The Star of the Silken Screen

In the 1970s, impecunious and unknown, the only way I could get into the legendary Studio 54 was under the sponsorship, so to speak, of someone older and more established. The velvet rope parted only one time; it wasn’t the night Bianca Jagger rode across the dance floor on a white horse, but it was close.

There was a balcony where you could go if you were seriously tripping, as I was, to get out of the mayhem. That night the rows of theater seats were empty except for a few couples making out in the back. I collapsed into a chair. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I became aware of someone else in my row. There he was, solitary in the shadows, standing with his arms crossed and one hand to his chin, staring at the revelry below. The trademark wig, in the pulsing light of the dance floor, looked not so much silver as made of straw. He glanced at me briefly, seemed about to speak, changed his mind. I was of no interest to him, just another stoned kid.


Art Institute of Chicago/© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS) New YorkAndy Warhol: Mao, 1972. Acrylic, silkscreen ink, and graphite on linen, 14 feet 8½ inches x 11 feet 4½ inches.

Andy Warhol combined social and pictorial intelligence in a way not seen in this country since John Singer Sargent. In one of the most unexpected artistic transformations of the last century, he found a way to make a highly synthetic, semimechanized kind of painting feel authentic. His attitude and posture, his public persona, and his forays into filmmaking and other media were radical in the world of high art, but his aesthetic inclinations were more traditional. They harked back to, and partially bridged, two widely divergent tendencies in American art: social realism and abstraction, the Yankee peddler and the Transcendentalist.

Warhol was many things, but at heart he was a salon artist with acute instincts for social engagement. The complexity of his persona, the sociocultural upheaval of the 1960s that he helped to advance, and his impact on generations of activists and aesthetes have been discussed at length. And while central to the Warhol mythology, they are not the reason why his best paintings still pull us into their aura. We’re looking at them today because of their unique amalgamation of photographic facticity with a painterly directness and stylishness that stops just short of aggression. Warhol understood the visual power of rhythm and repetition—minimalism before it had a name. He also sensed that the relationship between content and style could be deliberately misaligned to create a new kind of pictorial irony.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Warhol’s work looked new because of a technique new to art—the half-tone silkscreen. It was the ultimate low-to-high inversion. Screen printing uses the method by which photography’s gray scale, its range of lights and darks, is translated into a pattern of tiny dots, known as benday; it’s what allows photographs to be reproduced in newspapers. The same dot pattern, expressed as tiny, pin-prick holes, can be bonded to a piece of silk, which is then stretched taut on a frame of wood or metal. When ink is forced through the silk using a rubber squeegee, the photographic image, reconstituted by the tiny dots, appears on the printed surface—in Warhol’s case, the canvas. The print can be repeated any number of times, and the amount of ink used, as well as the degree of force applied to the squeegee, will produce variations in the resulting image.

Warhol was the first artist to grasp the potential for pattern and rhythm released by the screen-print process; it could be both mechanical and expressive at the same time. This pictorial rhythm was tied to a feature of the silkscreen: it exaggerates the contrast in a photographic image between light and dark, amplifies their power to convey a sense of form, and also makes the dark areas of a photograph feel almost animated. In a profound act of poetic equivalency, Warhol further realized that the true substance of photography is the shadow cast by and on its subject. This was the essence of his major innovation, which still reverberates today: the reciprocity between painting and printing. What was his alone was the identification with the fatalistic glamour of a shadow.

Most importantly, the silkscreen brought the world outside the studio—the unfiltered world of headlines, of heartbreak, stardom, and catastrophe—into the heart of painting. Warhol hitched his sensibility to the values of the picture press, to hard-luck stories of exceptional bathos, and to an emotionality and sensationalism not previously welcomed into the upper echelons of art. The work got interesting when he boldly, and also a little fatalistically, tried to integrate that sensibility with the sweeping grandiosity, aloofness, and froideur of a painting by Clyfford Still or Barnett Newman. He did this by letting the weights and rhythms of the black silkscreen ink, as it accumulated or thinned out, move one’s eye through the picture at the same time that it absorbed the image. What those artists accomplished with a palette knife or a brush, Warhol approximated using his squeegee. His paintings work best when you can feel him reaching for the grandeur and clear-eyed sorrow of classical art. To these qualities he added a sweetness that was not common in formalist art, and that was all his own. The underlying drama in a painting by Warhol is the nerve and daring to say, “Why not this? Can’t this be art too?”

Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh in 1928, the youngest child of Slovak emigrants. His father was a coal miner. They were poor; it was the Depression. He was a sickly, introverted, and adored child who liked movie fan magazines, the icons at his Greek Orthodox Church, and other boys. His early flair for drawing won him a place at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he excelled in the traditional course of study, drawing from plaster casts and the like. After graduating in 1949, Warhol came to New York to make his name as a commercial artist.

In the early 1950s, before photography changed the look of print advertising, illustration was used to enchant and seduce the consumer. An illustrator with a distinctive style could go far, and Warhol rapidly established himself as one who could confer wit and sophistication on consumer products. His whimsical drawing style and elegant, fanciful typography (often the work of his mother, who was, at times, a creative partner) made him a favorite of art directors and clients, and eventually led to a steady gig drawing the ads that the I. Miller Shoe Company ran weekly in The New York Times. I. Miller was Warhol’s grad school, an efficient education in how to focus the reader’s gaze and keep her from turning the page. Certain things worked, others not so much, and Warhol learned to eliminate anything that didn’t contribute to the desired effect.

Having reached the top of the commercial art world, Warhol had a much bigger idea of his own talent, or of his own drive; his sights were always on the world of elite galleries and museums. At first he didn’t understand the difference between illustration and art—why a drawing by Jasper Johns cost so much more than one of his own. He eventually figured it out. If anything, it was a surfeit of personality that cast his work in a different, lesser light. Warhol wasn’t born cool; he became so.

The Whitney Museum of American Art has mounted a large, mostly buoyant survey of Warhol’s immense output, “Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again,” and it expands our understanding of the origins and evolution of his sensibility. The exhibition presents the artist in full: he was not only, or even primarily, a painter but also, at various times, a filmmaker, magazine editor and publisher, author, illustrator, photographer, diarist, TV show host, stage designer, and political activist. The veteran curator Donna De Salvo has done a real service in examining heretofore neglected aspects of Warhol’s oeuvre: not just the films, but also his early drawings and witty erotica, the many commercial illustrations and book designs, the paintings made in collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the late forays into abstraction. The overall impression is that throughout his life Warhol was always an exceptionally hard worker who adapted as times changed, but one who largely confined himself to the surface of life. After 1968, he produced a steady stream of paintings on any number of themes and subjects, but didn’t deeply inhabit more than a few of them, the same as most artists. He preferred to keep the carousel moving at a steady clip.

It might be difficult, in this time of critical approbation and market adulation, to grasp just how devalued Warhol had become by the early 1980s, even among his own inner circle. In 1985, when the Saatchi Gallery opened with a small survey of 1960s paintings, Warhol’s business manager, the sartorially peerless Fred Hughes, confided to a friend that it was the first time he took Andy seriously as an artist. When Warhol died in 1987, an appreciation in The New York Times by John Russell struck a less than sanguine note: “Posterity may well decide that his times deserved him.” Parts of the art world had grown weary of the “Warholization” already underway, and some critics were pushing back. The art historian Barbara Rose had recently begun a review with this zinger: “Andy Warhol has sunk back into the commercial ooze from which he emerged.”

If he was the artist America deserved in 1987, it now seems that each era shall have the Warhol it deserves, and the version that emerges from the Whitney show is much more up front about queer culture’s contribution to the visual arts and to the evolution of our current sensibilities. In tandem with presenting queerness as a category of experience and identity in art, the Whitney show gives us an insight into the young Warhol: Andy with a sketchbook, Andy the fan, the fashion Andy, Andy the ardent youth dreaming a life of style and erotic possibilities.

Perhaps as a result of emphasizing the “artist as a young striver” version of Warhol’s life and times (a version he would likely have approved of), the show feels rather light on masterpieces, though it more fully fleshes out how his lifestyle informed his development. De Salvo points out the links between Warhol the precocious teenager, making charming, romantic pencil portraits of his friends, and the Pop artist who painted portraits of Coke bottles and other products.

A large retrospective exhibition often tells a story about an artist influenced by other artists as well as the broader culture, about how and to what extent artists adapt and evolve. The story can also be about an artist’s relationship to his materials. This show’s arc is the story of line supplanted by image. Warhol’s early sensibility was expressed almost exclusively through line. He showed only passing interest in academic modeling, shading, creating volumes, relational composition, and the like. He was a display artist who thought in column inches, not in paint. The young Warhol had instead a feeling for how to style his line so that it drips with personality, and also how to use line to imply a narrative. The two qualities together define a current that, while not exactly suppressed in the macho art world of the 1960s, was hardly valorized. Today, that aspect of Warhol’s art feels irresistible, something happily passed forward to our time.

The exhibition’s first couple of rooms reveal Warhol in possession of a great lyrical charm, to which has been added the graphic punch of superior packaging design. One wall has been given over to a salon-style hanging of twelve gold-leaf drawings of shoes from the 1950s. In these works, the shoes, some with pinched toes and high button uppers or dainty bows, feel Victorian; it’s often the case, and was especially so in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that the look of “sophistication” borrows its appeal from something antique. The drawings are hung on top of black-and-white reprints of the I. Miller ads and other drawn images that appeared in the Times—shoes on top of more shoes. The whole thing looks chic and delicious. You want to have it wrapped up and sent as a present to Eloise at the Plaza.


Sammlung Froehlich, Leinfelden-Echterdingen, Germany/© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS) New YorkAndy Warhol: Christine Jorgenson, 1956. Collaged metal leaf and embossed foil with ink on paper, 13 x 16 inches.

Apart from his mother’s fanciful, hand-lettered script and Pennsylvania’s robust nineteenth-century folk-art tradition, the biggest influence on Warhol’s early stylized drawings was Ben Shahn, a working-class humanist who today might seem light-years from Warhol’s world but who was, at the time, one of the most popular artists in America, and who provided an example of how to bridge the gulf between fine art and illustration. Warhol’s version of Shahn’s urgent, searching—one wants to say moral—broken line was made by applying ink to wax paper and then blotting the tiny ink blobs with drawing paper, which produced a distinctive graphic insouciance in which every depicted object, even a shoe, seemed to have a pursed cupid mouth. Warhol also made elegant drawings using a ballpoint pen, which gave a more continuous, flowing line. Those drawings are, if anything, even more romantic than their ink-blot cousins, and have more in common with Jean Cocteau than with Shahn.

As time went on, Warhol wanted something more ambitious for his art but was unsure where to look for inspiration. The show’s inclusion of his developmental years allows us to see the small jumps he made in the progression from illustrator to painter, how the fascination with the picture press and the printed page were turned into ideas about what to paint and how to paint it. So great is the sense of logical development and discovery that, walking through the first rooms of the show, we feel that we might finally learn the answer to the great mystery: How exactly did Warhol make the leap from illustrational, line-based imagery to the first silkscreen paintings? We can feel him straining at the threshold of Pop art, but we can only imagine what it must have felt like to grasp that painting and printing could be one and the same. It was subversive and liberating. It was a new kind of paintbrush.

Almost at the same moment, Robert Rauschenberg also introduced silkscreen images into his paintings, after first seeing the large industrial screens in Warhol’s studio. He used the screens in a cubist-collage sort of way, the images often painted over or otherwise altered, and always subsumed into a larger composition. The images have a scrapbook quality to them; they are often nostalgic, even elegiac, phrases or cantos in Rauschenberg’s ongoing visual tone poem.

Warhol, by contrast, quickly recognized the sheer graphic power as well as the transformational nature of the silkscreen image itself—how it confers on any subject a drama of light and shadow, an urgent aesthetic bounty grounded in the photographic now. Wielding the silkscreen like a shield, Warhol progressed from a graphic, outlined image to one made by a decisive drag of a big industrial squeegee. You can feel the expressive currency of the materials coming alive in his hand; the mystery of the photographer’s darkroom is invoked with each pull. Such was the galvanizing force of photography that it swamped Warhol’s hand-painted style all at once, and by late 1961 the transition was complete. It would be another twenty-five years, more or less, before he again chose drawing over photography.

The silkscreen gave his art heft; its use at the grand scale of the New York School conferred gravitas and turned Warhol into a painter of modern life. It gave him access to an enormous range of subject matter that could be transferred quickly to the canvas, and at any scale. Movie stars, Mao, violent accidents, society portraits, skulls, pistols, flowers, ads, and much more—all were delivered up by the same technique.

Warhol’s reliance on the silkscreen’s inherent drama is a good example of an artist turning his liabilities into an asset. His paintings are, by design, all surface, the image as thin as the layer of ink used to conjure them. They couldn’t be simpler, or, in a way, more humble. Despite, or because of, these limitations, his work from the 1960s turns out to be among the most durable painting of the last sixty years.

For decades, Warhol’s paintings were first-class décor, a term that is in no way derogatory; apart from the image, they have gridded rhythm and great scale and often feature surprising, even sizzling color. They can be absorbing, but in a way that differs from earlier paintings. They can make any room look smart and chic, but you wouldn’t want to hang one next to a De Kooning. At the right size they have the unarguable, declarative quality we associate with major art. Sometimes their presentational decisiveness is the very thing that stops them short. (Is that all there is?)

At their best, Warhol’s paintings connect us to a state of contemporaneity, of hipness and glamour, of being in the right place at the right time, and to a feeling of mild transgression. When you’re not in the mood to feel those things, they can strike you as manipulative, as trying too hard, or, conversely, not trying hard enough. The curator Henry Geldzahler liked to tell a story about visiting Warhol’s studio in the 1960s and observing about a painting that Andy had “left the art out,” to which Andy, droll as ever, replied, “I knew I forgot something.” Humor aside, there was something about Warhol’s working method that made the art component conditional. The art had arrived as if by magic, and it left open the possibility that it could just slip away without anyone noticing.

Two rooms after the golden shoes, the exhibition gives us a sampling of the Death and Disaster series on which Warhol’s reputation largely rests, and which would occupy him through the amphetamine-fueled years that ended with his near-fatal shooting in 1968.These include the stellar 1963 silkscreen painting Suicide (Fallen Body), which looks like it was made from a police photograph but was in fact from a picture published in Life. With its sixteen frames, it has the implied motion of a sequence by Muybridge, with the stuttering repetitions of the image in a grid, black over silver, creating a kind of image-foam that coats the painting’s surface in inky, iridescent waves.

In those frames we see a young woman, elegantly dressed in a dark skirt suit and white blouse, reclining on what appears, improbably, to be the hood of a car. We are looking from the top of her head, up over her body to her crossed legs, where we notice that one foot is bare. At first, the woman appears to be resting, reaching to touch a string of pearls. Her dark hair is still tastefully swept up from her unblemished forehead. There is, however, something not quite right about her pose.

Warhol’s paintings present the glamour of celebrity on a continuum with nightmarish American imagery: grisly car crashes, electric chairs, race riots. The flashbulb equally illuminated all. His work suggests that they were in fact inextricably linked. Warhol cultivated a radical openness to this world of images, as well as the states of mind and of being that the photographs capture. This openness extends to the Race Riot paintings from 1963–1964, which, along with the suicides and other disasters from around the same time, reveal Warhol to be a trenchant social critic. His Race Riot pictures are still shocking in their casual brutality. They don’t condescend to the audience, and more than any others from that time, they bring the reality of the streets into the museum.

Feelings of outrage and shame still emanate from Mustard Race Riot (1963), a syncopated, stacked grid of three views, made from press photos, of a stylishly turned-out black man being set upon by a police dog. The painting, in freezing the action forever, is both witness and judge: that man with his straw trilby and that cop and that dog enacting their aggrieved appointment with fate. This still strikes me as radical for an artist who consistently courted commercial success. It’s as if Jeff Koons, while turning out balloon animals and other odes to childhood, also made highly refined stainless steel sculptures of unarmed young black men being shot by police. That is something we are not likely to see.

If Warhol had made nothing more than the Race Riot and the Death and Disaster pictures, he would still be a major figure in the history of pictorial art, but there was so much more to come. He was a disciplined artist, and the list of his painted images is long: the car crash and suicide pictures; the electric chairs; Marilyn, Elvis, Brando, and all the other stars and celebrities; the flowers; the large Maos; the skulls; the hammer-and-sickle pictures; the excellent Shadow paintings and the ads—subject matter was never Warhol’s problem. However, his method didn’t evolve much, and as the work continues through the 1970s and 1980s a sameness creeps into it.

Like every artist, Warhol had highs and lows, periods of sustained creativity and longer periods of treading water, waiting for inspiration to strike. Or perhaps his attention was simply elsewhere—he was involved in many non-painting projects at any given time. It’s also possible that he came up against the limits inherent in his technique; the silkscreen translated everything the same way. It was mechanical, after all, which can cut both ways. The unwelcome but undeniable impression made by the Whitney show is that after the 1970s, some of the light goes out of his painting.

Still, innovation continued until the end. In the early 1970s Warhol gave freer rein to his more painterly impulse in the colored grounds underneath the silkscreen images. His paintings of the 1970s take on a more nuanced polychrome palette and more active, vigorous brushwork. I used to think the large portraits of Mao (who was still very much alive in 1972, when Warhol began painting them), with their large blocks of color and brushwork that underlie and surround the Chairman’s countenance, were some of the best things that Warhol made. You feel him putting to work everything he knows about painting and, with their scale and stateliness, they are impressive in their combination of what the paint is doing along with the pattern of lights and darks of the silkscreen image itself. The energy of the wet-into-wet painting, alternately contained within the image and set free from it, works in frothy counterpoint to the filigree of tiny black dots that magically reconstitute the face of Mao.

There is one Mao portrait in the Whitney show, but unfortunately it is not completely successful. At fifteen feet tall, it bridges the gaps between Abstract Expressionism, Pop irony, things-as-they-are facticity, and a technologically enhanced image: the attitude that would come to be called postmodern. But the integration of the brushstrokes with the image is not particularly acute; their scale is too small and fussy to act as a counterweight to the Chairman.

Starting sometime in the 1970s, Warhol introduced another of his pictorial inventions. He began using a new kind of line, one made by tracing around projected images with a brush. The brush follows the conture as well as the interior shapes of an image—say, a face or the facets of a perfume bottle. Lightly loaded with black acrylic paint, it very quickly starts to go dry, producing a skipping kind of brush mark, called “dry-brush,” an update of his original blotted line drawings of the 1950s. First used as an overdrawn line on top of silkscreen images, almost like a second view of the same image, Warhol eventually allowed the brushed line to stand on its own, and finally, at the very end of his life, jettisoned the silkscreen altogether.

The way that he traced a logo, or signage, or a version of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, or an image of Judy or Liza, was as distinctive as the silkscreen, while also achieving a more artisanal, audience-friendly, even jaunty and upbeat result. The casual-seeming brushed, traced line breathed new life into his work and made his images feel as immediate in their way as the silkscreens had felt in the 1960s. Some of the best examples appear in the Last Supper series, which were among the last things Warhol painted, though the one in the Whitney show obscures the dry-brush effect by fusing it with yet another later innovation, an all-over pattern of camouflage color.

There were other developments in the 1980s, most importantly a group of paintings made with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Warhol and Basquiat were friends, they shared a taste for nightlife, and they also shared a dealer, Bruno Bischofberger, whose Zurich gallery was a kind of Warhol outpost and who I believe suggested the collaboration. Although dismissed at the time as a market stunt, the paintings today look vitally alive. The artists’ respective strengths are emphasized, their weaknesses shored up. Basquiat gave Warhol’s work spontaneity, polyphony, and skeins of jumpy marks full of personality; Warhol gave Basquiat structure and mainstream Americana.


Private Collection/© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkJean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol: Paramount, 1984–1985. Acrylic on canvas, 76 x 105 inches.

Two of their collaborations, Paramount from 1984–1985, and Third Eye from 1985, are in the Whitney exhibition, and they are by far the most energized paintings in the final galleries. Paramount is more Basquiat than Warhol; the Pop master’s contribution is a red-on-white rendition of the Paramount Studios logo, which covers roughly half the canvas. Over this, the younger artist has brushed in areas of green, salmon pink, and cadmium yellow medium—tautly calibrated colors that are overlaid and interwoven with oil-stick drawings of heads, building façades, columns of numbers, rocket ships, and the names of raw materials like sugar, iron, and lead. The whole composition is jumpy, wildly unstable; shapes and marks and images are all swimming in the same turbulent waters, along with the artists themselves.

Artists’ reputations are always being adjusted. Time plus distance lessens the sense of urgency for artists of a younger generation. For the majority of art professionals today, Warhol’s position as an avant-garde colossus is unshakable. And much of the work of the last forty years—that of the “Pictures Generation” in particular, not to mention the art world’s ongoing appetite for painting moguls—would probably have been very different without his example. Perhaps because his legacy has entered visual culture in such a broad and commercial way, many young artists have broken free from his orbit. I have heard from some young painters just how little the whole Warhol phenomenon concerns them. One told me that for her, the Triple Elvis painting in the show, which for collectors would be a diamond as big as the Ritz, is “like wrapping paper,” that is to say, one step down from wallpaper.

Few opinions I’ve heard have been as dismissive, and it’s not a question of right or wrong; the point is simply that all artists are subject to the vagaries of fashion. Warhol’s good early pictures are very good indeed, their originality and pictorial power still stun, but they are no more transcendent of the time in which they were made than is most other art. The later work especially is time-specific, and not always as substantial as one had remembered; it didn’t help that Warhol’s career was cut short. It’s easy to imagine another great flowering—or several—had he been granted more time. Walking through the show, especially as one gets to the later rooms with the last ten or fifteen years of work, one finds that Warhol’s style begins to seem not so much a revolution in pictorial form as simply one artist’s answer to the question of how to paint an image.

So much of Warhol’s art was aimed at capturing a moment of social truth, be it beauty, glamour, camp, or power, in the guise of a portrait, and his assiduously cultivated portrait business partly financed his many other activities. Of the many hundreds of portraits Warhol painted over the years, special attention, even love, seems to have been given to his dealers and fellow artists: Irving Blum, Henry Geldzahler, Leo Castelli, Roy Lichtenstein, and Man Ray. In these and other portraits, Warhol shows all the sensitivity and psychological insight of a traditional portraitist. Eighty-four of the portraits are featured in a separate room of the exhibition, and it’s fun to point out the faces one recognizes, some of them friends or well-known social figures from another era: Look how young!

There is a knot of pathos in the portraitist’s art: the sitter will never again appear as youthful, as glamorous, as desired as now. This eternal present also comes with the knowledge that it has already slipped into the past. Even Warhol’s portraits of buildings, of symbols like the hammer and sickle, the children’s toys, the perfume bottles, and of course the skulls, are memento mori. In all of these paintings and drawings, Warhol is making a connection to his beloved nineteenth-century folk art, to the theorem stencils of flowers and the embroidery sampler with its common motto: When this you see/think on me.

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Giving Voice to Guadeloupe


Philippe Giraud/Gamma-Rapho via Getty ImagesMaryse Condé with the French edition of her novel Ségou (Segu), Guadeloupe, 1986

On December 9, 2018, I received the New Academy Prize for literature in Stockholm, Sweden, the award set up last year to replace the Nobel Prize, which was canceled after a scandal and dispute at the Swedish Academy. It was the second time a writer from Guadeloupe had been awarded a prize of such importance. In 1960, the poet Alexis Léger, known as Saint-John Perse, was awarded the Nobel. You could not imagine a more perfect contrast: he the descendant of the proud caste of békés, white Creoles, settled on the island since the eighteenth century; myself the descendant of African slaves who crossed the Atlantic loaded like animals in the belly of the slave ships.

The award came to me as a total surprise. Besides being proud and happy, I felt relieved. For the first time, I was at peace with myself. I had been writing for years without any special recognition. When the French gave out their famous literary prizes every fall—the Goncourt, Femina, or Renaudot—I was never nominated.

I nearly didn’t become a writer. Despite the education I received from my parents who belonged to an embryonic black bourgeoisie, I was a timid child, unsocial and vulnerable. The world around me in Guadeloupe seemed a frightening enigma. Unlike most teenagers at the time, I had no inclination to go for bicycle rides with friends to the beaches of Sainte Anne or Saint François or stroll over the Place de la Victoire, the heart of our small town, Pointe-à-Pitre. I was content only when I had my nose in a book or when narrating the most extraordinary tales to Danielle, the little Indian girl my parents had adopted. Her father, Carmélien, had died falling from a breadfruit tree, and her mother, too, died just a few months later.

I was always prepared to invent people and things. My mother, a devout Catholic, reproached me severely for making up these stories, which she called a load of lies, something I had trouble accepting. Lies? They were simply the fruit of my imagination and didn’t deserve to be called such a harsh name.

When I felt too frustrated by my mother’s scolding, I took refuge in the kitchen where our servant, Adélia, greeted me with her bad temper. She did not appreciate my culinary inventions. For her, cooking was a set of unchanging recipes that you made over and over. I, on the contrary, believed that cooking was a place for individual invention and creativity. Despite my youth, I was already preparing in my head to write an ode to my grandmother, Victoire, who was a cook to a family of white Creoles and prisoner of her illiteracy, her illegitimacy, her gender, and her station as a servant. As I set it down in the book I would eventually write, Victoire: My Mother’s Mother: “When Victoire invented seasonings or blended flavors, her personality was set free and blossomed. Cooking was her Père Labat rum, her ganja, her crack, her ecstasy. She dominated the world. For a time she became God. Like a writer.”

When I was ten, a friend of my mother’s, a primary school teacher like her but one who ordered her dresses from Paris, gave me a book for my birthday. Since she knew I had read every possible book by Flaubert, Balzac, Maupassant, Apollinaire, and Rimbaud, she wanted to give me an original present. The author’s name was Emily Brontë, a complete unknown to me—nobody at school had ever mentioned her name. The book, Les Hauts de Hurlevent, was a French translation of Wuthering Heights. From the opening pages, I was transported. I couldn’t help alternately laughing or bursting into tears. Just as Cathy exclaims, “I am Heathcliff!” so I was on the point of crying, “I am Emily Brontë!”

You might be surprised that a young girl from Guadeloupe could so identify with the daughter of an English clergyman living on the Yorkshire moors. But there is an area in Guadeloupe where the ruins of an old sugar mill and plantation house set in a desolate landscape reminded me of that setting. That’s the power and the magic of literature: it knows no borders, it is the realm of hard to reach dreams, obsessions, and desires, which unites readers through time and space.

It was the same feeling I had years later when I visited Japan. Tokyo was a city that frightened me because of its empire of neon signs giving the impression of impenetrable hieroglyphs. The Japanese are very different from me—physically, in education, cooking, and lifestyle. But all it needed was for the interpreter to begin reading the translation of one of my texts and a powerful togetherness flooded the room.

After this night of inspiration with Emily Brontë, I ran to thank my mother’s friend for her present and tell her the effect it had had on me. Naïvely, I added: “One day, you’ll see, I too will become a writer and my books will be as beautiful and powerful as Emily Brontë’s.” She gave me a dumbfounded and pitying look: “What are you talking about? People like us don’t write!”

What did she mean by people like us? Women? Blacks? Inhabitants of small, unimportant islands? I shall never know exactly. Yet this conversation completely shattered me. As a result, I could never begin writing a novel without thinking that I was heading for a dead end. If one of my friends, Stanislas Adotevi, hadn’t forced me to give him the manuscript I was keeping in a drawer, I don’t know whether I would have had the courage to one day look for a publisher. That was my first novel, Hérémakhonon, which means in Malinke “Waiting for Happiness.” This was an allusion to a state store of the same name in Conakry, Guinea, where I lived for three years, which constantly lacked basic necessities, empty of cooking oil, rice, sugar, and tomato sauce. Whereas, in those days, the entire world was talking of the success of African socialism, I dared to say that the newly-independent African countries were victims of dictators prepared to starve their population.

The book received bad reviews and was pulped by its publisher after six months. I immediately realized that literature is a dangerous act: never say what you believe to be the truth.

When I wrote my adaptation, my cannibalization, as I called it, of Wuthering Heights, which was called La migration des coeurs in French and Windward Heights in English, I believed I was paying homage to a writer whom I considered unique and important. For me, her book has a universal appeal. There is the love between Cathy and Heathcliff that endures beyond death; and there is Heathcliff’s desire for revenge that drastically changes his destiny and that of Cathy’s descendants. All that—the presence of the invisible among the living and the desire to avenge the harshness of life—seemed so familiar and understandable to a person from the Caribbean. Despite this conviction, after publication of the English version, I read crushing criticism from the Brontë Society, which considered my book a sacrilege.

Today, thanks to the New Academy Prize, I feel the liberation of having overcome a triple challenge: yes, women can write; yes, blacks can write; and yes, the inhabitants of a small, unimportant island, which never gets international attention, can write.

During the eighteenth century, missionaries and travelers named Guadeloupe an island paradise. Closing their eyes to the conditions of the slaves who were working in the hell of the sugar cane plantations, the colonists preferred to boast of the climate and the majestic landscapes. Even the indigenous population ended up being convinced by this counter-truth. Today, such myths cannot survive the morose atmosphere that reigns over the island.

It’s not easy to belong to this part of the world. The law of 1946, known as the law of assimilation, initiated by the poet Aimé Césaire, who was at the same time a member of the National Assembly from Martinique, transformed the island from a colony into a French Overseas Département, or “DOM.” I am not one of those who revile Aimé Césaire for his politics. He believed that Martinique and Guadeloupe were so poor that they required a political decision after World War II to acquire a status that would benefit them. I can pardon him because of the beauty of his poetry, which I discovered when I was eighteen. But let’s admit it: his politics were misguided.

The inhabitants of Guadeloupe have been deprived of their national identity and become domiens. I, too, am a domienne. They said we didn’t have a language. Creole, a language invented in the plantation system as a challenge to the white planters, was a dialect long forbidden at school; it took a group of brave intellectuals for a diploma of Creole Studies to gain recognition. They said we weren’t creative. We are either the descendants of African slaves or the descendants of indentured Indian laborers or the descendants of the French colonizers. Nobody believed that these three components could have fused to create an original culture.

Because of the colonial pact that focuses on trade based on preferences from metropolitan France, there is little work to be had in Guadeloupe. Unemployment runs high. Many of the younger population have to leave the island to make a life, mainly for France (though you can find Guadeloupeans throughout the world). Because of the desperate lack of opportunities for those left behind, some are reduced to drug-trafficking and robbery, and this violence is all you will read about Guadeloupe in the French press.


Brice Toul/Gamma-Rapho via Getty ImagesCondé, France, 2015

I belong to a political party, the Union Populaire pour la Libération de la Guadeloupe, that seeks independence. I was recently in Guadeloupe when the UPLG celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its founding. Moved by what we had learned of the horrors of slavery and ravages of colonialism from historians like Jean Suret-Canale and Jean Bruhat, we created the UPLG in the flush of our youth. We were so naïve back then that some of us believed independence was already within grasp, and that we could build overnight a socialist society in which Guadeloupeans would not need private cars but use only public transportation.

Today, the average age of the UPLG’s members is seventy. The call for independence has become the utopian demand of an older generation. The only field in which we have succeeded is the presence of Creole, which is heard on the radio, on television, and in all the media. The younger generation of Guadeloupeans no longer listens to our proposals and shows little interest in politics. A majority of the population has lost hope and motivation about the possibility of political change; they have not backed us up and I am afraid we are waging a losing battle.

Sometimes, I fear Guadeloupe has lost its voice altogether. The only time the island gets mentioned in international news is when there is a hurricane, or a transatlantic yacht race like the Route du Rhum, or when a celebrity visits, even posthumously—like the rock star Johnny Hallyday, who had arranged to be buried on the nearby island of Saint Barthélemy.

I am glad, and deeply proud, to be one Guadeloupean who has made her voice heard, thanks to the New Academy Prize. This gives me hope that Guadeloupe’s voice, despite the island’s misfortunes, remains powerful, remains magical, and still has the power to say no.


This essay is based on remarks given at the author’s acceptance of the 2018 New Academy Prize for literature.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/KRb6EzaFt6w/

The Fatal Ensnaring of Dan DePew


Daniel DePew, photographed by a friend on the day of his release from prison at a Greyhound bus station, Dallas, Texas, July 16, 2018

I was amazed when Dan DePew emailed me in early August to say he was out of prison—I guess I’d never really expected him to get out alive. We’d fallen out of touch, about which I felt guilty; packages I’d sent had been returned and I hadn’t followed up. My last update had been around six years earlier when one of his friends wrote to say that Dan’s copy of the book in which I’d written about his case had been confiscated and gotten him sent to solitary. I wrote to the warden explaining that the book had received prior approval; she wrote back explaining that it “posed a threat to the safety and orderly running of the institution.”

Over the next ten days, DePew sent further chatty emails describing the stringent conditions of his release, which included “voluntarily” paying to have his phone and limited computer use monitored, along with weekly psychotherapy sessions and regular polygraph exams. I asked how he was supposed to pay for all this with no job or money. He didn’t know but was excited about an upcoming trip to a Walmart Supercenter, arranged by the Baltimore halfway house charged with introducing him to twenty-first-century life. I hadn’t wanted to tell him that T.S. Ellis III, the federal judge who’d imposed his draconian thirty-three-year sentence, had been in the headlines that very week presiding, controversially, over the Paul Manafort case—in the same Eastern Virginia District Court where DePew had been tried and convicted for conspiring to make a snuff film.

DePew had been free for twenty-eight days when he collapsed and died at a Baltimore light rail station. He was fifty-seven, but looked like an old man, he’d written. He’d served twenty-nine years, with four shaved off for good behavior. We’d been emailing back and forth just the night before. I’d asked him a few days earlier if I should write something about his release—I didn’t want to make his re-entry more difficult, but it also made me angry to think that what had happened to him would just get buried. He said he’d give it some thought. His emails were speckled with the word “smile” in square brackets (he was apparently without access to emoticons, perhaps another condition of his release), and his sunniness about the future made his sudden death all the more devastating.

In the mid-1990s, when the feminist anti-pornography movement was at its shrillest and I was writing a book that attempted to complicate the issue (what about class? what about fantasy?), I got interested in the question of whether snuff films—movies in which someone is supposedly murdered on camera—actually existed or were an urban legend. (The book was published in 1996 as Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America.) One of the rallying points of early anti-porn campaigns, a splatter film called Snuff, was clearly faked. Poking around in newspaper databases in those pre-Google days, I came across the headline “Two Men Charged in Kidnapping Plot” from 1989, a cryptic story buried in the back pages of The New York Times about two undercover cops who had offered to provide two other men with a child to star in a homemade snuff film. One of those other two men was Daniel DePew.

I’m as appalled by violence against children as anyone, and pornography involving actual children should obviously be outlawed. But from what I could discern from the article, there hadn’t been a child, there hadn’t been a film, and I hadn’t known you could get arrested for a fantasy, even a repellent one. The issue of fantasy seemed, and still seems, politically crucial to me. For one thing, pornography has historically functioned as an idiom of political protest against officialdom, and trying to sanitize culture of unruly elements struck me as the beginning of a rightward, law-and-order turn in mainstream American feminism. Indeed, the anti-porn crowd had aligned themselves “strategically” with the anti-gay Christian right and its conservative social agenda. How apt that the press conference announcing DePew’s arrest was held by Henry Hudson, the US attorney for Eastern Virginia, who’d previously chaired the 1986 Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, which released the widely criticized 1,960-page “Meese Report” linking pornography to sexual violence. The anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin had testified at the hearings, with Hudson presiding.

Sexual panic permeated the 1980s, dictating who was criminalized and who got locked up, and for what behaviors. On the West Coast, the notorious McMartin Preschool case dragged on for six years, the longest and most costly criminal trial in American history, with prosecutors mounting bizarre allegations of Satanic ritual sexual abuse of children against seven innocent people. All the charges were eventually dropped; the primary suspect spent five years in jail anyway. To be sure, the era’s sex criminals weren’t all suspected Satanists. With the AIDS epidemic raging, at mid-decade opinion polling found that half of all Americans thought that those who were infected should be quarantined—lock-ups with a fancier name.

AIDS bigotry may have receded over time, but every cultural era is susceptible to staging some new version of sexual panic. Has the figure of “the predator” lost any of its imaginative force in the intervening years? The identity of the imagined perpetrators may shift, but efforts at recruiting the rest of us into the ranks of anxious moral majoritarians remain ever-present.

After I learned about DePew’s case—by which time he’d already served several years in federal prison—it stayed on my mind. Eventually, I got in touch with his defense lawyer, James Lowe, who had a small practice in Alexandria, Virginia, and was best known for having successfully defended Lorena Bobbitt. Lowe agreed to meet, and then, to my surprise, let me go through his files and ferry away what materials I wanted. So I packed up heavy boxes of police reports, computer chat-room logs, FBI wiretap transcripts, trial transcripts, even psychological profiles compiled by prison shrinks—at that point, there weren’t going to be any appeals in DePew’s case, and Lowe had no further use for the stuff.

United States v. Daniel Thomas DePew was the nation’s first prosecution involving sex-related computer bulletin boards. Like their chat-room successors on the Internet, these were venues where people with specialized sexual preferences congregated and shared fantasies. They were also places where users could be entrapped, then as now, by any cop with an Internet connection and the urge to fulfill his own fantasy of cleansing the world of perverts. The DePew case would never have happened without a couple of ambitious cops from the other side of the country prodding a couple of tragically susceptible men to scratch open their psychic scars and plumb their darkest fantasies while tape recorders rolled, with every free association captured as evidence for a future trial.

It might be said that entrapment cases are a Rorschach test of a society’s obsessions and fears at any given time. Who and what are we most afraid of? How can we lock them up for life and convince ourselves they deserve it? Let the DePew case offer some answers.

*

When someone calling himself “Bobby” telephoned Dan DePew out of the blue in the summer of 1989 to suggest that they had “mutual interests” and invited him to his hotel for dinner, DePew, a twenty-eight-year-old systems control engineer at a high-tech electronics company, was glad to oblige. Thinking he’d been beckoned to a promising blind date, he happily showered, put on a pair of tight jeans, and drove himself to the Dulles Airport Marriott. As a habitué of the D.C. area gay S&M world, DePew assumed he knew what “mutual interests” was code for. It wasn’t unusual to meet guys over the phone and then get together to explore fantasies, maybe get into some kind of scene, which often meant talking about elaborately violent fictional scenarios.

What DePew had no way of knowing was that six months earlier, an enterprising San Jose police officer named James Rodrigues had posted a message on a computer bulletin board called CHAOS that was frequented by gay men. Calling himself “Bobby R.,” he wrote, “Subject: Youngsters. Looking for others interested. Hot and need someone. I’ll travel if we can set something up. Pics of the real thing better. I like taking pictures and being the star. Hope someone is interested.” A thirty-four-year-old Richmond real estate agent named Dean Ashley Lambey responded, using the name “Dave Ashley”: “Your message caught my interest. Think we may have something in common but need to explore more. Want to talk?” Messaging ensued; both confided an interest in young boys. Each assured the other that he wasn’t a postal agent or cop.

 Over the course of the next three and a half months, Rodrigues, as “Bobby,” painstakingly cultivated Lambey’s trust, encouraging his guilty interest in children by “confessing” his own: “I used to think that I was the only person in the world with these feelings and that NO ONE could ever understand how I felt or why different things made me feel the way they did (and still do).” He related a convoluted story about working for a mafioso-type pornographer named Roberto (“Not a real nice guy when he gets nasty”), who paid him to travel around California taking photos of “clients and their fantasies,” some of which included young boys, and which he offered to share with Lambey.

By his own account, Lambey was a nervous and ineffectual pedophile, frustrated at not being able to get anywhere with various prospects, and anxious about not knowing the right moves. (He was a volunteer Big Brother, mentoring at-risk children, though an FBI investigation after his arrest found no evidence that “anything inappropriate happened” with any of his charges.) “I gotta be doing something wrong,” he kept moaning to Bobby, who dangled accounts of his own supposed successes in the kiddie-sex arena, styling himself as Lambey’s pedophilic mentor. Pathetically grateful to have someone he could be open with, Lambey must have felt as though he’d found a soulmate.

At Bobby’s instigation these chats began evolving into a plan to produce a child porn video that Roberto would finance, in which a young boy would somehow be obtained and made the unwilling star. Eventually, this began to include the gruesome possibility that the boy would have to be disposed of once the film wrapped, for the filmmakers’ protection. This prospect made Lambey squeamish, however—he imagined himself growing fond of the imaginary boy. He went back and forth, voicing moral qualms yet willing to discuss possible disposal methods (which he preferred to be painless); he didn’t want to be present at the end, yet worried he could get addicted to killing as a sexual activity.

By this time, the chats had moved from the bulletin board to rambling phone conversations in which Lambey’s timorousness vied with braggadocio. “I have no morals,” he boasted. “How kinky would you like to get?” As long as Bobby kept reassuring him, Lambey was a willing player—or at least willing to endlessly spin out fantasies over the phone with his new pal.

Were the two men plotting a crime or writing a piece of collaborative fiction? In fact, Rodrigues was having regular phone conferences with the Behavioral Sciences Unit at the FBI headquarters in Washington, who were advising him on how to win Lambey’s trust and play him most effectively, though even they didn’t understand why he was being so incautious with a stranger. (I suspect it was because he never thought any of this was real.)

After two months of build-up, Bobby was instructed to get Lambey to commit, so he informed him that Roberto was getting impatient and sending him east. “But I don’t wanna come out there for nothing, I wanna make sure we’re gonna do it,” he wheedled, dangling the possibility of future business ventures. Lambey, who continually complained about being broke, eventually agreed to meet. Whereupon Bobby introduced a new wrinkle: Lambey had to find someone else to join the plan. Lambey argued, Bobby insisted. As DePew’s attorney James Lowe later explained to me, you can’t form a conspiracy with a cop. Rodrigues needed another guy on board or there was no crime.


The New York Times headline on a 1989 report on Daniel DePew’s case

One Wednesday night around this time, Dan DePew logged on to a gay S&M bulletin board called “Drummer.” Wednesday was the night DePew usually reserved for himself, spending it apart from his live-in boyfriend, Patrick. DePew’s work situation had been frantic lately and the bulletin boards were the way he relaxed. Dean Lambey (calling himself Dave Ashley again) saw that DePew was online and beeped him. They exchanged numbers and Lambey phoned to arrange a date a few days later. DePew preferred to meet someone he didn’t know at a bar for drinks, but Lambey insisted on meeting at a hotel. Hoping the assignation would lead to sex, DePew agreed.

The problem was that, once there, DePew found Lambey repellent: a troll with an oily complexion and dirty hair, completely unappealing. Lambey immediately brought up his interest in children. DePew said he wasn’t into kiddie sex, but “I can be open-minded.”

Dan DePew was not a pedophile: all his sex partners were adults. Still, in his creed the first thing you did with someone you didn’t know was share fantasies as a way to build trust. Lambey described the kidnapping-snuff film scenario, mentioning his pornographer friend from California. DePew, a crime buff, critiqued the plan, and getting into it, gave Lambey tips on how to dispose of the body. He didn’t know if Lambey was serious or a flake who got off on talk, but kidnapping, arrest, prisoner-of-war, and even execution fantasies were standard fare in his world, often described in cinematic detail.

They spent an hour and a half talking, didn’t have sex, and parted ways. DePew told me that he hadn’t wanted, or expected, to see “Dave Ashley” again.

*

I first met Dan DePew at Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution in upstate New York, a medium-security prison and the sixth facility he’d been assigned to (there would be many others), largely because every time there was publicity about his case he got beat up, then transferred. Naturally, he was reluctant to talk to me, but once having agreed, he was confiding, even garrulous, about which I had some ambivalence, since it was obviously the same garrulous trust that had landed him where he was.

We’d been assigned a ground-floor room with picture windows overlooking a courtyard populated with prisoners strolling between buildings. Once in a while, someone stopped to gawk through the glass. “They’re not used to seeing women,” he said, a little anxiously. Tall, well-built, with a neatly trimmed brownish-red beard and pleasant features, he had an open, eager-to-please air. He seemed remarkably lacking in self-pity about how his life had turned out.

In contrast to the monster of aggression painted by prosecutors, I came to see DePew as someone who’d always felt like a failure at masculinity, which loomed, grail-like and unattainable, in his psyche. He’d known he was gay from an early age and never tried to hide it, which in rural 1970s Maryland required some courage. All he wanted in life was to be one of the guys, but he was exiled from sports and other masculine enclaves. Craving acceptance and camaraderie, his solution was giving the neighborhood boys blowjobs, which they accepted, then pretended hadn’t happened. His family was no more accepting—his father had long berated him for not being enough of a man, and stopped speaking to him for several years after DePew came out (though his father wasn’t particularly great at masculinity either, in DePew’s view).

DePew’s entrée into S&M began when he started frequenting leather bars in an attempt to rid himself of the feminine mannerisms he’d picked up in gay bars. Sex became a form of private theater, often theatrically violent, often involving role-playing. Searching for behaviors and attitudes to adopt, he’d settled on the ones the culture had already stamped with the imprimatur of maleness—and what was more stereotypically masculine than violence? He loved cowboy movies, especially anything starring John Wayne, and was devoted to cars and tools. Describing how he taught his boyfriend, another product of an indifferent father, the art of rebuilding an auto engine, he recollected, with what could only be called paternal affection: “I’d ask him to give me that nine-millimeter wrench over there and he walks out with a pair of vice grips.” I asked where Dan had learned to use tools. “From a book called Motor Manual,” he said, a lifelong autodidact of masculinity.

To federal prosecutors, the father-son role-playing confirmed that DePew was a potential pedophile, but I think it’s more accurate to say that he was someone devoted to repair: mending, then reliving, in a confused, eroticized way, the father’s love he’d craved and felt cheated of. The specter of that paternal absence seemed to hover throughout his adult life, reconfigured as a consuming preoccupation with pain and pleasure.


An AP report on DePew’s case, 1989

Complying with Bobby’s command to come up with another accomplice for the snuff scheme, Dean Lambey left a message on DePew’s answering machine three weeks later to say that his California friends were in town and they should all get together. Arriving East, Rodrigues and his undercover cop partner, R.J., had booked rooms at a Sheraton around the corner from Lambey’s place in Richmond. The problem was that Lambey kept dropping out of contact, leaving Bobby posting frantic messages on various bulletin boards: “Hey dude, are you still on the planet earth or what?”

When Lambey finally got in touch, Bobby broke the news that he couldn’t leave his hotel room because he was on call for Roberto, so they’d have to meet there. (In other words, the room would be bugged.) Lambey wasn’t happy about the locale, nor about Bobby’s trying to persuade him to talk DePew into joining them. To Lambey was left the task of explaining D.C. rush-hour traffic: it would take three or four hours for DePew to get down to Richmond from Washington on a Friday night. He wouldn’t be attending.

The initial meeting between Lambey and the cops started out like an awkward blind date—lengthy discussions of the weather—until R.J., cast in the tough guy role, pulled out a bound book of S&M porn and switched the conversation to the snuff film. Lambey produced a stream of objections, but the detectives kept leading him back to the plan. Lambey broached the possibility of obtaining a boy from a contact in Florida (a connection Rodrigues had told the FBI he thought was fictitious), but it would take maybe a month, and R.J. protested, “Man, I thought that’s why we came out here. I don’t want to wait no fucking month.” Back to the kidnapping option.

When Lambey said of the boy, “Ideally I’d just like to, you know, kick it out,” R.J. responded, “Let it walk?” Lambey: “Yeah.” This, too, R.J. vetoed: “Then let it talk.” Lambey agreed, but asked again if they couldn’t make the film without the violent ending, saying ruefully, “Fantasies don’t always turn out the way you think they will.” Bobby reassured him: “Sometimes they do though.” Lambey still had qualms: “I’m just not sure I want to actually do the deed, cause I have some morals, you know.” Then he added, “I may really enjoy doing the deed, I don’t know.”

Over the course of two hours, the agents repeated seventeen times that they had to meet Dan DePew. (“Have you talked to Dan about this?” “I’d sure like to meet this guy.” “I definitely want to talk to him on a face-to-face.”) When Lambey reminded them DePew had only a vague notion of the plan, R.J. barked, “Don’t be fucking stroking me along here. Does he know what we’re doing? Yes or no?” Lambey repeated that they didn’t need another guy; R.J. was adamant that they did.

At this point, Rodrigues had been courting Lambey for close to four months. Without DePew, that was a lot of wasted time and law enforcement dollars to account for.

*

Summoned (courtesy of “Dave Ashley”) to Bobby’s hotel room a few days later to discuss their “mutual interests,” DePew was surprised to find R.J. in attendance. Bobby fixed DePew a drink and R.J. told him they were concerned about not having heard from Dave. DePew explained that he didn’t know any more about Ashley than his name. They ordered dinner from room service; DePew, noting they didn’t want to leave the room to eat, took it as a hopeful sign that some kind of sex was in the works. He started chatting aimlessly about his job, until R.J. interjected, “When was the last time that you tried to call Dave?”

Not wanting to talk about Ashley, DePew explained that he lived with his lover Patrick, an artist, and that he usually spent Wednesday nights alone—R.J. turned the conversation back to Ashley, asking what he’d told DePew about him and Bobby. Alluding to the snuff film scheme, he said “We were just, you know, uh… What is the word I’m searching for? Sensitive?” DePew joked, “Highly illegal?” They all laugh. Bobby: “The thing R.J. is trying to say is that we wanna see where you’re coming from.”

As DePew related it to me, he assumed they were talking about some kind of role-playing. Not only that, but walking into the room he’d found himself immediately attracted to R.J.—he always knew within the first five minutes of meeting someone whether to treat him as an equal or take the bottom role, and he’d made the subconscious calculation that R.J. was “the man” in this scene. In his world, a good top was hard to find: everyone wants to be dominated, apparently. He’d made the switch to top himself a few years before, partly because the tops he met were so terrible at it: abusive rather than caring, sometimes dangerous. (The first time he’d had rough sex, he left with a cracked rib.) Also, he was getting older, had a hairy chest, and didn’t want to shave his beard, so he sort of grew into the role. But he still considered himself mostly a bottom, psychologically anyway, and yearned for someone else to take control, for a man he could look up to.

Reading the hierarchy of the room, DePew pegged himself as second-top, that is bottom to R.J., but top to Bobby. Interestingly, after meeting DePew, I spoke to Officer Rodrigues by phone and learned that he was making similar calculations, though his version had DePew as top, and R.J. as second. When Ashley eventually joined them, he was third (he could be pretty aggressive, said Rodrigues), and he, “Bobby,” was on the bottom. When I asked Rodrigues why he ranked DePew as tougher than R.J. (it sounded to me more like R.J. was running the show), he said that DePew had admitted to killing before—a story about a hitchhiker that DePew told me he’d made up to impress R.J. But Bobby and R.J. claimed to have made snuff films before, I pointed out. It all sounded Pirandello-esque—everyone playing a role, yet each, for different reasons, desperately eager to believe in the reality of each other’s facades.

In DePew’s psychological universe, R.J.’s masculine allure meant that he had to impress R.J. with his own manly prowess. Though DePew insisted he was terrified of real-life violence, if R.J. wanted to talk about making a snuff film, DePew was all over it. Having cast R.J. as the “man,” his personal code dictated that “when your man tells you to do something you do it.” And what he thought he was supposed to do was act the part of henchman in an imaginary snuff film.

Over the next three hours, plied with scotch and getting progressively less coherent (even the agents commented on how much he was drinking), whenever cued by R.J., DePew obediently trotted out ever more detailed stratagems for the snuff film. He knew the right tool for every occasion: what kind of acid to use to make a body unidentifiable, where to buy the sheet plastic to wrap it in, even how much it retailed for. A devotee of True Detective-type magazines, he was a reservoir of obscure details about crime and detection—something that certainly contributed to his downfall at trial, where it was recast as criminal intent, rather than overcompensation for a tenuous purchase on masculinity.

What struck me most, reading the wiretap transcripts, was the way DePew’s drunken recollections of his boyhood somehow kept merging with the snuff film plan and the prospective victim. When he proposed dumping the body in a swamp in southern Maryland near where he grew up, it occasioned a description of his teenage initiation into sex; by the end of the evening, he’d covered most of his adolescence, switching between the imaginary victim and himself as a youth, as if they were somehow indistinguishable.

Drunk as he was, DePew continued to insist that he’d made no agreement with Dave Ashley: “I told him we were talking in a purely hypothetical sense.” He didn’t trust Ashley, he said, and the three of them bonded over not trusting Ashley. Yet, for obvious reasons, the agents kept turning the conversation back to Ashley, and trying to get DePew to call him. They were pissed off that he wasn’t there, and must have seen their conspiracy wafting away. Finally, Ashley called and Bobby said sternly: “I think there’s some things we gotta sit down and talk about.” Then, “Hold on, Dan wants to talk to you.” To DePew: “Make him make a commitment.”

*

How could he not have had any idea that he was being set up, I asked DePew. He suggested, with apologies to my feminine sensibilities, that he was thinking with his dick. Not a particularly optimistic person myself, I always wondered whether it was actually DePew’s perpetual optimism that betrayed him. Either way, the tragedy was that his emotional landscape made him the perfect candidate for this entrapment scheme: a tangled relation to authority and manhood left him excessively impressed by these purported tough guys—too deferential and obtusely compliant. I suspect that the more they overplayed their roles, the better it worked on him. He was too eager to please, and maybe titillated by his fear of them; too caught up to back off, then too truly fearful. When Bobby and R.J. said vaguely threatening things about protecting their interests, DePew worried that if he tried to retreat they’d kill him or his boyfriend.

When did it stop being a turn-on, I asked. “When it became apparent these guys were very serious about this. Nobody’s getting undressed, the signs aren’t escalating where they’re supposed to go, this is not turning out to be the prelude to a scene.” So why stay? And why return? He said he didn’t think he had any alternative but to play along; going to the police would have meant his word against theirs. Also, he was terrified that a scandal would endanger his government security clearance; without it, he’d be unemployable in the D.C. area, and being gay already kept him at a low level.

Of course, he later berated himself for not having had the courage to stand up to them: another failure of masculinity. At one point, he described to the cops the sort of men who make the best bottoms: gay men mired in self-hatred, who thus “want you to do everything you can do to them… they’re such dirty filthy people, it’s like they’re paying their penance.” He sounded as though he was describing himself.

Like a good bottom, he agreed to return for a sit-down with the elusive Ashley.


A newspaper report on DePew’s case, 1989

On this occasion, two days later, Ashley showed up first and immediately began sparring with the agents, ragging them about their cavalier treatment of him. He wasn’t in a cooperative mood—he’d been too busy to look for locations and hadn’t been able to get away the other day. He kept saying, “Bitch, bitch, bitch,” whenever anyone said anything to him.

DePew arrived and immediately asked for a drink. He was nervous—Bobby had called him during the day to make sure he was going to show. A discussion of possible filming locations ensued, though a location was never agreed upon. There was also no agreement about whether to kidnap a child, buy a car, or anything else. The more DePew drank, the more he once again compulsively free-associated about his youth, while proffering expertise on any technical or mechanical topic. It must be said that in the planning of a crime, DePew had found his métier, offering counsel on what clothes to wear, the superiority of chloroform over ether, and plastic ties over handcuffs, along with how to configure them most effectively.

On one occasion, he cautioned the agents to turn the TV on so their conversation wouldn’t be overheard in the hall. It was the video camera concealed in the lamp he should have been worried about.

Yet DePew also seemed to be trying to throw wrenches into the plan: extolling unfeasible options then shooting them down; insisting they all participate in the snuff even though Ashley was squeamish about it. He told me his strategy was to appear to play along, while never intending to go through with it. The problem was that every time he opened his mouth, it was another count in the conspiracy indictment.

In retrospect, his lack of paranoia seems pathological, an invitation to bring punishment down on himself. He had a zeal for mastery that was acute yet oblivious: at the same time as he was explaining to the two undercover cops how phone-taps work, he was being recorded himself; as he advised the others on evading exposure, he was the subject of a vast multi-agency police offensive. (At the height of the case, there were over 100 FBI agents on twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance duty; this went on for nearly a month.)

DePew’s eagerness for technical know-how handed the prosecution what was probably the single most damaging piece of evidence against him. When schemes to subdue the imaginary child were discussed, Dan volunteered to find out how to make chloroform. It wasn’t an entirely new interest as breath control was something he was into (he explained to me in rhapsodic detail the pleasure of passing out through asphyxiation during sex); and following the hotel room conversation, he got interested in the idea of trying chloroform with his boyfriend. So, like a good autodidact (and failing to notice the FBI agents trailing him everywhere he went), DePew strolled to the library and looked it up. For the government to prove conspiracy, there had to be at least one “overt act” in furtherance of the conspiracy. From the prosecutors’ standpoint, the trip to the library was an overt act.

After that evening, Dean Lambey would drop completely out of contact—during the nine days preceding Lambey’s arrest Bobby couldn’t reach him at all. Both DePew and Lambey seem to have been independently trying to extricate themselves from the scheme. Failing to turn up Lambey, R.J. called DePew, who abruptly announced, “I’ve decided not to be involved.” Startled, R.J. responded, “You what?” DePew repeated, “I’ve decided not to be involved in this one.” DePew complained about not having heard from Dave Ashley, not trusting Ashley, and everything going too fast. R.J. shifted to damage-control mode: Would DePew go along with it if it were just the three of them? He appealed to DePew to talk to Bobby, to whom DePew repeated, “I was just telling R.J. that I’ve decided not to be involved in this one.”

But even if DePew was attempting to disentangle himself, the only way to legally withdraw from a conspiracy, Judge Ellis would later instruct the jury, is to do something to defeat the purpose of the conspiracy. Heroics were required, and rather than heroically reporting the scheme to the police, DePew pussyfooted around about not having known the others long enough.

Five days later, the FBI arrested him at work. Dean Lambey was arrested the same day.

DePew’s encounter with the criminal justice system was a series of horrible missteps. When taken to FBI headquarters, mistakenly thinking it was Bobby and R.J. who were the real targets, he didn’t initially ask for a lawyer. He was told that the others had all been arrested and whoever talked first got the deal. He spent four hours talking. When the agents interrogating him played good cop/bad cop, he developed an instant crush on the bad cop. He didn’t understand that neither of them was on his side.

DePew said he told the FBI agents that he never intended to make a snuff film, but believed Bobby and R.J. were serious about it. The FBI claimed that DePew confessed. They did not, however, record this confession, though DePew says there was a tape recorder in the room. The judge sided with the FBI on the confession, despite the only evidence of its existence being an agent’s handwritten summary of what DePew supposedly said—there wasn’t even a verbatim record.

In any case, the prosecution had a fairly easy task. All it had to do was paint DePew as a monster and convince the jury that his record of participation in consensual S&M was corroboration of his intent to commit kidnapping and murder. Items seized from DePew’s home—nooses, manacles, leather masks, videotapes of consensual S&M between DePew and adult lovers—were introduced into evidence. Prosecutors maintained that since the S&M sex DePew participated in was “real,” not fantasy, the snuff film plot was real, too.

This was an argument straight out of the Meese Report: pornography use leads to sexual violence. That conclusion, said the commission’s chairman Henry Hudson (shortly before becoming the US attorney who would supervise DePew’s prosecution), was based on “common sense,” not evidence: “If we relied exclusively on scientific data for every one of our findings, I’m afraid all of our work would be inconclusive.” Then again, evidence was hardly the prime consideration, as Hudson had also noted: “As far as I can tell, no snuff films have been recovered in the United States. I don’t know that anyone has actually seen one.”

James Lowe, DePew’s attorney, was outstaffed and out-bankrolled—the government spent millions manufacturing and prosecuting this case. Lowe tried disputing that DePew was ever part of a conspiracy. He explained the role of fantasy in S&M subculture. He insisted that DePew had never inflicted any actual harm on anyone—his sex partners were all alive and well. He reminded the jury there was no evidence that DePew had any interest in actual children.

Rebutting Lowe, US Attorney Mike Smythers argued that DePew wasn’t on trial for homosexuality or sadomasochism, then stated, “S&M in this trial doesn’t mean sadomasochism. What it really means is Satan and Murder.” And DePew himself “would have made a good first assistant for Josef Mengele or Adolf Eichmann.” How on earth could language like this be allowed to stand in a federal courtroom? Possibly because homosexuality was still a crime in the state of Virginia—anti-sodomy laws were only overturned in 2003. Smythers apparently knew his audience.

The jurors began deliberating at 2:15 in the afternoon. After four hours, they announced they’d reached a verdict and returned to the courtroom. DePew stood, trembling, facing the jury box. As the guilty verdict was read, tears filled his eyes. He sat down and put his head in his hands. The forewoman later told reporters that DePew’s homosexuality and sadomasochism had no bearing on their decision. “We separated out his sexual preference,” she said. “The question was, did he really fantasize the killing of a child or did he really mean it?” Then she added, somewhat contradictorily, that during the three-day trial DePew appeared “benign and didn’t necessarily look like the stereotype who could plan such a horrible crime.”

At sentencing, Judge Ellis, addressing DePew, pronounced his “the most heinous crime I have presided over.” Yet, echoing the forewoman, the judge mused, oddly, “There is no doubt in my mind that you intended to commit the crime. The paradox is that as this chilling picture of evil is presented, there is also, strangely enough, almost a sympathetic… it’s difficult to explain.” Ellis seemed to be responding to what I, too, encountered in DePew: an overwhelming gentleness. He conveyed a certain slightly apologetic dignity about being who he was, as though he knew he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but forgave you for seeing that.

Despite whatever human quality Ellis recognized in DePew, the judge meted out a thirty-three-year sentence, rejecting any argument for leniency or reduction in the sentencing level. Instead, he added two levels because the fictive intended victim was a child. (Federal prisoners have to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.)

At Ray Brook, the prison where I met DePew, the average sentence was twelve years, meaning that DePew watched men who’d committed actual murder, rape, and child molestation getting released sooner than himself, who’d, at most, drunkenly fantasized in the wrong hotel room. During our conversation at Ray Brook, I asked DePew if he’d ever thought it was ironic that so much of his fantasy life revolved around punishment scenarios and he’d ended up spending his life in prison. Had he, in some way, wanted to be punished? He answered mildly that his arrest fantasies had turned out to be nothing like the reality.

*

On August 14, DePew was on his way to a doctor’s appointment at the VA (he’d served in the Air Force in his twenties, so was eligible for veterans’ benefits) when a blood clot in his leg broke loose and traveled to his heart, killing him. The federal prison system had kept him alive with antivirals—he’d been HIV-positive since the 1980s, though symptom-free for years—but failed to treat the blocked artery in his leg, which had been swollen for a year, making walking painful and difficult. DePew was finally going to get surgery, paid for by Obamacare—he’d written me jubilantly: “Medicaid is fixing my leg! Praise Obama!” His characteristic cheeriness had evidently survived twenty-nine years in prison, and he was touchingly optimistic about the next chapter.

I find myself wondering if DePew’s case would have unfolded the same way today. Would such an elaborate entrapment scheme get agency approval? Would a 2019 jury be as willing to conflate fantasy and intent, to see consensual sadomasochism as a prelude to murder? Would today’s queer community have embraced DePew and raised funds for a less shoestring defense? (When I asked Lowe what he’d have done with more money, he immediately said, “Investigate the two detectives.”)

Perhaps the policing of sexual minorities arouses more indignation in our time than it did thirty years ago: movies like The Imitation Game about the hounded gay mathematician Alan Turing—who committed suicide after being subjected to chemical castration to “treat” his homosexuality—play to sympathetic audiences and garner awards. Yet sexual paranoia is in no short supply these days either—in fact, the suspect pool has exponentially widened. One hears the term “grooming” more and more—once confined to suspected pedophiles and their prospective victims, now it’s applied to any relationship marked by disparities in age or power. Themes of sexual endangerment still saturate the culture. What forms of policing—ideological, moral, corporate, penal—follow?

DePew was himself “groomed” by the state to play a role in a social fantasy about grooming. He was tragically malleable, which suited the needs of the moment. No doubt, the two cops who sat around a hotel room trading violent fantasies with DePew and Lambey saw themselves as on the side of social justice. So do all of us rushing to pronounce guilty verdicts on anyone accused of sexual misdeeds now. We, too, have predator quotas to fill. As with the DePew jury or the Meese Commission, for sexual-justice-seeking Twitter mobs, evidence is still optional.

Fantasies about perpetrators permeated all levels of Dan DePew’s case, and we’re never more beset by fantasy than when asserting the purity of our motives. Never more perverse—and punitive—than when trying to prove that it’s other people who are the sadists.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/gCS0CxeOdT4/

The Fatal Ensnaring of Dan DePew


Daniel DePew, photographed by a friend on the day of his release from prison at a Greyhound bus station, Dallas, Texas, July 16, 2018

I was amazed when Dan DePew emailed me in early August to say he was out of prison—I guess I’d never really expected him to get out alive. We’d fallen out of touch, about which I felt guilty; packages I’d sent had been returned and I hadn’t followed up. My last update had been around six years earlier when one of his friends wrote to say that Dan’s copy of the book in which I’d written about his case had been confiscated and gotten him sent to solitary. I wrote to the warden explaining that the book had received prior approval; she wrote back explaining that it “posed a threat to the safety and orderly running of the institution.”

Over the next ten days, DePew sent further chatty emails describing the stringent conditions of his release, which included “voluntarily” paying to have his phone and limited computer use monitored, along with weekly psychotherapy sessions and regular polygraph exams. I asked how he was supposed to pay for all this with no job or money. He didn’t know but was excited about an upcoming trip to a Walmart Supercenter, arranged by the Baltimore halfway house charged with introducing him to twenty-first-century life. I hadn’t wanted to tell him that T.S. Ellis III, the federal judge who’d imposed his draconian thirty-three-year sentence, had been in the headlines that very week presiding, controversially, over the Paul Manafort case—in the same Eastern Virginia District Court where DePew had been tried and convicted for conspiring to make a snuff film.

DePew had been free for twenty-eight days when he collapsed and died at a Baltimore light rail station. He was fifty-seven, but looked like an old man, he’d written. He’d served twenty-nine years, with four shaved off for good behavior. We’d been emailing back and forth just the night before. I’d asked him a few days earlier if I should write something about his release—I didn’t want to make his re-entry more difficult, but it also made me angry to think that what had happened to him would just get buried. He said he’d give it some thought. His emails were speckled with the word “smile” in square brackets (he was apparently without access to emoticons, perhaps another condition of his release), and his sunniness about the future made his sudden death all the more devastating.

In the mid-1990s, when the feminist anti-pornography movement was at its shrillest and I was writing a book that attempted to complicate the issue (what about class? what about fantasy?), I got interested in the question of whether snuff films—movies in which someone is supposedly murdered on camera—actually existed or were an urban legend. (The book was published in 1996 as Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America.) One of the rallying points of early anti-porn campaigns, a splatter film called Snuff, was clearly faked. Poking around in newspaper databases in those pre-Google days, I came across the headline “Two Men Charged in Kidnapping Plot” from 1989, a cryptic story buried in the back pages of The New York Times about two undercover cops who had offered to provide two other men with a child to star in a homemade snuff film. One of those other two men was Daniel DePew.

I’m as appalled by violence against children as anyone, and pornography involving actual children should obviously be outlawed. But from what I could discern from the article, there hadn’t been a child, there hadn’t been a film, and I hadn’t known you could get arrested for a fantasy, even a repellent one. The issue of fantasy seemed, and still seems, politically crucial to me. For one thing, pornography has historically functioned as an idiom of political protest against officialdom, and trying to sanitize culture of unruly elements struck me as the beginning of a rightward, law-and-order turn in mainstream American feminism. Indeed, the anti-porn crowd had aligned themselves “strategically” with the anti-gay Christian right and its conservative social agenda. How apt that the press conference announcing DePew’s arrest was held by Henry Hudson, the US attorney for Eastern Virginia, who’d previously chaired the 1986 Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, which released the widely criticized 1,960-page “Meese Report” linking pornography to sexual violence. The anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin had testified at the hearings, with Hudson presiding.

Sexual panic permeated the 1980s, dictating who was criminalized and who got locked up, and for what behaviors. On the West Coast, the notorious McMartin Preschool case dragged on for six years, the longest and most costly criminal trial in American history, with prosecutors mounting bizarre allegations of Satanic ritual sexual abuse of children against seven innocent people. All the charges were eventually dropped; the primary suspect spent five years in jail anyway. To be sure, the era’s sex criminals weren’t all suspected Satanists. With the AIDS epidemic raging, at mid-decade opinion polling found that half of all Americans thought that those who were infected should be quarantined—lock-ups with a fancier name.

AIDS bigotry may have receded over time, but every cultural era is susceptible to staging some new version of sexual panic. Has the figure of “the predator” lost any of its imaginative force in the intervening years? The identity of the imagined perpetrators may shift, but efforts at recruiting the rest of us into the ranks of anxious moral majoritarians remain ever-present.

After I learned about DePew’s case—by which time he’d already served several years in federal prison—it stayed on my mind. Eventually, I got in touch with his defense lawyer, James Lowe, who had a small practice in Alexandria, Virginia, and was best known for having successfully defended Lorena Bobbitt. Lowe agreed to meet, and then, to my surprise, let me go through his files and ferry away what materials I wanted. So I packed up heavy boxes of police reports, computer chat-room logs, FBI wiretap transcripts, trial transcripts, even psychological profiles compiled by prison shrinks—at that point, there weren’t going to be any appeals in DePew’s case, and Lowe had no further use for the stuff.

United States v. Daniel Thomas DePew was the nation’s first prosecution involving sex-related computer bulletin boards. Like their chat-room successors on the Internet, these were venues where people with specialized sexual preferences congregated and shared fantasies. They were also places where users could be entrapped, then as now, by any cop with an Internet connection and the urge to fulfill his own fantasy of cleansing the world of perverts. The DePew case would never have happened without a couple of ambitious cops from the other side of the country prodding a couple of tragically susceptible men to scratch open their psychic scars and plumb their darkest fantasies while tape recorders rolled, with every free association captured as evidence for a future trial.

It might be said that entrapment cases are a Rorschach test of a society’s obsessions and fears at any given time. Who and what are we most afraid of? How can we lock them up for life and convince ourselves they deserve it? Let the DePew case offer some answers.

*

When someone calling himself “Bobby” telephoned Dan DePew out of the blue in the summer of 1989 to suggest that they had “mutual interests” and invited him to his hotel for dinner, DePew, a twenty-eight-year-old systems control engineer at a high-tech electronics company, was glad to oblige. Thinking he’d been beckoned to a promising blind date, he happily showered, put on a pair of tight jeans, and drove himself to the Dulles Airport Marriott. As a habitué of the D.C. area gay S&M world, DePew assumed he knew what “mutual interests” was code for. It wasn’t unusual to meet guys over the phone and then get together to explore fantasies, maybe get into some kind of scene, which often meant talking about elaborately violent fictional scenarios.

What DePew had no way of knowing was that six months earlier, an enterprising San Jose police officer named James Rodrigues had posted a message on a computer bulletin board called CHAOS that was frequented by gay men. Calling himself “Bobby R.,” he wrote, “Subject: Youngsters. Looking for others interested. Hot and need someone. I’ll travel if we can set something up. Pics of the real thing better. I like taking pictures and being the star. Hope someone is interested.” A thirty-four-year-old Richmond real estate agent named Dean Ashley Lambey responded, using the name “Dave Ashley”: “Your message caught my interest. Think we may have something in common but need to explore more. Want to talk?” Messaging ensued; both confided an interest in young boys. Each assured the other that he wasn’t a postal agent or cop.

 Over the course of the next three and a half months, Rodrigues, as “Bobby,” painstakingly cultivated Lambey’s trust, encouraging his guilty interest in children by “confessing” his own: “I used to think that I was the only person in the world with these feelings and that NO ONE could ever understand how I felt or why different things made me feel the way they did (and still do).” He related a convoluted story about working for a mafioso-type pornographer named Roberto (“Not a real nice guy when he gets nasty”), who paid him to travel around California taking photos of “clients and their fantasies,” some of which included young boys, and which he offered to share with Lambey.

By his own account, Lambey was a nervous and ineffectual pedophile, frustrated at not being able to get anywhere with various prospects, and anxious about not knowing the right moves. (He was a volunteer Big Brother, mentoring at-risk children, though an FBI investigation after his arrest found no evidence that “anything inappropriate happened” with any of his charges.) “I gotta be doing something wrong,” he kept moaning to Bobby, who dangled accounts of his own supposed successes in the kiddie-sex arena, styling himself as Lambey’s pedophilic mentor. Pathetically grateful to have someone he could be open with, Lambey must have felt as though he’d found a soulmate.

At Bobby’s instigation these chats began evolving into a plan to produce a child porn video that Roberto would finance, in which a young boy would somehow be obtained and made the unwilling star. Eventually, this began to include the gruesome possibility that the boy would have to be disposed of once the film wrapped, for the filmmakers’ protection. This prospect made Lambey squeamish, however—he imagined himself growing fond of the imaginary boy. He went back and forth, voicing moral qualms yet willing to discuss possible disposal methods (which he preferred to be painless); he didn’t want to be present at the end, yet worried he could get addicted to killing as a sexual activity.

By this time, the chats had moved from the bulletin board to rambling phone conversations in which Lambey’s timorousness vied with braggadocio. “I have no morals,” he boasted. “How kinky would you like to get?” As long as Bobby kept reassuring him, Lambey was a willing player—or at least willing to endlessly spin out fantasies over the phone with his new pal.

Were the two men plotting a crime or writing a piece of collaborative fiction? In fact, Rodrigues was having regular phone conferences with the Behavioral Sciences Unit at the FBI headquarters in Washington, who were advising him on how to win Lambey’s trust and play him most effectively, though even they didn’t understand why he was being so incautious with a stranger. (I suspect it was because he never thought any of this was real.)

After two months of build-up, Bobby was instructed to get Lambey to commit, so he informed him that Roberto was getting impatient and sending him east. “But I don’t wanna come out there for nothing, I wanna make sure we’re gonna do it,” he wheedled, dangling the possibility of future business ventures. Lambey, who continually complained about being broke, eventually agreed to meet. Whereupon Bobby introduced a new wrinkle: Lambey had to find someone else to join the plan. Lambey argued, Bobby insisted. As DePew’s attorney James Lowe later explained to me, you can’t form a conspiracy with a cop. Rodrigues needed another guy on board or there was no crime.


The New York Times headline on a 1989 report on Daniel DePew’s case

One Wednesday night around this time, Dan DePew logged on to a gay S&M bulletin board called “Drummer.” Wednesday was the night DePew usually reserved for himself, spending it apart from his live-in boyfriend, Patrick. DePew’s work situation had been frantic lately and the bulletin boards were the way he relaxed. Dean Lambey (calling himself Dave Ashley again) saw that DePew was online and beeped him. They exchanged numbers and Lambey phoned to arrange a date a few days later. DePew preferred to meet someone he didn’t know at a bar for drinks, but Lambey insisted on meeting at a hotel. Hoping the assignation would lead to sex, DePew agreed.

The problem was that, once there, DePew found Lambey repellent: a troll with an oily complexion and dirty hair, completely unappealing. Lambey immediately brought up his interest in children. DePew said he wasn’t into kiddie sex, but “I can be open-minded.”

Dan DePew was not a pedophile: all his sex partners were adults. Still, in his creed the first thing you did with someone you didn’t know was share fantasies as a way to build trust. Lambey described the kidnapping-snuff film scenario, mentioning his pornographer friend from California. DePew, a crime buff, critiqued the plan, and getting into it, gave Lambey tips on how to dispose of the body. He didn’t know if Lambey was serious or a flake who got off on talk, but kidnapping, arrest, prisoner-of-war, and even execution fantasies were standard fare in his world, often described in cinematic detail.

They spent an hour and a half talking, didn’t have sex, and parted ways. DePew told me that he hadn’t wanted, or expected, to see “Dave Ashley” again.

*

I first met Dan DePew at Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution in upstate New York, a medium-security prison and the sixth facility he’d been assigned to (there would be many others), largely because every time there was publicity about his case he got beat up, then transferred. Naturally, he was reluctant to talk to me, but once having agreed, he was confiding, even garrulous, about which I had some ambivalence, since it was obviously the same garrulous trust that had landed him where he was.

We’d been assigned a ground-floor room with picture windows overlooking a courtyard populated with prisoners strolling between buildings. Once in a while, someone stopped to gawk through the glass. “They’re not used to seeing women,” he said, a little anxiously. Tall, well-built, with a neatly trimmed brownish-red beard and pleasant features, he had an open, eager-to-please air. He seemed remarkably lacking in self-pity about how his life had turned out.

In contrast to the monster of aggression painted by prosecutors, I came to see DePew as someone who’d always felt like a failure at masculinity, which loomed, grail-like and unattainable, in his psyche. He’d known he was gay from an early age and never tried to hide it, which in rural 1970s Maryland required some courage. All he wanted in life was to be one of the guys, but he was exiled from sports and other masculine enclaves. Craving acceptance and camaraderie, his solution was giving the neighborhood boys blowjobs, which they accepted, then pretended hadn’t happened. His family was no more accepting—his father had long berated him for not being enough of a man, and stopped speaking to him for several years after DePew came out (though his father wasn’t particularly great at masculinity either, in DePew’s view).

DePew’s entrée into S&M began when he started frequenting leather bars in an attempt to rid himself of the feminine mannerisms he’d picked up in gay bars. Sex became a form of private theater, often theatrically violent, often involving role-playing. Searching for behaviors and attitudes to adopt, he’d settled on the ones the culture had already stamped with the imprimatur of maleness—and what was more stereotypically masculine than violence? He loved cowboy movies, especially anything starring John Wayne, and was devoted to cars and tools. Describing how he taught his boyfriend, another product of an indifferent father, the art of rebuilding an auto engine, he recollected, with what could only be called paternal affection: “I’d ask him to give me that nine-millimeter wrench over there and he walks out with a pair of vice grips.” I asked where Dan had learned to use tools. “From a book called Motor Manual,” he said, a lifelong autodidact of masculinity.

To federal prosecutors, the father-son role-playing confirmed that DePew was a potential pedophile, but I think it’s more accurate to say that he was someone devoted to repair: mending, then reliving, in a confused, eroticized way, the father’s love he’d craved and felt cheated of. The specter of that paternal absence seemed to hover throughout his adult life, reconfigured as a consuming preoccupation with pain and pleasure.


An AP report on DePew’s case, 1989

Complying with Bobby’s command to come up with another accomplice for the snuff scheme, Dean Lambey left a message on DePew’s answering machine three weeks later to say that his California friends were in town and they should all get together. Arriving East, Rodrigues and his undercover cop partner, R.J., had booked rooms at a Sheraton around the corner from Lambey’s place in Richmond. The problem was that Lambey kept dropping out of contact, leaving Bobby posting frantic messages on various bulletin boards: “Hey dude, are you still on the planet earth or what?”

When Lambey finally got in touch, Bobby broke the news that he couldn’t leave his hotel room because he was on call for Roberto, so they’d have to meet there. (In other words, the room would be bugged.) Lambey wasn’t happy about the locale, nor about Bobby’s trying to persuade him to talk DePew into joining them. To Lambey was left the task of explaining D.C. rush-hour traffic: it would take three or four hours for DePew to get down to Richmond from Washington on a Friday night. He wouldn’t be attending.

The initial meeting between Lambey and the cops started out like an awkward blind date—lengthy discussions of the weather—until R.J., cast in the tough guy role, pulled out a bound book of S&M porn and switched the conversation to the snuff film. Lambey produced a stream of objections, but the detectives kept leading him back to the plan. Lambey broached the possibility of obtaining a boy from a contact in Florida (a connection Rodrigues had told the FBI he thought was fictitious), but it would take maybe a month, and R.J. protested, “Man, I thought that’s why we came out here. I don’t want to wait no fucking month.” Back to the kidnapping option.

When Lambey said of the boy, “Ideally I’d just like to, you know, kick it out,” R.J. responded, “Let it walk?” Lambey: “Yeah.” This, too, R.J. vetoed: “Then let it talk.” Lambey agreed, but asked again if they couldn’t make the film without the violent ending, saying ruefully, “Fantasies don’t always turn out the way you think they will.” Bobby reassured him: “Sometimes they do though.” Lambey still had qualms: “I’m just not sure I want to actually do the deed, cause I have some morals, you know.” Then he added, “I may really enjoy doing the deed, I don’t know.”

Over the course of two hours, the agents repeated seventeen times that they had to meet Dan DePew. (“Have you talked to Dan about this?” “I’d sure like to meet this guy.” “I definitely want to talk to him on a face-to-face.”) When Lambey reminded them DePew had only a vague notion of the plan, R.J. barked, “Don’t be fucking stroking me along here. Does he know what we’re doing? Yes or no?” Lambey repeated that they didn’t need another guy; R.J. was adamant that they did.

At this point, Rodrigues had been courting Lambey for close to four months. Without DePew, that was a lot of wasted time and law enforcement dollars to account for.

*

Summoned (courtesy of “Dave Ashley”) to Bobby’s hotel room a few days later to discuss their “mutual interests,” DePew was surprised to find R.J. in attendance. Bobby fixed DePew a drink and R.J. told him they were concerned about not having heard from Dave. DePew explained that he didn’t know any more about Ashley than his name. They ordered dinner from room service; DePew, noting they didn’t want to leave the room to eat, took it as a hopeful sign that some kind of sex was in the works. He started chatting aimlessly about his job, until R.J. interjected, “When was the last time that you tried to call Dave?”

Not wanting to talk about Ashley, DePew explained that he lived with his lover Patrick, an artist, and that he usually spent Wednesday nights alone—R.J. turned the conversation back to Ashley, asking what he’d told DePew about him and Bobby. Alluding to the snuff film scheme, he said “We were just, you know, uh… What is the word I’m searching for? Sensitive?” DePew joked, “Highly illegal?” They all laugh. Bobby: “The thing R.J. is trying to say is that we wanna see where you’re coming from.”

As DePew related it to me, he assumed they were talking about some kind of role-playing. Not only that, but walking into the room he’d found himself immediately attracted to R.J.—he always knew within the first five minutes of meeting someone whether to treat him as an equal or take the bottom role, and he’d made the subconscious calculation that R.J. was “the man” in this scene. In his world, a good top was hard to find: everyone wants to be dominated, apparently. He’d made the switch to top himself a few years before, partly because the tops he met were so terrible at it: abusive rather than caring, sometimes dangerous. (The first time he’d had rough sex, he left with a cracked rib.) Also, he was getting older, had a hairy chest, and didn’t want to shave his beard, so he sort of grew into the role. But he still considered himself mostly a bottom, psychologically anyway, and yearned for someone else to take control, for a man he could look up to.

Reading the hierarchy of the room, DePew pegged himself as second-top, that is bottom to R.J., but top to Bobby. Interestingly, after meeting DePew, I spoke to Officer Rodrigues by phone and learned that he was making similar calculations, though his version had DePew as top, and R.J. as second. When Ashley eventually joined them, he was third (he could be pretty aggressive, said Rodrigues), and he, “Bobby,” was on the bottom. When I asked Rodrigues why he ranked DePew as tougher than R.J. (it sounded to me more like R.J. was running the show), he said that DePew had admitted to killing before—a story about a hitchhiker that DePew told me he’d made up to impress R.J. But Bobby and R.J. claimed to have made snuff films before, I pointed out. It all sounded Pirandello-esque—everyone playing a role, yet each, for different reasons, desperately eager to believe in the reality of each other’s facades.

In DePew’s psychological universe, R.J.’s masculine allure meant that he had to impress R.J. with his own manly prowess. Though DePew insisted he was terrified of real-life violence, if R.J. wanted to talk about making a snuff film, DePew was all over it. Having cast R.J. as the “man,” his personal code dictated that “when your man tells you to do something you do it.” And what he thought he was supposed to do was act the part of henchman in an imaginary snuff film.

Over the next three hours, plied with scotch and getting progressively less coherent (even the agents commented on how much he was drinking), whenever cued by R.J., DePew obediently trotted out ever more detailed stratagems for the snuff film. He knew the right tool for every occasion: what kind of acid to use to make a body unidentifiable, where to buy the sheet plastic to wrap it in, even how much it retailed for. A devotee of True Detective-type magazines, he was a reservoir of obscure details about crime and detection—something that certainly contributed to his downfall at trial, where it was recast as criminal intent, rather than overcompensation for a tenuous purchase on masculinity.

What struck me most, reading the wiretap transcripts, was the way DePew’s drunken recollections of his boyhood somehow kept merging with the snuff film plan and the prospective victim. When he proposed dumping the body in a swamp in southern Maryland near where he grew up, it occasioned a description of his teenage initiation into sex; by the end of the evening, he’d covered most of his adolescence, switching between the imaginary victim and himself as a youth, as if they were somehow indistinguishable.

Drunk as he was, DePew continued to insist that he’d made no agreement with Dave Ashley: “I told him we were talking in a purely hypothetical sense.” He didn’t trust Ashley, he said, and the three of them bonded over not trusting Ashley. Yet, for obvious reasons, the agents kept turning the conversation back to Ashley, and trying to get DePew to call him. They were pissed off that he wasn’t there, and must have seen their conspiracy wafting away. Finally, Ashley called and Bobby said sternly: “I think there’s some things we gotta sit down and talk about.” Then, “Hold on, Dan wants to talk to you.” To DePew: “Make him make a commitment.”

*

How could he not have had any idea that he was being set up, I asked DePew. He suggested, with apologies to my feminine sensibilities, that he was thinking with his dick. Not a particularly optimistic person myself, I always wondered whether it was actually DePew’s perpetual optimism that betrayed him. Either way, the tragedy was that his emotional landscape made him the perfect candidate for this entrapment scheme: a tangled relation to authority and manhood left him excessively impressed by these purported tough guys—too deferential and obtusely compliant. I suspect that the more they overplayed their roles, the better it worked on him. He was too eager to please, and maybe titillated by his fear of them; too caught up to back off, then too truly fearful. When Bobby and R.J. said vaguely threatening things about protecting their interests, DePew worried that if he tried to retreat they’d kill him or his boyfriend.

When did it stop being a turn-on, I asked. “When it became apparent these guys were very serious about this. Nobody’s getting undressed, the signs aren’t escalating where they’re supposed to go, this is not turning out to be the prelude to a scene.” So why stay? And why return? He said he didn’t think he had any alternative but to play along; going to the police would have meant his word against theirs. Also, he was terrified that a scandal would endanger his government security clearance; without it, he’d be unemployable in the D.C. area, and being gay already kept him at a low level.

Of course, he later berated himself for not having had the courage to stand up to them: another failure of masculinity. At one point, he described to the cops the sort of men who make the best bottoms: gay men mired in self-hatred, who thus “want you to do everything you can do to them… they’re such dirty filthy people, it’s like they’re paying their penance.” He sounded as though he was describing himself.

Like a good bottom, he agreed to return for a sit-down with the elusive Ashley.


A newspaper report on DePew’s case, 1989

On this occasion, two days later, Ashley showed up first and immediately began sparring with the agents, ragging them about their cavalier treatment of him. He wasn’t in a cooperative mood—he’d been too busy to look for locations and hadn’t been able to get away the other day. He kept saying, “Bitch, bitch, bitch,” whenever anyone said anything to him.

DePew arrived and immediately asked for a drink. He was nervous—Bobby had called him during the day to make sure he was going to show. A discussion of possible filming locations ensued, though a location was never agreed upon. There was also no agreement about whether to kidnap a child, buy a car, or anything else. The more DePew drank, the more he once again compulsively free-associated about his youth, while proffering expertise on any technical or mechanical topic. It must be said that in the planning of a crime, DePew had found his métier, offering counsel on what clothes to wear, the superiority of chloroform over ether, and plastic ties over handcuffs, along with how to configure them most effectively.

On one occasion, he cautioned the agents to turn the TV on so their conversation wouldn’t be overheard in the hall. It was the video camera concealed in the lamp he should have been worried about.

Yet DePew also seemed to be trying to throw wrenches into the plan: extolling unfeasible options then shooting them down; insisting they all participate in the snuff even though Ashley was squeamish about it. He told me his strategy was to appear to play along, while never intending to go through with it. The problem was that every time he opened his mouth, it was another count in the conspiracy indictment.

In retrospect, his lack of paranoia seems pathological, an invitation to bring punishment down on himself. He had a zeal for mastery that was acute yet oblivious: at the same time as he was explaining to the two undercover cops how phone-taps work, he was being recorded himself; as he advised the others on evading exposure, he was the subject of a vast multi-agency police offensive. (At the height of the case, there were over 100 FBI agents on twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance duty; this went on for nearly a month.)

DePew’s eagerness for technical know-how handed the prosecution what was probably the single most damaging piece of evidence against him. When schemes to subdue the imaginary child were discussed, Dan volunteered to find out how to make chloroform. It wasn’t an entirely new interest as breath control was something he was into (he explained to me in rhapsodic detail the pleasure of passing out through asphyxiation during sex); and following the hotel room conversation, he got interested in the idea of trying chloroform with his boyfriend. So, like a good autodidact (and failing to notice the FBI agents trailing him everywhere he went), DePew strolled to the library and looked it up. For the government to prove conspiracy, there had to be at least one “overt act” in furtherance of the conspiracy. From the prosecutors’ standpoint, the trip to the library was an overt act.

After that evening, Dean Lambey would drop completely out of contact—during the nine days preceding Lambey’s arrest Bobby couldn’t reach him at all. Both DePew and Lambey seem to have been independently trying to extricate themselves from the scheme. Failing to turn up Lambey, R.J. called DePew, who abruptly announced, “I’ve decided not to be involved.” Startled, R.J. responded, “You what?” DePew repeated, “I’ve decided not to be involved in this one.” DePew complained about not having heard from Dave Ashley, not trusting Ashley, and everything going too fast. R.J. shifted to damage-control mode: Would DePew go along with it if it were just the three of them? He appealed to DePew to talk to Bobby, to whom DePew repeated, “I was just telling R.J. that I’ve decided not to be involved in this one.”

But even if DePew was attempting to disentangle himself, the only way to legally withdraw from a conspiracy, Judge Ellis would later instruct the jury, is to do something to defeat the purpose of the conspiracy. Heroics were required, and rather than heroically reporting the scheme to the police, DePew pussyfooted around about not having known the others long enough.

Five days later, the FBI arrested him at work. Dean Lambey was arrested the same day.

DePew’s encounter with the criminal justice system was a series of horrible missteps. When taken to FBI headquarters, mistakenly thinking it was Bobby and R.J. who were the real targets, he didn’t initially ask for a lawyer. He was told that the others had all been arrested and whoever talked first got the deal. He spent four hours talking. When the agents interrogating him played good cop/bad cop, he developed an instant crush on the bad cop. He didn’t understand that neither of them was on his side.

DePew said he told the FBI agents that he never intended to make a snuff film, but believed Bobby and R.J. were serious about it. The FBI claimed that DePew confessed. They did not, however, record this confession, though DePew says there was a tape recorder in the room. The judge sided with the FBI on the confession, despite the only evidence of its existence being an agent’s handwritten summary of what DePew supposedly said—there wasn’t even a verbatim record.

In any case, the prosecution had a fairly easy task. All it had to do was paint DePew as a monster and convince the jury that his record of participation in consensual S&M was corroboration of his intent to commit kidnapping and murder. Items seized from DePew’s home—nooses, manacles, leather masks, videotapes of consensual S&M between DePew and adult lovers—were introduced into evidence. Prosecutors maintained that since the S&M sex DePew participated in was “real,” not fantasy, the snuff film plot was real, too.

This was an argument straight out of the Meese Report: pornography use leads to sexual violence. That conclusion, said the commission’s chairman Henry Hudson (shortly before becoming the US attorney who would supervise DePew’s prosecution), was based on “common sense,” not evidence: “If we relied exclusively on scientific data for every one of our findings, I’m afraid all of our work would be inconclusive.” Then again, evidence was hardly the prime consideration, as Hudson had also noted: “As far as I can tell, no snuff films have been recovered in the United States. I don’t know that anyone has actually seen one.”

James Lowe, DePew’s attorney, was outstaffed and out-bankrolled—the government spent millions manufacturing and prosecuting this case. Lowe tried disputing that DePew was ever part of a conspiracy. He explained the role of fantasy in S&M subculture. He insisted that DePew had never inflicted any actual harm on anyone—his sex partners were all alive and well. He reminded the jury there was no evidence that DePew had any interest in actual children.

Rebutting Lowe, US Attorney Mike Smythers argued that DePew wasn’t on trial for homosexuality or sadomasochism, then stated, “S&M in this trial doesn’t mean sadomasochism. What it really means is Satan and Murder.” And DePew himself “would have made a good first assistant for Josef Mengele or Adolf Eichmann.” How on earth could language like this be allowed to stand in a federal courtroom? Possibly because homosexuality was still a crime in the state of Virginia—anti-sodomy laws were only overturned in 2003. Smythers apparently knew his audience.

The jurors began deliberating at 2:15 in the afternoon. After four hours, they announced they’d reached a verdict and returned to the courtroom. DePew stood, trembling, facing the jury box. As the guilty verdict was read, tears filled his eyes. He sat down and put his head in his hands. The forewoman later told reporters that DePew’s homosexuality and sadomasochism had no bearing on their decision. “We separated out his sexual preference,” she said. “The question was, did he really fantasize the killing of a child or did he really mean it?” Then she added, somewhat contradictorily, that during the three-day trial DePew appeared “benign and didn’t necessarily look like the stereotype who could plan such a horrible crime.”

At sentencing, Judge Ellis, addressing DePew, pronounced his “the most heinous crime I have presided over.” Yet, echoing the forewoman, the judge mused, oddly, “There is no doubt in my mind that you intended to commit the crime. The paradox is that as this chilling picture of evil is presented, there is also, strangely enough, almost a sympathetic… it’s difficult to explain.” Ellis seemed to be responding to what I, too, encountered in DePew: an overwhelming gentleness. He conveyed a certain slightly apologetic dignity about being who he was, as though he knew he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but forgave you for seeing that.

Despite whatever human quality Ellis recognized in DePew, the judge meted out a thirty-three-year sentence, rejecting any argument for leniency or reduction in the sentencing level. Instead, he added two levels because the fictive intended victim was a child. (Federal prisoners have to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.)

At Ray Brook, the prison where I met DePew, the average sentence was twelve years, meaning that DePew watched men who’d committed actual murder, rape, and child molestation getting released sooner than himself, who’d, at most, drunkenly fantasized in the wrong hotel room. During our conversation at Ray Brook, I asked DePew if he’d ever thought it was ironic that so much of his fantasy life revolved around punishment scenarios and he’d ended up spending his life in prison. Had he, in some way, wanted to be punished? He answered mildly that his arrest fantasies had turned out to be nothing like the reality.

*

On August 14, DePew was on his way to a doctor’s appointment at the VA (he’d served in the Air Force in his twenties, so was eligible for veterans’ benefits) when a blood clot in his leg broke loose and traveled to his heart, killing him. The federal prison system had kept him alive with antivirals—he’d been HIV-positive since the 1980s, though symptom-free for years—but failed to treat the blocked artery in his leg, which had been swollen for a year, making walking painful and difficult. DePew was finally going to get surgery, paid for by Obamacare—he’d written me jubilantly: “Medicaid is fixing my leg! Praise Obama!” His characteristic cheeriness had evidently survived twenty-nine years in prison, and he was touchingly optimistic about the next chapter.

I find myself wondering if DePew’s case would have unfolded the same way today. Would such an elaborate entrapment scheme get agency approval? Would a 2019 jury be as willing to conflate fantasy and intent, to see consensual sadomasochism as a prelude to murder? Would today’s queer community have embraced DePew and raised funds for a less shoestring defense? (When I asked Lowe what he’d have done with more money, he immediately said, “Investigate the two detectives.”)

Perhaps the policing of sexual minorities arouses more indignation in our time than it did thirty years ago: movies like The Imitation Game about the hounded gay mathematician Alan Turing—who committed suicide after being subjected to chemical castration to “treat” his homosexuality—play to sympathetic audiences and garner awards. Yet sexual paranoia is in no short supply these days either—in fact, the suspect pool has exponentially widened. One hears the term “grooming” more and more—once confined to suspected pedophiles and their prospective victims, now it’s applied to any relationship marked by disparities in age or power. Themes of sexual endangerment still saturate the culture. What forms of policing—ideological, moral, corporate, penal—follow?

DePew was himself “groomed” by the state to play a role in a social fantasy about grooming. He was tragically malleable, which suited the needs of the moment. No doubt, the two cops who sat around a hotel room trading violent fantasies with DePew and Lambey saw themselves as on the side of social justice. So do all of us rushing to pronounce guilty verdicts on anyone accused of sexual misdeeds now. We, too, have predator quotas to fill. As with the DePew jury or the Meese Commission, for sexual-justice-seeking Twitter mobs, evidence is still optional.

Fantasies about perpetrators permeated all levels of Dan DePew’s case, and we’re never more beset by fantasy than when asserting the purity of our motives. Never more perverse—and punitive—than when trying to prove that it’s other people who are the sadists.

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‘The Pain Never Went Away’


Richard Kalvar/Magnum PhotosWorkers relaxing in a local bar, Sangatte, Pas-de-Calais, northern France, 1989

Peter Handke says: “No matter what happened my mother seemed to be there, openmouthed.” You were not there. Your mouth wasn’t even open, because you had lost the luxury of astonishment and horror, nothing was unexpected anymore because you no longer had any expectations, nothing was violent because violence wasn’t what you called it, you called it life, you didn’t call it, it was there, it was.

2004 or maybe 2005. I’m twelve or thirteen. I’m walking around the village with my best friend Amélie and we find a cell phone on the ground, on the asphalt. It was just lying there. Amélie was walking along and she tripped on it. The phone went skittering down the road. She bent down, picked it up, and we decided to keep it to play with, to send messages to the boys Amélie met online.

Within two days the police called to tell you I’d stolen a phone. I found the accusation overblown: we hadn’t stolen anything, it was there on the street, by the side of the road, we didn’t know who it belonged to. But you seemed to believe the police more than you believed me. You came to my room, you slapped me, you called me a thief, and you took me to the police station.

You were ashamed. You looked at me as if I had betrayed you.

You didn’t say anything in the car, but once we were sitting before the policemen, in their office plastered with incomprehensible posters, you were quick to defend me, with a forcefulness I’d never heard in your voice or seen in your eyes.

You told them that I would never have stolen a phone. I had found it, that’s all. You said that I was going to become a professor, or an important doctor, or a government minister, you didn’t know what yet, but in any case that I was going to get a degree and I had nothing to do with delinquents [sic]. You said you were proud of me. You said you had never known a kid as smart as I was. I had no idea that you thought all those things (that you loved me?). Why had you never told me?

Several years later, once I’d fled the village and gone to live in Paris, when I went out at night and met men in bars and they’d ask how I got along with my family—it’s an odd question, but they ask it—I would always tell them I hated my father. It wasn’t true. I knew I loved you, but I felt a need to tell other people that I hated you. Why?

Is it normal to be ashamed of loving someone?

When you’d had too much to drink, you’d lower your eyes and say that no matter what you loved me, that you didn’t know why you were so violent the rest of the time. You would cry, admitting that you couldn’t make sense of the forces that came over you, that made you say things you’d instantly regret. You were as much a victim of the violence you inflicted as of the violence you endured.

You cried when the twin towers collapsed.

Before my mother you’d been with a woman named Sylvie. You had tattooed her name on your arm, yourself, in India ink. When I asked you about her, you wouldn’t answer my questions. The other day a friend said, because I’d been talking about you, Your father doesn’t want to go into his past because the past reminds him that he could have become a different person, and didn’t. Maybe he’s right.

Those times I got in the car to ride along with you when you went to buy cigarettes, or something else, but usually and very often cigarettes, you’d put a pirated Céline Dion CD on the stereo—you’d written Céline on it in blue marker—you’d slip in the disc and you’d sing at the top of your lungs. You knew all the words by heart. I’d sing with you, and I know it’s a cliché, but it’s as if in those moments you could tell me things you could never tell me at any other time.

You used to rub your hands together before you ate.

When I bought sweets at the village bakery, you’d take one from the bag with a little guilty look, and you’d say: Don’t tell your mother! All of a sudden you were the same age as me.

One day, you gave my favorite toy, a board game called Doctor Maboul, to the next-door neighbor. I played with it every day, it was my favorite game, and you’d given it away for no reason. I howled, I begged to have it back. You only smiled and said, That’s life.

One night, in the village café, you said in front of everyone that you wished you’d had another son instead of me. For weeks I wanted to die.

2000. I remember the year because the Y2K decorations were still up around the house: crepe paper, colored lights, the scribbly drawings I’d brought home from school with gold letters spelling out good wishes for the new year and the dawn of the new millennium.

It was just you and me in the kitchen. I said, Look Papa, I’m an alien! and I made a face using my fingers and tongue. I never saw you laugh so hard. You couldn’t stop laughing, you were gasping for air. Tears were running down your cheeks, which were bright, bright red. I’d stopped making my alien face but still you went on laughing. You laughed so hard that after a while I started to worry, frightened by this laughter that wouldn’t stop, as if it wanted to go on for ever and echo to the end of the world. I asked why you were laughing so hard, and you answered, between two laughs, You’re the damnedest kid I’ve ever seen, I don’t know how I could have made a kid like you. So I decided to laugh with you. We laughed together, clutching our bellies, side by side, for a very, very long time.

The problems had started in the factory where you worked. I described it in my first novel, The End of Eddy: one afternoon we got a call from the factory informing us that something heavy had fallen on you. Your back was mangled, crushed. They told us it would be several years before you could walk again, before you could even walk.

The first weeks you stayed completely in bed, without moving. You’d lost the ability to speak. All you could do was scream. It was the pain. It woke you and made you scream in the night. Your body could no longer bear its own existence. Every movement, even the tiniest shift, woke up the ravaged muscles. You were aware of your body only in pain, through pain.

Then your speech returned. At first you could only ask for food or drink, then over time you began to use longer sentences, to express your desires, your cravings, your fits of anger. Your speech didn’t replace your pain. Let’s be clear. The pain never went away.

Boredom took up all the space in your life. Watching you, I came to see that boredom can be the hardest thing of all. Even in the concentration camps a person could get bored. It’s strange to think about: Imre Kertész says so, Charlotte Delbo says so, even in the camps, even with the hunger, the thirst, the death, an agony worse than death, the ovens, the gas chambers, the summary executions, the dogs always ready to tear a prisoner limb from limb, the cold, the heat, and the dust in the mouth, the tongue hardened to a scrap of cement in a mouth deprived of water, the desiccated brain contracting within its skull, the work, the never-ending work, the fleas, the lice, the scabies, the diarrhea, the never-ending thirst, despite all of it, and all the other things I didn’t name, there was still room for boredom—the wait for an event that will never come or has been too long in coming.

You’d wake up early in the morning and turn on the TV while you lit your first cigarette. My room was next door. The odor of tobacco and the noise drifted in to me as the odor and noise of your being. The people you called your buddies would come drink pastis at our house in the late afternoon. You’d watch TV together. You’d go to see them from time to time, but more often, because of your back pain, because your back had been mangled by the factory, mangled by the life you were forced to live, by the life that wasn’t yours, that wasn’t yours because you never got to live a life of your own, because you lived on the outskirts of your life—because of all that you stayed at home, and usually they were the ones who came over. You couldn’t get around anymore. It hurt too much to move.

In March 2006, the government of Jacques Chirac, then eleven years in office as president of France, and his health minister Xavier Bertrand, announced that dozens of medications would no longer be covered by the state, including many medications for digestive problems. Because you’d had to spend your days lying flat since your accident, and because you had bad nutrition, digestive problems were a constant for you. Buying medicine to relieve them became more and more difficult. Jacques Chirac and Xavier Bertrand destroyed your intestines.

Why do we never name these names in a biography?

In 2007, presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy leads a campaign against what he calls les assistés, those who, according to him, are stealing money from French society because they don’t work. He declares: The worker… sees the assisté doing better than he is, making ends meet by doing nothing. What he was telling you was that if you didn’t work you didn’t belong, you were a thief, you were a deadbeat, you were what Simone de Beauvoir would have called a useless mouth. He didn’t know you. He had no right to think that: he didn’t know you. This kind of humiliation by the ruling class broke your back all over again.

In 2009, the government of Nicolas Sarkozy and his accomplice Martin Hirsch replace the RMI—a basic unemployment benefit provided by the French state—with the RSA. You qualified for the RMI because you could no longer work. The shift from the RMI to the RSA was supposed to incentivize a return to employment, as the government put it. In truth, from that moment on, the state harassed you to go back to work, despite your disastrous unfitness, despite what the factory had done to you. If you didn’t take the jobs they offered—or rather, forced on you—you would lose your right to welfare. The only jobs they offered you were part-time, exhausting, manual labor in the large town twenty-five miles from where we lived. Just getting there and back cost you three hundred euros a month in gas. Then, after a certain period, you were forced to take a job as a street sweeper in another town, making seven hundred euros a month, spending all day bent over gathering up other people’s trash—bent over, even though your back was destroyed. Nicolas Sarkozy and Martin Hirsch were breaking your back.

You understood that, for you, politics was a question of life or death.

One day, in the fall, the back-to-school subsidy granted each year to the poorest families—for school supplies, notebooks, backpacks—was increased by nearly one hundred euros. You were overjoyed, you called out in the living room: “We’re going to the beach!” and the six of us piled into our little car. (I was put into the trunk, like a hostage in a spy film, which was how I liked it.)

The whole day was a celebration.

Among those who have everything, I have never seen a family go to the seashore just to celebrate a political decision, because for them politics changes almost nothing. This is something I realized when I went to live in Paris, far away from you: the ruling class may complain about a left-wing government, they may complain about a right-wing government, but no government ever ruins their digestion, no government ever breaks their backs, no government ever inspires a trip to the beach. Politics never changes their lives, at least not much. What’s strange, too, is that they’re the ones who engage in politics, though it has almost no effect on their lives. For the ruling class, in general, politics is a question of aesthetics: a way of seeing themselves, of seeing the world, of constructing a personality. For us it was life or death.

In August 2016, during the presidency of François Hollande, the minister of labor Myriam El Khomri, with the support of the prime minister Manuel Valls, passed what was called the labor law. This law made it easier for businesses to fire an employee, and it allowed them to increase the work week by several hours beyond existing limits.

The company for which you swept streets could now ask you to sweep even longer hours, to spend more of every week bent over a broom. The current state of your health, the fact that you can hardly move or breathe, that you can’t live without the assistance of a machine, are largely the result of a life of repetitive motions at the factory, then of bending over for eight hours a day, every day, to sweep the streets, to sweep up other people’s trash. Hollande, Valls, and El Khomri asphyxiated you.

Why do we never name these names?

May 27, 2017. In a town in France, two union members—both in T-shirts—are complaining to president Emmanuel Macron in the middle of a crowded street. They are angry, that much is clear from how they talk. They also seem to be suffering. Emmanuel Macron dismisses them in a voice full of contempt: You’re not going to scare me with your T-shirts. The best way to afford a suit is to get a job. Anyone who hasn’t got the money to buy a suit he dismisses as worthless, useless, lazy. He shows you the line—the violent line—between those who wear suits and those who wear T-shirts, between the rulers and the ruled, between those who have money and those who don’t, those who have everything and those who have nothing. This kind of humiliation by the ruling class brings you even lower than before.

September 2017. Emmanuel Macron condemns the “laziness” of those in France who, according to him, are blocking his reforms. You’ve always known that this word is reserved for people like you, people who can’t work because they live too far from large towns, who can’t find work because they were driven out of the educational system too soon, without a diploma, who can’t work anymore because life in the factory has mangled their back. We don’t use the word lazy to describe a boss who sits in an office all day ordering other people around. We’d never say that. When I was little, you were always saying, obsessively, I’m not lazy, because you knew this insult hung over you, like a specter you wished to exorcize.

There is no pride without shame: you were proud of not being lazy because you were ashamed to be one of those to whom that word could be applied. For you the word lazy is a threat, a humiliation. This kind of humiliation by the ruling class breaks your back again.

Maybe those who read or listen to these words won’t recognize the names I have just mentioned. Maybe they’ll already have forgotten them, or will never have heard of them, but that is precisely why I want to mention them here, because there are murderers who are never named for their murders. There are murderers who avoid disgrace thanks to their anonymity or to oblivion. I am afraid, because I know the world acts under cover of darkness and night. I refuse to let these names be forgotten. I want them to be known now and forever, everywhere, in Laos, in Siberia and in China, in Congo, in America, beyond every ocean, deep within every continent, across every border.

Is everything always forgotten in the end?

I want these names to become as indelible as those of Adolphe Thiers, of Shakespeare’s Richard III, of Jack the Ripper.

I want to inscribe their names in history, as revenge.

August 2017. The government of Emmanuel Macron withdraws five euros per month from the most vulnerable people in France: it reduces—by five euros—the housing subsidies that allow France’s poorest people to pay their monthly rent. The same day, or a day or two later, the government announces a tax cut for the wealthiest in France. It thinks the poor are too rich, and that the rich aren’t rich enough. Macron’s government explains that five euros per month is nothing. They have no idea. They pronounce these criminal sentences because they have no idea. Emmanuel Macron is taking the bread out of your mouth.

*

Macron, Hollande, Valls, El Khomri, Hirsch, Sarkozy, Bertrand, Chirac. The history of your suffering bears these names. Your life story is the history of one person after another beating you down. The history of your body is the history of these names, one after another, destroying you. The history of your body stands as an accusation against political history.

*

You’ve changed these past few years. You’ve become a different person. We’ve talked, a lot. We’ve explained ourselves. I’ve told you how I resented the person you were when I was a child—how I resented your hardness, your silence, the scenes that I’ve just described—and you’ve listened. And I have listened to you. You used to say the problem with France was the foreigners and the homosexuals, and now you criticize French racism. You ask me to tell you about the man I love. You buy the books I publish. You give them to people you know. You changed from one day to the next. A friend of mine says it’s the children who mold their parents and not the other way around.

But because of what they’ve done to your body, you will never have a chance to uncover the person you’ve become.

Last month, when I came to see you, you asked me just before I left, Are you still involved in politics? The word still was a reference to my first year in high school, when I belonged to a radical leftist party and we argued because you thought I’d get myself into trouble if I took part in illegal demonstrations. Yes, I told you, more and more involved. You let three or four seconds go by. Then you said, You’re right. You’re right—what we need is a revolution.


Adapted from Who Killed My Father, by Édouard Louis, translated into English by Lorin Stein, and published by New Directions on March 29. 

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Aretha’s Grace


Amazing Grace Movie, LLCA still from Amazing Grace, 1972/2018

The queen’s power dwells in her silence. That’s not what one expects to learn from a film about an almighty singer whose voice created a score for several dramatic decades of American life, and who will be ever defined by the way that voice made people feel. But it’s one of many striking revelations about Aretha Franklin in a new film that stars her, a film that is extraordinary in part because of the sense in which it’s not new at all.

Amazing Grace, Franklin’s double album released in 1972, saw the soul-pop superstar return to her “gospel roots”—on her own terms and with the aim less of returning to church than of tying its songs to her search for roots of a different kind; on the cover of the album she wears an Afrocentric gown. Made up of old spirituals and newer tunes lent Old Testament weight, the album went on to sell two million copies. The film of the same name documents its making. It captures Franklin—along with a crack band, a soaring choir, and a church full of exultant congregants in South LA—pouring her sweat and self into gospel classics such as “Precious Lord” and “The Old Landmark” and “Mary, Don’t You Weep” over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts.

The footage it uses was shot by a young Sydney Pollack. But the finished film was no more completed by him than Aretha Franklin “didn’t want you to see it,” as you may have read after its triumphant unveiling in New York late last year. The singer did file a lawsuit, during the Telluride Film Festival of 2015, to delay its release. Four years ago, I was among those in the Colorado mountains clamoring to see a film that was already being spoken of, by those lucky enough to have previewed it, as a kind of missing lodestone in the visual archive of American music. When Amazing Grace finally reaches theaters this spring, it will have traveled a long and winding road to a screen near you. But the famously tricky star’s wrangling over a movie she’d once enthusiastically backed is but a footnote to the larger tale of how it finally came to be.  

When Pollack was hired by Warner Brothers to film Aretha Franklin recording her album, he’d made They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but had no experience documenting music. His failure to sync the images he shot with their corresponding sound caused the project to be shelved for decades (perhaps mercifully, given the studio’s misguided intention to release it in tandem with the 1972 blaxploitation movie Super Fly). It was around 2007 when Alan Elliott, a protégé of Franklin’s producer at Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler, decided to rescue the footage from oblivion. With the help of new technology and after years of work, Elliott cut and assembled a new film that, by 2015, was ready for its debut.


Amazing Grace Movie, LLC

It was a few hours before the film’s would-be premiere for a few hundred of us there, including a coterie of the movie’s lesser-known performers and makers who’d made the trip to Telluride, that word arrived from over the mountains: Franklin sought an injunction in federal court in Denver to forestall a film that—notwithstanding her old contract assenting to its making—she said represented a breach of “her rights to use and control her name and likeness.” When potential distributors offered the amount of money she wanted, she in fact agreed to the film’s release. But a series of deals fell apart for reasons including the fact, unknown by many of the lawyers and agents trying to get her on the phone, that she had pancreatic cancer. And then, last August, the Queen of Soul died, aged seventy-six.

Elliott flew to Detroit for her funeral. Over years of trying to win the star’s blessing to release the movie, he had befriended her family, and he and Sabrina Owens, a niece of Franklin’s who is now handling her estate, arranged for a screening of Amazing Grace for Franklin’s heirs and kin. They readily agreed that her memory and legacy could only benefit from this superlative portrait of the singer at her absolute peak, performing the songs that made her.

Amazing Grace is not a “documentary” in the sense we’ve come to understand the genre, at a time when most examples of it gather a familiar set of elements—archival footage and freshly shot interviews, photographs and ephemera—to assemble a narrative. Instead, it consists entirely of footage of what took place those two nights in Watts (along with a few segments filmed from the preceding days’ rehearsals), artfully edited into a rhythmic whole whose arc is less narrative than imagistic.

Unlike more overtly “ethnographic” films in the music documentary canon—for example, Les Blank’s gentle portraits of Cajun fiddlers and Texas bluesmen—there’s no illusion or intent of capturing folk culture in its unaffected context. The occasion we’re witnessing, in a sanctuary filled with recording gear and a crew of scruffy cameramen hopping among the musicians, involves showbiz artifice further manipulated by Elliott’s arrangement of the songs and footage for optimal effect. But part of the film’s power is the setting: a humble church, housed in an old neighborhood cinema, that’s filled with neighbors and friends and family of the performers. Their response to this music—their music—is authentic indeed. Authentic, too, is the tenderness glimpsed between Aretha and her father, the august preacher C.L. Franklin, when he joins the proceedings to wipe sweat from her brow under Pollack’s hot lights, and the emotion that grips the Reverend James Cleveland, the gospel maestro who taught Aretha piano and serves as the session leader. In the midst of his former pupil’s sublime rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Cleveland leans over his chair in sobs. 


Amazing Grace Movie, LLC

All the while, we remain aware that we’re watching professionals at work. Which is why it’s so fascinating to absorb that the leading professional there, the woman at the center of it all, scarcely utters a word. The afro-ed singer who had brought together a room filled not merely with some of the essential figures of black faith and politics in the twentieth century, but also those shaping pop culture at large in the early 1970s, is silent. Regal in bearing, yet with worry in her eyes, she responds to the gazes of all with no more than gentle nods. Through it all, she keeps her lips closed. Except, that is, when she sings.   

*

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin was twenty-nine years old. She had started singing, as many know, in the Detroit church of her famous father. C. L. Franklin’s sermons from New Bethel Baptist—from whose pulpit a visiting Martin Luther King, Jr. first tried out his sermon about having a dream—were broadcast nationwide. Franklin signed to Columbia Records at eighteen, leaving behind Detroit and her family to launch a career that at first saw her promoted by storied producer John Hammond as a jazz singer. She recorded some underrated forays into the American songbook, but gained only middling success. After she moved to a new label and a new producer in 1965, signing with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, she found the muscular sound that made her a star with hits like “Think” and “Chain of Fools,” and her belting cover of label-mate Otis Redding’s “Respect.” As the civil rights movement’s mid-Sixties apogee gave way to a wary period of riots and disillusionment culminating in Dr. King’s murder in 1968, Franklin wasn’t the only member of her cohort drawn to more radical kinds of searching. 

Living in New York, she was drawn to the Black Arts movement of Nikki Giovanni and Larry Neal and immersed herself in a relationship with a new boyfriend, Ken Cunningham, who, during a vacation in Barbados, snapped the photo that would be used on Amazing Grace’s album cover. In 1971, she was getting ready to release a record built around her version of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Whether it was Franklin or Wexler who first had the idea that the time was right to record a live album of church songs depends on which of them you asked, as the writer Aaron Cohen notes in his 2011 book on the album’s making. But producer and star agreed it was a good idea. They moved with alacrity to reconnect the two musical realms, the sacred and the profane, that had not, in fact, grown nearly so separate as some liked to pretend. The man widely known as the father of gospel, Thomas Dorsey, had switched back in the late 1920s from singing whorehouse hokum like “It’s Tight Like That” to mixing Christian praise-singing with the blues. The idiom he created reached perhaps the peak of its expression in Aretha’s Amazing Grace.  

“If you want to know the truth, Aretha never left the church!” C.L. Franklin’s memorable exclamation on the album, we learn from the film, was uttered on the second night of recording. We watch him enter the church with his bouffant-coiffed and stole-wearing companion, the gospel legend Clara Ward, and it’s her song, “How I Got Over,” that they watch C. L.’s daughter perform. Rising from his seat in the front row, the Reverend Franklin is a debonair figure in a royal blue suit, his hair slicked straight, his cadence mesmeric as he extols her gift (“not only because Aretha is my daughter; Aretha’s a stone singer”) and emphasizes that she’d never left Jesus. True, too, was his insistence that he bore no hostility to black music of the non-God-fearing kind. “Some church people didn’t approve [of] the blues,” Franklin later told the scholar Jeff Todd Titon. “But they didn’t understand that it was part of their cultural heritage.”  


Amazing Grace Movie, LLC

Not for him was the sort of handwringing seen from some of his Christian brethren when another child gospel star from the Midwest, Sam Cooke, “went secular” in 1957. Cooke got his start as the teenaged lead of the Chicago gospel troupe The Soul Stirrers (which led him to visit Detroit often enough to stir a fierce crush in the Reverend Franklin’s daughter), before he went west to make his name. The satin-voiced crooner of “You Send Me” and “Cupid” died a sinner’s death on Figueroa Street in 1964, his bullet-riddled body sprawled near the red Ferrari he’d driven, with a mysterious consort, to the Hacienda Motel. That was only a few blocks from where Franklin, eight years later, would record Amazing Grace. Her first call, when she arrived, was to another Chicago transplant in LA, the Reverend James Cleveland. 

Reverend Cleveland presides over the concert from his seat at the piano, a charming and chubby figure straining his polyester suit. Cleveland’s rise to gospel eminence began as a boy soprano in the very Chicago church of Thomas Dorsey, who changed his life—and, with it, American music—after his wife and son died in 1932. Disconsolate, Dorsey wrote the song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” which Cleveland and Franklin perform as a duet that glides into a medley with Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”

Their comfort with each other, palpable on screen, dated from Cleveland’s stint living with the Franklin family in Detroit when Aretha was a girl. (She later credited his big chords and striking harmonies—“his piano technique was pure gospel”—with doing more than anyone to help her find her voice.) In 1962, he had moved out to LA to produce records and festivals whose devotees both made “the modern gospel sound” and made it big business (his Gospel Workshop of America is still thriving). Another part of the empire over which Cleveland presided was the Southern California Community Choir, an all-star team of vocalists who wouldn’t even consider arrangements with harmonies in less than four or five parts. 

Transcendent on record, they appear even more so on film. Marching down the aisle of New Temple Missionary, the choir’s twenty odd members—women and men, old and young—wear shiny silver vests and black bell-bottom pants. Seated in their old-style movie chairs or standing to shout praise or encouragement (“Go ’head, Aretha!”), they form an entourage, too, for a lanky and smiling figure who emerges as the film’s unsung star, introduced by Cleveland as “this wonderful young man, Alexander Hamilton.” He’s a vocal conductor as marvelous as his name. Glimpsed giving Aretha a soul handshake on the first night, he’s plainly won her respect. A few songs later, the film flashes back to a rehearsal and we see why: Hamilton confirms for her that yes, indeed, they would be doing “How I Got Over“ in the key of F. For that tune and all the others, back in church, he and Aretha stand back to back, a few feet apart. Arms swooping, head sometimes tilted skyward, Hamilton is grace itself as he directs the choir.

*

If the great choir he conducts spurs Aretha to touch parts of her range and self not reached when singing solo in an airless studio, Cleveland’s group had also never played with a rhythm section as accomplished as hers. Bassist Chuck Rainey, guitarist Cornell Dupree, and drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie were Franklin’s regular touring band by then. As top session men, they had also recorded hits by artists ranging from Quincy Jones to James Brown, Lena Horne, and B.B. King. That Pollack’s crew was unfamiliar with shooting concerts is nowhere more obvious than in how little they focused on these players. But in the glimpses we do catch, Rainey, Dupree, and Purdie are all well-kempt afros and knowing smiles. We sense them, used to the discipline of making two- or three-minute-long radio-friendly cuts, reveling in the chance to stretch out—and to return to the music of the black church.

Purdie, as perhaps his generation’s most in-demand drummer in rock, soul, and jazz alike, was known for a patented beat that propelled hits by Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan. Raised Methodist, Purdie often credited the sound of trains rumbling through his Maryland hometown when he was a boy with helping inspire his propulsive “Purdie shuffle.” In the ensemble’s swaying rendition of “God Will Take Care of You,” Cleveland calls the band to a simmer and asks, in his gravelly voice, who knows “how they do things in the Sanctified Church?” Franklin raises her hand, but Purdie, too, is also familiar with the ways of Pentecostal “saints.” He kicks into a triple-time shuffle, locking in with Rainey’s roiling bass.

The shots here of people dancing include an older black woman in a velvet dress who appears to faint. This woman, though she isn’t identified in the film as such, is Clara Ward’s mother. At one point, Cleveland throws a towel at Franklin in joy. The previous year, she’d performed with this rhythm section for hippies at San Francisco’s Fillmore West. Here in Watts, there are only a few white people in the room besides the cameramen and sound crew, but two you can’t miss: Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts. They were in LA to finish recording their 1972 album Exile on Main Street. The tall, mustachioed man standing between them and Clara Ward’s mom is Joe Boyd, the eminent record producer who’d just returned to the US after six years in England. (His 2006 memoir White Bicycles is an essential history of music-making in those years.) He had started as Muddy Waters’s road manager on the musician’s first UK tour in 1965 and ended by pioneering “folk rock” with Nick Drake and Fairport Convention. Now, he’d moved to LA to produce music-related projects for Warner Brothers. This was one of the first he took on.

I ran into Boyd at Telluride four years ago, when the movie’s premiere was canceled. He told me that his dealings with Pollack on Amazing Grace had lasted three weeks: they began when the head of Warner’s called to say that the crew Boyd had found for the job, practiced at documenting music, wouldn’t be needed since Sydney Pollack wanted to direct; they ended when, a week after the shoot, Boyd got a call from a harried Pollack. Having realized that there were problems with the sound, he said he was flying to New York for a script conference, but hoped that Boyd could help him rescue the project. Boyd didn’t hear from him again. But, some thirty years later, he did get a call from Alan Elliott that led to his helping produce the film in which he fleetingly appears.

Watching Jagger watch Franklin sing for James Cleveland and Clara Ward, one can’t help but ponder the difference between her musical backstory and that of the British lovers of black American music. They shaped the zeitgeist by adoring such luminaries from afar, rather than learning from them, as Aretha did, in her own living room. But one is struck, also, by gospel’s capacity to absorb and make its own the repertory of the culture at large (and not only because Aretha liked the songs of Carole King). The film captures the song that accompanies Alexander Hamilton as he leads the choir up and down the sanctuary’s aisle: George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”

Hamilton was in Telluride, too, now a wizened reverend himself. Though the film did not screen that weekend, I got to watch it on Boyd’s laptop. When I complimented Hamilton on his star turn in the film, he laughed and admitted that a lot of his carrying on was more for the cameras than the singers’ benefit. On the November night three years later when the film finally had its premiere, at Manhattan’s SVA Theatre, Hamilton wasn’t able to fly out from LA to be there with Elliott, Boyd, and honored guests including Purdie. But the film was met, that night and during a record-setting week at Film Forum that followed, with something like euphoria—a tribute, in part, to Alan Elliott’s wise decision, years ago, to cut a tight, ninety-minute film that borrows from classic Broadway story structure. That approach, he told me, is what prompted he and his editor to put an “I Wish” number first (Marvin Gaye’s plaintive “Wholy Holy”), followed by a couple of up-tempo ones to score rising action (“What A Friend,” “How I Got Over”), to a big finale to close the first act (“Amazing Grace”), and so on. Whether audiences notice such tricks or not, the approach works.

As for Aretha, in a beaded white caftan, her brown skin glowing, the church seems to turn around her silent center. Famously reluctant to give interviews, or to reveal much in them, she was never one to reflect for strangers on her gift, or her faith, let alone the personal anguish that may have fed them in a life marked by, among other trials, a mother who left her philandering dad (and her) when Aretha was a girl, and a launch of her own career, at eighteen, that forced her to leave behind two young sons of her own at home in Detroit. In the era in which this movie was made, her most substantial press clip was a profile in Ebony, whose writer visited her at home in New York tofocus on her evolving politics and ended up devoting as much space to describing the authors on her bookshelf—Marcuse, Fanon—than to anything she said. Not long after, she appeared on the TV quiz show “What’s My Line?” Asked by its host to describe how her girlhood singing in church still shaped her outlook and her music, she replied with marvelous concision: “From there, here.”

Why she sued to stall the release of the film wasn’t a question she much discussed in public either. She told one reporter, from the Detroit Free Press, that she loved the movie; she told another that the way one of Pollack’s cameramen shot Clara Ward was in “bad taste.” The truth, as she cycled through managers and agents in her last years but mostly handled her own affairs (in ways that at times became tabloid fodder), was that when a top Hollywood company finally offered a satisfactory sum for Amazing Grace, she agreed—before the company’s lawyers got cold feet. Another firm agreed to her fee but maintained that distributing the film would entail her doing interviews to promote it. The ailing queen simply didn’t reply.   


Amazing Grace Movie, LLC

Who can blame her? In the months since her passing, not a few encomiums to her legacy have noted her lasting echoes in pop—notably in the signature sonic gesture of the black church, the single note or syllable turned into many notes, that one now hears in the voices of Beyoncé and Ariana Grande and mimicked by many of the contestants on The Voice. But what made Aretha a singer for all time is what the scholar Daphne Brooks has called “the intelligence of her melisma”; Aretha provided “not just frosting but cake,” as Alexander Hamilton described how she differed from many singers in the gospel era of “Oh Happy Day.” It was her ability to worry a song’s notes, as they say in church—to hold them, to show us their facets and colors, and open new ways to enter and feel their meaning.

James Cleveland begins, late on the first night, to caress familiar chords, then murmurs about this song that needs no introduction. Aretha stands at the pulpit, her eyes closed, her chin raised. She hums her way into and around the first note. Then breathes deeply, exhales the music. She sings the first word’s first syllable once on its own, turns a simple “Ah” into a ladder: “Ahhhh-ahh-ahhhh.” She repeats, joins it to the next syllable, holds that sound—“Ah-maayyyyy”—as long as she can, angling upward as she goes. The choir, even before she hits “-zing,” raises their hands in praise. By the third verse—which begins “Through many dangers”—she sings the word “through” five times, pulling its one syllable through two octaves and many more bars. The choir is now on its feet. And we, the audience, feel like joining them. When she hits “I have already come,” Cleveland is overcome.

Forty-six years later, there was more than a little of that feeling at the film’s premiere in Manhattan. As the credits rolled, the civil rights activist the Reverend William J. Barber II rose to turn another movie theater into a house of worship. He reminded the crowd that “Amazing Grace” was written in the eighteenth century by a slave trader who was wrecked at sea but then saved by the same grace that made him, later, an abolitionist. He hailed how Aretha Franklin made John Newton’s hymn an anthem because “she could worry a note until you wanted to shout and run and clap, and, if necessary, march and stand up.”

And then, his voice rising, Barber urged those given to despair to turn our ears to this singer who “worried and hung around that note”:

No matter what’s going on now, no matter what hate is doing now… Aretha would worry that note until we heard we’ve already come. And if we’ve already come through it, then you know, goodness well, we can go through what’s [here] now and what’s ahead of us. We can go through it because we know what we’ve already come through. Because it was grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.


Amazing Grace was shown at the DOC NYC film festival in November 2018 before playing, in December, in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles. It will be in wide release in spring 2019.

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Fool Britannia


Stuart Franklin/Magnum PhotosProtesters outside Parliament on the day the House of Commons rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU, January 15, 2019

From the ill-conceived Brexit referendum onward, Britain’s governing class has embarrassed itself. The Remain campaign was complacent, the Leave campaign brazenly mendacious, and as soon as the result was known, most of the loudest advocates for severing ties with the European Union ran away like naughty schoolboys whose cricket ball had smashed a greenhouse window. Negotiations have revealed the pitiful intellectual limitations of a succession of blustering cabinet ministers, the leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition doesn’t appear to want to oppose, and the prime minister has engineered her own humiliation by starting the countdown to Brexit without a plan that could command wide support, resulting in the heaviest parliamentary defeat in history. Despite breaches of campaign finance limits and lingering questions over the source of the Leave campaign’s financing, not to mention growing evidence tying it to the same web of influence operations that promoted Trump’s candidacy, there is no equivalent to the Mueller inquiry to bolster public confidence that the organs of state are capable of warding off corruption.

Britain is a country under self-inflicted stress, gripped by fear of the unknown. Remainers and Leavers—two tribes that have taken on the mythic stature of Roundheads and Cavaliers in a second civil war—are clinging together like drowning swimmers, each side convinced that the other is provoking an epochal disaster, neither side understanding why the other won’t submit to its version of reason and allow itself to be guided back to the surface. As the deadline approaches and the clock runs down toward the “No Deal” outcome that was supposed to be unthinkable, the divided nation faces what is, by any standards, a major political crisis. However, as British people like to remind one another, we are supposedly at our best in a crisis.

On December 16, the former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab tweeted, “Remainers believe UK prosperity depends on its location, Brexiters believe UK prosperity depends on its character.” Faith in Brexit does indeed seem to correlate with belief in the existence of national character, an innate and invariant set of shared qualities that apparently includes an aptitude for governance. On December 30 an editorial in London’s Sunday Times spluttered:

After more than four decades in the EU we are in danger of persuading ourselves that we have forgotten how to run the country by ourselves. A people who within living memory governed a quarter of the world’s land area and a fifth of its population is surely capable of governing itself without Brussels.

The many unanticipated problems with Brexit are diagnosed by the Sunday Times writer as a loss of confidence, perhaps accompanied by a faulty memory—something happening not just to people but to “a people.” The implication of the indefinite article, with its baggage of Romantic Nationalism, is clear. Britons, as Rule Britannia triumphantly puts it, “never, never, never shall be slaves.” The underside of nostalgia for an imperial past is a horror of finding the tables turned. For the more unhinged Brexiteers, leaving the EU takes on the character of a victorious army coming home with its spoils. In December 2017 Edward Leigh, a rosy-faced Tory backbencher, suggested in the House of Commons that an important negotiating point should be that the British “take back control of our fair share of [the EU’s] art and wine and not leave it for Mr. Juncker to enjoy.”

The battle over Europe has been fought not over the technicalities of the “Irish backstop” (maintaining the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), NHS funding, or traffic flow through Dover, let alone harmonized airline regulations or the trading benefits of a Canada-plus model (along the lines of the one Canada signed with the EU in 2016, following seven years of negotiation), but through Spitfires, Cornish pasties, singing “Jerusalem” on the last night of the Proms, and what the Irish historian and journalist Fintan O’Toole calls “the strange sense of imaginary oppression that underlies Brexit.” O’Toole’s Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain is an acid and entertaining examination of what he calls, after the scholar Raymond Williams, the “structure of feeling” that has made the project of leaving the European Union politically possible.

O’Toole knows England (and Brexit is primarily an affair of England, the English, and Englishness) as only a member of the former subject races can. He starts his book with an account of arriving in 1969 to live in London as an eleven-year-old Irish Catholic boy, explaining how his family’s experiences, good and bad, complicated the cartoonish opposition to Englishness that characterized popular Irish nationalism: “The English were scientific rationalists; so we Irish had to be the mystical dreamers of dreams. They were Anglo-Saxons; we were Celts….In other words, I know exactly what an either/or identity looks and feels like.” O’Toole has not come to gloat, though many others around the world are doing just that. He writes in the tone of a disappointed friend, perhaps one sitting in a front room with other friends and family, conducting an intervention.

One prong of O’Toole’s approach is psychological. He quotes Herbert Spencer on self-pity as a person’s pathological “dwelling on the contrast between his own worth as he estimates it and the treatment he has received.” This disparity is founded on an underlying narcissism: “One who contemplates his own affliction as undeserved necessarily contemplates his own merit…there is an idea of much withheld and a feeling of implied superiority to those who withhold it.” The other prong is historical. Starting from “the sheer exhilaration of being English for a young, white, privileged man during and after the war,” O’Toole tells the familiar story of an imperial decline that has gradually ratcheted up the tension between this “deep sense of grievance and a high sense of superiority.” As early as 1962, the travel writer James Morris lamented the passing of a “feeling of happy supremacy,” which meant that “frank pride of country has all but gone by the board, and patriotism is very nearly a dirty word.”

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of a body of thrillers that are also among the most acute literary portrayals of the British establishment’s experience of postwar decline, John Le Carré’s hero, George Smiley, goes to see Connie Sachs, a motherly drunk who was once a secret service librarian and is now a repository of institutional secrets. “Poor Loves,” she says of George and his colleagues, her “boys.” “Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye, world.” Many of those who took it away were, of course, foreigners, particularly those former colonial subjects who unaccountably agitated for decolonization. Their arrival “over here” was one of the most visible changes to postwar Britain, and as O’Toole points out, the rhetoric—“swamping,” being a stranger in one’s own country, strain on public services, and so on—that was once used to demonize new arrivals from the Commonwealth has been repurposed for use on EU migrants. O’Toole argues provocatively that the decline of what might be called traditional British racism made room for a new anti-Europeanism, as if there’s a fixed national quantum of xenophobia that must find an object if the United Kingdom is to maintain its integrity.

Though the Suez Crisis and imperial decline loom large in the imagination of Brexit, O’Toole writes that it’s “the war” that is “crucial in structuring English feeling about the European Union.” For half a century, English soccer fans have lamely taunted their more successful German counterparts by chanting that their country has won “two World Wars and one World Cup.” Since the 1960s, comic books with names like Commando, Warlord, and Battle Picture Weekly have kept World War II alive in the minds of British boys with violent stories of “daring bomber raids over Germany, through close-combat jungle fighting against hard-as-nails Japanese, and depth-charge blasted submarine warfare, to hard-hitting battles across North Africa, Italy and northern Europe.” The need for an enemy and the narrative of the plucky island nation resisting invasion is summed up by the famous David Low cartoon, first published in the Evening Standard in June 1940, of a Tommy standing amid crashing waves, shaking his fist at a stormy sky. “Very well, alone” is the caption, and it inaugurates a continuing psychodrama of resistance that sets Britain apart from its European neighbors.

Crucially, the equation of a “European superstate” with a project of German domination is part of what O’Toole calls the “mental cartography” of English conservatism. In 1989 Margaret Thatcher showed François Mitterand a map (taken out of her famous handbag) outlining German expansion under the Nazis, in order to demonstrate her misgivings about German reunification. On January 7 of this year, the pro-Remain Conservative MP Anna Soubry was forced to pause a live TV interview outside Parliament as protesters sang, “Soubry is a Nazi, Soubry is a Nazi la-la-la-la.” The European Union is, to these people, just a stealthy way for the Germans to complete Hitler’s unfinished business.

Of course, the British population did suffer in World War II. Aerial bombardment, rationing, and the other dangers and privations that are remembered under the journalistic heading of “the spirit of the Blitz” swim through the murkier psychological currents of Brexit like red-white-and-blue carp. If wanting to remain under the Teutonic yoke of the European Union is evidence of a loss of national character, then perhaps a fallen England deserves to be punished. As O’Toole suggests, invoking the popularity of the book Fifty Shades of Grey, a strain of masochism (le vice anglais) is as much a part of Englishness as warm beer or ruling the waves.

As the possibility of No Deal looms larger, the government is planning to import emergency supplies of food and medicine, and police are being deployed in expectation of civil unrest in Northern Ireland. These are not the “sunlit uplands” that our dollar-store Churchills promised. Faced with the possibility that the coming hour will not be our finest, some Brexiteers have switched to promoting the benefits of communal suffering. Perhaps renewed bombardment will turn out to be character-building. Perhaps the Euro-Luftwaffe will drop the “friendly bombs” that John Betjeman once willed to fall on Slough, to “get it ready for the plough.” On December 16, Anthony Middleton, a former special forces soldier turned TV personality, tweeted:

A “no deal” for our country would actually be a blessing in disguise. It would force us into hardship and suffering which would unite & bring us together, bringing back British values of loyalty and a sense of community! Extreme change is needed! #nodeal #suffertogether.

Though widely derided, this opinion is, in certain circles, something of a commonplace. In his yearning for a cleansing fire to burn away the disloyal and revive a lost organic community, Middleton displays a disturbing protofascist mindset. The idea that the suffering of No Deal Brexit would be fairly shared is, of course, transparently absurd. A primary driver of Brexit, both among ordinary voters and among the political and business elite, is the desire to circumvent “regulation” in the form of European legislation on workers’ rights and safety, and to prevent appeals to the European Court of Human Rights. Brexit would cement the changes that took place after the 2008 crash, which was the pretext for a reduction of the social safety net under the guise of so-called austerity. The aim is to remake Britain as a “buccaneering” (for which read “predatory”) low-tax, high-risk place, a sort of reset to the pre-1945 world, before the inauguration of the welfare state and postwar social democracy. Nothing about the political complexion of its proponents suggests an ambition to build community of any kind.

Yet the desire named “Brexit” may not straightforwardly be for victory and the spoils of victory, but for its very opposite. O’Toole surveys the English cult of heroic failure, exemplified by the charge of the Light Brigade and the evacuation from Dunkirk, as well as such mythologized figures as Scott of the Antarctic and Gordon of Khartoum. He sees the exaltation of effort and vain self-sacrifice as “an exercise in transference,” arising paradoxically out of British power. The British of the Victorian period “needed to fill a yawning gap between their self-image as exemplars of liberty and civility and the violence and domination that were the realities of Empire.”

On this reading, the secret libidinal need of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove, and their colleagues is actually for their noble project to fail in the most painful way possible. The immolation of national wealth and prestige on the altar of Brexit would be an imperial last stand, a way to recapture the spirit, if not the material conditions, of the Victorian apogee of British power. In this way, Brexit would provide a resolution to a problem that, in O’Toole’s diagnosis, has dogged the “poor loves” of the English ruling class since decolonization: “Its promise is, at heart, a liberation, not from Europe, but from the torment of an eternally unresolved conflict between superiority and inferiority.”

For many commentators writing at the time of Britain’s entry into the Common Market in 1973, dominance in Europe was to be compensation for the loss of empire. “What about Prince Charles as Emperor?” asked Nancy Mitford, facetiously expressing the secret belief of many British people that Europe could be a new vehicle for old global ambitions. The discovery that the role of “first among equals” wasn’t on offer led to a loss of enthusiasm for Europeanism, which suddenly appeared in a different and sinister light, as a form of subordination to old enemies.

How has what is essentially an English psychodrama turned into an international crisis? Against Dominic Raab’s John-Bullishness about the verities of national character, we might put W.H. Auden’s tongue-in-cheek notion that this character has been formed by place, or, more precisely, by geology. His 1948 poem “In Praise of Limestone” is a mock encomium to a soft and porous rock and the soft and porous men formed by its landscape. Auden’s self-ironizing “we, the inconstant ones” skewers perfectly the limitations of an elite that has historically adopted what O’Toole calls “a studied ennui, a pose of perfect indifference”:

…the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight,
      never doubting
    That for all his faults he is
      loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to
      charm…

Or the “band of rivals” who are

        unable
To conceive a god whose
      temper-tantrums are moral
    And not to be pacified by a
      clever line
Or a good lay…

This patrician fecklessness is one of the most enduring modes of British upper-class charisma, a way to signify superiority over the rule-governed, bean-counting strivers of the bourgeoisie. O’Toole correctly identifies it as a type of camp, allowing mistakes to be laughed off and ignorance to be presented as a virtue, evidence that one is not “touched” by the matter at hand. The English public’s fatal attraction to this posture has been responsible for many otherwise inexplicable political careers. Boris Johnson’s improbable upward trajectory is, for example, entirely due to his pitch-perfect performance in the stock role of the rakish comedy toff, a figure whose avarice and incompetence is indulged because it is somehow enjoyable to watch him getting away with things. It is no accident that the paradigmatically childish image of “having one’s cake and eating it” has been central to Johnson’s promotion of Brexit. As O’Toole notes, even his racism is couched in the language of the nursery. His notorious reference to “flag-waving picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” is like a phrase from the kind of old-fashioned children’s books that are being quietly withdrawn from the library.

It is Britain’s misfortune to have been ruled by such people, entitled men who don’t feel they need to master a brief and sneer at those who have to endure the consequences of their actions. The form of patriotism they have promoted with their shallow, friable charm is less a spur to excellence than a form of historical arrested development, an adolescent inability to live in the world as it is, rather than a version of it misremembered from schoolbooks. O’Toole lays much of the blame for the fiasco of Brexit on the failure of the political elite to address the rise of English nationalism, which grew in intensity during the early 2000s, partly in response to Scottish devolution. Englishness—“its roar,” as the poet Thom Gunn wrote, “unheard from always being heard”—has, with good reason, become associated with ugly racism and xenophobia. Particularly strong outside London, English nationalism has also become an identity of resistance to globalization, a process that has accelerated the disconnection of the capital’s fortunes, which are dependent on finance, from those of the rest of the country. Brexit has offered a credible political vehicle for the assertion of “Englishness” against a “Britishness” that has lost its emotional appeal, a sudden scream after a period of what O’Toole calls “silent secession.”

The English, whose opinions have been formed by the shallow charmers and their enablers, seem fundamentally unable to conceive of a relationship with Europe that is not one of either subjection or domination. They will try, one way or another, to regain what Enoch Powell called “the whip hand,” even if they have to immiserate the country to do it. The principle of equal partnership on which the European Union is predicated is somehow psychologically unavailable, a possibility that is not fully believed or understood. The prolonged agony of Brexit has given ample proof that, as Auden wrote, “this land is not the sweet home that it looks,/Nor its peace the historical calm of a site/Where something was settled once and for all.” In the next few weeks, we will find an answer to his lingering question about its identity:

        A backward
    And dilapidated province,
      connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel,
      with a certain
    Seedy appeal, is that all it is now?

January 24, 2019

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The Fake Threat of Jewish Communism


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘Behind the Enemy Powers: The Jew’; a poster created by the Reich Propaganda Administration and displayed in the Grand Anti-Masonic Exhibition in Nazi-occupied Belgrade, which focused on the alleged Jewish-Communist-Masonic conspiracy to achieve world domination, 1941

One of the great merits of Paul Hanebrink’s A Specter Haunting Europe is its demonstration of how Europe’s most pervasive and powerful twentieth-century manifestation of anti-Semitic thought—the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism—emerged before the rise of National Socialism and has continued to have a curious life long after the Holocaust and the defeat of Nazi Germany. Hanebrink’s approach is not to repeat what he considers an error of the interwar era—the futile attempt to refute a myth on the basis of historical facts and statistical data. A small kernel of truth underpinned the stereotype of the Jewish Bolshevik: a number of well-known early Bolshevik leaders (Béla Kun, Leon Trotsky, Karl Radek, and others) were of Jewish origin. That Stalin killed almost all of them, that overall a very small percentage of Jews were Bolsheviks, and that many prominent non-Jewish revolutionaries (Lenin and Karl Liebknecht, for example) were mistakenly identified as Jewish had no countervailing impact, because, Hanebrink writes, the Jew as “the face of the revolution” was a “culturally constructed” perception.

Trying to discredit powerful political myths with mere facts, as we know all too well today, is a frustrating endeavor. Thus Hanebrink seeks instead to understand the historical background and the “cultural logic” of the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism—how it functioned and morphed through different phases. Ultimately Judeo-Bolshevism embodied, in the form of “Asiatic barbarism,” an imagined threat to national sovereignty, ethnic homogeneity, and Western civilization conceived as traditional European Christian hegemony. It fused, in short, political, racial, and cultural threats into a single “specter haunting Europe.”

Hanebrink notes that amid the exhaustion, defeat, and political dissolution of many European countries at the end of World War I, the threat of the spread of Bolshevik revolution from Russia into Europe caused not only widespread fear and loathing but fear and loathing that identified Jews as the real cause of Bolshevism. He is correct, I think, to point out that this pervasive identification required more than the prominence of Jewish revolutionary leaders, and that Judeo-Bolshevism was constructed from the “raw materials” of earlier anti-Semitism. For Hanebrink the “three venerable pillars” of anti-Jewish thought were the attributions to the Jews of social disharmony, conspiracy, and fanaticism, which made Judeo-Bolshevism both a coherent idea and a ubiquitous, self-evident assumption.

Here I think that Hanebrink could have been more concrete; in particular he could have shown how easily the negative stereotype of the Jew that had originated in the Middle Ages could be updated for the twentieth century. Even before the crisis of 1918–1919, which combined the experiences of defeat and revolution for many Europeans, Jews were invariably disproportionately represented in liberal and socialist parties because they were not welcome to participate in conservative and Catholic political parties. The tendency to stigmatize anything to the left of conservative as Jewish was already evident in 1912, when the electoral victory in Germany of the liberal democrats, Social Democrats, and Catholics—who also made up the “Weimar Coalition” of 1919 that was largely responsible for drafting the Weimar Constitution, so despised by German conservatives—was dubbed the “Jew election.”

The Jew of the Middle Ages, an infidel, became the Jew of the twentieth century, a political subversive. With emancipated Jews being the most visible beneficiaries of the modern commercial and industrial economy by the end of the nineteenth century, the medieval epithet of Jewish usury had already been replaced with that of rapacious Jewish capitalism, and after 1914 the image of the Jew as an economic threat was only intensified by accusations of Jewish war profiteering and black marketeering. The Jew as a clannish outsider in medieval Christendom was easily transformed into the Jew as an unassimilable minority and alien internal threat, at a time when other European nationalities were striving to construct new nation-states out of the ruins of multiethnic empires.

As a result of the postwar flood of refugees and the return of prisoners of war (like Béla Kun) from a Russia wracked by revolution and civil war, the “wandering” Jews among this mass of dislocated people were easily seen as an invading horde and source of revolutionary contagion. With the Bolsheviks in Russia preaching the primacy of international revolution over loyalty to one’s own nation-state and threatening social revolution and nationalization of property, the basis for the “cultural construction” of Judeo-Bolshevism, Hanebrink argues, was all too readily available. In April 1919 Eugenio Pacelli, the papal nuncio in Munich (and future Pope Pius XII), reported to the Vatican that the communist-led Bavarian Soviet (which existed for less than a month before it was crushed by the counterrevolutionary Freikorps) was composed entirely of Jews. One of its leaders, Max Levien, was described as “also a Russian and a Jew,” “dirty,” “vulgar,” “repulsive,” and “sly.” Levien was in fact a Russian émigré to Germany, a four-year veteran of the German army, and a non-Jew. This did not, as Hanebrink observes, signify an exceptionally anti-Semitic disposition on the part of Pacelli but simply reflected the “utterly typical” consensus of virtually all European conservatives at that time.

From the beginning of World War I, tsarist Russia had treated its Jewish subjects as unreliable and potentially disloyal. Its military forcibly displaced some 500,000 to one million Jews from combat zones. The very approach of the Russian army thus also instigated the flight of many other Jews from the eastern regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the presumed safety of cities like Vienna and Budapest. The Russian Revolution erupted amid already existing fears about Jewish loyalty and floods of displaced Jews, and intensified those fears. The “panic” over Judeo-Bolshevism, Hanebrink argues, “flourished in ground that had been prepared by wartime paranoia about Jewish loyalty.” In what Hanebrink calls the “long World War I” in Eastern Europe, including the Russian civil war, the Soviet-Polish war, and the Romanian ouster of the Béla Kun regime and Miklós Horthy’s subsequent White Terror in Hungary, “sovereignty panic” intensified the catastrophic consequences for Jews, particularly in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Ukraine.

Atrocities against Jews led to Jewish appeals to the Allies and the subsequent imposition of minority rights treaties on Eastern European nations. In a vicious circle, these regimes in turn resented Jews as the cause of this infringement on their sovereignty, which they saw as further evidence of Jewish disloyalty. They insisted even more vehemently on the Judeo-Bolshevik connection to justify their past mistreatment of Jews and successfully exploited the Allies’ desire for a cordon sanitaire in Eastern Europe to prevent the further spread of Bolshevism. For instance, the Polish army received crucial military aid to help it resist the Soviet invasion of 1920 even as it interned many of its own Jewish soldiers. All of this, it must be emphasized, took place before history’s most notorious purveyor and champion of the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism had emerged from obscurity on the streets of Munich.

Adolf Hitler combined his belief in that myth with a race-based theory of history and a vision of German Lebensraum in the East, which culminated in his war of territorial conquest, ideological crusade against Bolshevism, and campaign of genocide against Jews. As Hanebrink notes, adherents of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth now had to reconcile themselves with Hitlerian and German hegemony. They did so in different ways. Hungary allied with Germany for territorial gain (Hitler’s return of northern Transylvania), sent troops to the Eastern Front, intensified its discrimination against its Jewish population, and expelled foreign Jews to the killing fields of Ukraine, but did not surrender its own Jews to the Final Solution until the German overthrow of the Hungarian government in March 1944. Romania not only fought alongside Germany and gained territories to the east but directly killed more Jews (over 300,000) than any other of Hitler’s allies, stopping only when its leaders sensed that German victory was no longer inevitable.

For Poles the situation was much more complicated. Having turned down Hitler’s offer before the war of a junior partnership based on shifting Poland’s borders eastward, they were partitioned by Germany and the Soviet Union. However, the experience of both Polish and Jewish victimization under the Nazi occupation did not alter predominant Polish views about their Jewish neighbors. The flight of many Jews from western to eastern Poland, the obvious relief of Jews in eastern Poland that they had been occupied by Stalin rather than Hitler, and ultimately the desperate hope of Polish Jews for rescue and liberation by the Red Army only confirmed for many Poles their belief in Judeo-Bolshevism.

Within Germany the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism was crucial for cementing the complicity of the military in Hitler’s “war of annihilation” against the Soviet Union, portrayed as a “preventive defense” of German and Western civilization. The myth also played “a crucial role in the origins of the Final Solution.” Hanebrink cites the notorious order of General Walter von Reichenau, the commander of the Sixth Army on the southern front, less than two weeks after the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine in 1941: “The fundamental goal of the campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the total defeat of its means of power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence in the European sphere of culture.” Thus the “hard but just punishment” meted out to “Jewish subhumans” was necessary “to free the German Volk from the Asiatic-Jewish danger once and for all.”


British Library‘Trotsky gets kicked out of Kuban’; a poster created for the anti-Bolshevik White forces during the Russian civil war, 1919

Reichenau’s order did not simply reflect the unhinged rantings of one ideologically zealous Nazi general, and Hanebrink could have offered far more evidence of the impact of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth on German military thought and behavior, if this had been the main point of his book. For instance, further north, sixty-one German army officers were invited to meet with top SS officers (including Arthur Nebe, commander of Einsatzgruppe B, and Higher SS and Police Leader Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski) in Mogilev on September 24–26, 1941, for orientation on the partisan threat. The gist of the presentations was the equation Jew=Bolshevik=partisan, accompanied by a demonstration killing of thirty-two Jews in a nearby village by members of Police Battalion 322. Subsequently, military units behind the central front were among the Wehrmacht’s most lethal killers of Jews. And the fatal linkage between Jews, Bolsheviks, and partisans was most catastrophically demonstrated in Himmler’s December 29, 1942, report to Hitler on the results of the “anti-partisan campaign” for the preceding four-month period of August–November. It listed the killing of 1,337 “bandits” in battle, 737 immediately after battle, and 7,828 after interrogation. Furthermore, it listed the execution of 14,256 “accomplices and suspects” and finally 363,211 Jews.

The total defeat of Nazi Germany and exposure of its crimes did not entirely discredit the notion of Judeo-Bolshevism. One of the most fascinating aspects of Hanebrink’s book is his discussion of its strange post-1945 afterlife. In Western Europe, anti-communism, a term that increasingly supplanted “anti-Bolshevism” beginning in the 1930s, took a new direction, but in Eastern Europe the Judeo-Bolshevik myth continued to shape how local populations remembered the war and understood the Soviet imposition of Communist regimes.

The Allied occupation, the war crimes trials and denazification, but above all the division of Germany and the onset of the cold war led to the emergence in Western Europe of an anti-communism that was pro-democratic, pro-American, and not anti-Semitic. Underlying this transformation were two concepts. The first was that of totalitarianism, by which discredited and defeated fascism was equated with communism. The German churches in particular—previously highly nationalistic, authoritarian, and anti-Semitic, and thus all too often fellow travelers of the Nazi regime’s campaigns against liberalism, Marxism, and Jews—now portrayed themselves as resisters to and victims of that regime, which like the Soviet Union had manifested the evils of the secular, materialistic, ungodly state run amok. West Germany’s new self-image of Christian Democracy pitted against totalitarianism dovetailed with the second concept—the American notion of Judeo-Christian values as the basis of both democracy and Western civilization in its cold war opposition to godless communism. By embracing the cold war, assimilationist American Jews finally severed the old identification between Jews and Bolsheviks, but at the cost of giving priority to anti-communism over Holocaust memory. It was not until the late 1970s that the Holocaust began to obtain the position it currently holds in American consciousness.

In the countries of Eastern Europe occupied by the Red Army and subjected to communist regimes, a very different dynamic occurred. The populations of Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Romania, and Hungary in particular continued to see what happened after 1945 through the lens of Judeo-Bolshevism. The installation of Communist Party rule was seen as bringing the Jews to power, and the trial and punishment of Nazi collaborators was seen as Jewish revenge, not justice.

Both Moscow and local Communists were eager to shed the stigma of identification with Jews. Most of the remaining Polish Jews, for instance, were allowed to leave the country after the Kielce pogrom in July 1946, so the regime would not have to protect them. Prominent Jewish Communists, like Rudolf Slánský and his colleagues in Prague, were tried and executed; Ana Pauker in Romania and the non-Jewish but philo-Semitic Paul Merker in East Germany were purged. Only Stalin’s timely death in 1953 prevented the “doctors’ plot” from exploding into anti-Jewish terror in the USSR. A communist anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism and anti-cosmopolitanism was employed both in intraparty rivalries (most famously by Władysław Gomułka in Poland in 1968) and as international propaganda. Public memory of the Holocaust was silenced.

In the 1970s and 1980s an emerging consciousness and memory of the Holocaust transformed it in the West into the paradigm of radical evil and the civics lesson that toleration, human rights, and respect for religious and racial difference were essential values of liberal democracy. The resulting “hegemony of Holocaust memory,” which eclipsed the concept of totalitarianism by giving primacy to the crimes of Hitler over those of Stalin and the suffering of Jews over that of the victims of Communism, was challenged from two directions. The German scholar Ernst Nolte tried to portray the horrors of Asiatic Bolshevism as the factor that elicited a rational defensive response in the form of National Socialism. The American historian Arno Mayer tried to portray communism as the primary target of Nazism, with the Holocaust (or “Judeocide,” as he termed it) as a secondary aim—a byproduct. Both were dismissed as attempts to relativize or trivialize the Holocaust.

Post-1989 Eastern Europe took a different turn, however, with many countries resisting the “hegemony of Holocaust memory” as the ticket of admission into the Western European community of liberal democracies. In that memory, Jews were the quintessential innocent victims, while the populations of Eastern Europe, afflicted by anti-Semitism and the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism that they shared with the Nazis, had been accomplices and beneficiaries of the Holocaust. But in the memory of many Eastern Europeans, they were the innocent victims of the “double occupation” of Hitler and Stalin, while the not-so-innocent Jews had been the accomplices and beneficiaries of Communist rule.

In short, Judeo-Bolshevism had returned as an essential component of the memory wars, and the Holocaust scholarship and civics pedagogy of the West were seen as national defamation in countries like Poland, Hungary, Romania, and the Baltic States. The explosive impact in Poland of Jan Gross’s book Neighbors (2000), which documented the participation of Polish villagers in the massacre of the Jews in Jedwabne, the bitter public debate and discomforting historical research by younger Polish scholars that followed, and the notorious 2018 law banning the attribution of Nazi crimes to the Polish nation illustrate this dynamic of reacting to Holocaust scholarship as national defamation.

In his conclusion Hanebrink argues that the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism is no longer a threat driving Europeans to panic, but rather has been relegated to the politics of contested memory. Unfortunately, I fear that the rantings and conspiracy theories disseminated by the likes of Viktor Orbán against George Soros and the allegedly Jewish forces of globalization, and the chants of “Jews will not replace us” by white supremacists in Charlottesville, demonstrate that anti-Semitism, even if not specifically in the form of Judeo-Bolshevism, still has traction. But Hanebrink is correct, I think, to argue that the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism has been supplanted by another perceived threat likewise constituted from a fusion of race, culture, religion, and political ideology. This is the “Islamization of the West,” embodied in the influx of Muslim immigrants who are considered dangerous, alien, disloyal, extremist, and unassimilable, and thus once again threaten the survival of national sovereignty, ethnic homogeneity, and Western civilization. In place of Judeo-Bolshevism, a new hybrid specter—“radical Islam” or “Islamic terror”—is haunting Europe.

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Climate Signs


Emily RaboteauESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, 23rd Street, downtown C train platform, May 9th, 2018

For Mik


Our son’s love of trains was once so absolute I never foresaw it could be replaced. New York City is a marvelous place to live for train-obsessed boys. When he was three and four, we spent many a rainy day with no particular destination, riding the rails for the aimless pleasure of it, studying the branching multicolored lines of the subway map, which he’d memorized like a second alphabet. I’d hoist him up to watch the dimly lit tunnel unfurl through the grimy front window of the A train’s first car as it plunged us jerkily along the seemingly endless and intersecting tracks. Some rainy mornings, our destination was 81st Street, where we exited the B or C with dripping umbrellas and his little sister in tow to enter the American Museum of Natural History. 

There, at a special exhibition called “Nature’s Fury,” our son’s attention turned like a whiplash from trains to violent weather. Even before this show, the museum demanded a certain reckoning with the violence of the Anthropocene. What grownup wouldn’t feel a sense of profound regret confronting the diorama of the northern white rhinoceros in the Hall of African Mammals, or the Hall of Ocean Life’s psychedelic display of the Andros Coral Reef as it looked in the Bahamas a century ago? Meandering the marble halls of the Natural History Museum is like reading an essay on losing the Earth through human folly. Yet none of its taxonomies of threatened biodiversity, not even the big blue whale, moved my kindergartner like “Nature’s Fury.” 

The focus of the immersive exhibition was on the science of the worst natural disasters of the last fifty years—their awesome destructive power and their increasing frequency and force. Accompanied by a dramatic score of diminished chords and fast chromatic descents, the exhibit meant to show how people adapt and cope in the aftermath of these events, and how scientists are helping to plan responses and reduce hazards in preparation for disasters to come. 

“Are they too young for this?” my husband questioned, too late. Our impulsive boy had darted ahead and cut the line to erupt a virtual volcano. I supposed it made him feel less doomed than like a small god that, in addition to making lava spout at the push of a button, the kid could manipulate the fault lines of a model earthquake, set off a tsunami, and stand in the eye of a raging tornado. 

In the section on hurricanes at a table map of New York, the boy was also able to survey the sucker punch that Hurricane Sandy delivered to the five boroughs. This interactive cartography was a darker version of the subway map he’d memorized, detailing the floodplains along our city’s 520 miles of coast. I can still see my boy there, his chin just clearing the table’s touchscreen so that his face was eerily underlit by the glow of information while my girl crawled beneath. Seventeen percent of the city’s land mass flooded, leaving two million people without power, seventeen thousand homes damaged, and forty-three people dead. On the map, the water was rising to overtake the shorelines at Red Hook, Battery Park, Coney Island… All across the Big Apple, the lights were going out.

“Come away from there,” one or the other of us called uneasily, because we weren’t prepared to confront what climate change would mean for our children, to say nothing of our children’s children. The boy was five at the time. The girl was three. In their lifetimes, according to a conservative estimate in a recent report by the NYC Panel on Climate Change, they could see the water surrounding Manhattan rise six feet. We pulled them away from that terrifying map of our habitat to go look at dinosaur bones—an easier mass extinction to consider because it lay in the distant past. 

What strikes me now as irrational about our response isn’t our ordinary parental instinct to protect our kids from scary stuff. It was our denial. Their father and I treated that display as a vision we could put off until later when it clearly conveyed what had already transpired. “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now,” preached Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 in one of his lesser-known sermons, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” He may as well have been speaking on climate change. Sandy made landfall in 2012, the year after the boy was born, while I was pregnant with the girl. It gave a preview of what the city faces in the next century and beyond, as sea levels continue to rise with melting ice sheets. The storm exposed our weaknesses, and not just to flooding. I remember that when the bodegas in our hood ran out of food, some folks shared with their neighbors. But when the gas station started running out of fuel, some folks pulled out their guns.

As much as we may worry about our kids’ future, it’s already here. 

Avoiding the map didn’t annul its impact on our son. The subject of storms had gripped his consciousness as surely as his author-father’s had been gripped by horror films. That part of the boy’s brain that previously needed to know the relative speed of a Big Boy steam engine to a Shinkansen bullet train now needed to know what wind speed differentiated a category-four hurricane from a category-five. Soon enough, and for months afterward, Mr. Wayne, the friendly librarian at the Fort Washington branch of the New York Public Library, would greet our boy with an apology. There were no more books in the children’s section on the subject of violent weather than those he’d already consumed.

At bedtime, while his sister sucked her thumb to sleep, I offered my son reassurance that we weren’t in a flood zone; that up in Washington Heights—as the name suggests—we live on higher ground. “You’re safe,” I told him. 

“But the A was flooded during Sandy,” he reminded me, matter-of-factly. “The trains stopped running and the mayor cancelled Halloween.” Then he’d go on rapturously about the disastrous confluence of the high tide and the full moon that created the surge, while I tried to sing him a lullaby. 

Eventually, a different fixation overtook extreme weather, and another after that. Such is the pattern of categorical learners. It may have been sharks before the Titanic, or the other way around—I’ve forgotten. Two years have passed since we saw “Nature’s Fury”; a year and a half since our president led the US to withdraw from the Paris climate accords. The boy is seven now, what Jesuits call “the age of reason.” The girl is five and learning to read. If current trends continue, the world is projected to be 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels by the time they reach their late twenties. The scientific community has long held two degrees Celsius to be an irreversible tipping-point. Two degrees of global warming, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), marks climate catastrophe.

At two degrees, which is our best-case climate scenario if we make seismic global efforts to end carbon emissions, which we are not on course to do, melting ice sheets will still pass a point of no return, flooding NYC and dozens of other major world cities; annual heat waves and wildfires will scrub the planet; drought, flood, and fluctuations in temperature will shrink our food supply; water scarcity will hurt four hundred million more people than it already does. Statistical analysis indicates only a 5 percent chance of limiting warming to less than two degrees. Two degrees has been described as “genocide.” 

In fact, we’re on track for over four degrees of warming and an unfathomable scale of suffering by century’s end. By that time, if they’re lucky, our children will be old. It’s pointless to question whether or not it was ethical to have them in the first place since, in any case, they are here. Their father writes about imaginary horrors. For my part, I’m only beginning to see that the question of how to prepare our kids for the real horrors to come is collateral to the problem of how to deal as adults with the damage we’ve stewarded them into.

What helped me to see this was a road sign. I came across it this fall in Harlem’s St. Nicholas Park two weeks before the release of the UN’s Climate Report that concluded we must reduce greenhouse gases to limit global warming to the 1.5-degree threshold. The sign was part of another exhibit, but I didn’t know that when it stopped me in my tracks on my way to work. It was one of those LED billboards you normally spot on a highway, alerting drivers to icy conditions, lane closures, or other safety threats ahead. Oddly enough, the sign was parked in the grass two thirds up the vertiginously steep slope to City College. How did that get there, I wondered. More surprising than the traffic sign’s misplacement was its message:

“CLIMATE DENIAL KILLS.”  

St. Nicholas Park recently ranked among NYC’s top five most violent parks, as measured by high rates of crime. I was assaulted there once by a girl in a gang who coldcocked me in the face. This sign hit me almost as hard. I felt like someone had punched through from another dimension to shock me awake. Was I seeing the sign correctly? Yes. It repeated its declaration in Spanish:

“LA NEGACIÓN CLIMÁTICA MATA.”

Every couple seconds the sign refreshed, unspooling a disquieting, if strangely droll, string of warnings:

“NO ICEBERGS AHEAD”

      “50,000,000 CLIMATE REFUGEES”

            “CAUTION”

                  “CLIMATE CHANGE AT WORK”

                        “ABOLISH COAL-ONIALISM,”

and so on. 

The familiar equipment of the highway sign gave authority to the text. Because it was parked in the wrong place, the sign appeared hijacked—as in a prank. I understood myself to be the willing target of a public artwork but not who was behind it. The voice was creepily disembodied. I admired its combination of didacticism and whimsy. But even with its puns, the sign was more chilling than funny. The butt of the prank was our complacence, our lousy failure to think one generation ahead, let alone seven, as is the edict of the Iroquois’ Great Law.

For several minutes, I paid humble attention to the sign, unsure how to react. The only practical guidance it offered was “VOTE ECO-LOGICALLY”—something achievable given the upcoming midterm elections. But what else was the sign telling us to do? My individual practice of composting and giving up plastic bags felt lame when the headlines were warning of genocide and civilization’s end. I began to feel exposed, standing there, and briefly considered that I might be on Candid Camera

I looked around the park for help, half-hoping the artist might pop out from behind a tree to explain him- or herself. I wanted to process the work’s messaging with somebody else. It signaled the tip of a melting iceberg whose magnitude surpassed my cognition. How to move past the paralyzing fear that whatever we do is too little, too late? The trouble here was one of scale. Sadly enough, no one else in the park that morning seemed engaged by the sign at all. And so I snapped a picture of it with my iPhone and shared it on Twitter.

Almost immediately, a stranger with the handle @AwakeMik replied with a photo of an identical sign he’d just discovered in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, while walking his dog, Chester, named after Himes. “VOTA ECO-LOGICALMENTE,” it said. His wide-angle photo was better than my close-up shot because he’d framed the sign at dusk in the broader context of the cityscape.

I felt a sudden kinship with this man, Mik Awake, who’d noticed the same thing I had, from a broader perspective. The two signs were clearly of a piece. Intrigued, I did some Internet sleuthing and discovered that they were part of a larger series by environmental artist Justin Guariglia, in partnership with the three-year-old Climate Museum and the Mayor’s Office. All in all, there were ten climate signs staged in public parks across the city’s five boroughs—many of these in low-lying neighborhoods near the water, most vulnerable to flooding.  

The Climate Museum’s website described Guariglia’s project as an effort to confront New Yorkers with how global warming affects our city now; to “break the climate silence and encourage thought, dialogue and action to address the greatest challenge of our time.” To that end, the signs’ messages were programmed with translations in languages spoken in the various neighborhoods in which they appeared: Spanish, French, Russian, and Chinese. Thus embedded in the diverse cultural landscape of New York City, the billboards projected a forecast of what we stand to lose with the rising sea. The Climate Museum’s website also offered a city map indicating the locations of the ten signs, with clear directions via public transportation to each. Finally, it introduced an adventure: anyone who could prove they’d visited all ten signs would receive a prize. 

I studied the map with a mix of obligation and gratitude. It reminded me of my earlier failure to process reality at the American Museum of Natural History. Here was an opportunity, perhaps, to do better—if not with my kids yet, then at least with another concerned citizen. I decided to take the artist’s invitation to heart. On a lark, I asked Mik Awake if he’d be willing to navigate Guariglia’s climate signs with me. Amazingly, given the time commitment, the soberness of the topic, the complicated semiotics, and the distance the pilgrimage would carry us, he said yes. 

We had until midterm election day when the signs were scheduled to come down. By visiting one or two a week, between September and November of this unseasonably warm fall, we managed to witness them all. I’ve come to think of this period of my life—part scavenger hunt, part Stations of the Cross—as “Thursdays with Mik.” By now we are no longer strangers, but friends. What follows is an account of our journey to grasp the effects of global warming on the place where we live. 



Emily Raboteau10.) “CLIMATE DENIAL KILLS,” Hudson River Park, Pier 84, Manhattan, September 27, 2018

The first sign Mik and I saw together sat at the end of Pier 84 in Hudson River Park, halfway between his neighborhood and mine in what was commonly known as Hell’s Kitchen. Thanks to real estate development, it’s now often referred to by the tonier names of “Clinton” and “Midtown West.” To get there, I took the downtown A to 42nd Street and pushed west through the crush of tourists gazing up at the digital billboards of Times Square, wondering if those poor suckers knew they were looking at the wrong signs.         

Only someone not from New York City would describe Times Square as the heart of the metropolis. Most of us who are native to the city steer clear of it, especially on New Year’s Eve. But today, it couldn’t be avoided. Passing through the clogged commercial district on my mission, I recalled an unnerving image from the short film, two°C by French filmmaking duo Menilmonde. New York City is depicted in this movie as an Atlantis in the making, subsumed by the rising waters, with the Hudson and East Rivers converging to swallow a Times Square devoid of anyone to watch the blinking ads. 

Is it possible to be haunted by the future as well as the past? The precise and intimate term for this feeling is “solastalgia,” the desolation caused by an assault on the beloved place one resides; a feeling of dislocation one gets at home. I suppose one might feel this in the case of war, domestic abuse, or dementia, but the difference with environmental upheaval is the ingredient of guilt. I walked past the bright theater marquees and the slovenly Port Authority bus station, the brownstone on 43rd Street where my friend C. had thrown me a baby shower in her rent-controlled garden apartment, past the high rise on 10th Avenue where I’d screwed my high-school boyfriend on his parents’ ratty foldout couch—past my former selves, and the ghosts of twentieth-century peepshows and nineteenth-century slaughterhouses, to join my partner at the waterfront. 

Here is Mikael Awake, a few weeks shy of his thirty-seventh birthday. He’s the kind of guy who’s at ease quoting Paul Éluard (“La terre est bleue comme une orange…”) and whose friends ask him to officiate their weddings—a contemplative, caring, stylish man; the hardworking son of Ethiopian immigrants. Mik’s last name is pronounced “ɑ-wə-kə,” but its meaning in English fits his character. That is, the brother is politically “woke,” stumping hard this election cycle for Stacey Abrams to become the nation’s first black female governor down in Georgia, his home state. Mik grew up as one of few kids of color in the schools of Marietta. When I asked him what that was nearby, he joked, “Racism,” before conceding, “Atlanta.”

According to the logic of social media that has shrunk the planet, we’re separated by only one degree, sharing several acquaintances and interests in common. Both of us are writers, and teach writing at CUNY—a vocation, we agree, that brings us closer to the city by putting us in touch with its strivers. We may eventually have crossed paths another way. He’d been following me on Twitter. But it was the climate signs that brought us together. 

My instinct is to focus my lens on Mik, but, unwittingly, he’s already taught me to take a step back. Still, the viewfinder can’t capture it all. What I mean to show is too big. I settle for framing the tension between the human, the landscape, and the sign. This method will become our pattern. 

To the right of the frame floats the former aircraft carrier USS Intrepid; to the left lies the Circle Line cruise ship departure site. The Hudson rolls by behind Mik. Beneath the river, the busy Lincoln Tunnel connects to New Jersey on the other side. Flooding of the tunnels into and out of Manhattan (along with flooding of the subway and energy infrastructure) have been identified as serious vulnerabilities in the Climate Change and a Global City: Metropolitan East Coast Report, a pre-Sandy document that examined climate-change impacts in New York. 

Cyclists zip along the two-lane greenway in front of Mik. The bike path is but one perk of Hudson River Park, which was refurbished from the crumbling docks of a once grubby industrial waterfront as part of the city’s renewal wherein, over the last generation, warehouse districts have steadily transformed into luxury housing. Sandy wreaked $19 billion in damage to the city, yet the rate of development along our coastlines has only increased since that superstorm. We have more residents living in high-risk flood zones than any other city in the country, including Miami. Local city-planning experts are rightly concerned about how we’ll cope when the next great storm surge inevitably strikes. 

After Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg declared that New Yorkers wouldn’t abandon our waterfront. He, and de Blasio after him, have worked to revise codes to make new buildings more climate-resilient with flood-proofing measures such as placing mechanical equipment on higher floors, but each mayor has seen real-estate interests in waterfront development as too precious a political constituency to suppress. In my picture, Mik faces 12th Avenue, across which, and slightly southeast, construction on the glassy towers of the huge Hudson Yards project is topping out, surrounded by a phalanx of cranes. Hudson Yards is one of many recent projects sited within the NYC climate change panel’s projected floodplain for 2050, when sea-level rise could reach 2.5 feet—meaning that all the tall buildings Mik and I behold cropping up at the waterline are shortsighted in that, gradually, they’ll find their foundations inundated. 

Investors tend to think in the short term, in the length of mortgages, according to the timelines of insurance policies. Even the newspaper headlines are guilty of this fallacy, tending to present Armageddon in the near future. Whether we frame it as twelve years away, or thirty, or fifty, or refer to ourselves as the last generation that can stop climate change, we seem to keep pushing back the clock, as if the countdown to the ball drop has only just begun. But when did the clock start ticking?      

Over Mik’s shoulder the sign flashes its warning. How well the city’s personality coheres in the bustling elements that surround my new friend: defense, tourism, transport, development, expansion, confrontation, bullheadedness, and art. Yet my picture, like that short disaster film, is eerily pastoral, as if Mik were the sole survivor of nascent catastrophe.

His face registers concern. I won’t venture a mutual diagnosis of eco-anxiety, the emerging condition described by the American Psychological Association as the dread that attends “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations.” I’m no clinician and such a prognosis pales in comparison to the plight of a person in Puerto Rico still without power post-Maria, or a farmer in India driven to suicide by his perennially scorched crops. We’re privileged not to have been directly hit yet, as have so many in the Global South. It’s our temporary luxury to consider global warming intellectually rather than materially. We have, as black Americans, each in our own way, more immediate threats to battle. Nevertheless, Mik confides in me that his stress makes him compulsively pick at his face. I confess to habitually clenching my shoulders, and the nerve pain resulting from the Atlas-like tilt in my neck. The stimuli are not exaggerated. The glaciers are melting. The water is rising. These are our body’s signs.



Emily Raboteau9.) “HUMAN AGENDA AHEAD,” Castle Williams, Governor’s Island, October 4, 2018

The second and third signs we toured were located on Governor’s Island. Situated in New York Harbor between Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, the island was used from 1755 to 1996 as a military post by the US Army and Coast Guard. Dredged debris from the harbor and landfill from subway excavation were used in the early 1900s to more than double the island’s size—an illustration of the innovative if hubristic remaking of topography that’s characterized the city for centuries. In 2003, the city bought Governor’s Island from the federal government for a dollar. Since its transfer to the people of New York, the island has been used as a public park, accessible by ferry to day-tripping civilians like us. 

There’s a public school on this island. An organic farm. Artists’ studios. Playgrounds. A fifty-seven-foot slide. A “glamping” (glamorous camping) retreat. There were even at one point a pair of friendly goats named Rice and Beans, and a miniature golf course. Its elevated hills were designed with climate change in mind. The cinematic view it offers of Lower Manhattan is glorious—the stuff of a Gershwin score. I had never been to Governor’s Island before, though it’s a place my children would fancy. The October day Mik and I made our visit was warm enough for shorts. 

To the left of my picture’s frame stands the circular sandstone fort, Castle Williams, built in 1811 to defend the rich Port of New York against a naval assault that never came. Mik looks past the climate sign toward the dense cluster of buildings of the Financial District; at the ghost limbs of the Twin Towers and the arrogant blue spike of the Freedom Tower sticking up like a middle finger. That precious spit of land beneath Mik’s gaze seats a $500 billion business sector that influences the world’s economy. Of course, the Financial District wasn’t the only part of Lower Manhattan devastated by Sandy. Within a ten-mile perimeter, 95,000 low-income, disabled, and elderly residents suffered because all of downtown—like Governor’s Island itself—lies in a flood plain. In downtown Manhattan, as in other low-lying neighborhoods at the water’s edge, communication and transportation were cut off, infrastructure was damaged or wrecked, and thousands were without running water and power. Mik and I contemplate the irony of the prior use of Governor’s Island for defense when the real threat of attack to the city is the water surrounding it.

Also under Mik’s gaze is a tidal gauge off the southern tip of Manhattan. Measurements taken there indicate roughly a foot of sea-level rise in the last century. Climatologist Cynthia Rosenweig, who served on the IPCC, has compared sea-level rise to a staircase. “The twelve-inch increase in NY Harbor over the last century means we’ve already gone up one step. When a coastal storm occurs, the surge caused by the storm’s winds already has a step up. Continuing to climb the staircase of sea level rise means we’ll see [a] greater extent and frequency of coastal flooding from storms, even if the storms don’t get any stronger, which they are projected to do,” she said in a post-Sandy interview for Climate.gov.

So what are city planners doing to protect Lower Manhattan? In Sandy’s wake in 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild By Design competition invited proposals for climate-resilient flooding solutions to protect against future storms. One of the seven finalists’ designs, Bjarke Ingel’s BIG U, a vast ten-mile barrier system with a series of levees is now underway, with the first phase of construction planned to begin in the spring.

Naysayers argue that such barriers won’t save Howard Beach and other parts of southern Queens and Brooklyn; that a sea wall enclosing the narrows of New York Harbor still leaves Long Island in trouble, that these halting projects to save the city will take too long, or fall short of the watermark, shifting the burden to stay afloat onto our children. Meanwhile, students at the high school on Governor’s Island are gamely helping to restore the ecosystem of the Harbor with oysters which, before they were killed off with the dumping of toxic waste and raw sewage into their reefs, once served as the base that made this estuary one of the most dynamic, biologically productive, and diverse habitats on the planet. It occurs to me that this hopeful act contradicts the apparently anthropocentric sign, “HUMAN AGENDA AHEAD,” insofar as other forms of life are being taken into account. 

“What do you think this sign means?” Mik asked me. It was the most enigmatic of Guariglia’s messages. The signal seemed to suggest both itself and its opposite—accusing the emblem of capitalism in the background of a greedy agenda that’s laid waste to the planet, while perhaps, at the same time, appealing to its beholder to be more humane, putting people before profit.

Later, I called the artist at his Brooklyn studio to ask about the climate signals, and to clarify this one in particular. “That one came out of the notion that we live in a corporatocracy,” Justin Guariglia explained, quoting the bon mots that it’s simpler to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. “Corporations want this news hidden. Big business has had next to no incentives to care for the earth, though you’d think the preservation of the human race would be incentive enough.” The project was meant to compel people to think ecologically, he told me, and was influenced by the object-oriented ontological writing of eco-philosopher Timothy Morton, as well as the text-based work of neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer: 

We need to get more human-focused but not more anthropocentric. As a human, I’m on the same ontological playing field as garbage and galaxies—not above. As a visual artist, I’m trying to engage with a huge thing operating on several levels requiring several languages. This is an exceptionally urgent problem. It needs to get out into the broad public and raise consciousness. That’s the responsibility of artists and writers. Not the corporations.

I know from a photograph that Guariglia’s left arm is tattooed with a wavy line representing 400,000 years of carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere. It spikes at his pulse point and encircles his wrist like a handcuff. He embodies this stuff. Why the road signs, I asked.

“The medium of the highway sign is embedded with so much information,” he said. “It’s hyper-accessible, and a symbol of authority. People see roadwork signs and think, ‘government.’ They have a limbic response. I wanted to communicate on a broad public level and have people subconsciously absorb it.”

I confessed to having difficulty absorbing the message, and to feeling very small in the shadow of the signs. The artist understood.

Because Guariglia recently traveled over Greenland with NASA to photograph quickly melting polar icecaps, he spoke on a more personal level about a particular pockmarked “galloping glacier” (so-called for the rapidity of its flow): “Could my brain really make sense of an object warehousing 38 million Olympic sized swimming pools of water? Or the scale of a 100,000-year-old hunk of ice the size of California on the verge of calving from an ice sheet? No, but we have to talk about what happens when all this ice melts. Where’s it going?”



Emily Raboteau8.) “INJUSTICE,” Yankee Pier, Governor’s Island, October 4, 2018

Mik asked me at Yankee Pier on the other side of Governor’s Island what I thought of the signs as art. I considered whether or not I liked them. It was as if, after a doctor diagnosed one of my kids with cancer, someone else in the waiting room of the ER asked my opinion of that doctor’s beard. The signs didn’t offer any solace. I hated what they suggested. I did like that they’d brought us to a place offering fresh angles on the city. Mainly, I liked the signs for connecting me with Mik. In my picture, the choppy Buttermilk Channel flows behind him, and off in the distance the elegant arc of the Verazzano Narrows Bridge connects Brooklyn to Staten Island.

When I asked him, in turn, whether he liked the signs, Mik answered that they made him feel less alone. 

Before leaving the island, we stopped at the Climate Museum’s temporary hub in the Commander’s house within a cluster of stately buildings that once served as officers’ quarters. There, visitors were invited to simulate their own climate signs. These read like postcards from the brink, bumperstickers, or protest slogans:

“SEE YOU ABOVE SEA LEVEL!”

“ISLAND NATION JUSTICE.”

“MAKE AMERICA GREEN AGAIN.”

A pamphlet informed us that the Earth’s glaciers hold enough water to raise sea levels by roughly 230 feet. Mik wrote:

“WATER IS THE IMMIGRANT THEY SHOULD FEAR.”

The Climate Museum is the nation’s first museum dedicated to climate change. I later asked its director, Miranda Massie, to comment more elaborately about the organization’s mission. Massie responded in an email about how art, even art with a dark message, can inspire us, “consciously or not,” by reminding us of human creativity and potential:

Museums have strengths including popularity and trust that make them essential to the cultural shift we need to see on climate. Art in particular has the power to move the needle on climate engagement and action for a couple of reasons. It reaches us physically, emotionally, and communally, where we really live. Climate change can seem abstract even in the middle of a hurricane. To fully confront the immense challenge posed by the crisis, we need a visceral sense of reality. We also need to be able to experience the full range of emotions art evokes—awe, grief, surprise, fury, tenderness… And perhaps most of all, we won’t make progress without each other—and art builds community. It is a soft pathway into climate dialogue that lifts climate out of perceived polarization and stigma, allowing us to break the climate silence.

To talk about this subject seriously is to risk being called a doomsayer or a scold. Massie told me that 65 percent of people in the US are worried about climate change, but only 5 percent of us speak about it with any regularity. (Since our correspondence, the number of Americans fearful of climate change has been identified by a Yale poll as surging to more than seven in ten.) In truth, Mik and I talked less in the beginning about climate change than about our lives—his book in progress, our respective lesson plans, the imminent midterm elections, the costumes my children were planning for Halloween… But now I know we were also stumbling together on a path toward new language, led by the signs.



Emily Raboteau7.) “CAUTION,” Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, October 11, 2018

The following week, we ventured out to Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens to see the fourth sign. The park was empty that Thursday on account of a torrential downpour. We were feeling the sultry edges of Michael, a category-four hurricane that made landfall in Florida the day before. The radial pathways leading to the Unisphere were washed out. In the nearby isthmus neighborhood of Willets Point, where permanently flooded streets are bordered between Flushing Bay and the Flushing River, hundreds of small businesses are being torn down and relocated to make room for a multibillion-dollar mega-project. By the time we reached the sculpture, notwithstanding our umbrellas, Mik and I were both soaking wet. Visibility was so poor through the sheets of rain that we couldn’t immediately spot the sign, and so we orbited the Earth, like two lost satellites, until we found it by Africa, stuck on the word, “CAUTION.” 

On the new Google Earth plugin, Surging Seas: Extreme Scenario 2100, created by Climate Central, which uses data from a report by the National and Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to make projections based on the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, the future map of Queens shows that, unless the US transitions to clean energy alternatives, Flushing Meadows Corona Park will be engulfed. So will JFK and LaGuardia airports, sections of north Astoria, College Point, and most of the Rockaways, while large swaths of Long Island City will be submerged in water. You can zoom in tight on the map. From an unscientific perspective, the flooding can appear Biblical, like the wrath of a punishing God. For example, the site of the pizza joint in Howard Beach—where, in 1986, a mob of white thugs wielding baseball bats reportedly taunted twenty-three-year-old Michael Griffith and his friends, “What are you doing in this neighborhood, niggers?” and then attacked and chased them toward the Belt Parkway where Griffith was killed by an oncoming car—will be mercilessly drowned.

Mik stands on a step, to avoid a puddle. The 350 tons of the steel Unisphere, which was the central icon of the 1964–1965 World’s Fair, is more imposing in person than I had anticipated. Yet, in the context of the sign, and softened by a veil of mist, the Earth it represents appears fragile, nearly delicate. The gauzy material of Mik’s shirt echoes the fountain spray. Under his umbrella, and next to the lamppost dividing my picture, Mik looks like a version of Gene Kelly, too pensive to dance. The lamp at the top of the post marks South Sudan, just west of Ethiopia, whence Mik’s parents fled Mengistu’s Red Terror. 

We discussed the comparative effects of climate change in the Horn of Africa and here on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. While that part of the world is drying out, leading to shriveled crop yields and water shortages that in turn contribute to conflict, famine, and forced migration, this part of the world is getting more precipitation. Between 1958 and 2012, the Northeast saw a more than 70 percent increase in the amount of rainfall measured during heavy precipitation events, a greater increase than in any other region in the nation, according to the EPA. That we’re getting warmer and wetter here, however, doesn’t mean we won’t also feel drought conditions in summer. We will. 

All-time heat records were set all over the world last summer, including in our global city. Some days were so hot I questioned whether it was safe to send my kids to day camp. By 2050, New York’s average temperature is projected to rise between 4.1 and 6.6 degrees Fahrenheit, while annual precipitation is expected to increase between 4 percent and 13 percent. The regional trend toward more rain has exacerbated localized flooding—not only during big storms, but also as a matter of course at high tide, since the ocean is already brimming. Street floods are a regular nuisance in some low-lying areas of Queens like Hamilton Beach. Residents there have grown accustomed to swans and fish swimming in knee-high water in the middle of the road when the moon is full.

Perhaps the most common place the average New Yorker experiences flooding is the subway. Even on dry days, the MTA is tasked with flushing from its network some 13 million gallons of groundwater with overworked pumps. When flash floods from heavy rain swamp the tunnels, those of us who commute are routinely delayed, spending more and more time griping underground.

Out in Queens, the 7 line is elevated. Mik and I didn’t stay long, not just because of the inclement weather but also because he was scheduled that afternoon to sign on a townhouse he and his wife were purchasing in Flatbush, Brooklyn. They made sure the property lay outside the floodplain before making their offer. Sloshing our way back to the train near the Mets Citi Field ballpark, he showed me the inscribed Mont Blanc pen he planned to sign the contract with—a graduation gift from his brother. He looked the part of a proud first-time homebuyer on the verge of the American Dream. 



Emily Raboteau6.) “HUMAN AGENDA AHEAD,” Sunset Park, Brooklyn, October 18, 2018

Until they make the move to their new home, Mik, his wife, and their dog Chester will still live in the low-lying waterfront neighborhood of Sunset Park, where nearly a third of the residents live below the poverty line. I joined him there in the park of the same name to visit the fifth sign. Like other disadvantaged communities, this one bears the burden of environmental pollution and impacts of climate change. In addition to being susceptible to flooding, Sunset Park endures poor air quality because of passing traffic on the Gowanus Expressway and three nearby fossil fuel plants whose pollution, ironically, adds a pretty afterglow to the neighborhood’s already remarkable sunsets.  

Mik and I met hours before sunset, at high noon. In my picture, he stands squarely on his shadow, almost camouflaged with the trunk of the tree that appears to branch from his head. The dark blue water of the Upper Bay is just visible at the horizon line. What you can’t see is the gang of tough old Chinese women doing Tai Chi behind me by the tennis courts, in the sudden cold. They belong to a large Chinese population in Sunset Park, which boasts New York City’s largest Chinatown. Appropriately, the sign addresses that part of the neighborhood’s demographic in Chinese. Autocorrect as Freudian slip: when I later asked Kimm, the Chinese midwife who delivered my children, to translate the sign, she texted, “It’s weird—‘Human Agenda for the Futility.” And then, “Oops!—‘Future’.”

Donald Trump has accused climate change of being a fabrication on the part of “the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” He also appointed fossil-fuel advocates to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. What makes this denial and disregard so egregious is that the US is the second largest contributor of CO2 to our planet’s atmosphere, though we’re home to only 4.4 percent of its population. It would take four Earths to provide enough resources for all if everyone in the world consumed as much as we do in the US.

Interestingly, Sunset Park is home to the city’s first grassroots-led, bottom-up climate adaptation and resiliency planning project. Following Sandy, community members organized into a block-by-block, building-by-building plan for action called the Sunset Park Climate Justice Center. The organization’s mission includes supporting local leaders “to coordinate allocation of community resources and mitigate the impacts of future severe weather, including the possible release of harmful chemicals.” 

Since many workers in Sunset Park are employed by natural gas and power plants that could be shut down or curtailed as new climate regulations take effect, activists have appealed to the governor to let communities like Sunset Park lead the development of a transition plan for workers in the fossil-fuel industry to find good-paying new jobs in the regenerative energy economy—in other words, to play an active role in their own adaptation. One example of climate adaptation underway in Sunset Park is a new initiative to shift to renewable energy on a cooperative ownership model. An 80,000-square-foot solar garden is under development nearby on the roof of the decommissioned Brooklyn Army Terminal. It will start to operate this year, open especially to low-income residents. Aiming to serve some 200 families as well as businesses, the solar array will be one of the country’s first models of a cooperatively owned urban power supply, cutting energy costs and emissions for subscribers. 

It’s inspiring to uncover local action taking place despite federal inaction. It’s a drop in an ocean-sized bucket of hypoxic tepid water, but it’s inspiring. Mik told me that he and his wife were looking into applying for a solar rebate initiative and exploring how to green the roof of their new house. I thought it would be impertinent to ask if they planned on having kids, though I believe he’d make a great dad. We discussed their plans for renovation while Chester chased his tail in widening circles.



Emily Raboteau5.) “CLIMATE CHANGE IN EFFECT,” Rockaway Park, Beach 94, Far Rockaway, Queens, October 25, 2018

The sixth sign stood way out in Far Rockaway, Queens. I could have traveled there on the A train, but I chose to go by water. As usual, I was running late. I rushed through Battery Park’s tight warren of streets over the African Burial Ground in time to catch the ferry at Wall St./Pier 11. The Freedom Tower jutted above, like the blade of a sundial. I ran past jackhammering workmen in orange vests and hardhats, the stock exchange, a discount store that used to be an outpost of The Strand, and on tiny Maiden Lane, the ghost of myself aged twenty-five, disoriented and breathing dust, having walked over the Brooklyn Bridge on Rosh Hashanah to stumble upon Ground Zero a week after the World Trade Center attack. I jumped at the blare of a horn: a Moishe’s moving truck rolled through a red light, nearly mowing me down. I was struck by how quickly the city remakes itself. These narrow, cobbled streets were made for horses. I raced waterward down Stone Street, aware of the ticking clock. Flanking the terminal were the Brooklyn Bridge and a noisy helipad. Barges. Water taxis. Seagulls. At Slip A, one dockworker playfully grabbed another from behind: “Yo, you got documentation? This is ICE, assume the position.” A ticket to Rockaway Beach cost $2.75, the same as a subway fare.

The ferry windows were grubby. Seeing out of them was like watching a dream sequence. The shapes at the edges of Brooklyn were hard to discern: construction cranes, IKEA, a windmill, rooftop water tanks like the hats of witches, shipping containers, men with fishing poles. Mik embarked at Sunset Park, somewhat shaken—the day before, a bomb had been delivered to the CNN building, close to his wife’s workplace.    

On the boat ride, Mik and I discussed living in a post-September 11 state of alert, often fearing for our loved ones’ safety. Recently, my children were evacuated from their school, where they regularly practice soft lockdown drills for active shooter incidents. This is something beyond the quotidian mental exhaustion that comes from urban living. Behavioral studies have found city-dwellers pay more attention to dangers and opportunities but less attention in general. In spite of our sensory overload, or because of it, the climate signs have demanded our attention. 

As we were ferried over the water lapping at Brooklyn’s coast, through Gravesend Bay, past the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island and Brighton Beach toward Broad Channel, Mik and I imagined the heightened state of alert that must attend living on the coast. And yet, we envied our neighbors on the coastline their view. When you live, as my family does, in a mid-rise apartment building with a foreshortened view of the building across an alleyway of battered trashcans, it’s easy to forget you’re near water. New York’s master-builder Robert Moses made it harder for pedestrians to access the rivers, creeks, straits, lagoons, and bays surrounding New York City, by hemming in the city with so many expressways. It takes a mental leap to make the worthwhile plunge. 

Neither Mik nor I had ventured to Rockaway Beach before; we’d become tourists at the outer reaches of our own city. The ferry took its time. The sky opened out. We felt the primal allure of water, the drag of the vessel upon it. Soon enough, our heart rates slowed. Melville writes, at the opening of Moby-Dick, about gravitating toward the sea: “It is a way I have of driving off the spleen.”

A feeling of danger gave way to a feeling of opportunity. We disembarked at Rockaway Peninsula, an eleven-mile strip of two family homes and public housing projects. A dome of gold light hovered over it, cast by the double reflection of Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean on the other side. On the free shuttle bus that drove us closer to our destination, I wondered aloud if people who live and work on the water feel happier. A local man with a Russian accent answered yes. “Why do you think people come all the way out here with their wetsuits and surfboards on the subway?” he asked. “To relax!” Then, he kindly directed us to beach 94. The beach was empty. Mik and I couldn’t stop smiling—we felt like we were playing hooky. We surveyed the vast Atlantic, and breathed.

The portrait I made of Mik at the waterline captures that repose. But to my eye, it also looks uncannily like the Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World. The resemblance lies in the nuance of shadows and light, the waving grass, my subject’s backward-facing posture, and the property on the horizon line (in this case, a Mitchell Lama housing complex rather than a farmhouse) that appears imperiled by a looming, unseen force.

The sign sits on the new $341 million concrete boardwalk, built to replace the wooden promenade wrecked by Sandy. “CLIMATE CHANGE IN EFFECT,” it warns, in Russian. The more resilient boardwalk has been built at a higher elevation, with sunken steel pilings above a retaining wall designed to keep sand from being pushed into the streets.

Rockaway was among the New York City communities hardest hit by Sandy. When the hurricane slammed into the unprotected peninsula, flooding it with a fifteen-foot storm surge, the old boardwalk was ripped from its moorings to smash into beachfront properties, a raging six-alarm fire took out some 100 homes in the area of Breezy Point, another blaze decimated a commercial block, and power was down for weeks. The nearby Rockaway Wastewater Treatment Plant was out for three days, during which hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage were released into the waterways—a gross example of why the city must retrofit its wastewater facilities for higher tide levels, to avoid drowning in its own shit.

Post-Sandy, the federal government replenished Rockaway Beach with enough sand to fill the Empire State building twice. An Army Corps of Engineers project has proposed to build eighteen-foot reinforced dunes and thirteen new jetties along the peninsula to help stockpile more sand, which would mitigate the force of storm tides on the beachside, and on the bayside, a $3.6 billion system of levees, gates, and floodwalls to control the level of water. Some blue-collar residents along the Rockaway rail line across Jamaica Bay have used funds from the city’s Build It Back program to raise their houses higher up on stilts. But the Rockaways were built on a sandbar that geologists have argued should never have been developed in the first place. A troubling amount of restocked sand on Rockaway Beach has already been eroded by the relentless action of the waves. Outside my picture’s frame, the sun-dazzled ocean kisses up to the dunes at narrowed parts of the shore, caressing the beach up as far as the new boardwalk.

How to reconcile these twin feelings of pleasure in the city’s enjoyments and terror of its threats? I have learned that the world is running out of sand; that every second we’re adding four Hiroshima bomb’s-worth of heat to the oceans. I think of an hourglass. I think of my kids. But for now, being hungry, Mik and I set out for lunch.



Emily Raboteau4.) “CLIMATE CHANGE AT WORK,” St. Nicholas Park, West Harlem, October 29, 2018

Visiting the seventh sign, Mik humored my kids by agreeing to wear a Halloween mask in St. Nicholas Park. The mask is from the production of an adaptation of Macbeth called, “Sleep No More.” My kids were in costume, too. I brought them along on our errand to reckon with the climate sign after their school’s Halloween parade. The boy was dressed as a killer scarecrow, and the girl, a ninja. I was their mama wolf.

After I shot Mik looking like a nightmare in the mask with no mouth, standing before the sign that originally caught my attention, he was sweet enough to borrow my iPhone to make a family portrait of us. The kids were oblivious of the sign, using the park for its highest purpose—play. They could not keep still. Outside of the frame, they collected acorns, poked sticks in the mud, and tumbled joyfully down the hill.

Not far from here in West Harlem is another park, where their father and I take the kids ice-skating in winter. It’s spread alongside the Hudson River above the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, where the pumps are receiving an upgrade as part of a renovation to improve climate resilience. From the skating rink, you can see the plant’s exhaust stacks rising like a pack of tall white cigarettes. When the wind is strong, it smells of rotten eggs. Recent air samples from the site showed levels of formaldehyde that exceeded guidelines established by the city’s Department of Environmental Conservation, raising the ire of environmental justice groups fed up with the chronic placement of toxic and hazardous waste sites in low-income black and brown neighborhoods.

Formaldehyde, which has been linked with cancer, can be created by incomplete combustion of methane gas produced during the process of wastewater treatment. Molecule for molecule, methane’s a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2, though it’s less abundant in the atmosphere. Its main human-derived sources are agriculture, such as cattle-farming, waste (such as from landfills), and the fossil-fuel industry. “Really, the best thing you can do to save the planet is to kill yourself,” joked a stand-up comedian I had seen at a club in SoHo with a girlfriend the night before. “The second best thing is to stop eating beef.” The Earth has as much as six times more methane concentration in the atmosphere than before homo sapiens emerged. With the thawing of the permafrost regions of the Arctic, more methane is being released. My kids are at the age where they love fart jokes, but as funny as I found that comedian, there’s not much to laugh at in this.  

The sign stands high above Mik on the bluff toward Sugar Hill. Uptown, we’re rolling in hills, some so prominent that they grant sweeping southern views of Manhattan, razed in the nineteenth century of its forests, farms, rocks, and slopes to create the rectangular grid. Back when my son was obsessed with violent weather and I told him we were safe in the Heights, he understood it was an evasion. We aren’t disconnected from the other parts of the city, just as our country isn’t disconnected from the other parts of the world. 

In the silent white mask, Mik faces the entrance to the 135th Street subway at the bottom of the slope. The B stops here, and the C. The subways are the blood vessels of our body politic. Even at three, my boy understood this. It’s hard to imagine what the city would be like without its trains should flooding disable the system altogether; what the spire of the Empire State building in midtown would look like from the rump of Sugar Hill—a buoy? I can’t help wondering what the city will look like to our kids when we’re no longer here. 

At night, when I tuck in the girl, we play a game. I ask if she knows how much I love her, and she replies in the following ways: infinity hundred infinity, more than all the world’s worlds, long after you’re dead, and I’m dead, and the world is dead, too. To each reply, I answer, “More.” Maybe motherlove is a hyperobject, but so, Guariglia has told me, is climate change. For all the ferocity of my love, I’m powerless to protect my kids from the mass extinction we’re in the midst of that could eliminate 30–50 percent of all living species by the middle of the twenty-first century. Why is this not the core of the core curriculum? Why aren’t we all speaking about this? 



Emily Raboteau3.) “NO ICEBERGS AHEAD,” St. Mary’s Park, Mott Haven, Bronx, October 31, 2018

Mik told me that the first user-generated question that came up in his search for St. Mary’s Park in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx was about safety. The sign on a hilltop across the dog run was defaced with graffiti. Two dicks spouting cum and the dictate “Eat my ass,” competed with Guariglia’s flashing warning signals: “FOSSIL FUELING INEQUALITY,” “CLIMATE DENIAL KILLS.”

“FUCK YOU!” someone had also scrawled on the sign’s orange base, which was surrounded by trash. Maybe teenagers had done it, like the two girls passing behind Mik in my photo. I like to think they wouldn’t have, had the art offered comfort or beauty, or had the sign been useful in a practical sense. But in the context of the southeast Bronx, where failing infrastructure is a fact of life, the graffiti read to Mik and me like an act of protest against the hazard sign itself. 

It would have taken me four trains to get here from Upper Manhattan, though it isn’t far as the crow flies, except that the third train wasn’t running to carry me to the fourth, and so I got off at Yankee Stadium and walked three miles to reach St. Mary’s Park—past the Bronx County Court House, through the Melrose Housing Projects, and behind a trans woman in fabulous leggings printed with silver skulls, who clutched at her toothache on her way to a storefront dental clinic, moaning, “Why is the demon bothering me, why?”

Last week, single-use plastics were banned by the European Parliament, while the news came that the sea is absorbing far more heat than we’d realized, and that it’s too late to save the Earth by planting trees. Even if we covered the planet with trees, it would be too late. It is already broken. Another sign appeared in my feed. This one taped in the window of a bookshop in Cornwall, England: “Please note: The post-apocalyptical fiction section has been moved to Current Affairs.”  

The densely-packed Bronx is the poorest of New York’s boroughs, making it more vulnerable to heat of every kind. It isn’t easy for the people who live here to leave. What does it mean, in a neighborhood where many forces choke possibility and freedom of movement itself is restricted by transportation that fails on the regular, to be told that climate denial kills? When we suffer an untreated toothache, the pain is so immediate that we can think of nothing else. 



Emily Raboteau2.) “ELECTRIC RELAXATION,” Hunts Point, Little Riverside Park, Bronx, October 31, 2018

At Hunts Point, two stops closer to the waterfront on the 6 train, Mik and I discovered after crossing beneath the busy Bruckner Expressway, that the sign in Riverside Park was blank. Its solar battery had been jacked, the master lock popped, the orange encasement flung open like the lid of a pilfered jewelry box. We were impressed by the thief’s enterprise in recognizing the battery’s value. When I shot Mik sitting beneath the black screen, I felt curiously relieved by the sign’s defacement, its silence. By this time, at the ninth site, I had memorized the looping messages of the hazard signs, and could focus instead on the graceful posture of my friend, who’d opened his coat to enjoy the sun; the sludge of the Bronx River behind him, and the projects on the opposite shore.

Riverside Park is a little park, covering just 1.4 acres, a Faulknerian “postage stamp of native soil.” Once a vacant lot and illegal dumping site, it’s the first of a planned string of parks to be linked by a bike route as part of the developing South Bronx Greenway. Behind Mik is a fishing pier and canoe launch. I’ve been here before with my kids to ride rowboats in the summer when folks inflate bouncy castles for the kids, hold all-day barbeques, and pump Nineties hip-hop from big sound systems. Although we’re now deep into the fall and the only ones here, today is freakishly warm at 67 degrees. 

Extreme heat is a dangerous element of our changing climate. It kills more Americans per year than any other weather related event. Cities are often 2–8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the areas that surround them because of the urban heat-island effect. At night, when our bodies need to recuperate from stress and heat, the contrast in temperature is more extreme—ranging as much as 22 degrees. This is due to urban design—our tall buildings, black rooftops, and dark pavement, which attract and absorb the sun’s rays. 

A 2013 Berkley study indicated that people of color are up to 52 percent more likely to live in urban heat islands than white people. We face more health risks during heat waves as a result. What’s more, long histories of under-investment in black and brown urban neighborhoods have made our communities heat up more and faster overall than the already hot cities we live in. Hunts Point has one of the city’s highest rates of heat-related fatalities. 98 percent of its residents are people of color. The NYC Environmental Justice Alliance has made addressing the urban heat-island effect its top priority for climate justice because, while hurricanes and storm surges may smack us every five or more years, we can count on extreme heat to clobber us every single summer. 

According to a 2018 article in Grist by Justine Calma, New York City sees a yearly average of 450 heat-related visits to the ER and over 100 deaths attributed extreme heat, but the Environmental Justice Alliance estimates the actual death toll to be a lot higher—depending on the variable criteria different researchers use to link deaths to heat waves, the annual number could be over 600. A recent Columbia University study projected that by 2080, up to 3,300 New Yorkers per year could die due to heat-related causes exacerbated by climate change. In fact, New York is one of the most vulnerable cities in the developed world to the threat of urban heat.

The Hunts Point peninsula is an example of a hotspot within a heat island, Calma writes. It’s a heavily industrial neighborhood where residents, who make, on average, $22,000 a year, often live in packed apartment buildings with more heat-trapping surfaces and fewer green spaces to help cool the neighborhood. Who can afford an air conditioner on $400 a week, let alone the higher electric bill to run it, when there is rent to be paid?

The New Yorkers most at risk of heat emergencies live in fence-line communities of color like this one, burdened by decades of polluting infrastructure as well as poverty. For a long time, Hunts Point had one of the lowest parks-to-people ratios in the city, but over the past decade, locals have lobbied for more green space along its riverfront, like this one. To the left of my frame is a salvage yard heaving with crushed cars and scrap metal. At my back, across some railroad tracks, an idling produce truck is unloading cartons of ripe pineapples and strawberries. Hunts Point works as both mouth and ass for the city, getting food in, taking waste out: this neighborhood of 13,000 people has the world’s largest wholesale produce market and over a dozen waste transfer stations. Along with the rest of the South Bronx, it handles nearly a third of the city’s solid waste. Meaning, there are trucks everywhere, all the time, piping out hot exhaust, heightening the risk of asthma attacks, and further broiling the air. 

The city’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency recently launched a “Cool Neighborhoods Plan,” to partner with grassroots organizations in efforts to mitigate the health risks of extreme heat in vulnerable communities. Strategies include painting surfaces white, planting trees, checking on older people who might be housebound in stifling apartments, greening roofs, and getting out the word about cooling centers—public air-conditioned facilities like libraries, community centers, and senior centers, where folks can cool off for free. City officials piloted the initiative in three neighborhoods last summer, including Hunts Point. Without whole-cloth citywide initiatives toward cleaner energy, hotspots like this could be feeling summer days that are 15 percent hotter than today by the 2080s. Can you even imagine a 120-degree day? In the cities of New Delhi, Baghdad, Khartoum, Mexicali, and Phoenix, they’re already there.   

The unspoken threat remains in the frame, as does the tension between the sign, the human, and the landscape, but all the same, it was another beautiful afternoon for walking the city. Later on, I took my children trick-or-treating without need of their jackets.



Emily Raboteau1.) “VOTE ECO-LOGICALLY,” Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, Staten Island, November 5, 2018

The following week, Mik and I visited the tenth and last sign. We rode the Staten Island Ferry to get us closer to Snug Harbor, where the sign was stationed. It was the day before midterm elections, and gently raining. The air held an elegiac mist with an electrical charge: leaning over the ferry’s wet rail, it was impossible not to conjure Walt Whitman thinking about us “ever so many generations hence.”  

“Whitman was one of my gateway drugs to literature, and these days I have such a hard time connecting to his voice, optimism and vision of America,” Mik admitted. “How hard it is now to have faith that future generations will even exist.” We regarded the Statue of Liberty in a shawl of fog, and Ellis Island.

Climate change has become an often-unspoken contributing factor driving recent waves of immigration, such as the Central American migrant caravan used by the right-wing media to stir up ire as it neared the Mexican border. Mik grew quiet looking out at the white wake of passing ships. Patrol boats, skimmers, tugs, barges, the ghosts of whalers and steamers, and the ocean liner Queen Mary 2. I asked what he was thinking about. 

“The wildfires in California,” he said, and all those fleeing fire, “but also how many more of us will be climate refugees in our own lifetime, all because folk turned greed into an economic system a few hundred years ago.”

Belying his justifiable pessimism was the fact that Mik had just returned from Georgia, where he’d volunteered to drive elders without transportation to the polls for early voting. Understandably, he was nervous about the direction our country would go. There was a larger national anxiety about the feasibility of a “blue wave”—a Democratic sweep to win back the House. “I don’t believe it,” President Trump said of his own administration’s November report, which stated, “climate change is transforming where and how we live.” In the Republican stronghold of Staten Island, a borough known for voting against its own environmental interests, it cheered us somewhat to observe Democratic congressional election signs staked in the front yards of North Shore houses on the bus route to Snug Harbor.

Snug Harbor has been referred to as Staten Island’s “crown jewel.” People get married and shoot films there. Once a retirement community for aged merchant sailors, it’s now a National Historic Landmark District set inside an eighty-three-acre park that runs along the Kill Van Kull tidal straight. Mik and I wandered among lush gardens freakishly still in bloom, a duck pond, a fountain memorial to local rescue workers who lost their lives on September 11, a farm, a surreal field of brightly colored lanterns including the giant head of a dragon, and several Greek Revival, Beaux Arts, and Italianate-style buildings—a chapel, a foundry, a theater hall, a hospital—remnants of the nineteenth-century seafaring community, repurposed for the arts.

Inside one of these stately buildings, now operating as a museum, we found Gus, a maintenance worker built like a fire hydrant, who bragged about Snug Harbor with charming civic pride. He was grateful to Jackie Onassis for her part in preserving the site and was glad to share its history with other New Yorkers—who, he admitted, tend not to visit the borough because it’s difficult to access, and because of lingering bad PR over the Fresh Kills dump that grew, over the second half of the twentieth century, into the biggest manmade structure in the world.  

Mik asked if the maintenance crew was doing anything particular to protect the landmarked buildings from sea-level rise. Not that he was aware of, Gus said. “Like most New Yorkers, we only think about that stuff when it’s too late.”   

On the subway map, Staten Island looks small and somewhat neglected, an afterthought boxed in the lower left-hand corner like a leftover chicken nugget. In reality, it’s huge—over two and a half times the landmass of Manhattan—nearly as sprawling as the borough of Brooklyn. Situated in the crook of the New York Bight, the island suffered more than half of the city’s forty-three deaths during Sandy, bearing the brunt of a storm tide that peaked here at sixteen feet. 

Gus talked about the southeast shore of Staten Island, specifically the wooden bungalow community of Oakwood Beach hit by the superstorm’s worst flooding in a funnel effect that left some clinging to their rooftops while others drowned in their basements, trying to fix their sump pumps. That part of Staten Island is now rewilding with grasses, flowers, insects, possum, deer—returning to a natural wetland state. Most of the homes there were demolished after property owners took buyouts from the state government, choosing to relocate rather than attempt to rebuild—one of few examples in the city of managed retreat. As our coastlines become increasingly unlivable, this kind of deliberate migration away from the water’s edge may grow more commonplace. In the meantime, a breakwater project is underway around the south shore to protect those stalwarts who remain, seeding oyster beds to prevent coastal erosion and absorb wave energy while cleaning the water, while the Army Corps is planning a $580 million seawall that many scientists claim would ultimately fail. 

“Humans are stupid,” Gus shrugged. “We want what we want, even when it don’t make sense.” He urged us to return to Snug Harbor for the winter lantern festival. He’d mistaken us for a couple. In a platonic sense, I guess we were. Ours was a marriage of inconvenient truth. I couldn’t show a face of fear to my family, and so I showed it to Mik, who held my gaze without judgment, and looked right back. Even though I knew I’d see him again, I felt a little sad that our assignment was ending. I enjoyed his company, and our journey gave structure to my scattered thoughts. The rain was growing heavier and so we took cover under a gazebo.

In our final portrait, Mik takes his hair down and folds his arms protectively over his middle. He looks older to me than he did in September, when we met by the first sign. “La terre est bleue comme une orange…” The world is blue like an orange. Orange is a color that strikes you in the gut. I am struck by the orange dominating this picture, turning it nostalgic. The traffic cone, the fall leaves, the gazebo walls, the base of the road sign, the text, and even the undertone of Mik’s skin appear orange beneath the thunderclouds. The warm orange of autumn integrated with the bright orange of hazard. 

“VOTE ECO-LOGICALLY,” warns the sign, approaching its target.

The next day, a lot of us did just that. Bronx-born Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the democratic socialist who was voted to represent New York’s 14th congressional district, has just posed the Green New Deal, which aspires to cut US carbon emissions soon enough to attain the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious goal: preventing the world from warming any more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. “This is going to be the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil-rights movement of our generation,” the young congresswoman said at a Town Hall meeting a month after the election, drawing on the cocky attitude of American exceptionalism. Who am I to say “too little, too late,” when she’s supplied me with the script to motivate my children with this rallying cry: “The only way we’re going to get out of this situation is by choosing to be courageous.”

I heard the same conviction in Justin Guariglia’s voice when I interviewed him about his art. He described what it felt like to photograph the Arctic meltdown from the troposphere with a mixture of emotions: fragility, urgency, anxiety, awe—the simultaneous contraction and expansion of self that Whitman sang about. “You sense your own insignificance and the sublime,” was how Guariglia put it.

My route with Mik across New York felt like a less glorious, though still noble, version of that crossing. I hold in my mind a new map of the city as a vulnerable and precious entity, both larger and smaller than I had understood, an appreciation of the water that binds us, gratitude for the prize of a friend I didn’t have before, (worth infinitely more than the tote bag bestowed by the Climate Museum) and the sinking realization that, eventually, we may have to migrate. Finally, I learned an altered sense of time, which I’ll describe by paraphrasing the philosopher whose work inspired the climate signs that led us down a soft pathway out of silence into speech: we must awaken from the dream that the world is about to end; action depends on our awakening. When did the countdown begin? Let us reconsider the clock. Morton theorizes that the world has already ended. The ball dropped in 1784, he writes, with the advent of the steam train and the resulting soot that indelibly marked our footprint on the Earth’s geology during our swift carriage into the Industrial Revolution. 

I think of the romance of the train, the iron horse that collapsed time and distance even as it began to undo us. How well my boy once loved trains. That boy is no longer here. In his place is another. In Mik’s picture, my son stands as tall as my shoulder. Fittingly, for a kid whose latest passion is monsters, his favorite holiday is Halloween. At first I begged him not to chew Mik’s ear off about supervillains from the Marvel universe and the darker actions of Greek Gods. Then I stopped myself, and thanked my boy for his morbid curiosity. He is teaching us to pay attention. The signs hint at violence. I like how he and his sister are dressed in the context of the sign’s bad news. CAUTION. The boy wields a scythe. The girl wears a katana tucked in her belt. She is stealthy; he is fierce. They look strong and alert. Good. They will have to be brave for the roadwork ahead. 



Mikael AwakeThe author with her children in their Halloween costumes, October 29, 2018

Photos of the signs are courtesy of the author, with permission from Justin Guariglia, The Climate Museum, and Mikael Awake, who has written a companion essay to this one that will appear in The Common

 

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/3wS10VArOOE/

Among the Vitamin K ‘Anti-Vaxxers’


Eve Arnold/Magnum PhotosA mother looking at her newborn baby, Long Island, New York, 1959

For pediatric resident physicians, the newborn nursery at a high-risk delivery center is a potent mix of the mundane and the terrifying. We spend most of our time teaching new parents how many wet diapers to expect in a day, making slight adjustments to breastfeeding positions, listening again and again to normal hearts. Most babies don’t need a pediatrician at delivery, and these kids simply arrive on our unit, swaddled and ready for life outside the womb.

Sometimes, though, birth is an emergency: the baby has no heart rate; the baby is not breathing. I wear running shoes here even though I’ve lost a pair to bloodstains, so that every time my pager sounds I am ready to sprint upstairs to the labor and delivery floor. 

Mid-morning, a nurse calls downstairs to tell us that the mother who will have a C-section at noon is declining the Vitamin K shot for her baby. Although the trend of refusing neonatal Vitamin K feels fresher to me than vaccine refusal, it may just be less publicized. I, like many pediatricians, see an increasing number of refusals.

Jen, my intern, sees me grimace. “We need to go upstairs and talk to her before the birth,” I say. “She’s refusing Vitamin K. Do you want to lead this conversation, or do you want to listen to me?”

“Maybe since it’s the first time, I’ll listen to you,” Jen says. 

“OK,” I say. “So let’s go over it first. Why do I care so much that this baby gets Vitamin K?”

“Her blood can’t clot without it,” Jen says.

“Exactly. So the risk of not getting the shot is?”

“Bleeding,” Jen says.

“Brain bleeds and bleeds in the gut are the ones we care about,” I say. “And when might babies who don’t get Vitamin K start bleeding?”

“Um, pretty soon?” Jen says. 

“Yup,” I say. Babies are at the highest risk for Vitamin-K Deficiency Bleeding (VKDB) in the first week of life, so the standard of care is to give the shot within an hour after birth. Many parents don’t know that the risk of VKDB is high in untreated newborns: between one in sixty and one in 250 babies who don’t get the shot will have a clinically significant bleed, like a bleed in the gut that makes them anemic or a brain bleed that affects their neurodevelopment. 

A small minority of these bleeds will be devastating hemorrhagic strokes, which may leave previously healthy babies with severe brain injury or, sometimes, kill them. The severe bleeds happen later in life, between two weeks and six months of age. They are unprovoked—there need not have been a car wreck, trauma or abuse. There are usually no warning signs until the bleeding is severe enough to cause pressure on the brain. 

The Centers for Disease Control, in an appeal to parents, have published a handful of stories from parents whose babies suffered life-threatening VDKB. “Judah’s Story” tells of a healthy boy whose parents declined the shot. At five weeks old, Judah began vomiting. At first, his parents thought he had stomach flu, but by evening he had become lethargic. His folks were getting ready to take him to the ER when he started having seizures. Within hours, the baby was having emergency brain surgery and on his way to a pediatric ICU.

Such bleeding is not among the conditions that doctors are required to report to public health authorities, so we don’t have great data on how often this is happening. Anecdotally, in my three years of residency, I have seen a handful of cases. In every case, it was a healthy kid like Judah, whose life was forever altered by a brain hemorrhage that could have been prevented with a single shot of Vitamin K.

“So what will this mom want to know?” I ask Jen.

“Side-effects of the shot,” she says. (There are none other than pain at the injection site.) 

“If there are any chemicals in the shot.” (Our hospital uses preservative-free Vitamin K.) 

“If she can wait and get it at her pediatrician’s office.” (Not advised because, again, babies are at high risk in the first days of life.)

Upstairs, Jen and I find the expectant mother alone in her room, waiting to be transferred to the operating room for her C-section. Her husband is home minding the kids. We introduce ourselves as the pediatricians who will be there when her baby is born. “So when Mia is born,” I say, “the OB doctors will hold her up for you to see her. We’ll try to do delayed cord clamping, and then she’ll come over to the baby bed with us for a few minutes. Sometimes babies need a little extra help adjusting to the world when they’re born, so our job is to help her out if she needs that. We’ll warm her up and make sure she’s breathing well, and we’ll get her in your arms as soon as possible.” 

The mother nods and smiles, so I continue. “We give three medicines to all babies on the first day of life: erythromycin eye ointment, and a vaccine against Hepatitis B, and Vitamin K,” I say. Erythromycin prevents blindness caused by gonorrheal infection of the babies’ eyes, and the reason we give the Hep B vaccine so soon is because vaccination within twelve hours of life can prevent mother-to-child infections of hepatitis B. 

“Oh, I don’t want to do any of that,” she says.

“Tell me more about that,” I say.

“I just don’t think she needs all those medicines right away,” she says. “My midwife told me to say no.”

This genuinely surprised me. Most practicing midwives are nurses, professionals who provide excellent prenatal care and deliver lower-risk pregnancies safely and competently. I was surprised that a midwife entrusted with the health of mothers and babies would give advice that is so obviously unsafe. 

We know that babies delivered at birthing centers are less likely to receive Vitamin K. After a cluster of four cases of life-threatening VKDB in Tennessee babies in 2013, a study found that 28 percent of infants delivered at Nashville-area birthing centers did not receive Vitamin K. I had assumed, however, that parents who declined the shot were acting against the advice of the midwives caring for them.

“I know you’ve had good prenatal testing, so in your case I do think it’s safe to hold off on erythromycin and hepatitis B,” I said. “But let’s talk about Vitamin K.”

Jen and I spent some time in the room, trying to ensure the baby’s safe delivery without strong-arming the mother. We did what I think is our due diligence: we said the words “stroke” and “bleeding in the brain.” We promised that we would respect her choice but made it clear that our firm medical advice was to get the shot. 

The mother called her husband, and decided she would make a decision after the birth. The surgery went smoothly, and Mia was born vigorous and beautiful. But the mother did refuse Vitamin K. She said she didn’t want to “overwhelm her system with a massive overdose of vitamins.” 

It isn’t an overdose, I fretted inwardly. It’s a dose. 

Jen encouraged Mia’s mother to talk with her primary provider again about Vitamin K, and we let it go. My attending physician tried to call the midwife, but couldn’t reach her. I was left wondering about Mia’s vulnerability, and how I see it differently from her mother. 

Newborn babies are resilient in many ways: they have remodeled their skulls to fit through a pelvis, activated dormant lungs with the first breath of air, opened and closed special passageways in their hearts to match their new extra-uterine environment. Within moments of birth, they are breaking down blood cells and learning to see. I have seen babies born with no detectable heartbeat who get the right pediatric care and are crying vigorously and ready to eat within fifteen minutes of life. An adult could never do that. Newborns are hardy people, in short, and I don’t think a shot can really harm them. A medically appropriate dose of a vitamin can’t overwhelm them. A brain bleed can.

Later in the week, Jen’s co-intern Emily convinced another reluctant mother to accept the shot. This mother simply didn’t know what the stakes of refusal were, and when Emily explained, she changed her mind. 

This is the best pediatricians can do: we can be kind, and we can make sure that parents who refuse Vitamin K understand the possible consequences of that decision—as well as someone who has never set foot inside a pediatric intensive care unit ever will. A colleague told me a story about an anesthesiologist who heard a parent say, mid C-section, that she had chosen not to give Vitamin K. The parent was talking to the pediatrician, but the anesthesiologist snorted and said, “That’s a bad choice.” Supposedly, the parent heard him and changed her mind. 

The story makes me wonder if I should listen less and be more blunt. But parents are allowed to make choices that put their children in unnecessary danger. They are allowed to weigh risk and benefit on their own scales. They can see a shot as harm. Research has shown that parents who decline Vitamin K are likely to go on to decline vaccination. Like those who refuse vaccines, they tend to be college-educated, white, and born in this country—people like me, whose social privilege insulates them somewhat from ill-health.  

Even if my body is insulated, however, my mind is not. I am afraid of giving birth because I have seen women die trying. I am afraid of fever in the first eight weeks of life because I have seen how bacteria can liquefy the brains of children. I am afraid of whooping cough because I have watched a baby’s oxygen levels drop and his heart rate slow, closer and closer to cardiac arrest. I am afraid of nature, because my work has thrust life’s excruciating vulnerability in my face. 

Children die of diarrhea and starvation; they are killed in war. Pneumonia is still the biggest killer of children in the world, though we have vaccines that could prevent many of these deaths. In this country, vaccines such as those against Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, whooping cough, and the influenza virus prevents tens of thousands of pediatric deaths every year. The flu vaccine, for example, reduces a healthy child’s risk of dying from influenza by 65 percent—even if they catch the illness despite vaccination. Approximately 80 percent of the 185 American kids who died of flu last year were unvaccinated. If privilege allows some parents to believe that they are capable of protecting their children without vaccines or Vitamin K, my experience in the children’s hospital—where all the sickest children congregate—makes me afraid that we can never do enough to protect the most vulnerable among us.  

But parents who refuse preventive medicines such as vaccines and Vitamin K do think they are protecting their children. They tend to believe that children are under constant threat: from toxins, from medical interference, from corporate conspiracy. As the American writer Eula Biss writes in On Immunity: An Inoculation (2014):

So now it is, in the activist Jenny McCarthy’s words, “the frickin’ mercury, the ether, the aluminum, the antifreeze” that we fear in our vaccines. Our witches’ brew is chemical. There is not actually any ether or antifreeze in vaccines, but these substances speak to anxieties about our industrial world. They evoke the chemicals on which we now blame our bad health.

These parents see a vulnerability similar to the one that I see in their children, but in their minds the threats come from society. “We seem to believe, against all evidence, that nature is entirely benevolent,” Biss writes. The way I see it, society is by no means benign, but it does offer vaccines and Vitamin K as safeguards against threats that come from nature.

*

On a Friday afternoon in my primary care clinic, I see a two-week-old boy who has not received Vitamin K. In conversation, I realize that the mother doesn’t object to the vitamin itself; she objects to the shot.

This family is the ideal target for oral Vitamin K supplementation, an option used as standard of care in the Netherlands. In the US, we do not have an FDA-approved form of oral Vitamin K to prevent VKDB, and there is no evidence that the options we do have (grinding up pills and mixing them in water, or giving the injectable liquid by mouth) are effective. When I tried to prescribe oral Vitamin K for a baby, I got different dose recommendations from two different pharmacists, and neither recommendation was evidence-based. To circumvent this confusion, a children’s hospital in Oregon once devised a standard protocol for dosing oral Vitamin K, but doctors there ultimately abandoned the plan because of the absence of evidence for efficacy—a rational choice when we have a cheap, widely available, and near-universally effective shot. 

Pediatricians Melissa Weddle and Carrie Phillipi have argued that American doctors should not recommend off-label use of oral Vitamin K. Even in countries where the proven oral formulation is available, there are treatment failures that would not have occurred with the shot. Oral Vitamin K has to be given several times, at specific intervals in a baby’s life, and studies suggest that many kids won’t get all the prescribed doses. Between this demand for timely repeat dosing and the tendency of babies to vomit oral medicines (or just to vomit, anytime, for whatever reason), some babies treated with oral Vitamin K still develop VKDB. Also, babies who have undetected problems with their liver or gallbladder may not be able to absorb the oral medicine and will remain at risk despite oral treatment.

The safe, effective, and proven method we already have available should be the standard of care for all babies. But there are cases where a family would consent to treatment if only it weren’t for the shot. And even if oral Vitamin K prophylaxis is second-rate care, it is better than no prophylaxis. I wish we in this country would get around to evaluating oral Vitamin K as a second-line option for the minority of babies whose parents are adamant shot-refusers. 

“Tell me more,” I say, because I sense that the mother is holding something back. 

She looks down into the baby’s face as she replies, so softly I almost don’t catch it. “I don’t believe it is right to pierce his holy body with a needle,” she says. 

At that, my heart softens, because this is the kind of objection I feel for. It is not based on risks that science has proven are imaginary, or on false notions of “toxins,” or fear of chemicals that occur naturally in foods and the soil and are added to medicines. This mother’s child is holy, and his body is perfect, and we ought to leave it be.

I agree that they are holy, these pokey, half-myelinated creatures whose needs have woken me from sleep, or kept me from it, a thousand nights. But to persist in my work, I must believe that holiness is inviolable even as the body itself breaks open and bleeds. Babies are holy when they are plump and warm in the newborn nursery. They are holy when they have nasogastric tubes snaking out of their nostrils. Children sedated and paralyzed in the ICU, with surgical wounds freshly bandaged, are holy. Children with double-lumen central lines dripping chemotherapy drugs into their veins are holy. Children reading comics while a hemodialysis machine four times their size runs their blood through a filter, children on heart-lung bypass after drowning in a backyard pool, children who need four IV medicines to make their faltering hearts pump long enough to keep them alive for transplant: holy, holy, holy. 

No needle is strong enough to interrupt for a single second the holiness of a child’s existence. This notion that it could seems to overestimate the ontological power of medicine: I certainly infringe on the bodies of children, but I do not believe their essential selves—their spirits, or their holiness, or their souls—can be harmed by a needle. That takes stronger stuff.

It is common for religion to inform how medicines are used. A deeply Catholic mother who fasted three days so Jesus would relieve her son of the symptoms of asthma recently told me that she nevertheless believes albuterol inhalers are evidence of God’s working through physicians’ hands. An observant Muslim mother whose child refused to take pills was delighted to follow my recommendation for gelatin-free gummy vitamins. (Pork gelatin, contained in many medicines, is considered by some haram, although an international council of imams convened by the World Health Organization has recommended that medicines and vaccines be regarded as exempt from the prohibition.) A woman raised as a Jehovah’s Witness told me her family had renounced her for allowing her three-year-old son to receive an infusion of platelets when chemotherapy had driven his own levels so low that he was at risk of dying from a nosebleed. 

It is not common, however, for religion to present hard refusals that elide creative work-arounds when the potential consequences of declining to use the medicine are so dire.

The boy who has not had the Vitamin K shot is warm, swaddled, breathing quietly. His heartbeat is regular and his normal newborn’s heart murmur has faded. He is holy; he is perfect. And it is shocking to realize the narrative place my medicines hold in this mother’s cosmos. To her, my shot and I are pollutants. We are the bitter Samaritans, strewing bones through the temple in Jerusalem. 

But I am not bitter at my core. I want him to get Vitamin K for practical reasons: so he can stay home safe, in his mother’s arms, with no critical need for my medicines and me. I don’t want him to bleed into his brain. I don’t want neurosurgeons to slice through his skull to relieve the pressure. I don’t want him on a breathing tube in our ICU. The vitamin is preventive, a charm to ward me off. 

The mother and I come to understand each other, but we do not agree, and the baby leaves without the shot.


Identifying details of patients have been omitted or changed.

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