The Summer Break Where Charlotte Brontë Started ‘Jane Eyre’

Black Cardigan is a great newsletter by writer-editor Carrie Frye, who shares dispatches from her reading life. We’re thrilled to share some of them on Longreads. Go here to sign up for her latest updates.

* * *

In the summer of 1843, Charlotte Brontë was staying at the school in Brussels where she was both a student and a teacher—at this time, more the latter. Over her time at the Pensionnat, she had developed an unrequited passion for the directrice’s husband, Constantin Héger, and she’d been present as he departed for the seaside with his handsome wife and their young children. The other teachers and the school’s boarders had already left for their own holidays, and Brontë was the only person left remaining except for the cook. Her friends outside the school had left the city too. Summer in the city: everyone who can, leaves. Her relationship with the cook, one suspects, was cordial but necessarily distant, and the cook would have had her sleep quarters in another part of the house. Brontë was alone at nights in the dormitory.

If you’ve read Villette, the contours of this summer term are already familiar. The empty dark echoing hot rooms of the school, the tiny plain Englishwoman fluttering through them like the world’s most anguished moth:

How long were the September days! How silent, how lifeless! How vast and void seemed the desolate premises. …  A sorrowful indifference to existence often pressed on me – a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly. Alas! When I had full leisure to look on life as life must be looked on by such as me, I found it but a hopeless desert: tawny sands, with no green field, no palm-tree, no well in view.

CoverIf you’ve ever been lonely and heartsick abroad, feeling yourself connected to no one for days on end, it’s an easy scene to identify with. Claire Harman’s biography, Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, starts with a description of how, as happens to Lucy Snowe in Villette, Brontë, a Protestant, was eventually drawn to a Catholic church and, entering the confessional, poured out some of her “long accumulating, long pent-up pain” (Villette‘s phrase) to the priest there.

Harman’s biography is excellent, by the way; elegant and keenly perceptive, while retaining a nice generosity in its descriptions of people’s actions and motives. Later in it, she returns to that summer and describes how Brontë found herself in that jittery, restless, depressed state where you’re unable to read or focus on anything. Harman notes: “Walking the busy city streets was just as distressing: ‘I know you, living in the country can hardly believe that it is possible life can be monotonous in the centre of a brilliant capital like Brussels,’ she wrote to [her friend Ellen Nussey]; ‘but so it is.‘”

For a Brontë, writing would normally have been a comfort and a refuge, but that, too, required a focus that Charlotte didn’t have that summer. She did manage to write a little, however—or at least planned to. Harman shares an outline for a story Brontë started inside a German exercise book. The story was to be a “magazine tale” set 30 to 50 years before in England, have a rural setting, be in the first person, and deal with characters of “Rank—middle.” After the heading for “Subject,” Brontë had written, “Certain remarkable occurrences,” which is a pretty wonderful instance of literary plot TK-ing. Feel free to use it yourself next time you’re stuck in a draft: [Certain remarkable occurrences TK.]

At the back of that same exercise book was this fragment, unrelated to the “magazine story” outline. It reads:

There was once a large house called Gateshead stood not far from a [illeg.] high-road in the North of England—it is gone now every vestige of it, and the site is [replaced?] by a Railway Station. No great loss was the demolition of that said house for it was never a tasteful or picturesque building.

Harman writes, “Charlotte Brontë later said that she always made two or three starts on her novels before settling down, and here we see a very early glimpse of her second novel, Jane Eyre… It’s odd to think Charlotte may have been hatching the story in the long lonely summer at the Pensionnat.”

Here’s the first page of Brontë’s later fair copy of Jane Eyre with the first sentence, “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day,” she’d arrived at after those two or three (or however many) false starts.


When I was reading Harman’s biography the other night, that first beginning fragment—”There was once a large house called Gatehead”—gave me goosebumps. I don’t know why. Ninety percent of the reaction was attributable to pure Jane Eyre– Brontë love, of course. One percent probably to the fragment’s echo to “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within,” and to the Gateshead of the fragment being a house that, like Manderley, can’t be returned to. (As Thornfield Hall ends up being in the completed Jane Eyre.) The rest of it, though, had something to do with the way the note had been scribbled in the back of the exercise book, with a couple words illegible to even the most diligent of biographers. About how it was off to the side of the main thing that Brontë was working on. One of those stumbling starts on something you make during a long, terrible summer that may come to nothing. Or may not.

from Longreads Blog

The Secret Nazi Attempt to Breed the Perfect Horse

Elizabeth Letts | The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis | Ballantine Books | August 2016 | 19 minutes (4,567 words)

The excerpt below is adapted from The Perfect Horse, by Elizabeth Letts. The book describes an American colonel’s quixotic mission in the waning days of World War II: to rescue Europe’s purebred horses from a secret Nazi stud farm mere hours before the starving Soviet army arrived and likely slaughtered the animals for food. In this excerpt, Letts explains the origins of the Nazis’ secret horse breeding project. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

Like Hitler himself, the horses, once quintessentially Austrian, would be given a distinctly German stamp.

A herd of mares left Austria in October 1942. The herd made the 350-mile trip northwest from Piber to Hostau, Czechoslovakia, without incident, and were settled into the Third Reich’s most sheltered stud farm, located in Bohemia, just a few miles from the Bavarian border. Beyond the farm’s serene green pastures, golden valleys stretched toward distant mountains crested by dark waves of evergreens. The Böhmerwald, or Bohemian Forest, served as more than a beautiful backdrop for the farm; it formed a natural barrier between Germany to the west and Austria to the south and had withstood invasion and attack for centuries. During the Nazi era, this locale was known as “the Bohemian bastion.” Among Germans, it was thought to be the safest place to ride out the war, least likely to be invaded from east or west. It was here that Gustav Rau had secreted the Lipizzaner, as well as the finest Arabians from Janów, including Witez. Even in the middle of a war, here, all was deceptively tranquil.

Quiet villages dotted this part of Bohemia, each graced by a Catholic church with an onion-domed spire. Flanking each cluster of tidy whitewashed houses were well-kept farms growing crops that thrived in the region’s rich agricultural soil. But in the wake of Hitler’s annexation of the area following the Munich Agreement of 1938, its bucolic appearance was deceiving. Once a multicultural region where Czechs, Germans, and Jews lived side by side in peace, Bohemia, now called the Sudetenland, had turned into a firm cornerstone of Hitler’s Third Reich. When the Nazis annexed the area in September 1939, the local German-speaking population had lined the streets cheering to welcome Hitler’s forces. Local Czechs and Jews had either fled or been forcibly evicted. Those who remained had been transported to concentration camps. By 1942, when the first Lipizzaner arrived in Hostau, the local Nazi apparatus held a firm grip on the region, but Czech partisans also operated in the area, finding refuge in the hideaways offered by the Bohemian Forest. Though the border with Bavaria, Germany, was less than fifteen miles to the west, the mountainous barrier made it seem much more remote.

The stud farm at Hostau, located next to the village of the same name, had been known for breeding cavalry horses long before Hitler’s time. The most prominent local landowners, the Trauttsmansdorff family, had historically served as imperial equerries for the Habsburg Crown. In addition to the main complex of stables adjacent to the village, there were pastures in three neighboring villages—the entire establishment covered fifteen hundred acres and could accommodate more than a thousand stallions, mares, and foals. All in all, it was more than twice as big as Alfred Vanderbilt’s showplace, Sagamore Farms, which Rau had visited in 1938.

Rau had selected this expansive facility to put into motion the most exalted part of his grand plan. Throughout 1942, he had systematically transported all of the purebred Lipizzaner from the stud farms of Italy, Austria, and Yugoslavia to this sheltered location for safekeeping. He had also sent a personal emissary on a mission to purchase purebred Lipizzaner from wealthy noblemen who raised smaller strings of purebreds for private use. By the end of 1942, Rau had gathered almost every Lipizzaner in the world into a single location.

Austrian-born Hitler’s goal, expressed in Mein Kampf, was to bring all of the German-speaking peoples of Central Europe, including Austria, into the fold of the Third Reich. Just as Hitler aimed to eliminate “impure strains” and combine the different Germanic groups into a single “Aryan race” of people, so Rau planned to use the science of selective breeding to erase the individual differences characterizing the several strains of purebred Lipizzaner that had emerged since the end of World War I and replace them with a single mold: pure white, imperial, identical, and ideally suited for military use. Like Hitler himself, the horses, once quintessentially Austrian, would be given a distinctly German stamp.

Gustav Rau believed that these intelligent and tractable animals possessed a nearly ideal temperament. But he had a less favorable opinion of the breed’s conformation. The Lipizzaner had some very specific breed characteristics: a relatively small stature, a Roman or convex profile (this was less pronounced in some stallion lines than others), a very straight shoulder that resulted in a choppier gait, low withers (the bony prominence at the base of the neck that the saddle rests against), and a short back. All of these qualities were especially well suited to the art of classical riding, which differed from modern riding in many respects, but Gustav Rau was determined to remold the Lipizzaner according to a template that he held in his mind’s eye.

Rau’s vision of the ideal military horse had been forged in the crucible of World War I. As a young man during the Great War, Rau had served as a cavalry soldier; his abdomen was latticed with battle scars, including a stoma from a lance wound sustained during a mounted charge. Despite evidence of mounting technological change, Rau remained stubbornly antiquated, convinced that vehicles could never replace horses. Instead, he believed that the military horse could be perfected, through selective breeding, to outperform any machine. According to Rau, “The military horse … should be noble, but not too forceful, energetic, but not excited.” He aimed to breed a horse with endless endurance and an efficient digestive system that could run on little grain. But the cause to which Rau had devoted his life was being threatened by an endless supply of motor vehicles that rattled off Germany’s assembly lines, each one identical to the next.

As head of the Polish stud farm administration, Rau had modernized the production of horses, increasing the number of stallions, mares, and foals born in Poland year upon year, and feeding the voracious pipeline of horses to the war. Yet horses—living, breathing animals that require fodder, exercise, nurture, and care—could not be fabricated like nuts and bolts in a factory.

As the war continued to escalate, Rau pedaled ever more furiously, trying to produce a perfect standardized horse. He believed that with aggressive inbreeding, he could rapidly expand the number of Lipizzaner without sacrificing anything in quality; in fact, he believed that the Lipizzaner could be enhanced and changed, elongating the back, increasing the height of the withers, and changing the slope of the shoulder. He had predicted that he could completely change the breed in just three years. Perhaps Rau envisioned hundreds of thousands of purebred Lipizzaner fanning out in formation across the German empire, each as reliable and identical as Germany’s BMW automobiles— even better, as they would require neither scarce rubber nor costly gasoline.

* * *

We have to promote inbreeding of the best bloodlines.

Without access to a modern understanding of genetics, Rau’s views regarding horse breeding were rudimentary, drawn largely from later discarded nineteenth-century notions of blended inheritance, in which an offspring’s traits were supposed to be a fifty-fifty mix of mother and father. For example, a tall father and short mother should produce a child whose height was exactly midway between the two parents’ heights. The problem with this theory was that if it were true, then over time, the population would become increasingly homogenous as the blending process evened out outliers. Not only did this not occur, it was precisely the opposite outcome of the highly differentiated forms that resulted according to Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

When Darwin devised his theory of evolution, he knew that traits were passed from parent to offspring, though he did not understand quite how. The father of the science of genetic inheritance was Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian friar whose experiments with pea plants, published in 1866, provided the first demonstration of the principles of inheritance. But Mendel’s findings were not widely disseminated during his lifetime, and throughout the late nineteenth century, scientists continued to believe that offspring could inherit characteristics acquired by parents from their environment. Lamarckism, named for French scientist Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), supposed that children inherited characteristics that had been developed in the parents— for example, giraffes elongated their necks by reaching into high branches for food, and these longer necks then were passed along to their offspring. But later in the nineteenth century, scientists were beginning to question that line of thought. German scientist August Weismann (1834–1914) postulated that there was a substance, which he called the “germ plasm,” that could be passed from one generation to the next without changing its essential form, discounting entirely the influence of nurture or environment on inherited traits. He performed an experiment in which he cut the tails off six generations of white mice to prove that the next generation would still be born with tails. While the purpose of Weismann’s experiment was scientific and not social, the increasing belief that inherited traits were not mutable or affected by the environment contributed an underpinning to Nazi racial beliefs. Weismann’s germ plasm theory seemed to provide a scientific rationale for bigotry, leading some to argue that no matter how assimilated a Jew might appear, every Jewish baby was born with certain immutable (and, in the bigots’ view, negative) characteristics.

In his approach to horse breeding, Rau followed Weismann’s theory. He believed that purebred horses had an uncorrupted substance that was passed along ancestral lines. This germ plasm was inherently fragile and needed to be protected from corruption from outside influences, such as “mixed blood.” Rau wrote, “We have to promote inbreeding of the best bloodlines to get identical germ plasm to prevent corruption and to preserve it.” Not understanding the dangers of inbreeding, Rau believed that increasing purity would improve quality.

With a modern understanding of genetic inheritance, animal breeders are now well aware of the problems that can accrue in animals bred too closely—one result is that inherited genetic defects or susceptibility to disease can increase. But these insights were not available to Rau. And so, like a painter working with a palette of colors, Rau tried to fashion the perfect horse from each of a million small equine details— the angle of the shoulder, the set of the eye, the curve of the barrel, as well as elements of temperament that once were considered ineffable and not suitable to manipulation: courage, intelligence, fortitude, and spirit.


A chart explaining the Nuremberg Laws, which established a pseudo-scientific basis for racial discrimination. Via Wikimedia Commons.

To lead this enterprise on the ground, Rau had chosen his personal protégé, forty-six-year-old Czech-born German Hubert Rudofsky. As a civilian, Rudofsky had been considered one of Czechoslovakia’s foremost experts on equine breeding. He first attracted Rau’s attention when horses bred in this region of Bohemia had made a strong showing in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Now a colonel in the German Army, Rudofsky was over six feet tall, a bachelor known for his dapper manner and immaculate dress. He owed his love of horses to a youthful fascination with mounted dragoons, uhlans, and hussars, whose silver bayonets, shiny knee-high boots, and colorful regimental uniforms had impressed him as they paraded through the world of his childhood. Rudofsky had learned to ride at the age of ten, instructed with great precision by a cavalry squadron commander. And so, when World War I broke out, the seventeen-year-old Rudofsky eagerly enlisted in the Austrian cavalry. At the war’s end, he was awarded a silver medal for courage.

In peacetime, Rudofsky was a civil servant who directed stud farms in both the Czech and Slovak regions of the country, where he maintained excellent relationships with his fellow citizens. When the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia, like all other eligible ethnic German men, Rau was called up to serve in the German Wehrmacht. Through the patronage of Count von Trauttmansdorff, a family friend, he joined the 17th Bamberger Rider Regiment, later to become famous when Claus von Stauffenberg and four other members of the regiment plotted to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. Soon after, Rudofsky was pressed into service training carriage drivers at a Wehrmacht training center. A year later, Rau summoned Rudofsky to serve in the stud farm administration of Poland. Rudofsky acquitted himself well, so he was put in charge of what was at the time the largest stud farm in Europe, at Debica, in occupied Poland, which housed more than four hundred mares at its height. Among the horses at Debica, Rau had placed forty-four Lipizzaner mares, as well as two Lipizzaner stallions imported from Yugoslavia, among the few he had kept outside of Hostau.

Hubert Rudofsky was an expert at carriage driving, possessed of an advanced diploma in this complicated art. The ability to drive a fourin-hand is one of the equestrian world’s most rarefied skills. Traditionally, four harnessed horses pulling a heavy carriage or coach required two drivers, one to control each pair of reins. During World War I, the demand for ambulance carriages to evacuate wounded soldiers led a German count to develop the four-in-hand driving method known as the Achenbach system, which for the first time allowed a single driver to control all four horses.

“Four-in-hand” refers to the four reins, one for each horse, that a driver controls in a single hand—the left. With the right, the driver holds a long carriage whip anchored between the thumb and little finger, freeing up the middle three fingers to control the reins during turns. The whip, with a weighted silver base and braided leather lash, is held erect at a precise angle to avoid accidentally obstructing the view or dislodging the hat of a passenger. Driving a four-in-hand requires no fewer than thirty-one separate pieces of harness equipment. Even more, it requires a deep knowledge of horsemanship. One turn-of-the-century enthusiast’s journal put it thus: “To become an expert driver and thorough coachman one should be more or less a lover of horses; indeed a large percentage of the best drivers have been associated with horses the greater part of their lives, have ridden everything from a rocking-horse to a runaway thoroughbred, and had become competent drivers of single horses and pairs long before they essayed the tooling of a four.” Only highly trained drivers, such as Rudofsky, had the requisite skill to drive a four-in-hand, an expertise that took no fewer than five years of practice to master. Imperial coaches pulled by matching pairs of Lipizzaner once whisked the members of the Habsburg monarchy around Vienna on official and royal business. With Rudofsky’s expertise and Rau’s white horses, these same conveyances could be used to display the reach and might of the Third Reich.

* * *

Rau kept his pistol pointed at the SS officer’s heart.

In the fall of 1943, Rudofsky would show off his skills at a grand parade to be held at the stud farm in Debica. The staff of the stud farm had spent weeks preparing the horses for this special occasion. On the day of the parade, a large viewing stand, draped with freshly cut tree boughs and a scarlet swastika banner, filled with Nazi officials and high-ranking German military officers. Lining up along the railings of the grand exhibition fields were beleaguered Polish citizens of the occupied town who had come out to watch the fine horses, hoping for a few hours of distraction.

Rudofsky, splendidly clad in a full dress uniform, oversaw the proceedings and prepared for his turn in the driver’s box. He meticulously inspected each horse from top to toe, checking the brass-studded imperial harnesses as he gave hurried last-minute instructions to the grooms.

The parade began with uniformed grooms entering the vast exhibition field on foot, leading a group of fine yearlings. As they circled in front of the viewing stands, a heavy rain started to fall. The horses’ hooves churned the wet ground into soupy mud, which flicked up to stain the horses’ legs and bellies. Despite the bad weather, the audience did not move. A few people pulled out umbrellas. Most of the officers on the viewing stand seemed impervious to the storm, simply letting the rain soak their wool uniforms and drip off their visored caps.

Rudofsky was focused on the horses, so at first he did not notice that a hubbub was brewing, but soon he heard a commotion. Near the spot where he was preparing horses for their entrance to the field, Gustav Rau was engaged in an increasingly heated conversation with an SS officer. Rau’s adjutant, Rudolf Lessing, stood next to him, visibly struggling to maintain his composure. Rudofsky realized that while the Poles had been lining up to watch the horse parade, a regiment of SS soldiers had moved in behind them. The grounds of the stud farm and all of the spectators were now entirely surrounded by armed SS storm troopers.

The SS officer had approached Rau to explain that he had orders to arrest every member of the crowd. All of the Polish men between the ages of eighteen and thirty would be sent to a forced-work camp to manufacture German munitions. The horse parade, which had drawn a large crowd, was simply being used as a trap.

Gustav Rau pulled a pistol from his hip and pointed it directly at the SS officer.“You have no authority here,” he said. “This horse farm is under the jurisdiction of the German Army.”

Rudofsky watched, scarcely daring to draw a breath. Out on the large exhibition field, the horses continued to prance and dance. The group of officers up on the viewing stand was too far away to hear the altercation.

Rau kept his pistol pointed at the SS officer’s heart. Neither man moved until, with a curt nod, the officer stepped back. He agreed to remove his men. Only then did Rau lower his pistol. A few minutes later, the SS regiment withdrew. The assembled crowd never realized what had happened.

When the time came for the grand finale, Rudofsky sat aboard the driver’s box of his immaculate carriage, ready to take his turn in the arena. His feet were braced against an angled toe box, which provided the traction needed to control the two pairs of horses. In his white-gloved left hand, he held the four reins; in his right, he balanced the ten-pound whip. His back was ramrod-straight and his face showed no emotion, but as he circled in front of the viewing platform, crowded with smiling, applauding officers and Nazi Party officials, the cold rain dripped down his face like tears.


German stamp depicting the four-in-hand driving method, 1941. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Just a few weeks later, Rudofsky was admitted to a hospital in Krynica, Poland, suffering from chest pains and severe agitation. The doctors were unable to find any physical cause for his ailments. He had suffered from a heart condition since childhood, but he showed no cardiac symptoms now. Rather, his symptoms appeared to be the result of severe stress. Upon his release from the hospital, Rau, perhaps realizing that this highly skilled horseman could no longer handle the fraught conditions in occupied Poland, sent him back to his home region of Bohemia, where he would assume the job of overseeing the Reich’s greatest equine treasures: the Lipizzaner.

Rudofsky returned from Poland to find his home much changed. Hostau, a village of only a few thousand inhabitants, was located just adjacent to his family’s home in the seat of a county where the Rudofskys were prominent citizens. The stud farm itself was in tip-top shape, with no luxury spared to care for its precious horses. But the war had fractured and splintered this quiet community. Within Rudofsky’s own family, sentiments toward the Third Reich were bitterly divided. His father’s first cousin owned the local bank and had personally bankrolled the departure of at least one family of Jews when the Nazis took over the area in 1939. His younger brother, Waldemar, a physician, had joined the German Army and was stationed at a field hospital in the Ukraine. His younger sister was director of the local Nazi women’s organization.

As a young man, Rudofsky had considered himself Austrian; his father had been a personal consultant to the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph, but between the end of World War I and the German annexation, young Rudofsky had served the Republic of Czechoslovakia, proud of his role in bringing the republic to prominence in horse breeding on the world stage. Privately, Rudofsky disdained the Nazis. But after 1939, he had donned the Wehrmacht uniform without complaint. In his eyes, he had no choice; the civilian horse-breeding system he worked within had been swallowed whole by the German Army, and his expertise made him a valuable military commodity. But in the eyes of the Czech citizens who had been chased from their homes when Hitler’s forces arrived, he and his German-speaking compatriots were traitors. When Rudofsky returned to Bohemia, now “cleansed” of its ethnic minorities, he found his homeland sadly diminished.

Being closer to home did have one advantage for Rudofsky. Though he did not have any children of his own, he had a ten-year-old nephew, Waldemar’s son, Ulli, whom he adored as his own child. The angel-faced altar boy gazed upon his suave uncle with tremendous pride each time the six-foot-tall officer strode into Mass at the Church of St. James in his full cavalry uniform, the heels of his shined high-top boots clicking on the stone floor. The devout Rudofsky carried in his pocket a military card stating that if he were in extremis, he wanted to receive final unction.

Rudofsky made it a point to keep watch on the young boy. When he stopped at his mother’s Italianate villa not far from Hostau for dinner, he never failed to quiz young Ulli, a clever and studious boy, on his arithmetic tables. Nobody had heard from the boy’s father in quite some time. The adults around the Rudofsky dinner table understood that the doctor might be languishing somewhere in a prisoner-of-war camp, or was perhaps already dead.

The stables full of white horses made a powerful impression on young Ulli. In the winter of 1943, soon after his uncle returned home from Poland, Rudofsky arranged for Ulli and his older sister, Susi, to visit the majestic horses at Hostau. Like something out of a fairy tale, a carriage pulled by two snow-white horses appeared in front of the children’s house, and a handsome uniformed coachman stepped off the driver’s box. His ornate uniform—which looked Polish or Russian— impressed the young children. The driver opened the carriage door and tucked Ulli and Susi into warm blankets sewn together like sleeping bags. The air was crystalline as the Lipizzaner trotted toward Hostau, their hooves ringing against the frozen ground. From inside the snug carriage, the children could see the straight back of the coachman up on his box and the snowy expanses of rolling fields, the Bohemian Forest dark and forbidding in the distance.

When they arrived at Hostau, their uncle greeted them. He took them to the stables so that they could see the white horses up close. Ulli was surprised to discover that when you blew on the white coats of the Lipizzaner, their skin was blue-black underneath. But when his uncle lifted him up onto the bare back of a coal-black horse named Tyrant, the boy was terrified to be up so high and screamed out, “It’s hot up here.” His uncle, perfectly comfortable around the beautiful animals, laughed and lifted him back down. Returning to their home, once again tucked snugly into the carriage, the children were left with an indelible impression of the seemingly magical horses that had been entrusted to their uncle’s care.

* * *

Rudofsky’s farm followed precepts laid out in a book called Regulation of the Stud Farm, written in 1656.

Rudofsky ran the stud farm at Hostau with unstinting precision. Every morning, his valet laid out his perfectly tailored and pressed uniform and buffed his boots to a high shine. At the stable, grooms had already hitched up his Lipizzaner mares. The silver tip of his braided leather carriage whip shone with the well-polished patina of use. This carriage master who could drive a four-in-hand with such ease had never learned to drive a car, and so his upright, elegant figure with the pair of white horses was a familiar sight all over town. As he pulled up in front of the large structure that served as an administrative building for the stud farm, his stable masters always had a report ready. No detail was to be considered too small to bring to his attention.

The day-to-day routine in Hostau was steeped in centuries-old tradition. Rudofsky’s farm followed precepts laid out in a book called Regulation of the Stud Farm, written in 1656. Grooms were in charge of the horses’ everyday care, feeding, grooming, exercise, and pasturing, a job that lasted from sunup to sunset. A good Landstallmeister, or rural stud farm director, would never tolerate a groom who was rough or slapdash with the splendid creatures in his charge. These horses were to be treated with the utmost care and kindness. Rudofsky followed these precepts to the letter.

Every Monday, Rudofsky inspected all the horses. Up and down the long aisles of the stables, grooms fussed with their charges, making sure every detail was perfect, from the tips of the horses’ well-formed ears to the very ends of their silky tails. Rudofsky watched attentively as each horse was led from its stall by a groom who then coaxed his charge to prick forward its ears, stand square on all four feet, and make the best possible impression.

Details of each horse were recorded in the voluminous stud farm books: the horse’s health, temperament, soundness, and physical characteristics. Pertinent information was passed up the line to Gustav Rau. Rudofsky was a consummate expert in the complex details of stud farm management, but decisions about pairings of mares and stallions remained in the hands of his superior.

One thing is clear: Rau’s plan to increase the number of specially bred Lipizzaner was successful. By 1944, the pastures around Hostau were filled with placid white broodmares with frolicking dark-coated foals at their sides. The first of Rau’s new breed of Lipizzaner were being born, though it was too soon to tell what the outcome would be; it would take years to fully evaluate the performance of these close-bred newborns, and several generations before selective mating could substantially alter the offspring. But for now, the German project to reshape Europe’s oldest and most refined breed, to place upon it the unmistakable mark of the Third Reich, was continuing unimpeded.

In German, the word Rasse means both “race” of people and “breed” of animal. Rau’s program at Hostau to produce a pure white race of horses shows parallels with one of Nazi Germany’s most infamous “other” breeding projects: the Lebensborn. At special “birth clinics,” SS officers mated with specially selected women who exhibited quintessential Aryan traits. The babies were baptized in a special SS rite, cradled beneath a symbolic SS dagger while incantations pledged that these Aryan babies would have lifelong allegiance to Nazi beliefs. The horses foaled at Hostau were also given a special rite: They were branded with the letter H, which was pierced through with a dagger. This was the mark of Rau’s pure new race of white horse.

* * *

From the book THE PERFECT HORSE by Elizabeth Letts.
Copyright © 2016 by Elizabeth Letts.
Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

from Longreads Blog

‘Booze Is the Oil in Our Motors’

Is it really that hard, being a First World woman? Is it really so tough to have the career and the spouse and the pets and the herb garden and the core strengthening and the oh-I-just-woke-up-like-this makeup and the face injections and the Uber driver who might possibly be a rapist? Is it so hard to work ten hours for your rightful 77% of a salary, walk home past a drunk who invites you to suck his cock, and turn on the TV to hear the men who run this country talk about protecting you from abortion regret by forcing you to grow children inside your body?

I mean, what’s the big deal? Why would anyone want to soften the edges of this glorious reality?

– Newly-sober Kristi Coulter, in Quartz, writes on sobriety, misogyny, and why so many women reach for wineglasses to celebrate their lives — or deflect the blows.

Read the full essay

from Longreads Blog

The Mask of Deception: The Ultimate Test to My Recovery From Porn Addiction

Benjamin Obler | Longreads | August 2016 | 24 minutes (5,908 words)

When we first talked, it was on tenuous terms. That is, both telling implicit lies.

My lie was wearing a leather jacket and smoking cigarettes that night, which cast me as carefree and rebellious. In reality, I was a bookish Senior Editor with an educational publisher, a teacher, and a writer with aspirations. I loved my tennis and workouts—usually kept fit.

Her lie was the exact opposite: she cast herself as more straight-laced and serious than she was, and literary, noting that she was reading a challenging novel in the literary realism vein. But she wasn’t really of a literary disposition. I would learn soon that she was much more visually and aurally oriented, a photographer who also worked in radio. She liked to go dancing, and to shoot guns at a range just for the thrill.

On the surface, these lies were harmless, but they masked deeper deceptions. She had no idea I was a recovering porn addict. I had no idea she was into casting herself in her own professional-grade amateur porn and sharing it with the world.

Her name was Franny, and I fell madly in love with her.

* * *

It wasn’t until we were through and I was heartbroken that I realized, with her looks and figure, Franny was the walking embodiment of the type of girl I had “finished” to in my thousands of click-and-scroll sessions throughout my adult years. Dark-haired, slender, tall, bony, dressed provocatively. But I didn’t pick up on this, at first.

On our first date we walked on a high bridge over the river and ate in downtown St. Paul. I played the role of tourism ambassador for lifeless St. Paul, she, the role of unconvinced youth from the big city, Minneapolis. At the end of the date, we kissed.

I was starting year two of 100% abstinence from any and all images of this sort, even very softcore porn.

The next day I talked to my friend Josh, who had introduced us. Josh is a ginger-haired literature lover who works in I.T. He’s eclectic and smart, and I totally trusted his judgment that Franny and I were a match. A compassionate friend and good listener, Josh knew all about my recovery from porn addiction. But maybe he didn’t understand all the implications of it.

He must have begun to wonder about that, because he asked, “You know she dances burlesque?”

“No,” I said.

“Yeah. She didn’t tell you that?”

“No,” I said.

Franny had not said anything about it. But then, I had not told her that every Sunday night I biked to a Sex Addicts Anonymous (S.A.A.) meeting in my neighborhood.

Josh told me to check out Franny’s alter-ego on Facebook. He was right. There she was on stage in black lingerie. She leaned and lunged, she reared her gusset to the crowd.

I laughed uneasily, but otherwise ignored the red flag.

I was starting year two of 100% abstinence from any and all images of this sort, even very softcore porn. No online porn viewing at all. No analog porn, no “euphoric recall.” Even trashing the JC Penny flier from the Sunday paper.

Let me back up and say a word about the term “porn addiction,” or at least my attitude toward it. Although the American Psychiatric Association has repeatedly rejected it as a true addiction on par with substance abuse, and refused to include it in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), to me it’s very real. I’m persuaded by scientific arguments, as pointed out by Marnia Robinson in an article for The Good Men Project, that porn is addictive because it greatly affects the “reward circuitry” in the brain governed by dopamine response. Beyond that, I use these criteria to determine whether someone has a true addiction: 1) They’ve repeatedly acted against their own principles and values in acting out as a result of it, and 2) they keep needing increased dosages to satisfy their cravings.

I loved my sobriety. I’d lost friends during the worst stretch of my addiction, I’d lost a wife, and nearly lost my job. But now I had my life back.

I consider myself an addict. And addiction is an all-or-nothing proposition. If I went back to the browser, it would be closed shades, tabs flying open, volume muted. Then the cache clearing, the contraband laundry, the shame, and the return of cravings, cravings, cravings. Cravings for a longer session, bigger videos, more explicit content. The lurid thrill of the hunt, the whole sordid escalation that would leave me feeling hollow afterwards. All these behaviors I’d learned to rebuke in treatment in a men’s therapy group at the Center for Sexual Health, a clinic at the University of Minnesota. Once a week for twelve months I’d gone, never missing. I worked through my severe withdrawal symptoms and depression with the deeply explorative work of writing my sex history. After the clinic, I’d joined SAA. Several of my best friends were fellow recovery “brothers.” We talked regularly on the phone. We went to retreats. Porn—I didn’t go there anymore. At all.

This was my new normal, and it was a great thing. I loved my sobriety. I’d lost friends during the worst stretch of my addiction, I’d lost a wife, and nearly lost my job. But now I had my life back. I felt good again for the first time in years. I had hope and strength. Discipline was the cornerstone of my successful recovery. (Not to shortchange my sponsor, two therapists, three workbooks, my higher power, twenty brothers in the SAA fellowship.) There was nothing I was willing to do to jeopardize my hard-earned serenity.

Yet, despite learning from my friend about Franny’s alter ego, I still wanted to see her again, right away.

* * *

Second date—I went to her place. I lived on Portland Avenue in Saint Paul. Franny’s address was Portland Avenue, too, but in Phillips West, Minneapolis. She lived in a top-floor duplex she shared with her younger sister, Claire. From the start, I felt something fated about us, and took this as the first clue.

That night we got to know each other a bit. She was 29—ten years younger than me—and still finding herself, career-wise. Franny had gone to a college in upstate New York and now worked remotely for a radio program. But she wanted to do something more than fill web orders for coffee mugs and t-shirts. She took photos in her free time, and she volunteered at an arts organization that offered darkroom time and held photo exhibits. Her employer was based in Manhattan, and she enjoyed traveling there to work onsite from time to time. At 39, I was more settled professionally. I’d been with the academic publisher nine-and-a-half years. I too went to Manhattan most years for a rights and permissions conference. New York had always had an untapped allure for me, a writer with my first novel published. I’d imagined life as a New Yorker, advancing my career there.

I’d had much more life experience, too. I was recently divorced, living on my own. A marriage of five years had ended in a kind of sexual/intimacy stalemate. An “impasse,” my ex and I called it—the long fallout of my chronic compulsive porn use, which kept me more involved in fantasy relationships than real ones. For two years we had worked to overcome the lies, to rebuild trust. It proved impossible. But I didn’t share this with Franny right away.

At the end of the night, on the couch in her apartment, I had my hand up her dress. She’d prepared for the occasion with a short, flimsy dress over a, lacy, sky blue bra and panties set. I was euphoric. From that day on, any time we were apart, I thought about her with fervor and enthusiasm—a kind of thrilling hope.

Franny was cute, so tall and skinny with a kind of dopey walk—languorous, like she was shrugging with every step. Her head of lustrous brown hair curled in humidity. Her tastes were eclectic, in the nerdy dynamo vein. She was jokey, easy to warm to. But she was unpredictable in the things she said and did. This alarmed me at first, but I learned to let it go and laugh.

Franny’s style was half middle-schooler, half sophisticate. Plastic green sunglasses, an artistic flair for the grotesque, built on her love of the 80’s movie Beetlejuice. Her goofy way of saying Cool with her mouth poking to the side belied her inner seductress, the long litheness, her practiced way of lifting off a top. The nervousness, the corny jokes, fell away when her head hit the pillow. She drove her grandmother’s junky Buick, playing cassettes of Velvet Underground. Who was she exactly? I was intrigued by the mystery.

One weekend after we were dating for a month or two, Franny went away without telling me. No replies to texts or Facebook messages.

It was an exciting time. To me, Franny seemed a step outside of my addiction, the pleasure of her company a reward for the years of pain and struggle. My days were filled with energy. I’d been doing the same workout at my office gym for years; now without thought I upped my heart rate on the treadmill from 130 BPM to 150, and doubled my numbers in pull-ups, triceps dips, and crunches. I took my first selfie, shirtless in the mirror, with my chest tattoo showing: “FROM SHAME TO GRACE,” illustrated with the sun breaking through clouds—an image straight out of the Big Green Book (the S.A.A. handbook). I had just gotten it a few months before, a gift to myself for my one-year anniversary in S.A.A.

I got a jolt seeing myself connected to Franny on Facebook, which was new to me. She liked my postings, and I liked hers. How significant that seemed, being online for the world to see. At the office, I received her emails with glee and wrote eloquent flirtations in reply. Standard infatuation stuff. I neglected to reveal the anxiety growing below the surface. My greatest cause for concern was our age gap. We were clearly at different stages in our lives. I was never sure how I figured in her world, what her intentions were exactly, whether she saw me as her exclusive boyfriend, and that made me nervous, put me on edge. I reached towards her daily, as if groping, trying to secure plans, to keep our connection steady.

* * *

I wasn’t the only one who wanted steady connection with Franny. One time as we lay together on her bed, she let a call go to voicemail, then made uneasy faces as she listened to the message. It was an ex-boyfriend, Ted, who lived in Boston—where Franny used to live. He needed to talk. He was crying. He wasn’t over her. He was confused, in pain. Franny told me how they’d made the plans to move to Detroit and live in a derelict building on the cheap, but she backed out at the last minute. Then she’d moved back to Minnesota. For over a year, they’d had a long-distance, “open” relationship, dating and sleeping with others. Now she was with me. (I guessed? We’d never had the talk.) Had Franny told Ted about me?

I told her everything, about the twelve months in a Compulsive Sexual Behavior (CSB) group. About writing my sex history, talking with other men every Tuesday morning for two hours, for twelve solid months, never missing. The individual therapy, the couples therapy.

At home later, I googled Ted. He was a poet and an editor at a small press. I saw an author photo of him sitting on a swing wearing a rabbit’s mask, two giant ears and buck teeth. At first I thought that explained Franny’s rejection of Ted—he was a weirdo of some kind. Then I saw Franny’s name in the photo credits. I figured she must have indulged his strange desire to dress like an animal. As an author myself, I could not understand Ted’s covering his head for an author photo. For my most prominent author photo, I’d worn a V-neck sweater and smiled as brightly as possible. Artistic eccentricity, I figured, and relaxed into an assurance that I was nothing like Ted. Anyway, Franny was with me now, so too bad, so sad, Ted.

* * *

One weekend after we were dating for a month or two, Franny went away without telling me. No replies to texts or Facebook messages. I tried to play it cool. Eventually she called. She was driving through Nebraska, coming back from a photo shoot in St. Louis of an eccentric folk artist who built sculptures in his yard. She’d driven overnight by herself without stopping, on no sleep, and her grandmother’s car was acting up. She made a point of portraying the old artist as cantankerous, a redneck who drank and wielded a gun against the neighbors after they’d threatened to tear down his hideous creations. She described being alone with him in his house. She seemed to like the danger. Unnerved, that evening I worked my “program” extra hard. I went to my Sunday night meeting, talked it out, did my deep breathing.

* * *

I started a dependent, medicating relationship with pornography early, as an adolescent. While other young boys around me would pass around a centerfold, laughing at it, pointing, saying lewd things to diffuse their excitement, never in my life was I able to stay calm when a magazine was passed around a room, much less laugh. To be alone with a magazine was always something I looked forward to with deep attachment—a ritual I would anticipate, prepare for, and savor. Later, when Internet porn surfaced, and friends talked about it, I would just sit the conversation out, not taking part. I revered porn too much to convincingly joke that I used it casually. To me, as a full-blown addict in my thirties, talking about online porn was like talking about something sacred and profane. Porn was something I didn’t want to be using anymore, but had failed several times at quitting. Oftentimes, when you’re in a bad relationship, you just don’t want to talk about it.

Many men can be glib about their sexuality, what kinky things turn them on. They can be openly lustful. Not me. Funny euphemisms for masturbation abound, but I, not an otherwise humorless person, was never able to laugh at a habit that to me was a necessary drug, a coping mechanism.

With Franny, however, even though it ran counter to my 12-step program or my therapy, I set as a conscious goal having a blithe attitude towards sex. I tried to adopt perspectives like Franny’s—viewing sex acts as funny, quirky staples of human life to be enjoyed and bantered about flippantly. I tried to speak of sex like she did, sometimes sounding like a collection of Internet memes. She had a blog dedicated to her trials with vulvodynia (vaginal pain). I told her I read the blog, but that was a lie. I was avoiding looking squarely at any evidence that she was being sexual in a way that was dangerous to her health, which would only make me confront the fact that I was being sexual in a way that was dangerous to mine.

* * *

In early summer, we spent hours in her air-conditioned bedroom, having protracted sessions in isolation. Afterwards, we lounged in bed, talking of sex and sex acts, past partners, resuming and doing it again. Making out in cars, grinding, intense petting. Picnics with erections and short dresses. A remote voice began suggesting I was acting obsessively—acting like an addict—but I silenced it.

Funny how, when I first went shirtless with Franny, without my saying anything, she knew not to look at the tattoo on my chest, and not to ask about it. Eventually, I felt conflicted about not sharing its origin with her, and I explained to her that I’d been through treatment for addiction to pornography. I told her everything, about the twelve months in a Compulsive Sexual Behavior (CSB) group. About writing my sex history, talking with other men every Tuesday morning for two hours, for twelve solid months, never missing. The individual therapy, the couples therapy. About my current S.A.A. group, the retreats, the sponsor who helped me “work the program,” and James, the man whom I currently sponsored.

Sometimes, on the precipice of successful recovery, addicts need to take a few steps back down into the abyss to remind themselves why they’ve chosen a new, healthier but more challenging path.

Returning the confidence in kind, I suppose, Franny told me about her own porn activities: how she had put pictures of herself on—pictures of herself with Ted’ penis in her mouth, and other pictures of herself naked.

Evidence was beginning to mount that this relationship was a threat to my recovery. But denial is a powerful force. For the addict, it’s a devastating weapon. I ignored the evidence, and persisted in adhering to the notion that we were an item built to last. I introduced her to my brother. “She’s an artist,” I said. “We have a lot in common.” The Green Book on denial: “Experience has shown that it is too difficult to sort through these experiences by ourselves or to see through the denial that often obscures the truth about our behavior.” I was still enthusiastic about my life with Franny, though I remained anxious about our future.

* * *

One Friday night, Franny took me to a warehouse gallery, to a photo exhibit of a colleague who lived in New York. I didn’t yet know the hallmarks of her art. I knew she shot with a Canon Mark iV, and spent time on photography forums, looking for advice on whether to buy new “glass” (a lens) or a new “body” (camera). She’d involved me in these conversations, but otherwise didn’t discuss much about her artistic practice.

Then one weekend, again she did not answer my texts or Facebook messages or voicemails. Despite the confidence I’d gained in sobriety, I became very edgy when I did not hear from Franny. Sunday she got in touch to say she’d been out with a friend, Peter, taking pictures. They had rented a paddleboat and gone out on Lake of the Isles. It was a great shoot, she said, and she was really excited. She offered to share the photos, and I said sure. When I got the link to the gallery, I didn’t know what I was seeing. There was a man in a suit and horse mask aboard a watercraft. He lurched and reached at the camera, or sometimes sat upright like a liveryman. Then there was a series with a woman on a playground, wearing a dress and fox mask. Some shots on a swing were provocative, with the woman’s legs soaring high in the air, her dress slit high up her thigh.

I didn’t understand it. I found something about it disturbing. I didn’t like it. But I wanted to be an encouraging partner, so I faked my way through praise.

Meanwhile, Franny and I were more sexually active than ever, Franny having introduced her vintage suitcase of sex toys, and urged us into acts involving alternative entryways. She talked at times about wanting to try group sex—an interest I laughed at because I assumed she was just being provocative. Such excitement. The hunt of a lifetime was over.

* * *

Sometimes, on the precipice of successful recovery, addicts need to take a few steps back down into the abyss to remind themselves why they’ve chosen a new, healthier but more challenging path. They need to re-test to waters down there, to test themselves and their ability to abstain from their drug of choice in the face of great temptation. My instant obsession and subsequent six months with Franny provided just that kind of stark torment for me. I’d finally ended the career as a pornography user that had kept me failing at long-term relationships, that made trust and openness elusive, but there I was dating someone who in ways represented the allure and elusive pleasure of porn itself.

She was gone a week when I got an email with a big .zip attachment. I downloaded it right away and unzipped. Photos of herself on the bed in her underwear—a dozen.

A writer friend, who spent a fair amount of time in Al-Anon (the Twelve-Step program for people with addicts in their lives) recently told me how she can relate: she described a time in her life when she was trying to stop choosing “the same bad, addict boyfriend in a different body” over and over again—a kind of addiction itself. Finally, after making significant progress in therapy, she found herself dating the ultimate menace to her wellness. Frustrated with herself, she asked her therapist, “Why am I even bothering to try to change?” He explained to her that for the first time, she was repeating an old pattern with new information and tools—and in the “laboratory” of therapy, where her therapist could be a witness, and help her identify what was pathologically wrong in the way she chose men, and how to change it. “This is an opportunity to really learn.” And she did.

Some of us just need that kind of test—a last grueling mile in the quest to shed our self-delusions. A hard stare in the mirror at the facts of our addiction. Some of us, in order to really give up our destructive vices, need to learn the hard way what it really means to be sober.

It would take me until fall to understand that Franny had been the final exam in my porn addiction treatment. Recovering alcoholics must face the question, Can I go to a bar? Can I go to a party? Recovering gamblers have to drive past casinos and see lottery tickets at the gas station. For drug users, it might be the club, the pharmacy. That’s the way it is with addiction. I was only going to learn how to fully rebuke porn by choosing someone like Franny. However I’d allowed it to happen, I would never make the mistake again.

In the meantime, in the summer, one night I told Franny, “I love you.” Wearing a strained smile, she stopped herself from saying, “Cool,” the way she often did. In a shaky, faltering voice she said, “I love you,” back.

The longer I saw Franny the more devoted I became to her, and the more I deluded myself. No, this wasn’t the obvious cliché of a male pornography addict carrying out a sexual relationship with a maker of her own pornography. As a writer, I would have seen that a mile away, wouldn’t I? I convinced myself instead that the relationship was a deep artistic bond between a writer and a photographer that my program had prepared me for.

I talked a blue streak about it in S.A.A., relating how sane a situation this was for me. But I never mentioned that Franny danced burlesque and took pornographic photos of herself and shared them with the world. I had always treated S.A.A.’s requirement of “rigorous honesty” (Green Book, p. 22) with sacramental respect. But when it came to Franny’s presence in my life, I reported only selectively during “check-ins” at my S.A.A. meetings.

* * *

In August, Franny went to New York to work at her company’s Manhattan office for a month. She was thinking about relocating permanently. What would this mean for us? I didn’t know. We did talk about our future some, and she said that having just gotten out of a long relationship with Ted, maybe she shouldn’t jump back into anything. Whatever hesitancy she expressed I assumed would fade as she let herself fall in love with me. Though I was terrified by the possibility that she wouldn’t, I played it cool. But privately, I worried that she wanted a long-distance thing like she’d had with Ted from Boston. And I doubted she would be true to me while away. What was stopping her from going out drinking and asking some other “dude” (as she generally referred to men) if he wanted to make out? She stayed with a friend in Brooklyn, and most nights I didn’t hear from her, but saw updates on social media about bars she was at.

Then one night, she called late with a horror story. Peter (horse head Peter) had come to visit her in New York, from Minneapolis—you know, as a friend. (“Oh, totally,” I agreed.) He’d gotten drunk and made a bawling confession of raging unrequited love for Franny. He’d been in love with her for years. He was mad for her. This happened on the subway platform, and it went on for an hour. She left him there, weeping. She was embarrassed and felt sorry for misleading him. She’d had no idea he felt that way.

Alone in St. Paul, I worked my program, met my sponsee for coffee, took walks with other “brothers.” I was more wracked than ever. She just seemed to be out there—roaming New York City, tempting all men crossing the country to see her, to profess their need for her. Would she be mine? I felt powerless to keep her close.

She was gone a week when I got an email with a big .zip attachment. I downloaded it right away and unzipped. Photos of herself on the bed in her underwear—a dozen. She’d set up her tripod and used a timer. She’d put lamps on as if lighting a set. In the photos, there was my novel on the bedside—she’d been reading it (for months). Variously, she lay on her back; then on her stomach, ass up, gusset to the lens; then stood, leaning over the bed. The series had that sense of progression you see in porn galleries like the ones I used to view—the illusion of an advancing interaction. I nearly lost my mind with excitement.

Strangely, though, I didn’t recognize her body. It looked foreign. It was not the body I’d held and made love to, walked with around Minneapolis’ lakes. This body seemed better, more illicit, more erotic—something for me to desire, not something that I already had. That seemed to make all the difference. I looked to her face for signs of the woman I loved, but her youthful smile was gone, and she wore a sultry, extemporized expression. She looked nothing like the chatty, relaxed girl who rode around in my car doing silly dances, who I’d biked with and camped with, served gluten-free pancakes to in my St. Paul kitchen. She looked instead like a person from another decade, another species entirely. I knew she didn’t love me, not truly, not the way I wanted to be loved. Yet in the photos, though she’d made them expressly for me (I assumed), she did not seem to be addressing me, but some anonymous subject whom she felt strengthened by knowing she could captivate, if not transfix.

That night I put my Canon Powershot on the dresser, set the self-timer, and sent Franny shots of myself in Calvin Kleins on the bed. Porn addict turned porn model. Hardly. I probably looked more like a corpse in crime scene photos than a supine Mr. October. But I tried.

How far was I willing to go? How far would I move my boundaries for her?

About 2,000 miles, it turned out. Franny came back from New York wanting to move there. In nervous, indirect, vague conversations, we talked of going there together. Moving together. “Yeah, cool,” I said. “New York has always been calling me.” Within days, I was onboard. I gave notice on the condo I rented and at the office with my boss of 9.75 years.

We moved her first, in October—driving out together in her grandmother’s Buick, taking Franny’s cameras, clothes, and cat. The plan was she’d settle, I’d come later. We stayed in the studio of the photographer whose exhibit we’d gone to in Minneapolis. It was in Gowanus, not zoned for residential. It had a darkroom in back, and the front room was packed with art and photography books. There was a pullout couch and a desk.

Tiny. Gritty. New York. Exciting.

In typical Franny fashion, she kept our plans hazy. The photographer friend, she said, might be giving up the studio and let Franny (and me) have it. He was spending more time in Minneapolis lately. Though, curiously, whenever Franny talked to him on the phone about subletting it, she mentioned only herself, never said my name. That was fine—we were independent artistic types. Mature. We weren’t defined as a couple, didn’t need labels.

I was excited. We might move in there together, have a place along the gritty-chic Gowanus canal. It was that month that a dolphin swam up the canal, became trapped and died. Franny shared with me New York Times links to stories about how the canal was contaminated with gonorrhea, mercury, carcinogens, and other toxins. It was no derelict Detroit building, but it was close.

Around this time, she also began asking me to choke and slap her during sex. I complied.

* * *

Halloween weekend. We stop into a pop-up costume store at Atlantic and 5th. Franny buys herself a wig and makeup, and buys me a werewolf mask and gloves. With some of her old college friends, we drive to a party upstate. We get there in the afternoon and visit her old college campus. There, she asks me to put on the suit coat I’d brought for a job interview, along with the werewolf costume. I do. My hands become huge, hairy, and taloned. By the Hudson River bank, I climb a tree, and there, like a starkly Caucasian simian, like Ted and Peter before me, I pose. I feel like an idiot. I don’t know if the joke is on me or on her. I reach at the camera in a tepid impersonation of animal lust. But behind the mask, I feel only insecurity, no strength or shelter.

At the office, I noticed my eyes were red and puffy—my tear ducts strained. I took a selfie so I wouldn’t forget.

I imagine this will earn me a place on Franny’s arm at the party, get me introduced as her man. But it does not. That night, she tells no one we’re moving to New York together, does not describe me as a boyfriend. Hey, this is Ben, she says. Most of the night, I watch her from across the room. After midnight, a giant ring appears around the moon. I have never seen anything like it. Its pull feels somehow homeward.

* * *

Throughout the night, there are reports about a tropical storm approaching the Eastern seaboard. Hurricane Sandy. Franny’s father calls from Minneapolis, worried. The next day, Sunday, we drive back south from upstate to get into the city before the bridges and highways are closed. The weather is windy and cloudy. We stock up on water and food.

We make it back in time and hunker down in the Gowanus studio, with a view of the BQE and buildings along the canal as they’re lashed by winds and rain. We listen to WNYC, hear the warnings and callers offering advice based on lessons learned during the prior year’s major hurricane, Irene.

That night, though Lower Manhattan loses power, we do not. We download Halloween episodes of the Simpson’s and bake gluten-free cookies like a couple of children. We make a mess of the photographer’s pull-out bed. There’s no one around to hear us.

In the morning, the winds still howl, and according to reports, parts of Queens have been destroyed. Franny goes out into the street with her camera. I go with, walking a few blocks, but, seeing snapped trees and downed store awnings, I grow intolerant of even my own stupidity, and go back inside. Franny stays out, apparently unable to resist the danger.

All travel is suspended into the next day. I can’t get uptown for a meeting with a potential employer. But miraculously, the day of my scheduled return, flights and subway service resumes. I leave Franny in that Gowanus studio, with the darkroom in the back, and the front room filled to the ceiling with industrial metal shelves full of art books, she with her Macbook and her Mark IV and her lenses, little else. In my teary state, I take the R in the wrong direction to connect to the LIRR. By the time I turn around, I am very late. Standing in the total chaos on Atlantic Avenue, I think, “If I don’t catch a cab right now, I’m not getting out of here.” Traffic is bumper to bumper. Just then a white Town Car edges to the curb right beside me. Fifty cash for JFK? Deal. Somehow, before long, I’m seated on a Sun Country plane to MPLS, delirious with relief.

* * *

It wasn’t long before Franny came back to Minnesota for a visit. When we talked, she told me she wasn’t sure we should move in together. She still wanted explore group sex and lesbian sex before settling down for marriage and kids. It wasn’t fair to me.

I was devastated. I went to my best friend Dave’s house and bawled.

“Go to New York anyway,” he said. “Fuck her.”

There did seem to be something serendipitous about it. It did seem I should go live in New York, though I wasn’t ready to claim a victory. I cried for days.

“Letting go of our addiction can be like losing a familiar friend. Facing life without acting out involves feelings of grief and loss.” – The Green Book, “Step Four, Fearless and Searching Moral Inventory.”

At the office, I noticed my eyes were red and puffy—my tear ducts strained. I took a selfie so I wouldn’t forget.

In December I moved. What could I do? I’d already quit my job and given up my apartment. I tapped all my connections, had lunch with editors. I moved into a place in Park Slope, rooming with an NYU professor who told me the remedy to my heartache was to sleep with many women. “Tell them you just want to have sex,” he advised me. “They don’t mind here.” As if it were a regionalism. I thanked him for the advice, but did no such thing.

Instead I joined a gym in Brooklyn, began freelancing and rebuilding my life without Franny. I had to pass through a kind of hysterical phase to shake her off, and during that time I wrote her an email telling her she was making a big mistake throwing away the love of a good man for group sex, for cheap thrills. I preached, telling her what I knew about the rabbit hole of illicit sex—about making the addict’s mistake of confusing pleasure with happiness. She rejected my arguments. And rightly so. She wasn’t an addict. And who decides when sex is “illicit” anyway?

I worked the 12 Steps, made calls to people in my St. Paul S.A.A. group, saw my folly pretty quickly, and soon wrote her a letter, by hand, on paper, apologizing for trying to coerce her, sway her, judge her, scold her. Tell her what was right for her. But I was still so turned around, I mixed up the building numbers of where she lived in Gowanus and where I lived in Park Slope (they were one digit apart). The letter came back “Address Unknown.” It was laborious, but I took the letter to the post office and mailed it correctly inside a bigger envelope, so Franny could see the original stamped date, and how I’d gotten it wrong, see that I owned it all and still meant the apology.

* * *

A year later, I was living in Westchester, working as Managing Editor at a publisher, when Franny emailed. She’d come across that letter and thanked me for what I’d said, for retracting the angry things, admitting that her choices weren’t wrong for her.

I know, even more certainly now than I’d known then, that they weren’t. They were just wrong for me.

* * *

Benjamin Obler teaches fiction at Gotham Writer’s Workshop in NYC and the Loft Literary Center online. Friend Benjamin at to join the beta reading program for his novel PICTURES OF MARLENE.

Editor: Sari Botton

from Longreads Blog

On Beauty: A Reading List About Makeup

My makeup routine is nonexistent. I wore mascara to a presentation on my birthday last week, and before that, I had my friend apply my red lipstick in an Au Bon Pain in New York City. I’m uncoordinated, anxious and fidgety—my idea of hell is eyeliner application. But I appreciate the artistry that goes into the creation and execution of gorgeous makeup. I’ve watched tutorials, and I’ve watched my friends draw wings on their faces. They enjoy it, and I am glad for them. Beauty criticism analyzes the ways we can subvert a society that would have us subsumed by self-loathing. We use the tools we’ve been given. Makeup, then, can be a weapon. And it can be damn fun.

1. “The Birth of a Beauty Criticism.” (Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, The New Inquiry, March 2016)

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is the author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives and the founder of the blog The Beheld. Her essay for TNI is a solid starting point for this list as a whole:

The new beauty criticism sites are for women, but they don’t let that constrain their attention. They’ve learned that a female audience means an audience that has absorbed “the personal is political” and can handle a little intellectual roughhousing mixed in with the best nude lipsticks of winter. It’s not an either-or proposition, which the women at the top of new(ish) media outlets intuitively understand…The more I read about beauty, the more I learn—but without a strong critical tradition that I can take refuge in, the more my thinking becomes fractured, my mission unclear.

2. “Making Split Ends Meet: The Hustle of Being a Beauty Vlogger.” (Gaby Dunn, Broadly, February 2016)

Gaby Dunn has written candidly about the comedy vlogosphere–particularly how fame and wealth aren’t necessarily congruous for Millennial creators, including Dunn and her writing partner, Allison Raskin. Here, Dunn interviews several beauty vloggers facing down financial issues of their own, like branding, sponsorship, advertising and transparency.

3. “How Glossier Harnessed the Myth of Cool Girl Makeup.” (Haley Mlotek, Fader, August 2016)

In a previous incarnation of my life, I wanted to work in fashion–specifically, for THE fashion magazine of my teenage dreams: Teen Vogue. Emily Weiss, founder of Into The Gloss and Glossier, was one of the impossibly glamorous interns haunting the photos and bylines of Teen Vogue (and yes, I knew of Weiss pre-“The Hills,” because I was Really Serious about my favorite magazine). But then, I left for college and I was too busy trying not to fail my required logic course to follow Weiss’ trajectory. Obviously, I have a lot to catch up on. One thing hasn’t changed, however: Weiss still embodies that effortless elegance. Now it’s on her own empire’s terms, not Teen Vogue’s.

4. “Girl.” (Alexander Chee, Guernica, March 2015)

Novelist Alexander Chee has written a stunning essay about freedom, femininity, and queerness, eschewing traditional tropes for something lyrical and profound. I hope Chee releases an nonfiction collection someday, and I hope this essay is the first listed in the table of contents.

5. “Why Lime Crime is the Most Hated Beauty Company on the Internet.” (Arabelle Sicardi, Racked, September 2015)

Preeminent beauty writer/critic Arabelle Sicardi brings their reporting chops to investigate the strange case of Lime Crime, an infamous makeup company known for its bold palettes and shady practices. You can’t have too much Sicardi in your life, so don’t miss “A Bridge Between Love and Lipstick.” And if you, like me, are eagerly awaiting the demise of summer, get your spooky on with “Spell Book of Beauty.”

6. “Here’s What Happens When ‘Beauty’ Becomes ‘Duty.‘” (Hailey Siracky, BuzzFeed Books, July 2014)

In World War II-era Britain, Winston Churchill & co. implemented “Beauty as Duty,” a propaganda campaign intent on a) raising morale, and b) encouraging sustained femininity as women took on traditionally male roles in the workplace. Hailey Siracky does an excellent job illuminating the bizarre double standards of the collusion between patriarchy and patriotism.

from Longreads Blog

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 2.41.40 PM

Image via YouTube

Below, our favorite stories of the week.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

* * *

1. Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter To Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom To Be Murdered

Michelle Dean | BuzzFeed | Aug. 18, 2016 | 34 minutes (8,504 words)

A true crime story about Dee Dee Blancharde, a mother who persuaded family, friends, and even doctors to believe that her daughter, Gypsy, was gravely ill. It was only after Dee Dee was murdered that the truth came to light.

2. The Sandwich That Ate the World

Simon Stanley | Roads & Kingdoms | June 21, 2016 | 16 minutes (4,117 words)

The Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich is one of the world’s most delicious creations. Fortunately it has endured without the colonialism and xenophobia that marked its origins.

3. The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America

Alana Semuels | The Atlantic | July 2, 2016 | 20 minutes (5,060 words)

Behind Portland’s artisan burgers, bicycle evangelists and curated boutiques lies a city built on racism, exclusion and a strange neo­liberalism.

4. The Rise and Fall of Restaurant Kitsch

Lisa Hix | Collectors Weekly | August 11, 2016 | 49 minutes (12,389 words)

As minimalist design goes down-market and T.G.I. Friday’s says goodbye to clutter, what happens to all the fake Tiffany lamps?

5. Why Am I So Fat?

Sara Benincasa | Medium | August 18, 2016 | 14 minutes (3,700 words)

Writer and performer Sara Benincasa writes a brilliant, biting, and hilarious response to the guy who wrote her asking, “Why did you gain so much weight?”

from Longreads Blog

The Slow Death of Restaurant Kitsch

Tiffany-style lamps. Candy-striped uniforms and/or candy-striped tablecloths. And tchotchkes: tchotchkes as far as the eye can see. The 20th-century chain-restaurant aesthetic is immediately recognizable — but where did it come from? At Collectors Weekly, Lisa Hix digs into the history of restaurant kitsch right at the moment where its earliest proponent, T.G.I. Friday’s, is beginning to impose a minimalist, clutter-free look on its locations. Along the way, she unearths the surprising origins of Friday’s as a hip singles’ bar chain, closely aligned with ’70s sexual liberation movements and a new taste for cocktails:

The Commercial Appeal newspaper called it “a place with so much atmosphere you have to push it aside to get in.” Again, 20-somethings lined up for a table, and patrons mobbed the bar. This Friday’s became a hotspot for the Memphis counterculture, known for its boozy adventures, drug experimentation, and sexual subversion—including an underground queer scene. Bands played on a stage in back, while local rock stars like Big Star lingered at candy-striped tables under leaded-glass lamps.

“Friday’s was the first place in Memphis where you could actually go in and buy a mixed drink,” Rush Bowman, who took a job there as a bar-back before becoming a bartender, tells me over the phone from his home in the Dallas metro. “Before that, you’d had to take your own bottle to a bar, and the bar would hold on to it for you. They’d make your drinks with your own bottle and charge you a setup fee. Friday’s was first real bar in town, and the employees were young people with long hair, so they looked like the customers they were trying to attract.”

Read the story

from Longreads Blog