The Day My Brother Took a Life and Changed Mine Forever

Issac Bailey | The Marshall Project | June 2016 | 22 minutes (5,496 words)

The Marshall ProjectThis story was co-published with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

Drive the backroads of South Carolina to the small town of Ridgeville, and you’ll be greeted by a large, handmade sign reading “Your sins killed Jesus” amid the pine forests and small barns. I grew up traveling those roads but only recently noticed the sign, long after I had stopped caring about sin and consequence or what either of those things means.

Because on April 27, 1982, while I was asleep in a room with a couple of wooden bunk beds, blankets on the floor, and too many brothers, Herbert “Moochie” Bailey Jr. was killing a man named James Bunch a few miles away. Moochie was 22 years old at the time. I was only 9.

Before Moochie was a murderer, he was something of a savior inside our single-wide, tin-can of a trailer home. He was the son who had protected my mother from an abusive, alcoholic husband. The brother who shielded the rest of us from the bullies down the road and the kids who made fun of my stutter. He insisted that we wear clean clothes whenever we stepped out into the world. He led us on long jogs through our rural, Deep South hometown, St. Stephen — up Russellville Road, past the high school and back — barking out orders in a military cadence. He made us dream of becoming the Bailey version of the Jackson 5, even though none of us could carry a tune. We had the Afros, not the dance moves.

We had stars in our eyes any time we were in Moochie’s presence. We were blind to his faults, maybe out of willful ignorance, maybe because he was great at shielding us from his darker side. And he had one. Moochie had started dabbling in drugs, marijuana, and harder stuff. He had even mugged women, “sometimes for fun, sometimes for money,” he’d tell me years later. He would go on to serve jail time on various robbery charges.

When Moochie showed up back home at about 10:30 the night of the murder, Bunch was already dead, stabbed dozens of times. Forty-eight was the number we’ve mostly used, though there’s no real way of knowing based on the condition of his body.

Bunch was the owner of a small country store in Bonneau, about seven miles from St. Stephen. Moochie and other young men hung out there, playing pool, drinking beer, shooting the shit. The night my brother stabbed him, Bunch had staggered to a neighbor to ask for help but bled to death shortly thereafter.

“Hey, Doug or Willie, bring me some clothes,” Moochie shouted to two of my brothers from the bathroom, where he was hiding after running into the house covered in blood.

“What you doing in there?” my oldest sister asked.

“Leave me alone,” he said, returning from behind the closed door, where he changed into jeans and a T-shirt and left again before any of us could figure out what was wrong or where he was going.

Moochie then headed to a juke joint called Dreamland, which was near our home church. Somewhere along the way, he threw away the knife he’d used to kill Bunch.

Officers showed up at our house, asking for Moochie and wanting to search the premises. There were two or three out front, another couple hiding in the backyard. “As soon as you hear from him, you give us a call,” an officer told Mama, handing her a business card before driving off with the sirens on.

They found Moochie before Mama did. He was interrogated for a couple of hours before a public defender stepped in and told him not to sign the confession he had written without a lawyer present, a portion of which read:

“The way it happened is this. This was the second time that I had seen Mr. Bunch since Saturday. I had robbed him of [$260]. I went to his house and tried to get him to make a deal. He refused the deal. The thought then came to mind to kidnap him. At that point in time, a struggle ensued. Mr. Bunch refused to be kidnapped. Due to the struggle, I pulled out my knife [brown in color] from my pocket and stabbed Mr. Bunch about the face several times. Mr. Bunch then ran out of the house staggering.”

Nearly a year after being arrested, Moochie pleaded guilty to the murder, and in exchange, the prosecution didn’t pursue the death penalty. He was given a life sentence and would be eligible for parole in 17 years.

Moochie felt he was sparing us from having to sit through a trial and possibly witness his execution. “I’m doing this for you and the boys,” he told Mama in the courtroom.


My mother was 13 years old when she married my father in 1955. As best we can tell, he was 39.

She was one of a dozen siblings her parents could barely afford. She owned two dresses and wore shoes with makeshift cardboard soles. Her father gave her away to one of his colleagues. She was young and pretty and would be one less mouth to feed.

Shortly into the marriage, she started feeling sick while picking the fields that dot Berkeley County. She didn’t know she had just miscarried or that she was even pregnant. By age 18, five years into the marriage, she gave birth to Moochie. She would have eight more boys and two girls.

Every Friday, my father would walk into the house, drunk and violent, after making deliveries in his bread truck. One time, he hit Mama in the back of the head with a hammer. The blow caused blackouts and migraines. She had been working 12-hour shifts driving a forklift at a Georgia-Pacific wood plant but was forced out of her job and had to apply for disability because of the physical effects of the abuse.

As Moochie got older, he was also subject to beatings. Days after Mama gave birth for the third time, my father beat 10-year-old Moochie and kicked him out of the house. Moochie wasn’t wearing a shirt or shoes. He ran barefoot for a couple of miles to my grandmother’s house.

Around that same time, Moochie decided to do something about the beatings. He grabbed a knife from the kitchen, stood in the dark behind the front door, and said he was going to kill our father when got home from work because Moochie was tired of seeing Mama get hurt.

Mama talked him out of it.


Moochie in prison

An undated photo shows Moochie (left) being visited in prison by brothers Willie (front) and Douglas (right) and cousin Sharon Reid with an unidentified friend. Moochie had started to grow dreadlocks at this point, though they ultimately grew much longer.

In the years shortly following the murder, there was hardly a weekend or holiday when Mama wouldn’t load us into our wood-paneled station wagon to go on the long drives to whatever prison Moochie had been transferred to. Those trips were mostly the same. We’d drive through rural areas in South Carolina and stand in a long line outside the prison in rain or 100-degree heat. Prison guards would check our IDs and purses and pockets and wave handheld metal detectors. Then we’d walk through multiple large, slow-moving metal doors that would close behind us before another would open.

I grew to hate the metal bars. As a 12-year-old, I found it disturbing to see guards taking Moochie out of handcuffs and then putting him back in them. It never seemed to bother my brother, though. He was giddy over the Polaroid family portraits we’d take during those visits, posing in front of a fake background of the beach.

Every time we saw him, his dreadlocks were longer, eventually reaching down his back. Malcolm X became a Muslim when he was introduced to Islam in prison. A couple of years into his sentence, Moochie became a Rastafarian, changed his name to Mtume Obalaji Mfume, and dedicated himself to that religion in a way he never submitted to Christianity.

He talked about freedom during every visit as if he knew what that meant, and he preached about the importance of staying in physical shape and always being ready for a pending war he believed was on the horizon and that I believed was a figment of his imagination. He wrote about avoiding masturbation to ensure a clean and open mind, one receptive to the voices of powerful spirits. His letters were vague and intriguing, and they kept coming, kept getting longer, kept listing the books he had read and wanted me to read, kept going on about Africa and education and strength.

But I didn’t want to learn about Africa from prison letters, which seldom reminded me of Moochie, only some stranger named Mtume. I knew so little about Africa then. We learned nothing about it in history classes in South Carolina. When “Roots” aired on TV several years before Moochie went to prison, my friends and I would laugh at Kunta Kinte for trying to escape and we would snicker at the unkempt hair of the women slaves. Moochie kept describing our African ancestors as kings and queens. On “Roots,” they resembled people in St. Stephen who had mental-health and substance-abuse problems, with dark skin and even darker existences.

The fact that my brother was in prison already made it difficult for me to protect myself against racist stereotypes. To have others perceive me as anything like a slave — in appearance, in thought, in sympathy — was too much.

For a while throughout high school, I tried writing to him anyway. I wrote to him about my football and academic scholarships, about my National Honor Society-level grades, and about a girlfriend or two. Sometimes I wrote only a few lines, wanting to hear from the man I once knew, the one who used to ask me about football or Michael Jackson.

I wanted to tell him about my frustrations with my stutter, which grew worse after he was locked away. My words flowed freely in my letters, however, and when I finally found the courage to ask Moochie if he believed, like members of our family did, that my worsening impediment had something to do with him going away, I received this in response:

“Yeah, man, there’s tons of connections, … and pieces necessary to bring consciousness. My story is simply a part of the larger story. The Black Panthers, .. The Nation of Islam, especially, during the 60’s, .. and Cointelpro. You could use a copy of my trial/court transcript. You could use the one I go to make copies. Remember, … they were attempting to seek the death penalty in my case, … therefore, … even for me to be around, … now, … is a testament of Jah Jah’s blessing. Yeah, … that stuttering thing … yeah, … I guess that had pissed you off for awhile. Yeah, … keep researching history … our families histories, our people’s history, … you’ll find the key to that whole thing … (come to think of it, .. you the only one that stutters, huh, … of course, … now that I think back, … I remember, … Piankhy (Doug) … and Akhenaton (Josh) stuttered for a while, …”

Then there was the time I wrote to him about his victims. I had started thinking more about Bunch family, who remained a mystery, but one I wanted to solve. I wanted to make amends, I think. I wanted to tell them that what Moochie had done was horrific, but that he had accomplished good things, too, I think. Although I wouldn’t meet any of them until 25 years after the murder, I had always wanted them to like me, to not see me and my other brothers as monsters. I think.

I hoped Moochie would write back and say something profound about what happened. About what he’d done. About who he was when he killed James Bunch. He responded but never broached the subject to claim innocence or express regret. Instead, he wrote:

“Brother, … Rastafari and Afrocentricity is/are my salvation. Brother, … Jah Jah never fail I yet, … Brother, … I still say to you, … and each of our family members, …’’ Grow your dreadlocks, … Grow your dreadlocks, … Grow your dreadlocks, …, … smile, … know thyself, … know your history and you will always be wise.”

So I did the only thing I could. I slowly started to pull away from Moochie and the things he seemed to represent. I wondered how he’d feel to learn that when I was 16 years old, I refused to date a girl in high school because her skin was too dark. I can still see her smiling at me, wearing her Food Lion shirt. I’ll never forget the day we chatted as she rang up my groceries and handed me her phone number. I didn’t stutter once. She was beautiful, but I was convinced my friends would laugh. I never spoke to her again.

I wondered how Moochie would feel to know that a few years before that encounter, I had taken a hot comb to my head to straighten my hair, which reminded me too much of pictures of slaves. The comb was actually a heavy piece of dark iron with a wooden handle. I’d place it on the front left eye of our gas stove, watch it begin to smoke, then carefully pull it through my hair the way I had seen my sister and cousins do, sometimes burning the tops of my ears, sometimes not. My hair would stay straight for the rest of the day but then revert to its natural state by the following morning. I hated when family members and friends called me “peasy head,” our word for nappy, even though I would join them in taunting others.

And I wondered how Moochie would feel if he knew that I wrote a paper in college comparing Martin to Malcolm. I earned a B+, but my white professor noted that had he been black, he would have been angrier about the state of racial bigotry than I seemed to be.

If Moochie had been the first person in our family to graduate from a four-year university instead of being the first to serve decades in prison, I can’t guarantee that I wouldn’t have struggled with my identity. I don’t think you can grow up in the South and avoid that reckoning, even under the best circumstances. But prison crystallized the struggle like nothing else. My oldest brother, a black man, was incarcerated. Prisoners are shackled the way slaves were. Slaves were ugly, with dark skin and kinky hair.

After graduating high school, I decided to go Davidson College, an elite, liberal arts school with a student population that was more than 90 percent white at the time (Strom Thurmond’s son was in my freshman class). I chose Davidson partly because they would pay my way, but also because I wanted to prove myself in a sea of privileged white people, students who had access to AP courses and computer labs.

I was so scared after I got my first test results in Psychology 101. The class average was 88, and the top grade was a 98. My score: 48. I was the only black student in a class of about 25.

While Moochie was urging me to go to Africa to find myself, I felt I could never truly know myself until I made my way through Davidson. Maybe that’s why I almost never talked about Moochie in college. It was bad enough having to overhear the white students openly question whether the black students had earned their way in.

Monthly visits to Moochie became yearly ones, and then even less frequent.  


Issac Bailey and his daughter

The author, Issac Bailey, with his daughter Lyric sitting on his lap in his Myrtle Beach home in 2007. (Janet Blackmon Morgan/The Sun News)

‘You honestly think he’s ready to get out?’

I can’t remember how many years passed before I made my way to see my brother in Bennettsville, about a two-hour drive from where I was living in Myrtle Beach. It was 1998, and I was a fresh-faced reporter three years out of college. I told my editor I was taking a day off to see my brother.

“I hope you guys have fun,” she said, not knowing that I was visiting Moochie in prison.

I wanted to see him partly because I felt guilty that it had been so long since I had last visited, and also because I wanted him to meet my fiancé, Tracy Swinton. She and I had met eight years earlier, during the summer before our senior year in high school. We felt sparks and eventually made our way back to each other after college.

We were sitting silently in a dingy room at Evans Correctional Institute when two guards ushered Moochie into an adjoining, closet-sized area to remove his handcuffs and leather holders. Moochie had been in solitary confinement for more than three years, ever since the head of the state Department of Corrections, Michael Moore, had instituted a dress code for prisoners as part of a tough-on-crime policy. The most contentious directive: all inmates had to have closely cropped hair.

The policy was met with fierce resistance. In April 1995, prisoners at Broad River Correctional Facility stabbed five guards and took three staff members hostage. It took 11 hours of negotiations to end the unrest.

Moochie knew about the riot even though he was at Evans, which was about 100 miles away. Department of Corrections officials locked down prisoners throughout the system to ensure the riot wouldn’t spread.

“They went to every cell and they gave every prisoner an ultimatum: get into the correct grooming standard or go to lock up,” Moochie said. He chose solitary. His dreadlocks were a sacred sign of his faith: “All the days of his vow of separation, no razor shall touch his head. Until the time is completed for which he separates himself to the LORD, he shall be holy. He shall let the locks of hair of his head grow long.” Numbers 6:5

Maybe a dozen Rastafarians, Muslims, and Five Percenters joined Moochie in solitary and took a vow of silence in protest, particularly in the presence of prison guards and officials. But one-by-one, they began to submit to haircuts at the request of family members who wanted to visit, hear their voices, see their faces. Moochie remained in solitary for years behind a gray metal door. He almost never spoke.

He got his daily hour of free time in the rec area — in shackles — and medical care when necessary, but not much else. He passed the time meditating and jogging in tight circles inside his cell. He copied entire books by hand, including “Afrocentricity,” the “Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and “The Black Holocaust for Beginners.”

When I took Tracy to visit him for the first time, he was still in solitary and his parole date was approaching, almost two decades into his life sentence. But being in solitary meant he had no chance of earning “good time.” He couldn’t do the things that make a prisoner look like he is ready to rejoin society, like taking job-training courses.

He smiled when he saw us but didn’t say anything in front of the guards. Silence had become his weapon. He had been using hand signals, head nods, and written notes to communicate. I knew about his protest and mentioned it to Tracy. Still, she was taken aback seeing it in person. I was, too. He looked thin.

While the guards hovered nearby, he barely spoke, instead scribbling on a few sheets of paper, his hand moving like the arm of a seismograph picking up the energy from a massive earthquake.

Once we were alone in the small room, Moochie spoke for the first time, his voice barely rising above a whisper. When I tried to get him to say more, he smiled, showing a set of teeth straighter and whiter than maybe anyone in our family. When a guard pulled a chair to the open door, he started writing again.

His handwriting was barely legible. The letters tiny, bleeding into each other. “They don’t give us too much paper, you know,” Moochie whispered, trying to ignore the guard. “Those cats something else man, those cats something else.” His torso and head were in a perpetual rocking motion, his eyes darted up to us, then to the guard at the door, then down to his paper. The cycle repeated itself in one seamless loop as quickly as his hands moved along the paper.

This went on for about 45 minutes before the guards took him back.

“You honestly think he’s ready to get out?” Tracy asked as we headed home.


Moochie and Issac's mother Elizabeth McDaniel

An 18-year-old Moochie dons his high school graduation cap and gown in a portrait held by his mother, Elizabeth McDaniel, in 2007. (Janet Blackmon Morgan/The Sun News)

The next time I saw Moochie was two years later, on Aug. 9, 2000, about a year before the birth of my first child, Kyle. I made the lonely five-hour drive to Evans Correctional Institute for his first parole hearing. Solitary confinement had remained an obstacle to regular visits, though I’m not sure I would have gone back earlier even if it wasn’t.

Moochie would be making his case to the parole board via closed-circuit TV. A decade after he’d been convicted, South Carolina severely restricted parole for prisoners sentenced to life. The new law didn’t apply to Moochie, although the odds were still stacked against him. Only a small percentage of violent offenders in South Carolina were being paroled, and the lucky few were often deathly ill.

I met up with Mama; one of my brothers, Willie; his fiancée; two pastors from St. Stephen; an aunt; and a lawyer. We walked through the glass-encased booth, down a 200-foot concrete walkway surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire, through a metal door where a prison guard checked our identification. The guard told us that one of pastors, the lawyer, and three family members would be allowed in.

The visitor’s room was large, drab, and filled with people waiting to see their loved ones. Moochie called to us as a prison guard placed him in a holding room. We waved. He pressed his head against the bars to show us his smile.

We were led into a small room with a large TV. “This hearing is for Mtume Obalaji Mfume, serving a life sentence for murder,” a voice from the TV rang out. “Anybody here to speak on his behalf can begin.”

The lawyer said Moochie felt extremely remorseful and that his dreadlocks were a sign of deep faith and positive change. He had pages of prepared words, but the voice from the TV said he wanted to hear from family members. So Willie stepped forward: “Without him there teaching us, man,” he told the board, “we couldn’t have grown into the men were are today. We need our brother. We have two younger brothers right now that need that same guidance, that same strong presence that only Moochie can provide for this family. Man, I have so much to say …”

“Seems like you don’t need him that much; you turned out pretty well without him,” the voice said. “Does his other brother want to say something?”

“My name is Issac Bailey, and Moochie left us when I was about 9 years old,” I began, throwing words from my mouth faster than I had in years.

That didn’t last long, though.

“And I can tell you that, um, ah, um, ah, um, um, um, ah, um, um, ah, ah, um, um, um, that even though he has, um, ah, ah, um, been teaching me…”

Moochie’s lawyer turned towards me, his head slowly swiveling on his neck. Willie and Mama sat stoically, not taking their eyes off the screen.

“Sir,” Moochie interrupted, talking to the screen. “I know that crime was a terrible thing, and I’m sorry for that, and will try everything I can to make up for it. Man, oohhh. I don’t know that there are words to express my regret for what happened that night. Man, I know that crime was… I’ve been studying in here, taking a lot of classes and have learned a lot. I’m not that little boy who came in here 19 years ago. Man, I’m ready.”

His hands were folded in front of him on the table, feet close together, knees touching. He resembled a student who had been called to the principal’s office.

Moochie went on for a few more minutes before Mama chimed in and said that everything at home was in place for him to make a successful return to society. “We need him home,” she said, staring at the screen. “I need him home.”

“Thank you,” the voice told us. “Ya’ll can leave now. We’ll let you know in a few minutes.”

An excited energy ushered us out of the room. We shook hands with a few of the prison guards.

Five minutes later, a prison official gave us the verdict: “Your petition for parole has been denied.” Every parole hearing over the next 14 years ended the same way and without explanation.

It was around that first parole hearing that I stopped caring about my nappy hair and started caring more about my son’s life and how best to raise him in a world that might be too quick to judge him. I later had a daughter named Lyric, and I wanted to teach her how to navigate images of beauty and self-worth that often excluded people like her.

That’s when I finally began writing about Moochie. I’d sit in story meetings in the newsroom where we’d talk about the importance of “picking the right person” to write about, a person who readers could empathize with. But it often felt as though someone like Moochie could never be the right person. I was ashamed of myself for being ashamed of him for so many years.

In my first column in 2000, I wrote:

When you have finished this, you would have read the hardest piece I’ve ever written. Many times, fear has forced my fingers away from the keyboard.

For I, too, have felt that certain fear we rarely talk about and almost never admit feeling: the fear of black men…. I’ve felt myself brace, tense up, when walking down a sidewalk toward a group of folks that look like me.

I’ve heard myself think, heard myself say, things that suggest those vile, racist stereotypes reside in me….When I watch the evening news and see a black man accused of a crime, I cringe. But there is no surprise in my eyes. For when I close them and think of criminal, I see black, and male.

Someone who looks just like me.

As I continued to come to grips with my past and my insecurities, I also began to mentor other black men. I was unable to keep my oldest brother out of prison, and later, some of my younger brothers from wanting to follow a similar path. So I thought I was mature enough, ready enough, to help these other people.

In doing so, I was forced to reconsider my relationship with Moochie, to recognize him as the full, complex person he had always been, even when I couldn’t see it.


Then out of the blue, it happened. On Nov. 13, 2014 — more than 32 years after he was sent away — South Carolina finally granted Moochie his freedom.

Almost a decade before Moochie would be released, I sat down with a member of the parole board who happened to be one of my readers. He told me that Moochie’s hair was a major impediment to his potential freedom. That kind of defiance was untenable in a system in which rules had to be strictly adhered to. I told Mama and Willie, and they got word to Moochie. He held onto his beliefs but eventually cut his hair, got out of solitary, and started acting more normally. He began speaking and helped create spelling bees to get younger prisoners interested in education.

He also did something I had long been waiting for: He expressed real remorse for the murder.  

I finally met the Bunch family in 2005. I spoke with one of his sisters by phone and another face-to-face in a small diner. They were kind and told me I shouldn’t carry the burden of what my brother had done. They said they did not hate us, but they did not want to see Moochie get released. After we met, I was told they had begun a public petition to ensure he wouldn’t be.

Sometime between 2005 and 2014, they stopped trying to keep him locked up. I can’t say why. His sister had told me she would speak to me once but didn’t want to hear from us again. I’ve honored that request, despite my lingering questions.

A few days after Moochie’s release, my entire family met up at a restaurant.

We hugged for a long time. He was thrilled to see that my wife, Tracy, had grown dreadlocks, as had my daughter. We told him that his last living aunt and her daughter and granddaughters had them, too.

“Power, power, that’s power,” he kept saying, rubbing his short hair. We didn’t tell him that Tracy and our daughter grew dreads because we were tired of spending so much time and money at the hairdresser.

Moochie sat at the head of a long table surrounded by 14 family members. He hunched over his food as though protecting it. He was 54 years old and looked more like one of my uncles than my brother.

There were no balloons. The heavens didn’t throw any extra sunshine our way. None of us cried. In between bites, Moochie would pause, place both hands on his cheeks, both elbows on the table, and look over at a nearby booth filled with nieces and nephews and grandnieces and grandnephews he was meeting for the first time.

Mostly, he just sat there, still and observant. Around him, his family members made plans to run a marathon in Myrtle Beach and joked about Duke-UNC basketball and the Dallas Cowboys.

Younger siblings were wondering aloud what to do with him. They talked about getting him a driver’s license and a job and figuring out a way to teach him about real life, not that alternative reality he had lived in for so many years.

And he wasn’t totally clear of the correctional system. He still isn’t. His release came with five years of probation and a strict warning that he better show up to every meeting with his parole officer, abstain from drug use, and keep up with his parole fees.

To me, it felt as though he had been released from a cage but put on a leash.

To him, it was bliss.

“Man, for the first couple of nights, I was afraid to go to sleep,” he told me. “I didn’t want to wake up and find out it was just a dream.”

About eight months after his release, we decided to retrace some of the miles the family had traveled all those years to see Moochie in prison. I wanted to see if it would feel different with him in the car.  

One of our brothers joined us on a ride to Ridgeville. Growing up, we knew Ridgeville, which was south of St. Stephen, for two things: Lieber and MacDougall correctional institutions. According to prison records, Moochie spent time in those prisons in 1986 and 1987. I would have been about 14.

I pulled into a gravel parking lot, the Ford Taurus pointed towards Lieber’s rusted exterior.

“We made it,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Hey, man, I don’t know if we should park,” Moochie said after I shut off the engine. “They might get suspicious. They might think we’re doing something we ain’t supposed to. Let’s go.”

I switched the ignition on and we headed back to his place.

It was there that he told me about his attempts to slowly integrate into a world he had never known — about staying on his parole officer’s good side, about how he wanted to teach, take care of his family, and find a job, even if it was part-time and spotty. He didn’t want to do anything that could potentially put him back in prison. He gently asked for a few dollars. I slipped him $40.

“Boy, without family, I don’t know what I would do,” he said, pocketing the money.

As we spoke, his gaze rarely left his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He was tending to his hair. The beginnings of dreadlocks were already starting to re-emerge.

Issac Bailey is a 2016 Soros Justice Fellow and is currently working on a book about his family’s story for Other Press.


Fact-checker: Matthew Giles

from Longreads Blog


Celebrating Pride: The Work We Have To Do

“If anything happens to me tomorrow, I just want you to know that I love you.”

My partner pushed his headphones aside. He says, “I love you too. I don’t think anything will happen. You shouldn’t be worried.”

It’s Friday as I’m writing. Tomorrow, Saturday, is Frederick Pride. This Maryland city (my city, I live here) expects around 5,000 people to attend Pride festivities, which include an ecumenical church service, a  walk to commemorate victims of AIDS, and a day-long festival with food, activities for kids, drag queens performing, and local merchants offering discounts to anyone sporting a rainbow wristband. The weather will be perfect. Frederick Pride is one of my favorite days of the year. But I’m also a little scared. Last week, we held a vigil for the victims of the shooting at Pulse. I kept waiting for a bullet to enter the back of my skull. I hope I will be distracted enough tomorrow by my volunteer duties and my new flower crown to forget to worry about dying. I hope the kids who attend the local LGBTQ youth group and their families and the people attending Pride for the first time and my dad and my partner and my queer mentors and my coworkers will not feel afraid, either.  I plan my outfit, my potential tattoos, my deadlines for the next month. I tell myself, gently, Everything is going to be okay. 

When you read this on Sunday, you will read about the queer and trans people in the American prison system. You will learn about their relationships, their mistreatment and some of their needs. You will read about the exclusive language of sex education and healthcare, particularly menstruation. You’ll read the stories of contemporary playwrights, musicians, political commentators and others as they reminisce about their first gay clubs. You’ll see that queer communal spaces can be inefficacious, yet remain so, so important.

There is much to do. But we are alive. We get to do the work.

I. Beyond Orange Is the New Black, What LGBTQ People In Prison Need You To Know

“The Forgotten Ones: Queer and Trans Lives in the Prison System.” (Grace Dunham, The New Yorker, February 2016)

Activist-writer Grace Dunham has an illuminating book review at The New Yorker: “The majority of imprisoned queer and trans people navigate the system’s violence in isolation. ‘Captive Genders’ envisions a world in which their lives are not circumscribed by prison.”

“5 Things You Should Know About Solidarity With Incarcerated LGBT People: A Conversation With Black and Pink.” (Madeline Taterka, Autostraddle, June 2015)

Black and Pink fosters relationships of support between LGBTQ prisoners and free-world allies…coordinating pen-pal relationships, producing monthly newsletters that are distributed to over 8000 incarcerated people, and doing courtroom support and know your rights trainings…with the goal of liberation via an abolitionist framework that centers on the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), but understands the many other systemic issues that impact and respond to the PIC.

Prison abolition is something I still have a lot to learn about, and I found this interview with Jason Lydon, National Director of Black and Pink, really helpful.

II. Sex, Blood and HRT

“Yes, Trans Women Can Get Period Symptoms.” (Sam Riedel, The Establishment, May 2016) and “Who Gets to Take Part in the Menstruation Conversation?” (Morgan Jenkins, BuzzFeed LGBT, January 2016) discuss the experiences of trans and gender non-conforming folks who experience periods and/or monthly period symptoms. At the very least, it’s an important reminder to use inclusive language when discussing menstruation, but both of these stories go even deeper than that.

“How Sex Education Fails Queer and Trans Kids.” (Jerusha Gray, The Establishment, March 2016)

The little baby queers coming behind me at least have access to the Internet, but in many ways they are similarly unprepared. They are vulnerable to infections and diseases because they don’t know better. They are ill-equipped to deal when there is an unequal power distribution in emotional and sexual relationships. They are left open for predators to prey upon their lack of experience and connection to community and resources. This, combined with the reality that LGBT youth are at far higher risk of homelessness and prostitution, makes for a deadly combination.

III. The Creation/Myth of Queer Safe Space

“My First Gay Bar: Rachel Maddow, Andy Cohen, and Others Share Their Coming-Out Stories.” (The New York Times, June 2016)
Today’s athletes, activists and artists reflect on the places they met friends, encountered danger and learned more about themselves.

“LGBTQ People Can’t Have Safe Spaces But We Still Need Community.” (Riese Bernard, Autostraddle, June 2016)
Riese Bernard, the founder and CEO of Autostraddle, reflects on the structural, systemic inequalities that make “it gets better” so hard to believe.

“There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Safe’ City for Queer People.” (Saeed Jones, BuzzFeed LGBT, May 2013)
This piece is from 2013 but it still holds true today. Hatred against LGBTQ people reigns in our legislative halls and in our nightclubs.

from Longreads Blog

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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

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

* * *

1. My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard

Shane Bauer | Mother Jones | June 23, 2016 | 145 minutes (36,384 words)

Bauer goes undercover as a private prison guard to investigate the inner workings of a for-profit prison in Winnfield, Louisiana run by the Corrections Corporation of America. He witnesses multiple stabbings, prisoners denied adequate care, and becomes unsettled by the way the job changes his behavior.

2. The Ghosts of Fukushima

Steve Featherstone | The New Republic | June 20, 2016 | 20 minutes (4,539 words)

Five years after a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, only a small percentage of evacuees have returned to the Japanese town of Naraha, which the government has deemed safe following an expensive cleanup effort.

3. The Dark Side Of Longform Journalism

Luke Mogelson | Literary Hub | June 16, 2016 | 44 minutes (2,208 words)

“In the field, we are actively, aggressively seeking to see with our own eyes the reality of war, famine, disaster—and who isn’t at least somewhat gratified when he discovers what he’s sought, at least somewhat disappointed when he doesn’t?”

4. Will Trump Swallow the G.O.P. Whole?

Mark Leibovich | New York Times Magazine | June 21, 2016 | 27 minutes (6,829 words)

The Republican party is struggling to maintain party unity with Donald Trump as their presumptive presidential nominee. Leibovich talks with RNC chairman Reince Priebus, House speaker Paul Ryan, and other party leaders about their future.

5. Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid

Rufi Thorpe | Vela | June 21, 2016 | 21 minutes (5,306 words)

Rufi Thorpe reframes the choice between motherhood and making great art. She synthesizes the words of great women authors, their critics, and examples from her own life as a novelist, wife and mother of two young children.

from Longreads Blog

Looking For a Killing: On the Ethics of Longform Reportage

Now, imagine you’re on a mission with a platoon of Afghan soldiers in a valley that you know to be under the control of insurgents, and imagine your task is to show that fact. On the one hand, you don’t want the soldiers to be ambushed—what kind of person would want that?—but on the other, the only reason you came to that valley in the first place was the high likelihood that they’d be ambushed and your desire to be with them when they were. Which is to say, I think, that you do want them to be ambushed.

Writing in LitHub, journalist Luke Mogelson explores the darker side of what it means to do longform, on-the-ground reporting.

Read the full essay

from Longreads Blog

Day Care (and Its Discontents): A Reading List

Even the most self-congratulatory conversations about parenting young children are often tinged with an unmistakable air of guilt. Its source lies in a fundamental contradiction: We might be obsessed with our kids’ food, activities, and intellectual development, but in order to provide these things in the first place, many parents also need to outsource the feeding, playing, and teaching to people who are more or less strangers. We work; they go to day care.

Child care is a minefield of a topic, and navigating it inevitably detonates questions of class and gender, labor and social justice. It’s where politics and geography become not just personal, but also emotional (and, sometimes, heartbreaking). Here are eight stories about day care: a place working parents know all too well, but never quite well enough.

1. “The Hell of American Day Care.” (Jonathan Cohn, New Republic, April 14, 2013)

Cohn’s retelling of a fire at a Houston day care facility is harrowing; four children died because of the owner’s negligence. But his story goes beyond one specific incident, chronicling a long history of policy failure that keeps producing horrific tragedies. (As a companion piece, read Dylan Matthews’ interview with Cohn on his reporting.)

2. “The Rise of Extreme Daycare.” (Alissa Quart and Alice Proujansky, Pacific Standard, November 10, 2014)

“The main room at Dee’s Tots looks like a supersized slumber party, but the truth is this is an ordinary day.” The thought of leaving a child at daycare overnight might sound unthinkable for middle-class and affluent parents. But for people who rely on unpredictable shift work and who deal with stagnant wages and precarious employment, round-the-clock day care facilities are a necessity. This piece tells the story of one such place, in New Rochelle, New York.

3. “The Lost Summer.” (Elissa Strauss, Longreads, August 25, 2015)

Academic calendars in the U.S. often include up to three months of summer break — they’ve been put in place decades ago, when the assumption was that a parent (guess which one?) would be available to fill in for external child care. For single parents like Olympia, who is at the center of Strauss’ piece, this has made summer an expensive season of uncertainty and stress.

4. “Madam Montessori.” (Nancy Shute, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2002)

How did an early-20th-century Italian educator become a buzzword among the city-dwelling, child-rearing, post-hipster demographic? Shute tells the story of Maria Montessori — and of the long shelf life of her pedagogical philosophy (and its equally-persistent critics).

5. “The Politics of Pre-K.” (Alia Wong, The Atlantic, November 19, 2014)

“Pre-k is seen as a solution to [poverty and inequality]. Preschool, on the other hand, connotes nursery school.” The question of child care as a public service is so fraught in the U.S., even the language we use to talk about it comes with asterisks and footnotes. In this piece, Wong charts the increasing use of “pre-k” at the expense of “preschool,” and how this slight modification frames a broader discussion around education, inequality, and achievement gaps between white and non-white children.

6. “Take My Kids, Please!” (Naomi Buck, Toronto Life, September 27, 2012)

American parents sometimes romanticize the social safety nets their counterparts in Sweden, Canada, or France get to enjoy. As Buck makes clear, even in Toronto the playground’s grass might not always be greener. Having returned home from a long stint as an expat in Berlin — day care heaven — she chronicles the tortuous path she endured until finding a place for her preschool-age son.

7. “How Not to Get Your Kid into Kindergarten.” (Laura Moser, Washingtonian, March 24, 2014)

As cities grow more economically polarized, so does the early-education system that caters to diverse (but often segregated) communities. The result is a stark divide between undesirable and highly coveted facilities. In Washington, D.C., Moser maps out the baroque kindergarten lottery system — and the lengths to which parents will go to game it.

8. “A Baby Dies at Day Care, and a Mother Asks Why She Had to Leave Him So Soon.” (Amber Scorah, New York Times, November 15, 2015)

“Our sweet son died two and a half hours after the first time I had left him.” Scorah’s day care history was short, and heartbreaking: on his first day there, her three-months-old son, Karl, died. Beyond her personal tragedy, Scorah opens up an important discussion on parental-leave policy and the low value American society attaches to child care.

from Longreads Blog

Home Is Where the Fraud Is

David Dayen | Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud | The New Press| May 2016 | 26 minutes (7,150 words)

Below is an excerpt from Chain of Title, by David Dayen, the true story of how a group of ordinary Americans took on the nation’s banks at the height of the housing crisis, calling into question fraudulent foreclosure practices. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

How could you not know who I am if you’re suing me?

Lisa Epstein drove down Highway A1A, along the Intracoastal Waterway, back to her old apartment in Palm Beach. At her side was her daughter Jenna, in a car seat; atop the dashboard was an envelope containing the monthly payment on her unsold co-op. Though her house was in foreclosure, Lisa always paid the mortgage on the apartment, her fallback in case of eviction.

Lisa gazed at the water out the window. She never wanted to miss mortgage payments; Chase told her to do it and promised assistance afterward, but then put her into foreclosure. The delinquency triggered late fees, penalties, and notifications to national credit bureaus. A damaged credit score affected a mortgage company’s decision to grant loan relief, which hinged on the ability to pay. Even if Lisa managed to finally sell the apartment, even if she could satisfy the debt on the house, the injury from this “advice” would stick with her for years. Chase Home Finance never mentioned the additional consequences, emphasizing only the possibility of aid. The advice was at best faulty, at worst a deliberate effort to seize the home. Lisa spent a lifetime living within her means, guarding against financial catastrophe. Now Chase Home Finance obliterated this carefully constructed reputation. She felt tricked.

America has a name for people who miss their mortgage payments: deadbeats. Responsible taxpayers who repay their debts shouldn’t have to “subsidize the losers’ mortgages,” CNBC host Rick Santelli shouted from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade on February 19, 2009, two days after Lisa got her foreclosure papers. “This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage, that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills, raise your hand!” The floor traders in Chicago, between buying and selling commodity futures, hooted. This rant would later be credited as the founding moment of the Tea Party. And it signified a certain posture toward delinquent homeowners, a cultural bias that equated missing the mortgage payment with failing the duties of citizenship. The indignation didn’t account for mortgage companies driving customers into default. However, lenders welcomed anything that humiliated deadbeats into blaming themselves. In most cases it worked: in the twenty-three states that required judicial sign-off for foreclosures, around 95 percent of the cases went uncontested.

But Lisa had an inquisitive mind. Before she would acquiesce, she wanted to understand the circumstances that led to this lawsuit from U.S. Bank, an entity she had never encountered before seeing it listed as the plaintiff. She had three questions: who was this bank, why did it have a relationship with her, and why was it trying to take her house?

As it happens, U.S. Bank is real. It’s the fifth-largest bank in the country, with more than three thousand branches, mainly in the Midwest and the Pacific Coast, not in Florida. Lisa learned all this through a cursory Google search. U.S. Bank also had a toll-free customer service number. But just like Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank’s reps had no record of a Lisa Epstein. “Look, you’re suing me. How could you not know who I am if you’re suing me?” Lisa implored. She gave U.S. Bank her Social Security number, her address, all her mortgage information. Nothing turned up.

Lisa kept every document from the closing in an old canvas bag from a nursing conference. She read the mortgage documents line by line, the way she had while eight months pregnant and sitting in the offices of DHI Mortgage. There was no mention of U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, or even Chase, where she sent mortgage payments for a couple of years. Lisa made the deal with DHI Mortgage. How did these other banks get into the picture?

Lisa had a bit more luck when she Googled “U.S. Bank NA as trustee for JPMorgan Mortgage Trust 2007-S2,” the name of the plaintiff on her foreclosure documents. This sent her to the website of the Securities and Exchange Commission, specifically an investor report (known as an 8-K form) for the JPMorgan Mortgage Trust. One paragraph included every party she had become familiar with over the past several months:

J. P. Morgan Acceptance Corporation I (the “Company”) entered into a Pooling and Servicing Agreement dated as of May 1, 2007 (the “Pooling and Servicing Agreement”), by and among the Company, as depositor, Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., as master servicer (in such capacity, the “Master Servicer”) and securities administrator (in such capacity, the “Securities Administrator”) and U.S. Bank National Association, as trustee (the “Trustee”), providing for the issuance of J. P. Morgan Mortgage Trust 2007-S2 Mortgage Pass-Through Certificates.

Most homeowners had as much chance of decoding this as they did of learning Mandarin Chinese. Lisa had no background in real estate, economics, or high finance. The only time she dealt with anything Wall Street–related was when she chose funds for her 401(k) upon starting a new job. It took years of study to master nursing; nobody offered her a class in pooling and servicing agreements, or mortgage pass-through certificates. However, every thing that transformed the mortgage market, every thing that layered risk and drove the housing bubble, every thing that made buying a home in 2007 infinitely more dangerous than it should ever be, was contained in that innocuous-sounding paragraph.

* * *

Franklin Roosevelt… created the most successful housing finance system in the world.

One thousand families. That’s how many Americans lost their homes each day at the height of the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt’s response to this relentless destruction created the most successful housing finance system in the world, a key to America’s political stability and emergence as an economic power house.

To stop foreclosures, the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) bought defaulted mortgages from financial institutions at a discount and sold them back to homeowners. Beginning in 1933, HOLC acquired one million mortgages—one out of five in the country at that time. Eighty percent of HOLC clients saved their homes when they otherwise might have lost them. And once every mortgage was paid off and the program closed, HOLC even turned a small profit.

HOLC gave borrowers a twenty-year mortgage with a fixed interest rate, allowing them to gradually pay off the principal over the life of the loan, a process known as amortization. At the time very few Americans had long-term mortgages. The most common product lasted two to five years; borrowers would pay interest each month and then either make a “bullet” payment of principal at the end or roll over into a new loan. When bullet payments came due during the Depression, there was no way for out-of-work homeowners to find the cash. And mortgage holders, saddled with their own funding problems, refused to renegotiate contracts and seized the homes. This only accelerated the housing collapse, putting more homes on the market when nobody could afford to buy. The HOLC solution was intended to attenuate this downward cycle. But it also eliminated the volatility of the bullet payment, which magnified periods of economic hardship. HOLC generated confidence in the long-term, fully amortized mortgage, which previously was seen as a scam unscrupulous door-to-door salesmen used to rob lower-class laborers of down payments.

The government did not want to hold HOLC mortgages, and investors feared buying them, since the families making payments had previously defaulted. So in 1934 Roosevelt established the Federal Housing Administration to provide mortgage insurance on HOLC loans. Borrowers paid a small FHA premium, and investors would be guaranteed their share of principal and interest payments. The FHA would eventually offer protection to loans made by private lenders as long as they issued mortgages with a 20 percent down payment and terms of at least twenty years. In 1938 the Federal National Mortgage Administration, commonly known as Fannie Mae, enabled this by purchasing government-insured mortgages, injecting additional capital into the lending industry.

More than anything, the system delivered security. Families could make one affordable monthly payment for two or three decades, and glory in the dignity of homeownership. Builders supported the desire by constructing developments of detached single-family homes outside of metropolitan centers. The interstate highway system connected suburbs to the cities. Subdivisions sprang up everywhere, and millions of Americans sought long-term fixed-rate loans to secure their spot in them. The FHA loosened standards and granted insurance on thirty-year loans with as little as 5 percent down for new construction. The GI Bill for returning World War II servicemembers further guaranteed low-rate loans through the Veterans Administration. In 1940, 15 million families owned their own homes; by 1960 that number jumped to 33 million. Buying a place in the suburbs became part of growing up, like college graduation or a wedding, the epitome of the promise of the middle class from the country that claimed to have invented it. It was a utopia of white picket fences, modern kitchens, and freshly cut grass.

Private lenders filled the demand for these loans, particularly the savings and loan industry, which had been around since the 1830s (known back then as the building and loan). The biggest problem for companies lending long is the funding: there’s money to be made, but lenders need large amounts of cheap up-front capital. Savings and loans found the formula by funding home mortgages with customer deposits. Government-supplied deposit insurance made ordinary Americans confident that they could put money into a bank and have it protected. The S&Ls benefited further when Congress granted them an interest rate advantage over commercial banks. This nudged depositors into S&Ls, increasing the funding available for mortgage finance.

S&Ls typically paid a healthy 3 to 4 percent rate of interest on accounts and charged between 5 and 6 percent on mortgages. That small float on hundreds of billions of dollars in loans added up. The system was mutually beneficial, and every one had a stake in a successful outcome. State laws initially restricted savings and loans to issuing residential mortgages within fifty to a hundred miles of their headquarters. So the S&Ls needed communities to prosper to increase deposits and subsequently increase loans. S&L presidents became local leaders, sponsoring local golf tournaments or Little League baseball teams.

When families encountered trouble—unemployment, medical bills, untimely death—and could no longer pay the mortgage, lenders worked with them to prevent foreclosure, because it was in their financial interest. They made more money keeping the borrower in the home, even with a reduced payment, than having to sell at a discount in foreclosure. This incentive maintained stability and kept home values rising. The annual foreclosure rate from 1950 to 1997 never rose above 1 percent of all loans and was often far lower.

By 1980 there was more money sloshing around the mortgage market—about $1.5 trillion—than in the stock market. And Wall Street investment banks looked at all that cash the way Wile E. Coyote looked at the Road Runner. They wanted a piece of the action.

* * *

I wasn’t out to invent the biggest floating craps game of all time, but that’s what happened.

Lew Ranieri took over the mortgage trading desk for Salomon Brothers in 1978. He was fat, unkempt, and owned four suits, all of them polyester. In the Wall Street memoir Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis describes Ranieri as “the wild and woolly genius, the Salomon legend who began in the mailroom, worked his way onto the trading floor, and created a market in America for mortgage bonds.” But he didn’t issue the first mortgage-backed securities; the federal government did.

Faced with a budget deficit during the Vietnam War, in 1968 Lyndon Johnson split up Fannie Mae to push its liabilities off the books. A redesigned Government National Mortgage Company (Ginnie Mae) continued to buy government-insured mortgages. But the new Fannie Mae and its counterpart, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac), became quasi-private, quasi-public companies (officially government-sponsored entities, or GSEs), which could purchase conventional mortgages not insured by the government, provided they met certain guidelines—usually thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages carefully underwritten to ensure that the borrower would pay them back. The GSEs would pool hundreds of these loans together and create bonds; they called it securitization. Revenue streams were created from the monthly mortgage payments, with each investor entitled to a proportional piece. For a small fee, GSEs guaranteed payments to investors, and because investors believed the government would never let the GSEs default, they happily bought the bonds. Investor cash built additional capital for mortgage financing, allowing more people to purchase a home.

Investment banks assisted Freddie Mac with the initial securitizations in 1971 but were only paid a small retainer. Salomon Brothers and Bank of America (BofA) attempted to bypass Fannie and Freddie with a private-label securitization in 1977, packaging BofA-originated loans into a bond. But government regulations prohibited the largest investors, like pension funds, from buying the securities. Others were too spooked by the uncertainty of whether the under lying loans would fail. And thirty-five states blocked mortgages from being sold into a private market. Despite this, Robert Dall, the Salomon trader who brokered the Bank of America deal, believed investment banks would profit from trading U.S. home mortgages, the biggest market in the world. They just needed creativity and some regulatory relief.

Ranieri took over at Salomon just as the savings and loans grew desperate, battered by the twin diseases of high inflation and Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s remedy, high interest rates. This hurt S&Ls on every level. Nobody wanted to borrow money at 20 percent to buy a home, nobody wanted to save when prices could soar next week or next month, and nobody wanted to keep money in a rate-capped S&L when they could get better returns from a money market fund or Treasury bill.

In 1981 Congress gave the S&Ls a huge tax break that allowed them to hide losses, helping to keep them afloat. But to take advantage of the tax relief, they needed to move assets off their books. Ranieri stepped into this void, buying mortgages from one S&L and selling them to another, profiting from the markup. It revealed the possibilities of Wall Street involvement in the mortgage market, and Salomon made a killing. Ranieri then got Freddie Mac to help with a bond deal that packaged older loans from a D.C.-area S&L called Perpetual Savings. Freddie’s involvement eliminated regulatory restrictions that prevented nationwide sales of mortgage-backed securities. But to attract institutional investors with the most cash, Ranieri redesigned the bond.

Big investors didn’t like the uncertainty in mortgages: you never knew when homeowners would pay them off , so you never knew the length of the loan and the projected profit on interest. So in 1983 Ranieri and his counterpart at First Boston, Larry Fink, created the collateralized mortgage obligation (CMO), the basic securitization structure used during the housing bubble.

Instead of investors buying bonds backed by mortgages and getting a proportional share of monthly payments, CMOs created different classes for investors with different risk profiles. Typically there were three tranches: the senior tranche, the mezzanine, and the equity tranche. When mortgage payments came in, the senior tranche would get paid first. What ever was left over went first to the mezzanine and then to the equity tranche. Lower tranches received higher interest payments on the bond to accommodate their higher risk. Investors buying senior tranches had confidence they would get paid off within a short time frame, usually five years. They didn’t have to worry whether each individual borrower could afford the payments; by selling a pool of thousands of mortgages, the odd default here or there wouldn’t matter. The higher-risk tranches had longer terms, from twelve to thirty years, and stronger payoffs. These more complex securitizations converted the mortgage, a hyperlocal, idiosyncratic, individual instrument, into a bond, a defined security that investors could buy and sell with confidence.

The initial CMOs needed Freddie Mac: it was still the only way to get them sold nationwide. But once the securitization structure was in place, Ranieri went to work legalizing it. As a trader told Michael Lewis about Ranieri, “If Lewie didn’t like a law, he’d just have it changed.” In 1984 Congress passed the Secondary Mortgage Market Enhancement Act (SMMEA), which eliminated the ban on private banks selling mortgage-backed securities without a government guarantee. SMMEA also preempted state restrictions on privately issued mortgage-backed securities; no longer did investment banks have to register with each state to sell them.

The most important part of SMMEA involved the rating agencies, companies that assessed the risk of various bonds. Under SMMEA, institutional investors who previously were barred from making dangerous investments could purchase mortgage-backed securities as long as they had a high rating from a nationally recognized statistical rating organization. Investors could outsource their due diligence to the rating agencies; they didn’t have to examine the salary of some home buyer in Albuquerque in order to buy an interest in his loan. President Reagan signed SMMEA in October; Ranieri showed up for the ceremony.

Next Ranieri secured a tax exemption for pools of mortgages held in a special investment vehicle known as a real estate mortgage investment conduit (REMIC). The REMIC operated like a trust, able to acquire mortgages and pass income to investors without paying taxes. Investors would pay taxes only on the bond gains, not on the purchase of the mortgages. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 legalized the REMIC structure and made mortgage bonds more desirable.

The mortgage-backed securities market reached $150 billion in 1986. It probably accelerated the demise of the S&L industry, which finally imploded in the late 1980s. The money used for making mortgage loans, instead of coming from depositors, now came from investors all over the world. Ranieri and his allies insisted the goal was to free up more funding for mortgages. He was a dream salesman who just wanted to give every American a piece of something better, a nice house for their families. But homeownership rates rose nearly twenty points from the 1940s to the 1960s under the old system. From 1970 to 1990, during the handover of mortgage finance to Wall Street, rates only went up two points.

While Wall Street did well with securitization, it could not dislodge the GSEs from their market dominance. The GSEs still had that implicit backstop of a government rescue. Investors valued that and bought most of their mortgage bonds from Fannie and Freddie. As long as banks tried to compete on a level playing field, packaging carefully underwritten thirty-year fixed-rate loans, they couldn’t win.

Salomon Brothers fired Lew Ranieri in 1987. He was a victim of his own success. When the mortgage business standardized, Wall Street investment banks staffed up with Ranieri’s old traders. Another generation would crack the code and beat Fannie and Freddie, finding a new set of mortgage products to slice and dice. Ranieri, who started his own firm, never saw that coming. As he would later tell Fortune magazine, “I wasn’t out to invent the biggest floating craps game of all time, but that’s what happened.”

* * *

Ace never could find out who owned his mortgage.

Once she understood the securitization structure, Lisa Epstein could identify all the component companies and their involvement in her mortgage. DHI Mortgage was the originator that sold Lisa her loan. DHI immediately flipped it to JPMorgan Chase, which became the “depositor,” in industry parlance. JPMorgan acquired thousands of loans like Lisa’s, pooling them into a mortgage-backed security to sell to investors. To securitize the loans, JPMorgan placed them into a trust (JPMorgan Mortgage Trust 2007-S2), which qualified for REMIC status and its significant tax advantages. The REMIC forced JPMorgan to add an additional link in the securitization chain—in this case, U.S. Bank, trustee for all the assets in the trust. U.S. Bank hired a servicer, Chase Home Finance, to collect monthly payments, handle day-to-day contact with borrowers, and funnel payments to investors through the trust. So Chase had one link in the chain as a depositor and a separate link as a servicer, basically a glorified accounts receivable department.

Investors in the trust get their portion of the monthly mortgage payments, but under the law they’re merely creditors, holders of JPMorgan Mortgage Trust 2007-S2 pass-through certificates; the trustee, the entity passing payments through to investors, owns the loan. That’s why U.S. Bank, not JPMorgan Chase, sued Lisa. JPMorgan Chase gets its proceeds from the sale of the mortgage bonds and walks away. U.S. Bank earns a fee for administering the trust. For performing day-to-day operations on the loans, the servicer, Chase Home Finance, gets a small percentage of the unpaid principal balance, along with any fees generated from servicing. This securitization added an additional wrinkle: the inclusion of Wells Fargo as the securities administrator, with the function of calculating interest and principal payments to the investors. As this involved scrutinizing cash fl ow from the servicer, it also made Wells Fargo the “master servicer” on the loan. When Chase Home Finance informed Lisa that Wells Fargo was blocking mortgage modifications, it probably had to do with this master servicer role.

At no time was it made clear to Lisa that when she sent in her mortgage payment to Chase Home Finance, somebody at Wells Fargo crunched the numbers on it and told a colleague at Chase to send the money through U.S. Bank to investors, whether a Norwegian sovereign wealth fund or an Indiana public employee retirement plan. Heck, nobody told Lisa that DHI Mortgage would grant her a loan and immediately sell it off to a different division of JPMorgan Chase from the one she’d been paying all these years. This idea of banks trading mortgage payments like they would baseball cards didn’t sit well. And it made it all the more galling to Lisa that Chase Home Finance would tell her to stop paying: according to the securitization chain, they didn’t even own the mortgage. Maybe they profited so much off late fees, they wanted to push people into foreclosure.

But while this was all critical information for Lisa to know, it only raised more questions. She had to understand why securitization translated into suffering for so many homeowners, especially in her backyard. By 2009, one out of every four Floridians with a mortgage was either behind on payments or in foreclosure. How was that even possible? It wasn’t like someone detonated a bomb in Miami and Orlando to wipe out businesses. No plague triggered all the state’s crops to rot in the fields. Depressions like this—and Florida was experiencing a depression, in Lisa’s eyes—didn’t happen spontaneously. Who put this in motion? Who prospered from the pain?


Via Flickr.

A week after receiving her foreclosure notice, Lisa stumbled across a blog called Living Lies. Neil Garfield was a former trial attorney in Fort Lauderdale, and in his biography he also claimed to be an economist, accountant, securitization expert, and former “Wall Street insider.” He had striking features, big eyebrows, and a perfectly cropped, jet-black beard. He looked like a character actor in a 1970s cop movie. Garfield started Living Lies in October 2007. The site featured day-to-day commentary on the mortgage crisis, a large volume of legal resources, and a mission statement: “I believe that the mortgage crisis has produced manifest evil and injustice in our society… . Living Lies is the vehicle for a collaborative movement to provide homeowners with sufficient resources to combat bloated banks who are flooding the political market with money.”

It didn’t take much digging to see that Garfield was running a business. He sold manuals on how lawyers and laypeople could defend themselves from foreclosure. He conducted paid seminars across the country. He had an ad for something called “securitization audits.” Many people presenting themselves as lawyers descended on homeowners at this time, making optimistic yet vague promises that they held the secret to saving homes from foreclosure. State and federal authorities warned homeowners to proceed cautiously with “foreclosure rescue” specialists, especially in Florida, where white-collar scams were a local specialty, even an economic growth engine.

But Garfield had attracted a following. He told NBC News in early 2009 that the site had jumped from 1,000 hits per month a year earlier to 67,000 per month. And he did pull together the loose threads Lisa craved to comprehend: how securitization drove people into foreclosure, who profited from the outcome, and whether their financial machinations violated the law. More important, Garfield maintained an open comment section, so every one in the then-small community of people willing to talk about their foreclosures online could share stories and swap information. It was like two parallel websites existing in the same space: Garfield on top, and the rabble of dispossessed homeowners under neath.

They included Andrew Delany, known online as Ace, a licensed carpenter from Ashburnham, Massachusetts, who lost his income due to a spinal disorder. Alina Virani (Alina), a paralegal from Orlando, her lender told her she couldn’t refinance, and when she called to complain, she discovered they went out of business. James Chambers (Jim C), of Clearwater, saw his business devastated by the downturn, and faced bankruptcy. These stories were familiar to Lisa: personal misery combined with underhanded behavior. James Chambers said Chase sued him but Washington Mutual owned his loan. Alina Virani got some help from an attorney in Ohio, who found that her lender violated federal consumer protection laws. Ace never could find out who owned his mortgage.

There was no support group for foreclosure victims; nobody wanted to even talk about it. It reminded Lisa of when every one called cancer “the big C,” not daring to utter the word. But the commenters at Living Lies represented the stirrings of a community, all focused on solving the same problem, like a distributed network. Lisa bookmarked the site and returned to it daily. There was a spirit there, the opposite of the shame and humiliation every one assumed foreclosure victims should feel. These people were ready to fight. And as Lisa read on, the schemes they related sounded less like the sober processes of modern finance and more like a crime spree.

* * *

It was redlining in reverse.

Michael Winston, a new executive at Countrywide Financial Corporation, pulled into the company parking lot one day in 2006 and read the vanity license plate on the next car over: “FUND-EM.” Winston asked the man getting out of the car what that meant.

“That’s [CEO Angelo] Mozilo’s growth strategy. We fund all loans.”

“What if the borrower has no job?” Winston asked.

“Fund ’em.”

“What if they have no assets?”

“Fund ’em.”

“No income?”

“If they can fog a mirror, we’ll give them a loan.”

Countrywide, which came out of nowhere to become the nation’s largest mortgage originator, was part of a new system of mortgage financing that realized Lew Ranieri’s master plan for Wall Street domination of the residential housing market. Congress shepherded the industry down this path, eliminating roadblocks so lenders could issue mortgages to people with bad credit.

The Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act (DIDMCA) of 1980 preempted state anti-usury caps, which limited the interest rate lenders could charge borrowers. Two years later, the Garn–St. Germain Depository Institutions Act eliminated mortgage down payment requirements for federally chartered banks. Embedded in Garn– St. Germain was the Alternative Mortgage Transaction Parity Act. This also tossed out state restrictions on mortgages, allowing all lenders, federal or state, to offer adjustable-rate mortgages with steep resets, where the interest rate went up sharply after the initial “teaser” rate. It also permitted interest only or even “negative amortization” loans, where principal increased in successive payments.

Congress was trying to save the savings and loan industry by making mortgages more profitable, effectively legalizing consumer abuse to aid a class of financial institutions. That didn’t work: S&Ls blew up by the end of the 1980s. But without the elimination of these anti-predatory lending laws, argued Jennifer Taub of Vermont Law School in her book Other People’s Houses, “subprime lending could not have flourished.”

Wall Street figured out how to outflank Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by securitizing alternative loans, which didn’t conform to GSE standards. Investment banks made the securities attractive with “credit enhancements,” guarantees to investors in the form of insurance or letters of credit. With these enhancements, even packages of the worst mortgages could achieve super-safe credit ratings. Riskier mortgages were more lucrative for Wall Street, because these “subprime” loans reeled in higher interest rates over the thirty-year terms. In other words, subprime loans were prized precisely because they gouged the borrower more. And as long as investors received assurances of risk-free profits, they would buy the bonds.

Investment banks began to offer lightly regulated nonbank mortgage originators, who specialized in marketing to poor borrowers, warehouse lines of credit, or defined funding for their mortgages. In exchange, the banks would purchase all the originator’s loans and package them into private-label securities (PLS), separate from Fannie and Freddie’s mortgage-backed securities on conforming loans. The originators knew what the big banks wanted: subprime mortgages, and lots of them. Brokers were given “yield spread premiums,” bonus payments for every high-rate mortgage they sold.

Lenders perversely described exotic loans as “affordability products.” After a teaser period of one to two years, monthly payments would increase by thousands of dollars. If borrowers ever showed concern about this (and typically they didn’t, as disclosures were written in such byzantine legalese that virtually no one could decipher it), brokers told them not to worry: they could always refinance again. Every refinance away from the payment shock added closing costs—profit for the lender—and built up unpaid balance on the loan. It was not uncommon for homeowners to refinance five or six times in a few years, taking on more debt each time.

Another industry creation was the cash-out refinance, giving borrowers with equity in their homes a new loan with a lower starting payment, along with some cash to cover other expenses. This was an attractive option for newly targeted low-income families of color. Since the 1930s African Americans and Hispanics were locked out of the housing market, with government maps “redlining” designated tracts of land (indicating them as off-limits to nonwhite buyers) and banks shunning their business. Now old women in inner-city Detroit or Cleveland got knocks on their door from pitchmen promising to make their financial hardships disappear. It was redlining in reverse. For decades the problem had been that black people couldn’t get loans; now the problem was that they could.

Nonbank lenders Option One, New Century, and First Alliance started in the mid-1990s, joining Countrywide and Long Beach Mortgage, which would eventually become Ameriquest. Federal Reserve statistics show that subprime lending increased fourfold from 1994 to 2000, to 13.4 percent of all mortgages. Brokers were under significant strain to pump out subprime loans with high interest rates or else lose their warehouse lines of credit. So lending standards flew out the window. Practically no applicants were rejected.

That these loans were harmful concerned nobody. The Clinton administration wanted to increase homeownership rates, which had fallen amid the S&L collapse. It wasn’t likely to crack down on irresponsible lending practices if they served that goal. Anyway, the Federal Reserve held responsibility over consumer protection for mortgages, and Alan Greenspan viewed regulations the way an exterminator viewed termites.

Investment banks also got more sophisticated about the securities. Mathematicians fresh out of college—quantitative analysts, or “quants”—spent their working hours converting risky subprime loans into something that could secure a coveted AAA rating, guaranteeing sale into the capital markets. For example, banks had no problem selling high-rated tranches of their mortgage-backed securities, but the lower-rated mezzanine and equity tranches were more of a puzzle. To solve this problem, they built something called a collateralized debt obligation (CDO), using the same tranching mechanism, squeezing AAA ratings out of low-rated junk. Then they would make CDOs out of the unsold portions of CDOs, creating what was known as a “CDO-squared,” and so on. Investors knew they were buying securities backed by mortgages; they didn’t know they were getting repackaged left overs of the worst bits, julienned through financial alchemy into something “safe.”

CDO sales increased exponentially after market deregulation through the Commodity Futures Modernization Act in December 2000, in one of President Clinton’s last official acts. You didn’t even have to own the mortgages to wager on whether they would go up or down. “Synthetic” CDOs just tracked the price of certain mortgage securities, with investors taking up either side of the bet. This multiplied the amount of money on the line well beyond the value of the mortgages and turned the whole thing into gambling.

The securitization machine resembled the children’s game of hot potato. Every one stopped caring whether the borrower could pay back the loan, because every one passed the default risk up the chain. The lenders didn’t care because they sold the loans to Wall Street banks; the banks didn’t care because they passed them on to investors; and the investors didn’t care because Wall Street’s financial wizards lied to them. Investors were assured that the loans were of high quality; furthermore, they were told that even if a few failed, slicing and dicing thousands of loans from all over the country into bonds would make up for the delinquencies and eliminate the risk. The geographic diversity of the bonds would insulate investors from a regional market collapse, and every one knew that mortgage markets were regional; you never saw a broad-based price decline. The credit rating agencies, paid by banks to rate the securitizations, blessed the whole scheme, either out of ignorance or to make sure they grew their businesses.

* * *

The entire industry was assembled on a mountain of fraud.

In the late 1990s, amid the Asian financial crisis, Wall Street pulled back on warehouse funding for nonbank lenders. Subprime lending momentarily stopped, and some lenders went out of business. But this was only a blip. Though consumer lawsuits exploded during this period, complaining of predatory practices, the Federal Reserve and other regulators showed no interest. When the smoke cleared, the remaining subprime lenders and their Wall Street funders started up the machines again. The second wave of subprime mortgages dwarfed the first wave.

The entire industry was assembled on a mountain of fraud, starting from the first contact with a prospective home buyer. Many brokers over-inflated home appraisals to increase the loan balance. Some pushed borrowers into “no income, no asset, no job” (NINJA) loans by telling them they would get better deals if they falsely inflated their income. These were also called “liar’s loans.” If loan officers demanded income verification, brokers would sometimes even use Wite-Out and replace the numbers on W-2 forms, or construct fake tax returns with a photocopier, to get them through underwriting. In his book The Monster, Michael W. Hudson describes one loan sent to underwriting that claimed a man coordinating dances at a Mexican restaurant made well over $100,000 a year. The dance coordinator got the loan.

The typical borrower too easily fell prey to this routinized deceit. Some lenders took borrowers eligible for prime-rate loans—people with perfect credit, like Lisa Epstein—and gave them subprime ones. Others forged borrowers’ signatures on disclosure forms that would have actually explained how much in interest and fees they were paying. Some brokers used light-boards or even a bright Coke vending machine to trace signatures and enable the forgery. Others presented borrowers with a loan at closing whose first few pages looked like a fixed-rate loan, masking the toxic mortgage under neath. When the borrower signed all the papers, the broker ripped those first pages off.


Via Flickr.

The fraud continued up the chain as well. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission found that a third-party firm called Clayton Holdings, brought in to reunderwrite samples of loans backing subprime mortgage securities for twenty major banks, consistently found defects in half the loans in the samples. Clayton relayed its findings to the banks, who promptly used them to negotiate after-the-fact discounts on the full loan pools from originators. Those discounts never got passed on to bond investors, who remained ignorant about the defects. In such cases, the securitizers knowingly sold defective products to investors without disclosure, and took extra profits based on how defective they were. It was clear securities fraud.

Many investment banks knew about, and indeed drove, the poor quality of the loans. Internal documents later uncovered in a lawsuit against Morgan Stanley, the largest buyer of mortgages from subprime lender New Century, showed the bank demanding that 85 percent of the loans they purchase consist of adjustable-rate mortgages. When a low-ranking due diligence official told his supervisor about the litany of problems associated with New Century loans, she responded, “Good find on the fraud:). Unfortunately, I don’t think we will be able to utilize you or any other third party individual in the valuation department any longer.” In other words, finding the fraud got people fired.

In September 2004 the FBI’s Criminal Division formally warned of a mortgage fraud “epidemic,” with more than twelve thousand cases of suspicious activity. “If fraudulent practices become systemic within the mortgage industry,” said Chris Swecker, assistant director of the FBI unit, “it will ultimately place financial institutions at risk and have adverse effects on the stock market.” Despite this awareness, almost no effort was put into stamping out the fraud. In fact, when Georgia tried to protect borrowers with a strong anti-predatory lending law in 2002, every participant in the mortgage industry, public and private, bore down on them. Ameriquest pulled all business from the state. Two rating agencies, Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s, said they would not rate securities backed by loans from Georgia, cutting off the state from the primary mode of funding mortgages. And the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulated national banks, told the institutions that they were exempt from Georgia law. Georgia eventually backed down and replaced the regulations, rendered moot by an unholy alliance of the industry and the people who regulated them.

Banks issued $1 trillion in nonprime mortgage bonds every year during the bubble’s peak. Subprime mortgages made up nearly half of all loan originations in America in 2006. Total mortgage debt in America doubled from 1999 to 2007. There was so much money in mortgages that loan brokers right out of college made $400,000 a year. Traders on Wall Street made even more.

Home prices appreciated rather slowly for fifty years, but between 2002 and 2007 they shot up in a straight line. In several states, annual price in-creases hit 25 percent. Since this boosted property values, boosted the economy, and made the industry more profitable, few politicians or regulators raised alarms. Even Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, locked into buying “conforming loans” for their securities, lowered their standards and bought subprime loans once they started to lose market share to the private sector. Everyone mimicked industry claims that the market transformation was good for homeowners, and for a little while it was: even amid rising prices, homeownership rates rose over this period to an all-time high of 69.2 percent. Nobody wanted to stop the merry-go-round while the song was still playing.

At the end of 2006 the song stopped, and homeowners used to refinancing out of trouble were stuck. Even before this point, you could see warning signs in skyrocketing early payment defaults—people missing their very first mortgage payment. Foreclosures started to occur in large enough numbers—they nearly doubled in 2007, and again in 2008—that mortgage-backed securities, even the senior tranches that were supposed to be infallible, took losses. Investors tried to dump the securities, and banks stopped issuing new ones. Brokers suddenly had no money to make new loans; by 2008, all of them were either out of business or, in the case of Countrywide, sold to Bank of America. The entire system, which soared along with home prices, crashed when those prices dropped. And because the system had been replicated multiple times, in CDOs and other credit derivatives, failures cascaded through Wall Street investments and led to a catastrophic financial crisis.

* * *

The reality is that nearly all securitized mortgage loans are worthless and unenforceable.

Lisa read about all this and internalized it; after a couple of weeks of intense study, she could cite chapter and verse on previously unknown financial industry machinations. She started to daydream while working, her mind filled with theories about mortgage-backed securities and what caused the crash. At work or at home, it became hard for Lisa to concentrate on anything else.

Of all the websites she sought out, none deconstructed securitization and Wall Street malfeasance like Living Lies. Neil Garfield went much deeper than the surface layer of fraud in the subprime scam. He viewed the originators as straw lenders, because they immediately sold the loan and did not care about its quality. To Garfield, this violated modest federal mortgage laws such as the Truth in Lending Act. Garfield called such originators “pretender lenders” and thought the fact that they relinquished their interest in the loan by having investors pay it off in full could form the basis of a legal challenge.

More interesting to Lisa were Garfield’s contentions about promissory notes, mortgage assignments, and pooling and servicing agreements. “The reality is that nearly all securitized mortgage loans are worthless and unenforceable,” Garfield wrote in one post. “The ONLY parties seeking foreclosures … do not possess ANY financial interest in the loan nor any authority to foreclose, collect, modify or do anything else,” he wrote in another. He quoted a bankruptcy attorney in Missouri, who added, “Democracy is not supposed to be efficient—because in the tangle of inefficient rules lies the safety and security of popular rights. The judge is not there to clear the sand from the gears of the machine—the judge is the sand.” Lisa didn’t understand Garfield’s line of argument at first, but a lot of Living Lies commenters were agitated about it, talking about document fraud and broken chain of title. And the discussion refreshed Lisa’s memory about something in her court summons.

Count II in the complaint was entitled “Re-establishment of Lost Note.” Lisa needed more information about what that actually meant—what was the difference between the note and the mortgage?—but it surprised her that the plaintiff admitted that it lost a key document and was trying to reestablish it in some manner. Others at Living Lies had note problems; for example, Andrew “Ace” Delany’s lender could never supply the note, although he asked for it every week. What was with this epidemic of lost notes? Where did they go? And how did that impact foreclosure cases?

As the twenty-day deadline for responding to the summons loomed, Lisa wanted to find out.

* * *

Copyright © 2016 by David Dayen. This excerpt originally appeared in Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

from Longreads Blog

The Man Who Put Down Clay

Candace Opper | LongreadsJune 2016 | 15 minutes (4365 Words)

My father’s fifteen minutes came and went the night he won an arm wrestling match with Muhammad Ali. (Ali was Cassius Clay at the time, but Ali is the household name, and if I am to get any use out of my father it is the brief awe I inspire from his proximity to greatness.) The match went down in the middle of the night at a truck stop in Connecticut, 1965. My not-yet-father, Joe, would have been 33, a Korean War vet cum small-time boxer who had once made his way to Madison Square Garden. At 6’4” and 255 pounds, he loomed over the average man, and was known around those parts as the undefeated arm wrestling champion — or “wrist-wrestling,” as it was then commonly known. This title and the ways it once mattered are now, like my father, extinct.

Clay and his entourage were cruising the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound sometime between his two infamous matches with Sonny Liston. Somewhere along I-95 their bus allegedly broke down and they holed up at Secondi Bros Truck Stop, an infamous 24-hour greasy spoon in my father’s hometown. Joe sometimes worked for the Secondis, so whichever goombah was lucky enough to be hustling diner coffee that night didn’t hesitate to call him down there to challenge the champ.

This is how my father came to wrist-wrestle one of history’s greatest athletes. The details of the event have been extinguished with time, perhaps because I only ever half-listened but more likely because my father harped on what he thought mattered: that he’d won. “I think Clay was a little embarrassed, getting beat so easy,” he’d say at the end of a story he told me every time we saw each other. I’d raise my eyebrows in feigned amazement, and he’d smile at me with the patronizing greediness of someone who knows a secret about you that you don’t yet know.

* * *

My parents never married each other; not particularly remarkable today, but an aberration in our too-rural-for-sidewalks Connecticut town in the ’70s. Even less acceptable: my father was married to someone else and had several grown children before having an affair with my mother, who was not much older than his eldest son.

When he met my mother, she was 27 and a single mom, raising twin toddlers in my grandmother’s Colonial Revival — the same house where she grew up, the same one where she lives now. Considering her modest circumstances, Janie was deceptively glamorous: a svelte figure, hair bleached a honeyed blonde, a fashionable handmade wardrobe.  In photographs she resembles a young Meryl Streep. She liked men and men certainly like her, but after a short, failed marriage she turned her nose up at tradition. “I just wanted to be a mom and didn’t want a man around to spoil that.” My father was a perfect match; he already had a wife and a family, and little interest in replicating those conditions.

My mother proudly claims they kept their relationship platonic for nearly a decade, as though the more years of restraint, the less reprehensibly your deeds are judged. Platonic meant driving into Queens so my father could bet on horses with the high rollers. Other weekends he’d watch my mother play the piano for tips at a restaurant called The Ship’s Wheel, or they’d go to the local OTB, where the waitresses called them “Dirty Joe and Dizzy Jane” — an moniker that lent them a sort of Bonnie-and-Clyde sheen.

I happened in 1980.

me and joe

The author, age three, and her father. (Photo courtesy of Candace Opper.)

Their affair lasted until I was 7. My father was the man who took us out for pizza every Saturday at San Remo’s in the valley. He was large and hard and silvery-gray — his hair, his clothes, his eyes. His cheeks felt like sandpaper and his olive skin smelled like my grandmother’s musty liquor cabinet. On the drive home, he liked to roll down his window and scream at the top of his lungs into the night. Something about his screams terrified me — the shock of a man screaming at all, their startling volume, or the fact that he knew it frightened me and did it anyway.

They parted with little fanfare, after which my father slipped from our Saturday routine like a mid-season TV cancellation. I assumed he had moved away and was surprised to find out years later that he had lived seven minutes away the whole time, in a small red house that we drove by once a week on the way to my gymnastics class.

* * *

There were enough other men around to fill the father void, like the twins’ father and the man who would eventually father my younger sister. There was also Jimmy, the ex-husband with whom my mother endured a brief, childless marriage right out of high school. Janie deems Jimmy the nastiest of her suitors (I recall a story in which he cut all of her clothes into pieces one night because she came home late from work), although I never saw his bad side. To me, Jimmy was a syrupy man who showed up at our door every year on their wedding anniversary with a bouquet of supermarket flowers. Janie would invite him in for coffee and homemade cookies, he would profess his regret at screwing things up, she would smile and nod, and I would wait for an appropriate break in conversation to show Jimmy how well I could do a handstand.

My father remains largely mythical. Not in that he was terribly important, but that much about his life was — and still is — unavailable to me. Most of what I’ve gleaned comes from the handful of stories he deemed worthy of telling and retelling. The rest comes from my mother, who saw more of him than I did but grappled with a flawed man who wanted desperately to be seen as a legend. “A big fish in a little pond,” she says, though, to his credit, he was the most renowned and longest-lasting of her relationships. She seems to know little more than I do, or has chosen to preserve what she does know in a compartment outside my daughterly reach.

When my friends’ nosy parents inquired about my father—an inevitable line of questioning—I’d tell them he painted houses (true) and that he used to be a boxer who once arm-wrestled Muhammad Ali. I wouldn’t realize until much later that they were asking about his function as a father, a role in which I never actually imagined him. I thought of him more like a public figure, a character in the line-up of my mother’s men. “I have four fathers,” I enjoyed telling people. “Like America.” I’m sure I was pitied, but I believed our circumstances to be unique, even enviable. While other children had swimming pools or trampolines to barter for friendship, I had the multi-fathered family; I’d pull aside the curtain and present the men as though they were a goofy sitcom lineup, My Four Dads. I had no clue what a father was supposed to be and didn’t much envy my friends that had the live-in version. Most fathers seemed cold, distant, depleted. They’d return home from work and drink Budweiser alone in a study or a garage. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have one, but I’d end up imagining an entirely different home with a new cast of characters.

The knowledge that I was an illegitimate child — and what that might mean — came later via my friend Lisa, whose parents divorced when we were 14. (Her mother had had a hunch and followed her husband one night from work all the way to his secretary’s house.) Lisa and I often stayed up late in the closet loft her father had built, talking about his epic misdeeds. She rightfully despised her father’s mistress: Pat, the home-wrecker. We talked about how Pat was ugly and pathetic and plotted small, unachievable ways to ruin her life.

Despite our history, my family did not consider itself broken. We just started in pieces and stayed that way, like forever-unassembled furniture.

“What would you do if Pat and your dad had a kid?” I asked one night.

“I would pity it,” she said.

I couldn’t argue with her, but I also couldn’t imagine being pitied for having been born to a Pat; I was certainly no more pitiful than Lisa, whose father had rendered her life unrecognizable. This was the first time I had witnessed a family go from together to broken. Despite our history, my family did not consider itself broken. We just started in pieces and stayed that way, like forever-unassembled furniture.

* * *

Joe reappeared the summer I got my period. I was 12, Bill Clinton was president, and my mother was dating the ex-mayor of a nearby city who was rumored to have embezzled several thousand dollars. I hadn’t seen or heard from my father in six years when his Lincoln Continental rolled up one day, idling ominously in our driveway.

“That’s your father,” my mother said, parting the curtains above the kitchen sink.

“My father?”

“Your father.”

I moved to the second floor to eavesdrop from the safety of the landing. Is that you, Joe? my grandmother joyfully bellowed. Voices tumbled over each other in the hallway. His had not changed. My mother’s instantly transformed into something performative: the tone of a woman masking the sudden realization that her blind date is an escaped convict.

They gathered around the landing and watched me descend the staircase as though I were modeling a prom dress. My father’s enormous physique had persevered, a body that made our home and my small, hunched grandmother appear hobbit-like. He pulled me in for a hug. It felt like being folded into the side of a boulder.

“She’s turning into a woman,” he said when we let go, eyeing me down and up.

“She certainly is.” My mother smiled and nodded.

“How old are you now, honey?”


“You got any boyfriends?” he asked. I recoiled and threw my mom an ewww-is-he-serious? Look.

“No boyfriends yet, Joe,” she said.

Is your cherry popped yet? Has she got her cherry popped, Janie?

“Is your cherry popped yet? Has she got her cherry popped, Janie?”

I had once believed this hulk of a man could protect me from the worst of possible scenarios, which — last time we met — amounted to my brothers’ friend Willy tormenting me with wet willies. Now he was the scenario.

So began a series of sporadic visits extending over the next eight years. These have coalesced into a single memory: Joe’s Lincoln Continental in our driveway on a Saturday afternoon, without warning. His looming figure in the doorway. His gray dress pants and track jacket; sometimes a suit jacket, depending on whatever murky engagements follow these visits. He sits in my favorite chair and scans my body from the bottom up, assessing how hungry other men might be to ravage me. I sense he believes this is his most important responsibility as a father: to protect me from men like him. He verbally evaluates my breasts or my increasingly childbearing hips or the status of my virginity as though he is judging cattle at the county fair. Sometimes he tells a dirty joke. Have you ever been caught playing with yourself? I mumble, No, I haven’t, and focus on a distant object in the room like they tell women to do during childbirth. Then you must have a good hiding place. This: a father. I’m only kidding wichoo. Janie look at her, she’s embarrassed. He laughs the wheezy laugh of an old man about to slip into a coughing fit. On particularly lewd days he reminisces about my mother’s libido and pulls her body into his lap. I watch her face, a face that knows she is no match, that she too must just endure. I can’t stay long. I gotta meet a guy about something. But the visits drag on and on, like piano recitals. When he is through belittling us he talks about himself, often in the third person. Did you know your father was a boxer? As though he’s not sure we’ve met before. He flexes a titanic bicep and requests that I touch it, that I substantiate its hardness with a disinterested nod. Your father fought in Madison Square Garden, he says. Ask your mudder, it’s the troot. He mistakes my indifference for disbelief. Eventually he tells the Cassius Clay story. When he finally leaves, he tells me he loves me. I love you too, I say, to which he replies, No you don’t. Eventually I switch to: I know.

He pulls two or three twenties from a stuffed billfold whose fullness hints at some distant source of corruption. I take the money without hesitation: because I need it, because I have earned it, because we both know this is the only consolation for these visits. He reminds us that he has to meet a guy. I watch until the Continental disappears past the edge of our property, just to be sure it is over.

* * *

Joe claimed to have fathered seven children: four sons with his wife, a fifth out of wedlock, a mythical sixth that had come before marriage, during a brief stint living with an aunt in Florida after being expelled from high school for knocking out a teacher who called his sister a dirty little guinea, and me. He named three of his sons “Joe” after himself; the others were Johnny, Jerry, and Tommy. I would have been “Frankie,” but broke the mold and came out female.

Jerry died of AIDS in the early ’90s, shortly before Joe came back into my life. He contracted it from shared needles back when boys like him thought AIDS only happened to “homos” and “inner-city junkies.” I met him once, unintentionally, at our town’s annual summer carnival. I was eleven. He was strung out and wearing a tattered denim jacket that straddled punk rock and poverty. We talked for a few awkward minutes, in the flashing yellow and orange glow of the Zipper. I don’t know how close or far he was from death that night; I never saw him again.

I met Tommy and one of the Joe Jr.’s the same day I met Beth, my father’s wife. After months of invites, I reluctantly agreed to have Sunday dinner at their home. I was 14 and assumed my father arranged it with the intention of making me uncomfortable: the emotion that singlehandedly guided our interactions. Later I’d also wonder whether he intended to torment his family by obliging them to fraternize with the living evidence of his misdeeds.

Joey and Tommy greeted me at the door. They resembled slightly smaller and younger versions of my father, like the insides of a Russian nesting doll. My father introduced me as “your sister,” which seemed to suggest: she is your responsibility now. They commented on how much I looked like my father, then returned to the television. I followed my father into the kitchen where Beth leaned against the stove wearing a high-waisted apron and smoking a cigarette like it was 1958. “This is my wife,” he said. She smiled and shook my hand. “She looks like you,” she echoed, and gave my father an I-guess-you-were-right look, as though my legitimacy — or, perhaps, his infidelity — were just now being authenticated.

‘She looks like you,’ she echoed, and gave my father an I-guess-you-were-right look, as though my legitimacy — or, perhaps, his infidelity — were just now being authenticated.

We gathered around a spread of familiar Italian dishes. Beth and my father sat at opposite ends of the table like proper parents. She smiled and steered the conversation with neutral questions about school. Her warmth surprised me; I had expected little more than begrudging acceptance, but she seemed genuinely concerned with my comfort level. Maybe she felt sorry for me: the pitiful love child. Or maybe she had grown so accustomed to my father’s infidelities that what I saw as graciousness was actually indifference.

After dinner we parted ways with kind words spoken in a doorway that this was nice, that we should do it again, and then we never did.

Johnny found me a decade later, via social media. “I don’t know why, but I wanted to reach out to you,” Johnny wrote. “We have the same father.” His stories offered a daunting glimpse into life under my father’s rule. “Our Dad always tried to convince us to leave school,” he wrote. “All my other brothers quit by the 10th grade. I think he had a fear of his children being more educated than he was.” The times I’d mentioned college to my father he’d replied: “Know where I went to school? What’s-a-mattah-U.”

John told me how Beth was broken-hearted about my father’s affairs with Janie and other women. “I think he really loved your mother.” (This pleased me. How could I not rejoice at the thought of my father loving my mother, even though that love had eroded this family? Still, I felt guilty for being pleased. Though I am only a byproduct, I feel compelled to acknowledge the remorse they never felt, or, at least, never openly recognized. My illegitimacy is a constant battle between admitting betrayal and admitting I would not exist without it.)

I only once came across one of the other illegitimates, Joe three of three, at my mother’s fitness club when I was 19. He, too, looked like our father, but even more shocking was that he looked like me — a degree of likeness I didn’t share with any sibling on either side. This Joe was in his mid-30s, a father himself, sage and hardened by our father’s delinquency. “We were better off without him,” he said to me, over the white noise of cardio machines. “Just remember that.”

* * *

When I Google my father, the first thing I find is his boxing record listed on a rather utilitarian database that offers basic biographical information: his DOB, his division, his middle name (Carl!). Below that is a record of the time he fought at Madison Square Garden: November 28th, 1952, against a Jersey Irishman called Billy Mack. Mack won that night and went on to fight nine more in the New York area. My father only fought that one. He was 20 years old.

The second thing I find is his obituary. He died when I was 32. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in six years; during that time he had developed Alzheimer’s and moved into the dementia ward of a resting home. I considered attending his funeral, but couldn’t afford the airfare. A kind friend offered to pay, rightfully assuming that missing your own father’s funeral would result in epic regret. Still, I declined. I mostly wanted to go for selfish reasons: to gawk at the people for whom I am both a family member and an impostor. To have them gawk at me: the youngest, the only girl, raven-haired and olive-skinned and cut from the same flesh but cultivated in a different habitat.

The obituary mentions that my father was a Korean War vet, a beloved husband, a member of the local Elks chapter, and, of course, a boxer. I am not listed among his surviving relatives. Neither are the two other illegitimates. This absence is unsettling, like Marty McFly watching himself disappear from the family photo. I forward the link to my mother. “It’s sort of like I don’t exist,” I write her. “I think this partially sums up what illegitimacy feels like.” My mother is an illegitimate, too, conceived inside an affair and put up for adoption to erase the evidence. She met her biological mother only once. Her name was Evelyn, and she had three grown children and a house full of plastic-covered furniture.

* * *

I last saw my father alive at an Italian restaurant called Costa Azzurra on Long Island Sound. I was 26, unattached, and living at home for a month before a move to Oregon. My mother suggested the dinner: “He’s getting old,” she said, which we both knew meant he might be dead before I’d get another chance. I agreed on the condition that she join us. I wondered whether the old man would recognize me, but it turned out that I barely recognized him — a frailer, grayer version of his former self, like a decaying crow’s feather that’s lost all its ebony.

“There she is, my daughter,” he said, rising from a stool at the bar. We coolly pressed our bodies together. My mother smiled into the room like she was watching me perform in a dance recital. My parents had also not seen each other in half a decade, and spent several minutes praising one another on their relentlessly impressive physiques: he still bench pressed imposing figures, she still worked out at the gym five days a week. They are the type of people described as “looking good for their age.” For the first time I noticed how prideful they both were about their bodies; they suddenly seemed perfect for each other.

A waitress with three inches of hairsprayed bangs sat us at a table by the window and left us to our uncomfortable silence. Outside, the murky Sound rolled onto a rocky strip of beach, the same shores where I had spent long summer afternoons collecting smooth shards of sea glass. A stretch limo pulled into the foreground and dumped a group of bridesmaids onto the sandy pavement. They clustered together, holding their peachy skirts down in the sea breeze.

“Aren’t they pretty,” my mother said with a vacant smile.

“Olive-toned girls shouldn’t wear pastels,” I said.

She gave me a to-each-her-own nod. My father stared at a point on the tablecloth. The hairsprayed waitress returned with steaming plates of red-stained noodles.

“Joe, your daughter graduated summa cum laude.” She enunciated the Latin, like a tourist trying to nail down local dialect. “That’s the highest honors you can get.”

He almost looked impressed. “Know where I went to college? What’s-a-mattah-U.”

I forked at my linguine. He turned to my mother. “My daughter doesn’t think I’m funny.” She used the nod again — this, a favorite — and sipped Coke from a straw. The bridal party was being puppeteered around the outdoor patio by a tuxedoed photographer scouting the perfect background.

“Janie, has she heard the story about her father and Cassius Clay?”

Janie, has she heard the story about her father and Cassius Clay?

“I think she has, Joe.”

“Your father wasn’t always an old man,” he said. “How old is she now?”

“Twenty-six,” I answered for her.

“Does she even know who Clay is?” To my mother again, as though she was the interpreter.

“He’s Muhammad Ali,” I said. “I’ve heard the story.”

“He wanted a rematch with two hands but I wouldn’t give it to him.” I raised my eyebrows in feigned astonishment. He seemed to be slipping in and out of the present. I now realize Alzheimer’s had begun its slow onslaught, but at the time he seemed bored, vacant. Outside, the bridal party posed against an orange September sky. A flash and they’d reconfigure: just the girls, just the guys, just the bride and her parents. It was sweet and deceptive and temporary, and for a minute I envied that family. However contrived their festivities appeared, I knew I would never share a moment like that with the people at my table. It didn’t matter whether I had wanted such a moment; it mattered that I had taught myself, long ago, that wanting it was useless.

My father interrupted this rumination with the only question he’d ask me all night. “Why are you moving to Oregon?” His mouth was full of scallops.

“Why not.”

He shrugged and continued to eat. We had both given up.

After coffee and dessert my mother suggested that I still had a lot of packing to do. My father said he had to meet a guy about something anyway. In the parking lot, Tommy waited behind tinted windows of an unnecessarily large American car, like a chauffeur. We waved; my father repeated himself about meeting a guy. After another wooden embrace he loaded himself into the passenger side and Tommy drove off.

We watched until the car disappeared around a bend, just to be sure it was over.

* * *

A week later, my father left a large manila envelope for me at my mother’s house. I later found it on her dining room table with a note that said, Your father dropped this off…I wonder what’s inside!!, as though it might hold a pair of tickets to Disney World. When I opened it I found a Xerox copy of a newspaper article titled, “Joe Chipello: Man Who Put Down Clay.” In the center is an obviously posed photo of the two men post-match, simulating their stance at a small diner table. “I’m supposed to be one of the strongest men in the world,” my father told the reporter. “That’s what people say. I don’t know. I never beat the best, yet. But I’m game.”

At the bottom of the envelope was a chiaroscuro copy of a candid photo taken during the match. My father is shirtless, his huge white bicep crowding the photo’s foreground. Clay sits opposite him, clutching Joe’s right palm in his while his left hand grips the table’s edge. Their elbows press into the formica, a Heinz ketchup bottle peeking out from behind them. A few spectators crowd the background, smiling with the goofy excitement of those witnessing something extraordinary. The camera’s angle hides my father’s face. Instead it reveals precisely the way he wanted to be remembered: a huge body flexed in the throes of victory.


Photo courtesy of Candace Opper.

The photo is an attempt to bequeath a legacy, to prove his own legitimacy to me — not as a father, but as a person worth remembering, though I’m not sure he knew the difference. I’m not sure I know the difference either. I display it conspicuously in my home because, I’ll admit, I like telling the story. My father’s brief proximity to greatness — and consequently mine — never fails to impress. The belated consolation hardly absolves my father, but I feel vindicated, which is better than grieving a father I never had.

* * *

Candace Opper writes and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in GuernicaBrevity, Creative Nonfiction, LitHubBitchBUSTand various publications put forth by the American Association of Suicidology. She has an MFA from Portland State University and is the former producer and co-host of Late Night Love Affair, a beloved podcast about books written by women. On most days she is busy at work on her own book—an exploration of suicide and the ways we give it meaning.

from Longreads Blog