-up sweater with “Wijesinghe” in white script on the left pocket. “I was going to put my ﬁrst name, but there are a lot of Julias in my school, so I used my last name instead,” she said. During her four years at the Catholic all-girl school—she graduated in June— she was the only Buddhist. Julia stays with her grandmother in Colombo, Sri Lanka, every summer. Over several years, with her father’s help, she assembled the museum’s collection of Buddha statues (replicas and originals), ceremonial weapons, musical instruments, cooking implements, temple objects, a rubber-tree log, gemstones, and statues of Hindu deities like Krishna and Ganesha. Last August, she packed them in a twenty-foot shipping container and sent them on a voyage to America. The container arrived a month later; she worked on the museum all winter, and it opened in March. Mayor De Blasio heard about it, and she hoped he might visit, but he hasn’t yet. “He’s tall, so when
he does come he will have to duck because of the low ceiling,” she said. On one wall hangs a replica of the Buddha’s footprint, from a mountain temple in Sri Lanka. The footprint is about eighteen inches long. “Yes, I wondered about that, too,” Julia said. “Maybe he just had really big feet. I love to hike in Sri Lanka, and I have been to that beautiful temple at the time when the humans go. There is another time when the animals visit the temple, and it can be dangerous, with snakes and leopards. Buddha was only peaceful and did not harm animals. I have never eaten meat in my whole life. I do not even kill mosquitoes.” Palm-leaf books are thin rectangular strips of palm leaves that are bound at one end. Julia’s grandmother writes stories on these strips; a single story can ﬁll an entire wooden container resembling a shoebox. On exhibit were a palmleaf book the size of a sheaf of paint samples, a big ball of raw rubber from a rubber tree (one of Sri Lanka’s resources), boxes of Ceylon tea (“We have the best, best tea”), a large stone grinder for spices (“Sri Lankan women were strong, back in the day”), her grandmother’s sitar, a replica of a seated Buddha considered to be the ﬁfth-greatest statue in the world, and a statue of the fasting Buddha (“For six years, he ate no food and never opened his eyes”) that was made of welded iron. “My friends ask me, ‘You’re from New York, why do you have so much pride for your parents’ country?’ I have one-hundred-per-cent New York pride, too. I got inspiration for my museum from going to MoMA. I loved my school—the nuns asked me to tell about Buddhism in theology classes, I learned how to use the Bible. My mom doesn’t want me to go far away for college, so I will go to St. John’s or the College of Staten Island. But I am ﬂuent in Sinhalese, and the amazing, wonderful country of Sri Lanka is my home, too. Sometimes strangers say, ‘You must be from India.’ I tell them I’m not, and then, over and over, I get the question ‘What—where is Sri Lanka?’ With my museum, I want to change that.” She went on, “When my dad came, thirty-four years ago, there were almost no other Sri Lankans in New York. My mom was the ﬁrst Sri Lankan woman THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
he met here, and when they dated he took her to Yankee games. For us, there is no question between Mets or Yankees. We are a Yankees family all the way.” —Ian Frazier
1 FREELANCE DEPT. HIGH STAKES
ast May, Lucas Chapman graduated L from college and got a job with Postmates; he’d applied to do volunteer work abroad and was saving up for a plane ticket. He delivered stuﬀ around Washington, D.C., in his ’98 Mustang. “I couldn’t do Uber because my car was too old,” he said. Finally, in September, he received the encrypted e-mail message he’d been waiting for: a note from the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia in northern Syria, inviting him to war. He ﬂew to northern Iraq. From there, a handler for the Y.P.G. (in translation, an acronym for the People’s Protection Units) escorted him into Syria—at night, on foot. Chapman, who is twenty-one, is fair-skinned and slight. He reported to a Y.P.G. training camp, where he ﬁred guns, learned Kurdish, and studied the group’s revolutionary ideology. “I’ve known how to shoot since I was eight, and had my own weapon since I was twelve,” Chapman, who grew up in small-town Georgia, said. “But I’d
never handled an AK before.” After a month, he was sent to the front lines. Soon, his unit advanced on Raqqa, ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital; the Y.P.G. is one of the United States’ primary partners in the region. Chapman said that he and the Kurds fought alongside scruﬀy American soldiers—“SOCOM types,” he said, referring to special-operations units. According to Chapman, coalition warplanes bombed ISIS positions nearby and his group received military equipment from the United States. Chapman, who left Syria in March, was on Capitol Hill the other day, trying to persuade staﬀers in the oﬃce of Representative Alcee Hastings, of Florida, to back several pieces of pro-refugee, anti-ISIS legislation. He wore a tie and a silver hoop in one ear, and he carried a messenger bag. After his meetings, he dropped by a café on Pennsylvania Avenue to speak with another aspiring Y.P.G. ﬁghter. It was beastly hot. Chapman ordered a lemonade and took a seat at a communal table. Papers spilled from his messenger bag. “Lobbying materials,” he said to his counterpart, who asked to be called Nathan. They’d met ten days earlier, while attending a pro-Kurdish protest in front of the White House. Nathan—who is also twenty-one, with a patchy beard—recognized Chapman from news stories about American volunteers ﬁghting in Syria and asked for advice. “I don’t want to be considered a Y.P.G. recruiter,” Chapman said later. “But I want people to be prepared for
“ You weren’t supposed to see this.”
what they’re getting into.” He asked Nathan, “Do you have any ﬁrst aid?” “I took an expedition ﬁrst-aid course,” Nathan said. Chapman oﬀered some packing tips: bring chest seals, needle-decompression kits, and tourniquets. “You have to control hemorrhages,” he said, sipping his lemonade. Strong painkillers, like Ketamine and Fentanyl, are diﬃcult to ﬁnd in Syria, but, he said, “you can buy lowlevel opiates like Oxycodone.” Nathan jotted down notes while, behind him, patrons lined up for smoothies. Chapman went on, “A friend of mine in Syria said, ‘The people who come over here are one of three types: Marxists and idealists, former military guys who couldn’t get enough, and crazy people.’ ” Chapman acknowledged that he is a little bit of each. Nathan put himself in the ﬁrst category. “I’ve been pretty far left for a long time, and the more I learned about the political makeup of these Kurdish groups in Syria”—the Y.P.G. aims to create a socialist, feminist society throughout northern Syria—“the more I realized that, though you could sign petitions and write articles, it means a whole hell of a lot more to go over there and help the guys who are ﬁghting ISIS.” Nathan said that he planned to leave “whenever I get the go-ahead.” He’d stashed a rucksack in a closet at his parents’ home, with a ﬁrst-aid kit, a sleeping bag, a helmet, and body armor. “My folks keep asking me, ‘Why don’t you get a job?’ I can’t tell them, ‘Because I’m waiting for an e-mail from the Y.P.G.’ ” Chapman tried to keep things practical. He asked Nathan if he knew how to treat a collapsed lung. “I’ve lost eight friends over there,” he said. Three American Y.P.G. volunteers were killed near Raqqa this month. Nathan had heard about these deaths, but, he said, “I can’t get too worried about it. I mean, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Thirty or forty years down the line, when someone says, ‘What did you do?,’ maybe I could say, ‘Well, I went over and liberated a section of the Middle East from ISIS, and then helped rebuild their society in a more egalitarian way.’ ” He admitted that perhaps he had not yet fully processed the gravity of his undertaking. “It’s not a reality right now, and won’t be until I’m on the plane.” —Nicholas Schmidle
THE FINANCIAL PAGE BAD RATINGS
ast spring, a resident of Lexington, L Kentucky, named Jessica Abney logged on to her computer and noticed something odd: her monthly cable bill, which had for years been around ninety dollars, had suddenly risen to a hundred and thirty-one dollars. Abney, who is seventy-three, is retired and living alone on disability; she was treated for colon cancer last fall and has regular blood infusions to address two autoimmune diseases. Even a small rise in expenses creates stress on her budget. Abney said that, when she called her cable company, Spectrum, to complain, a customerservice representative told her the bill would go up again soon, by another ﬁfty dollars. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack right there, and I’ve had ﬁve heart surgeries,” Abney told me. “I said, ‘This is just not going to stop here. I’m a survivor, and I will do whatever I have to do to get answers.’ ” Cable providers are among the most despised businesses in the country, regularly coming in below airlines, banks, and drug companies in public-opinion polls. A mini industry of intermediaries has sprung up to help consumers deal with the providers’ notoriously terrible customer service, oﬀering to negotiate bills and publishing online scripts for getting rates cut (“The ﬂeecing of the U.S. continues!” a representative comment reads). Companies that attract such fervent consumer ire are often the product of extensive market consolidation. Abney’s local cable provider, Time Warner, had recently merged with Charter Communications, and the new entity was named Spectrum. (Charter also acquired Bright House Networks, a cable company formerly owned by Advance/ Newhouse, the owner of this magazine.) Telecommunications service in the U.S. is now dominated by ﬁve companies: Spectrum and Comcast; the telephone-service providers Verizon and A.T. & T.; and CenturyLink, which has a strong presence out West. These companies have eﬀectively carved up
the country, so that in many places there is only one way to reliably stream Netﬂix, send e-mail, or read the news. “Cable is essentially a monopoly now in urban areas,” Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard Law School and a former policy adviser to President Obama on science, technology, and innovation, told me. In other words, Crawford said, when it comes to the Internet, a service that is essential for almost every aspect of modern life, “we’re privileging the interests of a couple of companies over three hundred million Americans.” Nowhere are the drawbacks of such an uncompetitive market more evident than in Lexington, which has become an active center of resistance.
Internet service was deregulated during the George W. Bush Administration, with the theory that fewer rules would foster greater competition. For a time, as A.T. & T. and Verizon started building ﬁbre-optic networks to compete with cable Internet, there seemed to be truth to the idea. Over the past few years, however, the companies have largely abandoned those projects; according to Crawford, the capital investments required were too high. President Trump’s newly appointed F.C.C. chairman, a former Verizon lawyer named Ajit Pai, has done little to suggest that the agency will improve the situation—in fact, he has introduced a plan allowing companies to raise rates even further, and abandoned a program that would bring competition into the market for cable set-top boxes.
Rather than fuel vigorous competition and lower prices, the rise of these giant companies has meant that Americans are paying inﬂated costs for poor service. In Lexington, a university city with a burgeoning technology industry, the mayor’s oﬃce started getting calls from constituents shocked by their bills almost as soon as the CharterTime Warner merger was complete; one city employee now devotes much of his time to ﬁelding the complaints, which are entered in a huge spreadsheet. (“Man with a severe mental disability was sold a Spectrum package,” one reads. “His sister wants to know how he was signed up for service since he doesn’t know his Social Security number or birth date.”) Spectrum said that the price changes simply reﬂect the fact that Time Warner’s promotional deals have expired. Last week, Democratic leaders issued a new agenda that singled out the cable industry as an example of bad antitrust law. “We are going to ﬁght to allow regulators to break up big companies if they’re hurting consumers,” Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, promised. Such pledges won’t do much to help Lexington. The city scheduled a town-hall meeting later this month to air grievances against Spectrum, and eight hundred people are expected to attend (along with at least one brave representative from the company), but there’s little the town can do. As a letter from Lexington’s chief administrative oﬃcer to the cable companies last month read, “The city is left wondering what abuse will be heaped upon it next.” Abney eventually reached a temporary agreement with Spectrum for a more modest increase in her bill, to a hundred and sixteen dollars a month, which allows her to get her favorite channels—Fox News, Fox Business, the Christian network TBN—and the local news. Still, she blames the government for the problems she’s having and told me that competition needs to be restored somehow. “I’ve never gone through anything like this,” she said. “People are furious. If you go anywhere in this town and mention Spectrum, they go ballistic.” —Sheelah Kolhatkar THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
IDENTITY CRISIS Notes from a names obsessive. BY LAUREN COLLINS
ur son’s room is almost ready. O From the previous tenant—his sister, who’s two years old—he has inherited a changing pad, a pile of herniated books, and an armchair and ottoman, the color of whose upholstery, now ﬂecked with who knows what, might politely be called gray heather. I wanted him to have something pristine, all his own, so I ordered a personalized baby pillow. With ﬁfteen days to go until my due date, it’s turning into the “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” of soft furnishings. We were going to call him Pierre. Then we were going to call him Louis, but Louis turned out to be the tenth
most popular boys’ name in France, and the seventh most popular in Paris, where we live, and, even in this age of nominative nonconformity, we worried that he might enter school and ﬁnd it crawling with more Louises than a chart of Bourbon monarchs. He’d have to become the Stammerer, or the Pious, or the Universal Spider (that was Louis XI, 1423-83, who apparently wove a lot of plots and conspiracies). Then we were going to call him Pierre again, until we realized that his initials would spell out a Frenchlanguage homophobic slur. For a while, we didn’t care. (It was during this period that I bought the pillow.) Then
There are clearer criteria for naming dogs than there are for naming people. 24
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
an acquaintance with the same monogram deemed our choice “a bit risky,” and we decided that maybe we did. (It was during this period that the pillow was delivered.) We were beginning to resemble Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, the expecting couple in an old “Saturday Night Live” skit. They’re sitting on the couch, trying to come up with a baby name. The wife makes a series of benign suggestions. The husband, played by Nicolas Cage, shoots them down on increasingly farfetched grounds. Wife: O.K., I’ll just keep trying. What about Fred? Husband (sighing): Please . . . Fred, Frank . . . please, the “F”s are no good. If he’s fat, it’s just a disaster. Wife: O.K., all right. Um, Sam? Husband: Great. Sam. “Uncle Sam.” “I want you . . . to be ostracized!” The doorbell rings. It’s a deliveryman, with a telegram for Asswipe and Emily Johnson. “That’s Oss-wee-pay,” Cage says. A name can rack a person from the hospital bracelet to the gravestone. Or it can boost his conﬁdence, help him make a positive ﬁrst impression, and, supposedly, give him better chances of everything from excelling in school and ascending the corporate ladder to not going to prison. (I checked, but neither author of a study claiming that professional baseball players whose names begin with “K” have a higher rate of strikeouts bears the initials “B.S.”) Carl Jung wrote of “the sometimes quite grotesque coincidence between a man’s name and his peculiarities.” Is it any wonder that States Rights Gist, the son of a nulliﬁcationist South Carolina governor, attended Harvard Law School but died at the Battle of Franklin, in 1864, leading his brigade in a charge against federal troops? In Austin, Texas, there is actually a urologist, specializing in vasectomies, named Dr. Richard Chopp. “Nomen omen,” the Romans said: the name is a sign. You don’t have much choice in last name—and, if it’s more than twelve letters long, your kid, no matter what his achievements in mineralogy or hydraulics, will never join the ranks of famous scientists immortalized on the side of the Eiﬀel Tower—but scrawling a ﬁrst name ILLUSTRATION BY OLIVER MUNDAY
PHOTOGRAPH: H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS/CLASSICSTOCK/GETTY (BABY)
upon a clean slate of a human being is a momentous responsibility. The problem is, there’s no consensual semiotics. Naming a baby is like trying to buy a house with no asking price and then trying to predict what that house will be like in thirty years, even if it moves to a diﬀerent city or comes out as a transgender woman. (In 2016, the four girls’ names whose popularity dropped the most drastically were Caitlin, Caitlyn, Katelynn, and Kaitlynn.) Recently, I was surprised to learn that my surname, Collins, has become a more common ﬁrst name for girls (No. 647) than Claudia, the name we gave our daughter (No. 761). “Until recently, no ‘s’ surname had ever come close to the girls’ top 1000,” the Web site Baby Name Wizard notes. “Collins has changed that, leaping from obscurity thanks to Collins Tuohy, the adoptive sister of football player Michael Oher, seen in the ﬁlm ‘The Blind Side.’ Tuohy was given a family surname in classic Southern fashion, and parents who saw the movie liked the style.” Luckily, my parents chose to use my mother’s maiden name as my middle name, rather than calling me Zurn. In Switzerland, one baby-naming consultancy promises to “create a new and independent name for your child,” for around the cost of a car. Unfortunately, the company’s name is Erfolgswelle. According to the Times, grandparents in the U.S. are increasingly oﬀering things like family businesses and ten thousand dollars in exchange for the naming rights to their grandchildren. However, anyone who has followed the fate of a polar-research ship that the British government asked the public to name, via an Internet poll, will be sensitive to the perils of crowdsourcing. The public, by a margin of three to one, chose R.R.S. Boaty McBoatface. The British government took one look and thought, He’s really more of an R.R.S. David Attenborough. Unless you want to somehow reconcile the proclivities of every aunt who doesn’t like diminutives and every neighbor who knew a mean James, you end up drafting in solitude, even secrecy, one of the most publicfacing statements you’ll ever make. Unlike a friend of mine, whose par
ents, dabbling in Eastern religion in the seventies, each independently decided that they wanted to name a future daughter Lila—pronounced “Leelah”—and who, when it came time to name her own children, got Philo from the street her husband grew up on (it’s also the name of the inventor of television, the ﬁeld in which they both work) and Winslow from, of all things, a birthing video (his namesake was a bow-tied septuagenarian obstetrician), I come from a family that is not strong on compelling nomenclature. My parents are John and Sue. My mother’s eight siblings—Marianne, Wendy, Nancy, John, Philip, Betsy, Jane, and Bob—sound like characters from a series for early readers. My husband’s French family had already laid claim to a problematic portion of the indigenous male names that did not sound like medieval troubadours and worked well in English. Did I mention that my brother and his wife were expecting a baby boy the same week? They had dibs on Henry. The pillow sat there like an unread diary. Your name is what you are. Your child’s name is what you want to be. n the U.S., as the law professor CarlIselection ton F. W. Larson has written, the of a child’s name falls within “a legal universe that has scarcely been mapped, full of strange lacunae, spotty statutory provisions, and patchy, inconsistent case law.” Generally, you can’t use a pictograph, an ideogram, a number, an obscenity, or a name that is excessively long, but the regulations vary wildly from state to state and are often the domain of randomly applied “desk-clerk law.” It’s unclear whether you can call your son Warren Edward Buﬀett, Jr., when you have not actually procreated with Warren Edward Buﬀett. There are stricter and clearer criteria for naming dogs and horses than there are for naming people. (The American Kennel Club prohibits, among other things, the words “champ,” “champion,” “sieger,” “male,” “stud,” “sire,” “bitch,” “dam,” and “female,” while the Jockey Club recently went to court to block the registration of a ﬁlly named Sally Hemings, which has since been rebaptized Awaiting Justice.) Some of the rules have more to
do with keyboards than with child protection. In California, amazingly, you can be Adolf Hitler Smith, but not José Smith, because of a ban on diacritics. The exuberance of American names has been one of the country’s hallmarks since its founding. In sixteenth-century England, the Puritans started using their children’s birth certiﬁcates as miniature sermons. They produced some doozies: Humiliation Hynde, Kill-sin Pimple, Praise-God Barebone (whose son, If-Christ-had-not-died-for-theethou-hadst-been-damned Barebone, eventually went by Nicholas Barbon). Charles II largely stamped out the trend during the Reformation, but the Puritans continued the practice in the New World. The Claps—a Roger and Johanna who immigrated to Dorchester in 1630—produced a virtue-themed progeny that included Experience, Waitstill, Preserved, Hopestill, Wait, Thanks, Desire, Unite, and Supply, making them perhaps the Kardashians of Colonial Massachusetts. “These names excite the derision of the English; an American comic character, in an English play or novel, always bears one of them,” H. L. Mencken wrote, in 1919, in “The American Language,” before remarking upon the habits, in this country, of using last names as ﬁrst names, particularly “in families of any consideration”; “of making given names of any proper nouns that happen to strike the fancy”; and of coining new names by blending existing ones. Mencken ignores African-Americans, who under slavery were deprived of their identities and the right to determine their children’s, except to claim that they, “like the white immigrants, have a great liking for fancy given names.” (Interestingly, many of the names he cites— Evelyn, Olivia, Isabelle, Violet—are ones you might hear on the playground in any recently gentriﬁed neighborhood today.) “I don’t feel like no JoAnne, or no Negro, or no amerikan,” the Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur, born JoAnne Deborah Byron, wrote in her autobiography, of shedding her “slave name.” We are the land of Cotton Mathers and Ima Hoggs, Newt Gingriches and D’Brickashaw Fergusons. More than six hundred THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
Americans answer to Ikea. There are babies named Moo, Charger, Paizlee, Blip, and Cheese. The downside of our freedom is that many of us are paralyzed by the tyranny of choice. In naming, as in other matters, anxiety runs particularly high among upper-middle-class parents, who, likely overestimating their own importance, seek to endow their children with supernames—the social equivalent of the superfoods that ﬁll their lunchboxes—to power them through life. Naming is an “enormously outsized marker of ‘look how thoughtful we were,’ with a side of ‘we have been known to read books,’ ” Duana Taha, the author of “The Name Therapist,” said recently. To some people, names are as important an indicator of compatibility as taste in music or opinions about politics. A friend recently told me about a colleague, a screenwriter in his late twenties. Single and childless, he has already de-
cided that any future daughter of his must bear a certain name. Not a fan of Abra? Swipe left. The advent of search engines has made the process all the more fraught. Whereas a child might once have grown up never knowing that he shared a name with, say, a porn star, now he’s bound to ﬁnd out. Could you in good conscience name your child Thelma or Martha after reading, on a blog, that the once common “th” sound “is not currently deemed stylish”? What do you do with the knowledge that roughly a third of American boys’ names end with “n,” or that newly invented names like Brayden and Nevaeh tend to be big in red states, while blue states are bastions of traditional favorites such as Joseph and Sophia? (The made-up names of yore include Jessica and Miranda, coined by Shakespeare, and Vanessa, from Jonathan Swift.) The ultimate in-group signiﬁers, names are the sites of the sort of snobbery and
even bigotry that comes through in the fascination with “stripper names” and urban legends about twins named Oranjello and Lemonjello, after the hospital food. The Web site Nameberry (“Baby names, only smarter”) provides a list of names inspired by the Rockefeller family. I have a friend from high school named Eric Harvard Chen. Proving that even the most conscientious parent can’t control for the vagaries of adolescent cruelty, someone started calling him Erection. I’ve been a names obsessive since childhood, when I’d pass afternoons addressing letters to grand-sounding personages of my own concoction. I comb obituaries and police blotters and alumni magazines for treasures, ﬁnding as much delight in a Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu LöwensteinWertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Löwenstein-Scharﬀeneck (the Rolling Stones’ longtime manager), as in a Trudie Love Pickle Hathcock (a Mississippi resident with nine children: Vernie, Verla, Velma, Napolean, Alvis, Xenia, Eddie, Dorothy, and Edison). Names are a window into human psychology. You wonder what made Mrs. Hathcock give her ﬁrst three children “Ve-” names and then switch to Napolean, what she felt Edison brought to the table that Eddie didn’t. In my own family, I longed for stories of who named whom what and why, but when I asked my parents how they had settled on Lauren, they could never come up with much more than “We just kind of liked it.” In contrast to the nearly two thousand members of the Jim Smith Society, who gather every July to celebrate their common moniker (“Our only requirement is that your name be Jim Smith”), I’ve never been very fond of my name. It has always seemed too easily placed in the suburbs of the nineteen-eighties, a decade during which American parents were churning out almost ﬁfteen thousand Laurens a year. The fact that I grew up in North Carolina, surrounded by Spruills, Garrisons, Faisons, Ramseys, and MacRaes— Mencken’s last-name-as-ﬁrst-name trend endures in the South—exacerbated my sense that my parents hadn’t
IN WESTERN MASS
What do I remember of those strange episodic parts of my life. What they nowadays call outliers. Someone put them in brackets. (Who put them in brackets? I wanted them to go on.) A dwindling Fall, pumpkins, marriage, winter. The Pioneer Valley. The roaring American convection heating. The fluﬀ oﬀ our flannel sheets getting everywhere. You wrote something about the number of windows. Was it a lot? You seemed to think it was a lot. Once, an owl huddled there, pecked at by small birds. It was daytime and just beginning to snow. Such a picture of misery. Me in my blue shirt, and James’s tie. A frog hopped over my boot. It seemed like luck. Then the threshold. I don’t remember kitchen, entertainment center, bathroom— just those cream flannel sheets rubbed and blown to lint. The hereditary medievalist downstairs proclaiming: I have seniority in the car park. The clever, clueless voice in workshop, hazarding: is it the voice of coﬀee. The black, tremulous Jules Feiﬀer chenille dress you married in. Ah, me. —Michael Hofmann tried hard enough, that my name was neither particularly distinguished nor meaningful. People who would never have been named Lauren, because they’re not thirty-seven, would probably say that it’s a little basic. The most famous Lauren Collins is Lauren Collins the Canadian actress, whom I’ve gotten to know on Twitter, simply because of the novelty of seeing our shared name pop up on each other’s feed. “It’s not that I dislike our name,” she wrote to me in an e-mail. “I think it’s strong and goes well together, but it’s just . . . forgettable.” She continued, “I spent a large chunk of my formative years being referred to by another name altogether, Paige Michalchuk, the character I played on TV. Paige evokes a daringness that I never felt as Lauren. Paige Michalchuk is one of a kind. Lauren Collins blends into a crowd.” Such is the name shame of a Lauren Collins that I’ve almost en
joyed moving to France and being mistaken, quite frequently, for a Monsieur Laurent Colline.
s part of a bicultural family, my A husband, Olivier, and I had to consider every name from two often irreconcilable angles. Was Louis too Sun King, or was it too Lou (DiMaggio) Gallina, the guy who killed several people with a baseball bat in “The Sopranos”? While pondering that question, we hit upon Jean, which had the appeal of being simple, classic but not overused, and nicely resonant with the names of both of our fathers, John and Jacques. “I think we’ve ﬁnally got it,” I texted Olivier. “Jean!” I wrote, only to ﬁnd that my English-language autocorrect had replaced the letters with a tiny pair of denim pants. Jean, then, was out. We’d agreed on our daughter’s name, Claudia, over the course of a spaghetti dinner, before
she’d even been conceived, so I couldn’t believe that we were still stuck. “The Internet says he’s the size of a Swiss chard!” I warned. “I could go into labor any second.” I’d always looked down on those parents who made a splitsecond decision in the delivery room or, worse, took several days trying names on their newborn, like outﬁts bought on approval. They’d had one job—for nine months!—and failed to complete it. It was bothering me, on a spiritual level, that this clearly sentient little thing, kicking and undulating, remained anonymous. I started to think of my growing stomach as the Womb of the Unknown Soldier. France has a more rigid naming culture than America. This, like many things, goes back to the French Revolution, when the National Convention, in an eﬀort to upend the mores of the ancien régime, passed a law that made it easy for people both to give their children whatever names they wanted and to change their own—giving rise, for a brief period, to citizens like Mort aux Aristocrates (Death to Aristocrats) and Droit de l’Homme Tricolore (Tricolor Right of Man). In 1803, Napoleon revoked the law, decreeing that French babies could only be named after Catholic saints.Tweaked in 1813 to permit “names of persons from ancient history,” the law remained in force until 1966, when a Breton man who’d named six of his twelve kids— Adraborann, Brann, Diwezha, Gwendal, Maiwenn, and Sklerijenn—after Celtic heroes sued to have them recognized by the state. In its ruling, the Ministry of Justice instructed registrars to accept an expanded range of names, including those derived from mythological ﬁgures (Hercule, Diana), those popular in foreign languages (“like Ivan, Manfred, or James”), and certain abbreviations (Ginette for Geneviève), while continuing to exclude names derived from “things, animals, or qualities” and “names referring to political events.” A Muslim living in France could, at last, name his child Mohamed, but the government urged oﬃcials to “tactfully suggest” that he be given a second name that corresponded to their deﬁnition of French. It wasn’t until 1993, when a Minister of Justice took up the cause of a THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
woman who wanted to name her daughter Méloé, that French parents gained a greater degree of autonomy. Today, a registrar is required to accept any name, except one he deems not in a child’s best interest, in which case he will refer the matter to a judge. In recent years, French courts have rejected such names as Nutella, Prince-William, and, for a pair of twins, Joyeux (Happy) and Patriste (a phonetic take on Not Sad). “The names of ‘Joyeux’ and ‘Patriste’ are of a nature, because of their fanciful, even ridiculous, character, to create diﬃculties and embarrassment for the child,” the opinion read. “It is therefore necessary to conﬁrm the judgment taken with regard to the suppression of these two names, which must be replaced by the ﬁrst names of ‘Roger’ and ‘Raymond.’ ” We wanted something squarely French, but not, as John F. Kennedy once warned Jackie in advance of a state dinner, “too Frenchy.” Our main criterion, which was also our main problem, was that all our parents needed to be able to pronounce it. This eliminated a frustratingly huge number of options, including our coup de coeur, Valentin, which my people were sure to shorten to Val and associate with cheap chocolates. I loved the name—the way it connoted heart and valor, even the physical shape of it—but I wasn’t entirely sure that I could pull oﬀ yelling it down a city block. Explaining to Olivier why Camille wasn’t an ideal option for a Franco-American boy, I thought of a recent episode of “Blackish,” in which Dre, the main character, explodes at Rainbow, his biracial wife, who doesn’t share his aﬀection for the name DeVante: “Rainbow is the name that white people give cocker spaniels!” (Rainbow, incidentally, is the name that Eric Chen’s parents gave his sister.) I knew the Hundred-Year Rule, which holds that it takes a century for a forgotten baby name to make a comeback, but I was struggling to grasp the hidden codes of a culture that was still new to me. Olivier, whose interests tend more toward aviation than amateur sociology, hadn’t given much thought to whether Calixte sounded precious or Côme was too stuck-up. Out of my zone, I haunted francophone baby-name boards; scoured Le Figaro’s social page, Le Carnet du Jour; studied the birth 28
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announcements in the window of the local stationery shop. Librairies became purveyors of names, not books. (The British Museum, a few years ago, tried pitching itself as a name trove. “Get your baby something special from the British Museum. A Name,” one advertisement read, boasting of a selection from Abydos to Zenobia.) Even when I liked a name, I could never tell whether I was projecting onto it the same associations that our son’s peers and neighbors were bound to. It wasn’t until a recent story in the magazine Marianne—“BRIGITTE,” the cover read, “the crazy history of a ﬁrst name that tells the story of France”— that I had any clue that the French public’s aﬀection for Brigitte Macron might have to do with her name, which is apparently both charming and a little cheesy, “evoking irresistibly a prosperous France, sure of herself, optimistic: les trentes Glorieuses, sexual liberation included.” How was I to know that Kevin—a perfectly respectable name, as far as I was concerned— was a national punch line, until I read a notice in Le Goraﬁ, the French version of the Onion, announcing the death of “the ﬁrst Kevin,” at thirty-two years of age? Jim, an American I know, abdicated naming privileges to his French wife, Elisabeth, on one condition: that, with the chosen name, their son could play shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles. Jim’s father, a lifelong Orioles fan, was to arbitrate. “Jean-Baptiste?” Elisabeth suggested. “Hairdresser,” Jim’s father replied. “Jean-Baptiste is a hairdresser.” “Christian, then.” “You cannot call him Christian. He is Catholic. We are Catholic. People will think he is a Christian Scientist or a Fundamentalist. If you want to go down that path, just call him Jesus.” The boy was eventually christened Theodore. His French passport has an acute accent, but his American one doesn’t. For us, the clock was ticking. We solicited another friend’s advice on Pierre, and the feedback was not good: “Better to avoid.” “WE HAVE TO PICK SOMETHING NOW,” I texted Olivier, after another fruitless afternoon perusing “Un Bébé, un Prénom,” a book we’d acquired out of desperation. It did
little to spackle the holes in my cultural knowledge, listing as a celebrity Achille “the clown Achille Zavatta.” Olivier, who tends to take a rational approach to problem-solving, came home that night with a spreadsheet. He had input the top two hundred and ﬁfty Parisian boys’ names for 2016, the number of births corresponding to each, and his comments on the entries. Sacha: “Too Russian?” Neil: “Ask Lauren.” Leonardo: “Too DiCaprio.” Ferdinand: “1st World War.” Aurèle: “J’aime bien.” Charlie: “Charlie Hebdo.” Sure enough, next to Kevin he’d written, “Silly.” We went through the list together, ﬁlling in the missing cells. “Timothée,” I read out. “Timothée douche,” Olivier said. “What’s Timothée douche?” “A bath gel.” No. 90 was Lenny, one of a number of English names that have recently gained traction with French parents. “You put ‘Why not?’ next to Lenny?” I said. “Have you ever heard of a book called ‘Of Mice and Men’?” Something that our acquaintance with the diﬃcult initials had said kept coming back to me as we went through the list. “I would say that it’s essentially a matter of self-conﬁdence,” he’d concluded, suggesting that any name we chose could go in any direction, depending on how our son embodied it. He was right. We had no idea if the particular individual we were bringing into the world would be sensitive to sticks and stones or schoolyard taunts, if his name could ever hurt or help him. This was especially true when he’d be part one thing and part another, either half inoculated or doubly vulnerable. Your child’s name is what you want to be, but what he is is really up to him. On the two-hundred-and-ﬁfty-ﬁrst day of my pregnancy, we decided on Louis. Lew-ie. Lou-wee. I never would have guessed that it would be my son’s name, but suddenly I could see myself cooing it into his neck, writing it in his clothes, declining it into a thousand endearments. I put the pillow inside the ottoman, thinking that I might show it to him one day. If he asked me how he got his name, at least he’d have a story. “We just kind of liked it,” I’d say.
SHOUTS & MURMURS
dated version, the Navy guys are always talking about how sea levels have risen, like, ﬁve whole inches in the past year alone, which maybe doesn’t sound that bad, but it is. A Series of Plays, Movies, and Miniseries Starring Colin Firth’s Hologram
Just because adaptations of Austen’s work can and will continue to be made for hundreds of years doesn’t mean that we need to keep experimenting with who should play Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy is a thirty-ﬁve-year-old Colin Firth in a wet white shirt. A Completed, Updated Version of “Sanditon”
Austen’s ﬁnal, unﬁnished novel, “Sanditon,” begins with a carriage overturning. This version, written in 2150, begins with a self-driving car overturning. Wow! Technology!
FUTURE AUSTEN ADAPTATIONS BY BLYTHE ROBERSON
uly 18th marked the two-hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Since 1817, we have been treated to countless adaptations of Austen’s work, which have given us dozens of versions of Mr. Darcy to rank by hotness. Here are some predictions for the adaptations that the next two hundred years will bring. Lydia Bennet’s Snapchat Story
This Snapchat story depicts the life of a modern-day Lydia Bennet in ten-second chunks. It starts out as a pretty standard third-tier-friend-ofKylie Jenner Snapchat, featuring dog ﬁlters, inﬂatable pool swans, and hunks. Nothing really changes when there’s drama with Wickham, except that Lydia begins overusing the sad-pineapple emoji sticker. Long after there’s anything interesting going on between Lydia and Wickham, they try to stay relevant by getting really into crystals.
Virtual Reality “Sense and Sensibility”
This V.R. experience allows the viewer to live out the most exciting year in Elinor Dashwood’s life. The majority of the viewer’s time is spent in a sitting room doing needlepoint, with brief interludes of talking to random
neighbors, and even briefer interludes of ﬂirting with Edward Ferrars, who is ﬁne but kind of a dullard. “Mansﬁeld Planet”
In Austen’s third novel, “Mansﬁeld Park,” the young Fanny Price is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in the British countryside. This movie asks: What if she were sent to live with her aunt and uncle . . . in space? Everything else is the same as in the original. A Harry Styles Album with Each Song Inspired by a Diﬀerent Austen Love Interest
The man is an artist. Venmo Presents: “Austen’s Juvenilia”
Did you know that Austen wrote some genuinely hilarious juvenilia? And did you know that, in the year 2085, Venmo is going to be a major studio that produces on-phone-only narrative content? At ﬁrst you’ll be, like, “I don’t care about Venmo shows,” but when “Austen’s Juvenilia” comes out you’ll be hooked. (Not you you, of course. A general “you.” You you will be dead.) “Persuasion” (2117)
Released in the year 2117, this rare ﬁlm adaptation of “Persuasion” tells the story of an extremely elderly (twenty-sevenyear-old) spinster who reconnects with her naval-oﬃcer ex-love. In this up-
Absolutely Nothing “Northanger Abbey”Related
In 2158, the last remaining human who has ever heard of “Northanger Abbey” will die. “Persuasion” (2167)
A generally faithful adaptation set in 2167, but now the planet is made of magma. “Janes Austens”
In an age when cloning technology has ﬁnally been perfected, this movie asks: What would happen if a bioengineering company created a theme park ﬁlled with cloned Jane Austens? The answer is: the Austens pretty much just sit around writing novels. A Dating App with No Real Men but a Fake Proﬁle for Every Man Mentioned in an Austen Novel
It’s a really fun interface, and, since there are ﬁfty billion humans on the planet, actual dating has been outlawed anyway. “Fast & Fastibility”
In spite of what the title implies, this “Fast & Furious” movie (the seventysecond in the franchise) actually follows the basic plot of “Emma.” “Persuasion” (2217)
This ﬁlm, set after the explosion of Earth, depicts the budding romance between several human consciousnesses that have been uploaded to the Cloud. And, in keeping with liberalized expectations of women, the spinster character is no longer twenty-seven. She’s thirty-one. THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
THE POLITICAL SCENE
THE DREAM DEFERRED Bernie Sanders’s not-quite-finished campaign. BY BENJAMIN WALLACE-WELLS
ernie Sanders’s Presidential race B ended a year ago, but his campaign never did. Since the election, he has staged events in Michigan, Mississippi, Maine, West Virginia, Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Montana, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, and Illinois. At every one, he speaks about the suﬀering of smalltown Americans, and his belief that the Democrats can help them. When I caught up with him recently, his shirt was a little untucked, his head hung down, and he carried a printed copy of his remarks. Sanders was catching a late-night ﬂight to Chicago, and was taking a moment to record a message
for Snapchat. The central illusion of a Presidential campaign is that a candidate can, through constant motion and boundless energy, meet countless people and, in the end, give voice to the experience of the country. After the election, Sanders seemed to adopt the illusion as an ethos. Hillary Clinton’s loss gave his eﬀorts a new urgency. The electoral map, with its imposing swaths of red, pointed to a crisis confronting American liberalism. Donald Trump may have lost the popular vote, but, as he likes to point out, he won 2,626 counties to Clinton’s four hundred and eighty-seven. Many of these counties are in states that San-
Sanders is not a natural storyteller; his great political gift is his relentlessness. 30
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ders won last year, campaigning on a platform of economic populism— Medicare for all, tuition-free college, and a ﬁfteen-dollar minimum wage. Sanders told me that Trump was smart enough to understand that the Democratic Party had turned its back on millions of people: “He said, ‘Hey, I hear you. I’m going to do something for you.’ And he lied.” Sanders, who is seventy-ﬁve, may be too old to run again in 2020, but his barnstorming has a purpose—to deepen the connection to progressive ideas in rural America, to develop an attachment that might outlast him. At recent events, one of his biggest applause lines was that the “Republicans did not win the election so much as Democrats lost it.” Progressives do not have much of a foothold in this country. What they have is Bernie Sanders. Sanders, who has represented Vermont in the Senate for the past decade, and served in the House of Representatives from 1991 to 2007, has always had a complicated relationship with the Democrats. He caucuses with them and ran for their Presidential nomination, but he is an Independent. His insistence on separation from the Party may be partly temperamental—though born in Brooklyn, Sanders has the demeanor of a prickly Yankee—but it also reﬂects his underlying commitments. The word “oligarchy” is important to Sanders, and it gives his statements a messianic tone. Sanders told me, “The message has got to be that we can’t move along towards an oligarchy. We’ve got to revitalize American democracy.” For decades, Sanders has argued for a single-payer health-care system, and he is getting ready to introduce a “Medicare for All” bill in the Senate. This summer, however, he assigned himself the task of leading the campaign against eﬀorts, by Republicans in the House and the Senate, to repeal the Aﬀordable Care Act. On the Sunday after the Fourth of July, as Senate Republicans prepared to release their bill, Sanders took a charter ﬂight from Burlington to West Virginia and Kentucky, for a pair of hastily arranged rallies. He and his staﬀ had chosen states whose Republican senators were pivotal in the ILLUSTRATION BY BENDIK KALTENBORN
health-care debate. Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader, was shepherding the bill toward a vote without any public hearings. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, and Shelley Moore Capito, of West Virginia, were indicating that they might vote against it. Sanders talked about the Senate bill’s likely eﬀects in McConnell’s home state. “How do you throw two hundred and thirty thousand people oﬀ the health care they have without hesitation?” he asked. “It happens because the Democratic Party is incredibly weak in states like Kentucky. And so he doesn’t have to face the wrath of the voters.” But it wasn’t just the Democrats who were absent in Kentucky, he said; it was also a balanced press. “In many of these conservative states, you get a media that is all right wing.” One purpose of his visit, he said, was to generate local coverage, so that he could explain to ordinary people “what’s in the bloody legislation.” Sanders’s ﬁrst stop was in Morgantown, West Virginia; he had been in the state just two weeks earlier. He remembered a tattoo artist who had spoken then, a man who’d had to ﬁght for emergency insurance after he developed testicular cancer, and had become an advocate for single-payer health care. Now an aide asked Sanders backstage if he wanted to speak with Reggie. “Rusty,” Sanders said, correcting the aide. Rusty Williams approached, and Sanders asked him how he was doing. Williams said that he was working less but that the cancer was in remission. Sanders put his hands on Williams’s shoulders and gave him a pep talk: “At least you are healthy. That’s something.” Morgantown, the home of West Virginia’s largest state university, is a progressive enclave. But classes were not in session, and the room where Sanders’s event was being held, at a Marriott, was small. Before he spoke, Sanders kept asking aides for the crowd count, and how many people were watching the live stream. Sanders is not a storyteller. His speeches, blunt and workmanlike, depend upon dramatizing social statistics. Before an audience of more than seven hundred people, Sanders said that, if the Republican bill passed, a hundred and twenty-two thousand
West Virginians would lose their Medicaid coverage, insurance premiums would double, and seven thousand senior citizens would be unable to pay for their care facilities. “How many seniors now in nursing homes will get thrown out on the street or be forced to live in their children’s basement?” Sanders said. What would happen to the tens of thousands of West Virginians who lost health insurance if they were to get sick? “The horrible and unspeakable answer is that, if this legislation were to pass, many thousands of our fellow-Americans will die.” eath and despair have been SanD ders’s themes since he launched his Presidential campaign. From West Virginia, he headed to Covington, Kentucky, in an area where the opioid epidemic has been particularly devastating. What had gone so badly in people’s lives that they were turning to heroin and opioids? “There is something going on in West Virginia and Kentucky which is unbelievable, which is what sociologists call the illnesses of despair,” Sanders told me. He had been to parts of West Virginia where there were very few jobs, “fewer that pay a living wage,” and there was a steep psychic cost. “There is a lot of pain. And we’ve got to understand that reality. And then tell these people that their problems are not caused by some Mexican making eight dollars an hour picking strawberries.” Three weeks earlier, a man named James Hodgkinson, who had volunteered on Sanders’s Presidential campaign in Iowa, had tried to assassinate Republican members of Congress as they practiced for an annual baseball game. Sanders, who was in his Senate oﬃce that morning, rushed to the ﬂoor to condemn the shooting. He believed that it had something to do with what he had been seeing in his travels. “I think there is an enormous amount of anger out there,” he told me in Kentucky. “I think there is an enormous amount of despair. We have got to address that issue, and if we don’t I worry about the future of this country.” Since the election, the Democratic Party has tried to move closer to Sanders’s views. Last week, in a small town in northern Virginia, Chuck Schumer, THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
the Senate Minority Leader, announced the Party’s platform for 2018, “A Better Deal,” which is aimed at winning back working-class voters. The platform includes a ﬁfteen-dollar minimum wage and a trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure, plans that Sanders has long promoted, often with little support. Many people in the Democratic Party believe that, when it comes to policy, Sanders has prevailed. Sanders does not see it that way. He told me, “Do not underestimate the resistance of the Democratic establishment.” When the Democratic Party fractured, in the primaries, it was like a bone cracking—the Clintonites on one side, the Sanders faction on the other, with no obvious way to repair the break. Sanders’s supporters deeply resented the Party’s obvious preference for Clinton; Clinton’s backers accused them of sexism. Last July, at the Democratic National Convention, in Philadelphia, the Sanders faithful shouted down podium speakers, marched out of the hall and occupied a media tent, and covered their mouths with tape, on which some of them had written the word “Silenced.” The two camps clashed again this winter, in the contest for the Democratic Party chair. Tom Perez,
who was President Obama’s Secretary of Labor, narrowly defeated Representative Keith Ellison, of Minnesota, the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus and an ally of Sanders. The insurgents had come up short again. Sanders asked Perez to join him for a series of rallies around the country in April. The events had been planned as shows of support for Obamacare, but, after some conversations, they were billed as a Unity Tour, to demonstrate that the Party had healed. But the Party had not healed. In Maine, Sanders supporters booed Perez. Sanders contributed to the discord. State parties wanted access to his e-mail list, but his staﬀ refused to share it, telling oﬃcials to collect contact information at events. In Louisville, Perez and Sanders sat for a joint interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, two bald, bespectacled men, shoulder to shoulder, neither of them smiling. On camera, Sanders commenced a silent, exasperated gymnastics involving his tongue and lower lip. Hayes asked Sanders if he considered himself a Democrat. “No, I’m an Independent,” Sanders said. Then he gave a brief lecture about the Party’s liabilities. Democrats would continue to lose elections “unless we have the guts to
“Don’t stop. I don’t want to talk to you.”
point the ﬁnger at the ruling class of this country.” Hayes asked Perez if he shared that view, and Perez wearily issued a talking point: “When we put hope on the ballot, we win.” Clinton, Hayes pointed out, had put hope on the ballot. She had not won. Whereas Perez oﬀers the liberal abstraction of inequality, Sanders insists on naming an enemy, the billionaire class.
great political gift is his Sdersanders’s relentlessness. In 1968, when Sanwas twenty-six, he moved from New York City, where he had grown up, to an especially poor and conservative part of Vermont, called the Northeast Kingdom. He spent a year in the town of Stannard, which even now has unpaved roads and a population of only two hundred; Sanders recalled seeing the “rotting teeth” of the children. As early as the nineteen-thirties, the historian Dona Brown writes in “Back to the Land,” leaving the city for Vermont was a political statement. Journalists were building blacksmith forges and reporting on their success; there were experiments in making artisanal Cheddar cheese. The appeal of the place lay, to some extent, in its opposition to centralized power: Vermont rejected parts of the New Deal, and it is one of a handful of states where local citizens conduct government business in town meetings. The wave of counterculture migration, of which Sanders was part, helped to secularize the state. Vermont has many churches, but not so much religion. In 1969, Sanders moved to Burlington, where he wrote freelance articles, installed ﬂooring, and produced documentary ﬁlms. During the seventies, as a member of the antiwar Liberty Union Party, he ran for the U.S. Senate once and for Vermont governor twice, never earning more than six per cent of the vote. Friends recall that he would arrive in their towns for campaign events and then crash on their couches. Sanders ran for mayor of Burlington as an Independent in 1981. Local Republicans were so comfortable with the Democratic incumbent that they didn’t bother to ﬁeld their own candidate. Sanders, who had spent years building connections among activist groups, won the election by ten votes.
The Democrats, who controlled the city council, refused to allocate money for Sanders to hire a secretary. Paul Heintz, the political editor of Seven Days, a Vermont weekly, told me, “The story of Bernie Sanders is a story of exclusion.” In 1988, Sanders married Burlington’s youth-services director, Jane O’Meara Driscoll, a social worker who had grown up in Brooklyn. They had met during Sanders’s ﬁrst mayoral campaign, when she helped to organize an event. He planned to talk about health insurance, and she, a single mother, had none. The year they married, Sanders ran for an open seat in the House of Representatives, and lost by nine thousand votes. In 1990, he ran again and won, after the National Riﬂe Association declined to endorse the Republican incumbent, who had co-sponsored an assault-riﬂe ban. Bill Lofy, a longtime Democratic operative in Vermont, told me that Sanders’s base included the Burlington and Brattleboro hippies, but also another, unexpected type: “working-class, fuck-all New England ornery, from the Northeast Kingdom,” who usually vote Republican. Sanders never joined the Democratic Party. When allies and former staﬀers launched the Vermont Progressive Party, in 1999, he didn’t join them, either. In 2005, after Senator Jim Jeﬀords announced his retirement and Sanders decided to run for his seat, the Democrats needed Sanders more than he needed them. Chuck Schumer, who was at that time the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, promised that they would not run a candidate against him. Lofy oversaw the Democratic Party’s campaign for Sanders. In their ﬁrst meeting, Sanders asked Lofy whether the Party would work to turn out his supporters in the Northeast Kingdom, who were likely to vote for him in the Senate race but for Republicans in others. Sanders started calling Lofy almost daily. “I’d be out on the road, and I’d look down at my cell phone, and it’s Bernie fucking Sanders calling about the count again,” Lofy said. Sanders won the race easily, with
more than sixty-ﬁve per cent of the vote. When he says that he understands how progressives can win in rural areas, he is talking about his popularity among conservatives in Vermont. John McClaughry, a longtime Republican state senator, recalled that, about a decade ago, Sanders held a press conference with members of a V.F.W. auxiliary, where he was “thundering on about how the veterans were being neglected in the hinterlands without decent health care and without suﬃcient pension beneﬁts.” In Congress, Sanders has championed veterans’ services and community health centers. In the decades since Sanders was elected to Congress, he has been hosting spaghetti dinners in small towns across the state. Sometimes he’ll have as many as four of these on a single Sunday. Volunteers cook pasta, and Sanders gives talks on the topics that have preoccupied him since he ﬁrst took oﬃce: the importance of health care and the inequities of a capitalist economy. They are something like sermons, and Sanders has always liked delivering them in churches. “He wanted it to be a little like going to church,” his longtime state director, Phil Fiermonte, told me. f there is an essential image of SanIminute-long ders’s Presidential campaign, it is a ad, released just before the New Hampshire primary. As the Simon and Garfunkel song “America” plays, the ad oﬀers a dreamy vision of small-town life: a couple dances in the grass, a farmer tosses a bale of hay, a boy picks up a calf. The power of the ad comes from its portrayal of Sanders, long identiﬁed as outside the political mainstream, as a representative of the heartland. An early version included narration by Sanders, but, when Jane Sanders saw it, she insisted on removing the voice-over. She thought the politics interrupted the direct emotional connection with voters. Jane has long been involved in her husband’s campaign commercials, and, when she met Paul Simon, she asked for his permission to use the song. I drove up to Burlington to meet THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
“In case you haven’t heard, we live in caves now, and we wear clothes.”
• Jane Sanders in early July. She told me that she was initially opposed to her husband’s Presidential run; she recalled his early Senate races, and the feeling “in the pit of my stomach” when she picked up the newspaper during those campaigns. Early in the primaries, before Sanders was given Secret Service protection, he received multiple threats. She grew fearful, and when she joined her husband onstage she found herself scanning the crowd, concerned that someone would jump up with a weapon. But, as the enthusiasm for Sanders’s campaign grew, her perspective changed. He had been saying the same things for years, but now he was drawing tens of thousands of people, all across the country. During the primary campaign, he received more than six million individual donations. Sanders was being treated, Jane noted, “as a moral author34
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
• ity.” She told me, “I’m a secular person, but during the campaign every night I would pray—just ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ ” The Sanderses believed they had little support outside their own movement. When I asked Sanders whether his campaign had revealed gaps in the progressive infrastructure, he was incredulous. “Gaps?” he said. “Gaps would be an understatement.” Last August, Sanders and his allies founded a new political organization, Our Revolution, to support progressive candidates around the country, in state legislative and city-council races where a few thousand dollars might make a diﬀerence. This June, Jane Sanders set up the Sanders Institute, a small think tank based in Burlington, whose ﬁrst class of fellows includes Ben Jealous, the former N.A.A.C.P. president, and
Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat, who was an early supporter of Sanders’s Presidential bid. Jane told me that the institute was looking for thinkers who “understand that conventional wisdom is often, often, often wrong.” Shortly after I returned from Burlington, a controversy that had surrounded Jane Sanders in Vermont drew notice in the Washington press. From 2004 until 2011, she had been the president of Burlington College, a liberalarts institution, which had about a hundred and forty students and held classes in what had once been a supermarket building. In 2010, she launched an ambitious campaign to expand the college and relocate it to a large property, owned by the Roman Catholic Church, on the waterfront of Lake Champlain. To help secure a $6.7-million bank loan to buy the property, Burlington College declared that it had $2.6 million in conﬁrmed pledges. In 2011, Jane Sanders left the college. The bulk of the donations never materialized. In 2016, Burlington College closed. Early last year, just before the primaries began, a Republican lawyer in Vermont, Brady Toensing, ﬁled a complaint with the U.S. Attorney’s oﬃce, asking for an investigation into whether Jane Sanders had committed federal loan fraud. Sometimes pledges simply don’t come through, and so one essential question is whether the college, and Sanders, knowingly inﬂated the promises. In July, the Washington Post reported that federal prosecutors had obtained some of Burlington College’s records, and, citing a grand-jury investigation, issued subpoenas. Toensing had also suggested that the Senator’s oﬃce had intervened to pressure the bank to issue the loan, but he has not oﬀered compelling evidence for the allegation. That overreach, together with Toensing’s prominence in Republican politics, suggested that the controversy might never have become public had Sanders not run for President. “I ﬁnd it incredibly sexist that basically he’s going after my husband by destroying my reputation,” Jane Sanders told the Boston Globe. Toensing told me that the episode would have been a scandal much earlier had Sanders been from any state but Vermont.
“For a progressive, Vermont is like the Galápagos,” Toensing said. “You get to evolve without predators.”
gives his movement its special intensity. Sanders’s optimism about politics is not complicated by an optimism about much of anything else.
n early June, Sanders ﬂew to BritIPresidential or Sanders this year, there is always ain, to promote his book about his campaign, “Our Revolu- F another stop on the tour. The week tion.” The general election in the after he returned from West Virginia United Kingdom was less than a week away, and the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn—another cranky leftist with a fringe of white hair, beloved by the grass roots and at war with his party—was unexpectedly surging. Later, after Labour kept the Conservative Party from winning an outright majority, Sanders called Corbyn and asked him where he had got the ideas for his campaign. In an interview, Corbyn recalled that he replied, “Well, you, actually.” Staid venues now accommodate populists. At the Sheldonian Theatre, a seventeenth-century hall at Oxford, beneath a fresco of blue sky and pink cherubs, Sanders was introduced as “an inspiration to us all.” Later that day, he received a rare standing ovation from the members of the Oxford Union. Sanders promised that most Americans do not share Donald Trump’s beliefs about climate change, or international isolation, or the relative virtues of the rich and the poor. He questioned U.S. support for the hereditary monarchy of Saudi Arabia, and insisted that many Americans were alarmed by Trump’s attachment to Vladimir Putin. To his usual statistics about wealth in the United States he added a global ﬁgure: eight individuals in the world were as wealthy as 3.6 billion people, about half of humanity. “They have the money, we have the people,” Sanders declared at the Sheldonian. When his speech ended, the crowd let out a happy roar. Sanders is an old man who often ﬁnds himself speaking to young audiences. They are not necessarily looking for encouragement. “My wife tells me my speeches are so bleak that they have to pass out tranquillizers at the door,” he said at an event that evening at Brixton Academy, a music venue in South London. Sanders does not ask his supporters to place their trust in meritocracy, or capitalism, or even their own country, and this is part of what
and Kentucky, he spoke at the annual convention of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, in Chicago, and addressed a group of progressive activists in Iowa. On July 13th, in Silver Spring, Maryland, he oﬀered an endorsement of his close political ally Ben Jealous, the former N.A.A.C.P. president, who has announced his candidacy for the governorship of the state. In Washington, Sanders has been trying to build support for his singlepayer bill. His recent progress may be the clearest measure of his inﬂuence on the Democratic Party. In the House, a majority of Democrats now support a version of Sanders’s bill, the Medicare for All Act (which Representative John Conyers, of Michigan, has proposed each year since 2003). Several prominent senators have expressed their support, including Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts. Warren has said she believes that “now is the time for the next step—and the next step is single-payer.” Sanders, like Warren, has ideas about progress that are utterly at odds with those of the Republican-controlled Senate. At the end of July, the Republicans made what appeared to be a ﬁnal eﬀort to repeal parts of the Aﬀordable Care Act. There had not been a single hearing on the latest bill. Sanders appeared on CNN, said that “this whole process has been totally bananas,” and argued for a new bipartisan eﬀort at health-care reform. Finally, at around 1:30 A.M. on Friday, July 28th, Senator John McCain signalled, with a thumbsdown, that he would cast a decisive vote against the bill, joining two of his Republican colleagues, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, and all fortyeight members of the Democratic caucus. In the convention halls of Middle America, Bernie Sanders is the leader of an improbable progressive movement. On the Senate ﬂoor that night, he was a Democrat. THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
A REPORTER AT LARGE
THE SEPARATION When should a child be removed from his home? BY LARISSA MACFARQUHAR
hat should you do if childprotective services comes to your house? You will hear a knock on the door, often late at night. You don’t have to open it, but if you don’t the caseworker outside may come back with the police. The caseworker will tell you you’re being investigated for abusing or neglecting your children. She will tell you to wake them up and tell them to take clothes oﬀ so she can check their bodies for bruises and marks. She will interview you and your kids separately, so you can’t hear what she’s asking them or what they’re saying. She opens your fridge and your cabinets, checking to see if you have food, and what kind of food. She looks around for unsafe conditions, for dirt, for mess, for bugs or rats. She takes notes. You must be as calm and deferential as possible. However disrespectful and invasive she is, whatever awful things she accuses you of, you must remember that child protection has the power to remove your kids at any time if it believes them to be in danger. You can tell her the charges are not true, but she’s required to investigate them anyway. If you get angry, your anger may be taken as a sign of mental instability, especially if the caseworker herself feels threatened. She has to consider the possibility that you may be hurting your kids, that you may even kill one of them. You may never ﬁnd out who reported you. If your child has been hurt, his teacher or doctor may have called the state child-abuse hotline, not wanting to assume, as she might in a richer neighborhood, that it was an accident. But it could also have been a neighbor who heard yelling, or an ex-boyfriend who wants to get back at you, or someone who thinks you drink too much or simply doesn’t like you. People know that a call to the hotline is an easy way to blow up your life. If the caseworker believes your
kids are in imminent danger, she may take them. You may not be allowed to say goodbye. It is terrifying for them to be taken from their home by a stranger, but this experience has repercussions far beyond the terror of that night. Your children may hear accusations against you— you’re using drugs, your apartment is ﬁlthy, you fail to get them to school, you hit them—and even if they don’t believe these things they will remember. And, after your children see that you are powerless to protect them, this will permanently change things between you. Whatever happens later—whether the kids come back the next week, or in six months, or don’t come back at all—that moment can never be undone. The caseworker has sixty days to investigate the charges against you. She will want you to admit to your faults as a parent, and you should, because this tells her you have insight into your problems and that you have a sincere desire to accept her help and change your life. But you should admit only so much, because she is not just there to help you: she is also there to evaluate and report on you, so anything you say may be used against you in court. The Administration for Children’s Services—A.C.S., as child-protective services is known in New York City—has to prove its allegations against you only by “preponderance of the evidence.” It can bring in virtually anything as evidence—an old drug habit, even if you’ve been clean for years; a D.U.I.; a diagnosis of depression. While the court case is proceeding, you may be asked to submit to drug testing or a mental-health evaluation, to attend parenting classes or anger-management classes or domestic-violence classes and some kind of therapy. These services are intended to help you, but, if you want to get your kids back, they are not really voluntary, even though they may be so
time-consuming and inﬂexibly scheduled that you lose your job. The more obedient you are, the better things will go for you. Even if you are innocent and can prove it, it could be more than a year before you get a hearing, and during those crucial months your compliance and deference are the currency that buys you visits with your children.
hen should you take a child from W his parents? You must start your investigation within twenty-four hours of the hotline call. Go at night—people are more likely to be home. As you look around, you have to be very, very careful, because if you miss something it will be partly your fault if a child ends up hurt, or dead. You may be shocked by the living conditions you encounter, but you’re not allowed to remove children solely because of poverty—if, for instance, there’s no food in the kitchen because the parent’s food stamps have run out—only for “imminent risk” due to abuse or neglect. But it’s often diﬃcult to draw a line between poverty and neglect. When a child has been left alone because his mother can’t aﬀord childcare and has to go to work, is that poverty or neglect? What if the child has been injured because there wasn’t an adult there to prevent it? Unless you’ve become desensitized through repetition, emergency removals are awful. Parents may scream at you and call you terrible names. Sometimes a parent will get violent. When you suspect in advance that a situation is going to be dicey, you can bring a colleague or a police oﬃcer, but sometimes things turn very fast and you’re on your own. If you remove the children that night, you will take them to a processing center to be assigned to a temporary foster home. Once you get there, it could take a long time for a home to be found—many hours. The children
Mercedes, a mother of four, has spent eight years trying to regain custody of three of her kids at the Bronx Family Court. 36
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ILLUSTRATION BY ANNA PARINI
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
sit and wait, along with other children in the same situation. They may be crying, but it’s unlikely you will be able to comfort them, because you may never have met them before, and you have just separated them from their parents. If the children ask you where they’re going next, or when they’ll go home, or if they’ll stay together with their brothers and sisters, you can’t answer them, because you don’t know. After that ﬁrst visit, you have sixty days to investigate the charges. You should interview the child’s teacher, his pediatrician, and anyone else you think relevant. You should seek out neighbors and relatives; they may be too wary to talk to you, or else so eager to talk that you suspect they’re trying to get the parent in trouble. You must also draw out the parent herself; this is tricky, because you must play two conﬂicting roles— helper and investigator. Even if you feel for the parent and believe her kids should not be taken away, that is not the end of the story, because the ﬁnal decision to ask in court for the removal of children is not yours to make; your supervisor, or your supervisor’s manager, will make it. Even though this manager has likely never met the parent or her kids, she may override your recommendation
and take what she believes to be the safer course of action. Many at A.C.S. believe that taking kids from their parents is the cautious thing to do. Nobody wants to end up on the front page of the Daily News. You are working to protect children, and you will remind yourself of that when your job gets really diﬃcult. Maybe once or twice a parent will thank you, and tell you that the services you provided made a diﬀerence in her life, and you will feel that those thanks make up for all the other parents who cursed at you and called you a baby snatcher. But that’s unlikely. The turnover among A.C.S. caseworkers is very high. his is how Mercedes describes what T happened. She was running a bath for her children. It was 2009, so Leslie was eleven months old and Camron was two. (To protect her kids’ privacy, Mercedes provided pseudonyms.) She plugged in her curling iron, because she was planning to curl and wrap her hair while they were in the tub. The kids were playing with toys in the living room. She left the curling iron on the side of the sink and went to fetch towels. She heard crying and, running back to the bathroom, she saw that Leslie had pulled the hot curling iron oﬀ the sink by its dangling cord,
“This time, I’ll ask them to write ‘Not a Piñata’ on it in bigger letters.”
and it had fallen on her legs and burned them. She looked at the burns and they weren’t blistering, so she ﬁgured they were O.K. The next day, at her cousin’s house, she saw that the burns had blistered, and announced that she was going to take Leslie to the E.R., but her aunt told her, Do not go to the E.R. If they see those burns, child services will take your kids. So she didn’t. The next day, she went to her mother’s house. She and her mother started ﬁghting, as they usually did, and she left the apartment with Leslie and sat with her outside. It was a warm night. She saw two women she didn’t know walk past her and into the building. Her mother called her phone and told her to come upstairs. The two women were in her mother’s apartment; they told her they were from A.C.S., and had come to see what happened to the baby. She answered a few questions, growing increasingly outraged, and then, guessing her mother had called A.C.S. to get back at her, began cursing at her and screaming that she would never see her grandchildren again. She started putting on Leslie’s clothes to leave, but the A.C.S. women told her that ﬁrst they had to take photographs of Leslie’s burns. Mercedes said no, she was going, and one of the women said, Miss, you are making me real nervous right now. The women left, but a few minutes later they came back, accompanied by a couple of policemen. Mercedes sat on the ﬂoor crying, holding Camron and Leslie and begging the women, Don’t take my kids, please don’t take my kids. But her mother, believing it was best to comply, picked up Camron and then Leslie and gave them to the women, both kids wailing, and the women took them away. Mercedes grew up in Brooklyn. Her father was a drunk, who beat her and her mother. One time he nearly killed them, trying to run their car oﬀ the road as they ﬂed from him on the Belt Parkway. When Mercedes was old enough to understand what was going on, she started calling the cops on him. When she was older still, she started running away, at which point her mother called the authorities on her. When she was a teen-ager, her mother sat the kids down and they voted on whether they should kick their father out of the house. Mercedes’s younger brother, who was six,
voted no, but Mercedes and her older brother and her mother voted yes, so her father left. Mercedes got pregnant when she was fourteen, but her boyfriend beat her up and she lost the baby. When she was eighteen she got pregnant again. Her father turned up and beat her, but she didn’t miscarry, and in 2007 she had her ﬁrst baby, Camron. Camron’s father had told her to get an abortion, and was violent with her, too, so her mother came and brought her home. “She told me, ‘I’m going to help you with the baby, I got you,’ ” Mercedes says. But although Mercedes and her mother were best friends when they weren’t living together—they talked every day on the phone, spent every weekend together—when they were in the same house they fought constantly, and when Camron was eight months old Mercedes’s mother threw her out, so Mercedes and the baby moved into a shelter. When she got pregnant again, with Leslie, the same thing happened: she moved in with her mother and then ended up in a shelter again six months later. It was in this second shelter that the incident with the curling iron occurred. At the Bronx Family Court, A.C.S. argued that Mercedes had burned Leslie with the curling iron on purpose, but the judge was not persuaded. Rejecting the charges of abuse, she issued a lesser ﬁnding of neglect, because Mercedes had failed to supervise her children properly and had not taken Leslie to the hospital. The children were put into foster care with Mercedes’s cousin, and Mercedes set about doing what A.C.S. told her she had to do to get them back—going to parenting class, submitting to inspections by a caseworker. By this time, she was pregnant again. “The ﬁrst thing that caseworker said to me when she met me was not ‘Hello’ but ‘Oh, you’re pregnant again? They ain’t going to do nothing but take that baby, too.’ That was the ﬁrst thing that came out of her mouth.” But the caseworker was wrong: shortly before Mercedes gave birth to her third child, Tiana, the judge gave Camron and Leslie back to Mercedes, on the condition that she live with her mother. A.C.S. was still uneasy about Mercedes, however. Right after Tiana was born it requested that the court ﬁnd “derivative neglect” of Tiana by Mercedes,
on the ground that she had been found to neglect Camron and Leslie, and argued that all three children should be taken into foster care. It pointed out that Mercedes’s home had been observed to be unsanitary on at least two occasions, that she had refused to participate in drug treatment despite admitting that she smoked marijuana “whenever I get the urge,” and had missed two childsafety conferences, and therefore posed an imminent risk to Tiana’s life or health. But the children’s attorney argued that Mercedes should be allowed to keep the baby, and the judge agreed. Six months later, A.C.S. ﬁled another petition to remove the children: Leslie had cellulitis and eczema, and Tiana was seriously underweight, and A.C.S. argued that the persistence of these problems suggested that Mercedes was failing to care for them properly. The judge pointed out that since Tiana had not gained weight even during a twoweek stay in the hospital, it was not clear that Mercedes had anything to do with it. (Years later, Tiana was given a diagnosis of growth-hormone deﬁciency.) Moreover, she said, there was a strong bond between mother and infant, the disruption of which would only make things worse. Three months after that, A.C.S. tried to remove Tiana a third time, but again the judge said no. Mercedes fought with her mother and moved with the kids to a shelter again, but there were bedbugs, so she left. The next day she took Leslie and Tiana to the doctor, and he told her they were so sick he wanted to admit them both to the hospital. For a couple of nights she and Camron slept in the girls’ hospital room, but the hospital kicked them out. Then, soon afterward, Mercedes’s mother and a woman friend of hers from church turned up at the hospital, along with a caseworker from A.C.S. The caseworker told Mercedes that since she didn’t have anywhere for Camron to go she had to give him to either her mother or the friend, or else A.C.S. would take all three kids. As Mercedes understood the arrangement, the caseworker promised her that, if she gave up Camron temporarily, then when the girls were released from the hospital A.C.S. would get the
family on a priority list for proper housing and she would get Camron back. Mercedes desperately needed housing, and she didn’t have anywhere else for Camron to go, so she said O.K. Because she was still angry with her mother, she told the caseworker that Camron could go with the friend. That turned out to be the wrong decision. Leslie was released from the hospital a few days later, and she was given to the friend, too. Mercedes kept calling A.C.S., asking when she was getting her kids back. Tiana was still in the hospital— were they waiting for her to be released? Why did she not have Leslie? When was she going to get her housing? What was going on? But now a caseworker was telling her that she had given up all three children of her own free will. he judge on Mercedes’s case was T Carol Sherman, who had worked in family court in various capacities for nearly forty years. As a law student, she had studied reformatories in Massachusetts and was appalled by what she saw— children being held in prisonlike conditions, with only the most rudimentary attempts at education—so when she graduated she looked for an organization that defended children in court. She found only one, the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society in New York, and went to work there in the summer of 1971. The reason she could ﬁnd only one such organization was that, until a few years before, juvenile defense had not been thought necessary. The Progressive Era creators of family court had imagined its judges as quasi-parents, helping rather than punishing, ruling benevolently in a child’s best interest. But, in 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that it was irrelevant whether a judge felt benevolent or not: family court had the power to deprive citizens of their liberty, and that kind of state power had to be restrained by the law, so a juvenile delinquent was entitled to an attorney. The mission to protect children, combined with the excitement of creating a whole new ﬁeld of law, made the Juvenile Rights Division in the early seventies a thrilling place to be. Martin THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
Guggenheim, now a professor of law at N.Y.U., arrived at the same time that Sherman did, and together they felt themselves to be part of a righteous crusade on behalf of their underage clients. “We defended murderers and muggers with zeal,” he says. “And if our client was found guilty and sent away, we’d say, That fucking judge. We were warriors!” When Sherman and Guggenheim started out, their caseload was almost all delinquencies. But then growing awareness of “battered-child syndrome”—an awareness that the abuse of children at home was not a rare pathology but a frequent occurrence that demanded attention—led, in 1974, to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. The Juvenile Rights Division saw more and more abuse and neglect cases, and as this happened a divide opened among the warriors. To Sherman, it seemed clear that these new cases were very diﬀerent—that whereas in the delinquency cases children accused of crimes had to be protected from the state, in the neglect and abuse cases the state itself was protecting children, from their parents. But to Guggenheim the child-welfare cases and the delinquency cases looked all too similar: in both, the state possessed the fearsome power to remove children from their homes, and so in both that power had to be kept in check. By the time Sherman became a judge, in 2008, a great deal had changed in family court. In the eighties and nineties, putting children in foster care was very common: in 1991, there were nearly ﬁfty thousand children in care in New York City. But study after study had shown how harmful foster care could be, and judges had become leery of it; by 2005, the number had dropped to eighteen thousand. (It is now under nine thousand.) But this didn’t mean that all the children who were no longer in foster care had stayed with their parents: many experts in the ﬁeld had come to believe that the solution to the problem of children spending years in foster care was to speed up adoption. In 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which required states to ﬁle for termination of parental rights in most cases when a child had been in foster care for ﬁfteen of the previous twenty-two months. This gave parents far less time to satisfy child-protection agencies that 40
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
they had adequately reformed, and made it far more likely that they would never get their children back. Sherman knew that foster care could be harmful, so she felt more comfortable removing children if there was a relative who could pass a background check and take them—she believed that children almost always did better with family. Sherman: Did the father sign the birth certiﬁcate at the hospital? A.C.S.: I believe so. Sherman: Does the mother have contact with the child? A.C.S.: The mother attended the child safety conference but she became upset and walked out and told the father it was his baby now.
She worked tirelessly, aware that she now had more power than ever to aﬀect children’s lives. She read every report in advance, she took detailed notes and reviewed them, she interrogated. Sherman: I’d like to see the police report, this makes no sense. Where is the child? A.C.S.: With the paternal grandmother. Sherman: And what are you asking for today? A.C.S.: The removal of the child to A.C.S. Sherman: Based on the mother leaving the child alone on one occasion for thirty minutes? A.C.S.: This is a very young child, less than seven months old, he cannot fend for himself. Mother’s Lawyer: The very age of the child suggests that he should stay with the mother. She is breast-feeding, she has been his mother since birth. Sherman: How do you know the child was left alone for thirty minutes? A.C.S.: The child was found alone by the father’s brother. Mother’s Lawyer: The child was left with the uncle. Sherman: Wait, the father’s brother was home with the child? A.C.S.: The brother stated that he came home and found the child. Sherman: But why do you believe the brother over the mother? What do we know about him?
When it came to abuse, she tried to parse the diﬀerent sorts of violence. Was the parent whipping with a belt, which was painful but not usually dangerous, or choking, which was? And why was the parent doing these things in the ﬁrst place? “Is there mental illness?” she asks. “Is there so much anger that this person really can’t control it? It may be that this parent has every reason in the world to be angry, not at the child but at a whole host of experiences he’s had in his life— I’m not here to judge that. But how does
that impact his ability to deal with his child? Young children can be really frustrating—the constant crying, not doing what you tell them to do.” Did the parent have an unrealistic idea of how well a young kid could be expected to behave? Or did he simply believe that hitting was the right way to raise a child? It was diﬃcult to draw a line between corporal punishment and abuse, and judges drew that line in diﬀerent places. Sherman: The court does ﬁnd that A.C.S. has met its burden. J. testiﬁed that his father beat him, punched him, and stomped on him, that he had been beaten by his father since he was two years old, and that he has seen his father hit C. This court is aware of Mr. A’s issues with anger control. The court is also aware that Mr. A cares very much for both of his children.
Some of the hardest cases were those in which a doctor did not believe a parent’s explanation of how a child had been hurt. It could be incredibly diﬃcult to know what to do. “Often the injury can be horriﬁc,” Sarah Cooper, another judge at the Bronx Family Court, says. “A skull fracture, a broken femur, retinal hemorrhaging, which is typical of a shaken baby. When there are these horriﬁc injuries, everybody’s on edge. Who broke the baby? Somebody broke the baby. And often there are multiple caretakers— maybe two parents in a home, maybe a grandmother, an aunt, a babysitter. You have four people in front of you who are all held accountable, and the likelihood is one, maybe, did something, and two or three other people are just roped into it. But how do you say, O.K., take your baby home with their unexplained skull fracture? Nine months down the road we’re looking at a trial—medical experts come in and start lecturing about the ribs, genetic metabolic anomalies, brittlebone disease, rickets—and that takes years. For a baby, that’s a lifetime—it’s all of the bonding, all of the early-life attachment. And ultimately perhaps we never know what happened.” But abuse, in fact, made up only a small percentage of the cases that came through Sherman’s courtroom. The vast majority of child-protective cases involved neglect, and these could be even trickier. In a neglect case, it was a matter less of stopping something obviously terrible from happening than of ﬁlling in the deﬁcits in a child’s life, and the question of what constituted a deﬁcit big
enough to count as neglect was diﬃcult to settle. It was also hard to tell when neglect suggested that something more worrying was going on. “The question is, what else is this parent doing that their living conditions look like this?” Sherman would ask. “That they’re so ﬁlthy dirty, the children are ﬁlthy dirty, the food is rotting—what else is going on here? Is the parent depressed? Does the parent have developmental disabilities? Is there drug use? Or is it none of those things and we just have to teach her how to keep a clean home?” Figuring out what was really going on was hard, because she had no ﬁrsthand knowledge of the situation and was forced to rely on the testimony of caseworkers, whose skill and diligence varied considerably. She scolded them when their work was sloppy, but in the end she usually sided with A.C.S. Sherman became known in family court for examining the tiniest of details. When inquiring how a child was doing, she wanted to know everything there was to know about him. “I want to see every report card, and if the child isn’t doing well in school I order tutoring in the home,” she says. “I will order P.S.A.T. and S.A.T. review courses. Information about scholarships. My experience is that unless I give a very detailed order the things that need to be done won’t necessarily get done.” She was notorious among caseworkers for her obsession with summer camp: if a child was not enrolled by the middle of spring, she would issue an order requiring it. She found out that one boy loved science but had never been to the natural-history museum, so she issued a court order requiring his foster mother to take him there. When he was adopted, she bought him a book about atoms and tickets to the planetarium to celebrate. Although she issued dozens of orders in every case, she kept track of all of them, and excoriated the caseworkers when they weren’t carried out. Some judges seemed to be concerned chieﬂy that their cases proceeded according to schedule; Sherman was not one of them. “Judge Sherman cares very deeply for children,” Mary Anne Mendenhall, Mercedes’s lawyer, says. “That is something you can never doubt.” Sherman would often say, “All the children before me are entitled to ev
“I’m going to level with you, Tom. The rest of the marketing team wasn’t sent upstate to live on a farm.”
• erything that my child’s entitled to.” To her, this was a matter of social justice: she believed that it was not right for poor children to be deprived of the after-school activities and therapy and evaluations and tutoring and domestic orderliness that middle-class children had, so when a child came into her purview she did her utmost to insure that the child’s life and prospects were substantially improved before she was done with him. The trouble was, what to her seemed like helpful services could feel to a parent like intrusion, and the high standards she set could become barriers to reuniﬁcation. “It moved into social control very quickly, in her courtroom,” Emma Ketteringham, the managing director of the Family Defense Practice at the law ﬁrm the Bronx Defenders, says. “I will never forget one case where a case planner had put in her report that there was a lot of stuff in the crib. Judge Sherman issued an order that nothing be allowed in the crib except the baby.”
• Mother’s Lawyer: My client did not accept the cleaning service because she’s about to be evicted so she didn’t see the point.
Sherman knew that services didn’t always work, and that parents often resented them, but her job was to protect children, so she did the best she could with the tools she had. What else could she do? “Mental-health services, drug treatment—sometimes they’re beneﬁcial, sometimes not,” she says. “There are old studies on batterers’ programs which said they did not have much of an impact. People are trying to ﬁgure out what can we do—we have to change people’s behavior. I think just being brought to court and having a child removed has a very sobering eﬀect. But some parents are willing to say, I’d like to learn a better way to do it, and others are not.” “Carol does not see intervention as a terrible cost,” Guggenheim says. “She sees it as a price to pay to avoid what is for many in this ﬁeld the thing to avoid above all else: wrongfully failing to protect a child. She really has a Progressive mind-set, in that she sees herself as the THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
instrument of power to improve children’s lives. But, on the privileged side of town in all parts of America, children are raised by drunks, by drug addicts, by violent people. We don’t care how privileged children are raised, because we’ve arranged our world around the fundamental principle that the state doesn’t intrude on the family. Equality requires that we give the same freedom to underprivileged children as we give to privileged children—to be raised by crappy parents.”
or a long time after she lost her children, Mercedes was homeless. She F couldn’t sleep at her mother’s anymore, and she didn’t have close friends, so she ﬂoated from place to place, staying in each as long as her host would let her, sometimes staying with someone she had met that day. She refused to go to a shelter for single women—she had heard there were ﬁghts in those places, and people stole things. She was used to this. Her life had been this way since she was sixteen—staying with her mother, getting thrown out, staying with a friend, getting in an argument, moving on. Besides, she didn’t have her kids, so she barely cared what happened to her. “When they take your kids, it’s like ev-
erything stops,” she says. “Your heart stops. Everything stops. Then you’re trying to ﬁgure out what the hell to do next. What do I do? Once they take them, you don’t have no reason to be here no more. Your kids give you purpose.” She was permitted to see her children each week in a room at the foster-care agency, but she came to dread these visits, because they were so short and saying goodbye was awful for everyone, and because someone from the agency would watch them, taking notes on how she and the kids behaved together. But mostly she dreaded them because the kids had started saying things about her. They said that their foster mother had told them that Mercedes was bad, that she was a drug addict, that she didn’t want them back. Mercedes started coming late to visits, and sometimes she wouldn’t show up at all, and the kids would get very upset. Sherman ruled that if Mercedes was late for a visit it would be cancelled, and Mercedes was late. She was late for court dates, too. “Mercedes has no sense of time,” her mother says. “I tell her, Don’t leave when you feel like it, stop getting up when you feel like it, you got to be in court at twelve, how dare you get there when it’s over?” The foster agency warned
the foster mother not to disparage Mercedes in front of the children, but she continued to do it. (A.C.S., Judge Sherman, and the foster agency all have a policy of not discussing open cases.) Before she took in Mercedes’s kids, the foster mother had been earning a little money cleaning houses and watching people’s children, but now she began receiving foster-care beneﬁts. Mercedes’s children were medically complicated, so the payments were higher than usual. For “special children” in New York, foster parents are paid up to $1,289 a month; for “exceptional children,” the payment is $1,953; so to take care of all three of them the foster mother was likely being paid between forty-six and sixty-two thousand dollars a year, plus up to seventeen hundred dollars a year in clothing allowance. If she ended up adopting the children, she would receive beneﬁts until each child turned twenty-one. She wanted to adopt them. In the past, foster parents often did not want to adopt, so if a parent’s rights were terminated the children were forced to go to yet another home. To overcome this problem, the foster agency that was supervising Mercedes’s children had a policy of encouraging foster parents to consider adoption. The trouble with this solution was that foster parents were prompted from the start to form attachments to the children, and their hopes were pitted against those of the biological parents. While the case dragged on and Mercedes drifted, the agency was helping the foster mother with housing. “They done moved this lady three times, and every time the apartment’s getting bigger,” Mercedes said bitterly. “But you can’t help the biological mother who’s showing you that she wants her kids? If they would have done that for me in the ﬁrst place, I wouldn’t be in the situation that I’m in now, and I’d have my kids.” Between constantly moving from place to place and feeling that A.C.S. had it in for her, and wasn’t going to return her kids no matter how hard she tried or how many parenting classes she enrolled in, Mercedes had started to fray. “By this time, I’m tired. I love my kids, but I’m tired. My mind is tired. My body is tired. I keep getting—excuse my language—dicked around by A.C.S. They’re lying to me, they’re being disrespectful. So I start to disappear for a while.”
Every time she came to court she felt surrounded by people who were convinced that she was a bad mother and a bad person, although they barely knew her. “At one point, we had a court date when the lawyer for the foster-care agency ﬁrst came on,” she says. “And when we met outside he kept saying, ‘Oh, you’re really clean.’ What the fuck does that mean? ‘I don’t see nothing wrong with you, you look clean.’ Because I’m black I’m supposed to be dirty?” She would sit in the courtroom resentfully listening to the caseworker note when she’d been late to a visit, or missed a therapy appointment, but not mention when the foster mother was late, or when she missed the kids’ doctors’ appointments, or that she had been telling the kids terrible and untrue things about their mother. The lawyers only ever brought up the bad stuﬀ about her, she felt; never the good. One time when she was at a conference at the foster-care agency, Leslie burst into the room and said, “I have an announcement to make—I love my mommy”; and then next time they were in court there was Leslie’s attorney advocating against reuniting her with her mother, and there was no mention of what Leslie had said until Mary Anne Mendenhall, representing Mercedes, brought it up. The judge kept saying she understood Mercedes, because they had been encountering each other in court for years, but she knew only a few things about her life. “It always bothered Mercedes when Judge Sherman would look at her and say, ‘I know you very well,’ ” Mendenhall says. “Mercedes would walk out crying and say, ‘She doesn’t know me! She only knows what they say about me! She’s never talked to me, she doesn’t know anything about who I am.’ Just because of the number of pages she’d read about Mercedes, to feel entitled to look her in the eye and say, ‘I know you very well.’ I don’t think Judge Sherman recognized what that meant to Mercedes. And how wrong it was. And how many times she said it.” ary Anne Mendenhall worked at M the Bronx Defenders, on East 161st Street, a few blocks from the courthouse. She and her colleagues represented parents in family court, and so they often found themselves at odds with A.C.S. and the foster-care agencies. They believed that A.C.S. frequently drew the
line between neglect and poverty in the wrong place—that parents lived in unsafe apartments without enough food and left their children home alone because they had no choice. What was required much of the time, the defenders believed, was not parenting classes but material assistance—housing, childcare, medication, food. They also believed that family court was racist. Why, when the Bronx was forty per cent white, were nearly a hundred per cent of their clients black or Latino? Why was the percentage of the population in foster care twice as high in the Bronx as it was on Staten Island? They believed that child protection had become for black women what the criminal-justice system was for black men. New lawyers at the Bronx Defenders are asked to stay for three years, and many of them leave as soon as that time is up. A defender in family court will have between seventy-ﬁve and ninety clients at a time; each of these clients is in the middle of one of the most painful crises of her life and is depending on her lawyer to get her out of it, and much of the time the lawyer will fail. Almost all desperately want their children back, but some can’t seem to do even the simpler things that A.C.S. requires of them, like being on time for appointments. The defenders ask their clients to do these things—they explain that, even if they may not have anything to do with being a good parent, they are what the system demands and are the quickest way to get their kids back—but if their clients still don’t do them they have to accept it. “Many of these people have been supervised their whole lives, threatened their whole lives,” Mendenhall says. “If you don’t da-da-da, you’re going to get kicked out of class. If you don’t da-da-da, I’m going to suspend you. And they don’t care. So when I say, If you would just stop smoking marijuana we’d be done with this, they’re probably thinking something like, Do your job—you know I’m not hurting my kids.” There is a saying at the Bronx Defenders: You can’t work harder than your client, and you can’t want it more. Some clients are constantly in touch, texting, calling, pleading for help. Others disappear and have to be tracked down—they don’t have a ﬁxed home, their phones run out of minutes, they
get a new number and forget to mention it. Bronx Defenders who previously worked in criminal court are befuddled by this: they usually knew where their clients were—in jail. In criminal court, defense lawyers have an established function that everyone understands, but in family court a parent’s attorney who puts up a real ﬁght is still a novelty. Ten years ago, most parents were represented by individual public defenders who were too harried to get to know their clients and often deferred to A.C.S. Even now, the old assumptions of benevolence persist. Although judges know in principle that hearings are adversarial, they may feel that in practice they and the lawyers should be on the same team—after all, everyone wants what’s best for the family. So they may feel aﬀronted when a lawyer clearly doesn’t feel that way, or even seems to believe that other actors in the courtroom are taking their positions because they don’t understand—or don’t sympathize with—what it’s like to be poor. Judges and lawyers for A.C.S. and the foster-care agencies often complain that the Bronx Defenders are too aggressive, apt to make the whole process so nasty. But they are not the only aggressive ones. There’s a lot of yelling in family court—judges telling lawyers to shut up and sit down; judges scolding caseworkers for not doing their job; lawyers sniping at one another in barbed, formal language; parents shouting that accusations are untrue, or about the unfairness of the system. Sometimes the Bronx Defenders worry that their aggression is bad for their clients. A contentious family court reinforces the belief that the interests of children and their parents can be separated, and this belief usually works to the detriment of the parents. The defenders feel that a large part of what the court and A.C.S. require from parents is compliance and deference, so will it harm their cases if their lawyers show neither? “There certainly are times when judges complain to me, ‘Why can’t you people get along with everybody? You’re doing your clients a disservice by not helping them to do what we’re asking,’ ” Emma Ketteringham says. “And I remind myself, We are not a nonproﬁt with a mission of reforming the system; our mission is to represent the parents. Now, THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
that is always tricky, because we are members of this system which we all strongly believe is racist and classist and doing harm to the families it claims to serve. But, when it’s an individual client, the conversation must always be: If you invite that caseworker in who is so condescending and rude to you, doesn’t remember your children’s names and has everything wrong about you—if you invite her in and serve her food rather than give her attitude, your children will come home more quickly. It’s unlawful for us to prioritize ﬁghting the system over advocating for our clients, because we have a duty of loyalty.” On the other hand, Ketteringham believes that the small ﬁghts they pick are, year by year, having a cumulative eﬀect. “You will now hear judges turn to A.C.S. and say, ‘A parenting class? Really? Wait, domesticviolence therapy and regular therapy?’ That’s from us pushing. Ten years ago it was so much worse, in terms of the cookie-cutter services that everybody rolled their eyes about.” So much about working in family court was maddening, it was small wonder that people got on each other’s nerves. It had always been that way, and it seemed it always would be, since, each time a solution to a problem was found, that solution seemed to generate new and worse problems of its own. A few years ago, everyone with a court date was told to show up at 9 a.m. and wait. Since it was unpredictable how long the earlier cases would take, a person might wait all day without seeing a judge and be told to come back the next day, which might mean losing his job; and, once started, a hearing would continue until it was ﬁnished, even if it took till eight or nine at night. This was bad for the people who worked at the court, bad for the people whose cases weren’t heard, and bad for the city’s budget, because it required so much overtime. So the court instituted “time certains,” so you could be reasonably sure that your case was going to be heard at a particular time, and it started shutting down promptly at fourthirty every day. But in order to keep to the time certains while moving each case along on the schedule mandated 44
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
by law, hearings and trials had to be scheduled in short time slots—half an hour, an hour—spread out over the course of many months. In fact, most of the half-hour slots were closer to twenty minutes, because nearly ten minutes was spent trying to agree on a slot to meet the next time, with the judge and three or four lawyers and caseworkers all consulting their scheduling books and calling out when they could and couldn’t make it. And all those months spent piecing together the few hours required for a hearing or trial were months that removed children spent in foster care. Then, there were the times when family court was even more tense than usual: after a gruesome and highly publicized murder of a child, people in child protection got very jittery and very cautious. More calls came in to the hotline, A.C.S. ﬁled for more removals, and judges were more likely to grant them. What in normal times seemed like a small, ordinary mistake— forgetting to take a child to a doctor’s appointment, bringing him to school late, getting drunk in his presence— could, in the wake of a death, seem like a portent of danger. And you never saw headlines accusing caseworkers of removing children when they didn’t have to. Last October, the month after six-year-old Zymere Perkins died, allegedly at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend, foster-care placements increased by thirty per cent. Newspaper accounts of child deaths often suggested that A.C.S. workers had too many cases to do their jobs properly, but caseloads had been reduced over the years to a reasonable number— usually between eight and ﬁfteen. It wasn’t that caseworkers had too many clients, but that what they were required to do—change human behavior, predict the future— was very hard. With so many serious and intractable issues to deal with in family court, the Bronx Defenders found it particularly infuriating when A.C.S. would argue for removal based on something they felt was relatively trivial, like marijuana. “I remember one case where I
was struggling with whether I was going to make a ﬁnding of neglect,” Ronald Richter, who was a family-court judge from 2009 to 2011, before serving as the A.C.S. commissioner, says. “The mother was smoking marijuana in the shelter bathroom while her baby was on the bed in the next-door room, and I just didn’t feel that the agency had proved harm to the child. The record was so spare. There was nothing to show that this mother—they wanted me to make all these inferences! And I struggled and struggled and struggled. Then the mother didn’t show up to court, and her lawyer had nothing to say, so I was able to draw a negative inference and I made a ﬁnding and I was so relieved that that settled it.” It had become rare for a child to be removed solely because the parent was smoking marijuana, but if kids had already been removed and the parent tested positive it was often a reason not to give them back. This seemed to Mendenhall so grossly unreasonable that she would sometimes lash out at the A.C.S. lawyers in the hallway afterward. “Never say ‘marijuana’ again in this courthouse until you call the police on your friend from college who dares to smoke it when he has children at home,” she fumes. “One guy said to me, ‘My own friends’ and family’s marijuana use is neither here nor there.’ And I said, ‘How can that be? How can it be? If you really believe in what you’re saying.’ ” It was this double standard that galled her the most. Blaming parents for the side eﬀects of poverty was bad enough, but to censure them for doing what middle-class people did all the time without any fear of prosecution was too much. There was no leeway, no give, no mercy at all, if you were poor. “I’m not in favor of corporal punishment,” she says. “I don’t plan to hit my children, if I ever have them. I assume I will at some point, though, because that’s how I was raised. I will be shocked at myself, and I will have the comfort and the privilege within my family of processing how I failed, and saying to my child, ‘I lost it, I’m really sorry.’ Our clients never have that privilege.” She knew that A.C.S. lawyers and caseworkers had jobs to do, and that those jobs were necessary to protect children. But there was a certain personality
type that inclined toward that kind of work. “One of the A.C.S. lawyers, a couple years ago I saw her on the train, and I had a dog at the time. My dog was sixteen and I kept her alive till she was seventeen—doing O.K. First thing that lawyer did was stick her ﬁnger in my dog’s collar and say, ‘It’s a little tight, Ms. Mendenhall.’ ” ecause A.C.S. continued to complain in court about Mercedes’s marB ijuana use, and because she hoped that a dramatic demonstration of compliance and sacriﬁce might convince them that she was determined to reform, in 2012 she enrolled in a yearlong in-patient drug-treatment program called La Casita. At ﬁrst, it was hard. “I didn’t have no phone,” she says. “You got to get rid of everything—no nails, no hair, no makeup, nothing, you’re in there Plain Jane. I didn’t really understand the logic of why you got to take my weave out, or why I can’t wear earrings. I cried about my hair. They said, ‘To strip you down to nothing and build you back up.’ But you already feel like shit because your kids are in the system. Why would you want me to feel like nothing? I already feel like nothing.” She couldn’t believe she was there in the ﬁrst place—she looked around and saw dope ﬁends and crackheads, and all she’d done was smoke some pot. But then she grew close to a couple of the counsellors; she felt they understood her and gave her good advice. They believed in her and thought she should get her children back. Little by little, she started to unfurl. “Like most women that enter treatment, she didn’t trust, she came from a broken home, she was always ﬁghting,” Yolanda Stevenson, one of the counsellors, says. “She was angry at herself, and at the system. I also think that she suﬀered from some form of depression, which was taboo for her. For a lot of African-Americans, we feel it’s taboo— we’re not crazy, why should we have therapy? But when you’re ﬁghting with your mother like boxers, that’s a little oﬀ.” Mercedes felt that, after months of shutting down and running away from her life, this was her last chance, and she seized it. Judge Sherman saw how hard she was trying, and how far she’d come, and said that the kids could visit her on weekends. She said that soon they’d be able
“We don’t know what kind of meat it is. That’s why it’s on sale.”
• to come for overnight visits, so La Casita moved Mercedes to a bigger room, with enough beds for all the kids to sleep there. Tiana was being fed through a tube into her stomach now, and Mercedes studied up on it so she would know how to take care of her. “I knew how to ﬂush it, I knew how to mix it, I knew how to put the milk and cereal together and put the tube in and everything,” she says. Mendenhall argued that the only remaining barrier to reuniting the family was housing, and Sherman charged the foster-care agency with arranging it. The agency resisted—it believed that the children should be adopted by their foster mother—but she ordered it to comply. Now it was only a matter of ﬁnding an apartment: after three and a half years, it would be just a few more months before the family could be together. That year—2013—Mercedes brought her kids to Thanksgiving dinner at her aunt’s house. “Thanksgiving was beautiful,” she says. “My aunt and my grandfather hadn’t seen Leslie, Camron, and Tiana since they were babies. We ate, we laughed, we talked. My aunt has one of them big dummies with no arms that they have in defense classes, and Camron was ﬁghting that—they put boxing
• gloves on him and he went at it and had a ball. He was play-wrestling with my brother. Tiana, she was playing with toys with my cousin. Leslie was eating, talking to my mother, talking to my aunt.” Then, two days later, the agency told Mercedes that Camron had said that during the Thanksgiving dinner she had taken him into the bathroom and punched him in the stomach while her mother held his shirt up. More accusations followed: Leslie said that she had been abused, sexually and otherwise, by Mercedes and other people in her family. Later, Camron admitted to Mercedes and a caseworker at La Casita that the punching at Thanksgiving hadn’t happened, that his foster mother had told him to say that, and the caseworker recorded his statement, but the foster-care agency said the statement sounded coerced. A.C.S. investigated each of these reports but pursued none of them in court. But as soon as one was closed another accusation would be made, and no reunion could take place before the new report was properly looked into. It seemed that nobody really believed that Mercedes had abused her children, because she was never arrested, and during this period she gave birth to a fourth child, THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
Amaya, and Amaya was never taken away. But the reports continued. “I wish I could have helped Mercedes ﬁght more, the way she was treated by the foster-care agency and the foster mother,” Yolanda Stevenson says. “I’ve been in this ﬁeld for twenty-three years, and I get that her children were traumatized. But I think her kids were coached by the foster mother to say these things—‘Mommy beat me,’ or whatever.” Leslie started saying she’d been hit by any number of people in addition to her mother—by children on the school bus, by a teacher, by a teaching assistant in a school bathroom, by her foster parents. Sherman stopped the children’s unsupervised visits at La Casita, so Mercedes saw them at the foster-care agency again. But the foster mother reported that Mercedes sexually abused the children during those supervised visits. Reports started coming in against the foster mother and her husband, too. There were several calls to the hotline from mandated reporters— people, such as teachers and social workers, who were obligated to report suspected abuse—accusing her or her husband of mistreating the children. “There were allegations of her hitting the son,” Stevenson says, “but they didn’t remove the kids, which blew my mind.” At ﬁrst, Sherman didn’t hear of
the accusations against the foster mother, because the foster agency didn’t mention them in court, and they were all ultimately deemed unfounded. When Sherman did hear, she berated the agency for not telling her sooner, but she decided that since it still seemed likely that the children would be reunited with their mother, they should not be moved to yet another home. Even the agency was worried about what was going on. The agency itself had called in one of the maltreatment cases against the foster mother; it was concerned about her habit of ﬁlming the children when they were having tantrums. It also felt that her husband was not behaving enough like a father. When the caseworker visited, he would be in another room. She would tell him he had to come out and engage with the kids, especially since they wanted to adopt them, but he would say, “My wife does that.” The agency testiﬁed in court that there were incidents where the foster mother and her husband were very harsh with the children. Mercedes had started missing visits again and turning up late, and after several warnings Judge Sherman became so concerned about the traumatizing eﬀect her behavior was having on the children that she cancelled visits altogether. Mercedes was so far gone in despair by that point that she al-
“I guess we’ll know ol’ Mr. Willis is dead when the Amazon packages stop arriving.”
most gave up. “They already made up in their mind that they’re not going to give them back,” she says. “I feel as though they want me to say, ‘Fuck it, let me just sign, take ’em.’ I get to that point. I get there. That’s why I’ve been late. I can be on time; but when I’m at home getting ready, I don’t see an end to this tunnel, I don’t see a light, it’s just pitch black, this is a fricking routine that is never going to fucking end, and I feel like I’m drowning all the time. Lord knows, I love my kids. But, at the end of the day, it’s only so much one person is willing to take.” She started crying. “I’ve dealt with everything. Everything they threw at me, I dealt with. After I busted my ass to make sure I got where I needed to be, they just snatched it back like it was nothing.” The children grew worse and worse. Camron threatened to kill his foster mother and her husband, and the month after the Thanksgiving dinner, when he was six, he ended up in a psychiatric hospital. Later on, he started threatening to kill himself, too, and he was hospitalized again and again. When Camron was nine and in a psychiatric ward, his foster mother took the girls and went on a vacation that she had planned, so he was all alone. In previous years, Sherman had seemed to agree with the foster-care agency that Camron’s frightening behavior might be due to anxiety surrounding the visits with his mother, but now he hadn’t seen his mother in more than a year and he was far sicker, and she was growing skeptical that Mercedes could still be blamed for what was happening. Since she wasn’t allowed to visit Camron in the hospital, Mercedes called him on the phone the ﬁrst day he was there, and he asked her to call him every day. She called the next day, and the next, but then the foster-care agency told the hospital that she was not allowed to have contact and her calls were blocked. Camron reminded Mercedes of herself—he was angry and diﬃcult, and she knew he was going to have a rough adolescence, as she’d had. “What I kept telling their foster mother is ‘You forget those are my kids,’ ” she says. “ ‘My blood is running through them. My attitude is running through them. I
gave my mother hell. You ain’t never been through no shit like that, so you ain’t going to understand, you’re not going to get it. I will get it, because I been there. These are my kids.’ ” It seemed to Mercedes that the foster mother didn’t really want Camron— what kind of mother left a nine-yearold alone in a mental hospital and went on vacation? “I felt the foster mother treated the daughters better than the son,” Stevenson says. “When the kids would come to visit, you could tell he needed a haircut, his clothes were shabby, he didn’t smell the cleanest, so nobody was teaching him hygiene, but the girls looked like fashion models.” At one point, Mercedes wondered whether she could make a devil’s bargain with A.C.S. to give up Leslie and Tiana if they’d give her Camron—she thought that the foster mother seemed genuinely attached to the girls—but she just couldn’t do it. By the spring of 2017, Mercedes hadn’t seen her children in nearly two years. She was living with Amaya in a shelter in Manhattan, near the F.D.R. Drive. “So much time has gone past, I don’t even know what my kids look like right now,” she said. “I look at them old pictures, I know Camron looks older. He’s taller. I know Leslie looks older and she’s taller. I don’t know what they look like.” The foster-care agency was advocating strenuously for adoption. The point of no return was getting closer. The agency asked the court to place Camron in a long-term residential treatment facility. Mercedes went there and asked for a tour, and she emerged feeling it wasn’t as bad as she’d feared. When the foster agency gave her a stack of medication-consent forms to sign, she ﬁrst Googled each of the drugs they wanted to give him. There were four or ﬁve of them, and she looked up the side eﬀects, the tics he might develop if he missed a dose, the withdrawal symptoms he would go through if he stopped taking them. Some of the antipsychotics sounded scary to her, especially for a kid as young as Camron. “They want to put him on Risperdal—I won’t let them do that. That give boys breasts. Abilify? That’s ﬁne, it calms you. They wanted to do the Ritalin for the A.D.H.D. Fine. The
closer I can get to the organic stuﬀ, I try to. I’ve seen him in the hospital after he’s woken up after they give him the shot to calm him down, and I don’t like what I see. He’s not responsive quick enough for me. He just sit there, his mouth open. He’s talking, but it’s like the lights is on but nobody’s home. And I’m, like, no. Unh-unh. No.” For Mercedes, spring was the hardest time of year, because of birthdays. Camron’s was March 21st, Tiana’s March 30th, Leslie’s May 5th. Each year, she braced herself for this dark period by going all out for Amaya’s birthday, in January. She would spend her food stamps on a birthday cake and they would celebrate together. “Your birthday is special,” she would tell her. “That’s the day you changed me. That’s the day you made me feel like I need to be here. Because I didn’t feel like I needed to be here for a long time. They always made me feel like my kids never needed me, they didn’t want me, they was better oﬀ with this lady. I just lost the will to live. It was like, whatever happened to me happened to me, I’m on the streets until whatever. But, when I saw Amaya, that was my purpose— to make sure she didn’t go into care. I made sure that that baby stayed with me, and I’m going to continue to make sure that my baby stay with me. I refuse to lose her. I fucking refuse to. They will have to kill me.” reckless destruction of Amer“The ican families in pursuit of the
goal of protecting children is as serious a problem as the failure to protect children,” Martin Guggenheim, Sherman’s former colleague, says. “We need to understand that destroying the parent-child relationship is among the highest forms of state violence. It should be cabined and guarded like a nuclear weapon. You use it when you must.” He believes the tide is turning in his direction—nine thousand children in foster care in New York City compared with ﬁfty thousand, changing views on drugs—but each time a child is murdered by a parent some gain is lost. After the death of Zymere Perkins, last year, Mayor de Blasio spoke on the radio about the case. “Our mission is to save every child,” he said. “Unlike pretty much any other area in
government—we do not set a standard for perfection in policing or so many other areas—in this case we do set a standard of perfection.” He said, “Our job is to get there ﬁrst and intervene and stop it.” In Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov,” Ivan asks his brother Alyosha to consider the murder of a child and what price he would pay to avert it. “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature— that baby beating its breast with its ﬁst, for instance—and to found that ediﬁce on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.” “No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.
Children are killed all the time. But when confronted with one particular dead child and asked if there is no limit to what we should do to prevent another from dying like that—if perfection should be the goal of childprotective services, and if the state should intervene before bad things happen, just in case—it is very diﬃcult to say no, even if the price is other children and parents suﬀering while alive. Mercedes knows that, at this point, she has very little chance of getting her kids back. She knows that they will probably grow up without her, and that she may not even be allowed to see them. The foster mother and Mercedes’s mother aren’t friends anymore. The photographs she has will get more and more out of date, and Camron, Leslie, and Tiana will become people she doesn’t know. What she hopes for now is that when they’re grown, when they’re adults and can do as they like, one day they will come and ﬁnd her. “I will always be looking for that phone call, for that hit up on Facebook: ‘Mommy, what happened?’ ” she says. It will be years till then, but it’s been years already, and she’ll survive as long as she has Amaya. “I’m waiting for it,” she says. “I got time. Camron, that’s eight more years till he’s eighteen. Leslie is, what, nine more years. Tiana is six now. So I’m waiting for it. I’m waiting for it.” THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
WORLD OF INTERIORS Rachel Cusk gut-renovates the novel. BY JUDITH THURMAN
n Rachel Cusk’s most recent novels, “Outline” and “Transit,” a British writer named Faye encounters a series of friends and strangers as she goes about her daily life. She is recently divorced, and while her new ﬂat is being renovated her two sons are living with their father. There is something catlike about Faye—an elusiveness that makes people want to detain her, and a curiosity about their pungent secrets. They tell her their histories, and she listens intently. As these soliloquies unspool, a common thread emerges. The speakers suﬀer from feeling unseen, and in the absence of a reﬂection they are not real to themselves. Faye shares their dilemma. “It was as if I had lost some special capacity to ﬁlter my own perceptions,” she says. But she lends herself as a ﬁlter to her conﬁdants, and from the murk of their griefs and sorrows, most of which have to do with love, she extracts something clear—a sense of both her own outline and theirs. Critics have hailed these books, which are the ﬁrst volumes of a trilogy, as a “reinvention” of the novel, and they are certainly a point of departure for it, one at which ﬁction merges with oral history. Each witness has suﬀered and survived a version of the same experience, but uniquely, and the events that are retold don’t build toward a revelation. The structure of the text, a mosaic of fragments, mirrors the unstable nature of memory. It is worth noting that “Outline” was published in 2014, a year before Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature. (“Transit” was published two years later.) Alexievich interviews women and men who have lived through cataclysms—the Second World War, Chernobyl, the Soviet gulags—and she distills their testimony into what the Swedish Academy cited as a “history of emotions.” Cusk has been chastised for ignoring politics and social inequities, and the central catastrophe in her ﬁc-
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tion is family life. But her imaginary oral histories are exquisitely attuned to the ways in which humans victimize one another. Late in “Transit,” Faye listens to a palaver about clothes and sex by a friend named Amanda, who works in fashion and has “a youthful appearance on which the patina of age was clumsily applied.” “No one ever tells you the truth about what you look like,” Amanda says of her profession, to which Faye responds, “Perhaps none of us could ever know what was true and what wasn’t.” At the end of their conversation, which is mostly about Amanda’s aﬀair with her contractor, she stands up to leave the café, “darting frequent glances at me,” Faye observes. “It was as if she was trying to intercept my vision of her before I could read anything into what I saw.” When I met Cusk, last winter, at a hotel in New York, I imagined that she might be similarly deﬂective, but she wasn’t. “You’ve caught me in a pliant conversational state,” she said, tucking her long legs under her. Cusk is tall and elegant, with the features of a ballerina: an expressive mouth and eyes in a ﬁnely molded small face. Frankness on intimate subjects seems to be a credo of both her life and her work. She had just ﬁnished a multicity book tour, and she was ﬂying home to London the next day, eager to see her two teen-age daughters, Albertine and Jessye, and to resume work on “Kudos,” the last volume of her trilogy. “I’ll celebrate my ﬁftieth birthday in the air,” she noted. When I asked what the milestone meant to her, she paraphrased D. H. Lawrence: “Some people have a lot farther to go from where they begin to get where they want to be—a long way up the mountain, and that is how it has been for me. I don’t feel I am getting older; I feel I am getting closer.” One way to measure the gifts of a writer, particularly a proliﬁc one like Cusk, who has published twelve books
in twenty-four years, is by the distance between her early work and that of her maturity. Cusk made her début in 1993, at the age of twenty-six, with “Saving Agnes,” a down-from-Oxford bildungsroman about a grandiose, tormented girl ﬁnding her way in London, which won the Whitbread First Novel Award. Her subsequent novels include “The Country Life,” a parody of a gothic romance between a bratty invalid and his au pair, written in the ornate syntax of a Victorian moralizer; “In the Fold,” set in a bohemian manor house rife with sexual and dynastic intrigue; and “Arlington Park,” interlocking stories of suburban anomie. The chaste prose of her current trilogy seems almost like a reproach to the self-conscious virtuosity that preceded it. Before she wrote “Outline,” Cusk was a wickedly clever stylist, who ﬁred oﬀ aphorisms like a French court diarist and made up the sort of metaphors—“cauliﬂower-haired old ladies”; the “ﬂoury haze” of a dry summer—that you ﬂag in the margin. A woman’s gray teeth are “a bouquet of tombstones.” But Cusk sometimes bared her own teeth: her power to dazzle and to condemn. Cusk judges several of her early books harshly: they were, she said, “bedevilled by a lack of benevolence.” By the time she published “The Bradshaw Variations,” in her early forties, that devil was behind her. Like its predecessors, but more humanely, the novel tells a conventional story of family rivalries and marital ennui (particularly wifely ennui). In retrospect, however, it was the end of a line. The Bradshaws’ real malaise, which wasn’t clear to Cusk yet, is the tyranny of conventional stories: the fates and the characters that we inherit, and to which we surrender our desires, along with our lives in the moment. Cusk was about to upend the plot of her own life—to break up her family, then to lose her house and her bearings. The ensuing turmoil would force her to question an old core principle
The dissolution of Cuskâ€™s marriage, and the system it represented, impelled a new sort of writing from the author. PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURA PANNACK
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of the writer’s vocation, to presume authority, and of woman’s vocation, to sacriﬁce herself for others. s it happened, Cusk didn’t celebrate A her birthday on the plane. She and her third husband, Siemon Scamell-Katz, who had travelled to America with her, were grounded in the Ramada at the Newark airport. Cusk was “looking from the window at a Hopper-esque landscape of freight trains and telegraph poles and feeling an entirely unfounded sense of optimism!” she e-mailed me gaily. Cusk has felt more stranded in less alien environments: Los Angeles, where she spent the early part of a childhood she described as purgatorial; the “mediocre” Catholic boarding school where she was bullied and ostracized; provincial society in Brighton and Bristol, where she lived with her second husband when their daughters were young, struggling to reconcile the demands of motherhood with those of art and autonomy—the subject of her memoir “A Life’s Work”; and that marriage itself, which ended in a draught of bitterness that she purged like a poison in her memoir “Aftermath.” Cusk’s former husband Adrian Clarke, who is nameless in “Aftermath” and virtually dematerialized—he haunts the text
like a ghost—was a prominent civil-rights lawyer who quit his job when they left London, in 1999, shortly after the birth of their ﬁrst daughter. He was a legal scholar at Oxford University for a while, and took up photography. They agreed that he would assume the primary burden of childcare while she worked on her books. “My notion was that we would live together as two hybrids, each of us half male and half female,” she writes. Many modern couples negotiate such an arrangement, but for Cusk it was more than a pragmatic bargain, or even a matter of justice—she staked her identity on it. “The child goes through the full-time mother like a dye through water,” she writes. “To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character.” In the thirteen years that she lived with Clarke, Cusk published seven books, including “The Last Supper,” a memoir of the family’s three-month sojourn in Italy which deserves a place in the canon of irritably highbrow British travelogues. “Consider the pizza,” she writes. “It is like a smiling face: it assuages the fear of complexity by showing everything on its surface.” On an ill-timed visit to Assisi—it is an overcast Sunday, and the city is teeming with tourists—the family has a long wait for a space in one of
“Change of plan, heads. I want you to welcome my enemies so that we might engage in open discourse and perhaps learn from each other’s differences.”
the parking lots. The hordes have come to see not the sublime early frescoes of Giotto but the dry bones of St. Francis, which reside in his basilica. “The mania for the tangible is the predictable consequence of the intangibility of religious belief,” she writes. The most deeply felt passages in “The Last Supper” are reserved for the artists of the Renaissance; the most unforgiving, for any group, pastime, or individual that Cusk perceives as philistine. As in the case of the poor pizza, a lack of depth, or of an appetite for the dark and the visceral, never fails to disappoint her. But Cusk saves her ﬁercest scorn for the English middle class, and that animus has caused trouble for her, not only with critics who consider her an unreconstructed élitist. One of the British expats whom she encounters in “The Last Supper” disputed Cusk’s depiction of him, and sued her when the memoir appeared. Her publisher settled the suit without ﬁghting it, then recalled and pulped the ﬁrst edition. A revised text has been reprinted several times. Clarke ﬁgures as an obliging fellowtraveller in “The Last Supper.” His presence is subsumed in the marital “we.” So, it would seem, was Cusk’s sense of entitlement to a stand-alone “I.” “Aftermath” is evasive about the reasons that the marriage ended. This was partly for the children’s sake, Cusk told me. In the book, however, she alludes to an “important vow of obedience” that was broken, and to her resentment of the fact that “I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband—meaning well—only did one.” Clarke, she writes, “believed that I had treated him monstrously,” perhaps because he discovered that he had surrendered his male prerogatives to a feminist ideal only for his wife to regard him as desexed. A passage in “Arlington Park” may shed some light on Cusk’s view of this transaction. A woman who has uprooted her family from London and moved to the suburbs deeply regrets it. She and her husband are like deportees “with no access to the things that brought them together.” He, like Clarke, was a prominent lawyer, but he takes a job at a sleepy local ﬁrm, and only at her urging: “He wouldn’t have moved an inch if she hadn’t borne him along with her,” though she fears that in bearing
him along she “had damaged him, so that she could no longer love him.” Whatever blame Cusk assumed for the debacle, she was outraged by Clarke’s demand for “half of everything, including the children,” she writes in “Aftermath.” “They’re my children,” she tells him. “They belong to me.” “Call yourself a feminist,” he retorts. (Clarke declined to comment on Cusk’s portrayal of their life, except to dispute any implication that she had paid him alimony or supported the family single-handedly.) But perhaps he is right, she reﬂects later. Perhaps a feminist true to her convictions wouldn’t be “loitering in the kitchen, in the maternity ward, at the school gate.” And the deluded creature who thinks that she can be both a person and a woman is like an alcoholic with the “fantasy of modest social drinking.” “Aftermath” is a mystifying book if you read it as an elliptical, one-sided account of a divorce. And even a reader sympathetic to Cusk’s iconoclasm is perplexed by her illogic. She takes on the role of a breadwinning husband, but, when her spouse claims the rights of a stay-at-home wife, she expects him to revert to ancestral form—to cede the kids to her and go make some money. (Clarke has since become a psychotherapist.) Cusk’s drive for separation, however, is a struggle with the paradoxes of a primal attachment being played out in an adult relationship. Marriage, in her work, is oppressive on two counts: as a patriarchal institution and a maternal body. A child attacks a controlling mother with the intent to “destroy” her, but also to prove that she can’t—that the mother’s love can survive the attack. If the mother surrenders or retaliates, the child feels abandoned. She is separate, yes; she has succeeded; but she is powerless to console herself. After the breakup, Cusk stops eating, “and soon my clothes are too big for me . . . just as my mother’s clothes were when long ago I opened her wardrobe and curiously tried them on.” Looking at her daughters, she recalls that “once I was pregnant with them, and the memory is too strange to tolerate for long. My body is . . . drifting and fading toward a blank vision of its own autonomy.” In “A Life’s Work” and “Aftermath,” Cusk risked a form of exposure that has
an element of indecency to it. Like D. H. Lawrence, whom she calls her mentor, she sides with instinct against propriety, despite the cost to herself and others. “I haven’t hidden anything,” she told me, “not my aggression or my anger.” Later, she added, “Wanting people to like you corrupts your writing.” But her streak of valor was largely lost on critics in Britain. The memoirs’ merits as literature took a back seat, in reviews, to personal attacks on the author’s perceived arrogance and narcissism, and on her ambivalence toward maternity, about which “A Life’s Work,” in particular, is radically honest, and at times self-excoriating. Book reviewing can be a blood sport in the U.K., and there was until recently even a prize, the Hatchet Job of the Year award, for the most savage critique. Camilla Long, a columnist for the Sunday Times, won it for her vivisection of “Aftermath,” in which she described Cusk as “a brittle little dominatrix.” (“Bizarre” and “whinnying” were some other epithets.) Cusk was nearly annihilated by this reception. It was “English cruelty and bullying,” she said. “I was depleted to the point of not being able to create anything.” A teaching job kept her aﬂoat ﬁnancially. When she returned to her vocation, in 2013, she was “another writer,” and a consciously “obscured” one. “A journalist recently told me that she had been sent to ﬁnd out who I was,” Cusk said. “There seems to be some problem about my identity. But no one can ﬁnd it, because it’s not there—I have lost all interest in having a self. Being a person has always meant getting blamed for it.”
t seven o’clock on a Sunday eveA ning, ten weeks after Cusk’s birthday, we listened to the French-election news at the Red Lion, a pub in the village of Stiﬀkey, on the Norfolk coast. The weather was golden, and Cusk had gone for a long walk by herself on a path that runs through the salt marshes. When she arrived at the pub, wearing a pair of overalls, Scamell-Katz was waiting with a chilled bottle of Chablis. A few local friends—a ﬁshmonger, a livery driver, a landscaper, a set builder— joined us with their pints. The talk, at
ﬁrst, was of electoral upsets on both sides of the Atlantic. Norfolk voted for Brexit, despite the fact that its farmers depend on immigrant labor. It wasn’t clear what the consensus of our group was, and Cusk tactfully turned the subject to children and roses. She calls herself “antisocial,” though the adjective didn’t jibe with her warmth and animation in that company. Having recently quit smoking, she vaped discreetly, drank with relish, and joked about her gardening skills. The only time that I saw a ﬂash of aloofness was when the subject of nicknames arose. (The ﬁshmonger’s was Fishy.) It bothered her, she admitted, when people shortened “Albertine” to something cuter, like Bean or Bibi. “It’s a noble name,” she said. “ ‘Noble’ is its literal meaning.” Cusk and Scamell-Katz divide their time between Norfolk and London, where she owns a ﬂat and her daughters go to school. “We spend most of our life in the car,” she said, “though at least we get to talk all the way.” They have been a couple for four years, and married for three. Their romance began one Christmas, when they were both without their children, and Scamell-Katz took Cusk to a wild Scottish peninsula, in the middle of a storm. I had the impression that their complicity still surprises them daily. Sunday nights at the Red Lion are a ritual of the couple’s country life, though they are otherwise homebodies. “You lose your power by living the wrong way,” Cusk said. She isolates herself to write, then works “around the clock”; Scamell-Katz, who is semiretired, protects her from intrusion, reading her manuscripts and vetting her reviews. The actual composition of a book, as opposed to the long period in which Cusk thinks about it, makes notes, and works out the structure, is relatively brief. “I don’t want to live a writer’s life,” she said, by which she meant one shackled to a computer, “so I’m unemployed most of the time. My process is very uncomfortable. The hardest stage is to overcome the fakery, and I can’t associate with people while I’m doing that. But the writing part is pure technique. It’s THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
a performance, like getting on a stage, and before I start I have to have rehearsed everything I want to say, and to know what’s in my sentences.” In Cusk’s recent novels, it isn’t the drama of the events but their speciﬁcity that keeps you riveted. Many experimental writers have rejected the mechanics of storytelling, but Cusk has found a way to do so without sacriﬁcing its tension. Where the action meanders, language takes up the slack. Her sentences hum with intelligence, like a neural pathway. At the beginning of “Outline,” Faye ﬂies to Athens, where she teaches a summer writing workshop. She accepts an invitation from her seatmate on the plane, a Greek businessman, to go out on his speedboat, where she gets a sunburn and fends oﬀ his advances. Her students are asked what they noticed on their way to class, and, later, assigned to write about an animal. Local friends entertain her, though mostly with their travails, and, on the morning that she is to leave, Faye ﬁnds a playwright named Anne, her replacement at the school, eating honey with a spoon in her living room. Anne conﬁdes that, following a mugging, she discovered that a word or two—“jealousy,” for example—would sum up the idea she had for a new piece of work, and there would then be no reason to go on with it. This had even happened to her with people, and since “Anne’s life” summed up her daily existence she could no longer see its point. In “Transit,” whose title refers to the predictions of an Internet astrologer “too obviously based on a human type to be, herself, human,” Faye buys the top ﬂoor of a derelict house in a choice location and renovates it with the help of contractors from Poland and Albania. Her downstairs neighbors, longtime residents of the gentrifying neighborhood, hate her with a vengeance, and try to sabotage her. She visits a beauty salon, where she changes her hair color, and a boy in the next chair, furious at being shorn, explodes into violence. Two best-selling male memoirists, with whom she shares the stage at a rain-sodden reading, dominate the event. A kind man with bad teeth takes her out, and tells her the story of his adoption. Faye’s encounters are orchestrated like a fugue, with each voice taking up the theme: the quest for freedom from 52
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a false self—a stock character one has been forced to play by parents who extort compliance, or by a mate who imposes submission as the price for love. By resigning oneself to those terms, Faye tells the kind man, one stops being alive; living becomes “merely an act of reading to ﬁnd out what happens next.” achel Cusk was born in Saskatchewan, on February 8, 1967, to a BritR ish couple who had moved to Canada.
She was the second of their four children, an older girl and two younger boys. Carolyn, her mother, came from a large Catholic family in Hertfordshire. Peter, her father, a Protestant from Yorkshire, converted to Catholicism before their marriage. The Cusks met at a tennis club, in the early nineteen-sixties. Peter had trained as an accountant, but “he was driven and aggressive,” Cusk said, and he hankered for adventure. In Canada, and later in Los Angeles, he moved up the corporate ladder, and the perks of success—“the Mercedes and so on”— were, Cusk felt, of unseemly importance to him. Carolyn, she told me, was a “very pretty,” “extraordinarily vain,” and “priggish” girl who “wasn’t educated, though she should have been.” She had a “powerful personality,” but no channel or ambition for it outside the family. (Carolyn Cusk said on the phone that she studied at Central Saint Martins, one of England’s premier art schools, and that at one point she had a successful interiordesign business.) Cusk’s feelings about her parents are still raw, and she seems to harbor wrath at past wrongs that no triumph of literary sublimation has been able to propitiate. On certain birthdays, she told me, “I would get a call from my mom reminding me of the torment she had gone through on that date.” Cusk’s birth, in an understaﬀed hospital during a blizzard, was long and diﬃcult. Cusk suggested that her father blamed her for the trauma his wife had suﬀered, because he always seemed angry with her. When she reached puberty, she began to feel that her developing body was “disgusting.” “I always felt repellent,” Cusk said. “That has come out in my work, unfortunately, as disgust for the repellent qualities of other people.” Both Peter and Carolyn were ﬁrst-born children and
perhaps, Cusk said, their birth order caused them to favor her older sister. Only once in her life did she believe that they loved her: in the period of anguish and self-starvation when her ﬁrst marriage ended. (The Cusks were shocked by Rachel’s view of them, which they consider distorted.) Cusk’s parents had also “divorced” her, as she put it, although, as in the narrative of her breakup with Clarke, there are two sides to the story. She tells of a loveless and repressive childhood, in which her parents, she claimed, “blamed me for everything,” and she often felt like an outcast. Her mother’s prudishness and conformity were, by Cusk’s account, stiﬂing not only to the young Rachel. On the morning after she and Scamell-Katz were married—in “a fantastic party on the beach,” she said—“I met my father in the kitchen. ‘I didn’t realize there were men like that,’ he said of Siemon and his friends, who had been dancing wildly around a bonﬁre in kneehigh boots. And he wished he could have been like them, boots and all. Because his own wildness had been domesticated by my mother.” In “Coventry,” an essay in Granta, Cusk describes how her parents would stop speaking to her completely, for long periods of time, to make her pay for “oﬀenses actual or hypothetical.” “Being sent to Coventry,” she explains, is an English expression that means, essentially, getting frozen out. “It is the attempt to recover power through withdrawal, rather as a powerless child indignantly imagines his own death as a punishment to others. . . . My mother and father seem to believe they are inﬂicting a terrible loss on me by disappearing from my life.” Cusk often had no idea what her oﬀenses had been, even as an adult, though one has to wonder if some of them weren’t related to the fact that a woman like the mother whom Cusk described to me—a perfect storm of narrow-mindedness, seething resentments, and vituperative retaliation— ﬁgures in several of her novels. The last of these Coventries began on a winter Sunday in Norfolk, two years ago, and Scamell-Katz thought that something he said had provoked it. “We heard they were having some troubles,” he explained, “so we asked them up for the weekend and looked
SKETCHBOOK BY LUCI GUTIÃ‰RREZ
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after them. Rachel’s father seemed grateful that she was on more solid ground with me” than she had been with Clarke. “But, at the end of the dinner, I put my arm around Rachel, and asked them why they thought she was so honest, and how they thought they had inﬂuenced her work.” They seemed to stiﬀen a little, he said. After they left, there was no call or thank-you note, and six months passed without contact. Cusk eventually decided that her life was better with her parents out of it. Her daughters were free to see their grandparents, she writes in the essay, but “I myself don’t wish to re-enter that arena. I don’t want to leave Coventry. I’ve decided to stay.” Like Clarke, Peter and Carolyn had some objections to Cusk’s account of their parting ways. Peter could not recall any conversation about masculinity in his daughter’s kitchen, or any men in knee-high boots. He did, however, remember that at the dinner in Norfolk he had made some disparaging remarks about “Wolf Hall,” a novel by Hilary Mantel, who had encouraged Cusk’s work, and that his daughter had lashed out at him. The words had stung, he said, so he had remembered them: ‘You know nothing, and no one cares what you think anyway.’ ” hen Rachel was a baby, her father W accepted a new job, in Los Angeles. Cusk imagined, she told an interviewer, that, as “stuﬃly brought-up people,” they had wanted to “let their hair down,” but that the hedonism of Southern California had been “frightening” to them. (What was more frightening, according to the elder Cusks, was the fact that the Manson family’s murder of Sharon Tate took place three hundred yards from their house.) They moved to rural Suﬀolk when Cusk was eight, and three years later, in 1978, she followed her sister Sarah to a convent boarding school, St. Mary’s, in Cambridge. The heroine of “Saving Agnes” is an alumna of such an institution: a hotbed of “female cruelty.” Sarah went on to Cambridge, and Rachel to Oxford, where for the ﬁrst time, she said, “I had the experience of people treating me kindly, and sharing my interests.” On a shelf in her oﬃce, there is a snapshot of her from that period. The girl in the picture has a dreamy 54
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If I were an early person I’d look for the limits of wisdom by going to sacred oak trees or the local blind man with lips on fire. But this is now. This is N.Y.C. I go to Clive. We meet in a diner and queue for the breakfast special. Clive’s British. He tries to make the large Hispanic short-order cook appreciate “underdone” French toast. “My wife told me not to say soggy,” says Clive. We pay. Currie shows up. We sit and talk of Clive’s upcoming trip to Guantánamo, where, although he’s visited thirty-six times, they’re questioning (this time) his signature. He laughs. His current client, a Moroccan man, has been cleared for release and also informed he will never leave. Clive, a lawyer, questions the logic of this. He laughs again, then says, “I shouldn’t laugh,” then tells more stories. “Evidence” at Guantánamo is often supplied by snitches. Recently the same snitch brought evidence against three hundred diﬀerent people. Clive wondered about his motives and did some research. It turns out every time he snitched he was allowed to visit the “love shack” where the Americans show porn. Clive plans to question the number three hundred gaze, and thick, badly cut hair; she is holding a cigarette in an elongated hand. There is a lot of smoking in Cusk’s ﬁction, and she started at a young age, despite the fact that she suﬀered from severe asthma—perhaps, she suggested, as a result of her ordeal at birth. “Being in control of my own destruction,” she said wryly, “has always seemed like a solution for it.” Cusk and Clarke met at Oxford, but she had a very brief ﬁrst marriage before they reconnected. If her parents had been afraid to let their hair down, she wasn’t. “I equated sexuality with truth,” she said of her libidinous twenties. “Inhabiting
my body powerfully was the key to it. Sex has always been incredibly interesting to me, and it becomes more so. Which is strange, because my self-consciousness is so extreme.” Albertine was conceived when Cusk was thirty-one. Some women are never happier than when they are pregnant. For others, a swelling womb threatens their integrity—their literal self-possession. And becoming a mother raises the spectre of becoming your own mother. One of Cusk’s beefs with Carolyn is that “no one taught me how to be a woman”—though, actually, she was taught, and she rejected the lessons.
on statistical grounds. Most people know only three hundred people in the whole world, demographers say. If you think like a lawyer you look for the limits of wisdom in facts like that. His French toast arrives. “Is it underdone?” I ask. He sighs and tells more stories, of his son at home who’s obsessed with “The Goon Show.” I don’t think like a lawyer. I’m looking to see how the sacred oaks come whispering through a man like Clive, now striving for people on death row or places like Gitmo for thirty-five years, but worried his son doesn’t see the proper merits of “Monty Python” or grasp its direct descent from the Goons. I imagine a laughing, squabbling family back home in Wexford. Clive looks at his watch. I take his scraps of French toast to the trash. We’ll meet again. He likes the idea (Currie’s idea) of travelling around Pakistan with a troupe of square dancers. Because the square dance is a “greeting dance” and we need more greeting! Clive smiles and goes up the street in his saggy-butt pants, looking not much like a high-powered lawyer, and the limits of wisdom remain, well—as perhaps we, who tend to confuse the greetings of dogs and gods, prefer limits to do—more or less where they were. —Anne Carson “What do I understand by the term ‘female’?” she asks in “A Life’s Work”: “A false thing; a repository of the cosmetic . . . a world in which words such as suﬀering, self-control and endurance occur, but usually in reference to weight loss; a world steeped in its own mild, voluntary oppression, a world at whose fringes one may ﬁnd intersections to the real: to particular kinds of unhappiness, or discrimination, or fear.” In getting pregnant, she writes, “I have the sense of stepping oﬀ the proper path of my life.” “A Life’s Work” is at once a cri de coeur, a prison diary, and a repudiation
of Catholic Mary-worship (even though she prays “superstitiously” to the Virgin in a moment of “madness”). The memoir is heretically funny, though its humor is driven by dread. When Cusk has trouble nursing, she takes her newborn to a breast-feeding clinic, where the “babies boil like a row of angry kettles.” Her daughter’s “pure and pearly being requires considerable maintenance. At ﬁrst my relation to it is that of a kidney.” Albertine suﬀers colic, and Cusk reads Dr. Spock—a gift from Carolyn, of all people. “Spock’s babies,” she writes, “are cheerful souls in spite of . . . their constant gastro-enteritis and chronic excres-
cences of the skin.” Still, she notes, “in their anomic, tyrannical hearts they like to know who’s boss, for weakness drives them to enslave and dominate.” At the outset of the memoir, Cusk warns the reader that she is writing in “the ﬁrst heat” of the transformation from active subject to passive vessel. But as she gets used to the climate of maternity her own piercing wail abates. There are no sudden paroxysms of beatitude, just a subtle shift. She reads a poem by Coleridge, “Frost at Midnight,” and notices, for the ﬁrst time, that there is a baby in it. “It is a poem about sitting still,” she writes, “about the way children act as anchors on the body and eventually the mind.” The love it expresses “is a restitution.” Reality begins when an infant gazing at her mother ﬁrst intuits the existence of a self beyond her own, but for a mother it can begin at the same moment. Cusk told me that she would have been a diﬀerent writer if she hadn’t had children: “I would have been a minor lyricist.” The compromise of motherhood, she continued, is an essential aspect of female reality, “and if you design an uncompromised life for yourself ” you sever a vital artery. “Something has to be sacriﬁced.” usk is Scamell-Katz’s fourth wife. C (He appended his ﬁrst wife’s surname to his when they married.) His third wife, a yoga teacher with whom he has a teen-age son, Foiy, lives near them in Norfolk, and their relations are amicable. After that divorce, he bought some land in Stiﬀkey, and he and Cusk have been building a house there together. Their property is semi-secluded, oﬀ a winding lane, with a distant view of the North Sea. Scamell-Katz, who has a background in design, acted as their architect, and, with his owlish glasses and dandiﬁed clothes, you might mistake him for one. In a neighborhood of manses and cottages, the house makes, as its owners do, a statement of nonconformity. The façade is a patchwork of corrugated metal and raw slate, and the interiors are austerely modernist. Cusk found the industrial windows on eBay— they had been fabricated for a school that was never built—and she scoured the site for bargain ﬁxtures and furnishings. “There is a certain type of vender you can always trust,” she said. “She’s a THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
materialist who buys too much, then feels guilty and gets rid of her mistakes at a loss.” (An oversized sofa, which barely ﬁtted through the doorway, arrived while I was there.) Family houses have a central place in Cusk’s ﬁction, perhaps because she has lived in, ﬂed, ﬁxed up, envied, hated, yearned for, abandoned, and been dispossessed of an unusual number, along with the promises of happiness that they represented. “Freedom,” Faye says, toward the end of “Transit,” “is a home you leave once and can never go back to.” In an essay for the New York Times Magazine on remodelling her ﬂat, Cusk describes how she gutted the rooms and threw away “decades’ worth of clutter,” but then missed the abandon sanctioned by shabbiness, in which no one had to worry about deﬁling a pristine sofa or scratching the ﬂoor. Men she knows are as obsessive about housekeeping as women, but their décor doesn’t deﬁne them in the same way. On one hand, they don’t have the feminist’s temptation to prove that she isn’t trivial by not caring about appearances; on the other, they “never seem quite so trammeled or devoured by domesticity. . . . It may be the last laugh of patriarchy that men are better at being women than women are.” Her own marriage may be a case in point. When Cusk and Scamell-Katz told me about their trip to Scotland, she recalled the beauty of their conversations, and he recalled having brought emergency provisions—a goose and wine—on the train with them. Where she is conscientious about domestic chores, nurture seems to give him unguilty pleasure. He does much of the cooking (he left the pub early to start dinner), and it’s easy to see how the tenderness of a virile man would appeal to a woman as conﬂicted as Cusk is about femininity. “I’m a bit in awe of Siemon’s patience and self-control as a parent,” she said. Scamell-Katz, like Faye’s date in “Transit,” was adopted as a baby by a modest family, and when he was still a child his birth mother wrote to his parents asking for a photo. His father tore up her letter in a ﬁt of rage, but then, feeling remorseful, he taped the pieces back together, and handed them to Siemon on his eighteenth birthday. Until 56
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he sold his company, eleven years ago, at the age of forty-one, Scamell-Katz made his living as a marketing guru. He wrote a book on the subject, “The Art of Shopping,” and he still does some consulting. (His alimony, Cusk noted crisply, has dented their income.) Marriage and fatherhood are now his prime occupations, along with painting: a long-deferred passion. His studio, however—a ramshackle quonset hut—suggests a certain selfabnegation, particularly compared with the oﬃce that he built for Cusk, in an annex to the main house. Her two-room study is panelled in blond wood and skirted by a private deck; light streams through the windows, which look out on the garden; there is a wall of bookshelves, mostly still bare, except for some essential volumes, and among them was a novel I didn’t know, “In Love,” by the British screenwriter Alfred Hayes, which was published in the nineteen-ﬁfties. It speaks intimately to Cusk, and she wanted me to have it. Hayes, she said, “gives you an amazingly precise representation of what the world looks like if there’s no love in it.” fter the weekend, I went back to A London. I was reading “In Love” on the train, and from time to time I looked up to see the green ﬁelds of Norfolk receding in the window. Hayes’s novel is set in postwar New York, and it opens in a hotel bar. What follows is the story of a hardboiled writer who thinks he has no illusions about love, and a pretty
girl who just wants to be happy. Their fatal error is to mistake each other for their ﬁctional avatars—the sexy artist and the appealing waif—and truth takes its revenge. During my visit, Cusk’s daughters had been staying at their father’s house, in part so that their mother could work but also because Albertine had wanted to be in London. During the Easter weekend, there had been an argument over their living arrangements, which had brought
Cusk to tears, and they’d had a “seminal” conversation to hash things out. “All I want,” she told her husband, “is for them to treat me as conventional people treat their mothers.” Scamell-Katz pointed out that she hadn’t raised them to be conventional people, she had raised them to be free women, so she shouldn’t complain when they brandished that freedom at her. Later that week, I met Cusk and her daughters in Highgate for a quiet early dinner in an empty trattoria. Cusk and Jessye were there when I arrived, and Albertine came a little later—she was taking a walk to clear her head from the stress of schoolwork. The girls are so close in age (eighteen and seventeen) and in appearance (small, sturdy, and beautiful, in a diﬀerent register from their mother) that you might mistake them for fraternal twins. But when I asked Jessye if she would miss Albertine, who leaves for university in the fall, she said that she wouldn’t—she’d have more room in the ﬂat—and Albertine burst into tears. Cusk, who was tenser than I had seen her—alert to every nuance of her daughters’ moods—delicately set about repairing the damage. I saw Cusk once more, at home in Tufnell Park. After she met Scamell-Katz, he persuaded her to sell the ﬁxer-upper that Faye buys in “Transit”—the one with the vile neighbors. Her current ﬂat is the upper duplex of a Victorian row house on a pleasant street, with bedrooms on the top ﬂoor, oﬀ a small terrace, and an open living area beneath them. The apartment makes up in ﬂair what it lacks in scale, with interesting modern art, a smart orange kitchen, and Ikea furniture. It is homier and more bohemian than the house in Norfolk. Cusk was still struggling with “Kudos.” (She ﬁnished the book last week.) “It feels like I’m pregnant with a lawnmower, something large and sharp that I have to expel,” she said. Last year, she interrupted her work to help Albertine with her university applications. “For the ﬁrst time, I found myself tinkering with a manuscript. In some ways, that was interesting. There was a funny freedom to having less control. But the messing around also annoyed me, and the work wasn’t as good.” “Kudos” is the ancient Greek word for “honor” or “glory.” “Female honor is the burnish of having survived your
experiences without being destroyed by them, and female glory has to do with moral integrity,” Cusk said. She cited Medea as an example of both. Medea is an early antiheroine in literature, and the progenitor of all the alienées whose crimes are a reproach to the hypocrisies that underpin civilization. (Camus’s Meursault is her direct descendant.) She is a princess with magical powers who betrays her homeland for an ambitious Greek—Jason—in exchange for his promise to marry her. They escape to Corinth, where Medea bears Jason two sons, and they supposedly live happily for a while, though one rather doubts it. Jason is a congenital opportunist, and when he is given a chance to marry Glauce, the beautiful daughter of his host in exile, he tells Medea that, unfortunately, he has to leave her— but it’s nothing personal. Medea sends her boys to Glauce with a wedding gift, a golden cloak steeped in poison. She dies horribly, along with her father, who tries to save her. You can’t really begrudge Medea these murders, but there is one last cord to cut, and she agonizes over it. In the end, she decides to break Jason’s heart, though it means breaking her own, and she kills their children. Two years ago, the Almeida Theatre, in London, commissioned Cusk to adapt Euripedes’ “Medea” for the contemporary stage. She had thought deeply about Greek tragedy, but other plays had meant more to her. If she’d had any notions about “Medea,” she wrote in an essay on the adaptation, they were that “the play’s premise—the murder of two children by their mother—had attained a troubling sort of autonomy that exposed it to all sorts of cultural misuses,” misogynistic ones. “ ‘Medea’ seemed to operate as a byword for maternal ambivalence.” Cusk read it diﬀerently—as a play about a feral divorce, and about an “entirely familiar” woman who “broadcasts both her own pain and the larger injustices” of which women were victims twenty-ﬁve hundred years ago, and still are, in her view, despite the “lip service” that society pays to equality. One thing that has changed is the audience for “Medea.” In 431 B.C., when it made its début, at the festival of Dionysus, the crowd was largely male (Greek women were cloistered from the
• public sphere), and men didn’t like the fact that a barbarian sorceress who deﬁes patriarchal authority escapes her comeuppance in a winged chariot. Critics of the Almeida production had a few qualms, but not about what Susannah Clapp, in the Observer, called the “coruscating” power of the writing. Clapp continued, “It is Cusk’s skill to show both a compendium of grievances and a woman whose grief exceeds them— who cannot be reconciled. This makes her play a true tragedy.” Cusk’s Medea doesn’t kill her children—in part, she explained, because in modern terms the act would make her a psychotic, and Cusk sees her as “an ultimate realist,” who is “determined to honour the logic of her own conclusions.” “Medea,” Cusk’s ﬁrst play, also gave her an opportunity to explore some of her own conclusions, especially about feminism. You can trace their evolution in her writing, from “Saving Agnes,” where she describes feminism as “a placebo of self-acceptance,” and “A Life’s Work,” which rejects the pieties that make a woman’s biological “destiny” to bear children seem sacred, through the argument with herself about gender in
• “Aftermath,” and, ﬁnally, to the last scene of “Transit.” Faye has been invited to a dinner party by her cousin. He and his new wife own a fancy country place. The other guests are traditionally married couples, and their squabbles are a throwback to Cusk’s earlier ﬁction. At ﬁrst, you wonder why she would resurrect this milieu; then you realize that she has to revisit her revulsion for the doll’s house before leaving it forever. A fog closes in; the next morning, Faye feels a change stirring beneath her. Silently, she lets herself out. Cusk’s phone beeped with a text, and she excused herself for a minute. When she returned, she looked upset—she had forgotten an appointment, she would have to rush oﬀ, and she apologized profusely for ending our talk so abruptly. There was a last question I had hesitated to ask: Why, given her history, did she risk remarriage? She thought for a minute as we gathered up our things. “I’m very strong,” she said. “The strongest thing about me is my honesty. Not that it has helped me to be better at living. I have used my strength for the purposes of destruction. But now I can use it to build something that will last.” THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
ILLUSTRATION BY RICHARD MCGUIRE
ut nobody showed up, so he sat awhile looking at the wall. It was one of those Saturdays that feel like Sunday. He didn’t know how to explain this. It happened intermittently, more often in the warmer months, and it was probably normal, although he’d never discussed it with anyone. • After the divorce he felt an odd numbness, mental and physical. He looked in the mirror, studying the face that looked back. At night he kept to his half of the bed with his back to the other half. Over time a life slithered out. He talked to people, took long walks. He bought a pair of shoes but only after testing them rigorously, both shoes, not just one. He walked from one end of the shoe store to the other, four times at various speeds, then sat and looked down at the shoes. He took one shoe oﬀ and handled it, pressing the instep, placing his hand inside the shoe, nodding at it, tapping with the ﬁngers of his free hand on the rigid sole and heel. The salesman stood in the near distance, watching and waiting, whoever he was, whatever he said and did when he wasn’t there. • In the oﬃce his desk was set alongside a window and he spent time looking at a building across the street, where nothing was visible inside the rows of windows. There were times when he could not stop looking. He looks and scratches, semisurreptitiously. Certain days it’s the left wrist. Upper arms at home in the evening. Thighs and shins most likely at night. When he’s out walking, it happens now and then, mostly forearms. He was forty-four years old, trapped in his body. Arms, legs, torso. Face did not itch. Scalp developed something that a doctor gave a name to, but it itched only rarely, then not at all, so the name didn’t matter. His eyes swept the windows across the street horizontally, never vertically. He did not try to imagine the lives inside. • He began to think of the itch as sense data from the exterior, caused by some outlying substance, unanalyzable,
the air in the room or on the street or in the atmosphere itself, a corruption of the planetary environment. He thought of this but did not believe it. It was semi-science ﬁction. But it was also a form of comfort during those long periods of unrest when he was stretched and then curled and then belly down in bed, a raw body in cotton pajamas, awash in creams and lotions, trying not to scratch or rub. • He told his friend Joel that Saturday sometimes felt like Sunday and he waited for a response. Joel had two kids and a wife named Sandra. They were Sandra and Joel, never the reverse. “Saturday, Sunday, so what. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if Tuesday felt like Wednesday? Even better, if Tuesday of this week felt like Wednesday of next week.” Joel was a fellow-member of the oﬃce staﬀ. He wrote poetry when he was able to ﬁnd the time and he’d recently stopped trying to get the work published. He said, “How’s the itch? I think of the itch in world history and my mind goes blank.” The friend, the former wife, the doctors and nurses’ aides in scrubs and sneakers. They knew. No one else. “An emperor, a member of the royal family. You need a context that you can work with. A famous statesman scratching in secret. Something that you could research, ﬁnd some satisfaction.” “You think so.” “Or Biblical, absolutely. You might ﬁnd that you’re part of a great narrative, thousands of years. The Holy Land. The Itch.” “One word. A single syllable.” “Four letters. Do you read the Bible, ever? A plague in Bible times. I’m serious.” “So am I.” “Do the research. I know I would. I can imagine how awful. Middle of the night.” “Middle of the day.” “Even worse,” his friend said. • He was seeing a woman, superﬁcially seeing her. They were two reticent individuals, and he hadn’t said a word about the itch. When and if intimacy occurred, he hoped it would not be unanticipated. She might otherwise feel traces of the lotions and ointments,
his body to hers, arms, legs, elsewhere, the ointments and hypoallergenic creams, the super-high-potency corticosteroids. They had dinner now and then, went to a movie, implicitly working out a routine that did not bury them in total mutual anonymity. Her name was Ana with a single “n,” and this was a fragment of information that interested him. The fact of the missing “n.” He liked to scribble the name, pencil on notepad, large “A,” small “n,” small “a.” In the oﬃce he entered the name on his desktop device in diﬀerent fonts, or all caps, or upside down, or cursive, or boldface, or in the characters of remote non-Roman alphabets. At dinner she spoke about the movie they’d just watched. He’d nearly forgotten it, scene after scene of foreboding menace. The near-empty theatre was more interesting than the movie. He leaned across the dinner table, sort of half comically, and asked about her name. Adherence to a family tradition? A name from a European novel? No such tradition, she said. No foreign inﬂuence. Just a name spelled a certain way. He nodded slowly, marooned in his slanted body posture and surprised at the disappointment he felt. Eventually he sat back, still nodding, and found himself imagining her body. Always the body. This was not an erotic set of curves but something even more wondrous, the basic body, the primitive physical structure. She said that her mother’s name was Florence. But her body, here, in the chair across the table, the human, the person, the mass of ﬂesh and blood ascendant over hundreds of thousands of years or more, millions of years, a body no diﬀerent, essentially, in its sheer bodiness, from the humped and half-crawling forms that preceded it. He told himself to stop. They talked about the food and the restaurant. He asked her what her father’s name was. • In the morning he walked along the hallway in the building where he worked, careful not to look directly at others heading toward their oﬃces, four or ﬁve, suits and ties, blouses and THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
¥ skirts. He liked to imagine them going nowhere, remaining in place with their feet moving up and down and their arms swinging slightly. • His former wife had a certain kind of smile that he kept remembering. She isn’t looking at him; she is smiling into space. Those four years together, before the seething weeks of conﬂict, how she blew kisses across the dinner table to wish away the itch, those summer-evening jogs along the river. The symmetry of the itch, both thighs, the crook of each elbow, left ankle, then right. The crotch does not itch. The buttocks, yes, when he removes his trousers before going to bed, and then it stops. He could not forget the smile. It was a beautiful moment, borne in memory, her head turned away to the transﬁguring past, the grandmother with a gift for storytelling, something way back then, and he wanted to fol60
¥ low the smile into her life, to join her spell of recollection, a minute or an hour, in ﬂawless time. • They were at Sunday brunch, two couples, and there was a football game on the TV placed over the bar at the other end of the room, the sound turned oﬀ. He could not stop looking at the screen. The brief action, the slowmotion replays, three or four replays of an ordinary run or pass or punt, diﬀerent camera angles, and he joined the conversation at the table and ate his pancakes and kept on watching. He watched the commercials. The term “Sunday brunch” suggested a world of well-being. But Joel was talking about the current situation, non-stop global turmoil, naming countries and circumstances, putting down his fork so he could raise his hand and gesture in a whirling motion, elbow pinned on the table. Then he stopped speaking and paused to think, ﬁnally seeming to remember what he wanted
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to say next, hand still raised but motionless now, a request for silence from the others, and he stared into time and space and ﬁnally said that all the letters in the name Ana were also in the name Sandra. Sandra said, “What do we do with this information?” Three or four commercials every two or three minutes. Commercials in clusters. He began to think that he was the only person, anywhere and everywhere, who was looking at the commercials. At this distance the words on the screen that accompanied the images were just barely readable. Ana said, “I’m looking at the food on my plate.” The others waited but this was all she had to say. He held his fork in a poised position. The ﬁrst half ended, and after a long pause he was able to stop watching. • “I take oﬀ my shirt, the itching starts.” He was in the examining room describing his situation to the dermatologist as he lay ﬂat on his back wearing a knee-length garment, open-fronted, over his boxer shorts. She was checking his ankles, shins, and thighs. She spoke absently about the pathology of the skin. He liked this term. It suggested a kind of criminal intent or an evil that befalls a person, hurled down from above, and he recalled Joel’s remark about the curseworthy nature of the itch, something semi-Biblical. He was nearing the end of his third visit to this doctor and he wondered whether she would tell him to return next week or in six months or totally never. She recited the names of soap and shampoo brands, described conditions that might arise from symptoms such as his, and he tried to memorize all this, which was diﬃcult to manage in his state of partial undress. She listed the hidden dangers of a number of ingredients in certain external analgesic medications. Do we need to be fully dressed, he thought, for our memory to function properly? “I give some patients a pill, a patch, an injection. But what I am seeing in your case is that you need to think of your itch as a long-term commitment.” The doctor checked his face, putting
her gloved ﬁngers to his cheekbones, forehead, and sideburns. Her assistant, Hannah, had materialized in a corner of the room, and they looked at each other blankly, he and Hannah, and then she left. • Joel yielded to rapid-ﬁre blinking when he had something personal to say. Here is what he said. There were times, standing over the toilet bowl at home, when he heard what sounded like words as his urine hit the water in the bowl. “This happens how often?” He said that it happened on average every two weeks or so. Words. He heard the semblance of a tiny voice saying a word and then maybe another word and he tried to describe the sound, his feet spread and his hands semi-cupped near his groin, in demonstration. “Tiny words.” “I’m not imagining this.” “Or a noise that is saying something.” “Only when the ﬂow is light.” “Like something said. An utterance.” “Monosyllabic.” They were in the locker room of a local gym, in workout gear, getting ready for the squat jumps and the treadmill. “You’re a poet. Words everywhere.” “Zaum. Transrational poetry. A hundred years ago. Words that have shapes and sounds.” “The little blips in the water in the bowl.” “Zaum.” “Transrational.” “Words and letters are free, outside reason and tradition. When was it ever the case,” Joel said, “that language could truly describe reality?” • They look at each other. It happens sometimes. She always initiates the look, her face empty of aﬀect, and he stops speaking or eating and tells himself that it is time to settle into the look. He begins by closing his eyes and holding his breath for a long moment. He will allow himself to be her recruit in whatever it is they are doing. They never talk about the look. It happens and then it stops. When he opens his eyes and resumes breathing, there she is, Ana, eyes trained on his face, and she is intent on seeing into him or through him, dissolving the
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man in all his particulars in order to ﬁnd something else. Never mind what. Her face is cool and studied. Is this meant to be some kind of mutual introspection? Is it a simple respite from the skein of endless human exchange? He tries not to analyze the matter. A playful fragment of her childhood, a memory of bittersweet longing. Is each of them trying to imagine who the other person is within the freezeframed face and eyes? A wordless glimpse of identity or just a vacant gaze? He tries to go blank, to drain his eyes and mind of the spatial array of sensation, the mental debris. Maybe she simply wants to see and be seen. • Then there is the crude feeling of some unmeant gratiﬁcation, a creaturely need. The right hand on the left forearm and at ﬁrst he uses his ﬁngertips to ease the itch but in time the hand is in motion and the ﬁngernails are digging in like an earthmoving machine. He sits back, eyes closed, and feels a hovering sense of revenge. It doesn’t matter to him if this is idiotic. “Revenge on your body,” Joel said. “Maybe. I don’t know.” “I can’t help thinking of the itch as a symbol. See what you can come up with, personally, about yourself.” “Stick to your poetry.” “I’m trying to decide on a title for the thing I just wrote.”
“Do you talk to Sandra?” “Sometimes, yes. She has opinions about what I write.” “Do you talk to Sandra about the itch?” “Of course not.” “Of course not. I know that. Thank you,” he said. • He stood on the corner waiting for the light to change. Dogs on leashes lunging at each other. The left hand rubbing the right wrist, then the right hand rubbing the left wrist. There was a pause in traﬃc and two people crossed the street, but he chose to stay where he was, knowing that the light would change in three, two, one second. He liked to watch the numbers drop. The eczema cream with two-percent colloidal oatmeal. The multi-symptom psoriasis-relief cream with three-per-cent salicylic acid. The emollient-rich formula that provides twenty-four-hour moisturization. • His gangly frame and large front teeth gave him a friendly look. People in the oﬃce entrusted him with the occasional squalid secret. He was not a threat to do anything or say anything, to take advantage in some way of their faith in his apparent blandness. He and Joel were access specialists, facilitating the delivery of home-healthcare services to disabled consumers of illegal drugs.
“I won’t lie to you. Chopin’s Funeral March is a bad sign.”
They rarely spoke about the job they were doing. They talked about things that came and went, local news and weather, men ﬁring guns nationwide. Now and then Joel read an obituary to the others in the room, six men and women confronting their screens. Some of the obits were improvised, pure ﬁction, and he got a few laughs and sometimes a burst of applause. • The new doctor’s name, online, in tribute, was the Itch Meister. He was short and broad with the look of a man who lives with one central obsession. He studied the patient, who was standing in the examining room in his boxer shorts. Then the doctor whirled his hand and the patient turned around. The doctor spoke authoritatively about the patient’s history, based on what he’d gleaned from reports and from what he was seeing on the body itself. Now the patient lay face up on the table. “I take oﬀ my shirt or my pants and the itch begins. Or the itch is just there, comes and goes, night and day.” They talked about the clothing he wore, the underclothes, about the pillow and the bedsheets. The Itch Meister instilled conﬁdence with a few short sentences, although he didn’t seem to address the patient’s remarks directly and unequivocally. “From what I see, you are not suﬀering from weeping lesions or atopic dermatitis.” He went on to name diﬀerent creams for diﬀerent kinds of itches. He warned against a steroid that thins the skin if used repeatedly. He wore a surgical gown so long that it concealed his footwear. “This one stray rash, here near the underarm. Do not touch. It is not scratch-worthy.” The medications he cited were encased in language of a certain kind, fogbound words and terms, syllable-ridden and somehow, strangely, totalitarian. Doctor told the patient to turn face down. “The symmetry is astonishing. The left-and-rightness of it. Don’t you think? People who itch, worldwide. Forearm, forearm. Buttock, buttock. The simultaneity.”
Doctor spoke not to the body on the table but to the room, the walls, maybe to a recording device concealed somewhere. It occurred to the patient that this entire session was for the beneﬁt of the doctor’s associates in a research institute in some crime-free suburb. When the visit was over, the Itch Meister did not simply leave the room. He seemed to ﬂee. • In the early days when he was running along the river with his wife he felt that he was leaving the itch behind. He was outrunning it. Sometimes he raised his arms as he ran, surrendering to a benevolent life force. • Joel would not discuss the lines. They were just the lines. The spacing, also, was simply what it was. The space breaks, the word breaks, the dangling word. “I want to be a poet to the bone. But there’s nothing in the work that I want to talk about.” “You want to talk about the itch.” “Tell me again what the doctor said.” “Weeping lesions. I keep forgetting to look it up.” “Whatever the science, the term itself has terriﬁc aesthetic appeal.” “Atopic dermatitis.” “Inhuman. Forget it.” Joel kept repeating the phrase “weeping lesions,” thinking into it, trying to say something funny. • When he took oﬀ his shorts, his thighs began to itch. Ana was in bed, watching and waiting. He kept his hands steadfastly at his sides. The surroundings in her bedroom were unfamiliar and he stood a moment, smiling, acknowledging her sweet scrutiny. The itch went away but she was still there. What a deliverance it was for him, a release from day-today, he and she, so simple, being happy for a time. • They stood against the wall of the building, lunch break, two women, colleagues, smoking, and he positioned himself near the curbstone, watching them. “I smoked twice in my life,” he said. The ﬁrst woman said, “How old were you?”
“Seventeen, then twenty-seven.” “You remember these numbers,” she said. “I remember them. I think about them.” He liked watching them smoke. There was a casual grace in their gestures, the sort of autonomic movements of hand gliding toward face, lips parting, the way the head slips back, barely noticeable, as the woman inhales, ﬁrst one and now the other, and then the head rocking slightly when she blows the smoke out of her mouth, the deep relief, eyes closing, one woman, brieﬂy, then the other. He had to remind himself that he was separating the act from its consequences. “How long did you smoke?” the ﬁrst woman said. “First time, maybe a week and a half.” “Second time?” “Second time, two weeks.” “And now you expect to live forever.” “Not when I’m in the oﬃce.” “What do you expect then?” “I expect to jump out the window next to my desk.” The second woman said, “Take us with you.” • At home he walked from one room to the other and then forgot why he was there. His smartphone rang and he went back to the ﬁrst room and picked it up, half expecting to see a message telling him why he’d gone to the other room. Two hours later he was back on an exam table, seated at the edge, doctor in her sixties studying his left forearm, lifting and looking, peering into the scratch marks, into the pores, the tissue itself. “Do not let others scratch your itch. It will not succeed,” she said. “You yourself must scratch.” The room was small and seemed semi-abandoned—stale air, rumpled documents pinned to corkboards, things scattered randomly. The doctor asked him questions and then repeated whatever he said. He tried to place her accent, Middle Europe maybe, and this gave him conﬁdence in her abilities. “When itching stops now and then, ﬁve minutes, six minutes, you are a THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
little bereft. What do you think?” He looked for a smile but it wasn’t there. “You will spend less time in the shower.” “I have been told this.” “You have been told this. But not by me,” she said. She was looking directly into his face now. She looked and talked. He was sure that she spoke four or ﬁve languages. “Other patients, they are worse.” “I am also worse.” “You are nowhere in the competition.” “I fool myself. I try to talk myself out of being worse.” “You are eating. You are sleeping.” “I am eating. I have forgotten how to sleep.” “The older you will get, listen to me, the less you will walk and talk and the more you will itch.” She kept on looking, staring him into deep levels of retreat. “Look at where we are, in the last room at the end of the long hall. I will walk four times a day from there to here and then from here to there and all over again. I try to tell myself this is not a thirteenth-century hospice for the destitute and the dying. But it is not so easy for me to be convinced.” He liked listening to her but she was speaking into free space. “When I talk to non-itching people about the itch, they start itching.” “This is true?” “This is true,” she said. “I spoke to a group in Warsaw. They were professors and students. The longer I spoke about itch-speciﬁc nerves, about sensory neurons in mice, the more scratching I could see in the audience.” “Did they ask questions about this?” “No questions. I do not accept questions in public forums.” When she was ﬁnished poking at his extended arm, she did not return it to his side but simply let go, dropping it abruptly, and then took the long way around the table and lifted the other arm. He said, “Do you ever itch?” She looked at him, ﬁnding new dimensions in this particular patient, and 64
then repeated the question in a voice meant to resemble his. “My only itch is what is around me,” she said in her own voice, “and why I am here.” When the visit was ending, the patient put on his pants, shirt, and shoes, and the doctor wrote a couple of prescriptions. “When you pick up the medications, you will be reading the instructions printed on the inserts but you will not follow them. They are stupid and misleading. Do not use the medications two, three, four times a day. You are hearing me say this. Once a day.” He felt obliged to repeat this. “You will scratch and scratch. But you will also remember what I am saying.” “What are you saying?” “You are nobody without the itch.” He took the long walk along the hall and thought of the doctor alone in her castaway oﬃce. The elevator took forever to arrive. • When he and Ana went for a walk, sometimes bumping hips along the way, talking about nothing much, all they were doing, he thought, was being themselves. There was an innocence that placed them, for a time, beyond responsibility. But the aﬀair gradually changed from a liquid to a solid. “If we fall in love, what does it mean?” she said. “I ﬁnd it strange to feel so much aﬀection for a man I don’t really know.” He walked with his head down, concentrating on what she was saying. “I don’t really know you. This is not just a detail,” she said, pretending to laugh miserably. • People in the lobby were arrayed and waiting. One elevator was being repaired, the other was blinking down at them from the ﬁfth ﬂoor, delayed in its descent. He decided to climb the stairs to his oﬃce, eleventh ﬂoor, a few others joining him, a sense of shared complaint. Halfway up the ﬁrst ﬂight he began counting the steps and then decided that he needed to go back to the bottom step and start over, properly, from one. He did this, occasionally looking down as he counted, aware that he
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was moving his lips. A man in a suit and tie and baseball cap squeezed past, taking two steps at a time. He’d gone a ﬂoor and a half before he began to notice the shoes he was wearing. He looked and counted, reminding himself of the fact that he didn’t like these shoes and trying to understand why he’d bought them anyway. He began to climb more slowly, seeing himself walk back and forth in the shoe store trying to feel his way into the shoes. Not truly seeing himself but experiencing a misty image somewhere in the air within arm’s reach. People kept passing him on the stairs and he kept looking down, counting the steps, seeing the shoes. He’d walked back and forth several times and then sat awhile, the only customer in the store, and examined one of the shoes, hand and eye, scrupulously. Was it too much trouble, too awkward, to tell the salesman that he didn’t want the shoes? Did he think that the salesman would be disappointed, his day ruined? He didn’t know the answer but he was beginning to feel victimized, belatedly, by the salesman, the shoe store, and the shoes, and he stopped counting the steps one ﬂight before he reached his ﬂoor. In the oﬃce he sat at his desk, left wrist in the prime of its morning itch, and he looked out the window, his eyes sweeping across the face of the building in the semi-distance, revisiting the horizontal pattern of the windows. He looked left to right, reading the windows like a book, line by line. • Finally, not to tell her felt like cheating. They had a corner table in a nearly empty café. His plan was to avoid details and simply say that the itch was a livable condition but not likely to be alleviated anytime soon. In the meantime they listened to thunder bouncing around the sky and she spoke of country thunder when she was growing up, an approaching storm, her fearful wonder at the drumrolls and jagged ﬂashes. He watched her talk. Her fairness, the face and hair and
THE CURRENT CINEMA
TIMES OF TROUBLE “Detroit” and “Whose Streets?”
or a movie that tells a true story of F violent death, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” begins in a very strange way. A series of crude animated images, like paper cutouts, ﬁlls the screen with a potted history of African-American migration from South to North, and of the prejudice that has greeted and thwarted the black population. The ensuing unrest is illustrated by cartoon ﬂames. It’s hard to conceive of a more sombre theme, so why are we leaﬁng through a children’s picture book? Soon enough, we see the light of real ﬁres. This is Detroit, in late July, 1967, when riots spread across town. What ignited them, and what gets the movie going, is a police raid on an after-hours illegal drinking club, better known as a “blind pig.” The clientele, entirely African-American, is hauled outside and arrested; a crowd materializes to protest; a rock is used to smash open a store. For the next few days and nights, the ferment barely subsides. Just as we’re wondering to what extent Bigelow will honor the promise of her title—how do you dramatize a whole city?—the movie narrows its gaze, and a large proportion of the story unfolds not merely in a particular neighborhood but in a single doom-ridden hallway. To be in that hall, indeed, is to inhabit a kind of hell, for the powerful and the powerless alike, and you get a sickening sense that “Detroit” cannot tear itself away. The hall is in the Algiers Motel, in central Detroit. It is a matter of historical record that within those walls, on the long hot night of July 25th, three black men died from gunshot wounds. What is less clear is the exact sequence 66
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of events. Shots were heard, reportedly coming from the motel, and police oﬃcers, fearing a sniper attack, moved in, to be joined by state police and members of the National Guard. (No evidence of a sniper was ever produced.) Things escalated fast, and confusingly. John Hersey, the author of “Hiroshima,” wrote a book entitled “The Algiers Motel Incident,” published only a year after the killings, but even his account, both impassioned and scrupulous, is a fragmentary aﬀair—“not so much written as listened to, in bits and pieces,” he admits. With that caution in mind, “Detroit” is best viewed as a plausible reconstruction. The motel becomes a stage, across which the principal characters pass. There is a marine named Greene (Anthony Mackie), recently returned from Vietnam, although, as he discovers, his service to the nation carries less weight than the color of his skin. He is one of those unlucky souls—like Auburey Pollard (Nathan Davis, Jr.) and Fred Temple ( Jacob Latimore), or a couple of fun-hunting white women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever)—who just happen to be at the motel, and who wind up in the hallway, standing and shaking as if before a ﬁring squad. Ranged against them (for that’s how it feels) are the cops. In ascending order of malice, we have Demens ( Jack Reynor), Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and the inexcusable Krauss (Will Poulter), who will not leave the building until, by whatever means necessary, he learns who ﬁred the alleged shots. All three men, like the overwhelming majority of Detroit police at that time, are white.
The screenwriter is Mark Boal, who collaborated with Bigelow on “The Hurt Locker” (2008), for which they won Oscars, and on “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012). The latter, like the new ﬁlm, was a richly researched exercise in tension, gathering to a head in the hours of darkness, and it was fortiﬁed, rather than hindered, by its equivocation in regard to torture; as you followed Navy seals in their task—the elimination of Osama bin Laden—you felt a squirm of disquiet about the tactics that had led to this exhilarating quest. With “Detroit,” the opposite is the case. Though the facts remain fuzzy, the moral aspect could hardly be more unambiguous. Racist and undisciplined law enforcement led to the slaying of innocent persons, and that is all; no other viewpoint is admissible. Poulter plays Krauss as a borderline psychopath. There is a court case involving the three cops, but Boal and Bigelow deal with it in a perfunctory fashion, and the legal upshot comes as no surprise. In some ways, “Detroit” is Bigelow’s simplest work to date. Not that its methods are anything but agile and deft. You can’t always tell where archive footage of the urban turmoil ends and the scripted semi-ﬁctions begin, so restive and so probing is the camera. The victims’ names are real; those of the three policemen are made up. We get a clip of George Romney, then the governor of Michigan, speaking at a news conference and bearing a startling resemblance to his son Mitt. Later, a street scene is interrupted by a black-and-white photograph from the period, showing the same place—a curious device, as though Bigelow,
ABOVE: TODD ST. JOHN
BY ANTHONY LANE
In “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie, John Boyega is the watchful eye at the heart of a roiling tempest. ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH NEGLEY
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
concerned by any charge of fabrication, were nudging us and saying, “No, look, it’s all true.” This habit has grown chronic among ﬁlmmakers, the usual trick being to wait till the end of the movie and then to wheel on the real: the genuine military hero of “Hacksaw Ridge,” say, or the actual Indian mother and her long-lost son from “Lion.” When was it decreed that movies must, if possible, ﬂash their credentials of authenticity? The problem for “Detroit” is that, when contrivance is required, it tends to jut out. To show Fred Temple singing with an a-cappella group called the Dramatics, for example, is accurate; but to show them having to quit the stage of a local theatre, thanks to the rioting, as they are about to perform—poised on the verge of their big break—is a twist at which Busby Berkeley would have blushed. Where the movie scores, by contrast, is in those casual deeds that reveal the shape into which lives have been bent. Consider Melvin Dismukes ( John Boyega), who works as a security guard in a store not far from the Algiers. Because he’s black and wears a uniform, the words “Uncle Tom” are thrown at him, but his gift is for taking palliative action before trouble erupts; he saves a black kid from police harassment by pretending to be a relative, and brings coﬀee to a bunch of National Guardsmen, who, having been summoned to the fracas, believe that they are in enemy terrain. Even Dismukes, however, has his tranquillity tested when he ﬁnds himself in the hall of the motel. Boyega is quite something. He is a Londoner, aged twenty-ﬁve, and already a ﬁgure of distinction.The point at which he removed his storm trooper’s helmet, in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015), was a pivotal moment in recent popular culture; not only because J. J. Abrams, instantly outstripping George Lucas, had placed a character of color at the heart of a huge franchise, where millions of viewers would be gunning for him, but also because of Boyega’s commanding stillness, and his air of perplexity at what havoc the storm troopers were obliged to wreak. Until then, they had been little more than anonymous bullies clattering around in white plastic. “Detroit” is a far more solemn enterprise, but, once again, Boyega is 68
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the watchful eye at the heart of a roiling tempest. In truth, as Hersey suggests, Dismukes may have been less noble than he appears here; according to a witness, he, too, alongside the police, delivered a beating at the Algiers. Boal and Bigelow choose to ignore that, yet Boyega’s expression reveals all. He gives us a good man, devoted to order but trapped in a tragedy for which goodness and diplomacy provide no relief. America is split in half, right there in front of him, and the hallway is as wide as a canyon. o go from “Detroit” to “Whose T Streets?,” a documentary about the disturbances that began in Ferguson, Missouri, three years ago, is both uncanny and deeply depressing. Uncanny, because the progress of events, in each city, is the same: a summertime provocation—the raid on the blind pig, in Detroit, and the police shooting of an unarmed African-American, Michael Brown, in Ferguson—triggers complaint, conﬂagration, looting, and a fearsome response from the authorities. Depressing, because in almost half a century so little seems to have healed. The grievances are like fresh wounds. What has improved, in the interim, is technology. On one hand, the use of smartphones means that ﬁlmmakers can build much of their story from other people’s visual scraps, and Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, the directors of “Whose Streets?,” require no voice-over narration to bind their movie together; some of the work is done by tweets, starting with “I just saw someone die OMFG.” On the other hand, there is the rising militarization of police forces; equipment that they would claim as a legitimate tool of defense, in the dispersal of chaos, is often seen by civilians as an exacerbating threat, and there are sequences here, with oﬃcers arrayed in gas masks and guns mounted atop armored vehicles, that would not look out of place in a war ﬁlm. Other shifts are less concrete but no less momentous. We see Cornell William Brooks, then the president of the N.A.A.C.P., stand at a lectern, wearing a suit, and address a gathering in the Chaifetz Arena, in St. Louis. It is October, 2014, two months after Brown’s
death. What we hear is the old-style, preacherly measure of Brooks’s speech (“We are all, all, all, all precious in God’s sight”) and, in reply, no more than a tepid mutter. These folks are not his natural congregation; they need the volume ramped up. On comes the rapper Tef Poe. “The people who want to take the time to break down racism from a philosophical level, y’all did not show up,” he says, referring to the marches in Ferguson. “This ain’t your daddy’s civil-rights movement,” he adds, and not once, in the movie, do we see the inside of a church. One young woman foresees “a generation of activists,” and another, Brittany Ferrell, schools her sixyear-old daughter, Keena, in the basics of black self-determination. Near the end, at a rally, Keena takes the microphone and merrily informs the crowd, with a smile, that they have nothing to lose but their chains. Marx would have been proud, but maybe a triﬂe bemused. Hersey, in “The Algiers Motel Incident,” made plain his mournful belief that justice for white citizens and justice for African-Americans were two separate entities. Yet still he spoke to Detroit policemen, and delved into the backgrounds of the oﬃcers who were at the motel with the same care that he showed in tracing the black lives that were lost. In “Whose Streets?,” by contrast, no cop is granted an interview, unless you count the sight of George Stephanopoulos, on ABC, asking the hapless Darren Wilson—the oﬃcer who killed Brown and was never indicted—why he had described his victim as “a demon.” The movie’s most potent closeup is of a black policewoman, in a line confronting protesters; if you can ﬁlm her, why not learn what she has to say? Folayan and Davis, however, hold no brief for even-handedness, and, for those who dominate the screen, any sign of temperance, even in a President, is treated with contempt. When Barack Obama describes the deployment of the National Guard as a matter for state jurisdiction, a fellow named Tory, watching him on TV, asks, “Didn’t he teach constitutional law in Harvard? Wasn’t he a constitutional professor? Ain’t no Constitution in Ferguson.” NEWYORKER.COM
Richard Brody blogs about movies.
A CRITIC AT LARGE
AMERICAN NIRVANA Is there a science of Buddhism? BY ADAM GOPNIK
Robert Wright argues for meditation as a fully secular form of psychotherapy. n author owns a snappy title, and A then the snappy title owns the author. Robert Wright, having titled
his new book “Why Buddhism Is True,” has to oﬀer a throat-clearing preface and later an apologetic appendix, in order to explain exactly what he means by “Buddhism” and exactly what he means by “true,” while the totality of his book is an investigation into why we think there are “whys” in the world, and whether or not anything really “is.” Wright sets out to provide an unabashedly American answer to all these questions. He thinks that Buddhism is true in the immediate sense that it is helpful and therapeutic, and, by oﬀering insights into ILLUSTRATION BY ANNE LAVAL
our habitual thoughts and cravings, shows us how to ﬁx them. Being Buddhist—that is, simply practicing Vipassana, or “insight” meditation—will make you feel better about being alive, he believes, and he shows how you can and why it does. Wright’s is a Buddhism almost completely cleansed of supernaturalism. His Buddha is conceived as a wise man and self-help psychologist, not as a divine being—no miraculous birth, no thirty-two distinguishing marks of the godhead (one being a penis sheath), no reincarnation. This is a pragmatic Buddhism, and Wright’s pragmatism, as in his previous books, can touch the edge of philistinism. Nearly all
popular books about Buddhism are rich in poetic quotation and arresting aphorisms, those ironic koans that are part of the (Zen) Buddhist décor— tales of monks deciding that it isn’t the wind or the ﬂag that’s waving in the breeze but only their minds. Wright’s book has no poetry or paradox anywhere in it. Since the poeticcomic side of Buddhism is one of its most appealing features, this leaves the book a little short on charm. Yet, if you never feel that Wright is telling you something profound or beautiful, you also never feel that he is telling you something untrue. Direct and unambiguous, tracing his own history in meditation practice—which eventually led him to a series of weeklong retreats and to the intense study of Buddhist doctrine—he makes Buddhist ideas and their history clear. Perhaps he makes the ideas too clear. Buddhist thinkers tend to bridge contradictions with a smile and a paradox and a wave of the hand. “Things exist but they are not real” is a typical dictum from the guru Mu Soeng, in his book on the Heart Sutra. “You don’t have to believe it, but it’s true” is another famous guru’s smiling advice about the reincarnation doctrine. This nimble-footed doubleness may indeed hold profound existential truths; it also provides an all-purpose evasion of analysis. Still, the Buddhist basics are all here. Sometime around 400 B.C.E.— the arguments over what’s historically authentic and what isn’t make the corresponding arguments in Jesus studies look transparent—a wealthy Indian princeling named Gotama (as the Pali version of his name is rendered) came to realize, after a long and moving spiritual struggle, that people suﬀer because the things we cherish inevitably change and rot, and desires are inevitably disappointed. But he also realized that, simply by sitting and breathing, people can begin to disengage from the normal run of desires and disappointments, and come to grasp that the self whom the sitter has been serving so frantically, and who is suﬀering from all these needs, is an illusion. Set free from the self ’s anxieties and appetites and constant, petulant demands, the meditator can THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
“O.K., so we’ll have sex and if that works out we’ll go out for a nice dinner and maybe a movie.”
• see and share the actualities of existence with others. The sitter becomes less selﬁsh and more selﬂess. uddhism has had a series of strong B recurrent presences in America, and, though Wright doesn’t stop to trace them, they might illuminate some continuities that show why his kind of Buddhism got here, and got “true.” Its ﬁrst notable appearance was in latenineteenth-century New England, where, as Van Wyck Brooks showed long ago, Henry Adams was “drawn especially to the lands of Buddha.” Another New England Buddhist of the day was William Sturgis Bigelow, who brought back to Boston some twenty thousand works of Japanese art, and who, when dying in Boston, called for a Catholic priest and asked that he annihilate his soul. (He was disappointed when the priest declined.) These American Buddhists, drawn East in part by a rejection of Gilded Age ostentation, recognized a set of preoccupations like those they knew already—Whitman’s 70
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• vision of a self that could shift and contain multitudes, or Thoreau’s secular withdrawal from the race of life. ( Jon Kabat-Zinn’s hugely successful meditation guide, “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” is dotted with Thoreau epigraphs in place of Asian ones.) The quietist impulse in New England spirituality and the pantheistic impulse in American poetry both seemed met, and made picturesque, by the Buddhist tradition. The second great explosion of American Buddhism occurred in the nineteen-ﬁfties. Spurred, in large part, by the writings of the émigré Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki, it was, in the ﬁrst instance, aesthetic: Suzuki’s work, though rich in tea ceremonies and haiku, makes no mention of Zazen, the hyper-disciplined, often painful, meditation practice that is at the heart of Zen practice. The Buddhist spirit, or the easier American variant of it, blossomed in Beat literature, producing some ﬁne coinages (Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums”). Zen, though appar-
ently an atypically severe sect within Buddhism, came to be the standardbearer, so much so that “Zen” became an all-purpose modiﬁer in American letters meaning “challengingly counterintuitive”—as in “Zen and the Art of Archery” or the masterly “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” where you learn how not to aim your arrow or how to ﬁnd a spiritual practice in a Harley. It was this second movement that blossomed into a serious practice of sitting lessons and a set of institutions, the most prominent, perhaps, being the San Francisco Zen Center. Though separated by generations, the deeper grammar of the two Buddhist awakenings was essentially the same. Buddhism in America is simultaneously exotic and familiar— it has lots of Eastern trappings and ceremonies that set it oﬀ from the materialism of American life, but it also speaks to an especially American longing for a publicly productive spiritual practice. American Buddhism spins oﬀ museum collections and Noh-play translations and vegetarian restaurants and philosophical books and, in the hands of the occasional Buddhist Phil Jackson, the triangle oﬀense in basketball. The Buddhist promise in the American mind is that you can escape and engage. “Ten minutes a day toward Enlightenment” is the sort of slogan that has inspired the current generation to unimaginably large numbers of parttime meditators. (Among whom I number myself, following guided meditations recorded by Joseph Goldstein, a seventysomething Vipassana teacher who has the calming, grumpy voice of an emeritus professor at City College, though my legs are much too stiﬀ for the lotus position and I have to fake it, making mine in every sense a halfassed practice.) “Don’t just sit there, do something” is the American entreaty. With Buddhism, you can just sit there and do something. right, like his Bay Area and BosW ton predecessors, is delighted to announce the ways in which Buddhism intersects with our own recent ideas. His new version of an American Buddhism is not only self-consciously
secularized but aggressively “scientized.” He believes that Buddhist doctrine and practice anticipate and aﬃrm the “modular” view of the mind favored by much contemporary cognitive science. Instead of there being a single, consistent Cartesian self that monitors the world and makes decisions,we live in a kind of nineties-era Liberia of the mind, populated by warring independent armies implanted by evolution, representing themselves as a uniﬁed nation but unable to reconcile their diﬀerences, and, as one after another wins a brief battle for the capital, providing only the temporary illusion of control and decision. By accepting that the ﬁxed self is an illusion imprinted by experience and reinforced by appetite, meditation parachutes in a kind of peacekeeping mission that, if it cannot demobilize the armies, lets us see their nature and temporarily disarms their still juvenile soldiers. Buddhism, alone among spiritual practices, has always recognized this post-hoc nature of our “reason,” asking us to realize its transience through meditation. (“Not much really there, is there?” Joe Goldstein murmurs about thought in one of his guided meditations.) Meditation, in Wright’s view, is not a metaphysical route toward a higher plane. It is a cognitive probe for self-exploration that underlines what contemporary psychology already knows to be true about the mind. “According to Buddhist philosophy, both the problems we call therapeutic and the problems we call spiritual are a product of not seeing things clearly,” he writes. “What’s more, in both cases this failure to see things clearly is in part a product of being misled by feelings. And the ﬁrst step toward seeing through these feelings is seeing them in the ﬁrst place—becoming aware of how pervasively and subtly feelings inﬂuence our thought and behavior.” Our feelings ceaselessly generate narratives, contes moraux, about the world, and we become their prisoners. We make things good and bad, desirable and not, meaningful and trivial. (We put snappy titles on our tales and then the titles own us.) Wright gives the example of a “buzz-saw symphony”
as a small triumph of his emancipation: hearing a buzz saw whining in the background, what would usually have been a painful distraction became, robbed by meditation of any positive or negative cues (this is a pleasant sound / this is an unpleasant one), somehow musical. Meditation shows us how anything can be emptied of the story we tell about it: he tells us about an enlightened man who tastes wine without the contextual tales about vintage, varietal, region. It tastes . . . less emotional. “All the states of equanimity come through the realization that things aren’t what we thought they were,” Wright quotes a guru as saying. What Wright calls “the perception of emptiness” dampens the aﬀect, but it also settles the mind. If it isn’t there, you don’t overreact to it. Having gone the full Buddha route, Wright gives us accounts of meditation retreats, and interviews with enlightened meditators; he explores sutras and explains dharma. Given that he’s more product-oriented than processoriented, Wright tends to reﬂect on the advantages of meditation rather than reproduce their pleasures. Meditation, even the half-assed kind, does remind us of how little time we typically spend in the moment. Simply to sit and breathe for twenty-ﬁve minutes, if only to hear cars and buses go by on a city avenue—listening to the world rather than to the frantic non sequiturs of
one’s “monkey mind,” fragmented thoughts and querulous moods racing each other around—can intimate the possibility of a quiet grace in the midst of noise. The gong with which Goldstein’s meditations begin on YouTube, though a bit of Orientalia, does settle the mind and calm its restlessness. (Yet many sounds of seeming serenity— birds singing, leaves rustling—are actually the sounds of ceaseless striving. The birds are shrieking for mates; even
the trees are reaching insistently toward the sun that sustains them. These are the songs of wanting, the sounds of life.) Wright has, for the purposes of his book, tied himself to a mechanical view of the constraints that operate on the human mind—the same one that he has posited in previous books, rooted in the doctrines of evolutionary psychology. This is the view—to which Wright is, as a Buddhist might say, overattached—that our deepest desires are instincts implanted by natural selection in our primeval past. Whether or not evolutionary psychology is a real or a pseudoscience—opinions vary— one can believe that human beings are aﬄicted with too much wanting without thinking that we are that way because once upon a time those cravings helped us have more kids than our neighbors. Even if our desires were implanted by evolution rather than inculcated by culture, they’re still always helplessly double: altruistic impulses encourage us to look after our tribe; genocidal ones encourage us to get rid of the neighboring tribe. Pair bonding is adaptive, but so is adultery: fathers want to care for their oﬀspring and see them thrive; they also want to have sex with the woman in the next cave in order to cover all genetic bets. Desires may arise from natural selection or from cultural tradition or from random walks or from a combination of them all— but Buddhist doctrine would be unaﬀected by any of these “whys.” If every doctrine of evo-psych turns out to be false—if it’s somehow all culture and inculcation—it wouldn’t aﬀect the Buddhist view about our need to get out of it.
ther recent books on contemporary Buddhism share Wright’s O object of reconciling the old metaphysics with contemporary cognitive science but have a less doctrinaire view of the mind that lies outside the illusions of self. Stephen Batchelor’s “After Buddhism” (Yale), in many ways the most intellectually stimulating book on Buddhism of the past few years, oﬀers a philosophical take on the question. “The self may not be an aloof independent ‘ruler’ of body and mind, but neither is it an illusory THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
BRIEFLY NOTED Tell Me How It Ends, by Valeria Luiselli (Coﬀee House). Between
April, 2014, and August, 2015, more than a hundred thousand unaccompanied Latin-American children crossed the MexicoU.S. border and faced expedited deportation, as a direct result of decades of U.S. chingaderas, or “nasty-shitty” policies. Luiselli, a Mexican writer who volunteered as an interpreter in New York’s immigration court, focusses on the forty questions she had to ask children before their deportation hearings. They told her about riding on the roof of La Bestia, a dangerous freight train that traverses Mexico, and inhumane treatment in U.S. immigration centers. As in her hallucinatory and inventive ﬁction, Luiselli proves her skill as a storyteller while grappling with her own questions of nationalism. Cannibalism, by Bill Schutt (Algonquin). In this deeply re-
searched account, Schutt demonstrates that the motives for cannibalism among animals and humans have varied widely, from starvation to the desire to show respect. (In China, for thousands of years, children cut oﬀ body parts and cooked them in a soup for their parents, as expressions of ﬁlial piety.) The book is full of wondrous details, such as banana slugs nourished by their lovers’ genitalia during coitus, but its most valuable contribution is in challenging ingrained attitudes. In the West today, Schutt shows, certain forms of people-eating are embraced: served a dish of “placenta osso buco” by a mother in Texas, he ﬁnds himself able to appreciate the veal-like texture and robust ﬂavor. The Storied City, by Charlie English (Riverhead). This spell-
binding record of Timbuktu’s intellectual heritage blends accounts of European explorers to the ancient city with contemporary reportage. English describes how, in 2012, jihadists nearly destroyed manuscripts on astronomy, poetry, and medicine from the ﬁfteenth and sixteenth centuries. American connections bring the city closer to home, from the explorer John Ledyard’s correspondence with Thomas Jeﬀerson, in the seventeen-eighties, to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,’s realization, in 1997, that “precisely when Europeans said that black Africans lacked the intellectual ability to read or write . . . 25,000 students and scholars gathered from all over black Africa and North Africa” at “the great center of learning.” The Senecans, by Peter Stothard (Overlook). This unconventional account of the Margaret Thatcher years by a former editor of the Times of London mixes reminiscence, gossip, and classical philosophy. As a political journalist in the nineteen-eighties, Stothard formed a wary friendship with four mid-level members of Thatcher’s “court,” whom he presents as “mirrors, each reﬂecting diﬀerent aspects of her character.” The group called itself the Senecans, inspired by the stoicism of the Roman statesman and tutor to the Emperor Nero, thus equating Thatcher with that “most volatile of emperors.” The book displays a patrician self-absorption, but the author creates suspense through its framing device: an interview with a young researcher who has a connection to his past. 72
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product of impersonal physical and mental forces,” he writes. As for the mind’s modules, “Gotama is interested in what people can do, not with what they are. The task he proposes entails distinguishing between what is to be accepted as the natural condition of life itself (the unfolding of experience) and what is to be let go of (reactivity). We may have no control over the rush of fear prompted by ﬁnding a snake under our bed, but we do have the ability to respond to the situation in a way that is not determined by that fear.” Where Wright insists that the Buddhist doctrine of not-self precludes the possibility of freely chosen agency, Batchelor insists of Buddhism that “as soon as we consider it a taskbased ethics . . . such objections vanish. The only thing that matters is whether or not you can perform a task. When an inclination to say something cruel occurs, for example, can you resist acting on that impulse? . . . Whether your decision to hold the barbed remark was the result of free will or not is beside the point.” He calls the obsession with free will a “peculiarly Western concern.” Meditation works as much at the level of conscious intention as it does at the level of unreﬂective instinct. Batchelor wants to make Buddhism pragmatic not just in the idiomatic sense—practical for daily use—but in the technical philosophical sense as well: he thinks that the original doctrines of Buddhism were in accord with the ideas of truth put forward by neopragmatists like Richard Rorty, for whom there are no ﬁrm foundations for what we know, only temporary truces among willing communities which help us cope with the world. Buddhism, in his view, was long ago betrayed into Brahmanism; the open-ended artisanal practice of meditation became a caste-bound dogma with “truths” and ceremonies. It is a process of fossilization hardly unknown to other spiritual movements—there was a time when Hasidism was all about spontaneity and enthusiasm, and a break from too much repetitive tradition—but in Batchelor’s view it led to a needlessly
ornate and authoritarian faith, while his own brand of Buddhism has been restored to its origins.
atchelor also tackles the issue, B basically shelved by Wright, of whether Buddhism without any supernatural scaﬀolding is still Buddhism. As a scholar, he doesn’t try to deny that the supernaturalist doctrines of karma and reincarnation are as old as the ethical and philosophical ones, and entangled with them. His project is unashamedly to secularize Buddhism. But, since it’s Buddhism that he wants to secularize, he has to be able to show that its traditions are not hopelessly polluted with superstition. Here Batchelor’s pragmatic turn, made tightly on a sharply curving road, begins to ﬁshtail more than a little. He insists that reincarnation is just an embedded doctrine in the ancient Pali culture—a metaphor like all the others we live with, a cosmological picture that works well, not unlike the metaphors of evolutionary ﬁtness and cosmology that are embedded in our own culture. The centrality of reincarnation doctrines shouldn’t be held as a mark against Buddhist truth. Can we really tiptoe past the elaborate supernaturalism of historical Buddhism? Secular Buddhists try to, just as people who are sympathetic to the ethical basis of Christianity try to tiptoe past the doctrines of Heaven and Hell, so that Hell becomes “the experience of being unable to love,” or Heaven a state of “being one with God”—not actual places with brimstone pits or massed harps. Batchelor, like every intelligent believer caught in an unsustainable belief, engages in a familiar set of moves. He attempts to italicize his way out of absurdity by, in eﬀect, shifting the stresses in the simple sentence “We don’t believe that.” First, there’s “We don’t believe that”: there may be other believers who accept a simple reward-and-punishment system of karma passing from generation to generation, but our group does not. Next comes “We don’t believe that”: since reincarnation means eternal rebirth and coming back as a monkey and the rest of it, the enlightened Buddhist tries to de-literalize the “that”
to make it more appealing, just as the Christian redeﬁnes Hell. In the end, we resort to “We don’t believe that”: we just accept it as an embedded metaphor of the culture that made the religion. Then there’s the shrug-and-grin argument that everyone believes something. Is it fair to object that most of us take quantum physics on faith, too? Well, we don’t take it on faith. We take it on trust, a very diﬀerent thing. We have conﬁdence—amply evidenced by the technological transformation of the world since the scientiﬁc revolution, and by the cash value of validated predictions based on esoteric mathematical abstraction—that the world picture it conveys is true, or more nearly true than anything else on oﬀer. Batchelor tap-dances perilously close to the often repeated absurdity that a highly credulous belief about supernatural claims and an extremely skeptical belief about supernatural claims are really the same because they are both beliefs. A deeper objection to the attempted reconciliation of contemporary science
and Buddhist practice ﬂows from the nature of scientiﬁc storytelling. The practice of telling stories—imagined tales of cause and eﬀect that ﬁxate on the past and the future while escaping the present, sending us back and forth without being here now— is something that both Wright and Batchelor see as one of the worst delusions the mind imprints on the world. And yet it is inseparable from the Enlightenment science that makes psychology and biology possible. The contemporary generation of American Buddhists draws again and again on scientiﬁc evidence for the power of meditation—EEGs and MRIs and so on—without ever wondering why a scientiﬁc explanation of that kind has seldom arisen in Buddhist cultures. (Science has latterly been practiced by Buddhists, of course.) What Wright correctly sees as the heart of meditation practice—the draining away of the stories we tell compulsively about each moment in favor of simply having the moment— is antithetical to the kind of evidentiary argument he admires. Science is
“Maureen Alsop is leaving her magnolia, and her delphinium, and her cats with us this weekend.”
competitive storytelling. If a Buddhist Newton had been sitting under that tree, he would have seen the apple falling and, reaching for Enlightenment, experienced each moment of its descent as a thing pure in itself. Only a restless Western Newton would say, “Now, what story can tell us best what connects those apple-moments from branch to ground? Sprites? Magnets? The mysterious force of the mass of the earth beneath it? What made the damn thing fall ?” That’s a story we tell, not a moment we experience. The Buddhist Newton might have been happier than ours—ours was plenty unhappy—but he would never have found the equation. Science is putting names on things and telling stories about them, the very habits that Buddhists urge us to transcend. The stories improve over time in the light of evidence, or they don’t. It’s just as possible to have Buddhist science as to have Christian science or Taoist science. But the meditator’s project of being here now will never be the same as the scientist’s project of connecting the past to the future, of telling how and knowing why. oth Wright and Batchelor end B with a semi-evangelical call for a secularized, modernized Buddhism that can supply all the shared serenity of the old dispensation and still adjust to the modern world—Batchelor actually ends his book with a sequence of ﬁxed tenets for a secular Gotama practice. But does their Buddhism have a unique content, or is it simply the basics of secular liberalism with a borrowed Eastern vocabulary? What is the speciﬁcally Buddhist valence of saying, as Batchelor does, that the practitioners of a secular Buddhism will “seek to understand and diminish the structural violence of societies and institutions as well as the roots of violence that are present in themselves”? Do we need a twenty-ﬁve-hundredyear-old faith from the East to do this—isn’t that what every liberal-arts college insists that its students do, anyway, with the help of only a culturalstudies major? All secularized faiths tend to converge on a set of agreeable values: compassion, empathy, the renunciation of mere material riches. But the shared 74
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values seem implicit in the very project of secularizing a faith, with its assumption that the ethical and the supernatural elements can be cleanly severed—an operation that would have seemed unintelligible to St. Paul, as to Gotama himself. The idea of doing without belief is perhaps a bigger idea than any belief it negates. Secular Buddhism ends up being . . . secularism. Can any old faith point a new way forward? No doctrine is refuted by the bad behavior of the people who believe in it—or else all doctrines would stand refuted—but the stories of actual Buddhism in large-scale practice in America do not encourage the hope that Buddhism will be any diﬀerent from all the other organized faith practices. One of the best books about Buddhism in contemporary America, Michael Downing’s “Shoes Outside the Door” (2001), takes as its subject the San Francisco Zen Center and its attempted marriage of spiritual elevation with wild entrepreneurial activity. Downing’s novelistic and nuanced account focusses on the charismatic, Bill Clintonish master of the Zen Center, Richard Baker, who got embroiled in a Bill Clintonish sex scandal. American Buddhism seems as susceptible to the triple demon of power, predation, and prejudice as every other religious establishment. A faith practice with an authoritarian structure sooner or later becomes a horror; a faith practice without an authoritarian structure sooner or later becomes a hobby. The dwindling down of Buddhism into another life-style choice will doubtless irritate many, and Wright will likely be sneered at for reducing Buddhism to another bourgeois amenity, like yoga or green juice. (Batchelor refers to this as a “dumbing down of the dharma.”) Yet what Wright is doing seems an honorable, even a sublime, achievement. Basically, he says that meditation has made him somewhat less irritable. Being somewhat less irritable is not the kind of achievement that people usually look to religion for, but it may be as good an achievement as we ought to expect. (If Donald Trump became somewhat less irritable, the world would be a less dangerous place.) If there is something distinctive
about a Buddhist secularism, it is that the Buddhist believes in the annihilation of appetite, while the pure secular humanist believes in satisfying our appetites until annihilation makes it impossible. Appetite, though, has a way of renewing itself even after it’s been fed; no matter what we do, some new gnawing materializes. Dissatisfaction with our circumstances, the frustration of our ambitions, something no bigger than a failure to lose enough weight or to have an extra room to make a nursery out of: even amid luxury, the ache of the unachieved seems intense enough. It is these dissatisfactions that drive so many Americans—who cannot understand why lives ﬁlled with material pleasure still feel unfulﬁlled—to their meditation mats. Secularized or traditional, the central Buddhist epiphany remains essential: the fact of mortality makes loss certain. For all the ways in which science and its blessed godchild scientiﬁc medicine have reduced the overt suﬀering that a human life entails, the vector to sadness remains in place, as much as it did in the Buddha’s time. Gotama’s death, from what one doctor describes as mesenteric infarction, seems needlessly painful and gruesome by modern standards; this is the kind of suﬀering we can substantially alleviate. But the universal mortality of all beings—the fact that, if we’re lucky, we will die after seventy years or so—is not reformable. The larger problem we face is not suﬀering but sadness, and the sadness is caused by the fact of loss. To love less in order to lose less seems like no solution at all, but to see loss squarely sounds like wisdom. We may or may not be able to Americanize our Buddhism, but we can certainly ecumenicize our analgesics. Lots of diﬀerent stuﬀ from lots of diﬀerent places which we drink and think and do can help us manage. Every faith practice has a diﬀerent form of comfort to oﬀer in the face of loss, and each is useful. Sometimes it helps to dwell on the immensity of the universe. Sometimes it helps to feel the presence of ongoing family and community. Sometimes it helps to light a candle and say a prayer. Sometimes it helps to sit and breathe.
A FAMILY AFFAIR Tom Perrotta’s “Mrs. Fletcher.” BY LAURA MILLER
his freshman year of college, BrenIat ndan, one of a handful of characters the center of Tom Perrotta’s new novel, “Mrs. Fletcher,” ﬁnds out that his image has been incorporated into another student’s art project. Titled “My Call-Out Wall,” the work provides the artist’s friends with the chance to “call someone out for behavior that damages our community and threatens our safety.” Some of the targets stand accused of classic sins (“LIES RIGHT TO YOUR FACE”), while
others have committed more newfangled transgressions (“CULTURAL APPROPRIATOR,” “GASLIGHTER”). Under the painted portrait of Brendan, however, appears a phrase that he considers “a brief summary of my entire life”: “HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT.” Disappointment plagues the characters in Perrotta’s novels, from the disaﬀected parents in “Little Children” to the divorced sex-education instructor in “The Abstinence Teacher.” Their marriages lack passion, their
Perrotta’s fiction relies on his deft rendering of the tensions between characters. ILLUSTRATION BY EMILIANO PONZI
spouses cheat, their kids demand too much from them. They thought that by now they’d have more money or more interesting jobs or better friends. Perrotta’s best-known novel, “The Leftovers,” which was made into a series for HBO, is his least typical. Everyone in that book has been struck by a sensational, inexplicable catastrophe—two per cent of the world’s population has vanished—and they are traumatized, rather than itchily unhappy. But, like almost all of Perrotta’s characters, they live in the suburbs of the Northeast—and not the mid-century suburbs of John Updike, that locus of the American Dream, where the ordinary was made lustrous by a literary virtuoso. Perrotta’s twentyﬁrst-century suburbs are dimmer; they have drifted to the periphery of our collective fantasy life. These towns aren’t where anybody is headed, only where they end up, by mistake or misfortune or simple passivity. Amanda, another character in “Mrs. Fletcher,” has returned to her home town, Haddington, after grad school and a few years in Brooklyn. Now she’s living in her late mother’s house, where she can’t even bear to empty the closets. She thinks of herself as “part of a hipster reverse migration, legions of overeducated, underpaid twenty-somethings getting squeezed out of the city.” It’s not an ideal situation, but one can, at least, ﬁnd a Bikram-yoga class in Haddington these days. Eve, the novel’s title character and Brendan’s mother, takes pride in her job as the executive director of the Haddington Senior Center, but that’s about the only part of her life she regards as a success. With Brendan out of the house, she faces long evenings of watching “Friends” on Netﬂix and compulsively checking Facebook. “Her life had turned to this: this lifeless hush, this faint but elusive whiﬀ of decay,” Perrotta writes. Punctilious to a fault, Eve works on a checklist, “Going Solo: Fifteen Fun Things to Do by Yourself . . . For Yourself !,” that another divorcée posts online. The comic premise of “Mrs. Fletcher” is that when Brendan goes oﬀ to college he looks forward to sybaritic parties and a dorm roommate with whom he can “procrastinate for THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
hours, trash-talking and playing video games,” while Eve expects a winddown into lonely tedium. Instead, Brendan struggles in school and alienates his classmates with his bro-ish manner. And his mother—thanks to a newfound, Internet-enabled enthusiasm for amateur porn and a community-college course titled Gender and Society—embarks on a series of previously unimaginable adventures.
he tone and the setting of “Mrs. Fletcher” are mundane, and the T stakes aren’t exactly momentous, even compared with the petit-bourgeois dramas of “Little Children” and “The Abstinence Teacher.” No one’s marriage or career hangs in the balance. Perrotta’s ﬁction is not a showcase for dazzling prose; although “Little Children” opens with an epigraph from “Madame Bovary,” its sentences don’t appear to have been painstakingly chiselled in the course of hours, like Flaubert’s. Nor does Perrotta lavish attention on the material ﬁxings of his characters’ lives, the spacious houses and green yards that are the raison d’être of the suburbs. (So much of “Madame Bovary” is devoted to descriptions of Emma’s stuﬀ.) The sinews of Perrotta’s ﬁction, rather, are the tensions within and between characters, tensions that he steadily and artfully ampliﬁes until the reader becomes possessed by curiosity about how they’ll be resolved. Will the prematurely retired cop with angermanagement issues ﬁnally go too far? Will the adulterous lovers smash up their families? In “Mrs. Fletcher,” the suspense is more farcical: What surprise will Brendan ﬁnd in his boyhood bedroom when he ﬂees the mess he has made of his college life? But it’s suspense all the same. Though Perrotta’s novels are rarely beautiful, they are never dull, as beautifully written novels can often be. “Mrs. Fletcher” is lit up by ﬂashes of acute observation—the fastidious way, for example, that a character who has just chowed down on hot wings pulls a napkin from a dispenser and, instead of wiping his face, “unfolded it very carefully and laid it over his plate, like he was covering his bones with a blanket.” The local restaurant 76
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favored by Eve’s elderly clients has the perfect name the Lamplighter Inn. And who can deny that there is “nothing quite like the suspense of waiting for a ﬂirty text—as if the whole world was on pause, holding its breath until the next little ding! started it up again”? Eve, the recipient of such a text, prolongs that pause because she is “adamantly opposed to texting and driving.” She forces herself to “wait until she’d pulled into her driveway.” A smile-inducing touch: the conscientious restraint is so very Eve. Or is it? The text has been sent to her by an eighteen-year-old boy, her most ardent suitor. For better or worse, sex is the force that perpetually threatens the suburban order in Perrotta’s ﬁction. It shatters families, tramples taboos, and every now and then even soothes enmities. For Perrotta, it’s adult men who most often act on these wayward desires; his work is full of children like Brendan, whose father ran oﬀ with a woman he met through the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist. Brendan has inherited some of his father’s skeevy prerogatives—the novel opens with a disgusted Eve overhearing her son talking dirty while receiving a farewell blow job from the exgirlfriend he’s treated shabbily all summer. The boy has a kinder heart than anyone, even his own mother, gives him credit for, but he’s rudderless and a bit dim, taking his cues from his fellow lacrosse players, however uneasy they sometimes make him. (No one accounts for the inner lives of jocks more persuasively than Perrotta.) There was a time when, for such boys, the world, or at least college, was their oyster, but Brendan—who develops a crush on a strapping activist and gamely joins her in a protest over the shooting of Michael Brown—can’t keep up with the changing rules. If “Mrs. Fletcher” has a theme, it’s the reshaping of American erotic life by technology. An anonymous text sets oﬀ Eve’s foray into the Internet’s pornutopia: “U r my MILF!” it reads. “Send me a naked pic!!” This leads to some Googling and the discovery of milfateria.com, “World’s Biggest Buﬀet of All-You-Can-Eat Amateur MILF Porn!” Most of what Eve ﬁnds there
leaves her cold, but there’s so much of it, and in so much variety, that she can always ferret out a clip in which “the couple on her screen would seem inspired, or even blessed—you could see how alive and happy and unself-conscious they were—and maybe you envied them a little, but you also wanted to thank them for sharing this moment with you.”As much as she disapproves of milfateria.com, Eve returns to it again and again. She reaches the point where she can’t make small talk with a bartender or get tipsy at dinner with a female friend without imagining how the encounter would evolve if it were a porn scene, taking place in “a world where everyone secretly wanted the same thing, and no one failed to get it.” Technology can just as easily be used to tame and conﬁne sex. Whenever Amanda needs an ego boost, she signs on to Tinder to set up a tryst with a grateful middle-aged man. This she regards as a necessary vice, on a par with tequila, and one that exacts a similar hangover. Genuine desire, the elusive marvel Eve seeks in her nightly explorations of milfateria.com, barely enters into Amanda’s transactions, but they are so much easier to secure than the real thing. The Internet hasn’t actually transformed sex, but it has enlarged the number and the kinds of people with access to the whole spectrum of erotic experience. For every lover whose horizons expand, there’s one who wants gratiﬁcations as anodyne and tidily packaged as fast-food meals. An amiable, diverting novel, “Mrs. Fletcher” doesn’t wedge itself as ﬁrmly into America’s fault lines as many of Perrotta’s other books do. It features no religious zealots or sexual predators or dementedly ambitious overachievers, just a few souls blundering into a future whose contours they can never quite make out, looking for love and doing the best that they can.
1 department of diagnostics
From the Truth or Consequences (N.M.) Herald. Sierra Vista Hospital’s Physical Therapists/Physical Therapist Assistants are helping people recover from strokes, traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, amputations and other weekend activities.
PAPER TRAIL The material poetry of Susan Howe. BY DAN CHIASSON
Edwards, the eighteenthcentury ﬁre-and-brimstone theoloJgian,onathan often rode from parish to parish on horseback through the country around Northampton, Massachusetts, composing sermons as he went. Sometimes he wrote them down, but on long rides he used a mnemonic device: to remember each insight he had, he would pin a small piece of paper to an area of his clothing that he associated with the thought. After trips of several days, he returned covered in paper. As Edwards journeyed through the wilderness, his mind moved in its own direction; the two trajectories, one physical, the other mental, were joined in those little pinned scraps covering the
preacher’s clothes. It was an entirely practical approach, but, like most adaptations to the work of intense thinking, it read as eccentricity. I ﬁrst encountered this story in the work of the experimental American poet Susan Howe. The image of Edwards dotted with materialized ideas suggests the nature of her obsessions. At eighty, Howe is among the worthiest heirs to the high-modernist line in American poetry. And yet she is haunted by the oddball past of New England, especially as it inheres in material traces: her spare, astringent poetics derives much of its power from the archival sources it juxtaposes. Howe’s work treats as bricolage
Howe brings to avant-garde poetry the pressing emotional stakes of memoir. PHOTOGRAPH BY NICK MEYER
the writings of Cotton Mather and the Puritan divines, the captivity stories of Mary Rowlandson and Hannah Dustin, old bird books, Thoreau’s journals, the poetry of Longfellow, dusty municipal histories, and, most of all, the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Howe’s “My Emily Dickinson”—a quasi-biography with the imaginative latitude of a poem and the intellectual reach of the best literary criticism—established for our time the new terms of Dickinson’s reputation, even as it advanced Howe’s own “American aesthetic of uncertainty,” which shuttles among forms, genres, and states of matter. What connects it all are Howe’s powers of insight, and the implied relations between her sparkling trouvailles. “Debths” (New Directions) is Howe’s latest volume. The title comes from Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”: Howe has said that she keeps her mother’s copy near at hand. The pun suggests the “debts” Howe owes to her ancestors and their works, the “depths” of her engagement with material traces of ideas (which often strand her in the literal depths of libraries and archives), and the “deaths” of parents and loved ones that have shaped Howe’s elegiac intensities. Also, it looks like a typo: here, as throughout her career, Howe is interested in the accidents, smudges, and tears that fasten works of literature to their material embodiments on the page. Correct that word in print, or read it aloud, and you lose not only its triplicate meanings but the implied relations among them. What channels connect debt, depth, and death? To entertain this kind of question is the ﬁrst strong step toward appreciating Howe’s modernist forensics. “Debths” is, like most of Howe’s books, a hybrid animal, a composite of autobiographical prose, minimalist verse, collaged (and mainly illegible) clippings of old texts, and lots of white space. Its wanderings in and out of forms signal its wary approach to some important obsessions—home and childhood, Boston and the wilderness around it, accident and insight. Howe’s heroes, in this volume, are installation artists: Isabella Stewart Gardner, who planned, down to the last inch, a museum to house her art collection and arranged, in her will, for its dismantling if anyone altered its organization; and Paul Thek, whose posthumous retrospective at the Whitney, in 2010, impressed Howe deeply. She was THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 7 & 14, 2017
especially taken by Thek’s installation “The Personal Eﬀects of the Pied Piper,” which comprised small bronze sculptures of the piper’s treasures and possessions (knives and forks, pipes of various sizes, a book ravaged by rodents), scattered across the museum ﬂoor: part hobo camp, part archeological site. owe is a poet of autobiography, if H not exactly one of personal candor. The details of her childhood are often deployed in works whose experimentalism, while bracing, nevertheless feels like an aspect of the world in which she grew up. Howe’s mother was the Irish actress and playwright Mary Manning, a ﬁxture in the Dublin theatre world who worked with Yeats at the Abbey as a girl, and, later, collaborated with Samuel Beckett. Her father was Mark DeWolfe Howe, the Brahmin historian and Harvard Law School professor, who in his youth clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes. Two bookshelves faced oﬀ in the family study: Howe’s mother’s books, “almost all Irish,” ﬁlled one, and her father’s “histories and reference books” ﬁlled the other. Howe’s younger sister, Fanny, became a poet of rival brilliance and distinction; Fanny and Susan Howe are, for what it’s worth, probably the most important sibling poets in American literature. It is a tribute to their instincts that, despite their hoard of shared impres-
sions, they usually sound nothing alike. In Howe’s work, words mingle with the material environments that they describe. Walking in her old Cambridge neighborhood recently, I saw, through her eyes, writing all around: carved above lintels, into cornerstones, and onto graves; printed on banners; stamped onto street signs. Everywhere, the mute landscape seemed captioned unawares. It struck me as natural and true to Howe’s sense of language that words should chart a passage toward the printed page from their origins in ambient space. It is one surprising feature of her regionalism, this emphasis on writing’s uncanny priority in the world. Howe’s reﬂections on the Cambridge and Boston of her childhood stand with Robert Lowell’s “91 Revere Street” and the ﬁrst few chapters of “The Education of Henry Adams” as essential evocations of an aristocratic milieu on life support. I ended up that day at the Longfellow House, the most glorious house in Cambridge, which Howe describes in her collection “Frame Structures.”The building served as George Washington’s headquarters during the siege of Boston and, later, as the homestead of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Today, it is owned by the National Park Service; you can tour it and see the bed where Longfellow’s wife, Frances Appleton, died after suﬀering horrible burns from her dress
“Thus, the Yardbirds begat Cream, Spencer Davis Group begat Traffic, Cream and Traffic begat Blind Faith, and Blind Faith begat Derek and the Dominos and Ginger Baker’s Air Force …”
catching ﬁre. When Howe was a child, she would visit the house after church, when it was still half museum, half private residence. She recalls: Henry Longfellow Dana was living in one part of the house, with a lover, while Charles and Helen Hopkinson (also Longfellow descendants) often occupied the other. A caretaker (the position traditionally went to a poet or a Divinity School student) lived in the attic. . . . Later we might sit in the dining room of Longfellow House eating lunch on one side of a roped-oﬀ area while the resident poet-caretaker guided sightseers single-ﬁle along the other side of the barrier pointing out ornaments, furnishings, portraits, structural details; as if we were ghosts.
This is Brahmin material culture long after it had become a curiosity, around the time that the cultural prestige of old New England faded for good. And yet, for a poet profoundly interested in time, nostalgia often acts as a covert poetics. Where is Susan Howe now, looking back upon the scene? Which side of the “roped-oﬀ area” that divides observer from observed does a writer, remembering her past, occupy? She might be “sightseer,” a pure voyeur, or “ghost,” a felt but invisible presence. Or is she a transitional ﬁgure, monitoring the boundary between private and public, past and present: a “poet-caretaker”? These aren’t abstract questions. A writer has to grapple with them every time she sits down to work, and a lesser one might seem to foist them upon us. With Howe, they emerge organically from her material. It is normal for a writer like Howe to carry her past as a burden—the way Lowell and Adams, connoisseurs of decline, usually did. But Howe seems somehow free of these anxieties, perhaps because she never set out to be a poet in the ﬁrst place. Though she grew up immersed in the culture of libraries and books, she started out as a visual artist, graduating from the Boston Museum School in 1961. Several years later, a friend visited her studio and suggested that she transfer her art works into a book. The result, “Hinge Picture” (1974), translated to the page Howe’s visual installations, in which isolated phrases had been oﬀset by the stark white of a gallery wall: the gutter, a unique feature of books, divided the visual “picture” into distinct zones. The friend had inadvertently launched one of the great careers in recent American poetry. All of Howe’s volumes since have tested the limits of the printed page; in
doing so, they reaﬃrm the page itself as a necessary check on—and an expressive feature of—her imagination.
the edge of a pine forest. I begged them to ransom me. But no. Around 4 PM they left for Boston, leaving me alone with my dread of being lost in the past; absent.
ecause Howe often front-loads her B books with personal reminiscence, we see her experimentalism as a version
Echoes, ransoms, “visiting days,” a lake whose far shore is imagined as a refuge and then as a prison: these images circulate throughout the book. Every Howe volume makes a new compound out of its sources, without stripping them of their individual polarities. The author and the reader alike move among them, looking for a path, while at the same time being led forward almost against their will. We’re simultaneously the Pied Piper and his doomed children. Or we’re Peter Rugg, the hero of a “tall tale” by the nineteenth-century New England writer William Austin: an “absent husband responsible for his own mysterious ruin,” as Howe puts it, “condemned to wander with his small daughter in a onehorse chair perpetually searching for Boston.” Inside everyone is the feeling of call and the illusion of response, the “mysterious ruin” that sets life in motion and the penumbral Boston, just beyond the tree line, that oﬀers the prospect of hope and home. “Debths” is through and through a book of poetry, though not entirely a book of verse. Howe’s method of surrounding conventional lyric with exegesis (at one pole) and illegible verbal collage (at the other) puts an enormous amount of pressure on the actual lines of verse stranded between the extremes. I have sometimes felt that there was simply not enough poetry in Howe’s poetry, that in evading its dowdy conventions she throws the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve read her work almost the way I tend to read her sources in the origi-
of instincts learned and perfected in her childhood. This is the Howe diﬀerence: she brings to the austerities of avantgarde poetics the pressing emotional stakes of memoir. “Debths” opens with an epigraph from Bing Crosby and the Music Maids’ 1939 version of “Little Sir Echo,” which suggests this book’s deep structures of call and response. The song’s lyrics—“Won’t you come over and play? (and play) / You’re a nice little fellow / I know by your voice / But you’re always so far away (away)”—bring to mind the old genre of echo verse, in which rhymes are formed by repetition of the trailing word of the previous line. Frost has a great poem about this eﬀect, “The Most of It,” whose protagonist laments “the mocking echo” of his voice when he calls out across a forested lake for “counterlove, original response.” In “Debths,” Howe recalls her own echo crisis at her childhood summer camp. You can feel the book lifting oﬀ into its themes in the comments between concrete memories: When I was eight my parents packed me oﬀ to Little Sir Echo Camp for Girls on Lake Armington in the foothills of New Hampshire cofounded and owned by Mary Hoisington and Margaret Conoboy ten years earlier. Apparently the women chose the name because of an echo that bounces oﬀ the surrounding White Mountains. An actual child may or may not ﬁt parental fantasies. I hated the place. . . . On the one visiting day allowed per summer we rowed across the lake and picnicked on a secluded beach at
nal: “for the lustres,” as Emerson, another of Howe’s heroes, put it. “Debths,” though, shows Howe’s lyric gifts at their most compelling. In a sequence called “Periscope,” weaving and writing, longtime associates, are brought into focus in an epigraph from “MobyDick”: “God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom.”That’s what Pip, the black boy enlisted as an oarsman on the boat, apparently witnesses after he jumps ship and nearly drowns. He is treated thereafter as mad, though his madness is tinged with what Melville calls “heaven’s sense”: he has seen at ﬁrst hand “the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the ﬁrmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.”The short, fragmentary lyrics of this sequence are all about the mechanics of verse as a technology for wonder. The poems are openended, aware of and commenting on their own gestation. Here is one of the lyrics in its entirety: These tallied scraps ﬂoat like glass skiﬀs quietly for love or pity and all that What an idea in such a time as ours Pip among the Pleiads
The “scraps” are Howe’s poems, transparent and silent so as to aﬀord her readers unmediated access to revelation. In another poem from the sequence, we again encounter Peter Rugg, the “missing man” who wanders everywhere searching for Boston, from whose “historical song he himself / cannot free himself.” That’s Howe, and Pip, and Isabella Stewart Gardner, and all the other vivid characters we meet in “Debths.” The lesson of these poems, equal parts consoling and devastating, is simple: we’re history.
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CARTOON CAPTION CONTEST
Each week, we provide a cartoon in need of a caption. You, the reader, submit a caption, we choose three finalists, and you vote for your favorite. Caption submissions for this week’s cartoon, by Carolita Johnson, must be received by Sunday, August 13th. The finalists in the July 24th contest appear below. We will announce the winner, and the finalists in this week’s contest, in the August 28th issue. Anyone age thirteen or older can enter or vote. To do so, and to read the complete rules, visit contest.newyorker.com.
THIS WEEK’S CONTEST
THE WINNING CAPTION
“Should we try that new place in the corner?” Gary Borislow, Johns Creek, Ga. “Sorry, my roommate’s working from home today.” John Elson, Austin, Texas “Let’s go now while there’s no line.” David Rottman, New York City
“We sue at dawn.” Jeff Sawyer, Franconia, N.H.
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