Can an Outsider Ever Truly Become Amish?

Kelsey Osgood | Atlas Obscura | March 2016 | 28 minutes (7,014 words)

Our latest Exclusive is a new story by Kelsey Osgood, and is co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

Author’s Note: “Alex” and “Rebecca” are not the real names of two people interviewed. They felt strongly that they should not be identified by name out of respect for their faith’s general belief in the body above the individual.

The road that runs through the main village of Berlin, Ohio, only about 90 minutes south of Cleveland, is called “Amish Country Byway” for its unusual number of non-automotive travelers and it’s true that driving down it, you’ll have to slow down for the horse-drawn buggies that clog up the right lane. But those seeking the “real” Amish experience in downtown Berlin might be disappointed. It’s more Disney than devout: a playground for tourists full of ersatz Amish “schnuck” (Pennsylvania Dutch for “cute”) stores selling woven baskets and postcards of bucolic farm scenes.

You only see the true Holmes County, which is home to the largest population of Amish-Mennonites in the world, when you turn off Route 62 and venture into the rolling green hills interrupted periodically by tiny towns with names like Charm and Big Prairie. You’ll likely lose service on your cell phone just as the manure smell starts to permeate the air. On my visit this past summer, I saw Amish people–groups of children sporting round straw hats, the young women in their distinctive long dresses–spilling out of family barns, where church services are held, in the distance. The Amish don’t have any spiritual attachment to a geographical location, the way Jews have to Jerusalem or Mormons to Salt Lake City; this spot, along with Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is probably the closest they come to an idea of God’s Country.

Earlier that morning, I was introduced to Alex Samuelson, a baby-faced 31-year-old member of the Beachy Amish-Mennonite faith who, along with his wife Rebecca, would be my guide for the day. Alex suggested that he might be better equipped to drive and he was right: he glided along the twisting back roads and gave me an orientation to the area not even the all-knowing Siri could have provided (especially considering the spotty service.) As a Beachy Amish-Mennonite, Alex is permitted to drive–the church is what Alex calls “car-type”–but adheres to prohibitions against television, popular music, and limitations on the Internet. (These prohibitions vary somewhat from congregation to congregation, although certain stringencies–like not owning televisions–are uniform throughout Beachy society.) Like all Mennonite and Amish groups, Beachy doctrine is firmly Anabaptist, which means that they don’t accept infant or childhood baptisms. They also believe in keeping themselves separate from the world, which is one motivation behind their Plain garb (although it’s worth noting that the style of dress also differs between congregations.)

I have arranged to meet the couple because they offer insight into one of the rarest religious experiences in America: they are established converts to an Amish-Mennonite group. It is not immediately apparent that they were not born into the culture. Alex and Rebecca look, to be simple about it, like your average Amish couple: Alex has the stereotypical facial hair of an Amish man (beard, but no mustache, a prohibition which harkens back to the days when mustaches were associated with the military) and Rebecca wears an ankle length cotton-polyester dress, her hair in a neat bun underneath her white gauze cap. Alex is an expert in Plain life because he spent years adapting to it, but also because he has a doctorate in rural sociology, and so spends much of his time studying his adopted culture, or “thinking about Plain People,” as he puts it. (He relaxes, I’ll learn later, by tending to his many aquariums.) Because of his work, he’s accustomed to interviewing others about their religious identification, which meant that frequently during the drive, the conversation swerved toward my conversion to Orthodox Judaism. When the ball came back to my court, I asked Alex what it felt like when he first attended a Mennonite church when he was 18, after a year of nurturing a fascination with the culture. “It’s like walking into a room full of celebrities,” he said. “You’ve thought about these people for so long, and they just feel so inaccessible and remote and just, here you are! They’re all around you!”

Reverent, giddy, almost lustful: it’s the way you’d expect a teenage girl to talk about her favorite pop star, and yet it’s a tone I’ve come to expect among a certain group of people when you invoke the name of the Amish. Before the internet, these “wishful Amish” wrote emotional missives to newspaper editors in areas with large Plain populations; one man I spoke to, who publishes a series of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania guidebooks, composed a form letter so as to minimize the time he spent replying to such requests. Now, the wishful Amish have dedicated internet forums (ironically) on which they write with the feverishness of the unrequited lover about their long-held desire to get close to the aloof objects of their spiritual desire.

Many say they’ve wanted to become Amish for “as long as [they] could remember,” though most of them say they have only seen Amish people on a few occasions, and don’t know much, if anything at all, about Amish theology. Some talk about wanting to find an Amish partner, others, about the fear they won’t be accepted into the community because they are single parents, or divorced, or have tattoos or once dabbled in drugs. Many are hesitant that they won’t be able to fully adjust, and so wonder if it might be possible to stay with an Amish family for a week or two, just to try out the lifestyle. Although a few commenters say they’ve taken the initiative to make their own lives more Plain–given up television, say, or started to dress more modestly–most of them appear to be banking on integration into the community to transform them, like alcoholics who decide to wait until detox before examining the deeper motivations behind their drinking.

The thread that runs through all the testimonies is one of dissatisfaction, at times, near disgust, with modern society. “As I see it, the world at large is doomed,” writes a single mother of five on the informational site Amish America. One word is consistently invoked to describe Amish life: “perfect.”

The wishful Amish will do what most obsessed people do these days: they’ll Google around a lot, devouring whatever articles or listicles they can get their hands on. During this self-directed study, many will come across the website Alex founded back in 2005, when he was attending college in his home state of Virginia. (He’s currently employed as an adjunct professor of rural sociology at a local university.) Alex built his site in order to provide access to rare documents related to Anabaptist history and culture he had discovered in his campus library (titles include “Amish-Mennonite Barns in Madison County, Ohio: The Persistence of Traditional Form Elements” and “Caesar and the Meidung [shunning].”)

“Then I began getting out-of-the-blue requests from people who were interested in visiting a church, so after a while it was more directed toward an informative website,” he says.

Amish conversion is extremely uncommon, which makes sense: who actually wants to give up modern convenience for more than a week or so? For those who have made the leap, the lived experience of conversion deviates greatly from the fantasies moving across web pages every day; it’s harder, crueler, slower than the hopeful could imagine. It’s also not a static state–for most converts, the emergence of a perfect Amish self never truly occurs.

But we couldn’t get too deep into a discussion of conversion yet, because he began turning the car into the parking lot of the converted elementary school building where his congregation holds services every week. We were late for church.

An Amish family praying together before dinner. Photo: Tessa Smucker

An Amish family praying together before dinner. Photo: Tessa Smucker

* * *

Born in 1984 in Loudon County, Virginia, a verdant area long favored by vintners at the base of the Blue Mountain, Alex was raised in a nominally Christian family. His dad owned his own exterior housing repair business; the family lived on 10 acres in an old Victorian home, and attended church on Christmas and Easter some years, but otherwise didn’t talk much about religion. His family, which included his younger sister, was a mostly happy one, although beset by what Alex calls the “typical American plagues”: sibling rivalry, discord between his mother and father, his father drinking too much. To the latter, Alex was especially sensitive.

In second grade, Alex began to experience what he now refers to as “God’s early promptings,” although he didn’t see them that way at the time. He developed an instinctual aversion to designer clothing, particularly shirts with garish logos on the chests. “I felt like it sold me out to something else I didn’t want to sell myself out to,” he said, as I mentally compare this to my unholy childhood yearning for Adidas Sambas. His friends were starting to swear and share “bad ideas” on the playground, and Alex briefly dabbled, but then decided foul language was unequivocally wrong, so he vowed to clean his up.

No voice from the heavens, beseeching him to recognize Jesus. No 49 days spent under a fig tree, contemplating the nature of meaning. No vision of God’s Kingdom as a rural compound full of happy celibates. No, Alex’s awakening was gradual, and in those early days, inconsistent. He didn’t, in other words, connect his distaste for cursing and Polo Ralph Lauren shirts to a burgeoning religiosity, nor did he feel any paralyzing guilt at abandonings his children’s Bible in favor of his DOS video games. But his curiosity about religious life was strong enough that when his younger sister’s bus driver, whom the girl had befriended, offered to take the two children to his Southern Baptist Church one Sunday, Alex agreed. Alex’s sister lost interest after a few Sunday school classes, but Alex, then 13, was hooked. Every Sunday, he’d grab one of the free donuts and then head to Sunday school. A year later, he was baptized.

As a teenager, he was involved in school theater, history club, and Civil War reenactment. Eventually, he took a job that took his love of costuming––a core difference between Amish and other Christians—to a new level. The summer before his senior year in high school, he worked at Harpers Ferry National Park, a historical village located where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. At Harpers Ferry, Alex dressed in period garb (he had two costumes, one an 1860s shopkeeper and the other a Union private soldier) and gave tours to groups of visitors, including families of Conservative Mennonites. “I started to become obsessed with their appearance,” he remembers. “My friends learned this and they would tell me when Mennonites appeared and I would go on break, grab a root beer and find them and just kind of be near them.” When he tells me this, I remember how I used to similarly side up to Hasidim on the New York City subway in my pre-conversion days, hoping that sheer proximity would allow me to glean some spiritual energy from them.

Around that time, he was simultaneously examining the practices of Baptist Church to which he belonged, mostly because he felt that no one there could answer the questions he had about certain Biblical mandates, or perhaps they didn’t care enough to ask those questions themselves, which was worse. For example, he found himself particularly struck by a passage in Corinthians that states a woman should have her head covered when praying.

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

Alex thought the teaching was pretty clear, and was unmoved when his pastor told him that it was antiquated convention. What was the point of believing something if there was nothing you could do to actually show it? What had become of modesty, or manners between genders, of embodying the values you espoused, otherwise known as bearing “witness,” in Plain terminology? Such precepts were valued in Victorian times, and in the pre-Civil War South of Harper’s Ferry.

But in this era, in his world, who cared about these things? Only the Plain.

Up until that summer at Harpers Ferry, Alex’s knowledge of the Amish was derived solely, like any ‘90s child, from the Weird Al Yankovic song “Amish Paradise,” and from the few times his family drove by them while on their way to drop him off at summer camp in Northern Pennsylvania when he was a kid. But he entered his senior year of high school after the Harpers Ferry summer with the Plain people in his mind. He bought Twenty Most Asked Questions About the Amish and Mennonites and “hauled it around with [him] everywhere;” he’d occasionally wear button-down shirts and slacks to school and when other students would ask him if he had some sort of presentation that day, he’d cheerfully respond, “Nope, I’m just dressing Mennonite!” (His wife, too, began to sneak out of her house in Plain dress late in high school, much to her parents’ chagrin. In college, she made her own dresses based on pictures of Amish women in a book she checked out of the campus library.) There were no communities near where Alex lived, but a friend of a friend lived in the hills outside Charlottesville and told him there was a Mennonite Church down the road from her parents’ house. One Sunday, he woke up early to drive two hours down to a church not far from Free Union, Virginia (population: 193) and attended his first Mennonite service.

An Amish teenager boy takes a moment break from his daily chores . Photo: Tessa Smucker

An Amish teenager boy takes a moment break from his daily chores. Photo: Tessa Smucker

* * *

Does love inevitably draw us further into our loved one’s orbit, or can affection thrive from a distance? Can you admire something without eventually wanting to imitate or even become it? And if you do try to become it, can you ever really belong? Or do converts always feel a little like anthropologists, knowing that if things ever got too tribal for their tastes, they could dust off their old clothes and take up residence in their old lives?

These are the kinds of questions that arise when one hears the stories of religious conversion, especially when the conversion requires a complete overhaul of one’s life. Many idolize the Amish world, but few actually infiltrate it. According to the 2013 book The Amish by scholars Donald Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven Nolt, only 75 people have joined an Amish church and stayed since 1950. One researcher estimates there may be as many as between 150 to 200 converts living Plain lives today, though not all will stay Amish in the long run.

It’s unlikely, in other words, that the wishful Amish writing blog posts about desperately wanting to become Plain will ever do much more than that, let alone seriously pursue conversion.

Still, an intrepid bunch of spiritual seekers manages to go the distance. There are a few “celebrities” among them, like David Luthy, a Notre Dame graduate who was on his way to join the priesthood when he decided to move to a settlement in Ontario and devote his life to documenting Amish history, or Marlene Miller, Holmes County resident and author of the memoir Called to Be Amish: My Journey from Head Majorette to the Old Order, who married her husband while he was living outside the community. Miller, who has now been Amish for almost 50 years, raised 10 children in the church, but will still twirl a baton to amuse visitors. A convert’s success can be aided by the openness of the community that he or she chooses to join, as some settlements, like those in Unity, Maine, or Oakland, Maryland, which is the oldest settlement in that state, are traditionally more welcoming to seekers who may show up there. Others, like the more established ones in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Holmes, Wayne, and Guernsey Counties, in Ohio, are less likely accept outsiders.

For 14 years, Jan Edwards, now in her late 60s and living near Columbus, did what many considered the impossible: she, an outsider, lived and worked amongst the Swartzentruber Amish. Whereas the Beachy Amish-Mennonites believe in proselytizing, using certain technologies to their advantage, and being generally congenial to strangers, the Swartzentruber Amish are more stereotypically xenophobic and hostile to change. They’re wary of others to the point of chilliness, disdainful of “loud” colors, loathe to speak in English, and proud of their cultural and genetic impenetrability. What is different between Jan and Alex–what her “mistake” was, if one is inclined to view her Amish life as indeed a game that she could have “won”–is the element of faith, or, in Jan’s case, lack thereof.

Jan Edwards was living with her husband and three young children in her hometown of Akron when the race riots occurred in 1968. Martin Luther King Junior had been assassinated, as had John and Bobby Kennedy; the nation was on edge, and Akron wasn’t spared. One night, someone threw a Molotov cocktail threw the front window of Jan’s grandparents’ home, where they had lived for thirty years. They survived, but her grandfather’s leg was badly burned. Her grandparents never returned to collect their belongings. After this, Jan and her husband decided it was time to get out.

“We moved to a country place. [It was] kind of exciting, like maybe we were going to go on a vacation or something.”

But life in Guernsey County, nearly 20 miles from the nearest shop, wasn’t easy. Jan was learning to farm on the job, while her husband was still commuting to work a long distance from the homestead. Even with his income, they struggled to make ends meet. The Amish lived in close proximity–the nearest house was four or five miles down the road–and Jan started to stop in to buy eggs or honey. Contrary to popular conception, she found her Swartzentruber neighbors to be very warm. “The Amish were downright friendly. Probably because they were so starved for–you know, like the old pioneers, they’d finally see somebody coming up the landing, and they’d throw open up the door. ‘Come on in!’ Even if it was a stranger, they just missed people. They just wanted to talk to somebody and exchange an idea or a thought. A howdy-do or something.”

She and her husband were fascinated–envious, even–of the way in which the Amish seemed to have the living-off-the-land thing down pat. Whenever Jan would go to an Amish family’s house, she would watch them closely: the way they cooked their food, the way they raised chickens, the way they chopped timber.

“You’d observe all that was going on, and take all that back with you when you go home and try to see if you’d learned anything,” she said. “I guess we were copycats to an extent.”

I went to meet Jan on a cold October Monday some months after my trip to Holmes County. Leading up to my visit, she hadn’t seemed terribly enthusiastic about me stopping in–“this is a very busy household,” she wrote in a letter–perhaps because she’d already told her story a few times, to a couple of local newspapers, and on the PBS television series American Experience. But once I am there, drinking her freshly brewed coffee and enjoying some out-of-this-world strawberry crumble, she seems to enjoy being faced with some tough questions, and can, like Alex, talk about the appeal of Amish life without reducing it to a starry-eyed romanticism, or, in her case, leaning solely on bitterness or soppy nostalgia.

In person, Jan gives off a host of contradictory vibes: spry and world-weary, wise and undiscerning, forthcoming and guarded. Her house is dimly lit and decorated with the odd tchotchke; some of her paintings of Amish life–equal parts charming and eerie, like a lot of art brut–lean against the walls. She has a gaggle of grandkids and great-grandkids who spend a lot of time with her and wreak happy havoc on place. But for now, she talks of her life with the Amish, and she sounds like she’s been to war.

“I couldn’t do it again, because I was there too long, maybe. I saw too much and heard too much. I became aware.”

A teenage Amish girl's closet. Photo: Tessa Smucker

A teenage Amish girl’s closet. Photo: Tessa Smucker

“It” was a slow progression into life with the Swartzentrubers, one that unfolded over the course of a decade, during which period the whole brood–Jan had six more children over the years there–began to dress Plainly, attend church services, and learn Pennsylvania Dutch, the lingua franca of the Old Order. Her children attended Amish schools, and the family participated in barn raisings, funerals, and quilting circles. Eventually, she and her husband formally joined the church (most of her children at this point were still too young to be baptized, as Amish don’t usually accept a baptism before the age of 16.)

Mostly, she joined because she feared that she would never be fully accepted as one of them unless she did. She did her best to tow the line and “reject everything that could be possibly rejected,” like toasters and windows on her buggy and the news. She could chat in Pennsylvania Dutch to the ladies after church. “I had figured out how to grow everything and wash everything and do all the household and farm kind of things.” She never used bright greens or deep purples in her quilt. She was in the very ordered zone. Besides, Jan had never seen the theological difference between herself and the Amish as a huge barrier–she and her husband were Methodist and Baptist, respectively, and “conservative, I guess”–so she didn’t really consider joining an act of religious renunciation and/or rebirth. The Amish were Christian, and they didn’t do “bad stuff,” and that was common enough ground for her. Most of the Amish people she knew, particularly the women, couldn’t point to the scriptural passages that were the basis for their customs–they just did as they had always done. But this resigned attitude didn’t disturb Jan too much at the time.

“It’s in the background, somewhere else. Because the day-to-day life is so engulfing. You’re just trying to keep warm and get enough to eat and all the social interaction in a settlement,” she says. “You’re just totally busy from bedtime to bedtime… it’s not until way down the line that you think, ‘Oh, hm.’”

After she joined the church, she remained in the zone for only a year or so. Like a frog in a pot of boiling water, she realized that the heat had been turning up while she’d been distracted. Her older children were teenagers now and spending more times with their friends. They brought home tales of rebellion that are de rigueur for the secular world, but surprising in such a cloistered one: drinking, drugs, a little sexual experimentation. Jan and her husband hadn’t ever considered that this happened in the Amish world; they thought maybe the other parents didn’t know, and they should all get together and talk about how to solve the problem.

As even-keeled as she is in person, Jan had never really forsaken the independent part of herself that spoke out when she deemed it necessary. “Am I a feminist? I don’t know that. I don’t even know what a feminist is,” she says. “But I have strong opinions. And would act on them.” Whether that meant insisting she get the things she needed for the house–new plates from an auction sale, thread for darning, flour for baking–or informing on her sons’ friends, she was prepared to do it.

But there was the rub: the other parents didn’t want to know what their teenage kids were up to. To confront the problem would be to acknowledge it, which was anathema to Amish sensibility. Better to just chalk it up to kids being kids, and hope that it passes.

“But the consequences of that is disastrous,” she notes, “It’s just disastrous what happens to a lot of people. And that disillusioned us.”

Meanwhile, Jan’s eldest son, Paul, married a bishop’s daughter from down near Holmes County. From the moment she arrived, it was clear Paul’s wife was emotionally distressed, though Jan could never determine the genesis of her unhappiness. She told the family she had had a miscarriage–Jan isn’t convinced she actually did–and couldn’t help around the farm as a result. Instead, she stayed in bed for two months, occasionally waking Jan, whose youngest was two at the time, in the middle of the night to “pull pain from her arms and legs” in a Reiki-esque fashion. During this time, she asked her sister to come live with her, and the two would often faint simultaneously, basically on command; once, Jan and her husband found them both lying on the floor, so they took them to the emergency room, but the doctors said they were fine. In later years, she’d hide under the chicken coop for hours when upset, or give her children vodka to drink to keep them subdued.

But despite her eccentricities, there was a sense among the Edwards family that they had to behave in front of her, because if they did something untoward–say, converse in English as opposed to Pennsylvania Dutch at the dinner table–she might tell someone. Eventually, the strain of catering to her whims and keeping up appearances became too much, and Paul and his wife moved to a rented farm on a different plot of land. After that, Jan and her husband missed two church services (Old Order Amish hold church every other Sunday); when they didn’t attend for the third one, they were excommunicated.

Overnight, what had been their communal and personal identity was swept out from under them.

That was around 26 years ago, and Jan is still struggling to adjust to life outside the Amish (her husband passed away in 2011.) “I think, while I was gone, while I was out, the world changed. It’s not the same world anymore. I haven’t actually adapted very well. People don’t cook their own food. Mothers don’t raise their own babies. = People don’t teach their own children anything,” she says, her head tilted slightly downward toward the wooden kitchen table. There are many things she misses about Amish life: the camaraderie, the stillness at night, with no passing traffic or vibrating phones or even lamps to slice through the darkness. But it’s not like she spends all her time pining for the past, either; there’s a lot of stuff she doesn’t miss, like having to stifle the smallest expressions of her individuality, or sitting through incomprehensible church services in High German. It’s not that one place or another would be better–it’s that no one world is truly a home, not anymore.

“I absolutely don’t fit!” she says with a laugh, and in my head, I fill in the obvious clarifier: anywhere. I start to feel sad for her, until I notice she’s still smiling. “But you get over it. And maybe fitting in isn’t a good goal anyway.”

An Amish girl mending one of her dresses on her family's sewing machine. Photo: Tessa Smucker

An Amish girl mending one of her dresses on her family’s sewing machine. Photo: Tessa Smucker

* * *

The Sunday in May that I spent with Alex and Rebecca isn’t the culmination of years of pining for Amish-Mennonites, but still, I had, upon entering the church, a moment not unlike the one Alex described having 14 years prior: I became tense, excited, and in a state of near-disbelief. Like many Americans, I carry with me preconceived notions of Amish-Mennonite people, and one of these is that Amish-Mennonites exist only when they are being gazed upon by outsiders. Of course I know intellectually that this isn’t true, but some part of me has absorbed this conception of the Amish as relics, and their homelands as being, like Plymouth Village in Massachusetts or Colonial Williamsburg–or Harpers Ferry, for that matter–essentially historical reenactments, meant not for the people doing the reenacting, but for the visitors.

A room full of Amish-Mennonites in their trademark garb is enough to disabuse one of that notion. The first moment, you might think that the mannequins in a display at the American Museum of Natural History (if they had a dedicated Anabaptist Wing) has suddenly come to life; then, a child wiggles in her seat, and a person quietly clears his throat, and you realize these are flesh and blood people. Here you are! They’re all around you!

Here’s what I see: services are held in a large, unadorned room that must have been in its previous incarnation a cafegymnatorium. On the left side sit the men, and on the right, the women. There is a long mirror on one of the walls, which I deem noteworthy. Down the middle of the room–bisecting the genders–an aisle leads to a small stage where a man stands at a lectern addressing the group. I am too busy soaking in the visuals to really listen to what he’s saying, and his voice is so quiet and measured that it doesn’t disrupt my reverie. The women are all wearing long, monochromatic dresses, and the odd one dons a sweater–the palette covers the primary colors, but no garment includes more than one pigment, or has any flourishes of any kind, like a little lace on the sleeves or a Peter Pan collar. No one wears jewelry. The adults briefly glance back at me, the resident outsider, whereas the kids turn and stare at me with deep, wide eyes like tiny lakes. Every last one of them is stunningly beautiful.

“There was a church picnic yesterday,” Rebecca writes (in immaculate handwriting) on her notepad, which she then passes to me. “That’s why everyone is sunburnt.”

When the devotional is over, the group rises and sings a hymn entitled “Our God, He Is Alive.” The singing is soft and a capella, as Amish-Mennonites frown on musical instruments and solo performances, but the hymn itself has a quick tempo and a not-uncomplicated call-and-answer chorus, which the parishioners–who don’t learn how to read music–handle with aplomb.

There is a God (There is a God), He is alive (He is alive)

In Him we live (In Him we live) and we survive (and we survive)

From dust our God (From dust our God) created man (created man)

He is our God (He is our God), the great I Am (the great I Am)!

Church service runs maybe two hours, which isn’t trying for me, because I spend at least that long in synagogue every Saturday. There are devotionals, hymns, moments of silent prayer; it’s Mother’s Day, so there’s a lot of discussion about loving our mothers, who are the foundations of the household though they might act more behind the scenes than their hirsute counterparts. I can hear the tut-tutting of my ardently secular peers in my head–the patriarchy silences the Mennonite women!––and attune my ears to anything that might offend liberal sensibilities, but not much comes up. One speaker comments that the society is crumbling, but you hear that from all camps these days; another talks about our duty to love our fellow human beings regardless of their politics, race, or religious belief, which I think we can all get behind. At one point, a group of church ministers reads a letter of recommendation they had drafted on behalf of a former member (when a member moves, they need such a letter to join a new church.) They ask the congregation if everyone deems the letter acceptable. Everyone silently agrees that it is.

Once during the service, the congregation kneels down for prayer; this we do with our backs to the lectern and our elbows on the seat of our chairs, like we are children saying “Now I lay me down to sleep” before getting into bed. I sneak a few furtive glances around the room, and then look up to Alex, who is kneeling in a back nook, where there is built-in bleacher-style seating. His eyes are closed and his hands are clasped. I wondered how natural prayer feels to him, how fervent or lyrical or intimate in tone his outpouring is, but his face betrays no fiery mental activity. He looks serene. For a person raised religious, prayer can become routine, even robotic, but for the convert it can also be understood as a skill to be honed, and your facility in it can come to measure, for yourself and those around you, your worth as a Jew or an Amish-Mennonite or a Muslim or whatever the case may be.

Watching him there in church, I think of one time, when a friend and I–both studying to convert to Judaism–were discussing an acquaintance of ours, a woman who had converted as a teenager and had at that point been living an Orthodox life in Boro Park, Brooklyn for around ten years. “I mean, you should see her daven,” Elizabeth said, using the Yiddish word for pray. “It’s incredible.”

A teacher from an Amish one room school house corrects papers after a day with her students. Photo: Tessa Smucker

A teacher from an Amish one room school house corrects papers after a day with her students. Photo: Tessa Smucker

* * *

After church services, Alex and Rebecca take me to pick up my rental car, and then I follow them to their abode, which is a small house sandwiched between two other small houses, just on the other side of Berlin’s main drag. Rebecca goes into the kitchen to finish preparing lunch (chicken, applesauce, coffee) while Alex and I settle in the living room to talk about adjusting to Amish-Mennonite life. Their home is so close to the road that I can hear through the open window the clip-clop of horses’ hooves as buggies approach and then pass outside, which they do often. The space contains seven enormous aquariums filled with tropical fish; there are lights throughout, but none of them are turned on, and an old laptop sits closed on a table. A small bookshelf houses a handful of Christian books, as well as a few authored by Alex himself, including a coffee table photography book of Amish-Mennonite churches, as well as his taxonomy of the different styles of head coverings worn by various Plain communities. As I flip through a copy, lingering momentarily on a photo spread, he explains that he believes the cap (think bonnet) is superior to the cloth style (think scarf). “There’s quite an undercurrent now for the church to be moving toward the cloth style,” he says. “And given that the churches hold such a revered place in the Plain peoples’ lifestyle, is the switch in covering style indicative of a shift away from the church’s importance in people’s lives?”

These might seem like petty details to an outsider, but for Alex, no aspect of life is too casual to be deemed irrelevant to Plainness. This is actually not unique to him–whereas the Amish are legitimately above all the consumerist silliness that characterizes so much of American culture, they are also in other ways more mindful of aesthetic choices than the non-Plain masses. As academic Sue Trollinger puts it in her book Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia, “[The Amish] know better than most Americans that it matters how you style your hair, the sort of pants you put on each morning, what kind of vehicle you drive to work.”

At 18, Alex enrolled at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, so as to be within driving distance of the church. He generally preferred the church to EMU, where he was getting a degree in geography; the school was too mainstream–“no distinctiveness whatsoever”–for Alex’s taste. He became active in the community, attending Wednesday evening and Sunday morning services faithfully, and eventually joining the youth group and the choir. He adopted a more conservative uniform, though other than that, a lot of his behavior already conformed to church standards, because he had been working since high school to give up movies, the radio, involvement in sports, and television. (The last show he watched was The Simpsons, which was tough to let go of. He looks momentarily enticed when I tell him it’s still airing.)

Two years after he began attending, he formally joined. But even over the three years of membership that followed, he worried that he was doomed to always be a misfit. For one, he often felt like the social bull in the china shop of Amish-Mennonite life. He projected his voice in choir, spoke up in meetings, and deviated from the norm in ways the community didn’t understand, like maintaining his interest in classical music. “Plain People have prescribed forms of deviance,” he explains. “If you’re going to get an instrument and be naughty, you’re going to get a guitar, but the flute? It created too much question for them.” Because he hadn’t grown up in the culture, Alex couldn’t pick up on the way the group subtly expressed their disapproval–a pregnant pause, say, or a swift glance, but never a verbal rebuke–and often felt like he was the last to know when he was doing something unacceptable. “When I did violate some sort of norm, everyone else already knew it, and I was just set back from really being accepted by these people as one of them.”

Conflict also arose because, Schoenberg flute solos aside, Alex was in many ways a little more conservative than the group. While church officials were discussing abolishing certain sartorial codes–say, ditching a full button-up shirt for men in favor of shirts with one or two buttons at the collar–Alex was dressing consistently more conservatively. Sometimes, he would wear suspenders, and the other men would brusquely inform him that they dropped that requirement years ago, as if piqued they were being outdone by a new kid. He was always trying to organize evening activities for the male youth–Bible study, seminars on mission work abroad–only to find out the kids were planning to go sledding instead. After one evening when turnout was particularly disappointing, Alex was so depressed he stopped attending that church for the next three months, service-hopping from one Plain congregation to the next, hoping in vain to find somewhere that checked all his boxes. He started underperforming at his job as a transportation planner. Doubt consumed him: Do I really want to be with this people? Do these people even really want to be who they are? If the keepers of these things don’t even value them, then what value do these things have?

The move to Ohio in 2009, precipitated by a scholarship to study for a PhD in sociology at Ohio State University, proved re-invigorating. “It was really a chance to begin taking control again of what I want to do amongst these people. How I want to be amongst these people. Put some of what made me me back in middle school and high school to work in this setting.” In Ohio, he did join a new church, but with a greater understanding of how he would have to compartmentalize in order to be both his autonomous, individual self and his devout Amish-Mennonite self. That old-self found its outlet in academia, whereas the devout self prays, works to yield to the authority of the group, and regularly gives speeches to the church youth about cherishing their heritage. It’s harder for them to value Plain faith and culture, he knows, because they, like most people, find it easy to take for granted what’s always been.

In a way, Alex has come to realize what the wishful Amish of the internet haven’t fully grasped yet: that the Amish universe and its denizens are not perfect. They don’t have a vested interest in your quality of life–spiritual, technological, or otherwise–anymore than you do in theirs. When the wishful Amish express disappointment at this–“Why don’t they seek to try to save this terrible world?” as one Internet commenter opines–they are ignoring the fact that the Plain-from-birth are not operating as full-time beacons of goodness, but as people whose “private convulsive selves,” as William James wrote, more often than not trump ideology. They’re also not spending every moment musing on the purpose of community and separatism. They’re just humans: they get tired of their lives, they skirt convention, they just want to go sledding when they should be reading. It takes someone like Alex, acutely aware of the socializing forces at work on them, enamored of and devoted to the faith they all share, a part of and yet a stranger in the community, to remind them of what they have.

Suddenly, I’m thinking about something I saw in church earlier that morning: in front of me sat a girl, maybe 10 or 12, a white cap pleated neatly around her light brown bun like a cupcake wrapper. A few times, she reached her skinny arm back, drew a silver pin from deep within her tightly coiled hair, moved the pin a fraction of a millimeter, and pushed it back into place. A tiny motion, a meaningless one maybe, but I felt like I was watching a dance savant, moving without thinking about the next step, or about any of the technicality behind her piece, unaware, in many ways, that she was dancing at all. This is the kind of cultural fluency Alex always wanted, but can never have. This is the warmth of effortless identity people like Alex and me will never know. But that’s okay: though we’ll stumble over the wordings of our invocations sometimes, we’ll make up for it in the love we feel for our little worlds, and in the ways in which, as perennial outsiders, we can proclaim their worth with a special sort of authority.

“In the early days, I would have wanted to hide the fact that I didn’t grow up this way. Now I embrace it. Now it’s part of me.” At this, he grins and opens his arms, palms out, as if to say, here I am.

* * *

Kelsey Osgood is the author of How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, which was chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program in 2013. She lives in London, where she is at work on a book about religious conversion.

Editor: Reyhan Harmanci

from Longreads Blog


Eight Stories About #HB2 and Its Ramifications on the Transgender Community

I have tried to put together this reading list on the passage of House Bill 2 in North Carolina from a dozen different angles, and all I can come up with is this past week was awful on every conceivable level. I want to believe people are inherently good. If you live outside the United States or aren’t attuned to current events, you may not be familiar with HB2 or its ramifications for the transgender community. I hope the following eight stories will be of use to you, to educate my cisgender readers and provide support and solidarity to my transgender siblings. You are not alone.

1. Autostraddle has the most incisive scoop, as usual: “With the Passing of HB2, North Carolina Signs Hate Into Law.”

The author, Alaina Monts, is a non-binary student at the University of North Carolina. My favorite part of their coverage is the emphasis on the queer and POC activists dedicated to staying in North Carolina and doing the hard work of fighting these oppressive laws, rather than the proponents of the #WeAreNotThis hashtag, who hastened to distance themselves from their home state’s history of oppression.

2. “Who Birthed the Anti-Trans Bathroom Panic?” (Melissa Gira Grant, Pacific Standard, March 2016)

Melissa Gira Grant tackles the transmisogyny espoused by certain prominent feminists and integrated into academic spheres, healthcare, and, as evidenced by the events of the past week in North Carolina, legislature.

3. “Why Conservatives Increasingly Care Where You Pee.” (S.E. Smith, Rolling Stone, March 2016)

What a coincidence that this evil anti-trans legislation appears during an election year:

Opposing trans rights dovetails neatly with the interests of the right, allowing candidates to come out swinging against civil rights to appeal to conservative voters. Moreover, reintroducing constant fear brings voters out for downticket races, as right-leaning voters will turn out in force to prevent state houses from passing inclusive legislation and they’ll also vote for Republican Congress members. There’s alarming overlap between states where bathroom access is being debated and those with contested Congressional seats…

And then S.E. Smith examines several of these contested states, dropping names. Trust me: You’re going to know who to vote for after reading this. Don’t fall for fearmongering.

4. “The Personal Politics of Public Bathrooms.” (Ann Friedman, The Cut, July 2015)

Ann Friedman writes about the societal vulnerability we feel in about using the bathroom, and how anti-trans legislation exploits that.

5. “Transgender People Are More Visible Than Ever. So Why Is There More Anti-Trans Legislation Than Ever, Too?” (Joss Truitt, The Nation, March 2016)

You might be surprised to hear that legislation, discrimination, and violence targeting trans people seems to be getting worse…But visibility for trans people, and the mainstream success of TV shows and movies that claim to tell trans stories, do not always mean more safety and acceptance for trans people in real life. Many trans people I’ve spoken with have told me they felt more worried about being targeted in public after Jenner’s story brought so much focus on trans women…Knowing a real trans person in your life is what leads to increased acceptance, not just being exposed to trans narratives through popular culture.

6. “Greater Transgender Visibility Hasn’t Helped Nonbinary People, Like Me.” (Alok Vaid-Menon, The Guardian, October 2015)

Alok Vaid-Menon is one-half of the activist/artist duo DarkMatter. In this essay, they explain that increased trans visibility hasn’t eased the omnipresence of the gender binary. Now, trans people are expected to adhere to cisgender standards of beauty, looking feminine or masculine but never in-between if they want to be accepted and respected. Especially in context of these recent “bathroom bills,” Vaid-Menon rejects this:

The [#WeJustNeedToPee] campaign successfully highlighted the ridiculousness of the “bathroom bills”, but it did so by leaning on old-fashioned gender rules: shock that someone who looked like a “woman” could be in a “men’s” restroom and vice versa.

People like me were erased from this framing, even though we often experience the brunt of gender policing, because society continually misgenders us. Rather than challenging the idea that you can tell someone’s gender from what they look like (or the notion that bathrooms should be gendered to begin with!), many trans activists and allies accepted the idea that certain people who look certain ways belong in certain bathrooms. Nobody should have to look a particular way to pee safely.

7. & 8.

So often I see religion used as an excuse for hate. That’s why I’m including  “Coming Home: Life as a Transgender Convert” (Mahdia Lynn, Muslim Girl, September 2015) and  “What the Bible Says (And Doesn’t Say) About Trans People” (Eliel Cruz, Religion News Service, September 2015). Eliel Cruz is the executive director of Faith in America and the founder of #FaithfullyLGBT, a campaign dedicated to representing queer voices in different religious communities. In his piece for RNS, he eviscerates any biblical basis for oppression against trans people. In her essay, Mahdia Lynn, coordinator of the Transgender Muslim Support Network, explores how the recent visibility of transgender celebrities has made her Muslim community contend with the reality of trans believers in their midst.

from Longreads Blog

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

* * *

1. Death by Gentrification: The Killing That Shamed San Francisco

Rebecca Solnit | The Guardian | March 21, 2016 | 21 minutes (5,317 words)

Alejandro Nieto was killed by police in the San Francisco neighborhood where he spent his whole life. Solnit examines the case surrounding his death and the disintegration of the communities displaced by “disruption.” See also: San Francisco Magazine’s response to Solnit’s piece describing the struggles of the mentally ill in the city.

2. Whitewashing the Green Rush

Amanda Chicago Lewis | BuzzFeed | March 16, 2016 | 33 minutes (8,474 words)

How black people are being shut out of America’s marijuana boom.

3. Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream

Kathryn Joyce | Huffington Post | March 16, 2016 | 27 minutes (6,982 words)

On the pervasive culture of sexual harassment in America’s national parks and forests.

4. Imaginary Spaces

Andrew O’Hagan | New Yorker | March 21, 2016 | 27 minutes (6,804 words)

A profile of Es Devlin, a highly in-demand stage designer who has worked with rock stars, playwrights, and fashion designers.

5. What It’s Like to Rent a Friend in Tokyo

Chris Colin | AFAR | Feb. 19, 2016 | 12 minutes (3,047 words)

Colin investigates an unlikely Japanese service: the booming rent-a-friend industry.

from Longreads Blog

Liar: A Memoir

Rob Roberge | Liar: A Memoir Crown | February 2016 | 23 minutes (5,688 words)

When Rob Roberge learns that he’s likely to have developed a progressive memory-eroding disease from years of hard living and frequent concussions, he’s terrified at the prospect of losing “every bad and beautiful moment” of his life. So he grasps for snatches of time, desperately documenting each tender, lacerating fragment. Liar is a meditation on the fragile nature of memory, mental illness, addiction, and the act of storytelling. The first chapter is excerpted below.


1977: You have your first girlfriend and you are, as far as your ten-year-old self knows, madly in love. You are Nicole’s “buddy” in science class—that’s how you meet, because she is a bright girl who has been advanced a grade and she needs an older student to help her fit in. And the principal—a man who knows you incredibly well from your frightening number of trips to his office—seems to have decided that it might be good for you to be responsible for once. To take care of someone and not get in trouble.

You and Nicole pass notes in class with questions like Do you like me? with “Yes” and “No” boxes. You hold hands in the coatroom. Instead of teaching her to behave, you teach her that the more you misbehave, the less adult supervision you tend to have. Screw up and you are out back clapping erasers together. Screw up even worse and you get sent to the coatroom. Really screw up and you get to read books together in the library.

On your eleventh birthday, she is killed in the woods that back three or four neighborhood developments. Woods that you all played in.

You try to think about what she looked like, but you really have no memories of this. You remember two long brown pigtails, but you could be getting those from her picture now on an Unsolved Murders in CT website, in her last school picture ever, taken the year she was killed. She wears a white-and-red print dress. She has brown eyes that match her hair, which is pulled into two shoulder-length pigtails. She has a posed but happy smile. That photo has replaced your actual memory. You think of her now, you see that picture that everyone else can see.

In the woods, Nicole’s head was crushed with a large rock. “Bludgeoned” is the word the newspapers use, and you have to look up the word and it will remain your most vivid memory of finding a definition in a dictionary. You are old enough to realize none of this can be your fault, but you remember the principal telling you that your job is to “take care” of Nicole and the phrase will not leave your head no matter how much you want it to.

For years, you think (there were rumors, after all) she was raped and then bludgeoned. She was never raped, you find out much later. Though, for so many years in your head, she was—the facts, for years, were not the truth. You only learn she wasn’t raped when you try to research her case in your early forties—thinking, somehow, that it might help your life make sense if you could make some sense of her death.

From that day in 1977, you never—especially until you leave your hometown at eighteen—look at a man without thinking, It could be him. Every coach. Every teacher. Every strange man who ever walks by you. For years you’re horrified whenever you’re left alone with a man. Sometimes, without warning, you flush with rage and want to hurt some guy you’ve never seen before. Your reaction to everything in the world starts to frighten you.

Her case remains unsolved thirty-five years later. It will never be resolved and it won’t reduce itself to meaning. She has been gone from this earth nearly five times as long as she was here and sometimes—even though you have known hundreds of people better—you think that relationship may be the most formative one of your life. While many things happened before Nicole was killed, this is really where all the other things start and, to a certain degree, end.


1974: Your parents throw a party on a Saturday night. You sit at the top of the stairs listening to their music, their laughter, and the clinking of bottles and ice in a bucket. Smell the cigarette smoke. They play Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash records all night long.

The next morning, while your parents are sleeping, you’re in the basement looking at all the different colors of liquor in the different-sized glasses. You drink them, one by one, a red one first because you tend to like red foods and red candy, so why not red drinks? It tastes fine. Not as good as, say, Hi-C, but a few minutes in, you feel better than you ever have in your life, except for that accidental overdose two years ago on some pill at the mental institution where your father works.

A beautiful new world floods through you. You smoke half cigarettes from ashtrays. You know you have to feel like this again.

From this day forward, if you are not high, you are not happy.


FALL 1985: You and your girlfriend Sasha have broken up. No one understands the kind of pain you are in. Your pain and loneliness are undocumented in the history of human pain and loneliness.

All day and all night, you lie on your bed with your Walkman on your chest and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks playing as loud as the machine can go into your headphones. Your eyes are closed. You don’t move except to smoke cigarettes or drink beer. One side of the tape plays to the end and you open up the Walkman and flip the tape and listen to the other side.

You do this for weeks. Your life is over. You will never know love again—of that much you are sure. Friends try to get you to come out. To drink. To party. To talk. If you had enough money, you might go see the friends of yours who sell Percocet and morphine, but you don’t have the money so why bother seeing those people?

You ignore them all and get wasted and smoke and listen to Bob Dylan because, really, only Bob Dylan has any idea of the amount of pain you are in.

Only you and Bob Dylan have ever known this kind of love and only you and Bob Dylan have ever known what it’s like to lose this kind of love.


FALL 1984: You are diagnosed as bipolar with rapid cycling and occasional psychotic episodes. You’ve been up for almost a week and you don’t remember any of what a friend later tells you that you said and did the last two or three days you were awake. It’s like a drunken blackout, but longer and worse, since apparently you were acting “pretty full-blown crazy,” according to your friend. He’s a few years older than you and his ex-wife is a schizophrenic. He thinks you may be one too. He convinces you to see the college psychiatrist, who sends you somewhere else, and that doctor tells you that you have been self-medicating— for years, from what you say.

The good news is you are not schizophrenic. The bad news is you are pretty full-blown crazy. From this point on, for a decade or so, you will only tell people very close to you that it’s possible they might have to take you to a hospital someday. That you won’t want to let them and that they have to ignore whatever you say at those times. This makes even the people closest to you tense and nervous about what it means to love you. And you will hate yourself for it.

The doctor puts you on medicines you can’t pronounce and tells you that, no matter what you do, you should not drink alcohol with them, you shouldn’t do any recreational drugs, and, especially, that you should never, “with a brain like yours,” take any hallucinogens like acid, mescaline, or mushrooms again. When you’re released, you take his medicine, but you don’t really stop taking your drugs. You do try to slow down. But only because you are afraid he’s right and you could go fully insane. A week after the appointment, you drop acid and hang out in the Boston Common playing your guitar for hours.

He’s right. His medicine and your drugs don’t go together at all. Your drugs make you feel better. The ones the doctor puts you on make you feel stupid and like someone packed your brain in icy gauze. Like someone has taken a cold wet mop and swirled it gray over your mind.

You no longer have weeks where you stay awake for days and feel great, like your brain is working several times faster than it normally does. You sleep all the time, but you never feel rested. Your feet shuffle—you don’t lift them when you walk. You answer questions really slowly. You can barely play the guitar. Friends ask you what’s wrong.

Before the month is out, the doctor’s medicine stays in your bathroom and you never refill the script. The people who move into the apartment after you will find these pills to be the only ones you left behind.


AUGUST 20, 2009: You are going to kill yourself. You’re a year into your relapse, after nearly fifteen years clean, and you’re a liar—you’ve lied to almost everyone you know. You are, yet again, the person you used to be. The man you despised. It’s come down to two choices: You can either be a junkie or you can clean up and be the person you were for fifteen years. Cleaning up seems impossible. The thought of walking into an AA meeting and taking a newcomer chip makes you sick with shame.

Which leaves being a junkie. And you’ve spent enough time in meetings to know where that ends:

• Jail
• Institutions
• Death

You’re forty-three years old. You’ve been a college professor, a good husband, a good friend, an honest person. The disgrace of being arrested for heroin would burn even worse than taking a newcomer chip. Everyone would know. Shame is an endless white noise of pain in your head. You’re confused and overwhelmed and you are as alone as you have ever felt.

You can’t go to rehab. You can’t admit your weakness to anyone, even though you know, god you know—what addict doesn’t?—that addiction’s not about intelligence and it’s not about strength. Your whole life has been a lesson in this: Knowing something may make it a fact, but feeling something makes it a truth. And the truth is you are trapped. You have nowhere left to go that doesn’t make you feel like your life has added up, in the end and despite some great moments, to you being a loser who just can’t stay clean. Who can’t keep people happy. Who can’t function in this world. You’re done. Defeated.

Too many days have shown themselves to be this. Your life from now on. No matter how many people may have once loved you, no matter how many you may once have loved, at the bottom is this: You are rotten at the core and you cannot be fixed. You will forever be broken.

You’ve tried living clean. Now you’ve just ended up worse than where you started.

So you decide to kill yourself. To exert the last control you have left. At least you will die loaded and it might feel good. You feel guilty for thinking this. You’ve been squirreling away oxycodone and Xanax for the last month, keeping yourself on a maintenance dose in an effort not to be sick. It’s almost impossible to resist the temptation to get high, but you have a plan: Once you have gathered more than enough pills for an overdose, you are going out to a shack in Wonder Valley and you’re going to kill yourself there.

You’re going to shred all your ID; you’re going to take the plates off your car, toss them into the desert, and park far away from the shack and hope that by the time someone finds your body rotting in the desert months or hopefully years later, there will be no way to tell who you were. Your wife will never have to know that you killed yourself. You’ve picked up the emotional messes of suicides before— nothing ever helps someone recover from that. Putting her through that is out of the question. You can’t hang yourself for her to find. You can’t eat a gun. You, both for your own chickenshit reasons of wanting to die happily loaded for one last time and because you never want your wife, Gayle, discovering your body, have made different, elaborate plans.

Of course, you haven’t really thought it through. You’re exhausted at the thought of living another day, and you are in a fog of drugs. They could probably ID your body from all your broken bones or your dental records, even though you’ve only been to a dentist once in seventeen years. Even if your body is totally decomposed and your fingerprints are gone. Plus, just disappearing on a person after fifteen years of marriage is not exactly a way to leave her without a wound that wouldn’t heal. But you are not in your right mind.

At this point, you’re having trouble getting high. Only a large enough dosage that brings you close to an OD anyway is good enough to catch a buzz. It takes about four hundred milligrams of opiates to get even a little high and about two hundred over the course of a day to stave off dopesickness. You have saved well over a thousand milligrams, plus almost thirty Xanax, and you figure this will do the job.

You get to the Wonder Valley shack. You love Wonder Valley—you own a cabin out there where you go to write and relax, or at least you used to. It’s the quietest place you have ever known. You want to die somewhere beautiful. You’ve chosen an abandoned house you actually like, one you have history with. You once made a short film with a scene shot here. A friend who was in the movie is now dead from a lifetime of drug use and you think of him. You dreamed of him all the time after his death, almost every night for about six months, but you haven’t for more than a year now. You were still managing life then—something that seems impossible now.

The shack has five rooms: what used to be someone’s kitchen, a living room, three bedrooms. You sit in the living room, littered with years of pigeon shit and graffiti on whatever drywall is left. Almost every one of the hundreds of abandoned shacks in Wonder Valley are missing doors and the birds scatter as you walk into the shack. The ceiling is mostly gone—open to the rafters and wood and corrugated metal patches on the roof. Above you is a piece of what you figure has to be a bit of misspelled graffiti: JESUS LOVES AL. Unless it was written by some guy named Al. It reminds you of the misspelled tattoos you’ve known in life—a guy in a Florida drunk tank with “I Eat Pusy” on his arm. A guy—also in Florida, perhaps the state of misspelled tats—who meant to have “Unbridled” on his stomach but had somehow managed “Unbirdled.”

You sit, your back to the wall with the fewest shit stains, though you wonder why it matters now. Wind blows through the sagebrush and ground cover and pigeons slowly return and perch on the rafters. Only a few at first, then maybe thirty. You try counting them, but they move a lot and you keep losing track around the low twenties. You’re feeling slightly manic and noises are starting to sound like murmuring voices. You wonder briefly if you’re in the start of an episode, and that maybe this isn’t the day to kill yourself. That you can’t trust yourself in this state. But, even if it is an episode, you’re not yet having any hallucinations. You’re frighteningly clearheaded. You’re certain you’re ready to die. You listen to the wind. You have seventeen cigarettes left. A ziplock baggie of pills bulging in your jeans. You have been here half an hour. You have time.

You’re not debating anything with yourself. You just figure, what’s the hurry? Pay some attention to the world. All this will be gone soon. You think about Gayle. You hear her saying that the only thing she would never forgive you for is killing yourself. She couldn’t understand where you are and where you’ve been. You’re sorry, but not sorry enough, really. It’s your life. Plus, she said that before she had a junkie husband. She doesn’t know what you are or who you are anymore. You smoke a cigarette down to the end and flick it out toward the front door—or where the front door would be if there was a door. You miss. It lands on an old phone book, and you hope it doesn’t light the shack on fire and draw fast attention from any firefighters who might save you, but then you remember phone books don’t burn easily, which you know from cleaning your compulsively hoarding grandmother’s house after her death and you saw she’d tried to burn one in the fireplace for heat she could no longer afford.


APRIL 15, 1912: The Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage. There are enough lifeboats for more than half the people on board yet fewer than a third make it to them. Just over seven hundred people survive, making it one of the most witnessed disasters in history up to that point.

When asked later, more than ninety percent of the surviving women reply that they were on the final lifeboat launched—an overwhelming statistical impossibility given that nearly four hundred women survived and the largest of the lifeboats held seventy people.

Both the United States and Great Britain hold massive inquiries into the disaster, relying on eyewitness testimony for many of their conclusions. At the British inquiry, each survivor is asked how many people were lowered into each lifeboat. The minimum estimates are then taken—some estimates being nearly twice as high as the lowest ones—and the testimony of the most conservative witnesses offered these numbers:

  • Number of people lowered into lifeboats, by minimum estimates: 107 crew, 43 men, and 704 women and children. Total: 854
  • Actual number of people lowered into lifeboats: 139 crew, 119 men, and 393 women and children. Total: 651Seventy percent more men and forty-five percent fewer women made it to safety than the most conservative eyewitnesses had testified. And twenty-five percent fewer people were on the boats—only 651 survivors actually boarded lifeboats. Very few of the eyewitness testimonies were much like any of the others in a wide range of small details and some enormous details, such as the fact that witnesses were conflicted on whether or not the 882-foot ship broke entirely in half prior to sinking.No one came to the inquiry to lie. No one intentionally avoided telling the truth. But if the initial fact is the true event, that initial truth then becomes like a sophisticated virus that adapts to each host, so that it is never quite identical to the original virus, nor to its manifestations in any other host.


DECEMBER 25, 2009: Singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt—a quadriplegic dating from a car accident while driving drunk at the age of eighteen—dies of an overdose of muscle relaxants at the age of forty-five. It is ruled a suicide. Prior to his death, in an interview with Fresh Air host Terry Gross, Chesnutt claims to have “attempted suicide three or four times … It didn’t take.” He says he guesses he was, those times, too chicken to go through with it.


2009: The doctors tell you you’ve had at least seven major concussions over the course of your life. Three or four when you were a basketball player in high school before drugs and a knee torn in three places brought what was left of your athletic career to a close. A few more came in car accidents, one so bad it fractured your neck—a hairline, but apparently dangerous and close enough to the spinal cord that you are lucky you can walk or move your arms. You came, a doctor tells you years later—when you have insurance and get MRIs and the full workup for your years of blinding, debilitating migraines—incredibly close to being a quadriplegic when you were twenty-three.“When did you break your neck?” the doctor says.

“I don’t think I did.”

He points to the fracture and taps it with the end of his pen. You hear his pen make a ticking sound on the X-ray and the glass behind it.

“Another centimeter and you’d be answering me by blinking your eyes once for yes and two for no.”

“So, does that explain my headaches?” you say.

The doctor tells you it explains some of the headaches and he sits you down and tells you about post-concussion syndrome and a possible condition known as CTE. A condition they cannot diagnose until they perform an autopsy, so whether or not you have it is a guess. He tells you about your possible risk for early dementia and the loss of the control of your frontal lobe and the loss of your memory. “To be clear,” he tells you, “there’s no guarantee you’ll have dementia. It’s just that your odds are a good deal higher than the average person.”

You are a writer. Hell, you are a human being. You are your memories. Take away a person’s memories and they may as well be brain-dead. This scares you more than anything. To slowly disappear in front of your wife’s and your friends’ eyes. To have come this far to be able to love and enjoy life and truly be worthy of other people’s love after so many years of trying to destroy yourself. To know that someone else is more important than you and that she would have to watch this—watch what makes you what and who you are slip away by degrees like the tide going out.

You will become someone who is Not You. You will forget when you met your wife. You will forget the look in her eyes and her smile where one eye closes more than the other, that beautiful asymmetry. You will forget the terror you felt seeing her fear when she went into emergency surgery and you thought it was the beginning of the end and you decided, calmly, that you would kill yourself if she died.

You will lose every bad and every beautiful moment of your life and you will cease to exist.

You will, you promise yourself—before you lose everything you remember—before you forget how much you love the people you love, kill yourself, which wouldn’t be a suicide because you would never be yourself again anyway. This would just be dying on your own terms.

The worst part will not be the total loss at the end. It will be the start—when you still know who you are, and you know what, and who, you are losing.

Sometimes you aren’t thinking about it and then it hits you. You make lists, you write down everything you can remember. You try not to think about the fact that all of these could be nothing other than stories you might read someday as if they happened to a stranger, because you might be that stranger someday. Your memories are already foggy and scrambled at times. And then, they may not even be there anymore.

This, you worry about. Always.


JULY 28, 1841: The body of “Beautiful Cigar Girl” Mary Rogers is found in the Hudson River. The murder remains unsolved and becomes a national news story, inspiring Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” a year later.


SOMETIME IN THE ’80s: The last thing you remember, you are drinking at Father’s Five—a bar on Mass Ave in Boston, and you put Jason and the Scorchers’ astounding cover of Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” on the jukebox. Then you wake up in an apartment in Montreal—a city where you know exactly no one, including the guy whose apartment you are in, and he looks at you the way you might look at a unfamiliar sweater that someone left on your floor after a party.

You take a beer from his fridge and drink it in the stairwell on your way down to the street. A normal person might freak out. You might have freaked out only a year or two ago. Instead, you are only pissed off that you don’t have enough money to get drunk right then and that you have to hitchhike back to Boston. Even your friends or girlfriends, tolerant as they are—more saints than you can count on both hands, actually—are not going to come pick you up hundreds of miles away. Some things are too much to ask, after all.


1985: You have a dorm room with your own bed but you end up sleeping with Melissa every night for a few months. Sleeping with—but not having sex. Melissa is a lesbian. But she’s single. You start as a friend who helps her with her guitar. You’re a better guitar player than she is, but she is a much better songwriter and singer.

At night, the two of you drink and play guitar. She’s a Beatles fanatic. You teach her all the early singles. You teach her the dual lead harmony parts on “And Your Bird Can Sing.”

With the lights out, you drink and smoke cigarettes and hold each other while the rain patters on the roof of your dorm. You are young—you know nothing—and you wonder sometimes if the power of pure love (because you’re pretty sure that’s what you’re feeling) could make Melissa love you the way you love her. In the years to come, you’ll sleep with people and next to people, but you will never again this often fall asleep holding on to someone and waking up still holding them the next morning.

You know the smell of her hair. The pace of her breathing. The way her right hand tremors for no known reason while she’s deep in sleep. She lets you kiss her eyelids, but not her lips.

“We don’t want to get confused here,” she says. Too late, you think but don’t say.

You play in a band called Junkyard—Junkyard sounds like every member in the band fell in love with the same Johnny Thunders record, which is pretty much the case. Even your originals sound like covers. Melissa plays in a band of four women who all dress in black and have on pale makeup. They call themselves the Bell Jars. Their originals sound great and even their covers sound original. They are the real deal. Junkyard is not.

The Bell Jars have a show coming up at the Rat—a major Boston club in Kenmore Square. Melissa is worried about her guitar skills.

“You should play guitar for us,” she says.

You’ve thought of this. Her band is better than yours, but you could make their songs better with your guitar. You figure, without saying so, that the fact that the band is all women could be an issue. “I wish I could,” you say.

“Seriously,” Melissa says. “Some small labels and some A&R clowns are supposed to be at the Rat and I want us to sound our best.” She smiles. “You play the main guitar parts and I can front the band and focus on my singing.”

You feel enormously flattered.

“You’d have to dress in drag, though,” she says.

You’re drunk. Not seeing any potential repercussions. Plus, it’s for Melissa. You shrug, say, “What the hell.”

“You’d play a set with us in drag?”

“Why not?”

The band goes for the idea. The night of the show, Melissa shaves what little facial hair you have. She sits on your lap while she does your lips and eyes and cheeks. She tells you what a pretty girl you are. You feel yourself blush. She gives you a wig of hers, black with severely cut bangs like the rest of the Bell Jars.

For your outfit, she picks a short black dress with black stockings and a black girdle with garters for the stockings. Your cock starts to get hard when she’s dressing you but if she notices it, she doesn’t say anything. You’re five foot eight and a hundred and thirty pounds. You remember thinking you were fat.

You’ve played a few practices with the band—dressed like yourself, thankfully—and the sound is good. They probably are one of the best bands in town, but you seem to make them even better. That night at the Rat, the show smokes. You feel weird, playing in heels, feeling the slip of the stockings in the shoes, the pull of the garters on the stockings, but it all seems to be going well and you have to admit, it’s kind of sexy being all dressed up onstage next to Melissa, with whom you may or may not be madly in love.

After the show, you break down your gear and you have to piss. You pause for a moment between the women’s and the men’s room, and you choose the men’s room. You piss at a urinal—difficult around your girdle-style garter belt, but you make it. As you start to walk out of the men’s room a huge skinhead punk looks down on you and says, “Faggot!” He punches you to the floor. The bathroom tiles are cold. You have passed out on these tiles before. The floor is covered with water and soap and piss and dirt and blood. You leave the wig there. You get up slowly, your nose bleeding.

That night, at Melissa’s apartment, you are still dressed up while she gently puts ice on your broken nose. She buys more liquor than you would have needed on a normal night, but you are in pain. Your nose is broken. This is the fifth time—you know what a broken nose feels like and you have learned to fix them yourself in front of a mirror, which is what you do that night in her bathroom, your mascara raccooning around your eyes like Alice Cooper. After you straighten your nose, you nearly pass out. You start to wobble and you take off your heels. You can’t breathe through the nose—it’s too swollen to snort the blow that would numb the pain, but Melissa gives you her last three Percodans and she puts the ice on your nose and kisses your forehead several times, saying “My poor, poor, pretty baby” over and over.

There is talk, among the band, of having you join the Bell Jars. But then there’s a review of the show in one of the city’s most important underground zines:

Boston’s The Bell Jars are the real thing, thanks mostly to frontwoman Melissa B’s incredible charisma and vocals and her songs that bring to mind if Joni Mitchell rocked like Paul Westerberg. She’s one-of-a-kind in a city of carbon-copy bands, and because of her, The Bell Jars may be Boston’s NEXT BIG THING.

On the down side, it doesn’t help this band that their best-looking chick is the dude who plays guitar in Junkyard.

This last line doesn’t exactly smooth your way into the band. Melissa still wants you, but the rest of the band vetoes her. Talk of you joining the Bell Jars ends.

One night, holding hands in bed, listening to the rain outside and the Beatles on the stereo, you say, “I love you.”

She snuggles closer to you. You have slept together almost every night for the last three months. There is a trust. A comfort you have never known. “I love you, too,” she says.

“No,” you say. “I mean I love you. Like in love.”

Rain. Music quietly under the rain. You hear her take a couple of deep breaths. “You know who I am,” she says. “What I am.”

“I’m sorry,” you say.

“Don’t be sorry,” she says. You are holding her but now she’s turned away. “I love you more than I’ve loved anyone else. Can’t that be enough?”

And you could say, no, that’s not enough, because that’s what you’re feeling. But you feel like you’ve already stepped over some line. You lean your head into her shoulder blade. “That’s enough,” you say.

Not long after that, the Bell Jars break up and Melissa decides to take off for Los Angeles. She asks you if you want to come, but you’re scared. You’d only know one person in LA, and that person would, you’re sure, be a star in a year or so. You’re afraid of moving to a city you’ve never seen. A big city where you might be alone. And she doesn’t love you—at least not the way you love her. So, you stay.

One of the last things you do before she goes is teach her the guitar part on the Beatles’ “Her Majesty.”

Around six months later—this is before the Internet, before cell phones and e-mail—someone says to you, “Did you hear what happened to Melissa?”

You haven’t. You expect to learn she signed a major label deal.

And he tells you that she was raped and murdered in an alley after playing a show in LA, not long after moving there. You find out six months after it happened. You don’t know any of the details and never will. Who did it. Where it happened. What exactly happened. You can’t believe she’s been gone six months and you had no idea.

There is no funeral you can go to. This will bother you forever.

You still can’t hear the Beatles for too long without thinking of her. You have to leave the room whenever “Her Majesty” comes on.

You live your life in music. People ask you all the time: Beatles or Stones? Who would you rather listen to? You tell them, Stones—no contest—but you never really tell them why.


Reprinted from LIAR: A MEMOIR Copyright © 2016 by Rob Roberge. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

from Longreads Blog

Six James Beard Finalists You Might Have Missed: A Reading List

The James Beard Foundation announced the finalists for its 2016 food media awards last week, so it’s a great time to make a cup of tea and cozy up to some excellent food writing. You might have already read some of the nominees featured here throughout 2015 — “The Brief, Extraordinary Life of Cody Spafford,” “Straight-Up Passing,” “Corn Wars,” “The Second Most Famous Thing to Happen to Hiroshima,” “The Chef Who Saved My Life,” and “On Chicken Tenders,” which features some of the most passionate writing about fried snack foods to hit the internet’s tubes — but here are six more you might have missed:

1. “Ham to Ham Combat: A Tale of Two Smithfields” (Emily Wallace, Gravy, December 2015)

Worth it for the title alone, Emily’s piece wends from 350-year-old pro-pig promotional literature to the interstate tensions at the 1985 Ham & Yam Festival — with a pit stop to visit The Oldest Peanut in the World — in service of a single question: is the ham capital of the U.S. in Virginia, or North Carolina?  (And a runner-up question: Why does it matter?)

2. “My Father and the Wine” (Irina Dumitrescu, The Yale Review, April 2015)

“Here is what no one admits in their gleeful reports on the year of planting their own vegetables, baking their own bread, and brewing coca-cola with self-harvested cane sugar and home-grown cocaine: some undertakings require absolute, unyielding dedication, and not every member of the family or community can match it.” A stunning essay on family, the ebb and flow of relationships, roots, doing it yourself, and the long pull of food culture that rewards a re-read — you might need two cups of tea for this one.

3. “In Search of Ragu” (Matt Goulding, Roads & Kingdoms, April 2015)

A love letter to the city of Bologna, its cured meats and aged cheeses, and the nonne (grandmothers) who hand-roll its tortellini and stir its bubbling pots of ragù. I gained five pounds reading this piece, and it was totally worth it. With writing this smart, intimate, and evocative it’s not hard to see why Goulding was nominated twice this year (for this, and the Hiroshima piece).

4. “Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking” (Francis Lam, New York Times Magazine, October 2015)

A thought-provoking profile of Miss Lewis, southern chef and food ambassador and author of the seminal book The Taste of Country Cooking — part cookbook, part memoir, part anthropological study of African-American food traditions. Francis Lam ably balances deep reverence for his subject with a journalist’s eye and editor’s pen.

5. “48 Hours That Changed the Future of Rainforests” (Nathanael Johnson, Grist, April 2015)

Palm oil is an ubiquitous ingredient in processed foods and cosmetics, and farmers hurrying to feed our need for the trans-fat replacement have cleared swathes of rainforest, with far-reaching ecological implications. Can one decision change that? This is the story of how one NGO got the world’s largest palm oil corporation, which buys oil from 80% of the world’s growers, to agree not to purchase from growers who cut down the rainforest.

6. “The Woman Who Ate Atlanta” (Wendell Brock, Bitter Southerner, April 2015)

One of the South’s best restaurant critics isn’t southern at all — she’s Parisian. Meet outspoken, witty, cagey Christiane Lauterbach, the dominating doyenne of the Atlanta food scene.

from Longreads Blog

Paul Beatty’s ‘The Sellout’ and the Racism of The Little Rascals

“That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book—that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”

-Paul Beatty’s satirical novel The Sellout, which just won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, is a brutally funny-awful-sad-funny riff on racism in America, about an African American man who attempts to re-segregate his hometown — a fictional suburb of Los Angeles called Dickens. Beatty’s protagonist paints a border around Dickens, distributes “No whites allowed” signs to the local businesses, and gets help from a local celebrity, Hominy Jenkins, who was an understudy to Buckwheat and the last surviving cast member of the 1920s and ’30s serial “The Little Rascals.”

Through Hominy we also get a primer on the racist history of Hollywood — what was removed from public view, and what is still on display today. Beatty’s book led me back through my own childhood memories watching “The Little Rascals” in reruns during the early 1980s, unaware of the racist humor that was excised from syndication. Through The Sellout we get a tour of our ugly cultural past — Our Gang and Looney Tunes as just a start — and Beatty’s humor guides us through the injustices of the present.

Further reading:

• Interview with Paul Beatty (Scott Simon, NPR)
• New York Times Book Review (2015)
• An excerpt from The Sellout

from Longreads Blog

‘My Model for Writing Fiction Is to Replicate the Feeling of a Dream’

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2016 | 20 minutes (5,074 words)

In 1989, Daniel Clowes started a comic-book series called Eightball. Instead of lauded superheroes following traditional plotlines, his comics often featured oddballs, meandering or dreamlike sequences, and an acerbic wit. At the time, it felt like he was writing into the abyss.

Since then, Clowes has become one of the most famous cartoonists in the world. Eightball was the original home to what became the standalone graphic novels The Death-Ray, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and Ghost World, among others. Ghost World was adapted into a feature film in 2001 (Clowes collaborated on the screenplay); his graphic novel Wilson will have the same fate. Eightball itself was republished in a slipcase edition last year. This is a wildly abridged history, and I haven’t even mentioned the awards.

Clowes’s new work is his most ambitious to date: the graphic novel Patience, a huge gorgeous slab of a book with drawings so sumptuous and vibrant I wanted to plaster them all over my walls. The book opens on Jack and his wife Patience learning they’re going to have a kid, shortly after which a wrenching turn sends Jack on a tumultuous trip back and forth in time. We spoke by phone about Patience, dreams, teen-speak, and when Clowes gets his best ideas: when he’s really bored.

* * *

You didn’t show Patience to anybody while you were working on it, or really discuss it at all. I have heard you talk about your sensitivity to criticism while you’re working on something, so I wondered if that was the reason?

[Laughs] That’s a good way to begin. “You’re kind of a crybaby.”

Now, let’s see, where does that come from? That’s a very real thing. When my wife and I first were living together, she would sometimes look at a panel and say something like, “Oh, I thought that was the guy’s leg in the background, but it’s actually a building”—something really innocuous like that. But immediately, my entire perception would be shifted. I found it was really debilitating. So I found it was better to avoid that altogether and try to do it in my own little hermetic room. It’s not like people don’t see the artwork, but they sort of know better than to say anything. And they don’t read it. I don’t let anybody sit down and read it out of context. After I’m all done, and I feel like this is it, I do let people read it. They may have comments, and I have changed a few things at that point. But that’s not in the middle of the process. If I’m halfway through, I have to really just trust my own instincts.

Is there a way in which explaining a complicated idea for a story makes it sound—


—dumb? [Laughter]

That’s a big part of it. For years, people would say, “What are you working on?” “Oh, I’m working on this kind of longer book.” And then they would say, “Well, what it’s about?” And I would try to think, how could I say it without making it sound so ridiculous that I would just go home and throw it in the garbage? [Laughter]

There’s also something about saying the names of your own characters that is really embarrassing, I’ve found. I was talking to another cartoonist about this and we realized we never say the names of our characters unless we have to. You just say, “the guy in the story.” There’s something deeply embarrassing about thinking, I just made up this character and now we’re talking about him.

It reminds me of how it feels a little obnoxious when an actor refers to the character they’ve played in the third person, as if it’s a real person.

[Laughs] Right! I think it is like that. It does seem really immodest somehow, and like you should sort of keep to yourself that you’ve made up these characters.

So what was the very first bit of Patience that came to you—an image, the character, a line of dialogue?

It was a character and a title, which was not Patience, that I came up with probably in about 1994. I wanted to do a short story about a guy from the future who looked pretty much like this character does when he’s older—kind of a white-haired, sunburned James Coburn/Lee Marvin-type guy who in comes from the future and then wreaks destruction on the present. That was all I had. I think I had a dream about something like that. The guy’s sort of an archetypal version of my dad when I was a kid. My dad had white hair and a crew cut and kind of a tough-guy persona.

So I wanted to do something that was short and poetic and had this futuristic imagery to it. But I could never quite make it work. I did drawings of the character and had it in mind for years and years, and nothing ever came of it. And then I started to think, “What if I did that story, but really gave it a lot of room and made it something big?” And that’s when it all started to come into place.

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Is it strange for your own face to have grown closer to the character’s older face in the intervening years?

Well, I’m guessing that’s a big part of it. At the time, he was very much an other: a figure of mockery, an old, kind of out-of-it guy. And then, all of a sudden, I became the old, out-of-it guy. Much of the story is about the older character in unspoken dialogue with the younger version of himself, and kind of evaluating that character, and what circumstances would lead this guy to become very different as he gets older.

You’ve also had a son since the first iteration of the idea, and he’s grown up in the process of writing. Your son is how old now?

He’s 11.

So he’s gone from 6 to 11 as you’re writing it. Pregnancy, and having a child, is one of the fulcrums around which this whole book turns. So how did his growth during this pivotal period of his life affect your thinking about the story, if it did?

Well, certainly, just having a son had a huge effect on the story. The notion that you would go to the ends of the earth to save your child, or you would risk everything for your child, is something I never quite believed before I had a kid. You always want to think, I would put my life on the line for my loved ones. And then you think, Man, I bet I would really chicken out at the last minute and be like, “Uh, uh, okay, I can’t take the barrage of bullets.” I always wondered, would I really step in front of the sniper to save my mom, or whatever? I was always quite dubious about whether that would happen.

But once I had my son, I realized that, without hesitation, I would fight armed bandits or whatever to the last breath to protect him. It’s just something you know you would do. There was not even a thought in my mind that I wouldn’t go through with that. That makes you feel very differently both about yourself and about people’s relationships in that way.

It’s also interesting to see a noble application of a superpower maybe for the first time in one of your works. Although, do you think that’s a noble application of a superpower, saving your own kin?

I don’t know that it is in the scheme of a larger society. But it feels like a biological imperative, and it doesn’t feel like something that you should argue your way out of. It feels like something that just is.

Patience struck me as more traditionally plotted than other works of yours I’ve read.

I knew, going in, that I had to really figure out the plot and get every little aspect to work or it would be dissatisfying. I wanted it to work on many levels, but I wanted it to absolutely work on the primary level of being an enjoyable story where the plot goes in a certain direction and everything comes together. That’s not something that’s really easy for me. I feel like I get how to do it, but to make my kind of stories work with a plot that actually works out is—it required a lot of back-and-forth during the process.

That was the beauty of the thing taking as long as it did, because I wound up completely changing it from about page twenty on. Everything after that has been rethought and honed and moved around and rejiggered as I was working on it, as I was drawing it. That’s one of the good things about comics: there are certain parts where you’re drawing, you’re inking, you’re doing your lettering or whatever, and your brain is open in a way that you can solve those problems.

It’s almost like dreaming. Or, I remember I used to get my best work done when I was sitting in a class, really bored, not able to listen to what the teacher said, and my mind would be wandering into other things. That was always when I came up with my best ideas. So it’s kind of like that.

When you were drawing or doodling in class, what form would those drawings take?

Mostly naked drawings of my teacher. [Laughter] No. I would just think of stupid ideas for superheroes and dumb comics I was going to draw when I got home. I would mostly do science fiction-y, Star Wars-like comics, or Mad magazine parodies—things like that. But they felt like they had a real depth to me at the time, at fourteen or fifteen years old.

What would they look like on the page?

It would be little drawings of a character, a little note that would say, “a guy has superpower to blow himself up,” or whatever [laughter] — handy notes for when I got home to my latchkey existence.

Is that what it’s like now, still?

Kind of, yeah. [Laughter] I’ve actually thought of taking a really boring class at a community college or something, like accounting, just to have that space where I’d be able to think in that way. I always take my sketchpad if I have to go to a meeting at my son’s school where it’s just an endless amount of parents talking about the lacrosse team, and I often come up with something at those times. It’s much easier, somehow, than sitting home alone with a perfect environment.

Ghost World is often noted for its perfect encapsulation of teen-speak, which appears in Patience, too. There’s a panel in which Krista, Patience’s sister, is babbling about all these friends of hers—“T.T.’s being a total butt-plug,” and on and on—and Patience says, “I don’t even know or care who or what the fuck you’re talking about.” How do you write such excellent adolescent dialogue? Do you ever take notes on what you overhear, or does it just come to you as you’re writing it?

I have a good memory for stuff like that. In that case, I was literally remembering a girlfriend I had in college who had a younger sister. I was at her house once, and the sister was just babbling about all these kids from school to the dad. And the dad just said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” [Laughter] I remember thinking that was quite amusing. So I almost verbatim remembered what the teenage sister said at the time. I was equally a blatherer when I was her age, but to be a few years older than her and look back on it, I remember being kind of struck by what a weird hormonal outburst it was.

It’s something I never really noticed in teenagers before I read that one panel. And then I thought, “Why do teenagers do this?” And I wondered if it was just because as a teenager you’re so self-absorbed—necessarily so—that it just seems obvious to you that everyone would know everything that’s going on in your world.

Yeah, just that your problems are so, so vital that of course the world is waiting for their resolution. My son, at eleven, is already a little bit like that: He’ll talk about really obscure stuff that’s happening on a video game that he’s playing or something, as though we’re sort of doing our own research while he’s at school every day, trying to understand the arcane rules of Minecraft.

It also assumes that you share a mind with other people.

Yeah, it does have that. And I like it. I enjoy that kind of insider talk from an eleven-year-old. It’s charming.

In the opening pages of the book, when Patience discovers she’s pregnant, you show her and Jack in silhouette. How did you choose to draw it that way, as opposed to showing their facial features?

I wanted it to feel like an overture, to feel sort of separate from the rest of the book, and to start in a place that was not so literal yet. It’s almost like you’re seeing them through the eyes of the fertilized egg. It’s from a weird vantage, and I thought that seemed like a right choice. But again, it’s all very intuitive. I didn’t sit out and figure that out. It just felt right, and part of the process of going by what feels right is you have to then make sure it actually works once you’re in the flow of the story.

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I wonder how you feel about doing press like this, and if there is a weird aspect in which some of it is so intuitive and then you have to parse out where it came from.

I feel like it’s incredibly difficult to do this, because I really don’t want to explain anything. I think that’s harmful to the book and to the reader’s experience. And so I feel like I have to dance around a lot of things that I could talk about at length just because I think it’s detrimental to the book.

I also just think it’s weird to talk about fiction somehow. A few years ago I did some interviews for a monograph that was just about my career. That was so easy to talk about, because it was I was talking about things I had done early in my career, the way the comic business was, things that were factual. But to talk about fictional characters is such an odd thing to do.

Early on, in interviews, I used explain myself or why I did something. I’ve learned not to do that, because it’s often not even true. It’s much more complicated than an answer you could give. And certainly, any work that can be described cleanly like that, I think, was probably not worth doing in the first place.

You said describing or explaining fiction is particularly uncomfortable or hard. I wonder if there’s a way in which it’s more direct access to the unconscious, so that then explaining it is like being asked to publicly psychoanalyze yourself in a weird way.

Yes, and it feels like it’s not my job. I feel like I did my job, and now it’s someone else’s job to take it apart and make of it what they will. My model for writing fiction is to replicate the feeling of a dream in some way—I want it to have the emotional intensity you feel in a dream. And dreams, at least my dreams, are always really dramatic. Sometimes I wake up really haunted by them all day. And they have this emotional purity. I want the stories to kind of aspire to that. But I don’t want to analyze my own dreams, really.

Do you find that you mostly remember what your dreams are?

No, no, I wish. Actually, I don’t wish [laughs] because they’re often horrible—I had a dream the other night where somebody was trying to attack me with a power drill. So I don’t want to relive that one. But the ones I do remember I try to write down in real detail. And they often come back into play. I remember them for years sometimes.

Do you have a special dream notebook or something?

No, I have a random sketchbook that I just put everything in. That would be a good idea, though. About 18 years ago, The New Yorker started sending me their desk diary, and I decided I was going to write down what I do every single day. Just a little brief thing, mainly of what I was working on, if I saw a movie or whatever. I’m still doing it, 18 years later, and it’s such an annoying chore. I hate doing it so much. [Laughter] But I sort of feel like I can’t stop now.

That’s a long time, 18 years!

I know. And I’ve literally never reopened one. It’s just all there.

So what’s compelling you to continue?

I feel like someday I’ll be glad I did it. I feel like as my memory goes when I get older, it’ll be helpful to look up and go, “Oh, yeah, that was the day I was mad at the neighbor.” It’ll be interesting, I hope. If not, it was a huge waste of time.

It’s also reminding me—you’ve said that 10 years is the amount of time it takes before you stop cringing at your old work and can see it from a distance. So maybe, when you read your diary as an old man, it’ll be like eavesdropping on a totally different person.

Yeah, I don’t know. I have this vision of myself retired with nothing to do. [Laughter] But I feel like if I read through the diary now, I would see the mind-numbing repetitiveness of my life and I would start skydiving or something. I have this vision that one day I’ll organize all my artwork and do all this stuff. I imagine puttering around like my dad puttered around in the garden when he was 75. But a certain part of me prays that I never am like that.

To go back to that 10 years thing, Richard Brody, a film critic for The New Yorker, recently tweeted, “If you think that someone’s first or second film in a long career is their best, you don’t really like their work. Artists grow.” I just wanted to throw that quote at you and see what you thought.

That’s a very lovely quote to come from a critic, because they’re usually the ones who say that the first film is the best. Certainly with a lot of rock bands, everybody says, “Their first album was their best, because they spent their whole lifetime making that one, and then they spent six months making all the rest of them.” I think in comics, especially, it’s so difficult to have even the basic skills early on that chances are your first book is not going to be your best. I certainly feel like I’m a much more complicated person at my age, and that I have much greater command over what I want to do and a larger sense of purpose.

I always feel like what I’m doing is the best thing. But I feel like everything I’ve done is so different from each other that each of them has its own group of fans that almost don’t even interact with each other. Very few people like everything I’ve done. And I’m fine with that.

Was there something more relaxing about being unknown?

No, it was very tense and filled with anger and resentment. It was not fun. Because it felt hopeless. Nowadays, you could do work and put it on Tumblr and have followers and feel like you’re not alone in the world. But man, back then, you could do a comic and have it printed and it would be in the stores and you would just hear nothing. It felt really dispiriting and hopeless. Which was sort of good, creatively, in some ways. But it certainly wasn’t relaxing.

I wanted to talk about perfectionism versus the value of making mistakes or not quite hitting it. In an interview with Tavi Gevinson for Rookie, you talked about how you used to have to listen to an entire album and you’d maybe love a couple songs, whereas now you can just get the ten greatest hits and don’t experience the rest.

You don’t earn the love of those songs, somehow.

Right. But I was considering that alongside something else you said, that you regret the times you rushed to get things out by a deadline and cut corners. So my question is, more broadly, about the value of imperfection versus a drive toward perfectionism and control.

I’m all for imperfection if it comes out of your best effort and it just comes out imperfect. But the times I’m thinking of in Eightball that I really regret were the times where I knew that I should be redrawing a face or rewriting a word balloon, but I let some outside authority—in that case, my publisher—tell me to turn it in and not worry about that. Any time I haven’t trusted or acted on my own instincts, I’ve regretted it.

But if I did what I could and it’s just imperfect, which is especially the case with the early stuff, I’m okay with that. There is a certain beauty to it that I see. Looking back at some of my early comics, I can feel the tenseness in my drawing. I was so desperate to get a certain look and just not able to do it. And so there’s this tension there between the goal and the actual result that has a poignancy to it, I think.

Right before Wilson, you plotted out and spent maybe half a year working on a story that you said was really boring to you. And you decided to just throw it away, to put it into a drawer and never return to it. What about it was so boring?

Well, I wanted to do this big story about Hollywood and living in Los Angeles, and I felt like I had a really strong outsider’s take on the city. I had lived there a few times and had sort of an entree into the film world, but I was always very much an outsider in that world, so I felt like I had a lot to say.

But as I was drawing it, I realized this is a book where I have to actually draw a specific place. I have to draw L.A. and get it exactly right, or the book isn’t going to work. And I realized there’s a very strong reason why I don’t live in L.A., which is I really hate it. I have no connection to it and I find it deeply alienating and it’s not at all a place I want to be. And I thought, “Do I really want to spend 10 hours a day living in L.A. even more extremely than I would if I actually lived there?” I think the book would have been really strong, but I just couldn’t do it.

Random question, but when you’re talking to someone, do you ever superimpose your own comic representation of them onto their actual human face?

Photo: Caroline Smith

Clowes. Photo: Caroline Smith

No, I don’t. [Laughter] Because when I’m drawing the comics, I’m not really thinking, “I’m translating this to comic form.” I’m trying to draw the way they actually look to me. I’m trying to draw the way I see reality. It’s certainly simplified a bit and altered, obviously, but I’m not thinking, “This is the cartoon version of that.” I’m just thinking, “This is that thing.”

If I do have to draw likenesses, the best way for me to do it is to study what they look like. If I can see them in person, it’s the best, but if not, if I get a good couple of photos and I just look at them and think about them. Then, I draw it without looking at them. That comes out a million times better than if I study the photo. Once you start studying somebody’s photo, they become a totally different person. All of a sudden they look nothing like themselves and you get lost in this weird vortex. I was drawing Bill Murray once, and all of a sudden he started to look like Hugh Hefner, to the point that I was like, “I could just sell this as an illustration of Hugh Hefner.” It’s a very weird process.

Is that because you get lost in the details of the face?

Yeah, and you start to notice that the components that make up a recognizable face are odd components. A memorable face is not a sum of these parts, it really is its own holistic thing. That’s why those programs that they use for police sketches always look weird, where it’s just like, “Plug in nose thirty-seven and eyes twenty-two.” And then it’s always like, “No, that doesn’t look like any human I’ve ever seen.” Except for the Unabomber. To me, that was one of the greatest punch lines in news history. They had that photo of the Unabomber with the hood and the beard and everything for years and years. And then he actually looked like that. The easiest way to not look like your photo: shave your beard and don’t wear a hood. But he had to do it. I remember the day they showed his capture on the news and I couldn’t stop laughing.

It seems to me that artists are preternaturally drawn to whatever their medium is. There’s this way in which, when you see a really good example of the thing that you want to make, you think, “I want to make that,” as opposed to really appreciating other kinds of art, but not feeling that need to replicate it.

I completely agree with you.

So what’s that about, and why, out of everything, was that comics for you?

It’s a good question. As a young kid, I had an older brother who left me his stack of comics from the ’50s and ’60s in the room I inherited from him when he went off to be a hippie. That was all I really had for entertainment. I remember asking my brother, “What kind of machine did they use to draw these?” And he was like, “No, it’s a guy drawing.” And I was like, “How could it be, how could you make those lines, what kind of pen could you use?” I got obsessed with the idea that that is something that could be done. It was just such a formidable task to me that I wanted to make my own from a very, very young age.

Even now, when I’m working, my goal isn’t as much to create the story. That’s not what I’m envisioning, the sort of ethereal story that exists in the reader’s mind. I’m trying to create the object, and I have to have the object in mind from early on. Then, I’m working on the goal of that object existing. In this case, it was this big, thick book that had a certain feel and look and heft.

In a way, it’s almost like making a sculpture—a very odd sculpture with a bunch of pages to it. But I’m really picturing this 3D thing. That’s why, when people want to read this stuff online or want me to do it as a download, it doesn’t hold any interest for me. That doesn’t feel like the right way to read it, because that’s not what I was envisioning at all.

When you were younger and starting to try to do this yourself, was there any drawing tool that you discovered that was revelatory for you?

Well, that was part of the quest. Early on, I was convinced that the reason these guys could make these beautiful smooth lines was that they had this special pen. And so I would go every week down to the art store—Flax was a big art store in Chicago—and try a new pen. Finally, one day, I found out there was this photo-retouching pen that had really dark black ink that would mark shiny surfaces and had this really cool point. I thought, “This is it, this must be the pen.” I spent a lot of money, like eight bucks or something, and came home all excited. I tried it and I was like, “God damn it, it’s not the pen.” I was so frustrated.

When I was about fifteen, there was a book that came out called How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way. And that was the first time I learned that the way these guys make those lines is with a watercolor brush. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more crushed than that day. [Laughter] Like, “That’s going to be hard, that’s going to be just impossible.” I went out and bought a watercolor brush and, yeah, it looked horrendous when I first started; it was just a blob. I was so bummed out that there wasn’t some secret tool. But, you know, you work at it for fifteen years and you start to get okay at it.

I’m struck by the number of your characters who are these men, wandering around, who are taken on journeys. Even Jack, in Patience, has a lot of power and control—and yet, he’s being thrust around to decades that he didn’t intend. So is that how you feel?

I think that’s the way life feels to me. You sort of blunder through day by day as best you can. And then you look back on it and it’s this odd, kind of random adventure that you’ve been on.

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Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.

from Longreads Blog