The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.

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1. Madness

Eyal Press | The New Yorker | April 25, 2016 | 31 minutes (7,792 words)

In Florida prisons, mentally ill inmates are routinely tortured and killed by guards. Staff are often witnesses to the abuse but remain silent out of fear of retaliation, cooperating with security officials who they depend on for protection.

2. How a Son Survived Being Injected with HIV by His Father

Justin Heckert | GQ | April 28, 2016 | 21 minutes (5,424 words)

Twenty-four years ago, in an act of ghastly malice, a Missouri father plunged a needle filled with HIV-positive blood into his baby son’s vein. No one expected the son to live—but he thrived.

3. Uncanny Valley

Anna Weiner | n+1 | April 27, 2016 | 25 minutes (6,416 words)

Anna Wiener on the hollow promise of San Francisco’s startup life. “’I just hope this is all worth it,’ she spits in my direction. I know what she means — she’s talking about money — but I also know how much equity she has, and I’m confident that even in the best possible scenario, whatever she’s experiencing is definitely not.“

4. 427: Ten Years Without Jen, Twenty-Six With

Matt Zoller Seitz | | April 25, 2016 | 14 minutes (3,619 words)

Seitz, on the 10th anniversary of the death of his wife, describes where’s he’s been and what he’s learned.

5. The Faithful

Graciela Mochkofsky | California Sunday | April 28, 2016 | 29 minutes (7,275 words)

In Colombia, where a majority of people practice Catholicism, a small community goes on a difficult journey to convert to Orthodox Judaism.

from Longreads Blog


Jenny Diski: 1947-2016

Jenny Diski wrote 11 novels and seven non-fiction books. She wrote 150 articles and 65 blog posts for the London Review of Books. She wrote about drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll; she also wrote about animals and train travel. She wrote historical fiction and memoir, and essays about literature and fashion. She wrote about her family, her loves, and in the last two years since her cancer diagnosis, she wrote about the life she lived. She wrote herself until the very end.

Jenny Diski died this morning at the age of 68. Here are nine stories celebrating Diski and her work.

1. Jenny Diski’s End Notes (Giles Harvey, New York Times Magazine, June 2015)

Last July, when the English writer Jenny Diski was told she had inoperable lung cancer and, at best, another three years to live, she responded to the news characteristically — that is, in wry poor taste. “So,” she said, turning to her husband, the poet and academic Ian Patterson, “we’d better get cooking the meth.” The Poet — as Diski always refers to Patterson, with tender-ironic reserve, in her personal essays — was just about able to keep up his end of the morbid repartee that is the currency of their marriage: “This time we quit while the going’s good.” The oncologist and the nurse, apparently not watchers of “Breaking Bad,” looked on blankly.

2. Who’ll Be Last? (London Review of Books, November 2015)

People offer me things to live for. (Another TV quiz show?) ‘But what about the grandchildren. They’re worth living for, aren’t they? And family and friends?’ But finding what is good about life makes their loss all the more miserable, even if you know there will be no you to miss anything. In this long meantime, dying sooner rather than later can be upsetting. Additionally, how much do I want to be dependent on others for my everyday life or, indeed, for finding a reason to stay alive a little while longer? Missing a few months of feeling awful, being dead, versus not missing those months of feeling awful. Dead, at least theoretically, is the less painful of the two options, assuming that dead equals not being at all. Whatever terror there is lies in the present fear of dying, not so much of death. The stoics tell me that I’ve been ‘dead’ before, prior to my birth, and that was no hardship, was it? Back to Beckett, I think. So that’s how I am at the moment of writing this. But of course it’s more complicated than that, more complicated than is allowed by the linear business of writing one word, one sentence, one paragraph after another with the intention of being coherent.

3. What To Call Her? (London Review of Books, October 2014)

As with my cancer diagnosis, it’s hard to avoid thundering clichés when writing about the start of my relationship with Doris, and hard not to make it sound either Dickensian or uncannily close to the fairy tales we have in the back of our minds. ‘It’s like something out of a fairy story’ was a phrase people often said to me when they learned how I got to live with Doris. To which I would answer yes, or sort of, or say nothing at all. Or if I had the will, I would say something to the effect that the Cinderella fairy story of Doris and me was a rare instance of life after the ellipsis at the end of most fairy stories. And they lived happily ever after. People usually didn’t much like that answer, because it messed up the simplicity of the story, and reminded them that Doris was not a handsome prince, or I the foundling whose innate nobility was recognised by a prince of the true blood.

4. Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? (London Review of Books, March 2015)

But I was that girl whose face was twisted into a snarl when the wind blew in my direction and fixed it that way. I left school with a small handful of O levels and no university education in prospect, made friends with the Covent Garden arty drug types, was living in a squat in Long Acre, and finally went into Ward 6 of the Maudsley Hospital. A friend of Doris’s who came to visit me there told me that she had washed her hands of me and expected that I would become a heroin addict, get pregnant and die an early death. I suppose there was a 50 per cent chance of each of those things happening to me. Or rather of doing those things to myself, compelled by my self-destructive nature, Doris would have said. The belligerent look barely had time to wash and brush up in readiness for hibernation when it rushed back to the face of its owner. You were very difficult, they tell me. You are very difficult, they say. It turned out that ‘doing what I was told’ was not so much following orders, it was some innate understanding of how the world was supposed to work and conforming to it, so as not to make trouble. By the time someone had to tell me what to do, it was already too late.

5. What Was Wrong With Everything Was People. (London Review of Books, June 2015)

My eyes were made of diamonds, not the glitzy sort that sparkled and shone, but the implacably black kind that knew the worth of concealed things (some called them ‘your coal-black eyes’). Those eyes radiated the truth of the matter to anyone who dared look at them. And the darkness drew in the world and showed me what the world could do and was doing. Those eyes picked out the lies, the faults, the vanity, the hypocrisy and put them in their mirrored compartments and twisted them like a kaleidoscope, not into shards of chaos pretending to make sense, but into the actual truth, all unknitted and unravelled into what the fuck was wrong with everything. And what was wrong with everything was people and their need to do all those things that made the world go round. The answer of course was that everyone told lies. All kinds, big, small, monumental, trivial, world-shattering, mind-shattering, hateful, loving lies. No one tells the truth – that is the privilege of 18-year-olds. No one knew it, but there was the reason for the belligerence on my face. It was the visual representation of the fact that they’d never get one over on me again.

With Doris were her friends, a couple dressed for a country cottage weekend out of Vogue. X and I watched and saw it all. Sometimes we lay on our beds and laughed. Sometimes they appalled us. We knew that we would become them, and that was one of the reasons for jumping out of windows.

6. On Knickers. (London Review of Books, October 2013)

Human beings have never been happy with what they’ve got. We reshape the world, construct machines and contraptions of every kind to alter and control it. We are proud of our innovative dissatisfaction, and quite begrudge the odd chimpanzee using a stick to pry around in termitaries. But while an orangutan might put a large leaf on her head for her amusement or to alleviate the boredom, we are the only ones who actually shape-shift through sleight of body. Until recently, the only way to make major alterations was to push or pull, squash, flatten or compress, lengthen, broaden or enlarge by means of concealed apparatus. Controlling the body is difficult. It requires carefully thought-out structures and appliances which take account of the fact that squeezing one bit will cause a bulge elsewhere, and that death can result from a too constricted ribcage. A degree of rigidity is required but so is pliability.

7. Seriously Uncool. (London Review of Books, March 2007)

A next book and a last book must be read in different ways, even if they are identical in content and in either case written in the shadow of a cancer that she surely knew was going to kill her sooner rather than later. None of these introductions to other people’s books, contingent newspaper articles and speeches written between 2001 and 2004 was intended as last words. Rieff is adamant about that. And to underline it he speaks of her ‘unalloyed fear of extinction – in no part of her, not even in the last agonised days of her ending, was there the slightest ambivalence, the slightest acceptance’. But it is very hard for the reader, knowing it to be her last, rather than her next book (and coming to it via Rieff’s elegiac foreword) not to see these writings as valedictory – a round-up of Sontag’s thought and work. We may know that death is always an arbitrary interruption of a life, but with us here and her not, and our narrative-hungry brains being what they are, we bind death to life by assuming a summation rather than allowing life to spill pointlessly over the edge into oblivion.

8. Jenny Diski Interview: ‘The Mediocrity of Fiction is Really to do with Feeling Cosy” (Robert Hanks, The Guardian, November 2015)

“People write to me sometimes, and they say that they know me. And of course I know they don’t know me … There is a need for readers to have a sort of personal relationship with writers, which is why you get so much shit” – she spits the word out – “about whether a book is good. Are the characters believable? Or is the plot good? The mediocrity of fiction is really to do with feeling cosy, and that you’ve got a nice friend sitting in your lap telling you a nice story. I’ve never been a nice friend sitting in anyone’s lap. I just wanted to write stuff down in shapes, really.”

9. The Sixties (Picador Books, 2009)

The past is always an idea which people have about it after the event. Those whose job it is to tell the story of the past in their own present call it history. To generations born later, receiving the recollections of their parents or grandparents, or reading the historians, the past is a story, a myth handily packaged into an era, bounded by a particular event—a war, a financial crisi, a reign, a decade, a century—anything that conveniently breaks the ongoing tick of time into a manageable narrative. Those people who were alive during the period in question, looking back, call it memory—memory being just another instance of the many ways in which we make stories.

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Haley Mlotek is a writer and editor based in New York.

from Longreads Blog

Iggy Pop’s Brand of Experience

Iconic punk progenitor Iggy Pop is touring through the US this spring, and I caught his show in Portland, Oregon last month. As a huge Iggy fan, this tour was no small deal to me. Iggy delivered. Despite new physical limitations, he gave everything his body could give, and the set list of new and old tunes like “Some Weird Sin” and “Repo Man” was a fan’s dream. Ticket prices were not.

Three months earlier, Iggy revealed that he’d recorded a new album in secret with musician Josh Homme. Stephen Colbert featured a debut live performance. The New York Times ran a story. It was savvy marketing. Named Post Pop Depression, the album has generated lots of excitement because it’s Iggy’s first since 2013, and because Iggy, as Homme said, “is the last one of the one-of-a-kinds.” The album even peaked at number one on the Billboard charts ─ Iggy’s first number-one album. But with concert tickets ranging from $50 to $125 (and as high as $400 on the secondary market), people were grumbling.

I get it. A hundred bucks is a lot to spend on the privilege of hearing something once. Part of the problem is what Iggy’s ticket price represents. For an artist who, in the Times‘ words, built his reputation with “blunt, forceful, noisy and unimpeachably redirect songs that he performed with a fearless disregard for self-preservation” and that left him “bruised, smeared or bloody,” $125 tickets seem very corporate-arena rock.

Even though Iggy’s tour isn’t marketed as a farewell, he’s at that age where any tour could be his last. His new album deals with the issues that arise at the end of a person’s career ─ in his words: “What happens after your years of service?” But some of us distrust parting gestures. The Who famously called their 1982 tour their farewell tour, only to tour again in 1989. They’ve even marketed their current 50th-anniversary celebration tour as their last.

Reunion tours have proven a lucrative trend, where influential short-lived ’90s bands put differences aside to play select cities. As Marc Spitz put it in his rich oral history of The Pixies: “Burying the hatchet has its material rewards.”

The Pixies’ 2004 reunion tour raked in over $14 million and helped other cult acts like Dinosaur .Jr, The Replacements, and Pavement generate the revenue in later life that they didn’t as young critical darlings. As the Pixies’ Black Francis rightly said: “It’s not to say it’s not about art, but we made that art fucking 20 years ago. So forget the fucking goddamn art. Now it’s time to talk about the money.”

But Iggy’s wasn’t a greatest hits tour or a ’90s nostalgia trip. Unlike others, he never went away. He’s consistently released new music since The Stooges’ debut in 1969, even when the music wasn’t consistently good. As Iggy told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001: “Listen, dude, I think I’ve done this for 30 years. The first 15 years were highly creative and featured a low discipline level. The second half has been a reverse. There was overall less striking creativity but more discipline.” Instead, Post Pop Depression is neatly marketed as an ephemeral, one-off collaboration set to detonate like a confidential transmission in a spy movie. If $100 tickets are cost-prohibitive, that’s part of the packaging.

Homme hints at the hidden PR value of scarcity in the Times when he says, “There won’t be hardly any shows, and they won’t be in big places, and you won’t be able to get a ticket. So almost everyone won’t see it. It will be like trying to catch smoke in your hands. And that makes it even better.” Sort of. Prohibitively expensive tickets aren’t better for fans who can’t afford to come.

And yet, I still attended. Maybe I’m a shill. Maybe the marketing is so effective it penetrated my cynical defenses. In February, my finger hovered over the “buy ticket” button as I weighed my options. In my mind, I finally committed $187 for two tickets thanks to my simple regret-management system. I asked myself: will I regret parting with my money more than I’ll regret not seeing Iggy forever? In the scales of financial and experiential cost, a big bill only stings temporarily, but the gaping hole of missing memories lasts a lifetime. Even if “one time/one tour” is branding, I still refused to miss it. Once in my life, I wanted to sing along to “Some Weird Sin” and “The Passenger” with hundreds of people. I wanted to see Iggy flail shirtless in front of me while slapping the audience’s hands, and my wife and I had a blast watching him do the weird thing he was born to do.

Fans buy more than tickets. We buy moments, experiences ─ if not bragging rights then inclusion, the sense that we lived something singular and were a part of some shared generational phenomenon: Woodstock, Monterrey, the first Lollapalooza (which I attended in 1991, by the way. Alert: I’m bragging, and I’m aging).

My decision was also personal. Here’s Iggy, this person who’s invigorated and accompanied me for so many years, and I want to share at least one night with him. Expensive or not, that experience is worth it. What else did I have to do on a Tuesday night? If you love Iggy Pop, or any band, and you have the means, I say go live it up for one night. Put your money where your music is and support the people whose art you consume, which in this case means helping an aging punk ease into a retirement he refuses to take.

Stories discussed:

from Longreads Blog

What Was Virtual Reality?

If you visited a tech blog in the past two years, you will have undoubtedly noticed: no topic has been generating more buzz than non-real-reality (virtual, mixed, augmented—pick your flavor).

One of the more fascinating aspects of this tidal wave of excitement (and venture capital) is its obliviousness to its own history — a rich tradition of gamers, tech geeks, and scientists building and hyping virtual worlds. At Backchannel, a reprint of “Being in Nothingness” by John Perry Barlow, a seminal essay from 1990, shows the uncanny similarties between our current conversations and the obsession over “cyberspace” 30 years ago. It also brings home a crucial point: that cutting-edge technology is not only about slick, robot-filled futures; it’s fueled just as much by our undepletable nostalgic longings.

The list of possibilities is literally bounded only by the imagination. Working bodies for the damaged. Teleconferencing with body language. Virtual surgery. Hey, this is a practical thing to do!

And yet I suspect that something else altogether, something not so practical, is at the root of these yearnings. Why do we really want to develop Virtual Reality? There seems to be a flavor of longing here which I associate with the desire to converse with aliens or dolphins or the never-born.

On some level, I think we can now see the potential for technology, long about the business of making the metaphorical literal, of reversing the process and re-infecting ordinary reality with luminous magic.

Or maybe this is just another expression of what may be the third oldest human urge, the desire to have visions. Maybe we want to get high.

Read the story

from Longreads Blog

An Exegesis on Spanking Fetishists

Jessica Gross | Longreads | April 2016 | 23 minutes (5,803 words)

In 2012, Jillian Keenan came out as a spanking fetishist in a “Modern Love” essay for The New York Times. It marked the beginning of not only her involvement in the spanking community, but her freelance career as well. Since then, Keenan has written a series of controversial polemics—a case for legalizing polyamory, an argument that spanking is a sex act—as well as reported from countries across the globe.

In her new memoir, Sex With Shakespeare, Keenan examines her own relationships with both spanking and love through the lens of her longstanding obsession with Shakespeare. His characters, who appear in dialogue with Keenan, have as forceful a presence as the people in her life. I visited Keenan at her home in New York City, where we spoke about the difference between fetish and kink, her view of her fetish as innate, and her firm belief that spanking children is an act of sexual abuse.

This book struck me as such an empathetic text. I feel like sometimes, in our current cultural climate, there’s a lot of anger at and dismissal of anyone who’s ignorant about a topic, and I really appreciated that you treated the reader who didn’t know anything about fetishes with a lot of respect. Was that something you thought about as you were writing it? Or is that just how you feel, and it came out naturally as you were writing?

It’s not something I thought of consciously, but I’m thrilled to hear that’s what came across. I was conscious of the fact that, in my opinion, there’s nothing unique about the experience of feeling isolated. Whereas maybe most people don’t feel ashamed or isolated because they think about spanking all the time, I think that probably everyone has something in their lives—whether in their sex lives or in another part of their lives—that they feel insecure about or ashamed of or fearful about.

I didn’t want to act as if the experience of feeling lonely and ashamed is something that I needed to explain to people. I think that everyone already knows what that feels like. I was just trying to tell a story about the specifics of why I felt that way, and how I worked through it to the extent that I did.

Right. It also feels like part of your vision here is, “It’s okay that you don’t know, so I’m going to explain what a fetish is.” You offer an explanation of terms very early in the book, which is really inclusive. It’s as if this book is designed for people who don’t necessarily know anything about fetishes or BDSM or kink.

Or even for people within the communities. I think that if we had 10 members of the BDSM communities in this apartment, we’d probably have 11 different definitions for the terms that I use. I felt like I had to clarify what the terms mean to me, and the sense in which I would use them in the book, if only to have all my cards on the table. So I didn’t include this description only for people who might know nothing, but also for people who have very strong opinions about this. Because no two people have the same experience, of course.

One thing that surprised me, as someone who is outside of this community and doesn’t know a tremendous amount about it, was that, as you describe it, spanking is the paramount activity to you, whereas sex is kind of take-it-or-leave-it in comparison.

I think that one of the most common misconceptions about fetish is that it is merely a side dish to sex, and that sex is the ultimate goal. And while that may be true for some people, in the spanking fetishist community, the spanko community, most people who share my fetish feel the same way I do: sex is almost irrelevant.

There was a moment when I was hanging out with some friends of mine from the fetish community and we were talking about a spanking party we had gone to, because I’ve started attending these parties from time to time—

What is that like?

We just hang out with our friends; these parties are oftentimes very banal. I think people imagine leather clothing and, I don’t know, shocking things. But we just play board games and talk and it’s very normal—except someone’s getting beaten in the corner or in the other room.

Just like at a regular party, where people go hook up in the bathroom?

Yeah, but it’s not even like hooking up. It’s like a yoga party. Some people might be drinking wine and playing Scrabble, and then someone would be doing Downward Facing Dog in the corner.

Or, I think the best analogy I can think of is massage or dance. Dancing with a partner can be very erotic and very sexual. Or you and I could dance right now and it would be totally fun and platonic and we would just be dancing. Or like getting a massage: a massage can be foreplay and can lead to sex, or a massage can be something you do with a stranger, if you hire a professional masseur. So I think spanking is the same way. It can be erotic, but it also can be very, very platonic and physical.

But anyway, once, when I was hanging out with my friends, I kind of sheepishly mentioned that I had been scared to go to parties at first because I thought that even within my own fetish community, I was the unusually asexual one. I thought a party would be much more sexual, in the normative sense, than it turned out to be. Everyone else said that they had felt exactly the same way. It’s a sexuality party, but not a sex party.

Can you talk about how you came to know about and be involved in the spanking community? Did it all come about as a result of your “Modern Love” piece?

I had been aware of parties ever since I was a teenager. There’s a big party in Las Vegas that happens every year, and in college I would look at the website every once in a while and think, “Should I drive down?” I went to college in California, so it would have been possible. But I never went, because it was too freaking scary.

After the “Modern Love” piece ran, I thought, “Well, I’m out now, so I should go to a party.” So a couple weeks later, I got dressed up and I got cookies and I went down to the LGBT Center in Manhattan, which at the time was a space that hosted one of the bigger parties. I thought, “I’m going to do this. There’s no reason to be nervous. My cards are on the table; I’m out now.”

I got into the hallway and I couldn’t go inside. No matter how much I had prepped myself for the idea of going and just checking it out and chatting with some people, I hadn’t anticipated the slapping sounds I would hear coming from inside the room. There was something about that sound that was terrifying and paralytic and overwhelming, and I just stood in the lobby of the LGBT Center holding my cookies for about 40 minutes. And then I left.

So what do you think that was about?

I think there definitely is a difference between the idea of something and its reality. At that point, I didn’t have any other friends who were spanking fetishists. It would be months before I would make my first spanking fetishist friend, Cyan; I didn’t have a single other friend who was like me. I really wanted that, so I thought this party would be a place to meet some friends, and we could, I don’t know, compare notes about looking up these words in the dictionary and the weird things that we did when we were kids.

When I had imagined the party, I just imagined myself chatting and sharing the cookies that I brought and maybe having a glass of wine, although I have since learned that for good reason, they don’t serve alcohol at these types of parties. I knew in theory that people would be playing, but when I heard the sounds, it just was very, very overwhelming. It was way too much. I didn’t even try to go to a party again for about two years.

At that point, I thought, “Okay, I should suck it up and try again. This time, I know what sounds to expect, so maybe I won’t be freaked out.” I tweeted something to that effect and Abby, who is mentioned in the book, sent me an email offering to meet up at a bar just to chat sometime, and to take me to a party. It made it much easier to go to my first party, having a friend I’d met and gotten to know in a vanilla context. And I’ve since made some great friends in the community.

Has that made a big difference?

Yes. I think that it’s been good for me. I think it’s been good for my marriage. But at the same time, while I’m very grateful to have made friends in the community, I think having these friendships has also somewhat softened the intensity of all of this. When I was talking to Cyan, for example, it felt like this crazy thing. And my relationship with John [her first boyfriend, also a spanking fetishist] felt like this crazy miraculous coincidence.

When you think you’re the only one for so long, finding someone else who feels the same way about these things feels like this really sharp-edged surprise. And having a variety of friends in the community and knowing people all over the country and world who share this experience hasn’t decreased the value of that, but it’s decreased the scarcity, certainly. So now, if Abby and I want to talk about spanking, it no longer needs to be this stay-up-all-night-texting-about-it-until-dawn kind of thing.

Last year, I interviewed Rachel Hills, who argues in her book The Sex Myth that that we’ve gone from a culture that prizes virginity and purity, and shuns promiscuity, to the opposite end of the spectrum: the disdain is now directed toward people who have vanilla tastes or don’t sleep around. Being promiscuous or adventurous in bed—up to a point—is upheld. In your book, you write, “the term vanilla—the most common way to describe people who aren’t kinky—does not imply that a person is boring or conservative.” Doesn’t it, though, in our culture?

Certainly, there are people who use the term “vanilla” that way. But to my mind, vanilla just means a non-fetishist. Honestly—and I reserve the right to change my mind about this as time passes—I sometimes think that the difference between vanilla and non-vanilla is whether or not you think about sex when you masturbate. My impression is that the majority of people think about sex when they masturbate, so that would be the normative sexual identity. Whereas if you think about something other than sex, whether it’s spanking or rubber or tickling, you’re non-vanilla. Certainly many, many, many people in the BDSM communities would vehemently disagree with that definition. But I will say this: In the spanking community, at least, there are a number of partners, like [her husband] David, who identify as vanilla. I think when people hook up with one of us or marry one of us or get into a relationship with one of us, and really see what it is that we’re into, they realize that there is a difference between people for whom sex is the center of their sex lives and people for whom something other than sex is the center of their sex lives.

I can see how vanilla would be implied to be insulting. But if you think about it, there’s an implied insult in “straight.” If someone is straight, it almost implies that they’re boring: “You’re so straight, that’s so boring.” But nobody understands it that way, as far as I know—I’ve never personally met someone who understands “straight” to be insulting. They’re just like, “Yeah, straight, I’m into people of the opposite gender.” So I would like to see vanilla, or whatever term we land on, be understood that way. “Straight” is not boring, it’s just what you’re into. And “vanilla” isn’t boring, it’s just what you’re into.

In the book, you detail the distinction between what spanking means to vanilla people, and what it is to a fetishist to be spanked. This was surprising to me to read. I pictured that spanking fetishists just really enjoy a swat during sex, but as you describe it, that is the vanilla version, and not at all what you mean.

Right. I think a lot of people who perceive or use “vanilla” in a derogatory way imagine that vanilla is just missionary-style sex. Whereas as far as I’m concerned, someone can tie their partner up and have sex and, I don’t know, be wearing a Darth Vader costume, but if the sex is the point then, to my mind, that’s a category that I’m not in.

About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article for Slate saying that I understand my fetish to be my sexual orientation. When I go back and read that article now, I can see myself doing a little bit of rhetorical tap dancing. I argue that this is my sexual orientation in that it’s innate, unchosen and life-long, but I don’t want to be exclusive, because there’s some people for whom it is not innate and chosen and life-long, and I’m not trying to exclude them from the umbrella of kink. I’m not trying to exclude them from BDSM communities. If a woman discovers rope bondage in her forties and loves it, that’s fine.

I think my problem when I wrote that article was that I was using the term “kink” as a catchall. Now, as I’ve been talking to more people and gotten involved in the community and met more spanking fetishists, but also as I have made friends in the BDSM community, I’ve realized it would have been more useful in that article if I had separated the terms kink and fetish.

A kinky person is maybe that person who’s wearing the Darth Vader suit and tying up his partner and having sex, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be life-long. Whereas fetish—I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from my friends about how early this starts. So I think it cannot be anything other than an orientation.

In the book, I mention that a friend of mine was dating a guy from the BDSM scene—not the spanking scene, just the BDSM scene. She once complained, “I need a real spanko spanking.” So the point of that comment, and the reason I included it and enjoyed it so much, is that the distinction is not necessarily between vanilla people and non-vanilla people. It’s that we all fall in different categories and there are ways that any subculture cannot necessarily and automatically understand another subculture. BDSM spankings are very different than the kinds of spankings that people in my scene give and what we’re into.

How so?

I’m going to get so much shit from people in the community, because you can’t make generalizations. But in my experience, people in the BDSM scene tend to enjoy eating from all parts of the buffet. They want a diverse and bountiful plate of food. Whereas people in my community have just parked at one station and are just eating that. We really like macaroni and cheese and we’ll eat macaroni and cheese until we are turning orange. The BDSM scene, in my experience, does tend to be more focused on sex.

In the book, you describe your belief that your fetish is innate, that it started very early in your childhood—before, in fact, a severe spanking you received from your mother. Can you talk about innateness versus causality, and why it’s so important to you to set the record straight that fetishes are not caused by trauma?

It is incredibly important to me to be clear about the fact that this fetish is not caused by childhood trauma. This is the knot that I tried to untie for about 20 years. There was a time that the psychoanalytic establishment believed that homosexuality was the symptom of some kind of underlying disease, and that it was a problem that therefore needed to be fixed. I think that is where we are right now with this fetish. I think the message that this sexuality or this identity—because, as I made clear, it’s not really about sex—is not the shards of something that broke, or the symptom of a disease. Because if fetishism was caused by childhood trauma, then it would be something that should be cured, that should be corrected, that should be fixed.

In my opinion, we do have a really serious disease in this country, in this world, which is the very common and institutionalized oppression of children. It’s remarkable to me that we have this social justice movement happening in certain circles, and certainly online, that is very focused on consent and human rights and all these buzz words and yet never, ever do I see the fact that there is one demographic that it is still perfectly legal to assault. If there were any other demographic where it was legal to beat them, I think that there would be an outcry.

But children do not have votes, they don’t have money, they don’t have Twitter accounts, for the most part, so they can’t complain, and nobody complains on their behalf. If it’s not okay to assault people on the basis of race or gender, why is it okay to assault on the basis of age? That is the problem. That is what needs to be fixed and corrected, not natural and healthy variations on the human sexual spectrum.

I think the best comparison that I have ever thought of is spousal rape. I find it very easy to imagine that when the debate about criminalizing spousal rape started, some people said, “What are you talking about? My husband has sex with me when I don’t want him to sometimes, but he’s my husband, it’s fine, it’s his right.” A few nights ago, I was tweeting about this, and someone that I respect a lot tweeted back that context matters, and that spankings in the context of parental discipline are not assaults. I could have very easily said, “Yeah, context matters. Non-consensual sex in the context of marriage isn’t rape.” I mean, you can do that for almost anything that is arguably a consent violation. “Non-consensual sex in the context of a date isn’t rape.”

You could make the argument that if context matters, then consent doesn’t. But obviously, I’m not of that opinion. I think that consent matters. Consent is complicated with the matter of children; you know children probably don’t consent to getting a vaccination, but I’m in favor of vaccinating children. Certainly, this is a very detailed and nuanced conversation. But I do think that when it comes to the issue of ripping off a child’s underwear and accessing a part of their body that is widely understood to be sexual, and violently causing blood to rush to their genitals as they scream in pain and fear, this seems pretty cut and dried to me. But the vast, vast majority of people in the world disagree, and as much as I would love to see this tide change, I suspect I will not live to see that.

Can you describe the sexuality of spanking in a biological sense, in terms of the blood flow to the butt and the groin?

Right. So the common iliac artery splits. When someone’s getting a spanking, their butt turns red. That’s because blood is flowing down the common iliac artery to that region. But the other half of the artery goes to the genitals. So when blood is rushing to your butt, it’s also rushing to your genitals. This is why from time to time I and some of my friends can orgasm only from a spanking. It’s just because blood flow is happening there.

I got a really upsetting email from a mother once who was responding to an article I had written for Slate about how spanking children is sexually problematic. And I’ve got to give her credit, she did not approach me from a combative perspective. She emailed me and said, “I spank my children, but your article has given me pause.” The reason it gave her pause is because she had given her 11-year-old son a spanking and when he stood up, crying, she said that despite the fact that he was crying and clearly upset, he had an erection. An erection is blood flow. So if you’re causing blood to rush to one part, you’re causing blood to rush to the other part.

Also, studies have found that children who are spanked or hit regularly experience a surge of the sex hormone oxytocin when they sense danger. Oxytocin has been found to be a powerful painkiller, so it makes sense that if a child habitually expects physical pain when their parents are angry, then when their parents are angry, that sex hormone would surge.

People argue that you do other things with your butt. You sit on it. Well, you do other things with your penis and vagina, too. But they’re still sexual. Every time a friend is like, “No, butts aren’t sexual,” I want to say, “Then let me touch it right now. Get naked.” [She reaches out to graze my elbow] I just non-consensually touched your elbow and I feel like I did not sexually violate you. But I would not non-consensually touch your ass. And I think that most people understand the distinction between touching someone’s elbow and touching someone’s ass. Yet for some reason, when I have this conversation, they forget this distinction. And they suddenly think it’s totally out there and extreme for me to even suggest that butts are a sexual body part. What? So I think next time someone says that to me, I’m going to be like, “Prove it. Let’s tweet a picture of your non-sexual body part right now.” [Laughter] Possibly out there, there is someone for whom the elbow is a very sexual body part, and I should not non-consensually touch it. But I am in confident saying that that elbow fetishist is a minority of a minority of a minority. If you Google the word spanking, it’s pretty damn clear that this is not an unusual fetish or identity. So I think it’s really problematic that that so many parents spank their children.

That said, it obviously doesn’t cause this fetish. I have a lot of friends who are spanking fetishists like me and did all the same things that I did from as early an age—looking up words in the dictionary, obsessing about Boy by Roald Dahl—who were never spanked as children.

So the distinction you’re making is almost the reversal of the common understanding: rather than spanking causing a spanking fetish, it’s that someone might have been born with a spanking fetish, and so to spank them as a childhood punishment is sexual abuse.

Yes. One hundred percent yes. My earliest memories of eroticizing spanking are from age two or three. More and more, science agrees that a child’s sexual identity doesn’t just magically appear at age 18. I think that I was born with it. Children have emerging sexual identities, and it doesn’t matter that this is a minority identity or an uncommon one. If even one percent of children experience spanking as a sex act, then we as a culture are sexually violating too many children. I do understand that what I say in that chapter in particular will be very controversial.

Why is that controversial?

I’m going to get controversy from both sides, right? Some people are going to be outraged and appalled that I think that non-consensually inflicting an act of BDSM on a child is sexually inappropriate. Some people will find that claim to be outrageous. But on the other side of the spectrum, some people will be really outraged that I say in this chapter that my experience of sexual assault is relative and that sexual assault is a relative thing.

I had non-consensual sex once in the sense that a man held me down while I was crying and saying “I don’t want to have sex,” and had sex with me. To be clear, I was pissed off about this. It made me mad. But it absolutely did not traumatize me. I suppose technically this experience makes me a rape survivor. But I feel like it’s almost inconsiderate for me to identify as a rape survivor, because I don’t want to apply that term to what was a truly minor, minor experience in my life. I’ve been more upset about many, many, many other things in my life than I was about this experience of non-consensual sex.

Of course, this is not to say that other people should feel as I did. Of course they shouldn’t. Anyone who has something non-consensually done to them is entitled to react in the way that they react. But I’m entitled to my experience, too, and I’m entitled to the reaction that I had. And my reaction was just that it was not very upsetting for me because that’s not my sexuality. And so it didn’t really feel like a sexual violation. Whereas being spanked non-consensually did.

By your mother.

Yes. She’s the only person who has ever non-consensually spanked me, because I’ve been very lucky to meet friends and boyfriends and partners who have only hit me consensually. And that’s a totally different experience; it’s as different as sex and rape. So yes.

There’s nothing wrong with my sexual identity, but there are things that are very wrong with how we treat children in the world. And so I’m trying to flip the conversation.

I do wonder if there’s a little more gray area in your understanding of your fetish as innate. To reject the simple cause-and-effect storyline that being spanked caused you to crave spankings is one thing. But it strikes me that your fetish could have stemmed, at least in part, from your childhood and the way in which you were raised, and also be healthy and fine. In my view, everyone’s sexuality has something to do something with their relationship with their parents, and that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or needs to be fixed.

You write in the book, “The first person I loved was also the first person I feared.” You describe your mother as unpredictable, volatile. This is armchair psychoanalysis here, but I wondered if the appeal of rules and punishment in a sexual setting could have to do with the appeal of knowing exactly what is going to happen. Rules make this consensual punishment predictable and safe in a way that was not at all true of your relationship with your mother.

I think that what you’re saying is totally possible. Maybe it really is just as simple as that—

Or a combination of factors.

Exactly. Maybe when I say that I feel I was born this way, it’s just as simple as, I have an unusually high concentration of nerve endings in my butt. A friend once said, “Honestly, touching my butt is like touching my elbow. My butt, I get nothing there.” Whereas my butt—in the book I call it the big clitoris on the back of my pelvis. There are a lot of nerve endings back there. So maybe I have an unusually high number of nerve endings there, and then my fetish is sort of a complicated cocktail of my butt being erotic and wanting some predictability in my childhood. Maybe that is it.

But it really doesn’t matter. It was more important in my life to realize what didn’t cause it, which was childhood trauma. What did cause it, who knows. What does matter is that sexuality develops in children earlier than people want to admit and therefore I think we owe it to our children as a culture to have difficult and complicated conversations about consent and how we can and should extend consent rights in some contexts to children.

Early in the book, you write, “My commitments to peace, women’s rights, gender equality, and nonviolence seemed absurd alongside the dark and frightening underworld of my fetish.” Could just talk about how you resolved that?

Well, at the point that I felt that way, I still thought that something was wrong with me. Masochism was, and still is, listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, so I essentially thought that I had a mental disorder. And it felt hypocritical to fantasize about being beaten and then profess these beliefs in gender equality and nonviolence.

But, of course, this was before I heard anyone ever talk about consent. It’s such a magical word; it really changes everything. Of course I’m allowed to believe in nonviolence and gender equality but then, you know, get spankings from my husband, in the same way that a woman who enjoys consensual sex is allowed to have a problem with non-consensual sex.

It seems so obvious now to say that consent changes everything. But when you are 21 years old and coming out of decades of shame and self-loathing and fear—it wasn’t obvious at the time. So it felt inconsistent, even though, of course, it wasn’t.

Throughout the book, you explain your relationships with spanking and love through your obsession with Shakespeare. You write yourself in literal conversation with the characters in these plays you know so intimately. How much of what you wanted to do was to make Shakespeare accessible, and how did you come to this style of…

Magical realism?

Yes, magical realism, exactly.

I think Shakespeare is super fun and entertaining. I think Shakespeare is like a soap opera. I mean, the stuff is juicy and sexy and violent and has ghosts and murderers. So it does bug me when I see Shakespeare portrayed by academics or critics as this kind of aloof, ivory-tower thing, because I don’t see Shakespeare that way. So if I accomplished ruffling Shakespeare’s hair a little bit in this book, I would certainly be delighted. Of course I don’t want to imply I think I’m the first or only person to embrace the sexual side of Shakespeare. I’m certainly not. And I’m certainly not even close to the first writer to want Shakespeare to be accessible and sexy and fun. But if I have been another in the long line of writers who tried to remind everyone how cool Shakespeare already is, then I would be delighted.

The magical realism thing happened pretty early on in the process. It was even in my book proposal. At some point, I realized that if I was going to be in conversation with these characters, I needed to be in conversation with these characters. I often find these characters just come to mind as a reference point in just this way.

I compare Shakespeare to the Bible a lot in that they’re both such rich texts. I think that in Shakespeare, people find what they’re looking for, just as everyone from very conservative religious people to very progressive, open-minded religious people can find evidence for their interpretation of the Bible in the text. If I wanted to write a book called, instead of Sex With Shakespeare, This Green Sofa With Shakespeare [gestures to the sofa we’re sitting on], I probably could have found enough material in the Shakespearean canon to write that book because that’s how rich the Shakespearean canon is. So characters come to mind in relation to everything, because everything is in Shakespeare. No matter what’s happening in my life, there’s something in Shakespeare that relates to it. Just like many people feel that no matter what’s happening in their life, there’s something in the Bible that relates to it.

These characters do feel like friends to me, and I interact with them the same way that I interact with friends. I turn to them sometimes when I’m lonely. I get mad at them sometimes, and I fight with them. And the characters, of course, as do all literary characters in all literature, grow and change as I grow and change. When I talk to Lady Macbeth now, we don’t have the same conversations that we did five years ago. I wanted to do justice to how meaningful these relationships are for me. And I felt that the best way to do that was to describe them the same way I describe [my best friend] Peng.

At the end of the book, you have a very sexy, graphic sex scene with one of Shakespeare’s characters. Did that feel like a natural and necessary place to go, or did you have any conflicts about taking it that far?

I’ll tell you the truth. People will probably make assumptions when they hear this, but every once in a while, when I’m writing, I black out. Not because of alcohol, I just black out. When I wrote that scene, David and I had just flown back from the Caucuses. I was super jet-lagged, so freaking tired. But I had plans to go with Peng to Escape The Room in midtown. I texted Peng, “I’m not coming. I’m just off a 12-hour flight, I need to crash, I can’t Escape the Room right now.” And she was like, “No, you get down here now.” She would have none of it.

The weather was nice, and I had a song that I wanted to listen to, so I just decided to walk. I don’t remember walking. All I know is when I got there I had a version of this scene tapped out in the notes section of my phone.

I’m always quite pleased with what I produce when I get into these rare moments of flow. It’s fun—it’s the only time I get to read my own writing as anyone else reads it, because I don’t remember producing it. When I read that scene, it really surprised me. I did not at all see that coming. Writing is very hard, but when these moments of flow happen, it’s really nice: I blink and then I have 20 pages. And I’m like, “Oh, shit, that’s awesome. I can go party.”

* * *

Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.

from Longreads Blog

The Defenders

Matthew Van Meter | April 2016 | 25 minutes (6,411 words)

This story was co-published with The Awl and funded by Longreads Members.

On December 20, 2013, Christine Morales got up at seven to make breakfast for Kierra, her two-year-old daughter. They lived in a public housing project in Hunt’s Point in the south Bronx, where Morales worked as a security guard at a grocery store. When they were getting ready to leave, the door of the apartment exploded. Police officers burst in, carrying shields, guns drawn. One waved a search warrant; Kierra started to wail. As an officer pushed Morales to the wall and handcuffed her wrists, her mind raced: she thought through everything she had ever done wrong, trying to understand what had brought the police into her home.

Morales’s arrest instantly set in motion a chain of dispiriting events. Because Kierra was two, and the arrest was for a drug charge, the Administration of Children’s Services opened an investigation. Because Morales lived in public housing, the New York City Housing Authority began eviction proceedings. The police built a case to lock her out of her apartment under a Nuisance Abatement law. Finally, she lost her security license, so she could not go to work.

After spending the night in central booking, Morales was assigned a public defender, Seann Riley, for her arraignment at Bronx Family Court. He asked her about her case and her concerns; she said she just wanted to see her daughter again. The prosecutor read her charge aloud: possession with intent to distribute—Morales’s boyfriend had been dealing drugs out of their apartment. However, Riley pointed out that when police raided the apartment, they had been looking for her boyfriend, not her. The judge released Morales. Meanwhile, her father had taken Kierra to family court, where a lawyer from the child-protection agency insisted that she be placed in foster care for protection. Morales’s boyfriend pleaded guilty to felony drug possession, and, two weeks after her arrest, the prosecutor dropped all the charges against her.

At her family court hearing, Morales learned that Kierra would not be coming home, despite the lack of charges. The judge told her she wasn’t trustworthy, and that her boyfriend had taken the fall for her. She was allowed to see her daughter, supervised, at the child protection facility. When time came to leave, Kierra would ask why she couldn’t go home with mommy, and Morales would try to explain, trying to keep it together until she walked out the door.

Morales’s experience is common in New York, and more common still in the Bronx. Kierra was one of more than ten thousand children placed in foster care, almost all after suspicion of parental neglect—a catchall term that includes everything from excessive corporal punishment to missing doctor appointments. Morales’s poverty was her vulnerability: living in public housing subjects a resident to twenty-four-hour surveillance and automatic eviction after being charged with even low-level crimes.

When the criminal charges against her were dropped, her public defender had technically done his job. The government is required to provide a lawyer to help people through criminal court, nothing more. But Morales’s lawyer was from the Bronx Defenders, which extends representation from criminal court to family court, housing court, and immigration court. Morales was one of 30,000 Bronx Defenders clients in 2014—the only criminal defendants in the city or the country to receive these across-the-board services.

Even after her charges were dropped, Morales had a family attorney and a parent advocate to challenge the family court judge’s ruling. When the police locked her out of her apartment, a civil lawyer from her team got them to let her back in after a few hours. Her advocate, who is not a lawyer, helped her set up parenting classes, and a social worker checked in with her to see how she was dealing with life alone and to offer moral support. Kierra finally came home in June 2014, six months after the arrest.

* * *

On December 4, 2014, Robin Steinberg returned late to her Upper West Side home. Her gray, shoulder-length hair was frizzy with static, and her voice was hoarse from shouting “Eric Garner! Michael Brown! Shut the whole system down!” with thousands of others in the streets of Lower Manhattan. The day before, a Staten Island grand jury had failed to indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death. It was midnight, and she had to go to work the next day at the legal-aid firm she founded, widely considered the best in the country: the Bronx Defenders.

She was too charged-up to sleep. She pulled a beer from the fridge, sat cross-legged on her bed, and opened her laptop. More than a hundred new emails sat unread in her inbox, but one in particular stood out. It was from Joe Stepansky at the New York Daily News. “Hi Robin,” it read, “The video posted below has police unions upset. The credits say the video is sponsored by Bronx Defenders. Care to comment?” She clicked on the link, and watched a montage of depictions of police brutality. Then, she saw an image of two black men holding guns to the head of a white man in a New York Police Department uniform. She felt blood rush to her face.

A month before, a music video producer had approached a lawyer in her office to see if they wanted to help make a video about the killing of black men by the police. Uncle Murda and Maino, the rappers in the video, heard that the organization had spoken up on controversial issues and gotten involved in projects that most law firms wouldn’t associate themselves with. Steinberg said it was fine to film in the lobby, as long as the organization got to see the final video before it was released. The point-person for the project at The Bronx Defenders was Kumar Rao, an experienced attorney who was involved in the organization’s community-outreach programs; he had gone in November to Ferguson, Missouri to provide counsel to jailed protesters. When Rao read the words to the song, titled “Hands Up,” he expressed trepidation to Steinberg about some of the lyrics, and she agreed, but she said to wait until they could review the final video. That was the last she heard of it until she clicked on the link in her email. She was too stunned to hear the opening lyrics:

I spit that shit the streets got to feel,
For Mike Brown and Sean Bell a cop got to get killed.

Seventeen years ago, Steinberg had swashbuckled her way to prominence, making enemies of the police and prosecutors along the way. Now her foes had some ammunition to fire back, and she could lose her contract with the city.

* * *

The Bronx Defenders was born in 1997 from Steinberg’s belief that the public-defender system was failing the poor people it represented. In principle, public defense is simple. The Miranda warning states, “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.” Most people cannot afford an attorney, so public defenders represent about 80 percent of criminal defendants (that number is even higher in the Bronx). Depending on where you live, your public defender might be an employee of the state or the county or, as in New York, a nonprofit organization that acts as a contractor. Whomever they work for, public defenders, like all criminal-defense attorneys, have one duty: to represent your interests as forcefully and effectively as possible in criminal court. Usually, this means trying to get charges dismissed or reduced, negotiating an advantageous deal with the prosecutor, or, in very rare instances, defending you in a trial.

The quality of the lawyering among public defenders in New York City is universally understood to be very high; that wasn’t Steinberg’s concern. She saw inadequacy built into the very structure of public defense. In the nineties, she noticed that more of the clients she was defending were being arrested for pettier crimes than when she started in the eighties, and the effects of their criminal cases reached into unexpected aspects of their lives. In addition to facing the usual fines or jail time, they were being deported, denied student loans, or evicted from public housing. Many of them lost food stamps and custody of their children, and had their licenses and certifications revoked.

Steinberg focused on representing clients not only in criminal court, but also in housing court, family court, and immigration court. She created new positions for non-lawyers as community organizers and informal advocates, who could help people navigate the bureaucratic processes they might face. Some practices she adopted from other public defenders, some she invented. By the early aughts, the Bronx Defenders was the closest thing to a gold standard in public defense. Steinberg fought to make her model, which she calls “holistic defense,” bigger and broader, helping to push bail-reform legislation in New York State. Lately, she has spent a growing portion of her time training other public defenders through the Center for Holistic Defense, which she founded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Robin in office

Robin Steinberg working in an office.

Among the dozen or so lawyers and policymakers I interviewed for this story, there was a general acknowledgement that the Bronx Defenders was “the best” or “one of the best.” Collette Tvedt, from the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, told me “they do [criminal defense] they way it should be done. There should be more like them.” A group of law professors wrote in 2015 that the Bronx Defenders is “a model of how New York can lead the way in addressing the national problem of access to justice.” And lawyers have voted with their feet: among law students who want to go into public defense, the Bronx Defenders is still the most sought-after offices in the country. Last year, more than a thousand people applied for just thirteen openings in the criminal-defense practice.

* * *

Steinberg is small but not short. Her puffy hair seems outsized for her wiry frame, a fact accentuated by the skinny pants she favors. She’s pathologically neat. Her Upper West Side apartment is bright, modern and immaculately clean, its shelves and cabinets lined with her collection of salt and pepper shakers. Her labradoodle, Magic, doesn’t shed. She lives alone. Her children are in their twenties and her husband—David Feige, a writer and former lawyer at The Bronx Defenders—lives in Los Angeles. She is always moving, shifting positions as she sits or stands, and she speaks in associative lists, interrupting herself to offer counterpoints or emphasis.


The lobby of Bronx Defenders.

The office is suffused with her nervous energy. The space looks more Silicon Valley than New York: bright and open and colorful, with a spacious lobby full of books and toys. There is no Californian informality; office attire is formal and crisp. The employees skew young, female, and extroverted; they tend to have their boss’s brashness and intensity. The constant bustle through communal spaces is by design; the office was built so that employees would need to cross the lobby at least a few times a day. Most public defender offices greet visitors with a receptionist ensconced in bulletproof glass. “It sends a message that we don’t want to send. It says, ‘We’re afraid of you,’” Steinberg said.

Steinberg forged The Bronx Defenders in the heat of conflict between Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the Legal Aid Society. Founded in 1876, Legal Aid is the largest and oldest provider of legal services for the poor. After the U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, state governments were required to provide lawyers to indigent defendants. In New York, public defenders work at nonprofits paid through government contracts. The Legal Aid Society won the initial contract to become New York City’s main provider of public defense in 1965.

In the 1990s, Giuliani brought in Bill Bratton as Police Commissioner and implemented “broken windows” policing on the theory that the gains in safety would trickle upward. The number of arrests in New York drastically increased, especially for minor crimes such as “theft of services” (jumping a turnstile) and catch-all infractions like “disorderly conduct.” Legal Aid represented 300,000 clients each year by the mid-nineties—an average of six hundred and fifty per lawyer per year. In 1994, management announced a wage freeze and slashed benefits for their attorneys while giving themselves a six percent raise (at the time, a Legal Aid lawyer’s starting salary was $31,000). Eleven hundred lawyers walked off the job in protest. Giuliani decried Legal Aid’s “monopoly” in the New York papers. He refused to sign a new contract with the organization unless it agreed to budget cuts. After a year of negotiations, a new contract was signed in 1995; Legal Aid laid off 16 percent of its attorneys, restructured its management, and relinquished its status as the city’s only institutional provider of legal services to the poor. Giuliani put out a call for other organizations to take on at least ten percent of the city’s criminal cases.

Steinberg saw an opportunity to build a better public defender. At the time, she was working at Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem, a tiny, community-oriented public defender that picked up a few hundred cases a year. She had no love for Legal Aid, which she considered hidebound and bureaucratic, but she hated to see public defenders excoriated in public. She had been drawn to Neighborhood Defender Services because it provided not only representation in court, but also access to drug treatment, therapy, parenting classes, and other services that are often required by judges as part of punishment, especially for low-level crimes. To avoid competing with her employer, which was applying for a contract in Manhattan, she put in an application for the Bronx. She got it, rented a drab space in the Grand Concourse Mall, and then thought to herself, “Holy shit. Now what do I do?”

Legal Aid did not receive her well, nor did the courts in the Bronx. “The supervising judge wouldn’t talk or meet with us,” she said. “The Legal Aid lawyers were overtly hostile. I mean, you would leave your jacket on a chair and go talk with a client, and when you came back you’d find it on the floor. Things like that.” To avoid poaching talent from Legal Aid, Steinberg hired experienced lawyers from elsewhere: she took two from Philadelphia’s public defender, one from Kentucky, a private attorney from the Bronx. David Feige came with her from Neighborhood Defender Services. There were eight in all: Six lawyers, an investigator, and a social worker.

* * *

The Bronx Defenders evolved quickly in those early years, and Steinberg worked feverishly. She handled hiring and training, represented clients, went to public events. The office moved from the Grand Concourse Mall to an old ice house, and then to an abandoned restaurant on 161st Street. The pace took a toll on her. She remembered putting her infant daughter to sleep under her desk as she worked through the night. She also remembered “losing it” in a parking lot one night after an arraignment shift that ended at one o’clock in the morning.

Steinberg wanted to find a way to more fully address her clients’ needs. No one kept detailed data on the ancillary penalties—the evictions, the child removals, the deportations—that started as arrests. The range of consequences her clients faced was broader and subtler than she thought. All the civil penalties suffered by her clients were linked: losing housing or a job or custody of children made it harder for people to stay out of trouble. Steinberg was far from the first lawyer to notice this, but she was the first to create a public defender specifically designed to combat the system of collateral consequences. This system is nothing new—its roots are firmly planted in the historical doctrine of “civil death”—exiling criminals from society and stripping them of all their rights. It dates back at least to ancient Greece; in medieval Europe, exiles could be killed without fear of punishment, so complete was their separation from the community.

Civil death in America was only applied to very serious crimes, and involved a loss of voting rights, the right to enter into a contract, and the right to bring a lawsuit. With increasing concern about civil rights, the machinery of civil death was dismantled at the state level between 1950 and 1990, either repealed by legislatures or overturned by courts. By that time, the U.S. was gripped by fear of drug addiction, and Ronald Reagan re-declared the War on Drugs. Goaded by Reagan’s racially coded talk of “welfare queens,” many Americans felt indignation at a perceived sense of entitlement among the unemployed poor. Legislators, spurred by the anger of their constituents, began appending civil penalties to drug crimes. Today, the American Bar Association lists 47,521 laws that enforce collateral consequences in its database. Thirteen hundred of those are in New York State. “Civil death,” wrote Gabriel Chin, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, “has surreptitiously re-emerged.”

As “broken windows” policing took off in the nineties, the number of people rounded up for misdemeanors skyrocketed. “Police,” Steinberg said in a speech last year, “find [low-level criminal] behavior wherever they look. But where they look is only in poor communities and communities of color.” In the late nineties the ground was shifting under Steinberg’s feet. “What I learned,” she told me, “was that, in a day and age when eighty percent of people are charged with misdemeanors, an emphasis on just doing good criminal defense is misplaced. If this was 1975 and everyone was being charged with violent felonies, then maybe things would be different, but the misdemeanors burn you. Burn you.”

If the criminal-justice system evolved fast, the Bronx Defenders evolved even faster. In 1999, Steinberg brought on McGregor Smyth, a Liman fellow from Yale Law School, to develop a civil practice that would address collateral consequences. She wanted to base her civil practice on data about clients. Smyth tracked team referrals—any time a client’s case spilled beyond the confines of criminal law. In 2000, he reported on what he had learned about the collateral consequences faced by Bronx Defenders clients. The data indicated that the range of penalties was greater—and faced by more clients—than anyone knew. A high percentage of clients lived in public housing, and even more had family members in public housing. Almost all were on some form of public benefits. A full third had not been born in the United States.

Immigration was an early priority. Without representation, an immigrant has four percent chance of winning his or her case. With a lawyer, that chance increases to thirty-eight percent. If many Bronx Defenders clients feared deportation, even more risked losing custody of their children. Steinberg began a pilot program for family lawyers in 2004; it was such a success that in 2007, the Bronx Defenders received a contract from New York City to represent all parents in abuse and neglect hearings in the Bronx. Family court was a revelation to Steinberg: the procedures are looser than in criminal court, where rules were developed over hundreds of years and refined by dozens of Supreme Court decisions. Family law, by contrast, has little more than nebulous best practices to guide its work. “We wanted to bring a social-work approach to criminal court,” Steinberg told me, “but we wanted to bring lawyering to family court.”

Lawyer w client and baby

A lawyer with a client and baby.

I spent eight days in Bronx Family Court over five months in 2014 and 2015, mostly following around Mary-Anne Mendenhall, Supervising Attorney of the Family Defense Practice. Steinberg describes her as “a force of nature”; I ran to keep up with her as she strode from hearing to hearing while delivering a breathless overview of each client’s story. Steinberg said that a major criticism of the Bronx Defenders is that “we push too hard,” and Mendenhall could be Exhibit A. In the tiny, crowded family courtrooms, she crouched, cat-like, ready at any moment to spring to her feet with an objection. Once up, she exploded: “Your Honor, my client feels that [the child protection agency] doesn’t understand the realities of raising three kids in a shelter.” “Your Honor, my client has been in police custody since seven this morning; she is terrified.” “Your Honor, I must again object to the nature of this question!”

Immigration and family defense were joined by housing defense in 2003 and the first civil legal advocates in 2005. Civil legal advocates help clients with anything that doesn’t require a lawyer: recovering property confiscated by the police, for instance. They also do many of the tasks that would ordinarily be done by paralegals and legal assistants (positions that don’t exist at the Bronx Defenders) like taking client phone calls and preparing visual exhibits for trial.

* * *

With programs multiplying, Steinberg realized that the New York City contract money would not be enough. So she held the first annual fundraiser at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan and “screened a very depressing black and white movie about the immigrant experience in New York City… and we had to scrub the toilets ourselves before the event,” Steinberg said. That event raised a few thousand dollars. In 2014, the gala, held at a TriBeCa event space, raised $412,000, on top of other donations that year of about $1.2 million. Compared to the $22 million provided by the government, the private gifts were small, but without them, there would be no way to fund the nontraditional positions at the Bronx Defenders.

Intake Advocates w client

Intake advocates with a client.

After taking ten years to expand and develop the Bronx Defenders, Steinberg took a stab at structural reform. In 2007, she set up the Bronx Freedom Fund, the first organization of its type, to cover bail costs for some clients who couldn’t afford it. Defendants who can’t post bail in New York are sent to the notoriously tough Rikers Island, and because most of them are charged with very minor crimes, the pressure to plead guilty simply to be allowed to return home is very high. An influential story by Jennifer Gonnerman in The New Yorker in 2014 illustrated this problem: Kalief Browder was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack, and held for three years on Rikers Island because he wanted to maintain his innocence and couldn’t post bail (he later committed suicide). Most detentions are not so long—the average jail time for misdemeanors is fifteen days in New York. Browder, who was charged with assault, would not have been eligible for the Freedom Fund, but the conundrum is a familiar one. Over 90 percent of New York defendants who cannot make bail plead guilty, usually to minor crimes, and suffer collateral consequences.

The concept of the Freedom Fund is simple: the organization posts bail of up to $2000 for defendants charged with nonviolent misdemeanors. When the defendant shows up to court, the money is returned to the fund. Defendants who can’t make bail are nine times more likely to plead guilty than those who can pay. Almost two thirds of the charges against Freedom Fund recipients have been dismissed. “We knew that!” Steinberg told me, throwing her arms wide, “We knew that! If [prosecutors] have you on some junky misdemeanor, and they think you can’t make bail, they know you’re going to plead guilty like that.” She snapped her fingers. Without the threat of jail hanging over the defendant’s head, she said, most cases aren’t strong enough to bother prosecuting.

The Bronx Freedom Fund was also the cause of Steinberg’s first big political fight. In February 2009, the Bronx District Attorney challenged the legality of the fund, arguing that a non-profit organization cannot post bail for a defendant. Steinberg had taken care to separate the Freedom Fund from the Bronx Defenders; the fund shared no board members with the Bronx Defenders, it was a separate 501©(3) nonprofit, it offered bail to anyone who could not afford it (not just Bronx Defenders clients), and the two organizations did not share resources. But in June, the Supreme Court of Bronx County decided that the Freedom Fund amounted to an insurance company without a license. The court rejected the District Attorney’s claim that the Freedom Fund amounted to an ethical violation, but the fund itself was dead. Steinberg was disappointed; she considered microloans and other ways to achieve the same goal. Then her husband said, “Well, why don’t you just change the law?”

Steinberg connected with Gustavo Rivera, a Democratic state senator from the Bronx, and created bill that would create a provision in to Article 68, New York State’s Insurance Law, for “Charitable Bail Organizations.” She even found a Republican backer, Phil Boyle, a from Long Island. The bill appealed to his fiscal conservatism: posting bail is immensely cheaper than incarcerating a defendant on Rikers Island, which costs taxpayers nearly $500 per day. It passed in the summer of 2012 with bipartisan support. Steinberg re-opened the Bronx Freedom Fund later that year and offered to help support more such organizations. For two years, no one was interested, but after the Browder story ran in The New Yorker in 2014, lawyers everywhere started calling for advice.

* * *

In September of 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a $350,000 grant to fund the Center for Holistic Defense, the training wing of the Bronx Defenders. The Women’s Law Association at Harvard Law School selected Steinberg as an honoree for its 2015 International Women’s Day celebration. The criminal justice system was all over the news: Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, #blacklivesmatter. Suddenly, as she described in a speech last year, “after decades spent shouting into the void,” Steinberg finally had the attention of powerful people. Even the N.Y.P.D. seemed interested in how the Bronx Defenders could help: in November of 2014, Steinberg met with Susan Herman, the Deputy Commissioner for Community Policing, to discuss potential changes in police policy.

The Bronx Defenders was riding high when Steinberg returned home from protesting downtown to the controversial video. That September, James Barrett, a producer at 1st Ave Productions, asked if the organization was interested in helping to make a video that would “raise public awareness of controversial law-enforcement practices.” Kumar Rao and Ryan Napoli, experienced criminal-defense attorneys, were put in charge of the project. They agreed 1st Ave Productions could film in the office, and a few Bronx Defenders would appear in the video, but no money could change hands, and Rao and Napoli would be able to approve the video. Steinberg was excited—any chance to show off the team model, she figured, was a P.R. victory.

BxD Team Meeting

A Bronx Defenders team meeting.

In November, Rao was sent a rough cut of the video without the provocative opening. It began with images of a family mourning the death of a man shot by the police. After he watched the whole thing, he went to Steinberg. “Robin,” he said, “there are some lyrics in there that we won’t want to be associated with.” In particular, he was referring to a line calling the police “cocksuckers.” Steinberg said to wait until they get a final version to go through and cut lyrics. Two weeks later, without any further communication, “Hands Up” was on YouTube, and it included almost two minutes of new footage, including the image of the rappers holding guns to a police officer’s head. By the time Steinberg saw it, the video already had 100,000 views.

Steinberg alternated between fearing for the future of the Bronx Defenders and waiting for the media to move on. During the sleepless night after she read Stepansky’s email, she tracked down someone named Eddie at Worldstar who said he had the power the edit the video. “I used my scary lawyer voice,” she told me—she convinced Eddie to remove the words “Sponsored by The Bronx Defenders.” The Bronx Defenders released a statement on December 5 that said, “the producers of the video decided to release a version of ‘Hands Up’ that we did not authorize or endorse…we regret being associated with this version of ‘Hands Up.’”

On December 12, Steinberg was leaving a meeting when she got a text message from an employee saying that “2 men with badges” were at asking for her at reception. News trucks were parked on 161st Street, accompanied by police cars with lights flashing. The men were from the New York City Department of Investigations, which looks into allegations of fraud and abuse in city government. Later that evening, Steinberg started got a call from Fox News’s Greta van Susteren to be on her show. Steinberg said she could smell a trap and hung up; the segment aired without her. Van Susteren asked Ted Williams, a black former police officer who appears periodically on Fox News, about the Bronx Defenders’ appearance in the video.“There is no defense. When you lay down with fleas, you should expect fleas to get off on you,” he said. Steinberg couldn’t keep herself from reading and re-reading the news. “Public Defenders Appear In ‘Kill Cops’ Rap Video,” said the New York Post on December 13. The Washington Times announced “’Cop Got To Get Killed’ Rap Video Features Bronx Public Defenders.” Pat Lynch, president of New York’s largest police union, said, “This video goes well beyond the parameters for protected speech and constitutes a serious threat to the lives of police officers.”

A week later, on December 20, two N.Y.P.D. officers were shot and killed in Brooklyn. Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the shooter, had expressed anger at the police on social media. Three days later, Lynch sent a letter on union letterhead to Attorney General Eric Holder, linking “Hands Up” with the killings. He sent additional copies sent to the Department of Justice, the mayor’s office, and each of the Bronx Defenders’ major donors. Steinberg told me that if Brinsley, who committed suicide before he could be arrested, had been found to have watched the video, the Bronx Defenders would have been finished. Three days later, Steinberg sent a cease and desist letter to Worldstar Hip Hop, insisting that “Hands Up” be removed from YouTube. She got no response.

The D.O.I. had subpoenaed the Bronx Defenders’ records in mid-December. “Honestly, I had to look up what they do,” Steinberg told me, “and it says they do waste, fraud, and abuse. So I wasn’t worried about it: no public funds were used to make that video. No problem.” Steinberg even offered to go over the organization’s finances with the investigators. It wasn’t until she was called for an interview downtown at D.O.I. headquarters that she understood that the investigation wasn’t about fraud; it was trying to prove an ethical violation. An investigator gave her a paper with the lyrics of the song and asked if she was familiar with them. She said she knew what they were, and he told her to read them aloud to him. Glancing at his tape recorder, she said, “Yeah, I’m not going to do that.” He took the paper back and read them to her. For the first time, she told me, she feared for the future of the organization she had built and grown.

On January 29, 2015, the D.O.I. released its report to the public. It excoriated the Bronx Defenders and said that Rao and Napoli “fell short of the basic integrity and competence that the City should expect of attorneys entrusted to provide essential legal services to indigent populations paid and paid for by City tax dollars.” Mayor Bill de Blasio called the Bronx Defenders’ actions “heinous.” Rao resigned the next day; Napoli two days after that. The report blasted Steinberg’s leadership as “fundamentally deficient.” On January 31, Steinberg announced she would take 60 days’ unpaid leave. All three received notices of a misconduct investigation, the first step to disbarment. Hours after the New York Post ran a story in February about Harvard honoring Steinberg, the Harvard Women’s Law Association rescinded its invitation (“Post Educates Harvard” the Post crowed the next day). On February 19, de Blasio announced that he would not approve the Bronx Defenders’ $20 million contract until the organization “improved their standing.” Steinberg retreated to her husband’s house in Los Angeles.

* * *

Steinberg grew up mostly in Manhattan with a largely absent father. When he was around, Richard Steinberg would refuse to leave bed for days at a time, or sometimes he would run up and down the apartment hallway, too excited to sleep. He drank heavily, and his addiction gave way to pills and marijuana, then cocaine and heroin. Steinberg speculates he was bipolar. His disappearances stretched from days to weeks and then months. Her parents divorced, but kept up an on-and-off romance. Steinberg told me that he nearly died many times, in circumstances that she now considers suicidal: He drove his car straight into a concrete wall, and he once perched himself on a window-ledge at the Gramercy Park Hotel.

In 1974, Steinberg’s mother announced that the family was moving to southern California. Steinberg entered her senior year of high school in Los Angeles, and the following year, she headed to Berkeley, which she had heard was the most likely place to host a revolution. Steinberg kept up her relationship with her father; she was the only one in the family to do so. She went to see him in Phoenix in 1976—his apartment was empty, save for an aquarium full of piranhas. There was no food in the fridge, only a bunch of cocaine and heroin. A few years later, Steinberg attended N.Y.U. Law School and moved to a studio apartment in the East Village. Her father bounced from place to place in New York, until he showed up at her door one day, saying he needed a place to sleep. He slept on the floor, and he was gone when she got back from classes. Shortly after landing her first job at the Nassau County Public Defender in 1982, Steinberg got a call from her cousin. Richard’s body had been discovered at his parents’ place on 35th Street. He had overdosed on a speedball and a medicine cabinet’s worth of pills.

Steinberg resists the suggestion that her upbringing had anything to do with her career choice, that somehow her allegiance to people in tough circumstances came from her relation to such a person. She prefers to think of herself as springing fully-formed and armed, like Athena, from the campus of the University of California. But the themes of her upbringing—independence, improvisation, loyalty—run so clearly through her work that it’s hard to take her at her word. The restlessness, and the need to always be moving and changing that she inherited from her father, have defined her success and the success of the Bronx Defenders.

* * *

By late spring of 2015, the “Hands Up” scandal disappeared almost as suddenly as it had begun. De Blasio quietly announced that the Bronx Defenders would receive its contract from the city. The police union shifted its focus to other issues. The management team had worried that fewer law students would apply for jobs at the Bronx Defenders, but it received more applications that fall than ever before. On January 29, 2016, Bronx native and Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke at the annual gala, where “Hands Up” went unmentioned.

Steinberg seemed almost disappointed to return to the day-to-day operations, like a soldier returned from a tour of duty: grateful not to be shot at, but missing the adrenaline. She was invited back to Harvard, not for Women’s Day, but for a newly inaugurated “Trailblazer” lecture. Her speech focused entirely on the scandal. She said the experience had connected her to her clients’ reality of being “unheard and intentionally misheard by those with power.” (“Except,” she hastened to add as she described the speech to me, “I have privilege.”) She insisted the scandal had cemented her outsider identity: “And it is from my outcast state,” she concluded, “that I intend to blaze a trail forward. Not just to Harvard, but to a world where holistic defense empowers clients, to a place where the voices of marginalized communities are amplified by collective action and to a future where we all remain committed, more than ever, to speaking truth to power on behalf of those that most need it.”

In March of 2016, Steinberg announced that the Bronx Defenders was embarking on a new project: this fall, a small group will move to Oklahoma to create and run a holistic defender for women and their children in the impoverished neighborhoods of North Tulsa. Oklahoma has an unusually large population of women in prison—the consequences of their incarceration can be devastating in terms of poverty and family stability. Steinberg sees the project’s name “Still I Rise – Tulsa,” inspired by Maya Angelou, as a throwback to her past: “it feels good to get back to my feminist roots!” she said.

Tchotckes on RS desk

Tchotckes on Robin Steinberg’s desk.

Despite its near-universal acclaim, the Bronx Defenders is a one-off. The holistic-defense revolution has not happened, at least not in the wholesale way the Steinberg envisioned it. Few institutions are slower to adapt than law firms, and holistic defense may not be as sought after as Steinberg thought. If that thought enters Steinberg’s mind, she never expresses it. She has a vision of radical, nationwide change, but the main obstacle to her success in that aim may be herself. Though she insists loudly that “holistic defense is replicable, it is universal, and it is scalable,” one gets the sense that all the offices paying for trainings and assistance are not buying holistic defense; they are buying Robin Steinberg. Whether the Bronx Defenders can keep adapting, and whether it can maintain its position as the best public defender in the country without the close guidance of its founder and leader will be the best indication of the long-term success of holistic defense.

On a cold November day, Steinberg scheduled an early-morning breakfast meeting with a lawyer for American Express. She is grumpy in the mornings, and she doesn’t like talking shop that early. But this corporate contact offered power and connections, and he was willing to meet her on the Upper West Side. “Oh, fine!” she told her assistant. Seann Riley, Deputy Director of The Bronx Defenders, looked over at Steinberg and said, “What do I always say to you?” “I know, I know!” she said and flung her arms wide. “I’m a whore for justice!”

* * *

Matthew Van Meter lives in New York City. He is at work on a book about a mostly forgotten landmark Supreme Court Case.

This story was co-published with The Awl and edited by Silvia Killingsworth.

from Longreads Blog

Millennial Women At Work: A Reading List

These stories offer a glimpse into the weird world of “professionalism,” how young women are expected to adapt to rapidly changing, innately biased work environments. (This list isn’t exhaustive. There is no one universal millennial experience, no matter what your crotchety relatives on Facebook would have you believe.) And while millennial women are at the forefront of some of these changing norms—monetize that side hustle!—we are still at the mercy of societal forces beyond our control, including nepotism, sexism, and, in many cases, racism and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender expression. Millennial women are the hardest working people I know, and I wanted to celebrate their perseverance, fearlessness and creativity.

1. “My Job Search.” (The Point, Emilie Shumway, 2012)

A hundred cover letters + a handful of interviews = months of desperation. My favorite part of Emilie Shumway’s meditation on life after college is her deconstruction of professionalism and the disconnect between her personhood and the self that job-hunts.

2. “The Revolutionary History of the Pantsuit.” (Erica Euse, Vice, March 2016)

There is much to say about cultural arbiters of women’s modesty in the workplace, but for now, let us focus on the pantsuit.

3. “The Male-Dominated Workplace Survival Guide.” (Caitlin Van Horn, Femsplain, January 2015)

Caitlin Van Horn used to work in craft beer, so she knows male-dominated industries. My favorite suggestion: “Ignore the Urge To Try and Play Ball — or Any Other Sports Metaphors.”

4. “Follow Your Arrow: Photographer Michelle Davidson-Shapiro on Confidence and Caring.” (Beth Maiden, Autostraddle, March 2016)

I admire women who have the business acumen and intense work ethic to turn their creativity pursuits into their careers. Autostraddle’s “Follow Your Arrow” series documents queer individuals who’ve done just that. In this installment, take a peek into Michelle Davidson-Shapiro’s life as she photographs weddings, family portraits and a beautiful campaign for Bluestockings (NSFW!), raises her young daughter and promotes her small business.

5. “Tech Women are Busy Building Their Own Networks.” (Ann Friedman, Washington Post, January 2014)

Networking, long a career-climbing buzzword, is actually critical to female technologists’ success. “When I feel less alone, it forces me to be braver and take more risks,” says Hersi Issa. “That thing you fear, being left out on a limb alone, that feeling that keeps people from testing themselves and pushing themselves. And you feel that less when you’re part of a community.”

6. “Lonely At The Top: Being a Lady Boss Without Mentors.” (Ann Friedman, The Cut, April 2013)

Oh, you thought there was going to be only one Ann Friedman piece on this reading list? Think again! Ann is one of my hustle inspirations—I’m equally addicted to her weekly newsletter and her podcast with tech queen Aminatou Sow. Ann became a boss in her 20s, when she was the same age as many of her coworkers.

7. “Bridget Jones and the Millennial Workplace.” (Daniel Wenger, The New Yorker, March 2016)

Bridget Jones: quintessential honorary millennial. I found this essay delightful.

7a. “Why Millennial Women Are Burning Out.” (Kelly Clay, FastCompany, March 2016)

Sometimes, I feel guilty for being young and so tired. I’m not alone. According to this article, many, many millennial women experience burnout by age 30. In essence, women are conditioned to care deeply, to overachieve, and in our super-connected society, it’s virtually impossible to leave the office behind at the end of the day.

I especially related to this: “But beyond high expectations, many millennials burn out at around age 30 because they are unhappy in their jobs and don’t see a clear career path.” I’ve been feeling overwhelmed, confused, and unproductive. As I draw closer to 26 (Closer to 30 than 20! my anxious brain screams), I’m afraid I’ve made a mistake. I don’t know whether to keep pursuing writing, if I’m good enough. This article has some advice for me and mine: “Take a break and go easier on [your]selves, and to be more intentional about [your] next moves.” Makes sense to me.

from Longreads Blog